Category Archives: Romans

Unexpected Italy

Standard

Ah, the romance of Italy; the beauty of Venice, the pomp of Rome and the cypress-speared vistas of Tuscany, all punctuated by the sharp scent of basil, the tang of olives, and the cool wash of wine from an earthenware jug. Then there’s the lemons, large as oranges, from the Amalfi coast, and the wonderful, mad, gesticulating language, the ancient architecture, and the imposing ruins. I love all the towers, piazzas, and pavement cafes, the frenzied markets bursting with colour, and the extravagant churches leading into cool, calming cloisters, echoing with whispered penitence and the chime of bells. Given a choice of where I’d like to be, Italy is the word that spills from my mouth before I’ve even had a chance to think about it.

But…

…that’s in summer.

And this was February. When the Beast from the East had been chucking its weight about all over Europe (yes, I know it’s May, but I’ve had no internet, so I’m still on catch-up blogs).

IMG_7864

So far I’d made it to Trieste in my unheated car, only to be told I needed to carry on driving another 165 miles to Ferrara, in the hope (note – not the certainty) that they’d have the part to fix my heater there. So I girded my loins (mostly in many layers of fabric and a hot water bottle) and drove to the area around Ferrara.

Which is where we found something unexpectedly nice: FREE aires, or sostas, as they are called here. And the word FREE sometimes applies, not just to the parking space for your campervan, but also to the water and electricity!!! Well bend me over backwards and call me Susan, how great is that?

The first one we stayed at was at Castelgulielmo, in the car park of a cemetery. The services were all free, and there was a little shop in the village where you could buy necessities.

Like water.

Because the drinking water had been cut off in case of freezing.

But even if it hadn’t, I still wouldn’t have wanted to drink it as it tasted like liquid Savlon. Not being funny, Italy, but for a country that prides itself on its food and drink, you should pay a little more attention to the basics.

This is where we met Mitia – a nice chap, from Slovenia, with a gorgeous Boxer dog. He had the campervan opposite to us and came over for a beer and a chat. He said he never worried about the security aspects of travelling alone because he’d been trained in a particular Martial Art when he was in the military.

If I even touch Steve, I am in BIG trouble, he said.

So, basically, you’re classed as a weapon? I quipped, (I know my humour doesn’t generally transcend language barriers, but I can’t always stop myself).

But he said Yes, and nodded very solemnly, clearly pleased that I’d got such an accurate grasp of the situation.

We went for dinner at a local pizza restaurant where, as usual, we were the only diners apart from the owner and his wife, who’d settled at another table and were watching a quiz show on the telly. While we all ate, Steve and I tried to guess the quiz show questions by the intonation of the voices and the looks on the contestants’ faces. Our twenty or so words of Italian weren’t quite up to the job, but we got so involved in our little ‘game’ that I began to think I knew some of the answers and started shouting at the telly.

This backfired slightly, as the owner (mistakenly thinking we actually understood it) turned the volume up for us, and then spent the rest of the show making incomprehensible comments to us about the contestants, the compere, or the results. Best I could do was nod, and try to intuit whether I should look appalled, amused, celebratory, or disappointed. I might have said Yay too many times.

They were a lovely couple, though. He used to be in a blues band in the 60’s, and there were framed photos of them on the wall – all long hair, and Afghan coats, and embroidered waistcoats. There was probably a flute. There usually is.

IMG_7875

His wife showed us YouTube footage of them performing recently at Deltablues, as the Caledonia Popexa Blues Band. Then he got his guitar out and played us Blackbird by The Beatles.

IMG_7878

The next day, inspired by Italian cuisine, Steve went to the supermarket and bought back a packet of ravioli. He hadn’t a clue what was in it though, so I asked him what the picture on the packet showed – the Italians are usually helpful that way. Er, meat, he said? Something red, anyway. He showed me the packet; it was radicchio. Which is lettuce. Steve bought lettuce ravioli. (To be fair it tasted great, but that might have been down to the fifty million things I put in the sauce, including meat).

By now my car was booked in to have the heater fixed the following week, so we moved to another sosta, this time at Migliarino. It was situated in a car park, next to a rowing club, that had lots of strange, sea-themed sculptures. Here we met Frederik, the local beggar. Most days he would stand, quietly and respectfully, outside the Coop and Steve liked to make sure he always had some change for him.

IMG_7914

Frederik told us that he came from Nigeria three years ago and had no intention of going back because he liked the cold. He gave Steve his CV, which described him as an agricultural engineer and farm worker. I’m not sure what he thought we could do, but he liked us, and I suspect it was all he had to give. The following day it snowed heavily, and Steve went to check on Frederik, who cheerfully informed us that he had a mate whose floor he slept on, if it was too cold even for him.

While we were snowed in, Steve got out his Dremmel (not a euphemism) and reproduced the broken part of my windscreen wiper from a tiny rubber gromit that he’d found. It took a couple of goes, but then it worked perfectly. As my friend Anna once said, Steve is a legend.

To celebrate we went out to a local restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t quite realised it was a fish restaurant, of course, and happily asked the waitress to recommend something – but not fish (I wasn’t in the mood, that day). Ooh, the look I got!

She made up for it later by leaving a bottle of Limoncello on the table for us at the end of the meal, and then not charging us for it. I love Limoncello. I prefer to drink it until I can’t actually say it. By the time we left to go home it was just that lubly lemony stuff.

Ferrara itself is a smashing little town, half Renaissance, and half medieval in architecture. Both sides meet in the middle of town by the properly moated Este Castle.

We walked down a street of original medieval archways…

IMG_8008

…and then back up past all the renaissance buildings, admiring the door furniture as we went. Lots of lovely knockers (don’t embarrass yourselves).

We passed a strange little park with allotments run by a local co-operative, that sold honey, and some utterly unidentifiable produce, from a log cabin under the trees. And ended our walk at the Diamante Palace, with its studded walls casting impressive, constructivist shadows in the waning light.

And then, car fixed and Ferrara seen, it was time to crack on with our journey home. We drove a long way to a sosta – that turned out to be up too steep a hill and too windy a road for Georgie, our RV, to manage. So we drove further – to a sosta that we found had been taken over by a circus. So we drove further still – and ended up at a sort of lay-by in Vezzano Sul Crostolo.

But the long drive had left tempers, not so much frayed, as completely unravelled. We had a good shout at each other and I huffed off to the bedroom, disgusted, yet again, by the fact that my bedroom door refuses to slam. Steve went for a walk in the nearby woods to cool down.

He came back later and said dear?

Yes love? I said, hoping he’d come to apologise first.

No, he said, deer. Come and see.

And there they were – a whole herd of them in the field next to the van: wild, and skittish, and part of a nature reserve that also boasted wild boar and wolves.

Following them, we found an abandoned cottage that had once boasted a rather fabulous outside loo – complete with bidet and everything. Not like the tiny concrete or wooden shacks I remember from my childhood (FYI I’m not that old, they just hadn’t all been demolished then).

IMG_8040

So it seems that some lovely wildlife, and a broken bog is all I need to cheer myself up. I picked daffodils, apologised to my lovely, car-fixing, husband, and went home to cook weirdly-stuffed pasta behind my non-slamming doors.

Next time – the south of France, clumsy week, and that Mistral again.

Advertisements

Down by the Danube 3 – Ruined Romans, and a Renaissance night.

Standard

I lived in Bath for ten years, so I know a bit about what the Romans did for us and, better still, I know what they buggered off and left behind them. The Roman Baths are one of my favourite places and – as is usual with any of our national heritage – they are meticulously maintained, thoughtfully laid out, and cost a pretty penny to visit.

So when we read about all the Roman ruins in Budapest, we were quite excited – a town at Aquincum, and an Amphitheatre in Buda. Well, alrighty.

And the first place we discovered was the Roman baths. Notice I have not used a capital letter on baths this time. That is because they are not given quite the same level of reverence in these parts.

Well, when I say, not given quite the same level, what I mean is they are treated like old bus stops. Open to the public. Totally unmanaged. And under a flyover.

I’m not even joking.

IMG_4620

But to be fair, they took out the good stuff – you know, plaques to the Emperor Claudius, and interesting tombstones, etc. – and put them on display elsewhere.

Well, when I say elsewhere, I mean they stuck them on the walls of the underpass.

And I’m still not kidding.

 

Slightly appalled, we went in search of the Amphitheatre.

And found it – fenced off, used as a roundabout, and overlooked by crappy flats. Sigh.

IMG_4727

 

BUT TO BE FAIR…

A few weeks later we visited Croatia, where they also have some Roman ruins; a massive complex at Solin, comprising baths, theatre, forum, amphitheatre, the lot. But, unlike the Hungarians (who I suspect they consider rank amateurs), their disregard for ancient monuments was at a whole new level. How? Oh, they build houses on it.

I am utterly serious, look – a natty little semi-detached perched neatly on the West Gate.

IMG_5913

And if they can’t build on it, they build into it. The centre of nearby Split uses the leftovers of the Diocletian Palace as its foundation. Whole houses have odd windows, arches and decorative stonework sticking out their sides. Shops, restaurants, churches and public buildings – all half Roman and half every age since, with no clear lines in-between. I have to say, I think it works in Split but, to a Brit, it is still very strange; a bit like using Stonehenge as the base for a new roller-disco.

 

BUT BACK TO HUNGARY

Thankfully, at Aquincum – the Roman town just to the north of Budapest – they have got it right. We spent a happy afternoon just wandering around, watching lithe, green, lizards darting under the cobbles, and studying the artistry of the stonework. Yes, it’s right next to the main road, but that means everyone gets a free look as they drive into town.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Our actual campsite was at Domos, to the north of Budapest, and somewhere between Esztergom and Visegrad. We both needed to get our hair cut, so we pottered into Esztergom looking for someone with scissors and a modicum of skill.

Now, Esztergom has been inhabited for 20,000 years, and there is evidence of a very early Celt settlement. It was also the capital of Hungary until that upstart Buda got all above itself in the middle ages. And our old friend King St. Stephen was crowned there.

So although we couldn’t find a barbershop or hairdresser’s (they all shut at noon, apparently), we did find a rather nice castle and a basilica.

IMG_4171

The next day, we left a little earlier, and tried Visegrad. You could say we struck lucky, in that we found one that was open. However, she did cut our hair as if she had a train to catch, and Steve ended up still fairly shaggy, whilst I was lop-sided. Ah well, at least my hair was short enough to stop bitch-slapping me in the face every time I drove along with the windows open. And she did have a rather interesting tiled sink/channel thing.

I’d spotted a nice looking restaurant there, so we popped back later for dinner and found out that, although the Hungarians are a bit blasé about the Romans, they take the Renaissance very seriously indeed. Visegrad had once been the royal seat of King Matthias, and Visegrad wasn’t about to let you forget it.

We walked into the restaurant expecting the usual incomprehensible menu, plastic flowers, and a TV screen What we found was this – a full medieval banqueting hall!

dsc-0095-largejpg

The waiters were in full costume, but so were the diners! Steve took one look at the thrones and said, ‘I want to sit there.’ We ordered some medieval platter – we’d no idea what to expect – and then went with the waiter to get kitted out in full medieval clobber. We both had crowns, and Steve had a choice of swords and other weaponry.

IMG_4517

The food was fab. Goose liver, and roast goose, and braised red cabbage, and a nice chestnut puree thing for pud. Plenty of leftovers to take home. Happy me.

And that was the end of our time in Budapest, and we were ready to move on down to Lake Balaton. Next time, I’ll tell you about vintage cars, coaches and sleighs, how to mime to a dentist, and what happened when someone backed their caravan into Georgie.