When I hear Balkan Campers I immediately think of ex-Yugoslavia road trip. But due to current situation of colourful lists, border lockdowns and quarantines the situation itself offered a long time neglected and forgotten option of our other Mediterranean neighbour – Bella Italia.
The timing could not be better, prices and tourist numbers were low and the end of September air and sea temperatures sounded inviting; surf into the van and off we go!
I admit, I am a little embarrassed, but I never explored Italy much further than Venice, Sicily aside. I always wanted to see Rome and Naples, but that was more or less it; also my knowledge had long faded since high school and I did not prepare much in advance. One paperback road map and Lonely Planet, if the tech would fail (and for evening read for tomorrow’s planning) and that was it. Let’s dive into it and see what happens.
Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Tuscany went fast by. The weather was already on the cold side so we did our first serious camp night in Tuscany south of Siena. Camp for a night app proved itself to be a valuable and trustworthy consigliere for all the camping (especially free:) options. It also helped that the summer season was pretty much over (after 15th September a lot of parking spots are free and driving in the otherwise limited driving areas called ZTL (Zona Traffica Limitada) in the historic city centres is sometimes permitted. Since our house-on-wheels is not meant to be on the highway anyway, we tried to choose regional roads most of the time and the driving in the notorious Italian traffic was surprisingly smooth and mellow… up until Rome. That’s where the party started; especially, when you are as optimistic as we were when trying to find a free parking spot at 10am in the city center. (We made it! :) Anyway, we loved Rome. Roman Forum, Colosseum and other popular attractions were almost deserted and it was nice to stretch our legs a bit after a few days of driving around. No need to fill up gas for a while; pistachio ice cream and espresso gave us the boost.
The first crazy thing that dropped our jaws was the city of Naples - Napoli. Already when entering the city zone the loads of trash lying around and deserted industrial suburbs gave us a kind of an apocalyptic feel. The drivers are patient, but only to those who “play it by their rules”. Parking hustlers made a deal with our host to take care of our van which we left at the pedestrian crossing in downtown. Negotiations were loud with strong gestures and the accent sounded more middle eastern than Italian. For 5 Euros they promised to keep our van untouched till next day until 3pm. And I guess they did. We came at 6pm and found a parking ticket issued at 3.20. Did not pay it, we’ll see what happens :)
South of Napoli, after Vesuvius, is where the beauty of Tyrenian coastline really starts in all its glory. Cliffs and steep slopes of 1000m+ mountains descend directly into the deep blue. Road is narrow and windy so your travel slows down. And that’s a great way to do it, if you want to make the most out of all those photo opportunities along the way. Amalfi coast with Positano
and other gems around are picturesque, but maybe even more beautiful and for sure less touristy is the stretch from the best Greek temple site we ever visited -Paestum- near the town of Agropoli to the chic town of Maratea. More south Capo Vaticano and the fancy little town Tropea with the beautiful beach stand out. Views are stupendous.
It seems that almost every little town has its own gastronomic specialty. From autonomous onion marmalade, to N’duja (soft salami made from all the inner parts of the animal we usually do not use in general). Kitchen povera (poor) is similar to all the south regions (Campania, Calabria, Puglia and Basilicata). Ingredients are basic (mostly vegetables, cheese, pasta), tastes are full and yummy. A man cannot get enough. Besides the olive oil (we found out that before London had gas public lightning, it was lit up by olive oil from Puglia, which is still the biggest exporter in the World), wine was a pleasant surprise and we brought about a dozen bottles back home with us. Tastings are usually free, but if you do not speak Italian, language can be a barrier.
Ionian Sea offers miles and miles of mostly straight Calabrian beach with lovely little medieval mountain towns, Matera being the crème de la crème of them all. Town started in prehistory in caves and partly still does, a truly must see. Most of the time we were free camping at the beaches and we almost always shared the site with another camper or two. We never felt unsafe.
Ostuni, Locorotondo and Arbelobello are the romantic Puglian getaways where an aperitivo or pranzo (lunch)on the sunny terrace is always a good idea. And sandstone baroque Lecce is perfect for a dinner night out. Eastern Adriatic coast offers a scenic swim and in October, when you practically have every beach to yourself, it is hard to imagine that in the summer it gets flooded with masses.
Another must see and experience in Puglia is Bari, a nice and a little gipsy like port town with its cobblestone streets in historic centre. The morning fish market is a show, where fishermen and buyers make loud bargains. Most of the food comes straight from the sea to the table and it better be, because they enjoy it raw (octopus, squid, sea urchins and oysters) with a piece of fresh bread; soft, pure and tasty. I personally would not mind a sprinkle of olive oil and lemon over it.
On our last day when returning towards the north, we did a little detour around Gargano peninsula, located in the spur of the Italian boot, just north of Bari. The coastal road is windy and panoramic and offers plenty of million dollar free camping spots out of the main season. Water is turquoise and beaches sheltered under the cliffs. It reminds a bit of Croatia on the other side of Adriatic and on a clear day, Albanian mountains seem to be only a throw of an empty rum bottle away. You can even catch HR-2, Croatian radio that is a relief after two weeks of a local terrible talk vs. music ratio.
To sum it up, with not a lot of expectations, this Italian road trip was an amazing experience and we got super excited about our neighbour country. But there is still a lot to see for the next time. And next time is not that far away.