Sunday, April 17, 2016

There's Nothing in Fiumicino . . .

Writing My Blog On the Balcony
When we told our friendly Italian Tour guide Gio, that on our way home we were going to spend two nights in Fiumicino, he put his beer down and with a puzzled look on his face said, "Why would you do that? There's nothing in Fiumicino!".

And Yes there was a rooftop pool
Like Glasgow, Scotland which although warned off by everyone, we managed to spend four completely entertaining days exploring, I am afraid that although he is a great tour guide, Gio was wrong on this one. Fiumicino is fabulous.

Our Hotel in Fiumicino
Headed out to sea
On the Beach
The first thing Fiumicino has going for it is that it is a seaport on the mouth of the Tibet River, and as. much as we enjoyed Lecce, this is our first extended vacation where we could not look out and see water, and being from Nova Scotia, we missed a view of the water. As I write this, I sit on our second story balcony looking out onto the Tiber River as it flows into the sea. It is Sunday, so the fishing fleet is tied up along the wharf across the road. Instead of fishing related activity, the locals and us tourists are strolling in the sunshine, and the street vendors are out in force.
Yes there was seafood

We spent the morning wandering along the waterfront streets, and exploring the town. Of course, the seafood is excellent here, and unlike Lecce, where we twice ate in restaurants completely alone, here, the spot we chose was packed, and people were arguing over seats, and the restaurant next door had a long line-up at 1:00 for lunch.

So, whatever you do, DO NOT visit Fiumicino - there is nothing there.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Twilight Flight

Twilight over Lecce
What is that song about the birds? When the swallows come back to Capistrano. We have discovered the same thing here in Lecce I think. The courtyard is home to at least three kinds of birds. There are the ever-present pigeons. One is nesting across from our kitchen window, and the females are constantly being hassled by the males – they just do not get that “No means NO!” message. Then there are some pretty little black white and red songbirds that hide in the flowering plants cascading down the buildings around the courtyard. Then there are the swallows.

The first warm day when we could sit out on the terrace with a glass of wine before dinner we noticed them filling the skies overhead. They perform an intricate aerial performance every night, trying their best to eat all the flying insects in the area. I am assuming that the twists, sharp turns, and dives are not for my benefit but are using their amazing flying ability to catch insects. Good thing, because there are lots of little insects here and they do not use screens on the windows, so I cheer those swallows on every night. I found it so interesting to watch the swallows perform their aerial ballet every evening.
Sparrows Over the Terrace

One pleasant evening, we were sitting out on the terrace with another glass of Italian wine, and Regis started to get concerned about the swallows swooping closer and closer to her as she sat. I suggested that since we all knew she was a perfect insect magnet that the sparrows were just taking advantage of this fact, but I also noticed that they were indeed coming closer and closer to us, seated on the terrace. Often two or three would sweep down and around the courtyard and then back up into the gathering  twilight.

Suddenly I noticed that one of the swallows swooped down but then disappeared into the wall opposite us. I began watching closer and caught another arc down and then disappear into the space above one of the windows of the apartment across the courtyard. I realized that some of these insect eating birds were roosting for the evening right in the courtyard. The windows all have large stone headers above them and there is a little gap of about an inch above the header. As I watched at least two swallows zoomed down and crawled into these tiny spaces over each window. Then one of them flew low over our heads and into the space above the window used as the door into the apartment from the terrace. Those swallows were not using Regis as a bug attractor, they were upset about us being so close to their nightly roosting spot, and were nervous about trying to get in with us so close. We elected to give them a few minutes of peace and went inside for a while.
The Sparrow's Home

After a while we returned to the terrace for a quiet evening glass of wine and discovered that the aerial display was not over. Now another insect predator had taken over and two bats flicking around the courtyard were snatching up any insects left alive by the swallows.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Steam Diesel & Electric

Two Aging Workhorses
I spent the morning at the Museo Ferroviario Della Puglia (Apulia Railway Museum) today. A bit out of the way, on the wrong side of the tracks (literally), and down a one way road, but definitely a wonderful way to spend a warm sunny morning in Lecce.

The Engineer's Tools
I walked down yesterday to find out that the museum was closed because it had two large tours booked, and one of them consisted of what seemed like 100 very excited six year olds, and another a high school class trip. I was only too happy to wait for today to visit. Not only were there no tours, I had the entire museum to myself. The only other people I met were a few of the dedicated volunteers that man the museum and restore the rolling stock. Where in some of the other museums I felt I was being shadowed by suspicious staff, here I was pointed in the right direction and allowed to explore.
Inside a Passanger Car

Tiny Shunting Engine
The museum consists of locomotives, from a 1911 steam engine to a tiny self-powered shunting engine. There was a pedal powered handcart, and a huge car used for luggage and steam heating for the whole train. There are many train cars from standard passenger cars to a prisoner transport wagon. There were diesel engines and a massive electric locomotive. As well there were many miniature trains and model train setups. Of special interest to me were the support systems with those gears, leavers and sprockets I love. They had a huge lathe for re-turning train axles, and an example of a general workshop used to service the trains. Some of the cars were open and you could explore them, but many were closed. Many of these engines and cars are not restored; they are worn and beaten survivors of years of use on Puglia’s railway routes. I believe that many of these trains actually still work, and the guide tells of historic train tours on the tracks of Salento for special events. Examining some of the engines they look operational to me. Inside two long rail couches there was an interesting display of model trains and historic railway posters.

Fiat Support Van
I enjoyed being allowed to just wander among the many rolling stock, and discovered another group of cars outside, one being touched up by a volunteer, and off to one end I discovered a collection of very sad looking support vehicles. Two were old hand carts that had been converted to motorcycle engine power. Two were obviously based on WWII US Army jeeps, and one appeared to be two mini Fiat vans welded end to end with controls at either end. One was a custom bodied vehicle based on the fiat chassis. Pictures in the excellent English guide show these vehicles that used to check tracks and perform track maintenance, in much better shape than they appear now, rusting away in a corner of the facility.
Prisoner Transport Car

Wandering around the museum, I could not help thinking of my Grandfather. He loved trains and built model trains. He would have loved this museum, and I could just imagine exploring this place with him. He would have been able to explain everything, and I know he would have been fascinated with the many interesting displays.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lecce after Dark

From Our "Roof" Terrace
Our apartment is nice and quiet, and our terrace looks out on the pleasant vine covered courtyard, so it hardly looks like we are in the middle of the city. It is quiet and other than the owner's daughter who's vocalizations seem to travel everywhere, or the ever present church bells we do not hear much, and who can complain about church bells and children?

Once you open the small door in the two big green courtyard doors, you enter another world. You emerge into the middle of a busy city with crowds of people. During the day it is busy, but go out after dark and it is even worse. You open the door and often have to wait for a break in the crowd to step out.

The Square at Night
Out on the Town
Lecce is a vibrant city at night. When you walk the streets at night you see a whole other world. There are shops, bars, restaurants, and special events you never knew were there. As with many World Heritage Sites, buildings must retain their historical structure and look, so if you want to open a store selling Lecce's Arts and Crafts, a trendy wine bar, or a popular restaurant, you must design it into the ancient original buildings. As a result, signs, displays and windows are often inside once your shutters are closed, and there is no visual evidence your establishment even exists. Many of these shops just do not open during the day, because they realize way more people are out in the evening, no one is around between 2:00 & 4:00, so they wait until 5:00 to open for the day and make their livings after dark.

We found numerous one-time art shows, odd second hand shops, jewelry shops where the owners were making the jewelry right there, pottery shops where the paints and finishes were in jars in a corner, funky restaurants, and hidden wine bars. There was always something new to discover as we wandered the narrow streets  after dark in the yellow glow of ancient street lamps.

Lecce After Dark


Beautiful Painted Walls
Pompeii is one of the major archeological sites in the world, an entire city wiped out in one day and completely buried for centuries. We have seen some of the lost Aztec cities, but these were deserted and taken over by jungle. Pompeii was a thriving city one day and gone the next. They say that people forgot where the city was. Seriously, no one wondered why uncle Bob stopped visiting. Imagine, going to visit Las Vegas and finding instead just a pile of gray dust, "Oh, I must have made a mistake. . " No, not me, I remembered where Pompeii was and it was on my bucket list, so we decided to visit for a day during our road trip to the Amalfi.

Inside a house - Pompeii Style
The actual archeological site is excellent and it is amazing to see that after over 250 years, they are still excavating areas. The original city covered 66 hectares, but only 49 have been explored. Many reviews complain about the closed areas and the continued on-going work of discovering what life was like in Pompeii thousands of years ago, but I found this aspect fascinating.

Beautiful Mural
Although there are a lot of individual houses, buildings, and entire areas that are gated off and inaccessible, but there are enough houses and areas open to see and explore that you can get a good idea of the city. You can walk the original stone streets and see the deep groves in the stones from carts delivering things long ago. Most buildings have been left as excavated, but some have been partially restored to show what life was like. The only thing that might be nice would be a fully restored house to show what it would have been actually like to live in Pompeii in 79 AD.

A Wealthy Estate
One who did not make it out
Now getting into the site is not so easy. First is parking, I really do not know if the site actually has any public parking, and reviews warned of break-ins and stolen luggage and the boys had already lost their luggage once so were a bit leary. However, everyone in the area has parking spots to sell you and they are all called “Safe”. There are salesmen out on the road who try to entice you into their lot. Once they get you in, the scams begin. We were given a ticket and told it would be 3 euro per hour, but then we were told that if we ate at their restaurant for lunch we would get free parking. However when we took advantage of this generous offer, we discovered that the restaurant bill had a 15% surcharge, and a 2 euro per person service charge. So, no free parking actually.
A Statue (Part anyway)

Then going onto the site to get tickets, we were bombarded with offers for tours. We were asked if we were Spanish, and when we replied English, we were sent a surly limping woman who in English offered us a tour. We politely told her we did not want a tour, because we were not there long. "Even better!" She exclaimed. Better for her of course, short tour, same price . . Then when we again politely declined her offer, she swore at us in Italian. Wow, pleasant tour guide; glad we did not hire her.

We enjoyed our trip to Pompeii, and my well-worn hiking shoes now have a coating of volcanic ash on them to remind me of my visit.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Italian Driving

Is there really room for cars and people
I have often heard that Italian drivers are the worst in the world, or at least Italy was the one place you should never drive. Well I joined the ranks of Italian drivers and ventured out on the Italian roadways to see just how bad it was.

Now I pride myself with being able to drive almost anything anywhere, but I must admit that I was very nervous about this road trip. The apartment complex also rents cars, motorcycles and bicycles, so we rented a Fiat Panda for two days. The Fiat Panda must be the most inexpensive car in Italy. It has a tiny engine, very basic seating and NO options, no cruise and no navigation system. It does however do everything and seats four in relative comfort – it gets you from here to there and hopefully back again. The car I was renting was parked inside the courtyard, and I was told my way out of the old city was to turn right out of the big green doors and then take the first right straight out of the city. That sounds fine, but these big green doors were designed for horses and carriages. The day we arrived I watched a big Audi sedan go out and he had to drive over the two little semi circles on either side of the door, and I had visions of trying to turn right and hitting either the bench beside the Gelato shop next door, or the vending machines across the street at the lottery shop, and I had seen cars trying to navigate these streets . . .
The Ideal car for lecce

Fortunately we were leaving at 7:00 am, and the streets would be relatively free of pedestrians at that hour, and I made it out the doors and into the streets. Without so many people and other vehicles I made it out of the narrow old city streets and around two round-a-bouts to the highway out of town. The day was off to a positive start.

The Italian highways are actually very good, with excellent signage and clearly marked speed limits. However I discovered that those clearly marked speed limits are not exactly what I am used to. Apparently the speed limit is 130 km per hour, but this is not marked anywhere; what is marked is when they think you might want to slow down for corners, construction or tunnels. I reasoned that these limits must be optional, because no one seemed to pay them any attention. The traffic on the highways was usually pretty good with little congestion, and passing slower traffic easy. You just had to watch for those big Audi, BMW or Mercedes, which seemed to be allowed to drive at any speed they wished, and overtook my little Fiat Panda at breathtaking rates. I was warned that speed is monitored via cameras on the overpasses, and there were signs warning drivers of this electronic monitoring, but most drivers seemed little concerned with this threat, and I cannot imagine those left lane sedans were going at 130.

Seriously? Drive out through here?
Turn Right down here . . .
Part of the reason for this road trip was to drive the Amalfi coastal roads. I had seen pictures and heard about them, but was not really prepared for these roads. I had driven narrow roads in England and had practice bouncing rental cars off the curbs, but here there are no curbs or ditches; the roads are bordered by solid rock face on one side and two foot stone safety walls on the cliff side. They seem to paint white lines down the middle some of the time, and after a while we decided that this was where there was actually close to two actual lanes. Most of the time however there was no markings on the road, but plenty of scrapes on the stone walls and cliff faces. Combine this with roads built on cliff faces and constantly twisting back and forth and around blind corners. Then you have to share these roads with huge tour buses and crazy scooter drivers. The tour buses of course have to drive carefully, but the scooters drive like there is nothing else on the road. They pass whenever they like and just expect to be able to dodge oncoming traffic. Fortunately no one except them drive really crazy – there just is not room between switchbacks to get up to any speed.
Driving Amalfi

At one point I was in a line of traffic following a tour bus. The bus driver saw another bus coming and realized there was not room for them to pass, so he pulled in close to the wall to let the other bus pass. The first four cars in line behind the bus immediately pulled out and took the opportunity to pass the bus. There was room for two to get in; the other two forced the oncoming bus to slow to avoid hitting them. Of course there were not scooters in the line; they had already roared past earlier.

That's a long way down . . .
Although it would have been fun to be driving this road on a nice red Ducati 999, I was actually glad to be in the little Panda which gave me a couple of inches to spare passing other vehicles. At one point, I had to creep past a bus with barely an inch or two between the bus and my side mirror. No wonder so many cars have their side mirrors missing or taped on.

All in all this was a thrilling drive that I loved and will always remember as one of the greatest roads I have driven.

Now the Amalfi would be more fun on this 
Then there was Naples . . . . we had to drop the boys off at the Naples Train Station and then get out of the city to get back to Lecce. Everything bad about Italian drivers is represented in driving downtown Naples. The roads are four decent lanes wide but the curbside lanes are all taken with parked cars regardless of the signs. If there isn’t a parking spot, double parking is common. That leaves almost two actual lanes for traffic, but there is usually at least four lanes of vehicles trying to get somewhere. The lines on the streets indicating lanes are completely ignored. Then there are the scooters who literally scoot between lanes and switching lanes to and fro at will. You cannot hesitate or someone will take your spot, and I quickly got into the Italian attitude and forced my way where I wanted to go, and we got out of the city and back on the highway.

All in all I did pretty well and the Panda got returned with only dead bugs ruining its pristine finish.