Saturday, 12 March 2011

Italy 4 – The Gargano Promontory

24th February to 8th March

The 24th of February saw us heading back across Italy again, from Naples to Puglia. Not quite to where we’d started from a week before, but only a little further north, towards the Gargano Promontory, which is the knobbly ankle on the Italian heel that juts out into the Adriatic somewhere above Bari.


We did it at our speed. We didn’t really get away from the outer sprawl of Naples until mid-afternoon, and then crossed the flat, highly populated plains around Caserta that seemed almost like more of the same. Only as the sun was going down did we really feel we’d left the suburbs behind, when we reached the vineyards around Solopaca. The first spurs of the Apennines rose up on either side, and we chose a small road leading steeply into the hills to look for a good spot for the night. We found one, but as the temperature dropped below zero we remembered the disadvantages of altitude at this time of year. The water pipes didn’t freeze this time, but at -3°C it was our coldest night for a long time. Do we really have to be heading back up north just yet?

Overnight spot near Solopaca – view from the top, and looking up to where we stopped.

On our drive out of Naples we had tried to get our 2.5kg gas bottles refilled, but our connector was just a fraction larger than the Italian ones, so it was a disappointing no go. We weren’t yet desperate for gas, but we didn’t want to have to start paying 20€ for Camping Gaz exchange bottles if someone could refill them at a quarter of that cost. From about Caserta we’d noticed adverts every few kilometres for a company called Italia Camper Sud and as it was only a few miles away from our overnight stop in the hills, we decided to pop over the next morning and see if they had any adaptors. Well, finding a place with only the name of the town for an address is never going to be easy, and we finally saw it while sailing past on a dual carriageway. After a bit of hide-and-seek with elusive signposts through an industrial estate we reached it. It was massive, with a pretty good parts and accessories section, and the owner sorted us out with what he reckoned would get us filled up all over Italy. We’ve yet to test it out though, so watch this space. (www.italiacampersud.it)

Taburno national park - views over Solopaca-Telese area

After using up the whole morning on our gassy venture, we headed again north-east on a secondary road which passed through lowish foothills, many of which were used for tobacco growing. Then we drove towards Baselice, over a high, bare pass (1050m) which was covered with dozens of wind turbines. We almost stopped there, by a nice landscaped picnic area, but decided that the ground was a bit too soft for a heavy van, refreshing our memories of this time last year when, on our first ever trip, we got stuck in mud in the Brecon Beacons. Besides, it was only 4 o’clock and the temperature was already -2°C. It was definitely time to head downhill!

Tobacco drying near Pietralcina, and Baselice with S Bartolomeo in Galdo in the distance

Approaching the village of San Bartolomeo in Galdo we came across an odd little side road, which looked like it might one day be developed into something, but was for now a road to nowhere and so a perfect place to stop. At the dead end was a strange blue tank. Something to do with water, Rob suggested, but it wouldn’t disturb us. However, our presence by the village’s main water supply obviously aroused the suspicions of the locals as a chap came down in his car to have a look at us, returning a few minutes later with a friend to question why we were there. They were happy with our explanation, especially once we said we were British, and they suggested some places to visit in the area. Maybe they had misread GB on our numberplate for BG, as so many seem to do. Later, at about 7:30 p.m., while we were preparing dinner, the carabinieri (one of Italy’s myriad types of police) arrived. They were a bit gruffer, but they too left us in peace so must have been satisfied with our responses. It was good to know we were not breaking any laws.

Waking up to snow

Although the van was showing a temperature of -2°C, we had a comfortable night snugly swaddled in our quilt and the woollen patchwork blanket Mum knitted for our trip. It was quite a surprise to wake up to find everything enveloped in a mantle of snow. Added to that, fog had wiped out all views of the village on the next hilltop. This was not supposed to happen. We were meant to be escaping winter, not driving headlong into it. Funnily enough, the very same thing had also happened last year on our trial run week in Brecon. Still, we’re not doing snow. We’ve not got the snow chains that all the roadside signs say we need to have, though we imagined they referred to more than the couple of centimetres which had fallen over night. Time to head further downhill, to the coast, they don’t get a lot of snow there.

Lucera – tail end of the market

Not snow maybe, but they certainly get rain. We were now back in Puglia, and headed for nearby Lucera. This town is much praised by both our guidebooks for the charm of its renaissance palazzi and mellow sandstone hues, but in freezing rain it did not look its best. We trudged through the wet streets, caught the end of a small market and found one café open, where we spent the next two hours on our first internet connection in a week.  

Lucera – wet and deserted

We were by now close to the Gargano promontory, and pushed straight on after Lucera. Gargano is a large area of high plateau that rises abruptly from the Puglian flatlands and is surrounded on three sides by sea, to which it drops in spectacular white cliffs. It is mostly national park, but the more accessible parts of the coast are also lined with extensive beach developments. Near the village of Mattinata we found ‘Punta Grugno’, an area di sosta – camper stop – by the beach for €13.50 a night. It was well-maintained and a campsite in all but name, located in an olive grove and reminiscent the sites in southern Greece. In fact the whole coastal plain was a solid mass of olive groves and campsites/summer pizzerias/lidos, but ours was the only one that appeared open. We were, once again, the only guests.

Mattinata beach and campsite area

It was a good place to stop for a few days. The sun came out for a while and we got some long-overdue washing done, and Mattinata was a pleasant enough small town for a bit of shopping and café-sitting.

Mattinata town

On the Monday night however the rain returned. It did not stop for all of Tuesday, and in fact got heavier. By the afternoon we noticed that the deep concrete-lined storm drain beside the site, which had previously been bone dry, was filling with a fast-flowing torrent of sludgy brown water that rushed into the storm-whipped waves on the beach with much violent splashing and spray. As the flow increased, people came down in cars to gawp at the surging waters and the dramatic outflow a few metres away from us. As darkness fell, we reckoned things had stabilised, and were settling down to eat at 7:30 p.m. when the campsite warden turned up and said he’d been advised by the police to move us away from the drain bank! We moved forward about 6 metres, everyone was happy, and we eventually went to bed to the same sound of rain to which we had woken up.

The storm drain during the rain, and the damage the next morning

The rain stopped in the night, and Wednesday 2nd March dawned sunny and surprisingly warm. The water in the storm drain was back down to a trickle – drama over. But then we saw the large concrete panels that had been ripped from the bank of the drain and now lay in smashed segments along its bed, and realised that the precaution of moving the van may have been justified after all.

More flooding from the heavy rains – this was around Vieste, where several campsites were being pumped out by the fire brigade

We left Mattinata, and drove first onto the plateau to the pilgrimage town of Monte Sant’Angelo. It may be only 17km on the road signs, but that involves a serpentine 800 metre climb round hairpin bends, with increasingly impressive views over the stony slopes and the sea. On the way we passed several signs of mudslides and crumbling banks after yesterday’s deluge, thankfully all now made passable.

Mattinata coast, and archaeological site at Monte Saraceno, overlooking the campsite

Monte Sant’Angelo has been big with pilgrims since the 5th century AD, when the Archangel Michael chose a cave in these remote hills to make several appearances (mostly to a bishop as far we can tell). The quaint wording of the English translation on the information board says he ‘took up residence’ in the grotto - things must have been bad in heaven around then. Now you may or may not accept this as likely to be true, but in any case a lot of effort has been put in over the centuries to build an ornate basilica above the grotto, with a long marble staircase leading down into the bedrock where the miraculous apparitions occurred, and the pilgrims came in their masses. The result is an atmospheric underground cave-cum-chapel below what looks like a Norman cathedral, but is in fact little more than an impressive porch over the descending staircase. St Michael statues can be found in a great many towns hereabouts, with the archangel depicted in the traditional representation of an angelic centurion, fully armed with helmet, sword, and shield and always stamping on a very anguished-looking dragon or demon – presumably Satan.

Monte Sant’Angelo

The town of Monte Sant’Angelo has a rather austere look. OK, it’s not helped by the rows of flats that first catch the eye, looking like an estate of bleak tenements from afar, but even in the narrow streets and alleyways of the compact mediaeval centre, the houses have a strange uniformity, terraces of little white conjoined houses all with the same gable roof and bulky chimney. The impression was uncannily like some of the cemeteries around here, with their rows of white family mausolea.

Monte Sant’Angelo’s funereal style housing

We returned that evening to the coast in the direction of Vieste. The road on this stretch clings to the hillsides above high cliffs, and only the narrowest of access roads lead down to the occasional small cove. It was an impressive coastline, but with few suitable places to park a motorhome we headed inland as dusk was falling and found an ideal spot under oak trees by a very quiet road, where we slept well to the accompaniment of distant bells tinkling on the herds of cows, sheep and goats that grazed the land. On leaving the next morning we ended up behind a herd of goats, who were content to saunter along in front of us. We weren’t sure how to move them out of the way, until some locals overtook us, honked a few times, and drove straight through. In the words of onlookers as Moses parted the waters - so that’s how it’s done!

Overnight spot in the hills

Vieste was an attractive town, despite having one half entirely closed up in this low season. It struck us again that we see such a different side of places by travelling at this time of year. The main streets of Vieste’s old town, stretching over the sea on a headland, looked to be entirely given over to tourism, so in March were pretty dead, although elsewhere in the backstreets the tenement blocks were largely being lived in. When we arrived at 11 o’clock the newer town was as full of life as any Italian town down here is, with lots of shops open and people milling about. Men were standing about chatting, which is a sight you see in every town in the morning, though this day they had some entertainment in the form of a group who had chained themselves to the ballastrading opposite the town hall with a banner demanding a right to work. However, at about one o’clock the place became deserted, as usual – even protestors have to observe the long Italian lunchtime.

Vieste old town

We spent our lunchtime stopped on a nearby headland, one of the few not swallowed up by holiday developments, overlooking a local phenomenon – a trabucco. These are a sort of jerry-built wooden platform used for a particular kind of fishing with nets which are lowered as shoals of fish pass. The platforms extend out over the sea from outcrops of rock, and stand on spindle-like wooden legs with tall masts poking upwards and a number of long, precarious-looking beams reaching outwards horizontally from the platform. The whole structure is supported and held together by a web of wires, and has a kind of mad boat-like appearance. They made us think of ‘Waterworld’, that strange Kevin Costner film.

Trabucco

Puglian food keeps up the Italian tradition of regional cuisine, and its various specialities include some ingredients little-known elsewhere. Typical of this are lampascioni, a small brown bulb related to the common wild hyacinth. They look like shallot onions, and apparently can be foraged for in the countryside in spring. It was a tempting idea, but we opted for the easy route and bought some of the dark pink bulbs. They seem to be sold largely for preserving, in much the same way we might pickle onions in Britain. We tried them fresh the first time, boiled and served in a white sauce – quite un-Italian and disappointing since they retained a very bitter taste. We’ve researched them a bit more now and have another batch ready to be prepared. This time, after we’ve peeled them (a process which makes your fingers incredibly sticky and which I vowed never to bother with again), we will soak them overnight, then cut the obligatory cross in the base, boil until soft in salted water, with some red wine vinegar, and serve cold, or preserve, in olive oil. They’d better be worth it!

Lampascioni on sale in Rodi Garganico

The whole coast of Gargano is very scenic with some wonderful clifftop drives, but we had wanted also to see some more of the hilly interior, which is covered by thick forest. However the weather had other ideas by the end of the week and we spent a couple of very rainy days whiling away time along the north coast before heading inland. On Monday 7th March the day dawned clear and sunny and we were up and ready for an early start, only… the engine wouldn’t start. The battery was as dead as a dodo. It was entirely our own fault and we knew instantly what we’d done – been far too blasé with our recharging of the computer via the inverter when the engine was off. So our early start was put back a few hours while we contacted the breakdown service and waited for a man in a van to arrive and give us a burst of power. I think we might have won the award for stupid motorhomer of the week here! By midday we were actually on the road and got to spend the afternoon driving along the high centre of the Gargano area, through the Foresta Umbra. The woodlands are the last vestiges of ancient oak and beech forest which once covered most of southern Italy and they are beautiful, with many footpaths, picnic and parking areas, which would have made perfect overnight places had the temperature not been rapidly falling towards zero.

Calanella beach by Peschici - overnight spot – not a bad place to wait for the breakdown service

The decision to head downhill led us past Monte Sant’Angelo once again, with its housing looking even more sepulchre-like from a distance and along the valley towards another huge pilgrim site at San Giovanni Rotondo. We don’t deliberately seek out locations of supposed miraculous events. Quite frankly, they tend to baffle us, particularly this one, as it’s the burial place of Padre Pio, who only died in 1968. For goodness sake, we were alive by then – cue that old chestnut of a conversation – ‘What would you do if you saw what you thought was a miracle?’

It could be housing in Monte Sant’Angelo, but it is, in fact, a cemetery at Rodi Garganico

Even though we had headed down from the hills, the temperature had dropped to -2°C, and San Giovanni was listed as having a couple of camper stops which were open all year. Snow started to fall 15km before we reached the town and was settling well as we drove down the main street bemoaning the fact that the POI co-ordinates I’d downloaded into Garmintrude were obviously wrong for one of the camper stops. A brief stop was needed to turn the computer on and open a page downloaded from an excellent Italian motorhome website - www.turismoitinerante.com – and just around the corner was the perfectly adequate stop for our last night in the Gargano area, and in fact in Puglia.

Early evening in San Giovanni Rotondo, with the Padre Pio sanctuary dominating the town from the hillside

We made full use of the camper stop’s electricity and had another go at the hyacinth bulbs, otherwise known as lampascioni. Cooking with red wine vinegar in a confined space might not be a great idea, but this time the result seems more along the lines described to us. Our Puglian ‘pickled onions’ are now sitting in the fridge, swathed in olive oil, and ready to accompany meat or cheese. I’m tempted to thrust them on a local and ask them if they seem in any way authentic. We also made another batch of marmalade, with considerably less success. Different oranges was my excuse, though Rob suggests strongly that it was my lack of patience. He may be on to something. What we have are stewed chunks of orange flesh with peel in a syrup. Oh well, we live and learn.

San Giovanni Rotondo - Sanctuary panorama

On Tuesday 8th March we popped up to see Padre Pio’s santuary, a huge white church and hospital complex on the hill overlooking San Giovanni Rotondo. It’s all become a very big business, with lots of tat shops and touts. The one asking us for a euro for what was obviously free parking soon shifted when we asked for a receipt or ticket before we coughed up the cash. The buildings reminded us of some of the better post-war communist architecture in eastern Europe, but everything to do with it left us further perplexed. Do Google him and see what you think.

Peschici - trabucco at Monte Pucci, and doorway in Peschici

Leaving Gargano – view from Santa Maria church in Stignano


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