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Siracusa

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Long, long ago I studied ancient Greek and learnt about Archimedes and the city of Siracusa. It took me a while to connect the dots and realise that Ortygia, the city I was visiting in Sicily, was that Siracusa. The ancient city of Syracuse that was turned by Greek colonists into the largest city in the Greek world. Later it scored victories against Carthage and Athens and it was the home of Archimedes – yes, he of the bath tub and the Eureka! exclamation.

Siracusa / Ortygia is a beautiful place and on many people’s itineraries when visiting Sicily.  The city is full of old stone buildings, Greek ruins and remnants that often have a unique form and radiate soft hues in the late afternoon sun. It was a pity I didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, a mere day and a half, squeezed into a weekend before a work trip.

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If you arrive at Catania airport, it really pays to book the bus in advance. I didn’t and wasn’t able to buy a ticket at the airport straightaway, but would have had to wait to see if there was a place on it. Rather than waiting to see what my chances were, I chose to jump in a taxi to the railway station and catch a train from there. If you go for a taxi, anywhere in Sicily, negotiate your taxi fare before you get in and don’t believe what they ask you. My taxi driver was a cantankerous old man who kept fiddling with his meter during the relatively short drive, cranking it up to astronomical figures. I took issue with that, we ended up yelling insults in Italian at each other, and I threatened to call the carabinieri, before he settled on a fare that was still too much. The train ride was an oasis of calm compared to that.

After arriving in Siracusa I walked towards the old town and found a spot to have lunch and watch the scenery, while spending some time before I could check into my accommodation. I had booked Lemoni Suite in the old centre, run by Marcello and Milagros. I highly recommend it if you are looking for accommodation in Ortygia; it’s impeccably clean and they serve a breakfast that will fuel you for the day ahead. Having completed check-in, I headed out again, meandering around the old part of town, visiting the main piazza and enjoying the beautiful sunset before going for a light dinner at a small restaurant around the corner, recommended by Marcello.

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The next morning, after a copious breakfast, I walked through the old centre again, taking photographs in a completely different light compared to the late afternoon light the day before. I visited an interactive display about Archimedes, which was a lot of fun and just before midday headed up to the Parco Archaeologico Neapolis that features some amazing ruins. The enormous Greek Theatre is the main drawcard, but the park also features a Roman Amphitheatre. At the latter, I overheard a mother asking her young daughter about what differences the young girl had observed in both sets of ruins. I really had to bite my tongue not to blurt out my observation that in one they performed plays and in the other they killed each other. Quite the contrast.

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In another area of the park there is an astonishingly large cave in the rocks, known as the Ear of Dionysius. It refers to the tyrant Dionysius I of Siracusa. According to a legend he used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, using its acoustics to eavesdrop on plans and secrets of his captives. But another version claims that the cave was carved in this shape so that it would amplify the screams of prisoners being tortured. The acoustics remain impressive, although the only screams you will hear these days are those of kids who can never resist testing those acoustics at the highest volume they can produce.

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After a couple of hours in the archeological park, it was time to head to the railway station and jump on a train to return to Catania. I really wished I could have stayed longer in Ortygia and Sicily in general and will have to plan a return here to do the island full justice.

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Featured

Five villages in Liguria

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Which is a less evocative name than Cinqueterre, but it’s essentially the same. Back in March this year I went down there with an old friend to walk between the villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

Access to these villages is best done by train. Parking availability is limited in the villages, even if you’re driving a Fiat 500, and the train brings you right there. We fussed around initially with trying to find a good parking spot in La Spezia and ended up finally parking in the underground parking at the station. The cost wasn’t too bad and it was nicely undercover and in a convenient location. We had booked our accommodation in Monterosso al Mare, which we made our base for two nights. Hotel Margherita was a nice mid-range choice with plenty of good restaurant options around it.

Pre-trip research had already revealed that a number of paths were closed off due to landslides and repairs, but we did not expect to hear that all the paths between the villages to be officially closed. So the next morning we bought our one-day Cinqueterre pass (highly recommended) and decided to train it to Corniglia and see if we could walk back via the higher paths to our home base in Monterosso al Mare.

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After arriving in Corniglia, we decided to walk up to the village, rather than waiting for the bus to arrive and piling in with too many other people. The first set of steps were easy enough and afforded a nice view towards Manarola and Riomaggiore. From there we tried to find the high path to Vernazza, but what we thought was the high path (no signs of course) later turned out to be the normal path which was “officially” closed. That of course didn’t stop anyone merrily walking the path and pretending it was open (nor us for that matter). Only when we came across an Australian couple did we find out the truth, that it was closed further on and required some creative clambering over earth moving equipment. So we did and made our way down to Vernazza, while an extremely unfit individual was panting his way up from there. He wasn’t even 300 meters into the walk and looked like he was going to expire that very moment. We both looked at his progress with concern; a look we would have on our faces a few more times that afternoon, as we watched the parade of walkers in flip-flops, walkers in heels with pretty handbags, walkers perched on precarious outcrops aiming for that perfect instagram shot, even if it was their last. We really are an odd species.

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The walk so far had been delightful with beautiful views and meandering paths along the sides of the cliffs that occasionally became steep staircases that for the most part we could descend. After we arrived in Vernazza, we first treated ourselves to a gelato and then proceeded to have a look around the village and the harbour area. It is a very photogenic place and it was full of tourists (like ourselves). If it is this busy in March, it’s unimaginable what it looks like in July and August…

And don’t believe the heavily photoshopped images you see of Vernazza. It is really a beautiful and colourful place, but they’re pastels, not the heavy-handed hues that are being painted on to images of the place.

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After our break we headed up the hill again to follow the path out of Vernazza. We asked a local policeman for directions and to make sure the path was really open. He responded that it was and indicated which way to follow. Five minutes out of the village the path was cordoned off, but emboldened by the policeman’s statement that the path was open (and in the context of everyone else’s blatant ignoring of signs), we climbed over it and continued on our way.

In this section the path was quite narrow in places and difficult to pass for walkers crossing from the opposite direction. Most of the time both sides carefully negotiated passing each other, finding the best spot or stopping to wait until the other party had passed. But at times people just bulldozered through with no regard for anyone in their path.

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We soldiered on calmly, stopping for photos on the way or to let people pass. The final descent was an endless series of steps that hammered our knees. Eventually we ended up in Monterosso again, delighted to have been able to actually do a substantial part of the path between the villages. As we still had time and an unlimited train pass, we walked back to the station and jumped on the next train to go to Manarola, to visit the fourth village, where we settled in with an afternoon drink and a snack and sat people watching as the sun set lower.

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Duly fed and watered, it was time to make our way to the final village, Riomaggiore, by train. By then it was getting close to sunset and we enjoyed walking around in the the late afternoon light, colours melting away in the sea, before returning to the train station to travel back to Monterosso al Mare for dinner and some well-earned rest.

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City of Angels

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It’s already more than a week ago since I spent the weekend in Venice. It was photographic overload, so it’s taken some time to process all the photos, and there was some time required to reflect on the trip as well.

From Milan the train takes about two and a half hours to get to Venice. Just before midday on the Saturday I arrived and headed off on foot towards Cannaregio, an area to the left of the station, which tends to be less frequented by tourists. And it was indeed, despite it being a busy Carnevale weekend. It was probably my favourite area in Venice during this visit. It was quiet and peaceful, with Venetians going about their normal Saturday morning business, going for a jog, getting groceries or walking the kids back home from sporting activities.

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Every now and then I got into busier parts again, those that connected more directly with the main artery for tourist traffic, but most of the time I managed to avoid that and meandered peacefully around, stopping to have some soup for lunch alongside one of the canals, before continuing on and eventually reaching the Castello area, leading me towards Riva degli Schiavoni, where my lovely hotel, Hotel Gabrielli, is located. Check in was quick and I was able to divest myself of my backpack and after a brief rest just take the necessities and a camera to head out again for the afternoon.

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Walking along the Riva degli Schiavoni towards Piazza San Marco I continued to head along the waterfront, following a well-trodden path towards the Accademia, meandering through tight streets, occasionally finding Carnevale revellers dressed up in costume. I crossed the Ponte dell’Accademia, treated myself to an ice cream at Zattere, before returning towards the main San Marco area. I got caught in the masses near Piazza San Marco and escaped the throng, finding space somewhere and then queued to get across the Ponte della Paglia. Here the police kept people moving along on the bridge to avoid blockages with everyone wanting to get their photograph in front of the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). I had expected crowds in Venice, but it was still incredible to have to queue for about 15 minutes to get over a bridge. Mental note to self: avoid the San Marco area when returning to the station the next day. Back at the hotel I had an aperol spritz before watching and photographing the magnificent sunset from my hotel room balcony.

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The next morning I made sure I was awake before dawn, so I could be at Piazza San Marco to photograph the sunrise. I got more than that; I had not realised that many of those dressing in costume are there at first light for photographs. There were quite a few photographers around, and I happily joined them taking photographs of the magnificently dressed Carnevale participants against a beautiful backdrop with a sunrise illuminating it all. Lucky I had stuffed my flash in my coat pocket that morning!

And Piazza San Marco? Only a handful people there and perfect timing compared with yesterday afternoon. About an hour later I headed back to the hotel for a hot shower to warm up my frozen fingers from the bitter cold (gloves notwithstanding) and feeding a growling stomach some breakfast.

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After breakfast I took a vaporetto to Giudecca, the island that lies in front of Piazza San Marco. It was cold and windy and it being Sunday morning, there was hardly anything open, but I imagined it would be a welcome respite from the tourist masses in summer. Back on the vaporetto to get my backpack and check out of the hotel before starting the slow meander back to the station.

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That meander was more than I bargained for with crowds squeezed in tight streets, moving at a shuffling pace. I escaped the crowd at the first opportunity and took some back streets until I got to a vaporetto stop. I decided to put my day pass to good use and hop to a different area via vaporetto. In San Polo I found a little restaurant for an early lunch before walking through the quarter towards the Santa Lucia station. I got there faster than I expected and not wanting to wait around the station for another 90 minutes until my train was due, I decided to get on the vaporetto again heading towards Accademia and then turning around and jumping on a vaporetto back to the station in good time for my return train to Milan. It allowed for more photography and a distinctly different perspective from what I had walking the streets. Still on visual overload, it didn’t take long to fall asleep as the train whisked me back to Milan.

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I do want to make an observation of something that stood out for me on this trip and disturbed me a great deal: people are obsessed with their phones and with themselves. In every gondola the passengers were consistently looking at their phones, rather than at the environment they were in. There they were in magical Venice, in a gondola, and they were looking at their phones. Something is seriously wrong with that. And if they’re not looking at their phones to see what they’re missing on social media, they’re posing in front of it to take a selfie, casting lascivious looks at the thing, with endless posing and pouting. It seems for many people it’s not about the place they are visiting, but it’s about them and that they are seen to be somewhere, so that they can tick it off on another “Bragbook” list. Our self-obsession and vanity have reached peak levels.

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