Simplon Pass to Brig

There were two options to traverse the Alps from Lake Maggiore. Over or under. Under would have taken us through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Courmayeur in the Aosta valley, Italy to Chamonix, France. Over would take us over the Simplon pass to Brig in Switzerland. We opted for over to take in the breathtaking views.

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There has been a locally used passage through here for centuries but more famously, Napoleon ordered the construction of a road way back in 1801. Thanks buddie ya really helped us out there.

At 2000m altitude it was pretty chilly at the top but the scenery was stunning. This is Emilys wtf face…

We drove along incredibly steep roads but they were super safe and well maintained. Ah, we said to ourselves. Swiss not Italian roads. Thank heavens. At the bottom of the pass about 1206m lay Brig and its beautiful castle.

As we neared the castle we could hear amazing operatic voices practicing for their performance. The accoustics and the back drop made for a pretty heady enchanting mix. We saw seats laid out and presumed the performance was tonight so we went to enquire what was on. We were disappointed to find out the performance was in 2 weeks but ecstatic to find there was an open air cinema tonight. Could it be they were showing something we wanted to watch and in english. Could we be that lucky. Well what do you know…

Emily had been raving about “Three billboards” for quite some time now after listening to the review on her podcast. It was on at 9pm and in English with German subtitles.

We wandered through the town in search of the tourist information office to purchase a couple of tickets. We then had a few hours to kill. I found a coffee shop, Emily found a flamingo top.

We then decided as it was still a bit chilly that we needed warming up with some hearty local Swiss dishes. I had a rosti with lots of melted cheese (food of the gods) and bacon. Emily had something called Cholera, which didnt sound so appealing but tasted amazing. It was basically a local pie containing potato, leek, apple and local cheese.

Suitably fed and watered we arrived early to the open air cinema to get good seats.

The backdrop of the mountains we had just driven over and the castle courtyard was too much. We couldn’t believe our luck.

As darkness decended the soft lit alcoves looked cool. They dimmed to darkness and the film began. What a cracker of a film too. Lucky us.

The names Balbianello, Villa Balbianello.

Any James Bond fans reading this? Remember the scene in Casino Royale where Bond is recuperating in the garden of a hospital? Vesper is there and the swiss banker arrives by boat to get the code.

That “hospital” is Villa Balbianello, overlooking lake Como and it’s an absolute stunner.

We bussed it the 15 minutes from our campsite, La Fornace to Bellagio and spent another 15 minutes deciphering the overly complicated ferry timetable. Both Garda and Como ferry services have been poorly designed and chaotic to say the least. Eventually we found the right pier and piled on a ferry to Lenno.

As luck would have it, it was market day in Lenno. I needed some new sports socks. 6 for €4, bagged. That’s how I roll.

The entrance to the Villa was all the way around the pretty harbour which was lined with small speed boats and the occasional sail boat.

If we lived somewhere like this we would defo have a little boat to pootle around the lake. Maybe go say hi to George and Amal.

Villa Balbianello stands on a steep promontory jutting out into the west side of lake Como. The villa was left by the Italian exporer, Guido Monzino, to the Italian National Trust when he died in 1988. We watched a 30 minute video about his life and exploration accomplishments that culminated in saying Balbianello was his ultimate legacy. Some legacy.

It was a 20 minute woodland walk to get up and over the hill from the ferry terminal at Lenno to the villa entrance. It had a totally private and secluded location that gave it a sense of exclusivity. We were grateful of the shade as once again the lakes had delivered a scorcher.

Entrance was €10 each for the garden or €20 for garden and guided tour of the villa. We opted to make the most of the sunshine and nail the gardens.

From the moment we entered we were blown away by the immaculate gardens and the stunning views across the lake.

The gardens are landscaped over multiple levels which added to the drama. We could see why this was used as a location for Casino Royal and Star War II: Attack of the Clones.

Exposed on three sides, the villa had beautiful terraces with sweeping views of the water. It even had its own private jetty for boat access.

There was a separate outhouse which formed a private study and library and had an incredible double balcony with ivy trained up the walls and pillars.

Everything about the property and gardens was ornately designed and immaculately presented with wonderful bursts of colour.

Being a tourist was thirsty work. We grabbed a quick drink and ice cream whilst waiting for the ferry in Lenno.

Once back in Bellagio we found a lovely little trattoria with a cool table right outside in the cobble stone street.

We finished off the day with tasty pasta dish and a few games of Uno. Emily is on a winning streak. Time to think of some different strategies me thinks 🤔.

we arrived back to the campsite to catch a pretty cool sunset sky.

Lake Como – Bellagio

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We left the sosta in Bergamo and headed north to lake Como which took a couple of hours. We had our sights set on a particular campsite and we were just setting off for it when I received an email telling me that they had no availability. We had been warned multiple times that August was super busy and we’d be mad to attempt to tour the lakes during this time but this was our first hiccup. Back to plan B and after a couple of phone calls to a new campsite in a different location we changed our route and got going.

Having missed our turn off (thanks satnav), we ended up driving up and over a mountain range that led down onto the lake side of Como which was a dramatic entrance. The road down was very steep with hairpin bends all the way. We stopped for a photo.

As the road opened up onto the lake we were stunned by its beauty. Huge mountains all around reflected in the water of the still, glassy lake. Lake Como is in the shape of an upside down Y, with three relatively thin bodies of water. This meant that unlike Garda, we could see the banks and towns on the other side.

We couldn’t believe our luck as we were directed to our pitch at La Fornace campsite which was directly in front of the lake, offering awesome views all around. Our nearest town Oliveto Lario was a ten minute walk and had nothing more than a post office and bakery. We were blissfully isolated with nothing but nature around us. We spent the rest of that afternoon chilling out and going for dips in the lake. The campsite had a lovely, laidback vibe and a great little bar and pizzeria with a nice outdoor area. We ended up eating here a couple of times and it was delicious. We had to keep pinching ourselves that we were lucky enough to find a campsite with space and have lakeside views.

The next day we got the bus into the nearby town of Bellagio. It was a Sunday and there were only 4 scheduled for the whole day but it turned up bang on time. Situated just a few miles north the bus only took 20 minutes which I was thankful for because the journey was pretty stressful. The road was insanely narrow, squeezing down to one track at times and the bus careered around sharp bends like it was on rails. Occasionally the driver would sound his horn as a warning to drivers coming in the opposite direction but this did very little to slow them down and just on this one journey we had about three near misses where all the passengers made concerned “ooh” and “eeek” noises.

Bellagio is absolutely stunning. With cobbled lanes that rise up the steep town hills and then tumble back to the lake front, it makes for a great place to wander. We explored all the shops and walked to the small harbour which marks the middle of the lake where the three fingers of water meet.

Bellagio has amazing flower beds all over town and the buildings are meticulously tended to. It was impossible to not be charmed by its gorgeous lanes and grand hotels.

We found a gorgeous little restaurant for lunch which was filled with locals (always a good sign). It was a traditional trattoria with a beautiful terrace overlooking the warren of lanes below us. We shared a tasty ravioli with porcini mushroom sauce to start. So simple but so delicious and absolutely caked in butter I’m sure.

I had a slow cooked pork belly for lunch and Gary plumped for saltimbocca which is pan fried veal wrapped in Parma ham and sage. Being in the van we are restricted to stove top dinners or BBQs, and whilst I think I’m relatively creative with dinners, it was great to have something roasted and oven cooked for the first time in months!

We walked off our tasty lunch with a stroll around the grounds of the neoclassical Villa Melzi which had a prime lake front location. The grass was a wonderfully lush bright green colour and cut and edged with precision. There was a small Japanese water garden with acers and coi carp.

The summer house doorways framed the lake wonderfully and we had a great time taking in the sights.

We got the last bus back to the campsite and sat outside watching the sun go down.

The next day dawned very gloomy but we’d already decided to have a quiet one based at the campsite so it didn’t particularly matter. It proceeded to bucket down all day which wasn’t ideal (I had to put my cross-lake swim off), but did enforce complete relaxation. It actually turned quite cold with a chilly wind so we hunkered down in the van, watching films and drinking hot chocolate. As Gary keeps insisting, it’s really important to have total shut off days and we certainly recharged our batteries ahead of another day exploring the lake.

Lake Garda – Lazise

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Having had a great few days in Venice we headed back west towards the Italian lakes. We were really looking forward to slowing down our pace and relaxing a bit. With temperatures hitting 40 degrees over the last week, we were particularly keen to get to some water to cool down. Venice was incredible but heavy going and the lakes seemed to offer the ultimate rest bite for our weary feet. We managed to pick up an electric fan en route which proved to be the purchase of the trip.

It only took an hour and a half to reach the east side of lake Garda. We plumped for a town called Lazise and found a nice campsite straight away. Our pitch is probably one of the best we’ve had with loads of space and privacy and a nice vibe to the campsite. It’s pretty basic in comparison to the other mega campsites along the lake that have huge swimming pools, scheduled entertainment and endless facilities but it suits us well. The lakes get super busy during August because of the school holidays and we prefer being in a quiet site with slightly older clientele than the expensive, sprawling resorts with families and rowdy kids everywhere.

It’s become increasingly clear as we travel northern Italy that this is the domain of the Germans and Dutch. We’ve not heard many English accents and the campsite is completely full of German tourists who seemingly return to their spot every year. We got back to Harvey the other night to find that the Germans had joined forces and created a street party along the campsite access road and were getting stuck into a BBQ and plenty of Barvarian beer. Next someone got the guitar out and they were crooning into the small hours. Gary quite often gets mistaken for being German but our invitation to the soirée must have been lost in the post.

We decided to stay for 6 nights, using Lazise as a base for daily adventures. It’s a charming little town with a small harbour and lovely waterfront restaurants.

It also has an awesome fish and chip shop that we just had to try – they served Norwegian stockfish which seemed a bit random but it was delicious.

We really love the vibe here. It’s lively and has a buzz with weekly markets and live music but is not oppressively busy or frenetic. The water is the focus of everyone’s stay and everything is geared towards embracing the beauty of the natural surroundings.

There is a great cycle lane that follows the waterline, passing other beautiful towns to the North. We spent a few days exploring this, stopping for regular ice cream and refreshment breaks in the stifling heat. Occasionally we’d off-road and find ourselves completely alone, racing through picturesque olive groves.

As we cycled the 5 miles to Garda we saw families and locals at every point along the water. Kids were jumping off the jetties, sun worshippers sprawled out on grassy patches and plenty of cyclists getting their daily exercise.

People holiday at Garda for the summer, not just for a week or two and we can totally understand why. The weather is incredible, the scenery is stunning and the towns are preened to perfection. The displays of colourful flowers along the promenades are beautiful and the pastel houses and pint-sized harbours in every town ooze with character.

Its great to see so many people enjoying the great outdoors and making wonderful memories. Despite the beauty and elegance of the surroundings, there is nothing pretentious or twee about the place, just people having a genuinely good time.

Garda and Bardolino were two of our favourite little towns that we visited by bike. They both have gorgeous alleyways and narrow cobbled streets filled with cutesy shops and cafes. We liked to stop at the waterfront bars for an aperol spritz (which incidentally is always served with a few nibbles) and a game of uno.

On our way back we would pick a spot to stop for a dip, the water being the perfect refreshment after a sweaty cycle.

On one of the days we got the ferry South to Sirmione.

It’s a beautiful (but packed) town set on an impossibly thin peninsula with an impressive castle and moat.

We wandered through the gorgeous little lanes, marvelling at the incredible bougainvillea adorning the colourful houses and we had a picnic overlooking the lake.

We found Jamaica beach which was teeming with locals and tourists who were wading out in the shallow water to cool down. The water was a gorgeous colour and the pier made for the perfect place to sunbathe and people watch.

We opted for the last ferry back which delivered wonderful views in the late afternoon sun that bathed everything in golden hues.

We don’t think that this area of Lake Garda can be beaten but it’s time to find out. Today we head 40 miles north to Riva Del Garda for a different perspective of this beaut. Watch this space…

Venice

Although we have both been to Venice before we were still excited to see it together. Our campsite was situated on the mainland just off the only bridge to “Venice island.” We hooked Harvey up with ‘leccy’ and hightailed it the 5 minutes to the tram stop. The deal is you have to buy your tickets for tram/bus/vaporetto beforehand and validate them on each journey. If one was daring or skint it looked like you could cadge a free ride as we didn’t encounter anyone checking up….until days later.

Venice is not actually an island. It is a group of 118 small islands interlinked by 400 bridges. Some might describe Venice as a ‘sinking ship’; not only is it literally sinking at a rate of 2 millimetres per year, but it’s population has halved in the last 50 years, from 120,000 to 60,000. Such de-population is due to the extortionate cost of maintaining a home in Venice, as well as its slow descent into the sea.

Yet, Venice is more than just a ‘sinking ship’: it is home to Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, the first public Casino, and an eerie masquerade tradition. It boasts 450 palaces, 350 gondolas, 170 bell towers and 177 canals, as well as the birthplace of the explorer Marco Polo, the composer Antoni Vivaldi and the playwright Giacomo Casanova.

As we exited the tram, walked down our first narrow alleyway, over a pretty bridge and spied our first gondola, we looked at each other knowingly. Venice was not going to let us down. It was as beautiful and atmospheric as we both remebered.

The only way to navigate was by following brown signs with faded golden gilt lettering to San Marco. We passed an asortment of shops selling weird masks that reminded us of the film ‘Eyes wide shut’. Looked on longingly at cool tiny bars with people swigging cold beer or sipping aperol spritz and eating tasty chicetti. Finally we emerged by the famous Rialto bridge and luckily grabbed the last table right by the water for a romatic meal for two. Perfect.

After a delicious seafood lasagne and a creamy carbonara we headed to the stunning piazza San Marco.

It was late and still about 30 degrees so we reluctantly headed back to Harvey knowing we had three more days to explore.

What’s that line from Richard the Third? “A horse, a horse my kingdom for a horse.” Change that for a fan and I completely get ya kingy. I thought we were in an episode of ‘The bake Off’ but we were in the oven. I fell asleep at dawn when the temperature dropped to about 28 degrees. It wasnt helped by the dog next door yapping every hour.

The next day our faithful yapping friend “peggy sue” ensured we didnt sleep in. I was annoyed at first but that quickly subsided when I realised her owners had disappeared for the day and left peggy sue tied up under their camper. One half filled bowl of water. How do these people live with themselves. We filled up her bowl and left for Venice hoping the owner would be back soon.

This time we bought a 48hr unlimited tram/bus/vaporetto pass for maximum freedom. A single vaporetto journey cost €7.50 but the pass was a bargain at €30. No brainer. Jumping off the tram and onto the vaporetto (public water taxi) to tour the grand canal was a great call. Some of the best views can only be seen via the water ways.

For the rest of the day we hopped on and off the vaporetto at various locations then wandered the streets trying to discover hidden gems away from the hustle and bustle.

We headed over to San Giorgio Maggiore to look at the yachts and climb the bell tower. I love a view from up high.

Then we headed for some quiet contemplation in the park on the very outskirts and found this shiny fella.

No visit is complete without a lap of San Marco.

Nothing better than a quick dip to cool them hot feets.

We even managed to grab a cheeky shot from the captains cabin on the way back.

Surprise surprise when we got back peggy sue was still tied up, still yapping and still alone and frightened. Who are these people. It was 8pm and they clearly had not been back all day! I tried to ignore her but with each passing person she let out a scared yelp. My heart sunk each time. Enough is enough. I went around and sat with her for a bit. She was super happy and friendly so I untied her and brought over to Harvey.

I gave her some love and affection and she was a different dog. After a while I left her to curl up on my chair and we watched her settle down and take a little snooze.

At midnight the knobheads from next door still hadn’t returned but it was time for bed. I took peggy sue back and tried to tie her to their step. She resisted and it broke my heart. Poor thing. I sat with her for a while until she slept then tied her up and snook away. The knobheads eventually returned at 1am with their two infants and paid no attention to peggy sue. So annoying but what can you do…

The next day we got up early and headed over to Murano. It sits about 1.5km from Venice in the same lagoon. Famous for it’s glass making and as we found out not much else.

That installation behind us was their signature art piece and reminded me of something out of superman. The glasswork is pretty impressive if you like that sort of thing but it’s not really our thing. Murano did introduce me to one amazing new thing. Cafe Creme.

Its basically a delicious coffee icecream.

Ignore the battered melted cheese thing. Stop looking at it. It will draw you in. Move along now…

After Murano we headed back to the main section of Venice in search of a bar that Ben had recommended. On our way we found the hospital. For some reason we were surprised the A&E entrance was via the water. Hence the ambulance was a boat.

More impossibly grand architecture.

And exquisite detail.

We eventually found Ben’s bar which was unfortunatley shut. However the bar next door was cool AF.

Cheers Venice you were awesome.

Modena

The next big hitter after Florence was due to be Venice but we thought it a shame to miss out on some nearby smaller cities. Distance wise, Bologna was a perfect half way point but the lack of campsites nearby and bad reviews for Sostas put us off. It’s a real shame as I would have loved to take a tour of the Ducati factory. I ride a Triump Street Triple R back home but would jump at the chance ride a Ducati Monster or 959 Panigale. Another time hopefully.

Instead we opted to stay the night in a sosta about 4km outside of Modena with a friendly tree lined cycle path right into the heart of the city.

The car lovers out there will no doubt already know that Modena is home to many of the top Italian car makers. Ferarri, Lambourghini and Maserati the most notable. Indeed the Ferrari 360 Modena was named after the city.

We also learned that Modena has a prestigious University traditionally strong in economics, medicine and law. As luck would have it lots of students were celebrating graduating with bottles of rum taped to their hands and laurel wreaths around their head. This made for entertaining people watching.

We visited 2 Unesco world heritage sites. The Cathedral and the Piazza Grande.

Famous Modenesi include operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari and the Queen consort of England and Scotland, Mary of Modena. Despite all these highlights the biggest draw for me was that it is home home to Osteria Francescana. A year ago I watched a netflix original called Chefs Table featuring the eccentric Massimo Bottura.

I was captivated by his story, creating a restaurant from scratch, Osteria Francescana, and building it in to the world’s best restaurant. As one can imagine not without it’s trials and tribulations. “Nothing easy is worth the ride.”

https://www.theworlds50best.com/The-List-2018/1-10/Osteria-Francescana.html

I wish I could say we managed to get a table to eat there but the waiting list is 6 months.

The next day we attempted to visit Parma for an afternoon explore. We were spooked by the total lack of campers in the dodgy looking sosta and the surrounding car park full of transits selling hooky goods.

We decided to abandon our plans (genuinely the first time we’ve had to forgo a destination due to safety concerns) and head to Verona instead. The drive was not without its tribulations, with terribly poor roads full of potholes and loose tarmac that shook and rattled the motorhome. Our satnav also took us to closed roads and sent us on bizarre diversions but this did afford us views of the incredible scenery.

We drove on another two hours to Verona only to find that sosta completly full of campers. Boom or bust it would seem. Exercising patience is not my usual forte but on this occaision it was necessary. We waited about an hour for somone to leave and gracefully ‘jumped in their grave’.

Driving Through Chianti

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I had no idea that the Chianti region was so close to Florence, but when we did a bit of research we realised it would make a great day trip. Provence and Tuscany are two areas that I’ve wanted to explore for some time. Having nailed Provence, I was keen to see if Tuscany lived up to the picture perfect image in my mind.

We took the scenic road south, heading for a town called Greve in Chianti. Within moments of leaving the campsite we were virtually alone with nothing but vineyards, rolling hills and olive groves before us.

The landscape was studded by cypress trees that have become synonymous with the region and it felt like everything we’d hoped for. It was so nice to get away from the fast driving on the autostrade and pull over whenever we want to take photos.

Our first stop was Castello di Verrazzano about 15 miles south of Florence. It’s a 220 hectare estate where Chianti Classico, grappa, olive oil and balsamic vinegar are produced. It took us 5 minutes to get up the long private driveway as we climbed high into the hills. The castle sits grandly above the estate.

Luckily the restaurant had space for us to eat and we sat in a pretty farmhouse style dining room with incredible views.

We shared some antipasti with amazing hams and salamis and then had pasta with a wild boar ragu.

All washed down with a glass of Chianti of course. I think this was actually the first glass of red we’ve had on the European leg of the trip. It’s been French white and rose in this heat.

Full and content we headed on to Greve but passed through because it didn’t seem particularly pretty or exciting. We continued on quiet back roads, meandering through wooded hills and perfectly tended vineyards until we reached Castellina in Chianti. It’s a small, ancient hilltop town with charming lanes and shops. It was a perfect stop over to stretch our legs, have a mooch about and sample the local ice cream. The town was really pretty and had lots of independent bars and shops all sporting the black cockerel emblem that once signified the medieval Chianti League.

Gary tried to tell me this was good luck – judging by the sheen and wear I’m guessing he is not the first.

As we walked back we found a kooky art shop with an Italian artist painting to music blaring out of his studio and his two pet rabbits casually hanging on the pavement. This caused a 15 minute interlude for petting and cooing.

The skies clouded over and we could see we were in for a thunderous return home. Miraculously we escaped most of the rain but the lightning struck and thunder clapped all around us, providing a suitably atmospheric drive back.

I suspect that we barely even scratched the surface of true Tuscany over the last few days but the scenery and food has been stunning and it’s whet my appetite for another trip or long weekend that takes in Sienna and the surrounding wine regions.

Entering Tuscany – Pisa and Florence

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We left the campsite in Levanto with our sights set on Northern Tuscany. We hopped back on the autostrade motorway. No doubt the coastal road would have offered more beautiful scenery but the stress of the tiny roads and hairpin bends wasn’t worth it. The motorway stayed true to the coast anyway so we occasionally got a glimpse of the med and seaside towns as we whizzed passed. I had no idea that the majority of Italy’s motorways were toll based. Whilst they are less expensive than in France, they continue to add up and the quality of them is so poor, with huge potholes and cracks that rumble and shake the van as we drive. The drivers here are absolutely mental. Italians have a tendency to drift between lanes with no indication, cut corners wildly and drive directly at you with complete disregard for right of way. There is no discipline whatsoever and Gary has had to swerve and beep to avoid scrapes and clashes.

We were heading for Florence but decided to stop by Pisa for a smash and grab look at the tower. I’m sure we didn’t give the city enough time to fully impress but I’ve been here before and found Florence to be superior in beauty and interesting architecture. We found motorhome parking (sosta) about 3km out of town so parked up and walked back into the city.

The Piazza dei Miracoli was absolutely rammed with tourists and vendors selling selfie sticks. Everyone was posing for photos, trying to perfect the classic shot of holding up the leaning tower of Pisa. It’s such a cliche but we soon lost our inhibitions and joined right in, with varying degrees of success. Unsurprisingly my lack of spatial awareness and perception proved challenging in getting any photo where I looked remotely close to sustaining the weight of the tower. Gary’s efforts were better.

The 56 meter tower took over 200 years to build and was already listing when it was unveiled in 1372. Before considerable restoration efforts it was 4.47m out of plumb, which is more than 5 degrees from the vertical. Its hard not to be impressed by its wonky beauty and decoration.

The piazza is also home to Pisa’s Romanesque Duomo, or cathedral which stands out with its pink and cream marble bands and stunning dome.

The baptistry where Galileo Galilei was baptised is also here. We had a couple of hours strolling around and grabbing lunch before heading back to the van. We continued east to Florence and settled at a campsite about 6km outside of the city.

The next day we caught the local bus into Florence which was refreshingly straight forward and punctual. Despite being Tuscany’s largest city, Florence is fairly compact, so we tackled it on foot taking plenty of water breaks out of the seriously hot sun. Florence is a heavyweight when it comes to museums and art galleries, boasting world class Renaissance art. Given our short time here and the fact I’d been to the Uffizi gallery before, we decided to forgo the long lines for museums and get a flavour for the city by following our noses.

We meandered from piazza to piazza, marvelling at the incredible architecture and romantic, narrow streets. At every turn was an old building or medieval church or tower more beautiful than the one before it. A map was barely necessary because we’d stumble from sight to sight, discovering lovely little alcoves, wine bars and boutique shops along the way.

We took in the incredible Cathedral and bell tower which dominated the cityscape.

The pink, white and green marble facade is so elegant and unusual and the sheer scale of the building is breathtaking.

We then headed for the market which housed fresh produce on the ground floor and an awesome array of food stalls on the first floor.

We grabbed a table and a waitress took our drinks order but food was self service. The amount of local dishes we wanted to try was unreal but we plumped for yummy tortellini with burrata and fresh tomato sauce and beef slow cooked in Chianti.

It was so tasty and the market had a lively atmosphere. We also found a huge shop dedicated to Lindt nearby and couldn’t resist picking up a few goodies. Their chocolate balls are addictive and they had a load of limited edition flavours like mango and white chocolate.

After lunch we walked to the Piazza della Signoria which is host to a fortress palace called Palazzo Vecchio with unique crenellations and a replica sculpture of Michelangelo’s David.

Less highbrow is the Gucci museum just around the corner that tells the tale of the infamous fashion house.

We popped into the adjoining boutique for a gawp at the ostentatious loafers and insanely expensive silk dressing gowns before side stepping out hoping not to break anything. We stopped for a quick coffee and cake which was the perfect opportunity to try a cannoli which is an Italian pastry with rich ricotta filling. It was sumptuous and decadent.

Our last major stop was to take in the incredible view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo. The vast square sits on top of a steep hill on the other side of the river.

This side of the city has a lovely feel to it with neighbourhood cafes and bars and quirky street art. Gary really liked spotting the road signs that have been altered by a French artist called Clet and I loved these designs.

We walked back to the bus stop, crossing the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio bridge which was the only one to survive destruction during German forces retreat in 1944.

It’s lined with fancy jewellery shops on both sides and has beautiful views. We stopped by the bronze pig which supposedly delivers good luck to all those who rub its snout.

We clocked well over 15,000 steps on our Florence day out which felt like more in the sun and busy crowds but we were really taken by the city and would love to return again.

Cinque Terre

We left Rappalo in the pouring rain and travelled an hour along the coast to Levanto. This was the perfect base from which to explore the Cinque Terre as it had a campsite and a railway station. We had never really heard of the Cinque Terre before we arrived in the region but more Lonley Planet research from Emily revealed this beautiful Unesco World Heritage site.

The name literally translates to “Five Lands” but really means the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These beautiful villages are perched on the side of the cliffs on one of the most sun-drenched and languid stretches of coast in all of Italy. As a result it is one of the most tourist-packed.

We originally wanted to explore the villages on the Sunday but found out the night before there was a 24hr train strike. Dam, another enforced beach day, not terrible.

The next day we arrived at the station early, along with hoards of other tourists. The train arrived 20 minutes late and was already full so it was a bit of a squeeze and reminded us of the Tube back in London. We thought we were being clever by heading to the furthest village first bit it seems everyone had the same idea.

Riomaggiore is the most southern village of the Cinque Terre. The origins of Riomaggiore date back to the 8th Century, when the inhabitants of the Vara valley, searching a milder climate to raise grapevines and olive-trees without the fear of pirate raids, moved towards the coast.

The town climbs up along the ridges overlooking the sea and it is characterized from the typical stone houses with coloured façades and slate-roofs.

After an hour exploring we headed back to the station where Emily found some colourful tiles to admire before heading to get to our next stop, Manarola.

Manarola, built on a high rock 70 metres above sea level, is one of the most charming and romantic of thevillages. The tiny harbor features a boat ramp, multicoloured houses facing the sea, a tiny piazza with seafood restaurants.

Along the main road the boats are pulled onto dry land on trolleys every time the sea is rough. Although there is no real beach here, it had some of the best deep-water swimming around these parts.

The village is all ups and downs, with steep narrow alleys leading to the sea. Another peculiarity of Manarola is a pyramid in white cement whose peak can be seen rising between the taller houses and is used as a navigational reference point for all those at sea.

We missed out Corniglia so we could spend longer in the remaining two villages of Vernazza and Monterossa.

The small fishing village Vernazza is probably the most characteristic of the Cinque Terre and is classified as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Vernazza was founded about 1000 A.D. and was ruled by the Republic of Genoa starting in 1276. The medieval castle, Belforte, was built in the mid-1500’s, primarily to protect the village from pirates.

The tiny port is surrounded by subtle colourful pastels and the charming piazza is lined with good restaurants and bars. The village is surrounded by very steeply-terraced olive groves which are said to produce among the finest olive oil in the country.

We enjoyed an amazing lunch right beneath the castle. Emily opted for the lasagne and I opted for a local speciality of genovese pesto gnocci.

After lunch and buoyed on by the locals, I changed into my swimmers and dove into the cooling waters for a refreshing dip. Bliss.

Last but not least came Monterosso, which is the largest of the five. The village is located on hills cultivated with vines and olives. The vegetation surrounds the built-up area like an embrace; its amazing beaches, its beautiful reefs and the sea’s crystal clear waters make this small village one of the most hospitable of the Ligurian Riviera. It is probably the only one we would consider as a fly and flop location.

The village is divided in two parts marked by the medieval tower of Aurora.

The new part of town, Fegina, is full of life with quality hotels and restaurants. It is also dominated by the famous concrete statue of the Giant, built beside the terrace of a local villa. This statue was created at the beginning of the 20th century by Levacher and Minerbi, an architect and a sculptor, and represents Neptune, the god of the sea. Now it has become the symbol of Monterosso.

We never really had the time to lounge on the beach so I think we will keep this one in the bag for a revisit someday.