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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!


Unknown said...

Hi Ian & Sue

Loved reading sections of your blog, inpartilcuar the articles on winter tyres etc. Has been very helpful.

We are looking at going to italy for 2 months, Feb and March and touring in our campervan. I see there are plenty of 'aree di sosta' but most campsites seem to be shut. We are use to wildcamping in Scotland but a little nervous about this in Italy as there seems to be lots of posts about crime in France and Italy to motorhomes. The best advice most people state is stay in campsites. From your experience, are the open campsites few and far between at that time of year? Should I be getting cold feet or from your experience, is it all ok apart from the obvious don't stay in aires on motorways.

Many thanks


Ian and Sue said...

Hi Harvey

Thanks for your kind comments – we haven’t been to Italy since 2013, so I can’t really comment on what the situation might be like now, especially with the increased influx of migrants.

Fattore Amico (see the link on our sidebar) is the Italian equivalent of France Passion, which is an excellent organisation and a wonderful way to see and camp at beautiful places off the beaten track. We have never tried any Fattore Amico, but they certainly seem worth investigating. Some of course may be closed for winter like the campsites.

Another favourite is the “pub stop”: we look for a restaurant or even a small hotel and ask if we can stay the night in their car park if we have a meal. We have never been knocked back (because they are glad of the business) and enjoyed some good meals in the process. If choosing a town or city car park, ask around with the local retailers before deciding.

Our policy is to treat each wild camp on its merits, we listen to our gut instincts and if either of us is unhappy for whatever reason, we move on. Generally, we go against popular wisdom by seeking out remote places, away from habitation, and prefer not to camp with other vans as we feel we just present a larger, more tempting target. On our own, we feel that we are only at low risk from a stray malevolent, and prepare ourselves by having deadlocks on the cab doors, a perimeter alarm, and clearing everything away before we go to bed so we can drive off in a hurry. We also have a couple of other surprises for potential intruders – which we shall keep to ourselves.

As our experience as grown we have got better at “sniffing out” good spots to stay and basically avoid campsites unless we really need one. In 13 years of ownership of our current van we have spent over 1600 nights on board, two thirds of that either on aires or wild camping. In all that time we have had one attempted break-in (that failed because of the Heosafe cab door deadlock) and have been disturbed twice by unknown persons – once by someone banging on the window in a Spanish layby, and once in an Italian car park by a (probably) drunk driver backing into us at half past one in the morning. Oh, and a dozy driver in an English pub car park. Not a bad record we think, but we choose carefully and listen to our instincts and each other.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best”. Enjoy, and good luck!

Harvey Robinson said...

Many thanks for your advice.... all taken on board and great to hear someone else goes for the remote spots rather than 'saftey in numbers'. We head off on Thursday and plan on using the Fattore Amico and french passion guides alot as it just feels like we will experience these countries alot more that way.

Thanks again.