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OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 52 - 54

OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 52 - 54

DAY 51 & 52 – Amalfi – Naples – Palermo - Ragalna

Amalfi done and survived, the next challenge was the Naples to Palermo Ferry. After our grim experience crossing from Greece to Italy we’d decided to use another ferry line. Oh my. What a difference and more of that in a second. Naples docks, though, pretty much lived up to expectations.

We rolled into the dock area and, spotting the Bar Italia, decided to treat ourselves to a beer before our appointed check in time.  We parked up and went in – the bartender greeted us without a smile but at least we got a ‘Buonosera’. We responded in a similar fashion only to hear a sort of pained screech, ‘Ber Wun Oh Saaaar Ahhhh’ coming from somewhere else. I looked behind me to see if I could see a parrot or Mynah bird in a cage somewhere but all I could see was a garish poster of what appeared to be some sort of grim clown advertising toothpaste or hair cream.

I turned back to the bartender only to hear the screech again – I glanced over my shoulder and saw the clown move. Startled, I turned to look at it face on and what I had taken for a poster of a garish clown was, in all grim reality, a woman who had definitely seen her best summers and an awful lot of not very good ones as well. Bright Aperol Spritz orange ginger hair, a lipsticked mouth in bright crimson that clashed like a warzone with the hair and luminous turquoise eye smear. Smudgy red cheeks finished off the ensemble. At least until she opened her mouth. The crimson gash opened to reveal a set of arctic white teeth that positively glowed. If you’d put a Geiger counter anywhere near it would have been clicking like Flipper the Dolphin asking for another bucket of fish or telling you that Lassie was down a well. I stuttered a greeting back and hurriedly turned to the bartender and asked for two small beers.

Now this was the Bar Italia. On the docks in Naples. A very Italian place to be. So I fully expected something Italian.

The barman placed two bottles of Tennants on the bar. Tennants? Really? Surely some mistake. Tennants is the archetypal strong Scottish stuff – the sort that can really only be drunk from a paper bag on a park bench in Glasgow. Somewhat surprised, I gestured to pay and was directed towards the lady of the hair, lipstick, teeth and eyeshadow who made the pretence of a smile at me but all that did was make the caricature even more ghoulish.

I produced a €20 note and placed it on the bar and also got €4 in coins out in case I needed some change – after all, a couple of beers shouldn’t be more than €5 or €6 at most. I didn’t see any movement at all but the note and coined were no longer on the counter. It was as if they were instantly turned to atoms and sucked away from me to be reassembled in the possession of the ghoul. One hand had the note gripped, vicelike; the coins were, somehow, already in the till that I swear was empty a nanosecond previously - €24 had suddenly passed from my possession and I had no idea of the amount owed. The ghoul passed me a €5 note and made as if that was the sum total of my change. €19 for 2 small beers? My turn for a big stylee Bugger Off.

“Quanto per le birre?” I asked.

A ghoulish hand reached for a pen and a pad and scrawled, very slowly a 1 followed, after some thought as if trying to work out how much we could be stung for, a  6 followed by a . and two 0’s. €16 for two Tennants?

Military folk have a lingo and vernacular that is unique, descriptive and sometimes a little vulgar. A multipurpose phrase that could be used in a number of circumstances such as, You Cannot Be Serious, Go Away, You Are Not Credible, I Am Not Having That from those days came to mind and such was my incredulity at being skinned for €16 large ones I think my inner dialogue went a bit wonky and I think I might have said the following out loud:

“You can take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut.” And went on:

“Mi dispiace – but that is OUTRAGEOUS. Not happening. No beer. Money back.”

The ghoul feigned some sort of surprise, bemusement or confusion – difficult to tell which, if I am honest and, using the spit second wisely, I deftly recovered the €20 note from her grasp and, on realising this, she began to reach to close the till drawer as if to keep the other €4.  Somewhere, once, I had pretty quick reactions and have, in my time, learnt a few tricks with sleight of hand. All of which meant that, as the till closed, the coins miraculously found their way back to me.

We retreated after the correct amount of harumphing and with as much dignity as is possible under such circumstances and found the delightfully named Donna Slag Bar in the truckers area and paid €3 for two beers.

Oh, and it’s correct. Tennants super strength lager is seen as a delicacy in Italy.

https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/why-italy-loves-tennents-super-15945595

Weird. But not as weird as a clown with ginger hair charging €8 for a single 250ml bottle of beer.

Have to say, the welcome at Donna Slag Bar was a very welcome change – a truck drivers retreat fashioned from the sort of catering trailer you see in a layby along with a flappy gazebo housing a few plastic tables and chairs. All positioned at the edge of a vast expanse of concrete where the trucks line up to embark whatever ferry they are waiting for. Donna, it must be said, was an expansive lady. She didn’t really need a bottle opener ,but used one to show she had some manners, although the dainty Waiters Friend was somewhat lost in her meat cleaver hands and stubby salami fingers. She smiled and made us welcome which made us feel good and should you ever find yourself on Naples Docks waiting for a ferry, go seek her out and whatever you do, avoid the clown with the ginger hair.

 

Finally it was time to embark and we hoped for the best. After our previous experience we weren’t hopeful and had steeled ourselves for a long wait. The steeling up was needless and we were waved to the front of the waiting cars and boarded almost immediately. Bikes ushered to one side where a very smartly liveried crew chap lashed and strapped them down with big smiles, approving nods and extreme care. We wafted up the stairs, were greeted by more liveried crew – this time wearing white gloves and sporting natty fez’s on their groomed and coiffured heads, shown to a cabin where our luggage was deftly removed and stowed whilst our dirty clothes were spirited away to be laundered, pressed and returned. Meanwhile we received full body massages and swaddled in goose down (mine still had the goose attached and I swear Annie’s was actually a swan), given libations of champagne, caviar and oysters before being pampered to such a ridiculous degree I think I must have made it up. In any event, it was a world away from Grimaldi and we liked it so much we went to the bar and had a glass of wine and watched everyone else trundle on board.

Soon enough my goose and Annie’s swan needed feeding so we set them free, went to bed and woke up the next morning feeling smug and just as Palermo hove into view.

Disembarkation was just as lovely and we rolled off into the Sunday morning sun of Palermo and headed east. Sicily has a reputation for being a bit edgy. Can’t think why. I’m sure I’ve seen it in a film or something. We were expecting the driving to be a bit nudgy and aggressive but it seems everyone had taken their Be Nice Its Sunday pills and all seemed to be molte tranquilo. We rode for sometime along the coastal strip through a conurbation of suburb towns that stretched into the distance. As we rode through each, the townsfolk all seemed smartly dressed and the young folk even more so. Church bells rang constantly and we could see packed congregations through open doors. We realised it was Confirmation Sunday and all the families were herding youngsters churchwards to have whatever is done on confirmation Sundays done to them.  We got lots of envious glances from highly scrubbed and polished folks of all generations in Sunday Bests who looked like they would do quite a lot of things to be able to change places.  However, it meant the roads were quiet and the vehicles that were moving seemed to be caught up in the whole Be Nice Its Confirmation Sunday vibe. Everyone drugged to the hilt on Sunday Lovely Stuff.

We carried on. Midday came and the drugs had clearly worn off. No More Tranquilo Tranquilo and it now seemed that everyone was making up for lost time and Sicily went crazy mad bonkers. Everything, everywhere, all at once, aiming for you, on the phone/horn/sauce and not caring whether they killed you, themselves or anything else flying at the same low altitude as them and also at only just sub-sonic speed. Fortunately, by 1.15pm they’d either all arrived, crashed or reached low gravity orbits as the roads emptied and we had them to ourselves once more.  Wondering where they’d all gone we decided to stop for a bite of lunch.

Found them. 

Every restaurant, bar, trattoria bursting at the seams with the freshly confirmed, already confirmed, those who’d done the confirming and all the supporting cast, crew and hanger-oners (presumably for the free lunch from the proud Confirmers). Not a seat to be had so we took the opportunity of quiet roads to make some distance and what glorious distance it turned out to be.

Now, this is not supposed to be a Tourist Information piece and nor are we sponsored in any way by the Sicilian Tourist Board (shame and, if you’re reading this then give us a call – we can do a deal) but, if you drive the northern coast eastwards from Palermo and turn inland on the SS117 just before Santo Stefano di Camastra and head due south and then turn east again on the SS121 just before Leonforte and ride over to Adrano sometime after lunch on a confirmation Sunday when the roads are clear then you will think you have just had the best chicken dinner, died, gone to heaven and been welcomed by liveried crew and wrapped in swans singing the Hallelujah Chorus rearranged by Vincenzo Bellini (look him up, I did.).

Swooping roads that dived, soared, twisted, moulded, melded and hugged themselves around landscapes carved and sculpted such that they must have been designed by the big man in some spectacularly quiet time, feeling good, a couple of glasses in and not really thinking about much other than how jaw droppingly pretty in a massively rugged way could a landscape actually be made? One more glass probably did it and we were embedded in the midst of it.

Two or three hours of this passed. We didn’t say much. Just the odd giggle, gasp and expletive. My goodness but this was glorious in a way that the word glorious was created for and ranks up there with stuff that ranks up there bigly in the biggliest sense of all.

A truly awe inspiring day’s scenery capped off by reaching our home for the night on the slopes of Mount Etna that burbled and bubbled far beneath us as we slumbered in our twisted road induced delirium.

Authors Note: I type this some days later and using Michelin Map 735 off Italy and Sicily as the makeshift mousemat.

 

DAY 53 Ragalna – Etna – Ag Favola – Paluzzolo Acreide

Our host, Vincenzo, tells us over breakfast of his time living on the slopes of an active volcano.

“This is our summer house – when it gets too hot on the coast, my family would come here – we are about 3000 feet up so is much cooler.”

“But Etna is still active?”

“Ah yes.” He shows us photos taken from his house of a nightmarish scene of an erupting Etna spewing lava, ash and smoke followed by others of his patio the morning after covered in black soot with ejected boulders not far from his house.

“We live with it. It is better than living down on the coast – in the heat.”

Just how hot must it be on the coast for it to be preferable to have live volcanic ash across your patio and garden on a frequent basis?

“Vegetables grow well in the soil here. We have lemons, olives, cherries – they like it.”

We ask him about the climate.

Here his conversation changes.

“We used to ski on Etna. Every year. Now? No snow for 3 years. Not here in my garden. Not on Etna. Ski area did not open for 1 single day last year. It is changing.”

We leave him and head up to Etna expecting to find it calm and quiet. We switch back our way upwards past boulder fields of contorted, erupted soil and rock – black and brown. Past the remains of once bustly restaurants and roadside stops now decimated by the ingress of unstoppable lava or shifting foundations – heaved up from below. We are quiet and with each switchback our primary view alternates – one way towards the peak – shrouded in cloud and drifting mist, the other towards the coast – far below and twinkly in the morning sun far, far away. We pass no traffic save the odd descending cyclist (mad bastards) and no traffic passes us. It is therefore something of a surprise to reach the base of the ski area, complete with cable car, to find it a heaving mass of coaches and other vehicles – all way ahead of us in terms of coming up here and all having disgorged thousands of folk all eager to scramble around a live volcano. Now a cable car. Is that really wise? To carry you even further towards the top of, what one must appreciate, is a real life fire breathing dragon. A dragon that knows no mercy and cares not one jot about you or anyone you know, which football team you support, your politics, beliefs, religion, gender identity choice or Tinder profile.

I know we are a bit stupid for doing what we are doing in the way we are doing it, but, we are risk aware, in control of our own vehicles, direction and timings. We have not climbed aboard a large metal sausage with 55 other smaller human sausages to be driven towards an active volcano with no active say in how events might unfold. Folly is an acceptable aberration when committed by two people in full agreement with each other - we know riding up a volcano is not really sensible, but we do have the means of a rapid escape. Mass stupidity, on the other hand, with no control over events or your retreat from them, is pure folly.

We parked up and scampered about the place like demented loons along with all the other demented loons and then ran away as fast as we could.

Plummeting downwards we were thankful to be away. Loved going up there but equally, loved leaving it where it was.

Our route downwards took us past what has shocked and moved us the most on this whole trip. A road leading into, or away from, depending on your direction of travel and reason for visit, the town centre, was at first a pastoral scene of hedges and maquis scrub that gave way to a flytip landfill that grew denser and denser and spread further from the roadside with every metre. Each bend and turn led to more and more. This was not organised or sanctioned refuse disposal but habitual, casual and disregarding dumping of everyday waste by the car, truck and container load onto a countryside that cannot be valued or respected by those that either commit these acts or allow them to proliferate in silence or shrugging disinterest. It is nothing short of a catastrophe and is the side of this beautiful island that the Sicilian Tourist Board would rather you didn’t see.

We have.

It is shocking and, if left unchallenged, unreported, and uncared about is one of the strongest portents of our demise as a species. I cannot state that more bluntly or starkly. Shit on the planet that hosts us and gives us life and it will surely return the deed a thousand-fold. All this on the slopes of a highly active volcano that could wipe you from the face of everything in an instantly incinerating and fossilising pyroclastic flow in less time than it takes you to hurl a black bin bag full of your uncaring life’s detritus out of your car window. It brings to mind the remains that have been found in Pompei – the couple entwined in a last desperate embrace or the individual caught, mid stride as the eruption engulfed them all.

Some future Pompei effigy the lobbing refuse man would make for future civilisations to ponder over. One wonders what they would think.

The label under the exhibit? Incinerated Man With Bin Bag.

 

DAY 54 Agricola Favola - Paluzzolo Acreide

Some years ago, when we were all friends with our neighbours in Europe, we were part of a scheme called Erasmus whereby students and young business people could come to the UK and broaden their experiences, hone language skills and we could all learn a bit more about each other. It fostered goodwill, tolerance and understanding and was, in most people’s heads, a pretty good thing. Alas, we are no longer part of it as we opted out when we opted out of the rest of Europe. However, when it did exist we had a lovely lady from Sicily, Francesca, come and work with us for a few months in around 2013.  Her family were and are Lemon and Olive farmers in the East of Sicily near Catania.  She returned to Sicily after her time with us and developed the business significantly.  We headed towards her to catch up.

The day was warm and hot and we arrived to find Francesca not quite there so we sat on the porch, drank some water and smelt the lemons. Francesca arrived in a swirl of dust as she spun into the yard, bounded out of the car, gave us a hug, whisked us upstairs and then didn’t draw breath for at least two and half hours – the lady was on permanent send. She simply did not stop talking – trying to cram in the last 11 years of business, family, progress, challenges, business, not progress, family, Brexit (inevitably) and a host of other subjects machine gunned at us at gatling gun rate.

We sat there, sipped our water and absorbed Francesca.

After a while, I think it became clear that we couldn’t absorb any more and our high tide line of absorption had been reached and it was pretty much a spring tide at that.  She insisted we stayed in their house which was nearby.  We would go there now. Right now. Somehow, she managed to bound down the stairs, fly across the yard like a dust devil, start the car, wind down the window, tell us she was off to collect her parents and back in five minutes all without us having seen her leave the table. This woman was speed personified.

We gathered ourselves and got ready to follow her to the house nearby which we assumed was in the same town or thereabouts. Francesca, car and freshly scooped parents appeared at the gates and we were gestured to follow. I’ve mentioned something before about Sicilian driving and Francesca clearly had lead in her right foot as she shot off like a scalded cat. We gamely followed and almost expected to arrive before we had even set off, such was the pace.

The town disappeared behind us and we were now deep in Sicilian countryside with no sign of the speeds abating. We continued like this for about an hour into the lowering sun and at slightly reduced pace through towns, villages, hamlets, more towns, more villages but hurtling across all the relevant bits in between, which I’m sure were lovely, but it was all we could do to keep up, let alone look at the view.

We arrived, more like landed, in the impossibly beautiful hilltop town of Palazzolo Acreide - all cobbled streets, squares and pale stone – it is indeed one of the I Borghi più belli d'Italia and official classification of the most beautiful villages of Italy and, once we’d got some breath back, it was easy to see why it is on the list.

Francesca’s family owns a townhouse here housing her Uncle Carmelo’s shoe shop beneath and an apartment above. As we’ve said before, the kindness and hospitality of the people we meet along the way both astounds and humbles in equal measure. As if putting us up for the night was not enough, we were whisked off for dinner with her parents at a nearby eatery where we were fed, watered, wined, dined and entertained before being taken back to the apartment and tucked up for the night.

We can’t thank Francesca and her wonderful family enough and we only wished we could have stayed another night or two but time and distance are hard taskmasters and we really needed to press on.  However, not before finding a mechanic to help with a small but major problem on both bikes that had been gradually worsening.

The introduction of more ethanol into our unleaded fuel is not entirely a good thing as it tends to attack the various rubber components of vehicle intestines – this includes the all important fuel lines leading from our fuel tanks taking the go go juice to the carburettors that allow the engine to go bang bang and propel us forwards. All the fuel lines on both bikes had now perished to such a degree that we have leaks all over the place and often ended with a boot covered in highly flammable go juice which is not ideal when the boot is right next to a very hot engine block.

Uncle Carmelo sent us to an address in the back streets to find Guiseppe Alibrio who he felt certain would be able to help. It was on Viale Dante Aligheri – if you don't know, Dante Aligheri wrote Dante’s inferno about his journey through hell and I’m fairly certain it’s not the best place to visit so we were a little dubious and not a little cautious about approaching.

We slipped down a side road between two tall apartment blocks and the track led us around the back.  Didn’t look very mechanicky. A car was parked across an opening under the building and all was gloom beyond. A large gentleman with oily fists looked up,

"Giuseppe?"

“Si.”

Good start.

Giuseppe Alibrio – Mechanic?

“Si.”

“Uncle Carmelo said to….”

“Conosco lo Zio Carmelo – what is problem?” Oh good, so he knows Uncle Carmelo.

Google translate to the rescue: “Las tubas benzino no go drip drip but leak leak – are perished like my soul”

“Ah.”

Google translate once more: “It has possibilities to fix before clouds descend?”

“Si.”

With that he disappeared into the gloom, returned with tube and tools and set about it there and then. 30 minutes later both bikes had fresh fuel lines and we were good to go. The bill? The princely sum of €30. Find me anywhere in the UK where that could have been accomplished in the same time for a similar sum and dinner’s on me.

Once again, the friendliness, support, warmth and simple willingness to help shone through and we are, once more, grateful for simple humanity.

We ride off in such a state of delirious happiness and general good feelings that I leave my laptop in the apartment which, some 20km later dawns on me and induces a fit of sweariness that made even my ears curl.  However, that was nothing to the reaction from Mrs H who returned the invective and added some choice inventions of her own. A bit like sweary tennis – we were definitely at deuce by the time said laptop was recovered and we were on our way once more. Still, it gave us the chance to say another goodbye to Uncle Carmelo and thank him properly for sending us to Giuseppe. It seems it is always good to know a Sicilian Uncle or two.

 

 

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