Week 21 – Leaving Sicily and across the boot of Italy to Bari

Every day is laundry day in Naples

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.

Pasta alla norma

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.

Up Pompeii:

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.


Exploring Naples

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….

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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 …


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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.


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Cigarette break on Via Tribunali

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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.





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So after a very enjoyable few days in Naples, a city we would definitely return to, it was goodbye to Vesuvius….


Vesuvius in the distance as we set off for Bari

…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.




Week 20- Sicily (Week 2)


The plume of steam rising from Mount Etna

Posted by Stuart 

With Helen away for the week, busy visiting The Mammy in Ireland and her children in England, the heavy responsibility of writing the blog falls to me. Apologies in advance.

This week my son Callum and I enjoyed Sicilian baroque, a vertigo inducing hill-top town, some Greek and Roman theatres, a couple of fish markets, a volcano or two and… some skiing.

So, just a quiet week then.

We kicked off with a few choice bottles in a craft beer place followed by excellent food in The Red House- a shack on the dockside in Siracusa. This was pasta with sea urchins…



We mooched around Ortygia  and then visited the impressive if shabby and half closed archaeological park in Siracusa.



DSC_5149This is The Ear of Dionysius, named after the tyrant Dionysius 1 of Siracusa- probably a natural feature but one that was apparently used for holding and possibly torturing prisoners.

We then ventured along the coast to Augusta expecting to visit a small, quaint seaside town for lunch. Founded 27 centuries ago and with the old town on an island created in the 16th century, we had high hopes. A bit of a surprise then as it seems that most of the 35,000 (!) inhabitants work in the oil refining business and so hopes of the picturesque quickly faded. But we found a side street with a great restaurant and opposite it a bakery whose biscotti made the detour very worthwhile.

Scorpion fish and pasta (this is Callum looking impressed).


DSC_5158Biscotti from the bakery over the road-mmmm.

Callum agreed that skiing on Mount Etna could be a cool thing to do so off we headed. The ensuing hairy drive from sea level to 5500 feet up the north side of Mount Etna had the van overheating big time and we stopped frequently, trying to cool things down. Deep snowdrifts narrowed the road as we climbed and climbed.


Eventually we emerged into sunshine at Piano Palazzo, parked up, breathed a major sigh of relief and after a few minutes spent hiring skis and getting lift passes, off we went up the sole chairlift and then the button lift.


Four pistes, plenty of snow and great skiing in the sunshine for an hour until the cloud came down.


Another hour of skiing eventually  purely by touch and feel and it was time to stop.


Still, with the sun, the  skiing and the steam rising from the top of the mountain at 11,000 feet it was a unique experience. Satisfied that it had indeed been “cool”, we headed off down the mountain and sat in the van for coffee and a late lunch while the rain bounced off the roof.

And so, the madness that is Taormina..


As we headed to our destination for the night we saw a hill-top town in the distance perched on and around a very high cliff and it slowly dawned on us that this was where we were headed. Round and round and up and up we went – we even conquered a 13% gradient section – the same as the one that had defeated us in northern Spain.

At one stage we had Serena Satnav and two mobile phones, with Google maps, all showing  different squiggling routes to the top. But it was no use- we were lost and going around the mountain in circles.

We finally found somewhere to park but not before we were stopped by a very helpful lady in a fur coat whilst trying to drive our classic VW(i.e. tatty van) down the very swanky pedestrianised main street.

After the shabbiness of Siracusa, Taormina seemed to meet Callum’s expectation of Sicily –classy, elegant and expensive. Made popular by Europe’s rich and artistic in the late 19th century and now full of top class hotels and chic shops, it also had an English public park complete with follies created in the late 1800’s by blow-in Lady Florence Trevelyan.


So, why build a town in such a crazy location?

DSC_5183The views are truly fabulous, the Greek/Roman theatre is hugely impressive and the vertigo inducing drops at every turn add to the drama.



Volcanoes seem to be a bit of a thing in Sicily. Indeed, there is a volcano called Vulcano- one of the Aeolian Islands off the north east tip of Sicily. DSC_5191This isn’t Vulcano – it’s Stomboli from afar.

DSC_5210After an afternoon paddling in the sea, and as we couldn’t make it all the way to Stromboli in the time we had, we headed off from Milazzo on the hydrofoil for the 45 minute trip to Vulcano.


A pleasant stroll through Vulcano Porto in the sunshine and then off up to the Gran Cratere and the 1600 foot high summit.


We had seen see the steam escaping around the volcano rim from the harbour and the smell of sulphur became stronger as we got closer to the top.


DSC_5229Heading along the edge of the volcano, holding our breath and walking through the clouds of sulphurous steam and then further up to the main summit was quite an experience.



However, the best part was drinking the beer we had carried with us- the finest in Sicily as it happened.


Before Callum returned to England, we had some time in Catania.

Sicily’s second city had been flattened by erupting Mount Etna and then by an earthquake within the space of a few years in the 17th Century but what was subsequently re-built puts most modern town planners to shame.

And so we had a good hoof around the elegant squares and streets for a bit more baroque but the highlight was the fish market.


DSC_5285A great way to while away the morning but not many laughs…although this chap was having a blast…

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Very big knives for very big tuna…


These chaps were clearly looking forward to a big fish dinner….all in a light hearted mood, clearly.


And that was about it for the week. No bird of the week this week  (sorry but haven’t seen many)  but plenty of these critters enjoying the sun.


Oh, and just to be very clear- the roads in Sicily are truly shocking. All roads, including the toll roads, are falling to bits. Here’s a typical example….


Whilst we have managed to avoid the kamikaze Panda drivers and random abandoned (er..parked) vehicles it has been impossible to avoid the potholes.  Each time we hit one, I wince as the van takes a major hit. Oh, for the roads of Morocco- I felt safe there!

(N.B. Normal editorial service will be resumed next week)

Week 19 – Sicily (the first week)


Overlooking the beach at San Vito lo Capo

It feels a bit like cheating but this post is being written from Kilkenny (cats, hurling, dishwatery beer – that one). I’m here. Stuart is in Sicily.

I’m rejoining our trip next week but will be leaving these behind….

So farewell then trainers…your journey ends here

I’m in Ireland to see my 84 year old mother and she may, indeed, get more use out of a pair of trainers than me. I’d packed them thinking I’d build in the occasional run while on our travels. But now over one third the way through,  I know better.


There are just too many DVDs to watch to spend any spare time out jogging. We are only in season three of Game of Thrones for heaven’s sake. We’ve hours more mass mutilation and interesting positions to get through. BTW all of you who recommended GOT to us, earnestly praising its “Shakespearean” qualities, how come you didn’t mention how seriously, unrelentingly filthy it is? We’re not complaining mind. Just fascinated at the striking omission. Anyway, where was I?

Not running. That’s where I was. The realisation that packing the trainers represented a triumph of hope over experience dawned the other morning in Catania as we watched two fellow motorhomers jog circuits around the campsite. They were out for about as long as it takes to have a mug of coffee and a nutella-filled wrap. I can say that for definite because that’s what we were chomping on while they were lapping our van, looking all sporty and perky and just so damm fit. I’m quite sure they weren’t having nutella for breakfast.

Lovely couple they were and very loved up judging by the ‘TWO HEARTS BEAT AS ONE’ lettering emblazoned in capitals across the side of their big white van beside their names. We’d only be able to fit ‘TWO HEAR’ if we tried that on Molly. And that would just look odd. Like we’d misspelt a sign about the van’s passenger capacity.

So the trainers and also one set of walking poles will sit out our trip in Ireland. On my stopover in London and Manchester on the way here, I also jettisoned a pair of decorative plates and Stuart’s camera tripod.

He’s now come to terms with the reality that he’s a ‘snapsnapsnapborednow’ photographer and so is never going to spend hours outside setting up artistic shots.

Wild parking on a slopey car park in Ragusa…we lost our chocks hence the books

While I’ve stepped out of the trip for a week, Stuart only had a couple of days alone in Catania to rattle around in the van and marvel at how spacious it suddenly felt. His son Callum has now joined him and their planned itinerary involves further research into great craft beers of our time as well as skiing on Mount Etna if they can sort the logistics of getting the van up a snow-covered and still smoking volcano.

Sicily so far…

Before getting to Catania, we had a relaxing week travelling from Palermo around the coast. After disembarking from the ferry, we headed straight to the El Bahira campsite at San Vito lo Capo. It was in such an idyllic spot and the weather was so good, we decided we’d hang around there for a while.

The site was virtually empty apart from a few climbers who come here year round to tackle the high cliffs overlooking the sea and a couple from Yorkshire who’d rented one of the cabins on the site to go mountaineering. They advised us about the mountain walks they reckoned us amateurs could manage and which didn’t involve ropes and crampons.


I’m afraid they over-estimated our orienteering ability. We followed one of the routes but lost the trail and spent a couple of fruitless hours scrambling through thick scrub not getting anywhere.

We eventually made it to the top…

….and enjoyed the views over the sea.



Springtime on the mountain

Getting down proved just as challenging…





…but thankfully we made back just before the sun set.



On another day, Stuart tried a bit of fishing…but no catch today.



And the harbour at San Vito Lo Capo was a relaxing place to amble.


As they were leaving for their flight back to the UK, the Yorkshire couple (the mountaineers) pulled up by our van and handed over all the groceries they hadn’t used during their two-week stay. Very, very kind but oh dear, we are being given food parcels now.

Maybe it was time for Stuart to have a shave.

Back on the road..

…we headed down the south coast and stopped off to see the Scala dei Turchi or Turkish Steps. That’s the rocky white cliff on the coast of Realmonte, near Porto Empedocle. Apparently Barbary pirates used to hide from storms on the smooth steps…





…we used them to pose for selfies.


The earthquake villages of Gibellina and Poggioreale:

We travelled inland to the Belice valley because we wanted to see El Cretto. That’s the name given to the massive artwork sculpture by Alberto Burri which commemorates the village of Gibellina which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1968.

From a distance, it looks like a white shroud laid over the hillside.


Up close, you see that the shroud is made up of massive concrete slabs which have been laid over the original village.


We made our way between them, following the lines of the original streets. It was sad and unsettling, walking along tracks which used to be busy streets before the disaster which killed 900 people in the village and surrounding valley.



Graffiti eyes over looking El Cretto

Leaving El Cretto, we passed through the village of Pollogiere, the new one that is.

‘New’ Pollogiere – rebuilt after the 1968 earthquake but the architecture not quite standing the test of time if you compare to the ‘baroque’ towns below

The original village was also completely destroyed in the earthquake but unlike Gibbellina, there were no funds for a commemorative artwork.

Still, the ruined village – behind locked gates when we visited – is clearly visible from its modern successor and was just as poignant and powerful a reminder of what happened that awful day.


If it is looking like earthquakes are a bit of a theme this week, that’s not intentional. Our last few days before reaching Catania were spent visiting the beautiful towns of Ragusa, Modica and Noto – all well known for their baroque architecture and all constructed after a devastating earthquake of 1693.

Here’s a flavour of the exuberant, extravagance of it all….









And as a break from Baroque…

…here’s another blast of fascist architecture. It’s Ragusa’s post office…


Ragusa was also where we found a  little museum dedicated to Italy’s colonial history in Africa…..now that’s an aspect of history I confess to knowing zero about.


The exhibits were mostly mannequins wearing the original uniforms worn by Italian services in their ‘scramble for Africa’……



And here’s one family group dressed as they were when setting off for a new life in colonial Libya…


…complete with the essential accessory for all  fascist fashionistas…a headscarf with ‘Duce’ decoration…


And while in Ragusa, we managed to fit in some more wedding stalking…


..and try some fabulous Sicilian food like this warm and garlicky antipasto of ricotta, mozzarella, olives, aubergines, olives and mushrooms….


…bucatini with sardines and fennel..


And more ricotta for dessert, this time stuffed inside crispy cannoli shells.


As for the ideal picnic lunch, we had arancini – fried balls of rice stuffed with ragu sauce or spinach..




And for afternoon tea, when in Modica, what else could we have except pastry filled with the local chocolate.



So that was week one in Sicily. As Stuart continues our trip there,  I’m off to supervise my mother’s circuit training.