Thursday, June 7, 2012

Heading North

Once again, so much to catch up on!! So I left you in Rome... Monday was a day that consisted mostly of travelling. We left Rome early-ish to head to the Bay of Naples, where we were to spend the next two nights in a place called Castellamare di Stabia on the sea outside of Napoli/Naples. I have to say I am very stoked that we don’t have to carry our bloody great heavy bags around for the whole two weeks of our Italy trip! They do it for us! Hooray!

There was a bit of drama on the bus in the morning: we were told we should stay in the same seats this morning as we had for yesterday, and we would all rotate around the bus starting the next day. One couple, however, got a bit confused it seems and moved seats. This caused utter chaos. The couple whose seat they had ‘stolen’ moved (let’s call them the Oklahomas), then the people who belonged to those seats tried to get another seat from someone else, it was utter confusion! The original ‘seat stealing’ couple wouldn’t move, maintaining that they were in their right seats. So the Oklahomas moved to a seat that was always free right behind us. This meant we had to hear them all day talking about how their seats were stolen, how they didn’t care where they sat but those seat stealers shouldn’t have done it in the first place. What an awful situation!

We were on the bus for a few hours, but the scenery was beautiful: we could see the Apennine mountains all the way, and they are so huge! We saw some lovely farms and houses and an abbey or two along the way, however Naples itself is a very, very poor city – apparently it has something like 40% unemployment or something ridiculous like that. So there are a lot of buildings that look like they were once beautiful mansions that are now abandoned and derelict. Castellamare de Stabia is pretty in it’s own way, but it’s quite run down and there are a few poorer areas. Our hotel was built in the 1800s and seems as though it’s pretty much the same as it was then – it’s very nice, built around a central courtyard, with a roof terrace that looks over the sea.

The Apennine Mountains

Mads in our room

View from our room

Exploring the hotel

Castellamare di Stabia

The roof terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples

Most of the tour group went for an optional excursion drive around the Amalfi Coast, but Mads and I decided to stay back and find a Laundromat at which to do our washing. We were, however, unsuccessful in this attempt, unable to find the one the hotel desk manager had suggested, then trying to get directions from a very lovely police officer which ended up at a drycleaners, who vaguely pointed in a direction in which there didn’t seem to be any Laundromat. So we dropped our dirty washing back at the hotel and decided to go for a wander around the town. It’s very alive around the beachfront (if that’s what you could call it. It’s more like dirt that meets the sea, with grass growing over a lot of it and A LOT of rubbish everywhere), with kids playing games and people sitting and chatting all over the place. We wandered around some of the backstreets, which were obviously quite poor areas – I thought it was fine but Mads didn’t like being there so much. Also she’s a bit stressed crossing the road in Italy, as you pretty much have to take your chances jumping out into the road. There are pedestrian crossings all over the place but they don’t seem to mean much!

Castellamare di Stabia

A street in Castellamare di Stabia

Dinner was provided for us at the hotel, which was very nice: a pasta course, followed by the most delicious fish, followed by panna cotta for dessert. Yum yum!

Tuesday was such a beautiful day! The sun was shining, and we all loaded onto the bus for our first day of seat rotation. Oh dear, the seat stealers strike again!! It seems they thought that ‘rotating’ meant picking any different seat to sit in, when actually it means move two rows in an anti-clockwise direction around the bus. Now they had stolen the new seats of a young couple. So Young Couple didn’t know where to go, and the Oklahomas were again outraged, so they moved back to their original seat because it was free again, even though they ‘didn’t care where they sit’, so Young Couple were in the old new seats of the Oklahomas. Now fear and anxiety is spreading through the group. Whose seats will the seat stealers take next? What will happen to the next victims? What incredible Italian destinations will they miss out on if they are not in the correct seat?? Dum dum duuuuuummmmm – stay tuned for the next installment of Chaos on the Tour Bus!!

Anyway, amazingly enough we all made it through an absolutely stunning drive down the narrow streets (kudos to the amazing bus driver who managed to maneuver ‘Brendan’ (that’s the giant bus) without crashing or bumping anything) to Sorrento, which is just gorgeous - built around the steep hills and cliffs leading to the sea. We started with a demonstration/talk at an inlaid wood furniture factory which was a little interesting, they had some nice furniture in the showroom as well, so that was nice to look at. We had a bit of free time to explore Sorrento, so Mads and I just wandered around to the main square and tried to get down to the sea, which we ended up not having time for as it’s a looong way down. So we headed back up to Brendan, stopping to look down a very deep ravine that runs along the side of one of the roads, at the bottom of which are the ruins of a 200-year-old washhouse that was used for washing clothes in the stream. Naturally I was being very cautious and a bit giddy at the height, so when Luca the attractive driver grabbed me from behind and yelled ‘don’t do it!’ I almost died of a heart attack. He thought it was pretty funny. So did Mads. I just tried to get my heart started again.

First view over Sorrento

The ruined washhouse at the bottom of the ravine
A bridge leading to the washhouse

Sorrento town square. So pretty!

A sculpture on a hotel's grounds. I thought it looked pretty.

A lane way in Sorrento

The marina in Sorrento

Me and the Mediterranean

Brendan the Bus, home for the length of the tour

We got minibuses down to the marina to catch the ferry across to the Island of Capri (pronounced Caa-pri, not Ca-prii). We got on the boat after meeting our local guide Willy, a bit of a wally I thought. The boat ride was pretty bumpy, which I thought was fun but a lot of people got really seasick. The crew was running around handing out sickbags to anyone who looked remotely green.

Capri was so beautiful scenery-wise but waaay too full of tourists. It has gorgeous huge white cliffs, whitewashed buildings and the water is just such a beautiful shade of blue and so clear! We got the Funicolare up to the town of Capri that is at the top of the very tall island – apparenlty it’s a mountain that was attached to the mainland until about 12,000 years ago when the last ice age finished and the ice melted and the sea rose, cutting it off. Anyway, the town of Capri is pretty fancy-pants, with a lot of fancy shops and hotels along the narrow streets, with bougainvillea and wisteria growing everywhere. We walked along to the Gardens of Augustine to look out towards to the Faraglioni rock formations in the sea – no wonder the Roman emperors were so drawn to this place! We had a few hours of free time after our guided tour, so Mads and I headed back down the Funicolare to Marina Grande to find some more pleb-appropriate food (Marina Grande isn’t quite as exclusive and expensive as Capri). I had super yummy Bruschetta Caprese, and Mads had fries and a banana split. Next up we went to swim in the Mediterranean, which I was so excited about!! I have been longing for a swim since we arrived in London and to swim in the Mediterranean just seemed too cool! So we went to the pebbly beach, which was actually rather painful to walk on in bare feet, set up camp next to some leathery Italian mammas in their bikinis, stripped down to our cozzies and in we went! It was a bit like Sydney water in that it’s always cold when you first get in, but once you’re in it’s really nice, as I discovered when I slipped on the rocks and was in. Crikey, I’m such a glamorous, elegant individual... The water was really salty, which made it very easy to float, and we had a jolly nice time in the water! Another thing that is weird about rocky beaches is not being able to gauge the depth of the water, because you’ll be standing on a rock when you think you’re on the bottom, take a step and it’s actually deeper than you thought. But it was just so nice to be in!! We got out earlier than we’d have liked because we didn’t have any towels, so we had to bake ourselves dry. We didn’t account for not being in Australia though, so we were still pretty damp after what we thought was plenty of time for drying.

Grande Marina on the Island of Capri


I Faraglioni

This used to be a monastery where they made perfume from the local flowers. Now it's a school.

The colour of the water!!

One of the huge cliffs

Yum yum Bruschetta Caprese

On the beach!

Me with the Mediterranean in my hair. You might also like to notice the TAN lines! It's a miracle!

Grande Marina

Back on the boat for a smoother journey back to Sorrento, then back to the Hotel Stabia. Mads had a bad headache, so I left her to have a shower and a nap and went to the roof terrace for a glass of red and a relax in the sunshine. It was pretty blissful. Dinner at the hotel again, pasta followed by chicken and fruit salad for dessert, and we ate with a really, really nice couple so it was very nice indeed.

Wednesday was another action packed and incredible day, because we went to Pompeii, one of my (and Mads’s) lifelong dreams! And it was amazing and frustrating because we had such limited time that we really had to rush through and missed so much! I hadn’t realised just how huge the place is: excavations have been going pretty much since the late 1700s and they are still excavating! And it is so, so well preserved! We entered through the Gladiators barracks, walking past their training yard into the amphitheatre, which is still used occasionally. We walked along one of the main streets to the House of Menander which was incredible, with a beautiful courtyard, a little pool in the atrium, stairs leading up to the second floor, colourful frescoes on the walls and mosaics on the floors! We saw fast food shops with grooves in the doorway where a sliding door was used to close up shop. We went to the Stabian Baths which were absolutely stunning, and where some of the famous but slightly creepy casts of the victims of the eruption were displayed, facial expressions and folds of clothing evident. We saw the temple of Apollo, the red light district and one of the brothels with erotic frescoes on the walls, the Forum, miles of amphorae and so much more but not nearly enough! I could have spent all day there and crawled over the whole place, exploring every inch, so the hour and a half we had felt a little inadequate. But it was still incredible and Mads and I were so blown away to have been there. Vesuvius still looms ominously overhead, and apparently it’s meant to erupt in the next couple of years so hopefully Pompeii won’t be lost again!

The training yard at the Gladiator's Barracks

In front of the stage at the amphitheatre 

The amphitheatre

An Ancient Roman fast food joint

One of the streets in Pompeii

A duck fresco on the wall in the House of Menander

The dining room, House of Menander

The atrium, House of Menander

The courtyard, House of Menander

A second, larger dining room, House of Menander. This one looked out over the garden

A fresco, House of Menander

House of Menander. The owners of this house were wealthy enough to have their own private bath house

Stairs! In the House of Menander.

A table in the remnants of a house

Willy, our guide, demonstrates how the fast food shop worked...

Groove in the doorway from the sliding door that used to be here.

Mads on a stepping stone. Pompeii didn't have any proper sewers so water etc. would run down the street, so the streets were quite deep and had these stepping stones that people could cross without getting mucky feet. 

The beautiful ceiling of the Stabian Baths

The roof over one of the baths, Stabian Baths.

Mads in the baths

This cute doggy was immaculately preserved by the volcanic ash. Kidding! He was following us around for a while, he was really sweet! Then he found another doggy friend and ran off :(

The plaster cast of one of the victims of the eruption. Creepy but quite incredible

The Stabian Baths. Notice the under floor heating.

Outside the Stabian Baths

A fountain in the street

One of the rooms in one of the brothels. Nice, comfy bed...

The entrance to another wealthy villa with beautifully preserved mosaic floor.

The forum

The forum again. You can see Vesuvius looming in the distance.

At the forum

Basically a storehouse full of amphorae that has been discovered.

'The crying boy' plaster cast of one of the victims, with amphorae and birdbaths and other bits and pieces that have been found on the site.

A statue in the storehouse

The Temple of Apollo

Altar to Apollo, with a sundial on top of the white column. You can just see the pointy shadow marking the time

The site is absolutely massive!!

We attempted to evade the aggressive souvenir vendors to head back to the coach, first getting a beverage and going for a toilet stop (in a lot of places in Italy you have to pay to use the loo, which really irks the Americans in the group but I think is great! It means there is an attendant there constantly cleaning the toilets, ushering you in, replacing loo paper and paper towel and soap. I’m more than happy to pay 50c for that kind of service. The loo in the town of Capri was amazing, with chandeliers, fancy tiling and an attendant that even checked the cubicle for cleanliness before you went in).

Back on the bus, everyone in their correctly rotated seats (I was a bit disappointed to not have another episode, I have to say!) and off we went to Assisi! I must confess I didn’t see much of the trip, I fell asleep on the bus and didn’t really wake up except for our lunch stop at a motorway service station and just as we were coming in to Assisi. Even then I was pretty groggy and chilled and zombie-ish.

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, where the Nazis were holed up during WWII. There was a lot of fighting around here.

An old farmhouse in a wheatfield.

Assisi is so beautiful! Such an old medieval town built on top of a hill, home of course to St Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan monks. We walked up to the St Francis Basilica, the lower part of which was built in the 13th Century I think, and in which you have to be completely silent – a bit of a challenge for me. But it was lovely, it is absolutely covered in frescoes, walls and ceiling. It was so cool and peaceful in there, even though there were a couple of tour groups not respecting the silence request with their guides giving them information and whatever else. We went downstairs to see the tomb of St Francis, which is in a chapel underground and it kind of looks like a cross-section of a grave, I guess. There were a lot of people praying down there. It was a really nice place, I’d have to say it’s my favourite Italian church so far! And I saw a monk in there, which was pretty exciting. We went upstairs to the larger Basilica which is built on top of the smaller one, via the courtyard of the monastery and a little shop full to the brim of prayer cards and books and rosary beads and post cards – including one I found that has a picture of St Francis’s skeleton on it. Okie dokes. Anyway, the upper Basilica is much larger than the lower one, but it’s not as nice I don’t think. Apparently it was badly damaged by an earthquake a few years ago. Although you can’t tell.

Mads in Assisi

The Monastery

St Francis's Basilica

Courtyard of the Monastery

Poor St Francis coming home after deserting from the army

The upper basilica

We had a wander around Assisi after this, it is so pretty! The buildings are all very old along narrow, steep, cobblestone streets. And there are amazing views of the beautiful Umbrian countryside. There were monks all over the place, and nuns, and we saw one dude who I guess was on a pilgrimage in bare feet (that looked very sore and swollen) and a brown robe, and his beard was really long. It was a nice and quiet place with nice little shops, and I liked it a lot. We eventually made our way back down the hill to have some chocolate gelato and wait for Brendan the bus. Our hotel was about three kilometres from the old part of Assisi, near the Patriarchal Cathedral of Santa Maria of Angels. We got to the hotel at about 6.30, and were told the Cathedral would close at 7 so we hoofed it up the road to have a look-see. It’s a huge cathedral (as they all are), but it’s very nice and light in there and it is built around this really little old church that has frescoes all around it and a relic of some kind in there I suppose, because people were kneeling before entering and praying in there before the altar. We didn’t go in, it was too intimidating, so we just walked around looking at the brightly coloured and lit up sculptures of Jesus and various Saints people had lit candles to. Back to the hotel for dinner, pasta course, followed by the most delicious pork chops I’ve ever had, and some kind of pistachio custardy dessert stuff which was very nice. Then off to bed to pack because we were moving on again the next day!

Monks in Assisi!

Me in Assisi

The old town gate, built in the 14th Century

This is the part of Assisi in which our hotel was.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria of Angels

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