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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Capo Trionto to Oliveri

2nd March.
First light at our spot by the derelict lighthouse, the noise of a vehicle at had me peering through the blinds  – what looked like a garbage truck had pulled up by the overflowing wheelie bins.  He hesitated a moment, did a three-point turn and drove away…ah! perhaps that explains the uncollected rubbish problem!

A typical sight on the streets of Southern Italy 

By now we were getting short of water. Sue spotted a Camper Service sign at Coprani Marina which we found without much difficulty, but the frail old guy who came to the gate wanted €5 for a pump ‘n dump. Unfortunately, when he lifted up a heavy steel flap in the floor, he slipped and did his best to fall in his own cess pit! We heaved him up and he jabbered on a bit. We humoured him with nods and smiles – though on reflection, he was probably trying to tell us about the coming weather!

Torrential rain hampers our progress 

The rain duly came: in torrents, in floods, with gale force winds – unbelievable downpours, you can see why so many towns in this region have massive flood run-offs cutting through them.

At Cantanzaro Marina, Sue had to vacate the van in this lashing rain (for the second time) to guide me through a street blocked by double-parked vehicles: a maddening habit held dear all over Italy – she was not best pleased and getting rather damp. After an edgy few minutes trying not to integrate our awning into the shop front or our nearside into the perpetrator’s car, the horns started blaring. It’s not often that Sue is compelled to rapid arm movements, but as we finally pulled through she raised her hand abruptly to the hooting cars in a loosely Churchillian gesture. The guy behind pointed to the guy behind him!

Having made our escape in one piece and without starting a diplomatic incident, I slowed before a narrow bridge and noticed the roof of a Carabineri patrol car close up in my mirror – whoopee, here we go: “why have we been insulting the helpful locals!” I kept my speed down to make sure I was conforming exactly to the 50km/hr (30mph) limit and the policeman promptly overtook me. So did several other cars following him – and they all disappeared into the distance like birds on the wing!

Shortly afterwards I nearly cannoned into a small Fiat that had jammed on the anchors in front of a barely visible and remote speed camera. It drives you nuts! I know this scenario in the UK, and I try to be scrupulous, but it is an almighty pain in the butt for those without local knowledge (i.e. tourists). I’ve often thought that I’m actually going to cause an accident as bad tempered and irritable "Italian Stallions" squeeze past on double whites, or a corner, as their patience gets exhausted.

Note: New EU legislation coming into force on November 7th 2013 requires that member states exchange data on motoring offences, meaning you can be had for a foreign speed camera fine – provided the driver is the owner of the vehicle. Fortunately for the Brits, Irish and Danish, their governments have opted out of the EU directive – but look out for spot cash fines from police using portable cameras!

Reaching Locri, we called a halt for the day on a large gravel car park in front of the cemetery. A couple of coaches came and went and nobody gave us a second glance. We parked in front of a large single floodlight in one corner, and in the dark we were virtually invisible from the road in the long shadows – nice one.

Our pitch by the cemetery in Locri 

Stopover, Locri
GPS: 38.2447 N, 16.2732 E 

3rd March 
Thankfully the storm blew itself out overnight and we awoke to bright sunshine. We drove onto Marina di San Ijario looking for a bread shop. I parked in a space by a clothes shop window, and smiled and said good morning to the owner who was stood in the doorway – I received a chilling, glassy-eyed stare and a barely perceptible nod in return. Returning with some pastries a few minutes later I nodded again, but the motionless, malevolent stare I received raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Phew, I guess he didn’t like me blocking the view to his window! Creepy. The power of his searing glare unsettled us for a long time afterwards – and still brings a shiver.

Glad to be nearing completion of our run down to the toe of Italy, we pulled off at Capo Spartivento and could just see Mount Etna above a veil of cloud – a thin wisp of smoke issuing from her mouth!

Our next destination was San Giovanni for the ferry to Messina. We drove into Reggio Calabria, thinking to pick up the last bit of coast road to San Giovanni. Big mistake. The city streets are tangled, hilly, and in terrible condition, with wheel-swallowing potholes and signs that lead you on, only to leave you stranded without a clue. The drivers curse, toot and wave at you if you hesitate for a moment; the pedestrians stare as if you were from another planet. We mercifully extracted ourselves intact and got back onto the autostrada.

The slip road off the motorway brings you straight down to the ferry ticket offices. At this time of year it was very quiet and there is a long layby just before the offices where we parked for some lunch. Sue went to enquire after the ferry times and prices. (Every 20 minutes, €56.50 single, €95.60 return.)

Whilst we were eating our sandwiches and calming our shredded nerves, a Caribineri and a Polizi patrol car pulled up opposite us on the entry lane to the ferries. Contrary to what you might expect in the way of inter-service rivalry, all four men languorously embraced and kissed on both cheeks. They then proceeded to stop vehicles at random and check documents: the dark blue Carabineri taking private cars and vans, the light blue Polizi, commercial vehicles.

Outside the ticket office a tout immediately appeared and shepherded us to a parking place. I ignored him and made my own way to the kiosk, but he tagged along anyhow. Strangely, the price had now gone up to €67.50, but the tariffs are on a sheet stuck on the window. I protested and the price came back down – it is in fact printed on the ticket, together with a little motorhome symbol and the bar code, which is scanned as you board.

The Torro Faro light signals the entrance to the Messina Straights 

We followed the signs and were soon in a queue for the next ferry; the carabineri glanced at us and let us go. The voyage itself takes about twenty minutes. Disembarkation was a free-for-all, a battle of nerve and will, you either assert yourself by squeezing forward aggressively or get left for dead. An old man with that glassy-eyed stare out did me from the inside lane – it can be a dicey business.

The famous gold statue at the entrance to Messina harbour 

Sicily at last! Feeling that we needed to chill out for a couple of days, we drove south to San Alessio Siculo and an ACSI site: Camping La Focetta Sicula. Not the most edifying approach to a campsite – past a scrapyard and a stoneworks – but we were given a pitch on the waterfront and revelled in the warm afternoon sun and the lulling sound of the breaking waves. Bliss.
Wi-fi is available at €5 for 24hrs of usage, usable on a non-continuous basis.

Camping La Focetta Sicula has beachfront pitches 

GPS: 37.9310 N, 15.3561 E 

4th – 5th March 
I succumbed to a stomach bug – at the same time as the Queen of England (not that it made much difference knowing what prestigious company I was in). Fortunately, it was settling on the second day, but the weather also took a turn for the worse: grey and windy. 

6th March 
About half past one in the morning we were noisily awoken by what sounded like hailstones on the roof. Only it wasn’t. I put my hand out of the rear window and felt on top of the bike saddle, my hand came back covered in black grit… volcanic grit! Terrific, Mount Etna was spewing again, and the wind was carrying it to us!

In daylight it was evident how much “Black Rain” had fallen; it had been a significant eruption. The pavements were black, the roofs were black, the grit – ranging from fine dust to marble-size lumps was everywhere. The clean-up started: the campsite helpfully lent out a tall stepladder so people could get up to their roofs easily and a German motorhomer who had a long water hose and nozzle generously lent to all and sundry. 

7th March 
Amidst all the shared comment and comparing of notes we met an English couple, Neil and Phil, from our hometown – small world again.

There was still more cleaning to do: under the bonnet the air inlet vents were choked up and the grit just stuck to the seals, the only way to get it off was the gentle application of a water jet whilst trying to avoid it going down onto the engine drive belts, etc. Neil’s latest model Fiat proved to have a total dirt trap around the wipers and it just could not be washed away. 

8th March 
Time to start exploring: a visit to ancient Taormina, perched 250 metres above the sea. In the company of Neil and Phil we did the old town and the Greek theatre, which is in a stupendous setting. 

Looking down on Villagonia from Taormina's Greek theatre

The Teatro Greco is well preserved 

The Public Gardens were also interesting, full of eccentric pavilions and statuary – and curiously, designed by an English woman from Northumberland: Florence Trevelyan, the daughter of a minor noble, who supposedly got banished from Queen Victoria’s England for having a “liaison” with the Prince of Wales.

The Public Gardens designed by England's Florence Trevelyan 

A cup of coffee and a Casatine in a street café completed the day out, the drizzling rain not a complete damper. The bus driver clipping the barrier wall also added a bit of excitement on the return trip. 

9th March 
Saturday was our first decent sunny day, the bikes came off the rack and received a short service, considering all the winter salt and grit they had been exposed to since our cover was damaged, they were in remarkably good condition – a little heavy oil on the chain is mucky, but it does preserve them. 

10th March 
Sunday dawned fine again and I took an early ride along the seafront. Two locals on the black gravel beach, with one fishing rod between them, waved me over and introduced me to their very contented German Shepherd puppy and thousands of live, writhing maggots in a pot – and a couple of small silver fish in the bucket. 

Friendly fishermen on San Alessio Siculo's black sand beach 

It was too warm and sunny to leave this seaside pitch, but it turned into a mega clean-up day for the van – still piles of black grit on the roof, hidden under the solar panel! 

11th March 
We finally packed up and made a move; such a friendly campsite, we felt we knew everybody – perhaps we all bonded through helping each other with the clean up.

The local cement supplier is not afraid to advertise the "Godfather'" connection! (anybody translate the joke? – google doesn't get it)

So, where to next? If you are going to drive large sections of the coast road in a right-hand drive country, and particularly on an island, you should ideally do it in an anti-clockwise direction – otherwise your view of the coast is restricted by being on the inside lane. You also lose easy access to the belvederes and panoramico laybys, not to mention (as we discovered in Italy) that in coastal towns the one-way system will often take you away from the waterfront if you are travelling clockwise. It sounds obvious, and it is, but it took us a while to cotton on!

With this in mind, we headed back up to Messina, with a view to finding a large supermarket to get some decent instant coffee and a few other hard to find essentials, the Eurospar provided the goods and a decent car park. 

Messina on a weekday afternoon is pretty chaotic, with masses of fruit and vegetable stalls spilling onto the road and the scooters flowing and weaving around you like minnows around a mooring post.

At the northern end of the city we passed by the main docks where the larger ferries depart; the stone edifice of the Banco di Sicilia standing out as the most graffiti covered building we have seen – I wonder why? 

We then turned off onto the S113d that goes around the northern tip of Sicily. Rising steeply and initially urban, it soon becomes more rural and there are a couple of large panoramicos that offer great views of the Messina Straights.

Great views of the Messina Straights from the coast road 

We skipped the little road that goes out to the gigantic Torre Faro light tower, turned the corner to head west and enjoyed the rest of this coastal/rural road as far as Divieto. 

A glorious sunset on the road to to Milazzo 

Here we re-joined the main road and threaded our way through town after grubby town as far as Milazzo. We had thought to visit this jutting peninsular which forms the Golfo di Milazzo – with its large resort, castle and two cathedrals – but time was now marching on and the air was thick with smoke and fumes from the nearby refinery and power station. Instead we did a quick €1.30 burst on the autostrada to Falcone and Camping Villaggio Marinello at Oliveri. 

We arrived at 20.55 – five minutes before the gates shut. Finding a pitch in almost utter darkness was a bit of a challenge, but this was the haven we sought: an ACSI site situated on the edge of a national park, alongside the beach of a sheltered half-moon bay. All the pitches are delineated by trees and nestle at the foot of towering escarpments, the peace was perfect – except of course for the occasional train on the inevitable railway line! 

GPS: 38.1324 N,15.0544 E 

Across from us a hardy German cyclist had pitched his hammock between two tree trunks, just a simple suspended awning sheltering him from the sky – that is travelling light! 

12th March 
Overnight the skies cleared and we awoke to a pristine, cloudless sunny morning. The gate onto the beach led me away to several lagoons enclosed by a coarse sand spit that formed the small crescent-shaped bay. Perched on the edge of an almost vertical cliff face was the sanctuary and the caramel-coloured dome of the basilica of Tindari, stark, imposing, and crisp in the sun. All around cacti, bright yellow flowers and green lichens amazingly grew out of the coarse gravel and sand. Out to sea, the isolas Salina, Vulcan and Lipari showed their blue silhouettes, on the horizon it was just possible to see Stromboli – what a morning!

A fabulous morning on the beach reserve at Oliveri

The only other human form was a single jogger. As the sun warmed the sand, lizards became an underfoot hazard, a constant rustling as they disappeared into their hiding places. I glimpsed a peculiar black stick on the sand: smooth, shiny and rippled. Suddenly it sprang into life, slithering away at incredible speed – a snake, from which you would never escape if it were intent on your trouser leg!

A snake in the sand makes its rapid escape 

Later in the morning we visited the beach and the reserve again, there was now a stiff breeze, the lagoons had lost their serenity and it was quite chill, even in the bright sunshine. The tower blocks of Milazzo, the castle and a cathedral were clearly visible to the east.

 The path to the reserve

Well camouflaged lizards are everywhere underfoot  

The awning, table and chairs came out back in the shelter of the campsite and we had a wonderful lunch, listening to the cowbells clinking high above us. After a brief visit to the town on the bikes it clouded over and we were again confined indoors, listening to the rain pounding on the roof!

Next: Cefalu and Sicilian first impressions!

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