Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Random observations in Italy

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

Today was another beautiful ride day, with sun most of the day and a little bit of drizzle to cool us off around 5 pm.

The view from our B&B.

The view from our B&B.

Our ride began with a climb into Pizzo. The ride through Pizzo was quite spectacular. It is a old town, and the road goes right through the middle. Twice we passed through a castle gate. The houses that lined the narrow streets where clearly hundreds of years old. It was like stepping back in time and felt uniquely European.

After Pizzo, the rest of the days riding was mostly unspectacular. Some of the navigation was challenging though, since the main road we’re following doesn’t permit bicycles. It also doesn’t permit pedestrians, horses, scooters under 150cc or motorcycles under 250cc, but we aren’t too concerned about that. Andrea told us the service road alongside is called the Complanare, which was a big help. After we turned off the S.S. 18, Scott worked up the courage to ask for directions to the Complanare, and we actually found it. Unfortunately, it seemed to appear and disappear at different times, or sometimes there were two – one on the North and the other on the South of the main highway. Finally, it disappeared just as the main highway was crossing the river. We decided to jump on an alternate route (19 Dir) which was steeper, but quite pretty and had very few other vehicles.

At one point on a side road we passed a herd of sheep. The only thing we saw watching the sheep were two sheep dogs. They appeared to be doing a good job of keeping all the sheep together, as there were no strays in the flock. All the sheep here wear bells. We found the music made by the sheep to be very peaceful. Here is a sample.

So far we have found the drivers to be very good. Becky thinks this is partly because the cars here are so much smaller than those at home. Smaller cars certainly make it easier for them to pass at a safe distance. Scott thinks that having a funny bike with a large orange sign and large bags causes people to be confused, and not know what to make of us, so they slow down until they can figure out what we are. This ensures they pass at a safe distance and speed. We have had a couple people ask to take photos while we ride, and a couple have pulled over to talk to us. Unfortunately, the conversation is usually very short and involves a lot of miming.

Both of us have travelled in Europe before, so the street signs are familiar, even though many are quite different from the ones back home. One thing we have noticed is that all the road signs are different, except the stop sign. The stop sign actually says STOP, which we found strange – we’re used to bilingual stop signs in Ontario and Quebec. We asked Andrea about it, and he said that about 20 years ago all the Alt signs were replaced with stop signs. There are a few we aren’t familiar with – one that looks like a speed bump and appears to indicate the top of a hill. We have also seen the inverse which indicated the bottom the hill. These are usually in conjunction with windy road signs (which look more like lightning bolts than windy roads). Anyways, we recommend that any North American thinking of riding in Europe do a little bit of research into what the road signs mean. There are a number of signs which are quite different – no parking signs, dead-end signs among others. Becky was reminded of the time she drove her rental car onto the Fusgangerzone (the pedestrian zone) in Germany because she didn’t realize the parent holding child’s hand sign meant pedestrian area!

The scenery is quite pretty, but often marred by trash at the side of the road, or piled up beside the on-street garbage bins. We have seen a small amount of roadside garbage in North America, but here the garbage is much more obvious. Almost all pull-outs have piles of junk scattered around. There does not seem to be any organization that takes on the responsibility to clean up the roadside.

Trash by the roadside

Trash by the roadside

We have almost crossed over the toe to the bottom of the foot. For the next few days we will be following the coast along the arch. (Becky thinks it’s really cool to be able to describe geographic location using anatomy – only in Italy!)

At 4 pm, conveniently as Becky was getting hungry, a café appeared. We decided to make a short stop for a snack. One thing we are finding challenging is that the cafés and bars (which are just snack places) do not carry any juice. Our drink choices are usually coffee or coke! Becky was feeling a little chilly after the climb, so decided to ask for a hot chocolate. She watched as the waitress mixed up coco powder and milk and used the steam outlet on the cappuccino machine. The hot chocolate turned out to be a delicious cup of a think chocolate sauce that was easier to eat with a spoon than the cup.

Shortly before dark, as we were contemplating places to camp, a hotel appeared. This was only the second hotel we had seen since turning towards Catenzaro, so we figured we might as well go check it out. The cost turned out to be reasonable (50 Euro), and we appear to be among the only guests tonight. It’s a two-star hotel, but clean and quiet – probably quite busy during the week, since a number of industries are nearby, including a Telecom Italia administration centre next door.

The hotel also provides us with yet a different type of accommodation. So far in Italy we have stayed in Residenti, Albergo, couch surfing, Bed and Breakfast, and now a Hotel. Too bad we aren’t playing Italian Accommodation Bingo.

We went downstairs in the hotel and negotiated a good rate for dinner. Primo and Frutte for 10 Euro for both of us. Primo was a nice fresh pasta with a simple tomato sauce. The fruit for dessert appeared to have been picked from someone’s garden (apples, oranges, and a tropical fruit we don’t know the name of). Dinner also included a bottle of local house wine (from Palmi) and a bottle of water. Not a bad deal! During dinner we were entertained by an Italian game show on the TV. It was a little surreal, watching Italian TV as the only customers in the restaurant.


Around the knuckle of Italy

Friday, October 24th, 2008

62 km, 5 h

We are beginning to establish a morning routine. Becky gets up and going hunting for a cup of coffee and some form of sustenance. She has figured out how to order coffee the way she likes it “Caffé Americano con latte”. This morning she noted that in the coffee shop there were only men. It seems that women do not go out for morning coffee (or siesta time coffee either) only men do. She may have interrupted some ribald conversation at the coffee shop, since the men were laughing and shouting loudly, but the proprietor “shushed” them when he saw Becky arrive.

Just as we were starting out, we found an open grocery store (super-marcado), so we stopped to pick up a few things. We now have the necessary ingredients to make supper, fruit for a snack, and cereal for breakfast. We are equipped well enough to camp if we can find such a place. Unfortunately it also means we need to carry all this through the hills today.

Becky enjoying her second caffe of the day

Becky enjoying her second caffe of the day

Today’s ride had us take the scenic road along the coast of the knuckle of Italy (that is, the part that sticks out just north of the toe). The ride started with a long up hill, and continued with ups and downs throughout the day.

We managed to find a small shop open in Coccorino that made excellent sandwiches (prosciutto and cheese). So, we are getting better at finding food for our mid-day meal. We stopped at 12:00 to eat, after having ridden only 18 km (all up hill). Becky was doubting if we would make it to Pizzo for tonight.

Shortly after our lunch break, the ride turned from uphill to downhill. We cruised for 12 km to Santa Dominica. We must have made a wrong turn at some point, as the road became much more minor and we had to climb a brutal hill to get out of Santa Dominica and back to the main road (oops). That definitely tired us out!

At 4:15 pm we finally gave up on Pizzo and headed into Vibo Marina for the night – Becky was exhausted. We fallowed the signs to the main hotel in town. Becky went in (we are taking turns, and today was Becky’s turn), and with her best Italian, discovered the cost to be much too high (134 Euro). She asked for an alternate, and the receptionist suggested a Bed and Breakfast that was on the road towards Pizzo. Given that we knew where the road was, we figured we should give it a try.

Before giving it a try, we had to stop for Gelato. There are many places that advertise Gelato, but not all of them seem to have it. We are out of season, so it is not too surprising. Fortunately, we do seem to find one or two places that do have it, so we were delighted to have Gelato break today.

The B&B turned out to be much closer than we expected – just up the street. We were delighted to find it. The lady at the B&B spoke enough English that Becky was able to determine the cost to be 70 Euro, which includes breakfast. It is still a little more than we would like to be spending, but by the time we got here, we were ready to stop. It’s difficult for us to bargain when we aren’t prepared to walk away! We have found a home for the night. As a bonus, the B&B has Internet. The lady allowed us to cook our dinner in her kitchen – so we did not need to eat out and could have dinner at a earlier time – yay!

Becky has noticed that words in Italian seem to have one more syllable that she expects. She was saying “grat-zee” for thank-you, but it is actually “grat-zee-e”. This is causing great confusion, as Becky is getting numbers confused .. she thought that when the lady at the B&B said 70, she was saying 78! .. Fortunately, a quick point at the guide book clarified things.


Couchsurfing in Nicotera

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

14 km, 1 hr

Today we met our couchsurfing host, Andrea. We are staying at his family’s summer “cottage” in Nicotera Marina, on the ocean. The family lives in the town of Nicotera, which is 5 km up the hill.

This afternoon, Andreas gave us a tour of Nicotera . We learned that the town is older than Rome, originally established around 600 BC. The town originally was much larger, covering the area between Nicotera and Rosarno (where we stayed last night). The castle in town was built by the Normans around 1200 AD. As well as giving us a place to stay, Andrea took us on an interesting tour of Nicotera. This included the church, with detached bell tower. The restoration of the church was one of Andrea’s father’s last projects before he died.

The town is built on a large hill that overlooks the surrounding valley. From the town, we could see the gantries in Gioia Tauro. Unfortunately, it has been foggy, such that we could not see far. Andreas tells us that on a clear day you can see Sicily and Stromboli, and on a really clear day you can
see Etna (the active volcano in Sicily, which is the tallest mountain in Europe?).

Andrea has done a lot of travelling in his time – he says he has been to 55 countries, which is pretty impressive. He’s currently working for the Fire Brigade – 24 hours on, 3 days off, which gives him time to plan his next adventure – a trip from north to south in Africa.

This afternoon we enjoyed our first taste of Gelato (homemade Italian ice cream). It was wonderful. It appears that we can get Gelato at around 3 or 4 pm at a variety of different “bars” or “Gelaterias”. We now know what to look for when we need an afternoon energy boost.

We also learned that we can expect “corner stores” to open at about 5 pm. Pizzerias that serve fresh pizza for dinner (rather than the fast food by-the-slice places) also do not start serving until 8 pm. Apparently, if you arrive earlier, the ovens are not yet warm. So, we now know to plan to eat supper at 8 pm, unless we are self-catering.

We are now getting eager to start biking. We have been in Italy for 3 days, and since we can still see the gantries for the container ship port, it feels like we’ve been going in circles. We need to start riding to demonstrate to ourselves that we can make it at least part way across the country. We will ride north for a day or two and then start riding east until we hit the other coast, then north again until we are either tired or the roads are not good.

Andreas has warned us that Internet may be difficult to find in Calabria (the province we are in). We have been able to find it, but it hasn’t been easy. Searching out Internet connections has added a fair bit of effort to our already taxed brains. As a result, we will likely only try to send updates when we are in cities big enough to have a hotel with wifi or when an Internet connection presents itself – rather than us going out in search of it.


Just off the boat

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

56 km, 4.25 hr

Writing this post felt a little like a grade school report on “what I did on my summer vacation”. Sorry if you find it rather verbose, but everything is so new to us here it’s difficult to know what’s important and what isn’t.

At the Internet café last night, we discovered that Andrea (a couchsurfing host we hope to visit) is actually in Nicotera, which is north of Gioia Tauro, not south. So, we decided to head back towards Gioia Tauro and do some exploring. Our decision was also influenced by the desire to go down the wonderful 10 km hill that we climbed yesterday!

Looking at the map, we figured we would go check out San Ferdinando and possibly stay in Rosarno (which appears as a bigger town on our map). We are both still feeling lost. Becky was reminded of the English saying “just off the boat”, which does a good job describing how we are feeling, both figuratively and literally!

By 10 am, we were on our bikes heading up the hill towards downtown Palmi. We were heading up the way we had come down, which involved a rather steep hill. Just before getting to the steep hill, a lady stopped Becky. She explained to Becky (completely in Italian) that the hill we were going to was really steep, and that we could get to the same place by going around the hill. She said to go right (destra) until we got to the top. She was rather emphatic that we not go up the steep hill. Becky yelled for Scott (who was a bit further ahead) to turn around. The lady honked her horn to help get Scott’s attention. Eventually, Scott turned around and came back and we took the less direct and more bicycle friendly route up the hill to the center of Palmi.

Once we reach the center, we discovered a small open-air market. Scott stayed with the bikes while Becky did a quick survey. During her survey, she was stopped by a lady, who only spoke Italian. The lady asked many questions, and grabbed Becky by the arm in a friendly way, not letting her walk away. One of the questions was asking where Becky was from, which she said Canada and pointed to her socks (which had Canadian flags). The lady showed her a pamphlet which was clearly a Christian document. Once she agreed to take the pamphlet, she was allowed to leave an find her way back to Scott. Scott examined the pamphlet and confirmed that Becky had been greeted by her first Jehovah’s Witness in Italy!

One of the booths at the market had fruits and vegetables, so Becky picked up a couple of bananas and apples for the road. Once that was completed, we were on our way again. Our plan was to stop at the grocery store we had seen yesterday and pick up a few more food items, ensuring that we would have a snack available if necessary.

The grocery store was a little bit busy, and they only had one cashier, so Scott ended up waiting patiently outside while Becky picked up a few items: juice, prosciutto, olives, and some hard dried bagels.

The downhill ride into Gioia Tauro was glorious. The road was windy, and the slope was not too steep, such that we could get some reasonable speed and enjoy the ride. It took us 10 minutes to go down what took us 90 minutes to climb the day before!

Once we arrived in Gioia Tauro, we discovered that we had missed the main shopping district in town – it was along the S.S. 18 highway. We saw many more stores and business than we had yesterday. Most were closed as it was noon. Siesta time was soon approaching! We saw a Pizzeria, so we stopped for lunch – fast food pizza.

Once our stomachs were happy, we headed out again for an afternoon of exploring. San Ferdinando is just north of the Gioia Tauro container ship port. It appears to be a nice small community, with a couple of beach front hotels. It has a large beach front, which in a strange way reminded us of Maine and New Hampshire; however, there were mostly old falling apart and half constructed buildings on one side. The beach area had many small open boats on it. There was not a person in sight.

Since it was only 1 pm, we decided to head towards Nicotera before going to Rosaro. This would allow us to have a nice bike ride before calling it a day. The ride to Nicotera involved quite a large climb (higher than the hill we climbed into Palmi yesterday). Many people cheered us on as we climbed, and one person stopped and asked if they could take a picture. We are always happy to oblige!

Once we reached Nicotera, we discovered that everything was still closed – it was still siesta time! We find ourselves wishing we could try some of the local Gelato (Italian ice cream), but the places don’t seem to be open when we want them. 🙁 With everything closed, we decided to head back down the hill and go to Rosarno and find a place to stay for the night.

Rosarno does not appear to be the nicest of towns. We found a reasonable hotel near the train station – with English speaking receptionists, but they did not have any rooms available. There was an Albergo (small hotel) next door, which did have a room – for much less money. So, we are in a very basic room for 43 Euro a night. Clean and dry, but definitely somewhat the worse for wear. We went to the hotel next door to ask about Internet, and discovered that they have free wireless from their lobby and lounge area. So, we have a cheap room with a short walk to free Internet.

While we continue to feel lost and confused, we are managing to survive and find places to eat and sleep. We’re reminding ourselves that the first week of any journey is the most difficult, so it should get easier. Scott is trying to focus on one day at a time, rather than worrying about the future – difficult and completely contrary to his nature!

Scott’s Adventures in Rosarno

While Becky relaxed in an overstuffed leather chair in the lobby of the Hotel Vittoria, Scott left on a mission. He was to find a pay phone and buy a “carte telefoniche” (phone card) so we could call Andrea and confirm when we’re meeting tomorrow.

First, he went to the train station, and confirmed there was a pay phone there. He also confirmed that the store in the train station did not sell the carte telefoniche.

Thinking that the Centro (city centre) might be the best place to look for a card, and the Centro was likely at the top of the hill, he set off. (In many old European towns, the oldest part of the town was built on a hill, where it was easier to defend).

First he climbed several residential streets, then found a staircase leading straight up the hill. At first the staircase was fine, but then he climbed higher. First weeds covered the steps, then whole steps were missing. Nearing the top, the weeds and missing steps got worse, and junk filled two thirds of the staircase. Finally, he reached the top – and it was open, not blocked as he had feared. Phew!

He arrived in a small park, with people loitering about, and a large fire lit at the base of a tree. Perhaps not the best place to be in twilight? He hurried on, looking neither left, nor right, seeking a busier, better lit area. Aha – the central square! Several churches, a few shops, and nothing of interest. Sigh.

But wait – there’s a view down the hill, and a well-lighted street with many shops. The sky was still light enough to see where the sun had set, so he was able to maintain a sense of direction as he descended the other side of the hill.

No luck though. This area was much busier, with heavy, fast-moving traffic, but not a Tobbaconist in sight. He stopped at a stationer (similar to Grand and Toy in Canada) thinking they might have something, but they didn’t. What they did have was a young shop employee who spoke fairly good English, and was able to rescue the other employees from Scott’s pathetic Italian.

After much repetition of directions, Scott was off again. 600m, on the right, near the Hotel Vittoria was the “Snack Bar”, which carried phone cards. He walked briskly along, but then repeated honks came from behind. It was the fellow from the shop! He pulled up on a scooter, and gestured for Scott to hop on. This could be interesting… Scott’s first ride on a scooter or motorcycle, behind someone he’s just met, in Italian rush-hour traffic, in the dark. Scott hops on, not without some trepidation, and they sped off. Weaving in and out of traffic, passing cars on the left who appear to be waiting to turn left, Scott would have feared for his life, but the ride was over too soon. There it was, the Snack Bar, and with a quick “Ciao”, his mysterious benefactor rode off into the night.

The Snack Bar was within 100m of the Hotel where Scott had left Becky, only in the other direction!

Phone card successfully purchased, he marched off to the train station, ready to call Andrea. But no. He reached the station, inserted the card, and… “error!”. Try another orientation? “error!”. Three of the four possible orientations give an error, and the fourth won’t accept the card.

But wait – this phone is one of the rare ones which accepts coins! Becky has all the Euro change, so back to the hotel he trudges. This is getting a bit tedious…

Fortified with currency, he returns to the station. Insert coin. E1.00 credit. Dial number. Error. Repeat. Error. Perhaps he’s being too clever. In many European countries, a zero is used to prefix dialed numbers, so he automatically added one after removing the +39 country code. Try without the zero? Aha, a different error. Now the machine won’t accept his coins…

Back to the phone card, he sees a small corner with a perforation and a label. “Sta…” I wonder if this is meant to be removed? He bends the corner and it breaks off cleanly. Now the card can be inserted in its fourth orientation. Wow! 5 Euro credit. Dialing again, and he actually gets through! … to Vodofone. Sigh. Vodofone says something in Italian, but conveniently repeats the message in English. The phone is offline or out of area. Oh well, at least we have a phone card now!

Morals of the story:

1. Pay phones are hard to come by in countries with 90+% mobile penetration.
2. Ask at the hotel where you can buy a phone card – they might have a good suggestion!
3. Learn something of the language of a country you’re visiting before leaving home. Every little bit helps!

Other realizations today:
1. We could use some lessons in basic life skills (what to buy where? At what times?)
2. When looking for accommodation, try a nice hotel first – they may have people who speak English, and if it’s too expensive, they can probably give a recommendation.
3. A dinner of Primo, Secondo and Dolce (salad) and a litre of house wine is too much for us when starting to eat at 8 pm.