And then they went to Venice.
For as long as I’ve known Minty she has wanted to visit Venice.
We’ve driven by a few times on our way to somewhere else.
We haven’t stopped.
Then came the virus. The world’s most popular tourist spots are suffering like everywhere else.
There hasn’t been a quieter time since WW2.
It would be daft not to visit.
This time we made it.
From the moment the bus heads across the causeway towards the sinking island we were thrilled.
Once you leave the bus station on the west side you leave traffic behind and immediately the magic is all around.
Your first canal, your first river taxi gleaming, freshly polished, and then a gondola, a real gondola, with a real gondolier in his stripy top.
It’s not yet 8.30am and only the Venetians are up and about.
Our first café serves us excellent coffees and a toasted bruschetta with salami to fortify our exploration. And it’s cheap. Well, OK, not cheap compared to what we’ve been used to, but this is Venice, it’s certainly not bad.
The jewel of St Mark’s Square is a fair walk from our start and that built the excitement. It’s good to save the best until later so that you absorb the beauty along the way.
That beauty is delivered by the canals themselves and by the shabby glory of the buildings, both magnificent and humble all emerging from the waters.
The very real nature of the place delivers beauty too. Boats carry the post, they take away the rumble (there’s a lot of building work), they deliver every need for the hundreds of hotels. Imagine a laundry barge.
Early morning the locals are walking their dogs. It’s a village, everyone knows each other. The espresso stop is essential, it’s quick too, often the punter’s order is on the counter as they walk in, they slap down their 1 euro coin, exchange a few words, knock back their stimulant, and they’re gone.
Get sufficiently lost and you may come across the artisans in their workshops that are not there for the tourists, they are there because they always have been. Dark places that reek of clay, maché, wood and paint.
As we get closer to St Mark’s the crowds are gathering, but still it’s easy, no one is in the way.
St Mark’s Square.
Then finally there it is in front of you. St Mark’s Bascillica. Not the biggest, but almost certainly the most magnificent church you’ll ever see.
There’s a big queue already, but even St Mark’s isn’t packed. Not with people, not with pigeons. Feeding the pesky pigeons was banned over a decade ago and there are far fewer today than on my last visit in about 1984 (we were in a van then as well).
The view across to San Giorgio Maggiore sparkles for us in a way that Caneletto never captured. Venice is one of the few places that is better in real life than any image can portray. The Taj Mahal reduces every romantic to tears the moment they glimpse its stone. The impact of Venice is different, its slow reveal grows within as if your heart is expanding to contain the love.
Turning your back on San Giorgio you see the Doge’s Palace for the first time. The now bright sun sets its marble sparkling. This former home of the supreme commander of the Venetian state was founded in 1340 – were buildings really this grand so long ago?
The heat was building, the crowds too, and we were knackered. We stopped for a menu del giorno of a quality that you certainly can’t buy in an English pub for such a reasonable price. Sated we wandered along to the bus station, climbed aboard, and our Venetian dream was complete.
Venice. Come if you can.
There is so much to see, so much to visit, but how much can you enjoy before aching feet and sensory overload sets in? We got the balance just right. And most importantly we arrived back at the van before the full sun rounded its shelter and pushed the temperature higher. Polly emerged cool and ready for a pee, oblivious to all she’d missed.
If you’re reading this soon after it’s written and you have the slightest hankering to visit Venice then I urge you to do so now. It’ll never be quiet like this again (we hope). It might never be as clean or odour free. It’ll never be as affordable either. Minty looked up a particularly ramshackle delight of hotel near the main square and found we could get an amazing room at just half its usual rate card. All the cafes and restaurants have dropped their prices too.
Back at the huge Camping Rialto normal life goes on as if one of the world’s true gems wasn’t but a short bus ride away.
Heading north from Venice it’s flat vine country for around 35 miles. After that there’s a wall of rock.
The Dolomites don’t do foot hills.
There’s nothing. Then there they are. Huge mountains soaring above 3000m.
There is little that could be called gentle about this range. They’re high, jagged, and dominated by exposed rock.
My birthday is approaching and I want to be in Cortina D’Apmezzo to celebrate. Not because it’s the most expensive place you can imagine. Not because of its jaw dropping surroundings. Nor even for the charming town where the rich and beautiful parade their wealth. No, Cortina is important to me because dad was stationed there at the end of WW2. He was part of the British force helping Italy return to order and get back on its feet. Dad worked at the Hotel Europa. His stories make me think that his national service was as good as our lock down, a lasting positive memory from a time of extreme difficulty.
Lago di Santa Croce.
I hope we’ll never tire of climbing roads like these.
Stomach churning drops on one side, sheer rock on the other, and despite the concentration you’re aware of the surroundings that you’ll only see here. Little villages cling to the hillsides. Occasional churches defy gravity. The massive dry riverbeds that tomorrow will be filled with torrents.
The Lago di Santa Croce was to be a stopping point, but the only way to walk from there was on a main road that had become a Sunday rider’s Moto GP circuit.
Polly swam. We moved on.
The drips. Claut.
A huge car park outside of the village of Claut with an incredible mountain backdrop was to be our next home. We swung in at about 5pm just in time for the first rolls of thunder that were to go on through the night.
While the thunder preoccupied Polly our main worry was its attendant rain. After months with none we were now catching up, fast. The window on Minty’s side began its usual leak but this time the trick of slightly opening the awning failed to stop it. The forward rooflight which has been fine for over a year started to drip too. Water was coming in from three places.
It’s horrible to have a leak in your house, but you can at least place an appropriate bucket and move to a different room. In a van there’s no escape.
Leak or no leak, it was our 22nd wedding anniversary and we pressed on celebrating with a bottle of Lambruscco and a video chat with friends in St Just.
Lambruscco used to be something of a youth’s introduction to drinking, but get the right bottle and you’re in for a treat. It’s only about 8° alcohol but a dark one can have a great flavour. We only drink it here. We enjoy it every time.
I’d worked out that the main leak was due to a small but alarming movement of the awning. The awning is nearly 6m long and a weighty thing to bolt onto the side of the van. The realisation that ours wasn’t secure was scary, and we needed to do something about it.
Most countries we’ve been to tend to have a single motorhome dealership.
Italy seems to have several in every major town.
We backtracked 50 miles towards Venice, and without knowing how beautiful the town would be we pulled into Conegliano where “Motorhome SOS” seemed like the ideal place to help us out.
Winding back down the mountains was even better than the climb. The heavy clouds, flashes of lightening and constant rumble of thunder leant the mountains a menacing feel. The dry river beds of yesterday now gush with torrents of foaming rain.
Minty thought she’d landed well in Venice when the campsite was but 100m from a great Lidl (Italian ones tend to be the best).
Sunday night was even better. Our sosta (Italian rest area) was just beyond the Lidl’s fence.
Conegliano got rich on Prosecco. 80% of the surrounding growing land is dedicated to grapes for our favourite fizz, yet even with all that wine around us our mind was on other things.
Motorhome SOS couldn’t help, but he sent us on our way with a smile and a recommendation to try Luccetta only 20 minutes away in Pieve di Soligo.
Luccetta. Pieve di Soligo.
I’m sure most people will have turned up at a garage sometime in their life with something you need sorted there and then, not in a few weeks time. You approach with dread expecting to be told how difficult it will be, and that the parts have to be ordered. And. And….
Luccetta is also huge, that put me on edge too.
Yet I needn’t have worried. I was greeted with beaming smiles and laughter, at reception, and then at the workshop. A comedy duo of young lad and his chunky older mate took ArchieVan under cover and had the awning off within an hour. Chunky dealt with the awning while young whipped out the roof light and began the tedious task of scraping back layer upon layer of sealant.
The original fitters must have drilled a hole in the wrong place but didn’t seal it. While the awning covered the hole it wasn’t a problem, but once it had shifted the rain might as well have had an inviting arrow showing it the way in.
Eight hours later we were on our way.
Last night the effectiveness of the repair was severely tested and not found wanting.
Budget. What budget?
Early in the month, in Serbia, it looked like we were heading for our cheapest month ever. The need for campsites in Croatia pushed us back towards average. Yesterday shocked us into a higher than comfortable spend. But it still didn’t get close to what we were getting through in Norway.
The toys of Luccetta.
Van folk tend to be a bit sniffy about motorhomes.
Vans are tough. They’re repurposed commercial vehicles. ArchieVan is narrow enough and nimble enough to get places where a mo would get stuck. With his green wrap ArchieVan can hide where a motorhome would stand out like the big white box that it is.
There’s also a certain amount of envy.
Motorhomes are purpose built, well insulated, often have more comfortable seating and are a lot easier to live in.
Before this adventure we borrowed an ancient Hymer that was frightening to drive, but had great accommodation despite the lilac upholstery.
Luccetta is a motorhome dealer. And they have very nice toys.
We had many hours to kill and lost a couple trying every motorhome in the extensive showroom, eliminating one after another, sometimes for the smallest thing that we didn’t like.
There was a clear winner. The winner was this beast. Wow. It really was superb. It’s half a metre longer than ArchieVan. That’s OK.
It’s 40cms wider. That’s a bigger challenge, especially for Cornwall.
Inside I do believe you could live comfortably full time, even in Britain’s climate.
It’s still a big white box with shiny beige plastic wood and ridiculous off white upholstery, but that’s just what its market desires. Let me loose on the interior design (and let me wrap it in black) and I’ll give you a motorhome for rich young things that would fly off the shelves.
What’s stopping us?
Well we rather like ArchieVan, it suits us.
Oh, and the small matter of its €92,500 price tag.
Val di Cadore.
If this blog wasn’t going to be shared with all our wonderful readers each post would be thousands of words long, particularly now. There’s so much we see, so much I want to comment on, and that’s just the bits I remember.
After our scorching in Venice we’re finally being introduced to the more realistic temperatures of autumn, and regularly washed by rain.
With the van roof sealed we no longer need to scour the weather maps trying to avoid the worse of the downfalls. We headed back into the stormy Dolomites towards Cortina along the gradual climb of the Cadore Valley.
A ridiculously wet night in the mill town of Follina is followed by glorious morning sunshine sparkling off every dripping surface. How different to the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. I imagine the Italians leaving this serene place to travel for research in Burnley or Batley and wandering whether the potential riches from spinning fabrics outweigh the prospect of replicating the grim scenes they witnessed there.
In Valle di Cadore the simple Pizzeria di Cantinetta was near perfect. The father and son team (the son my age) maintain a cheerful banter with smatterings of European languages as father turns out favourites from a small menu of pizza and nothing else. For desert we sample a flight of grappas that range from firewater to liqueur sweet.
20kms further up the road San Vito di Cadore reflects some of Cortina’s wealth. It’s dominated by the 3,263 peak of Monte Antelo.
It’s these peaks that make the Dolomites stand out among mountain ranges. We’ve driven through and lived among mountains for much of the last three years, but nothing matches these beauties. The towns are high, San Vito di Cadore is around 1000m, but then its mountain peaks two thousand two hundred and fifty metres above that only a couple of miles away. That’s seriously steep. For context the height gain alone is more than double the height of England’s highest mountain.
South of Cortina a small road climbs steeply for twelve glorious kilometres, yet even after such climbing the mountains still tower above.
The car park at 1900m for Cinque Torri (Five Towers) is huge, yet it’s full even in in these quiet times. The chair lift is a storming €12.50 each, one way, and it’s only a few minutes, but if you knew what it took you to you wouldn’t hesitate.
We’ve been in stunning mountains in the Scottish Highlands, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, France, Germany, Switzerland, Serbia and Croatia yet the moment of impact, the moment when you step from the lift and first glance around you, never has that moment drew such a deep breath, such a gasp.
You have to be ready for the moment, to absorb all you can, for once you brain has processed the incredible expanse of pristine mountain and sky before you its impact fades a little.
Phone photos can never portray scale in the way that your eyes can. In fact even the best landscape photographers struggle with that. Nonetheless we were pleased with these memories captured at 2255m
War always seems insane to me.
When you’re on the site of a battle it seems more so.
The politicians sit around tables with their generals directing operations.
On the ground the gruesome reality is far removed from all that.
On this glorious day high in the mountains we toured a front that the Italians held in 1915. A couple of thousand metres up. Most equipment was carried to site on mules, or on human backs. Blisteringly hot during the day. Below freezing most nights. Trenches dug in hard rock by hand by exhausted men, their clothes ridden with lice, and disease rife through the camp. For what? To shift a border this way a bit, that way a bit?
So here we are, in our huge Cinque Torre car park. It’s is filing up at 9.30.
We’re eating breakfast as our Czech neighbours wander over to the river by our van. Then the two lithe climbers stripped naked for their wash. I was most impressed at their resistance – that water was so cold it wouldn’t even be liquid were it not flowing so fast.
On Friday last week we slept fitfully in the heat of Venice, inside the van the temperature only dropped below 28° at 5 in the morning.
Here at Cinque Torri it was 4° outside, 5.5° on the inside when I woke. And yet somehow that’s OK. At home it feels properly cold if the house gets anywhere near single figures. In the van it’s fine. You get up, make tea, take it back to bed and snuggle under the covers.
I questioned my choice of shorts and a tee shirt stepping out for our stank, but the cool air encouraged a longer stride, a lean into the gradient, and soon the blood was pumping. Dog and man were warm and able to wonder at the towering mountains, pink in the early morning sun.
Coming of age.
Now we’ll trundle slowly back down that hill towards Cortina d’Ampezzo, we’ll find a site that I stayed at two years ago, and we’ll settle for a couple of nights to recharge.
And I’ll wake a year older.
I could keep loading photos for hours, but Minty has just come to find me, bearing lunch. So to see more you’ll have to find me and I’ll be happy to share a few hours flicking through with you.