Archive for September, 2010
We have been sampling the delights of Campania. One of its most famous foods is buffalo mozzarella. A tricolori salad made with this cheese is to die for. We stayed on a buffalo farm, nestled amongst olive trees with only the buffalos for neighbours. The farm was around the corner from Paestum, a famous ruin which started off as an Ancient Greek settlement in the 6th century BC and later updated by the Romans. It is a wonderful integration of these two cultures and highlights the similarities between them. It’s amazing to think that these buildings are now nearly 2400 years old, and still in such remarkable condition. It was discovered in the 18th century by road builders who, after making their monumental find, continued building the road which runs through the middle of the site!
Pollino National Park is Italy’s largest park and it straddles Basilicata and Calabria. The park has rocky peaks, rolling green hills and a beautiful aquamarine lake. It does not seem to be used by visitors all that much, we found a walking trail and embarked on what I was hoping would be a long hike. After bundu bashing through some rather thick vegetation we opted for a stroll along the road. Our exercise for the day done, we made a short hop to the Tyrrhenian coast. The almost deserted holiday town of Praia a Mare has a long black pebbled beach. It’s most famous attraction is the Isola di Dino, an island that sits just off the shore.
As we were setting ourselves up in the campsite we were surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes. I killed eight immediately and yet more and more arrived. What followed was a very tribal looking dance as we spun around and around flapping our arms in all directions to try and swat the annoying little beasts!
The Basilicata region is known throughout Italy as being poor and rather downtrodden. The city of Matera is no exception. As late as the 1950s many people were living here in caves, without running water or sewage removal. It has managed to turn its fortunes around somewhat in the last few decades, attracting tourists to see the caves that housed so many residents. When housing was eventually built for them they shunned the cushy life of indoor plumbing and stubbornly refused to leave their holes. They were finally flushed out by force! The town has also gained some fame by providing the backdrop for the film ‘The Passion of the Christ‘.
We drove into the town and followed the signs for motorhome parking. Unfortunately there was a festival of some sort going on and our designated motorhome parking area was now the party headquarters, although to look at the ankle deep pile of litter in the car park you’d think it had become the designated town dump. We circled round and round on the narrow streets looking for a space that could accommodate our van. Sadly, with cars triple parked and delivery vans thrust into every available crevice, we stood less chance than a fat tourist trying to squeeze into Italian designer wear . That put a swift end to our sightseeing for the day. Sometimes life in a motorhome is difficult!
Lecce, in the deep south of Puglia, Italy is a town that overloads the senses. It has over 40 churches and just as many squares. The heavenly architecture which dots the town reaches a crescendo at the Basilica di Santa Croce. My guide book declares that he stone masons must have been hallucinating when they created this masterpiece. I concur, for this fresco contains all manner of creatures including, believe it or not, dodos! It is rather overwhelming and we had to take refuge inside the church to recover. The interior is rather more sedate although still beautiful in its own right. The rest of this city follows the Baroque trend and also has not one, but two Roman theaters. This cultural overload contrasts with the abundance of crude graffiti scrawled over the ancient walls.
We made our way into the city via bus from our area di sosta (camperstop) 6km out of Lecce. We knew we’d found the bus stop when we noticed a little piece of cardboard tied to a road sign with the words “fermata bus” scrawled on it. While the bus stop might have been very third world, bus driver wasn’t, and surprised us by being perfectly on time both on the way there and back. Odie, was in luck. Instead of being relegated to the luggage compartment (as he was in Spain), he was able to ride in style with us! Bus tickets came in at a trifling €0.80 and were available from the camperstop.
After a welcome break in our nomadic lifestyle we uprooted once again and pottered down the Adriatic coast to Alberobello, Puglia. This town is famous for trulli – the round, dry walled, white washed houses that dot the landscape. Some say that they were built as an early form of tax evasion. Being made without mortar they could be dismantled every time a royal tax inspection was carried out.
We stopped in a lovely olive plantation, now an area di sosta (camperstop), in the heart of Alberobello. Little did we know that we were adjacent to the Trulli neighbourhood. In our search for groceries, we bypassed this area and looped all round the town only seeing a few Trulli as we marched ever onwards. However, we weren’t disappointed as the town is beautiful in its own right and we were lucky enough to be about during the Italian passegiata, or evening stroll. The next morning we stumbled over the Trulli neighbourhood. There are two main Trulli areas, one full of shops selling trulli tacky touritst tat, and another where people still live in these hobbity homes.
A short hop took us to Locorotondo, a hilltop town in Puglia with a beautiful historical centre. The old town has narrow lanes that all lead to the church. Most buildings are cream or white and this colour contrasts beautifully with the red geranium-filled window boxes. After a rejuvenating gelati we continued on to Lecce, right in the heel of the Italian boot.
We are constantly moving, packing and organising . You would never think that we are on a permanent holiday. Our days somehow fill themselves up with these ‘admin’ tasks. We often find that after a month or so of regular, almost daily journeys we feel run down and need to stop for a few days to recharge our batteries. I find this is particularly true if we are wild camping regularly, and although I feel most at peace when we are on our own in nature, I worry that we will be asked to move on by the locals.
The time had come to put down some roots, at least for a few days, by the beach. We found a great campsite near Vieste, Puglia in the Parco Nazionale del Gargano. The site was a short walk from the sea and had a very relaxed, holiday atmosphere. A couple of other English couples were also staying for a few days and we were able to swap information. The respite from traveling allowed us to catch up on work and chill out with swimming and general holiday activities.
The Adriatic coast is stunning. Verdant forests crowd the hills which drop down to the ever changing blue ocean. Limestone rocks give the area an idyllic landscape, riddled with caves and coves. Vieste was our closest town, but unfortunately in our laziness we didn’t visit except for a hair raising journey out of town. It looks like a perfect holiday town, full of bars, restaurants and endless sandy beaches dotted with palm trees.
Saepinum, a unique and deserted Roman settlement, greeted us after a short drive on some very bumpy roads in the Molise region of Italy. This Roman town was an important gateway for goods and travellers within the Roman republic. Part of the amphitheater had been used as a foundation for a number of medieval cottages. The archeologists excavating the site decided to leave these standing and they give an interesting insight into how buildings expand organically upwards over time. There is a large square with a recreated entrance gate and original carved fountains and pillars.
What makes Saepinum unique is that it is not very well known. We were virtually the only visitors to the site, and even had to shake the parking attendant to wake him from a snoring reverie. The ruins gives you a chance to recreate the Roman town in your imagination without having to fight your way through hordes of other tourists. The site is so unvisited that I actually had difficulty locating it. The closest town is Altilia (you can park here), close to Campobasso.
Living in a motorhome is somewhat claustrophobic, but discovering just how small the houses were back then made us feel extremely grateful for the space and amenities we are so fortunate to have. Never have so many trees been chopped down to warm so few dwellings. On the other hand thick stone walls are quite soundproof, making domestic altercations and unwanted TV channels very much unheard.
We made a quick diversion on to Lucera; a supposedly interesting town in Puglia. We were keen to see the massive castle with its endless towers. Unfortunately the castle office is clearly not interested in having visitors. Locked gates barred our entrance and, much to our dismay, the informative sign displaying the opening hours had been desecrated with a black permanent marker. We had a short walk around the perimeter and then went on our merry way.
We started our regional itinerary of Abruzzo in Sulmona. The town is famous for its sugared almonds that are traditionally given to guests at weddings. The Sulmona area di sosta (camperstop) was overgrown, weeds crowding the entrance and had no services available. We parked up near this almost derelict spot and saw signs for an ‘elevator’ to take us up to the ‘centrico’. The ‘elevator’ turned out to be barricaded shut and some rather seedy stairs led us to our destination.
The town was pleasing enough, but I fear we have become desensitised as we have seen so many beautiful Italian towns. Unfortunately Sulmona did not leave us with a very favourable impression. The only saving grace was the weekly market. There we managed to purchase some delicious grapes, prickly pears and other succulent treats.
We decided to push on and found an idyllic wild camping spot in the nearby Parco Nazionale della Majella, overlooking a vast valley. The National Park is home to wolves, bears and rare species of deer but only a few local mushroom pickers made an appearance. We did get to see another pretty sunrise though; that’s twice in two days. 🙂
We are always interested in trying new foods and Ascoli Piceno had something unique on offer – olives stuffed with veal and then deep fried. A cardiologist’s worst nightmare but a delight for tourists’ tummies! This town in the Le Marche region of Italy has plenty of interesting sights, beautiful squares and pretty architecture. Its tourist appeal is readily evident with the numerous American and English voices that can be heard echoing off the Roman monuments.
A quick descent out of the mountainous region of Monti Sibillini National Park lead us to the Adriatic sea. Beautiful blue skies and abundant sunshine, combined with a powder blue sea should result in hordes of sun worshippers … or this is what we thought. The only sight that met us on the beach in Porto d’Ascoli were endless rows of sun loungers and parasols. It looked like a holiday ghost town. If only the English knew about this September paradise. I’m sure many would love a cheap holiday in the Italian ‘off’ season. We eventually located a wild camping spot right next to the sea, and were rewarded with a pretty sunrise the following morning.
After the hustle and bustle of touristy towns, we escaped to Monti Sibillini and its eerie National Park, which straddles the Le Marche and Umbrian region of Italy. We stayed in a grassy (and free) area di sosta close to the town of Castleluccio, surrounded by mountains.
Handgliders and paragliders make good use of the flat basin, perfect for easy landings. Some of the more adventurous ones could even be seen disappearing in and out of clouds that tumble down the sides of the mountains.
The area is perfect for hiking and mountain biking; we did both whilst we were there. Apparently, there are numerous wild animals and plants to be spotted, but the wildest thing we saw was a bleary eyed shepherd and five sheepdogs who thought that Odie looked like a good appetiser.