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Found 49 results

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!!
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. We had a free day on our intinerary because our friend in Pescara, Stefano, had advised us to drop Avezzano, which was originally on the agenda for today. Our guidebook mentioned nothing about the place either, so we decided to heed his advice and repeat yesterday's rain-afflicted day. We had intended to move from Scanno to Lago di Scanno and then on to a smaller village called Villalago. The rain ruined that one, and so we decided to try again. And, in truth, we were looking forward to repeating our trip on the coach through the mountains. We were delighted to see that the previous day's driver was working the morning shift again. I don't know how he pulls it off, but I bet he makes everybody feel that they're the most important person in the world. Such a good guy. As with the previous day the journey was beautiful. We noticed an old town balancing on a cliff edge and resolved to photograph it later, which we did. (Apologies for the poor quality, but it was taken through the window of a bus travelling at speed!) As soon as we pulled into Villalago the previous day's activities repeated, the driver waving to everybody he saw and kids and adults alike excitedly waving at him too. We soon landed in Scanno knowing that we could find food there but, given how difficult it had proven to be in this, the larger of the two towns, we might not in Villalago. As with the previous day, we did a tour of the old town whilst waiting for the restaurant to open. Once food was out the way, we repeated yesterday's long walk to the lake, hoping that the weather would hold up. The lake was as beautiful as we remembered and we carried on the several-km walk to Villalago, which provided some spectacular scenery, under a burning sun. Fortunately we arrived safely in the correct location and found a clubhouse beside some tennis courts, at which we availed ourselves of some water and a couple of beers, and happy to take advantage of the free crisps that were served with them. They wouldn't be our only ones of the day. The town is small - only a shade over 600 people live there - so it didn't take us long to see the main bit of it, which was reached by climbing uphill from the square where we would establish our base. The local barman was a very friendly chap and gave us some treats along with our drinks order. I think it helped that we had spoken in Italian to an old lady who was sitting outside the cafe and who wanted to engage us in chat - yet another benefit of learning languages, folks, since we were served with free crisps, mini-pizzas and sausage rolls. The barman brought us a local guidebook and chatted to us for ages (measured as two refills, I think). After confirming with him where the bus would be stopping, Radio and I set off to see our second lake of the day and we bid the town goodbye as it faded into the distance: Our adventure didn't go according to plan, unfortunately (as shown in the following slideshow). We headed downhill, the sound of rapidly flowing water gushing from either side of the steep path which we were treading, until we came to a dead-end. As frustrating as it was, there was no alternative for us but to head back up that path, rapidly running out of breath, and walk alongside the main road. Frustration revealed itself once we discovered from above that we were previously only metres away from the lake, except for the unwelcome building which obstructed us. We spotted a pathway marked "water" and so bid goodbye to Villalago en route to the lake: There were torrents of water either side of the steep path. Radio even found some waterfalls: Having descended for 20 minutes the punchline was that we'd hit a dead-end. There was a building blocking the rest of the route! Now we'd have to go back up that chronically steep path. This time we followed the road and noticed that we had previously got so near - the building that blocked our route was a few feet from the lake. Gah! Finally, we saw the second lake and it dawned on us that even if we had somehow got past the obstructive building we wouldn't have been able to walk around the lake anyway - there was no path! With the lake seen (from afar) and a little bit of time to kill we returned to the previous bar and ordered some more drinks. Our friend the barman once again loaded us up with free crisps and pizza, such that - for the first time in my life - I grew tired with crisps! I'm happy to be able to say that I quickly befriended a local's dog named Titi and she did the job of disposing of the crisps for me: Having loaded up on drinks and freebies we said our goodbyes and took the two-minute walk to the bus-stop whereupon a familiar face emerged from the house opposite and came out for a chat. The bus-driver! Unbelievable! We spoke to him for ages, although I confess that my knowledge of cars isn't anywhere near good enough to understand the significance of Bentleys and Rolls Royces. He appears to own a garage in the town, hence our conversation meandering in that ephemeral direction. In fact, not only does he own a garage, but also the local hotel, which was a few seconds' walk away! That's nice to know, because not only is Villalago itself a fabulous draw that will definitely pull us towards it again, but so are the locals whose company we were lucky enough to spend time, especially that effusively friendly bus-driver. Three cheers for Villalago!
  10. Our garrulous friend Stefano had taken it upon himself to act as our travel advisor shortly after our arrival in Pescara. He had declared Avezzano not worthy of a trip (corroborated by the lack of an entry in our guide book) and so we struck that off our itinerary and generated a free day for later in our stay. This free day risked becoming two when he pulled a face when we told him that our other planned stop was Vasto and declared "there's nothing there". We reasoned that he wasn't strictly correct, in that there was a beach. Take the beach away from Pescara and there's also "nothing there", so we decided that we might as well experience "nothing except for a beach" in a new place, especially when the train costs were so small. And so we opted to follow our itinerary and head to Vasto anyway. Sorry, Stefano. As a matter of fact we didn't get to see Vasto itself, which is a small town because the train station lies between it and another town called San Salvo and since we headed in the direction of the beach we ended up in Marina di Vasto - the town itself would require climbing up steep hills. So to the beach we headed, finding it within a few minutes. As we'd noticed further up the road in Pescara, the sands were reminiscent of those usually found in brochures advertising venues a lot more expensive than ours. It might only be a small place but it's adorned with palm trees and bright flowers. Who knew that palm trees came in so many flavours? In truth there really wasn't much to do in Marina di Vasto. But then I suppose all most people want is to sit on the beach and soak up the sun and in that respect it's a perfectly pleasant resort. From the pier we could see the town of Vasto up in the hills but we were sweltering in the heat and could see that we would be punishing ourselves unduly by attempting to get up that steep slope so resolved to get something to eat instead. That was easier said than done - it was a Sunday, which didn't help, but also Italians tend to have later meal times than we Brits do and so we struggled to find an open venue, though we eventually managed to find a restaurant that was just opening. Because so few trains run on a Sunday we were stranded for a while so took a long walk to the train station. Still well ahead of schedule, we finished our day out with some reading in the station. For no real reason I decided to explore the station about ten minutes before the train was due to arrive and saw that there was a cafe. Whoops - we actually could've had a degree of comfort for those couple of hours! The next morning Stefano asked me what we'd been up to, pulling a face when I said "Marina di Vasto - non c'e niente!" "I told you!", he replied. Indeed he did We saw fields of sunflowers around the Pescara region when travelling on the train and within minutes of leaving the train station at Marina di Vasto bumped into some more: The streets were bordered by palms ... ... and here's Radio sheltering in a palm alleyway: The palms were bearing fruit at the time of our visit: The beach had the white sand that we saw at Pescara ... ... and lots of people were making use of it: Up in the hills is the tiny town of Vasto but the journey up to it looked far too steep in the heat to be worth it ... ... so we stayed by the sea instead:
  11. Our original itinerary for this holiday was a fairly modest one, drawn up on the basis of visiting one town per day. As soon as we actually got to Italy, however, all our good intentions for a sedate and relaxing holiday flew out of the window as we found ourselves standing in front of the ticket machines in Bologna Centrale and exclaiming "Ooh, we could get a train to there... and to there... and to there... for not very much money at all!" Suddenly we seemed to be surrounded by more possibilities than days and our itinerary began to become more and more crowded as we strove to fit everything in. Monday was - on paper - scheduled to be nothing more than a trip to the small town of Modena, situated approximately 30 minutes outside of Bologna. Some overexcitement when looking at a transport map, however, had convinced us that we could also fit in brief visits to Reggio Emilia and Parma, both towns on the same rail line as Modena and only 20 minutes apart on the regional train. This necessitated an early start in the morning and I surpassed my own expectations of my ability to get out of bed, with the result that we were at Bologna Centrale in time to gloat at the suited commuters on their miserable way to work and had already arrived in Modena by 09.30. In what was becoming a theme of this holiday, we initially failed to locate the town centre. This was partly because we didn't have a proper map and partly because Modena, evidently not expecting (m)any tourists, had failed to erect any useful signs indicating where it might be. The outskirts of town were pretty though, and at this time of the day the sun wasn't yet hot enough to make walking round a chore. When we eventually did hit upon the tree-lined boulevard leading into the centre, we found that several of the main sights were currently undergoing renovation and temporarily hidden behind a mask of scaffolding. The main square was impressive, however, and we wandered through narrow medieval streets, whose porticoes and terracotta paintwork were very reminiscent of Bologna. By 11.30 we were starting to feel extremely hungry and debating whether we had as yet reached a socially acceptable hour to have lunch. Probably we hadn't, but we chanced upon a pleasant-looking cafe which already had its menu up and decided to take our chances. The menu was not terribly extensive but advertised a variation on the theme of chicken and chips, so we decided to give it a try. Oh dear. As soon as the food arrived, it became clear that we had made another lunch-related error of judgment. The chips, while initially looking reasonably edible, turned out to be unpleasantly undercooked, but the real disappointment was the chicken, which bore no resemblance to any chicken which I have ever encountered before. It was a small, flat piece of chicken, enveloped in seriously soggy breadcrumbs. Cutting into it with the knife revealed meat which was a most peculiar shade of grey. If you closed your eyes, suspending disbelief in its inherent chickenness, it tasted bland and pappy, but not wholly unpleasant. Eating it while looking at it involved some serious willpower, however, and I was driven on only by the fact that I had to eat something and the chips were worse. We initially failed to find the town centre, but we did find this beautiful church near the train station: We knew we were eventually on the right track when we saw the Duomo appearing on the horizon: We were soon in the main square, which unfortunately was being used as a car park. The town hall was pretty though... ...as was this clock tower: Unfortunately this church was undergoing some renovation: This one was very impressive though: The town was full of bright orange and yellow buildings: Like this one... and this one: And here was where we had the worst meal of the holiday! The bill at least was significantly less than the previous day and we had accomplished our aim of an early lunch, giving us plenty of time to hop on a train bound for Reggio Emilia. This was a town which our guidebook didn't deem sufficiently important to publish a map of, but which turned out to be very attractive regardless. A major bonus point was that the train station was located within a hop skip and a jump of the main street, and there was even an unambiguous sign proclaiming the direction of the "centro". We soon found ourselves in yet another imposing main square, whose beauty was marred only by the fact that someone had set up a scrappy market selling tacky plastic and knocked off designer clothes in the middle of it. The thermometer on a local pharmacy alerted us to the fact that the punishing midday sun had reached a temperature of 36 degrees and, beginning to feel the effects of the heat, we stopped at a little outdoor cafe for some much needed rest and refreshments. We could quite happily have sat in the shade reading all afternoon, but before long it was time to head off to our final stop of the day - Parma. We walked down some narrow streets on our way to the town centre: They seemed keen on orange churches here too! These rather scary lions were on guard duty in the main square: Beautiful surroundings in which to sit and read: Or, at least, it would have been, had our train not been suffering from a 20-minute delay. A frustrating wait on the busy platform at Reggio Emilia ensued, while the automated voices of Trenitalia alternately apologised for the inconvenience and implored us to stay behind the yellow line at all times. Absurdly, it took less time for us to get to Parma than we had spent waiting for the train in the first place, but it was worth it when we arrived and found ourselves confronted with our first view of the Palazzo della Pilotta, a grand building with huge brick archways where we were able to find some brief respite from the still relentlessly hot sun. From there we strolled through some pretty gardens and down some interesting side streets to an imposing square containing the city's cathedral and an unusual pink building which research later revealed to be a medieval baptistry. We knew from the map that Parma was situated on a river, so we decided to stroll across it and head for a leafy park on the far side. Once we drew near to the bridge, however, it seemed that either most of Parma's river had evaporated prior to July or that the town is only situated on a "river" in inverted commas, in much the same way that Birmingham's tourist office claims that city is situated on the "river" Rea. The bridge was adorned with pretty flowers though and in one direction there was an enticing view towards mountains, which did give it a distinct edge over Birmingham. The park was also extremely pleasant, complete as it was with a lake and ducks, and had we not been worn out after our two previous towns we would probably have lingered longer. Parma is definitely a place which I would return to, and probably one which merits an entire day of exploration to itself. So, three towns in one day? Definitely doable, but with over 11 miles walked in the blazing sun, not a challenge for the faint-hearted! We gave ourselves a stern talking to on Monday evening about the alleged relaxing properties of holidays, and resolved to focus on just one destination for Tuesday: Rimini. We were able to find some brief respite from the sun under the arches of the Palazzo della Pilotta: There was a pretty park between the Palazzo and the old town: Not entirely sure what this statue was supposed to be doing! There were some beautiful bright buildings in Parma too... ...including this lovely yellow one. When we first saw the baptistry in the distance, we had no idea what it was: But we followed it to find the cathedral square: The cathedral was very impressive up close: It had an enormous tower too: The river wasn't a lot to write home about... ...but on the far side of it we found this shady park:
  12. Tim

    Day 4: Rimini

    Tuesday was without doubt the most relaxed day of the holiday so far. We were up at 7am but didn't have to catch a train until 9.35, so enjoyed some time lazing around in the apartment before heading out to the station to catch the regional train to Rimini. There are lots of trains which run between Bologna and Rimini, but only one per hour which is regional (= slow) and therefore cheap. Having timed our arrival for this train to perfection, we were somewhat frustrated to find that it didn't arrive at its appointed time and there was no announcement as to either the reason for or the length of the delay. Other people seemed to know something we didn't, as there was a steady stream of new travellers continuing to emerge onto the already crowded platform, despite the fact that they should by rights have missed the train on the basis of arriving after its scheduled departure time. One unannounced platform change later, we finally succeeded in boarding the train, just 20 minutes later than initially hoped. When we arrived in Rimini an hour and a half later, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was no question of getting lost on a quest to find the town centre, due to the useful innovation of a tourist information centre with free maps next door to the station. The map indicated that the old town and the seaside were in opposite directions, so we decided to explore the town before lunch and head to the beach in the afternoon. Rimini turned out to be much larger than I had imagined and there was so much to see and do in the town itself that the fact that it was by the seaside turned out to be almost an irrelevance. There were beautiful buildings, an enormous town gate to the old town and a large park complete with a lake and ducklings. We managed to break our run of bad luck in the lunch department and found a lovely little restaurant where we sat outside with some lasagne and a carafe of white wine. That's what holidays should be like! Radio sitting on the ruined wall that marks the edge of town: We head off the beaten track and a lake emerged: The lake was of a fair size and we saw families of ducks going about their day, one mother duck frantically calling her wayward ducklings to her in total disregard of the fact that they were unable to swim against the current! Coming back from the lakes we walked outside the beautiful city walls ... ... until we found the north gate: Radio posing by the north gate back into the city: We soon encountered the main square ... ... which was bordered along one side by this imposing building ... ... and this statue of a fairly imposing man: A pretty clock: One of the churches: A striking yellow building: Rimini is full of menus and posters written in Russian: The coast, when we eventually made our way there, proved to be quite built up and busy. A succession of posh hotels seemed to have sectioned off bits of the beach which were presumably private and only supposed to be accessed by hotel guests. We accidentally trespassed into one of these areas at one point, but luckily no one seemed to notice or mind. The beach was wonderfully sandy though - so much so that I was shaking sand out of my shoes for days to come - and it was exciting to see the Adriatic from the opposite side for the first time. Overall the atmosphere in Rimini was lovely and it was definitely somewhere we would like to go back to. Rimini is the departure point for the bus to San Marino, so we may indeed be returning to it in a couple of days’ time. The lighthouse and ferris wheels indicate that we're on the right path: Soon we hit upon the white sand and blue sea: Even the traffic islands are colourful in Rimini! The streets have palms growing by the side: The streets are swathed in colour:
  13. Tim

    Day 8: Pescara

    One week after our arrival the Bologna leg of our holiday comes to an end as we move nearly 400 kilometres to the east on a trip to the seaside resort of Pescara. Only we nearly didn't make it. We plan our holidays in detail at home, doing the research into travel and associated costs and devising a little plan. We therefore knew that we'd be travelling to Pescara by train and that it would be a relatively expensive trip. We never pre-order tickets, preferring to turn up at the station on the day and purchase them from a machine. So it was to be with this trip to Pescara. Radio visited the awful Trenitalia website a couple of nights ago to confirm the possible departure times to Pescara whilst I worked on something else. Before long she spoke to me in a quiet, worried delivery: "Babel, I think all the train tickets to Pescara are sold out. What are we going to do?" I popped over to look at the screen and, sure enough, the website did indeed indicate that we were out of luck. It seems that the Italians had similar ideas about a weekend break at the seaside. Radio and I are like chalk and cheese when it comes to things like this. She immediately twigs that if we can't get to Pescara, then we can't get to our hotel and WE'LL DIE. I prefer to get on with things, so I said the best thing to do was for me to pop along to the station and see what I could find. I picked up my phone (all the better to confer with Radio once I got there), heaved the ridiculously heavy set of keys from the table and headed to the door ready to solve the problems. It wasn't long before Radio received a text confirming that the awful Trenitalia website wasn't lying. All of the options were coming up as sold out in first class, and sold out for seating in second class except for standing. We had no intention of standing, given that the journey times were between three and five hours and we'd have our suitcases with us. There was the option of a regional train, for which there aren't any limitations on seating but there was no way we could risk that - we'd done that on our trip to San Marino and had to stand for most of the way whilst resisting the striking urge to slap the yellow off the teeth of the world's most ignorant woman. No way we'd try that again with two suitcases to accommodate. Back and forth the texts went, Radio's stress almost palpable in spite of the long distance. And then I put her out of her misery - I'd found an option in which we could be relatively close (in the same carriage, at least) for a bit more of a price than I would usually pay. We'd just have to get up earlier than usual. And wake up bright and early we indeed did, having packed our suitcases the night before. Breakfast was of the usual poor standard at the hotel, but at least we had the novelty of a polite and helpful member of staff on duty today, after having spent the week periodically having to do without cutlery because one particular member of staff was too busy helping herself to the pastries to bother with the laborious job of placing a knife and serviette on all the tables that didn't have one. Since we didn't lose several minutes hopping from table to table trying to find knives and lugging around the world's heftiest set of keys we actually ended up at the train station well in advance and joined the horde on the platform under the blistering morning sun. Although the train tickets were more than I would normally pay (which doesn't actually mean that they're particularly expensive - especially compared to British prices - considering I'm tighter than a gnat's behind) I was perfectly satisfied with the journey, excepting the usual nonsense at the start because the hard-of-thinking seem to struggle with the concept of sitting down in the seat that is marked on their ticket, causing those of us with above-room-temperature IQs to have to stand with our luggage in the hallway whilst the mouth-breathers eventually work out that the fact they're in row 16 means they have to walk past rows 14 and 15 in that order, not the other way around. Stupidity is, alas, international and my tolerance of it lessens when I'm in 33-degree heat. The train itself, though, was great. Plenty of storage room, an abundance of leg and belly room, tables that could be kept narrow or unfolded to double their width, and a quiet engine. Splendid stuff. The sight of the Adriatic and yellow sand on one side for much of the journey and sunflowers out the other was the cherry on the cake, and we arrived in Pescara having read for three solid hours with no unruly passengers to irk us and looking forward to starting the second phase of the holiday. We had some time to kill because we had arrived earlier than anticipated at the point when Clare had arranged with the proprietor to meet us at the hotel so we left our luggage in storage and strode to the hotel. Within what seemed like five minutes we'd passed down an avenue lined with palm trees and pointing the way to a beautiful blue horizon. We've never been to exotic islands but the golden sands and blue sea and sky looked the same to me as those images conjured up about Barbados, Tahiti and all those more expensive places. Plenty of shade for people too: One of several groups of youngsters playing on the beach: A sculpture on the beach with palm trees in the background: Before too long we'd found a nice pizzeria where the wares were a lot smaller than usual and so sold for 1€ or so each, allowing a guilt-free request for multiple varieties. Lovely - we got our beer, five mini pizzas, two bottles of water and some chocolate-to-go for 13.50€, around half of what we'd had to pay for our awful first meal back in Bologna. Still having some spare time we went on a walk of the town before tracking down our hotel. Since we arrived a few minutes early (and Italians have an even more relaxed attitude to punctuality than I do) we thought we'd wait outside the main doors to catch our host's attention at the point that he arrived. Arrive he did, but with a subtle difference from what we were expecting - he came from within the building, since he'd been waiting for us to make our way up. Well, how were we supposed to know that, considering he'd not mentioned that to us?! When he said it for the umpteenth time I made a curt reply asking how we were supposed to have entered without a key? He introduced us to the intercom, explaining that it was some clever technology that they have in Italy. I'm still not sure whether he was joking, sarcastic or serious, and he made the same point on several occasions over the next twenty minutes. Mind you, as impatient as I am I quite like this fellow, who insisted on talking in English all the time, with me perodically having to interject some Italian to make sure we'd understood correctly what he was saying. And I like how he patted me on the arm in a "c'mon, big guy" sort of way when my stoical face had no-selled one of his jokes again. Nice chap - his name's Stefano. He took us on a tour of the room (using a hundred words where ten might do) and then led us back to the landing where he demonstrated how to use a water cooler (another futuristic thing in Italy?) and the coffee machine, and telling us to help ourselves free of charge. And then he said the one thing guaranteed to make me overlook the inadvertent annoyance he'd been, pointing to a fridge that was bursting with all sorts of liquid goodies, including cans of beer - 'elp yourself. What a hero. I think I love him. Here's a picture of him: Somehow we ended up stuck on the landing with him for a further ten minutes as he wanted to discuss cultural and linguistic things. I thought I'd feed him something to ponder in the form of phrasal verbs as a difficulty for learners of English and stating that quite often the sense of the finished good once the particle has added has nothing in common with the root verb and addition. He agreed, citing check in and check out, though I countered that there was at least logic with in and out. I threw him look after to play with instead and, after explaining to him what it means and using it in several example sentences, expected that to the end of the conversation. But no, my talkative new friend didn't want the conversation to come to an end so swiftly and declared that he could indeed see the logic in that. I rebutted but he reaffirmed, on the basis that you want to be able to look at your children after you return and see that they're OK. Well, it doesn't work that way but if it helps him remember it ... Determined to find an example that he couldn't possibly claim as logical I explained the meaning of put up with and before the conversation had had too much of an opportunity to split into further tangents mercifully the phone rang and Clare and I seized the opportunity to escape and collect our baggage, risking a broken neck along the way because of the surfeit of rugs covering the polished floors. See these rugs? They're everywhere. There are several on the landing and over most of the floor space in our room. We've skidded and slipped a few times. I think there could be an injury resulting if I take too much advantage of his offer to help myself from his beer fridge. You can't move in this place for rugs ... Not even in the bedroom! It's safer walking on ice ... After a short break we decided to take a proper walk in our new home town and headed out on the landing. There was Stefano, holding some more people hostage whilst he talked away! As we made our way to the lift he interrupted his conversation to say "God shave the King! But not 'God shame the King'." I really didn't know what to say to that, his clever little wordplay. Nice fella. I wonder whether he knows that he's using the subjunctive. On second thoughts, I won't ask him - who knows where the conversation might meander? Pescara itself is lovely. Unlike the other places we've visited there's little in the way of statues and glamorous buildings, not least because Pescara was bombed. But it's vibrant. There's a long beach which is filled with several volleyball courts, all of which were in use, and all of the beach-side restaurants know how to make eye-catching displays from the bright flowers that grow in this heat. People were milling about, primarily younger folk, and we even noticed orange trees - laden with fruit but too high for me to reach - that had been planted in the pedestrianised streets. One of the many spectacular flower displays outside the beach-front restaurants: One street even had orange trees planted in it ... ... which were full of ripe fruit but unfortunately high out of reach: There weren't really any conventional sites in Pescara ... ... though the tower on this one was a useful landmark for orientating ourselves: One of the few stylish buildings in Pescara: Radio and I walked around the whole time before settling on a restaurant which overlooked the beach for our evening meal, which presented a wonderful, memorable panorama featuring a bottle of wine and my customary 66cl Moretti beer for 30€. I wouldn't normally dream of spending so much but it was a beautiful scene and I'm glad I captured it with a couple of photos.
  14. As we'd decided to go to Alberobello on Friday rather than Sunday, we still had Brindisi left to visit today. Our flight back to the UK isn't until 21.45 this evening, so we had plenty of time for a day trip. We had our final breakfast in the apartment this morning, and then the lady kindly offered to let us store our bags in her apartment for the day. This was really helpful and meant we didn't have to worry about the sometimes erratic opening hours of baggage storage facilities in Italy We caught the 10.05 train from Bari Centrale, arriving in Brindisi a little over an hour later. We didn't know a lot about Brindisi, except that it was a reasonably big port on the coast to the south of Bari, and that it has an airport which Ryanair fly to (but which never seems to have truly cheap flights). As we walked out of the train station and towards the centre of town, my first impressions based on this fountain was that it looked a bit like Podgorica! A long avenue lined with palm trees led down towards the sea. It didn't take us long to reach the port area, from where there are regular ferries to Greece and Albania. As we walked along I caught sight of what looked like a Roman column poking out from between some houses. We got a bit closer and confirmed that that was indeed what it was. The column marks the end of the ancient Via Appia (Appian Way) which was an important Roman road, linking Rome and Brindisi. We strolled along the seafront for a while, admiring the views. This tall tower in the distance is a monument to the Italian sailors who died during the First World War. In the distance at the end of the harbour we could see the Castello Svevo. This was built in the thirteenth century by Emperor Frederick II. Historically it was used as a prison, and then by the Italian navy. There appeared to be some sort of warship outside it today! The sea promenade came to an end at this point, so we turned back inland. Inside the old town we found a couple of nice churches, though none as impressive as the ones we had seen in Lecce the day before. This one is Brindisi's cathedral. Originally built in the twelfth century, it was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in 1743 and subsequently had to be completely rebuilt. It was afternoon by this point and we were quite hungry, so we set off in search of somewhere to eat. Finding somewhere to eat isn't normally a problem in Italy, but Brindisi isn't a very touristy place and it seemed strangely devoid of restaurants. We walked almost all the way to the station and back and failed to find anything at all! In the end we went into a bookshop, and Tim asked the helpful man behind the counter for advice on finding places to eat. He recommended that we go back down to the seafront and sure enough when we did, we found one place which was open and serving pizza We sat with a lovely view of the sea while I had my final pizza of the holiday and Tim had a mixed grill. By the time we had finished lunch, we thought that we had probably seen the main sights of Brindisi, but we still had a bit of time to kill before we had to be back in Bari to retrieve our suitcases and catch the train back to the airport. The Italy guidebook recommended a town called Ostuni as a good place to visit from Brindisi. This was about halfway on our journey back to Bari, so we decided to break our train trip there and see what there was to see. It didn't turn out to be a very successful excursion! While Ostuni does have a railway station, unfortunately it is located what the guidebook referred to as a twenty minute walk from the actual town itself. What the guidebook failed to mention, however, is that the station is located in something akin to an industrial estate and that the road which leads from there to the town is designed for cars more than for pedestrians. We made an attempt at walking towards the town, but ultimately had to turn back. We did get close enough to get a view of Ostuni from afar though, and it does look rather beautiful perched up on a big hill. I think it would have been quite hard work (and more than 20 minutes!) to climb all the way up to the top of it though. Having admitted defeat, we caught the train back to Bari, collected our suitcases and caught the train to the airport, where there turned out to be surprisingly good Wi-Fi, so I've been able to do a final blog We've had a really great week in Italy and seen some amazing places. The weather this far south has been absolutely perfect for October; still hot enough to walk around in shorts and t-shirts, but not so hot that we really needed to make use of air-conditioning. I can't decide whether my favourites place was Pompeii, Procida or Alberobello; all were wonderful and unique in their own ways, and I think at some point we will definitely be visiting the south of Italy again
  15. After surviving another visit from the apartment lady with our breakfast this morning, we were off to visit the city of Lecce. Lecce is located about 150km to the south of Bari, in the "heel" of Italy, and should not be confused with the town of Lecco, which we visited at the end of August. I keep getting mixed up with the names, however, including when I was trying to look up the train times between Bari and Lecce, accidentally looking up the train times between Bari and Lecco instead, and almost concluding that we couldn't do it as a day trip after all, because it was going to take six hours and cost €100 Catching the train to Lecce turned out to be more straightforward than getting the train to Alberobello yesterday, as the Lecce trains are part of the normal Italian train network run by Trenitalia. The tickets cost €10.50, which wasn't bad considering the distance involved, and the journey took roughly the same amount of time as Alberobello. We got the train from Bari at 10.05 and arrived in Lecce just before midday. We'd heard Lecce described as "the Florence of southern Italy" so I was expecting great things. The area around the train station wasn't terribly scenic, but soon we found a gate into the historic old town. Things improved from there, as we found the first of many beautiful churches This sort of Baroque architecture is what Lecce is famous for. What I didn't know is that Lecce also has some Roman remains. This is Lecce's Roman amphitheatre. It was built in the second century AD and apparently could seat 25,000 people. Only part of the amphitheatre is visible today, as other monuments were built on top of it in subsequent centuries. The amphitheatre is now situated in a large square, where there is a large column erected to Lecce's patron saint, St Oronzo. This was donated to Lecce by the citizens of Brindisi, because St Oronzo apparently cured a plague in Brindisi. Following one of the roads off the square took us towards this church, which is dedicated to St Irene. St Irene was the patron saint of Lecce until 1656, at which point she was replaced by St Oronzo due to his plague-curing success. Around the corner from St Irene's church, we got our first glimpse of Lecce's cathedral. A cathedral was first built in Lecce in 1144, undergoing significant rebuilding in 1659. The northern facade features a statue of St Oronzo. It's an enormous cathedral, and very pretty We walked a bit further from the cathedral and found ourselves leaving the old town via another impressive gate. We walked back in again, past another impressive church, on the search for a place to have lunch. Eventually we found a little restaurant where we had pizza, wine, a large bottle of water and a side order of chips for Tim, all for this price After lunch, we couldn't resist going back to admire the cathedral once again. Then we went to look for a site which sounded quite impressive on the map: the castle of Charles V. When we found it, however, it didn't quite live up to expectations! We needed to catch the 16.00 train back from Lecce towards Bari, because we had a second place we wanted to visit today: Polignano a Mare. Polignano is a small town, about half an hour from Bari by train, and we had never heard of it at all, until the lady who owns our apartment mentioned it on Friday. Or, to be more precise, she told us in no uncertain terms that we must go there, and then when bringing our breakfast this morning, demanded to know whether we had been yet! Our guidebook was strangely silent on what its charms might be, but as far as we could work out it was going to be a good place from which to take photos of the sea. It took around an hour and a half to get from Lecce to Polignano, so it was early evening by the time we arrived. First impressions were that the town looked fairly ordinary, although there was a nice gate into the old town... ...and a pleasant square in the centre of the town. We followed a series of little streets towards the sea. Eventually we got to a viewpoint from where we could see the cliffs on the edge of the town. The weather didn't seem as warm here as it had been in Lecce, and it was quite windy! The view in the opposite direction was amazing too, and showed how close the town is built to the sea. Because it was so windy, the waves were really beating against the cliffs. We walked around the town for a while and found a couple of other viewpoints from where we could admire the sea. Polignano is definitely in a spectacular location. In places it looks like the sea has eroded the rock so far that it would be quite a brave decision to live in one of these houses! The sea was particularly fierce here. The light was starting to fade by this point, so we made our way back to the train station to catch the train to Bari. Polignano was definitely worth seeing and at least when we get our breakfast tomorrow we will be able to confirm that we've been there
  16. My original plan for today had been to visit Brindisi, a coastal town further south than Bari. On Sunday before we travel home, I was then hoping that we could squeeze in a visit to an interesting little place I had read about: Alberobello. When I started doing the holiday research, however, it seemed like travelling to Alberobello on a Sunday was going to be a complete nightmare, with no trains running and buses being few and far between. So we decided to change things around and go to Alberobello today instead The day got off to a slightly stressful start as we needed to make sure we were up and dressed for the time our breakfast was due to be delivered. This was supposed to be at 08.30 and we were ready on time, but nothing happened. We waited, and eventually at 08.45 the owner of the apartment turned up with a big tray of croissants, cereal and yoghurt. She also gave Tim a tirade of advice in Italian about all the places we should visit, followed by unclear instructions about what we should do with the tray once we'd finished eating, before vanishing. On the whole I think it might just have been simpler if we could have bought our own breakfast! But the croissants were delicious and full of Nutella The trains to Alberobello aren't terribly frequent even when they are running and so we were aiming for a train at 10.45. We left the apartment with plenty of time to spare to walk to the main train station, which is only 1.5km away, but still nearly ended up missing the train. First of all we struggled to walk down the last portion of the road in front of the station, because there was a loud and noisy student protest taking place. We couldn't work out what was going on, but later read on the news that they were on strike over unpaid work experience. When we finally got to the station, we became utterly confused by the sheer chaos of the rail network in Bari. Within the one station of Bari Centrale there are separate entrances and ticket offices for trains run by Trenitalia, Ferrovie del Sud Est, Ferrotramviaria and Ferrovie Appulo Lucane. All of these are separate companies with their own ticket machines, timetables and departure boards. So if you go through the Trenitalia door of the station, which we initially did by mistake, you can only see the departures and buy tickets for the Trenitalia trains. We were trying to find the ticket office for the Ferrovie del Sud Est, which turned out to be located on its own special platform somewhere in the middle of the station. We found it in the end and managed to buy tickets, but it was touch and go for a while Alberobello is located a mere 55km to the south of Bari, but the train journey took the best part of two hours. It was a very slow train in the first place, so the journey was timetabled to be about 90 minutes anyway, but sometimes it just seemed to arrive at stations and sit there for no clear reason for a very long time. After an hour or so had gone by I began to get a bit nervous about finding the right stop to get off at, because there were no audio announcements, the electronic display board was broken and the railway stations in this part of Italy often seem to only have one sign announcing their name, and not necessarily in a place where you're going to see it before it's too late. It turned out I needn't have worried though, because when we did eventually arrive a train conductor walked down the train shouting "Alberobello" for the benefit of the tourists And I can't complain too much because the journey was very cheap; €4.80 each per direction. Once in Alberobello we followed signs for the historical centre, realising too late that these were actually traffic signs intended for cars and therefore that we were taking an unnecessarily roundabout route to where we wanted to go. Never mind! On the horizon we soon got a glimpse of the things we had come to see. These are the famous trulli of Alberobello. Trulli are little dry stone huts with conical roofs and they are a phenomenon confined this particular bit of Italy. No one is quite sure why they were first built, but the most popular theory is that they were a way of avoiding property taxes. Because trulli were built without mortar, they could quickly be dismantled if people heard that a tax inspector was in the area. Whatever the reason, hundreds and hundreds of them were built in Alberobello. Today some of them are used as shops... ...some of them are barns... ...and some of them are restaurants. As we wandered around the streets we were amazed by just how many trulli there are. Some of them have mysterious symbols painted on the roofs. And on the edge of the town we found the most unusual building of all; a church with a trulli-shaped roof! We were hungry by this point, so we walked around the town looking for restaurants. Eventually we found a trullo that had lasagne on the menu Inside it was surprisingly spacious! After lunch, we explored some of the more modern part of Alberobello, where there aren't so many trulli. The modern town is quite interesting too, and has a very pretty church. Behind the church there were more streets of trulli. These roads were less touristy and it seemed like people were still living in the trulli. All too soon it was time for us to head back to the station to catch the very slow train back to Bari. Alberobello is definitely one of the most unusual places we've visited, but it was a lot of fun
  17. Today it was time for us to leave Naples behind and travel from one coast of Italy to the other. We had quite an early start by holiday standards, with our first train leaving Naples at 09.07. As this was quite a long journey, I had booked the tickets online in advance to make sure that we got seats on the train. That also took some of the stress out of the morning and meant that we could concentrate on just getting to Napoli Centrale on time, without having to worry about finding the ticket office. There don't seem to be any direct trains between Naples and Bari, so our first train was a regional train to a town called Caserta. We were due to arrive in Caserta at 09.55 with our connection to Bari departing at 10.11, so it theory there was more than enough time to change trains. I panicked slightly when the regional train was delayed by five minutes or so, but luckily Caserta station turned out to be pretty small and we were still able to get from one platform to the other with time to spare. The train from Caserta to Bari was an Intercity train, which meant that it was a bit more comfortable than the regional trains It didn't seem like a very popular route, so the train was also quite quiet and peaceful. Both these things were good, because we had a journey of nearly four hours before we would arrive in Bari Centrale at 14.00. It was an interesting journey, which took us first of all through some quite hilly landscapes, then became noticeably flatter as we got closer to Bari. For much of the journey the countryside looked incredibly dry and dusty, and towns of any significance seemed few and far between. We arrived in Bari pretty much on time and set off to find our apartment. I'd recently had an email from booking.com asking what time we were arriving, and had selected "14.00 - 15.00" as the relevant option in the drop-down menu. The apartment was only 1.5km from the station on the map, so I thought we would be there by around 14.30. Unfortunately, Bari station is quite confusing. We followed the only signs we could see towards an exit and came out of the station onto a main road. As so often in Italy, there were no street signs so it was difficult to verify whether this was the correct road, but we assumed it was the main road marked on our map as the one we needed to walk down. We followed it for a while, then turned right after approximately the amount of time the map suggested, but when we were able to find roads with street signs on, none of them tallied up to the road names which were on the map. It was complicated a bit by the fact that Google maps seem to be so difficult to print these days, and so not all the roads which were on the map had names. But in the end we had to admit that it seemed quite strange not to have found a single marked street. Perhaps we had come out the wrong side of the station. We retraced our steps and it turned out that we had done just that! There was another exit from the station - which didn't appear to be signposted at all - and this took us out onto another main road. This time, some of the street signs did match up with the names on our map. Phew! We finally arrived outside the apartment just before 3. Or, to be more precise, we arrived at the correct building number on the correct street, but there was no indication as to whether there was a holiday apartment inside. I hadn't been given any instructions about checking in when I had booked, so in the end Tim had to try calling the phone number on the reservation. He got through to a lady who seemed to be surprised that we had arrived, which I found surprising given that I'd been asked to submit our arrival time. We assumed that now she knew that we were standing outside the building, she was going to come and let us in, so we stood and waited. We waited and waited and waited and waited but no one came. After half an hour had elapsed, Tim called the number again and got through to the same lady, who seemed surprised that we were still standing outside the apartment. A few minutes later, the door we were standing next to buzzed and clicked open; no one spoke over the intercom, but we assumed it had been opened for us and went inside. We found ourselves in a large hallway, but we still had no way of knowing which floor we needed to go to or which room number we were looking for. Tim therefore had to call the lady for a third time and this time she gave him directions. It turned out we needed to go to the third floor. We started climbing the stairs and were met by a little old lady who motioned us into an apartment. She didn't speak English but it hardly seemed to matter, because she didn't have much to say at all. There was certainly no apology or explanation for the amount of time we'd had to wait. Instead she pushed a piece of paper at us for us to tick which items we wanted for breakfast (it was news to me that we were getting breakfast!) and carried on with whatever she'd been doing before we arrived as if we weren't there. Periodically she disappeared, returning with random items. At one point she went to get flannels. Another time she returned with a couple of pairs of slippers for us to wear in the house. Tim found that his were a little small! Eventually she left, but not before impressing on us the importance of not moving our suitcases from the suitcase stands she'd told us to put them on. Under no circumstances were we to move them to the other side of the room. It seemed an odd rule! The apartment itself is very nice though, with a spacious bedroom and living area... ...as well as a modern kitchen and a nice table to eat at. You can just about see in the picture below that the dining table is covered in some sort of plastic sheeting so that we don't get it dirty We felt like we'd wasted quite a lot of time checking in by this point, so we were keen to get out and explore Bari. I was particularly keen to see what it was like because it has quite a negative reputation for being dangerous and crime-ridden. Our Italy guidebook, for example, describes the old town as being a den of thieves, populated by gangs of youngsters stealing handbags on mopeds. However, our Italy guidebook is over 10 years out of date, and we had just spent five nights in Naples, which the guidebook describes as being the most dangerous and crime-ridden city of all. The biggest hazards we personally experienced in Naples were crossing the road and attempting not to tread in dog mess. Our first impressions of Bari were that it seemed like a very calm, quiet and clean town in comparison We walked through some of the newer parts of town first of all until we got down to the sea. It was nice to see the Adriatic again, although this part of it seems to smell a bit of seaweed! Once we'd admired the sea for a while, we turned around and walked into the old town. In the first square we entered there were ruins of something, but after Pompeii they didn't seem terribly impressive. The old town looked pretty, though the buildings admittedly weren't quite as colourful as on Procida yesterday. The old town was apparently built in such a way as to deliberately be like a confusing maze, to hinder any potential invaders. As we walked deeper into it, it definitely did feel like it would be a place where it would be easy to get lost. And that some of these narrow streets might be quite threatening in the dark. During the daylight it felt completely safe though, and there were certainly no gangs of thieves on mopeds. Instead, there were lots of impressive churches... ...and some beautiful paintings on walls too. After wandering around for a while, we found the cathedral. There has been a bishop in Bari since the fourth century, though the current cathedral is more modern than that; first built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and significantly refurbished in the eighteenth century. From the cathedral we walked slightly outside the old town and found the Castello Svevo. This castle was first built by a Norman king in 1132 which is rather surprising. From outside the castle we could see back towards the old town and the cathedral. Rather than going back inside the old town, we decide to stroll around the edge of it on the city walls. The city walls are a really pleasant walkway. From here you can see out to sea... ...and down into the old town as well. We came down from the walls by the Basilica di San Nicola. This is the most famous church in Bari, being home to the relics of St Nicholas. By this point it was around 5pm and, while we'd enjoyed exploring Bari, we were now seriously hungry. We hadn't had any lunch due to being on the train, and by the time we'd finally succeeded in checking into the apartment we had well and truly missed the Italian lunchtime. The problem was that we were also far too early for the Italian dinnertime! We did another lap of the town but the only places that were open were of the cafe or kebab shop variety; all the restaurants were well and truly closed. This didn't seem to be an insurmountable problem, however, because this was precisely the sort of reason why we had rented an apartment rather than a hotel room. We'd already located the nearest supermarket to where we were staying, so we decided to head there and stock up on some pasta for our evening meal. We bought some pasta and mince for a bolognese and in no time at all were back at our apartment.... whereupon we realised that there were no pots and pans in the kitchen! This is really, really weird, because it's quite a big kitchen. It even has a dishwasher, although what they are expecting us to wash in it I'm not sure. There are rows of cupboards but, when we opened them, the majority of them were empty. All we could find were a couple of plates, mugs, glasses and cutlery. There was a hob and even an oven, but no implements for cooking whatsoever. Tim wasn't terribly impressed by this state of affairs and decided to call the owner again A few minutes later, the old lady appeared at our door to lend us a pot and give Tim some advice on keeping the kitchen clean. She then reappeared a few minutes later to lend us a tea towel as well. Problem solved for now, but I think we'll be eating out for the remaining nights we're staying here
  18. Our plan for today was to visit the island of Procida. When I was originally planning the holiday a few months ago, my initial intention had been to visit the bigger and more famous island of Capri. There are plenty of ferries between Naples and Capri every day, but the prices seemed prohibitively expensive for a day trip. I then looked at the island of Ischia, which looks quite spectacular and is slightly cheaper to get to. While googling things to do on Ischia, however, I realised that the island had suffered an earthquake in August 2017, and there didn't seem to be much information online about how much damage had been done. We've already had some experience of how long it can take to repair earthquake damage in Italy when we visited L'Aquila in 2013, so I thought it might be prudent to give Ischia a miss. While I was reading up on it though I realised that there was a third island I'd never heard of - Procida - which was located off the coast of Ischia. The guidebook said that Procida was less touristy than the other islands, which sounded good. We decided to give it a go Boats to Procida can be expensive if you travel on one of the fast hydrofoils, but by searching online I managed to find cheaper tickets for a slower ferry run by the regional state ferry company Caremar. I thought I'd been clever by booking the tickets online in advance, but actually it turned out that when you buy a ticket online, what you get sent is a document with a bar code that you need to exchange for an actual ticket at a ticket office in the port. Our first challenge this morning was to locate the relevant ticket office in the correct bit of the port. We left the apartment with plenty of time to spare and began to make our way through the streets of Naples in the direction of the sea. Once we got to the Castel Nuovo, we knew that we were in the right bit of town. The situation with ports in Naples is a bit confusing. There is a main port called Molo Beverello and this is where the fast, passenger-only boats depart from. It's large, well-signposted and easy to find. Unfortunately, that wasn't where our ferry was departing from. We were due to leave from Porto di Massa, which I'd seen described online as being a few hundred metres from Beverello. Bizarrely, there are absolutely no signs or directions of any sort to this port. We walked around the general port area in complete confusion for a while, trying to avoid being run over or captured by Italian taxi drivers who wanted to drive everyone to Pompeii. I was hoping we might see some sort of sign for the Caremar ferry company and least, but we didn't. In the end we had to admit defeat, and Tim went to ask a policeman for directions. Luckily the policeman was very friendly and indicated that we should walk a few hundred metres to the right. We negotiated a path through a car park and found ourselves in something resembling a small industrial estate. This was possibly Porto di Massa, but we still couldn't see any signs for Caremar. There were ticket offices for other ferry companies though, so Tim went into one of these to ask for further directions, which seemed to imply that we just needed to keep walking to the right. We continued walking, but five minutes later, there was still no sign of the place we were looking for. Tim had to approach a second policeman (luckily Naples is full of police!) and eventually his directions led us to the furthest corner of the port, where we located the ticket office for Caremar. Phew! We exchanged our online booking coupon for a proper ticket and then we were able to walk straight onto the ferry. The ferry felt like it had seem slightly better days, with rather dirty windows that it wasn't possible to take photos out of. The journey from Naples to Procida is only an hour though, so it wasn't long before we were stepping out onto the island. One of the things I had read about Procida is that it's an incredibly colourful island, and on first impressions that definitely seemed to be true. We walked along the seafront for a while... ...towards the first of many beautiful bright yellow churches which we were going to see during the course of the day. Then we turned up one of the little side streets into the centre of the town. Some of the streets on Procida are very narrow. They aren't pedestrianised either, so cars and mopeds come whizzing past you at speed. We walked uphill for a while and caught sight of our second yellow church at the end of this road. This one was really lovely. At the side of the church was a viewpoint from where we could see out across some of the rest of the island. Looking in the other direction, we could see up the hill of Terra Murata. The fortified building on the hill used to be a prison. As we climbed higher up the hill, the views got even better. Soon we could see the whole of the island's main town, with all its brightly coloured buildings. These are what the photos of Procida had looked like when I'd googled it, so I wasn't disappointed The guidebook said that the island was only four square kilometres. Now that we were standing here we could see that we had already accidentally walked across from one side of it to another; our ferry had arrived in the bit of sea on the far side of this photo. The island is longer than it is wide though, so we could see that there was still quite a bit of it left to explore. We continued up the hill until we reached the highest point on the island. There was a yellow church here too, although this one could have done with a lick of paint. Then we set off back down the hill to find somewhere to have lunch. Our route led past some more multicoloured buildings... ...through narrow streets... ...and eventually down to the harbour that we'd seen when up on the hill. From down here it looked even more amazing than from above. There were plenty of restaurants down by the harbour but the problem was that - being on an island - most of them were specialising in fish Luckily we did succeed in finding a place that served pizza as well... ...and when the pizzas came they were enormous! After lunch we decided to walk to the other side of the island. There were yellow churches here too! The streets were still very narrow and the locals had narrow cars and vans to navigate them After 45 minutes or so we reached the sea again. There was another small village on this side of the island... ...complete with yellow church! There was also another small harbour... ...which we strolled around for a while... ...before heading back to the main part of the island. We had enough time left for a final drink at the beautiful harbour... ...before it was time to catch the ferry back to Naples once more. Tomorrow we will be leaving the western coast of Italy behind and travelling east, to Bari. It's going to have to be pretty spectacular there to beat the past couple of days at Pompeii and Procida
  19. Our destination for today was the famous ruined city of Pompeii. Pompeii, which is situated about 30km south of Naples, is easy to visit for a day trip as one of the main entrances to the site is located next to the station of Pompei Scavi on the Circumvesuviana train line. When we got to the station in Naples this morning, we therefore caught one of the same trains as yesterday in the direction of Sorrento, with the tickets being even cheaper this time (a mere €2.80!) because we weren't going quite as far. The train journey to Pompei Scavi is supposed to take around 35 minutes, though our train took slightly longer because it was temporarily delayed by a passenger being taken ill. As soon as you step off the train at Pompei Scavi you are confronted by a bunch of stalls with people trying to sell tours and tickets. From reading the guidebook in advance, I knew that these were all 'unofficial' and that the actual entrance tickets are only on sale at the ticket office inside the main gate. It costs €13 for a normal entrance ticket; the touts outside seemed to be charging €15 for whatever they were selling. Having successfully avoided being ripped off, we walked through the gate and joined the ticket queue. I'd read that queues at Pompeii could be quite long, but actually we only had to wait for five minutes or so before we got to a ticket counter. We had no problem purchasing tickets but we obviously failed somewhere because we realised somewhat belatedly that every other tourist in Pompeii except from us had also acquired a helpful free map! Initially I didn't think not having a map would be too much of a problem, but it turned out I had no concept of quite how enormous Pompeii is. As soon as we'd finished buying the tickets, we turned around and got our first view of the ruins. After passing through the ticket control, the route into the site leads up this rather steep path. Soon we were inside and exploring the first of many ruined houses.... ...and admiring our first mosaics. Pompeii is in a really beautiful location. Our attention was soon caught by this striking statue, which is situated in what was the Temple of Venus, built on a panoramic viewpoint at the edge of the town. Around the corner from here is Pompeii's visitor centre, which featured a bookshop, some pottery exhibits and an audiovisual display.... but no leaflets or maps! We watched the audiovisual display though and it was full of informative details about life in Pompeii, which was originally founded in the sixth or seventh century BC, becoming part of the Roman Empire from the fourth century BC onwards. It was in 79AD that Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius. The volcano constantly appears on the horizon as you walk around the town (and the cloudy weather today made it look quite menacing!) In the absence of a map, we decided to try and follow the (rather sparse!) signposts towards the main sites which had been mentioned in the audiovisual display. Our first stop was the basilica. This was one of the most important public buildings in Pompeii, because it was home to the courthouse. At the far end of the basilica you can walk down into another of the most important areas; the forum. The forum was huge.... ...and parts of it are still amazingly well-preserved. At the far end are the remains of the Temple of Jupiter. The forum seemed to be the prime location for tour groups to congregate, so after a while we decided to strike out onto a quieter side street on our own. We had no idea where we were going, but with views like this it didn't really seem to matter It didn't take long until we had lost most of the other tourists, and as we walked along we were able to get fascinating glimpses inside the ruined houses. What we would perhaps have realised more quickly if we'd had a map was that some of the small side streets are dead ends; either because the town comes to an end or because certain sites are closed of for restoration or further excavation. So after a while we had to turn around and retrace our steps. Next time we chose a slightly wider street. Some of the grander houses were located on this street. We explored the garden of this one, which is known as the House of the Faun. It got its name from this statue of a dancing faun, which is in its grounds. More impressive than the faun though are the mosaics. Especially this one, which depicts Alexander the Great in battle. Once we'd finished exploring the House of the Faun, we set off down another side road. We were trying to find Pompeii's amphitheatre, which we knew was somewhere on the far side of the town. We passed lots of interesting buildings on the way... ...and concluded that Romans must all have been quite narrow if they were able to fit through archways like this. In places we could see the remnants of some sort of signs or graffiti on the walls, which was quite exciting. We walked for what felt like miles and found no trace of the amphitheatre, but we did find the house of Octavius Quartio. This house was really fascinating because you could see the remains of the painted walls. Some of them were really bright and colourful... ...while others seemed to depict elaborate battle scenes. The house had an impressive garden too. We emerged back onto one of the main streets and continued walking. Eventually we caught sight of the amphitheatre on the horizon It was made of a very dark sort of stone, but it was impressively big... ...especially once you were inside. We walked around the edge of the amphitheatre... ...and found the Palestra. This is the athletics field where the men of Pompeii would have come to keep fit. It is surrounded by some impressive porticoes. We were near the edge of the town now and we could see the more modern town of Pompei in the distance. We'd been walking around Pompeii for around four hours now (it really is enormous!) and so we were pretty tired and hungry. But before we left there was one more must-see sight that I wanted to try and find, so we set off through the streets once again. I was looking for a building known as the House of the Tragic Poet. Who he was and why he was tragic I'm not sure, but the house is home to one of the most famous mosaics in Pompeii. We knew it was somewhere to the north of the forum, so we retraced our steps to there. Eventually we found the right house, and this is the mosaic. The text says "Cave canem" which is Latin for "Beware of the dog" I would certainly want to beware of a dog that looks as scary as this one! By this point we had seen all the things I definitely wanted to see, though probably still only a fraction of everything there is to see at Pompeii. I would definitely come back (although next time with a picnic and a map!) to explore more
  20. We had quite a late night yesterday by the time we'd been driven around Naples, eaten one of the biggest ice-creams I've ever had in my life, and spent time admiring the view of the city at night. It was a fascinating experience to see Naples like a local; the ice-cream parlour at 9pm on a Sunday night was as busy as a pub would have been in England on a Friday night, and once you'd bought an ice-cream the thing to do seemed to be to walk along the pier and browse the many stalls selling knock-off sunglasses and jewellery. Some of the driving was breathtaking though, as was the way the locals seem to have no concerns about stepping straight out into a stream of oncoming traffic whenever and wherever they feel like crossing the road, and just assuming that the vehicles will either stop or swerve to avoid them It was all quite tiring though so we had another slow start to the morning, but it worked out quite well because our plan for today was to visit Sorrento, and as the trains between Naples and Sorrento are pretty frequent, it didn't really matter what time we got to the station. Sorrento is situated about 50km south of Naples and is the final stop on the Circumvesuviana railway, a local train line which runs along the coast. The tickets were amazingly cheap (€3.90 each), though the trains themselves seem like they have seen better days. The journey from Naples to Sorrento took us about an hour and ten minutes, mainly because it stopped at a small local station every other minute. There are occasionally faster trains, which stop at fewer places and make the journey in around 40 minutes. It looked like it had been raining overnight in Naples, but when we stepped off the train in Sorrento there was a beautiful blue sky. I knew Sorrento was supposed to be beautiful but what I didn't know until today was that it is built above a huge gorge. Apparently it was formed during a huge volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, which created deep crevices in the rock. It looked like there was a beautiful view of the sea at the end of it anyway, so we followed a series of staircases down the side of the rock to the road below and began to walk towards the sea. When we got to the end of the road we found the first of several statues of the town's patron saint, Sant' Antonino Abbate. We'd climbed quite a long way down from the main town! We were right by the sea now, though we soon realised that it wouldn't be possible to walk along the coast because it's so incredibly rocky! There was a pier stretching out into the sea though, so we decided to walk along that to enjoy the views. We could see along the coast... ...out to sea... ...and back towards Sorrento. And yes, the view out to sea was marred by yet another cruise ship! Although this one didn't seem quite as large as the one that was in Naples yesterday. The logo on the side said it was a 'Regent' ship, which isn't a brand we've come across on our travels before. Cruise ship aside, the views of the coast were spectacular.... ..and Sorrento itself looked amazing, perched on the top of the cliffs. Sorrento also looked a long way up though and we weren't sure that we fancied the climb! Luckily there is a lift, which for €1 will take you from Sorrento's makeshift beach back up to the top of the cliffs. In a matter of seconds we were up at the top and able to look down on the beach from above. Sorrento may be the only place that makes those very rocky beaches in Croatia and Montenegro look like an attractive place to sunbathe Now that we were back up high we were able to explore some more of the town. There were some pretty churches.... ...and colourful buildings... ...some of which were built right up close to the rocks. These large cliffs seemed to signal the end of the town, so we turned around and strolled back in the opposite direction. The views were great this way too. The colourful church was Chiesa dei Servi di Maria. When we turned off the main street onto the narrower streets of the old town, we realised that it had a beautiful clock on one side of its tower. We wandered around the old town for a while looking for somewhere to eat. Sorrento is definitely a touristy place and there seemed to be more souvenir shops than restaurants. Every other shop seemed to be selling limoncello, a lemon liqueur which is made around here. Eventually we found a place which wasn't too expensive and had a promising pasta menu We both opted for bolognese, but rather than spaghetti bolognese we chose something called scialatelli bolognese. I'd never heard of scialatelli before, but the menu said that it was fresh, homemade pasta, which sounded good. When it came it turned out to be thicker and flatter than spaghetti; a bit like tagliatelle would be if it was chopped up into small pieces. It was delicious, and actually loads easier to eat than spaghetti The food was so good that we decided to have a pudding as well. I had a tiramisu and Tim had the desert of the day, which seemed to be like a lemon-flavoured trifle. The sky had become a bit darker while we were eating and for a few minutes we thought it was going to rain, but fortunately it stayed dry and was just a bit cloudy as we explored the rest of the town. This was the Piazza Tasso, the main square in the centre of the town which is named after the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, who was born here. As we walked through the square, my attention was caught by some greenery to our right. This turned out to be the other side of the gorge that we'd climbed down into earlier in the day. There was an incredibly steep drop down. I definitely had vertigo when peering over the railings! The abandoned building at the bottom of the gorge used to be a mill. Apparently the creation of Piazza Tasso in the nineteenth century caused the mill's water supply to dry up and so it fell into a state of disrepair. Soon it time to walk back towards the station for our train to Naples. The journey back was uneventful and we were just relaxing in our apartment when we heard a tremendous commotion of horns and sirens outside the window. We went out onto the balcony and were greeted by a scene of complete travel chaos! The white van with the red stripe was an ambulance, which was trying and failing to make any progress down the busy street. Rush hour in Naples would not be a good time to get taken ill!
  21. When we arrived yesterday we were greeted by the world's friendliest man, the apartment owner, whose name is Ciro. He even asked us whether he had our permission to bring us a bottle of wine the next day, in case we drank all of the one he'd already given us! He also asked us whether we'd mind if he picked us up to see Naples by night. Well, how can you say no to such a friendly man and such a generous offer? So we'd agreed that he'd come by at 8pm, phoning first to confirm he was on his way. Quite naturally I assumed he'd be late, what with being Italian. Absolutely not; prior to 8 came the phone call saying he'd be there in 5 minutes. 2 minutes later came another phone call at the same time as a knock on the door; he'd sent his friend Nunzio up to bring us our bottle! Down we went to find Ciro waiting in the street and the engine running. It was already totally dark and we didn't have a clue where he was going to take us. We must have seemed quite the strange pair, putting our seatbelts on; it seems that this isn't the done thing. The driving is horrendous; there don't seem to be any rules at all. People just cut each other up and beep their horns continuously. After a while Ciro said he'd like to treat us and asked whether we'd prefer an ice cream, a dessert or a meal. I didn't want to take advantage and figured that an ice cream would be cheapest, so he pulled over and walked in the direction of the marina, whereupon we had to pick three of 20 or so flavours. The Italians are masters of ice cream. What was particularly generous is that neither of our hosts ordered one for themselves! Once we were done, we walked in the direction of the marina: Ciro then suggested, quite correctly as it happens, that I might like a beer, so he bought me one. Again, neither he nor Nunzio had one. We walked down some kind of peer: It gave us a very pleasant view of where we'd walked earlier from having parked the car: And that's everything, right? No; they wanted to drive us higher for a better viewpoint. It didn't disappoint: We enjoyed being up there but felt it was soon time to go. By the time we'd been dropped off, we'd been out for over three hours, which means that Ciro had given up even more time than that to take us out. And he's got work tomorrow! Lovely man
  22. I didn't wake up very early this morning, still pretty tired after the early start yesterday, so it was around 10am before we set out to explore Naples. Because our apartment is in such a good location, we weren't too far away from the centro storico (old town). In fact we didn't have to go far at all to get our first glimpses of some of the many churches which line the streets of Naples. The biggest landmark in the old town is the Duomo, so we headed there first. The cathedral is known as the Cattedrale di San Gennaro after the city's patron saint. It's a really beautiful building Once we had passed the cathedral, we went deeper into the old town, on increasingly narrow streets. If you thought these streets were so small they must be pedestrianised, you'd be wrong! Everywhere we went we kept having to dodge out of the way as mopeds and little Smart cars whizzed past us. After a while we emerged into a square, which was home to the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. It was a really pretty location, but I was surprised at how busy it was. It was difficult to take photos because the main street running past the church was overrun with large groups of tourists on walking tours. The side streets were quieter - if you could avoid the mopeds! It felt like you could wander around the old town for hours and never find your way out. It also felt like it wouldn't necessarily be a good place to get lost at night! There were some beautiful old buildings though. And so many churches! Eventually we emerged into a wider, leafy square. We were now in the more modern part of town. We passed through the Port'Alba, one of the old city gates into Naples. We were then in Piazza Dante. The square is dominated by a large statue of Dante. From here we walked onto Via Toledo, a long shopping street which leads down towards the sea. There were lots of beautiful churches here too... I have no idea what this building was, but we loved the view through the archway. Once we'd been walking for a while, we caught sight of a castle on the horizon. This is Castel Nuovo... and this isn't a great photo of it because of the enormous crane... but if you look to the left you'll see the reason why the centre of Naples felt so busy this morning; an enormous cruise ship sitting in the port! As we walked towards the castle, our attention was caught by this very striking yellow building. Believe it or not, this is actually a shopping mall! A little bit more scenic than the Bullring in Birmingham We had to cross a very busy road, but eventually we managed to get a photo of the castle which wasn't obscured by a building site. Although this is called Castel Nuovo, it was actually first built in 1266! A few minutes after passing the castle, we reached the sea From here we went through a park... ...and then climbed up a bit of a hill along a road which gave us some amazing views out to sea. I was particularly excited when I got my first proper view of Vesuvius It's really huge! We also had a view out to sea, towards some of the islands in the bay. My geography of the area isn't good enough yet though to know which island we were looking at. We continued to follow the road around the coast. We were walking towards another castle- Castel dell'Ovo - which is situated on a little peninsula. This castle, which is the oldest fortification in Naples, is free to walk around and explore As we made our way across the walkway to the castle there were some more wonderful views of the bay. Then we began climbing up inside the castle. Soon the views were even better And when we got up to the highest viewing platform, the views were really superb. It looked like we could see for miles around the coast... ...and also back towards the centre of Naples, with yet another castle perched on the top of the hill. It was after midday by this point so we decided to try one of the restaurants near the bottom of the castle for lunch. We were in a touristy area this time so the prices were more expensive than yesterday, but I had another amazing pizza so it seemed worth it After lunch we walked back inland and ended up in Piazza del Plebiscito, which is one of the biggest squares in Naples. The square is home to the church of San Francesco di Paola, which is quite an unusual shape. From here we also had a good view of the Castel Sant'Elmo on the top of the hill. That was where we were heading next. There are several funiculars which run from the centre of Naples up the hill towards the castle and they're part of the normal public transport network. We found the nearest station not far from the square and were lucky enough to arrive a few minutes before the next funicular was due to depart. We were soon at the top of the hill, walking through what felt like a slightly quieter and calmer bit of Naples, in search of the castle. Up close, it turned out not to be a very exciting castle. It was worth coming up the hill for the views of Naples, though. From up here it was obvious quite how big the city is. We decided to walk down the hill, following a series of staircases and steep little streets. Before too long we were back at ground level... ...and walking back towards our apartment, via a route which enabled us to admire some more of Naples' churches. We wanted to go back to the apartment for a bit of a rest before another excursion this evening; the owner of the apartment had promised to come and pick us up at 20.30 to show us some of the city at night...
  23. When I was booking off my holidays from work this year, it turned out that it was going to be quite convenient to take a week off in October. We don't often go on holiday in October though, so we spent some time deliberating what would be a good destination. The one time we have been away this late in the autumn before was in 2014 when we went to Sardinia; the weather there was still beautiful in early October, so that got us thinking about southern Italy. Although we've had quite a few holidays to Italy in the past, the furthest south we've been was a slightly unsuccessful trip to Campobasso in 2013. That still left us quite a lot of Italy to explore and so when Tim found some reasonably priced flights to Naples it seemed like a perfect solution for an October break The reason that the flight out was so reasonably priced may have been related to the fact that it was departing Stansted at the rather early hour of 7am. At some point after booking, I then received one of those rather scary emails from Ryanair telling me that the flight times had changed and I either had the option to accept the revised time or kiss goodbye to my money and my holiday. The change turned out to be making an early flight even earlier, bringing the departure time forward to 06.35. I wasn't exactly thrilled about that at the time, but given the way Ryanair has been cancelling flights left right and centre over the past few weeks, when it got to this morning I was just glad to be flying at all! A 06.35 flight meant we needed to be at the airport parking for 4am... which meant leaving home at 2am.... which meant getting up at 01.30. By the time Tim had finished everything he needed to do last night and was ready to go to bed, it was hardly worth bothering! Somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of bed when the alarm went off and made it to Stansted on plenty of time. The flight was delayed by half an hour or so but I have absolutely no idea why because I fell asleep while we were waiting to take off and only woke up as we were flying over the (very snowy) Alps We touched down in a bright and sunny Naples around 10.15 and got our first taste of southern Italian chaos. Passport control was a bit of a rabble; essentially a large room full of people edging forward towards the passport gates without anything that could have been identified as a queue. When we emerged into the baggage reclaim area, I was a bit stressed to see that our flight was not one of the five or six listed on the information screen showing baggage carousel numbers. We stood around in confusion for a while, until I suddenly caught sight of my (fortunately quite distinctive!) blue suitcase travelling around a belt a few metres away. According to the information board, this was the carousel for an Iberia flight from Madrid The airport is situated around 7km outside the main centre of Naples and there's a regular bus service which runs every 15 minutes or so. It took us a while to track down the bus stop; when we did we found there was a bus there waiting, but it seemed incredibly full so we decided to hang back and wait for the next one. There was actually a proper queue at the bus stop and a man whose job it seemed to be to police it. It wasn't long before a second bus arrived, which was good, but once we got on it we realised that - quite unusually for an airport bus - it didn't have anywhere to store luggage. That was a bit of a problem, as our suitcases are quite large! We found a seat towards the back of the bus but proceeded to have a very uncomfortable journey. I was trying to balance my suitcase on a step, hanging onto it for dear life to try and stop it falling on top of anybody else as we swung round corners. Tim was in an even worse position, sitting in a very contorted position while his suitcase occupied the space where his legs should have been. The only saving grace was that it was a short journey and we were soon deposited outside Napoli Centrale. I had read in the guidebook that this was not the best area of Naples, and it definitely didn't give a very good first impression. In the first instance there didn't seem to be a proper pavement where the bus dropped us off, so we had to try and avoid getting run over by other buses and negotiate a busy road to get across to the station itself. We decided to try and walk in the vague direction of our apartment and - as it was nearly midday at this point - hopefully find somewhere to eat along the way. Unusually for Italy though, eating establishments seemed to be few and far between, with nothing more enticing than an occasional kebab shop. Pulling suitcases along the streets was a bit of a challenge, as the pavements were in a state of repair which wouldn't have looked out of place in Bratislava and we occasionally had to lift our suitcases across random piles of rubbish in the middle of the street. I booked the accommodation in Naples a long time ago but I distinctly remember that I spent a lot of time researching the different neighbourhoods and booked an apartment in a part of town that was recommended in the guidebook. So although the part of the city that we were walking through didn't look particularly appealing, I was convinced that things would start looking up when we got closer to the apartment. After about half an hour we found the correct street and first impressions were that it looked rather run-down! It took a while to figure out which building we were looking for, as the houses seemed to be numbered in some original Italian kind of order that wasn't strictly numerical, but eventually we figured out that the doorway we needed was the open gap to the left of the graffitied shutter. Hmm. I logged into my booking.com app to check that I had definitely booked a 9.5! We were a bit too early to check in so we needed somewhere we could sit down and have a drink. Tim tried wandering up the road to see if there were any cafes (not really!) before realising that the building next door to the apartment building was a sort of wine bar. We went inside and found a friendly lady who was selling glasses of different wines on tap for €1.50. Tim asked whether we could get anything to eat and she mysteriously disappeared outside for a few minutes, before reappearing with a bag of crisps for us. When Tim tried to pay for the crisps at the end, she insisted that they were free That was a quite a surprise, as was the fact that the wine was so cheap. We started to feel a bit more positive about the neighbourhood! We'd arranged to check into the apartment 1pm and sure enough, at 1 on the dot I got a missed call on my mobile from the owner. My phone seems to be struggling a bit to get a proper signal in Naples, so Tim called him back and it transpired he was on one of the balconies above and could see us. He showed us into the apartment, which I was relieved to see looked really nice once we were inside. It's slightly unusual in that the bedroom is on a little mezzanine level above the living room, but it's actually quite spacious once you're up there. The owner was a really lovely man who must have had some bad experiences which renting out the apartment in the past, because first of all he showed us around the room and then asked us whether or not we liked it. If we didn't, he said he could refund us our deposit and help us find somewhere else to stay! We were perfectly happy though, especially when he showed us that there were some free breakfast supplies, a bottle of wine in the fridge for us and some coffee (somewhat surprisingly, also kept in the fridge!). If we didn't like the breakfast, he said he could go and buy us something else(!) and he also offered to bring more wine tomorrow and take us on a guided drive around Naples. It began to make more sense why this was a 9.5/10 He also provided us with a map of Naples and gave us some restaurant recommendations. We were starving by this point so when we'd finished checking in, we followed his advice and walked a few minutes up the road to one of the places he'd mentioned. We arrived and found there was a slight queue outside, so it seemed to be popular! We got a table quite quickly though and the food turned up with astonishing speed once we had ordered. I had an enormous pizza (probably the nicest diavola pizza I've ever had!) and Tim had a steak. We also had some wine, a large bottle of water and two coffees. When the bill came, the prices seemed too good to be true. I think the same meal could easily have cost twice as much further north in Italy! By the time we'd finished the meal and got back to the apartment it was nearly 4pm. We were both feeling pretty tired, so decided to have a nap for an hour and then get up at 5 to go out and explore a bit of Naples before it got dark. This was an excellent plan... but when my alarm went off at 5, I managed to snooze it a few times, then turn it off altogether and fall back to sleep! By the time I woke up it was nearly 7 and already totally dark outside. So there will be no scenic pictures of Naples on the blog until tomorrow
  24. When we woke up on Monday morning and headed out into Lecco to get breakfast, the sky looked rather grey and overcast. The centre of Lecco still looked very pretty though and it was quiet on a Monday morning, so we were able to walk around and admire the flower displays on the main street. The weather forecast confirmed that it wasn't supposed to rain, so we decided to go ahead with our plan to visit Varenna. Varenna is another small town on Lake Como, on the opposite side of the lake from Bellagio, and when we visited it in 2012 we really loved it so we were keen to go back again It's only a 20 minute journey from Lecco on a regional train and the tickets are a bargain at €2.80 each! After a short journey along the side of the lake we arrived in Varenna. The railway station is a little way above the town, so we walked downhill and soon had a view of the lake. We think Bellagio is over there somewhere! Varenna is bigger than Bellagio, but it feels friendlier somehow; Bellagio is home to several very expensive hotels and feels quite upmarket. One of the biggest selling points of Varenna is that it has an amazing promenade which enables you to walk right along the edge of the lake. Once we had walked a little way along it, we were able to turn around and enjoy views back to the town... ...as well as views out across the lake, of course. In some places the promenade was covered over and there were archways where you could stop to take photos There is quite a steep hill behind the town, so a series of steep staircases lead up from the lakeside to the rest of the town. We went up one of the gentler staircases... ...and climbed up to the higher level of the town, where we found the church... ... and the main square. From here we turned along the main road, towards a place called Villa Monastero which we remembered from our 2012 visit. Specifically, we remembered that there were beautiful gardens alongside the lake, but that it was really expensive to get in and so we had walked along the road outside it, sneaking some views through the fence. We found the entrance after walking up the road for a couple of minutes... ...and established that it actually only cost €5 each to get into the gardens It definitely seemed worth paying €5 for views like this. Having bought our tickets, we set off to explore the botanical gardens. They were quite exotic gardens, with lots of palm trees.... ...and all kinds of statues and features like in a landscape garden too. And, of course, some stunning views of the lake We've got so many beautiful photos that it's hard to choose which ones to put in the blog As well as the gardens, there was also a museum that you could pay to go inside, but we decided to give that a miss. After a while the sky began to get a bit bluer in the direction of Varenna... ...though it was still quite grey in the opposite direction. Once we'd finished exploring the botanical garden, we decided to walk back into Varenna and find somewhere for lunch. On the way out of the gardens we passed an avenue of citrus trees where, in addition to the more normal orange and lemon trees, we spotted a couple of trees with absolutely huge fruit growing on them. They weren't labelled unfortunately, but we wondered whether they could be grapefruit? Back in the town, we found a lovely restaurant by the lake, where we were able to sit outside eating pizza Then we had time another hour or so before we needed to be back at the train station. We had another walk along the lakeside promenade... ...explored some more of Varenna's side streets... ..went up and down some of the steeper staircases... ...and re-took some of the photos of places we'd visited earlier in the day with the background of now very blue sky! Finally it was time to say goodbye to Varenna and begin our long journey home; firstly by regional train to Milan, then on the express train to the airport and flying back to Stansted. Luckily everything went well with the journey home and we didn't have to wait as long at passport control in Milan as we had on Saturday. By the time we had managed to get out of Stansted, retrieve the car and drive home it was 01.30 in the morning, so Monday has been quite a tiring day at work! But it was worth it for such a wonderful weekend at Lake Como
  25. Clare

    Day 2: Rome

    We'd filled out the form at our hotel to say that we wanted our breakfast at 08.30 on Sunday morning. Sure enough, when 08.30 came there was a knock at the door and a man appeared with two trays of croissants, bread and coffee When we checked out a while later we were surprised to learn that the tourist tax in Rome is €3.50 each per night. That was fine for us with only staying for one night, but it could be quite a bit to add to the cost of a holiday if you were planning to stay for longer! Our first plan was to return to the Vatican, as we needed to post our postcards. We'd bought the cards and stamps in a shop just outside St Peter's Square the day before and so they were Vatican City stamps, which we assumed we needed to post in a Vatican postbox rather than a normal Italian one. As we walked towards the Vatican, we were surprised that the level of security seemed to be higher than it had been on Saturday. There were soldiers with very large guns on the outskirts, and then partway along the approach to St Peter's Square we had to stop and have our bags opened and searched by a policeman. Finally when we got to the square itself, we had to queue for a few minutes and put all our belongings through a scanner again. It seemed like a lot of effort, but eventually we got to the post office and were able to post our postcards It was then that we realised why the security had been some so tight this morning; the Pope was saying Mass inside the basilica, and we were able to stand and watch some of it being broadcast on the big screens inside the square. The weather forecast wasn't very promising for Sunday and the sky looked quite grey, so made our way back into the centre of Rome to try and make the most of the weather. As we walked through the little streets in the town centre, there seemed to be a church around every corner. We kept looking for the names to try and work out where we were on the map, but there were so many churches that ones like this weren't even marked on the map. Navigating in Rome was quite difficult. There are some signposts for tourists which indicate the directions of the main sights, but when you follow one you often find that you end up in a small square with five possible exits and no more signposts to indicate which directions you ought to take. After a while we found our way to the Piazza Navona where we had been the previous evening... ...and from there we eventually managed to locate the Pantheon. The next sight which I really wanted to see was the Trevi fountain. The tourist crowds around this were somewhat reminiscent of the hordes around the mermaid statue in Copenhagen when we there in August. But, fortunately, the Trevi fountain is a lot bigger, so there was more space for everyone! If we come to Rome again, I think this would be a good place to try and visit early in the morning before everyone else arrives. Not far from the fountain is the Piazza di Spagna, so-called because it is home to a large Spanish Embassy. At the edge of the square are the Spanish Steps, an enormous staircase which leads up to the church of Trinità dei Monti. We didn't climb them because no sooner had I taken that photo than it began to pour with rain. We hurried off down a side street and found a nice restaurant where we were able to shelter from the weather and have lunch. We both had a plate of tortellini in ragu which was absolutely delicious By the time we had finished eating, the rain had eased off. I was anxious to get to our main destination for the afternoon - the Colosseum - before the rain started up again, so we set off to the other side of Rome. On our way we passsed the Altare della Patria and were able to get some pictures in daylight this time. From there we were on the main street which leads down towards the Colosseum. We knew we were getting closer as we began to pass the remains of ancient Roman forums. Soon we got our first glimpse fo the Colosseum itself. Unfortuately there's some work ongoing on the nearby metro line at the moment, and the yellow railings fencing this off got in the way of the view a bit. Once we got a bit nearer we had a great view without the railings though I knew the Colosseum was always going to be busy, but I had thought perhaps it might be a bit quieter on a Sunday afternoon, especially on a slightly wet Sunday afternoon. There were still masses of people though! We walked in a circuit around the outskirts of the Colosseum before we attempted to get inside. One of the things which struck me was that it was nowhere near as white as I had expected! The bits that have been rebuilt in particular are made of a reddish sort of brick. It was absolutely enormous, though! We had bought the tickets to get into the Colosseum online in advance and theoretically this meant that we had a reduced queuing time. There were two queues - one for people with tickets and one for those without - but to be honest the with-tickets queue didn't seem to be moving any more quickly than the without-tickets one. It was a much more claustrophobic queue than the one at the Vatican and it began to rain slightly while we were waiting too, which wasn't ideal! Once we got under the arches we realised the reason for all the delays though; everyone had to put all their belongings through a scanner again. Eventually we were in and able to admire the inside of the Colosseum too. Some very steep steps took us up to the upper level from where we were able to walk around and appreciate just how huge the Colosseum really is. We were able to look out through the windows too and see the Arch of Constantine, which we had been admiring from outside the Colosseum. Unfortunately by this point the rain was becoming quite torrential, so we had to give up on the idea of exploring the Palatine Hill. We took shelter inside for a while and emerged when the weather seemed to have dried up a bit. There was about an hour of daylight left now. We walked back towards the Colosseum and around the archway. Our destination was about 15 minutes away. It may not look very exciting, but this is the Circus Maximus where the chariot races used to take place. It's now a public park that you can stroll around. We walked along one side of it, back towards the city centre. By this time twilight was starting to fall, but there were still some interesting sites to be seen. This building looked like a small amphitheatre which people were now living in the top of! We came full circle to the Altare della Patria again. It looked beautiful in the darkness... ...as did the rest of Rome. Looking back at these photos the sky doesn't look particularly stormy, but within about 10 minutes of taking the one above we were sitting outside at a restaurant just about to look at the menu when the weather went crazy. Thunder, lightning, and wind so strong that one of the restaurant tables was nearly blown over. The rain was torrential and we got soaked just in the few steps needed to get inside the restaurant. We'd definitely chosen the right moment to call a halt to our sight-seeing! Happily, by the time we'd finished our pizza the storm was over and we were able to walk to the train station and get a train back to the airport without getting drenched. It was a tiring weekend, but a really exciting one, and I think we will definitely be coming back to Rome at some point in the future
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