Austria and Italy

There are only a few pictures in this post. Go here if you just want to see all of the pictures for Austria and Italy.

Why this trip?

On a cold Saturday evening in early May, we started to think about what to do in the summer. Martin said he would like to do another road trip in Europe. Then we thought we might have a rest in the middle of it and looked to see what HPB had available. One of their trulli in Coreggia in Southern Italy came up for the third week in July and so we grabbed it online.

And if we were going to the heel of Italy, Greece wasn’t much further.

We didn’t do much more about the trip for ages – there was gloom in the news about migrants in Calais and no money in Greece. The only thing we did do was to book the opera in Verona.

Setting out

Finally we booked DFDS from Calais to Dunkirk for the morning of 10 July 2015 and left the day before to stay the night in a B&B pub in Kent. We had a good conversation with two Aussies in the vehicle in front of us in the ferry queue. They were going to do a charity drive from Brussels to Ulaan Bator. I saw on their blog that they made it – the day before we got home.

The ferry was busy but fine. DFDS seem to assume you are going to eat all the way, as all the seating room was by the restaurants. Martin did his usual tour of inspection of the ship and found there wasn’t much room to sit down outside either. We wanted to avoid Calais, but I think the P&O ships from Dover to Calais are better.

At Dunkirk we filled up with diesel and stocked up with cheese etc at the Auchan hypermarket, then drove to our first night’s stay, a very typical logis de France near Metz which served a very typical (and good) logis meal.

The next day was quite a long drive to western Austria. We took a detour via Baden Baden to drive the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse from where there are great views down to Strasbourg and eastern France. It reminded me of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. A fine Saturday in summer was not the best day for this as we had trouble finding a parking space at the Mummelsee, the beauty spot lake on the highway. We didn’t stay long either as it was so crowded.

Austria – hiking in the Bregenzerwald

Then we braved the speedmerchants on the German autobahn, and drove along the north of Lake Constance to our next night at the village of Alberschwende in the Bregenzerwald in Voralberg. This area has typical Austrian scenery with open fields and forest. The hotel was typically Austrian. We were amused at the egg-boiling machine at breakfast. You put your egg into a little holder and drop it into a special container of boiling water, hooking the holder on the side. You can then cook your egg for as long as you want.

It was lovely weather and the next morning did a short hike at the top of the pass in the Bregenzerwald to the Korbersee, a great picnic spot and a lovely lake with cows nearby and little ducklings following their mother.

Hiking in the Bregenzerwald

Hiking in the Bregenzerwald

Our second night in Austria was at Nauders. We had a lot of trouble finding the B&B we had booked online (there was no name outside) and I missed the Wimbledon men’s final which was just finishing when I turned on my computer. To compensate we went to a rather posh hotel for dinner.

Over the Stelvio and into Italy

The next day (Monday 13 July) of course we had to take a detour on one of Martin’s favourite roads, the Stelvio Pass which is almost the highest pass over the alps. Getting to the top was fine as there are two different routes which converge near the top. We had last been there in the 1980s when it was very quiet. Now it has been taken over by bikers, hundreds of them, even a few on pedal bikes as well. There are souvenir shops and restaurants in the tiny flat area at the top. We eschewed the biker’s meal of hot dogs and chips and just had a very nice cappuccino instead.

There are 48 hairpin bends on the road going down, all numbered, but we were soon down safely and drove on southwards.

The Stelvio Pass going down

The Stelvio Pass going down

Northern Italy

Lunch beckoned. We always look for a nice quiet place to have a picnic. We turned off the main road and went up the Senales Valley which was very narrow to begin with but then opened out into a lovely scenic area going to a ski place. We drove right up to the ski place and ate our lunch rather late on a grassy verge. The area looked so nice that we decided to stay the night in the valley. The tourist office found us a room in a farm B&B overlooking a lake at the village of Vernagt where there are German speaking Italians. There was no Internet but it was worth it for the location. We had dinner in a posh hotel nearby again.

The next day we drove down to the plain in the north of Italy where it began to be very hot. The first stop was Bolzano where we went to the archaeological museum to see the frozen mummified body of the Iceman Ötzi which dates to about 3300BC. There was an excellent life-size replica.

Then on to Verona where we managed to navigate our way to the hotel we had booked. This hotel had some spaces in a garage nearby so we had to park on the Italian equivalent of a double yellow line to dump our stuff at the hotel first. Fortunately it was still lunch time in Italy (about 4pm).

Verona and Assisi

Then it was time for a rest before our night at the opera. For a long time I had wanted to go to the Verona opera festival and we were lucky that the performance was Aida at the time we planned to be there. It’s in a Roman amphitheatre in the middle of the town. After reading various blogs, we decided to go for more comfortable seats rather than sit on stone slabs for 3 hours. The performance was spectacular, with a cast of hundreds but no animals. It started at 9 and finished about midnight, in time for a gelato in the piazza outside the arena.

Aida at the Verona arena

Aida at the Verona arena

The next day we looked round Verona, along with very many other tourists. It was 35C. Even the hotel receptionist was remarking on the heat and the sights were about 20 minutes walk from the hotel. We saw Juliet’s balcony, the cathedral and plenty of typical Italian architecture. It was nice to duck into a few air-conditioned shops.

The it was on to Assisi, on some twisty roads and the Italian motorway through the mountains. When we were about an hour from Assisi, a warning light came on in the car, saying that there was a problem with the diesel particulate filter. We stopped at the next service place, a tiny one in the mountains while Martin delved in to the Subaru handbook which recommended getting it fixed asap. However we didn’t have much choice except to drive on. It seems that the problem had been caused by too many twisty roads and so not keeping the revs high enough.

We didn’t have any problem reaching the B&B we had chosen just outside Assisi. It was an olive farm and the owner spoke very good English. There was no dinner there but a nice restaurant 10 minutes walk away where we had a typical Italian meal, not one for tourists as nobody spoke English there.

The next morning Martin phoned our Subaru dealer in Otley who were reassuring, but we took the car to a very modern Subaru garage in the next town Foligno where there was one person who spoke very good English. They ran the engine for a long time to burn the gunge off the filter, and it was fine.

We decided to stay another night at the olive farm and so spent the rest of the day looking round Assisi which stands out on a hill. By now it was about 37C and there’s a steep walk up from the car park. We were fine but a party of American tourists of the usual American size appeared to be suffering.

We had a good pizza for lunch where it was cool in a restaurant in a kind of cave in the hillside. The Basilica of St Francis was a must and we trooped round all of it trying to avoid a lot of tour groups. There are actually two churches, one built on top of the other with frescoes on all the walls. A gelato finished our day in Assisi and another nice dinner finished our stay in the area.

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

Basilica of St Francis, Assisi

Abruzzo

We stocked up with food again before setting off southwards into the mountains of Abruzzo, one of the lesser known parts of Italy. We passed L’Aquila where there was still a lot of damage from the earthquake of 2009. They seemed to be rebuilding about 5km away. Then we took a short detour to the village of Bominaco where there are two 13th churches. The interior of the smaller (San Pellegrino) one was covered in beautiful frescoes. The larger one (Santa Maria Assunta) had lovely carvings on the outside.

San Pellegrino Church, Bominaco

San Pellegrino Church, Bominaco

The mountains were quite spectacular and finally we got away from the main tourist crowds. Thanks again to the Rough Guide, we had identified the area of Scanno as a good place to head for. We found a nice B&B with our own kitchen by Lake Scanno.

Getting there was interesting as we were on a narrow road half way up a mountain with a steep drop into a deep gorge on the left. There was a sort of crash barrier, but I’m glad we didn’t hit it. The B&B owner sent us to the village of Scanno for dinner to a rather smart hotel which we think was owned by a relative. She spoke excellent English. Most of the guests were Italians and the owner was interested to hear about our travels, even though we had only been gone a week.

Scanno is an amazing place. It’s all perched on the top of a hill and the streets are little alleyways . And it was quiet, with just a few tourists.

We drove on through the Abruzzo National Park. It was fairly high up with no trees in places. One spot was like home from home as we saw a large flock of sheep. The difference between there and Yorkshire is that the Italian shepherd is with the sheep all the time – and he doesn’t have a quad bike.

There are supposed to be some wolves in the area and we stopped at the wolf museum at Civitella Alfadena. It was all very interesting but there were no wolves. Apparently it’s very rare to see one even when you go out hiking a long way off the beaten track.

Trulli in Puglia

Then we were back on the motorway to past Bari where we turned off for Coreggia. It's small village close to Alberobello and the HPB have just 8 trulli which are weird circular buildings with high conical roofs. In ours the bedroom was in the trullo and the other living space was a white washed stone building attached.

Our trullo, bedroom end

Our trullo, bedroom end

We went to Alberobello later on in the hope of finding somewhere to eat but there was a big festival going in and all the car parks were full, so we just went to the supermarket and bought some mediterranean food to cook. In the end I preferred this as we had had restaurant dinners every day since we left home.

By now we had done 1985 miles (in 10 days).

We had a quieter week at Coreggia. We arrived on the Saturday evening. On the Sunday, very surprisingly for us, we did not go anywhere, just caught up on e-mail and reading.

Monday was for looking round the town of Alberobello where most of the trulli are. I am not surprised that one guidebook describes it as “Disneyland” as they are all higgledy piggledy and the view looking down on them from the higher new part was quite comical. We walked all around the main trulli area (lots of tourists again).

Alberobello, the "Disneyland" of Puglia

Alberobello, the “Disneyland” of Puglia

The main church in Alberobello is several trulli put together and we also went in the only two-storey trullo which more of a trulli museum with furniture and fittings. Another trullo had a model of the entire trulli area inside. Some of them have symbols on the conical roofs and we found a board explaining their significance. Plenty of them are restaurants and we had a nice dinner on a terrace outside a trullo restaurant.

Lecce and Otranto

The next day we drove to Lecce which is one of the major tourist towns in Puglia. We parked at the bus terminal and took a bus into the centre. The tourist office was right next to a Roman amphitheatre in the middle of the town. The front of the Basilica di Santa Croce had probably the most ornate stonework I have ever seen. It would take hours to look at it all in detail. We had another nice pizza for lunch and then drove on to Otranto on the coast.

The main thing to see in Otranto is the floor of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria
Annunziata which is a huge 12thc mosaic with the “Tree of Life” as its main theme.

Part of the mosaic floor, cathedral at Otranto

Part of the mosaic floor in the cathedral at Otranto

Since we had got so far we decided to go on further along a spectacular coast road to the Cape Santa Maria di Leuca which is the tip of the heel of Italy, where, apart from the ocean views, the main sight is yet another ornate church. It got dark as we drove back and so we stopped to eat at a fish restaurant right on the sea near Torre Canne. It didn’t seem like they were used to foreign customers, but we did manage to order some food.

This was a long day, 249 miles, but well worth it.

Locorotondo and Matera

On the Wednesday we found that there were developments on yet another planning application (actually the 12th) on the site next to our house in Oxford and had
to read up about this, but we did find time to visit Locorotondo a hill-top town not far from Coreggia where there are some lovely white-washed narrow streets. It was very hot again.

The town of Matera is a must-see in southern Italy. The old part of Matera consists of hillsides riddled with cave houses (and churches) in an area called the Sassi. Apparently people lived there until the 1950s. It’s only an hour or so from Coreggia.

There was a big thunderstorm when we arrived (the first rain on the trip) and we had to sit in the car for a while. We easily found a space in a parking garage in the new town and it soon dried up after the rain.

The Sassi, Matera

The Sassi, Matera

We wandered down the Sassi right to the river at the bottom. We visited the one house which has been furnished as a kind of museum, complete with model horse in the place where they kept their animals, almost next to the bed. The best church is built inside a rock in the middle of the Sassi and has 14th century frescoes. It was very hot again and we walked round almost all of Matera with a lunch stop in the piazza by the cathedral. Martin had the energy to go on a tour of underground cisterns while I had a gelato again. We had been in Matera 6 hours – well worth it.

Deciding to go to Greece

It was only towards the end of this week that we decided to go to Greece. The gloom about empty ATMs seemed to have abated a bit and we knew that we could get through the northern part of Greece on one tank full of diesel if we had to. We couldn’t really turn down a chance to go to our favourite country, could we?

Our last full day at Coreggia was another quiet day planning for Greece and doing some chores. Miraculously our trullo had a washing machine and I managed to get all our clothes clean before we set off again. We went out to Locorotondo for dinner and ate in one of the restaurants in an alleyway of whitewashed houses.

Last day in Puglia

We had booked the ferry to Greece for Sunday and so we had one more night in Puglia. Our main activity on our last full day in Italy was to see the huge cave complex called the Grotte di Castellana which is a bit south of Bari. We managed to get on an English-speaking version of the long tour which is 3km and about 2 hours. We were only allowed photos at the start. The guide was excellent and told us just what to expect. At one stage we had to walk 500m through a tunnel to get from one part to the next. There were amazing configurations of stalactites and stalagmites. It was all very well organized. They had guides positioned at various places inside the caves who would see you out if you had had enough. And, there was a lift to come up.

We also paid a brief visit to the Castel del Monte, a strange octagonal castle on the top of a hill which was built by Frederick II about 1240. Much of the building has been restored but there’s almost nothing inside and nobody knows why it was built. It’s really best seen from some way off. Our visit was curtailed a bit by the threat of a thunderstorm.

Our last night in Italy was spent in a rural B&B not far from the Castel del Monte, which, when we finally found it, was lovely. We had an excellent dinner there outside.

The ferry to Greece

Getting on the ferry (Superfast) was interesting to say the least. We were told to get there at least 2 hours ahead of the schedule departure at 13.30. We had a printout of our booking, but when we finally found our way through Bari (thank goodness it was a Sunday and quiet) and got to the front of the queue, we were told we had to go back to the ferry terminal to exchange the printout for real tickets. By then (only 11.30) there wasn’t much of a wait to get on the boat, that is for cars.

We had to reverse the car down a ramp to a lower vehicle deck guided by a man whose only three words of English seemed to be “left”, “right” and “wiggly”.

Then the trucks started loading and they had to reverse down the ramp as well. It was all a bit different from Dover where they can turn round a huge ferry in 45 minutes.

Not surprisingly the ferry left late. We were glad we had booked seats in the air-conditioned lounge as the ship was pretty full, mostly with Italians going to Greece for holidays. There was no wifi but we had plenty to read and the cafeteria served rather good food. Sunset over the Ionian sea was spectacular and it was still light enough to see Corfu.

Sunset on the Ionia Sea

Sunset on the Ionia Sea

The ship finally arrived in Igoumenitsa just before midnight Greek time. Driving off was also rather chaotic, but at least we didn’t have to reverse. We found our hotel in Igoumenitsa easily. The owner was sitting outside waiting for his busy time when the boat arrives – there is nothing much else at Igoumenitsa.

We had done 532 miles between arriving in Coreggia and the hotel in Igoumenitsa.

You can see all of the pictures for this part of our trip here

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