This week started with my return from a few days visiting family to find Stuart looking slightly singed from his volcano-hopping and suffering more than a little from island fever.
He was very keen to move on from Sicily after nearly three weeks here so we stayed just one night in the campsite in Catania before heading north to Palermo to catch the ferry to Salerno in mainland Italy.
But we couldn’t leave without tasting the city’s most famous dish. That’s Pasta alla Norma (apparently named after the opera Norma by Catania-born composer Bellini) and is made with tomatoes, fried aubergines, basil and dollops of ricotta salata cheese.
And as it was Valentine’s Day, I had a good excuse to get out of the ‘pink task’ of cooking. We didn’t have to go too far. Luckily the restaurant at Campsite Jonio was really good and, most unlike the usual couple-crammed Valentine’s night event, empty of customers apart from us two.
Then it was time to start the journey out of Sicily. We headed north to Palermo where our overnight stop was in a parking area attached to a motorhome dealership.
It wasn’t pretty but it had electric hook up, hot showers and it was a short bus ride from the centre so suited us fine.
The priority was to find somewhere we could print out our ferry tickets. Only hard copies of the booking email would suffice for Grimaldi Lines apparently.
Once in the centre, we followed a trail of phone and fax shops, asking if they could oblige us and each one pointing us further and further down the narrow street till finally we reached a small dark and tatty office where the wall was stickered with handwritten signs offering cheap international calls and the back room was lined with individual cubicles with PCs where customers pay for internet access. Overhearing us explain once again our request to print out our tickets, a head popped up from one of the cubicles and we were greeted enthusiastically by a woman who was clearly very keen to chat to other English speakers.
She was from Sicily but now settled for many years in Australia and was only back here for a short period, she told us, to try and persuade her elderly mother to move back with her because to her mind there was no future for the city or, warming to her theme, Italy. ‘The days of Tuscany holidays are ovah, ovah…it’s not just corrupt to the bone. It’s corrupt to the marrow….” And, seemingly genuinely bewildered at why we were in Palermo at all, she asked ‘What are you doing here? Did you not do any research?” she asked.
Descending into stage whispers which would have been comic but for the content, she said all the shops round us had no real business, they were all, she said, a front to launder funds for D.R.U.G.S which she mouthed silently to us. Standing within earshot of the owner now helpfully printing out our tickets, somehow it really wasn’t the conversation we wanted to be having.
We wished her well with her mother, made our excuses and left, slightly rattled but half wondering if maybe we were just two idiots abroad who’d wandered into a crime den to ask some international drug lords for 2 euro worth of printing.
Steve McCurry Icons exhibition:
The rest of our afternoon in Palermo was spent at the Galleria D’Arte Moderna enjoying the truly wonderful Steve McCurry Icons photographic exhibition.
This is the Afghan Girl photo which the photographer for Time, Life, National Geographic is most famous for…..
In the interview with him on the exhibition audio guide, he says this one of a group of women huddling for shelter against a pre-monsoon dust storm was possibly his own favourite…
This one is pretty special too…
And in the permanent exhibition, here’s a painting of Italy’s favourite son Garibaldi though we weren’t sure if it was artfully arranged or about to be carted off somewhere.
And finally – not a day too soon sez Stuart – we were working our way through Palermo’s morning rush hour….
…and queuing up to board the Grimaldi Lines ferry to the mainland Italy port of Salerno. The ship had come from Tunisia and timing of departure was a bit fluid thanks to the intensive searching of practically every car by the Italian Guardia di Finanza. That’s the arm of the Italian police charged with tackling the drugs trade, financial crime and smuggling.
The crossing took 10 hours and we arrived at around 9 pm and were relying on the apps Park4Night and Campercontact to find us somewhere near the port to park overnight. For the first time on this trip, they let us down.
We managed to find one place which matched the GPS co-ordinates given but it was for a big empty wasteland. There were no other motorhomes to give reassurance that it was safe to park up overnight but more alarming than that, in the far corner, mostly hidden by the shadows, a group of men wearing the same style jackets were huddled together. A gang or maybe police officers having a last-minute reconnoitre before a raid?
Either way, we didn’t feel safe so opted instead to park up for the night in a very public spot in a very public car park. Putting the night blinds on and settling down to sleep unsure if you will get a midnight knock on the door and a barked order from the carabinieri to move on, so how did we sleep? Quite well considering. We’ve come a long way since that first nervous night time ‘wild camping’ in Extremadura.
While Stuart was alone in Catania, he’d befriended a fellow camper from Austria. He recommended a campsite just outside Naples.
It was a top tip. Camping Zeus is located right beside the gates of Pompeii ruins and also beside a metro stop which was just a 30 minute train journey into the centre of Naples.
We asked at the ticket office how long we should give to our visit to Pompeii. Three hours would be good, he suggested. In fact, we probably could have spent a lot longer as the site of the city destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted on 24 August day in 79 A.D is massive – covering over 150 acres.
The excavations which started in the mid 1700’s are still ongoing. The first place we visited on entering the main gate was the Suburban Thermal baths where excavations began in 1960 but it was only in the 1990’s that a series of astonishingly explicit erotic frescoes were uncovered from the layers of ash. The audioguide coyly described them as showing amorous poses – including the only known Sapphic one in Roman art apparently. I’m not sure ‘amour’ had much to do with what was being depicted. No photos I’m afraid – this is a family blog!
There is debate still among archaeologists on whether the vividly coloured and numbered frescoes were a menu of services for an onsite brothel or – a popular theory – that, in the absence of lockers, the images were there to remind the bathers where they’d left their clothes.
The rest of our three hours there was spent wandering through the streets, peering into the houses, visiting this amphitheatre…
…where in 1972 Pink Floyd staged an anti-Woodstock concert (i.e. no audience) …
Finally we set off to try to find the Garden of the Fugitives where, behind glass, the casts of some of the victims, killed by asphyxiation and the high temperatures of lava flow, are laid out in the positions they fell that day.
It seemed everyone we met there that day was keen to find this area . ‘My friend, where are the Mummies?’ one tourist asked us because they saw we had a map.
Finally arriving there after a few wrong turns, our feeling that there was something ghoulish about our interest in seeing the casts increased when we saw one tourist point her camera at her teenage daughter, posed in front of the glass so the casts were neatly in the background and said: “Smile”.
The casts were made by the excavators of Pompeii by pouring plaster of paris into the void between the skeleton and the compacted ash. Apparently it’s a technique which is no longer being used as it damages the skeletons.
Naples wasn’t at all what we expected.
We’d heard about overflowing rubbish bins and pickpockets but we didn’t know about the Art Stations of the Naples metro like glittering Garibaldi…
….or Toledo with its mosaics on the theme of water and light.
True, the line coming in from Pompeii with graffiti-covered stations, grubby carriages and even at 8 pm on our way back a slight edge to the atmosphere, but in the city centre, these refurbished stations were pretty magnificent.
The first thing we did when arriving into the city was get a taxi and head the few kilometres to the Capodimonte museum and art gallery which is set in acres of parkland.
The taxi ride was an event in itself….watching our cabbie’s theatrical gestures at the antics of fellow drivers all trying to crowd onto the roundabout at the same time.
At the gallery, the permanent star attraction is Carravagio’s The Flagellation of Christ which was special to see. But on the day we visited, this was what the crowds were all here for…
…this is the Sea at Scheveningen…
… and this is Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen. These are the two paintings by Van Gogh which were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. Though the thieves were caught quite quickly, they never revealed what happened to the paintings. And so they had disappeared without a trace until last September when – in a totally unconnected investigation – the Italian Guardia di Finanza raided a Camorra-owned apartment in a town near Naples as part of an operation against international drug traffickers. There were the two paintings, taken out of their frames but unharmed. It is still not clear how they ended up in the hands of the Italian crime syndicate but the find is nevertheless being hailed as a great victory for the Italian force and the jubilant exhibition before the paintings are returned to Amsterdam.
In the contemporary art section of the gallery, this entire wall of black, with curved cracks, looked familiar. It’s called the Great Cretto by Burri- the same artist who created the landscape artwork we saw covering the earthquake village of Gibellina in Sicily.
And finally, here’s another famous work at the Gallery. Andy Warhol’s Vesuvius….
Here’s the real thing out the gallery window…
I was trying to see if I could see Stuart. He’d stayed outside to do a bit of plane spotting….
Heading back to the city, we went to look for a bus and encountered something else we hadn’t quite expected from the third biggest city in Italy – the fantastic friendliness of the locals. We met a couple of teenagers at the bus stop. They’d just been to the Gallery on a visit to catch the Van Goghs before they are returned to Amsterdam. We asked how to get to the centre and whether we could pay cash on the bus. Not only did they talk the bus driver into allowing us on without the tickets we should have bought in advance, the young girl gave me her leftover metro tickets she said she wouldn’t be using later.
Later that evening back in the centre of Naples, we were staring at a city map on a signboard trying to work out where we were. ‘Can I help you?’ asked a teenage boy. I confess we both initially greeted this with a hesitant – ‘what’s his angle’ response. There was no angle. He just wanted to help out two strangers in the town. You really get the impression these young people are proud of their beautiful city and want to show it off. They are doing a great job.
We spent a couple of evenings wandering through Naples’s historical centre …
There’s Via San Gregorio Armeno which is lined with shops selling ‘presepes’ or nativity scenes though some of the craftsmen have turned their skills to turning out figures who definitely didn’t follow the star.
We wandered down Via Tribunali for pizza and people watching.
The pizzas were delicious, really creamy mozzarella and the right amount of chewiness in the dough.
And to drink, I’ll have what they are having…..here’s what all the locals were drinking for their pre-prandial tipple. A ‘spritz’ of prosecco and the Italian aperitif Aperol.
And we indulged in rum baba cakes and flaky sfogliatelle pastries.
With a mouthful of creamy flaky sfogliatelle, it’s hard to smile.
Somehow the tripe on display here, looking more like a lab experiment than a delicatessen, was not too appetising.
So after a very enjoyable few days in Naples, a city we would definitely return to, it was goodbye to Vesuvius….
…as we drove across the boot for the port of Bari to catch the ferry to Albania.
And a very slick ferry it was too. Here’s Stuart heading through the corridor of the GMV Line’s Rhapsody as his name was called out over the PA system. The only upside of having to wait three hours to board to be the last vehicle on was that we were the first off.
Then it was ‘Welcome to Albania’.
After Morocco, we reckon that could be our most challenging destination but let’s see.
PS. Here’s more of the wonderful Steve McCurry photos…what a treat that was.