Such an amazing city, I was really keen to find a way to visit again. Obviously, you can’t really drive there. There is a ‘area sosta camper’ on the island of Tronchetto, across the lagoon on the edge of the city – but we’d seen mixed reviews and opted for a site just on the mainland Camping Rialto, near a bus route that could get us there in 20 mins. The site was quite waterlogged so we tried to find a pitch where we were least likely to get stuck. Ever the optimists, we were confident the weather would brighten up – and it did! Up early-ish, and on to the bus which was really busy. The dogs did well to stay calm, and fellow passengers were mostly cheerful, accepting Marra leaning himself up against their legs and ignoring Boo’s uninvited sniffing. We’d decided not to take Marra’s wheels – the right choice. We took it easy over countless little bridges, and eventually I carried him when he got tired, but we wouldn’t have seen half the sights with the rover. It’s a city made for getting lost in – every corner is a picture postcard shot and there is no sense trying to follow paper or Google maps too closely. There was nothing particularly we wanted to do – other than bimble around and enjoy the sights, ignore other tourists and soak up the magical atmosphere.
We called at another bar I’d contacted about getting gigs – Osteria all’Alba. Close to the Rialto but tucked away down an alley, we had a few beers and nibbles. The lady loved the dogs and we had a chat about music. She books the gigs maybe 3 months in advance. I’ll plan ahead next time – it’s a tiny bar/venue, would be really cool to play there.
Another movie-geek moment: Bev spotted another James Bond location, Ponte de le Collone, which Vesper crosses on her way to meet the bad guys in Casino Royale.
One of the joys we remembered about Venice was Osteria hopping – their version of aperitivo hour, where workers wander home stopping at the small bars for an ombra of wine and nibbles like polpette (meatballs) and arancini (stuffed rice balls). We were there a bit early in the day for the full experience, but got a taste at a few bars around the city.
I don’t think I’d get tired of taking photos there – in different seasons, different light, etc. Here’s just a sample…
Next morning, about 100 Polish scouts started setting up on site, all around our pitch. We thought we’d move on, around the Venetian gulf towards Slovenia.
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:
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.
Garda – Paddleboarding in the sun, with snow on the hills above us, and fond memories of a previous visit for us.
Orta – Smaller and quieter, great views at the lovely town of Orta San Giulio, and a UNESCO world heritage site
Mergozzo – Even smaller, even quieter, very chilled, great bar.
Maggiore – Still impressive, but a bit busier, and lots of cyclists on the narrow roads.
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.
Spending abroad can result in lots of charges on ‘normal’ UK bank accounts, especially getting cash out. There’s got to be an easier way than having to join the CIA and stash wads in various currencies in a safety deposit bank in a Swiss bank, à la Jason Bourne. I thought our main bank, HSBC, might offer something like a Euro bank account but that didn’t seem to be the case. In the rush to get set off, I didn’t find an alternative but after getting stung for a cash withdrawal fee on the HSBC credit card, I started to explore.
The TransferWise borderless acount seemed to fit the bill. I downloaded the app, signed up and uploaded photos of the front and back of my driving license as an identity check. This gives you a UK/GBP account that you can transfer money into, for free from your normal bank. A little wary at first, I put a token £25 in, just over the minimum to get a cash card sent out.
Minor drama here of course, because we were now on the move with no fixed address and it can take 10-15 days for the card to arrive. We explored ‘poste restante’ services – where you can have things sent to a post office near you for collection. Turns out Italy had the best option – they’ll keep a letter for 30 days (France and Slovenia were just 14 days I think) and it costs just 3 euro to collect. So, we ordered the card using a FERMAPOSTA address for a post office outside Venice and carried on with our travels. Collecting the card was easy, once I’d worked out how to get into the Post Office (through automated airlock doors) and worked out how to get a numbered ticket to be served. I showed my ID and the assistant got the letter – didn’t even get charged the 3 euro.
Then, all in the app, I transferred a bit more money in GBP and created a euro account. The conversion was instant, the rate was better than most and the fee was incredibly cheap – £1.69 to convert £500 to euro. So, now I had a contactless card I could use for purchases and cash withdrawal in Europe and many other countries. No more Non Stirling Transaction Fees for me! And no more changing small amounts and being stuck with odd notes and change in non-euro countries like Croatia and Switzerland.
Disclaimer – TransferWise is not an official deposit taking Banking Institution, so your money is not covered by the FSCS. Don’t blame me.
But if do want to give it a try, using this invite link will give you one free currency exchange i.e. without the conversion fee: