Posted in Photography, travel

Back to Italy

After my slow yet brief trip through the Balkans and Slovenia, I returned to Italy. By an odd coincidence, exactly four weeks to the day – nay, to the hour – after arriving at Treviso airport near Venice, my bus from Ljubljana to Verona stopped off in the car park outside the airport.

It was just a brief stop, though, to pick up more passengers, and soon we were arriving in Verona, famed home of Romeo and Juliet. I checked in to my hostel and then set off to explore the city. For two days I wandered around this pleasant little town, shooting photos of the old buildings.

Verona has a castle and even an arena very similar in style to the Coliseum in Rome (though mercifully not swarmed by tourists and scammers). The biggest tourist trap in town is Juliet’s balcony which, of course, was built in the 1930s simply to attract tourists. I gave that one a miss.

Next up was a trip to Milan. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I envisioned Milan as a fairly modern city. Indeed, it is a vast, sprawling metropolis with the biggest and most modern buildings I’d seen in Italy. However, there were plenty of interesting old buildings, too, including the Galleria and Duomo. The castle was also quite impressive.

Back at my hostel one night, I made a sudden decision. Though I had intended to continue on via bus and train to Spain, I was feeling exhausted. It had been more than one month of continual travel through seven countries, and I had no energy left. When I looked at my option and saw the time and money and effort required to reach Madrid, I felt it wasn’t worth it. I looked on Skyscanner and saw that there were cheap flights from Milan to Edinburgh the next day, and made the sudden choice to buy one.

As I write this, I am back in Scotland, and my big European trip for 2019 has come to an end. It’s time to get back to work and figure out my plans for the future.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Exploring Athens

After Napoli, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I headed to Bari on Italy’s eastern coast. Before you open up Google Maps, perhaps I can explain: it’s at the top of the heel.

Bari isn’t much of anything, but it’s a nice enough little place. There’s a pleasant old town that’s good to walk around and a reasonably attractive seafront promenade. It is clean and orderly compared to other Italian cities, and mostly free from scammers and beggars. There aren’t many tourists because there isn’t much to do, but that’s ok. It’s charming in its way, and I suppose you could say it does have one weird attraction: the bones of Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.

In Bari, I dithered further about where to go next. Should head on down through the toe of the boot to Sicily, the rustic and volcanic island, or go north through northern Italy? But there was a third option – to jump aboard a ferry headed for Greece, across the Ionian Sea.

I was keen to stay in Italy a little longer because the country had really impressed me, but as it turned out I’d painted myself into a corner with the travel options in Bari, and getting a bus or train anywhere else was surprisingly hard. So I turned to the sea and booked myself a ferry for Patras. One bright, sunny morning, I headed to the port at the eastern tip of the town and boarded a big ship called the Nissos Rodos. It sounded oh-so-Greek.

The journey across the sea took some sixteen hours, but the departure was delayed by three or four hours for reasons I never did understand. The ship could’ve held a few thousand people, but there were only eleven passengers on board, and by the time we arrived in Greece we had been whittled down to just three. Whether we stopped somewhere in the night and some folks disembarked, or they went mad and jumped overboard, I have no idea.

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I was surprised to see, as the mists parted and the sun rose, the mountains of Greece covered in snow. I always thought of Greece – at least the coastal regions – as a very hot place, yet there was snow all over, and nearly down to sea level. The wind off the Mediterranean was also nearly freezing, and as I moved towards a destination I had always associated with excessive heat, I was wrapped up in winter clothing.

Patras seemed a nice enough town, but I couldn’t find any cheap accommodation, and so boarded a bus immediately for Athens. The ticket was 20 euros, which surprised me, but I would later find out that travelling in Greece is actually fairly expensive. Certainly, it was pricier than in Italy.

A few hours later, I arrived in Athens and made the long walk with my luggage from the KTEL bus station to my hostel, just south of the Acropolis. I was stunned by the beauty of Athens from the moment I arrived in the old town. The Acropolis stands majestically above the city, gleaming white in the bright Mediterranean sun. Although I had enjoyed Italy, the streets were often filthy and dangerous, but here it was clean and safe. The nearer I got to the Acropolis, the nicer everything looked.

I soon checked in and then headed out to climb Filoppapou Hill, a small slope that rises just higher than the Acropolis. I was able to sit and look out at the whole of Athens, spread out over a vast area 360 degrees around me. The sun went down, casting lovely light across the city and the nearby mountains.

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The next day, with a friend from the hostel, I set out to explore the Acropolis and other archaeological sites in the area. We first took in the Acropolis, slowing winding our way up the slopes past the theatre of Dionysus to the Parthenon and Erechtheum. We both had our cameras and spent several hours shooting the ruins. I regretted having not paid more attention to Greek history in the past, but it was nonetheless impressive and fascinating to see all these ancient buildings and monuments. There were quite a few tourists milling about, but it was not grossly overcrowded as in Rome.

Afterwards, we headed down the hill, north to the nearby Agora Park, where there are more ruins. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting photos there, including some of the local cats. In Athens, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time feeding the local cats, which have become fat and friendly as a result.

The following day, I met up with a Greek friend, Michael Limnios, and he showed me some more obscure places, particularly pertaining to countercultural figures. We saw places visited by the likes of Lord Byron and Allen Ginsberg, and looked at bookstores which sold translations of Burroughs’ novels. Of particular interest was an anarchist section of town – somewhere very definitely off the tourist trail.

That evening, I hiked up Lycabettus Hill to see a final Athenian sunset, but it was too cloudy, and so I wandered back to my hostel, ready to move on to the next place. Having ruled out the islands for being slightly out of my budget, I elected for a long train ride north to Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.

Posted in Photography

Rome and Florence

Yesterday I posted some photos and writing from Naples, which I declared “The Best City in the World”. However, after posting it I looked back and realised an oversight. I had skipped a big chunk of my Italian trip! In between Venice and Naples, I visited Florence and Rome.

So here’s a quick recap.

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Florence was an absolute delight. I stayed right near il Duomo, and had the pleasure of exploring one of the world’s great art galleries, the Uffizi, when it was virtually empty. I wandered the beautiful city streets over several pleasant days, visiting the Boboli Gardens and the Pitti Palace, as well as taking in some stunning views of the city from Michelangelo Square.

After Florence, I took a bus south to Rome. Immediately, I was unimpressed. The freeway into the city appeared to be carrying me into some kind of war zone. When I got off the bus, I felt as though I was in danger. I walked hurriedly to my hostel, which was very unpleasant, and during my whole time in Rome I was ill at ease. The city is flooded with refugees, and while I sympathize with their plight, they have turned to crime and crude scams to make a living. It makes for an awful visit.

During my time in Rome, I managed to see as many of the city’s numerous highlights as possible, and even got to see the Pope give mass at the Vatican, which was a real surprise.

Although I have loved my Italian trip, I was delighted to get out of Rome and head for Naples. I didn’t know what to expect but… well, go read about it. It was the best stop yet.

Posted in Photography, travel

Naples – the Greatest City on Earth

Everyone says not to visit Naples. Even my Italian friends told me, “Don’t go there.” It is a city riddled by crime, apparently, where anyone foolish enough to walk the streets will be robbed by passing gangs. Yet something drew me there. It was the part of Italy I most wanted to visit, and after exploring Venice, Florence, and Rome, I headed south on a bus towards this apparently infamous city on the coast.

Arriving in Naples, I wasn’t immediately impressed, but bus stations usually aren’t the most charming places. I walked quickly towards my hostel, keeping my head down and trying to act as though I were a local in spite of my bags. I soon arrived at the Hostel of the Sun, and my opinion of Naples began to rise. The place was charming, and the staff incredibly friendly. A man called Luca spent 25 minutes explaining everything there was to do in Naples and the surrounding areas, passionately telling me where to eat and how to get to the best viewpoints.

That first night, I ventured out and tried my first genuinely Neapolitan pizza… it was magnificent, and cheap, too. Walking to the restaurant and back, I didn’t feel the streets were any more dangerous than any city back home in Scotland. After a night’s sleep, I headed out the next day to explore the city. Along with a friend from the hostel, I walked nearly 20km around Naples, taking in the sights and sounds. We were both utterly overwhelmed. There were a few obvious attractions, like the castles and panoramic views, but what really got us were the narrow, winding backstreets filled with colorful people. Laundry hung from windows and tiny old Italian cars and Vespas whizzed by, screeching on cobblestones. Marketplaces appeared in random corners of the city, where people sold vast wheels of cheese and all sorts of fish, even moray eels, which I did not know could be eaten.

The next day, we hopped a series of buses and trains for Amalfi, a tiny town south of Naples. The Amalfi Coast is famous, and for good reason. The road was much like Route 101 down the Californian coastline, and in particular quite like Big Sur. Except, unlike the US, the roads were tiny, and it was genuinely frightening when two buses had to scrape by each other, hundreds of feet up above the ocean. We were glued to the window, incredulous at the scenery.

Amalfi itself had little to see. It is more a village than a town, and there wasn’t much there except a handful of restaurants. We instead sat by the sea for a few hours, and then walked some of the dangerous twisting clifftop roads, before heading back to Naples on yet another series of buses and trains. We got back in time for dinner – which, in Italy, means we got back by 11pm. Dinner comprised of an incredible pizza, a bowl of mussels and other assorted seafood, and a bottle of white wine than cost just THREE EUROS. Seriously. Three Euros for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Naples is the greatest.

For our final day in Naples, we talked the city streets again, with no real destination in mind. By the third day (which was in fact my eleventh day in Italy) we were exhausted from walking so much, and again found a rock by the sea to sit on for a few hours. We stopped in a few places for gelato and paninis, and then said goodbye. She was off to Bologna, up north, and I to Bari, in the east.

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Naples (or Napoli, as it is really called) is my favourite place in Italy by a long stretch. It is a stunning city filled with genuinely nice people – helpful, friendly, warm, interesting folk with odd habits and a curious passion for life. The food here is beyond description, and quite cheap compared to elsewhere. Though some parts seemed rather sketchy after dark, it certainly appeared no more dangerous than most cities, and a lot safer than Rome… as long as you can avoid being hit by a tiny speeding car on a blind backstreet alley.

Yes, Napoli is the very best of cities, in my humble opinion – not just in Italy, but in the world. Travelling here has been a pleasure.

Posted in travel

Venice: A Pleasant Surprise

I hadn’t heard much about Venice that was very kind, at least not recently. Years ago, the famed city on the water was world-renowned for its beauty and sophistication. Nowadays, it is swarmed with tourists, plagued by criminals, and the once-glorious canals stink to high hell.

Or so they said.

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My flight to Venice was painless enough, particularly when you consider that the airline was six-time winner of the dubious “Worst Airline Award”, Ryanair. I loathe Ryanair, but when you get see a flight to a city you’ve never been before for just £10 (ok, £40 including bags), it’s hard to say no. I’ve sat on Indian buses for whole days at a time, so I figured I could just about cope with two and a half hours on a plane.

Ryanair actually doesn’t fly into Venice… In fact, Venice doesn’t exactly have an airport; the neighbouring cities, which are not built on water, have them instead. As such, I flew into Treviso, and from there took a bus (which was far nicer than the plane) to Mestre. Mestre is another neighbouring city – the one directly across the water from Venice, and joined by a bridge and a number of boats. I had found a well-reviewed hostel for much cheaper than you’d get on the island, and so that would serve as my base.

In the morning, I hopped a train to Venice. The train cost a euro and took about five or ten minutes. When I stepped off, I was still not expecting much. But when I got out of the station and saw the Grand Canal for the first time, I was nearly overwhelmed. It was a shimmering turquoise, busy with little boats, and surrounded by regal old buildings.

As I ventured over one of the bridges and into the labyrinthine passageways of the city, I found the streets to be quiet, largely devoid of tourists. I was able to meander at my own pace along the sides of smaller canals, and over quaint little bridges. Where were the hordes of screaming tourists, pushing and shoving? This was far more charming than I expected. Most of all, I loved the old buildings. So many “ancient” towns and cities are completely restored so that very little of the past actually remains. Venice is a real, functioning city and some buildings have just fallen to bits. That actually adds to the charm. (Though maybe not if you live there.)

Eventually, I came to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), which was much busier than elsewhere, but still not as bad as I expected. I took more photos and moved on, finding a bench near the sea to sit and rest for a while.

Colourful houses on a canal
One more image: Some very cool looking buildings near the Venice Arsenal.

Wandering back through the city to the train station took most of the rest of my day, and when I returned to my hostel in Mestre, I had clocked up 16km. That’ll help shift some of that Christmas weight!

My brief visit to Venice has been a real unexpected pleasure. Tomorrow morning I’ll head for Florence, a little south of here and towards the opposite side of the country.