2 -7 July 2019
We had booked the ferry to Bari to allow us to explore the one region of Italy that we hadn’t yet been to or through – Puglia, the heel of the boot. But now we needed to get the fridge repaired. Leaving the busy port of Bari behind we drove down to Ostunia where Mondo camper managed to repair and reattach the fridge door, but despite Google Translate they somehow failed to grasp the issue with the broken fan. We tried to drive up into Ostunia itself to source a new one but were stopped from entering the Moorish-looking white hill-town by a road closure and a grumpy policeman. Giving up we headed down to the sosta on the outskirts of Ostunia Marina. It was too hot to stay in the van so we dandered down to the small marina and grabbed some very nice seafood pasta at a restaurant on the harbour-edge where we watched the little boats coming in as the sun set.
Next day we drove down to Brindisi and Brind Camper who despite being fully booked took pity on us and fitted new fans for the fridge within an hour or so. Brilliant.
Despite being short of the time needed to do Puglia justice we decided to give it a go and headed down to the southern tip of the ‘boot’ – if for no other reason than we have already done the tip of the toe. The scenery was flat, filled with wheat-fields and olive groves with huge ancient trees. We soon started to notice a problem – olive trees hacked hard back, the spindly regrowth dry and leafless, and full groves of unpruned trees completely dead, young and old.
The further south we went, the more we saw. The livelihood of centuries is being destroyed by a bacteria from central America that arrived in 2013 and has already killed over a million trees. This in a region that produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. It is tragic to see and must be devastating to the people whose famillies have grown and tended the olives for hundreds of years, whose culture and livelihood depend upon them. Depressingly, this incurable disease is spreading – it has reached Tuscany, and beyond to France, Spain and Portugal.
On a cheerier note, we reached the tip at Santa Maria de Leuca, saw the lighthouse, the town and its pretty little marina, and installed ourselves at a nearby campsite. Once pitched in the shade of some pine trees we realised that there were a lot of teenagers about the otherwise quiet site, shepherded by teachers. Worse, later in the afternoon the campsite’s “Animation” team started up, its mission apparently to keep the schoolkids occupied using the maximum possible level of decibels. Danny retreated inside with the Transcool, the fan and his earplugs until early evening when the music stopped and the air started to cool.
The next day was a mammoth drive of nearly 11 hours. We started on the slow roads, detouring up into the foothills of the Appenines in Puglia’s west, the heart of Trulli country. Trulli are unique to Puglia, pretty cylindrical whitewashed buildings with grey conical roofs. The theory appears to be that feudal lords made people build their homes and storehouses without mortar so they could be quickly taken apart when the tax-collectors were around. Built as one-room structures, more space is created by building another trulli next door and knocking through, leading over time to photogenic houses with a number of conical hats, cool in summer and warm in winter.
Although there are still plenty of ruined ones lying about, there has been an upsurge in renovations for use as holiday homes and B&B’s. We drove through Trulli-rich Locorotondo and Alberobello snapping away as we drove and enjoying the pretty countryside of white stone walls and orderly agriculture – olives, almonds, vines and grazing cattle – amid stands of oak.
Then we descended to the Tavoliere, the tableland, flat and fertile and producing much of the wheat that makes Puglia the breadbasket of Italy and the provider of 80% of Europe’s pasta. We sped north into a darkening sky and soon found ourselves in a lightning storm – in just 10 minutes there we saw over 50 lightning strikes, the forks brilliant against the black sky. Wildfires ignited in the fields of wheat-stubble and smoke billowed upwards. Then torrential rain plummeted the temperature from 36 to 19C, hammering into us for miles before stopping as suddenly as it started, the road ahead as dry as the Sahara.
We drove the full 400km length of Puglia that day, then through Molise and into Arbruzzo. After visiting and rejecting 3 sostas we finally stopped at a friendly, grassy place at Cologna Spiaggia and broke out a cold beer just as it started to get dark.
Next day progress was slow as we headed north on the coast road through town after town dedicated to beach-loving Italians. We did see a couple of places that looked nice, proper towns with old buildings and a sense of purpose – notably Perdaso and Porto San Giorgio – but they were the exception. It took us 3 hours to do 42 miles before turning inland at Citanova and leaving behind the congestion of the coast.
It is in the inland hills and mountains that we like Italy best and first Marche then Umbria unfolded before us, rolling landscapes of lovely, terracotta-roofed hill-towns, golden fields of wheat, dull green olives dotted in neat lines against a background yellow of dry grasses, spires of dark green Italian cypress reaching upwards and the bright green canopies of almonds and oaks.
We passed Assisi – home of the saint who founded the Franciscan order, the huge church dedicated to him perching on the hillside – and then the region’s capital, Perugia, a university town infamous for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in 2007. A bad accident stopped the flow of traffic but we followed the example of the Italians, going the wrong way down a slip road to escape and creating absolute chaos – the 3rd accident we had seen in 2 days as opposed to 1 in 6 weeks in Greece, confirming Danny’s opinion of Italian drivers.
Marche and Umbria are certainly places we would happily explore further, but now we were headed for a bit of a break, 2 days sitting still on the edge of Lake Trasimeno. Although we had never heard of it before, Lago Trasimeno is the 4th largest lake by surface area in Italy. The muddy and shallow remnants of an ancient sea it has only a few minor streams flowing into it and none out, making its levels heavilly dependent on rainfall and the demands of local agriculture and communities. But because population in the area is relatively low it’s water quality is good and the campsite had loads of free pitches.
Our next move is to meet friends in Tuscany, so we had a couple of days to enjoy gentle breezes and swimming in the warm waters of the lake. We settled down, broke out the essentials for coping with the heat and relaxed.