Wow, where to begin. After a week’s worth of travelling down the West coast of Italy with a jaunt inland before making it to the port of Ancona to catch the Croatia ferry, it’s safe to say I am 60% gelato, 20% sun tan and 20% carbohydrates.
So to keep this brief (because I could probably write a novel based on our experiences over the last 8 days) I am here to fill you in on the good, bad and downright ugly of vanlife in Italy.
After months of agonising over our route and where we wanted to see most, we tried to be as strict as possible and only chose to see places that were conveniently along that. Trying to cram a years’ worth of adventure into 21 days’ annual leave is hard bloody going, as I’m sure you’ll agree. (Anyone else resent being an adult or just me?)
Our final route consisted of hammering down France, into the North West of Italy to see Portofino, before driving inland in the hope of finding the scenery from the dolmio adverts, then finally exploring Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast before catching the Croatia ferry from Ancona, which is on the other side of the boot.
And now here I sit, having arrived on the Croatian island of Brac, with all of the above behind me, our kitty €260 lighter thanks to the French and Italian toll roads, and only about 3 more added wrinkles to my face thanks to a stressful moment a couple of hours ago where we got the van stuck – but that is a whole other blog post.
Portofino & Paraggi
We stayed in this area for 2 nights, at a fantastic, flat car park overlooking the ocean with a toilet (take hand sanitizer and low expectations) and even 2 showers that were located a short stroll down some steps with a beach bar and sun loungers. We previously found this place on the fantastic Park4Night app which is an absolute godsend for those wanting a flexible and cheap adventure. Admittedly, there was a €5 charge for an overnight stay, but due to the low season and quiet area, we got away without paying. (But you didn’t read that here).
Not only did the car park come with fantastic views and nearby amenities, we were also lucky enough to meet some fellow vanlifers who instantly made us feel at ease and even gifted us with a bottle of wine for Harry’s birthday, Brett and Amanda, you amazing people, we hope to meet you both again someday.
Following a handy tip from Amanda, we came out of the car park early in the morning and headed towards Portofino before parking up beside the road just as locals were filling the spaces. From here we could walk to both Paraggi and Portofino and not risk getting fined during the day at the paid carpark.
Now, you won’t believe me when I tell you this, but when you stroll between Paraggi and Portofino in late May, not only will the views have you swooning, but you will enjoy taking in the scents of sweet jasmine, fragrant, musky pines and some other tropical scent reminiscent of suncream. It is pure, seaside serenity.
Leaving our favourite little coastal car park and newfound friends with somewhat heavy hearts, we were excited for rural delights in Tuscany. Images of rolling hills carpeted by olive groves and vineyards were practically making me salivate as we quickly decided to head for ‘Agricampeggio de Santis’, a family-run campsite nested among olive trees with a whole host of amenities and a swimming pool. By dumb luck, on the way to this campsite, we stumbled across a beach seemingly only known by locals and with waters clear enough to rival the Caribbean (if you don’t believe me, google ‘white beach Livorno’ and prepare to swoon.)
On the way into rural, mainland Italy, we made a quick stop at the Saturnia hot springs, which we found overcrowded and overrated. If anyone else is looking for hot springs in a similar area, I would suggest avoiding the crowds and heading for Bagni San Fillipo instead.
After this, we again used the amazing Park4Night to scout out a campervan aire at the base of Montepulciano historic centre. We arrived at sunset and walked up into the medieval town where I found myself completely enchanted, spellbound and dumbstuck. The only thing keeping me from bursting into full-blown Disney princess song with the birds that circled the piazza was the promise of gelato.
Yup, you read that right. We (or really, I, because it was my idea) drove the van into the centre of Naples. The van. A long-wheel base van which is effectively my life savings on 4 tyres, into a city centre where all pedestrians apparently have suicidal intentions and the narrow streets are filled with arguing Italians and vehicles strewn all over the shop. If you’re wondering why I would do such a thing (sorry mum and dad, please hear me out) it is because of Julia Roberts and her indulgent scene in Eat, Pray, Love where she sensuously bites into a pizza at the oldest and original pizza parlour in Italy, which is in Naples.
It’s safe to say, I didn’t get my Julia Roberts moment. We drove in, couldn’t get out, and only escaped thanks to the frantic waving and assistance of car park attendants who wanted us to park and give over our van keys. Naples, I will return one day for your pizza when I am atop a vespa or walking slowly on solid ground.
Sorrento & Positano
Arriving into Sorrento was somewhat stressful and busy with the added bonus of tourist coaches, but in comparison to our brief stint in Naples, it was like driving on Mario’s rainbow road with peaceful whale music. Our campsite was perched high on the cliffside overlooking the bay and out towards Vesuvius. Called Campeggio Santana Fortunata, it boasted a shuttle bus down into the town centre and a range of other facilities including a pool. It was relatively quiet but must get very busy in the summer months (but still way cheaper than a Sorrento hotel with all the same amenities…)
Still in search of a quintessential Italian pizza, we explored Sorrento that evening and Harry chose a restaurant called ‘Tasso’. Oh boy, did he choose well. I obviously went for the margherita and it was absolutely love at first bite. Now I’m no food expert, but let me tell you, that pizza was a blessing upon this earth. The thin sourdough base was crispy on the edges and soupy in the middle, with creamy mozzarella and perfectly ripe tomatoes, even writing about it now is giving me an extreme longing to just hop on the 11-hour ferry back to Italy and drive back to Sorrento.
Conveniently, a bus line called ‘SITA’ runs from Sorrento train station regularly along the SS145 to Positano and Amalfi, making it easy to see the sights. We spent a day on Positano beach and enjoyed endless sun, romantic architecture and, admittedly, more gelato. We missed out Amalfi because of our hectic schedule and were actually told upon returning to the campsite by some other vanlifers that they much preferred Positano anyway, with there not really being much to Amalfi. (Sidenote: Totally not attacking the grandeur of Amalfi, he probably said it because he took pity on us and our ridiculous schedule.)
On our final night at the campsite, we sat and admired the glittering lights of Naples over the water, beneath the midnight blue shadow of Vesuvius, and I instantly felt a pang of longing for a life on the road, for this to be our everyday. (Despite the lack of personal space, privacy and sometimes mental sanity for a travelling couple.)
Check back again soon if you want to learn of our Croatia adventures which so far have consisted of a small Croatian man quite possibly saving our lives and swimming in waters where millionaires moor their yachts.