Finding Feral Trulli

13/04/18 – 15/04/18

The Valle d’Itria is a wide shallow depression that runs from north-west to south-east through the limestone heart of Puglia, roughly between the latitudes of Bari and Brindisi. Alberobello is the most well known town in this area, and after visiting it’s quirky but slightly contrived trulli area we were keen to explore a bit more and maybe find somewhere that felt a little less gimmicky.

The area is welcoming to Motorhomes, the towns we visited all had motorhome parking signposted on entry to the town. We started in Locorotondo, a small town with a compact circular Centro Storico. Here we turned up after following signs to a parking area only to find newly painted blue lines (meaning that the parking space not always free) with signs and ticket machines being installed as we watched. We didn’t think that anyone would be checking tickets on the first day of installation, but just to be sure we checked with the people who were setting everything up – ‘domani’ (tomorrow) was their guidance as we mimed putting money in the machine. Locorotondo was pretty, especially from a distance with it’s distinctive tower, it was also very white, unlike northern and central Italy where there seems to be an agreement that buildings should be painted earth sunset tones. Here painted white walls were interspersed with limestone grey and the occasional soft golden stone. 

Locorotondo

We popped into the town to track down the tourist office and find out what walking or cycling trails existed. We were pointed in the direction of a set of cycle trails centred around the Acquedotto Pugliese (AQP).  Much of Puglia is limestone and so fresh water is scarce, mostly running underground. The acquedotto was an early 20th century engineering project to bring water from the mountains of central southern Italy all the way down through the Puglia peninsular. 500km of aqueduct was created, much of it underground, and the cycle path runs along the service road. In the Valle d’Itria they have created a network of cycle routes that join up with the AQP from the major towns. Well mapped and signposted cycle paths have been rare in Italy so far so we were chuffed to have found this little treasure.

From Locorotondo we followed one route out almost directly from our car park. On road at first until it hit the AQP. We cycled happily through karstic scenery, past villas, farmhouses and many trulli; freed from the captivity of Alberobello these ‘wild’ trullis had a greater visual impact. Some were titivated to the extreme, with extensions, terraces and swimming pools, some were animal shelters or sheds and some were just piles of limestone. Swallows swooped around us, lizards scattered in front of us as we disturbed their basking, flowers bloomed, olive groves were being cultivated and rich red earth had been turned over between trees. The AQP section we included between the SP134 and SP14 was really well maintained and obviously popular; there were more cyclists, runners and walkers than we’ve ever seen on one path before. 

The next day we drove to Martina Franca, bigger than Locorotondo we didn’t venture into the centre of the town but set out immediately on another bike ride, making a circuit taking in a more southerly section of the AQP and heading south to north this time. This ride took in a lot more off road action on rough tracks and the AQP was rougher too with some gates that needed to be navigated around. Still it was a great day out, there aren’t too many big hills here but enough ups and downs to make it feel like you’re getting some exercise.

That afternoon we decided our parking spot in Martina Franca was too noisy for overnight and so we moved on to Cisternino where the motorhome parking was down a steep entry ramp that caused us to scrape  the bottom of our chassis on the ground. There was a service point here but the water was turned off so we decided not to use it.

The following morning we had a wander around Cisternino old town. It was Sunday and everyone was dressed in their finest. Old men gathered spectators as they played a game that involved tossing coins onto the ground, similar to pitch and toss but without the wall as the target. Cisternino is known for it’s butcher restaurants where you can choose your cut of meat and get it cooked for you. We were tempted but it was too early in the day. 

From Cisternino we moved onto Ostuni where we found a carpark with services, again there was no water but in the opposite corner of the carpark was a water fountain with a threaded faucet that allowed us to easily connect our hose. We wandered around Ostuni listening to many British voices, and trying not to feel frustrated with the slow moving crowds. It is known for having one of the highest densities of British expats living in Italy, we wondered if the British had influenced the large number of hanging baskets and window boxes in the town. After a quick trip to a bakery we escaped the turmoil in the narrow cobbled streets and walked around the outside of the city walls.

Saint Oronzo’s column

 

We loved this area, the beautiful historic town centres, the countryside dotted with trullis, the welcoming tourist infrastructure. It’s easy to see why so many people chose to buy property or settle here.

Volare ooh oh, Cantare oh-oh-oh-oh

09/04/18 – 12/04/18

It took a bit of google action to discover that the song ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’  was that song. We had been prompted into a google search after seeing a statue of Domenico Modugno, Polignano a Mare’s most famous son, standing with arms outstretched on the promenade. After hearing it once it became a bit of an ear worm and we caught ourselves singing ‘Volare ooh oh, Cantare oh-oh-oh-oh’ while wandering round town. We weren’t the only ones.

Statue of Domenico Modugno with two small look-a-likes

Polignano had been a good choice of venue for a short break, we had a lovely little apartment just outside the old town, with a sunny and safe terrace and bedrooms with vaulted stone ceilings like little caves. The town doesn’t have any distinctive tourist attractions, but it does have a pretty little old town that is almost entirely given over to tourism and a very attractive cove of a beach that must be hell in high season. The majority of the seafront is a low cliff ten or so meters above sea level where they hold Red Bull cliff diving competitions. We only saw a couple of lads taking the plunge while we were there, the water was cold and deep and the air temperature not yet warm enough to entice sane people in for more than a paddle.

It’s the type of place that is busy throughout the year, so restaurants and gelataria were open for business. There were people of all nationalities, including quite a few British families, enjoying their Easter holidays here. We spent time on the beach, paddling in the cool sea, climbing onto the cliffs to get sight of the fish swimming below us and clambering over the clifftop limestone spotting lizards. We ate pizza and pasta, creamy soft burrata and lots of ice cream (Bella Blu was our favourite place for gelato). We drank the non-regional but very easy drinking Lambrusco. We wandered out in the early evening to spot bats flitting around the lampposts and fisherman setting out with bright lights for catching squid. Between times we relaxed in the apartment, talking, reading, and listening to the kids playing ‘the shopping game’.

Watching the fishes from the cliff ledge

Not far from Polignano we found a great beach near the Abbazio di San Vito where there were shallow rockpools hewn from the rocks just right for little ones to explore, turning over every available rock to look for fish, crabs and shrimp. Locals were buying plates of freshly opened sea urchins from a table set up outside the abbey but we didn’t find any underfoot.

On the beach at San Vito

A bit further away we visited Alberobello to see the Trulli houses; constructed from limestone these dry stone walled, single roomed and conical roofed buildings looked like something from a fairytale. We ran the gauntlet of cheap tat and slightly more upmarket ‘gourmet’ gifts for sale along the streets of this intensely tourist town, but with children in tow we couldn’t avoid it completely and two not-irritating-at-all whistles were purchased. Uncle Paul used his grumpy face to successfully forbid any playing of whistles in the car.

The trullis of Alberobello

All too soon we had to take everyone back to the airport. The car was dropped off and help was obtained from tourist information to phone Parcheggio Il Pinguino and get picked up and returned to Bertie.

Goodnight Polignano a Mare

That night we were back in Bertie again and normal service resumed. You might have heard us humming ‘Volare ooh oh, Cantare oh-oh-oh-oh’ one more time.   

Anticipating An Arrival

08/04/18

We were very, very excited because today was the day my sister and her two bambini were due to arrive to join us for a short break.

But we were also a little apprehensive because we had a few things to sort out before picking them up from the airport at 9pm that evening. Would all the logistics fall into place?

The plan was that we would stay over in Polignano a Mare the night before arrival. Then we could pick up the keys for the apartment we would be sharing in the morning.

Parking proved a little tricky. The car park we had identified as being suitable for an overnight stop was indeed large and empty and still free. However there were signs everywhere saying that parking was forbidden from 7am – 2pm on the 8th. We didn’t want to get up that early! We learnt later that the local driving school was holding some sort of scooter lessons/tests in the car park. Another Italian motorhome had parked up anyway and the scooters worked around it. Oh to feel confident enough to ignore the signs.

So, after visiting two other unsuitable carparks in Polignano a Mare (one too expensive and the other with signs forbidding motorhomes), we spent the night of the 7th inland in a free sosta in Castellana Grotte instead. We parked with four shiny brand new lorries on the edge of an industrial area. It was one of those utilitarian sostas, nothing pretty (in fact the facilities were less than pretty), but useful for visiting the caves that make the town famous – not that we were going there. 

We didn’t have to pick the keys up until 11am so we easily made it back to Polignano a Mare, parked as close as we could get to the apartment and popped to pick up the keys. It was Sunday and the town was busy with people enjoying the beautiful spring weather that had arrived. 

From this point onwards the plan went pretty smoothly. We managed to do a couple of loads of washing, taking advantage of the washing machine in the apartment and the sunny terrace for drying. We did a supermarket shop to stock up with the basics and packed a couple of rucksacks and a holdall of clothes and things to leave in the apartment. Two rucksacks and a hold all may seem overkill for a four night break away from Bertie, but Paul does like to be prepared for every eventuality! Compare it to my sister who arrived with one carry-on case and one rucksack for the three of them.

It was the sort of day you spend on tenterhooks waiting for something to happen. We couldn’t settle or relax and kept running over our plans for the rest of the day, which just gave me more things to worry about. It was a relief when the time came to head off to the outskirts of Bari where we would be leaving Bertie in secure parking. Parking Il Pinguino was the only secure airport parking we had found that specifically mentioned motorhomes, so we were parking Bertie here and hiring a car for my sister’s visit. The staff at Parcheggio Il Pinguino didn’t speak much English, we only speak a few words of Italian (we had booked up via email using google translate to aid us), but we managed to get Bertie parked and the shuttle to the airport without too much difficulty, after all – why else would we be there? At the airport we picked up the keys for our hire car for the next few days (yes, a compact car was big enough, no need to have worried) and finally settled in to wait for their arrival. 

It had been a long day of waiting, but everything had worked out and finally we saw them coming through the arrivals door. We were all set for a few days of family fun.

The beautiful cove at Polignano a Mare, our location for the next few days

Troglodyte Living in Matera

05/04/18 – 07/04/17

Matera; a city soon to be European Capital of Culture (poor Plovdiv is sharing the accolade in 2019 but seems likely to be overshadowed), famed for it’s cave like Sassi dwellings, setting for many a biblical movie and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It has been on our must see list for some time and we were finally on the way.

The Sassi dwellings of Matera are the key reason for it’s status as a world heritage site. They are cave dwellings excavated into the side of a limestone gorge, in two districts that fan outwards and upwards. Matera was built to be hidden, but the modern city now inhabits the flat lands atop the gorge. This is where most people live, having been moved out of their Sassi homes in the 50’s due to their lack of basic amenities and the ensuing disease and poverty. It sounds as though most people are happy to be living in their modern apartments, many of the Sassi are rented out as holiday apartments, restaurants and artisan’s shops. They form a solid backbone of tourist income for what was an incredibly deprived area.

Across the gorge from the city the land is less touched by human development, here there are occasional rock cut buildings, including many Rupestrian Churches which are the other reason that the area is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was here we decided to stay, in a camper stop associated with the visitor centre. This was the perfect compromise for us, a spot in barren limestone heathland that feels in the middle of nowhere but is in walking distance of the city – or so we thought.

The morning after our arrival we took a look at the map of the official paths in the area and made our plans to walk to Matera, the path should take us down one side of the gorge, across a bridge and up the other side straight into the sassi area. It was a nice day, the sun had come out after the previous day’s thunder and the brisk breeze kept the temperatures cool. We struck out along the path that took us to the gorge. The views from here across to Matera allowed us to see the full extent of the Sassi areas, and at the very least I would advise driving to the belvedere to see the views from afar to get that sense of perspective.

As we descended into the ravine we got our first indication that the day wasn’t going to turn out the way we expected. ‘Il ponte e chiuso’ said a couple who were climbing back out of the ravine. We decided to descend anyway, the bridge might be closed but before it had been built the route had involved fording the river, so possibly we would find some stepping stones. We walked up and down the banks but couldn’t find an easy crossing, the river was full from the previous day’s rain and the way north was eventually blocked by a rocky outcrop over the river. Our next option was to ascend the ravine and then go back down another path a bit further north where the crossing might be easier. At the bottom of the path we encountered a British couple who told us that not only was the bridge closed but the path was completely closed on the Matera side, so it wasn’t worth trying to cross the river.

At this point we changed our itinerary. Instead of visiting the city we would do a round trip walk taking in some of the lesser churches and caves. The main Rupestrian Churches are locked and you need a guide to access them, but there are plenty of smaller caves and churches still open. So we followed the gorge north and west for a while, before heading up to the top of a hill with a church ‘Madonna degli Angeli’ that still had some murals visible. When we descended this hill we found another small church in a wooded valley. Here we sat and watched the butterflies and birds, we were looking for wild boar – the British couple had seen a sow and piglets wandering through the valley earlier – we didn’t have any luck but there were loads of beautiful swallowtail butterflies and kites and kestrels danced in the wind.

Finally we climbed out of the north side of the gorge and followed paths parallel with the main road that eventually took us back to Bertie. Our change of plan hadn’t been a massive disaster, we had always wanted to walk in the area so we had just swapped the order of events around.

That night we had a slightly odd occurrence when two Spanish women in a car turned up and knocked on our door. They were going to camp in their car and wondered if we could boil up a kettle for them to have a cup of tea before bed. They were planning to drink from a single jam jar so I loaned them the use of a couple of mugs too. They had just spent a few days in Matera and had an early flight the next day, to save some money they were sleeping in their hire car. Rather them than me! In the pre-dawn hours I heard them leave, they left the mugs under Bertie as requested. 

The following morning we opted to leave the campsite and drive into Matera. On our way here we had popped to the supermarket where an elderly gentleman had accosted us to recommend parking in Viale Europa. He was quite insistent that we should park there and I didn’t have the Italian to say that we had already decided where we would stay. But his advcie came in useful when looking for parking in Matera – the parking was a small sosta on the side of a busy main road, so probably not the best for overnight, but it has facilities (closed when we were there). There is a charge for staying for the day (6 euros), but no one was manning the office or answering the phone number so we parked up, left an answerphone message and figured that the worst that would happen was that someone would be there asking for money when we returned.

We spent the day wandering around Matera. The Piazza Vittorio Veneto hides a 17th century engineering marvel – the Palombaro Lungo is a huge water cistern, built by expanding and joining several cellars and cisterns that had already been excavated in the limestone and then plastered so that water could be retained. It seems odd that this fresh water reservoir was built at the top of the town, but it’s base sits in a naturally occurring aquifer between layers of clay and so water would collect. Water was always a major issue for the Materan population in this limestone country where water percolates through the rocks deep underground and river beds are often dry. The sassi buildings collected rainwater from roofs to store in individual cisterns, but in dry summers this water became very scarce. The Palombaro Lungo made a much larger source of water available to the town. We took  a short guided tour (€3 each) into the depths of the cistern, along walkways that had been constructed to show off the scale of the caverns.

So what did we think of Matera? It is a fabulous place to visit and just wander. It is also incredibly busy, it was still low season but there were a lot of tourists, especially coach parties following their guides around. This has it’s plus points (everything is open) as well as it’s downsides, but get out of the city to the other side of the gorge and things quieten down. The rock hewn city is not unique in Italy – we have been to plenty of small towns where buildings have been carved from the rock – but it’s scale is bigger than anything we have seen before. It’s transformation from abandonment to modernity must have been an interesting one. to watch. When you visit now you see streets and buildings sand blasted into cleanliness to appeal to tourists, but that isn’t a bad thing just an evolution of the purpose of the buildings. There are museums, churches and a few empty and unrestored troglodyte dwellings remaining in the city that give an impression of the way things were and hopefully there will always be a way of remembering what it was like to live in the original sassi buildings without dehumidifiers, heating, running water, electricity and wifi. 

Late that afternoon we set off to the coast to prepare for the excitement of my sister, niece and nephew visiting

A Brief Trip to Some More Greek Ruins

05/04/18

We left our sosta by the sea and headed along the comfortable main road – the SS106 – on our way to Matera. Following our trip to Paestum we felt we’d seen the best of the Ancient Greek ruins that Italy had to offer, but as we were going past Metaponto we thought we might as well pop in to take a look at the archaeological sights.  

We visited three main sites of historical interest here (there is a fourth, but we didn’t realise until too late), and they can be covered in a two or three hours. If you were feeling energetic you could cycle between them – the landscape is pretty flat and there are some cycle routes and plenty of bike parking. We weren’t feeling that energetic and the weather was a bit thundery and unpredictable, so we took the easy option and drove around.

We started with a trip to the archaeological park. This is an excavated and partially reconstructed site of part of the original Magna Graecia town including a theatre and temple. However, apart from the reconstructed elements, most of which are replica pieces, much of it is just foundations so lacks three dimensional impact. The information is sporadic; where signs existed some had just Italian, others also had English, German and French. We were told that we were lucky that the site was open as sometimes they don’t have enough staff to man it, but today they had a school group and a coach party visiting so we were ok. It was free to visit (I think you’re meant to get a Museum ticket and this is included in the price) and a pleasant stroll around – we also had the backing music of the frog chorus from the ditches around the site.  We couldn’t quite work out what the modern facilities were meant to be – there is a viewing area which looks like someone has mislaid a diving platform, a display area and a building for some of the finds, it all looked half completed as though someone had decided to try to make a proper go of this as a tourist attraction and then decided it just wasn’t worth the effort.  Pythagoras had a lot of followers in Magna Graecia and some say that he chose to live out his old age in Metaponto after falling out of favour in mainland Greece.

The museum was next and our favourite part of the day, we really enjoyed looking at the various artifacts on display, most of which came from tomb sites. The exhibits were interesting because they were small ‘everyday’ items. Jewellery, personal grooming effects, devotive objects, weapons, vases and decorative items. Of course because they were in tombs they probably weren’t really everyday, but people’s best things that they wanted to take to the afterlife. Small is beautiful and this was a captivating little museum that was well laid out, the objects were mostly labelled in Italian but a bit of google translate made it easy to work out what we were looking at. The staff were all very pleasant too, trying their best to educate us despite our basic Italian. The school party swarmed around us, very vocal but also very well behaved, their teachers had them herded through the museum pretty quickly.     

On our way out of Metaponto we stopped at the third site for our lunch. This was the Temple of Hera, also known as the Tavole Palatine, a temple with 15 Doric columns still standing, set in a small park with benches and some children’s play equipment. It’s just off the SS106, and on it’s own makes a nice rest stop for lunch if you happen to be travelling along that road. It’s another freebie and we got the place to ourselves for lunch, we had the added bonus of the smell of freshly mown grass  – who would complain?

We’d managed to while away a large part of the day and were pleased to have stopped here, even though we wouldn’t make a detour for it. Now it was time to head to Matera, a place we had heard much about and were looking forward to. 

 

 

A Chorus of Frogs and Owls

04/04/18

When we got on our bikes the following morning it was with the intention of heading east and exploring the nearby WWF nature reserve. But first of all we had to cross a river. At one point we crossed a canal, thick with reeds and noisy with the burbling of frogs. We thought it was the river but a check of the map revealed we hadn’t gone far enough.

When we found the river we followed it’s bank northwards on a farm track, hoping to find a bridge used by one of the many farms in the area The only thing we found was a railway bridge until we got to the main road. As the main road was the equivalent of a motorway I wasn’t happy to cycle on it – and besides it probably wasn’t allowed.

A quick look at google showed the nearest bridge that was suitable was 14k upstream, of course there was always the possibility we might find that elusive farm bridge but we decided it was time to change our plans. So we set course for the inland town of Nova Siri. At this point I managed to get another puncture which needed a roadside repair, my inner tubes look like they have measles.

We cycled under the main road and got onto the Strada Provincial that heads to Nova Siri. The road inland was quiet, a gentle but consistent uphill along the side of a ridge. The landscape was mostly farms, cherry trees thick with blossom and pear trees starting to bud but vines still looking bare. The verges of the roads were colourful with spring flowers, reds, oranges, yellows and purples. Farm dogs grew excited as we passed, chasing us down their fence lines but well trained to stay inside their territory.

Colourful verges on the road to Nova Siri

As we approached Nova Siri we branched off to the right on a closed road and past a small church. Then finally we went up into the pretty little hill top town. In the distance the higher town of Rotondella looked inviting but we fought off the temptation to go that far, instead we rode downhill out of Nova Siri and this time followed the valley south. We took the Contrada Grotte del Carmine along the valley next to a river still singing with the frog chorus. We had to cycle up switchbacks out of the other side of the valley for a while before we re-joined our outward route where the underpass took us below the main road.

The hilltop town of Nova Siri, a far cry from the beachside resort with it’s modern grid layout

Once back closer to Bertie we spent a while pottering on our bikes around Nova Siri Scalo trying to find a shop that might be open so we could buy some bread. Nothing was open over the extended lunch period so we changed our plans for dinner. Italy, similar to Spain, is wedded to an extended lunch break (sometimes as long as 12:30 – 16:00) when only cafes and restaurants and large supermarkets seem to be open, down in this sleepy holiday resort it was eerily quiet. Later that afternoon everyone was back out for their early evening passegiata down the seafront.

That evening we decided to stay put for a second night, serenaded for the evening by the strangely mechanical car alarm hooting of Scops Owls in the pine forests behind us. 

In Search of Gas

03/04/18

Today didn’t go exactly to plan. We drove to Camigliatello Silano during the morning expecting to have at least one night here to do some further walking, but when we stopped for breakfast we noticed the light on the fridge was flashing red. This is a sure sign that we are out of gas. Often the fridge will then run for a day or two with the occasional hiccup requiring us to re-ignite the burner. This time, however, the fridge was not going to play ball.

We might have decided to live with this for 24 hours – the fridge was pretty cool and takes a long time to warm up – however our freezer was stocked up and we didn’t want to risk any of it defrosting. So, after a bacon and egg buttie, we went in search of some LPG.

LPG has been pretty easy to find in Italy and there was an ENI garage with LPG only a short distance from Camigliatello, but for some unknown reason it was closed and you cannot self-serve LPG in Italy. A look on the mylpg.eu app and the nearest LPG was on the outskirts of Cosenza only 40k away down a main road so off we hopped. We found a garage with lpg but it was now the lunchtime break and we couldn’t get lpg until the attendant got back. We took a trip to the Lidl next door to while away the time – the sort of Lidl trip where you find yourself looking through their tat aisles even though you know you have no interest in buying anything. Finally the lunch  break was over and we joined a queue of vehicles waiting for lpg. By this time we had lost our desire to go back up to the mountains via the pot holed and noisy road; we decided to head onwards instead, to Italy’s instep.

We drove north of the Sila mountains and over to the Ionian coast. A lot of this drive was on major roads, the A2 and SS106, but between the two we had to take a detour due to some road widening which took us through sparsely populated countryside. There was something appealing about this part of Italy. It’s poor and isn’t dense with cultural and historic landmarks like much of the rest of Italy, but it had a feeling of peace and serenity.

We found ourselves a sosta by the coast near Nova Siri Scalo. A well maintained spot where we found the logo of Basilicata In Camper – a tourist board initiative to promote motorhome tourism in the area. Here the services were free due to a technical malfunction of the machine, there was even electricity (for a small fee). A few Italian vans were packing up and leaving after their Easter break, leaving us with a German van that looked familiar. When they returned later that afternoon we realised we had been parked next to them in Canalello. We stopped for a chat and exchange of information, they were off to Matera the following day and we wouldn’t be far behind them.

We took an evening stroll along the lungomare in the company of a few joggers and walkers. The facilities here were still definitely in their winter hibernation but it was clean and tidy unlike many Italian resorts that seem to attract refuse until a final clean up just before they open in summer. We particularly liked the street art benches which looked as though they had been a A-level art project.

Buona Pasqua! Buona Pasquetta!

01/04/18 – 02/04/18

We settled into our campsite at Lago Arvo waiting for the predicted snow to arrive. The temperature got gradually colder and the snow started to fall in dusty sprinkles before becoming slightly more persistent. On and off it settled and then thawed, it wasn’t going to be enough to remain at this altitude but I’m sure the people who were skiing were crossing their fingers for a top up of the snow base at the local ski resort in Lorica.

It was Easter Sunday – Pasqua – and the campsite was pretty quiet, we watched some skiers come and go with their kit on the top of their car, but we stayed in Bertie most of the day, staying toasty with the heater running. Every now and again we would take a quick walk around the campsite to stretch our legs. We indulged in our usual rainy day pursuits, playing some cards and scrabble. I got deeply entrenched in a book and had to tear myself away from it to do some baking – chocolate cake for Paul and a bit of ‘anything in the cupboard’ flapjack for me.

Cake!

By the evening the snow had passed and longer clear spells were evident. The following morning the skies were clear and we set off on our planned walk, a ‘spoon shaped’ walk heading east along a path and then doing a loop through the mountains before returning along the original path.

Almost immediately we ran into trouble, the map showed a path running eastwards along the northern edge of the lake to the dam. Even the trailhead map showed the same. But the path markers were pointing along the road. We didn’t really want to walk along the road so we attempted to follow the line shown on the map. On the way back we followed the road – there had obviously been some land access issues and our walk to the dam had multiple hazards, barbed wire, fast flowing streams and livestock. When we got to the dam we found ourselves on the wrong side of the security and had to be let out, luckily by some friendly staff who didn’t bat an eyelid at us turning up inside their gated compound. 

Brilliant blue – Lago Arvo

The plan from here was to ascend path CAI438 and descend CAI420 making a loop that ascended to a ridge line and some minor summits. We started off going up the well marked path past the farmhouse and ascending through orchards before entering the forest. The sunlight was streaming through the trees and plenty of golden beech leaves were lying on the ground giving an autumnal feel to the landscape.  As we climbed higher we started to encounter snow patches on the ground until finally we were walking across snow. Crocuses and other spring flowers created dots of colour and the only footprints disturbing the snow were animal tracks, rabbits and deer we think. We could see distant views of the ski resort on the other side of the lake and every now and again we heard a blast of loud music echoing off the far hills. We assumed it was the Easter celebrations at the ski resort, little did we realise that it was a family having a party at our campsite. Today was Pasquetta – Easter Monday – it’s the traditional day on the Easter weekend for spending time with family and friends in the countryside. Their celebrations and extremely loud music lasted well into the evening but not so late that it caused us any issues getting to sleep.

We were about 100m of altitude below the top of the ridge when we had to turn back. The snow had become deeper and deeper and ideally we would have had snow shoes, but without them we couldn’t continue to safely get through the snow. There is always that moment when you know you should turn back but just continue anyway. We struggled through knee deep snow for a few more meters hoping in vain that it was just a drift and would get shallower, but really we knew it was time to turn around and when Paul stepped into a thigh deep drift we did. 

Making tracks through the snow – real spring weather, snow on the ground but warm enough to be in a t-shirt

As we turned back and walked down the path we had so recently ascended it was amazing the difference an hour or so had made. Much of the snow from earlier had melted, leaving flowers in open meadows rather than snowy plains. Our footprints had become yeti prints, expanding with the melt. More water was running down the path and within a short while we were below the snow line and walking back to Bertie in warm spring weather.

 

 

Black Squirrels in La Sila

30/03/18 – 31/03/18

It might seem like we’re doing the Hokey-Cokey with our regular alternation between coast and inland. It was time to put our left leg in and move inland again. Our destination this time was the Sila mountains. The landscape here is a densely forested high plateau with several lake reservoirs. We were attracted by the well marked and maintained forest trails, unusually for Italy we could find the routes online which gave us lots of opportunity to prepare.

La Sila has several ski areas as well as walking, mountain biking and plenty of interesting flora and fauna. While we were there the ski resorts were in their last throes, but events were being held for Easter and snow conditions still looked ok for a bit of morning skiing in Lorica. Other resorts had lots of brown patches. We weren’t here for the skiing though, tempting as it was. We were here for the walking and biking.

Our first night was spent on the shores of Lago Ampolino, parked on a small spit of land that extends into the lake. The motorhome service point, owned by the nearby café, was shut when we arrived; winter covers were over the water supply and the waste disposal, but the owners must have spotted us and it was uncovered by the following morning.

Parking spot by the lake

Our drive up had been slow and winding but nothing too adventurous, the highlight being just a few meters away from our parking spot when a black squirrel darted across the road in front of us. We saw several other black squirrels while we were in the area, but this was the only one we managed to capture a grainy photo of. The black squirrels here are assumed to be a genetic variant of the red squirrel, although a bit of web trawling reveals an opinion that they are a separate species.

Black squirrel from Bertie’s window

The weather was good when we arrived at the lakeside so we spent the afternoon lazily pottering around, strolling around the village and very low key ski resort (just a hotel and a lift really), watching the wildlife and getting excited (Paul) about a sea plane that skimmed back and forth over the lake a few times. That evening it was pleasant enough to sit outside and watch bats skim over the lake hunting insects. In Italy we have spent a lot of time in car parks with lighting, so it was nice to get a bit of darkness and see the stars for a change.

The following morning we got on our mountain bikes and headed west along the main road, the SS179. Only a couple of cars passed us, the area seemed very quiet considering that it was the Easter weekend. We took a right hand turn off the road towards the village of Zimmaro and followed random tracks northwards through the forest to try to connect up with the SP216. As we ascended over the small ridge between the two valley roads we encountered more snow between the trees, but also signs of spring starting to emerge. Crocuses were blooming and small bluebell like flowers dotted the verges. When we finally reached the other road we headed east between farmsteads where sheep and cattle grazed. We followed the opposite shore of the lake whose banks were high and tributaries swollen with snow melt. Eventually we had made a full circuit of the lake and arrived back at Bertie. 

View of the lake

That evening we decided to move northwards into the heart of the mountains. There was a forecast for snow so we fancied a campsite where we could use our electric heater. Camping Lago Arvo is just outside Lorica and was €8 per person per night in winter. This huge campsite has a lot of very attractive grass pitches by the lake, but we wanted to avoid getting bogged down so stayed near the entrance where the pitches were firmer. 

   

Stuck on a Rock

29/03/18

Our next stop was Le Castella, known – strangely enough – for it’s castle that sits on a spur of land connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge. We turned up hoping to find a large flat parking area near the marina. The parking was there but closed with gates and barriers. We weren’t the only ones to turn up and be bemused by the lack of parking – a couple of French vans towing car and motorbikes also turned up. The French vans moved on, but we decided to stay at least for the day time; there was a walk we wanted to do along the coast.

We ended up parking on the slope leading down to the marina, avoiding driving around the small tow to look for an alternative. Then we struck out on foot, heading north towards a small stretch of nature reserve, taking the road out of the town and then a track that ran down the side of the (closed) campsite. From there we just followed the coast as far as we could. This nature reserve is mostly a marine reserve and includes a protected area for Loggerhead Turtles who nest sporadically in Italy. Not that we would see them on the beach as they lay their eggs in July and hatch in September.

We enjoyed our wander along the coast, trying to walk on the firm sand nearer the water and at the same time avoid getting wet feet. One stream provided an entertaining opportunity to play chicken with the sea as we attempted to cross via a sandbar while the waves were ebbing. Occasional rocky outcrops provided some respite from the sandy shores, including one mushroom shaped rock that we used as our lunch spot. It was easy enough to climb up, but what goes up does not always come down. And this time that included me; dropping down from the rock would have required stronger triceps than I have, so Paul had to go and find a driftwood tree truck I could use as a ladder to aid my descent.

Our lunchtime spot – good views but a tricky descent

After Paul had come to my rescue, we continued along the beach until we found ourselves at a river we couldn’t ford. The current was strong and the river deep enough to put us off wading through it. We turned round here and retraced our steps back to Le Castella.

Views along the beach
The river that ended our walk

Before we returned to Bertie we walked through the town to see the main attraction. The castle here is a fortress from the 16th century, but built on older foundations dating back as far as the Magna Graecia period. There were also some remains of the town walls near our original car park. The castle was shut while we were there, but it looks impressive standing apart from the town on it’s island surrounded by the sea.

The fortress at Le Castella

When we got back to Bertie we decided that our parking spot was far to sloping to stay for the night. There was nothing to keep us here for a second day so we drove further up the coast looking for somewhere to park. It was one of those frustrating searches. We had a few possible spots marked up near Crotone, but some of them looked decidedly dodgy and some were just closed. In the end we opted for a bit of rough ground opposite a pizzeria on the outskirts of Crotone. Not the quietest spot, but at least it was flat. 

 

Seahorses and Sunshine

28/03/18

It’s was a first for us. We had completely forgotten what we did on this day.

Normally we keep a diary of the events of each day. Nothing over the top, just a few notes to help jog my memory when I write up the blog – usually a couple of weeks later. On top of this we have our photo record, any leaflets or tickets we have picked up and a record of our ‘serious’ walks/cycles which we record on runkeeper.com. Between these things we can usually remember a day from a couple of weeks ago pretty well.

But the only note I have of Wednesday the 28th March is the location of our overnight stop. Catanzaro. No photos and no records on runkeeper. Even a look on google maps didn’t help us remember parking either in the inland town or the coastal resort of Catanzaro Lido.

It took us a couple of hours to work out what we had done. Eventually we realised that, unusually, Paul had taken the photos and from there our memories were triggered.

We didn’t recognise the car park at Catanzaro because we hadn’t stayed there. We had stayed at Soverato Marina instead, a touristy seaside town with a pleasant and well manicured seafront esplanade backed by a grassy park with skateboard ramps and a children’s play area.  After a lazy start in Gerace, taking in the views for the last time, we had driven down here and decided it was nice enough to stop. The sun was shining, although the breeze was cool, and we walked in both directions along the seafront eventually leaving the modern paved area to walk in front of hotels and apartments and along the back of the beach. Every so often we just stopped to sit and bask, absorbing some vitamin D and the positivity that seems to come with it. 

The seahorse was the emblem of the town

 

 

 

 

A Small Town with a Big Cathederal

26/03/18 – 27/03/18

After being on the coast for a while we decided to head inland. The town of Gerace was chosen mostly because of it’s location rather than any particular aim to see the place. Our drive inland was slightly confused by some signs that indicated that the main road, the SP1, was closed. We chose an alternative route along single track roads that took us through the valley of olive groves to the south of Gerace and eventually bought us out on the north side of the town. It was a nice drive, but seemingly completely unnecessary. The closed road was actually not the SP1, but one of it’s subsidiary roads. Oh well, we made it safely and Bertie was congratulated for coping well with the steep and winding roads.

We drove south through the Gerace to reach the parking area, a huge car park that had motorhome parking at the top of the hill. The motorhome spaces had free electricity and water, but there was no evidence of waste disposal (we eventually found a sewer manhole behind one of the buildings near the entrance to the car park). Buildings in the car park hinted that further facilities had been planned, but they were empty and shut. The views were stupendous, looking towards the coast at Locri, inland to the Aspromonte mountains and up to the medieval village on it’s sandstone cliff. I expect that there is a charge in the height of the tourist season (there was a little booth for someone to sell parking tickets) but for now this was a lovely spacious car park that was free of charge.

The town had looked lovely as we drove through it, so we decided to spend the afternoon exploring. The medieval centre sitting on the rocky ridge has picturesque alleys for wandering around, the ruins of a castle guard the end of the ridge and in the centre of the town (or maybe it should be a city) is the largest cathedral in Calabria. Everything was pristine, the golden sandstone of the buildings shone in the sunshine and the smooth flagstones of the streets added their lustre, creating a sense of warmth. The views from the top of the town were worth the walk, but there is also a small land train that can transport you around – today it was busy ferrying a school trip of loudly chattering and singing teenagers around the village. We popped into the cathedral, a couple of euros each gained us access to the small museum in the crypt as well as the cathedral proper, a very austere Norman style building with a highly ornate alter as counterpoint.

 

While we stood on the belvedere by the castle, looking out over the view, we spied a path winding up over a hill opposite. Simultaneously we said that  it looked like an interesting cycle route. So the following morning we set out to cycle out of Gerace to the north, through Prestarona and then do a loop through Santa Caterina, Agnana Calabria and the hills behind.  We had underestimated the terrain for this ride, there was a steep drop off to Prestarona which we whizzed down, and then a hearty climb up the other side. Even with switchbacks it was hard work and needed several pauses to regain our strength. Of course then we needed to reverse the process, but luckily there we found a relatively gently sloping road in Prestarona which allowed us to climb back out of the valley with our pride still intact. The circular part of the ride covered ‘roads’ that were shown on google but were barely tracks, alternating grassy sward with deep ruts in the sandy soil. At one point as we zigzagged down the slope I spotted Paul going head first over his handlebars, his front wheel caught in a deep hole. Fortunately it was a slow-mo fail and he wasn’t hurt. Despite the difficulties it was a great bike ride, but very slow over the rough and steep terrain. We got back to Bertie aching and exhausted, and decided to spend another night on this sosta, taking in the views and relaxing our muscles.

This has to be one of our favourite parking spots in Italy so far for the views. We always seem to find something special when we make a foray inland and this was no exception.     

Crinkly hills and valleys around Gerace

     

The Disappearing Roads of Bruzzano

24/03/18 – 25/03/18

We had ended up here – near the village of Canalello and Ferruzzano station – unexpectedly so we had no plans and knew nothing about the area. It seems a little ungrateful to just move on when an area has made motorhome parking available and besides we still hadn’t managed to blow the cobwebs from our hair after our lethargic campsite days. What to do? A little research was called for so we explored on google maps and wikiloc to see what was recommended in the area.

Google maps came up trumps with an interesting looking abandoned village inland. Abandoned villages are not unusual in Italy, we’ve already visited a few, but each has it’s own character and history.

The abandoned village gave us a destination to build a bike ride around and wikiloc gave us a few options for routes, and although none would take us quite where we wanted to be we could knit together bits of the off road routes with roads on google maps and end up with a good day out. 

After we’d found a local bakery for our lunches we set off inland, an initial very steep climb (i.e. I had to get off and push) up via Puglia took us onto a rough track over farmland before we hit a crossroads where we went straight onto the SP170. It looked like a main road, but there were signs forbidding any large vehicles, we could see why when we found part of the road collapsed. There didn’t seem to be any rock supporting it, just dirt that had been washed away. Apparently landslides are very common in the Aspromonte mountains, and although we were only in the very beginning of the foothills it was no different here.

Where did the road go? If you look carefully you can see a round blue cycle route sign.

It is quite common for Italian railway stations to be named for a town inland, miles from the railway line. So Ferruzzano station is by the sea, but Ferruzzano was 10k inland. We had a number of false starts as we tried to make our way up the smaller roads to Ferruzzano. Some ended in fences proclaiming private property and one had been completely washed away, leaving only a stream and some exposed pipes and cables, so in the end we followed direction from google maps. 

From Ferruzzano we followed the road to Bruzzano Vecchio. The mediaeval village was finally abandoned due to an earthquake in 1906 (or possibly 1905 or 1908 – each article I’ve read gives a different date). At the highest point of the village are the ruins of the castle of Bruzzano Zeffirio, built on and around one of the natural sandstone outcrops of the area. To one side there is a ‘triumphal arch’, it’s not clear what the arch commemorates but it was erected in the 17th century by the Carafa family, the local ruling family.

Triumphal arch. Looking quite out of place amongst the medieval ruins.

We wandered around the buildings, alone apart from the ravens croaking rebukes as we invaded their privacy. We indulged in speculation about the buildings and their purpose as no information was available. Someone has made an effort to provide parking, seating and a water fountain, but no one had gone as far as to place any placards or notices. With very little tourist infrastructure in the area it must be difficult to attract enough people to make maintenance worthwhile.

Once we’d had our fill of mysterious history and had eaten our lunch, we cycled down through the new village of Bruzzano, laid out grid style a couple of kilometres away, and finally down to the river. Yet again our proposed route, a minor road on the south side of the river, had been washed away. Instead we took the ‘main’ road on the north side of the river and followed it to the sea, only a couple of cars passed us on the way. The signs of spring were in the air, orange groves were being tidied up after the harvest, roadside verges were gaining colour, small birds were flitting between the trees and buzzards hunted above.

Fiumara di Bruzzano, the end of the road

A short but rather tedious ride along the busy main road back to Bertie finished off the ride. Only about 30k in total, but with an interesting destination and some beautiful scenery. 

About 2k from Bertie it was obvious that I had a puncture. I was getting slower and slower and eventually I could hear the frustrating rumble that comes from cycling without any air in the tyres. Luckily I was close enough to Bertie to push the bike rather than attempt a roadside repair on a busy road. Once back the tyres came off and an examination of the inner tubes shower I had two punctures in the rear tyre and one in the front. The ability of thorns to penetrate the rubber of my tyres is a sign I need a new pair, but that will probably wait until I get back to the UK.

We stayed another two nights here, it was easy and convenient and after a little bit of an explore we found the manhole that is used for waste disposal so we knew we have sufficient services. We exchanged pleasantries with the German couple next to us who were very interested to know why we were carrying our kayak the wrong way up for aerodynamics (the roof bars are too low to carry it upside down). We had a longer conversation with an English couple who turned up later, they were on their way back from Sicily and in a desperate search for some good weather. No luck for them as the forecast for the next day was rain all day. We sat in Bertie and watched a thunderstorm roll in, turning the sky a murky brown before the rain and hail hit us.

Watching the thunderclouds roll in

 

 

 

Snow Forces a Rethink

23/03/18

After the rainy days stuck in the campsite we were keen to get out and about. Our aim was to head to Gambarie, a key town in the Aspromonte mountains and a hub for outdoor activities. The weather forecast still had a lot of rain in it though and we didn’t know the altitude where this would be falling as snow. We hoped to get to Gambarie before the snow started to fall, but as we climbed up into the mountains it started to rain, and eventually this turned to snow.

Being caught as snow was falling and settling put us in a tricky situation. There wasn’t enough snow for snow chains or to get the snowploughs out, but there was enough to make the going slippery. Possibly with full winter tyres we would have felt fine to carry on, but with another couple of hundred meters of altitude still to gain, narrow roads and lots of switchbacks we just didn’t think it was sensible to continue. We carried on for long enough to find somewhere we could turn around, a more difficult proposition that you might think as the area was sparsely populated and the snow made it difficult to tell whether a turning area was solid asphalt or mud. We eventually found a closed hotel and Paul turned us around in their drive. We weren’t going to make it to Gambarie in this weather.

Snow falling on the way to Gambarie

Now we were discombobulated. Our plans had only gone as far as the mountains, and with them out of reach we needed to decide where to stop. Lacking any other plans we made our way back down to the SS18 that runs along the coast and started to drive east. We would decide as we drove.

First attempt was Scilla, a pretty little coastal town with an impressive castle. We drove along the town’s main road to see if we could get parked on the seafront, but there were signs stopping Motorhomes from accessing the small areas of parking on the front. The station carpark looked like a possibility but made us feel a little uncomfortable taking spaces for rail passengers. So onwards we went all the time with views of Sicily to the right and the Aspromonte mountains to the left.

Next was Villa San Giovanni, but we couldn’t find a way under or over the railway to the coast. We weren’t in a city mood so Reggio Calabria didn’t appeal. At this point the SS18 ended and we moved onto the motorway. Along this stretch of coast the motorway runs above the train tracks and the railway hugs the tide line, because of this there are no built up coastal resorts and the strand looks invitingly undeveloped but is inaccessible to large vehicles.

During our lunch stop we looked further ahead and saw that there were a number of parking spots coming up along the coast. It seemed like we were entering an area where parking was tolerated on a longer term basis. We kept an eye on the coast for motorhomes and as we passed the station for Ferruzano we saw them lined up along the front. A quick turn off the main road and a drive under the railway bridge that looked like it wasn’t going anywhere took us onto a long stretch of lungomare.

We stopped for the day and parked ourselves up on the grass amongst a row of motorhomes of various nationalities. This reminded us of Spain more than Italy, not in the way it looked, but with the long term parking culture. People had made themselves at home with washing lines and windbreaks behind their vans. Some had even created ramps from stone and concrete allowing them to more easily get up and down the kerb to their parking spot. There were small national enclaves and we wondered if we would be breaking any unwritten rules by parking between two German vans.    

The seafront here was long and straight with one closed restaurant and a small clot of villas and apartments to the south. At some point money must have been allocated to tidying it up, and a number of paved areas had been built, including the ‘John Lennon Arena’. Superficially parts of it looked clean and new, but when you looked closer you could see that it was unfinished and already dilapidated. Old chunks of concrete and children’s play equipment lay amongst the weeds behind the seafront. Looking beyond the tatty seafront though the views were pleasant and the beach was clean. The parking was free and there were services. It would do nicely for a night or two. 

Looking north from the parking near Ferruzano station

All Hands to the Dumps

20/03/18 – 22/03/18

It had been some time since we last did any washing. Our washing bag was filled to bursting and we hadn’t come across any convenient self service launderettes since Sondrio (I have an aversion to serviced washes as I don’t like the thought of handing our sweaty smelly clothes to someone else to launder). With no other options available we decided to check into a campsite.

Camping Mimosa is an ACSI campsite near Nicotera, one of few campsites that are open all year round. The fact that it was open, and the friendly owner, are the main things going for it. It’s pitches are small and awkward to get into with narrow avenues between trees making it difficult to manoeuvre.  We nabbed a pitch that was on the end of a row so that we could get in and out easily, other arrivals were less lucky, and one large French van had a particularly difficult time getting out. Unusually the campsite offers private bathrooms, we got a key to a cubicle with shower, basin and toilet. Sadly the showers weren’t great, a bit tepid and weak. The cubicles were dated, but at least they had toilet seats – yay!

We did our washing, managing to get it hung out to dry in between rain showers. I dyed my hair, we did a few chores and finalised the booking of hire car and secure parking for Bertie when my sister visits in April. 

One of our chores was the fixing of the toilet cassette. We had been putting this off for a while as it involved sticking a hand inside the cassette. But it had to be done as it was getting awkward to empty the cassette without any leakage. Our issue was the seal around the ‘Blade Opener’, a switching mechanism that you use to open up the toilet when you go to the loo. The seal was not working effectively and so a dribble of the toilet contents would escape unless you held the cassette horizontal. This included leakage while in transit – ugh! Armed with some disposable gloves I stuck my hand into the cassette and followed Paul’s instructions to remove the blade opener. Then we cleaned it and, with some difficulty, replaced it. We also cleaned the seal around the blade. Fortunately it has done the trick so we wont have to repeat that experience for a while. 

We ended up staying here for three nights as the rain, thunder and lightening were just so bad on the Thursday that we didn’t see the point in moving. We were a bit stir crazy by this point and crossed our fingers for some better weather so we could get outdoors.

 

 

Not Only Onions in Tropea

19/03/18

As we drove into Tropea, passing a number of vegetable selling stalls on the side of the road, I finally remembered why I recognised the name. We had recently watched the Hairy Bikers Mediterranean Adventures and in the first episode they had featured the ‘famous’ Tropea onion. It may be famous in Italy but I hadn’t heard of it until watching the programme, of course now we were here I had to try some.

The red skinned onions are sweet and mild with very little of the acridity of the cooking onions that we might buy in the supermarket. Given that the taste of uncooked onion can linger in my mouth for 24 hours they were the ideal salad onion for me. The onions are sold all year round in various guises, right now the onions on sale are slim, with very little bulb and can be eaten raw in salads like a spring onion as well as being cooked. We particularly like it in a stir fry although I imagine Italians would think that was sacrilege.

Tropea Onions

Tropea is an attractive town set on top of a cliff with an area of seafront below the cliff where we found a few carparks to choose from. At the moment the parking is free, with the parking meters removed from the car parks. Our sat nav had fun on our journey into Tropea as it tried to entice us into a dive onto a road 5 meters below, but we managed to find a route we were actually capable of and work our way down to the one way system on the seafront. Getting out was equally tricky, as the route south goes under an impassably low bridge (there are signs saying no motorhomes and vans, so it’s worth paying attention to them, guess who didn’t!). You have to head out north, AND the road was closed AND there is a ZTL! In retrospect it would have been easier to go the wrong way back along the seafront, we had seen a number of people doing this but thought that we would be good for a change.

Tropea. Looking down from the cliffs
Looking up from the car park to the Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola

Once in the carpark we were accosted by a ‘fisherman’ who wanted to sell us some fish. At €10 euros a kilo it wasn’t bad value, but they were small fish that would definitely not meet any regs for minimum size. Nevertheless we decided to buy some for dinner, after all they were dead already. Then he then tried to double the price. For some reason being ripped off always makes me feel embarrassed, I blame it on my Britishness.  My only defence is what Paul calls my ‘Paddington stare’, I think it makes the recipient think I’m a little simple. Anyway I handed over the previously agreed €10 with a bland look and he wandered off without any further attempt to inveigle more money from us.

Fish for dinner – a bit small and fiddly but fresh and tasty

We cycled from Tropea to Capo Vaticano, following the smaller roads where we could (a lot of them were dead ends) past endless fields of onions in the red soil. The smell of onion was always faintly in the air, especially where they were being harvested. There were views out to Stromboli and the Aeolian Islands, a little hazy but we could just about make them out. It bought back memories of our trip to Stromboli a couple of years ago. If you ever get the opportunity then do go, it’s an amazing experience to sit and watch the firework display of a live volcano as the sun goes down.

Looking south from Capo Vaticano

The day had started bright but breezy and the increasingly gusty winds drove us back from the headland and views of Cabo Vaticano to Bertie where we spent the evening watching the sky turn a dark purple, delivering thunder, lightening and hail. With a mixed forecast for the next few days we decided to head to a campsite to do some washing and chores.  

  

Two Churches but no Ice Cream!

18/03/18

Visiting a famous monastery and church on a Sunday was probably not a good idea. Especially on a sunday leading up to Easter. Our poor excuse was that we had forgotten what day it was, but when we turned up at the Sanctuario di San Francesco di Paola to find the car park rammed with cars and buses it didn’t take long for us to remember that it was a Sunday. The parking attendant gave us a pitying look and called his boss to see if there was space for us in the bus area, but no joy. Luckily someone chose that time to leave a parking spot on the side of the road and Paul negotiated us into it as tightly as possible.

San Francesco di Paola was the founder of the Order of Minims, who espoused respect and kindness towards all living things (the order is vegan) alongside poverty, chastity and obedience. The sanctuary in Paola has been built around the caves of the original hermitage. Much of the sanctuary can be visited and so we took a wander around the cloisters, ancient monastic cells and chapels. Mass was taking place in the large modern church, and the saint’s holy relics were being visited with obvious sincerity. We did feel a little out of place amongst so many honest Roman Catholic worshippers, but one couple wandering around with a selfie stick left us feeling slightly less invasive.

Having had our fill of the religious observations at the sanctuary we extricated ourselves from our parking spot and headed further south to Pizzo. Our sat nav had refused to believe that the pretty decent SS18 road existed all day, showing us travelling along a number of nearby minor roads before getting it’s knickers in a twist and asking us to do a U turn every few minutes. This didn’t let up until we were nearly at Pizzo, where it finally gave us good directions to the motorhome and bus parking area at the top of the town. Our initial impression of Pizzo was not very good as we had driven along a road lined with overflowing dumpsters, but a walk down through the old town soon revised our opinion. The steep streets, churches, castle and harbour combined into a pretty seaside town. Murals adorned some of the walls and a wire sculpture by Edouardo Tresoldi sat looking out to sea – we’d seen some of his ghostly wire sculptures previously.

It was incredibly busy on this pleasant Sunday and the narrow streets were struggling to cope with the weight of traffic, particularly with the number of people trying to park as close as possible to their chosen restaurant presumably to sample the local speciality gelato – Tartufo di Pizzo. I’m still not entirely sure why we didn’t try some ourselves.

Another sight is the Chiesa di Piedigrotta, actually about a kilometre along the coast north of the town, this chapel contains many mossy statues sculpted out of the rock, mainly of religious scenes. We decided to walk to it, dodging hissing stray cats along a small path and across a rickety bridge below the road. Three euros gets you access to this sight which only takes 15 minutes to walk around but has a certain novel appeal.

 

The motorhome and bus parking area was pretty quiet that evening, too far to walk (it must have been a good 7 minutes to the town square) for it to be anyone’s first choice of parking. It was also free in low season so a bit of a bonus for us.