Let’s get one thing straight; our home on wheels, a Luton Conversion fully cladded and kitted out with a real wood kitchen, 160 litre water tank and 230 watt solar panel, is not the ideal vehicle for driving up and down mountains. However, after the oppressive and unrelenting heat of the Southern Italian coastline combined with the masses of domestic tourists on each and every stretch of beach, we decided to head inland and see another side of Italy. We hoped that the altitude and shade of the forests would provide us with some relief.
It was not long until we uncovered this alternative Italy. No more hot rocky beaches and tiny coastal towns but instead rolling green hills, beach forests and fresh water cascading from sources unknown. Instantly, we knew that we had made the right choice in cutting inland and away from the summer crowds on the beaches.
However, with great scenery comes some tricky road conditions. Hairpin turns aplenty as far as the eye could see. We were heading to a free campervan spot by the Lake Barrea in the Abruzzo National Park. Our 3.5 ton truck groaned up the steep ascents in 2nd gear, the temperature dial slowly but surely creeping ominously towards the red ‘danger’ zone. At the summit of each mountain the temperature of the engine slowly cooled down but now it was time for the brakes to do their duty. Just as the ascent had been steep and relentlessly winding, so too was the descent. A snake like road which pushed the brakes to the absolute limit until the smell of them overheating was unmistakeable. At the bottom of the descent began another ascent and so the madness continued.
Eventually, after many ups and downs, we reached the Barrea Lake, a beautiful man-made lake caused by the damning of a river in the valley. We set up camp at the free service area and decided that the tough drive was well worth it: maybe the van would disagree if it could.
After a few days at this lovely spot, with plenty of kayaking, hiking and looking for bears/wolves we decided to continue onwards to the next national park in the Abruzzo chain.
Another unrelenting hill climb challenged us and, after a long climb, we had to pull over at a precarious spot in the middle of the road, our engine temperature close to critical. After sitting in the blazing sunshine, with our heating system fully engaged in order to allow the engine to cool, we were able to continue. The views were stunning and were able to admire them briefly before we began the ascent into the next national park.
The brakes of our van got hot again and seemingly less effective. We ended up taking on this descent in first gear with our hazard lights flashing. We used the slow descent to our advantage and kept an eye out for bears and wolves that might just happen to be taking a midday stroll near the main road. When we reached the next town, we stopped and checked our brake fluid. There was none in the reservoir. Neither of us are keen mechanics but we do know that brake fluid should not simply run out over time and an empty tank would usually indicate a leak. We topped up the level and made a mental note to regularly observe the level and check for any leaks under the van. On we went, our spongey brakes now more effective after topping up on DOT4 brake fluid.
Another ascent greeted us and this time, knowing what was in store, we put the heating on full at the start of the climb and, remarkably, the engine stayed relatively cool. We passed a raging forest fire worryingly nearby with Chinook helicopters and specially adapted planes flying low overhead, tackling the blaze with huge buckets of water.
Eventually, we reached another lake and another free camping spot in beautiful surroundings. The driving may be tough and must almost certainly shorten the lifespan of a vehicle. But the views and peaceful surroundings, especially after the chaos and heat of the coast in mid-summer, are worth every minute.
We have since had our brakes repaired. One of the rear cylinders needed replacing.