If we get there, it will be third time lucky.
Twice before, Mark and I have planned to go to Spain. The first time, temperatures soared above 50°C. People were dying from the heat, so we turned left and went to Romania. Then, last September, two days before our ferry, a tenant gave notice, which forced us to stay and sort out the re-let.
This year, coronavirus has scuppered our planned tour of Poland and the Baltics. Although lockdown has lifted in Italy and across most of Europe, the strict UK quarantine rules persuaded us to take slow road home via Northern Spain and Portugal. When we eventually reach the UK border, perhaps campsites will have re-opened and we won’t be forced into isolation with four dogs; an isolation so strict that unless we were about to starve, we would not even be permitted to leave our acommodation to buy food.
Four years ago, on our very first day as full-timers in Caravan Kismet, a news-worthy heatwave turned into a biblical downpour; the most perfect introduction-to-caravanning weather. It was a memorable first day; the dogs all rolled in fox poo and we had a near death experience. Within half an hour of us collecting the caravan from storage, we were nearly ghosted by a static caravan! The Universe certainly has a strong sense of irony.
A flat-bed truck carrying said static flew at us around a blind bend on the wrong side of the road. To this day, we don’t know how he missed us.
Our first night back in Caravan Kismet panned out exactly as expected. Monte Rosa had experienced an unseasonal heat wave, yet within seconds of Mark and I sitting down together in our home-on-wheels, we were treated to the familiar sound of torrential rain hammering on our roof.
Everything in the caravan was pristine; washed and cleaned ready for our journey, but our little Bog Monster, Ruby, found a muddy ditch just across the way. She came in looking like a drowned rat and smelling much worse. Once inside, she endeared herself further by shaking herself over everything; including Mark’s laptop.
Still, after eight months in one place, including three months under one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, we were happy to be on the road again. Well not quite. We were in the car park next to our rented apartment, but would be on the road again first thing the following day!
A beautiful morning broke in Staffal; clear blue skies over Monte Rosa allowed me to get my much coveted photograph of the lovely lupins, sprouting on the bank next to the caravan. It was a perfect day for travelling. What could possibly go wrong?
The ATMs in our tiny, home village of Staffal were all empty, so once under way, we stopped for cash a couple of villages down the mountin in Gressoney St Jean. The Thursday market was in full swing, but we decided there was too much of a queue to buy fresh vegetables. How could we know that this decision would cost us so dearly? Although not in any way that you would expect.
1,500m down the mountain, as we descended the switchbacks into Pont St Martin, we were forced off the road by a truck. It all happened in a second. Racing far too fast up blind hairpins, three deafening blasts from an air horn blared, ‘If there’s anyone there, get out of my way!’ On a right-hander that needed a wide swing for a caravan, Mark pulled over to the side as far as he could. Through open windows, a broad, tanned face flashed past, contorted with rage and impatience. I was close enough to have landed a left hook, had I not been busy screaming in terror. He roared off around the bend, unconcerned and probably unaware that his recklessness left us in rather a pickle.
The edge of the road sloped away to form a drain. As Caravan Kismet’s offside wheel dropped into it, her body tilted and wedged fast against the high stone bank that bordered the road. Mark leapt out to take a look. The verdict didn’t take long,
“I think we’re f*****. I don’t know how I’m going to get us out of this.”
Having driven into a situation, it seemed incongruous to me that there could be no way to drive out, but we had effectively gone down the rabbit hole. When I looked, I saw that Caravan Kismet’s pivot point was jammed right against the wall, on the apex of the bend. Whether we pulled forwards or backwards, we would sustain serious damage. The best case scenario was to scrape her entire side along the rough stones; the worst case was to rip off her windows, side lights and anything else that protruded.
We attracted quite an audience – and became the causal factor for a healthy, two-way traffic jam on a blind bend, on a narrow, mountain road. The family in the house opposite pulled up chairs to watch the spectacle; an Italian parked his BMW behind us and came to proffer advice,
“Come backwards. Come backwards. You need to come backwards.”
“We can’t come backwards; we’ll rip the side off the caravan!”
Workmen in orange hi-vis clothing spilled from the house opposite. At least they were helpful and started to manage the traffic.
“Un camion. Un camion è venuto… – A lorry. A lorry came…” I said to anyone who would listen. I didn’t have the language skills to explain that the truck had run us off the road; that we weren’t just stupid English people who didn’t know how to drive in the mountains. At least I hadn’t been at the wheel to attract the inevitable; ‘bloody women drivers.’
“If we could just push the top of the caravan away from the wall,” I said, with no idea how. Let the nearside tyre down? Pushing with our legs or ‘legging it’, after the fashion of canal barge pilots, who lay on the boat and walked themselves through tunnels?
Then, our saviour in an orange jersey came. Through pidgin Italian and sign language, the workmen indicated that they would bring their mini-digger. They tied an industrial-sized cam strap to our chassis. I was sceptical; I didn’t think that force applied so low down would do the trick, and was worried that it might damage the chassis. Nevertheless, they managed to heave the caravan away from the wall just enough for us to swing around the bend. It was a matter of millimetres.
Mindful of the traffic jam, I bandied around hasty “Grazie mille’s” to the assembled crowds as I hopped back into our van, Big Blue’s, cab. Two rather shaken road trippers pulled away.
“Let’s go to Conad,” we said simultaneously. There, we could take five, grab a coffee and assess the damage.
Our not-so-local supermarket at the bottom of the mountain was nearby. During lockdown, we had been forced to run the gauntlet of road blocks to get there, since it was impossible to survive on grocery supplies from the minimarkets in the mountain villages. Experience had taught us that the roadblocks were deserted at midday, because the carabinieri all disappeared for pranzo – lunch, that most sacred of Italian rituals. And that Conad’s car park was large enough to accommodate Kismet.
While sustaining any dings and grazes to a beloved vehicle is always upsetting, as Mark and I rationalised the incident, we agreed that we would take the scrapes and scratches. Remarkably, the only damage was to the removable plastic trim above the wheel arch and the replaceable Perspex bedroom window. It might not be cheap to repair, but was nothing compared to what could have happened.
We consoled ourselves with strong coffee, deep breathing and a fruit flan. Mark berated himself for being careless, but I asked him,
“What could you have done?”
Perhaps if we’d stopped for vegetables in St Jean, we would not have met an impatient lorry on the apex of a blind hairpin. And if Mark had not been such a gentleman, he would not have pulled over quite so far, trying to solve the lorry driver’s problem. But had Mark not got out of the way, the truck might have hit us, or taken off our entire side.
Nevertheless, I bemoaned our bad luck.
“I said ‘rabbit, rabbit, rabbit’ on the first of June. It was the first thing I said. I haven’t remembered to do that in ages, and I was really glad, because it’s the month we leave. It was supposed to bring us luck!”
Mark was quite sanguine. “Perhaps it did,” he said. ”What if those workmen had not been there?”
They had got us out of a very sticky situation very quickly and with minimal damage. Perhaps we could say that actually, we had been very lucky.
The plan had been the more scenic route on A-roads from the Aosta Valley to our destination, Paesana in Piedmont, but we took the autostrada and paid the tolls. Now, we just wanted to get there, settle in and calm down.
When I pushed the giant, red button at the toll booth to get the ticket, I realised with horror that I had potentially touched coronavirus. We have no hand sanitising gel; it is the one thing we have been unable to buy in Italy. I tried to remember not to touch anything; myself, dogs, water bottles, door handles; something that is much easier said than done. It was a swift demonstration of how easily the virus can be spread far and wide. I vowed to root out my gloves and next time, put a tissue over my button-pressing finger.
The campsite in Paesana was easy to find and we got a warm welcome, but it was very tight for manoeuvring. Kismet’s tail caught on a pitch marker. Another tiny scrape, but nothing compared to the first. I hated wearing a face-mask to check in – it steamed up my glasses!
I felt quite rattled and needed to calm down, so I took the pups for a walk while Mark set up. I followed a tramway and let the pups off their leads, only to find that it was about three yards long and led to a pack of loose dogs guarding the street at the far end. I turned right to avoid them, past a row of houses, each with high fences and ferocious guard dogs. The lane spat me out at a narrow point on the main road into town with no footpath to return, so I was forced to retrace my steps. If Mark was wondering where I was, he could have tracked my progress more accurately than with a GPS by sollowing the cacophony of angry barking.
Eventually, on the far side of the bridge on the way back into Paesana, I found a footpath along the the river Po. The air was heavy with the scent of honeysuckle and The Fab Four had a great time splashing in the river. I had worn my hair in practical plaits for travelling, but as I walked on through meadows on the banks of the Po, a bee got caught in my tightly-tethered hair, right next to my scalp!
It was just one of those days.
“What did you think of the river walk?” Mark asked when I got back.
I relayed the bee incident and my first impressions,
“Hmmm. It’s not quite the pristine nature of Monte Rosa.”
The truth is Paesana is very pretty – green, bosomy hills surround the town, with smart, rambling villas peering out of lush vegetation. There are footpaths everywhere and it is clearly an area that is part of Italy’s food basket – with field upon field of fruit trees and crops. But it’s civilisation and after three months in isolation, we’re not used to it.
The path along the river was littered with trash and teenagers; plastic bottles and cups, some discarded; others washed up by floods. It is impossible to avoid touching anything and having no contact with people. Leaving the safe haven of our apartment in deserted Monte Rosa during such uncertain times, I felt a little like the astronauts on the doomed Apollo 13 space mission. To return to earth, they were forced to abandon the sanctuary of the lunar module Aquarius, which had acted as their life raft. It was a move fraught with danger and uncertainty. No-one was sure whether their damaged mother ship would survive re-entry into earth’s atmosphere.
It had not been the best of starts to our Spanish Stroll. Perhaps I just needed wine and a good night’s sleep. I hoped that things would look better the following day, when our plan was to investigate the nearby hill town of Saluzzo.
I consoled myself that on past form, if we had survived a near-death experience within the first hour of a trip, the rest would be plain sailing!
Join us next time as we visit Saluzzo and Pian Mune.