Low Bridges and an Irish Victory

16/03/18 – 17/03/18

After our detour inland we drove back to the coast, picking up on our original intended route. This time we were heading for a long stretch of sandy beach south of the splendid rockiness of Maratea and the blocked roads at Castrocucco.

Praia a Mare is one of those bland Italian resort towns that you seem to find wherever there are long featureless sandy shores. We battled with the railway line, trying to find a route to the seafront that wasn’t height restricted. Eventually we turned off the sat nav and used google, backtracking to the SP1 which bridged the railway.

The ‘lungomare’ (sea front promenade) was pretty uninspiring so we got onto our bikes and cycled around to see if we could find a better spot for parking up. We enjoyed a reasonably long but flat cycle along the length of the seafront and then inland through the town. Towards the south end of the beach an island sits off shore, barely separated from the land. A parking spot here would be more scenic, but needed another drive under the railway. We couldn’t see any indication of the height of the bridge, but it looked ok, and the parking spot was on one of the motorhome parking apps so hopefully we’d fit. There was the back-up of a nice big turning area in case we needed to back out. We drove Bertie down, held our breath (because that will make a difference) and managed to get underneath with ease.

Ruined watchtower at Praia a Mare

We didn’t do much that afternoon, just wandered about on the shore and clambered over the rocks that formed the broken isthmus to the island. The resort was in maintenance mode with many people cleaning, tidying and re-erecting their beachside cafes. 

View from the rocks

The following morning we moved on to find somewhere with wifi so we could watch the last day of the six nations. On our way south tried to visit Arco Magno, this is a beach inside a collapsed cave which forms an almost fully enclosed circle of limestone cliffs. The only way to get there is to walk over the headland, either from Praia a Mare or from the resort just outside San Nicola Arcella. We chose to drive to the resort and intended to walk from there, but sadly the stairs over the headland were gated and padlocked.

The rock arch to the resort south of Arco Magno. We definitely wouldn’t get under this one!

We didn’t go much further south, stopping at a private sosta – Zio Tom – at €10 it was perfectly adequate for our needs, nice and quiet with good wifi. We hunkered down and watched a very disappointing final day of the six nations (unless you’re Irish of course, in which case well done).   

 

A Serendipitous Stop

15/03/18

From Maratea we were unable to continue along the coast due to road closures. So we decided to head inland. We could see on the map that the road wiggled it’s way over the hills, but it didn’t look like it got too narrow, and we didn’t want to go retrace our steps, so we’d give it a go.

Our target was a sosta in the town of Lauria that we found on an Italian website. A quick look on google maps indicated that we would find some parking at the very least and might even find some services.

The drive over the hills behind Maratea was a lovely mountain road, the type that is just about two cars wide, but larger vehicles need to take it easy. It seemed in reasonable repair but our definition of a good road has changed since being in Italy. Once over the first set of hills it dropped through the pleasant looking town of Trecchina into a wide agricultural valley before crossing the river and rising up the other side to Lauria. Here the sosta was a terraced parking area for three vans, with black and grey waste disposal. The tap by the waste disposal wasn’t working but there was a spring at the bottom of the car park which we used to fill a couple of bottles and rinse out the waste area after use. We didn’t know if it was drinking water (there was a helpfully blank sign above it) but as a number of people came down and filled up bottles we figures we’d probably be ok to drink it too. Although there wasn’t any non Motorhome parking various cars came and went; there were definitely some dodgy things going on, but not to the extent that it made us feel unsafe, just intrigued. 

Parked up in Lauria

Our first job when we arrived was to hang our wet clothes from the previous day on the outside of the van. While we ate lunch they dried off nicely and luckily didn’t have that musty smell that comes from leaving wet clothes too long. We did a couple of other chores before deciding to explore.

We wouldn’t have targeted Lauria if we didn’t have to swing inland, but a quick look on google showed that there was a ruined castle somewhere above our parking spot, so that was our first destination. We climbed steps and more steps to get to the highest part of the town. As we got closer to the castle we were able to follow signposts, and then we found a board with a town walk on it. That gave us a target for the afternoon, we would follow the signs around town before going back to Bertie.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the castle was shut. Nevertheless the town was interesting to wander around with medieval streets, plenty of churches and lovely views. A serendipitous stop.

 

The Heavens Opened

14/03/18

The Basilicata coast has been compared to the Amalfi coast in our guide book. Is it comparable? We don’t know yet because our trip to the Amalfi coast was cut very short due to poor weather. One day we will find out, but for now this is our favourite stretch of coast in Italy and we think it’s pretty spectacular.

From Sapri the road meanders around the coast to Maratea. There was a road closed sign at the start of the route, but we managed to work out that the road was closed beyond our destination. The road is two lanes but narrows in places, as it crosses bridges over river gorges and also in the village of Acquafredda where there are traffic lights. I don’t know how we’d feel driving in high summer with large vehicles travelling in both directions, but it was an enjoyable drive in the low season.

Road closed sign – a bit of a challenge to read from Bertie’s cab

We started off by heading to Maratea harbour where google showed a large area of parking. This no longer exists, the surface had been scalped and it was gated off. But we easily found some roadside parking and stopped to have breakfast in view of the sea which was sparkling in the early morning sunshine.

Bertie’s breakfast parking by Maratea Harbour – notice the Statue of Christ the Redeemer high above us

We’re not fans of roadside parking, we feel a bit exposed to bumps and scrapes, so after breakfast we moved up to the higher part of the village where we parked in the market square. We thought we would go for a quick stroll from here up to see the large statue of Jesus that stands watch over the village and harbour. Its not a long walk although it’s pretty steep. By heading up through the steep streets of the oldest part of town you can find the small Chapel of Cappuccini. The path branches off here, marked with red and white slashes, taking you up through the woods, past another chapel and eventually coming out in the large car park just below the statue of Christ (there are motorhome spaces in the car park). A further short walk up the road from here takes you to some abandoned village houses right on the top of the ridge, the pristine Basilica di San Biagio and a well maintained pedestrian area and steps up to the statue. In high season there is a gift shop and café here, but nothing was open today.  

The statue of Christ
Jesus’ toes, I don’t know why they captured my attention

 

The views here were spectacular. The road that has been built to bring people to the top is impressive in it’s own right, the switchbacks standing on stilts over the mountainside. Plus you can see in both directions along the coast and to the hills and valleys inland.

Looking south along the coast.
Looking inland, you can see the clouds starting to gather

Unfortunately what we could see form here was a large bank of very dark cloud heading quickly towards us. As we had just been out for a stroll we hadn’t bought all of our waterproof gear with us. We took shelter in the church porch when the rain started, but soon realised that we wouldn’t be seeing any sunny spells. Our walk down took less than half the time of the walk up. We dashed down to see if the trees would give us any shelter, but they were so burdened with rain that they were unable to provide any shelter. As we reached the village the roads started to become water features. The drainage systems spewed water from rooftops directly into the streets where it ran over the surface of the roads, the drains unable to cope with the volume.

For the second time in a couple of days we had been drenched. I remember once we sent Aaron to a swimming lifesaving class where he had been asked to take trousers and a jumper to do training in wet clothes. We sent him with a fleece, poor thing, not realising that fleeces act like a sponge and just hold the water. We re-learnt that lesson today with our fleece jackets so saturated that our sleeves were hanging inches below our hands. 

Back at Bertie we quickly took refuge inside, stripping off our wet clothes and trying to squeeze as much water out of them before hanging up in the bathroom where they continued to drip into the shower tray.

 

 

Appraise my Donkey

13/03/18

The name of this post refers to the coast path that we walked on this day – Apprezzami l’Asino. The apocryphal story being that the path is so narrow, if two people were walking their donkeys in opposite directions it would be impossible to get past each other. So they would appraise the value of the donkeys and any goods they were carrying and then the lowest value one would be pushed off the path. With compensation to be paid by the owner of the surviving donkey. I can’t imagine this really happening, can you? But it makes for a good story and advance warning about the narrow path. 

More about that later. The day started with us waking up at the Lago Sirino sosta to reasonable weather. It had been pretty gloomy when we arrived so it was nice to see some sunshine amongst the swirling clouds. This sosta may be the nicest one we have stayed at in Italy. A well constructed set of half a dozen terraced pitches with electrical supply and water points between every couple of spots. Electricity had a cost of €2 for six hours but otherwise the sosta was free and the facilities clean and all in working order. There was a view over the valley (when we could see it), and from our side window we could see the lake. The road to get here had been a little deformed but it wasn’t busy so we could take it easy. We had a quick stroll around the lake before we left, the hamlet looked affluent and well maintained. I can imagine it being a popular spot for a weekend day trip when the weather warms up but today everything was quiet.

Settled into the Lago Sirino Sosta
Lago Sirino from the path that circles the lake

After our brief perambulation we set off towards the coast. We were heading for Sapri, a coastal town behind a wide bay on this most southerly part of the Campania coast. We had a couple of parking spots we had eyed up on google. Initially we parked up along the seafront, where the parking was free in low season, but the waves were crashing over the sea wall and the traffic was quite noisy so we moved for the night to park by the football pitch.

We set off to walk the donkey path which started from the harbour. There was no parking here so we had to walk along the seafront and then up the road for a bit until we could get onto the path. We later found that there was parking a couple of km along the path which could be accessed from the SS18.

The initial section of the pathway was well constructed, wide and pretty level. There were informative signs at various spots along the path and bins and cycle racks. It was obviously a popular place for a stroll, and when we were on our way back the small carpark was full of cars, but during the day we had it to ourselves. On the map the path looks very close to the road, however the slope is steep enough that you don’t feel it intrudes very often, just the unfortunate rubbish strewn under the laybys where people on the road above had ditched their food and drink containers.

We walked along this easy section of path enjoying the sight of the waves crashing against the rocks and the dart and rustle of the many lizards that were basking in the sunshine. The views south showed headland after headland disappearing into the distance, the stony cliffs contrasting beautifully with the cerulean sea. It was possible to venture closer to the coast at points to watch the waves crashing against the spiny limestone rocks. 

Sea views on the first stretch of the walk

After about 3km we reached a promontory with the ruins of a tower. From this point the path suddenly narrowed, it looked precarious where we could see it between the scrub and rocks, but it was worse from a distance than it was to walk. It is a maintained path and there were plenty of places where it had been shored up with stone walls to keep the earth in place and stop it slipping down the cliff face. At one point the path crosses the river that forms the boundary with the region of Basilicata, the river channel was completely dry, like so many rivers in limestone areas it probably only runs when there is significant rainfall. The views continued to delight, the coast becoming more craggy and indented as we progressed.

We didn’t manage to reach the end of the path (in fact I wasn’t sure where the path did end) because we had to turn around to get back before dusk. We agreed that this was our favourite coast path walk so far. This part of Italy was really ticking the boxes for us and we were looking forward to heading further south.

Views of the second part of the walk – see if you can spot the path (not the road)

p.s. it was along this path that I found my one spear of wild asparagus

Finding Sostas in the Mountains

11/03/18 – 12/03/18

Apologies for the lack of photos.

One thing we have learned from our time in Italy is that free motorhome facilities are generally found inland. So when our toilet light came on (it indicates that we only have 7 litres of toilet space remaining) during a middle-of-the-night wee we thought we’d better head for the hills.

We did look for something closer to the coast but in the end we made an inland journey to a sosta in Latronico, we fancied a bit of mountain time as well as needing to empty.

Latronico is not far from the A3, the toll free major road that runs down to the toe of Italy, so it was easy to reach, with only the last section causing any problems; the sat nav tried to direct us down cobbled alleys and we also declined to take the direction indicated in the centre of town (a tight right turn that we weren’t sure we would make). In the end it was quite easy to drive straight up through the lower village (as opposed to the older village which perches on the hill above) and then turn right to get to the sosta.

Here we emptied our toilet and waste water but found that there was no fresh water. A short walk around the village turned up a working water fountain that we used to top up a little before we left. Also we had free electricity at 16 WHOLE AMPS, this was a complete shock to us and we immediately plugged in everything that needed charging. Even on campsites the usual supply is somewhere between 3 and 6 amps which doesn’t usually allow us to do more than run the heater. The website for the village shows that it is keen to attract tourists and new residents and I assume that having a motorhome sosta is part of this (it also says they reserve the right to charge €5 per night, which is fair enough,but no one was collecting at this time of year) . I suppose that attracting ex pats and second home owners is one way of replenishing the population and fortunes of these inland towns even if you don’t attract year round residents.

By the time we got here we didn’t feel like doing much, the sun was shining on us and we were feeling lethargic so we decided to chill out, bumble around doing some chores and watch some more rugby. Above us the broad fin of Monte Alpi looked down with disapproval, making us feel guilty for our laziness. As the afternoon progressed the cloud started to gather over the summit of the mountain and we realised that we were unlikely to be walking the ridge the following day.

Next morning we woke to sunshine and scattered cloud, but above the mountain we could see more cloud gathering. Our energy levels were back up and I took a walk into the village to pick up some lunch. There was a nice ‘Forno’ in town selling bread, but also different types of pizza and focaccia by the slice. For a bit of a change I picked us up a couple of slices each of an anchovy studded focaccia, a potato topped pizza and a roasted pepper and courgette pizza. With lunch taken care of I wandered back through the village. It was a very friendly place, in Italy I have found some places can be wary of strangers, but here the members of the village ‘old boys club’ (the older men who seem to spend a lot of time sitting around chatting) gave me a cheery buongiorno and a chap delivering wood seemed very interesting in why we were visiting but took the conversation beyond the very meagre limits of my Italian, later Paul teased me about being ‘picked up’. It seemed that everyone was ‘on message’ with Latronico’s marketing objectives.

We had decided on a bike ride rather than a mountain climb, so headed up from the sosta into the foothills meandering roughly westwards along roads and tracks and then diving down through a forest to meet the main road. The forest track started out looking pretty good but was heavily boggy in places, particularly at the hairpin ends. We ended up cutting off the corners and taking a more direct route downhill between primrose studded banks and deep drifts of fallen leaves. We saw multiple deer hoof prints but must have been too loud and colourful to catch sight of them.

When we reached the road the weather was still good and we decided to make our way to the reservoir Lago di Cogliandrino as a place that might be a little more scenic for lunch. Needless to say, as soon as we got there the heavens opened and thunder, lightening and hail surrounded us. Luckily there were some little roofed structures near the dam that gave us some shelter as we sat and chewed on our tasty breads.  We thought we’d wait until the showers passed, but it was looking more and more dark and gloomy so it was a case of moving on as quickly as possible. Cycling in hail is painful. It manages to get through the vents in your cycle helmet to hit your head and if one doesn’t have the thickest of hair (Paul) it can be quite ouchy.

We took the quickest route back to Bertie – the main road. This may have been a mistake, it wasn’t that busy but the roads were running with water and every car that went past created a bow wave. It didn’t stop raining all the way back, our bikes were clean but our clothes were sopping wet. It was a case of stripping off as quickly as possible and getting into something dry. For Paul this was his dressing gown (the second time I’ve been jealous that he’s had it).

Once back in the warm and dry, with the heater running thanks to our free electricity, we agreed that it had been a great and exciting bike ride. The fact that I may have wanted to cry each time a car went past has been consigned to memory.

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk and Two Doughnuts

10/03/18

We stayed in Marina di Camerota for two very different nights. On Friday night we were joined by a couple of Italian motorhomes in the big carpark behind the beach and had a peaceful night’s sleep. On the Saturday night the Italian motorhomes had left us alone in the carpark and we spent a couple of hours being the obstacle in a boy racer’s playground. It was only one car with a young driver and his girlfriend taking it in turns to speed up and down, do handbrake turns and screech donuts around us. Paul watched from our bedroom window, probably reliving his youth, and after a while they left us in peace. That’ll teach us to be wary of large empty carparks on Saturday nights.

Marina di Camerota

During the day we took another coastal walk to visit four beaches; the long sandy beach at Marina di Camerota that is split in two by a small rocky promentory, and the steep sided coves of Calas Pozzallo, Bianca and Infreschi. In fact we didn’t end up getting as far as Infreschi, having been captivated by the two other beaches. One day we may come back and walk in to Cala Infreschi from the other direction.

Looking across the long sandy beach at Marina di Camerota from the east

This coastline here is still part of the Cilento national park and is stunning. The cliffs are steep and wooded and the path strays inland to avoid obstacles but when it hits the coast you are rewarded with limestone cliffs, wave cut caves and brilliant blue water.

Caves in the cliffs – most of them had barriers in place

As we walked east of the carpark we encountered the first cave, a tourist attraction just behind the headland that divides the beach. This was gated and closed for the low season but we could read the boards that explained the Neaderthal and early Homo Sapiens habitation of the site. At the far end of the beach was the town’s cemetery and the path heads up through the wooded cliff beyond this, marked with red and white slashes. We had considered an alternative route closer to the cliff edge that we had seen from the far end of the beach, but didn’t realise that it would involve wading through the sea for a couple of yards, so decided to leave that for the return.

The path took us up through the woods and then onto tracks past olive groves, farm buildings and villas. We took a wrong turn at one point, keen to get off the main track we headed down a path through olive trees only to reach a dead end where a couple were clearing undergrowth from around the trees. They directed us back up to the track where we kept a closer eye out for the route markers.

Brightly coloured lizard – in the warm sunshine they were everywhere

The day was turning out to be pleasantly sunny and warm and so we stopped to enjoy some sun when we reached  the pebbly beach at Cala Pozzallo. The walk down here had taken us past a small patch of agricultural land where dogs yapped at us (not an uncommon occurrence here) and a rather nice beach bar (closed). The beach had the look of somewhere that is visited mostly by boat as one of those ‘visit a deserted beach but actually you can rent chairs and umberellas and get a cocktail once you’re there’ destinations.

Once we managed to tear ourselves away from here we took another detour inland before dropping down to Cala Bianca, this time walking out to the headland west of the beach before clambering down over the sharp limestone rocks to the beach. Again we stopped to enjoy the good weather, eating our lunch while sat on the rocks above the cove and sharing our bread with the voracious fishes that were swimming beneath us.

Looking down on the beach at Cala Bianca

It was at this point that we had to turn around in order to ensure we got back to Bertie in time to watch the rugby. The walk back was much quicker, along the way we kept an unsuccessful eye out for wild asparagus and had more success spotting many jewel toned lizards basking in the heat of the day.

This time we did get our feet wet as we walked to the end of the headland where a watchtower looks out over the bay before dropping down many steps to a tiny cove where we had to wade around the corner and back onto the sandy beach.

Wading around the rocks at the eastern end of the Marina di Camerota beach

That afternoon we watched rugby while eating scrumptiously light and sugary ciambella (doughnuts) that I had bought from the bakery that morning.     

A Mystery Solved

09/03/18

We had spent the night parked outside the archaeological site of Velia-Elea (Velia – the Roman name, Elea the earlier Greek name), another Magna Graecia settlement. A brief walk in the evening had led us to the notice board for the entry times. ‘It’s nine euros’ said Paul in disbelief, ‘we’re not going in if it’s that much’. I was sure that it had said it was just a couple of euros in the guide book so I was a little mystified, but we agreed that it was too much for what was reputedly a bit of an untidy and uninformative site. The following morning we went and took another look and realised that we’d been looking at the opening times, not the prices. Doh!

The entry was only €3 each so we decided we would go in and take a look around. In fact if we had known we could have bought a ticket for an additional euro at Paestum and got into both sites.

The site was overrun with the swift green growth of spring, but it gave it a certain charm. Drainage was an issue and in one place the path led into a foot deep pond; we skirted around the outside of the buildings until we could find another way through. It was a shame we couldn’t go all the way up to the more recent tower on the hill above the site, but it was closed off due to the danger of falling rocks. We meandered around the foundations of various buildings, but it was a little disappointing with the mosaics covered in tarp for their winter protection and the upper areas inaccessible.

My disappointment was assuaged by having one mystery cleared up. For two or three days we had been bemused by the sight of grown men wandering down lanes with sparse and limp bunches of grass in their hands. Wandering around the edges of the Velia-Elea site were a couple of older men who were also carrying small green bundles. Every now and again they would dive into the hedgerow with much excitement and come out with a slightly bigger bundle. When our path intersected ours they wished us a ‘buongiorno’ and I plucked up the courage to ask what they were holding in my best pidgin Italian. ‘Asparagi’ was the proud answer, and when I looked closely at the contents of their hands I could see it was indeed asparagus. As slender as a blade of meadow grass with a miniature version of the asparagus bud. Apparently it is usually a man’s job to forage for asparagus and it is pretty difficult to find. I can just imagine the false gratefulness of the housewives of Italy when they receive their tiny harvest of asparagus, but the very real gratitude that it got their husband out of the house for the day.   

A solitary stalk of asparagus

It became my mission then to find some for myself. I didn’t manage to that day, but a couple of days later I found the blue green leaves of the plant (looking like asparagus fronds but very thistly) and one upright stem of asparagus. So far that is all I have found, the flavour was very strong and I can see that a small amount would provide enough flavour for an omelette or risotto, I just wish I could find enough to cook with it.   

That afternoon we moved onto the Marina di Camerota. It is quite usual around this stretch of coast for there to be an inland town (in this case Camerota) and an associated marina or beach town. We were heading for the marina so that we could do another coastal walk.

On the way we dropped in to take a look at the abandoned medieval village of San Severino. This small settlement sits on a ridge above the more modern inhabited village. We had considered staying here but the parking spot by the village was just a patch of dirt on the inside of a hairpin bend and we couldn’t see any other good parking. We left Bertie taking up most of the parking spot, made a donation in the box at the bottom of the steps and then climbed up to take a look at the village; an atmospheric jumble of cottages in various states of disrepair. It is easy to see how the buildings were abandoned over time, with no possibility of building a road any closer to the houses. Now the local town maintains what is left as a tourist attraction with night time lighting and a small church and piazza for events.  

 

Bent Wheels and Buffalo Butter

07/03/18 – 08/03/18

We drove down the road to Agropoli, the same road we had driven the day before in the other direction. A parking spot close to the coast was going to be a starting point for a bike ride. Paul knew he had a job to do as the rear tyre on his bike was completely flat, but when he took the bike down off the rack the wheel was buckled so badly that it was rubbing on the fork. We racked our brains trying to work out when we would have picked up this damage, but it didn’t really matter, we weren’t going to be riding the bikes today.

A quick google search found a nearby bike shop just north of Paestum, so we drove up the fateful road again to find it. Despite the language barrier it was pretty obvious what we needed and the staff in the shop had a go at straightening out the wheel before agreeing that yes, we needed a new one. The bike was left with them till the following morning and we needed to make a decision about how to spend the rest of the day.

Along that road we were getting to know so well we had spotted a number of ‘caseificio’. These are the dairies of southern Campania, an area known for it’s herds of buffalo which produce super creamy mozzarella and other buffalo milk products. A quick internet trawl took us to Caseficio Tenuta Vannulo which promised organic mozzarella and more. We had missed the guided tour, but we could still take a look at the buffalo in their winter lodgings and mooch around the dairy buildings. In the dairy itself a small sales area was rammed with people queuing to buy products. Paul decided to wait outside as I took a ticket and got in line. People were leaving with polystyrene cool boxes full of items and I was glad there was a bit of a queue so I could peruse the list on the wall that showed the small range of possibilities. I decided that not only would i pick up some mozzerella but also I would try some buffalo butter. I felt a bit miserly placing my tiny order in light of the large quantities being bought by other people but no one batted an eyelid except at my pronunciation of ‘burro’ (I’ve never been able to roll my ‘r’s). Following the scrum of the dairy we popped next door into the ‘Yogurteria’, a café selling yohgurt, ice-cream, desserts, drinks and sandwiches. An ice cream each – pistachio and chocolate flavours because we’re predictable – for a couple of euros each and we were both relaxed and happy.

We needed to stay in the area to pick up the bike, and we needed to use some services, so decided to drop into Camping Villagio Pini; an ACSI campsite shaded by many pines which I’m sure create welcome shade in the summer, but just created annoyingly heavy water droplets in the rain that evening. The site was nearly empty, apart from some long term tenants who had nabbed the beachfront pitches, we picked an easy access pitch (some looked quite difficult to navigate into) close to the wifi and settled in for the rest of the day. Our indication of money well spent on a campsite, the showers were hot and powerful.  

The following morning we popped back up the road to pick up the bike with it’s new straight wheel. Good service and a reasonable price made us very happy. We also popped back into the Caseficio, where there was no mozzarella, but we didn’t care because we wanted more butter. At €1.50 for 250g it was cheaper than supermarket butter and amazingly creamy, tasting almost like clotted cream.

Having picked up the bike you might think we would go for the bike ride we had missed out on. But no, for whatever reason we decided that we would push a little further south and go for a walk. We proceeded through the edges of the Cilento national park down to Ogliastro Marina. We couldn’t make it to our anticipated parking spot – the car park we thought we had spotted on Google Maps was actually part of a large camping village that was closed – but we could park on the side of the road as it was the low season. 

From here we walked along the coast path westwards. Initially we thought we were going to be thwarted, having to go through a gate that proclaimed itself private property and encountering fencing where we thought the path should be. But we persevered, by going through the gates and past the fencing we managed to find a cut through to the coastpath. Other walkers and cyclists were using the path and nearby road so we didn’t think we would be in too much trouble. This walk took us along a low cliff, never more than a couple of meters above the water and interrupted frequently by streams and small shingle beaches. Behind the coast was an open pine wood with gnarly trees and lots of green spring growth. Lizards basked on trees and rocks and birds were singing. Waves provided a rhythmic backdrop of noise. It was hard to believe, but this was our first coastal walk in Italy. Our previous attempts to enjoy the coast had been thwarted by the weather, and much of the coastline had been unappealing. Now we were freshly inspired.

We decided that we would move on from our roadside parking, so headed down to the archeological site of Elea/Velia where we parked up in the spacious coach parking ready to visit the following morning. 

Greek Temples in Paestum

05/03/18 – 06/03/18

When we got to Termoli we had decided to slow down and travel through Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria (roughly in that order) before heading north again. But following a conversation with my sister we changed plans slightly. She is planning to come out and visit us just after Easter, and the most convenient airport to fly into is Bari, Puglia. So rather than starting with Italy’s heel as planned, we swapped directions and decided to start with the toe. This meant another longish drive across Italy. The theme of the journey was fennel. As we crossed the country we found ourselves frequently behind large trucks with the frothy fronds of fennel poking out. It must have been the season for the fennel harvest.

We headed for Paestum, an archaeological site not far south of Salerno. First of all we had to find somewhere to spend the night so we stopped to the south of Paestum near the beach at the Baia di Trentova, an attractive beach (although with some pretty ugly beachside concrete) where we mooched around for a little while enjoying a break in the weather. We were chased back into Bertie by a small dog that wanted to bite Paul’s ankles, I can only imagine he had the scent of something particularly interesting on his socks because the dog had no interest in me (or maybe the smell of my feet put it off).

The following morning we took a drive back to Paestum. We were going to get quite well acquainted with this road over the next could of days. At Paestum we drove past the free parking and decided that it was too empty and exposed for us to feel comfortable leaving Bertie there all day. We drove on into the main drag to see what the car parks were like. Here we would have to pay but it felt more secure, possibly unjustified, but we are more comfortable with our security when we have gone with our gut instinct. We drove into one car park with a sign saying €5, but this was last years price, it was now €8 (they had the tickets printed up to prove it) – what would it cost to stay overnight? still €8. Did they have services for motorhomes? yes, but not open at the moment. Could we be bothered to find somewhere else? No!

So we settled into a nice parking spot in the attended car park and made our way to the ruins of Paestum. This site was established as part of ‘Magna Graecia’, the name given to the Greek settlements that covered much of southern Italy between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC. Originally it was called Poseidonia, after the Greek god of the sea, but was re-named when the Romans took control. Despite the fact that it became a Roman city it still has a significantly Greek feeling, not least because of the three impressive temples whose stout pillars still stand. The Roman empire was very good at appropriating and re-using the best bits of the cultures they conquered.  

The tickets for Paestum are sold in the museum so we started by looking around the exhibits. This was an interesting and modern museum with well laid out exhibits that traced the history of human settlement in the area from prehistory to Roman times, plus a few interesting exhibits about the archaeologists who uncovered the site and the Second World War allied landing at the nearby beach (the temples were off limits to bombing from either side). Most of the exhibits were labelled in English as well as Italian and there was a lot more to see than we expected. Our favourite exhibit was the famous Tomb of the Diver, beautiful frescoes from the lining of a young man’s tomb.

The fresco of the diver

Wandering around the site itself was the same as we have experienced in many parts of Italy, much to see but very few labels to explain what you’re seeing. It is definitely worth doing some research in advance so that you know where to go.

Wandering round the site with us was a Swiss family (their motorhome was parked next to Bertie when we got back) and an British group plus some young people who seemed to be doing a photoshoot in the temple (the poor girl was wearing a beautiful but flimsy looking dress), but apart from that it was beautifully quiet. As was that night’s sleep.

 

      

Long Days Driving

02/03/18 – 04/03/18

We left Livigno pleased with ourselves for having survived the cold and happy that we’d managed to get some skiing in. During the cold nights we had discussed what we would do next and concluded that we wanted to spend more time in Italy. The plan was to drive down to the south and experience the toe, heel and instep of Italy before heading back north, taking in some of the central Apennine mountain areas we hadn’t been able to visit in Feb. Finally we would top off our mainland Europe trip with some time in the alps before returning back to the UK in late June. Perhaps we would get some more skiing in during this time, but we felt we had a few modifications to make to our set up before taking an extended skiing trip. Next year we will be trying for 4 to 6 weeks of skiing but under a tighter budget and with (hopefully) a better heating set up.

We left Livigno in a good weather window that allowed us to re-cross the Foscagno pass and headed back to Sondrio where we plugged into the free electric and made use of the laundry facilities, again. The snow started to fall in earnest as we settled in for the evening in Sondrio and the forecast was for significant snow fall over the next 24 hours. We decided we would head back towards the Adriatic coast, taking toll roads, and see how far we could get. 

Snow on the terraces near Sondrio

We made it to Rimini, slowly, but there seemed little point in stopping to sight see in this weather. The roads got gradually more and more snowy, until at one point the three lane autostrada had only one lane that was drivable. 

We wondered if we would end up having to stop at the motorway services overnight, there were many lorries in the service areas sitting out the weather and some taking shelter on the hard shoulder under the bridges. For one stretch of the autostrada vehicles over 7.5 tonnes were asked to leave the road until the snowploughs had gone through. But once they mobilised the snow ploughs and gritters it was a marvel. Anyone who says that Italians are disorganised and undisciplined should watch the spectacle as the snow clearance vehicles line up for each section of the road. Entering at one junction they move in formation down the road to the next exit where a new group has jurisdiction. Yes, we had to travel slowly behind them a couple of times, but the roads were beautifully clear once they had been through.

Snow on the motorway.

Finally we made it to Rimini where we parked up for the night, there was still snow down here on the coast, but fortunately it was warmer. Our carpark was quiet overnight but in the morning it was absolutely heaving. From our bed we could hear cars arriving and leaving, but it was a Sunday, what was going on? When we finally emerged from our Bertie bubble we realised that it was election day and the school next door was a polling station. We mulled over the practicality of holding an election on a Sunday, so much less disruption than the UK’s Thursday with the associated school closures and childcare issues. But the Italians make up for this practicality by having one of the most complex electoral systems. I’m still not entirely clear on the result – it was a hung parliament and I’m not going to get to grips with Italian politics enough to understand what alliances are being made – except that that the worrying popularity of anti immigration and isolationist policies is in evidence. Despite being unable to run for office, Silvio Berlusconi’s face is on posters everywhere, still a popular figure and backing the centre right alliance which just about won the most seats.

From Rimini we took the autostrada south, finally getting past the last of the snow as we got south of Abruzzo. We stopped for the night in Termoli, our second visit here. This time we parked along the newly renovated seafront which had a good cycle path in the same soft jade green as the sea. As it was the low season there was no charge and the long sea front had barely any visitors. The weather was a bit drizzly so we stayed in a watched the sea from the comfort of Bertie. Two long days of driving had done us in and we were ready to slow down.         

Frozen on the Inside

24/02/18 – 01/02/18

We enjoyed our time in Livigno skiing, it’s a resort that is mostly wide red runs which suits us down to the ground as we don’t like anything too challenging, age has instilled caution where previously I would have aimed to descend the steepest bumpiest slopes. The resort has had some money pumped into it and the lifts, facilities and ski-bus service are all excellent. I wont give you a blow by blow account of each day as each day was very similar. Get up, have a leisurely breakfast in Bertie, head off to the slopes (either on foot, or using the very efficient bus service), ski, lunch at a restaurant on the slopes, ski some more, aperitivo, dinner in Bertie, sleep, start again. It was odd but comforting to be in a routine.

We stayed at Camping Pemont, probably the closest campsite to the slopes. It was good value if, like us, you went for the pitches with 3amp electricity (you could pay more for 10 amps but we don’t have enough electric gadgets to need it), €21 a night, plus €1 for 4 minutes of warm shower. The bathroom was underground and well heated although it did sometimes have that musty smell that happens when a moist environment is not aired enough.

It was no surprise that the bathrooms weren’t well aired though, because for three nights on the trot we had temperatures down below minus 20 centigrade. We barely opened Bertie’s windows in this time and I don’t blame the campsite owners for letting as little cold air into the bathroom as possible.

Being in such cold temperatures was an experience. The first night was quite mild so we stuck to our usual cold weather routine of turning the van heating on in the evening and then leaving our little electric oil filled radiator on overnight. Whoever gets up first in the morning is tasked with switching the heating on again and then jumping back into bed until Bertie is up to a reasonable temperature (about 10 degrees is enough to venture out and get dressed).

The second night we could feel the warmth being leeched out of the air as the temperature plummeted. So we had to leave the heating on all night. Now our heating is powered by gas (some people are lucky enough to have heating that can be switched between electricity and gas) and the warm air is distributed by a fan. When the thermostat detects that the temperature has dropped the fan will kick in to push warm air around the van, when it’s hit the desired temperature the fan speed will drop. The following morning Paul had bags under the bags under his eyes. He described a night of heating paranoia where he had initially listened to ensure that the fan turned off, then had laid awake waiting to ensure that the fan turned back on again, then worried in case the fan didn’t turn off, and so on. The positive was that the van was toasty, the negative was that Paul was as likely to become a nervous wreck if we had another night like it. On top of that the van was too warm overnight for both of us – it’s about 16 degrees at it’s minimum setting – and we got through half a bottle of gas in one night.

The other thing about heating in winter is that we need to ensure that the water, which is held in a fresh water tank, a boiler and a waste water tank, plus all the pipes in between, doesn’t freeze. Freezing would be bad news with the possibility of pipework and boiler being buggered (technical term) by the expansion of freezing water. Keeping the water liquid is accomplished through a combination of having the boiler on at all times, plus using the blown air heating in the underfloor area where the pipes run and the water tanks live.

So we had a problem, which would take precedence? Paul’s mental health (and my ensuing happiness) or Bertie’s pipes? The answer was obvious, we had to have a solution that resolved both. One option was to leave, but we weren’t keen to schlep all the way back over the mountain with so little skiing done.

In the end we decided to drain down Bertie so that we didn’t need to keep the heating on all night. We were nearly empty anyway, so draining down the fresh water, grey water and boiler didn’t produce too much liquid (each bucketfull needed to be walked to the service area to be disposed of). That night we followed our ‘normal’ routine. Gas heating on all evening until bed time, oil fired radiator on overnight. We got into bed and waited to see whether we would freeze overnight.

As we are still here with no blackened extremities the frostbite can’t have been serious. As we lay in bed the first night we could hear Bertie creaking and groaning as the cold took hold, shrinking some materials faster than others and creating ghostly noises in the process. We had started the evening at 16 degrees and were interested to see how cold we got overnight.

In our bedroom we were toasty, once we drew the curtain our little space acted like a four-poster or box-bed. We were warm in the fug of our own body heat, under two duvets and wearing pyjamas. In fact we needed to crack open the roof vent to let the moisture laden air escape and avoid condensation. The rest of Bertie was not so warm; the water in our kettle was frozen in the morning and we had an iceberg floating in our water carrier. The toilet took some coaxing to open. We couldn’t tell what the temperature was because the cold killed the LCD display on our thermometer, but we must have been a long way below zero.

Somehow it was my job to jump out of bed in the morning to put the heating on. This warmed Bertie up and after a couple of hours we were able to venture out to don some clothing which had been warming above the oil filled radiator (this seemed to have a sphere of influence roughly a meter in diameter, enough to warm clothes but not enough to warm the van). The first night was deemed a success, we had both slept reasonably well and Bertie hadn’t fallen apart with the cold. During the sunny day Bertie warmed up sufficiently to make it pleasantly warm on our return from skiing and we jealously conserved this heat by closing the blinds before it could escape.

We continued this approach for the rest of the holiday. It may seem like hardship, but the worst part was having to get up to turn the heating on in the morning. The rest of the time we were perfectly comfortable – honestly – but in future we’ll be trying to avoid temperatures quite that low.  

 

Preparing for the Foscagno Pass

22/02/18 – 23/02/18

As we got closer to our chosen ski resort of Livigno we were watching the weather closely. Two reasons, firstly we needed to choose a route that was appropriate to the conditions, and secondly the ‘Beast from the East’ that was threatening the UK was also expected to deliver extremely cold weather to most of Europe.

The weather forecasts for Livigno were now showing overnight lows of -26°C, a level of cold we had never experienced in Bertie. In fact the only time I had been in such cold conditions was in Canada, and Paul had never experienced anything that cold. People on the excellent Motorhome and Ski facebook forum told us that it was not abnormally cold, and that we should be ok, but we needed to make sure we were prepared. On the way to our next stop we took on board enough winter Diesel to get us to Livigno (the tax free status of the area would provide us with very cheap fuel and we wanted to be as empty as possible to take advantage of it). We topped up our screen wash with undiluted cold weather screen wash and lastly, having been prompted by a facebook post, we checked our coolant. It was only good to -7°C, so a quick detour to a Norauto (think Halfords crossed with Kwik Fit)  got us sorted with some serious antifreeze. We thought Bertie’s engine was as well prepared as it could be for the weather, we must have done something right because we had no problems starting up again when we left Livigno after the cold weather.

Our tyres are Mud and Snow (M+S) rated, which is a bit of a compromise between snow tyres with their Three Peak Mountain Snowflake symbol and normal tyres. Better on snow than a regular tyre but without losing their braking distance effectiveness as quickly as 3PMSF tyres in warm weather, they were our considered choice for touring all year. But being a compromise we didn’t want to venture into conditions that would test their limits. We also have snow chains of course, but we were wary of conditions where snow was settling or ice was forming but not yet thick enough for chains. For this reason we were keeping a close eye on our route into Livigno.

Livigno is in Italy, but surrounded on most sides by Switzerland. It’s in a high mountain valley with a few options for access via mountain passes or tunnels. In winter the approach is limited to either the Foscagno Pass, taking you to 2291 meters, or the Munt La Schera tunnel which takes you in via Switzerland. Most people coming from the UK would probably opt for the latter option also using the Vereina Tunnel to avoid high altitudes. But we were in Northern Italy already so it was a much shorter, and cheaper, route across the Foscagno Pass, so long as the weather conditions were right. As we headed towards Sondrio – our overnight stop before the final leg of the journey – we kept an eye on the weather forecast and it promised that the current mild weather would continue until after we arrived in Livigno. The drive to Sondrio, along a low valley with snow capped mountains looming high on each side, was slightly daunting, but the webcam views of the Foscagno pass still looked good so we kept going.

Sondrio treated us with a municipal sosta that was both free and supplied electricity – happy days. We had a brief chat with the Italian couple in the other van parked with us. Like the petrol pump attendant we had talked to earlier they were very enthusiastic about Livigno. Sondrio also had a self service launderette near to the sosta, so we managed to wash our laundry before heading off. There is always something satisfying in having an empty laundry bag.

The following morning we set off to tackle the pass. A final look at the webcam (and then a few more peeks as we drove) told us that all was still fine. It is a long way uphill from Sondrio to the top of the Foscagno Pass. Despite the surrounding mountains Sondrio is still pretty low altitude at only 360m. When we reached the outskirts of Bormio we had made it to 1225m and could see the smaller ski areas that surround the town, but we still had a long way up to go.  

In the end the pass was pretty easy to navigate. Sunny and mild weather meant the road was clear of snow, slush and ice. Buses and freight vehicles regularly use the road so it is wide enough for two large vehicles to pass each other except at a couple of points through villages. As mountain roads go it is not particularly challenging, with limited numbers of hairpins and few steep drop offs. We stopped a couple of times to enjoy the views of the stark white landscape but the journey was still over far too quickly.

Of course the high altitude means the road has the potential to change character completely in less than optimal conditions. On the way back we had to wait for a good weather window as conditions had been extremely cold followed by snow. We left Livigno in good weather, but the fresh snow from the previous day was piled at the side of the roads, making it feel more narrow. At one point the snowplough coming towards us looked as though it was going to sweep us from the road, but it’s sides folded in as it went past which impressed us no end. Snow started to fall as we were on our way across the pass, but didn’t settle and we were soon across the highest section and on our way downhill to Bormio. It was still a reasonably painless journey but we wouldn’t want to be traversing the pass in a motorhome in anything worse.

Still Cant Find What We’re Looking For

20/02/18 – 21/02/18

When Aaron was at school I remember him doing a Geography project about the plains of Italy. The plains which stretch across the north of Italy, south of the Alps, are Italy’s economic powerhouse, generating the majority of Italy’s wealth. One thing they are famous for is cars; Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati all have their factories in the area. The other thing that comes to mind when looking at the names of the towns and cities is food – Bologna, Modena, Parma all bring to mind well known Italian staples, Bolognese sauce (ragu), Balsamic vinegar, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese.

Did we get to sample any of the food? or visit the famous car manufacturers? NO WE DID NOT. We spent all day looking for a petrol cap for Bertie and not finding one, despite the very helpful staff at the camper and auto spares shops. We continue to sport the temporary cap but wont be actively looking for a new one till we get back to the UK. 

We did spot someone test driving a cherry red Ferrari, hearing the deep roar of the engine before we saw it, and we bought a big chunk of Parmesan cheese, which I have started to eat like cheddar (it doesn’t seem to have the acrid smelly feet pungency that we associate with it in the UK). Apart from that we had a day of frustration.

The following day was not much better. We drove from our parking spot outside Bologna to Bergamo where we got caught up in another ZTL. Now that we’ve seen the signs for these in Pisa we are a bit more clued up on them. Generally they are a large white rectangular sign with a red circle on them and too much writing to read from a moving vehicle. Our strategy now is to avoid at all costs, so when we found ourselves confronted with them while trying to reach a supermarket on the outskirts of Bergamo we turned around. Then we tried another supermarket and had to retrace our steps when we found every exit from a roundabout sporting one of these signs. Highly frustrated we continued to try but had to give up and head for our parking spot. Eventually we found our way to a paid parking area in Bergamo where the promised facilities were offline (showers and toilets closed for work, wifi not working) but they still wanted €18 for the privilege. By this time we were frazzled from the number of red circles we had seen and just wanted to hide away so we didn’t argue much.

I completely understand the rationale for the ZTL areas, pollution reduction and traffic control in historically delicate areas is important. I just wish there was some kind of signage earlier, maybe at the entry points to the towns, so that you know you are entering an area where traffic limitation may apply. Some of the zones (i.e. in Pisa) are easy to avoid because they only apply to the historic centre where you wouldn’t be driving a motorhome anyway. But the ones in northern Italy cover much wider areas. If you happen to be driving in Italy this website is useful – we’ve started to look up potential restrictions with every large town or city we come to.  

 

Red Road Houses on the Adriatic Coast

18/02/18 – 19/02/18

The weather was still pretty dreary so we don’t feel like doing anything active. We decide to start our journey north for some skiing and pick the Adriatic Coast road SS16. Our first stop on the evening of the 17th is at Termoli, we drive through the outskirts of town looking for a recommended Sosta, we find it but it is shut up. No one is answering the phone or in the door of the neighbouring house. We give up on this and drive north through the town and eventually find another Sosta where we nose through the half open gates. It’s not clear whether they are really open, but the father and son are playing (sorry working) with a cherry picker outside and seem happy to take our money. It’s not like they have to do much although they insist on cleaning the already spotless motorhome service area before we use it. They also unlock the gate leading to the seashore so we can take a walk in a brief period of dry weather. We’re pleased to see that Italy does have some attractive coastline. The long stretch of sand here is covered with the natural debris of a stormy sea rather than plastic bottles and single flip flops.

Driftwood serpent

We don’t venture into Termoli because the weather is so miserable, so we start our journey north. The coast road is surprisingly good, with fewer potholes than we expect – we’ve learnt to be grateful for small things. Along the way we see many trabucchi – these fishing platforms can be found all over Europe, and here along the Adriatic coast they are connected to cliffs by precarious looking walkways. We don’t manage any photos because we don’t want to venture too far from Bertie but we enjoy pointing them out along the way.

Also along the way we start to notice buildings of a deep brick red, with very similar construction and always with the name of the road displayed somewhere. We wonder what they are, we’re close to the railway, but the railway buildings have a differently distinctive style. Google isn’t helping as I must be using the wrong search terms to get a hit. I post on facebook to see if anyone knows the answer and finally we’re enlightened. These buildings were constructed by A.N.A.S – the road construction company – to house the workers who were responsible for that stretch of road and also for storage for road maintenance materials. Once our eyes are opened we start to see them everywhere. Some restored and presumably now privately owned, some falling apart and some still being used for their original purpose.

The red A.N.A.S houses

That evening is spent in Marcelli, in a large free (in the low season) carpark, we spend a couple of hours on the seafront watching the stormy sea, but move back to the carpark again for a quieter night.

We set off again the following day continuing up the coast. We laugh at the satnav’s pronunciation of Adriatica each time we come to a junction. She likes to draw out the a’s ‘aaaa-dri-aaaa-ti-caaa’. In poor weather the stupidest things can become entertaining. We have also lost track of how many times we have heard No Roots by Alice Merton. We know the lyrics by heart now and it will always be our Italy song.

We consider going to San Marino, but a look at the road conditions shows quite a lot of snow, so we stay by the coast and end up in Ravenna Marina that night. Another free car par. The following morning we actually have some dry weather so we walk along one of the arms of the breakwater, it is bitterly cold but feels freeing to be outside. While we’re walking we see tugs bringing massive container boats into the shelter of the breakwater’s embrace; the two arms extend 2km into the sea creating an area of calm.

Trabucchi on the breakwater at Ravenna Marina
These concrete ‘jacks’ line the breakwater

The Marina is our last stop on the coast, from this point we are heading inland. We stop briefly in Ravenna town to look at the early Christian mosaics. First we go to see the mosaic at the Battestero degli Ariani where we get in for free as the ticket machine is not working, The mosaic is impressively detailed, with significant amounts of the soft shine of gold, but we decide that we don’t need to see any more, there is something about them that is over the top and gaudy and doesn’t inspire the same awe as Roman mosaics. We wander around the quiet of the old town instead. We discover that Ravenna has it’s own leaning tower, and a castle as well as a pleasant old town.

Mosaic of the apostles

Whatever Happened to that Petrol Cap?

17/02/18

It was a mystery. We were on our way to the mountains and stopped at a fuel station to fill up with Diesel only to find that we had no petrol (or should it be diesel) cap.

Paul swears that he didn’t forget to replace it when we last filled up. So has someone taken it? We have never had the key, so it would have been possible for someone to filch it, but why would they? There didn’t appear to be any fuel missing so we hadn’t been siphoned.

Anyway, to avoid any conflict I’ve given Paul the benefit of the doubt. We picked up a universal spare so that we at least have something over the hole, but a search for a proper replacement would have to wait until we get somewhere with some auto or camper spares shops.

In the mean time we made it up into the mountains, stopping at a free sosta near Civitella Alfedena (we couldn’t work out how to dispose of our toilet waste here but there was water). We had intended to investigate the ski resort nearby but the area was incredibly busy and we couldn’t find a reasonable parking spot near to the skiing. We later found out that it was the Italian Under 16s ski championships, typically we only found this out as we left the area.

Bertie looking over Lago di Barrea

The sosta here is on the shore of a lake and we decided to take a quick trip around the lake on our mountain bikes before heading off again. This was our first ever cycle over snow, a much more strenuous experience than I’d expected with the tyres skidding over the snow and ice and requiring a lot more effort and careful handling to gain any traction. Where the snow had started to melt the ground was very slushy and the mud was deep. Thankfully it was an easy route so it gave us an opportunity to practise, I had even more respect for the guys who had cycled up Vesuvius over snow.

A little hill, but still tough over the snow
The view across the lake
The village of Barrea at one end of the lake

Without the option of skiing there wasn’t much to keep us here – the walking trails were deep with snow and we don’t have snowshoes (maybe something for the future). More snow was forecast for the coming days, so we made our way back down from the mountains before we got stuck. We’ve seen how beautiful the area is and will be back again. 

Yet Another Amphitheatre

16/02/18

After Vesuvius we migrated north east through Caserta, a town strung along a main road lined with relatively affluent showrooms and stores. Our parking spot was towards the western end of the urbanisation; a free sosta in a large car park. We had been warned in reviews that there would be boy racers turning donuts, but really it seemed quite tame. Maybe it was the wrong day of the week, but just a handful of the ‘white car club’ turned out to park alongside each other and occasionally rev their engines.

We weren’t complaining, we were well rested by the time our alarm went off the following morning. We had only chosen this parking spot because it was free and in the right direction, but the bonus was it’s proximity to the second largest Roman amphitheatre after the Coliseum – a fact we only found out after visiting. We’ve seen a few amphitheatres now, but at €2.50 each we thought it was worth a look.

This amphitheatre has shot to number one in our favourite amphitheatres of all time. Was it better than the Coliseum? We spent some time discussing this as we wandered around and decided that yes, we thought it was. Now the Coliseum is spectacular and huge and incredibly intact, but it is thronged with tourists, sanitised and large areas are off limits unless you book a tour. In contrast we were walking through an unkempt site where grass and weeds grew with abandon in the late winter sunshine. There were large sections of stonework piled in a ring around the site awaiting archaeological inspection, and many of the decorative elements have been plundered to enhance later buildings in the area. The walls of the amphitheatre don’t stand as high as the Coliseum, but what you get is an ancient monument that is quiet and allows you to wander at will, especially in the area underneath the main arena. As you explore this virtually deserted building you feel as though you are the first person to find the many corridors and stairways. It is incredible that a country can be so full of ancient monuments that a site like this is virtually unknown and it’s restoration underfunded. For the freedom of exploration, the sense of adventure, the peace and tranquillity, the friendliness of the staff and the price it cannot be beaten.

We moved on after seeing the amphitheatre, but there is a lot more to see in the area, making it one of the places we would like to return to. In particular the Reggia de Caserta – know as the ‘Versailles of Campania’.

         

Almost to the Top of Vesuvius

15/02/18

Snow had been falling on Bertie on Valentine’s evening. Fat flakes that hadn’t settled on the road but had frosted the trees. We didn’t know what Vesuvius summit would be like but chances were that the summit cone would be closed.

On Vesuvius there are nine marked walking routes of various lengths. Route 5 is ‘Il Gran Cono’ – the walk around the summit cone – and is the most popular. A ticket is needed for this which is purchased from a ticket office just below the summit, buses run from Naples and other spots, transporting people up the mountain to the ticket office so that the summit can be approached pretty easily.

Getting ferried practically to the summit didn’t appeal to us, we wanted to spend more time ascending the mountain to get closer to the volcanic terrain. Our chosen route was La Valle dell’Inferno, this spoon shaped route joins up with the summit walk at the ticket office so we could get right to the summit as well as seeing more of the mountain. Information about the various routes can be found here.

It was Paul’s birthday, so I allowed him a lie in before we set off. I made our packed lunch while he was busy snoozing and waved at a couple of mountain bikers who were setting off up the mountain. By the time we were ready to leave they were coming back down again, giving us a brief ‘Ciao’ as they sped down hill. We set off following their tracks uphill along a steeply zig-zagging asphalt road that soon became a dirt track. At first there was little snow but as we ascended we started to encounter more patches of snow and the melt off the trees pattered down on us so that we were glad we had hoods on our jackets. We were in awe of the cyclists who had slogged up this hill through the snow.

Following bike tracks in the snow

We reached a point where another route split off, there were a couple of useful map boards here. We kept left to follow our chosen route which continued to ascend through more and more snow up to a plateau where the route became circular. At this point we made a pact that if the snow got more than ankle deep we would turn around. We had gaiters and waterproof trousers but it would be foolish to walk on an unknown path in deep snow. We could see that this was the point where the mountain bikers had given up and turned downhill.

View of the Bay of Naples with the Sorrento Peninsula in the distance

Luckily the snow stayed about ankle deep all the way and only got deeper in pockets where the strengthening wind had blown it into small drifts. From the plateau we found our route markers leading off to the left through sparse alder trees, some of which had been blackened by forest fires. Eventually we made it to a cobbled road, still mostly snow covered, which we followed to the ticket office. The views along this section were beautiful with the snow covered cone of Vesuvius rising in front of us and a ridge to our right.

We could see views of the summit cone as we walked

Between us and the ridge was the Valle dell’Inferno and our return route would take us down here, but first we had to get to the ticket office. It was closed as we had suspected. We stopped here to have our lunch on the useful picnic benches as we decided what to do. We could retrace our steps and take an alternative path to the summit, but we didn’t know whether we would be able to make it to the top or whether it would be fenced off. It was Paul’s call as it was his birthday – he decided that we should continue our route and not try to get to the top, the biting wind had put him off continuing further uphill.

Outside the ticket office

It took a bit of a search to find the snow obscured path down into the valley, but once found it was a pretty straight forward to follow between trees with the twisted formations of lava cliffs on one side, festooned with icicles. 

Lava formations in the cliffs above the Valle dell’Inferno
Shrine in remembrance of a mountaineer who fell to his death, a stark reminder of the danger of walking in winter conditions.
Volcanic rock formations with a beard of icicles

Finally we reached the plateau again and were able to follow our original route back downhill to Bertie. By now the snow on the paths was starting to melt, but we could still see our own footprints melted into enormous yeti style tracks.

We rewarded ourselves with a cuppa when we got back to Bertie before we moved on. We were now going to follow a route north along the Adriatic coast. Our next stop was on the eastern side of Vesuvius near Caserta. This time we decided to take the toll roads rather than try to navigate through the towns.