Thursday, 5 November 2015

Tango-ing to Messina

Italy 4

We drove the length of the Calabrian coast after leaving the glorious cliff-top towns, hairpin bends and incredible views of Amalfi.
It was a lovely journey.
I'd looked for a place to stay half way to the toe of Italy, and came up with Maratea, a tiny seaside town that the Romans have taken to, apparently, as a weekend retreat.
I'm not surprised. It was just what we were looking for.

The harbour at Maratea

An iconic hill-top town, a winding, 5km road down to sea level and the tiny, original harbour, with a newer marina a short distance along the coast. We stopped for a drink in the old harbour. It was a sweltering afternoon - in the high 30s again. The harbour reminded us a little of places that we have loved elsewhere. We would probably have been happy to stay there, but the tiny town was deserted, half the world was still having a siesta, and we couldn't see a hotel or B&B that was open.

The old harbour at Maratea

Instead we drove round the corner and found Fiumicello, with it's little bay, village spread down the hillside, and a hotel on the beach.

Settebello, the hotel on the beach. The Redentore on top of the mountain is huge

We went for a swim, sat and watched the sun set over the sea from our balcony, and later drove up the mountain to eat in the hill-top town. From the streets of the town we could see up to the floodlit Redentore high, high above us. It is a massive statue of Christ on the actual peak of the mountain. Apparently it is second in size only to the one in Rio de Janeiro.

The beach in front of the hotel

We watched the sun go down sitting on our balcony

I think we'd have happily stayed at Settebello for the rest of the week, but Sicily was calling, so the next day we headed for the Calabrian coast - mile after mile beside a cobalt and turquoise sea, with an unbroken beach that stretched to infinity. For once we didn't mind Angelica's choice of route.
We stopped in a little town called Diamante - well, you'd have to, wouldn't you! - and, feeling distinctly less than glamorous, I went in search of a hairdresser.
I found an empty salon (as worrying as an empty restaurant!) but an elderly chap appeared from nowhere before I could back out onto the street, and - assuring me that of course he catered for ladies, ushered me to a basin. I left him to it and emerged half an hour later, if not with quite my usual hairstyle, at least with shining, coiffed locks.

We bought a map (trusting Angelica was going to take time), had a drink overlooking the sea and headed off again for Reggio Calabria and the Messina ferry.
On the way, the traffic got less and less, the road got better and better and we saw beautiful landscapes, forest fires, yet another traffic accident (we saw six in our meagre 11 days) and miles and miles of ocean. Also lots of mile-high grass of some sort - possibly the Japanese Knotweed of Italy. It is everywhere.

Grass taking over Italy

The ferry from Villa San Giovanni to Messina leaves every half hour, so we drove straight onto one.
The In-Charge was particularly interested in the Straits, as he had sailed through them with #1 Son only a few weeks before, when they'd been packed with swordfish-fishing boats performing some unfathomable ritual.
We saw no other boats at all that afternoon, so made our way to the forward deck instead, to watch Messina drawing closer.
I'm glad we did. There was a group of musicians sitting to one side playing various instruments, and suddenly a whole lot of people got up and started to dance.
We stood - along with half the ship's passengers - and gawped as, brow to cheekbone, they tango'd all over the deck. I'm not a 'Strictly' fan, but I could have watch these people all night. They were graceful, beautiful and danced as if it came naturally.

'Well, you don't get that on the Dover to Calais,' the In-Charge said as we headed back to the car deck.
You certainly don't.
I think it was truly one of the best moments of our whole trip.

Tango-ing to Messina

Wonderfully, the AirBnB we had booked at random for that night turned out to be in yet another hilltop town in the mountains behind Messina.
To be honest, I was wishing it anywhere else as Angelica forced us up narrower and narrower, steeper and steeper streets. I had reason to be worried. She had taken us down streets in Sorrento that were so narrow we had - literally - had to stop and pull the wing mirrors in on both sides in order to fit through, and even then it was touch and go.
She's probably one of those women who think they're much thinner than they really are - isn't that what they say about the women/cars/space conundrum?
Anyway - Montforte San Giorgio was proving to be even more hair-raising than Sorrento's alleyways.
At one point we had to stop on practically vertical, slickly-shiny cobbles at a red traffic light - because the gateway into the town's tiny 'main square' was so narrow that only a donkey cart could comfortably pass through, so it was definitely One Way. When we got into the square, there was a wedding in full swing in the church and the place was jam packed with cars, old men sitting around, and small children racing about.

The main square in Montforte San Giorgio later that evening. The wedding had moved on by then

We did eventually find our B&B - no thanks to Angelica, who gave up at the Church. It turned out to be an entire town house on three levels with a stable/storeroom on the ground floor and a roof terrace above - all for us. There was no one living there.
Before he left, we asked our host to recommend somewhere to eat, and the somewhat surprising answer was 'Fort Apache'. Sicily aka the Wild West.
We wandered back into town, but actually finding Fort Apache proved slightly more difficult.
We did find a couple of vehicles that I'd gladly have packed into my luggage, though.

Another vehicle I'd like to have brought home

And this one as well

Eventually, we stopped at the old mens' bar back in the square to ask where Fort Apache was, and spotted a priest chatting inside. He was that beautiful, bluish-black of many African people, and not only spoke French but offered to take us to the restaurant in his car. He wasn't, he told us, the local priest as we had assumed. He had been adopted as a child by a family in the town and was on a visit home. He was delightful.
So was Fort Apache, which was a little way out of the town.
The place was full to bursting, the food was delicious, and the olives were the best we'd had anywhere.
We sat out under their vine-covered terrace, drinking and feasting and loving every moment.
It had been a very good day.
(Alas, we didn't find out until later that the mossies were also feasting. On rare Northern meat. Us.)

A war memorial in Montforte San Giorgio

A view from the town

This is the 4th part of our trip to Italy.
You can read the first part here: See Naples and Die
Part 2: Sipping Limoncello in Sorrento
Part 3: Amalfi: The Road More Travelled
The last part: Sicily: Hot on the Heels of Montalbano


  1. This sounds so exciting. It's always great to get off the beaten track, away from those beautiful areas which have suffered from their fame.

  2. It was great, Mairead, we loved it (although the driving was a bit hairy at times!) and the dancing on the ferry was just amazing.

  3. I am really addicted to your Italy Stories!!!! You should write a book about the trip!!!

  4. Ah, thank you Sabine! That's so nice! I'm glad you're enjoying them. I like recording the trip like this because then I won't forget about it - I guess it's like keeping a diary (retrospectively!)


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