Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Italian Adjustments

You can't simply arrive in Italy and expect to cope. It is not a straightforward place, the simplest things become inexplicably complicated, even familiar stuff you have done before. Our plan to inveigle ourselves back into the mysteries of Italian culture was to keep it simple. We know the roads around Livorno, we were arriving around lunchtime when they were quiet, the place where we planned to stay was less than 50kms distant and we had camped there before. It was a plan.

Buongiorno Livorno!
Autostrada quiet time (drivers at lunch) that's the way we like it

To begin with it went well, off the ferry, through the dock (doffing our hats to the Statione Maritimma, whose cafeteria serves delicious but affordable pasta), onto the autostrada without incident, then onwards up the Arno valley. Our destination - Camping Belsito in Montecatini Alto, is prettily sited as the name implies, in the hills above the spa town of Montecatini Terme. 

Montecatini Alto is very.... well.. alto.
Some indication of just how 'alto' the hill village of Montecatini is in relation to its more famous twin in the valley can be gleaned from the fact the two are connected by a 'funiculare'. Really the place should be called Montecatini Mezzo Soprano. 

There is no easy route to the place. The sat nav guides you up a minor road which quickly becomes vertiginous, badly surfaced and half way up, with no means of turning around, first informs you that the road is unsuitable for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes, then advises a 2m width restrictions. The Acsi book and the camp's website both warn against following the sat nav - sadly, the first time we stayed here in 2016, that's exactly what we did.

Wiser the second time, we discussed two alternatives: either follow the Acsi instructions - heading into Montecatini Terme then picking up signs for the campsite, or find the alternative route we used to exit the place last time, using some back roads through Pieve a Nievole. In the event our careful preperation went awry as soon as we left the autostrada; everyone on board, real and virtual, appeared slightly unsure of our whereabouts. 

Somewhere in the middle of Montecatini Terme a small brown sign to Camping Belsito pointed up a side street. We followed it, the street was narrow with parked cars and buses on each side. It was school's out moment. Italians have a propensity for turning everyday occurrences into events. Picking up bambini from school involves the entire local Policia Communale turning out en masse. Parents and grandparents form excited gaggles around the school gates, and when 'i piccoli cari' appear they are smothered in hugs and kisses as if they had been missing for weeks.Then everyone attempts to drive-off simultaneously, school buses, Mamma's snazzy Fiat 500, Nona's rusting Panda 4x4, and through it all, edging forward, slowly yet imperiously, one large British motorhome.

"I'm sure I recognise this road," I asserted hopefully. We drove past the large park housing Montecatini's somewhat crumbling fin de siecle spa facilities. It's true, we had been here before, it's the route the bus took from one Montecatini to another - I remember the last time we visited expressing relief that at least we did not have to drive the motorhome up it.

Montecatini Alto is clearly visible on the hill above, yet the campsite sign read 6km. The road is narrow and doubles back on itself repeatedly in a series of scary hairpin bends, made doubly hazardous by loose grit and high retaining walls. There was scarcely room for two vehicles to pass; it did not deter white van man Italiano bombing towards us and shooting past with inches to spare. Halfway up, on a rare straight, I noticed a lycra clad figure on a racing bike in front of us.I glanced in the wing mirror I already had acquired a half dozen frustrated tailgaters.

"Perhaps I will get past him on the next straight bit, if it's long enough," I wondered aloud. 

I was wrong in every respect. I could understand why the cyclist pulled away on bends as I had to slow almost to a standstill, taking-up both sides of the road, to negotiate them. However, she continued to pull ahead even on the steep straights. I noted we were travelling about 30kph.

"I think we have the winner of the women's Giro in front of us," I speculated.

Hunched in an aerodynamic position, legs like pistons, she powered her way in front of us up the remaining 3kms of the climb. It was an astonishing display of athleticism and true grit. I think it's what is known amongst the cycling fraternity, or in this case, sisterhood, as being hard. 

Finally we arrived at the campsite gates. They were locked. We recalled that reception had been closed over lunchtime the last time we came. Then we were on our own; today, it being June not April, the car park outside was jam packed with Dutch caravaners all eager to be first. We parked behind them and went in through the pedestrian entrance to explore. There seemed only a handful of pitches available. We need to adjust our out of season travellers heads; June is a popular time to take an annual break for people without kids. It comes as a shock to us to find places busy.

Eventually the site manager caved to customer pressure and opened the gates 10 minutes before the appointed 14:30. We remembered her from before, a severe looking Dutch woman, who in fact managed to be both blisteringly efficient, but friendly too. We installed ourselves with a sense of relief. Operation Italy Adust part one achieved without mishap. Phew!

Actually, once you have survived the tricky access roads Camping Belsito is as good a place as any to acclimatise to Italy. The place has a great view across the Tuscan hills on the north side of the Arno valley.

Camping Belsito, well named..

view from along the road

Montecatini Alto is a classic hilltop village with all the features you might desire:

Great position

Central square ringed with cafes and restaurants

Welcome to Italia moment - monster affogato.

A funicular connects to hill village to Montecatini Terme on the plain below.
The faded grandeur of Montecatini Terme is a short white knuckle bus ride away, or you could use the funicular from Montecatini. Alto. We chose not to as we had visited the spa town previously.

As for the site itself, it is well run and the facilities good - apart from the tepid showers. The other issue is that in June it is very busy with German and Dutch caravaners. We stayed in Rondinara with their thirty something offspring and precocious grandchildren. Camped here were their straight-laced grey-haired parents. They took the afternoon 'quiet time' seriously, expanding it from 9:00am - 5:00pm. I know we have thirty something kids too,and grey-hair and like peace and quiet. We are not straight-laced however - never have been.

All things considered we have managed the transition from France to Italy well - geographically close, but culturally it's inter-planetary travel.

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