Friday, 24 June 2011

Greek theatre and the smell of fish

My next stop was Catania in Sicily, so I headed south from Cosenza in the direction of Reggio di Calabria - a town at the veritable toe of the peninsula . Here I caught the ferry across the straits to Sicily. Whilst waiting for the ferry to arrive I sat on a bench provided by the ferry company - thoughtfully with some shade too. It took about an hour before the boat arrived  but curiously no one ventured out of their cars. Instead of enjoying the lovely open air like me, they preferred to stop inside with the air conditioning turned on - and with the sun visors down. We live in curious times, do we not?

The short boat trip over to Messina (30 minutes) was delightful. The sea was calm, the sun was high and I lounged on deck soaking up the rays. The last 15 minutes of the journey skirted the Sicilian coast before putting into the port. This made for excellent spectator sport as one could watch people and cars on the shore. I arrrived in a great mood, found the autostrada for Catania and set off promptly without bothering with lunch. Lots of other drivers seemed equally keen to be on their way judging by their speeds. I was coasting at 70mph but many were overtaking me at over 100mph.

The hostel at Catania was again in the old town and the buildings were dark and dirty. They reminded me a little of Glasgow in the 1950s - 'stoory-lookin' as they say up there. After checking in, my first priority was grubsteaks (as the Irish have it) so I checked out the delicatessen opposite and bought the necessary. I have to hand it to them, the Italians do food well.

The following morning I went for an early stroll around the centre. There were some really impressive buildings as well as extensive remains of a Greek theatre.

What I liked best, however, was the fish market. This was a hive of activity - most of the purchases were bulk buyers who looked like restaurant owners and the like. Tuna - large sizes of - were much on show, but so were a large range of other fish too. I asked one stallholder to pose for me.

More grot . . . but excellent furniture

I stopped for the night at Consenza in deepest Calabria. Again, I found myself in the old town and again, it appeared terribly poor. A walk around the neighbourhood confirmed this - dirty, narrow streets, ageing unimproved buildings, washing hanging from balconies (every appartment has a balcony here) and lots of life outside.

The hostel itself was most interesting. Although located in an aged building, it was comfortable and welcoming. It contained an unusual array of furniture - much of it Calabrian, the manager told me. Indeed, he pointed out that the shutters on the windows were probably at least three hundred years old. I was rather taken with the bedroom furniture - chestnut double wordrobes that looked to have been built to last at least a century. Very much my style.

A day of exteremes - one trulli awful visit and one excellent

I had seen that rather smaltzty Italian Francesco something-or-other doing those programmes about Italy on the BBC a couple of years back ("Oh! papa. Il caffe is pronto.") One of the programmes took a look at some curious conically-roofed buildings called trulli in the south of Italy. The buildings looked rather fascinating so I decided to take a detour to Aberbello - where they are most prevalent - to have a look myself. Accordingly, I turned up in this town early one sunny morning.

The village had a clothes market on the go which gave it a certain authenticity - but as for the rest - forget it! It was one souvenir-selling trulli after another. Truly (ouch!) awful. I fancy the village might be worth a visit in early spring before the souvenir shops open up, but I was sorry I wasted my time coming.

I rode on to the next town on my itinerary - Taranto. This very old town lies in the 'arch' of the foot of Italy by (I think) the Ionian Sea. I visited the (not very large) remains of a Greek temple and then went for a walk around the old town.Whew - this was some experience. All the old stories about Italian poverty came to life here. The streets were narrow, the buildings were decrepit and discoloured; people here were really hard up. Nonetheless, there was a real buzz in the neighbourhood with people talking and calling out to each other on the street. Because of the narrowness of the thorughfares, the scooter was king here. At one point I had to dodge to the side of the street as two Carabieri on powerful motorbikes came flying through with blue lights blazing.

I had my picnic on a bench by the town's castle overlooking the gorgeous blue sea. Whilst eating, I was happily engaged watching a video-shoot being taken of a newly married couple in their wedding clobber. Very romantic. After lunch, I meandered into the castle but was immediately accosted by the three people on reception. Apparently, although entry to the castle was gratis, one had to be accompanied by a guide. When they found out I was English, they found me a guide all to myself and so I had an individual tour of the castle  for about half an hour in the company of an engaging navy officer in a very smart white unniform. Taranto has been occupied by just about every Mediterranean civilisation and there was physical evidence of this in the castle. Fascinating stuff.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Mare Adriatica arriva

Next day's journey took me to Bari and the Adriatic. How wonderful the sea looks under a blue sky! I had quite forgotten. I took a bus into the old town and had a wander round the lanes there. The buildings are very old indeed and built with a white stone which in the sunshine gave the lanes a wonderfully bright atmosphere.

Already residents, ie. the men, were bringing out their chairs ready to chat with neighbours. Women were calling to their children and the business of preparing supper seemed well in hand judging by the smells and sounds of cooking.  (Does this sound a bit sexist? Perhaps, this is just my male interpretation  of what was happening . . .) In any case, despite obvious poverty, there was a vibrant community here.

Reliving old memories

Daniel and I parted company this morning. He to go to the Colosseum again with a brief to draw some part of it and thence to the airport and home; me on to the next stop south, Campobasso. On the way I visited Monte Cassino, the monastery founded by St Benedict and destroyed during the second world war (and rebuilt again afterwards). I had been here once before with friend Italian Pino in the 1970s. I took the opportunity to call into his village - Monteroduni - nearby to see if he was still around. I'd already written several weeks prior about my intention to visit but received no response. Nonetheless, I was determined to  call. Spoke to someone in the village post office and I was told that Pino's mum and did were alive and lived in the village.

I called in to see them and had coffee and a good chat. Although I had only stayed a single night all those years ago they still remembered me - although they had to think hard at first. Pino now lives in Florence and his dad gave me his contact details. Shall follow this up. Apparently, the postcard which I had so carefully written had failed to arrive. How irritating!

My lodgings at Campobasso were in a pleasant farm B&B - what they call an agriturismo. It was great to have a room of my own with towels and a bathroom to myself for a change. Oh! the luxury. The lady of the house did me proud witha fabulous supper and breakfast. Countryside round here is lovely - pretty almost and reminds me a little of South Armagh in Ireland where I spent my summer holdidays as a boy in Ireland.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Recent progress . . .

I'm writing this from Consenza in Calabria having visited Foggia, Campobasso, Bari and Taranto on the way. Shall put up posts when I can access a PC - not all hostels have them and some that do, charge quite a lot for rather inferior equipmment.  Back soon.

MAXXI experience

Day 3 and Daniel has spotted on the web that the MAXXI museum is open on Sunday. He defnitiely wants to see this. Apparently  its up there with the Guggenheim in term of design. After a leisruely breakfast and (free) taxi to the station, we arrive at the seemingly inevitable Roma Termini.

A walk of 90 minutes takes us finally to the MAXXI - and fair play, it is a stunning building. We spend much of the day here. Daniel goes inside, the philistine reamins outside in the shade on a comfortable chair dozing and occasionally dipping into Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall.

We get hungry so I offer to buy lunch at the very stylish museum cafeteria. Daniel demurs - he's seen a nice looking restaurant a couple of streets back and wants to check the menu. We do and are immediately smitten. This is an outdoors place with tables and parasols scattered across a garden. It's packed but they find a table for us. Menu is simple; it's eat anything you want for 25 euros. But this is no Nandos. The dishes are delicious and keep changing each time one goes back for more. What fun! Daniel stacked his plate each time with whatever caught his fancy. I, on the other hand, was more structured. First, melone & prosciuto crudo; then pastaciutta and pastalforno; next came veal in a cream sauce, with various delicious vegetables, for my next meat dish (ahem) I went for thinly sliced pork in a cream and peppercorn sauce - again with vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, fennel v thinly sliced.I wound up with several desserts, i.e. fresh fruit salad, followed by raspberry blancmange, then various fruit tarts and cake. All wound up with an espesso coffee!

The atmosphere in the place was very lively. There was a party celebrating a first communion of a little girl (dessed all in white) and two other birthday celebrations were in progress. So, there was constant singing and cakes with candles moving from the kitchen to the tables.
The lady of the house came over and spoke to us several times and made us feel very welcome, as did the waiters and other people close by. I think getting off the tourist trail proved successful here and I know Daniel was delighted with his birthday lunch.

Rome second day

Daniel is working on his drawing skills and wants to sketch one or two famous buildings during his visit here, so we set off to find the Pantheon. Again, by walking the streets from Roma Termini and looking at the architecture. Our necks were already hurting by the time we spotted a sign for the Trevi fountain. Checked this out - very stylish but packed with punters so we didn't hang around.

Once at the Pantheon I let the artist get on with it, whilst I read and strolled and ate ice cream. After the Pantheon, we pushed on to the Colosseum. We spent half an hour circling it outside, scoping for a good drawing vantage point for Daniel -without really finding one. Then it was time for the long walk back to the station (more architectural oobservations), a cold shower and another excellent supper. Rome is growing on us.

Rome - first impressions

Daniel, my son, came to share this weekend with me in Rome. We stayed in a hostel 30 mins outside Rome by train.  The hostel building is rather like something that Jack built with odds and sods of buildings here and there. Hot water is availabe in the morning but - curiously - not in the evening. Ouch! However, the staff are lovely and can't do enough for us, provingind an on demand taxi service to and from the station. Cool.

We first met up in St Peter's and did the tour around the sistine chapel and then walked back through the streets to Roma Termini station. Daniel's cuent interest is architecture and we played a game of spot the Fascist building. I won 3-0, if memory serves. I fancy I might have had an advantage having seen many of them before in Italian towns. Certainly, walking the streets (if you'll pardon the expression) is the way to see Rome.

Returned to the hostel to an excellent supper cooked by our hosts.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The mimimalist approach to touring - reviewing progress

I was a little concerned that my decision to travel minimalist-style might prove to be unworkable, given the significant anticipated variation in climate over the tour. However, so far most things have worked out pretty well.

Despite is small size compared to most other touring bikes I've seen on the roads, the Honda CB500 has been absolutely fine. It has coped admirably with mountains, motorways and town riding. It's economic and quick and comfortable to sit on for long periods. One noticeable limitation, however, has been the effects of wind; this is because my bike has only a small flyscreen. I find I get buffeted a lot when the wind gets up.

Bike clothing
There have been no problems here despite some really wet weather. The cheap rain suit purchased in Lidl has proved its worth on several occasions. However, I do need to be careful to velcro up the zip properly otherwise the water can seep in.   
The waterproof socks I bought have been a winner. The trainers I wear are for canoeing and are made of a mesh material. They keep the feet cool in hot weather but of course they let water in easily. The waterproof socks act as a barrier and my feet have been dry and warm, even in the worst weather I've encountered.

Other clothing
I carry two cycle tops and a safari type shirt. These wash easily and - importantly - dry quickly. This means I can wash them of an evening and they will be ready to use the next morning. To date, they have not disappointed. One cycle top is often not enough to keep me warm on the bike but the addition of the safari shirt provides sufficient insulation for most riding conditions.

I carry a mobile phone, a digital camera and an MP3 player. All have proved to be eminently useful. A netbook or tablet might also have been helpful since not all hostels have good PC access, so my blog has sometimes had to wait a day or two before being updated. But I don't see this as a major problem. Better to carry less and live with any delays.

I carry basic utensils, a plate and some olive oil and salt. These have served me well for lunchtime picnics.

Again, the basics have served well. If only, I could remember to put my comb and shampoo in the toilet bag. Fogot both of these at the hostel at Florence.

The Knox backpack has coped with all my stuff and kept dry in some very wet conditions. I recommend it. I lash it to the bike rack with two nylon ties (from Wilkinson). These have behaved well and the pack is stable at all times.

So, by and large my minimlist approach is working well. But there's some way to go yet so shall need to review this equipment again - towards the end of the trip.

Pink stone in village of peace

Now in Perugia, I was determined to visit the nearby town of St. Francis - Assisi. It's only a few miles up on the road from the hostel where I was staying (another attractive villa in large grounds) and so I arrived by mid-morning.

As I approached Assisi, I enountered the most enormous basilica. This was Santa Maria dei Angeli. It was so impressive, I imagined this was Assisi itself. Besides being a magnificient building in its own right, what I found unusual was it contained a second tiny - and obviously very old - church. The basilica  appeared to have been built to contain and protect the orignal older church.

Turned out what I believed to be a small church was in fact Francis' very first monastery and it was here that St Clare made her vows. People visiting were very respectful of the space - reverential, even. One felt that here one was walking on holy ground.

Three miles further on and I entered Assisi proper. It is impossible to enter by car but, as ever, I was able to park the Honda close by without upsetting the authorities.

The village is incredibly well preserved. This is true of many Italian towns and villages of course, but in Assisi the impact is obvious. Each buildng, each street, each fountain has been well maintained with sensitivity to the local building style and use of materials. The predominant stone here is pink coloured and I  felt  strongly  in touch with my feminine side as I strolled through the town streets!

The largest church in the town (there are several) is that of San Francesco. Its inside walls and ceilings  are completely covered in frescoes on a range of religious subjects. This church, like S. Maria dei Angeli, also contained a surprise - it is in fact two churches, with one built directy over the other. The lower one is particularly striking. I found it intimate and wonderfully painted throughout; it would take many visits to make out all the images and scenes on walls and ceilings. An ideal pastime to counter a boring sermon.

Again, a sense of respect for the place pervaded the visiting crowds. There was no loud shouting in the streets and in the religious spaces, silence was maintained. Impressive.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Understanding the rules of the road

It is something of a truism to say that motoring in Italy differs much from that in the UK. Now I've been here a week I'm learning slowly how it works.

The Italian motorist abhors a vacuum
If you're riding along and there is a space in front of you, then the motorist behind you will overtake you to fill that space. No aggression here - it's just how they do things here.

Car drivers are generally tolerant of motorcycles.
You might not think so but they are. And it's really cool, because my riding is still a little wobbly at times. Often cars will slow a little to let me in or tolerate me pushing in at short notice.

Lanes and white lines are not for motorcyclists.
Bikes appear to entirely ignore these; nobody appears to worry about it. Mind you I've not yet been spotted by the Vigili Urbani.

Bikes can go - and park - almost anywhere in towns.
Some of the towns I've visited to date have 'historic' centres which are closed to traffic. But bikes go on right through and park bang in the middle. This is very convenient when you're sight-seeing.

Expect to brake or take sudden action at slip roads.
Slip roads are really short on Italian roads so you encounter cars that either:
  - rip from them at high speed causing you to take avoiding action; or
  - creep off them at slow speed forcing you to stop in your tracks.

More to follow . . .

Rainy day in Florence

Wet weather continued as I made my way to Florence. I stopped briefly at a motorcyle shop in Modena to pick up a spare part for the helmet. Ahh! now I can open and close the visor - this makes for an easier life on the road, never mind the difficulties of coping with the toll booths on the motorway. I had hoped to travel on a scenic route through the Appennines but with miserable weather, this was an unattrractive option so I gunned the autostrada directly to Florence and arrived at the hostel in the early afternoon.

The hostel turned out to be a splendid villa with a colonnaded frontage and classical entrance hall, all set within beautiful - and very Italian - gardens. I had planned to tour the town after a snack but with thunderstrorms rolling in one after the other I thought better of it and took a book out the front and sat reading whilst the rain hammered on the gravel a few yards in front of me.

Friend Enzo has a twin brother, Carlo, in Florence so I texted him and he came round to the hostel an hour later. He looked gorgeous in his carabinieri's uniform and cut something of a dash amongst the people at the hostel. Later that evening he took me on a (four hour) tour of the town showing me some of his favourite places - and one or two cafes, where we stood for a few minutes drinking espresso. We took in the Conservatore Musica where his wife Dorotea works and listened for half an hour to some of the students' end of year performances.
The following day travelled up the hill above Florence to Fiesole - a charming small town with gorgeous views (and very expensive looking vilas). The weather cleared a little and finally I was able to make out that characteristic Tuscan view with olive trees, vines and cypresses across the hills.

Interestingly, the citizens of Fiesole wanted it to be known that they voted for Italy to become a republic when the refereendum was taken after WW2. They thought it so important that they set it in stone!

After this I spent some time with Carlo and family & had lunch with them. Carlo is an educator who trains young carabinieri at the academy in Florence. He lives on the premises and here's the view from his rooftop garden. Not bad, eh?

In the afternoon I headed south - through yet more rain - to Perugia.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Stopover at Mirandola

Arrived at my sister-in-law's (Luisella) appartment in Mirandola, near Modena. Am staying two days with the family before journeying on. Time to play with the children and catch up on family news. My mobile phone refuses to talk to England now I'm in Italy, so Luisella took me down to the Vodaphone shop and we bought an Italian SIM; in the process, I was allocated an Italian national insurance number by the assistant in the shop. Not quite sure what to make of that . . . never mind, I'm back in touch at last. The children and I - and Franco their dad - spent a happy hour cleaning the bike ready for tomorrow. The high point for the children were the rides around the appartment car park on the back of the Honda.

We also arranged to get the missing part for my helmet from a shop in Modena. I'll pick that up tomorrow on my way to Florence. I seem to be talking a lot of (more than usually execrable) Italian this holiday. Not to worry, unlike the French who are often helpful but prone to be critical of anyone speaking their tongue, Italians are so amazed that a stranger attempts their language they are full of encouragement with cries of "Bravo, bravo."

The Italian lakes

I spent the night at a wonderful hostel in Verbania - a large villa by Lake Maggiore set in delightful gardens with views over the lake to the other side. I had the best room in the house, ie dormitory, with its own balcony overlooking garden and lake. Like the previous day in Mulhouse, I was the sole occupant of the room; I find it faintly institutional to sleep thus, but not disagreeable. The staff were very welcoming in the way that Italians can be and fixed me up with an enormous supper.
I went for a walk along the edge of the lake early the following morning and it was quite lovely - no wonder the lakes are so popular with visitors.

Interestingly, I came across two village war memorials close by each other - but created in very contrasting styles. The first, from the fascist era, was in a muscular architectural style emphasising the glory of the state (see left); the second (below) was a much more humane design with a mother reaching out in grief for her lost children. I know nothing about war memorials but I  wonder whether either style exists in England?

Onwards and upwards

I'm off to Lago Maggiore today crossing by way of the St Gotthard Pass (the tunnel is quicker but at 16 km is likely to asphixiate me). Switzerland is as beautiful as ever and I enjoyed the approach to the St Gotthard. The pass proved to be something of a challenge to my emergent riding skills with hairpin bends and precipitous drops into goodness where. Nonetheless, I felt chuffed with myself when I arrived safely at the top.

However, my satisfaction was short-lived. On the Italian side a fine and persistent drizzle began and then came down a disorienting mist. When finally the visor of my helmet (and my spectacles) misted up also, I felt I might be in real trouble. (Did I mention that the helmet visor had broken the previous day and I couldn't get it to open?) The solution of course was simple - just ride excruciatingly slowly until the weather cleared. It wasn't excruciating for me of course but I fancy it might have been for the terribly long line of cars that snailed after me for two or three miles. I can't tell you how relieved I was when we got down to the lower and kinder slopes where I could at last see more clearly where I was going. I'm seriously thinking of designing a T-shirt to commenmorate the event.

There are lots of motorcyclists over here - I mean, really lots. And they make signals to me which I don't understand. Some come up from behind and signal me so it could have something to do with my GB number plate. But riders coming at me from the front do so too, so it can't only be a reaction to a Brit. In one action - when a rider is coming up from behind - he takes his right foot off the foot rest and makes a downward move with it. Whatever could it mean? Perhaps, "Get down off that bike and make room for real riders you slow prat?" Or another one - when a rider comes towards me - he (it's almost always a 'he')  extends his left hand horizontally in an action like a signal for a wide in cricket (but with just one arm, of course). If Martin Seidel is reading this blog, perhaps he could explain the mysteries of motorcycle signals to me.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Across the flatlands to Mulhouse

Dull motorway much of the way. Sunny and warm but very windy. When you ├áre driving a car you don't much notice the wind, but on a bike you get almost blown away. Perhaps motorbikes aren't all they are cracked up to be, after all. I should have something of an answer after 4,000 miles, I guess.The trip did get interesting once I  reached the Vosges. Wooded hills came into view and I rode through a gorgeous valley following a river for some 20 km. This was a big improvement scenery-wise on day 1.Poppies are out over here and can be seen in profusion along the edges of roads and at road junctions where there is unused land. I thought about stopping to take a picture but everyone's seen poppies so I just passed on by.

Mulhouse has a centre - historique with a rather attractive large open square. When I arrived in the afternoon  it was packed with people enjoying themselves. Thought I'd catch a tram into town in the evening and soak up the atmosphere. As you can see from the photo they'd all gone to bed by 8.30pm - or maybe they'd heard Lodge was in town. Either way, it was pretty dull; only livened up by a tasty meal in the Franciscans Friars restaurant (Mulhouse salade, filet mignon with large potato cakes and some gorgeous dessert with chantilly cream, framboises & ice cream). Life's not so bad after all.

On my way . . .

I took to the road at 5am on Thursday and arrived at Folkestone without incident. Motorcyclists, I didn't realise,  get grouped together by Eurotunnel and made to wait until all the cars are aboard. Only then do we ride on - not very equal ops. I couldn't help but notice that all the other riders had very expensive and powerful models, as well as the 'right' gear. It must have cost them thousands. For my part I must have looked like some vagrant to them - dressed as I was in my non-standard clothing and sitting on my weedy little bike. But it didn't bother me. I don't need to look a part - I just want to get up an go - and go. And you don't need to be flash to do that.

My baggage is minimal - just one smallish rucksack (or do people say 'backpack' nowadays?). Choosing luggage has proved to be tricky, not least because I have to cater for crossing the alps on the one hand and the dead heat of Calabria and Sicily. Hard to accommodate all those conditions with the amount of baggage  space I've chosen. It will be intersting to see which bits I got right.

I'd planned to call into the family in Belgium first but that turned out to be impractical, so I headed for Reims instead. I arrived on Ascension Thursday - a holiday in France. This made it easy to get around town but rather quiet  on the whole. I guess the high point of the day was my first sight of the monster cathedral. I turned into a boulevarde with 'lollipop' trees on both flanks and there it was at the top of the road. I rode right up to the cathedral and parked the Honda on the square, next to all the Harley Davidsons and other 'super' bikes (Note to self: Where do people get the money from to buy these toys? They can't be in education, surely?). As I'm riding more these days I am struck by the sheer convenience of parking a bike. In France, it appears you can park a motorbike anywhere provided you're off the road; that's it, I think (but I may be wrong).

I found myself fascinated by the language style of French motorway announcements. The English seem to favour the imperative rather a lot, e.g. "GET in lane" features frequently.  The French illuminated boards seem a little more diffident. One - a reminder about seat belts after leaving a toll displayed,  "Moi, j'ai mis ma ceinture. Et toi?" (I've got my seat belt on. What about you?). Sounds like some form of playground persuasion. Maybe we're more accepting of orders in England.

Shall conclude. Off to Mulhouse in Strasbourg tomorrow. Here's hoping the sunny weather continues.

PS Do you remember C&A? I thought they had gone for good. At least that's what Grant Alderson told me - after  he'd bagged several pairs of trousers in their closing down sale in Kingston. But not so, here's picture I took in Reims. It would appear that rumours of C&A's demise were premature!

And as for Etam, claiming to be the greenest clothes shop ever, all I can offer is this photo - taken again in Reims.