Tented Travels: Porto-a Divine Debacle

Now where were we? Ah yes-Portugal, the west coast, staying at Praia di Ancora, having pitched our borrowed, pyramid tent [disregarding advice from our elderly Portuguese neighbours, whose comments we could safely disregard by claiming ignorance of their language]. A few kilometers down the road lay the attactive town of Viana do Costello where we could get a train to Porto, thus avoiding the need to find a parking place in a city where streets are narrow enough to string laundry across between the homes.

We parked the trusty Peugeot in the station car park and went to buy tickets. But what a spectacle the interior of the station was! Every wall boasted stunning tiled murals in customary blue and white. Here was a beautiful art gallery before we’d even left! In our innocence we bought return rail tickets and established the latest return time. Then we boarded and sat back as the wheezing, rumbling train took us down the coast.

Porto [or Oporto to the Portuguese] is a stunner of a city, tall umber houses squeezed together on the slopes down to the Douro river and dotted with old churches, frescoes, balconies-all with that beautiful decadence that only grand old cities display. My favourite streets are the narrowest, cobbled and where the balconies almost meet in the middle, as I said-strings of laundry across them.

On the River Douro there are traditional Rabelo boats that were once used for transporting wine barrels but can now be used for tourist trips. As we sat down by the riverside we peered into the waters where the river was boiling with thousands of fish, so that you might be tempted to reach in with a net and scoop some out-until you notice that what is attracting them is a sewage outlet…

No visit to Porto is complete without looking at a Port lodge, of which there are many; cool, cavernous warehouses accommodating rows and rows of barrels full of delicious port in various stages of maturity; Heaven for Husband, who has a penchant for port.

At last we felt we’d done Porto justice and began to consider our return to Viana do costelo. We wouldn’t want to miss the last train back. We returned, footsore by now to the station and presented our tickets. And this is where the vagaries of timetables, coupled with breakdowns in communication failed us. ‘Ah no’, declared the gentleman in the ticket booth. ‘The return train does not leave from here.’ Who knew? How foolish of us to imagine for one moment that our train would be returning from the point where we’d left it? And of course, the station from which it would leave was now too far to get to. We had missed it. But he offfered us one glimmer of hope. A late, late ‘milk’ train would be trundling up the coast in the small hours and we could get back on that.

While it was a relief to learn we weren’t entirely stranded we were left with the conundrum of what to do with our evening and opted for a long, leisurely meal. We found ourselves drifting along to the port area, where a swathe of restaurants fringed the dockside, then selected one. It was quiet, early and there were pleanty of empty tables in the long, thin dining area past the bar. We soon had the feeling that tourists were not regular visitors and this was reinforced by the way the waiter ran to get me clean cutlery when I knocked a knife on to the floor! Though I’m sure the meal was delicious and would have been fish-biased my memory of it is eclipsed by the thrilling sight of a regular who’d been drinking at the bar being roundly ejected by the seat of his pants-an entertaining event.

We spent as long as we were able with our meal, then with drinks, until we could reasonably toddle off to get our train, by which time we were full of food and wine and very sleepy. The train’s old-style compartments seemed inviting and I felt anxious that we’d travel past our destination if we slept too soundly, but we managed to exit the train at Viana and arrived, very late to our site. We’ve been caught out by timetables on plenty more occasions since then!

Crossing the Void and having to Avoid…

We wrenched ourselves from beautiful, sunny Paestum having ascertained that thunderstorms were amassing and that the next day, Easter Sunday would be a quiet, truck-free day on the roads.

Italy’s south west coast takes in Basilicata first then Calabria-the toe and the poor relation of Italy’s mainland. But the coast road is stunning and scenic, twisting and turning around a mountainous fringe as it wends south; a coastline to rival the famous Amalfi road and far less travelled. It was indeed quiet, Italy’s biggest religious holiday when families get together to celebrate.

As promised, towards mid-afternoon the glowering clouds vented in a thunderous, lightning-ridden deluge as we neared Italy’s toe and a few glimpses of Sicily.

Since Abruzzo we’d descended into internet silence and it was becoming clear that something was amiss concerning connectivity. We stopped just before the port town at ‘The Mimosas’, quiet, low season and dispiriting in the showery weather. The small beach, however offered our first, shadowy view of Sicily.

In the town where we were to get across the Straights of Messina we were to experience a taste of what was to come in terms of southern Italian driving behaviour. In the narrow streets there were vehicles parked on both sides, cars coming through, cars reversing, cars double-parked or parked across the road. Knowing where the port was located was no help in determining how to get to it. We drove around and around, helpless until a bystander helped out for a small remuneration, showing where to buy a ticket and where to join the queue. The stretch of water is narrow and offers a view of Messina sprawled along the coastline of Sicily.

The ferries came and went in a relentless stream, uninfluenced by the religious holiday of Easter Monday and soon we’d driven into the bowels of one. We joined the throng of passengers climbing up to the café and there was just time to get a coffee before the vessel docked-at Messina!

Having disembarked and trundled off the dockside into the rambling town we began to experience the complete and utter bun-fight that is Sicilian driving. Vehicles shooting out of side roads and parking spaces, no indication of intention, overtaking on both sides, double and triple parking, stopping mid-road and getting out, disregarding red lights, other cars and any kind of safety procedure. This was to be the norm.

The outskirts of Messina, a long built-up stretch were lined with scruffy housing, numerous assorted vans, trucks and cars selling mostly green beans heaped up in mountains in car boots and on truck beds. This is clearly not a wealthy area.

Later the road morphed into seaside suburbia and we found the way to the autostrada where we made for the first site [near as we could get to the tourist hotspot of Taormina]. Elements of doubt crept in as we bumped around an unmade road and past a cement works sporting a statue of a praying monk, [San Cementus, perhaps? –the patron saint of concrete?] but there was the entrance, shrouded in a choking cloud of barbecue smoke on this holiday afternoon; the small, dishevelled site crammed with holidaying Italians. We were shown a spot overlooking the sea front. Here at last!