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Friday, August 6, 2010

Southern Italy by Hill Town

Hot hot Hot! Catholic tourists quenching their thirst at the Vatican

I'm writing from the Agoudimos Ferry to Igoumenitsa, which is now ploughing its way out of Brindisi harbour. Our time in Italy has been brief and a somewhat frantic journey across the calf and heel of Italy after the flight delays cut short our first day in Rome to a quick trip around the ring freeway to camping Tiber.

When I say frantic, it was also a steely focused trip, because we had taken out an Avis rental car with a 1000 euro excess and 2000 excess for theft and so we had to navigate our little Peugeot 107 through the gauntlet of cheeky aggressive Italian drivers who are ready at any time to take advantage and pull out in front of you if they think they can call you out, which they all do, even nuns in shrouds, forcing one to to screech to a halt and blast on the horn or to call their bluff and push on through, as they jockey their way through crowded intersections with no respect for right of way, and in the case of truck drivers, to relentlessly squeeze you at sharp corners to the point they are about to rip the side of your car before you let out a clarion blast and reverse at high speed out of the pincer grip.

Panorama of St. Peters (note the massive crowds on the right in the enlargement)

Turning the tables on Catholic fascism (note the mafiosi minders right about to act)

The first day after arrival we had a hazy plan to spend half the day looking at some of the sights of Rome and then proceed on to some of the more attractive hill towns on the way south to Naples. So we took off to the Vatican to show Christine the despotic pagan paradox of the high centre of Catholicism and duly found a park a few blocks away before stumping up to the plaza of St. Peters only to find it flooded with Catholic holiday makers forming milling crowds, making it impossible to get into the edifice in reasonable time. Since I have already been thrown out of St. Peters and threatened with arrest in 1999 for filming a documentary in the plaza, we already have it pretty well taped.

Too many Catholic holiday makers to try to stick around

We then decided to take off forsaking the relatively static realities of the Forum and Coliseum, but found ourselves caught up in the Roman traffic system heading north west until we did a U-turn and managed to get ourselves heading south-east out of the centro through some ingenious manoeuvres through little roads leading through some of the big parks. At this point we decided to cut our losses and get on the road, because we were already nearly a day late to make our traverse across the heel of Italia.

Camping on the Tiber

So we set off for Albano, which we had confused with the hill town of Anagni, wondering when we got there why we had come, since it was anything but stunning. However, surprise of surprises, on leaving we found there was a road leading after only a few kms to a fairy tale gem of Castel Gandolfo, where by coincidence the pope has his palace overlooking lake Albano from a truly heavenly height.

The Pope's observatory in his palace at Castel Gandolfo

Heavenly overview of Lago Albano from the Pope's palace (click to enlarge)

Guardians of the faith!

You can immediately see where Tolkien got the name Gandalf, just as the Mines of Moria came from the Mount in the centre of Jerusalem, and as gollum comes from the apparition of Jewish folklore.

So, having missed out on the relics of Nero, Trajan and Constantine, and the catacombs of the Christian martyrs, we got the paradoxical consolation prize of the castle-palace where the men who excommunicated Galileo seem to have become obsessed with astronomy themselves, judging from the fact that the palace is crowned by multiple observatories where the prelates of history could gaze in increasing consternation at the heavens above, which fail to conform in any way to the preconceived commitment to a flat earth universe.

Our trip across Italy now became a tale of the ochre-coloured hill towns that loom on almost every precipice in sight, either perched right on the summit of a craggy hill, or built in a precipitous wedge on the escarpments bordering high ridges. We have been to the hill towns of Portugal and the white towns, or pueblos blancos, of Andalucia, so this is completing a theme of culture, architecture and history. This also provided sweeping views of the Italian landscapes from the promontories.

In trying to figure how and why Italy is so particularly overflowing with these traditional hill towns, which are now threatening to suffer a population disaster because largely it is the old who remain, while the young seek the cities, and in this season, the beaches and discos, we hit upon one idea which seems to make sense. Each hill town seems to have developed from a feudal system where there is a prominent castle as a defensive centre around, which the town gradually forms.

This tallies with the fact that, despite the rule of the popes throughout Europe and the predominance of merchant cities such as Venice and Florence, Italy spent much of its history a collection of small fiefdoms, and never became an integrated country until very recently, possibly only a century or so ago.


Lunch in Montecompatri

Panorama of the lunch view (click to enlarge)


Ingeniously, Christine managed to find a good road map of Italy in the little book shop on the corner of the square in Castel Gandolfo, so from there we made a tortuous journey across the mountains west of Rome past Montecompatri, arriving at the hill town of Palestrina getting on for sunset.

Golden oldies sharing the afternoon shade in Palestrina


The camp site near Sperlonga

From there, we spent a long evening trying to get to a camp site, eventually driving down to the coast in the night finding ridiculously expensive campsites (up to 50 euros) every 50 metres along the beach eventually staying near Sperlonga, at a funky little camp site which had a nice grass pitch, but suffered from Jesus freaks trying to converse for an hour about loving God at midnight, beach ravers returning in the small hours and roosters crowing at the break of dawn.

The beach front

Battery hen sunbathing further down the coast

A picture series of Suio Alto

Panorama of the sweeping view from Siou Alto

The next day we ended up looping north again getting thoroughly lost up a blind road into the hill country above Suio Alto and then winding tortuously back to Montecasino the hill monastery famous for a siege in the Second World War, before hitting the highway north west arriving at the hill town of Gambatesa at around 5 pm which I had located while using Google Earth Street View to locate possible gypsy camping spots back in New Zealand.

The road to Monte Casino

Torrential rain threatening the viability of camping

A picture series of Gambetesa

Panorama of Gambaetsa

As we had no idea where to look for a camp site, we drove down to the little hydro lake Lago de Ochito become a conservation reserve, and after searching around a bit found a side track leading down to a secluded pine forest by the Lake where we spent a night gypsy camping in the silence of the wilderness.

Lago Ochito

The road to Trani


This left the final day to Brindisi needing a real blast of traveling, so we set out with a vengeance to navigate without fuck up and got ourselves all the way to the seaside castles and white stone cathedrals and old towns of Trani and Barletta.

Trani's white stone cathedral, castle and old town

This was followed by a beeline for the strange Trulli houses of the region around Alberobello, peaked conical stone rooves made by placing flat stones in ever diminishing rings looking as if they are a prehstoric remnant from the time before arches and domes were discovered.

Finally we emerged on a wild little wind-swept beach just short of Brindisi and then drove into town to discover the Carpe Diem hostel closed till 5 pm and populated by a bunch of barking dogs. We stayed the night there, an idiosyncratic throwback to the youth hostels with dire rules like no food only water in the bedrooms, no washing clothes and everyone out for the whole afternoon, something we haven't seen in any of the backpacker style hostels from Chile to Ireland.

Panorama of the marina and castle at Brindisi (click to enlarge)

Finally we emerged on a wild little wind-swept beach just short of Brindisi and then drove into town to discover the Carpe Diem hostel closed till 5 pm and populated by a bunch of barking dogs. We stayed the night there, an idiosyncratic throwback to the youth hostels with dire rules like no food only water in the bedrooms, no washing clothes and everyone out for the whole afternoon, something we haven't seen in any of the backpacker style hostels from Chile to Ireland.

This morning after refitting the front tooth I lost eating an atrocious pizza provided by the management in lieu of letting us cook, which Christine ingeniously found lying under the table in the morning, we took back the Avis rental car to a plaza in the centro and took a taxi for 20 euros to the port where after having to go back to the Agoudimos office nearby to get our electronic ticket converted into a real ticket, we made it onto the ferry, which is near deserted, probably a casualty of the Greek crisis hitting the tourist industry.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the tour of Italy in 2005. Now after 10 years, most of the things have changed and so we friends are planing to visit Italy once again. We bought Italy Road Map and booked the flight tickets too. Thanks for sharing the experiences you had in Italy.