Tuscany – camping La Futa

4th July:

Leaving Lazise on Wed, 2nd July, and heading further South, we thought we’d try to avoid the Autostrada for a while & see a bit of the Italian countryside (and save a bit of money in motorway tolls!). A couple of hours of negotiating bizarre junctions, our SatNav wanting to take us in every alternative direction but the one we wanted, and a million small towns and traffic lights made us head back to the Autostrada.

It’s starting to get late. The Italian campsite book I downloaded to my Kindle back in Heiterwang (download took 2 1/2 hrs) suggested an interesting looking campsite north of Firenze/Florence. What it didn’t say was that the climb up to the campsite – at 950m above sea level – was pretty torturous & the road surface was so bad, a blanket 30kph speed limit was in force over the entire stretch.

However, the campsite is fantastic.

La Futa

We were going to stay one night and we’re still here! Probably the best campsite we’ve ever stayed at. They have a Pizzeria for when the urge to prepare one’s own meals fails us. The toilet facilities are really something else: tiled in beautiful Italian tiles, with hi-tech, self-sanitizing loo seats (a new one on me!), high-tech temperature-selectable hair dryers, and beautiful Italian design wash basins. And everything is spotless.

Hi tech loo instructions
Hi tech loo
Fantastic Italian design

The views & sunsets are something else:

The Appennines
Tuscany sunset

The staff are also the most friendly and helpful campsite staff we’ve ever encountered.

Yesterday, we got the mountain bikes out and decided to get adventurous by following a trail [sic.] leading to a section of Roman road that had been discovered only relatively recently. The staff had suggested the trail should be ok for mountain biking: the very first bit of track off-road suggested otherwise, at least for Joy. A helpful dutch lady walker we met at that point said that after this first bit it was much flatter. We believed her. She was either lying or delusional. We pressed on regardless. Even I took the safe option of dismounting at one or two sections. Worryingly, the trail seemed to be going mainly steeply downhill. The worry being the knowledge that we’d have to go back the same way!

Roman road sections discovered. Sign showed the section was dated back to 187 years BC. One really gets a feeling of the smallness of our time and space when confronted with such antiquity. The ride back did involve a certain amount of pushing uphill, but we made it without incident.

Roman road

Lazise-Colá (by lake Garda)

We stayed in Lazise-Colà for 2 nights – it was wonderfully warm (~30°C), breezy and mostly sunny. The 2nd evening provided us with a good view of what looked like a spectacular thunderstorm in the distance.

We got the bikes out and cycled round the lake. A bit. Well, it was hot. We got lost. Call it adventurous, but it seems to happen to us a lot on our bikes: We follow what seems like a sensible, marked trail leading in the right direction. Then there’s a series of junctions with no waymarking.

Rural trails near lake Garda

We make a choice and follow it, and inevitably end up carrying bikes through undergrowth or whatever. This time, we ended up in a vineyard. Fortunately, I spotted a break in the fence between the vineyard and a metalwork shop, and our escape was assured.

There was a path around the lake – more of a footpath – and was sandy & hard going at times. But Garda was as wonderful as I remember it from the past.

Lakeside wildlife
Lazise harbour
Looking North towards Bardolino
Looking North towards Bardolino

Traffic, rain & Internet woes, but we’re in Italy!

A trying couple of days in some respects… We left Kathryn’s on Saturday afternoon, thinking we’d get to the Austrian border by the evening. Unfortunately, the “A8; Stuttgart richtung München, am Aichelberg zwischen Merklingen & Mülhausen” (a well-known and feared traffic announcement in Baden Würtemberg) traffic jam bit us hard (“wegen Bergungsbearbeiten”). In short, we covered just 8km in over 3 hrs, and any thoughts of getting to Austria vanished. In fact, we only made 60km all day.

3 hours into the traffic jam on the Autobahn going up Aichelberg

Eventually we got to the head of the queue, just to find the Autobahn was closed & all traffic was being taken off onto the side roads. After about 5km, we happened across a “Wohnmobilstellplatz” in Bad Ditzenbach: This is akin to the French “aires” (see my earlier post) insofar as you can park up overnight for free, or for just a modest fee.

Yesterday morning, we set off relatively early (for us) and hammered (relative term for our motorhome, approx = 60mph) down past Ulm (stopping first in Blaubeuren to admire the bare cliffs). Before we got as far as the Algaü, it had started to rain and get colder. We stopped at Heiterwang – just over the border in Austria – at another Stellplatz; this time with great facilities, and a Gasthof attached! Wienerschnitzel mit Pommes for me & a Tyrolean version of Käsepätzle for Joy; both excellent.

The food was accompanied by the host who entertained us with the piano accordion, guitar and his singing.

Our musical host

The wireless internet was – however – troublesome to say the least, taking several hours to try to download an Italian camping book. The rain, in the meantime, had completely failed to ease up.

Overnight, the rain continued to not ease up. Quite the opposite, in fact. The temperature dropped to around 6 or 7 degrees, too. The main skylight in the van – the one that had leaked previously and had allegedly been fixed – leaked. The waste bin was pressed into service as a water collection device.

This morning, it was pretty damn cold, and still pouring down. When we stayed in Heiterwang several years ago – camping in a tent – we had a similar rain problem then (though not as cold). We came to the same conclusion this time as we did then: head to Italy asap.

However, the scenery around Heiterwang is stunning, even in the rain – and is worth seeing despite the cold:

The low cloud & rain

As we were getting ready to leave this morning, a group of Belgian bikers – all on big Harley-Davidsons – who’d stayed the night in the Gasthof, were leaving. As a special goodbye, the landlord climbed up to the roof with his baritone saxophone, and played them out!

Sax on the roof
Blow that horn
What goes up…

Quite bizarre, but not to be missed.

We then pressed on down through Austria, via Innsbrück, and over the Brenner Pass into Italy. It’s about a 50mile long descent from the Brenner, and it was getting warmer all the way – just what we needed.

We eventually arrived at a Sosta (an Italian version of an aire) in Lazise, near the bottom end of Lake Garda. Al fresco dinner with a glass of wine watching the sun set. We feel we’re there.

Dunno what’s going on with their wireless internet, though: my phone connected immediately with no problem. My Kindle won’t connect at all. Joy’s phone won’t connect and the laptop won’t connect. Most strange. Joy’s phone eventually managed to connect but we don’t know why, but no such luck with either the laptop or the Kindle. So what, I don’t hear you cry? Well, I would have liked internet access on the Kindle ‘cos I have the Times & Sunday Times app on there, and the laptop ‘cos I can’t write this blog from my phone! In the end, I was able to use my phone as a WiFi access point for the laptop, and this is the happy result.

Cheers!

It’s warm enough to sit outside!

About to move on…

Been at our daughter’s for 3 days now, and it’s been great to see them. Also gave us chance to replace the lost part of our toilet cassette – the part that contrived to drop off into the toilet disposal point in Longwy!

After an excellent BBQ, along with Mark’s parents, granddaughter Emily insisted on sleeping in the van last night with Nanny…

Emily gets a bedtime story in the van

…and actually managed to sleep all night!

Now it’s time to move on. Although we’d originally thought we’d get down to Naples (Pompeii & Herculaneum), we feel the delays in the UK have now made this unfeasible without running into main holiday times. We’re also now a little more experienced in knowing how long it takes to get anywhere at the van’s ponderous speed (or lack thereof).

Tuscany is now in our sights, though exactly where is uncertain. We’ll probably take in 2 overnight stops on the way. Not sure where we’ll have an Internet connection again, nor when. Keep looking…

Arrived at our daughter’s house

We’re in Germany. Ehningen, to be precise.

Two days without any internet connection and I feel like I’ve been cast adrift. What were those days like before the Internet? I guess I’ve been in the IT industry so long, I can’t remember. We even had company-wide internal email in HP in 1983. Now, If it feels completely unnatural not to have permanent, wireless access.

Arrived in Calais around 2:15am, local time. We never intended to get the late ferry but – without having booked the early ferry (believing we could just rock up & pay at the gate) – we found the price of the earlier ferries had gone up from £43 to £105. So we booked the late ferry at £43 still.

We spent out first night away in the stunningly exotic location of Calais docks departure area. We’d read that it was possible to park up there overnight, the trick being to leave the arrivals area, drive out of the docks to the 1st roundabout, then double back to the departures where you could park up in a motorhome. Ok, so we were tired; we managed to get into the freight terminal amongst several hundred trucks from Rumania, Poland, Latvia, & goodness knows where else. We were politely shown the  exit – the gate of which slid open majestically to allow us through to the outside world. A second stab at it saw us successfully entering the “departures with no tickets” area, complete with large car park sectioned-off for cars, motorhomes, buses, hang gliders, rubber dinghies, illegal immigrants, etc. It was almost full. We managed to park our beast in a slot designed for a Smart car, adjacent to an old, UK-licensed Astra with blacked-out windows and completely flat tyres, that clearly hadn’t been parked-up there anytime recently.

In the morning, we thought it would be nice to drive to an “aire” a few miles out of Calais, towards Dunkirk. We’d bought ourselves a guide book to all the French aires, and the one we selected sounded like a great place for breakfast. We’ll never know. We never found it. I think we covered 50% of the N of France coastline but had to give up in the end.

So we chose another one from the book, a little further along the route. We found the town. We even found the street, but we couldn’t find the aire – nor the cemetery it was allegedly next to – until our 3rd pass. Excellent. We even managed to find a friendly artisanal boulangerie close by.

By lunchtime, we hit the road proper: Lille, Namur, and a whole string of other places until we arrived at our next chosen aire at Longwy. In France, but we’d gone in & out of Belgium & Luxembourg several times in the 30 mins before arriving. With a name like that, it could have been in Wales.

I can’t figure out what drives the French to offer these aires. To cynical Brits, it seems odd that French local communities should go out of their way to provide (usually) free parking, often with water, electrical hookup, and chemical toilet emptying facilities. What’s in it for them? Many of these aires seem to be in provincial towns of little touristic interest, so I don’t really get it. Don’t get me wrong; I think they’re a fabulous institution, and maybe they are run out of true altruism for the traveller. But in the UK, they’d be barricaded, there’d be height barriers, £20 overnight parking fees & the threat of clamping for non-compliance. Which would you prefer?

Today, we drove again in & out of France, Belgium & Luxembourg for a while (Note: Luxembourg is THE place for less expensive diesel fuel. We even came across a bizarre section of road where – on one side of the road were – quite literally – ten or eleven gas stations next to each other. On one side of the road only. That side of the road was in Luxembourg, the gas station-free side was in Belgium.)  before crossing into the land of speed-unrestricted motorways.

I’ve said this before of Germany: The fact that large stretches of Autobahn have no speed limits is – of itself – no great safety problem in my mind as long as all the traffic is doing more-or less the same speed. The trouble comes when you have a string of BMWs, Mercs, Audis, Porches, VWs all doing over (say) 160km/hr (around 100mph), when a truck (or even a ponderous motorhome like ours) doing 60km/hr going uphill pulls out to overtake another truck doing 59km/hr. That’s a closing speed of 100kph (or 60mph). And the thing is, those fast cars weren’t even in your rearview mirror when you pulled out. It’s the speed differential that’s the problem. Although some idiot is always going to try sending a text message whilst doing 180. That can be a problem too.

We have to allow ourselves an extra 25% on our SatNav’s anticipated journey times: Garmin haven’t yet figured that some vehicles just can’t do their calculated avg. speeds.

Our daughter’s house is on a teeny-weeny cul-de-sac, 6 houses long, and about 3.4m wide. Our van is 2.3m wide. There’s nowhere to turn even a Smart car around in the street. The only way is to reverse in; a worrying time for the neighbours’ walls and gardens. Made it without any known damage to vehicle or property. Whew.

Lovely to see our family & grand-children again.

The van’s back again

I did indeed take the van all the way back to the dealer’s at Weston on Wed 18th Jun, with the hope that I’d have it back today (Sat).

The good news:

  • A phone call last night (Fri) confirmed it would be ready for collection this morning, so I took the kindly-loaned-but-otherwise-‘orrible courtesy car (Rover 25. Ugh) back down the M5, luckily missing the worst of the Saturday morning “let’s all rush down to Cornwall while the weather’s nice & clog up the motorways” traffic.
  • It’s not blowing reversing light fuses any more, and the reversing light is actually working
  • They replaced the split breather hose on the fuel tank – they had to remove the fuel tank to do this.

The less good news:

  • They seem to have lost a fair amount of fuel in the process
  • The reversing camera doesn’t automatically switch on when reverse gear is engaged (they hadn’t thought to check that). Apparently, the garage that the dealer took it to had “tidied up” the wires at the reversing switch on the gearbox. They’ve probably disconnected the reversing light feed to the camera in that process.

We can live with manually switching the camera monitor on when we need it and they agreed to sort out the wiring when we’re back (in September?). So we’re now looking for a tomorrow night or Monday departure from Thornbury. Excitement is mounting. Time to start packing.

There’s a possibility that one or two of Joy’s friends may make use of the house while we’re gone – so I’ve started writing out lists of instructions for things like gas valve; water stop valve; boiler/heating; shower; fuse board location; fridge; freezer, etc. Hopefully these notes will make sense.

Further woes

A phone call from the dealer’s in Weston yesterday morning told me it was all ready to collect, so off I went back down the M5.

They’d kindly fitted new tyres (6 of them) following my complaint that the tyres that were on there – despite having done only 14700 miles – were still 8 years old and all had degraded and cracked sidewalls. Yup, they’d got it started after having taken the driver’s seat off to get at the battery and removing a piece of aluminium foil from between the negative terminal post and the cable clamp; claiming this to be the cause of it failing to start. With a distinct air of bullshit, I headed home with it. However, the wheel alignment seems to be out now – pulling to the left.

Called in at Bradley Stoke to fill up with fuel on the way back, & thereafter, there was the ever-present smell of diesel pervading the cab. We’d noticed this the first time we filled it up on our way to the Brecons. However, the smell had disappeared by the time we got to our destination so I though no more about it.

When I got home, I discovered the brand new reversing camera didn’t switch on when going into reverse gear. Not really wanting to have yet another trip down to WSM, I booked it in locally to have the wheel alignment checked (8am this morning), then spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon looking into the reversing camera problem – having assumed the cause to be related to the dealer having removed the phenomenally intermittently noisy indicator buzzers (at my request) under the instrument panel, adjacent to the camera wiring. The camera/display has a wire connected to the reversing light: This wire is what switches the display on & off. Lo and behold, the reversing light wasn’t lighting either. Check the fuses: There is a fuse for the reversing lights. 15A. Blown. 15A seems like a lot of spare capacity for a single reversing lamp. I didn’t have a spare 15A fuse, but I did have a 10A. Tried it – blew straight away. Give up.

However, whilst I was working on the reversing light fault, I noticed that from time-to-time, the automatic gear panel would occasionally light up as though doing its power-on self-test, accompanied by the sound of the automatic gears engaging. This was completely independent of anything I was or wasn’t doing at the time. Also, even with engine ignition off and the keys removed, there’s a constant buzzing/whirring sound under the hood. Something is running the whole time. Could this be something to do with the flat battery/can’t start problem?

This morning, it almost didn’t start: battery seemed pretty low. I never bought the idea of the alu foil on the terminal post as being the cause of dead battery/non starting.

I took the van round to have the steering alignment checked: They couldn’t do it because the laser beams from their alignment tools were being blocked by the coachbuilt body. I’d need to take it elsewhere. However, taking the van off the ramp, I noticed a trail of diesel fuel. Turned out to be running from the filler pipe to the fuel tank. Now I know why there was a smell of diesel.

Nothing for it now – another trip to Weston seems inevitable. Phoned the dealers: Service manager out today. Will call me back tomorrow morning.

Took the van to 2 further places to have the alignment checked/adjusted, having spoken to them about the size of the vehicle. 1st one also couldn’t do anything as they couldn’t get the gauges on the commercial wheels. 2nd place – in Yate – were able to do it after a fashion. They also looked into the fuel leakage whilst it was up on the ramp. Outcome: Split vent/breather hose at the fuel tank. Needs to have the tank dropped out to get at it. Bliss.

Back home, I discover a service invoice attached to the MOT certificate (it was serviced & MOTd a week before I originally collected it). On the service invoice was an item for the replacement of a defective reversing light switch on the gearbox. Could it be that this new switch has become faulty & is blowing the fuse?

I eagerly await tomorrow morning’s call from the dealer’s service manager.

Meanwhile, time passes, and we’re still stuck in this country instead of being in Italy.

The delays before the off

Originally, we’d planned to be leaving on Sat, 14th June (yesterday, in fact). We did only manage to get the motorhome fairly late however, and I was pretty insistent that it needed a road trial before going away to Europe.

So last weekend, we took it to the the Brecons – Rhandirmywn, to be precise; about 7 miles N of Llandovery. Fortunately, it rained (??) I say “fortunately”, because we discovered one of the skylights was leaking. And I couldn’t get the drain plug out of the fresh water tank which was a bit unfortunate as I’d filled it up and added a tank cleaner/purifier solution prior to setting off, aiming to drain it upon arrival. Not much use for 100 litres of chlorinated water – certainly can’t drink the stuff!

There were a couple of other “findings” too, so I had to book the van back into the dealer’s at Weston for all these bits to be seen to. Trouble was, they couldn’t take it in ’till Thursday & they needed it for 2 days to sort it all out.

Come yesterday morning, I was told it was ready for collection. Drove down to Weston. They were really busy & I had to wait almost an hour before they could find someone to fetch it from their locked-up yard. Then they couldn’t get it started. Sense of humour failure begins. For another 1/2 hour they didn’t have time to look into it. Then they tried jump starting it from a pick-up truck. Nothing. Not a peep. Dead battery? Who knows? The main battery is under the driver seat where it is totally inaccessible without removing the entire seat. And that’s not going to happen until Monday.

I suppose we have to philosophical about these things: Better that it happened there (so they are on hand to fix it, and at their cost) than somewhere in Europe.

The new home

This is the beast we settled on as time was running out. Not ideal, but then again – whatever we looked at involved some form of compromise. This one hit most of the right buttons…

 

  • Has a “garage” (bike storage, windsurf board storage, etc) Even had a bike rack in the garage from the previous owner, though I did have to modify it to take proper mountain bike – sized tyres.
Garage
  • Separate bedroom – don’t need to make up/take down beds to clear space for other activities/driving
    Bedroom area
  • Longitudinal/axial beds, rather than beds lying across the van – don’t want to have to climb over one another for any essential “nocturnal expeditions”
  • Combined shower/loo “wet room” – no need to waste space on a large bathroom as some motorhomes have

    Bathroom
  • Low profile – don’t need any beds over the cab. The overhang only adds more drag whilst motoring.
  • Forward-facing cabin seats with seatbelts – in case we ever need to take the grandchildren anywhere with us.
    Lounge/dining room

The one we got has all these features, but…

  • It’s bigger than ideal
  • It’s automatic
  • It doesn’t have cruise control
  • It has 6 wheels (twin wheels at rear) so another pair of tyres to replace when ness
  • There’s a lot of engine noise inside the cab – it’s a bit industrial!