POMPEII & VESUVIUS
22 June 2017
Even though Vesuvius is only a few miles out of Naples, we had decided upfront in the itinerary planning to rather double-bill it with Pompeii on the Sorrento leg of our journey.
We’d done little research from home, thinking it would be an easy one to arrange from our homebase when we arrived, but the receptionist at our hotel pipped it on check-in when she said (unprompted) that we needn’t book a tour as the local train service delivers you to the entrance to the ruins, where you can join a tour or get an audio guide.
This corresponded with what our friends from home – who had been there only a few weeks earlier – had told us, adding that the Rick Steves audio guide app was essential, so we’d already downloaded it in prep for our self-guided tour.
The hardest part of the whole plan was getting out of bed (it had been a very busy holiday with the very taxing Amalfi cruise the day before) and tearing ourselves away from the buffet – although Continental, it was a good spread of cheeses, cold meats and cakes, with a stunning view over a little orchard next door (lemons of course; there lemon trees on every inch of uninhabited land in this neck of the woods!)
We compromised and caught a later train, jumping on the 10.20 Express train, which had us in Pompeii in just over half an hour.
True to form on what we’d read, touts were hanging about at the gate, “helping” tourists to make the most of their visit; to access things that they wouldn’t get in normal tickets, to avoid the hours of standing in the queues at the gate, to save them loads of money with added-value packages. You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true.
We deftly sidestepped them all and headed straight for the gate – which couldn’t have been more than 50m away – booking tickets online as we moved in order to avoid the hours-long queue we’d be warned about.
There were no such queues but, with our shrewd last-minute purchase, we did go to the front of the Online Booking queue and were in the main gate minutes later.
We switched on the audio tour and let Rick Steves and his sidekick Lisa tell us all about Pompeii and how it had come to be.
Now inland, Pompeii (established in about 600BC by the Greeks) had previously (prior to the Vesuvius eruptions) been a coastal town, and a busy port in the early ADs since Rome controlled the Mediterranean so it was essentially one big trade zone. It was a strongly middle class town, that epitomised Roman life in its time.
We walked through the town, marvelling at the simple genius that the Romans applied so very long ago. Basic things like using broken pottery to make pavements that not only hid the plumbing that lay beneath and was functional recycling, but was also studded with chips of white marble that reflected like cats’ eyes at night to light the way.
They had stepping stone crosswalks so that pedestrians didn’t have to walk on the wet roads after they were flushed clean with running water each day (can you imagine that kind of municipal service now??) and the number of stepping stones also indicated the classification of the road with 1, 2 and 3 signifying one-way, dual carriageway and major road respectively. So practical!
Moving onto the Forum – the central town square – was the first real immersion into the fact that this was a town, living and breathing in the shadow of Vesuvius, the backdrop only 5 miles away.
Vesuvius had erupted in August 79AD, to the utter astonishment of a town that had no idea they were living on a volcano since it hadn’t erupted in 1200 years!
There must have been pandemonium as the volcano shot smoke, rocks and dust 12 miles into the air and the wind swept ash right over the town, falling like rain or snowflakes until it buried the whole place, with 2,000 of its 20,000 population along with it.
Oddly, it was the fact that the city was covered in ash that helped to preserve it, saving it from the various plunderers that ravaged the region as battles were had and empires rose and fell around it.
The tour was eerily “everyday life” and took us through a couple of homes, a bakery, a brothel and even a take-away outlet. Life didn’t seem quite so bad back then, especially the steam baths, with their heated floors and the aquaduct and pumps to ensure they had satisfactory a water pressure. The Romans were very clever engineers and seemed to focus a lot of their energy on convenience and creature comforts!
The tour ended off with the set of amphitheatres – a small intimate one and another grander one that had a stage and scaffolding set up so is clearly still in use.
The Pompeii complex of ruins, being an entire town, can take as long as you want it to. We’d really enjoyed the commentary on the audio guide – we fully intended to use Rick Steves’ relevant chapters for our Rome sightseeing! – and found it quite comprehensive in covering all the things we wanted to see in a couple of hours.
This left us the afternoon for Vesuvius.
Easier said than done. The Pompeii tour had ejected us into (the modern) Pompeii town, so we were at a loss as to next steps. Googling didn’t help as the info we got all seemed quite contraditory, so we picked a side and headed off in the direction that corresponded with the McDonald’s golden arches signs, figuring that if we got lost, we could have a tactical burger and a regroup.
We didn’t get that far. We spotted an info desk a few blocks down and when we asked the chap for directions, he pointed at his van that was about to leave for Vesuvius and, since he had 3 seats left and it was about to leave, he lobbed off €5 each, which sealed the deal and we were packed in with the other 10 or so people headed on the same adventure.
Arriving at the park, we were set free and given time to climb the path alongside the crater to get to its peak to peer inside and get panoramic views outwards. There are a few pitstop points along the way, where you can catch free guides that talk you through what you’re seeing. When we got to the first pitstop, the Italian group was just leaving and a German group was being gathered. Too impatient to wait, we started up the trail ourselves.
It’s quite a trek, but just because it’s unrelenting uphill, not requiring any skill or abnormal level of fitness. We managed to catch up with an English tour and the guide was a wealth of knowledge.
He told us that Vesuvius is said to be the most dangerous volcano in the world because it’s so close to so many people – with a couple of million people in Naples which is only 9km away and more than 600,000 people living in the 18 towns in the Red Zone (within 12km) of the volcano that will certainly be destroyed in the next eruption.
The threat is not just the volcanic ash, as was the cause of the devastation in Pompeii, but also the lava, heat and gasses that could have catastrophic consequences. The day after the Pompeii disaster the volcano erupted again, this time creating a cloud of ash, pumice and gas, which sped down the hillside so fast that nothing in its way stood any chance of escape. It was when this flow reached water and exploded that it decimated the people of neighbouring Herculaneum, and the resultant hot mudslide buried the town, turning to stone as it cooled.
Scientists watch everything very closely, checking temperatures, gasses, seismic activity, all the indicators and early warning signs so that they can give as much advance notice for evacuation, which is estimated at 72 hours (not accounting for the inevitable hysteria).
Fortunately though, Vesuvius didn’t erupt the day we were there. We were able to climb to the full 1200m tip and peer into the crater, where you don’t see the swirling cauldron of molten lava you might expect in movie. It’s a massive hole, with grey and black streaks where lava has solidified and, most scarily, steam coming out of crevasses to remind you that Vesuvius is still alive, well and will inevitably erupt again.
Also bear in mind that the cone of the volcano as we know it today is only a fraction of the original. From Pompeii we’d seen more clearly how mammoth the original volcano was; when it erupted it literally blew its top and left behind the active cone we were now standing on as well as a smaller one to the right hand side that is part of the caldera (the large cauldron-like depression formed by the collapse of the volcano). Following the escalation of the outsides of the two to complete the full cone, you got a rough idea of how enormous that volcano was – and how scary that eruption must have been for all those people in 79AD!
Not that that was its last show. It’s erupted dozens of times since then, and had a handful of notable episodes in the last century, including a spectacular display in 1944 in full view of the Allied armies who had taken Naples a few months earlier and whose bomber planes were rendered useless. Mother Nature pulling rank, no doubt.
Our session with the guide had really brought the experience to life, but it was only when he gave specific instructions to rest of his audience that we realised we’d unwittingly joined a paid tour!
Nobody seemed to mind though, so we were on our merry way (in the opposite direction to the group) and headed down the trail to get back to our bus.
It turned out to be a good thing that we had the tour bus as the driver was good enough to take us all the way to the train station after he’d dropped off the full-price planned group at their respective hotels. It saved us another “where in the world are we? And where do we need to be??” situation!
The train we caught back was clearly not the Express as it stopped many times along the way and, although it did seem intent on attempting a landspeed record in the tunnels, took over an hour. Which was OK really as we had seats and we didn’t have to drive so after a long day’s trekking it was kinda nice to just sit for a bit.
And book dinner.
There was no way we could wait until Italy-o-clock to eat an elegant late-night Mediterranean dinner, so we threw caution to the wind and booked a 7pm at the lovely resturant we’d designated as our last hurrah.
A flash through the shower and a fresh set of clothes and we were ready for action again.
A bit too ready possibly, as we jetted down the Corsa Italia (the main road that ran in front of our hotel, the length of town and which our restaurant was at the end of) so hastily that, in fact, we were running early for our super-early dinner.
Fortunately, when life throws you lemons, you’re likely to be in Sorrento where lemons are plentiful. There was a little lemon orchard just before our restaurant and it was not only open for a looksee, but also offering lemoncello tasting.
The orchard was, as you’d expect, rows and rows of lemon trees and a few mandarin trees for good measure. Not a blade of grass though. It was weird; Sorrento had been much greener than any of the other places we’d been that were paved end-to-end, but it was all lemon trees on sandy patches. But the trees were full of fruit and the lemons grow HUGE so maybe they’ve got it right with doing the one thing properly.
The tasting was a little less successful with a mouthful of very strong lemoncello, mandarincello and a nasty strong liquorish liqueur. All those on an empty stomach (yes, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast!) was enough to make me a trifle giddy!
By now it was dinnertime and we were relieved to see that another couple had beaten us to the restaurant so they were ready and serving. The pizza oven wasn’t hot yet though so we switched up our usual and had our pasta first and the pizza to follow. This was no time to be stuck on pomp and ceremony – we were starving.
Having eaten, we couldn’t help but stop in at the pub across the road… And Irish Pub called Shannon’s, to log our Guinness Index and review our day and plan the next.
En route home, we detoured past the market for Christian to buy the Italian leather work shoes we’d seen on the first night. I should have put money on it – he bought all 3 pairs!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MALTA – GOZO
12-15 June 2017
We’d pre-arranged with our Airbnb hostess, Rosella, to get us a taxi for 9am to drive us to the port to catch the ferry to Gozo.
The 40-odd minute drive took us up the coast through several villages which had all but met to make a continuous thread of habitation. While the houses are generally attractive (or at least interesting, with decorative doorways, balconies and bay windows), there is a distinct lack of grass in these towns and suburbs. As we’d note in Sliema, besides being largely apartment living, everything is paved so there is little to no greenery anywhere. While understandable in a city like Sliema or Valletta, it was surprising that this was also the case in the rural and small towns? too.
Arriving at the ferry in perfect time, we grabbed our tickets and waited to board.
The ferry was a lot bigger than we’d have expected – a bit like a poor man’s cruiseship, obviously to cater for the hoardes of daytrippers – and we were lucky to get a window table in the canteen for the short 20 minute journey, to the destination we could already see from our departure point.
Our host, Frank, was waiting for us and was hard to miss in his florescent green shirt. He took our bags, armed us with a pack of island map, tourist map, map of Victoria and a bus timetable and packed us onto the 303 bus for a few hours exploring the island while he finished evac’ing the current tenants and readied the place for us.
The bus journey to Victoria (the capital, in the middle of the island) took longer than anticipated, with a 45 minute standing transfer in a crammed stuffy bus, and deposited us at the bus terminal in the centre of town.
The main attraction in Victoria is the Cittadella, which was an easy walk and, as an imposing yellow building that dominated the skyline, impossible to miss.
The Visitors Centre revealed that 12000 years ago a land bridge stretched from Sicily to North Africa. When sealevels rose after the last ice age, this land bridge was submerged leaving its high points to form the islands of Gozo and Malta. Natural forces shaped a flat hilltop on which the Citadel was built.
Our timing was spot-on and as we finished reading the neat collection of exhibits, we were able to walk straight into the English version of the video presentation (quite convenient timing since it rotates in 6 languages), which told the story of the Citadel in a dramatic 9 minute narrative with visuals that moved around all 4 walls of the small square room.
We then wandered around the rest of the Citadel, enjoying spectacular views of all of Gozo and the sea surrounding it as well as the exhibits and ruins within the walls, postulating on what the various sections might have looked like and what functions they performed all those centuries ago when this was the civilisation of the island. And imagining the Napoleonic invasion – and predictable ensuing French concession. The poor Maltese and Gozitans have certainly had their fair share of pillage and plunder and it’s no wonder that Malti is such a mix of so many influences.
There wasn’t much else open in Victoria since the signs in most shop windows indicated that they observe siesta and were shut from 12.30 to 4, to reopen until 7.
Hungry and lazy, this was no problem. We used the opportunity to sample the pastizzeria that all the tour guide books had recommended. As a quick grab-and-go option, the mini cheese pies and peas pies did the job and worked well with the setting; the lush little park across from the bus terminus (that seemed to be the only grassy patch in Gozo from what we’d seen!)
The return bus journey was much more comfortable, with enough seats for everyone, and deposited us almost at our doorstep.
Frank was ready and waiting for us and showed us around our apartment, starting with the very impressive ground floor level that housed a washing machine and a generous selection of holiday accessories and equipment, including bicycles, snorkel gear, beach gear (brollies, boards, buckets, spades…), games, shopper bags… You name it, Frank had thought of it (and it was all included in the price!)
Starting all the way at the top, Frank showed us around the 3rd floor, which was to be mine and Christian’s flatlet; a double en-suite room with a kitchenette/lounge and a huge terrace off the room and another off the kitchenette, leading to yet another on the rooftop. Frank’s detail was painstaking, down to lifting the sheets to show us the brand of mattress, showing us the stock of pillows (that included down, hard, soft and memory-foam) and even a tutorial on how to use the mixer taps.
We finished the tour with the middle floor, which was home to the lounge, another terrace, the diningroom, kitchen?, 2 more bedrooms and a bathroom.
Frank, bless him, had some pies (the same ones we’d just had in Victoria) and traditional ftira in the oven and had laid the table in the kitchen for us to sit and sample his wares, washed down with a bottle of Gozo Rosé.
When we were done, he called us to the diningroom? table to work through a selection of maps and timetables to help us plan our time in Gozo. There was so much to do and see and he’d worked through everything in such detail that by the time he left we all just flopped in the lounge to catch our communal breath!
Being a Monday, both of the restaurant options Frank had recommended were closed so we decided to make use of our lovely home and considerable leftovers from the second lunch Frank had surprised us with, with dinner in. This would require a visit to the supermarket, which we’d been told was on the road down to the Harbour so, being Sundowners-o’clock anyway, we made our way down the hill to see what we could see.
No more than a 10 minute walk, we were delighted by the nest of restaurants and pubs that lined the crescent of the Harbour opposite the ferry building.
We ambled past, reviewing a few of the menus on display outside, but got lured into the Gleneagle, busiest by far with a full row of patrons occupying the single row of benches lining the gallery balcony looking down on where we were walking and surveying the harbour and general activity.
The inside was equally charming with an garish fishing theme, complete with massive fish and crabs and lobsters and eels and propellers and such decorating the walls, and fishing nets hanging from the double-volume ceiling.
Across the road from the supermarket, Alex and I made a quick satellite mission to grab our dinner supplies without losing our prime people-watching position at the bar, taking in locals and clearly not-so-locals alike while we wiled away the evening with the sun still in the sky, and it still felt too early for dinner.
Which was worth the wait, with a new appreciation for the pastries, having given them a few hours between sittings and combining with a crunchy green salad.
The next morning we got up later than planned (just after 8) so adjusted our original thinking of catching a ferry across to Comino Island – a small sister island that we can see from many of our terraces. The island is a big tourist destination with its perfectly clear-water lagoon and azure caves, so we had been told that if you’re not there early, the sea becomes people soup and ruins the experience.
We thought instead we’d catch the bus up to the North of Gozo and explore the many beaches, snorkelling spots and the famous traditional salt pans.
Easier said than done. On the cusp of the busy season, the buses were still operating on shoulder schedules and we were awkwardly between the bus options from ferry port and the bus stop outside our house.
It was also, although only 10am, already searingly hot, so our short wait at the bus stop motivated us to consider renting a car (to avoid future searingly hot bus stop waits during the day). A quick Google and Alex was on the phone with Jamie, arranging to collect a car from the ferry port for a very reasonable €35 a day which, seeing as there were 3 of us, wasn’t much more than we’d have spent on bus rides with the amount of adventuring we intended to do.
Jamie met us and took us to collect the car, a compact little Hyundai, and we were soon on the road, relying on dodgy maps and you-can-see-where-you-are-and-
The beach lives up to its name, with a distinctive red sand (“Ramla” is Malti for “red”). We set up camp (with the beach towels and brolly from our holiday home) and headed for the water, which was welcome and refreshing in what was now the midday sun.
It was great to flake on the towels in the shade and watch the day (and a little Yellow Lab puppy 2 brollies down from us – a real cutey called Max) go by…
It was really (really really) hot… Even for a beach day, so an hour or so of lounging later, we picked up the roadtrip and drove over to Marsalforn for lunch.
Yet another beautiful spot, Masalforn’s harbour with its idyllic crystal blue water and bobbing yachts was a brilliant backdrop for a feast and our seafood pasta was worthy of the scenery, in which we were virtually engulfed since we were sitting at the very edge of the dock with water on 3 sides of us.
After lunch we wandered into a dive shop and set up a dive for the following day at 11.30. While details were short on where we’d be doing the dive or what we could expect to see, our hopes were high that everything under water was as spectacular as what we’d seen above.
The rest of the afternoon was then launched with snorkelling at Xwenji Bay, a delightful shallow sheltered bay, perfect for having a flop around and stalking the little fish that inhabited the mossy, grassy bits on the sea floor.
We could see the famous salt pans from the bay, so headed on foot to see them up close.
Salt production has been a thing in these parts since Roman times and there are still families that farm and harvest salt in the traditional manner. The pans are basins carved into the soft limestone cliffs on the water’s edge. Varying in size and shape, the majority seem to be no more than a foot deep and the premise is that each pan is filled with sea water and left to evaporate, leaving the salt behind. The salt is then swept up (literally, there were people with brooms sweeping the salt in each pan into heaps) and collected to be bagged and sold. For a princely sum too, with tourists lapping up kilo bags at €8 a pop!
We returned to the car, intending to drive to the next recommended bay (Wied Il-Ghasri) for another refreshing snorkel, but we got a bit lost and ended up in a fjordlike inlet called Naghag Il-Bahar instead. It was a narrow strip of pebble beach with several people already so we gave it a skip and continued the search to Wied Il-Mielah, a natural rock arch that had risen suddenly to fame since the much more famous and spectacular Azure Window collapsed into the sea. Such is life with limestone I guess; easy come, easy go.
We struggled a bit to find it since all the narrow roads look the same and some looked unlikely to be roads at all. Google Maps was even having a little trouble getting us there. In the end it was as private Segway tour that lead us to it. We’d crossed paths a few times on our mission and when we saw the group off their vehicles and posing at the edge of a cliff, we figured they knew something we didn’t. They did. And we too were soon happy-snapping picture of ourselves with the impressive natural arch over the bluer-than-blue sea.
Feeling accomplished after all our adventuring, we headed home for much-needed showers and, redressed and refreshed, adjourned to our roof terrace to watch the sun go down from the comfort of our swing chair, with the Gozo wine we’d left chilling in the fridge.
Of course it was still light when we left home for dinner at Ta’Philip – as recommend by Frank – a hundred or so metres down our road.
A stunning restaurant and clearly a local legend by all the awards and photos on the wall in the entrance, Ta’Philip also only offered a 0km menu, meaning everything served was sourced super-locally and consequently the entire menu was only 1 page.
Still, we each chose something quite different and all were ridiculously good! Alex’s suckling pig was enormous, Christian’s swordfish buttery and my Bragioli (beef olive of sorts) super-duper. The owner came to check on us and gave us a sample of his homemade sambuca, which was very aniseedy and smoother than most but, well, still sambuca. It was a good thing we were stumbling distance from home!
We’d booked our dive for 11h30 to give us enough time to do something beforehand and to be underwater for the worst heat of the day.
The thing we chose to do beforehand was a bike ride east through Qala to Hondoq Beach, which Frank said was his favourite. Christian passed, so Alex and I helmeted up and hit the road.
It was already quite warm, but fortunately it was a relatively easy ride into Qala along a flat road with little built along it so we could enjoy the magnificent views of the sea as we pedalled.
After Qala, the road became quite steep downhill so, figuring that what goes down has to come up again (at considerably more effort), we turned around and repeated the return ride home.
Shortly we were off again, hopping in our little car to hightail across the island like seasoned pro’s to get to the dive shop for our 11am briefing. It was quite a laboured process with a DVD, a quiz, a recap by the dive master and then a test (underwater) on our skills, so we only set off on the main dive at around 12.30 in the end.
To our disappointment, the dive was around Marsalforn Bay itself, probably because our dive companion, Audrey from France, was a first-timer, who seemed quite nervous (no doubt because all the instructions had been in English!).
It was pleasant enough. Even though there wasn’t whole lot of exciting stuff to see (random fish, grassy sections on the ocean floor etc), the fact that the water was crystal clear and we could see a good 30 metres was remarkable in itself.
With a Maltese dive under our belts, we headed over to the South Coast of the island for lunch in Xlendi. Quite different to the other places we’d seen, this bay was a harbour with no beach per sé, but loads of little step ladders into the water from the rock walls that formed the harbour’s basin.
We ate ourselves silly (again!) and then took a walk to the end of the bay, finding a smaller offshoot channel which we first crossed using the bridge at the end so we could get to the mouth of Xlendi Bay proper to take photos of the incredible cliffs and beautiful harbour from its source.
Then we returned to the inlet and scaled down the rocks to where a handful of people had had the same idea as us. One of the couples was very friendly and pointed out where the ladder was to get into the water and where we’d see the most fish.
We had our snorkels and masks with us so we descended into the water and paddled about a bit, admiring what there was to see since it was very deep but still very clear.
I even took an uncharacteristic leap from one of the high rocks and, thanks to Christian’s masterful capturing of the moment on camera, I never have to do it again!
Since we were halfway between home and what we’d planned for sunset – the Azure Window / inland sea / Fungus Rock combo, as per Frank’s suggestion – and it was already 5pm we figured we’d get ahead of the game and go straight there.
A good call because there wasn’t as much to see as anticipated.
The Azure Window was a magnificent natural arch that had stood 28 metres high. It was formed by raging waves crashing against a jutting out section of the cliff face and wearing away at the soft(ish) stone, leaving behind a column in the sea with an arch joining it to the land. Until it collapsed last March.
There is still a stump of the arch visible in the sea and many happy swimmers were clustered on the stump having their photo taken on the relic of what was, clearly blissfully unaware of what we could see from our vantage point – a massive boulder barely clinging to the raw edge where the arch had separated from the land, which we mused, based on the length of the crack, had minutes before it fell to the sea, but in geological terms probably had decades.
Fungus Rock, as underwhelming as its name, was a short walk across a series of (what looked like) natural salt pans and was quite an unremarkable lump of rock just off the coastline.
The Inland Sea was a bit more exciting and was a small shell-shaped bay which at first examination seemed to be enclosed. Boat garages (some with boats inside, some furnished and one serving as a cafe) along the crescent of the shell were the clue to looking on the cliff face that formed the rest of its border and revealed a cave inlet that we found out opened into a 26 metre cave that joins to the sea. Apparently you can swim through it, but we settled with sitting on a jetty and dipping our feet into the cool water.
We returned to our house and in a rush of ambition Christian and I decided to take a run (to clock the Vitality points for the week). I recommended the road to Qala, on the premise that I knew it was flat and, mostly, because it was supposed to be 3 km to Hondoq and it would be nice to see the beach that had evaded our bike run in the morning.
We set out and found it relatively easy-going, thanks largely to leaving it until almost 7pm before we set out. Unfortunately though, I got us lost by taking a wrong turn and in a misguided effort to rectify the route, we got stuck in a maze of unkempt allotments, earning a few minor scratches and a full side of blackjacks for our trouble. We abandoned the mission and turned to head home, adding on an extra bit to run into our little town centre to the church we’d seen as a landmark on one of our drives (not that churches make a good landmark on Gozo usually since there are SO many of them!)
Arriving home, a welcome shower and fresh unblackjacked clothes later, we set off for dinner, to the other place Frank had recommended, Country Terrace.
It was a bit fancier than anticipated, but the view of the bay and Comino beyond was breathtaking! And the fresh local calamari and medium rare tuna steak were out of this world. A worthy Last Supper indeed.
Making the most of our short stay, we’d itineraried down to the very last second. With intentions of catching the first ferry to Comino at 8am and Jamie coming to collect the rental car at 11, we called Frank on Wednesday evening for a powwow on how to manage our morning in conjunction with his plans.
Although he was expecting his next set of guests on the 11.15 ferry he was, as always, very accommodating and suggested that we pack up before we went to Comino so that he could clean while we were out, leaving only what we’d need for a shower and change before our departure, for which he would leave the upstairs bathroom at our disposal. Great plan.
We got up before 7, packed up, cleaned up and used all our leftovers to make epic bacon, egg and cheese breakfast rolls for our excursion?.
An hour later we drove down to the ferry, well in time… Except for the fact that there is no parking at the harbour. Alex and I got out the car to get the ferry tickets and were very concerned that Christian was going to miss the boat… Until he came hurtling round the corner at the very 11th hour. He’d found a spot in the reserved section for ferry management and had disregarded the warnings of clamping in the hope that we’d be overlooked in the couple of hours we planned on being away.
The ferry is a short hop and no more than 10 minutes later we were alighting at the jetty on Comino, Gozo’s little sister island.
Although about 3.5 square kilometres, the action on Comino all happens around 2 microscopic beaches. Right from the jetty, there are blue and white striped sunchairs wedged side-by-side on every inch of the flat sections adjacent to the little golden sand crescents no more than a few metres long. The rest of the beachfront is very rocky crags; not amazing for sitting on, really lousy without shoes on.
We went to the farthest point and ate our breakfast rolls, surveying the beautiful Blue Lagoon, and then hobbled down to try it for ourselves.
The water is crystal clear and you can see to the bottom, with more white golden sand. The lagoon forms a channel between Comino and its tiny twin, Cominito, which is an easy swim across so we paid it a visit. A very rocky outcrop with a small pebble beach and a few caves (that you can access from a boat tour, which we’d passed on).
We’d been there barely an hour and already the day-visitors were streaming in, so we decided to keep our memories pure and caught the 9.15 ferry back.
With some unexpected time on our hands, we finally got to visit Hondoq! A small and secluded bay at the bottom of a hill after Qala that would have been a challenge had we made it that far on either bike or foot.
The bay offers a large concrete jetty with stepladders into the water or, as we chose, a wedge of pebble/sand beach accessing (yet another) wonderous stretch of azure water. This island never ceased to amaze!
After a good half hour’s dipping, we had to return to fulfil our obligations and catch the 12 o’clock ferry back to Malta to begin the next instalment of our adventures.
12-15 May 2017
RIO DE JANEIRO
22-27 April 2017
We landed into a rainy Rio with a runway ride so long we thought we might be getting door-to-door service to our hotel!
Among the first to disembark (we were in the first cabin behind Business Class), a hot hoofing to Passport Control had us walking straight up to the counter for a quick stamping and on to collect our luggage… which was already waiting for us on the carousel. Never have we ever!
The chap at the Info desk was very helpful and scoffed at the taxi companies heckling for our business, saying that the bus ride was only 10 minutes longer for a quarter of the fare. Obviously reading our skeptical indecision, he came out from behind the counter and chaperoned us outside to the bus stop where, as further luck would have it, the bus (actually a luxury coach) was already waiting. We welcomed the return to aircon after the handful of steps in the wall of humidity that hit as we left the airport building.
A few minutes later we were off on what turned out to be a 45 or so minute ride along the highway from the airport and then through the docklands on the coastline that winds around to our ultimate destination – Copacabana.
First impression of Rio is that it’s massive and has more than its fair share of grimy buildings and graffiti. Lots and lots of graffiti, everywhere. First impression of Copacabana is that it’s a holidaymaker paradise; a 4km concave crescent of perfect golden sand with circular take-out shacks and cheerful cafe tables splayed periodically to get fed and watered without ever having to leave the beach. Lined with palm trees on the beach side and towering apartment and hotel blocks on the other and with hawkers peddling hats and crafty jewellery from mats on the promenade, it’s not dissimilar to old world Durban.
The bus dropped us right at our door, at the Orla Copacabana at the very end of the beach, which we’d chosen for its location. With Ipanema Beach a mirrored 4km concave crescent to Copacabana’s, the 2 side-be-side formed a sort of wide “m”; our hotel was on the beachfront just off to the Copacabana side of the middle stalk, with easy access to both beaches.
Our hotel was also nice enough. The room had space for little more than the double bed and ergonomically-shrewd en-suite… which was really all we needed. Rooftop pool and fitness centre (with sauna!) and breakfast in the dining room from 6-10.
Dying to get out to See and Do, we did the bare minimum and exchanged jeans for shorts so as to get out to make the most of the setting sun.
Passing the Copacabana Fort, we headed to Ipanema Beach and were soon on the trademark black and white zigzag pattern sidewalk that runs the length of the wide promenade.
The beach was busy; prime time with both daytimers calling it a day and nighttimers coming out to play. With the searing sun starting to cool, the footvolley (hybrid of football and volleyball) players were out in full force on the permanent volleyball courts set up on the beach sand. We sat at one of the many beachside cafés and watched them play, sipping on an ice-cold Itaipava beer (while most around us were enjoying cocktails from straws extending from the inside of fresh coconuts).
Having acquired a local sim card at the airport, we used our sundowners time to start planning the next few days. In among our research, we discovered not one but two Irish pubs in the vicinity so thought it best to tick off the Guinness Index sooner rather than later.
That took us to Shenanigans (2 roads inland from the beach strip). Which had no Guinness, on tap or otherwise! We stayed for a beer (Brahma) to be polite – mostly because you have to check in, where you give your name at the door in return for a barcoded card, which is reconned when you leave to make sure you’ve paid your bill. Very clever.
On our way back towards the beach we passed a very lively local pub/restaurant/café, so decided to try our hand at local fare. First surprise was that beers are served as 600ml bottles, in a wine cooler sort of thing, with caña-style thimble glasses. The menu was quite difficult to navigate, even with the English translations, but we settled on a Bacalhau (cod) balls and a meat pie and a cheese pie to share. All to the dulcet soundtrack of about 30 locals ups-and-downsing to a local football game on the telly. Very festive.
With a long day of travel and our bodies thinking it was 3am, we ambled back to the hotel to get a shouldn’t-be-taken-for-granted 8 hours horizontal in an actual bed!
SUNDAY – Copacabana
We awoke to a rainy Rio. This was not on the agenda but, fortunately having checked the weather report before we left, we had our travels brollies so it wasn’t a game-ender.
On the upside, the hotel breakfast was far better than we’d anticipated so, after a leisurely multi-course of yoghurt & fruit, pancakes & bacon and cheeses, cold meats and bread, we were well fuelled to take on the miserable day.
We shimmied past the large cluster who had gathered in a forlorn group under the large awning at the hotel entrance, staring into the rain and at the sea beyond, willing the rain to stop… smug that we had packed our Baltic umbrellas and could brave the elements.
It was more of a drizzle than actual rain and it was clear that it didn’t dampen the locals’ spirit at all. Copacabana has triple car lanes in either direction with the dividing island dotted with petrol pumps. There is then also a dedicated cycle/skate/running lane that is the same width as a car lane, also with the painted line in the middle to regulate movement in either direction. And the pavement is a good 6 or so metres wide, also with the same distinctive vibrant black and white brick pattern and Ipanema’s.
Rain or no rain, there were people walking, running, cycling and skating not only on the dedicated areas but also the car lanes closest to the beach were closed off for pedestrian use as well – possibly a Sunday measure to cope with the swells of people that must flock to the beach in good weather.
There were also swarms of people utilising the numerous beach sports setups; footvolley courts, soccer goalposts, Muscle Beach style permanent gym equipments. And we caught a parade of sorts with a singer belting out what sounded like a Portuguese version of “Heal the World” from a slow-moving stage truck, cavalcaded by hundreds of bikers. Quite a spectacle.
We ambled along the length of the beach, stopping to take pictures of some of the many fun statues, to grab refreshments and to put brollies up… and then put them away again as the drizzle stopped and started. The fanciest hotels look to be in the middle of the beach while the end of the beach, a section called Leme, appears the most modest, catering for bus loads of locals migrating for a day at the seaside. There is a walkway carved into the rock wall at the end of the beach that protrudes into the sea which homes the local fisherman.
For our walk back, we moved a block in for a difference experience. We’d no sooner mentioned that we should look for a local soccer jersey for Christian and and pair of Havianas for me than we found a shop on the left for him and the right for me! Another block down and we realised that it was less serendipity and more that we were after local commodities, available almost literally everywhere!
There were also (more) bars and restaurants along the inner road, all quite buzzy and busy; Sunday must be a big day for socialising in Rio.
With the rain starting up again we thought, still being full from breakfast, we’d hunt down The Clover (the other Irish Pub that had come up on our search) to find the elusive Guinness to add to our Index. We found that there was an Irish Pub near to where we were looking, but called The Lucky Screw. No Guinness on tap, but they did have cans so we ordered one anyway. When seeking a second round, the bar lady revealed she only had one can left, which we ordered anyway to share. Good thing too because when we settled the bill, we found to our horror that the Guinness was $R56 a can… ZAR266!!! …making it the most expensive Guinness we’ve had anywhere in the world – a full ZAR110 behind 2nd place, Copenhagen.
Reeling a bit from the shock, we moved back to the shopping street to find somewhere cheap and cheerful to numb the pain. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, pub-hopping as we found places of interest and absorbing Rio’s famous snacking culture in some of the more “authentic” places we tried.
We’d snacked so much in fact that we’d eliminated the need for dinner, so when we’d had our fill of the nightlife, we retired to our hotel to relax, watch telly and order room service.
Not in the mood for anything fancy or too filling, we ordered from the extensive “Sanduiches” menu (a staple on all Rio menus, from what we’d seen) and I was delighted with my open steak (“contra-filé” which we surmise is sirloin) sandwich, a lightly peppered juicy piece of medium rare steak on a bed of two slices of toast completely hidden beneath a generous layer of melted yellow cheese. We were both pleased to see a half plate of golden fries as the accompaniment as we’d noticed that in all the menus we’d seen over the course of the afternoon, chips are hellishly expensive, averaging ZAR90 a plate, which is the same – or in some cases more – than the burger / sandwich!
MONDAY – Centro
The plan for the day was a walking tour that was to depart from Carioca Square at 10h30.
With plenty of time to get there, we decided to try public transport instead of getting a taxi. The front desk of the hotel guided us to the nearest Metro station; an easy walk down the road that ran next to the hotel and then right at the last road before Ipanema Beach, with the Metro entrance unmissably positioned next to a small park.
Getting a ticket was easy enough since the options were very limited – a single or a reloadable card. We got a single, popped it into the turnstile, panicked when it wasn’t returned, appreciated the assuring head-nod from the security attendant, moved through the turnstile and were greeted with our train already at the platform waiting for us.
The train was packed – probably not unusual for a Monday morning – but not unpleasant. All those people but no BO and surprisingly little noise. Perhaps the locals are resigned to public transfers because it was one of the longer short journeys we’ve been on, with the train making several inexplicable stops which gained no expression from the locals so we concluded must be the norm.
We surfaced at Carioca Station onto the Square where the walking tour guides were already waiting at the statue with the clock, exactly as expected.
We were introduced to our guide, Eden, a 25 year old Israeli girl currently living in Rio with her fiance, a Brazilian native. The first thing she explained to us was the meaning of the word Carioca which literally translates to “house of the white people” – named by the indigenous Amazonian descendents for the Portuguese who moved here and built white houses – but more colloquially now is used with reference to anything to do with the inhabitants of Rio (so covers those not originally from Rio, like Eden).
She then went around the group members, asking them to introduce themselves with their name and where they were from. The girl just before us was from Cape Town; the rest a combination of European (Germany, Denmark, Switzerland), England and a lone Southern Hemispherean from new Zealand. As we began the tour, we quickly distanced ourselves from the Capetonian after hearing her excitedly telling one of the other group members that she’d just come Argentina and it was so different to Brazil that they were like 2 separate countries. DOH!
Eden’s narrative for the tour was one long Story of Rio, which began with the Portuguese landing at Guanabara bay on 1 January 1502, hence the name Rio de Janeiro, meaning “River of January”. The irony of course is that there is no river, just a bay, but they weren’t to know that when they first arrived.
The story unwound the complicated tale of Johns, Pedros, Isobels and Marias and how they back and forthed from Portugal, initially settling in Salvador in the North (since it was closer by sea to Europe) but then moving down to Rio when coffee and gold were discovered.
The Portuguese royalty sounded like a high maintenance bunch. John XI packed up and left Portugal to escape Napoleon and arrived in Salvador with his 60,000 people entourage without telling anyone he was coming. The mayor was so mortified that he hadn’t prepared any welcome that he asked for 24 hours grace to throw something together… and, on deadline, kicked off a grandiose party that lasted a month!
By way of gratitude John thanked the mayor for his hospitality by packing all his people back into the ship and moving down to Rio instead. Being very early 1800s, the whole population of Rio was only about 60,000 people so it doubled overnight! No flies on the newbies, being royalty, the Prince Regent staked the Governor’s house for himself and instructed his family and friends to follow suit with whichever houses in town they’d like. These houses were simply stamped with a PR, indicating the residents were to move to make space.
His mother, Maria, refused to live in the Governor’s house, paranoid that someone there wanted to kill her, so she holed up in the Convent of Saint Carmen across the road. She earned herself quite a reputation – leaving behind her title in Portugal of “Maria the Great” and becoming “Maria the Loco” (crazy) in Rio. It is now thought that she suffered from Schizophrenia, but of course that wasn’t a thing back then so she was just garden-variety crazy.
The locals were clearly also (the other type of) mad with this influx and insult was added to injury when the royalty claimed the Church of St Carmen as their own and forbade common people from using it. No flies on the locals, they built another church right next door (literally) and called it Church of St Carmen as well.
Sounds like royalty took lands turn for the better with Dom Pedro II who was lot more forward-thinking.
Having been abandoned in Brazil at the age of 5 when his father abruptly abdicated and returned to Portugal, Pedro was raised in relative isolation, being groomed to be Emperor as soon as he turned 18. Somewhat a savant and understandably eccentric all considered, he was committed to all sort of liberal ideas and in his 58 year reign pursued abolition of slavery, zealous commitment to freedom of speech and pursuit of technology that saw him the owner of the first home telephone in Brazil. In fact, anecdotally, he is credited with the phone making it into existence at all, having met Alexander Graham Bell exhibited him invention outside convention where it debuted; Bell hadn’t made it into the convention but Pedro saw him outside and thought it too good an idea not to have an audience so escorted Bell inside with him.
Despite his enormous popularity, Pedro was overthrown by a surprisingly watery coup d’etat that saw his Empire replaced by a dictator-headed Republic. He didn’t resist and returned to Portugal, where he lived out his last days humble and penniless.
We, in the meantime, had visited the grandiose Confeitaria Colombo bakery and sampled the famous Coxinha de Galinha (teardrop shaped croquettes stuffed with chicken) and Brigadeiro (a very very very sweet bitesize dessert ball made of chocolate and condensed milk with signature vermicelli coating). While Pereira Passos, the mayor of the city at the turn of the 20th century is credited with transforming Rio from the City of Death (because it was so grimy and dirty) into the (as it’s still known) Marvellous City in the early 1900s because of his vision and commitment to marvellous architecture (including the elegant Central Avenue shaped after the boulevards of Paris, as well as the famed State Theatre) am sure he’d have caught just as many flies with a good clean-up and some solid publicity on these marvellous Brigadeiros of theirs!
Our tour concluded with a visit to Lapa, which we were warned is unsafe by day. It is apparently just as unsavoury by night, but its popularity as a pubbing and clubbing destination earns a visible police presence which ironically makes it safer at night.
The suburb is fringed with a boundary wall of white arches which originally served as an aqueduct, until more efficient water delivery methods were introduced to the city and it was in 1896 transformed into a viaduct for a tram between Centro and the hilly suburb of St Teresa instead. It is the only tram still in operation in Rio and Eden advised us that it is disproportionately expensive (R$20 = R70) and only charges for the uphill journey, so many catch a taxi or an Uber up to St Teresa, have a lovely lunch enjoying the scenery of the cityscape and then ride the tram down for free.
The last sight of interest was Selaron’s Staircase, 125 metres of mosaiced stairway connecting Lapa to St Teresa. Jorge Selaron, a Chilean artist, moved to Rio in 1983 into a tiny house on the then-desolate staircase. He started decorating it with tiles collected in the area and as his work gained attention, people started bringing him tiles from all over the world to include in his piece of living art.
So passionate about his renovation that it almost became all-consuming, Selaron often ran out of money and would then work on commissioned painting to raise money to return to tiling his beloved steps. He placed over 2000 tiles, mosaics and mirrors through his 20 year dedication to his love of Brazil.
Selaron was found dead on the steps in 2013 and it is still undetermined whether it was suicide – he was rumoured to have impregnated a lady who died and lost their baby – or was murdered, since he’d reported getting death threats from someone and his workshop. A sad story either way as he was legendarily friendly and jovial, with a comically large handlebar moustache and a quick smile for photos with visitors to his steps.
We ended the tour with a late lunch, where we sampled the most traditional fare on offer: Feijoada (black beans and pork with rice, kale and cassava flour) and a Moqueca (salt water fish stew in coconut milk, tomatoes, onion and garlic).
Now having a reasonable grip on the lay of the land, we jumped on a Metro back to our neck of the woods for a spot of shopping and to book our tour for the next day.
With 20 or so kilometres under our belts for the day so far, it was time to lose the shoes and socks in favour of slops for some beach time.
But there’s no rest for us it seems; we ended up carrying our slops and splashing along the shoreline all the way along Ipanema Beach to Leblon.
The beach was really busy. Besides our fellow amblers enjoying the sunset, there were several Footvolley Schools in session, as well as personal trainers getting their victims to do crunches and lunges in the soft sand.
It was quite rewarding watching the last of the day go by, from the comfort of our vantage point at one of the Krol cafés on the wavy black-and-white promenade.
TUESDAY – Sightseeing
Having lost time thanks to Sunday’s rainy day, we thought it best to can our DIY sightseeing plan and rather do a full day planned tour to ensure we got to see everything.
The minibus collected us from our hotel at 08h30. Our group consisted of a mixture of English (us and Norwegians) and Spanish (South Americans) people so our guide repeated everything in both languages. We were also accompanied by a videographer, whose job it was to create a “documentary” of our day out, as well as to take pictures of and for us (with our own cameras, when desired).
First stop was a biggie: Sugarloaf Mountain.
Rising 396m, Sugarloaf is a granite and quartz monolith on the peninsula that juts into the Atlantic at the mouth of Guanabara Bay. The name was coined by 16th Portuguese in the heyday of the sugarcane trade in Brazil because the peak resembles the shape of the conical moulds that blocks of sugar were placed in to be transported on ships.
We were issued our cablecar tickets for the 2-phase ride and ushered towards the station. Being quite early still, there were no queues and we went straight up to the first station, which is a viewing deck allowing panoramic views of the Centro, Guanabara Bay, Botafogo and Flamengo Beaches, and of course Sugarloaf Mountain itself.
Moving up to the top deck on Sugarloaf itself we were able to see the views that Sugarloaf had blocked; Copacabana and Ipanema beyond.
Fortunately the view included the local domestic airport so we were able to pass some of the half hour viewing time watching the planes manoeuvre on and off the miniature airstrip that jetted into the ocean. Every plane looked like it wouldn’t make it; every plane did. Sounds obvious, but seeing as we’d already seen a pedestrian run over as well as a car and motorbike collision in the short time we’d been there, anything was possible with transport in Rio.
Next stop was San Sebastian Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, which has capacity for 20,000 people and is one of the most recognisable Catholic monument thanks to its 75 metre high conical structure. Inaugurated in 1979, the cathedral also features the Sacred Art Museum and the Archive of the Diocesan Curia.
Not much to look at from the unadorned outside, the Cathedral is famous for its 4 roof-to-floor stained glass murals.
Our 3 Peruvian tourmates inexplicably each did a costume changes for this part of the tour, one a minor one-vest-for-another switch, another into an eye-wateringly short skortsuit and the last into hotpants so short and tight that had she been wearing an even vaguely modest top (or, heaven forbid, she might bend over), her pants would have disappeared entirely. They were having a field day with the videographer! Posing in front of the Cathedral like they were at a photoshoot for a magazine cover.
It was starting to get quite hot by this point so it was good to have them for entertainment while we waited in the shade of the bus for the rest of the group to finish doing who knows what they were still doing in the Cathedral.
Back on the bus, the next stop was the obligatory “best, most inexpensive souvenir shop” in Rio. All the same stuff at all the same prices. Every possible tacky plastic Jesus anyone might possibly need for their collection… and fridge magnets and Havianas of course.
We were amused that The Vest had bought herself a new yellow vest in the store and already changed into it.
We were even more amused when the other 2 Princesses alighted from the bus at our lunch stop in new outfits! Skortsuit was now shorts and a Brazilian flag turned into a toga top and Hotpants was now in a pelmet of a ruffle dress. Both teeter-tottered off the bus in their wedge heels towards the restaurant.
Lunch was at Caretão Charrascurria, which is a traditional barbecue restaurant that serves meat off skewers directly to you at the table, like Rodizio’s at home.
Having dropped off the half day tour people, our table had shrunk to a party of 8. Being rare meat fans, sitting at the end of the table wasn’t our smartest move, because we got the crusts of everything. But everything was searing hot and fresh off the grill so hardly a complaint when we sampled sausages, chicken, roast beef, roast pork, brisket, fillet, roast lamb etc etc… even buttery garlic bread served off the skewer! This with mountains of accompaniments (chips, croutons, onion rings, cod balls, pastels, cheese croquettes…) served to the table AND a full salad bar.
At the end of the meal, the maître d’ brought a fancy cake with a sparkler to Hotpants and everyone sang Feliz whateveritis to her. The birthday must be what the pomp and ceremony was about! (Although a little less glamorous when the sparkler was out and the waiter tucked the cake under his arm. It was a – very convincing – plastic model cake!)
After dessert, we hit the road in our trusty minibus for our city tour, driving past some churches of note, the first university, the town hall and all 700m of the famous Sambadrome, which I hadn’t realised is an outdoor structure, assuming it to be an indoor arena. Each year all the Samba schools parade in the world-famous Carnival spurred by the energy of the fans on the grandstands on either side, fuelled by Caipirinha, which they say if you have
1 You feel happy
2 You can dance the Samba
3 You start to speak Portuguese!
We stopped for a photo opp at Maracana Stadium (officially called Mario Filho, but nicknamed for the suburb in which it is located) and true as nuts Brazilian toga top was now swapped for a simple white t-shirt with espadrilles in place of the wedges; palmet dress was now hoisted into the waist as a flouncy top over the barely-there stonewash hotpants.
The drive took us through the Tijuca rainforest – at 32 square km contesting Joburg for the title of world’s largest urban forest – up the hill towards the world famous Christ the Redeemer statue (which we’d already begun affectionately referring to as CTR).
Built on the peak of the Corcovado Mountain in 1926, and inaugurated in 1931 to celebrate 100 years of independence, to welcome people to Rio de Janeiro. CTR is a hefty 1145 tons of concrete and soapstone standing 38m high with arms spread 28m wide. Being so tall (and wide) adds to the challenge of taking photos with the whole statue in frame, so the curators have kindly provided padded mats so you can lie down and take photos facing upward from the ground.
The Peruvian Princesses had hired one of the many private photographers and were posing like there was no tomorrow!
All in all, the full day tour was well worth the money since we would not have managed to get the far-flung sights packaged into a day so efficiently if we were relying on finding our own way. And with the distances between sights and the number of entrance tickets that were included there would likely have been little economy to be had for our troubles.
We got the bus to drop us off at the Copacabana Palace hotel which looked really fancy from the outside so we thought we’d conclude our stay with a fancy cocktail at the pool bar or something… but it was dead quiet, so we went to the beach instead and settled at a Brahma bar with a beer instead, watching all the people on the beach do their sunset things as usual.