Further up the Riviera outside Antibes we stopped for a couple of days at a charming campsite next to both a beach and a national park (where Vonnie managed to get properly lost one morning -but thank the Lord she found herself!). Ellie made mates with an English girl called Hannah in the swimming pool and they played from dawn til dusk in and out the water and with their Nintendo DS.
With Italy calling us we set off on Sunday for the border the other side of Monte Carlo. Lazily heading off at about 2pm we had a drive along the coast completely devoid of any traffic. A little suspicious we soon found out why there wasn’t a car on the road. Out of nowhere vehicles began approaching us from the opposite direction at high speed. First a Ferrari. Then a Porche. Then a brace of yellow Lamborghinis. Followed by countless luxurious 4x4s. All driven by extravagantly dressed sunglass wearing testosterone charged men. It was 3.30pm and we were, completely by coincidence, approaching the 2007 Monaco Grand Prix only minutes after it had finished. The police had just opened up the roads again after the race to let the traffic through but no one was stupid enough, except for us Poopers, to be considering driving through Monaco at that time.
As we drifted through the centre of Monte Carlo metres away from the actual Grand Prix race track, the streets were pulsating with thousands of Grand Prix fanatics, and the air was thick with the aroma of jet fuel mixed with burning rubber. In the space of 20 minutes I caught a glimpse of 9 Ferraris and drooled over countless other luxurious sports cars driving off to their outrageously opulent yachts moored in the harbour or their private helicopters which had begun passing over our heads like flocks of migrating birds. Simply marvellous. Another unforgettable experience we will treasure for the rest of our lives.
3 wonderful weeks in France but we were all ready for Italy. That evening as we crossed over the border in between 2 tunnels where the French A8 motorway became the Italian A10, our first adventure came to an end and our next was beginning. At that moment, quite unexpectedly our excitement erupted with spontaneous cheers for Pizza and ice cream, chants of “Italia, Italia” and a quick rendition of O Sole Mio. We had no idea what we were going to do in Italy, where we actually going to go, or how long it would take us. But it just felt so good to be here.
After a night at a service station we headed off for Levanto and a couple of days of exploring an adorable section of coastline known as the “Cinque Terre”, second only they say to the Amalfi coast. Apart from the stand up rows I had with a parking attendant, getting all of us thrown off a train for unknowingly not signing the back of our family tourist day pass (our first encounter with Italy’s famous non si fa - ‘it’s not the done thing’) and finally with another train inspector for not being prepared to pay a ticket for Moses or to muzzle him, we actually had a terrific time discovering each little historic village built precariously on the edge of the cliffs by generations of Italian peasants hundreds of years before. We took lunch in Consiglia from where bottles of wine were found buried in Pompeii, apparently still full with the Consiglia wine inside them. It tasted pretty good too they say, preserved perfectly under Vesuvius’ ashes over the centuries.
Next Pisa. And its badly built tower. The kids will post up their view of this experience (and the multitude of their other ones when they can stop for a moment from their vivacious existential lifestyle to type up their thoughts). Thanks to Vonnie’s research from the Lonely Planet guide my highlight was a perfect lunch in a back street family run restaurant away from the tourists and in the heart of Pisa’s university district. Von stocked up on reading material for all of us from the university bookshop including an exceptionally insightful and witty book for me which I am in the process of devouring - “The Dark Heart of Italy” by Tobias Jones, an English journo who spent 3 years in Italy trying to understand the complexity of the predominant conservative Italian culture beyond its obvious art, cuisine and history. He writes about the fascinating relationship Italians have with their powerful political and religious institutions and attempts to explain how the endless stories of corruption and crime rife in Italian’s recent post war history have created a morality where, beauty, wealth and cunning are such well respected traits. ‘Wrong doing and crime are invariably excused by the fact that political and church leaders are thought to be up to much worse things and a little tax dodging or bribery by us lesser beings really isn’t that important. Everyone is up to something and you’re stupid if you’re not too.’ A must read for any Italian visitor.
While at the Pisa campsite 15 minutes walk from the Tower and the Duomo, I had another run-in with a low hanging object. This time not a Brockley bridge to knock off our top box, but an equally destructive overhead wire. I was asked to reverse into another space on the site by one of the staff because the one we were in was apparently reserved. I obliged accordingly and an unseen ruinous wire sliced into our roof light shattering it into a few irreparable pieces. Moments later the heavens thundered violently and the rains poured down incessantly for an hour. I sat on the ground, lit my Hamlet cigar and sang a little Que sera sera.
Calling round local garages, we eventually we found someone with a replacement skylight. We drove there, but they didn’t actually have it. They did find another garage for us 150 kms away south of Florence. We arrived 5pm on the Friday of one of Italy’s numerous long Festival weekends for some saint or other. Only to find the Perspex part they had in stock didn’t fit. My basic Italian was getting stretched to its utter limits and my sanity was floundering just a touch at the prospect of spending the next 3 nights with a hole over our heads and the resulting risk to our security. A few deep breaths, 2 hours and 1200 euros later the guys at Due Elle garage had fitted us an entirely new skylight. And to be honest, a better quality one than we had before.
We left with a serendipitous recommendation of a free car park with facilities for motorhomes high up in the Chianti hills at yet another beautifully crafted historic Italian town called Castellini in Chianti. There I met a happy chap and Italian West Ham fan Giuseppe who advised us not to take the ferry to Sicily, which we were considering, but just drive the 800 kms south. He gave us a booklet of all the free decent car park facilities in Italy and told us not stop anywhere near Napoli cos of the robbers. Allora, these things all work out in the end. As we have no plan we can’t get upset from things happening that throw us off a plan we don’t have. We’re free to just enjoy the whole experience. The good and the bad. The hoped for and the feared. The irritations and the kindnesses of the strangers (or inanimate objects) we happen to meet on our way.
Day 30. After a day in Sienna on Saturday and a long drive down the A1 yesterday (waving to Rome promising to return later in the year and fast learning Italian from a CD on the stereo) we are now resting at a tucked away nearly empty tree shaded campsite site in Cassino, north of Napoli. We have been quenching our thirst today drinking directly from the ancient natural Roman springs that flow from the ground into a stream on one side of this site. We’ll pop up after lunch to the top of Monte Cassino to see its magnificent Benedictine monastery. And then head off for the Amalfi coast on our way to Sicily. Andiamo.