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Friday, 4 July 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Seiano to Bari

22nd May. Camping Seiano Spiaggia.
After 18 days – a record stay in a campsite for us – it really was time to move on.
Admiral Nelson I think it was, who said: "Ships and Men rot in port"; well, apart from a couple of dozen rotten oranges on our roof I thought we were still Ok, though we had slowed down almost to a standstill – it’s nice once in a while but not our main thing.

We did suffer an ant infestation (swiftly dealt with by some powder from the shop), and the windscreen vents had become absolutely choked with orange blossom, but after a good clean and tidy up we said farewell to our new Dutch and British friends; as well as the owner and his wife, who had been running the campsite for 36 years!

Greece was our next destination and we booked our ferry on the 'net the day before, whilst the rain cascaded off our awning.
If you have not looked before there is a plethora of Greek ferry companies, and to sort it all out the two best websites we found were: http://www.ferries.gr/ and http://greece-ferries.com/
Of these two, greece-ferries.com is more modern and slicker, but having chosen Superfast Ferries we used their own very slick site to be sure we were getting the same deal. Email confirmation and booking number came back in minutes. Departure from Bari was at 2000; arrival at Patra 1230 the next day. With the camping on deck option – available from 1st April to 31st October – it came to €273 (one way), including a €30 fuel surcharge.

Between April and October most Greek ferry companies permit camping on board in your motorhome or caravan – which saves money and hassle. Hook-ups and bathroom facilities are also provided. Superfast have mobile phone and Wi-fi Internet access via satellite (€10 for 90 minutes).

Sticking to the Autostrada we made our way to Matera, about 65 km from Bari. There is an excellent AA here at the back of Masseria del Pantaleone, a "Bread and Breakfast" and a restaurant. (www.sassiweb.it/pantaleone) (GPS 40.6528 N, 16.6065 E).
If you are into horses there are stables and you can take guided expeditions around the spectacular surrounding countryside.

23rd May.
Well, that was yesterday's plan: instead I spent the day in hospital. Nothing dramatic;  one minute I was pushing a shopping trolley around a supermarket and the next I was flat on my back! I had done some jobs in the van in the morning; which involved a little twisting and bending, but nothing strenuous.

However, just reaching over the side of the trolley my breath was suddenly taken away and I sunk to my knees. When I tried to stand up my head spun... and I woke up on the floor! It was like a scene from a TV sitcom: a man lying in a supermarket aisle – refusing to get up – but chatting to his partner on a mobile phone whilst a crowd gathered to gawp!

I just couldn't move without feeling that my back was breaking; anybody who has slipped a disk will know what I'm talking about, but it was a new and scary experience for me.
Good fortune arrived in the shape of a doctor (also doing his shopping) who spoke excellent English and explained to the ambulance men that I wasn't just some dubious type who liked lying down in public making phone calls!

Sue was minding the van as usual, but on arriving breathless at the sliding doors she was escorted by one of Carrefour’s security guards to the scene of the incident. Knowing the correct technique – from past experience – she encouraged me to get up, but I failed dismally. Thusforth the public exhibitionist was carried off to a nice red and white camper van with blue flashing lights!
Sue followed the ambulance (despite her pleas – driving Italian style) to the hospital and was told to park our van in a vacant ambulance bay!

The Ospedale “Madonna Delle Grazie” is a modern small town hospital, but there any similarity to a UK hospital appears to end. I was seen immediately by a shaven headed triage nurse with good English who seemed to know his stuff, then wheeled into an empty room – there was no hubbub, no shouting, in fact the place was extraordinarily quiet.

Then things nearly went astray. Another nurse arrived, this time without any English, but with a large multi-coloured, multilingual book with "triage" scrawled on it – really just a glorified travellers phrasebook. If you ever come across these in a similar situation – beware. Despite a seemingly perfect interpretation between me and the triage nurse of what the problem was, I was soon having an ultrasonic scan for a colon conditon!

With Sue's intervention we got things back on track and I was told I would have some X-rays and another scan. Sue had meanwhile phoned the Norwich Union emergency number on the card that came with our Comfort Insurance travel cover. They were very on the ball and swiftly offered translation services and repatriation if necessary.

I had a very thorough ultrasonic scan of all my internal organs by two doctors and 2 spinal X-rays. All of their kit looked state of the art to me. One of the English speaking doctors came back shortly afterwards and told me that, thankfully, that everything looked Ok but I was probably suffering from age-related osteo-arthritis. Sue is no stranger to back pain and reckoned on muscle or ligament damage. She was still hoping we could make the ferry at 2000 – though I must admit to having my doubts.

Anyway, I tried to sit up and promptly passed out again! This time I woke up in the ER, not sure whether it was real life or the TV series – all I knew was that those few seconds of unconsciousness were blissful. I was getting more wires stuck on me than a Christmas tree, but after a while they relaxed, the wires came off and the doctor asked when I last had something to eat. They had taken a blood sample and the results came back very swiftly, again everything Ok.
After a consultation with the head white-coat it was agreed I would stay in overnight. I was wheeled into an adjacent room (with a view of our van outside the window) and given another intravenous dose of some good stuff.

Italian hospital food. Not bad really - penne with shrimps and broccoli, a pot of cheesy mashed potato, bread roll, an apple and a whole ball of tasty mozzarella cheese. Sue stayed until the night shift came on and then retired to the van to feed herself.
Around midnight, I was starting to dose off, finally…..
"Ah, l'inglese qui parlo un poco Italiano - you want to stand up?!": a forthright young nurse with an excellent command of English. After some nervous negotiation on my part we settled on my preferred activity of sitting; which I did for an hour or more without causing another incident.

24th May.
In the morning I managed to get myself in and out of a wheelchair to go to the bathroom. That was good enough for me – wonderful though the treatment and the staff had been, I had had enough.
The senior doctor gave me a prescription for Ibuprofen and a muscle relaxant to be taken for seven days. I was discharged with all my test and examination results; no mention was made of any payment, the treatment was all delivered on inspection of my E111 card.

For a few hours I slept in the van in the hospital car park. To add to Susan’s woes, our usually reliable CoPilot 6 had gone belly up and despite several re-installations was refusing to respond to treatment. With Sue at the wheel, we drove back to the fateful Carrefour supermarket for her to do the shopping.

Then it was back to the AA at Masseria del Pantaleone. Not having found a pharmacy on the way back, Sue mentioned this to the owner, who offered to run her out to one when he had finished serving dinner. However, a chap turned up offering tours of the historic town. On hearing our predicament he immediately sat Sue in his car and found an open Pharmacy. Is there no end to the kindness of these people?

25th May.
Sue got up early to go on the tour, but unfortunately there were no more takers and so it didn’t go, but the chap insisted on coming to see how I was and we had a multilingual chat in pidgin English, French and Italian; we were glad Sue had slipped him €10 for his trouble the night before.
I was benefiting from Sue’s experience in dealing with her own back problems and the tips she had picked up in consultations with physiotherapists, though I slept a lot and walked gingerly around the gravel area.

26th May.
Sue did the usual chores of filling and emptying tanks and we left around midday for Bari. A good road and after a couple of hours we parked up near the ferry port.
Check in time is officially two hours before, but we arrived an hour earlier at 1500 and were told to go straight on board. This was a good move as we were placed in a great spot on the outside “open” deck, next to the showers and the entrance to the main accommodation. We were issued with a special electronic card which gave us access to the car deck at sea when it was closed to all other passengers. I had a half hour long, blistering hot deluge of a shower in the deck bathroom, wonderful. Right on the stern were three other campers, ready to discharge at Igoumenitsia at five in the morning.

Across the dock was an Arab luxury yacht, Al Said, complete with its own matching support ship, which looked suspiciously like an old British Royal Fleet Auxiliary to me. We watched as the visiting celebs and dignitaries arrived, TV cameras wheeling about - but they were shown up the gangway to the support vessel! Obviously one’s home is one’s castle.

After watching the lights of Bari disappear from the observation deck above our van we retired to the restaurant for dinner. We slept reasonably well, but as the van was parked over the stern
there was still a fair amount of vibration, even with the vehicles tyres and suspension between us and the ship.

Our verdict on leaving Italy.
Recent happenings to us have of course favourably coloured our impressions of Italy and its people, but our exemplary experience of health care in Italy was only a snapshot in one small town hospital on a quiet day; if I had pulled the same stunt in Naples, who knows what may have unfolded. Suffice to say that I am very grateful to the staff of Madonna Delle Grazie and the health system that supports them.

The People.
Italy, to us, seems frenetic and frantic, but life has to be lived with style – whether it’s riding your scooter or slicing a pizza – if you can’t do it with panache, don’t do it.
On the whole we were met with great friendliness and helpfulness, and you can see the change in people when you attempt a few words of the language, they really do appreciate it.

The Art and Architecture.
Basically there is so much of it, they cannot afford to look after it all, but it is everywhere. Rome is just awash with it.

The Food.
Not much we can say that hasn't been said elsewhere, except that the best exceeded anything "Italian" we have had outside of Italy; but the quality did vary a lot – you really have to avoid anything produced specifically for the tourist market. Our best pizza was in Ancapri on the island of Capri. The artichoke, ham, olives, cheese and olive oil blended to produce something greater than its parts, a really satisfying meal.

The Driving.
I guess Italian driving is legendary in many areas, and you do start to believe that every Italian has some Ferrari genes in their blood. Our exposure to their driving skills reached its nadir (or zenith, depending on your point of view) in Naples. Basically it was a free for all – no rules driving – everyone doing what was necessary to complete their journey in the quickest possible time.

The only unwritten rule apparently is not to hold the traffic up – either by driving too slowly or hesitating at a junction. Don't think of letting in more than one vehicle – from either side – or even, when on a single track road controlled by lights, waiting for the light to turn green after vehicles had stopped coming from the other direction!

Any of these misdemeanours will get you a cacophony of horns in retribution. Anything else, like reversing directly into oncoming traffic to do a three point turn, passes without comment! Double unbroken lines in the centre of the road are made to be crossed.

It would be interesting to see comparative accident statistics for England and Italy, particularly for urban driving. With everyone at such a heightened state of alertness, maybe there are actually fewer serious accidents per car on the road?

Signage and timetables.
Really it is just part of the semi-chaotic life (in our eyes) that the Italians lead. If you see a signpost, don't expect the signs to continue to its destination, if you have a timetable, don't expect it to be consistent, and don’t be surprised if a venue closes without explanation.

The Grafitti.
You could be kind and say that it is just expression of that innate artistic temperament, but it is omnipresent. Even what we might consider to be otherwise "nice" neighbourhoods are scarred with it. The commuter trains are so bad you sometimes cannot see out of the windows. Perspex sound shields put up on roadsides are just new canvases to be filled.

The Cash Machines.
I don't know whether it was just my bank, but I struggled continuously to get cash from ATM's, far more than in other countries we have visited, including Spain. As a general rule I had more luck with machines built into an actual bank, rather than in a supermarket for instance, but a machine belonging to the same bank would work in one city and not another. Non-Italian banks worked more reliably than native ones.

One day in Siena after five attempts and five variations of: "Your bank doesn't want you to have the money" I phoned my bank again and this time they came back with "Did you tell us you were coming to Italy? You have probably invoked fraud protection!"
Well, no, actually, and why then, when we had been in Italy for 6 weeks? And why did my credit card fail as well? Often my credit card would fail when trying to use chip and pin, but would work OK when swiped - worth asking if the assistant doesn't try it.

Will we return? Of course, we still have the “boot” of Italy to see and the Islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

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