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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.

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