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Thursday, 29 May 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Rome to Seiano

30th April. Happy Camping Campsite, Rome.
A grey end to the day:  I lifted the lid on the laptop, there was a tzzz! and the screen went blank, then came back again. A few minutes later the display started to break up, pixel by pixel. After a reboot it told me it had "recovered from a serious error"; but trying to back up my work, it finally crashed. Sue emailed John Lewis regarding repair as it was still under warranty.

1st May.
Testing the computer in hope of a recovery, it seemed Ok, but after a few minutes it faded just the same so I presumed the affliction to be terminal. It was not possible to get it repaired under warranty in Italy; but on phoning John Lewis, they did agree to extend the warranty until we returned to the UK in late July - not bad.

2nd May.
On the campsite reception’s advice we set off to Media World, in a huge commercial complex off junction 10 of the Rome ring road. Fun and games here as it was all underground parking, the Leroy Merlin store having the only section with sufficient headroom for a van, but we still had to dodge the traffic signs suspended from the roof!

I wasn’t that impressed with Media World despite its claim to be the largest in Europe,  half of it was laid over to cooker and washing machines, etc, it was more like Currys than PC World.
We had a look at the Toshiba laptops, but being confused that the best specification machine seemed also to be the cheapest, I was told: "that happens sometimes!"

Worse, it was not possible to get a laptop with the operating system in English, even by reloading the software. Variations in the keyboards are another issue, though they did appear to be fairly standard “Qwerty” style. Then our eyes fell upon a very sexy Sony Vaio TZ Ultra portable - indeed a little SOD (small object of desire). Perhaps we could ship one out from the UK?

Now a bit late in the day we headed out for the coast and parked on a beach car park at Lido di Ostia. Not our usual cup of tea for an overnight, but there were a few other vans obviously settling in and it seemed a tidy resort, nicely groomed beaches, very little graffiti, etc. By the time we went to bed another 10 vans had joined us – did we start a trend or was this just a popular spot?

3rd May.
First thing in the morning, Sue released the perimeter alarm on the doors and found that the central locking was tripping. There had to be a door ajar – and so it was, the driver’s side had been opened in the night!

The nocturnal prowler who had inserted a screwdriver in the lock and twisted it had found themselves frustrated as the door came up against our Heosafe deadlocks; as intended. Equally, as the central locking on the van door was isolated, that didn’t open either. The cab door keyhole was damaged – an annoyance – but we did have the satisfaction that our defences had made our visitor move on. A few animated discussions around us indicated that we were not the only ones to receive attention. That’s it – give resort carparks a miss!
Driving down the coast to Anzio there are some lush beaches, but some mad traffic and crazy parking during the May holiday weekend. Then the coast from Foce Verde to San Felice Circeo, some lovely coastline with plenty of parking and facilities for campers. Finally we found a quiet beach car park near Sperlonga and enjoyed the cool evening sea breeze.

4th May.
After a peaceful night we hit the coast road towards Naples. Shocking to see the huge mounds of rubbish piling up on the streets; it was clear the dustman's strike was still not over.
We picked up the ring road but came off too soon and found ourselves driving the streets of old Napoli!
We had heard the traffic and driving were bad but this was “no rules” motoring, the worst we have ever experienced (and on a Sunday). It was a miracle we emerged unscathed; truly surreal at times. At one T junction, where in theory I had the right of way, we were brought to a halt as scooters, bikes and cars swarmed around us – flowing like water around an animal stranded in a river. I saw a scooter rider lose control as he weaved in front of a car, recover, then cross himself as hurtled onwards at full speed – is that carrying belief in divine protection a little too far?
Eventually we got to our destination, Camping Seiano Spiaggia, below the town of Vico Equense, NE of Sorrento. (http://www.campingseiano.it/) (GPS 40.6598N, 14.4206E). With an ACSI card it is only €12 a night including electricity.
Small but beautifully kept and just yards from the beach, it's more like somebody’s orchard than a campsite – it’s only suitable for small to medium vans however. After the rotting rubbish of Napoli the smell of orange blossom was truly nectar and we gratefully eased ourselves under a couple of orange trees.

The fishing and ferry port of Seiano offers half a dozen restaurants, plus bars and cafes, and the waterborne links to Napoli, Sorrento, Amalfi, etc. The waterfront is under redevelopment (surprise) but we had superb seafood pasta at Ristorante O Saracino (http://www.osaracino.it/ ) before sleeping off the day's exertions.

5th May.
We raised ourselves early and after an al-fresco breakfast, legged it for the ferry to Sorrento. An ideal day, cloudless sky but not too hot – however I’m in the doghouse for forgetting the battery for the camera!
Next was another high speed ferry to Capri, a long time must see for Sue. Situated at the bottom of the Bay of Naples, its limestone cliffs rise nearly 300 metres above the main harbour. The port is as crowded and touristy as you might expect for a holiday island; waiters calling you across to their particular waterfront money spinner.

The first thing one does is get the funicular railway to the streets and piazzas of the town of Capri, 136 metres up, overlooking the Marina Grande. It's a Mecca of tourist shops, but quaint enough and a bit more room to breathe.

 After soaking that up for a while we got a truncated little bus for the tortuous and precipitous ride around the limestone cliff to Anacapri. There, a cable chairlift – with single chairs – takes you to the top of Mount Solaro, 590 metres up. From the terraces of Fortino Diruto you get a truly spectacular view down over the bay, the yachts and pleasure boats really do look like miniature toys. Makes you want to take up hang gliding!

Around Capri there are a dozen or more grottos, seemingly named after all the colours of the rainbow, but the most famous is the Grotta Azzura or Blue Grotto. It can be entered from the sea by an opening only one metre high; the blue colour coming from the sunlight refracting through the 15 metre deep water. Inside the cavern, stalactites hang from the roof and sides.
We didn’t have time for a visit however, nor did we take the tour to the "shrine" of Gracie Fields that a very persistent and latterly obnoxious gentleman on the ferry tried to sell us.

Finally a look around the centro storico or old town,  stopping for a memorable pizza in the Trattoria Il Solitario (well away from the tourist cafes), and an even more crowded bus back to Capri town. We queued for the funicular, rubbing shoulders with some friendly Americans from the cruise ship Crown Princess. Did they know who the Captain was? "Oh no, he hasn't introduced himself to us!" Times have changed since my day when every passenger got a chance to have their photo taken, shaking hands with the captain;  I guess 600 passengers at a time was a trial, but 3000 these days is a bit over the top for any one mans digits!

6th May.
Started thinking seriously about replacing the laptop with one shipped out from UK, so we took a hike up the 220 steps into Vico Equense to find an internet café. At the top of the steps there is a terrace shaded by trees with lovely views out to sea.

The centre of town is a crossroads with an attractive fountain as its centrepiece, cafés and bars on 3 sides. The "Titos" internet café/pub we had been told about was closed for the day, so we had to wait for a computer shop on the edge of town to re-open at 1700. An excuse to have a couple of beers and watch the world go by.

We considered buying a new machine from the shop as they were willing to get a copy of Vista in English and load it up, but it hardly seemed worth the wait and expense, when we could order on the net and get one shipped out. However, thinking it made sense to get something small as a back up machine we narrowed the choice down to a Toshiba Portege or the sexy Sony Vaio.

7th May.
Today was the main event for around here, Pompeii. A few kilometres south of Mount Vesuvius, the city was founded about 600 BC and became a Roman colony in 80BC. It became a popular resort for wealthy Romans and was a booming town of around 25,000 citizens when disaster struck.
First, in 62 AD, an earthquake destroyed much of the town and it was just being put to rights when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Most of the inhabitants escaped, but the 2000 that didn’t were overcome by toxic gases and quickly covered by ash. After the eruption the survivors tunnelled into the ash and recovered nearly everything of value from the houses and public buildings.

Then for more than 1500 years Pompeii lay undisturbed until 1748, when excavations were first begun. Even today only 75% has been excavated, much of the rest lying under spoil from earlier works. Some ruins were even damaged by bombing raids in the last war and had to be restored!

What we have found in visiting so many historic sites is that much of the interesting stuff has been plundered over the years – even the basic building materials – so you can be left wondering why there is so little left to look at. For this reason, I presume, most of the moveable objects, and the best frescoes and mosaics, are in the National Museum in Naples. Even most of the “concrete” figures, formed by using the decayed figures of the dead as moulds in the surrounding hard ash, are displayed in a separate museum near the site.

That said, it is a huge and impressive site. Anybody who has been to Oradour Sur Glane will be reminded of the sense of life suddenly taken; household artefacts that were in daily use are still on display – as they were when death arrived. The stone streets are still completely intact, the massive slabs evocatively rutted by countless chariot wheels.

The site is so big that even the audio guide tour, to cover all the points of interest, is recommended to take six hours. It was a hot day, and it turned into a bit of a marathon. Good walking shoes and a water bottle are a necessity. The volcanic dust is pernicious too, and when we got back all our clothes went in the wash.

8th May.Seiano Spiaggia is such a lovely peaceful campsite that it was easy to get seduced into all those camping things – reading under the awning, chatting, down to the beach for a swim – we didn't have our usual attack of campsite fever. In the evening you get a few dogs barking; but also owls hooting and at first light, a cockerel. During the day the air is constantly full of birdsong and the lizards get under your feet. We’ve even got used to the occasional thump of an orange crashing onto the roof in the middle of the night!
10th May.
Walked up to the town and bought some food including a giant slice of swordfish hacked straight off the carcass. We had another session in the internet café and then sampled “Pizza a Metro”. This is take away pizza with a difference – you order it by the metre!
Trying to be clever I ordered 30cm – enough for a light lunch I thought.
Orders are placed at the little cassa or cash desk and you then deliver your pink ticket to the man with the white cap and the floury hands at the other end. Behind him are five huge wood burning pizza ovens and fresh logs on the floor. In front of your eyes he rolls and stretches your pizza base before handing it on a wooden platter to a young lady who smothers it with the requested ingredients. It then gets liberally splashed with olive oil before being slipped in the oven.
When your number is up you collect your choice near the cash desk, it’s deftly sliced and packed into a pizza box a yard wide. When I saw the box I knew I had made a mistake, it was easily enough to feed four people and then some. Still it only cost €10!
We took it down to the shady terrace overlooking the sea – superb, beer and pizza with a view, must have been close to the best pizza we ever tasted.
With the rest of the pizza packed up in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch, I emailed a technically savvy friend Roger to see if he had any advice about the laptop – I had remembered about “Safe mode” but couldn’t remember which function key to use.
Then it was time for a walk down to the beach.

Dinner was late because of the “light lunch” but it was a beautiful balmy evening with everyone sitting out with their candles and lanterns; like a night-time teddy bear's picnic. The swordfish went on the BBQ in a foil tray with baby plum tomatoes, chopped aubergine and basil, served up with lightly curried rice and fresh broad beans, squeeze of lemon plucked from a nearby tree – perfect.

11th May.
We received some emails back from Roger and got the laptop running in "Safe mode": a cut down operating system which allows basic operations to be carried out.  I backed up all our vital stuff onto the second hard drive and then, thankfully, onto a USB pen drive. Now we were ready to transfer to a new machine.
We opened a bottle of our best €10 Montepulciano from the wine tasting to celebrate – it was corked. Oh well...

12th May.
Another go at the laptop and another breakthrough. Re-installing the graphics driver made no difference, but on advice from Roger I disabled the graphics card and this forced the machine into safe mode graphics whilst running XP normally. Now we were back in business, albeit with a basic and slow display.

14th May.
Another fine day, we took the train to Sorrento, only €1.10 – bus fare from the beach included.
Sorrento has been a resort since Roman times when it was known as Surrentum. Now along the waterfront little lagoons have been created from boulders for the use of café visitors and hotel guests.
The old town has its narrow streets, full of the usual tourist stuff, but also some very nice looking fruit and veg. And yes, I even heard “Come back to Sorrento” being played in a bar  – not doubt requested by some elderly Brits at the tables outside!

There is a very grand restaurant on the cliffs calling itself the Ristorante Pompeian – book yourself in for a "Roman nite" to remember!

16th May.
Once more we were on the train to Sorrento, this time picking up a bus ticket to Amalfi (only €6 for 24 hours; allowing you to visit Positano, Amalfi, Ravello and even Salerno at your leisure). There had been talk of driving the Amalfi road in the ‘van but early into the bus ride I was fully and firmly enlightened that this would not have been a good idea. Suicide more like!
Spectacular is getting to be an overused word again, but the precipitous road and twisting bends deliver, with glimpses in little bays of that gorgeous blue to turquoise sea.

It was hard to get a decent photo of Positano, and though we could have got off the bus to rejoin later, we stayed on to Amalfi, the whole trip taking about 1½ hours. First on the agenda was lunch and we found a large but quiet restaurant with tables by the water's edge. The tourist menu offered mixed fried fish, with salad, bread, wine, water and dessert for €15. Good food and value.

The next bus for Ravello was leaving shortly so we boarded it for the switchback climb up a narrow valley, filled with vines and olive groves, till we reached a small coach park at the entrance to the town, 370 metres above sea level. Great views over the Gulf of Salerno.
Ravello was supposedly founded by the Romans in the 6th Century, but most of its historic buildings date from the 11th - 13th Century when the population and its importance reached its peak. The Duomo is worth a visit for its amazing pulpit, covered in mosaic and supported on the backs of carved animals.

The Rufolo Villa is the main attraction (built in the 13C by the hugely wealthy merchant, Landolfo Rufolo), but there are other churches and chapels in the steep and narrow streets. The Villa Cimbrone was built at the beginning of the 19C and was a meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group (Virginia Woolf and Co.). Many artists and musicians, including Wagner and Turner have beat a path to Ravello, but you have to admit it does have an atmosphere.

Back down in Amalfi, we had a quick look in the Piazza Duomo and the winding streets above, but the crowds were pretty thick, you would need to get there early to really enjoy it. The façade to the Cathedral is impressive. There is more to see – another time perhaps.
The bus ride back was overlong, the traffic so heavy that the bus was constantly stopping and reversing, leaning on his horn at every corner – I can’t imagine that the manic drivers do that journey more than twice a day; it was exhausting just being a passenger.

17th May.
Three o’clock on a sunny afternoon: “Fancy a trip to Naples?” The jet boat ride from Seiano up the bay of Naples takes half an hour and gives you a fine view of Vesuvius on the way, before landing you at its historic centre opposite the very impressive Castel Nuovo.

Naples originated as a Greek colony named Neapolis, but was snatched by the Romans in 4BC and used as a winter holiday resort by Nero and his pals (whilst the Neapolitans carried on as normal). Since the decline of the empire the Normans, Germans, French (and Italians) have had their hands on it, on seven different occasions.

We walked along the waterfront towards the Palazzo Reale, past a marina with some nice charter yachts in it.
The park in front of the royal estate was in a state of utter dejection, basically gone to ruin, but most obvious were the piles of rubbish caused by the dustmen’s dispute. Speak to the locals about it and they will soon mention the mafia. The two and a half year long saga shows no signs of abating, with feral dogs living off the waste and local residents regularly setting fire to piles of refuse in protest. A boatman we spoke to said that a German company had offered to ship the rubbish out and burn it in their eco-friendly power stations, but we couldn’t work out whether he or the mafia were for or against it!

We then moved on to the Piazza del Plebiscito: a cobbled, horseshoe shaped piazza with the high dome of the Chiesa San Francesco as its backdrop. Preparations were well underway for a rock concert and the crowds were beginning to gather. A very definite buzz in the air and we were tempted to linger. On one side of the palace wall, facing the church, there was a large contingent of Carabineri, the military police, and on the other side the Polizia, civil police. I wondered how they shared out the spoils when the going got rough.

The Via Chiaia is a narrow street off the piazza and was packed with lovers, sightseers and shoppers. Walking back around the front of the Royal Palace and the Castel Nuovo we were confronted by a vast archaeological dig and some considerable buried walls, presumably where the Piazza Municipio is or used to be. A return to ferry quay and a very windy trip back. Done Naples? – yeah. (This time).

19th May.
Last on our list on the Costiera Amalfitana was Positano. This town has been said to be designed on a vertical axis – it certainly tries hard, clinging tightly to the cliffs. In 2000, archaeological work discovered the remains of a single Roman villa which had occupied the beach of Positano inlet. Records show that it belonged to one Posides Claudi Caesaris, from whom the name of the town is supposedly derived. It’s very strongly tourist centred but there are still locals hauling small fishing boats up the beach.

I thought we’d done enough steep winding streets full of tourist shops by now, but one thing that did impress was the two Fine Art galleries. Positano has long attracted artists and these galleries are a legacy of that. I was particularly intrigued by the still life paintings in both of them; some in the Gianfranco Meggiato gallery were so impeccable; for a moment I thought they were taking the mickey and they were actually photographic prints! – so good I forgot to take a photo!

Also in the Meggiato gallery were these most amazing bronze works, mainly of a single polished sphere held within a deep lattice work, apparently cast in bronze. What ever technique they used it’s a mystery, I didn’t even dare to ask the price.

Then a farewell lunch to the amalfi coast, we pushed the boat out at the Covo dei Saraceni Hotel – white linen tablecloths and napkins – pukka!

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Assisi to Rome

17th April.
We left Camping Fontemaggio late in the afternoon, after a night out with our new German friends, Udo and Brigitte.
It was time to refresh our tanks and we needed groceries, so an area attrezatte (AA) a few kilometres away at Spello became our stop for the night.

18th April.

A decision was made to have a break from our tour of Italy's historic cities and take a look at the Adriatic coast, then back to Rome via the national parks of Maiella and Abruzzo.

Sue slipped the ancient hill town of Gubbio into the schedule, so we were soon heading north again.
Gubbio is not so firmly on the tourist trail as others, but is working hard to improve its appearance and facilities. There is an excellent new area di sosta, created and managed by the Gubbio Camper Club under the auspices of the Commune of Gubbio. (If only such co-operation was achievable in the UK - and we like to mock Italian bureaucracy!)

To add to Gubbio's attractions there is a two person cable car to take you the 830 metres to the top of Monte Ingino and the basilica of San Ubaldo. Inside the church, San Ubaldo – or rather what's left of him, the poor chap – is still displayed in a glass coffin (though they have obviously changed his robes recently).

There are serene views from the mount and some excitement to be had getting in and out of the cable car "baskets": each passenger is directed to stand on a large red spot on the ground and then heaved into the basket as it whistles past, the gate snapping shut as you lift into the air! To dismount, you leap from the basket at speed, legs wheeling like Fred Flintstone as you hit the ground running. Novel fun, for a €5 round trip.

19th April.
Another day on the sosta (that's not what it sounds!).

20th April.
Sunday arrived bright and clear, and we chose the scenic route out of Gubbio, via Scheggia and Sassoferrato - glorious countryside, perfectly lit by the early morning sun.

So to Ancona, ancient port of Italy and thriving ferry port today. Trying to find the minor coastal road south of Ancona, we found ourselves squeezing through the narrow streets of the old town – not to be recommended.

We did however find our way up to the Duomo and some lovely views of the town and the Fincantieri shipyard. A new cruise ship or ferry was emerging in blocks from the building shed – only the tiniest wisp of nostalgia!

From Ancona to Porto Recanati the coast is quite pleasant, reminiscent of the Algarve, with golf courses and small coastal towns. As you approach Porto Recanati, there is a coastal strip with many campsites and camping sostas for motorhomes. Not unattractive, if the beach is your thing.

The development potential of most of the Adriatic coast was ruined the instant some person of influence or bureaucratic body decided to run a railway almost its entire length. Rarely more than a few hundred metres from the water, the steel rails form a barrier that have stifled growth, both commercial and residential. From Porto Recanati to Pescara, access to the beach is under low underpasses, sometimes as low as 1.6 metres. The result is mile after mile of untidy industrial buildings and residential blocks, the occasional small resort development uneasily straddling the railway line.

Eventually we reached Pescara, a huge resort and fishing port. On a warm Sunday evening, the promenades were packed, the roads almost gridlocked. By the time we got to our destination of Ortona it was dark and foggy. Failing to find any camper friendly parking, we spent a quiet night in an empty bus terminus.

21st April.
sits on a hill overlooking a deep water harbour. It is a busy port, servicing fishing boats, supply vessels and luxury yachts. Outside of the town there is a large industrial estate with some big corporate names such as the American Haliburton.

An Aragonese castle or fort, built in 1452 by King Alfonso lies on the North side of the old town. Having changed hands and been altered many times over centuries, the fort was badly damaged in the last war, the north side collapsing in 1946 following a landslide. It is now immaculately restored, but sadly stands closed to the public, the new paths and steps overgrown.

There is a long paved terrace overlooking the harbour, where you can watch the ships and yachts and even have lunch or dinner in the "Vecchio Teatro". Twenty years ago, I did just that, almost daily, for a month. Employed by a small company producing hydraulic equipment, I was working on a luxury yacht being built by Ortona Navi. Every morning I threw open the shutters to my room at the Hotel Ideale and the yard and the white yacht were visible below, the Magdalena Terzo sparkling in the sunshine. Happy days! Amazingly, the Vecchio Teatro has altered hardly at all, a new air conditioned room on the terrace, but the inside unchanged.

The Cathedrale di San Tommaso contains the relics of doubting St Thomas, the Saint who “wished to see in order to believe". Brought to Ortona in 1258, they reside in a shrine in the crypt. Also badly damaged in the war and virtually rebuilt from scratch in 1946-1949, the church is a fine example of what can be achieved by contemporary architects and artisans.

A new war memorial, presented by Canadian people in 1999, commemorates the Battle of Ortona. In early December 1943, the 1st Canadian Infantry and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade wrested Ortona from the Germans in the most savage action of their Italian campaign, engaging house to house, room to room, for nearly a month. Some houses near the fort still bear the scars, even now.

I enjoyed being back in Ortona, but somehow the town seemed at odds with itself. The shopkeepers were friendly, and the barman smiled, but despite the multi-lingual roadside welcome signs, we felt that tourists were a rarity. The new, but fenced off facilities at the train station, the overgrown pavements and steps, the half refurbished art deco terrace already scarred by the spray paint artists – evidence of strained budgets and conflicting priorities perhaps.
No camper friendly parking was evident in the town, but there was plenty of space down at the small lido, south end of the docks.

Leaving Ortona, we headed inland through the vineyards and olive groves and upwards to Guardiagrele. This medieval town dates back to the 7th Century but is believed to have been founded centuries before Rome by sailors coming from Asia. It flourished in the 14th century as a centre for goldsmithing.
Today it is little developed for tourism and hence its narrow streets retain a certain charm - perched on a hill, there are great views all around.
We quickly found a free AA just a few steps from the old town square. Sipping a €1 glass of excellent Lambrusco in a café on the square, we got talking to a local character who had spent a few years sailing around my old haunts in the Virgin Islands. His message was to forget Umbria, Abruzzo is the greenest region of Italy!

22nd April.
Still climbing, we enjoyed some wonderful scenery and then came across Pennapiedimonte. This ancient village fully justifies the "piedmont" in its name, glued to a sheer crag 670 metres up overlooking the Avella valley. The houses are part excavated from the rock, and linked by flights of steps. A necropolis discovered in 1982 revealed artefacts dated as 4th-5th Century BC. In the 3rd Century BC, the Romans subjugated the whole area of Abruzzi and built a fortress tower in what is now a tiny square.

The peak of Mount Focalone reaches up 2,690 metres and below there are canyons, caves and rock faces popular with freeclimbers. Three caves are mentioned in the local guide, the easiest of which, Black Cave, takes 2-3 hours to reach on a mule track but which rewards the intrepid with stalactites and stalagmites made of a substance known as "moon milk."
Beech Cave was discovered situated on a rock wall in 1998 and contains the 10,000 year old bones of a young brown bear. The third cave is simply known as the Cave of Hell – the rest is left to your imagination!

Next on the list was Palombaro. Founded in the 11th Century, it has several noteworthy churches, and the remains of a Romanesque temple. Built 1000 metres up in a wide cave, the altar is carved from the rock.

Expecting another picturesque hilltop village at Faro San Martino, we were surprised to see a huge industrial complex, complete with its own access road and row upon row of articulated container lorries. What ever could they produce in such vast quantities without tearing up the landscape?
The answer is pasta. The Filippo De Cecco and Del Verde factories export the world over, the De Cecco factory was established over a hundred years ago.
More splendid countryside and we left the Maiella National Park to enter the Parco Nazionale D'Abruzzo. Shortly afterwards the rain set in and we found a handy lakeside overnight pitch by the town of Villetta Barrea.
23rd April.
Leaving our spot by Lago di Barrea, we drove through more beautiful, mountainous countryside, even back into snow covered forest floor as we entered Lazio. Then down to Sora and onto Tivoli, famous for its ancient villas.

The most notable is the Villa Adriana, probably the biggest single building project in antiquity, it was more of a small town than a single villa. Designed entirely by the Emperor Hadrian, he died in AD 138 before it was finally completed. Vast just about describes it, but we missed out on the museum (with the best relics in it), as there was some junket going on for local dignitaries. Hmm!

Unable to park outside as we had hoped, we drove back through the frantic evening traffic to an AA by the central hospital, in fact a large car park with entrances at both ends, plus an area set aside for Campers with pump and dump and a snack bar.The only entrance to the area for motorhomes, however, had been blocked by a car. Someone, earlier annoyed at this, had placed a handwritten note on the windscreen. A friendly Italian motorhomer translated: “your head contains rubbish”, or, as we might say: “you have s**t for brains”.
Sue and I placed bets on whether the perpetrator would be male or female. Sue dammed her own sex, my bet was that the driver would match the car: black BMW with tinted windows, alloy wheels and low profile tyres, you know the type - designer trainers, jeans and leather jacket, gelled hair and shades. Sue won the day, two girls with barely 34 years between them. They didn’t even notice (or care to) the insults flapping under the wiper blade.

After dark, just as we were about to eat, a car raced into the park and barely skimmed past us into the corner. I didn't pay it any further attention but Sue fretted.
About 0130 we both woke up with a start, feeling something had moved the van. The only thing left on the table, a candle (extinguished), had fallen over, taking the pot with it. All the doors were locked and intact but the car had gone. Not inclined to go outside for a look we eventually got back to sleep.

24th April.
In the daylight our fears were realized – a broken rear car light lens and several small dents in our door and wing. The irony was that we had moved the van earlier because of a hanging tree! Sometimes there is just nothing you can do.

Into the morning traffic, we headed for the Grand Raccordo Anulare or Rome ring road, hence to Happy Village and Camping - great name isn’t it! (http://www.happycamping.net/) (GPS 42.0033N, 12.4520E).
The Traffic Police were out in force, but you wonder why they bother – the Roman drivers seem to have that passion for life on the edge that the rest of Italy has, but up a notch. If you want to get the drivers behind you honking, just let several cars in from the right and loose them a few hard won places. Some extraordinary disregard for their personal safety from scooter and bike riders.

25th April.
The “Happy Bus” took us to the Roma Nord station, Prima Porta. The train journey is about 15 minutes and runs regularly all day. From the Flaminio station it’s only a step across the road to the Piazza del Popolo, a huge circular Piazza with some attractive architecture and fountains. The Chiesa Santa Maria Del Popolo has some fine artwork and a modern bronze crucifixion so ferocious that it actually turned my stomach.

Down the Via del Corso, we took in the Piazza di Spagna with its fountain and the lush flowered borders of the “Spanish Steps”. The recently restored Basilica of Saint Ambrose and Saint Charles was interesting for its faux marble columns - the effect as you walk in is stupendous, then on closer inspection you realize that it is all extraordinary clever paintwork.

We had a quick look in an exhibition held by a Mr Giuliano Ottaviani - some very good contemporary bronze work.
Next, the Trevi Fountain, a most extravagant waterworks that grows out of the side of the National Academy of Art, and iconic as an image of Rome.

Lunch, and off to the Pantheon. Unknown to us, it was Liberty day, and it was closed. Then the Largo Argentina and Area Sacrea, the spot where supposedly, Julius Caesar was murdered.
Onto the Piazza Venezia, and more stunning architecture, largely covered in scaffolding. Lastly for the day, around the back of the Campidoglio, a view of the remains of ancient Rome, the Foro Romano.

26th April.
Today we went for the main attraction, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Palace.
Outside San Pietro metro station, we were soon accosted by touts with the hook: “avoid the queues, save two hours waiting in line”. Tour guide prices ranged from 30 to 45 Euros a head, plus the €14 entrance to the Vatican. We resisted, but on entering St Peters Square (actually circular) the queues to pass through security and enter the Basilica were stretching the entire circle. Time for a rethink.

Then we were approached by a guy from Bradford, England, no less, whose tours were only €25. We didn’t have to pay up front, we could meet the guide, listen to the introductory spiel and then decide. The guide turned out to be his girlfriend, an American, who had a nice line in dry humour and certainly seemed to know her stuff.
We stood in a group whilst other names were added to the list – unsurprisingly, more Brits. Then the police arrived, asked to see the girl’s papers and marched her off into the distance. Apologising profusely, she promised to pick up with us again when she was done with the law.

Frustrated that we had wasted half an hour, we chatted with the others, discussing whether she was legal or not. Then the boyfriend reappeared and joined us up again. Sensibly, as it turned out, she took us into a nearby café to freshen up and grab a sandwich.
Still wondering whether this was a scam or not, we were reassured when she reappeared with a bagful of headsets. Finally, we were in the queue for security for the Vatican Museum, this one down to a mere 30 minutes. She kept up the mildly amusing spiel and answered all questions very knowledgeably.

Since 2000, when you enter the Vatican museum, you enter a vast security and ticket concourse that should belong to a small airport and is capable of processing 30,000 visitors a day. No surprise then, that tourists are now the Vatican’s biggest single source of income (cash only please, 14 Euros each - do the maths).

Once inside the museum, our guide sat us down in the open courtyard and delivered a very informative but overlong lecture on the Sistine Chapel.
Some snippets – perhaps only known to classical scholars: Michelangelo at first refused to paint the ceiling of the chapel, citing as one excuse that it already had a very nice blue ceiling with gold stars – the Pope promptly had it whitewashed to give Michelangelo a blank canvas!
Also, he did not paint it on his back as Hollywood had Charlton Heston enact, but standing - developing a muscle in his neck that later made it impossible for him to straighten it. The picture our guide painted of Michelangelo was of a lonely but obsessive figure, capable of a prodigious work output, but nevertheless living into his eighties.

The tour then moved swiftly on, too swiftly for us, and missing out a lot of what there was to see. Onto the Sistine chapel itself, absolutely packed with people. Guards were moving everybody off the raised area near the last judgement, constantly remonstrating with others for taking photos and making ssshing sounds to keep the noise down. When the background hubbub became too loud, they resorted to clapping their hands and playing back a deafening recorded message. If only they could see the irony.

Our pay off for taking the tour came at the end - a separate exit from the chapel for guided tours only, giving you direct access to St Peters Basilica and avoiding the queue for security. To her credit, our guide told us that we could go back into the museum and then take this exit when we were done, quoting her name if challenged. We did so and certainly there was a lot more worth seeing.

Our advice for visiting the Vatican? Join the queue for the Museum when it reduces at lunch time, get an audio guide and later slip through the right hand exit at the end of the chapel marked “Authorised tour groups only” to get to St Peters. If you do want a personal guide, meet and speak to them first - the tout who grabs you will not be your guide. The headsets are essential if you are going to get any benefit, the sound quality on ours was poor, mainly I think, because the guide had a cheap microphone.

The Basilica di San Pietro in St Peters Square really defines the word “monumental”. It is huge, and filled with sumptuous marble of every description. The monuments to various popes range from merely stunning to over-the-top grandiose. I marvelled also at the priests, advertising their ability, or at least willingness, to take confession in 5 different languages.
If you wish, you can get to the top of the dome - a lift will take you the first couple of hundred steps, leaving you over 300 more, including the tricky bit inside the dome. Having done the Brunelleschi dome in Florence however, we declined.
Instead, having missed a proper lunch, we opted for dinner. At a shopkeeper’s recommendation, we had a superb 3 course meal, including some excellent fillet steak, and wine, for €70.

27th April.
Feeling a little leg weary we took the metro to San Giovanni, to look at his basilica - another very impressive building.

Then a walk along the perimeter of the old city walls to the Terme di Caracalle, or roman baths. Now of course basically a ruin (the good stuff being nicked for other classical building projects and paying off dowry’s, etc), there was little to capture the imagination as to what the baths were really like when in use, apart from the vast scale. We didn’t bother with the sound guide, dissuaded by a penalty of €4 a minute (yes, four euros) for failing to return the guide in the allotted two hours!

A one stop metro ride brought us to the Colosseum. More tour guide touts, though the queues were quite short. We took the audio guides, bringing the fee to €15.50 each, though it does include the Palatino Palace and the Roman forum. Unfortunately, we were not given the essential leaflet with a map to show you where to stand when listening, unless you knew your north gate from your west arch it got a bit confusing. However, a friendly American overheard our complaint and gave us his map as he was leaving, I guess they had simply run out.

The section on the games was interesting, they were basically of two types, either with animals or fellow humans. At the end of the “game” the defeated gladiator (or slave) could be spared the final cut by order of the Emperor (usually by popular demand) if he had been judged to fight honourably. The defeated “dead” were treated to a red hot poker, just to make sure they weren’t trying to have a breather or slip away after the show!

Lastly for the day, to the Bocca della Verita or Mouth of Truth, residing in a wall outside the Chiesa San Maria in Cosmedin.
Hollywood has a lot to answer for - in the iconic film “Roman Holiday” (and from which Rome is obviously still getting a lot of mileage for its tourist industry), Audrey Hepburn timidly placed her hand in the stone orifice. For some reason, Sue felt the need to do the same. Only problem is, several million Japanese tourists also have the same desire, and to have their photo taken as their digits disappear. The stone face is now behind bars and the queues for that unforgettable snapshot stretched around the corner. Sue’s photo-shoot was postponed indefinitely.

28th April.
Resting our weary feet!

29th April.
Off to the Catacombe di San Callisto, supposedly the biggest of the lot, with 500,000 burials on three levels. Actually a fourth level of tunnels was prepared but remains unused. Bodies were buried for 400 years until the Barbarians arrived. Despite attempts at camoflage and cover up, the raids continued and thousands of bodies were eventually removed and reburied. Dug in volcanic soil which goes hard when exposed, most of the tunnels are unlined with brick or any support. Only a tiny fraction is open to the public, much is still un-investigated and will remain so by order of the Pope. Guided tours only.

The Basilica di San Paolo was equally impressive of scale, vast and uncluttered inside. The 40 huge granite columns have been flawlessly formed and polished, then aligned with such laser-perfect accuracy, it makes you wonder if the builders had mastered some skills of which modern construction has no knowledge. Many treats for the eye, some beautiful alabaster windows and outside, mosaics and statues that just cause you to marvel how they were created.

The Pantheon, now the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres, was established in 27 BC and rebuilt by Hadrian in 117-125 AD. It remains largely preserved from that time. The vaulted interior of the dome is actually an early form of concrete – another marvel of ancient engineering construction.

After a walk over the River Tiber to the Castel San Angelo and the adjoining Bridge of Angels, a body crushing bus ride to the Terminus and finally, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. To be honest I’m all marvelled out by this time, but I preferred the less ornate majesty of San Paolo.

Our Verdict on Rome? Like all the other major historic cities we visited, the main attractions are reaching capacity when it comes to the numbers of people they can physically cope with. If you saw “Roman Holiday” and are holding images of that movie in your head – forget it!
For those top monuments you really want to see, plan ahead, get there early, or late, or visit when others are having lunch. Venues like the “Spanish Steps” and Trevi Fountain would probably be more enjoyable at night.

Don’t think about driving in the city. The travel passes are only €4 a day and cover trains, metro and buses. Buy a €3 plastic coated tourist map from the newsagent outside the station, it includes the bus routes and helps make sense of them. The metros are easy to follow. If you suffer from claustrophobia you will have a problem – the Romans have learnt something from the Japanese when it comes to packing them in. Alternatively, you are going to wear out a lot of shoe leather.
All that said, the main events justify their fame, I would take my time and see less in a day, but of course that is a luxury that you may not have.