italy / day eight / matera

After all the pasta and breads, olive oil and wine, I was so excited to get to the well equiped hotel gym downstairs, that I barely slept! Jordan and I headed down to basement and I had a really good arms session. We had a quick shower and then enjoyed a westernised style breakfast buffet, whilst going over plans for the day. Today we were going to Matera, in the small region of Basilicata, approximately an hour, by train, out of Bari. The ancient neighbourhood, namely Sassi, are a series of caverns carved out of limestone, nestled in a small canyon.

On arrival, we picked up a map of the Sassi and a punnet of strawberries for our journey. We soon made sense of the layout, breaking it up into a distinct New Town, Old Town, and in my opinion, Very Old Town. The train station is higher up and you could basically follow any of the streets down towards the main square. From there, it’s more of a wander and get lost kind of situation. I loved this, as the small number of tourists that were there just dispersed and you were solely there to immerse yourself in the seemingly small, but literally huge Sassi.

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Mid afternoon refuel of pizza bread and fruit smoothie, and we were back exploring the Sassi. Closer to the ravine, deeper into the town, there were many empty grottoes ready for me to explore; semi fenced off but not really.

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After farewelling the enchanting Matera, we ate at one of the only eateries we could find in Bari, Tankard Gastropub. We put some washing on at the laundromat across the road, whilst eating some delicious ribs and salad. The person manning the venue was lovely and so helpful with the menu, even though he couldn’t speak a drop of english. It was one of the tastiest meals we had.

To this day, Matera is one of the most incredible, absolutely magical places I’ve ever been and is seriously underrated. If you’re going to Italy and not sure whether to go, as it is a bit out of the way, I’m telling you now, it is 110% worth it.

italy / day seven / bari

Day Seven and we have already covered so much terrain. On the move again, we head to Catania airport via bus after a bowl of cornflakes, an espresso and some leftover pizza from a couple nights ago. We board our plane around 9am and snack on chia pots and Nutella smothered rice cakes. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we checkout the town of Bari.

A light shower passes over as we settle into an eatery, namely Astrobar, in one of the squares. The guy running the joint was super happy, making our lunch very enjoyable. Jord and I shared a small platter of mixed charcuterie, breads and other condiments.

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Whilst galavanting the streets, we stumbled onto one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen, Cattedrale di San Sabino. This cathedral was my favourite that I had seen on the trip so far. Something about the extremely tall ceilings, majestic wooden beams, marble pillars and many sandstone arches dazzled me. Downstairs you can view the crypt and walk through an excavation site that has uncovered layers of ancient Roman ruins. Here lies the beautifully restored Mosaic of Timoteo.

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Cattedrale de San Sabino

 

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Mosaic of Timoteo

A short walk and we were on our way to checkout a Norman-Swabian Castle, Castello Normanno-Svevo. It was built in the 1100’s and has since been destroyed and transformed multiple times. Now it is used for exhibitions and cultural events. We had a look around the halls and courtyard, then strolled around the esplanade, taking in the salty, fresh air, in pursuit of somewhere for dinner.

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There ended up being very limited eateries and the best we could find was some kind of food truck, so we decided to eat back at the hotel in their restaurant. It was actually pretty good! I had confit duck leg, Jordan had some braised lamb shanks and Pop had some kind of beef dish with beetroot chips. On the way up to the room, we asked reception if there was any gym facilities and they said yes! Of course we caught the lift down to the basement to check them out. There was a large, fully equipped, clean, empty gym! Off to bed for a good nights rest, for an early morning workout!

italy / day six / siracusa

A big day planned with a serious amount of walking. We walk down to the island, Ortigia, to checkout some markets and the castle perched on the coast that was closed the other day. The markets were coloured with spices and flowers, we tried some cheese and honey, then towards the castle. When we got to the castle, we bought some tickets and had a look around, but they neglected to tell us that the actual castle was closed for renovations, so there wasn’t much to see. It was still a lovely morning wandering the markets.

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Happy with our exploring of Ortigia, we set out on a long walk across Siracusa towards the archeological park of ancient Neapolis; roughly about forty five minutes. On the way, a tourist asked me, of all people, where the train station was. Through our significant mapping of the area and my great sense of direction (ha!) I was able to advise accordingly.

Three main sites scatter Neapolis; the Greek Theatre, Roman Amphitheatre and the Ear of Dionysius. These incredible sites make up some of the best ruins I have seen in Italy. We walked through the park and up some stairs following a path that opened up at the top of the Greek Theatre. On the left, many stairs/seats directing down onto a makeshift wooden stage, soon to be used for a production, and on the right, little niches found themselves in the semi circle of stone – of course we explored every one of them!

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We stumbled onto our next stop, following a shady path outlined by luscious green trees and old wooden fencing; The Ear of Dionysius, of which was nicknamed by Caravaggio. Dionysius I was a tyrant whom ruled from 405-367 BC. I later learnt that a local legend suggested that he used this cave as a prison, and its acoustics, to spy on his captives, thus the name. I found this place absolutely magical. The way you could whisper at one end and hear it at the other was fascinating. I couldn’t help myself and stayed for a short Natalie Cole tune; Orange Coloured Sky – the acoustics were just too good.

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A short walk and we were wandering around the Roman Amphitheatre. There was a heap of information boards scattered around the theatre describing what things were and what they were used for. The rest of the park lacked this, so it was good to get some insight whilst we were there, rather than later. I found the Roman Amphitheatre to be beguiling, imagining the gladiator fights that would have taken place.

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A friendly waiter and some ham and cheese toasties later, and we’re off to some nearby catacombs, San Giovanni. We bought a couple tickets and waited patiently for the next tour to start. The guide was very informative and took us through the main sections of the catacombs as well as the church and crypt. It was much colder down in the catacombs and really eerie, especially thinking about how the majority of the tunnels were underneath the city of Siracusa.

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A leisurely walk back to the vicinity of our hotel where we head straight to a pub called ‘Hops’. We munch on some well earned burgers; ended up costing us a hefty $70 for our cravings – I think we will be sticking to pizzas and pastas from now on.

italy / day five / siracusa

A quick workout in the hotel room leaves us hungry as ever. Jordan and I fill our plates with cold meats, some pastries and get some eggs cooked to order from the kitchen. They also have a big bowl of fruit – Jordan finally gets his banana! The plan for today is to head out to Noto, a short ride from Siracusa train station. Slightly confused, we board what seems to be the train heading to Noto; a completely covered graffiti ridden single carriage train. The rackety vessel chugs along the tracks at full speed and we are soon at Noto station. We are greeted by many Italian locals, offering tours of Noto in their vehicles, gesturing towards one of the roads heading up a hill. We brush them off politely and follow the signs up the hill to the centre.

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It takes us a lovely fifteen minute stroll through quiet suburbia to get into the town centre. The small town comes to life as we get closer and it is much more larger and spread out than anticipated. Grand churches stand tall, interwoven in the landscape of other giant, old, sandstone buildings. There is a lot of locals out and about, and kids playing sport. We wisely decide to peruse the beautifully paved streets with coffee cinnamon gelato in hand.

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We grab some sandwiches at a cafe on the main street for lunch, then slowly make our way to Palazzo Nicolai, an old princes home with a great view of the old town. On the way back to the station, we get chatting to a friendly Argentinian man selling handmade jewellery. He shows us his tools and precious rocks, and gives us a demonstration of the copper wire work shown through his products.

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After speed walking our way back down the mountain we just make the old rattler of a train as it pulls up to the platform. Packed full of people, we find some seats near the back next to an African man from Togo. He openly chatted to us the entire way home about travel, family and politics; funny guy.

Back at the hotel, they suggest a restaurant, very popular for it’s pizzas. We take their word and head down to find and empty restaurant. We realise it is only just about to open and we patiently wait outside. We are seated at a table at 7.30pm and get some tasty pizzas to share. By the time we leave, the restaurant is full with a line out the door – great to see such a busy restaurant loved by locals and tourists alike.

italy / day four / siracusa

Our time in Taormina came to a close, as our tummies attempted to settle in the bus ride back down the mountain to the train station. A semi early breakfast and quick getaway allowed us to be in Siracusa by lunchtime, after a two hour odd trip.  The trip into the city was very different to that of Taormina. A lot more industrial, fuel refineries, junk graveyards, abandoned trains, boats and shipwrecks. It was a light walk with our gear to the hotel, Caportigia. The boutique hotel that was once an old warehouse, was now fully refurbished with beautifully restored high ceilings and gorgeous decor. Once checked in – and changed into something a little cooler, we ventured into the new city. The short train trip changed the entire landscape and scenery. The area was a lot more open and flat with lots of sandstone coloured buildings and large paved walkways. We walked down to Ortigia, an island namely the historical centre of Syracuse. The scene was definitely european beachy, with only shorts and singlets in sight. There was also no shortage of cocktails/wine/juice bars.

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_MG_4930After a nice walk, we had a light lunch at the Sunset Bar, consisting of fresh sandwiches. My crusty bread roll was filled with buffalo cheese, speck, tomato and rocket. I finished my lunch off with some fresh strawberries and cream.

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Ortigia was filled with plenty of historical buildings with no sparsity of churches. After choosing a church to enter, I was told to put on a poncho otherwise I was not to enter (hahaha have you seen anything more ridiculous)

 

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I think the water was a little nippy

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After the church fiasco we dove down into some old war caves that ran underneath Ortigia. We wandered through the extensive tunnel system, very easily loosing ourselves in the mysterious place. It was unusually quiet with very little tourists. A relaxing and very interesting way to spend our afternoon.

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underground in the old war tunnels

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After a great day full of sunshine and exploring the beautiful Ortigia, we steered away from the touristy restaurants along the coast of the island, and headed inland to a little seafood restaurant recommended by one of the staff at the hotel, La Lisca. The staff there were friendly and more than happy to help with translating their daily changing menu, dependent upon the product available at the markets nearby. We requested that the kitchen simply send out a couple of favourite starters and staple mains for us to share. It was quite different to what we were expecting and it was exciting trying the unusual foods. At the end of the meal, one of the owners, that had been serving us all night, plonked a bottle of house made limoncello on our table and a couple of glasses for us to enjoy – best limoncello I’ve ever tasted!

italy / day three / taormina

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Ate a balanced breakfast of goji berries and orange jam crostata, then jumped on a bus to Casteloma, a smaller village, higher up the mountain. The bus took about twenty minutes, skilfully manoeuvring the bendy roads. The road came to a dead end in a square, where the bus dropped us off and turned around to make his next leg. It was much quieter once we reached the top. There weren’t as many tourists, and besides a couple motor cycles, there weren’t many vehicles either. The pathways between the old buildings were narrow and the majority of Casteloma seemed to be inside, asleep. This was perfect because we were able to pleasantly explore at our own pace.

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After following some signs to the outskirts of the town, we decided to walk down to Madonna De Rocca, instead of catching the bus. We started on an overgrown path that soon dissolved into suburbia. At first it didn’t seem very far, but we were soon mistaken, and ultimately, very confused about how on earth we were to get there. The homes were scattered all over the hillside and there was no clear path.

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view of Madonna de Rocca (on lower hill to the left)

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crazy trail down the mountain from Casteloma into Taormina
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Casteloma, high up in the mountains

Sweaty and exhausted from climbing stairs and walking on deserted trails, we stopped for a breather and an aperol spritz at a cafe nearby. Once rehydrated we continued a little further on from Madonna de Rocca to a castle that we had seen when we were back in Casteloma. Once at the top, we came to a locked gate (my favourite!), which was soon conquered by the great Pop, Jordan and Lily.

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Once sneaking inside the gates to some of the most spectacular views you have ever seen, we were getting a little peckish for something a little more hardy.  We walked down another ten thousand flight of stairs to the main street of Taormina. We ended up getting a couple pizzas to share at ‘Porta Messina’, after being rudely turned away from ‘Bellini’, for sitting down at a table and asking to share (this was for lunch at a simple cafe, completely empty). We filled our bellies and took a trip to the botanical gardens.

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After all the days we spent admiring the blue waters from above, we took a cable car down to beaches below. The sand was made up of shells and rocks, where Jordan and Pop skipped a couple stones. The place was crazy deserted, but I could see just how busy it would be in summer. After a little scouting and climbing, the sun started to disappear and we headed back up for a nice, last dinner in Taormina.

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italy / day two / taormina

After a satisfying spread at Catania Hotel and trying to order Pop something similar to a flat white, we caught a taxi to the station and jumped on a train to Taormina. A Sicilian lady attempted to talk to us the entire way; I was surprised at how much I could understand. As we approached our destination, the terrain started to become a lot more mountainous and we started to see a lot of towns scattered along the cliffs. To reach Taormina, we needed to get off the train and catch a bus up to the town. The kind Sicilian lady waited with us, making sure we got on the right bus, and then walked the opposite way. We stumbled onto the crazy packed bus with our luggage and somehow found some seats at the very back. The bus ride was somewhat scary. The road up to the town centre was narrow and steep, and it expertly curved around the handles of the mountain. The bus took up majority of the road and would constantly cut off other vehicles coming the opposite way, especially on the corners. And then there were all the cars that were parked on the road; seriously mad. Once we reached the bus station in Taormina, we took a short walk to our accomodation, Sirius Hotel. Checked in, dumped our luggage, freshened up and then we headed out to explore.

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Taormina was magical; the cobbled streets and old buildings splashed with orange and pink hues, the views out to sea and the picturesque landscape of the towns below and Mt Etna, this town was full of life. After grabbing a bite to eat and people watching, we had plenty of daylight to spare, and ventured to the ancient Greek theatre of Taormina (Teatro Greco). Perfectly perched on the mountainside of Taormina, lay this extraordinary place. Instead of being overcrowded like some archaeological sites, there was barely a soul. We breathed in the coastal fresh air, as we explored the miraculous ruins.

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The ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina

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After a caramel gelato and some more wandering through the streets, we sat down for an early dinner off the main thoroughfare. For our first dinner all together, we stuck to the classics and warmed up with tomato soup, followed by carbonara and lasagne for main course. Pop enjoyed some minestrone. On the way home, we picked up some juicy, bright red strawberries to munch on for dessert.