Bari, Italy, 8-10 July
The 8 hour crossing of the Adriatic Sea from Bar in Montenegro was comfortable and suitably boring. The seas were dead flat and the boat (Dubrovnik) was only at around 15% capacity so we were pretty much free to wander anywhere. We had booked recliner seats for a few euros more and they proved good to catch up on some sleep, although I suspect we could have used them without paying because there were so few passengers and no one ever checked our tickets. Once out of sight of Montenegro there was little to see other than the occasional fishing boat or yacht and we pulled into Bari on time at 7:20pm. There was a brief moment of panic at immigration after Christine had gone though when the man played around with my passport for a while then referred me on to someone else. I worried that they were going to do a count of the number of days we had been in the EU (we are only permitted 90 days). An accounting would show we were OK but it would come right down to the wire. In the end, I think the first guy just couldn’t find the right stamp and I was sent through without an issue.
A taxi took us to the City Hotel, a small boutique type of thing that was clean and pretty. The bathroom was designed for a fashion model with a toilet you had to sit sideways on and a shower recess that was like one of those magician’s boxes that they fold up and make you disappear in. The only large object was the hand basin which took up more room than everything else.
We had few expectations of Bari, assuming it was a dirty noisy port city. However, we were proved wrong. Our hotel lay just outside the high fashion shopping area, filled with Gucci, Prada and the like, while lovely open pedestrian malls led down to the old section along the waterfront. The huge castle (Il Fortino Di Sant’Antonio), dating from the 11th Century, dominated one end and a maze of tangled tiny streets worked their way through to the Piazza Mercanti at the other. Once again, we had only a Sunday to explore the town and it was shut up so tight it was difficult to buy even a bottle of water. The old town area was busy though and around 50% of the shops and eateries operating. As the day wore on, a lot of the fashion shops also opened but the small markets and supermarkets remained closed.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the tiny streets of the old town. One fascinating street was lined with women sitting at tables making a local kind of pasta, using semolina, hand mixing the dough and hand forming each small shell. It then sat for a while in little racks to dry a bit before being packed into plastic bags. Later, for dinner, we sampled some of this local food, in a rich tomato based sauce and served with a little roll of richly spiced beef (like a beef wellington). It was really good, my biggest regret was that the beef thing wasn’t twice the size because it was so delicious. We also had a white wine to accompany the meal and a red at a café later. Both were local Puglia wines and of excellent quality, much appreciated after the very coarse and harsh wines of Croatia and Montenegro.
Bari is not a place that I would mark down as a must see but it is also not a place to be avoided if circumstances bring you this way. With its ferry connections to different parts of the Adriatic, it has its uses.
Villapiana Lido 10-12 July
A bus took us from Bari south west through Puglia down towards the “heel” of Italy and then across the “instep” to Calabria. There was no train route suitable, the line from Taranto along the coast having ceased passenger services. We decided to break our trip and stay a couple of days on the holiday coast at Villapiana Lido to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of an Italian beach resort area. No such luck. What we got was a run down semi-deserted coastal backwater that had once been one of the “in places” but now was a forest of for sale signs and boarded up shops. The beach areas were filled with umbrellas and sun lounges with a lot of cafes and restaurants but a great many were closed down or shut. This is July and one would suppose it is high season. August is the really big month but I would have expected more. There was no sign of life at the many fun fairs and amusement parks set up along the beach area. I am glad we don’t have investments here.
Our accommodation was a neat B&B run by really nice people, very keen to please but having even less English than we had Italian. The room was OK and met our needs, there was a lovely shared area downstairs and a kitchen for guest use upstairs. The main problem was communication but after Christine showed them Google translate and the voice function we actually managed a fun and informative conversation with the owners. As always, they got a lot more friendly with us when they realized that we were Australian and not British or American. The breakfast is unusual by any standards. Cereal is supplied, but no milk or yoghurt is in evidence, or even cereal bowls. Ham slices in a very dry bun seems to be the main fare, although there is usually a variety of sweet cakes. The couple comes in to shout at us and ask if we need anything, which is sweet but they can’t understand our reply anyway. The strange thing is that none of the other younger guests can understand English either, whereas we have usually found that the younger generation speak some English. This is the first town we have stayed in where we have not found anyone to speak English. Maybe this is a difference between northern and southern Italy?
Next door is a great little bar that serves cold tap beer and pizza but by this time we were looking for more than pizza, something a little different even. For the second town running we walked the streets desperately trying to find somewhere to eat that served something other than pizza, failing in the end and having pizza back at the pub next door. The guy who ran the bar was very helpful and our combined five words of English and five of Italian got us through. Based on the number of people we saw on the beaches there are quite a few tourists staying in Villapiana but I’m not sure what they find to eat or where they find it, unless they are happy to eat nothing but pizza. The second night we headed down to the beach area, where it appeared that there were more restaurants available. There were certainly more people around and a lot more pizza and panini restaurants but little with a diverse menu. Finally, we found one that offered some fish and pasta selections and was decked out as an actual restaurant. It was 7:15pm but the place was empty. Eventually, we asked some girls who were setting tables. They looked at us as though we were aliens and said there wouldn’t be anything until at least 8pm. We had a delicious hamburger from a roadside bus.
Buying a train ticket out of town proved just as difficult. We found the train station but it was overgrown with weeds. There was a timetable posted, supposedly current based on the dates displayed but it only showed the times for the route back towards Taranto. The other half had been torn down. While we were looking, a loud speaker came to life and blared something about the train so we figured there was something happening. Our walk had taken us past a Tourist Information building so we went back to it and entered. A woman barked at us and I understood enough to know that she could not give tourist assistance and there was no tourist assistance. We typed in a question about trains in Google Translate and she mimed smoking a cigarette and pointed down the road so we figured we had to go and find a tabacchi. Sure enough, the tabacchi down the road sold tickets and with our limited Italian and the guys limited English we secured two tickets on a bus which later transferred to a train at Sibari, the next town down the line. I think that might have been what the blaring loudspeaker message was telling us.
Once again, the beach failed the appeal test. The only shade available within any reach of the water are the very expensive sea of rental umbrellas and lounges that so predominate on European beaches. At least the beach had some sand, dull grey/brown rather than white, but better than the usual expanse of rocks and pebbles. We walked down to the water twice, trying to build up enthusiasm for a dip, but the place simply failed to attract. There is nothing like a trip abroad to bring home just how good Australian, a WA beaches in particular, are. Places like Cottesloe and Scarborough (especially after it gets cleaned up) would have to be amongst the very best in the World.
Unfortunately, we got into a bit of a fight with the owners over our bill. We had booked a larger deluxe room through Booking.com on a special for the same price as a standard room. However, they only gave us a standard room. With difficulty, due to language problems, we got across the issue and agreed to keep the standard room with a 30€ refund. The owners seemed happy but when the son arrived he tried to argue the case. He simply didn’t have a case and eventually agreed, paying up but clearly unhappy. The whole thing seemed to result in a family fight with the owner couple being on our side. We had the power because we get to write a review on Booking.com but the thing left a bit of a sour taste. There is a bit of a problem with amateur hoteliers with little experience of the industry trying to set up shop using online services without really understanding the implications of offering specials and deals.
It doesn’t require much in the way of hindsight to know that Villapiana Lido was a poor choice as a stop over. The awful thing is that it appeared to be a big improvement on the other towns along this part of the Calabrian coast that we saw from the bus. Oh well, you win some and lose some.
Reggio Calabria 12-14 July
We said our farewells to the family at the B&B in Villapiana and set off with packs loaded to catch a bus to Sibari. The weather was promising a real scorcher, with temperatures over 35 degrees and high humidity. The bus was fifteen minutes late but it could have been a lot worse and there was about an hour to kill at Sibari anyway. The trip along the coast showed us that we could have been staying in far worse places than Villapiana Lido and even Sibari did not look much better.
The train was waiting for us in the station. No sleek electric train here, although the lines were overhead. The train consisted of an ancient single carriage diesel engine railcar. We checked that it was the right one (it was the only one) a climbed aboard into a furnace. A couple of Trenitalia workers came on board and they couldn’t believe the heat, advising us to move to the front half of the carriage where it was hot rather than searing. A few other passengers boarded and we set off. It has been a long time since I have heard a diesel railcar work its way through the gears rather than the sweet hum of an all electric train and I found that was in no way nostalgic.
Outside, the scenery was of dry grass and hills dotted with olive groves and vineyards. Everything baked in the heat and a pall of brown smoke from scrub fires hung over everything. There seemed to be fires burning along ridges and along road verges, mostly unchecked and certainly there was no sign of any fire fighting equipment. The train stopped at a dilapidated siding called Spezzano where it sat for a while before there were shouted words about getting off the train. A fire was burning on the tracks ahead of us and it appeared there was little to do except watch it burn itself out. A handful of orange jacketed workers were in attendance but they lacked anything to fight the fire with so they watched it burn. With the engine still running and the pretend air conditioner making it at least cooler than the outside, we headed back aboard to nap and await events. It seemed unlikely we would make our next connection at Castiligone Cosentino anyway.
I had fallen asleep when jolted awake and told we were getting on a bus. The bus was modern and comfortable, except for the lack of air conditioning and we drove some 60kms or so past many small fires and little towns in various states of decay before finally being deposited in a place called Cosenza. Here the station was filled with people, all brought together by the need to catch a train, any train. A group of Americans were in the same predicament as us except they were headed back the way we had come, trying to get to Sibari. No one seemed to actually know what was happening. One train came and went but we were told “No!” when we said we were trying to make Reggio Calabria and eventually another arrived and there was at least partial agreement that we should take it. Off we went on a fast train, the stations flashing by. I fell asleep again. When I awoke, I checked Google Maps. Damn! We were screamed north towards Napoli. After consulting the conductor, Christine learnt enough to get us off the train at Scalea where we could start riding south again. We had an hour to wait for the next train and the heat was worse. By this time, we had had access to one shared bottle of water and no access to a toilet. The station had a small café so water was replenished, along with a cold beer and a toilet located, although I had to interrupt the clothes washing routine of the local itinerant population to wash my hands.
Finally, we got on to a train headed south and sat down. Still not 100% certain we were right I asked a young couple sitting opposite if we were headed to Reggio Calabria. I had thought they were Italian but to my surprise they both answered with London accents and told us that we were but we needed one more change further down the track. They were going the same way so we could tag along with them. Our saviors! It turned out that both Frederico and Andrea were Italian but had been studying in London and hence the accents. They certainly had excellent English and were the first English speakers we had encountered for quite a few days. We were so grateful to meet such a delightful and helpful young couple, especially in our hour of need.
When we finally arrived at Reggio Calabria, we had been travelling about 9 hours to cover around 250kms, a nightmare of a day. Fortunately, our accommodation was a mere 100m down the road from the station entrance, a lovely little apartment called Central House B&B. The host met us and showed us around, we found some delicious takeaway eats around the corner, watched an episode of “House of Cards” and collapsed into bed exhausted.
We spent a day in Reggio Calabria but there is very little to see or do. The town is plain by any standards and certainly by Italian standards, with no fine piazzas or grand vistas. We walked many of the streets but found little to be impressed with, other than a large fort and a couple of churches. Its only claims can be a pretty view of Sicily across the Straits of Messina and a beach side promenade known as Lungomare Falcomata, which extends north to the beach area. We tried to access the start of the promenade at the railway end, finding a pedestrian tunnel running under the rail lines to the water. On reaching the entrance, we halted, the stench of urine and faeces being overpowering. Rubbish was piled along the sides of the tunnel and used condoms lay everywhere. It being the only way through we could see, we crossed through, feeling very uncomfortable and started walking along the broad expanse of the promenade. It was very unkempt and a pack of stray dogs lay in the shade ahead of us. Further on, a couple seemed to be having a heavy domestic argument. We went back the way we had come. Instead, we caught a train up to Reggio Calabrio Lido, the beach area, using another ancient diesel railcar like the previous day to travel the couple of kilometres. The beach area was beautiful and actually looked inviting, although the beachside resorts themselves looked rather run-down. We walked on to check out tickets for the ferry to Sicily, finding that easy and cheap at a mere 3€ each. Because we had an hour and a half to kill to catch a train back the short distance, we hunted down a restaurant, finding a great little place called Benny’s which served really good bruschetta and paninis (with a cold beer of course).
Unfortunately, the rubbish problem in Reggio Calabria is severe and it would be the dirtiest city we have encountered so far in Europe. Litter is everywhere and we saw people just openly discarding empty cigarette packets and lunch wrappers. Plastic bottles piled up in the gutters and rubbish bins overflowed. It was such a contrast to Bari, a similar sized port city, where everything was neat and tidy. Traffic flow is also bad, with drivers showing little regard for pedestrian crossings which we have found are usually respected. We went for a walk around the neighborhood looking for a supermarket and found ourselves turning around and changing direction several times because the street ahead had that “unsafe” look about it, once again the first time we have had that kind of experience on this trip.
Reggio Calabria is not a place that warrants visiting for any real reason other than as a jumping off point to Sicily. We are looking forward to some more interesting times when we cross to Sicily. Calabria has failed to excite.