September 2013

Complimenti, Signora

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We just love the Italians!  They like motorhomes and have a lot of them so they are tuned in to what we are doing.  They are so interested in us and admire our coach and think we are amazing people to have traveled in all the countries we show on our map.  A few days ago we were parked in a small rural sosta (what the Italians call organized rest areas for motorhomers – parking + water/electric/dumping facilities – or some combination thereof).  I was busy making dinner when I noticed a fellow slowly wandering around the coach, looking at the map on the side and the stickers plastered all over the back.  The window was open.  I said “buona sera” and we smiled at each other.   Then, even with my dismal understanding of Italian, I felt sure that “Tutti mondi?” meant he was asking if I’d actually been to all those places.  “Yup”, I said.  He raised both arms and burst out with “Complimenti, signora” and grinned.  Then he went on his way with a wave.  

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Rick and I were absolutely thrilled.  It proved once again what we’ve always felt:  the Tiger is, all by itself, an ice breaker in foreign countries.  It’s cute and friendly-looking.  It has maps and stickers and pictures of turtles and rabbits stuck all over it.  It’s so approachable.  People take pictures of us as they drive by on the road.  They send us emails because our website is written on the truck.  They stop to talk and want to know where we’ve just been and where are we going next.  They find out we’re from California and we’ve been living in this truck for most of the last seven years and we shipped this truck over to Europe four years ago – and they are amazed.  

I don’t mention this to say how cool we think we are.  But we’ve always considered ourselves to be ambassadors to other lands in a very small way, and we think it’s working.  We’re approachable, happy to share our experiences, and we have this cute little truck that everybody loves.  It sure adds to our experiences abroad and occasionally even gives us a title for a newsletter.

But enough.  You’d rather hear about traveling in Italy and all the lovely places we’ve been.  There have been lots of them, and more to come.  We’d been eager to return to Italy after we’d traveled through the northern area two years ago, and here we are.  In and amongst everything else we had going on, we worked hard to prepare for our arrival.  We read the guide, studied the maps and articles I’d found about places to go and – most importantly, we spent many an evening enjoying our favorite movies set in Italy.  You know:  The Italian Job, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Italian For Beginners (in Danish), Tea With Mussolini, and several in Italian you’ve probably never heard of.  We saved Il Postino and Malena for over the winter, as we won’t be going to Sicily until the spring.  You would’ve been proud.  

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Leaving Germany we moved south into Austria, rapidly climbing into the mountains. Soon we found ourselves enjoying alpine meadows with more and more snow- capped peaks showing up around us.  Austria is an incredibly lovely place that we haven’t managed to spend much time in so far.  It just seems like we’re always moving through on our way someplace else.  Our biggest impression is of endless fields of grass fronting forested peaks.  It seems like someone must spend a lot of time sitting on a lawnmower trying to keep the lovely green stuff under control.

Before long we found ourselves saying hello to Italy once more.  We were in the Italian Alps. Immediately we hauled out ole’ TIM, our Italian dongle.  After some fussing, Rick was able once again to bend the internet gods to his will and we were up and running – hopefully with pretty much full coverage for the next several weeks.

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I’m not going to try and sort out the differences between Alps, Tyrol, and Dolomites.  Doesn’t matter.  We meandered along, enjoying the incredible scenery.  We wandered up a lovely valley, simply looking for a place to stop for the night.   The road finally came to a halt near a beautiful hotel and lake.  We found a place for ourselves to stay and took a walk out to enjoy the view of the lake and the mountains behind.  It was quite something.  The next morning we got a rare early start and the morning light was glorious.

We took the Tiger up over high passes (wishing we were on the motorcycle) and past many ski resorts.  They are set up for winter fun, of course, but are also busy right now.  Many Europeans are walkers and hikers, and there are plenty of trails leading away from these resorts.  We even took one hike ourselves, although Kathy made it further than Rick, really enjoying the terrific views from on high.  Gorgeous.  The area is northern Italy’s winter and summer mountain playground and is very popular.  It is also an expensive area to spend time in, and we didn’t linger too long.  We had other fish to fry.

We were heading toward Venice, with smiles on our faces and anticipating a really good visit about to happen.  We had skipped Venice two years earlier, as it was mid-summer and high tourist season.  We were hoping to find it a little quieter in September.  Tackling a large destination like Venice really is not our favorite thing and it takes a lot of planning when you are arriving by motorhome, but we’d gotten some good advice from friends (thanks again, Joel and Cindy) and thought we’d do all right.  

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So we dropped down out of the mountains, out onto the rich agricultural Po River Delta, going from over 5000 feet all the way down to about 6 feet below sea level.  Such a difference.  Approaching Venice there were lots of very old towns along the road; they were somewhat decrepit but still very atmospheric, many complete with palm trees.  It really set the mood for visiting The Queen of the Sea. 

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We spent our nights parked across from Venice on the mainland, taking a bus in each morning.  Venice is made up of a collection of small islands, but overall it’s pretty big so we tried to organize areas to visit each day.  The city is so visual that everywhere you turn there is something of interest to enjoy, whether it’s the architecture, the colors, the bridges, the canals or just the overall uniqueness of the experience.  Even the Basilica di San Marco (with its entry area covered in scaffolding) was full of interesting things to enjoy.  Venice knows no off season, so there still were tons of people, but as is so often the case all we needed to do was to cross a little bridge over a little canal, turn a quick corner, and we had a small piazza all to ourselves.  There was the occasional kittycat on a ledge, washing hanging from a window, flowers in pots – exactly as you would hope for.  And it was charming.

We wandered for three full days; the weather was dry if overcast, and it got better each afternoon.  We were exhausted at the end of each day, and could hardly make our way back to the bus for the ride back to the Tiger.  But it was worth it.  We’d seen great architecture; enjoyed the interiors of tiny, forgotten churches (Santa Maria dei Miracoli was our favorite); had lunch beside the Grand Canal; explored hidden corners; and taken almost 1500 pictures between us.  We finally left because we were whupped and we were afraid if we stayed longer we’d just take more pictures!  

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There were some aspects of Venice that made us sad.  There are banners draped across the facades of many historical buildings with commercial advertising on them – a huge Gucci ad adorns one of the buildings in Piazza San Marco, would you believe!  There are only four bridges crossing the Grand Canal, all famous; and three of them had advertising banners attached - Yuck.  The major museums and palaces were so expensive, and so crowded, that even if you got there at opening times there was no pleasure to be had – we mostly skipped.  We went to the Piazza early one morning and the rest of our stay we basically did our best to keep away from the “A” list attractions.  This is too bad, because we missed seeing things we would have enjoyed.  Unfortunately, it is all just part of the reality of modern travel.  The Good News is that there seem to be an awful lot of folks around the world who can afford to travel; the Bad News is that all these visitors can cause the most popular destinations to become overwhelmed.

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Hopefully we are not belaboring the point, but we have to mention the presence of the cruise ships; it is interesting to note the effect they have had on a major tourist area.  If you’ve been to Venice you can picture this – along the waterfront fronting the Palazzo Ducale, where these ships dock ,there are ramps made of scaffolding materials built over the lovely bridges crossing the side canals.  This is apparently to facilitate the movement of the huge mobs of people (perhaps many of them unable to climb up and down stairs?) off the ships and into the piazzas.  It was pretty awful.  Apparently we just missed 6 cruise ships all lined up in front of the Piazza San Marco!  We were lucky.

But back to Venice itself.  It’s an incredibly fascinating city.  When you consider its history as a major power in the world, the fact that it is slowly sinking into the mire, the lovely architecture and art, the Murano glass it continues to produce – the list goes on.  It was fun taking the vaporetto along the Grand Canal and watching the city’s “regular” life pass on parade.  There are lots of pleasure boats of course, along with the transportation system involving the gondolas, water taxis and vaporettos, but we also saw a DHL boat doing its deliveries, a cement boat bringing supplies to a construction site, and a lot more of the same.  It’s easy to forget that Venice is a city with much in common with any other despite its differences.

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We are always interested in naval museums, and Venice has a very nice one.  One thing that I liked so much was that it has a rather narrow focus – Venice itself.  Most naval museums are concerned with the country’s history at sea, good and bad.  For Venice, the sea and the city are so intertwined that Venice’s naval history is really the history of the city itself.  This may be because Italy didn’t even become a country until the 1880s, amazing as that sounds.  Venice in its glory days was a city-state, answering only to the pope and that only sometimes.

Anyway!  The museum was full of diagrams of foreign fortresses and their approach from the sea; models of ships, cannon, uniforms – all the usual, all in abundance.  The power of the church was represented by a model of a doge’s craft, covered in gold, and there was an interesting display about how gondolas work and some historic examples of the big curvy things at the front end.  Cool.  I wish there had been a model of the bay showing the tides and how the water is undermining the houses and where the sinking is the worst and why; stuff like that, but it was still a nice visit and wonderfully un-crowded and inexpensive.  

We finally left Venice, tired but happy.  It had been a good visit but enough was enough.  Oh, and all those photos… yes indeed, we did manage to capture some nice memories of our time in Venice as you can see by visiting the photo page.

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 In the interest of self-preservation, we traveled on down the road to Modena, where we paused for an ice cream and to check out the old part of town.  Fairly scruffy, it didn’t hold us long.  But it was kinda cool to be tooling down the street in the Tiger right next to a rumbling Ferrari – INDEED!  And that’s the only clue you need to help you know why we were there – to see the two great auto museums nearby.  Turin may be the Detroit of Italy, home to Fiat and the long-time hub of Italian auto manufacturing, but Modena is the San Fernando Valley, the hot-rod center; the home of the great Italian racing dynasties.  Ferrari has been based in nearby Maranello since its founding in 1946; Maserati was founded in nearby Bologna, but moved to Modena for a lengthy period.  Other well known racing names have called the city home as well, as they located themselves in and around the city to take advantage of the great designers, engineers and fabricators living in the area.  

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Today, Ferrari has two separate museums and Rick enjoyed them both.  Museo Ferrari, adjacent to the factory in Maranello, houses an excellent collection of racing Ferraris from 1949 to the present along with special exhibits.  Rick was delighted to be able to see the 1961 Grand Prix car that first caught his imagination when he discovered European road racing while in Junior High school.  Meanwhile, Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari in Modena tells the story of Enzo’s life and the founding of the Ferrari legacy.The cars on display at this location are all shown in special exhibits so what you see will depend on when you visit.  Rick was fortunate in that the current display featured Grand Prix cars from 1949 to 1994 and included many cars from the fifties and sixties, the era of his greatest interest.  Both museums were excellent and you can see lots of photos of these beautiful cars by going to our Planes & Trains & Automobiles page.

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Another fun story came about as a result of our overnight stop in the town of Fiorano Modenese, a suburb of Modena and the town right next to Maranello.  We were parked in the local sosta, a very clean and pretty spot, when a nice man came along and gifted us with a couple of brochures on the town and its attractions and a bottle of wine!  I mean, how cool can it get?  Stapled into one of the brochures was a business card, not of an actual business hoping to sell us something, but from the local Camping Club.  It was they who maintained the sosta and no doubt had a big hand in making it happen at all; they made it a habit to come around to greet their guests and make them feel welcome.  We did indeed!  

Tearing ourselves away from this lovely, low-key experience, we headed directly south into the Apennines, down into Tuscany.  As we started into the mountains, the trees really were showing good fall color.  Autumn (and October) had arrived.  We took winding roads and made poor time as we climbed, but the views were excellent and, well, that’s why we have the Tiger.  Tigers like hairpin turns.  We spent the night at 3164 feet elevation and the temperature fell to 34 degrees (1℃).

We were moving south quickly so we could meet up with two sets of American friends; one who’d been wandering around Europe about as long as we have and another who were winding up a month-long vacation in Italy.  After enjoying their company and some nice meals over the course of a few days, and seeing a bit of Tuscany, we were planning to return further north again, to Pisa, Bologna and Ravenna, before making a more organized sojourn through the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside.  We’ll get back to you with more on that next time.

For now, a big Ciao! from all of us here on Planet Tortuga. 

Click to see more photos from Venice

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018