Practical Italy 1

 Practical Italy Feb/Mar. 2011 Southern Italy, Sicily, Naples, Rome

(Mark and Vicki are in their 17th month of RVing in Europe. Their website, blog and contact information is at

We arrived in Bari, Italy by ferry rom Patras, Greece at 8:30 am on February 21. There is a large truck parking area on the right in the port where we stopped to have breakfast and get oriented to Italy. We thought about stopping for the night but decided to move on to Metara. The campground is part of a farm/restaurant agricultural campground just south of the city. It was a very reasonable 12E a night including 16 amp. electricity, which we haven’t seen in a long while. We stopped first in town at the Wind store to buy a usb modem since we will be in Italy for over two months. The modem was 59E and we bought 1 month of 100 hr service to start with. It was easy to find parking on the main street at 2pm because everything was closed until 4:30!

At the campground, the very garrulous attendent offered to take us to Sassi (the UNESCO old town section) and act as our guide the next morning. We declined and drove back to town early the next afternoon, again finding parking because the shops are closed. We spent about 1 ½ hrs walking around and also visited the very interesting furnished cave dwelling. The next morning we moved on towards Pompeii having decided not to go to Sicily.

The road was pretty good over the mountains but would be a problem if there was snow. Our first stop was Paestum. We spent two nights in a parking lot across from the gate. Posted at 5 E a camper, no one was collecting. The weather has gotten colder in Italy than Greece with highs just reaching 50 and lows in upper 30s. We also had 3 days of pretty strong winds. Since we didn’t want to rush through the Pompeii area we bought year long admission passes to all the sites for 40E. The museum was wonderful but note that it closes at 3 in winter. We spent about 2 hrs there and then walked over the ruins. It was fabulous to see these older, almost complete Greek temples. A site not to be missed. On the way to Pompeii we stopped and bought the fabulous buffalo fresh mozzarella cheese. We took the toll road to Pompeii and it was well worth it at 2E.

In Pompeii we stayed four nights at Camping Spartacus. We have the ADAC discount camping book so we only paid 13E a night with electricity. Regular price would have been 20E. Washing and drying was 8E a small load but since it is impossible to find machines outside a campground we did 3. Unfortunately rain showers were forecast so we couldn’t avoid using the dryer. Our first day we went into Naples and did most of the Steve’s walking tour having a great pizza lunch and visiting the Royal Palace which was included in our pass. The next day we took the train to Sorrento to catch the Amalfi Coast bus. Believe me when I say you don’t want to drive this road. The all day bus ticket is only 7E and it includes Ravello (which we didn’t get to). We had a wonderful lunch in Amalfi which we weren’t expecting since it is a very touristy town. However, by 3 pm it was getting cold and windy and not much fun waiting for the bus which is only hourly in the winter. Day 3 it rained all day so we just stayed in the camper. The weather report for the Naples area was very wet for several days so after talking to a British couple about their wonderful week in Sicily, we decided to change our minds and head south for a week or so.

It is a 5-6 hr drive to Reggio. The road is 4 lane most of the way and without tolls; however, they are redoing almost all of it so look for construction for 2-3 years. Since we like to stop by dark we spent the night at a rest area. N38 26 22, E15 56 29. We were able to pull in to the auto parking in front of a phone booth. This is important as all the rest areas for trucks are completely overcrowded and throughout the night there are loud discussions of who is blocking whom. Reggio is hilly and has limited parking but we found an open lot with attendant by the sea at N38 06 50 E15 38 57. It is very close to the museum but we discovered it closed until about June and the bronzes in restoration. We got lost walking to the restoration area but eventually found it. You could see them working on the statues through the glass but no pix allowed. A few of the museum’s other items were also on display and we watched an informative DVD in English.

Heading out of town to Via San Giovanni (the least expensive ferry to Sicily) we tried to follow Tom and kept running into low viaducts. Eventually, we got back to the main highway and took it. To avoid problems be sure to get on it in Reggio. We bought tickets at the port for 71e which was a discount on one way and the return good for 3 months. It is only about 30 min and I stayed with the van as there were lots of “salesmen” roaming among the cars. We headed on a reasonabaly priced expressway south to Giardina Naxos 5 k south of Taormina N37 49 21 E15 16 01. There are several of these parking areas where you are shoe-horned in, there are showers, etc., which we didn’t use, but only 8e a night including electricity. When we left he wanted to charge us more so I have a feeling prices start rising about March 1. By the way, it was so full the morning we left we couldn’t get to the dumpsite so keep that in mind.

The first day we took the bus to Taormina—turn right at gate, walk by supermarket, turn right at next street, you will see the bus stop. Taormina was a beautifully preserved medieval town with an expensive Greek theater to visit. The town is definitely worth the trip. However we caught the wrong bus back and had a long walk. The same thing happened the next day when we took the bus to Catania, so be sure to know what the main cross street looks like (about 2 blocks further down the street from the busstop),

We also enjoyed Catania for its baroque square but it is skippable if you are short on time. Bus for two round trip was also more expensive, 12E. However, we caught the local bus back which wound along the coast for the hour and we found the trip itself to be beautiful and interesting, and the highlight of the day.

Off again now further south to Siracuse where we parked at the city lot Parcheggio Von Platen N37 4 36, E15 17 14. An expensive 18 E a day—the Euro has now climbed to almost $1.40. However, it is very close to the fabulous museum and the archeological park. We spent 3 hours in the museum and one section was closed. It is one of the most complete we have seen and almost all signage is in English. The archeological park only takes about an hour with a quarry, theater, necropolis and coliseum. The combined ticket allows you two days. We never found the bus from the park so ended up walking about 2k to the island that is the old section of the city. The cathedral there is a must see, with a Doric temple built into a baroque church. Also the medieval streets and houses are quite atmospheric. We were there on a Sunday afternoon and everything was completely quiet until about 5 when people started coming out again. We did find the return bus 1 or 26 plus others which took us right to the parking/campground. It stops right before the bridge as you leave the island but you have to buy the 1e ticket at a tobacconist, hotel, etc. beforehand.

After studying the map, we decided not to head across the small roads along the south shore. However, I later reviewed a book we have by Brits in a 33 ft motorhome and they did it. Instead we retraced our steps back to Catania across the expressway to take the road south to Piazza Armerina where the great mosaics are. The road was okay except in the towns where it inevitably narrowed to 1 lane with the usual double parking etc. When we reached the villa there was a man stationed to tell us it was closed until March 19th. This was not mentioned in our books or on the website. There was a large parking lot but I don’t know if you could spend the night—probably, as there was no gate.

Disappointed, we headed on to Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. Unfortunately, this meant going back through town—Tom again trying to navigate us under too-short bridges. We had seen a sign for a truck route and had not taken it. So we laboriously turned around, had to drive back almost to the villa and then took the truck route. We lost it at least once but managed eventually to get back to the main road, which was actually better south of Armerina then north.

We reached Agrigento about 4 pm from the east and took the route up to the temples even though it said no trucks over 3.5t. As long as you are not much over 7m it should be fine. We parked at the entrance N37 17 23 E13 35 56 where we paid 10E to spend the night. We later learned that there was another parking lot at the other end where campers had parked for free. The next morning was International Women’s Day so I got in free. The Temples are quite spread out but we walked most of it as they are beautiful. Getting back to the camper we tried to find the museum but missed the turn in another of those awful hill towns totally undesigned for cars. We finally just decided to skip the museum and get the big road out of town. Unfortunately, Tom had other ideas and took us the 50k to Sciacca on country lanes. At least there was not much traffic.

We had some coordinates for a Camper Stop in Sciacca but realized they weren’t going to work because that night was Carnavale and the city was bumper to bumper. We spotted some campers down by the port and worked our way over to N37 30 36 E13 4 33 where dozens of campers were staying at no charge. At dark we took the stairs up to the city and by luck happened into one of only two big celebrations of Carnavale in Sicily. There were a dozen gigantic floats, dancing in the streets, everyone in costume and strangely enough, hardly anyone drinking. About 8 we had a pizza dinner and at 10 made our way back to the camper. A nice German fellow explained that it would be over at 2:30 am with the fireworks and the burning of one of the floats. We went to sleep with earplugs but got up at the first exploisions to watch the fireworks over the water. It was fabulous.

We should have stayed an extra day as it was convenient and free but instead moved on to Selinunte with Tom again refusing to find the main road. Selinunte again has some fine Greek temples. Mistakenly we walked between the two main areas when we could easily have driven—just keep on through the first parking lot after you have bought your ticket. You can’t spend the night there though. We thought about going by Segesta but thought we had now seen plenty of Greek temples and drove straight through to Palermo.

Only one campground was open, Camping degli Ulivi, N38 11 53 E13 16 49. 15E a night w/o electricity. A little old but okay. Some nice Germans helped us get into town the next day. A little complicated with a change of bus and it takes an hour on weekdays. The campground also has a map with directions. Coming home we missed the stop but luckily the bus makes a loop and we finally figured it out. Palermo has lots to see but the archelogical museum was closed for restoration. We actually went to the Monreale Church twice as the light was poor the first time, we hadn’t brought the binoculars and we had skipped the cloisters. The mosaics in it are unbelievable and not to be missed. It does close for lunch though Lonely Planet said it didn’t. You can use the same all day bus ticket and the bus leaves from Piazza Independence next to the wall of the Norman palace. Be careful though as a guy tried to get Mark’s wallet on the bus, but his is on a chain. This is the first time in 17 months in Europe anyone has tried to rob us. Palermo is known for its petty theft so we didn’t even think of wild camping.

We went in the other important churches but the best was the chapel of the Norman Palace. Obviously done by the same mosaic artists that did Monreale, it is more intimate and better lit. If you want to go on the Italian only tour of the Royal Apartments—not much—you must go Friday through Monday as the Sicilian government meets there mid week.

Driving on we stopped at Cefalu on Sunday afternoon so parking was possible within 1k of catherdral. Also we saw some campers parked on the street by the beach. Mark walked up to the church but was not impressesd. We had wanted to take an excursion to Stromboli but they don’t start until April. We could have taken the longer ferries but it would be an overnight trip and it was quite hazy so we just keep driving towards Messina. Stopped early on the toll road (most expensive so far Palerno to Messina 10E.) N38 7 38 E15 3 10 even had a dump and was not at all crowded on a Sunday night. The next service area towards Messina was also nice but after that they had no parking. There is no place to park for the night at the ferry in Messina. We were on an open ferry crossing back and though it was windy and choppy that day it was fine. Then the long 6 hour drive back to Pompeii and Camping Spartacus.

Naples is an area with an amazing amount to do. Unfortunately, we were again greeted with a week long forecast of rain. We had hoped to get one of the outdoor pursuits done but though clear it was too windy to go to Capri and too hazy for Vesuvius. So we walked the 2 blocks to Pompeii and spent 7 hours. There is an immense amount to see. We were just going to do the Steve’s tour that we had downloaded to our ipod but we kept getting sidetracked. Many, many buildings are closed so you can’t count on which ones you will get to see. I now think we should have gotten the site audio as the Steve’s 3 hr. tour just wasn’t enough info for us. Our pass allows two visits to each site so we plan to go again for some of the places we missed. We also noticed how much more crowded things are getting. It is spring break and the school groups are out in force. However, if you get off the main streets around the Forum the crowds thin out a lot and it is more enjoyable. The cafeteria on site is fairly reasonable so we had a nice 30 minute rest splitting a huge slice of pizza and gelato for 8E.

I am going to skip to our second trip to Pompeii—this time about 5 hours. We had gone to the website to try to get reservations for some of the special sites, but couldn’t get it to work. This has to be done a day ahead so the lady at the information booth did it for us. We got to see the Suburban Baths, very good (more erotica), and the Prince of Naples house. Apparently there are others but we didn’t know enough to ask. These are the ones with great frescoes still on the walls so very worth doing. Both had difficult entrances to find because of closed streets so be sure to get directions from information. We also visited the Villa of the Mysteries—again fabulous frescoes but in a room you have to hunt for. Two other not to be missed buildings are the brothel and the Forum baths. Really there is so much wonderful stuff to see, but they were out of maps for the entire weekend so be sure to bring one from your guidebook.

Before we went to Pompei the second time we visited the Archelogical Museum in Naples. This was a super idea as most of the mosiacs, statues and frescoes are there. Also there is a stupendous sculpture gallery of finds from Rome. We spent 5 hours—don’t miss the secret room. Also some areas were closed during parts of the afternoon and then reopened, so plan for that. No coffee shop but they allowed us to leave and go across the street and return.

Another day we took the train to Herculaneum—to see everything takes about 3 hours. Very good and surprisingly lots of differences from Pompei. We wish we had taken a strong flashlight and binoculars.

Another day we went to Capri from Sorrento. It was March 17 which is a partial Italian holiday so tourist office was closed. Our plan had been to find out from the TI in Sorrento whether the boats were going to the Blue Grotto and if they weren’t get back on the train to Herculeum. Since we couldn’t ask we went anyway. 20E roundtrip for the ferry but not only were they not going to grotto but not even the excursion boast around the island was running. This was a huge dissappointment. We took the bus to Anacapri and then changed to take the bus to the Grotto. It was an amazing bus trip up some of the smallest, steepest roads in Europe. The steps down to the Grotto are not that bad but you don’t really get to see in it of course. But at least we got the idea. Also the sun shining through to the white sand patches both there and off the cliffs of Tiberius’s villa gave us a sampling of what the light must be like. We headed back to Capri Town and eventually found the tiny alley next to the Emmanuel Municipal building that leads up to the Villa Jova. A pretty long walk of about 2 or more k but very interesting. Only 2E entrance to the ruins, not much there, but I had always wanted to visit it and for me worth the walk. Took the last ferry back to Sorrento. You can also take the hydrofoils which are 14E each way or surprisingly, only 10E each way from Naples. Sorrento is a pretty tourist town and we enjoyed walking through it on the way to the train station.

By the way, after rushing to go to Capri because of all the expected rain we only had 2 days of 8 instead of 8 straight as predicted. However, it was windy almost every day. The moral is, if you have a clear, calm day head for the TI in Sorrento to see if the boats around Capri are running. After our second day in Pompei we bought a 3 day train/bus pass for 20E as it included the bus to Vesuvius (10E). It is about an hour each way and then allow 1 ½ or 2 hours for the walk to the crater and back. There is also an 8E entrance fee for the crater but the path is very wide and good with benches. They take full size tour busses up there but the road is windy. Certainly drivable in a camper. The buses blow their horns at every hairpin so you can get out of their way! For me it was well worth the bus ticket not to drive. The crater was smoking in four or five places and the views were tremendous, though there was haze. But then I think out of 14 days so far we only had one day right after the rains where it wasn’t hazy.

We decided to go back into Naples to see the painting museum at the Bourbon palace, Capodimonte, just north of the city. None of our guidebooks had directions so after many mistakes and about 3 hrs. we arrived. It is really fairly easy. Take Circumvesuvius train to Garibaldi station, take metro line 1 one stop to Cavour, take bus 178 or 526 (which doesn’t run very often) almost right to the museum door. The museum is enormous and has several famous paintings on the first floor, some amazing Belgium tapestries, some furniture and the Flaggelation by Carravagio—which of course is in Milan through July. Maybe we can see it there.

For our last day in the area we wanted to repeat our bus trip along the Amalfi coast and this time see Positano and Ravello. Positano is about an hour’s stroll down the hill and back and not really that strenuous. The correct bus stop is Spondi. In Amalfi we had lunch again at the same restaurant and had the super pasta again and lemon profiteroles. Then we took the bus to Ravello. Really nothing there though ceramics were much cheaper there than in Positano. View was good but we had to wait over an hour for the next bus. Mark did visit the Villa gardens which he liked because of the Wagner connection.

Leaving Pompei we decided to stop at the last Bourbon palace, Reggio a Caserta. The traffic in Caserta at noon was awful as the streets are designed with no lights but at least it was only for 2k. Parking was in a lot that is wall to wall but they got us in by moving 3 other cars. We spent 5 hrs in the house and park. Amazing! Versaille without the hoards, though about 1 pm the school groups started arriving. We were happy to be ahead of them. Huge amounts of original furnishings in one wing 18th century and another 19th. Also the largest and most elaborate nativity scene we have seen in all of Europe. The main garden has a beautiful cascade and other pools. Ride the bus for 1E to the end at the cascade. The English Garden is to your right as you face the cascade. This is the only entrance and the garden itself is enormous and the equal to almost any in England. We especially enjoyed the variety of wild flowers all over—March 24-- and I imagine it only gets better as spring marches along. Just 50 yds or so to the right of the entrance is the Venus statue and what is an artificial ruin based on Pompei. Incredibly well done as was the ruin further alond on the island in the lake. As it was getting late we only did about 1/3 of it. You can rent bikes, including four wheelers. I know people were taking the bikes into the garden but I don’t know if the 4 wheelers were allowed. We did buy the mini guidebook but it wasn’t really enough as there are hardly any signs in English. By the way at the palace there were only for porta potties for hundreds of visitors and they were disgustingly dirty. There are wc’s in the garden and snack shop near the cascade. Try to “hold out” for them!

We decided to spend the night on the autostrade. We found a huge rest area with dump etc. at N41 14 00 E14 05 43. Again parking at the far side of the auto area. It worked out great and was actually fairly quiet. Leaving early the next morning we got to the circle road around Rome and headed for a caravan storage area we had found on the Internet. Our plan was to spend the day finding our storage. Luckily the administrator of this one spoke pretty good English, had a nice printed English FAQ and it was also a camper stop. No bathrooms, but electricity, water, and dump with 24 hr security and less than a block to the bus which connects with metro. (also market and restaurant within walking distance.) He gave us a very good deal on the price so we decided to camp here as well as store. (60E for 1 month storage and 60E for 11 nights “sleeping.”) Mark went into Rome to a Wind store and thought he had it working but when he got back it still wouldn’t work. There is free wifi here so that is not a problem. Also the caretaker will take us to the airport at 6am Sunday for 40E. Since it would be 32 for the bus and train that was great.

We did the night walking tour from Rick Steve’s which gave us a good reorientation to the city (we were here in ‘79 and ‘98 tent camping.) On Sunday we decided to get up early as it was free entry to the Vatican Museum and then we figured we could go twice and spread it out. Arriving at the entry at about 9:15 we started walking to find the end of the line, 25 minutes and about 1k later, very close to the entrance to St. Peter’s colonade. As the line varied from 5 to 15 people wide we knew that there was no chance of getting in by the 12:30 cut off so we opted to just see St. Peter’s. The security line took about 15 minutes. Unfortunately, after much waiting around through mass and asking questions we found out that the apse and altar area was closed all day Sundays. It was around noon so we thought we might be able to slip over to the Museum before the cut off. As we exited St. Peter’s we hit a wall of about 5,000 people come to hear the Pope speak. No way were we going to the museum. We worked our way towards where we thought we could catch a bus and never found it, so decided to just walk south and see the Villa Farnese, not knowing it was closed on Sundays. We didn’t have the full guidebook with us, just the maps and Vatican section. Perusing the window menu we decided on a restaurant lunch for pizza. When he finally took our order we learned for Sunday lunch no pizza, only full meals. So we headed for a pizza snackbar. Throughly frustrated and determined to do something we headed on the only 1 block to Travestere. Very interesting, medieval part of Rome and wonderful, cheap restaurants we wished we had waited on lunch. Enjoyed St. Mary’s church—be sure to put 50 cents in the box on left of the front so you can see the mosaics lit up and get good pictures. Then we got lost 3 times trying to get to St. Cecilia’s. The last time we asked a waiter, who consulted with another, who had never heard of it. It turns out at that point we were a block and a half away. When we arrived another mass was going on, so we Unitarians sat through our second mass of the day. However, there was a visiting choir on tour and they were wonderful. The statue of St. Cecilia is also very moving. Unfortunately, we missed every connection back so it took 2 hours. So our short touring day turned into 12 hours and 19,400 steps on my pedometer. Moral of the story, don’t go to churches on Sunday, don’t think locals in Rome know where things are, take an extra section of the guidebook in case you have to change plans and make a reservation for the Vatican Museum.

It is certainly possible to do the Colleseum, Forum and the Palatine in one day, though we spread it over two. Be aware that the Forum had almost no informational signs so you will definitely need the free Rick Steve’ download or a more detailed guidebook. The Palatine has a small, forgettable museum and two villas to see. Livia’s was not open—no reason given; Augustine’s was open Mon, Wed, Fri, and weekends. You see it in small groups and the wall frescoes are only okay—nothing near as good as the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompei.

Another day we made reservations to see the Gallery Borghese which is a highlight of any trip to Rome. You are only allowed 2 hours inside but we found that to be enough and needlessly rushed at the beginning. There are laminated cards in each room explaining the artwork but by the end of the day many were missing or in the wrong rooms. I definitely regretted not having the audio guide there. Be sure to take binoculars. Afterwards we walked through the park to the Belvedere overlooking Palazza di Populo—a wonderful view, but much better in the morning. Then we walked down the stairs to see the Caravageo’s and Raphael in the Maria di Populo Church. Fantastic but the Raphel was under wraps. We forgot to look at the dome, which is one of the city’s best.

Finally, we made it back to the Vatican Museum with reservations for 11:30. We left early intending to finish St. Peter’s first. Traffic was horrendous and the 20 min bus ride took an hour. When we got to the metro we found it closed for a planned transportation strike. We had been spoiled since Greece, no strikes, we should have asked the camper storage man if any were planned! They were running limited busses so after another two hours and two busses we arrived at the museum and there was absolutely no line at all. Don’t know if that was because of the strike or not;: however inside the galleries it was packed with tour groups. We spent about 6 hours and of course couldn’t see it all. Signage is very erratic. None in the Sistine (you absolutley must have binoculars or you won’t see anything), map gallery, lots in the Belvedere Statue galleries, none in the Picture Gallery. We did have the audio guide which was pretty good only for the picture gallery. Perhaps their guidebook would have been better. The cafe is reasonably priced though so you can afford to take breaks. It is a one way system but you can double back any time you want.

In actuality, we left Italy for April for the birth of our first grandchild in California. Flying back April 29 but I will finish up with Rome here and do the rest of Italy in part 2.