italy / day eleven / roma

I sneakily smuggled away some pastries for the road after our last breakfast at Corte de Francesi. We took a taxi to Brindisi airport (I swear they were going at least 140km/h), because we were flying past all the other cars. We checked in our baggage and boarded a plane to Roma! A bus trip to Termini and a short walk, and we were at what would be our hotel for the next six days, Alpi Hotel.

As soon as we arrive, Pop takes a nasty tumble on some of the steps in the hotel and bumps his head (which we later found out that he broke a couple ribs and ended up getting pneumonia; what a bloody trooper!). Not the best start, but we patch things up with a band aid and some ruby red strawberries, left by hotel staff with compliments, and continue on with our day. Obviously, we are very hungry again and grab some super tasty focaccias (Pizza Shop 341 SNC), which filled a good hole for the next kilometre.

Checking out the city on foot, we end up at the Trevi Fountain. It was amazing, but the place was crowded with so many tourists and people trying to sell stuff to you, that we continued on pretty quickly. Though, we did stop into an awesome store that let you build your own magnum ice cream; which of course we tried.

We moved on from the square and headed for the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, an old palace gallery and home, partially open to the public, in the heart of the city. We had accidentally stumbled on to this magnificent place on our previous visit to Rome. We got some tickets and a portable handset guide, and wandered through the many rooms of the palace, admiring the incredible paintings that filled the ceilings and intricately detailed floors, not to mention the hundreds of artworks strung up through the gallery.

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We finished our day with a special dinner at L’eau Vive, a restaurant completely run by Carmelite nuns, to celebrate our first night in Rome. We started with asparagus and leek soup, then I had lamb chops with tomato, beans and this lovely creamy pepper and thyme sauce for main.

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 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 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 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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