Italy offers a wide range of sleeping accommodation, from charming locandas, to classy hotels and luxurious palazzos. So why would anyone in their right mind choose a white tin box instead?
I’ll try to answer this from multiple points of view.
Maybe I’m just an old fart. But eating at a restaurant once is a pleasure. Eating at a restaurant twice is OK. Eating at a restaurant 3, 4 or more times in close succession becomes a real pain in the wotsit.
With a van, you can shop around for local products and have picnics, or eat indoors. Restaurants are never a necessity, only a joy when you fancy them.
How often do you limit your gear choices when travelling, knowing all you haul will have to be carried on a shoulder or in a suitcase?
Not so with a van.
There are charging points everywhere, electricity at all times (particularly with a solar panel), ample storage, and a convenient work place to clean/charge/backup/edit … Few hotel rooms offer that.
Small is cosy.
There’s no denying the draw of a very luxurious suite in the center of a tourist hotspot, but there’s a fuzzy feeling of homeliness that only a strong tent on a high mountain, a small cabin in the snow or a hut in a forest can provide. While not as adventurous, a van provides that sort of experience.
After only a few hours on the open road, a good van becomes home. In my experience, not one hotel room, cheap, expensive, exotic, or charming, has come close to it.
Maybe it’s time to mention the list of places you’re actually allowed to sleep in.
Most cities provide dedicated parking sites. Usually somewhere between the local refinery, the dump and the motorway. Sometimes quite expensive. Often drab and offering only relative safety and legality as incentives. Let’s call them the yuck parks.
Sometimes, however, those car parks can be wonderful. As below, in the beautiful city of Volterra, Tuscany. Located right at the doors of the old town, quiet, free, safe feeling, and beautiful, it also offers …
… this view.
How many hotel rooms do?
But there are alternatives.
Such as forests. See the first photograph above, or the one below. This scene was a very short walk from our van, on a stop in France during our return from Tuscany.
Or agritourism sites (below).
Many farms are now opening up to campers. While cities often object to their presence, precisely because they don’t enjoy spending their whole life in restaurants, farms welcome their custom with open arms because of the clientele they offer.
In our trip around the Aubrac, previously described in DS, we slept in a cheese farm and bought fantastic cheese, vegetables and wine, and enjoyed a wonderful night in a safe and secluded spot.
In Italy, this practice is even more developed and widespread.
At Tenuta Crocce di Mezzo, for example, we were offered free parking with electricity, video surveillance and were able to purchase lovely Brunello wine and olive oil. The owners, campers themselves, were charming and interesting.
Staying in farms is a wonderful way of meeting interesting people and eating fantastic food. In Italy, particularly, you will often find simple food prepared with great skill. This is not to say high-cuisine isn’t part of the culture. But my favourite gastronomical experiences have always been from that simpler end of the spectrum. And farms can be great providers of that experience, if you also enjoy it.
Occasionally, you’ll end up in weird but wonderful places, such as the backyard of this garage, in Lucca.
Inside, the owners kept many luxury and vintage cars safe under cover for local residents. On the morning after our night there, I was given a tour of the ancient Alfa Romeos, Modern Porsches and Ferrari, 1957 Corvette and more (though I was asked not to photograph them). Speaking in broken Italian to another car enthusiast was a lovely moment we’d have probably missed on a more conventional tour.
As I’ve described before, my main photographic modus operandi is to walk. A lot. Moving all the time gives me the greatest chance of encountering interesting scenes.
The same goes with driving.
During one drive from the North of Tuscany (Lucca area) to the South (towards Bunello country) the weather took on an … interesting … turn. Wind, heavy rain, sleet, snow, you name it. Driving in Italy requires focus at the easiest of times. But driving on ice, on severe slopes, in a van, with locals zooming all around us took this to new heights. However, on the other side of the storm … this :
Lighting up with my headlights, those signs just created a lovely scene. I stopped, reversed back to the signs and grabbed my phone. It would never have happened if we’d stayed in hotels in large cities.
In a car, hedges often obscure the most interesting sights. Not so with a higher driving position. And being higher up also provides a more natural perspective. (Note: the very low traffic on smaller roads allowed me to stop completely or drive at crawling pace to take those photographs through the windscreen).
All of this doesn’t mean vans are the ideal means of transportation for every situation.
Driving the lovely Tuscan roads in a Fiat Barchetta would undeniably be more fun. And navigating/parking inside Florence or Siena with a van would be no fun.
Vans have their place in a more rural setting, and for a certain type of treasure hunt, such as our largely wine-tasting driven tour could be described. In the next post, I’ll describe this in more detail.
All but the 2 B&W photographs on this page were made with my oldish Samsung phone. To me, this is in keeping with the vibe of van travel. Simple, nimble if not luxurious, or highest quality. There is a place for both in a photographer’s life 🙂
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