23rd October 2016
Torre Pendente campsite.
Whilst enjoying an excellent bottle of Chianti in the gathering gloom we were disturbed by the sound of wheels spinnning in the mud. A man approached and said in hesitant English “You must help me? I am stuck” This was our introduction to Ulrich and his Family. More accustomed to driving 40 Tonne trucks than a 3 Tonne Camping Car, Ulrich had been caught by the mud of a waterlogged pitch. His rented camper was now sunk to the front axle. We pitched in to help with other campers but even with an army of willing pushers the camper was just sliding sideways towards a tree. I climbed up onto our roof-rack and unshipped our new Waffle-Boards” (sand-ladders)ah-ha! a chance to get them dirty and prove they work. The camper was so sunk and the tyres so mud polished that the height of the waffle boards was proving an obstacle – until Sally had a brainwave that is. She grabbed the rubber floor mats from Cobar and we placed them under the wheels and up onto the waffle boards. We then instructed everyone to push-release-push-release in time with Ulrich’s throttle. This way the camper was rocked back and forth until with one final heave it rode up onto the waffle boards and across the mud to safety. A cheer broke out immediately followed by an impromptue party. Ulrich and his wife providing Scotch, Schnapps and various German delicacies in the form of cheese, ham and pickled fish. They were very friendly and very grateful and wanted to reward us for helping them out so we asked them to visit the Just giving site instead and donate.
One of the other campers helping to push was Faz, a Pakistani-American who was travelling to meet his son in Europe. Faz was a great guy, an Anglophile and a believer in British Innovation. He showed a keen interest in The Cobar and its various modifications. He told us we were ‘Living the dream’ – and especially his dream. He may get in touch in a year to learn more about the conversion and how it performed with a view to building his own expedition vehicle.
Never underestimate a good night’s sleep. After a series of rough camping nights on our route through France, it was good to freshen up our operation by using a campsite on the outskirts of Pisa. It seemed less threatening to descend our rooftent ladder in the middle of the night to the sound of happily snoring campers rather than Trans-European truckers revving their engines into life after a rest-stop.
A 10-minute walk away from our campsite was the famed leaning tower of Pisa-“Torre Pendente”. It comes as a charming surprise as you make your way through tormenting street vendors and suddenly round a corner through the city walls and come upon an oasis of green, with whitened stone buildings that have obviously never been near the British climate.
Apparently something is amiss as one of the buildings is clearly drunk on the local wine, leaning at a precarious angle!
After dutifully ascending the 251 steps (I counted them) and feeling quite odd when the angles didn’t match my body’s expectations, the views of the surrounding mountains with the terracotta and burnt orange buildings in the foreground, stretched out in every direction before us. It was a treat to linger and try each view in turn. (SGF)
24th October 2016 Rome
We got up to find a row of motorcaravans parked on the track next to us. They had pulled in the night before and wisely decided that the pitches were too wet to drive off the track. We told them about the German family and their rescue. As we chatted it turned out that this was a group of British motorcaravanners on their return from Sicily & they had seen no rain for weeks. It also turns out that a number of them hailed from Cwmbran in South Wales, only 35 miles away from where we started! We were quite happy that our trip was only just beginning and we packed up & set off to Pisa center.
I wanted a picture of The Cobar as close to the Leaning Tower as possible and so we took a chance and followed a tourist ‘road-train’ through a street that we don’t think was open to normal traffic. We got the shot but I hope we dont also get a fine.
We guiltily motored away from Pisa enroute to Rome. Our chosen road took us via Livorno, Cecina and then across some fairly mountainous terrain to Sienna.
We had picked a small town called Volterra as a suitable lunch spot and having already driven up into the high ground we were surprised and delighted to see the charming medieval town perched way up on top of a higher hill. The Cobar was not so delighted to climb steadily uphill for another 30 minutes in 3rd gear on the tight bends. The Cobar showed its displeasure by smelling oily and reaching 30 degrees in the cab.
Volterra dominates its surroundings both physically and culturally.
There has been a settlement on top of this hill since the Bronze Age and it is believed to have been continuously inhabited from 800 years before Christ . It was an important centre for the Etruscans then the Romans circa 3rd century BC. By the 5th century it was a bishops residence and it still held Episcopalian power in the 12th Century. With the decline of the Episcopate, Volterra was conquered first by the Florentines and then in the 15oo’s by the Medici family.
Volterra has featured in a varied range of fictional works one of the more recent being the ‘Twilight Series’ of books for teenagers by Stephanie Meyer. In the books Volterra is the home of the ruling family of vampires ‘The Volturi’. If you watch the films, however you wont actually get to see Volterra as, Hollywood chose to film in Montepulchiano -130km away!
We managed to find somewhere to park and left The Cobar to sulk and cool off whilst we marvelled at the dominating view over the surrounding vineyards and olive groves far below. They really intended this town to be well defended I mused. We climbed on foot up to the ancient town gate. As we walked along an olive lined street, close to a high wall, shots rang out. Soft shots like an air rifle, and a tall streetlamp above us shed pieces of concrete as we ducked against the wall.
“What was that?” asked Sally, slightly shocked.
“A sniper” I replied.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” I bellowed and the shots stopped. We walked further up to the Medieval town wall and, as Sally examined the tourist map on a signpost, I looked back & scanned the apartments approxiamately 1000m away above where the shots had landed . Then I spotted our ‘Sniper’ a teenage boy with a serious looking BB Gun. Despite the distance he, felt my stare, looked up embarrassed and skulked away. No real harm done. He wasn’t shooting at us. He hadn’t even seen us below the wall. He was just using the beleaguered lamp post for target practice. My shout must have been as big a shock to him as his shots were to us. A well defended town indeed!
We enjoyed meandering through the narrow streets…
Narrow medieval streets were not designed for Land Rover Defenders.
…soaking up the peace and quiet – a pleasant contrast to The Cobar bellowing its way up the twisty mountain roads earlier.
We really enjoyed our break in Volterra despite the fact that the main advertised attractions appeared to be an Etruscan Necroplois and a ‘Museum of Torture’.
We realised that we had tarried too long at Volterra and that we still had over 4 hours driving to reach Rome and our next night stop. We elected to use the toll road and cut 1 1/4 hours off the journey. Having blasted down the autostrada for several hours it was a relief to reach the ‘Camping Village’ we were planning to stay at – only to find it closed for the season!
We managed to look up another one about 20 km further on and drove around Rome to reach it. Even after 8:00pm the traffic was awful and being tired, hungry & thirsty we didnt enjoy dicing with the pushy city drivers. Google maps managed to navigate us to right outside the site – but unfortunately on the wrong side of a dual carraigeway. It then added insult to injury by congratulating us on our arrival and switched itself off. It took us a further 15 minutes of queuing, lane changing, pushing in & navigating to get to the entrance of ‘Camping Flaminio Village’ by about 9:00pm. Being so tired we were extremely relieved when the staff spoke our language and told us to ‘Park anywhere we like and let them know in the morning’. Within 10 minutes of parking up the tent was deployed and Sally had managed to rustle up a gastronomic miracle from tins. Once again I counted my blessings in being with such an excellent partner.
Having eaten I gathered the washing-up and walked to the washrooms to investigate their standard. I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like them. The washing-up/Laundry areas have marble counters with beautifully tiled splashbacks. The toilets have automatic mood lighting, potted rainforest plants, designer mirrors and opera music playing softly in the background. When I came out of the toilet I felt like I had desecrated La Scala. MGF
27th October 2016
28th October 2016
We took a leisurely drive towards Napoli and hoped to see Naples Bay in all its glory. Unfortunately the weather was very hazy and a sea mist still clung to the bay.
We had intended to visit Pompeii but it was getting cold and feeling stormy so we wanted to get pitched up whilst the environment was being kind. Because we are now way outside the camping holiday season most sites along the coast are closed. Sometimes we find one that stays open for appartment guests and will let us camp but all seem think we are mad for staying in a tent this time of year. As grizzled veterans of UK camping holidays, accustomed to single figure temperatures and persistant rain, and having slept under canvas on the flanks of Mount Everest we kind of like it. We started the steady climb up from the coast into the mountains & arrived at a town called Meta.
As we searched for somewhere to pitch up along the narrow roads I spotted a faded peeling sign for ‘Camping i Ipini’ in a tree above a tight gateway on the right. As the gates were open I immediately swung in to avoid having to travel miles past as U-Turn opportunies are few on these roads. There was an older gentleman looking as if he were about to cross the entrance way. I stopped in mid turn to defer to him, which is very un-Italian, and he nodded approval and waved us in. It turned out that he was the owner and had decided to let us stay off-season. Although the site was small & looked in need of some TLC it had running water and rudimentary toilets. We picked a lovely flat grass pitch bordered by Olive Trees. It was almost like having our own garden. The tent went up before dark, the awning went out and we looked forward to a coffee and some hot food – Oh, Oh. The gas lit, ran for a minute or Two, but then sputtered out. We didnt think the site would let us use our wood burning stove so we walked to the office to ask about gas. No shop, no gas, no English (and to be fair no Italiano from us). We walked down into Meta which was closed, and managed to ask -with the use of photos of our gas bottle- if we could get a refill, but no luck. This was looking serious. We could eat bread & cheese but No Brew? Unthinkable!
We were quite tired by now and the struggle back up the hill nearly finished us. The daughter of the site owner spoke English and after one look at the embattled tourists staggering into her reception (or perhaps because I had abstained from running her father over earlier) took pity on us. She patiently explained the bus route and gave us directions to a shop in Sorrento that sold gas. We loaded the 4KG gas bottle into a rucksack and walked off to the bus stop. When we followed her directions we found a sports store called ‘Maresca Michele E Figli’ who obviously sell outdoor gear and scuba diving kit but who also sell Camping Gaz, English speaking newspapers & I suspect a lot else besides. With the holy grail of a full gas bottle loaded into my rucksack we started the bus ride back to camp and a hot brew.
A deafening, booming explosion rolled across the hills. Followed by another and then another. As I sat bolt upright in the tent a brilliant flash was almost overtaken by a collossal crash of thunder. We had intended to move on today anyway but now we were in a hurry. We both dressed hurriedly in the tent as the thunderclaps became louder and with each additional garment the raindrops became heavier until finally, clad in waterproof jackets and trousers, we stood ankle-deep on the flooded pitch. We were in the midst of a full-on mountain storm and our home was slowly sinking. The forecast remained bleak so we decided to pack up and run for Greece in search of better weather.
Putting our rooftent away is normally a fairly swift process but this time, sliding around on the slippery roof rack in torrential rain, fighting with the soaking canvas and blustery winds it seemed to take forever. It felt like a scene from the movie ‘Master and Commander’ although I don’t recall Russell Crowe sporting a pair of Crocs and waterproof trousers!
By the time we had safely stowed the tent, awning, table, cooker, & storage boxes. We were drenched with rain outside and sweat inside our waterproofs. Everything had got wet and The Cobars’ windows were somewhat misted up by the time we drove off!
A few years ago Sally and I got to drive around Northern Italy in a Ferrari – very exciting and very romantic. Sally commented that the only thing that may have improved that trip was if we could have driven the Amalfi coast road.I made her a promise on the spot that one day we would return and do just that. Little did either of us know that it would be in a fully packed, misted-up Defender during a thunderstorm! I will leave it to Sally to describe her experience but I will just mention that we had a very British picnic wearing waterproofs, eating soggy sandwiches on the seafront parked next to a street called ‘Via Arsenale‘. Thats probably something to do with football? – hopefully!
The weather was changeable but did grant us some glimpses of how good it could be.
We crossed back over the ‘Italian boot’ at the ankle and , somewhat confused about what ferry services were running where they ran from and where to, straight into the ferry port without a booking. We found a parking area with something that resembled a booking office (or maybe a dogtrack betting office) and asked “Patras”? We were met with shakes of the head and they repeated “Far side, far side”. Suspecting that by now we appeared like something out of a Gary Larson cartoon I tried to get confirmation but was told “2km – that way”. During the 2km drive through the port we ended up in an HGV only lane for TIR trucks & got stopped by port security who dont speak English. I kept smiling & repeating Grecia, grecia until they waved us on. Eventually we found the swish terminal for cruise ships where we were able to buy tickets for the 16 hour sail to Greece. We felt extremely lucky when we were told to board immediately as the ferry was preparing to leave. There is only 1 sailing a day & by sheer luck we had timed it perfectly!
As we drove to the ramp a Deck Officer stopped us and when we produced the tickets he queried The Cobars’ ‘car’ status and arbitrarily classed us as a camper van. He wanted us to pay an additional 50 Euros -on the spot. I told him we had no currency and could only pay by card so he said if we didnt pay cash here we would have to go all the way back to the terminal. I decided to push it and asked if he would be good enough to show us the way to the terminal. He suddenly had an idea and said he would trust us if we boarded now and that we would be called to reception on board to pay the extra. We boarded and I suspected that we would not hear anymore about it. However some hours after departure my name was called and I reported to reception. The young Deck Officer was there and instructed the receptionist to accept 50 Euros. I politely insisted on getting a full receipt before I would pay so I was directed to the ships Purser. The Purser seemed mystified and asked what was up. The Deck Officer explained to him and the Purser tried to explain to me about the mis-categorisation. The key point was the height limit of 2.5m for a car with roof box. I argued that The Cobar is less than 2m even with the roof-tent. They seemed doubtful so I offered to go up on deck with them and measure it. Now by this point its was dark, very wet and blowing a gale outside so the Purser graciously let me off and said: “You remember for next time”.
This incident aside the ferry ‘Superfast 2‘ was very nice. It is a new ship, the catering was excellent and the staff service was exemplary. I am not a natural sailor – in fact I get sick on a pedalo – but despite some fairly rough weather our passage to Greece was smooth and comfortable. Whilst trying to catch up with the news on Italian TV I found out that central Italy had been hit by an earthquake. Our original route from Aosta to Bari would have placed us directly in the middle of Italy but by sheer fluke – wanting to visit Amalfi -we had driven right around the worst hit areas completely unaware. My heart goes out to those families who lost homes and a way of life to this tragedy.
28th October 2016
Adriatic Sea – MV Superfast 2
As previously mentioned we weren’t clear whether a ferry actually went to Patras from Bari at this time. After all our fun and games at the Port of Bari we had jumped aboard still not completely confident we we on the right route. Imagine then our confusion when an Officer walked through the sleeping lounge waking the truck drivers up to inform them that we were about to dock at Igourmenitsa! I hurried off to ask if this was the turning point or if we continued onwards. Luckily the ship was to continue onto Patras a few hours later.