Dave the motorhome is being rather heavy-handedly buffeted by palm tree-bending winds, parked alongside a sea being blown apart like sand in Marina di Gioiosa Ionica (N38.30241 E16.33895). The wind’s a beast down here in March in the middle of Med! Last night up on Etna we had to decamp at midnight. Fearing something important might get ripped off our home, we edged Dave up against a dry-built lava stone wall, which worked a treat. Maybe Etna was wanting to teach us a lesson for dodging the €10 car park fee?
We woke up pretty early, before 8am, perhaps roused by the pack of semi-wild pooches living up among the snow at the refuge. They’d been going nuts when we went to bed last night; as I went to investigate a couple of foxes legged it across the car park, competition for the dogs foraging in the bins. Peeling back the curtains a bank of fog had ridden up the side of the mountain, we could see maybe 25 metres, and it was rather chilly. Instead of waiting for the car park warden to turn up (about as likely as Lord Lucan popping round for a brew), and braving the pack of dogs, we drove part of the vertical mile descent to a free car park, to eat breakfast and to take Charlie for a quick walk on the lava.
The rest of the descent proved a bit more difficult. A combination of our Sat Nav and me bottling it on tiny roads led us a merry dance on the hill. Hardly dropping a meter, we would our way back and forth, the view below of the Med and the parallel-running motorway tantalisingly close, but still toy-small. The weird thing about driving on Etna is that the lava flows themselves are easy to cross, even in a big fat motorhome. Once you’re onto the lower slopes and are in among the crammed towns though, life gets a bit more fun.
As we meandered about on the mountain, the road widened and narrowed to Dave width without much warning but, fortunately, without much oncoming traffic either. We pootled along, cutting back and forth across the towns covered in the black ash, past road sweepers and mini-diggers scraping it from the road, and past folks stood high on roofs cleaning it away.
In a few moments of relaxation on the concentrated driving we looked around us, at hillsides terraced with citrus trees, almonds, vines and olives. The sun came and went, and I imagined what kind of tight community would live in these places, pitted against nature and corruption. A fascinating place, and hopefully we’ll come back one day.
Eventually we made it to the bottom, seeking out a Lidl to stock up on goodies and work out a plan for where we’d head today. The supermarket car park had a stunning view of Etna, and a mildly aggressive beggar bloke harassing everyone at the doorway, no-one from the shop telling him to go elsewhere. A microcosm of Italy to me: something stunning always seems balanced off with something depressing.
Heading for Messina to make the sea crossing back to the Italian peninsula, the choice was whether to head under the toe, or across the top of it. The Rough Guide didn’t seem to have much encouragement when it came to Calabria, the toe-side of the foot of Italy. Endemic corruption through the ‘ndrangheta mafia has strangled the place, before them malarial mozzies plagued the population who basically upped and left in search of somewhere less grim. On the other hand, we were close, and have a few days before we can get a ferry to Greece, why skip it? We compromised, deciding to head across the upper side peninsula and then across the mountains, cutting off the toe like the strap of a sandal.
While motorways are usually an expensive and dull way to get around, they’re sometimes a god-send. The A18 running from our chosen Lidl for an hour north was of the latter type, cutting through hills and leaping chasms, only turning round to snap at us once in a while as gusts of wind thundered down the valleys threatened to spin Dave 360 degrees, having me sick to the stomach for a few seconds with fear. Motorways in Sicily also mean motorway services, which sometimes mean free motorhome service points. We found one with such a spot, completely dilapidated, the fresh water tap snapped and no-where the empty the loo. Spotting LPG in a corner of the main part of the service station we had to (OK, decided to) drive the wrong way down the road to get to it, then wait about in confusion for the owner to come riding over on his moped to fill us up.
Dropping off the motorway to drop the final bit of land down to the sea and the port, the traffic predictably closed in on us, requiring a bit of ‘oh what the hell, I’m coming through’ driving. Another chap had tried this approach too it seemed, which had caused the snarled-up road!
Only a short wait and we were on the ferry, shutting the curtains and heading for the deck when Ju spotted none of the other van and lorry drivers around us were getting out the cab. Erm, OK, we’ll give this a go. The ticket said no-one could stay on the car deck during the crossing, but the presence of a torch-wielding bloke selling CDs from a plastic bag window-to-window said otherwise. We’d just about settled down for the crossing when the vehicles all started driving out the open doors. That’s a seriously short crossing for €45 each way, but Ju wasn’t complaining as the whipped-up sea had her seriously stressed out.
Exiting the ferry I opted for the ‘I can’t see anyone around me’ ploy in an attempt to bully my way out of the ferry. A couple of horn honks are no longer enough to halt me, but the guy alongside (who I was cutting up to be fair to him) was having none of it. A long old honk and I stopped. As he drove past he looked up at me, no disdain or judgement in his face as I waved my arms about and shrugged in my best attempt to look Italian, he had more of a look I’d seen on the old gangster movies, a cold assessment, and off he went.
From the port the road quickly dropped us on free motorway. The first 30 or 40km are roadworks, the same ones which had been packed with holiday traffic as we followed them south into Sicily just before Xmas. Although roads in Southern Italy are generally pretty rough and ready, the engineering and funding involved in simply getting them there in the first place is breathtaking. ‘Landscape says no’ is how I’d describe the problem of laying out a stretch of wide flat tarmac here. It’s all ridges, rivers and gorges, roads had to sit high on epic concrete stilts, driving for miles through tunnel after tunnel. The P5 which makes up the ‘sandal strap’ in the road arrangement is some feat of engineering. Italian road builders: you may be dog-slow, but I for one salute you.
Finding ourselves on the southern side of the much-mentioned toe, we drove along the road a little way to find a quiet spot and pulled in. As the wind continues to hurl itself against the waves, I decided to go get some photos. As I leaned down to get close to the edge of the water a gust plucked my lightweight specs from my noggin and placed ’em on the cobbles next to me. I leaned down to pick them up just as a wave rushed in, and dragged them back a foot or two. Half blind I had another go at retrieving the little rays of visibility from the grasping waters, this time finding my legs a foot deep in water and my hand full of stones. Good job Ju packed a spare pair.