Wednesday 24th March 2011, Caen
We arrived in Normandy on 22nd to our usual warm welcome from Geneviève after a smooth ferry crossing. Next morning we woke to bright sunshine, warm enough for lunch in the garden with Geneviève and Odile that lingered on until 5pm.
Over the next few days we made several trips into the surrounding countryside including a picnic in the Pays d'Auge.
One evening we visited "Mémorial", the museum and monument to the D-Day landings in Normandy and the history of the Second World War, for a presentation by Konstanze von Schulthess, daughter of Klaus von Stauffenberg who was instrumental in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. At the time his wife Nina was pregnant with Konstanze and, after her husband's execution, was held in prison by the Nazis where Konstanze was born. (She is 10 days younger than me). She addressed a huge audience of Caen residents to publicise the translation into French of her recently published book. It is really chiefly about her mother and how she coped with life alone in Germany bringing up 5 children, so she was reluctant to answer questions about her father whom, of course, she had never met. The audience though were there, as were we, because of her father. It was an interesting evening but her life didn't seem that different from thousands of other orphans bought up in Germany without fathers at that time. She was though, a very elegant titled lady.
Wednesday 29th March 2011, Saillon, Rhone Valley, Switzerland
Now the clocks have changed daylight lingers late and the days are longer. We are now well on our way to Venice and have stopped for the night at one of the very few open campsites to be found so early in the year. It's clean and comfortable and even provides us with free wifi. We are deep in the valley of the infant Rhone, surround by dark mountains, their summits and fissures packed with snow while the lower slopes are a patchwork of vineyards, brown and bare at the moment, clinging tightly to the steep sides of the valley.
After spending a few days in Normandy, seeing friends and being totally spoilt by everybody, we made our way across France to the Jura where we have spent the last couple of nights with Susanne and Roland in my village of Champagne-sur-Loue, once again being totally spoilt. We spent a night on the way at a campsite near Château-Chinon, the homeland of François Mitterand, on the edge of the Morvan National Park. We'd used the same campsite last year when we got bogged down in oozing mud and had to be tugged out by the English owner. It seems running a campsite high in the hills of inland France has not turned out to be the idyllic life he'd anticipated and he seems sadly disillusioned. I think he welcomed the change to unburden his soul a little.
Before heading on next morning we explored the Morvan National Park, a sparsely populated area of forested hillsides, pretty valleys, isolated farms, and the occasional ancient small town of dilapidated houses, some, such as Moulins-Engelbert, dating back to mediaeval times with round defensive towers. Everywhere the woods and roadsides were shining with anemones, celandine, creamy yellow primroses and cowslips and the starry blue flowers known here as pervanches (don't know what they are in English).
Arriving in Champagne we were immediately swept up into village life. Susanne, who because of her restricted vision is unable to drive or go out for walks on her own, spends much of her time alone in the house. Meanwhile Roland is busy pottering around the village, repairing a tractor here, towing a piece of machinery there, pruning a poplar tree by the river, hoeing between his vines or racking the wine down in his cellar. Susanne was delighted therefore to have some company for a couple of days and accompanied us on active walks through the surrounding woods and even came with us for a clamber onto the summit of Mont Poupet, the highest of the mountains in the area. From our rocky vantage point, high above the spa town of Salins, we could look out across the surrounding countryside laid out far below. From a nearby crag, several hang gliders were launching themselves off into the void, the up-draught lifting them to soar silently away across the landscape. Magnificent!
Back in Champagne we joined Susanne and Roland for supper where we were faced each evening with an entire battery of wines lined up for us to sample. The apero started with Susanne's peach liqueur followed by Roland's ratafia. Supper was accompanied by a red Ploussard followed by a red crémant de Jura with the desert. Thank goodness we only had to totter downstairs to our flat afterwards!
This morning we took a farewell walk together beside the Loue and up to the vines. Saying goodbye is always difficult but after lunch we made our way through the sunny countryside of Franche Comté up to Pontarlier and into Switzerland. Our route took us through Lausanne in the rush hour but the Swiss are nothing if not organised and law abiding so it was a doddle. Next came the smart lakeside resort of Vevey, the former home of both Charlie Chaplin and our friend Martine. The views across the green waters of the lake to the snowy mountains and little towns and villages on the far bank were quite lovely. It would have been nice to linger but we have an appointment with a Greek ferry company all too soon. Next came Montreux followed by the château de Chillon.
Tuesday 5th April 2011, about half way down the Adriatic
I've not been blogging for the last week. Either I've been too weary from driving or we've been camping on the roadside because the campsites supposed to be open have been deserted, their gates barred against us, or I have had my nose in a book I wish I'd discovered before we went to Scandinavia. This book, Desirée, by Annemarie Selinko tells the story in diary form of the rise and fall of Napoleon. Desirée was Napoleon's first love, when a young man, before he deserted her for Josephine. She went on to marry one of his greatest generals, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. Later in life he was offered the crown of Sweden and was instrumental in bringing about the union between Sweden and Norway. When we explored these countries on our Baltic tour there was so much I did not understand but were struck by the obvious military power Sweden once held over the countries surrounding the Baltic. The new king's military might certainly restored Sweden to its former powerful state. Bernadotte was largely responsible for the downfall of Napoleon and the book concentrated on the conflict and close relationship between these two military leaders.
Sorry, I know I should have been reading up about our future travels, learning the Greek alphabet and at least a few useful phrases but I just couldn't put the book down.
I last wrote from a campsite near Sion in Switzerland. Next day we drove along the wide valley of the Rhone towards Brig before turning off to climb the Simplon Pass. As a trivial aside I was amused to discover the last little town before the climb is called Glis and a signpost directed us to Glis, Simplon. This is a very close anagram to my maiden name of Gill Simpson!
Modestine almost sailed up the pass, so well engineered are the curves and soon we were amidst the deep snows.
The sun was shining as we reached the top and began the long descent down into Italy. By lunchtime we were on the beautiful Lake Maggiore where we stopped at the little town of Baveno for a pizza beside the water. It really is such a delightful area of Italy. The sun was warm, the flowers blooming and the lake sparkling. Just off shore were the Borromeo Islands and little boats chugged their way around the lake. The old town, crowded in beside the lake, was a delightful maze of steep narrow streets, pretty villas and flowery corners. We camped here on an earlier visit and were loath to leave this time.
We continued the full length of the lake before deciding to turn south rather than follow an earlier route that would have taken us beside other beautiful lakes along routes we already knew. The route we chose, across Lombardy, skirting Milan to the south, is not on most tourists' itineraries. Consequently the only open campsite listed in our guides was at Pavia, a long drive away. Once the lakes and mountains were behind us the countryside became very uninspiring. We began to regret our decision as the landscaped stretched to the horizon, flat and muddy with nothing to break the monotony. It was spread out as a vast area of paddy fields! I'd never realised rice was grown on such an extensive scale in Europe. As yet the fields were nothing but swampy brown mud. It must look better once the green rice begins to show. Along the roadside we passed countless scantily clad, bored young ladies thumbing their mobile phones as they waited for custom in the hot sunshine with not a patch of shade. An area of rice and vice!
When we finally reached Pavia of course, the campsite was closed and deserted! There was nothing to be done so we found a quiet suburban street for the night where we slept quite undisturbed. Before that however we walked into Pavia beside the river. It is a very pleasant city with a huge central square dominated by a massive statue of Minerva. It has pleasant public gardens and streets of smart little shops. Raise your eyes and above there are the beautiful facades of ancient building that are to be found in so many of the Italian towns. The surroundings of so many cities are horrid, industrial wastelands but the centres frequently retain their old charm.
It was hot and sticky. In Italy the answer to that is an ice cream. It's the best in Europe and everybody knows it. We joined businessmen wearing suits and mothers with pushchairs, for cornets overflowing with creamy vanilla and black chocolate ice cream, which we ate sitting in the shade, gazing across at the ornate facade of some 16th century palazzo with faded, sundrenched shutters.
After our roadside suburban sleep we were up and off through the city before morning rush hour. By breakfast time we had reached Cremona, violin making city par excellence. Antonio Stradivari lived and worked in Cremona and it is impossible to forget it! His statue stands at strategic places around the city, there are dozens of violin workshops in little side streets where it is possible to watch the craftsmen at work. The guild has a museum of antique instruments in the Pallazo dell'Arte. Even the cake shops sell violin-shaped delicacies! Also from Cremona came Claudio Monteverdi, born in 1567 and one of the founders of Italian opera as an art form.
Although the entire countryside from the Italian Lakes to Venice is flat and uninspiring, we are glad we took this route as the cities we discovered have been awesomely lovely. Each seems more delightful that the one before. We'd found Pavia beautiful while Cremona seemed sublime. In its central paved piazza stands the 12th century romanesque cathedral and octagonal baptistery. Beside them is the Torrazzo or campanile, built around 1250. At 400 ft tall it reputed to be the highest bell tower in Italy. To the side of the piazza stands a rich merchant's house with its loggia dating from the 13th century, as does the splendid city hall. There are mediaeval houses with arched and pointed windows above and colonnades below, offering cool shade. All demanded that we stop every couple of paces to gaze around us. And yet the residents take all this splendour for granted, as a place to sell fish and asparagus or to sit with their laptops and a beer.
We'd been up for hours and it was now time for a late breakfast of really good coffee with croissants accompanied by the sounds of an Italian tenor singing his heart out as we sat in the sunshine and gazed at the crumbling brickwork of the 16th century palace across the street. Meanwhile a nun pedalled by on her bicycle.
Reluctantly we accepted that we needed to keep moving if we were to make Venice by nightfall. Mantova was the next honey trap. From this distance in time I am finding it difficult to remember these lovely cities individually. Mantova, situated beside a lake with wonderful buildings by notable ruling families such as the Gonzagas, is also stunningly beautiful but our visit was too rushed and our feet already too weary to have done it proper justice.
We continued along the Valley of the Po, bare and boring still, though later in the year I recall it is full of wheat sprinkled with poppies. Passing near the tiny city of Montagnana we discovered its high, fortified brick walls with its many towers enclosing the entire ancient city. Outside the walls grassy banks stretched down to the surrounding defensive ditch. This had not been an intended stopping place but we could not pass by such splendour. It reminded us of Avila in Spain from the outside though within the city is very different. Its handsome orange brick walls are completely intact while inside nestles a pretty mediaeval city of just a few little streets set at right angles to the main thoroughfare, each leading to a different town gate. One of the notable buildings is the Palladian Villa Pisana, 1553-1555. At the centre is a wide open square with its beautiful cathedral church. It is exquisitely lovely with a huge, ornate clock painted onto the tower above the main entrance. Inside is a masterpiece by Veronese, the Transfiguration, 1555-1556.
Eventually we reached the outskirts of Venice. Our usual campsite was not yet open for the season so we were forced into the only one available, at Fusina on the lagoon. It was overpriced but this is Venice. We discovered inside one of our camping books an old discount voucher for a chain of campsites across Austria and Italy that we'd used years ago and to our delight we received a 20% discount. From the site a ferry crosses the lagoon to Venice. As we would be crossing the lagoon soon enough anyway we took the bus round instead. It was not as pretty but cost is 4.80 euros return instead of 24 euros on the boat.
Because of the lack of places to camp along the way we'd made excellent time reaching Venice and found ourselves with a couple of days to enjoy ourselves in this unique city. It really is everything you expect it to be and that is always the surprise. The light is so clear and the colours everywhere so exactly as Canaletto painted them. The vaporetti or water buses surge along the Grand Canal and out across the lagoon to the main islands, while the gondolas ply their way along the green backwaters of the residential houses, passing beneath the hundreds of low arched stepped bridges. Washing festoons the walls of these narrow cuttings, for people really do live here, crowded in, surrounded by tourists 24 hours a day.
Wealthier families have their own boats and buzz up and down the wider canals leaving gondolas bobbing precariously in their wake. Tradesmen all have their boats; supplies arrive by water and are unloaded onto hand carts at the quays. The water ambulance unloads stretchers at the hospital jetty and coffins are transported out to the cemetery island of San Michele by a floating hearse!
Amidst all this the tourist throng. The loudest sound in the streets is the permanent rumble of wheeled suitcases as tourist lug then through the crowded narrow streets, heaving them over countless little bridges in search of their hotels. Along the main route down to St. Mark's Square you fight, shoulder to shoulder, ankles battered by push chairs and suitcases. What pleasure can there be in it all?
Yet just a few steps to the side there are deserted courtyards, quiet stretches of canals with vistas out to the lagoon and shady corners, sometimes with church steps on which to sit and rest.
On our first day alone we walked Venice from end to end on the north side of the Grand Canal, collapsing in the gardens at the furthest tip before facing the struggle back through the labyrinth of little passages to catch the bus back across the causeway to the mainland. On the second day we explored south of the Grand canal, less strenuous and less frequented by tourists. Here we discovered that as pensioners we have free access to the fine art gallery of the Academia. We were already exhausted when we arrived but there were comfortable chairs around from which we could sit and admire the massive canvases. Not that I greatly appreciate 15th century religious paintings which, however skilfully executed, are inevitably formulaic. There are only so many crucifixions, martyrdoms, nativities, madonnas and saints I can face before I start yawning and nodding off in my chair! An additional advantage with the museum was the wonderful free toilet facilities with soap and water to freshen up as well as the chance to replenish our drinking water supply. Venice is horrendously expensive for drinks and toilets are 1.50 Euros a go! Pizza however is cheaply available everywhere and there is nothing so good as sitting on the steps of one of the magnificent churches with a slice of pizza to enjoy whilst looking out across the lagoon.
We have written and illustrated Venice elsewhere in our blogs so this has not been a systematic description. Here are a few additional photos of Venice.
Yesterday we left the campsite around lunch time and drove across the causeway to Venice, turning off for the ferry port where we collected our tickets. Nothing went wrong! The tickets really were the cheap price we'd paid on the internet when we booked from home and we have our place on the camping deck, hooked up to the electricity. Last night we slept in Modestine and Remoska even cooked us our supper while we sat drinking our wine as Venice slipped away behind us and we headed off down the Adriatic. In a few hours we will be landing at Corfu. We are the only camper disembarking there and so were the last to come on board. The ferry needs to stop at the island for just us and a few cars to leave before continuing on to mainland Greece.
Links to earlier, related travel accounts
Vevey, Chillon and Lake Geneva October 2005
Lake Maggiore and Bavena Wednesday 18th April 2007 and following entry
Venice 17th May 2006 and following entries
Venice 26th April 2007 and following entries
Venice Friday 30th May 2008
Venice Thursday 27th May