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!

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