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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Trapani to Seccagrande

28th March
The bus into town failed to show up according to timetable again and after giving it a (Sicilian) 30 minutes grace we trooped back to reception to beg another lift. The patron willingly obliged once more, pleading that though in Sicily “systems bad” the “Sicilians good people”

From the bus station we had a 15 minute ride to the gondola station for Mount Erice. After a short wait we were gliding silently upwards on the cable; in bright sunshine the view over Trapani bay revealed itself in all its splendour.

Trapani reveals itself 

Erice is certainly worth a visit. In early season it was still quiet and its maze of hilly streets had plenty of unspoilt charm and a few surprises. The castle unfortunately was not yet open but we stopped for an early beer at a small terraced café and enjoyed the strange new experience of sitting outside in the warm sun! Not warm enough yet for one of those huge folding umbrellas that cafés use, but Sue managed to create a scene by falling backwards over its concrete base lurking in the middle of the terrace!

Erice has a well preserved  'ancient' atmosphere...

and a fine view from the castle road

Later in the day, the bus back to Le Saline took a tortuous trail through the town and was soon packed to its tiny ventilation windows. At one stop a hoard of young Black Africans boarded and lent a tense atmosphere to the bus – their eyes were everywhere and I felt that they had memorised every detail of the camera slung over my shoulder. They may well have just been envious, but they were certainly making people nervous.

29th March
The big day, the Processione dei Misteri. For nearly 24 hours, accompanied by brass bands and marchers bearing flags, flowers and icons, volunteers will carry twenty excruciatingly heavy tableau around the town, changing over bearers  every 100 metres or so to give their aching backs and shoulders a rest.  Most of the old city streets will be cordoned off and in the evening the main Via Giovanni Battista Fardella and surrounding area will be filled with market stalls festooned with lights and decorations. The festival and celebrations will continue well into the night as the volunteers still trudge around the old streets with their fabulously ornate and heavy burdens.

We were frustrated yet again by the non-appearance of the bus and once more the owner graciously provided a chauffeur to drive us into town – a pain in the butt for him, when he had no control over the reliability of a public service, but a crucial part of his business plan being put in jeopardy.

To put ourselves back in the right frame of mind for the day’s marathon ahead, we treated ourselves to another lunch at Le Mura: a different chef – a different dining experience, but it did the trick.
We strolled back into the town centre and by good fortune placed ourselves on the Via Garibaldi just as the escorting motorcycle police and marshalls led the the parade through.

No 2: La Lavanda dei Piedi

The haunting sounds of the approaching brass bands raised the hairs on our necks, the smoke from incense and firecrackers picked out by the rays of bright afternoon sunshine. Each tableau was beautifully decorated with flowers, the marcher’s uniforms impeccable. Older men orchestrated the “shift changes” of the bearers with wooden castanets, the distinct and brittle sound ringing out above the music and the hubbub of the crowds.

No 3: Gesù dinanzi ad Hanna

In between each tableau were countless other groups of marchers – some enchanting young children, barely realising what it was they were part of; some young teenagers, immensely proud and disciplined in their progress. The prettier young girls had to endlessly endure street photographers shoving lenses right into their faces, even halting their progress to get their picture, but took it all with amazing dignity and stoicism despite their obvious discomfort.

All ages participate with apparent pride

We watched all 20 go by, moving just a few feet up the street and refreshed only by one cup of coffee; it was well dark by the time “L’Addolorata” made her stunning candle lit passage through the packed street.

No 20: L'Addolorata

Finally we made it into the area around the Via Giovanni Battista Fardella, a wonderful carnival atmosphere without a hint of trouble or disturbance, albeit that every third person seemed to be wearing some kind of official armband or uniform!

After some street snacks, realising there was not a hope in hell of a bus service we headed for the taxi office in front of the train station.

30th - 31st March
Feeling like a break from the city, we checked out from Le Saline and headed to the salt pans south of Trapani and the little settlement of Nubia. Here we found a lovely spot by the side of a nature reserve, the car park graced by a wonderfully quirky weathervane of a man fishing and a marlin. The glorious sunny morning soon faded, but suddenly Sue spotted a Spoonbill just 50 metres away, feeding in a pool. We have looked for these migrating birds many times on the Isle de Ré but never managed to see one so clearly.

A Spoonbill hunts for a few morsels

Apart from a few fishermen, sightseers and dog-walkers it was just the wildlife and us. We stayed an extra day because it was just so hard to leave.

A fisherman lights his pipe as the sun goes down

Stopover carpark
GPS: 37.9763 N, 12.4954 E

1st April
Continuing south towards Marsala and Birgi Novo, we spotted a couple of closed camper sostas on the coast and plenty more free camping areas, it was hard to say what it would be like in the season but this time of year – no problem.

Stopover carpark
GPS: 37.9084 N, 12.4594 E

Birgi is at the north end of the biggest lagoon in Sicily, Marsala’s Stagnone. Formed by the 7km long Isola Grande it holds within it the islands of Scola, Santa Maria and San Pantaleo, the latter known as Mothia from an ancient town founded by the Phoenicians during the 8th Century BC. The town’s original connection to the mainland, the “Punic Road”, is now submerged up to a depth of 1 metre but can still be used by a horse and cart.

The salt pans lying along the mainland coast are still worked by traditional methods, including small windmills to drive the sea water pumps. There is a rich variety of flora and fauna in the warm shallow water, and it is an important habitat for migrating birds.

The harvested salt is covered with terracotta tiles

We pumped ‘n dumped in a scruffy sosta/boatyard for €5. We couldn’t contemplate staying there – the junk and debris lying around was off putting certainly, but the singing from a band laid on for the holiday BBQ was bad enough to send the cats running for cover!

Camping Sosta
GPS: 37.8466 N, 12.4653 E

Instead we went back to a parcheggio by the quay and tourist office. A very keen Capo Gruppo went out of his way to explain security; for €5 overnight, we would be fine to leave the van next day for a boat trip to Mothia Island.

Traditional boats and windmills still in use

Parcheggio Sosta
GPS: 37.8560 N, 12.4783 E

2nd April
The boat trip from the quay (Arini e Pugilese) costs €5 for the round trip, running every 30 minutes. They seemed to like to arrange a return time for you so that once all their punters arrive back at the jetty they can get back for an early break – our boat left 15 minutes early! Entry to the island itself, and the Giuseppe Whitaker museum, costs another €9.

The boat ride out to Mothia

The museum is small but has a nice model of the original Phoenician settlement and a good selection of stone and pottery artefacts, interestingly different in character to the usual Greek and Roman stuff.

Walking around the island can be done easily in 45 minutes, but if you want to linger at one of the archaeological sites, or in the museum, or indeed have an alfresco lunch at the little café, then it's probably best to tell the boatmen what time you plan to go back – we managed the whole thing in an hour and a quarter.

Most of the island is left to scrub, but when we visited, the spring flowers were out in abundance and it was a joy just to wander around. Only some abandoned early wind turbines, broken and bladeless, spoilt the ambience – they were still relying on a couple of diesel generators to power the few buildings, the strong sea breezes evidently too powerful for the wind machines!

Beautiful wild spring flowers everywhere

On the road into Marsala – the town noted for its fortified wine, the Sirocco was whipping up a stiff chop and we were spattered by sea spray as water and seaweed were driven onto the coast road. Marsala is also famous for the landing of Garibaldi on 11 May 1860 – it was intended to bring about a united Italy, but ended achieving independence for Sicily. It has a historic centre and Duomo, as well as a large Phoenician archaeological site and museum, the latter housing a recently discovered (1971), preserved and partially reconstructed Punic war galley. Some of the other exhibits are also worth a look for the well-preserved sections of fresco and a female statue.

The main square in Marsala

Despite passing many suitable free camping sites on the coast road south of Marsala, most were untenable because of the sea conditions, so when we came across Camping Biscione – not listed in any of our guides, or even on Google earth – we thought it would do nicely. A pleasant grass-pitched site with its own restaurant, motorhome service bay and free wi-fi near the office. €15 a night, at this time of year.

Camping Biscione
GPS: 37.7011 N, 12.4773 E

3rd April
Back on the S115 towards Mazara del Vallo, we headed into town in an attempt to find the lungomare at its southern end; there is a nice promenade along the seafront but they have made it hard to get to from the north. We picked up the coast road anyhow – which is now undergoing a spot of refurbishment, a new pavement and low wall, effectively blocking vehicular access to the cliff edge. There are still many spots to pull off however and a lovely vista as you approach Punta Granitola and its slender white Lighthouse.

Sticking to the coast as close as possible, we found ourselves in as string of half built, unused and sometimes derelict holiday homes, the sand blown so far off the beach that the road was entirely reduced to a single lane and almost blocked in places. I wondered if and when they would get the bulldozers out! After a couple of dodgy “sand dune” moments we bailed out and found an unused swimming pool car park on the edge of town – phew, those “winter tyres” got us out of the doo doo again!

Blown sand from the beach is taking over!

Barely any traffic passed us and by nightfall it was utterly quiet except for the roll of the surf half a kilometre away; the sky was clear and studded with bright stars. Sue quickly picked up the sound of Scops owls: beep… beep… like the reversing warning on a commercial vehicle, so loud at times they could have been on the building next door; then the unmistakeable throaty call of frogs, presumably colonising the abandoned swimming pool. Surf, owls and frogs – what a symphony to go to sleep to!

Abandoned swimming pool carpark? - perfect!

Stopover car park
GPS: 37.5780 N, 12.7490 E

4th April
The sunshine was still with us in the morning. We found our way back to the “main” road to Selinunte, passing more deserted, falling down homes and half built concrete skeletons, then a stretch of dual carriageway – the central reservation so overgrown and spilling over the tarmac that the tracks of cars went around it! We didn’t see another vehicle for 15 minutes – the whole area was beginning to have that land-that-time-forgot feel about it: everyone had just up’d and left and let nature reclaim what it could!

Selinunte boasts the ruins of an entire Greek city by the sea, with one partially reconstructed temple and several areas of interest. It’s a few kilometres walk to get around them all, but if you really don’t feel up to that, there are the “stretched-limo” versions of golfing buggies to take you around, for a €12 fee.
There was a very stiff sea breeze as we arrived – scudding the plastic chairs around the café – but it was still a glorious walk around the various sites; even if you are not heavily into the history, the sea views, a woodland walk and the spring flowers made it worthwhile. Entry €6

The temples have spectacular settings by the sea

Good way to advertise your ceramics business!

After lunch we hit the road again, taking the rural route through national parkland to the hillside town of Menfi and on to Sciacca – some of the road was in a pretty poor state due to subsidence, but we’ve seen and passed through worse.

Sciacca is a fairly large town, and if you can be bothered to drive through it there is a Basilica and a splendid belvedere to look out to sea and over the port – a tow-away zone for campers though, so don’t hang around!

View from the belvedere at Sciacca

Scenic parking
GPS: 37.5036 N, 13.0887 E

Back on the S115 we pulled off at Seccagrande, where there is an ACSI campsite. Exploring a little further down to the seafront however, we found a dirt car park adjacent to an overgrown beachside seating area – perfect for an overnight at this time of year. There was the inevitable feral dog sniffing around the wheelie bins, but these animals never seem to be any bother – they need to make friends with the hands that feed them!

GPS: 37.4339 N, 13.2375 E

Friday, 26 April 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Monreale to Trapani

21st March.
A night in Monreale tourist coach park. We slept… fitfully. Around 0500 the bin men arrived: Crash! Bang! Heave... Just getting light at 0630, still half asleep, keep hearing voices... 

A drowsy peep out of the window: white vans, people setting up stalls, chatting, heaving boxes… “Sue – wake up! They’re setting up a market, we’ve got to go!”

We only just made it. A quick recce revealed there was still a passage through, but by the time we got to the perimeter our escape was in jeopardy: some more trestles and a canopy had been set up, blocking our path. The marketers were good-natured, waving us on, but the gap wasn’t big enough. Sue got out again, pleading, and they shifted some trestles and held back a canopy – but only just enough.

Back into the traffic – the nerve shredding, morning rush hour traffic – in Palermo! At some junctions so many cars were jumping the red lights it just became a mad, frenzied free for all. Trying to carry straight on at one set of lights, I was squeezed to a standstill by a stream of cars on my right side crossing in front of me in order to turn left!  I felt like a lonely wild dog cut off by a herd of racing wildebeest. Eventually I just moved stubbornly forward, inch by inch, until somebody gave way and finally freed us from this nightmare.

At last we made it onto the autostrada – physically unscathed, but nerves stretched to snapping point. We saw a hypermarket and pulled off into the vast car park for a sanity check. After some breakfast (and paracetamol), a quick nap and a refreshing shower, we eased ourselves back onto the autostrada, then re-joined the S187 near Terrasini.

At Alcamo Marina, the road eventually crosses the railway line and follows the seafront, and in bright sunshine we pulled into a dirt car park that runs along the whole stretch of beach. The rhythm of the crashing waves was music to our ears and after a leisurely lunch it was obvious we were going nowhere – we had found our pitch for the night.

A welcome pitch at Alcamo Marina

Beach-side stopover
GPS: 38.0251 N, 12.9138 E

Joggers and cyclists came and went, a few cars and dog walkers; nobody gave us a second glance, despite being the only motorhome in sight. Around midnight however, a stream of cars came off the road and sped past our side, tooting their horns in unison – what was that all about? Peering out we saw a car parked right underneath our back window, a couple blissfully snogging with the light on. (No use hiding behind us my lovers, your mates will find you!)

22nd March
The sun popped over the mountain skyline at 0630 sharp, blasting through our rear window and casting a long Rapido-shaped shadow across the sand. Rejuvenated after a good sleep, we had an early breakfast and then continued on the S187, skirting around Castelammare del Golfo. The cool but brilliant sunshine, clear sky and light green sea lifted our spirits – this was more like it! At the west end of the town there is a panoramico with fabulous views along the coast and a birds-eye look over the little harbour and new marina under construction.

A new marina takes shape at Castelammare

Then onto Capo Puntazza, where we found a Swiss and two German vans sunning themselves on a waterfront car park after a free night.

Beach-side stopover
GPS: 38.0563 N, 12.8399 E

After a brief chat we followed the road onto Scopello, an ancient little hamlet overlooking the Gulf of Castelammare. There is a cute paved square which formed the centre of the 8th Century Baglio and is dominated by a large water trough and fountain . We wouldn’t recommend driving in here – two large vans would virtually block it up, but there is a bus park just before the square you can use, and in season a large car park opens up in a field. The village’s inhabitants were busy painting and refurbishing, gearing up for the summer season. There are several restaurants and a small hotel, as well as some newly built holiday apartments.

Early season tranquility at Scopello

The road through the village is too narrow for a van, so we went back to the fork and followed the road as far as it goes along the coast. There is no road route to Capo San Vito on this side, but lovely views and a couple of camping sostas  (not open yet). On foot however, you can enter and explore the Zingaro Nature Reserve.

Retracing our steps slightly past Castelammare, we did a quick spell on the toll-free autostrada and then the S113 to Segesta: the site of a magnificent Greek temple placed in a beautiful hillside setting; also an amphitheatre – the latter a 1.5 km trek or bus ride up another hill, but worth it for the views alone. Entrance to the site is €6 and the bus ride another €1.50, but parking is free. About 0.5 km before the main park is an overspill park, which would do for an overnight; if you got up early enough you could visit the site for free as well!

Segesta stopover
GPS: 37.9442 N,12.8384 E

Segesta's splendid Greek temple...

...in a glorious setting

...with the usual suspects!

Fantastic views from the ampitheatre

Leaving Segesta, we took a minor road to Bruca and then onto Busetto Palizzolo, passing a couple of Agriturism vineyards and a pizza restaurant that would probably provide a pitch for the night. After Bruca the road almost disappears – probably where jurisdiction for the two townships meet – but it soon returns to a passable stretch of tarmac, despite some unfinished repairs.

After returning a merry wave from an old shepherd with his sheep on the road, we came across a parking area and picnic site at Mt Scorace. This European Community registered site is noted for the biodiversity of the woodland: rare mushrooms, wild boar, rabbits and hares. Amazingly there is also a large laid-out seating area, built-in BBQ pits, games areas and toilets – even an outside tap!

We couldn’t resist this one, settling ourselves easily on the largely flat parking area. As the sun began to disappear behind the far hills, the sound of cow bells tinkling grew steadily louder – soon they were milling past the van, one young bullock turned his head round for a long stare, checking us out!

The tinkling of cow bells as the herd goes home

Rural stopover
GPS: 37.9788 N, 12.7705 E

At nightfall the sky was still clear with a half moon and bright stars, and eerily quiet, just the beep…beep… of a Scops Owl filtered through the trees, evoking memories of Croatia.

23rd March
At dawn we suddenly heard the howling of wild dogs and the anguished cries of some other animal – young wild boar perhaps? By sun-up we saw two young hounds, fast asleep, curled up against each other at the foot of a pine tree – sweet as could be, like family pets.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from such a great spot, but the sun was starting to get some real heat in it, and our plan was to get to the campsite at Capo San Vito and do some much needed laundry. Almost immediately we came across another parking area in the forest and then a roadside spring pouring bright clear water into a trough.

Roadside water spring
GPS: 37.988313,12.761604

Some great views along this road, so rural, it felt wonderful to “out in the sticks” again on such a beautiful day. Rounding a corner, our passage was completely blocked by a herd of goats, some with huge and spectacular horns. The shepherd nodded his thanks for our patience as they tinkled past, a postcard-sized smartphone pressed to his head the whole time! Shepherding’s obviously not the lonely job it used to be – though wasn’t that half the point? As with the sheep the day before, the herd was followed up by a motley collection of mongrel dogs, though it didn’t look as if they had their work cut out – the goats knew exactly where they were going.

Just another goat herd... with a little modern technology!

On the broad, wide main street of Castelluzzo we parked easily to get some provisions. The woman in the bread shop quickly spotted me for an English speaker; amazingly she was from California – her parents had emigrated from the town, brought up a family and then returned, leaving her the bread shop – for which she had left her life in America. Interestingly, she didn’t recognise the rubbish-strewn Sicily that we had seen so far.

La Pineta is a four-star ACSI site just outside the resort town of Capo San Vito. Almost all the pitches are under dense pine trees, which afford superb protection from the sun in the height of summer, but it was a little chill at this time and not ideal for drying the laundry! The wi-fi was not site-wide as shown in the ACSI guide, but is free in the bar area.

On the service bay we grabbed the first hose that came to hand – big mistake: this was the non-potable desalinated water which supplies most of the plumbing on site, it is very slightly salty and hence undrinkable – and we filled up our tank with it! I always used to test the water that came out of a long hose to make sure it was sweet  – funny how you have to keep re-learning things!

Free camping is obviously the norm around here, and the campsite wisely makes the camper service bay (for which you pay €10) accessible directly from the road. On the way into Capo San Vito there are huge areas of beachside parking – peppered with just a few motorhomes as we passed.

There would be plenty of shade under the pine trees at camping La Pinetta

GPS: 38.1738 N, 12.7480 E

Capo San Vito is a pure resort town; it was just shaking off the cobwebs for Easter, prior to the key months of June, July and August. We wondered about the prevalence of German and Swiss vans in the campsite, but a walk into town in the evening explained all: there were literally dozens of Italian vans parked up all along the beach front, outside still-closed hotels and restaurants, and in any spare parking. One group on the beachfront even had a large wooden brazier blazing away and their children had turned the car park into a playground.

In the last week of September the resident population of just four thousand plays host to a mind-boggling 200 thousand visitors for the annual Cous Cous Fest – a three day celebration of local food, music and dancing and, naturally, a couscous competition – entered by some of the best cooks in the world. Typically, €10 will get you a plate of couscous topped with what ever you fancy, a glass of wine and a dessert.

24th-25th March
The sunshine of our first day disappeared and the weather deteriorated: cold, howling winds, occasional spells of rain; nothing else to do but get the laptops and Kindles out and batten down the hatches!

26th March
As we left La Pinetta, it was still dull and windy but the rain held back, all the Italian vans in the town had disappeared and the car parks had been blocked off. We moved along the coast, past the formidable mount of Erice and into Trapani.

By happy accident we realised that we would be in time for the world famous Easter processions, the Processione dei Misteri: an archetypal Sicilian event in which twenty excruciatingly heavy tableau are carried around the town by volunteers for nearly 24 hours, accompanied by brass bands and marchers bearing flags, flowers and icons – then followed by a festival and celebrations that take over much of the old town, well into the night.

In the large central Piazza Emanuele car park (supposedly free) a tout tried to wave us in and charge us for the privilege. It was packed anyhow and we certainly didn’t fancy it for an overnight so we headed for the waterfront. Here we witnessed some more atrocious driving – just run into somebody’s path at a junction and if they swerve to get round you then move to block them again until they give up – unbelievable…

Sue had tracked down a sosta called Le Saline about 4km out of town – it is in fact the car park of a small hotel tucked behind a busy fuel station, but as it turned out, with good facilities. When we arrived most of the spaces had been taken with cars, but as the only motorhome present we squeezed ourselves into a corner.
€15 per day, free wi-fi in the bar.

Le Saline, an unusual but well equipped sosta

GPS: 37.9820 N, 12.5308 E

27th March
Primed up and ready for an assault of the town, we crossed the road to wait for the No 31 bus that should arrive according to the timetable we had been given – give or take 15 minutes or so...!

After a 20 minute wait, the owner of Les Saline suddenly appeared in his 4x4 and offered us a lift into town – thank you kind sir! He dropped us off at the Piazza Garibaldi on the waterfront and we strolled along the waters edge and around the fish market. The inner harbour was packed with the type of small fishing boats that you hardly see anymore in the UK – perhaps just a few if you live in Cornwall or the west coast of Scotland.

Fishermen, from dozens of boats, repair their nets

On the pleasantly paved Vialle delle Sirene we observed the strange spectacle of workman digging holes to plant a grown tree with no roots! Apparently the winter winds had broken or felled the existing palm trees and these were the replacements; I’m no horticulturist but it looked like a grim fight for survival for the poor tree to me!

Looks like a tough new start in life for this specimen!

Lunch was in the nearby Le Mura restaurant: grilled fresh swordfish with salad, baked rosemary potatoes and two beers came to €44 – not cheap perhaps, but superb quality and very enjoyable.

A good swordfish lunch at Le Mura

Moving towards the old town centre we picked up the sounds one of the warm-up processions: soon it was passing by, the slow haunting music of the brass band instantly recognisable as the inspiration for the “Godfather” theme tune.

Our first sight and distinctive sound of a procession

Some small adjustments necessary

We nipped into the tourist office and purchased two Trapani Welcome cards: for €9 you get a three day pass for all the urban bus services, a return ticket for the gondola up to Mount Erice (worth €7), plus various free entries and discounts for other attractions, city map and guides.


Next was a walk through the Villa Margherita gardens, dedicated to Queen Margherita of Savoy, the first queen of Italy. The amazing Moreton Bay fig trees were planted in the late 19th Century.

The Moreton Bay fig trees in the Villa Margherita gardens

The ornamental pool is home to large terrapins and wildfowl

Finally we headed back into the old town and the Purgatorio Church where the tableau for the main procession on the 29th were on display: all dramatic, some artfully lit and the whole space glowing with large candles – a very reverential atmosphere.

L'arresto – one of  the 20 tableau to be carried on the shoulders of volunteers

After a coffee in a waterfront cafe we tried to identify the bus stop for the trip back to Les Saline. Despite some enthusiastic and willing advice – one woman even entered a nearby travel agent on our behalf – nobody seemed to be sure where to get the bus (or even if there was a bus!). In the event, we picked the wrong side of the road and watched our 18.20 bus disappear into the night!  (It enters the town first by the fire station before leaving on the other side of town)

We headed for the nearest bar – which happily, was next to a take-away Pizza parlour! Sorting out which size pizza to order was confusing as the other customers all chipped in with their explanations, so in the end we settled for the fairly obvious “Medio”. All the other customers had long gone when we were finally presented a large oblong box containing the best part of a metre of pizza! A family size pizza for €10? The chef was “aving a larf” and took great enjoyment from the look on our faces. When I offered him €20 he shook his head, still laughing, and gave me €10 back – the Sicilian’s humour was growing on us; and we snacked on pizza for days!


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Oliveri to Monreale

Sicilian first impressions 
 It’s big. At over 25,000 square kilometres, it is the most heavily populated island in the Mediterranean and an autonomous region of Italy that has had its own parliament since 1947. With its own refineries, power stations and desalination plants, Sicily is for most intent and purposes a different country to mainland Italy.

It feels different to southern Italy – with tourism as one of the key parts of its economy, you sense that a good part of the population are really aware of that and treat you accordingly. We found drivers more considerate – they will pull up for you in a narrow street when the lane is blocked on their side, rather than just piling on regardless and indifferent.  They are undisputedly more friendly – if you ask a question in rubbish Italian they will still smile and try to help, rather than stare, mutter something and move on.

It doesn’t feel threatening – on parts of the Calabrian coast we did feel unwelcome as tourists. The Calabrian mafia are as infamous as the Sicilian (witness the ongoing garbage collection problems) but so far in Sicily, we not had that creepy feeling of some sinister undercurrent, quite the contrary, as locals have gone out of their way to help and be friendly. The Marlon Brando “Godfather” crops up regularly in adverts, hoardings and T shirts, so I guess they have a sense of humour as well! 

13th March 
The new day was damp and murky, sadly not a re-run of the previous day’s perfect morning. We decided to hit the road again, by-passing the iconic Tindari Basilica on its high rock promontory overlooking Oliveri (we have seen enough Black Madonnas to keep us going for a while!).

Tindari Basilica perches high above Oliveri 

Our route along the west coast road was tortuous though spectacular and we decided to call a halt at Capo ‘d’Orlando, ending up on the shoreline at the western end, on a nice pitch by the sea. Only problem was: the Carabineri had got there before us!

Three choices: 1) turn around and disappear into the distance, 2) hang around and hope they don’t notice, 3) ask a policeman! 
The younger of the two impeccably dressed and coiffured officers seemed laid back when I broached the subject of an overnight stay – he had no English, but the impression I got was “suit yourself” and “you take your chances!” His older colleague interjected however and the tone quickly changed – we would have to go!

Heading back inland, we passed what looked like a trucker’s park in the small hamlet of Piscittina-amola. We turned around and placed ourselves at a back corner – hopefully out of anybody’s way. A tanker driver promptly arrived and realising what we were up to, came over and reassured us it would be “tranquillo”. Then several more tankers turned up, including a huge trailer that backed in perilously close to us. Suddenly it was mayhem!

A vociferous confab ensued with several other drivers, the younger ones appearing to be decidedly negative. However, our friend came back over and asked what time we would leave in the morning – 0700 seemed to be the critical time. We weren’t sure if we were going to be boxed in for the night or just getting in the way in the morning, but the consensus from the two older drivers was that we would be fine. Minutes later we were entirely on our own! We determined to be (very) early in the morning. 

14th March 
At 02.30 I awoke to a loud, rising and falling, whining sound – the tankers were back! No, actually it was a garbage truck across the street (collecting rubbish actually!). The rest of the night was peaceful apart from the rain thundering down at 05.30. We took this as a cue and were gone by 06.30. Not a stopover we would recommend, but "thank you" to a couple of local truckers  who inconvenienced themselves to help some non Italian-speaking English motorhomers!

Stopover, Piscittina-amola
GPS: 38.1176 N, 14.7216 E

We did enjoy the early morning sunshine however, and the minimal traffic on the S113 to Cefalù. At San Agata di Militelo we passed a newish sign for a Camper Sosta on the waterfront that was not in any of our guidebooks – it just shows that you should never give up hope of something coming along, and to keep your eyes peeled!

The next section of road is relatively wide and straight and we were soon passing thorough the major centres of decorative ceramic production, Santo Stefano di Camastra and Torremuza

Ceramics and porcelain galore - Santo Stefano di Camastra 

Before we knew it we were approaching the small town of Finale and the campsite at Cape Raisigerbi. Camping Rais Gerbi is another ACSI site and also part of the Faita Sicilia federation of Sicilian campsites. The site straddles the coastal railway line in a cutting, but the pitches are terraced and shaded with trees. We took a great position with an uninterrupted view over the swimming pool and the bay beyond. The small shops of Finale are a 10 minute walk away along the old road bridge that lies underneath the new one.
Wi-fi is available: €8 for 24hrs, usable on a non-continuous basis.

GPS: 38.0238 N, 14.1538 E 

The perfect pitch at Rais Gerbi –  when the sun came out, that is! 

15th March 
There is only one bus a day to the ancient port of Cefalù, so we were advised to take the train – the campsite proprietor providing a shuttle service for €1 a head (in his own car) to Polima station 3.5 km away. The tickets have to be bought beforehand at the “Dolce Vita” café (yes really!) in town and validated before boarding. (€2.50 per head each way)

Despite dawning fine and sunny, the rain clouds soon re-assembled and we sheltered from the rain waiting for the train. When it arrived we were gobsmacked by its futuristic and comfortable design – swelteringly hot and spacious, it offered elevated and deeply padded seats and picture windows to enjoy the sight of waves crashing on the shore.

The train is looking good...

...very good (sometimes)

Two stops later and we were trudging through another downpour towards Cefalù old town. The narrow flag-stoned streets have all the untidy and careworn charm you would expect of an old Sicilian fishing port, and if you weren’t already primed for a sight of the Duomo it could be something of a surprise. 

The duomo in Cefalù pops out from the narrow streets

On its own terraced square and sheltered by a pinnacle of rock, this cathedral was erected by a Norman King in the 12th Century to honour a vow made to God when he was in mortal danger of shipwreck. It has been heavily restored in recent times, but the golden mosaics are well worth a look, as are the unusual, coloured (presumably stained), alabaster windows.

A magnificent interior belies its external appearance

 Beautifully restored mosaic...

...and unusual coloured alabaster windows

Huge grey waves were rolling onto the rocks in the lower town, and increasingly wet and cold we took refuge in a waterfront café.

Yes, we did get wet! 

Over coffee we watched, with wry humour, an increasingly desperate delivery van driver and his sidekick trying to extract their hemmed in and heavily laden vehicle from the quayside – I think we have now seen the full repertoire of expressions, arm gestures and gesticulations necessary to pass as an exasperated Italian!

The courtyard by the Ristorante Balcone sul Mere – with ancient water pools! 

We wandered the quaint streets and the seafront some more, admiring the courtyard by the Ristorante Balcone sul Mere: actually a public washing place in medieval times, when the river Cefalino rose from the ground as a spring. 

Then lunch in the only restaurant we could find that seemed to be attracting any business: the Via Roma Vecchia. Long and narrow like its namesake and backing onto the windswept sea, it turned out to be run by a local man who had spent two years in Sheffield – just a few streets from Sue’s old stomping ground! Cue much reminiscing, with the aid of Google maps!

Menu of the day was seafood risotto, then mixed grilled seafood (tuna steak, octopus, squid and giant prawn), salad and a desert (a wonderfully balanced and refreshing orange fruit jelly with raspberry compote). With a bottle of Pinot Grigio, this came to €62: great value – and we also have an intro to a good Italian restaurant in Sheffield!

Restaurant Pizzeria – Via Roma Vecchia 

The train back was a different beast altogether – still stiflingly hot but old, small and cramped, and packed with malodourous students – no seats this time. After disturbing half of Italy with wrong phone numbers we eventually hit on the correct sequence and the campsite proprietor fetched us from the station in minutes. Mention of Italians in Sheffield brought on tales of Chesterfield and English girlfriends when he was nineteen! They love to talk!

Later in the evening, the unrelenting rain accompanied by heavy thunder and lightening, and then a hailstorm! The noise was horrendous. With accounts of hailstones the size of golf balls ringing in our ears we listened in trepidation (we had seen an abandoned caravan in Oliveri with a very bad case of acne on its roof). Fortunately we appeared to have no visible damage in the morning. 

16th March 
Lashing wind and rain gave me the excuse to flash up the laptop with the TV stick and watch some of the Melbourne F1 Grand Prix qualifying on Italian telly – until it was rained off! 

17th March 
With the rain still bouncing on the roof of the van we watched the race  – you don’t get all the talking heads beforehand like you do on the BBC, just uncut video from the pit lane and garages filled in with commentary, which I found more interesting. 

18th March 
After midnight the Sirocco arrived and from 0130 we were buffeted and bounced as the wind whipped along the coast. Sue couldn’t stand the noise and violent rocking of the van and chose to sit up and read. We thought about moving – but where to?

In the morning we could see that we were in fact relatively sheltered in the lea of the coastline, the worst of the white horses were a half a mile out to sea! The barometer went down to 988 mb and then slowly rose. Sue caught up on her sleep and by mid afternoon, thankfully, it was tranquil again.

Then we found out that Mt Etna had erupted again during the night, its ninth and biggest eruption so far this year, shooting molten lava 3 km into the sky. The nearby town of Acireale was suffering severely from falling ash, up to 10 cms deep! They call it ash, but it is more like black grit – imagine the logistical problems of clearing so many hundreds of tons clogging the roads, roofs, gutters and drains. 

19th March 
At last a peaceful night and we awoke to the hot sun and sparkling blue sea we were expecting of Sicily. The campsite owner however was predicting more of the Sirocco: he bemoaned that it used to be a June phenomenon, but now it came in January, February and March! Global Warming was to blame. 

20th March

You can pack anything onto the back of 3 wheeled Piaggio!

Picking up the S113 again and continuing westward we passed around scruffy Termini Imerese and onto Bagheria and the remains of the Punic town of Solunto on the hills above. 

The view from the living room in the Punic era 

It’s in a great setting and still an active archaeological site; there is a small museum for the recovered artefacts and plenty of information boards to lead you around the old town. I particularly liked the remains of one luxury residence: set on the hillside with fabulous views over the bay and a large mosaic terrace with a font; water would have flowed into a huge oblong punic bath at the front – it could have been an early infinity pool! They knew what they wanted, for sure, back then. Entry: €2.

GPS: 38.09.14 N, 13.5321 E

Down in the town, we looked about for a pitch for the night. All along the side streets, 50 metre long piles of rubbish bags were burying the wheelie bins – the smell was enough to put you off, and it wasn’t even hot yet! How do they let it get like this – is it just about money?

An all too common sight – but some communes are exempt... 

Palermo was looming on the horizon – what to do?

We have never been to Monreale, never even seen a picture – we just knew that the Duomo was worth a visit. Our ancient (2005) Viaggiare in Camper sosta guide indicated that we could actually stay nearby the Doumo, and on our Michelin map, Monreale looked well out of Palermo on a green lined “scenic” route – we would give it a try. (If you know more than we did, you can start to roll your eyes now!)

We picked up the autostrada  – which becomes the Palermo ring road – at Ficarazzi. The busy evening traffic took all my nerve and attention, surging cars competing for space, scooters weaving past the moment I hesitated. We found the left turn for Monreale, but there was no let up in the traffic: dense, urban, chaotic, double-parkers blocking my way the whole time – they stopped even as we followed a few metres behind them, just throwing an indifferent glance in our direction as I blasted my horn and brought the traffic behind to a halt.

Rising up the hill to Monreale we passed a “no caravans, no motorhomes” prohibition sign – bit late for that now! Into the one way system, steep narrow streets squeezed and threatened with low balconies; arrgh! our passage blocked by a double-parker – how do I get through this one?

Sue got out and guided me through, then pulled me over to let the impatient traffic pass. A tiny garage was set into the building; the owner agreed: “yes, you can sleep by the duomo, turn left and then right and you will be there” With nothing but a few inches to spare we squirmed past a hording protecting some scaffolding, and suddenly, like a cork out of a bottle, we burst into the open again: a large square, lights and shops, people staring – where now?

We saw the sign for parking, but found ourselves going back down the hill the way we had come! At the fork, we followed the sign for “Tourist Bus Parking” back to Monreale, but this time at a lower level. We found the tourist bus park: a large triangular lump of tarmac with an unemployment office, apartment block and a couple of restaurants. We parked outside one for a breather.

Two chefs were chatting a few yards away and after a few minutes one sauntered deliberately over to us, watching… avoiding eye contact. His message was clear: this is parking space for my punters! We moved over to the other side, a few yards from the rubbish bins and a derelict store – delightful. It was now properly dark. Exhausted, we were going nowhere so we battened down the hatches; as we say: “you could be anywhere when the blinds are closed!”

We had a nice curry already prepared, Sue washed that down with half a bottle, I sipped, just in case I had to drive. Around midnight a cacophony of barking broke out, around the bins were 5 feral dogs, one of them huge; above us, other dogs – pets perhaps – were going ballistic, lovely.

Next: An unwelcome surprise and another escape from the jaws of disaster!