Oh no ! The final day.
We had a bit of a lie in, apart from being awake from an early hour as a result of being really itchy. The hotel’s breakfast was really good, which confirmed my theory about the pattern – the dull, drab, characterless business hotels do much better breakfasts.
We got out of the hotel by 10am but our flight wasn’t until evening, so we’d planned to waste a bit of time on the shores of Lake Garda. Our first choice of location was Sirmione. It’s a town on a long peninsula which sticks out into the south side of the lake. On paper it looked great, but in practice it wasn’t so good. We’d neglected to take account of the possibility that some other people might want to go there on a warm summer Sunday. It was flippin’ heaving. There was nowhere to park. We found one place with spaces but then left after realising you could only park there for an hour. Then we found another place but realised we were at least 3km away from the bit we wanted to be in, and anyway after we’d stood in the queue for the one-and-only ticket machine for 10 minutes without actually moving we gave up. By this time the police blockade on the road down to the end of the peninsula had gone, so we decided to try our luck. Our luck was out. There was a bit of driving around and then a bit of argy-bargy involving a couple who were standing in a spot waiting for their mate to turn up in a car, but eventually we decided it wasn’t worth it, so we just left and decided to go somewhere else instead.
On the way to somewhere else we stopped at a service station on the motorway so we could find a geocache and colour in the Province of Brescia. We sat in the car for a while there playing with phones and trying to decide what to do. Nothing really appealed to be honest, as we were starting to get “going home” fever. Eventually we decided to go for a lakeside walk at Desenzano del Garda, which was only a couple of miles away from where we were. We probably had somewhere between 2 and 4 hours to kill at this point before needing to head back to Linate Airport.
We found a car park easily enough, which was nice after Sirmione, and then for a bit of a walk around attempting (and failing) to find geocaches. Half an hour of that was enough to persuade us to go for ice cream instead, and then we let the girls go for a plodge in the lake for a few minutes while Kas and I sat on a wall contemplating our navels and playing “good-bit, bad-bit” for the holiday. There were definitely a lot more good bits than bad ones.
It was supposedly a couple of hours or so back to Linate from here, and although the flight wasn’t until 8pm we’d basically had enough at 3pm and decided to head off. The drive back was uneventful except for a heavy rain shower on the edge of Milan and me completely missing the turn into the airport. Once we’d driven out a couple of miles and come back again I found the entrance on the second attempt, and then after driving round fairly slowly, we managed to find a fuel station to fill the car up before returning it.
I have to say it was a complete miracle that we’d had that car for 16 full days and hadn’t bumped or scratched it at all. In total we’d done about 2,500km in it.
We were a little too early to check in for our flight, so we relocated to McDonalds to have some dinner. It’s not as bad as it sounds, because the one at Linate does pizzas as well as the usual burger-based offerings. And they have beer.
Once we managed to check in everything went very smoothly. We were kind of ready to get going but made the mistake of going down to our departure gate. At Linate the gates are through a security control that you can’t return through and there’s absolutely nothing there, so we had a very tedious wait at the gate before boarding. Once we did get onboard, the flight was on time and our bags came out fairly quickly at Heathrow. The valet parking company had fetched the car and it was waiting for us a few yards away from where we’d parked it 15 days before. Here we hit upon the only real problem – we’d managed to leave Izzy’s bubblebum car seat in Milan. Ho hum ! No way to ge another one here, so we just drove home without. Her height is pretty much enough now to not really need a booster anyway. I’m pretty sure Ami gave up using them at about the same age and height.
The drive home was uneventful and the house was where we left it. We got the bags out of the car and emptied the dirty laundry onto the floor, put one load in, and then went to bed. After all, it was well after 11pm.
Saturday again. On a normal fortnight holiday the Saturday two weeks after you arrive would be the day you go home. We’re not normal, though, so we’d booked an extra night and as a result Saturday could be parkrun day again.
In Italian terms you’re kind of spoiled for choice in Mirano, because it’s halfway between two different parkruns – Treviso and Farfalle (in Padua), although I thought Farfalle was a kind of pasta – you know, the one that’s like little bow-ties.
The desire to do parkrun meant getting up and out of the hotel fairly early. We grabbed a very quick breakfast and got out by 7.45am, setting off in the general direction of Treviso. We picked this run because it’s a 2 lap course, whereas Farfalle is a 4-lap course. The fewer the number of laps, the better.
The drive there was uneventful until we got into Treviso. It then got very eventful when it turned out that the postal code on the parkrun website is essentially the whole of Treviso, so Violet very diligently took us right into the town centre. We basically had to drive round in circle for a while until we found somewhere I could pull off the road while we pulled up google maps on the phone and navigated the way to parkrun that way. We still managed to arrive 20 minutes before the start, and there were a few people there already.
The parkrun itself was a couple of laps around a long, thin loop in some woodland, running on gravel road on the way out and woodland path on the way back. There were sufficiently few people taking part that I knew my finishing position well before actually finishing. I got 8th place running round on my own. At the turn on lap one I was still in 4th, but I got overtaken on the return leg and was in 8th at the end of the first lap. I ran the second lap more or less solo – I could no longer see the guy in front, and whilst I could hear the people behind I managed to maintain about a 200m lead over them. I was happy with 8th place and 27.30 minutes (ish) even though only 24 people finished. In fact, one sixth of all the finishers that day were us. Kas ran round with the girls and they were a little bit slower. One of them had the now mandatory trip and fall. The other key feature of the woods was the apparent prevalence of insects. It felt like bitey-city all of a sudden.
On the way out of the car park I discovered that the nearest geocache to us was right by the road, about 500m away in the direction we were travelling. Province of Treviso – tick.
As we’d rushed breakfast and because it was hot, we decided we needed cooling drinks before heading anywhere else. It was going to be a bit of a drive over to the evening’s resting place in Verona, so we googled McDonalds and found one within a short distance. They had milkshakes and clean toilets, which is kind of what we wanted them to have.
Violet took us along the motorways towards Verona, and that proved very handy because there was a geocache in a motorway service station near Padua. Another province done then. The motorway also passed through the Province of Vicenza but there weren’t any caches by the side of the motorway and we weren’t really in the mood to divert away from the journey to look for one. Instead we continued on our way to Verona, or more correctly to the Airport Hotel Verona Congress & Relax, which is a bit of a mouthful of a name for the place we were staying. Our room was ready when we arrived at 12:30, so they allowed us to check in and we had a quick shower and change of clothes before heading out to see what the city had to offer.
It was a 20 minute drive into central Verona from the hotel and we managed to find a car park pretty easily. It was branded as the car park for the Verona Arena but was actually a decent walk away. That helped though, because it meant we could get a late lunch at a nearby “Eataly” before doing anything else.
By the time we’d finished lunch it was already mid-afternoon, and as we walked over to the Arena we were aware of a bit of an event looking like it was in preparation. It was a night where there was going to be a big operatic performance, and as a result they’d started putting out the crowd control measures and had also limited last access for non opera-goers to about 3pm, which meant we’d missed it. A quick adjustment of expectation, then, and we headed off in the general direction of the supposed Juliet Balcony. Once you were “in the zone” it was pretty easy to find the house with the balcony without using maps or signs. You just have to elbow your way in through the massive crowd. It’s really in a tiny space and the packed feeling is enhanced by there being souvenir shops and a ticket office inside the courtyard as well as the famous balcony and a statue. Apparently you have to have your photo taken with the statue. We had to queue for a while before getting anywhere near it.
From here it’s a short walk to the Piazza delle Erbe, which seemed to be a buzzing heart of the town. It wasn’t frightfully busy, but that’s maybe just because everyone was round the corner, having their photo taken with the rather statuesque Juliet. We took a few photos in the square and then continued walking towards the river, arriving on the bank just to the south of the Ponte Pietra. We were starting to wane a bit by this time and I was getting a bit frustrated about not being able to find any of the geocaches on the route either. I hate urban geocaching. So we didn’t spend a huge amount of time at the riverside and we didn’t walk out onto the bridge either, but contented ourselves with a few riverbank photos before turning around and heading back in the general direction of some ice cream.
We passed (and actually found) a couple more geocaches on the way back, and stopped at a gelateria on the north side of Piazza delle Erbe. Its speciality was to hand-shape the ice cream into petals so that each cone looked like a rose. Very pretty, but a little time consuming to construct when there’s a big queue. The girls loved them though.
We walked along in the direction of the Arena again whilst eating the ice creams, and a little way along the road we had a pop at a geocache that required us to find a fossil ammonite. Initially we were on the wrong side of a crossroads junction and couldn’t find anything, but then Kas crossed a road and after a small distraction caused by an ammonite in the wall she spotted the one that we believe we were supposed to find. The cache description said to take photos of others that we passed in Verona, and once you start looking for the things you see them absolutely everywhere. Then someone started humming the Muppets song – “an ammonite, do do do do do !” I can tell you quite confidently that once you begin to hum that, it is very hard to get it out of your head.
We’d about had enough by this time, so we plodded back to the car and drove back, reaching the hotel at about 6:30. None of us was really hungry enough for a proper dinner, so we contented ourselves with some crisps and other snacks with beer in the hotel’s “American themed” bar. It was kind of quiet in there.
We gave up on the day pretty early and just went to bed. We couldn’t get the room’s air conditioning to go very cold, so we opened a window instead, and as a result a couple of us got absolutely bitten to hell by insects that came in through the window. It’s a good job we still had a tube of the Bergamo itchy cream left over.
After 13 days of industrial strength tourism we decided we’d earned ourselves a day off, and this was it.
I think when we were planning the holiday we’d thought we might go to Trieste on this day, but somehow the idea of spending four hours in the car wasn’t very appealing once we were on the ground. We also didn’t really fancy anything that either Padua or Treviso had to offer for a half day out, and we certainly weren’t going back into Venice again. So we decided during the day on Thursday that we’d spend Friday not doing very much.
We had a late breakfast and then the kids got down to the serious business of not doing much. In their case, that involves going in the swimming pool. Kas was alternating between mucking about indoors and lazing around outside. I had a bunch of geocaching logs to do after the previous day, including about 6 earthcaches that required reading, research and multiple answers as well as logging and photographs.
We dragged the kids out of the pool for a snack based lunch at around 1pm and forced them to come indoors at about 4pm, when they were starting to turn a bit pink.
It took me pretty much all day to do the caching logs as I couldn’t find the hotel’s wi-fi and my phone signal was pretty poor. I got them done eventually though.
We had a couple of hours snoozing in the room before getting ready to go out. You can’t rush a good day of doing nothing in particular.
For dinner we returned to Mirano again and returned to the restaurant we used on our first night there, the Fabbrica di Pedavena. The food and beer were good again but for some strange reason we had trouble attracting enough attention to order puddings, so eventually we gave up and I queued at the indoor bar to pay, and we left.
The kids still fancied pudding, so we wandered around a while and ended up in a gelateria not far away, where we treated ourselves to some really good ice creams. I think Izzy had a marshmallow-flavoured one, which was basically just sugar. Ami and me both tried a lush looking chocolate fondant flavour. They did also have beer-flavoured ice cream, but none of us was brave (or insane) enough to try it. A pleasant quarter of an hour was then spent sitting on the edge of a public fountain eating ice cream and watching the world go by. There are worse things in life.
Back at the hotel we made quick work of a couple of glasses of Baileys and amaretto before retiring to the room to pack our bags and get some sleep. Tomorrow promised to have us back in the “busy” zone.
Day 13 was one of the “big ticket” days of the holiday – Venice day.
We got up early (at 7am) and grabbed a nice if simple breakfast at the hotel before jumping on a bus. We’d originally planned to go into Venice on the train but the hotel convinced us that the bus was a better option than driving for 10 minutes and waiting for a train. Fair enough. Anyway, they were able to sell us the bus tickets and the bus stop was literally across the road from their front gate. We got the bus at about 8:40 and it took an hour or so to drop us off in the Piazzale Roma. It was already rather busy and rather warm by then.
Our first stop (after a quick geocache) was to go find toilets and drinks in the station. To get there you have to cross the new Constitution bridge, which has attracted its share of controversy. It was famous in my mind mainly for the fact that it appeared on a National Geographic programme about terrible engineering mistakes. The mistake was nothing to do with the placement, construction or accessibility of the bridge. It was entirely to do with the fact that it was originally faced with glass, which looks pretty when dry but becomes very slick when even slightly wet. It was, by all accounts, a major health hazard. It looks OK, albeit rather out of character with the rest of Venice’s architecture, and as it was a dry day we were OK walking across it. Once we made it to the station we fought our way through the crowds but were eventually able to find both the toilets and a shop to buy drinks.
From here we crossed the Ponte degli Scalzi and ducked out of the traffic flow for a while to photograph the San Simeone Piccolo church. From here we rejoined the throng following the marked walking route to San Marco, taking occasional diversions to grab geocaches as we went. The marked walking route obviously takes you right over the Rialto Bridge. No tour of Venice is complete without elbowing your way over here. There were more geocaches here anyway. The throng of people following the marked walkway was, if anything, even busier this side of the Rialto. It was starting to get a bit draining and it was pretty much lunchtime anyway, so just before San Marco we stopped in a little streetside cafe and had some sandwiches and drinks. The sandwiches were good and the prices were surprisingly reasonable.
Piazza San Marco seems to be pretty much the destination of everyone visiting the city. The walks from the bus and train stations (like what we did) are signposted to here only, and presumably there’s a fair amount of traffic from people who didn’t walk, or who’ve arrived by boat from outside the city. What can you say ? It’s busy. Although, having been in Florence on the previous Saturday we were feeling like this really wasn’t too bad. We decided not to bother trying to get tickets either to enter the basilica or the campanile because the queues looked large and anyway, we’d been into loads of them by this point in the holiday. So we mooched around the square taking photos and doing earthcaches (there’s 4 or 5 of them just in the square). From here we made the short walk around the outside of the Doge’s Palace for the mandatory photo of the Bridge of Sighs. It was pretty busy there too.
We decided to head back via a slightly different route, partly to get out of the crowds and partly to find a few more geocaches. Our route took us past La Fenice theatre and then onto the rather wonderful Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo (otherwise known as “the Snail”), where we paid a token few Euros to go climb to the top. Technically, we paid for a museum there too, but the girls weren’t especially interested in that (nor was I, but don’t tell them that). The Snail was actually the only thing we paid an entry fee for all day, unless you count the toilets. That was a refreshing change for this holiday.
We grabbed an ice cream break near there and then had a look at getting some tickets for a Vaporetto back to the station, but when we found one they were really busy and really expensive, so we decided not to bother. This meant, however, that we had to walk back through the crowds over the Rialto Bridge again and then back to Piazzale Roma. All of us were getting a bit hot, tired and grumpy by this point. Kas was struggling in particular, because as well as the heat she also had an aching ankle to contend with.
We’d managed to stay in Venice up until 4:30pm. On the original plan we were going to stay all day and have dinner here, but I think we all decided that the prospect of staying for 2 more hours, having dinner, and then spending another hour riding home on the bus was more than we could be bothered with. We were lucky enough to get onto a waiting bus as soon as we arrived at Piazzale Roma and so we got home again before 6pm.
We gave the kids a good 90 minutes in the swimming pool to cool down and unwind and then got cleaned up and went down into Mirano again for dinner, this time finding a very nice place off the central square called La Taverna. We had a quick drink from the hotel bar when we got home and then retired to bed. During the course of the day and the evening we agreed that the following day was going to be the “do nothing” day.
The breakfast at the Grand Hotel Elite was pretty good, so we managed to get checked out feeling in fairly good condition, although Kas was obviously still suffering after hurting her ankle while running the previous day.
We loaded all our bags back into the car and checked out of the room but agreed with reception that we could leave the car in their car park until mid-afternoon. There didn’t seem much point in moving it. We jumped onto a bus down to the city centre, taking a mad guess at where to get off. We did so fairly close to the Piazza Maggiore, which was a pretty good guess.
We took a wander around the Piazza doing touristy stuff and attempting a few geocaches. One feature of the square (and one of the geocache subjects) is a fountain dedicated to Neptune. It’s a weird one because a number of the jets of water are definitely squirting out of stone-sculpted willies and boobs. Anyway, moving swiftly onwards….
From here we moseyed along to the famous Two Towers of Bologna. We saw a queue for the taller of the two and determined from the guy on the door that we needed to go back to the tourist office in Piazza Maggiore to buy a ticket. So back we went. They had plenty of tickets available for the 1:30 climb, so that’s the one we went for. It was another tower where the staircase is narrow (and wooden, in this case) so a batch of people is allowed up all at the same time, and are then given 15 minutes or so at the top before needing to come back down again. Two-way flow on the staircase is not really possible unless it was a party of bamboo canes or stick insects. We were among the first few onto the stairs in our wave, and we climbed them really quickly, meaning that the top was practically empty for about 5 minutes when we got there. That allowed us to take a few relatively unhindered photos before everyone else arrived. It also allowed me time to ask the assistant at the top if he knew where the geocache was. He did. It was back down one level of staircase. Province of Bologna – tick.
Once back at the bottom we needed a drink / ice cream, so we raided the gelateria across the road and then started picking our way back to the car. We decided to walk all the way rather than figure out the buses. It only took us 15 minutes or so.
It was much easier to get the car out of the hotel’s car park than it was to get it in, and Violet did a good job of getting onto the correct road for heading north to Padua.The drive up there was all hunky-dory until we got to the south side of Padua. Here we encountered a proper thunderstorm. It was loud, and dark. I couldn’t really see the road and I couldn’t really hear the sat nav, and as a result I missed a turning and we ended up driving on a provincial road around the west side of Padua rather than on the motorway around the east side. Never mind.
Our destination was Mirano, a small town on the mainland that is relatively well connected for Venice – more of that in the next post. For today’s post, Violet was attempting to get us to the Park Hotel Villa Giustinian. She did an adequate job of it and we arrived at the hotel just after 4pm, having left Bologna well after 2pm.
The hotel room has to be described as spectacular. In fact “room” doesn’t really do it justice. It was half of the middle floor of the main building, and consisted of a massive bedroom, a decent sized entrance hall with a double sofabed, and not one, but two separate bathrooms, one of which contained a shower with a marble trough that could probably have doubled up as an Olympic sized swimming pool. The whole thing was very ornately furnished and the walls in the entrance and bathrooms we head-to-toe in polished wood. Very nice, but all of that was subsidiary to the fact that the hotel had a swimming pool. The kids were in it within 30 minutes of our arrival, which is probably a bit slack by their normal standards. They stayed there for a good two hours, and were joined for a part of that by both adults.
For dinner we were going to try the restaurant right over the road, however they were closed (permanently, by the look of it), so instead we jumped into the car and headed into the centre of Mirano town. We found ourselves in a tidy little town square with a few restaurants and bars. We chose the “Fabbrica di Pedavena” – a food-serving bar which had a varied menu including a selection of burgers. They were good.
And that was the end of another day. We needed a good night’s rest because the following day was one of the expected “biggies” of the trip – our planned day in Venice.
On this day we planned to spend the morning exploring San Marino before heading off down for our next night in Bologna.
The breakfast in the hotel was nice, if limited in choice. There was a decent selection of fruits, cereals, pastries and breads and all of them were nicely fresh and being consumed fairly rapidly. We checked out of the hotel and wheeled our one suitcase uphill to the car, and then we continued uphill to have a pop at the Three Towers of San Marino that sit right on the cliff edge at the top of Monte Titano. The towers are accessed by walking uphill along the main street. Kas had been out for a somewhat challenging run first thing, and sort of knew what to expect in terms of terrain.
After the last switchback you exit the permanent buildings and there’s a collection of temporary retail locations in wooden buildings alongside the path up to the first tower. Our eyes got hijacked by a nice collection of leather goods and ultimately we all ended up buying a new wallet/purse apart from Izzy, who never keeps hold of money long enough to need a purse.
The old wallet had to be opened at the first tower (Guaita) to pay a nominal entry fee. It’s well worth the time and the money to go into this one. The views are spectacular and the climb to the highest part is quite entertaining, including a dodgy little bit of ladder up through a trap door. We walked the length and breadth of this fortress before deciding to move on. Second up is Cesta tower, which is on the highest point of the mountain. We decided not to go inside this one but we did muck about a bit doing a couple of geocaches.
The walk on to the third tower (Montale) is an unpaved path through trees, and it is somewhat less trodden than the paths around the first two towers. There’s not a lot at Montale as it’s basically just a single tower. When we got to it, we discovered that it doesn’t even have a door, or at least it doesn’t have one at ground level. There’s one about a dozen feet up that would require a ladder to get to. I guess that’s the point.
After completing the three towers we took a leisurely stroll back and grabbed a drink on the way back past where we’d parked the car. From here we descended a couple of flights of steps onto a quite broad road. There was supposedly an earthcache there, but on reading the description on the GPS it turned out that the earthcache has a half a dozen waypoints to visit, half of which were back up at the top of the mountain. As we’d not collected the requisite information I decided to leave that one. So we just walked along the flat until we reached the very far end, passing through San Marino’s rather compact government district.
When we ran out of town, there was a geocache in the wall of an old fortified gate, which was found easily enough. From here we returned to the government district and climbed upwards towards the Basilica and the Palazzo Pubblico. Further climbing got us to the upper end of the cable car and then eventually to the top of the main street where we’d started off first thing in the morning. There were still two restaurants up there, and we went into the one that wasn’t the one we’d been in the previous evening. And today we also didn’t have any chips with our drinks. They must have been someone else’s.
After all this walking we made one final trip to the umm-ing and ahh-ing shop near the hotel, and essentially bought one of everything. The girls both more or less emptied their wallets buying Lord of the Rings branded (and also some locally made) jewellery. And while we were at it, some more of those were purchased as Christmas presents. That particular shop must have loved us.
Back at the car, Kas volunteered to drive. After one hair raising moment driving into something that appeared to be pedestrianised but actually wasn’t, we found ourselves on the dual carriageway that snakes down the base of the mountain into Italy. A little way past the border we took a short diversion to complete a geocache in the Province of Rimini. After joining the motorway towards Bologna similarly short stops were made in the provinces of Forlì-Cesena and Ravenna before we arrived on the outskirts of Bologna.
Violet managed to get us to the hotel painlessly, but the same can’t be said of the hotel’s car park. The entrance off the main road felt very small and at the end of it there was a tight turn down a steep ramp into an underground park. We had to call reception to get them to open the doors to the garage, and space inside was a bit tight.
The hotel in question was the very modestly named Grand Hotel Elite, which is on the outskirts of the city centre about 2km from the famous Two Towers. Our room was ready for us and was suitably large, but had been prepared only for three people not four, so we were short one set of bedding and one towel. The room itself was pretty big, containing a double bed in one half and a sofabed plus extra mattress in the other half. It also had an entrance hall with a kitchen area and bathroom. And finally it had a lot of wood. I think this was the “Grand” part of the name. everywhere in the room was floor to ceiling wood panels, which were quite dark and probably made the room look half the size that it actually was. It’s a design feature of the place, I guess. It took multiple attempts to get them to bring up the necessary bedding and towels though.
One of the reasons for coming to Bologna was that Izzy wanted to eat spaghetti bolognese, that well known non-Italian dish. Surely it couldn’t be too far to find a restaurant that served it. The hotel seemed, though, to be in a restaurant-free area. We ended up walking quite some way towards the town centre before finding a restaurant that looked tolerable – the Restaurante Ma Gusta, close to Porta San Felice. The kids both had tagliatelle alla bolognese. I had an escalope which had “bolognese” in the name, but it wasn’t a meat-based tomato sauce. Kas went a bit off-piste and ordered something that didn’t have “bolognese” in the name. The restaurant had good beer too, and puddings.
Kas was suffering a bit after damaging an ankle while running in the morning, so she wanted to head straight back after dinner. So there we were. The end of our eleventh day in Italy. At least when we got back to the hotel room they’d finally brought us some extra bed sheets and towels.
Time to move on again after three nights in Florence. Our willingness to leave was enhanced by another distinctly average breakfast at the hotel, and we were fairly happy to get out of the place at mid-morning. I guess there wasn’t anything especially wrong, it just wasn’t what we were expecting for the price and it was distinctly average compared to at least two of the previous stops. Never mind. All done and dusted. Onwards and upwards, quite literally in the case of this day. We were heading for the Republic of San Marino.
There’s no quick way of getting there from Florence. If you want motorways you have to drive all the way up to Bologna and then back down again to Rimini to access the only dual carriageway that enters the tiny republic. That seemed like a long way around and we fancied exploring a bit (well, technically I suppose, I fancied colouring in a few more provinces by finding a single geocache), so that’s what we did. We left Florence on the A1 heading south towards Arezzo and then headed east towards Citta di Castello. On the way between those two towns I’d found two roadside geocaches within half a mile but either side of a provincial border, so that accounted for the provinces of Arezzo and Perugia. Doing one in Perugia also meant colouring in the region of Umbria, which certainly wasn’t on my original plans. Anyway, both were easy finds.
I’d planned to colour in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino on a mountain pass just as we entered the province, but that opportunity was denied to us by some roadworks which had closed that entire stretch of road over the mountains. We therefore had to divert south by 10 miles or so to the next road down. This one was wiggly and winding, and rather sadly I found myself behind a large lorry just as we started climbing. The road was not wide enough to get past, so we drove for what seemed like an eternity behind this lorry all the way, in fact, to the town of Urbania, which is where we’d have ended up if we hadn’t had to make the diversion. It was scenic, but very slow going.
Thankfully the lorry ducked out somewhere near Urbania and we were free to accelerate all the way up to the 70km/hr speed limit, or sometimes even 90km/hr. It wasn’t a great set of roads, but I guess we weren’t in any particular hurry. In our sights we had the World Heritage Site of Urbino. We found it relatively easily and parked up in what my GPS was telling me was a big parking area. It was indeed a big parking area, and it was also underground.
The amount of time we’d spent in the car meant we immediately needed drinks and a toilet, as you do, so we popped into a little cafe on the town square where we’d parked and sat outside staring in amazement at the bottom of the Palazzo Ducale. It looked well worth the walk up the hill. We decided that Urbino would be today’s “place”, and hence we’d spend 2-3 hours wandering around before continuing on to San Marino.
We started off by walking straight up the steps towards a beautiful overlook under the palace. There was a geocache there too (Province of Pesaro and Urbino – tick) and then we climbed a couple of ramps into the rather lovely piazza next to the cathedral. From here we ventured a little further east and then northwards towards an old fortified entry gate (with prison cell included) which housed another geocache. And from there we headed back south and west again until we ended up at the Piazza della Repubblica, from where we walked directly back downhill to the car park. Most of central Urbino is traffic free, partly, I assume, because most of the roads aren’t wide enough for cars anyway. It’s also a university town, and students tend to like the whole traffic free thing. It stops them from getting run over when they’re staggering home drunk in the middle of the night. There, that’s my daily quota of horrendous stereotyping done with. I feel better for that.
Back at the plot, though, central Urbino is mainly traffic free apart from a couple of main streets, and a lot of the roads (or paths) are incredibly steep. In many cases, buildings bridge over the top of the paths, or at least form very narrow canyons. There’s not a lot of greenery around, but it doesn’t really need it, and the locals seem to do a good job of keeping everything neat and tidy. Also, most of the buildings are faced in brick rather than being rendered, which avoids the typical Italian medieval scene of coloured walls with big chunks of exposed blockwork beneath.
So all in all, Urbino is a very worthwhile stop for an afternoon. Had we not already booked all the hotels we might well have stayed here longer and moved on to San Marino a day later.
Talking of moving on, we found a fuel station and then spent absolutely flippin’ ages trying to figure out how to make the pumps work, before heading off in a vaguely northerly direction towards San Marino. Our route was going to take us over some minor roads and in through the “back door”, as it were. By “minor roads”, I mean “unpaved” in a couple of parts, but we figured if the geezer coming the other way in the RV could get through then so could we. It was rather twisty to say the least. At the crests of a couple of the hills, though, it became very apparent where we were heading to. It’s difficult to explain quite how much Monte Titano stands out from the surroundings, especially when viewed from the side, but from about 15km away you’re very aware that there’s a city on a mountain approaching.
The back door into San Marino was very much that, and we found ourselves approaching the City from the south side. Before we knew it we were winding our way up narrow street with multiple switchbacks and trying to guess where on earth we ought to park. I thought I’d read somewhere that the hotel said to park in Car Park 6 or 7, but we didn’t really know how to get to those. After one switchback we seemed to be driving up to the end of the road. There was a car park at the top so we resolved to pull up and call the hotel to ask them. The car park had some spaces and the hotel answered their phone immediately. I explained to the receptionist that I didn’t know which car park we were in but I could see a sign on the rock reading “Piazzale Cava Antica”, to which she replied that we’d magically found our way into Car Park 6, and that was the best one for accessing the hotel. Magic. Off we go then, having first established that she could sell me daily parking permits that were half the listed price at the car park.
The hotel in question was La Grotta, and it proved to be a small but perfectly formed affair. I think it only has about 15 rooms, but crucially for us, a couple of them could sleep four people. We’d sort of arranged our luggage the previous day so that we only had to carry one suitcase and the day bags into this hotel. The other three suitcases stayed in the car, so we were able to get checked straight in and the girls went up to check out the room while I ran back up the hill to put a parking ticket in the car.
It was still relatively early in the evening – about 5pm I think – so we had a quick wash and went out for a walk. It was immediately apparent that the City of San Marino doesn’t have many flat parts. It’s all either uphill or downhill, and in most cases it’s fairly steeply uphill or downhill. We opted for uphill, in the general direction of the top, but got distracted somewhat by shopping. On entering a couple of the shops the kids were delighted to discover that the lack of a local sales tax means that San Marino is actually pretty cheap to shop in, at least for souvenirs and luxury goods. Both kids also got very engaged by one shop really close to the hotel which sold an array of jewellery and stationary goods on the themes of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Lots of umm-ing and ahh-ing was done before we left that shop.
The street up to the top of the hill is almost all restaurants and souvenir shops, as you’d expect, but when you do get to the top there’s a couple of cafes that have views which are rather dramatic. We felt obliged to sit at one of them and have a beer (or soft drink, depending on the person). We were also a bit peckish, but we definitely didn’t order a bowl of chips and we definitely didn’t eat them when they didn’t arrive. No, you must be thinking of someone else. Cough !
After we’d finished not eating any chips we decided we’d got time to go for a quick clean up before going out for dinner. On the way back down the hill we went into the umm-ing and ahh-ing shop again. Izzy had broken her rucksack, so we got her a new one (Harry Potter), because she was going to need it for school anyway, and we didn’t want her to have to lug stuff around in a broken rucksack for six more days.
The hotel recommended a restaurant which was a little way back up the main street / mountainside ( * delete as appropriate ) and which had a terrace view looking out over the northwest (downhill) side. Well, to be honest, if it was facing the south-eastern side it wouldn’t be a terrace, it would be a cave, but that’s by the by. The view was pretty impressive and we sat there watching the sun go down whilst gorging ourselves on a selection of local dishes. Izzy discovered the seemingly popular local delicacy of the chip pizza. We would also have gone for a pudding, but the staff seemed somehow reluctant to offer us any, so eventually we just went up to the desk to pay and left. Never mind, I’m sure there’ll be other places that have puddings later in the holiday.
And that was the end of that day. In summary, San Marino is beautiful in a way we were more or less expecting. Urbino is beautiful in a very unexpected way, and the day ended with us feeling like our decision to take that particular driving route had been a very good one.
You will have to forgive a certain lack of enthusiasm that may be apparent in my tone whilst typing this post. Everywhere else we stayed on the trip we’d assumed that one full day in a city would be enough for us to “do” the important bits before moving on. This had proven to be the case in Milan a week previously, where we’d planned two but got done in one and went to Bergamo the following day instead. For some reason we held on to the belief that two days would be needed to see Florence. Maybe it was the heat getting the better of us, or maybe the crowds, but by mid-afternoon we’d had enough again.
Back at the start of the day, we had a full crack at breakfast, arriving at 8:30am, but somehow it was better the previous day when we only had 20 minutes. The hotel split the breakfast room into two sections, one for bus tours and one for everyone else. As there were loads of people on bus tours their buffet was getting lots of focus and was kept pretty fresh by the rapid turnover. Ours was a somewhat stale affair of dry bread, limited fruit and overcooked eggs. This was definitely the worst breakfast so far.
We caught a bus downtown at about 10am and made our way to the ticket office for the cathedral. We managed to obtain tickets for the cathedral, bell tower and baptistery. We couldn’t get tickets for the cathedral dome, because those apparently sell out months in advance. Did I mention it was hot ? A sign outside a pharmacy we passed was reading 41°C.
So first of all we walked into and sat in the baptistery. There was no queue to get in, although it was busy inside. We mainly sat and tried to photograph the walls and ceiling, which are rather ornately painted. It was difficult to get a good shot in the half light.
Next up we queued for 20 minutes to go up the bell tower. For me, this was probably the highlight of an average sort of day. It’s quite a long way up but the stairs weren’t too bad and at least it was in shade. At the top there’s a really good view aside from the chicken wire grade fencing they’ve put round to stop people throwing stuff off. This essentially means it’s nearly impossible to take good photos of the town from up the top.
When we got back down it was 12:55, so we decided to queue up for the opening of the cathedral at 1:30. By the time we got to the front door it was more like 2pm. And here we hit upon a bit of a problem. Apparently Kas was showing too much leg to be let in. The same rule didn’t apply to either of the kids, and nor, seemingly, did it apply to most of the other women entering the building, but it applied to Kas and she couldn’t go in. Me and the girls therefore suddenly lost any interest in wandering round the place, so we did the necessary selfie with Uccello’s clock, as required by a virtual geocache, and then we went straight out again. From what little we saw, the inside of the cathedral has a highly decorative floor but otherwise is rather plain, certainly in comparison to other cathedrals we’d been into on this trip. No loss then, really.
Kas was fairly easy to find, and once we met up we decided to go and get something to eat. We sat in a small cafe nearby and had some over-priced sandwiches, drinks and ice cream whilst generally feeling a bit touristed-out. Izzy shopped for a few trinkets and then we had a less than enthusiastic walk back to the bus stop, consuming several bottles of cold water between us while we walked.
We were back in the hotel room by 4:15 and that’s where we stayed for a couple of hours while we cooled down and tried to get our mojo back. For dinner we went back to the Restaurant Aloisius. It was just as good, except this time we had to ask them for the silly liqueurs. And that was more or less it for Florence. I’m sure it’s really beautiful, but if I was going again I’d go in winter and in the middle of the week. I probably won’t go again though.
Saturday. The mid-point of the trip, being the eighth of 16 days, and after a cunning bit of planning on our part, we found ourselves in one of a handful of locations in Italy that has a parkrun. The parkrun course was a mere kilometre or so from the hotel (also planned) and we walked down there after what was a very quick and rather disappointing breakfast at the hotel.
The parkrun itself was on the small side, with only about 35-40 competitors. The majority of those seemed to be British, as seems to be the case with these things in France and Italy, in our experience. The course was dead flat and involved a couple of loops on gravel or soil trails through wooded parkland. It was quite pretty but also fiercely hot. As the girls are both “of age” now, we let them run round together whilst Kas and me burned it at our best speed. The girls made friends with the daughter of one of the organisers who’d decided to run around for the first time, which just goes to show you.
After finishing the race Kas ran back round the course to find the kids and I started walking back around after having a breather. They took a while but they were enjoying it. Kas managed to find a tree root to trip over and hurt her ankle. Once we were all back at the finish line we grabbed some drinks and then retired to the nearby kiosk-cafe for some more drinks before walking back to the hotel wishing we’d put more suncream on.
We were all mucky and sweaty, so we decided to have a round of showers before going out again. It didn’t make much difference, because it was so hot we were sweating again almost immediately, but at least it meant we were un-smelly enough to be allowed onto the bus into town.
The bus into town was a bit slow but it got us eventually to the Porta al Prato bus and train station, from where we basically had to walk. We arrived there at about 12:30.
We didn’t really have much of a plan and the heat was definitely getting the better of us, but we kind of ambled towards the cathedral via the Basilica Santa Maria Novella, attempting a handful of geocaches on the way past. We weren’t able to obtain tickets for the cathedral or baptistery or bell tower that day because we were too late, so we skipped that and continued walking.
The highlight of the day was finding the Magnum Shop – basically a “your way” method of presenting the popular ice-cream-on-a-stick delicacy. You got to choose a flavour of ice cream, a flavour of chocolate coating, and then a handful of different sprinkles. The effect was good except that it didn’t freeze solid again quickly enough, so they were a bit messy to eat. Kas didn’t fancy an ice cream so she ordered a cappuccino instead. It turned out to be a rather ornate affair. It was a pleasant enough setting in which to pass half an hour anyway.
From here we walked our way down to the Palazzo Vecchio for a few more photos and then on to the Ponte Vecchio for a few more. Progress through the streets was very, very slow, partly because it was really busy and partly because it was really hot. So hot, in fact, that it was dragging us down really quickly. We headed back to the bus station for just after 4pm, having managed to wander round Florence for all of three and a half hours.
To be fair, though, we did have plans for the evening that involved being in the car by 5pm. Over the previous couple of days I’d noticed there was a geocaching event on the Saturday night in the small town of Montecatini Terme, about an hour away in the direction of Pisa. Well, Google says it’s an hour, but we actually did it in about 35 minutes. Anyway, back at the plot, a French family visiting the area had created a geocaching event and on the evening before they had got precisely zero “Will Attend” logs on it, so I messaged them to see if it was still going ahead and they said yes. Well, you have to, don’t you ? After all, it was a new cache type for us in Italy and it coloured in the Province of Pistoia too. It’s the second time we’ve been to a regular event whilst outside the UK on holiday, the previous one being three years previously in Albufeira (see Caching on the Beach).
Because it took us a lot less time than we expected to get there, we were able to have a quick drink in a cafe before heading up to the event location. We then spent five minutes or so playing spot-the-cacher whilst sitting 40 metres away, but the family in question were very easy to spot. I sidled over and waved my GPS at them and got instant recognition. Thankfully they spoke really good English. Given that I’m the only one of the four of us that has anything more than a basic grasp of French it would have been a struggle if they didn’t. Not that the kids really paid any attention anyway. We had a nice long chat about all things geocaching, and got an invite to go visit them in their native Ardennes next year. That works for me, because their home department is the only one in the north-east of France that I haven’t been caching in, and there are plenty of caches there to be going at. Many of those caches belong to the family in question.
After we split up we dived into the first available restaurant to grab some dinner. It had been a long day again and we hadn’t really eaten much other than ice cream during the day, so we were ready for some proper food. We had to wait a while to get served because it seemed that the evening staff had only just arrived and were engaged in a pre-evening pep talk, which seemed a bit strange. Once we did get served, we ordered a platter of mixed starters and then burger, focaccia, Caesar salad and risotto, all of which were very nice. There was some beer involved too, at least for me. Kas had volunteered to drive home.
The drive back home was uneventful, and when we got there Kas wanted to get straight to bed. I thought I’d spend a bit of time finishing off caching logs for the day, so the girls and me went down to the bar, but rather unfortunately almost as soon as I’d got the PC connected to the wi-fi the battery ran out. I’d left it switched on and unplugged while we were out. So that was the end of that. We spent about 20 minutes down in the lobby bar and then had to give up and go to bed.
Kas got up customarily early and went for a plod round the town. like she does. She got back in time for us to have a leisurely breakfast before setting off again. The breakfast here was the first of the trip that I’d describe as “average” rather than “good” – there was nothing particularly wrong with it, it just wasn’t as good as the two “business” hotels we’d stayed in up to this point.
When we’d done we packed up and got out of the hotel for around 10am. Our target for the day was to the most ridiculously touristy thing possible in Italy, which is to visit Pisa and get a photo of yourself pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower.
To get there from La Spezia you have to drive along the motorway through the provinces of Massa and Carrara and Lucca. Despite extensive research, neither of these has any geocaches acceptably close to the motorway, so we decided to skip them. I don’t mind doing them if they’re easy and by the roadside, but when each one is going to involve a 30 minute detour (or more) then I’m not so bothered.
So straight to Pisa we went, and after following signs for the town centre we found ourselves quite literally in the town centre. There’s a car park about 200m from the Piazza dei Miracoli, and that’s where we ended up parking. I expected it would be frighteningly expensive in there, but it wasn’t too bad. We arrived in town at about 11am, not really knowing the form at all, but suspecting that it involved some tickets.
The ticket office was close by and surprisingly had same-day tickets available for all of the attractions. The rather complex arrangement is that the baptistery, cemetery, cathedral and tower are all separately priced, but if you buy an entry to the cemetery or baptistery you get free entry to the cathedral too. The ticket agent advised to get the cemetery rather than the baptistery because the best bit of the baptistery is the outside, and that part is free. The earliest entry available into the tower was at 1:30, so we had oodles of time to walk around photographing everything and visiting the cathedral. We left ourselves time also to buy souvenirs and take the bags back to the car (because you can’t take them up the tower). And there was still further time to fail to find a geocache in the outer wall (we’d done others though, so we’d coloured in the Province of Pisa. The cathedral was impressive.
For the tower you have to queue up for your timed slot. If you are too early they ask you to go away and come back again later. The reason is basically that the stairs up the tower are narrow, so they let in a batch of people, who then climb to the top all at the same time, and then gradually make their way down again. I guess that both regulates the number of people at the top and ensures that everyone on the stairs is going in the same direction. There’s a very impressive collection of bells at the top, which I’d guess you’d expect, what with it being a bell tower and all, and you can get right up close to them. The stairs up and down are a bit of a death trap if you’re wearing the wrong shoes, because they are made of shiny marble and they lean all over the place. Ami had the wrong kind of shoes on, because someone has to. The view from the top of the tower is pretty good though.
After the tower we took an ice cream break and made our way round to the cemetery, which is not at all what you’d expect. It’s a covered walkway around a garden quadrangle, and all of the long-term occupants are buried beneath marked gravestones flat in the floor. One side seemed entirely to contain former Bishops of Pisa, in chronological order, which made me wonder what will happen when there’s no room left on that side.
When we’d finished here it was deep into the afternoon. What I’d thought might be a two-hour stopover (because we hadn’t pre-purchased any tickets) actually took us over 5 hours. It was time well spent though. It was busy, but not overly oppressive, and the monuments in the Piazza are well worth a visit.
We were spending the night in Florence, so still had a bit of a drive to do. There are two main roads running between Pisa and Florence. Violet took us to the slower one, which is the rather excessively named Strada di grande comunicazione Firenze-Pisa-Livorno. It’s not really a motorway. It’s an upgraded dual carriageway that has a speed limit of 110km/hr on some parts and 90km/hr on others. It felt rather slow to drive on.
Violet managed to find our hotel fairly easily – the Hotel Mirage. I picked this one specifically because it’s not in the centre of town but is close to a bus route, and hence seemingly ideal for leaving the car where it was. You can’t take cars into the historic centre of Florence without a resident’s permit anyway. We arrived at the hotel at exactly the same time as two bus loads of (I think) Chinese tourists. Thankfully we managed to get to the desk while they were still all farting around getting bags of their buses. After we’d checked in and walked back out to grab our bags from the car, the two buses had turned into four.
We got settled into our relatively large room and then went downstairs for a quick drink before getting ready to go out for dinner. We chose the nearby Restaurant Aloisius, and it turned out to be pretty good, especially the free “silly” liqueurs that arrived halfway through pudding.
All-in-all, that turned out to be a pretty decent day.