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  1. One thing we hadn't done during this short break is visit the Christmas market in Bolzano in the evening. We'd got back to the hotel early enough today to be able to go out again in the evening, so after night had fallen, we put our coats and boots on, and headed out the door. Soprabalzano was pretty in the dark. It had its own Christmas market outside the cable-car station. It appeared that we were going to be the only people taking the cable car at the point we boarded. Yes, the doors closed without anybody else coming through, so we had it to ourselves. About 7 minutes into the journey. an illuminated Bolzano appeared in the distance. There were two very handy landmarks standing out. There was a Christmas market alongside the Big Wheel, and another in the main square, which had the cathedral on one edge. The first cabins were enclosed by trees with beautiful fairy lights and large red baubels. And the street had lovely lights suspended above it. The edge featured reindeer and lights. The cabins happened to be closing at the point we arrived, so we said goodbye to the reindeer and walked towards the main square. We knew we were nearly there when the cathedral appeared. Each side of the square featured a light show of moving stars. We were really pleased to see that one of the cabins housed a nativity scene. There was a beautiful tree at the side of it and a lovely view of the cathedral and its roof above it. We stopped beside it to have a small mug of Glühwein. Although it was time to head back home, we decided not to take a direct route, leaving the square from the end opposite the cathedral. It took us up a street we'd already seen in the daylight. We knew where we were going. We'd seen that the nearby streets had decorations up, and wanted to see them at night. There were plenty of trees in the nearby square, surrounding some more cabins. And some Christmas lighting guiding our way back home. It was a fun evening to a fabulous day, before we fly back home tomorrow.
  2. When we woke up on our final morning we found that it was actually sunny outside for a change We had breakfast and Tim managed to track down the owners of the hotel to pay for our room. Once we were all settled up, we set out for a final walk to the cable car station. It felt warmer in the sunshine and the snow had thawed to some extent, but the paths were still slippery in places. I found it difficult not to keep turning around as we walked, because there were some beautiful views behind us. This was definitely the clearest day we'd had, and I was hopeful of some good views from the cable car too. Luckily we managed to catch one which wasn't too busy and had plenty of space for our suitcase, plus managed to get a seat on the side with the best views The views were indeed spectacular. We've been up and down in the cable car lots of times over the course of the past few days, but a lot of the time we just travelling through clouds, and even on the slightly clearer days we couldn't see all these mountains. As we got further down we could see the lower slopes which would be covered in vines during the summer. Soon we were down in Bolzano. Because we were staying up in Oberbozen, we hadn't actually seen very much of the main part of Bolzano, so we'd decided to come for a walk around before catching our train back to Verona. We bought our train tickets, left our suitcase in the left luggage office at the station, and set off for a stroll around town. I was keen to get over towards the river which I remembered as being really pretty when we were last in Bolzano in 2015. Even in winter, the countryside looked really lovely We passed the victory monument, controversial because it was erected by Mussolini after Italy acquired South Tyrol from Austria following WW1. There's a good network of footpaths and cycle paths which criss-cross the river here. Once we were on the far side of the river we had a good view back towards the snowy mountains We walked alongside the river for a while. We knew we couldn't afford to walk too far, because we had to back at the station for our train at 12.31. We were catching the last possible train to the airport for our flight at 16.40. With views like these it was definitely tempting to keep going rather than turning around though Eventually we had to turn around and head back to the town centre. We had a final walk through the main square and made it back to the train station with plenty of time to collect the suitcase and catch our train. We've had a wonderful holiday in Bolzano and would definitely like to come back to this region again one day
  3. The weather forecast for today had been really positive, consistently stating that it was going to be sunny. I was quite surprised then when Tim opened the curtains this morning and found that it was snowing outside When we stepped out of the apartment after breakfast, we were the first to walk in the fresh snow The plan for the morning had been to go and see some different earth pyramids near Oberbozen. The path towards them started just outside our hotel. When we attempted to follow the route though, we found that the path was quite steep and slippery, with rocks just about covered in snow. We made it part of the way and I was hoping that the path was going to flatten off after a while, but it continued to go quite steeply down, so in the end we gave up and climbed back towards the road. The road itself was beautiful; we were the first people to walk in the fresh snow here too We decided to walk up to the station and catch the train to go and revisit the earth pyramids we'd seen at Klobenstein on Friday instead. It seemed like a good idea to stay high up, because if it had been snowing up here then it had probably been raining down in Bolzano. The walk to the station was very scenic in the snow We walked past the cable car to the train station. It was a lot busier than it had been on Friday; there seemed to be a tour group of Italians. We managed to squeeze on and get a seat though. The whole landscape which we travelled through was covered in snow and when we got off the train in Klobenstein, this was the view that awaited us. Wow. We hadn't been able to see these mountains at all when we were here on Friday! We walked on snowy pavements towards the pyramids. A pond which we'd passed on Friday was now almost completely frozen. The ducks looked rather cold! I was excited to get to a roadside viewpoint where the entire view had been covered in clouds the other day. There was still a bit of cloud today, but we could see a lot more We could see the church in the distance more clearly too, and now it was completely surrounded by snow We'd had no idea that all these mountains were here when we'd walked along the path the other day It didn't take long to get to the viewing platform for the earth pyramids. They looked really cool with snow on top of the stones that sit on top of them The views of the mountains from the viewing platform were amazing too. We were lucky that the cloud was just in the right position not to obscure the mountain tops. We even caught sight of some mountain goats in a field below us. They must have been rather cold! Then it was time for us to head back towards Klobenstein. It was nearly lunch time by this point, so we walked back towards the village to see whether there was anywhere we could get food. There didn't seem to be a lot of options, so we caught the train back to Oberbozen and the cable car down to Bolzano, where we ended up going to the same restaurant (and having the same meals!) as we did the other day. The food genuinely was really good! Bolzano itself seemed really busy, with lots of people out shopping. It all looked very festive though and there were some lovely Christmas decorations. We decided to go back up to the hotel for a while, then head down to Bolzano in the evening to see the Christmas lights switched on There was still a fair bit of snow in Oberbozen once we got back up on the cable car. The roads had been gritted though, so it was easier to walk back to the hotel. Once back in the hotel, we were able to watch a beautiful sunset from our window
  4. The weather forecast for today had showed torrential rain all day in Bolzano. I was hoping it would turn out to be incorrect, but when Tim came back from buying breakfast looking rather damp, it seemed like we had to accept the inevitable and make a wet weather plan. Tim suggested that we go down to Bolzano and visit the archaeological museum, which is home to an exhibition about Ötzi the Iceman and which we visited the first time we came to this region in 2015. Meanwhile I was googling what transport we could use for free with our Mobilcards, and established that we could travel on regional trains between Brenner and Trento. When I looked up the weather forecast for Brenner, I found that rather than raining there it was supposed to be snowing The chance of seeing some snow was too big a temptation to resist, so we decided to catch the 11.02 train from Bolzano to Brenner. As we were eating breakfast, it looked like the precipitation in Oberbozen was changing from rain to sleet. In fact, once we got outside we found that it was turning from sleet to snow. By the time we had walked to the Ritten cable car station, it was snowing properly I was covered in snow It was very misty, so we had zero view as we travelled down in the cable car to Bolzano. It was pouring with rain in the town itself, so we were rather damp by the time we arrived at the train station to catch our train to Brenner. The journey took around an hour and twenty minutes and looked like it would have been really scenic if the cloud hadn't been so low. About two thirds of the way through the trip, the rain turned to snow and by the time we stepped off the train in Brenner it felt like a blizzard. Brenner (or Brennero in Italian) is a pretty small village, stretched out along one main road. I knew it was close to the border with Austria, but I hadn't realised quite how close until I got a text from EE welcoming me to Austria When I'd seen on the weather forecast that there was going to be snow here, I'd imagined that there might just be a few flakes falling. But it was actually already pretty deep The snow-covered trees above the town looked really beautiful. As we walked along the main street we passed the local church, which had a rather colourful clock tower. We suddenly realised that we'd accidentally walked as far as the border. You can't make it out in this photo, but there's a square blue sign on the building behind me saying Republik Österreich. The main feature of the border seems to be a large shopping centre, which I'm standing next to here. Having reached the limit of Brenner in this direction, we turned around and walked back the other way. When we got to the far end of the village, we caught sight of a waterfall in the distance. You really can't see it very well in this picture because it was snowing so much, but it was just in between the trees We were feeling rather cold by this point, so we found a restaurant to get out of the snow. I had a lovely Hawaiian pizza, while Tim had schnitzel and chips. For pudding, I had tartufo, which was icecream drenched in espresso Tim had a dessert called cuore fondente (melting hearts) which consisted of little cakes with melted chocolate in the middle. We had a while before we needed to catch the train back to Bolzano, so we went for another stroll after lunch. It was still snowing really hard. It was hard to tell exactly where the border was, but this bit definitely seemed to be Austria. I got a picture with the Austria sign We also found a stone marking the border; Austria on one side... ...and Italy on the other. As we got the train back towards Bolzano, the clouds started to lift a bit and we began to get glimpses of the mountains which had been hidden from view this morning. The sky was a lot clearer in Bolzano as well, as as we caught the cable car back up to Oberbozen we finally got a good view of the snowcapped mountains in the distance (the photo is a bit blurry because it was through the slightly wet cable car window!) Darkness was falling as we travelled up on the cable car and when we arrived in Oberbozen, everywhere looked very Christmassy. As we began walking back towards our hotel we got some really great views of the sunset. It was amazing now that it was finally clear enough to see the mountains properly It had obviously continued snowing here during the day too and everywhere looked very white. Unfortunately the road which we needed to walk down towards our hotel was a bit slippery as a result. And it was hard to look at your feet when the views were like this in one direction... ...and like this in the other. We may have taken just a few photos By the time we got back to the hotel it was properly dark. It turned out to be a really great day, especially for one which started out by promising to be so rainy
  5. The weather forecast for today hadn't promised great things, and it was a little bit damp when we stepped out of our hotel this morning. It was also quite misty, and we couldn't see any of the higher mountains in the distance. We walked up through the village, which looked pretty with its Christmas decorations. We could see that there had been a reasonable amount of snow here in the not-so-distant past. Our plan for today was to catch the Ritten train, which travels along the plateau towards a town called Klobenstein (Collalbo in Italian). The journey was free with the travel cards we bought yesterday, which was a bonus We had a pleasant journey in a train that was nearly empty, and it wasn't long before we were stepping off the train in Klobenstein. We had come here in search of earth pyramids, and it wasn't long before we saw a sign pointing towards them. We walked past a house which had some enormous gnomes... ...and then down through the village. One of the hotels had a rather unusual nativity scene outside Signs led us to the the neighbouring village of Lengmoos/Longomoso, which looked like a really pretty little place. From there we passed what looked like it was supposed to be a viewpoint, but there wasn't much of a view today. Before long we caught sight of a little church in the distance. It looked like it was in danger of being obscured by the clouds... ...and soon it actually was! We were following the path that was supposed to lead us to the earth pyramids, but I was starting to get a bit worried that once we got there we wouldn't actually be able to see them with so much low cloud! We also passed a sign which said that the path was only open as far as the first viewing platform, so we weren't sure how much we were going to be able to see. We reached the viewing platform and it was indeed rather misty! It looked like this might be the best view I was getting of an earth pyramid When we looked over the railing, we could just make out something which might be earth pyramids behind the clouds. It was very atmospheric, but I had hoped to have a clearer view! Luckily, once we'd been standing there a while, the cloud started to move The church became visible again and we even got a glimpse of the higher mountains in the distance. Now we could see the earth pyramids better too! Once we could see them properly it became clear what unusual structures they are. The info board explained that earth pyramids were formed by rainwater eroding soil which contains large rocks. The soil under the rocks is protected from the erosion and - over the course of thousands of years - a pyramid of earth is formed beneath the stone. The process requires a certain type of soil, as well as periods of heavy rains followed by drought in which the earth can solidify. All of this makes the earth pyramids which are found here quite rare. Seeing the stones balancing on top of the pyramids is really cool - it doesn't look like it ought to be possible! By the time we were leaving, the weather was an awful lot better than when we had arrived. We walked back towards Klobenstein, to catch the train back to Oberbozen. The return journey wasn't quite as peaceful, because the train was full of children on their way home from school! Once we got to Oberbozen, we caught the cable car down the mountain to Bolzano. It was so cloudy that we could barely see a thing! It was around 2pm by this time and we were rather hungry, so we had come down to Bolzano with the aim of finding lunch. I expected there to be lots of restaurants in Bolzano, but somehow we struggled to find one. There was a restaurant near the main square (but the prices were quite expensive) and a couple of pizza places (but we had pizza last night, so were hoping for something different). There was the added complication that we'd missed the official lunch time, so not everywhere was still open and serving. We walked around for what felt like quite a while, before eventually finding a restaurant that seemed promising Tim had Wienerschnitzel with potato salad and cranberries. ...while I had a turkey schnitzel with fried potatoes The food was really delicious While we were eating the rain in Bolzano seemed to become a bit heavier though. We had a brief walk around, finding the cathedral with its colourful roof. The centre of town was looking quite festive. There was a little Christmas market in the main square... ...a beautiful Christmas tree... ...plus a ferris wheel in the distance. As we walked back towards the cable car station, we passed some more lovely decorations. There was a tree covered in red baubles beside an ice rink... ...plus these rather cool reindeer The cable car back up to Oberbozen was very cloudy again and the rain seems to have got worse this evening. The forecast for tomorrow isn't very promising, but we've certainly made the most of the weather today and had some fun
  6. We haven't been away before Christmas for several years - not since 2013 when we last went to the Christmas markets in Ljubljana and Zagreb - so booking a trip to Bolzano before Christmas this year was something that happened quite spontaneously. We were watching the Eurovision song contest... or, at least, I was watching the Eurovision song contest... and Tim was sitting in the same room watching it under sufferance... and somehow he managed to get so bored that he started playing around on Skyscanner and found cheap flights to Verona in the week before Christmas. Admittedly they were from Gatwick and would require quite an early start, but the temptation of a cheap flight was too much for us to resist. When researching where we could go, Tim found some pictures of Bolzano in winter which looked really pretty, and so we soon had a plan When the alarm went off at 02.30 this morning I was admittedly slightly less excited by the concept of an early flight from Gatwick We had a smooth journey down though, arriving at the airport by 6am and with plenty of time to have breakfast at Wetherspoons. Our plane boarded quite early too, but unfortunately it ended up taking off around 50 minutes behind schedule. Unbeknown to us, there is some sort of industrial action going on in France at the moment which includes French air traffic controllers being on strike. Because of that, lots of flights were being rerouted to avoid flying through French air space, and that was causing congestion. I ended up falling asleep before we took off, although take off itself did wake me up because it felt like the plane was being blown from side to side as it raced down the runway! There was a bit of turbulence during the flight itself and overall the skies seemed quite cloudy. We didn't have much of a view because we had middle and aisle seats, and the person next to us had the window blind closed for a lot of the flight. It was around midday by the time we touched down in Verona, where the pilot announced that it was a rather mild 12 degrees! It certainly didn't feel freezing cold when we stepped off the plane and I started to regret having brought so many cold weather clothes with me. We've been to Verona before but never to Verona airport, and first impressions were that it seemed pretty small. We had to queue for ages at passport control because pretty much the entire flight had to pass through three automatic passport control gates, but the upside was that our luggage was already coming round the conveyor belt by the time we got out There is a frequent bus service from the airport to the main train station in Verona, with tickets costing €6. There was a bus outside the airport when we arrived, but there was quite a big queue and it already seemed pretty full. We decided to give it a miss rather than try to push our way on and wait for the next one instead. That turned out to be a good decision; the next bus came within 15 minutes and it wasn't more than half full, which was good because it was one of those airport buses that doesn't have anywhere to put your luggage. We arrived at Verona Porta Nuova around 13.15 and went to a ticket machine to buy our tickets to Bolzano. It cost around €15 each on the regional train, which didn't seem too bad considering it was a journey of nearly 2 hours. The next train was leaving at 13.50, so we purchased tickets for that and then had a look around the station to see whether there was anywhere we could get a quick lunch while we waited. The eating options in Verona's station turned out to be a bit limited, and so we ended up getting a snack from Burger King (I know, this sounds like a dreadful thing to do when you've just arrived in Italy, but we were hungry ). All the signs and railway announcements said that our train was running late, but confusingly it actually turned up early and we were soon on our way towards Bolzano. Once we had left the outskirts of Verona behind, the journey quickly became really scenic. Although it was quite a grey and cloudy day, the mountains still looked beautiful (The photos aren't very good because there was a lot of reflection in the train window!) We passed through lots of interesting little places, and within half an hour or so we were getting our first glimpses of little bits of snow on the mountaintops. We arrived in Bolzano just after 15.30 and made our way from the main train station to the station of the Renon cable car. Our hotel is in the village of Soprabolzano/Oberbozen, which sits on a plateau above the main city of Bolzano at an altitude of around 1200m. Because we anticipated that we might be travelling up and down the mountain quite a bit over the next few days, we invested in a Mobilcard; this cost €28 each for 7 days and allows us to travel on most of the public transport in the region. The choices are 1, 3 or 7 days and it made sense to buy for 7, even though we aren't here for that long, because it was only €5 more than for the 3-day pass, and a single journey on the Renon cablecar would otherwise cost €6 each. This is the first time we've ever caught a cable car to our hotel and so I was quite excited As we got higher up we could see more snow in the distance. Soon we were at the top and only had a walk of a few hundred metres to get to our hotel. There were tiny little patches of snow on the grass, which suggested that there had recently been snow up here but that it had now thawed. We found the hotel without any difficulties but it was all shut up and there was a sign saying that reception would be open again at 18.00. Luckily, the owners had left us a note with our key... and luckily we were able to read German to follow the instructions We found our room and it is really beautiful It's more like a studio apartment than a hotel room. And the views out the window are fantastic I was in definite need of a nap by this point, so it was early evening by the time we set out to find some food. Everywhere was looking very festive There aren't loads of restaurant options up here, but we found a little pizzeria and shared a four cheeses plus a salami pizza. Then it was back to the hotel for an early night! The weather forecast isn't great for the next couple of days, but rain-permitting I'm definitely looking forward to exploring more tomorrow
  7. It was another beautiful sunny day in Sicily when we woke up this morning. We had breakfast outside on a terrace slightly lower down in the same building as our apartment. As we had some time before we needed to check out, we tried to sit and read a bit in the sun. It soon got too hot though! Our plan for today was to drive from Castelbuono to the seaside town of Cefalù, which is on Sicily's northern coast. We had a beautiful drive through the mountains and then along by the sea. When we arrived, parking in Cefalù was a bit tricky, with lots of narrow streets to negotiate. It looked like a really pretty place though. We could see a fortress on the hill behind the town, but didn't fancy climbing up to it. We walked through the streets of the old town... ...getting some more great views up towards the fortress. Down one of the side streets we passed we could just get a glimpse of the sea. We passed the church of St Stefano, which looked very old... ...before arriving in a large square which is home to Cefalù's cathedral. A cathedral was first built here in 1131 by the Normans, in a fortress style. It certainly looked very big and imposing. From the cathedral we walked down more colourful little streets... ...until we got to the sea I read in the guidebook that the beach at Cefalù is one of the most popular in Sicily, because it's very sandy. It certainly looked busy today! It was lovely looking out to sea... ...and back inland towards the town. When we got to the end of the pier, we could just make out the twin towers of the cathedral in the distance. We walked back into the town in the hope of tracking down somewhere to get lunch. After so much meat yesterday, we had a vegetarian day with a margherita and four cheese pizza After lunch we had a long drive along the coast toward the B&B where we are spending the night. Because this seaside part of Sicily is so popular, I couldn't find anywhere affordable to stay along the coast at all, so had booked a place which is a few miles inland from the town of Tindari. We've got a lovely room... ...and our own terrace to sit on There are amazing views, both of the nearby vineyard... ...and of the mountains behind. We couldn't have hoped for a more beautiful place to spend our last night in Sicily
  8. My day was going to be an early write-off. We arrived at our spectaculary good apartment at about 16:30, around half an hour after finishing a colossal steak which was far more than I would normally be able to eat but the expense of which compelled me to attack. In a sweltering hot country and with a beer and some wine in me, that was a recipe for a food coma, and so I was immediately asleep as soon as the host left us. More or less. Clare wanted the photos for the blog preparing first, so I did those with my eyes partially closed and then had a cold shower. It didn't work and I was soon a curious combination of asleep and feeling sorry for myself. Clare is much more disciplined than I am and set to work on the blog. When it was finished a couple of hours later, she asked me whether I felt it was time to go out and see the town. As far as I was concerned but it wasn't fair to give her cabin fever, so I agreed to go out too. cursing myself for still being too full to be able to even consider buying some beer or wine to enjoy on our rooftop. It turned that I needn't have felt so full at all. You see, when we arrived around 2 o'clock looking for a meal, we went to the only place we'd encountered stating that it was a pizzeria/restaurant and tried to order. It wasn't open, aside from its cafe. So I asked the lady whether there were any other places open. In her opinion, that was very unlikely, although she suggested we head down the main road. That was how we found the restaurant offering our very expensive meal. It turned out all she would've had to say is 'There are about a million restaurants in the Old Town. Why don't you head there?' We didn't even know there was an Old Town until we headed down the main road this evening and went further than the restaurant we'd visited earlier! We espied a spire in the distance and so headed towards it: We saw a sign pointing out that there was an Old Town and so headed into a side street: And look what we found: a busy square! The mountains in the background were a sight to behold: It had a large clock tower: There was a small section of portici: And the church whose spire we'd glimpsed earlier: We headed down a street in the direction of the castle: There was a couple getting married: We thought we'd leave them to their privacy. Or didn't want to pay the entrance fee. Delete as applicable. And so we turned around and headed back to the square: Emerging from that direction presented us with the mountains again. We'd driven along them earlier to get to Castelbuono: And so we began the journey home, heading up a small street with an attractive tower beckoning us: Soon we passed a lovely fountain: Before we knew it we were a two-minute walk from our appartment with an ice cream store next to us, so we picked up a large mint ice cream apiece and retired to our rooftop to see the soon fade away behind the mountains: I'm really glad that we ventured out ... but can't help but feel slightly aggrieved that the lady we spoke to earlier in the day didn't tell us about the Old Town. I'd have loved to see it in proper daylight, plus we wouldn't have been compelled to eat so large a meal that we were effectively denied the chance to sit on our rooftop with a nice bottle of wine to end the evening. There's always a wineless tomorrow morning, of course, when I inevitable wake up early and need somewhere to sit whilst reading!
  9. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up this morning. From the window of our room, we had a view of Enna's main street where we'd seen the lights last night. We didn't take any photos of breakfast this morning, but it was the biggest selection we've had on this Sicily trip. A selection of cheese and meats, as well as an impressive array of cakes When we'd finished eating, we went out to see some of Enna by daylight. In one of the squares we found a viewpoint from which we could see down towards the lower town. We'd left our car somewhere down there We continued walking up through the town... ...until we got as far as the castle, which sits at its far end. This is Castello di Lombardia, which was built here in 1076. We walked around the edge of the castle, admiring the views out across the surrounding countryside. In particular, we caught sight of a large mountain in the distance. Could that possibly be Etna? As we came around the far side of the castle... ...we saw a large rock which looked like it might provide an even better viewpoint. We climbed to the top of it and wow, the view was really amazing! In one direction we could see the little medieval village of Calascibetta, perched on the top of a hill. In the other direction, we had a really clear view towards Etna. When we looked back, we could see the castle too. Meanwhile the big wide road we could see cutting across the countryside was the motorway to Palermo. We'd be driving on it a bit later (though not as far as Palermo!). Climbing down from the rock was a little bit harder than climbing up. We made it down though and got back to the B&B on time to check out at 10.30. It was really good value, at just €60 for the night. Then we just needed to walk back down the steep and narrow roads which Google Maps had made us try and drive up yesterday. We retrieved the car and set off towards our destination for tonight: Castelbuono. As we left Enna on the nice wide main road, we could see back up towards the upper town where we'd been staying. Soon we were driving far below the town. There were some beautiful views as we made our way towards the motorway. We were driving towards the hilltop town of Gangi, which became famous a few years ago when the mayor started giving away abandoned houses for a Euro (on the condition that purchasers spent lots of money restoring them). It was difficult to get a good photo from the car, but you can make Gangi out on the right of this photo. When we arrived we found that the driving was crazy, even by Sicilian standards, and it was quite difficult to park, so we only had a quick look around. It looked like it would be an interesting town but we felt too hot to climb all the way up this hill. Soon we were back on the road. To get to Castelbuono, we were driving on little roads through the Parco delle Madonie. This is a nature reserve, which is home to some of the highest mountains in Sicily. There were some amazing views as we drove, but unfortunately there weren't very many laybys or places to stop, so most of the photos are taken from a moving car. A lot of the time the landscape looked very dry and barren... ...but in other places it was greener At times Tim had to drive rather slowly because we got caught behind the local traffic It was around 2pm when we began to approach Castelbuono, which is situated to the east of the national park. We were a bit early to check into our apartment, so decided to get lunch. The only difficulty was trying to find a restaurant! We walked around the town for a while, failing to find anything, and eventually found a sign pointing towards a pizzeria. That sounded promising, but when we tracked it down the waiter told us that the pizza ovens weren't switched on yet so pizza was off the menu. That was a shame, but I was hopeful that I could have some pasta instead... until I looked at the menu and found that all the pasta dishes either involved fish or mushrooms In desperation we looked at the meat section of the menu (which was quite small compared to the fish section!) and ended up ordering a large steak to share. And when the waiter said it was large, he meant large! After we'd ordered it, it occurred to me that we hadn't been asked how we wanted it cooked ... and my worst fears were confirmed when Tim cut into it and we found that it was the opposite of well done It was actually really delicious, if you closed your eyes and tried not to think about what you were eating! By the time we had finished we were extremely full, so I was glad that we didn't have to walk too far to find our apartment. When we arrived and checked in, we found it was one of the best places we've ever stayed We've got a large living/dining room with a kitchen... ...a spacious bedroom... ...and, best of all, a roof terrace with amazing views Not bad value for €70 - it's a shame we're only staying in Castelbuono for one night!
  10. Tim

    Evening 6: Enna

    Today was such a full day that we were wiped out and didn't want to do much other than go to bed once the blog was finished. We started the day with a guided tour of three churches in Naro, had a lengthy stopover at a garage when it transpired that we were within 120km of the car breaking down, drove for a couple of hours to Villa Romana di Casale and saw perhaps 30 or 40 mosaics, drove to Enna, were sent up some very steep streets by Google Maps, which were so narrow that we eventually had to reverse because our car was too wide, so instead had to park the car elsewhere and then follow Google's indications up those same steep streets for over a kilometre with our backpacks and suitcases. Nonetheless, we hadn't actually seen anything of Enna since we got here so forced ourselves to go on a stroll. Our hotel is on Via Roma, the main street. The main street that we would've reached had Google Maps not taken us on a 'shorter' detour. From our window we could see that some lights had been switched on: We followed the lights, which soon became a second type: We soon reached a square: It overlooked the old town. You might get an idea of how narrow and steep the streets we'd been driving earlier were: We turned around and left the square: The next stretch of road featured lights in the shape of candelabra: We then reached the Duomo. Unfortunately, it's all covered up for the renovations so there wasn't any point in photographing it. On the other side of the road was a square named after and featuring a statue of Giuseppe Mazzini: Via Roma is a one-way street because there is another road running parallel to it. We walked through an archway to get to it: We're quite high up! The building in the distance is the Palazzo del Governo, so we headed down to see it: And with a quick crossing of the road, we were back in our hotel two minutes later.
  11. We were woken up at 07.30 this morning by the bells of the church outside our apartment ringing rather loudly! The price of our room included breakfast, which had been arranged for 9am. Promptly at 9, our hosts arrived with a tray for us. We had a big croissant each, plus some sugary little pastries which are a local speciality, and more coffee than we could drink After breakfast, the lady who owned the apartment had promised to give us a tour of Naro. Although it was only about 09.30, it was already extremely hot when we stepped outside. We started with the church just opposite where we were staying. This was the Chiesa di Maria Santissima Annunziata and it was really beautiful inside. It had a really old baptismal font, I think from the fifteenth century. Our guide Francesca was speaking in Italian with Tim translating for me and there were a lot of dates, so I may not have them all right. The font had previously been in another older church before it was brought here. Once we'd finished admiring this church, we stepped outside into the sunshine again. We passed this balcony, which has four masks carved on it, looking in different directions to ward off evil spirits. We walked down from there to a second church, which Francesca had the keys for to let us in. This was the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. It's normally only opened for weddings, so we were really lucky to be able to see inside There were some beautiful scraps of frescoes on the walls here. Apparently the entire church had originally been covered in them, but that style of decoration went out of fashion and at some point the church was white-washed. Years later, people have scraped the white paint away in the hope of finding frescoes underneath. The church was also home to a chair which Pope John Paul II had sat on when he visited Sicily. The third church we visited was the Chiesa di San Francesco. The church is situated in a square called Piazza Garibaldi, but apparently the locals aren't too keen on Garibaldi (because they would have preferred to keep their independence rather than be unified into Italy), so locally they refer to the square as San Francesco rather than Garibaldi. Although we have seen a lot of baroque buildings on this holiday, this church is very special because - unlike most of the other towns we have visited - Naro wasn't destroyed by the big Sicilian earthquake in 1693. Whereas most of the other churches we have seen were designed and rebuilt after that date, this church was built before then and survived. This means it is older than all the baroque architecture we saw in Noto earlier this week. It was really stunning inside. The most exciting part of the visit was that Francesca had keys to the sacristy and opened it up for us. It was very grand, with the most amazing paintings on the ceiling... ...and lots of intricate wood carvings around the walls. It was such a fascinating tour and we learned so many things that we definitely wouldn't have done without the benefit of a local guide There was more that we could have seen in Naro too; we didn't have time to visit the castle, for example. That means we'll have to come back one day and stay at Casa nel Barocco again. We couldn't have hoped for more helpful hosts; when it was time for us to leave, Francesca's husband even volunteered to drive ahead of us and show us the best route out of town to the main road. We would have been completely lost without that, because some of the roads in Naro were closed today for a market. Our ultimate destination for today was a town called Enna, but on the way we wanted to stop off and see some mosaics outside a place called Piazza Armerina. There was about an hour or so to drive from Naro, but as we progressed through the hilly Sicilian countryside we realised that there was a problem with the rental car. Ever since we picked it up, an intermittent warning had been flashing up about us needing more of something called "AdBlue". Tim realised while driving today that the warning was actually a countdown, telling us how many more kilometres we could drive before our lack of "AdBlue" meant we would no longer be able to accelerate. Neither of us had any idea what AdBlue might be, so when we next passed a petrol station Tim decided to pull in. Our rental car runs on diesel, and the people in the petrol station (who thankfully knew what AdBlue was!) explained that it's some sort of fluid which needs to be poured into diesel cars. Having now googled it, it seems to be some sort of diesel exhaust fluid. Luckily they managed to find some and poured litres of it into the car, after which the error message went away and we were able to continue our journey. We had to pay €13 for it though, which we'll be taking up with the rental company when we return the car, because according to the car instruction manual (which we had some fun reading while we tried to figure out what the error message meant!) the warning about AdBlue first appears when you've got 2,400 kilometres left to drive, and then when you've only got 1,000 kilometres to go it pops up every 20 kilometres, which is what was happening to us. We'd only driven about 400 kilometres on this trip so far, so the notification had clearly been showing for ages and the rental company should have sorted it out before giving us the car. Anyway, with that problem solved we continued towards the mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Villa Romana del Casale is fourth century villa, with one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. We parked, bought our entrance tickets for €10, and then made our way along signposted paths towards the mosaics. As we got closer to the entrance to the villa, there were some beautiful pink flowers We passed through the entrance gate... ...where we could see the remains of some frescoes... ...and then we were inside, getting a glimpse of our first mosaic. We followed a series of constructed walkways, from where we could look down towards the mosaics. Sometimes the walkways were constructed in a way which meant we were looking at the mosaics from slightly odd angles, but they were still really impressive. I thought there would be a few mosaics here but I was completely unprepared by how many there were! Some had geometric patterns... ...while others depicted really elaborate scenes with people. Some of the larger mosaics depicted hunting and, specifically, the capture of exotic animals to bring back to Rome. In this scene I think the animals have been caught and are being loaded onto the boat. It was fun trying to work out what the animals were. This one was definitely an elephant... ...and I think this one may have been a rhino. Another of the most famous mosaics is the so-called "bikini mosiac". This one depicts a number of scantily-clad women engaging in various sports, like throwing the discus... and something which looks remarkably like beach volleyball I think the encounters with wild animals were probably more exciting There was so much detail! Though sometimes it was hard to work out exactly what they were showing. A carriage drawn by pigeons? This mosaic was showing an aquatic scene... ...and I was rather excited when I spotted a mosaic duck There was so much to see, we could really have spent all day looking at mosaics. The reason there are so many and they are so well-preserved is that the site was covered by a landslide in the 12th century and only rediscovered again in the nineteenth century. I think any other mosaics we go to see are going to be a disappointment after these! It was late afternoon by this point, so eventually we headed back to the car to find somewhere to get lunch. We'd passed a restaurant not far away from the entrance to the mosaics so we headed back there. It was a lovely location to sit outside and eat We both had a dish of tagliatelle ragu with some of pork in it. The sauce was really tasty and it was a nice big portion From there it wasn't far to get to Enna. We were supposed to be staying in a B&B near the centre, but I'd had a message from the owner a couple of days ago saying that due to a technical problem she was going to have to relocate us to a different B&B that she owned. We didn't have a lot of choice in the matter, so said okay, but we weren't quite sure what we were going to find when we got there. We also weren't sure where we were going to be able to park. Enna is a hill town and we ended up having a bit of a nightmare, with Google maps trying to direct us up some very steep and narrow streets, which ultimately proved to be too narrow for our car. Some rather stressful reversing later, we found some flat ground to park the car on and climbed up the hill on foot! When we eventually arrived, the room turned out to be really nice and spacious The lady explained that there was a problem with the plumbing at the other property, hence the change. She was slightly horrified at the way we'd tried to get here, as apparently there's a big wide road we should have taken. I guess Google Maps must have decided that the steep and narrow way was shorter We were rather hot and bothered after our exertions, so decided to sit in the air con and do the blog, saving our exploration of Enna for tomorrow!
  12. Tim

    Evening 5: Naro

    Clare worked hard to bring you today's blog and then after a day of 35-degree heat and accummulated sand needed a bath, so I had plenty of time to do some reading. It's a shame that I'm so slow at it though; I'm two pages from finishing so will get there before lights out! Having moved our car from its temporary location to the square recommended by our host earlier (and having conquered again the one-way system and streets which were narrower than the car), I had noticed how pretty the yellow stone looked illuminated by the streetlights and suggested to Clare that we nip out for a stroll. Just standing in the doorway, we were treated to a sight: And our street was very pretty too: After a couple of minutes, we passed our hire car: We knew we'd hit the local hub when the street became wide enough to accommodate cars in each direction. There were a couple of cafes open but I quite liked the sight of a pizzeria on the street corner because there was lots of empty space. We ordered a jug of wine and a large beer: I was feeling a little peckish so ordered a burger. The server called it a 'Luxembourger', which confused me, until I realised on the second occasion that she was saying 'deluxe hamburger'. It was big: So big, in fact, that I couldn't fit it into my mouth. It was sliding all over the place, most of it finishing on my hands and face. Fortunately the waitress had seen it all before and brought me out a stash of serviettes. There was an unfortunate moment when a freak blow of wind blew up the paper sheet she'd added as a second tablecloth, which began a chain reaction starting with an empty beer bottle toppling into a wine glass, the contents of which spilled, with the result that a poor ant which we initially believed had drowned was a few minutes later zig-zagging across the table. We chatted for a while and then I asked for the bill: 10.50€! Yet again, we'd benefitted from paying the price the locals do by speaking the language! I'm not sure it's much of financial return on the hours invested but I always love it when it happens. We then had a slow walk home, culminating in the lovely yellows on our door step: Today was a busy day with lots of road driven and a few towns stopped in. Tomorrow promises to be much easier. Because there's less on the agenda, we didn't have any qualms in accepting the offer of a post-breakfast guided tour from our host for tomorrow. Fingers crossed I'll have finished my book by then.
  13. The place we were staying in in Ragusa last night was a bed and breakfast, but we weren't entirely sure what was happening with the breakfast. When we woke up this morning, we found it had been laid out for us in the communal kitchen outside our room. It was a very sweet breakfast, featuring croissants and chocolate cake Once we'd finished stuffing ourselves, we went out for a walk to see Ragusa in the morning sunshine. The view towards Ragusa Superiore was much better in this light We walked along the narrow street towards the cathedral again. The cathedral looked beautiful with the blue sky behind it. We hadn't realised when we booked to stay in Ragusa that some of the Montalbano TV series is filmed here. We found one of the views from the show, but I don't think I can quite pull off Montalbano's look We had time before we checked out to walk a bit further through the town, towards the gardens. We passed Ragusa's other church, San Giuseppe. It was already another hot day, so it was nice to get under the shade of the palm trees for a bit... ...and enjoy the views out across the countryside again Then it was back up through the town for a final look at the cathedral before setting off towards our next destination. The main place we were visiting today was Agrigento, but as that was over a two hour drive away from Ragusa, we were planning to break our journey in a seaside town called Licata. As we set off in the car, we had a good view up towards Ragusa Superiore. As you can see in this photo, we managed to get stuck in a queue behind Ragusa's tourist train, so we ended up having longer than expected to admire the view It took about two hours to get to Licata in the end and there wasn't much of a view of the sea because there was a port in the way, but it turned out to have a pretty old town. We walked through some gardens... ...where I found an impressively large cactus... ...and then we caught sight of the town's main church in the distance. The church had a beautiful dome, although like everything in Licata it looked a bit faded. Once we were at the church we weren't far from the main street. We had a view from there up towards the castle above the town. We came to a square, with what I assume must have been the town hall. As we'd been walking around we'd been looking for a restaurant to get lunch, but failing to find anything more than a cafe that was open. We eventually found a place just past the town hall, where the waitress told us that they were the only restaurant open in Licata today. We'd just started looking at the menu when she reappeared to say that there was a smell of gas in the kitchen and so they were only able to offer a handful of items on the menu. Luckily this included pizza, so we were fine They didn't have much on offer in the way of pudding, only something called "semifreddo" which we didn't really understand what it was. Tim decided to be brave and order one anyway; it turned out to be a bit like ice-cream, but not quite. As we were walking back to the car after lunch, I caught sight of a thermometer on a pharmacy which confirmed that it really was very hot! From Licata, we continued onwards towards Agrigento, which was another half an hour or so drive. We didn't actually want to visit the town of Agrigento itself, which according to the guidebook isn't terribly attractive, but an archeaological site outside of the town called Valle dei Templi. Although the name suggests a valley of temples, we soon discovered it's actually more of a hill with temples on it After paying €12 each to get in, we climbed a sandy path uphill and soon got our first view of (part of!) a temple. There were originally seven temples at the site, which were constructed by the Greeks in the fifth and sixth centuries BC. Today they are some of the best preserved examples of ancient Greek architecture outside of Greece, although not all of them are still intact. We followed the path past several ruins, with views in the distance towards the modern town of Agrigento. After a while we came to the remains of the temple of Heracles. This one is believed to have been built in the sixth century BC. From there the path proceeded steeply uphill towards the best preserved temple. This is the temple of Concordia. As we got closer we could see how absolutely enormous it is. Here's a picture with me for scale In the distance we could just make out the tantalising remains of another temple, the temple of Juno. Unfortunately it looked like a bit of a trek and we didn't really have time because we'd arranged to be let into our accommodation at 5pm. We turned around and began our walk back down to the car park. I'd definitely like to come back here one day and explore further, although maybe in October when it might not be 35 degrees! As we started driving back onto the main road, we got a final view of the temples Because the guidebook wasn't very complimentary about Agrigento, we're staying overnight in a nearby town called Naro. It took us about 20 minutes to drive there and another 10 minutes to drive around very narrow streets trying to find our apartment! We found it in the end and it's nice and comfortable inside There's a cosy area with a table/chairs and a fridge... ...which then leads into a bedroom that features a bunk bed as well as a double bed. It's got great air con and the wi-fi is working okay. The lady who owns it was very friendly and gave us a bowl of cherry-flavoured granita to cool us down, which was a really lovely surprise We seem to be right next door to the local church and have already heard the bells ringing a couple of times. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they don't start ringing really early tomorrow morning
  14. Today it was time for us to leave Catania behind, picking up our hire car and exploring some more remote bits of Sicily. We'd booked to pick the hire car up from the airport, mostly because it will be convenient to be able to return it to there at the end of the week, and so we set off to catch the airport bus back there this morning. We'd realised when walking outside our apartment the other day that the airport bus actually has two stops on our road, so the good news was that we didn't have to walk all the way to the station to catch it. The bus wasn't as busy as it had been on Saturday morning and we had a relatively pleasant journey, arriving at the airport just before 10am. 10am was the time we had booked to pick up our hire car, so I expected that we'd just be able to walk in, show the documentation and drive off. Every time we've hired a car previously it's taken about 10 - 15 minutes to sort out the formalities. It turns out hiring a car in Catania takes a lot longer When we got to the hire counter we found we had to take a ticket to wait to be served. We got number 83 and they were currently on 72. I've got no idea why, but dealing with each person seemed to take an extremely long time and we stood there for what felt like forever while the numbers edged slowly forward. Some people must have either given up or taken several tickets, because a couple of times they'd call a number and there would be no one there, so we were able to skip forward a bit. In the end we stood there for over an hour and it was after 11am by the time Tim finally had the hire contract. When I was researching hire cars in Sicily prior to the trip, they all seemed like quite good value but the thing which really made us nervous was the level of the excess which the rental companies wanted to hold on our credit card. I think the most we've had before was €800 in the Azores, but it seems that hire companies in Sicily routinely ask for €1,200 and sometimes even €1,500. Because Sicily felt like it had the potential to be a challenging location in which to drive, we ended up taking out a separate insurance policy which we can claim on if we end up having to pay any of the excess to the hire company. That added on to the overall cost, but gives us a bit more piece of mind. When we eventually located the place to pick up our car from and got the keys, it turned out that we'd been given a Polo; a bigger car than I had expected! The rental desk was so chaotic that we definitely weren't going to go back and question it There was plenty of space in the boot for our suitcases and soon we were on our way, only about 90 minutes later than I'd expected. Our first stop of the trip was a place called Cava Grande del Fiume Cassibile, which our guidebook had described as being like the Sicilian version of the Grand Canyon. It was included in the list of the top 18 things to see in Sicily at the front of the guidebook, so I'd deliberately worked it into our itinerary for today. When we got there, we ended up being a bit underwhelmed by it. There was indeed a canyon, but because the weather is so hot and dry there wasn't very much water to see. We could just about make it out if we zoomed in Luckily the canyon hadn't been too great a diversion, because it was only a few miles outside the town of Noto, which is where we were heading next. Noto has existed since Roman times, but the original town was destroyed during the Sicilian earthquake of 1693. The town was rebuilt, but in a completely different location about 8km from its original site. Today Noto is one of the best examples of Sicilian Baroque architecture and a World Heritage Site. The most impressive building is undoubtedly Noto's cathedral. The construction of the cathedral was completed in 1776 but part of the building, including the dome, collapsed in 1996 and had to be rebuilt, opening again in 2007. You wouldn't be able to tell that by looking at it today We walked around Noto for a while, admiring the views. We stopped to have lunch at a restaurant under some shady trees. We both had penne with ragu which was really nice, but not the largest portion in the world, so we ended up ordering pudding as well There was a bit more of Noto to see before heading back to the car to travel onwards to our ultimate destination of the day: Ragusa. Ragusa is located about 30 miles inland from Noto, so it wasn't the longest drive in the world. What did take us a while was trying to track down our B&B once we'd arrived! We did several circuits around the old town before I got out of the car and tracked it down on foot. It turned out to be exactly where Google had said it would be, but the sign was very small Our room is in a B&B in Ragusa Ibla. In what seems like a familiar theme, most of Ragusa was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake and a new town, called Ragusa Superiore, was built higher up the hill. The original town, Ragusa Ibla, was also eventually reconstructed, and when I was researching places to stay this definitely seemed like the most scenic location. Once we'd settled into our room, we went out to explore. The sun was in the wrong location to take good photos, but we could see Ragusa Superiore in the distance. We soon got a good view of the Duomo of San Giorgio. We'd already driven down this narrow road and seen it once when we were looking for our B&B! We came around the side of the cathedral into a square. Again, the sun wasn't in the best possible position, but from the end of the square we could look back towards the cathedral. Further on we found another beautiful church too We walked towards the edge of the town where I'd read that there were some gardens. Sure enough we found them and walked down a beautiful alley lined with palm trees. From the far edge of the gardens we had views out over the surrounding countryside... ...in several directions We'd walked as far as we could now, so we turned around and set off back towards the B&B to make a start on the blog
  15. Our plan for today was to take a daytrip to the town of Siracusa, located about 40 miles south of Catania. There is a regional train service connecting the two towns, but the trains don't run very often. We had a choice between 08.45 and 10.45 this morning, so decided to have a leisurely start to the day and take the 10.45. We left our apartment around 10am and walked towards Catania's main train station. It was already baking hot, even in the shade. We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare and bought our tickets from the machine. As ever in Italy, the regional trains are really cheap and the trip to Siracusa - which takes just over an hour - only cost €6.90 each. It turned out that we needn't have hurried to the train station because every single train on the departures board was delayed, including our own, which was due to arrive on platform 1. When we stepped out onto platform 1 I was surprised to see how busy it was, only to later realise that most of the people were waiting for a train to Rome... which was delayed by an hour and 50 minutes We were quite lucky in comparison that our train was only advertised as having a 10 minute delay, although that was gradually extended to 15 minutes and then 20. We had a change of platform, to accommodate a train from Messina which was also delayed, and eventually, around 11.10, our train finally appeared. Hooray! There was no attempt to make up for lost time, as the train sat in the station for a bit and then made other, seemingly random, prolonged stops along the way. The journey took us through some countryside, then along a bit of coastline which seemed quite industrial, before finally arriving in Siracusa around 12.30. Better later than never I guess! Siracusa, also known as Syracuse, is famous for having been an important Greek city in ancient times and was the birthplace of Greek mathematician Archimedes. Most of the sights of the town are located on the island of Ortigia where Greeks from Corinth originally founded the city. Today the city has spread out onto the mainland, which is where the train station is located, so we needed to walk from there to Ortigia. There weren't many helpful signs to follow, but we knew we were on the right track when we came to a bridge across a small body of water. On the far side of the water, we came to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo. The temple is believed to have been built by the Greeks in the sixth century BC. We walked through a pretty square with a fountain... ...and then began to make our way through the narrow streets of the old town. It was a really beautiful town We soon came to a huge square... ...which is home to Siracusa's cathedral. The cathedral was built on the site of a Greek temple to Athena, originally in the 7th century, but significantly rebuilt after Sicily's big earthquake in 1693. From the cathedral it wasn't far to the edge of the island. The beach looked incredibly stony, but there were still a fair few people sunbathing on it. The water was beautifully clear... ...and we had some great views, both of the town and out to sea. We found a lovely walkway to follow along by the coast. Once again we found some really pretty flowers, which seemed to be flourishing despite how hot the weather was. After a while we came to a little park which provided some welcome shade. It was home to some enormous trees, which looked very old. By this point we'd managed to do a circuit of the island and were back at the bridge where we'd started. We headed back into the old town, now on the lookout for a place where we could get a late lunch. After a bit of walking we eventually found a place with scenic views out over the sea. We had some delicious pizza... ...followed by an americano, which came like this: an espresso, with hot water to dilute it After lunch we walked back along the coast... ...crossing back over the bridge towards the newer part of town. Our regional train back was supposed to be just after 4pm but guess what, it was delayed! It actually set off more or less on time, but after a few unexplained stops somehow still managed to arrive in Catania over half an hour late It was also incredibly hot and sticky, which made me glad that we're not relying on public transport for the entire holiday. Tomorrow we will be picking up our hire car and leaving Catania behind, heading towards the town of Ragusa.
  16. After a good ten hours of sleep, we felt a lot more energised this morning than we did last night Our plan for today was to visit a town called Taormina, which is located about 30 miles north of Catania. While you can take a train directly to Taormina from Catania, it's not a very good idea; the station is at sea level, but Taormina itself is a hilltop town situated around 200 metres above that. Our plan was therefore to travel by bus, which takes just over an hour and costs €8.50 return. The guidebook had warned that the bus station was a bit confusing, and indeed it was. The ticket office isn't located within the bus station itself but on a separate street around the corner, which is a bit odd. Tim got directions from a taxi driver and we found it in the end, just on time to catch the 10am bus. Sadly, the 10am bus itself wasn't on time. We waited in the bus station while numerous other buses came and went and an increasingly large horde of people began to congregate, all of whom seemingly also wanted to go to Taormina. It was around 10.25 by the time it eventually showed up and we managed to battle our way on to get seats. The delay setting off, combined with traffic on the way, meant that it was getting close to midday by the time we got off the bus in Taormina. The bus station seemed to be on the outskirts of the town and there were no obvious signs pointing to the town centre, so we walked uphill in what we hoped was the correct general direction, and soon had this confirmed when we arrived outside what looked like an old town gate. We passed through the gate and onto a narrow street. As you can see, it was quite busy. The main attraction in Taormina is an ancient theatre, so we started following signs towards that. As we got closer, we walked down a street with the most amazing purple flowers. They looked like some sort of creeper. Whatever they were they had completely taken over the trees they were growing on. It costs €10 each to go into the theatre, which I'd included in my holiday budget, only to forget to add the extra money to the pile which we were taking out today. I was just lamenting this fact when we walked through the entrance of the theatre and found that it was free to get in today Not sure whether it was because it was a Sunday (or maybe because it was the first Sunday of the month?) but it was very good timing The theatre is slightly confusingly described as being Greek, although it's actually Roman Apparently the style and plan of it is Greek, but the fact that it's mostly built of brick means that it's Roman in origin, although it may have been built by the Romans on the foundations of an older Greek theatre. It was really huge anyway As we climbed higher up around it we had some brilliant views of Mount Etna in the distance... ...and of the sea We came around the corner to another view point, where we could see down towards a coastline that looked quite rocky. This way we were looking northwards rather than south towards Etna. We were level with the top of the theatre now and walking around the outer edge. From here you could really appreciate how enormous the theatre was. And how enormous Etna is! The theatre was so high that I was too scared to walk around the top steps (it was quite a steep drop!!), but Tim did and took some photos of the amazing views From here we could also see what seemed to be a castle on one of the hills above Taormina, but it was far too hot today to consider exploring it any further. Instead, we climbed back down to the bottom of the theatre... ...went back past the purple flowers... ...and started to explore the town a bit more. In the distance we soon caught sight of a clock tower. This was located in Piazza IX Aprile, which is Taormina's main square. It was a lovely square, with views down towards the sea... ...and trees with beautiful pink flowers. Given how hot and dry Sicily is, the flowers are really exceeding my expectations! We continued further along the main street... ...before emerging in another square. This was Piazza Duomo. The church is Taormina's cathedral, originally built in the thirteenth century but reconstructed several times since then. We found a restaurant by the side of the square where the prices seemed surprisingly reasonable and sat down for our first proper Italian meal of the holiday We both had pizza diavola, which was absolutely beautiful, and some local wine. Then it was back through the town, in the direction of the bus station. We took a diversion to some signposted gardens, which were free to enter. They were really beautiful We had views up towards the castle on the hill above the town... ...as well as down towards the sea... ...and we could still see Etna looming in the distance. There were some pretty amazing cactuses too We got to the bus station on time to elbow our way onto the 15.45 bus and were soon on our way back towards Catania. So far Sicily has been amazing
  17. We have booked a fair few early flights over the years, but I think today's may be one of the earliest ever: 06.20 from Gatwick. Once we worked it backwards, this meant airport parking was booked for 4am and, as the drive to Gatwick takes 2.5 hours even in optimal conditions, this required leaving home at 01.30. It was a painful feeling last night when we set our alarms for 1am... and I have to confess that when mine went off, I gave serious consideration to just going back to sleep and not going on holiday at all I did drag myself out of bed in the end though, and we set off to Gatwick in the darkness. The journey went well until we realised that the M1 was completely closed for overnight roadworks between two junctions, which necessitated us following a somewhat long and torturous diversion. That added a bit on to the journey time, so it was closer to 04.15 when we ultimately arrived at our airport parking. Tim had booked the cheapest possible parking, which turned out to be at a hotel in the general vicinity of Gatwick. We had to pay an additional £3 each per direction for the privilege of using the airport shuttle, which was a little bit unusual, but otherwise it was fine and we got to the airport more quickly that I expected. Our destination for the coming week is Sicily and today we were flying to Catania with Norwegian. Check-in was extremely efficient, as was security, and by 5am we were sitting in the airport Wetherspoons eating breakfast It felt a bit weird to me to be flying with Norwegian to a sunny destination, as it's an airline we've only ever used in the past for flying to cold places (Norway and Finland), but the planes are more spacious than most budget airlines and we had a nice flight. After such an early start I fell asleep pretty much during take off and only woke up again once we were over the Alps. From there the plane flew down the coast of Italy but we were on the wrong side of the aircraft to see anything except for a lot of sea! It was around 09.30 when we caught our first glimpse of the coast of Sicily. Catania is on the eastern coast of Sicily, and so we flew across the middle of the island as we came into land. We will be exploring some of the interior of the island later this week with the help of a rental car. First impressions are that it doesn't look very green! Ironically for a day when we weren't in a rush to be anywhere, our plane landed slightly ahead of schedule. As we taxied towards the terminal building, I got my first view of Mt Etna. Any time which we gained on the flight, we lost again while waiting for our bags to be unloaded from the plane Eventually they arrived though and we stepped outside into the baking heat to track down our airport bus. Catania airport is only a few kilometres outside of the city centre and there's a regular bus service to the main train station, which costs €4 each. Unfortunately it was one of those airport buses which isn't really designed either for large volumes of people or for transporting luggage, with the result that it was rather full and we had to stand. The journey into Catania was fairly short though, and within 20 minutes we were disembarking outside the train station. The apartment we are staying in for the next three nights is located about a mile away from the station and I had booked it mainly on the basis that it was possible to check in at midday. That still gave us a bit of time to kill, so we took a slow walk in the general direction, stopping for an ice-cream when we were in danger of arriving too early. We've got a lot of different accommodation booked for this trip so I couldn't really remember what this place was like, but it turned out to be quite spacious We've got a large bedroom... ...which has a little balcony overlooking the street... ...and a nice kitchen/dining room. It's worked out as a about £48/night which seems like good value, especially as it's quite centrally located I was in definite need of a nap by this stage, so it was several hours later before we headed out to explore Catania. The guidebook wasn't terribly complimentary, describing "a traffic-choked city centre" "largely constructed from suffocating black-grey volcanic stone". While there were some dark-stone buildings, first impressions were that it was a much prettier city than the guidebook had given it credit for. Our apartment was a short walk away from the church of St Francis of Assisi. Not far from there is Catania's cathedral, which is dedicated to St Agatha. The cathedral is situated in a beautiful square... ...which is home to a rather unusual monument featuring an elephant. Elephants have historically been a symbol of Catania and in ancient times, the locals apparently venerated a statue of an elephant which was said to have the magical power of being able to predict when Mount Etna was going to erupt. Today's elephant statue is made from lava stone and was erected after a serious earthquake in 1693 which destroyed much of the city. We strolled through various squares in the city centre, trying to stick to the shade to avoid the baking heat. It was well over 30 degrees in the sunshine. It was about 4pm by this point which meant that we'd napped through the Italian restaurants' definition of lunchtime, and the owner of our apartment had given us the impression that 8pm might be an early time to try and get dinner. We hadn't eaten since Gatwick and I was absolutely starving by this point, so we did something we're not proud of and followed signs to McDonalds from one of the central squares. We have tried and failed before to get proper food in southern Italy outside of official meal times, most notably in Campobasso, and come to the conclusion that it just isn't possible, so McDonalds was an opportunity not to be missed McDonalds was actually not far away from a square where there were supposed to be some Roman remains. We weren't initially blown away by them... ...but later realised that if we walked to the opposite side of the square, there were more obvious remains of a theatre on display. The owner of our apartment had recommended that we walk down a road called Via Crociferi, which he said had some of the best examples of baroque architecture in Catania, so we set out to try and find it. It turned out to be a street completely dominated by churches... ...many of which were so big that we couldn't get far enough back from them to take decent photos. It was really beautiful though And overall Catania definitely seems more attractive than the guidebook led us to believe I was expecting to find the same level of chaos as in Naples, but so far it seems comparatively calm (and the streets aren't full of uncollected rubbish, which is a huge improvement over Naples!) We were feeling tired again by this point so went to the supermarket to pick up some food for tonight and then headed back to the apartment for an early night. (The photo below is our apartment building. It's a lot nicer inside than it looks from the outside ) So far first impressions of Sicily are good and we're looking forward to exploring more tomorrow
  18. When we woke up this morning and looked out the window, we were relieved to see that the weather seemed to be a bit brighter When we went to the viewpoint round the corner, we could see Manarola much more clearly than yesterday... ...and we could just make out what we thought was Monterosso in the distance as well. We went to the same cafe as yesterday to have breakfast... ...and then set off down the stairs towards the train station in Corniglia. In the sunshine, the views were even more spectacular than they had been yesterday. We got almost halfway down the stairs when we were passed by some girls climbing upward. They explained that they had got to the bottom and been turned away by a man who said that the path was closed for works and they needed to go around on the road. So they were having to climb all the way back up to the top again to find the road! We weren't terribly impressed by the thought of having to climb back up all the way that we had just come down, but on the other hand it was better to have to climb up a part of the stairs then get right to the bottom and be told to turn around again, so we followed the girls back up to the top of the staircase. Sure enough, when we got there we found a workman sealing the entrance to the stairs off with red tape. Luckily he didn't object to us climbing underneath it to get out! We walked down to the station via the main road and bought another Cinque Terre day pass for the trains. We had had an alternative plan for today which involved visiting a nearby town called Portovenere, but when we saw that the weather was so good we couldn't resist the temptation to try and re-do the villages which we had seen yesterday, in the sunshine this time Our first stop was the northernmost village of Monterosso. As soon as we arrived, it was obvious that it was considerably busier here than it had been yesterday. The sea definitely looked a lot calmer today. In fact, it was so calm that someone seemed to be climbing on this rock which we had seen the waves lashing yesterday morning. We walked along the seafront, towards the centre of the village. Everything looked a lot better with the backdrop of a bright blue sky. Without the rain, we were able to explore a bit more of the village, and found this beautiful stripy church. We had to be careful not to spend too long in each village though, if we were going to fit them all in before we needed to catch a train towards the airport at around 2pm. So soon it was time to say goodbye to Monterosso... ...and hop on a train towards our next destination: Vernazza. Vernazza looked stunning in the sunshine too We walked out towards the harbour to get the best view back towards the town. The sea seemed incredibly peaceful compared to yesterday. Believe it or not, this was the point from which Tim got splashed by his wave yesterday It was tempting to spend longer in Vernazza, but we had more villages to see! Our intention had been to go to Manarola next, but when we got to the station we found that the train we needed was delayed. Rather than lose time waiting for it, we decided to jump on an express train which didn't stop in Manarola, but went straight through to the southernmost village, Riomaggiore. We had been absolutely soaking wet by the time we got to Riomaggiore yesterday. Today felt very different. It was a lot easier climbing up the steep main street when there wasn't water pouring down it We explored the village for a while... ...and then headed back to the station. Believe it or not, this was our view from the platform as we waited for our train to Manarola. When we got to Manarola, we decided to be really boring and go to exactly the same place that we had had lunch yesterday. In fact, we even ordered exactly the same meal. But today we remembered to take a photo of the lasagne The reason for going there was not just that the lasagne was amazing, but also that we knew the service was quick and efficient. We didn't have too long left before we needed to start our journey to the airport and we wanted to make the most of it. Manarola was really gorgeous in the sunshine We climbed up to the church tower we'd visited yesterday... ...and were rewarded with the wonderful view back out over the village. Definitely better without the rain! Sadly, then it was time to start heading back down to the station, because we needed to catch a train to La Spezia. From there we were due to make a connection to Pisa, which is where we're flying back from this evening. We'd calculated it so that we just had enough time to change in Pisa... and then our train to La Spezia was delayed, with no explanation or apology. We had a nervous few minutes in the station as we waited for it, wondering whether we were going to get to La Spezia on time to make our second train. It was a close-run thing, but we made it with about a minute to spare and were soon on our way towards Pisa airport. Phew! The weather yesterday might not have been quite what we would have ordered, but overall we have had a wonderful long weekend in Italy. The views were fantastic even in the rain, but it was brilliant to be able to return to the same places today and see them in the sunshine too
  19. We didn't get woken up by church bells this morning, but once we were awake we could hear a loud noise in the distance. Could it be the sound of waves crashing on the cliffs? We opened the shutters, and sure enough the weather outside had definitely taken a turn for the worse overnight. The water was completely white and there were some enormous waves in the sea! Although the sky looked dark, it didn't actually appear to be raining though. We went to the viewpoint around the corner from where we were staying. The sky wasn't clear, but we could just make out one of the other Cinque Terre villages (Manarola) in the distance. Time for breakfast! As our room is quite basic, it's not even possible to make coffee there so we needed to find a cafe. Luckily in Italy that isn't normally too difficult, and we were soon eating warm pain au chocolat and drinking americanos Our plan for today was to visit all five of the Cinque Terre villages. Obviously we were starting off in Corniglia, which is the middle village. That meant we needed to decide whether to first travel south, towards Manarola and Riomaggiore, or north towards Vernazza and Monterosso. But before we could go anywhere, we needed to climb down the steps to Corniglia's train station. It was a long way down! There were some beautiful views on the way, though And with time, the train tracks became a little closer. As you can see from this picture, the villages are perched so precariously above the sea that they are completely inaccessible by road. Instead, they are linked by the train line and by a series of footpaths. Today didn't feel like weather for a hike though, so we were definitely taking the train We found it rather amusing that at the bottom of the steps, there is a sign advertising a pharmacy at the top I suspect some people might well be in need of it when they get to the top! We'd pretty much decided that we were going to travel south, when we got to the train station and found there was a train about to arrive heading north. We made a quick change of plan, and within a couple of minutes we were exiting the train in Vernazza. First impressions were that it immediately seemed bigger (and flatter!) than Corniglia. We strolled down the main street, where there were some beautifully colourful houses... ...and we soon found a tiny archway in the rock, through which we could see the sea. Vernazza is one of the villages that is right down at sea level, which means it has suffered with flooding in the past. When we got down to the harbour, it wasn't hard to see why! We stood and watched some truly enormous waves in the harbour. Tim got a little bit over-excited about the waves and decided to go nearer for a better view. That was a decision which he soon came to regret Let's just say he ended up rather damp! It wasn't really surprising with waves like this! We turned around and walked back towards the centre of the village. It was really pretty, with lots of brightly coloured houses... and narrow alleyways. It was starting to drizzle by this point, so we decided to go back to the station and get on the train to the most northerly village, Monterosso. We had bought Cinque Terre cards for today which enabled us to jump on and off the trains as many times as we wanted, which was good. Less good was the weather, which had deteriorated into proper rain by the time we got to Monterosso. As we left the station, we had a wonderful view back down the coast in the direction we'd just come. Unfortunately it's not very clear in the photo, but if you look carefully you might be able to see a blob which is Vernazza at the foot of one of the hills. And if you look even more carefully, you might see a faint blob on the top of a smaller hill towards the right of this photo, which is Corniglia. The coastline in the opposite direction looked beautiful too. It must be amazing on a sunny day Today was still decidedly damp, though. Monterosso is one of the bigger villages, and I think the only one which has a proper beach. The guidebook had described it as "tacky", but that didn't really seem to be the case. There was a large central square, with a big clock tower. We explored for a while but it really was quite wet, so we decided to head back towards the train station. Sitting on a warm, dry train felt like quite an attractive prospect, so we decided to stay on until we reached the southernmost Cinque Terre village: Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore was a bit wet too! There were some lovely buildings though And a steep main street, with views up towards a tower on the hill behind. Again, on a sunny day it must be amazing We thought about getting lunch here in the hope of having some time to dry off, but we were a bit too early for Italian standards. So we got back on the train to travel to the fifth village: Manarola. Manarola wasn't any drier! We climbed upwards towards a church tower on the hill... ...with views up towards brightly coloured houses as we went. The church itself wasn't particularly photogenic... ...but from the far side of the church tower, there were some fantastic views of Manarola. I could see why this one is described as being one of the prettiest Cinque Terre villages After we'd enjoyed the views, we climbed back down into the main village. This time we managed to find a restaurant with indoor seating and enjoyed some amazing lasagne (which we forgot to take a photo of!) and half a litre of some local wine I had hoped it might magically dry up while we were eating, but it didn't! So all that remained was for us to get a train back along the coast to our home village of Corniglia This time we chickened out of the steps and took the little local shuttle bus up the hill towards our accommodation, where we began the much-needed process of drying out Today hasn't quite been the weather I'd hoped for in Cinque Terre, but it is a really beautiful part of the world regardless
  20. Over the years we've been booking overseas trips for bank holidays, the concept of a cheap flight seems to have disappeared. We started looking at the May 2019 bank holiday weekends back in October 2018 when flights first came on sale, but even then we were struggling to find anything that truly looked like a bargain. The best we could find for this weekend turned out to be a British Airways flight from Gatwick to Genoa. We didn't know a lot about Genoa, except that it was in the Liguria region of Italy which we'd never been to before. After a bit of online research, I established that going to Genoa would enable us to explore some of the Cinque Terre villages, which I'd seen amazing pictures of online. We decided to give it a go The flight this morning was at 08.45 which doesn't sound too early, but still necessitated us setting our alarms for 03.30 this morning. Happily there isn't much traffic on the roads at that time of the morning, so we got to Gatwick without any difficulties and with plenty of time to get breakfast before our flight. I can't say a lot about the flight, because I fell asleep over the Channel and only woke up on time to see the tail end of the Alps We landed in Genoa shortly after that, disappointed to see that everywhere looked just as cloudy as the weather forecast had predicted. Our airport bus wasn't until 12.30, so we had a bit of time waiting around. The airport isn't very far outside Genoa, but it had been a bit confusing trying to research the best way to get into the town centre, as the dreadful bridge collapse last year means that there's still a fair amount of traffic disruption. The congestion today didn't seem as bad as the internet had suggested though and when it eventually arrived, the airport bus got us into the town centre quite efficiently, dropping us off outside the main train station, Piazza Principe. We didn't know a lot about Genoa except that it's a large port, and first impressions were not very scenic. The route from the airport to the station seemed quite industrial, and we could see several large cruise ships sitting in the port. Of course, one of the other things which Genoa is famous for is being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and it didn't take long to find a huge monument to him outside the station. We didn't have a lot of time to spend in Genoa because of a complication with our accommodation. I'd booked a room for us to stay in Corniglia, one of the Cinque Terre villages, and after I'd paid for it I got an email from the owner explaining that we would have to check in before 5pm, because she couldn't stay any later than that to give us the key. As we needed to catch a couple of trains to get from Genoa to Corniglia, the train timetables meant that we'd have to leave Genoa at 14.45 in order to get there on time. I booked the train tickets in advance on the Trenitalia website, to save time buying them today... and then I got another email from the owner saying that she couldn't meet us for check-in after all, but that she would leave the keys in a key safe. So we actually could have spent longer in Genoa! But as I'd already bought the tickets, we figured we'd stick with the original plan and do a bit of a whistle-stop tour. As we followed signs from the station to the historic centre, we were glad to find some places that looked more picturesque than the port We walked through an enormous gate into the old town. Inside the gate we followed a series of tiny little streets... ...which became increasingly dark and narrow. It actually felt a bit claustrophic at times; a real rabbit warren. I don't think you would want to get lost down here on a dark night! Every so often we got a glimpses of interesting churches. And sometimes we emerged into pretty little squares. Eventually we came to the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Genoa's cathedral. It was enormous, and made of beautiful stripy stone. After that we seemed to be on a roll for finding beautiful churches There was this yellow one with a big dome... ...this one with a very unusual tiled roof... ...and this one, which looks like it has seen better days, but does at least demonstrate that the day had brightened up and it was now properly sunny At least, it was sunny in that direction; it was still a bit cloudy the other way. We were trying to plan our route through the centre so that we ended up near Genoa's second train station, Brignole. We'd done reasonably well following street signs and the map in our guidebook, but by the time we got to this church we couldn't figure out exactly where we were on the map, so had to resort to Google maps for the final part of the journey. We passed through another enormous gate to exit the old town. From here we were right outside Christopher Columbus's house. Or at least, a house which Christopher Columbus allegedly lived in; the guidebook doesn't seem convinced that he actually ever lived in it. We were now in the more modern part of Genoa. We found ourselves in a really pretty square with a fountain. This is Genoa's main square, Piazza De Ferrari. It definitely felt brighter and airier here than in the cramped little streets of the old town We were getting close to the Brignole station now, which was good because it was nearly time for our train. Our first journey, of just over an hour, took us to the small town of Levanto. The route was really scenic, with amazing views of the sea for lots of the journey. And when we arrived in Levanto, it looked like a really pretty place too. We had 15 minutes or so to wait in Levanto, before getting our second train towards Corniglia. This was only a short journey on a small regional train which stops at each of the villages in the Cinque Terre national park. This was the point at which we started getting a feel for how much tourism there is in this region; there were groups of cruise ship passengers being herded on and off the train at each stop. The journey itself was mostly within tunnels, but when we emerged from the station in Corniglia we immediately had a beautiful view of the coast Corniglia is supposed to be the least touristy settlement in the region, because the village itself is set on a hill up above the train station. That means that you have to climb a staircase of 382 steps to get from the station to Corniglia itself and I'm guessing that puts a lot of people off staying here, because this was definitely the only village in which we could afford accommodation The climb was rather tiring but when we stopped for breath there were some wonderful views out over the coast. We could see one of the other Cinque Terre villages in the distance Eventually we made it and followed the instructions we'd been given to track down our accommodation and retrieve the keys from the safe. The room is small, but it does have air-conditioning and allegedly Wi-Fi (we haven't been able to get it to work yet!). The best thing about the room is definitely the view, which is really spectacular Unfortunately the weather doesn't look great for tomorrow, but I'm really pleased that we've been able to see the view with blue sky today After we'd relaxed in the room for a bit, we went out for a stroll to see the village and to get some food. Just a few metres away from where we're staying there's a viewpoint out over the sea. We were able to see down the coast... ...and up towards another little hill-top village. Corniglia itself is really lovely. The streets are narrow, but they lack the ever-so-slightly threatening feel of Genoa There's a small church off the main square which has very loud bells. I'm hoping it doesn't start ringing them early tomorrow morning! We found a restaurant to get pizza, then made the most of the remaining daylight to admire the views again. We think our room must be in one of these buildings clinging to the hillside, but couldn't work out which one. We're looking forward to exploring more of Cinque Terre tomorrow
  21. I suspect Trieste is our most-visited city. We might not have spent so many days here but it's a late-night return on a Sunday so we keep using the local airport for our returns home. Today's flight had been moved forward by several hours, which isn't a bad thing, as our recent return home at 04:00 from Prague prior to a working day gave us cause to rethink our strategy. So we started today totally at leisure, since we've been to Trieste so many times before and were therefore not in a position to have to get a day's sightseeing in. We dropped our suitcases off at the train station and headed to the main square for a coffee with a view: We took a quick stroll past some landmarks which were already known to us ... ... in the direction of the the public gardens. They were established between 1854 and 1864 on lands acquired from a benedictine monastery. There's even a lovely little waterfall in there: Around the corner we found an Esperanto plaque. I've lost count of how many we've seen on our holidays this year! We decided to look for lunch and headed in the direction of the sea, which brought us en route to Clare's favourite building, the orthodox church: The James Joyce bridge had somebody posing with the statue and a building looking resplendent alongside the bright sky: We passed by the canal ... ... and finally reached the sea: And after an uneventful few hours we arrived back home. Getting in at 22:00 probably would strike most people as still late when the alarms are set for 06:00 the following day, but it's still an improvement on the 02:00 that we had originally lined up.
  22. Tim

    Day 5: Florence

    Well, today was a bonus, and a beautiful one at that. We prepared our itinerary back in England and so knew what towns we'd be visiting and how we'd be getting to them. And then we arrived in Bologna and jumbled everything up. You see, we were going to follow the approach that we took last year of trying out a new place every day. I think we ended up visiting 15 towns in 14 days back then and we had set ourselves a similar agenda for this visit to Emilia Romagna. But a fortnight before coming here I went to Trieste with my Dad for a long weekend and sandwiched in, I think, 10 different places in our few days, and so Clare and I wondered whether, given the proximity of the towns on our to-do list and the temptingly low same-region train fares, we should squash more than one town per day into this holiday. And so the day that should've been Modena became Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma, granting us two bonus places. We'd done something similar the day before, heading to Ferrara in the afternoon after having spent the morning in Bologna. Now, Ferrara was going to be its own day out, meaning that we'd gained a spare day, and a pot-luck check of train prices gave a surprising result - we were going to head outside the region to the town considered to be the most beautiful in Italy. Radio has wanted to go to Florence for years and, having accepted my claims that I could find us a train to one its peripheral stations for 11.50€ plus a further 1.50€ to get a local train into the main station, spent the days leading up to the big day eagerly looking forward to the adventure. I have a slightly different way of thinking and was determined to get value for money by adding in more destinations. "You see, going to Pisa would normally cost us a fortune because it's in Tuscany so the train fares are high for crossing the regional border. But since we're going to Florence and that's in Tuscany, then Pisa becomes dead affordable. And so does Siena. And Lucce." And so I spent time trying to convince Radio that we could do a repeat of our Modena-Reggio Emilia-Parma day by spending a couple of hours in various places and then jumping aboard a train, whilst she tried to convey that Florence really couldn't be done justice in less than a day. She won the argument and so a day trip to Florence - and only Florence - was agreed and I set about memorising the time of the only train that we would be able to catch at that one-off low price. The day started as every other one has, with me boiling next to the radioactive Radio and having to switch on the aircon at about 5am, the powering-on of which did a reasonable job of dampening somewhat the roar of the fridge. I have a theory on why the damned thing wasn't working on our first few days - I bet some previous occupant got so irritated at the sound of a Grand Prix ten feet from their bed that they broke it. I'm typing this blog now perhaps somewhat pointlessly, because the laptop's about to get hurled at that fridge if it doesn't shut up soon. By the time the alarm went off and Radio awoke I was already awake because of the heat in the room and that stupid fridge so catching up on some work. We got showered and headed off for breakfast along the customary route, Radio a bit concerned that we might not have time to make it to our train, which was scheduled to leave at 08:39. I, on the other hand, had every confidence that we'd be fine because I was under no illusion that breakfast would be what it has been on the previous days. Sure enough, there was little to hold our attention and so we came, we saw, we left, the grand total of ten minutes spent on site eating our stale bread, pastry (which was fine, in fairness) and drinking our orange juice from a throwaway child's-sized beaker. Back to the appartment, books packed, money added to the purse and we were on the road with plenty of time to spare. Easy. And then things became confusing. I ordered the tickets as we have done every other but this time we were expected to reserve a seat. No problem. A schematic of a carriage appears and you have to indicate the seats you would like, which I duly did. One button away from confirming and paying Radio noted that one of the reservations was in carriage four and the other in five. We would've had one ticket but been in separate carriages - I bet that would've been fun for Radio (who is multilingual but not in Italian) to explain to the ticket inspector: "The machine put me and my handsome better half in separate carriages and the ticket's in his lovely hand." We tried again. Same result. There's an option to pick "sit next to another passenger" so we had go with that. "What carriage is the other person in? What seat?" WE DON'T KNOW BECAUSE WE HAVEN'T GOT THE OTHER PERSON'S TICKET YET, IDIOT. Suddenly the relaxed start to the day was taut. The train was due within minutes, we were still ticketless and there was too long a queue for us to purchase a pair of tickets from the staff behind the desks. So I said to Radio that we'd have to gamble, purchasing one ticket and accepting whatever seat it generated, then making a separate transaction for a second ticket and entering the seat details from the first, keeping our fingers crossed that we would fluke upon a designation that had another seat nearby rather than in a separate carriage. Our luck was in - we were in the same carriage and sitting opposite each other. So what was that nonsense about it putting the two people purchasing the same ticket in different carriages in the first place? Who knows. This being Wimbledon fortnight, I'd be happy to be topical and give whoever scripted that ticketing program a backhand. The train was duly late to cater for all the stragglers and we tracked down our seats, which, to our surprise, were in six-seated booths. What we noticed whilst tracking down ours was a plethora of empty seats ... indeed, we were the only two people in our six-person carriage. See? Could it be that we had a four-seat booth to ourselves after the ticket machine had tried to put us in separate carriages? No - we had a flipping six-booth one! And yet we'd been fighting with that machine for ten minutes because it insisted on putting us in separate carriages! Mind you, my misanthropy was quelled somewhat by a most unexpectedly pleasant journey, as we travelled with the beautifully wooded Appenine mountain range accompanying us. We ended up at Firenze Rifredi ahead of schedule, caught the next train to the main station Firenze Santa Maria Novella and promptly arrived in reputedly Italy's most beautiful city. We picked up a map for 2.50€ (since our pop-out Florence map was back at home because we weren't expecting to come here) and had a look at what to do. That was actually a very easy decision to make - the tourist masses went straight on or right, so we headed to the left. It didn't take long to see our first monument. The Fortressa da Basso is massive. It also cost money to enter so we didn't venture inside and instead decided that we'd make a point of seeing everything else on the map. And so we did, heading straight off to a Russian church on the Giovanni Milton street. (I love the unusual look of that name. He's the author of Paradise Lost in case you haven't made the link.) A trip to a park or two followed, in which we pleased to find some ducks and turtles. And we were on our own too. We weren't expecting to be for much longer, since it was time to leave the periphery and head within the ring road and enter the traditionally touristy areas, starting with the Piazza della Libertà, the northernmost point of the historic city. It was beautiful, the triumphal arch standing tall and proud. Even better - there were no tourists! We'd been in Florence for about an hour and a half at this point under the sweltering heat and so decided to refresh ourselves. The first pint on a hot day is always the best. With the aid of our new map we set out a battle plan, coming to the realisation that Florence had so much to see that though we could probably squeeze in everything within the main city without straining ourselves, there was a large area to explore on the south of the Arno. I shan't bore with details about what we saw. We marched and visited everything on the map, a task made easier by the fact that we couldn't gain access to quite a few of the sights, my favourite such example being an attempt to walk into the Orto Botanico only to see a handwritten sign across the entrance announcing "NO ENTER. NO TOURIST." I had to laugh - whoever wrote that likes tourists even less than I do! Lunch was merited when we finally took it. I'm not a pizza person but after several days of bolognese and lasagna I fancied a change and came up a winner. The Vulcano was extremely spicy but beautiful, and Radio declared her Quattro Formaggi to be the finest such pizza she'd ever had. Crucially there was a cheap beer on offer, a 66cl bottle of Moretti for 3.50€. The friendly waiter chap thought me rather more classy than I am and accompanied the bottle with a glass. In the event this was handy, since he clearly thought that the half litre of wine that we'd ordered was for Radio only and so brought just a single beaker with it. I therefore made use of the pint glass, just not with the material he thought I would. One excellent meal later and half a map still to follow, off we trekked. Again, I'll spare details (since the photos tell the story better) except to say that we hit on a beautiful square with the Duomo backing on to it. The narrow streets are dominated by what appears to be a rocketship launching in the background. Florence is a magesterial city anyway, but one thing dominates the skyline - the Duomo: We turned a corner having walked around the edge of the town after lunch and bumped into a church ... ... and a round building, which I'm assuming is the baptistry: Those are just two of the elements in this single square: It makes for an impressive whole: Yes, we were among the tourists, but it was a price worth paying. And so was visiting Florence, which is full of beautiful sites. We immediately moved away from the main tourist route and tracked down a Russian church on "Giovanni Milton" street: Instead of heading east into the city we moved westward into a park in which was something reminiscent of our Victorian bandstands: I think that this structure in the park was a cafe but I suspect it might once have been a colossal greenhouse: Having visited the non-tourist areas it was time to see the conventional sights. We entered via the north-west and quickly came across the Roman gate ... ... which featured some intricately crafted statues on its top: Behind the Roman gate was a second, though less spectacular: There are, of course, many beautiful churches. Ignore the six-pointed star on this one - it's not a synagogue ... ... but this is. It's big! Palazzi too abound.: The Arno flows through Florence. Here';s Radio at riverside: Having seen everything that we'd set out to view we were in a bit of a quandary. As there was only one train in the morning at the irresistibly low price, so there was only one going home and we had a couple of hours to kill in sweltering heat. The solution soon presented itself when we found a bar. Radio wanted water and as usual I was happy with a pint. Having confirmed that there was draft beer on offer I requested a large Bulldog. The proprietor confirmed with me that I meant large, which I corroborated - if you don't specify large in Italy you end up with a 20cl. He brought our drinks over. There was a pleasant surprise for me: That's a large drink. A welcome bonus on our bonus day. We spent time in the shadier part of the pub, Radio quickly needing a top-up and me resisting the temptation to ask for one more for me too. The TV was playing hits from the 70s and 80s, Radio asking me to confirm whether the singers were men or women. I grew up in the 80s so don't find 80s-looking women unattractive as she does. I can't say the same about the 70s though. How come people wanted to look so much older than they were back then? Anyway, the pint empty and clock running down, I settled the bill. Ouch. My extra-large beer was going to set me back 13€. I was glad I hadn't ordered a second one after all! You know the dispute between me and Radio earlier? The one where I wanted to travel all around Tuscany today whilst Radio was adamant that Florence would need at least a day? She was right - we'll be heading back on Friday using another of the days that our sandwiching approach has freed up to see the bits that we weren't able to fit in today. No more king-size beers for me though.
  23. Tim

    Day 10: Sulmona

    We didn't have to check out of our room in Pescara until 11.30 today, meaning we were able to have a nice relaxing morning. I didn't wake up until nearly 9am - the longest lie-in of the holiday so far. Tim was mysteriously absent when I got out of bed, but he demonstrated exceedingly good timing by reappearing a few minutes later bearing croissants and doughnuts for breakfast. Combined with the free juice and coffee machine at the hotel, it was much nicer than the stale bread we had been getting in Bologna. We had plenty of time to catch the 11.47 train to Sulmona and, having purchased our ticket, spent some time browsing the station bookshop. Tim purchased an Italian version of the Sherlock Holmes story 'A Study in Scarlet' and then we headed off to our platform. In the process of doing this, we somehow managed to mislay our ticket and disaster was narrowly averted when Tim noticed and went back to retrieve it from the floor of the bookshop! The train, when it came, was small but beautifully airconditioned and we had a pleasant journey of just over an hour to Sulmona. As we travelled inland from Pescara, the countryside became progressively more mountainous and when we stepped off the train in Sulmona, we found ourselves in a valley surrounded on by peaks on all sides. I knew from the guidebook that Sulmona's train station was a couple of kilometres outside the town centre and had printed a Google map of the 2.4km route to our hotel. It would have been an easy stroll but for two factors. Firstly, the map gave no indications of the fact that it would be a walk of 2.4km almost exclusively uphill. Secondly, we had to pull along our suitcases, an undertaking complicated by the fact that the wheels on my suitcase are broken. In all honesty, I'm not sure what has happened to my suitcase. Last time I used it would have been in northern Italy in September 2012. We had a packed itinerary, staying in at least six different places over the course of a two-week period. I have absolutely no recollection of my suitcase breaking during that holiday but broken it has, so that although the wheels turn freely if you roll them with your hand in mid air, as soon as you try to pull the suitcase along somewhere, they seem to buckle and refuse to turn in a peculiar way. Some surfaces seem to suit them better than others. Sometimes they turn okay on tarmac or stone, but the polished marble floors of Italian train stations are a complete no-go. Even at best, pulling the case now requires brute-force dragging as opposed to just holding the handle and letting it trundle along behind you. I was lucky that Tim volunteered to pull it up the hill to Sulmona for me, otherwise I would probably still only be halfway up! With the worst part of the hill behind us, we reached the town centre and decided to grab some lunch prior to checking into our hotel. We found a nice pizzeria where I had a pizza diavola (my new favourite, since Hawaiian doesn't exist in Italy) and Tim had a quattro formaggio (which in Italy routinely seems to come without tomato sauce). The hotel wasn't far away, and we were shown to a room beautifully decorated in blue accompanied by a torrent of Italian of which I didn't understand anything of at all, although Tim seemed quite happy to join in with. It had started to rain towards the end of lunch, so we had a little nap while the weather blew over and then set out to explore the town. Sulmona is only a small place but has a very attractive centre, marred only by the fact that the narrow cobbled streets look like they should be pedestrianised - but aren't - so there is a constant need to dodge traffic. We obtained a map from the tourist information office and had soon walked around the main sights, so found a pleasant local cafe for a much-needed espresso. Our plan for the coming day was to visit the nearby town of Scanno but it wasn't entirely clear where the bus would leave from, so we popped back to the tourist information office in the hope of obtaining a timetable. There were a couple of women ahead of us in the queue, talking to the assistant. And what a bizarre conversation it was! The nationality of the tourists was undetermined but the assistant began by speaking in broken English, then seemingly gave up and started speaking in Italian, before switching back to English for a few words in the middle of a sentence and then back to Italian again. Goodness knows what she was trying to explain to them but it took an awfully long time and at one point it seemed likely that the tourist information office might actually close before we got chance to voice our query. Fortunately that didn't come to pass. We had already ascertained that there were no bus timetables on display in the office, but in response to our query the lady reached under the desk and produced a somewhat battered folder from which she extracted something which appeared to be a bus timetable. I say 'appeared' to be a bus timetable intentionally, because the times of some buses were printed, then there were gaps where the times of other buses had been handwritten in. If the bus isn't printed on the timetable, is it actually going to arrive? Babel began to question her on it and she produced a pen, with which she struck out half the buses on the timetable on account of them only running on Sundays. The only feasible bus for us to catch was one handwritten onto the timetable at 11am. Coming back we had a choice of 15.15 (too early!) or 18.45 (too late!). All in all it wasn't much of a bus timetable. Back at the hotel room, however, internet research more or less confirmed the times she had shown us, so the plan is still to try to go to Scanno tomorrow. Whether we get there - and whether we will get back if we do - remains to be seen!!
  24. You'll have gathered from yesterday's post that we weren't impressed at all with Campobasso, the capital of the Molise region. And yet we'd gone to great lengths to reach it, necessitating two coaches and a train, and making reaching the airport in Pescara for our return journey a lot more complicated than it needed to be. The reason for heading down this far was in order to make today's visit to Saepinum. You don't have to be particularly linguistically proficient to twig that Saepinum doesn't look like an Italian name. Indeed it isn't. What we planned to do today was visit the remains of a Roman town. There was no such stop as Saepinum on the bus timetable and we knew from our planning that we'd have to ask for Sepino instead, a village not too far away. Once again being multilingual paid off because the bus driver had never heard of Saepinum but recognised what I meant when I said "it's an old Roman town not far from Sepino". Lovely man that he was, he informed us that Sepino wasn't close to the remains at all but that he would pull over when we approached and allow us to get off. Quite clearly tourists don't tend to flock to it, which is a shame for the region but a boon for us. Well, scratch that last point because the first thing we encountered when heading to the only apparent restaurant in the vicinity was a rush and no free tables, everywhere being occupied by a tourists from a couple of coaches which had pulled in. We made our own luck in the end, grabbing some leftover furniture and creating a table of our own. The staff here were chronically busy dealing with the mass of humanity which had preceeded us, so it was perfectly excusable that our meals arrived separately. My goodwill would be overstretched, though, to justify the delay being so long that Clare, having delayed eating hers for twenty minutes for reasons of politeness, still finished it before mine turned up! The meal over, it was time to track down this Roman town. It turned out to be the easiest job in the world, located about a minute's walk from the restaurant, and we caught our first glance of what was once a thriving settlement: There were all the usual things you might expect to have been there, including a theatre and majestic pillars, which we were especially lucky to have seen framed by a beautiful blue sky: Our visit happened to coincide with the opening hours of a little museum, so we paid it a visit (even noting the presence of Esperanto in a notice about not touching an artifact) before setting off on our journey to Sepino, which would be based on guesswork. So we bid adieu to Saepinum and headed out into the countryside which surrounds it. We walked along a solitary road, simultaneously enjoying the lovely surroundings but being conscious that we didn't know for certain that we were heading in the correct direction or how long it would take to get there. Eventually we turned a corner and espied a village. This, we were pleased to confirm, was Sepino. Well, that pleased us. We had noticed a rainstorm following us and were slightly worried that it might overtake us, but at this point we were still ahead of it and looked to be safe. Having covered the several kilometres with ease it was ironic that the last few hundred steps should prove unforgiving. To get into the village we had to head uphill. The steepness was a lot more than we were used to and we stopped a couple of times, chests burning and sweat pouring. How fortunate for us that when we reached the summit of this winding road the first thing we saw was a bar! Seemingly every man in the village (and the patrons were uniquely male) had met for their Saturday catch-up and for a split second I wondered whether it would be worth risking the "y'all ain't from round here, are ya?" reaction that I thought we were going to get. We were so thirsty, though, that we couldn't afford to walk away. As it happens, we met some lovely people there. Along with our friends in Villalago they were our favourite people. The owner of the bar was a biker-looking man, long hair and bushy facial hair proudly on display. He engaged us in friendly chat, informing us that his son lived in Greenwich, before shouting over to one of the local fellas who was playing dominoes. We soon found out why - this chap had lived in Bournemouth and Wolverhampton for decades, and insisted on buying us a beer. He talked and talked and talked and then asked us to guess what he'd done for a living in England. "Ice-a cream-a man!" We couldn't afford to miss the coach and so politely excused outselves, but all of our new friends said that it wouldn't be coming until later. We didn't want to take the risk and so headed out to the main square. We saw the local church en route and sat down opposite some colourful houses: And then the rain that had been tracking us caught up with us, bringing a deluge the likes of which we've seldom experienced. We took shelter behind a building but eventually had to submit and it was a few minutes after leaving it that we reappeared at the bar, looking like two drowned rats. Unfortunately, it was full to bursting, the local males who had been earlier chatting in front of the bar having sensibly decided to take shelter in it. The owner's wife was now on duty and took pity on us, providing us with paper towels to dry us off and being very generous with her measures when we ordered Clare's wine. We kept an eye out for our coach and it never appeared, just as the locals said it wouldn't, so we killed off some time in the pub until the local bus that they had told us about was scheduled to arrive. The deluge abated in time for us to head back out to the main square, whereupon our bus appeared right on schedule and we purchased our tickets to take us back to Campobasso, putting an end to a highly memorable and enjoyable day. We'll definitely visit Sepino again to say hello to all the lovely folk in the bar who took care of us.
  25. Tim

    Day 11: Scanno

    Off the beaten track we headed. We've based ourselves in Sulmona, surrounded by mountain ranges all around us and decided to head into them. The small town of Scanno (population 2,000) was our port of call and so we took the lengthy walk to the station in order to track down the coach. Our first impressions were extremely positive, being greeted by an effusively friendly driver and taking our seats as one of only a handful of passengers on his very modern coach. Within a few minutes we were in the mountains, the views spectacular and hardly anybody else on the road, as we passed through the odd hamlet. Although we only encountered a handful of people on our journey they all seemed known to our driver, who swapped greetings with the locals whenever we encountered one, before placing us right on time in Scanno following a visually exhilirating hour which only cost us 3.90€ each. We were dropped off in a small square, which later transpired to be the communal meeting area where seemingly all of the 2,000 inhabitants spent their evenings. Our first port of call was to the tourist office, a mere five seconds away, where we picked up brochures detailing the whole region's national parks and a town map, which made it look as though we'd be able to see all of Scanno within half an hour. Our second port of call was to track down something to eat - it's not that we're particularly porcine so much as the tiny breakfast that we were entitled to courtesy of our hotel (one cup of coffee, one glass of juice, one pastry) had long ceased to power us. And so we set off to track down a restaurant. That's when we first became aware that we really were in the middle of nowhere. The first pizzeria that we came across wasn't set to open until a little later. Neither were the very few others that we encountered. Clearly there's little demand in a village that doesn't get many visitors. With no alternative we held off until the first restaurant that we'd spotted finally opened. When the food came it proved to be worth the wait though, especially as I was tired of pasta and pizza: When the food, our half litre of wine and my big beer were despatched we headed into the old town to have a look around. Not much has changed over the centuries, the original brickwork still in place and the streets narrow. As we anticipated from our earlier peak at the map, we wrapped up the tour within half an hour, and that's including visiting some streets more than once. With several hours remaining until the coach arrived and knowing that there was a lake down the road, we set off on a several-kilometre walk, bidding goodbye to Scanno as we left it in the distance: The walk was entirely pleasant and traffic was light enough that we were never in any danger of being run over by cars speeding around the blind bends. We eventually found a turn-off with the lake signposted and so soon beheld a shimmering sea laying before us backed by mountain peaks and forests. It was exquisite, and so we determined to walk around it. Unfortunately the grey clouds that we'd seen heading our way carried out their threat with aplomb and the heavens opened. We sought refuge in a cafe, no doubt abusing the goodwill of the owners by sitting down for far too long given the little we were purchasing. Italian coffee is much stronger than we're used to and so we wouldn't have been able to get through it at the same sort of speed I would've mown through my pints even if we were in a healthier financial position than we, with our purse holding a meagre 14€, actually were. Within a couple of hours the rain, its massive drops reminiscent of those that we see in documentaries shot during monsoons, hadn't abated one bit and so we shrugged and accepted our fate - wearing our shorts and summer shirts, we'd have to do the long uphill walk back to Scanno through the downpour. The hostess dutifully apologised for the weather as we settled up. I shan't lie and pretend that getting soaked to the skin was pleasant - it wasn't. But you roll with the punches and we arrived back in Scanno with a couple of hours to spare, which we ate into with a second tour of this historic town. Even on tired legs we couldn't stretch it out for more than half an hour! Concerned that the Italian attitude to punctuality might see the driver not stick to his timetable and potentially leave us stranded we resolved to sit in the main square and keep an eye out, and so we sat on a bench for over an hour watching the locals go about their business. It seems that every man in the village comes out in the evening. If there's a bench they sit on it, whilst others stand in groups or congregate on steps, and they talk, chat and blabber non-stop. I have no idea what on Earth they can find so engaging since the previous night, but there was no let-up, and it intensified once the women (whom we supposed would be at home cooking) emerged from the church facing us. Our driver arrived with plenty of time to spare and, just like his matutinal colleague, knew everybody and so ran the gauntlet of locals on his way to one of the cafes. And once he'd sated his need for conversation and caffeine, our return home commenced right on time and we enjoyed another spectacular drive through the mountains.
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