Friday, October 24, 2014

October 23rd – A Few Traces of Grandeur in Messina

Messina used to be one of the grandest cities in Sicily, but all that came to a crashing end in 1908, when it was hit by a massive earthquake that pretty much flattened the city, and killed over 80,000 of its inhabitants. The grand plans to rebuild the city were scuppered by a lack of cash, and by the bombs of the Second World War which destroyed most of what had been re-built.

So, in a fairly mundane-looking city of mainly modern concrete apartment blocks, there's only a few architectural set pieces that hint at its former glories – mostly churches and a few government buildings. To get a good perspective on this re-built city, we climbed up the hills behind the port to visit a couple of the churches that there were funds to reconstruct.

From the Montealto Sanctuary, we got great views across the Straits of Messina, the 2-mile wide gap between Sicily and mainland Italy. As one of the vital trade routes for shipping crossing the Mediterranean, historic Messina attracted a lot of lucrative trade into its large harbour. But, the Straits that brought the city all that wealth, were also to be its undoing, because underneath them lies the geological fault that has brought it regular disasters over the centuries.

We then went to the next hill to visit the Church of Christ the King. Like much of the city, the church is undergoing restoration at the moment, but we were able to visit one of the old medieval bastions that's part of the complex – the only one left from Messina's medieval city walls. Our tour also took us to the city's old dungeons (hidden in a modern school) – the dungeons had a secret underground passage that connected them to the main town square, so that the condemned criminals wouldn't be attacked and killed on their way down to meet the hangman, thus depriving him of his job.

We stopped for a couple of cannoli (voted the best ever by Tracy, who's become a cannoli aficionado), before watching the comically slow-motion astronomical clock of the Cathedral "thrill" its audience of bemused tourists.

Messina might not have the grandeur or streetlife of Naples, but it's a more manageable place. And, without fail, the people we met were some of the friendliest you can meet – not a Mafioso in sight.

October 22nd – Above and Below the Streets of Naples

The winds were too strong for the tender operation in Sorrento, so we had to divert to the chaotic city of Naples instead. Although it may not be the most likeable city in Europe, there's a real vibrancy about its frenetic streetlife, and an atmospherically faded grandeur to its crumbling set of historic buildings.

As you approach from the port, it seemed like every historic building was covered in scaffolding, even though there was no restoration work visibly going on – it made me wonder if the mafia had a load of scaffolding on their hands and were charging for the work whether it needed doing or not. At the same time, the buildings that actually seemed like they most needed scaffolding, seemed to be being left to fall down.

As we walked those frenetic streets, lined by formerly splendid 18th and 19th century palazzi and an inordinate number of grand churches, it makes you appreciate that this city must once have been extremely wealthy. Sadly, the current look of the place makes it look like it hasn't had a cent spent on it in the last 50 years; while, the sheer number of people on the streets are a confirmation that this is one of Europe's most densely populated cities.

However, whilst what was on the surface was interesting enough, our mission today was to see what was below those teeming streets. Because, in the Napoli Sotteranea exhibition, you get to see that there's an unbelievably large network of tunnels and cavernous rooms dug into the volcanic tufa, that give you an insight into 2,500 years of Neopolitan history.

From street level, we descended down steep slopes about 10-15 metres below the surface to discover that there's an eerie underground labyrinth of tunnels that were dug out systematically by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The first reason for hollowing out the rock, was to provide building materials for the new city they were constructing up above, and then the tunnels and cavernous spaces were put to good use as cisterns for drinking water.

As you explore this chilly underworld, it's the immense scale of the thing impresses you most – it must have taken so much work to dig out 2,000 square miles of tunnels, and then to maintain them for the city's water supply. By Victorian times, the tunnels were abandoned, and then the space was used as a huge dump, as unwanted rubbish was thrown down the old wells that linked it to the surface.

It took until the Second World War for Naples to rediscover a more practical purpose for the tunnels, using them as air raid shelters as the city underwent massive bombing by the Allies. But, these days, they've been opened up again for tourists to marvel at an ancient engineering project that shames the urban neglect that's going on above the surface.

We had a really interesting and atmospheric tour below the surface, before we emerged blinking in the daylight to be shown another unexpected trace of Naples's more glorious past. We were shown into an unassuming house, which it turned out was built over the site of Naples's ancient theatre – the residents living there, had no idea that their walls were made out of Roman brickwork, and that the arches of their basement were the original arches of the theatre's backstage. On the street outside, in the shambolic architecture of residential Naples, you could trace remnants of the ancient vaults, of the buttresses that held up the auditorium, and even the curved shape of the theatre itself. An amazing ancient relic that's part of the modern city.

I guess it sums up Naples as a whole – simultaneously grand yet crumbling; exhilarating and a little depressing; ancient and modern living side-by-side. There's no place like Naples.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

October 21st - Turning Around in Civitavecchia

Today, another cruise started and ended in the port of Civitavecchia. While most of those departing were going to Rome for a few days, we're sailing south and east to (hopefully) warmer climes, to Athens via Israel and a few islands.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 20th – Beautiful Bonifacio

There can't be many cruise calls that look as stunning from the sea as Bonifacio. This Corsican port is crammed together onto a narrow peninsula sticking out to sea, at the top of 200-feet high vertical limestone cliffs. With those tall higgledy-piggledy houses rising straight from the cliff edge, it doesn't look quite real – like something from a fantasy film maybe.

With the natural defences of the cliffs augmented by a huge set of city walls on the landward side, this place was clearly built with defence in mind by the Genoese who ran the show in Corsica for 500 years or so. As you walked up the steep slopes to get up to the Citadel, it wasn't difficult to see why those defences saw off attacks from the Saracens, from the Spanish and the French amongst others – by the end of a thigh-burning 10-minute climb up there, we were exhausted and dripping in sweat.

But, the climb is definitely worth it, because Bonifacio has an agreeably historic and laid-back atmosphere within its network of narrow streets – an atmosphere that wasn't too busy with tourists at this late stage of the season. As you wander around the town, you'll see that virtually every shop is selling a selection of fearsome-looking Corsican knives, a reminder perhaps that this is the island that invented the word "vendetta", and a place where you do your best not to cross the locals. I kept this in mind when I asked the bar owner where we'd stopped for a drink if I could have a receipt – when the answer came back with an unsmiling and uncompromising "No", I thought it best not to argue!

As the final port of this leg of the cruise, Bonifacio has shown yet more of what the Mediterranean does best – great scenery, atmospheric towns and fascinating history. I think quite a few passengers are now planning return visits to Corsica.

October 18th & 19th – "On Holiday" in Lovely Lucca

With an overnight stay in Livorno, this was a perfect opportunity to stay a night in our favourite Tuscan town, Lucca. So, we booked a B&B online, hopped on the train, and within an hour we were within Lucca's famous renaissance walls.

We really struck gold with the B&B, "Le Terrazze" – it had only opened a week earlier (so it was priced more keenly than I think it would normally be), it was beautifully decorated and furnished, plus, it was right in the centre of the action, next to Piazza Anfiteatro.

We've been to this atmospheric city many times, so we didn't have much of an agenda – we just wanted to wander its lively streets, peruse its historic churches, potter in its shops, and chow down on some wonderful food. This trip ticked all those boxes, in an atmosphere that felt a world away from the cruising life.

Of course, the one must-do in Lucca is to take a walk around the city walls, which have become a joyful recreational area rather than a defensive shield, as every day they're taken over by cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, speed walkers and slow parambulators (we featured in the last category). The great thing as you walk around those walls, is that you get some wonderful views over the historic city, with its timeless skyline of churches and tall towers – not a modern building in sight.

After a wonderful evening meal and refreshing sleep, we got up early to call in at Pisa on the way back. I don't think that I've seen the splendid Campo de Miracoli looking better – its fabulous ensemble of white buildings were positively glowing in the sunlight, against the intensely blue autumn sky. Of course, the highlight of the lot was the gravity-defying Leaning Tower, which looked as ridiculously off-kilter as ever. Actually, every time I see it in person, it always surprises me how much it's leaning, ready to topple at any point.

This was a really refreshing and enjoyable "mini-break", re-confirming for us that Tuscany is definitely one of our favourite regions in the world.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October 17th – A Diverting Time in Genoa

We were scheduled to spend today in the peaceful little fishing village of Portofino on the beautiful Ligurian Riviera, but that was not to be. Instead, strong winds made the tender operation impossible, so we diverted to the safe harbour of Genoa, Italy's busiest port.

Where Portofino is quiet, Genoa is noisy and traffic-filled; while Portofino is tiny, Genoa is a teeming metropolis of 700,000 people; and if Portofino is exclusive, Genoa is a cosmopolitan world city. But, what Genoa has that Portofino can't rival, is a fascinating history, some extremely impressive historic architecture, and an incredibly vibrant streetlife.

Unfortunately, the modern world hasn't been particularly kind to Genoa. In the Middle Ages, this was one of the richest cities on the planet, which has given it a whole set of grand palaces and impressive churches; however, the war (and post-war development) has seen the addition of new buildings that jar with its architectural riches, and a waterfront scarred by a raised motorway that runs its length.

But, get away from the waterfront, and into those narrow lanes of tall buildings, then the city begins to grow on you – you see real life going on at a hundred miles an hour, in almost medieval levels of activity and grime – it wasn't always pretty, but it was compelling. To get a rest from those mean streets, we went for a delicious lunch at a cheapo local restaurant we've been to a few times, for a bit of pesto (Genovese of course), and Tracy's favourite, acciughe ripiena (stuffed anchiovies).

As we wandered the streets, it was interesting to note how cosmopolitan Genoa has become – lots of Africans, and plenty of Chinese and other nationalities on the streets and running its shops. I guess that in some ways this mix of ethnicities is quite appropriate for a city that made its fortunes on world trade. Genoa once vied with Venice to dominate Europe's trade with the East, while the city's most famous son, Christopher Columbus, was the man who discovered the New World. These days, it seems that the Orient and the New World has come to Genoa.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 16th – Kalliste Calvi (Most Beautiful Calvi)

The Ancient Greeks, who knew a thing or two about beautiful islands, gave Corsica the name – "Kalliste", meaning "most beautiful" - and our day in Calvi certainly proved them right. This has got to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean.

On a tour of the north west of the island, we saw white sandy beaches that could be from the Caribbean, turquoise seas to challenge the Pacific, rugged towering mountains to rival mainland France, and impossibly remote hilltop towns that could only be Corsican.

Corsica's strategic position in the Mediterranean has left it as an almost-constant target for a succession of foreign navies and pirates, and so this has shaped the way that the islanders live. Most of the coastline was too dangerous to live on, so they normally headed for hills, and built their villages at the top of incredibly steep mountainsides in such remote places places that most lazy pirates couldn't get to them. Those that stayed on the coast, had to build enormous defences to keep any attackers out – you only had to look at the enormous walls of Calvi's Citadel to see that this place was built with defence in mind.

We joined a tour that travelled along the coast to the pretty resort town of Île Rousse, which had an absolutely gorgeous beach (and empty at this time of the rear); before we ventured up one of Corsica's long and winding roads up into the mountains, to visit the precipitously situated village of Sant' Antonino. This town clings onto the steep slopes over 1,500 feet above sea level, and its streets are some of the narrowest and steepest I've come across. It made you wonder at how people can possibly live up here, having to carry everything up by hand from the car park at the bottom of the village. This way of life can only re-inforce the famously stubborn and independent-minded attitudes of the locals.

As we travelled around the island, we were treated with one stunning vista after another, before we returned back to the forbidding bastions of Calvi, rising majestically straight out of the sea. Inside the walls of the Citadel it was incredibly quiet, with only a few French Foreign Legionaries roaming around (they have a base here), the odd cat, and a smattering of Silversea visitors, breaking up the silence of the somnolent Old Town.

These were medieval defences built by the Genoese during their 500-year ownership of the island, and you could see why the town was never captured in this time. Instead, it was money-worries that caused the Genoese to leave, as their 18th century financial difficulties led them to see the island to the French for 40 million Francs. Any time spent on this most beautiful island confirms that the French definitely got their money's worth.