04 APR 2018: It was time to leave San Remo on Italy's Gulf of Genoa shore and head south.  We wanted to see something of Italy's fabled north-west coast before the busy spring months and before heading inland to even more famous Tuscany and Umbria.  We bid 'farewell' to the helpful office staff in our pretty San Remo campsite and soon we were passing Genoa on the highway. A visit to this ancient port city was tempting, but we'd already agreed that in a country as rich in sights as Italy we couldn't 'do' it all.

The route that winds south from Genoa introduces the visitor to one section of the amazing Italian coastal road system. Here, high above the ocean and coastal towns and villages, the road alternates between dizzying heights, often with 'hold-your-breath' bridges, followed by long tunnels. Time and again one is driving in brilliant daylight, seemingly high in the air, before one plunges into the dark tunnels of the coastal cliffs and mountains. And all the time the Italian drivers are jostling to be the leader of the pack!

One of the advantages of a motorhome vacation out-of-season is the lack of crowds, but one of the disadvantages is the fact that many campsites are closed during the winter months. We had books listing sites, with their opening dates, and even a volume containing details of farms and wineries that welcome motorhome visitors, but these were not always accurate. However, when on the move we did our 'homework' every evening and thus knew our plans for the following day and night.

In this manner we either briefly visited or were able to stay overnight in towns such as Laigueglia, Rapallo and Portofino before settling in Portovenere for a couple of days. In season, this pretty town provides boat access to the famous Le Cinque Terre villages that cling to the steep rocky coast to the north. But no boat trips leave in winter, the National Park is closed and the access roads are not suitable for motorhomes so these villages have had to remain on our bucket list. However, Portovenere itself is referred to as the 'sixth village' and we found it to be picturesque and with an interesting piece of history. It is here that the British poet Lord Byron used to swim across the gulf to visit his fellow poet Shelley. His departure point was a grotto that now bears his name where visitors can stand and marvel at the young man's swimming prowess.

Soon the highway leading to Pisa was taking us farther south. January was coming to an end but this fabled town was surprisingly busy with tour buses. For an absurd fee a cheeky young lad offered to keep an eye on our vehicle and replace our "only one hour allowed" parking ticket if necessary.

This enabled us to see the sights at our leisure, and what sights they are! I had visited here back in the sixties and had indeed been on the Leaning Tower. Later, security concerns led to this landmark being closed to visitors until, early in the nineties, a decade of work started to halt the tower's tilt. Now visitors can again climb onto the tower - 40 at a time. The line-up, even in winter, was long and it is recommended that timed tickets be purchased in advance on-line. Not knowing our itinerary we had not done this, but we were content to observe and photograph this famous site and the magnificent buildings surrounding it from ground level.

From Pisa we headed east into central Italy. Unlike the winter Europe is experiencing now in 2018, the climate for us early in February last year was gentle and mild and we were able to enjoy the spectacular rural scenery and some of the fabled cities in this part of the world in comfort. The vineyards were bare, of course, but the scenery still superb with green rolling hills defined by cypress trees and early morning mists creating a magical atmosphere.

Our major city destinations in this region were San Gimignano, Florence and Assisi. San Gimignano is described in the Insight Guide: "Perhaps the most spectacular sight anywhere in Tuscany is the town of San Gimignano, bristling with medieval towers, scarcely changed in appearance since the Middle Ages and richly rewarding."

Here we found a charming rural campsite on the outskirts of town where the proprietor willingly drove us to the city for our day visit. We wandered the cobbled streets, admired the tiny food and wine boutiques and visited the Museo Civico to see the charming and unusual Wedding Scene frescoes for which this museum is famous. They depict a newly-married couple taking a bath together and then climbing into bed. Afterwards we paused for an excellent lunch and, of course, couldn't resist a treat from a tiny shop whose exterior proudly proclaims - in English and Italian - 'The Best Ice Cream in the World'.

Florence needs little introduction from me, though I would say that several days are needed to do this city justice, especially for art and architecture lovers. My first visit to this city had been in 1967, just a year after the River Arno broke its banks and flooded the city. I have a photo of myself, in my early twenties, standing in a narrow street beneath a sign set in a wall showing the level the floodwaters reached. It was hard to imagine then, and still is.

I returned to Florence two years later with the man who was to become my husband. Again, we were driving through Italy, but on that occasion we were enroute from England to Sardinia where my future sister-in-law had settled after marrying a Sardinian. We had enjoyed dinner on a patio in the Piazza della Signoria, with the copy of Michelangelo's David in our sights. It was very touristy then, and it still is, but it was fun for us to return and remember it all while enjoying a not-very-good pizza on the very same patio!

Adjacent to this square stands the Ufizzi gallery. The line-up to enter was long (nearly two hours a custodian estimated) but by purchasing an additional ticket for a tour (several languages offered) one can enter straight away. Whether you remain with the tour or not is your choice. As we are now so very much older than on our first visit we thought this was a good solution to the long wait and so it was. What a gallery this is, with its famous sculptures and paintings and its lovely views over the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio from its southern windows.

We were tempted to linger longer in Florence - so many paintings, so many churches, so many bustling squares surrounded by tempting restaurants. But that can be said of so much of Italy, and a new destination for both of us beckoned - Assisi. Like San Gimignano, Assisi stands on a hilltop, its towers, domes, arches and ancient walls catching the sunlight. Our leafy campsite commanded a glorious view of the plain below and enabled us to walk into the city centre. Here the massive Basilica de San Francesco, with its beautiful fresco cycle by Giotto, is the highlight. But again just wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere is a memory that competes with the art treasures.

Bidding farewell to Tuscany and Umbria is not easy, but ahead lay regions of Italy that were to be completely new to us. After a couple of days we descended to the plain, glanced back at Assisi, resplendent above the morning mist, and drove towards the toll road that was to take us farther south.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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