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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Out by the old, overgrown, boarded-up private beach resort …

An early start and a dash for the coast were our best intentions for the day. Our best intentions didn’t count on the shutters being closed, which meant our best intentions didn’t rouse us till the time we’d hoped to be near the coast. So off we headed at the crack of 10:30am with Salerno via Battipaglia displayed on our destination boards.

We flew off into the country on another B road, winding around the mountains and dropping down through forested valleys, past herds of cattle and finally, about an hour in, onto an autostrada. Battipaglia was on Pip’s “street art to see” list as a result of some spectacular works by European street artists, El niño de las pinturas, Millo and Luispak. Our challenge would be to find their pieces in a medium sized city with no internet clues. As luck would have it, an extremely hung-over bar man (remember, this was New Year’s Day) peered at some of the pictures on Pip’s phone and knew where one was – and it was at the school around the corner. A second piece was nearby and we found some other interesting bits at the local football stadium. Battipaglia success!

Not so success, was the time. Our main aim (apart from finding food on a well observed public holiday) was to get home before dark – those mountainy roads are bad enough in the daytime. We abandoned (deferred) our Salerno run and instead headed out to the coast off Battipaglia – my thinking was seaside – people – fish. No sirree! My actual was boarded-up-for-the-winter private beach resorts, piles and piles of roadside rubbish, no people, no fish. I should have recalled similar times in Puglia last year. Heading south toward Paestum, we eventually peeled off to Eboli and the road back to Calitri – time was being called and darkness approach-ed. Our hunger was sated by an Autogrill sandwich and we raced the GPS clock (arrival time was s’posed to right on dusk at 5pm). One missed turn had us backtracking on a goat track, but that strangely bought us time, and we arrived back in Calitri, just as the lights were coming on.

As we had wisely stocked up on food prior to the public holiday – Pip’s pork chops with melanzane, potato, tomato and fior di latte stacks were fabby!

Slip slidin’ away

Really re-getting the hang of this Italian driving . Headed to Melfi first up today, in the neighbouring region of Basilicata – not sure why we chose to go that way, we just did. This was largely the result of reading a couple of brochures we found in our digs while we were internet deprived. Melfi is an attractive small town with an 11th century bell tower provided by a King Roger (Woger?). It’s also famous for a Norman castle and a baroque cathedral. Modern Melfi is home to a Fiat factory.

We took a stroll around the narrow streets and entirely out of character, stopped for a quick coffee before heading back on the road, aiming south and for Potenza, one of the largest towns in the area. The outside temperature reading on the dash was hovering around 1 – 2C as we headed toward snowy hills, and through through snowy hills to into actual snow. The roads were good – no ice. It took about an hour to reach Potenza which had been slugged with heavy snow overnight. Parked cars were caked in the stuff, but the roads were still good. Then, we took a wrong turn and Daniel (the voice of our GPS) sent up a tiny side street that was quite steep and that was OK till we nearly reached the top … and the ice. It took all the ice driving experience I had gained in years of driving in Brisbane to figure out how to halt the majestic backwards slide we had begun. Naturally, that wealth of experience meant we continued sliding backwards. Brakes not working that well and using the front wheels as a kind of rudder to avoid the deep ditch on one side of the road and the stone wall on the other – all this while cursing Daniel with the kind of language one would expect to heard streaming from a backwards sliding hire car. Managed to find a driveway to rudder into and change direction to downwards frontwards, which was entirely better.

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Antico Osteria Marconi

Further into Potenza and the traffic thickened. The Police had cordoned off the area we were trying get to – the Centro Storico. Potenza is set on an incredibly steep hill and is also called the city of a thousand steps. We snaked our way around the centre and out the other side unable to find a place to park or a likely venue for lunch, until eagle-eyed Pip spotted a parking bay reserved for the restaurant it was next to. We agreed that the restaurant it was next to would provide our lunch. The good old Antico Osteria Marconi, complete with white table cloths and black & white waiters. They had a special working lunch (colazione di lavore) with a choice of 3 pastas, 3 mains and 3 desserts. Perfect. Lovely local food and wine to prepare us for a snowy dash home to Calitri. We did find out that Potenza was closed because the city had been chosen as the venue for the national broadcaster’s NYE celebrations and fireworks and there were preparations underway.

At home was the plumber and the satellite guys and our contact, Emma. We now have heat in the bedroom, internet in the home and several TV channels to watch.