Archive for Italy

30 Apr 2014

The Devil Made Me Do It

1 Comment Italy

San Luca Portico walk - 666 porticos, devilishly difficult

Sanctuary of the blessed virgin of San Luca

Leaning towers of Bologna

Looks level to me. Tower number two. Climb at your own risk.

Bologna's misfortune is its proximity to Florence, Venice and Milan. They steal Bologna's limelight — a good thing perhaps.

It is an elegant city, clean and easy to navigate all year round because it has more than forty kilometres of covered porticos. It has it's own leaning tower or two. And an Apple store to fix faulty iPhones. What more could you want? There is a lot to like about Bologna, although at night, except for certain student areas, it is so quiet you can hear a pin drop.

The longest covered walkway in the world is in Bologna. Rain, hail or shine, the 666 arched porticos provide shelter and lead out from the city for almost four kilometres to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca church high on the hill. It is a steep but pleasant walk. The views from the top make it all worthwhile.

We met an American guy and his gorgeous Italian girlfriend who told us she would take us out for dinner for some real Italian food. We were excited … PIZZA again!!

Ferrara is a short train ride from Bologna and has largely intact fortified walls surrounding the city. We walked the nine kilometre walk and then visited the castle. Afterwards we ate pizza.

And then to Milan? It is a beautiful city, mixing both old and new and succeeding. What can I say about Milan except we had to keep walking, never stopping?

Two reasons:

  1. To work off all the pizzas (to allow us to eat more pizzas).
  2. As soon as we stopped there was always the threat of being tossed a coin and being mistaken for beggars. The Milanese are that fashionable.

Tuck in your teeshirt wont you Paolo and wipe that pizza sauce from your face.

And you, little one, soft one with the sharp tongue, any danger you might buy a new suit?

PS: It seemed only fitting that our departure from Italy would be via Milan Bergamo's Il Caravaggio airport. We wondered how long it would be before we bumped into him again.


Ferrara city walls

A walk around Ferrara

Castle Estenza moat, Ferrara

Shopping mall, Milan

Milan cathedral

The height of fashion, Milan

A different side of Milan. The new Bosco Vertical (Vertical Forest) green buildings. Impressive.

24 Apr 2014

White knuckle ride

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Finding religion - Easter Sunday mass

I can't say enough good things about Salerno. It is a great city, gritty in parts but alive and not at all touristy. The nightly stroll through the city at a slow pace is a sight to behold. Step in with the crowd. The entire city mobilises and takes to the streets for a few hours. Later, (after 10pm) the bars begin to fill until they overflow. People spill back out onto the streets until there are far more people out in the streets than there are in the bars. They stand around clutching drinks and chatting ALL night long. In the square outside our apartment there must be three hundred people standing around outside the two tiny bars that can accommodate perhaps thirty people between them, yet somehow it all remains very civil.

We took a ferry up to Amalfi because the ferry to Positano was cancelled. Of course it was! The coastline is rugged, impossible, stunning, yet in a country unable to organise a single efficient bus, train or ferry service they have somehow managed to build houses that hang precariously on the sides of cliffs. An amazing feat!

Amalfi was pretty, crowded and full of souvenir shops and tourists. To get away from it we walked the mountain road to Minori — a couple of villages away — for lunch. To get back to Salerno we caught the bus. This is the best thrill ride you can have for under €3. Get an oceanside seat and join in helping the driver steer the bus, oohing and aahing, shrieking and braking for him, closing your eyes while he has long animated gesticulating conversations on his mobile phone while hurtling towards a bend. He trumpets the air horns loudly and the bus shudders to frequent and sudden halts. People grab onto the seats in front of them in anticipation. To my immediate right there is a thin concrete barrier separating the bus from the Mediterranean many metres below. From my elevated seat the barrier disappears and there is nothing, just blue. The road is too narrow and the oncoming cars often have to stop and reverse back to allow us to pass. It is beautiful, however I vow never to do it again.

Scratch that thought. The next day Luca and his mate, Mario, invite us for a barbecue on a private beach. They have the keys to the access gate to a private beach road. It is an offer too good to refuse. The bit they don't tell us is it is on the Amalfi coast and we will be going on the back of Luca’s scooter. Okay so I was wrong, this is the best thrill ride you can have and it’s free. Luca tells us he is a good driver, then proceeds to tell us about a bad motorbike accident he had two years ago. His motorbike was a write-off. He fared slightly better.

You only live once!

We spend most of the ride in the oncoming lane, weaving and ducking. I think I may have found religion.

A private beach, Italian food, sun, wine, good company — what's not to like? In the back of my mind there is a niggling thought: the white-knuckled ride home.

I have been dreaming of hurtling pizzas. It is time to head north.


Private access road to the beach. Mario - only an Italian can wear plaid shorts, an orange shirt with white stripes, a white watch, yellow shoes, a hat and somehow look stylish. Luca on the scooter.


Didn't anyone think to ask the Aussie how to light a barbecue?

Leave it to me boys - Stella



21 Apr 2014

The Next Train Arrives At …

5 Comments Italy

Welcome mat. Please wipe your feet.


What is it about Italy that charms?

Is it that nothing works as you expect it will?

There were ominous signs, starting off with a brief chat with the goddess in the breakfast room. I found out later she was Miss Italy (a Sicilian). And you think I am weak in the knees. You should have seen Paul. And the second sign occurred while waiting at the train station and entering the toilets immediately after a junkie decided to turn it into his own personal slaughterhouse. I will spare you the details, suffice to say I no longer required the toilet.

I had an inkling it was going to be one of those days!

The plan was to take the train and go to Paestum to visit the ancient city of Poseidonia. For anyone who has been to Italy you will know that trains and buses have minds of their own and schedules are as worthless as the paper they are printed on.

The train was on time. It was too good to be true. And it was. At Paestum the train doors refused to budge and by the time we made it to the next carriage the train was hurtling towards Agropoli. The next train from Agropoli back to Paestum was not due for more than an hour. We started on the pleasant eight kilometre walk to Paestum, however when the weather turned nasty we turned back and decided to wait for the train. Big mistake. The train was delayed several times and then eventually cancelled. The next train was three hours away. Again we ventured off on foot with a watchful eye on the weather, finally reaching Paestum an hour-and-a-half later.

It was worth the eventual twelve kilometre stop-start walk. Three Ancient Greek temples in better condition than anything at the Acropolis, though not commanding quite the same godly lofty presence as Parthenon. A partially excavated ancient city surrounds the temples. In true Italian style the whole operation is run haphazardly. There is nothing to prevent you walking through the old houses and across the remains of the mosaic floors, or traipsing over the walls — for a true tactile experience, destroy your very own ancient city, this is the place to go! There is an excellent museum where fortunately most of the exhibits are safe behind glass.

Back at Paestum station the scheduled train to Salerno failed to arrive. A group of us paced the platforms for two hours resignedly until the next train arrived.

You just have to shake your head, grit your teeth and bear it. This is Italy.

Salerno is a wonderful city, full of life, close to Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Naples, and yet somehow escaping the normal tourist influx. Like Sicily, the south of Italy is very poor. Unemployment is high. But unlike Sicily, the people seem energised and as a consequence it is a much more pleasant place to spend time than anywhere we visited in Sicily. Hush, hush … don’t tell the Sicilians.

We are staying in a seventh floor B&B commanding great views along the coast and up into the mountains. Last night, Luca (the proprietor), Paul and I, and two American women (a mother and daughter) went out for one of those memorable long slow Italian meals, to a busy family run restaurant. At the end of the night the bill arrived and we watched while the waitress scratched out the total and for no good reason rounded it down to practically nothing.

Amid the chaos and the confusion, the non-conformity, the systems that don't work, washed down with generous splashings of red and shots of Limoncello at the end of each day, is making me see it clearly now. The charm of Italy is simply Italy.

It couldn't be anywhere else!


Zeus - circa 530 BC


Are we related?




18 Apr 2014

Ear Infection

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Duomo in Ortigia. Caravaggio hiding just around the corner.

Early Sicilian toll-free highway

Corporate box at the Ancient Greek ampitheatre

Ear of Dionysius

The Inner Ear

Roman ampitheatre Syracusa


We are staying on Ortigia, the tiny island only thirty steps from Syracusa on the big island of Sicily. It is connected to the mainland by three bridges. Blink and you’ll miss them. Ortigia had a history of being a bit on the seedy side; sailors and whores, that sort of thing. Nowadays it has gone upmarket — you are more likely to see cruise-liners and super motor yachts dockside than a sailing vessel, or a discarded Rolex than a Durex.

Ortigia is full of narrow curved alleyways and it is a great place for hide-and-seek. We couldn't resist 10, 9, 8 … 3, 2, 1, ready or not, here I come. It was down one of these narrow alleyways that we made a discovery: Caravaggio’s Restaurant and Pizzeria. So we are not the intrepid pioneers we once thought we were. He beat us to it, the rogue. It turns out after he fled Malta, he ended up here. Makes sense.

In a nondescript church in the same large piazza as the impressive Duomo, Caravaggio painted The Burial of St Lucy (the patron saint of Syracusa). To my mind it is not quite as good as the the two pieces in Malta. The brush strokes are not as defined — they are painted almost with a judder, as if he was painting while looking nervously over his shoulder, and so he should have been. But his pizza was not half bad!

Step over the bridge and into Syracasa and you are a world away. Syracusa's nothing special, however on the outskirts of town two impressive sites exist:

  • the modern and quite brutal Shrine Of Our Lady Of Tears. Our host, Angela, cringes and almost cries herself when I mention it — as does most of Syracusa — but I love it.
  • The Archeological Park which houses: an impressive untouched Roman amphitheatre; an equally impressive Greek amphitheatre overlooking the Ionian Sea and modernised to hold current special events; and best of all The Ear of Dionysius, (named by Caravaggio of course, after the tyrant Dionysius, not the god Dionysus). It is an ancient cave that was originally carved out for water storage, but when some of the walls collapsed it proved unusable. It is now a tourist attraction as much for its interesting form as its echoey acoustic properties. While we were inside someone began whistling The Lion Sleeps Tonight and now I am stuck endlessly in that tune.

I think the best thing we can do is get out of Sicily fast.


Shrine of Our Lady Of Tears



13 Apr 2014

A Long Way To Come For Gelato

1 Comment Italy, Malta

Beach on Comino


The Blue Lagoon - Comino


St John's Cathedral - Valletta Malta. Caravaggio's are off limits to cameras

Caravaggio was a ratbag and a murderer. The Pope at the time issued a death warrant on him (my how times have changed), so he fled Italy to Malta. While in Malta, he:

was knighted

painted a couple of excellent works including The Beheading of John the Baptist which hangs in the incredible St John’s Cathedral where every inch of the cathedral is detailed. It is over-the-top but somehow beautiful.

managed to assault one of his fellow knights and fled Malta.

All we leave in our trail are rabbit bones and mopped clean plates of linguine.

I like Malta. I like the way people stop on the streets and say hello. I will miss it.

On our second last day we took an old wooden boat to Comino, Maltest third largest island. We lay on the deck catching a tan.

Careful you’ll singe, Paul said.

It was a so-so tour with only a brief period on Comino — enough time for a short walk, enough time to reflect on Malta. Malta is a small country with a big heart. Malta is no supermodel, but it does have a character all of its own.


Etna from the bus

Arriving in Sicily, I was expecting more. Then it came flooding back to me: Italia —synonymous with disfunction. I immediately yearned for Malta, Perth, Athens, anywhere really.

Two and a half hours to get a phone SIM card sorted compared to 10 minutes elsewhere (yes, including Greece!).

On the bus from the port to Catania, Etna peeked from the clouds. She puffed a little, teasing us, then disappeared behind clouds for the remainder of our stay.

A day later, a bus ride to Taormina, after stopping at five different bus terminuses only to be told: no, try that one over there. Everyone one was confused. I watched the same people trundling from station-to-station, each of them with that same glazed over look in their eyes. We finally reached Taormina. It is a beautiful village cut into the side of the mountain. At the top of the village, taking pride of place, is an ancient Greek amphitheatre with Etna behind it obscured by clouds. Taormina is touristy though and it feels like it may have sold its soul.

And Catania, though full of people, grandiose architecture, a lively market and large piazzas, also feels a little soulless, a little dirty and slightly unloved.

I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then she appeared again, on my last day, peeking from the clouds — Etna. She who had thwarted us at every attempt to reach her. At the bus station they said: No, there will be no bus until tomorrow. And at the train station, the circumetnea railcar that rings Etna was on strike. But then standing there and watching Etna simmer in the distance, I sensed their fear, Etna’s power — the way she paralysed them, the way she made everything seem temporary … and I think I understood.

I wanted to like Catania, I really did, but even riding pillion on a motorbike through the heavily trafficked streets of Catania without a helmet was somehow less exhilarating than it should have been.

At the risk of Il Padrino reading this and deciding I should be fitted up for a pair of boots (concrete size 00000), I will sign off by saying the Gelato is the best I have ever had!


Al was 'ere - Taormina


Etna in the other direction was obscured under cloud