The Shining – Italian East Coast

After getting lost only the once we arrived late at the final stopping point for our heavy cargo, the Tipis are destined to be used in a yoga retreat on the olive farm. Bazz and Liz bought the traditional ancient Trulli five years ago and had totally rebuilt it and turned it into a comfortable home, they also had a small flat in the nearest town where they live in the summer when holiday makers rent the Trulli for holidays. They have both lived in Italy for a few years and missed nothing about the UK, who could blame them, everyday breakfast and lunch was eaten by the pool and once the morning mist had burned away the temperature would be 21 degrees at 11am even in winter. The poles were offloaded onto the flat roof section of the house and the van (and we) groaned a huge sigh of relief, the space between the top of the tyre and the wheel arches looked normal once again…

The Trulli is a stunning round building, 6ft thick walls and a stone cone shaped roof with tiny windows in the walls, almost like a stone roundhouse. Trullis are found in this part of Italy and are nestled everywhere through the countryside, peeking out from huge masses of prickly pear cactus and olive groves, other than Bob and Helga next door, who moved here from their native Belgium 12 years ago the rest of the houses and olive groves are owned and farmed by Italian families, all out everyday working together to gather the olive harvest and get it to the local press – 20 Euros gets 100kg of olives pressed and bottled into a huge silver container, given that the local lady next door to the farm uses a litre a week at least it is no wonder that they all need so many trees, a good large mature tree on a good harvest can give around 150kg of olives, this amount would produce several litres of olive oil… Bob and Helga were both fantastic musicians. Helga a classical pianist and Bob had been a drummer in his band for years but now they both taught music students over the Internet from a room in their house.

I love Italy, the food, the friendliness of the people, the countryside… I now know I could never live here though, the constant obsession with looking good where even going to local shop meant getitng dressed up is too much, I have no problem with caring about appearance but in Italy it seems materialistic, vain, too uptight, that said the women and men looked incredible all of the time, I hpwever am too happy in a tunic and pair of jeans and bare feet or flip flops (on a smart day) The scenery though… wow! Now we are through the industrial side it’s everything and more that I thought it would be, the drivers are insane…in a fantastic way, my ‘Toad Of Toad Hall’ style driving fits in perfectly, aim, drive and then look… Just don’t faff around, if the driver behind you wants to come past they’ll flash their lights to tell you they are overtaking, they’ll toot with the horn once to tell you they’re there and twice if they want to get past and can’t, nobody gets offended, the horn is an instrument on the car as much as the accelerator, no road rage, no malice, just matter of fact driving…I feel totally at home on the roads… In the whole drive across Italy we have only seen one accident… Say the same for a four day trip via M5, M4 and onwards? I think not…

The streets are like something from a film set, perfect, no doubt you are in Italy. Such simple dishes of food that taste of a million things, even service stations have coffee bars where fresh coffee and pastries are eaten by locals not just by people hauling themselves up the motorway…  Liz and Bazz have been so kind, feeding us, taking us out to their local eating place where the Antipasti for two was shared between four adults and a child and seemed to last forever, after 12 dishes I stopped counting. For a vegetarian, Italy is a wonderful place to eat, the Italians do not understand the concept of vegetarianism as such, they believe such good meat should not get missed out on and often a bit of Parma ham is thrown into something vegetarian because they don’t see it as ‘much meat’ – Still, so many of their meals do not include meat at all, we have eaten the most incredible homemade pastas and local vegetable dishes, in this small village not a single thing comes from more than sixty miles away, almost everything comes from only ten miles away. The markets are stunning, row upon row of colourful veg, cheese, fish, baked goods, pasta, olives… The way we should be in the UK, a bunch of beautiful plump grapes costs €1 per kilo!!! Liz buys all her food from the market and on average spends €15 on all fruit, veg and cheese per week…As we strolled around the bustling Monday morning market in the sunshine I can’t help but wonder what the hell we are still living in the UK for.

We have been treated to the sites of Ostuni a beautiful old town with a winding maze of streets which sit like a white beacon on top of the hill 40k northwest of Brindisi and Alberobello, the Trulli capital of the world, which looks totally eccentric, the old town is a mass of over 1000 Trulli’s forming small streets and spilling down the side of the hills, it is like walking on another planet.  The Trullis are still lived in by families who sell knitwear, linens, liqueurs and the most incredible almond milk chocolate slabs I have ever eaten right from their door. After sampling a dozen liqueurs we finally settled on a few small bottles of prickly pear, hazelnut and chocolate chilli and hiccuped our way back to the van… We have stuffed ourselves full of amazing food and met some incredibly lovely people… It feels like we have been here forever. Over a few drinks one night I told Bob my opinions on the monetary system, how we wanted to ‘opt out’ of the systems that we have been entered into without any consultation, how I felt showing Tom this way of life would only ever help him, it’s far easier to leave a non money led life and join a money led one than to the other way around – far from the bemused look and million questions he simply said – ‘ah man, you should have been a 70’s chick, you’re a proper hippy living decades later, I haven’t met anyone with ideals like this since the 70’s how fab to see those days are still living on, I thought they were lost forever!’ A compliment but tinged with sadness that he thought his views were a lost cause, when we left I gave him the Daniel Suelo book, in exchange he gave me an album he recorded 15 years before when he lived in Belgium, inside he wrote ‘Thomas, Andy and Clare, never leave the unbeaten track xxx’ – never have I been more sure that I most definitely will not… Friends made for life.

By now we had been sleeping in the van for 2 weeks, 2 adults, a child and 2 dogs, carrying all food, clothes, medical equipment, repair equipment and such like, living in a floor space which measures 2ft x 4ft when the bed is folded up to seat position and 2ft x 2.5 foot when it’s in the bed position. Things are starting to become cramped, mud was getting everywhere thanks to the dogs and child running all over the farm and the hugely sticky red clay like soil which clung to anything that touched it. We needed to think about heading off and getting some time on our own as a family, without driving deadlines or sightseeing, just time to sit, stroll, play, do nothing. The guys at the farm suggested we head just south of a town called Vieste, surrounded by incredible National Parks, the hope of open campsites and plenty of stopping places filled us with enthusiasm and after 4 days of wonderful hospitality we decided to head off, we had plenty of time to kill before needing to reach Paris on the 10th and the thought of 7 days at the beach was perfect… 2 hours of driving later we reached the coast, the views were spectacular, one one side huge arches carved through the rock out in a turquise blue sea, mountains and forests on the other side, just for the drive it was worth coming… This would do perfectly…! Our joy and excitement was short lived as we passed campsite after campsite with gates shut, ‘NO SLEEPING’ signs everywhere…Nothing open anywhere along this beautiful stretch, we would have to head to the nearest town. Arriving at dusk neon lights for ‘Sexy Shops’ flickered and hotel shutters were pulled down, there was not a sign of life in the place, any minute I expected to see a swarm of zombies come dragging around a dark corner… The place looked like a worse version of Newquay surrounded by Beirut high rise which had been heavily shelled, all inhabitants frantically packed up and driving for the hills… There was no way we could or would sleep here in the van for the night, after two weeks of stubbornly searching out somewhere to stop each night we would stay in a hotel. We had a choice of two, one wanted 70 euros for the night without breakfast, the other, nicer by a smidgen from the outside and wanted 65 Euros for the night with breakfast. The horror movie theme continued from zombie world outside to haunted hotel inside…we were the only people staying and the girl at the desk was an incredible ghostly shade for an Italian, not the bronze image of health we had seen everywhere else…We took the lift silently to our floor, the door whined open onto a dimly lit hallway with a single dusty dresser sat against the wall, onwards stretched door after door, I would have believed Kubric based the set for The Overlook Hotel here if it wasn’t for the fact that he never left the country… No point looking forward to a comfortable bed, rock solid mattress and pancake pillows were the style here, were we really in one of the most stylish countries in Europe or had we spun off a cliff and ended up in some type of purgatory?… At about 10pm trying to drift off on our concrete slab droves of escapees zoomed through the town, suitcases piled high on the car roofs, strapped down with ropes and old belts tied together as makeshift ratchets, the traffic continued until daylight, loud enough to keep us restless all night and yet invisible in the darkness of the night. Breakfast was as beige as the decor, we paid our fee, feeling totally robbed… what a rip off, this wasn’t low season, it was non existent season… To soften the blow we took all of the complimentary soaps and showered the caked on red mud from dogs in the bathroom…

Feeling totally dejected, no chance of a beach holiday here the only other option was to head North. We had planned of visiting Venice, Verona and Lake Garda anyway, maybe here we would find a place to truly stop for a few days. After 4 days off we were back to long haul driving, Venice is around 2 days from here, we will have to stay in hotels on the way, the weather is much colder as we head north, snow chains are compulsory, from Garda we can take the Mont Blanc tunnel and head through France along the border of Switzerland, drop in and see a friend on the way past and continue through to Paris, by stopping the French side of the tunnel and then Dijon we could reach Paris for the 10th December as planned…

The hotels are an unexpected cost indeed, having originally planned on staying in the warmer weather South for a while and then making a mad 3 day dash through Northern Italy and France it meant we would need to pay out for at least 10 days accommodation we weren’t planning on… Now a few miles from Venice we have spent the last two nights stopping in places which are non descript and other than taking in some average scenery feel we have wasted days, bargain hotels have been found for both nights though thanks to booking each of them on the morning of the day we were staying, continuing this way we will save ourselves at least 300 Euros, we have paid between 30-40 euros a night slashed from as much as 95 euros a night, this coupled with the fact that most Italians around here speak such poor English that we can book a double room and set Tom up on a camp bed from van knowing the receptionist can not be bothered with the effort of arguing with people who cant understand what she says we are scraping back on the overblown budget…So far we’ve had no problem at all and not been stopped once, the Italian love for children means Tom is welcomed in with open arms, as are the dogs at every hotel we have stayed in so far, he even gets his fill of breakfast the next morning at no charge!

So onwards to Verona we go, staying in a private flat within the walls, the last part of Italy has been a let down – mostly because it has been closed and out of season but on the flip side I can not imagine being here in crowds of tourists either… certainly South of Verona I can say the itch has been scratched…

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