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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!

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