We were both lucky enough to have a week of holiday before the winter season really kicks off. As I had come straight from a long summer season and started for the winter, it was a nice feeling of having a free week to do what we wanted!
A few ideas were thrown around, climbing/ skiing somewhere else, but as we know we have plenty of that coming this winter, we opted for something completely different, a city break of some description.
I had never been to Italy before and liked the idea of heading there for a break, fortunately we had access to a van from work, so we thought a few short stops to see some of the main attractions wasn’t a bad idea, who doesn’t like the idea of a road trip! The bonus of having a van is that it acted as our transport, accommodation and cooking facilities, its not the luxury that some would want but in terms of keeping costs low and practicality it couldn’t be beaten.
I’m not normally one for doing the touristy things like city tours, but the idea of seeing places like Venice, Florence, Lake Garda seemed really interesting and an opportunity that was too good to miss. We had a very rough idea of a plan, we were going to do Lake Garda, Venice, Florence for certain and other ideas we Milan, Turin and Lake Como, there were no set times, we were completely flexible as to when we arrived and left and certain stop-off, one thing that we were trying to work around was the weather and with a mixed forecast we packed for all eventualities and set off.
We set off around 2pm on Sunday, the plan was to take the Col du Petit Saint Benard over into La Thuile Italy and work our way across to Lake Garda where we would spend the night. Unfortunately as we left so late we knew there was no chance we would get to Lake Garda before nightfall, so we were planning o spend a bit of time there the following morning before heading off.
View from the Col du Petit St Benard looking back over Bourg
Driving over the col into Italy for the first time was amazing, the views were incredible and we got to see great views of the south faces of Mont Blanc and the Grande Jorasses, it felt so close we could almost touch them.
From there we headed down the Aosta valley, it was our first time in this valley and it certainly wont be the last, the scenery is mindblowing, I knew it was going to be nice but it certainly surpassed my expectations.
Looking up towards Mont Blanc from the Aosta Valley
We eventually hit the motorway (Autostrade) and drove into sunset as we headed towards Milan, of course we seemed to reach Milan during the evening rush hour, the traffic became heavy and the motorway miles became boring as it was dark and we were obviously passing through industrial area of the city, it wasn’t too interesting but we managed to keep ourselves occupied by playing guess the song, its fair to say I know nothing about music.
We managed to get past Milan without too much of a delay, and as we were nearing Lake Garda, we realized we had no idea where about we were going to head for, we wanted to stay relatively close so we had a easy drive the following morning to Venice, but not knowing anything about the area, we took a stab in the dark and went for a small town on the west side of the lake, a small place called Salo.
We arrived in Salo at around 9.30pm and after circling the town a few times we finally found a spot to park up and use as our campsite for the night, a small cobbled street about 20 meters from the shores of the lake, not a bad place to park our mobile hotel.
We woke to the sound of street cleaners and sheepishly hid in the van until we thought the coast was clear and we could safely emerge from the van, as I’m sure your not usually allowed to just park up and camp in the streets.
Slowly opening the van door and peering down the road, we were met with clear but hazy skies and the surface of the lake shimmering just 50 meters down the road.
We wandered down to the shores of the lake, the morning sun warming us after our first night in the van. It turns out that Salo is a beautiful town, its sits right on the shores of Lake Garda and this morning seemed to be the perfect time to be wandering around.
On the shores of Lake Garda
After a quick walk around and a few photos, we packed up and had decided to make another stop at a town called Sirmoine, it sits on a peninsula that sticks out into the lake over 1km, we parked outside the town, which is actually more like an island and linked to the mainland by a bridge. It has a beautiful old castle and a walled entrance to the town, with narrow cobbled streets and stunning old buildings, it was lovely to be there so early with no people around and all the shops and cafes opening up.
Cobbled streets of Sirmoine
We decided to stop fo a drink at a café in one of the main squares, with my sweet tooth, I opted for a hot chocolate (or chocolato as we were in Italy) and, well, I couldn’t have asked for anything more, it was basically a mug of hot melted chocolate, what more could you want in the morning!
After enjoying our drinks and working out a plan for the rest of the day, we picked up a take away pizza for the journey and headed off to our next destination, Venice.
After two hours we arrived in thick mist, driving out to Venice across the water we were expecting amazing views of the old city emerging, instead it was fog lights on and trying to avoid the car infront.
Eery Venice in the mist
We hadn’t really planned what were going to get up to and had no idea what we were going to do, in terms of sleeping etc. We pulled into a multistory carpark right next to the big bus depot, the guy gave us a ticket, asked how long we would be here, we said about 24 hours, he took our keys and said he would park our van. That was that, we were effectively homeless in Venice and had no choice but to find a hotel.
After a 10 minutes walk around, we found a hotel, just a few hundred meters from where we had parked, but still sitting on the side of a canal, which seemed perfect, we got our room, dropped our bags and headed out.
After buying a map, we were planning to make our way to St Marcs square, it was incredible walking through the streets of Venice for the first time, I had heard all about it and knew what to expect, but it was still incredible, what took a bit of time to get used to was reading the map and working out which routes were foot paths and which were canals, also working out which bridges to cross and when so not to miss the next street.
After a few wrong turns and circles (thankfully I wasn’t map reader) we finally arrived in St Marcs square. At first I thought I had arrived in Hong Kong, not Italy, it was incredibly busy and incredibly touristy, I thought November would have been a quieter time to visit, I would hate to have been here in peak summer, im sure it would have been unbarable and if I had another person offering me a Vencie tshirt or ‘selfie’ pole I was about to loose the plot, little did I know this was going to be the story of our trip, but I guess what do you expect when youre following the tourist trail.
St Marcs Square
One thing that struck me was the architecture, all the buildings were so ornate and decorative, the churches being the most fancy out of all of them. After wandering around a bit more and admiring some more of the city we made our way back to the hotel, a quick change and went out for dinner, we went to restaurant on the side of the canal, well I guess its hard to find a restaurant that isn’t on the side of a canal when in Venice. We had a quick brainstorm about the next day and that was that, done for the day.
Venice by night
After hearing the water lapping against the walls of the canals throughout the night, we woke to a misty start, then it started to rain, not ideal, but it had been forecast so we couldn’t complain too much.
We headed down for breakfast and feasted like kings, there was everything you could want, I ate so many pain au chocolat’s im surprised I didn’t turn into one!
We were out the door before 9am and as it happened, it appeared luck was on our side, the rain stopped and the skies started to clear, it looked like it was going to be a great day!
Classic Venice view
We followed the Grande Canal and headed back towards St Marc’s square, it was amazing how busy it was, delivery boats were everywhere and the canals looked like any British city during rush our. There didn’t appear to be any obvious way that the boats moved around the canals and its surprising that we didn’t see any accidents!
Ice creams in St Marcs Square
We had decided that, although not the cheapest, we were going to do a gondola ride, its one of those things that I will probably not do again and how could you visit Venice and not go on a boat ride around the canals! We went on a 40minutes tour of some of the canals, it was incredible how quiet and peaceful it was once you got out the tourist centre, it was very relaxing cruising aroud the back canals, before heading back to the chaos of the main square.
Relaxing in a Gondola
We were cutting it fine to collect the van before we fell into the next 24hours segment and had to pay even more, we ran back most of the way, collected the bag from the hotel and just made it in time.
What an amazing 24 hours in Venice, such a beautiful city and mind blowing when you think how it must have all been built, would suggest a visit to anyone that asks, but to live there must be a bit strange!
Sunset across the waterfront in Venice
That was that, we had left Venice, next stop Florence, it was a few hours down to Florence, we stopped half way to organize the van after a chaotic and rushed departure from Venice.
We made it to Florence after getting lost and fortunately found a camp site, it seemed smart and was close to town. We booked in, parked up, made dinner, planned for Florence tour for the next day and went to bed.
Throughout the night the wind whistled and rocked the van, sleeping in a tin can isn’t the quietest night when it is like that outside, it sounded like metal ball bearings bouncing off the roof all night. After waking a few times during the night, we were praying it would stop for the morning. We woke up and the rain continued but fortunately there was a brief pause, which allowed us to sort out breakfast and prepare for the day’s adventure.
We were out of the campsite by 9am and had to get the bus into the town, we found the bus stop easily enough, but as for when we had to get off was a bit/ completely guess work, somehow we judged it quiet well and we managed to get off at the correct stop.
The rain came and went all morning, when it decided to get very heavy we managed to find a conveniently located coffee shops, enjoy a pastry and a hot drink, dry our jackets and then continue when it knocked off. It meant that we did seem to spend a lot of time in cafes, but its hardly the end of the world, we managed to find a great value cafe for some lunhc, however we didn’t seem to find many great value hot chocolates and at €8 each we made sure it lasted.
Incredible Italian architecture
The afternoon weather was much better and it slowly started to brighten up, we finally found the main cathedral, and again, the same as Venice, it was mind-blowing! How they built these structures so long ago, painted the ceiling of the church and carved the statues is beyond me! After seeing everywhere we wanted to and somehow managed to squeeze it in in good time, after a bit of guess work (again) we worked out where to get the bus from and headed back to the campsite.
Having not known anything about Florence, it was such a pleasant surprise and would recommend it to anyone, I was shocked at how beautiful it was even during such a wet and grey day. Just as we had finished sorting our kit and got back in the van, the rain started. Perfect timing. Thoughts slowly turned to tomorrow with packing up and leaving Florence to head to Pisa. Famous for only one thing.
After waking up it emerged we had shared our accommodation with some others, the mozies had arrived last night and we appeared to be their midnight feast, it wasn’t the most comforting feeling in the morning! Unfortunately the rain continued throughout the morning. We packed up, breakfasted slowly and mid morning set off for Pisa. Travelling there took just over an hour and luckily, after rain all morning, it stopped just as we pulled into Pisa.
Pisa is a funny place, is very small and I guess you could even say a bit run down, if it wasn’t for the leaning tower it would have nothing there…… At all.
The tower and its grounds were impressive. I was surprised at how much it leant over, they must have spend a fortune supporting the structure over the years I was so surprised it hasn’t collapsed. After an hour or so of wandering around the grounds and posing for the obvious silly photos, we called time and started to head to Milan, within 10 mins of leaving Pisa the rain started, again!
The Leaning Tower
During the drive up we slightly changed our plans, we would drive past Milan up to lake como where we would spend the night and drive down to Milan mid morning. The drive up and past Milan was mostly taken up with rain, it was relentless and continued on until early evening. We arrived at como in the dark and didn’t have any idea where to go, after driving around for a bit and after checking out a few options we went for a spot next to some parkland that sat right on the shores of the lake, with a crystal clear sky we were looking forward to what would welcome us when morning broke.
The hope of waking up in sun was quickly dashed when I awoke to the sound of ball bearings on the roof again, but this time it was torrential, we popped out of the van for a very quick photo, Lake Como looked great, with the mountains surrounding the shores in nearly every direction, but with it being very grey and wet, we made a quick getaway.
Miserable morning on the shores of Lake Como
Heading south to Milan the weather changed for the better and sun appeared again. On arriving in Milan the sun was out and after not getting too lost we parked up and wandered into the centre. The architecture was amazing, as we had found in every city so far. We made our way to the cathedral piazza, there seems to be a trend here, it was incredible! Such a huge building and nothing like the buildings that surrounded it.
One of the impressive monuments Milan has to offer
We wandered around the centre for a short time but as it was mainly shopping we decided to make a move towards Turin, which was our next stop. After a short detour after missing the exit on the motorway we parked up, sorted the van, made dinner and thought about the next day, we were looking forward to Turin in the morning and seeing the mountains again later on, the thundering of lorries made it feel like we were sleeping on the hard shoulder not in a carpark!
After a comfortable but disturbed sleep with lorries trundling past throughout the night, it was the coldest morning we had, at 7am was just 6c outside, however a new down sleeping bag worked a treat! It was a clear blue morning and in the distance we had views of snow capped mountains, we had a cup of teal and bowel of cereal, then it was time to get going towards Turin.
Turin was much smaller than Milan, which meant it was also much quieter and not half as touristy. We had a gentle wander around the centre and the surrounding streets and parks and after stopping for a classic Italian hot chocolate, it felt more relaxing than the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities. We slowly worked our way back to the van and were planning to head home that night, with further stops in Aosta and Courmayeur, we wanted to make a move so we got to see everywhere in the daylight.
Wandering the streets of Turin, with the snow capped mountains in the distance
The drive up towards Aosta was incredible, the mountains got closer and closer, the temperatures dropped and dropped, and before we knew it we arrived in Aosta, in comparison, a tiny alpine village, certainly compared to what where we had been for the last 6/7 days. There wasn’t really much to see in the town itself, it was beautiful scenery surrounding the village and after a week out of the mountains it was a great feeling to be back. After a wander around the cobbled streets and a few stops in some incredible chocolatier shops, we made our way towards Courmayeur, conscious of the fact we wanted to see it in the daylight.
In the main square in Aosta
Driving up to Courmayeur, the mountains got bigger and bigger and we got amazing views of the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the same side we see from Tignes but we couldn’t get any closer than this, with the glaciers cascading down the mountain towards the village.
Courmayeur was strange as ski resorts go, well it didn’t really feel like a ski resort, more like a high street in London with lots of designer fashion outlets, sandwiched between mountaineering kit shops, what seemed a strange combination, but Courmayeur does have the reputation for being an up market ski resort.
Sunset over Mont Blanc as we drive to Courmayeur
It was getting much colder and almost dark, having just found out that the Petit St Benard pass was closed, we realised that our journey would be nearly 3 hours longer than planned, so we were keen to get away as we had work the next day. After paying nearly €50 to drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel we were back in France.
We were contemplating stopping for dinner in Chamonix, but knowing we would be back at some point during the winter we decided to abandon that idea and hit the road and get a McDonalds en-route.
All in all, it was an amazing trip, we were both happy with what we had seen and didn’t feel like we had missed out on anything in any of the cities/towns we visited, we seemed to spend just the right amount of time in each place.
To watch a short edit of the trip, click on the link below.
Click to watch the movie!