There's something about Italy that draws us all to it – but it's a something that's hard to pinpoint in one word.
Perhaps it's the ideals of leisurely al fresco dining with fabulous, unpretentious food and stumbling across a great bottle of local wine for the first time. Maybe it’s the idyllic scenes of olive groves and a superlative rural landscape. Or it might be the outstanding architecture, the art and culture – unbelievable Roman temples, incredible Renaissance cathedrals, water-born cities and charming coastal villages
It could, of course, be the majesty of the jagged Dolomites or the prospect of a sea-breeze boat trip to an offshore island beach that makes us go for holidays in Italy. Perhaps it's to soak up the sounds of the church bells, the bustling markets and the gorgeous romance of the language. Then again, it could simply be for one of the best gelati!
Whatever your reason for touring Italy with a motorhome, you will want to return again and again to the kicking boot of Europe.
Top five things to do in Italy
Incredibly popular (over-crowdedly so) in summer, make it springtime or autumn to discover the lakes of Lombardy. Lake Garda is by far the biggest, with the north-west shoreline the quietest. Lake d’Iseo, Lake Como, Lake Lugano and Lake Maggiore make up the other most well known lakes. To find something a little quieter and more intimate, head to Lago d’Idro and Lago di Ledro (strictly speaking in the neighbouring region of Trentino).
Take a vineyard crawl around, arguably, the image of Italy – Tuscany. Chianti is one of Italy’s best-loved wine regions, the vineyards interspersed with poppy-rich wheat fields, plus hillsides dotted with cypress trees and crenellated castles. Look out for bottles with a black cockerel, the symbol of Chianti Classico, considered the best.
Take a hike along the ancient Sentiero Azzurro to explore the five colourful villages of the Cinque Terre in Liguria. These coastal villages cling precipitously to the cliffs along the rocky coastline of the Riviera di Levante. Or visit by boat from La Spezia.
You’ll discover plenty of wildlife in the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise, a rich and beautiful wilderness in the south of the country. Mountains, rivers, lakes and forests are all within the national park – in addition to brown bears and Apennine wolves!
Discover ancient civilisations on the island of Sicily. You’ll find amphitheatres and Doric temples a-plenty, plus the spewing Mount Etna, a fertile land of walnut and citrus groves and beautiful sandy beaches when R&R prevails. Hop on a boat from Genoa, Naples or Reggio di Calabria to reach the island.
When to visit Italy
Italy has a long tradition of fabulous annual events, creating spectacle and colour, and providing regional variation. Many seasonal religious festivities (particularly Roman Catholic) are still honoured and celebrated with feast days and public holidays. In addition to regional activities and seasonal food and drink festivals – everything from asparagus and the strawberry to wine and olives – you'll also find major international events such as the Venice Film Festival, the Giro d'Italia bike race and, on Easter Sunday, the Papal Address from the Vatican.
For some good old-fashioned entertainment, try February’s mask and costumed Carnevale and April's Festa di San Marco (a gondola race across St Mark’s Basin), both in Venice. Or June’s Calcio Storico – 16th century football in Florence – and July’s Corsa del Palio in neighbouring Siena, a medieval flag-throwing contest and impressive horse race. Further south, September’s Sagra dell’Uva is an entertaining harvest festival celebrating, in particular, the grape.
Cheap overnight stops
Like Germany and France, Italy has an abundant network of motorhome stopovers, known in the country as Aree di Sosta. These dedicated motorhome parking areas can be located in the town hall car park, next to a leisure centre, alongside a river or lake, up in the mountains or close to a city centre. They are sometimes free of charge but will generally involve a small charge (typically between €5 and €8 for 24 hours). Many, but not all, provide essential facilities for emptying waste water and cassette toilets, filling up with fresh water and dumping rubbish; some of the facilities are operated using a token, available from a nearby shop or tourist office. Most sites are safe and secure, however it's not recommended to stay overnight at aires within motorway service stations.
The most comprehensive listing of motorhome stopovers in Italy is Aree di Sosta Italian Camper Aires (published by the Italian Motorhome Club, Camperlife and available in the UK from Vicarious Books), which provides details, in Italian, of more than 2700 places to stay.
A great, and potentially more secure, alternative to using Aree di Sosta is Fattore Amico, an annual scheme that utilises farms and vineyards. On the purchase of an annual guide listing the details of all the places available, you can stay for one night free of charge providing that you have all your own facilities (fresh water etc) on board; these places do not offer the services of an Aree di Sosta. It’s a great way of getting to know an area – you’ll get to chat to the producers, have tastings and potentially purchase (without obligation, though) the produce. Similar to the France Passion scheme, there are 500 available stopovers with Fattore Amico.
Motorhome access and information
In general, Italy’s roads always seem to have that air of being in a hurry, with lots of traffic, horns blasting (Italians really do seem to have one hand on the horn at all times, even though the use is prohibited in built-up areas) and passionate hand-gestures. Yes, driving in Italy really is like the films. That said, if you’re in no hurry, what does it matter? It’s all part of the experience!
To avoid on-the-spot fines, make sure that you have all the necessary documents and equipment on board. Passports, driving licence (the minimum age for visitors to drive is 18 years), vehicle registration and insurance documents are all required. It is also compulsory to have a warning triangle and a visibility-warning vest for the driver and all passengers, which must be used in the event of a breakdown or accident at night or in poor visibility. Headlamp converters may also be necessary.
Carrying snow chains is compulsory in the Val d'Aosta between 15 October and 15 April and in all other areas, in compliance with the relevant road signs, between 1 November and 1 April. Take care if you are travelling to mountain regions in winter months – each province may make its own legislation as to whether winter tyres are mandatory. Also required is a red and white diagonally striped reflecting square panel (50cm by 50cm) attached to the rear of a motorhome with an overhanging load, such as a bicycle or moped. These are available from motorhome accessory suppliers like Fiamma.
One other recommendation – on longer journeys using motorways, make sure that you have plenty of drinking water on board. Motorway traffic jams are notorious in Italy and, in summer heat, you'll need it while stationary.
On-the-spot fines are also handed out for offences including illegal parking and speeding (which can be very hefty) – with lower speed limits enforced on motorways and dual carriageways during wet weather. Drivers within the first three years of passing their test must also adhere to a reduced speed limit of 90km/h outside urban areas and 100km/h on motorways. Daytime headlights should be used outside built up areas during rain, snow or poor visibility and always while in tunnels.
Motorhome parking is best in specific Aree di Sosta (see the Cheap overnight stops section). Otherwise, you'll find parking in rural areas no problem at all, but towns and cities are notoriously bad for on-street parking and are potentially congested. Parking discs are still used in some provincial towns. Most major cities have campsites either within the city boundaries or nearby with public transport connections, and this is far preferable to attempting to park for the day.
How to get to Italy
The main routes into Italy are: from France, the E80 along the Gulf of Genoa, the Fréjus Tunnel (the E70) towards Turin, the Mont-Blanc Tunnel between Chamonix and Courmayeur/Aosta Valley; from Switzerland, the E27 via the Great St Bernard Tunnel – or Pass if you fancy going up and over the mountains – (Martigny to Aosta), E62 (Brin to Lake Maggiore), and the E35, via the San Gottardo Pass, or E43 towards Lugano; from Austria, the E45 via the Brenner Pass and E55 from Villach to Venice plus, from Slovenia, the E751 towards Trieste in the far east of Italy.
All Italian motorways operate tolls, using booths along the route, with the highest tolls paid at the mountain tunnels and passes. You’ll also find low emission zones and congestion charges around various Italian cities – too many to mention here, but go online to check where they are in operation, and whether they affect your motorhome.