Catania, Sicily 14-18 July
We had to catch a train up to Reggio Calabria Lido for a ferry across to Messina in Sicily. We thought we had things detailed with a 9am train but when we got there the board did not show anything until 9:40, which meant we missed the connecting ferry and had to wait until 11:05. By now, we are used to this sort of thing happening with Trenitalia and with transport in general. The ferry trip was a mere 35 minutes across the Straits of Messina and we walked away from the dock up to the central rail station. Since the dock area and around the train station is often the ugliest part of any city we were unable to form an opinion of Messina. There were several trains available to take us to Catania and we chose a 13:20 train to give us time for a bite to eat. We found a great eatery close to the station that served a wonderful potato and cheese bake concoction so we washed it down with a beer.
Back at the station, we set about purchasing some tickets from the ticket machine. As we were processing the payment at the auto ticket machine, a couple of African guys asked for help buying tickets. The machines will operate in English if it is selected and their English was fine but it was apparent that neither could read. They had a handful of coins each. We worked one on one stepping them through the selections. However, when they came to the type of ticket they both wanted to choose “Child” at half fare(3.80€). I told my guy that the conductor would fine him for cheating but he said he only had enough for a child fare. Unknown to me, Christine’s pupil was wanting the same. If we were working together we probably would have just agreed to buy the adult tickets for each one and be done with it but in the end both guys bought child tickets and thanked us profusely for our help.
We boarded the train on time (a good sign) and immediately encountered a conductor checking tickets, quite a rare event on regional trains in Italy. We worried for our African guys and I managed to watch the encounter with one from a distance. The conductor checked the ticket then reached for the notepad in his hip pocket and I thought he was gone. He went into a very good show of subservience and pleading until eventually the conductor scanned his ticket and moved on. Well done mate!
The train carried us south, under the shadow of the volcano, Mount Etna, the summit shrouded in a mixture of clouds and volcanic smoke. We passed through numerous small villages, all very neat and surrounded by lush gardens. Here, citrus and olive groves flourish in the rich volcanic soil and the market gardens are unbelievably productive. There are some upsides to constantly living under the threat of death by volcanic eruption.
We reached Taormina, a town of outstanding beauty perched along the cliffs under Mt Etna. Below us, a fortune in yachts and mega power boats lay at anchor in sparkling clear waters. The train stopped at the station, a lot of people got off and the police got on. What followed was a lot of talk and phone calls between train officials, police and a large number of people on the train that seemed to actually know what was going on. We didn’t know whether we were facing a terrorist threat, a hold up or what ever. No one seemed to be giving any information, either in Italian or English for quite some time. After 20 minutes or so, after which we had decided that the gun toting police were not too upset, we found out that there was once again a fire on the track ahead of us. One of the police came through the carriage and ascertained that we were not trying to get to Catania Airport. Those that were got taken off the train onto a bus. After the experience in Calabria a few day before, we were keen to stay on the train. After an hour and a half, the train got mobile again and we finally rattled into Catania Centrale.
We usually choose accommodation within a 1km walk of a rail station and we thought we had this time too. Off we went, following Google Map instructions with our 17kg backpacks on in 35°C heat until we had walked far enough to check on the distance left. We were struggling and still had another kilometer to go. Obviously we had stuffed up with the distance from station to our accommodation being around 2.5km. It was a major walk in trying conditions but we finally found our apartment in a little street called via Pulea off the major avenue of via Etnea. On the plus side, we had walked through some beautiful parts of Catania, not around the rail station, which was ugly and dirty as is the case in many cities, but later on when we walked through majestic streets and several glorious piazzas. It promised a lot of wonderful exploration.
The apartment provided the basics, including an air-conditioner that just managed to cope with the heat of Catania and a toilet cistern that needed special treatment to prevent it from producing a terrible death-rattle noise as the float level valve was closing. The owner was a collector of “stuff” and couldn’t bare to throw anything out. The trouble was that he hadn’t collected all the right stuff, including a kettle, a pot big enough to boil pasta or more than one dinner plate. Fortunately, he had a kindly neighbor who was happy to cover his deficiencies in his absence.
We found some locally made fresh ravioli at a nearby supermarket and enjoyed the first meal that hadn’t come from a kebab shop or panini stall since leaving Montenegro. Here we are now surrounded by many great looking restaurants and we are back to apartment living and cooking our own. Some good local Sicilian wine supplemented a beautiful meal.
Catania Old Town
The next morning we set out in city walking mode to explore the many sights in this World Heritage listed city. Catania has a distinctively different look to it that sets it apart from other Italian cities and it is the result of the use of a dark grey volcanic stone rather than the soft white limestone or sandstone so common elsewhere. That, along with heavy layer of soot and grime covering much of the lighter coloured stone does produce a dirty look but the lavish architecture and Baroque styling overcomes much of that. Part way down the via Etnea we stopped for a while in the Piazza Stesicoro to admire the remains of the 1st Century Roman amphitheatre buried beneath the city. It was a huge stadium, originally built in 300BC but rebuilt in the 2nd Century during the Empire. It was built of lava rock and marble and survived largely intact until a large earthquake destroyed it in the 17th Century. Much of the original is now foundation for many other buildings and the portion visible represents only about 1/8th of the oval shaped structure with seating and holding areas for gladiators, performers and the like.
We walked the length of via Etnea, marvelling at the sheer scale and opulence of the buildings and the magnificence of the piazzas. The best of the piazzas was the Piazza del Duomo with its powerful cathedral and the Elephant Fountain. The elephant is the symbol of Catania, although the exact reason is shrouded in mystery and folklore. Another fountain, the Fountaina dell’Amano, a beautiful white marble affair, sits in one corner of the Piazza next to via Giuseppe Garibaldi, another street of some renown. The fountain is one of the points where the Amenano River can be seen. It flows beneath the city in three arms. Originally it was a surface river but volcanic eruptions in 242BC and 1669 covered the river over. Beyond the fountain is the noise, bustle and smell of the famous fish markets of Catania. The smell is powerful but fresh and all the fish looks to be in top condition. The sellers yell and scream, whether they are battling each other or appealing to customers is unclear but it adds to the atmosphere. We watched a guy shelling small prawns by hand and the rate of about one a second and a couple of other guys butchering a huge swordfish.
A short distance down via Giuseppe Garibaldi we found a travel agent that does tours of Mount Etna to book a trip for Sunday. The young girl in the office was so entertaining and her description of the tour was a real performance. Later, we asked about hop on hop off bus tours but she was scornful and said we didn’t need it. She produced a map of Catania and proceeded to circle things and give the most amazing description of what there was to see and how to reach things. Her talents are so wasted in an office. We left the office with tickets for an Etna tour and a heads full of knowledge about what next to explore.
The Greek-Roman Theatre is a typical semi-circular stone outdoor theatre first built around 500BC by the Greeks then built on to by the Romans in the 1st and 2nd Centuries. Over the years it has been partially built over or covered and subsequently uncovered. Today it is in a condition that allows it to be used for regular performances. The lower sections of the seating is in marble and the upper sections in lava rock (bringing a cushion to sit on would be a must). At its height it catered for an audience of 7000. We enjoyed exploring the labyrinths and storage areas behind the scenes and underneath the seating areas. It is incredible to think of the story behind this place, interwoven with some of the great events of history and bound up with the eruptions of Mount Etna over the centuries. It is also sad that so much of one of the great buildings of antiquity was so carelessly built over during the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
We pushed on to the Castello Ursina, a 13th Century castle and now a museum. When it was first built it was on a cliff overlooking the sea but it is now a kilometer inland after lava flows from Mount Etna and a series of earthquakes changed the landscape. Even the original moat was filled in with a lava flow in 1693. It is quite amazing where humans choose to live.
On the way home back up the long stretch of via Etnea, we stopped off at the huge sprawl of street markets that fill the streets and alleyways off the main street. If we had more luggage space it would be possible to buy a lot of very cheap clothing and shoes at these markets. Bathers are particularly prominent and one can see two piece sets for as low as 6€ a set. It is a teenager’s dream.
Our trip to Mount Etna was wonderful, one of the highlights of the trip so far. A very funny and chatty guide picked us up from our apartment in a not so new Nissan 4 wheel drive and we squeezed in along with a young French couple and a young Italian couple. The guide, Andreas, talked non-stop on the drive up the mountain. He had to really because he had to say everything three times, in Italian, French and English. Like all Italians, he spoke with his hands and made plenty of eye contact the whole time. The trouble was he was driving! He was a real riot but I must admit he did seem to know where he was going and the poor exhibition of attentive driving never seemed to put us in danger so we just accepted it.
The drive took us to the South Base Camp at about 2000m above sea level. Along the way we stopped once to look out over the view of Catania below us. As we got back in the car, the rain started and by the time we got to the Base Camp it was pelting down. Fortunately, we had been advised to take jackets against cold winds and we had packed raincoats with hoods so we just set off anyway. It was cold when the wind was up but the rain eased as we climbed up to the first set of craters. The whole scene is like a lunar landscape, excepting the odd bits of low vegetation and a few cafes and small pubs that service the tourists. There are several accessible craters (not currently active) in the immediate area and an enormous lava flow that snakes down the mountain and stops at the road, right next to one of the pubs. The surrounding area is a mixture of black loose volcanic soil and ash, hard jagged lava flows and iron stained basalt that glows a beautiful shade of red. That marks the furthest extent of the flow of 2011. We climbed on foot up another 200m of altitude along a path carved out of the volcanic ash to look down into a larger crater. The climb was challenging and the descent, down a narrow path of very loose material even more so. Christine was very controlled and only screamed a few times.
As we got back into the car, a thick cloud descended on us, cutting visibility to only a few metres. Andreas drove very slowly, avoiding pedestrians as they materialized out of the heavy fog until eventually the mist cleared and we were able to reach the next destination. We stopped at the entrance to a small lava cave. It had been formed in the 1972 eruption but only discovered when road works after the 2011 eruption uncovered it. We donned hard hats and got torches to climb down beneath the roadway and into the tunnel. Much of the wall was smooth, apparently the result of lava cooling then re-melting in a later eruption and in some places there was a distinct yellow staining indicating the presence of sulphur. The roof of the cave was filled with stalactite type formations which were actually solidified drips of molten lava. We could only go a short distance before an eight metre drop halted us. There are over 200 known lava caves dotted around the mountain.
After the cave we pushed on, stopping at a vantage point to look out over the Valle del Bove, a huge valley on the East slope which is an enormous caldera or collapsed volcano. A gigantic magma flow is the main feature, a lot of it created during the big eruption of 1793. At the carpark to the lookout, Andreas, knowing we were Australian, pointed out the National Park rules on a sign that depicted a kangaroo on a leash and stated that it was forbidden to bring exotic animals into the park. What made them pick on a kangaroo is anyone’s guess.
As we descended the mountain, we made a final stop at a village produce outlet to sample local Sicilian produce. We normally hate this part of any tour, mainly included to get a commission payment for the driver. This one was different and we spent a great half hour wandering around sampling different honeys, amazing olive oils with a variety of infusions, some interesting liqueurs, wines, pesto and other assorted tasty morsels. Often you can’t think about buying anything because you don’t want to lug a large container of stuff around as you travel but they made small quantities of the produce available at very reasonable prices. We bought some Pistachio Liqueur, a beautiful pesto sauce and some rosemary infused olive oil.
All in all we had a fantastic day, well worth the 55€ each for the day. I’ve always wondered why humans would choose to live on the slopes of an active volcano and suffer the death and destruction that occurs at intervals throughout history but I guess it is different when you are born and bred in the area. As Andreas put it, Catanese regard Etna as “The Mountain”, a lady of different moods. The extreme richness of the soil and agricultural areas shows how the volcano repays its debts.
We had one more day to use on excursions from Catania and it basically fell into a choice between Taormina and Syracuse. Both offered incredible history and beautiful old towns, Syracuse more so but Taormina offered the amazing coastal views. Andreas, our guide on the Entna tour, along with the Italian couple on the tour, voted for Syracuse. Andreas felt that Taormina was worth a half day at best and didn’t offer nearly as much as Syracuse. We had at least seen the gorgeous coastline and Bay of Taormina from the train on the trip from Messina so we took their advice and went to Syracuse. We came home exhausted but far from disappointed.
The local bus system in Catania let us down badly (as usual). We waited at a bus stop in via Etnea for 40 minutes without a sign of a bus. Other people came and sat, then just gave up and left. A guy at the botanical garden next door just said that the buses were very unreliable and shrugged his shoulders. In the end we walked a kilometre down via Etnea and got on the new Metro system to travel one stop and get out at Giovanni XXIII Station near the rail and bus station. Then we spent half an hour wandering around asking people about a bus to Syracuse. One ticket seller had a sign up saying “Urban Bus Tickets only. No advice given.” I shuddered as Christine went and asked him about Syracuse. She was lucky, given the sign, to just get a sharp reply of “No!” Finally, we found that the regional buses left from another bus station about 200m away, bought our ticket and just made a bus, leaving Catania just under two hours after leaving home.
The 55kms between Catania and Syracuse is largely filled with heavy industry on the coast and mixed agriculture further inland. The volcanic influence can still be seen in the soil and things grow very well. As we drove into Syracuse, I started to question whether we had made the right choice because we weren’t seeing much more than blocks of apartments, shopping centres and some large areas of vacant land filled with weeds. Even when we got out of the bus and walked the length of Corso Umberto towards the island of Ortigia, which houses the medieval part of the city, things failed to impress. Once over the bridge and onto the island, it changed for the better.
By this time it was midday so we decided to sit, relax, have a beer and share a pizza. A table of Aussies were next to us so we exchanged a few “Oi Oi Ois”. It was tempting to just settle in for the day and get back on the bus later but we had some serious exploring to do.
Syracuse was one of the most important of ancient Greek cities, certainly amongst those outside of Greece itself. The great mathematician and scientist Archimedes was one of its famous inhabitants, killed in Syracuse during the Roman invasion of 212BC. We checked out the ruins of a Temple to Apollo, Greek in origin and built in 570BC, marvelling at the sheer age of the structure and the skill of the stone masons. Over the years, the temple had been repurposed as Byzantine church, an Islamic Mosque, a Norman church and Spanish barracks. Another amazing example of this repurposing of Greek temples can be found in the beautiful cathedral Santa Maria delle Colonne. The magnificent baroque church is built around the Temple of Athena from Greek times and the Doric columns of the temple can still be seen embedded in the walls of the church.
We strolled along the beautiful Foro Italico, a seaside promenade and admired the beautiful freshwater spring and pond called the Fonte Arethusa, only one of two places in Europe where papyrus reeds grow wild. Some small shops around the area featured paintings on papyrus grass paper.
Unfortunately, the major attractions of Syracuse are spilt into two areas, the Ortigia Island area and the Archaeological Park area a couple of kilometres inland. Both need visiting but the distance apart is an issue. We solved the problem with a “Hop On Hop Off Bus”. We have avoided these things of late because they usually represent very poor value for money. Not so with this one, a mere 5€ buying a whole day of touring with English commentary. They are also frequent with a regular 30 minute interval, so we headed for Piazza Archimedes and hopped on.
On alighting at the Archaeological Park we looked around for the entrance. Eventually, on the far side of the car park there was a sign advertising tickets. We entered to find a young man seated behind a glass screen reading his phone and looking bored. No sign was evident to tell us the entrance cost. He barely looked up and said “10€ each”. We did a jaw drop and offered a 50€ note but he waved his hand and shook his head. It was 2pm so what the hell had he done with the other takings if he couldn’t change a 50? We reluctantly gave him a 20€ note, leaving us without change. He grunted and pushed two tickets under the screen and went back to his phone. “What? No map or information?” He shook his head. We left, muttering about a crap 20€ spent. Outside, we realized we had no idea of where to go next. No signs, no maps, nothing. We went back in and asked but he just shrugged and said, “No, nothing.” We had to leave the car park, cross a major road and head down a driveway to find the entrance, where we found we could have bought the same tickets anyway. Still no maps, and as we were to find later, no signage in English either. I think they have missed something here.
The attractions inside the Archaeological Park are wonderful. The main feature is a huge Greek Theatre, in good enough condition to be still used today, although wooden planks cover the stone decks of old to preserve our modern buttocks. The original theatre was built in 470BC and was one of the largest and most important in the Greek world. It catered for 15,000 spectators. Incredibly, the theatre was not built up from stone blocks but actually carved out of solid limestone. The seating therefore is one huge solid piece. Given the current controversy about Perth’s new stadium it is mind blowing that the Greeks could have achieved this 2,500 years ago.
Underneath the theatre is an area with ancient quarries and a couple of huge caverns. It has never really been established whether the caverns are natural or man made but the largest and most spectacular, the Ear of Dionysis, is most probably natural, caused by water seepage many millennia ago. It served as a prison in ancient times and had amazing acoustic properties, which along with the shape of the entrance leads to the name.
Another theatre is a Roman amphitheatre, built in the 1st Century. It is not as big as the one on Catania nor as well preserved as the one on Verona but it is certainly impressive. The Romans built the amphitheatre out of carved blocks, unlike the Greek one and it has shown a lot more erosion. Surprisingly, there appears to have been no effort made to control weed growth in and around the ruins. I would have thought some carefully controlled use of herbicides and gardening would have been in order.
Collectively, the ruins represent an amazing experience that enhances an appreciation of the life of the ancients. They managed to create so much with so little but the thing that always strikes me is the sheer sense of determination in their endeavours.
We managed to just catch a bus as we left the park and had a short walk back to the main bus station for a bus back to Catania. Most of that ride was spent asleep after all the walking. By the time we had caught a metro to a station about 1km further up via Etnea from our apartment and walked down the hill to home we had covered just on 10km for the day. Syracuse was done and dusted, definitely a must see when in Sicily.
Palermo 18-21 July
Not wanting to trust the buses again, we walked a kilometre to the Metro station and then on to the rail station for a train to Palermo. The train trip was fast and comfortable, with no fires across the tracks, and took about three hours. The countryside along the way was quite beautiful. In the early stages, we got changing views of Mount Etna as the route skirted around its base. There seemed to be more smoke issuing forth than there had been on previous days. Once into the interior of Sicily, the country became quite reminiscent of Australia, the brown fields of newly cut hay mixed with very common plantings of eucalyptus trees adding to the effect. With the numerous hills and valleys it bought to mind parts of NSW inland of the Blue Mountains.
Once in Palermo, we tossed up how to get to our apartment, more than a walk away from the station. We had directions for the bus and knew we needed a 101 bus to Poliamentia-Liberta bus stop. The 101 was easy to find, they were common. How to buy a ticket was more of a puzzle. We got on one bus and Christine went to buy a ticket from the driver. “No” and he pointed vaguely to a building. I got off with the bags but the doors shut and the bus started off, with Christine still on board. She had to shout at the driver to open the doors and let her off. Christine took off with some American girls to locate the ticket office. There wasn’t one but they did find the newsagent that sold them. Back with tickets, we tried to get on the next bus, behind the American girls but it filled up and we couldn’t manage with our big backpacks so we got off again. We got on the next bus and took off. As we went, we realised that there was no signage to indicate bus stops so all we could do was use Google Maps and wait until we got close enough to get off and walk. I don’t know how people managed to travel before Google Maps. Finally, we found the place, met Carmello, the host, and settled in to what was a large and comfortable apartment. We even have rooms we won’t bother to use.
After unpacking (getting a little sick of that operation) we walked a block to via Liberta, one of the main drags in Palermo and settled down at a gorgeous little restaurant for some fried mozzarella cheese, potato frittas and bruchetta, all washed down with a beer of course. Then it was off to the supermarket to stock up and home to bed. Life is definitely catching up of late and the bones and feet are protesting somewhat.
Palermo is very reminiscent of Spain, possibly because of its history. It has been described as the most conquered city in Europe and almost every foreign power has controlled it at some point in history. The Arab influence is present and has even returned to some extent with the influx of refugees from Libya and Tunisia in recent years. It had a golden age in the 12th Century when under the control of Norman invaders.
We found Palermo to be very busy, crowded and the traffic was terrible. The road system fails to support the number of cars. The bus system is chaotic and we found our experience of the first day was repeated on other routes. The crowds on the buses are terrible and people don’t seem to make way for others or consider their needs. We saw elderly people struggle to get through the crowd so they could get off. They are developing underground Metro systems and tramways but these have a way to go.
Near our apartment, the large arterial via Liberta ran for most of the length of the modern part of the city and provided a lovely tree lined avenue filled with high fashion shops and other places that hold little attraction for us. However, it was lovely to stroll along when the temperature allowed. There are several large piazzas spread around the city and some buildings of note, but much of the older town was destroyed in WWII and was not rebuilt.
The city is surrounded by towering peaks, one beautiful massive marking the western end of the Bay of Palermo. Beyond that is Mondello, famed for its long white sand beach. We took a crushing 30 minute bus ride to Mondello for a day at the beach. So did everyone else! The beach was the best we have encountered so far in Italy but it was VERY crowded. So much of the beach is given up to private hirers who charge 15-25€ per person for a spot amongst the sea of umbrellas and bathing huts. We strolled the length of the bay before returning and selecting an area of public beach where we could dump our stuff and access the water without treading on bodies. The water was clean, warm and not nearly as crowded as the sand. Not all that many people actually get wet.
On our last day in Sicily, we had a day to kill, having left our apartment but the boat to Naples not leaving until 8pm, so we decided to spend the day in Cefalu, a seaside town about an hour’s train journey to the east of Palermo. Our host was able to store our bags for the day so we headed off, once more on the local bus to the central train station. As before, the bus was impossibly crowded. At one point, I had two guys sandwiching me. I actually felt the zip on my shorts pocket slide down. I turned quickly and a guy in a black shirt eased away through the crowd to the door and alighted at the next stop. After being pick pocketed while in a bus line in Rimini, I keep my wallet on a lanyard anyway but this was yet another attempt. Later, while boarding another very crowded bus on the way back, I felt a movement on my backpack and when we got on board we found the zip undone. I suppose it can be seen as good practice for Naples!
The train journey was very beautiful, following the coastline along many headlands and lovely little bays and beaches. As we pulled into Cefalu, it looked an absolute picture, with a prominent high headland, a cluster of stone buildings hugging the low cliffs and a sweeping white sand beach filled with umbrellas. The train station is mercifully close to the town itself and we spent a fascinating hour exploring the narrow streets and walkways, stopping to admire some of the more notable buildings. The cathedral or duomo dominates, as they do in most European cities. The town had a healthy population of tourists but not so many as to make moving around difficult.
We stopped at a shady restaurant overlooking the beach for lunch and ordered a Sicilian platter to share and got a wonderful mix of meats, smoked salmon, a couple of fresh oysters and salad, with a basket of ultra fresh bread to help it down. It was the perfect mix; especially with a four hop beer (we don’t usually count the hops).
Fed and watered, we hit the beach, hiring an umbrella with a couple of lounges to spend a few lazy hours, swimming, dozing and reading. It was nowhere near as crowded as Mondello Beach and the water was much better, crystal clear and a perfect temperature.
By the time we had caught a train, followed by a bus, back to the apartments to collect our gear we were fairly done in but we managed to re-organise our beach stuff and load up the big packs for the kilometre walk down to the ferry for embarkation to Naples. We boarded about 7pm, found our neat little cabin and had a much needed shower before finding a bite to eat. It was all we could do to stay out on deck to watch the ship leave harbour at 8:15 before retiring to our cabin. Naples awaits, but not before we have had a damn good sleep.