Van Talk 3.

This post follows on from last week’s, in which I described how we swapped a small campervan for a larger vehicle and began to see the benefits…

Now that we had a larger and more comfortable van we began to contemplate more adventurous travel. In 2017, Husband hatched an audacious plan to motor down through Italy to the very south, to Calabria, to cross by ferry to Sicily, to cross Sicily and get a ferry to Sardinia, from which we could get another ferry to Corsica, then a ferry hop to the French mainland at Nice. In the beginning, Malta was included in this schedule- that is until he learned the eye-watering cost of a ferry from Italy, upon which discovery the idea was aborted.

Of course we needed to allocate plenty of time for the trip, estimating around five weeks.

The travel down through France was all good until Lyons, where navigation became complicated, even with the SATNAV helping. I’d had some bad experiences in Lyons from student days, so these difficulties did nothing to endear the city to me. [I’m sure it’s beautiful and has many elements it its favour once you get to know it].

To cross the border we used the Frejus tunnel, easy but ridiculously overpriced. We looked at Turin, staying in a car park by a subway station. It is a grand old city, beautiful even in the rain, although we were nonplussed by the subway payment system and ended up not paying at all- for which I apologise!

Italy has its north/south divide; the north being relatively well off, the south less so. The north is also relatively civilised in terms of driving. As we progressed south, however, the rules of the road began to appear less assiduously followed. I was taking my turn on the motorway past Naples, attempting to overtake a lorry when the driver took exception and cut in front as we were about to enter a tunnel, a near-death experience which totally lost me my nerve.

The scenery, however, as we grew closer to the straits of Messina was sublime.

Then there was Villa San Giovanni, the town we’d embark from to get to Sicily; the town where we’d need to get tickets. Traffic in the town was unruly. We drove down a narrow street, searching for the ticket sales office, only to be met head on at full speed by various vehicles. There seemed no way to get on to the docks, resulting in our making repeated circulations of the town, only to end up back where we were, like Alice in the garden in ‘Through the Looking Glass’.

At last we pulled into a small car park and went on foot for tickets, helped by a passer-by, eventually driving on to a ferry for the short crossing to Sicily.

The relief, however was short-lived. Once on the other side, at Messina, the roads were worse than ever, cars double or triple parked anywhere as people pulled up abruptly with not a signal or a warning to be seen. Traffic lights seemed to have no significance whatsoever. I spent a good deal of time as a passenger with hands clamped over my eyes.

On reflection, it’s probably just as well we made this trip in our older van, although we’d failed to get our dodgy handbrake sorted before departure. There were some mishaps, such as the misplaced bollard in a Syracusa car park causing a nasty dent.

We visited Palermo, Sicily’s capital, by bus and I was grateful for the bus driver, who was used to dealing with the chaotic conditions at every junction, where mostly the traffic looked to be dancing some kind of vehicular hokey-cokey with everyone leaping into the middle together.

Looking back I wonder how we got away unscathed, although Husband declares that he loved it, relishing the gung-ho, wild west nature of it all. But after two weeks we went on to Sardinia, where we stood at a pedestrian crossing and marvelled when the cars stopped to let us cross…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsendis now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishingand many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook:(1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

Ten Things about Italy

We moved towards the last leg of the trip, leaving Italy to return to French soil in the shape of Corsica-one hour from and in sight of Sardinia. I began to reflect on the things I’d learned about Italy from having spent a longer and more comprehensive block of time in the country [albeit mainly in the south]. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  • If you want a coffee in Italy, forget about Starbucks and Costa. It will be no use asking for a cortado, a machiatto, a cappucino or a flat white. These are coffees that sound Italian, that someone in marketing has thought up. You may get a latte [although to my mind you may just as well get a cup of hot milk, but in any bar you can have an espresso [beloved by most Italians]-a tiny shot or an Americano-a tiny shot with extra hot water. I achieved my preferred coffee by asking for Americano with ‘piccolo latte’.
  • Despite the Walls ice cream ad, asking for a cornetto will get you a croissant. The custard ones are wonderful.
  • It is well known that Italian drivers are amongst the worst, most aggressive and dangerous in the world.Sicilian drivers are the worst in Italy. The cities of Messina, Catania and Palermo boast the worst of the worst. Intersections in Palermo are akin to some demonic, vehicule version of the Hokey-Cokey, with everyone rushing into the middle, hooting, shouting and gesticulating. Traffic lights are entirely superfluous.
  • Service stations and some cafes have a most eccentric and baffling system for purchasing coffees and snacks whereby a ticket must be got from a cashier in advance of items being prepared. So confused were we the first time that we gave up altogether.
  • Whilst we sweltered in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce May sun the locals went about their business swathed in multiple layers of puffa jackets, body warmers and scarves. I imagine we seemed insane to their chilly selves.
  • Despite the likes of Versace etc Italians slob around as style-less as the rest of us. On the ferry to Sardinia there was a distressing array of bri-nylon track suits. The women are welded to their cosmetics, rarely to be seen without a full face of make-up and the men are fond of their hair, often sporting outrageous styles. Thy are also as weight challenged as anybody else.
  • To chomp your way through a typical Italian menu you would have to be Billy Bunter. There is a bewildering number of courses, the second of which is a full plate of pasta. Best advice is to skip the pasta course.
  • It seems a cliche but Italians are correct to be proud of their gelati. Italian ice cream really is the best. The coffee cone I had in Venice was the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • The contrasts are extreme. In the East of Sicily, where package tourists congregate the roads are akin to the Etna volcanic landscape, the fly tippers have carte blanche and the drivers are suicidal maniacs. The West is a pristine, smooth, quiet haven. In Palermo there are beautiful, renovated piazzas with clean, restored basilicas, cathedrals and monuments. Step away down a narrow alley and you will be instantly into a third world ghetto of open sewers, garbage, feral dogs and dodgy characters.
  • Italian is a most beautiful, musical language about which I intend to devote an entire post in due course…