Making the most of a short break in Milan

03.16.18 Milan (6) Walking tour
The beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan

The northern Italian city of Milan is the perfect city for a short break and its popularity has grown in recent years following the 2015 Expo.  A couple of days were certainly not enough to see everything in Milan but we managed to pack in some of the well-known and lesser-known sights creating a weekend that was pure Italian and gave us glimpses in to the spirit of the city.  These are my highlights for your own visit:

Piazza del Duomo – You won’t want to miss getting to the Piazza del Duomo.  From here you will be overwhelmed by the extravagant and ornate front of Milan’s gothic Duomo.  Once you have taken in the grandeur of the cathedral, look to your left to see the equally stunning entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II 19th century shopping mall.  This is the heart of Milan and a must for every visitor and it is always crowded but gazing at the surrounding splendour you forget the hordes.  Strolling through the Galleria to La Scala is free; visiting the Duomo isn’t and except maybe in the depths of winter involves joining queues.  The experience not to be missed is climbing up to the terraces on the roof of the Duomo and going here at sunset has many advantages.  Late in the day the queues are shorter and the crowds less; we were the next to last group in the lift to the roof [the staff tried to put us off, telling us we might not get up before they closed but we stuck with it] and with no further visitors following us we could find some quiet corners among the many statues that adorn the building.  Reaching the front of the Duomo that faces west and the setting sun, I could hear the music and chatter from the surrounding rooftop bars. The disadvantage of going late at night was that we couldn’t get in to the interior until the next day and so had to queue again [for about an hour and a half] and after so much build up the interior of the Duomo is a bit of a let down.

Coffee and cake in a classic italian Cafe – Pasticceria Marchesi has been making cakes and coffee since 1824 and is worth the expense for the excellent coffee and delicious cakes.  There are three shops in Milan and we visited the charming and smaller cafe near to Sforza Castle.  As lunch time approached the cafe became busy with people coming in for lunch and a swift coffee and the system of ordering from one counter and paying at a till appeared chaotic.  We had been walking all morning and enjoyed a relaxing sit down in the calmer back room so felt we had our money’s worth.

Panzerotti Luine – Eating in Milan is rarely cheap so you need to take the opportunity for something affordable when you can.  For a few Euros you can buy delicious Italian streetfood; fried, baked or sweet panzerotto, a stuffed bread snack.  The classic panzerotto is fried with a mozzarella and tomato filling.

With locals walking tour – Over two-and-a-half hours our guide took us to places we would never have found without her local knowledge and gave us an inside flavour of the city and this proved to be an excellent introduction to Milan.

Rinascente food hall and roof top cafe – I could have spent hours in the food hall at Rinascente department store; it is packed with Italian goodies.  It is also worth climbing up the seventh floor of this store for the roof top cafe.  We visited in the early evening and had a selection of Campari cocktails and snacks for the full Milan experience with a view of the ornate roof line of the Duomo and surrounded by noisy chattering Italians.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – It is an incredible story that this painting on the wall of the Refectory at the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie survived at all.  In its 500-years it has lived through being an armory, prison and animal shelter, as well as bombing and many restorations.  It is claimed that the last restoration in the 1990s took the painting back to its original and it certainly brilliantly and humanly captures a moment in the story of the last supper.

Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore You could spend all your days visiting churches in Milan and you might walk by this unassuming church and not think twice about popping in but make sure you do.  Inside this former convent are such glorious frescoes on every inch of the walls it is worth seeking out.

Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio – Near to the Navigli district and one of the oldest churches in Milan, this church doesn’t have the abundance of frescoes of the Chiesa di San Maurizio but has some interesting features including an early Christian church underneath the existing building.  In the 15th century Portinari Chapel there are colourful frescoes on the ceiling and an ornate ark with the remains of Peter Rosini, known as Peter Martyr or Peter from Verona, the prior of Como.

Naviglio Grande – You can walk or cycle for many kilometres along this canal that once was used by ships bringing the marble for the Duomo in the centre of Milan.  On a rainy morning we attempted to work off some of the calories we had consumed in the cafes, restaurants and bars of Milan by walking some of the canal.  Near to its end the canal area has been gentrified and is now lined with cafes and there are often market stalls.  After working up an appetite we found the canalside Universo Vegano cafe for some delicious and healthy lunch.

Buskers – I like to find time to stop and listen to or watch some of the many street artists wherever we visit and I will happily hand over some change to say thank you for the entertainment.  The street artists of Milan are regulated and are usually high quality artists.

Braidense National Library – Enter the courtyard of the old Palace of the Collegio Gesuitico di Brera, pass the classrooms full of students at the art college and climb the stairs to the library, opened to the public in 1786 thanks to Maria Theresa who considered that Milan needed “an open library for the common use of anyone who wants to cultivate his mind, and acquire new knowledge.”  The peaceful and atmospheric library has shelves of old books and holds temporary exhibitions about some of its collection.

Brera Botanical Garden – Tucked away behind the Braidense National Library we found this small botanical garden famous for its old Ginkgo biloba trees.  Here were signs of spring with blossom on the trees and flowering bulbs.  In summer this would be a cool place to relax that is away from the bustle of the city.

Parco Sempione – Beyond Sforza Castle is this large park that is popular with both visitors and locals.  Covering 116 acres the park has many grand monuments and winding paths among grass that are perfect for a walk.  On our visit there was a fairground in the park with terrifying rides.




Doorways & windows around Europe: some ramblings



Looking through my photographs from recent trips in our campervan one theme stands out.  I have to acknowledge that I can’t help myself; I am always taking photographs of doors and windows.  You might ask how many photographs of doorways and windows one travel writer needs and the answer is clearly an infinite number.  Wherever I am, either at home in Salford and Manchester or in a new village or city, I look for the detail in doorways and check out buildings above the shops to see the windows and the details on the buildings.  This got me thinking, what is it about doors and windows that appeals to me.  I am certainly drawn to an unusual and beautiful doorway and window and I am a real sucker for shutters and stained glass.  But is it just the aesthetics of the doors and windows themselves or is it something more?  Windows and doors are portals to an inner world that is often private.  Am I secretly longing to know what is behind the openings or am I more interested in what might emerge from those doors and windows?

The Romans had a god for many things, including doorways.  Janus, usually shown as a two-faced god, looks to the future and the past and was also the god of beginnings endings and transitions; the Romans understood the lure and significance of the doorway.    Doors, although often beautiful, are closed; they act as the border between the open street and private space.  A closed door has potential but what is hidden beyond may be good and exciting or it may be evil.  The locked door is a familiar metaphor in many tales; we have to get beyond these closed doors to reach something we are seeking.  A locked door is both a temptation into the unknown and a barrier to access; knocking on an unfamiliar door is always daunting.   Doors have the duality of Janus, being closed and open, locked and unlocked, positive and negative and these contradictions are intriguing.

In contrast, windows are transparent, we can see inside and out through the glass.  Windows are also a public stage for beautiful objects; in our 80-year old flat we have wide windowsills and we use these to display favourite objects, a single ornament and an ancient inherited plant in a pot.  By placing these at the public face of the house we are sharing them with the wider world.  Windows are the eyes of the house and the items in the window give a glimpse behind those eyes.

Standing and staring out of a window is a way to travel to other places without moving from home.  Our flat has lots of windows that let the morning and evening sun flood in to the rooms and from these windows I watch the outside world, creating stories in my head.  Whenever we arrive somewhere new the first thing I do [before I check out the interior] is go to the windows and look at the view; I think this is me getting my bearings in a new place, finding out where the sun rises and who I can see and be seen by.  Looking up in a new city I like to imagine myself standing at some of the beautiful windows I see; I wonder how life in this street looks from above and what it would be like to live there.  For me windows only represent the positive; openings to different perspectives and portals for fresh air and sunlight.

The photographs in this post are really just a small selection from my collection of doorways and windows.  The evidence of my addiction is right before your eyes!


Top tips for campsites and stop overs when you are abroad

09.14 Vila Praia de Ancora campsite
Idyllic Portuguese campsite

Prompted by a fellow Devon ‘van owner I have given some thought to the baffling array of guides out there for motorhomers to use, buy or download to help you find a campsite in mainland Europe.  Very few motorhomers have unlimited amounts of space to store numerous guides and unlimited amounts of money to purchase them so how do you choose what to spend your hard-earned on?  When travelling we generally plan on a day-by-day basis and out-of-season and in more remote areas you can’t always rely on just coming across somewhere suitable to stay [either a campsite or wild camping pitch] without a bit of planning.  Below is a guide to the resources we have found most useful when we travel abroad.  Each guide or app has its plus points as well as its limitations.

Guides, apps and websites

ACSI card scheme – This is great value for out-of-season touring (from September to June) and this is our first port of call when we are looking for a campsite so that we can get maximum value from it.  You pay for the card and books and campsites in the scheme charge either €11, €13, €15, €17 or €19 per night for two adults with electric.  The card scheme has 1,541 campsites in France in 2018 and just 26 in Portugal, so its usefulness will depend where you are going.  In France municipal sites [see below] can be cheaper than the ACSI sites but in Italy [331 campsites], where campsites are expensive, the ACSI card can contribute a significant saving to your holiday.

Caravan and Motorhome Club Guides – We have these guides for all of Europe and they are sold with a good discount for members.  The entries and campsite reviews are from members and can be quirky and brief.  We like to read between the lines of these reviews and do find these books of assistance, even though the information is not always up-to-date.

The ACSI App – In addition to the ACSI card book we have this app on our phones.  This has a wider selection of campsites than those in the discount card scheme as it contains all campsites inspected by ACSI and is regularly updated.  If you have WiFi or data the ACSI website is also a great resource particularly for the camper’s reviews as well as the information about sites.

All the Aires – We carry this if we are travelling in a country it is available for; the books are fairly comprehensive and kept as up-to-date as a book can be and give an honest review of each aire, its facilities, its outlook and how comfortable it is.

Camperstop App – It is worth paying the €5.49 / year for this app which is invaluable for both campsites and aires / stop overs.  The app has photographs and reviews of sites which can really help in deciding where to go. The app knows your location and this is handy when we arrive at a campsite or stop over that we don’t like the look of as it can tell us where our nearest options are.

In France we will look for municipal campsites in small towns as these are generally good value and near to the town centre for [the essential] bakeries and bars.

Others have recommended Search for Sites and I’ve tried it out and it looks helpful but this isn’t something we have used much.

Home-based research & recommendations

In addition to the above we will research areas we are fairly certain we will be going to, particularly national parks and mountain areas where there are often few campsites and we are looking for the best situation for walking.  This might be Google searches, Rough Guide / Lonely Planet information, some Cicerone Guides include campsites and we sometimes ask a question about an area on a motorhome forum or Facebook page where there are generous well-travelled people with a wide range of knowledge.

You also can’t beat personal recommendations from other campers you meet on the way and these have sometimes taken us to interesting places that we never expected to visit when we set off.

To book or not & the one house rule

We generally travel with only a rough plan and are not interested in tying ourselves down by booking campsites when we are abroad.  We have never found this necessary, even when we have been away in July and August so long as we are flexible enough to move on if a site is full [see the house rule below].

Our house rule is to start looking for somewhere for the night by around 17.00.  This is just because we did get caught out in Mecklenburg in northern Germany on one trip.  There were plenty of campsites around the Mecklenburg lakes and none of them were full as it was only June.  The mistake we made was to be too busy enjoying a lovely sunny evening and leaving looking for a campsite until after 18.00 and German campsites don’t keep the evening hours that are common in southern Europe [and even Poland where we had just come from].  At each campsite we arrived at reception was closed and the barriers were down.  We eventually got a pitch on a site that we could drive in to but we didn’t have the key for the toilets and had to hang around for another camper to show up to use them, which was somewhat disconcerting for other campers!


The beauty of the Italian Apennines

11.04.2017 Pietra di Bismantova from campsite (2).JPG
Pietra di Bismantova, Reggio Emilia in the evening sun

I love being in Italy in our campervan; I love the food, the coffee, the scenery, the wine and the vibrancy.  Every time we go we find new places to enjoy that seem more beautiful than the last time.  On this trip we were travelling across the country to Ancona where we were catching a ferry to Greece.  After a night on the lovely Ligurian coast, we headed inland to cross the Apennines on the superb SS63.  We stopped to admire the attractive fortified village of Castle Verrucolo and enjoyed the fantastic mountains views from the road.  Camping Le Fonti was the perfect place for a couple of nights; with a friendly welcome, fresh bread ordered, a sketch map of local walks and a pitch with a view of the distinctive Pietra de Bismantova (above), we were happy.  The next day we walked up Monti Ventasso, a 1,727 metre hill behind the campsite.  We walked through beech woods dotted with wood anemone, primroses and wild crocuses, a cuckoo calling in the distance.  Taking the path to Santa Marie Maddalena we crossed an exposed and loose scree slope to the grassy meadow where a refuge and chapel sit under the rocky crags of Monti Ventasso.  The steep narrow and rocky path up the east ridge was airy in places, eventually bringing us out on a wide and grassy ridge to the summit, passing a bizarre wooden hinged figure on the way.  The summit gave us great views of the valley, Pietra di Bismantova and Lago Calamone below.  We descended to the lake, a picturesque and sunny spot where a group of young men were noisily playing football on a slope, the ball regularly fell in to the lake and this seemed part of the game.  We climbed upwards to join our previous path and returned the same way having enjoyed a great day’s walking.

The lovely driving continued until we reached built up areas again at Scandiano.  We found the Camper Club Mutina in Modena, a great and well-run sosta that is close to the city but has views over fields and vineyards and we watched hares and a kestrel from our pitch.  We were given a map which included a cycle route to Modena, about 30 minutes of flat cycling and perfect for seeing the sights of Modena.  Modena is clearly a cycling town, everyone from eight to eighty was out on their bikes and we followed a signed route, the MO1, in to the centre that was always off road.  We parked near the Duomo off the cobbled Piazza Grande in the city centre; an impressive white marble building with intricate carvings.  We ambled around, taking in the sights and I loved the Piazza Roma with its fountains and large shallow pools that reflected the surrounding buildings.  Following the narrow streets we spotted a queue of people outside a shop; further investigation revealed it was for Emilia Cremeria ice-cream, so we had to join in.  After queuing we came away with hand-made cornets of pistachio ice-cream; each cornet is filled with molten chocolate first with the creamy-soft ice-cream on top.  When you have enjoyed the fantastic ice-cream you bite through the fresh biscuit wafer and still have the soft chocolate to finish.  It was delicious and I want all ice-cream to be like this from now on.

We spent our last few nights in Italy at Camping Mar Y Sierra near  to the hilltop town of Mondolfo.  Away from the built up Italian coast this was a glorious spot.  We walked along the Valle dei Tufi route that took us through beautiful countryside and in to the pretty town of Mondolfo and we cycled to the stunning walled town of Corinaldo in the sunshine.  The hot weather bought a tremendous thunder storm one night, with hail bouncing off the roof of the ‘van so loud that we couldn’t hold a conversation and lightning brilliant in the sky.  Our next stop Greece …

13.04.2017 Modena city (8).JPG
The beautiful city of Modena


Taking a break from culture & enjoying #vanlife chores

I am sure this makes me seem a little bit weird but I have decided to be honest here … although I love exploring new places, learning about new cultures and finding out the history of an area, I also love the days when we stay on a campsite and do the chores; the laundry, clean the ‘van and generally chill out. There is something smuggly satisfying about a line full of laundry drying in the sun, particularly when you have washed it all by hand. I also find that on a long trip away in the camper, when we are travelling for a few months, I need a day every now and then when my brain gets a break from having to absorb new ideas and sights and I can just concentrate on simple things like cleaning, reading and writing.

When we are away for more than a week we need to wash clothes, bedding and towels.  Sometimes we pay to use the campsite washing machine but often we will wash by hand.  All our clothes are ‘technical’ which means they dry in an hour or so.  Our duvet covers and sheets are thin cotton that don’t take too long to dry and we use hamman cotton towels and travel towels rather than heavy towelling.  This all means that laundry is stress-free.  We often wash underwear and t-shirts as we go as they dry so quickly.

So yes it might be just a little weird to enjoy these days but they give me space to process all the new things we have seen on a trip.  One day is enough though.  After a chilled out day I am ready to hit the road and find new places once again.