Although we’d deliberately decided to stay lower down the mountains, the lure of the snowy heights proved too much and we decided we had to go up to Campo Imperatore to see the main peaks at closer range. We could have gone up in the cable car, but it seemed that overnighting was permitted at Campo Imperatore so we decided to drive up instead, along a road that first took us away from our destination before swinging around and driving up through increasingly alpine scenery. We drove past abandoned hotels (it seems a ski resort was started but never finished in the 80’s), between high banks of snow and past purple swathes of crocuses on the meadows where snow had recently melted. It was worth it for the drive alone, and the road was reasonable because the cyclists were due to ascend to the finish line here in a couple of days time. Having said that, there were a couple of guys shovelling asphalt into potholes so still a bit of work to be done before the Giro.
We were surprised at the tatty nature of some of the buildings at Campo Imperatore. I know that snow and cold weather takes it’s toll on buildings but we’d expected that some effort would have gone into making it more presentable. The following morning a crew arrived to start sweeping the car park clear of gravel and debris, but it was obvious that there was no time to make the hostel more respectable. I assume the TV crew would work their magic.
As we were driving we were sussing out possible spots to park up and watch the race, but after looking on facebook we realised that the road was going to be closed for at least 10k and no one would be able to park along that stretch even if we were in place before the roads were closed. We investigated parking further down and walking up to the race, but in the end decided we could make better use of the day.
To make the most of our trip to Campo Imperatore and the brilliant morning sunshine we walked up past the silver domed observatory to the Rifugio Duca degli Abruzzi that can be seen on the ridge above the parking area. Even at this altitude we needed to cross or avoid snow patches. A ski mountaineer was hot on our heels. I couldn’t envy him, to me there is no cost benefit to slogging uphill in ski boots for five minutes of skiing, I’m definitely the type of skier who likes to be hoisted uphill by mechanical means. Once on the ridge we were able to walk along it’s crest for a little while before hitting the next patch of snow that was too dangerous for us to cross. It was just a short walk but the views or Corno Grande and the basin beyond the ridge were worth it.
This wasn’t the last we would see of these mountains – in the next few days we were going to tackle them from the other side.
We made our way from L’Aquila up through the foothills of the Gran Sasso national park, climbing up on the major road (A24) that chugged almost imperceptibly uphill and through tunnels to the village of Assergi. Ahead of us the crystal white peaks of the mountains peeped out from the green forested hills. We knew we wouldn’t get to the top of these alpine mountains without proper winter equipment so we were heading for a base slightly lower down where we could enjoy some mountain walking with limited ice and snow.
Our parking spot was a large carpark built to service the traffic on the gondola that takes people up from Fonte Cerreto to Campo Imperatore. A large, flat and almost empty car park with grand views of the valley below – it was perfect. We checked out the gondola, expecting it to be shut in May as per the website, but it was running. Very few people were using it, but we soon found out that they were expecting to ferry several thousand people up to watch the end of stage 9 of the Giro d’Italia on 13th, something that took us a little by surprise, was it that time of year already?.
On our first day here we went for a bike ride along a route that was recommended on the national park website. Probably our favourite mountain biking route in Italy so far, it took us up the valley from Assergi following a well marked and wide track gradually uphill to the village of San Pietro. From here we followed the road even further uphill past springs, troughs and herds of cows until we could take a steep downhill track to Vasto. Once down to the river we followed fun and easy single track below limestone cliffs and caves before eventually meeting another track just before Assergi. We had to ford the river four times, using our bike to steady us as we tried to find the stepping stones that were mostly submerged in the spring melt waters. By the time we got back we had wet feet but we’d had a lot of fun.
We took a quick detour into the cobbled streets of Assergi to try and find some tourist information.We found an ‘information point’ i.e. a carousel with lots of useless leaflets in it, but I was sure there must be more. Only once I’d walked into a random office did I realise that the carousel was it. The lady in the office helpfully pointed me in the direction of a local hotel (Hotel Giampy) who had an English speaking receptionist and more books and maps for walking than we have seen for a while. I was in my element and could have spent a fortune, but limited myself to a map and a guidebook.
Using the guidebook and map we planned another walk from Fonte Cerreto. This time we climbed up a marked track (CAI red and white markings) through woodland to the west of the gondola, taking multiple zig-zags as we got higher and higher and eventually cleared the tree line. Above the trees we started to spot alpine plants, violas and orchids, both in yellow and purple, were the flowers we could identify. Small patches of snow lay in gullies but didn’t impact the path as we traversed along animal tracks to pick up another CAI path down under the line of the gondola. On the downward path we had great views into the valley where we could occasionally make out our car park far below us. At one of the gondola supports, where red paint was splattered on the surrounding rocks and vegetation (it must have been a windy day when they painted), we mistakenly dropped into the gully rather than sticking to the ridge, the gully was uncomfortable walking over large stones and avalanche debris and we tracked back up to the ridge as soon as possible.
It felt odd to be walking in the mountains without reaching a summit, but summiting seems to be a peculiarly British obsession that we need to get over. With over 800m of ascent and some spectacular scenery and flora it was still a good mountain walk.
When we returned from our walk there were signs erected in the carpark forbidding parking all weekend. The Giro d’Italia had reserved the space for press and other support staff. We wondered how the ordinary supporters were going to get to the gondola, presumably they would have to park even further downhill and get the bus to Fonte Ceretto before getting the gondola up, then they would have to slowly be ferried back down at the end of the evening. You would have to be a pretty hardcore cycling fan to contemplate being the last person in that queue.
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!
When we were planning our time in the Majella national park we had looked at various maps and options for walking and cycling. Ambitiously we thought we would be summiting at least one of the mountains, even if it wasn’t the highest (Monte Amaro at 2793m). But as we approached the mountains we realised it was unlikely to happen, the weather was still humid and stormy topping up an already reasonable amount of snow on the summits. We turned our attention to alternative walks that wouldn’t go so high but would still provide a bit of a mountain feel.
The Majella (sometimes written as Maiella) mountains are peaks on a wide limestone plateau that looms over the surrounding countryside like a dark wall. Once you are up on the plateau you are already around 1500 meters above sea level, some 1000 meters above most of the surrounding countryside. The steep sides of the plateau have made it relatively inaccessible and a haven for wildlife as well as an excellent area for walking. The villages in the area surround the plateau and only a steep access road to a ski resort provides vehicular access to the higher altitudes. It is possible to get motorhomes up this road, but we didn’t attempt it. We focussed on the gorges formed by the water that has run off the plateau and created deep narrow gouges in it’s sides.
Gole di San Martino
We parked overnight in the national park car park before we walked up this gorge. There is steep parking on the side of the road leading to the visitor centre, but better parking is found by driving past the visitor centre up the dirt track to the start of the walk where there is a reasonably level car park. The only other people we saw here were a Belgian couple in a van conversion who turned up just for the day.
This gorge has one of the most spectacular starts, almost as soon as we started our walk we were in a narrow gap just a couple of meters wide with rock walls looming high overhead. It is said that San Martino elbowed the walls of this canyon apart. Elbows might be an exaggeration but Paul could touch both walls with his fingertips at the narrowest point.
Once through the narrowest part you find the ruined monastery of San Martino in the Valley. In modern times water rarely flows through the gorge, it is all controlled and piped underground (there are a few drinking water springs along the trail), but this monastery was abandoned after being ruined one too many times by flooding. Guided tours of the ruins can be arranged for a fee, but you get a good view from the path.
After this you can continue up the gorge as far as you wish to go, the path will eventually take you to Monte Amaro but it would be a significant undertaking, a long long day’s walk or a two day trek with a stop at a mountain hut. The path initially ran through dry riverbed with scrubby plants giving off strong herby scents of thyme and oregano (or maybe marjoram) when we brushed against them. The high rock walls inspired gawping and tripping as we tried to walk and look upwards at the same time.
As we got higher the walls became less steep and wider apart and the beech forest started, full of bird song but strangely devoid of undergrowth. In the beech forest the path divided by a picnic bench. We took the left hand fork and continued up until we reached the cloud at about 1300m. We hadn’t made it to the top of the plateau but it was still a good amount of ascent and enough for our poor legs that had forgotten what it was like to walk consistently uphill for a couple of hours.
Taranta Peligna is a small town sitting under a split in the rock walls of the Majella. Somewhere up above us was the Grotte Del Cavallone, but the attraction was closed, as was the cable car that can be used to reach it. We were particularly disappointed that the cable car was not running because it’s open one-man baskets looked like a thrilling way to travel up the gorge. I’ll admit now that we didn’t walk up this gorge, even though there is a path/steps, the weather was incredibly wet and our muscles were aching from our previous day’s walk. Instead we cycled away from the gorge, up the hills to the east of the village where we got better views. Our round trip route, planned on google maps, was cut short due to a road that was washed away. In the evening we walked up to the tiny Santuario Madonna della Valle; the sonorous voice of the priest could be heard as we walked up the streets towards the church, we were unsure if it was natural acoustics or electrical amplification.
We stayed in a well equipped but overgrown sosta in Taranta Peligna, on the notice board at the entrance it told us to ring a number on arrival, but where the number should have been was a blank space. We waited for someone to turn up and take our money but no-one arrived. Like many out of season locations in Italy I assume they just don’t care until summer when I hope they strim the pitches and de-infest the bathrooms before they start charging. The bathrooms were open and we turned on the hot water heater and had the luxury of showers, luckily neither of us are worried by critters, Paul even found a scorpion in his shower tray.
The Orfento Valley
Next stop was Caramanico Terme, a spa town on the north west side of the massif. When we hit a closed road our journey changed from 50ish to over 100 km, but at least our detour took us onto better roads. In Caramanico Terme we stopped in the car parking at the bottom of the hilly town. There is a lift at the back of the car park which allows people to avoid the steep hill to the main street, but by this time our legs were back to normal and probably a bit better at hills.
We had a quick shop for lunch items in the town bakeries and popped to the national park office to pick up our walking permit. These permits are free, but you have to take an ID document and register your intended route before you walk, then you are issued with a copy of the permit to carry with you. In theory you could be asked for it, but I cant imagine that it happens very often. The national park office here was really useful and stocked with maps and books, I think I would start in this town if I was visiting the Majella again.
This was another walk up a gorge but of a completely different nature than our first one. For a start there is a river running noisily through the valley, it was slightly opaque, sulphurous and gave off a misty vapour. The overhanging mossy greenery gave it a mysterious and prehistoric feel. We started our walk by descending to the Ponte di Caramanico where a signposted path took us down steps to the bank of the river, it criss-crossed the river several times giving ample opportunity for photos.
Then we continued along the bank, following the ‘Spirit’ path, one of the three long distance paths across the park. Our registered route was to cross the bridge at the Ponte del Vallone and return along the other side of the river, which we did eventually, but first we continued on a little further – shh don’t tell anyone!
After crossing the bridge the path took us high up the other side of the valley, giving us a completely different perspective. We enjoyed the longer views across to deer tracked scree and rocky cliffs and caves. As we walked back along this trail, which took us back into the top end of the town, we bumped into a group from Devon who were on a walking holiday. It’s a small world! We had a conversation with them and like starving people presented with a feast we may have enjoyed our English conversation far too much. I bet they were happy to get away!
Finding a collection of walks whose start points had car parks that were easily accessible by motorhome makes this area really attractive to us. One day we’ll come back for a late summer assault on the higher peaks.
After Vieste we went further round the coast to Peschici, a white walled fishing village that tumbles down the side of a headland and finishes at the harbour below. We took the coastal SP52 – having cycled along much of it the day before we knew it would be fine for a motorhome and would have pleasant views.
At Peschici we had decided to use one of the privately run Sosta/Campsites that sit behind the beach. There wasn’t much in the way of alternative parking and the warm weather was enticing us into a camping situation again. We ended up in Camping Bellariva with a wide assortment of nationalities who seemed to have converged on the area. We were quickly shown around the site and a selection of possible parking spots before Paul was taken away to get Bertie – in no uncertain hand waving terms I was told to stay behind on the space. Unnecessary to the process I assume!
It was a friendly and pleasant campsite, it’s prime beach side location reflected in the price of €19 (plus tourist tax). The night we arrived it was May 1st and holiday mood was in full swing, with loud bass coming from the beach cafes. The following morning the mood had relaxed and we spent a warm and sunny day lazing around the campsite, ambling to the beach for a swim and exploring the streets of Peschici.
It would prove to be the last day in our long run of sunshine and sea swimming. That evening the sky slowly turned from blue to grey. The web showed that there was a massive depression sitting in between mainland Italy, Sicily and Sardinia due to bring several days of strong winds, thunderstorms and rain. A quick debate and we decided to head north to our next destination – the Majella national park – we weren’t sure of better weather there, but it looked a little drier.
It was sad to say goodbye to Puglia; despite it being a bit of an obviousltouristy area it has been one of our favourite parts of Italy with a combination of glorious coastal scenery, historic whitewashed towns and prolific, good quality, motorhome stops both free and paid. We felt that we had been visiting at the right time too – the spring flowers and wildlife of the Salento district had been the icing on the cake. We will be back.
But for now we made a longish trek northwards to Fara San Martina. As we left the Gargano the rain, threatened by the heavy grey clouds, started to fall with a vengeance. Lightening flashes kept catching our eye and heavy rumbles of thunder made an interesting accompaniment to the rumble of the road surface. Would we find it any drier further north?
During yesterday evening we searched for a spot to park in the famous forests in the central Gargano. We found parking spots, but they were off road and deeply rutted. With a sigh of frustration we opted to continue to our next coastal parking spot at Vieste rather than carry on driving round the forest roads. Who knows, we might have found the perfect parking spot just around the next hairpin, but we’d run out of enthusiasm for looking.
Vieste has an attractive old town by all accounts, but I couldn’t persuade Paul to walk to it’s streets. We parked in a large carpark behind the wide sandy beach where there was specific prevision for motorhomes, then promptly copied the other dozen Italian vans and parked in the car area where there were better views (there were no cars in the car park as they had all decided to park on the street-side parking). From here we could look out to sea and see the buildings of the old town from afar.
We woke on the 1st still frustrated by our failed attempt to get parked in the forest, so decided to take a bike ride along the coast and then loop back inland where we would get a taste of the forest. Along the coast our frustration continued as we found ourselves stuck on the main road and unable to get to the coast proper due to so many private homes and businesses with locked gates. This is the first time we’ve really been thwarted by Italy’s private beaches. Usually they have been unguarded during the low season and open for anyone to use, but here all access routes seemed impossible (perhaps we were just going too fast to see them – not likely!). Finally we found a dirt track leading to Torre Calalunga and could see that we would be able to work our way back from here around the coast – at least for a while. We abandoned plans to go inland and instead cycled over grassy sward and limestone pavement back along the cliffs, stopping often to admire the views, caves and arches that are one of the natural attractions on the peninsula. At one point we came across a group of four motorhomes parked up on the grassy clifftop, we weren’t sure how they had got there but they were enjoying the May public holiday with the type of lavish spread that one associates with a food-proud nation like Italy. Our picnic was slightly less gastronomic.
We were able to enjoy this less developed coastline for a few kilometres, winding inland a couple of times to avoid hotels, before the Baia di Sifinale where we stopped for a swim and a snorkel back around the rocks. Then it was back up onto the main raod to cycle back to Bertie.
We were a right pair of whingers today, feeling like we had missed out on the forest (both of us) and the town of Vieste (me) but in the end we found somewhere spectacularly beautiful to enjoy, just not forest.
We spent some time in Camping Torre Sabea thinking about our plans for the next few weeks. We need to be back in the UK for the end of June and have a wish list of things to do between then and now. We mulled over our options – do we continue tootling around and taking things as they come, or do we start to make more firm plans to visit the areas we know we want to see. We decided on the latter…for now.
So first on our list was a visit to the Gargano peninsula. We had seen mixed reviews of the area, but most of the negative reviews were about the busy summer period when it gets incredibly busy. The positive reviews extolled the beauty of the coastline and the forested interior. It’s a popular destination for Italian holiday makers and campsites can get full. We felt we were safe enough in the low season, although we did wonder what the May public holiday might bring.
The Gargano Peninsula is still in Puglia, but when you look on the map Puglia is a very long region and by the time you reach this ‘spur’ that sits above the heel of Italy you are actually further north than Naples. It was a pretty long Sunday drive and for the first time in ages we had to pay a toll for the main roads (the motorways in the south are free).
We drove to a couple of spots in busy Manfredonia, but didn’t really enjoy the vibe of the place, it was just too busy for us and the parking was all in quite noisy locations. So we trundled around the coast to Porto di Mattinata where we parked in a large parking area right by the harbour. Our drive was a little more exciting than we expected as the tunnel was shut and so we had to climb switchbacks over the ridge before taking further hairpin turns back down to the coast. The road was fine though and the views were amazing.
We had expected to pay for the parking by the harbour, but no one was manning the entry so we were lucky. Although the little seaside resort was very busy the car park was almost empty, everyone seemed to be parking along the side of the roads. That evening the couple of restaurants and bars were busy and the atmosphere was cheerful, we wandered down for a late evening drink to get a taste of the atmosphere.
The following day we walked south along the bay and up the marked path to the headland of Monte Saraceno. From this vantage point we could see the orderly ranks of olive trees on the flat land behind the bay. Mattinata town itself sits as a shining white highlight in a sea of green on the steeper land a couple of kilometres back from the bay. The olive trees may have been an important part of the economy once, but many of them now have dual purpose, doubling up as campsites, private parking areas or providing access to the beach lidos. Who can blame the local population for making the most of this beautiful location.
Our walk followed one of the ‘running trails’ that are marked up for the Gargano running week. In the temperatures we were experiencing I wouldn’t want to be running, it was sweltering enough to be walking in the heat of the sun on this exposed bit of coast. The path took us around the north side of the headland and then up onto the ridge heading from east to west. The limestone rocks of the ridge were carved into strange shapes and overhangs and the mostly good path was eroded in one section – a rope had been provided to help people up or down.
On the top of the ridge we startled a couple of groups of pigs who were keeping cool under the scrubby trees. Did you ever sing the song ‘Whose pigs are these?’ ? I remember school coach trips and family drives where we had fun trying to think of rhyming solutions to the pig conundrum. ‘They are John Potts’ and I know them by the spots’ is the usual first verse but of course you can make up any version, as rude as you like (if the teachers aren’t paying attention).
As well as being home to a herd of pigs the ridge is the location of the necropolis of the Dauni tribe who lived here over 2500 years ago. Grassy paths wind in and out of the tombs carved into the rock, some obviously man made, some that might be natural. It’s a mysterious place to wander around and try to identify the graves, it’s a shame there isn’t much information locally about their discovery or their contents.
After wandering along the ridge we found a footpath downhill that crossed the switchbacks of the road we had driven down the day before. We were too hot to venture into Mattinata itself so we headed back through the olive groves to the beach where we could cool off in the sea.
We chose Camping Torre Sabea as our campsite to give us time and space to solve our mosquito problem. We ended up staying for three nights at this pleasant ACSI site, the weather was still warm and once we had settled in – set out the chairs and table, rolled out the awning and sorted out the bloodsuckers – it seemed too much of an upheaval to put it all back again. The site got steadily busier while we were there because it soon to be the next public holiday. While we were paying at the end of our visit the campsite owner described the procession of horses and other festivities happening in the nearby town of Galatone. We always seem to miss events and festivals, and were sorely tempted to go back to our pitch, but our minds were already on our next destination.
The campsite was near the tourist town of Gallipoli, not the location of the famous WW1 campaign, but a historic town that has made it as a tourist hotspot. We decided to walk into Gallipoli, mistakenly thinking that we could walk along the coast. Sadly we were forced back onto the main road when we got to a boatyard, with no pavement we walked along the hard shoulder, both feeling a bit exposed. We would recommend using the campsite’s navette (minibus) service instead. Gallipoli is a good town for wandering around; the medieval castle and walls surround a centro storico that sits on a promontory, separated from the modern town by a causeway. Within the walls you can wander around narrow streets where tourism sits cheek by jowl with more traditional pursuits – particularly fishing. We saw groups of fishermen mending nets, or sorting their long lines and one man weaving traps as well as more decorative items for the tourist market. The streets around the walls have views over the sea and so this is where you find plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes. In the warm weather they were doing well and we heard many northern European accents amongst the Italians, including a few British voices.
Under the walls are a number of harbours and one sandy beach where we took a swim to refresh ourselves from our dry and dusty roadside walk. After wandering around we stopped for a couple of panini for our lunch before heading back to the campsite. On the way back we stopped in the nearby supermarket (almost next door to the campsite) where they had lamb on offer. We hadn’t had any lamb for ages so we bought some to barbeque that evening, marinated in mint and balsamic vinegar and served with charred sweet potato, onions and courgette. Yum. The cadac was doing it’s job.
The following day we decided to cycle north along the coast and to the Natural Park of Porto Selvaggio. This was a lovely cycle, initially along the coast road through villages and past rocky shores with occasional small sandy beaches. As the road headed inland we found a track to take us through the pine forest to the beautiful inlet of Porto Selvaggio. It was a Saturday and all of the beaches we had passed were busy with families enjoying themselves, people looking for a little more solitude had set up camp on the rocks rather than fighting for a sandy spot.
Porto Selvaggio cannot be reached by car, but even so there were a good number of people there who had hiked down from the parking areas. We found ourselves a spot on the rocks to one side of the inlet and settled down for a little bit of sunbathing followed by another swim. The water here was deep and cool, a few people were daring each other to jump straight in, but I was happy to make my way in by degrees and then float on the top of the water where it was warmer. When we were dried back out we cycled back the way we had come.
I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned the blood sucking monsters yet, but that’s all going to change in this blog post. With rising heat and falling wind speeds it was only a matter of time before they reared their ugly heads. We’re talking mosquitos of course and they had begun appear a few days ago, just one or two to start with, and then suddenly there were hundreds of them.
On the night of Liberation Day the evil little blighters had been having a party of their own, using my body as their restaurant. All through the night I could hear the whining as they flew around and I took refuge by hiding completely under the cover (which by this time was a duvet cover with any duvet). The following morning it was evident that I hadn’t managed to escape, there were browny red splodges on the bed sheets where I had rolled and crushed them in my sleep….but only after they had feasted.
Our problem was a lack of preparation, we had been taken by surprise and foolishly had all the windows open without any fly screens up. It was time to take action.
Step one was to find a campsite so that we could give the bedding a wash and air. Then we made a concerted effort to hunt down every mossie that was hiding in the nooks and crannies of the van, waiting to come out at night. This involved a lot of opening of cupboards and shaking stuff out, followed by an after dark torch-lit hunt. The fly screens were put into operation (including clearing all the sand and crud from the channel of the door flyscreen so that it would actually close). It made a huge difference. But sadly the fly screens stop a lot of the cooling breezes that make us comfortable at night. The solution? We remembered that in the ceiling of our bedroom we have a 12v fan that will either suck or blow. Running this while the sun was shining kept the internal temperature of the van down and any electricity used was replaced by our solar panels. This was the first time we have used the fan since checking that it worked when we bought Bertie. Finally we see why it might be useful.
In the end we managed to get the number of the blood sucking creatures down to nearly zero – small enough numbers that we could swat them before going to sleep. Gradually our blotches and bumps subsided, we stopped scratching (and then telling each other off for scratching) and managed to get a decent night’s sleep. Garlic may have been used, but the holy water and wooden stakes stayed in the kit bag for next time.
The 25th April is Liberation Day in Italy. A day to remember the end of the fascist dictatorship and the end of Nazi occupation. It’s also very close to the national spring holiday on May 1st, so lots of Italians take time off work during this week. Put that together with some unseasonably warm weather and you have the recipe for some serious Italian socialising.
We moved to a carpark by the ‘Maldives of Puglia’, a long stretch of white sand beach with beautifully clear water – although it didn’t deliver the tropical fish and turtles I would have expected of the Maldives – we got there at about 10am and it was half full, including a handful of motorhomes. About an hour later it was the typical chaos of a busy Italian carpark. Every available space taken, small cars squeezed into unfeasibly small spaces (we did witness one driver climb out of his boot), cars parked on the end of rows, cars double parked (I assume they knew each other), newcomers driving round several times looking for a space. It was entertainment in itself.
The lidos had not yet opened for the season – and I bet they were kicking themselves – so there were no regimented ranks of umbrellas and sunloungers, and no payment to get onto the beach or to park. Behind the beach a fair had set up, with fairground rides, food stalls, bars, live music and some incongruous bric-a-brac sellers. It wasn’t really our thing, but sometimes it’s good to just go with the flow. We alternated lying on the beach with wandering around the fair, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying watching so many people having a good time. On the beach we witnessed people standing knee deep in the sea having vivacious conversations either with other people or on their phones. We decided that knee deep was the optimum depth, you would be cooled by the sea, no one would accuse you of sneaking in for a quick wee and you wouldn’t get your swimming costume wet, avoiding having to do the towel dance to change out of clammy swimwear and into dry undies. A group of a dozen or more teenage boys set up camp behind us, attracting the attention of passing teenage girls, who then walked past again, and again. We groaned inwardly but the lads were more interested in looking good than creating any sort of disturbance. When they played football they always had a couple of them fielding any stray balls that might hit other families – how very civil. But then, when you see how packed Italian beaches get, there is probably a strict etiquette for beach behaviour.
The partying went on until about 10pm, so not particularly late, the car park was left with just a few motorhomes parked up and we had a quiet night. Watching so many families and friends having a good time reminded us of home and how nice it is to celebrate together.
Driving for pleasure is not something we’re accustomed to. We don’t really spend much time driving for the enjoyment of it. In Italy it’s even harder to enjoy a scenic drive, the potholes and tortured road surfaces make it difficult for the driver to do anything apart from focus on the road, and the passenger might be getting a good view but is often being bounced around. So usually we enjoy taking in the scenery on a bike ride or a walk, but this morning Paul declared that he was too hot to do anything that involved physical exertion so we thought we would drive south as far as we could bear and then park up and enjoy a leisurely day.
We were pleasantly surprised then to find that the SP358 is a nice road, with a good surface and nice views inland and down the cliffs to the sea. It is a trifle sinuous, but no so much that you end up with a queasy tummy, and it’s wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass each other with ease. So we enjoyed ourselves pootling along the road, stopping whenever we could find parking spots to enjoy the views.
It’s not like we went that far, probably only about 50k, but the shock of how nice it was has stayed with us. It says a lot about Italian roads!
At lunchtime we stopped at a large parking area just north of Tricase Porto and wandered into the village to pick up some lunch. With a couple of panini in hand we wandered back along the harbour, across the beach where even the Italians were sunbathing and swimming in the sea (we seem to have turned a corner from obligatory puffa jackets to exposing as much skin as possible), across the rocks and back to Bertie. Exhausted by the heat we decided to head back down to the rocks with our swimming gear and our lunch. We snorkelled off the rocks over clear deep waters and cooled our bodies down enough to feel ready to move on.
Just a few kilometres further south we stopped at a car park for a small nature reserve. A couple of paths here allowed access to the rocky shore. We waited until the heat of the sun had dissipated and tried both of them out, finding the inlet of the Canalone della Guardiola where we could watch fish swimming – it would have been nice for another snorkel if we had taken our stuff with us.
While waiting for the day to cool down I made some Golden Syrup for Paul. It starts by caramelising some sugar, then adding a lot more sugar, water and a couple of slices of lemon and simmering. You end up with something that’s almost the same as the stuff you get in the tin.
We left our lovely campsite to head a very short distance to Otranto, We had one of those starts where we just couldn’t settle. There is a lot of parking in Otranto, but we couldn’t find a spot that we felt happy with. After visiting several of them we parked along the side of the road while we went for a look around. That evening we finally decided on a car park. It said we had to pay, but all the parking machines were turned off so we figured we would be ok overnight.
The morning was spent wandering around this touristy town. We were parked near the harbour so we walked along looking at the boats and the fish swimming lazily in the sea. Our entry into the centro storico was via a gate in the medieval fortress, we walked through the busy streets roughly in the direction of the cathedral, there were lots of tourist shops but there wasn’t any hard sell.
The cathedral is the main event in Otranto, we wandered into the cool calm crypt first with it’s many marble pillars and frescos. We had obviously done this the wrong way round as we weren’t allowed to ascend the stairs to the cathedral and had to walk around the outside to get in. Once in the cathedral proper we could see the 12th century mosaic spread across the floor of the nave and adjacent areas. It is crude when compared to Roman mosaics, but it’s depictions of beasts, demons and angels were compelling; we spent some time trying to decipher the Latin and make sense of what we were seeing. Above the mosaic is a fabulously ornate gilded coffered ceiling added in the 17th century.
Also in the cathedral are the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, killed in 1480 by Turkish invaders. The town of Otranto had put up considerable resistance to the invading Ottoman army, when the Ottomans finally gained the town they killed or enslaved the majority of the population. A group of able bodied men were told to convert to Islam or die. They chose death and were executed. The following year the Ottomans were ousted and the relics of the martyrs were exhumed. Now you can see many of their bones in glass fronted cabinets on the walls of the chapel although some of the relics have been shared amongst other churches in the Salento region and even further afield. This was one of our favourite religious buildings, maybe we’re a bit ghoulish!
Our wander around Otranto had only taken the morning so we popped back to Bertie for a spot of lunch and then decided to do some walking along the coast south of the town. We were aiming for Punta Palascia, but it was a hot day so we didn’t make it that far. We had passed a nice looking beach at Cala Casotto, so we decided to turn round there after a swim. It was a bit of a scramble down the cliffs to the beach, but it was worth it to cool down in the clear water.
This was one of our favourite coastal walks. For most of the walk the cliffs were quite high and rocky with deep water offshore. Lots of fishermen had found their favourite spots and settled in for the day. Sea birds wheeled around off shore, including mediterranean gulls with their distinctive red beaks and feet. We spotted hen harriers – mostly brown with a white strip across the base of their tail – being mobbed by swallows and other small birds. On the heathland were crested larks singing loudly from the ground, possibly distracting us from their nests. There were many spring flowers dotting the grass. The whole area was full of life.
The interest wasn’t limited to natural wonders, on the headland near the Torre Dell’Orte there were many underground buildings and bunkers built into the rocks which we explored as much as we dared (our fear mostly being of finding human waste – our motto being ‘if you see tissues turn around’). A ruined lighthouse stood sentinel on the hill, it’s rear half collapsed.
It had been a very full day, Otranto was somewhere we could have stayed for longer. If only we could make up our mind where to park!
Sometimes writing a blog that’s a couple of weeks in the past is a bit of a slog. Take today for instance, we have had a big detour due to a closed road, Paul is suffering from a painful muscle strain and we reversed into railings, breaking the trim around our rear light cluster. We’re not in the best of moods, and yet I need to write about a few lovely sunny, relaxing and active days. The upside is that writing about the good times should hopefully drag both of us back into a more positive frame of mind. Unfortunately it wont do anything for Paul’s painful thigh.
We had chosen a campsite/sosta at Sant’ Andrea to spend a few days relaxing in the hot weather. We wanted the freedom to sit outside the van with our chairs out and our feet up, which is something you can rarely do if you are parking in a carpark of municipal sosta. Many of Italy’s privately owned sostas are more like campsites, with all the facilities you would expect, electricity, showers, toilets, washing up and laundry. Camping I Faraglioni (the Sea Stacks) was no exception, the pitches were fresh and grassy, benefiting from being early in the season, and although there were a few vans in situ it wasn’t too crowded. It looks like it is in the garden of the adjacent hotel – the owners probably having decided there is money in motorhomes all year long.
Not only was the campsite very nice, but it was right by the coast in a beautiful area. We didn’t quite have a sea view (unless we walked up to the wall and peered over the top of it) – there was a carpark between us and the sea. In fact we could have stayed for free in the carpark, but I’m so glad we decided to spend a bit of money. The coast here is made up of soft stone that is eroded into all sorts of sea stacks and caves, in some places there are small man-made safe havens cut into the rock where a boat could take shelter. There is an ‘undercliff’ which is barely a meter above the sea where we saw many people fishing or readying themselves for an octopus hunting snorkel. A couple of kilometers to the north is a long sandy beach, perfect for bathing and an easy enough walk from the campsite (google will show you just how busy this gets in the summer season, I don’t think we would enjoy it!). To the south are rocky coves that start shallow but swiftly leave you swimming in cold deep water.
We spent four nights here, we walked along the coast to the north, cycled along the coast to the south and even got our big yellow banana (i.e. the kayak) off the roof and into the sea. This was an interesting exercise as the beach next to the campsite was knee deep in ribbony algae. Luckily it was only a few meters to the sea, but not a pleasant walk in or back again. Well worth it though for the amazing views of the coast. The sea was so clear it was almost as good as snorkelling, we saw fish swimming between the rocks and a couple of times small glinting fish flew over the surface of the water when we disturbed them. We were able to navigate the kayak in and out of caves and under arches, waving up at the people who were taking pictures from the top of the cliffs.
Paul also used his time at the campsite to come to terms with the Cadac, we’ve been carrying this gas barbeque around for the past year, but it hasn’t seen much use. Paul had found our version (Grillogas) quite tricky to use because it doesn’t have a good gauge on the gas supply. As a result you can accidently turn it off rather than just turning it down, and as it doesn’t have automatic ignition relighting it can be tricky, you have to take all the food off the BBQ. Paul drilled a hole large enough to insert an igniter from underneath and added a couple of indicators on the dial with permanent marker. Problem solved!
It was a very relaxing few days and we found it really difficult to make the decision to move on. And what do you know? we’re both feeling more cheerful having bought our memories back to life – a glass of wine has been helpful too.
Our parking spot to the south of San Cataldo had been noisier than we expected. We thought we had chosen a good place as far from the town as possible and nestled against the edge of the nature reserve, but we were close to a bend on the road and the Italian habit of beeping their horn in advance of driving round a corner woke us up early. It’s not something we seem to do in the UK any more, although I have childhood memories of Dad giving a warning beep as we drove down country lanes with high hedgerows. Here in Italy a driver will beep as they round a corner, beep as they go to overtake you, beep as they approach a bicycle (which always makes me jump) or a pedestrian, beep when they see a friend…the car horn is sometimes used in anger, but most often is just saying ‘hey, I’m here’.
We had managed to identify a good campsite for the next few days, but we needed to while away a few hours before we turned up. We drove back into San Cataldo town, parked up and had a bit of a wander to find some lunch. We also found recycling bins for the first time in ages so managed to get rid of two trugs full of recycling.
Our bike ride took us south along a cycle track that ran behind lagoons. Many of the other trails through the woods were closed and the ones that were open were flooded so we weren’t able to get to the coast here. Locusts were making ungainly flights between trees, occasionally hitting us with some force before clumsily flying off. We saw white winged birds that became almost invisible when they landed. We later found out that these are Squacco Herons, their bodies are a streaked brown and well camouflaged when their wings are folded away. Plenty of other small birds and sea birds were flitting around, we tried to find somewhere comfortable to sit and watch them but there were no convenient spots. We did manage to find a group of ducklings hiding in some reeds while we were looking for somewhere to sit.
South of the nature reserve we were able to cycle alongside the coast, sometimes on the road and sometimes over the top of the low rocky cliffs. The sea was a vibrant blue, the coast was eroded into small arches, caves and holes. We stopped for the obligatory dip/paddle before turning around and heading back the way we had come.
Finally we felt that it was long enough after lunch to check into the campsite, so we headed off to Sant Andrea where we would be staying for a few days.
Lecce is a golden city, famed for it’s soft Lecce stone that has allowed master crafters to create ornate baroque masterpieces on all it’s glowing buildings. The stone is easily eroded and frequently replaced and restored, giving many buildings a patchwork feel with new crisp stone adjacent to worn rounded carvings. We spent a few hours here wandering around the streets, exploring alleys and dead ends, finding piazzas and palazzi. Terraced frontages hid complex buildings, the occasional open gate providing glimpses into courtyards and the buildings beyond. Dotted amongst the predominantly 17th century facades was the evidence of an older history, part of a Roman amphitheatre, Norman walls, Etruscan and Messapian tombs. Lecce is also surprisingly flat, we have become so used to towns that are on top of hills and their steep winding streets that it felt odd to be walking on the level.
We parked in a small motorhome parking area, seemingly little known. It is on the other side of the road from the large parking area of Piazza Carmelo Bene and must be noisy at night, luckily we weren’t intending to stay. A few permanent vans were in situ, some looking like they haven’t been started for years. Residents looked at us quizzically as we parked up and inspected the grimy facilities. It was in working order but we trod gingerly around the suspicious brown lumps near the waste disposal area.
Our wanderings took us to the MUST museum where we watched some 3D films of the history of Lecce (ok, but too focussed on the ancient history) and looked at the art exhibits. I asked where the history section was, ‘closed for refurbishment’ was the answer – I wish they had told us before we paid our entry fee. Rather grumpily we moved onto the Basilica de Santa Croce, supposedly the most ornate of the buildings in Lecce it was covered in scaffold; at least they had a print of the church façade over the scaffold so we could see what we were missing.
We did find one treasure though, the Museo Faggiano shows what happens when you start renovating a house in Lecce’s historic centre. Signore Faggiano bought the building so that his family could open a Trattoria on the ground floor and live in the upper floors. Building work to track down issues with the drains led to archaeological finds covering 2500 years. From basement to terrace they uncovered little gems of historical interest, symbols of the Knights Templar, rooms used to prepare bodies for burial, ancient grain stores…We were handed several pages of notes and left to wander around this fascinating building. We may have started our visit to Lecce with a note of frustration, but we ended it satisfied. I can see why people rave about it.
While we were eating our lunch in the sunshine we decided that we would see if we could find a campsite to spend the next few days. That night we drove to a free parking spot on the coast near San Cataldo where we spent a little while googling the best place to stay.
The weather seemed to have suddenly turned a corner, we had gone from cool breezy spring days to warm and muggy almost overnight. It was the sort of weather that invited thoughts of refreshing sea breezes and taking a dip in the ocean. Our bedding did not match the weather, flannelette may have been a god-send in the winter when we wanted a bed that felt warm as soon as we were in it, but now it was time to change back to fresh flat cotton that feels cool to the touch.
We had parked up along the coast at Specchiolla, between two beach restaurants that were still in pre season maintenance mode. When we turned up there were a number of Italian vans who had been enjoying a weekend by the sea, but they left by dark and we were in peace with just the gentle sound of waves on the shore.
The following day we took a walk along the coast to the nature reserve of Torre Guaceto. It was a beautiful walk besides sandy beaches and coves with crystal clear water beckoning us invitingly. On the way back I took the plunge and went for a swim, the sea was bracing and Paul only just managed a paddle, a few other walkers going past shivered as they watched the mad English woman.
Where we were parked the rocks formed pools and inlets full of seaweed active with small crabs, shrimps and tiny fish. That evening we watched people fishing with strange lures, we weren’t sure what they were trying to catch – we didn’t see anyone catch anything.
The following day we moved down the coast, passing by Brindisi where we stopped for some supermarket essentials. We parked in Torre San Gennaro, a seaside town that was almost lifeless apart from a couple of cafes doing their pre-season painting. The coast here was friable limestone and clay, a look could crumble it into the sea. Our parking area had new bollards in it to stop anyone from venturing too close to the edge where the sea had undercut the asphalt. We bimbled around the coast, wondering what had created the perfectly round rock pools, like miniature craters. Lumps of clay – we surmised – that had been scoured out of the harder rock by the sea.
That evening we were treated to a mysterious spectacle of fishermen and snorkelers using bright torch light to hunt for sea creatures. Octopus maybe? Some of them were carrying spear guns with multiple spikes on the end, others were using glass bottomed trays to spy under the water. Whatever they were doing it provided an evenings entertainment.
The Valle d’Itria is a wide shallow depression that runs from north-west to south-east through the limestone heart of Puglia, roughly between the latitudes of Bari and Brindisi. Alberobello is the most well known town in this area, and after visiting it’s quirky but slightly contrived trulli area we were keen to explore a bit more and maybe find somewhere that felt a little less gimmicky.
The area is welcoming to Motorhomes, the towns we visited all had motorhome parking signposted on entry to the town. We started in Locorotondo, a small town with a compact circular Centro Storico. Here we turned up after following signs to a parking area only to find newly painted blue lines (meaning that the parking space not always free) with signs and ticket machines being installed as we watched. We didn’t think that anyone would be checking tickets on the first day of installation, but just to be sure we checked with the people who were setting everything up – ‘domani’ (tomorrow) was their guidance as we mimed putting money in the machine. Locorotondo was pretty, especially from a distance with it’s distinctive tower, it was also very white, unlike northern and central Italy where there seems to be an agreement that buildings should be painted earth sunset tones. Here painted white walls were interspersed with limestone grey and the occasional soft golden stone.
We popped into the town to track down the tourist office and find out what walking or cycling trails existed. We were pointed in the direction of a set of cycle trails centred around the Acquedotto Pugliese (AQP). Much of Puglia is limestone and so fresh water is scarce, mostly running underground. The acquedotto was an early 20th century engineering project to bring water from the mountains of central southern Italy all the way down through the Puglia peninsular. 500km of aqueduct was created, much of it underground, and the cycle path runs along the service road. In the Valle d’Itria they have created a network of cycle routes that join up with the AQP from the major towns. Well mapped and signposted cycle paths have been rare in Italy so far so we were chuffed to have found this little treasure.
From Locorotondo we followed one route out almost directly from our car park. On road at first until it hit the AQP. We cycled happily through karstic scenery, past villas, farmhouses and many trulli; freed from the captivity of Alberobello these ‘wild’ trullis had a greater visual impact. Some were titivated to the extreme, with extensions, terraces and swimming pools, some were animal shelters or sheds and some were just piles of limestone. Swallows swooped around us, lizards scattered in front of us as we disturbed their basking, flowers bloomed, olive groves were being cultivated and rich red earth had been turned over between trees. The AQP section we included between the SP134 and SP14 was really well maintained and obviously popular; there were more cyclists, runners and walkers than we’ve ever seen on one path before.
The next day we drove to Martina Franca, bigger than Locorotondo we didn’t venture into the centre of the town but set out immediately on another bike ride, making a circuit taking in a more southerly section of the AQP and heading south to north this time. This ride took in a lot more off road action on rough tracks and the AQP was rougher too with some gates that needed to be navigated around. Still it was a great day out, there aren’t too many big hills here but enough ups and downs to make it feel like you’re getting some exercise.
That afternoon we decided our parking spot in Martina Franca was too noisy for overnight and so we moved on to Cisternino where the motorhome parking was down a steep entry ramp that caused us to scrape the bottom of our chassis on the ground. There was a service point here but the water was turned off so we decided not to use it.
The following morning we had a wander around Cisternino old town. It was Sunday and everyone was dressed in their finest. Old men gathered spectators as they played a game that involved tossing coins onto the ground, similar to pitch and toss but without the wall as the target. Cisternino is known for it’s butcher restaurants where you can choose your cut of meat and get it cooked for you. We were tempted but it was too early in the day.
From Cisternino we moved onto Ostuni where we found a carpark with services, again there was no water but in the opposite corner of the carpark was a water fountain with a threaded faucet that allowed us to easily connect our hose. We wandered around Ostuni listening to many British voices, and trying not to feel frustrated with the slow moving crowds. It is known for having one of the highest densities of British expats living in Italy, we wondered if the British had influenced the large number of hanging baskets and window boxes in the town. After a quick trip to a bakery we escaped the turmoil in the narrow cobbled streets and walked around the outside of the city walls.
We loved this area, the beautiful historic town centres, the countryside dotted with trullis, the welcoming tourist infrastructure. It’s easy to see why so many people chose to buy property or settle here.
It took a bit of google action to discover that the song ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ was that song. We had been prompted into a google search after seeing a statue of Domenico Modugno, Polignano a Mare’s most famous son, standing with arms outstretched on the promenade. After hearing it once it became a bit of an ear worm and we caught ourselves singing ‘Volare ooh oh, Cantare oh-oh-oh-oh’ while wandering round town. We weren’t the only ones.
Polignano had been a good choice of venue for a short break, we had a lovely little apartment just outside the old town, with a sunny and safe terrace and bedrooms with vaulted stone ceilings like little caves. The town doesn’t have any distinctive tourist attractions, but it does have a pretty little old town that is almost entirely given over to tourism and a very attractive cove of a beach that must be hell in high season. The majority of the seafront is a low cliff ten or so meters above sea level where they hold Red Bull cliff diving competitions. We only saw a couple of lads taking the plunge while we were there, the water was cold and deep and the air temperature not yet warm enough to entice sane people in for more than a paddle.
It’s the type of place that is busy throughout the year, so restaurants and gelataria were open for business. There were people of all nationalities, including quite a few British families, enjoying their Easter holidays here. We spent time on the beach, paddling in the cool sea, climbing onto the cliffs to get sight of the fish swimming below us and clambering over the clifftop limestone spotting lizards. We ate pizza and pasta, creamy soft burrata and lots of ice cream (Bella Blu was our favourite place for gelato). We drank the non-regional but very easy drinking Lambrusco. We wandered out in the early evening to spot bats flitting around the lampposts and fisherman setting out with bright lights for catching squid. Between times we relaxed in the apartment, talking, reading, and listening to the kids playing ‘the shopping game’.
Not far from Polignano we found a great beach near the Abbazio di San Vito where there were shallow rockpools hewn from the rocks just right for little ones to explore, turning over every available rock to look for fish, crabs and shrimp. Locals were buying plates of freshly opened sea urchins from a table set up outside the abbey but we didn’t find any underfoot.
A bit further away we visited Alberobello to see the Trulli houses; constructed from limestone these dry stone walled, single roomed and conical roofed buildings looked like something from a fairytale. We ran the gauntlet of cheap tat and slightly more upmarket ‘gourmet’ gifts for sale along the streets of this intensely tourist town, but with children in tow we couldn’t avoid it completely and two not-irritating-at-all whistles were purchased. Uncle Paul used his grumpy face to successfully forbid any playing of whistles in the car.
All too soon we had to take everyone back to the airport. The car was dropped off and help was obtained from tourist information to phone Parcheggio Il Pinguino and get picked up and returned to Bertie.
That night we were back in Bertie again and normal service resumed. You might have heard us humming ‘Volare ooh oh, Cantare oh-oh-oh-oh’ one more time.
We were very, very excited because today was the day my sister and her two bambini were due to arrive to join us for a short break.
But we were also a little apprehensive because we had a few things to sort out before picking them up from the airport at 9pm that evening. Would all the logistics fall into place?
The plan was that we would stay over in Polignano a Mare the night before arrival. Then we could pick up the keys for the apartment we would be sharing in the morning.
Parking proved a little tricky. The car park we had identified as being suitable for an overnight stop was indeed large and empty and still free. However there were signs everywhere saying that parking was forbidden from 7am – 2pm on the 8th. We didn’t want to get up that early! We learnt later that the local driving school was holding some sort of scooter lessons/tests in the car park. Another Italian motorhome had parked up anyway and the scooters worked around it. Oh to feel confident enough to ignore the signs.
So, after visiting two other unsuitable carparks in Polignano a Mare (one too expensive and the other with signs forbidding motorhomes), we spent the night of the 7th inland in a free sosta in Castellana Grotte instead. We parked with four shiny brand new lorries on the edge of an industrial area. It was one of those utilitarian sostas, nothing pretty (in fact the facilities were less than pretty), but useful for visiting the caves that make the town famous – not that we were going there.
We didn’t have to pick the keys up until 11am so we easily made it back to Polignano a Mare, parked as close as we could get to the apartment and popped to pick up the keys. It was Sunday and the town was busy with people enjoying the beautiful spring weather that had arrived.
From this point onwards the plan went pretty smoothly. We managed to do a couple of loads of washing, taking advantage of the washing machine in the apartment and the sunny terrace for drying. We did a supermarket shop to stock up with the basics and packed a couple of rucksacks and a holdall of clothes and things to leave in the apartment. Two rucksacks and a hold all may seem overkill for a four night break away from Bertie, but Paul does like to be prepared for every eventuality! Compare it to my sister who arrived with one carry-on case and one rucksack for the three of them.
It was the sort of day you spend on tenterhooks waiting for something to happen. We couldn’t settle or relax and kept running over our plans for the rest of the day, which just gave me more things to worry about. It was a relief when the time came to head off to the outskirts of Bari where we would be leaving Bertie in secure parking. Parking Il Pinguino was the only secure airport parking we had found that specifically mentioned motorhomes, so we were parking Bertie here and hiring a car for my sister’s visit. The staff at Parcheggio Il Pinguino didn’t speak much English, we only speak a few words of Italian (we had booked up via email using google translate to aid us), but we managed to get Bertie parked and the shuttle to the airport without too much difficulty, after all – why else would we be there? At the airport we picked up the keys for our hire car for the next few days (yes, a compact car was big enough, no need to have worried) and finally settled in to wait for their arrival.
It had been a long day of waiting, but everything had worked out and finally we saw them coming through the arrivals door. We were all set for a few days of family fun.
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