Perugia, Spoleto & Lecce, Italy
We left San Marino and re-entered Italy (although it didn't really feel like we ever left) and drove to Perugia, in the Umbria region. Just like San Marino, Perugia was located on top of a mountain, and the final ascent was tough going for our van. Steep, narrow roads had us constantly worried that we would become jammed in somewhere, but miraculously this didn't happen. After a tense 15 minutes of careful manoeuvring around the cramped city, we located a campervan-friendly car park (i.e. not on a slope or under a low ceiling), handily beside an outdoor escalator leading up to the centre.
Perugia was full of winding cobblestone streets and beige buildings that all seemed to blend into each other. Despite the beautiful architecture surrounding us, our attention was drawn to a gathering of dozens of reporters, cameramen, police and locals standing around near the tourist office. As we don't catch the news very often, we had no idea what had attracted the crowds here. We found an English reporter and, feeling slightly naive, asked the cameraman what the story was. He informed us that the Amanda Knox retrial was occurring inside the courthouse here in Perugia, with the verdict expected at 8 p.m. tonight. We hoped to be well out of the city by then.
Moving away from the congregation we discovered that there wasn't much to see in the fairly small city. There were few tourists or tourist attractions around, which meant it was probably more of an authentic Italian town than others we had visited. At various points we spotted far-reaching views over parts of Perugia, but other than that there wasn't much to keep us entertained. One exception was a massive vending machine that sold packaged meals, such as lasagna and cannelloni, with a microwave built in to heat up the food on the spot. As convenient as this was, we couldn't bring ourselves to do it.
We managed to drive out of Perugia without too many hassles (like getting wedged in a tight space, which was a constant fear) and continue on to Spoleto, a town with free parking on flat ground (so basically it was perfect). Danny created an incredible homemade truffle pizza for dinner, after which we stepped outside for a nighttime stroll. The old town was beautiful, quiet, and bathed in a soft yellow light. Up on a hill we spotted an impressive castle, brightly lit up against the black sky, but it looked like it would be too much of an effort to walk up to. We briefly connected to the internet and learned that Amanda Knox won her appeal. I'm not sure how that went down in Perugia.
Danny had a terrible night's sleep, and opted to stay in bed while I explored Spoleto in the daylight. Without a map I had no idea where I was going, so I just kept heading uphill towards the Castle. Like Perugia, the streets were narrow, twisting and lined with fawn-coloured buildings. It wasn't the most exciting town I had visited but it offered a charm that you can't find in Australia. I randomly stumbled upon the tourist office, obtained a map, then set off on the correct course. When I reached the bottom of the Castle, I found it was nowhere near as captivating as I was hoping for. I didn't climb to the top but instead walked around the base, taking in the views over the town and countryside.
Back at the car I roused Danny from his slumber to commence the eight hour drive to Lecce, located right in the heel of the Italy's boot. We opted for toll roads to cut down the travel time (it would have been 11 hours without them), and we were relieved to find that they didn't cost a fortune. The drive was fairly boring, although following the sea for lengthy stretches was a welcome change.
We arrived in Lecce as night was falling, giving us just enough time to pick up a few groceries and a local red wine (a Negroamaro, which I had never heard of before. It was quite bold, but definitely one of the better Italian varieties I have tasted so far.) I think we were in a popular wine area, as we could smell the freshly harvested grapes on the drive down.
At one stage we were sitting quietly in the van, when we suddenly heard someone climb up the ladder on the side of our van and jump onto the roof. We both looked at each other with panic and ran through all the possible courses of action. Once the noise had stopped Danny tentatively poked his head outside, where he found a mother scolding her little boy while trying to apologise to us at the same time. It's funny now, but it wasn't at the time.
The next morning we walked into the old town of Lecce and found the tourist office. The guide books said that Lecce is the Florence of the South. I don't think it was quite Florence, but it wasn't too bad. It contained the off-white buildings that are so popular in this country, as well as some excellent architecture, but it didn't have a big wow factor. Yet again there were few tourists around, which we appreciated. We wandered past numerous churches, most of which were lovely on the inside but their exteriors all appeared identical. A highlight for us was watching a man playing a grand piano out on the street. We had no idea where the piano came from or how it got there, but it was definitely something we don't see every day.
While flicking through postcards of Lecce, my eyes were continually drawn to the breathtaking photos of the Salento coast. It didn't take us long to decide to drive further south to see if we could find this incredible scenery. Well, it wasn't as easy as we expected. Unsurprisingly, Garmin led us down several ridiculous roads that I'm sure even locals don't use. At one point we were on two-way roads that were only one car wide, and each side was lined with white stone walls. Luckily for us we were the only car on this stretch of bitumen. We also drove through fields with crops growing taller than our car, reducing visibility to virtually zero. (I haven't mentioned yet that the roads all over Italy aren't in great condition - many are extremely rough, but the drivers are even worse. Apparently there is no such thing as a speed limit, and if you are small you are entitled to cut in front of everyone. There is also the occasional intersection where no signs indicate who is required to give way, resulting in a chaotic free-for-all.)
When we finally found the water we stuck closely to it, not letting ourselves be misguided by our sat nav again. In the end we didn't quite get to see the amazing views the postcards promised, but the water was so blue and alluring that we were happy to have made the journey. Danny even jumped in for a swim at a secluded beach, but it was nowhere near warm enough for me to even contemplate the idea. We probably should have researched this detour a little more before setting off, but that's the beauty of quick decisions - you never know what you might find.