The road to Rome

311 nights : 10,945 miles travelled :  countries visited: 15

A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome     Alain de Lille

Travelling north through Calabria is a mixed bag of experiences. The first miles on the Autostrada del Sole (A3) mirror the last journey in north east Sicily and have you alternately flying on viaducts across steep inlets to the sea then diving into dim tunnels through rocky hills. We then joined the S18 and hugged the coast where dark volcanic sand was fringed by white foam and cobalt blue sea. The wind was strong and exchanged bright warm sunshine for grey chilling clouds and then back again. Kipper enjoyed the freedom of a series of nights on Tyrrhenian beaches and we breathed in the views.

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Praia a Mare

The beauty of this coastline is often marred by modern holiday flats and characterless towns. Diamante has attempted to stand out from the crowd by allowing artists to paint murals on external walls. We liked the place anyway.

The scenery through northern Calabria and Basilicata was a delightful blend of sea with mountainous backdrops . We had hoped to continue the coastal route through Cilento National Park but time is becoming a precious commodity now that our crossing to the UK is booked so we decided to hit the A3 once again.

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Glimpses of hill towns revealed what we were missing

Pompeii was on our Italy wishlist and it exceeded any expectations we had. While we couldn’t forget the horrific fate that people met when Vesuvius exploded in AD79 , we left the extensive site with a much clearer sense of the city before it’s sudden death.

It is the spaces between the buildings rather than the ruins themselves that make Pompeii seem alive. In the forum it was easy to imagine the administrative and commercial activity that gave the city it’s wealth. Walking around the amphitheatre evoked the excitement of going to see a show with thousands of others.

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20,000 spectators could watch gladiators fighting

Much restoration work is ongoing and details in wealthy homes are preserved for us to enjoy as they would have been more than two thousand years ago. Here, frescoes depict stories from the Trojan Wars while birds and animals decorate a mosaic floor.

The centuries fall away on seeing details in the streets like stepping stones for pedestrians, ruts left by cart wheels and the many water troughs placed around the city. (The taps are probably a recent feature!)

About one third of Pompeii has never been excavated and much of the archaeological site that is open to visitors is fenced off waiting for repairs or preservation. There was a lot of  work ongoing, the most interesting of which was the restoration of market gardens and a vineyard, with the eerie profile of Mount Vesuvius behind.

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Our campsite was near to the archaeological site so the volcano was often in sight and we couldn’t resist going to see it up close. We shared a taxi with some German and American visitors who were happy to share the drive with Kipper. The 600m walk to the summit was quite steep and we were also happy to share holding his lead as he made the climb much easier! It was worth it, for the view into the crater with (thankfully) wisps of vapour escaping and the view out over the Bay of Naples towards the island of Capri.  Anton, our driver, assured us that modern monitoring techniques should give two weeks notice of an eruption and explained that local towns are paired with other Italian cities for evacuation. Still, we were happy to leave after a short while. There was a cold wind and you can’t get away from the feeling that Vesuvius is snoozing lightly.

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It was chilly up top…we wished we had packed Mr Kips his coat too!
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Evidence of lava flow from the most recent eruption in 1944 is clear to see.

One of the real joys of the trail is to visit these iconic locations to convert them from pictures in our imagination into real places in our memory. Another name that jumped out of our map of Italy is Cassino. As a teenager I read about the terrible WWII battles that took place around the Abbazia di Montecassino during the Allies push towards Rome. This monastery was among the most important Christian sites in the world since it was founded by St Benedict in 529 and it was destroyed in 1944. Descriptions of the bloody scenes in and around it left such a vivid imprint in my mind that I felt I was revisiting the area and I had goosebumps as we parked at the camperstop.

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The Abbey of Montecassino has been completely rebuilt
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A sense of serenity has also been restored

Traditional artwork decorates the Church  and starlit stairways lead to modern mosaics in the crypt.

Often the best memories of views we have enjoyed on the trip are those glimpsed as we drive along. On the morning of our visit to the Abbey, we devised a plan to travel east further into the mountains of the Abruzzo National Park but the weather closed in around us and there seemed little point. Over lunch we found an alternative stop just off the main road to Rome.

We had planned to avoid the capital as we felt it might be too busy. However the owner of the camperstop persuaded us to consider sharing a ride with some other travellers who also had a dog. The next morning, Marco drove us and our new Swedish friends into the centre of Rome.

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Our first open view of the city

Kipper found the Trevi fountain very confusing as he wasn’t allowed in to retrieve the coins being thrown. A favourite game with different rules!

The Pantheon is a 2ooo year old temple now used as a church. The hole in it’s incredible dome connects the temple to the gods but more importantly spreads the tension and holds it up.

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Restoration work to the Spanish Steps means that it is best seen from afar at present!

We had a wonderful time orientating ourselves around this amazing place, making a long list of sights to discover or come back to another time. We’re not fans of shopping but we could have spent hours gazing at the beautiful displays in the windows. However, most enjoyable was getting to know Peter and Lisa and Panna the pup and meeting their friends over a long lunch. So often,the unexpected roads lead to the warmest memories.

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M & G xx

Treat of the week: We followed the Lonely Planet’s recommendation for an espresso in Rome so experienced what is possibly the best, but probably the most expensive coffee available in the city. But the real treat was imagining that we had followed Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn to the table after they’d gossiped about Gregory Peck and their favourite lipstick colours over espresso and Gauloises!

 

Clock around the rock

296 nights : 10,354 miles travelled : Countries visited: 15

Okay, we know that Sicily isn’t clock shaped. It’s actually more of a triangle with a major city close to each corner. We trailed around the island in a clockwise direction so you can track our progress by the time.

‘One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock….’

We began and and ended our first week in Italy on a ferry but the crossing to Sicily is only about 30 minutes. This brings you into Messina , with busy city streets that we escaped as soon as possible. This is the north eastern angle of Sicily and we headed south. It wasn’t long before we saw the snow topped peak of Mount Etna. It is picture perfect; the one that any child would draw of a volcano, including small wisps of smoke puffing out on top. We were entranced during our first two days on the island but bizarrely the only picture we took was from a Lidl car park where we cleverly made Etna look like a pimple next to Brian!

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Syracuse is the city near to the south eastern angle and it’s history reflects that of much of Sicily. It began as a Greek colony and over time has been occupied by the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans. The island of Ortygia is connected to the mainland by bridges and is a blend of narrow streets and baroque piazzas. It was one of those rare occasions we were out after dark which made us realise how old we are getting…we were quite giddy!!

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Another night next to a beautiful harbour
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The main building of the Baroque Cathedral was originally a 5th century temple to Athena
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Shadowland
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Ortygia is surrounded by the sea but within the maze of old streets are stylish bars and shops
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Piazza Archimede; the mathematician and engineer was born in Syracuse

 

Noto was completely rebuilt after the destructive earthquake of 1693 and is an elegant baroque city of golden stone. We didn’t know much about Sicily before we came, but this was not what we expected to find in the southern hills.

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San Nicolo Cathedral is one of many splendid buildings on Piazza Municipo

 

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The Cathedral’s dome collapsed in 1996 but has been seamlessly restored

 

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Real life carries on at the top of the hill away from the tourists

 

We’re gonna rock, rock, rock ’til  broad daylight

We diverted further inland towards the centre of Sicily to pay homage to Sicilian ceramics. The methods for making the bright colours of glaces for majolica were originally brought to Sicily from North Africa in medieval times. Caltagirone is one of the most active centres left for the production of this distinctive pottery and it showcases the range of styles on 142 steps in the old town. Luckily the long climb can be broken up with a quick visit into one of the many shops lining the steps. The best fun you can have, don’t you think?!

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Each step features different designs
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Patience is a virtue
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Most shops were also studios
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Graffiti featuring the ceramic Moorish heads for which Caltagirone is renowned
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Even the street signs are beautiful; here featuring the pineapple symbolising welcome

 

Enna at the heart of Sicily is the highest city at 931 metres. Many people visit to enjoy the panoramic views which we glimpsed when we arrived late in the day. We nestled Brian into the walls of the Lombardy Castle and looked forward to taking spectacular photographs the next morning. Unfortunately the castle is blindingly illuminated so we had the brightest night but next morning, cloud had blanketed the city and the anticipated views were a hopeless dream.

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Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock

We spent a few days catching up with laundry and admin on the southern coast at Santa Croce Camerina. We unknowingly pitched amongst various tribes of  motorhomers who were camping over the winter. We were caught between between little Italy and the Austro-German contingent and felt like anthropologists observing the different habits of retired Europeans. However, Kipper loved the sandy beach and we soaked up the almost white sunlight.

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To get in and out of the area we had to drive through oceans of poly tunnels as the coastal plain in the south east is given over to growing tomatoes, aubergine and courgettes. It’s like one gigantic ratatouille ready wrapped in plastic!P1060783

It seems the whole of Sicily is being used to harvest something. In one morning, we drove past lemons, almonds, cacti (Sicily is second only to Mexico for cactus fruit production) vines and acres of artichokes. The sun beat down on photosensitive panels, wind turbines lined hill tops and we even saw a small oil field with two nodding donkeys!

 

We loved the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. It was almost like being back in Greece and Kipper was allowed to join us as we walked the ridge lined with well preserved ruins. Almond trees in blossom throughout the archaeological park made our day unique.

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Tombs were cut into the defensive walls of the city

 

Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock….

We passed through Marsala and saw several large wineries but none of the retail outlets were open. We have found it difficult to slot into the southern European day with early starts, late evenings and quiet afternoons. We often arrive when everything is closed. The coast beyond Marsala is edged with centuries old salt pans and we arrived at the jetty for a ferry to the island of Mozia… just as the last boat had left! Luckily the car park is a free camper stop so we pitched up and watched the sun go down over the quiet lagoon and salt flats.

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Graham and Kipper chose a lie in over another archaeological site so I was the first and lone visitor to the island of Mozia. Just 10 minutes away, the island was originally colonised for the Phoenician navy and is a rare example of extensive remains of Carthage culture. The archaeological research was initiated by an English wine exporter, Joseph Whitaker who bought the island to indulge his interest in ancient history and botany. His home is now a fascinating little museum but the real joy was in wandering alone with the birds enjoying the abundance of wild flowers.

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We heard from fellow travellers that the north western tip of Sicily is especially beautiful and it is unlike the coastline we had seen until then. We drove through remote villages (including one called Purgatoria…there and back!) to see rocky peaks and rugged cliffs butt a cobalt blue sea.

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We decided to give Sicilian hill towns another chance but once again drove into chilly cloud as we climbed to medieval Erice. After an hour admiring the well preserved streets, the sun cut through enough mist for us to see the salt flats to the south and then to walk to the other side of town to view the rugged peaks we had just left in the north.

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Where’s the view?
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It was worth almost waiting for!

Graham was anxious to avoid the capital  Palermo. Sicilian drivers either drive in second gear only or like desperate formula one drivers. He chose a torturous mountain route to Monreale which took us to a wonderful pitch overlooking Palermo in the distance.

A bit of family competition often raises the bar and the Norman ruler, William the Good (his father was William the Bad!!) built Monreale Cathedral to rival those of his grandfather in Cefalù and Palermo in the 12th century. It is one of the wonders of the whole snail trail. The dazzling mosaics bathe you in warmth and light like no other.

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Geometric designs demonstrate how Islamic influence and skills were integrated with Christian culture and art. This reflects William the Good’s inclusive leadership style
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Scenes from the old and new testament are depicted in  beautiful detail

Unfortunately the sat-nav insisted that we had to travel through Palermo to continue clockwise which confirmed Graham’s worst fears and had us both breathing in and straining our brake pedal foot! Somehow, Brian emerged unscathed.

 

Cefalú is a wonderful city by the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Cathedral and it’s stunning mosaics are old and impressive but it has to be said William outshone his grandfather.

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Sometimes we arrive at planned camper stops that no longer exist or don’t feel safe but then find something much better . This happened as we travelled along the north coast of Sicily  where we unexpectedly found a lovely campsite near to Tindari. There was a gate that led directly to the beach and a nature reserve with lagoons. We could also take a steep walk from the site up to the ancient site of Tyndaris and the sanctuary which houses the famous Byzantine Madonna Nera which attracts thousands of pilgrims.

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The first part of the climb is deceptively easy
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Archaeological excavations have revealed a Greek theatre, a Roman villa and thermal baths 
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The cliff top sanctuary  viewed from the sandbank below

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There is so much more to enjoy in Sicily but having completed our clockwise tour we were starting to feel that the trail is up against the clock.  Our long journey north has now begun.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: We enjoyed sunset coloured drinks with the sunset in Ortygia . Gin and aperol is officially my new tipple!

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