Week 4 – Sperlonga to L’Aquila


As expected, the week started with a hard speed-work session running along the beach with a good hot shower after. The plan was to leave Sperlonga but the weather was gorgeous and the beach just so nice, we decided to stay another day! We had a long meander along the beach to the caves (which were unfortunately sealed off) and then into town for an ice cream with the most chocolatie of chocolate ice creams ever. Lovely! With a superb week 3 and a magnificent start to week 4 – we were looking forward to the rest of the week…

With the joys of not having a plan and having Internet access, someone on the Internet who read our website (Eddied) notified us of a place nearby where you can camp inside a volcano – sounds interesting – so on an overcast morning TomTom set to somewhere where it is going to be very warm!! We went via Santa Maria Capua Vetere where there is the second largest amphitheatre which is more “open” than the Colosseum. Finding the town was easy enough, but signs to the monument were scarce forcing us to drive round the rather grim and rubbish strewn town. When we did find it – it looked grubby and where we parked the van (anywhere in the town!) we weren’t comfortable.

So we left hastily down towards Pozzuoli and the volcano. This part of Italy doesn’t seem the most picturesque and considering we’d come from a stunning area we were shocked to see rubbish fly tipped everywhere. Even on the motorway the “breakdown lay-bys” were absolutely full of rubbish with a fair few dead dogs on the side which pleased Mel no end.

We got to the campsite in Pozzuoli through a very tight arch which has scars of numerous ruined holidays on the entrance where the guy refused to accept our valid discount card – not a good start! A tour around the crater was interesting with sulphur, mud and steam venting off and the ground being rather warm! The natural volcanic sauna/steam room was not much more than a glorified shed which smelt like someone let off a big one and locked the door (natural sulphur) so we’ll avoid that. We went for a tour of the town which was being done up in the tourist places, marina and promenade, but everything else was graffiti bound with lots of wild cats/dogs – worse than Spain. There were a fair few Greek ruins – some quite good (the amphitheatre) but unfortunately locked and closed, and some up roads that are literally full of s**t so best avoided. In places you couldn’t tell if the ruins were Greek or just modern day ruins – though the amount of graffiti helped date them.

Spending the night in the volcano crater was an experience, half expecting to die and be found in 1000 years (aka Pompeii) leaving the historians to work out why 2 people lived in a 4.8m van and had so many gadgets with them. We had planned to go to Naples but the campsite was quite pricey and we would not have felt safe leaving the van in the town so instead legged it to Pompeii.

Foolishly we opted for an interesting route to Pompeii, via Naples. The road has to be the worst we’ve ever been on – potholes didn’t describe it, and cobbles that were just awful with major holes in. Driving too was interesting, so we now drive here like a native – ignoring red lights, lines, not indicating, and just driving into non existent gaps with oncoming traffic and beeping locals who got in the way. In fairness, this technique works well and (if performed with consideration) everyone copes well and it becomes fairly stress free – and I would suggest the Italian drivers are a lot more aware of others compared to so called “good UK drivers”. Through Naples we had a conversation with some Naples big-wig who (though moving car-van transfer) gave us some freebies and a magazine with him in. We also got his number as “If we have problems in Naples he can sort them out for us”. Actually, there is a little campsite that refused my discount card…..

The campsite at Pompeii was as expected, cheap, cheerful and convenient. We toured the ruins which were interesting but very cold. Worth a visit, but to be honest you can get too many ruins – they became a blur after a while – especially with the modern buildings between Pompeii and Naples (!). After defrosting with a hot drink we spent an age with the guide books figuring where we can go where its a little quieter. On the bright side, there is a motorway junction just across the road for a quick exit!

On leaving Pompeii the high density population quickly became empty, and the run down to Paestum was very deserted. All the towns seemed geared for summer only and were pretty much closed. The Paestum ruins were however worth the visit – superb to walk around and see the old Greek buildings (modified by Romans) – and the museum was also worth a tour. Really enjoyable tour – better than Pompeii we reckon. Shame everything within 20 miles was closed.

As such, according to the information available to us, continuing South would have been into the same off-season towns which would be closed, so we headed back east towards the second half of our trip. We went to Pertosa to see the caves but didn’t go in. The next tour was quite a long wait, and we also set a “whats it worth” price before we go in, and the actual price was around twice what we thought. As we’ve been in caves a few times on our last few trips we said we’d rather have a decent meal out instead. So we headed off again only to hit snow! We stopped at Potenza to consider looking round, but it looked too much like Slough, then the snow came down fairly fast so thought we’d give up and head to Matera. We made it just before sunset, only to drive round for over an hour to find the so-called official camper parking. The signs just seemed to vanish; the book address wasn’t clear enough; and the GPS data points were pretty random. After more than an hour we gave in and decided to just wild camp anywhere safe and get the beers open ready to explore in the morning. After some Internet research, we found where the official spot was but it was a new building site – nice of them not to remove the signs!

Matera is famous for its Sassis which are houses made into the cliffs. There are some new Sassi which are cleverly built and its hard to tell where the rock ends and the buildings start. They also seem to be built on top of each other – all very impressive. On the other side is the old Sassi where people were living till the ‘50s or ‘60s. These are now empty but you can wander round and look inside – very interesting showing people lived in quite dire conditions. Loads of little streets to get lost in –very impressive and well worth the visit. Let down only by cold wind and rain.

In need of a run, and the sun, we decided to head to the coast in the hope of getting clear sun away from the hills, and flat running paths next to the beaches! We chose Brindisi as our target which would probably be the furthest point from home on this trip before heading northwards towards home.

Brindisi was, to be fair, not great – so after a quick tour we headed up the coast and found a little village called Savelletri which appeared to have a new harbour. Loads of room so we parked up here and went for a good flat n fast 6 mile run through the neat local farms and past the castle. Really quite interesting and pretty small holdings with old walls that look as old as the castle. The village had a couple of bars so we had a beer and wild camped watching the rough sea for the night.

In the morning we visited Alberobello where they have literally hundreds of really old round huts with stone roofs. Walking around was actually really impressive as it appeared to be a working town with tourism rather than a full on tourist trap. Some quite amazing structures of the huts joined together, and also on the outskirts of the town in the fields. Well worth a visit.

From there we headed back to the cost to Monopoli which was a more Pall Mall than Park Lane. On to Bari which was more Whitechapel through to Giovinazzo (Regent Street) where we had lunch. There is a really beautiful old walled town here and the new main square was clean and welcoming. Loads of suitable places for parking overnight but foolishly we continued to Trani which was okay but not pleasant enough for an overnight stay. Continuing north we assumed the coast road would have some nice places to park up – but for mile after mile there was nothing suitable. Getting weary we made it to Manfredonia and found a quiet area overlooking the sea and pitched there and cracked open our last beer! Unfortunately its so off season that most restaurants are closed or empty so struggling to find decent places to eat out! Tesco reserves for tea then!

With fingers crossed we set our route to a campsite that looked, in the book, to be pretty good. Our choices were limited due to most being closed till mid April. After a lovely drive through and over Parco Nazionale del Gargano (some lovely wild-camping options) – we got to the campsite (ill-aptly named “Camping 5 star”. Wary, we parked outside and Mel checked it out. “Grim & dirty” was the verdict, so we decided to venture on seeking somewhere nice and somewhere we can at last fill up with water from a clean source!

After a fair few false hopes, and literally nowhere we fancied stopping, we eventually made it to L’Aquila. A fair trek with some beautiful views of snowy mountains and little villages in the Gran Sasso national park. We found a free fully serviced aire with 3 vans already there – the first vans we have seen for a long time! As we arrived just as it was turning dark we’ll save the town till the start of week 5.

So at the end of week 4 we have mixed feelings. We’ve not enjoyed most of the South (pretty much the area we covered during this week) – its been pretty grim in places and not to our standard in terms of what we like; cleanliness and where we are comfortable. Bizarrely we drove past a signpost in Bari that described some of it well. That said, even with hindsight we would absolutely do the area again as the sites we saw are probably all unique and all worth a visit. We would just plan the fastest route between them and get back to more northern areas as soon as possible rather than trying to stumble on nice places. We expect (and hope!) from L’Aquila north things will get much better.

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