Chapter four

Day17 Wednesday 17th Dec

Cefalu’ to Gioia Tauro

Before leaving the hotel in Cefalu’ I checked my compass and found that we finally agreed on the location of North.

It has been strange these past few weeks to see the sun rise in the south and set again in the middle of the afternoon, again in the south. ”Whatever happened to east and west?” my poor brain calls as it struggles with a northern hemisphere perspective.

My basic navigation system is no longer reliable, the automatic clocking of north that has been my support for more than 50 years is useless.

Over a small headland, around the corner from the town centre is located a small marina where the fishing “fleet” and the rental boats are anchored. It is a reasonable size and there are also many local boats.

We stopped here for a little while before departing. It is called Cefalu’ Port a rather grand name but very pleasant. This is another of those picture perfect places with small boats and locals doing their thing. Very quiet for the winter, just a few fishermen etc. I could spend some time right here.

A few minutes to take a couple of last pics and we were heading east again on the autostrada straight for Messina, the southern gateway to Italy.

In many places the autostrada has tunnels to connect long stretches where otherwise a climb over a mountain or large hill would be required.

On the first half, maybe 80 kilometres or so, it was the other way round. It was one long series tunnels broken up occasionally for a glimpse of daylight. Some were only 100 metres long, but many were longer than 2 kilometres and there at least 50 of them.

The second half was more normal, but there still would have been another 25 or 30 tunnels before we left the autostrada in Messina.

As I watch the scooter riders weaving through the traffic in Messina, I wonder if the law in Sicilia requires helmets as I see about half with and half without. Often the ones without, have a pillion who also declines the invitation.
As we were one of the first cars to embark on the ferry trip back to the mainland, we ended up on the top deck. In the photo, that is about where the name appears on the port side of the vessel. The moveable steel ramps inside, leave no room for error in judgement.

An hour later we were back in Gioia Tauro (hooray) and we ended the day with the dinner with the family. The apartment was smelly again but that is all part of the experience.

Day18 Thursday 18th Dec

We had said our goodbyes last night, but we were glad to leave the key on the table and after loading the car in the rain and head north.

One thing our cold apartment had was a washing machine. What it didn’t have, among other things, was a dryer, which meant wet clothes hung over the heater. After packing our bags into the boot, we spread our washing like a Chinese Laundry, on every surface in the car we could find.

This is a cruisy day, basically just sitting on the freeway, stopping occasionally for coffee, eating our sandwiches Julie made before we left and watching the world go by our windows.

We drove up the autostrada through the middle of the leg of Italy and the country slowly changed from the distinctive southern look, to a more European look, with rusty trees in winter mode and fields without crops.

In the distance we can see the tantalizing white of snow on mountain tops.

Our objective was a city called Potenza, inland from Naples and close to the centre of Italy.

About lunchtime, we came to a diversion, which is very common on the Italian autostrada we have discovered.

The nearest town was Lauria and this put us on a small country (yellow) road barely wide enough for 2 vehicles, through at least 6 villages, (visualize large trucks on streets maybe 16 feet across) onto a standard 2 way (red road) and finally some 40 kilometres and an hour later, back onto the autostrada at Padula where we fueled up again.

Despite this delay, by 3.30pm we had reached our objective for the night, a city called Potenza, which, like many cities in Italy, has hotels that have direction signs on the roads leading to them, but display miniscule or no signs on the actual buildings to let you know you have arrived.

As a result, one follows the signs until they disappear and then you have to choose between following another hotel sign or backtracking the first hotel sign until the signs run out in the opposite direction. You then know that the hotel is somewhere between these two points. After that it is generally best to stop the vehicle, get out and look for clues.

Given that it is dark by 4.30 pm, the traffic will be intense and the streets exceedingly narrow, 3.30 pm is a good time to arrive.

Potenza is not a memorable city, it’s a university, government and military town, displaying hundreds of accommodation towers from 6 to 12 stories, lining every road on every hillside, surrounding the original ancient township. Not un-pleasant, just not memorable.

The hotel (yes, we found one after 40 minutes of backtracking) was flash 50 years ago and like every other building in Potenza, had a great view. The room was adequate, the people pleasant and the internet worked.

We had no inspiration to leave the hotel to explore the city and had dinner in the dining room.

Day19 Friday 19th Dec.

The hotel in Potenza was built over a commercial parking garage, a rare thing in Italy I think. After retrieving our keys from the attendant we heading off down the long hill into the morning traffic.

The overcast sky was the same as yesterday, a cold-looking haze across the landscape, but there was no sign of rain.

We spent 40 minutes developing a chummy familiarity with the crowded streets of Potenza. Why we did so, I cannot satisfactorily answer, however we did eventually find our way out of this not so large city.

Today’s plan is to carve directly up the middle of Italy until we reach L’Aqulia the capital of the Abruzzo region.

We both have the sniffles and have used up a carton of  tissues and 25 toilet rolls (OK a slight exaggeration) but nothing to worry us. Thanks Claudio.

L’Aquila is in the mountains, over 2000 feet above sea level in the middle of Italy and on the eastern side of the mountain range that splits the country. In fact Rome, halfway between north and south, is just over the mountains to the west.

We plan to spend 4 days in the area and will probably make the capital our base.

The air is already cold and we are still on the plains that make up the central part of the country. As we travel north up the autostrada the countryside turns to fertile rolling hills, not very high, but widely spaced, much like some of Australia’s best farming country.

It reminded us of the Lockyer Valley, or even the Atherton Tablelands

Aside from leafless grapevines, agriculture has mostly paused for the winter.

The first two thirds of the road to Foggia was two way traffic and flat country means the only entertainment is on the road, where we latched onto a procession let by the “lock you up” police. Once I saw a few brave souls launch past this obstacle, I too created a new middle lane (straddle the single or double lines up the middle).

The on-coming drivers are good about it, no flashing head lights and moral outrage from Italian drivers. Everyone just moves over a bit and we all get on with it. Very civilized.

Now we are more towards the East coast the terrain has given way to wide open plains that stretch to the sea. This is country you could mistake for the Darling Downs.

In the last day and a half, we have crossed from the West coast in the distant south to the East coast more than halfway up the country. We can see the ocean from the autostrada but ahead lies Pescara and from there the East-West autostrada that will take us back inland to our destination, L’Aquila.

Far away to our left we can see the snow on the mountains before meeting Pescara’s answer to the Gateway Bridge, except theirs is a tunnel. A few minutes later, and before we reach Pescara, our turn off West has arrived.

As we turn in the direction of Rome, the mountain range looms large in front.

For the next hour it’s a steady climb followed by a long tunnel then another climb and descent and another tunnel (some over 4 kilometres long). The air is really cold now and we have to increase the heat in our diesel box.

All around there are mountains close enough to touch, with thick snow on the peaks extending down almost to the freeway. This is fun, similar to flying through the mountains without the gnawing uneasiness.

A long mostly straight descent to 2000 feet and L’Aquila appears, not too big, with a long concrete viaduct on the other side of the valley, the extension of the autostrada continuing on to Rome.

The man who takes the money at the autostrada termination was friendly and gave us the directions we asked for to the railway station. The idea was that once there, we could get info on all the hotels in L’Aquila and more importantly, get clear directions on how to find them. As we would be here for 4 days, maybe even an apartment instead of a hotel room.

Naturally we saw hotel signs everywhere we looked and even saw a few hotels with names on them.

His directions were probably good, but we ended up, as usual, in the middle of the narrowest and most crowded streets in town, in fact right outside the cathedral just off the main street..

Here we asked a passerby for the same directions, but she just rolled her eyes and told us to park the car and walk around the corner to the nearest hotel.

Her advice was good as we ended up at the very flash, genuine 4-Star Hotel Centrale at the epicenter of town. The usual tarrif (we saw on the back of the door to our suite, note suite, not just a room) was from $160 to $230 a night. Lucky we got it for $90. It’s nice, but there is no way I would pay nearly $2000 Australian for 4 nights here in peak season.

Did I mention it is cold? Bloody hell it’s cold. Tomorrow I am going to buy a thermometer.

Day20 Saturday 20th Dec.

We went out for pizza last night and walked a few streets to see the sights. The place has a nice atmosphere, somehow a family feel about it, which is unusual for a city. We walked into a place that had a long entrance, somewhat dark so we were afraid we would be too early, after all it was only 7.40pm.

The place was interesting to say the least. There were already a few patrons having pizza in what turned out to be an ex-theatre. It was quite modern by Italian standards with 5 different types of marble and was built about the time Australia was settled.

It was converted into a restaurant about 80 years ago. $20 gets you dinner and wine, Julie had pasta, I had one of those enormous pizzas you can’t finish. By the time we left around 9pm it was starting to get busy.

No trek today, so it’s just a leisurely breakfast, and to start, a familiarization walk around.

We got to the car about 12.30 and took a drive out of town to see some mountains and villages, but forgot to pack a lunch. We found a little ristaurante in a village open at 2.45, which was a surprise. The young mother and her two daughters made us welcome, but the dialect made it too difficult to choose from a verbal menu.

I just asked her to feed us whatever she liked and we had an excellent tasty 3 course with wine and coffee for $30. Couldn’t eat it all of course. I took a photo of one of the girls outside the shop down the street, which by now was open, as was the rest of the town.

Her older sister was inside converting our special 1 euro each tip plus some change given to them by another customer, into a present all wrapped for someone special presumably.

By the time we got back to L’Aquila it was dark, but we have become quite adept at finding our way through the complex Italian towns, even in the dark, which it was by 5pm. Very dark in fact.

After a recovery drink and a snack to hold us over until Italian dinner time, we walked the town centre again. Saturday night at 6.30 and the shops were buzzing. We bought supplies, make light conversation with shop keepers and picked up pizza for a night in. By 8.30 the streets were mostly deserted.

As cities go, this is nice.

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