The one benefit of being on a long cruise was that Sue and I didn’t have to listen to the daily bombardment by politicians and supporters from both sides of the Brexit argument, continually manipulating the news 24/7 to further their own agenda. Thankfully, the topic was rarely discussed by our fellow passengers and when it was the chatter was principally concerned with the shame the nation felt being represented by a bunch of self-interested yapping buffoons who lack the moral courage to work together for the betterment of the country in which they were elected and charged with the responsibility of carrying the mantle of democracy. Foolishly, we all assumed that by the time we returned to the UK the matter would have been resolved. Oliver Cromwell aptly summed up the situation better than I could ever do in his speech to Parliament on the 20th April 1653:
‘It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.
Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?
Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.
In the name of God, go!’
Well the issue is still not resolved and doesn’t look like being any time soon, so it seemed like a sanity saving move to escape the nonsense and visit Phil and Joan in Italy, so we booked some flights!
Mother’s Day saw Sue treated to afternoon tea at a lovely venue in Market Bosworth, with Charlotte, Jamie and Sarah. I had another reflexology session with Doreen and the following day (April Fool’s) an appointment with the doctor. I came away with a prescription for Naproxen (strong anti-inflammatory).
On the 2nd April, despite an awful weather forecast, Sue joined her U3A group for a walk from Launde Abbey. Her gamble didn’t pay off as she and the group got a thorough soaking on a particularly cold day. On her return to a warm Willow Bank log fire, we both spent the late afternoon packing and sorting out the house in readiness for an early night and an even earlier start before our drive down to Stansted Airport the following morning. As we were getting ready for bed we had a phone call from Salford informing us that Uncle Stan had fallen at home and broken his hip, he was now in hospital and was recovering from an operation. There was little we could do so we resolved to visit when we returned
We rose at 1am and as it turned out we were fortunately on the road (A14) half an hour later. All went well, until after passing under a closed A1 (both North and South) which ironically turned out to be an indicator that the Highway Authorities had decided that night to go mad. As we approached Cambridge the road narrowed to a single lane and we entered a series of three large roundabouts. There was only one exit on each of them (other than the one we had entered by) but the signage displayed was confusing, informing us that we were exiting onto the A14 West AND the A14 East! I circumnavigated each of these twice to check that I hadn’t missed any other exits. Despite updating my TomTom the previous day it had no such roundabouts displaying and only returned from oblivion as we exited a fourth and smaller roundabout. Thankfully we sped on with reassuring A14 Diversion signs at regular intervals, until TomTom asked me to turn off the dual carriageway. This I did. A couple of miles later we came across lorries parked up on both sides and the road ahead shut. Returning to the point where we diverted, we again followed the signs for A14 E and confusingly we returned to the same sequence of roundabouts experienced half an hour prior. Tensions rising rapidly. This time we sped through them at speed and ignoring Satnav we ploughed on into the dark following the yellow A14 E Diversion signs. Relief at coming across a diversion sign that pointed to us exiting the dual carriageway was short-lived as within a mile we again came across lorries parked up on either side and the road again closed. Yes, we were now 5 miles further on than before and it was a different lorry park. Trying to make sense of where we were a kindly (and equally confused) lorry driver knocked on the window and told us to ignore Satnav and the last detour sign and keep going on the A14 E. Returning to the dual carriageway we again followed the yellow signs for A14 E and crazily ended up back at the sequence of roundabouts! How can this be? With growing depression we sped through them again and ignoring the Satnav turn-off and then the A14 E detour off the dual carriageway we rocketed on into the night, again coming across the reassuring A14 E signs. After many more miles and signs, imagine the shock when we came across a road sign saying Kettering ahead!!!! We had been beginning to suspect we were going west and this was proof! Pulling off at the next junction I stopped the car and consulted the map on TomTom and set it to take us to Royston which I knew was directly south and away from this madness. In Royston, I adjusted TomTom to shortest route to Stansted so that it would not take us anywhere near the A14 or M11. Rallying down country lanes through small hamlets and villages and several fords, luckily only meeting one other car on route, at around 10 miles from destination I adjusted TomTom back to fastest route so that there was no danger of any further surprises.
As soon as we parked up in JetParks the shuttle bus thankfully arrived. Racing through security, the gate number was up and miraculously it wasn’t closed. We joined the queue and soon afterwards with shattered nerves and thoroughly exhausted, we boarded the plane. It took off on time at 6.35 am.
In the past Phil and Joan have picked us up at the airport and taken us to Santa Vittoria, but on this occasion we had hired a car at the airport and booked a hotel in Ancona for a couple of nights as we thought we would explore the town and area before driving to Joan’s. We stayed in the EGO Hotel, chosen because it was close to the airport and town and had its own on-site parking. It turned out to be an excellent choice with a lovely breakfast and staff that were amazingly friendly and helpful, much-needed after the trauma of the A14 E.
We checked in early and took a walk around the area to orientate ourselves before driving into Ancona and visiting the rather impressive Cathedral. It is situated on the hill above the town and gives impressive views of the port and across the bay back towards our hotel. There was a large cruise liner being extensively worked on below us, it was fascinating to watch the workforce clambering all over the ship and trying to figure out what they were doing. Inside the cathedral we came across a school group being instructed by their megaphone toting teacher. In the crypt there were several macabre but interesting, elaborate and gold encrusted sarcophagus containing previous abbots (or equivalent). As with most Catholic churches there are plenty of paintings and murals to see, many with a liberal amount of gold leaf embedded into them. But by far the most striking effect was the shadow cast onto the wall of an apse by a judiciously placed spotlight in front of a statue of Christ on the cross. Worth visiting this cathedral for that alone.
From the cathedral we walked to the nearby amphitheatre. Though it wasn’t open (far too early in the year) it wasn’t a disappointment as all could be seen from the peripheral wall and the information boards were in Italian and English. It was obvious that the town had made much of this feature of their history in the past, but you could tell that of late they had neglected to maintain the site as a viewing auditorium set to one side had several bushes growing out from the modern seating. A shame.
We moved on up the hill, passing an ancient Roman cemetery with block head stones scattered across the site and fenced off from the public, eventually arriving at the old lighthouse, from which we could see the outline of the ancient port below. We took shelter under a large holly tree during a brief shower and then returned to the comfort of our Fiat Panda.
That evening we aptly ate Italian in the hotel before retiring for an early night.
The next day we drove a short way down the coast along a winding and spectacular coastal road to Portonova. What a stunning route down to the beach from the towering cliffs above. This former fishing hamlet is at the foot of Monte Conero in the beautiful and unspoilt Conero Nature reserve. The place was formed many millions of years ago when part of the mountain slipped into the sea and formed this gorgeous spot. Well worth a visit. We came across another group of students, this time with quadrats and busily engaged in counting shells on the beach. We stood awhile and watched some wind surfers flying along in tricky conditions with a stiff breeze making their sport a little more exciting than usual. Satisfied with the pebbly beach we briefly took a trail into the woods behind the car park and discovered a small lake, very pretty with a couple of sleeping ducks our only company. The path was a circular one of quite a few kilometres but today we were not to walk it, my knee was sore and if I was to continue driving it wasn’t worth the risk. We moved on by car to the far end of the beach and sat contentedly on a sunny bench chatting and watching the cormorants diving for fish. A friendly dog came to say ciao but couldn’t understand English, so quickly returned to it owner, what do they teach them at kennel school nowadays? On the way back to the car, we again sat and procrastinated, this time by another small reedy lake, listening to the noisy mating calls of several hidden Casanova frogs.
We returned to the hotel by a different and less interesting route, made worse by having to negotiate a couple of uniquely Italian road junctions, where you roll a dice and slam your foot on the accelerator and cut across several lanes of oncoming traffic, hoping you threw a 6. I did, twice!
That evening we ate in a small restaurant below the hotel. Sue had a good, meal I didn’t. Apparently Pizza Pecorino is a flat, dry, burnt, bread base, heaped with a 5cm topping of rocket leaves with, 4 x 2cm cubes of brie and a small twirl of spiced ham in the centre and not the delicious strong-tasting cheesy pizza I was expecting. Hmm, I wish my Italian vocabulary extended beyond Gratzi!
After breakfast we were to travel to Santa Vittoria, so we hit the road again just after 10am. Italian roads (including motorways) in April are very, very quiet in comparison to British highways. If it wasn’t for the necessity to continually check your rear view mirror to gauge when the Roman charioteer a metre or two behind your rear bumper has made the decision to overtake, then you could probably catch a nap or two on a journey of any length. However, it wasn’t too long before I cottoned onto the Latin psyche for overtaking; when there is a blind bend, preferably on or near the top of a blind hill and you are absolutely certain there is oncoming traffic, that is the best time to overtake! If there are a couple of slower cars in front of you, that is even more advantageous. I guess they consider that all Italian cars have engines built by Ferrari, mine certainly did.
We took the motorway down the coast to Porto Civitanova and spent a pleasant couple of hours enjoying the warmth of the sun and a few of the sites this pleasant seaside holiday destination had to offer. Most memorable was the midday chimes emanating from an over large imposing tower, fronting the town church, situated next to the marina. The melody played was pleasant but must have lasted a good five minutes. Not good if you work shifts and want to sleep during the day, but I guess you would get used to it and in defence, it was quite tuneful. We stretched our legs and walked the harbour wall all the way to the little green painted lighthouse at the end, before stopping to cogitate on the large graffiti/murals/artwork seen on the opposite sea wall. We agreed which we liked and considered the rest as ‘Banksy’ wannabees.
Returning to the car we headed inland, deep into the countryside. After leaving the coastal plain, we began to steadily rise, at first passing around and beneath the hilltop towns so characteristic of Tuscany and the lesser known Marche, before we eventually began to wind our way up through these very pretty medieval settlements. We stopped to investigate a few of them, always admiring the spectacular views that could be seen from a central piazza or pinnacled church. As we were to discover during the next few days, though each of these small towns are in their own way quite unique, they all seem to be devoid of inhabitants. Only on the Sunday did we witness more than half a dozen people at any one time and as you can guess they were on their way to church.
It was around 4pm when we parked up next to Phil’s car outside the renovated and very white farmhouse that Joan and Phil have lived in for the last 12 years. Many of the less solidly constructed buildings in the area, particularly in the town above have succumbed to frequent earthquakes and have either collapsed or are now heavily supported by huge wooden ties. It is a with a sense of bewilderment that we none Italians (or Catholics) find it difficult to comprehend that priority is given to the repair of the churches before the homes that people live in. Many families and individuals find themselves in hotels and B&B’s with the likelihood this will be the case for many years to come. Why the people accept this situation is beyond me.
We had seen Joan and Phil just before Christmas and they had changed very little, seemingly pleased to have some company after what had been a particularly cold and inhospitable Italian winter. They have fully embraced the rural Marche way of life, living simply, eating fresh food, drinking local wine and enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a rustic life style. Phil has his music (a vast selection of CD’s) and technical magazines, Joan has her books and a more than the average garden to exercise her horticultural skills. Oh yes, and they have a cat. Cat lives outside under the veranda, it was one of several pets owned by a British family down in the valley, but when they left to return to the UK a couple of years ago, it sensibly made its way to the white house below the town where it knew it would find a home. Though on the surface Joan and Phil appear to discourage the animal, it is well fed and watered and provided with a comfortable place to sleep, and the cat knows better!
We stayed five days. The weather was kind to us, certainly better than that being experienced by those back in the UK. For most, the days were bright, sunny and warm, though on occasion at the more exposed sites we visited, a northerly breeze invite us to add an extra layer of clothing. As we had our own transport we took the opportunity to visit the surrounding towns that I had visited with Joan and Phil when Roger and I came to visit in the early years of retirement. As expected little had changed other than many buildings were now shorn-up and there was fewer people about. Some of the churches were open and we always took the opportunity to investigate their interiors, often coming across some beautiful frescos or interesting architecture and occasionally a description in English to aid our understanding. A favourite haunt are the cemeteries attached to each settlement, we can spend ages discussing how the deceased met their end from the dates, ages and photograph supplied on each internment. Identifying family names is another fascinating habit we have acquired as a diversion.
Here is a list of the hill top towns visited: Montelparo, Monteleone di Fermo, Servigliano, Montefalcone Appenino, Smerillo, Monte San Martino.
On one morning there was a vintage car rally passing through Santa Vittoria so we spent pleasant hour watching the rather noisy but lovingly restored and polished vintage models rumble into the town square, collect a ticket before roaring away under the clock tower.
We also spent several hours walking around Lago del Tenna (lake). Both Sue and I and Roger and I have eaten at the lake side restaurant in the past with our hosts, but never circumnavigated it. There is a well-marked and path that takes you on a complete circuit of the lake, but today part of the path has been washed away by the river that runs into the lake and prevents you from following the mapped route. This must have been the case for a number of years now, as evident by the tree growth on the eroded section, yet none of the signage has been changed to show that you can no longer complete the route. As we had trekked more than half the distance we returned to the car by the less satisfactory roadway. I guess, with the earthquake damage the authorities have more pressing issues to attend to.
Both Joan and Phil (despite being vegetarians) are exceptional cooks and eating with the Smiths is always a treat and coupled with their own blend of wine, the evenings pass far too quickly. As two couples, we did sample the local cuisine; an evening meal in the Farfense in the town and lunch at a roadside café in Ponte Maglio. Both meals were splendid (though Sue was less impressed by the latter), but neither could match those that our hosts provided for us daily, casually described as simple fayre, worthy of a Michelin star or two. I can see why Phil has put a bit of weight on.
Our short time in Santa Vittoria came to an end at 5.30am on the 10th with Phil, Joan and Cat waving us goodbye under a chilly star bright sky. We made good progress back to Ancona, with little traffic encountered on route, we stopped briefly just before the airport to fill the tank up with fuel and finding the rental car park we popped the keys into the drop box as the staff were yet to come on duty.
After a breakfast snack we made our way through security and waited for the flight, which left on time. Though allocated seats in different part of the aircraft I had no one either side so Sue joined me. I slept most of the flight away.
The drive was interesting from the point of view that we didn’t encounter the dreaded roundabouts (they were being worked on) but we did pick up the maliciously inaccurate A14 E signs all the way to the Wellingborough turn off, before Kettering! I can only guess that some idiots had been given the signs to indicate an A14 diversion East, but the clowns had (in the dark, like us) taken the west bound carriageway by error and dropped them off at all the turn-offs until the had run out of signage. I can’t think of any other reason, but why are they still there after a week, too scared to admit the error and collect them? I will never know and don’t care now.
Since returning we have been looking after Ellis (who is on half term) and Harry (the greyhound) while Charlotte attends to her clients gardens. The weather has been good, the grass has been growing, the blossom bursting and my onions and broad beans have all poked their noses out of the soil just in time for a run of night frosts.
Not a partridge in a pear tree, but two pheasants under a fir tree!!
On our return from Italy Sue telephoned the hospital that Stanley was in to find that he had gone rapidly downhill. The nurse didn’t think that he was long for this world. We scheduled a visit on the 17th as this was the only day we didn’t have prior commitments.
On the day before our journey north to Salford Royal Hospital I, Peter and Harry travelled to Newbold Verdon to work on Sarah’s summer-house while she was incapacitated after her operation. Sue took Ellis to see Dumbo at the cinema in Kettering while Charlotte worked on a large garden in Harborough. Sue again contacted the Salford hospital to find that thankfully Stanley had rallied and was doing better. We shall see for ourselves tomorrow.
Update: We visited Stanley for around half an hour, he is now blind and has difficulty hearing. He finds it difficult to breathe with quite a lot of fluid on his chest and spends most of his time asleep. He is quite cantankerous and complained in the brief time we were there about the surgeons, doctors, nurses, food etc. etc. His mind seems as sharp as ever. He clearly had enough of our visit and after awhile politely asked us to go. He surprisingly looked well, though he obviously is not, according to the nurses he is not eating much.
Prior to our hospital visit we called in to check on Stanley’s house, it had been cleared, cleaned, painted and re-carpeted and seemed in good order. He had put a couple of mats down in he lounge by the kitchen door and we guess that these contributed to his fall. We only made a brief visit as everything seemed fine before driving to Blackleech Park to eat our packed lunch as it was too early for the hospital visiting times.
On our way back to Harborough we called in to see Sarah and I filled the back of the car with fire wood that Lee had been saving for us.