Tuscany - Camping Chianti Panorama Marcialla

Tuscany, the furthest yet we've travelled in Cleopatra, was to be our second campsite for our three week European tour. We set off from Huttopia Le Plage Blanche in France's Jura region at 6.50am. We stopped once for diesel and a wee. One difference between driving in France and Italy is that Italian motorway service stations are not self service.

We arrived in Marcialla at 3.45pm. The coordinates in Tony's Google Maps sat nav were a little off and we had to reverse back up a narrow stoney track to get back to the main road before navigating the narrow streets of the town all over again to come out on a different side. When you know where you're going, the campsite, Camping Chianti Panorama, is just two minutes out of town.

When I'd emailed a reservation to the site the previous week the reply came back addressed to 'Miss Cleoptra' with the prices for her and her two human friends. That was a lovely touch and showed they'd clicked the link in my email to this blog.

Almost all the reviews you'll read of this campsite say how friendly and helpful the owners are and that was obvious from the warm welcome we were given at reception, with the lady instantly knowing who we were when I mentioned Miss Cleopatra. 'Where is she?' she asked looking for her in the small parking area at the top of the site.

At the end of our stay when we returned to reception to pay there was another lady behind the desk. She must have recognised us from the photos in the blog because she said: 'Ah, Cleopatra!' and gave us a bottle of wine for her.

We were given a map and allowed to trot off around the campsite and choose a pitch. We walked around discussing the benefits and pitfalls of different spaces before settling on a spot on one of the lowest terraces. While the top terraces are closer to the showers and toilets, their views of the Tuscany hills are obscured by the trees lower down the sloping site. Our chosen pitch was at the end of the terrace with a little extra space where we were able to lock our bikes to two pine trees. The pitch also had great views over the Tuscan landscape.

With Cleopatra parked in our chosen spot we returned to reception with our passports as requested. They took some details from our documents and handed them back along with several maps and brochures and details of several themed food evenings in the small on-site bar and restaurant, plus a voucher for a free glass of wine each.

We'd only just begun putting up Cleopatra's awning, tables, chairs and the usual stuff we cart around with us when the nearest neighbours, two pitches away returned with a pram. Tony and I looked at each other in horror. A baby. Our perfect pitch started to look less than perfect. However, it has to be said that in the two days they remained our neighbours I only heard a peep out of the baby once and that was short-lived. And it turned out to be a blessing since they had locked a bike to a tree on the pitch in between us which seemed to put off other would-be neighbours.

I'll say here that we do our best to put off would-be neighbours ourselves. The first sign of anyone walking around with a campsite map and we make a great show of our bottles of beer in the hope people will think we're lager louts and steer clear.

This site gets quite a few moans about the pitch sizes in its online reviews. I would have to grant them that a few pitches are small, but everyone is given the opportunity to chose the pitch that's right for them and it seemed to result that small tents were on the small pitches and larger tents, campervans and motorhomes on the larger ones. A selling point of the very smallest pitches is their closer proximity to, and therefore less hill climbing required to visit the toilets.

The site is actually quite large, but set on such a slope the terraces have been used as efficiently as possible to accommodate as many campers as possible. I didn't feel claustrophobic in the slightest and I think the very nature of close pitches encouraged campers to be quiet. It's possibly the quietest (in volume) campsite I've stayed on in peak season. The cicadas make more noise than the human guests.

The steep terraces of the site mean that you're looking at trees or the landscape rather than your neighbours. I think the site's location is perfect for its views and peace and quiet.

A few other reviews mention that the facilities are dated and I guess they are a little. But they're spotlessly clean and everything works. Hot water comes out of the showers, and despite the size of the site and how near it was to full occupancy, I only had to queue once for the shower, and only for a couple of minutes.

The remainder of our first day was spent soaking up the sun and swimming in the pool. The pool was where the most noise turned out to be and, with screaming kids splashing around, we didn't stay long there. Over the course of the week we'd discover that families usually went out for the day and it was upon their return in the evening that their kids would be let loose in the pool. So if you're spending a relaxing day on site, the pool is relatively quiet most of the day. It's a great place to cool down and the panorama of the Tuscan hills from the poolside is dramatic.

We went for a walk to two neighbouring villages on day two. Marcialla itself is just fifteen minutes walk and has bars and restaurants. Continuing on for another 30 minutes brings you to Tarvanelle, a larger town with a biggish Co-op supermarket. We were carrying enough food to last us all three weeks but it was nice to be able to buy some fresh ingredients including a huge bag of green beans for 90 cents that pushed us to be creative for meals over the next few days.

There isn't much choice for walks from the site. From the campsite entrance you have two choices: left or right. There are no footpaths or pavements, so you'll be walking on the road. We found that motorists were, in the main, considerate and gave us a wide berth. It is worth making sure you can be seen by wearing bright clothes. If you were to be out after dark then I'd ensure you carried a torch and reflective clothing.

We'd walk to Tarvanelle a couple more times, but on the day we walked in the opposite direction we found the choice of two villages to visit. Fiano has a lovely little shop that appears to be a butcher but sells much more besides, including cheese and store cupboard ingredients. The other choice in this direction is Lucardo and while the village itself is no more that residential dwellings it does boast a medieval town at the top of a steep hill. This seems to be the subject of major renovation but it's worth the effort to walk up and take in the views afforded at that altitude.

Florence is just a 50 minute drive from the campsite. We virtually never move Cleopatra once she's on a camping pitch and usually get about by walking, cycling or public transport. The reception staff will be more than happy to advise on where to get trains and buses. If you can figure out the local transport then you'll find it easy to visit Florence. We made it somewhat harder than it needed to be. Confused by the bus timetable from Tarvanelle to Florence we thought the train from Certaldo would be easier. Certaldo was 14kms away, but they laughed at reception when I suggested cycling. 'Do you have electric bikes?' they asked. Adding that we'd be fine on the way there but we'd struggle to get back again. So as it was we walked to Certaldo, leaving the site at 7am, arriving two hours later having walked downhill all the way. Tony and I both knew we weren't walking back.

We spent the morning in Florence, visiting the sights Tony wanted to see. I didn't know much about Florence and so I just trotted along posing for photographs in front of this thing or that thing. I've never been a fan of large foreign cities and July isn't an ideal time to visit this one. The roads are crowded and the pavements filled with other tourists and tour parties.

I'm doing Florence a gross injustice, I know, but I'd rather see nature than buildings. As it was I enjoyed the street markets and the indoor food market. 

Upstairs in the food market there are some fabulous eateries. We drooled over what was on offer, almost giving in to one of the cheaper options, arancini balls at three Euros a pop. We're really watching the pennies though and so we resisted and went to look for an easier way to get back to camp.

Busses to Tarvanelle run around every hour. I think our initial confusion about the regularity comes from the fact that every three hours the route doubles back on itself and the bus returns to Tarvanelle on its way back to Florence, therefore the town is on the timetable route twice. Once you've got your head around that it makes more sense and is the easier option since Tarvanelle is only a 45 minute walk from the campsite. The bus is around three euros each way and takes 50 minutes. Having located the bus station in Florence and bought our tickets we only had a quarter of an hour to wait for the ride home.

Confusion didn't end there though. The bus turned off the main road into the outskirts of Tarvanelle, did a u-turn at a roundabout and stopped before leaving the town again. We followed one man off the bus here, having to walk back into the centre of the town. As we came into the centre and passed the bus stop that we'd expected to alight the bus we saw a family sitting at the bus stop. This family had been on the bus with us and so I guess the bus must have re-entered Tarvanelle further around. It is just too confusing.

If you want to visit Florence and can drive, then there's a Coop supermarket just outside where you can park for free and get the tram.

We splurged on food just once during our stay, being lured by the porchetta party held once a week in the campsite restaurant. Ten euros seemed a good deal for a meal and wine. Having since Googled porchetta I know that any Italian would understand what to expect. The campsite however had provided the English translation as suckling pig. We, and I think most of the other guests, had expected to arrive to find a pig on a spit but there was no pig in sight. We were served a generous portion of hot roast pork in a baguette. Although not quite what we were expecting it was delicious, with a herb stuffing that had a slight chili kick. It was reasonably priced for a meal with wine, plus if you wanted a second porchetta serving you could have one for five euros including another glass of wine. The end result though was that we'd had a sandwich for dinner, and to me, sandwiches are eaten at lunch.

We made the most of what we could forage for free. With the campsite having rosemary growing in plentiful supply, we added this to some of our pasta dishes, finding it worked well with sardines and lemon. While washing up one evening I dropped our grill pan. When I retrieved it from the bush I could smell mint, and so from then on we picked mint to make fresh mint tea. On our walks to Tarvanelle we passed blackberry bushes that (when we remembered to take a bag with us) provided a lovely fruity addition to our morning pancakes. And bay trees are growing everywhere too. In the searing heat you can smell their fragrant perfume as you pass and they added a beautiful depth of flavour to our spaghetti bolognaise.

A great foodie discovery in Tarvanelle's coop supermarket were tubes of capers. We like to cook pasta putansesca, slutty pasta, which comprises capers, black olives, tomatoes and anchovies. Being able to add a squeeze of caper puree rather than starting and not finishing a jar of capers is great and we bought a few tubes to take back home.

All the evening meals we cooked for ourselves involved pasta. Mostly we added a tin of sardines - cheap but so tasty - and fresh veggies bought locally. Only once were we tempted into buying meat from the supermarket. We bought eight very good quality sausages which we accompanied with a fresh tomato and pasta salad.

The weather was changeable to say the least. We found that every afternoon around 4pm the wind picked up considerably. Google's weather forecast was pretty accurate as far as the wind was concerned, and we always keep an eye on it because we leave the awning up. Anything more that about 25mph and we put the awning away. We did this just once for about three hours during a particularly blustery spell. We had a couple of thunderstorms too, one forecast and the other seeming coming out of nowhere. Aside from that though, the wind had always died down before we went to bed, usually reducing to 5mph or less in the night. Every day was sunny, sometimes with a little bit of cloud.

For us Camping Chianti proved to be the perfect site on which to just relax. There was enough to keep us occupied for occasional mornings out. It made our first camping trip to Italy a resounding success and I don't think it's the last the friendly staff will see of Cleopatra!



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