Branching out on my own in Italy

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Europe » Italy
August 21st 1974
Published: September 30th 2021
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We travelled straight down to the Swiss-Italian border through wine country, with the terraced grape fields quite striking. It was a very steep climb up to the St Bernard Pass, with the countryside very reminiscent of the Snowy Mountains in summer. We decided against the 7km tunnel with the toll an exorbitant 25SFr. The border at the top of the pass provided minimal hassles, but we lost about an hour trying to track down petrol coupons – still it was worth it for a reduction from a quid to 70 pence a gallon for fuel. Our watches were put forward an hour at the border.

The Italian countryside was a total contrast to the Swiss – gradually flattened out, much browner and less productive looking, but not entirely without its own character. The stone houses and narrow cobbled streets were really attractive, even if the latter were not too kind on the shock absorbers of the van. We were surprised at the number of oldies just sitting about outside their houses. We took an autobahn for around 90kms, then had a very haphazard but nevertheless fascinating trip (with Julie navigating!) via Casale through many small Italian towns. We had our first taste of Italian driving – basically Rafferty’s Rules and everyone as impatient as hell. We reached Genoa around 8.30pm to find the place almost in darkness – an economy measure? Dinner was a late pizza in town before a frustrating drive looking for a place to camp for the night. We finally settled for a spot on a slope up on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean.

Our first step next day was to make it into the nearest bank to pick up some lira to buy food. After breakfast, we took a drive down to very upmarket Portofino for our first dip in the Mediterranean – pleasantly warm and very blue. It was very touristy around this part of the Riviera, and difficult to drive amongst all the crazy locals. It was all built up area, with windy roads skirting the coast, so we took autostratas a lot of the way. The scungy weather finally cleared and we reached Pisa soon after lunch. We wandered around the area close to the famed tower (it really does lean!) along with a thousand other pilgrims. Mid-afternoon we headed on to Firenze and hit the Parco di Campeggio campsite around 6pm, to be greeted by a torrential downpour. This held for a couple of hours, flooding the sandy campsite and preventing any thoughts of a night city visit. Instead, we took in a salad meal, washed down with a couple of rough reds, in the adjoining café to take us through to bed by 10pm.

We made it into town for a sightseeing day by 11am. The overcast weather with the odd spots of rain didn’t really bother us too much. First, we took in the Piazza del Duomo with the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, which was impressive mainly for its size, and adjoining campanile (bell tower) and Baptistry, including Ghiberti’s ‘Gate of Paradise’. The Piazza della Signoria containing the Old Palace, numerous sculptures and a million pigeons was equally impressive. A further walk took us over the Ponte Vecchio, with its collection of goldsmiths, silversmiths and general jewellers, as well as a freak doing his own thing with an ether bottle! We checked out the Palazzo Pitti then did a series of museum tours (gratuito for us students!), which included the Academy and Michaelangelo’s ‘David’, as well as the famed Uffizi Palace, with its hundreds of first rate paintings and sculptures.

We checked out of the campsite at 6pm and had our evening meal at Piazzo del Michaelangelo, overlooking the city. There were fascinating vending displays all around, including jewellery, paintings etc but little doing at night in the city itself. We decided to make our way out of town, so we drove out some 70kms, which included some extra due a couple of wrong turns. We ended up camping for the night under a bridge in a vineyard just short of Siena.

We were woken early next morning by the most inconsiderate farm workers, starting their chores far too early! We didn’t get away until around 10am however, and we had a 4-hour drive into Rome. It was a very windy road through dry, infertile country, but not without its interest. We had a few problems finding our way around Rome, till we were escorted to the main station by four very rowdy Victorian guys on hired mopeds. We strolled around, made enquiries and ate our lunch in the drizzle before finding our way to Camping Monte Antenne, some 8kms from ‘centro citta’. I spent the afternoon packing my rucksack, washing clothes and watching the drizzle. After dinner, the three of us strolled around the city, taking in the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, the latter amazing us with its size. Although we got some orientation of the city, not so with the outskirts, as we once again got hopelessly lost getting back to the campsite.

The next day was a beautiful sunny day (almost too hot!) for our tour of Roma. We made it into the city by 11am and parked just over the River Tiber after playing cat and mouse with a parking attendant. We first checked out the Flea Market at Porta Portese, which we found very similar to Petticoat Lane. The Vatican Square in front of St Peter’s Basilica was very impressive and absolutely thronging with tourists waiting for a possible glimpse of the Pope. No joy however as we found later that he was at his summer retreat! The inside of the church was equally magnificent, as was the Sistine Chapel, where we put in the best part of an hour in awe. We then took in the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain again as well as strolling down to the Forum and the central Memorial to Victor Emanuel on Piazza Venezia. We were pretty knackered by late afternoon, so we made it back to the Camp driving Italian style, ie like a maniac and through red lights, where we chatted with Kiwis Kevin and Judy for a couple of hours. We had a special dinner of an Italiano mix with rice, washed down with an Asti Spumante to celebrate Bob’s birthday the following Tuesday, before going over and chatting with Aussies Garry, Anne and Sharon till about 11am.

(Editor’s Note – With Peta having gone back home, it left just three of us travelling in the Kombi, of which the other two, Bob and Julie, were in a rapidly developing relationship. So because ‘there were three in this relationship’ (with apologies to the late Princess Diana!) and I was the odd person out, I made the decision, totally amicably, that I would branch off on my own for the next 6 weeks or so and meet up with the guys in the Kombi again in Munich for Oktoberfest at the end of September.)

The following day, my first on my own, ended up a satisfactory day’s travel after a rather suspect beginning. I was dropped off by Bob and Julie at the start of the autostrata, but after an hour’s unsuccessful hitching in the hot sun, I was persuaded by a Kiwi to take a train through to Naples. I finally caught the 2pm train and arrived less than 2 hours later. I was fortunate to choose a pleasant, air-conditioned cabin with some lively Italian company – although I suspected I had been using a seat that had been reserved for someone else. I then made it straight down to Sorrento by another train, arriving an hour later around 5.30pm. It was then a short walk to the hostel accompanied by Laura, a girl from Milan that I met on the train. I booked in before taking a stroll around town, picking up onward travel info from the tourist office, which looked encouraging. I had a typical Youth Hostel meal of spaghetti, meat balls and salad, but at 1,000 Lit the price was right, before chatting further with Laura until well into the night on the contrasting lifestyles of the Italians and English – a real eye-opener.

It was a pretty difficult night’s sleep overnight with a dozen squeaking beds all around me! I was up early and down to the wharf for the 8.30am ferry to Capri via the Blue Grotto. Only some slick negotiating by Laura got us onto an already overcrowded boat. The trip was notable for the number of people who were seasick (almost half!) and the preponderance of Irish tourists on board – perhaps the two are not unrelated. It was a pleasant day at Capri, with the weather cloudy but some patches of sun. The prices certainly weren’t as exorbitant as I had been given to understand. We took the funicular to the Piazza and strolled over to Marina Piccola for a swim. Later, we took in the Certosa (Monastery) and Blue Grotto (good, but very extravagant at 650 Lit for about 2 minutes viewing) before returning to Sorrento around 6pm. It was another hostel meal before chatting with Laura and Irish Deklan, then an Italian couple, until I got the boot to bed at 11pm.

Next morning, I caught the 8am ferry back to Naples with Deklan and had the pleasant company of two Irish gals for the trip. The weather cleared nicely after an early morning drenching. I wasted an hour and a half in Naples arranging a ferry booking to Sardinia and offloading my bags. My cause was hindered, rather than helped, by two pint-sized (but boy, did they make up for it in voice!) Americano-Italiano ladies who took me under their wing and tried to secure my booking. I finally picked up a deck-class seat for 8,900 Lit. The rest of the day was spent lazing around, wandering the back streets of Naples to check out the true Italian character, and I also took the funicular up for a magnificent panorama of the Bay of Naples. This view was made all the more impressive by the presence of the US Fifth Fleet in port. Finally, I hopped on the boat around 5pm and it set off a bit over an hour later, in sunny, still weather. I was seated next to a great looking girl who unfortunately didn’t speak a word of English! A ripoff meal and a couple of beers, combined with a couple of sleepless nights, had me nicely on my back on the A deck lounge by 9pm.

Although I had by no means an unbroken sleep, I had sufficient in the 10 hours I was down and woke feeling refreshed. I had a great hot shower and good scrub-up and was out for a good view on arrival into Sardinia around 11.30am, with the weather clear and sunny. I took a quick look around Cagliari for an hour or so before taking the train north to Sassari, which was reached by around 6pm after a 4 hour trip. The countryside we travelled through was generally flat and looked pretty dry and unproductive. The Italians on the train were very friendly, and quite an attractive clan too. From Sassari station, I caught a multiple-hire taxi for the 20kms into Porto Torres – very cheap at 300 Lit. However, I was caught short when I found out that the local Youth Hostel had become defunct but found that the Royal Hotel, although a lot more costly, was at least clean and with a comfortable bed. I had a quick stroll around the town but there was nothing startling about the sights. I must admit it would certainly have been nice if I had been able to parlo some Italiano, because there was not much English to be heard around those parts.

At least I had a good night’s sleep for my money and I was up and away into Sassari by taxi (travelling in style those days!) by 9.30am. It was pretty discouraging to hear that the bus to Santa Teresa had just left and there wasn’t another one until 3.30pm, so there was no choice but to wait and spend 5 hours wandering around Sassari. It was an interesting place, but it was hellishly hot. I took in the Cathedral Church of Santa Maria di Betlem, the Fontana del Rosello, and spent some idle time in the Plazza Italia. It was fascinating to watch the large numbers of very attractive young Italian chickies, decked out in their mod gear, walking arm in arm with mama all dressed up in black. The bus trip took around 4 hours, following the sea most of the way. There were some fantastic little bays tucked away in the coastline, which would have made some great stops if I had had my own transport. I had the usual frustrations in getting a room (as in 6 knockbacks – “non per solo”!) before securing one at the Hotel Quattro Mori at 2,000 Lit per night. A pizza dinner with a German couple (my first English conversation for a couple of days!) preceded a stroll around the town.

I spent my last couple of hours in Italy sitting down at the beach and then in the main square reading my newly procured French novel (to try and knock some rust off my schoolboy French). I had actually ran out of lira at the ferry terminal, but no one wanted to know me because it was a Saturday. I was getting desperate when I was finally helped out by a German couple who were travelling on the ferry, who I persuaded to let me pay in French Francs (which I still had from an earlier visit). So I finally made it onto the 11.30am ferry for the 1-hour trip across to Corsica .....

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8th October 2021
Leaning Tower of Pisa

We got a very expensive parking ticket in this town a few years ago. We thought we parked legally but evidentially not.

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