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. 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A Serendipitous Stop

15/03/18

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

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

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

Parked up in Lauria

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

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

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

 

The Heavens Opened

14/03/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Mystery Solved

09/03/18

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

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

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

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

A solitary stalk of asparagus

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

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

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

 

Bent Wheels and Buffalo Butter

07/03/18 – 08/03/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek Temples in Paestum

05/03/18 – 06/03/18

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

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

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

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

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

The fresco of the diver

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

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

 

      

Red Road Houses on the Adriatic Coast

18/02/18 – 19/02/18

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

Driftwood serpent

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

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

The red A.N.A.S houses

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

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

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

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

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

Mosaic of the apostles

Yet Another Amphitheatre

16/02/18

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

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

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

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

         

Up, Down and All Over Pompeii

11/02/18 – 12/02/18

We spent Sunday driving down to Pompei (the town) where were due to visit Pompeii (the ancient city). Our route took us initially through pleasant agricultural landscapes, but it wasn’t long before we reached coast and from that point the scenery became less pleasing. Mondragone summed it up for us, this large town with a romantic name straggles along the coast with many campsites, cafes and car parks. The development is not high rise, but it’s still ugly and uncontrolled with a feeling of a shanty town about it’s unkempt fences and poorly maintained buildings. People were wandering around with not much to do in the off season, most places were closed. Beggars lined the streets and tried their luck at every traffic light, whores plied their trade on the outskirts of town, refuse was piled in each layby. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe it improves in the high season. This is what I imagine the detractors of Italy are seeing, take me back to the mountains and the beautiful Italy!

We were dispirited, and we took the autoroute as soon as we could, bypassing Naples to get into Pompei. As we drove towards Naples we had the sight of Vesuvius – oddly small and unprepossessing compared to the mountains we’d seen so far – and the Sorrento peninsular to keep us buoyed up.

Our choice for a campsite in Pompei was Fortuna Village, there are a few along the strip of land across the road from the entrance to Pompei and we just chose the cheapest ACSI one. €17 euros for a campsite close to the site was good value from our perspective (but don’t forget the tourist tax). It also had awesomely hot and powerful showers, but the smallest cubicles I have ever seen. Paul’s dressing gown came into it’s own as there was no practical way of getting changed (and to think I’d told him it was unnecessary).

So…Pompeii…I have always wanted to visit, having a bit of an obsession with volcanos. We set off, not too early, walking boots on and a rucksack of hot drinks, cold drinks and snacks to see us through what we knew would be a long day (we topped up with a slice of pizza at lunch time – I may never eat pizza in the UK again as even the meanest Italian pizza goes to a whole new level).

We paid our entry fee of €13 euros each and picked up a map, our strategy was to walk around the outside first, and then spiral back into the centre of the city. We didn’t quite walk every street and enter every building, but we did our best and covered just over 15k. I loved it, and even Paul managed to maintain his enthusiasm as we walked around. Our opinion is that you need to see it as a bit of an adventure – look into nooks and crannies, don’t just go for the obvious places, don’t get frustrated when some buildings aren’t open (it’s common for about a fifth of the buildings to be closed), be prepared for a long day with a lot of walking and lots of people (and school groups in low season). Our favourite bits; the roads, their cobbles with the deep scars created by ancient wheels are really evocative. The recently restored Villa of the Mysteries, out beyond the city walls but worth the walk to see the frescos. The forum granary with it’s everyday objects. The casts of the people, animals and trees (yes, there are casts of tree roots) caught in the eruption, gruesome but fascinating. The many shop fronts with their marble counters a testament to the vibrant commerce of the city. Looking for naughty pictures/mosaics/statues as a way of keeping Paul’s interest levels up. Oh and the Pink Floyd exhibition in the amphitheatre adds a bit of a surreal touch after seeing so much ‘old stuff’. 

Our personal suggestion for improving the experience – do more to emphasise the lives of the ordinary people.

I’m really glad that we made the time to fulfil a long held ambition, now to climb Vesuvius. 

 

Overwhelming Rome

03/02/18 – 06/02/18

Rome has won the prize for the most overwhelming location we have visited so far. I don’t think either of us had really been prepared for a visit to this city and it quickly became clear that doing Rome in a weekend was as possible as doing London in a weekend. You could wear yourself out trying to do everything, and still fail, not only that but you could quickly grow jaded with the sights awaiting you at every corner. We’d had similar overload in Egypt where the ancient buildings had merged into one, and when on safari the herds of Wildebeest and Zebra had become commonplace rather than magnificent. 

After our first day in Rome we knew that we had to take it easy. The answer in a city (for us anyway) is to choose a couple of sights for a day, and in between to have lunch, pick up an ice-cream, have a coffee (or tea for me please) and just observe what’s going on around you without forcing it. We decided that we wouldn’t do the Vatican this time, it was just one thing too many, maybe next time, because there will be a next time.

We bought the Roma pass for our visit. We only just broke even on it, so it wont always be worth it. You get a free visit to the Coliseum/Forum, including fast entry (ie not queuing at the ticket office), two other museums free and any further museums at the reduced rate, plus free public transport. Museums come at various prices so it’s cost effectiveness depends on what you want to see. You also have to visit the museums in order as you cannot chose which are your freebies, it will always be the first ones. It doesn’t apply to Vatican City sights.

Here are a few photos from our time in Rome.

 

The Hollow Ways of the Etruscans

30/01/18

As we drove south through Tuscany the land slowly flattened out. From the steep sided closely packed hills of the north we ventured through lower hills and wider shallower valleys until it seemed almost flat. But appearances can be deceiving, we were still a couple of hundred meters above sea level, and as we approached Sorano we rounded a bend in the road to see a town perched on a clifftop above a dark forested river valley cutting through the land.

Hilltop towns had been very much a feature of Tuscany, and here in the province of Grosseto the tradition of fortified defensible towns continued with the clifftop ‘Tufa Towns’  of Sorano, Pitigliano and Sovano. Tufa (although it should properly be called tuff) is the volcanic rock that underpins the landscape here – a soft rock that is easy to excavate, which gives rise to some of the archeologic features.

Of the three towns we randomly chose to visit Sorano, like the other towns it had been established by the Etruscans and although their legacy isn’t visible in the town it can be found in the surrounding area. We parked up by the Orsini fortress which dominates the top part of the town. It wasn’t open to visitors but we were still able to walk through it’s courtyard and see the view down towards the medieval buildings of the town below. We wandered down through the narrow streets, down mossy steps and cobbled slopes. It felt like walking through a ghost town, doors and shutters were pinned closed and we could only hear our footsteps. When we tried to get to the viewpoint of Masso Leopoldino the gate was firmly padlocked, it didn’t matter though as there were plenty of other viewpoints through the town.

After a few wrong turns we found the Porta di Rocco on the lower eastern side of the town and we could escape the buildings and descend to the river below. This was what we had really come to the area to see. Down here are ancient pathways deeply carved into the rock – the Vie Cave – it’s thought they are Etruscan in origin, but no one knows why they were cut so deeply into the rock. They link together the towns of Sorano, Sovana and Pitigliano – we didn’t go that far but allowed ourselves to get lost and turned around exploring the three main pathways that spread out from Sorano. There was something eerie about being between the confines of the pathway walls, the ghostly feeling enhanced by the rock cut caves and burial chambers that could be found in the surroundings.

We found a porcupine quill in the vie cave – we had no idea that there are porcupines in Italy

Emerging from the Vie Cave we could then head in the opposite direction to the troglodyte town of Vitozza, an archeological area of many cave dwellings from different periods. Spread out through the forest it was not well signposted, or at least we didn’t find any informative signs, but we had not approached from the usual direction. We felt that we were probably missing some interesting sights and should have given the area more time, but it was starting to get a bit dimpsy so we needed to get back.

Approaching Sorano from below you can see how precariously the houses perch on top of each other, on top of the ancient walls and all on top of a cave riddled cliff. We wandered back up and through the more modern part of the town where we found evidence that there was a local population and a few shops and bars. Our parking near the fortress was the school bus drop off/pick up point so we investigated, and later moved to, a different parking spot as we didn’t fancy being woken up too early.

From our parking spot we could watch the setting sun shine on the town.

We put this on our list of places to come back to and explore further. Pitigliano is a bit bigger and looks like it has some interesting buildings as well as it’s historic Jewish quarter, Sovana has an archeological park with more Etruscan heritage, there is a mountain bike trail around the area taking in some of the sights which looks like it could be interesting and of course many more miles of Vie Cave to explore. You could easily spend a week in the area exploring these three towns.

Bagno Vignoni and the Via Francigena

28/01/18 – 29/01/18

We moved on from Greve-in-Chianti to find something less strenuous to occupy our time. Tuscany has a number of hot springs and so we thought we’d see if we could find somewhere for a soak.

Not Bagno Vignoni though. This village has a hot spring that fills a large rectangular pool in the centre of the village. At this point it’s about 50 degrees, lovely, but no bathing allowed here. From the village centre the warm water flows through the local spa hotel before cascading down the side of a hill to the public pools which are tepid at best. It’s probably very refreshing on a hot day but not in the middle of winter. I suppose we could have paid to go into the spa, but we’re far too tight for that.

Instead we spent a few hours wandering around the village with many other people enjoying their Sunday outing. We hung out for a while in one of the cafes that were situated around the edge of the village’s central pool. You could feel the warmth from the water, not a fierce heat but just slightly less cold than the surroundings. Steam rose gently above the pool, visible only when the air was very still, and the spring bubbled under the surface of the water. The pigeons enjoyed splashing in the pool even though we couldn’t.

From the village centre we followed the path of the water down past the spa hotel and into the Parco dei Mulini. The water made it’s way through narrow channels cut in the rock to the ruins of the mill. We tested the temperature of the stream here and it was still pretty warm, but the channels were too small for anything more than a quick dunk of the feet.

We followed steps down the small cliff where we could see the water splashing over waterfalls, the rocks here had a thick coating of yellowish sulphur deposits left by the water. There are four mills in this park, set on top of each other with the lower mills set into caves and carved into the rocks, if you were happy to squidge through the mud and be dripped on from above you could take a look inside.

Further down there are two pools where the water is shallow and much cooled. These are the public bathing areas, although I’m not sure they are in use any more and I couldn’t persuade Paul to take a dip. From here the water runs into the river valley. It’s relative warmth is still evident in the amount of vegetation that grows along it’s channels, and even in the middle of winter we could see frogs jumping. 

After our easy perambulations around the village we decided to stay for a second night and the following morning we felt up to something a little more strenuous again. There are many walking routes leading from the village, all well signposted. We walked uphill from our parking area, following a track up to a small fortified village of Borgo di Vignoni with it’s keep, church and walls, then onwards along a section of the Via Francigene, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. We turned off this path to follow a deep cut track between high ferny banks – very reminiscent of Dartmoor – which eventually led us towards the Castello di Ripa d’Orcia, before dropping down to the river and following it back to Bagno Vignoni. 

This area was beautiful, Bagno Vignoni gave a tourist’s eye view of Tuscany with all buildings perfectly maintained and the streets beautifully laid out. In contrast walking around the area took us to some more rural areas with farm buildings much more ‘lived in’. All in all Tuscany was shaping up to be a fabulous area to visit. 

 

Leaning Towers and Impossible Towers

26/01/18

Every blog I’ve read has reported disappointment with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So it was with lowered expectations that we headed for Pisa. A bit of backtracking but the weather forecast was gloomy and we thought it would be a better day for sightseeing than for outdoorsy stuff.

After Lucca this was another location with reports of thefts from vehicles so we opted for a parking spot that seemed slightly more secure with a manned office (not 24 hours, but we weren’t intending to spend the evening out). It was on the Via di Pratale and was signposted at most junctions. Our satnav told us that we were entering the Pisa environmental zone (the Zona Traffico Limitato) at one point, and although we didn’t see any roadsigns for it I cant guarantee there weren’t any – there were lots of signs that I couldn’t keep up with. There is a map of the ZTL entry point cameras on the official site here.

We got to the site and got ourselves parked up – no need for electric so it was €12 for 24 hours – then it was off to explore Pisa and see what all the disappointment was about.

From the parking spot we followed the Medici aqueduct into the city. This work of renaissance engineering once bought waters from the hills north of Pisa. Now, although mostly intact (we had to drive under it to get into the sosta) it is no longer in working order. It still runs all the way to Asciano though and you can follow a bike path along it’s length.

The aqueduct running through Pisa

The old town of Pisa seemed very similar to Lucca, plenty of renaissance buildings, cobbled streets and piazzas. We wandered around for a bit before heading to the tower planning to be underwhelemed.

As we entered the Piazza del Duomo our first impression was of the striking white buildings. In contrast to the earthy tones of the surrounding buildings each of the buildings in the piazza were radiantly white, like the bones of the city exposed. There is more to Pisa than the tower, and maybe this is one source of disappointment. The tower was built as the bell tower of the cathedral, and so was never meant to be the starring feature of the area. The cemetery is a massive block of marble, the cathederal likewise is huge and imposing. The baptistery with it’s impressive dome adds some more graceful curves. The tower is small in comparison to all three, and it’s not even unique – all the buildings in the area are leaning slightly. But despite the relatively small size it really does make an impression, when you stand next to the tower and look up you get the vertiginous feeling that it’s toppling down on you.

Yes – it really does lean
The cathedral and tower, it gives a sense of the angle the tower leans at.
Baptistry, Cathedral and Tower

We visited the cathedral, which is free but you have to pick up a ticket to get a time slot. We would have liked to climb the tower, but at €18 a pop it was far too much for us, especially as we had plans to spend our money later that day. We enjoyed wandering around the Piazza dei Miracoli, although the only thing remotely miraculous was the number of foreign tourists that had emerged from the woodwork. 

Later we wandered down to the Arno river heading for Palazzo Blu. When i’d been googling places to visit in Pisa I’d found out that there was an Escher exhibition being held. It felt like a stroke of good fortune to be able to see this after our visit to the Dali Museum, bringing back fond memories of the posters on my university bedroom walls. The exhibition bought together a large volume of Escher’s work, arranged mostly thematically, but also with a bit of history. I had been a fan of the paradoxical towers and geometrical pictures when I had been younger, but this time it was the reflections that captivated me.  

 

Walking Walls in Lucca

25/01/18

The city of Lucca was our first stop in Tuscany, founded by the Etruscans and with an abundance of renaissance buildings, it looked like a pleasant place to start a short tour around Tuscany.

Lucca old town is surrounded by intact city walls. After walking around the Roman walls in Lugo we fancied repeating the exercise here in Lucca. The walls here aren’t as old as Lugo’s walls, and their character is completely different but they share one thing in common; they are fully intact and encircle the old city, the ‘centro storico’.

There is a sosta situated outside the old city where there were a couple of other motorhomes. It’s got a barrier on entry where you pick up a ticket and you pay before you leave. At 10 euros for 24 hours it seemed reasonable value, especially when compared with the previous night’s parking. When we read reviews of the sosta there had been warnings of thefts so we double checked the precautions we take when leaving Bertie unguarded. It’s very easy for us to get complacent with our security measures and let them slacken off so it was a good exercise to check them. Making sure that valuables are in the safe, using our deadlocks and double locks on all the doors, ensuring windows are properly closed, putting the steering lock on, hiding our electronic equipment (the stuff that doesn’t fit in the safe) and making sure that our money, cards and phones are on us at all times and not just left hanging around. We don’t have much that would be of value to a thief, but the distress and inconvenience of theft shouldn’t be underestimated. So far we haven’t experienced it ourselves and we want to do everything we can to avoid the hassle and heartache.

Fortunately all was well and Bertie was untouched when we returned from our perambulations around the city walls. They are so wide and spacious, with grassy parks and trees lining the paths and cycle tracks, it is unnerving when you remember you are top of a man made structure.  They are just over 4km around and as we walked we were lapped a couple of times by runners out for their lunchtime jog. I had wondered how people managed to cycle around the walls but there were long ramps providing easy access to the walkways. 

We didn’t do much in Lucca apart from wander around the walls and then meander through the city. We saw churches with their beautiful marble facades, one that seemed to have tried a marble of every hue in it’s columned facade. There were towers, including the Guigni Tower which stands out because of it’s rooftop oak trees. The streets and piazzas, including the oval Piazza Anfiteatro which was built on the site of the Roman amphitheatre, were cobbled and lined with beautiful buildings, mainly traffic free they were ideal for a bit of aimless exploration.  

On the way to Lucca we drove past many unfinished blocks of marble, no wonder there are so many marble clad buildings here
The broad and grassy walls of Lucca
We spotted this gorilla, not sure what it’s significance was
San Martino Cathedral
Palazzo Pfanner with the Basilica di San Frediano in the background.
The Palazzo Pfanner, the palazzo is closed to visitors between November and April, but you can see the extent of the buildings and the beautiful gardens from the city walls.
One of the many squares in Lucca, the streets and squares are a joy to wander around

A Tale of Two Towns

21/01/18 – 22/01/18

Normally our travel schedule is built around things that we want to see or do, but after Chateau Peyrepertuse we didn’t really know what to do next. Our alternative strategy is to look parking locations and see if any reviews spark our interest.

In this way we had found Sommières, which was in the right direction of travel. We had spent the Saturday night here and our sleep had been rather fitful, the Saturday evening revelry had woken us up every now and again and the morning was noisy with the sound of fit people doing energetic Sunday morning things. 

One reason for deciding on this parking spot was a review comment about a cycle track down the river towards Nimes, but in our bleary eyed state it wasn’t going to be particularly pleasant. Instead we wandered the streets of Sommières, finding a charming town of medieval cobbled alleys, arcades and archways. We wandered up to the castle, which was shut but offered good views, and down to the bridge, famous for having buildings built on it’s outermost arches; now it’s impossible to tell where the bridge ends and the streets begin. There were shuttered windows and stone tenement buildings. Cafes were open and bakeries and patisseries offered artful displays of pastry and bread. Joggers and lycra clad cyclists were doing a much better job than us of being energetic, but most people were just wandering like us. As we wandered around we found a memorial to Lawrence Durrell who had owned a villa and died here, a claim to fame we had been unaware of. 

The arched bridge, originally Roman, but extended and built on from Medieval times onwards
One of the town gates
Tenement buildings and cobbled alleys

In the early afternoon we moved on to another parking spot chosen in the same way. It was only mid afternoon and we weren’t going far. This time we ended up in Saint-Chamas, another pleasant small town where shuttered houses with pastel shutters are set out in a neat grid formation. Here we parked on the shores of the Étang de Berre where the wind was whipping up white horses. We walked a short distance along the lakeside but found our way blocked so headed towards town instead. The town is divided by a long cliff, and we could see caves carved out of the cliff looking out towards the lagoon. At one point a gap in the cliff is spanned by an aqueduct so we just had to climb to the top to see the view.

The aqueduct cuts across the centre of Saint-Chamas
From the tope of the aqueduct you can see both sides of the town.
Saint-Chamas street with caves cut into the cliff behind

The parking at Saint-Chamas is supposedly charged, and we were expecting the police to drop by at some point and collect some money, but they drove past and neglected to charge us. We weren’t complaining and felt quite smug compared to the French van that had arrived late and set off early. The following morning I popped into the tourist office to pick up a jeton so we could fill up with water and we had a leisurely start to our day.

Bertie enjoys the sunset at the Saint-Chamas aire

We set off, choosing to follow the shore of the Étang for a while before breaking off east past Marseille. Just outside town we spotted another Saint-Chamas landmark, the roman bridge ‘Pont Flavien’ standing in a field and looking rather out of place now that it is no longer the main crossing point of the Touloubre river. Bertie had difficulty sticking to his lane due to Paul’s fixation with the sea planes that were taking off and landing near Marseilles, flying low over the road (which was quiet, fortunately). We drove through limestone hills, past vineyards and Provencal country houses enjoying the landscape on our way to our next destination. It was going to be a long drive, so we stopped at an Intermarche to get some groceries and have our lunch. The self service laundry facilities were too good an opportunity to miss so we laundered our clothes as we ate lunch. Exciting times! 

Typically French tree lined road

     

Squirrel Cages and Putlock Holes

20/01/18

Our trip through France was just going to be a fleeting one, a few days to see us from Spain to Italy. Still, we wanted to make the most of it by seeing some sights rather than just driving.

We had spent a quiet night in the village of Duilhac on a free aire which had the usual facilities, even the tap was on which is unusual for a French aire in winter. The following morning we decided to walk up to Peyrepertuse Castle. We could have driven up to the car park, but we fancied stretching our legs with a walk up to the top of the limestone ridge where the caste perched.

We followed the road and then the footpath up and up, it was a strenuous and steep ascent, but only took us just over half an hour to get to the ticket office, by which time we were down to t-shirts and sweating profusely. The castle was built into the pale grey limestone of the ridge with local stone, at a distance it was difficult to tell what was castle and what was wall, but the size of the fortification was slowly revealed as we got closer.

Approaching the castle

At the ticket office I used my awful French (interspersed with some Spanish words because my brain couldn’t cope with changing languages) to ask for two tickets. The woman who was on duty responded in perfect English and congratulated us for being the first visitors of the day, in fact we only saw two other visitors as we were leaving. We picked up the audio guide to help us find our way around the site and made our way even further up to the gates of the castle.

The route to the entrance took us further uphill and round to the other side of the ridge where we finally found the castle gates for the lower keep. On the way we were accompanied by the deep voice of Le Capitaine Alban, complete with very French guttural ‘thinking noises’. This was a great audio guide, the Capitane is taking an inventory of the castles defences and so it is acted rather than being a dry commentary. In addition it has a glossary of terms which Paul found fascinating. Here we learned that the square holes for holding beams are Putlock Holes, and that the man powered ‘hamster wheel’ mechanism for raising and lowering building materials is actually called a Squirrel Cage.

The castle is often called one of the Cathar Castles, although very little of the Cathar era structure remains, most of it being the lower walls and foundations. The majority of the building, especially the higher keep and dungeon, was built at the order of Saint Louis shortly after the crusade against the Cathar ‘heresy’ was called to a halt in the 13th century. At this point the border between Spain and France was still being disputed and the castle formed part of a network of border defences. By 1659 and the Treaty of the Pyrenees the castle was no longer on the border with Spain and so was decommissioned.

The view from the upper keep

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the castle taking in the views, marvelling at it’s defensive position high above the valley and wondering at the efforts of construction in such a difficult location. Eventually the wind started to swirl around us and raindrops started to fall from the lowering clouds. It was time to leave and head back to Bertie, this time wearing a couple more layers.

Looking down towards Duilhac, on the distant ridge is another Cathar Castle – Chateau de Queribus

In the village we searched for the local shop, but they couldn’t sell us any bread – have you ever heard of such a thing happening in France? So for our late lunch we fell back on our emergency cream cracker supply.

We moved on that afternoon, taking a long drive through the hills to Montpellier, where our avoidance of tolls took us through the city outskirts. It was dark by the time we arrived in Sommieres and the town was bustling with pedestrians enjoying their Saturday evening. The approach to our parking spot was through some of the narrow medieval streets of the town. We held our breath hoping that the sat nav was taking us in the right way. Luckily we found the signs for the municipal camping (our parking would be just outside the closed campsite) and we followed them through right angle turns and narrow streets to join a few other motorhomes in the large car park.       

Tie a Yellow Ribbon

17/01/18 – 18/01/18

We took another long drive north, heading past Barcelona towards the town on Figueres. Along the way we passed fabulous scenery, including Montserrat – the serrated mountain – which hid the city of Barcelona from view behind it’s fantastic silhouette.

We were now firmly in Catalan Spain, on the route we saw yellow ribbons everywhere, tied to bridges, stencilled on rocks, hanging from windows. We later found out that the yellow ribbons are a symbol of solidarity with the politicians who were arrested without bail in the furore that surrounded the recent vote for independence.

The draw of Figueres was the Dali museum. Like many students of my era the walls of my room were decorated with posters, not the revolutionary images of Che Guevara that were popular in the 70’s, but the surrealist images of Salvadore Dalí  and the geometrical paradoxes of Escher. Much as I hate to admit it, this was probably driven by the posters available from Athena rather than any conscious choice. Nevertheless I’ve had an interest in both artists since and was very keen to visit Dali’s museum.

Before we got to Figueres though we needed to get Bertie’s tracking seen to. With the long drives Paul had noticed a slight pull to the right, and inspection of the tyres indicated the tracking might be out. We stopped at an industrial estate tyre centre where they sorted our tracking, but also managed to snap the adjustment arm. After some interesting attempts to communicate (google doesn’t translate technical terms very well) a bit of pointing at the broken part and then at tools we fathomed that the mechanic was proposing to weld the adjustment arm in place and we would need to go to a proper workshop to get Bertie sorted out. It’s not urgently though so we decided to leave that for another day. 

Bertie’s wheels were now pointing in the same direction and we made it to Figueres where’s we drove round a few times looking for a parking spot that suited us. The town didn’t fill us with great joy, it looked quite run down and depressed. The couple of wild spots we found didn’t feel safe, too many young men hanging around. So we ended up in the supermarket car park with a number of other vans.

The Dali museum was fantastic, set in an old theatre that was burned and ruined during the Spanish Civil War. Dali moved back to Figueres when his wife died and restored the building, creating a museum of his art. It is crammed full of pictures, sculptures and installations, to the extent that you just don’t know where to look. I dragged Paul round a second time and could easily have gone round again and seen something new. As well as Dali’s own work there were items by other artists and I particularly liked the series of photos of Dali’s moustache. The ticket also gets you into an exhibition of the ‘jewels’ – Dali’s creations from gold and precious gems. Some of these were very beautiful and some just excessive and gaudy, but all worth seeing. 

In the theatre courtyard a multitude of sculptures vie for attention
This mechanical installation slowly expanded to reveal it’s bright colours. I can’t come claim to understand the religious imagery
Dalí created this installation for his museum based on his painting of Mae West – the painting depicts Mae West’s features as furniture in an apartment – here’s they are furniture and you can view them through a lens to recreate the 2D painting.
A ceiling mural that depicts Dalí (note the moustache) and his wife holding up the heavens – the perspective of the Dalí figure is particularly well done
Eggs – one of the pervading images from Dali’s work – adorn the roof of the theatre
The glass dome tops the theatre courtyard and allows the artworks to be bathed in sunlight

After overdosing on Dali’s works we went up the hill to the fort – the Castell San Ferran. This is the largest bastion fort in Eurpoe and really is enormous. You can walk the path around the outside of the walls for free, but we decided to go inside and we’re pleased that we did. However we had a bit of a disagreement with the woman in the ticket office who wouldn’t let us have an audio guide because it was 1 hour long and she was leaving in 50 minutes. We couldn’t persuade her that we would get back in time and so we ended up wandering around wishing we knew what we were looking at. 

The huge courtyard of the fort
Looking down into the warren of barracks
Álvarez de Castrowas a general in the Spanish war of independence, he died at the fort under suspicious circumstances (according to the Spanish) or of natural causes (according to the French)
The stables went on forever