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.

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’.

Exploring Castles and Vineyards in France

09-06-18

Having survived our first few nights camping out in Les Andelys, we started to make our way south. We have a deadline to be in Barcelona by the 13th which means we are travelling at a click but we’ll have a lot more time to leisurely explore after that.

On Monday we headed down to the Loire valley. Keen to see as many chateaus and vineyards as possible we chose Amboise as our base for a couple of nights. We said to ourselves that we’d leave at 9am but we haven’t quite got our packing up routine down pat yet and we kept remembering things we needed to do before we left like empty our waste water, take in new water, put the awning away and tidy up anything likely to fly around in transit. Even the little jobs like turning off the gas and closing all windows get forgotten but practice makes perfect. Another thing we are getting used to is a much slower pace of travel in Harvey. We can go at 80mph but it’s hugely inefficient so we tend to pootle along at 60mph, dramatically slowing down for the numerous roundabouts to avoid tipping or careering into incoming traffic. Needless to say that when Google maps tells us it will take 3 hours to travel the 187 mile journey, it’s much more like 4.5.

Home to Leonardo di Vinci in his final days, Amboise is a wonderfully quaint town on the Loire river, with royal castles and cobbled lanes. It’s genuinely like something from a fairy tale. It’s been preserved so well and has such grandeur and finesse.

The next day we explored Chenonceau Chateau which was breathtaking. This castle is built on a majestic bridge and comes complete with rapunzel style turrets and picture perfect gardens. We had a lovely time strolling through the grounds and seeing the chateau from all angles.

The grounds were equally gorgeous, with tree-lined avenues, mazes and vegetable gardens.

In the afternoon we came home via a local vineyard where we had a tour and tasting with one of the owners. Plou et Fil produce 900,000 bottles a year which is incredible given how small a vineyard they are. The owner was so friendly and personable and generously invited us to taste over 10 wines for free, all of which were beautiful. We planned to buy a couple and ended up with 7 bottles because they tasted so good and were so reasonably priced at 6 euros a pop.

We’d have loved more time to explore the Loire valley and have been inspired to buy bicycles and come back for further adventures. We left and headed south again for a mammoth journey to Saint Emilion, just outside of Bordeaux. We left in ridiculously heavy rain and steel grey clouds and it remained this way for the rest of the day. We arrived absolutely pooped and considerably lighter in the pocket, having been stung 50euros for toll roads. Unfortunately avoiding toll roads would add huge mileage and time onto travel days so it’s something we need to suck up in France. We had a BBQ in our new digs and went to bed after watching Love Island (I know it’s the worst but it’s addictive).

The next day dawned much brighter and we got a shuttle bus into the beautiful town of Saint Emilion. This place is so charming and authentic, despite the huge swathes of tourists that visit daily. The lookout points from the church bell tower offered wonderful views over the chocolate box town. All the buildings are built from the limestone quarried locally and they look so traditional and quaint. We wandered down steep cobbled streets and browsed in boutique shops. It wasn’t long before we sniffed out a wonderful little vineyard producing some tasty fizz, produced in the same style as champagne. We ordered a bottle and a cute picnic hamper that they made up for us and we devoured it in their garden in the warm sunshine.

We walked back to our campsite in blistering afternoon sunshine. Vineyards unfolded before us, as far as the eye could see.

We gave ourselves a day of rest to catch up on admin and washing before heading further south again towards Toulouse. The campsite had a lovely pool and lake area so it was nice to enjoy that and relax. We even made friends with the locals.

The 200mile drive to Carcassonne just east of Toulouse was straight forward and we managed to leave by 9am. We seem to be getting the hang of travel days now, and whilst we are currently doing about 70 miles more than we’d like per day, we have plenty of podcasts to keep us going. Carcassonne is a hilltop town, famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, with numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications.

We thought that the chateaus in the Loire were impressive but this is epic. The sheer scale of this formidable building is unlike anything we’ve seen. There was a temporary modern art installation on the fortress which is part of a new initiative to create a dialogue between contemporary art and heritage sites. When stood in the right spot, the seemingly independent fractions of shapes come together to from a circular perspective. The bright yellow was alarming at first but once we knew it was temporary, we thought it was really interesting.

We spent the afternoon wandering through the impossibly picturesque streets in the old city and sampling continental beers before tucking into our first dinner out of the trip. We’ve been really happy with cooking our own food in the motorhome (which is handy considering how expensive food and drink is in France), but it is nice to have the odd treat. I was super keen to try the local dish of cassoulet which included confit duck leg and Toulouse sausage which was delicious. The diet starts tomorrow!