The Great Glass Elevator to the Alps

27/05/18

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.

Bard Fortress – welcome to the rock

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.

The lifts to the Forte di Bard

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.

The village of Bard – it pays to have a small car

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.

 

 

  

A Whistle Stop Tour of Florence

23/05/18

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

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Tuscany

22/05/18

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. 

An Unexpected Stop in Civitella del Tronto

16/05/18

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.

View of the Monte della Laga
The Bell to the Fallen, presented to the town in 1970
Paul making use of the barracks facilities
Ruined buildings on the fort
The Church of St James

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.

Town square, quiet when we arrived during lunch, but busy in the early evening
Church of San Francesco
The town was built on clearly defined terraces to the south of the fort
Earthquake damage to this lovely building – note the reinforcement to the upper storey and the construction to stop any parts of the façade from falling on people.

This had been an unexpected stop, but had made up for our disappointment of not getting to Ripe. 

A City under Reconstruction

08/05/18

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!   

  

Bones and Birds in Otranto

23/04/18

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.

Looking across the harbour at the medieval fortress walls
The monument to the Otranto Martyrs

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! 

The relics of the martyrs lined the walls of the chapel – slightly surreal

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.

Our little beach spot – perfect for a dip

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!   

Golden Stone and a Long History

18/04/18

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.

       

Finding Feral Trulli

13/04/18 – 15/04/18

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

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

Locorotondo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Oronzo’s column

 

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

Troglodyte Living in Matera

05/04/18 – 07/04/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Trip to Some More Greek Ruins

05/04/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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