Italy to Greece by Boat

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There is something so romantic about travelling from one country to another without the stress and artificiality of flying. We were both super excited about the prospect of crossing over from Italy to Greece by overnight ferry.

We pottered across from Naples on the west coast to the east coast of Italy on the train, through some beautiful mountains, and down the coast to just above the ‘heel’ of Italy. We stayed the night in the port town of Bari, which didn’t seem to have a lot to recommend it. There is a pretty ‘old town’ by the port, which is clearly either thronged with cruise ship tourists, or dead, depending on whether there’s a cruise in port. Being used to travelling in Africa, I probably overestimated how much of a margin we needed for everything and we could easily have got the train down the same day as the ferry, as instead we had a day and half in Bari, which was about a day and a quarter too much.

Anyway, it gave us a chance to stock up on vegetables after all that pizza, and we made a huge vegetable stir fry in the hostel – I think we fed half the backpacker community of Bari with the leftovers.

It was finally time to embark, and again, I had built in far too much time, as the checking in process took all of 5 minutes, and then we were on board hours before sailing. Mind you, this gave us ample time to scope out the best viewpoints and stake a claim to a table on the deck. Lauren was fizzing with excitement but after 4-5 full tours of the boat, she was happy to settle down on deck.

We also got the chance to watch the loading of all the trucks carrying goods (and live animals in a couple of cases) across to Greece, which was actually really interesting, seeing how the trucks were manoeuvred backwards into spaces with centimetres to spare.

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On board there was an interesting mix of tourists (mainly young Australian backpackers travelling in a huge group and getting drunk on cheap booze and freedom) and hardened truck drivers (also getting steadily drunker on the cheap booze, ultimately ending up in a punch up in the restaurant later, much to Lauren’s amusement and my alarm).

Our cabin was tiny but functional, with a pull-down bed for Lauren above my bed and a teeny weeny bathroom. It was about the size and set up of the cabin we have booked for a 30-day crossing on a cargo ship from London to Montevideo in December, and given that within 2 minutes our possessions were liberally scattered over every surface and bit of floor, it did cross my mind to wonder how on earth we will cope on a longer voyage.

As we are currently working our way through the Corfu Trilogy by Gerard Durrell, Lauren was keen to see Corfu when we passed it. Luckily the woman at reception told her there was no point waking up at 5am to see it, as it would be dark and we would be too far away. I should have slipped that woman a tenner. Anyway, when we did wake up closer to 7, we were threading our way between beautiful outcrops and islands, and it was a pretty idyllic start to the day.

We docked just before midday in Patras, and again, I had planned a night here “in case things go wrong” and while it was a lively little place, surrounded by mountains and with a lovely vibe especially as it was Sunday and the whole town seemed to be out for Sunday lunch and a stroll, it would have been easy enough to get straight on to Athens the same day. Instead, we went for a late lunch (kebabs, of course) and then hid inside doing schoolwork for a few hours as it was nearly 40 degrees. We went for a stroll in the evening, enjoyed a beautiful sunset and a G&T worthy of my father (for me) and an early night, happy to be in Greece and excited about Athens the next day.

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Next: Athens – The Acropolis, the Parthenon and will the Souvlaki be as good as mine???

Naples: Pizza, Pizza, Pizza

I am sure Naples is a lovely city with a great deal to offer, not least the National Archaeological Museum which holds many of the household objects and treasures unearthed in Pompeii. However, with only 3 nights in Naples, and two full-on daytrips, the most we saw of the city was its various stations and its pizzas. But what pizzas!

On our first night we arrived fairly late from Rome, hungry and not in the mood to deal with the metro system. The very friendly and extremely talkative host of the flat we were renting recommended a local pizza place that she claimed had some of the best pizza in Naples. We followed her directions down a street that somehow combined looking run down and slightly dodgy with some very swish jewelry shops. We nearly missed the restaurant, as there was just a small sign with the name of the place. Inside, tables for 6 were laid, and it was already heaving and chaotic.

We sat down where indicated by a rather gruff potbellied waiter, and I studied the menu. The waiter let me plod along in my pseudo Italian (mainly just Portuguese with an Italian accent and more hand gestures) until I tried to order extra chilli for Lauren (she wanted red peppers, google translate let me down), at which point for her sake he switched to perfectly good English. Drinks were served in disposable plastic cups, tables were covered in paper tablecloths, and single customers were wedged in among the groups wherever there was a chair. Payment was cash only, based on the system “tell the guy at the door what you had”. Eating protocol was very much head down, focus on the food.

Most of the customers seemed to be manual workers or office workers having a quick dinner before heading home, but there was a sprinkling of families too.  Most seemed to be content with a margherita, which I’ve always felt a bit wet ordering before, but I guess with pizza this good, why disguise it with fancy toppings?

Lauren had a margherita (of course!) and I thought I ordered Bolognese sauce on mine but it turned out to be some sort of tiny curried peas with possibly some meat flavouring … it was yummy but odd. The bases were amazing, with big fluffy crusts slightly blackened on top, and incredibly thin centres. They were the size of coffee tables. Neither of us managed even half, and we ended up eating the leftovers for the next 2 days!

I’ve no idea whether Naples would have been worth exploring further if we’d had more time, I’m sure it would, but I can confirm that the pizza was the best we had anywhere in Italy, and at 6 euros for a margherita that fed Lauren for 3 days, a bargain too!

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This is not a trick of perspective, it really was as big as it looks.

 

 

Pompei (by Lauren)

Written by Lauren 

Pompeii is an ancient city from the time of the Romans. It was once a busy town. There were lots of shops and bars and takeaway restaurants (thermopolium). It was buried by Vesuvius, it’s next door neighbour. Vesuvius is 5 miles away from Pompeii!! There are lots of paintings (frescoes) on the walls and mosaics on the floors. There is one mosaic I couldn’t take my eyes off, it has an inscription saying beware of the dog to scare away robbers. Most houses had one in front of the front door whether they had a dog or not!

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It took years to uncover all of this amazing city of Pompeii in fact they are still excavating. The story of how Pompeii was found is that one day some people were digging a tunnel and they came across some painted marble slabs. They investigated no further but then over 100 years later one of the rich people wanted to decorate his house with ancient treasures of the Romans so he commanded his servants to dig some more of the ancient things they had found 100 years before. It was hard because the lava and ash had hardened so it was really hard to dig through. After that they started excavating properly.

I definitely liked it but that is just because of my uncle Richard who is a historian, if he was not my uncle I probably would be interested but not as much as I am now. If you are not interested in history there is probably not a lot of point going unless you like gruesome stuff because in Pompeii they found the holes that dead bodies made when the lava hardened around them when they were trying to escape then the bodies rotted away but left the holes. Then they filled the holes with plaster and made statues. Babies and adults were killed so it is beautiful but gruesome.

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We saw lots of villas and also the amphitheater and the Forum and the temple of Isis and bars and the baths which were very cool. Lots of the streets had stepping stones because the poor people didn’t have bins in the streets like they have these days so when their bins got full they threw their waste onto the street and used the stepping stones to cross the street so they didn’t stand in the rubbish.

It was great fun and if you are in the area I think you should go!

 

 

 

 

 

Vesuvius!

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One of the things Lauren has really *really* wanted to do is visit a ‘real’ (as in, not dormant for centuries) volcano. So naturally, when she heard about the possibility of hiking up to the top of Vesuvius, she was all for it. I read that a bus takes you most of the way, so agreed. How hard could it be?

Then I started researching it properly and kept coming across all of these posts about ‘hefty Brits’ or ‘unprepared tourists’ failing to make the summit. Having once, many, many, many years ago, been the type to hike up Ben Nevis, spend weeks in the Scottish highlands wild camping, and hike the Lairig Ghru, crampons, ice axe and all in the middle of winter, I am familiar with that certain level of disdain ‘proper hikers’ have for unfit amateurs.  These days, after pneumonia wrecked my lungs, a spinal fusion, constant ankle pain from a torn ligament last year, dozens of extra kilos and a mislaid gym card, I can only accept that this is what I now am.

I spent last night having nightmares of letting Lauren down, or making her remember Vesuvius not as the cool exciting day when she got to the top of a volcano, but rather the day mummy had to be airlifted off the top having collapsed !

So in the absence of the ability to lose 50 Kg overnight, I prepared as best as I could – up early, decent breakfast, plenty of water in the bag, hiking boots….. we were at the base by 8 o clock. Only problem was, the shuttle didn’t start til 9. No problem! 9 o clock came and went, then 9.30 and it became apparent the shuttle went when it was full…. so we waited a bit longer, me fretting about the heat, Lauren doing pirouettes in the square, and playing an endless game of I spy.

Eventually we set off, up the incredibly narrow winding road up to the ‘top car park’. The typical Italian driving caused one woman to actually scream in panic as another bus careered round a corner and missed us by centimeters on the bend. Every bend after that the driver slowed to a crawl, exaggeratedly beeped his horn, and killed himself laughing.

The guides all say that it should only take a ‘fit’ person 30 minutes from the ‘top car park’ to the crater and ‘moderately fit’ 45. They never mention ‘unfit’  but the bus driver waits 90 minutes, so surely if I went slow and steady we’d be OK.

It was really not that bad at all, and I was possibly being a little paranoid. Grannies were going up there in their ‘sensible shoes’ and people far bigger than I made it. I powered up there in 30 minutes, head down, totally ‘mind over matter’, and yes, I could barely breathe the whole way up, it *is* steep, and yes, I did a couple of times tell Lauren to “stop asking so many bloody questions!” because I needed the oxygen to breathe not to enter into a debate about squirrels, or forest fires, or the impact of human beings on nature…. but we made it. Lauren of course barely broke a sweat.

It was definitely worth it. The views across the bay of Naples were beautiful, and it was definitely cool to see the odd wisp of steam coming up from the crater. Free briefings of about 10 minutes are included in the price of admission, and we learned a lot, including the fact that when Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, it was twice the height it is today. So at least some good came of it, I can’t imagine I’d have made it up the original!

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The white stuff is actually steam rising from the crater….

 

Tomorrow – Pompeii!

 

 

 

Ostia Antica

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Ostia Antica is a fairly well preserved Roman town which once served as a port for Rome. It’s also a lovely day trip when you feel the need to escape the heat and crowds of Rome. Thanks Denise for the recommendation, we had a fab day 😊

We packed up and left our little Air B&B and jumped on the tram to Termini station, where we would later that day catch a train to Naples. We left the bags at left luggage, which was a total mess and had huge queues, so I paid the extra 12 euros to ‘skip the line’ and have the ‘concierge service’ that would deliver the bags to the platform of our train 15 minutes before it leaves. Haven’t quite got into backpacker mentality yet!

The ruins are pretty impressive, although you do have to use your imagination. Best preserved is the amphitheater, a number of mosaics, the men’s latrines (seating only, with a specially shaped hole adapted to the male anatomy), and some villas, temples and bars. There are also some pretty impressive big round container things that I am sure my brother will be able to name – they stored grain in them and transported all sorts in them by sea.

Next – High speed to Naples!

 

 

Rome!

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After months of thinking and weeks of planning, we are finally under way. It still feels a little like we are just on holiday and at any minute will have to return to the work, school routine….

Our 4 days in Rome have been fantastic – despite some pretty atrocious weather at times. And its lovely to be in such a child friendly place (the clichés are true!). Even before we landed Lauren had the Italian gentleman next to her contorting himself and sucking in his not insubstantial belly so she could look out of his window – another gave her half his chocolate bar on the bus in from the airport, and yet another helped her with the bag she insisted she could manage on her own.

There was a certain amount of confusion at the airport when we landed – we bought a ticket for the 4.30pm bus to town inside the terminal, but when we got to the bus we were told it was full. Then it wasn’t full, there were two seats, but there were four people in front of us…. Then it turned out 2 of the 4 people in front of us had booked online and hadn’t turned up… the other 2 in front of us were an American couple who decided the best way to magic up some non-existent seats would be to have a total strop and harangue the young girl taking the tickets. This led to her giving them an earful and sending them back to the airport terminal for a refund, which they stormed off to do… leaving us, who had been waiting patiently to see how this all worked out, to stroll aboard and take the last 2 seats! I guess years of dealing with the confusão of Mozambique and Portugal gives us an advantage at times.

Day One: We knew day one was likely to be the best weather wise, so we really packed it in. In the morning, we visited the Colosseum (only the outside though as I’d organized a special kids-focussed tour for later in the week), which blew Lauren away. As we strolled from there past the forum towards Circus Maximius (the ancient chariot racing ground) Lauren spotted a fabulous Polizei Land Rover 110, all kitted out in interesting looking gear. She wanted a photo but by the time I found my phone in my bag, it’d gone. These guys happily stepped in as substitutes…… and she is a well brought up kid so thanked them and posed, although clearly its not quite the same 🙂

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At circus Maximus, we had a picnic in the ’spectator area’ imagining the chariots racing by below.

After lunch, we walked down to the river Tiber, and crossed over onto the tiny island imaginatively named Tiber island. There’s not much there other than a couple of restaurants and a couple of churches (of course). We then jumped on a bus to the Vatican, where we agreed that we weren’t interested in standing in the enormous queue to access St Peter’s (I’d been there before and Lauren, who was already convinced there are more churches in Rome than Pizza places, declared ‘it’s just another big church’ so I googled the inside for her and we went for ice cream instead!).

Then we jumped on the metro and got off at the Spanish steps, and spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering with the throngs through the small alleyways, stopping off briefly at the Trevi Fountain along with a million or so other tourists, and ending up at the Pantheon.

I love the Pantheon. Its the most preserved building from ancient Rome, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. It was built between A.D 118 and 125. The ceiling is a perfect dome and beautiful in its simplicity, especially compared to the gaudiness of many of the churches. I can’t help feeling though that it’s a shame it has been converted into a church today, rather than left as it was.

After that, we felt we deserved an early dinner, so we wandered for a while through back streets until we found a suitable looking pizzeria, where Lauren declared the pizza “better than mundos”. Hi praise indeed.

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Day Two: With severe thunderstorms and flooding predicted, we dedicated the morning to schooling, although at ‘break time’ Lauren decided to check out her new waterproof shoes and coat….

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After lunch we braved the rain to visit the Palazzo Massimo archaeological museum. This was surprisingly non-dull and Lauren really enjoyed the collections of Roman ‘everyday objects’ and coins, as well as the mummified body of an 8-year-old Roman girl found near Rome. The mummy of Grottarosa dating from the 2nd Century.

On the top floor, an entire Roman house Villa Farnesina has been re-constructed using the original frescoes and mosaics. Each room has been reconstructed to the same dimensions as the villa, and it’s really quite something. There is also a video simulating what the original looked like. Lauren found it fascinating.

Day Three: Colosseum tour day! We dedicated the morning to long division and reading/writing about Pompeii before a picnic lunch in front of the Colosseum and then the tour. Lauren was beside herself to get inside, but once inside she quickly made friends with a couple of Australian kids, and the wonders of the ancient world paled into insignificance against real life fun and games and comparing who had the most mean mother (mainly based on whether they were allowed phones and other devices, their ears pierced and other similar criteria). I think I came out middling mean.

The tour guide was excellent and brought various gifts for the kids and also kept them interested with games such as ‘Roman Bingo’ and guessing the modern-day versions of Roman words. Lauren, with two romance languages and English under her belt and a love of all things maths, had to be quietly told to pipe down and let others answer occasionally! Unfortunately, due to the rain the previous day they had closed the Forum, but we had seen plenty of it from the outside on day one, and it was really the Colosseum that Lauren had wanted to see in Rome, so we went home happily to pack.

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Rome Reflections

It strikes me that it must be quite frustrating to be a modern-day Roman, with half the city containing ancient ruins of one thing or another, and the city constantly thronged with tourists. The security situation is obviously also fraught – there were large numbers of army and police at metro stations and all the main tourist sites, and a number of streets have been closed off. Rome also seems far more multicultural than when I last spent any time there (many years ago). I have always loved the energy in Rome, and that hasn’t changed. Crossing the road remains a constant but quite exhilarating game of chicken. It was different being there with a child – best travel accessory ever, at least in Rome! She had old women getting up so she could sit down in the metro (much to her chagrin as she would far rather stand), old men in the supermarket queue telling me how beautiful she was, and waiters fawning over her.

Rome was a wonderful, easy start to our trip, and we managed to do it without completely breaking our budget, despite the eye-watering prices. We self-catered mainly, and stayed a little out of the centre, in a mixed residential area on a cute little commuter tram line that trundled along at just over walking speed into Termini station.

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Next stop – Naples for Pompeii, Vesuvius and (more) Pizza!