I’d woken up cold and was hoping the McDonalds would be open. Though in France there was not a chance at 7.30am particularly in the backwaters. It was a pale sun that greeted me as I peered out from under the bamboo blind that hangs behind the cab and keeps our home a secret from prying eyes. Not a soul stirred. The pump chugged as I filled the sink with cold water, I braced myself for the shock. I was groggy, not feeling too good.
A few minutes later I stepped out into the car park checked their front door, nope, open at 10am. So we rolled out there and then. Filled up with petrol around the corner. I’d forgotten about soup and shampoo in the rush to get out on the road, now they were priority so got them too. Made sandwiches up on the front seat and we were off
The wifi had still worked in Mc’s so I’d checked the route and written down each village I was to go through, it had driven me nuts on the way there, keep looking at the map and driving, a different routine takes a bit of getting re-used too. The tolls had really bitten too and so I was determined to take the local roads, in there and close up they’re always more rewarding anyway.
I’d said my goodbyes and glanced back up towards the cave as we drove away. Ahead in the distance mountain ranges and beyond them peaks covered in snow, it was where the road led, and we’d have to get over them that night. So, ‘lets rock’ I’d said. The forest closed back in around us, the light flickered green and golden as the road gently rose, the further we got the more a sense of peace came over me.
We slowed coming into the sleepy towns, shuttered windows, narrow creamy white streets, grey stone walls gnarled knuckled manicured leafless trees, shadows and sunlight, highlights and low lights surface and depth, just wonderful, then; onwards and upwards
I was mulling over the correspondence that had gone on yesterday. A phrase came to me
“If something pains us we must Journey there” A fire had blazed.
The road led up onto a plateau, lush worked farmed land. Cows and sheep tucking into the fresh meadows already hip high. Cropped dull rows of Lavender fields not yet in bloom flickered hypnotically, across rivers through gorges, switchbacks, higher and higher, the sun strong now in the blue sky; windows down flesh air flooding through Pearl, sinking deeper the higher we went but still, I was pushing
I tried to stop but couldn’t squeeze Pearl into a market village of Reiz. Then Mezel which was fast asleep and then Digny, jaw dropping lovely on a snaking bend of the road looking down and across alpine meadows but still shuttered up for winter, nothing moved
So the bee in my bonnet and began buzzing louder and louder about getting into Italy, so we shot past Boscadon with its incredible Monastery up on that mountain side. Then later straight through Barcelonette with a beautiful blue-white river flowing past the most amazing three storied stone mansions along majestic other worldly boulevards, if the outside world does fall apart that place will still be standing; rock solid beautiful and opulent. I would later deeply regret not staying there.
Then up into the snow, which came as a dazzling surprise, things became rusted bleak and sparse, and I was not quite sure how far or how bad the road would get. I was squinting over the wheel when we passed a sign that I thought said ‘last coffee before Italy’ and then turned sharply downwards.
It had been quite a drive I was getting tired, I looked at the phone for the first time all day, it was only 3.30pm. I was way ahead of schedule, I kicked myself
Weaving down into Italy, it was obvious France is wealthy. The houses and villages on the way up had been charming and beautifully kept, Italy looked rusted, decaying and unloved, the French roads had been smooth and beautiful to drive, Italy was cracked and gaping, but it was early days
That valley though was stunning, I was unprepared for the incredible beauty I could have pulled over and wrote about it all day. I thought back to times like these when I’d first experienced real wilderness, natural raw nature, I have my Dad to thank for encouraging that part of me to grow
Just as I was reaching the bottom of the gorge I turned a bend and was waved down buy two Italian Policemen. I’d been expecting it with the present climate, big white van foreign plates and all
I stepped down from the cab and was startled with their shinning badges, their blue stylish uniforms their informality and their danger. They asked me politely for passport, license and documents. As I reached over the back to get my bag, America came flooding back with a jolt, I stopped in my tracks, turned to them and said
“I’m just reaching for my bag, ok?” They nodded to me curiously.
I stood politely as they looked through my passport page by page, discussing my stamps between themselves. It was startling to suddenly hear Italian with all its drama and annunciation; I had arrived, Italy, wow. They asked where I was going, I told them Hungary to meet my girl. They seemed pleased and wished me well on my journey
From there on in the traffic became a clogged river. I played cat and mouse with a cement mixer all the way into the city of Cuneo. On first impression I hated Cuneo and wanted to get straight back out again. So many cars, nowhere to park, I was looking for something familiar, to have a coffee or a beer, but there was nothing familiar I was jarred by the noise and traffic, made mistakes and drove straight through and out the other side
I ended up in a shopping mall far away form civilization outside a McDonalds, terrible, there had to be more than this I thought. I’d pulled up there so ate a tin of baked beans. Cold baked eh always good to help a person focus, but it worked. I pulled myself together and headed back into Cuneo and against all my dashed expectations I found a parking space right on the main piazza.
A little later after exploring, I realized that behind the main through roads was a whole lot of charm, but I ended back in the Piazza at the very fist place I had seen. The Café Nazionale, a really beautiful little bar, that I’d initially though ‘too beautiful for me’ The guy there was extraordinarily generous and kind, the waitress too, just wonderful.
I had a few glasses of amazing red wine whilst they served me olives, cheese nibbles, garlic hearts and other wonderful delicacies, and all gratis. I was really puzzled, they were just good to me. Sometimes you just like a persons jib and at times persons like your jib or so it seems to be. I tapped away, next to me a family looked on curiously, I had the impression they liked that fact that I was working, it felt good to be there, a proper welcome
That night I made a dash back to super market mall parking lot, I knew the piazza would be noisy and it turned out to be a good move as I was able to have a really good wash next morning in the baby changing rooms, lockable doors and hot water, luxury. I had a coffee but I would like to say sincerely and for the record, McDonalds piped music is appalling
Back at Pearl I found the battery flat, I’d left the lights on last night, I’d been cold that week and it was starting to wear me down, I’d not slept well and my mind was cloudy, Damn. I don’t speak a word of Italian so to get this sorted was going to be a task. So, I drew a little diagram and went in search of a friendly face.
As I was parked outside an enormous supermarket I figured the information desk was the best place to start. I showed the lady my diagram and said in my best Italian accent
Pointed to my little diagram and did a horizontal chop of the hands, which seemed to do the trick. She made a phone call. It took a few minutes but then turned back to me with along face shaking her head apologetically and said
I was sure she was trying to say the ‘person I’ve been speaking too has no jump leads’
So I went back to check I had mine, I did, but they were a pair I’d bought at a car boot sale and when I’d used them once before, they were about 3 or 4 feet to short, but it was all I had, damn.
So I headed back inside knowing somebody had what it took to help me. I stood there and scanned the place, said to the team,
“I need some help here” and ‘as if by magic’ spied a guy who looked like he may have a pair of jump leads, not that there is a look, but you know what I mean, he had stubble.
So in my best Italian accent I said “Escusi me” lifted up the diagram and did the chop of the hand thing and said “me batteria es caput”
Miraculously he understood, he nodded and made a call, but came back with the same long face but looked around as if not to be outdone, called across to a chap on the deli counter, who signaled back he had no wires. So I made curly signs in the air with my fingers and pointing to myself, indicating obviously, that I had some.
“Ooohkey” he called “I ave a whyta fiat, I meet you outta dey fronta”
I have to give it to the Italians, they are always helpful if they can be. We met up, the wires were of course too short, so we pushed Pearl out into the parking lot and he steered his fiat right up to the passenger door, which annoyingly is where the battery on a VW crafter is, under the passengers feet, the cables reached. I was relived, I shook Alesandro’s hand warmly, bless him.
I headed then for Mondovi for no other reason that I couldn’t decide where else to go. I ended up on top of the highest point of the town looking down onto the red tiled roofs. It wasn’t where I wanted to be but realized I’d retreated up onto a high point away from everything, tending to a wound, the fire had run its course but the embers still glowed. I sat in a garden there under the clock tower and just curled up a while.
Then to the coast it was going to be I wanted to be warm and felt the ocean would clear my head and put out those last embers glow. It worked
I took the SP29 down to the coast 35km away. No rush, just quiet, beautiful villages flashing by. I kept my foot down moving through the sprawling port of Savona and onto the coast road north towards Genoa, swooping and sweeping up onto cliffs and dipping down into beautiful little pastel painted villages. The sea smelled so incredibly strong. We came into a quiet little place called ‘Celle’ it had parking spaces so I pulled in but everywhere was closed up. I peeped into back streets and found Café Igloo a locals place with wifi and a blaring TV, perfect, The lady was sweet and looked after me, but my lap top charger was French. I’d been lucky in Cuneo the chap in the bar had had an adapter. So I had to make a dash to the next town Varazze 5km away
I squeezed the Galleon Pearl into parking place on the promenade, a guy in photographers shop I’d spied on the way in directed me to a hidden electrical shop 10 meters further along and there a sweet old lady pulled open a drawer full of adaptors for must have been for every country in Europe. It was so surprising; really, I’d been anxious but it had all been so easy.
Back in Celle relived and reassured, the lady in the Igloo bar smiled as I walked back in. I was cozy in there, quiet and local, I spent the evening tapping till way gone 12am with that Italian TV blaring away above my head the lady looking in on me from time to time with a few cakes, I was just lost to it for some time. Calming down, angry embers extinguished
“Tomorrow make a choice and stick to it” I’d said on the way back. I’d been frustrated by my second-guessing all day.
The coastal towns seemed to have a similar vibe, everyone preparing for summer season, painting drilling, banging hammers, un-stacking chairs, it was about to get busy along that gated coast
Next morning I was awake by 7.30am I’d parked a little too close too and just below the main coast road, so was rocked all night by every speeding car that went by. I went down to the sea first thing, and then to the igloo for a few coffees, 1 euro each, great stuff. I felt a lot lighter and I’d decided to go into Genoa, I not in Italy to look out at it from the window of a van.
In the freshness of that new day I started out mellow optimistic and quite happy to stop behind every bus, truck, scooter, or cars parked in the middle of narrow streets, I really didn’t mind, I was enjoying the scenes of Italy, day to day stuff, I wanted that and was loving it. I’d sort of half expected, a secluded beach with a cool bar where I could roll in, step out, dive into the sea, swim back have a beech shower type of thing and maybe a beer, all the tourist photos suggest? But it was nothing of the kind and though it has to be said it is astonishingly beautiful, the villas and houses as if stacked up on top of one another, creams, oranges terracotta’s and pastel reds, colonnades and statues nuzzled in all along the cliffs and steep hill sides amongst with lush emerald green forest that filled every other possible space, everything glittered, sunlight danced and twinkled on the ocean that swelled and sighed with the romance and beauty of it all.
But it just became really claustrophobic, Pearl is a big girl and I had to keep my wits about me at all times, though the drivers were not the mental cases I’d been warned about, it was simply that it was all so narrow, winding with blind corners and it seemed every 20 feet or so a pedestrian crossing, or somebody reversing out, somebody stopping on the middle of a steep cliff road, traffic for miles and miles and miles, after a few hours it began to wear me down
Then Genoa, I just wasn’t prepared for the scale of the place, it’s absolutely massive, I kept thinking am I on the Finchley road London? I distinctly recall coming over a peninsular I’d thought was the port and then; stunned, there was Genoa; enormous sprawling docks stretching on and on for miles. It was testing and I had to find parking, I dreaded it, but had a plan and did I eventually manage to locate a parking lot after a few dead ends, honestly you wouldn’t believe where I’d driven Pearl that day and it wasn’t even 12pm.
Parking in Italy is a whole other level of anxiety, there simply isn’t parking spaces. The whole coast from the moment I turned on the day at before at Savona had been continuous parallel lines of parked cars.
I would have liked more time in the amazing hillside city of Genoa but I was on the move of course but I had a few hours. I hopped across the crunching coastal road and then expectantly into the maze of lanes and dim back streets that is the ‘old city’ with its Churches, Cathedrals and crumbling grandeur its restaurants its seediness squalor and of course its romance. It must be another world in there at nighttime. It very much reminded me of Varanasi in India, the closeness, the stone streets polished by a thousand years of busy industrious feet hurrying through the place, Genoa Cathedral was consecrated in 1118. I just got myself lost in those lanes, what a treat, I found myself in the red light area but was only lunchtime so only one or two winks, I always smiled back of course.
All street corners were festooned with thread bare looking Africans and Bangladeshi men selling trinkets and handbags, there was a steady stream of people flowing through the place, tide was coming in, it was lunchtime. It was all just so matter of fact, all rubbing up against one anther, touts, collared and cloaked priests, exotic big thy’d women casually summing up all passing vessels, restaurant swishing water out the front doors, everyone just getting on with and getting ready for business. Genoa was booming and by all accounts has been booming for quite a few centuries now.
I came upon a restaurant called the Tratoria Del Galleon I thought of Pearl so went in and had my first Italian food. Oh my goodness the Italians do make delicious food, two types of pasta with pesto sauce and pesto stuffing, I took my first taste and just stopped dead still. Made fresh in the kitchen out back. It had that locals vibe, dim old and familiar, retro table clothes cups and cutlery, fabulous… and I mean really fabulous. Such a treat from the beans and wraps I’d been eating, 10 euros too, I took my time, it was perfect
I stepped back out into the half-light of the alleyway. It was lunchtime so all the Cathedrals and churches had closed. I’d peeped into the Cathedral Di San Lorenzo earlier and thought I’d go back, but it wasn’t to be as it was getting on and I needed to be getting on
I zig-zagged back to Pearl and off we shot with a minor clang getting her out of there. We pushed and battered our way right along the coast road, through the beautiful pastel painted clustered little towns, Nervi Bogliasco, Pieve, Ligure to Sori. Coloured pastel jewels hung and connected by the metallic glinting ribbon of parked cars, all the way along, on both sides of the road, in every available space above and below, honestly it was amazing and just went on and on the whole way along the coast.
I pulled in Sori down underneath two massive arched bridges, it looked so picturesque, from above, I’d thought I might go for a dip, maybe find that bar, but as I got onto the beach a bulldozer was roaring and growling pushing stones and sand around, and one of the bridges was the busy rail connection in and out Genoa. I was starting to wear down now. I played my guitar for an hour but my battery was almost flat.
So where to next, I’d thought La Spezia further along the coast sounded like ‘Special’ so why not and from there take the road back into the mountains towards Venice and Slovenia next day, sounded like a plan.
I took the motorway, the thought the coast road now filled me with dread, it really is beautiful but had been a real challenge in a big boat like Pearl and once on the motorway it felt so good to put her in 5th let the reigns loose and her go, wind flowing through the windows and under the wings once again
We shot along looking down at all those villages, red slate roofs, pastel walls and churches, pilled upon one another clinging onto the mountainsides, but gosh that had been a tough drive. Then down into Spezia skirting a beautiful lush green nature reserve, through sleepy villages, groups of old ladies sat in the bus stops chattering away. Loved it
“This is where I want to be” I’d said
The road led into a long tunnel, I sat high above the wheel, all anticipation, then we came out the other side and there in front was a massive dock, inside Pearl turned blue, I was gutted, I’d expected another one of those beautiful little villages or at least a town, not a vast bustling port with an enormous traffic jam that we rolled straight into
“Damn Damn Damn” I was livid
I did take a look at the other side of town, took a few turnings rolled through the center, I spied charm, palm trees and thousands of yachts, but where to park, it was grid locked and I just didn’t want to be there, it took an hour to get out, I headed as the crow flies directly and determinedly for the hills
I missed taking Photos as i was so frazzled and just thinking about getting Pearl through all this.
I’d checked the map, spotted a town called Aulla on the SP62, on the bend of a river north of there and that is where I headed, by hook or by crook I would find a space to park a bar to sit and write and just breathe out, that’s exactly what I did
Aulla is shall we say shabby in comparison to those coastal villages, gritty, and rough, but it wasn’t pretending to be anything other than what it was, and I am always looking for that. We rolled through the place scanning and I found plenty of space to park Pearl behind the protective wall on the riverside. Pulled up, switched off, that was that, enough. It was almost silent and I went peacefully in search of somewhere warm and locale, it turned out to be a wonderful little working village, people peered at me, then nodded with a smile, I decided on a bar called Caffe Del Centro right on the piazza
Gleaming white, black marble tiles, bright lights, cool looking, friendly, good looking staff, a function was happening, everybody dressed up, I had a few beers and just got down to what I was doing, I hardly looked up, the sweet waitress kept bringing me slices of delicious things from the party, sandwiches, cheese, pizza, tortillas, and nuts, she had no need she was just looking after me, it was remarkable. It felt good to have landed. I’d wanted to see the coast, it was beautiful but I was glad to be away and be somewhere a little more real
I was last out of there as always, I walked happily back to the riverside. I slept well that night as the rain drummed gently down on Pearl.