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Saturday, 16 March 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Bagno di Romangna to Marina di Ascea

18th February.
We awoke to a grey and dismal day, pretty soon it was sleeting heavily. As much as we enjoy driving mountain passes, this was certainly not the moment to do the 1170 metre high Paso dei Mandriolli to Arezzo, the sleet would surely be falling as big snowflakes as we climbed. As we had “done” Arezzo on our 2008 trip, the obvious move was to take the E45 motorway down to Perugia.

Just outside Perugia we got the maps and guide books out again and decided to carry on until Todi, an ancient little town perched on a very steep hill, with superb views in every direction over the Umbrian plain.

Todi looks out over the Umbrian plain

Todi can trace its history back to the 7th century BC and has lots of charm, with an impressive central Piazza and cathedral – the duomo has some wonderful and unusual stained glass and a spectacular fresco on the rear wall. 

The central piazza and Duomo

Steep and interesting side streets beckon...

Steep and narrow side streets and a good sprinkling of cafés and restaurants add to the interest, and to complete the package there is even a fully serviced sosta for motorhomes with a cable railway to lift you from the car park to the lower town.
€6 for a two hour stay, €8.80 for any longer – including overnight.

A cable railway lifts you from the car park to town 

GPS: 42.7811 N, 12.4013 E 

19th February 
The air temperature still dropped to -2ºC during the night, but the early morning mist lying below us on the plain was quickly despatched as the sun rose above the dark terracotta rooftops. The man in the cassa had already opened the barrier for us and gave me a cheery “arriverdechi” as I paid up.

Having missed Monte Cassino on our last Italian trip we decided to work that in to our route down to Paestum. After a quick stock up in the nearby Euro Spin supermarket (wonderful meat, fish and deli counters) we re-joined the E45 down to Terni, then the R79 to Rieti, R578  and E80 to Avezzano and down to Cassino; a nice mountain drive on mostly “A” class road.

Pleasant scenery on our route down to Monte Cassino 

Monte Cassino, of course was the setting for one of the most hard fought battles of WWll: the allies first bombing the abbey – mistakenly believing that it was a German observation post, and then having provided perfect cover for that very purpose, eventually displacing the Germans on 18th May 1944, but leaving the great Benedictine monastery a total ruin. Nearby is a Polish cemetery with over a thousand soldier's graves.

The abbey lights up above the town 

Just on the outskirts of the scruffy town on the plain below the abbey is Parking Europa, a Camper Sosta that thinks it’s a campsite; cornered by the Autostrada and a railway line and literally in the owner’s back garden, it encloses touring pitches, caravan and motorhome storage, a picnic and games area, a floodlit five-a-side football pitch and a large dog. The tariff is as long as your arm and includes extra charges for camper services (€2.50) even if you are staying on site! ACSI and ADAC recommended, it does however have wi-fi (€4), electric hookup (€3) and a great view of the monastery above. We bartered for an ACSI discount and paid €15 for one night including camper service.

GPS: 41.4830 N, 13.8374 E 

20th February 
I shoved a cup of coffee into Sue’s hand a little earlier than usual as we planned to be up to the abbey when it opened at 0900. The sun was just a simple white disc behind the thick, freezing mist; sporadically the shroud shifted to reveal a tantalising glimpse of the abbey above.

The road up was not as steep as we expected, a relatively easy drive. We slotted ourselves into an area set aside for buses and campers just below the main entrance, the parcheggio sign telling us there was a charge of €8 for campers. The only other vehicle was a Polish coach, the drivers having a bit of clean up awaiting the return of their cargo of students. There were no ticket machines or any attendants to pay, so we entered the abbey – now in clear bright sunshine, looking down on the smog smothering the town.

Plenty of room to park at this time of year 

It is barely possible to believe, when looking at pictures of the destruction of the abbey in 1944, that it was not just rebuilt, but re-created, in a little over a decade. It is utterly pristine now, and the basilica itself is just stunning: you cannot comprehend the skills, the labour – never mind the cost, to re-create in stone, alabaster, mosaic and marble the intricate magnificence of the interior.

The magnificent nave of the basilica

Stunning recreation of the original

Artwork as well, to marvel at

Down in the crypt....

Wall sculpture and mosiac, to rival any.

Outside, in the courtyards, the statuary is just as remarkable considering that most of them must have been virtually re-sculpted from scratch. So often, when we look at modern attempts to re-create artwork such as stained glass, the results seem barely worth the effort when compared to the originals, but here there is no indication that this is not the work of dedicated master craftsmen from centuries before – it is that good.


Down in the town there is a historale or museum of the epic battle, which we were unable to visit; but knowing some of the history, it was sobering and disturbing to think of the men making an assault on such a precipitous mount – to do it even as a free climb, would be daunting and deadly dangerous, to do it under fire would have taken courage beyond our imagination.

Our stop for the night was Il Golosone (The Fat one), a family restaurant on the SS7, near Avellino. I spotted the pollo allo spiedo (spit roasted chicken) sign, and the nice flat car park, and pulled in. After a slightly confused conversation due to my poor Italian, the owner indicated that he was quite happy for us to stay the night in exchange for a meal.

We had half a chicken and chips and a large bowl of salad each, plus a very good bottle of local wine, and a bottle of water. The chicken was straight off the spit roast and beat KFC into a cocked hat; the bill came to €32. The gate was slid shut overnight, but was open again by the time we had surfaced in the morning.

GPS: 40.9340 N, 14.8509 E

More great scenery on the SS7 

21st February 
We carried on the SS7, climbing steeply, and soon found ourselves surrounded by snow covered hills again, then a steep descent before picking up the S164, through Montella to Battipaglia. This was a pretty, forested mountain road and an enjoyable drive. At one point we suddenly noticed the valley was full of white smoke, and then exiting a bend we were pulled up sharply by the obstacle of workmen cutting up a fallen tree. Foliage was all across the road and they were burning it off right by the barrier; they looked at us as if we had landed from another planet, but we gave them a cheery wave and bounced on our way over the twigs and pine fronds.

Road clearance, Avellino style 

Descending to Montecorvino we saw our first feral dog, scruffy and mangy, padding up the hill; I wondered why it chose to survive in the mountains rather than in the town; it gave us an appraising glance, but looked happy enough with its lot. Feral dogs and cats were to become a very common sight from now on.

Montecorvino was a tight little village to get through and so, as it turned out, was Battipaglia. Almost to the main road, we found our route virtually blocked to anything larger than a small car by scaffolding on the side of a building – another hairy few moments as Sue guided me through with inches to spare. The queue of cars behind us were surprisingly patient – perhaps they couldn’t believe what they were seeing!

Paestum lights up... 

Paestum is one of Italy’s most venerated archaeological sites on the coast below Salerno – and a place Sue had decided she wanted to see a long time ago. Like Pompei, it is a major tourist attraction, with its own-named main line railway station, a holiday village, and numerous campsites surrounding it.

The main street through the remains of Paestum 

A minor road runs right through the site, but is blocked off to all public traffic by a swinging concrete flowerbed just before the museum entrance. All three of the camper sostas that Sue had identified from our guidebooks were still closed, so we settled on a large gravel-surfaced car park attached to a restaurant – still closed until March.

GPS: 40.4258 N, 15.0067 E

Deciding it was too late to do a worthwhile tour of the site that day, we thought this car park would do for the night, then Sue spotted two cars drive in and park behind a corrugated iron shed, making a little square corral out of their cars. Soon we could see smoke rising – what on earth were they doing? Just as abruptly, the two men got into their cars and drove off, leaving a pile of burning documents on the ground!

Thinking this highly suspicious, we had second thoughts about our pitch for the night, but in the end decided that our options were now pretty limited; we took all our usual security precautions and prepared the van ready to drive off before going to bed. 

22nd February 
We awoke in one piece and apparently free of any unwanted nocturnal attention, but soon after breakfast Sue spotted the two cars back again, so we decided to move to the next park along. When asked if we could stay, the guy in the bar attached to the parking area said “no problem” and we wouldn’t have to pay; it seemed like a sound move.

We went first to the tourist office and picked up a free guide to Paestum; the girl spoke fluent American, but seemed so hyper and spoke so fast we could hardly take it in – had she been at the cocaine or something?

The staff at the museum ticket desk however, were inexplicably cold and grumpy, snapping at Sue when she asked how much the guide was. The museum has been much extended and added to over the years, but to us was notable for the quality of the Roman vases and the sarcophagi, the latter numerous and complete with fresco decoration, and some of these, remarkably, within reach of the visitors hand.

The museum has a superb collection of Roman vases

No trouble with the storyline on this one! 

Feeling like a mid-morning snack, I nipped into one of the cafés for a pannini; the glassy-eyed waiters were weird, not the beginnings of a welcome or a smile from either of them – like weary vultures waiting for their lunch to die. The small pannini turned out to be the worst we have ever had: only luke-warm and tasting… uck. €3.50 into the bin.

The temples can only be admired from outside the fence 

The exterior site was a disappointment as well: the three main temples are fenced off and cannot be entered; the rest is poorly presented compared to some ancient sites we have seen. The onset of light rain finished our tour, and glad to be back in the van we contemplated lunch, but somehow Paestum was giving us the creeps… we decided to move on. 

Later, in Matera, we talked to a young German couple who, without prompting, said exactly the same thing: the people in Paestum were weird. One thing is sure, in the season, you are talking “Tourist Trap” – sew up your pockets and leave your electronic goodies well hidden; and tune up your scam-sensing wits to full alert! 

Our next decision, not unanimous, was to hit the S267 coast road at Agripoli, and follow its tortuous route down to Marina di Camerota.  We made it as far as Marina di Ascea, and found a sea front car park allocated to motorhomes.

GPS: 40.1454 N, 15.1630 E

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