Road trip to Italy

Our summer holiday this year was to be off the boat and a trip down to our building project in the South of Italy. Rather than fly and so we could take Bonnie and Clyde with us (and Maria’s best friend Lisa!), we decided to drive down again this time in our own motorhome for the first time. We have done this for the last few years first in a rented motorhome which was old and decrepit but exceptionally expensive to hire, then in a newer one which was kindly lent to us by the motorhome dealer when ours was delayed and wasn’t ready for our holiday. This was great but didn’t have air conditioning in the cab which when the temperatures were pushing 40 degrees Celsius, was quite uncomfortable for everyone especially the cats. Anyway, this year we have the new super MH Mariadz which redefines glamping.

A quick introduction to the motorhome may be in order. imageFirst of all, he is a he! You can’t weigh 4.25 tonnes and be built like a brick….. and be a girl! So he is a big boy that looks after us.

We finally had delivery of the Autotrail Tracker RB (rear bed) in August 2015 just as we returned from our motorhome holiday to Italy. We had upgraded the engine to 150 HP which with the weight is probably the minimum you should really go for. It can sleep six in three double beds: one in the cab, the saloon that converts and an island bed in the rear. There is a small TV that drops down between the two seats in the cab, which swivel. This is an Avtex TV and we did have a problem with it but their customer service was amazing and they replaced the TV without a quibble when we were having a problem with the volume. The quality of the picture is great for a small TV but not quite the cinema experience that you get from the wall mounted 32″ TV in the bedroom. At first we were worried about how the cats would take to the motorhome, they have traditionally been great but the 2015 Italy tour had been a shocking experience with very high temperatures and no opportunity for the cats to get cool. They pretty much spent two days constantly panting and we were worried that they would never want to go near a motorhome again. However, our own one with everything chosen for us and the cats was a different matter entirely and they settle down really well and have their favourite spots. To be fair this probably has something to do with the fact that they pretty much lived on the motorhome for about six weeks at the end of 2015 as the boat was out of action having its electrical system refreshed.

So to get to the holiday…. Maria, as is her want, had pinched some days at the start and at the end of the holiday so that our two week holiday is almost three weeks. The channel tunnel is booked for Wednesday night which gives us a few days to travel down the 1,500 miles to Puglia from Ipswich. Our friend Andrea has asked for some help on the Saturday which means as well as picking up a small car we have to help prep a villa for someone’s holiday. Andrea had been let down and has been so helpful to us that it was the least we could do.

Our routing is to cross the channel and get a hundred miles or so away from Calais. The next day to go via Lyon and the Frejus tunnel through the Alps to get to Northern Italy before travelling down the Autostrada Adriatica which goes the length of Italy down its Eastern coast and includes some stunning views and a view of the sea nearly all of the time. Our last stop was going to be a few hours away from home so that we could get up early and do our chores before dropping the cats off at the house and helping Andrea. You would have thought that with two people who have to plan as their day job most of the year, this simple plan would be a walk in the park but of course, those who know us will know that we try to be a little more spontaneous in life than our jobs allow us to be.

We have plans to leave South Woodham about 3pm (remember how Maria steals time when on holiday?). I have made arrangements during the week to get my handover in place in good time and then work from home on Wednesday cleaning up anything I need to. Unfortunately I will be working whilst on holiday but it shouldn’t be too much time and helps me to make sure that everything keeps ticking over and no one misses me too much :). My boss mentions to me early in the week that he would like a face to face meeting in Ipswich after he arrives on a train at 13:07 and before he goes to a meeting at 13:30. This means I am picking him up from Ipswich station and taking him to the hospital for his meeting and discussing anything on route. Lisa is kind enough to let me borrow her car for this errand after my attempts to discuss doing this conversation over the phone are futile. I am half way to Ipswich when I get the call that the train is delayed and not to bother picking him up. At least I am back in good time for the departure.

As is always the way, the work expands to fill the amount of time and then some, so we are not ready to leave until 3:30pm. We are all aboard and we pull out of Lisa’s road, quick imagechorus of Cliff Richard summer holiday (well we are taking our ‘bus’ to the continent) and we are on our way… the first roundabout where we discover that Maria has left her wedding, engagement and eternity rings on the side! About turn, back to Lisa’s, retrieve rings, check that nothing else has been left and we are ready to go again. Another chorus of Summer Holiday (Lisa still didn’t join in), and we are happily motoring down the A130 and A13 on the start of the 1,500 miles. We are making good progress with 20 miles in 20 minutes before we arrive at a bad queue of traffic. We can tell it is bad because people are out of their cars and discussing how long they have been waiting. We had heard about a bad accident on the bridge the night before but surely this couldn’t still be the same problem. We are stuck for two hours in this queue and find it is all because of the problems at the interchange of the A13 and M25 which is cut down to one lane instead of three. The ironic thing is if we had gone from Ipswich we would have avoided the problem so our attempt to save time backfired. Still in a journey that is likely to take 24 hours of driving, what’s a couple of hours of delay!

We get to the tunnel a couple of hours late but are on a train within 30 minutes including time for Lisa and Maria to go and do some duty free shopping and get some fast food, we will be too late to eat when we get to France. We make good progress in France and are parked up in the bellicourt aire shortly after 11pm. image
The French Aires are brilliant, they are usually quiet areas where motorhomes can park overnight, sometimes with a small charge. There are two motorhomes in this one and we find a good spot where we can settle down for the night. In the morning we let the cats out for a short while before prepping to go. In this time, Clyde caught three mice but didn’t eat them I imagine French mice taste of too much garlic.  This particular aire is excellent because it is on a road that runs parallel to the A26, the main road south from Calais. It is also great because the route back to the motorway goes past an Auchan for fuel and supplies.

The French motorway network is great but expensive and they know you are a captive audience for fuel and food so diesel prices were €1.40 rather than €1.20 in the Auchan. So staying at the aire actually saves you money :). We stock up on essential supplies at Auchan (bread, cheese, pate, mussels, water, wine – go on tell me you are surprised!) and are on the road at 9:30am, again a little later than we intended. The drive through France is uneventful with stops for fuel and opportunities to swap driver and passenger seating so Lisa isn’t stuck in the back all trip. The cats are settled and comfortable like a couple of bookends in their cubby holes overlooking the cab. Bonnie in particular doesn’t move but Clyde spends time up there, time with the rear passenger being fussed and then lies like a dog on the floor near to Maria and Adam. We go through the 13km tunnel through the Alps and we are now on the Italian side. Maria practices her Italian for five minutes, she does this every time we arrive in Italy 🙂 We’re now thinking of where to stop and clearly we will not be making Bologna on the Eastern side of Italy. We are just short of Torino and still in the Alps and decide to find somewhere close to the motorway but secluded so that the cats can get out. Maria finds a camper stop which supposedly costs €10 a night (but in our experience they hardly ever collect) and it is described as “isolated”, perfectfor us. imageIt is in amongst the mountains so the views are stunning. Again there are two vans in there, it looks like an orchard with lots of small trees, not easy for a large motorhome to negotiate. One of the motorhomes is being stored but the other has a dog outside which isn’t on a lead, that will scupper our plans. Maria’s not having that and marches over but I suspect she was very polite and nice when she got there because the other motorhomers said no problem we will keep the dog in and let your cats have free roaming across the site! Of course they did this in French which Maria doesn’t really speak but the effect was the same.  We also discover that isolated doesn’t quite capture the essence of the the hill climb course for the village youngsters as they drive up and down the road at high revs for some time. This is of course a road that Clyde in particular would like to cross to see what is on the other side. Let’s just say that Lisa made it clear to him that he should stay near us! However he now has the devil in him and decides to randomly climb ten foot up each of the trees around the motorhome. A cat that swims and climbs trees, nutter! Bonnie of course is a lady, and everyone knows that ladies would never do such a thing….but it is very tempting and maybe just a stretch up the tree would be OK….that’s probably enough, time for a sleep.

When we arrive it is a little cloudy which spoils the view a little but the next day is clear and sunny and the view is spectacular. Still no time to dawdle, so a few pics and it’s time to head off to try and make up for lost time and get all the way down to Foggia so we don’t have too far to go, and hence an early start on Saturday. This is the day that Lisa has been looking forward to, the fabled Autostrada Adriatica with the blue and green sea on one side and villages clinging onto mountain sides overlooking the stunning view. However, in Northern Italy at this time it is cloudy with occasional rain which somewhat limits the view. Quite early on we get a message from Andrea saying that we can stand down for work on Saturday which means we now only need to arrive before 1pm to collect the hire car. That changes our plans, rather than driving for ages to get to Foggia we can take our time and have a stop a little earlier leaving more driving for the next day. Maria does some research and finds what looks a lovely stop in amongst the Apennine mountains that run the length of Italy. imageIt is our first visit into this mountain range, we understand you can ski there during the winter so that will be on the list at some stage. We are driving up into the mountains and the satnav tells us to take a right up a very steep hill to get to the site. I don’t notice a draining dip at the bottom of the hill and as the rear wheels go into this there is a nasty scrape as the fibreglass shell at the rear makes contact with the road. Now one thing our yachtmaster taught us is that making contact with the ground is not a good thing, at least not in our boat (or motorhome). Maria gets out to investigate. You’d better take a look! Heart in mouth I step down from the cab ( why didn’t I look at the dip, why didn’t I just bail and not go for the hill, how bad is this going to be….). I am relieved to find that the rear bumper is not hanging off and in fact it just looks MH Mariadz is just sitting nonchalantly on her rear corner. However, as I found when I had the lotus, roads do a lot of damage to fibre glass so we need to think about how we get out of this. In the end we deployed our levelling ramps so that we could go backwards onto these lifting the rear and mitigating the dip of the storm drain. We get out of it and Maria reports that it looks like we haven’t had too much damage, we can check that out later. We are all a little shook up but continue because the site looks good and clearly it must be accessible for motorhomes. As we are trying to find our way I take a diversion onto a mountain pass which is very thin with a rock face on one side and a wall protecting you from a severe drop, think end of the Italian job. I so much don’t want to be here but there is no way I can turn around and a lot of traffic going both ways. I am going through tunnels in the mountains and am fortunate that i am meeting other vehicles at the right places or I would be trying to reverse with a queue of traffic down meanering thin roads with motorhome-wrecking objects on both sides. We get to a passing spot and I let five cars go by. We take a look and decide that this is our opportunity to do a three (ish) point turn. Maria and Lisa get out and stop the traffic while I attempt to do the turn without damaging anything under the watchful eye of the mountain goats. Actually the manoeuvre goes without a hitch and we are now returning down the really small roads with cars coming up but hey we’ve done this before. At this stage I discover that I had nothing to worry about previously. Far from it being difficult to bring a motorhome up the road it is actually quite easy to bring a coach up there too. Now we are in trouble. I get around some very thin stuff before the oncoming coach is upon us and I have found a patch of road a little wider. I reverse so as to get as close as I can to the wall but the coach driver is not at all worried, he has been here before and throws it around us with barely a pause and we continue. Back through the thin tunnel with not enough room to pass, nothing coming the other way, phew. That’s it, we are bailing on this stop and need to find somewhere else to go.

I may not have mentioned that just before we came off the motorway we tried to fill up with fuel but the station was out of fuel. Still we had a range of well over 100 miles so we will just fill up at the next place. After our fun and games the range is down to 34 miles. Maria selects a new destination which looks good and is 25 miles away. Time to go to fuel saving mode especially as the van tells me that we are low on fuel and refuses to give me any more idea of how many miles we have to go, sulking I guess. After more mountain roads which are in terrible condition we get onto a main road. Surely there will be a petrol station. After several miles, when actually the range came back to life and suggested 60 miles before changing its mind and sulking again, we find a petrol station and are able to fill up. We now can go back to our journey without any fears. The stop Maria has selected appears to be in a hotel with a spot that overlooks a football pitch so a good space for the cats. We get there, it isn’t quite as it has been portrayed. On the approach there are two youngish African ladies wearing relatively little just standing by the side of the road. Hmm maybe this hotel rents rooms by the hour! We drive up the slope to the hotel and find what looks to be a converted residence with washing hanging outside. This isn’t the right place, there isn’t a football pitch for a start. As we are starting to drive away I spotted a drive way, well a path through the trees. I go to investigate on foot because I don’t fancy another tricky piece of driving tonight. As I get to the bottom I see a football pitch with some hard standing next to it that has seen better days. imageBut it is completely empty and there is lots of space for the cats. I return to the van and come up with a way to get into the tight entrance. We get down there and it is perfect. The girls are worried that they are going to get killed in their beds but we have an alarm on the van so at least we will wake up for it! Needless to say there are no problems overnight and the cats get some quality time outside. Even better, on inspection the rear quarter is undamaged, we stopped immediately we heard the noise and fortunately before anything disasterous happened – result.

The next morning is also bright and sunny but cold at 14 degrees, we came to Italy for the heat but the mountains are cold overnight and then heat up during the day.  Anyway, where we are going it is going to be hot, hot, hot.

After an hour of driving, we are back on the Adriatica but the satnav is telling me that we are likely to arrive at about 12:30, quite close to our 1pm deadline. There are a couple of milestones as you come down the road, the first is entering Puglia and the second is when you see Brindisi on the road signs. We get to Bari mid Saturday morning, this is not a good time to get to Bari. The signs tell us that there is slow traffic for 40kms. That is going to cause us some problems. Maria’s suggestion is that I speak to the non English speaking person at Sixt car hire in Mesagne and explain the situation in my faltering Italian. I am saved by the bell when the very nice lady at Sixt, Brindisi airport, calls me to ask if it would be possible to pick the car up from the airport so that the team at Mesagne can go home. Brilliant, that is 30 minutes closer, and on our way. Moods are improved and I haven’t had to completely embarrass myself by phoning them up, and lower myself in Maria’s estimation who seems to think that I would have no problem with this conversation.

Undeterred, Maria points out that we are likely to have no water and so I still need to phone Guiseppe, lovely guy who also does not speak English, and discuss him delivering water to us after we have been shopping and got to the house. I wait until we get to Auchan in Mesagne to make that call and by some miracle we seem to get the message across and he arrives ten minutes after we get to the villa.

We have travelled 1,600 miles in just under three days and it has been remarkably comfortable and stress free.

The cats have been impeccable during the day, just chilling or taking some time for attention. The evening is a different story. We know that Bonnie normally starts the trouble and then when Clyde gets wound up she runs away. She then sprints to her safe zone which is mum and dad’s bed at 2am, and 4am, and 6am. Aren’t they precious :).  We also had to tell Lisa about this since she slept through their games.

We are now in Puglia for the next few weeks. The build looks amazing (another update to follow) and the weather is fantastic. Just a little work to do to keep things ticking over and a lovely rest.

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