Meet the Player:
Meet Martin, nicknamed along the route as Martin the Martian. Eccentric does not describe clearly enough what this man is all about. Martin is from Stuttgart, Germany and is the travel partner from Hospitality Club who was able to tour around Northern Italy with us. He is fond of instant Polish soups, kayaking with his surf board and oars, and sleeping in his car as he putters through Europe on mini-vacations.
Above: Martin stops for lunch on the side of the road. Martin’s car is named the Vampire and is chuck full!
Talking in a slow monotone voice (think typical martian language) one notch louder than others, he will chat about any topic from his junker car called “The Vampire” to UFO’s- especially the one his son caught on film! If you ever meet Martin, be warned, he is not fond of tight alleyways, (for good reasons!) fancy food, and taking risks, which could involve anything from driving in a city center to hiking in the rain. Martin can be spotted as the quintessential tourist, wearing his bucket hat, nautical shirt, short shorts, flip-up sunglasses and tall socks under sandals. A water bottle often hangs from a strap around his skinny neck and he can usually be heard discussing computer technology or his fear of nuclear war. Martin will be referred to as the driver or player number one throughout the rest of the game.
The object of this game was to see Italy’s countryside by car or camper van, but to share the cost of gasoline, which is about $8/ gallon, with other travelers. This involved squeezing player #1, introduced above, and 2 backpackers into an already stuffed ’82 VW Passat. Upon arrival in Germany, it was discovered that the trunk was already stocked messily with dry foods, a camp stove, camping mats, magazines, car repair kits, paper towels rolls, dishes and spices in no particular order. The hardest part of the game was being prepared for all of the stares from locals and tourists alike. Maybe it was the ten-foot pole rigged to the hood of the hoopdy with two rubber bands and a rope? But it was “necessary” for knocking chestnuts out of trees should this opportunity arise, as should be obvious to most people, right?
Some of our favorite experiences along the way to Italy were those with Bernd Friedrich and his family, who live near Fussen, Germany. We enjoyed meeting their family over wine and dinner and were invited by Simone, the daughter and Xavi, her husband to join them in Spain when we arrived there!
Above: The Friedrich’s took pity on us and let us set up camp by the lake near their home. They also surprised us by inviting us inside for wine and dinner!
Above: On the way through Fussen, Germany we stopped at Neuschwanstein, the castle that Disney used as a model to build the Magic Kingdom.
On the second night, we stopped to camp in the Austrian Alps, but saw smoke coming out of the roof of one of the small cottages. We stopped in to make sure everything was okay, and it turns out it was just some burnt bread. The tiny German-speaking lady who answered the door was named Giesela and she ended up offering us a spot to camp in the field near her house. She pointed to the old wooden building that housed the well and said to help ourselves to any water. We were also invited in for some warm dinner, but decided to decline, not wanting to intrude. I felt like I had slid back 50 years when whole villages lives such a simple, pleasant life.
Above: This cottage had smoke billowing out of all windows and a tiny village in the Austrian Alps where we camped for a night.
The road trip game continued, with a stop in the mountains of Austria to ride the longest “Achterbahn” in the world! One person per cart rode over tracks down the mountain and was in charge of braking when they felt necessary. I tried not to brake but that thing flies! I just kept thinking, “My dad would freak out on this!”
Above: See the tracks for the Alpine luge below.
Above: Me a bit nervous to go down the coaster.
The next part of the road trip involved a stop at a scenic view. Words can not express the beauty, so see below!
Above: A rest stop in the Alps.
St. Moritz was next, where we had lunch near the famous red, Swiss trains that wind through the mountains. Then we walked around the lake and discovered that this Swiss area was a bit out of our price range. We hopped back in the car and continued on to Italy.
Above: St. Mortitz’s trains and lake.
Above: St. Moritz, Switzerland has a very ritzy downtown area.
Lake Como, surrounded by the Italian Alps and famous wineries, was reached after two days of driving though Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Now in Italy, we hiked to peaks in the countryside, sunbathed on the rocky Como coast, picniced from the trunk on a portable table and stools, and hunted for camping spots to park and set up for the evening.
Above: Lake Como after a rain storm
Above: Camping high above Lake Como
Above: Jason tries out Martin’s surfboard “kayak.”
After rain forced us players to come up with a new strategy for the game, we left Como and headed south for the sea. Alleys and steps, colors and scents mingled to form the villages of the Cinque Terre, literally meaning, the 5 cities, which are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corneglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Connected by winding paths along the Northern Italian’s Adriatic Sea, these quaint towns are known for their coastline and laid-back ambiance, deserving the title of The Italian Riviera.
Above: Sights of the Cinque Terre along Italy’s northern coast.
In the day, we backpackers, who had ditched the driver for a bit, soaked in the scenery of the vineyards and terraced gardens high above the bustling town centers. Since the pace of life was a bit slower than normal, it took until mid-morning to see any activity begin to stir. When the sleepy villages awoke and had their morning espresso, lines started forming outside of focaccerias, where thick, dented focaccia bread was the specialty.
Above: Night view of Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre. We sipped local wine from this spot.
At night, white lights strung from vines overhead glittered and illuminated the pizzerias below. Limoncello and a special local white wine called Sciacchetrà were often poured abundantly for tourists and locals alike, who mixed well at the scene. Unlike many popular vacation spots, the tourists were not herded into segregated areas away from the locals for over-priced dinners and souvenirs. In villages of 500 residents, tourism doubles the population. After approximately two hours of hiking between each village with stuffed backpacks, pesto pizza and gelato were excellent local greeters. On a side note, pesto was first created here so we could not resist trying it on pizza, pasta and on bread.
After we backpackers reunited with the driver, all of us headed into the countryside and camped in a spot overlooking Parma, the city where Parmesan cheese was named.
A telescope was of great use to spot the craters on the moon and this is when some UFO talk began and a bit of eye rolling started as well! After a day of driving east, the three of us separated and the game was completed when Martin dropped us off at a campsite 20 minutes outside of Venice and continued on to Croatia to meet with another German man who was currently living out of his van, collecting bottles, and living off of one Euro per day. Now we around the world travelers are not wealthy by any means, but we decided we could afford to spend more than that and were happy to bid Martin the Martian farewell.
Above: One last glimpse of our driver Martin, as he prepared the Polish pudding and showed off his home-made air conditioner, crafted from computer fans!
I guess we learned that it is not just the cards you are dealt in the game of travel, it’s what you do with them. We definitely made the best of this experience and have many funny stories to tell because of it!
Stay tuned for more Italian adventures…