Southern Italy

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July 5th 2016
Published: August 15th 2016
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We had set aside six weeks to explore southern Italy. After only two weeks we had our fill and left.

Rome is a fairly pleasant but big city. Lots of visitors go there. We found their tourist industry is geared around package tours and guided day tours; dissemination of information for independent travellers wasn’t so well-established. At 20 kilometres or so in diameter, Rome’s urban sprawl appears to have been stalled by the artificial boundary set in place by a very good ring road. The first few times we used that road, it worked efficiently as a cross city commuter corridor. However, when we tried it out at 9 am on a Monday morning it was in gridlock, with traffic merging onto the big ring road at every kilometre. Imagine a six lane carpark stretching 68 kilometres around the city that takes hours to unclog.

Their trains are workable and probably efficient even though the rolling stock is unloved (except by graffiti artists). One thing that does stand out is how they treat one another on public transport. I felt that they each believe there is no one else on earth. When they board a train or bus, they stand on the platform at the doorway refusing to budge any further, packing that standing area to absolute total capacity. Other intending passengers can’t get past that mass of bodies wedged even though vacant seats are available. It appears worse on commuter buses where I wonder if bus drivers have bonus system, whereby they get points based on the number of passengers who could not get off at their stop because they were trapped inside, unable to get to a door to alight. We had mixed experiences with Italian bus drivers. One would not make eye contact, refused to sell a ticket until after we had travelled about six stops. And when we discovered that we had been on the wrong version of that bus route, he bolted from the bus rather than attempt to engage in conversation. Again he refused to make eye contact. The next driver got us back on course. The fact that we could not speak each other’s language did not stop him from understanding what we wanted and did not prevent him from guiding us to where we needed to be; he took us along part of the route, and then showed us exactly where to go and which bus to catch to get to our destination.

One incident from Rome’s trains comes to mind. We were on our way to the Vatican. A lady of gipsy appearance got on carrying a very sickly looking baby. She delivered a little spiel and although I ‘no parlo Itaiano’, the tone of voice and use of the word ‘bambino’ conveyed the message that she wanted money for the child. Pilgrims filled her begging bowl and she got off at the next station. We proceeded to the main circus arena (aka St Peter’s Basilica) and returned a few hours later on the same train line. The same woman got on at a station and went through the same motions. A man squashed into the carriage beside me, muttered something to me as I watched the woman, and I noticed that the baby was in very sickly condition, possibly dead or a doll. Again I found that I don’t need to know the language to understand a simple message; he was telling me the whole story was bunkum. When we alighted, my wife confirmed that she was carrying a doll, not a baby. I figured she got more than ten euros for the ten minutes. Not a bad earner. But then she would be paying a lot of tax as Italians do comply so strictly.

Peaceful places like this campsite south of Rome (in the first picture) were not easy to find. Mostly we were crammed into noisy places with every opportunity to suffer in 40 degree heat.

In the city of Cassino just south of Rome we camped near a 1st century AD Roman amphitheatre. Capable of seating 2,000 they demonstrated how it is still used by holding a concert there, and parked us in. Maybe they thought we would leave.

Moving further south from Rome is like entering another country. It’s more like Turkey.

I learned to be careful where I walked and what I stepped in. Italian dogs are smaller and more a yapping type than those big deep barking all night canines of Eastern Europe. But I did become accustomed to wiping my shoes whenever I returned to the van. There is on difference between southern Italians and Turks. While both races drive tiny little cars, the Turks let kids sit between front bucket seats. Italians have more class; kids sit in the back seat and dogs fill the void between the seats.

Both Italian and Turkish adolescent men hang around car parks at night doing things that Momma would not let them do at home. And then those young men mount Momma’s lawn mower engine on a scooter and roar around filling the air with two stroke smoke and more decibels than any doof-doof car radio. When will they get a real bike?

Italian governments have their arse so far out of their pants that the roads they build have lanes so narrow a truck or large vehicle has to straddle, and the merges with main highways are so sudden and short that I felt those dangerous intersections must be some form of population control. Because they only ever drive tiny matchbox cars that are about 60% of the size of our normal sedans, Italian drivers have little understanding of tail-swing or space required by larger vehicles. Despite having ridiculously small cars, they still manage to decorate the corners with matching sets of scratches and dents.

One day someone will show southern Italians what to do with a rubbish bin. Mostly garbage is piled up beside the rubbish bin. I guess it’s quicker when you’re doing a drive by. At one point we were carrying our rubbish with us for two days at a time as we searched for a garbage can.

Sorrento is a lively city perched on a cliff on the Gulf of Napoli. I appears to be a popular place for female travellers with business adverting names like ‘Gigilo Travel’ and day spas offering ‘the works in female pleasure’.

Soon we were to enter a roadway cauldron at Cava de Tirreni, reputed to have the most aggressive drivers on the planet. Tirreni could have a reputation as a strong commercial city with a pleasant commercial mall set in on narrow streets oozing with history. Why do that when you can scare people away by driving as though the devil is sitting on your lap? It’s the place where I freshened up on driving with attitude; holding course and speed is a technique whereby you proceed at a steady speed maintaining engine revs in a slightly low gear (in readiness for fast corrective action) and holding road position in the middle of your lane and not giving way or swerving for anything other than buildings or other immovable objects. While in this driving attitude, a car moved into my land trying to overtake me while going around a roundabout. I used a single finger in the air and an elbow on the horn to get him to swerve. I can see young Luigi going home to Momma and declaring ‘The old Fiat is running like a Lamborghini. Today I overtook a French Ford Transit.’

‘But the French are so cautious,’ Momma replies. ‘They even take care having sex. There is even a town in France called Condom.’

Only three minutes before a car had overtaken me on the left while I was turning right in a narrow intersection while a motor scooter overtook me on the right hand side. Before going there I never used the horn at all.

At first I felt sorry for Italians with crappy beaches made of rocks, pebbles and mud. Their day at a beach is more like a 1950s day at Redcliffe with the smell of rotten seaweed, no shade and beach vendors flogging drinks and plastic beach toys. But now I have seen what the Italians are like, those beaches are plenty good enough for them.

To me, the Catholic Church loses credibility when it maintains headquarters in a country where drivers propel their cars with murderous intent, people look so glum refusing to get out of the way for one another, and prostitutes perch on stools beside main roads.

When we approached Naples, my wife said ‘This is one of the most densely populated areas of Italy.’

‘You’re not wrong. They’re dense all right.’ I was swerving to avoid their stupidity while holding the wheel. All through Naples I could see clutter. Small apartment buildings crammed cheek by jowl separated by narrow streets, not really sensible for a city developed in the twentieth century. External plaster cladding was flaking away from the buildings revealing concrete cancer and rusting steel reinforcement. Most buildings were between three and five stories tall and the sprawl went on for ever. Why not have some taller high rise with more space between buildings? In the northern city of Pisa, they had a go at going tall some centuries back and learned a thing or two about quality in building work. Better for them to stick to tizzy decoration.

In this part of the world, everything seems to have to happen at full speed and at maximum volume. When they drive their dodgem cars, the throttle is wide open. When they are together, everyone speaks or shouts at the same time. It appears that no one listens. Silence will come the day someone cuts off their hands.

I had heard that the city of Naples granted Sofia Loren honorary citizenship. In 2014, The Mail Online’ quoted her as saying she had been pressured into having surgery ‘They said my nose was too long and my mouth was too big.'

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