From the (hopefully) healing waters and sparkling air of Cerravezza Terme, we continue on a slightly less tortuous route, fortunately given the dense fog that has descended overnight, down the other side of the Apennines and into Reggio de Emilia.
In a town that has rather been benevolently neglected due to the twin sisters on either side of it of Parma and Bologna, we are fortunate to spend time and have a guided tour from two friends and colleagues who themselves are taking a sabbatical here for a year. They have been residents of Reggio a few months, enough to find a wonderfully high ceiling-ed rental flat above a hidden courtyard behind a huge stone archway and facade, and purchase just enough crockery and furniture to be comfortable, and find work in a local language school. Even so they regale us with their thankfully unfounded fear that they would be permanently sofa surfing with airbnb for the year. Despite their fluency in Italian, the bureaucracy gears that were needed to move rental agreements, and parking permits, and Brexit spanners in the works for potential employment, all took time to get resolved. Tiddler is joyous that she has found old friends in the middle of this strange journey across Europe. We ourselves enjoy it even more so, conversation, good company and being ordered for in restaurants and the compulsory gelato shop, without struggling to translate the menus for a change. I eat deliciously sweet pumpkin ravioli, and given that the region is famous for its meat, Digger devours a platter of smoked hams and salami. In the icecream shop, we perch on white-painted log stumps while Tiddler tries almost fluorescent pink forest fruits, I take sharp lemon and figs in ricotta flavours, while Digger manages to consume a chocolate ice cream so rich it gleams as slick as a ganache under the shop lights.
In the park, as a promotion advertising a new museum exhibition ‘The way of the road’, we stumble across another reminder of the history of this country. Tiddler occupies herself admiring swords and beards, and collects conkers to add to her acorn collection, and waves our friends a wistful Ciao when it it time to move on.
From Reggio we travel on southwards, stopping in Bologna to potter round the square, eat pizza slices and spicy courgette dumplings. The police are out in force, and we wonder if this is normal, or a symptom of ongoing fear of terrorist attacks in crowded public places.
Parking is difficult and costly and we have taken to leaving Leo in the car parks of the huge cemeteries to visit the towns where it is much easier to manoeuvre. My father has talked for many years of visiting Milan and also Palermo to try and research and track down records of his family tree, but visiting these cemeteries confirms it is a mammoth task he would be undertaking, and I do not think it is a viable project for his age now. There are tombs and plaques stretching out, row upon row. The numerous flower stalls and sellers at the entrance had seemed superfluous, until we realised the scale of just this one premises, where a step ladder on wheels is a necessary requirement when you come to pay your respects.
Digger’s recent diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome (years of using power tools has begun to take it’s toll) seemed worsening with the regular driving, and we decide to try and cover more mileage on the autostrada, the Italian motorway. This would not only reduce the driving time, but also reduce the amount of turns and rotations he needs to make with the steering wheel. These roads would have made the Romans proud.
The autostrada system is quite clear, take a ticket from the machine on entry to the motorway, and on exit the ticket works out the cost, and you pay. It is all automated, instructions can be in your language of choice, and it has all worked perfectly fine so far the few stretches we used them in France and just across the border into Italy. We had confidently negotiated the problem that Leo is too high to be at the car height buttons, and too low to be at the lorry height buttons, so I (being the passenger as we are a right hand drive), have to carry out a series of yoga stretches with my whole torso out the window with Tiddler holding my legs for balance in order to operate the system. We also worked out the confusion that France has blue signs for toll motorways and green for free route, whereas Italy has the complete opposite, clearly to lull unwary motorhomers into paying unexpected charges. So we were feeling fairly confident by this stage. Picture the scene. Digger drives up to the booth. I launch myself out the window as normal, and press the button for the ticket. No ticket. I press the button again. No ticket. No ticket. Car behind beeps. Still no ticket. Lorry trundles up behind. There is no option to reverse. Digger is visibly sweating, if only I could see it, but my head is halfway down the side of the van. The barrier goes up, without issuing a ticket. Digger puts his foot down and drives through with me scrabbling back into my seat with a bump. And this is how we end up on the autostrada without a valid ticket.
“Not to worry, we’ll sort it out at the other end” is our mantra of the day. Four hours later we pull up at the exit booths, gratefully seeing this is unusually manned. Manned by a non-English speaker however. We wave our hands and point and try and explain. We give the name of the junction we entered, and point and wave and hand signal a bit more. The chap sees the light and turns to his computer. He prints us a receipt for 73 euros. We are flabbergasted. We repeat the name of the junction, in higher pitched voices. Bear in mind this is all happening with me in my favourite leaning-out-of-the-van yoga pose. He takes Digger’s driving licence details, and gets out to write down the registration number, which all now gets entered into the computer too. “ponto blu” he repeats at us again and again, along with a whole host of other things we can’t understand. “ponto blu, ponto blu!” He waves the receipt. Tiddler shouts “pontu blu, pontu blu!” It is clear on all sides we are getting nowhere.
He conceded defeat and writes €17.20 underneath the receipt. We hand this over. He wants Digger’s signature. He lifts the barrier, calling “ponto blu” forlornly after us as we drive off.
Some time later, our nerves steadied with the best falafel wrap I have ever tasted, from a Pakinstani shop where the owner give Tiddler slices of kebab straight off the rotating skewer while we wait, and whose whole face lights up when we say we are from England. He talks about Sadiq Khan with a misty eyed glow of delight. We learn from him we need to go to a Ponto Blu office, the administration for the autostrada system. Fearing we still need to pay a €73 fine for not having a ticket, we are pleasantly surprised if a little confused when the following day at the Punto Blu we hand over our receipt, the bespectacled man taps his computer, Digger signs another paper, and the matter is resolved. It seems that without a ticket you are liable for the whole stretch of motorway toll to prevent people losing their tickets on purpose. Once our registration plates were checked by the autostrada entrance photo recognition system, we were off the hook. Tiddler, in some act of defiance for the stress and inconvenience, did a wee in the Punto Blu car park and we hustled her into the van before we got fined for that too.
The Republic of San Marino was a clear tourist destination, with American cruise goers popping up from Rimini port to waste their time there queuing up to pay five euros to get their passport stamped with the official (though unnecessary) border pass. Like Le Mont St. Michel in France, the town of San Marino itself was historically and architecturally fascinating, but full of random shops as a glorified duty free location. Whether leather bags, souvenirs or guns, it was all there on display.
It also hosts various museums, including the museum of vampires, and the museum of curiosities, both of which seemed out of place in this hill top fort. We spotted the guards, and took the cable car, and Digger heard some snatches of Bulgarian conversations around him. “We are getting closer” he said, “I’m not sure how I feel about that”.
Tiddler befriends a German couple who give her an Italian deck of cards with its forty cards and random pictures of coins and cups. They try and teach us a game but the rules get lost in translation. We move on through Pescara, to Bari. The ferry is waiting for us.
Next post: crossing the Adriatic sea and follow the BG plates!