…because you wont want to leave!
I have fond memories of Italy, having holidayed at Lake Marjorie, Lake Garda and in Milan as a child. Who could forget the natural beauty of the country or the delicious local food? I have always wanted to return and explore more. Consequently, it was no surprise that when Richard and I looked at where in the world to start our adventure, Italy was on the list.
Italy offers limitless opportunities to explore history and architecture, as well as copious places of natural beauty. Combined with delightful food and world class wine there’s more than enough to compel any traveller to make a visit.
After discovering that Richard had some ancestry in Naples, we decided it was only apt to start our trip on here, on the South West coast.
The madness and noise of Naples is exciting, we dodge the cars and scooters as they rapidly negotiate the roads and pavements in equal measures. There’s a knack to crossing roads that takes some time to get the hang of: just walk. The cars stop or move around you with ease. Hesitation is the only thing that seems to unnerve these drivers!
We are surrounded by beautiful buildings, particularly in the historic centre of the city; stunning churches and the wonderful Castel Nuovo. This castle is not only a wonder in itself and its history but it also contains Roman ruins under the glass-floored Sala dell’Armeria (Armoury Hall).
The many side streets give us equal amounts of entertainment, with many niche shops selling the famous nativity scenes we had heard so much about. As we wander through the city, we make our way up to higher ground via a funicular, up towards Castel Sant’Elmo; a medieval fortress overlooking the bay of Naples and the mighty Vesuvius in the distance.
For just a few Euros you can explore this castles and the incredible views from its battlements. In my opinion, these are by far the best views in Naples.
On our return down into the city we decided to try a local delicacy: fried pizza! Not knowing what to expect, we watch as a local man conceals fresh vegetables, meat and cheese within freshly made pizza dough. A few minutes in the fryer and it is ready. Not the healthiest of snacks but so fresh and delicious we were more than happy with our find.
Now later in the evening we booked an underground tour of Naples (Napoli Sotterranea). Again, not knowing quite what to expect. As we ventured 40 metres below the city we find ourselves in many hidden areas and narrow alleyways. These were first used as an aqueduct during Greek and Roman times and date back to the 4th century B.C. Later they were used as a bomb shelter during World War II. Not usually one for organised tours, I found myself fascinated by the history of the place and tales of years ago.
Next, the guide hands us candles and leads us through a series of thin passageways, ending at a water cistern. During Roman times, the public used the larger cisterns for drinking water, while wealthy families would buy a cistern for their private use, pulling up water through holes leading into their homes. The tour unravelled many mysteries hidden beneath the city and in my opinion is well worth a trip when in Naples.
Now a couple of days into our trip to Naples, we decide to take a trip out of the city and visit Naples’ silent nemesis: Mount Vesuvius. Active volcano, Vesuvius, looms over Naples waiting for the moment it will erupt again, but for now it attracts us and a few hundred other visitors who wish to proclaim “I climbed an active volcano!”. After a short train journey and a bus half way, we find ourselves ready to climb the beast!
Despite being the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted in the last hundred years and despite it being regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world (because of the large population living nearby) we hike up its steep paths. At the top, we reach its crater. It’s cloudy today which obscures what I can only assume would be marvellous views of Naples below. Nonetheless, we do feel some sense of pride at standing at the top of an active volcano, staring into its crater which itself is quite spectacular.
Another day and we’re sailing across the bay of Naples towards Sorrento. As it comes into view in front of us, the scenes are nothing but picture perfect! Beautiful blue seas lapping onto the shore, towered by picturesque cliffs. The boat docks and we flood with the other visitors into the harbour, taking in the stunning views. Climbing the stairs (there is the option to save our legs and take the lift or bus) we can see straight out back across to Naples, crystal clear seas and luckily for us, not a cloud in the sky.
Sorrento is the perfect place for relaxation: potter through the streets, unwind in one of the many bars and restaurants or simply sit and admire the view. This is the ideal place and so, we do exactly that.
When we decided to travel to Naples we were of course aware that Pompeii was nearby and not to be dismissed from our plans. As it happens, today is the first Sunday of the month and as we turn up at the gate we realise it is free to enter, bargain!
Passing through the gates we walk into the huge area contained within this World Heritage Site. We have chosen not to go with an organised tour or audio guide (despite hearing good reviews), we have done our research and know what and where we want to explore.
Pompeii was destroyed and buried under volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. As we enter, we’re faced with an extensive area of the excavated site to discover. From the brothels, with frescos depicting the services on offer, to amphitheatres and baths, there’s so much to see. We spend hours uncovering the history of this ancient city. It’s hot and there’s little shade but there’s so much not to be missed.
Walking into the huge amphitheatre, imagining it in its heyday is an incredible feeling. It is a momentous structure and we gaze in awe. The bodies of Pompeii, famous for their lifelike poses, really bring home the devastation of this event. Now thought to have died instantly of extreme heat, rather than by asphyxiated as previously thought, these bodies are a reminder of the huge loss of life.
Seeing the devastation Vesuvius caused to Pompeii and surrounding towns makes our previous visit to Vesuvius even more momentous, understanding now what destruction it could cause again.
Although on this occasion we did not have to pay the entrance fee, we would have been more than willing to, to experience the history inside Pompeii.
Heading north on the train, we arrive into the Italian capital of Rome. There’s certainly a different vibe here, it feels much more metropolitan and modern. We’re staying in an Airbnb not too far from the centre, so we’re soon engrossed in roman architecture and history. Our welcoming site, as we stepped of the bus is the Altare della Patria (also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II). This is exactly what I imagined Rome to be: magnificent buildings and incredible historical landmarks. Every corner we turn, there is staggering architecture, opulent churches and stunning fountains; none more so than Trevi Fountain.
I’ve read many review of trips to the Trevi. Some said that it was in a tiny, crowded square and that a visit left something to be desired. Others said it was fantastic. It is one of my ‘must sees’ in Rome and as I approach, I wonder if I am going to be underwhelmed. Turning into the (admittedly crowded) square, I am not disappointed. I find the design over the top but equally captivating. The way the horses race out of the clear waters is enchanting and I toss my coin into the fountain with pleasure (legend has it, ensuring my return to Rome).
Exploring Rome is brilliant but an outstanding highlight must be the mesmerising Coliseum. Built in 70- 80 AD it is a true spectacle to behold. As I enter, there is something momentous about the place: almost as if you are one of the gladiators entering the arena as they did many, many years before. Although it now stands damaged; caused by natural disasters and human theft, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how impressive this amphitheatre was, and still is.
When in Rome (as the saying goes) it would be foolish not to visit the Vatican City State. At only 110 acres it is the smallest state in world by area as well as by population. Not being particularly religious myself, some of the importance of this place, I admit, was lost on me. Nonetheless, as we meandered through St Peter’s square, past staggering monuments towards the Basilica, it was easy to see how this place was significant to so many.
Passing through inevitable security checks, it is an experience to see the colourful (if slightly ridiculously) dressed Swiss Guards. These members of the military corps of the Holy See are responsible for the personal security of the Pope but his absence was duly noted during our visit!
Set on the South-East coast, near to the heel of the famous Italian boot, Bari is a well-known port city. Opting to stay in the North of the city, we found ourselves in the wonderful old town. Strolling through the tiny streets, crammed with shops, bars and cafés, the traditions of the town were clear to see. Local women were making homemade pasta and selling it from their doorways. Laundry hung above us from windows, as locals continued in their everyday lives while welcoming tourists on the ground below. On the harbour front we found ourselves surrounded by local fishermen, having finished at the morning fish market and now relaxing with a beer.
As we ventured further, we followed the sound of traditional music and found ourselves an open square. Surrounded by locals and tourist alike, enjoying the live music, we found that towering above us was Basilica di San Nicola. As we entered, admiring the church’s decoration we learnt about what made this particular building even more special. Here, where we stood, was the resting place of St. Nicholas. That’s right, we’d stumbled upon, the church holding the remains of Santa Clause!
Bari doesn’t offer the world-famous attractions of Rome or the hustle and bustle of Naples but what it does offer is a relaxing destination and a gateway to many other European destinations.
Our Italian adventure has immersed us in culture and history but more than anything: intrigue. Intrigue at what has been, what is here and how much more there is to discover.
Next stop Croatia!