Great St Bernard pass – Genoa – Viareggio – Pisa – Florence
Thanks to more snow over night, we had a slow start to our departure, killing time waiting for the plough to clear the Italian side of the mountain by watching an episode of Dexter (a jolly series about a serial killer cop) in our bedroom. The application of pretty much every piece of clothing we could fit onto our bodies ensured our descent was surprisingly snug. Having admired the jagged, saw-tooth ridges from far below as we climbed the valleys in Switzerland, it was incredble to find ourselves up amongst them, a hundred or two meters below the ridges. But soon they retreated skywards, and the snow turned to slush which turned to a dreary but surprisingly warm drizzle.
With the air warming noticeably as each kilometre whizzed past, before long yellow and orange-painted houses with green shutters began to appear, festooned red and pink flowers brimming from every balcony and tumbling over every wall. It suddenly seemed like a long time since we had seen flowers: the tidy but serious austerity of the Swiss Alps in October had brought little in the way of floral decoration (people were more concerned with stocking their very neat geometric wood piles), and even the French by contrast seemed less ebullient in their gardening. Autumnal colours splattered across the mountainside as deciduous trees – cherry and maple – made an appearance far higher up than expected. A little further and we found pear trees casting their treasures down to rot on the roadside, and pomegranate trees clinging rather more closely to their riches. Pungent, damp jungley scents rose from the increasingly dense vegetation, and there was a distinct feeling of being in a new country.
As we made our long descent in what turned out to be a week of sultry, humid, damp weather, things started to feel decidedly sub-tropical, enhanced for me (G) by the very similar appearances of the Aosta Valley and the Yoshinogawa valley where I lived in Japan:
As if the humid mountains, drenched in the lemony scents of the Italian jungle weren’t enough to make us wonder if we’d reached Asia early, we soon found ourselves amongst terraced mountainsides and rice paddies:
The humidity and fog was amazingly persistent, failing to lift until things finally started to kick off just as we arrived in Genoa. The first storms hit just as we were coming out of the hills to the north of the city, and before the first one had cleared, there were reports of somebody being killed in a flash flood. We were introduced to the concept of ‘rain bombs’ as the locals call them – storms which become trapped in the few places, such as Genoa, where wide valleys cut through the otherwise unrelentingly craggy coast and sit there for hours emptying their contents.
We decided to splash out on a campsite just beyond Genoa, but discovered on arriving exhausted after dark that the owners had locked it up for the year that very day. We squatted a nearby terrace housing a couple of empty chalets, only to be woken up by a series of violent thunderstorms exploding directly above us and dumping enough rain that we soon discovered ourselves pitched in the middle of a small stream. The words ‘flash flood’ echoing through our brains, we spent a fairly sleepless night pondering how well this hillside terrace had been constructed and why the road above it didn’t seem to include proper drainage.
After that, we mostly managed to skip the worst storms, and even find a bit of late summer sunlight as we hoiked it along the coastal route, which turned out to be all cliffs and almost constantly built up, one town of posh villas determinedly clinging to rock after another. On the down side, very few viable wild camping sites, on the plus side, drivers were so busy dodging pedestrians, mopeds, parking cars, people backing on to the road or stopping in the middle of it to have a conversation, they drove quite slowly and patiently: unlike the similarly narrow, craggy road along Lake Geneva, here we didn’t feel any more in anyone’s way than the rest of the world was.
However, after the constant motorway roar running parallel to our road all the way through the otherwise idylic Aosta Valley (the Autostrade connects to the heavily-used Mont Blanc tunnel) and the relentless development on the coast, finally we found a bit of undeveloped beach in a (sadly rubbish-strewn) nature reserve and pitched camp – minutes before a massive storm rolled in and tried to blow the tent away. The next half an hour was spent with both of us sprawled across the tent trying to hold the corners down (we hadn’t had time to find rocks to weigh down the pegs). It was nevertheless a beautiful spot, and once the wind calmed down, it was idylic. Shame the firewood all got soaked.
Now the only thing that lay between us and Florence, where my very kind friend Richard Bellamy was awaiting our arrival in his lovely flat, were the tourist hordes at a certain well-known skew-whiff tower.
In Florence, we have enjoyed lovely company (thanks Richard!), lots of great food from the market and completely failed to do a tremendous number of very touristy things, like see the original David (I thought the copy outside the Uffizi had very big feet). We did go to a concert, but disappointingly the audience failed to talk during the performance, or jump up and demand a replay of any stunning cadenzi (the heat was probably getting to everyone) but are now feeling thoroughly refreshed and ready to get back to the wilds and our little tent refuge.