Italian Antipasti

327 nights : 11,590 miles travelled : countries visited: 16

“Traveling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building after seeing Italy”       Fanny Burney

Reading road signs as we travelled during the past month was like perusing a menu in an Italian restaurant; with an amazing wine list of course! Soave and Orvieto (white wine), Chianti (red wine) Reggio Emilia (parmesan cheese) Parma (ham) Modena (balsamic vinegar) Bologna (pasta sauce). We now feel pleasantly over-full with Italy’s main speciality, beautiful historic towns and cities.

Orvieto sits almost out of sight on the top of a volcanic hill so is a wonderful surprise when you emerge from the funicular railway carriage and wander up the narrow streets.

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The Gothic cathedral stands out in a land full of wonderful buildings with an immense front richly decorated with frescoes, mosaics and carvings. The exterior is striped black and white and at night the whole thing resembles a birthday cake lit with candles.

Cafes and bars in the piazza surrounding it allowed us to sit and gaze at the gothic splendour and sample the excellent local wine!

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Happily distracted!

Kipper is best behaved when exploring towns but every few days we find a stop where he can let off steam and we can absorb what we have seen and learned. Castiglione del Lago is another lovely medieval town but we just flopped by Lake Trasimeno, moving only to throw Kipper’s toys back into the water.

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We loved driving through Umbria. The peaks of the Appenines were still snow topped in the distance and the sun shone on the olive trees on rolling hills; so it was a gentle transition into Tuscany which looked just as we hoped. Cypress trees define the horizon and the bare vines looked like stitches tacked onto the sloping fields. The Chianti towns are a intense concentrate of Tuscany and we spent a few days tasting the region and it’s produce!

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Contemporary art in Pievasciata; bemusing but fun!
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Radda in Chianti. Some of the escutcheons on the Palazzo del Podesta are as old as the 16th century building
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Waiting patiently for someone to pour the wine…and share out the biscuits!
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Castellina in Chianti
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The Via delle Volte is a medieval passageway originally used for ancient sacred rites

We were joined by friends Carol and Andrew for a lovely Easter weekend and had fun observing Italian families celebrate the holidays together.

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In the days before selfie sticks there were camera self timers; this one balanced on a bin!

We visited Tuscan coloured streets in Pietrasanta which champions contemporary art in it’s medieval old town and lovely Lucca which quickly became one of our favourite cities.

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Lucca has more than 4km of city walls intact, ideal for promenading and cycling !
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Lucca has many towers and Toree Guinigi is topped by seven oak trees planted in a u-shape
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The oval Piazza Anfiteatro is on the site of the Roman amphitheatre
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The arches of the old amphitheatre can be detected on the external walls of the piazza

We zig-zagged north east for our breather before the next course in the Appenine Tosco-Emiliano national park. The landscape around the village of Castelnovo ne’ Monti is dominated by the limestone hulk of Pietra di Bismantova.

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The anticipated camperstop in the village had been removed but then we found we could stay overnight in the car park at the foot of the final climb. Result!  Annoyingly mist rolled in as soon as we arrived, obscuring the views of the mountains around us but we enjoyed the scramble to the top and the unexpected meadows when we got there.

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Can I eat it?
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We didn’t realise how close to the edge Mr Kips was…inches from death!
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A quick glimpse of the view below was all we could manage before staggering back!

Mantova is yet another visual feast of buildings and piazzas, surrounded by three lakes. We were lucky to visit at the weekend when the beautiful architecture was brought to life by families and friends out socialising together. We try to avoid stereotyping people but it has to be said that what Italians lack in driving skills, they make up for in warmth and vivacity!

 

Venice is magical and unique and it is only fair that the whole world should see it but visitors like us can mask the living city. However, it didn’t take much to wander off the beaten tourist tracks and find evidence of real life.

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Most goods are brought in by boat and then barreled to their destination
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Or bought directly from the water
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Baggage porters tackling the bridges
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Waste has to be removed by boat too!

The city hospital is by the lagoon and the approach to the A & E department looked the same as most, just more watery!

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A water hearse parked between the hospital and a church!

We enjoyed just wandering the streets; it is impossible not to get lost, but turning each corner offered a new delight. We were approached by several gondoliers who said they would be happy for the dog to join us for a ride. Our  Italian did not stretch to explaining that the dog loves sticks and he would have to wrestle Kipper for the oar!

 

We continued to gorge on Italian buildings as we progressed back west towards the Alps. Soave is a delightful walled town with distinct castellations and twenty four intact gatehouses. The camperstop managed by the Italian camper club was one of the best we visited and the wine was delicious!

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Many of the vineyards were protected behind fencing
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But the wine was freely available. Sorry, where are we?

I have always found it fascinating that Italians are world leaders in fashion and design when their history is so close to the surface. Verona is a prime example of this. The city’s Roman roots are prominent, and it’s reputation as a medieval city inspired Shakespeare to set two plays here. But walking around the streets was the most fun I have ever had shopping. This is not normally a favourite pasttime and we are happy to admit to being a bit scruffy (I have seen Italian women wince at my attire!) But (mostly window) shopping in Verona inspired me to think about improving my style…or at least look for a new handbag!

The 1st century amphitheatre has seating for 30,000 spectators and is still used for concerts and opera in the summer months. But most people know of Verona as the setting for Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story. In the 1930s, city fathers grafted a balcony onto a 14th century building to create a location for this fictional tale and visitors duly flock here. We found the little love notes posted onto the walls of a passageway nearby more romantic.

Italy also does natural beauty rather well and we spent our final days near Lake Maggiore. We were happy camping by a river but a short walk to the cobbled streets of Cannobio and wandering down to the stunning lake front meant that we ended our travels in Italy on a high.

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Birdsong and a fast flowing river made this one of our noisiest pitches ever!

Crossing the suspension bridge was a challenge for Kipper who doesn’t like bridges at the best of times. The reward after several attempts, was a fantastic walk through Val Cannobino to Sant’Anna where there is a narrow gorge crossed by a Romanesque bridge.

 

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Cannobio
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Glimpses of the lake
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We love a good view!

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After two months here, our tight clothes tell us that we have not just enjoyed the antipasti, but too much pasta,  gelato and vino too! Our appetite has been more than whetted and there is still so much more to explore in Italy. But our long trail north must continue.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: No it’s not Tizer…. but Aperol Spritz, a cocktail originating in Venice but we have enjoyed it in many towns at least once a week since we arrived in Italy. It’s so delicious even Graham doesn’t mind being seen out in public with a ‘girlie drink’!!

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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Full house

278 nights:  9,465 miles travelled :  Countries visited: 15

Our house is a very, very, very fine house… Graham Nash

Our first couple of days in Italy were damp and grey but on the bright side we were in a land that serves good old fashioned British fayre….pizza, pasta, panini and pinot grigio. So we ate through the pain of leaving Greece and waited for the carb high!

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First in the queue!

We bought some chill pills to help Kipper cope with the 16 hour crossing from Patras to Bari.  I gave them to him while we still parking in the bowels of the ferry and unfortunately they took effect within minutes. It was a bit of a performance climbing up through six decks with a very drunk pup! We almost felt guilty laughing at his confused reaction seeing his own reflection on the mirrored staircase.

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We luxuriated in the comparative space of a ferry cabin 
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A sad lack of trees on the doggy exercise deck. Kipper crossed his legs for 15 hours!

We immediately knew we were driving in a different country. Many more and newer cars crowd the (terrible) roads. There is more street furniture and buildings are better maintained. For the first time in months we couldn’t see mountains. Instead we were in rolling countryside with green fields bordered by dry stone walls which felt strangely similar to the Peak District in the UK.

It is usually a safe bet to visit an area designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and as we approached Alberobello we saw clues as to what made this town unusual. Trulli are limestone dwellings found throughout Puglia and Alberobello was once a town completely made up of these strange cone-roofed buildings.

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Trulli scrumptious (sorry!!)
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Rare unrestored examples show how they were constructed
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Symbols painted in whitewash have religious and spiritual meanings
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Chiesa di Sant’Antonio is a 20th century church which copies the style

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According to legend, Lords in the area originally insisted that peasants inhabit these buildings. Because they were built without  mortar, so easy to demolish and classified as temporary, they escaped liability for tax to the Kingdom of Naples.

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The trulli are now mixed in with conventional buildings but it still looks like a hobbit town!

Our second World Heritage Site of the week was once a source of great shame. Dr Carlo Levi’s book ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’ drew attention to the extreme poverty in this part of Southern Italy and especially in the malaria ridden cave houses built within a gorge in the Sassi di Matera (the stones of Matera). The Italian government relocated the inhabitants in the 1950’s and in more recent years the town has become a major draw for visitors and will be European Capital of Culture in 2019.

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Matera
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Exploring the dense labyrinth of lanes is fascinating
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These two churches here have panoramic views of the gorge
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The stark exterior of San Pietro Barisano belies a highly decorated interior 
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People have moved back into the Sassi, as have hotels and restaurants for the visitors

The first human settlements date from 7000 years BC, created in caverns on the other side of the ravine known as la Gravina.

 

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Kipper took a fancy to this alternative to climbing back out of the Old Town. We walked! 

We warmed to the trail once again as we traversed the foot of the boot of Italy. A wonderful coast road and moving into the mountains in the Pollini National Park  certainly helped.

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Lunch break on the E90

Italy has a huge variety of Aree di Sosta, motorhome stopovers in towns or on agricultural premises. We found a delightful spot in Morano Calabro, a small town clinging to a hillside looking out towards Mt Pollino.

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The surprise view as we approached Morano Calabro
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The view from the free motorhome stopover was another delightful surprise

Morano Calabro is a lattice work of steps, paths and alleyways through houses stacked on top of each other. We traced a path up to the fortress and church at the top and an entirely different one back down! It is very much a living community and we could hear children playing behind closed doors and small groups of older gentlemen chatting together round every bend.

 

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Half way up!
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Looking back up to the fortress at night was magical

We only ever plot where we’re going a couple of days in advance and it’s often led by where there is an available camper stop. Without planning it, the theme of the week became unusual Italian houses which proves that our plan of having no plan really does work!

M&G x

Treat of the week: Nobody does coffee like the Italians. We didn’t realise my first cappuccino  was on St. Valentine’s day until after my first slurp!