A Week Of Ups And Downs In Northern Italy

As we left dreary Ovada on Sunday morning, the skies began to clear and we travelled north, into the foothills of the Italian/Swiss Alps. Semi-decent road surfaces and a distinct lack of traffic gave us a trouble free trek to Mongrando in Biella Province. A cute wee town with a forward-thinking Commune who have seen fit to provide a decent, flat, small Aire with electricity and all other services just across the road from their sizeable sports complex. €5 for 24 hours parking, €3 for electricity, pay at the sports complex bar and you can use their showers and toilets for no extra charge up until 10pm. Great views of the mountains and, had the cloud cover lifted a wee bit higher, we would’ve had a first class view of both Monte Rosa AND The Matterhorn! Unfortunately, it didn’t ….so we couldn’t see the summits but the vista was pretty spectacular anyway! We meandered around the town – totally unspoilt by tourism, despite it’s proximity to several ski resorts, but we wondered what would happen to it in the future – apparently, it appears to be the custom here that, when a resident dies, A4 size posters are erected on various noticeboards around the parish, announcing the death, complete with their name, address, age and funeral arrangements. Looking at the ages of recently deceased villagers (mostly in their 80s and 90s), and the number of derelict village properties here, one sure hopes their families or new residents move in to keep the place going!


Monday morning saw us head for Lake Maggiore – the first of three of Italy’s lakes that we planned to visit this week. A picturesque route, made even more so by the appearance of sunshine and blue skies, brought us to Dormelletto, on the southwesterly edge of the lake. Harley was delighted to find a designated Doggy Beach at our parking spot and spent his time happily retrieving sticks from the cooling waters. We took a stroll around the old town – small, pretty architecture but very little going on within, probably due to the fact that alongside the  busy road that lies between it and the lake, a sprawl of restaurants, bars, supermarkets etc has sprung up, catering more for the tourists than the locals, presumably.

The car park we were in, thankfully, bore no signs to say we couldn’t stay overnight and, since the local Carabinieri had driven past several times without moving us on, we took this as a good sign and had a very peaceful night – other than a strange dude arriving on a moped just before midnight, parking up right in front of us and repeatedly staring at us through our windscreen. Somewhat unnerving, it has to be said. He left after about 15 minutes, after having walked around the car park several times and then accosting whoever was in a car parked down the slipway. We surmised it was, possibly, a gay meeting spot and he was touting for business!

This week has been a real up and down week, not entirely attributable to mixed weather and mad Italian drivers – with the sale of our house apparently stalled due to a stalemate scenario having been reached by our respective legal eagles, Team Sebo’s Executive Committee arrived at the inevitable conclusion that Roy should book a flight home as soon as possible and move the whole thing forward. Flight booked from Bergamo, for Sat 1st April, returning the following Saturday. So, it was with dampened spirits, and the horrible thought of a week’s enforced separation, that we headed for Lake Como. Two failed attempts to find listed service areas – the first appeared to be down a rough unmade road at the top of a very steep and narrow (as in, we had no more than a 10cm clearance between the wall and Sebo’s awning- mental note to increase Sebo’s width in the CoPilot App vehicle profile!!), the second would have been perfect, had it not been completely taken over by a fairground and, thus, out-of-bounds to us! Never mind – we’ll find a drain to dump the grey water somewhere along the line!

Bellagio was to be our home for the night on Tuesday and the drive up was spectacular, if a little strenuous on poor Roy. More steep, hairpin bends to contend with! Another freebie – in the form of a car park, within a hop, skip and a jump from a public beach and just a ten minute walk from the harbour and the old town. The stress and strain of the drive up was all forgotten as soon as we saw the view from the beach! Reputedly THE best place to stay on Lake Como (other than George Clooney’s Villa Oleandra,obviously!), Bellagio has managed to retain all of it’s charm and not succumbed to the tackier-side of mass tourism.

So smitten were we by Bellagio and our uber-peaceful sleepy spot, that we decided to stay another day and night! We were parked alongside a municipal park, frequented by local mothers and their small offspring, dogwalkers and a sizeable group of Italian youths who were just “hanging” – no ghettoblasters blaring out and no alcohol being lashed into them, just kids enjoying the sunshine and the company of their peers. We couldn’t help but make comparisons between here and Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, City Hall or any other open air, public meeting place back home, which seem to become a mecca for loud, drunken louts the minute the sun appears!

The sun was already out and topping-up our batteries by the time we awoke from our slumbers and Tuesday was, probably, one of the warmest days we’ve had in a while. We planned to treat ourselves to a nice lunch out at one of the waterfront restaurants so, in order to salve our consciences regarding not taking Harley with us for lunch, we headed off around a well-marked walking trail around the town and it’s outlying villages which we found in the Tourist Info leaflet. For the first time, this actually WAS well-marked – with red arrows, on the pavements and roads! Fair play, Bellagio – you knew we were coming! Apart from tiring Harley out so that we could have a guilt-free lunch AND exploring as much of beautiful Bellagio as we possibly could in such a short time, there was a third reason for the walk and the lunch out – on Wednesday, March 29th, 2017, my eldest daughter, Hayley, was finally crossing the last hurdle in her tortuous, four and a half year long journey to gain her PhD! Whilst we were walking and drinking-in the scenery, I couldn’t help but think about her being grilled by an external examiner and two of her own Conway Institute, UCD, academics so I was delighted when the phone rang with the news that she’d passed, with flying colours, and would have her doctorate officially conferred on June 19th! The pride (and relief, though I never doubted she would get there!) I felt is beyond words and I’m actually quite tearful as I’m writing this. Well Done, Dr Beaton!

The good news made our lunch even more special and we pushed the boat out with a bottle of wine! The restaurant was slap bang on the water’s edge and the food was delicious. Had the service been a tad quicker, we might have given it 5* – unfortunately, we were halfway through our main course before the wine arrived and only then because we reminded the waiter! The digestif they threw in as a freebie almost made up for it though so we were happy enough.

Still on our Bellagio “high”, we planned to spend Thursday night not too far from Bergamo as we had booked a hire car for collection – long story but, since Roy was flying from Bergamo on Saturday and the remaining members of Team Sebo were going to be spending the duration of his absence on a campsite on Lake Garda, we reckoned the handiest way for him to get back to Bergamo (100km) for a 10.20am flight would be to pick up a car on our way past on Friday and for him to return it on Saturday morning. We pre-booked a Fiat Panda with Firefly online for £14.99/24 hours – cheap at half the price!

At this point, it all started to go pear-shaped! The parking spot I’d found on the usually reliable Park4Night App involved a very steep, narrow climb up to a picnic spot overlooking Bergamo – very picturesque and peaceful, or so it said in the description. What it failed to also say was that there was a 2.0m height restriction! Grrrrr! So, having climbed-up, with hearts in mouths, praying we wouldn’t meet any other vehicle, we then had to turn around and come back down! Team Sebo’s Logistics Officer was very unhappy by this stage – as was his driver! I’m pretty sure I saw Harley lying in his bed, under the table, with his paws covering his ears at one stage! A hasty consultation of CamperContact, assured us there was a free Aire just 5km away, handy for town blah, blah, blah. So, we arrive at appointed co-ordinates, helped by a multitude of “camper service area” signposts, only to find that the damned Aire has transferred to an industrial park 3km away – no co-ordinates given and no full address either, just that it was next to the National Shooting Range. Google maps were consulted and followed to the letter BUT, though it took us to a spot on the dual carriageway which ran alongside the industrial park, there were no exits that we could see that would take us down to the Aire and there were definitely no signposts other than the numerous ones to the former Aire! By this stage, the air was blue in Sebo! Eventually, having driven around 25km more than we needed to, we managed to find the damned place! It’s saving grace was that it was alongside the river, within walking distance of a couple of supermarkets and had metered electricity! We fed the meter, hooked-up and cracked a beer each! Once all had calmed down, Harley ventured out of his sanctuary and we all went for an evening stroll whilst the sun was still out!

Of course, due to it’s proximity to a dual carriageway, it proved to be anything but peaceful BUT, with the electricity, at least our fridge had cooled-down overnight! Needless to say, neither of us had slept well and we headed-off to Bergamo earlier than planned in the hope that our hire car would be available before noon. We needn’t have worried about an early collection – the queue at the Firefly desk was a mile long and there was a ticket system in place – we pulled a ticket and were then informed our wait time was 72 minutes!!!! Coffees and chocolate croissants were immediately purchased in order to make the wait more tolerable! I suspect several folk ahead of us in the queue, who hadn’t pre-booked, gave-up and went and got a car from one of the other hire companies just to speed things up so, in the end, our wait was, thankfully, somewhat shorter than predicted and we were upgraded to a Zafira 2.0 HDi Automatic at no extra cost. Our original plan, on leaving the airport in the two vehicles was for Roy to lead and me to tuck in behind him in the little Fiat Panda…….hmmm, but I now had a higher-powered car and no gears to wrestle with….as we headed for our respective vehicles, there was a quick “Cheerio – see you at the campsite!” and off I went! In fairness, we’d opted to take the A4, in direct contravention of our “no tolls” rule, so it was a much easier drive than the alternative “roundabouts every 500m” scenario. Just over an hour later, having shot down the A4, mostly in the middle lane to avoid the convoy of trucks on my right, I landed here, at Camping Le Palme, on the south eastern shore of Lake Garda – our home for the next nine days. Sebo wasn’t far behind me, either! I suspect the Autostrada may be used a little more frequently from now on, despite their tolls!

We checked-in, chose a rather nice pitch on a terrace directly overlooking the lake and set-up Camp Sebo. Roy spent Friday evening packing what clean clothes he had here (I really need to hit the camp laundry hard!) and making lists of things he needs to do and items he needs to bring back with him, whilst we both contemplated the longest time we’ve been apart since God alone knows when! Yes, yes, I know! I can hear the collective “Awwwwwws” and “pass me the sick bucket” from you all……