Italian lakes, sacred sites and dog-friendly Bond scenes

The votes are in after a busy 10 days visiting 6 of the Italian lakes, north of Milan and across to Verona. Probably not a long enough time to give a fair assessment, but anyway… in order of preference:

#1: Como

Como – Spectacular views, the chance to re-enact a bit of Bond, Clooney was a no-show and there was some tricky driving but it was worth it.

#2: Garda

Garda – Paddleboarding in the sun, with snow on the hills above us, and fond memories of a previous visit for us.

#3: Orta

Orta – Smaller and quieter, great views at the lovely town of Orta San Giulio, and a UNESCO world heritage site

#4: Megrozzo

Mergozzo – Even smaller, even quieter, very chilled, great bar.

#5: Maggiore

Maggiore – Still impressive, but a bit busier, and lots of cyclists on the narrow roads.

#6: Iseo

Iseo – a bit unfair perhaps as we were there for 2 very grey wet days, more to explore, maybe next time!

We’d moved north, away from the Ligurian coast on the toll road – about £17 from Albenga to Orta San Giulio, approx 250km. We started at Lake Orta after a recommendation by our friend Ucci. We passegiata’d around the lakeside path and through the medieval town.

I called in the Crossroads bar and had a chat about getting a gig. I remembered there being licensing/copyright and permit issues when I travelled in Italy in 2002 and it doesn’t look like things have changed. There was a possibility of a gig in a few days time, if they could get a permit sorted. We would carry on our travels and pop back if we got the go ahead, but no joy. Still, it was a nibble, I’ll keep fishing! It gave me a good reason to plug my new amp in and get some practice. Bev took the opportunity to take the paddleboard for its first outing this trip.

Just above the town, the 400 year old ‘Sacre Monte’ is a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a winding path up around the hill with 20 chapels telling the story of St Francis of Assissi. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I wanted to check it out. St Francis is one of the patron saints of Italy, and also of animals and the environment. In the early 1200s, he preached that all animals, including humans, should be treated as equals under God. The chapels combine paintings and sculptures to depict moments in the saints life. I imagined it being highly effective marketing/storytelling for a medieval audience.

Next was the tiny lake of Mergozzo, just above Maggiore. We stayed in a car park at the edge of the town, €10 with electricity. Great bar by the lake, with huge selection of beers and a view of the ancient Elm tree in the square.

On to Stresa on the shores of Maggiore. Another ‘camper stop’ at a car park, in walking distance of the main drag. More pricey at €25, but ideal for a trundle round. There are boat rides to the Borromean islands, which were recommended, but we’re fairly happily accepting that we can’t do everything, being on a budget and with 2 dogs to look after. We wandered back into town for aperitivi and were not disappointed at the El Gato Negro pub – Order 2 beers (a local IPA) and get a platter of meats and cheeses for free! A bit of ‘funny business’, as our mate Andy calls it.

On the next day, briefly cutting a corner through Switzerland, to Como, and some busy winding roads. We camped at a site next to Villa del Balbianello, which featured as the location for Bond’s recuperation in Casino Royale and also appears in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Dogs are allowed in the garden and we really enjoyed it – stunning gardens, and great views of the lake.

Our attempt to recreate a Bond scene was marred somewhat by preening Italian teens taking selfies…

Top marks again for freebies with drinks at Bar Il Golfo in Lenno/Tramezzino – possibly the biggest aperitivo snacks so far! I had a negroni sbalgiata – with prosecco instead of gin. Quite dry and bitter. Bev stuck with Aperol spritz.

Moving on, we took a short ferry ride across to Bellagio, to avoid retracing our steps down the side of the lake. It was easy and quick and there were no problems with the size of the van.

We had a good wander around Bergamo, after pushing/carrying the rover up a huge flight of steps to get to the hilltop city. Then on again to Lake Iseo and some serious weather. We stayed 2 days, but didn’t wander far. I’m sure there’s plenty to see and some good paddleboarding probably. Maybe next time!

With an eye on the weather forecast, we decided best chance of sun was at Lake Garda and set up at Camping Silvella on the south west corner of the lake. In 2002, we’d camped in a ‘bungalow’ nearby and I got my first gig of that trip at a tiny pirate’s bar. We tried to find it but it looks like its gone, lots of redevelopment here.

Some serious high winds through the night – 2 trees down on the site! – but the morning was lovely and we both did an hours paddleboarding in the sun, with the mountains and snow above us. On the way out, we stopped at Sirmione, sticking out on a spit of land into the lake. Parked up for 3 hours and wandered – another ancient town, windy cobbled streets and squares, etc. Then, on towards Venezia.

Cooking in the motorhome

Rustling up delicious food in a tiny motorhome kitchen can be a challenge, but I was keen to see if I could manage things I make at home, whilst travelling. I had started a file of recipes we eat regularly and that I’d like to keep making if possible. This is, after all, our ‘home from home’.

The motorhome kitchen has a good set up: a generous fridge, small freezer, a combi microwave, a decent sink/drainer, hot and cold water, 1 electric hob ring,  2 gas rings, a gas oven and a gas grill. In addition there’s lots of storage for crockery, cutlery and our food (and dog food!!). The prep area is pretty small though and takes some organisation!

Smoothies. We always have a smoothie first thing, since enjoying them on holiday in Mexico a couple of years back. Packing the blender was a big decision due to its weight, size and the all important wattage/amperage (crucial on 6 amp hook up sites! We’ve blown a few in our time). So, we did decide to take it, as it was relatively low power and something we used every day. On days of no electric hook up, I make hand-mashed ‘lumpies’ rather than smoothies!!

Breakfast bars. Our friend Aston gave us the ‘Thugs Kitchen’ recipe book and we love the ‘go to breakfast bars’ recipe – a quick nutritious, breakfast when you’re busy. Most of the ingredients come in for other things, so that was a definite. First batch worked well, half measures due to the size of the baking pan, but just as good as at home!

Breakfast bars: Just about to go in the oven…gas mark 5??

Bread.  I love making bread at home,  where our posh warming drawer makes it very easy!!! On the road, I took advantage of a warm day, and although I bought slightly the wrong flour in a French supermarket, it turned out pretty well, if a little sweet (was great toasted, with whisky marmalade!). Not being used to a gas oven, I’m finding everything needs a little longer, and a little lower gas mark to stop the back of any bake from burning, as it’s such a teeny oven.

Lunches are usually sandwiches, soup or something else quick as we’re usually mid-travel or at a place of interest.

Dinners are our main meal when at home and we make all sorts – curries, tagines, home made pizzas, ‘Nachos Grande’ (our favourite TV dinner), risottos, lasagne, etc. I tried a pizza, but the oven was too hot and the back burnt a bit!! Ah well, if at first…

Pizza, pre burn…!

Other things I want to try include cookies, Naan breads, Chelsea buns and lasagne…. will keep you posted….

The names of things…

A common quirk of campervan and motorhome owners is naming their vans. I resisted at first but Bev won me over and we took to calling our first van Voyager (the number plate ended ‘VYR’). For the new motorhome, we agreed straightaway on a name: Stargazer!

Mostly because it has a fantastic huge skylight window and we pictured ourselves sat snug and warm watching the stars slowly circling above, maybe the northern lights dancing.

But also after the song (and album) by the American songwriter and guitar player, Jesse Terry. We’ve seen Jesse a handful of times – he’s a genuinely lovely guy and one of a handful of successful independent musicians that have inspired and motivated me to make some changes in my life.

Here’s the official video for the song – filmed at an iconic North East location!

Then there’s this gem – a stripped back version with Alan Fish on acoustic guitar and some lovely bass guitar.

The song always gets me to the brink of tears as it makes me think of our oldest whippet Marra who has started to stare off into space for long periods. He had a mystery health issue a year or so ago, maybe a small stroke, and has really slowed down. Sometimes when he comes into a room, he’ll just stop as if he’s forgotten what he came for, and stare. Doggy Alzheimer’s, Bev thinks. We’ve had to really come to terms with losing him at some point. Like the lines in the song, maybe one day he will choose a different universe. Until then, I’m grateful for the chance to spend more time each day with him.

Anyway, after that, everything had to have a name. So, I give you…

Moonraker! Bev’s B’TWIN folding bike, for nipping to the shops for fresh croissants.

Mars Rover! A dog stroller/jogger so Marra doesn’t miss out on any adventures. He still loves a walk but starts to drag his back legs after a while. We put him in when he’s had enough, and before he scrapes his claws down till they bleed.

And for aquatic missions: Sunseeker! An inflatable Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP).