Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Postcards from Italy: Valley Dei Templi, Palermo, Naples and Pompei

We kicked off the next leg of our journey in the 'Valley Dei Templi' - or Valley of the Temples - which feature ruins of ancient Greek temples around two and a half thousand years' old. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are just like the Greek temples you picture in history books, though one might not expect to see Greek architecture in Italy - though these predate the Roman era. 

The ruins in Agrigento

We camped in San Leone, the beach resort for Agrigento. Whilst the campsite was quiet, sharing it with just a couple of other families - and the resident campsite cat (and her kittens!) the beach was pretty busy as temperatures soared above 35 degrees centigrade.

Consequently the mosquitoes were out in force and they were some of the most aggressive ones we've encountered yet - including in Asia and the Caribbean! It's difficult to cover up in the evenings when it's so humid, but the mosquitoes seem to bite despite applying DEET insect repellent, so it was the case of doing anything to prevent further bites - and itching! It was particularly difficult trying to stop them coming in the tent when getting in and out in the night!

Moving on from the Valley Dei Templi we headed over to Mondello, the beach resort/district thirty minutes outside of Palermo. Mondello has lovely sandy beaches and an English Riviera feel (except with scorching temperatures!)


Outside of the big city, the foodie scene isn't quite as pronounced but there is lots of local seafood served up in the restaurants, subject to what has been caught that morning. At the moment there seems to be a proliferation of swordfish, and fresh octopus, cooked and served at pavement cafes with just a squeeze of fresh Sicilian lemon juice - delicious!

Palermo city itself is very different in feel to Catania and there is more of an Arabic influence. The architecture, once grand now decaying, with hints of Middle Eastern design is very different to Catania - which was more recently rebuilt after being razed by an Etna eruption.

Statues in Palermo

Arab influenced architecture in Palermo city centre

Palermo has a great culinary scene with some excellent street food. Our visit coincided with an ice cream festival (in which we didn't partake, sadly) but we did discover a fantastic arancini vendor selling all manner of weird and wonderful arancini fillings, from pulled pork to salmon, to sausage in red wine, and prosciutto and mozzarella.

We took the bus into Palermo but had an extended wait for a bus back (despite the buses supposedly running every fifteen minutes). I think it *almost* would've been worth driving - and that's saying something, as the local drivers here are as impatient as ever, in true Sicilian style!

To avoid a long drive back up through Italy we booked on to the Palermo to Napoli overnight car ferry. As we have come to expect, it was chaos at the ferry port and on driving aboard we were asked to reverse down to the bow of the boat (presumably to make it easy to drive off at the other end). After all that, fortunately it was a calm 10 hour crossing and we were able to get some sleep before taking on Napoli's roads to get us back to the airport!

Once we dropped of the car (good riddance - I don't think we'll plan on driving in Italy again!) we headed into central Naples, then on to Pompei by train to check out the ruins. 
It was another scorching day with a cloudless sky - landing back in London later is going to be a shock as I hear that it's rather autumnal all of a sudden.

Before coming in this trip people advised us against spending any time in Naples city centre and today we found out why - it has a real edge to it and it didn't feel particularly safe. In addition there is no real heart to the city or must-see sights - which other cities in Italy boast an abundance of. Still, we escaped unscathed and enjoyed taking the local train out to Pompei, so it's perhaps more a case of being aware of not putting yourself at risk than it being a really dangerous city. 

Pompei with Vesuvius in the background

A child turned to stone

I'm not sure we'll be back to test that theory, but Pompei was certainly worth a visit. It was fascinating to see a city literally turned to stone - including people - by the very fast and powerful volcanic eruption and the site is still being excavated today. A real step back in time and a reminder of the force of Mother Nature - let's just hope Etna doesn't do this to Catania any time soon!

Friday, 18 September 2015

Postcards from Italy: Catania

We spent three days in Catania, Sicily, in the shadow of the mighty Mount Etna, which rises high above the city. It's a pretty city, baking under the 35+ degree sunshine with great views, architecture and culture. It reminds me a bit of Lisbon and Barcelona with a big chunk of southern Italy thrown in. 

The elephant statue in the main square
The Cathedral in Catania

It's a vibrant place and its residents are a proud people laying claim to all Sicily's delicacies (over rival Sicilian city Palermo) - if you speak to a local they will tell you that they invented (insert name of delicacy) and that it's much better in Catania than elsewhere on the island!

The driving situation hasn't improved much, in fact if anything the crazy driving has got worse the further south we have travelled! Amusingly this is something the locals seem to be quite proud of too! So again, we were keen to park the car and hold off driving until we moved on to our next destination!

The culinary scene is excellent in Catania - as I mentioned before the locals are very proud of their cuisine and are keen to promote it if ever you're unsure of what to order in a restaurant. 
Despite obvious similarities like pizza, pasta and gelato, the foodie scene in Sicily is quite different to mainland Italy. 

So far we have tried horse meat and buffalo burgers (the restaurant staff were keen for us to order the donkey burger but we felt we had to draw the line somewhere!) The burgers were fantastic, though I'm not sure I would say that either horse or buffalo is all that much different to beef!
Horse burger!
We also sampled arancini, 'granite' and some fantastic fresh seafood, including fresh pasta with a sauce made from fish eggs, cuttlefish, octopus, swordfish, tuna, sardines and other local seafood.

In addition to the cuisine we have also enjoyed sampling the local wines - apparently the best reds are grown on the inhospitable slopes of Etna, though the whites are pretty good too. We're looking forward to trying whites and dessert wine from the Marsala region as we travel across the island.

Most bars and restaurants don't open before 8pm and the city really seems to sleep during the day - probably due to the heat. Only a handful of restaurants open for lunch (mostly for the tourists) and they are probably busiest between 10 and 11 at night, with queues going out the door even on a Monday or Tuesday evening. 

We went out at midnight one night midweek and the square behind our apartment was buzzing - ok, so it was the main student quarter but as a rule people don't start going out until late and many bars/restaurants open late and don't close until the small hours to reflect this.

No visit to Catania would be complete without a trip to Etna so we booked on to a day tour with a guide to trek the volcano, with great views of the active crater, a walk down an old lava flow and a visit to a lava cave.

Etna is constantly 'smoking' and the clouds above the volcano are in fact water vapour and carbon dioxide from the active crater. It's not uncommon to have rain at the top, as the vapour condenses - despite the scorching sunshine and blue skies all around.

Mount Etna
Etna experiences regular small eruptions, with big eruptions occurring approximately every ten years. The last one was in 2002 so the next big one could be anytime soon - sadly though we didn't get to experience this during our time in the city!

From the top, the best way down the lava field from our crater vantage point at 2000m was to run down it - a bit like running down sand dunes, though this soon filled up our shoes with volcanic sand, which we are still emptying out on a daily basis! So we will be taking a little big of Etna home with us - but plenty more where that comes from!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Postcards from Italy: Amalfi to Reggio Calabria

Since I last wrote it's been a busy few days for us as we made our way from the Amalfi Coast, driving down the 'toe' of the 'Italian boot' and staying at a couple of campsites along the way.

Despite the roads being relatively clear, it seems to take a lot longer to drive anywhere than Google Maps may suggest. Not taking into account stops, plus the fact that the Italians drive much faster than the speed limit (all of the time!) I think it must have taken us twice as long as the estimated drive time each time we've embarked on a trip.
The drives, however, have taken us past some stunning scenery - via high cliffs, through winding mountain roads and picturesque countryside.
The only thing that doesn't seem to get easier is the 'crazy' Italian drivers, so (especially) on the way through a town we've had to really be on our guard, lest a rogue motorist or cyclist should come at us from an unexpected angle!

Our first stop was in Palinuro, a pretty village on the west coast of southern Italy, set deep within a natural park.
We stayed in the very quiet Marbella village camping - which just a couple of weeks before would have been in peak Italian holiday season - but during our stay it was just us and one other family there.

Palinuro - Arco Naturel

We were hoping to try out our new tent, but the September low-season meant they had closed the campsite early, so they upgraded us to a bungalow just 15 metres from the swimming pool and a five minute walk from the beach.
The lack of tourists meant we benefitted from having the pool to ourselves for large chunks of the day, and our pick of sun loungers on the nearby beach.

The pool to myself !

Its location deep in the countryside gave us access to some great farm-based restaurants, with exceptional quality and value locally reared food. If you should ever find yourself in the area then be sure to check out Osteria U'Brigante and Isca Della Donne for delicious homemade pasta, bread and farm reared meats.

On visiting the local supermarket we also discovered good, locally produced wine for sale on tap in the supermarket foyer, where a litre bottle costs just €2!
I accidentally filled a bottle with sparkling red (as opposed to just red) which turned out to be little known delicacy that is in fact as refreshing as it is delicious (I think my previous experience of a sparking red was a bottle turned bad in Wetherspoons back in London!) - at least I've not enjoyed it before!
Even in the aforementioned restaurants, a litre of wine will only set you back €6 so it was the perfect place to leave the car parked up at the campsite and sample the local produce!

Next up we continued our drive south, stopping at Camping Village Mimosa - another holiday village but this one was a lot livelier than the last, despite it still being low season.
The campsite was set next to a beautiful sandy beach - the first we've encountered in Italy so far with actual golden sand rather than pebbles, so it was a welcome place to spend 24 hours.
We've also noticed a distinct shift in the weather since we've come further south: clear blue skies, bright sunshine and a temperature of 30+ degrees by day - scorching!

A sandy beach!

We were able to camp here so we christened our new tent and are pleased to report it is both easy to erect and spacious (enough) inside.

Trying out the tent

Perhaps it's been a while since I last spent a night under canvas (or perhaps I'm getting old!) but a mere foam camping mat doesn't exactly make for a comfortable night's sleep!
My experience was more reminiscent of torture where whenever I was about to drop off to sleep, I would need to turn over to relieve the pain of lying on the hard ground! Fingers crossed our next camping experienced in a few days will be a little more comfortable (mental note to look out for a blow-up lilo to sleep on!)

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Postcards from Italy: The Amalfi Coast - September 2015

With the whirlwind of excitement and organisation in the run up to the wedding, I don't think we had given much thought to the honeymoon - so after the long drive back to London from Cornwall, we set off for the airport to embark upon our Italian adventure.

Our first challenge greeted us in the form of the drive from Naples to the Amalfi Coast - and I think it's safe to say that with hindsight we might rely on public transport if we were to do it again! The Italians are renowned for their 'bad' driving, so throw into the mix a hire car and Kev's first experience of driving a left hand drive, followed by the narrow, winding mountain/coastal roads and you get a snapshot of the chaos/stress!

Safe arrival on the Amalfi Coast
Still, we made it - safely and sans accident - a small miracle given the state of the cars that drive along the Amalfi Coast highway. Literally every car has dents, scrapes, scratches and with no attempt to patch them up. The narrow roads, volume of traffic and the Italians' general disregard for the rules of the road makes diving round here a white knuckle ride!

On leaving Naples, we took a very scenic mountain route - though it was quite possibly only me that could enjoy the beautiful panoramas as Kev's eyes were firmly fixed on the sharp turns and steep inclines! We passed through little villages such as Tramonti and Maori on the way and even got caught behind a marching brass band going through one, which only added to its charm.

The Amalfi Coast is exactly how we'd imagined it and, unsurprisingly, it looks just like the pictures. It's amazing seeing the houses, stacked on top of each other and carved into the mountain, with the busy highway running along the coast. Each little town has its own personality - we are staying in Atrani, a small village a mile outside of Amalfi itself and I think we have probably visited every cafe/bar/restaurant in its little pizza during our 3 days here!


Anyone for limoncello?

From Amalfi we walked for miles up through the lemon groves and vines up to the mountainous village of Pomonte, affording us spectacular views of the red rooftops of Amalfi below. After a 3 hour walk uphill to the top we decided to reward  ourselves with a glass of wine in the courtyard next to the local church...only to find ourselves the only tourists in the middle of a funeral procession! 

Shortly after our first sip of wine a sombre bell began to chime and all the locals (who were waiting in the bar evidentially) got up and waiting at the top of the steps for the funeral party. Then the vicar arrived up the steep flight of steps, followed by the coffin and mourners - so we were really glad we decided against having a peek inside the church (before we realised what was going on)!

View down to Amalfi

The next day we took the ferry from Amalfi to Positano (having sworn off driving whilst we are here!) which was a great way to see the coastline and a stress free - and not to mention quicker than driving - way to get there. 

Positano is one of the picture postcard views of the Amalfi Coast and one of the best known towns. A bit more upmarket than Atrani, Positano boasted a plethora of boutiques selling clothes, jewellery, shoes, artwork, plus the usual tourist tat!

Arriving into Positano


Having visited Sausalito in California during my trip to San Francisco earlier in the year, I can see why it is called the Californian Positano!  

The beaches along the coast are pebbly with grey sand, with just a narrow portion allocated as the 'public beach' - it seems no one really visits (certainly in low-season) the private sections of beach with their neatly arranged sun loungers and colourful umbrellas, so locals and tourists alike vie for space on the pebbles.

As you might expect, the Italian gastronomy lives up to expectation - so far we have sampled delicious local seafood and fresh, hand-rolled pasta, crisp pizzas, regional wines, strong espressos and limoncello...all at a fraction of the price of what we'd normally pay in London. 

I think we're going to like it here!