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Saturday, 30 May 2009

I want to be elected

Italy has European elections at the beginning of June. Every town we have visited has had posters for each candidate on walls, dustbins, fences etc; they appear to be fly-posted. There are always eight or more candidates and each poster has the same format; the party logo, a large photograph of the candidate looking serious or congenial and a strap line. Often we see vehicles with a loud hailer encouraging people to attend a public meeting and filling the air with pop music.

In the photograph Anthony is consulting the useful and fun calendar from his colleagues at Uclan, to ensure he doesn’t forget when our wedding anniversary is this year.

We have other useful gifts with us: The folding dishes from Sandra and family are intriguing because they actually work and the red one is particularly attractive filled with strawberries: On all our days out cycling or walking we take various practical gifts from the wonderful Ross-Coffee household in America. The wrap’n’mat and the wooden utensils are part of our essential picnic gear.

Life is a Minestrone

Matera is famous for the Sassi, cave-like houses excavated from the limestone. The town is set on one side of a limestone gorge and steps allow you to wander up and down between the houses, now mostly empty following slum clearance in the 1950s and 60s.

At Matera we camped on a basic site, with a restaurant attached. We chose to celebrate the fantastic service from the VW garage in Corigliano, who not only fixed the exhaust problem on the van, but also informed us it was still under warranty and we treated ourselves to a meal out; courtesy of Anthony’s ex-colleagues at Uclan, who had been very generous with their gift of enough Euros for lots of treats when he left.

The waiter spoke broken English and was keen to talk to us about the food, even after we had explained we were vegetarian. He told us that in Italy they have many courses and described so many different dishes, we became hazy about what we were being offered and with no menu or price list to guide us we just kept nodding. The bread and olives we grazed on while the chef got to work were followed by bruchetta with tomatoes, next steamed greens in a good béchamel sauce. The first pasta dish was ear-shaped pasta with rocket and olive oil; the second came with spirals, mushrooms and too much salt: Were they intending to work through all the many different pasta shapes Italian shops stock? The waiter came over to describe the next course; while Anthony was on an eat-it challenge and had a bring-it-on attitude, Carol said, no more and we were allowed to proceed to dessert, all three of them! Coffee to finish made this a seven course meal, with a bottle of good red the bill came to 30 Euros for the two of us.

Parking in Italy is usually difficult and generally on the street, rather than a car park and Matera was no exception. When we returned to the van we were annoyed to see that a vehicle had hit the van, leaving a small dent and ripped a plastic vent cover off the side door. Anthony has fashioned a temporary repair using the tent repair kit.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

We don't need no education

We visited Civita in the Pollino National Park, shown in the photograph.  It is a beautiful hilltop village, hanging over a deep and rocky gorge.  While we were sitting in the shade by the central drinking fountain a school group arrived on a coach:  Large groups of Italian young people have accompanied us in most places and they are interesting to watch:  The nearest the groups ever get to a uniform are matching coloured caps for the infants;  the teachers are always relaxed and calm and appear to have little to do with the young people in their charge; in Civita, as elsewhere, the young people were mostly self-absorbed; they filled up their water bottles, bought ice creams from the shop and talked to their friends.

 Pollino National Park is a beautiful mountainous area, dotted with stone-built hill-top villages.  We enjoyed driving through the green and pleasant landscape and not a single campsite to spoil the view!

She's only a broken down Angel, she's only a bird that's lost a wing

In the five weeks we have been away we have had a number of items break already.  This seems worringly early for our equipment to fail, but we have managed to locate Italian shops to replace our outdoor chairs (this serves us right for bringing ones that only cost £5!), the mains lead for the MP3 player speakers and the lead between these and the MP3 and a new T Shirt for Anthony, after one shrunk in a drier it shouldn’t have been in and we have bought screws to mend the outside table.  However, we reassured ourselves that not everything in life is as reliable as a VolksWagen, until this week when a new light appeared on the dashboard.  Consultation with the handbook revealed this was something to do with the exhaust and we should visit a VW garage.  We managed to locate a garage and to communicate the problem and we now have to wait until Thursday for the part to arrive.

 This is not all bad, as we are camping in a maritime pine forest, next to a white sandy beach.  We are now on the southern coast of Calabria and in the morning the sun shines through the pine trees in stripes and they provide plenty of shade during the day.  At 10 pm at night we can sit outside watching the lights twinkling across the bay, listening to the Scop Owls singing along to Echoes by Pink Floyd as they flutter overhead and the Little Owls occasionally try to compete.

 The campsite staff are busy preparing for the summer rush, still seven weeks away:  Sand landscaping is obsessive and a large digger has spent many hours tidying up the sand on the beach in front of the site; another time-consuming activity is watering the forest.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Walking on the beaches

The Italian coastline is well developed, with little space between the sprawl of the seaside towns.  Despite the temperatures of over 25 C, we have arrived in Calabria early for the season and on the beaches the different Lido are slowly being built for the summer; each with a wooden hut for a bar, a covered area for shade, a fenced in beach for the sunbeds and a different name: Lido Rosso, Lido Acapulco etc.  The campsites along this coast are numerous and large, but with only a handful of campers have a desolate air about them:  Most pitches have old neglected caravans waiting to be spruced up for the summer and therefore give the sites an appearance of a caravan breakers yard. 

 We visited Diamante, a small and pleasant town with a tiny harbour and a tradition of mural painting; some dated over 20 years ago and starting to fade gracefully.  However, this is not really our kind of holiday destination and we are itching to get into the mountains and countryside, only frustrated by the lack of campsites more than 500 metres from the sea.

 The photograph shows the Greek temples at Paestrum; an impressive and large site of monumental Greek buildings and a later Roman town, giving us a real sense of the layers of historical development.

Shake, rattle and roll

There is plenty in Italy to remind you that the earth is not as stable as we might like to think: We drove within 20 kms of L’Aquila, where people are still living in tents after the recent earthquake; the campsite near Napoli is in the crater of an extinct volcano where hot sulphur gases still burst out of the earths surface; we climbed Mount Vesuvius, stood over the huge crater and followed the lava flows from 1944 down the mountain and we marvelled at the streets and houses of Herculeum, which disappeared under many metres of mud during the ‘79 eruption.

We have noticed a huge contrast in Italy between public and private space. Away from the central piazza, many public spaces are scruffy, there is a lot of litter and waste, pavements are either not in evidence or poorly maintained, roads are often poor and there are areas of derelict land. All these could be seen as a failing of the state: Whereas private spaces such as cafes, offices and balconies, in the control of individuals and businesses, are often tidy and well maintained and Italians themselves are very well turned-out.

We met Ann and Alistair from Aberdeen and their son Ross, who provided us with helpful hints on campsites and who we were pleased to be able to loan our spare (yes spare!) chair to.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

highway to hell

This is not say we do not like the Bay of Naples, but having left paradise, we did travel along the strada 666 and then down the coast road; kilometre after kilometre of the poor end of Blackpool like development. In comparison the campsite at Pozzuoli, 10 kms outside of Napoli, is an oasis of green, set within the crater of an extinct volcano with the hint of rotten eggs in the air, as hot jets of sulphurous steam burst through the earths surface here. Close up, Carol found the stench of hydrogen sulphide unbearable, while Anthony, having become hardened to the aroma of chemicals after years of working in Biochemistry even enjoyed lounging in the sulphurous sauna.

In the narrow, shaded streets of Napoli’s Centro Storico we visited Pizzeria Di Matteo.  It has the look of a greasy spoon café, with formica tables and an entrance through the kitchen, but the pizzas are fantastic and only 3 Euros; a thin base with a hint of wood smoke from the oven and a rich topping that delighted us with the summery taste of fresh tomatoes, olive oil and basil.

As the temperature has risen we have been forced to sample a few flavours of Gelato Artiginale:  Anthony is partial to the strawberry and Carol is leaning towards refreshing lemon.  Although we know that Italian red wine is very drinkable, the hot, sunny weather means a beer is often our drink of preference.


Friday, 15 May 2009

Cool for cats

Essential supplies on board the van now include cat food. We have not been surprised to meet lots of cats in Italy: On the campsites, they gang up and sit outside your van looking needy and hungry.

They can spot a soft touch when they meet one, but are not so skilled at spotting vegetarians: We tried them on soya milk and vegetable curry, but haven’t yet found a cat that thinks this is acceptable fare and so have succumbed to buying a bag full of food for them. We now also check for furry stow-a-ways when striking camp.

At Pozzuloi we were formally introduced to Fifi, the 14 year old campsite cat, who looked very well looked after and we were relieved to see had no need of our emergency cat food supplies. However, a young grey kitten took a shine to us and came calling every evening for some food.

Walk on the wild side

Having spent a week in the Abruzzo National Park, we have seen some differences with protected areas in England.  Although there are some villages, the area is mostly forest and mountain.  The forest is dense beech woodland, up to a height of 1700m, which is amazing:  For those of you in old money this is deciduous woodland much higher than Ben Nevis.  It is no surprise that Brown Bears and Wolves live in these woods; we had mixed feelings about the prospect of meeting them.  They must exist, as every café had a photograph of a bear crossing their car park.   

There is no shortage of walking routes, either up the very steep mountains or in beautiful meadows full of flowers, even we have spotted four different orchids.  The National Park status provides considerable protection for the wildlife and flora and little development appears to be allowed:  The owner of the campsite in Barrea suggested that, ‘God sculpted the rest of the world, here he used a paintbrush.’ 

There are few tourists around, although it is the beginning of the season and there is still lots of snow above 1500m, which always takes us by surprise and it was quite cool in the evenings.

We have met up with Walter and Margaret from Plymouth on two campsites in the area now.  They are travelling in their campervan and will soon be joining their boat in Greece.  They are a lively couple and we enjoyed their joy for life.  The world being such a small place, you will not be surprised to learn that Walter was very familiar with Eccles New Road in Salford.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

They call it paradise ...

Fortunately, unlike the paradise in the Eagles song, this paradise hasn’t been over-developed and ruined. We’re staying at the campsite with the best view we’ve ever had, from our pitch we can see over the tumbling roofs of the small village of Barrea and across the lake, around us are mountains topped with snow, it is beautiful. Strangely, we have this paradise to ourselves, even the Dutch haven’t found this fantastic spot. The only downside is the toilet blocks, they are specially designed to get no sun and consequently have their own micro-climate that is approaching freezing, so we shower quickly.

We are in the Abruzzo National Park and there are walking routes for everyone: Today we have walked up to the atmospheric Lago Vivo, we walked through beech woods with aquilega and primula flowering in the clearings and emerged to a carpet of wild crocus around the lake and a splendid view of the highest mountain in the park.

Driving in Italy has not been as traumatic as we were led to expect. Yes, they do drive as if attached to your towbar, but this may only be so you have no doubt that they want to overtake. On the mountain roads they do have a tendency to take the racing line down the middle of the road and you have to have the nerve to assume they won’t hit you and will move over. Many of the roads are in a very poor state and are hard work, others are a mastery of engineering, winding up mountains through tunnels and on roads hardly attached to anything stable.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

One more cup of coffee for the road

Geography is a useful discipline for helping us to understand what we observe, the geography of a place affects the climate, agriculture, industry architecture and culture. Italys very hilly landscape, its position in the Mediterranean and the rocks all contribute to what we see. However, the history of places also plays a part and most evenings we enjoy our Italian history lessons, as we gradually work through the centuries. All this helps us to see, but not necessarily understand Italy and the Italians.

As we meander through Tuscany Italy seems to be non-stop gorgeous; like driving through Portmerion every day, as Anthony put it. How do they cope with so much to be proud of and to preserve? Each town is a glorious huddle of narrow streets, sunny piazzas and small cafes; the countryside inbetween is verdant, with colourful roadside verges and meadows, and we love it.

Sitting in one such cafe in Narni, a small Umbrian town on a hill, we were browsing through the local whats-on guide and were perplexed to find the editorial was written by Tony Benn. From what we could understand from the Italian he seemed to be discussing the suppression of the masses by the system, so no surprises there.

Cycling in Italy is hard, the hills always seem to go both up and down. The lack of wind and rain is some compensation for this. There are few commuting and shopping cyclists, not surprising given the geography, and the cyclists we meet are clad head to toe in lycra and glide past even on the uphills at an amazing speed. They are clearly all getting ready for the Giro that started this weekend.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Robert De Niro's waiting

We've meandered down the coast, but have now escaped the crowds of the seaside and are inland, south of Siena.  The Italian coast is very dramatic, with mountains rising from the sea and we enjoyed a lovely walk through Mediterranean pine woods, a riot of flowers and butterflies in the Cinque Terre National Park.  
The campsite at Levanto provided us with both joy and dismay.  When we arrived Anthony was asked how good a driver he was; it turned out this was a cunning plot to get him to attempt getting into a pitch less proud men would have shunned.  We made it after lots of tooing and froing on a 1:3 hill which put some pressure on the clutch and dented the heater exhaust.  The joy was in seeing the spring-loaded toilet seats that rise when you do, which we had last encountered in Italy 18 years ago, when a five year old Matthew was too light to hold them down!  We were also impressed by the sinks specifically for washing your fish.