We had arrived in France at dusk, and made our way to the aire in Montreuil. We don’t normally drive in the dark and the combination of mostly unlit roads with the moving lights of the wind turbines made for a strangely eerie journey. We were glad to get to the busy aire and negotiate into a spot in the overflow parking area.
On waking the following morning everything seemed much more normal. The aire was packed with French vans, their occupants stopping to chat to each other as they made their way into town or to the service point. We exchanged a bonjour or two as we popped out for a stroll around the towns walls before heading into the main square to set ourselves up with some cash. As well as the impressively high town walls (very wide but with no railings to stop you from falling into the allotments below) built after an attack by the Hapsburgs, the town was the British GHQ in the first world war.
After stretching our legs we returned to the van and moved on. Our destination was Giverny, a small town that now is a busy tourist attraction, being the location of Monet’s house and gardens and a museum of impressionism. Our aim was to get here in early afternoon so that we could visit Monet’s gardens before they closed at 6. We had no desire to battle the Saturday morning crowds, and a tip from Trip Advisor had suggested that a late afternoon visit would be far less crowded than an early start.
The tip seemed to be accurate. When we arrived just before 4 there was only one coach in the car park, when we opened our curtains the following morning there were already half a dozen coaches parked up and more were arriving.
Monet moved to Giverny in 1883 when he was in his 40s. Initially he rented the house and lands. As he started to sell more paintings he amassed enough wealth to buy the house, lands and additional water meadows on the other side of the main road. He spent a lot of time on the gardens, becoming a keen gardener (with help of course). The gardens have an English cottage garden feel with packed borders surrounding grassy lawns. Although they are small they are exuberantly vibrant with colour. Dahlias, arranged according to their colour, were the star of our visit and the long nasturtium tunnel was a stunning focal point even if it had suffered from the hot dry weather. These underrated flowers trailed across the paths and up the arched supports in a riot of fiery tones and green leaf.
To get to the water meadows, the famous Japanese bridge and the lake of water lilies you have to use a tunnel under the road. This area had a peaceful atmosphere despite being busy. You can see why Monet painted the scene here many times with so many perspectives. The light shines through the leaves of the willows and the tall bamboo creating dappled reflections on the water. Huge carp swim lazily in the lake between white and pink lilies.
Monet’s house has been restored with the help of photographs from the time when Monet lived there. His studio walls are covered with reproductions of his paintings and the other walls of the house hold his large collection of Japanese prints. His bedroom has large windows that provide fantastic views over the garden, a comfortable space that would be difficult to leave. However the two tone yellow dining room, followed by the busily blue kitchen was a bit much for my eyes.
The cost of visiting Monet’s house and gardens is under 10 euros each and two or three hours is enough time to take it all in. It’s a shame that you cant wander all of the paths through the gardens, but with the volume of visitors you can understand why some areas are restricted. For motorhomers the bonus is a large free car park (no services) where a 24 hour stay is permitted.
My own garden would never have been a patch on this – but oh how I miss it!
We still had a few mundane activities to take care of, a trip to the dentist for both of us (no work required – phew), a trip to the optician for me and a much needed trip to the Chiropractor for Paul who has been suffering with his back and shoulders since our skiing trip (where the majority of the injury was gained by falling over on the way to the shower block). Needless to say these appointments were spread out over a number of days because it was impossible to line them up and get them over and done with.
Bertie had new wipers, a fuel filter change and a bit of a dig around to find out what was causing the fan to make a strange noise – turns out we had a leaf stuck in the fan, that was a nice easy one.
As a welcome counterpoint to the humdrum, this week’s special occasion was Carrie’s 40th birthday. A fabulous night out was had by all, starting with bowling and ending in a club. How did that happen? – I repeatedly tell people I have no inclination to ever go in a club again. I blame it on the under 40s – you know who you are – in the group who haven’t yet reached the point where hangovers last for 48 hours, we felt rather jaded on the Sunday and almost back to normal on the Monday.
What else happened over this time? We had a lovely evening cycling to Budleigh Salterton beach where I felt very smug because I also went for a run while Paul fished for our supper. (this was obviously before our night out!) He caught enough mackerel to make dinner for us and the Eynon family the following evening too.
We also had a BBQ lunch and visit to A la Ronde with Kayleigh. A la Ronde is a national trust property in Exmouth, a 16 sided house built by cousins Mary and Jane Parminter. It’s an interesting house with amazing views and a gallery lined with intricate designs made from shells and other natural materials. It’s so delicate that it can only be viewed from afar or by camera.
For our final weekend in Northumberland we moved again, this time to a newly opened Temporary Holiday Site in Alnwick. This THS was quite different to the one at Beadnell, it was located at the Alnwick Rugby Club so was quite close to town and was much quieter than the one at Beadnell. I may have put my foot in it by mentioning that we’d come from Beadnell as the warden was quite uppity with us, she muttered that Beadnell THS crammed people far too close together, but we actually ended up closer to our neighbours here. Anyway, despite my faux pas, we liked it here. We had the use of the rugby club changing rooms for showers and toilets, the ladies were spotlessly clean but Paul said that the gents were a little more run down, probably an indication of the proportion of male to female rugby players. It was also possible to get electric hook up if needed.
We had a day out at Cragside, a National Trust property about 10 miles away. The bus to Cragside left from the main road near the rugby club, it doesn’t run very frequently but had services that allowed us to get there at 11 and leave at 4 which was plenty of time. The bus driver asked us what time we were planning to come back so he could look out for us, the staff on duty at the entrance to Cragside told us that the bus had occasionally missed people who were waiting at the stop and one kind gentleman said that if we missed the bus back he could give us a lift to Alnwick, but we didn’t have any issues in the end. The bus was incredibly quiet with only one other passenger on each journey. You can see why services get reduced.
Cragside was a great day out, a really interesting house and grounds. The house was built by Victorian engineer and industrialist William Armstrong, who was later given the title of Baron Armstrong. It was the first home to be lit by hydro electricity and William Armstrong was a true ‘early adopter’ installing an hydraulic lift, dumb waiter, dishwasher and other electrically operated gizmos as well as the famed lighting. Around the grounds you can see the way in which he harnessed the water to power the house and later added steam engines to supplement the power. I thought the house externally was a rather ugly Victorian mock Tudor manse, but inside there was a wealth of over the top Victorian details, massive marble inglenook fireplaces and substantial amounts of arts and crafts wood panelling, tiling and stained glass. It was all rather ostentatious, but this was offset by the interesting ‘downstairs’ rooms and the engineering details. I loved it.
We spent plenty of time with Aaron and Katie over the weekend, including a visit to RAF Boulmer for Family Day. This gave us the opportunity to see how they live on base; it’s very like student accommodation with a room each, shared bathrooms but no kitchen to speak of (the expectation is that they eat in the mess). They cant wait to get into a house and I cant blame them. Sadly we had to say goodbye on the Sunday evening, but we’ll be seeing them soon when they come down for Nans 90th birthday celebrations.
We managed to drive back down to Taunton in one hit on the Monday, it was a long day but we took it easy with plenty of stops and eight hours later we were back.
Our drive from Dover to Somerset was not a particularly long one, but by the time we got to Reading we were already shattered, mostly because of the large amount of traffic on the roads and also due to the concentration required to ensure we drove on the right (that’s left) side of the road.
While we stopped for fuel and food in Slough (it having the nearest supermarket fuel station) I had a little scout around on Searchforsites for a parking spot that wasn’t too far away. We haven’t used Searchforsites much in France or Italy, but because it’s a British website it tends to be the best for British parking spots.
I decided that we should head to a parking spot on the Ridgeway – a long distance path over the North Wessex Downs that is badged as ‘Britain’s oldest road’. The parking spot on Hackpen Hill was not very big, but after a couple of cars had left we managed to squeeze ourselves (as much as a seven meter motorhome can be squeezed) into the corner so that we didn’t feel too selfish. We also had a bit of a tidy up, something we have started to do wherever we are. We like to leave a parking spot clean because all too often motorhomes and campervans will be blamed for any rubbish that has been left behind. And of course it’s also a good thing to do.
As we wandered around the area we noticed that there were quite a lot of campervans driving around looking for parking. Paul muttered something about hippies and then we both looked at each other. Of course! It was the summer solstice and we were only a stone’s throw from Avebury.
Only a couple of vans chose to park near us, that stone’s throw was just a bit too far from the main gathering. As we settled down for the night an older man with long grey hair knocked on our window, trying to find his way back to the gathering. As I gave him directions I looked at the unlit narrow roads and asked whether he had a torch. His laid back attitude was that he didn’t need one, but I wasn’t quite so relaxed. While I went back inside and rummaged for a spare torch (I knew we had one knocking about somewhere) he absconded. I just hope he found his way back ok.
Shortly before sunrise – an event neither of us had a particular interest in being awake for – several cars pulled up into the parking area. I listened in to the conversation as the occupants gathered. They were off for a solstice run down the ridgeway to Avebury. Very nice for them, but that meant they would probably be back in an hour or so and we’d have the sound of car doors slamming again. Such are the risks of sleeping in a parking spot, so I cant complain. I wondered if I should pull on my running shoes and join them, but it was just one of those idle thoughts and I drifted back off to sleep as the sound of their footsteps pattered away.
When we finally got out of bed we decided that we would cycle down the ridgeway to Silbury Hill and then across to Avebury, then we could make it a circular ride back to our parking spot. Along the ridgeway we cycled, through dry deep ruts that didn’t ever seem quite wide enough for our pedals. The ridgeway leads directly to The Sanctuary, an ancient wood and stone circle complex that was destroyed by farmers in the 18th century and now has the site of the sarsens and posts marked out by concrete blocks. Down at this end of the ridgeway were many campers in tents, vans, motorhomes and one horse drawn caravan. They had all obviously had a good night celebrating the solstice; some probably very serious about the rituals associated with dawning of the longest day, others more interested in the party that accompanies it.
We took in The Sanctuary, West Kennet Longbarrow, Silbury Hill and Avebury circle and avenues. There were still some robed figures conducting rituals around the stones and a few people just chilling out in the sunshine, but the area is large and despite the date it didn’t seem at all crowded. It is an amazing and thought provoking area of ancient monuments that feels quite rural and wild despite it’s location just off the M4. There was a police presence, and private security at each of the sites, but by now this seemed to be more directed at ensuring the traffic was flowing smoothly than anything else.
That afternoon we made our way to Taunton. We were going home.
We stayed in the motorhome aire at Bergues the night before our Ferry. The aire here has no facilities but is large and popular. It sits just outside the city walls next to a sports complex and amongst allotments where crops and cut flowers are carefully tended. Once we had determined that we could ignore the 3.5tonne limit on the approach road, which applied to the road into the town rather than the road to the aire, it was easy to find.
Bergues was an attractive Flemish town which had been significantly but sympathetically rebuilt after WWII, we had a short wander around but know that we didn’t see many of the sights. I’m sure we’ll find our way back when we are channel hopping at some point.
We booked our return ferry with P&O because it was the cheapest we could find. At £60 for a single crossing it was half the price of the tunnel. A few scare stories had led us to anticipate a disorganised mess of a crossing, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Of course we have the luxury of being able to book a mid day crossing, as we aren’t trying to make as much precious time as possible for a short holiday. So after a leisurely start and a quick final supermarket stop we drove to the ferry terminal where we were swiftly ushered into the right queue for our crossing. We had time for a cuppa and a bit of van watching before we needed to board. One of the best bits of being on a campsite or in a queue of motorhomes is seeing what other people have got. We were very impressed with the pristine state of the van next to us which was a good 10 years older than Bertie. It spurred us to talking about washing Bertie, but sadly no further action has taken place on that front.
The ferry was not very busy, probably another reason for the crossing being so easy. Before we knew it we were back in the UK; having to convert back to Miles per Hour, driving on the right and limited motorhome facilities outside campsites. And Traffic! Never have we seen so many vehicles in such a small space.
Nevertheless we are happy to be back in the UK and cant wait to see everyone.
We rumbled along the smaller N and D roads of France towards the coast, passing by many signposts pointing to First and Second World War memorials. It is incredible to think of the events of the two wars that impacted this area of France over such a short period, the devastating history contrasts sharply with the bucolic landscape of the present day.
My knowledge of French Geography was growing daily, here I found out we were travelling through French Flanders on our way to Dunkirk (Dunkerque). Flanders was a medieval state covering this part of modern day France as well as parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. Today there are cultural, linguistic and architectural similarities across the area and many of the buildings in the countryside had a look I would have described as Dutch, but is probably Flemish.
We parked up north of Dunkirk in Bray-Dunes at a Motorhome parking spot behind the tourist information office. It was a popular spot for motorhomes, but very few other people were around and the grey weather and closed up tourist apartments made it look more like October than June. We wanted to go for a walk to find the shipwrecks left behind during the evacuation of Dunkirk. A quick check of the tide tables revealed we would need to wait until the evening, so we did a bit of housework and had an early tea before setting off to explore the dunes and the beach. The long wide sandy beach was almost empty, only a couple of kite surfers in the distance and one lonely walker striding along the edge of the sea. Although the tide was low, we could only just see the wrecks of the paddle steamers used in the WWII evacuation breaking the water. The most visible wreck was a schooner that had run aground in the 1920’s, although it had nothing to do with WWII it made an evocative sight against the silver sea and setting sun.
The following morning we drove into Dunkirk itself and parked opposite the 1940 museum. This museum focussed on Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk – and was worth spending a couple of hours exploring. It’s small but has plenty of exhibits; a short film, photographs and artifacts, some of which were found buried by the sand at Bray-Dunes where much of the British equipment had to be abandoned in favour of saving human lives. It includes exhibits about the ‘Little Ships’; the fishing boats, barges and pleasure steamers who volunteered to support the evacuation of over 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers. It’s one of those gutsy war time stories of triumph over adversity that gave rise to the phrase ‘Dunkirk Spirit’. While we were wandering round I couldn’t help thinking of all those soldiers, plucked from the jaws of the German advance, given a heroes welcome and then having to return to fight again, any respite only fleeting.
After our edifying visit to the museum we wandered around Dunkirk, following the harbour through modern apartments and houses with odd shapes vaguely reminiscent of upturned boats. In the harbour were many interesting ships, part of the Port Museum, including the restored paddle steamer Princess Elizabeth (now a café), the Duchesse Anne – a three-masted ship that was part of Germany’s reparations to the French after the war – and the Sandettie. I was very excited to find that the Sandettie was indeed the Light Vessel Automatic of shipping forecast fame. Little things!
Although Dunkirk suffered badly in WWII, there were a number of older buildings amongst the more modern architecture and some interesting display boards with pictures of the town before war broke out. Dunkirk is much more than just a ferry terminal and is a key part of the WWII story.
I’ve mentioned before that my French geography is not great, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I realised that we were on the edge of the Champagne area. After the initial surprise was a short flurry of excitement. I do like a bit of bubbly, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, but I would feel guilty drinking anything else while here.
We did still have to move on though, and although Troyes was a tempting destination it didn’t move us far enough. Instead we targeted Reims, a town that has a famous cathedral as well as being one of the main towns of the Champagne district.
We arrived at the municipal campsite of Val-de-Vesle on the Saturday evening. It is about 20km from Reims along a canal with a well defined cycle path. The campsite was pleasant and was good value at just over €16 although it did have one of those complex pricing structures where you pay a small amount for each component of the stay. The toilet block was spotless, even after I had dyed my hair, and trees provided dappled shade. For the first time in ages we bumped into another English couple, exchanging stories of narrow escapes from even narrower roads (most in the UK). With the campsite came an opportunity to barbeque and sit in our chairs in the sunshine, we decided to stay two nights instead of one to enjoy the opportunity.
I had a quick peek on the internet to find out what was possible on Sunday and we decided to cycle into Reims, do a champagne house tour, see the sights and have some lunch. Possibly not in that order.
Reims on a Sunday was a hushed and peaceful town, families were walking or cycling along the canal, but the town itself seemed solely the preserve of tourists. All shops were shut, so only the tourist attractions and the supporting infrastructure were open. We could easily have driven Bertie in and parked up, but it was good to get some exercise. The route went past the town of Sillery where we paused to gaze at the French cemetery and remind ourselves of the depredations of the First World War.
Reims cathedral was our first port of call; the ‘royal cathedral’ has been the place of coronation for all but seven of France’s monarchs. Ok, the first few monarchs, starting with Henry I in 1027, were crowned in an earlier cathedral which was destroyed by fire. But work soon started on the current gothic cathedral and since then it has remained standing, despite the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and the First World War. Of course it has been updated over time; the First World War significantly damaged the building and there are beautiful modern stained glass windows which were installed in the 20th century to replace the windows blown out by German bombardment. Apart from the stained glass the cathedral has many statues and carvings on the tall, narrow facades and arguably the outside is more attractive than the fairly stark interior. Look out for the statues of Joan of Arc, one inside and one outside, who liberated the city and cathedral from the English.
After the cathedral we took a wander round the city centre, following a walking map provided by the tourist information centre. We visited the Saint Remi Basilica, a Gothic style building of more pleasing dimensions than the cathedral which we found exaggeratedly tall and narrow. In the city the first world war devastation provided opportunity for redevelopment and the city has quite a number of art deco buildings, including the market and the Carnegie Library. We found our attention was not captured for long though because most places were shut and the atmosphere was almost too quiet. This was a bit of a shock for two people who don’t really like busy cities, we now know that we don’t like empty cities either!
We stopped for lunch before moving onto the Taittinger champagne house for a tour. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the champagne house tours, so we picked Taittinger because it was open on a Sunday and had a very clear online booking system. The tour was quite interesting, a short film about the history of Taittinger, followed by a tour of the cellars. The building you can see above ground is quite modern and uninspiring, but underground in the cellars you are in a network that was started in Roman times as chalk quarries. The upside down funnels of the chalk excavations were then extended by Benedictine monks who were digging the crypts and cellars for their abbey. The wine and champagne houses appropriated the caves and extended them to house thousands upon thousands of bottles of champagne, all stacked neatly and nursed to maturity by patient and knowledgeable staff. The soft chalk provided many opportunities for people to leave their mark through the years and faces and names have been etched into the rock, including marks left by locals who sheltered down here in the Second World War.
After the tour of the cellars it was back up to the bar to sample some champagne, being a cheapskate I had booked the lowest cost tour with one glass of champagne each. As Paul doesn’t like champagne I was looking forward to drinking two glasses, but in no time Paul had finished his glass, only to tell me that he still didn’t like it. What a waste!
We left the large sosta in Celle Ligure on the Sunday morning, along with many other Italian vans who had been weekending there. Before we departed Paul did his good deed for the day, we had noticed that the rather old van next to us had a plastic bag and elastic band in place of a fuel filler cap. We had finally managed to replace our temporary fuel cap with a proper one (well it says water on it, but it does the job), and so Paul gave the Italian driver our temporary universal fuel cap, we got a bag of bready snacks in return. The services at Celle Ligure were both awkward and busy (if you back into the service area you end up blocking the road), so we just took the toilet cassette to be emptied and left the water for another time. We always make a point of emptying the toilet when we can. If we run out of water it’s pretty easy to find a water fountain or even buy the stuff (we have only been reduced to this in the UK), but if we cant empty the toilet it becomes an emergency.
From here we drove a pretty long way (for us) to Hône. This was our entry point to the Alps, officially taking us into the Aosta Valley where we were planning to spend a couple of weeks. At Hône there is a small and neat paid sosta next to the river. Our sat nav tried to take us through the village, but a quick reverse back across the bridge and we were back on the main road that swings under the A5. It delivered us to another bridge just down the road from the sosta. It’s a pain in the backside having to second guess the sat nav but thank goodness for our phones. It was a sosta with yet another awkward emptying area – this time there were water taps between the pitches, so taking on water was fine, but grey water and toilet waste had to be dumped in a manhole just down the road.
As we approached Hône we could see the bulk of Bard fortress above us, this 19th century fort was built on a defensive position that had been previously occupied by a medieval castle. It’s an impressive sight with ramps leading up to the three levels of the fort. At it’s base is the tiny medieval village, barely more than a street and pretty enough although we’ve seen so many medieval villages now it wouldn’t rank in the top ten. We looked at the website for the fort and found that general access to the restored fort is free, this includes use of the glass elevators that take people up the various levels. Once in the fort there are a number of exhibitions and museums that have to be paid for, but just a ride in the lifts sounded like fun.
We were tempted to leave it to the next day, but the fort is closed on Mondays so we heaved ourselves out of Bertie and followed the path to the fort – it’s only ten minutes or so to get to the entrance where we stood in a small queue waiting for the first elevator to arrive. We were crammed into this one, but there were no queues for the subsequent two elevators which allowed us to enjoy the views of the mountains without the back of other people’s heads.
When we got to the top we decided that the Museum of the Alps might be worth seeing. There are ticket sales points on each level of the fort so we found the one nearest the entrance to the museum and entered a world of complete sensory overload.
The museum was really interesting, and after visiting we agreed that it had been worth the money, but the first part of the exhibition is a series of video and sound installations in darkly lit rooms that are pretty surreal. I would recommend spending a few minutes reading the first couple of pages of the leaflet that is handed out before going into the museum as it helps to set the context for the sounds and images and it is too dark in the rooms to read it as you go.
Once out of this zone the museum became more standard. It had exhibits covering all sorts of aspects of the alps. Traditions, geography, nature, mountaineering, food, transport. We enjoyed the video of mounatineers using traditional clothes and methods to cross glacial terrain (rather them than me). There was a good display of images and videos showing the folk traditions of spring, including some quite disconcerting masks. And of course there was a mock up of a ‘Dahu’ the mythical animal which has two legs longer than the others to facilitate walking around mountains (it took me a few minutes to even work out what was so odd about it).
When we got out of the museum we spent a little while wandering around the fort before descending via the road. On the way back to the sosta we found a café where we could pay for our night’s stay and get our ticket. We returned to the sosta to find another British van, they had just come through the Mont Blanc tunnel and were due to leave straight away the following morning on their way to the lakes. It seems a shame to miss out the Aosta valley, but everyone has different priorities, we haven’t been to the lakes, but were looking forward to spending more time here.
That night there was a massive thunderstorm and we opened our bedroom blinds to watch the flashes of lightning. What a fantastic display. We could see that the other van had opened their curtains too, it was almost impossible to sleep through…not completely impossible though as I dropped off after half an hour.
Florence is on many people’s ‘must do’ lists for Italy. It hadn’t made it to the top of our list on the way south, when we visited Pisa and Lucca, but when we were looking for somewhere to stop on the way to the Apuan Alps we decided it was worth a look.
The reason that Florence hadn’t made it to the top of the list for us is that we aren’t great art lovers. Don’t get me wrong, a beautiful painting, a magnificent fresco, or an evocative sculpture is a joy to behold, but we’re not very good at appreciating art in bulk when the exhibits start to blend into one another.
So, as you can imagine, we weren’t desperate to visit the Uffizi. I really fancied climbing to the top of the duomo’s cupola, but you have to pre-book a time slot and when I looked the night before there were no spaces left. In the end we decided to plan a leisurely walking tour around the sights, including some ice-cream and lunch of course.
Our overnight parking in Florence was in the Scandicci district, a sosta that crammed motorhomes in as tightly as possible. Our sat nav took us on an odd route in ever decreasing circles through one-way systems to get there and we overshot the narrow entrance once. Once we were in it was well organised and plenty of information was available from the office (caravan) in the corner. For a suburb of a city the parking was remarkably quiet, the site is backed by farms so there is very little traffic noise, you might hear a whinny from the horses in the fields. One word of caution though – we arrived in late afternoon and the gates were open. The following morning we headed off at about 10 and the gates were locked – so if you are thinking of arriving in the AM be prepared. Someone will probably let you in.
We walked in from the sosta, it is a good 45 minutes into Florence’s centre. The bus runs very regularly and is easy to catch from a stop up the road – save money by buying your tickets from the tobacconist rather than on the bus. We wandered along the side of the very muddy Arno river up to the medieval Ponte Vecchio, the bridge is lined with jewellery shops on both sides so that in places you’d be hard put to recognise you were on a bridge – there is a lot of gold bling in once place. We marvelled at the highly decorated cathedral – one of the most impressive I have ever seen. We also marvelled at the queues stretching around the cathedral. It is free to enter the main building, but we decided not to wait in the queue. The Mercato Centrale was a good place to indulge our food loving selves, the ground floor was full of market traders selling meat, fish and vegetables as well as more exotic produce (I found some fish sauce which is a bonus for stir fries and thai food) and tourist merchandise. The upper floor had a selection of cafes and bars selling a wide range of drinks, meals and snacks. We admired a copy of Michelangelo’s David (there are two copies of the sculpture in the city as well as the original in one of the museums). For lunch we crossed the river and ate in a piazza in the Oltramo quarter which had a bit of a student/hipster vibe. We did, of course, eat gelato.
It would be true to say that I enjoyed myself more than Paul, who was suffering in the heat. Florence was the busiest place we have been to since Rome and the sheer volume of tourists can be off-putting, but there are plenty of official staff on hand at the main tourist sights and strangely few touts. Our preference is definitely for somewhere a bit less overwhelming and we decided we had preferred the previous day’s trip to Arezzo.
After the Monte Sibillini we were planning to head for the Apuan Alps, a small offshoot of the Apennines that sits behind the coast of northern Tuscany. It was going to be quite a drive and we wanted to break it up. Our first stop, the night we had Bertie’s brakes fixed, was a small sosta at Torrita di Siena. We sneaked into the remaining space (there were only half a dozen) alongside various nationalities and reminded ourselves of the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. Tuscany had seemed so crinkled and hilly when we first drove through on our way south, but we had become used to the drama of mountain views and now it seemed like the green hills folded themselves gently around the golden stone of the local buildings.
The sosta is on a walking and mountain biking (and horse riding if you happen to have bought your horse along) trail – the Sentiero di Vin Santo, so on the following morning we took our bikes out on the trail. Suddenly we were reminded that the pleasant folds of the countryside hid steep sided valleys. Our legs pumped as we ascended along the trail that should have ended at Montefollonico, a town on a hill, but as we got closer to the town we realised that we would have to navigate some very overgrown single track and then have an incredibly steep uphill final slog to Montefollonico. We looked at each other and decided without words that it was too hot to bother. We turned around and made a very swift return to Bertie.
It was only mid morning, so we had a look at the map to see where we could go next. Somewhere we could wander round without too much exertion in the heat. Arezzo was the perfect spot, a tourist town, but not too big. I sold it to Paul; ‘look, there are even escalators to get from the parking to the town’.
We drove to Arezzo and easily found the very large motorhome parking area. There were no services here, but still some of the spaces seemed to be permanently occupied. We lunched in Bertie before setting off for the town, a very easy and gentle uphill walk. I have seen other places that are far more in need of an escalator than Arezzo. It was such a gentle walk that we decided we would look foolish using any assistance.
The old town, within the city walls, was one of those Italian towns that was a pleasure to wander around, with narrow medieval streets and unexpected piazzas.
The focal area is the Piazza Grande, rather unusually it slopes steeply from one side to the other, supposedly to allow the rain water to run off, although I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason for such an unusual design (but what do I know). We mooched around the shaded side of the streets and then paid a few euros each to visit the Palazzo di Fraternita dei Laici. There is an art collection here which was worth a quick look, but really we had paid our money to climb to the top of the bell tower and see the views. The tower has an interesting clock mechanism which you can watch as it strikes each quarter hour. We waited on top of the tower as thunder clouds started to gather and occasional fat spots of rain landed on us. The chiming of the bell was a bit of an anti-climax especially because it was the hour and so only one bell was in action.
Arezzo is a place that you could take some time to explore, it is just the right side of touristy, meaning that there were plenty of cafes and shops open and a bustling atmosphere, but it was not mobbed with tourists. Unlike Florence which was to be our next stop, more about that in our next blog post.
North of the Gran Sasso mountains is the Monti della Laga area. The two mountainous areas form one national park but are very different in nature. The sharp limestone peaks of the Gran Sasso contrast with the more rounded sandstone peaks of the Monti dell Laga.
We were aiming for the village of Ripe where we hoped to walk the Gole del Salinello. After a supermarket stock up we headed north, taking a scenic route towards Ripe. Our route was thwarted though with 3.5T limits. The limits excluded buses so we could only conclude that there was no physical reason why larger vehicles couldn’t use the roads, but that the village didn’t want to get clogged up with trucks and big old motorhomes like Bertie. We didn’t want to cause any problems so we drove on and found somewhere to pull over so that we could revisit our options.
Our guidebook had lots of walks, but they would either mean turning back to go Ceppo, where there was a campsite, or finding our way up small roads and tracks to find their start points. Trying to work out possibilities was making our head hurt, so we looked at motorhome parking spots closer to Ripe. Maybe we could get a bus?
We ended up in Civitella del Tronto, parked on a mixed car park underneath the medieval borgo and a huge fortress. The fortress was originally commissioned in the sixteenth century by the Spanish king to guard the border between the Spanish controlled ‘Sicilian’ states of Italy and the Papal states. We enjoyed walking around the narrow streets of the town and then visiting the Fortezza itself, which is impressively situated and worth visiting for the views alone. As well as enjoying the commanding views of the surrounding mountains and plains you can explore the buildings of the fort, barracks, chapel and cisterns, large parade grounds and various passageways. At the western end of the fortress you can walk around the walls that were rebuilt after lightning struck the powder magazine that was housed at it’s far end. Our walk was accompanied by the sound of a brass band practising in the church below us.
In the town we found many buildings had been subject to earthquake damage, but it was still a lively little place and had lots of visitors. Later that evening we were in Bertie when we heard music and fireworks from above. We would have gone to see what was going on….but it was raining quite heavily and being dry took priority.
This had been an unexpected stop, but had made up for our disappointment of not getting to Ripe.
Between the Majella national park and our next stop in the Gran Sasso national park we decided to stop in L’Aquila.
Guidebooks have little to say about L’Aquila at the moment because it is still recovering from the earthquake of 2009. But it felt a little unfair to take it off the tourist map completely; it is the major city for the area and has a number of historic buildings. We wanted to check it out.
It also has two free sostas, we chose the one near the Porta di Napoli where the pitches are in the gaps between trees that are just wide enough apart. Although the pitches are long enough for a large van, reversing in or out with anything over 8m might be tricky. When we looked at the route we wondered if we would fit through the 17th century entrance to the city, but we got through with room to spare.
We turned up in the evening and once I’d convinced Paul that we really did need to park between the trees (he had to look on google street view to convince himself) we settled in for a quiet evening while I researched a route around the tourist sights and possible restaurants for lunch.
So far we had seen no evidence of the earthquake, but we knew that the Porta di Napoli had been one of the first attractions restored. The following morning we set off up to the Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio where restoration has been recently finished. It’s not the first time this church has been restored after an earthquake. The most attractive part of this church is it’s façade which has a distinctive chequered effect. Inside it is calm and austere with the floor echoing the red and cream of the exterior, large columns, frescos and the tombstones of various bishops. There were boards explaining the process of restoration after the earthquake when the side chapels became parted from the nave and parts of the floor had dropped by over a meter. You wouldn’t believe the extent of the damage when you look at it now.
As we walked up into the centre of town we started to see more of the impact, the main tourist sights have been restored, but the rest of the centro storico is a building site. Cranes are the dominant feature and you feel like you should be wearing a hard hat and hi-vis jacket just to walk around. Whole streets are wrapped in scaffold and strapping to hold the buildings together. Looking inside windows and doorways it is evident that major work is still required. The amount of building work that is going on is incredible; they are essentially rebuilding a whole town. I know that there are a lot of opinions about the time it has taken to restore L’Aquila; lawsuits brought against the seismologists, money misappropriated, allegations of poor building quality. Whatever has happened, ignoring the place and taking it off the tourist itineraries isn’t going to help anyone. It is worth visiting for the attractions that are restored, and we found the insight into the physical process of putting a city back together after a major earthquake fascinating.
We visited the Basilica di San Bernardino which was in complete contrast to the Collemaggio, it’s style much more baroque and the interior gilded and ornate. Lined up along the nave were the various palanquins from the Easter procession that made an interesting display. I bet the procession was quite spectacular with all of the exhibits lit up.
The Spanish Fort was still being restored, so we wandered around the outside before walking back through the town, taking in more sights, looking for the tourist information office and somewhere to have lunch. We didn’t find tourist info, but managed to find a café in the park which was open for lunch. We thought we’d seen everything we were planning to see by this point, but it was only the next day as we were driving away that I realised we hadn’t been to see the Fountain of 99 Spouts. Damn it!
We left our lovely campsite to head a very short distance to Otranto, We had one of those starts where we just couldn’t settle. There is a lot of parking in Otranto, but we couldn’t find a spot that we felt happy with. After visiting several of them we parked along the side of the road while we went for a look around. That evening we finally decided on a car park. It said we had to pay, but all the parking machines were turned off so we figured we would be ok overnight.
The morning was spent wandering around this touristy town. We were parked near the harbour so we walked along looking at the boats and the fish swimming lazily in the sea. Our entry into the centro storico was via a gate in the medieval fortress, we walked through the busy streets roughly in the direction of the cathedral, there were lots of tourist shops but there wasn’t any hard sell.
The cathedral is the main event in Otranto, we wandered into the cool calm crypt first with it’s many marble pillars and frescos. We had obviously done this the wrong way round as we weren’t allowed to ascend the stairs to the cathedral and had to walk around the outside to get in. Once in the cathedral proper we could see the 12th century mosaic spread across the floor of the nave and adjacent areas. It is crude when compared to Roman mosaics, but it’s depictions of beasts, demons and angels were compelling; we spent some time trying to decipher the Latin and make sense of what we were seeing. Above the mosaic is a fabulously ornate gilded coffered ceiling added in the 17th century.
Also in the cathedral are the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, killed in 1480 by Turkish invaders. The town of Otranto had put up considerable resistance to the invading Ottoman army, when the Ottomans finally gained the town they killed or enslaved the majority of the population. A group of able bodied men were told to convert to Islam or die. They chose death and were executed. The following year the Ottomans were ousted and the relics of the martyrs were exhumed. Now you can see many of their bones in glass fronted cabinets on the walls of the chapel although some of the relics have been shared amongst other churches in the Salento region and even further afield. This was one of our favourite religious buildings, maybe we’re a bit ghoulish!
Our wander around Otranto had only taken the morning so we popped back to Bertie for a spot of lunch and then decided to do some walking along the coast south of the town. We were aiming for Punta Palascia, but it was a hot day so we didn’t make it that far. We had passed a nice looking beach at Cala Casotto, so we decided to turn round there after a swim. It was a bit of a scramble down the cliffs to the beach, but it was worth it to cool down in the clear water.
This was one of our favourite coastal walks. For most of the walk the cliffs were quite high and rocky with deep water offshore. Lots of fishermen had found their favourite spots and settled in for the day. Sea birds wheeled around off shore, including mediterranean gulls with their distinctive red beaks and feet. We spotted hen harriers – mostly brown with a white strip across the base of their tail – being mobbed by swallows and other small birds. On the heathland were crested larks singing loudly from the ground, possibly distracting us from their nests. There were many spring flowers dotting the grass. The whole area was full of life.
The interest wasn’t limited to natural wonders, on the headland near the Torre Dell’Orte there were many underground buildings and bunkers built into the rocks which we explored as much as we dared (our fear mostly being of finding human waste – our motto being ‘if you see tissues turn around’). A ruined lighthouse stood sentinel on the hill, it’s rear half collapsed.
It had been a very full day, Otranto was somewhere we could have stayed for longer. If only we could make up our mind where to park!
Lecce is a golden city, famed for it’s soft Lecce stone that has allowed master crafters to create ornate baroque masterpieces on all it’s glowing buildings. The stone is easily eroded and frequently replaced and restored, giving many buildings a patchwork feel with new crisp stone adjacent to worn rounded carvings. We spent a few hours here wandering around the streets, exploring alleys and dead ends, finding piazzas and palazzi. Terraced frontages hid complex buildings, the occasional open gate providing glimpses into courtyards and the buildings beyond. Dotted amongst the predominantly 17th century facades was the evidence of an older history, part of a Roman amphitheatre, Norman walls, Etruscan and Messapian tombs. Lecce is also surprisingly flat, we have become so used to towns that are on top of hills and their steep winding streets that it felt odd to be walking on the level.
We parked in a small motorhome parking area, seemingly little known. It is on the other side of the road from the large parking area of Piazza Carmelo Bene and must be noisy at night, luckily we weren’t intending to stay. A few permanent vans were in situ, some looking like they haven’t been started for years. Residents looked at us quizzically as we parked up and inspected the grimy facilities. It was in working order but we trod gingerly around the suspicious brown lumps near the waste disposal area.
Our wanderings took us to the MUST museum where we watched some 3D films of the history of Lecce (ok, but too focussed on the ancient history) and looked at the art exhibits. I asked where the history section was, ‘closed for refurbishment’ was the answer – I wish they had told us before we paid our entry fee. Rather grumpily we moved onto the Basilica de Santa Croce, supposedly the most ornate of the buildings in Lecce it was covered in scaffold; at least they had a print of the church façade over the scaffold so we could see what we were missing.
We did find one treasure though, the Museo Faggiano shows what happens when you start renovating a house in Lecce’s historic centre. Signore Faggiano bought the building so that his family could open a Trattoria on the ground floor and live in the upper floors. Building work to track down issues with the drains led to archaeological finds covering 2500 years. From basement to terrace they uncovered little gems of historical interest, symbols of the Knights Templar, rooms used to prepare bodies for burial, ancient grain stores…We were handed several pages of notes and left to wander around this fascinating building. We may have started our visit to Lecce with a note of frustration, but we ended it satisfied. I can see why people rave about it.
While we were eating our lunch in the sunshine we decided that we would see if we could find a campsite to spend the next few days. That night we drove to a free parking spot on the coast near San Cataldo where we spent a little while googling the best place to stay.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.