Friday 11th April 2008, Aix-les-Bains
It poured with rain continuously throughout the night and by the time we left Suzanne mid-morning we found our route to Port Lesney along beside the river was completely under water! So we were obliged to make a detour via Buffard on the further bank of the Loue. We had thought the level high yesterday but today many of the fields along its banks were lost beneath the swirling brown water. I have never seen it like that. In winter I have walked across its frozen surface and in summer have been only too happy to cool off by floating amongst its fishes but today, with the melt water from the mountains and the continuous rain, it has become rather a frightening creature, brown, swirling and fast flowing.
Along the route into Salins-les-Bains the usually tranquil little river we have so often mocked lived up to its name of La Furieuse! And as we climbed up the various plateaux of the Jura mountains to the third level – le Haut Jura - around 3,500 ft, the rain continued to fall relentlessly, the hillsides were awash with water and huge waterfalls and cascades hurtled down across the roads adding to the swollen, turbulent flow deep in the gorges below the unfenced road! Above us the mountainside was hidden in wreaths of mist while huge, isolated, wooden farmsteads stood in sodden fields amidst piles of snow that had fallen from their roofs. As we climbed higher the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. Road markings were almost obliterated and we stopped for a picnic lunch in Modestine when we accidentally took a wrong turn and ended up in a desolate ski resort which had already closed because of lack of suitable snow!
Last year we followed this route towards Annecy at the same time of year. Then it had been mild, warm sunshine. How different today! The snow was piled several feet high beside the roadside, the edge marked by red poles. As we descended we left the snow behind and rejoined the interminable rain. Around 6pm we drove into Aix-les-Bains and are now camped on the banks of the Lac du Bourget. The site seems very good with a heated shower block but it is too wet to venture out to explore the town. This is a shame as last time we were here we visited the baths which were clinically clean. So much so that we have a vivid recollection of somebody in a white uniform and wearing a mask following us around with a disinfectant mop, cleaning the floor behind us! The French are great ones for pseudo-medicine! They should see how we compromise on health and hygiene in Modestine when it's raining cats and dogs outside and the washing-up facilities are across a the far side of a waterlogged field!
We have been assured this appalling weather is right across eastern France as far as Corsica. We had intended crossing the Alps between Grenoble and Briançon, but are seriously considering changing our plans and taking the 13 kilometre Tunnel de Fréjus which will bring us straight out into Italy. Personally the thought of a huge Italian lorry sniffing Modestine's backside as she scampers ever faster to escape, deep underground with billions of tons of Alps above us, fills me with terror, but it's certainly an interesting way to spend our retirement!
Ian is currently learning Italian as by this time tomorrow we will be in Italy. He has just mastered "il terrano è bagnato dopo la pioggia" or "the ground is soaked after the rain". Sounds useful as we try to find somewhere where Modestine will not get stuck!
Saturday 12th April 2008, Somewhere in the wilds of the Italian countryside near Asti
Tonight we feel rather negative about Italy. Actually we frequently do when we first arrive. We have yet to discover just quite what it is that the English love about the country. Perhaps it is because they fly in and stay in lovely accommodation in quaint Tuscan villages or the centre of Venice so never see it as we have done today. We have abandoned Modestine in the garden of a bed and breakfast place run by some friendly English people! It's not really from choice. After spending all day driving across the Alps on broken, minor roads with snow piled beside the roadside we are still only a little way south of Turin in an area completely devoid of campsites. We should have taken the motorway but wanted to see the real Italy. It's been an inhospitable country so far. In any case we were obliged to take the Tunnel de Fréjus as all the passes were closed after yesterday's dreadful weather. Fortunately the tunnel was much easier than I'd feared though it did cost us 42 euros (£33.60) to drive through! Italy is really expensive and fuel is dearer than in England!
We left Aix-les-Bains around 11.30 this morning. The weather has been dry today but chilly. Before we left we walked by the Lac du Bourget and into town for a look at the thermal spa, the Roman remains and the Casino. The first was Art Deco and not very exciting, the second not outstanding and the third had an amazing mosaic ceiling formed from 3,500,000 pieces of glass set into gold. The town was pleasant enough but not as nice as we remembered from many years ago. We drove to nearby Chambéry, a town we found really attractive when we stumbled upon it by chance, also years ago, and have always wanted to revisit. It was quite impossible to park and we wasted a good hour trying to find somewhere. In the end we left with both relief and regret to make our way towards Italy.
Although the Fréjus tunnel saved us the spectacular drive up from Briançon, we still managed to drive up from the Italian end of the tunnel, into the mountains and through the ski resort of Sestriere where we paused briefly to play snowballs and search unsuccessfully for a loo. We seem to have been nursing Modestine round hairpin bends all day long, first up to the top of the pass, then down, down, down until we almost expected to meet the bowels of the Earth! Finally we came out onto the flat plains of northern Italy and crossed the Po. The Po, like the Loue, was overflowing! (Crude, childish joke!) To avoid traffic around Turin Ian navigated us, with mixed success, by very minor roads across country. Our progress was slow, our bladders were full and every village we passed through had absolutely nothing for the weary traveller. Nowhere could we find a campsite, a toilet or a hotel open. By 7pm Jill could drive no further and Ian could last out no longer. So we followed a sign up into the hills and found this guest house. Having prepared our best Italian to ask for accommodation we were taken aback to find English people! So here we are, exhausted but with a huge bed and our own loo. Tomorrow is another day and by the evening we should be back in the land of camp sites. If the nights were not so cold we could have slept in Modestine for free but without electricity it's not yet an option. Usually we pay around £12 - £15 a night on campsites, rather than the £48 here, so we now see how much she saves us!
Sunday 13th April 2008, Bolognia
Well today has continued our Italian nightmare! We feel we have seen almost nothing of the country or its inhabitants. The roads are really awful, fuel and money are both dispensed from automatic machines, as is the toll for the motorway. We eventually resorted to using that after I became so stressed with driving along the main roads with the impossibility of ever parking anywhere, that I pulled off into a dead-end and broke down in tears of complete exhaustion! The campsite we are currently on made last night's accommodation look amazing value but it the first campsite we have found in two days of driving across northern Italy.
Last night we slept really deeply at the guest house. The room and bed were comfortable, we had heated towels for our showers and the breakfast was amazing. We had everything from Parma ham and several Italian cheeses, to sugary pastries, muffins, bread rolls and jam. There was yoghurt, muesli, orange juice and coffee. As we chatted with our English hosts we discovered the stuff of which TV programmes are made. Jason was a chef/restaurateur and owner of several restaurants in England including one in Taunton. Four years ago they decided to move to Italy, with only a limited knowledge of the language. They found and purchased the home of a retired Italian wine producer set in gentle hills near Asti. By chance they met a local couple setting up a restaurant. Jason was able to ship out his own equipment – cutlery, crockery, tables and chairs – as well as undertaking the management of the restaurant for them. Meanwhile they transformed their own property and Peggy set up a very pleasant guest house providing not only bed and breakfast but conference facilities and translating services. Her parents joined them from England and now take guests around the locality on guided tours. Their two children are in Italian schools and after four years are fluent in the language. They are really happy and kept busy now their website has attracted so many visitors. They said if they has realised the bureaucracy involved their courage would have failed but they have learned that the three most important things in Italy are food, drink and the avoidance of tax. They are now experts in all three! The fall in the value of the £ and the dollar are problems, with several American visitors cancelling their bookings. Peggy's dad told us his UK-based pension has dropped 200 euros a month recently. (Last year we noticed a euro was worth 64 pence while it is now worth 80!)
When we eventually left, they wrapped us up four huge portions of Italian fruit brioche (pancetta?) to take with us. In exchange we gave them our remaining half jar of marmite as they said that was what they missed most about England! As we drove down from the hills to rejoin the main road, the sun glistened on the dewy grass and blackbirds sang. We felt fine again and ready to accept all that is right about Italy.
On the map the main road runs parallel to the motorway and looks an interesting alternative. However, the verges are lined with advertising hoardings and it passes through the centre of every town, speed limits change every few moments, the road surfaces are dreadful and road markings are either effaced, non-existent or downright wrong. Italian drivers are generally very law abiding or driving Ferraris when a different set of rules seem to apply. We stopped for fuel. Self-service is just that with all instructions only in Italian. We placed our last 20 euro note in a slot and pressed for diesel. Nothing happened except it took our money. There was nobody to help. Eventually we replaced the nozzle in disgust and were about to leave when the pump sprang into life. Last year we were paying around 75 pence a litre for diesel in Italy. Today it was nearer £1.20.
We ended up getting lost in the town centre of every potholed town we passed through. Today is the national election and the Italians were out in strength, though we saw little obvious signs of the professed desire to get Burlesconi ousted, with few election posters and no sign of polling booths as we know them. Instead they were attending Sunday markets in church squares, chatting outside the bakeries or fighting for parking space outside the restaurants -this latter accompanied by lots of gesticulation and whirring of arms.
We drove through the centre of Asti and on through Alessandria. On our first visit to Italy, when somehow we made it to Padua in a couple of days of motorway driving, our first stop had been in Alessandria late on a dark evening. We'd pulled in wondering how to park and search for a hotel when a man banged on our window. Without a word of common language he explained we looked lost, did we need a hotel. He told us to follow him and sped off across the city with us in pursuit. He showed us where to park and directed us to a small hotel down a side road where we spent the night in a room full of bizarre green and blue paintings of naked ladies in peculiar poses!
This morning it took us ages to reach Parma, home of the famous Italian ham. We were channelled right into the centre and even on Sunday the streets were hectic with absolutely nowhere to park even for a few moments, just to collect our ideas and work out where in the city we were. Without town maps this is almost impossible anyway. We did eventually find our way to the citadel where the only campsite listed in our book no longer existed! It was at this point I was briefly reduced to tears! They don't do much good though so we set off resolutely across the city centre and, admitting defeat, joined the motorway. In no time we were zooming across Italy to cover in less than one hour, the same distance it would have taken four to do on the main roads! From now on we use motorways! The toll was only 4.50 euros - the best value we've had in Italy so far.
Of course we did not know which exit we needed to find the only campsite listed in this part of Italy, so ended up crossing the city centre of Bologna. It was heaving! Such a contrast to France, or even England on a Sunday. Everybody drives and parks where they can. We got cut-up on all sides as we swept up past the central railway station, attempting to cut across four lanes of traffic to turn left with the perpetual cacophony of car horns. Somehow we ended up stuck in the middle of a road junction with traffic sweeping around us. Even the police car ignored us! Exiting to the north of the city we chanced on the sign we were seeking and located this campsite. 29 euros a night for a patch of ground and electric hook up is extortionate but this is Italy and it's definitely the most expensive country we have yet encountered in Europe, except Norway. Had it been twice the price we'd have paid. We were far too tired to hunt further.
No sooner had we settled than the huge Italian mobile home on the next pitch started up its noisy air conditioning unit. Eventually Ian went over to ask how long it would be running for. The occupants were inside smoking and not best pleased with him. If he'd said nothing it would have been running all evening! A grumpy old man like Victor Meldrew he may be, but he managed it in Italian! "non lo credo!" I'm well proud of him!
Monday 14th April, Bologna
This morning we took the bus into the university city of Bologna for the day. It has a population of around 400,000, much the same size as Florence. We had thought the traffic bad yesterday, but today it was much worse. It would almost have been quicker to walk the few kilometres into the city centre. However, once we left the bus and discovered our way to the Maggiori Square, the largest and most imposing of several in the heart of the historic centre of the city, we started to really appreciate why we have been travelling for days to get here. There are something like 400 kilometres of arcaded streets. There are huge brick Renaissance palaces, perfectly balanced courtyards and dozens of imposing mediaeval churches on a scale that reduce one to the size of an ant. There is a smaller square with a couple of 12th century brick-built towers that lean so badly they quite rival Pisa and are under constant surveillance. We certainly had no wish to linger near them!
Today being Monday most of the museums were closed but as the city is a museum anyway this was no hardship. Amongst the highlights were the gigantic 14th century Basilica of San Petronio, the patron saint of the city, the Palazzo d’Accursio now used as the town hall and the Fountain of Neptune in the Maggiore Square, erected in 1563 - the four great rivers of the known world at that time are represented – the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube and the Amazon. Passing under the arcades of several smaller side streets we emerged into a peaceful, picturesque cobbled square in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, a group of three stunningly beautiful but simple brick churches known as Holy Jerusalem, dating from the 8th century. They include the church of Saints Vitale and Agricola, the first martyrs of the city, the church of the Holy Sepulchre housing the relics of St. Petronio and the church of the Crucifix. In the cloisters stands a huge stone bowl which legend claims is the one used by Pontius Pilate to wash his hands at the trial of Christ.
Of course there was much to observe of the modern life of the city. People looked rather smartly dressed in dark suits and despite the cobbles women wore very high heels. Students sat on street terraces and businessmen read the newspaper over a coffee on one of the several sunny squares. By lunch time we were more than ready to join them and searched for a small trattoria serving pasta bolognese! What else in Bologna? It was really nice with herbs, olive oil, cracked black pepper and parmesan cheese.
We found a statue to Luigi Galvani, an early experimenter in the field of electricity, after whom the process of galvanising is named. In the Basilica of San Petronio is the world's largest indoor sundial. A beam of light coming through the roof is measured on a calendar stretching right across the floor of the basilica. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of radio telegraphy also came from Bologna.
By late afternoon we could take in no more of the splendours of the city and slept through most of the traffic chaos back to the campsite. We are now planning our onward trip tomorrow. I have flatly refused to drive Modestine back across the city so where we end up depends on how well Ian navigates us onto the motorway on this side of Bologna. From the map the Bologna interchange looks more tangled than the tagliatelli bolognese on our lunch plate today. So we could end up heading either for Florence or Ravenna!