Italy June 2004

This is my second low cost or ‘budget’ airline flight, my first being to Venice with the now defunct ‘Go’ airline. This time it was Ryanair and I was expecting basic. What greeted me made basic seems somehow luxurious. It was a 70’s meets 2004 combination of vinyl seats and GPS, I say that but that has to be an assumption on my part seeing as how we did seem to be going the right way and navigation by roads is not recommended for a Boeing 737.

As we took off from Essex I was curious to see where we would fly. I had done the route several times myself as an avid fan of ‘Flight Sim’ on the computer but considered the possibility that this was Microsoft who are not renowned for their attention to little details like accuracy. It was not look, after an unsteady piece of banking, before we were headed for the Thames Estuary flying over Basildon, my home for a decade of my younger life, across the Thames and a quick wave to my dad as we flew over Herne Bay, over what used to be RAF Manston and is now an international airport. What is an ‘international airport’ anyway? I guess it is any strip or grass or tarmac close enough to another country to fly a plane to. I digress, over Amsterdam we flew clearly seeing the smog associated with the smoking of interesting substances, onwards and upwards for Germany, the alps and down the boot of Italy via Verona. Of course, I had to take the pilots word for the bits past Amsterdam as it was just a cotton wool sea out of the window from that point.

Clearly, on our approach to Ciampino airport the man flying the plane had forgotten to engage the mid air suspension and every cloud we hit seemed like it was shaking us wing from tail plane. Engage seatbelts? You bet we will! Ciampino airport, what can I say about this? It was a coach station that just happened to have flying coaches. Coaches are too generous a word considering the level of comfort on those budget airlines. Oh no, school buses like that were outlawed back in the mid 1970’s as being unsuitable for the conveyance of human traffic. It could have been worse, there was a small airfield just prior to Ciampino mainly used by light aircraft but I am sure we could have got the 737 down had we tried. On second thoughts, scrub that. Our pilot was coming in short, too low too early in other words. There were a few short bursts on the engines and we sped up and raised a little. The guy probably still had some green around his gills as we were now coming in too high and too fast. Not deterred he dropped us down with every brake he had, hit the tarmac and immediately reversed the engines bringing us to a stop some 40 feet from the end of the runway, in flying terms, and this is technical, too bloody close for comfort! Once through the very tatty pick up point for our suitcases we entered the main concourse of the airport. Sorry, I must remember to stop referring to this place as an ‘airport’. No, airports have polished surfaces, bright lights with public conveniences that could never get fully accommodated; they have coffee bars and … well, most things that Ciampino did not have. We queued at the Hertz counter for a rental car though my carefully negotiated price now seemed to no longer apply. Off we drove, away from Roma and heading south in the general direction of Napoli. Italian motorways are generally quite acceptable. They go where they say they go and have service stations at regular points along the route. Unlike those service stations in the UK, these do not treble the price on everything because of the captive audience, strangely, the UK seems almost unique in the fleecing of customers in these mini havens of insanity,

During a moment of haste, we decided it would be nice to get off the motorway at Palestrina, somewhere we instantly renamed ‘Palestine’ for ease of pronunciation. It was actually quite a nice place, reasonably well built dwellings of bright colour, tall trees, and flowers of many hues and a general feel of well being. This was Sunday in this part of Italy. Naturally enough, being a Sunday, virtually nothing was open, one felt like an intruder on a private family day. No less so that when we finally found a bar which was open on the pretext of providing us with Pizza and beer. Apparently, they didn’t sell food to non family members on a Sunday so we had to settle for the beer. Though this was most welcome, it did nothing to keep us awake for the rest of the journey. Once on the motorway again, we decided to do the sensible thing and stop off at one of their service stations.

Because of strict rules of ‘siesta’ it is compulsory that the entire coastline of the part of Italy we were staying slept, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ style for a minimum of two hours each day. Because of that, we had to time our arrival to coincide with the arrival of the prince around 4pm to be allowed to check into our accommodation for the week. At reception to the holiday park we had to submit all identification and sign forms, in fact, we had to give more detail here than we did to get into Italy. My guess is, should we make any noise during siesta, they know who we are and can mark the grave appropriately after we have been shot. From there, we visited the reception of the holiday company that we had booked our accommodation with. They offered us the required beer, one of those from a small green bottle with a name clearly invented some hours earlier and upon almost finishing our beverage, were shown to our mobile home, trailer or caravan depending on how you would describe a 26’ dwelling that had wheels yet did not move. We unpacked in the way that one does when there is nowhere to put anything and headed off to do some shopping for essentials such as wine, Campari and some other items too low to mention. Later in the day we took a stroll into the nearest town of Baia Domizia. This is one of those places that I am sure, come August when it may be a bustling resort hidden behind tourists, it is quite charming, Now, in late June, it is dead, not least because it is Sunday. There is one bar open where locals and ex patriots of various nations mingle. Virtually nowhere in Italy do toilets have seats to them, this is probably because they have only just discovered the sit down loo. For centuries they have happily squatted over a hole in the ground and this style of toilet is still prevailing in many establishments. In this place, they had a sit down loo (no seat) but it did not have the ability to flush. This had not stopped a succession of men from using it regularly and adding their discarded bodily contents to its already bulging bowl. I am not sure what the Italian equivalent of ‘Armitage Shanks’ is but whatever it is, it was in danger of disappearing. I attempted to use the women’s loo, this having clearly not been used in some while. Of course, seeing a man attempting to enter their sanctuary, there now seemed to be a steady stream of women eager to protect the sacred temple. I waited, in some discomfort, until we returned to the accommodation.

Let me paint you a picture, it is 10:59 here. I am sitting here relaxing on the terrace if our living quarters. I am alone here listening to the pleasant twittering of the birds in the trees and the occasional soft footsteps of neighbouring holidaymakers walking by. Suddenly I am shaken from my thought process by an announcement on the public address system …

Imagine Italian Commandant … “We whish to remind hower costomors that the silent period of 2 to 4 mushed be strictly obeyed. No riding of bykez, moto scooters, owtoes cars or noise of henny kind … (now, said with happy voice) “Thank You”

So, you can see the flow of my text has been thrown a little; I now have just 3 hours before I have to find a way to type without noise and look miserable doing so as fun is clearly outlawed after 2pm!

On our first full day we went into the nearest large coastal resort of Formia for food and in the hope of finding somewhere vaguely gay. After some time wandering and sampling the menu’s of various establishments, we concluded that Formia had no gay life at all and that the food, at best, was rather dull and a little overpriced. We then drove into Gaeta, another resort but mainly a naval town across the bay. We figured, with a name like that and all those sailors, this had to have somewhere gay. Gaeta is a very picturesque sort of town, photo opportunities in abundance. There was a large US naval ship in port alongside many of the local military vessels. Strangely, there seemed to be few sailors on the streets anywhere. Somewhat despondent, having seen many overpriced and restricted menus, we were almost resigned to the fact that there was nowhere gay in either town and that we would have to go to McDonalds. Our spirits were raised slightly when we discovered a 5 a side football match happening on our route back to the car. Hardly a gay event but at this point we were probably prepared to accept anything on offer. From the general background sound of the town came the tones of K D Lang and we became drawn to this small hole in the wall bar that, though displaying no rainbow flag, appeared to be not exactly straight shall we say. It did not take long to discover that this was Gaeta’s only gay bar. This was basic, one room up, one room down but the owner was friendly, an Italian who had lived the past twenty years in the States. She had apparently opened up that evening because she was bored at home, Monday was not normally a gay night in Gaeta, strange how they can turn homosexuality on and off depending on the day of the week. No, Tuesday and Fridays were the gay nights. All the gay boys appeared after eleven pm to sample the delights that this town, and presumably, most of the surrounding area, has to offer. She even showed us some pictures to prove it though we suspect she has a separate photo album for every sexual orientation that crosses the threshold. Suitable fed and with a top up of our beer intake, we departed for home and another day over.

It is now Tuesday and the first of our back to back days of tourist activities and our main purpose for travelling to this part of Italy. Today we are doing the Volcano experience. It appears that Vesuvius is quite asleep now having not so much as snored since the 1940’s. Give it a few years and they will be shipping in some fresh lava to entertain the tourists. They already have a little man smoking inside on of the rocks to give the impression of activity. The guides take some times showing the tourists where to look for this sad plume of smoke emanating from a nearby rock. I am sure when the little man expires with lung cancer; his family will sue under health and safety regulations. This is, of course, assuming Italy has any which I seriously doubt. But then, when one considers the logic of traversing a volcano overdue to ‘explode’, I guess complaining about a lack of health and safety rules may seem a little dumb. Upon our survival of this most powerful of natural phenomenon, we proceeded to visit a much safer location, Pompeii. Shit, did I just say safer? In consideration of the very reason why this place is famous, perhaps ‘safer’ would not be the best description. This said, Pompeii is in the red zone of Vesuvius. This means they have an evacuation plan. Not seeing any such plan on notice boards, I assume it does not apply to tourists. Further north, and to the main city of Naples and it becomes a yellow zone. In simple terms, that is to say, there are two million people living there, get real, we would never get them out in time so let’s just say they are at low risk! Yes, this is true Italian logic.

Pompeii is a masterpiece of the human mind and our perpetual belief that ‘it will never happen to us’. Upon entrance one would be forgiven for assuming there are more people in the town now than had ever been there two millennia ago. But, within twenty minutes it seems as though we have the place to ourselves. It should be mentioned, the city of Pompeii is no small place. In the UK we are used to our tourist spots being compact. If we visit an old building, we expect to be able to complete our tour in a couple of hours if we stop to read and discuss and around 15 minutes if we stop nowhere. In Pompeii, it is possible to simply walk for hours and still not to have seen it all, this is one tourist spot on a huge scale. Of course, humans being what we are, the main destination seems to be the ‘dead’ people. These are not, in fact, people at all but plaster casts of the holes left behind by people caught up in the eruption long after their bodies have decomposed, They are quite moving to the mind and imagination all the same and, if anyone is able to discover where they are (and most don’t) they are worth a visit. It should also be pointed out that Pompeii has not got over run with the theme park mentality that we, in the UK, would have probably forced upon it. None of the dwellings have been recreated with life size figures, no ice creams are on sale in what used to be a herb shop, the amphitheatre does not put on regular Punch and Judy shows for the kiddies. This is a place one visits prepared with a good bottle of water and something to eat.

Now, let me tell you something about Italian roads and maps. They seldom agree with each other. Road names and numbers are used in an advisory capacity only and need not actually apply to the roads upon which they are displayed. Motorways do not have junction numbers; one has to guess which turning for Casserta is the one actually required. When it is discovered one then knows that it is a simple matter of crossing the motorway on the bridge marked on the map and heading off toward the destination of chose. Sadly, this is generally not the case, the bridge crossing the motorway actually requires yet another payment of a toll and there is no indication anywhere as to the direction of travel were one to go that way. Of course, this whole junction may well have sprung up in the last year and is just now one of the eight or so junctions for Casserta along this stretch of road. What this left me with is attempting to navigate from an unknown point, as anyone knows, navigation is made all the more simple when one knows where one is!
We spent the remainder of this evening trying to get back to our site, when close by it was suggested by one of our member that we try Formia again and visit a fish restaurant on the harbour front I was given to believe no one was keen on during our previous visit. Upon arrival we discovered it to be closed and so headed back again toward our home of the week. Just before our holiday site we discovered a pizzeria by the roadside that looked reasonably attractive. True, they had the football on, this is, after all, a Euro 2004 championship period. True, all current customers seems to be over 50 too but that was no real problem. The place was bright and clean and worthy of our custom. We sat down and were handed the menu which also seemed acceptable but one of our number was not happy. I feel sorry for the smoker of a group. This was a non smoking restaurant and his addiction was such that he was happier to leave the building and eat alone than he was to manage another hour without his drug of choice. When we offered to all leave and join him, I doubt that would have made him feel a lot better. So, with some level of embarrassment, we left this otherwise ideal establishment and headed for the site restaurant where they provide overpriced food for the trapped of limited quality but where we could all be comforted by the fact that we had yet again ingested a few extra carcinogens that would no doubt shorted our lives by a few more minutes.

On Wednesday it was Rome. I had not previously been a fan of this city and was not over keen to return. However, they had clearly made some effort to clean it up for the millennium and it looked a whole lot cleaner than I recalled. There is only so much a person can see in a few hours of any city. We were on the Japanese click and run tour, you know the one, stop, take a picture and admire the splendour of the place later that day in the comfort of the hotel. Rome does things big, on a grand scale right down from the dimensions of the buildings to the price of the drinks, all are huge. I am not going to list those building here as one can easily discover them as detailed as we did in the pages of any guide book to the city. One word of advice, just stop now and then, put down the camera and look around you. June is a good time to visit. With temperatures in the low 30’s it is comfortable and there are few tourists. Certainly it is possible to easily get close to many of the major tourist spots.

That evening we travelled back by train to Formia and to look around what passes as some sort of festival they are having. What it actually is could be best described as an amalgamation of everything that makes Italy tacky and undesirable. There were a few main selections of stalls. Those selling confectionary, those selling meat which was from an unknown origin and questionable suitability for eating, others selling the sort of novelty item that will probably break in the box and some clearly unauthorised stalls selling copies of films not yet available on DVD. One could eat anything hot as long as it was pizza or burger and don’t forget, bring your own toilet seat though; I think I saw a stall selling them.

For Thursday we chose to mainly relax around the site but also to visit the only hypermarket within miles. On our way there we turned off for what was alleged to be some hot springs. Many miles further along we did come into a town, I say ‘town’ it was actually a small collection of hotels and guest houses that had been erected because of these ‘alleged’ thermal springs. If I were to name the place myself it would be called la Città di Zolfo or ‘Sulphur Town’. The smell was most unpleasant and I cannot imagine how, had we found the springs and partook of their pleasures, we would have been welcome in the hypermarket after. Said hypermarket was as all such places are, functional yet unremarkable.

On the Friday, two of us (not me) headed for Naples. I know the place to be a shit hole of some magnitude but they wanted to discover that for themselves. This, I believe is exactly what they did and returned trying to salvage something from the experience but generally conceding it was one of the planets places to be avoided. In the evening we returned to Formia to finally try out the fish restaurant which turned out to be cheap, chaotic and lacking in any real substance. There were more waiters than it was possible to count yet they appeared to have no leadership, no goal, no purpose to ‘be’. It was amazing that any of us got what we ordered, some didn’t, but somehow, considering the tiny amount of topping on a pizza, amazing we could tell what it was we had.

Now, on to now which is when everything, as you would expect, up to this point has been written. The guys are off to Sorrento and Capri for the day. I have chosen not to go along for reasons I feel more content leaving to myself. I have been happy spending the past several hours compiling this thus far and shall add more on my return to the UK.

The Saturday … Having seen the pictures of their tour, the guys clearly enjoyed many a good view on their trip out, most it walking around in Speedos from what I could see. They never managed Sorrento or Capri due to the population of Naples simulating a mass evacuation to that region of the country. By the speed of the exodus, I am assuming they are doomed. They are probably from the yellow zone anyhow so never really did stand much of a chance.

I had plans all my own, these plans centred on my reading more of my excellent book by Bill Bryson ‘Notes from a SMALL ISLAND’. Of course, my plans being expertly formulated as they are and destined for success fell nose first into a pile of shit. My book, it appeared, had also decided to do a day trip that day and had placed itself in Nick’s rucksack.

Now, I don’t know about you but for me, sitting in a bar starring at a pint is just a little sad, sitting there with a solitary pint reading a book, on the other hand, is altogether more acceptable. Lying on a beach catching the sun (why do we say that?) is far more relaxing and infinitely more entertaining with a good book. It also enables me to peer over it, upon occasion, to examine the local talent. Still, no book meant radical rethink of my plans.

This particular amalgamation of word and punctuation always formed a fair part of my day and took some time to construct. However, many more hours were free than this required so here is what I did …

I took a walk into Baia Domizia and discovered it to be as shut when open as it was when closed. This really is the worst ‘resort’ that I have visited. I use the word ‘resort’ because that is what it is referred to locally. In fact, it is more like Canvey Island on a bad day with all the design creativity of Basildon and the atmosphere of and vibrancy of Harlow but with unusually hot weather for Essex! I chose Essex with gusto for it was the place of my birth and where I spent my formative years. I therefore speak with some authority on the area. Anyway, I digress into an area of my youth and early midlife that I have no plans to dwell upon. In short, the place is a dump. Unable to find anywhere in which to part with my Euros I decided that the walk back was a good a bet as having another minute longer than I needed in this poor excuse for a town.

Back at the camp I happened upon the holiday representatives and sought to discover as much as possible about the history and matters of interest relating to a young Dutch man by the name of Peter. Earlier on in the holiday, one of his now departed colleagues and hinted as to which team Peter may bat for and it was my mission to discover the merits of this information. Sadly, despite every trick I know, I was none the wiser having spent an hour probing (and not in a good way), of his preferences.

I visited the bar for a cappuccino, one thing I have discovered about the Italians is that there are two things they cannot do in this part of the country, and they are to make coffee and to cook pizza. An altogether strange discovery when one considers the profusion of establishments around the world professing to sell just those items like one would get in Italy, a little worrying in my opinion. Cappuccino firmly in hand I proceed to procure a table but, and this is no reflection on the other campers, the only one of interest was occupied by a large black beetle and its devoted following of ants. This kept me fascinated for some time much to the amusement of the staff that has no doubt had such things on their tables many times before. Once convinced that the beetle was never going to make that leap of death into the mouth of a waiting from the table into the adjacent lake, I moved on to other pastimes.

As this was our last full day, I decided to do some packing. We had used a substantial amount of clothing and so packing became quite simple, screw it all up and sling it in a bag. Once completed and including a deviation to complete some washing up left from the morning, I turned my attention to another project for which I required my trust (but ancient) laptop computer.

Many months ago I decided to create a cyber village by the name of Blinken Misset. All I had to this point was the name. What I proceeded to do now was to create the structure of the village and populate it, this is a project of some many months and constantly in a state of flux, maybe one day it will make it to the website of the same name.

With the onset of evening I decided to tidy myself up and head for the overpriced and bad quality site restaurant. My Italian was never good or even vaguely acceptable, but now it had totally deserted me and I found myself falling back on any language that came to mind. Eine bottle di aqua sil vous plais seemed to be clearly understood so I stuck with this approach throughout the evening. The ‘moules’ were excellent, sorry to say I di make rather a mess of the table cloth. However, if they must insist on expecting me to extract the wee beasties from their shells, they get what they deserve! I followed this with their attempt at salmon with which I also ordered boiled potatoes and vegetables. It is difficult to ruin boiled potatoes so I had no complaint there. The vegetables, despite their origins, had now all become one in that huge boiling pot of culinary failures. There was no differentiation in flavour between any of them. As for the salmon, I should say, I am very partial to salmon and believe it id nigh impossible to ruin it in the cooking, they managed it! The worst possible crime, in my opinion, in cooking salmon is to overcook it. This was not merely overcooked but had positively ceased being the same species. It says it all when the most enjoyable part of the meal was the lemon.
Earlier I mentioned that this part of Italy made awful coffee. I found out with this meal that they don’t do ‘latte’ no, that is not Italian at all but, in fact, American. I was somewhat confused when he asked me whether I required my drink hot or cold. Being an adventurous chap, I settled on cold. I was totally cob smacked to discover I had actually ordered plain cold milk, worse yet, there were no biscuits!

Suitable stuffed with this disappointing offering, I walked to the beach and sat alone beneath the stars by the light of the moon just pondering life, my place in the world, my need for a proper drink, life and my place in the world. There is something very humbling about sitting on the edge of the sea with mountains shadowed in the moonlight. I experienced a certain feeling of fragility of life. All this has been around for millennia yet, in the blink of an eye I will go back from whence I came and all this around me will not have noticed my existence.

After such ponderings, there really is little for it but to head off home, to a small nightcap and a good nights sleep which I did and most enjoyable it was too.

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