Reflections on Italy

Refelctions on passing through north Italy

Well, now we have briefly encountered north Italy. It has been thoroughly enjoyable for us all. Anika has even begun saying a few Italian words, ‘muito bene’! It could be said that it is a country of visible extremes, in temperament, wealth, the direction society chooses to move in. This makes it quite exciting to travel through. We always felt that there was a niche for us to fit in. People have been receptive, friendly, helpful. I am not sure I could live here. After all this is the country that voted for Belusconi – and not just once! It is also a country that has added two further poles of power to the establishment; the church and the mafia. These complications are directly responsible for some of Italy’s misfortune and the attitudes that shape society.

So what we loved about Italy was firstly the food and wine. Fantastic markets selling delicious fruit and vegetables. I indulged in cheeses, gorgonzola with mascarpone, several strong goats cheeses (Caprino), I enjoyed cooking with fresh made tagliatelle, ravioli filled with meats and veg, making rich pomodoro sauce from fresh tomatoes, sizzling delicious farm sausages in white wine, making risotto al la Milanese (minus the saffron – I used turmeric instead). The wines were delicious and cheap, some of the best being under e5,.00 a bottle. We indulged in Ligurian wine which is regionally one of Italy’s most outstanding (or so the Ligurians told me). However they are crazy for sparkling wine – where it is fermented in the bottle to retain the fizz. It is damn near impossible to get a non-fizz Ligurian. The art of wine making is everywhere. Even the grotto of Toirano had set aside some of the caves for storing their local wine!

We met some great Italians. Though I feel we have not made any strong connections. There was the guy that spent two hours helping us fix the Zil outside Trento, the toothless old lady of Cremona that offered us her chair but really we were passing too fast and without a handling on the language to have an exchange of depth and interest.

The topography was beautiful. We were especially wooed by the mountains in the far north (Bolzano), and the south between Genoa and Cremona. These are islands that have escaped the ravages of Italian industry. This brings me onto the one observation that brought me to irritation. There is a certain attitude here that having only encountered Italy shortly I can only put down to selfishness. For example the tourists in the aquarium who selfishly indulged in brazen flash photography. They showed a marked lack of compassion to the endangered captive fish. There is the entire stretch of waters around Genoa which stinks – really smell bad – and are prohibited from swimming in. I am surprised that people are not campaigning to restore the waters to cleanliness. Surprised that the aquarium does not lead the charge. People were still swimming, ignoring the signs, indeed the owner of the Pegli campsite assured me the waters were quite clean and that the signs were a stain on the good reputation of these parts. I doubt that very much. The only people swimming were elderly locals, enacting a ritual bathing that they had done since childhood and were unable to give up no matter how dirty the waters became. There is also the littering which is everywhere. In Montebruno we walked up a river for two kilometres until we reached a clearing. The walk was arduous lacking a footpath. We waded through the cold water. It took us quite a while over slippery rocks. The clearing that we reached had been made artificially and with great effort. All the rocks had been removed, and sand spread out to make a small beach volley ball court, there was a rudimentary shelter and seating arrangement made from piles of rocks. Two fire circles were evident, the rock permiteres blackened and the charcoaled wood sunk into the ash. The claimants to this spot chose it for its privacy and natural beauty. The water had cut deep smooth plunge pools into the river bed. This was a beautiful spot which had been used throughout the summer months during which the users had not removed a single piece of rubbish. By October there was piles of rubbish everywhere, broken bottles, beer cans, plastic bags of rubbish that had ripped open spilling their contents, food packages, crisp bags, egg cartons, now rusty tins. It was sad that so much effort was taken to acquire a beautiful spot only to destroy it in such a brief space of time. This was the side to Italy that I did not like. But then they say that the mafia are responsible for Italy’s waste collection?!

From Italy to France

We left Diano Marina with the usual excitement of being on the road again. There has been some disagreement over our itinerary for the next 20 days. This has resulted in my not being totally enthusiastic about driving without a clear destination. The issue is that we have used up our fuel money for the month. Zil registers a quarter tank remaining. Mara is keen to push through France using some of next months budget – then make up the short fall whilst parked up in the south east of France for a month. Although that makes sense I am keen to stick to our agreed budget as good practice.

The first cause of anxiety was whether or not we would make it to the border where we planned to top up the tank with e.100.00 of cheap French fuel (Italy is e1.89 a litre, France is e1.45). As it happened we just made it over the border – but spent 20 precious minutes zig-zaging through the French border town of Merton looking for a fuel station. We found one eventually but it was not cheap, at e1.55 per litre. This was a welcome relief to me in particular, having collapsed out of the Zil hot, tired, hungry (I foolishly missed breakfast) and bursting for a pee. Making it to France for fuel was an important achievement for us. The last time we re-filled was in Austria on the border. That means we have journeyed the whole of South Tirol and north Italy, mountains and all, using only what fuel we carried.

On a passing note, the last stretch of Italian coastline between Diano Marina and the border is quite an attractive one in comparison to what we had driven through previously. It is still built up, the beaches feel dirty, the primary occupation of the sea is motor boating, there is an intensive waterline tourist industry, yet the cities and towns retain a period character, with [colonial] looking architecture, terracotta, yellows, ochre colours splashed against white highlights, bare stone and the sparkling sea. The towns dress themselves with coconut, various regal palms, and some unusual trees that are pruned like buxom (but are not buxom). Imperia particularly stood out as a very well kept town, with attractive parks and squares. It has a large marina with an unhealthy collection of white gin-palaces, but also with all the cranes and equipment needed to service a 100foot+ boat.

We waved goodbye to Italy, I myself feeling we could have stayed longer.

Now the French coastline (Riviera) is proving even more built up than in Italy. Starting with Merton we move into what feels like small cities broken with cliffs and one stunning medieval village that hung off the towering rocks. The village is not accessible by car, the car park being off the D6007 (P1). Our Zil would not fit in the car park and in any case, still wracked with indecision as to where to go, we decided to skip sightseeing in favour of necessity. The consensus was to find somewhere rural and quiet for the night away from the coastline where we could consider our next move. However, we also needed a map – a good map – of the roads, which meant we still needed to be in reach of a fair sized town.

Mara wanted to see Monte Carlo so before side stepping inland we drove the D6007 along the crown of this strange city. It is like a hedgehog in the desert, a sudden eruption of skyscrapers, apartment blocks and the like, a flotilla of mega ‘mega’ yachts, and casinos. We could see enough from our vantage point on the D6007 and I for one was relieved not to be driving down the cliffs into that city.

Passing Monaco we came to Nice and although we tried to turn away we quickly found ourselves sucked down the road into the city. This was an arduous experience. I was wet with perspiration from the efforts. The road down into the city wound down the cliff in fair traffic. The Zil could not make the turns in the road without a three point turn on each corner which relied on traffic from below holding back to give me room and traffic from above not getting impatient and cutting past me. On reaching seal level we floated around the streets of Nice trying to work out how to get out, eventually tailgating a dump truck that we thought must also be on its way out the city. It was a hot day, I was still hungry from not having eaten and it was now past four o’clock.

Nice is a large city with a cities skyline. There is a smart tram service that operates but on the whole we were uninspired by its architecture. I once had a French-Algerian flatmate from Nice and wondered about him as we drove through the city. He had always been a moody self-pitying character with few ambitions. Our relationship ended badly when he admitted to stealing from us. There are a lot of north Africans here and I wonder what the level of repression is and what forms it takes? I am sure the north African youth feel French but is there a consensus on the definition of ‘French’?

We eventually found a way out of the city – hurray! And headed in heavy rush hour traffic north to the small, attractive town of Contes built on a rock that erupts out of the valley. It has a cable car from the bottom up to the church to save on walking the flights of stairs. Perhaps it is because we are fresh in France, but every town we pass seems to be approvingly well kept, functional but still retaining character, frequently with medieval buildings making up the core. Even the shoreline felt cleaner than in Italy and there is very little rubbish on the ground. Houses are low, squat constructions using local stone and weathered orange tiles. The houses look like small Roman villas with their terraces of fig, olive, rock pine for shade and other citrus trees. By comparison the Italian villages we passed tended to be raised upwards by several floors and adopt a seventeenth to eighteenth century character. With newer constructions lacking any reference to the historic nature of the area.

We drove up the valley away from Contes on a tiny country lane that carried a warning prohibiting vehicles over 11m in length. We are seven metres but we do have the worst turn circle ever devised. This proved to be our next challenge of the day as the road wound steeply upwards and did such sharp turns I was having to do five point turns to get around them. After what felt like hours of hard driving in first and second gear we made it to the top of the valley, on the shoulder of two hills with gorgeous views in all direction and a ruined castle to spend the night in, apart from no water source, perfect!

Review of Oasi campsite in Diano Marina, Italian Riviera

Campsite Oasi – Diano Marina

This campsite is huge, stretching up a wide valley that has wide terraces on both sides used for the motorhomes. The bottom of the valley is packed tight with motorhomes – row upon tight row. I wonder why people like to holiday in such congestion? We took a slot right at the back of the campsite, away from other people affording us greater privacy and the possibility to pee into bushes.

I think the bonus to this campsite is that it is so huge one can disappear into it so that one does not have to bother too much about protocols. There is wifi throughout the site, a playground, shower facilities with washing machines and driers. There was lots of activity going on, an Irish chap was coordinating the repairs to the campsite lanes, he had brought his son and dad to lend a hand. The electricity supplies and wireless routers were also getting serviced.

The centre of Diano Marina and the beach is only 10 minutes walk out of the campsite. Across the road from the campsite is a vegetable garden and shop set up by an elderly and very sweet lady. She proclaims on a sign that she uses no pesticides or fertilizer. She grows various lettuce leaves, tomatoes, cucumber etc. and season fruits.

The campsite cost e.8.00 for a motorhome and as many people as come with it.
Wifi is free.
Dogs are welcome – there were lots of dogs. Also as we parked out on the periphery we never had to tie Miki up.
There is a six km bike track that starts and finishes at the campsite too – but we never explored it.