Sicilian Shores to Roman Ruins

30 October – 1 November 2017

We has a last day of perfect sunrises from our cliff-side perch and caught the little bus up the hill into Acireale where to our relief Kate’s tooth was properly repaired.  We said our thank-you’s and goodbyes to Carmen on reception, headed for the Messina ferry and by 4.30 were back on the mainland, our island-hopping finished.

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Our verdict : best mountains in Corsica, best food in Sicily but best overall, for beaches, history and “a certain something” was Sardinia.

We started our drive north after 4 o’clock knowing we didn’t want to be driving on Italian roads in the dark but had a long way to our sosta. We squeezed through the busy streets of San Giovanni, drove on through pretty Scilla and climbed up the mountainside through Bagnara Calabra as darkness closed in. Danny resorted to flashing his headlights approaching bends to warn oncoming drivers of our presence – they clearly prefer the wrong side of the road and overtaking on hairpins.

At Palmi a road closure with (of course) no diversion signs resulted in a stressful 20 minutes but finally we were near our sosta. Which we never reached  – we were flagged down by a man on a quad who spoke no English but clearly recognised a motorhome in need and directed us to a gateway on a side road that proudly proclaimed itself to be San Francesco sosta. We parked between 2 large olive trees whilst he chattered away in impenetrable Italian and opened up a small one-storey hut which contained a tiny bedroom, a living area with table and small TV and an ancient wet-room, indicating that this was our toilet & shower facility. We were amused and bemused by this eccentric who had just hi-jacked the competition’s customers. He confiscated our driving licences and locked us, his only customers, into the compound with a cheery “buona notte”.

After a peaceful night our host opened up the gates around 8.30am and when he saw Kate get out with her camera, gestured excitedly to us both to follow him. We crossed the small play area and there, behind the sosta, was a large go-kart track and an array of go-karts, obviously his passion. He made us get into one so he could take our photo but we declined a free go. Life would be so dull without characters like him.

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We drove up Calabria through constantly changing landscape. First rolling limestone hills, valley bottoms filled with orange groves and neat plantings of aspens their white barks and yellow-gold leaves bright eve on this grey day. Turning inland through the mountains of SiIa Nationa Park the temperature dropped to a depressingly British 14C and it was raining gently as we pushed on past the the Colle d. Dragone – like the serrated points on a dragons neck – and into the low wooded mountains on the edge of the Parco Nazionale del Pollino, the autumn colours taking hold nicely.

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Finally we turned off the highway and into the unexpected pocket of chaos that is the entrance to Pompei achaelogical site. Coaches, motorhomes, taxis and shuttle-buses swirling, pedestrians risking life and limb to cross the road, and 100m away the entrance to our campsite. We had arrived.

We were here of course to see the results of the the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. A sudden, violent eruption thrust a mushroom cloud of gases, ash and molten rock a staggering 21 miles into the atmosphere. For the inhabitants, blue skies were transformed to night by the falling ash and pumice causing a darkness so absolute that they could only identify each other by voice. At first the finer particles, heating the terracotta roof tiles to over 120C, then bigger, hotter pieces and within 20 hours the city was covered in over 20 feet of ash. All followed by huge flows of scorching gases and rocks powering through the remains, incinerating and flattening anything that was left. Terrifying. Now the new town of Pompei makes a living out of it.

November had arrived in a blaze of sunshine and we headed over to the entrance wearing shorts and T-shirts getting a couple of amused comments from local tour guides advising us where the beach was – they were wrapped in long trousers, down jackets and scarfs to keep out the chilly 21C air! They have obviously never experienced a UK summer!

We had a fabulous day. Vesuvius and the mountains opposite made an amazing back-drop and the clear blue skies stayed with us throughout. Kate remembered her previous visit with a school trip nearly 40 years ago – are we really that old? – and also managed to dredge up some information from her geography degree which, with the passage of time, was of doubtful accuracy.

Highlights? Difficult to say. The forum with it’s bronze statue surrounded by interesting remains like the old granary filled with amphorae, a beautifully preserved cart and casts of the dead; the fish market and the thermal baths.

Or maybe one of the gorgeous villas with their wall-paintings and mosaics.

Or one of the thermopolia, their marble counters inset with huge terracotta jars for storing the food they served.

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Or the bakery shops with their mill-stones and ovens intact.  Danny particularly liked the old graffiti that is preserved on the walls, and the huge oval amphitheatre for gladiatorial events. All of it in such a beautiful setting.

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Pompei is so huge we would not have got anywhere near as much out of our 6-hour wander without the audioguides and at the end the visitor centre CGI show of how things would have looked really brought into focus what had seen. We were only sorry we didn’t get around it all.  It was getting dark as we left with weary feet – that Roman paving was hard work – and Pompei had more than lived up to expectations.

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Tomorrow we go to the source  of the trouble.

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