Traveller and tourist

On our trip we are both travellers and tourists. The former seems a more desirable label than the latter. We tend to spend a lot of time trying to avoid and berating the latter, especially when they come in coach loads. This is somewhat like complaining about the traffic jam you are stuck in when you are actually the traffic jam!!

 

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Duomo in Pienza, with hardly any other tourists in the shot!

 

By contrast my photo of Duomo in Siena had rather more tourists in the shot.

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Duomo in Siena

 

A six months’ trip necessitates you spending more time as traveller than a two week holiday. We were, for example, in a tiny perfectly preserved medieval village of Pienza, a day or so ago. It has loads of picturesque lanes, buildings, touristy shops and the requisite Duomo. Our purchases, however, were four 7cm woodscrews and a box grater!

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Less touristy items!

 

Amongst the tourist shops (we did buy cheese and postcards) we found a very small hardware shop (think two Ronnies ‘fork handles’ place). I’m not sure we would have managed to buy 7cm woodscrews without Google translate on Kath’s phone.

The screws were required to reattach the protective cover for our 12v sockets. The box grater as a replacement for a cheap grater that twice took lumps out of my fingertips!

Ignatius

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Abruzzo to Tuscany

May 25th

After our free-camping night we realised that although we had water, fuel, empty waste etc we actually had very little food… so our first stop was at a Lidl outside a small town to stock up. And then we felt fully equipped for a couple of days in the wilds of Abruzzo. It’s a pretty remote and mountainous area. Our two books of campsites and camperstops have a bit of a void here, and the words ‘here be dragons’ in small print. But there is some tremendous scenery – the roads follow deep river gorges one minute and twist up to high plateaus the next. We really enjoyed the drive. Stopped for a wander around Scanno, a tiny hilltop village which is a little ski resort in winter. And onwards to San Stefano di Sessiana, another medieval hilltop town. This one was seriously damaged in the 2009 earthquake, the one that hit L’Aquila hard, killing 300 people. A medieval tower collapsed here, and judging by the shape of the scaffolding and the information boards it looks like they are intending rebuilding it completely.

We ended up free-camping outside a small town called Capestrano, with a view to die for.

May 26th

After free-camping on their doorstep we thought we should pay the inhabitants of Capestrano a visit, for a morning coffee. Turned out to be market day so we also bought socks and a melon. There’s earthquake damage in evidence here as well.

This day’s drive was possibly even more spectacular. At the high point we were at about 1800 metres with a glorious view of a range of snow-capped mountains – the Gran Sasso. It was pretty windy and cold there, so we dropped down a little way before stopping by the roadside for lunch.  Most of the roads here were really good – a world of difference between here and Sicily.

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Abruzzo, the Gran Sasso mountains.

We debated another free-camping night but to be totally honest I was a little short on knickers and needed a washing machine. So we headed out of Abruzzo, into the top corner of Lazio and to a campsite beside Lake Bolsena where we booked in for two nights. It was a lovely campsite, with a great restaurant, a shop, a little lakeside beach, and just 2km from the pretty medieval town of Bolsena.

May 27th

Washing. Then van-cleaning. Admin tasks. A bike ride into town for a quick look around and then a dip in the lake, followed by a couple of hours sitting in the sunshine with a good book. Sometimes these go-nowhere, low-key days are just what we need.

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Tranquil Lake Bolsena

May 28th

And into Tuscany. This is an area of Italy I have wanted to explore for a long time. I’ve been to Pisa and Florence before but nowhere else. We started our tour with a brief visit to Orvieto – a medieval hilltop town. (Remember how many Baroque churches we visited down south? Well it’s all medieval hilltop towns here. I’ll copy and paste those words to speed up the typing.) The visit was brief because we just missed a tour of the underground city and didn’t want to hang around all day till the next one, and also because it didn’t really appeal to us.

So we headed deeper into Tuscany, through countryside that grew prettier by the mile, to Montepulciano. There was a camperstop here where you could park overnight for 10 euro, with an easy walk to the historic old town. And this one we really liked. It’s a ctrl-v medieval hilltop town full of gorgeous alleyways that open onto glorious views across the countryside. We spent hours wandering around, explored a set of cellars beneath one of the wine shops, tasted wine, bought wine, had an evening meal out, watched the sun go down, and returned to Gertie after dark.

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Montepulciano and a view across Tuscany
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Sunset

May 29th

Onward to Pienze, a medieval hilltop town  village, where we spent a happy couple of hours exploring. Hardly anyone here, but it was so pretty! And then on to Montalcino. Here we did plenty more exploring, had a long lunch out that also involved wine tasting, and spent the night at the camperstop just outside the town.

May 30th

Ooh, that’s today! I am almost up to date. First stop today was Siena. As one of the major towns in Tuscany we felt we should go there. Following advice from some German motorhomers we’d met in the Montalcino camperstop we parked at a free car park outside the city and took a bus into the centre. Walked all round as usual, and visited the Duomo. It’s all a bit crowded and touristy after the other places in Tuscany we’d visited so we did not enjoy it as much as we expected. Staff in the tourist information office all seemed grumpy, treating us like cattle, and we had the impression we were being shook down for every penny we had (you have to pay 4 euro to go in the Duomo – in most towns the churches are free entry). Had lunch out, then decided to move on.

On the bus on the way back to the car park we met a bloke from Brighton who now lives and works in Siena. He mentioned Certaldo to us, and back in the van we checked it out, discovered it had a free camperstop and was not too far away, and decided to go there. Here, I mean. Am sitting in the van typing this in the Certaldo camperstop. It’s a medieval hilltop village, totally unspoilt and is totally gorgeous. We took the funicular up to the old part of town, arriving with just enough time to go round the two main sights : an old palazzo which incorporated the courthouse and jail and Boccaccio’s house (author of the Decameron, so Italy’s version of Chaucer). I hadn’t realised he’d lived here until we got here. Sadly in WW2 an Allied bomb destroyed much of his house but they rebuilt it as close to the original as possible. The rest of the old town escaped unscathed (and what on earth possessed that bomber to bomb Certaldo? Not exactly a strategic target!) and is very beautiful. And the views, the views, across the serenity of the Tuscan landscape. We stayed and ate an evening meal out, on a terrace overlooking the countryside below. Beautiful, and very good food too.

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Dinner in Certaldo

I think on the whole we are preferring the small towns and villages to the major tourist cities. They’re easier to manage – finding parking on the outskirts and walking to the centre, and I like the quieter, quirkier places where people see tourists as welcome guests rather than cash-cows.

Naples, Vesuvius, Herculaneum, Amalfi

Three days of serious sight-seeing in the Bay of Naples! We stayed at the Sosta di Camper we’d finally found near Ercolano (modern day Herculaneum) and used public transport to get about for the first two days.

22nd May

A full day in Naples. Walked to the railway station (the Circumvesuviana line, that’s for you, Nigel T!) and took the train into central Naples. From there we walked, walked and walked some more. It is always the best way to get a flavour of a city but of course is very tiring. We headed through the old town, to the Duomo, where they keep the blood of St Gennaro. Apparently it liquefies during ceremonies held a few times each year. If it doesn’t liquefy, that means disaster will occur. This happened before the 1944 eruption of Vesuvius, before a major earthquake, and before Naples lost to Milan in the footie. And it happened last December… yikes!

We looked at several other churches too. In San Lorenzo Maggiore church you can pay to visit the underground excavations beneath the church, and walk along an underground Roman street, itself built on top of Greek remains. Fascinating to see the layers of the old city, beneath the existing city!

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Pizza in Naples

We ate a slice of pizza – you have to, in Naples. It’s the law. They invented it here. We found what’s apparently ‘the’ most famous pizza in Naples – same place Bill Clinton once ate. And later sat in a very pleasant square for a lunch of lovely tomato bruschetta (me) and horrible sandwich (Ignatius).

In the afternoon we headed over to the archaeological museum. This houses  many of the the best finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum and was well worth a visit. The mosaics especially are beautiful.

Back to the train station, called in at a supermarket to stock up, then back on the train to our campsite for a much-needed shower. This campsite has the best shower of any so far -only one, in a little bathroom, but there were only two other vans so sharing it was no problem.

23rd May

Took the train again, this time just two stops in the other direction to Ercolano from where we took a bus up Vesuvius. It’s possible to drive part of the way up but there is not much parking and you can’t drive all the way, so a bus is a better option than taking Gertie (unlike on Etna). We then walked the final part of the journey to the rim of the crater, and then about half way round the crater, where the trail ends.

Of course we were comparing it with Etna the whole time. It’s not as dramatic a volcano, perhaps because it has not erupted as recently (last time was 1944). And it seems more touristy. But well worth visiting, for the views over the Bay of Naples if nothing else!

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Vesuvius crater. We were not planning to climb over.

After the bus dropped us back at the Ercolano train station we walked down through the town to the Herculaneum archaeological site. This is like a mini-Pompeii – the town was destroyed in the same eruption, but is much smaller. Some buildings retain their upper floor. There are also less crowds so it’s easier to get around. It’s an amazing site but Pompeii wowed me more, mainly because of the sheer scale of it, and the grandeur of the larger buildings there. The most moving sight was the skeletons of people huddled under arches on what was once the town’s waterfront. Heartbreaking.

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Trying to flee Herculaneum

A long, hot day. How I love that campsite shower!

May 24th

A day ear-marked for the Amalfi coast. If you’ve been following the blog you might remember we tried to drive it back in April but got turned back at Positano by police (“No Camper! No! You turn back!”). So we decided to park at Salerno and take a bus. We could have taken the train to Salerno but it’s quite a long way and those Circumvesuviana trains are crowded, standing room only.

The bus along the Amalfi coast is v-e-r-y slow, and was as packed as a Victoria line tube train in rush hour. Thankfully we had seats as we’d got on at the bus station in Salerno. It is a very scenic drive, although I couldn’t see much as there were so many people on board. Saw enough to know that there’s no way I’d advise anyone to drive it themselves in anything bigger than a scooter. Being a bus driver on the Amalfi coast must be the world’s number one most stressy job.

Finally we reached Amalfi (1 hour 40 mins from Salerno). It is a gorgeous little town – like those on the Cinque Terre but bigger and yet more touristy. We had a good wander up and down the lanes, ate lunch in the central square, then had a beer overlooking the beach. Definitely need to come back for a week’s hotel holiday some time.

We could not face the bus journey back so decided to return to Salerno by ferry which was far more civilised and a lot quicker. The ferry port in Salerno turned out to be very near where we’d parked Gertie. Perfect.

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Amalfi from the ferry

There’d been a vague plan to park overnight in Salerno but it was a bit pricey so we decided to move on. Next part of the trip involves heading northwards, through the mountainous middle of Italy, away from the coastal tourist traps. So we spent a couple of hours driving and ended up in the middle of nowhere (‘out in the boonies’ as Ignatius puts it) somewhere near a small town called Monteroduni. Free-camped.

More Puglia

May 20th

As mentioned in the last diary blog, we were camped outside the Grotte di Castellana. One odd thing about this town is that they leave their dogs out at night and the darned things bark all night. So after a bad night’s sleep we visited the caves, and had a tour in English. There are hundreds of caves but the tourist route takes you on a route 1.5km long (and back again) visiting several stunning limestone formations, culminating in the ‘white cave’. Our guide was very knowledgeable and the caves were well worth a visit (and made a change from Baroque churches!)

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First cave. You’re only allowed to take photos in this one and not the deeper ones.

After lunch (we were starving after the caves) we headed on to Trani, a medieval port town, where we’d picked a camperstop from Google – a car park just on the edge of the town. We walked through the old town, finding everything closed including the tourist information, then discovered the more lively port area, gardens etc. A very pleasant little place. That evening there was some event on at the castle that we’d half thought we’d go to but it began to rain – heavily. Really heavily. The rain continued most of the night, and is very loud when you are essentially living in a tin box, so it was another broken night’s sleep for us.

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Trani port

May 21st

Last big of sightseeing in Puglia – we headed inland from Trani to Castel del Monte, the best preserved of a series of castles built in Norman times. This one is on a low hill, and has views for miles. It’s an octagonal shape and felt like somewhere you really could live. Bit of a rip-off price-wise though – you have to park some way from the castle, pay to park, then have to pay again for a shuttle bus, then pay again to enter the castle. You’d think the shuttle bus at least should be included in the parking or entrance fee. After all that rain it was cool and overcast – quite a welcome change!

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Castel del Monte

And then we were on the motorway, heading out of Puglia and across the country towards Naples. We’d picked a camperstop from Google maps that’s near Herculaneum and near a train station to get into Naples centre. But after much driving round narrow one-way systems we had to admit the camperstop does not exist where Google had marked it – and yet it had recent (2 week old) reviews. After a bit of asking and some more Googling we drove a few km up the road, found signs for a camperstop and went in – then recognised it from photos of the one we couldn’t find! First time Google maps has got something totally wrong. Anyway this one turned out to be a good find – cheapish, included electricity and hot shower, secure, quiet – everything you want in a campsite.

I’ll do a Naples and surroundings blog in a few days when we’re done with this area! I was sad to leave Puglia – despite being mostly flat and I am a mountain-lover, I did really like it. All those acres of olive groves and beautiful beaches, far better roads and less litter than Sicily, and lots to do and see.

The route – Round Sicily

I have added a second route page on the blog covering details of our trip around Sicily. You will need to visit the blog to read the detail if you’re interested.For non-bloggers, click here and then on the Route page in the top right hand corner. Then click on underlined links (Round Sicily) for the detail.

The roads in Sicily may be shocking, the many tunnels dimly light if at all, the speed limits bizarre, the parking atrocious, the attitude to litter bewildering but I challenge you to visit and not find it a wonderful and exhilarating experience … and in between they’re many options to chill out in beautiful scenery.

Ignatius

Puglia

It was always on the plan to spend some time in Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy. Once one of the poorest regions it now does a roaring trade in tourism as it has some lovely towns, fabulous beaches and a definite and endearing charm of its own.

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A lovely coffee stop somewhere on the Puglian coast.

May 15th

We set off from Metaponta into Puglia, intending to visit Lecce. The satnav told us to go via Brindisi which looked like a long way round when there was a perfectly adequate road leading straight there from Taranto. So we decided we knew better than the satnav (which is usually the case) and followed the direct route. Which took us through endless small towns, few of which had a bypass, all of which involved narrow streets and one-way systems, and which turned out to be a lot slower. Nellie (the satnav) you were right for once.

Lecce is another glorious Baroque town with Roman bits here and there. We found some town centre parking, realised we had about 30 minutes until all the churches and museums would close for the usual 3 1/2 hour lunch break, and charged off to get a look at a couple before this happened. They were lovely but I think Sicily spoilt us, as they weren’t a patch on some of the ones we’ve already seen. Had a leisurely lunch sitting outside a cafe on a quaint little street.

And then we headed back to the coast – a small town called Gallipoli. Found a very nice campsite, probably one of the best yet, and decided to stay for a couple of days and catch up on washing etc.

May 16th

After a relaxing morning mooching around the campsite we cycled the short distance into Gallipoli. The old part of town is on an island, joined by a bridge. We cycled around the edge then through the middle, checking out the cathedral and castle but generally taking it easy.

May 17th

Decided to stay a third night. Well why not? After another lazy morning we cycled the other way up the coast a little way, as far as Santa Maria al Bagno. Took a little walk up to a view point, and checked out a couple of old watchtowers that we passed – these seem to be all along the coast here, a bit like Martello towers in the UK.

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Don’t jump Ignatius! View north of Gallipoli on our cycle ride.

May 18th

Time to move on. We drove the delightful coast road from Gallipoli south, around the tip of Puglia, and then up the Adriatic coast, taking lots of stops along the way. At the very tip is Santa Maria di Leuca, a lighthouse and a large church. This is the ‘Land’s End’ of Italy – the place where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet.

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At Santa Maria di Leuca. Gertie is not very good at playing hide and seek.

North from there the coast is rockier but the road was good and wide, there was no traffic and it was a lovely drive. We stopped again at Otranto, a medieval town and port, and managed to catch it with churches open. One had a stunning Arabic mosaic floor, depicting the tree of life. Also in this church was a chapel containing the skulls of hundreds of people, martyred by the Turks after some long-ago siege.

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I think this is an elephant. There were two, supporting the tree of life.
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Look closely in those glass cases behind the altar.  They are all filled with skulls of martyrs.

Camped at another pleasant campsite near Torre dell’Orsa, which we found by accident after not liking either of the ones in our books in this area. So pleasant we debated doing two nights again, and having another day of pootling around locally on the bikes and in the sea etc, but then we realised May is slipping away from us, and our high-level plan suggested we should be out of Italy and heading to Slovenia and Croatia by the end of May. And there’s a lot of Italy to go!

May 19th

So this morning we packed up and headed up the coast, stopped for a coffee then stopped a little further up the road to have a dip in the sea. Then around the Lecce ring-road and on to the main road heading north past Brindisi, all the way to Ostuni, where we arrived in time for the churches to be closed. Ostuni old town is a hill-top town, full of tiny winding streets and white-washed buildings. It looks more Greek than Italian. We found perfect parking (thank you, Google satellite imagery which I am using to spot car parks in towns!) and spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering around and having a leisurely lunch. Then discovered the cathedral was open anyway (at 3pm!! Wow!!) so we had a look inside. It was a very hot day, and we then felt the need to get back on the road with the windows open.

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Approaching Ostuni.

The onward drive took us through the middle of Puglia, past many olive groves, vineyards and trulli, the funny little conical houses that are unique to this area. Puglia produces more olives than the rest of Italy put together, and more white wine than the whole of Germany.

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Here’s how the people live here… Trulli houses.

We reached Castellana Grotte where you can park campervans overnight in the car park for the caves, for five euro. We’ll visit the caves tomorrow.

Back to mainland Italy

May 11th

Lovely Salvo had mended our puncture first thing in the morning, hadn’t he? That’s how I left the last Diary blog. So we set off northwards, to a campsite on the coast near Acireale (in the shadow of Etna, as if we hadn’t had enough of that mountain!) The campsite was tucked into the steep cliffs, beside a village called San Maria de Scala. The weather was overcast and there were a few spots of rain (what’s that? Water from the sky? We’ve had none of that since Cinque Terre weeks ago!) so we spent a quiet afternoon getting the sheets washed and dried and chatting to some British campervanning neighbours. Then in the evening we walked into the village, found a good fish restaurant and treated ourselves to a good meal out.

May 12th

Better weather though very hot. We walked to the village then up some steep zig-zags and into the town of Acireale which is yet another Baroque glory but has relatively few tourists.

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The zig zags from San Maria di Scala up to Acireale. Not suitable for Gertie.

Unfortunately we managed to arrive about 5 minutes after all the churches and museums etc closed for their 3 1/2 hour lunch break. So we explored parks, had a leisurely lunch and hung around till 4pm when the cathedral and churches reopened. It was worth the wait – the cathedral for some obscure reason has a line of longitude marked out in its floor, as well as a set of standard measures – a metre, 3 Parisian feet, 3 English feet, and others, all laid down in 1843. Bizarre thing to find!

floor of church

May 13th

We had a plan, which was to visit Taormina (a hill top town) and then spend our last night in Sicily in a campsite between there and Messina. But the parking curse got the better of us. Our plan to park at the foot of the cable car taking you up to the town failed as it did not allow campervans in. So we headed to one of the two official Taormina car parks mentioned in the guidebook – which said no campervans and directed you to the other car park. Which was closed. Found some dodgy chap a little way down the hill but he wanted an extortionate amount so in the end we decided we’d probably seen enough hill top towns and Baroque churches anyway, so we left the area. We ended up in Messina, on the ferry, back in mainland Italy, all by lunch time.

After a quick replan we decided to head over towards Puglia, and get the driving out of the way. Arrived at a small seaside town called Metaponto, which is in Italy’s ‘instep’. The campsite has a lovely sandy beach. Just up the road was a restaurant named the Blue Iris at which we had our best meal out yet. The seafood starter that we shared was amazing – 3 plates of food arrived with 3 or 4 different mini-dishes on each. All for 10 euro.

May 14th

After the long drive yesterday we’d decided to spend two nights here. Very hot today. We took the bikes off and cycled around the area. It’s lovely flat country, with no traffic, plenty of cycle lanes and decent road surfaces, so very pleasant for cycling. We came across an archaeological museum and then the remains of some Greek temples and other buildings, so had a look at those, then ended up back at the Blue Iris for lunch.

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Archaeology by bike

Had our first dip in the sea this afternoon – about time! Very pleasant after a hot day out. And then an hour or two sitting in the sunshine reading, followed by a barbecue outside the van. Bliss.

Things we miss about Sicily:

Lovely helpful people in campsites, Baroque architecture, Mount Etna

Things we don’t miss about Sicily:

Horrendous road surfaces, litter everywhere, lack of parking skills in Sicilians