italy / day thirteen / roma

Woke up and got straight into a HIIT workout on the small balcony of our hotel room, involving body weight exercises like squats and push ups. Managed to actually get up a good sweat, though super missing going to the gym.

Scheduled in today was a trip to the Borghese Gallery, as Pop had already organised us tickets 6 weeks prior. Pop knew the tickets sell out very quickly and have to be booked in advance, as it is unlikely you will have the opportunity to purchase them at the door. Thankfully he snapped some up for us to visit the gallery at 1pm. We took a train to Spagna where we took the Park exit and made our way to the gallery to check in, as you need to be there one hour prior. This gave us some time to wander around the lively parklands in the middle of the city. Everything was so green and the air was so fresh. There was lots of tourists, buskers, painters, dogs, runners and so many children. Lots of people had hired these 2/4 seater bicycle carts and were riding them on the wide paths around the park, under the trees.

Borghese Gallery was amazing. The once Villa, now a widely renowned tourist attraction, home to the Borghese collection of paintings, sculptures and antiquities. You’re given a two hour time frame to gaze in awe at the ceilings and explore the many rooms in this mansion. Although you are shuffling along with the crowd, it is a small price to pay for the beauty that beholds this place. Many of my favourite paintings/sculptures are housed in this very spot.

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We walked back in the direction of the train station via the city, stumbling upon the Spanish Steps. We spent the rest of the day wandering the city, down to Vatican City, Castello D’angelo, along the river to Tiber Island, where we got a sweet treat of Tiramisu gelato. We kept walking until we wound up at Circo Massimo train station and headed on home. We had dinner at a restaurant around the corner from our hotel.

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italy / day ten / otranto / gallipoli

Started the day off with a great spread in the old tannery, then made our plan of attack for the day. We only had one day but we wanted to fit in the equivalent of two day trips. The lady at the reception wished us well, even though I’m sure she didn’t believe in us. Via train, we travelled to Otranto, a village on the coast. A short walk from the station through the suburbs and the path spits you out right in front of the most magical, crystal clear turquoise waters; extremely inviting for an afternoon dip.

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We walked along the esplanade admiring the boats and watching the little fishies swim around the rocks. We temporarily lost Pop for a bit and went on a search. Lots of little shops lined the narrow streets, selling touristy gizmos and local knick knacks. We eventually found Pop after scouting out the colourful streets.

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We take a brisk walk back to the station to catch the next train back to Maglie, to then go to Gallipoli, in the opposite direction. This worked well for the most part, until a heard of teenage kids suddenly appear on the platform and pile into the same little carriage of a train, heading to the same destination as us. Luckily they all got off about half way through and we could stretch our legs a little more.

At the final stop, the driver pointed us in the direction of the older town, down to the port. Although the salty wind whistled up the main road and it was much chillier, we couldn’t go past this ginormous gelateria. As we approached, the old town could be seen clearly as the mainland was separated by a bridge and a castle stood tall and proud, just to the left. The receptionist had given us some free tickets to actually go inside, which ended up being really cool.

Passing through the cobbled streets, we tried some pistachio liqueur and a traditional biscuit, taralli. I found this beautiful olive oil bottle that I bought to use in our new house. A leisurely walk to the point at the edge of the town, we grabbed some dinner and sat outside overlooking the ocean as the sun went down. Pasta and fish was on the menu.

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On the way back to the station, I had neglected to realise that the trip back to Maglie was actually only half way by train and the other half by bus; which we spent another thirty minutes waiting for. Whilst we waited for the bus, very late at night in the middle of nowhere with very little people around, we got chatting to a friendly, frizzy haired guy holding a guitar and his friend. Turns out he was a pretty serious 16 year old musician, with big dreams. I participated in the music jargon and whipped out a jazz tune. It was really fun.

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italy / day nine / maglie

Jord and I fit in another workout at the awesome hotel gym, then fill up at breakfast before some more train travel. Maglie was the destination, but we stopped off in Lecce on the way wanting to explore the town. Our bags went into a storage locker not too far from the train station and we walked into town. The town was full of gorgeous old sandstone coloured buildings and plenty of people. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to explore inside any of the buildings because most things were closed from 12.30pm til 4pm, which is exactly the time that we were there – of course! So we had a look around but decided to continue on to Maglie. We got some Gelato first though!

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Once in Maglie, we talked to some locals at the station and they directed us to our hotel, Corte dei Francesi. Once a tannery back in the day, now transformed into a very comfortable series of room and communal dining area, elegantly decorated in a  bohemian chic style. We dropped our bags off and went for a stroll around the town.

I noticed there wasn’t many kids, the place was quite lively and there was an abundance of shops, everything from food and wine, to high end shopping. I was intrigued in a little bottle shop where an array of oak barrels full of wine, lined the entirety of one wall. The man working there ran us through a wine tasting, talking to us about the local varietals. From memory, we tasted Negroamaro, Malvasia and Verdeca.

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After some thoughtful consideration, we went back to the hotel after having no luck finding somewhere to eat. The kind receptionist gave us some recommendations and made a booking for us. We were the only ones in the restaurant for most of the dinner as they had accepted us earlier than their opening time; as everyone eats dinner so late! I tried a dessert called Spumoni, it was delish!

 

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 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 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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mt takao

Day 02 –

Our trip out to Mount Takao was one of my favourite days in Japan.

Mount Takao is very peaceful with many hiking trails, temples and glorious views. We decided to take the cable car up the mountain, though you can take many trails up, most of them rocky and rugged. We wanted to come down a trail so we saved our energy for the climb down.

Once at the top of the cable car, after eating a bag of delicious ginger-snap type biscuits from the markets below, we followed the paved path. The atmosphere is fresh and full of energy. As you get closer, there are more temples and a number of locals visiting, praying and even going for their afternoon jog. Red lanterns line either side of the path. I loved watching Jordan explore. He was so intrigued by everything. It made me smile.

After going up a couple of flights of stairs to checkout another temple, we came back down to ‘no-sight-of-Pop’. After literally a couple hours looking for him, and quite worried, we decided to follow an extremely beaten track with no signage to what we thought may be the top of the mountain. We walked for about twenty five minutes and at the top, you guessed it, there is Pop! Sitting on a bench, waiting patiently with one thing to say ‘I thought you knew I was going to the top?’. To be honest, it’s pretty funny looking back on it now.

We spent five minutes looking out at the rolling mountains and, as it was a clear day, you could see Mt Fuji. Though, it would be dark soon, so we quickly set off into the forest down track six. This track follows a small stream from Biwa waterfall, which was slightly icy and made some of the rocks a little slippery, but still, nonetheless, a beautiful hike full of breathtaking scenery and tranquility. I love the way the roots of the trees weave themselves across the pathway, stretching out, naked and skeleton-like.

It was truly dark by the time we reached the bottom and some very hungry tummy’s (if you haven’t realised yet, I am always hungry) drove us straight onto the train back to Shiodome Station we’re we ate (a little unusual) yummy food in a cute little eatery filled with groovy interiors, condiments in little patterned tins and somewhat hipster waitresses.