Ciao, Italy!

It’s been 15 days since we left the UK, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time in Italy. Our route covered the length of the country from Turin to Bari, which meant that we saw a huge amount of variety, from the Alpine-escape above Aosta to the cacophonous old town of Naples. I’m writing this from our ferry en route to Greece, and it feels like the perfect moment to reflect on our experiences over the past fortnight.

Train travel

Travelling by train has been incredibly easy in Italy. Admittedly, we did alter our itinerary to minimise the number of times we traversed the country, thereby avoiding many mountain passes that would have been time consuming by public transport. Specifically, we swapped a hike to the Marche region for a Tuscan adventure in Lucca, so we’ve already got one reason to return to Italy. Special thanks to Mario for his travel advice, which helped us make the most of our time in Italy. In total, we took 19 trains in Italy, and spent 47 hours trundling along the tracks.

We were genuinely impressed by the rail infrastructure, especially given that it extended to the mountainous coastline around the Cinque Terre. The trains were consistently large, modern and very comfortable. I’m sure low-carbon travel won’t always be this easy, which is all the more reason to appreciate it while it is.

Carbon audit

Our two-week itinerary from London to Bari resulted in 127 kgCO2 being emitted into the atmosphere, so there’s still a long way to go before we hit the minimum carbon offset credit size (1,000 kgCO2e). For comparison, we emitted 847 kgCO2e during our 2010 three-week interrail trip from London -> Berlin -> Pula -> London. It just goes to show the difference made by avoiding flying!

Unsurprisingly, the majority of our carbon emissions resulted from train travel, given that we travelled the vast majority of distance by train. Still, I was surprised to learn that low speed rail emits more than 7 times the amount of carbon of high speed rail, for journeys of the same distance. This is definitely something to consider for the future, given we sometimes opted for slower regional trains to save money.

Costs

The largest share of our money went towards accommodation costs, while food and transport costs occupied about a quarter of our budget each. I’m slightly surprised that activities made up less than 5% of our costs, but then again, I am really cheap and we both do enjoy walking!

Recycling

We didn’t buy a single plastic water bottle in Italy, owing to the abundance of water fountains present throughout every town. At times this meant that we sometimes carried more water than we would have if we’d bought it as we went, but this was a trade-off we were happy to make. Probably the largest detour we had to make for water was between trains at Roma Centrale, when I dashed out to a slightly sketchy neighbourhood to fill up our bottles at a public fountain while Sara remained anxiously fixated on the departures board. Fortunately, we had over an hour to kill during this connection, which we faffed away without issue.

I was also really impressed by the amount of public recycling. It seemed everywhere in Italy had 3 flavours of recycle bin, as well as a fourth bin for general waste. At least this meant that when we were given a couple of plastic water bottles by one Airbnb host, we knew they weren’t going into landfill. In fact, recycling seemed so popular in some places that some large recycling bins belonging to residential buildings were locked to prevent randomers (like us) from using them. We LOVE recycling, in case you couldn’t tell.

Cats

We miss Thomas (our cat) a lot. So much so, that Sara’s been keeping a count of the cats throughout Italy, inspired by the increasingly complex system of counting and ratings that we’ve developed while walking the London LOOP with our friends George and Erin. Disappointingly, we didn’t spot a single cat on our trip until we reached Naples. However, thanks to the feline population of southern Italy, the total now stands at 27, and we were delighted to have a cat as our neighbour out on the deck of our ferry (I think he was less delighted to be there).


Next stop: Greece!

🎵 Diamonds are Matera 🎵

We honestly didn’t choose to go to Matera as our last stop in Italy just because it appeared in the most recent Bond film, No Time to Die, but it was definitely a bonus when we realised it had been the filming location of the opening sequence.  We re-watched the film while we were in the city and our B&B host also showed us a fascinating video of how some parts of the sequence had been filmed.  

The cobbled streets were super slippery, as Oli can attest – sadly I don’t have a video but it looked a bit like this:

So, the stunt co-ordinators used about £55,000 worth of sticky, sticky Coca-Cola on the streets so that the Aston Martins and motorbikes had enough grip to drive at high speeds.  In order to protect the facade of a church and other buildings around a piazza during filming of one of the scenes, they recreated a new concrete cast to cover the buildings that replicated all the original features.  So essentially, what you see in the film is in Matera and looks just like the real thing, but isn’t at all.  

On the face of it, Matera is an absolutely gorgeous hilltop city where many of the traditional dwellings are carved out of the natural caves.  It’s one of the longest continually habited areas in the world (since approximately 7000 BC!), but was described last century as “the shame of Italy” for the poor conditions in which residents were living.  From the 1950s, the whole area was cleared, with residents forcibly moved to new accommodation in the new town.  However, in 1993, the Sassi districts were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2019, Matera was named as a European Capital of Culture, so its fortunes are changing.  There has been much renovation work in recent years to bring the cave dwellings to modern standards of habitability (still in evidence as we wandered the city).

We were lucky enough to get a reservation in a cave room at La Dolce Vita (one of the few bits of advance planning we did before leaving London) and it was certainly the best accommodation we experienced during our whole Italy leg – it’s not every day that you’re delighted to be given a windowless room!

Our B&B host urged us not to take things at face value as we toured the city (good advice for life, I guess), and we spent a lot of time trying to imagine how this beautiful, clean and easygoing city could ever have been anything else.  I suppose that if you add poor sanitation and a lack of electricity to living in a cave, things could go downhill fast.  We did actually visit a recreation of a traditional dwelling, but my main takeaway from this was that families seemed to have found some pretty ingenious places for storing their many children, since there wasn’t sufficient space for beds for the whole family.

As always, we spent most of our time exploring on foot and sampling the local aperitivo scene.  

On our final morning, we set our alarms for 5am and hiked across the ravine to watch the sunrise with a view over to Matera.  This was a gorgeous way to end our time in Italy.  I imagine the view would have been even better at sunset as the sun would have gone down behind the city, but we wouldn’t have had the viewpoint to ourselves and that glorious feeling of smugness at being the first there was so worth the early alarm!

I’m not sure that it’s clear here, but there’s a huge ravine between the city and where I’m standing to take this photo

The next part of our journey involved a 36-hour stint on a train, overnight ferry and two buses to reach our third country, Greece.  We were excited about taking the ferry, although we didn’t get a huge amount of sleep at first as it was so busy (instead, we upheld the British reputation for drinking by sharing an Italian red straight from the bottle as we couldn’t find any cups).

Thankfully, most people disembarked in the middle of the night at Igoumenitsa, so we were able to spread out to sleep and then spent the next morning watching the Greek coastline drift by before docking at Patras port around midday. 

We had a long hot walk into the city and then another long wait until our evening bus (which we mostly filled with exploring every bus station in the city before eventually discovering that our bus would depart from a ferry terminal – obvs), but we were immediately struck by the famous Greek hospitality when our server in a cafe gave me his personal recommendation for the most chocolatey snack and then promptly gifted it to me.  I think he could see I really needed it!

We’re so excited to be in Greece and to be able to spend a few weeks exploring it further.  It’s got a lot to live up to after Italy, but we have high hopes!

1960 years of history in Naples

While it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we spent the vast majority of our time in Naples eating pizza, drinking beer to recover from climbing the 104 steps up to our weird Airbnb, and flooding our apartment while using the washing machine (that one wasn’t on us), we did find a bit of time to explore some of Naples’ long and fascinating history.

Cool view, weird AirBnb

First up, we took the circumvesuviana train 20 minutes into the suburbs to explore Herculaneum, a roman-era fishing village that had been partially destroyed by an earthquake in AD 62 and then fully submerged in volcanic ash in AD 79.

This meant it had a history that somewhat parallelled the much better known Pompeii, although with three key differences for us: it was a smaller site (more manageable for our incurable need for completeness!), with fewer visitors, and was much better preserved (because of the type of volcanic rock that enveloped the town, it even conserved some food). 

We visited roman villas and community meeting spaces that still had their second storeys standing, with beautiful marble cladding, mosaic floors and detailed decoration on the walls.

We saw a blacksmith’s shop that was so well preserved that archeologists were able to work out what was in for repair when the town was buried: a ridiculously ornate candelabra and a bronze statue.

We saw several thermopoliums, which were restaurants where you could pick up ready-made food (ancient branches of Wasabi, if you will). We also visited the men’s bath house, where you could still see the decorative mosaics of dolphins and cherubs, and where the compartments for men to leave their clothes were intact on the wall.

Apparently, there’s a lot more of the village that hasn’t yet been excavated because it is under modern Ercolano.  Some parts have been explored by tunnel, but what lies beyond that is still unknown.  It’s a bit mind-blowing to consider what kind of treasures might be underground still waiting to be discovered.  Other than a bit of a fascination with WW2, I’m not a huge history fan, but this was a truly impressive site and for me far exceeded Pompeii, which I’d visited in 2007 on an interrailing trip with Amy and Liz (pic enclosed just to embarrass them and check they are still reading 😉) 


Our second visit was to Napoli Sotterranea.  Here, we descended under the streets of Naples and followed a tour that covered the use of the underground catacombs from ancient Greek times to give residents running water, right up to their use as air raid shelters in WW2.  There’s even a current project in collaboration with a local university examining growing plants underground using the ambient humidity to keep them watered – apparently they are supplying basil to many local restaurants.  

It was a really cool experience exploring underground in a space that had been used in so many ways over such a long time span.  I won’t lie – another of my favourite parts of this tour was also that we spent an hour at a comfortable temperature (we’ve not had air conditioning and it’s preeetty hot in southern Italy in August!)

Thankfully we visited before we tried the pizza fritta, so we could still fit through the extremely narrow passageways.


We spent the remainder of our time in Naples walking for miles around different neighbourhoods to soak up the street life and architecture. This included skidding through a local fish market, admiring the Maradona murals in Quartieri Spagnoli, the art nouveau architecture and upmarket shopping in Chiaia, and walking the promenade from Santa Lucia to the port. 

We left Naples on the first bus of our trip; a four-hour ride to the hilltop city of Matera, via Candela.

Chiaia neighbourhood