“Mark. Are you listening?” I asked.
I was admiring Peter’s wagon, particularly the epithet ‘Travel Endangers Prejudices’, which he had emblazoned on the back. Peter, Beata, and Alex had just come from Albania.
“Don’t go in the mountains,” Peter told me. “We struggled with our trucks!” His small truck camper and his friends’ Unimog were both considerably smaller than The Beast.
Mark nodded, but I am never sure he’s really taken things on board.
Peter explained a few niceties of Albanian culture.
“In Albania, you nod to say ‘no’ and shake your head to say ‘yes’. But to make it easier for Europeans, some Albanians nod to say ‘yes’. So, when an Albanian nods, it’s like a double bluff. You’re not sure whether they mean yes or no!”
Sometimes, I suspect Mark could be Albanian. Usually when he utters phrases such as, “This road will be absolutely FINE in the truck…”
“Try it!” Peter said. He delivered an amplified nod while enunciating a forceful “No”. Then he deployed an pronounced shake with a highly exaggerated “Yes”.
It’s harder than you think. Like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. It could be my imagination, but Mark, a notoriously focussed non-multi-tasker, seemed amply able to manage it…
The journey from Puntone to Saturnia was a little hair-raising. It was mountainous, which immediately pulled the recoil starter cord on my concerns about the brakes overheating. After the wheel-smoking incident induced by our descent from the Italian Alps, Simon, a trucker friend, volunteered the following friendly advice:
“You are on drum brakes, not discs. You definitely have to beware of overheating drums. They fade in no time.”
‘They fade in no time’ plagued my consciousness as the satnav recommended some turns that were impossible for the truck, or directed us on to roads with signs declaring ‘No Lorries’. We had to re-route several times. At one point, we all breathed in as the single-track lane narrowed. I checked the satnav, which predicted a left turn in a few miles. As I surveyed the terrain, I prayed it would not lead on to a dirt road.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this!” Mark said, not very reassuringly. I scanned him carefully for any Albanian overtones.
At least the views provided some compensation. In the distance, the sea winked and shone like a sheet of gold leaf through vineyards, or the twisted branches of the olive groves that crowned the mountains. God’s spotlights, my name for the fans of light which descend from the clouds, picked out shimmering, otherworldly highlights.
As damson skies descended upon Tuscany, Mark posed a very reasonable question.
“What time does it go dark?”
Our journey had taken much longer than the two hours we’d anticipated. I didn’t know when night would fall, but I had noticed we were driving against a white tide of motor homes. They were all coming the other way – from Saturnia, our destination.
It was Easter weekend.
Besides my general road condition and overheating brakes anxieties, a new concern emerged. Would the sosta be full?
When we passed a pizzeria with a large car park, I made a mental note. It had Plan B potential, although the consequences of our eviction were still evident inside The Beast. Our home was filled with soaking wet laundry. It was all pegged on to a rotary airer, ready to put straight out, but a vintage lorry is one thing. It has some curiosity value. But swags of pants and bedding are not usually deemed a good look in a restaurant car park.
We finally arrived at our sosta in what poet Robbie Burns might refer to as the gloaming. The receptionist was a very busy lady, whose attention I failed miserably to attract. Besides the cigarette she needed to finish, there was the protracted chat with her colleague on a matter of great importance; probably how long an English person would wait before actually saying something.
I stood at the window and stared at the back of her head. When she finally turned around, I asked politely, in Italian,
“Can we stay for two nights?”
“Find yourself a place. Then come back,” she retorted in rapid Italian, then presented the back of her head once again. I would have preferred she showed me the likely location of a vacant spot, but I set out on foot to investigate.
The sosta was huge, but it was full. Properly full. The only place we could park was on the slip road, which left The Beast at a rakish angle. We don’t carry levelling blocks for such a large vehicle, so ‘pitch’ was definitely an appropriate description. It was too late to continue, even back to Plan B, and the next day was Sunday. As with some other European countries, Italy has Sunday driving restrictions for trucks, so we decided to stay.
We put our laundry in an adjacent covered area, which provided a homely backdrop for the crowds who gathered around to admire The Beast. Although my frying pan slid off the hob as I cooked dinner, and getting back to bed from the toilet during the night was like scaling the Eiger, residing in a crooked house did bring some advantages. Our rear windows were at the perfect angle to frame Saturnia’s hilltop castle.
Tuscany’s damson skies delivered, and the wind and storms toppled our airer several times overnight. Yet, the following morning brought delight. Not only was our laundry dry, there was an exodus from the campground. I ran down the hill with The Fab Four and stood in the centre of a large, flat pitch. I obviously didn’t look menacing enough, and had to repel a substantial motorhome who tried to reverse into my spot. Perhaps, like the receptionist, he wondered how far he could go before I’d say anything. He soon got his answer,
“È occupato!” I said. – It’s taken!
I don’t know why he thought an English lady with four dogs would stand in the middle of a vacant space in a busy campground, but at least he didn’t press his weight advantage. I directed him on to another uninhabited pitch that I had scoped out on my travels, and we were firm friends for the rest of our stay.
Saturnia (and Saturday!) are named after Saturn, a Roman god who was even busier than the campsite receptionist. His remit included time, abundance, peace, and agriculture. Reputedly, he presided over a lost golden age, which is how he also became the god of Christmas, sort of. The Roman festival of Saturnalia ran from 17-23rd December, just before their new year on 25th. It was a season of feasting and mischief, to celebrate the harvest. Saturn’s association with time and agriculture (he was often depicted with a scythe or sickle) is the origin of the figure that represents Old Father Time.
The legend of the city’s founding states that Saturn got so tired of human conflict, he lobbed a thunderbolt at the earth. You may think this was motivated by a final fit of pique against the pugnacious plebs, but he was the god of peace, remember. His thunderbolt created a warm sulphurous spring, intended to pacify mankind.
I’m not sure this legend is entirely true. The Etruscans certainly got to Saturnia before the Romans, and there is evidence of occupation since the neolithic. Also, I’m not sure it worked. The Romans came to Saturnia in 183 BC, but depending on who you ask, their empire didn’t fall until around 476 AD. So, they carried on conquering for more than five hundred years after Saturn’s attempts at soothing them with his sulphurous spring.
Our walk to the hilltop town from the campsite granted us magnificent views over the Tuscan countryside. I don’t have any aspirations to live in a house, but the golden stone cottage, peeping out through cascades of fragrant lilac wisteria, with an Etruscan spring next door sparked a pang of desire.
Then there was the castle. Saturnia’s castle is in private ownership. I do have to admit to a twinge of jealousy around a Tuscan hilltop fortress filled with romance, history, and atmosphere. I did wonder, “Who lives in a house like that?!”
I love the sense of bygone times imbued in some places. For me, they summon a strong sense of connection with the past. Our walk along a Roman Road, the Via Clodia, to Saturnia’s Porta Romana gate was humbling. I placed my hands on the cool grey stones that formed the gate and imagined whose feet had passed through. On the far side was a polygonal style Roman wall. Built without mortar, it was impossible not to marvel at the huge, irregularly shaped stone blocks. They fitted together so perfectly that they had stood for two thousand years.
Every so often comes a day of pure perfection. I remember one summer morning at Mudeford, our local beach, which started with a fried breakfast at a beach café, continued with sun-kissed windsurfing on the sparkling harbour, and closed with a tour and tasting at the Ringwood Brewery, home to some of my favourite beers.
Our second afternoon in Saturnia followed similar lines. We walked through fragrant fields to the hot springs, then fell into a winery for a tasting.
The springs are free to visit – and dogs are welcome!
For someone who has not had a bath for nine months, it was amazing to luxuriate in the warm water. Long, hot baths are about the only thing I miss about living ‘in the brick’.
At Saturnia, cascades of warm water gush into natural pools, formed over millennia by minerals deposited from the water. Although it was Easter Monday, we still managed to find a quiet corner.
On the way back, the winery opposite the campsite opened its gates.
“Ciao lupo!” – Hello wolf! the owner said to Rosie as she bounced towards him like a kangaroo on her hind legs; her customary greeting. “Io sono Primo Lupo!” – I am First Wolf! he said.
Primo Lupo welcomed us in, and presented four of his wines for us to try. There were two whites; Ansonica and Vermentino, and two reds, Ciliegolo, and Morellino di Scansono DOCG. Primo Lupo brought soft crusty bread, home-grown olive oil, and local cheese to complement our wines. The cheese was delicious. I enquired what it was, but got my words wrong.
“Come si dice formaggio?” I said.
Primo Lupo gave me a shrug and a confused look.
“Formaggio!” he replied.
Rather than, “What do you call this cheese!” I’d asked “How do you say cheese?”
The obvious reply was, of course, “Cheese!”
Primo Lupo’s, “Pecorino” followed by a loud “Baaah!” helped me deduce it was sheep cheese.
PL told us that the Vermentino was from the vines that grew around the terrace. He gave a little to Rosie. We told him,
“Her favourite drinks are wine, champagne, beer, and muddy puddle water.”
She wasn’t too keen on the local sulphurous spring water. When he produced a fist full of his home-cured prosciutto, The Fab Four immediately became Primo Lupo’s best friends, and we were a little jealous!
Our neighbours passed by while we were doing the tasting, and solved a mystery that had plagued us since the previous day. On our way back from Saturnia, a man stopped us on the lane. He stared hard at my silk carrier bag, its base bulging with handmade artisan soap, and said one word,
I presumed it was a question, and imagined he meant had we found a shop selling asparagus, so I answered, “No”, which was more correct than I knew.
Through the winery fence, our neighbours handed us a small bunch of wild asparagus that they’d picked from the verge. The thin strands looked more like blades of grass. We ate them raw and they were delicious; so peppery and tender.
We bought three bottles each of the Vermentino and the red Morellino DOCG from Primo Lupo. They lasted even less time than we expected. The cardboard wine carrier gave out just as we reached the truck steps, and one of our Vermentinos broke. It was a swift reminder of the politically incorrect times in the 1970s, when I was a kid. When mum sent me to the corner shop for a bottle of plonk, she’d always say,
“If you fall over, let’s hope it’s blood you spill!”
I didn’t want to use half of our remaining white wine to cook, but I have an AWESOME recipe for Roast Chicken Vermentino. It wasn’t an option, because The Beast doesn’t have an oven. Instead, I made butternut squash pasta, a speciality from Bologna.
It went beautifully with Vermentino, and I garnished it with wild asparagus.
Image of Saturn Cigarette Card: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
To get a proper taste of our travels, here are two of our favourite recipes for you to try! (We did make Chicken Vermentino in the caravan, when we had an oven!) You can download them as pdfs from the buttons below the recipe cards.