The annual pilgrimage to Italy started, this year, from Kent. So it’s Wednesday and you will recall Maria starts the holiday earlier and earlier each year. Maria finishes her last work call at about 3:30pm and we are on our way to the Eurotunnel which is only ten minutes away since we join the M20 the junction before the tunnel exit. Well, we would but the M20 is closed, not a great start! We spin round the diversion and get to the tunnel where there are an unusually high number of trucks queueing but luckily the car check-in is clear. Not that lucky actually as apparently we are delayed by three hours due to a problem that’s occurred during the morning so rather than getting across even earlier we are badly delayed and won’t get anywhere near as far as we’d hoped on our first evening. In the end the delay is worse than three hours and it is especially frustrating that Eurotunnel had prioritised cars and freight traffic ahead of high vehicles. It means we don’t get across to France until 10pm local time, so no chance of the three hour drive down to Reims.
The first night then is a return to the aire at Bellicourt, which is meant to take two motorhomes in designated spots. It is quite popular but very quiet and it means the cats can go out for a while – and Clyde can catch some mice.
We know the drive quite well, down the Autoroute des Anglais (A26). You get to Arras, which at night seems to be straddled by Martian tripods from War of the Worlds but we are able to get past the flashing red eyes without being spotted….in the morning you can see these are wind turbines but in the gloom it doesn’t look right at all 🙂
We are very lucky in the motorhome with the cats since they have their standard positions for travelling: Bonnie likes to sit in a gap above the drivers head and sleep, for the entire journey! Clyde on the other hand likes to lie on his Mummy’s lap which causes Maria quite a lot of pain because he is not light, but he is gorgeous, so how can she say no. They stay like this for most of the drive down through France.
By the time we arrive at Bellicourt it is close to midnight and there are four vans there already. We find a suitable place to park for the night but we will have to leave early in the morning before the cars start arriving. We let the cats out for a little, while we have a drink after a bad few hours. We decide we will need to try and catch up some time so another reason it will be an early start. The intention is still to make it to the Italian lakes for the next night where we have identified a couple of really nice places we can stay. The cats are having fun and wandering around outside. This is something that surprises a lot of our friends. We have heard on several occasions whether we are scared of losing the cats. The cats have always been very good at returning when we call them and will jump into the motorhome on command. Maria is less worried than I am, but they have always come back to us at every stop we have made, so I guess she is right to have confidence in them. But more of THAT a little later!
After a post drive drink the night before and getting to bed at 2am after chasing the cats around, a 7am alarm call is not nice but we know it will help us make up for the delays on the previous day and put us back on track. We are going to have a long day in the van and so Maria is keen that the cats get some fresh air before we leave. Unfortunately, Bonnie is in a funny mood and wants to run around and play. This isn’t helping us to get away early! It takes us 30 minutes to get her in, such good cats 😉 ! We get away at 7:45am and drive parallel to the autoroute until St Quentin where we can rejoin. The other advantage of doing this is that we get an opportunity to fill up with cheap Auchan fuel rather than paying a lot extra on the autoroute. So a nice stop, cats get fresh air and we can refuel on the cheap – result.
Unfortunately, this week Maria has to work because her projects are at a critical time so she spends a lot of time on the journey working. This is a break with tradition since normally Maria spends most of her time sleeping 🙂 That’s not completely true in this part of France, Maria has been bird spotting! On the sides of the road there are a number of fences and Maria has spotted birds of prey sitting on these and has become a bit of a spotter, unfortunately she has no idea what they are – “pretty one with a white chest”, “really nice speckly one” – but it does keep her amused for hours (when not working or dozing).
We also have a standard routine as we approach the tolls. Maria being quite short, like myself, can’t reach the toll machine. So it is window down, stop cat trying to get out of window, unbuckle seatbelt, kneel on the seat and retrieve ticket. Now I’m not one to miss an opportunity so in full, Maria’s routine is window down, stop cat trying to get out of window, unbuckle seatbelt, kneel on the seat, have bottom smacked by me and retrieve ticket. At every toll 🙂 well I have to get my kicks where I can! Maria doesn’t even moan about it and just accepts her fate.
We are making good progress and I believe we have caught up some time with the early start and are probably only 90 minutes behind where we would have been. That is the time when you know something bad is going to happen. We approached a queue of traffic……with lots of people out of their cars and wandering around…this is never a good sign. An hour and a half later, we are moving again! Great. I also notice that we had originally intended to go through Switzerland to the lakes and the satnav has decided to route us through Lyon and Milan. I should have thought of this earlier and, of course, I have missed the turn off before I notice but the detour doesn’t cost us much time. We should know not to trust the satnav especially as for a while we have been calling him Suicide Sam because of his tendency to take us down roads that are too tight or with low bridges. It adds a little spice to the directions, there is no blind following of his latest “shortcut” along a country track because it is seven metres shorter than the normal way! It keeps us on our toes. Anyway I digress. The cut back to the Switzerland route is actually a very pleasant trip through French villages to get to Basel but it does take a couple of hours. According to Sam it hasn’t added much time but our arrival time at the lakes is moving further back. Crossing the Swiss border is easy and we didn’t even have to stop since we paid the motorway fees when we crossed in January 🙂 Maria is working away and so missing all of the fantastic scenery but making good progress in her work.
As we head through Switzerland, all is good until we arrive at the Gotthard Tunnel, a 17km tunnel. Once again we have stationary traffic and people milling about on the road. We are less than a mile from a junction and Sam has had a wonderful idea…. come off and there is another route. Sounds interesting and got to be better than sitting in traffic with the engine off. We take the turn off, but Sam seems confused and tells us to take a wrong turn before changing his mind! We are now heading up the mountain and I suspect that the only way down is the way we have come. We turn around and Sam is back and telling us to take a turn back onto a road….which is closed, with a barrier. So we have to continue back onto the other carriageway from where we were queuing, go two miles to the next junction before rejoining the queue half a mile further back than we were originally. Thanks Sam!
The queue does eventually start to move but we have lost another couple of hours and our arrival time is now looking like 9pm. Maria has looked at alternatives but there is no site nearer that is a sensible option so we continue as planned. We arrive at the camper stop late. This stop is on the banks of Lake Varese, literally. It is at the back of a large car park and next to a large restaurant. It is far from the tranquil spot we were expecting and it seems it may be the time of a fair since the car park and all adjacent roads are rammed with cars. It is a tricky manoeuvre getting 7.6M of motorhome around this but we get by including negotiating a very tricky part because the campers stop sign pointed you down the wrong road! There is one spot free, out of eight, but this isn’t a place where the cats could roam so we are not staying. We had a backup place which also looked good but took more vans and we were worried that there would be a greater likelihood of dogs. But we’ll give it a go. Maria gives me the coordinates for the location and I programme it in. It’s just eleven minutes away on the other side of the lake. We get there quickly but there is no way there is a camper stop here. After a fruitless search of the locality, I thought it may be worth checking the coordinates…..oops I missed a nine, and Sam had chosen the point closest to the underwater coordinates in the lake that I had given him. I guess I can’t blame him for that. With the right coordinates we head to the second stop at Penne. This has facilities such as electricity, grey/black waste points and water and all for eight euros. We arrive and whilst not ideal for our purposes, we find a quiet spot and go for it. Down at the bottom at the bank of the lake there is a bar which seems to be filled with a couple of hundred 20 year olds – I sound old! It’s kicking out time and there is a lot of noise – really old. Still Maria and I will be up to about 2am – sound younger now 🙂 Cats are out and we are chilling. Clyde eventually comes in but at 2am Bonnie has decided that she wants to stay under the van watching the world go by. I can’t coax her out or grab her. Eventually we give up and go to bed but she remains outside even when the storm hits at 4am and we have to frantically close all the windows! At 6am, she has had enough and wakes up Maria by crying at the window. She comes in bone dry and immediately wants lots of affection, but Daddy is still trying to be angry at her for staying out all night….. like all women, she gets her way in the end or more precisely we compromised and she got what she wanted!
It’s a slow start the next morning after another disturbed and very warm night and we wander down to the lake to take some pictures before making our way at 11am.
Actually we are not very far from Milan and the next leg of our drive is about five or six hours to an old farmhouse in the hills of Abruzzo near Pescara. We have the standard slow traffic around the major towns but there is something wonderful about travelling on the Autostrada del Sole or the Autostrada Adriatica! Much nicer names than the A1(M) or M25! By this stage we have had some long days, nights with broken sleep and Maria has been working hard so we are all a little tired. Clyde has had to adjust to sleeping on the floor rather than Mummy’s lap but that was a short reprieve for Maria as Bonnie took the opportunity to get some time with her :).
And sleep, which is what they all do while I drive us down the coast road.
The Adriatica is a lovely road when it hits the coast near Rimini. It stays within a couple of miles of the coast for the whole way down Italy. In the north the region is quite hilly and you have the sea close by and little villages clinging onto hillsides as you go in and out of tunnels and across bridges.
All the way down the coast you can see the Apennine Mountains to the West and as you go further down the coast the land flattens. When you see Ostuni, the white city, on the hill to the west surrounded by plains, you know you are close to your destination. That is all for tomorrow though as we drive several hundred miles down the A14, nah still prefer Autostrada Adriatica!
Towards the end of the day, we come off the toll road at Pescara and Maria gets a friendly tap on the rump as she pays the toll. We still have thirty minutes to go and the route starts winding up big hills. Oh dear, we have been here before, it doesn’t end well as we did a three point turn on a mountain pass last year 🙂
Actually the drive is quite nice with some lovely views over the plains and reasonably wide roads. That’s until we get to within a few hundred metres from the farmhouse. At this stage there is a right hand turn and a drop off that is our turning. Prior to last year I thought running aground was something you did on boats if you weren’t careful, apparently it is also possible in motorhomes as we found out last year, see the link above. This time we’re taking no chances so as I start the descent with Maria walking behind the motorhome making sure the long overhang at the back doesn’t get too close to the road. It’s fine and after a hundred metres or so I let Maria back in the van rather than making her walk the whole way 🙂 We continue carefully down the single track road which reveals the old farmhouse with a five a side football pitch, swimming pool and an outside seating area. It is amongst hills and is a really pleasant place. As we arrive, there are a group of people gathered near the door with an Alsatian. One of the ladies, comes running over to us and asks whether we have meat in the camper. Either they are a vegetarian commune or that dog will do anything for meat! We soon realise how important it is to understand the difference between Cane (dog) and Carne (meat)! We clear this up and tell the lady we have two cats and they mention that the dog loves cats….to eat! But they kindly offer to lock him away while we stay. There are two other vans in the field and the parking area is also adjacent to fields for the cats to explore. Having settled in and plugged in the power (this place has everything!) we head up to the house to get the low down. They point out the shower and toilet facilities and refuse payment until the next day when we are due to leave. We are sorry that we won’t be eating with them since we have everything for a barbecue and can imagine how nice the home cooked food would have been.
The cats are off exploring but eventually come back and we all settle down for the night. A hot muggy night.
The next morning, Maria and I wake up to find that the count of cats in the van has dropped to zero. The mosquito netting on one of the front windows has a cat sized gap in it and both cats have scampered off. After some calling, Bonnie comes back and uses her charms to defuse any anger. Clyde on the other hand is nowhere to be seen. After thirty minutes of calling, he lazily walks back towards the football pitch on the far side but he is in no rush to come home. After looking longingly at the lovely swimming pool, Maria and I have a “refreshing” shower, for the first time in a couple of days, urghhh! We then go to settle our account and on the return grab both cats so we can get away. The van is packed up and we are on our way.
Going back down the hill is much the same as going up, with the added spice of ignoring Sam from time to time as he tries to take a couple of side streets. We also take the opportunity to fill up with fuel before hitting the motorway where it is 15-20% more expensive. We have five hours to get to the house although we will stop at the Auchan at Mesagne to pick up essential supplies before going home. The motorway to Bari is fine and then the toll road runs out and you have one hundred kilometres of coast road down to Brindisi. However, the Bari part of this road is a nightmare. You have some people who want to drive at 80MPH and some at 30MPH. When you are in a motorhome with limited acceleration, you need to keep your wits about you. This only lasts a few kilometres and then the traffic thins which makes life easier. We arrive in Mesagne and are able to get everything we need. The last 30 minutes of our journey brings a smile to Maria’s face, she loves this area and seeing all of the familiar sites makes her feel at home.
At 6pm, we arrive at the house. At first the cats didn’t want to leave the van even though it is open, but as we unpack they come out and start playing around and climbing trees. They will settle in quite quickly and go to a standard routine of staying in the air conditioned house during the heat of the day and going out and playing at the beginning and end of the day. We will also find them quite affectionate too since the house isn’t too big and they like to be close or sleeping in their personal areas which used to be our wardrobes! Final shot of the trip down is the sunset in Puglia – a wonderful place and we will enjoy spending most of the next couple of weeks here chilling and catching up with friends.