Category Archives: Italy

Travelogue Italy 5: Sorrento

SORRENTO & AMALFI COAST

20-21 June 2017

Having caught the ferry from Capri after a day of fun in the sun and the sea, we were desperately in need of a shower… And even more so after we’d trekked to our hotel.

Consulting Google Maps as we arrived in the port, we made the executive decision to walk to our hotel since it was only 800m away. Little did we know that, with Sorrento sitting atop a sheer cliff-face, the 800m walk was a 45 degree path that was at least double the distance since it wound back and forth!

We were grateful to arrive into the prettiest boutique town, which is Stepford in its perfection. With the horse and carriage clippetty-clopping on volcanic grey cobblestones past us on a pretty little piazza with gayly coloured flowers, (perfectly flat) Sorrento was a breath of fresh air.

Our hotel was a chip and a putt from there, neatly nestled in a quiet sideroad off the main drag, and its blue and white tiled hallway made us feel fresher already.

We checked into our room (the receptionist was astounded that we’d walked up with our luggage and whispered to me conspiratorially not to tell Christian that there is an elevator from the Port!) and had the long awaited shower – bliss! – before consulting The Fork for our dinner arrangements (since all that self-portering had left us famished!)

With an 8pm reservation in place, we took a whip around the town, delighted to see that the main street was closed off to cars so pedestrians were milling about, shopping, eating and unapologetically people-watching from the many bars and cafes that had their chairs laid out theatre-style facing the road. Judging by the number of pink sun-slapped faces, we assumed that this town was a favourite among the Brits and Scots.

There was also a wonderful market street running parallel to the main street, selling all sorts of wonderful locally produced wares like leather goods, linens and all things lemon (production of which the region is famous for). We would have to return after dinner when we were strong and focused enough to enjoy the experience.

We’d chosen our restaurant for its story. A new place, opened in 2017 by 2 sons to celebrate their father’s apparently illustrious career in waitering. The story, with the weighty name ‘Miseria e Nobilta’ had us curious enough to need to try it out.

We had the most delicious crumbed and deepfried mozarella fritta and croquettes to start, with a most unusual pork and beans pasta and a lasagne for main course, served with a (cold) garlic broccoli. Amazing food and very attentive service with the owners themselves handling drinks and table service.

Happy to have supported a new local business and happier to have been fed to bursting, we took a wander through to the end of town and then back again through the market.

I managed to get a fabulous handcrafted (in Sorrento!) leather bag with, coincidentally, a “C&C” logo punched on the silver clasp, for a bargain €20! And a less elegant, but no less classic bargain Italia supporters hoodie. Christian resisted any immediate purchase, but from the way he was earnestly haggling with the sales lady, I sense the procurement of a collection of leather work shoes in his future!

AMALFI COAST CRUISE

Christian had pre-booked an Amalfi Cruise for us so that we could see as much as possible in the single day we had to explore the massive coastline and all the little towns and villages dotted along it.

Somehow, we’d forgotten to bring our printed tickets but the situation was easily resolved by calling the Get Your Guide call centre, who graciously traced the booking and emailed us a digital ticket.

We met the tour bus at the designated spot – coincidentally outside the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before – and were transported to the Marina where our boat was ready and waiting (with several others).

We were seated at the front of the boat (with the young people, how flattering!)  and were soon jetting off down the coast.

No more than about 15 minutes’ sailing in, we stopped for a swim in a sheltered inlet between a triangulated island and 2 rocky outcrops. We were told this was Isola Regale, owned by Sorrento guy who has built a villa, a church and a restaurant on his little island. The boat provided masks, kickboards and floating rings for us to use while flopping about like we owned the place.

Back on the boat, we sunned and lounged on the padded bow as we sailed along the Amalfi coastline, admiring the view and marvelling at how the houses and villages wedged into the cliffs ever came to be. It would be hard enough today with all the construction technology we have now, but how in the world did they manage it all in yesteryear? And how did they get anywhere, when their homes were so remote with what must be hellish walks to the nearest town!

Our first shore stop was the town of Amalfi, a charming little village constructed around a magnificent Cathedral and bustling piazza. Our hosts on the boat gave us each a prepackaged roll to serve as lunch-on-the-go during our couple hours to explore.

As a tiny little town (hard to believe once the commercial leader of the Mediterranean), we saw all of it in less than half an hour, which might have been less had the back end of the town not started ascending into the slopes of the mountain into which it was built (and might have been more had we had visited the paper and/or the compass museum).

Being midday, everywhere was busy and it was hot so we got an ice-cold Peroni quart and settled in the shade at the beachfront to have our lunch.

Initially unexcited by the prospect of the Caprese sandwich (mozarella and tomato), we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was really tasty, with a fresh and chewy sourdough style roll and pesto and the tomato to add some zest and mositure. It still could have used a slathering of butter, but that doesn’t seem to happen here. We’d yet to have butter served at the travel with the mandatory basket of bread – and when we’d asked, we were brought a bottle of olive oil. And there had also been neither salt nor pepper on the table anywhere for that matter.

Applauding the success of the simple traditional fare, we felt it time to try a “baba”, which is a sort of cross between a cupcake and a tall skinny muffin. From what we’d seen and read, the standard one comes soaked in rum (yuck) so Amalfi was the perfect opportunity to sample since they were known for lemon baba! (And all things lemon really; we saw a lemon the size of my head at one of the stands we passed!)

They were more elusive than you’d have thought. But we found a little bakery that had them and wasted no time in ordering one each… And a lemon cannoli each for luck. Both were beautifully fresh and light and, we surmise, excellent examples of these delicacies.

With half an hour left we braved the pebble beach, hobbling and hopping to the water like we were walking on hot coals! The swim was worth it though and we were a lot less sweaty getting back in the boat.

The skipper guided the boat along the shoreline, moving closer to show us things of interest, like a grotto, a natural rock arch, a really tall bridge (that crazy people jump off for fun), natural coves, bays and even a little waterfall, which he slowly backed into so the people at the back of the boat could touch the water.

Our next shore stop was Positano, which was on the shortlist of places we considered to homebase from. So very glad we didn’t!

A busier, fancier version of Amalfi, the little town – while very pretty and an architectural wonder wedged into the mountain as it is – was a bit devoid of character and felt to us, even as tourists, to be too much of a tourist trap.

Being much of the same, we did a quick whip around to make sure we saw what needed seeing and then spent a good hour sitting in a garden terrace restaurant that served over-prices everything and had terribly service… But had those fans that blow fine mist spray so was easily the coolest place in town.

Finishing off the visit with a cursory hobble into the sea, it was back on the boat for the sunset ride home.

The cruise was great… But we agreed that had it to do all over again we would probably have taken the bus tour which was quicker, cheaper and includes another town (Revello) and a sit-down lunch. Nevermind, we live and learn (from these #firstworldproblems).

Back in Sorrento – and after a heavenly shower! – we had our second dinner in Sorrento at an amazing restaurant called La Tavola Di Lucullo. Even with an 8pm booking, which is early by Mediterranean standards, the restaurant was very busy.

We ordered our water and (now standard) Margherita-to-share starter before even looking at the menu because we were starving, having survived the whole day on the hotel Continental breakfast and the Caprese roll (the Italians are certainly not afraid of carbs!!). So far we’d not had a bad – or even average – meal in Italy, and this dinner was up there among the best.

We had had aspirations of visiting Sorrento’s Irish pub to log the index, but the long day in the sun had us beat so we called it a day, responsibly saving something of ourselves for the next day’s trip to Pompeii.

Travelogue Italy 4: Capri

CAPRI

20 June 2017

The plan was to do a day-long pitstop in Capri island between our visits to Naples and Sorrento, since this famous playground of the rich and famous lay conveniently between the two gulfs of Naples and Solerno, at the end of the Sorrento peninsula. 

We’d booked our tickets to Capri at the port when we arrived, aso all that remained to be done in the morning was eat breakfast and check out before walking (back past Castel Nuovo) to the ferry.

We were surprised and delighted to see some hot fare on the buffet, which had all been strictly Continental until this point. There was a little bain-marie with 3 dishes and we served a spoonful of scrambles and a hearty serving of streaky bacon but passed on the green peas (!!) with little blocks of ham.

Just the jetfuel we needed to lug our suitcases across the Harbourfront to our jetty, where our ferry was ready and waiting for us to board.

The journey was pleasant (thanks to great air-conditioning mostly) and an hour or so later we saw the paradise coast of Capri.

We alighted at Marina Grande and followed the directions we’d found on the internet for a place to store our bags for the day. As luck would have it, the baggage store was opposite the other ferry terminal, where we’d be catching the crossing to Sorrento at the end of the day. For €3 each, it was cheap at the price to be rid of the bags for the day with the peace of mind they were safe.

It’s a small island so there is a finite list of things to do and it was easy to knock a few off right away to make our itinerary fit the day. We were able to lob off a whole coast by skipping their Blue Grotto in the North West (starting to feel like “seen one grotto, seen ’em all”) and the collection of forts in the North East, and decided to catch the bus to the farthest point and work our way back.

That took us to Anacapri. The ancient Greek prefix “ana-” means up/above, signifying that this elegant little village lies above the village of Capri (which is why we took the bus, to avoid further clarification climbing).

Anacapri is less famous than its counterpart and even drawing out our little tour couldn’t have taken more than half an hour and, having seen all 3 major sights in Anacapri, we took the famous Phoenetician Steps down to the Marina Grande, which had been the only access from Marina Grande and Anacapri until 1877 – quite a mission at almost 1000 unevenly spaced and sized stone steps!

It was thirsty work getting down all those steps – don’t be fooled, downhill is still hard work! – and swimtime was a good incentive to keep up the pace.

The beach was, as we were discovering to be the norm, a sliver of pebbles, with the usual half designated to side-by-side extortionately priced loungers and the other half a patchwork of sunbathers. As usual, being South African, we packed all our things into our bag, covered it with our towel (the trusty free-gift towel from Catania. What would we have done without it??) and kept and eye on it from the sea.

As much of a mission as it is to get in and out of the sea because of the blasted pebbles, it’s always nice to be in the water, cooling off.

And essential, since the next trick was to climb the path to Capri. It’s quite a steep and winding path to get you up the mountainside and again we were reminded that Google Maps doesn’t take altitude into account and not all 650m walks are made even! It felt like an epic achievement, but bearing in mind it’s the main path through Capri’s suburbs, this is (still) everyday life for a lot of people!

We’d timed it to be in Capri town for lunchtime, to not only get a bite but (probably more so) to miss the worst of the midday heat. We’d booked a pizza place on the edge of town, fancying it to be a little less busy – the town square, Piazza Umberto, is known as “the lounge of Capri” because all the restaurant tables and chairs blend into one –  and we were right. With a lovely view and on the edge of the chaotic little town, we enjoyed a salami pizza that took forever to come, but was delicious when it arrived.

All that remained for the afternoon was a visit to Marina Piccola, which was supposed to be the smaller, quieter beach, so we set off on foot to enjoy the winding panoramic downhill road.

Marina Piccola was smaller. It was not quieter.

With a section of (pebbled) shoreline servicing two channels of water with a massive boulder in between, there were people everywhere. Worse still, there were teenage boys goading others on the massive rock to jump into the shallow waters. I couldn’t bear to watch as 2 of them jumped in, fearing we were about to bear witness to these youngsters’ undoing.

They were fine. We were off.

We got the bus back up to Capri and trotted down the path back to Marina Grande, which now seemed so much quicker that it was a familiar route.

The ferry schedule gave us lots of options, but we figured our day in Capri was done and successful so we might as well beat the rush, catching the 4pm ferry to Sorrento.

We got our bags from the luggage check and got on the ferry, which was so full we couldn’t even find seats together. Not a big deal though with only a 20 minute crossing to get us to our next instalment.

Travelogue Italy 3: Naples

NAPOLI

19 June 2017

We hadn’t even intended on visiting Naples, thinking we’d catch an overnight ferry or train from Palermo to Sorrento. We’d ascertained in the travel planning that Naples was the nearest airport to Sorrento, but it hasn’t been in the running… Until budget airline Volotea had their 5th birthday special and I managed to nab 2 one way tickets to Naples for €5 each!

So, there we were, in Palermo with a 7am plane to catch. We booked a taxi on the Sunday night so we’d be sorted for our 5.15 pick-up (Palermo airport is 40 minutes out of the city) and cursed our choices when we had to get up at 4.45 to get ready to leave.

As it turned out, we could have had another 20 minutes sleep because our driver was an absolute maniac – who probably could have taken flight himself at the speed he was driving! – and, thanks to clocking 145kmph on a few occasions? and aggressively driving right up to cars in front and flashing his brights at them, we were at the airport in what must have been record time. Thank heavens it was so early. I can’t imagine how hair-raising the chap must be in traffic!

Volotea turned out to be the greatest budget airline ever. I had had some difficulties doing our online check-in on Sunday (something about a payment type conflict, no doubt because of the international credit card) and dropped a mail to their customer care. They replied within minutes, explaining the problem, apologising for our inconvenience and having concluded the check-in for us. The plane left on time, was empty enough for us to have a row of 3 seats each and arrived at our destination early, with our bags already on the carousel by the time we got there!

Having done our research, we bypassed the taxis and caught the express bus to the harbour, which dropped us off 20 minutes later.

We then had to navigate around the famous landmark, Castel Nuovo, to get to our hotel in the pretty suburb on the other side. Having heard stories about Napoli’s reputation for its crime (always, as a South African, taken with a pinch of salt), we’d erred on the side of caution and avoided staying in the tourist centres, as we usually did for convenient access to the sights and amenities.

We were way too early for check-in, so dumped our suitcases (on instruction, in the corner of the entrance hall – where it would be safe. We’d never do that at home!) and went foraging for food.

It was a lovely morning so we got traditional Caprese Napoli sarmies and went to eat in the park, in the shade, with a view of the sea and the castle.

We’d googled for walking tours and planned to meet the Old City tour that met at the Castle but, while we lingered with our sarmies in the park, the group must have left without us because somehow we’d mixed up the times and the tour was actually 10.30 not 11.

We followed the route the tour was taking anyway, since it obviously covered all the basic must-see stuff. Although there was nothing basic about our first stop, the Piazza del Plebiscite with the ridiculously impressive San Francesco of Paola Basilica on the one side and the Palazzo Reale on the other.

Grandeur to the enth, the Basilica was originally planned as a tribute to Napoleon, but by the time it was finished in 1816 he had already been dethroned so it was converted into a church instead, dedicated to St Francis of Paola who had stayed in a monastery on that site in the 1500s. It’s massive. More massive than massive even, reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon with a portico resting on six columns and 2 ionic pillars, and a 53m high done beyond housing all sorts of priceless relics and altarpeices.

We wound our way through the Spanish Quarter and up Via Toledo and were thinking this was going to be more of the same – squares, churches, monuments, churches – until we stumbled across something a bit different to do.

We joined the afternoon Napoli Sotterranea tour, going 40m below ground to see what lies beneath the city.

The Greeks, innovators as they were, excavated below Naples (their Neo Polos or “new city”) 4 centuries BC to make cisterns to aid water supply and sustain their new city.

The first cave shows how they carved out the caves in the “soft” rock, excavating small bricks for building houses and big bricks of the darker lava rocks for use constructing the roads and delivering them to ground level using a pulley system through holes in the ground that served as wells when the cavaties were filled. The second cave showed how the cisterns had ladders so that the water could be cleaned “pool guy” style with a chap who would sweep the well using nets, to clean of the dust from the cave and impurities that might have fallen in. After that it’s a series of very narrow tunnels where then water was funneled from one well to another – and a visit to one with water still in it.

These cisterns were drained in 1940 to make bunkers during WWII. The wells were sealed, floors paved and stairs built, allowed for 2000 people to stay in the cavaties for up to 3 days at a time during the raids.

There has been conjecture on how to continue to use the space functionally, so they’re trying out a Botanical project to see what plants can live sustainably underground. It’s 16 degrees and they’re given lots of water and UV lights for 16 hours a day to balance light and dark. There is varying success with the collection of samples, with Basil seeming to be the most prosperous (but I could have told them that, with my bipolar spurts of veggie gardening experience!)

Other ideas were an underground kindergarten (!) and an underground water transportation system with small boats or similar to carry people along the kilometres that the caves cover, but the space was too small.

After the aquaduct tour, we were taken above ground to a building that didn’t look like much more than a block of apartments from the outside but, on entrance to a ground level unit, were shown that this building sat on top of an ancient Roman Theatre!

42 families had unwittingly been housed on top of the theatre for the past 500 or so years when condominiums were built over it during a mammoth urbanisation surge in the burgeoning city. The family in this apartment had been using the theatre’s backstage area as their wine cellar, with its floor trapdoor almost comically covered by a sliding bed that retracted into the wall to reveal it. The cellar had been blocked off from the rest of the theatre until archeologists got hold of it and have now restored the rooms and tunnels to their former structure. The rest of the building is still inhabited as flats though, which is quite unusual, especially since some of their inner windows open into these archeologically revealed passages.

Since the underground tour was close to the meeting place for an evening walking tour we’d decided to do, we hung about in town and had a very premature sundowner in order to get off our feet for a bit.

Turned out that it wasn’t necessary as when we met at the prescribed spot, the tour guide arrived only to tell us that he wasn’t feeling well and although he was I’ll of health, he felt worse for letting us down. He offered to make it up to us with buying us a coffee, but that really would have been insult to injury.

It was 5.30 by now and we had been up since 4.30 and on our feet all day so we admitted defeat and went to the hotel to complete our check-in.

We’d had a completely wonderful and crime-free tourist experience in Napoli, but were still grateful for the hotel we’d chosen as it was in a block of gorgeous art deco buildings, sandwiched between 2 famous landmark castles, on the seafront. A very lovely and relaxing location to end off our day.

We were now very much commited to The Fork – not only because of the discounts, but because the solid recommendations so far gave us a neat way to slim down the options between the abundance of restaurants everywhere we went.

We booked a pizza restaurant to tick off the authentic Neapolitan pizza experience, which is a Margherita garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, to represent the colours of the Italian flag. This formulation was invented by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito in honour of Margherita of Savoy and he’s said to be the first baker ever to add cheese on a pizza. Apparently one of its distinctions is that it must be made with San Marzano tomatoes, which grow on the volcanic plains to the South of Mount Vesuvius, and perhaps give it the sweeter taste to what we’re used to (sort of like the tomato sauce in tinned spaghetti).

Traditionally not a wildly exciting pizza variant at home, we’d ordered the Margherita to share as a starter and then followed up with seafood mains. Christian had his usual seafood pasta with clams and mussels and whatnot and I had an incredible Calamari al forno, which wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead of a sort of pasta bake, it was a large piece of octopus that had been sort of armadillo’ed and over baked. Delicious!

Fed and happy, we walked back to our hotel to call it a night in light of our early start to Capri in the morning.

Travelogue Italy 2: Sicily – Palermo

SICILY – PALERMO

18 June 2017

We arrived into a damp Palermo on the bus after an almost 3 hour ride from Catania. It’d been drizzling a bit as we approached and we were fearful we were in for a rainy day, which we could ill afford since we only had the afternoon to explore Sicily’s capital before moving on to Naples the following day.

Our fears were unfounded and even the small puddles the drizzle had left had already started to dry up.

With only a few hundred metres to our hotel from the bus depot (and, probably more importantly, not a taxi in sight), we moved towards our hotel on foot, our trolley cases clattering on the stone pavements.

Trying not to ruin the walking tour we’d planned for the day, we rushed past the few places of interest we passed en route, and arrived at the Eurostar Central Palace hotel.

Walking into the plush reception, we were pleasantly surprised at the calibre of hotel. We’d booked on the Emirates Rocketmiles website, which claimed the hotel to be 4*, but we’d assumed it to be an oversell based on the price. It was not! Heavenly high ceilings, shiny marble floors and glimmering chandeliers welcomed us as we waited to check in.

We were given our room key; the most impractical massive brass keyring with our room number embossed on it, adorned with a bunch of maroon rope tassels like you normally see on curtain restraints.

Our room was just as nice. And quite different to the Albatro that had been our home in Catania the previous three nights!

Being midday already we were keen to get started… With lunch.

Stepping out of our hotel we found we were located in a vibey shopping street and beelined for the first café for a traditional Palermo experience – a panini and arancini (crumbed and deepfried rice balls, stuffed with mince and ham & cheese respectively). I would have had the baked pasta but *everything* has aubergine!

With a clearer head, having eaten, we were able to get our bearings and map our route.

Our hotel was indeed in prime position, on Via Emanuele Vittorio (the same name as the street the travel agent was in in Catania; mental note to look him up and see why he’s so famous), and we were sandwiched (in more ways than one, thanks to the lifesaving panini) between 2 of the sights on our map, the Quattro Canti and the Piazza Pretoria (there’s a sign for you!)

The Quattro Canti (4 Sides) or, officially, Piazza Vigliena is an octagonal crossing built in the early 1600s made up of four sides being streets and the other four near-identical curved facades of 4-storey Baroque buildings which contain fountains with statues of the seasons and the four Spanish kings of Sicily. The resultant effect is quite spectacular… And was complemented by the horse-and-carriage vendors stationed there looking for patrons.

Piazza Pretoria has a less grand reputation. In the late 1500s, the Senate of Palermo bought a fountain that had been intended for Florence. It was so big that they had to demolish some local homes to make space. Adorned with sixteen nude statues of nymphs and mermaids, the fountain earned the nickname “the Square of Shame”.

Quite the contrary, the epically impressive Cathedrale Di Palermo, consecrated in 1185, dominates a massive block and is really a sight to behold! With lava inlays, it was a very dramatic, magnificently adorned piece of architecture and we were starting to realise that if there was to be one word to describe Palermo, it was to be “impressive”!

Using a very simple tourist map, it was easy to negotiate the city and impossible to miss the landmarks on account of their scale. Those Romans didn’t muck about when it came to putting together a church / theatre / piazza – and there were several of each.

We’d round a corner and see an impressive building, consult the map and it was just the lowly local church. And when I say local, I mean micro-local since there was a church on just about every corner!

It worked very much to our benefit that we were touristing on a Sunday. The roads were quiet and there was ample opportunity to take good pics of the famous buildings that must be swamped during the week seeing as they are still in functional operation. Plenty of shops were still open though and the roads were buzzing with shoppers and socialisers out enjoying their Sunday, and the pleasure of the closed off pedestrian streets free from the crazy drivers.

We did accidentally happen upon some sort of major religious ceremony, with scores of groups parading in procession – with each having a heralded flag thing in front and everything – in front of a magnificent church with a sermon and hymns being belted out from loudspeakers mounted on the lamposts. There were even Scout and Girl Guides groups in attendance, so we knew they meant business.

We’d discovered the church parade while looking for our dinner restaurant – another reservation through The Fork – but we’re disappointed to see that it was shut tight. Perhaps because of the parade, perhaps not, but it left us without a plan, so we took a seat at a sidewalk Café and – with the sun still high in the sky – did some people-watching, rich with content with the droves of passersby.

The benefit of our vantage point was observing the restaurant’s menu in real-life and, despite ourselves (since the only thing we’d agreed earlier on that we wouldn’t have for dinner was pizza), ended up ordering a 3-pork pizza (bacon, sausage and salami) that turned out to be quite delicious.

Travelogue Italy 1: Sicily – Catania

SICILY – CATANIA

16-18 June 2017

We had a skrik of a start to Sicily, with our taxi driver – having torn through town, including what appeared to be a pedestrian shopping street – dropping us off in front of a very large, very closed wooden door. We pressed the intercom for “Albatro Rooms”, but got no response.

Checked the booking form, but there was no phone number. Checked for free WiFi to Google for a number, but there was none. Pressed the button again. Repeatedly.

The door opened. A bewildered woman glared at us, swatted past us to put her garbage down, being careful to block the doorway with her body. We tried to ask her for info on Albatro, but got the blank eyes of someone who really truly doesn’t understand you.

She closed the door. With us on the outside.

Christian had seen a Vodafone sign on our drive in, so we figured if we could get a SIM card then we’d be back in business. Suitcases ‘n all, we trundled down the road.

Obviously the shop was closed (it was 10.30pm after all).

A lady walking past noticed our obvious distress and stopped to offer us help. She Googled the hotel and got a number; called it, but there was no response.

She asked where the hotel was and when we pointed, she offered to come there with us to see if she could broker entrance (or information) for us with our future neighbours. It was very kind of her because, by now, we were several blocks away from the hotel.

We made our way back, Christian and I on either side of her to make sure she didn’t attempt to lose us. She managed to get the attention of the night desk and, after thanking her profusely and repeatedly, we were soon being led by Antonio up into the building and to our room (which, although very basic, was massive).

It was nearly midnight and although we could hear from the music and laughter leaking in through the windows that the city of Catania still had lots of life left in her for the night, we did not.

The hotel provided breakfast in the form of a voucher for a coffee shop down the road. It was a simple but deliciously light and fresh pastry (custard for me; jam for Christian) and juice or coffee.

Having no wi-fi in the hotel and too-weak-to-be-useful wi-fi in the coffee shop, first order of business was to get connected. A great decision and €20 later we were 10gb richer… And on our way to the Tourist Office, passing the ruins of Roman Amphitheatre on the way.

We firmed our choices as down the coast to Siracusa (by bus) on the first day and up the coast to Etna (on a private tour) for the second day.

20 minutes later we were on the bus heading South when I got a message from an old friend from home, saying she was currently living in Siracusa and we simply must come and visit. Kismet seeing as we were on the way already!

We agreed to meet on the bridge between Siracusa and the Old Town, Ortygia, at midday. And we did.

Lynne-Marie had moved to Siracusa 2 years prior, so was well-versed to show us around, point out the sights and filling us in on life in Sicily in general, including her very interesting job processing refugees from North Africa who apparently arrive on the Sicilian shores in their droves in summer.

We talked as we walked into Ortygia, the small island historical centre of Siracusa (Syracuse in English), which contains many historical landmarks.

Lynne was our kind of tour guide, starting with a mandatory visit to what she termed The Best gelato shop, so how could we not? The cold, creamy gelato was welcome on such a hot day, which we were told was mid-thirties degrees and could flirt with 40 later on! Plus, we were in Old Town Square with the magnificent Cathedral in front of us, so the gelato surely doubled as a cultural experience??

We wandered around the outline of Ortygia Island, taking in the picture-perfect sea, appreciating even the mildest breath of breeze that came from it and absorbing the buzz that came with the cafe lifestyle on our left and beachlovers on our right.

Almost at the end of our walk we came to Castello Maniance, which usually allows tours but they turned us away because they were closed for a film shoot.

We’d worked up a thirst so ended off refreshments at a sidewalk cafe close to where we’d met earlier?, with a great view of the ruins of a Roman Amphitheatre that had once seated thousands of people (in the baking heat) watching gladiators fight wild animals to the death (in the baking heat) which, beyond gruesome, all sounded quite exhausting!

Lynne had other existing plans for the later afternoon so we parted ways, grateful for the couple of hours with our personal tour guide.

We’d skipped lunch (disinterested because it was so hot) but there was an oasis of a fruit juice stand at the bus stop where we got a freshly-squeezed fruit juice slush that was pure heaven!! The kiosk owner was so tickled at my delight that he gave me a frozen melon as well!

An hour in the bus back to Catania wasn’t as labourious as it might usually have been, thanks to the comfy coach and air-conditioning and soon we were entering the city limits again, with the sun still high in the sky so there would be plenty of time to explore our homebase.

With our trusty tourist map in hand, we worked through the list of sights. With most clustered on our road (Via Etnea) and around the tourist office (Via Vittorio Emanuele II), we were comfortable with our surrounds and ticked off the essentials at record pace – church, university, palace, church, fountain, monument, church, piazza, cathedral, monument, Basilica sort of thing.

Very sweaty from our day out, we decided to go home to clean up before dinner so ambled up our road, browsing and shopping as we went (in no hurry since shops only shut at 8). At the one shop we bought at, the cashier gave us a brilliant free gift; a beach towel that folded into a zip-up bag. We were so delighted with the ‘present’ that we have her one back – the melon the juice guy has given us. She was beside herself at our gesture (although must have been wondering why we were walking around with cold melons on us).

Dinner was as yet undecided so we consulted a few sources and discovered that there was a concentrated pocket of options in a few square blocks in the Old Town. Less than a kilometres walk, we decided to take our chances.

We walked up and down a few streets consulting menus, but our final choice was made at first sight when we spotted some activity down an alleyway.

Following a group in, the alleyway opened onto a courtyard where a couple of restaurants? had chairs and tables set up, that were near full already.

We got a cosy table at the back and proceeded to be served incredible food. Unsure of portion sizes, fearing that pasta might be a course rather than a main (based on the prices) we had hedged our bets with ordering 2 pastas (€7 each) and 1 main course (€4) and proceeded to be served a mountain of pasta!

Christian’s seafood pasta was teeming with mussels and calamari and topped with an enormous prawn; my carbonara was easily the best I’ve ever had. Our main course extra, which the waiter automatically served as a savoury dessert was rolled pork, thinly sliced and rolled with onions and cheese, crumbed and deep fried. Superb!

Having sat down to dinner after 10, we were grateful for the walk home to shift some of the feast so that we could get rested for the big day tour the next day.

 SATURDAY

Our tour was starting at 9am from the travel agent next to the tourist office so, comfortable that it was only a short walk, we had time to get to the coffee shop up the road for our complimentary breakfast. Christian had the same jam Danish, but I switched to the pain au chocolat… Which was crammed to bursting with creamy chocolate filling! Unbelievably good!

We trotted down the hill and seeing as we had 20 minutes to spare, took a turn past the morning fish market, which took place in the area behind the palace and adjacent to the bus terminus – 2 points that had seemed so far from each other the day before when the turf was still foreign and two-dimensional on the map.

The fish market is exactly what you’d expect – damp, noisy and smelly. Fishermen we peddling reams of silver shiny sardines and anchovies, while butchers were carving up enormous tuna and swordfish. The resultant blocks of tuna on display were so big and richly coloured that they could easily be mistaken for sides of beef! And the swordfish cuts were bookended on their display with the head and the tail so were unmistakeable.

We met back at the travel agent and were introduced to our travel mates for the day: a group of 4 French people and an Aussie couple. Our driver arrived and we all hopped in the Mercedes people-carrier; Christian and I sitting up front with the driver, an Italian who spoke fluent French (we understood his explanation to the French contingent that he’d lived in Cannes for 4 years), but little English.

It was a picturesque drive (after the nail-biting exit from the city – Sicilian drivers are every bit as aggressive and crazy as their reputation!) with an audio soundtrack telling us all about the places we were visiting.

We could see Etna almost all of the journey, being such a large and distinctive landmark at 3346 metres high, making it the biggest in Europe and one of the biggest in the world.

Formed over hundreds of thousands of years with construction and destruction, it’s humbling to realise that the gulf that became the volcano that we know today was only defined in the last couple of thousand years – so is as much a part of our “modern” history as all of our stories of our human civilisation.

There are 59000 hectares of park around Etna to protect the fauna and flora, all within the province of Catania, so it was a pretty, scenic drive to where we would be visiting the Silvestri craters, being 5 craters formed from the 1892 eruption.

Etna emits more energy than a nuclear bomb, expelling lava rocks bigger than a car for hundreds of metres and flowing lava that covers everything in its path. The Sicilians at least have been making use of the lava and  I use it to make stone blocks for roads and buildings, which give the buildings a gritty greyness that can be mistaken for needing a wash. We stopped at a house that had been excavated from the lava; frighteningly well preserved as the lava had instantly set it.

There were already scores of cyclists making their way up the mountain. Very brave with the exhuberant and very aggressive drivers that even put our South African taxi to shame in the ‘hazardous’ stakes!

Back in the bus, we wound our way upward and were soon at the craters with an hour and a half to explore.

Our timing was a bit off because we were told short on time to catch the cable car up to the next vantage point (2500m) and we’d just missed the sightseeing train that ran between the 5 craters at Silvestri.

Fortunately, we’re not afraid of a walk, so we set off towards the first crater and were soon at the bottom of it looking up at the rim and imagining what it must’ve been like when it erupted (and hoping it had no intention of a repeat performance today!)

The second crater was much of the same, but deeper and blacker so a bit more sinister.

The trek from crater to crater was a bit of a mission with the sides quite steep and the lava gravel quite slippery, so we bypassed the other craters in favour of a walk to the viewing point to take in the panorama.

Peckish from all the walking, we took the opportunity to sample arancini, rice balls stuffed (ours were mince and cheese), crumbed and deepfried. Delicious!

Being first back at the van, we opened the back and swapped our sneakers for slops. While we were doing so, the Aussies returned and, wordlessly, moved our things from the front into the back where they’d been sitting, taking the front seats for themselves. While not a problem, it seemed like an odd thing to do.

The next stop was a couple of hours beachtime to swim and have some lunch. The driver gave us the option of bigger, busier sandy Naxos or smaller, prettier pebble-beach Isola Bella. The group chose the latter, but the driver still stopped at Naxos for us to take some snaps. Looked like we’d made a good choice as every inch of the beach was covered in loungers and umbrellas and the sidewalk the same with cafe tables and chairs.

Isola Bella was busy too, clearly catering directly to the needs of the upmarket resorts that nestled in the steep hillsides surrounding the cove, but very pretty with a little island in the middle of the bay that you could access by crossing a section that had slightly less than ankle-deep water.

We had a wander around, lazed in the water and then appreciated the relief from being in the open sun when we took up a table at the most modest of the restaurants, a little courtyard cafe with pleasant music and great panini.

When our time was up we made our way up the stairs, back to the road and our meeting point… To find we’d once again been re-seated. The Aussies had moved our bag back to the front and were back in their old seats! We exchanged a chuckle with the driver, who made up for his lack of English with a shrug and a smile.

It really made little difference as the next stop was a short hop up the hill to Castelmola, a medieval castle and citadel so named because of the molar shaped big rock on which it’s built.

We enjoyed a wander around its old stone alleyways, trying to find the viewing points that offered spectacular views of the panorama on all sides. We marvelled at how the 2000 odd locals nowadays cope with getting up and down the hill, let alone the poor slobs who had to build the place all those hundreds of years ago seeing as the medieval city only got steps in 1928 to make it accessible!

The last stop was Taormina, a famously beautiful town set on the hillside overlooking the coast, where the who’s who come to enjoy the NINE 5* hotels this small town boasts!

We were given a couple of hours to experience the historical sights (the Greek Theatre ruins and the Roman relics that were engrained in the town itself) and do some (in our case, window-) shopping. We enjoyed a wander around, took the pics that needed taking and settled at the town’s Irish Pub to log a Guinness on our Index.

Returning to the van at the 6pm meeting time, we’d once again been rehomed and my bag was neatly placed where the Aussies wanted us to sit. So we did. And enjoyed the comfort of the bigger seats in the back while they crammed in the front (where the middle seat is slimmed to accommodate the gear lever).

We were back at the travel agent by 6.45 and delighted to see that the city was a hive of activity, clearly come to life after siesta and ready to rock Saturday night.

We made our way up the hill towards our hotel, stopping to buy a few things – made attractive even in Euros thanks to the summer sales, and made more delightful thanks to their unwavering commitment to ‘gift with purchase’.

We got back to our room with an hour or so to rest and refresh before our 9pm dinner reservation at a place I’d found on an app called The Fork (run/endorsed by TripAdvisor) that was near to the area we’d enjoyed the night before.

The restaurant was great and we flipped our strategy from the previous night and shared a broccoli and pork sausage pasta to start and then a tuna steak and stuffed calamari for mains, washed down with a lovely Sicilian red. When the bill came, we’d gotten a whopping 50% off (€28) for booking through The Fork! Would definitely be looking into more of that for the rest of the trip!

The whole town was alive on our walk back to our hotel and even though approaching midnight, there were still families with children socialising and relaxing in and around the square. It seemed a shame to call it a night, but we were *finished* from our long day’s sightseeing.

SUNDAY

Having decided on the 9am bus to Palermo, we had time in the morning for a run.

Our position on Via Etnea was perfect for it and we started with running up the hill to the end, then the entire downhill to the fountain/palace/fish market piazza (which was deserted so would have made for perfect photos if we weren’t so sweaty and unsightly) and then back up the hill to our rooms. Almost 5km and 30 minutes on the nose.

Showered and packed, we enjoyed our last pastry at Misterlino (the most magnificent custard croissant!) before rolling our cases all the way back down the hill (cursing the Romans and their relentless cobblestones) to the bus terminus to go to Palermo.

Travelogue EE 6: Venice

20 August 2010

 

The bus trip from Split to Venice turned out to be not so bad after all. Would have been better without the waft of the French stinky cheese feet from next to us (worsened by them having the seats after the middle-exit so they had their legs draped over the railing in front of them and their Pieds de Fromage at our nose level), but still not so bad.

Pulled into Trieste around 7am and were delighted to find out trains run to Venice less than an hour apart. Booked seats on the 08h18 one and busied ourselves with polishing off the picnic pack and playing some cards. Would have liked an hour or 2 to explore Trieste as it seems really quaint (and wouldn’t have taken much time to cover the 5 or 6 worthy sites).

Timing worked out perfectly. Alighted at Venice train station just after 10h30, discovered that the bus station was indeed literally across the road (those ‘just around the corner’ descriptions rarely tend to be literal – especially when there’s heavy luggage involved) and were happily reunioning with Faye, Alex and Robbie 20 minutes later.

Being only 11h00 with check-in at 13h00 (which apparently took quite some negotiation to move forward from 14h00 so was not negotiable), we set to finding somewhere to kill the time. Popping heads in here and there, scanning menus and exchanging snippets with the odd host, Faye and I visualised the perfect spot… And it appeared. Well, there was no fountain and the beer wasn’t free, but it was an awesome little spot down a side street, so was shady and away from the madding crowds on the main drag.

We caught (who turned out to be) Julio as he had just opened the door and was turning the first bar stools off their overnight-on-the-table-upside-down positions. His eyes were bright and his smile welcoming. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.

We managed to avoid economy completely and take up most of the pavement section of the cafe/bar (staunchly to be called “Julio’s” by us, despite considerable branding claiming the place to be called Taverna Ciardi www.tavernaciardi.it – and apparently on facebook so we were told repeatedly) with ourselves, our luggage and our animated conversations and lively hand gestures (no mean feat since the Londoners had been up since 4 and we’d onlysortofslept on the bus).

Before we knew it, it was 13h00 and we were off to our apartment to meet Fabio, our landlord. High 5 to Lixi for her – as always – internet research magic, our place was awesome!!

Double-storey and very modern (like VERY modern with electric shutters and stuff) and light and bright (sky lights, a lovely little terrace) and… Air-conditioned! Even the artwork on the walls was too holiday to take seriously – a series of 3D pieces by Marin Claire with random items (like VERY random things like pepper, paint brushes and flower pots) popping from oil-painted canvases.

After opening and closing the shutters several times (small things amuse tired small minds even more), basking in the air-con, leisurely cool showers and clean clothes, we were ready to hit the streets (and canals) of Venice.

First up, feeding the machines. We found a taverna serving a bargain 2 course plus accompaniment set menu for €11.50. Had a great lasagne (very relieved, Italy was under pressure to deliver me this lifelong favorite) for starter and seafood plate with calamari, shrimps and squidheads with chips for main.

Lix had constructed the world’s best map so we were able to (relatively) easily get our bearings to see where to get to for the touristy stuff. Venice is not an easy city for that. Lots of winding and narrow alleyways, piazzas that look the same, too many churches for them to serve as landmarks anymore, buildings that look like an endless Monte Casino and bridgesbridgesbridges. Still, we managed to find the highlights, get the right pics of the right things (Rialto Bridge, St Mark’s Square, some buildings and monuments and some things that hordes of other people were posing around so must be important surely), including settling in next to Tina Turner’s leather skirt and Madonna’s black sequinned hotpants for sundowners at Hard Rock Cafe.

Had a stab at the local supermarket (Billa) en route home. Very different to home. Even the simplest things take the longest time as their are new and exciting choices to evaluate in almost every category, new procedures to muddle through and all sorts of absolute essentials that ‘these people surely can’t not have?!’

A few nightcaps at our happy home and, all exhausted, we conceded to Friday being an early night.

What a great night’s sleep! The electric rolldown shutters are masterful and the room is dark as night, even when day comes!

Saturday morning brought all new good humour. A beautiful sunny day in Venice and we were ready to enjoy it!

Lix whipped up some French toast with a tomato/bacon/onion/garlic salsa side (mmmm), which we tucked into at a lovely breakfast on our terrace that was all very civilised… until RoRo got the party started with healthy doses of vodka (Chris and I had been delighted to find a bottle store on Trogir Island the day before and had splashed on 2l of vodka and a litre of each of our four favorite Croat draughts) in our morning orange juice. This, combined with our obligation to wait for the ice to set so we could empty and refill the trays to make another batch while we were out, led to things heading decidedly in the direction of messy.

We ended up ‘waiting for ice’ until about 3 o’clock, when we headed for the local Irish pub to watch the rugby (SA vs NZ, so I’m told). Several shooters (enough that I had Jager splashes on the back of my t-shirt), a bleated national anthem (us, ours, on the bar counter) and many spurts of photos later, we’d lost Faye and Lix. Completely.

Never ones to fret, me and the boys went next door to McD’s to have a Mighty Bite bacon and cheese burger meal and discuss strategy.

That was the plan. What ended up happening was Robbie engrossing himself in our neighbouring table, while Christian ate his AND all but 2 bites of Robbie’s burger and then replacing the remnants in Robbie’s container – and Robbie not realising that most of his burger was missing!

Somehow we managed to get separated in our exit and I ended up manning the bridge to the right of us while Chris went to see if Robbie had gone left. No sign of him anywhere!

I’m super-glad it wasn’t me. With my sense of direction and that labyrinth (and no map nor any idea of our address) I’d still be looking for home!

However, Christian navigated with ease – and who should we bump into at Julio’s…? Faye and Alex having very civilised drinkies. The details are a bit blurry (to all) but we were home shortly after, safe and sound… For midnight snacks (chips and verysloppysortof spaghetti pomodoro) and nightcaps.

Robbie came tumbling in an hour or so later – very short on details on where he’s been, but safe, sound, in one piece and very merry.

Luckily there was a tres bizarre tv game show to keep us entertained (Italian terrestrial tv only seems to be infomercials dotted with cartoons and weirdy gameshows) and we had a very low brain-power, high-relaxation end to an eventful day of mishaps and misadventures.

Then it was Sunday…

Bizarrely, our wonder apartment didn’t have a toaster. But we did have the Alex 2011 with us, so were able to regain signs of human life with fried sandwiches of the best cheese, ham, salami and sliced beef Italy (well, Billa and then our fridge) had to offer. Enough butter to clog an artery… Or in this case jumpstart the zombies on the couch (we were now quite into the infomercials and there was quite pacey discussions about the Stanner Stairlift, the Relax and Tone, Water Smile filters).

Fortunately a channel hop during breakfast left us on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (in Italian, which is weirdly fitting with their Italian painter names and penchant for pizza) and was the perfect impetus for discussing plans for the day’s sight-seeing, which centred around a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and a trip to Giorgio Island to get pananoramic views of the Venice coast- and skyline.

The walk to the Guggenheim was enough to require a refuel, so we stopped in at a little bar/cafe for a quick snack. They have a brilliant snack strategy – a glass counter displaying a wide selection of wraps, tramezzinis, sandwiches rolls, all cheesed, meated and garnished and ready for a quick whirl in the flatbed toaster before a delicious steaming hot and fresh baked item is served to you moments later. Genius!

Having gotten all the culture behind them (we left the others to go to Guggenheim while we window-shopped and got hopelesslessly lost on our way back), we bought vaporetto tickets to see the city from the waterways, get over to Giorgio and take the long way home around the only unexplored side of the island. Bloody marvellous to just sit and let the view come to us for a change 🙂

Made our own Spag Bol for dinner and did a worthy job of it too! A very lovely and cultured dinner at the table and everything – even with champagne for an early celebration of Lix’s impending birthday.

Did the right thing and popped in at Julio’s for a last fond farewell. Having been sane, sober and present at our communal meeting place of choice, he was able to provide some interesting insights into our comings and goings the night before that cleared things up a bit. And opened up all new questions too! All good though and he said we were all fun in our muddle, so no real harm done. :o)

The Londoners headed off at an ungodly hour to catch their flight, while we enjoyed our last lie in with the heavenly electric blinds (would make a great name for a band). Scoffed down a real patchwork breakfast with eggs and cheese scrambled with spaghetti and top with a spoonful of bolognaise mince, and half glasses of this and that to finish them off (thankfully not the vodka or beers, which Alex, Faye and I had had the good sense to finish off the night before).

Headed to Marco Polo airport via vaporetto (without incident despite having not bought a ticket – €13!! – and standing next to not one but two conductors most of the way, and an incident where our driver managed to play dodgems with another vaporetto and a private speedboat causing much armwaving and heated Italian from the shore, causing the vaporetto to reverse to assess the damage, but seemingly only for curiosity’s sake as no details were perceptibly exchanged, bar a few middle fingers which I’m relatively sure weren’t insurance-related) and stuck bags in the lockers (after runaround from the Lufthansa call centre who said we could check in at midday, the check-in desk who said we couldn’t and the luggage check-in guy who had to wait for the security guy to return – newspaper under his arm, clearly having gone off to do his official ‘business’ – to xray our bags) and caught the local bus for a few stops to get off and amble through the greater Venice countryside, popping in here and there for a drink and to play some cards to soak in the aircon.

Got back to the airport and checked in uneventfully. Grabbed a slice of sausage pizza (big enough to be a half pizza at home) and a Peroni and we were off again.

Headed for Frankfurt, we’ve been diverted because of a big storm and are currently delayed in a divert to Nurnberg.