Even the challenges contributed a dash of exhilaration–extra herbs in the pasta sauce–to our unforgettable journey. Returning to Italy after 30 years, we savored the art, architecture, and cuisine amidst a landscape of great natural and man-made beauty. From Alpine peaks reflected in cobalt lakes, to well-preserved medieval cities like Verona and Venice, to Renaissance art, romantic hill towns and fine wines of Tuscany, to picturesque fishing villages and dramatic coastline of the Cinque Terre, it was a feast for the eyes and palate as well as a dream fulfilled.
Following our phone call Abrate Tour transported us from Porto Nuovo Station to their facility. Our RV was an Elnagh Doral 108, a nicely finished 21-foot class “C” outfitted with two dinettes, cab-over bunk, shower and toilet, wardrobe, and a galley with three burner propane cook-top, a three-way (gas, 220V, 12V) refrigerator and small broiler oven. A 2.8 liter turbo-charged diesel coupled to a 5-speed manual transmission propelled the Fiat-mounted rig.
Stocking our larder at the Super Mercato we found many goods only in sizes or quantities ample for a large family. We ended up with a kilo of salt and no pepper but managed to obtain most things on our list, including pasta makings and salami. Wine was a real bargain.
Financed by tolls, Italy’s autostrada are comparable to U.S. Interstate highways. Thirty years ago the tollbooths were manned but this time to our surprise we confronted a machine with Italian instructions. We didn’t know what to do. After inserting our credit card several times into a likely-looking slot and having it spit it back at us, we drove on expecting to see flashing lights in the rear-view mirrors.
It was dark when we exited the autostrada in the Lake District and found ourselves face to face with another machine. We tried the credit card. No dice. A man gestured for us to pull over and come into the nearby office. He figured we owed 13,000 lira (about $6). We paid, still unclear how the system worked. We didn’t want to see the autostrada again.
Awaking next morning to brilliant sun while camped on the shore of Lake Maggiore, we gazed upon snow-dusted peaks hovering above a gaggle of geese paddling through the shallows. We were soon much mellower.
Venetian Gondolier San Gimignano's Stone Towers
Thirty-five mile long Lake Maggiore points like a crooked finger into the Swiss Alps. Breaking camp we drove north on a narrow winding road linking charming, well-kept lakeside resort towns. Swiss border formalities consisted of a glance and a wave. We headed for Lugano, a place we remembered fondly from our last trip, and on toward Lake Como. This narrow road pierces mountains through frequent short tunnels. Pulling to the right in one tunnel to make room for on-coming vehicles, we heard a scrape overhead! We stopped. Cars behind us honked, but we waited anxiously until the on-coming drivers slowly backed up. Steering sharply to the left, we heard no more scraping and exited the tunnel. Whew! Lake Como may be even more beautiful than Lake Maggiore, though it’s a bit like choosing between perfect gem stones of differing color and cut. We explored Varenna, a jumble of stone buildings climbing up from the lakeshore. A labyrinth of stone-paved lanes, some only six feet wide, connects little piazzas with stout churches, outdoor cafes. Varenna charmed us.
Studiously avoiding the autostrada, we camped in Verona and explored its historic medieval center next morning. Here we used our first ATM in Italy–with an English language option it proved a piece of cake. Nestled in a horseshoe bend of the River Adige, Verona has not only some of the best preserved and most beautiful medieval streets, churches, palaces and piazzas, but also boasts remarkably intact Roman amphitheater. After a sidewalk-café lunch we shopped in Piazza Erbe’s outdoor market.
Again shunning the autostrada, we steered for the end of the spit that encloses Venice Lagoon from the northeast. We were headed for a campground we remembered from 30 years ago. Camping Miramare is equipped with many conveniences including a market selling fresh-baked bread every morning. We took advantage of the clean, modern hot showers here, and at other campgrounds during our journey. Miramare has a restaurant, though on most evenings we cooked in our galley with fresh ingredients we’d found in local markets. A half-mile walk from the ferry landing, Miramare is perfectly situated for touring Venice.
Though chock-full of museums, cathedrals and palaces, Venice itself is the real sight. We wandered the island city’s back streets and alleys, losing our way more than once but not really minding. As one guidebook author reminded us, “you’re on an island and you can’t get off.” When we stumbled upon a quiet square with a modest 17th century church, we sat on a bench imagining we were lost in time, not just in space. One evening we stayed for dinner. Upon the waiter’s recommendation Stu tried cuttlefish alla Veneta, with sauce the color of India ink! It tasted better than it looked.
A display of flag throwing in Siena, Italy
The best way to see Venice’s Grand Canal, lined with the largest and most opulent of the city’s many palaces, is to ply this “main street” from end-to-end aboard a Vaporetto. Our three-day ferry passes allowed unlimited rides on these water buses and took us to the small island community of Burano, a village version of Venice, with narrow streets, small canals and fewer tourists.
We sought advice from English-speaking RVers about our rig and about using the autostrada. RVers being a friendly and helpful lot the world over, we got assistance with both. A Brit, owner of an Italian-built motorhome, helped us locate the 12V /220V switch and a Canadian explained how to use the dreaded autostrada.
Armed with his advice we approached the toll plaza and looked for a gate labeled “biglietto.” Sure enough a paper card with a magnetic strip popped out upon pressing a button. We drove to Florence where the exit booth read our biglietto and flashed the amount due on a screen. We paid the fare by inserting a credit card into a slot. It was that simple.
Campeggio Michelangelo, sits on a hillside south of the Arno River, overlooking central Florence. We fondly remembered this place from 30 years ago. We even located our former campsite!
Birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is home to a huge collection of fabulous art. Deservedly the most famous sculpture in the world, Michelangelo’s masterpiece David is housed in the Galleria dell’ Academia, and the Uffizi Gallery features an unmatched collection of Italian paintings.
Florence’s arts include the culinary, and a highlight of our visit was a culinary walking tour. Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide Francesca wasn’t even born when we last visited Florence. She guided us to several establishments for tastes of typical Florentine cuisine concluding with delicious house-made gelato.
From Florence, we headed toward Siena on a two-lane road winding through the Chianti region. We stumbled upon the weekly market in the main square of Greve where we bought an English-language newspaper, ingredients for dinner, and a pork sandwich carved from a whole roasted pig.
In Siena as at other campgrounds, we took a local bus into town. We made our way to the Campo, Siena’s main square and site of the renown Palio, a twice-each-summer horse race where the city’s neighborhoods compete for bragging rights.
When we arrived a crowd was watching young men in brightly colored medieval-style costumes give a dazzling display of flag throwing. We lounged at an outdoor café sipping cappuccino and soaking up the beauty of this extraordinary space shaped like a scallop shell.
How could we be in Tuscany without sampling the region’s most famous product? When a night and day of cold, steady rain finally stopped we arranged to visit Isole e Olena winery, whose Chianti Classico is a favorite of ours. We were guided through stone barns with racks of drying grapes in the process of becoming a Tuscan dessert wine, Vin Santo.
We sampled the incredible results of that slow, labor-intensive method, along with the Chianti Classico, and an extraordinary Sangiovese called Cepparello. The hospitality and enthusiasm of proprietors Paolo and Marta De Marchi made for a highlight of our trip.
Traveling west a dramatic hill town came into view. Called San Gimignano of the Fine Towers, its skyline–defined by tall, 12th to 15th century stone towers–looks like some medieval Manhattan guarded by stone ramparts.
Riomaggiore on the Cinque Terre, Italy
Our last stop was the Cinque Terre (five lands). In Levanto, a popular seaside resort, we parked our rig at Camping Aqua Dolce within easy walking distance of the beach, shops and the train station.
Thirty years ago our map showed a winding coastal road that promised a spectacular drive, but we found ourselves thwarted by a construction barricade: the road hadn’t been completed. We gazed down at a village crammed into a narrow valley leading to a small cove, terraced hillside vineyards above. We pledged to return someday.
It took us rather longer than we imagined, and in the intervening three decades this remote stretch of beguiling coast was discovered. Even today, the lack of good vehicular access (thankfully, they never completed that road) tends to keep the Cinque Terre from being overrun. So rugged is the terrain that trains spend most of the trip in tunnels. So while the train provides convenient access, it’s no way to see the Cinque Terre. We relied on our feet and a boat.
We finally made it to Riomaggiore, the village we’d spotted long ago. Small fishing boats decorate the minuscule stone harbor. The cobbled main street winds up the little valley, lined with tall, narrow buildings sheltering ground-floor shops. Tiny alleys three to four feet wide are really stairways ascending steeply from the main street.
Unfortunately, a landslide caused by recent heavy rain blocked the trail to the next village. So, using our daily train passes we boarded the next northbound local and were in Manarola in under five minutes.
We hiked from Manarola to Corniglia–one of the prettiest hikes we’ve made. Climbing the 370 steps that switchback up to Corniglia perched high on a ridge was a challenge. In lieu of hiking the more difficult trail from Corniglia to Vernazza and Monterosso we continued our journey by train. A good look at Vernazza was followed by a memorable meal at Gambero Rosso restaurant. Local specialities such as handmade pasta with pesto, and seafood salad adorned with savory capers so plump we thought they were olives, were accompanied by the local vino delle Cinque Terre from those terraced vineyards.
Our RV adventure in Italy concluded with a dash to Turin on the autostrada. We made it before 12:30 when Abrate, like many Italian businesses, closes for an extended lunch. The mud had just been washed from the pavement in the aftermath of flooding caused by the same rains that confined us to our motorhome in Siena and washed out Cinque Terre trails! We had been fortunate to avoid the brunt of the storms.
We were fortunate too to have taken this unforgettable journey. We overcame challenges, recalled nearly-forgotten memories, kept a 30-year-old promise, and rediscovered a truly historic and beautiful country. We won’t wait so long next time to enjoy Bella Italia again.
Originally published in Trailer Life Magazine
For More Information: For rental motorhomes -- www.motorhomesworldwide.com ; Italian Tourism Official Website -- italia.it/en/home.html