5/11/10 - 9/11/10 21 °C
When we arrived in Bari we were both very tired and decided to take a taxi to our hotel where we were going to leave our bags and explore the town before it was time to check in, but when we arrived the hotel gave us a room straight away. We had a bit of rest and a shower before we visited a local laundry to catch up on housekeeping, after this we went for a walk to old part of the town and checked out the fishing harbour. We found a nice restaurant for a bite of lunch; I had ravioli with seafood sauces but was shocked when it arrived as the pasta was black (how do they make pasta black???) while Liz had a steak and salad.
Once lunch was finished we continued our walk around the town and tried to visit the Tourist Information Centre which, like most places, was closed for lunch (closed from 1.00pm –until 4.30pm). We returned to the hotel for some more rest before heading back out at 6.00pm for another walk when we came across a travel agent and decided to ask about the Grottoes of Castellana which were south of Bari. The agent was very helpful and printed out a train timetable (private rail company runs that line so not free train travel on our Eurail pass), with this information we decided to get going early and catch the train to the Grottoes at 8.15am, from the main Bari station, a 50 minute journey.
Saturday was an early start so we could have breakfast and walk to the station for the 8.15am train departure to the Grottoes of Castellana. This sounds very easy but the timetable showed two stations that could access the grottoes, Castellana Grottoes and Grottoes of Castellana – which was the station we needed? We decided on the later which was furthest from Bari. It was not a station at all but just a platform, this had us looking at one another with concern but four young guys got off as well and they indicated, while laughing at us, that the Grottes was down to the left – we weren’t sure if they were setting us up for a mugging or just being young guys having a laugh! Once we had walked thought the park and out to the road we found a road sign indicating ‘Ingresso Grottoes’ so we followed the signs about 200m around a corner and we landed on the doorstep of the grottes – our luck must have been good today as it was also fine and sunny and not raining as predicted.
We looked through some the souvenir shops near the entrance before paying entry fee and joining our guide for the 2 hour tour, you can’t visit the grottoes unless accompanied by a guide; the only problem was that the only guide available was doing an Italian tour.
The tour through the grottoes was interesting even though we could only pickup very small parts of the explanation. The stalagmites, stalactites and crystal structures varied from huge to tiny, from white, to green to black… and our walk through 1500m of caverns and back gave us plenty of opportunity to observe them. Some of the caverns were huge with the Cave of the Monuments measuring 40m high, the Graves chasm (the entry chamber) is 60m in depth, 50m in width, 100m in length and in the middle stand a colossal stalagmite group called the Cyclopes. Unfortunately taking photographs after the first chamber was not allowed so we won’t be able to show you the amazing structures.
It was interesting to note the change of colour of the structures became whiter the further into the grottes we got until we arrived at White Grotto whose concretions are referred to as the whitest in the world. Walking through this environment has its pitfalls – you are constantly dripped on by water seeping from the surface. The part of the trip I was dreading was the walk up the steps to the surface but this was anticlimactic as we were taken to the surface by elevator at the end of our tour.
We returned to the ‘station’ and waited, wondering if a train was going to arrive (no timetable on the platform at all!) and if it did arrive would it stop! When I had checked the timetables in Bari I was ‘almost’ certain a train arrived every half hour but as the time kept marching on I started to get a little worried. Liz however was not perturbed and was totally engrossed trying to take the “perfect picture” of the olive trees and skittish lizards that were sunning themselves on the wall near the train track - sometimes I think she has lost the plot!!!. Almost exactly an hour after we arrived at the station a train arrived so all was good and we arrived back in Bari about an hour later.
Once again we attempted to visit the Tourist Information Centre, as it was just outside the station, but again we had managed to visit at lunchtime. We walked back to the hotel via the main shopping street but very few shops were open (lunchtime!!), and once back in our room Liz started research on what to do over the next few days while I had a nap. At around 5.00pm we returned to the Tourist Information Centre and found it open and manned by a nice lady who was very helpful (she was actually keen and interested instead of most other Tourist Information Centre staff that didn’t seem to want to help beyond the superficial). She gave us information about things to do and places to visit around the town and the Puglia region, of interest to us were Polignano a Mare (30min) and Lecce (2 hours) to the south of Bari along the railway line (one the Eurail pass would allow us to travel for free).
On our walk back we came across and interesting parking effort by a Smart car, instead of parking parallel to the gutter like other cars this guy reverse parked between two other cars and because the Smart car is so short it didn’t reach out onto the road – you have to love the Smart cars ability to fit into small spaces and there are thousands and thousands of these cars running around Italy.
Sunday is always an interesting day when travelling as you never know what will be open or operating, the train simply won’t run at some schedule times even though it indicates it will on the timetable. With this in mind we still decided to take the train the Lecce, 2 hours south, to check out the town and on the return drop in to Polignano a Mare.
Lecce was an interesting town and appeared deserted as we walked from the station towards the centre of town. The old part of the city was typical with narrow streets and a worn look to the buildings but unlike many other towns the streets were very clean and free of litter. Eventually we found the Roman Amphitheatre and the main square which had many people strolling along the main thoroughfares – Liz thinks Australia could learn a lot from the casual way the people use their free time. We walked along one of the streets following the flow of people until we came across some markets, now these markets were not representative of the usual tourist markets they were more like markets for the locals.
After wandering about for a few hours we caught the train back towards Bari but stopping at Polignano a Mare a small community that was renowned for its gelato and a small beach enclosed by cliffs with building built on top. The gelato was OK but most of the shops were shut and I don’t think the gelato I got was from the top shop in town – I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. The small beach was quaint and I could see the appeal it holds to tourists.
After only a brief visit we return to the station for the 4.00pm train, however it did not arrive so we waited and hour for the next train. The temperature was dropping as the sun disappeared and the wind was adding to the chill. When the train did arrive it was packed and we were lucky to find seats for the 30 minute trip back to Bari. On arriving in Bari we were amazed at the number of people out and about walking or sitting in the parks and streets talking and generally socializing – it was obviously common as there was a fair Police presence all the way along the main street.
Monday was moving day with a long wait for the fast ferry that will take us from Italy to Patras Greece. The ferry didn’t depart until 8.00pm and we had to vacate our hotel by 12.00pm – Liz sweet talked the guy at the desk and got us an extra hour which was handy.
After breakfast we ventured out under the overcast sky for a wander around the town. Liz was particularly interested in the clothing markets that the Hotel had told us about. We walked for about 20 minutes until we came across a very large market which was selling everything from furniture, light fittings and cleaning supplies to underwear, shoes and clothing. We walked up and down the rows for stalls for almost 2 hours but didn’t buy a thing as the markets were for the locals and the prices were still relatively high, besides we had no real need for anything. On our walk back we can across a typical wine shop which has large stainless steel tanks where you can buy your wine by the 10 litre or buy some different types and blend your own – cost is very reasonable at €1.10 (AUD1.50).
Before returning to collect our baggage from the hotel we had a nice lunch in a little café and walked around the old town once more as it had stopped raining. I did stop for a gelato along the way rationalizing that it was my last few hours in Italy so why not have some of the best ice cream in the world. Once we returned to the hotel we collected our entire luggage and the hotel organized a taxi to take us to the ferry terminal.
We were at the ferry 5 hours before departure (we weren’t the first or the only one’s early) which allowed us to use the last of Liz’s iPhone credit to do some hotel bookings for our stay in Greece and to research about the Greek Islands – it’s low season so many places aren’t open. At 5.30pm they allowed us to board, the weather prediction was for gale force winds and heavy rain so Liz changed our booking to a cabin with ensuite (the cabin was very small but well equipped and even had a porthole), so we could have some privacy if I was sea sick and perhaps the opportunity for some restful sleep. Liz had been insistent about me taking some seasickness tablets before I even boarded, just in case.
While waiting to depart at 8.00pm we sat around the lounge area talking to some fellow travelers this is one of the best things about travelling you don’t only meet people from the countries you visit but also others from all over the world. At 8.30am, after my second round of seasickness tablets, we decided to crash early and make good use of our cabin as I was starting to feel the sleepiness brought about by the drugs. So showered and drugged I crawled into bed (Liz watched a movie as she wasn’t tired) and drifted off to sleep.
During the night the winds and sea became fast and heavy and the huge ferry was being knocked around considerably. At times I was sliding around the bed as the ferry pushed through the seas; they did stop once during the night at Corfu and I think that was my best sleep as the boat was very calm. In the morning Liz went down to the reception/lounge area and found out that we’d be 2 hours late into Patra due to the rough conditions. As Liz was having breakfast on the back area of the ferry she watched the spectacle of a hail storm, lightning as well as the heavy seas.
Eventually at 3.00pm we arrived in Patras, I was feeling decidedly fuzzy from the seasickness drugs and was very happy to find our hotel. The Hotel Atlanta was nothing special but it was clean and tidy with friendly staff. After a brief rest we went in search of a mobile SIM card for Liz’s phone but most shops were closed until 5.30pm. We also visited the Blue Star Ferry office to book our tickets to the Greek islands (we go from Athens to Naxos then to Santorini before returning to Athens). The young girl at the Ferry office was great and helpful.
After the Ferry office our visit to the Railway Station indicated the great difference in customer service within Greece. At the station the two women wouldn’t stop their mobile phone calls to assist us and they really were of no help when we asked about trains to Olympia – we were eventually told that we needed to take the train to Pyrgos and catch a connection to Olympia with the only train departing at 6.30am. OK that’s an early start but doable! They didn’t even want to know about any other of the trains we would need and we told to check at the next station.
With some information in hand we decided to have an early dinner before heading back to the Vodaphone store for the SIM card. As I hadn’t eaten much for the previous 24 hours and Liz had only snacked we picked a small café that looked to have some good food and it had a few customers. The food was great especially the dip accompanying the meals. So sated on good food we walked back to vodaphone and purchased a SIM card only to find out that we had to wait 4 hours for activation – each country has its own little quirks but what can you do.
With all the stuff done we returned to the hotel for an early night in a bed that will, hopefully, remain stationary!