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In Sicily Winter 2013-14 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

IN SICILY in the WINTER 2013-14

Margaret and Barry Williamson

Continued  from: In Italy in the Winter of 2013-14

Continued at: Return to Greece Spring 2014

Our autumn travels in Slovenia had ended in an abrupt return to the UK and the funeral of Barry's brother, Michael. Whilst in England we also changed the Sprinter van, with which we tow our caravan, for a newer VW Crafter. Towards the end of November we resumed our winter journey to Sicily, where we will spend Christmas and welcome the start of 2014.

Having crossed France from Calais to the Frejus Tunnel, we meet the Mediterranean on the Italian Riviera near Genoa. Then begins the long journey down the west coast of Italy, passing Livorno, Rome and Naples, pausing to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum. We then take the ferry across  the Straits of Messina to Sicily and make for the southernmost point of that ancient island, to Stan waiting for us on his excellent campsite - Luminoso. 

Route_to_Sicily.jpg
Map of the Route from England to Punta Braccetto in Sicily
with numbered Campsites

Sicily_Map_D.jpg

Map of the Route within Sicily from and to the Ferry at Messina to Camping Luminoso

Index of the Campsites we used

1 France - Vraignes en Vermandois: Camping des Hortensias (muddy farm site in Picardy)

2  France – Geraudot-Plage: Camping Les Rives du Lac (ACSI discount, nr Troyes)

3  France – Dardilly: Camping Indigo International  (ACSI discount, nr Lyon)

4  Italy – Arenzano: Caravan Park La Vesima (ACSI discount, nr Genova – Avoid!)

5  Italy – Antignano:): Camping Village Miramare (Very expensive, nr Livorno/Leghorn)

6  Italy - Rome: Camping Roma (Expensive but nearest camp to city)

7  Italy - Pompeii: Camping Spartacus (ACSI discount, opposite the excavations)

8  Italy – Corigliano Calabro: Camping Onda Azzura (cheap overwintering site in Calabria)

9  Italy – Marina di Nicotera: Camping Village Mimosa (ACSI discount, nr Rosarno)

10 Sicily – Catania: Camping Jonio (ACSI discount – Avoid!)

11 Sicily – Avola: Camping Sabbiadoro (ACSI discount – Avoid above all! Access v diff.)

12 Sicily - Punta Braccetto: Camping Luminoso (ACSI discount + long-stay reductions, nr S Croce Camerina - English-managed and highly recommended)

Note: For more information on these campsites, including price, GPS position and comments, see relevant entry in the travel log below.

Nicotera Marina to Camping Jonio, Catania, Sicily - 100 miles (plus ferry)

Open all year. www.campingjonio.com.  ACSI Card rate €16 inc 6 amp elec. Free showers. WiFi expensive (eg €4/1 hr, €6/2 hrs). N 37.53194  E 15.12055

Returning through Rosarno to the A3, we headed south through many short tunnels to the exit for Villa San Giovanni at 37 miles, then followed ferry signs for 2 miles through the streets of the port to the terminal. Tickets for the half-hour crossing to Messina (running every 40 minutes) can be bought from kiosks at the dock, or from either of the last two service stations down the A3. To avoid queues and ticket touts, we had stopped at the first of these services, just south of Rosarno. The tickets were expensive (€92 for van, caravan and 2 adults) but credit cards are accepted. They are only valid until midnight on the day of purchase and don't specify any particular boat. You just join the line of vehicles at the barrier and wait. We saw no sign of the bridge to Sicily once promised by Silvio Berlusconi.

SICILY

We were lucky to board the next ferry, which took us smoothly across to exit into the maelstrom of traffic and confusing signs that is Messina. Somehow finding our way through the centre onto the A18 motorway, we turned south down the coast towards Taormina and stopped for lunch on the services just before the first toll booth. The fantastic sunshine was warmer than the mainland.

After 35 Sicilian miles, as we crossed the Provincial border from Messina into Catania, Mt Etna hove into view, seeming to block the road ahead. There was very little snow on the peak which rose through the lower clouds and it appeared calm after recent volcanic activity. Its name comes from the Greek Aitne, from aitho, 'I burn'. Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe, its topmost elevation being more than 10,000 ft (3,200 m). Like other active volcanoes, its height varies: in 1865, the volcanic summit was 170 ft higher than today. Etna covers an area of 600 sq mi (1,600 sq km) and its base has a circumference of about 93 mi (150 km). You can't miss it!

60 miles later at the Catania ring road we took the Catania San Gregorio exit (toll €7.40), then followed Catania Est, descending through 5 miles of busy traffic to the campsite on the Ionian coast. The small camping area is very awkward to access and the man in reception insisted that the places overlooking the sea were only for motorhomes. Despite there being empty pitches there, we were directed onto the gravel car park behind the restaurant, next to a noisy road, with no view and a barking dog. (An English couple we met later in Sicily reported similar treatment at Camping Jonio, with sea view pitches reserved for Italian campers.)

We soon found that the ACSI book description of a “renovated campsite with very modern sanitary facilities” is a blatant lie. The draughty showers are activated by holding on to a grubby cord, the cassette emptying point was blocked and overflowing and we didn't like the look of the antiquated rusty drinking water taps, but it was too late to leave until tomorrow.

Even the take-away tuna pizza from the restaurant was a great disappointment. Costing the same as the delicious one at Camping Roma in Rome, this specimen was small, with the merest hint of topping.

At Catania

Unfortunately next morning, the day of the Winter Solstice, the weather changed completely. Heavy continuous rain almost flooded the campsite and we had to postpone our escape. Braving a look at the churning sea below, swirling round the volcanic rock pools that constitute the beach, we were glad to have crossed the Strait of Messina yesterday.

Catania stands almost entirely on the lava left by various eruptions of Mt Etna. The use of volcanic tufa for building has given the older part its prevailing gloomy dark-gray colour. The city, almost entirely rebuilt after a major eruption in 1669 and an earthquake in 1693, suffered severe damage from bombing and heavy fighting in 1943. Modern Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, is also one of the busiest ports in Italy and half of Sicily's refined sulphur comes from its factories. It hardly sounds like a holiday resort, and it wasn't!

Unwilling to pay the extortionate price for WiFi, the laptop rested. We iced the Christmas cake, made a dozen sausage rolls and poached half a dozen pears in Gluhwein: very tasty and a good excuse to celebrate the Solstice with the rest of the mulled wine. Margaret also helped Claudia, a nice lass working in Reception today, with the English translation of a brochure about Sicily – and was rewarded with some sweets and a can of Fanta!

Catania to Camping Sabbiadora, Avola, Sicily - 55 miles

Open all year. www.campeggiosabbiadoro.com.  ACSI Card rate €16 inc 6 amp elec. Free 4-minute shower. Free WiFi (or €5 for code – see below). N 36.93631  E 15.17462

In order to leave the cramped Camping Jonio we had to tow our caravan past the restaurant, uncouple it, turn van and caravan round, then rehitch. When the owner appeared to wish us a Happy Christmas, he got short shrift!

We drove west along Catania's inner ring for 9 miles to join the outer ring road at Misterbianco, all busy even on this Sunday morning. Then south to meet SS114 down the coast, a new dual carriageway. Several short tunnels eased our way until we joined the start of the incomplete A18 motorway near Siracusa. It may one day link Catania and Gela, but currently ends at Rosolini.

At 53 miles we took the Avola exit, where inoperative toll booths stood ready and waiting. To find the campsite, turn left along the coast road SS115 for about a mile, then right at the sign. We immediately wished we had done no such thing, but there was no turning back as we crept along more than half a mile of absurdly narrow lane bordered by stone walls and with tight right-angled turns. We couldn't have passed a pedestrian, let alone a vehicle coming the other way. The lane ended at another sharp turn through the campsite gates. The only choice was to stay, or turn round and renegotiate the alleyway. How on earth did such a campsite get a licence, how could anyone leaving pass anyone arriving, and what would happen in the case of an emergency such as a fire? Only very skilful driving on Barry's part had avoided damage to the caravan.

Our 2013 ACSI Card book simply described “1 km along a narrow access road”. The 2014 edition wrongly reduces this distance to 300 m, but does add “Access is difficult for caravans and motorhomes because of the narrow road.” So it's only for tents? There is no warning in the book about the obnoxious behaviour of the resident owners and we wish we'd looked at the ACSI website reviews in advance. But we were about to find out!

The site was immaculate, with manicured tropical gardens and brand new facilities, though the gates onto the beach were all padlocked. We rang the bell at Reception several times and eventually a grumbling woman arrived from the house. In a mixture of Italian, German and English, she insisted that the hook-up was only 6 amps (ACSI book said 10 amps) and the WiFi code would cost €5, though on the phone we'd been told it was free so we didn't buy it. She also said that the only washing machine was out of order. Later the same morning, a helpful English camper gave us the WiFi code that he'd received free of charge - and we noticed the washing machine running, though decided not to pay €7 a load!

Then there were the showers, which required €0.50 to run for 4-minutes, by which time the water was barely warm. The coin-op meter was outside, in the open, and it wasn't possible to insert more than one coin in advance! When we (and a Dutch pair) protested that showers are included in the ACSI rate, we were given a gizmo to put in the meter, pre-loaded with two 4-minute showers per couple. It was apparently impossible to load the gizmo with more than two showers at a time, which meant finding the woman every morning for another two! And she complained at the inconvenience, hoping we'd give up and pay money. Her favourite response to any complaint was 'Non capisco' or 'I don't understand'. Nor did we.

At Avola

To Villa Romana del Tellaro, Nr Noto (50 miles return) – In the afternoon we braved the lane (only slightly easier without the caravan attached) and took A18 to the next exit (Noto) to visit an excavated Roman villa a few miles south of the town. The remains, partly covered by a later farmhouse with wine press, included some well preserved Roman mosaic flooring (entry €6, free for EU Seniors). On our way back to Avola on back roads we found another ancient site, Eloro, near the coast but it was closed to the public, its gates locked.  

To Noto Antica (52 miles return) – Next morning, after shopping at Lidl in AvolaNoto_Antica_1.JPG (2 miles north of campsite), we took a minor road that hairpins its way northwest up to Avola Vecchia, where a convent is perched. We parked by some empty summer residences, with a fantastic view of the coast, for a piNoto_Antica_2.JPGcnic lunch. Then we circled round to Noto Antica, the expansive ruins of a medieval walled city, complete with royal palace and churches, that was largely destroyed by a great earthquake in 1692. It was freely open to explore and we had the place to ourselves as we scrambled around, trying to interpret the map at the entrance. Taking another minor road to descend to Noto, we passed another large convent, Sta Maria di Scala, high above temptation.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/at-noto-antica.html

Visiting campsites at Donnalucata, Marina di Ragusa, Punta Secca and Punta Braccetto (116 miles return) – The next day was Christmas Eve. Weary of the unpleasant family in charge at Avola, and the all but impossible access lane, we resolved to find a good base for a winter break or give up on Sicily! Armed with campsite list and picnic lunch, we once again left the caravan and drove down the A18 past Noto to the next exit, Rosolini, where the unfinished Catania-Gela motorway abruptly ended after 15 miles. Continuing south we took SS115 to Ispaca, SP45 to the port of Pozzallo, then west along the Mediterranean to Punta Braccetto. We were not attracted by reports on the Salvamar Camperstop at Pozzallo (no facilities except a hook-up and no potable water) but we did inspect a total of 6 campsites further along the coast.

The first, Camping Club Piccadilly by the beach near Donnalucata, had a few winter residents and a very friendly warden, keen to show us round. Daily price €15 including 12 amps, plus €1 a day for WiFi and €1 per shower. Reductions for 7 days or more. For 30 days or longer, the price changed to €6.50 a day plus metered electricity, with showers and WiFi both down to €0.50. It was an improvement on the sites we'd used at Catania and Avola, with old but clean facilities.

At Marina di Ragusa the road bypassed the marina, taking us past a campsite called Marina Caravan on the right of the noisy main road (300 m from the beach). With sloping grass pitches, aged facilities and only one motorhome in residence, we were not persuaded by the duo in Reception, though they offered €10 a day including electricity, showers and WiFi, with no minimum length of stay! It was convenient for the Eurospar supermarket and ATM 200 m further along the road.

Next stop was the well-signed Camping Capo Scalambri near Punta Secca (to be a new entry in the 2014 ACSI Card book at €12). Again, the winter rate depends on length of stay, coming down to €8 including 6 amps electricity for a month or more. WiFi was free if staying 10 days plus, but €10 a day for a short visit! The vast unkempt site extended down to a wide beach and the staff (2) outnumbered the lone camper. Facilities were outdated but we could have a private shower room for an extra €1 a day, and upgrade the 6 amps to 10 amps for €3 a day … forget it. We felt slightly guilty about the present of a bag of local tomatoes on arrival – the whole area is growing them under acres of plastic and we named the region Polythenia.

The last 3 campsites on our list lie on the same road and beach at Punta Braccetto. These looked better and we had received encouraging reports from a motorhoming friend currently on the first, Camping Baia dei Coralli, and another on the second, Camping Scarabeo. After a picnic by the sea, we began with the third camp along, the newer Camping Luminoso, where we were welcomed and shown round by Stan, the English manager. Just lovely! In fairness, we did look at the other two sites to gather prices and impressions and visited our mate on Coralli. Suffice to say, we shall bring the caravan to Camping Luminoso tomorrow.

We returned to Avola by our outward route, tired but pleased with the result of the day's investigation.

Avola to Camping Luminoso, Punta Braccetto, nr Santa Croce Camerina, Sicily - 59 miles

Open all year. www.campingluminoso.com.  ACSI Card rate €16 inc 6 amp elec, showers and private toilet. Reductions for longer stay, down to €8 + metered elec (€0.35/kWh) for 30 nights or more. 24 hour WiFi €1 per day or €15 per month. N 36.81722  E 14.46583 

Christmas morning dawned bright and sunny and – best of all – the roads were empty. After persuading the harridan in charge at Sabbiadoro to unlock a slightly easier exit gate, Barry towed the caravan along the ridiculously tight lane back to the main road. We have never felt so relieved to get off a campsite!

Again we took the A18 motorway to its terminus at Rosalini after 15 miles, then SS115 to Ispaca. Rather than following yesterday's route via Pozzallo and the coast, we stayed on the better road 115 inland past Modica, climbing gradually to 1,980 ft/600 m before a gentle descent on SP60 to the small town of Sta Croce Camerina at 55 miles. Hardly a soul was about, no church bells, perfect peace! Follow signs to the coast at Punta Braccetto, where Luminoso is the third campsite along.

Christmas at Luminoso

Arriving at 11.30 am, we were immediately greeted by Stan and invited to the site marqueeLuminoso_(63).JPG in an hour – time enough to settle onto one of the spacious level pitches and make coffee. We joined the family and residents for a generous supply of food and drink, including lasagne made by Stan's wife, Lidia, and some savouries and cakes brought by the English and Italian campers. All very festive and welcoming.

In the early eLuminoso_(27).JPGvening we walked along the beach to visit Dan, our good friend on Camping Baia dei Coralli, who had prepared his signature dish (world's best shepherd's pie), followed by coffee ice cream and chocolate sauce. Our Christmas day ended with a fairy story – the film 'Stardust' - with Robert de Niro giving a memorable performance as a 'whoopsie' pirate captain and a cameo part for Peter OLuminoso_(15).JPG'Toole (who died last week) as an ageing king. More thanks to Dan.

Next morning there was a dramatic change in our weather. It poured with rain and hailstones and blew threatening waves high onto the beach below the campsite (though the news we hear from England is far worse, of storms and floods and homes literally powerless). Boxing Day was indeed a good day for us to stay in and cook. After home-made vegetable soup for lunch, Margaret produced a Christmas dinner of roast chicken with her own stuffing, apple sauce, gravy, roast potatoes and carrots, finishing with Xmas pudding and custard before coffee and whisky liqueur chocolates. Well, it comes but once a year!

See our pictures of this excellent campsite at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/camping-luminoso.html

Time Passes at Luminoso

It soon turned fine and sunny again, with an occasional wet day. We enjoyed over a monLuminoso_(33).JPGth on one of the best winter campsites we've found in 20 years: very well managed, with excellent facilities, reliable WiFi, a baker's van calling at 8 am prompt every day, and regular visits from other mobile shops bringing fruit and veg, meat and fresh fish.

The site was active without being packed full and we had twoLuminoso_(49).JPG friends to visit on the neighbouring camps, a short walk along the beach. Dan on Camping Baia dei Coralli, well settled in his large Hymer; Malcolm on Camping Scarabeo, tucked in among the Germans in his compact high-top VW campervan. It's interesting how loyal people are to their particular choice among the three neighbouring sites, sharing a common beach on which the sand comes and goes with the height and strength of the waves.

Santa Croce Camerina, 4 country miles away, has banks, post office, supermarkets (Conad, Spar and Ard), a good DIY store and an open market on Thursday mornings. Excursions further afield, by van or bicycle, are described below.

The Cava d'Ispica

The Italian word Ispica_(58).JPGCava can mean quarry, mine or gorge. The Cava d'Ispica is a magnificent limestone gorge with a stream running southeast for 13 km from near Modica down to the town of Ispica. It contains many Bronze Age rock tombs and cave dwellings, still in use in Roman and later periods - some of which were occupied into the 20th century!

At one end of the gorge, east of Modica, a gated Archaeological Park with an entrance fee has been defined. It is also possible toIspica_(65).JPG enter the gorge further along on foot, though only with local knowledge, since there are no signs or car parks. Sadly there is no longer a viable path the whole way through, as footbridges have been washed away, the tracks are overgrown and the fence around the official site restricts further access.

Walking in the Gorge: On the last Sunday of December we had a wonderful afternoon walking in the Cava under the guidance of Susan, Gino and their daughter Maria. Susan, who is researching the history of visitors to the Cava, wished to use our brief account of a visit there in 1998 with American friends, Dick and Audrey Valentzas and Sally Seymour. Susan had suggested a meeting if we ever returned to Sicily. And so we did!

During the day Ispica_(63).JPGwe learnt an astonishing amount about the flora and fauna, history and settlement in the gorge. Along the way we found a prehistoric shard of pottery, a fragment of Roman tile, and even 3 porcupine quills on the path outside their burrows (but no animals, they are nocturnal). The shiny striped quills, beautifully pointed, are now mounted inside our caravan, a souvenir of an amazing day. We collected oranges and mandarins, talked about living in modern Sicily, and discussed the location of other ancient sites in the area, including a museum in Palazzolo Acreide devoted to foreign travellers.

We had the gorge to ourselves until we came across a small Scout and Guide camp in a clIspica_(54).JPGearing, where they were singing hymns in a circle. A magical sound echoing in the woods.  Way above the cave entrances, we saw two climbers high on the vertical cliff face, their ropes looped through a series of bolts. We turned back only when a stubborn white stallion blocked our way before the Castello rock face, refusing to budge. It could almost have been a unicorn, protecting the herd!

Many thanks to Susan and her family for giving so freely of their time, sharing their knowledge and food with us. It was excellent Christmas cake, Maria!

See our photographs of this day at: www.magbazpictures.com/in-the-cava-dispica.html

Cava d'Ispica Archaeological Site

Early in January, we packed a picnic and drove (about 55 miles return) via Modica to Cava_Ispica_(34).JPGthe Cava d'Ispica official archaeological park. Some way along the SS115 Modica-Ispica road, we turned left following occasional brown signs along country roads, down into a gorge and past a little shop/bar on the right. Noticing only two small signs for parking, pointing down very steep rough lanes on the left, we continued along the road as it climbed out of the gorge. It was some way before we could turn round and try again.

Returning, we reluctantly took the second lane down to an uneven gated car park and looked for signs to the archaeological site. Misled by the signpost to a 'museum in a cave' we walked 300 metres along a rough track to the other tiny parking area by an 18thC watermill (entry €3) with an Arabic (horizontal) style mill wheel. Discovering that the museum was the miller's house and furniture, rather than an archaeological collection, we returned to our car park and climbed up the entrance lane onto the road.

The bar tender eventually guided us in the direction of the gate to the archaeological siteCava_Ispica_(10).JPG, poorly signed on a corner of the road. We had to disturb the four members of staff playing cards but found that none spoke any language except Italian and there were no leaflets or books on sale. We did eventually establish that entry is €4 (or free to Seniors) and – disappointingly – that the winter closing time, for both the site and the car park, is 1.45 pm. We had intended a leisurely picnic in the car park after our visit, then perhaps a stroll back to the watermill.

That said, we had an interesting brisk walk around the archaeological park as far as the paths allowed, each ending in red & white tape sealing off a neglected and overgrown track beyond. There were some new information boards in Italian and English near the main items, but no direction signs for a route round. Apparently a guide is available on a 'smart-phone app', if you have one – we don't.

Initially we Cava_Ispica_(39).JPGexplored the caves along the main path and were surprised how soon it ended: we had been planning a longer walk in the gorge. More in hope than anticipation, we took a track down into the gorge, returning towards the entrance. It was a very pleasant surprise to discover the remains of an Ancient Greek gymnasium in a cavern, still used in Roman and medieval times. Beyond that, and just below the ticket office, we found the most impressive feature: catacombs, which are galleries with recesses for tombs, carved inside the rock face caves and used into the Christian era. They were quite spectacular and well-lit – and we could easily have missed them.

We just had time to make a second circuit, this time focussing on the crumbling and baCava_Ispica_(45).JPGrely discernible paths leading to the higher levels of caves and yet more catacombs. The light was particularly good that day, with great opportunities for photographs inside the caves themselves.

Back at the car park, we had to leave mid-sandwich when the attendant locked the gates early at 1.40 pm. We had been the only visitors, on a beautiful fine day, and as soon as we left the site, the four card players decided it was also time for them to go.

We much preferred our visitCava_Ispica_(26).JPG back in 1998, when the whole area was unfenced and we were free to ramble and linger and wander further into the gorge itself.

We understandd that the site has to be enclosed to conserve it and raise money from ticket sales, that funds are limited and the present arrangements may change in the future. However, some improvements would cost little or nothing and might attract more visitors. Afternoon opening, if only at weekends, might be viable: two staff members on each of two shifts rather than four on one. Clear signs are needed the whole way: through Modica, from the main road itself, in the environs of the park, to the relevant car park, from the car park to the site and, above all, around the site itself. The main features need to be indicated on a clear site map, with an information leaflet that could easily be duplicated and sold. Finally, we could see no reason for locking the car park gates as soon as the site closed, if at all. It is only a small rough field.

See our photographs of this visit at: www.magbazpictures.com/the-cava-dispica-site.html

JANUARY 2014

Happy New Year at Luminoso

New Year's Eve started bright and sunny, with the arrival of the baker followed by the fruit and veg man, who gave us each a sweet Persimmon to try. Then the weather turned to heavy rain well into the night. We postponed a get-together with Dan, worked on photographs and writing, and watched the sad story of Tommy Cooper's life and death. At midnight we heard a few fireworks hissing further along the beach - a real damp squib!

Next day everything dried up, as it does so quickly round the MediterranLuminoso_(21).JPGean. Malcolm paid us a morning visit from neighbouring Camp Scarabeo and told us of his journey last summer following part of the Limes – the frontier of the Roman Empire in western Europe – through Germany and down the Danube as far as Budapest. Familiar territory, including Roman Xanten on the Lower Rhine. As a retired printer, his special interest is in Latin inscriptions.

Later we walked down the beach to Camp Baia dei Coralli, taking a meal Margaret had made to share with Dan (meatloaf, cheesy jacket spuds and ratatouille). He entertained us, as ever, with a wealth of music and film, ending with a 1968 Mel Brooks production 'The Producers', starring Gene Wilder. Just brilliant!  There were to be many more such evenings.

Ferry to Malta (or not)

From the port of Pozzallo, 30 miles east of Punta Braccetto, a daily vehicle ferry crosses in 90 minutes to Malta: www.virtuferries.com.  We used it to take our bicycles across for a few days in February 2010 and enjoyed exploring round Valletta. Hoping to leave the caravan safely at Luminoso and go over to Malta with the VW to see more of the island, we investigated fares. It turned out that the only boat would be out of service for 2 weeks from 9 January 2014.

More importantly, we were quoted a return fare of €586 for a van less than 6 m long (classed as a commercial vehicle), driver and passenger. The website advertised a 'Camper Special' at €180 return + driver and passenger/s, alongside a photo of a motorhome. But the small print stipulated a height limit of 2.5 m, so only a folding pop-top camper could qualify!! Our neighbours at Luminoso, Richard and Denise, also emailed Virtu Ferries for a price and were quoted over €900 for their 7 m motorhome – so they didn't go either! No wonder the only campsite on the island of Malta is closed.

Camarina Museum and Site of Ancient Kamarina

Just 5 miles north of Punta Braccetto is the site of the early Greek port of Kamarina (which gave its name to the nearby inland town of Santa Croce Camerina). Little trace remains of the colony founded by Corinthian Syracuse around 598 BC, apart from a few stone foundations, but there is a free car park and it's a pleasant walk down to the shore, looking north to the fishing village of Scoglitti. The settlement was rebuilt by Greeks from the colony of Gela in about 460 BC and finally abandoned in the first century AD.

The site museum (open daily until 5 pm, entry €4 or free for EU Seniors) is surprisingly good, with a smiling attendant and a useful free leaflet in English, signage being mainly in Italian. A splendid collection covering prehistoric to medieval times is well displayed in different sections of the baglio – a farmhouse built for wine production at the end of the 19th C on the ruins of a Temple to Athena, using some of the dressed stones!

Excavations in the ancient necropolis and down by the river mouth, as well as underwater archaeology at the vanished port, have brought a wealth of artefacts to light. Ancient shipwrecks in the Bay of Camarina yielded an important bronze helmet from Corinth, a silver bar, lead weights, an unbroken glass bottle, a wicker basket preserved in the silt, and thousands of coins spanning six Emperors up to the 3rd C AD. We also saw ancient anchors, Greek sarcophagi, over a thousand amphorae from around the Mediterranean world (3 floors of them in their own pavilion!) and much more. We went back twice!

Poste Restante

Postal services in Italy seem to be a one-way operation - in, but not out! Our 2014 ACSI Card and book, sent directly from the ACSI bookshop in Holland, reached our campsite within the promised '10 working days'. On the other hand, a few cards posted on the Italian mainland to the UK on 16 December 2013 seemed to vanish without trace! (We heard that three of the cards finally arrived on 6 February 2014 – over 7 weeks later.)

None of this is very surprising after our visits to two Italian post offices (in Pompei and Santa Croce Camerina). Each had two lines: one for banking matters, one for post – both equally long. When the interminably slow postal queue at S Croce Camerina eventually erupted into loud complaints, the female assistant struggling with her computer fled into the back room in tears and the counter was closed. Come back tomorrow! Oddly, there is a separate and different private 'Post Shop' for mail within Italy, from which a small package sent to a local address here in Sicily in January took 12 days!

Vehicle Maintenance

During our stay at Luminoso, Crafter_1.JPGwith no hosepipe ban for washing vehicles, we took advantage of warm dry weather to give both caravan and VW some overdue cleaning and polishing, including roof lights and windows. Within a couple of days the wind turned to the south, depositing fine red sand from North Africa over every surface on the campsite, including vehicles. So we started all over again …

We also wanted to check the reason for a warning light Crafter_2.JPGon the VW, so drove up to Ragusa in search of a VW garage listed on our SatNav. The nice man in the Q8 filling station, where the defunct garage used to be, directed us to 'Sergio Tumino', an Audi/VW dealer along the road from Ragusa towards Marina di Ragusa. The staff here were brilliant. Bruno fetched a young man who spoke excellent English and was, in fact, the proprietor Sergio's son and heir. He charmed us (well, Margaret) with sweet lemon tea while a mechanic checked the computer read-out, reset the sensor and charged nothing. We left with the address of a VW commercial garage in Siracusa, in case of further problems.

See our pictures of the VW Crafter at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/vw-crafter-van.html

Shopping

With daily visits by the baker's van, regular calls from a mobile greengrocer, butcher and fishmonger, plus shops in Santa Croce Camerina the basics were easy to find. Conad was the best local store, with ATM, toilet and delicious roast chickens from 11 am. But sooner or later we need a Lidl store! The nearest are in Vittoria or Ragusa (each about 15 miles away) and we tried them both. Ragusa was easier to access but had height barriers at two entrances. Luckily a third way in, for deliveries, made it possible to park. Unique in our experience, it even had staff on all four checkouts!

Dining Out

With many local cafes and pizzerias closed until Easter, there was little choice for eating out. We did take Malcolm, our friend on Camp Scarabeo, with us to the nearest place 'La Nuova Pizzeria da Carmelo', about 3 miles away in a large red building. There is a shop/bar where local immigrants gather in the daytime seeking work among the tomatoes, a downstairs restaurant (open daily from 6 pm), and a pizzeria above (closed in winter). We were the only  guests but the welcome was warm and the food was freshly cooked by our host's wife: veal escalopes, piping hot chips and salad, local wine, followed by ice cream.

We also had a memorable meal with Stan (the English campsite manager) and his wife Lidia. A wonderful evening with Lidia's generous Sicilian cuisine and bilingual conversation until the early hours.

Not forgetting many shared meals with Dan, over on Camp Baia dei Coralli. Not only our favourite shepherd's pie, he does a mean Scots Broth and lasagne too!

Shifting Sands

The weather, predScarabeo_(19).JPGominantly warm and breezy, often changed overnight. At times it reached 20 ΊC, warm enough for hardy swimmers and surfers to take to the water. However, a stormy period with heavy rain and a strong wind behind the surging waves rearranged the beach, carrying sand away and exposing rocks.

Luminoso campsite has the benefit of a new sea wallScarabeo_(20).JPG and the steps down to our beach remained intact. Right next door, at Camp Scarabeo, we watched with some alarm as the sea wall was undermined by high tides and began to crumble. Some of the sea-view pitches there are out of bounds and in imminent danger of collapse. Further along at Camp Baia dei Coralli the beach virtually disappeared and the wooden steps were partly washed away. They are now temporarily replaced but major work is needed at both these sites. Another reason we're glad to be on Luminoso!

See our photographs of the Scarabeo Sea Wall on the point of collapse:

http://www.magbazpictures.com/scarabeo-sea-wall.html

Reading

The Inspector Montalbano Series - Italian author Andrea Camilleri came from this area of Sicily and his dozen or so books, featuring the idiosyncratic detective Inspector (later Chief Inspector) Salvo Montalbano, have intriguing plots, a gentle humour and plenty of local colour. They focus on the fictional towns of Montelusa and Vigata, based on Agrigento and Porto Empedocle respectively. We both very much enjoyed reading a selection of them, translated by Stephen Sartarelli and available on Amazon or – if you're lucky – on the campsite swap shelf. They have also been made into a TV series, of which we caught one episode.

The Eddie Malloy Series – Another two e-books featuring professional jockey/amateur sleuth Eddie Malloy arrived from our friend, author Joe McNally: 'The Third Degree' and 'Dead Ringer'. They are all available on Amazon and make a very good read. Many thanks, Joe.

And also – In addition to a daily update with the Guardian, thanks to a Kindle subscription, we enjoyed time to read while settled at Luminoso. Other books included 'Words are Stones' by Carlo Levi (essays on Sicily); 'Spies' by Michael Frayn (better known as a playwright but this is an evocative story of WW2 England); 'A Most Wanted Man' by John Le Carre (post-cold war thriller); 'A Fool's Alphabet' by excellent writer Sebastian Faulks; and the brilliant 'Fatherland' by Robert Harris, his first novel, set in 1960s Berlin where Hitler (who had won the war) rules a European Empire: a chilling portrayal of the German psyche as background to an intriguing detective story.

Barry balanced this diet with Francis Wheen's excellent biography simply entitled 'Karl Marx', while dipping into a Kindled version of 'God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything' by Christopher Hitchens.

Writing

With an extremely reliable WiFi connection at €1 per day for continuous unlimited use, we were able to catch up with writing for our website, somewhat neglected over a busy summer of cycling and a rushed return to England in November. Among much else: Margaret updated our own travel-log, left in East Germany back in August, while Barry worked on a wealth of photographs for MagBazPictures. He also added many more articles and images to the Rev Murdoch MacKenzie's website ably assisted by Bec in Australia, and worked on the Williamson family tree with much help from our friend Lisi in Greece. Thank you both.

Finally, we circulated a Kaleidoscope of 2013 and submitted our tax returns at the eleventh hour, narrowly avoiding the 31 January deadline and a fine!

FEBRUARY 2014

Coastal Walks from Luminoso

An easy short stroll on the beach in either direction is soon halted by rocky cliffs at each end of the bay. We donned our boots to explore further – not much further, but it was good to taste the salt on our lips and see spring flowers responding to the sun's warmth and the lengthening days.

North to the ruined fort on Punta Braccetto – The shortest route involves a tricky scramble from the beach, climbing over rocks with a steep drop below. The local fishermen risked this while we opted for a longer way, leaving the beach to continue past a small shop and bar to the end of the road, then doubling back along the beach for easier access to the headland. About 3 miles return.

South towards Punta Secca – Along the beach, past Camping Scarabeo andCycling_3[1].jpg the steps down from Camping Baia dei Coralli, then climb up over boulders to a rough track along the cliff top. This path once led to Punta Secca and its lighthouse (about 2 miles away) but we were disappointed to find the way neglected and overgrown. Occasionally it was blocked, where the cliff had crumbled or the owner of an empty second home had put a brick wall across the path. We had to deviate behind houses, across a field or along the beach when possible. It could be a lovely coastal path if anyone cared enough to maintain it and prevent unplanned building. We almost made it to Punta Secca but were turned back by a fast flowing stream that cut across the beach, with no sign of a way round. It probably dries up in summer.

Cycling from Luminoso

North via Scoglitti to Punta di Zafaglione and back (34 km) – We rode north from Punta Braccetto on a rough beachside track until it ended in sand dunes. Here we turned inland throCycling_4[1].jpgugh a gated forest (no vehicles) and eventually met the road which climbs to Ancient Kamarina. Past the site and museum, then a short steep descent into Scoglitti, to sit by the fishing harbour in the sunshine eating wonderfully thick dark chocolate ice cream (chocolate being a speciality of Modica). We continued to Punta di Zafaglione, along a seriously eroded road now closed to traffic. The factory chimneys of the industrial town of Gela, further north, shimmered on the horizon and we turned back through Scoglitti and past Kamarina, then returned to Punta Braccetto along quiet lanes rather than through the forest.

South via Punta Secca and Marina di Ragusa to Donnalucata and back (40 km) – On Cycling_1[1].jpga fine windy day in mid-February we rode south on a quiet country lane between acres of plastic tomato-houses to Punta Secca (3 km), where a lighthouse marks Sicily's southwest corner. There is also the Torre di Mezzo - an old tower hidden by scaffolding, a tiny fishing harbour with a marble slab counter, and a simple concrete memorial erected on the 60th anniversary of the Anglo-American landings in July 1943. Every house, apartment, bar and the single shop were closed and shuttered for the winter; not a soul in sight except the workmen on the tower. Turning east we followed the coast as closely as possible, given the many cul-de-sacs to the shore, making swift progress with a back wind. After Cassaze (all closed up) came the small port of Marina di Ragusa, cycling past the yacht marina to the central square (10 km) and signs of life.

Riding on to Cycling_2[1].jpg Donnalucata, a forested nature reserve lay between the surprisingly busy road and the sea. We turned back on reaching the town (20 km), mindful of the strong wind we had to push into all the way back. We paused for coffee and toasties in the Gelateria in the square at Marina di Ragusa, the only cafι we saw open. At Punta Secca the wind was now whipping the waves into a frenzy and we were sand-blasted when we tried a short cut through the tomato-houses. This path ended at the beach, cut off by the same stream that had blocked an earlier walk along the cliff path from the campsite (see above)! So it was back to the lane and home on our outward route.

Castello di Donnafugata

A small castle and its gardens crown the village of Donnafugata at 1,026 ft/311 m, yet onlyDonnafugata_(3).JPG 17 km (11 miles) from our sea level Camping Luminoso. We drove the road from S Croce Camerina towards Vittoria, then turned right for Donnafugata at the brown Castello sign. The car park was fenced off for the use of two donkeys but we managed to park in the street by the restaurants near the castle entrance. More 'stately home' than castle, it is open daily except Mondays, from 9 am-1 pm and 2.45-4.30 pm. Entry €6 (€3 for Seniors) to castle only – tickets also available for gardens only, or both combined.

The oldest part Donnafugata_(2).JPGof the castle (which includes the square tower) dates back to 1628 when the Donnafugata fiefdom was acquired by Vincenzo Arezzo La Rocca. It remained in the ownership of the Arezzo family for over 3 centuries until it passed to the State in 1982! The building was continuously altered until the early 20th C, when Corrado Arezzo transformed the faηade into what can be seen today.

It finally opened to the public in 2002 after 5 years of renovaDonnafugata_(1).JPGtion, with 28 rooms on the first floor now on view (about a quarter of the total). We were the only visitors, following a route through the various rooms including a music room, billiard room, baronial hall, bedrooms of the Baron and Baroness, hall of mirrors (a smaller copy of that at Versailles), guest bedrooms, Bishop's suite (sitting room, bedroom, servant's room and bathroom), portrait gallery, etc. A notice in each room (English/Italian) describes the features: chandeliers of crystal or Venetian Murano glass, delicately painted trompe l'oeil ceilings and landscape murals, intricately patterned wallpapers, tapestry hangings, period furniture, etc. The smoking room is appropriately decorated, papered with pipe and cigar motifs while the ceiling is painted with medallions filled with cards, and beautiful peacocks at the corners representing male vanity! An insight into Sicilian nobility, the castle has been featured in the making of many famous period Italian films.

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/castello-donnafugata.html

Outside the castle entrance a sign pointed along a rough lane leading gently uphill for 700 m to early Christian catacombs (4th to 5th C AD). Walking along, we looked down on Donnafugata railway station, a halt on the Vittoria-Ragusa line which the Baron diverted to come past! After about half a mile, a gate and steps on the left of the track led to a low cave containing the catacombs - about 20 recesses carved out of the rock floor. With no ticket office, nobody there, it was very atmospheric. We walked back down to the van for a picnic lunch with a view to the coast below, where dark clouds were gathering over Ancient Kamarina.

Villa Romana di Casale, Piazza Armerina

The late Roman Villa near Piazza Armerina is justifiably famous for its mosaic floors, the finest still in situ in the Roman world. It was built around 310-340 AD on the site of an earlier farm for a wealthy and important military figure, perhaps a Senator or even a member of the Imperial family. In winter it's open daily from 9 am to 4 pm (longer hours April-Sept), entry €14 (free for EU Seniors). In addition, the official guarded car park costs €1 per hour for cars, €1.50/hr for campervans or motorhomes. Alternatively as you approach the Villa, rather than turning right for the official car park, stay on the main road and there is a free parking area on the left, below a restaurant. It is only 400 m from the Villa and is open all year (overnight parking allowed, water available). For co-ordinates, photographs and more information, see: http://www.campercontact.com/campersite/detail/id/7839

The ticket for the Villa, valid for 3 days, includes admission to the museum in nearby Aidone and the site of Ancient Morgantina (whether you wish to see these or not – we did, on a later day). We had visited the Roman Villa on 2 April 1998 but the site has been developed since then, thanks to EU funding, and it proved well worth a second look. The mosaics are now fully roofed for protection, with new steps and walkways above them for a good overview. There is also a cafι/gift shop.

It was a 62-mile drive from Camping Luminoso, along the coast to the industrial town of Gela, then north past a small oilfield, climbing to Piazza Armerina. Brown signs led us along cobbled lanes through the congested town and along a narrow country lane to the Roman Villa, up at 1,780 ft/540 m and in desperate need of a good access road. After a picnic lunch, we spent two hours walking up to and around the site marvelling at the mosaics, only disappointed that photography was not allowed. Have a look at this video first broadcast by RAI1, the Italian equivalent of BBC1. The commentary in Italian adds to the ambience.

The extensive buildings, which merit the title of palace rather than villa, included baths and waiting rooms, shrines and fountains, family and servants' quarters - the sumptuous seat of a powerful man with a rich agricultural estate. The basilica, a large hall for receptions paved in expensive marble, is currently under restoration. All the other rooms and corridors had mosaic floors, many of them miraculously preserved after a landslide.

The main rooms bear traces of wall paintings above the superlative mosaic floors. The hunting scenes are particularly impressive and informative. The Little Hunt shows men hunting wild boar, deer, rabbits and birds, making a sacrifice to Diana (goddess of hunting) and cooking a feast, with delightful details like a hunter feeding his dog. The long mosaic pavement portrays the capture and transport of exotic animals in Africa and India, destined for the circus and triumphal processions in Rome. Lions, pumas, tigers, ostrich – even an elephant and a rhinoceros – all artistically worked in finely coloured mosaic pieces.

Other floor mosaics depict children fishing or chasing barn animals (with one child fallen and another being bitten by a rat!), domestic scenes, flora and fauna or mythology. One such shows Homer's legend of Odysseus escaping from the Cyclops, a giant who traditionally lived in a cave in Sicily. The exquisite workmanship shows Greek and North African influences, while the small mosaic known as the 'Bikini Girls', a portrait of female athletes competing in various games, is obviously a later addition of poorer quality, being laid above an earlier patterned floor.

The villa was occupied until the Arab invasion of the 9th century AD, although in a state of increasing degradation. The final act of destruction was the work of the Norman ruler of Sicily, William I the Bad, around 1155. The area that has now been excavated (about 4,000 sq m) is only part of the full estate and we wondered what remains to be found here, high in the heart of Sicily (not far south of Enna, the island's highest town), difficult to reach even today! The lasting impression was of the beautifully portrayed animals, both local and African.

Aidone Archaeological Museum and Excavations at Morgantina

The small town of Aidone lies about 7 miles northeast of Piazza Armerina, at a height of over 2,500 ft/600 m. The museum in the town centre and the excavated Greek settlement of Morgantina, a further 2 miles northeast, are both well signed. The museum is currently open 9 am-4.30 pm, though the excavated site closes at 2.30 pm. A ticket for site only is €6, site + museum €10 (both free to EU Seniors), or both are included in the €14 ticket for the Roman Villa at Piazza Armerina, valid for 3 days and on sale at any of the 3 sites.

Rather than drive from Luminoso via Gela, as we did to the Roman Villa, we took SP60 from S Croce Camerina almost to Ragusa, then turned north on smooth road 514. Turning left onto a new road 683 at 39 miles, already high at 1,650 ft/500 m, we bypassed Grammichele but rejoined the older and narrower road before Caltagirone. The sudden view of distant snow-capped Mount Etna, much whiter than last December, amazed us. Another surprise was being stopped by the Polizia Stradale to check Barry's licence, insurance and 'cars papers'. He passed the examination. After skirting round the hilltop town of Caltagirone, our SatNav suggested a route via Mirabella Imbaccari to Aidone but the lane was blocked after Mirabella, so we had to backtrack and take the main road 117b past Piazza Armerina, then right along a country road climbing up to Aidone (86 miles), busy with market day - Friday.

Morgantina – The free car park was welcome after over a mile of brand new cobbled lane and we ate a quick picnic before Morgantina_(29).JPGentering the excavated site. The Greek settlement was founded in the 6th C BC, though most of the remains – the baths, foundations of the residential area and shops, a small theatre, pottery kiln, furnace, sanctuary, etc - date from the 5th-3rd C BC. After a siege, the town fell to the Romans in 211 BC – evidenced by coins in a hoard of treasure buried below the floor of one of the houses - and was finally abandoned in the 1st C AD. The site was mainly excavated by American archaeologists from Princeton University, from 1955 onwards.

The astonishing location along the Serra Orlando ridge up at Morgantina_(41).JPG2,000 ft/600 m, overshadowed by mighty Etna, made a wonderful setting for rambling round taking photographs. The distant volcano was gently smoking on the far side and we realised what a fine view we'd have if it erupted. We should have been there the very next day, when Italian TV showed a cloud of ash coming from Etna, blocking nearby roads and closing the runway at Catania airport! There was plenty of space at Morgantina to avoid the only other visitors, a school party, and we stayed until closing time at 2.30 pm. For us the most interesting feature was the 3rd century BC North Baths complex including hot bath tubs and an open swimming pool as well as evidence of one of the earliest examples of dome and barrel vault construction. It seems that bathing is another custom the Romans adopted from the Greek civilisation.

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/ancient-morgantina.html

Aidone Museum – Just 2 miles southwest of Morgantina, Aidone is a busy little town, its houses clustered along narrow lanes. There is no parking in the centre but we found space on the street on the rim of town, with a panorama across to Morgantina and Etna. A museum was opened in Aidone in 1980 to house finds from the site of Morgantina. The building, dating from the 17th century, is a former Capuchin Monastery and was too small to avoid the school party who had already arrived! Photos were not allowed.

There are two floors of exhibits, covering the prehistoric, archaic and classical periods, along with a thematic display that draws attention to aspects of ancient daily life, with finds from the Agora, houses and necropolis. Unfortunately, some of the cases were empty and the labelling was only in Italian. The prize exhibit is a large limestone statue of a draped female figure, known as a Kore in early Greek sculpture –or possibly the deity Demeter or her daughter. It was returned to Aidone in 2011from the Paul Getty Museum in New York, along with some silver artefacts from Morgentina. Must admit we've seen finer Greek sculpture in marble.

We returned from Aidone to Camp Luminoso more directly, via Piazza Armerina, Gela and Scoglitti, a journey of 67 miles.

The Feast of San Valentino

Friday the 14th (with a full moon) was a good excuse for a meal out. The local Rosacambra Restaurant, about 1 km from Santa Croce Camerina towards Marina di Ragusa (opposite the Rama DIY store), had just re-opened after renovations: www.rosacambra.com. We went for lunch, rather than an evening dinner with live music, and had the large dining room to ourselves. There was a choice of menu fisso (set meal): the Short Menu or the Long Menu. Wisely choosing the short menu, we worked our way through antipasti (a starter of ratatouille, spinach pie and a wedge of cheese), a pasta dish, the main course (pork or rabbit) with salad, and a dessert of cream-filled pastry horns. Served with bread, toast, half a litre of local wine, water, coffees – and a smile. Good food and excellent value at €13 per person, with no hidden extras. No idea what the Long Menu might have been!

Akrai Archaeological Area, Palazzolo Acreide

Getting there - The 50-mile drive from Luminoso to Palazzolo Acreide became 60 miles, due to a diversion. It was 20 miles up to Ragusa, then north on SP62. At 28 miles, up at 2,665 ft/800 m in the Quatro Citta Natural Park, Mt Etna came briefly into view, still smoking gently into the clear blue sky. Shortly before Monterosso we turned east downhill on SS194, a road lined with almonds in blossom, to the small town of Giarratana. The onward road to Palazzolo was abruptly closed, with traffic diverted north on SP12 to Buccheri on the Ragusa/Siracusa regional border at 3,300 ft/985 m, then south again on the tortuous rd 124 to Palazzolo! But we had all day and the sun shone in the foothills of the Monti Iblei.

FollPalazzolo_Acreide_(14).JPGowing brown signs round Palazzolo to the Archaeological Area on the western side (Ancient Akrai, also known as the Greek Theatre), we arrived at noon. The site is open all day until 4.30 pm, entry €4 (free for EU Seniors), parking free. The friendly staff let us bring the van through the gates to park by the ticket office and also lent us a helpful booklet in English and Italian (no shop or cafι). After a picnic lunch, we spent 2 hours exploring the remains, alone except for the birds and rabbits.

History - At 2,200 ft/670 m above sea level, the site was a strategic defensive position Palazzolo_Acreide_(47).JPGin the Iblean Mountains overlooking the plains, chosen by the Siculi to build a village around the 12th C BC. It was discovered by Corinthian Greek settlers, who founded Akrai – the earliest sub-colony of Syracuse – around 664 BC (70 years after Siracusa). The settlement reached its apogee in the third century BC, remaining subject to Siracusa. When Sicily fell under Roman rule, it was described by Pliny as 'civitas stipendaria' – a town enforced to pay a fixed tribute to Rome. In the Byzantine age, Akrai was proclaimed 'the most important Christian centre of eastern Sicily after Siracusa' with many paleo-Christian catacombs cut into the earlier stone quarries. The ancient town was finally destroyed by an Arab army around 827 AD, with every trace lost for centuries. The population moved lower down the hill, where the Norman castle, churches and town of Palazzolo Acreide now stand.

Remains – There is a perfect little semicircular Greek theatre, with 12 rows of seats for an audience of 700, dating from thePalazzolo_Acreide_(76).JPG 2nd C BC and adapted for use in Roman times. Unusually, a narrow tunnel can be seen linking it to the smaller Bouleterion or council chamber, which again has semicircular seating. (Still today, the Greek parliament is called the Bouli.) These are the best preserved remains, bePalazzolo_Acreide_(68).JPGyond which are the foundations of houses and a temple to Aphrodite. Inscriptions mention 2 other temples, as well as 2 gates in the defensive walls surrounding the colony, but little is left apart from a stretch of Roman road paved with volcanic stones.

The most impressive feature is a pair of ancient stone quarries, worked to build the colony. In the early Christian/Byzantine period, hundreds of tombs were cut into the base of the limestone cliffs, some of them still accessible. Take a torch!

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/ancient-palazzo-acreide.html

Getting back – We took an easier (if slightly longer) 70-mile route back to Luminoso: southeast on rd 287 to Noto, along the new motorway A18 to the next exit at Rosolini (where it currently ends), then to Pozzallo and along the coast road via Marina di Ragusa. A break for ice cream at the famous 'Blue Moon Gelateria' in Donnalucata proved that Scoglitti has better ices (in our informed opinion)!

Fond Farewells

As February drew to a close, we relucta10._Luminoso_(23).JPGntly said goodbye to friends old and new at Punta Braccetto.

There was a farewell lunch with Malcolm, our neighbour on the rival Scarabeo camp. The three of us had an excellent meal at the local Rosacambra Restaurant, about 1 km from Santa Croce Camerina towards Marina di Ragusa (opposite the Rama DIY store), which we'd visited on Valentine's Day: www.rosacambra.com. It has a choice of menu fisso (set meal): the Short Tourist Menu or the Long Full Menu. The short menu was extremely generous and we really enjoyed a range of antipasti (olives, courgettes, stuffed aubergine, bruschetta and a wedge of cheese with celery), followed by lasagne before the main course (pork or beef) with salad, and a dessert of cream-filled pastry horns. Served with bread, half a litre of red wine, water and coffee. Good food and excellent value at €13 per person. The Long Menu would have included more starters, fresh fruit with the dessert and a glass of limoncello liqueur for €18 all-in. A table of German-singing campers from Baia dei Coralli indulged in this feast!

Our last evening was spent in Dan's Van at Coralli, sharing his tasty pasta bake and his11._Dan_in_the_Van.jpg taste in music. That was a sad parting, not knowing when we might meet again.

And finally we said goodbye to a new friend, Stan, our charming host at Camping Luminoso. Margaret had marmalised his gift of oranges, mandarins and lemons and presented him with a jar, along with the recipe for his wife Lidia. Another new friend, she had organised a hairdresser's visit, invited us to dinner and advised on Italian cheeses. They both helped to make this a memorable winter!

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/camping-luminoso.html

Punta Braccetto to Camping Rais Gerbi, Finale di Pollina, Sicily - 144 miles

Open all year. www.raisgerbi.it.  ACSI Card rate €16 inc €3-worth of elec, and showers. Extra elec charged at €0.35 per kWh. (Special reductions for a longer winter stay.) WiFi one hour free on arrival. WiFi tickets €3 for 12 hrs, €5 for 24 hrs, logging in and out. N 38.02305 E 14.15388

On the last day of February, a beautiful sunny morning of blue sky and sea, the caravan was towed out of its winter hibernation. We drove northwest on quiet lanes through 'Polythenia' (the land of plastic-covered tomato-houses) past Scoglitti, joining rd 115 at Acate. This busy main road to Gela is sadly pot-holed and neglected, pending the completion of the motorway from Rosolini to Gela (some time never?)

Approaching Gela, an industrial town with 'nodding donkey' oil wells, we turned north on rd 117b for 6 miles, then left on rd 190 for the A19 Catania-Palermo motorway. This quiet 2-lane road soon left the smoking factory chimneys of Gela below as it twisted through hillsides, some planted with orange groves, olives and almond trees in blossom. At 50 miles, up at 1,270 ft/385 m, rd 190 turned west for 5 miles, then joined new road 191 leading north for 26 miles to meet the well signed A19. 

The toll-free A19 motorway was surprisingly empty, climbing north across the high interior of Sicily on a succession of viaducts, culminating in a short tunnel at 2,400 ft/725 m before a gradual descent with a panorama of snowy peaks. We regretted not pausing at the only service station on our side, just after joining the A19, as there was nowhere else to break the journey until we met the coast (though southbound traffic had a choice!)

At 121 miles we turned east (towards Messina) on the A20, finally able to stop for lunch on a rest area after the toll booth. The motorway ran high above the coast through a succession of short tunnels past Cefalu to our exit (Castelbuono), where we gladly paid a toll of €2.70 before zigzagging down to meet the narrow coast road 113. The entrance to Camping Rais Gerbi is about 3 miles east on rd 113, less than half a mile before the village of Finale. It's a large site dissected by a busy railway line, with some pitches overlooking the sea and a handful of residents.

Reception was closed till 4 pm but the gates were open and we settled in, though couldn't connect to the electricity until the owner arrived and supplied a card (loaded with €30) to put in the meter box. When questioned about this (how many amps is the supply, and what is included in the ACSI rate?) he became very irritable and refused to answer, saying 'it's no problem' and 'it won't cost you much for a small caravan'. He actually appeared a bit drunk and shouted at Margaret as she tried to unscramble what we would pay.

Next morning a pleasanter English-speaking Receptionist explained that we get €3-worth of electricity per day (charged at €0.35 per kWh) and pay for any excess. When we left we hadn't exceeded the allowance but in any case no-one bothered to check the meter!

The facilities were pretty grim (no seats in the cheap and Spartan men's toilets) but at least the showers were hot and the WiFi worked some of the time.  

MARCH 2013

At Camping Rais Gerbi

Steps led down to a small pebble beach with a view of the distant volcanic peaks of small islands. It wasn't possible to walk far on the shore as the sea washed the base of rocky cliffs in both directions. The village of Finale, with its old square tower and modern sculptures, was just a short walk (half a km) along the road. It has a small shop or two and an Esso petrol pump.

Lentern Carnival – On the Sunday afternoon before the start of Lent, the children of Finale had a carnival procession. Margaret followed the stream of tots, mixed infants and doting parents up to the community centre, where they were gathering. The excited children, dressed as ladybirds, turtles, dalmations, Donald Duck etc, followed a single decorated truck blaring music into the centre of the village until it suddenly began to pour down. Bewildered youngsters, their face paint running in the wet, sheltered under an arcade. The younger ones were crying, the older ones squabbling, while the grown-ups raised umbrellas or ran to fetch cars. Traffic chaos ensued, along streets running with rivulets of confetti and strands of crazy foam. What a shame! The rain continued for the rest of the day and M made a dash for it back to camp to dry out.

Castelbuono – Ne12._Castelbuono_(10).JPGxt day was dry again and a 10-mile drive inland took us up to the village of Castelbuono, 1,300 ft above sea level in the shadow of the snowy Madonie range. There were two free car parks (signed for motorhomes) on the edge of the medieval town. We walked round the narrow lanes of the old centre and up to the museum in the eponymous castle (entry  €4, or €2 for Seniors). As expected it was closed, being Monday, but the view was superb.

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/castelbuono.html

Finale di Pollina to Camping Villaggio Marinello, Oliveri, Sicily - 62 miles

Open all year. www.camping.it/sicilia/marinello. ACSI Card rate €16 inc 6 amp elec and showers. Free continuous WiFi. N 38.12913 E 15.05813

East along coast road 113 for 5 miles, to join the A20 at Tusa. It was showery with a strong back 13._Oliveri_(22).JPGwind helping us along towards Messina, through tunnels and over viaducts. Another amazing Italian motorway construction! Paused at 30 miles on Acquedolci services (spacious with a motorhome service point), then took Falcone exit 29 miles later (toll €6.90). Turn left (signed Palermo) briefly, then right for Oliveri and follow signs to Camping Marinello.

It's a larg12._Oliveri_(24).JPGe almost empty site among tall eucalyptus trees, with a gate onto the gritty beach and just a short walk from the town. The facilities are dated but clean: hot showers and toilets complete with seats and paper! The English-speaking Receptionist was especially friendly, supplying us with local information and a free WiFi code for each of our laptops. They even worked well.

As it's Shrove Tuesday we made pancakes for lunch, served with hand-scrumped lemons, and (as usual) wondered why we don't have them more often. Quick, easy and scrumptious!

Then we took a walk along the beach round the small lagoons of Marinello which form a nature reserve. There were a few egrets by the water, plenty of seagulls soaring high, owls to be heard after dark and rabbits scampering in the woods.

A long sand spit almost closes the bay on which Oliveri lies – once a tuna fishing village and now14._Sand_Spit.JPG a minor summer resort with a small funfair. In addition to our campsite, 'Sosta Azimut' has motorhome parking but didn't appear to be open. The cliffs towering above Marinello beach were the site of the ancient Greco-Roman colony of Tyndaris. The acropolis is now crowned by the monstrous Sanctuary of the Black Madonna (circa 1956) at Tindari, a pilgrimage site visible from the motorway.

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/oliveri-on-the-beach.html

At Oliveri

Next day we had emails to write, lemons to pick and laundry to be strung between the gum trees. Later we walked into Oliveri and looked round the centre, set back inland from the railway line, with a couple of small supermarkets and one restaurant open. Gave a wide berth to a group of disaffected youths with a black dog, who were hanging round the empty market.

To Pozzo di Gotto Barcellona for Lidl (10 miles each way) – On a shopping trip to the nearest Lidl we took the easy route, east along A20 from Falcone to the very next exit (Barcellona). The store was actually visible from the toll booth: €0.90 well spent! It was a treat to restock with familiar goodies, including fresh croissants. We might have returned on the twisting coast road 113 but heavy rain set in, so we used the motorway again.

To Tin18._Tyndaris_(38).JPGdari and Ancient Tyndaris (6 miles each way) – It is possible to walk from Oliveri up to Tindari on a steep footpath leading to the modern Sanctuary, beyond which lie the remains of Ancient Tyndaris. However, it's a climb of almost 1,000 ft/300 m and we are not here on a pilgrimage! We drove up the hair-pinning rd 113 (Palermo direction), then turned right at the signs for the Sanctuary and the Teatro Greco. On high days and holidays, traffic must stop at the large lower car park and pay a Park & Ride fee. Pausing to unscramble the signs and dates, we were ushered on by the stallholders to continue uphill to the small upper 17._Tyndaris_(14).JPGcar park by the Sanctuary, which was free. More stalls here sold souvenirs and snacks – an untended display of nuts and seeds was popular with a cheeky sparrow!

The view over the bay 1,000 ft below was stunning; the tiny figures walking near the lagoon resembled ants. This alone was worth the drive, with the Sanctuary and the ancient site a possible bonus.

A glance15._Sand_Spit.JPG in the enormous Sanctuary showed how hard the architect had tried and failed to create an impression of awe, with mosaics and marble and all. (Awful rather than awesome, to our ungodly eyes!) The foundation stone of the vast basilica, built to hold the iconic Black Madonna, received the Pope's blessing at the Vatican in December 1956. The Bruna Madonna (as the Italians call her) holds her child 16._Tyndaris_(21).JPGin a glass dome above the high altar, held aloft by black marble angels, well beyond a pilgrim's reach. Legend has it that she was washed ashore in the 9th century, crated in a boat. Somehow she came to rest in the cathedral in nearby Patti until Monsignor Pullano proposed this Sanctuary – where the Bishop's tomb also rests.

It was a short20._Tyndaris_(65).JPG walk on to the Greco-Roman site of Tyndaris, a walled Greek colony founded in the 3rd C BC which fought with the Carthaginians against the Romans in a naval battle in the bay below. Like Morgantina, it fell to Rome and was eventually abandoned when the inhabitants fled the Arabs and descended to the coast. The site and small museum are open 9 am-4 pm, entry €4 (Seniors free). It's a lovely place, full of wild flowers and birdsong.19._Tyndaris_(48).JPG The foundations of some houses and baths remain, though part of the settlement was lost when a section of the cliff broke away after an earthquake, and much has been overbuilt (the Sanctuary is on the ancient acropolis). The Greek theatre was adapted by the Romans, who removed the lowest tier of seats to make it safe for gladiatorial combat with wild animals. Much restored, it is now used for summer performances. We spent a happy hour scrambling round the site, gazing at the view and trying to exclude the dominant Sanctuary from the photographs!

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/ancient-tyndaris.html

RETURN TO MAINLAND ITALY

Oliveri to Camping Onda Azzurra (=Blue Wave), Corigliano Calabro, Calabria - 194 miles

Open all year. www.onda-azzurra.it. €11+metered elec (10 amps) at €0.35/kWh. (€7+elec for stay of 14 days plus.) Free showers and WiFi. N 39Ί42'16” E 16Ί31'32”

22._Messina_Ferry_(20).JPGAway at 9.15 am on a sunny Saturday morning, it was 3 miles to the A20 motorway, then east for 30 miles (toll €4.40) to the best exit for the ferry, 'Messina Boccetta'. A busy mile through Messina brought us to the waterfront, 21._Messina_Ferry_(12).JPGthen left for another mile to the Caronte & Tourist ferry terminal. There was no queue at the ticket booth, which accepted card payments, and we drove straight onto a waiting ferry for the 20-minute crossing of the Strait of Messina from Sicily to the mainland. It is expensive – even after Margaret had argued the fare down by €47 to match the price we'd paid on the way out in December - but until a bridge is built (?) the ferries have the monopoly.

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/ferry-from-messina.html

Landing in Villa s Giovanni at 11 am, we followed clear signs for 2 miles to the A3 motorway (toll-free as far as Salerno). The first service station was closed off by road works and we continued through tunnels and over viaducts, climbing to 1,850 ft/560 m, before descending to the next services near Rosarno, after 29 miles on the mainland. After lunch rain set in, as we drove up the A3 for another 112 miles to the Sibari exit. It was a magnificent drive, peaking at 2,122 ft/643 m at Rogliano before Cosenza.

From the motorway it was east for 14 miles on rd 534, then south on the busy coast road 106 for a couple of miles. A bumpy lane on the left, signed for Camping Onda Azzurra, is easy to miss – look for the flags and (perhaps) a stall selling shoes and clothes. There had clearly been heavy rain, with flooded fields now a habitat for egrets and heron. It was nice to see a cattle egret perched on a cow's back! The lane ends at the locked campsite gates by the beach where you can park, enter the small gate and play 'hunt the security guard' if Reception is closed (they take an afternoon break until 4 pm).

We settled on the same pitch we had on our way out in December, next to the same Dutch caravan and behind the same German motorhome. The site was still busy with long-stay, largely Teutonic residents. The Receptionist came to read our electricity meter and supplied the code for the free WiFi, which rarely worked. 

At Onda Azzurra

The area is rather depressing with a rubbish-strewn beach, stray dogs in the woods and prostitutes lining the main road, so we didn't enjoy the short walk we took. But we'd stopped here to break the journey, do the laundry and shopping, then move on.

Food – We shopped at Lidl in Corigliano Calabro, calling at the Auchan hypermarket on the way back for a roast chicken. Both these stores were open on Sunday, though Lidl took a long lunch break until 4 pm. Brown bread (fresh or sliced) is not popular in Italy and even the bread mix in Lidl was only available in white! Nor were there any marzipan items among the Easter bunnies and eggs, an absence we'd noticed at Christmas. But, in their favour, Italians do like liquorice.

The campsite restaurant opened for Sunday lunch (but only for those in the know who'd booked ahead), as well as for pizzas (eat in or take away) on Tuesday and Friday evenings. The pizza we took away was very tasty, freshly cooked to order in a traditional wood-fired oven, with a generous topping of ham, mushrooms, olives and cheese. Large enough for two and only €6.

Entertainment – As the only English campers, we thought it wise not to join the crowd watching Bayern FC versus Everton on the large screen in the bar. In the event, it was one-all. We do have a good supply of films for when Italian TV palls (which takes less than 3 minutes), as well as music, books and e-books, much of it thanks to our good friend Dan.

While at Onda Azzurra we watched a DVD (once free with the Guardian) showing the iconic Russian film 'The Battleship Potemkin'. A black & white silent masterpiece of Soviet propaganda from 1925, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, subtitled in Russian and sub-subtitled in English, it proved a fascinating ordeal! Easier to watch was a film simply called 'Australia', set in the early years of WW2 in northern Australia. Nicole Kidman was easily outshone by Hugh Jackman and the Aboriginee actors, while the star was the scenery, making us yearn to be back in the Territory. Finally we watched 'Iris', with Kate Winslett and Judi Dench both playing Iris Murdoch at different ages, alternating between her time at Oxford and her descent into Alzheimers. It was a depressing fragmented story, though well acted.

Ferry Booking to Greece - Our next task was to book a ferry to Greece, from either Brindisi or Bari. We found the choice at this time of year very limited. Superfast (who have merged with ANEK) from Bari, or Grimaldi (merged with Minoan Lines) from Brindisi, both offer only one overnight crossing a day. The lack of competition means higher fares and busier boats. In the past we would just turn up at Brindisi and compare the cost of rival companies: Endeavour, MyWay, MedLink, Agoudimos, Ventouris, Blue Star … those were the days, with Camping on Board (sleeping in motorhome, campervan or caravan) any time, weather permitting. This is no longer allowed between 1 November and 31 March. After checking timetables and prices on-line, we tried to book by phone but neither Grimaldi nor Superfast would accept telephone bookings as they can't handle the payment! It must be done either on-line or at a travel agency. To cut a long and frustrating story short, we finally booked our passage and a 2-berth cabin with Grimaldi: dep Brindisi at 8 pm, arr Patras next day at 12.30 pm (or 1.30 pm Greek time).

Camping Onda Azzurra to the Port of Brindisi, Costa Morena, Puglia - 131 miles 

We left Onda Azzurra on a lovely calm sunny morning in mid-March, pleased that the weather forecast had been accurate. Driving north up the busy E90/SS106, the 2-lane road hugged the coast, past Trebisacce (with a Lidl sign) at 15 miles. Ten miles later it became a good dual carriageway, almost motorway standard with tunnels, occasionally interrupted by road works where improvements were not yet finished. Lunch was enjoyed in a layby with sea view.

At 80 miles the cranes of the port and naval base of Taranto (capital of Puglia) appeared. Three miles later we turned off onto E90/SS7 for Brindisi: a good dual carriageway that bypasses Francavilla and Mesagne, then continues arrow-straight following the line of the ancient Via Appia Antica that led to the Roman harbour of Brundisium. A Roman column in Brindisi still marks the end of this Appian Way.

With time in hand before the ferry, we turned off at 118 miles into the huge shopping mall in the Mesagne Zona Industriale, complete with vast free car park. In Auchan's sale, Margaret bought a pair of genuine warm-lined 'Crocs' for Barry. We also had a Mc-takeaway, followed by slices of strawberry gateau, before continuing for 7 miles to the outskirts of Brindisi. Then turn right at the sign for Porto and follow Grecia or Costa Morena or ship symbols for another 5 circuitous miles to the Grimaldi terminal.

Our 2-page computer printout, headed 'Ticket' and showing the Booking Reference, Ticket Number, several barcodes and full details, did not convince the check-in staff, who vaguely pointed backwards and told us to go to the Terminal. We turned round with difficulty and eventually found the building, disguised as a Bar, to be issued with acceptable tickets.

The good ship MV Catania carried mainly trucks, a few cars, a trio of French motorhomes and us. The only other passengers were a loud American High School group and their minders, bound for Delphi and Athens. We were directed to leave the caravan on the lower deck, with plenty of space but no electric hook-ups, meaning soft ice cream on arrival!

Our 223._Into_Patras_(12).JPG-berth inside en-suite cabin was functional though stuffy, with no heating controls. At around 4 am we went up on deck to watch the moonlit arrival in Igoumenitsa. It was calm and inviting, with a warm breeze: welcome to Greece. Most of the lorries disembarked and disappeared up the well-lit motorway, bound for northern Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey or beyond. The French motorhomes also left, to park on the dark empty terminal to finish their night's sleep. We stayed on board to Patras (it's the same price). Unable to sleep again, we read until breakfast - any or all of fresh flaky croissants, rolls, butter and cherry jam, orange juice, yogurt and coffee, but nothing cooked.

GREECE

Arrival in Patras, Greek Peloponnese

After a smooth voyage between the Ionian Islands we reached Patras, arriving at the new24._Into_Patras_(22).JPG port at 1.30 pm Greek time (an hour ahead of Italy). Wonderful to stand on deck taking photos: the elegant Rio Bridge across the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth, St Andrew's (the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Greece) on the waterfront, and the snowy peak of  Mt Panachaikon rising to 6,400 ft behind the city. It's almost 2 years since we were here and it felt like coming home.

See our photographs at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/ferry-into-patras.html

We shared Oscar Wilde's emotion, in his 'Impression du Voyage':

"The sea was sapphire coloured, and the sky
Burned like a heated opal through the air;
We hoisted sail; the wind was blowing fair
For the blue lands that to the eastward lie.
From the steep prow I marked with quickening eye
Zakynthos, every olive grove and creek,
Ithaka's cliff, Lycaon's snowy peak
And all the flower-strewn hills of Arcady.
The flapping of the sail against the mast,
The ripple of the water on the side,
The ripple of girls' laughter at the stern
The only sounds - when 'gan the West to burn,
And a red sun upon the seas to ride.
I stood upon the soil of Greece at last!"

Once 26._Into_Patras_(26).JPGthrough check-out, we were able to stop on a secure guarded truck park to eat our lunch - so different from the old port that was plagued by illegal immigrants trying to stow away to Italy. With the highway link to the new port almost finished, we had to drive 5 miles along the sea front to join the E55 (Athens-Pirgos). Then it was south for 50 miles to a favourite winter campsite, Ionion Beach at Glyfa near Gastouni - the start of a new journey.

Continued at: Return to Greece Spring 2014