Italy Day 3- Pompeii

Italy Day 3- Pompeii

After a relatively relaxing day around the pool we had built ourselves up for a long drive and a long hard day of walking around in the heat.

We set off toward Pompeii, around 2 and a half hours south of Sermoneta and 130 miles. It felt like most of those miles and minutes were spent getting from the top of our little hill to the motorway but, once we got there, the trip wasn’t too bad at all.  Saying that the trip was uneventful is only true in terms of Italian roads rather than British roads but we arrived safely none the less.  My strategy of blowing my horn every 10 minutes, no matter what was happening, seemed to be working.

We followed the route set out on the app of our phones and that got us most of the way there. Once we reached Napoli we didn’t need the app any more as the signposts took over and we could enjoy the view.  I say enjoy, but the view from the left hand side of the car was Vesuvius towering above us and dominating the skyline but out of the right hand side were the suburbs of Napoli.  This wasn’t so pretty.  Like a lot of port towns, you could tell that this was a bit rough. I wouldn’t like to have left the car unlocked anywhere in this area.  Even locked it would have been a chance.

As we got into Pompeii I started to get a feel for what the place was like very quickly.  This didn’t feel like it was going to be a serious historical day of interest. It was going to be an expensive tourist trap with chancers and vagabonds surrounding the area waiting to suck money from unexpected tourists wallets.  We drove past the main entrance to the historical site and parked up at one of the many car parks that lined the road.  Each one having a few old men waving you in as if driving past would be a terrible mistake and breaking some sort of law.  We drove past a few and picked one at random and parked up.  As we got out and applied our sun cream, it was clearly a very hot day and it was going to be hard work getting the kids to walk around in this heat looking at history in the making.

 


My mum and brother followed us down in their car and, as we waited for them to let us know where they had parked and arrange to meet them, we headed to the petrol station next to the car park and topped up on supplies and used their facilities.  The toilets smelt like they had been installed just after the Vesuvius eruption in AD 78 and not cleaned since.  I refused to enter as did my girl child so we bought water and mints instead.  Having been charged 3 EUR for a small bottle of water, I was getting the idea that this was going to be a long and miserable day for me!

We got the call from my mum and we met up at the collection of market stalls near the visitor centre.  We checked the first few stalls and realised that they all sold the same things, just displayed in a different order.  Lots of Roman stuff, lots of volcanic rock jewellery and a surprising amount of penis shaped items, all with Pompeii written on them.  I couldn’t think where we would display these items when we got home so, despite thinking that they were hilarious, I didn’t buy anything.

We decided it would be best to eat before we got into the centre itself and so, like the idiots that we are, decided to eat at the little cafe right outside the gates.  I was already worried about the potential cost/quality issues of eating right outside an international tourist trap and wasn’t made to feel any less relaxed when the menu arrived without prices on it.  We ordered sandwiches, a few salads, a couple of soft drinks and smoothies and it cost us more that €100.  I can’t give you the exact price as it was hidden from me to prevent me from ruining the rest of the day for me and anyone that met me.  As the bill was paid, I was whisked away from the cafe, we walked over to the gates and worked out how much this would cost us.

Again, I was jostled out of the way to prevent me feeling faint, but when Titchy came over to show me the tickets, I knew immediately that the tickets must have been reasonable!  At €15 per adult and the kids in for free, I was pretty happy and set off through the big fans with water spraying from them to cool us down with a skip in my step.

In my mind, Pompeii was going to be loads of little houses filled with history that you could walk around and be blown away by, as if history had been stopped by volcanic ash and then started again by Italian archaeologist peeling away the layers.  I was expecting each home to have contorted bodies and riddles to solve.  I have to say, I was very disappointed.  Maybe it was because we didn’t sign up to a guided tour, but it felt like a long walk in extreme dusty heat around some derelict houses.  It was hard work walking around, especially when we had tired and hot kids to chaperone.  Frankly, it was a bit boring.  There, I said it.

At one point I was excited to see a board that I assumed would have information on it and point out something to see or think about so I skipped over ready to be brought back into the swing of things. Turns out that the only display board that we had seen on our mile long walk was to explain what the three different coloured recycling bins were for.  Only when we got to the top end of the site did we find a handful of relics and casts, to take a good look at them all took us about 15 minutes.  A lot of walking in the sun for 15 minutes of interest.

One bright spot was when we listened in on an organised tour as the guide highlighted quite a sizable phallus on the pavement.  He removed the dust around it by pouring his water on the black stone member built into the pavement and explained it was giving directions to the ‘fun house’.  I will let you decide what sort of fun house it was pointing out, but it didn’t involve Pat Sharpe.   The laughs that the kids had looking at this 2,000 year old cock were priceless, but this soon wavered when we had to explain what it was there for.  I left at this point and scurried off for cover!

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Our plan had been to visit Pompeii in the morning and a trip to the crater of Vesuvius in the afternoon if time permitted.  We rounded the kids up and headed back to the car with the promise that we would head straight home and maybe have a half hour in the pool before dinner.  It was a long drive South and so we wouldn’t see the volcano on this trip.  It seemed a shame to be that close to Napoli and not see what it was like and so I made a sneaky detour to see if we could see anything exciting of the port town.  It very quickly became apparent that Napoli was very much like every other port town but with the added edge of a Mafia undertone.  We were heading through back streets and the graffiti was pretty ominous and dark so I skipped that idea and headed back North on the motorway.

After an hour on the road and a few traffic jams to hold us up, it became apparent that we wouldn’t get back in time to eat and swim.  As regular readers of the blog may know, I have a great interest in the second world war and I spotted signs for Monte Cassino.    Above the town of Monte Cassino, on top of a rocky hill, is a monastery which was the site of the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.  We decided to head off the motorway and grab a meal in the town, just to say that I had been there.

We found a very local Pizza restaurant, well it was actually more of a takeaway really, but with seats outside and locals pottering about outside which is always a good sign.  We shared authentic pizza and some arancini, great big deep-fried balls of rice stuffed with cheese.  As we ate up and chatted and laughed, I realised that it would be years, if ever, before I would be back here and so I had to take the chance while I could.  There would be plenty of days for swimming to come.

 


We headed up the very windy road up the hill to the monastery and the views were stunning.  It was very clear why such a bloody price has been paid during the war for this land as the monastery has a perfect panoramic view of the flat expansive land below, the only route north to Rome.  We were not really appropriately dressed for a tour of a monastery and so we were not too upset when we got up to the gates to find them closing for the evening.  Instead, we headed a little way back down the mountain to visit the Polish cemetery.  I have been to many war cemeteries and they hold a very special place with me.  They are always immaculately clean and have their own special noise.  A special sort of quiet that seems to allow only birdsong and background traffic to penetrate it.

Heading back to the car, a little quieter and more sombre than when we arrived, we twisted and turned our way back down the side of the mountain as the warm evening sun started to drop for the day.  I felt very lucky to be there to see such amazing sights and share laughs with the people that I love in a time of such peace, thanks to the sacrifices of those that had trodden this bloody path so many years before.

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Italy – Day 2

Italy – Day 2

It’s funny when you wake up in an air-conditioned room, in your semi-conscious state, that you forget that you are on holiday and that the temperature is entirely man made.  As soon as I opened the back door and stepped out into the open air, it hit me.  It must have been eight o’clock but it was already very hot and humid but with the gentle breeze in your face blowing off the sea and hitting the elevated rock face we were perched on.  The view below was still amazing and the horseshoe of mountains seemed to hold and protect that farmland, villages and even the big town of Latina below us.

We had picked up provisions for breakfast the previous evening and spread out the bread, jam, fruit and cheese selection and ate breakfast and soaked in the sun.  No-one was keen on doing too much after the long slog of the day before so we agreed that it would be a rest and recuperation day.  My mum and brother set off to find a supermarket and explore the villages below as the rest of us stayed in the villa and played in the pool.

The kids introduced me to a new game called, rather fittingly, Marco Polo. Someone was picked as being ‘it’ and they had to stand in the middle of the pool with their eyes shut while everyone else ‘hid’ in the pool.  The ‘it’, with eyes still firmly shut then shouted ‘Marco’ and the hunted had to respond “Polo” and, using sound alone, they had to tag the hunted.  Simple, old fashioned fun, but it killed hours and didn’t involve any sort of electronic device so it was good for me!

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For lunch I wandered into the town square to pick up some more bread, crisps and drinks and took the opportunity to wander through some more of the cobbled streets and say hello to more of the locals.  It was obvious that the village was family focused and a lot of the people that lived there had lived there for generations.  I suspected that none of the front doors were locked and no one had any secrets.  Everyone was terribly friendly and very helpful, especially when it came to helping with my shopping when I had such a terrible grasp of Italian.

As the sun started to drop behind the far-off mountains off to the North it was time to get out of the pool and freshen up for our evening in town.  Our departure from the house was delayed somewhat by the neighbourhood cats and how bloody cute they were.  Hanging around their benefactor’s front door for their biscuits to be thrown out to them.  I say benefactor very carefully as it wasn’t their owner, they never seemed to get into the house, just hang around outside like it was a soup kitchen for homeless cats.

We wandered up the cobbled streets and stopped at the first restaurant we found.  A smart and friendly young chap looked after us and we sat inside the empty main room and ordered our meals.  It is amazing how tiring it can be to do absolutely nothing all day and we were all dropping tired as we had a meal that was far too nice for a family with three kids, two of whom were vegetarians, to appreciate. I think my little boy missed the subtle flavours of the locally sourced truffles and wild mushrooms in his pasta dish, but he pretty much ate every last mouthful none the less.

It was becoming a bit of a tradition, if you can have a tradition after two days, that on the walk home we stopped on the viewing platform next to the church and just watched the world go by for a little while.  I vividly remember holding onto my daughter, silently, and just watching the cars and scooters pottering along the roads and thinking how lucky we were to have found this spot.

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Day 6

Day 6

Another rest day was promised to our little intrepid travellers and this was a proper rest day, not even a bit of tourism.  I walked into town to pick up some lunch with my daughter and stopped and had a drink in the square.  I had always wanted to try an espresso in Italy and this was my moment.  I am glad I had tried it and ticked it off the list, but not something I would be trying again!  It was like a shot of burnt pencil shavings mixed with bitumen.  I am sure it was me at fault rather than the cafe, but it was way too much caffeine for me to take.

I had so much liquid energy that I couldn’t sit still and decided to go for a run in the afternoon.  I am preparing for a Half Marathon later in the year and wanted to try running in the heat to see what I could learn.  What I learnt is that it is bloody hard work!  I ran a lap of the town and was going to try for a second but, as I ran past a couple of old ladies sat on the wall chatting, I was sure that they had tried to stop me to talk.  I couldn’t be sure as I had my headphones in and as I ran away past them I was worried in case I offended them.  So, I turned and ran back towards them and home.  The lizards that were lazing at the side of the road scattered as I got close, I think they were trying to work out what the hurry was and why an idiot was running in the midday sun.

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As I got closer to the ladies, I was proved right, they had been trying to get me to stop and so I took off my headphones and chatted with them. Well, I say chatted, we didn’t have a clue what each other was saying but we used sign language, smiles and hand gestures to make our points.  I think they were saying that they lived locally and had been born in the valley below but I will never know that for sure.  It didn’t matter.  They were friendly and I was delighted that they wanted to chat with me, it felt like home.  As the sweat dripped into my eyes and burnt and stung them to distraction, the ladies were shouting ‘Giro, Giro’ which I have worked out meant that they wanted me to do another lap!  It was great having a fan club, but I couldn’t have done another lap if I had tried…..once you stop running for any length of time it’s hard to start again.

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As it got to early evening, we decided to head off the hill for dinner and head towards Latina, the main town below Sermoneta, to see if we could find a family restaurant.  We promised to stop at the first one we found.  We ended up driving, and driving and driving without passing anything that looked open or decent and we ended up in an area on the outskirts of Latina that looked remarkably like the scenery in video game Grand Theft Auto.  We hadn’t eaten pizza for a good half hour or so, so we piled into a place that was modern and bright and huge inside, opening up like a Tardis. Loads of Italian families were meeting up and the longest table must had had 30 people at it, and they seem to be sitting in age order from oldest at the top down to the kids at the other end.  I am sure that the older end of the table were looking at the kids with chips on their pizza, (Yes, ON their pizza, not WITH their pizza) and had a little internal ‘tut’. The seven of us ate like kings and it was only 57 EUR, off the tourist track was the place to be for a tight old bugger like me!

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Italy Day 5 – Rome

Italy Day 5 – Rome

After the rest day, it was time for another trip day!  We were heading to Rome and, if we had learnt one thing in the last 4 days, it was that trying to take a car into the centre of an Italian village was hard, town a nightmare but a major city was tantamount to suicide in a hire car.  We drove down to Latina train station and bought our tickets for the big train to Rome which were only €2 each way for the kids and €4 for the adults.  It wasn’t like a British train station where there is always a pretty decent drop down to the tracks from the platform, just enough to put off pretty much everyone apart from sprightly types from running over the tracks.  The drop was no more than twenty centimetres and it was most tempting if you found yourself on the wrong platform to just run for it.

One thing that was more like a British train experience was that no one seemed to know where the train was coming from and which platform we had to be on to get it when it did. My brother played a blinder though and tracked down the train on a totally different platform to the one that was being displayed on the boards and we ran like the Brummy family on the Fast Show to get on board just in time before it left.  It was air conditioned, spacious and clean and we sped through the Italian countryside and arrived in what seemed like no time at all.

As we made our way off the platform and onto the concourse, we were accosted by a man trying to sell us hop on hop off bus tours. I made the mistake of talking to him nicely and telling him that we would think about his offer and that was it, he was on to me.  I managed to get the price cut massively from his starting point but it was still a huge amount of money for a day saver ticket.  We ran off and left him behind and started walking towards the colosseum.    It soon became apparent that the cost saving idea of walking was not the best plan in the heat and bustle of the city centre.  We were going to spend the rest of the day walking and topping up with bottles of water at this rate so we jumped onto the underground instead.

For €7 per day per person we could travel all day and this turned out to be the best decision of the week!  We got off just next to the Colosseum and made our way towards the throbbing lump of humanity that had gathered outside.  It was carnage and trying to keep a group of seven together while making your way through the crowd was tricky.  Essentially, you had three options;
1) Pay on the door as general punters without a tour guide and wait for 90 minutes in the queue.
2) Pay for a tour guide and jump the queue.
3) Go home.

Three wasn’t an option, we had tried one at Pompeii and had learnt our lesson and so we went for option two.  The only problem was picking the next option of tours.  We chatted to a guy who assured us that they were going inside in the next 5 minutes, so we had to hurry and make a decision. We were still bartering 10 minutes later and having agreed a price, we still waited another 15 minutes.  While we waited, we had many people offering to sell us ice cold water (essential), some sun hats (not so essential), selfie sticks (not needed at all, ever) and parasols.  I made friends with a guy selling water, offering to sell him my empty bottle of water and my portable charging unit, it was way better than the ones he was selling,  but he wasn’t having any of it, but it was good banter none the less.
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Eventually, they had sold enough tickets for our little group and so we made our way inside and it was everything that I hoped it would be.  The guide talked over the history and explained the architecture and history came alive in front of us.  The scalewas amazing and the detail and thought behind the structure was incredible.  It was hard to believe that so much effort had been put into putting on such huge productions with moving scenery coming up and down from the bowels of the stadium on trap doors using pulleys and hoists.  The ingenuity mixed with the brutality and bloodlust for the animals and humans being slaughtered was quite a contrast.

We (Titchy and Itchy) had an amazing time and the tickets covered a tour of the Forum outside later in the day.  The instructions on where to pick up that tour guide were so complex and we were so hungry by this stage that we skipped it and decided to head for lunch instead.  We walked just over the road to the Via dei Santi Quattro and walked into a pizza place that had the feel of a Bavarian beer cellar.  The kids were very excited at the prospect of a Nutella pizza and so they were massively disappointed when they got exactly what that said it would be and were not remotely fulfilled.  As we walked back towards the centre, around the edge of the Colosseum, there was a bit of a commotion.  Someone had obviously spotted undercover police were making their way to check the street vendors and there were a series of whistles followed by about a dozen guys sprinting while holding a collection of hats and cheap electric tat that would catch fire if used more than once.  Despite most of the guys being about 50 but looking 60, I don’t think the police caught one of them as they were too busy trying to look cool!

 


Fed and watered we walked back into Rome and wandered through the streets looking for the next amazing thing to see. We made our way to the Trevi fountain and I was more conscious than ever of bag theft and pick pockets.  There was a lot of people crammed into a very small area all focused on getting the best view and a photo.  The two youngest members of our clan, both lads, decided that standing NEXT to the Trevi fountain wasn’t going to do it for them and so they decided to hang off the side of it which brought a lot of whistle blowing and hand waving from the best dressed security man I had ever seen.  I think it was a Gucci hat and tie combination but I may have been mistaken.

We were making great progress ticking off the must see things and the next spot, essential for an 11 year old boy, was the AS Roma club shop.  He loved the home strip and was about to buy it when the lady assistant pointed out that he was buying the adult female strip.  Bright red and shamed, he was handed the boys version and admitted that it did fit a little better!  It was astronomically expensive but he hasn’t taken it off since so using the €-per-wears co-efficient, it has turned out to be great value.

 

 

Drained of cash, we made our way to the Pantheon and wandered straight in to marvel at the building and the number of idiots with selfie sticks, or vanity poles as I like to call them.  Someone had upset someone by standing in the wrong area or carrying the wrong things and they were forcibly ejected by security.  All exciting times.  Having looked at the big hole in the ceiling (it was meant to be there, it wasn’t a dodgy plasterer), we were starving so headed out to find somewhere for tea.

We walked through the Piazza Navona and spent some time looking in a toy shop that had a weird combination of hideously expensive soft toys and figures of military dictators from around the globe.  Possibly the most niche shop I have ever been in, but all part of the fun.

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We couldn’t take any more pizza and pasta and asked the kids what they fancied to eat.  Before they could answer, as we walked around the corner we were right outside of a McDonalds and that was it, deal done.  That’s right. We went all the way to Rome and ate McDonalds.  Classy.  The food was exactly as it was everywhere else on the planet but the Wi-Fi was useful and the kids were happy and that’s all that matters after another day of culture for them to endure.

It was getting towards early evening by this stage and we wanted to tick off one more thing, the Spanish Steps.  My mum and brother headed off straight there but we took a detour to take in a view from the Pinto Umberto.  A huge building on the other side of the river, which turned out to be the Bar Association of Rome, was a fantastic back drop and, as we watched the sun setting over the horizon we could see the Vatican City off in the background.  We just stood on that bridge and watched life pass us by for a few minutes and it was quite perfect, in our own piece of heaven for just that moment.

 


It was a straight walk along the Via dei Condotti to the Spanish steps and it was obvious that we were not in the rough end of town.  There were some seriously impressive apartments, expensive cars and every luxury brand shop that you could imagine.  Some very serious looking people were walking about, dressed up to the nines and, more often than not, walking very angry looking tiny show dogs with them.  I’m not sure I am cut out to be rich and serious, it looks like a lot of hard work.

I think the Spanish steps were my favourite spot in Rome.  There are 135 steps, I counted them, leading up to a church at the top. I would say that 70% of these steps can’t be stepped on as people just sit on them and watch the world go by in the late evening warmth.  Street vendors were trying to sell laser pens by shining them onto the crotches of oblivious passing tourists to the mirth of everyone on the steps.

 

As we were settling down a street vendor came over to Titchy and gave her a handful of roses which she accepted with a smile and blush as she assumed that she was taking part in an Italian romance as if there was a perfume advert being filmed in the area.  The guy then turned to me and asked me for €40.  What sort of man would ask his lady to hand back roses that made her so happy in such a beautiful place?  It was very nearly me, but I managed to barter him down to €20 and we had a deal.  The result was a happy partner, a happy mum and a happy daughter who each got a rose out of the deal.

A Gucci clad security guard blew his whistle and waved his pristine, pressed white gloves at anyone daring to eat or drink on the steps or sit on the decorated stone carvings alongside the steps.

I am pretty sure that British tourists that had been tooted at would have turned a deep shade of red and wandered off with their tail between their legs, but the Italians seemed to get a second wind out of it and sat with great indignity the second the security man turned his back, only to get a second toot on the whistle.  This went on for two or three rounds before everyone got bored with it and moved on.  People watching is great!

By this stage we were tired and decided to head for the underground and then to the train station to head home.  We must have passed about four separate street performers as we made the journey to the train, each of them playing Despacito on whatever it was that they were playing. We jumped on the train, which was clean, cool and perfectly comfortable and chatted all the way home (those that were still awake).  It had been great, like a walk through history but such great memories were made.  We picked up the cars and made the short drive up the side of our mountain home where we had just enough energy to give the cats a tiny cuddle before we fell into our beds exhausted.

Italy bound

Italy bound

After months of procrastination and changes of plans, we found ourselves sitting on a plane from Newcastle to Rome in the last week of the school summer holidays.  Three kids 14 and under plus four adults, all set to soak in anything and everything that Italy had to throw at us.  As always, Newcastle airport was an absolute delight to pass through.  We arrived in a mini bus from the airport parking at Callerton Park and got through check in and customs with not a single problem.  The kids did ask us about why people were drinking pints of lager before the normal time for breakfast, but we explained that stag and hen parties mean that adults have different rules applied to them.

We flew with Jet2 and had the most stunning views of the Alps or Dolomites on the way over, it’s very hard to tell the difference from so high up.  Maybe there should be a project, we could crowd fund it, where huge labels can be placed at strategic points around the globe so that aeroplane passengers know exactly where they are in the world.  I know that the big planes have this on the in-flight display, but the short haul flights miss out and I would be happy to chip in a fiver to get this off the ground.  Who else is in?
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WhatsApp Image 2018-10-27 at 21.59.50We landed bang on time at Rome Fiumicino and found our first life hack of the holiday.  If you travel with under 12’s you get to skip the queue at passport control.  It almost makes travelling with kids worthwhile.  Almost.  We found out that it wasn’t always such a great idea moments later having got through passport control as we immediately lost the kids car seat that we had checked in at Newcastle airport under ‘Excess baggage’ despite it being the size of a box of cornflakes.  We were told that you had to pick it up from a certain area so wandered over and found a massive collection of, what appeared to be, abandoned car seats and pushchairs that you could pick up without any sort of checks taking place.  Life hack two of the holiday, don’t take a pushchair or child seat with you, just pick one up on arrival and run!

The seven of us, with six suitcases and a child seat in tow, looked like we were heading off from New York to join the gold rush but we were in fact heading to pick up the hire cars.  My brother and I, as designated drivers, took a ticket from the machine that, I think, they had taken from the deli counter at Asda when they remodelled in the late 80’s.  Despite our number coming up, a loud American lass that was dressed as if she was heading to a Yoga convention decided that, as she was louder than everyone else in the room, she should be seen to next.  I was happy so long as it meant I never had to see her or hear her ever again.

When we eventually got to the front of the queue, I was happy I had lost my rightful place in the queue as the lad who looked after us was absolutely spot on.  He was one of these people that, despite ‘just’ being the guy at the car hire station, he actually managed to add to the holiday by doing his job so well, with a smile on his face and a kind word and the odd joke with my little boy. As with almost everything in life these days, I got asked to do a follow up survey once we had picked the car up, I hope he got the kind words that I left for him passed on.

Having got all of the paperwork squared away and turned down 329 different types of insurance that they tried to upsell me, we headed out to pick up the cars.  I had been allocated a Jeep and my brother a hybrid Toyota Yaris.  Squeaking our way round and down the shiny floored multi story car park, I had about two minutes to get used to the car and the handling before hitting the Italian roads.  I had driven in Italy last year, but mainly on the motorway in the North of the country, but this was different!

If you haven’t driven in rush hour Rome, all be it just the outskirts, it’s pretty easy to imagine.  It’s like playing Mario Kart but instead of bananas and mushrooms the other players have a child in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Seriously, it’s like being in a car in the UK in the 1980’s, it’s not unusual to see kids standing on the passenger seat with no seatbelt on or two kids sharing the passenger seat.  Insane.

The excitement of the crazy driving got a bit much for me.  I was so focused on blowing my horn at people and shouting Mama Mia as drivers switched lanes for fun in front of me, I forgot to follow the directions.  It took a few false starts and U-turns but we were eventually on the way and eating into the 90KM to Sermoneta, our home for the week.  It was only about an hour and a half away but that, on top of the early start, the flight time, the wait to get out of the airport and it was touch and go if the three kids would have driven each other to madness in the back seats before we arrived.

We broke up the journey with a service station stop where we loaded up with mini loafs of bread, crisps, chocolate and fizzy pop.  Classic car trip fodder.  While everyone else got the provisions I stayed in the Jeep and worked out what the dazzling array of buttons were all about.  I managed to get my phone synced up with the blue tooth so that I could play my tunes but that didn’t last for more than half a song I seem to recall.

I thought that the car was handling a little strangely and I had worked out what I thought it was.  The Jeep was fitted with lane assist and so every time you switched lanes the car tried to auto correct you and put you back.  I had a choice, I had to either fight to move in and out of traffic while overtaking or be the only person in Italy who used indicators.  I didn’t want to be the odd one out so it was a good upper body work out for the rest of the week, fighting against my AI car.

The motorway eventually turned into a main road, the main road into a minor and the minor into a single track that snaked along the flat expanse of land between the Mediterranean sea to the west and the mountains overlooking it.   As we got closer to the mountainside, we could make out a village hanging off the side of it.  We knew we were close and there wasn’t much else around and so that had to be Sermoneta.  We came to a junction and turned off up the hill.  The kids, who had just started to get a bit bored and fighty, suddenly had something else to focus on and it was starting to get exciting, trying to work out where we would be and what was going to be around us for the next seven nights.

We followed the hair pinning road up the ever steepening hill and followed the road into the town square.  It felt like we were not the first people to drive into the town square expecting to find their lodging and be surprised that it was pedestrian access only after about 500 meters.  Titchy jumped out and asked for directions and was told we had come in the wrong side of town and had to come in via the back road.  At least we think that that was said.  Either way, I had to perform a tricky U-turn in the town square watched by, what looked like, the entire village that had come out to see the foreign guy take the wrong route.

The square was full of life.  Cafes, shops and an ice cream shop jumped out to the kids and they thought it was looking good. Driving out of the town square and working our way around the back of the village, we worked our way up and around the tight single track road until we hit the car park at the end of the line.  We had arrived at our destination.

I was not able to get my mobile phone working in Italy at all for the next week and so the landlord was not able to call me to arrange access.  So we waited around for a while looking for keys, trying locks and search for clues as if we were taking part in an escape room.  Eventually, we got in and as the adults worked out who would stay in which room and began unpacking, the kids walked down the terrace to the swimming pool. They wanted in and they wanted in fast!

Inside, the house was lovely with big, comfortable rooms and a pool table, but outside was where this place came into its own.  There was a terrace with a Barbeque and a patio table and chairs from which you could look out over the winding roads that we had just come through and the sea off in the distance.  We were to spend many an hour there in the next week just watching planes taking off, farmers zig zag back and forth over their fields, cyclists making their progress and clouds forming and moving in from the sea.  It really was the most perfect view.  One section further down the terrace and you had a swimming pool and sun loungers from which you could relax and take in the same views, just this time with kids trying to drown you.

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This was going to be a good holiday, I could tell.

We were all pretty tired by the time we had unpacked and got used to the surroundings so we decided to take a little walk into the town square and pick up something to eat.  We snaked our way through the narrow, cobbled streets and headed towards where we thought the town square was that we had driven up earlier in the afternoon.  We thought we were lucky by finding it pretty much right away, it turns out that there were only about three streets that all meet at the main square so we would have done well NOT to find it.

There was a lovely atmosphere.  Old people sitting in seats just watching the world go by, families (all locals) chatting over drinks at cafes and children running around playing without a care in the world.  All dressed up and just savouring the warm evening air.  We picked a pizza shop, it wasn’t a restaurant, more like a takeaway with a few seats and a table outside on the cobble steps.  We ate lovely slices of pizza fresh from the oven and watched customer after customer walk in, chat to the owner like a long-lost friend and pick up their takeaway pizza.  It felt amazing to be let into their world, no delivery guys, and no options, just going to the one guy in town that did takeaway pizza and chatting with him. Making a connection and saying hello to neighbours and friends as they waited to be served.

As we walked back to the house, we could hear family life going on through windows above open to let a cool breeze into the rooms.  Football on the TV, children crying, singing along to radios, family life.  Old people sat outside their front doors, keeping guard and chatting excitedly as we walked past them and said our ‘goodnights’ to them.  We thought it was the perfect evening, but there was still one more treat before bedtime.

Outside the house there must have been a dozen cats and two kittens all pottering about waiting to be fed by one of the neighbours.  Some were friendlier than others and they all looked like street cats but well fed, but the ones that were brave enough to hang around us were rewarded with cuddles and love before bed.  I think we all went to bed happy that we had picked the right place to call home, Sermoneta.

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Putting the Heart Back Into Whitley Bay

Putting the Heart Back Into Whitley Bay

Regular readers (both of you) might remember that I had a friend stay over a month or two back and I tried to show off the best of the North East of England for him. I wrote up the experience of the week here but, it could be summarised with ‘nice place, poor weather’.

Well, last weekend we had weather that we seldom get down at the coast.  Perfect sun and very nearly no clouds at all in the sky.  As we walked along the promenade I thought to myself, this deserves a follow up post!

The weather has been great now for the best park fo three week.  The grasses are turning brown and the rivers are drying up but it has been a great to live at the coast, plodding in the sea to cool off after a potter along the coast.  But Sunday was very hot and a very special day.  It was the day that there refurbished dome was opened to the public for the first time.

Anyone of a certain age in the North East remembers whitely bay as a vibrant go to destination on a summers day with fish and chips, bingo, amusements, arcades, fairgrounds, gift shops.  Basically, a proper English seaside holiday resort.

Well, about 20 years ago that all ended when the fairground closed down and the majority of the things that one would come to Whitley Bay to see, went.  So did the tourists and day trippers and so the downward spiral began.

When I move to the coast 13 years ago, the dome was in the opening stages of being refurbished and I have maybe been in two or three times since to see the progress.  The last time was at a Christmas market, I think 2016.  The place was freezing cold and stripped back to bare concrete with plaster falling off the walls and ceiling.

Walking along the prom, the sea was every shade of blue and shimmering as if it was encrusted with diamonds as the sun glinted off if.  The beach was full, the prom was full and there were a few dozen people in the sea.

 

 

The one solitary cloud in the sky looked like a make up removing pad floating in the sky, leaving the sun to penetrate the water so that you could see the rocks and stones deep below.  It really was like being on a Mediterranean holiday or, dare I say it, the Caribbean with golden sand.  The mods were out on the prom showing off their scooters but I wasn’t envious of their leathers and heavy helmets, just their super cool Vespas.

We reach the dome at a leisurely pace, overtaken by the land train that ferries happy children and not so happy parents back and forth along the prom.  There was a Jazz band playing in front and hundreds of folks all milling about looking happy and hot in the sun.  The original dome was built in 1910 and the whole place has been renovated with period features so the music was very much in keeping with the day.

 

As we snaked around the 2 floors and numerous bars and restaurants that now fill the space I am convinced that I was not the only one that was slightly emotional.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to sum up how or why that was the case.  Then I saw the banner that the council had put up explaining, “The heart is back in Whitley Bay”.  Like so many other things around this dome, they seem to have got it exactly right.

A chap sitting playing a piano in the centre of the room, with the dome above him with golden features painted on the glorious ceiling was just about the happiest things I’ve seen in a long long time.  None of the concession were open, it was just an opportunity to wander around the building and see what was to come, but it was perfect in my eyes.

I cant wait to get back in there and see if the service and quality of the food matches the building itself, I am sure it will and that is only a great thing for Whitley Bay.  Build it and they will come back.

Having done our lap, we walked off smiling to get lunch which consisted of chips and ice cream.  Well, it was the holidays after all!  As we walked with gentle and refreshing North Sea waves tickling our ankles we spotted jelly fish flopping about and so many cute dogs it was hard to take them all in.

I hope that this is the start of a very happy new chapter in the Whitley Bay story.

 

 

Our friend from the South

Our friend from the South

After a week off work entertaining my friend from the South, I can now sit back, relax and reflect on how it went.  I don’t means in terms of my hospitality or ability to entertain for three nights of course, I mean in terms of how I think the North faired on its judgement from the man in the South.
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St Mary’s Lighthouse in the half hour of sun from day one

Day one and I met him at the train station and we got the Metro to ‘The Coast’ as it is named on the Nexus maps (Nexus being the operator of the Metro system).  This caused a little bit of humour on the visitor’s behalf, the idea that there is only one coast that earned the definitive article title.

We dumped the bags and walked the dog through a local park and along the sea front.  The weather wasn’t the best, but it was shorts and hoodie weather for me. The Southern guest was cold and complained that it was colder that it was on Christmas Day in the South.  Bless him. His complaints were, I think, offset a little by the warmth of the fellow dog walkers that we chatted to and exchanged pleasantries with that warmed his heart a little, if not his hands.  He was certainly warmed by his first ever sighting of a previously unknown dog breed to him, the Bedlington terrier.

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The dog walked, we set off with my kids for dinner or ‘tea’ as we call it!  We headed to Turknaz for a kebab.  Before all of the Northerners panic and think I’m mad and the Southerners tut and think I’m scummy, this wasn’t a 2am-post-ten-pints kebab, this was a posh kebab.  So posh in fact that they won the best regional kebab award 2018.  
 
We had a lovely meal and he got to know my kids who he was meeting for the first time.  We left full of kebab, hummus and falafel as well as the sickly sweet Baklava and ice cream.

Day two and we headed to the Northumberland coast.  We followed the coastal route from Blyth up to Bamburgh which, ordinarily, would give us amazing views.  However, on this day, the one where I wanted to show off my patch more than any other day, my luck ran out.  There was a fret that sat on the sea all day and capped visibility to no more than 500 metres. However, it turns out that fret is a Northern term that meant nothing to him so let me translate, it is a sea mist that is very localised to about 1 km inland at most.
We stopped at Amble for a break and wandered around the little gift shops that line the walk down to the harbour.
There is the usual tat, cheese, sweets and inspirational messages written on driftwood, but the main take away from the man from the South was the fact that so many people were wearing shorts and/or T-shirts.  I tried to explain that it wasn’t that cold and that people in the North tend to dress for the season, not for the weather it actually is.  He wasn’t having it so, walking past the pensioners enjoying their coffee outside, we went for a coffee indoors.  

We dropped into Spurreli’s Boutique Ice Cream shop and it was rather lovely.  It was confirmed that the prices were more on the Southern end of the scale than North but, as I found out since, it was voted one of the best ice cream parlours in the country so I guess that explains it.

We jumped back in the car and headed back North up the coast.  The mist was so intense that we really didn’t see too much but the castles that suddenly jumped out of the mist were, as always very impressive.  We ploughed on all the way up to Bamburgh then headed inland to Alnwick to see if we could avoid the sea mist.  We had fish and chips that were lovely in the town centre and, once again, had terrific chats with the staff.  What the North East let me down with in terms of weather, the people were certainly making up for it.
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As full as a gun we headed to Barter Books www.barterbooks.co.uk.  It is a second hand book shop in the old train station and is a Mecca for book readers that swarm from miles around.  Personally I find it expensive and over fussy, but the people who love it absolutely love it as the bun fight in the car park seemed to back up.  With the sun peeping through the clouds, it looked as if the fog might be lifting slightly and so we confidently set off again to the coast.  As we headed back down south on the A1068 Coastal Route the sun was shining on the delightful coloured houses at Alnmouth.
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We turned and headed for the sun and had a quick wander along the beach amongst the dunes and golden sands where the sun made a brief but most welcome appearance.  Feeling the cold again, we had to have an emergency warming coffee for the Southerner and were made to feel most welcome at The Village tearooms.

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Alnmouth giving us our daily allowance of sun
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Alnmouth driftwood
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Alan the Alnmouth Snail

It was getting later in the day and we were worn out but it was a lovely village that I had never really explored before, I have marked this down as one to head back to at some point soon, as there seemed to be some lovely independent shops and full of foodie heaven shops.

As we headed back home, I though it might be nice to show off a part of the North East that I love, North Shields fish quay.  We parked up in the harbour car park and took in the sights of the highlights and low lights, walked through the old walls and then watched a fishing boat dock in the fish quay as the huge car transporter, filled with Nissans, passed us on the way out to sea.  The fishermen on the boat, there were two of them, unloaded their catch without once touching the cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.  Their constant endeavour looked like back breaking work, add to that the dangers that these guys faced at sea and it really did look like a hard way to make a living.  

We talked to some people that worked for a charity that rescued seagulls and took them into their care. They were there to collect the scraps of fish from the fisherman to use as food. They told us that the mist we had suffered from all day was in fact a Haar. This is a very localised term, used on the east coast of Britain, to describe a mist that forms between April and September when warm moist air moves over the North Sea and condenses as it cools and is blown back inland.
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The weird thing was that, after we wandered through the fish quay, we bumped into a lady who asked us questions about fishing boats as if we had a single idea what any of the kit or hardware was. We exchanged stories and the little information that we did know and probably chatted for about 15 minutes. She told us all about how the mist was called a Haar. Having never heard the phrase in my life, I heard it from two different and unconnected people in the space of 20 minutes.

We decided to have a quick drink down on the quayside, an area that I had never been to for drinks, only fish and chip takeaways. We stopped at the Salty Sea Dog pub, it was very trendy and hipster.  The focus was on gins (isn’t it everywhere right now?) and real ales and had a Shoreditch hipster feel.  I half expected a penny farthing parking bay outside to be honest.  They did tapas snacks such as Chorizo and scotch eggs and the clientele was mainly smart young females. It was the last thing I was expecting for the building opposite the fish landing site.  I was very pleasantly surprised.

It had been a long day, full of travel and fresh air and I slept like a log.

On the Thursday, myself and my visitor both had other appointments and so we went our own ways and didn’t catch up until the afternoon. We took a trip along the coast and enjoyed a coffee in Cullercoats at Beaches and Cream.


I have always had nothing but good service and food there and so when I looked to get the above link I was surprised to see more than a handful of quite negative reviews.  We were served happily and, yet again, ended up having long conversations with two members of staff and the couple at the table next to us.  It would have been perfect, sitting outside watching the traffic and people pass by, if only there had been blue skies and the sea view.  The Haar, which was still persisting into day three, spoiled the sea view. 

I explained that there was a cafe called ‘The View‘ overlooking King Edwards bay that would have been lovely any other day.  The fact that there would be no view and that the service and food don’t have the best reputation meant we stuck with Beaches and Cream.

My man from the south was very impressed at the aspirational name of The View as we hadn’t seen more than 200 meters out to sea all week! In fact, he was asking in the local shops if we could get postcards of local landmarks that were a bit more honest and showed the Haar and mist rather than the clear blue skies.

Unperturbed, we walked along to the headland between Tynemouth and Cullercoats and, low and behold, the sun burnt through for a half hour and we could just about make out The Grand Hotel and The Priory at Tynemouth and enough sea to appreciate its power and rolling splendour.  It is such a shame that the weather gods didn’t smile on us, but we got a feel for what we could have won at least.  We watched a young man of around 25 years of age leave his partner and baby and decide to walk on the perilously narrow ledge onto the craggy rocks out at sea.  We were both blown away by his stupidity, he was half a slip away from being a dead man at the foot of the rocks some 30 feet below him with waves crashing over his body.  As he made it back, we felt a little cheated and disappointed that we had not seen natural selection in process so we headed home for showers and a change of clothes.

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As a thank you for being his tour guide and driver for the last few days, my friend wanted to take me to 21 for dinner.


This was way smarter than my usual restaurant and I had never been but I was well aware of its reputation of its head chef, the Michelin starred Terry Laybourne.  We were warmly welcomed for drinks at the bar and we were so well looked after, it was like walking into the restaurant on the TV show First Dates.  We were shown to our table and were very politely and professionally served Crab Lasagne with Chive Butter Sauce and for meGran Reserva Iberico Ham and Toasted Tomato Bread for starters.  

Mine was exactly what it said on the tin, two slices of toasted bread topped with tomatoes and a plate of ham.  I am not totally sure that it came out of a tin, but it was fantastically tasty.

For mains, I had Braised Shoulder of Beef with Two Celeries and my guest had Roasted Northumbrian Venison, Salt Baked Beetroot and Fresh Asparagus – Goats Cheese Croquettes.  It was every bit as pretentious and delicious as it sounds.  The beef fell apart and the gravy/jus was simply perfect.  The service was second to none, the staff were on hand but never interfering or in the way.  Perfectly mannered and perfectly drilled on how to look after the customers.

It had cleared into a warm and pleasant evening and so we walked along the Newcastle quayside and over the Millennium bridge.  It was such a pleasant evening and it was so nice to see so many people walking along the quay.  I heard all sorts of languages and saw all ages, sizes and shapes enjoying the warm, calm evening surrounded by the contrasting but beautiful buildings. Newcastle really is a nice city to call home.

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My guest was on the train back to the deep South on the Friday morning and so we just had time for a coffee with mid morning cakes!  We headed into Whitley Bay to try Kith and Kin.

I had been a few times before for breakfast and lunches and it really is quite lovely and quite London.  You know the sort, they sell things that contain halloumi, Chia, Avocado and almond milk and don’t think it’s funny.
Yet again, we were welcomed in with happy faces and warm welcomes.  I asked for a hot chocolate and was asked if I wanted dark, milk or white. They used real chocolate to make the stuff, not powder, and the idea of a white chocolate drink seemed too good to miss.  I wish I had missed it.  It was like drinking liquid milky bar, but more sickly, and by the time I got to the bottom of the cup it was just hot milk. Not the cafe’s fault, mine for a bad choice of overly sickly drink!
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My companion was dropped off at the metro, heading into town to get the train, and I think he was impressed. I’m not sure what he was expecting, nor was I really.  It did make me realise how nice my patch of the country is. There were so many places that I could have taken him to that we didn’t have time for.  There is no shortage of quality in terms of attractions, cafes, restaurants and views.  For every bit that the weather let me down, the famous northern hospitality certainly didn’t let me down….well, I hope it didn’t anyway!