Iggy the Hymer is still watching the surf from his beachside spot in San Remo. When we first pulled up here on Thursday afternoon it was a quiet spot with only four other vans. We’d often been alone on our trip down through Europe so Iggy was happy to have so much company. He’s even happier now, as the count by Friday tea time had risen to thirty nine! If that’s San Remo in December we can only imagine what it’s like in August. Mind you…It’s persuaded us to stay for an extra day, so it must have something going for it.
It must indeed. This is my first, long awaited, visit to Italy. So you can imagine how excited I was on Thursday morning as we prepared to set off from Saint Chamas. Normally we avoid the toll roads like the plague. We’re not really in a hurry, and the ordinary roads are definitely the way to actually see a country. We have to engage with it firsthand all the time. Slowing to let the children cross, as we pass through a small town at school out time. Old ladies, ambling onto crossings, right in front of our wheels. Mountains of swedes lying in long, barrack like piles, in French fields for winter. Chateaux and fortresses. Boulangeries flaunting tempting pastries and the many, many strange and wondrous things the French put in the middle of their roundabouts!
All these and more are missed by the fast, smooth, expensive toll roads. And the time saved is often not that much. For this stretch of road however – Saint Chamas to San Remo it was a lot. It would take about 3 hours on the toll road. More than twice that without. At a cost of 43.10 Euros it was a bit of a hard gulp. Gulp! But I comfort myself that we’ve saved a bit on diesel from the slow road, so all is not gloom. It was also quite a fabulous way to arrive in Italy. And hair raising enough that I’m quite glad not to have experienced what the free road had to offer!
If you’ve not driven from the South of France into Italy I highly recommend it. The landscape slowly changes from long plains, with ever circling teeth, of ever growing mountains. The road begins to rise. Rolling through mounds of tree covered hills that steepen, climb, higher and higher. Names known across the world headline, and pass away on the motorway signs. St. Tropez, Cannes, Nice. By the time we reach the border with Monaco, the road doesn’t go over anymore – it goes through. Tunnel after tunnel with stomach churning viaducts in between. So high we feel like we’re flying. Vertigo, spiralling out over the edges of roads, that drop away where eagles dare, before splashing, so, so far away, into the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea. The Cote D’Azur is aptly named indeed.
The Douane – Customs officers – pull us over at the Monaco border. They ask where we’re going. And for how long. Sicily says I. For Christmas. Then maybe Greece. For how long? I shrug. Who knows? The younger man laughs. They send us on our way. It feels like the Prince just wants to remind passing folks that this is Monaco. Not France. Not Italy. A separate place in it’s own right. I would like to come visit someday, but for now Italy is but a few miles away.
There is no more hard ground between tunnels. Or so it seems. So it mostly is. Tunnel opens onto bridge. Bridge ends in tunnel. Each twists and turns, and rises and falls. France says “See you soon” on a roadsign before a tunnel mouth. Where is the Italia sign? There! Halfway across a bridge in the sky we fly into Italy! Valleys plummet beneath us. Greenhouses, fields, roads and homes all grow, skyward like crystals, from the perpendicular sides of the hills. I have seen the pictures. Who has not seen the pictures? It didn’t, couldn’t, prepare me for the reality.
For half an hour we spun through the sky. Skimming the edges of cliffs we couldn’t even see. I felt myself start to become a little giddy. The bridges seemed endless. I began to wish for something more solid beneath us than this string of tarmac. Whirling giddily through the landscape on ear popping, giant stilts.
Just as I felt my stomach really needed a break we reached the turn off for San Remo. Oh my giddy Aunt! Talk about a helter skelter of a ride to the bottom! There is no need for funfairs in Italy! Just go for a drive! No wonder Italians have a reputation for being risk takers and lovers of life. Growing up in perpetual proximity to falling off a cliff face every time you turn around would do that to a person. This is a bold country. Bold, and beautiful. So, so beautiful.
I think I am in love!
The drive through San Remo to our parking spot was long, noisy, congested and everything I’d expected from what I’d heard about Italian driving. It was chaos. But there was none of the menace in it we often will find in a similar busy situation in Britain. An old lady staggered straight out on a crossing without looking. Scooters and cars calmly weaved their way around her without a pause. She carried happily on with nary a flinch. What would you expect from a woman who’d survived decades of not falling to her death every day from her cliff edge existence?
We left Iggy parked up by the surf and set off to walk into town. We’d expected an uncomfortable, exhaust fume choked walk, but San Remo had surprises in store for us. Between the beach and the road lies the old railroad. Now turned into a dual pedestrian walkway and cycle path. Pleasantly separated by trees the busy road was almost forgotten as we strolled along past flowering shrubs and palm trees. The surf threw itself endlessly on the breakwaters for our entertainment. The big wheel of the Christmas fair spun neon lights on the promenade, marking the town centre and heavenly sanctuary of the pedestrian precinct.
We treated ourselves to some delicious Gelato. Only 2 Euros for 2 boules of ice cream! The air was warm on our skin and life was as close to perfect as we’re ever going to get on this mortal coil.
Checking the forecast when we got back to Iggy we saw there were now high winds forecast for the next day. Particularly high around Pisa which was our destination. It was an easy decision to stay an extra day in San Remo. We had fallen in love with the place and there was plenty more still to see. Jay had driven every day for 12 days and definitely deserved a break. Pisa will still be there on Saturday.