Italy April 2014
Italy is a country we’ve been threatening to visit for a couple of years now and as with every new country you visit it wasn’t the easiest to get to grips with straight away. There is literally so much to see that a five day visit barely touches the surface of the place and even then I tried to cram too much in, which resulted in Rome being cut completely out of the itinerary almost immediately; other than to fly home from!
I had been eyeing up Sicily for a while and the fact that the trains from Sicily to the mainland were shunted onto a boat to get there appealed to me. That coupled with the fact we would get to see Mount Etna made Sicily our first calling point and from there we’d head to Pompeii and spend time visiting the Pompeii ruins along with Herculaneum with the monster that is Mount Vesuvius in view virtually the whole time.
Personally I was hoping that either, or both, volcanoes would at least be giving off a bit of something from their craters during our visit; what could possibly go wrong?
Booked through Ryanair direct
FR3918 1145 Stansted – Palermo – £71.39 each
FR3073 1135 Rome Ciampino – Stansted – £76.49 each
Palermo – Hotel Del Centro (£69 for a double room) – The Del Centro shares the building that houses it with other hotels and businesses; the Del Centro being on the 2nd floor. It’s an old building with a grand entrance and the rooms have double doors that are at least 10ft tall at their entrance. The high ceiling gives a feeling of what the building once was. Despite the olde-worlde style there is air-con, heating a balcony with double glazed windows and the bathroom is well equipped even if you have to chew on the sink while “trying” to utilize the toilet! The biggest problem we had was the noise. It comes from all directions, the road outside, people talking in the corridor, people in adjacent rooms and the noise from bathrooms is very loud. I guess it’s just one of those things with older style buildings. Still, the breakfast was plentiful, bed comfy and the staff friendly and all spoke English.
Catania – Katane Palace Hotel (£74 for a double room) – 15 minutes at a steady pace from Catania Centrale and is signposted quite well off the main Via Francesco Crispi anyway. Outside the hotel looks like any other but inside it really does look the part with a grand reception and restaurant, all surrounding a central courtyard. The room was sizeable and very well presented with old style wooden furniture and a massive bed. The bathroom was spotless and had its own toiletries. The contents of the mini-bar were free with the room, there was only a can of Coke, can of Fanta and a bottle of water in it mind. All the hotel staff spoke good English. Breakfast had an excellent choice and plenty of it!
Pompeii – Hotel Diana (£142 for two nights in a double room) – 50m from the Pompeii Tren Italia station entrance, over the road and first left. The staff at reception spoke fluent English and we were checked in within a minute or so. The room was on the second floor, while it wasn’t the largest it had enough space for us, with a decent sized bathroom. The TV unfortunately had nothing but Italian channels, the air-con was never used but the free WiFi had a very good signal in our room. Breakfast was good and the buffet always kept topped up by the staff.
Rome – La Villetta Suite, Casabianca (£124 for a double room) – a 5 minute walk from Casabianca station and only about 1.5 miles from Ciampino airport. Unfortunately the flight path for planes is right above the hotel, although there wasn’t really much disturbance, the last plane I heard was about 2200 and the first at about 0500 but they’re infrequent in the morning. The hotel room made up for the “limited” noise though, it was very well presented, with a large bed, contemporary decorating and Jacuzzi bath. It even had a Sky box for the 40 inch TV on the wall. The guy at reception was very friendly and gave us a map with all the local amenities as well as booking us a taxi to get us to the airport the following morning. While the hotel does have a policy of letting them know about arrivals after 2000, the front desk is actually manned to 2230 and the entry gate to the courtyard is locked after this time only. Breakfast wasn’t as grand as everywhere else we’d stayed but the food quality was better, certainly with regard to cakes.
Advance tickets Doncaster – Peterborough & Stansted – Doncaster and a single from Peterborough to Stansted; which was cheaper than the advance option!
4 days in 1 month One Country Pass – Italy only – £180 (including 15% discount being offered at the time)
All intercity trains in Italy require a compulsory reservation and these were done prior to travel on the FS website; although not quite as straightforward as it might seem…..
All are 3 Euros per reservation.
Tuesday 22nd April 2014
Having done the usual flight searches right at the start of planning the trip it turned out way cheaper to fly to Palermo from Stansted, with Ryanair, than it would have done flying to anywhere else, with anyone else. This was another reason that Rome was cut out of the plan to start with. I’d even had hotels booked there at one point! The unfortunate result of flying from Stansted, is not only the hassle of getting there, but the 0623 start from Doncaster, followed by the hour fester at Peterborough as the connections from the north onto the Cambridge line trains are generally crap. Still it was our own choice, or more like my doing, and our 0545 taxi eased out of our dreary estate, almost 10 minutes late, through the morning rain, without another soul being in sight.
As it was the first work day after the Easter Bank holiday our 0623 train to Peterborough was full and standing by the time we got off. Thankfully the 0818 Cross Country service from Peterborough to Stansted Airport was a little more comfortable.
From arriving at Stansted Airport to getting through security only took 15 minutes, the queuing at security only taking 5 minutes. The woman ushering everyone through was clearly used to people not being prepared to take out what they needed to and having their toiletries in the incorrect type of bag; unfortunately the way she came across was quite rude and it was as though she was barking out orders. Bizarrely when we got to put our stuff in a tray she seemed very content that we had all our stuff our and toiletries in the correct type of bag and even asked if we’d “done this before”? If she was insinuating that we were prepared and most others weren’t I was amazed as surely most others in the queue had flown with hand luggage before? Still even I could see size rules being broken all over the place; the consequence of which became very apparent when we boarded our plane!
Wetherspoons air-side wasn’t busy and served up a decent breakfast in less than 10 minutes. It was the screens in the pub where we first noticed that our flight was late. The booked departure was 1145, it was showing as expected to depart at 1220.
Our plane was given gate 47 to depart from and we were among the first half a dozen people to arrive at it, the plane not having landed at that point, so we chose some seats appropriately adjacent to the boarding gates. By the time boarding had started the queue was a good 60m long and almost to the next departure gate; we just blended in at the front and then stood in the tunnel that leads down to the runway for 5 minutes while the plane was prepared.
When we boarded, at the front door, the overhead bins were already beginning to fill up and there was just enough room for ours above our seats. By the time the plane had filled the bins were wedged solid, so much so that the cabin crew began using empty seats to store people’s cases and in some cases had to take the seats off to get them under the seats in front! What they hadn’t bargained for was a family of three turning up almost last and wanting to sit in the very seats that had just been occupied by luggage. Not only did they have this fiasco to contend with but they also had to deal with oversized suitcases that were preventing the bins from being closed for takeoff. All I could really think to myself at the time was welcome to Ryanair and this is exactly what your pay for; the big question I have being is this fiasco the airline’s fault for letting it happen or the passenger’s faults for trying to get away with as much as possible? Either way the general experience I got was one of mild chaos when boarding but once in the air everything was civilized, calm and the service was ok.
Having departed Stansted 45 late we were told on board that we’d be arriving into Palermo in 25 minutes time, which was at 1540 local time. Then at 1600 we were told we’d arrive into Palermo in 15 minutes and we actually landed at 1620!
Buses took us from plane to terminal and the walk through the terminal building was straight forward, the passport check being a nothing affair. Unfortunately due to our late arrival we’d missed the 1620 train to Palermo Central, the next one being 1720, as sod’s law would have it 1700 was the only hour of the day where there wasn’t a train to Palermo!
The entrance to the station is to the right, outside the airport exit doors. Tickets are purchased from some guy in an office as both self-service machines were out of order. Single tickets from Punta Raisi, as the airport station is called, to Palermo Central cost €5.80 each. We bought these as our Inter Rail passes didn’t start until the following day and this journey would be the only one we’d make on this day.
All trains to Punta Raisi are new EMU’s and ours was no exception. It wasn’t wedged from the airport but was well used along the line; filling up the closer it got to Palermo. The journey is booked to take 1h07m and although we were a little late at a few stops we were into Palermo Central on time at 1827, just in time to watch E656424 depart with ICN1954 1830 Palermo – Messina. This then joins the Syracuse portion at Messina to go forward to Rome.
Our hotel, the Hotel Del Centro, was only a 5 minute walk from Palermo Central station, up Via Roma right opposite the station entrance. The Del Centro shares the building that houses it with other hotels and businesses; the Del Centro being on the 2nd floor. It’s an old building with a grand entrance and the rooms have double doors that are at least 10ft tall at their entrance. The high ceiling gives a feeling of what the building once was. Despite the olde-worlde style there is air-con, heating a balcony with double glazed windows and the bathroom is well equipped even if you have to chew on the sink while “trying” to utilize the toilet! The woman at the front desk spoke fluent English and check-in took the time it took her to hand the key over and direct us to the room.
We’d seen nothing in the way of food places between the station and hotel, other than McDonalds on the station concourse but the woman at the hotel desk soon pointed us in the right direction when she marked two pizzeria’s on the handy Palermo map she’d also given us. We didn’t walk far and after having a quick scan round the Piazza Pretoria, which did give us incentive to return the following morning, we chose to eat at Il Proverbio. This place being tucked away down Via Discesa; a few minutes further up Via Roma on the left. It was situated on a street that had lots of baby shops on it and randomly the only other shop was one selling coffins! They were full sized I might add.
The Il Proverbio was empty when we arrived just after 1900. The service was good and the food was great; the bill was even greater. The whole meal, two bowls of pasta and two pizzas, including drinks, only came to €33 and that was with a €4.50 service charge included. I’d been too used to bills coming in Switzerland and this cheapness made a refreshing change.
We had to buzz in at the very grand 15ft by 5ft wooden double doors that sealed the hotel entrance at night but it only took a moment for us to be allowed access. Having had a very early start that morning we were in bed before 10pm, only to be kept awake by the noise the family in the next room were making, the noise of flushing toilets on the floor above and then the noise that 4 women were making right outside our room door as they sat having a conversation on the sofa that was situated there. Thankfully they moved on straight away when I asked; whether it was because they understood or were scared off by the fact I was stood at the door in my boxers my opening the door had the desired outcome and sleep soon followed.
Wednesday 23rd April 2014
Palermo didn’t seem content with just keeping us awake the previous night so at 0500 it decided to throw in a building alarm; which had me wondering at the time if it was actually the fire alarm for the hotel. Wondering was all I did though and thankfully it was turned off pretty quickly. Sleep was soon broken again though as people in the building started to rise from their pits. The noise from the bathrooms was horrendous, not only from flushing toilets but showers also. It was a good job we planned on getting up at 0700……
Breakfast was well laid out in the “cozy” breakfast room, which had tables for two that could barely fit two plates on. Which was bizarre as the selection of cakes, croissants, cereal, bread and yoghurts to choose from was excellent. Our drinks had to take up a table of their own in the end!
Unfortunately the weather was a bit crappy but we managed to avoid the morning rain when we walked up to Piazza Pretoria to get the photos we couldn’t the previous night; due to rain and darkness falling. The Piazza wasn’t busy at all and the buildings surrounding the Pretoria Fountain, San Giuseppe dei Teatini (Church), Chiesa di Santa Caterina & Municipal Hall, all add their own character to the place; each being different to its adjacent or opposite building. The fountain itself is interesting and very aptly placed, right next to a church, with the amount of nude statues surrounding it; all of course facing outwards.
As we had a 1005 train to catch our time was very limited in Palermo and we had to check out and get to the station. Checking out was as simple as checking in; everything being charged to the card I’d made the booking with and a receipt quickly being printed. Bidding farewell to the Hotel Del Centro we were waiting patiently, on the pleasant station that is Palermo Central, for our train to back in by 0930.
There wasn’t much else about and our four coach train was set into platform 4 at 0935. Coaches were numbered and we found our compartment seats in no time. The train wasn’t full from Palermo but filled up en-route to Messina but there wasn’t any hassle with the seat reservations and the ticket inspector was more interested in this than he was in either of our Inter Rail passes. Thankfully I’d booked our reservations on the TrenItalia website before flying out, each costing €3. It took a bit of figuring out how to do just the reservation only and it was a few steps into the process before it did become even mildly apparent.
The weather was indifferent for the run to Messina and it rained on and off which always spoils a run down the coast, making it look more miserable than it really is. Unfortunately low cloud prevented any sort of view inland.
As what we’d taken from breakfast at the Hotel Del Centro hadn’t really filled a hole I managed to get some pizza & pop from a place on the station concourse at Messina.
Getting to Catania could have been a straightforward affair but of course I had to do it in steps to fuel the cranking part of me and as we arrived at Ali Terme a couple of minutes early I took the opportunity to get a photo before the train departed. When I was walking back down the platform the guard was saying something to me in Italian, which of course I couldn’t understand and gestured such with a shrug of the shoulders. The next thing I know he’s saying “boom” to me and gesturing with his arms up in the air and then saying the word terrorist. From which I could only assume that he believed that my taking photographs of trains would result in his train being blown up and of course by preventing me from doing so would prevent worldwide terrorism; well I had news for him, which unfortunately I didn’t get time to explain as his train had to depart!
The sun was attempting to come out during the afternoon but unfortunately the sea breeze was keeping the temperature down and of course messing my hair up! We ended up getting off at Taormina to wait for the afternoon IC train to Catania. I had grand plans of nipping up the hill from the station to get the view down the coast to Catania and Mount Etna but I’d severely underestimated the distance from station to hilltop and as it happened we discovered Mount Etna to be shrouded in cloud anyway! So a fester on the station it was.
Taormina seemed to be a bit sleepy for a tourist destination but it did look very pleasant on the run in on the train. The sleepier the better for me anyway. Having not been able to use any form of toilet since Messina we were so pleased to find one on the platform at Taormina; unfortunately we had to pay 50c to use it. Bizarrely you had to change your money into 50c denominations, in the machine provided, first. Then it took some figuring out that you put the same 50c pieces back into the machine for it then to spit out a token which was then put in the slot to gain access though the electronic sliding door; which looked more suited to a high-tech medical facility which housed diseases that you didn’t want let out into the open! It was very bizarre indeed and very out of place for Taormina station looked about as original as they come. The station fittings on the platform were old, the booking office looked original, with all wooden paneling around each ticket window, even the station sign on the outside of the building looked to be set in original tiling. It was a very pleasant place to wait at and the 30 minute late arrival of IC724 from Syracuse, headed by 656427, broke the hour up nicely.
My attempts to get a reservation from the ticket machine failed miserably, three times. While quite easy to do the first machine told me to put money where it didn’t have a slot and the second machine told me there was a transaction error twice; having had two different €10 notes. So on we got without a reservation when IC721 arrived, slightly late. We never even saw a guard all the way to Catania and had a compartment all to ourselves, in the front coach right behind 656497.
Arrival into Catania was only a few minutes late. From the station we had about a mile walk to the Katane Palace Hotel, which we found easily with a small map in hand; the walk taking about 15 minutes at a steady pace and is signposted quite well off the main Via Francesco Crispi anyway. Outside the hotel looks like any other but inside it really does look the part with a grand reception and restaurant, all surrounding a central courtyard.
Check-in was simple and only took a minute, both the woman on reception and the guy showing us to our room speaking good English. The room was sizeable and very well presented with old style wooden furniture and a massive bed. The bathroom was spotless and had its own toiletries. The contents of the mini-bar were free with the room, there was only a can of coke, can of Fanta and a bottle of water in it mind. All in all a good choice and for the price I’d paid very good. My 2006 Lonely Planet had showed the Katane Palace to be the only top end place in Catania at the time and the rooms then were apparently €250 plus per night so I was very happy with my £74.
The hotel’s restaurant didn’t open until 8pm so we asked at reception and were pointed in the right direction of the decent eateries in Catania, all of which seemed to be on one street; Via San Filomena, off Via Umberto. Our plans of eating early were soon dashed when the Restaurant Il Sale staff told us they didn’t open until 8pm. Reservation made we ended up having desert first at a Gelateria before trying to walk it off afterwards while attempting to spot Mount Etna from Giardino Bellini, off Via Etnea. Despite the weather brightening up and the sun having been out Etna was still under a shroud of cloud so we had to make do with a glimpse of it through a break in the clouds.
Food at the Il Sale turned out to be great, we only had pizza but they were massive; a meal in their own right. By the time we left people were queuing out of the door to get tables at the place and all were locals too; other restaurants on the street were also full but none seemed to have the amount of people waiting as were waiting at the Il Sale.
Walking back through the almost deserted streets of Catania gave a lot more perspective to the place than when they’d been busy with people earlier. The narrow roads weren’t gridlocked anymore either and the old buildings fitted into the place a bit better at night, once the shops had closed and shutters been put down, hiding away the shops behind them; this was more what I expected of Sicily, it not to be trying to be like Milan.
Feeling full and in need of a sit-down after the very filling meal we’d polished off, we were glad to get back to the comfort of our hotel room and chill before bed. Thankfully the car alarm that had been going off across the street before we went to bed didn’t go off again once we’d retired for the night; something else would wake us the following morning instead!
Thursday 24th April 2014
We were treated to a very rude awakening at 0545 in the morning when a very loud alarm went off in the next room, followed by some very loud taking among themselves and then some very jovial talking with what sounded like a mobile phone on loudspeaker! After 5 minutes of laughing and giggling I reluctantly got out of bed and went to knock on their door. The noise they were making was clearer in the corridor so I was convinced that there were more people awake thanks to their complete lack of regard for anyone else in the hotel.
Immediately after my knock a voice from the room, with an Australian accent, asked “who is it” to which they got both barrels about the fact most other people were still trying to sleep. Immediately the phone call to the other side of the world was terminated and there wasn’t another peep from them that morning; not until a family sat next to our table at breakfast, all speaking with Australian accents. From listening to them over breakfast it was one of the group’s birthday, which was probably what the phone conversation was all about. Still, it could have been made at a reasonable time and not stupid o’clock; ignorant bastards!
Breakfast at the Katane Palace was plentiful with a very wide selection of cakes more than anything else! There was plenty to go round though and a relevant pack-up was stashed away for our 8 hour train journey to Pompeii.
We walked the 10 minutes back down to the station that morning and having noticed the crystal clear skies we managed to get our first real glimpse of Mount Etna as it towered above Catania in the distance. Our best view being from the front of the station itself.
As we sat in our reserved seats to head towards Naples it appeared that there seemed to be some sort of reservation scenario going on as some guy kept bringing more and more suitcases into our compartment; where all 6 seats were already taken! It turned out that he had 6 seats reserved for his family but the auto-reservation system had split them between two compartments. 2 minutes later we were sat in a different compartment with two quiet teenage girls who hardly lifted their heads the whole journey; meanwhile back in our old compartment, at the opposite end of the coach, the noise from the children within could be heard coach-wide! Well avoided there……..
As it was such a clear day the run to Messina was very nice, with cracking views of Mount Etna. The run down the coast at Taormina was also very picturesque. We rolled into Messina a few minutes late, at which point I couldn’t figure out whether to try and get a list of the demic 656’s etc on the shed, or try and get the number of the 145 shunter that would shunt us onto the boat, just in case there wasn’t another chance! I failed miserably at the former, mainly because most of the locos only have numbers on the front ends, so I concentrated on the latter.
Our shunt loco was sat in the adjacent platform as we rolled in, already coupled to the stock off the Palermo portion; which it shunted out immediately after we’d stopped and backed the Palermo set onto the rear of the Syracuse set.
Our 1115 departure time had passed before we were eventually propelled out of Messina Central towards our waiting ferry. The shunt locos have a flat wagon and a coach in their formation and it soon became clear why. The ramp up to the boat is quite steep and the barrier vehicles both prevent the shunt loco having to access the ramp or try and push up it. The load 9 set was too long for the ferry in one go and it had to be split in the middle with both Syracuse & Palermo portions effectively being on the boat separated.
Within seconds of the shunt loco having moved clear the ramp was moved clear, the ferry doors closed and departure proceedings underway. From the moment the train is on the ferry the doors are opened to allow people to wander round freely. The stock is connected to a shore supply to allow the air-con to keep running; which was good as it was quite warm below decks. Above decks though it was quite breezy but sunny at the same time.
Our ferry was called Scilla, evident from the life rafts on board and the captain had us underway within minutes of us getting onto the deck, of what was a relatively empty ferry. There were no cars on board and very few people in general, so maybe the ferry was solely for the train?
The journey took about 25 minutes, the views of the mainland, and Sicily that we’d left behind, were excellent. The ferry had plenty of room to sit inside and somewhere to buy refreshments. En-route the ferry turns so the stock is shunted off the ferry from the same entrance it is shunted on.
By TrenItalia standards our run seemed to be a good one, until the outskirts of Salerno, as we were waiting time at most places until we sat somewhere for 10 minutes; which strangely only resulted in us being a couple of minutes late into Salerno; where we ended up getting off, as opposed to Napoli Centrale, where we were reserved to.
Bizarrely, and I’m thankful I did, I had decided to check some train times for Pompeii and randomly came across the fact that there were no Tren Italia trains running between Napoli & Pompeii and trains only running from Salerno to Torre A. Centrale, the stop after Pompeii, in the opposite direction. This meant two things, one, all my pre-worked cranking stuff on the Napoli – Pompeii – Salerno line were in the bin, and two, we had no real choice but to get off IC728 at Salerno for a train forward to Pompeii. The EU Rail app was spot on with the gen though and when we got to our hotel the staff told us that a wall had collapsed on the railway in February and repairs hadn’t been completed yet.
We found our Hotel Diana 50m from the station entrance, over the road and first left, exactly where my map said it would be. The staff at reception spoke fluent English and we were checked in within a minute or so. The room was on the second floor, while it wasn’t the largest it had enough space for us, with a decent sized bathroom. The TV unfortunately had nothing but Italian channels, the air-con was never used but the free WiFi had a very good signal in our room.
With plenty of time to kill we chose to wander around town for a bit and familiarise ourselves with our surroundings. The staff on the front desk gave us a map and showed us where the pertinent landmarks were, including the nearest entrance to Pompeii’s ruins, along with marking on the best places to eat in town, two of which were right by the hotel, the other, and the place we ate at every night, the Margherita Pizzeria was right outside Pompeii Circumvesuviana station.
Having tried the Margherita Pizzeria straight away, only to find it closed until 1930, we then walked the short distance up to the entrance to Pompeii ruins, which is not the one all the guide books direct you to. This entrance is only a 5 minute walk from either Pompeii Circumvesuviana (not Pompeii Scavi) or Pompeii Tren Italia stations and is on the road which leads away from the front of Pompeii Cathedral (for full details see following morning’s trip to Pompeii ruins). Pompeii is a pleasant town and unlike Palermo and Catania it is not built up with a 1970’s feel to it, it is actually more like a town you’d want to spend some time in and relax a little; very open and un-city like. Everything along the road to Pompeii ruins is geared up to the tourist, selling the usual souvenirs and tat, along with there even being a McDonalds. Everything around the main square, where the Cathedral is, is mainly about food with every other shop seemingly being a Gelateria.
By the time we made our way back to the Margherita Pizzeria we were more than ready for our food. It was a simple place, which had a bit of a pub feel about it, with a simple menu; pizzas and a few side dishes, no pasta at all. Our food was delivered to our table within 5 minutes of ordering and was very good. The only complaint I could have was that with the door open all the time the pizza went cold by the time we left. Locals were queuing and waiting for tables by the time we left though so it must be a restaurant worth the wait; especially as we saw at least two on the way back to the hotel that were completely empty!
Once darkness fell the square by the Cathedral was transformed into a glittering wonderland of light sculptures; from ladybirds to lizards and mushrooms to giant toadstools. It certainly lit the place up well and injected colour into the square. Not one person seemed to be able to resist the urge to snap away with the phone camera; us included.
Having had a long day travelling it was good to sit and relax in the hotel, knowing we didn’t have to pack for departure the following morning.
Friday 25th April 2014
We were up for an early breakfast at the Hotel Diana and a good one it was, with a good selection to choose from. Of course a pack-up was duly made. As we headed out to catch the 0846 Cirumvensuviana train to Ercolano Scavi, for the Herculaneum ruins, we decided that as the weather was so great we would do Pompeii ruins instead and make a bid for Herculaneum in the afternoon. Little did we realise at the time that it was Liberation Day in Italy and a bank holiday so the 0846 train to Ercolano Scavi wouldn’t run anyway!
The entrance to Pompeii ruins nearest town is just along the road from the Cathedral and is a 5 minute walk from Circumvesuviana’s Pompeii station on their Poggiomarino line, this is a completely different entrance to the one the guide books direct you to, which is accessed from the Circumvesuviana Pompeii Scavi station on the Sorrento line. The town entrance is also equidistant from Tren Italia’s Pompeii station on the Napoli – Salerno line as it is from the Circumvesuviana station.
We arrived at the gates just before opening time, which is 0830, and were first through the gates when they opened. We bought tickets that included entry to Herculaneum and three other sites in the area, that were valid for use over a three day period; this cost €20 each. Fold out maps and a small guide book, in numerous languages, were handed over with our tickets and away we went. I’d like to say the map is handy but when it’s folded out it is hard to keep it hand as an easy reference guide.
The entrance takes visitors straight into the very well preserved amphitheater and as we were first in there was nobody else around to spoil the photos; not until the next few people walked in and proceeded to stand right in the middle, completely oblivious to the fact that we were trying to take photos. It seemed that people just left their common decency towards other behind when visiting sites in Italy. It wasn’t the first frustrating moment that day but I did keep my cool and was calm and collectiveness while they did what they needed to do and fucked off out of my photos!
As some roadways are closed, and marked on the map, it is wise to plan the route you want to take to get to the central point of the ruins. Be prepared to get lost and confused along the way when there are other closures that aren’t marked on the handed out map. Everyone we came across initially seemed to be having the same difficulty, evident by the maps in hand and lots of pointing, in trying to navigate their way to the main area in the centre of the city; all because of one road closure. Still, where there’s a will, there’s a way and we eventually found it and got ourselves on the right track.
Some say that the Pompeii ruins become boring after a while of walking through the vast site; with buildings just becoming repetitive. That may actually be if you enter at the main entrance having arrived by train at Pompeii Scavi station; having been treated to the grander area of the site first. Having entered from the Pompeii town entrance the walk through the streets towards the central area of the city builds up your inquisitiveness as you walk down Via dell’ Abbondanza, part way down which the panoramic view, from where the toilets are situated, gives you a real idea of the size of the city. As people hadn’t quite made it from the main entrance we didn’t see many people as we walked along Via dell’ Abbondanza, allowing us to take photographs virtually freely; without people in them. This of course changed the moment we entered the main area by the Macellum. Patience is a virtue but sometimes frustration overrules any patience you may have. However waiting just that few minutes longer for the tour groups to move on often gave the split second opportunity needed to get those precious shots without a soul in them.
Having done what we wanted we retraced our steps back towards the Pompeii town entrance, with a slight detour via the Grand Theatre where the acoustics of the place are fascinating; the difference in noise can be heard with every step on the stage area, it being demonstrated by a guide as we walked in. Unfortunately it was a prime spot for people to take a rest on the stepped seating so any ideas we had of that perfect photo were dashed immediately.
We spent 3 hours inside the ruins and could have easily spent more time there. We didn’t cover the whole site by any means but for me the experience was fascinating; the bit that actually impressed me the most were the tracks that had been worn into the roadways by horse drawn carts. This gave the mind a real perspective of the fact that people had once roamed the very streets we were walking on, almost 2000 years previous, going about their daily business; not knowing that their days were numbered and the volcano that dominated the skyline would soon wipe their very existence from history for 1700 years……
With a little time to kill before our 1216 from Pompeii to Ercolano-Scavi on the Circumvesuviana Poggiomarino line we opted to take the lift up the Cathedral’s bell-tower. This costs a mere €2 per person and is payable inside the shop by the bell-tower base. The views from the top are excellent and as it was a clear day we could see everything that Pompeii had to offer; a panoramic view of the ruins in the distance, excellent views of Mount Vesuvius and great views of the square down below.
Our train tickets from Pompeii to Ercolano-Scavi cost €1.70 each and had to be validated in a machine before travelling; from which point they’re valid for 80 minutes. The train journey takes approx 45 minutes and ours wasn’t a full train, despite the amount of people on the platform giving the impression that it might be.
Arriving into Ercolano-Scavi there is only one exit from the station and you can only walk one way once you’ve exited. The entrance to Herculaneum is approx 500m straight down the hill towards the coast, and directly in front of you at the bottom. Unlike the Pompeii ruins Herculaneum has literally been dug out of the hillside allowing you to look over the complete site as you walk round to the main entrance. Should you wish to not bother entering the site you can just admire the overlooking view from the pathway instead.
As we already had our joint ticket from Pompeii, which covered Herculaneum also, we just presented it at the entrance gate and a hole was punched in it to confirm we’d visited the site. Maps and guide booklets are available before you enter, in exactly the same format that the ones at Pompeii are. Many people seem to prefer the Herculaneum ruins to the Pompeii ruins and I could fully understand why as Herculaneum is an easily manageable site which you realise as you overlook it on the approach pathway.
Other than the size of the site there is one main difference between Herculaneum and Pompeii with Herculaneum having a lot better preserved wall mosaics and floor tiling with some very intricate patterns and paintings indeed. Unfortunately the site has suffered from graffiti with people scratching their names etc into walls and not just walls that are bare, into walls that have preserved paintwork on them; this in my eyes is a criminal offence and those doing such things should be punished severely. As is the way in Italy where everything is graffiti’d it seems nothing is sacred and the complete lack of respect for the ruins is ridiculous.
As Herculaneum wasn’t hit as hard as Pompeii by ash and lava there are a lot more buildings in a more intact state and they all have different things to offer from expertly painted walls to marvelously tiled floors and some even have the remnants of wooden doors that would have been their entrance; now encased in plastic to preserve their existence.
The devastation to life that the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius caused is very evident at Herculaneum. Huddled up in the archways beneath the holy area are the preserved skeletons of some of those that perished when the mud flows hit; having had nowhere else to run as right in front of them was the sea at that point in history! The pain and anguish can be seen in the way the bodies are twisted yet huddled together, some reaching out, others curled up in a ball; it must have been horrific to have no way out, yet their very stance tell a story almost 2000 years later!
Unfortunately the spectacular theatre is now closed off to the masses due to safety concerns; it’s not even marked on the map but the tunnels that lead to it are visible. I can only assume from the position of the tunnels that you walk over the top of the theatre as you walk along the pathway towards the main entrance and that’s it’s not been uncovered at all.
Having visited both Pompeii and Herculaneum in the same day I had only one complaint and that was people’s general lack of consideration for those around them; it seeming as though their respect for other people was left at the entrance when they walked in. The majority of the ignorance being caused by people walking around with headphones on listening to the narration as they walk through the sites. The patience turning to frustration I mentioned earlier eventually got the better of me and the brunt of it was unloaded inside a building at Herculaneum where a family with their two children just had no respect for anyone else around. Having waited patiently for the two children to get out of the way the wife then walked straight into the main area of the building and stood listening to her narration; without a care for anyone else around. She couldn’t even hear my sarcastic comments and her husband had to ask her to move but wasn’t happy that I’d asked her to move in the first place. The site was apparently a site to visit where people looked round; as I pointed out to him it didn’t mean that everyone had to ignore everyone else around them and act like they were the only person in the whole site. He sarcastically apologised for having ever visited the site that day and being in my way; completely missing my point and clearly not willing to compromise where other people were concerned. I too was sorry he’d visited the site that day…..
With a bit of time to kill before a train back to Pompeii we explored the possibility of going up to Vesuvius’ crater. Vesuvio Express offering trips from right outside the Ercolano-Scavi station, their office being out of the exit to the left. As it happened there was one more trip that day, departing at 1630, costing €20 each, including entrance to the crater site. As the weather was still so good we decided to go for it to top off the great day we’d had that far; unfortunately that decision was to scar the day!
At 1625 we were the only people waiting for the final trip of the day but just before departure time a group of 8 people turned up which resulted in us not setting off until 1635. We were in a mini-bus for 8 people with 10 passengers. This mini-bus only made it a couple of minutes up the hill before we were all turfed out and into another one following behind; the original one clearly having gearbox issues. The uphill run took about 30 minutes, including the transfer from one mini-bus to the other.
Upon arrival at the entrance to the crater site the fun began. What we hadn’t been aware of before we set off was that the last entry to the site was at 1700. We arrived at 1705 and the ticket office was closed; without a ticket there is no entry at all, end of! The mini-bus driver seemed to be blaming the site entry staff and no amount of talking to them, by either us or the other passengers in the mini-bus, could persuade them to let us in.
After about 10 minutes of discussions it became evident our attempts to gain entry were fruitless and we got back in the mini-bus to head back down to Ercolano. Some other guy approached the bus before we departed to discuss options relating to us not having gained entry. I was of course expecting a full refund on both our tickets as in my eyes it was their fault we’d missed the 1700 cut-off time. That’s not what we were offered though; they wanted to offer us €15 each vice the €20 each we’d paid, €5 each apparently being for the transport costs. This wasn’t acceptable to me at all and an argument ensued, the guy wanting our tickets from us, which must ensure he gets paid for the transport costs. I refused to hand mine over until he gave me €40. In the end he walked off and refused to deal with me.
As we were heading to Rome the following day we had no time to take up the issue in person and the office would have closed the moment the last trip departed so I scanned my ticket with an app on my phone and saved a PDF copy of it and reluctantly handed the original over in return for €30; mainly for fear of actually getting nothing back at all if the idiot decided he was doing one! Our trip to Vesuvius’ crater ending there as we headed back down to Ercolano; the mood in the mini-bus being a little subdued.
The office was well and truly closed when we got back to Ercolano-Scavi station so I got a few photos of it on my phone before we went to catch the train back to Pompeii. The irony of the whole thing being that the 1816 train to Pompeii never turned up and we ended up not getting back to Pompeii until the same time we would have had we actually got inside the crater site! Of course we still hadn’t realised at that point that it was holiday day in Italy, hence the 1816 not turning up, as it wasn’t booked to run! Ultimately we then ended up getting on the wrong train as a Sorrento train turned up at the time of the 1844 to Poggiomarino; which had no working electronic destination blind at the front. I ended up confirming with the guard, who was in the front cab with the driver, that the train was a Sorrento train and he advised us to get off at Trecase and wait for the Poggiomarino train behind.
As we didn’t arrive back into Pompeii until gone 1930 we walked straight out of the station and into the Margherita Pizzeria. As we left about 30 minutes later people were again waiting for tables to become free; a popular place it was. As we walked through town, back to the hotel, we noticed that it was a lot busier than the previous evening. It was when I asked at the hotel that we became aware that it was Liberation Day in Italy.
Not wanting to let the latter part of the day spoil what could have been a great afternoon I became set on visiting Vesuvius’ crater and made arrangements with the hotel staff for a private trip to the crater, departing at 0830 the following morning. This cost €70 and didn’t include entrance to the site. There were other options like using Tramvia del Vesuvio costing €14 per person, which picked up at your hotel, but it wouldn’t make it back in time for us to catch our train to Salerno in the afternoon so the personal trip it had to be.
Saturday 26th April 2014
A relatively relaxing morning for my girlfriend’s birthday. After breakfast we were picked up promptly enough by our private car that had us at the entrance to Mount Vesuvius’ crater just after 0915. Tickets to enter the site are €10 each with guide books costing an extra €1 each. The guy at the entrance gate was the very same one that had denied us access the previous evening and he remembered us. Unfortunately I couldn’t get out of him whether Vesuvio’s Express missed the 1700 entry time regularly, the language barrier preventing us from just quite getting there!
It wasn’t a clear morning like it had been the previous day but the fast moving cloud made it very atmospheric as we ambled up the steep pathway to the crater. There were no spectacular views of Naples to be had but we saw what we came for, right into the mouth of Vesuvius; the bottom of which at times wasn’t visible due to the ever changing mood of the rolling cloud.
Evidence of previous eruptions was visible from the crater, and in some places on the journey up to the crater. The most recent activity being in 1944, the lava flows being clearly visible as they headed down towards the coast; of course they didn’t make it. The old crater that was around when the 79AD eruption destroyed everything around acted as a barrier and channelled the lava flow away from the Naples direction anyway.
Vents where steam was escaping through fissures in the rock were visible all round the edge of the crater, some more prominent than others, but all were right at the top of the crater and not down in the bottom as you might expect. The smell of sulphur was also tingling the nose hairs as we walked round the pathway at the top and by the time we’d reached the end of the path the sun was starting to break the cloud up. By the time we were back at the entry point the cloud was beginning to break up and we could see the coast down at Ercolano and some bits of Naples through the breaks. It looked set to be a good afternoon, despite the weather forecast saying it was going to rain, but unfortunately we couldn’t stay any longer. We were so glad that we’d not let the previous night’s escapades put us off returning when we had. It was well worth the trip.
Having picked our bags up from the Hotel Diana we chose not to wait at Pompeii for our train to return from Torre A. Centrale and did it through instead; more so we got a seat to Salerno than anything else. Our first journey of the day would set the tone for every other one we made that day, as we departed Pompeii 8 minutes late.
Our return journey from Torre to Salerno departed origin 6 minutes late; even the guard seemed a little confused as to why as there didn’t seem to be a reason as to why the signal hadn’t come off to allow us to depart. The journey down the Amalfi coast as we approached Salerno wasn’t quite as nice as it had been on our way to Pompeii as it was absolutely pounding it down with rain and we couldn’t actually see out of the windows.
A quick trip from Salerno to Battipaglia and back had us travelling on late train number 2 & 3 for the day and when we got back the 1500 Salerno – Napoli Centrale was already sat in waiting to depart. This was the train we would have been on from Pompeii had trains been running via Pompeii to Napoli but it had been retimed to run non-stop from Salerno to Napoli, arriving at the same time as it would have going via Pompeii.
All the doors on the whole set were closed but the set by where the guard was stood, right at the front of the train, were open. I assumed they’d not opened properly when he’d pressed the button and gestured as such to him when we got to the front doors; he dismissed my gesture immediately and then literally demanded to see our tickets as we boarded the train. As they were in my bag I went to put it down on a seat to get them out, when he asked again for our tickets. When I actually showed them him he started to walk away from the door with them to which I followed, only for him to stick his hand out as if to say don’t follow me. I don’t know who he thought he was but he was very close to getting a piece of my mind! He glared at the tickets as though he was some sort of ticket god and then handed them back in a manner as though he couldn’t find anything wrong with them, or a reason to not let us board. While we sat waiting departure he turned at least two people away from the train, who of course couldn’t board it anywhere else, and as we were about to depart, 10 minutes late, he basically dismissed a group of youths who were clearly further up the platform and couldn’t board due to the closed doors. He seemed to take great delight in closing the doors while the one youth was beckoning to his mates down the platform to run down and get on. What an absolute wanker! He then sat down from the moment we departed until we approached Napoli; his ploy obviously being to make his life as easy as possible during his journey and make everyone else’s as hard as possible. The customer always comes first; not in this instance at all……
Naples is one of those places where all the guide books tell you to be careful and we could understand why when standing on the concourse of Napoli Centrale; it just had that vibe about it. We immediately saw three teenage lads being escorted off the concourse by the police, one of which thought it was a sensible idea to stick his hand out towards us, I can only assume gesturing for money, but he was wrong and told where to go in no uncertain terms!
Having had some food in the food court we stood waiting for our IC728 to Roma Termini to be allocated a platform only to find IC556 just arriving, which confused me a little. We’d got off this train at Salerno, it had departed while we sat on our Salerno – Napoli train in the adjacent platform and yet we’d arrived into Napoli, had food and still watched it arrive after we had; almost an hour late!
Ultimately IC556’s late running was responsible for our late departure on IC728 to Roma as the shunter had been dealing with attaching the engine to IC556 and it then departed across the line of locos outside the station preventing ours from backing down. We left 10 late, our 6th train of the day and our 6th late one at that, 3 of which had started late from their origin; it doesn’t paint a good picture for TrenItalia now does it?
Noise seemed to be the order of the afternoon as both our compartment, and the whole train for that matter, was full. Some young lass thought it was a good idea to have her large suitcase on the floor in the middle of the compartment, limiting legroom, while one of her travelling companions had hers on the luggage rack but was dripping wet and of course dripping on me; until I moved it. The last person in their group couldn’t sit down due to the suitcase taking up all the room so he stood at the door and had a very loud conversation across us while doing so. The only way out was to put earphones in and drown out as much of the noise as possible; even more so when some infiltrator from another compo decided to get into the empty seat and then they all watched video’s on their mobile phones. The whole 2 hour journey from Napoli to Roma was just rubbish and one I wanted to forget from the moment we stepped off the train.
Roma Termini was full of people! We found out later that people were flooding into Rome to witness a Pope being made a Saint the following day, hence the busy trains and busy station. This would also give a reason for the high hotel costs when I’d been looking at Rome as a base at the start of the holiday planning. Due to these high prices I’d managed to find a hotel not far from Rome Ciampino airport, which allowed for a step-off move as we headed out to Casabianca, the stop after Ciampino. As every train we’d travelled on thus far had been late, to keep the day’s tradition going our train to Ciampino departed 7 minutes late from Roma Termini. We got off at Ciampino, where the departure screens didn’t work and we had to find a platform departure poster confirming platform 3 for our train forward to Casabianca. This ended up being re-platformed to platform 1 anyway, thankfully I could understand enough of the announcement to figure out it was our train that was being announced; and of course it was also late. 8 trains, all late, 5 late ex origin; this could almost have been Indian Railways! TrenItalia seems to be a bit of a joke compared to other European rail systems. I was quite glad to see the back of it as we watched 464630 depart Casabianca from the road crossing. Of note is the fact that the back of the trains are off the platform at Casabianca. Thankfully the guy at our hotel reception had told us this when I’d rang from Naples to say we might be just after the 2000 arrival limit that the hotel sets.
La Villetta Suite is only a 5 minute walk from Casabianca station and only about 1.5 miles from Ciampino airport. Unfortunately the flight path for planes is right above the hotel, although there wasn’t really much disturbance, the last plane I heard was about 2200 and the first at about 0500 but they’re infrequent in the morning. The hotel room made up for the “limited” noise though, it was very well presented, with a large bed, contemporary decorating and Jacuzzi bath. It even had a Sky box for the 40 inch TV on the wall. The guy at reception was very friendly and gave us a map with all the local amenities as well as booking us a taxi to get us to the airport the following morning. While the hotel does have a policy of letting them know about arrivals after 2000, the front desk is actually manned to 2230 and the entry gate to the courtyard is locked after this time only.
Food at the nearby Estrogusto Restaurant, which we walked past on our way from the station, was probably the best, and largest, pizza we’d had on the whole trip. We were the only foreigners in the restaurant yet it was full of locals and the food portions being dished out were massive. Bizarrely it was the first menu we’d come across on the whole trip that was in English.
As I lay in bed that night, listening to the very loud engines of a departing plane, it seemed like ages since we’d been at Vesuvius that morning and the fact that we’d started the trip in Sicily was almost out of mind.
Sunday 27th April 2014
Breakfast at La Villetta Suite was the best we’d had on the trip, most notable was the fact that the cakes weren’t dry like everywhere else we’d been. There was a wide range of things to choose from and the cereals were actually cereals, like Cheerio’s for example, and not rubbish. In true fashion we still made up something to take with us, after all Ryanair weren’t going to feed us. Although in the end they did feed us but for completely different reasons to what you may think!
Taxi’s to the airport cost a fixed €15 and the journey takes less than 5 minutes. Getting through security at Rome Ciampino was a breeze and we were sat in the waiting hall within 5 minutes of getting out of the taxi, the screens showing our plane as being on time; unlike the other two preceding it!
Our plane’s departure time was 1135, with a boarding time of 1050, yet at 1000 I noticed on the gate screens that they were showing a departure time of 1420! Hoping this was a mistake I went to check the main screens; these showed the same time of 1420! With no staff around and no desk airside I ended up going back through passport control and then back through security, where my boarding card was stamped to show I’d already been in, to the only information desk at the airport. This of course wasn’t run by Ryanair and the girls behind the counter were just as much in the dark as us, or so they said. Ryanair had told them the plane would be delayed and that 1420 was the best estimate at that time, they didn’t really know how late it would be and would make an announcement when they did.
At 1107 I had a text from Ryanair confirming that our plane wouldn’t depart until 1420. At 1300 an announcement was made advising all passengers that were on our flight that if they presented their boarding cards at the food kiosk they’d be given free refreshments; these turned out to be a bottle of water and a sandwich, which the airline has to provide by law after a 2 hour delay.
Thankfully the waiting seemed to fly by thanks to Francesca, a fellow passenger, who chewed the cud with us about anything and everything while we waited. She’d moved to the UK 4 years previous and had been flying Ciampino to Stansted regularly to see family in Italy and told us that this kind of delay had never occurred before during her travels. Maybe Ryanair just wanted to continue where TrenItalia had left us the previous evening; but just go one better in the delay stakes!
Boarding didn’t commence until 1445 and even then we had to wait on a wedged bus at the gate until the plane was ready to take us. We eventually backed out at 1514, 21 minutes short of 4 hours late. The pilot seemed pleased to announce that the good news was we’d only take 2h10m to get to Stansted but lading 3h08m late wasn’t good news as far as anyone on board was concerned.
We had advance tickets booked on the 1425 ex Stansted to Peterborough and the 1621 from Peterborough to Doncaster. The guard on the 1725 ex Stansted was more than happy for us to travel on his train and didn’t bother to check tickets anyway. At Peterborough we opted to flag the 1856 to Harrogate as it was full and standing and went across to platform 1 to board the empty 1923 to Skipton; which was starting at Peterborough vice Kings Cross, hence the emptiness. When I tried to explain to the guard on board about our lateness his reply regarding my reservations was “I haven’t even looked at it”.
Having departed Rome almost an hour after we should have departed Stansted and then Stansted at the time we should have been walking through the door at home wasn’t the best and we were so glad to be home when we walked in at 2045! The bonus early finish completely destroyed by Ryanair, who then had the cheek to e-mail me to tell me that the delay was “Exceptional circumstances” which were out of their control; this then prevents any monetary claim against them by law. I’d already been onto Martin’s Moneysaving the moment I got reception and found that after 3 hours we were entitled to £210 compensation each, if it’s the airline’s fault. At no point had anyone actually told us why the delay had been caused and I was positive that Ryanair couldn’t have suffered from any exceptional circumstance as there were no bad weather reports for anywhere in London or Italy so I was going to get to grips with Ryanair and follow this matter through with them; even if I got nowhere, venting my frustration on them was going to be worth the rant!
Italy has so much to offer for the tourist and I was so glad we decided to concentrate our time in certain places rather than try and cram so much in. We kind of did that with Sicily anyway and could have spent the whole time there and not touched the mainland. The main reason for Sicily was really the train trip via the ferry.
Our time in Pompeii was excellent, great weather, great relaxing atmosphere, cracking ruins at both Pompeii & Herculaneum and everything in easy reach; I thoroughly recommend staying in Pompeii as opposed to Naples, both Naples & Salerno are both less than an hour by train.
While we used Inter Rail tickets for travel in Italy it is cheaper to buy tickets either as you go, or in advance, on the Tren Italia website. Timekeeping leaves a lot to be desired though but there was nothing majorly late; it seemed that everything was a few minutes late as opposed to a few trains being a lot late!
I will return to Italy, Rome is high up on the list of places to visit. In hindsight it seems like it was well avoided on this trip though, with what was going on at the Vatican.