Speed. Volume. Elegance. Style. Litter. Filth. Italy has it all, turned up to 11.
There is no gentle transition from Greece to Italy. Everything changed. Changed immediately.
After the ferry we stopped a few miles north of Brindisi. A beach. A tip.
Greek beaches often needed our attention, a bit of a clean up. This beach is an absolute disgrace. No amount of effort could make a dent in the rubbish piled up here. Folk clearly drive along and sling their rubbish sacks from the car window.
Thank heavens everything changed dramatically as we swung off the coast road and climbed to Locotorondo.
We were in search of the Trulli, but first let’s see this classical southern town. The plan was to stop here overnight, then head on to Aberobello in the morning. But a check of the weather app, and seeing the threat of a snowy night, cut short our visit.
We wandered the old streets of houses buttressed off each other, exploring down what seemed to be pedestrian walkways, yet we would find a little Fiat tucked away down the narrowest of lanes.
This is a beautiful place, but we’d made a decision and we had to move on.
Drystone wall round houses!
In Greece the peasants used the stones that littered their land to build terracing, and hardly a hill is free of it. In southern Italy the limestone is in similar abundance, but the hills aren’t. Instead of terracing you’ll see miles and miles of limestone walling, and curious round hobbity houses built without mortar from the stone that covers the land.
The Monti district of Aberobello has 1030 Trulli. You can stay in them, eat in them, buy tat from them, or, as we did, wander by thinking how great the photos would be were it not for the snow heavy skies.
You don’t have to struggle to the main town of Aberobello in summer, like towers in the Mani there are Trulli for miles around this epicentre, get to the region and you’ll see plenty.
Three great towns in one day?
In Greece we rarely saw more than one town a week. Italy is so much more developed. It’s also a heck of a lot more commercial. And although less populated than the UK it feels seriously crowded after winter Greece.
Polignano is a very wealthy feeling coastal town built on the cliffs of the Adriatic.
On the cliffs? Yep. More literally than you’d believe possible.
From the number of rather tasty looking apartments being built in town I guess this place is in favour right now.
We loved it, but we’ll remember it for our night near the cliff edge.
After great food and drink in a little old man’s bar (wine, grappa, focaccia, cheese, meat, and prawns fresh from the fisherman), we retired for an early night.
I still haven’t told you about the ferry – it contributed to the need for sleep. I’ll get to that story later.
When we tucked up in bed the wind was puffing good.
By midnight the spray from the waves was hitting the back of the van, and the noise of the wind was something we’d no hope of sleeping through.
After rousing Minty enough to share my plan I ventured out in my boxers and moved the van 50 metres or so inland, away from the eye of the storm. Even so it was a hectic night with ArchieVan swaying like a pensioner at a disco.
We were pretty ragged in the morning.
The brilliant countrywide data coverage through Greece left us a little complacent.
The first blog I tried to post from Italy simply didn’t happen. Hours of work was lost. Somewhat indelicate language was uttered. We ended up in a fancy bar using their wi-fi, and sedatives (fine red wine at a very good price).
We have become used to ports being rough places. People come and go, few stay, other than those out to make a buck from the transient.
In contrast Bari is stunning.
An old town of tight winding streets and great looking restaurants.
A new town strip of the finest shops you’ll find anywhere in the world.
If only it weren’t so bloody cold, with a wild wind bringing the low temperature down below anything comfortable.
The strength of those winds was demonstrated by an unfortunate Turkish cargo ship that had failed to make it to port before being dashed on the breakwaters of the town beaches. Droves of onlookers recorded its distress.
Great town number five in just two days.
30 miles north of Bari we parked up for the night in Trani.
Grandbuildings, a fine marina, smart apartment blocks, and, oh, the food shops!
Italy is going to hit the budget hard, but we’ll enjoy it.
Every street corner seems to have an even better food shop selling cheeses, cured meats, grappa, and such beautiful looking fruit and veg. And then there are the bars, trattorias, pizzerias. We knew we saved a lot of cash in Greece through lack of opportunity. We now know that’s all about to change.
The architecture is mad, wonderful and mad. On the edge of Trani, along from the beach where we’ve parked there are streets of villas. Modernist properties that I’d guess were built in the 50s and 60s. Great use of concrete to give wild window shapes, much use of ceramic tiles, elegance even in the air blocks that make the boundary walls. I’m now disappointed that I didn’t take photos of them as I now know that they were particular to the area.
To get to all this culinary delight we caught the ferry from Igounomitsa to Brindisi.
This is no cross Channel type ferry. It’s an absolute beast. It swallows so many lorries. It felt that one load of trucks could tail back from Penzance all the way to St Just. Loading starts two hours before departure!
We queued with several other vans, mostly Sprinter versions of ArchieVan. And we were among the first on the ship.
They load from the top down.
Getting to the top involves climbing an insane ramp designed only for cars.
It’s so steep that ArchieVan was loosing pace even in first gear. Spinning at the rear. And so narrow that the parking sensors were on constant scream from the proximity of the steel walls on either side.
Sweat? Oh yeah!
But getting on was a doddle compared to getting off.
I made the mistake of watching the first Sprinter trying to get down. His front end already on the 30% gradient, but the turn too tight for him to swing into. It took him lots of goes to get it right.
With the sea to receive him if he got it wrong.
Each of his attempts made me more nervous.
We got onto the ramp on our third go. But by then I had the shakes. I am convinced I have never made a more difficult manoeuver in a vehicle. I love a driving challenge, but that was horrible. It’s insane to send big vans up there, and rightly so the German’s were kicking off.
That aside the nine hour crossing was smooth, and at £265 including cabin not too expensive either. (see pics on Minty’s OurTour diary).
It’s a man’s world on an overnight long distance ferry. Apart from us, nearly every soul was an Eastern European trucker – what strange lives they must live. Trucks, fags, bad food, and guessing from the number we’ve seen, prostitutes to help them spend their hard earned cash.
Onward to the National Park of del Gargano.
Day two in Italy was a less exciting drive, but getting to Parco Nazionale del Gargano made up for many flat miles passing lay-bys full of rubbish.
The park is a small peninsula, hilly, and studded with similar castle towers on its headlands.
I was fortunate to be up early and walking in the sunshine, and happened upon a beautiful, simple beach. This was all the more special for being clean, that’s not usual in these parts.
But then over a great breakfast of spicy Greek sausages, chilli fried egg and toast Minty suddenly yelped as she felt a chunk of tooth dislodge.
Onward to Vieste. We walked into a dentist. Sat for ten minutes as the good doctor finished with his patient. Then he called Minty in, filed off the rough edges, and suggested that she’ll be fine until she gets home to see her regular examiner.
Charge? No charge, just have a good day. Wonderful. Thank you!
Tiring flat lands.
From Vieste for the next hundred miles the land is flat, the road is straight, and it’s boring as hell. Only the unfortunate working girls, freezing in lay-bys, far from any town, bring interest. It has been a long time since we have driven through a country where girls are soliciting so obviously. It leads to strange conversation.
We finish the day in Termoli. Probably a pretty place in the summer when full of happy holidaymakers. In February when it’s ten degrees cooler than the coldest town in Britain Termoli struggled to impress. We moor up in a large and unromantic car park. It’ll do the job, but hopefully we’ll find better tomorrow.
Museum of Mausoleum.
There was more to Termoli than we expected.
Our car park served both the sports stadium and the cemetery.
We know that Italians take death and the dead rather more seriously than us Northern Europeans, and so a sunny morning in a large cemetery was worth the time.
Cemetery? It was more like an architectural exhibition.
Terraces of family mausoleums stretch out across the serene park, regular in size but each individual in design. Most were elegant little buildings, fabulous stained glass, interesting tiling, and family names in brass lettering of immaculate fonts.
New buildings reflect more modern design, one even had a cantilevered roof and sleeping for 20.
Further up the coast the beaches were clean, the fishing huts charming, and the sand super fine. To help my general disposition towards the country the weather lifted too and on Wednesday 27thFeb it’s a fine day, certainly good enough to sit and catch the sun.
I wanted to see this beauty, but alas the garage selling it was closed. Perhaps it’s a good thing.
I had hoped it would take my mind off this Bristol that I have longed for ever since I first saw it.
Bristol cars and vanlife do not sit naturally together.
Nor do the concepts of Bristol ownership and leading a simple, frugal life.
But I’m prepared to make the compromise. If only I had a garage somewhere….
Inland to Loreto and a visit to Mary, mother of Jesus.
My excellent navigator has now taken journey research and route planning into her portfolio.
Knowing that I was bored of the coast (I didn’t think I’d ever tire of the sea) Minty took us inland to a motorhome service station where you can park up, empty the toilet cassette, fill with water, and even take a shower.
That was all good. What made it amazing was that this sosta is on the outskirts of Loreto, the most important pilgrimage destination in Italy.
Loreto is one of the many hill towns that dot the region (we’re now in Marche). Fortified towns were necessary to defend against the Turks, as well as greedy neighbours, and Loreto is a beauty.
The cathedral was commissioned by Pope Paul II and begun in 1469. For me was the highlight of the journey today. The pilgrims though come not so much for the simple soaring architecture but to visit the house of Mary mother of Jesus.
The astute may wonder at this given that Mary must have lived in Palestine.
Well, in 1294 the house was flown here by angels! I’d like to have seen that. It would surely be enough to cement the faith of all who did.
Build big and build on a hill top – a simple formula for dramatic architecture.
Loreto receives visitors in the millions, today we were all but alone.
A few miles down the road we pulled into another sweet sosta, a motorhome parking site. On the outskirts of Mondavio our little van park is free, has fresh water and a toilet dump point (something that was completely missing in Greece). It even has free electricity!
The town is modestly billed as “One of the most beautiful towns in Italy” (perhaps by its own mayor). It sure is special. 280 metres up, it commands views over the Adriatic and the Apeninnes and its impenetrable 1480s fortress shows not only strength, but beautiful castle architecture too.
While Britain has seen temperatures in 20 degrees in Wales (as Minty said “But then you’d have to be in Wales”) it’s finally heading that way here too. Shorts again today, first time since Greece.
Next up? San Marino.
The tiny city state has more cars than people.
And a frightening obsession with weapons.
The small beautiful town perched on top of a rocky crag is the luxury goods shopping destination for many. The streets even smell nice!
The shops sell immaculate leather goods, extortionate sunglasses, perfume by the gallon (the Italians smell so good), watches for the price of a decent car.
And guns. Gun and knife shops with the most military looking weapons, and a curious cliental who all have a particular look that I need to be aware of!
Although the phone shows 4G most places there certainly isn’t enough oomph to post something as data hungry as this blog.
However Italian motorway service stations are the best I’ve come across anywhere. Great cafes where people choose to eat a proper meal, because the food is good. And excellent free wi-fi.
Oh, and rather costly fuel. I saw unleaded at €1.98 today.
Greece and Italy.
Greece. Olive trees. Mountains. Goats. And stunning little beaches. Very few cars. Few people. A different world.
Italy. Immaculate farming – predominantly fruit and vines. Industry – lots. Cars, so many cars. Apartment living – so many more people in the same amount of space. Wonderful food in the shops and the restaurants. Speed. Impatience. Elegance.
Both countries are special. Both have so much to offer, and so little overlap.