28/10/10 - 5/11/10 19 °C
Thursday it was time to move on to our new destination – Sorrento via Napoli. This was a very pleasant 1 hour train ride south from Rome. Once again we had a luxury first class Eurostar fast train which really “flew” between Rome and Napoli. In Napoli we needed to change to another railway company for the trip to Sorrento. This was a direct opposite of the train from Rome as the carriages were very Metro like, dirty and cramped with graffiti all over. The train stopped at 30 stations on the way, it was packed so Liz and I had to stand and manage our luggage in a packed carriage and a 70 minute trip.
Once we arrived in Sorrento it was only a short walk to the Hotel Eden, our base for the next three days. We managed to score a fifth floor room overlooking the water and across the bay to Napoli. After check in we needed to do some washing so set about walking across town to the launderette, this takes about 2 hours but has become an interesting basic of our travel. Once done we did some walking about town to get some phone credit for Liz and visit the tourist information centre (unfortunately it was closed), we still did find some time to check-out the local shops.
Friday saw us off to visit the ancient city of Pompeii, which is just a 30 minute train ride from Sorrento. We can see Mount Vesuvius clearly from our hotel window, it’s the volcano that erupted in 79AD and covered the city of Pompeii in ash. This is a very popular tourist site and as such there was a fair crowd at the ruins which wasn’t actually obvious as the site is huge – I suppose it was a city! We did a guided tour of the ruins that lasted two hours and took us through many of the restored buildings. Our guide explained what the various parts of the city were. Most surprising was the city planning with pedestrian only streets and long wide streets for major thoroughfares, the whole place was interesting and was not what we thought it would be – only a few plaster casts of people who were killed and the number and variety of buildings exposed was also different from our perception. The grey dust was about but not as prevalent as I thought it would be – I suppose it was nearly a 1000 years ago so erosion and excavation would have moved a lot of ash.
After the visit to Pompeii we took the train back to Sorrento and joined a small train tour around the town, it only took about 40 minutes and as was expected the views from the cliff tops were spectacular. Interestingly, Sorrento is a city on two hills, straddling a deep valley in-between.
The most exciting thing that happened over dinner when firstly I found a small piece of metal in my Ravioli (with creamy tomato and basil sauce) and then Liz did the same with her pasta dish – first time ever either one of us has had to complain about a meal. What are chances of it happening to both of us on the same evening???
Saturday we spent the day around Sorrento doing a hop-on hop-off bus tour which took us through the narrow and winding roads of the peninsula. It took about an hour and 40 minutes which was plenty as we chose to sit right at the front on the top deck – the number of times I tried to apply the brakes as incredible – bloody Italian drivers/riders speed around like they are in a Formula 1 race so I thought we were going to crash about every 15 seconds.
We did survive the trip and even got to take some photos but the whole Bay of Napoli was shrouded in a hazy/mist that detracted from the quality of the images. We had a good look at Capri from the end of the peninsula and as is the case with any nice place, a cruise ship was moored off the island. We had a large cruise ship drop in for the day at Sorrento – the town was full of rich Americans who were doing wonders for the local economy by the number of shopping bags they were carrying about.
On returning from the bus tour we visited a few spots we had been to on the first afternoon in Sorrento to take some photos (mid afternoon was a better time and had better light) and then walked the old streets looking at the shops, were I got to purchase a very Italian chess set. This area is very renowned for its inlayed wooden boxed and growing citrus fruit particularly lemons, which are made into a variety of produces including a liqueur.
During the afternoon we stopped in at a pizzeria for a slice of the local product, Napoli is the home of pizza. We shared an excellent cheese, ham and peppers (capsicum) pizza which was well worth its €7.00.
In the evening we once again packed all our gear up. We are taking a chance by catching an early ‘metro’ train to Napoli (the ‘metro’ train is privately run so we can’t reserve our seats to Sicily – can only be done in Napoli at a Trenitalia station) and hope that there will be seats on the morning train. We are actually going to a place called Taormina on the east coast of Sicily; it’s apparently a very picturesque town that sits on the top of cliffs overlooking the beach, which is accessed by a cable car.
Sunday morning wakeup was a bit of a mess as without our knowledge, daylight savings finished so the alarm I’d set for 5.56am was actually 4.56am, luckily Liz’s iPhone updates it’s time automatically. So we tried to get another hour of sleep which was not really successful but you must try. When the alarm went off at the correct time we finalized the packing, checked out and started the walk to the station – we’d never seen the streets so deserted! After lugging the bags up the hill to the station we made it to the 6.49am train with plenty of time, this was supposed to be a direct service to Napoli but turned out to still stop at about a third of the stations so it was still faster than the all stations train.
Once arriving at the station Liz queued for the reservations while I guarded the bags. Luckily we managed to get seats on the 9.42am train to Palermo which stops at Taormina. Cool, now we just had to wait the hour and a half for the train. We thought we’d get some breakfast at McDonalds at the station but they didn’t open until 9.00am and when they did, no breakfast menu! So we basically sat in the open seating area of McDonalds and watched the Romanian women beg for money – it was a very entertaining time really. Liz went to find a paper and had the misfortune to be accosted by one. Liz said that they were aggressive and intimidating but she didn’t give them anything and so she was probably cursed for eternity.
Once on the train we had a problem as there wasn’t any luggage space so we had to put the bags in the walkway outside our alcove – a real pain as every time the refreshment cart came through I had to jump up and move the bags into the compartment (really made our fellow travelers happy) and then out again when he went past. It was a long train ride, leaving Napoli at 9.42am and arriving Taormina at 4.53pm, and even involved a ferry ride while still on the train! Yes, the ferry has train tracks on the bottom level and the train goes in. The ferry then transports us to Sicily, where the train disembarks. As I am prone to travel sickness I went up on the top deck for the trip across leaving Liz in the bowels of the ship to mind the luggage in the train. She didn’t like this very much as she felt she didn’t really have a good escape route if there was any trouble as she was in the train in the bottom of the ship – 3 levels down from the deck to the outside. Quite claustrophobic – did I mention that they also turn out the lights inside the train, so she was sitting in semi darkness. Only about half the passengers bother to leave the train to go up on deck so she had plenty of company; admittedly she couldn’t understand what they were saying, but company none the less. She can’t wait for the return trip (not).
After a long day on the train we arrived in Taormina and with some ominous clouds gathering over the mountains inland from the coast, for the first time on our travels we took a taxi to the hotel. The train station was down near the coast while the town centre and most hotels were on a cliff top about 200m straight up the side of a cliff. The road up the cliff was narrow and full of switchbacks (as we arrived they were taking race cars away as they had had a hill climb rally that day – lots of rubber left on the road on the entry to the switchbacks).
Our hotel was a little more expensive than our usual type as we were staying at a resort town and hotels are all expensive in this area, it is a nice hotel with a good sized room and shower, and has a panoramic view of the coast from our balcony (that what you pay the higher price for!). The only downside was the cost for the internet, €7.00 an hour. Italy is absolutely ridiculous when it comes to internet access in hotels with almost nowhere offering FREE WIFI and most places charging between €3.00 and €5.00 per hour.
Once we had checked into the hotel we did the usual and reconnoitred the local area, we were still a little worried about the weather but it didn’t seem to be getting any worse. As it was Sunday night and the high season had finished we didn’t expect much, the positive was that the car race had been on during the day and plenty of people seemed to be still walking around. When we did get to the centre of town, about 10 minutes walk, we were pleasantly surprised to find a long main street with plenty of shops still open, from high end fashion and jewellery to souvenir shops and restaurants. The main square was open on one side overlooking the cliff with the beach and coastline stretching out in front; viewing the town at night was great as it gives a different feel to the place than during daylight. Liz managed to check out most shops as we strolled along and we stopped at a nice pub for a pizza dinner and had a delicious ice cream at a gelataria.
Monday turned out to be a public holiday (only found out when we asked reception where the Tourist Information Centre was), All Saints Day I think. Overnight it had really poured rain but the day was sunny even though it was very windy. So we walked towards the town centre to see what was open, along the way we came across the cable car that travels from the town to the beach and decided to take the ride (700m long, 68o slope and 200m drop from top to bottom). Now Liz is a little fearful of heights (see Paris entry –Eiffel Tower) and squeaked with every bump and sway of the carriage but we made it to the bottom where we walked down to the beach.
At the beach Liz decided to remove the shoes and roll up her jeans to get a feel for the water, she soon realised why they all use sun lounges on the beach as the gravel beach was extremely hard/sharp on her bare feet, when she did make it to the water she said it was reasonably pleasant. We checked out the beach area and Isola Bella (a small island connected to the coast by a spit of sand) before taking the cable car back to the top.
Once we made it to the town we checked out the famous ancient Greek Amphitheatre (renovated by the Romans), that overlooks the water. It is still in use as over the summer months they still put on concerts etc there. We then explored some of the small side streets that were missed during the previous evening’s exploration. Sicily has a great deal of ceramics in the shops and Liz fell in love with some large (600mm diameter) bowls with bright and colourful glazing – unfortunately there is no way that we could purchase one because: 1. they are expensive, 2. too costly to be sent home, and 3. It would get smashed in our luggage over the remaining 6 weeks of our tour. Some more wandering and a few photo stops finished our tour about town.
On the way back to the hotel we did stop at a patisserie for some authentic Sicilian comfort food, when we said we would take it with us, they gift wrapped our purchase – very nice but really unnecessary and after watching I realised they did it for all take-away purchases.
Upon returning to the hotel we purchased some internet time and set about planning more of our trip, booking a hotel in Palermo, checking train timetables to Bari, ferry timetables to and accommodation in the Greek Islands, and finally booking a ferry from Bari to Patras (Greece). This all took almost three hours of searching and discussions about where, what and how for each stop. With some stuff booked we still had a list of things that we needed to do face-to-face with booking agents – just part of the fun of travel.
We did the buffet for dinner at the hotel, something we haven’t done before on this trip, as it cost only €15.00 per person and included vino and aqua (wine and water). This was more attractive than walking the 10 minutes into town and then spending another half hour trying to decide in which cafe or restaurant to dine. The decision to go to the buffet was a good one as the spread was excellent, roast meat and vegetables, local seafood dishes, pasta a plenty and many other local dishes. The wine was good, a whole bottle to ourselves and dessert was superb with gelato and other sweet dishes I didn’t know but they tasted very good.
Tuesday is moving day again and it turned out to be one of those days! It started OK with a taxi ride down the cliff/hillside to the station but just before the train arrived it started to pour rain which wasn’t so bad except the train carriage leaked over the arm rest of both inside seats. Our journey to Palermo was supposedly going to be a simple affair by taking the train from Taormina to Messina (about 40km north) and then changing trains to go to Palermo. Half an hour into the first train ride out train broke down. After about half an hour, we managed to get going again and made it into Messina.
We thought things were looking up when we found the train to Palermo, which should have left at 11.04am, was still on the platform at 11.20am (nice of them to hold the train for us, so we thought!). So we jumped aboard and settled ourselves in for the trip. Then we waited and waited. After an hour we were eventually told that there was a problem at the next station and that we needed to board a bus for the journey westward to Palermo. Great! So we grabbed all our bags and disembarked from the train and followed the other passengers to a coach waiting outside the station. I send Liz ahead with the two backpacks to score us a couple of seats while I put our other three bags under the bus. When I eventually get onto the bus I saw Liz scoring the last seat on the bus and another 10 people already standing in the aisle – I’m thinking it could be a long trip to Palermo standing up in a bus, but what could I do but smile! Then the driver started the bus and guess what? We waited! Yes we waited for another 30 minutes before the driver actually put the bus into gear and we left – no explanation (we probably wouldn’t have understood if he told us!). A least the sun had started to shine.
We travelled along steadily through the city and eventually got to the motorway and after about 30 minutes we took an off-ramp and headed towards a railway station to drop off some passengers. We found out why the train wasn’t running; as flash flooding from the rain had caused quite a bit of damage - tons of mud and rumble washed by the rain deluge had swept through the town and covered the road and rail line. Of course getting to the station required navigating some of the samller streets, made more difficult because many of the streets were closed due to the mud. We came down a narrow street in our big coach and a truck coming in the opposite direction became stuck. Struck in that neither could pass one another without losing lots of paint and cars were backed up behind both vehicles (and don’t start me about the cars parked along the road). Eventually, the police arrived and made some of the cars parked along the side of the road move further onto the sideway so the bus and truck could eventually maneuver past one-another (Liz even put something on Facebook about it –she never put anything on Facebook!).
Our journey continued with stops along the way to let people off; eventually I got a seat and further down the line Liz and I actually got to sit together. Each time we arrived at a station, the conductor got off and discussed with the train staff the situation. Then he would get back on and we would travel to the next one. By around 3pm we had settled comfortably into this routine when we arrived at another station, the girl who had become our unofficial interpreter said that we would rejoin the train at the next station except the conductor (who by this stage was looking very haggard), rushed back onto the bus and told everyone to get off the bus as there was a train to Palermo sitting at the station. It was chaos as we all raced to get off the bus, collect our bags, and run onto the train before it left. Finally, we were on the train and heading to Palermo. The views were great as we travelled along the shoreline (it felt like sometimes we were actually on the beach – yes that close to the water!!) which is picturesque, the only problem was that we were about 3 ½ hours later than expected.
Finally arrived in Palermo and found our way to the hotel which was old but very clean and comfortable. Palermo is an interesting place; the streets aren’t very clean, the back streets look particularly uninviting and the hotel locks the doors at 8.00pm (and it's on a well lit main street!). So Liz and I intend to be back in our room by 8.00pm each night. I hope I haven’t insulted ‘The Family’ with my comments - after all it is Sicily!!!!!!
Wednesday was supposed to be a horrible wet day but, in fact, turned out to be sunny with the occasional cloudy patch. This was great as wanted to walk around Palermo to get a feel for the place. It must be said that the traffic in Palermo is on par with India. Pedestrian crossings mean nothing, so you literally cross the road at your own peril, speed limits????? What speed limits? And parking your car is wherever you bloody well feel like it. We once again came across some markets but Liz wasn’t really into browsing and eventually we walked to the main train station to organize our reservations to our final stop in Italy, Bari.
Bari is on the east side of the Italian boot and is the port for ferries travelling between Italy and Patras in Greece. The train trip to Bari is going to be interesting as we don’t leave Palermo until 5.00pm and change train just after the ferry crossing back onto the mainland at 11.30pm and then catch a connection which travels around the south eastern coastline at midnight that will arrive in Bari at around 8.00am. There is no first class on this train and no sleeper carriages so it will be a tough night! Added to the fact that we will be relying on both trains being on time to make the connection – based on our experiences with Italian trains, this is not sounding like such a good idea.
Now returning to our Wednesday adventures, we thought it would be good to travel to one of the other area of Sicily so, after checking the departure and arrival times to and from the various towns, we caught the 12.30pm train to Agrigento which was about 2 hours to the south down near the coast but involves travelling through the centre of Sicily; which would be good as we had only seen the coastal areas. The train ride down was really scenic as we weaved our way through, and at times under, the mountains that cover the interior of the island. On arriving at Agrigento we had a look around and despite walking considerable distances in two directions, we were concerned to see there was nothing to see. Eventually we found the centre of town (in the third direction) and went to the tourist information centre. We were interested in seeing the Valley of The Temples which was out of town, however, due to haphazard bus timetables; it wasn’t going to be a realistic option.
After trying, unsuccessfully, to get some lunch is a restaurant (all closed at 3.00pm???) we decided to catch the 4.15pm train back to Palermo. The only problem was that the train didn’t exist – it was on the timetables and departure board but no actually train was running – so we asked about and got differing explanations, for example: the ticket office said the train on platform 3 was going to Palermo but the conductor of the train on platform 3 said the train was only going part way and then returning to Agrigento. As the departure time approached we decided to take the train and see how far we could get, at least it would be closer to Palermo. Along the way the train stopped at other stations and each time passengers tried to get on, and each time the conductor quizzed them about where they wanted to go with “Palermo” as the consistent answer. The conductor refused to the let the passengers on and after we travelled for about an hour and a half we came to the final stop where we and the other passenger (just 1) disembarked. We now had to wait for an hour for the next train to Palermo, it was cold and dark - a little like my mood by this stage! Liz and I could really only laugh at this predicament as we had no control over the situation and simple put it down to one of the adventures of our trip. It was really suss though as to why the scheduled train was not running. The Sicilian passengers waiting for the trains were not happy and let the train staff know their feelings.
Eventually the train arrived so we jumped on to find a warm and comfortable seat but then we waited and waited; for one elderly lady it was the final straw and discussed this at length with the uncaring conductor (even though we couldn’t understand the discussion the content of the discuss was obvious). Finally, a train going in the same direction pulled up and a couple of passengers and some rail staff changed to our train and then off we went for the final 40 minutes of our trip back to Palermo. After departing from Agrigento at 4.15pm we arrived back in Palmero at 7.45pm only a little longer than the 2 hours we had envisaged.
The weather on Thursday was suppose to be wet but turned out fine, warm and sunny – we have been blessed as we have rarely had a bad weather day. Our plan was to brave the Sicilian train service again and take a bus to the northern railway station and take a train to Trapani on the western coast but we didn’t count on the fact that it would take 3 ½ hours to get there – this day excursion was not going to happen! After a rethink we decided that Palermo was not the place for us so we walked back to the main station taking some streets we hadn’t visited and took in some different sights – a leisurely stroll on a nice day.
At the main station we exchanged our tickets to Bari so that we would leave that night. A radical move that would cost us a nights’ accommodation in Palermo but we saw little use staying where we were.
With still half a day left (our train did not leave until 6.30pm) we visited a local supermarket to get some supplies for the trip and, taking a recommendation from the clerk at the hotel, had a fabulous lunch in a small ‘family’ restaurant. We were the restaurant’s only customers and they still had about 6 staff?? The meal however was great, Liz had penne pasta with a tomato and eggplant sauce and I had a meat ravioli with a creamy mushroom, ham and pea sauce, all washed down with a nice glass of wine.
To help lunch settle we walked around the streets and visited a market strip which stretched along 3 blocks of narrow alleys. As it was lunch time very few of the stalls were open, most stall/store owners were sitting together playing cards, but the goods were still sitting on the tables so we could look. If you did touch anything the stall holder was quickly there to push for a sale.
By late afternoon we made it back to the hotel not looking forward to what was going to be a long night on the train. With all the bags packed and checkout completed we walked to the station to be ready to board the train as soon as it arrived, as with the amount of luggage we have it’s often difficult to find enough space to store it on the train if we get on late. Our plan worked and we scored the luggage racks in the carriage compartment we were allocated and were lucky that we shared the 6 seat compartment with only one old lady for the trip to Messina. The train to San Giovanni station (first station on mainland Italy) took about 5 hours and included the ferry ride from Messina to San Giovanni, where we changed trains for the ride to Bari.
The train departed San Giovanni at midnight and wouldn’t arrive in Bari until 7.30am and unfortunately the whole train was second class so no sleeper carriages. Our seats did, however convert to a laid out type of lounge seat and when you did the same to the seat directly opposite you had a bed of sorts. We were lucky to have 3 people in our compartment so we each could lie out ( bit) and attempt to get a little sleep. The other person in our compartment left in the early hours meaning we could lie out along the 3 seats (the arm rests folded out of the way) which was longer and more comfortable.