Setting sail for Greece 🇮🇹🛳🇬🇷

From lovely Brisighella, we hopped back onto the rail replacement bus (our favourite) and then a train to reach Ancona, from where we would board our international ferry to Greece.

We’d read that Ancona was a typical port city but that we’d uncover its charms if we just gave it a chance. To be honest, that wasn’t necessary – we passed through this arch even before we’d reached our accommodation and it was a stunning introduction to the city.

With less than 24 hours in town, we headed straight up to the cathedral, which sits atop a cliff overlooking the city. I tried feeding Oli to the lions who were guarding the door, but they weren’t very hungry.

From our vantage point, we had a great view over the old town and the port, but we were particularly taken with the sunset over the shipbuilding yard (romantic)! We could see the components of a huge ship being assembled on the dock and some parts were so large they looked like blocks of flats – it was pretty cool!

The next morning, we headed off on foot to catch our ferry to Corfu, but sadly, this wasn’t the first port we’ve visited that was clearly not built with pedestrians in mind. Eventually, we found a sign that suggested we needed to check in at a building some 20 minutes’ walk away before returning to where we were, but there were no pavements to get there. We were busy Brysoning our way along in the heat when thankfully a passing chap all but ordered us onto a shuttle bus that was running in that direction. The existence of this bus had (literally) passed us by and we were very relieved to enjoy the air conditioning for a few minutes. While checking in, we got our first hint that our ferry might be a little late, but the casualness of the woman’s tone and her lack of apology suggested this wasn’t anything new!

Once we made our way back to the passenger terminal, we headed through security, where an atypically kindly border guard pulled me aside. “Madam,” he said, “There is no ship.” This really made us smile – no ship at all?! He went on to explain where we could wait inside, which wasn’t at all obvious so I’m glad he told us. And sure enough, the ship didn’t appear for quite some hours so we spent most of the day quoting his line. Madam, there is no ship…

Eventually, our ship, the Olympic Champion, docked and we watched the lorries unload painfully slowly, before it was our time to join the utter chaos and attempt to board under the very hot sun.

After a long discussion about which side of the ship we should aim to sit so that we would be in the shade as we sailed south (and some confusion about which end of the ship was the front), we were slightly puzzled to find the sun in our eyes most of the afternoon. So convinced were we about our calculations that we considered whether (a) the ship was sailing in the wrong direction or (b) the sun was setting in the wrong place, before eventually concluding that we are just absolute idiots and had sat on the wrong side.

These crossings are quite the experience, but thankfully we knew what to expect having taken a similar route last summer. Firstly, there are three main ticket types: deck space, airline-style seating and private cabins. Unlike some of the very civilised long-distance ferries we took in Japan and South Korea, getting a cabin this time was way out of our financial reach, costing at least twice the price of an already-expensive deck ticket. But deck tickets really are the wild west – you have to barge your way onto the ship and claim some sleeping space in a mad rush, and there were people laid out on yoga mats, air mattresses and even in tents everywhere (and I mean everywhere – on the open deck, in busy corridors, crammed into stairwells, at the entrance to the restaurant…). So, we went for the middle option, the airline-style seating. This got us a reserved seat in a large lounge full of rows of reclining chairs. The lights remained on and the television was blaring until a frustrated fellow passenger unplugged it around 2am, so it wasn’t exactly a restful night – particularly as we were sat close to a (very popular!) door that led directly out onto the windy deck. Thankfully, our eye masks and noise-cancelling headphones did their jobs and we got at least a bit of sleep.

The next morning, we stood out on deck in the sunshine as the Greek coastline drew closer, before stumbling off the ship in Corfu Town, finding our way through another un-pedestrianised port, and taking a bus across the island. It was time for our Corfu ‘holiday’ to begin! 🏖

Beautiful Brisighella

Brisighella is small mountain town built at the foot of three hills, which are occupied respectively by a clock tower, a fortress and a church, and surrounded by vineyards. It’s the sort of unspoilt Italian town that we’ve been dreaming about, but never quite expected to find in reality. It’s no wonder that Brisighella is a member of the organisation of the most beautiful villages of Italy.

Our departure from Bologna got off to a slightly rocky start when I cracked my forehead on a doorframe as I was rushing to pack my bag before checking out. Luckily, Sara somehow managed to find frozen peas in the train station shop, which seemed pretty fortunate given that none of our fellow passengers were buying frozen vegetables at the same time as their long-distance train tickets.

But it soon turned out that all our rushing was for nothing, as our train to Faenza was delayed and we missed our onward bus to Brisighella. This left us stranded for a couple of hours in Faenza until the next bus, but it did at least give us some time to catch up on the blog! 😬

I couldn’t quite believe it when we finally arrived at our accommodation – it looked just like one of those Trivago adverts where the woman rather unrealistically asks for the perfect hotel with a roll-top bath in the centre of Venice for £62 a night. We’d booked a room in a charming B&B, whose sun terrace overlooks the central town square – the perfect spot for an afternoon drink and breakfast the next morning. It’s got to be one of the loveliest and most low-key places we’ve stayed on this trip.

When we ventured out later in the afternoon, we found the undulating Via degli Asini (aka Road of the Donkeys) hidden behind a series of arched windows above street level. This street began life as a defensive post in the city’s walls in 1290, before becoming a commercial thoroughfare for carters and their donkeys carrying Gypsum from nearby caves. We never did get to the bottom of why the pathway was so uneven, but I’m guessing it was either old age or something to do with the wall’s defensive function!

With the heat of the day now fading, we took a walk up to the clocktower, which is perched somewhat precariously atop a rocky outcrop. Even though it has been damaged and rebuilt many times over, a tower of some form has occupied this spot since the 16th century. The views were nothing short of spectacular on the way up, and we could clearly see where the town ended and the vineyards began.

We continued back down to the town and up again to reach Rocca Manfrediana – the fortress that has presided over the town since 1310. The roughly square fort has circular towers in two corners and a series of high walls from which visitors can take in the views. As stunning as it was, it didn’t sound like the most comfortable existence for the fortress’ inhabitants, especially for the prisoners who were kept and tortured in the towers.

Back in the town, we loved wandering Brisighella’s cobbled streets and meeting the local residents, many of whom emerged in the cool of the evening to eat and socialise.

Brisighella’s most photogenic resident

All in all, Brisighella felt both beautifully quiet and not even that hard to get to. It sometimes amazes me how little distance you need to travel to get off the beaten track, even in Italy in July. I’m not sure we’d need to spend a whole week here, but I wouldn’t mind visiting a few more of the most beautiful villages of Italy if Brisighella is anything to go by.

From Brisighella, we had just one final stop to make in Italy – the bustling seaport of Ancona.

Bologna: La grassa, la dotta e la rossa

Bologna is an interesting city: known for its food, for being home to the oldest university in the world, but also for being a big, noisy and gritty place. So, I was surprised to find just how beautiful it was, pairing endless porticoes that provide shelter from the fierce sun with gorgeous churches, edgy graffiti and a large, rowdy student population enjoying reasonably-priced food and drink in unpretentious bars and tabacchi. I shouldn’t have been surprised – Italy does this casual beauty SO well.

Bologna goes by many nicknames, so we tried to see a bit of each side of the city in our time there. The first one was easy…

🍝 La Grassa (the fat one)

Our much-anticipated pilgrimage to Bologna began with – what else? – a big plate of Tagliatelle al Ragù. We’d built up quite the appetite after spending the day at the Ferrari museums in Modena and Maranello, so we headed straight out to try Bologna’s most famous food export at Sfoglia Rina. Although the meaty sauce is known as bolognese elsewhere in the world, in its hometown it’s better known as ragù, and rather than the spaghetti to which we’re more accustomed in the UK, here it is customarily served with tagliatelle – the sauce clings to the wider, more textured pasta much better. It was rich, savoury and made for a super-satisfying meal, although if I’m honest I was a bit surprised that it didn’t taste more different to what I make at home – I’ll take that as a sign that I’m doing something right!

The next morning, we began our day with more food, visiting the Mercato delle Erbe. This was a great place to start – we needed to stock up on anti-scurvy measures (fruit) anyway, so browsing the other gorgeous produce and viewing an outstanding dog parade was just the cherry on top. It’s always nice to be shopping where the locals shop – and another thing I couldn’t get over was just how peaceful this area was, even though the central streets (mere steps away) were absolutely packed.

We headed back towards the centre for lunch, stopping to join the enormous queue outside Mò Mortadella Lab. The line moved incredibly fast – there were just three chaps making the sandwiches but they obviously had a good system and they were having a laugh while they were at it. Oli went for the mortadella, stracciatella, sundried tomato and basil version, while I went for mortadella, grilled aubergine, truffled stracciatella and rocket. We’d just passed the perfect spot to eat our spoils (a step under one of the porticoes), so we made a beeline for it and savoured our sandwiches while admiring the impeccable street scene and the lengthy photoshoot unfolding in the next arch along. Excellent free entertainment! I’d give the sandwiches a solid 8/10 – great flavour combos but they really hadn’t skimped on the stracciatella, which did make them a tad messy to eat.

The final item on our must-eat list was tortellini in brodo, which literally translates as tortellini in broth. I had no idea that this was a traditional way to serve tortellini – unlike with the ragù, I’ve clearly been doing many things wrong in my preparation of these little filled pasta parcels! I also had no idea that there was a difference between tortellini (which are more delicate and typically filled with a meat, egg, parmesan and nutmeg mixture) and tortelloni (larger and typically filled with vegetarian goodies like ricotta and spinach) – I genuinely thought it was two different ways of spelling the same thing. Anyway, I digress – the dish was super-simple but Oli gave it a good review because the broth meant that each mouthful had a salty, meaty preview even before he’d bitten into each tortellino.

🎓 La Dotta (the learned one)

To explore another side of the city, we headed to the Observatory Museum, which sat within Palazzo Poggi at the University of Bologna. This tower was built in 1726 specifically to suit the requirements of the astronomers who would use it, and as we made our way up to the top, we saw reconstructions of experiments that were conducted there as well as some beautiful astronomical and navigational instruments from the 13th to 18th century. Probably my favourite item was a delicate Chinese rice paper map of the constellations from 1634. I’d never really considered before that it’s possible to join up the stars anyway you please, so it’s unsurprising that these were totally different than the constellations we would recognise. It’s always nice to see a different perspective on something! And despite the tours that had departed earlier in the day being fully booked, we somehow ended up with an essentially private tour of the tower, which was rather nice.

At the top of the tower, we emerged onto a sun-baked terrace that gave us a gorgeous view over the red rooftops of the old city, which leads nicely onto Bologna’s third nickname…

🧱 La Rossa (The red one)

Actually, this nickname apparently refers not just to Bologna’s beautifully rosy appearance, but also to the staunchly left-leaning politics in the city. I’ll stay well out of Italian politics in this post, but we did enjoy the architecture!

We also loved the UNESCO World Heritage porticoes that stretched for over 60 km (!) around the city. They provided much-needed shade and every one was different. We even stayed in an apartment tucked up in the eaves of one of the porticoes, which gave us a hidden vantage point over the streets below. This was a great spot to eat breakfast while we people-watched, hoping that no one glanced up and saw us in our pyjamas.

Finally, Bologna’s symbols are the two neighbouring medieval towers, Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda. The former is the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world, but the latter is even more wonky, leaning 3.2m over its 47m height! Given my wobbly knees performance in Pisa, we decided to save our pennies and didn’t climb the Torre degli Asinelli, which is open to the public.

After a couple of days exploring the beautiful contradictions of Bologna, which far exceeded my already-high expectations, we hopped on another train towards the small town of Brisighella to explore another side of the Emilia-Romagna region.