Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Pisa cake and a big long tunnel...

Driving through the tunnel at San Giuliano Terme and opening out with the city of Pisa infront of us was spectacular.

After a day recovering from the night before in Rome, Kerry and I drove through the misty, rainy region of Tuscany to get to a motorhome aire located just outside Pisa, famous for it's leaning tower. But as soon as we popped out of a fairly short tunnel under a hilly section, our spirits were brightened and the hangovers seemed to fade away. The setting sun shone in to the van and a picturesque countryside opened out to the seas in the distance.

Navigating around the Eastern part of Pisa was a little tricky as there was a huge viaduct traversing its way across the town. Unfortunately the arches had a height limit that we could not get under so we had to follow it until we found a broken down section with a road to get through. Getting to the Aire was a piece of cake and we were welcomed by happy faces, a map of the town and a large, fully functional aire with tens of vans in. Not like other parts of Italy!

It seemed this place had it nailed. I can only surmise that the authorities recognised and valued the custom that motorhomers can bring and invested a bit of money to welcome them whole heartedly.

We got chatting to the guy on the front gate and it transpired that his daughter lived just 20 miles away from our home town in Burgess Hill. He gave us a card for an Italian restaurant that she ran and also gave us his card and said to show it if we ate there to get a discount. His title was Colonel!

After a lovely dinner and a few bottles of wine from the nearby Carrefour we got our heads down ready for a day meandering through the streets of Pisa. The walk in to town was a pleasant, mile long, amble. Going through the walls of the old walled city changed the scenery from modern roads to almost medieval looking cobbled streets.

The sun was shining and the whole city felt warm. The streets were lined with soft hues of stone block work and then suddenly open out in to numerous squares. People cycled around and coffee shops were packed.. We are in Italy still!

I managed to get us a bit lost... of which I was quite disappointed. I pride myself in my magical navigatory skills, but Pisa broke me. We ended up walking straight passed the 'Leaning Tower' and out of the other side of the city! But after a quick re-orientation using the river as an aid we were back on track, walking down the same streets just in reverse!

Then it opened out in to the square with the leaning tower leaning at a very scary angle. I didn't realise just how much it lent over! Basically when they started building it they got Bodgit 'n' Scarper in to do the footings. Consequently it started to lean just a year in to construction. It took over 200 years to build because Pisa was constantly fighting Florence, Lucca and Genoa.

See the slight curve?
Half way through they decided to build the top portion at a corrected angle, making the tower actually curved. I thought this was a funny idea. It also means that the tower has either 194 or 196 steps, depending on which set you take.

What I didn't realise was that the tower was accompanied by two other very spectacular buildings, a cathedral and a baptistery. All religious in nature, and all lavished in elaborate masonry and even some gold leaf. The marble used to build them was very white and had come from the same mountains we had popped out of on our way to the city.

All around the plaza was a well kept lawn. There were signs everywhere saying 'Keep off the grass' in all different languages. The only trouble was that to get the best picture you HAD to go on the grass. So we watched for a good half an hour as 4 'grass police' chased and ushered people off of one section of the grassy area, only to turn around and find that 20 other people had just hopped the small, knee high fence 50 metres away. Quite why they couldn't pavement the best sections I don't know. I suppose it kept them in a crazy job of cat and mouse.

Another funny thing to watch was all of the poeple 'holding up' the tower. Except we chose to watch them from a totally different angle. This made it seem like they were at some sort of gym or aerobics class. Either that or training at a Hitler youth camp.

We, of course, couldn't resist, and followed suit with our own homage to holding up the tower. Ironically the tower doesn't need holding up. Engineers stabilised it in 2008, claiming that it would be stable for the next 200 years.


Kerry flexing her muscles
The sun was beating down and we had a nice cold beer and typical Italian pizza in Pisa! It was very nice. Again I made the mistake of asking for my Calzonni to be 'hot'. Forgetting that they came pretty darn hot to start with. I struggled through, quenching the burn with pint after pint of beer. Phew!

After another night in the excellent Aire we decided to make a trek home. The van was still making clunky noises and we were pretty tired. The first leg was up in to Northern Italy and passed Torino. Night time set it and we fueled had to fuel up again at an astonishingly high rate of 1.80 euro a litre. Then we noticed that there were lights high up in the distance ahead and decided to hunker down in a small town so we could see the alps during the day.

Upon waking up we were met with spectacular views of the peaks. We made our way up in to the mountains and towards the Mont Blanc tunnel.

The tunnel itself is an amazing 11.6 km (7.2 Miles) long. An astonishing feet of engineering. We paid our 50 Euro fee to use the tunnel and was met with a mutli-lane, gated entry where we sat waiting our turn. Once our neighbours had entered the tunnel the system waited until they were the obligatory length in to the tunnel and then our gate would open, allowing us to proceed. Inside the tunnel was a strict speed limit and we had to maintain 2 blue LED lights between us and the vehicle in front.

All of these precautions were because of a lorry fire in 1999 that showed just how dangerous the tunnel could be in an emergency. 39 people died. The ventilation system forced the smoke down the tunnel faster than the fleeing people and cars could go and the lack of oxygen stalled the engines in the cars. Drivers wound their windows up waiting for rescue but the fire crews engines has also stalled and the stricken vehicles meant they could not get to then truck.

Unfortunately the truck was carrying margarine and flour, two fairly flammable substances. It burnt for 53 hours, reaching 1000 degrees C. Some people say that the authorities compounded the situation by force venting the tunnel with fresh air from the French side, fueling the fire with oxygen.

Mont Blanc tunnel
After safely exiting the tunnel we gunned it for home. We were all Frenched out. Whilst France is a lovely, changeable and interesting landscape... We'd seen it all before and northern France can be a little monotinous with its constant rolling hills and plains. We made the journey from Torino, Italy to Dieppe, France in 12 hours including the tunnel, stopping only for fuel stops. We were lucky and grabbed the last available place on the ferry the next day. Our second stint in Europe was over and we happily, if also tiredly, drove in to Horsham late that evening.

Mont Blanc from afar

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Grand Civilisation of Rome...

Getting in to Rome after dark was a nightmare...

The quality Italian driving only intensified as we neared the city. Instead up here in Northern Italy it wasn't old people in their Panda 4 x 4's but swish looking young ladies wearing high heels carrying a labelled (yet known to me) handbag on their little scooters.

We were headed for a campsite called Camping Village Roma, situated on the street Via Aurelia, some 4kn from the centre of Rome. Well.... The very helpful Navfree app we so enthusiastically adore and swear by decided that the easiest route was through the middle of town. Driving through town in Rome isn't like driving through town at home. Driving through town in Rome is like battling a hoard of orcs with a toothpick whilst clad in a sumo outfit!

Via Aurelia is also a bit of a farce. There are at least 3 streets we found called Via Aurelia (god knows how many others we didn't manage to find!) all of which are a good distance apart. But, finally, after considering hunkering down next to a grand palace, we managed to find the campsite. It was about 11 at night and the price for the nights stay would have been 30 Euros, a fair sum for a pair of vagabonds so Kerry and I decided to park in the train station car park next to it and migrate over in the morning, avoiding an expensive outlay.

Train station car parks, particularly peripheral city ones aren't places to stay in a foreign motorhome. The next day we were disturbed twice by unscrupulous characters 'testing the waters' on our van. One even booted the front wing, leaving a mark, but was very apologetic as he sped off on his scooter. I'm sure, if we had not have been in the van, we would have come back to it and found a similar situation as Barcelona. City visits aren't conducive to van life!

Never the less we persevered and booked in for a couple of nights stay in the campsite, catching the bus in to Rome itself the next day. Rome is a mix mash of old and new. It's obvious that the city is proud of it's heritage. Every piece of architecture was cordoned off and had placards explaining what you were looking at, from huge decrepid religious places, with only the columns still standing, to the famous grand Colosseum. Yet all around was a modern, thriving city. Taxi's jostled for position, tourists looked around in amazement/bewilderment and the locals bustled past as if we were all just annoying moving obstacles.

We walked around looking for food in what was reportedly the food quarter, but only came across little quaint, expensive Italian restaurants or small takeaway pizza type places. So after a little more walking and some increasingly sore feet decided to grab a taxi and head over to our destination for the night.
We'd heard of a funky house night at a night club called AKAB. The tag line of "I fink U Freaky" did it for me! But before the mayhem that is a night out on the town we thought it best to grab a bite to eat. The restaurant we chose was a very swanky looking one. We went full bore on the food as well, having what ever we wanted, starters, desserts, lots of bottles of wine and came out full, and over 100 Euros lighter! So much for Vagabonding! We will put this down as another 'treat' then.

The club was next to a bar and we proceeded to get blind drunk after all the wine at dinner and now beers. The queue for the club was round the corner. Desperate to get in, as I'd just got in the dancing mood, we ambled towards the front to check out the door. It wasn't open yet, but as we walked nearer the doors opened and we just casually walked in front of everyone queuing and were first in the club! No entrance fees, no waiting... just two drunkards bimbling through the night! What happens next is anyones guess. But we landed back at the campsite at 6am still partying in the taxi!

The next day was a write off... I blame my better half! It's always good to have a blow out night... but my word do I feel it the next day. After two days in Rome it was time to move on. Cities aren't places for vans. However we'd researched a fantastic sounding aire located in Pisa and decided to set the compass...North

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Ancient City of Pompeii...

A strange thing... to walk on streets 2000 years old.

Colosseum with rare solid floor 
But that's what we found ourselves doing after a short drive North and towards the looming Mount Vesuvius. The Pompeii we all know and love is now a district of the modern city Pompei (notice the subtle difference?). Parking the van was comparatively easy and after a few minutes paying for tickets and we were met with a huge Colosseum type building and the slaves entrance through a few tunnels opening out in to the amphitheater.

This theater had a solid floor, unlike other Roman remains, and so gave the viewer an immense sense of immersion. If I blanked out the hoards of old and chinese people (Two seperate groups, sometimes combined) it really felt like I could have been there... doomed by my previous owner as he sold me to the slave master for the measly sum of 2 Denarius's (Roman coinage). Luckily I only had to fight off the urge to photo bomb the Chinese tourists as Kerry and I walked to and through the otherside of the arena.

All around Pompeii there are typical, stepped vineyards. All of the vines are orientated to a certain direction to give greatest exposure to the sun, and consequently increasing yield of grapes. Each yard was owned and operated by a well-to-do Roman aristocrat and produced their own seperate brand of wine with completely different grape varieties. By looking at the grape vines that were buried in the ash, archaeologists were able to determine over 400 totally different types of grape vine.

So what's all this about ash? Who's he? Mount Vesuvius is actually a comparably very active volcano. It's most notable eruption was in 79AD when it spat tons of rock, ash and gases 20 miles in to the atmosphere. It produced running lava flows consisting of 1.5 million tons of material per second. That's a lot of rock!

The result to the neighbouring cities of Pomepeii and Herculaneum was a deposit of ash and rock nearly 3 metres thick in places. This rock and ash was devastating to the cities. An estimated 16,000 people died in the initial lava flow and rock expulsion. Archaeologically, however, this layer protected the site, maintaining a whole Roman city in that one instant, when the volcano erupted. After excavating a large portion it is now open to the public.

Ruins of the Basillica used by Roman Pompeii citizens for prayer

We walked around the streets of Pompeii as if it was a sort of theme park. There was no sombriety shown by any of the multi-national sightseers. And I myself didn't feel like I do when I've visited war graves in Belgium, or any grave for that matter. Because this is what Pompeii is... A mass grave. Granted it's in quite an obscure setting, how many graves ARE a city as well?

Perhaps the whole place detaches itself from the reality of what happened? Maybe it's just too preserved. Walking around the streets and sometimes you could wonder what all the fuss was about. The infrastructure is still there, roads are very definable, kurbs, sewers, swimming pools, even obligatory modern water pipes to quench the thirst of today's unattached spectators.

What was actually quite disturbing to me was the few lost souls who were truly immortalised by the eruption. Some city dwellers met their end asleep such as this guy in the glass case. That is not their actual physical self mummified. The cast is made of plaster of Paris and is injected in to the void that the now rotted flesh left behind. It enforces the very speed in which events occurred.

I found it very vivid. Some buildings and rooms were open. Anyone could walk inside, there were spectacular pictures painted on the walls with barely any empty space. You could walk around the house, as if you were there before the eruption. Shops still had their frontage and pots for their wares. 

 There was also some interesting conservation work being done. This photo demonstrated how they use scaffolding systems to support falling sections of wall. It appeared that rainfall had dug away at the foundations.

As we progressed through the labyrinth of streets, some with massive 'speed humps', the landscape opened out in to a sort of square with the ruins of a respectably sized basillica. This was obviously the main congregation area of the city with decorative fountains and large open spaces.

It then transpired that we had come in to the city through the back entrance and we were spat out at the main entrance a few minutes walk around the walls of the city from our van and where we had entered.

Both Kerry and I were hungry when we got back to the van and having an hour left on the parking meter took the chance to grab some cheap food in the form of a kebab. Kebab, chips and a drink dented our pocket to the tune of 6 Euros a head and we were fully satisfied for the drive to Rome which we wanted to get done before night fall.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Vollo del Angelo...

Diego showed us an amazing video.. and it made us want to be in the video...

At dinner on the last night we were at Diego's farm talk turned toward where we would go and what we would do after leaving. We'd already planned to visit Kerry's Grandad, Vito's farmhouse in Contursi Terme but thought it couldn't hurt to ask for other ideas.

The woofer who was staying with Diego was called Rossella. She was in her 30's and had stayed with Diego and everyone else at the farm for a whole year! She had told me how beautiful the landscape was around Potenza and Matera where she came from. So when Diego showed us a video of him doing the Vollo Del Angelo, which is smack bank in the middle of the two towns Rossella mentioned, it seemed like the ideal thrill seeker activity and within minutes we'd booked ourselves a space.

Prepare....... Engage!
The Vollo del Angelo means 'Flight of the Angel' in English. It is a set of zip wires that shoot people 1.5km across a large ravine in the Dolomite mountain range at up to 70 miles per hour! There are two routes on two totally separate wires. Both wires connect the two mountain towns of Castelmessano and Pietrapertosa just in different directions.

When booking online it became apparent that their operational season was coming to an end and we booked on the last day they would run that year! Instant regret washed over me as I read the stats back after booking. 1.5km long 70 mph 400 metres up. uh oh.

I'm petrified of heights. I really am. You know when someone says they go weak at the knees. It's no bull shit. I've had it happen and physically had to sit down. I start to shake uncontrollably, even if I'm desperate to do what ever it is i'm at height for.

Getting to the first town Castelmessano was more eventful than we expected. Three Quarters of the van's exhaust system decided to leave us while we were on the motorway. Luckily all of the boxes were on the front part of the system and she doesn't sound or run any different! A small pit-stop had to be made in a lay-by to ensure everything was safe and to recover the hunk of metal off the road.

Save me oh holy helmet
We pulled in to Castelmessano and was inundated with traffic. It's obvious the Vollo del Angelo is a major tourist attraction, bringing people to an otherwise overlooked section of Italy. I say overlooked because the mountain range is really magnificent. Parking was a nightmare but eventually we were walking to the first platform. Kerry, bless her, found the 20 minute walk up the side of the mountain a little strenuous. The air was definitely thinner.

We got to the first station amid a clatter of Italian hollering and gesturing. I don't speak a word of Italian. We were told to wait a bit. After about 45 minutes no one had gone on the zip wire and I was getting more and more scared. All sorts of thoughts were running through my head. The last person to go had had an accident. They'd found a fault in the cabling. A helicopter had hit the wire. A meteor was scheduled to hit the mountain any minute. The world was just about to explode in to tiny space fragments.

What was more likely is that we'd got there just as lunch started and now they'd all finished it was time to 'fly'. Kerry and I were at the top first and so, naively, thought we would be going first. I always prefer to go first. Then I don't get to see the process, watch how it all works, see any of the mistakes that can be made. I'd already convinced myself that every bolt was tight and every weld was good and strong. Now I had to witness everyone who had turned up behind Kerry and I go on the bloody thing before us!

At long last they pointed at me, dressed to the nines in a sort of suspended sleeping bag. God knows what that tiny helmet is there for. If shit hits the fan I'm plunging 400 metres to the ravine floor, a bit of plastic clad polystyrene isn't going to help me.

I got hooked up and instantly felt more scared. They put on a small piece of material to act as a wind break. Dependent on the last riders landing speed and weight they then determine which size 'wing' to put on. I got a yellow one. I don't know what that means. Then with a little 'Enjoy your flight, Ciao' the woman pulled the release and I was set forth to my doom.

Kerry coming in to land
The first 7 or 8 seconds I was flying fairly low over a small field but then the floor literally fell away as I shot over the cliff and in to the ravine. Instantly I felt calm... I was totally removed from the situation. It was as if I wasn't there. I was simply viewing what was going on. As if through a television screen. In a video game maybe? And it was awesome! Every feeling of fear literally dropped out of me. I was able to simply enjoy the whole experience.

I looked in all directions, whizzing along the steel cable with a constant humming noise. To my left the ravine opened out to a vast pasture, to the right the ravine cut deep in to the mountains. Below me were sharp, stalactite like rock formations and then the road, weaving and winding it's way up the other side to the town of Pietrapertosa. Then it dawned on me. I've now got to 'land', and I have no idea how that works! I could see the platform rushing towards me, oh crap!

It was fine. I hit a small break and was sharply, but not violently, brought to a halt.The attendant unclipped me and I walked away, unscathed, unharmed and with a strong desire to do this all day long! Thank god there was the return journey!

The Vollo del Angelo is a spectacular experience. A must see for anyone in the area, and a worthy cause to travel for it if your not in the area. I've heard there is going to be a similar attraction installed on Mount Snowdon. If that's true... I'm there!

Enjoy the video below. It is filmed by Youtube user David Kilpatrick and shows both flights from each of the towns. It gives a good taste for what to expect, but does not in any way replicate the experience. For that your going to have to head over to Italy and strap yourself in! You won't regret it!