We think we’re normal people.
We have a house that we love in a town where I always wanted to live.
What possesses us. What makes us want to sleep in a van?
Especially in the middle of nowhere, with the temperature outside plummeting, soon to be followed by the temperature inside.
I wondered that this evening as Polly and I stepped out into the pitch dark freezing night 1250m up in the Tuscan mountains.
There was not a sound (thankfully).
Only a few stars graced the sky.
And it was as exciting as anything I could think of doing right now.
I utterly love these moments. They’re what it’s all about.
We woke at the excellent La Razza Agritourism site near Reggio Emilio and had our second hot shower in 12 hours!
We considered the gorgeous meal we’d eaten at La Razza’s restaurant last night. Great pasta, curious exciting polenta, a steak even. It was certainly one of the best of our journey so far. Simple fare, immaculately presented, in a good environment.
We bought wines, meats, honey and cheese from their farm shop.
None of that came cheap, but it was worth it.
The honey is the most delicious either of us can remember.
And when we hit the road it was already pushing 20 degrees.
We headed off to Marenello to see some red cars.
We arrived at the end of the Saturday morning shift and there were loads of people in their red overalls around the town. That was a great sight, like a race where the public wears the pit lane uniform.
Ferraris are undoubtedly beautiful creations.
Wandering around some of the very best with only a handful of other people was an inspiring experience.
It didn’t make me want one, but I wouldn’t mind a skilled driver taking me for a spin – unfortunately that wasn’t on offer.
Then a few hours after the roar of Ferrari here we are. Up a silent frozen mountain.
I love contrast.
We generally experience more contrast in a day than some might in a year.
Farm, Ferraris and mountains made for a particularly good yesterday.
After an hour and a half morning stank through the snow we breakfasted and headed off through the beautiful winding roads of Tuscany.
What happened to Lancia?
As an impressionable schoolboy Lancia was the car you wish your dad drove.
Chris Neal’s elegant little Fulvia in soft white with a red interior.
Nick Talbot’s extra special green Beta with tan velour and lightly brown tinted windows.
The other worldly looking Stratos, posters of which adorned so many walls.
Recently we’ve seen bug eyed horror cars bearing the Lancia brand that shatter the dream.
I hope they’re the result of a bad growing phase that it’s now through.
A couple of hours after our Tuscan hillside we were in the Cinque Terre National Parc.
Five incredible villages perched on the very edge of the high cliffs.
Many of the guides advise you not to go in the summer. Apparently the authorities want to reduce visitor numbers from 2.5 million a year to 1.5 million to preserve the integrity of the area. Even on the first Sunday in March it was crowded in both villages we visited. Almost as interesting as the stacked pretty coloured houses were the peacocks, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many men preening themselves as in this country.
You can drive pretty close to all the villages, or you can catch the train. Or you can walk. We walked.
Walking the tracks between each village was so ridiculously hard.
Steps? Oh God the steps.
When people talk about doing their 20,000 steps a day I’m sure they mean on the flat. Yesterday it felt as if we did several thousand steps up, and not just straight ones, all were uneven, some were massive and involved climbing rather than just lifting your legs, often the ledges were awfully narrow too. But the views made up for any hardship.
The terracing here is masterful. The slopes are stupidly steep, yet covered in vines. There’s even a frightening looking vine roller coaster that must be for getting the grapes to the road more easily.
Our overnight perch was magical. It was only a car park, but half way between Manarola and Riomaggiore with a sheer drop right in front of us to the latter village a few hundred metres below.
The engineering feat of a special autostrada.
Generally the motorway gets you there more quickly. It costs a packet. And it’s something that has to be done.
The E80 along the Mediterranean coast of Italy is so much more than that.
Yes it’s expensive, but what a beautiful thing it is, both to see from afar, or to drive along.
There are stretches where you’re in tunnels more than in the open air, but when you are outside you’re generally soaring above the land with far reaching views into the mountains, and down to the sea.
When you’re driving you need your wits about you, but glimpses to either side are better rewarded than any motorway I can remember.
Greek motorway tolls are all manned. It’s ridiculously inefficient, but the people are so cheerful at the booths, and the little human interaction puts life back into the drive.
The Italian toll booths are all automatic, but at least a happy voice wishes you “Arrivederci” after it has taken your money. And we always respond likewise.
There are so many pretty looking villages along the Italian Riviera, perched on impossible hillsides, multi coloured, precipitous – which do you visit?
The challenge was made easy for us by my sister suggesting that we look at Dolceaqua about 12kms inland from the border town of Ventimiglia.
From the road it doesn’t look the most impressive, it’s only when you step within the ancient walls that you understand the draw of this place.
The tiny medieval village over the saddle back bridge comprises very tall buildings buttressed off each other high up. The buildings are only about 2 metres apart, and even on a bright day little light or warmth penetrates to street level. It didn’t take much to imagine the filth that must have littered the street level in times gone by, and probably a few murders took place down here too.
On the slightly more modern side of the river we ate great pizza (at last), and then we were tempted into a party at one of the bars. A twelve piece brass section was blasting out traditional jazz and folk tunes in a small room, locals were in fancy dress, spirits were high, there was dancing and drinking.
And this morning was very quiet indeed.
La France. Menton.
It’s great to be back in France.
When finally we could face the road we limped gently along, over the border to France and into the beautiful French Riviera town of Menton. It deserves to be visited again when we’re stronger. Fine beaches, tall interesting buildings, good shops, great restaurants.
France. Country that I love. What has happened to your prices? Perhaps it’s because this is such an upmarket resort, but blimey it’s extortionate.
No, but there are distinct similarities with Cornwall’s St Agnes.
Sainte Agnes is one of many perched villages in the south east. It’s also the highest at 880m, and only a few kms in a straight line from the sea.
We felt privileged to drive the steep narrow road up to the village from Menton behind two of the Astana team’s professional cyclists. Watching cycling on TV is exciting, but you have little concept of the speed they’re doing. The lad we were behind for a while was climbing a hill so steep that most people simply wouldn’t manage it, yet this guy was doing so at a steady 15mph.
Awesome is a much overused superlative, but my god it’s deserved for this cyclist’s performance.
At the top the village really does hold onto the hillside, and in case 880m isn’t enough you can climb a further 120m or so to the original fortified town from the middle ages. Even on a dull day the view was spectacular.
I understand the ancient attraction to the hill fort. But I don’t understand why you’d attack one. Why not just take all you want from the low lying fields and save the effort of climbing the hill, let alone fighting when you got there. Perhaps it’s time I studied battle history.
On respect and talking to machines.
Artificial intelligence has many applications, the one we’re most likely to notice is machines that we have to converse with.
It can be bloody annoying (especially when you’re called by one), but already they’re so much better than our first experiences.
I use Siri (Apple’s AI interface) a lot when driving alone. It’s incredibly useful, and again, it works so much better now than a few years ago. His responses when I swear at him always amuse.
But I wonder what it’s doing for our respect of each other, and our use of language. There’s no difference between a polite request or a barked order to Siri, Alexa, Jessie or whatever else you’re using.
How quickly will our edited speech behaviour impact on our human interactions?
Firstly with those who serve us.
And then each other.
And does it matter?
An extra night.
We realised that we were tired from moving on every day since leaving Greece and so decided that our little spot at the foot of the village of Sainte Agnes was ideal for a two night stay.
We kept the Cornish theme going with lunch in St Ives (OK, it was Sainte Yves), the village’s hotel, with a far reaching view over Menton.
Blimey France is expensive. The food is great, but we won’t be eating out very often.
Friends had recommended the Citroen museum in a town called Castellane.
Other friends had recommended the Verdon Gorge.
A glance at the map showed Castellane to be in the Verdon National Park, at the start of the gorge. Excellent. Two recommendations achieved in one hit. We’ll do it.
Driving around Monte Carlo, Monaco and Nice was a horror. A mishap saw us winding around ridiculous tiny residential lanes, not for a minute or two, but on and on for miles. Blimey, we were both frazzled by the time we finally pulled out onto the reasonable sized M6202.
Three hours later we’d only driven 80 miles. Hard going. But we’d had views down to the crazy towers of the mega rich city states of Monaco and Monte Carlo, we drove through the deep gorge of the Tinée, and ended in the national park’s gorgeous medieval town of Castellane. It was hard, but seriously rewarding.
We’ll explore the town properly in the morning. I already like it. Narrow streets of tall shabby houses, some brightly painted. A church 910m high on the hill, where pilgrims are pictured flocking in their thousands during outbreaks of cholera and small pox.
Unfortunately the car museum I came to see opens in April. Hey ho. Can’t wait that long.
For now – it’s pancake night in the van and Minty’s serving little treats every ten minutes. Yay!
Better still. Tomorrow’s market day here. And who doesn’t love a French market?