Published: June 3rd 2010February 24th 2010
As we headed south towards Napoli, we found ourselves lodged between some pretty massive hills and the ocean. It was very interesting because the flatland that surrounded us was actually very reminiscent of the area of Queensland around where my Aunty Tracy lives, near Ashford or Bonshaw. It's very dry but there are still a lot of green areas and patches of Eucalypts and Wattles. If you had told me 12 months ago that I'd be seeing Wattle in Italy, I would have definitely scoffed, but as we drove the yellow blooms were more and more frequent. Along with the wattles and countryside, we also had a steady stream of hookers by the side of the road to keep us entertained, as we made a game of rating them out of ten, most of whom never actually scored above a five or six. I had a moment of connection with one of them, a very made up black girl sitting on a suitcase under an umbrella in the drizzle; she blew me a little kiss. I had a right old laugh at that.
Now let's have a chat about the level of vice we have encountered on our travels. Since
The Small Theatre
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
we have started this trip, we have been more and more privy to hundreds of ladies standing in various states of undress and happiness. If it's not the ladies themselves, it's brothels surrounded by trucks. It started in Poland, getting a spiel from Jacek about the places they tend to hang out, such as on the way to Mazury, and the fact that a lot of them are from the Ukraine. Then we didn't see any for all of the UK (believe it or not) and nothing also in Benelux and France. As soon as we crossed the border into Spain though, as expected, there were brothels and “Sexy Clubs” by the armful, as well as “Sexy Shops” and standalone flesh merchants. There were more in the North of course, and lots in the south of Italy. I'm hardly surprised, as I'm actually quite sure that the north of Spain and the South of Italy are on about the same moral level. But it's quite amazing their level of dedication, in all types of weather, and we've seen many cars pulled over and talking to them by the side of the road.
How about that eh?
Inside One Of The Houses
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
radio tortured us with Scorpion playing amongst other incredible crap current acts, we drove through a town called Mondragone which contained nothing but buffalo mozzarella shops. Where the hell are they getting the cheese from? I didn't see any buffaloes around anywhere. Maybe they were hiding up in the mountains. Are buffaloes very similar to bison? If so, then that solves it, I've got a tenner that the bastards don't exist, just like the zubr in Poland. Anyway we soon found Virgin Radio, which was just magnificent, as it played nothing but real RAOWK (rock) and this made our Aleks very happy. We found a truck stop about 8km SW of Napoli on a non toll road, but it had Autogrill so was a nice little spot.
The next morning it was up and atom to Pompeii, scooping around the east side of Mt Vesuvius. And we slowly came to a nasty realisation... the area around Napoli (and a fair few other parts in southern Italy) looks like one big rubbish dump. Seriously. There is crap EVERYWHERE. Apparently the Mafia controls a lot of the illegal rubbish dumping, so that might have something to do with it, but even
just by the side of the road in the small SOS areas (I'm sure I've said this before but forget where) it looks like people have just driven out and dumped their entire household rubbish for the week. And do you think anyone cleans it up? Nope. It's nasty, and something needs to be done about it. In fact, that whole stretch between Napoli and Pompeii looks a bit like the back blocks of some third world country, such is the amount of dilapidated houses, junk, power stations with smoking stacks, and general disarray. The roads are worse than ever too and the drivers are complete retards, nearly all of them on the phone and driving in the middle of 2 lanes, double and triple parking.
So I'll just say it. Southern Italy is really not really my favourite place. BUT... there were a couple of places were daffodil fields and rows of cherry blossom-like almond trees everywhere that broke up the grottiness a little.
Arriving in Pompeii we found the entrance to the ruins themselves, and immediately found a bloke with a very official looking name tag saying he was a parking official and offered us €10
for a few hours of parking. I talked him down to €5, and he told us that we could also have a pizza and beer once the 3 hour walk was done for only €7 each, no service charge. This was cheaper than anything we'd seen on the way, so we parked near his restaurant and snapped it up. I asked him a million questions and it seemed legit at the time, so we wandered off to the ticket booth and thought nothing more of it. As we reached the ticket booth we realised that it might have been a good idea to bring the other umbrella; unfortunately the umbrella was now about 700m back up the road and we couldn't be bothered going back through the now steadily falling drizzle to get it, so one would have to do. But we weren't worried at the same time as we were in Pompeii! This was to be one of the major highlights of our trip, and a little rain was definitely not going to spoil it. We got our tickets and headed through the front gate. We ended up standing at the front gate for about fifteen minutes, as a
Rain, Rain, Rain
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
rain storm flew out of nowhere and gave the place what for.
By the time it was done there were puddles around the size of the Arafura Sea, but still we were undeterred. I was in a fantastic mood, and genuinely excited to be there! Weren't nothin gonna break my stride! For the first little while as we wandered past the remains of an amphitheatre and forum, the rain slowed to a slight drizzle, just enough to keep us damp. Us and the tour group of about fifty aging Asians also braving the ancient, sloping, high guttered streets that had suddenly become rivers heading down the hill. It was rushing so fast we had to cross the streets on big stone blocks as the water rushed around our feet, and slipping would have almost certainly meant drowning.
But I'm missing the point here, readers. Bugger the rain, it's not important. What is important is the first feeling you get when you walk through the streets of the ruins. It is breathtaking. Truly, truly breathtaking. It was incredibly well preserved under the ash for nearly 1700 or so years.You can see right from the outset how incredibly preserved everything
A Shop Interior
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
was when Vesuvius erupted and showered the whole place in 6 - 8 feet of red hot rocks and ash, the deluge sealing everything inside and stopping time in it's tracks. There are places within the buildings that look as though they were only built a few years prior, rather than two thousand or so. There are painted plaster walls with incredible detail, beautiful colours and mosaic work that is so intact. I couldn't believe it, and neither could Aleks. And the other thing about the place is the eerieness that goes along with the level of preservation... like you're walking through one of those Nevada nuclear test ranges. You know the ones. It's a little creepy at first, but the feeling is soon superceded by one of complete awe. You can also see cart ruts in the stone about two inches deep - impressive, as it must have taken a while to make them!
There were many houses whose roofs had been reconstructed in modern times to give a better overall sense of what the houses might have looked like in the time they were constructed. They have atriums and fountains, gardens have been planted to replicate what
An Outdoor Fresco
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
was lost, and particularly delicate areas have been fenced away from the grubby mitts of retarded tourists. UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site back in the 70's, and they dictate when and where parts can be opened or closed off to the public in order to minimise human effect on the site. They were responsible for cleaning the place up too, and they have done a bloody good job of it. Another thing that I would like to point out is that the site itself is fecking huge! I mean really big, like the size of your average small town. We didn't realise that till we reached the end of our first street after 15 minutes walk, and then looked on our map and found that it was one of the shorter ones. We wandered into every building that was open, marvelling at the columns and tiled floors, the painted walls and the detail in them, and were just amazed.
The real coup de gras came at the end just as a couple of waves of yabbering American students and Asian bus-riders arrived, and as we walked into the main square where the Temple of Jupiter and
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
other major structures sat, we really got a feeling of just how incredible Roman architecture really was. We ducked into a side passage to find a set of Roman baths with the cemented roof still completely intact, and so the interior was near perfect. See photos, it's amazing. It was interesting to find an Autogrill cafe in the middle of the place as well, and guess which of the tourists were all standing around it, playing with the homeless dogs? Yep, you got it. We spent the last half hour standing close to tour groups and listening in on some of the information, and also having a look at a building that contained a lot of the relics found under the ash such as vases, pots, and the like. The fenced off room also contained casts made of the people found underneath the ash, curled up in various foetal and crouching positions, their faces silent screaming masks. That was definitely creepy. We saw a dog in there too, and that made me sad.
And after that our experience in Pompeii drew to a close, and we walked out towards the car marvelling at how quickly the 3 hours had
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
gone and what an immersive, evocative experience it had been. We got down to old bud's restaurant and order a pizza each, and they were quite good for €6 each, the total coming to €12. At the till we were charged €2 for service fee. What? Didn't he say no service fee? I went outside and took it up with him and after much dicking around he managed to explain that the MINIMUM spend to warrant the no service charge was €14, the price of a pizza and beer, just like he'd said before, didn't I get it?
Oh no you don't, you fecking knob.
“You didn't tell me that, did you? You said absolutely nothing about a minimum spend, and so now I'm €2 short. So pay up” I said. He went on and on with the typical fraudster's “I no speaka you, I sorry, my English bad and you no unnerstand”. Feck off. “Your English was perfect when you were conning me into this mate, so don't give me that.” After a while I just gave up, laughed and walked away. I was mad, but didn't want to ruin a day because of it. I wonder
how many people they make an extra €2 off with that? As I drove out, he stopped me and apologised again, citing misunderstanding, and I told him in no uncertain terms that he was full of shit, and have a nice day, the sheisty Italian twat. Grr. Anyway we were a bit raw about that for a while, but I thought I handled it in a mature fashion. Not everyone wants to digress to being the next fat, redfaced yelling Britpacker for the sake of €2. Besides, karma will sort him out one day.
We made ourselves feel a lot better by heading for the Amalfi coast, and were introduced to more of the hairiest roads we've been on, about four inches wide and filled with buses and idiot drivers all honking and swinging madly around corners. It was fun, in some strange way, and the scenery was one of a kind. The sun was filtering down through the clouds in shafts of light, the blue waves were crashing along the beaches and to our right were forests of lemon groves and terraces of olive trees. The little towns looked like they were held against the steep hillsides with
plasticine, so precarious were their foundations. We envisioned what a thumping little stretch this must be in the summer. We got all the way to Amalfi itself before deciding whether to go back the way we came or up through the hills and finally the latter wont out. The drive was pretty steep, winding and unspectacular right until the point that we reached an incredible lookout with a view down over the area south of Vesuvius. A huge black rain front was dumping its contents just near the mountain, and it was all an incredible scene over the lights of the towns below. Check the photo out, you'll know which one it is.
I decided that I would be then able to get us a good part of the way towards our next destination, Matera. I sometimes overlook the fact that it's already 8pm at night and feel like I have plenty of energy, but after the first 50k's I was starting to feel the strain. The roads in Amalfi had been an incredible workout, and after 4 hours in the saddle I came up against the thickest layer of fog I have EVER seen. That, and the road
Villa Of The Mysteries
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
we were on was dirt, and on top of a hill, AND about 10 feet wide at best. Even with high beams and foglights on it was like driving through a puddle of milk, and was one of the most difficult pieces of motoring I think I've ever done. But luckily, after about ten minutes dodging incoming cars, beeping horns, of Aleks closing her eyes and praying whilst I laughed and had a great old time, it disappeared in a microsecond and we were free... and in the middle of nowhere. We eventually found a spot way out of our way, and bedded down for the night.
It was Sunday the 7th that we arrived in Matera around midday after a long drive via Potenza, and wanted to get some food but the supermarkets were shut. No problem though, we had some food anyway. We came to Matera to look for the famous Sassi, houses built into caves in the sides of the gorge that Matera perched precariously upon. As we drove into the area where the LP said the houses were, we were again accosted by a very official (ahem) looking dude who told us to follow him
to parking. He was going to give us a talk on a nice lookout about the area in English for the paltry price of €5 for 20 minutes, but that didn't include entry into one of the houses. He simply couldn't communicate what the deal entailed, and even tried flogging the “I have two babies and no work” thing, but after our little spat in Pompeii I was a bit skeptical to say the least. In the end I said no thank you as politely as I could, and he mizzled off. We had a sandwich each (he was trying to goad us into lunch) and then went strolling out to the gorge. The area has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic era, and you could see plenty of uninhabited natural limestone caves over the other side of the gorge.
Our eyebrows went up like the McDonald's arches when we walked out onto the promontory. The whole hillside is covered in stone houses stacked up like lego blocks, jutting out over precipices and hanging tacked onto solid rock outcrops. And the whole thing has the exact same yellowish bone colour scheme, but that makes it all the more intriguing. We
ambled around for a while trying to find the place the Bible had sent us to, but it was closed. There was lots of stair climbing and getting lost, the only way to avoid which was to walk out to the gorge and try to get some sort of bearing on where you are.
But it was really great, and so quiet you could have heard a mouse fart in the main square. We finally found a little cave house that was only €1.50 for entry, complete with sound-system English speaking tour. It was tiny, only about the same size as your average loungeroom and attached kitchen, but everything had its place and function. There were ingeniously laid out parts of the room, and side coves dug into solid rock to create more space for the donkey or the pig that used to live inside with the five or six family members, along with the chooks. Incredible stuff. All the original furniture used right up to the mid 20th century was all there, and the omnipotent guide told us about each part of the house and how it worked, and we got a really good idea of how life
must have been back then. See photos.
That was the only “attraction” in Matera, and after a bit more photo-taking in the golden setting sun, we hoped back in the van and beetled off South toward Taranto, reaching it late and finding no truckstops to set up our tent for the night. We drove through Taranto and marvelled at how pretty it was by night, deciding to return the next day. We found a fuel station that wasn't really a truck stop, but parked out of the way and hunkered down.
Later that night at about 2 in the morning, I was awoken by Aleks saying, “Nemo, problem!” Sure enough there were torchlights shining into the van and suddenly a rap on the window. Cops, of course. I sat up and opened the door, and was asked something in Italian. “Parla inglese, Meester Italiano Polizia Sir?” He looked at his mate, and after a lot of umming and ahhing, finally asked, “Why you here in the benzina?” Roughly translated this means “Why are you sleeping in a fuel station, you English speaking git!” I told him that we had stopped because we were very tired and were driving
to Lecce tomorrow. This seemed to satisfy him and he asked for our passports and documentation for the car, so we found it and they made a very formal show of looking at it, but I doubt they could read it. They were really nice about it, said it was no problem to sleep there, and even turned away and shut the car door when Aleks sat up in her underwear. Haha! As they left they told us to be careful, as the area could be a bit dodgy at times.
We headed into Taranto the next morning. I'll cut the story short and say that we wandered around, felt a little unsure of the safety of the place. It was pretty at first look, sure, but after we walked into a seaside park absolutely stuffed to the brim with used needles and arm-ties, we said a big “f**k that!” and headed out. I'm sorry, but any place that has a drug problem means druggies, and that means they need cash, and THAT means they're going to bust into my car for stuff to sell. Goodbye, Taranto. A pity as it looked so gorgeous by night and by day
Inside The Baths
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
but there was just a really off vibe to the place. We drove at a leisurely pace to Lecce and wasted the rest of the day in a nice truckstop.
The morning of the 9th saw a very short drive into Lecce, right down on the “Heel Of The Boot”, and we parked ourselves in the free parking where all the Uni kids dump their BMW’s. The stroll into the centre of the “Florence Of The South” was strange for us for one reason: it was so bloody warm! No really, I mean like “Oh dear it’s going to storm” warm. It had that crazy shade of bright overcast thing happening. We wandered over to the Basilica di Santa Croce, and were immediately blown away by the façade.. it was so ornate and intricate that only a photo can really describe what it’s like… It’s like it’s been made out of a giant block of hard white cheese by a little man with a dentists pick. Think of that as you look at the photo.
We did our usual map tour, and found the ruins of a Roman Amphitheatre (there’s no shortage of them around is there?) as
A Surviving Archway
Pompeii, Campania, Italy
well as several other churches of lesser note, but we did happen to go past the main Piazza del Duomo and see the belltower there. The square itself was really beautiful and was punctuated with a beautiful swathe of, as LP calls it, “madcap baroque architecture”. We believe that’s a perfectly fitting description; baroque was certainly the period where they let their imaginations truly run away with them. Theres no straight edges for any real distance on the buildings because it’s covered in curves and flamboyances and strange visages as far as the eye can see. It’s really cool… not my favourite type of architecture by any stretch of the imagination but it certainly had its place in history that’s for sure. I mean look at the people around at that time - blokes in stockings? Long curly wigs and lipstick? It looked like Elton John’s 60th but more camp.
We walked around for a while taking in the place, admiring it’s old meets new renaissance/chic thing it had going on and marvelling at how groovy the little cafés and sidestreets were. The place isn’t huge however, and so after a little over two hours we were ready to
leave. We got a phone call from our lovely friends Jamie and Paul in the UK, just as we were getting lost. We worked out that we were walking the exact opposite way to our intended direction. We eventually found the carpark and then spent half an hour trying to get out of the place as it was bumper to bumper traffic for no apparent reason.
We headed north up the coastline, dodging giant flocks of birds that threatened to pick up the entire car and fly off with it. Seriously, they were huge, like huge black puffs of smoke given life - twisting and turning in the air. The flock dynamics were just incredible. As soon as one on the outside banked a sharp left to catch a bug, the whole 300,000 of them went with it. Makes it a bit hard to stop for a toilet break don’t you reckon? We also noticed a spattering of these amazing little stone huts on the way built out of bits of the countryside and looking very archaic to say the least. There were olive groves and vineyards scattered in amongst each other, which was strange to see considering it
wasn’t exactly the most lushly vegetated place we had ever come across. That’s Europe for you, random central. We stopped at the beach for lunch, but were quite blown away by the amount of general scumminess we encountered, and how dirty the place is. Southern italy, strike two.
The 10th was an early start for me (surprise!) but Aleks was quite content sleeping in until 10am, after which we had an epic breakfast of Cornflakes (eh?) and got on the road.
Oooh I almost forgot! I have to tell you quickly about the tollbooths. Because the tollroad tollbooths are mostly automated, we worked out a way to stay overnight somewhere along them without being yelled at and being charged a ridiculous amount of money - simply pull up to one that you have to throw change into… wait while it tells you that you’ve exceeded your time limit… then someone in the booth will check your ticket and one of two things will happen. Either they simply charge you a small amount and you chuck the cash in and bail, OR they come over the loudspeaker talking (insert country’s language here) and you simply yell “Hellooo? HHEELLOOO? NO
SPEAKA ITALIANO/ESPANOL”. HA! Suckers. We got out of paying about… oooh… €150? That’ll teach that guy in Spain to overcharge us.
Anyway we were off to Foggia, which wasn’t foggy at all, then drove straight through it and onto Pescara. Why’d we skip Foggia you say? Well it didn’t look like much! We did drive through it and were uninspired until about 80km south of Pescara where we did the McDonalds/WiFi thing and took the opportunity to upload a blog. We also called my man Crooky to find out what his movements were and tell him we were near town. After driving through miles of deserted beachside resorts, we rolled out and headed ever North, encountering another one of those rapid changes in countryside that we’d become so used to but never bored of: suddenly everything changed to cute little farmland punctuated with flooded vegie patches and more olive groves. But it was really beautiful despite the recent heavy rains and cold temperatures we were moving back into. Then suddenly, over a rise in the road that just kept going up and up, we came to another huge range of snowy mountains and huge valleys. Cold time!
celebrated our return to the cold by Aleks deciding to buy the most expensive and worst tasting bottle of wine on our trip and then parking at a truck stop 20km south of Pescara. I let her do all the drinking like only a polite gentleman should of course, and whilst I was stuffing around I looked at the fuel guage. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I realised that it was to be our last tank of fuel for the trip. It hit a little sad note in my heart (I think it was an E minor) and I smiled wistfully. But we’ll save the reminiscing for a couple of blogs from now shall we?
There are more photos below