Hi, we have just returned from our 5 month tour of Europe where we spent some time in Italy. These are our experiences. They are not the experiences of anyone else and I wouldn't like to think it would stop you going. Different times, different places and different people will have other ideas. Many people go there and many love it. We did enjoy a lot of it, but found the negatives of many places outweighed the positives and we will not be going to some of them again. Infact we wouldn't go South of Rome again!
Italy as a whole was not what we had expected. It was a land of contradictions. Some of the countryside is very beautiful and has some great scenery, but on balance is not anything more beautiful than you can see in France, Central Spain or places in the UK.
The cities and towns were a mixture of old and "shabby chic" with modern but still very run down areas. The people seem to be unwelcoming at first impression, but if you need assistance or help they are friendly and do all they can to help.
We found the roads in the South of the country to be in a terrible state, compared to the Northern parts of the country. Whole carriageways of the motorway from Naples South to Sicily are in dire need of repair. The top surface of the road is missing and your van really does judder when you drop onto them, as do your teeth! We found this to be the case on motorways and non-motorways. On Sicily itself some of the road numbers matched neither our TomTom or Michelin map, so we bought a tourist driving map. It's doubtful the cartographer ever left his office, because entire roads that were on that map didn't exist in real life. It showed a motorway all round the island, but it just stopped part way, no warning signs just went straight from a dual carriagewayand literally dropped 2 inches onto to a single carriageway road without so much as a sign!
The driving standards on the roads are the worst we have ever experienced, even worse than Spain! I have come to the conclusion that you get a driving licence handed to you when you buy your car or motorbike/scooter! No one could have had to undergo even the basic of examinations on road etiquette or ability. Roundabouts, junctions, bends and blind hills are seen as excellent places to overtake because the tourists tend to slow down there so passing them is easiest! There are what we would take to be speed limit signs but no one takes the slightest bit of notice. So much so we decided the signs are infact indicators of the depth in millimetres of the pot holes on that section of roads!! No matter how fast you go it's not fast enough! Even Italians seem to have a car with no more than the length of a shoe lace hurtling behind them itching to pass, and if they can't overtake an 'undertake' will do!
On the motorway leaving Pompeii we were driving along we even passed a woman weaving across three lanes of traffic, slowing down and speeding up. When we could get passed I saw she was reading a book! It was propped up on the steering wheel, and it was a proper book not a map! She even answered her phone and chatted as she merrily drove along! I was even passed on the contraflow section of the roadworks because I had the crazy idea of sticking to the 60kph speed limit. Several cars and a truck veered across the cones separating the lanes and went passed, most shaking their heads at me!
Sicily was an island of extremes. There are some fantastic beaches but in many places you can't get near them because they are privately owned and a fee is payable. They are also the most heavily polluted with plastic waste. Entire sheets of polythene are just floating in the shallows. I spent a hour one day dragging it from the sea and up the beach and left it near a skip. It was still there 5 days later when we left the site, plus the other stuff that had come ashore in the mean time.
The towns are in most cases seem very run down with lots of the buildings in a bad state of repair. Rubbish is strewn everywhere and in particular the towns of Gela and Sicilia could do with carpet bombing to spruce them up a bit!
We chose to get the ferry back from Palermo to Livorno rather than drive back up the length of Italy and face the roads again. It was the best 220 Euros we spent! Camping on the deck with 7 other vans and a very pleasant 20 hour Mediterranian cruise thrown in! I spoke to one of the other vanners and he was German. He came to Sicily every year, but refused to drive on the Italian roads because of the points I have outlined above, so he caught the ferry from Genoa in the Autumn and sailed down, then sailed back again in the Spring.
We stayed at Parking Lagani at Giardini Naxos. A motorhome only service site. It has individual hardstanding pitches with your own washing sink and taps , picnic table and chairs, cold water shower, fresh water tap and electric for 12 Euros per night. See www.parkinglagani.com
Camping Scarabeo at Punta Bracetto. This is a really well laid out pretty site right on the private beach, (the one with the plastic sheeting on, sadly!). It is an ACSI site at different times of the year. The pitches are quite large and well laid out. There is a choice of 3 & 6 amp electric. Each pitch also gets its' own loo and washbasin in a lock up cabin, where you have the key. Showers are included in the ACSI price dates but outside that you pay a Euro for a token to get a hot shower. The major downside to this place is it's 4.5 kilometres to the nearest supermarket. But a frsh bread & fish van calls each morning. (www.scarabeocamping.it
We also stayed for a few nights at the most beautiful wildcamping place I have ever been to at N38.12221 degrees, E12.72441. It is a gravel carpark that would take about 20 vans right on a fantastic beach with warm cristal clear water. When we were there there were 10-12 vans over the period. There are no facilities but there is a very cheap, (2 Euros), service point in the nearby village of Macari and a bread van calls every morning.
The parts we did enjoy were Venice, Rome, Florence, Lucca and Orvieto.
Venice is as special as you think it's going to be and is somewhere we would definitely return to. We stayed on the aire at the Troncetto. It is right in the city and very handy for the water buses. It is expensive at 32 Euros a night but included electricity and the other usual services, and you are staying in the heart of Venice. It is right on the lagoon and we found it easily and there was plenty of space. It was secure and we never felt uneasy about leaving the van at any time, even at night when we went for an evening water bus cruise along the canals.
The water taxis are expensive and the gondolas even more expensive, so the water buses are well worth using. A multi journey ticket is quite a saving. We were there at the end of March and we felt this is one of the best times to go. It wasn't too hot or crowded and we didn't have to queue for any of the sights. The island of Murano, where they do the glass is also worth a visit. Again you can get the water bus and your multi journey ticket covers the fare. On the way there and back you get to see "real life". We passed not only a water ambulance, fire boat and police boats but a water bourne funeral cortege to the cemetary island!
Florence was a really pretty city. We used the aire again and caught the bus into the centre. It cost us 12 Euros per night, but has no electric but has other services. It is difficult to find and we were grateful to our TomTom. Since returning home we have been told about Camping Michaelangelo which is virtually in the centre. It is an ACSI site and from a friends' reccomendation is well worth it.
Talking of the ACSI card. This saved us some money because unlike France the aires can be quite costly. We even refused to stay at one in Sienna because they wanted 20 Euros to park on a car park with no services! They varied wildly from free to 32 Euros, (Venice). The standards vary wildly too! Most of the sites we used were only 15 Euros when we used the card, but at the time of year we were in Italy, March and April, quite a few sites were not open until June.
Rome was splendid! We didn't like it at first because the train from the town near the site drops you right in the city centre and to walk out of a station right into the mayhem that is Rome takes a bit of getting used to!
We stayed at Happy Village Camping. It is an ACSI site and was 15 Euros all in per night and we would recommend it as a good base to explore from. There is a free bus to the station and it is a Euro for the 20 minute journey into Rome. The minibus journey to the station was a white knuckle ride iself and the Russian/Italian driver, Vassily, is just crazy!
We saw all the usual stuff and it is amazing. But a few more signposts directing you to places wouldn't go amiss! The Italians seem to have tons of really special places but for some reason don't bother to point the way to them. You just walk along an alley, turn a corner and hey presto! There's the Parthenon! Same with the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. Don't expect an intimate romantic meeting at either because even in March it was packed with tourists throwing coins into one or sitting on the other.
The Vatican city stuff is impressive and we would recommend paying for a guided tour. It was 45 Euros each but included the entrance fee and the guide for a 2 hour visit. There is oppulance beyond your wildest dreams and to be honest you have to wonder why if Bono wants to stop poverty he doesn't try to convince the Pope to sell a few paintings. They could cure childhood malaria and no one would even miss them. The guide said if you looked at every artifact for just 60 seconds it would take you 12 years to get round and that's without breaks for meals, sleep or the loo!
Pisa was a bit of an anticlimax to be honest. The tower isn't that big and is partly surrounded by scaffolding, (or was then). Yes it's facinating because you've heard so much about it, but.......! I did wonder what the city council would have done if the engineers who straightened it up had asked if they wanted it vertical!
Pompeii was impressive and worth the money to get in. We used Camping Spartacus across the road from the entrance. It was a bit basic but was only 12 Euros a night. There are three sites in a row, Spartacus, Zeus and Camping Pompeii, (they must have been up all night thinking of that one!) Spartacus is said by the Caravan Club book2 to be the best of the three, so we went for that.
We were warned by the guide books that "wild dogs" are a problem on the camp site and the excavation site. We saw three, all sunbathing and fast asleep. Lay in the middle of the car park. Nobody bothered with them and they didn't bother anyone, so don't worry too much would be my advice.
The other place we found really handy was the motorhome camping place at Diano Marina. It is very reasonable outside of bank holidays and early in the year. But expect to have disturbed nights at the week-end and holidays. The gate man escorts vans to their pitch all night and he uses a scooter! We woken at 04.30 by a van being squeezed in between our van and another. He ended up less than 2 foot from our door!
Crikey this is long! But I have tried to give a brief rundown of the place as we found it. I hope you find some of it helpful. Please don't be put off going to Italy, that's not my intention. I firmly believe that the best thing about having a van is the ability to move on or stay put as we find out about somewhere for ourselves. That is what we did and you must do that too.