Sunday, October 26, 2014

October 25th – Discovering the Ancient Minoans of Knossos

On our half day today in the resort town of Aghios Nikolaos, we travelled to see the ruins of the Palace of Knossos to see the traces of the mysterious Ancient Minoan civilisation. Not only did the Minoans inspire so many Ancient Greek myths, most famously the legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, but they also were responsible for a whole range of "first this" and "oldest thats" and in western civilisation.

On our visit to these enigmatic ruins, we saw the remains of Europe's first urban culture, saw the oldest paved road in Europe, the oldest throne in Europe, and even the world's first flushing toilet. It was amazing to think how much history and cultural significance was packed into these ruins set in the pine-scented hills above Crete's modern capital, Heraklion.

What made our trip even better, was that the lateness in the year means that there were only a tiny fraction of visitors to share the ruins with compared to the height of summer, while the clear skies and late autumn sun made it just the right temperature on an open site without much shade.

Knossos is made perhaps a bit more evocative than your average ancient site by the fact that the archaeologists have re-constructed various buildings and given them the colours and re-created frescoes that would have decorated them. It certainly makes the site come more to life for the visitor, although there are serious question marks raised as to whether it really provides an accurate representation of a palace and culture that we really know very little about. Leaving aside the archaeological arguments, it was fascinating to see the multi-storied buildings and to remember that this was a Bronze Age society that existed well over 3,000 years ago.

Greece is full of ancient sites, but Knossos is the Grand Daddy of the lot.

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.