Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Mountain (h)air

The heat and the mosquitos had got too much for us so we decided to head for the hills once again. This time Abruzzo was our destination; another little visited region, with a vast national park, home to bears and wolves.

We set off from our campsite in Pompei at 10am, expecting to arrive at a free camp by 3pm at the latest. This is where travelling by campervan in Italy with a one year old has its challenges. In a rather typically fuzzy Italian way, wildcamping is permitted, but only with the permission of the municipality. This means that we often rely on information we have gathered online or in old Camperstop books to identify likely places to park up. This information is often, frankly, shit, and we have had many frustrating driving days only to discover that our satnav coordinates are duff, or that actually it's a paid stop, or a layby right on a main road. This was one such day, where the wildcamp we were heading for turned out to be a layby with a road on one side and a sheer drop on the other and massively fly infested at that. Not ideal with a recently walking toddler. Anyway the upshot of all this is that we did eventually find somewhere nice to stay but only after nearly 8 hours on the road, so we were all somewhat frazzled by the time the keys left the ignition.

We awoke to a glorious view - flower filled meadows, high peaks and the longed for cool mountain air. Whilst shaving off a week's beard growth, Will (who is currently reading Hemingway) decided he would sport a 1930's mountain adventurer style moustache for the day; after all, who would see it hiking in the mountains? We spent a pleasant day walking, eating packed lunches etc and enjoyed ourselves so much we decided that we would stay another night.

Frankie's bedtime routine underway and dusk falling, Will noticed a faint glow from the headlights. His cry of cry 'bollocks!' echoed off the surrounding mountains. We had a flat battery, in the middle of nowhere, with no jump leads ('I could swear I packed them') and no phone signal. There was nothing for it but to throw ourselves on the mercy of strangers. Will and his moustache stood at the side of the road, waiting a good 10 minutes between passing cars and trying rather unsuccessfully to flag one down. Finally a nice couple in an old car (it's always the ones in the beaten up old cars who stop) pulled over and hallelujiah they had some jump leads. A few sparks flew but these two even took near electrocution with good humour and we soon got the old girl started. And no one mentioned the moustache..


To go to Napoli or not.. We were so close, a mere half hour away by train, but the scary stories about rubbish burning in the streets, potential cholera outbreaks, kamikaze road crossing attempts, pickpockets lurking around every corner etc.. were giving us some doubts. In the end, rumours of the best coffee and street food in Italy, including the famous deep fried pizzas, won out and we were on our way.

First impressions were of a city with more in common with Athens or even India than with any other Italian cities we had visited so far. Crossing the road was indeed a hair raising experience, though Will got stuck in straight away, merrily weaving the pushchair in and out of the traffic while Emma had a nervous breakdown on the pavement.

We almost immediately got ourselves lost in the side streets, wandering through markets, past welders' workshops in the front rooms of houses and underneath buckets hauling groceries to the top floor. We observed the Neopolitan predilection for slogan emblazoned t-shirts, which ranged from the grammatically creative ('Look me!' and 'Boy is my toy') to the bizarre ('Don't touch my bikini!) to the hilarious ('Homo sport'). We ate delicious deep-fried pizza and questionable deep fried cheesy frankfurter and enjoyed a very fine espresso at the Liberty Cafe in the stunning Art Nouveau arcade. We bought painted ceramic chillis from a smiley little artisan and took advice on Frankie's well-being from almost everyone we passed - 'the sun's in his eyes', 'take off his trousers!' etc.. - This despite the common spectacle of whole families crammed precariously onto a vespa, not a helmet between them.

There was a lot of rubbish piled up and we did fail to find a single patch of grass for Frankie to play on (and we walked a long way looking) but we were utterly seduced by Napoli.

Liberty Cafe, Napoli

Monday, 27 June 2011

More beaches and Roman ruins

Another free beach park up for a couple of days, a few km south of Pisciotta in Campania, plenty of swims in the sea to try and shift our pasta babies and it was time to inject some culture. First stop Paestum, also known as Poseidonia, founded in the 6th century BC. Either we were incredibly lucky or the site is not much visited because on the evening we toured it there were only a handful of other people. It is an amazing place, like being in a history painting, and Will took some amazing pictures (on his camera, which is unfortunately now out of battery for the rest of the trip). We stayed the night on a Buffalo farm a short walk from the ruins, again for free and this time including an electric hook up. Frankie added mooing to his growing repertoire of animal noises.

And as I write all these entries, we are in Pompei trying to deal with a van full of mosquitos. We visited the ruins today, not an easy mission with a pushchair, but we're glad to have done it. And that's where I'll sign off as we have a major mosquito problem to deal with. Hopefully we'll be able to update this a bit more regularly in the last month of our trip but we're not promising...

Anglo-Italian relations

Arriving at Antico Mulino (The Old Mill) near the town of Missanello, we immediately had a good feeling. Vito greeted us warmly and invited us in for coffee. In the blessedly cool converted mill building, we met his partner Nadia and their almost 2 year old daughter, Domenica.

Vito, a former chef on cruise ships, was living his dream of running a farm and restaurant near his home town. He keeps horses, pigs, lambs, chickens and a truffle hunting dog called BoBo, who was a major hit with Frankie (who now refers to all dogs as BoBo). We couldn't have been made to feel more welcome and, in exchange for helping out on the farm (which for Will meant erecting swings and exciting visits to cheese factories and for Emma, lifeguarding and kaka scooping the paddling pool - bitter? No, not me) we ate all our meals (and delicious they were too) with the family and drank countless espressos.

Towards the end of the week, Vito (who seemed prone to harebrained schemes) decided that he wanted us to help him paint all his plaster pots and garden statues. There were some good natured artistic differences but Vito got his way and the results speak for themselves...

Somehow a week had gone by and despite some pressure to stay, and some temptation too, we decided we must tear ourselves away. We said some genuinely sad goodbyes and, with bigger bellies and more chins, and better Italian than we had arrived with, and Frankie walking properly at last, we headed once again for the coast.

Getting down with the trogladytes in Basilicata

After a certain amount of customary dithering en route from Taranto (changing our minds and direction three times) we settled on the town of Matera in Basilicata. It is famous for its sassi, stone houses cut into the two ravines which slice through the town, which were home to more than half of the population until the late 1950s. It is a delightfully atmospheric place, though we did our usual trick of arriving during the deadzone of 2.30-4pm, where everything is closed and it is impossible for three hungry travellers to get a bite to eat or a drop to drink. We parked up for the night on a street above the castle and were woken multiple times by dogs barking or drunken students canoodling.

Basilicata is one of Italy's poorest regions and one that is rarely visited by tourists. We decided to stay a while. Driving through its wild and rugged mountainous interior we didn't see another vehicle, let alone another camper. We were on our way to another Agritourism stop and had our fingers crossed that the GPS coordinates were correct and that we would be allowed to stop for a day or two.

Trulli, madly, deeply

With renewed enthusiasm, we set off for the heart of Trulli territory in Puglia. Trullis are circular houses made of whitewashed stone without mortar and with conical roofs. The roofs are tiled with concentric rows of grey slate, and many have astrological or religious symbols painted on them. Our first stop was Castellana Grotte, where we failed to visit the famous caves but where a nice Italian man bought Frankie his first Kinder Surprise. Then on to the picturesque town of Alberobello, Trulli central, where we stayed in an overpriced, undershaded carpark, but saw plenty of these beautiful, quirky dwellings. A couple of nights at a free park up on the coast south of Taranto followed, and we were back in the swing doing the Italian thing.
Trullis in Alberobello

Beach park up

Back to Italy (and a stealth visit to the UK)

Our ferry journey from Patras to Bari was a lt less pleasant than going the other way. We were camping on board again, which means that you sleep in your van parked on the deck. On the way out, this was lovely, a bit like being on a cruise. This time, however, we were the only van camping on board, parked in amongst the lorries in the bowels of the ship, next to the rubbish chute for the kitchen. Some idiot tied his dog up right behind us, which kept us awake between midnight and 3am with its barking. And then the lovely city of Bari awaited us, about which the less said the better.

Emma had booked a flight from Bari to Gatwick to visit her Dad for her birthday and was taking Frankie too, leaving Will to explore Puglia alone for a week. At the very last minute (3 hours before departure) Will decided to come too, bought a ticket and we left the van in the airport parking, with a modicum of retrospective anxiety! We had a nice, if hectic time at home, in a week that proved far more tiring than life on the road.

We returned to Bari a week later on a horrendous Ryan Air flight to find the van exactly as we left it. Relieved would be an understatement. We spent the night next to the runway but still slept better than we had for a week.