Monthly Archives: February 2010

What do we do all day?

People do ask me what I do with my time as a fulltime traveling pensioner. So I thought I might have a look at a couple of days when we didn’t do any of the obvious things like shopping or sightseeing.
This blog is a rambling account of those two random days.
 
Can’t cope without problems…
Traveling around Europe in a motorhome or caravan is a lifestyle that has problem solving at its core. It is easy enough to adapt to the limitations of living, even cooking, space. Thinking back to living in a house, we didn’t really use most of the space we had. You can only sit in one chair at a time and only sleep in one bed at a time. The fact that we now use the same chair to eat, read, “work” and sometimes just sit and watch the world go by, is no great hardship.
The difference lies in the reaction to the things that break or malfunction.
Back home, a blocked sink; a blown fuse; leaking roof or flat car battery can all be addressed by a call for the relevant “expert” if you can’t do it yourself. For the long-term camper, that is a much more difficult solution. First you have to find the “expert” and the Yellow Pages are not in English. Then you have to explain the problem in a language which, even if you can get by in, will be difficult when it comes to the technical jargon relating to your problem.
Enter the community of the camper. Most sites of any size have a collection of residents who have a life time of experience and a wide selection of skills to offer. And offer, they do!
A trip to the dustbin to empty the rubbish will almost certainly involve a conversation on the way there and another on the way back. You get to meet everyone within a few days. Here we have a farmer, a structural engineer, two teachers, a taxi driver/mechanic and a florist – just to name a few.
Not only have they their formal skills but, since most are well over 55 years old, they have hundreds of years of experience between them.
We tend to become aware of anyone struggling with a problem. Help is readily offered because they are your neighbours.
 
Help can be mandatory.
When we arrived in a fairly large van on to this fairly tightly spaced Sicilian campsite, we wanted to get into a pitch that overlooked the sea. But it was not going to be easy to get onto the pitch because of the many obstacles like the sun canopies etc. Within minutes, I had a team of half a dozen people watching every corner and side – all giving instructions from their vantage point! Now this might be annoying and confusing in the real world but, hey, there is no rush. No-one is hurrying you along. You can take all day to maneuver you van into just the right spot and it doesn’t matter.
 
Is Denmark the right way up?
Yesterday, I was wondering what I wanted to do after breakfast when there was a knock on the door. A Danish neighbour had a problem with his laptop. His screen had suddenly turned upside down and he didn’t know why or how to get it back the right way up. Somebody had told him that this was something I might be able to help him with.
Now, this is a matter that is different for each make of laptop and, of course, his machine is all in Danish. But it doesn’t really take long with the help of the internet and the owner providing translation of what the screen is saying. And within half an hour the matter is resolved.
 
Is Sweden switched on?
An hour later a Swedish neighbour asks for help with his electrics. It turns out that in two years, the mains fuse has never blown before so he has never needed to know where the mains fuse box was located. That one took a little longer.
Each job is an interaction that develops into a conversation and an exchange of tales from our histories.
This time, I discovered that the Danish pay 180% tax on the purchase of a car or motorhome… I learnt that you can buy a Mercedes car and run it for two years as a taxi and then sell it without the tax at a figure that means you have had the car for the two years without costing anything!
I also learned that one of the Swedish shipyards built a ship so big that it wouldn’t fit under the bridge to get it out of the Baltic Sea. The only way that it could be done was for the ship to be driven at full power that the stern went down under such acceleration!
 
And there are always things that you can volunteer to do.
 
Problems don’t have to be real.
As I sat and watched the waves breaking on this rocky coast, I started to wonder what could be done to get some of that energy harnessed. I know it is being done but various schemes but they all involve putting machinery into the sea. That seems to be asking for very high maintenance costs. So the idea came to me that it might be possible to put a plastic tank in the waves which would cause air to be sucked in and blown out. If one could bring that air movement ashore so that there were no moving parts in the sea, there might be a better sort of wave engine to be had.
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On the way to the rubbish bin with the recycling, I stopped to talk to Gunther, a German Structural Engineer, and told him of my idea. He said it wouldn’t work in the Mediterranean because the waves weren’t big enough and patted me on the head!
Now, you will understand that this is a challenge that has to be met. Back in the van and a little research with the Italian Meteorology department and a lot of refreshing of memory about things like the number of foot pounds to the kilowatt-hour produced a spreadsheet that showed to my satisfaction that the average wave height of 1.2m would be enough to produce 800 watts of electricity from a 2 litre piston/tank. It might have confused any onlooker as to why I would have been standing on the rocks at nearly midnight with a torch and a stopwatch but I hadn’t thought till then to find out how many waves you get to the minute!
Tomorrow, I shall present my findings to Gunther and see if he still feels inclined to pat me on the head…
 
The pleasure of doing a job – just because you don’t have to do it.
Yesterday, I decided that something needed to be done about the campsite WiFi equipment.
Guiseppe had had the engineers in to fix it. I saw him wandering around the site with his laptop. I guessed he was trying to check that the signal was getting to everywhere. But I also know that you can’t really tell that way. You may get a signal which is too weak to be sustained. You may get a signal that is coming from a mast that won’t reach the same point tomorrow. T really find out what was what, he needed to a site survey using the right software.
I can do that, I thought!
A day of looking for the right software on the internet and then half a day, off and on, getting to know how to run them (couldn’t find any one bit of software that would do the whole job) and finally, half a day putting together the survey and a report to explain the findings.
I presented the report to Guiseppe, an hydraulics engineer by training, who immediately wanted to find out why the two repeaters he thought were working, weren’t working at all.
Off we set with his screwdrivers and my kit to investigate.
What we found inside the repeaters was a mass of rust! The engineers who had set the equipment up had used good sealed weather-tight boxes but then drilled a large hole in the underside to get the aerial cable in. Sadly they hadn’t taken into account that the repeaters are within reach of the breaking wave spray when stormy. This, of course, had resulted in water being driven into the boxes from underneath which they hadn’t sealed. Guiseppe used some Italian which needed no translation even though I had no idea what any of the words were! I also understood that my report would be sent immediately to the IT engineers for action. In a month or two, they should have a working system…
 
Dept. Of Transport Acquaintances?
I remember working with an engineer who had spent most of his working life thus far working on the Cross Chanel ferries. He had made many friends in his job but always refused to acknowledge them as such because ships move on and he never knew when or if he would meet them again. . They were always referred to as Board of Trade Acquaintances.
We said goodbye to an English couple off to explore more of the island and to the Swedish couple off to visit the Mars factory on the West coast. Both will probably be back in a week or two.
The French couple with the delightful deaf child will be away in the next day or so. And so we, too, will move on to have a look at the other end of the island.
Are they friends or Dept of Transport Acquaintances? Only time will tell…
 
And then there is the rest…
Bear in mind that there are books to be read; emails to read and send; forums to be contributed to and Face Book to be dealt with. And we have talked to all the children on Skype.
There is shopping to do; water to fill, waste water and loos to empty; running repairs to fix; the van to wash the Sahara off; cooking and washing up and the laundry…
From this, you will appreciate that even finding time to go sightseeing and shopping becomes a matter of careful time-management.
What should the answer be to “What do you do all day?”
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Monkey on a Tractor

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One of the things which happens on campsites in the Winter is that the residents get to know each other and even become friends.
The point was illustrated for me some time ago when I talked to a fellow whose wife had died two years earlier.
He had gone home but become bored and longed to be out and about in his motorhome again as they had done together.
So he had gone off on his own.
His daughter was much concerned about this and kept ringing him up and telling him to come home.
“What do you do all day, on your own?”, she asked.
“Well,” says the septuagenarian, “the rubbish bin is about 200 yards from where my van is parked. That is an hour’s journey and about 6 conversations away!”
Perhaps one of the joys of the lifestyle is the constant supply of new people who haven’t heard all your stories and jokes. And, of course, one gathers stories and jokes as you go.
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Bjorn (named changed to protect the guilty) is Swedish and of similar advanced years to most of us traveling pensioners. He is a retired farmer, he says, but actually I suspect he was a senior engineer for a major tractor manufacturer on the sales and marketing side. He is certainly one of those men for whom the phrase “A thing of duty and a boy forever” was coined.
It seems that his company decided to sponsor a European circus troupe. As part of the deal to get the tractors publicised, an act was included in the show.
The basis of the act was a clown trying to direct traffic opposed by a monkey driving a tractor. Great fun and a lot of scope for laughter.
Obviously the tractor was driven by remote control with Bjorn hiding in the audience.
On the night in question, the monkey was particularly excitable and was playing with everything on the tractor it could reach.
At the same time, a Red Indian troupe was establishing their act which followed the monkey’s but erecting an Indian Tepee at the other side of the ring.
Sadly the monkey finally found a way to reach the all-important switch that cut off Bjorn’s radio link. The result was a panic-stricken Bjorn rushing out of his hiding place to get to the tractor and stop it. Not before it had run right over the top of the tepee, narrowly missing several surprised not-so-braves.
Kind of inevitable?

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How to make a real Pizza

There is, of course, a good reason why I travelled 1,827 miles from Halifax to Catania, Sicily.
It was not the Winter sunshine. It was not even the chance to visit Salzburg, Venice, Rome or even Naples on the way.
It was the chance to learn how Sicilians make a pizza!
The venue for this discovery of the secrets was the Restaurant Jonio at Camping Jonio in Catania under the regime of Antionetta.
For those of you who are unaware, the pizza originated in Sicily, if not in Catania itself. S it is here we had to come to learn the secret of the perfect pizza base.
Should it be thick or thin? What flour is correct? Do you have to have one of those ovens that look as if they were really designed to house small bats?
 
First, Antoinetta introduced us to the ingredients.
 
1Kg 00 Grano Tenero
1Kg Semola Rimacinato Grano Duro
100 grams Unsalted butter
650ml Water
1 tablespoonful dried yeast
1 tablespoonful Salt
1 tablespoonful Sugar
2 tablespoonsful Olive oil (Extra Virgin, what else is there?)
 
The mixed flour is important as the soft 00 flour provides the mixing properties that deliver a truly elastic dough whilst the hard grain semolina flour provides the lightness.
All the ingredients are blended together by machine for about 20 minutes. Antoinetta saw no advantage in doing this by hand – it just tires you out!
Having said that, the next stage was to take the 3Kg lump of dough and to beat it into submission on a bench.
I am not clear why but Antoinetta’s enthusiasm for this violence did not encourage me to be seen to enquire if it was necessary…
 
Antoinetta beats the dough into submission. Who was she thinking of...?
 
The dough was then parcelled up by weight; in this case 1 Kg lumps, before being placed on teflon-coated trays to rise.
 
Risen dough
 
The trays were left in an unheated cupboard for around 2 hours to rise. The ambient temperature would have been about 22°C.
While we waited for the dough to rise, we discussed the great mystery of how we had seen less than three kilograms of ingredients weighed out to make 6 1Kg balls of dough.
Clearly, there was a secret of Italian cuisine that was not being shared with us and, perhaps, this was why pizza was such a staple of the country’s take-away industry…
Sadly, the truth was prosaic in the extreme. While we hadn’t been paying attention, Antoinetta had mixed a second batch of dough!
 
Now should have been the point where I was to learn the spinning dough trick. The flashy bit when the chef spins the dough ever thinner by throwing the dough in the air using centrifugal force to do the work.
Sadly, Antoinetta just laughed at me when I asked if this was not part of the procedure.
 
Spreading the base. No fancy twirls here.
 
However, the spreading out of the dough on the oven trays, by merely pushing it about by hand, did give me a chance to hide behind a pillar and ask which was better, thin base or thick base?
I got my answer in the manner which owed more to Joyce Grenfell than Delia Smith. If you eat pizza in Sicily, where pizza was invented, it will be thin base. In the North of Italy you will get thick base. Clearly, the reason for Tuscany believing that thick base was a good idea was sheer ignorance on their part.
 
The pomodore is spread with care and contemplation.
 
Now the tomato paste is spread on the dough.
I knew that it would be important to discover the ingredients of this concoction and asked her.
Again, the response brought into question the wisdom of me being allowed out without benefit of a collar and lead, “Pomadori – tomatoes, eh?”
The tomato covered dough bases were now put in the oven warmed to 200°C and cooked for about 20 minutes before the strange ritual of what I could only see as checking the baby’s bottom.
 
The super oven is stacked and ready to go
 
After about 20 minutes, Antoinetta would open the oven door and lift a corner of the pizza to check the colour of the bottom. Only when it reached a golden brown were they taken out for the remaining ingredients to be added.
Let me make it clear that the oven being used here was no ordinary domestic affair. This beast is about twice the size of the cooking cavern. The remainder is taken up by a boiler full of water which enables the oven to mix heat and steam.
In the case of the pizzas, Antoinetta assured me that no unfair tactics were being employed and the steam capability was not being used.
 
When it comes to the toppings, I got the impression that the way was to add whatever you fancied – or had left over in your fridge or larder. The topping is just an incidental add-on. The important part is the cooking of the base. That was now complete.
 
Corgettes - they even look nice!Egs, ham & mushrooms - of courseMozzarella ready fo use
Gabriella applies the ham under Dutch supervisionAntoinetta applies the corgettesGabriella moves on to eggs
 
For the ubiquitous Margherita, all that is required is Mozzarella cheese and a dusting of Parmesan.
 
First the Mozzarellaand then the Parmesannot forgetting the Oregano
 
And don’t forget the Organo!
 
Anything that is put on top of the pizza base is already cooked so the last stage of warming the whole pizza is simply a matter of getting things up to serving temperature.
 
The final warming in the super oven
 
before being taken to the table and enjoyed by the assembled students of the day…
 
The students of Camping Jonio have enjoyed the fruits of Antoinetta and Gabriell's labours. With our encouragement, of course.
 
Mi dispiace, something must have distracted me from taking a photo of the meal before we had eaten it!

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Francesco Cafiso

Francesco Cafiso at the Teatro Massimo Bellini
 
I am not a great fan of modern jazz, preferring the traditional fare. But our Swedish neighbour suggested we joined a party to visit the Teatro Massimo Bellini on Monday night.
Now the theatre itself is a magnificent building that is well worth a visit just for its architecture:
 
Photo stolen from Cicciofarmaco on Flkr. Thanks
 
The inside is even more impressive.
Built with neither circle or upper circle, it has five levels of, in effect, boxes. They rise from the flat auditorium floor vertically to be topped by the upper gallery.
 
Photo stolen from Corinasicily on Flikr. Thanks.
 
View of stage from rear of auditorium
 
Photo stolen from Umbattista on Flikr. Thanks.
 
The rear of the auditorium
 
Photo stolen from Misscharo on Flikr. Thanks.
Part of the ceiling.
 
The concert we went to see featured Francesco Cafiso, a 22 year old saxophonist who started playing in concerts all over Europe at the age of 9. He is self taught although he has since been taught to Master standard to play the Flute. He won the World Saxophone Competition at the London Jazz Festival in 2004 when he was just 16. He was also a guest musician at President Obama’s inauguration.
 
Photo of Francesco Cafiso stolen from Italia.allaboutjazz.com. Thanks.
 
As if this were not enough talent, the lad also writes his own compositions, three of which we were to hear that night.
At one point he played a solo where he sounded to be playing a duet with one instrument responding to the other in a different voice and yet he was the only saxophonist on the stage and he had only one saxophone!
 
All of this in a setting with the most superb acoustics was a pleasure indeed.
 
After the concert we were treated to a short guided walk around the center of the city by Guiseppe and his wife followed by him cooking an impromptu supper back at the campsite – spaghetti al’ olio in huge quantities.
The cost of this evening? Just €13 a head and a round of drinks at the Irish Pub.

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The Elephant of Catania

The Elephant of Catania

Every city has its emblem. Catania has an elephant:
 
Photo stolen from Peter J Bury on Flikr. Thanks.
 
And the elephant stands proudly in the center of the central square of the city, the Piazza Duomo,
Statue de l'éléphant à Catane .jpg stolen from dullhunk on Flikr. Thanks.
and he looks very fine indeed!
 
Now, I say “he”, because if you go round the back, you will see that it is very obviously a “he”.
Original photo by xtaxta on Flikr - slightly modified. Thanks.

But those who know about elephants as a breed will tell you that this is anatomically incorrect because a male elephant does not have testicles on the outside; he modestly carries them internally.
 
So what happened to the Elephant of Catania?
 
Well there are two stories.
 
1. When the elephant was erected, the men of Catania were very distressed because the gender of their city mascot was unclear and had the “missing” element added on.
2. The memory of the artist, having returned from viewing an African elephant, proved not to be accurate and he invented what he knew must be there.
 
Either way, Catania’s elephant is very special and may be the only mammal on earth with a spare set of testicles, assuming that the original set are present internally.
 
In recognition of this special status, my informant, Snr Guiseppe Svengali BSc (Catania), tells me that every July the students rally round and ceremoniously wash the external extras.
 
Now you know about The Elephant of Catania.
And I hope you will thank me for avoiding all the many jokes like “Is this a load of…” and “Maybe this is the reason a male elephant is called a…”

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St. Agata


The Festival of Sant’ Agata is judged to be the second largest festival in Europe, closely following the chasing of bulls around the streets somewhere in Spain.
The underlying principle is that Sant’ Agata’s relics are taken around the town once a year. This is achieved by mounting her shrine on a large sledge, which is then dragged by her devotees through the streets over a three-day period.

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The first thing that we should be aware of is that this combination weighs a few tons and, since it is on skids rather than wheels, takes a considerable amount of pulling. Fortunately, the streets of Catania are mostly made of lava blocks which can stand the wear better than tarmac would do. This material is courtesy of nearby Mount Etna which is still spitting the stuff out from time to time, keeping the locals well supplied with building materials. Just as well since it also destroys a few every time it erupts.
There are well in excess of 5,000 devotees of all ages, men,women, boys and girls. They all wear white gowns, white gloves and black caps.

These two must be related! I hope that he will pass his beard trimming skills to his son in due course. I think this young man had just been given the medal he is wearing around his neck. The youngest devotees have difficulty reaching the rope but at this head end there are a number of short thin tails with handles to keep the rope end organised.

The whole atmosphere is very much of family and friends
The shrine sledge has two heavy ropes, probably 100 meters long, tied on the front for them to pull.
The normal pace is a very slow walk.
The shrine is stopped at various points of significance where the shrine crew continue their normal tasks:
    • Taking candles, unlit, from the crowd. Some of these are lit and placed at the back in a holder. Some are not lit and placed in other racks or bins.
    • Taking flowers which are placed around the base of the shrine.
    • Giving out single flowers to anyone who asks for them. These do not appear to be the same flowers that are taken on board yet there seems to be no lack of space for flowers taken in and no shortage of flowers to give out.
    • Giving out pictures of Sant’ Agata.
    • Taking in donations of money, usually €5 notes.
At each stopping place, the senior priest delivers a brief prayer and sermon using a PA system which is deployed around the crowd. This is followed by a blessing before moving on to the next stopping place.
As the procession continues, the lead priest delivers blessings. It is not clear as to whether he looks for eye contact with an individual who seems to want a blessing or whether he delivers whenever he feels appropriate. Either way, a blessing is delivered about every few minutes.

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On the front of the shrine cart, sits a man who looks much more serious than any of his colleagues and I surmise that he is the “mule” driver in charge of controlling the logistics.

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He has good reason to look serious as his task is not an easy one – in fact I have no idea how he does it.
For a start, there are corners. Now the devotees could just come to a corner and go round it. But this would not work on two counts:
    • The power can only be delivered in a straight line. If they went round a curve, the final point before the shrine turned would have but a very few devotees able to apply pull.
    • More probably, the whole cortege would be dragged into cutting the corner and there are buildings it would collide with.
The solution is that the devotees go past the corner and stop when the shrine is at the corner. They then walk back with the ropes and re-extend them in the new direction. The shrine is re-aligned by other devotees and progress can be made.
Given that there are up to 5,000 mules, most of whom are wandering off and chatting to friends, having coffee or talking on their mobile phones, how does he tell them when to start or stop? It just seemed to happen without any means of obvious communication!

The only communication seemed to be when a devotee would suddenly turn round and shout back to the shrine. I guess this was an inspirational vow of allegiance or prayer to Sant’ Agata. Whenever this happened, one or two people near him or her would hug or hold him or her while the prayer was shouted. These events occurred every few minutes and were either met with applause from the crowd, a chant from the other devotees or a song (hymn?).

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I visited this event in the company of Lars, a mischievous Swedish farmer (in the green jacket), whose first interaction on arrival was to offer this gentleman €50 for his hat! On being turned down, he tried for the next policeman. Again no luck but later I took the second photo which I think proves that Lars was being closely watched from that point onwards…

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The final night celebrations are an all night affair in the grand manner.
The procession starts on its journey at about 6pm arriving at the top of the town around 5am where a massive firework display is given before they complete the other half of the journey. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t manage to last the course even till the firework display, much less the finish line.

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The streets are decorated with lights and banners. The street surface is spread with saw dust in copious quantities to provide a sure footing and to keep as much or the wax off the cobbles as possible.
The procession is led by the candle bearers. We are talking about large, heavy candles here…

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carried through the milling crowds, mostly in teams. They do the journey in short spurts with one member of the team trying to get onlookers out of the way by shouting “Attenzione”. You quickly learn to watch out for them as being thumped by one of these would, at best, leave you with covered in enough wax on your clothes to make you into your own personal candle. Why there weren’t spontaneous combustions of the public is one of the many mysteries surrounding the event.
At various points on the route, there are churches and effigies of St Agata. These are honoured by the candle-bearers with prayer and chants.

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This is a young man’s thing, though we did see a few women candle-bearers and children carrying smaller candles.
This bearer had clearly got too close to the flame, but spirits were definitely up for all except the few who had been overambitious in their choice of candle.

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Next came the candelore. These are made of wood, intricately carved and gilded, around 6 meters high and heavy.

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Each is moved about 20 meters in turn and represents a guild. Some guilds have dropped out over the years so these are the last 11 paraded.
The carrying team appears to have four weight bearers with sacking headgear designed to share the weight between the head and the shoulders. There are two who carry the shafts and guide the move as well as carrying weight. Then there are men either side whose job it is to keep the structure upright.

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The convoy is impressive and the center of a lot of attention.

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Finally St Agata’s shrine is pulled by the enormous team of around 5,000 devotees.

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Many hours of the spectacular is shown live on television so even those who cannot attend can join in the celebration.

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Home to Catania for Agatha

Our stop at Sabbadore, just North of Avola had some interesting aspects. The guide book warned that the last 500m of the approach was narrow and winding. That was an understatement! What they didn’t think to mention was that when you did arrive at the camp entrance, it is too narrow to turn in. In our attempt to do so, we concentrated so much on the front that we failed to see that the back was swinging round onto a wall and now we are missing some gelcoat. Grrr.
However, I just love to boast so I will add that when the owner’s son came out and suggested we back up to another gate back down the lane we did as instructed. He came running up to me and said “That is the best bit of driving I have seen here in 20 years!!!” It seems that he is a retired racing driver and everybody else who had been invited to back up with trailers had bounced off the walls. What he didn’t know, of course, was that we had done that before he came out!
The site was in process of major refurbishment so the facilities weren’t up to much. But the site is in a wonderful position.

Avola pitch

Avola pitch

Liz has already selected the pitch she wants for our next visit – and says that won’t be very far in the future…

Avola Beach

Avola Beach

Liz's ideal pitch for next time...

Liz's ideal pitch for next time...

We only stayed the one night at Sabbiadore as we had promised to return to Jonio, Catania on the Sunday.

Having left Avalo in sunshine, driven through a rainstorm around Siracusa, we were delighted to arrive at Catania in sunshine again. Even better, we found no-one parked at the sea edge and our ideal place awaited us not to mention the “old friends” welcome from both staff and several campers we had met before. It seems that the previous week, they had had some very strong winds from the East which had brought the breaking waves over the top of the sea wall – carrying large stones with them. Everyone had moved back from the sea wall that week and Gunther, who had been where we wanted to be said he wasn’t going to risk his precious Cathago van until the middle of February. Nice decision, Gunther!

Monday and Tuesday have been spent chatting, getting enough shopping in to last the Sant’ Agata festival period and preparing our strategy for the said festival. Apart from Gunther, there is a Dutch couple who were here for Christmas with us; another British couple we haven’t met before; a French Canadian couple who were next to us in Rome and June & Lars who were here at Christmas and also went to Scarebeo the day after we went there. There is another British couple here from somewhere in the North but we haven’t had time to say hello to them yet. The Canadian fellow & I had an hilarious shopping trip out to get stuff from the Media World here – his first time in a Smart car and his first introduction to Catanian driving. I think he had an early night…

It all felt a bit like coming home.

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