South West France- a Default Destination

Not everyone enjoys travel. But those who do like it for a plethora of reasons, not least because there is so much pleasure to be had from exploring a new destination. I believe this is due to our innate thirst to learn, which does not [as far as I’m concerned] become less with age.

Having said this, there are favourite places for all travellers that they love and return to repeatedly. Call these places ‘default’ destinations. For some it’s the theme parks of Florida, others love the Canary Islands or the Costas, or Scotland.

For us, the default is France, and more specifically, south west France, everywhere from south of Bretagne down to below Bayonne and around the corner to the Spanish border has been visited, stopped at, tried and tested. Some places have become regular stops over the years, like the unappealingly named, ‘Le Gurp’ in the Gironde, a municipal camp site, pine woods stretching out into dunes, a few minutes walk up over a hummock to a minimal row of shops and bars and then the vast expanse of creamy white beach. The Atlantic Ocean rolls huge, frothy waves onto the sand. To the left are concrete remnants of old military bunkers, liberally graffitied. To the right the beach romps away into the distance. Walk far enough and you’ll be right in among the naturists!

In the beginning we travelled with a tent- or rather a series of tents, then later with our first, small van [A VW pop-top, much beloved by Husband], later still, newer vans with enhanced facilities, and while we’ve explored much further afield and completed vastly longer trips, we continue [when possible] to revisit SW France.

The few bars offer just enough in terms of evening entertainment, a couple of beers and a meal seated out on the decking to watch the beach world pass by. We’ve been visiting Le Gurp since our tent travels of the 90s and I’ve no doubt we’ll return.

On the coast near Bordeaux, Le Porge is another favourite, recommended by an American we met at Bordeaux’s own site [a convenient, easy cycle from the centre] it also has a handful of beach bars and a wide, wild beach.

Further south, in Les Landes, we’ve enjoyed some wonderful times at camping St Martin, which again has direct access to an outrageously gorgeous beach plus a range of restaurants, bars and shops. From here, beautiful, paved cycle routes extend along the coast both ways, even and into miles of pine forests. The site provides pristine facilities and has become a firm favourite that we’ve returned to many times over the years.

Further north there are beautiful islands: Isle de Re, Isle de Noirmoutier and Isle d’Oleron, accessed via arching bridges and each with their own character; they are marvels for those who enjoy seafood and especially oysters [a pleasure I came late to but have embraced!].

There are countless, tiny places up and down the long Atlantic coast that we’ve stayed in; Conti Plage, Moliets, Arcachon- too many for me to recall. There are many cycle routes we’ve repeated, cafes and bars we’ve revisited, stores we’ve returned to.

On occasions we’ve left if the weather hasn’t been good, perhaps to dash south or drop around the corner and across to Portugal. But we know we’ll be back again, parking the van up in old haunts that feel like coming home.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

A Fine Week for Devon

We reserved a table outside at The Ship Inn at Cockswood for 6.00pm, hoping that the sun would last long enough for us to be comfortable. In the event, although we’d selected a table that would catch the last rays, the wrought iron chairs, surrounding trees and an invading cloud thwarted any hopes of warmth. It was a good meal, but I envied those who’d had the forethought to bring cosy blankets to wrap up in. A chilly edge to the wind persisted.

Half way through our week exploring the Ex estuary we moved to the other side of the river, to a site called Prattshayes, joining a handful of vans and caravans in a field next to a small stream, presumably once a farm but now a holiday complex consisting of camp site and rental cottages. Less than half a mile up the lane lies the village of Littleham, a large community with two pubs. We wandered up in evening sunshine and had a beer in the garden of The Clinton Arms, although the menu wasn’t tempting.

Cycle fanatic van neighbours, older but clearly more sprightly, recommended a route along an old railway track to Budleigh Salterton, which we decided to tackle next day.

The first climb came up through Littleham village, then after some confusion about where the cycle path began we rode up…and up…

The path curved up through woods, occasional gaps giving glimpses of wonderful views over the Devon countryside and farmland. While it was never steep the gradient was relentless. I vowed not to get off and push as I had on the way to Dawlish and was relieved to make it to the top without walking and even with one or two gears left! Then it was the blessed downhill slope and a hopeless muddle of attempts to find the cycle path in the back streets of Budleigh.

At last we plunged down into the tiny town and to the pebbly beach, where a kiosk was doing brisk business in ice creams and coffees. Feeling that an ice cream might be deserved by now we indulged, then walked the bikes along the prom until we were back in town.

We followed up for our final day with a walk up and along the coast path via ‘Sandy Bay’ holiday park, memorable in that in must surely be the most vast array of chalets the world has to offer, [unless you, reader, know better?]. Once we’d crossed it, though, the coastal views were wonderful and we could loop back along the lanes and a footpath to our site without retracing our steps.

That was it for south Devon- until the next time- and somewhere I’ve never been…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

A Tiny Taste of Freedom

We are in Devon, south west England, just for a week. I’ve paused my antipodean travelogue for this diversion, mostly because any kind of change of scene is a novelty in these restricted times.

The 20/21 winter was long, difficult and gloomy, with its deluge of grim news and statistics pouring out day after day. It prompted a longing for at least some spring weather and lighter evenings. Nobody wants to wish their life away, least of all those of us with fewer years ahead, nevertheless I longed for spring. Now here it is; and with it a small loosening of the bonds that tied us.

We are re-aquainting ourselves with our campervan, which we have used for odd days out but not for an overnight stay since last summer. The weather is fine, with a cold-edged wind as we prepare and pack and I know for sure I’ll have forgotten items or will have packed entirely unsuitable clothing.

We sweep down and across our home county of Dorset following a route we’ve travelled many times but that always provides magnificent views of the Jurassic Coast and charming villages along the way.

We’ve had to begin reserving, planning and booking- a strategy we’re unused to employing as we usually travel on a ‘where shall we go today?’ basis, once, famously turning right at Bordeaux instead of left for the Med due to a forecast of snow, and landing up in the beautiful sunshine of Portugal instead.

Our first destination is in the village of Starcross, between Exeter and Dawlish, a farm site in a valley with a stream and a pond, beautifully laid out. We have a pitch overlooking the hens’ enclosure. It is warm enough to have coffee or lunch outside and I become fascinated by hen society; the way they move en masse from one area to another or individuals make sudden bursts of running for no apparent reason. When I approach the fence they all gravitate to me, presumably in hopes of food although I prefer to imagine it’s in greeting.

Having set up, we walk into Cockswood, a few minutes away, to sit in the outside area of The Ship pub for a drink and to reserve a table to have dinner next evening. There is just enough warmth in the sun for it to be comfortable.

We swing easily into van routine, sleeping well and waking to tea before morning chores; emptying and water-filling. There’s plenty of time to read, write or potter [Husband’s preferred activity] then after lunch we set off for our first, amoebic cycle of the year, towards Dawlish. I’ve got over my first cycle wobbles by the time we reach Dawlish Warren, a funfair and tourist spot which is seething with revellers, although my thighs are aching, but when we turn up towards Dawlish itself the hill proves too much and I have to alight and push. I’m alarmed! Is this the end for me and cycling?

Next day we stride out along the footpath towards Exeter, past Powderham Castle and the church then along the river bank towards the canal. we stop for a rest at the loch, where the pub is doing great business, most tables being occupied. We turn back and sink onto a bench, footweary by the coffee kiosk in Starcross for reviving tea and cake.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

The Power and the Story

A chance meeting with neighbours on our site at Felixstowe, who’d recommended a site to us, had sent us scuttling back to the coast at Sizewell. Sizewell was an old fishing village once. Now it is better known for accommodating a notorious nuclear power station, Sizewell ‘A’, now decommissioned and encased in 3 metres of concrete. Sizewell ‘B’ sits next door to this huge, grey, man-made monolith and is sky-blue with a white dome, like a space-age cathedral. On arrival to Sizewell I experienced an irrational frisson of trepidation, perhaps brought on by a recent viewing of the hit series, ‘Chernobyl’.

Sizewell ‘C’ is now on the agenda, unpopular with many, judging by the signs dotted around the surrounding villages.

An extensive wind farm, Greater Gabbard was just about visible on the horizon out to sea. Once we were installed at our site and settled outside the bar, [which overlooks the wild beach], I eavesdropped on a neighbouring conversation in which a woman expressed vitriolic hatred for the wind farm, barely visible even on this clear, sunny evening. To her near left the twin power stations rose up menacingly, compounding the irony of her invective.

But despite the power monsters in their varied forms, this is a wonderfully wild and unspoilt piece of coastline, rich in wildlife. There are extensive marshes, forests and beach habitats. At the entrance to the beach car park a jaunty cafe, ‘Sizewell ‘T”, was doing a roaring trade in chips and ice creams.

It is a popular spot for locals and the touring section of our site was busy with a steady stream of visitors, although the shower blocks are closed.

We strode out along the beach, the weather clear and balmy and then down into Thorpeness, a cute, coastal village, thronged with visitors on this sunny afternoon. The village boasts a ‘mere’. Here was the original ‘Wendy’s House’ of J M Barry fame, also an immaculate windmill and the famous ‘house in the clouds’, which can be rented for holiday stays.

Aldeburgh is supposedly a simple cycle away from our site, though the path morphed from flat tarmac to rutted, sandy track in no time. Again, the town was busy with tourists, too many for the High Street pavements to cope with. It’s a pleasant seafront with fish smokeries and a broad, green swathe on which stands the ‘Moot House’, a half-timbered building housing what must be a tiny museum.

It took longer to queue for the checkouts at Aldeburgh’s High Street co-op than to explore its two or three streets. Provisions were running low and Sizewell is short on grocery stores [there are none].

Next day, with the promise of rain on our last day we cycled again, this time to Dunwich. The route was hilly, a surprise for the knees. Dunwich is a minute village, one street of cottages dominated by a pub/hotel, but with a cafe and kiosk near the beach. There is also a ruined abbey and a museum of sorts. Taking what Husband termed a ‘short cut’ back to our site at Beach view, we found ourselves in the National Trust reserve. ‘Strictly no Admittance without Tickets’ stated the sign as Husband rode through, oblivious. A second turning before the entrance booth took us along a heather lined track. ‘No Horses, no Bikes!!’ proclaimed the sign, which Husband peddled past, heedless. After several wrong turnings we arrived at a ‘kissing gate’ and were obliged to manhandle the bikes through it by up-ending them.

Our last day at Sizewell dawned humid and drizzly. After lunch we walked, taking in the beach and a dripping forest, sweltering in rainwear; and returning to our site for tea and cake.

Unknown Territory in our Back Yard

Four years of my childhood were spent in north Norfolk, in the environs of ‘The Wash’, a flat, featureless, agricultural landscape devoid of trees or anything of interest. You would only consider holidaying there if you were an obsessive ‘twitcher’. The Wash has a large population of water and shore-loving birds.

Other than this area, I know little of the area of the UK known as East Anglia, the part that sticks into the North Sea like a rounded carbuncle and boasts the largest container port in the UK, Felixstowe, in Suffolk. The town is also a seaside resort of the traditional British kind, with an abundance of fish and chip shops, ice cream vendors and gaudy amusement arcades. If you look along down along the handsome promenade from the north end, towards the pier you will see the pier head and rows of tall, port pylons rising above it. It makes for an interesting view.

Looking for hitherto unexplored parts of our island we stop at a site here, near enough to hear the cranes grinding and clanging at night as they reach down for each container and hoist it up high on to the impossible stack of the ship that is to transport them somewhere.

Next day we cycle through the nature reserve on a stony track dotted with clumps of hardy sea cabbage and when we reach the end the giant ship with its towering cargo is almost within touching distance, rearing up behind a shingle beach scattered with bathers and sunbathers.

Away from here, back at the seafront, the prom and gardens are pristine monuments to tourism, without a trace of irony. After a cycle northwards up the coast we take a ferry ride across the Orwell estuary, a staggering £12 return for a 2 minute voyage! But the last ferry returns at 5pm and we’ve scarcely half an hour’s cycling. When we get back the cafes and kiosks have closed.

On a patch of grass by the prom we can sit in the sunshine with a beer and watch the container ships queuing to get into port. Later we dine at the Steak and Lobster Restaurant, taking advantage of the cut-price, early weekday deal the government has provided, though we need no motivation!

The UK weather unleashes its predictable inclemency and a whole day is spent confined to van, writing. Valuable but not physically tiring enough to allow sleep.

Unable to reserve nearby sites we are forced outwards to Hertfordshire, to spend 3 nights outside the county town, which is ok, since neither of us has visited before. A late afternoon stroll around the town in the sunshine is enough to see the place-a pseudo castle, one or two historic buildings and a welter of pubs besides the usual high street carrying the usual stores.

But it does have a creditable cycle path along the Herford canal, continuing along the River Lea, and with a dry-ish day we spend a few hours cycling the tow path, past more narrow boats and barges than I’ve seen on one stretch, ever. The water is busy with river revellers, shouting, splashing, occupying locks, attempting to open/close locks, or [for those whose boats are their homes] pottering on their rooftop gardens and undertaking repairs.

Later, in a quiet, more picturesque part of town we find ‘The Barge’, a beautiful old pub by the canal offering splendid food in a lovely setting.

Then it’s time to move back East…

Pavement Etiquette

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As we know by now, routine is important in our new, scaled-down days. Here at the schloss we rise as always, never early and one of us stumbles down to make tea. Tea is accompanied by the news and the latest round of grim statistics, peppered with small sprinklings of hope and the usual puerile online offerings of entertainment.

I dress for exercise, following my self-imposed regime of Pilates on weekdays, varied by Yoga at weekends. We have coffee. I write, bake, correspond.

After lunch there is gardening or the permitted walk. Walks have taken on a new significance since the arrival of the virus, as the area we may explore has shrunk to our own locality. Though we are near to beaches and harbours and The New Forest National Park, we stick to the streets around our small town, where domestic gardens, concealed pathways, copses and lanes provide the interest.

In one direction lies a cemetery. Given the current situation it may seem a morbid choice for walking, but it is ancient, beautiful and peaceful as well as a treasure trove of historical discovery. I like to read the names on the stones, the ages of the inhabitants of the graves, the touching eulogies. Of course it is a melancholy place, with an area allocated to infants, their tiny plots adorned with toys and memorabilia revealing a universe of pain.

Inside the cemetery it is easy to avoid others. We can veer off around the paths in any direction we choose.

Outside on the streets, avoidance is a different matter. While a quiet street wit pavements both sides offers plenty of scope for diversion, the narrow pavements on the bridge crossing the river is a virtual minefield, with walkers both sides jostling with joggers and cyclists on the narrow path. At times you get stuck, walking on one side with no escape-then I resort to turning my back, since this is no time to worry about manners.

But we are fortunate, here. We have access to large areas of marsh, or woods, or country lanes and can escape into spacious landscapes with no more than a distant sighting of others.

And when we do cross over, or pass at a distance there is a small smile, a nod or a greeting, which all mean ‘we are in this together’.

One week later and the cemetery is closed to all except the users, so any of us may get to visit at some point…

The weather is perfect, sunny and spring-like, softening the pain of lock-down for those of us who are not sufferers of the virus or key-workers. We take to the saddle for our first cycle of the year and ride around the quiet lanes where avoidance is relatively easy, although even here there is congestion in places, some understanding the new ‘rules’ and some not.

But as time goes on the neighbourhood becomes quieter, there is increased understanding. What will life be like in the great ‘After? Will we have become institutionalised? Will we continue to creep about and cross the road to avoid others? Or will we gallop, whooping into the streets and fling ourselves at all and sundry? Only time will tell…

Lake Annecy and the Mountain Rescue

The cycle path to Annecy runs past our camp site entrance and it’s an easy ride into the town centre, all off road and tarmac, which is commonplace for France. Since this is an add-on to our Italian lakes trip and part of our return journey I’m not prepared for the gorgeous sight of this lakeside city with it’s historic centre so it comes as a bonus.

And it’s clear from the numbers of tourists swarming all over the streets, embarking and disembarking from leisure boats, sitting at pavement cafe tables and browsing the gift shops that we are not the only fans of Annecy on this warm, late summer day.

The narrow streets and ancient buildings are centred on and around the waterways that snake through and there is also a handsome chateau perched up high in an imposing position above the commercial areas.

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All this is against a backdrop of craggy mountains and serves to assuage some of the mourning I felt on leaving Lake Maggiore.

Next day we are up for a more challenging cycle and take the path the opposite way from our site, around the lakeside until it leaves the water and begins to wind upwards, inevitably.

It is Sunday. The cycle path is full of Sunday cyclists of all descriptions, from family groups with tiny tots to fully fledged, serious sports enthusiasts. We are in neither of these categories but we do still use pedal power and have not succumbed to the relative ease of the electric ‘E-bikes’ that appear to have exploded in popularity in recent years. As a result, I labour up each hill getting overtaken by breezy, carefree cyclists [of all ages] for whom an incline is not an effort. It is impossible to resist a rude gesture at each receding back as they whizz past us. It also becomes clear that the path is congested, with families, E-bikes and sports cyclists all sharing the same route.

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There are points of interest along the way, including clouds of hang-gliders raining down from the mountainsides as the path becomes a little quieter when it leaves the waterside.

After a decent mileage we opt for turning back rather than ploughing on and we begin to make our descent, heading towards a cycle-themed cafe Husband spotted on the way. We pass a gentleman cycling with a large box attached to the front of his bike, which on closer inspection reveals a disabled young person being transported along, musical accompaniment and all, and I give him a wave before crossing the road on to the next bit of path. Straight away we need to pause at a busy bike junction and it is here that a violent impact from behind catapults me over the handlebars of my bike and on to the tarmac, where I lie feeling helpless and trying to decide what has happened!

The man on the bike+box has stopped, having shunted me from behind, his vision obliterated by the buggy he’s been pushing along. Husband comes around and hefts me to my feet and a kind cyclist picks the bike up as I limp to a nearby tree stump to inspect the wounds; nothing broken but a fair bit of skin flayed from arm and leg. There is much apologising and Husband saying ‘It’s ok, it’s ok’ while I continue to be struck dumb, although I’ve dug out my mini first-aid kit and am cleaning up.

After a while we resume, slower now, passing a spot where a sports cyclist has also suffered a crash-but far worse, as he’s lying on the tarmac waiting for an ambulance. When we reach the café we are lucky to find a table but having waited too long to be served we give up and head back to site to sit in the sun. I may be classified as in ‘older age’ but not yet completely decrepit-

It’s time to return-after all we’ve another trip to prepare for!

 

Elevating Sights

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The site on the shores of Lake Maggiore seems big enough to swallow its neighbouring village, tiny Feriolo. And it is packed with Dutch and German visitors, making us almost the only British [there is one other unit I can see], unlike Garda, where almost everyone was from the UK.

Maggiore’s beach is sandy, making it a pleasant spot to spend an hour or two with a good book-or merely to stare into the distance as ferries criss-cross from Stresa, a few km along the lake, to the lake islands and back.

Mornings are becoming misty and moist now, although as the sun rises higher the weather is still blistering hot. We decide to give the cycle path that leads from the site a go, and it does appear at first as if it may take us to Verbania-a sizeable town further round the lake. We take a track down through a nature reserve and come to a dead end before finding another path over a small bridge. Following the road, it becomes tarmac and well-managed. We ride on. Then it stops.

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I am far too much of a coward to cycle along with Italian lorries so we turn back. This following paths and turning back when they peter out becomes the theme for the afternoon-but in the end we decide that all the back and forth paths probably gave us a good enough ride-if a little frustrating!

At Stresa, a short bus ride away, we can get a cable car ride up the mountain, Monte Mottarone, a compelling idea. When the bus picks us up from the stop at Feriolo it is packed with school students, most of whom are fixed on their phones. Clearly there is no custom of giving up seats for older passengers here, as Husband has to stand by the driver and I am obliged to occupy the steps by the front windscreen.

After we purchase the cable car tickets there is a short wait then we pile in to the car and it lurches away and up through the trees. Soon there are spectacular views of the lake and its islands, with darting, miniature boats against the blue waters. At the half way point we must disembark and swap on to a new car, which lurches away again. At the top the air is cool and thin but the mountain panorama is glorious.

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We get a coffee, although the restaurant’s terrace with a stunning view is reserved for those ordering meals! A clanking sound precedes the arrival of several bell-wearing donkeys, who wander down and past us to graze in the cable car area.

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I’ve suffered altitude sickness on two previous occasions and am not inclined to clamber about much at this height, so we eschew the chair-lift and the trolley switch-back and ride back down the mountain to the cable-car station, then on into Stresa.

The town has a swish waterfront promenade, landscaped with beautiful planting and with stunning views of Maggiore. There are also some seriously top-end hotels!

It’s tricky locating the bus stop for our return to Feriolo but I employ some of my ameobic [but burgeoning!] Italian and we find it, managing to get a seat, too.

The weather is set to change and it is time to be heading north and west on a slow journey home. And we are not yet finished with lakes…

 

 

 

Three Lakes

It is tricky enough to park a camper van at Lake Como, let alone find a place to stay, but we do find a site, albeit at the uninteresting end of the lake. The village is hosting a ‘truck’ festival and is thronged with fans of lorries. At the end of this Sunday the trucks are heading home, bedecked with lights, tinsel and decorations and, unburdened of a trailer,  showing off with a turn of speed.

We wander back to the site, where we are the only touring unit. The surrounding mountains are white-topped and have taken on a pinkish glow from the sunset.P1080117

It is time to get along to another lake and we’ve chosen one we’ve never heard of-Lake Iseo, which has the distinction of Europe’s largest lake island [according to our ‘Rough Guide’]. To get there we drive along a long way through a verdant valley where vineyards, orchards and salad crops line the hillsides and roadsides, eventually turning to climb up into a mountain pass. Here the buildings are Alpine chalets, the industry skiing. The largest town is Aprico, bustling even in the summer season.

Lunch is a stop in a lay-by outside a monastery. An opportunistic van is selling momastic produce: cheese, wine and nibbles, from which I feel duty bound to buy a sample. Soon we are plunging into a series of tunnels and there is our next lake,  Iseo, sparkling in the afternoon sun.

Lake Iseo, we find contains the largest European lake island, Monte Isolo, a circular mound rising from the lake, 9km in circumference and inhospitable to all traffic except deliveries and bikes. We can take our bikes on to the ferry, where a cycle rack at the prow provides parking.

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The cycle path around the island is picturesque, although sometimes challenging!

A rustic bar at a [lofty] half-way point provides cold beers, which are much needed!

On our second day we cycle from our site near the town of Iseo around to the southern end of the lake-pleasant and undemanding.

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Then it’s time to pack up and head off to Lake Garda, the largest of these Italian lakes, where we find a shady spot on a site in an old olive grove and are surprised to find a large number of British tourers for the first time this trip. The site has a large pool and a beach and is dog-friendly [unlike some], which may explain its popularity with my fellow-countrymen?

By now it’s hot and the olive trees are most welcome for the shade they provide. This is our second visit to Lake Garda, the first having been made en route to Sicily a couple of years ago, when we stayed at Peschiera, a few miles further around this southern end of the lake.

It doesn’t take too long to discover that cycling here is not for the faint-hearted [such as myself]-as the roads are not cycle-friendly, nor are the gradients. We will have to find another way to explore the vast expanse of Lago di Garda…

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On to Sunnier Parts

The weather has turned gloomy and drizzly as we leave Unterager and head towards Italy. Lake Lucerne is shrouded in mizzle, its frame of snowy peaks almost obliterated.

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We drive through the St Gotthard tunnel, waiting in line for our batch of vehicles to get a green light [presumably this is to avoid jams inside the tunnel]. Then it’s a short hop to Lugano, which holds a promise of stunning views as we travel through the pretty town and suddenly we are alongside the lake itself, adorned with intriguing towers, villas and churches. A quick glimpse and we are winding up hairpin bends, through tunnels and the border is upon us, vestiges of the old controls still there in the customs sign and the checkpoint.

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The weather brightens and soon we are driving into Porlezza, our first stop in Italy, a large site on the shores of lovely Lake Lugano.

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The town is a tiny, little known gem, with narrow, cobbled lanes against a backdrop of steep cliffs, a miniature square, a little church painted with frescoes on the walls and ceiling, bars and cafes along the waterfront, where I’m surprised to see a terrapin swimming alongside the ducks!

Rain sets in overnight and for half the next morning, before clearing enough for us to set off on along an old railway track turned cycle path towards Menaggio at Lake Como. As it’s a rail track we think the gradient can’t get too steep and to begin with it isn’t, leading off through the back of town and along the side of pretty Lake Piano, a nature reserve.

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The track climbs-and climbs. It becomes a relentless, knee-numbing challenge. We are overtaken by the inevitable E-bikes, prompting teeth-gnashing and finger gestures [from ourselves of course]. I begin to run out of gears. At last we reach the top and begin the descent, during which my hands become numb from holding the brakes on. We come to an abrupt halt at a road which snakes down in hairpin bends into Menaggio and I decide that’s enough, since mixing with Italian traffic on steep bends is not my cappuccino.

Then it’s back up again; up and up, and more up.

And then down.

The next day is to be devoted to Lake Como. We’ll drive to Menaggio and get a ferry across to Bellagio. Easy! But there is nowhere to park a van along the steep sides of the lake and we don’t find a car park until we reach Cadenabbia, which is ok because the ferries cross from here.

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Bellagio swarms with tourists, its steep, narrow lanes lined with designer outlets and gift shops. But it is pretty and worth the effort. After a wander up and down the streets and an ice cream we return to Cadenabbia to drive up the lakeside and find a site. Easier said than done!