Driver’s Licence

One of the problems of driving in Italy is that there are amazing views , chance glimpses of antiquities and endless attractive villages and towns perched high on hills which you co-pilot points you never get to see them as you are normally involved in some manoeuvre or another.

This actually changed for me last year as when we presented ourselves to the car rental desk in Naples the guy behind the counter pointed out that my UK licence had expired three months before and my erstwhile co-pilot had left hers in Cyprus. It seems that when you are 70 tears old the UK insists you get a new licence . No problem but of course I had been driving for three months in Cyprus without one !

Oh dear I said or words to that effect and we slunk away from the counter and headed back to the taxi rank . We’ll catch a train I suggested and clicked on my trusty Trainline Europe app. Hmm Naples to Bari 6 hours ! Where on earth does the train go I shouted at the app via Milano but no it is just really slow and I mean really slow you must almost be able to walk alongside it if you fancy some exercise like the Palace on Wheels Train in India. So I phoned some Italian friends in Martina. Our daughter the wife said always uses Flixbus, you can get one from Naples to Fasano and we can pick you up there. So I downloaded the App and made the booking on line for the next day. 2.30 in the afternoon arriving at 7 pm €12 each one way less than the toll by car.

Now the Italians seem to have hawk eyes when it comes to dates on driving licences. We knew a couple in Puglia that had been out to a friends house near Bari for lunch one Sunday. It turned into a fairly liquid affair with plenty of wine followed by plenty of wine and the wife seeing how thirsty her husband was said early on that she would drive home. This encouraged him to more superhuman feats of quaffing and he gave the grappa a good seeing to as well.

Once in the car he fell into the sleep of the good and she started the drive back down to Ceglia. Halfway down the autostrada as she came around a bend she saw blue lights flashing and a policeman on the hard shoulder waving a torch for her to pull in . Her husband was snoring loudly in the right hand seat as she pulled to a stop and wound the window down . The policeman asked something in Italian and she decided like many expats to play the language card ” I’m sorry I don’t speak Italian ” she said. Wonderful the policeman replied I can practise my English ! Could I see you drivers licence ? She found it in her purse and handed it over hoping also that having made the sacrifice of not drinking all afternoon who would produce a breathalyser and have her blow in it. Husband continued to snore. This licence has expired said the policeman . Can’t have she replied we only back from the UK for a week and we hired a car there. Sorry he said look at the date and blow me he was right. I’m sorry he said you cant drive the car pull over to the slip road. But how do I get home she asked ? He will have to drive said the policeman. Him he’s drunk replied the wife. Wake him up and get him in the drivers seat. After about 10 mins she achieved this and the husband with only one eye open to stop the world doing loop the loops was ready to go. But asked the wife what happens if we are stopped again, he will go to jail and hopefully they will throw away the key. I will give you a note which you can give to any policeman and he wrote one out dated it stamped it and gave it to her. Only in Italy she thought and somehow the husband got them home. In the cold light of the next morning as he sat nursing his hangover he said didn’t we renew our licences on the same day ? My gosh she said I think we did and rushed to find his in the car. It had expired !!

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A Bridge Too Far

Entering into Puglia meant a gentle drop down to the coastal plain and an end to bridges and tunnels. On our many drives in the past from Southern Italy to the U.K. we had always commented on each drive ( yes we’re that old !) that the difference in driving in France and Italy was that like their forefathers the Italians tend to reach a hill with their road and drive a tunnel straight through it and do the same with ravines. If in doubt build a bridge straight across it unlike the French who wind the road up and down the hill and hairpin a road down to the bottom of a ravine and then back up the other side. Yes I know , a generalisation, but certainly borne out on our trips to the UK .

The A16 the Autostrada between two seas as it is called must have 30 bridges though I have to admit to never counting them, but more importantly every single one has road works in progress on them  as new crash barriers on the drop side of the bridge are replaced.

Now this, to the few of you reading this and not living in Italy seems a fairly innocuous comment . Irritating but merely that nothing more. Let me now dissuade you of that notion. Signage on an Autostrada is like a red rag to a bull to your average Italian racing driver who as I said before frequent  the Autostrada .

My co-pilot notes the first sign showing that there is a lane change upcoming and assuming that for some reason I have failed to notice it  helpfully points it out and says in 500 metres there are roadworks and you need to be in the outside lane . Yes dear I reply whilst rather than risking a silent drive from that moment on move over into the outside lane. The Italian coming up behind me in the outside lane immediately switches into the inside lane as the 400 metre sign flashes by.  So does the car behind him and the bus behind him. The first guy floors it and as the 300 metre sign goes passed whips out just in front of me causing me to break. The second guy sees his chance and unbelievably so does the bus driver. As the 200 metre sign passes in a blur my co-pilot on who’s side all the action is taking place has her right foot pressed almost through the floor on her imaginary brake and is gripping the sides of the seat. I, of course, am made of sterner stuff or as she says just plain bloody minded . At 100 metres the second fellow normally with a wife in the other front seat and three children without seatbelts happily playing in the back  almost takes my front bumper ( fender) off and I brake again to let him in, cursing under my breath, but then the bus looms into view on the right side of the car. Now as a sales rep many years ago in London a taxi driver I was chatting to described to me his take on the rules of the road. He, as a taxi driver, never gave way to private cars unless driven by a sales rep  nor small vans but did give way to large trucks and always to London buses. His sage advice I have aways followed and so I braked hard and out came the  followed by a cacophony of horns from irate Italians behind me who felt I had chickened out. Now multiply this by 30 times and you have some idea of the stress the A16 places on a marriage even one of 42 years.

What you might be asking is cause of all this repair work. Well let me first say some expats living in Italy are able to float through their time there with rose coloured glasses firmly on their noses but it is far better especially in the South to accept that there is a darker side to life that manifests itself quite often.

For the reason for the work we need to go back to July 28th 2013 when some 50 pilgrims were returning  from a pilgrimage on a bus. Nearing Avellino the driver attempted an overtaking exercise only to find his brakes had failed. He , the pilgrims and his  bus hit the concrete crash barrier protecting a 100 foot drop down into a valley . However instead on stopping the bus the barrier crumpled into dust and the bus and its occupants sailed through. Thirty eight people died in the crash.

The court of enquiry found first that the bus was very poorly  maintained but that secondly that the imported Jersey concrete barrier had been corroded by the salt put on the  Autostrada each winter and the company Autostrade who should have been checking that corrosion had failed to do so . This is , by the way, that same Company that is blamed for the bridge collapse in Genoa .

Last January the owner of Autostrade was found not guilty of negligence for the bus crash but six of his employees received 6 year sentences as did the brother of the bus driver who owned the bus company. The relatives of the victims were heard to shout this is not justice when the verdicts were announced .

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Andiamo In Puglia

The mountains near Avellino

The “sumptuous” review was way over the top , sufficient was probably more like it. Still the coffee was hot and my cornetto fresh. Dare I say I much prefer the Italian version of the French croissant il cornetto ( little horn) as it is known in Southern Italy . Far less butter in it. I’m a vuoto ( empty) man myself not liking a filling in the middle but by the time I got to breakfast other vuoto men had got there before me and I had to content myself with apricot jam in the middle. God life is tough!

A walk around part of the town and there was snow on the hills nearby. I remembered that last night my co-pitot had mentioned snow on Vesuvius but I was busy driving like an Italian and whipping across three lanes to make the Bari exit on the autostrada . My greatest moment was, a few years back, when an Italian friend said ” Mike you drive like us”. I have never been up Vesuvius instead rather longing for the days gone by when Thomas Cook used to have porters carry their guests up to the top in chairs. Now that’s my kind of package holiday.  I have however drunk probably one of the nicest named wines Lacryma Christi ,The Tears of Christ :

Lcryma Christo

I think I blamed Him for my hangover the next morning .

Incidentally  Lacryma Christi is mentioned in the 1954 film Three Coins in The Fountain which is centred unsurprisingly around the Trevi fountain which brings all the characters luck. I still remember on my first holiday in Rome in August 1957 standing with my back to the fountain and throwing my coin in the water whilst wishing to return to Rome. My mother whilst watching me was pinched on her bottom by a young Italian man which seemed to please her very much despite her protests to my father. Italian men in those days only pinched the bottoms on women they found particularly attractive. My father in his usual joking fashion chased after the man to offer him my mother in marriage but luckily the fellow didn’t understand English.

It was on that holiday also that we were trapped in the lift at the apartment block we were borrowing one of the flats from the BEA manager Rome.  Luckily after pressing all the alarms we managed with the help of another resident who had already phoned the lift company to force the doors open and got out. Two days later whilst coming down the stairs we met a guy in overalls coming up. I’m from the lift company said I understand someone is trapped in the lift ? Ah Italia !!

 

 

The basement garage was empty when we took the lift down there. so the exit was easy and the drive to the Autostrada a piece of cake in the sunshine . At 12.15 p.m. we drove out of Campania and into Puglia . We stopped at the next service station and celebrated with a couple of cappuccini . Yes, I know, never drink cappuccino after 11 a.m. but rules were made for breaking and I drink them all day. As yet not a single cafe owner has said no !

 

 

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The Web is Spun

Deciding which hotel to stay in in Italy especially in the regional areas is fun. Most of the reviews are by Italians unsurprisingly but they tend not to write about the room or the bed or the bathroom. Oh no they write about the breakfast or if the place has a restaurant the food there and delightfully they write about the staff and how nice or not they were. It seems the rooms are but an after thought if you’ve eaten well in the evening you will sleep well whatever the room is like, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow brings another good meal to start your day and as long as the people running the place are delightful too. So all the money most hotel chains are spending on 16 pillow choices, 4 bed firmness settings, walk in showers or bath options etc etc are entirely wasted on Italians who just want friendly staff and good freshly cooked food that is almost similar to what their mother does or did cook for them . Rather refreshing really isn’t it.

As an example here are some for the Hotel Viva ” il personale simpatico,cordiale e competence ” and ” Colazione ( breakfast) ricca ( sumptuous) ” or ” Ristorante con menu vario e con costo contenuto anche forno a legna per una pizza ( with a wood fire oven ) ” So if you were worried about the size of the bathroom worry on !!

One I did like written in English was a brave soul, not Italian, who because he was leaving before the free breakfast was served asked for a €20 discount off his €65 room charge and was hugely disgusted the hotel wouldn’t play ball. Not sure I’d have had the nerve.

Let me say our receptionist was simpatica and did kindly show us where the lift to the garage was for future reference and we did manage to smile sweetly. Check in was a breeze but trust me you aren’t going to run off with the key. The key ring was an enormous ball that weighs a ton and you can barely carry it from your room back to reception where you happily hand it over.

Our room was huge and the bathroom almost as big and being a back room we overlooked the pleasant garden though I wasn’t hanging about to study the view . Beer was the order of the day and some food . The hotel has a restaurant on the ground floor and a choice of 4 different Moretti draught beers. Paradise no less.

We shared a starter of mozzarella with, cured beef ,tomatoes and rocket. The ball of mozzarella weighed in at half a kilo so thank god we shared it. The taste was divine. Then we both had a plate of soft cheese stuffed ravioli with wild mushrooms and truffles. To die for no less. This we washed down with a fine bottle of Feudi di San Gregorio a dry white wine produced in a winery just a 9 minutes drive form the hotel. It’s made from the Fiano grape which has been covering the hills around Avellino since the Samnites some 2000 years ago . All I can say is my goodness it has aged well.

The bill was €48 and as we sat drinking our espresso coffee and I sipped my grappa we realised that Italy had worked it’s magic again. Forgotten were the Cyprus chicken kebab, chips and village salad. Here we were amongst a people who care passionately about the food they eat and how it is cooked and served. This was going to be 10 days where we ate well and enjoyed our house we both agreed. Little did we know !!

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Italy Begins To Weave it’s Web (Again)

But not quite yet ! I had chosen the Viva Hotel Avellino because in my minds eye Avellino lay just off the Autostrada and so once at the toll barrier it must be just a mere hop skip and jump to the hotel mustn’t it ? I mean from the Autostrada on past journeys you can see the town tucked some 90 feet below you.

Because I was driving and as it were on the wrong side of the road compared to Cyprus and in the dark I had been distinctly frugal in tossing down the alcoholic beverages on the flight to Naples and like Captain Anson played by John Mills in the film Ice Cold in Alex I could easily envisage the condensation on the glass of Peroni I was going to be drinking within minutes now we were off the Autostrada . As an aside when John Mills finally gets his beer on arrival in Alexandria the film director discovered that only actual lager looked like the real thing in black and white film so John Mills had to do take after take drinking the bottle down in one. Luckily he finally got it absolutely right to the satisfaction of the director and then promptly fell of the bar stool drunk as a lord.

It was just after the toll barrier that I realised that whilst there was an Avellino Ovest and an Avellino EST there was no Avellino Centro and the Viva Hotel was most definitely Centro. Indeed my trusty Waze app ( London Uber driver’s GPS NavigationApp of choice before Uber developed their own ) lady was telling me there was still 6.7 Kms still to go . Walk in the park you are thinking but it was dark, it was raining, and most cities in the South have Centro Storico areas which are a maze of one way streets that confuse the best of Navigational apps. Avellino didn’t disappoint. Turn left, turn right , take third exit, make a u turn when possible, make another u turn immediately, turn left and most dreaded of all, silence while the machine tries to figure out where the devil we are.

10 mins later we came down a one way street the wrong way did a u turn around the no U turn sign and arrived outside the hotel. I turned to my co-pilot and said pop in and ask where we can park, I need to stay with the car we are tripled parked here and after another discussion about in a divorce settlement who would get what the door slammed and into the rain she went. There’s a basement garage to the right of the hotel was the answer on her return. So after another U turn around the Strictly No U turn sign which seems to amuse the two policemen in their car opposite we started our descent into what can only be described as the black hole of Calcutta. It was designed I reckon for about 8 cars but the amazing Italian drivers had managed to squeeze 12 cars in and left a space alongside two huge pillars. It was that space or reversing back out around two right angled bends and up two of the steepest ramps I have ever been down. I decided on the space but only had less that half a car space to manoeuvre the car into position and those two pillars both endangering the €2000 excess charge. With my co-pilot whispering words of encouragement like what the hell are you doing, Christ your going to hit it, where are you going now now you’ve nearly hit the wing mirror, STOP ,we somehow managed to finally get the car unscratched into the spot. We then got the bags out of the boot and dragged them up the two ramps , out into the pouring rain and then up twenty steep marble stairs to the hotel lobby. Buonasera said the receptionist why didn’t you use the lift up from the garage ?

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Andiamo

The hike from the terminal building at Naples Airport to the car rental Stalag is about 8 minutes. As an aside whilst I moan about the difficulties of learning Italian did you know the German word Stalag meaning prisoner of war camp is a contraction of Stammlager which is short for the real words Kriegsgefangnen Mannschafts Stammlager. So I’ll never complain about Italian again

Naples Airport first opened in 1910 and there are some that say it hasn’t changed much since then . However that would be untrue. It was run by the City Council for many years but in 1997 a 70% share was sold to the B.A.A who, of course, run that other disaster called London Heathrow Airport which is described as a shopping mall with the inconvenience of having aircraft parked around it. In 2002 H.R.H Prince Charles no less opened the new shopping mall , sorry Terminal at Naples airport.

The planners must have realised that with all the shops they had completely forgotten about space for car rentals and so found a disused old hotel car park where they erected some temporary huts and that was that. It’s still there but doing probably 10 times the business it was designed for. It is also at night quite dark which means scratches and dents are hard to find so take a torch or use your phone. Trust me the rental company puts a few on the document and expects you to find the rest and I challenge anyone to find any car in Italy that doesn’t have plenty of scratches and dents. It is indeed a badge of honour for most drivers and with insurance premiums so high ( easily €1500 for a small family car third party) no one can afford to claim to have them repaired.

We, some 45 mins after entering the stalag, drove out clutching a document showing a drawing of a car now almost completely covered in crosses and signatures indicating dents and scratches we had found and into the Naples traffic.

Now driving in Italy especially in towns is not for the feint of heart . Many Italians still believe in the old Highway Code law of give way to the right which allows them to come careering out from any small town side road or country lane onto the main drag without a glance at what might be coming at them, like say me in my rental car with about £2000 of excess charges riding on me returning it without any new dents. Add to that the propensity for the local populace to triple or quadruple park in any and every street and you get the picture.

Luckily Naples airport has the motorway system close by with only two roundabouts to negotiate. This allows you a bit of pit lane style warming up and practice before you enter the race track proper that is an Italian motorway. My only advice is to get into the fast lane as soon as you can and stick your foot on the floor. The two or three inside tracks are lethal with trucks pulling out, cars changing from outside to exit lanes in the blink of an eye, cars reversing back to missed exits and drivers who on answering their mobile phone slow from 100 clicks to 40 clicks almost immediately . An Italian hasn’t won a Formula One race since 2006 but trust me there are plenty practising to win another one and they are all on which ever motorway you find yourself driving on to !

Mercifully we have done this route from Naples to our house in Martina Franca many many times but on this trip because it was already 8 p.m. we had booked an hotel in Avellino just a 50 minute drive from the Airport . It entails but three changes of motorway and so only five shouting matches and two petitions for instant divorce later we pulled off the Autostrada and up to the Avellino toll booth to pay the charge.

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Work in Progress

When we first bought our house in Puglia , it was what the estate agent described in the blurb as habitable . I guess the word in Italian abitabile must have a broader meaning than perhaps the English word has as we found out on our first night there after our stuff had arrived . After a night of mopping up rain water that poured in through the closed windows and under all the outside doors whilst choking on the smoke from the fire which with every wind gust filled every room with wood smoke while lights fused and wall plugs blew we realised this was going to need a great deal of work done to make it habitable in the true sense of the word.

On our next visit we were introduced to an Old Puglia Hand named Jane who had been there many many years. Her house seemed to us to be how we hoped ours would be in a few months. How long I asked did it take you to have all the work done? She laughed and laughed. ” You have a great deal to learn” she said, ” Italian houses are never finished they are, all of them, merely work in progress !”

Each time I step off an aeroplane at either Bari or Naples and make my way to the rental car depot her words come back to me. For each time I am doing that walk to the car I am not driving to enjoy a week or so in the house relaxing on the patio or to read one of the hundreds of unread Kindle books on my reader but instead to attend to a long list of issues or just yet more “improvements” to the work in progress house.

And so it was this time, a call from the delightful guy that looks after the place had prompted the visit. ” Alcuni problemi Mike ” he had said and trust me he is never wrong. In response here we were at Naples airport at 6.30 in the evening having just retrieved our bags from the carousel alongside the one that actually showed the London Flight Number but had no bags on.

See Naples and Die is a phrase I have always known and Naples Airport seems quite an apt place for that quote to come true ! To be fair the quote in Italian is vedi Napoli e poi muori so see Naples and then die but lets not quibble. The English version pretty much fits the bill when your at the airport. The car rental depot where most of the car rental companies find themselves marooned is well away from the terminal building that is apart from Sixt who seemed to have pulled a few strings and sit resplendent just outside the terminal doors .Suffice to say we hadn’t booked with them !

There is but a single shuttle bus that actually does the rounds. How many shuttle buses the airport management think they have is a mute point but hey this is Naples , they are probably already in Albania or Rumania as I write this.

Now it is a fact of life Italians don’t do queuing so if you don’t get on the lone bus that is either on it’s way or already waiting it is quicker to walk rather than wait for it to go and come back and your chances as a foreigner of getting on that bus are, to be honest, absolutely zero . So we walked dragging our suitcases behind us. God I hope we find the hotel I shouted to my fellow Sherpa I could murder a beer or two.

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