The journey home

Praise where it is due, this is the first year I can say that the Polish roads were NOT the worst of the holiday. In the past, the difference between highway heaven Czech, Austria and Italy and medieval horse and cart Poland was striking but those days are gone (depending on your destination and route).

The worst driving this year on a country level was in Czech and on a local level the E45 in Italy. In terms of a fully joined up highway system Poland is still the loser but now they have finally completed what was the biggest problem, the highway connection between Ostrava in Czech and Poland (A1), there are only a couple of pieces missing now:

> final improvements (turning S1 into A1) between Katowice Airport, through Czestochowa and up to Piotrkow Tribunalski
> connecting the A1 to the A2 around Lodz.

Despite this, the roads in their current state are an extremely significant improvement on what they used to be and I can honestly say the drive from Ostrava to Warsaw was a pleasure. Must be said we were lucky with Czestochowa though. This could be a major spanner in your works, as it was with us on the way down. Mind you, the old McDonalds at the traffic lights junction in Czestochowa will be missed as a convenient point for a break.

Let us all pray to the Gods of the EU for proving the funds to do this and also give thanks that nasty encounters with Chinese or otherwise contractors were no worse than they were!

I predict, or perhaps repeat what I have said earlier, that building highways with only two lanes will quickly become a very obvious mistake. This is the golden period for driving in Poland – highways are pretty much built but are not clogged with traffic. Make the most of it.

The Czech Republic got off to a bad start by taking three hours or more to clear an accident in Brno on our way down. On the way back there was no repeat but they had decided to do roadworks to every stretch of motorway near to big cities – Brno, Olomouc, Ostrava – which wasted at least an hour. They then brought on the remnants hurricane Bertha with such downpours of rain that driving was almost impossible. Add to this the psychopathic and apparently inexhaustible army of lunatic Skoda drivers and Czech takes the prize, by a long way.

Italy was okay. It can get very sticky around Bologna and they have the never ending roadworks between Venice and Palmanova but neither of these held us up. It was interesting watching the clouds and the temperature as we rose from Palmanova through Udine and up into the Alps.

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The clouds got blacker and more menacing, as you can see, and the temperature dropped from what had been a steady 30C down to 18C at times. The holiday was definitely over!

Driving in Austria was fine apart from all the limits of 100 or 80 km/hr for tunnels and mountain bends, of which there are many, and the fact that everyone follows the rules. The only thing to annoy us in Austria was my car, again!

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This warning had come on a couple of times on the drive but only momentarily when navigating twisty entrances and exits from the highway. On the flat it went off again and stayed off so I ignored it. After we checked out of the hotel in Vienna….

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….and started the car in their car park the warning light was immediately on. Just for kicks I called Arval Nonsistance who assured me they would call their Austrian people who would come and recover my car. I explained that all I needed was some coolant liquid and didn’t have time to bugger around. They said they would get right on it.

An hour later I had found a garage open on what was an Austrian Bank Holiday, taken a taxi there and come back with a liter of coolant, filled the thing, eliminated the warning light and was ready to go. I called them again to see how they were getting on. They were getting nowhere. We left.

The only annoyance between there and what I’ve written above was that bloody silly missing bit of highway between Mistelbach in Austria and Pohorelice in Czech. One lane, pretty much zero overtaking opportunity and enough trucks to cause a problem. It was actually on this stretch that the Czechs played their trump card. A section of roadworks just by Aqualand Moravia where they had removed the tarmac and then cut a series of deep grooves into the road meaning anyone not driving a hovercraft had to go very slowly so as not to break something. This led to at least a 5km tailback in the direction we were going and at least 45 mins delay. There was nobody actually working on the road. Looking at the map now it was pretty easy to avoid this by taking a different route – bad SatNav lady!

The final tally for the holiday was 4,500 km (2,800 miles), roughly the same as driving from New York to San Francisco.

Bye-bye Italia

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Enjoying our last macchiato before hitting the road for Vienna, 8.5 hours and 847km away. We don’t want to leave. Already talking about coming for the third time next year.

Stefano was crazy enough to call our restaurant last night and pay for our meal. A more generous host is hard to find.

The weather has turned sticky, as well as hot, so looking forward in some ways to the cooler air further north.

Google maps shows eleven traffic incidents or roadworks along our route. Hopefully a few of those will evaporate before we get there!

Okay. Here goes. See you in Wien!

Bathing, pottery and music

On Sunday we took the last of our trips, at least the last long trip, that covered three regions of Italy; Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria. We headed towards Rome again and first stop was Bagno di Romagna which is a nice small town famous since Roman times for its thermal baths. Like last year we headed straight for the Roseo Hotel Euroterme which has an excellent indoor-outdoor thermal pool that visitors can use. We paid €15 each for two hours (which includes the time you spend changing before and after) and had a very enjoyable time floating around in the warm mineral rich waters.

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A sandwich and drink at the local cafe, a failed attempt to get cash from the towns only ATM and we were on our way to Deruta, another hour or so down the E45 just past Perugia.

Deruta is famous for one thing, maiolica (majolica) ceramics and the shops line both sides of the high street. We wanted to take something home this year and a pretty serving dish for our dining table was on the list. We’ve recently changed our crockery (dinnerware / tableware) from the patterned set we got for our wedding 16 years ago (which refused to break no matter how much we tried!) to a plain white Alessi All-Time collection. The idea now being to fill the middle of the table with a mix of colorful stuff.

We could have spent hours checking out different shops, hearing their stories, negotiating prices, but life is too short. In the first shop was an old man and a lot of pots. The shop went back three or four sections and the further back you went the more expensive things looked. I have trouble making decisions on things like this unless I can get a handle on costs and nothing had a price tag, no doubt because they vary so much depending on the customer. You know you’re in trouble when the owner sidesteps the cost question and gives you tales of how his forefathers have slaved over hot potters wheels since the Middle Ages. By the end we were talking to the whole family; the daughter who spoke English, the old man and his batty wife who smelled like she’d been out back smoking hash and was so unstable that it was only a matter of time before stuff was going to get broken. The daughter’s mobile phone was the only casualty while we were there.

It quickly became clear that the one-off very fancy stuff was more than we wanted to pay at about €120 for one small bowl when a bigger simpler bowl was anywhere between €50-80. The good stuff was also more for collecting and displaying than serving up meat and veg. After a while my wife’s eyes settled on a large long serving plate and two matching smaller ones in a reproduction of a 13th century design, primarily white with blue flowers. The guy suggested a price and then told us his “special price” of €140 for the lot. No doubt we could have got it for less but given the family effort over the centuries we shook hands and walked out with the dishes. Job done.

The pots join the 12 bottles of wine and 4 bottles of olive oil bought from the next door farm and the special pasta from Arezzo as our trophies from this holiday. All we need to find now is the stinky cheese and the fig jam that goes with it and we are done.

From Deruta we went to visit Perugia, the capital of Umbria and strong in culture and education. We like it.

As usual it is on top of a hill. The roads were hard to navigate and parking hard to find. After accidentally driving through the old town, nearly killing half the town or getting the Volvo stuck in a road too thin we finally found a parking space and fired up Mrs Google maps to see how far away from the action we were. As it turns out we were a short walk away but a lovely walk along a path that used to be an ancient aqueduct and cut across the town at first or second floor level before delivering us to the old town and the cathedral.

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Perugia looks like someone took a collection of those wooden kids play blocks that have squares, rectangles and arches and just threw them in a jumbled heap. Ancient brickwork bumping into itself at all kinds of strange angles and heights. Hard to navigate but very enchanting.

As this was the night of San Lorenzo’s tears there was plenty of action with music playing in everywhere. As we wandered we caught parts of a classical concert with piano and orchestra, a mainstream band called Chris & Moira and a more edgy group trying to sound like a cross between Nirvana and Kings of Leon but not quite managing either.

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Apparently Perugia has a micro-climate and it certainly seemed more pleasant than the stifling heat of, for example, Florence. A lovely breeze blew down the main street making it a comfortable city to wander around after 30C+ daytime temperatures.

We left Perugia around 22:30 and got back to Roncofreddo a couple of hours later.

Today is a relaxing day by the pool, thank goodness!

Great steak!

If you’re in the area and like red meat La Capannina is the place to go.

From our experience last year and this we suggest you don’t muck around with appetizers or anything else, just order a steak, potatoes and salad. To keep it super simple just order either a Fiorentina (gigantic Porterhouse steak with bone and fat), Filetto (super sized fillet steak), or Tagliata (steak served in slices).

I don’t think we will ever be hungry enough to do justice to a Fiorentina unless we shared it between the three of us but it is very popular, which means there is a constant background sound track of chef with chopper. Marta and I both had a Filetto that was roughly triple the size of the fillet steak you might expect to get elsewhere but were so tender you could cut them with a spoon and were perfectly cooked to our taste, medium for me, well done for Marta which was achieved by butterflying a normal steak so it was thinner. Despite being well done, they timed Marta’s steak to perfection meaning no blood but still edible.

All the steaks are cooked on an open charcoal grill. I went over to watch the process but forgot to take a picture, sorry!

I’m tempted to say this is the best steak I’ve ever head but I don’t think that would be true. I remember once or twice having stupendously overpriced Argentinian beef that was just as well cooked but with marginally better flavour, a restaurant in Moscow comes to mind where I was thankful not to be paying the bill. What would be true is to say that for €18 this is definitely the best value steak I’ve ever had and second or third best overall.

It’s easy to see why this place is so busy that the car park is always full and overflow cars are lined up down either side of the narrow street.

Faenza, Imola, Brisighella, Cervia

Busy day yesterday. Our first stop was the International Ceramic Museum in Faenza. Verdict – generally pretty good and a must if you enjoy European ceramic art. They have an extensive historical and modern collection including, as a name people will know, a plate presented to the museum by Picasso. We did not hang around the town but it looked nice.

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From there we went to Imola, specifically the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari where the San Marino Formula 1 Grand Prix races were held between 1981 and 2006. Imola is no longer on the F1 calendar. I attended a lot of Grand Prix races back in the days when Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna were battling and through to the early years of Michael Schumacher’s domination. I think Schumacher’s win in a Benetton at Hockenheim in 1995 was the last race I attended and so the tragic events at Imola the previous year were as memorable and shocking for me as the death of Princess Diana or I suppose for another generation, Elvis.

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix held at Imola was the worst weekend of F1 since the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix. It saw two deaths, Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying and Ayrton Senna on lap seven as well as injuries to Rubens Barrichello and numerous spectators and officials. Both Ratzenberger and Senna left the track at over 300km/hr, hit concrete walls and died of head injuries. There has been plenty of speculation about the cause of Senna’s death but no widely accepted conclusion has been drawn.

Schumacher proved himself to be the better driver but I prefer charismatic and naturally talented sportsmen (sports people) to mechanical ones so I preferred Senna to Schumacher in the same way I preferred McEnroe to Connors.

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If you do visit Imola there’s a pretty good American Diner there. Our timing was wrong for lunch but we did get chips and donuts!

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From Imola we went to Brisighella a cute town where we intended to check out the donkey street, a walkway at first floor level (the arched holes in the photo) that was used for donkey traffic as well as for defending the town.

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This plan was cut short by hearing that my car was fixed and ready for collection so rather than be stuck with a Fiat 500L for the weekend we left immediately and raced down to Rimini.

After a paddle in the Adriatic and a beachside cruise we headed up the coast to Cervia to seek out one of our fave restaurants from last year. After a long day the food and drink was very welcome.

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Car trouble

I write this on the terrace while enjoying my second breakfast coffee ahead of another sunny day. Only downside is I’m surrounded by French accents as they seem to have coordinated a Gallic invasion of Quattro Passeri in recent days. Oo la la!

Let’s put it this way, if anyone needs advice about car repair places in Rimini, I’m your man!

Last year, with the green XC60, I spent quite some time buggering around fixing a broken windscreen that eventually got fixed in Rimini.

This year, with the new XC60, I get to learn about replacing alternators. I’ll try to keep this tale of woe short.

Prelude – before I left Warsaw I took the car to the garage because I knew something wasn’t right. Intermittent whining noises that were in synch with engine revolutions suggested to me at the time either gearbox or something attached to a belt. Warsaw garage avec computer aided diagnosis said “Everything is fine, go to Italy!”. Wrong answer.

Occasional noises continued but we got here fine.

The trip to Arezzo on the hellish E45 finally resolved the problem. The noise was now much louder and constant.

Wednesday morning I took the car to Volvo dealer in Cesena for a second opinion. The mechanic took one listen and said I should leave the car there and he’ll have it fixed by Monday and by the way, here, sign these papers. I didn’t sign but got on the phone to various people responsible for the car which includes the following characters:

> Arval leasing company
> Volvo Assistance Poland
> Volvo Assistance Italy
> Person in my company responsible for cars

Between 10:00 and 13:00 I was unable to get an answer from anyone above on what I should do. The garage was closing for lunch (for 3 hours) so I drove back to the hotel.

I wasn’t convinced by the Cesena garage so booked into a bigger one in Rimini for Thursday morning. Five kilometers from the garage the car finally admitted I was right and displayed red warning lights and told me a service was urgently needed.

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I arrived at the garage at 09:50 and after 10 minutes Fabio, with Volvo diagnostic help, confirmed the alternator was fucked. I asked him to call Volvo Assistance Italy who had a case open for my registration number and confirm this because I needed a replacement car and this “technical report” (I had learned from the day before) was essential. He said he did that and I believe him.

I crossed the road to the truckstop hotel/restaurant with hopes of soon collecting my rental car and continuing my holiday. Cutting this short because my phone tells me I was involved in over SIXTY phone conversations on this matter, by four hours later we had progressed as far as Arval still shirking responsibility and fobbing me off to Volvo and Volvo Assistance Poland telling me they were still waiting to speak to the garage to get confirmation my car was kaput. Of course by this time the new garage was closed for lunch!

Bear in mind this whole episode revolves around a less than one year old, under guarantee, car with only 12,500 km on the clock that is clearly undriveable and the cost of renting (what turns out to be) a Fiat 500L for a couple of days. Cost of less than €100. Between us we have spent double that in phone calls!

In the end I walk back across the road to the garage, call Volvo Arsesistance Poland myself and hand the phone to Fabio. They ask a couple of questions, he confirms the car is screwed. That’s it. After what is now close to seven hours they agree to rent me a car. I wait even longer while they do that and finally take a half hour walk down the road in 30C, without pavements on a busy road to Rimini airport to collect the car.

I could and probably should have just rented a car myself and saved a day (and a half) of my holiday but there is a principle at stake here. I was covered by multiple forms of assistance – a car under guarantee, an assistance package that will provide a replacement car, regular insurance, an additional VIP insurance package for traveling abroad, etc and so forth and yet in the end every single one of these failed miserably. They spent the whole time either blaming each other or failing to communicate, most spectacularly between Volvo Arsesistance Poland and Volvo Arsesistance Italy, laughingly labelled as Volvo Arsesistance Europe. I was not short of people asking me “how is it going?”. I was completely lacking anyone who was actually trying to help resolve what was in fact an extremely simple matter – car broke, get it fixed, replacement car.

What I did wrong was to anticipate the fault with the car. Everyone was prepared for a roadside breakdown and towing trucks – these things pressed all the right buttons and I should have just kept driving until the car catastrophically failed somewhere up a hill with no phone signal or by the side of an autostrada on our way home. Silly me for knowing this was going to happen sometime in the near future, for not wanting to spoil my family’s holiday as well as mine and for trying to deal with it at a convenient time and place for us. Stupid idea. I should just behave like everyone else and then all the so called assistance people would understand.

Theoretically, the car will be fixed this evening but we are in Italy so who knows.

That is two years running we have come here and had car trouble. I have never had car trouble in Poland. We either need to stop coming here or I need to stop ordering Volvos. Based on the performance of Volvo Arsesistance the latter is looking like a good option but would anyone else be better under the same circumstances……and it is a lovely car to drive.

To avoid sounding like a spoiled brat, I do appreciate the benefit of having a nice car, provided by the company, to bring on holiday and a little mucking around is a small price to pay but when things like this happen and you’re faced with so much incompetence it’s hard not to be pretty disappointed by the experience.

Yet more Italian dining!

Wednesday evening we hit the seaside town of Cesenatico in the hope of getting a good fish dinner. Proximity to water doesn’t guarantee anything but it’s a good start.

After a bit of wandering about we found La Tratta, Osteria del Pesce Fresco and managed to book a table for 20 minutes later as they were full when we arrived. The food was great. Starters were a hot mussel and clam dish with a yummy wine sauce and a prawn, onion and tomato salad. Mains were a seafood risotto and their “signature dish” of freshly caught mixed fish grill (picture below – that plate is about double normal size).

They were honest enough to say that the prawns were the only thing not freshly caught locally because they don’t have prawns swimming around near Cesenatico but everything tasted delicious and you could tell it was both fresh and cooked to perfection. The scallops were actually still stuck to their shell, not removed and processed, there were squids, sole, prawns, one other fish with a stronger but still great seawater taste and yet another which was finally, after seeing the whole uncooked beast, identified as anglerfish.

This was a really enjoyable experience and after the nasty meal the other day went some way to restoring faith in Italian fishy cuisine.

After dinner our passeggiata included the ladies enjoying a ride on a terrifying (for three year olds) roller coaster and some super ice-cream from a local gelateria.

For a relatively small seaside town it was busy in the evening with everything from families with small kids through teenagers and likely lads up to the elderly. A scattering of Polish accents were heard. Apparently there are quite a few here and apart from those on holiday there are a number who work here, primarily employed to look after old Italians because the Italians tend to look after their elder generations at home rather than stick them in an external care facility.

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Talking about Poles. The following evening, yesterday, we stayed local and went back to Venturi in Roncofreddo. This is just a very normal local restaurant. A place upstairs facing the high street and another downstairs with a terrace overlooking the hills. No pretensions whatsoever about the cuisine. If you’re hungry you can eat. That’s it. There is a Polish lady works there too. She was rolled out when they spotted the Polish registration on the car the other day.

Every other time we ate here we’ve had the antipasti and pasta, which is more than we can eat. One serving of pasta will feed the three of us so if we want two types of pasta we could feed the five thousand. This time we had the antipasti but skipped the pasta and went for the meat and we asked for a small portion. Well, once more we were left wondering who on earth can eat this much.

The meat dish came in two parts, some from the grill and some you cooked yourself on a hot stone on your table, either one being more than enough for the three of us. From the grill was more delicious castrato, which comes as it sounds from castrated sheep (adult ones), a giant “butterfly” pork chop and a couple of home made sausages. On the hot stone was a selection of beef steaks. They insisted on adding to this chips, some green stuff, grilled tomatoes and then follow with a selection of deserts. OMG! The whole lot came to €70 including the tip.

Funny how people don’t like lamb. Most Poles don’t because it’s not really been a popular dish there but Stefano also says he doesn’t like castrato, although Sandra, his wife, loves it. It seems to be the smell that puts people off. For a guy who grew up on roast lamb being one of the regular Sunday meal options this is strange.

It’s a good job we are not really eating at any other time of day and that I’m doing a few lengths of the pool each day.