From Italy to Greece

Sunday 20th April 2008, Sirolo
Looking at our map and camp-site list before leaving Assisi yesterday we worked out a route that would take us through Fabriano and Cingoli, both of which were listed in our outdated Michelin guide as justifying a visit. Down on the Adriatic coast there should have been a campsite open but we arrived to discover it closed until 25th April. All along the coast, as we headed north, it was the same story. Nowhere was open. Eventually we discovered this site in Sirolo, about ten miles south of Ancona, where we are camped, all alone. This is just as well as all facilities are open-plan, outdoors and unisex. We never cease to be astonished at the variations in acceptable sanitary facilities we have discovered on our travels! Here we have combo showers/Turkish loos and we have been reduced to washing out a few pairs of socks and etceteras in one of the bidets as it is the only place with hot water! We were so exhausted by the time we arrived last night we could not cope with anything but a snack supper and dropping into bed to sleep the clock round!

Cosy bathroom, Sirolo

However, we did have an enjoyable day yesterday, particularly at Fabriano where we headed straight for the museum of paper and watermarks. Fabriano was the first town in Christian Europe to produce paper back in the 13th century and Fabriano papers have continued to be used for royal, governmental and legal reports ever since. They were also used for the production of bank notes. We spent several hours exploring the working museum where hand-made paper continues to be produced using rag pulp and laid on felts. There were some amazingly intricate watermarks, including scenes from Michaelangelo's work in the Sistine chapel. The watermarks are completely invisible until held up to a light source. (Try it with any bank note.) The result is achieved by variations in the thickness of the wire gauze through which the paper pulp is drained. Sometimes this is achieved by sewing fine designs onto the basic mould with wire thread, sometimes by pressing the wire gauze between two moulds to make a relief image.

Traditional method for preparing pulp from rags, Fabriano

Felts hanging to dry, Fabriano

One of the earliest pictorial watermarks, dated 1340, Fabriano

Watermark of QE2, Fabriano

By the time we left the museum the entire town had closed for four hours and the only sound to be heard in the cobbled streets was the clatter of falling pins. Impossible to explore inside any of the churches, the cathedral, the art gallery or the stunning mediaeval brick buildings. Indeed, the only place we found open was selling kebabs. They were very nice but there was a definite linguistic barrier as we attempted to communicate through Italian with the Turkish lady tipping yoghurt, tomatoes and shavings of meat into our pancake wraps!

Piazza del Comune with the Governor's Palace, Fabriano

Our route then wound up into the hills, frequently passing through long tunnels which made the climbing very much easier. It is a pity there is never anywhere to pull off the road on these routes as the scenery was very beautiful with steep, smooth hillsides covered in woodland. Ian complained continuously because there were routes, tunnels and even a couple of reservoirs that were not marked on his map! It is several years out of date but none-the-less indicative of the speed with which Italy is attempting to improve its road infrastructure. As we got higher the mountains were covered in snow and shone silver in the sunlight.

Typical landscape, Le Marche region

Eventually we reached Cingoli, a pretty hilltop town of beautiful buildings, a wide piazza and cobbled streets. Best of all though was the stunning vista out across an enormous sweep of hilly landscape right the way down to the Adriatic. The first glimpse we have had of the sea since leaving Caen.

View towards the Adriatic, Cingoli

And so we descended from this eyrie and eventually reached Sirolo. This morning the sun was shining and it was warm enough for breakfast outside. We walked up into the little coastal town on the cliff top, overlooked by a headland of scrubby vegetation so typical of this part of southern Europe. The hills behind however are far greener than the landscape across the other side of the water in Croatia.

Morning mist over the sea, Sirolo

Today is Sunday and it appears to be a day for the local people to turn out in large numbers to spend the day walking up and down the main street, gathering outside the church, queuing at the pizza shop or sitting on the main piazza with drinks or ice cream. It was a very pleasant and relaxed scene as we explored the town. Entire families were out to enjoy the sunshine and the coastal backdrop of pine trees and the blue waters of the sea made it all a very relaxed picture.

Piazza, Sirolo

We discovered internet in the tourist office and caught up on emails, photographs and blogs until we were thrown out for the four-hour lunch break when the entire town became silent until 4pm. It then again erupted into noisy, cheerful activity. We are astonished at how much ice cream is eaten in Italy! They are not cheap but it is obviously a shared family pleasure to walk the streets with huge cornets loaded with multicoloured ice cream. Then it is time for a quick afternoon snack of pizza! Ian joined in with that. He'd be happy to live in Italy as he doesn't seem to mind eating the same thing all the time. It really is hard to find what else they eat in Italy except ice cream and pizza! Both are lovely but monotonous after a while. How do the Italians stay slim?

As I write this in Modestine, surrounded by the darkness outside, Ian is working with the voice recognition feature of his computer. He has a cd-rom of essential phrases and grammar in thirty-nine languages and is trying to perfect his Greek pronunciation against that of the authentic Greek speaker! Can you imagine what it's like confined in such a small space as we travel from one country to another?!! It's quite astonishing though, the amount of useful material we can carry with us. This time we have added the Encyclopaedia Britannica on cd-rom to our collection and have already found it very helpful. Ian still stubbornly refuses though to buy a sat-nav system, regarding it as cheating. I'm all for cheating if it avoids driving through the centre of Italian cities!

Tuesday 22nd April 2008, Surging down the Adriatic
Talking of driving through city centres, Ian has twice forced me to drive through the middle of Ancona, a city with a totally anarchic traffic system and narrow, cobbled streets that are more vertical than many a Roman wall!

The coastal scenery between Sirolo and Ancona is quite stunning with pines and olives right down to the sea. In common with so many countries of Europe though, there are no animals to be seen anywhere in the landscape. We dropped steeply down to Porta Nova, a tiny seaside hamlet with an 11th century church on the beach before continuing to the ferry port to purchase our tickets for Patras. The port signs directed us through narrow back streets crowded with wrongly parked vehicles. Had we been a full-size camper we would never have made it through. On arriving, port security was nil, as was any possibility of parking or indication where to go. In the end we abandoned Modestine in a private parking area, deciding it was easier to pay any fines than risk getting her damaged by one of the many huge juggernauts arriving for embarkation to Greece. Fortunately she was still okay when we eventually returned an hour later triumphantly clutching our booking reservation.

View towards Sirolo

Church on the beach, Porta Nova

There was no chance of parking Modestine safely anywhere in Ancona to explore the town. I was a nervous wreck by the time we eventually cleared the port area and spent the rest of the day quaking at the thought that I'd have to return again for the boat today. Truly, driving in Italy is the most frightening and confusing country we have yet discovered anywhere in Europe. Talking to other English travellers on the ferry today they all have similar nightmare stories to tell. We have been advised when we visit Sicily to take the ferry down from Genoa rather than attempt to drive. There is no way, after this experience, I would chose to drive the entire length of Italy!

So yesterday afternoon we decided to explore inland. There are several hill top towns with impressive walls and churches that blend so perfectly with the scenery. We contented ourselves with stopping to explore just one, Loreto, with its huge basilica, the Sanctuary of the Holy House, begun in 1468 with its huge cupola and renaissance façade. This is an astonishing place constructed around a rustic stone cottage with painted frescos, claimed to be the house in which Mary, mother of Jesus, grew up! The town is twinned with Nazareth and is a site of pilgrimage for people who actually believe in flying houses! Allegedly the cottage disappeared one night in 1291 from the streets of Nazareth to pop up again somewhere in Dalmatia. Three years later it again took flight to settle in Loreto, where the basilica was promptly built over it to stop it possibly turning up a few years later in Glasgow. This curious phenomenon has of course a very simple explanation that has been approved by the Vatican. It has been transported by angels! How many is not specified but according to one carving we saw in the basilica there were at least four.

Basilica of the Sanctuary of the Holy House, Loreto

16th century façade of the basilica, Loreto

Painted ceiling inside the basilica, Loreto

Renaissance fountain in front of the basilica, Loreto

Guns and Ros(ari)es at a souvenir stall near the basilica, Loreto

We also have a moving house in Exeter! Angels are in short supply away from the Catholic hotspots of Europe so it was shifted on wooden rollers from the middle of where the council wanted to construct a bypass. When I was a child we lived in a post-war prefab until it was dismantled and went missing. We had obviously moved out by then but the police and the local press turned up to question my parents. Eventually the prefab was traced to the south of France where it had been taken on a lorry and set up by jerry builders. To the best of my knowledge there is not a shrine there now and pilgrims do not visit the house of my childhood –yet!

Back in Loreta we joined the queue of weeping Italian pilgrims clutching their rosaries as they crowded inside the remains of the tiny house, touching and kissing its walls. A rota of priests worked around the clock – even through the four-hour lunch break – administering the sacrament to kneeling pilgrims whilst those waiting their turn chanted prayers and wiped their eyes with wet hankies. It was an astonishing sight. Even today there are believers who can still accept that a building can zoom around Europe carried by angels!! It's the stuff of Harry Potter!

Open camp sites still being impossible to find we decided to return to the one in Sirolo. When we got there we were told they had closed it so we couldn't stay! They directed us to another one. Not so nice and over twice the price but we were so weary after the Ancona driving experience we didn't care. This morning we were asked by a young Englishman in a tiny tent if we had any old UK newspapers he could read. We didn't but got chatting. He was travelling to Australia on his push-bike with a tiny trailer! He left England in March with his tent and had already been down to Sicily. He was now cycling his way to meet up with a friend in Rimini and planned on crossing Turkey and heading on towards India! He's not even keeping a blog! There are some amazing people doing astonishing things out there and nobody knows about them! I feel so ashamed about being scared on Italian roads in Modestine while he's out there with nothing but a Union Jack tied to his saddle for protection!

Before leaving Sirolo this morning we walked up for a last look at the beautiful blue of the Adriatic and sat beneath a sunshade on a terrace for our last Italian coffee. It really is a very pretty little town. Our ride down to the ferry port today was less fraught having done the route once already. Loading organisation still seemed non-existent however and we were directed into a chaos of parked cars, campers and lorries all facing in different directions without a queue in sight. It really makes us appreciate the skill with which Brittany Ferries loads everybody on board so quickly and efficiently. Here we had to be at the port three hours before departure just to get us all loaded in time. The noise, shouting, engine revving and reverberation from the refrigerated lorries really put the Hell into Hellas! We are living and sleeping on board in Modestine though we have the use of the ship's facilities including showers and electricity.

Our ferry in the harbour of Ancona

Jill and Modestine relieved to have reached the quayside in safety

Ancona harbour

Modestine on board the Olympic Champion

Wednesday 23rd April 2008, Somewhere off the coast of Corfu
Actually, once the mayhem was over and we set sail it has been a surprisingly peaceful experience. It was pouring with rain as we left Ancona and the view through the glass at the prow of the ship gave Italy a curiously distorted effect.

Arty photo of Ancona in the rain

Last night we were served cold beers and mixed nuts as we sailed down the Adriatic, any sight of land to either side blocked out by the rain. At last it really felt like being on holiday. The journey has been very pleasant though much of it has been spent in Modestine, rocked gently to sleep by the buffeting of the wind on deck. When we woke this morning we were docking at Igoumenitsa to unload our first consignment of passengers. The hills of Greece looked green, the sea deep blue and the sun shone over it all. In another couple of hours we arrive at Patras. With luck and a few text messages we are hoping to meet up with friends Lesley and David in their Romahome camping car Erik. They are at this moment crossing from Brindisi in the south of Italy and should arrive in Patras shortly before us. They have been on the road since last October and sounded amused at the idea of meeting up with us for a couple of days.

Our next blog may be delayed as we struggle with Greek keyboards!