BootsnAll Travel Network

Things ancient and modern

This is going to be the story of (an ancient) Grandpa journeying with (a modern) son, daughter-in-law and (8) grandchildren. Hopefully we shall be intrigued by characters, customs, sights and sounds both ancient and modern also. Watch this space!

Home again,home again, jiggety-jog…..

September 7th, 2009

So this is the final entry of my ‘Filling the Gaps’ saga, and a rather sad occasion it is, to be sure. But before I attempt to put down some final thoughts, I had better finish with the account of the final leg of the journey.

-which began in Bari – the port on the south-eastern coast of Italy. I was fortunate in that Bari was/is quite a significant sea-port and as such it was connected to Rome by a direct rail link. Not only a direct link, but it was serviced by one of their their high speed trains.


 I had been able to book a seat via the Internet and I had been lavish – booking a 1st class seat (according to the blurb – ‘with lounge and dining car’) The price was reasonable and since this was to be the start of a long journey, I elected to go for comfort.

I should have saved the money! There really was no discernable difference between 1st and 2nd class. There was no lounge, no dining car and not even a coffee to be had, free or otherwise! I thought that was a pretty poor show for a 4 hour journey on a prestige line. I had elected not to have breakfast in the early hours of the morning – thinking I might have a leisurely coffee and croissant on the train. But it was not to be.

Anyway, the train departed at 7.0am. Rob and some of the kids accompanied me out to the station, where we bade a sad farewell. Me, to start the long journey home: they, to buzz off down the coast and find a nice sunny beach!

The train was comfortable and once clear of the suburbs it started to rocket along.


 The line had to get across from the east to the west coast and so passed through the mountains by dint of bridges, tunnels and winding twisting lines. Taking the fairly tight bends at speed was quite exciting: the tracks were banked quite steeply to help the train stay on the rails and so the sensation of winding and twisting through the valleys was not unlike a gentle roller-coaster ride. That train really moved – and exactly 4 hours after we left Bari, we pulled in through the graffiti-blotched Rome Central railway station.

Still no time for breakfast as I had to get a ticket for the ‘Leonardo Express’ (a rather grand title for a fairly ordinary train) – the train with a direct line to the airport. By the time I had bought a ticket and walked the 1/2 km to the distant platform, the train was just pulling in, so on I hopped. A 1/2 hour later the train pulled in to the airport – in good time for me to do my checking in.

Rome airport seemed followed the same pattern as most facilities in Italy – a nice design, well-executed but then left to gradually fall apart through lack of maintenance. Holes in the floor coverings, a horizontal escalator ‘out of service’, a climbing escalator ‘out of service’ and the usual confusing signposting which guided you in a general direction and then fizzled out, leaving the bewildered passenger in no-man’s land. Eventually after going up stairs, along a corridor and then back down stairs, I discovered another shuttle train to take me out to my departure lounge. It was just as well I had time up my sleeve for it took close on 20 mins. to find the way to my  departure lounge.

There I found time to grab a bite to eat – it was well into lunchtime, so that had to be brunch. (I had a couple of hours to wait now, until departure time)

And so to board the Emirates Boeing 777 for the first leg to Dubai. The flight attendants looked impossibly formal (like a collection of shop-window mannequins) with their snazzy hats and semi-veil-like scarves draped artistically from hat to neck. Make-up and uniforms were uniformly immaculate, and I wondered how they felt, preserving this image for hours on end? It must have been hard. But the service was friendly and efficient and the food was better than most airline offerings. The seats must have been marginally wider, too, because I did not have to have an elbow fight with my neighbour. So the flight was as comfortable as one could hope for.

The flight to Dubai took 11 1/2 hours – smooth as silk. The in-flight information screen told me that we were travelling 41,000ft above the sea, at a ground speed of 1050kmph. Incredible – and an almost indecent haste after the previous months of trundling along in the motor homes!

Dubai airport was as you would expect, vast, immaculate and expensive!


It teemed with people constantly, yet never gave the impression of being crowded. I had an 11 hour stop-over,and so I had plenty of time to observe the ebb and flow of passengers. In recognition that many passengers would spend a long time in transit at this airport, there were recliner-type seats available. I kept my eye open for a ‘vacancy’ but not once in my 11 hour stay did I spy an empty one!

But the airport did provide a very handy facility: scattered here and there along the vast concourse, were ‘re-charging stations’. These were futuristically-designed cabinets equipped with two banks of universal electrical socket outlets. One side was for cell-phone re-charging and the other was for lap-top computers. Not only that, but having hooked into the power one could connect up to a free wi-fi network. So this I did, checking and sending a few emails to let folk know of my progress. Foolishly, I reasoned that I had hours to spend at the terminal so I could return later and get my blog up-to-date.

Well return I did, but just as my computer was booting up, pandemonium broke out in the terminal. For some 20 mins or so  there had been an annoying bell ringing somewhere in the background and I like everyone else, had ignored it – assuming it to be an equipment mal-function somewhere. But as the computer was warming up, a calm voice floated out of the speaker system saying:’a fire has been detected in the airport building. Would all passengers please vacate the premises in quiet and orderly fashion’. I looked around: nobody seemed to be paying much heed to the announcement. Nevertheless, being a cautious sort of a bloke, I disconnected the lappy and started packing things up. The announcement was repeated – several times. A few people were looking uncertain and a little puzzled, but the majority of the thousands of folk in the building were carrying on as usual. The bells were still ringing, the announcement kept repeating, but still nobody stopped doing what they were doing: people sat sipping drinks in coffee shops, bottles of grog were being purchased along with the inevitable giant-sized Toblerone chocolate blocks and folk in general were walking about as if nothing unusual was happening. Now I am thinking: are all these people stupid or do they know something I don’t know? I looked around for some sort of official to see if they could tell me what was going on, but none were to be found. Reasoning that if this was a real fire there would surely be people in uniforms dashing around telling us what to, I hung on – ready to dash if need be. Then suddenly the most fearful racket broke out – a deafening roar which made me instinctively look up at the roof – I was sure a jumbo was about to crash through. The noise was absolutely deafening. It was impossible to hear even a shouted word. Still people were unmoved, although they did start to drift away – trying to escape the noise. The racket continued and I discovered that it came from a series of large extractor fans set high in the roof. I presumed that they had switched on automatically as part of the fire-alarm system. After 30 mins the fans were still screaming away, the bells were still ringing and the announcement droned on. And people were still ignoring the whole business.

Waiting to see what might develop, I went to order a cup of coffee; screamed my order to the shop-keeper and finally just pointed to his board – there was no way of shouting above the racket.

Then I returned to the charging station thinking I would get on to my blog. Well I got plugged in alright, but the wi-fi connection had disappeared. I tried in vain to get a connection and fellow-surfers around me were also muttering dark thoughts as they too struggled for a connection. In the end we all gave up. Who knows what the explanation was? And eventually the fans went off, the bells stopped ringing and the announcer went to bed. No explanation or apology was forthcoming so I presume our Arab friends shrugged their shoulders and had another black coffee. Business as usual. I resisted the urge to buy a raffle ticket for a couple of cars – the cost of shipping them to NZ would have been out of the question!

-and anyway, what would I do with a Maserati or a Bently?

And so on to the next leg, from Dubai to Melbourne. A very long haul in an Airbus. And another very comfortable flight. I rarely avail myself of the delights of an airlines in-flight entertainment programme, preferring a good book or a few cross-word puzzles. But this was a long flight and so I actually watched a few films – 4 in fact! Two recent films I would recommend as well worth watching. The first,  “5minutes of heaven” was an interesting study in Forgiveness and reconciliation, with the Irish IRA conflict as the background. Tense and thoughtful – and very believable. The second was in much lighter vein’ “ the Proposal”. Sandra Bullock in an hilarious comedy which will lift your spirits. The other two I watched were a couple of old classics: ‘Dial M for Murder’ and ‘Laura’. Films which I had enjoyed as a teenager many years ago. And I still enjoyed them.

And so to a 2 hour stopover in Melbourne. Unbelievably I was again singled out for an intensive search by the security people. We were in transit and I did not expect to have to go through Security again but no, we had all our hand baggage etc x-rayed again. In addition to which, as I say, I was asked to step to one side and have a detailed inspection of the bag contents not to mention myself. The inspectors assured me that this was just a random selection, but this is the third time in recent months that I have been singled out for special attention. Have I got a black mark against my name, in that big black book in Cyber-space, or do I just look like a drug-smuggler?

The final leg to Auckland was again a smooth flight and quite enjoyable although I was getting into a somewhat ‘zombied’ state after being without sleep for nearly 40 hours. The final delay came when we had to again put all our baggage through the x-ray security check, before we were allowed to enter NZ. Having been found free of bombs, guns, explosives or drugs, I was free to breath the fresh cold air of an Auckland Spring day.

As arranged, my faithful, reliable and thoroughly likeable son-in-law was waiting for me, to whisk me home for a welcome cuppa. Incredibly, New Zealand seemed to have remained completely unaffected by my prolonged absence from its shores – and life was proceeding along in its set course, seemingly oblivious of my triumphant return!

So here I am, settling back into my little brick house, and slowly (and rather reluctantly) getting into some sort of routine.

The last page.  How do you finish off this sort of record? People have asked me: ‘what was the most unforgettable place?’ or ‘which country did you enjoy most?’ or ‘which food did you like best?’ Well, I had to write essays at school on those sort of subjects – and I used to hate it! So I am not going to start now. Suffice to say that although I have filled some of the gaps in my experience data bank – there is an awful lot still missing. Will I raise the energy to take another look at countries as yet unseen? Ask me in a couple of years time…….

And to those of you that took the time to read the occasional page – thank you.

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29/8/09 Last days……

August 30th, 2009

There is no doubt about it – the realisation that my Wanderings were soon to come to an end, put a damper on my spirits. So much so that I could not raise the enthusiasm to write my last blogs while still in Italy. So here I am, almost a week later, sitting in my study in Titirangi, Auckland, New Zealand determined to tidy things up, and write my final blog.

Italian is such a poetic language and it’s words seem to have a rhythm quite unlike the rest of Europe. Consider the place-names we’ve encountered over the past day or so: “Masera Rutolo” the name of the farmlet we stayed at; “Alberobello” – the town with the “Trulli” (more of them later), then on to “Bari” . Maybe it’s because so many Italian words seem to end with a vowel, seeming to invite the rolling-on of more lilting words in a cascade of sound that defies separation into individual words. But for the Italians, the expressive language is not enough! No, the words need emphasis and expression through the flamboyant use of hands, arms and indeed the whole body! Watching Italians in conversation is indeed quite a show.

But I digress. Our last restful day at the farmlet was rudely disturbed in the late afternoon by the arrival of a rain storm, accompanied by most unseasonal gale-force wind. We saw it coming, but even so, the wind caught us by surprise and Rob and his team had quite a wrestle to prevent the awning from being wrenched out of the side of the van.

 Once that was under control they took the opportunity to give the vans a wash. As you can surmise, the temperature stayed warm, although the effect of being soaked and in a strong wind did cool the team down to an uncomfortable level. In the evening the storm had cleared, and R and R went to the restaurant for a meal. So overpowered by the quantity of food that Rob had to come and get me to help them finish it off. Needless to say, I was happy to help out.

The next day dawned bright and clear once more, and guided by the trusty GPS we meandered through some bumpy lanes,


 past lush vineyards


and on to the main road towards Bari. But thanks to the efforts of our researcher, we went via Alberobello, where we were to find the mysterious Trulli. We arrived in the town just in time to encounter the congregation streaming from the town’s cathedral – we were like a pair of cumbersome salmon valiantly struggling to swim upstream against the prevailing traffic.

But our drivers are getting hardened to this sort of situation and so took it more-or-less in their stride, until we reached a parking spot in the lee of of someone’s garden wall. A trullo had first appeared in isolation in a field, as we drove by. We were fascinated and stopped to take pictures.

But our researcher had assured us that there was a whole neighbourhood of Trulli, in the town we were approaching. And she was right. A single dwelling is a Trullo. More than one are Trulli. And we came across a hillside full of them!


 All in current use, although reportedly several hundreds of years old. I quote:

“The older dwellings date back in the 13th century although the majority of them are only 200 or 300 years old.”

“According to another theory, the construction style of Trulli is based on the standards of Syrian and Middle East residences; while the first Trulli were built in Apulia as houses or tombs of monks who settled there from the East. Later, the locals adopted the construction method, and adapted these structures to their daily needs. Another similar view claims that Trulli firstly built by soldiers returning to Apulia from the Holy Land Crusades.”

We spent an hour or two wandering around this intriguing township


 before driving on to Bari.  We had no set spot for the night, so we ended up in a very large and well-lit car-park next to a super-store for Home Products. Very safe.


 We did a quick trial run to the railway station before settling down for the night.

The next day was to be my last day with the family. As far as we could tell, this town had no special ‘must-see- features and so we elected to have a quiet day. Bari is quite a major port – but past experience had taught us that it would be futile trying to find a park for two motor-homes anywhere near the water front, so we drove to the super market instead and did some food shopping. We stayed in the car park for lunch – parked in the shade of the arches of a railway bridge. While the ‘littlies’ had a rest, Rob and I ventured off in the smaller van to look for a Hardware store and a bike shop we had seen on our way in. You could say we are slow learners: it was not until we had fruitlessly driven around for a while that it dawned on us: this was Italy! Siesta time! Nothing would be open until 4.30pm! The sight of a shuttered shopping area in midday is somehow quite depressing. All shops have steel pull-down shutters over their shop fronts – and the shutters are all liberally defaced with graffiti. Rubbish blows loosely along the gutters and not a sole is to be seen.The impression is one of a deserted ghost-town. Oddly enough as we drove past this area later in the evening, all the shops were open, lights were blazing, people were everywhere and the place was quite transformed. But in the harsh light of the noonday sun it had looked very different.

For our last dinner together we went into a Pizzeria next to the supermarket and had a good feast on Pizzas. Two middle-aged couples were intrigued by the sight of so many kids (shades of China) and plucked up courage to ask (by dint of many unintelligible words and much hand-waving) the usual questions: are they all yours? where are you from? etc. They were most friendly.

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Coast to Coast (well, almost)

August 28th, 2009

Today we left the golden sands and emerald sea of Paestum’s beach front van park. 


 and headed off to the other side of southern Italy. Across the ankle of Italy’s boot,  one might say.

As usual, the day dawned bright, sunny and hot. Already as we prepared the vans for moving on, we had all worked up a good sweat and we were pleased to be on the move –getting some air movement around hot bodies.

We did not really know what to expect in today’s journey: we knew we had to cross over the end of the mountain chain that extends, spine-like, down the length of Italy. But how rigourous that would be, we were ignorant. We were hopeful of doing the journey in one day, but were quite prepared to pull off the road at any suitable spot, had either the vans or drivers had enough for the day. (we had in earlier encounters with mountains, learned that sometimes 50km in 2 hrs is good going)

The early part of the journey was on fairly flat terrain, and the road was surprisingly quiet and of a good width. Pleasant driving for our captains. We found a small town with a supermarket after about 90km and made a strategic stop for a bit of shopping, and lunch. It was very hot, so before lunch we cooled off with an ice-cream.

I should digress for a moment, about Italian ice-cream. I used to be of the opinion, having sampled ice-creams from many parts of the world, that there was nothing to touch NZ ice-cream for quality. Wel I am afraid to have to admit that the Italians are the master-makers. Their gelato is rich, creamy and comes in an astonishing variety of flavours. And their sorbet-style tartufi is really refreshing and again comes in a bewildering range of flavours. Finally, the supermarkets sell boxes of mini ice-creams for a very reasonable price, so we have taken to grabbing one of these when we see one, as a bit of a treat.

After luncch the terrain changed and we began to wind through valleys with the high hills pressing in on all sides and with mountains filling the horizon ahead. And so we started climbing.


 The temperature on the van’s indicator started rising significantly as we laboured our way ever-upward. We found ourselves driving through an optical illusion: the narrow, winding road did not look particularly steep, but suddenly we found that the only way to keep going was in bottom gear – and then the vans were protesting. It was steep!


Fortunately, justb as we were contemplating calling a halt to let the motors cool off, we crested the summit – and found a roadside fountain. So we pulled over and as usual found a plentiful supply of cool refreshing water gushing endlessly from the spout. Water bottles were refilled, the motors cooled, and we were on our way again.

Almost immediately we became aware of a change in the countryside. We had left behind thickly-wooded hills, masses of olive groves and vineyards


and now stretched out before us was a landscape not unlike the bleak desolation of Mongolia. The landscape was an endless vista of rolling brown hillss for as far as the eye could see. Almost no trees, barely a blade of grass (and what there was was  burned brown) just an unrelenting bronze sun and brown earth.

After a while it dawned on us: as we crested the mountain range, we had left the watershed side of the mountains behind, and here we were on the rainless side of the range. We reminded ourselves that the same contrast can be seen in the South Island of NZ – moving from the wet rain-forest type vegetation of the West Coast. onto the often-arid McKenzie country, or the Canterbury plains. But the heat of the sun, the clear blue sky and the brown-ness of earth and vegetation made this seem a very desolate region.


 To add to the impression, we saw no signs of life. Many abandoned buildings and many ploughed fields, but nobody actually working the fields. It was rather weird

But the going was good, and we were making good time, so we finally reached our planned destination late in the afternoon.

And a very pleasant destination it is (because we are still here) We are staying at a sort of agricultural park set on the top of a hill with wide vistas of the surrounding countryside all around. There is a complex of old barn-like buildings which house a restaurant and accommodation blocks. There is a mini-farm, with horses, reindeer, peacocks, chickens etc etc, and our van-parking space is next to this area. We have power (for our ‘fridges) and our own toilet block with hot showers etc so we are really enjoying the facilities. We have the option to pay a fee for our stay or eat at the restaurant. Being Italian, the restaurant did not start serving dinners until 8.30pm – too late for our hungry kids – but just right for Rob and I to go and sample.

The food was really excellent and we have got some ideas for some nifty dishes when we get home.

There is a cool breeze blowing,, I am sitting in the shade of an old gnarled olive tree, and life is very pleasant! It is a bit of a ‘downer’ to think that in 4 days time I will be winging my way back to NZ, my wanderings over and done with, but all good things have to come to an end. So I am savouring the moment!

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Southern trek continues…

August 26th, 2009

Well, Rome, in all it’s glory, is behind us, and for the next few days we have continued our trek more-or-less down the western coastline of Italy.

As usual we have shunned the Autostradas. They have the advantages of being (no doubt) smooth and quick for travelling, but since we are not in a great hurry we elect to go the more interesting way, winding along Italy’s secondary roads. Reading one American writer’s advice on getting around in Italy, this is what the writer had to say: ’The Autostrada is the fastest way to get around Italy. We use it whenever it is practical. The winding and slow country roads will drive you crazy eventually, especially if you really need to get somewhere quickly.’ The Autostradas are also Toll roads, being privately run, so they cost you money! Mind you the economy of choosing the secondary roads is very debatable since you travel further and slower and get shaken to bits in the process! However the secondary roads are invariably interesting, passing through villages and small towns, farming and horticultural areas at close hand.

So we left Rome intending to find a spot near Naples, hoping to take a look at the port the next day and then to perhaps have a look around Pompeii. But first we needed  a Supermarket to replenish supplies.  (this tribe takes some feeding!)  We had the names of two major supermarkets: Carrefour and Co op. As we drove along we found signposts pointing to both, and followed many red herrings into labyrinths of roads, but not one supermarket did we find. It was highly frustrating, not to mention time-wasting. Finally we came upon one (not one of the two we had been looking for) and thankfully trooped into the comfort of the air-conditioning.

The end of the day was coming up fast as we finally found our park for the night in a place called Barcoli.

Van parks are seldom sign-posted very clearly and so often we find ourselves chasing around in a town looking for a sign which we know should be there. Then, having found the first sign, we head off in the direction indicated, only to find ourselves in a wilderness of small roads, with not a sign in sight, nor a van park for that matter.

The park at Barcoli was such a place and the sign led us  off down a narrow lane, which then came to a fork: straight on was a narrow dusty lane squeezed between a ditch and a stone wall. To the right, a narrow semi-sealed road led down through the bushes. Which to take? On the basis of keep straight unless directed otherwise’ we pushed on down the narrow lane. We radio-ed back to van no.1  (who had missed the original sign) and suggested he try the right fork since we appeared to be running into a dead end. As we ground to an impasse, back came the news that they had found the park. Great! All we had to do was turn around in the space of a 2-Euro piece. Fortunately there was a minute lane squeezed between vineyards which our intrepid driver reversed into. At this stage another  car came trundling up the lane. It stopped, and out stepped a rotund gentleman gesticulating wildly and talking 90 to the dozen (as all Italians seem to do) I thought he was upset at having his lane blocked, but no – he was actually telling us how to get the maneuver done without ending up in the ditch. Realising that we did not understand a word, he resorted to very clear hand signals and safely guided the driver through the operation.

We ended up in the van park which was set in the hollow of a natural amphitheatre: a terraced hillside olive-grove on one side, a flat field below and trees off to the other side. It looked great but what we very quickly discovered was that it was a muggy, windless hollow, absolutely infested with mosquitoes! It was like being back in Malaysia with the thermometer in the mid-30’s and the humidity up in the 80’s. We sweated! And we decided not to linger on in that spot but to press on to Naples, hoping to find a park in the city for a look around, before going on to a park on the outskirts.

The awful truth dawned that in Italy, during the summer months, any seaside area within 50km of a major town is just a solid mass of cars and people.


 Also, since the traveller is now OFF the Autostrada, he is now driving on roads that were laid probably 100 years ago and have not seen much maintenance since! The jolting, cobbled roads continued as did the masses of cars and people.

We were lucky to find a temporary spot to park in Naples. Not a beach area but close to a street that the Leaders had earmarked as worth a look. This was a street in an old part of town, dedicated to workers of figurines in terra cotta.


 Originally manned by monks, producing religious models (particularly the nativity scene) in this street there were some real artists and the work they produced was quite exquisite.


There was some cheap shoddy stuff as well, which was to be expected.

But the detailing and colouring on these figures and other items was really something to see.

We had a good look at all the craft shops, and I wandered off and found a pastry shop making an exotic muffin-y thing called a Baba. This was rather like a tall muffin, made moist and spongy by being drenched (it seems) in some sort of liqueur. (I didn’t know this until I had bought them!) So we had a quick semi-lunch before moving on to find an overnight spot.

Not finding anywhere to over-night park anywhere near Naples or Pompeii, we drove on towards Sorrento. Finally we admitted defeat and decided to move on southwards to where we were fairly certain of finding a spot.

Ah, but there was no road heading  in our desired direction (the mountains backing onto the coastline limited the number of roads heading inland.) So back we went, re-tracing our path almost into Naples once more before heading off to a van park in Battipaglia

The only plus in all this to-ing and fro-ing was that we took a double-take at the Bay of Naples. The road wound up over high bluffs, affording us great views of this fabulous area.


 As we said to each other, the best way to see this area would be by Cruise Ship: cruise into port, go ashore and join an air-conditioned tour, bus back to the ship and enjoy a sumptuous meal in the comfort of the ship’s restaurant!


 As it was,we jolted and jumped and twisted and wriggled and climbed and plunged our way along the coast, snatching hungry glimpses of the lovely scenery as we evaded suicidal Italian drivers.

By he way, we did a rough check on ‘dinged’ cars today and came to the astonishing conclusion that well over half the cars on the road bear evidence of a more-than-close encounter with another vehicle. In fact today we experienced a close encounter first-hand. A car zoomed out of a side street and poked his nose slightly in front of us. We had the right of way so swerving a bit to give him room, kept going. But the driver decided to keep going also. We felt this judder as he made contact with our side. Rach had a glimpse of the driver waving his hands in frustration and saying something which thankfully we could not hear. ‘What shall I do? she asked. ‘ Keep going’ I said – the complications of arguing with an irate Italian too fraught to consider. Later inspection revealed that we had rubbed all along the side of the van, with no damage. Also there was no paint left on our van, so we assumed that his bumper must have just nudged into our van. But not a good experience. The lead van had its share of fun, squeezing past a tour coach, too…


Once again, the sign-posting in Battipaglia let us down,  and we failed to find the van park. So we pulled wearily into a large parking space surrounded by apartment  blocks with  some shops on the ground floor. We intended to have dinner there before resuming the search. However circumstances dictated that we should stay put for the night: first it was getting too late to start searching again, and just a few hundred meters up the road from where we had parked, a truck had vaulted over a safety barrier beside a bridge and had landed upside-down on the railway lines below. This created a massive traffic jam, which we could see no profit in joining. So there we were for the night!

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Rome (or Roma)

August 24th, 2009

I suppose to most non-Italians, Rome is the essence of Italy – you cannot have seen Italy if you have not seen Rome. Some Italians would no doubt disagree, but we have just spent two days exploring the centre of Rome – and it would have to be one of the highlights of our world-wide wanderings.

Ever since we left the raining UK, we have been bathed in brilliant sunshine, an arch of intense blue sky ever-overhead, and with temperatures gradually climbing as we drove down through France and on into Italy.

Hot? This is hotter than the Malaysia that we lived in for a few years. This is a dry,dry heat that leaves little trace of perspiration on your body – it’s evaporated as soon as produced. Australians know all about this sort of heat – I last experienced it in Broom, on the North-western tip of Oz.

So it has been a blessing that Rome is so generously-endowed with countless fountains  – both the large decorative sort

and the ubiquitous drinking ones.


 The water flows endlessly, in gushing gallons and in sweet, small spurts. And the water is  satisfyingly sweet and deliciously cool. In such an arid setting, it seems almost unbelievable that water should apparently be allowed to gush on in such a wasteful manner, but I have learned that this is not so.

will give you an interesting insight into Rome’s abundant water supply. (not a long article but very interesting)

And so we have found the long days walking in the heat just bearable. And what have we seen? Well my previous entry showed something of our first day’s wanderings – and I will have to borrow pics from the Leaders because, being an Old Dodderer, I forgot to take my camera!

Suffice to say  here that we found some impressive fountains, incredible Domes

and then went across to St.Peters Square to be quite overwhelmed by the whole Vatican presence

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from P to R with a bit of queue-ing here and there

August 22nd, 2009

When in Italy P stands for Pizza – naturally, but it also  stands for Pisa and it’s leaning tower. And R stands for Rome, which is where we are presently situated. And the Q stands for just that – a few short queues here and there as we waited to to view some of the attractions.

Actually,before all that, I have to include a little bit about a very pleasant stay in a little town named SantaFiora. Set in the mountains at about 2500 ft it was a real treat;


 another old town with a real charm of its own. We wandered happily through this place, catching it on Market Day as it happened.


 The bonus was that at night it cooled off beautifully, from the heat of the day.

And so to Pisa,famous for its tower with dubious engineering and resulting tilt:

where it was so boingly hot, and we scuttled from shade to shade – along with 10,000 other gawking tourists. This must be the most crowded spot in Italy – if you discount the awful “beaches” along the French and Italian Riviera.

And then we drove on to Rome. We had intended to stay quite a way out of Rome for a night, before moving closer to the city, but problems with power, a failing fridge and a host of devices needing a transfusion of 230 volts made our leader decide to get straight to a fully serviced site.

So here we are plugged in to the precious volts, with devices re-charging left, right and centre and with our fridges purring efficiently once more. (the prolonged bout of 37-40+C has tried our gas-powered units beyond their capabilities.

And so today we checked out Rome’s Public Transport systems = and we found them to be excellent.

First a bus – right outside the front gate, which took us to the train/subway station. A few minutes wait and along comes the train – to whisk us (somewhat noisily, it’s true) right to the Coliseum. And all done with one E1 ticket! (can’t say I love the graphics on the carriages, though)

Well we walked our socks off today – and in what must be the hottest day of the year so far. This is hotter than Malaysia, and with a humidity down around the 20-30% I imagine.

We walked in and around the Coliseum and saw it from every vantage point.

Then we continued to explore the surrounding Ruins. Such crumbling magnificence! It must have been quite something to be a citizen in those days. Such an extravagance of imposing, marble-faced, column-encrusted buildings – it would have been quite over powering.


And again, the ingenuity and skill of the builders of 2000 years ago, makes one quite humble. No doubt we are a very smart bunch these days, but what those fellows did back in those days, with the equipment and knowledge of the day – is absolutely amazing. I take my hat off to them (“chapeau!” our French friends would say)

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Italian observations

August 17th, 2009

In the past few days we have left the mountains more-or-less behind and now are moving through undulating hills. Some of the hills still show their affinity to the Alps, (or the Dolomites), and suddenly start spiraling upwards in fairly spectacular fashion.

The hills are dressed in a variety of garb – this is rural Italy and so the only towns we come across are old towns sitting atop a high vantage point or clinging precariously to the  side of a hill. The hills themselves are either heavily forested, or where the land has been cleared, the ubiquitous vineyards are set out in orderly rows – the vines producing bunches of luscious grapes out  of a bed of impossibly-dry soil.


The earth is scorched by this sun which beats down from a deep blue sky – temperatures hovering in the sub-40’s. It is hot  and dry!

Other fields are filled with acres of sunflowers waiting to be harvested. They are a sad sight. From the glorious blaze of yellow that they were a week ago, now all are blackened drooping heads, bent away from the sun as if admitting defeat. Other fields are full of sun-dried maize or sweet corn. Completely dried: stalk, leaves and cob. Acres of what looks like a disaster. We presume they are harvested for some purpose, but it escapes us.

As we pass through small hill-top towns there is rarely a soul to be seen. We often remark that it looks as if the Plague has struck an area; houses are shuttered tight against the heat of the day and the streets are usually deserted.

Signs of life are more evident early in the morning or after dark, when small cafes spill out into the streets and alleys with tables and chairs for their late-to-bed customers.We have yet to fully understand the Italian way of life, particularly in these hot summer months. Shops close from 12.30 to 3.30pm, and then close again at 6.0pm. We are not sure what hours the ordinary working man keeps, but we have yet to see any road maintenance going on during these hallowed hours. Plenty of equipment fills blocked-off lanes, but we have yet to see anybody operating it. When we arrived at this little town today, Rach went off in search of a supermarket and ice – for an ailing refrigerator. She came back later with the news that in this place the supermarket closes from 12.30 to 4.45pm for lunch! In fairness, it will be open until 8.0pm! It is evident that the siesta is taken very seriously in Italy.

But the countryside and towns still hold our interest. The towns all have  a rather ‘scruffy’ look to them. New or old, maintenance seems to be low on the list of priorities, and the roads, apart from the splendid (tolled) motor-ways, suffer from the same lack of TLC. So we bump, jostle, wind and climb our way through this land, trying not to make judgmental comparisons with France, Holland and Germany. And the towns continue to be interesting, and the van parks continue to very adequate – and cheap.

Seeing these old towns up close is still holds my interest, and the countryside with its bounty of fruit will  stay in my memory for all time.

What is more, some of these old towns have great pizzaarinas!

The kids continue to have a ball no matter where we are. Recently we were parked next to a small memorial park which had many large pine trees – which dropped impressively large pine cones. It did not take them long before discovering the pine nuts inside, and not long after, a local advised them as to which trees had the best nuts. Imagine the hive of activity as all hunted down the cones and then extracted the nuts.


Lightly sautéed, they later made a delicious topping for our dinner salad;

At a later park, pine trees again provided the means to a good activity. The kids made rakes from tree branches (already dead!) and gathered up large piles of needles. These they first fashioned into the walls of a house with bedrooms for all. Tiring of this they then raked all the needles into a circular wall. Then they dumped our tarpaulin in the middle and with a frenzy of activity, poured water into their swimming pool. It worked really well and all were able to have a good cooling dip in it.


Of such things are good memories made.

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The Alps

August 13th, 2009

When the Expedition Leaders were planning a rough outline of our second bite at Europe, they asked me if there was anywhere in particular that I would like to see. Well some of you will know that I have always been a bit of a cycling nut, and one event that has always captured my imagination has been the Tour de France bike race – undoubtedly one of the toughest human endurance sports events, ever. And within that 3 week marathon-on-a-bike the race course always takes the riders through the Pyrenees and and the Alps. Watching top athletes fighting it out on impossible mountain passes in a stage of maybe 200km really leaves me speechless with wonder. I know what it is like to grovel up a mountain – and to see those guys dancing up them is really something.

So it was only natural that I would like to have a close look at the terrain where these battles have been fought. So my reply to their question was: ‘either the Pyrenees or the Alps.’ And for the  last two days that is where we have been. The Alps, that is.

I have been so fortunate: I have been able to sit  back and feast my eyes on the incredible scenery while my driver has had to keep her eyes glued to the road, while nursing the juggernaut around, through and up and down narrow, twisty but breathtakingly beautiful vitas of mountain vineyards and orchards, with the mighty  Alps ever looming closer and closer until we were upon them and then in them.

We started the day with the mountains as our backdrop and it was not long before we were doing some serious climbing.

Really the past few days have just been an unfolding of beautiful landscapes, so perhaps I should let the pictures do the talking:

The hills were long and arduous and the Mother Ship coughed up a few lungfulls of smoke and  finally said enough is enough and demanded a break to cool down. We were happy enough – it was time for a lunch-break anyway.

The long winding drop down into Italy  

was almost 50km long, and the rough roads and the bright terra-cotta pedestrian crossing made us aware of the border crossing

. Thank goodness for the EEU which has done away with endless border-crossing checks!

We ended up in a great little spot – a brand-new facility with all mod con and just built for two vans. Perfect!

There was even a stack of paving stones which seved as a perfect kitchen bench for the washing up!

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From beach to mountains

August 10th, 2009

Yesterday was a nightmare. Today has been refreshing.

Yesterday we decided to leave the beach at Norbonne. We had had one super day there, then the next day completely spoiled by the arrival of the Mistral – that terrible almost-gale-force hot wind that blows down from the north. I read somewhere that it was cited as a defence in a murder trial  – the Mistral drove the person to the brink. I doubt that it was a successful defence, but it certainly has the power to get under one’s skin – along with the sand which was akin to being sand-blasted. Not a good feeling and the children quickly became disenchanted with the beach.

So we decided to press on – hoping to make a significant mileage while the wind did its thing. But it was not to be: almost as soon as we had started we ran into a traffic jam. Having been stuck in a jam at Antwerp for 7 hrs, we are a bit wary of these things – but we had no line of escape, and had to sit there and wait – and sweat. The temperature was hovering in the huigh 30’s so it was not comfortable. The jam resolved itself after about an hour – already our hoped of a good distance were shattered, but we pressed on hoping for the best.

But today was going to be  ‘one of those days’. After a reasonably good run, although slow do to an awful lot of traffic, we came to a junction. My map-reading skills said we should turn  right and so I advised driver 1 up front. I thought his GPS had failed to show him which way. Anyway, we turned, found ourselves in a narrow secondary road, and again we were back on to the end of another slow-moving procession.

Eventually this cleared and with a sigh of relief we picked up speed’ approaching the city of Montpelier, hours later than planned, but at least on the move again. The lead van slipped through a huge roundabout, directing us to take the 2nd exit. But as we reached the roundabout, the wail of police cars reached our ears and we paused to let the emergency car go through. But it wasn’t a car, it was a stream of police motorbikes. Ah, we thought, the President must be coming through. But no, 4 huge tour buses were following, and when they got into the roundabout they all ground to a stop.


The coaches were full of young people and at first I thought it must be the Tour de France teams or something like that. But then all the passengers started leaping out of the coaches with a great commotion. A police car wriggled up beside us and directed us to go off in another direction but of course we were wedged in by masses of jammed cars who by now were starting to honk there horns with impatience. The police officer was screaming into his car phone and was none too pleased when some of his colleagues appeared: first a motor bike rider who came roaring across the roundabout and launched himself off the high concrete curb in spectacular manner, He was immediately followed by a police van which launched itself in like manner – both cutting around the screaming officer who was presumably in charge of the ‘Incident’

Meanwhile the chanting mob from the coaches was making slow progress down the road, surrounded by police bikes and vans – but they were in no hurry.


 As the chaos quieted down we were able to make slow progress behind them, finally catching up with our leader who had skillfully pulled into a handy parking lot to wait for us.

But as you can imagine – our schedule was completely wrecked, We pulled into a lay-by and had some dinner, then moved on a short distance and found a quit back street to bed down for the night. It had been a tiring day for all, but especially the drivers.

The next morning we set off to get to our planned destination of the day before. For the first hour or two we drove through very ordinary suburbia, with little of the charm of France in evidence. But as the day wore on, the country-side softened and developed some character. The vineyards re-appeared

tree-lined avenues abounded

the skies opened up into huge vaults of great cloud formations

and we picnic-ed under the shade of gnarly old olive trees. (baguettes, camembert cheese, fresh tomatoes, lettuce etc. followed by peaches – yum!)

The roads lost their flat contours as we neared our destination and in the distance we could see the Alps looming. And so we arrived, nestled in a neat little Van park in the shadow of huge tree-clad hills. It is still hot, but the breeze is cooling and it will not be long before we are climbing those mountains and heading for Italy

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mountain top to beach

August 9th, 2009

This story spans a couple of days, and starts high on our ‘mountain top’ overnight picnic spot. Here we had spent a very peaceful and happy few hours: the kids found bushes to play in, granite-topped tables provided our dining table and a natural spring sent a constant (if somewhat meager) supply of clear water. It was nice enough to prompt the kids to ask if they could stay there for a day, but that would have been pushing the boundaries just a little, so in the morning we coasted down from the mountain for about 30 km to the town of Carcassonne.

Carcassonne  city has the medieval town of the same name, set off to one side. This old town is so incredibly-well preserved that it looks like a Hollywood film set. (in point of fact it seems it WAS used as a film set some years ago)

It seems that it is a famous spot that ALL tourists must see. Consequently every man and his (several) dogs was here just when we were.

Also, being such a popular spot, it is a commercial money-making machine. There are interesting attractions ( Falcon-flying, Knights jousting etc) but they all cost money.

The Old Town exists within an impressive  Fortress with many ramparts, gateways’ towers, moats etc.


 It comprised the most intricate arrangement of defendable courtyards, keeps, staircases and mini-bridges and it made me realise that Castle design must have been a skilled profession: this was not a mad jumble of towers, staircases and crenulated battlements, but a carefully planned defence system. I was impressed.


The town itself  comprises many grand old buildings – most of which have been transformed into (expensive) eating houses or smart restaurants. The rest are expensive souvenir shops.

Needless to say, with 8 kids in tow, we contented ourselves with an extensive wander around the battlements and anywhere else that did not cost the earth, and stopped for a back-packed lunch on the grassy slopes. The sun blazed down from a clear blue sky – it was really hot and after 4 hrs of tramping we were beginning to wilt. So back to the van and on with the journey.

Our objective was a camp at the BEACH, and we were all looking forward to it. We continued our descent, and firstly got a glimpse of the Pyrenees in the far distance,


 and then our first sighting of the Mediterranean!

We continued on down through leafy glades

until we got to the town itself, and eventually worked our way through it, following GPS and signs to ‘la plage’. On arrival at the camp entrance our hearts sank a bit as we interpreted the notices outside to read ‘camp full’. I was dispatched to enquire of the guardian of the gate, if the camp was indeed full. (this is the half-deaf speaker of 60-years old schoolboy French) I asked “no places?” ‘Oui’ he said ‘no places –all full-very popular place’. At least that is what I thought he said. I returned to the van and we radio-ed the bad news to the other van. As we started to move off, the Guardian waved vigorously for us to come through! ‘Deux place?” I enquired. ‘Oui, Oui’ with more waving. As we inched through he  (I think) explained that we could not be together but to drive around until we found a spot. Well we did find two nearly-adjacent spots and then, just as we had finished setting up, some of our observant crew noticed a van pulling out – leaving two sites next to each other. Quick as a flash we up-ed-sticks and were in to the other position.

So here we are – parked on the beach front on the Mediterranean with all mod con for a very reasonable price. Store with a plentiful supply of baguettes just down the road – so we will be here for a day or two.

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