Porchetta will get us there

Our efforts in walking and riding across Roma yesterday caused an outbreak of sleeping in, despite the strongly irresistible hotel breakfasts and aided by our unusual move of closing the shutters on the window the night before. We had sussed out a cultural activity for today and happily discovered that it was (literally) around the corner from our hotel in the Palazzo degli Esami – Van Gogh Alive! The Multisensory Art Exhibition.



We made it to the exhibition by around 10am, purchased our tickets and headed in to what was basically a large format, high def slideshow of Vincent’s works that slid from era to era accompanied by period appropriate music. It was in a large, dark series of rooms and the producers had attempted to camp it up by (fortunately sparingly) animating some of the components of the artworks being projected, but, all in all, it was a lovely experience. Multiple large screens and a classical soundtrack which included Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies and Saint-Saën’s, Danse Macabre (which I’m glad was Saint-Saën, because I couldn’t figure out the relationship between Van Gogh and Jonathan Creek – Ich bin ein philistine!) we spent a lazy couple of hours immersed in the immersive experience, before heading out and over the road and into Trastevere for a walk through the old parts and a search for some lunch.

Lunch appeared to us in the form of a classic roman porchetta sandwich, which is exactly as advertised, porchetta on bread, heated for a moment in an oven, wrapped in thick paper and as delicious as hell. The porchetta fuelled us for the run to the sneaker shop (well, the tram and slow walk down via del Corso to the sneaker shop), where sadly, we couldn’t rouse number young son for his FaceTime visit to the store and he had to settle for the shoes we chose yesterday. Shoes purchased and feet sore, we kept slow walking through the posh stores for a while; stopping to admire street artists – actually we were privy to shift change for the guy dressed as a Maharajah floating cross-legged above the footpath. They threw a large black cloth over floating guy and the new guy and proceeded to thrash about like two cats in a bag for five minutes until both emerged as if nothing had happened in plain clothes (the floaty thing remained hidden so as not to ruin the magic).

Another couple of hours in the hotel bar and then out to dinner in the Jewish quarter, aiming for a restaurant that we discovered was closed. Fortunately (or not) it was very quiet in the old town (due to the sub-zero temperatures) and we bounced into the restaurant next door, Il Giardino Romano, which provided us with an adequate repast, though nothing special.


Il Giardino Romano


The healing powers of the hotel bar

Right. So, we’re in Roma and recovered from the ignominy of dining at 7pm last night (with the tourists!) and ready to get out there. About this time last year, I was probably heaping praise on this hotel’s breakfast spread, so I’ll skip that bit, but suffice to say we were appropriately fortified to face the challenge of peak hour roman traffic to return our little Panda to the hire company.

The GPS had plotted a circuitous route that saw us plunge headfirst into the centre of Roma – so long as we could extract ourselves from the tetris-style park the Panda was now part of. A Smart4Two had parked perpendicular to the curb not 10cm behind us and ahead was about 20cm before the next car. Without the aid of reversing cameras, but with the able waving assistance of Pip, we managed to extract ourselves and escape as the next car was preparing to reverse into the space (how they even thought they could it, I do not know). The drive was surprisingly uneventful, despite the near squashing of a van driver who exited his vehicle while it was triple-parked in a two way street with triple-parked cars on both sides – we even managed to get fuel before we reached the rental car office.

Car dumped, we turned our attention to the eternal search for a wee café and found a jolly barista who even provided directions to the nearest railway station (’cause we were out in the Roman suburbs). In all the times we’ve been to Roma, we’ve never used the trains to get anywhere other than from or to the airport, and we even spoke of the metro, another first for us in Roma. The train was on an elevated line and we weren’t quite sure of our destination, which we subsequently discovered we over-shot by a couple of stations, and had to return to a station where the tannoy announcement boldly asserted that it was possible to change to the metro line A. The signs to metro line A pointed us out the door. That was it. Out in the car park – no metro station in sight. Turned out that it was indeed possible to change to the metro line A if you were prepared to walk about two kms up hill and around several corners. We did and metro line A soon delivered us to Termini, the main station and a short walk from Eataly in Piazza della Repubblica. We discovered Eataly in New York – the co-creation of a number of folk including Iron Chef, Mario Batali – and were keen to see the Italian version. Not as big, or extensive, (there is another larger one across Roma) but a likely luncheon venue and gift-atorium. Lunch was good, but not fantastic and we were successful in the gift buying department, before we headed out to join a large crowd of folk ogling the frozen fountain in the middle of the Piazza – unusual for Roma apparently.


Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri – all freezed up.

Now fully engaged with the metro thing, we returned to the depths and subway-ed our way to the Spanish Steps, which featured another frozen fountain as well as the usual thronging masses and horse-drawn carriages. We spent the afternoon roaming the expensive shops along the Via Veneto and down around Via Corso, before stumbling into a sneaker shop to spoil our children (who are both sneaker-freakers). We had to take pics and seek approval and correct sizes before we could return to the shops tomorrow for purchasing. (even after the pictures, number young son wanted us to FaceTime him from the store tomorrow and film the rows of shoes …)


Who approval required

A big day’s walking meant a big taxi home and a couple of hours in the well appointed hotel bar trying a range of remedies. Unwilling to risk being run out of town as early diners, we waited in the bar until 8:30-ish before heading up the road to the restaurant district of Trastevere for to find a restaurant. We found a very lively Tonnarello that provided us with a very lovely dinner and an amount of red wine to further aid our recovery from the big walking day. It was all fried squid, ox tail and meatballs before a dash back to the hotel in the -4C night.



If you see a break in the snow … Don’t you ever let a chance go by

We woke at dawn. That’s 7:15am. It was -8C. But it wasn’t snowing. There was snow out in the hills – we could see that coming. We knew we had a small window to run. We’d arranged with Emma, our contact, to leave the keys with the Neighbour’s letterbox. Left Emma a note explaining what had been left behind foodwise, grabbed the rubbish and our remaining bags and raced to the door, and entered the slow motion world of the icewalker. Negotiating fresh ice with several bags each was the sort of vision you’d see wind up on one of those compilation, “World’s Craziest Idiots” shows. Still we made it down to the main path in only 10 minutes and were home-free until Pip found some fresh ice and slipped. (Rudely, before I could get my camera out!)

No injuries apart from some pulled muscles and a twisty knee (quite a blow to her self-image as an ice dancer), but she was determined to crawl back to her feet and limp the rest of the way to dig out the car.


Not our actual car – snow free by comparison!

Found the car with about a foot of ice and snow on it; doors frozen shut; wheels half covered in ice and snow – but it started and provided heat to the windscreen while Pip scraped away at the ice. We slipped out of the parking space and felt the snow chains grip the icy road just as the first flakes of the next snow storm started falling. Everything seemed to be working, the chains meant it was largely a second gear trip out of town, but we weren’t slipping and the brakes seemed to eventually stop stuff. Made it down the hill without incident – only the occasional car overtaking – and onto the Strada Statale 7, which was relatively clear. Our dilemma was whether to leave the snow chains on in case there was ice and snow on the road between here and the Autostrada, because if we took them off, we’d never get them back on again. It was about 85km and we were crawling along at 50km/h making a hell of a racket (as snow chains are wont to do), when the racket changed to a clanging, bashing kind of a racket, and not in a good way.


Stock Photo – but taken this week

We pulled off to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, -4.5C on the dashboard gauge, light snow falling and thought for a while. A couple of cars stopped and enquired if we were alright. We were of course, as we’d decided to call the roadside assistance we’d paid extra for at the start of the rental. They didn’t have anyone available who could speak English, so asked for our number and they would call back in a couple of minutes. Got the same response when we called them back in half an hour. So we took stock of our supplies – half a bottle of drink and a packet of lemon Grisbees. We’d be OK. Decided to take things into my own hands and remove the snow chains (the crashing was the repair old mate in Calitri had done with wire coming un-repaired and flailing about inside the mudguard). Now I had bad memories of removing snow chains in my younger days – very difficult – and it was something I had not been looking forward to. Took a while, but got ’em off and continued our journey, hoping the road remained clear through to Avellino. Light snow fell most of the way, but very little and easily avoidable ice on the road. We were on target for Roma by 3:30pm.

It took until about noon before the 15cm of ice on the roof surprised up by slipping down over the windscreen and completely obscuring our vision for what seemed like an age while rounding a corner – but you know, newbie fail!

Now that we knew we would make Roma – we rang ahead and booked into our favourite hotel in Trastevere (Yes. We have a favourite hotel in Roma, so what?) and sat back for the 2 hour dash along the autostrada.

The drive into Roma was relatively easy and we arrived the hotel round 3:45pm, snatched a street park right near the place and hit the town. Sunday night in Roma – hit the Trevi Fountain and found a Chinese restaurant before a reasonably early night.

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Cabin fever

Last full day in Calitri. Another day indoors – except for when we went out. Temp hovering around -4C all day. Snow on and off (but when it’s on, that shit’s heavy!)


Neighbour John working in the ice mine outside our front door during a break in the snow

We spent the day indoors – checking weather reports, seeking advice from anyone who would tell us what we wanted to hear and hatching a plan to drive out on Sunday morning. The weather reports suggested a lull in the snowing for a few hours then. Should we go via Bisaccia, the quickest way to the Autostrada, or Avellino, the lowest, least likely to be blocked with snow way. The decision was made for us by the lady at the shop. We braved to elements in the afternoon to walk down to the shop, ostensibly to get a packet of chips and relieve the cabin fever, but also to take one lot of bags down to the car and seek counsel from whomever we could find.


Out our window – a new lot just got dumped

The most perilous part of the journey from our front door to the Piazza is the little bit right outside in Vico Ruggiero, down icy sloping steps which must be traversed slowly and with a tight grip on the railing (which unfortunately changes from side to side as you descend). This whole journey made more difficult with the addition of luggage and rubbish. Once down to the main path, you needed only watch out for ice hidden under snow, but the powder gave you a reasonable grip as you plod along.

We made it to the shop and sought the wise counsel of the check out segnora, who confirmed our thinking that as the road to Bisaccia was crapper and the town was higher, the snow was likely to be worser – via Avellino was the way to go. We returned to the Borgo flat to pack our stuff and clean the joint (both not very difficult) and to do a ring a round the walking distance restaurants to find a venue for our Calitran last supper. As luck would have it, the Locanda dell Arco just down the path from our place was open for the first time since NYE and we booked for 8:30pm.

We commenced the crawl out of our place as the temp dipped to -8C, with the ‘feels like’ at -15C, and moderate snow. The 200m took us about 15min of wall clinging and tiny stepping, but it was worth it in the end, had a lovely meal with enough wine to give us new courage for the slip home. There were about 12 brave others in the room. Off to bed, knowing that the weather only gave us about 2 hours of no snow to make our escape.

… and the snows came, but the bus didn’t.

Snowed in, but that didn’t stop us getting up at dawn and trekking out to the bus stop – about a kilometre away (feels like 4km in a blizzard). It was -2C according to the thermometer that was mocking us from the bus stop sign as we fought, like Scott of the Antarctic, through driving snow. And that snow stings your cheeks. We over-allowed time to get to the bus stop and found ourselves plonked at a windswept intersection, with frozen everythings and 40 minutes to wait.


The bus stop for the beach

Fortunately, the bus company provides what we know from previous trips, is called a sala interna – a waiting room. Stinky, dirty, but warm. So we waited… and waited …and waited. Waited until an hour after the bus was due (well, it could have been late in this appalling weather) and I jumped onto Facebook messenger where I’d had a discussion with the bus company to ask if the busses were running on time and told them I wanted to go to Avellino in the morning. They answered that it was a holiday and the busses were running on time, but there was only one bus at 5pm this evening. We were disheartened (understatement), especially at the thought of traipsing back up to the house for an indoorsy day – best not to sightsee at (now) -4C.

We busied ourselves with devising a plan B. There is growing chance that any escape from Calitri in time to make our flight on Wednesday morning – the weather is experiencing an extraordinary event across the south of Italy – is problematic. Plan B at this stage is to drive out on Sunday, carefully.

The rest of the day was cooking and trying to figure out which rubbish to put where and when. There’s the plastics, which need to be taken to the big bin in the piazza; the cardboards and paper to another big bin in the piazza; the third big bin in the piazza is for the glass and aluminium. The ‘umido’ (biological kitchen scraps) gets collected from the little square near us on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and; the rest of the rubbish gets collected from the little square Tuesday and Saturday. All little square collections are before 8am. It takes some getting used for two wastrels from Brisbane, where the council are more likely to collect the recycling in the normal garbage truck. We did our best – you gotta play the game.


Pip – Snow

Just as we were cooking dinner, came a knock at the door – unusual to say the least (having despatched those 7th Day Adventists the other day) – and it was Barbara, our neighbour with an unrefusable offer of freshly made apple pie after dinner. Barbara and John we had met at the little bar on the Piazza the other day and their front door is barely 3m from ours – that’s 3m uphill and icy. If you’d seen us trying to traverse those 3m on all fours without the aid of ropes and not in our full winter gear (it’s only 3m after all), you might have recalled a scene from a movie where people were trying to cross a 200m chasm by wooden plank bridge.

Barbara and John are former Coloradans, now resident in Calitri (having featured in an episode of Househunters International), and have a beautiful, and quite large house above the one we’re staying in. We ate apple pie and drank coffee and calmed their toothless chihuahua, Bubba and chatted about life in Italy. This was a welcome and most pleasant bright spot in an otherwise snowed in day.

We’re in chains

If only we could have got going earlier – pre-blizzard. Then we could have got stuck somewhere in the middle of a mountain … in the snow …in a ditch … freezing. It actually started snowing just as we were preparing to leave, and by the time we actually left there was a layer of the stuff over everything. We drove to the far side of town to the servo for fuel, and to ask the guy whether our tyres were winter tyres (they weren’t) and whether we could drive to Sorrento, or at least out of Calitri (he said we couldn’t without chains).

So we turned back into town for chains, which we suspected were priced at a premium on account of, you know, snow. In the time it took us to turn around and obtain the chains and, we thought to turn around and head back to the servo, where we could affix them under cover, the snow had changed gear. Our little Panda couldn’t climb the hill we had climbed 20 minutes earlier, and wheels spinning, we managed to nose into the curb and prepared to do the chains thing, in what was by now heavy snow. Now, shamefully, I’m not as agile as I used to be and getting down to pass chains behind wheels and attach them blindly was the cause of a lot language not normally uttered by me (at least since the sliding backwards down an icy street incident of a couple of days ago).

With Pip’s more agile assistance and more swearing, we managed to get one attached in a limp, badly fitted fashion and set out to the road side of the car to have a go at the second.


Limp badly fitted snow chains

The second was much more difficult and a kindly old gentleman stopped to offer assistance (probably because he was disgusted with our lack of mechanical anything). He had trouble too, and as the second old gentleman approached I was ordered to sit in the car and let it roll backwards on command – which I was able to do admirably, while Pip sheltered the old blokes with their umbrellas. After a few goes, the first old guy, hauled me out and reversed the car back into a drive, before the other old guy (and the other old guy – me) had to push him out and then watch him disappear around the corner with our car.

We followed and he signalled to us to get in and he spun and slid off up the road. He pulled up near a mate’s auto electrical shop, full of even more old guys. Eventually, one of them managed to get the second chain attached, before turning their attention to the badly fitted original one, which had broken in the space of the drive around the corner. Old mate number four, repaired the chain with wire and pliers and fitted it again – tightly. This had taken two and half hours in the driving snow.

The suggestion of Sorrento had been roundly poo-poohed by all the old blokes – too dangerous they said. So chains attached, soaked through and still in driving snow, we headed back to seek further counsel from the barista at the bar near us, Mario, who spoke English and who also said we should not try to leave Calitri.

Resigned to our snowy fate, we needed to head to the supermarket to lay in supplies for the icy days ahead – challenging enough to accept that all the advice we had received was correct. Shopping done, we faced only a challenging icy, snowy walk back up the path to our place, laden with shopping and luggage.

Spent the afternoon watching snow build up on just about everything and tried researching other ways to get to Sorrento – Mario said the busses still ran in this weather. Eventually managed to contact the bus company and worked out that we could catch a bus to Avellino then another one to Sorrento at 7:57am tomorrow morning. Early to bed for us.

Well, there might be some drinking …

One of those re-grouping and sleeping-in days. Woke up late and lounged about in jim-jams till about 3pm, when we decided sloth should end and activity re-commence with a walk around the Borgo. Quite a mild afternoon for a walk – about 6C – so we started with a bracing coffee and headed up the stairs from the Piazza (rather than under the arco where our normal route takes us. The Borgo was home to about 5000 people until the quake, now only 500 live in the lower part (and a decent number of them are apparently American, British and German). The rest live in the re-built part of the town down the hill.

Up the hill is the ruined part of the Borgo, wrecked during the 1980 earthquake, but still home to a couple of old steadfasts who eke out lives in the ruins. The castle is up there to, but only open for visits on weekends. Pip spied a small hand written sign on the wall that said “Mostre D’Arte” – Art Exhibitiony/Demonstrationy thingy – and shot up a set of red metal stairs to an open door at the top. Me being the more reserved of the two of us (read: chicken) waited for the all clear. It came and I not so much shot up as carefully climbed up to what ended up being a wood carver’s lair. A lovely man beckoned us in and his daughter helped to translate. He had a lovely workshop with a fire in the hearth and a little office behind, where there were works on all the surfaces and hanging on the wall. Pip was keen to buy one, but me (reserved one, remember) could only think of customs at home – they love wood don’t they? I guess we’ll declare it and see what happens, it’s nut wood after all. The deal was sweetened with a lovely piece of graphic art from the same artist, who packed it and wrapped it himself. So we posed for photos; he posed for photos; we shook hands and left with a 40cm wooden carved piece that we may or may return home with. He was a lovely guy.

We headed back down into the part of the Borgo where we’re staying, and were met by two guys lugging firewood from their Smartfor2 tiny car in the tiny square at the top of the tiny path near where we live. They soon disappeared into a cave house down the path from our place and Pip and I, who were out to explore headed in the same direction past their place and a little further along before doubling back. Pip stopped at the door of the cave the two wood luggers disappeared into and, because it was particularly beautiful, stopped to take a pic. The guys, who looked a little on the rough side, called us in to have a look – they were very proud. Turns out it was like a club house for them and their friends (degli amici) who meet there for, as they described, Agnello Arrosto e Patate al forno (roast lamb and potatoes) which is very big in these parts. I also believe that, judging by the bottles of wine that lined every available wall space and the large barrel at the end of the cave, they enjoy an occasional tipple whilst enjoying their lamb. More lovely guys – they cracked the plug in the top of the barrel and insisted we sniffed, which we did, and they gave us a bottle of the wine from the barrel. It was unlabelled, but they told us it was an Aglianico – 4 years old – which is also known as the Barolo of the south, which is also the main wine of the region, so we have no need to doubt them. They showed us all the cave rooms and proudly showed off the bathroom, before we left and headed back home. More hand-shaking and grazie-ing, and no, grazie you-ing.

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It was pitch black by then, so our thoughts turned to dinner and to the fact that we needed to wait till at least 8pm before heading out, lest we be the laughing stock of the village. We chose Osteria Tre Rose – an unassuming little local place on the north side of town that we can only assume is a regular haunt for its patrons (of whom there were many for a Tuesday night). Their food was largely typical of the area – I had a local gnocchi-like dish called Cingul, which I ate far too much of for an entree followed by a cotolette milanese, while Pip was far more reserved with her spaghetti carbonara entree and involtini main. We shared a local dessert, pear and ricotta tart which was of the type of tart you find hard to stop eating. It’s an amazing culture here which never ceases to surprise me – here in a tiny rural town on a 3C Tuesday night, there’s a full restaurant with about 70 customers ranging from small kids to oldies that most people don’t arrive at till around 9pm. It’s so full of life and food and wine and noise.