Well it’s time to say goodbye to Italy. We’ve decided to make our way to France as quickly as possible, which will mean some long drives through the night.
What we’ll miss about Italy:
- delicious food, especially pizza and gelati
- friendly people
- going for the passegiata (evening stroll)
- amazing art works and architecture
What we won’t miss:
- the high prices of things, especially fuel
- ridiculous drivers, the worst we have yet encountered
- third-world quality roads
- litter everywhere, especially at scenic viewpoints
- huge numbers of tourists at every destination
In all we’re not sad to be leaving. Italy has some positive aspects but on the whole we weren’t nearly as enamoured with it as we thought we’d be. Of all the places we’ve visited it’s the first that I felt that I might not bother visiting again.
Cinque Terre is a series of small villages that hug the coastline of Liguria in Northern Italy. What makes them unique is that there is almost no traffic as most of the locals use their feet to get around. We left from Levatano, a 5 minute train journey from the first of the villages, Monterosso. The camper stop is right next door to the train station and a short walk into town where you can buy a combination train and walking pass for a mere €8.50. Odie was allowed to come along but we were told he needed a muzzle, which we never used.
We boarded the train later than expected (10am), having treated ourselves to a lie; all due to the cloudy weather of course 😉 The train was rammed full of tourists and school kids; I dread to think how busy it gets in summertime. Just five minutes after boarding we hopped off and started along the blue trail.
The walkers come in waves as the train only stops every hour and, after leaving the station, we were followed by a stream of people dressed in hiking boots and armed with walking poles and happy-snap cameras. After about half an hour of steep climbing the traffic began to thin out a bit. We enjoyed spectacular views down to the stunning coastline and wandered amongst farms of lemons, olives, grapes and tomatoes.
The five villages are very busy when you reach them, especially at lunch time. Tourists gorge themselves on pizza for their onward journeys, though it’s hard to imagine why some need so much pizza to fuel them to the nearby train station. Part of the blue route was shut for maintenance so we opted to climb up the mountain pass. This added some extra exercise to our day with relentlessly steep ascents tormenting us at every corner, but we were rewarded with a spectacular view at the summit where the path meandered through hillside vinyards.
We had only appreciated the view for a few minutes when we realised that we were far from the next village, from which our train would soon be leaving. Admiration of the surroundings quickly turned to much cursing of the steep paths as we rushed downhill to get to the station on time. We needn’t have bothered as, in true Italian fashion, the train turned up half an hour late.
In all it was a fantastic day out and an experience we would highly recommend!
We had decided to put Italy behind us as quickly as possible and, with this in mind, set our minds to driving through the night back into France. On route however I spotted signs for Pisa and, having read stories and looked at pictures of the leaning tower as a child, couldn’t resist a diversion into the famous town to take in the sights.
Having spent all day on the lurking in the back of the van Odie was dying for a walk so we decided to take him around the block. It turned out that our motorhome stop was practically in view of the leaning tower. A glimpse of the rooftop stirred in me such desire to see the famous monument that I rushed back to the van, fetched my camera and tripod, and dragged Chris and Odie at a fast pace into the walls of the old town.
Although I’d seen drawings and photographs of the tower in books, the actual building took me quite by surprise. It is incredible – beautiful and delicate in a way that no picture can possibly capture. I could have spent hours photographing it from different angles but, with a cold wind biting like an annoying insect, and a shivering and complaining wife, I had to make do with just a few quick snaps.
The next morning we decided to visit the same sights in the light of day. What had been a tranquil and moving view by night was quite a different experience in the sun. Hoards of tourists arrived by the busload, and within a couple of hours we were elbowing and cursing our way through noisy crowds. As always though, the masses were only interested in the main attractions. A short walk took us way from the throngs of happy-snappers into the heart of the town where many beautiful sights could be seen without hundreds of people posing in front of them.
Pisa’s tower is famous for leaning, but many other attractions of less repute follow suite. Walking along the river you can see buildings from houses to banks tipping over, as their foundations slowly sink into soft soil below them. You could really call it the leaning town of Pisa.
We’ve come to accept the incredibly commercial aspect of any tourist site in Italy (little wonder as it’s the fifth most visited country in the world) and were unsurprised to find stalls selling various spirits in leaning bottles and leaning tower shaped pasta. As you can see from the photo though leaning towers don’t always have to be buildings … 😀
One of my long standing ambitions has been to explore the Amalfi coast. This goal inspired us to persevere in our struggle with the Italian traffic, and we made our way to Sorrento. A little preparation made the journey to the area much more bearable. We were able to find a campsite open in the ‘off’ season and avoid all those challengingly low bridges. Our campsite was tagged onto the end of Sorrento with amazing views of the coastline.
We decided to spend our first day in this area exploring it on foot. The Italians don’t seem to be overly keen on footpaths, or even pavements, and you have to take your chances on the narrow roads leaping sideways to avoid scooters undertaking three-wheeled Piaggios. We diverted off the main road onto a walkway, straddled on either side by lime and lemon plantations. We scrumped some limes for our larder, though our pickings were meagre compared to a retired Italian couple we encountered, dragging bulging plastic packets filled with olives, lemons, limes and pomegranates in their wake.
The coastal road to Amalfi is closed to motorhomes during the day due to the huge volume of traffic and the jaw droopingly narrow squeezes between cliffs and houses. The coast is easily visited by bus and boat, both run by the municipality and very reasonably priced. Feeling more adventurous we opted to rent a scooter from Sorrento for the day. Finding a good scooter-spot for Odie proved to be an interesting challenge but soon, like an unwilling sandwich filling, he was wedged firmly between us, sniffing and staring at the passing scenery.
We bumped and weaved our way along the peninsula, through isolated villages to Santa Agata which has stunning views all round. The road hugs the cliffs and continues on to the beautiful towns of Positano, Praiano and Amalfi. The towns are mid-way down the cliffs, between the sea and the towering limestone monoliths that stretch into the clouds.
We stopped for a delicious seafood lunch in a restaurant, with tables looking out across one of the bays. It turned out to be a rather expensive treat of seafood pasta and freshly prepared veggies from the proprietor’s garden for only €10 extra (or yous sleeps widda fishes). After lunch, the clouds descended and rain quickly fell upon our cheap plastic helmets. We weaved our way homewards through mist and fog, our TomTom bleating out alternatively a direction to turn, or a warning about a low battery. With the TomTom off to save the battery we powered on, thinking we had our bearings right, but discovered after a long descent to a small fishing village that we had made a monstrous diversion to a dead end. I’d usually have been annoyed but strangely the last hour of scooting back through the Italian rain was as much fun as you could possibly hope for. My spirit of adventure was feeling much alive.
Pompeii! A city frozen in time. We were staying just across the road at Camping Pompeii. Although the site is convenient it is not very quiet due to all the tourist hubbub. If you are not keen on staying in the city, the campsite does provide parking for the day too. Entry to the archeological site is €11. Audio guides are available from the main entrance but these are not necessary if you get a map and brief guide in English. We spent two and a half hours there but felt a bit rushed as we left it late in the day (hoping the crowds had thinned) to visit. I’d recommend at least 3 or 4 hours for a decent visit. Make sure you take water and sunscreen if it is hot. There are some lovely shady spots great for picnics if you have time. Dogs are permitted at no charge.
We have by now seen quite a few Roman sights, and at first I wasn’t that impressed by Pompeii but after half an hour I realised just how huge and interesting it is. The scale is unmatched by any other excavation. It is a good walk to see all the sights and you will need sturdy walking shoes as many of the roads are uneven. There are deep grooves in the roads from the wheels of the carts which used to trundle across this city. The amphitheatre is huge – it used to hold an impressive 20,000 people and was used for gladiatorial matches. They used one gate for releasing them into the arena and the other to take the injured out. There are signs on the floor of metal rungs, perhaps to loop lions or other beasts onto.
A haunting sight was the mummified remains of the victims trapped by the pyroclastic wave of ash. Most of the forms are huddled up in a foetus position. Some of their faces show expressions of fear and pain. The garden of fugitives has a few all huddled together and includes children and babies. What they experienced must have been absolutely horrifying.
You can learn a lot about how the people lived in those times as so much of the town was well preserved by the volcanic ash. There are eating houses, with their ceramic food receptacles built into the marble table tops. The Romans used to eat lunch away from home and these ‘restaurants’ had a couple of different rooms to eat from. One had chaise longues and they used to eat their lunch lying down in the style of the Greeks. There is also a house which was built for use as a brothel, unusual in those days. The baths with their marble basins and piped water are dark but opulent. The forum is huge, a massive space which accommodated thousands of people. There are also numerous temples dedicated to the various Roman gods which are frequented by the numerous stray dogs that live in the ruins.
The van is both our home and our transport. At times I think it is a blessing and at other times a hinderance. We found ourselves in Cava De Tireni, a town on route to the Amalfi coast. Roadworks were prolific, and eventually we found ourselves navigating down a very narrow street, abruptly and rather suddenly a 2.5 ton limit sign appeared. My only option was to turn down one of the little side roads (even narrower than the one we were currently on) and pray! My prayers went unanswered and in moments I found myself at a junction filled with scaffolding, leaving a very tight squeeze for our wide van. I thought I had got through ok, but an impatient Italian on my tail was adding to the pressure, and just as I breathed out for the first time in what seemed like an eternity I heard the noise everyone dreads – a nasty long scratching sound followed by a sharp crack. There was no time to stop and check out the damage though with people tooting behind us. It turned out to be our vent for the gas which juts out very slightly and caught on some railings. We are left with a damaged vent, scrape along the side (luckily mostly superficial) and a rather less confident driver.
The day did not improve much. After vetoing Cava De Tireni as a stop we opted to make our way into the mountains which back onto the Amalfi coast. Motorhomes are only allowed to drive along the Amalfi coast from midnight to 6 am. This means your only option is to visit from either Salerno or Sorrento during day by bus, scooter or boat. Salerno is an ugly monstrosity and we definitely did not want to stop there. The mountains looked like a good stopover on the way to Sorrento. After a 45 minute drive around some very tight hair pin bends all we got to see was the view back towards Naples and Mt Vesuvius. The agriturismo camper stop was shut for the whole of October.
Another regroup and we thought we would just go to the coast. We ended up in Piano de Sorrento where most of the campsites are shut now as it is no longer summer. This would not have been a problem except that a railway line traverses the town and though there are a couple of high bridges, most are not suitable for vehicles like ours. In typical Italian style the road markings were shocking. You never know if a low bridge is coming up until you are right upon it, with no room to turn back the other way. At one point a sign saying “trucks this way” sent us the wrong way down a one way street! After an hour of similar battles in the crazy Italian traffic we decided to cut our losses and head towards Pompei.
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.