Mediterranean Europe - Italy


Friends of ours had told me about walking in the Cinque Terre, so we stopped off in Genoa first, just because the timing turned out right, We didn't have great expectations of Genoa, but it was a lovely city, starting with the fresco on the ceiling of our bedroom. The man who ran the hotel was extremely helpful, providing us with a map where he marked out a walking tour to show off the best bits of his city. The best bits were really good. We only had the late afternoon and evening, so we walked around most of the central city and waterfront, had a late dinner down by the harbour and fell asleep looking up at our high, painted ceiling.

Early in the morning we took the train to La Spezia, put most of our belongings into storage at the railway station, then caught a train back to Monterosso. We had a good walk around the village, remembering the things that had amazed us the first time we'd been there, in 1976. Australians aren't used to private bits of beach and rented deckchairs and tiny little "public" beaches where the great unwashed are allowed to gather and look at their betters on the other side of the fence. The proliferation of signs telling us there was "No Free Beach" intimated that we weren't the only people unused to this idea.

Walking the Cinque Terre is very easy, and we could have completed it in one fairly short day, but we had decided to take a leisurely approach, and to stay overnight in one of the villages. Having spent most of the morning on trains, we only walked as far as Vernazza, found a pension to spend the night, and spent the rest of the day walking around the village. We had ended up in a great pension, with our own private terrace, and where they provided the most sumptuous breakfast to set us up for the easy walk the next day. I'd found a guide book in the local library before we left home and had extracted details of walks around each village, so we extended the trail by taking all the side tracks we could. Each of the five villages has its own character and enchantment - it really is a most romantic place.

We arrived back in La Spezia early enough to take the train to Florence. We agreed to go to a hotel run by a man touting for business in the railway station; this can be a risky way of finding accommodation, but this time the hotel turned out to be just fine, good location, cheap enough and a good room, with internet access. The latter is useful to us; generally we travel incommunicado, but since we were still doing a little web page work now and again we had to occasionally check our emails to see if anyone needed updates done. We'd never been to Florence, and loved the place - lots of different things to see, fantastic architecture, great bridges, and lots of markets. We took to ducking into every church we passed, no matter how small and apparently obscure, since they all had amazing ceilings and different artworks to admire.

From Florence it was on to Sienna, another good pension and another great town. These small cities are excellent for people like us, who like to walk around. There were loads of places to see, and a local festival with a parade, music and floats to enjoy. Unusually, our pension provided a kitchen; we could cook dinner then sit and dine out on the balcony, with a glass of local wine and a view out over the "burnt sienna" tiles that make up the roofs of the city.

When we were talking about this trip back in Australia, we had thought we'd like to go to smaller places as well as cities, and to islands wherever possible, so we took the train to Piombino, then ferry to Portoferrario on the island of Elba.

We loved Elba - easy to get around, good place to stay, with a swimmable, if totally depauperate, beach attached to the place we were staying . We were carrying skin-diving gear, and at last there was somewhere to use it. We had a few days on the island, and took time to go out to Marciana, climbing up to the Madonna del Monte. The path led to a chapel, where I was surprised to glimpse a deer gazing down from the high wall just above my head. The deer was just as surprised, and leapt back up into the forest. We were able to scramble up amongst the heaped boulders that graced the top of the hill, and enjoy the view out to the sea. The path up the hill is punctuated with stops for the stations of the cross, but we punctuated our walk with stops to exalt in the warm sun, the light breeze and the fabulous views. The village of Marciana was also interesting to walk around, with steep streets and lovely old houses. Back in Portoferrario we found steep streets of a different kind, leading up from the harbour to the forts on the hill.

All roads lead to Rome, but ours was through one hell of a storm. The ferry back to the mainland left us with quite a wait, so while we frittered away the time drinking coffee, lightning flashed, thunder crashed around us, and the heavens broke open with rain that flooded the bus station and left us drenched and bedraggled as we were forced to go out in it to get to the bus that finally turned up to take us on to a connecting train. I was hassled by a pickpocket when we transferred to the Metro to get into the city, but managed to discourage him, and nothing went missing.

Apart from our unfortunate timing in Cambridge, Rome was the only place that challenged us to find accommodation. We were looking around the train station, an area of countless cheap hotels, but were getting nothing but shakes of the head and "completo" notices on the doors. We were almost reduced to accepting something that looked more like a cupboard than a room when we found an extremely nice B&B that could take us for one night, We accepted the single night's reprieve, and went out to have our first look at Rome, knowing that we would have to start looking for something more long-lasting in the morning. Next day we met with the same total lack of success, until we happened upon Christian, touting for business on the steps of one of the many multi-apartment buildings that we were trying. We cast our fate in his hands, and he managed to get us a room in the building that worked out very well. We were coming to appreciate the role that touts play.

We did all the standard tourist things, walking the length and breadth of the city, using the metro to get to places a bit further away than even we were willing to walk. Our visit to the coliseum was enhanced by watching a photo-shoot of a model in bridal costume posing by Constantine's Arch. Rome had one gastronomic attraction - there were a number of Chinese restaurants in the area near the railway station, and we tried all of them! On one evening we found ourselves seated near some other tourists - two different couples - and we discovered we were all Australian, all enjoyed Asian food, and were happy to find something different from the standard tourist fare.

Rome was another place where we found we had allowed one day more than we really needed; everything that we wanted to see in Rome and the Vatican was easy to get to, and it all took much less time and hassle than we had anticipated, even given the time we wasted finding a room to stay. These big cities aren't our favourite places, and we could easily have left after three days.

One of the best decisions we made was to spend a day out at Ostia Antica. This was ancient Rome's port, and is an extremely well preserved and extensive site. We were particularly interested in the mosaics, and there are many of them, but the shops are wonderfully intact, and there is a splendid theatre. There is still quite a bit of work going on at the site, but you can wander through most places unrestricted.

Wanting to visit Pompeii, we set off to Naples, but had already decided not to stay there but to go out to Sorrento on the Amalfi coast. Good decision - although the coast is massively geared for tourism it is very pretty, and we enjoyed staying in a smaller town.

Pompeii lived up to all expectations. It is a huge site, and could merit more than one visit, but with a full day we managed to a large part of the ruined town. Again, the state of preservation of the houses, shops and bakeries let you imagine what it would have been like to live there, and the almost intact brothel added another perspective on how graphics could be used in advertising signs.

From Sorrento we did a day trip to Amalfi, another town crowded with tourists, but with an impressive cathedral and a very pretty setting, meandering up the hillside. The train trip along the coast was justification enough for going to Amalfi, but we also admired their (plastic) christmas creche scene artfully arranged at the bottom of a pool, rather hoping that the virgin and baby had both miraculously grown gills, and that the adoring animals came up for a breath from time to time.

We caught the train back to Naples, then booked through to Syracuse, in Sicily. Since this involved going to yet another island, we wondered if we would have to make a series of connections (train-ferry-train) but were amazed to find that we stayed on the same train - it simply ran on rails into a ferry, equipped to take four such trains, and we stayed on the same train all the way to Syracuse. We stayed at a backpackers hostel in Syracuse, giving us a welcome opportunity to prepare our own meals in the communal kitchen.

Syracuse offered some real contrasts. The Archaeological Park, with its Greek theatre, caves and Roman amphitheatre was worth wandering around, including a side walk off to visit the Tomb of Archimedes, which, by all accounts had nothing to do with Archimedes. We also spent a day walking around Ortigia, where a major speedboat race was to take place later that week, and the boats were doing practice laps. There was an elaborate set-up, with cranes to lower the boats into the water, tents, music, glamourous girls, rugged men - all the accoutrements of a big-money sport.

We planned to see more of Sicily, but had failed to appreciate that there were few ferries to Tunisia, our next port of call. Suddenly, we had to race off to Palermo and sort out a ticket to Tunis. Our travels in Tunisia are covered in the next page of this travel journal.

Back in Palermo again, after two weeks in Tunisia, we struggled from the ferry port to the railway station through streaming crowds, all there to see "El Papa" (the Pope was visiting), only to find we had just missed the train. We sat drinking coffee, but Geoff was bored, so he wandered out onto the platform and noticed, with about two minutes to spare, that the train had been delayed. He raced back, grabbed me and the bags, and we just made it onto the train as it pulled out.

We made a bit of a mistake in choosing out next destination. With no information about the place at all we decided to stop in Taranto. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and even as the train pulled into the town we guessed that this wasn't going to be a great place to stay. The railway station is nowhere near the centre of town, and with no map and no obvious buses, and dusk creeping in, we were a bit nonplussed. Geoff went for an exploratory walk out from the railway station, but the place was very run-down, fairly deserted, and there were none of the little hotels that usually cluster around the station. As time ran out so did our interest in spending the night here. Bari was only a few hours away by train, so I managed finally to pushed my way through the throngs of navel cadets that dominated the ticket office, and we were off again.

Although we planned to leave Italy from Bari, we had generally wanted to not spend any longer there than necessary. We were wrong in that - it is an interesting enough place, with its old town, castle, and port. The new town offers very little in the way of cheap accommodation, although the helpful tourist office did try to point us in the right direction. In hindsight, we would have been much better off going into the old town, but we had arrived late in the day, and were reluctant to spend a lot of time searching for accommodation.

Bari also gives good access to Matera, which provided a great day trip for us. The sassi (caves) and associated buildings along the gorge are world heritage listed and well worth making some effort to see.


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