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.


First of all apologies for neglecting this blog - we have received your reprimands and feel duly chastised. In our defence, we spent a month in the wilds of Greece with not a sniff of an internet connection (more on this later) and since then, the opportunities to post have been scarce and our enthusiasm to do so even scarcer.

We took a ferry from Ancona to Patras in the Pelloponese at the end of April. When we booked this ferry back in March, our intention had been to drive to Athens from Patras and get another ferry to Crete. This plan changed when we found out that the family members we had hoped to meet up with (Emma's brother, Jamie, and his wife, Miranda, whose mum lives there) were buggering off to Trinidad and Tobago in May instead. Taking into account the extra driving and expense we would incur travelling to Crete, we decided to explore the Pelloponese instead. This proved to be a very good move - the area is largely undeveloped, has glorious beaches, coastal forests, rural economy, all of which made for excellent wild camping opportunities.

We stayed at a number of beautiful coastal park ups on the west coast, all unoffical and therefore free. Our favourite of these, and the one at which we stayed for the longest (almost three weeks) we called Elia, though this is actually the name of the whole region. The place we stayed, as far as we know, doesn't have a name as it is nothing but forest and beach, but the nearest town is Kalo Nero. Our camp was in one of Greece's last remaining coastal forests and it couldn't have been more idyllic. A ten mile stretch of near deserted white sand, sheep passing by our own private glade every day (much to Frankie's excitement), cooking on the bbq nearly every day, a local man coming by every day selling fresh milk, bread, oranges and whatever else he had that day (turning up in a beaten up van that Will had to help him break into one day as all the locks were broken), fresh water from standpipes and just a handful of other campers, three of whom became our good friends.

We met Nick, Sandy and their 11 month old son Noah at our first park up but got to know them properly when, by chance, they arrived at Elia a few days after us. After initial suspicion, toy theft and minor violence, Frankie and Noah became firm friends. We spent many happy afternoons on the beach, drinking coffee and eating pancakes together, forest walks with the boys in their pushchairs. We really enjoyed living such a simple life, taking care of the basic needs and being close to nature in all its guises, including plenty of big, scary bugs.

We left Elia once a week to drive 14km to the nearest town, which luckily had a Lidl, so our weekly expenditure was about as small as it could be. Despite our lack of real cultural engagement with Greece, its current economic crisis was evident in our visit to town. Tension in the air - we came across a protest in the town of Kalamata - hugely inflated prices and people barely scratching a living from the rural economy. The biggest industry in Elia was melon growing, sold off the back of lorries for 0.99 euros a kilo, and we really wondered how these people could be surviving.

Approaching the end of May, the insects in Elia had increased in size and quantity and we decided it was time to leave. We left with our friends, the two vans in convoy, and stopped for a few nights at Kastro, about 60km south of Patras. One night we were woken by the van shaking and rocking quite violently, as if blown by a massive gust of wind. We peered out of the curtains to see a night as still as could be decided that the only explanation was that the van had been pushed quite hard. But there was no one in sights. In our sleep muddled state, Emma concluded that someone had climbed up the ladder on the back of the van and was still on the roof. Will rather reluctantly volunteered to investigate, and with no better weapon to hand, leapt from the van brandishing a frying pan. It is a great pity that no one witnessed this act of heroism. After some time, other campers began emerging from their vans having experienced the same phenomenon, which turned out to be an earthquake, measuring 2 on the Richter Scale.

With a return ferry to Bari in Italy booked for 30 May, we said goodbye to Greece, and our friends, with regret but many happy memories.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Family reunion

We picked Dad up from Rimini train station on Easter Sunday and all piled into the MBB for what turned out to be a more testing drive than the Alpine pass. Dad sat in the back and coped with the bouncy tractor suspension with good grace as we followed the detailed directions to our villa (pass a small shrine on your left..) which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. It was well worth it. We spent the best part of a week there, eating well, reading, playing table tennis and just catching up, and never got tired of the view.


We managed to spend two days in Florence without setting foot in a museum or gallery, instead wandering the streets and marvelling at the architecture. Highlights were the candy cane coloured Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. Sadly no parks for Frankie but he enjoyed climbing up and down the steps outside the Basilica di San Lorenzo. He was also quite a hit with the Florentines - literally stopping traffic at one point as a woman leaned out of her car window to shout 'bellissimo!'

Our sleep was slightly disturbed due to the fact that Florence's only camper stop is located right next to a major music venue, which on the Friday night hosted a long and loud reggae concert. In a previous life we would have got right in amongst it but oh how times have changed.

We left Florence in search of another rural idyll and struck gold again, stopping at another beautiful hill town for the night en route to meeting Dad in Rimini.

Friday, 29 April 2011


Onward again to one of our loveliest stops yet. Our Camperstop book, which lists all the free places to stay in a motorhome in Europe, is 4 years out of date, a fact which tends to quicken the pulse when driving winding mountain roads in search of a potential stop with a hungry and angry Frankie, thinking, 'this can't be right' and 'please god let it still exist'. The tatty book hasn't let us down yet, and this place was a proper find. High in the olive groves above the sea, in the shadow of a hilltown with medieval castle, we arrived to our own private terrace under fig and olive trees, welcomed by the Italian farmers who owned the place, and all for free. We decided to stop for a couple of nights and explore the nearby hill town and its castle the next day.

Well the climb up to said town certainly got the blood flowing and, medieval castles forgotten, we went in search of lunch. This being pretty much a one horse town, our expectations weren't high, but a peroni and pizza would do nicely. Stumbling across an unprepossessing establishment, really just a doorway with Trattoria above, and a mercifully and miraculously sleeping Frankie, we ducked in and enquired about a beer. No beer, this is a restaurant, and one which we made the most of. Feeling in need of a treat, we ordered the 'glis di antipasti' for two and a bottle of local white wine. There followed a succession of some of the best dishes we had ever tasted. The place being next to empty, we enjoyed telepathic service from the proprieter, who brought out dish after dish at precisely the right moment - veal tartare followed asparagus omelette, and was followed by a plate of local salami, proscuttio and cured lard, seafood fritters, asparagus and mozarella fritters and chicken salad to finish. Frankie awoke as the nougat semi freddo arrived, and I think it was pretty much the best thing he's ever tasted.

We left our lovely camp with regret, and had a slightly more stressful time trying to negotiate the frankly baffling road system around the town of Lucca (which in itself is quite a nice historic place but the parking restrictions placed on campervans did hinder our enjoyment of it) on the way to Florence.

Cinque Terre

The best bit about the Cinque Terre was the journey through. Hairpin bends aplenty and the faint aroma of burning brakes, but some of the best views Italy has to offer, or so we're told. Steep wooded hills plunging to the sea, little fishing villages clinging to the rocks, now firmly on the tourist trail, but, in between, totally undeveloped and glorious in the sunshine. We stopped in Vernazza for lunch, but the village's obvious past appeal is somewhat soured by the hordes of (mainly American) tourists and the cynical, though understandable, trade that has sprung up to cater to them.
So on we went to our stop for the night, where we parked up next to some real gypsies - which reinforced many stereotypes (they really do polish their caravans every day, and the women really do do everything) and threw up many questions (how do they all fit in there?!). An aside from Will - I think Emma learnt a few things, and our floor was duly Cif'd the next morning..

Bella Italia

Our last night in France, spent in the mountains in Montgenevre, was positively arctic but the MBB's little diesel heater did us proud. In the morning we discovered an icicle where our breath had condensed and dripped out of the window in the night.

Fortunately for Will, there was no time to hang around in the mountains lamenting my lack of snowboarding gear - we had to push on to Italy. I won't wax lyrical about the spectacular scenery, but it was breathtaking, especially as we were blessed with yet another day of sunshine. Hopefully the pictures will give you some idea.

Out of the mountains, we decided to continue with our policy of avoiding toll roads, due to our tight budget and the assumption that they would be prohibitively expensive. This approach took us through some rather unattractive backwaters on godawful scarred and pitted roads but did afford us a glimpse of an Italy that doesn't feature in the guide books. On the country road we were travelling on I noticed a scantily clad girl standing in a layby and assumed she was waiting for a bus. My only thought was 'great, it must be really warm out for her to be wearing so little - maybe I'll put my shorts on later'. About a mile further on, another layby, and another girl, also wearing few clothes. The scene was repeated at every layby for the next 20 or so km, and every one of the girls was black. It was broad daylight on a busy minor road, which suggested a large scale operation with police pay off.

After a couple of hours on these meandering and pot-hole ridden roads, and still only halfway to our destination, we decided that enough was enough. Surely the toll road to Genoa would not cost us more than 30 euros, and with Frankie complaining loudly and our nerves jangling, at that precise moment I would have been willing to pay double that. Aah, the smooth tarmac was a joy, apart from the fact that the road had been made in sections and at regular intervals felt like driving over a ditch. Worries about the box resurfaced but we made it to our destination - Rapallo - intact and in less than an hour. And the toll? 8 euros.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Alpine passes

With the bracket fixed and our wallets as well as our minds considerably lighter, we needed to push on to the Alps. With a little help from some friends we decided to take the pass over Montgenevre, stopping for the night at an Aire (free camping for motorhomes - usually a car park with toilets, water supply and waste dumping) in Les Deux Alps. To our surprise there was still a fair amount of snow and I really regretted not bringing the snowboard. We took a gondola up the mountain anyway and had overpriced chocolat chaud and pommes frites and a little stomp around.

A Jacques of all trades

We left Paris refreshed but with one thing on our minds - finding a welder and getting our bracket fixed. As we headed for the outskirts and the industrial zone, Will brushed up on his French mechanic speak (weld=souder). Whilst following a satnav diversion in the industrial suburbs, we happened upon a garage and were directed to a likelier prospect, where the young garage owner was happy to make some repairs at 10 minutes notice. Some pigeon French and a collaborative effort later, a strong but not particularly elegant repair was made (he wasn't the world's best welder). We were duly stung for 120 euros (twice as much as it cost to have the entire bracket made in the first place) but after further bodging with rubber door stops and adhesive and the box is (we hope) safe and sound for the rest of the trip, though still sagging and looking a bit pikey.

A week in Paris

 Our week in Paris coincided with a proper heatwave - 25 degrees and upwards most days. My previous trips to Paris have mainly consisted of museums and galleries during the day, and restaurants and bars at night. This trip was to be different. We only made it to one gallery, the Musee D'Orsay, and only for an hour before Frankie woke up and started protesting loudly.

Our days were mainly spent walking and eating and sitting under trees in the park. Paris is not an ideal city to visit with a one-year old - managing the metro with a pushchair is challenging (most Parisians seem to use baby slings instead), and the lift to our apartment on the 6th floor was too small to fit the pushcahir in, so we had to leave and return to the flat in two stages.

But despite the difficulties, we had a great time, enjoying lunchtime plat du jour most days, where Frankie made friends with all the waiters, walking the streets of Bastille, the Latin Quarter and St Germain, finding plenty of little neighbourhood playgrounds for Frankie, watching the street artists at Montmatre, and stumbling across the Paris marathon on our last day.

Onward to Paris

After a second night spent in ..... parked up opposite an equestrian centre, which Frankie loved (and Will, with his allergy to horses, not so much) we set off for Paris. All was going swimmingly until we stopped off for provisions at a supermarket on the outskirts. We returned to the van, and whipped up a quick and tasty lunch. By the time we'd finished, the supermarket was closed and the car park deserted. Will shifted The MBB into reverse and, to the strains of 'On the Road Again' by Willie Nelson, overenthusiastically backed, at some speed, into a lone lamp post in the middle of the carpark. Bosh! He got out to check the damage and returned head in hands. His pride and joy, our beautiful aluminium storage box, had taken the impact and the bracket supporting it had bent. The lamp post was, if anything, slightly worse off. 10km from central Paris on a Sunday afternoon and we needed a welder..

We decided to chance the rest of the drive, anxiously checking the rearview mirror after every pothole, and forget about the box, welding etc.. for the duration of our stay in Paris. We had arranged to stay in an apartment in the Bastille area for the week, so we said ta ta for now to the MBB and headed for the luxury of power showers and separate rooms.

Dover to Calais

Our last day in Bristol was pretty frenetic and full of important last minute decisions (trike or walker?) and we ended up leaving about 3 hours later than planned. We arrived just outside Dover at about 9pm, parked up in a service station car park and put Frankie straight to bed. Dad had given us a couple of readymeal curries 'just in case' so these went straight in the oven and we ate them sitting in the dark and speaking in whispers. Hmm, perhaps this van isn't quite big enough for a family of 3 to live in for 4 months... The following day we crossed the Channel without a hitch and spent our first night in St Valery-sur-Somme.

Introducing 'The Mini Bad-Boy'

Apologies for the tardiness of this first blog post. Life on the road with a one year old has so far taught me that planning, travelling and taking care of life's basic necessities seem to eat up virtually the whole day, which leaves not much time for writing. Other lessons I have learned include 1) I can't read maps to save my life 2) Satnav is a wonderful thing 3) an item of clothing is only dirty if you can see actual dirt on it. Just as well my standards were pretty sloppy in the first place.

It is actually now over a week since I wrote the below, and this is our first access to wifi. Frankie has overdosed on Italian cakes and is going nuts so I'm going to ditch any plans of making the blog look pretty and just get as many words and pics published as possible. I fear that my plans to regularly update it were, in hindsight, rather ambitious.

Right now I am sitting in the cab of our lovely Toyota Dyna, christened 'The Mini Bad-Boy' (no prizes for guessing who got to choose the name), in Montgenevre in the French Alps, which is where our journey has taken us so far. It is 8 o'clock in the evening and below zero outside, with a few little flurries of snow. We have a sleeping child in the back, bellies full of curry, beers in hands and were it not for our slightly eccentric living and sleeping arrangments, all would be well with the world. But the only place for Frankie's cot is right in the middle of the living area, so his bedtime sees us evicted to the miniscule cab, where we sit, separated by Frankie's car seat, reading by LED lantern. More fool us for buying a van designed for miniature Japanese people.

It's really not that bad, and when the weather is warmer and the evenings lighter, we'll be able to sit outside, stretch our legs out and even talk above a whisper. And The Mini Bad-Boy (MBB) has everything we need. This next bit is for all you vanoraks out there...

She (for I have decided the MBB is a she - just to even things up a bit) is a 1991 Japanese import Toyota Dyna, which is like a mini lorry, with a plastic fantastic coach built body on the back. Pretty diddy by modern motorhome standards but sporting a 3.7 litre Toyota Landcruiser clockwork engine (no electrical stuff to go wrong), with 63000km on the clock, getting 20-25mpg and blowing a bit of black smoke on the uphill runs. Perhaps the engine size exceeds our needs but she's not gonna break down....we hope.

Inside we've got recently fitted new appliances - oven, fridge, diesel fuelled blown air heating (very economical and a godsend in the mountains). There's a double bed over the cab, flush toilet and shower room (albeit miniscule, and an act of yogic contortionism for anyone over 5'5"), hot and cold running water... Boring bit over but some people like to know these things. For those of you uninterested or baffled by the spec, there are some pretty pictures to look at instead.
night time set up

living area


bad boy