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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Marina di Ascea to Alberobello

23rd February.
A huge storm rolled over us during the night, rocking the van and lashing it with rain – just when we thought it had eased off, another frenzied assault detonated on the roof of our little home. We were glad we had made it down from the mountains! Thankfully, after breakfast the sun put in a rare and welcome appearance, the air temperature was now a sweaty 12ºC!

A free night by the sea at Marina di Ascea 

We continued our trek along the Salerno coastline from Agripoli to Sapri in a happier frame of mind. Sue likes these elevated coastal roads – in Croatia they gave us some of the most spellbinding vistas we have ever encountered. I probably enjoy the mountain passes more: the rise and descent; the isolated tiny hamlets; glimpses of unusual wildlife in the forests; and often, a gamble with the weather. Both roads hold the same hazards though: steep, tight hairpin bends, precipitous drops, tortuously narrow streets though small villages, and the unexpected…

A temporary traffic light signals a nasty surprise 

Just before Pisciotta we stopped at a temporary traffic light and waited and waited. Eventually, staring at the red light got the better of me and I moved gingerly forward; Sue spotted another car coming in the opposite direction but it failed to appear. I moved forward again and we were stunned to see a huge landslip right across the road – half the hillside had come down, and a track, barely wider than a car, had been bulldozed across it in the form of a steep muddy hump. I slowly crested the hump and there below us was the little Fiat Panda. It gracefully backed away to give us room, but as we descended the hump there was a loud grating sound from the left side of the van. Arrrgh!

At the bottom I inspected the damage: the cab step had come into contact with a boulder hidden in the mud at the side of the track and a pile of gelcoat removed – superficial damage, but annoying and probably expensive to repair. The uplifting start to our day had suffered a distinct change of mood!

Beyond that little incident we were stopped again, this time at a section of sunken road: three metres below its original level, the substructure of the road was exposed like a slice of cake! Rising up to connect with the remaining carriageway, we had to surmount what seemed to be an impossibly steep temporary tarmac infill. I took a measured run at it, knowing that a slow approach would result in fruitless wheel spin… Fortunately we crested it with just the minimum of squandered rubber and all the cupboard doors still intact!

As we turned the first corner into Pisicotta we became ensnared in another landslip aftermath – this one of an older nature, resulting in the installation of a steel frame bridge in the main street. Quite a snag, as it was laid across a right-angle bend, giving any vehicle longer than a car virtually no clearance at either end – it was like trying to shift a bedstead around a staircase!

Pisicotta: did we really drive through there! 

This time Sue got out and guided me inch by inch… Having nearly extricated ourselves, she started getting an earful from a little man in a Police Municipale uniform, agitated that we were blocking the road and holding up the traffic. She affected lack of comprehension and he eventually gave up, dismissing us with a taut-faced and resounding “arrivedechi!

Our trials were not over yet. We came across one more landslip – another new one, with a muddy river of water running across it. But this time it was a relatively easy passage, and some kind of tourism official inspecting the damage even gave us a smile and wave!

One of our lesser obstacles! 

I don’t think we have ever been through such a series of obstacles, but the exceptional rain of the night before had wrought havoc. Unfortunately, closing the road was not an option (it was the only road)  and obviously the money and manpower to keep up with repairs was not available – I don’t think we’ll be doing that one again!

Down at the attractive little marina in Marina di Camerotta, a helpful chap told us of some toilets at the far end. We found a large car park, but no toilets, and I went to the marina office. They told us all the scaricos for motorhomes were still closed, but we were welcome to take some water from their hose out front. That left us with an uncomfortably full potty and no other potential dumps in any of our guides – no matter, something would turn up.

To complete our transit of the road through the National Park, we would have to climb steeply again on the hairpin-packed SS562 to Policastro. A sign pre-warned us of a road restriction (2.4m wide and 3.8m high) four kilometres further on at Lenticosa: not a “no-go” for us, but after the morning’s events we were feeling rather more cautious!

The restricted street in Lenticosa was marshalled by a traffic light, and though a bit tight was not a problem. However, after our experience of the "coast" road from Marina di Ascea  we would not recommend traversing it in anything more than a panel van. If you have something larger I would seriously advise against it – unless you’re mad like us of course!

The narrow streets of Lenticosa were not a problem 

Climbing steadily from Sapri, we passed through the elevated town of Lagonegro – looking suprisingly smart and clean after the tired towns of the coastal area.

Lagonegro: a mountain town worth a second look 

Then, out of the blue, not long after leaving Lagonegro on the SS19, we came across a brand new camper sosta 100 metres from Lago Sirino, a pretty mountain lake surrounded by a tiny hamlet and overlooked by a small hotel.

Isolated, but pretty: Lago Sirino 

High above, construction work on the A3/E45 was the only sound disturbing the peace, and we were the only van on this beautifully constructed and prepared sosta – there were even free electric bike charging points, powered by solar panels. No charge for overnight, hook-up for motorhomes was €2 for eight hours – the water was free, and the whole area under video surveillance.

GPS: 40.0930 N, 15.8056 E

A new and beautifully laid out sosta at Lago Sirino 

Feeling that our luck had changed, I checked out the Albergo da Mimi restaurant – which had a clean and a pleasant atmosphere, but a friendly girl confirmed that they were not serving food that night. 

24th February 
The wind rocked and the rain lashed us for the second night; only this time it was pure fresh mountain rain – not blended with salt spray from the crashing breakers! By the morning daylight the rain had combined with a thick, chill mist and we lingered, uncertain what to do next. Sue wanted a walk around the little lake, but the heavy rain just wouldn’t hold off more than a few minutes. However, we did our circuit of the lake and passed back by the restaurant, never thinking to check again if they were serving food that day.

A new bridge completes the walking circuit of the lake 

Eventually, we decided to shift, despite the temptation to put another coin in the slot and settle back with a good book. Sue drew the short straw and did all the pumping and dumping, which included rodding out the cassette disposal chute with a large twig – why do they put grids in these things? Still, they can always examine the problem by watching the replay from one of the video  cameras!

Ready to depart finally, the mist had turned to a dense fog. Wondering if we were as foolhardy as we thought we were, we drove slowly past the hotel in the gloom to see the car park full and the tables packed with diners…doh! A proper Italian Sunday lunch would have been a treat  – and more fun than driving in these conditions.
The Albergo da Mimi was packed for Sunday Lunch 

However, we were soon out of the mist and fog and heading towards Matera. The sky cleared and a warm sun dried the landscape. We pulled into a layby to watch red kites circling in the air with hooded crows – real dogfights, spectacular stuff; they appeared to be scrapping over some carrion on the hill. 

This unusual landscape is home to Red Kites 

The inevitable feral dog arrived, gave us an “any grub to spare?” look and moved placidly on. Then on the S103 to Peschiera we were stopped by police – another landslip had closed the road and we were advised to take a detour out to the coast.

The Massaria de la Pantelone is not what it was 

They do say “never go back”, don’t they? In May 2008 we came across Massaria de la Pantelone in Matera for the first time. Despite giving myself a back injury (which resulted in a stay in the local hospital), we were very taken with the setting and the layout – the paved stone terraces and lighted pillars, the trees and flower beds and the bird song that rose from them, the views down over rolling countryside…

Entering the dusty track, it didn’t feel quite the same: the beds were full of weeds; the paths overgrown, the rendering falling off the toilet block. The surrounding fields had been covered with hundreds of solar panels, and a general air of seediness was all around. A couple of Italian vans were just leaving and gave us a friendly wave, but as we drove around to select a pitch we found our circuit blocked by what looked like a rabbit hutch – one of several, on stilts, placed under an overhanging tree.

The elegant parking area was looking uncared for 

Just as we pitched up, a little guy with broken English arrived to welcome us. Initially charming, he became increasingly difficult to make any sense of, and irritatingly avoided actually answering any questions – apart from the fact that the restaurant was open. He was pushing the Sassi (ancient cave dwellings) and Matera city tour that we had missed last time; eventually we got rid of him, saying we would be in to eat later.

The Sassi are thought to be some of the first human settlements in Italy – most are just stone houses built on top of one another, but many are caverns dug into the rock. Amazingly, they were still inhabited up to the 1950’s, when the then government evicted the residents to other areas of the city. Even more incredible, some people still live in the ancient town – in the dwellings of their 9,000 year-old ancestors, apparently the only such place in the world. 


Tired and hungry, we duly turned up at the dining room, but we should have taken heed of its empty state: the whole experience was dire, from our garrulous friend – still trying to push the city tour, to the absence of a written menu, the persistent arrival of unwanted and unasked for extras, the meagre and unappetizing quality of the food, and lastly the inevitable dispute over the bill; it was simply the worst meal we could remember.

Massaria de la Pantelone is still a handy place from which to visit Matera and even organise your tour of the Sassi, but since the change of management the character of the place has altered completely – and we could hardly recommend it.


GPS: 40.6526 N, 16.6068 E 

25th February 
In the morning I couldn’t wait to leave, but had a brief walk around in the chill sunshine. Looking at the curious green boxes I was startled to hear a shuffling noise and suddenly a white rabbit stretched itself against the bars – what were we eating last night? 

Get me out of here – I might be on the menu! 

We drove around and around the town, trying to find a suitable place to park within reasonable walking distance to the Sassi. Despite being directed to a park for “Campers” we were frustrated to find nothing; perhaps it was filled with cars – a common problem in Italy. Eventually we gave up, much to Sue’s disappointment.

Never mind, the sun was out, the fields were green and the roads clear as we made our way to Alberobello – home to the conical roofed Trulli houses much featured on TV travel programmes. The landscape became progressively tidier, much dry-stone walling separating the cultivated fields and vineyards. It seemed that some civic and rural pride was in evidence, in stark contrast to the “don’t bother to finish constructing/demolishing that building, chuck your rubbish over there” feel of the west coast around Rome and Naples.

Tidy fields and neat dry stone walls on the road to Alberobello 

In town, we found the Nel Verde parcheggio custido at the second attempt. A cross between a rural garden car park and a campsite, charges are tiered: 15€ for 24 hours, 12€ for 10 hours, 8€ for six hours, including pump ‘n dump. Electricity 3€. wi-fi available.

Somehow we couldn’t find the enthusiasm for a trek round the town, so we whiled away the rest of the afternoon amongst the sun-dappled olive trees.

GPS: 40.7830 N, 17.2339 E

 Nel Verde parcheggio: a quiet and sunny haven near the town centre

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