We drive on northwards past Rieti to the nature reserve Laghi Lungo e Ripasottile, turning off left down a gravelly road to the Reserve’s visitor centre, housed in an old electricity station. It is closed (due to earthquake damage, we are told the following morning), and the lakeside car park is almost empty, except for one curious couple who would love to take a look at the inside of Emma, so we invite them in for a chat and a drink. We share a few stories and they recommend us to go on a walk around the lake, apparently it’s teeming with wild life. The weather has turned from being just windy to actual rain, so after they leave, we fill our hot water bottles and settle in for the night.
This is another lovely spot to stay overnight (although the next morning we are told off for doing so by the park warden), so quiet and star-studded once the rain clouds have lifted, with the sounds of a nightingale drifting across the water. At dawn I wake to a chorus of a magnitude and variety I haven’t heard in a long time. I also hear a quiet sploshing and as I go out to take dawn photos, I see some water creature swimming by – might have been an otter or a beaver…
It rained heavily during the night and everything feels fresh this morning. The sun sparkles at us, so we start out anticlockwise around the lake. It is much larger than we anticipate… 90 minutes later we have reached the half way mark by the heron colonies. Frank experiments with taking pictures through the binoculars, resulting in photos that look like we’ve discovered a new planet!
Three hours later, we arrive back at Emma, tired and sodden from walking three hours through high grass and fields, but full of good spirits. What a beautiful morning this was!
For more photos of this chapter, click here.
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Whenever we read the word ‘Terme’ on a sign post, we are tempted to look for a wild hot spring, especially when we also pick up the scent of rotten eggs – a tell-tale sign of sulfuric content in the water. Somewhere along the route towards Rieti, we stop off to see if we can go swimming. The water looks a bit strange and we can’t find an entrance, only a sign that warns us to not even think of jumping the fence.
We don’t know what ‘dangerous exhalations’ may mean, but looking more closely at the water, we see that bubbles rise to the top at intervals. Maybe we’ll give this one a miss… I wouldn’t fancy suddenly dropping to the bottom of a lake into a fountain of sulfuric bubbles.
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The next city along the route is L’Aquila, so we decide to stop there to buy things for lunch and get stamps for post cards. Just as we climb out of Emma, two men pass by and when we ask them where the post office is, they offer to take us there. They are both retired and out on their daily constitutional, so we stroll on down town with them, all the while getting the low-down on L’Aquila. We weren’t aware that this city was badly hit by an earthquake in 2009, killing over 300 people and ruining many houses. We pass a quarter where uninhabitable houses, waiting to be pulled down and rebuilt from scratch, mingle with brand new ones, built to top safety standards. At the time, 60 000 people lost their homes. To this day, 30 000 still live in temporary housing on the outskirts of L’Aquila, waiting to ‘return’ to a new house.
In the historic part of the city centre, it’s a different story. Here, each house is painstakingly being restored – the whole city centre is one great building site! A few houses are finished but most are surrounded by scaffolding, and those awaiting their turn have large wooden braces all around the outside and across the windows.
Business is closed for the most part, save a few cafes and a hotel, which seems to miraculously have survived the earthquake (maybe it was already built to safety specs).
The whole place looks like I imagine a city to look after a war. We speak to an architect involved in restoring historic facades. He reckons it will be at least another ten years before the town centre is back to business as before.
Here’s a photo that was taken just after the earth quake 8 years ago, and below is our photo of the same square now
Of course it’s a terrible disaster for a city to be struck by an earthquake like this. We’ve seen a number of places in Sicily, where in Baroque times, the whole population of a city moved, leaving the ruins behind and starting from scratch a few kilometers away, rather than going through the effort of rebuilding – resulting in a series of beautiful baroque cities in the Southern part of Sicily. I wonder who, in those times, carried the people’s loss, who paid for the work… because as we hear from the architect in Aquila, all the rebuilding is paid for by the state; the apartment blocks in the suburbs as well as the meticulous restoration of the historic buildings in the city centre. The cost must be astronomical!
However, not all is doom and gloom. The city hums with work – I don’t think anyone would be jobless here if they are willing to work in the construction industry. There is a spirit of optimism – we don’t see groups of men standing around smoking and looking depressed, like in so many other places in Italy. Despite all the scaffolding, it is clear that this city has an incredible wealth of historic buildings, and no doubt it will look absolutely spectacular once they are all restored.
Outside the ancient city walls, near the castle, which largely escaped damage, stands a square-ish, colourful building. It is a theatre called Teatro Stabilo, gifted to the city after the earthquake, presumably to keep up the spirit in a time of great hardship. As we drive out of the city, we pass graffiti slogans about not giving up, about loving this piece of earth – ‘my place is here, I will not leave’.
Humans have an incredible ability to rise out of the ashes, to start anew, to come out of such a disaster even stronger than before.
Here is the link to the photos of this chapter
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It’s cold at night, so high up in the mountains (we are over 1000 metres up!)! The stove is going all night and yet it’s really chilly the moment I stick my toes out from under the duvet. It rained a little during the night and there is a new dusting of snow on the nearby mountaintops. We stay in bed until the sun has done its work of warming the van before we greet the day. It’s too cold for Yoga outside, so we ask if we can borrow a room in the leisure centre for half an hour. The mother of the family kindly leads us into the inhalation room. So today’s Yogic breaths are filled with a light scent of rotten eggs from the sulfuric spring. I’m sure it’s doing us good!
Later on in the day, we are in for a treat – they have decided to let us into the spa for half price – and in fact, we spend a good hour all on our own in this lovely spa with great showers, sauna, steam room and thermal jacuzzi. We feel all clean and relaxed. Frank tries very hard to offer a massage in return, but it seems that in Italy, or this part of Italy, people don’t like the idea of a male masseur. We hang out a little longer, inviting the daughter to come and see our van, and in the intimacy of our Emma, she opens her heart about her life. We have come across a number of heart-breaking stories on our journey; sometimes it’s easier to pour out your grief to a passing stranger than to confide in the people around you and people feel safe with us. We seem to be spreading happiness wherever we meet people… for those in great emotional pain, it doesn’t quite reach the stage of happiness, but it nevertheless seems to lighten their load a little. We feel honoured to be trusted and we hold the stories and the people in our hearts. Sometimes when this happens, I feel like we’re tapping into an ancient profession here, as if it may have been the job of a traveller in old times: we meet people, we bring a little light into their lives and we take a little of their burden away with us. This work of the heart is difficult to explain…. the stories that people gift to us gradually weave themselves into a tapestry of experiences that informs every subsequent meeting and experience along our journey.
It is 4pm by the time we are ready to leave. From Rivisondoli, we have a long descent past Sulmona all the way to Popoli, where we meet the river and carry on along the valley for a while before reaching the mountains at the other end and climbing up, using the old N17 and stopping off just as the road levels out at the top.
This is another overnight stop with spectacular night sky and deep and spacious quiet.
At dawn the next morning, we feel all refreshed and full of beans, so we chase the sunrise to the top of the hill, enjoying spectacular views of the Sasso mountain range before returning to Emma for our Yoga session and a leisurely breakfast in the sunshine. As always, we also keep an eye out for wood to pick up for our stove…
There are a couple more photos on this link
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In the last week, we’ve started our days with a session of Yoga out in the sun somewhere, but this morning it takes us 20km of driving before the sun lifts the mists from the valleys – or maybe we went up high enough to escape the mists ourselves.
The effects of the regular 30 minutes or so of Yoga make themselves felt in subtle and powerful ways. The spectacular nature around us, the fresh mountain or sea air on most mornings is an added bonus.
My nose has not been so free in many years and I feel that I can breathe easier, letting life and light stream into me not just on the mat but also off the mat.
The sessions are different every day, always fresh and new, not a set of ‘moves’ we chase ourselves through. Our chosen words for the session accompany us for the rest of the day, bringing joy, gratitude, depth, expansion (or whatever the chosen word is) to everything we do on that day. It feels great! The longer I stay away from Totnes, the more Totnesian I become
Here’s Frank after our session on day 4
After a leisurely breakfast, the next leg of our journey takes us past Monterudoni into the Volturno valley and back out the other side, even higher than we were yesterday!
We are surrounded by snowy mountaintops and ski stations. I never knew italy had so many high mountains! The towns look like any ski town in France or Switzerland – large apartment blocks with wooden balconies – and the temperatures have fallen to single digits. Everyone is in pufferjackets.
We spot a sign for a ‘Terme’ which takes us into one of those ski towns. We drive around a bit, having lost the sign but then pick up the scent again when we exit the town. A few kilometres onwards, we find the Terme di Rivosondoli.
Unfortunately it’s not a hot river somewhere out in the forest but a thermal spa and wellness complex and we cannot afford the prices. But the hot chocolate is good and the people who run the establishment are very nice, so we stay and check our internet and are grateful to accept a parking spot for the night. Apparently there are wolves here (and the spa is guarded by two big sheep dogs for that reason), but that doesn’t deter us from going for a twilight walk into the woods in the hope of finding the source of this thermal stream. Since doing Yoga, walking seems to have taken on a different priority in our daily lives. We’ve been up higher mountains, on longer walks around lakes, and more eager to explore muddy forest paths.
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After visiting the archeological site at Pompeii, we travel on northwards until dusk settles. We come off the motorway aiming to find a place for the night just outside a little town and end up in a large cemetery car park. Despite the cold wind, we light a BBQ fire and grill some fresh Sardines for our dinner. Recently, a low hanging branch of a tree ‘stole’ the lid of our chimney, so now we have to guess every evening if it’s going to rain heavily in the night or not. If it’s cold but dry, we can light a fire in the stove. If however it looks like there might be a downpour, we have to forego the fire and instead climb up our extendable ladder and secure the top of the stove pipe with a closing lid, so the rain can’t get in, and warm ourselves with hot water bottles instead… I do hope we’ll soon find a new lid!
The next morning, Frank and I roll out our yoga mats in the car park, much to the amusement of the locals. We’re on a 30-day challenge… actually, the biggest challenge is to find suitable spots outside to do the Yoga!
Our journey today takes us further into the interior of Italy. Almost every time we round a corner, we see another medieval village perched along the ridge of a hill or nestled into the flanks of a mountain. We stop off at one and by chance bump into a couple selling home-made cheese from a van. They invite us to make the journey 20km up the mountain to their village, offering us to stay on their land. Their talk of beautiful nature and hidden lakes persuade us to make a detour from our route, so after lunch, Emma is slowly but steadily chug-chugging her way up a small road winding its way through beautiful forests. We arrive in Letino and after a bit of searching we are directed to the farm down in the valley, and we meet Domenico, the son, who welcomes us heartily and shows us where to park within earshot of a babbling brook.
After a cold and spectacularly starry night, we wake at dawn just in time to see the mist rolling into the valley, shrouding even the nearest hills in a dense sheet of grey.
We decide to have a slow morning, reading in bed, chatting and nodding off once again. When we wake for the second time around 11am, the sun has come back out and we pack a rucksack to go on a cycle ride and walk around the lake.
The path we choose, mistakenly believing it will lead us on a gentle stroll around the lake, goes up into the woods. It’s hard work climbing up, though exhilarating too, and full of wildflowers and beautiful vistas. We were aiming for a gap in the hills and instead we end up along the higher ridge of the mountain. The view is stunning all along into the valley below and far away.
When we come back down to the lake, we find a deep gorge, a public attraction but now closed for the winter. However, we find a gap in the fence and start a long descent into the bowels of the mountain. After about 100 steps down, I decide I’ve had enough. Frank goes a little further to take photos before we resurface and complete our lovely walk by rounding the lake on the other side and reuniting with our bicycles to go back home.
In the afternoon, we meet the cows of the farm where we are staying and visit Ettore and Pina’s prefab bungalow. From the outside, it looks ugly, corrugated iron of sorts. On the inside, it is nicely done, spacious, well finished. It has all you need, bedroom, living room, kitchen, bath room and even an open fire place. It was erected under the noses of the planners, arguing that is was a moveable building. In fact, Ettore can actually hook it up to a tractor and drag it along the field if he wanted to. It seems like one doesn’t need planning permission for a moveable house, so they are onto producing their next prefab building. Methinks two prefabs in a national park might be asking for trouble, but it seems like some kind of cat and mouse game that people play here with great relish. Ditto about evading tax. On the one hand, I can understand it as a lot of the Italian tax wanders into the wrong hands and does not pay for public amenities and services (even more so than in the UK!). We’ve seen enough to know that some of the basic things like rubbish removal can spectacularly fall short of the people’s and environmental needs. However, I think if a whole nation begins to think that taxes are something to be avoided, you have a real problem.
Having tasted wonderful Mozarella, including Buffalo Mozarella in Napoli, I am quite intrigued to find out how it’s made, how they make it so stretchy. Pina and Ettore invite us to stay a couple more days to watch the production, but we are drawn to continue our journey north, so early the next morning, we set off before the Easter Monday tourists arrive in the valley.
There are more photographs to this chapter
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Apart from a life-long fascination with the “mummified” bodies of those caught in the blast either fleeing or trapped, which I have harboured since school day history book pictures, I was very taken by an exhibition, under the arches of the Amphitheatre, charting the Pink Floyd concert, behind closed doors, in 1971. They had dubbed this as an anti-Woodstock concert in the sense that it was in a vast arena with no audience. The film crew, sound engineers and the band members themselves thought they were all alone, but in fact they were secretly spied on by a group of young boys who’d bunked off school to watch/listen to the concert, now known as I ragazzi degli scavi (the boys of the excavations). More than 40 years on, they were interviewed and photographed by those who put together the exhibition and it was only then that the whole crew learnt that they had not been alone!
Pompeii is huge and really deserves more than the three hours or so we spent there. It was a little overwhelming and in retrospect I would have enjoyed being taken round by an experienced guide – particularly when I heard one of them give detailed accounts of the life of the city through its buildings, artefacts, mosaics and incredibly well preserved murals.
For our Pompeii photos, please check out this link
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One reason we usually avoid big tourist attractions is that it is a) very costly to park anywhere near and b) often not very safe. We circle around Pompeii a couple of times until we find a large Auchan shopping centre that has a parking spot for large vehicles. For the money we would have spent parking elsewhere, we go shopping for the next couple of days of food instead Then we get on our bikes and cycle over to the archeological site of Pompeii.
We human beings have a curious fascination for other people’s tragedy. So much so that scenes of great destruction like Pompeii become a huge tourist attraction. Of course in this case there is also the element that ancient historic monuments have been unearthed, with intact mosaics, wall paintings etc etc., What really attracts though is the sense of that sudden calamity hitting a town in one moment that one feels when walking through the streets, the shudder that goes down one’s spine when seeing the plaster casts of dead bodies in poses of flight or protection, and to imagine the terror that must have been released by the volcanic eruption, immediately buried in 8metres of volcanic material – ashes and lava, followed by a profound silence. This is the real attraction, I’m sure.
Not nice to admit it but there we go.
I wonder how people continue to live in such close vicinity to a volcano like Vesuvio – it seems like dicing with death, like making a bet. All is well until disaster hits. Apparently one of the greatest risks these days is the fact that a huge amount of toxic material has been buried in the flanks of Vesuvio, so that if there is an eruption, in addition to the Pompeii scenario one would also have to deal with a huge explosion of toxic material.
We had a great day being tourists for a change. Check out our photos.
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It happens several times each year that I leave Frank and Emma somewhere in the South of Europe to go and teach in Germany or elsewhere, but this is the first time that I will spend five days alone in Emma outside the UK. I have plenty of work to do, catching up with writing the blog and doing administrative work for the Tango Mango and other Tango-related matters. I’m also close enough to Napoli to go dancing if I’m a bit creative about how to travel there and back. The campsite, Castagnaro Parking, is about 12km from the city centre, easily reached by metro during daytime hours. It has everything I need – showers, internet and solitude. I’m pretty much the only camper there. There’s a hilly woodland behind the camp-site which on the first day I go and explore. Half way up the hill, I find a path that leads around the contour of the hill, so I decide to walk around the whole hill thinking I’d get back to my starting point. However, after about one hour of energetic walking, I get a chance to look over to the other side of the hill and realise that I’ve been walking around the outer contours of a huge crater – so instead of having walked an ‘O’, I’ve walked a giant ‘C’ and am nowhere near the starting point. Never mind, on the way back, I discover wild asparagus which I eat raw by the handful – so delicious!
On the second day, I decide to brave Neapolitan traffic and cycle 10km down to the seaside to join an outdoor afternoon Milonga. It’s a lovely venue, a park inside a crater (Napoli has many of them!) and the music leads me the way to where a dance floor has been put on the lawn and around 100 people are dancing. Needless to say the event includes food (we’re in Italy!). Many people have brought their non-dancing friends or their children. There is a large field for the kids to run around and play football. Everyone is in a spring mood. The hosts welcome me heartily and assign an English-speaking woman to look after me. Paula is very nice – we get on very well, dancing and chatting about Tango in general and the Neapolitan scene in particular. Everyone is very friendly and I have no trouble dancing as much as I want with men and women. On the photo above, I am dancing with Pietro Paganelli, one of the organisers of Milongas in Napoli, and in particular of the one today.
Some say they saw me cycling along the road and thought who’s that crazy person cycling. They consider the traffic to be far too dangerous. I have to say, although there is indeed crazy driving on the road, none of it happened anywhere near me on my bike. I was the only cyclist I met in two hours of riding around Napoli, but I felt very much seen and accepted and made space for on the road – no nasty cutting or squeezing at all. I also made sure that I got back home in time before nightfall.
Next to the camp-ground is a group of interlinking houses inhabited by a large extended family. The first members we meet are Sarah and Francesca, two 16month old twins, and their grandmother. Next, we meet the mother, Asunta, who invites us to meet the rest of the family, so we are introduced to aunts, uncles, cousins and last but not least the twins’ great-grandmother Ottavia, aged 94 but still walking up and down the steep road between the houses, still bending down to pull grass for the chickens and never short of a feisty reply it seems, although we cannot understand all of what she says due to her strong Neapolitan accent. There is a lemon tree with the most gigantic lemons I’ve ever seen! Assunta, the mother of the twins gives us one as a present. We’ll have to wait until we are with a group of people to eat this one!
There is also Ottavia’s namesake, her 34 year young granddaughter who I make good friends with. She wants to learn English and also Tango, so we exchange a private lesson or two for a trip in her car into the city to attend a Milonga. This time, it’s underneath a huge and beautiful shopping centre – the kind that look more like cathedrals than shopping malls. This one has a dance space underneath, complete with vaulted ceilings. Ottavia has been struck by the Tango spell. I recognize many people from the day before in the park. Paula is there too and we join her table. Various people take me to their teachers to introduce me. Everyone is very friendly and again, it’s not at all any trouble to be leading and following, dancing with women and men. I feel very much welcomed. This Milonga is a must to visit when dancing in Napoli, the venue is extraordinary, a round dance floor and vaulted ceilings!
check out these photos of the venue!
We drive back home, Ottavia full of the urge to learn Tango as fast as possible. I wish I could recommend her a teacher here, but although I was introduced to a number of them, I don’t know what their teaching is like.
Ottavia and I enjoy each other’s company, chatting across the fence in the mornings, and I’m invited twice to join the family for lunch. Our English lessons take us further into sharing details about our lives, our hopes and aspirations. I enjoy the close communication with another woman and I think for Ottavia it’s a welcome change to talk with a stranger, someone from outside her close-knit community.
I also use these days to intensify my violin practise, focusing on acquiring a more relaxed vibrato, as well as starting a 30-day Yoga challenge. It is such a joy to be able to open the door in the morning, find a sunny spot outside and roll out the mat for 30 minutes of stretching and core strength exercises and to align the mat to make the sun salutations real greetings.
Five days fly by in this manner and before I know it, Ottavia and I are in the car to pick up Frank from the airport. It’s very lovely to have him back and he’s looking great. The sun must have shone in France too
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After our days in Civita, we are ready for another stint by the sea. Our map shows a circle around a little place called Marina di Pisticci – we have no recollection of who recommended it (maybe Antonio the violinist?), but as it’s nearby, we stop there for our lunch. We bump into a young couple from Tenby, who together with their lively six-year-old twin girls live in a van smaller than ours. It’s a surprise to see another camper bearing a welsh flag, and Frank discovers they have mutual friends in Tenby – it’s a small world… Their enthusiastic talks of travels through Morocco give me the final push to ditch my reticence and agree to travelling there next winter. Frank is delighted.
There are a lot of long beaches along the coasts of Calabria, Basilika and Puglia. Marina di Pisticci is one of them and it’s been discovered by the type of ‘overwinterers’ we generally try to avoid: Big plastic-fantastic mobile homes, a lot of complaining about this and that, shopping only in tried and trusted supermarkets like Lidl. They give me the creeps, I sometimes worry I might end up like this, although Frank assures me there’s no chance. So on one side of us, we have several of these types of campers, on our other side a gathering of Italian campervans is brewing, with several more to arrive for the weekend. One guy is fishing for the expected group of 20, his wife is off in the woods to forage for Asparagus. They tell us they meet almost every weekend to enjoy a beauty spot by the seaside and feast among friends. This is more to our liking, although somehow today we yearn for peace and quiet, so we move on.
After getting lost in Metaponto Lido, a seaside town of dilapidated holiday parks, someone at a petrol station directs us to a little port just outside of Marina di Ginosa. It is dark as we travel up the last 500 mtr of rough dirt track to arrive by the mouth of a little river where we are the only campers – the sea is in front of us, Sand Dunes on our right, the river on our left and nothing more than windswept silence.
The next day – after exploring the pine forests, which near the sea duck down into the sand dunes and further behind stretch up into tall, beautiful trees; after scouring the shore line for beautiful shells, our eyes straining to see the end of this long, long beach – we set off to round the coast into Salerno, the ‘heel of the boot’ of Italy. We have a BBQ lunch somewhere along the beautiful rocky shore line, but it’s too cold to eat outside, so we bring our lovely lava stone into the van once the fish is cooked:
We try to see Porto Cesareo but it’s full of fair grounds and traffic jams so we move on to Torre San Isidoro, one of the many towers which were used to defend this coast line.
Right next to the tower we also see our first Trullo, a traditionally built stone house of this part of Italy.
Various Italian campers about to drive back home warn us that there is absolutely nothing happening here at night. They can’t quite comprehend that this is exactly what we are looking for
It’s not very quiet that night though – apart from several cars arriving to use the place for their amorous activities, there’s also a powerful thunderstorm with rain drumming on the roof and gusts of wind buffeting the van. The next morning though we are back to sunny weather and we’re off to see Gallipoli.
We place ourselves in a camperstop site just outside town – every now and then we need to dock on to a place where we can do our laundry, access the internet and have proper showers (skinny-dipping in rivers and the sea is good but a hot shower every now and then doesn’t go amiss). Frank gets his fill of cats too
We also receive a call for Frank to go and visit his step-mother in the South of France, so we need to research and buy him a flight. We take a shuttle bus into Gallipoli and have a walk around the old town. It is charming but it doesn’t grab our attention much. Maybe it’s because we know that tomorrow we have to drive 450km in one day to get to Napoli, in time to find a camp site where I can safely stay for 5 days while Frank goes away, and from where it’s easy to get Frank to the airport the next day…
A few more photos for this chapter are here
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