Bellaria, Emilia-Romagna, Italy Thursday, November 20, 2008
We spent our last 10 days at camping Bacchus relaxing in the unseasonal sunshine, swimming and generally preparing for the next leg of our journey. Whilst we had originally intended to spend the winter in Greece, we felt that it was time
to move on. Greek campsites, whilst adequate, are far from the standards set by our French and German neighbours. Bacchus was a clean and friendly site, but we felt that as the weather got cooler the facilities were lacking. Other winter sites
in Greece suffer from the same problem. Many are superb sites in splendid locations, but not suited for over wintering. Besides, we wanted to stick to sites where there were other visitors. We don't like crowds, but we do like to see other
people on site. The result is that we have changed our plans completely and are now heading for Spain, to enjoy the winter sun on the Costas. The downside is of course that we have to pass through cooler damper climes to get there.
Our two months in Greece has been a fascinating experience. We've seen aspects of the country that we'd never have seen on the usual two-week summer holiday, and places that are off the beaten track. Even the flowers have been a revelation. There were many autumn-flowering bulbs growing everywhere, even on the most barren, rocky slopes - narcissus, crocus, sternbergia and cyclamen. But much as we love Greece there are some irritating aspects - the crazy drivers, the ubiquitous graffiti, the litter problem. Apparently Greece has the worst recycling record in the E.U, and it shows. However it's still a beautiful country with impressive mountain scenery and that amazing blue sea which is still, despite everything, remarkably clean. We'll definitely be back, though maybe not with a caravan.
Two examples of the chaotic side of Greece during our last week there. One morning we decided to drive up Mount Hymettus to see the view of Athens from above. All went fine, up the narrow road with the usual hairpins and wayside shrines, then the road disappeared. It had been stripped, ready for resurfacing. No road works signs or any indication that the road was closed. We passed a group of workers having a fag break, and then the road surface became fresh liquid tar. Up another hairpin and suddenly in front of us was a road-laying machine filling the whole road. No way past, nowhere to turn, so we had to reverse all the way back down. Why was there no warning?
The second instance was the port at Patras. We described Patras in a previous blog, so no need to go into detail, but it would seem straightforward to follow the signs for "Italia Ferries". By doing so we followed the coast road right through Patras and out the other side! After a difficult U-turn with the caravan we tried again, and then saw that the sign for straight on actually meant fork right. The system here is that everyone has to leave their car, either on the main street, a slip road, or in a very small car park, and check in at the main terminal building. Here there is one check in desk dealing with all the ferry departures for that company, and also selling and exchanging tickets for future trips. Eventually we checked in, then returned to the car to find that the only way to get to where we had been directed was to unhitch the caravan and turn it round manually, squeeze the car past and then hitch up again. Through the gate specified and still no signs as to where to go. It was fortunate that we knew the name of the boat we were sailing on, as we could guess where we should go from that. However, even when we found the boat, there was no queuing system, no lanes one/two/three etc, just a huddle of staff and some randomly parked trucks. The good part was that we were then straight onto the ferry, after a random security check for Albanian refugees and a check by the deck crew, which I believe, was just an excuse to look in the caravan to see what it was like!
We left Patras at 5 in the evening and sat on deck in the sunshine enjoying a last Greek beer. We arrived in Ancona, on the east coast of Italy, at noon next day (Italian time, an hour behind Greece) to be greeted by grey skies. Then it was a short drive up the coast to the wonderfully named Happy Camping at Bellaria, just north of Rimini. We had no burning desire to see the Adriatic coast, which is quite boring, just miles of beach backed by hotels and apartments. In summer there would be regimented ranks of sun beds but at this time of year everything is closed and the beach deserted and rather bleak. Even with the sun shining it's nowhere near as warm as Greece! However it was handy for the ferry, and within easy reach of some interesting sights.
The first place we visited was Ravenna, which has the finest collection of mosaics in Europe. En route we crossed the Rubicon (in the reverse direction to Caesar's famous crossing in 49BC). We were expecting a major river. In fact it's little more than a muddy ditch!
In 404 A.D. Ravenna became the capital of the Roman Empire for a period, and later came under the rule of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, and finally of Byzantium. As a result the town was filled with lavishly-decorated buildings, especially churches, many of which have survived almost intact from the fifth and sixth centuries, and all of them with the most beautiful, vividly coloured mosaics on the walls and ceilings. Most are Biblical scenes, with the saints dressed in Roman togas and the young, beardless Christ clearly modelled on classical depictions of Apollo. There are also scenes of the Emperor Justinian, the Empress Theodora and their court, which show the beginnings of the more Eastern style of Byzantium. We ended up with stiff necks from constantly looking up at ceilings! Ravenna had one other interesting surprise, Dante's tomb. Although he was from Florence, and has a memorial there in Santa Croce, he died in Ravenna where he was in exile. I was tempted to declaim a few lines of the Inferno but chickened out as the place was full of Italians (Dante is to Italians what Shakespeare is to us.)
Our next trip was to the Republic of San Marino, which is about 50 km from here. At 23 square km, it's one of the world's smallest states, and has its own army, police force, coins and stamps. It's basically a large medieval fortress on top of a mountain, with terrific views towards the coast (and as far as Croatia on a clear day - which it never seems to be when we visit places famous for their views!) Inside the walls was a maze of narrow alleys full of souvenir shops, rather like Carcassonne or Mont St Michel, but as most of them were closed it was possible to get more of the original atmosphere.
From there we drove to Rimini, about which we knew very little except that it was a busy holiday resort. However, we discovered that it had an interesting older part with many Roman remains, including the splendid Arch of Augustus and an impressive bridge, built by Tiberius for horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic but still used today by cars. Those Romans certainly knew how to build things to last. Another notable building is the 15th century Tempio Malatestiana, built by the infamous Sigismondo Malatesta to contain the tomb of his fourth wife - he'd got rid of the first three in various unpleasant ways. An earlier Malatesta was the ill-fated Paolo, lover of Francesca da Rimini, his brother's wife. The brother murdered them, and Dante famously placed them in the first (and least unpleasant) circle of Hell. You might be more familiar with them in the form of Rodin's statue, The Kiss.
So, lots of art and history, but we aren't half feeling the cold. Away have gone the T-shirts and crop trousers, out have come the vests and sweaters and fleece jackets. In a couple of days we'll be heading for Tuscany, which won't be any warmer; then the South of France; then Spain. At Christmas we hope to make a very brief flying visit to the UK to see the family, but we're not sure where we'll be when. So to those of you who usually send us Christmas cards, it won't be possible this year, but you are welcome to put a festive message on the blog!