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.

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’.

World Cup Madness in Avignon

04-07-18

We had a rather frustrating morning in Uzes before we left. We needed to do some washing so I grabbed the load and walked into town in search of the laundrette that we’d spotted the day before. I managed to grab the last, available machine and sat down to wait and watch the hive of activity of locals buzzing in and out and chatting. I was surprised at just how many locals still used the laundrette. This excitable puppy caused absolute havoc by escaping his lead, jumping on all the customers and running rings around his owner.

Gary sorted the van out and then picked me up. Since buying the bikes we’ve been on the lookout for a hardware store that could sort us out with a new number plate to attach to the bike rack. The current set up obscures the original number plate which is illegal. The first number plate holder that we bought was £50 and came with indicator lights but alas this didn’t fit. When we tried to return it we found that the shop had shut for an hour and a half for lunch. We waited in the stifling heat and were then told that the shop didn’t do refunds. Gary persuaded them eventually using much gesticulation and google translate and after much back and forth they relented and gave us our money back. We had about three trips back to the van to collect the right registration documents before they would print us a new number plate and we had to secure it to the back of the bike rack with a couple of Bungee ropes.

We eventually got on the road at around 3pm and reached the city of Avignon an hour or so later. We arrived at the Aire that we had picked out but thought it was a little out of town and deserted with no security so we drove on to the next campsite and booked in for two nights. We had a quick wander in the old town to pick up a map and get a feel for the place before heading back for dinner. First impressions were that it was a really majestic city with incredible buildings at every turn and a lovely quirky edge.

The next day we got up and ventured into town again to take in the sites. Avignon’s old city is surrounded by a medieval wall and packed with boutique lined streets and narrow walkways. The city boasts some incredibly grand architecture, including the Palais des Papes, the largest ever gothic palace which housed pope Clement v from 1309 to 1377.

We walked past the Pont St-Benezet bridge that was built in 1185 and half washed away in the 1600’s. It’s such an odd sight to see a bridge span out across the river and stop abruptly in the middle of the water. We walked up to the Rocher des Doms gardens that offered beautiful views out across the Rhone.

It was so incredibly warm with very little breeze that we took plenty of breaks in the beautiful squares dotted around the city. Avignon has a vibrant cafe culture with independent restaurants filled with locals eating and catching up outside in the sunshine. We found a couple of bars to watch the nerve wracking England World Cup match that went to penalties. The atmosphere was awesome and England’s win was the cherry on top of a great city day.

Exploring the Costa Brava

We had one more day and night in Mataro before carrying on up the costa (Sid James would be proud). I recently learned that Costa Brava means “Wild” or “Rough Coast” and stretches from the town of Blanes to the French Border. We decided to bypass the unfortunately named Tossa de Mar and the Brits abroad destination of Lloret de Mar. Instead we headed for a midday walk around Sant Feliu de Guixols.

We used an iPad app called “Camping Card” to find motorhome parking right in the centre. There are thousands of these gems all over Europe and the kicker is that they are mostly free unless you overnight. We are getting less and less nervous about leaving Harvey in random places but he had the company of 12 other RV mates.

As with most new places it’s best to head to the tourist office to find out what there is to see and get a map. This one happened to be situated in a beautiful 10th-century monastery.

The very helpful lady guided us to the main placa through beautifully quaint tree lined streets.

We headed down the main street directly to beautiful beach and port.

On the far side of the port lay a coastal path that climbed high up into the hills. This would definitely get our steps up and make us earn our lunch. We were cooled on the way up by the pine scented breeze sharing the magnificent views with gorgeous villas and a friendly Gull.

Watching the little white sail in the distance did bring back some memories of slogging up and down this coast in unfreindly seas, so I was glad to be on land and ready for my lunch.

As luck would have it we wandered down the coastal path and right into a little food festival called Nomad.

So many amazing food choices from very creative food trucks…

F

But of course I can’t resist a Crepe so this was our choice before heading back to HaRVey and setting off to Estartit.

Back on the Road – Hello France!

03-06-18

After 3 wonderful weeks of staying at my sister’s house and catching up with friends and family, we are back on the road!

The day after we returned from Bangkok we took ourselves to a motorhome dealership in Reading and picked out our new wheels for the next 6 months. Knowing that almost all dealers take a couple of weeks to get the selected van ready, serviced and MOT’d we didn’t waste any time in sorting it out. I’m no expert in mechanics and motorhome specs so I focussed on the really important stuff when it came to selecting a model, including colour, kitchen space and interior decoration. Thankfully Gary is more knowledgeable and we settled on this handsome chap that we refer to as Harvey the RV.

I’ve only ever been camping twice and both occasions were short lived and full of alcohol so I was slightly apprehensive about living in such a small, contained space and coping with limited resources (ie travel hair straighteners). In order to give Harvey (and me) a proper test run and iron out any issues before we got miles away from home, Gary thought it prudent to drive down to Canterbury for a test run. These two days gave us plenty of time to use all the facilities and get us used to driving such a big vehicle before we hit France. Canterbury also delivered on wonderful weather and beautiful scenery which was a bonus.

We left for Dover on Saturday morning and boarded a ferry to take us the one and a half hour journey over to Calais. Everything went incredibly smoothly and we arrived on French soil in the afternoon and headed south west towards Rouen. Forgetting the weight we were carrying, we misjudged our optimum speed slightly and ended up driving the 300km over 4 hours. It was only when we were fully committed that we realised our campsite reception closed at 7pm and we were pushing it to arrive on time. The prospect of spending our first night abroad in a lay-by of a random French motorway was enough motivation to get us there by the skin of our teeth. This is what the Hawkins family like to call a ‘kick bollock scramble.’ Our Sat Nav even threw in a couple of dead end roads and single track lanes to keep us on our toes and elevate the excitement levels.

We were so relieved to arrive at our campsite in Bouafles and find the reception still open. Our host spoke no English whatsoever but I managed to recall enough French from school to get us checked in. We went for a brief walk around the grounds and watched the sun set over the Seine. First impressions of camping in France are a million miles away from my preconceptions of muddy fields, lousy toilet blocks and 70’s gear. Chateau de Bouafles is a beautiful campsite, set in gorgeous natural surroundings with nothing but birdsong to interrupt the perfect solitude. Our pitch is huge with established trees and hedges to give us privacy. There are bikes to rent and a jetty to fish from and the air feels so fresh and clean.

The next day we woke early and walked to reception to collect our pre-ordered baguette and croissants fresh from the local boulangerie. We ate them with fresh tea as the warm morning light streamed through the windows. We had a few admin chores to sort in the morning including a mad dash around the local supermarket for supplies before it closed at midday.

In the afternoon we headed to nearby Les Andelys which is a picturesque village sat on a hairpin curve in the Seine. Perched precariously above is the 12th century Chateau Gaillard. There isn’t much left of the chateau itself but the steep climb up in sweltering heat rewarded us with magnificent views from the summit.

We had a browse around the village which boasted a beautiful square and impressive cathedral whose impressive stature well exceeded the size of sleepy Les Andelys. We walked back along pretty lanes, admiring the quaint buildings with gorgeous brickwork and beautiful gardens. We got back to ‘Harvey the RV’ in time to enjoy the late afternoon sun with a couple of beers and BBQ. What a start to the trip.