My Mum worries that I'll do something stupid on this trip. Well, Mum, get worrying because for the last three nights I've camped in life-threateningly dangerous places.
The night before last, I set up camp only a denarii's throw from the ancient city of Pompeii and, given what happened there in AD 79, I doubt that my tent would be much protection. I'd always wondered how the people of Pompeii could have been caught so unawares by Vesuvius but now I know. In every Italian city, attached to one lamp post per kilometre or so, is a clock. And, without exception, that clock is always wrong. And not five minutes wrong. We're talking hours wrong. I suspect that, given the financial crisis, batteries are low on the priority list. Pompeii was suffering its own internal problems before the eruption. Someone probably predicted the eruption at six o'clock, their clocks told 'em it was three and they all thought they had a few hours to kill before they had to get moving.
A Pompeiian regrets not buying his own watch
Anyway, the night before Pompeii, my campsite was on a similar theme but even dodgier. I actually slept inside the cadera of an active volcano in Pozzuoli, just outside Naples. Patches of the ground were bubbling and spewing smoke and the whole place smelt of bad eggs. It was an official campsite but I can't help thinking that their insurance was quite high.
Bubbling mud - not the best place to pitch a tent
But last night took the danger to new levels. After a long day in the saddle I was prepared to sleep anywhere, which was just as well. I found a campsite that, from its entrance, promised a bar and a minimarket and all the, er, luxuries of camping life. There was no one at reception and so I wandered inside. Curiously, apart from one delapidated, 1970s-style motorhome it appeared lifeless. Where was the bar? The minimarket? Other campers?
In the far corner were a couple of rudimentary bungalows and then some trees. Perhaps the bar was lost in the forest. I went for a look. Suddenly a barking dog burst forth from the house, followed by its owner. I asked him if the site was open, which I suppose is a question that should worry any businessman. "Si, si!" he replied emphatically. And where is the minimarket, I asked. He told me, in Italian, that whatever I wanted he would go and get for me. Now, I suppose his system works like a minimarket, but it's not a minimarket, is it? Anyway, the price was cheap enough, and though the toilets and showers were skanky, I decided to stay. I was too knackered not too.
I set up my tent and cycled back out of the site, found a real supermarket and got some grub for dinner, brought it back and cooked it up while doing some maths on my Kindle. And then it started.
I assumed at first that the campsite was near a large hotel, maybe a specialist hotel, one that catered for the tone deaf. At disturbingly loud levels, karaoke kovered the kampsite and kudgelled me with its kakophony. But there was no hotel. The din was emanating from one of the bungalows in the corner of the site. I listened for a bit, unable not to. All the songs were in flat Italian and at the end of each tune the singer would thank an imaginary audience. Sometimes he would introduce the songs too, just like a real singer. After half an hour of this, and with no let up likely, I went to investigate.
Inside the bungalow were Nico - the campsite owner I'd met earlier - his mate Gino and Kika - the dog who wanted to eat me. Despite the rundown look of the campsite, their living room was like a NASA control centre, deep with computers, screens, mixing desks and a loudspeaker a dwarf could happily live inside. On the wall was a clock showing twenty past eight. Wow, I thought, an Italian clock that works! I was impressed. They invited me in and offered me a beer. Thanks, I replied. Then Nico got in his car and went out to buy it. See, he's a man of his word. His minimarket had sprung into action.
Nico and Gino
Once Nico was back, and after he'd performed another song, dancing like he was on X Factor, it was clear that in return for the beer I had to sing too. Who was my favourite artist, he asked. Ah, that's easy. Unfortunately their karaoke machine had no Radiohead. Damn, I thought. Damn and double damn! So they went on to YouTube and got me some Radiohead that way. Bugger. A microphone was thrust into my paw and I had to choose from a shortlist. I went for No Alarms And No Surprises (which is a cheat because I play that at home on guitar and so I know it quite well). I crooned and they seemed diplomatically impressed. What the thousands of others in the neighbouring town who could also hear it thought, we'll never know.
Their beer and encouragement got me in the mood and we took it in turns to progressively murder songs. My Karma Police was acceptable, my Bublé's Haven't Met You Yet began the descent (there's a sodding key change near the end) and I apologise to the population of southern Italy for what I did to Coldplay's Viva la Vida.
I'd been there for too long - a couple of hours at least - and, great lads though Nico and Gino were, it had to leave. What time was it, I wondered. I looked at the clock. Ah, it was still twenty past eight. Viva la Crisis!