Buongiorno Italy…. .

It was an interesting ferry trip across to Bari from Dubrovnik.  We waited in the queue to be directed but when no direction was forthcoming, and several other vehicles seemed to be making their way to border control, we got out to investigate.  Apparently we were supposed to have been down to the Jadrolinja Ferries office a few hundred metres away to collect our boarding passes and then we could get in the queue for border control.  How were we supposed to know that?

Having got our boarding passes we then waited forever in the queue at border control.  In our queue it seemed to be taking about ten minutes per vehicle to get the passports and vehicle V5 document checked.  We’ve never been asked for the V5 before and I’m not sure what they actually do with them but the border man was tap tap tapping away on his computer.  Finally through border control we were directed on which lane to queue up in.  Lorries to the left, everybody else to the right.

The lorries were loaded first but oh look, they’re going on backwards.  Every last one of them.  Oh joy, it looked like we would be reversing onto the ferry then.  Yep, other than a few cars everyone went on backside first.  There was only one way in and one way out of the ferry.  Thankfully by the time it was our turn the bowels of the boat were pretty much full and just a fairly short reverse was required.  Just as well it was Tim doing the driving as my reversing is hopeless.  In all the ferries we have been on we have never been packed in so tight. It was all a little too close for comfort.

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We have never before been packed in this tight on a ferry!

On board we felt like we had stepped back in time by thirty years.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s we made several trips to France with Brittany Ferries from Plymouth to Roscoff and the boat felt like the same vintage.  I even said at the time ‘I bet Jadrolinja bought this boat off Brittany Ferries’ as there were a few French safety signs still lurking about.  So, I’ve just looked it up and Wikipedia reliably informs me that Jadrolinja did in fact buy the MF Dubrovnik from Brittany Ferries who had owned it from 1989 to 1996.  It was built in 1979 in Ireland for a UK company.  So there we are a nice useless piece of information for you.  It’s no wonder a blog post takes me so long to write when I get side tracked all the time.

Rolling off the ferry in Bari it was disorganised chaos as we were directed into oncoming traffic coming off another ferry which had just docked.   They went to border control to the left of our ferry whilst we went to border control to the right of theirs.  Once again getting through border control took an age but we were finally waved through by a man sporting jeans, casual jacket, shades and a big gold sheriffs’ badge pinned to his jumper.  All very Miami Vice!

Once out of the port the fun began.  We knew coming into a port city in Italy would be a challenge but you do really need six pairs of eyes to keep track of the potholes in the road, mopeds screaming up the inside, overtaking cars, cars coming at you on the wrong side of the road, pedestrians ambling across the road, road works and hundreds of billboards and signs.  It wasn’t really the best time for our free sat nav app to have an off day but an off day is what she had.  After sending us in the wrong direction back towards the city for a second time I switched her off with a quick jab.  We finally managed to get clear of the city and its suburbs using the Maps.Me app.  I know I mention that app many times but it has been a life saver.

We arrived at a Sosta (Italian aire) at the Area Masseria Rodogna visitor centre outside Matera after a sixty five kilometre bone shaking drive, much of it in driving rain, feeling a bit jaded and wishing we’d just stayed at Bari port to depart on the next available ferry to Greece.

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The sosta at the ‘Area Masseria Rodogna’ visitor centre on the other side of the gorge from Matera.  Paulo, the centre manager, was very helpful providing a street map of the city and marked a walking route on it for us to follow. He also runs a mini bus service into Matera for €1.50 each way.

But what a difference twenty four hours makes.  I hadn’t done any research on Matera.  I hadn’t even downloaded the Rough Guide to Italy at that point.  I had just picked the sosta from the good reviews it had on the Camper Connect App.  The consensus of opinion was that it was a beautiful area and a beautiful town.  We didn’t realise what a treat we were in for.  Sometimes doing no research and having no preconceived ideas about a place is a really good thing.  And so it proved with Matera.  We were quite simply mesmerised by the sheer scale of the place set on the edge of a gorge.

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The sheer scale of Matera is immense.

Benedictine Monks built rock-hewn churches and monasteries into the stone, now called the Sassi (literally meaning ‘stones’), during the Middle Ages.  Later the 1500 or so cave dwellings were taken over and dug deeper by peasants and farmers seeking safety from invasions.  The people lived alongside their livestock in their underground homes.

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Inside one of the caves in the Sassi.

By the 1940’s, though, Matera was seen as ‘the shame of Italy’ with masses of people living in the Sassi in squalor and poverty.  In the 50’s twenty thousand Sassi-dwellers were forcibly removed from their underground homes and rehoused in modern districts in the new town.  The Sassi was abandoned and left to the ravages of nature.

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The abandoned Sassi is slowly being restored again.

In the late 1950’s a group of students, who had grown up in the town, founded a cultural club to set about discovering Matera’s past.  Over the years the group identified over one hundred and fifty cave churches concealing priceless Byzantine frescoes.  As the students grew older and became lawyers and politicians and businessmen they lobbied for funding to restore the Sassi and by 1993 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It will also be the European Capital of Culture in 2019.

P1100384.JPGHomes, B&B’s, hotels, restaurants and workshops now make up a large part of it with restoration still ongoing.  It easily made it into our top ten spectacular sites on our trip.

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Cute little homes.

Next we trundled the seventy kilometres east to the village of Alberobello making a Lidl and Launderette pitstop along the way.

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I know washing is dull and mundane to most people but when you have three weeks of washing to do and you just happen to spot a sign pointing to a self service launderette like this one with ample parking you kind of get deliriously happy! 

The area surrounding Alberobello is home to over 1500 trulli. 

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A terrace of Trulli in Alberobello.

Unique to the Puglia region the origins of these mortarless dwellings are obscure but it is generally thought that the dwellings, lived in by people working the land, could easily be pulled down when the tax inspectors arrived thereby saving their feudal lords some dosh.

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Many of the Trulli have been restored but a fair number are still in need of a fix up.

The drive over to Alberobello was very picturesque with the little pointy houses, some with large extensions, dotting the farming landscape enclosed by neat low dry stone walls.

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Trulli rooftops in Alberobello.

Many of the trulli in Alberobello have been taken over by tourist shops with a growing number being snapped up for holiday homes.  You won’t find a bargain though as they aren’t cheap.

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€225,000 for a Trulli.

On the way to Ostuni, or ‘white city’, as it is known we had our worst narrow street encounter on the trip so far.  As co-pilot I wasn’t paying attention when I should have been and didn’t realise until it was too late that the sat nav was taking us through the historic centre of Cisternino.  No going back – it was one way.  All we could do was breathe in and hope for the best.  Nope not enough room without hopping onto the pavement being mindful of over hanging balconies and steps up to front doors.  The only problem was we couldn’t get enough angle to get both the front and back wheel up the kerb and the back wheel persisted in sliding along the kerb with Ollie’s back end skewing out getting closer and closer to the parked cars.  Nope still not enough room as one car had been abandoned in a space with the front end on the pavement and the back end sticking out into the road.  By this time we’d drawn quite a crowd of onlookers and were being beeped at by the increasing line of traffic building up behind.  No pressure then.  Just when we thought we weren’t in a position to either go forwards or backwards without damage to us or the other vehicles the owner of the sticking out car arrived and very helpfully nudged it a few inches further onto the pavement so we could get by.  Once clear we pulled over as soon as we could to let the queue of cars past and for us to breathe out again and regroup!  It was a close one.  Hopefully never to be repeated.  Until the next time!

After tackling the most complicated parking metre ever known to man at a carpark in Ostuni we had a think about our next plans.

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Ostuni – also known as ‘the white city’.
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Piazza della Libertà.
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The ancient streets of Ostuni’s old town.

Do we want to spend any more time in Italy?  If not, where for winter?  Greece, Sicily or Sardinia?  Greece was on the loose plan when we set out on season 2 back in April.  We were just forty kilometres from Brindisi where we could get a ferry.  Mmm, too tempting.  Yep, let’s do it.  Greece here we come……….the rest of Italy will have to wait for another time.

Arrivederci Italy!

Slovenia…Italy…Slovenia… .

Biking in bright sunshine the beautiful eight miles or so to the Bohinj Bovine Ball we were in high spirits.  Arriving bright and early at 10.30am things were just starting to kick off.  Accordion music blasted from outdoor speakers, craft and food stalls had set out their wares and the barbecues were just cranking up.

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Cheesemaker’s at the Cow Ball.

We looked set for a good day out.  No cows to be seen yet as the parade was to be later on.  Three hours later on.  That would have been fine if the weather hadn’t deteriorated.   The clouds appeared, got lower, and lower, and lower, then drizzle came and then the rain.  Not torrential rain but that steady wetting sort of rain.  Not prepared, we mooched about in our sandals, shorts and non waterproof jackets slowly getting wet through.

Three hours was a long time to wait in the rain, with no shelter, for the parade of the cows.  We broke up the wait with a traditional Slovenian lunch of sausage, corn mush and sauerkraut which I can only describe as a flat sausage patty served on a bed of grit.  The cows, led by their herdsmen, were worth waiting for though trotting through the crowd, bells jangling, replete in their bouquets.  Calves, some as young as a few days old, and a bit skittish, hopped, skipped and jumped along after the adults.  They will graze in the valley now until early spring when they’ll go with their herdsmen back to their mountain pastures again.

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The parade of the cows.
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What handsome cows!

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Traditional cheesemaking equipment.

Back at the campsite we wrung out our clothes and sat steaming away in the van with the heater on full blast to dry out.   After another couple of days hiking and biking in dodgy weather we threw in the towel and headed for the north eastern coast of Italy.

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Savica waterfall.

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Bohinj Lake.

Once again, it was a bit of a culture shock driving back to civilisation once away from the Triglav National Park.  Several miles of retail outlets lined either side of the road into Udine where we’d planned a stop for the night.  It was one long strip of Malls, DIY stores, food outlets, supermarkets, garages and car showrooms which seemed to go on forever.  And ever.  The weather was warm and sunny but I already had that sinking feeling of ‘what are we doing here’ having no interest in any retail therapy and already missing the calm tranquillity of the Slovenian mountains, albeit a grey, wet and cold tranquillity.  We did, however, walk to the Decathlon shop a mile or so away after we’d parked up the van at the aire to peruse the miles of aisles of sports equipment.  Yeah, I know, double standards.

Not feeling the love for Udine, even though it is said to have a historic centre, we pressed on to the coast the following morning.  We were waylaid for a few hours in Palmanova though.  We knew nothing about Palmanova but the shape of it on the map drew me in.  Planning our route I hadn’t even noticed it.  It was only when we were a few miles outside the town, whilst I was faffing with the Maps.Me app zooming in and out, that I realised it was definitely worth investigating.

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Palmanova on the Maps.Me app.

 

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Aerial shot of Palmanova courtesy of Google images.
Built by the Venetians towards the end of the 16th Century the nine pointed star structure was conceived as a defence system to keep out the Turks.  The town is now designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Walking the ramparts.

A walk around the inner ramparts followed by a second lap around the outer ramparts and a mooch about the town square took up most of the afternoon and we were really glad we had stopped.

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The centre of Palmanova.  The fair was parked just to the right of the picture!

Not least because we spotted these guys basking in the sunshine in the moat below the upper path.

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Turtles catching some rays in the moat.

We hit the Italian coast at Grado. This was our first glimpse of the sea since early May when we’d left the French coast.  The sun was out, it was warm and there was an aire (aka large carpark) fifty metres from the beach at €4 per night.  Life doesn’t get better than that let me tell you.

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Carpark aire at Grado, Italy – living the dream!

Approached by a four kilometre long causeway Grado, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, is a little island beach resort backed by lagoons teeming with birdlife.  It was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days enjoying the sunshine whilst biking around the nature reserve.

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Grado.
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Fishing boats in the Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve.
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Cycling the causeway into Grado.

Onwards then east along the coast and back into Slovenia.  Slovenia has just over forty kilometres of coastline sandwiched between Italy and Croatia.  We based ourselves for a couple of nights at an aire on the marina at Lucija.  When we arrived there were only about seven or eight vans parked so we felt mightily pleased with ourselves that we were able to bag a ringside seat right next to the sea.  Perfect.  When we returned from a bike ride to Piran several hours later though we were completely surrounded by Slovenian and Italian vans settling in for the weekend.

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Aire at the marina in Lucija.  It filled up on the Friday night.

Piran, set on a triangular shaped peninsular, is just charming.  Thanks largely to nearly five hundred years of Venetian rule much of Piran and the coast of Slovenia is Italianate.  It’s a compact warren of alleys lined with narrow houses and tiny churches.

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Approach to Piran.
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The narrow alleyways.
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Looking down on the rooftops of Piran.

 

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Tartinijev square, Piran.
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Looking towards the square from the harbour.

The following day we thought we’d cycle to Croatia.  Now, Tim has been itching to get to Croatia for months and his plans have been scuppered by our dilly dallying here and there.  But finally, finally he was going to get there.  We picked up the Parenzana Cycleway just outside the marina which took us past the salt plains to the nearby border.  Once at the border we were confronted with passport control.  What?  Taking our passports hadn’t even crossed our minds.   We haven’t needed them on any other border (apart from Gibraltar).  I tried it on with my driving licence but passport control man said ‘NO’.   Croatia, then, still eluded us.

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Passport control on the Slovenian-Croatian border.  No passport.  No entry!

Returning to the van I left Tim to check on the back of his eyes whilst I cycled to Koper along the Parenzana Cycleway in the other direction.  And what a great mostly traffic free ride it was too.  A bit up and down, a couple of tunnels, views of the coast, vineyards, and olive groves.  A very popular day out it seems and a well used section of the path.

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One of the tunnels on the Parenzana cycle trail.
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Looking towards Izola.
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The old coast road from Izola to Koper is now traffic free.  It felt like riding on a road that had been closed for the day.

On Sunday morning we nudged Ollie out through all the vans, camping tables, chairs and bikes surrounding us and made our way to the Croatian border.  This time clutching our passports.

Tako dolgo!