The hills are alive in Abruzzo, final leg of our road trip

We left Puglia surprisingly tanned and ready for the next adventure. The next stop was in Abruzzo, one of many regions in Italy that we wanted to discover more about on this road trip of a lifetime. Popular areas for Brits are Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily, Lombardia for the lakes and Veneto for Venice. I wanted to visit Le Marche after seeing Alex Polizzi on TV. This region houses factory outlets for shoe designers, what is not to like? In the planning stages I came across a hotel in a medieval village through Mr & Mrs Smith. They had special offer of 4 nights for the price of 3, brilliant. It was booked back in the Spring along with the rest of the trip and then I realised it wasn’t in Le Marche but Abruzzo! So the shoes would have to wait until we drove home, via Modena and Annecy, France.

Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a small medieval village in the hills of Abruzzo, 5,000 meters above sea level. Located in the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park, in the highest region of the Apennines, it looked like a film set. It shouldn’t have surprised us as we found out that a nearby castle, Rocca Calascio, was used for the 1985 film Ladyhawke. The hotel in Santo Stefano is what they called a diffused hotel, where the rooms are spread around the village. The rooms are plain yet stylish with underfloor heating and minimal lighting to try and keep it as authentic as possible. Candles are liberally used and with fires in communal areas between rooms give a romantic atmosphere. One evening we booked a pasta making class with chef Emilio. The weather outside was ferocious. Thunder and lightning crashed around us as we walked to the building that housed the restaurant and breakfast room. Ravioli was on the menu. All aspects of the meal were hand made. With the pasta dough kneaded by hand, we then had to roll it out using a rolling pin. No machines here.

The weather wasn’t helping us get out and walk in the national park that surrounded us. It was rubbish. But we couldn’t let it stop us from going out. Castelli is a small town about an hour and 15mins away and it is known for ceramics. It was a stunning drive through the mountains and we arrived relatively unscathed as there was a lot of debris on the roads from the storm. The town has loads of ceramic producers whose colourful style is not to everyones taste. We were a little frustrated however. There are a lot of benefits to travelling out of season, but the downside is not everything is open. 4 shops were open out of what could have been potentially 40! Pressing our noses against the windows of shops muttering “that looks nice”, we kept looking and eventually found an open one. Christmas baubles were a popular offering, so we bought two!

The other thing to do that the weather couldn’t spoil was visiting a cave, Grotte di Stiffe. They are beautiful caverns with a waterfall inside a cave. We live in the south of England and so have memories of visiting Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole. This was a strong rival. Such awe and wonder at the natural phenomenons. And because of the rain, the water and waterfalls were powerful and loud. Driving home through the national park the clouds parted and we went for a quick walk in the stunning countryside. We certainly blew the cobwebs away!


We had loved our stay in this region but it was time to head home. Our next stop was an overnight in Viano near Modena, not that far from the balsamic B&B that we stayed at in our first few days. Boy had the scenery changed. Autumnal greatness was everywhere. Gorgeous leaves. The colour in the countryside was magnificent. Refreshed and revived by the in-hotel spa and the best breakfast spread of the trip, we drove on to Annecy, France. I have wanted to see this town since the chef James Martin featured it in one of his tv programmes. The rain was back and there seemed to be a lot of people on the roads. Turns out that it was a national holiday, All Saints Day. Annecy was busy. Free parking, result, but far too many people for my liking so we had a quick look and then continued around the beautiful lake to our B&B. As I said before not many places were open, add to that a national holiday and it equals no where for dinner. Not good. I had spotted a pizza place down the road as we drove in so we chanced our luck that it would be open. Yes! One takeaway pizza with a bottle of wine and Netflix on the iPad and we were sorted for the night!


It would be good to come back and visit the lake again, it had such a peaceful quality. Off once again northwards in France and our final destination near Reims. One of our longest journeys, we tried to keep it to a maximum of 5 and a half hours at a time, we arrived to find that reception wouldn’t open until 5pm. Argh! Tired and a bit grumpy I persuaded J to pop to a supermarket to waste some time. Eventually we could relax and have some food. As morning broke over the Chateaux’s grounds the mist and ground frost gave the scene a magical air. We both felt very lucky to have had this time away. We are glad to have done it now and not waited too long and maybe then not be able to do it because of physical restrictions. J has back issues that I won’t get into, but has been one of the driving forces behind our decision to spend our money on having more experiences rather than buy more ‘stuff’. Hopefully these memories will last a lifetime. Especially now I have written some of it down! Hope you have enjoyed reading about our trip. xx

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A few facts: 4,900 miles, 40 days, 13 hotels or B&B’s and only 1 pair of shoes bought!


Puglia, Trulli scrumptious? Road trip week five

Puglia, all we really knew about the ‘heel’ of Italy were the charming little white stone houses with pointy grey slate roofs. We had a week to explore the area (on the south west coast, the Ionian sea). We started with Sunday lunch at a beach bar with impossibly white sand and blue sea. This wasn’t what I was expecting. Beaches?! Sunshine?! The villa that we had rented was a trullo (plural, trulli). The age-old tradition of the trulli, typical of central-southern Apulia, has proto-historic origins, although the oldest remains discovered so far date back to the sixteenth century. The trulli buildings are composed of a cylinder surmounted by a cone, with the distinction of being built purely in “dry stone”, without the use of mortar or other connecting material. Ours wasn’t white but cream stone coloured and with a flat top, more typical of our side of Puglia.

We took a trip up the area to visit the true home of these cute houses, Alberobello. A bit too touristy but it had to be done. And then onto Locorotondo which was a lovely village to wander around it’s winding streets. It had the feel of a village that was striving to win a best kept village award, with flowers on every window ledge and doorway.

After a brilliant weather on our first day, Saturday, Sunday was terrible, thunder, lightning and horizontal rain! We had a lazy day at the villa and caught up on some business, keeping things running whilst we were away. At 5pm we drove across to the other side of Nardó and took part in a wine tasting at Schola Sarmenti. We learnt more about Italian grape varieties that we didn’t know, Reds; Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, White; Fiano. It was a great way to while away sometime in such rubbish weather. We returned to eat in their restaurant on our last night as well.

Talking about Nardó, this was our closest town and it was lovely to visit at night and people watch before dinner. Being out of season our choice of restaurants was severely limited, but I suppose that made choosing easier! Our other trip out for dinner was to the walled island city of Gallipoli.

Our favourite thing about our stay in Puglia however has to be Porto Selvaggio, great out of season probably awful in the summer. You walk through a pine forest for 20 mins and are rewarded with a rocky bay. The water is cold in areas due to the natural springs but it was still pleasant to swim in even in October. Swimming shoes are a bonus as you either have to walk over lots of stones and pebbles or get into the sea from the rocks. We took a packed lunch and spent the whole day there, just popping into the next town around 4pm for gelato. The mosquitoes seem to come out just before sunset, I know as I was bitten quite a few times at the villa. In fact Puglia wins the prize for the region of Italy where I got the most bug bites! (They love me and avoid J).


The last word about this fabulous region of Italy has to be about the many olive tree groves. They are vast. And everywhere. Just beautiful. These trees have personalities, they are like old men, gnarled and grumpy.

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Road trip week four; Amalfi coast, lemons and lunatic drivers

The Amalfi coast, just those two words combined can conjure up images in your minds eye; sweeping curving roads, sunshine and elegance. For us, this was the area around which we had created our road trip of a lifetime. Looking again at Monty Don’s book on Italian gardens made our mind up that we should drive along the coast road and up into Ravello. Then we could visit any of the towns we fancied on the return leg, Amalfi, Praiano and Positano. Another early morning start, 7am, saw us pulling in the wing mirror of the car and me holding my breath for almost an hour and 20 minutes!


They just drive straight at you!” roared J. Not that I can blame him it was full on. Scooters (and cars) overtaking cars on blind bends, buses creating spaces where there wasn’t any. We met a couple back in Modena and they gave us some advice when they heard what we were doing. “Remember you’re a pebble in a stream or a leaf in the breeze”. Basically, we had to let them all get on with their madness around us and try to keep on course. Amazingly we arrived unscathed and found a carpark, dazed we wandered into Ravello town to recover and grab an espresso before taking in some more gardens.


First, on the recommendation of our local rep, Gianni, we visited Villa Rufolo, in through the gates on the dot of 9am we had the place to ourselves for a while. The views over to Salerno were breathtaking, like a lot of the Amalfi coast is. Known as the “Garden of the Soul” we were able to feel that sentiment well, I think because of the early hour and lack of tourist hoards. Although a small garden, it has such beautiful detail on the two terraces that it will hold your attention. After we had strolled around and sat on a bench soaking in the sun and seascape we took ourselves off to find the gardens of Villa Cimbrone.

The garden was enticing from the moment we stepped through the huge wooden gates. Pathways led you onward with glimpses of vistas of to the left and right of you. But all the time you knew you needed to walk down the central gravel path and be awe inspired by the infinity terrace at the other end. It was all it promised to be and more. We were certainly getting our fill of beautifully spectacular gardens on this trip. It would be difficult to pick a favourite. Lunch was calling and so I braced myself for the return journey. Arriving in Amalfi I instructed J to turn into the harbour as Gianni had suggested a restaurant there. “We’ll never find any parking” J said pessimistically and as we slowly drove along the pathway (road) we saw the name we were searching for. “Ooh there’s a space” – in the reserved parking for the restaurant – we pulled in and the ‘valet’ said “have you reserved a table?“, “YES” says J, (we hadn’t) and determinedly parks the car and switches it off.  Nonchalantly we walk in and take a table on the terrace overlooking the harbour and have a fab lunch!

I think the glass of wine at lunch helped J’s Italian driving skills and he seemed much more at home on the roads now. We quickly stopped at a road side stall and bought some Amalfi lemons, that we’ve always wanted to see. They are quite amazing. Below, left to right: ordinary lemon, Sfusato lemon & Cedro lemon. The last one apparently you can eat whole. When we open and try it I will let you know!


One of the trips recommended to us was a boat trip to Capri, Cap-ri not Cupri as we tend to say 🙂 It was a whirlwind tour with a taxi bus picking us up near our villa at 9am, down to the nearest harbour, Marina Lobra in Massa Lubrense, and off around the Sorrento coast and over to Capri. Our boat driver Giuseppe was great fun, showing us all the sights and with one liners that couldn’t fail to make you smile. Dropped off at Marina Grande we had 4 hours to ourselves. Straight onto a small bus we wound our way up into the hills and over mama mia bridge (yes really) and into Anacapri to get onto the chair lift to the top of Monte Solaro for stunning views over the island.

A quick lunch of the tomato and mozzarella sandwich the tour had given to us, we set off to catch the bus back down to Capri and walk through town to the Gardens of Augustus. This small garden only 1 Euro entry (which goes to local charity) has yet more stunning views over the bay and of a winding pathway, Via Krupp, (no longer accessible due to falling rocks) towards Marina Piccola. We then pushed our way back through the crowds (what must it be like in high summer?!!) and caught another bus to the harbour. Here J finally allowed me to catch my breath, sit on the quay side waiting for the boat with a well deserved gelato (lemon if you wanted to know! 😉 ).

In case we were in danger of getting fat, drinking and eating our own body weight each day we try to make sure we walk often. Gianni had one more local suggestion, a secluded bay to swim in, Campanella, you just had to walk 45mins to get there. Down hill, on a stone path. I was channelling my inner goat as I stumbled my way down the narrow steps. Boy was it worth it, glorious countryside and the sparkling aquamarine sea all to ourselves…

…for all of 20 minutes! Then an Italian walking group of about 25 people descended on us, it was funny. We spent about an hour swimming and people watching until we couldn’t put off the return uphill journey any longer. Puffing, huffing and sweating we climbed back up, it took us about an hour!

Amalfi, we have enjoyed how full on your region was but we are ready to hit the road again and discover another new area, Puliga, arrivederci!

Road trip week three; barking, beaches and best meat ever


After the highs of the last few days I suppose we were due for a few let downs. We had packed a lot into a short space of time and felt very lucky. This feeling was to change, a bit like the weather and we were caught in a thunderstorm. It did result in a stunning rainbow, but also dampened our mood a lot!


With a day ‘spare’ we decided just to do lunch and drove to a hill top town I had read about in a guide book loaned to me by the B&B. It was in a lovely little village called Veroli. We still had to get used to lunches sometimes starting at 1pm, so we had a quick look in the church as we were early. The church was beautiful, very plain on the outside but inside was one of the most opulent we have seen.


Anyway back to lunch! The menu was not laid out like others, no antipasti, primi or secondi, help what are we going to order? J went for Taglirini e facioli and I went for Capacollo all griglia. Well we figured that griglia was grilled so had to be meat! Pasta and beans arrived for J and a pork chop arrived for me. The chefs here are young, but with an ethos of reviving old recipes with a modern twist. That pork was divine. Yes I should have ordered a side veg dish to go with it but it didn’t matter. In our usual habit J and I have mouthfuls of each others dishes. So every now and then I would have some beans, but J didn’t see much of my dish! The seasoning was perfection with the salt having a black appearance, I don’t know why, it wasn’t burnt just delicious. Best meat ever!

Staying at rural locations mean rural smells and noises, which is fine until the dogs howl and bark for over an hour at 2am. I tried to be pragmatic and think, ‘well, we will be at the next hotel soon and it will be better‘. I was wrong. Faded elegance was how you could describe the next hotel, which was situated on a lake, next to a long stretch of beach. Men with pickaxes and shovels were busy with the holes they had made in the garden. A hose from a small septic tank truck trailed into one. Not the best first impression for the hotel (a 4 star hotel). The man on the front desk (which he refused to leave) handed us one of those stupid plastic hotel ‘key’ cards, pointed at the lift door and said “room 204, press number 1“. Great! Up we went and tried to work out how said ‘key’ worked. Once we had eventually got in the room, we sat and wondered if we had made a mistake. Trying not to have a knee jerk reaction and book another hotel, anywhere, we took a deep breath and tried to give it a chance.


In the morning, grey skies loomed and we took off to the beach determined to have a good time and ‘chill out’. How British is it to sit on the beach under an umbrella? That was us, day one. Next day, same beach, sunbathing, 25 degrees and we swam in the sea. You know the way in the UK the sea makes your skin tingle with how cold it is? Well we were in the Tyrrhenian Sea (part of the Mediterranean Sea, who knew?) and it was about 22 degrees. Wow! It was such good fun to splash about in the waves that sometimes caught you off guard and slapped you around the back of the head. I realised that we were having child-like fun, easy, simple and full of joy and laughter. Something I personally find difficult in everyday life and this was why we were taking this time off. Time to remember to live. Back at the hotel, our last night there was dominated by a wedding in the gardens, which went on to 3am. We were happy to leave and start our first weeks self catering in the Amalfi coast region. If for no other reason than I was fed up washing our pants in hotel sinks!


The Amalfi coast was the main reason for our once in a lifetime trip. J has wanted to visit and drive it for years. Over the past few weeks he has experienced how Italians drive and so felt prepared. But as the roads got progressively narrower after we left the autostrada his preparation seemed useless. We met the rep, Gianni, and he drove with us to meet the owner and translate. As we pulled up in the layby next to the lane that the cottage was down we watched as the two men assessed the size (an audi A4 allroad) and quality of our car (90% of cars here have extensive damage). Hmm. “he doesn’t know if your car will fit through the gate” said Gianni. Great. Off we went down hill on a single track dirt lane. Yes it was a tight turn into the drive and gateway, but after a bit of negotiation we were through. Success, we went through the usual intro instructions and breathed a sigh of relief that we were here.


Quick I thought get a wash on. With dirty clothes spilling out of our two small suitcases I stuffed a load into the machine in the outdoor kitchen. After a brief assessment of the dials I chose a setting and waited. Nothing. Ok yes silly me I needed to pull the dial out. Great off we go. No, nothing. I could hear the machine trying to fill but there wasn’t any water. Ok, contact Gianni to contact the owner (who lives 200 meters away). The owner and his wife arrived and she looked at it and yes it wasn’t working. Technician called, a part was quickly fitted and our clothes were spinning around. Joy! That was until the machine refused to open once the cycle had finished. Were we ever going to see our clothes again?


After a glass of wine on the roof terrace and a phone call to my dad, I unplugged the machine, waited and waited and CLICK! Clean clothes! Phew.