Bella Italia

This summer we took our campervan out for its first real trip: three weeks of touring through Italy. It was equipped with fans and a fridge, what more do you need? Who cares that we would be sleeping underneath a ceiling covered in black isolation material and not much else! We loaded a surprisingly large amount of stuff into the van and took off. To Poggibonsi and beyond!

Unexpected destinations

Once again, it was the whole covid situation that steered us towards our destination for this summer. Originally, we were supposed to have a wedding in Spain (the same one that got cancelled last year), but that had been postponed for yet another year. We were still planning on travelling to Spain though, covering the northern coast and Catalunya. Unfortunately, a few weeks before our trip, the number of infections began to rise again across Europe. In the Netherlands, but also in Spain. Both countries coloured the beloved dark red on EU maps, increasing the uncertainty about which countries would let us in in the first place. And to which countries we wanted to go. Italy remained green just a tat longer, so we adjusted our plans once more and decided to travel to the country of pasta, pizza and wine. Absolutely no need to feel sorry for us.

Packed and ready to go!

Previous experiences

I have been to Italy a couple of times. When I was a teenager, I spent a summer holiday in Umbria eating ice cream and falling in love with Italian boys on motor bikes. Later, with my mom, I took an organised trip to Rome, Naples and Pompeii, learning everything there is to know about painters, old buildings and squares from our omniscient guide. We followed his pink umbrella through the crowds at St. Peter (once you have been there, there is no point in entering another church ever again, period) across the bridge of Angles onto the Forum Romanum. No Italian boys this time, but a Dutch one who was the only person about my age in a group that otherwise consisted of older people. They had admirable stamina, it has to be said. I would give a lot to still be as active as they were at their age and to be able to follow the relentless schedule of getting up early and walking half a marathon each day.

In more recent years, I visited both Sicily and Sardinia. Sardinia was lovely, but Sicily was a bit of a bust: it rained for seven out of the ten days we were there. That is just not something I expect when going to Italy, it is supposed to be sunny and warm. The food was amazing though! We booked full board so every night we could enjoy amazing antipasti, primi, segundi and dolce. I probably gained ten kilos in just one week. Another highlight was climbing Etna, the 3,357 metres high volcano dominating the island. While we were there, it was actually quite active. We were able to travel up to 3,000 metres in some sort of crazy monster truck. We could hear, feel and see (the smoke arising from) a small eruption. Like with the Nyiragongo, it was a breath-taking experience walking around while you feel the earth moving underneath you. The cold was insufferable but it was very much worth it.

My mother and I have a bit of an obsession with tiramisu. There has been a time when, whenever it was available on the menu somewhere, we would feel obliged to order it. We have loosened up a bit since then but needless to say, when we were in Sicily, we absolutely hád to have dinner at a restaurant called Tiramisu and order the famous dish for dessert. I have tasted many tiramisus in my life and this was absolutely one of the best I ever had! Ordering tiramisu is always a bit of a gamble, because there are so many different ways to prepare it. I prefer mine not too wet, instead enjoying the fluffiness of the biscuits combined with the sweetness of the mascarpone and cream. I do not drink coffee but I tolerate it in tiramisu, as long as it is not too dominant (coming back to the earlier-mentioned preference for ‘not too wet’). In addition to the traditional version with chocolate, my mother makes a killer raspberry tiramisu. I make one with lemon that is also rather tasty. I am not sure whether to believe it, but looking into the origins of tiramisu I came across this interesting take on its history. And not just the Australians think it was invented inside a brothel. I have some difficulty picturing the combination of a dessert that is rather heavy on the stomach and physical activity but hey. 

The Alps instead of the Dolomites

On our trip this year we had a few places we wanted to visit: the Dolomites, Venice and Tuscany. I have never been to the Dolomites, but the pictures on the internet looked amazing. We also thought it would be a good idea to visit Venice especially now, as there would be hardly any tourists from Asia, the US or giant cruise ships. And Tuscany, well, I could do with some sunshine and wine. So we decided to travel clockwise, making a short stop in Freiburg (Germany) on the way to a campsite in the Dolomites. Unfortunately, the weather was horrible (once again), so we adjust our plans (once again, such flexibility) and started our roundtrip travelling clockwise through Germany, Piemonte, Tuscany, Veneto and Germany again. In the end, the weather in the Dolomites remained shitty for another three weeks so we decided to save that for another time.

Piemonte was stunningly beautiful. We started off meeting with friends who stayed on the shores of Lake Orta. We drank lots of limoncello and played a tennis match with a ridiculous view of the hills surrounding the lake. It was heart-warming to share careless time with friends after not having been able to do so for so long. Next stop was a grassy campsite near Mondovì, at the foothills of the Alps. We spent two days hiking in the national parc and getting completely lost. No worries though, we just retraced our steps and got back to the parking lot just fine. The view for lunch (at 2,000 metres) was gorgeous and we encountered only a few people on the way. We marvelled at the astounding stalagmites and stalactites in the Grotta di Bossea and enjoyed good gelato relaxing next to the pool.

Tourist traps without the tourists

In Tuscany we spent most our days drinking wine, relaxing at the pool and intensely enjoying the sun, heat and smell of pine trees. It was tough, but we managed to find some time to enrich our cultural selves. We were lucky enough to be in Siena on the date of the second Palio race, only to discover that it had been cancelled because of corona (of course). It would have been amazing to have seen the horses run around the Piazza del Campo but too bad. Perhaps another time. It did not affect my enthusiasm for Siena though, what a beautiful city! There is only a handful of cars in its medieval streets, strongly contributing to the feeling that you have travelled back in time. The steep and narrow alleys, shops with luxurious facades and the mesmerizing Piazza del Campo with its odd shape and clock tower are all equally pretty. If you can only visit either Siena or Florence, I would definitely pick Siena.

Florence was lovely too, with great architecture, the river Arno running through and artistic masterpieces in the Uffizi Galleries. There was probably only half the number of tourists that is usually there, but it still felt rather busy. Like Venice, and many other cultural hotspots like Barcelona and Amsterdam, it feels as if without the tourists the city centre would be empty and without life. Everything in the historic centre is either a museum, restaurant, hotel or souvenir shop. These streets and whatever is in it no longer serves a purpose to the people of Florence. This realisation saddens me. This way, the heart and soul of many cities are slowly fading, while only the buildings remain.

Wine, wine, wine

Most of you know, I like wine. Fortunately, the people in Italy do too. I was flipping through my photos, selecting pictures to include in this post, and realised that probably half of them include either food and/or a glass of wine. I will not deny it, one of the main reasons for picking Italy was the great food (I could eat pasta all day every day for the rest of my life) and the great wine. To be fair, when I started drinking wine I was a big fan of Spanish wines, but not so much the Italian ones. I found them to be a bit too fruity for my taste, too round so to speak. But then I met wines from Puglia, more full-bodied, and I learned to appreciate them.

First wine-shopping-stop was the night we had dinner in a vineyard. I never knew this was a thing, but in Italy, apparently it is. Winehouse Tenuta la Graziosa in the Barolo region hosts several in the months of July and August each year. They set up some tables in between the wine ranks and put up some festival light strings, instantaneously creating a romantic atmosphere. They serve a menu of traditional, regional dishes (carne crudo, vitello tonato, yummy) with endless supplies of their good wine. Halfway through the evening the owners pass among the tables to serve a glass of their premium wine so you can compare (and buy) it. It was a lovely evening, which took a hilarious turn when the DJ present put on some hardstyle: for our Dutch and Belgian guests. Very romantic…

Though difficult to top, after that we had more good wine in Tuscany, home of the chianti. Our campsite was on the top of a hill, one of the many covered in grape vines. The grapes belong to wine house Villa Trasqua, so of course we had to do some tasting there, looking out over the vineyard. I did not think myself capable of it, but drinking red wine in the early afternoon when it is almost 40˚C in the shade was actually not too bad. They really managed that chianti to be a light wine, suitable for all temperatures. One of the advantages of a large campervan is that we had plenty of room to store all those bottles we bought along the way. The new additions to our collection include a Barolo, a passito de Toscana (dessert wine), the inevitable Brunello di Montalcino (which I have never tried before) and a couple of spumantes.

A thousand canals

After all this debauchery it was time to slowly work our way back up north. Venice, here we come! The absence of insane amounts of tourists in Florence and Siena confirmed our initial assumptions and we were happy to found out this was also the case in Venice. Though still crowded, especially in the many narrow streets, we could actually see St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace on Piazza de San Marco without having to stand on each other’s shoulders. No matter how flooded with tourists (or water for that matter), one should visit Venice at least once. It is one of a kind, something I have never seen before and I am sure I never will. A thousand canals, narrow streets, the five story houses build on the water, the Grand Canal with its traffic: it is really something special. I think cities and water make for a magical combination and Venice has plenty of it.

I find it difficult to find the right words to express how truly unique this place is. I walked around for two days in a state of continuous amazement. Every hour or so I would say something like: ‘this city is crazy’ or ‘this city is so special’. I have travelled quite a lot in my life and so often I arrive somewhere and am able to compare it to places I have been before. Sure, Florence is nice, but not as special as Rome or Siena. Similar to when I was in Petra (Jordan), in Venice I was thoroughly aware of the fact that this was something that I had nót seen before. I had no reference points and I loved it because only then you achieve that state of continuous amazement I mentioned. Venice is utterly crazy though, almost like an open air museum (it will not be long before we have to buy tickets to enter). People are fleeing from the city because of the rising water, ridiculously high housing prices and the lack of jobs outside of the tourism industry. When you walk around at night you realise that probably a quarter of the houses is empty: no one is living there and it is uncertain if someone ever will.

I’ll be back

Every time I take a trip like this one to Italy, I appreciate Europe even more. How wonderful is it to have countries like France, Spain and Italy so nearby? A one-day-drive transports you to a completely different landscape, culture and, let us not forget, climate. How cool is that?! I am sure I will return to Italy, if only because it is so close. Also because we did not go to Pisa because we wanted to see Cinque Terre. Which we did not see because the train refused to depart. The Dolomites are also still out there and I am longing to go (as soon as we build a heater into our campervan).

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