Saturday, 12 April 2014

Chillin' in Cilento

Introducing Cilento National Park
I knew about Vesuvius and Pompeii, I'd heard about Sorrento, I'd heard stories about the Amalfi coast. But while researching for the holiday I saw a photograph of a place called Paestum that looked interesting, and found that it is near a National Park called Cilento. So we went there. 
Cilento is a large area of Italy about the size of Kent, which seems not to have seen fertilisers, weedkillers or pesticides, and its rolling landscapes are constantly beautiful. There's always something interesting on the verges and the birdlife seems healthier than elsewhere in country. 
The park has an offshoot of the Appenine mountains that fall into the sea, but with an Alpine feel. The cattle have bells around their necks, an unusual contrast to the cattle egrets that attend them. 
We stayed in a B&B overlooking the town of Agropoli, with views to the mountains and the sea - serenaded by serins and a blue rock thrush, and at night the scops owls called their unimaginative two-tone notes.

And just like our hotel on Vesuvius, we discovered that the best habitat was just up the road.
 These daisies at the side of the lane above the house showed that there was something interesting here, and soon enough we found naked man orchids (orchis italica) , early spider orchids, gladioli and tongue orchids in a splendid area that was not matched anywhere else.

I'm a happy naked man.......
....and I'm a happy early spider (you can't help being anthropomorphic with them)

There weren't many butterflies around, but the brimstones kept us entertained with their similarity to cleopatras. I eventually gave up. 

 Cilento is half-surrounded by sea, and it's a popular area for Italian holiday-makers in summer, but out of season we were the only ones at this lovely bay. The sea was warm enough too. We saw no Brits for a week, and spoke little English - our command of Italian was tested to the full but it was all done with a smile and a laugh.

 Oi! Tell them about Paestum - that's why you're there isn't it?
Oh yes, Paestum - the best preserved Greek temples in the world (even better than in Greece) on a mile-square site that was a town called Poseidium. There are three temples, an amphitheatre, a theatre, baths, houses and paved streets, and at that time of the year few tourists.
The strimming year had only just started so the site was verdant, with swathes of annual asphodel, and plenty of things that like walls - pellitory-of-the-wall, wall butterflies and of course Italian wall lizards everywhere.

 Ooh look, the new photo-editing software can crop like this...... wheeeee!

Fianlly, with the holiday drawing to a close, we returned to the slopes of Vesuvius where more orchids had flowered on the lava flows. A lovely trip, meeting friendly people, eating and drinking well, and with plenty of beauty left to see on future trips.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Tourna a Sorrento

Leaving Vesuvius (the Big V) behind across the bay, we moved on to the Sorrentine peninsula for a few days, finding it to be a relatively built-up area with narrow winding (often tortuous) roads, where nobody drives a big car. Just as well, then, that we had hired a little Cinquecento. But even this looked large against its older relative.

Part of the enjoyment of a holiday is in its planning, and ours was greatly helped by some websites about walking and the botany of the area - led us to the author's walking page.... which led to an ex-pat's walking and botany page..... which led to another..... which has the following commandments that show considerable sense........
These sites are a mine of information, and we were lucky enough to meet both Ruth of the "Walk with Us" page, and Giovanni who writes the first two sites, and enjoyed a walk down to the coast with them. It was a relatively easy walk, but some of the ones that they arrange are like mountain climbing.

 This part of the Amalfi coast was lit up by tree spurge as well as by the sun and the shining sea. Lovely!
There were plenty of anemones in flower, which I took to be the same as our wild variety as they were so familiar, until I was reminded that they are garden plants with us.
That's Capri over there in the background, but I wasn't tempted to visit, despite Spike Milligan's complimentary report in Mussolini, My Part in His Downfall. Or was it Where Have All the Bullets Gone?
On leave on the Amalfi coast at Christmas, he says "The whole place has architectural maturity: there are numerous creepers and vines growing in profusion on the walls and balconies. In summer it must be a riot of flowers, right now it's a riot of gunners, there is a scramble as we dash for the best beds (if any)....".  Yes Spike, it is a riot of colour - in spring at least, before the sun burns the vegetation in summer.

Asparagus pea, or tetragonolobus purpureus
Blue pimpernel
Nettle-leaved figwort
If flowers were profuse, the birdlife was not. Serins were in every tree, of course, and British garden birds were seen and heard in the hills. Occasional Sardinian warblers appeared briefly before diving into cover, and there were very few raptors. All indications were that birds in Italy have only survived shooting in small numbers, and those that have, learned to keep their heads down.

One exception to that rule was, however, a showy hoopoe that was seen while I was elsewhere (typical) - maybe the Italians have a love for this endearing bird which they don't share with the rest of the animal kingdom.
Lizards were, however, everywhere, and provided much entertainment. Italian wall lizards were most common, although other, unidentified, species were also seen.

And the Ierano headland looks like a lizard too.


Just look at the beach - deserted! The cafes were open though, and charged just 1.50 euros for a coffee, served on the veranda overlooking the sea. Ices were cheap too :-)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Italian Spring

We went looking for spring and the sun in Italy, and we found it on the slopes of Vesuvius. We woke to sunshine across the Bay of Naples, but when we looked out of the hotel's back window, we saw snow on the volcano.
It's a bit concerning staying in on the side of an active volcano, with lava in the car park, but we survived. Apart from the infamous eruption in 79AD, Vesuvius has erupted regularly since with the latest in 1944. This gives an interesting habitat on the various lava flows, and near the hotel we found a rich area of mosses, lichens and plants.

Butterfly Orchid (but not as we know it)


Early Spider Orchid (Ssp probably)

This is part of the original cone, taken from the current cone with a 1944 lava flow in between. The original cone was about 8,000' high apparently, but most was blasted into the sky so the centre is now only about 4,200'. You can drive up most of the way to the summit, then fight past coaches and tourist traps to walk the rest of the way to the top, and look down into the crater which is a few hundred yards across.

There was a blue rock thrush singing in there somewhere, making the most of the acoustics.
Steam rises from vents in the crater, giving off a slight sulphurous smell, but mostly it seemed peaceful.

Just one flowering plant was seen on the inside - a dandelion had colonised first, although the dreaded red valerian was making its relentless way up the outside of the cone, a successful pioneer of arid land.

A distinctive lichen has also colonised the lava, Vesuvius Snow Lichen (Stereocaulon vesuvianum).
How do people live here, with the constant threat of eruption?