Roma

Rome is like opening your grandmother’s attic only to discover that she had squirrelled away some amazing treasures and just when you think there couldn’t be anything else to surprise and delight, something else amazing jumps out to surprise you. The heart of Rome is not that big and in four days of wandering I covered a great deal of ground. Wandering is different from touring in that you don’t go to the sights but rather you let the sights come to you, emerging in your path, sometimes dictating the direction of your wander but never setting the agenda. This is my favourite way of traveling now that I can take the time to savour the treasures that spring from grandmother’s attic in no particular order and Rome did not disappoint.

If you’ve been to Rome and you’ve already done the “tour thing”, including the Vatican then you will appreciate my desire to just wander and let each turn of a corner bring back memories of my first visit and fuel new interests and ideas.

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As luck would have it a friend was in Milan and came down on the train to meet me in Rome so I had some company to enjoy what Rome offers in the way of sights, sounds, food, aromas and people.


One of the best things to do in Rome is people watch and of course listen. Romans tend to dress well and rarely do you see anyone slopping around in baggy pants and runners. Conversations tend to be loud, boisterous and accompanied by energetic gesticulations, as incomprehensible to me as the Italian language. It’s hard to imagine living your life in Rome but the people who are do it with style and ease.

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Of course the ancient ruins of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palantine Hill, the Vatican, Sistine Chapel and St. Paul’s Basilica are good reasons to go to Rome the first time. The grand piazzas, like Piazza Navona with its entertainers, street sellers and palaces, the views from the seven hills and making a wish in the Trevi Fountain are all traditional fair.

But when you make a return visit you should go prepared to savour and to experience Rome the city, greater than the sum of its parts. Seeing Rome as a living, breathing entity is seeing and appreciating its personality. Because Rome is a beautiful old thing and a self restoring treasure chest it transcends the normal experience of a city. Rome the “Eternal City” has earned its title for it truly is a place where the present lives alongside the past and the past enjoys a place in the sun out of the shadows of grandmother’s attic.

Sicily

Don’t miss Sicily

Palermo

My father would talk about Sicily and what it was like during the Allied Invasion in WWII, so its no surprise that many of the place names had a familiar ring to them. Syracuse, Messina, Taormina, Palermo, Catania all those exotic sounding far away places from long ago stories have now come to life for me. Although Sicily was the launch pad for the Allied Invasion of Italy during the war, that particular chapter is tiny in the grand scale of Sicilian history that includes the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the Arabs etc..

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Wandering the streets of Palermo was a great way to spend a day on Sicily. Two neighbourhoods not to miss are La Kalsa and Albergheria, both very old neighbourhoods with narrow streets, pretty piazzas and markets that date back to Arab times and even Phonecian times.

Palermo has great shopping, eateries and markets. The patina of the worn cobbled streets shines in the dimly lit passageways that lead to the brilliantly colourful markets.

Mt Etna – A Living, Breathing, Steaming Volcano

Mt Etna the Sicilian volcano was been active for ever and one crater steams on a daily basis. In 1971 lava buried the Etna Observatory and destroyed the original cable car, threatening villages as well. It’s a popular attraction and quite pricey but worth the money just for the views from the top. You can see for miles along the coast of Sicily and the beautiful blue ocean. You ride a cable car up the mountain and then if you want to pay more you can continue by truck to get even closer to the craters edges. We opted to hike around the station and enjoy the lava formations and the strange but colourful plants that manage to grow from the rock and lava. It was cold at the top of the mountain and we were glad to have our jackets along.

Argigenta and La Scala die Turchi

I never expected to see Greek ruins on Sicily but apparently the Greeks were a huge presence on the island and left many reminders of their civilization. You can see ruins on Sicily in many places including, Syracuse, Taormina, Catania and Selinunte but we drove from our villa to Agrigento to see the ruins there. The site itself is large and contains several structures and good descriptions.

We ended our day at an extraordinary beach with limestone cliffs that have been eroded into amazing wave like shapes. The Scala die Turchi, Stair of the Turks, as it is called, has become quite an attraction and it was busy. There are several bar/restaurants that have sprung up, providing parking and access to Scala. You can climb up the limestone cliffs for a great view of the surrounding area and after its a great cool down to dive off the lower rocks for a swim. We stayed for sunset and had a drink at one of the bars.

Collesano Villa and Ancient Cefalu

In our own neighbourhood in the town of Collesano, we were close to nice beaches, other small villages and the ancient town of Cefalu. Another pretty place with a Norman cathedral and the ruins of an ancient castle that demonstrates that Sicilians have not shied away from building as high up as humanly possible. The modern day roads that must follow ancient paths to these great heights, wend back and forth sharply and steeply in many places on the island. Great fun to drive until you meet a bus loaded with tourists on one of the hair pin curves. Our villa was great, clean, nicely decorated, big decks and of course a pool. Since we were off season we were alone there for most of our stay until a nice family from Poland came and of course they spoke English and Italian! The day we went to Cefalu I forgot my camera so I have to credit my friend Dawn with the Cefalu photos. This was our last day together on Sicily. Dawn and Craig were returning to the UK and I was staying on for a few days of solo travel before heading to Rome.

Solo Time In Taormina and Messina

I rented a Smart Car in Catania and headed north to Taormina. This city climbs from the beaches of the Mediterranean to the great heights of the mountains above. It is a maze of roads, lanes, highways and freeways and access to individual towns and villages along the shore is limited and often requires some backtracking and heading in directions that don’t make sense. The hotel I found on the internet was in the town of Letojanni, considered part of Taormina and accessible by one road only and to get to it you had to go over, under and around the highway on a combination of paved roads, potholed lanes and sharp turns. I finally figured it out on the last day. The beach is great in Letojanni and I have to admit I spent two days just enjoying quiet time. I did explore Taormina and it’s great heights and drove north to Messina for a day but sadly I did not make it back down south to Syracuse and Noto, both of which sound very interesting. Next time.

A Week On Crete, Days on Naxos and Minutes in Athens!

My Grecian Yearn

A Week On Crete

If I’ve ever been anywhere where just a week was painfully short it was Crete. It is a much bigger island than I imagined and there are so many things to do in addition to the requisite beach days with basking in the sun enjoying azure Aegean Sea as a backdrop. Crete is densely packed with options for nature lovers, cat lovers (they’re everywhere), gardeners, beach fans, foodies, history buffs and just plain old wanderers like me. Bronze Age Minoans left their mark in Knossos while the Venetian stamp can be seen in Rethymnon’s and Heraklion’s old ports and Fortezzas. Famous Cretans include Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ and lets not forget that Crete was heralded by the ancients as the birthplace of Zeus.

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The nicest way to see Crete is to rent a villa and hire a car. Crete is an easy place to drive, even in the largest city it is nothing like driving in other European capitals. The traffic can be heavy inside village centres but that’s usually where you want to park your car and get out and walk anyway. Since the island is big it might be smart to rent a villa at one end of the Island and explore the surrounding area and then shift to the other end of the island to do the same. I think it would be easy to spend a couple of months on Crete and not run short on enthusiasm for the place.

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Almyrida Villa

We rented a Villa with a pool just east of Chania in a small seaside resort called Almyrida. The owner, George was great and the place was clean and large enough for five of us. Close to the beach, restaurants, shops and hillside villages we enjoyed time at the beach and around the pool with a mix or touring by car. As a special treat we hired a chef and had him come to the Villa to cook for us one evening and so we got a first hand view of the preparation of traditional seafood, vegetable and lamb dishes.

Chania

Popular with Brits and Germans in particular Almyrida is a great location to explore from. Our first wander was in the city of Chania (pronounced “Hania”) and was a great place to start savoring Greek culture.The cobbled streets, narrow and crammed with shops and people meander through the old quarter where there are many great restaurants and bars for sampling the superb Cretan food. Street markets are common and you will find everything from fruit and veg to live rabbits. Eating is definitely an activity in itself on Crete as the food is fresh, delicious and spiced to perfection. Lamb, goat, seafood, fish and typical Greek dishes prepared according to the tradition never disappoint.

Road Trips Through Gorges

While on Crete we read about a drive through the Therisso Gorge that recommended a stop for lunch at a restaurant with a beautiful garden and lookout on The Valley below. Once again the scenery was rivaled only by the cuisine. All around us were olive groves which along with grapes, melons and tomatoes are the main stays of Cretan agriculture.

Knossos

Another outing was along the east coast to Heraklion to see the ancient Minoan city of Knossos. The drive was pretty and we managed to have lunch in a small village where once again, the food was great. We also squeezed in a winery, although we just missed the tour we visited the shop and I bought some local spices.

The natural beauty on Crete is stunning and the views from the coastal highway are unbeatable. I had one more look at it after my friends drove me to Rethymnon where I caught a bus to Heraklion for an overnight stay. Heraklion is a bustling city with a very modern shopping area in the center of town and the night I was there the streets were full of shoppers, diners and teens just hanging out.

As our week on Crete flew by it was clear that we could only explore a fraction of the Island before it was time to say goodbye to Crete and my UK friends and head solo for Naxos.

Fast Ferry to Naxos

With more time I definitely would have looked at a slower route to Naxos with some stopovers along the way, including Santorini where we stopped to let off and take on cars and passengers. Built on the top of the rocky crags of the island it looks like a dusting of salt from a distance but up close it takes on the shape of the white plaster buildings common to Greece.

I sailed with the fast ferry company Sea Jets on one of their large catamaran boats. They hold around 200 cars and sail at up to 40 knots but beware in a rough sea passengers often spend at least part of the time between islands with their head in a barf bag which is unpleasant enough just for those who don’t get sick. Also if you book online you can’t pick your seat and the computer assigns you one and I believe its also one of the most expensive ways to take a ferry Its airplane style seating and the food on board is expensive and bland.

Naxos is one of the Cyclades Island which include the more popular islands of Santorini and Mykonos. I chose Naxos as I had only a week before I had to leave Greece for Rome and I had heard it was quiet and less travelled. I read that the island has not been a tourist destination as it is the most fertile of all the islands and it’s economy has been made strong by agriculture.

Although it was getting to be the middle of October, there was still plenty of sun and the sea was warm enough for swimming but it was not crowded and it was easy to find a beach chair read the afternoons away. In the mornings I explored the seaside resorts close to my hotel in Agio Prokopios. Many places were closed for the season but there were enough shops, restaurants etc open for the stragglers. I rented a hotel room in the beautiful Liana Hotel across the street from the beach and the price included a warm staff, an ocean view, private deck and a full breakfast.

Athens for a Flight

I arrived in Piraeus, which is the port for the city of Athens. The metro to Athens is very close to the Piraeus ferry dock and in minutes I was standing under the lights of the Parthenon in Monastiraki, the pedestrian square next to the Athens market. I stayed in the Cecil Hotel minutes from the Monastiraki metro stop that would take me to the airport and my flight to Rome early the next day. Monastiraki square in evenings is full of locals and tourists, eating, visiting, shopping and just hanging out with friends. It’s a good place not to eat or shop and also a place to hold fast to your purse. Better food and more reasonable prices are generally found off of main squares, down side streets and if there are lots of locals it’s generally a good sign. The airport is a 10 Euro, 1 hour long metro ride from Athens and for early flights like mine its a very efficient way to make it to the airport on time.