Camel safari [1]

While in Kenya we always wanted to explore the north on a camel safari but the cost was an important deterrent so we left Kenya for Ethiopia in 1988 without achieving this goal. However, two years later, while on our way to a new job in Zambia, we stopped in Kenya for a while and decided to join forces with our friend Susan and to go for it.

She knew a company [2] that organized these activities and made the bookings for the three of us. A couple of days before we were to depart, some unavoidable work commitment cropped up and Susan were unable to go. She volunteered her very good friend Gai to come with us. We had met Gai a couple of times while visiting Susan during our earlier Kenya days. Although we did not know each other that well we agreed to travel together.

We drove Susan’s car to Rumuruti and from there we were taken to the company’s base camp where the journey was due to start. The idea was to travel for four days along the Milgis River and then get picked-up by a car and taken to Rumuruti to spend the night, collect our car and return to Nairobi the following day.


We arrived in the morning and already the camp showed great activity as the camels, really huge when you stand next to them, were being loaded. Dromedaries are the tallest of the three species of camel and adults can reach 1.7 to 2 m at the shoulder and weigh between 300 and 600 kg.

While the beasts complained loudly while their loads were tighten we were given a brief on what to expect and other useful information for the trip. With us was a group of four Europeans that kept very much for themselves, and a British couple that, as expected, was very polite!

We learnt that the idea was to walk or ride for a few hours each morning, have a lunch break and a rest and continue for another two to three hours until we arrived to the next camp that would have been organized ahead of time. We would stay there the night and the exercise repeated for the remaining days. It all sounded very civilized and we were ready to start.

There was a senior guide and a number of camp hands, most of them Samburu that, although did not speak great English we could communicate with our basic Swahili. However, we were very pleased to see that Gai was very good at it, the fruit of her many years of work as a teacher in Baringo. In any case, they were all nice and helpful so the atmosphere was positive and we started to get on well with Gai and it became clear that we would enjoy our time together.

Observing the camels being organized, we noted that they played different roles. Immediately we started making our own groups. That is how we defined camping camels (carrying tents, chairs, tables, etc.), riding camels, first aid and laggards camel (to mend blisters and pick up strugglers, just like in the cycling races!), bad camel (called Sungura [3]) and food and bar camel. The latter Gai and I attempted to follow, not because of being hungry, but the longer legged beast was always moving faster than us so we could only catch up with it at the end of the day when we did our best to lighten its liquid cargo.

Daily, the camping and bar camels would go ahead to set up the next camp while the others would stay with us and we were careful to keep our distance from Sungura that showed its bad temper at all times and repeatedly attempted to chew us, particularly Gai that, for some reason, became its preferred target!

camel safari 4

Sungura makes sure to be heard!


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A view of the camels ahead of us.

Our relations with the other travellers were going well until we discovered that the European contingent, of the kind that attach their flags to their rucksacks, had borrowed our sunblock cream without asking! This was an offence that gave us ammo to criticize them whenever the opportunity allowed. From then on we kept our suntan cream under tight control so that it would last until the end of the safari.

After a couple of days walking in Samburu country where we found numerous cattle, sheep and goat flocks, we detected that one of the members of the European group was showing clear signs of crotch rash (inner thigh rash) and walking was becoming increasingly difficult for him. We decided that camel riding would alleviate his predicament and had a go at it.

Apart from intimidating prospective predators (and riders!) by its share size and strength, camels can defend themselves very well and have a number of ways of doing so, apart from their unpleasant screaming and grunting. They can stamp their feet, kick in all directions with the four legs, bite, belch and spit so to mount on one is not something to be taken lightly.

After you overcome your ancestral fears -but always thinking, “why am I doing this?” you approach a lying down camel making sure that it was not Sungura. The beast looks inoffensive enough and with the help of the herder you take your seat in the middle of the one hump. You have a precarious siting arrangement as in front of you there is the neck and head and behind is the camel abrupt end so you need to hold on.

Once you are firmly wedged on your riding saddle the action starts by the beast standing up. This is a most traumatic event as it first stretches its back legs and, suddenly you are in danger of killing yourself by falling over its head. Before you fall, luckily, the beast stretches its front legs and up comes its massive head that misses yours narrowly and, if you are still on, you find yourself very high from the ground and in great danger of a serious fall.

I had grim misgivings about driving my camel as I was sure it would end bad for me. Luckily the handler would hold the reins and walk you following the path. The ride is very comfortable as your backside is well pampered and the animal’s gait is really pleasant, more so than horses. The position affords you a great view of the countryside over the surrounding bushes and I must admit that I enjoyed the ride.

Unfortunately this only lasted for a few minutes as my beast, perhaps sensing my dislike or because I was heavy, decided that it had enough of me and it started to walk closer and closer to the abundant thorn bushes. Then, despite the efforts of the handler, the inevitable happened and my naked legs got painfully rubbed against thorns.

That was enough for me and I immediately asked to be spared from such a torture as I would have ended without skin in my legs if I would have continued. Relieved, I descended from the beast while promising myself never to do this again

Gai suffered a similar experience and we both compared our scratches later while trying to clean and disinfect them. Mabel, as usual and to our annoyance, enjoyed the ride tremendously looking as if she had done this her entire life! She spent about an hour traveling by camel and spotting birds and animals that we were not able to see from our lower position and finished looking as fresh as ever!

Unfortunately the camel ride did not help the European rash sufferer and, from a distance we witnessed a Europeans-only meeting with the lame guy as the centre of attention. Although at the time we did not know what the outcome of the meeting was, the answer became clear when the following morning the Europeans were evacuated. Probably walking in the heat was too much for them to bear coming from a place near the North Pole!

Our party got reduced to five and we were happy that there would be more resources (read food and drinks) to be shared among the “survivors”.

Every evening at the end of the day we would arrive at our flying camp that had been set up at some chosen location by the river that never disappointed. The camping chairs were set up overlooking the flowing water where we enjoyed sundowners after our hot bucket showers.

That was the time for talking and to compare notes with the only remaining companions, the British couple. We learnt that he had been very successful with a lighting company in the UK and that he had sold part of it and, retired, were doing the best to enjoy life.

While we talked and drank, dinner was being prepared. It was simple but tasty and to be eaten under a the stars while the camels lied down and chewed their cud and the herders got ready to settle for the night among the beasts. After dinner we also settled down in the tents already assembled for an early night.

The day before our departure, after a good English breakfast, we walked for a few kilometres until we stopped for lunch at a place with a great view of the river below us. We could appreciate the palms that fringed the Milgis margins and we could also see a few animals in the distance, particularly giraffes and greater kudu.

The final camp was a more permanent affair composed of simple reed huts fitted with mosquito nets where all our bedding was already prepared for us. I decided to go for a shower but before starting, I spotted that the two people usually in charge of the showers, were seated together looking at something and brandishing a Samburu “seme” [4].

Curious, I approached them and although we had communications difficulties they showed me laughing that they were trying to repair something that on more close inspection happened to be a wristwatch! Quite sure about the outcome of the operation I left them to it and went on to enjoy my shower.

cam saf watching repair with panga while shower water copy

Wrist watch fixing…

Eventually, after a very enjoyable four days it was time to return and we were taken to Rumuruti, our starting point, where we spent the night at the Laikipia Country Club (founded in 1926) where Gai barely slept as the hyraxes screamed on the roof of her cottage all night! We did not hear a thing and slept through.

It was a great experience not only because the walk was very enjoyable but also because we became friends with Gai, a friendship that lasts until today.


[1] Although I refer to them as “camels” in fact the animals that accompanied us were dromedaries or one humped camels (Camelus dromedarius).

[2] Nowadays called Wild Frontiers Safaris that also runs the Milgis Trust, see: https://www.milgistrust.com/

[3] The KiSwahili word “Sungura” in English means rabbit.

[4] A “seme” or “simi” is a Maasai word to describe a short sword with a leaf-shaped blade and a relatively rounded tip.

The nasoni of Rome [1]

Rome is packed with attractions, some of them world famous and others less so but not less interesting. We have all heard about or visited some of its famous fountains such as the Trevi fountain, Turtle Fountain at Piazza Mattei, Fountain of the Frogs at Piazza Mincio, the big fountain on the Janiculum Hill and the Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona to name some of the better known.


The fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona.

While the above have great cultural and ornamental value there are other water fountains that, although not great looking, serve the purpose of delivering free ice-cold water to the city inhabitants and visitors. These are the small drinking fountains that are found all over Rome supplying water non-stop.

There are 2,500 drinking fountains scattered all over the city, and almost 300 of them are inside the city walls. Although there are a few exceptions, they mainly follow a standardized model known by the locals as nasone/a because of the drinking spout on its side.


Technical drawing of a drinking fountain. Scheda Tecnica del Nasone Fontanella di Roma. Released into the public domain by its authors via Wikimedia Commons.

These simple but clever contraptions allow the water to run continuously through their “noses” but blocking the end of the spout sends water in an arch that is ideal for drinking as well as for surprising the unaware visitor with a summer splash!

The 100 kg and 100 cm high nasoni are in place from 1874. They are made of cast iron and marked with the ubiquitous S.P.Q.R. that, in Latin, means Senatus Populus Que Romanus (the Senate and the People of Rome), the official city “logo” that also appears in many public buildings.

Most drinking fountains are found near the outdoor markets and plant and flower vendors and it is very common to see their water overflowing buckets and other containers placed under their water stream. The purity of the water is assured by the Azienda Comunale Energia e Ambiente (ACEA) [2] through over 250,000 tests a year [3].

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Picture of nasona by User: Lalupa (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A novelty for us during this visit to Rome was the discovery of the “nasoni maps” put together by various organizations such as the ACEA itself that presents the public with a map of the nasoni in the historical centre of the city and beyond. [4]


A “special” nasone with a bottom plate that enables pets to drink!

The constant flow of almost ice-cold drinking water the year round in Rome through the nasoni (and even the non-drinking water from the fountains) has always been a mystery for me. Writing this post I learnt that the water comes from the Peschiera reservoir through a 130 km aqueduct that runs deep underground. Although the underground element would be important for the coldness of the water, there should be something else keeping it so cool. I did not find a clear answer until our friend Donatella told me that the water is always moving and therefore it has no time to warm up. I believe that she hit the nail on the head and solved the mystery to my satisfaction!

The 16 million cubic metres of water that flow into the nasoni‘s drains and other fountains everyday are -apparently- recycled for watering gardens, cleaning factories and other non-drinking purposes so it does not go to waste. However, it is an immense volume of water! So, trying to get an idea of the amount that has gone through Rome’s drinking fountains since their establishment in 1874 I did a quick and dirty calculation:

143 years x 2500 nasoni x 16,000,000 litres/day x 365 days = 2,087,800,000,000,000

or two quadrillion, eighty-seven trillion, eight hundred billion litres or 2,088 cubic km of water yielded. Frankly, the result did not tell me much as the volume was impossible for me to grasp! So, as usual in these cases, I looked for a comparison and found that such an amount of water would have almost fill up lake Victoria with its 2,700 cubic km! I am not sure that this assessment is any use to anyone but at least it lays my mind to rest until I start working on the next post!



[1] A man with a big nose. Nasone/nasona are the masculine/feminine nouns and nasoni the plural.

[2] Municipal company for Energy and Environment

[3] https://www.acea.it/

[4] https://www.acea.it/it# or http://www.colosseo.org/nasoni/inasonidiroma.asp



Fire down below

After a few months after our arrival in Kenya in the 80’s[1] we eventually left the Muguga House hostel for Tigoni where we rented a large house belonging to the Harvey family. Tigoni is about 40km northwest of Nairobi, on the eastern side of the Rift Valley at over two thousand metres of altitude. Indigenous forest islands still remained then, among the large tea plantations. Several animal species still inhabited the area, the most notable being the conspicuous Black-and-white Colobus monkeys during the day and the bush babies at night, with their loud and somehow scary calls.

tigoni house

The land at the back of the house had no fence or wall (imagine that today!) and therefore we were able to walk towards the nearby stream located about two thousand metres down hill.

A Sunday that we were not camping in the bush, we invited our friend Ranjini for lunch and,  afterwards, we decided that going down to the river was a good idea to help digest our food. So, armed with our binoculars and wearing long trousers to protect ourselves from thorns and ticks, we set off. About half way down the red and slippery hill our “private” path joined a “public” wider lane where the local inhabitants went about their business rather than fun walking like us.

tigoni hse bfast 1

We soon arrived to the stream and, after walking about the area for a while; we found a shady spot where we decided to have a small walkers consultation to decide our next steps. The ideas put forward were whether to continue up the other side of the ravine or to return the way we came and enjoy a cup of tea at home. The latter was gaining consensus when, without warning, a fire started in my ankles and started spreading up my legs. I saw no smoke but noticed that I was standing in the middle of a colony of siafu![2]

The nasty meat-eaters, amazed by their lucky find, were not wasting any time in processing it! Without wasting a second and forgetting about being normally shy (?), I downed my trousers in a flash (excuse the pun) and checked my hurting parts. What I found was not encouraging: a few dozen soldier ants had climbed up the inside of my trousers. While some had already locked their jaws on my pink flesh, others were still going “upwards”…

Yelling “siafu!!!” to alert my companions, I started to grab and remove those still trying to reach tender places and, only when I smashed them all, I focused on removing those that had already bitten me and were going nowhere. This is easier said than done! Pulling them in a hurry (what else can you do?) only makes their bodies detach, leaving their heads with their rather outsized jaws still embedded in you! While this was going on, my companions, luckily looking the other way, moved off fast and left me alone to deal with the aggressors. Before they moved off, I caught a glimpse of their expressions that did not help. Instead of seeing sympathetic concern or at least indifference towards my predicament, they were amused! I am still trying to forgive them for this!

It was in the middle of my painful struggle when I became aware that I was still being watched. I turned around and saw that my antics had gathered some public! A growing bunch of Kikuyu kids were carefully watching me. Once discovered, they started to make comments, pointing at my nakedness and, worse of all, they laughed loud! I was clearly a “first” for them but that failed to amuse me. I told them -mainly with gestures aided by my basic Swahili- to go away. They only moved back a couple of paces, unwilling to stop watching the sight of their childhood: how a half-naked muzungu[3] “danced with ants”.

(Almost) embarrassed and in a desperate effort at damage control I immediately lifted up my trousers. Although this calmed down the young Kikuyu crowd, it did nothing to placate my traitorous companions’ enjoyment of the scene of my distress! So, ignoring everybody, with a great effort I put on my best neutral face, and started walking back to the house, still bringing with me a considerable number of large ant jaws for later extraction.

Despite my rather unpleasant experience, siafu are not a bad thing as they control a number of otherwise harmful pests for crops and their storage. They also take care of other undesired beasts such as ants, roaches, spiders, and everything else that crawls or creeps. Later, while busy un-plucking mandibles my thoughts did focussed of their beneficial side but, although I could somehow see it, it did nothing to relieve the consequences of my encounter!


[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/life-and-work-in-kenya-muguga1/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

[2] Siafu (in Swahili) are members of the Dorylus genus, also known as driver or safari ants. They are army ants between 1-15 mm in length found primarily in central and east Africa in large colonies (up to several million individuals). They move in columns as they travel from their lair to the hunting field or they spread when actively hunting by sensing the carbon dioxide that insects and animals breath out. Aggressive soldiers protect the colonies.

[3] A common term used to refer to “white” people.

The Eagle and the Baobab

Keep reading, this is not a children’s story, despite the title!

I knew this project would be difficult from the beginning as war movies dealing with eagles show a lot of hard work and heavy casualties!

In earlier visits to Hippo Pools Wilderness camp[1] ( and even earlier ones) I learnt that the camp offers a number of attractions for those feeling like trekking. Among these are old ruins, San paintings, several viewpoints a large baobab and various eagle nests. I was aware that both Verreaux’s and Crowned eagles had nested nearby for many years but I had not seen them before.

Aware of this possibility on arrival I enquired about the eagles’ and I was informed that there was also one of an African Hawk Eagle that had a fledgling. I expressed my interest on a walk to the site but later on I was informed -to my regret- that the bird was no longer where it had been seen before. However, before I could feel too bad, I was told that an egg had been spotted at the Crown’s eagle nest and that we could go there instead! I immediately booked a walk for the following morning.

The walking party.

The walking party.

We left about 07:00 hours and walked for about one and one half hours over rather broken terrain and mainly uphill. After going for about an hour we spotted one of the eagles perched a long way away. However, we were advised that the nest was not in that direction but up the hill! It was clearly one of the pair, probably the male eagle scouting for food as these eagles are special in that the male often feeds the female while she incubates.

The first eagle.

The first eagle.

Close-up of the first eagle.

Close-up of the first eagle.

It should be noted that these eagles are not common and rather secretive and as Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa puts it, “Normally chooses the tallest canopy tree in which to build its large stick platform nest”. Luckily I did not know this while our trek was in progress as I was having additional difficulties with my recently acquired hiking shoes that were destroying my toes!

Examining an interesting cave en route to the nest.

Examining an interesting cave en route to the nest.

After another thirty minutes of steep uphill walk, we got to the general area where the nest was. Although I could not yet see it, my companions did and they got excited about what they saw. Eventually I spotted the nest as well as the second eagle perched about one metre above it.

Getting close to the nest meant that our up hill walk changed into a steep climb until we managed to get to a large rock above the nest. From this really great vantage point we could appreciate the situation and observe. We sat down and remained quiet while my toes throbbed, also quietly…

The return of the eagle to the nest and egg moving.

The return of the eagle to the nest and egg moving.

The nest was large, much larger than I had anticipated! Clearly it had been there for a number of years and its occupants had made a good job at building it. It must have been about two metres across and at least one and one half metres deep! This was a large nest for the species as Roberts VII Multimedia mentions an average diametre of 1.5-1.8 m with a height of up to 70 cm but old nests -such as this one- can reach up to two to three metres in diametre and three metres in height as the eagles add new material every year.

By the time we reached the “watching rock” the eagle was no longer there and we (or rather my companions) could see the egg that, on further observation, turned out to be two! While watching the nest the eagle came back and, after turning the eggs with its beak, literally “sunk” over them and stayed there unmoved by our presence for the rest of the time. Crown eagles are large birds reaching a height of up to 99 cm (tail included) being the fifth longest eagle that exists weighing about 4 kg with a wingspan of 1.50 to 1.80 m, comparatively short for the bird’s bulk. Mainly the female incubates for about 50 days and two eggs laid but normally only one chick goes through as siblicide is the norm. Only after 9-11 weeks the new bird is fully feathered and able to leave nest for nearby branches at 110-115 days. Despite its large size, the bird was truly dwarfed by its nest!

The eagle "sunk" in the nest.

The eagle “sunk” in the nest.

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Over 95 per cent of this eagle’s prey are mammals and they have a reputation for being great fliers and being able to take off vertically inside the forest. I was wrong in thinking that they fed mainly on monkeys, as these mammals are only 7 per cent of its diet. Their usual prey are hyraxes and small/young antelope (65 per cent).

We returned to camp from the eagle’s nest via the baobab tree. I have already spent time on these fantastic trees in a recent post on Chitake so I will not waste too many words. This particular baobab has two main visible features: spikes driven up its trunk and a hole that allows you to see the inside and even enter the tree if you are interested and adventurous. Probably the spikes are there to enable people to collect either tree produce or honey but we could not tell.

The baobab.

The baobab.

The large hole.

The large hole.

The spikes.

The spikes.

As we did not carry torches while looking for eagle nests during the day, there was not enough light to undertake a proper examination of the tree’s interior. We saw that there were some sun rays that filtered through small gaps on the roof, where the branches had sprouted, indicating that the top of the tree is not sealed tightly (as I thought) but there are gaps in its cortex. The holes were small and the light was not enough for us to see inside so we appealed to the trick of using the camera flash to look inside.

The inside of the tree. The spikes are seen on the right upper corner. The flying bat (centre bottom) and stationary bats (centre top), The small light spots are gaps on the top of the tree.

The inside of the tree. The spikes are seen on the right upper corner. The flying bat (centre bottom) and stationary bats (centre top), The small light spots are gaps on the top of the tree.

We saw that there were also spikes inside the tree! Although we did not detect any animal presence or smell (particularly the pungent bat smell!) inside the trunk, we took some pictures and, later examination of these, we noticed a small dark spot on its pale brown interior. It was a bat caught in flight! Further observation and enlargement of the pictures revealed other bats hanging from the roof, not in bunches but keeping distance from one another.

Close-up of the bats.

Close-up of the bats.

By the time we finished our observations of the baobab it was lunchtime and hot so we took walked back to camp, my toes still complaining in silence!

Hippo Pools Camp, Zimbabwe, 8 October 2015.


[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/hippo-pools-revisited-2/

Caput Mundi – A Waterless Coral Reef

While walking along the Appian Way I described in Caput Mundi Revisited that we passed by the Istituto Salesiano San Callisto[1] on our way to Church of St Mary in Palmis and then to the city centre.

Istituto Salesiano San Callisto.

Istituto Salesiano San Callisto.

We noted that the front of the Istituto had acquired a new feature: a marvelous collection of succulents. The comparison with coral formations as seen in the Indian Ocean was immediate so we decided that a closer examination was required. What we found is presented here as a pictorial account. No attempt at identifying the plants was made and I leave that to the readers interested in cacti!


While carefully looking at the plants we noted that seashells had been placed surrounding the plants, a clear reminder to us that whoever did this wonderful work had also thought of the sea!

It is clearly difficult to be original in this world!

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[1] I wrongly referred to it as Dio Silvano college in my Caput Mundi Revisited post, apologies.

Caput Mundi revisited

It is back to Rome in 2015, after a few years’ absence. We are on our way to our son’s graduation in Scotland and we will visit our daughter (the Editor of the blog!) in Milano before that. After this is completed, it will be back to Africa.

After a 13 hour of a rather sleepless flight we arrived at our friends house in the Via Appia, yes, we are very fortunate to stay at that magnificent place where once upon a time the Roman legions moved in and out of Rome on their way to Africa and other conquests!

The weather as it is normal here is great, sunny and warm without being too hot yet. On arrival and unable to sleep due to jet lag we decided to walk to town following the Appian way to stretch our legs, get tired and sleep well.

A view of the Appian Way.

A view of the Appian Way.

From our friends’ house we passed the Capo di Bove with its thermal baths dating back to the middle of the 2nd century. These baths were used privately until at least the 4th century and its name derived from the cattle head sculptures on the nearby tomb of Caecilia Metella. We also passed the latter, the best preserved mausoleum that signaled that we were three miles from Rome. Caecilia Metella was the granddaughter of Marcus Crassus who served under Julius Caesar.

The Caecilia Metella Mausoleum.

The Caecilia Metella Mausoleum.

After a short while we passed the Basilica of St. Sebastian that is also the entry of the homonymous catacombs and built originally in the first half of the 4th century. St. Sebastian was a popular Roman martyr of the 3rd century and the church was built over a small catacomb. Continuing on our way we crossed the Via Ardeatina and, before the tomb of L. Volumnius and I. Tyrannis we turn left to enter into a favourite area of ours where the Catacombs of Callixtus are located.

The church of St. Sebastian is seen in the background.

At our favourite walk. The church of St. Sebastian is seen in the background.



This is an approximately 2 km walk over beautiful fields at the moment sprinkled with red poppies, where the Dio Silvano college and the Ipogeo de Vibia are also found that ends back in the Appian Way, just across the Church of St Mary in Palmis, better known as the church of Domine Quo Vadis. It was here that, according to the legend, St. Peter had a vision of Jesus and asked him: “Lord, where are you going?” (In Latin: Domine, quo vadis?) to what Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again” (In Latin: Romam vado iterum crucifigi). After this encounter St. Peter returned to his own crucifixion!

Church of St Mary in Palmis.

Church of St Mary in Palmis.

After this rather historical walk we moved to the actual modern city where we did some shopping, ate some pizza on the street and ended up with ice cream from our favourite shop at Garbatella quarter, The latter was founded in the late 1920s with its typical project units (In Italian: “lottos”), Rococo-style buildings grouped together around a common yard. This gives this quarter a friendly and rather familiar atmosphere.

Garbatella's typical architecture.

Garbatella’s typical architecture.

When I looked at the pedometer it showed 9 km! It was time for a “cappuccino stop”. After the tasty pause we recovered our forces and got back home trying to find a shorter way!

A "smiley" cappuccino...

Our “smiley” cappuccino…

Errata: What I referred to as Dio Silvano College was in fact the Istituto Salesiano San Callisto.