Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Contursi Terme, Italy

Thursday 3rd October 2013

Contursi Terme, famous for its natural spas, perched on the end of a hill

We set off from Diego's farm in Sicily on a lovely sunny morning to head towards the coast, pop on a ferry to Italy and head to my Grandads 'farmhouse' in Contursi Terme. I say farmhouse in quotation marks because that's what my family still call it as it did used to be a farm, with chickens and donkeys, vineyards and olive groves, set half way up Monte Pruno. It does still have the vineyards and olive groves surrounding it, among other worked fields, but none of my family live their full time to run it as a farm.

I've been longing to visit the farmhouse, and Italy, for years but it hasn't been until now that I have been able to. I had been to the house twice before when I was 11 and 14 I think, and my memories of those holidays are of having water fights and sitting in a paddling pool outside the front of the house, driving into the town to get ice cream and being stared at by the locals curious as to who we were in their small, rural town, going to a beautiful sandy beach about an hour away and also watching thousands of fireflies from the balcony at night. To me they were the most perfect holidays and I couldn't wait to go back!

The view from the house at sunset

Before we left England I had Google mapped the way to the house and made sure I knew where we were to turn off as the house is located off the main road, up a very potholed dirt track and just sits alone, I don't even think it has it's own road name. Turns out I hadn't needed to be so prepared as when we were driving through the town we started getting beeped at by a car at the side of the road and as we slowed down I saw it was my Great aunt Maria and second cousin Mario, who recognised our van, we stood out quite a bit in this tiny town full of old, tiny Panda 4x4's. 

They were keen to show us the way to the house but first they wanted us to stop off at their's for a coffee. Zia Maria had previously lived in England and I was amazed how well she still spoke English considering she probably never had the use for it where she lived now. We had a quick chat about family, a strong coffee and she wanted me to call home to let everyone know we had got their safe! She loaded us up with fresh eggs from her chickens and tomatoes before we left with a promise to come back and visit in a few days. It was great to see her again, I found it funny that she couldn't always remember my name (she is quite elderly now!), saying it was a strange name or getting confused with my sister or one of my many cousins, but she could remember Adam's just fine! 

The power cut candle and Zia Maria with her chickens

We went to see her a few more times during the week and it was great listening to her stories of my mum when she was younger, something else that amazed me was her ability to remember the exact date and year of when something had happened, every story had the year to go with it and I struggle to remember what happened a few months ago! It was also a massive coincidence that we found out she used to work on the same mushroom farm in England as one of Adam's old colleagues from Gatwick airport. It really is a small world. We also got the chance to ask some questions about Italy that had been bugging us, like why there were so many half built buildings around, like the one opposite her house. Apparently there were many reasons for this such as people starting to build before getting permission and then having to stop, running out of money, but also because sometimes they will build the main structure first and then leave it for a few years to see if it withstands any earthquake tremors. We had to drive pretty slow over some parts of the roads as you could see damage from previous earthquakes where it had just twisted the road up.

On Sunday we drove an hour to go on the Vollo Dell'Angelo (Flight of the Angel), a 800m high zip wire across the Lucanian Dolomites and suspended between two towns. It was amazing! We heard about it from Diego, our Sicilian host and knew we had to give it a go. The rest of the time we spent chilling at the farmhouse, we did a bit of painting on the balcony on one sunny day, which we've never done together before, I think there was some healthy competition of who could paint the best scenery! We went into town for a drink and some wifi, I went for a walk up the mountain behind the house which was delayed at first as there were a few very protective sheep dogs guarding their flock in the next field that I couldn't get past until the shepherd led them down the hill. Yes they still have shepherds! 

Painting on the balcony and storm clouds rolling in

There was also some pretty epic thunderstorms that rolled across the valley in front of us, some thunder actually shook the window panes which I hadn't experienced before! It made for perfect evenings reading or catching up on Breaking Bad though! We've decided that our next stop is going to be the ancient city of Pompeii.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Diego's farm, Sicily

Thursday 26th September 2013 - bit late on getting these posts up!

We have just spent a week on the friendliest farm on the whole of Sicily. Confident that even though the van hasn't been fixed, it won't majorly break down on our drive up through Italy, we drove onto the ferry in Genoa for a 20 hour sail down to Sicily. It wasn't a very eventful journey, we spent most of it in what looked like a slightly larger version of an aeroplane seat, in a room full of other sleepy people. 

Driving through Sicily

Adam's dad used to work with a guy from Sicily who knew Diego and on one of his many motorcycle trips stayed at the farm himself and said it was definitely somewhere we had to go and visit, with their unrivaled hospitality and almost self sufficient lifestyle. There is only a handful of people that work on the farm, including a lovely lady who had contacted them through a volunteer website and had stayed for over a year and was now like part of the family. When they first bought the land it came with a few dilapidated buildings which have now all mostly been resorted and extended. They are in the process of converting a building into a space where volunteers who would like to help out on the farm can stay, have installed solar panels and grow most of their own food. Anyone who wishes to help out on the farm is repaid with a comfortable place to say and delicious home cooked meals. We couldn't wait to get there!

The drive through Palermo when we disembarked the ferry was as crazy, dangerous and hectic as could be expected. The road through the city was wide enough for five lanes, with no road markings and quite a few crossroads. After a few near misses and Adam's driving getting increasingly more Sicilian we decided to pull over and get some sleep, ready to drive to the farm in the morning when we could appreciate the scenery.

We were to drive pretty much straight across the island and it took most of the day. The landscape went from green and mountainous with lots of towns on the coast, to just a handful of the population living in the middle of the island working their farms. We had vague directions to the farm, we thought we were in roughly the right place and stopped to ask for directions (who turned out to be English people!) when Diego and his girlfriend Cinzia drove past us on their way home. We spent the evening learning about how the farm was run, what they grew, meeting who lived and worked their and for dinner had pasta with a yummy chili sauce. 

The cockerel, chickens and pigs in the pen next to our van was our alarm clock for the morning and as it was the weekend the farm was pretty relaxed. We were keen to start helping out to earn our stay and didn't want to take advantage of their hospitality, but we kept being told to relax, it's the weekend! We took a walk up the mountain through the farm, which is on Mount Etna, most of the paths are made from hardened lava stone, to explore and visit the donkeys. When we were past the vine yards another property came into view, as well as their 5 or 6 massive and loudly barking dogs. We guessed we weren't welcome any further and quickly hurried back down the mountain before they started chasing us!

In the afternoon we helped make pasta by rolling the dough into long worm shapes, cutting them up into smaller pieces and then pressing the dough flat with three fingers whilst rolling it down to turn it into an almost tube shape. They don't make their own pasta very often as it does take a long time, and we also learnt that they eat it pretty much every day! I did not mind this at all as it's one of favourite meals and each time it had a different sauce and flavour. Pasta was usually served at lunch, always with parmesan on the table and a few other sides such as salad or whatever was growing and ready to pick on the farm. Dinners were also usually vegetarian meals as meat was often reserved for special occasions and festivals. Everything was always delicious and fresh. Adam and I offered to cook one evening and instead of going for a British meal we went with French, and made them tartiflette. But using Sicilian cheese which they thought was an improvement!

When Monday came we were ready to start helping out, after testing the grapes for the right levels of sugar for them to be picked and finding the levels were too low, we were tasked with picking the olive's from their twelve or so trees. We had to drape big nets around the bottom of the tree to catch the olive's when they fell. It was pretty fun for the first day and a half but I can imagine doing it when there are hundreds of trees and it takes weeks it gets pretty tiring. We had music and shade from the trees so it wasn't too hard going, even if I did fall out of the tree when my ladder toppled over. 

On Wednesday we took the train to a town called Randazzo for lunch. Going out for lunch turned into a whole day mission! We had to walk down the mountain to the train track and along the track to the abandoned station. The train only stops if it sees people standing there. We hopped on and shouted at the driver over the noise of the engine where we wanted to go and then the train with one carriage made it's way down the mountain, with a great view of the top of Etna and through different vineyards. 

The town was really pretty with some very old quaint parts. We wondered around the streets and through the squares before deciding it was time to eat. Finding a restaurant turned out to be a bit difficult, obviously we had forgotten about the siesta and we were right in the middle of it, all the cafes were closed and pretty much everyone was asleep inside. We found one place open, it probably used to be a restaurant, it still had lots of tables and chairs laid out like one, but now it was just one little old lady who had cooked a massive lasagna and was serving that to all who passed by hungry. I would have been happy to eat their but Adam was craving some meat so we kept hunting. We eventually found a great place called Sainto Georgio del Drago, who served bundles of meat, beer and massive glasses of Coke. We were pretty happy and chilled out there for a few hours before getting the train back. Which was miraculous enough considering you just have to guess where the train goes when it pulls into the station.

On the last day we went to the beach in the late afternoon after Cinzia kindly offered a lift there and back whilst she ran some errands. We watched the sun set behind mount Etna and then went back to help make pizzas in their indoor stone oven. It was our last night on the farm and we had really enjoyed our week and couldn't thank them enough for letting us stay with them and experience it. I was going to miss their cooking! I also learnt that the Cactus liquor I had accidentally knocked a glass of over, took 100kg of cactus fruit to make just one litre! I felt quite guilty about wasting a glass and Adam felt guilty about drinking so much of it! Tomorrow we have a ferry booked to get us over onto mainland Italy to stay at my Grandad's house in Contursi Terme.