Week 21: Crossing Italy to catch a ferry

After Sicily our intention was to head to Croatia. At this time of year the only ferry running departs from Ancona to Split. Ancona is about two thirds of the way up the east coast of Italy. This required a few long driving days and there were a couple of things we wanted to do on the way: Visit Pompeii and have a meal at a good Agriturismo.

Pompeii

We hadn’t originally planned to visit Pompeii. James had seen it once before. Aileen, having been in the Philippines when Mt Pinatubo erupted, envisioned a site covered in volcanic ash. Which it is to some extent, but what she failed to appreciate was that:

  1. The eruption occurred a very long time ago, 79 AD, so what was covered in that event is a VERY OLD Roman city
  2. The ash preserved the city for more than a millennia, protecting it from the ravages of weather, history, progress etc. And thanks to centuries of excavation one can marvel at the city’s remains

We found a campsite that was almost opposite one of the entrances to the Pompeii site and at a sensible price, so we decided to stayed two nights so we could spend the following day having a good exploration of Pompeii, and the campsite also served as safe parking during the day.

Here are a couple of interesting bits of background, without repeating too much of the story of Pompeii which we expect people are familiar with:

  • The city was established circa 7th century BC, before becoming a Roman colony much later in 80 BC. Pompeii was an important passage for goods arriving by sea bound for Rome or southern Italy so it was relatively wealthy.
  • There was a big earthquake in 62 AD. Because of the need to repair the damage and a desire from the affluent population to make “improvements”, the population swelled significantly with builders, crafts people, etc. migrating there to work on the rebuild, and the city grew quite a bit

A mere 17 years later, the eruption of Mt Vesuvius buried Pompeii in ash and as a result it is remarkably well preserved. The most striking things about Pompeii for us were:

  • The size of the site. It was a city and it felt like city size, with city-type institutions e.g. an amphitheatre, two different theatres, necropolis, hot food vendors and of course numerous temples and villas. We spent a day there, but to explore everything would take several. We also saw that excavation work continues to this day. The website has an interactive map that maybe gives some idea of the scale.
  • How well preserved things were. You could see mosaics on the floors of some villas, in others murals were clearly visible and recognisable. One could really get a sense of the wealth of the city from the size of the villas and the opulent decorations. On the streets you could see the dolia used to heat and store food in Thermopolliums (takeaway food shops). Street paving is still intact, including where carts had worn grooves in the roads at intersections. There are also a few examples of preserved bodies in poses that remind you what a horrific end it was for people who hadn’t evacuated.

Small dogs are allowed so we had a lovely family day out exploring. We’re glad we went.

Scuderie del Peschio

We found Scuderie del Peschio, an agriturismo in the Molise province of Italy, by searching on Google Maps the area we expected to cross Italy, heading east on our way to Ancona. It got excellent reviews on both Google and Park4night (they let campers park and stay the night) so we decided it would be an ideal place to have a nice meal, and serve as a stopover point on our journey.

As the planned drive wasn’t mega-long, we intended to do a short hike in the mountain range between Calabria and Molise on our way. Unfortunately Google Maps served us, what have come to refer to as, a “Google Special”. A “Google Special” is a route that ignores an easy option, like take the autostrada 95% of the route, in favour of a cross country route typically on twisting roads, that might be marginally quicker if you had the skills of Sébastien Loeb and could drive along those roads bang on the speed limit. Since we’re in a Campervan and the route went up and down mountain passes it took much longer, but the scenery was great and we did stop for a short stretch of the legs somewhere picturesque. We’ve since swapped navigation tools to Waze (also owned by Google) and our initial experience is that it’s better.

Without exaggeration Scuderie del Peschio was exactly what we were hoping the agriturismo experience would be. It’s run by a couple who are clearly passionate about food and local produce. Since it was out of season, we and a German cycle tourer were the only customers, but the welcome was warm and the food excellent.

We shared lamb sweetbreads cooked in milk to start, super tender and flavoursome. There was a whole section of their menu dedicated to offal, something we commented on needing to explore in depth should we return.

Aileen then had a pasta of Mezze Lune stuffed with pork and nettles . James had Crioli which is similar to a fatter spaghetti served with cheese, pepper and spinach. Both these were excellent, we love greens so both dishes really appealed to our paletes. At this point we also had a dish described by our host as “a misunderstanding in the kitchen” not something we’d ordered, but the purple gnocchi with vegetables were happily enjoyed.

For secondi Aileen had perfectly cooked lamb chops with buttermilk, cabbage and chocolate powder. James really enjoyed his rabbit served with pistachio, caper berries and something similar to caponata. We washed this all down with a jug of local wine and the 10m stroll back to our parked campervan for the night completed the experience.

Ferry to Croatia

The ferry from Ancona to Split takes 12 hours. Since we were doing a night crossing we booked a cabin. We were somewhat anxious about the journey for a couple of reasons:

  1. This would be the first time Zeus would be travelling on his EU pet passport – “paperwork anxiety” is a BREXIT reality
  2. It was Zeus’ first long distance boat crossing. We had no idea how he would react

Check-in took a moment.  Loading onto the ferry turned out to be the most dramatic part of the journey. We had to reverse the campervan the entire length of the ferry to squeeze into a tiny space next to an articulated lorry. After that the crossing was happily without incident. 

Zeus was fine with the new noises (including an excitable school group of Italian teens) and peed out on deck, even in the rain. 

We prepared ourselves a charcuterie and cheese picnic washed down with some of the port we brought in Porto, Portugal. That helped us sleep although with some vivid dreams. Split and the Dalmation coast looked pretty on arrival.

What’s Next

We’ve arrived in Croatia. We’re planning to explore some of the Dalmatian coast and its cities before heading inland to Croatia’s national parks.

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