Thursday, 4 September 2014
Our travel adventure in Italy quickly came to an end after leaving Pineto as we raced north towards Bologna. The owner of the camp site warned us that as we were leaving on a Saturday, there would be a lot of holiday traffic on the road and there was. We sat in a long hot queue and opening the car windows didn't help in cooling us down. The air outside was like a hot fan or hair dryer. As it turned out, there were road works ahead with traffic lights holding us up. When we eventually reached them, the car in front went through on red and my other half followed, so did the car behind, the one behind that and several more as the cars on the other side waited on green for a space to push through.
I had hoped to hang around at least another day in Bologna. A fellow anti-Nanny State and free consumer choice activist who lives in the city had kindly offered to be our tourism guide and I would have loved to take her up on that and spend time chatting over a cuppa and a smoke afterwards. I last saw her a few years ago when we both attended an anti-prohibition conference. However, it was very late when we arrived at the Cittá di Bologna camp site and our minds were firmly set on getting home as quickly as possible. We were both worn out and money was tight.
I have seen Bologna before. I stayed for a while back in the 1980s when I went with my mum to visit her sister and I went again about seven years ago with a friend. The only photo I got of the city to mark my visit this time was the mushrooms which grew around the tree on the spot where we pitched our tent. They were all dead by the next morning.
It was a glorious hot day as we packed up to leave. The car so far had been completely reliable despite my husband's fears that somewhere along the way it would break down. We'd done almost 6,000 miles. As he turned the ignition key, the car grumbled a bit and then died. He tried a second time but the engine refused to turn over. This was the last thing we needed and neither of us was sure what we would do if he couldn't get it going.
"Could it be the heat?" I asked. After all, the car was used to England where the hottest of summer days never gets above about 25 degrees and we'd pushed this car forward daily in temperatures ranging between 35 and 40 degrees.
He tried again and it was with a huge sigh of relief that this time the engine struck up. He said something about the heat being responsible for the petrol taking it's time to reach all the way through the pipe to the ignition switch (at least that's what I understood him to mean as one who has no idea about mechanics.)
Aosta was 400 km away but we decided to try and make it in one day without stopping. We took the autostrade, despite the cost, to avoid the winding mountain roads that we had taken on the way down and we hoped to find the camp site we stayed at when we first arrived in Italy. We knew it had wifi and we needed that to amend our ticket home on the channel tunnel Eurostar.
As we approached the mountains, the air outside had become much fresher and it was no longer warm. There were a few castles on cliff tops which impressed me more than the Castle Del Monte but I could only guess at how one would reach them to have a good look around.
We arrived in Aosta at 7pm and the first thing I did was drag out a jumper and jeans. It also started raining but that had gone by morning to make way for another lovely day that was warm but without the stifling heat which I was already missing. We headed for the Monte Bianco tunnel on the non toll road we came in on. It had cost just over 42 Euros to cross from France to Italy but just over 43 Euros to cross from Italy to France.
I wasn't looking forward to the drive because of the difficulty we had in finding camp sites on the way down. Luckily for us, we saw hand made signs leading us around a roundabout down a single track country road that led us to a lovely site that had a fishing pond and a swimming pool and pasture-like fields that smelled green and fresh. It rained really hard as the evening wore on so we sat for a while in the car until it eased off. The next morning we headed on towards Reims and hoped to camp somewhere near there but after a nine and a half hour drive, we still hadn't found anywhere. It was typical that when we didn't need a camp site we saw loads of signs pointing to several, but when the time came that we felt the need to pitch up, there wasn't a single one for miles and miles.
Exhausted, we had little hope that we'd find one and then a sign jumped out at us and we followed it. We'd gone much further north in France than we aimed to so we were, at least, ahead of ourselves. I'd hoped that we'd have time to go shopping in Belgium for cheap tobacco. We saw signs for Oostend and followed them but we didn't have to go far before we realised that we had crossed the border. it was only because the language changed that we realised we were in a different country. No border controls there at all. Tabac was advertised on big flags outside big stores and I was like a kid in a sweet shop. I bought my usual six months supply and we then headed back towards Calais. This was our last night and we didn't intend to waste it driving looking for campsites. We'd stay in a hotel.
France had some wonderful picnic stops and rest stops where we could pull over and make tea. We decided before we got to Calais that we'd have a cuppa because we hadn't had much to eat or drink since leaving the camp site. We passed one that had been closed down and blocked off so we stopped at the next one. There was a lorry parked there and the driver was at the front of his vehicle on his phone. My husband got the camping cooker out and just as I was about to get out of the car, he told me we weren't staying. He was hastily putting the cooker away again and when he got back in the car he asked if I had seen all the people running out of the bushes.
I hadn't but he when he explained that as he began to set up the cooker, he saw lots of people suddenly appear out of the bushes with ruck sacks on their backs run to the back of the lorry, I agreed we should leg it. We didn't feel safe so we continued on towards Calais with no thoughts of stopping again until we got there. There are so many displaced and desperate people running to Europe from dictatorships and wars in Africa and the middle east that I think ultimately it is impossible to stop them trying to get in.
We arrived in the city after 3pm and starving hungry. Everywhere we went was closed. No cafes were open, no bars, no restuarants, no chippys, no kebab shops, no burger bars. The hotel said they wouldn't be serving food until after 8pm. The best we could do was head to a Lidl's we had seen where we bought sandwiches and cakes. We then drove into town later and noted that everywhere began to open up after 6pm. It appears Calais has the old English pub opening times of 11am to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm. We stopped at a nice bar for a beer when the city came back to life and then went sight seeing.
My other half liked the above building and the one below and we learned about the Burghers of Calais.
We stayed at the hotel drinking beer and smoking in the sunshine for a while before heading back into town for more beer as we wasted time until we had to head off to catch the chunnel train. We had four hours to use up but after two we got bored. We were going to spend the last two hours in the terminal looking around, maybe buying last minute presents, but when we got there we had priority boarding which we weren't aware of so we just drove straight onto the train as other cars queued. In another 35 minutes we'd be in England and we weren't even booked on this train. Then it hit me how quick this journey home from Pineto had been and I felt sad as I realised this was it, there was now no turning back. The travel adventure was over.
My other half soon got back into driving on the proper side of the road. We queued for an hour at the Dartford Tunnel otherwise we would have made good time home. I was thankful that the sun shone and the weather was hot. Everyone had talked about the hot summer England was basking in as we were in Italy. However, it didn't last long. Three days later the tail end of Hurricane Bertha hit us and the weather turned to hell. I've barely seen the sun since.
The car which had been great and hadn't let us down once during the long journey began to play up when we got home. It appears that some water got into the petrol somehow that led to it misfiring or, to use my mechanic husband's technical term, it was running like shit. The garage soon sorted that out for us for a tenner and it's running like its usual self again.
I've been asked if I'd do this again and in a second I'd have to say yes, if I was privileged enough to have both time and money in future. We didn't quite make it around the whole boot. There is the north, Venice, Verona, Burano, Padua, Trieste, and the Dolomites that we missed and which would be worth visiting again. Both me and my husband have the travel bug now and we both want to do another European road trip in future whenever we next get the opportunity. We both quite fancy travelling in Germany and Austria along the Rhine so that will be this year's research project as last year's was Italy's.
Now I have to get my head out of the memories of a dream trip and back into reality as work beckons this year like no other I've had for a while. I will try to keep this blog updated but posts may be rather sparse until I get to drips with my new routine and heavy workload.
To read the Travel Adventure in Italy from Part 1 to 11 click on the links below.
England to Aosta
Aosta to Lavagna
Lavagna to Terme Di Saturnia
Terme Di Saturnia to Zambrone
Zambrone to Ragusa
Ragusa to Agrigento
Agrigento to Trapani
Trapani to Messina
Messina to Castel Del Monte
Castel Del Monte to Pineto
Pineto to England
Monday, 1 September 2014
We weren't allowed to drive up to the Castel Del Monte but we were directed to a large car park up the road where we had to pay five euros for parking and a bus to take us there. I was gutted that I hadn't updated my press card which would have got me in free and meant we'd only have to pay 10 euros for one entry instead of 20 euros for the two of us. My student card from when I studied for my MA would also have got me free entry but it was out of date by almost four years. If only I'd known it would have been good for at least something because in all the time I had it while I studied, it was never valid anywhere for discount and I wondered what the point of it was.
It was another glorious day, if there was a bit of a strong wind, so before we entered the castle, we took a walk around it. My other half spotted this creature dead on the path that ran around the building. We thought it was one of those noisy things we'd heard in the trees that was a sort of squeaky see-saw serenade backdrop to our Italian trip because we heard them everywhere - but only on hot days. If it's even slightly chilly, they shut up. The insect we saw, however, was not a cicada but a Eupholidoptera Megastyla.
It didn't take long to see all of the castle inside and we were left with the feeling :"Is that it?" These bronze sculptures were laid out but I don't know what the significance is. My guess is that they are meant to reflect the astronomical and mathematical rigour of the castle's design. Of course, had I managed to get free entry for a decent write-up then I would have asked but in the circumstances, I approached the visit as a tourist happy to look at pretty things without really understanding why they were there.
Before long we we'd finished the tour and were outside heading back to the bus. I think I liked this little trulli village, built by an artist at the entrance to the castle's grounds, more than the grand building we'd just left.
We avoided spending yet more money in a cáfe so instead of visiting the one at the car park, we moved the car to where the camper vans were and got out the camping cooker and food, brewed up and made lunch. To our horror, the gas bottle ran out again so this would mean no more tea until we could get another and we had no idea where we should look. The rest of the trip without tea would be miserable. There was a camp site close to the Castle so we pulled in and hoped they'd have gas bottles for sale but there was no evidence of it so we drove out again. My other half was still chuntering about the cost of the gas bottle we'd bought in Lavagna and it seemed we had no other option but to fork out another 100 euros to replace it again.
We headed for the coast and kept an eye out for anything that looked possibly like a shop that sold it. Eventually, as evening wore on, we pulled into a very small site in Margherita di Savoia. We asked the man who approached as we entered if they had gas because we couldn't stay without it and he directed us to the bar on site where he said people spoke English. They did, a little, and enough to understand what we wanted and they went to great lenghts to help us. I sat with a strong expresso talking to a group of Italian women and their cousins, children, brothers and sisters, while one of the men took my other half around town to find a gas bottle. Sadly, he came back empty handed so we had to move on.
We stayed on the coast road and ended up driving for miles along a narrow pot-holed road through farmland. Old derelict buildings appear to have been inhabited by immigrants, or poor farm workers, as we saw washing hanging outside and tarpaulin pulled over crumbling houses with no roofs. On one side of the road we saw a load of solar panels, while on the other the field was being stubble burned. Italy's modern and ancient sat side by side everywhere.
As it got dark, we still found no camp sites, or shops and we had little faith that we would this late on. All we could do was find a main road, which was quite a challenge in itself, and then head to the nearest city Foggia to find a hotel, get wifi, and search for gas suppliers, before heading onwards with the journey. At least we had a travel kettle and adapter so we could brew up there.
It had been ages since we stayed in a hotel at Pisa and we'd forgotten how lovely it was to have a real bed, room with space, a TV and all the comfort that goes with it so we decided to stay two days and to hell with the budget. We looked up gas suppliers and found a shop nearby, also Googling directions so we didn't get lost trying to find it. The shop had gas but none like the one we bought in Lavagna so they wouldn't fit the regulator we thought was universal for use in Italy when we bought it. In the end we got a great deal. A huge bottle and new regulator for 35 Euros. Bargain.
With some time on our hands we went into nearby Lucera because, according to my Rough Guide to Italy, it was a prettier town more worthy of exploring. We had a good look around and then decided to head back to the hotel for rest. However, we got lost in Foggia and it took a couple of hours driving around to find the hotel again. We ate in the hotel restaurant that night. It only occurred to me half way through the meal that I was the only woman in there. I think it was the sort of place where travelling workmen stay but there was a police station right next door so maybe the police drop in as well. We had veal cooked in pink peppers. My other half was going to tell the grandkids that he ate Pepper Pig but we feared that might traumatise them for life. He'd already told them that his jelly fish sting was the result of a fight with a giant octopus which he won.
We decided to head for Chieti which is said to be the the oldest city in Italy. We left Foggia and headed for Pescara because Chieti was on route along the SS 16 road. We saw a young women sitting in a layby alone texting. My other half immediately claimed she was a prostitute but I said she might just be waiting for someone to pick her up from there after work or something. Then we saw another woman, and another, but this time they were pacing up and down the layby in a very short skirt and very high heels. Every layby we passed along a 20 km stretch had a beautiful young, scantily-clad woman showing her wares in the 39 degree heat with no shade. I eventually agreed they must be sex workers when we passed one young women who was naked from the waist down and motioning at us to pull over... (and to think my husband got told off by police for not wearing his T shirt on a hot day).. The women waved at drivers going past. Motorists hooted their horns. The occasional car or lorry had pulled in and, presumably, doing a deal with the girl they had chosen.
It was a long drive along a mountain road when we pulled off the SS16 for Chieti and the town itself was very pretty and very traditional. We took a walk in the park where there was a huge memorial to the Italian dead of the First World War. We couldn't really work it out but there were posters advertising a beer festival and we assumed it was there because tables were being set out and as we left, many people seemed to be heading that way.
As we made our way back to where we had parked the car below the hilltop town, we passed a traditional Italian barber shop. My husband had enjoyed a close cut throat wet shave in Pisa and he needed another since his beard had got a bit wild and his hair needed a trim. The barber was an elderly man who spoke no English at all. My other half showed him what he wanted by using his finger to shave down the sides of his face, but something was clearly lost in translation. He came out with his head shaved and polished but his beard was left intact. The barber couldn't understand, didn't want to be bothered, or simply didn't have the time to give him a shave. My other half was also a little disturbed that every time the barber said something, he tapped him on his nose as if dealing with a playful toddler.
After Chieti we headed back to the coast to find camping and we stayed at Pineto. The gate was manned by an an Italian Vigilante and others were parked just on the other side of the gate although to book in we had to go into the camp and to the reception. I wasn't sure what they were but the name "vigilante" carries a lot of baggage in English and it made me feel a little uncomfortable. The site was also the second most expensive we'd stayed at but the facilities didn't warrant such a high price - and you had to buy tokens at extra cost to use the showers. The other over priced camp site was in Rome earlier in the trip but it, at least, had more to offer by way of service. Although my camp site guide book said there was "inevitably" some railway noise, because the site was right next to a railway line, "it wasn't intrusive." We clearly camped too close to it. Trains rattling by every hour through the night and woke us both up. We hardly had any sleep.
We arrived very late and left quite early so we didn't do much sightseeing but the seaside town has a tower, which we saw as we drove past it.
Perhaps it was sheer exhaustion, plus the ever decreasing budget, but it was there, that next morning, that I decided the time had come to head home. If we could get easily to Cortona or Assisi, both on my wish list of places to see, then I wanted to stop by but in the event we didn't see any signs pointing that way and we'd have had to have worked out a route to get there, which we didn't, so we continued north towards Bologna. Our travel adventure was almost over.
In the next post we go back to Aosta and head for France and the channel tunnel train home.