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Saturday, 27 June 2009

Small and white, clean and bright

After many years of looking, we have found Edelweiss in the Dolomites and beautiful it is too. Not surprisingly, this bought on a serious case of Sound-of-musicitis in Carol. Anthony's treatment is the Manic Street Preachers intravenously and a full recovery is expected as soon as we leave the Alps.

We are disappointed how few birds of prey we have seen in Italy. However, we have enjoyed seeing Spotted Fly Catchers on a number of campsites. This delicate and unassuming bird sits on a post and occasionally swings off to, we presume, catch a fly.

Saturday has been spent cycling from Cortina: Mostly uphill, the only direction there seems to be in Italy, but at least there was apple strudel at the top. On the way down we had a very close encounter with an Adder. Fortunately, the pharmacy vending machine has venom remover.

On Sunday we visited the restored mountain trenches from the first world war at 2,200 m. Here the Austrian and Italian armies fought throughout the war and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. We saw lots of Marmots and even more Edelweiss.

Must be funny in a rich man's world

For those interested in financial matters, we are spending an average of 400 Euros each week in Italy, about half of this on campsites and supermarket food.

We have grown used to the expense of some of our staple items: Soya milk at 2 Euro 80, something we could buy in Morrisons in Eccles for 63p. Peanut butter has become a luxury item, as has basmati rice for our curry nights.

On the plus side, the fruit and vegetables are excellent and reasonably priced and wine is not expensive. We can also buy hundreds of different shapes of pasta. These are all numbered and our favourite penne is number 71.

Because there's something in the air

You may be surprised to read that Italy smells wonderful: Everywhere we have encountered amazing fragrances. At a campsite on the edge of the Dolomites there was a sweet perfume we could not identify at first; we tracked it down to the walnut tree laden with fruits. On the Gargano as we cycled in the heat of the afternoon, the roadside smell of lavender and rosemary would waft past us. Walking and camping in the woods the scent of pine is often strong and the beech woodland has a warm earthy smell. Sasso Marconi campsite had an aroma of mint in the warm evening air. In Gubbio we were pitched opposite a newly mown hay field. At the huge salt pans south of Manfredonia we could taste the salt in the air, more than smell it. The marvellous fragrance from the bakeries makes you want to go straight in and buy fresh bread and pastries and the sweet smell of ripe cherries, strawberries and tomatoes linger in the van after we have been shopping.

In the Dolomites we are reminded that one of the good things about camping is being in the open air and enjoying fresh smells after rain. At 1,200 m above sea level in Cortina D’Amprezzo the air is cool and the weather is unpredictable. However, the pink, craggy Dolomites are spectacular; looking like giant coral reefs and here Italy very gradually merges into Austria.
Our first morning here was spent completing chores: Carol fixed the cushion cover with the broken zip, while Anthony used his technical skills to mend the tap, which was mysteriously running when we flushed the loo. When asked what he’d done, he said he had no idea, he had simply taken it apart and put it back together again; this will be familiar to his ex-colleagues at the Uni.

Hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you

A little reluctantly we have left Malcesine after some lovely days walking and driven in to the Dolomites National Park.

You may have noticed that we have committed ourselves to using lyrics for the titles of our blog posts. We hope you have been able to correctly identify all the tracks. Deciding what lyric to use often takes longer than writing the post and everything we listen to becomes a possible blog title.

Driving through the Dolomites we were listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, having had the marriage-old discussion about which is the best Bowie album of all time (Anthony:Hunky Dory, Carol: Ziggy Stardust). We were paying close attention to the lyrics as occasionally David Bowie writes something that makes some sense and could be used on the blog and we have now re-interpreted the title track: Did Major Tom commit suicide? Your thoughts would be well received.

Monday, 22 June 2009

I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour

The café is an Italian institution and we have visited a few over the past eight weeks. One of our favourites was the café in Corigliano in Calabria: We stopped here at 8.30 in the morning, anxious after leaving the van in the hands of the VW garage to be fixed. The café has a large space with just half a dozen tables and a long counter: Italians came in and stood with their coffee and croissant, reading the newspaper before going to work; the coffee came with a glass of water; the staff welcomed regulars with some small talk, no one stayed long.

Sometimes in the evening we get nibbles with our beer, nuts, crisps and olives: A café was the first place we tried the spicy, dried sweetcorn nibbles we’ve come to enjoy. In Bologna we were presented with a plate of biscuits with our coffee. Once we realised we did not have to pay for these extras directly we tucked in.

The café is a useful place to watch people, practice our Italian by reading the newspaper or watch the TV, support the local economy and almost the only place to find a toilet in Italy.

The photograph is Bardolino on Lake Garda, which has plenty of cafes.

I'm going to walk on up to the waterfront

Lake Garda seems a world away from southern Italy: We have had a trip on the cable car and walked through alpine flowers at 2,000m, we have played crazy golf and Anthony won and we have listened to buskers while sitting in a café, it is like a proper holiday.

In Malcesine we have found a small and possibly perfect campsite; it has no announcements about the children’s disco or water aerobics, instead it has views of the surrounding mountains and the castle, an olive tree by the van back door and is close enough to get our morning bread in the local shops and so does not need its own supermarket. Malcesine has plenty of retail opportunities; if we wanted to we could even buy the Daily Mail here. Anthony feels that all it needs is an Indian restaurant to make it perfect!

The photograph shows Carol walking up the Monte Baldo ridge: We watched Alpine Choughs swoop over the cliffs, saw azaleas, globe flowers and gentians and walked up hill quite a lot.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

We take a holiday, lie around all day

After eight weeks away it is getting difficult to remember a time when we went to work and looked forward to weekends: We are starting to really get the hang of this independent lifestyle and at the moment it is difficult to imagine being anywhere but Italy. Most days will find us either cycling, walking or sightseeing. However, we do spend days at the campsite busy with laundry, cleaning the van, drafting up posts for the blog, checking the budget (yes, we do have an Excel spreadsheet for this!) or other chores.

We also spend time reading: Book club friends may be interested to know we have both read ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, which we found to be a diverting Danish thriller and ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’, which we both found pleasing, but frustratingly superficial. We both trudged through an Italian classic, ‘That Awful Mess on Via Merulana’ by Carlo Emilio Gadda and Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ has amazed us and launched some spirited discussions over a beer. A request to swop books we have finished with other campers from the UK has been a useful conversation starter.

Italian campsites seem to be all or nothing: On the coast and now at Lake Garda the sites have every facility and activity you could hope for and are bustling with campers: It is good to find fast internet access and be able to skype Matthew again. The area is very beautiful, as hopefully the photograph of Lazise, the town nearest to our campsite, shows.

To get here we left the Apennines and crossed the river Po, moving into risotto rice growing country. We are now on the edge of the alps and on the warm nights we dream about the fresh mountain air.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Loving you whenever times are good or bad, happy or sad

We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in a number of ways:  A couple of days before we spruced ourselves up and splashed out on a posh meal in Gubbio, that Anthony finished off with chocolate pizza!

We spent our anniversary day in Bologna, with some retail distractions to replace more things that have broken (walking sandals and cycling gloves) and to walk the 3.5 km colonnade with 666 arches to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca.  This is something that has been on our list since reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, Wanderlust:  A History of Walking; an inspirational book about so many aspects of walking.  The colonnade was superb, firstly following the city streets with shops opposite the arches, then heading steeply up and out of the city boundaries to the Santuario, all in the shade with different views through the arches.  We were joined by joggers and walkers out for the exercise on a measured route.

In the evening we enjoyed talking to Bev and Dave from New Zealand, via Bristol, who generously shared a couple of bottles of wine with us and lots of travelling tales.

Into the night came a blue flashing light

In Italy we expected to see the two approaches to policing:  The Carabinieri, in their flashy uniforms with red stripes down their trousers, cruise the roads and lie in wait for motorists; the local police are provided with more humble attire and vehicles and we assume less powerful firearms.  However, we were not expecting the range of other law enforcement organisations:  The Forest Patrol have a much more military air than the Forestry Commission in the UK could ever marshall; even the Italian Traffic Wardens are armed; the Guardia di Finanza are a mystery; they sound authoritarian and they have vehicles with flashing lights on the roof and here in Umbria we have spotted the Vigilante Institute, an apparently respected organisation, but what is their role?   Your comments would be appreciated.

In Umbria we are back to wealthy Italy where the houses are well kept, the gardens abundant with produce and local authorities can afford to provide refuse areas; we’ve not spotted a dumped mattress for a few hundred kilometres.  The towns are all beautiful and Gubbio is no exception, with narrow, medieval streets, red tiled roofs and lots of churches with bell towers open to the weather.  The photograph is the striking Ponte delle Torre in Spoleto.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Heaven is a place on earth

We have seen some beautiful places in Sibillini National Park.  From Sarnano we cycled some steep roads into the mountains; tried to photograph a few of the wonderful butterflies and wondered why there were so few tourists here as we ate our picnic next to a rustic stone 11th Century Abbey.

The photograph shows the Piano Grande, a stunningly large plateau at 1,300 metres above sea level; a mass of wild flowers, grasshoppers, Wheatears and butterflies, ringed by high mountains:  A beautiful place that makes you feel happy to be.

As we drive we’ve been listening to and rocking along to the new Green Day album.

There's a sign on the wall

As we travel around central Italy there are plenty of reminders about the recent earthquake at L’Aquila, on the TV, in the newspapers and in the places we have visited.

Barrea in the Abruzzo National Park is around 50 kms away from L’Aquila: The campsite owners felt tourists were staying away from a wide area because of the earthquake and told us how their campsite had been used to house people temporarily following an earthquake in the 1990s.

At the Sangro river, 130 kms away from L’Aquila, one campsite was closed as it was being used to house people made homeless by the earthquake: We contemplated what it must be like to be moved so far from your home for an indefinite period of time. The campsite we did stay on were selling art work to raise money for a new school for L’Aquila.

We planned a walk along the Salinello Gorge, on the furthest edges of the Gran Sasso National Park, around 50 kms as the crow flies from L’Aquila: At the entrance to the gorge the path was closed due to a higher risk of rock falls from the limestone cliffs following the earthquake. We pondered over what to do briefly, but judged that there is always a risk of being hit by a plummeting chunk of limestone when you are surrounded by high cliffs and that we would proceed cautiously. You will be pleased to hear we survived to show the photographs of this beautiful gorge.

Monday, 8 June 2009

My Plug-in Baby

When we arrive at a campsite, after checking the van is level, the first thing we do is plug in to the electric so that we can put the kettle on: Within 10 minutes we will have the table and chairs out, the teapot full and be sitting in the sun writing up the days journal or reading about the local area.

We have made full use of electric on all the campsites and have therefore managed to make the 2.7 kg camping gaz bottle last over six weeks and still counting. Every four days we have to fill up the water tank and empty the loo.

After eating we spend our evenings either in the campsite bar, playing games or reading; if we’re particularly weary we will select a DVD; Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place, MASH and Max and Paddy are current favourites. We had a lovely evening in the bar at the campsite in Torino Di Sangro chatting to an Italian motorcyclist, who told stories of his travels in Scotland and Namibia and helped answer many of our burning questions about Italy.

Internet access has been variable; none existent on many sites, free or very cheap wi-fi available over the whole campsite on a few and typically around 5 Euro for an hour using the laptop in the bar.

You're gorgeous

We enjoyed a fantastic days walking in a deep limestone gorge in the Maiella National Park. The gorge is a gash in the limestone hillside which twists and turns its way steeply upwards; alternating between narrow passages, with vertical walls of layered limestone and wider sections of boulder-strewn meadows: In these we enjoyed the scent of thyme, sage, marjoram and other herbs familiar in many gardens and watched the scores of butterflies making the most of the sun. As the gorge climbs higher there are glades of beech trees for shade and the usual water fountain the Italians are so good at providing. At the entrance to the gorge a Medieval Abbey to St Martino is being excavated and restored: Built in the same limestone, it has a very natural appearance.

Despite this and other stunning places to visit in the collection of National Parks in the central Apennine area, there is the usual lack of campsites away from the coastal strip and we have adopted a hopping up the coast approach to this lack of amenities; moving north in short bursts, so that we have time for walks in the hills.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

You'd see them wearing their baggies

The Gargano in Puglia, is a promontory on the Italian Adriatic coast, north of Bari and most of the promontory has been designated a national park.

The area is limestone and the coastal strip has attractive natural features such as caves and sea arches and pretty bays; although most of the bays have large campsites and cafes. There is some surf and our campsite is busy with people in VW campervans and flowery shorts, or baggies, carrying boards for wind and kite surfing.

The houses are white here, in comparison to the colours of Tuscany and the Bay of Naples and often have outside staircases leading to roof terraces. Beyond the towns and campsites there is a strip of olive trees and vines. Farmers in Puglia seem to be doing their best to meet the demand in Chorlton for olive oil and olives. As mono crops go, olives groves seem to co-exist with some wildlife and wildflowers although most undergrowth beneath the trees is burnt off and the soil is ploughed or mulched. Farm selling and small farmers markets are common and it is easy to buy the local produce.

Inland the mountains reach over 1,000 metre and the vegetation changes with a much wetter climate. The forest is dense beech and pine, under which grow ferns and shrubs: We spotted a Wild Boar and three piglets. No one appears to live in this part of the Gargano, making conservation simpler, with just walking and cycling activities to manage.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Planet Caravan

Black Sabbath were singing about travelling in other worlds and that is certainly what we feel we are doing.  After five weeks on 17 different Italian campsites we feel able to comment on them generally:  Showers range from the warm trickle to the scalding deluge; we are intrigued by the absence of toilet paper and the wide spread theft of toilet seats; toilets are usually a mixture of those that double up as a work-out for your thigh muscles and standard loos; at Barrea we had fantastic views and the campsite to ourselves, at Specchiolla, south of Bari, we were surrounded by Italian families and the children’s entertainment boomed out until late into the night and in Calabria and Vieste, on the Gargano Promontory, we were among German campers, causing us to dither about whether to say Buongiorno or Guten Morgen on the stroll to buy bread in the morning; two sites have provided special sinks for fish washing; all sites have required considerable form filling and paperwork when we arrive.

We have managed to book into campsites using only our limited Italian; sometimes German is helpful and at some sites they speak some English:  At the campsite in Rodi on the very attractive Gargano Promontory, the owner spoke some English and explained that the gate to the beach was kept closed to keep out the Goths.  We were slightly bemused by this and felt for the black eye-liner fraternity who were excluded.  However, it later transpired she was referring to the local goats!

The prices have ranged from 10 Euro per night to 26 Euro:  These prices seem to have little to do with the facilities available and are mostly related to location, local competition and what the market will accept.  We find the ACSI discount card very useful when available.