By popular demand, here’s the next installment of what we’ve been up to over the past week. We elected to hang around the port gateways to Rome and Florence. Civitavecchia wasn’t worth the time, but Livorno was.
Durres Albania is the first port we’ve hit where literally no one wears a mask or even pays attention to the potential of spreading COVID. In Italy, on the other hand, while nearly no one wears a mask outside, all shop-keepers wear masks as do customers as well as travelers on public transportation (generally KN95 versions).
In Italy, like many European countries, the Roman Catholic churches (Chiesa) often are receptacles of the best art and most elaborate construction that money poured in over the centuries can buy. (This artifact of human nature is not uniquely that of the Roman Catholic Church but can be seen in religious building of nearly all the earth’s major religions and we find many of them worth admiring on that basis).
The guest entertainers aboard the ship generally have not worked for the past couple of years. Most have been excellent. It seems like an ideal job with the perks of free cruises to outsiders, but these guys/gals spend much of their time flying from airport to airport and are constantly on the move. I have no idea what their monetary compensation is, but it would have to be reasonably high to have someone spend their lives as perpetual nomads.
Much of the crew is rotating out. Because of the COVID schedule, most joined the ship six months ago and their contracts are fulfilled. So they are leaving on a wholesale basis at the same time as dozens of cruise ships are simultaneously being commissioned world-wide and many former workers have found alternative jobs – so I expect there will be a shortage of employees for a while.
We’ve spent the week in Italy, with a stop in southern France and are on our way to Spain.
Crotone (Calabria), Italy
Crotone is a port town in the Calabria region of southern Italy. It lies along the Gulf of Taranto, northwest of the Cape of Colonne, and east-northeast of Catanzaro.
The history of southern Italy and Sicily before the rise of Rome is largely one related to the expansion of the Greek culture Many famous names which we associate with ancient Greece, such as Archimedes and Pythagoras, in fact lived in what we today call Italy. This area, like much of the eastern Mediterranean is a story of waves of colonizing Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans.
Crotone was founded by Achaean Greeks led by Myscellus about 710 BC and soon became a city of power and wealth. Becoming one of the most important Magna Graecia (Hellenic) colonies in Italy, Crotone was a major cultural center in the 5th century BC and was especially celebrated for its successes in the Olympic Games from 588 BC onward.
The philosopher Pythagoras established himself there about 530 BC and formed a society of 300 disciples who were sympathetic toward aristocratic government. In 510 BC Croton was strong enough for its people to defeat the Sybarites and raze their city to the ground, and shortly afterwards, the disciples of Pythagoras were driven out and a democracy was established in Crotone.
The importance of the city in ancient times was due to its harbor, which, though not particularly outstanding, was the only port between Tarentum (Taranto) and Rhegium (Reggio di Calabria). The original settlement occupied the hill above the harbor which later became the acropolis and now, protected by the Castello di Carlo V, is the Old Town.
The Old Town, with its imposing 16th-century castle is known for its handful of churches and an archaeological museum of some importance.
The major entrance to the Old Town is from the Plazza Pitagora (where the shuttle bus drops off). Nearby, the large fruit/meat/fish/souvenir market was closed for the Liberation Day holiday (also is the same date as Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand).
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Via Risorgimento 121) was constructed to house the treasures found at the Sanctuary of Hera Lacinia, (Il Santuario di Hera Lacinia) as well as many antiquities recovered from the surrounding seabed. The Sanctuary of Hera Lacinia, dating from the 7th century BC, was once one of the most important shrines of Magna Graecia. Only one column remains standing, but the site (known as Capo Colonna because of that single pillar) occupies a stunning position on a promontory 11 km (7 miles) south of the town of Crotone.
The museum is situated in the heart of the old city of Crotone, close to the seafront castle. The most precious part of the collection is the so-called Treasure of Hera, with the goddess’s finely wrought gold diadem and belt pendant. You can also see the rare 5th-century-BC bronze askos (container for oil) in the form of a mermaid, illegally exported into the United States and subsequently recovered by the Italian government from the Getty Museum in California.
The Basilica Cathedral in the Old Town is OK, I guess, but being jaded from seeing hundreds of major churches in Europe makes this one a “small town” sized attraction. The nearby Chiesa dell’Immacolata church, while not much to see above ground has a pretty creepy crypt which features piles of neatly stacked human skulls. The Chiesa di Santa Chiaqra, also nearby, was only mildly interesting. On the other hand, we dropped into a bakery at random and picked up unbelievable Nutella-filled pastries for a nosh.
Lunch was at Ristorante da Ercole, (Viale Antonio Gramsci, n. 122, Tel. +39 0962 901425), a nice pasta and seafood restaurant across the promenade from the beach and about a 15 minute walk from the Castle in the Old Town. I had a spaghetti in a pureed fish sauce and my wife has gnocchi with fresh tuna chunks. The red wine was named “Ciro” and was great, the bread crusty and the restaurant’s interior pleasant and comfortable. While the mains could be called “rustic” and were pretty tasty, they were plain and didn’t have any special redeeming characteristics which would cause the restaurant to stand out. While the owner, Chef Ercole, is very much in evidence, the food served does not display the embellishments shown in the photos on their web site, so maybe they have changed their line chefs or procedures.
A less formal, but fun/hip restaurant for pizza and sandwiches, also across from the beach, is L’ins Olito, (Viale Gramsci n. 8).
Its coastal waters, stretching to Capo Rizzuto, make up Italy’s largest protected marine area; and the island Castle Le Castella, 15 km (9 miles) from Crotone, is a vision out of a fairy tale.
Messina, Sicily Italy
“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.” ? Isabelle Eberhardt, The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt
Greek mythology is peppered with references to Messina. According to Homer, Scylla and Charybdis threatened Odysseus at the Strait of Messina. There has been busy traffic between Messina and the Mainland, over the millennium. Sicily has been invaded and conquered by a string of civilizations ranging from the Greeks to the Romans, Saracens, Crusaders, Normans, etc. Each has left its mark on the Sicilian psyche as well as its dialect (that is only about 60% based on Italian).
In recent years, there has been much talk of constructing a bridge to the mainland in order to facilitate and improve communication. Though a pleasant idea, in theory, this would be almost impossible to implement in practice (not to mention expensive). The main mode of transport between Sicily and the motherland remains a system of ferries, as has been the tradition throughout the centuries.
Today the city is growing and developing along the coast, and due to the violent earthquakes that have struck the area on several occasions and areal damage and bombardment during the Second World War, it is almost completely modern. Learning from past lessons, modern Messina is constructed with safety in mind. Streets are wide and buildings relatively low.
We got into the port of Messina and were whisked off in a van I arranged ahead of time with some fellow shipmates toward Mt. Etna, continental Europe’s most active volcano.
We headed toward the lovely village of Zafferana (named for the Arabic word for yellow – saffron) though vineyards and citrus groves. We stopped at the village to have a beautiful view of the water below and went into church that was situated on the hill.
Continuing through villages that were all closely connected to the volcano’s history, we found that the scenery changed from forest, orchards and vineyards to ash covered roads. The volcano recently erupted ash and the roads still displayed the remnants of the recent eruption (and the locals shovel it up into bags the way that we might do to leaves or snow). As we continued up Mt. Etna’s switchback roads, we saw hillsides covered in cones and craters and the remnants of streams of lava. Many of the buildings and even road paving is made out of ash blocks (which our driver persisted in calling “hash”).
At 6,200 feet, we stopped to take in the views of Mt. Etna and the region below. There is still a lot of snow left on the mountain at this elevation, but not enough to ski (the ski season ended a few weeks ago). There was a ski lift to take people from the local ski resort farther up the mountain.
We went to the Silvestri Craters and walked around each of the three craters with lava flows dating to the 1892 and 2001 eruptions - still a rich black color. We traveled through gravity defying series of tunnels and switchbacks on our way to Taormina that is situated high on Mount Tauro, overlooking the calm Ionian Sea.
Taormina is a lovely medieval town with many interesting shops and restaurants. While we came with a pre-arranged private driver with a carload of people, and some others came by cab, independent travelers wishing to come from Messina should consider the train (cheap and schedule available on the internet). Once in Taormina, walk about 800 meters to the right of the station and take the cable gondola up to the town from the beach (also quick and cheap). The town dates back to AD 39. We walked through the ancient Messina Gate and headed towards the Palazzo Corvaja and the impressive theater built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC and renovated by the Romans.
The entry to the theater is 10 Euros. Thus sounds pretty high, but the views from the top level of the ancient amphitheater are nothing short of spectacular and, to a photographer, the fee is warranted. The original Greek theatre was open and allowed views in all directions – as well as of Mt. Etna. The Romans raise brick walls around the theatre blocking the views from those in the seats, but increasing the capacity and providing barriers to enclose wild animals, gladiators, Christians and other dangerous creatures.
There is also a smaller Roman amphitheater, the Odeon, on the Corso Umberto, that is open to the public as well as a very nice cathedral. We strolled along the Corso Umberto, that is the main pedestrian street (filled with a mixture of high end and souvenir shops) and wandered through the town’s gardens (which look like they are recycled Roman ones). We had moderately overpriced (3 Euro), but fantastic, freshly filled cannoli with ends dipped in chocolate and pistachio chips (as well as free Wi-Fi with PW= 94223939) at Bar Capriccio (Corso Umberto, 85).
It was fortunate that one of the passengers we were wandering with had an old map as the ones in the tourist information office were too small a scale to be useful. We had lunch at a reasonably priced restaurant back on a small side street that you had to walk down several steps to find (Giambero Rosso, Via Naumachie, 11). The view in front of the church was of Mt. Etna and you could see giant clouds of smoke coming from the volcano and covering the sky. This town was great and the views amazing.
Our purchase today was a couple of the hard sided, lightweight Samsonite luggage pieces we were looking for. We bought one last summer when we were in Paris (but for some reason these are less expensive in Italy than in any other European country). We prefer these 4.5 kg four-wheel spinners which use clamps to close, rather than zippers (which can easily snag on cloths and break). Samsonite makes these in Europe, but does not sell them in the States (our old bulletproof, decade or two old Samsonite & American Tourister pieces weigh too much for today’s stricter weight rules on airplanes – we gave our old ones away to our cabin steward and a passenger who had bought enough that they needed an additional suitcase). The colors of the new luggage are garish, but I still might spray paint them with magenta and cyan graffiti to make them too ugly to steal (as well as standing out on a luggage carousel).
The fruits and vegetables we saw for sale on stands were nothing short of spectacular (with aromatic, but thick skinned lemons used for making the local liqueur limoncello adding to the color scheme). There were stores showing fruits, seafood and even roasted chickens out of marzipan that were indistinguishable from the original. The traditional cannoli pastry graced the windows of pastry shops. While cough drops purchased in pharmacies are effective, they are also expensive (about $.20) each).
Our driver suddenly pulled off the road at one spot to pick up petrol at 1.67 Euro per liter, which he said was a cheap price. (“Super” gasoline is known here as “benzene”).
I engaged our driver in conversation and his comments sounded like he was prompted by the Greeks we spoke to a couple of days ago. He mourned Italy’s joining the Euro and said that he wished they would go back to the Lire (when he could save money and get some return on it). He wanted to be paid in cash because he was taxed 50% and did not see why he should share his earnings with the government (it was bad enough that he had to pay commissions to travel agents). I told him that he was lucky I did not ask to share in his tax savings by way of a discount (but I smiled when I said it?). He told me that the Italian public TV stations “RAI” cost 100 Euros a year, but he’s found a way to get them for free. He maximizes the amount of “black” money he makes and pays as little tax as possible. He appears to be the stereotype of the Italian middle class. While everyone seems to point at wealthy Italian (or Greeks or Spaniards) as being the ones that dodge taxes, apparently it is close to 75% of the population. Either Italy has a surprising number of wealthy or else most of the population participates in this sport and are simply using the wealthy class’s actions as their rationalization.
He further explained that the politicians were parasites who took bribes, embezzled money and had multiple sexual relations with young women (though this did not seem to be more than a chuckle) – and I thought about how similar politicians were world-wide. He said that the bureaucrats ended up with full pensions (at their final year’s compensation level) upon retiring and that the system was bloated with them, but they had their own very powerful left wing party (that had evolved from the Italian Communist Party). The right wing party was headed by Berlusconi and was able to fund lavish election campaigns.
The middle class of centrist small businessmen such as himself had been disenfranchised compared to the two extremes. Since the government never represented them, this provided yet another excuse not to fund the corrupt government (of extreme right wingers supported by left wing workers) with hard earned wages stolen by tax collectors (Sicily has only one poisonous snake – a viper – but apparently many of these hiding in wait for the unwary). He indicated that he was not paying “protection money” to the Mafia (who seem to be more interested in running banks to launder the profit they make on construction projects funded by the government – and that sort of thing). He further said that if the government tried to place yet another layer of “taxes” on him, he would shut his business rather than pay.
When we came aboard we heard stories of a couple of people (including one of the ship’s dining room stewards who should have known better) buying extraordinarily cheap iPads and then when they got to the ship, opening the package – only to find out that a small stone had been substituted for the electronics. In Bali, one of the items sold is intricately carved cow bones (presumably this would have been ivory in the past). They all look very similar, but there are vast differences in the quality of the workmanship (and therefore value). It is normal for the sellers, by sleight of hand, to substitute which you end up with. When I bought a pair a few weeks ago, despite repeated attempts by the guy I bought them from to take them from me and wrap them, I insisted on holding them in my hand and asked him to give the wrapping material to my wife (he was pretty aggravated, but since the transaction took place through the openings of a fence there wasn’t much he could do to get the “showroom model” back).
Our little excursion, even doing it by taxi, cost about $41 a person including entrance fees while the ship charged $95 for a similar route on a large bus. As in the past, we generally find that a two to one ratio is the minimum benefit to doing things on one’s own.
After returning to Messina, we had the driver drop us near the Cathedral. This church is quite large and an All Saints Day service was being held. The Basilica Cathedral di Santa Maria Assunta is lavishly decorated in what looks like Moorish design and murals reminiscent of Byzantine icons. The adjacent clock tower has an incredible collection of mechanisms which keeps track of the phase of the moon, the sign of the Zodiac, the date and so on, along with moving statues on three different floors of the tower.
Nearby, across the street, there is a much smaller chapel which started life as a Saracen mosque in the ninth century built on the foundation of an older pagan temple. After Saracens were evicted by Norman Crusaders two hundred years later, it was re-cycled as a church (though, with its dome it looks Byzantine, the church was Roman Catholic) and outfitted with an icon borrowed (stolen) by Crusaders from a church in Syria which was covered in fabulously worked silver and gold. It was destroyed in an earthquake and the face portion of the icon was copied and sits behind the silver today.
Nearby is a monument to the hero of the strategic sea battle of Lapanto, the bastard son of the Emperor of Austria, who in 1512 beat the Turkish fleet in the Straits of Messina.
We walked to the city’s Theatre and the guard was nice enough to let us into the empty opera house. It has been renovated and the interior is very modernistic and the ceiling mural is of a woman diving into the water.
At Pasticceria Irrera 1910 (Piazza Cairoli, 12), we had some of the best cannoli pastries I’ve had the pleasure of eating (the regular are better than the chocolate). The ricotta crème is excellent, but what stands out are the crispy shells. The hot cocoa here is unsweetened and very thick.
The young people we spoke to, including our taxi driver as well as a tour guide we found in the small church in Messina, to had never left Sicily, and said the economy was terrible (and said there was no Mafia).
The streets of both Messina and Taormina are full of the, now expected, Indians selling selfie-sticks and colored plastic blobs. Our taxi driver was disparaging towards black squeegee technicians when he said “immigrants”. During a “discussion” (the taxi diver’s command of English rivaled my command of Sicilian dialect), about Romance languages, I was told that there many “Romanians” on the island (which, from his explanation, I interpreted as “Rom”, or Gypsies in English).
I’ll leave philosophical pondering to others, except to point out that, without a bridge to the mainland, (a project periodically discussed since Roman times), beautiful as Sicily is, it is still an island and living here has the feeling of being a dead end.
We cruised off this evening through the three kilometer wide Strait of Messina which separates Sicily from Italy – the mythical home to the two monsters of Scylla and Caribous. As we passed the active volcano of Stromboli, the “lighthouse” of Sicily, there is a red glow from an eruption of Europe’s only currently active volcano.
Considering the number of times we have been to Italy in the past, it’s amazing that we have never been to Salerno. After wandering through the city for a day, I can say that it is a hidden gem. It’s theater rivals the best opera houses we’ve seen, its main church is more ornate than many cathedrals, its pastries are fantastic and its stores varied. Who could ask for more?
With 150,000 inhabitants, Salerno is a lively, industrial, modern town situated at the eastern edge of the Amalfi Coast, with an atmospheric medieval center and what is arguably the most beautiful lungomare (seafront promenade) on this coast. It was made all the more enjoyable by the lack of crowds. It’s hard to get lost in the town as, while it’s a couple of miles long, it’s only a few blocks wide – head to the sea and all will become clear.
An Etruscan settlement founded around the 6th century B.C., it was absorbed into Magna Grecia, the conglomerate of Greek colonies in southern Italy, during the 5th century B.C. and became the Roman colony of Salernum in 194 B.C.
During World War II, Salerno was designated the capital of Allied Italy, and only the medieval center and part of the 19th-century waterfront were spared from severe bombing…
Leaving the new cruise terminal, we walked along the palm tree lined lungomare’s western end to the Villa Comunale (Piazza Amendola), a pleasant and orderly public garden.
Adjacent to the garden is the Teatro Verdi (Piazza Luciani; tel. 089-662141, www.teatroverdisalerno.it; daily 8am-2pm and 4-8pm). The guard was nice enough to give us a tour of the theater. This historic theater was inaugurated on April 15, 1872, with a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto and has been completely renewed for its 150 year anniversary to pristine condition and its gold gilding, muralled ceiling and tiers of box seats look like they were built yesterday.,
From Piazza Amendola we followed the shopping street, Via di Porta Catena, to the Piazza Sedile del Campo, the medieval market square, graced by the small Fontana dei Delfini (Fountain of the Dolphins) and the Palazzo dei Genovesi (at no. 3) – today a locked school – with its grand portal. At the corner of the plaza is a small jewelry store selling unique silver pieces at reasonable prices named Bottega Orafa Salernitana (Via Giovanni da Procida, 56, Tel: +39 089 220918).
The Porta Catena was the city gate when the Normans, led by Robert Guiscaed, laid siege and took the city in 1076. Today, as you walk through the gate and down the nearby alleyways, your senses will be assailed by the “Muri d’autore” initiative - incredible graffiti surrounded by poetry and accented by rows of hanging laundry. It is truly a unique experience to wander through the area at random.
The Via Duomo will take you to the cathedral of St. Mathew (San Mateo), founded in 845 and rebuilt in 1076-1085 by Robert Guiscard. In the crypt is the sepulcher of St. Mathew whose body was, according to legend, brought to Salerno in the 10th Century. The church also contains the tomb of Pope Gregory VII. The style of architecture is very Moorish in appearance and the church displays both huge fantastic Byzantine-style mosaic as well as fresco gold leaf haloed icons. Even the crypt is covered with fantastic detailed carvings and paintings. If you only go to one church in Salerno, this is the one.
Leaving the cathedral, and turning to the right, go up the ramp at the foot of the street and, at the top of the ramp, you’ll come to the LM Landi pasticceria (Via Romualdo II Guarna, 16/b) who sells incredible lemon crème-filled langoustine (called “lobster tails because of their shape) pastries for 1.2 Euros.
We returned to the Piazza Sedile del Campo and walked down the Via dei Mercanti, Salerno’s major shopping street, which dates from medieval times. Many of the town’s best boutiques and most elegant stores are found here.
Along the Via dei Mercanti is the 10th-century Chiesa del Crocifisso, Piazza Matteotti 1 (tel. 089-233716; daily 9am-noon and 4-7pm), famous for its beautiful 13th-century frescoes and mosaics.
The town is dominated by the Castello di Arechi, Via Benedetto Croce (tel. 089-2854533; www.ilcastellodiarechi.it; free admission; TuesSun 9am-2pm and 4pm-sunset); originally built by the Byzantines, probably over older fortifications, the castle took on its current name during Spanish rule in the 16th century. It is worth a visit just for its view. It can be reached by the #19 bus (1.25 Euro) as it is a steep 40-minute climb along a pedestrian ramp (take the bus up and maybe walk down). Check the bus schedule as the times going up/down are not regular.
Civitavecchia (Rome’s Port - Old City and Getting into Rome)
We have always felt that Civitavecchia has few redeeming characteristics other than being close to Rome, other than that’s where the cruise ships dock (sort of the Piraeus/Athens or Livorno/Florence relationship). Before we get into our sightseeing in Civitavecchia itself, we’ll cover the logistics of getting into Rome from a cruise ship.
Civitavecchia is the port for Rome located approximately 45 miles northwest of the city. It is approximately an hour by train from Rome and an hour by car from the airport. As the Italian trains have been a bit erratic over the past year (I guess Mussolini can get the trains to run on time, but the Italians have figured out how to wipe out this last vestige of his rule), figure at least an extra half hour (or more) of delays any time you are taking an Italian train nowadays.
While it is impossible to “see” all of Rome from a cruise ship, we have, over the years, (between stays of a few days or a week at a time over the past four decades and quick stops from ships) spent cumulative months in the “Eternal City”.
Free Wi-Fi has been introduced to the Civitavecchia downtown area. A highlight was the availability of free Wi-Fi and good cappuccino at the local McDonalds (Server: INFOSTRADA, PW: KUHJVVVWFFN3G in capitals). While you could connect anywhere within the restaurant, the internet only worked properly from the stand-up console in the middle of the first floor.
While many of the passengers continue out of abject terror or apathy continue to pay for the ship’s excursions (transfer to Rome and back by bus is sold at $99), it is only about an hour and a half train ride from Civitavecchia to Termini Station in Rome.
There’s a free shuttle service provided between your ship and a parking lot outside the port where a 2 € bus can be taken to the train station (It is a bit far to walk – about 3km) and, with waiting for the bus figured in, won’t save you any time.
The best way to deal with this is to simply ignore the free shuttle bus and walk out of the port next to the old Michelangelo Fortress at the end of the pier. Past the fort at the port exit, turn right and walk past the Hertz office to the train station on the left. It is about a twenty minute (1.4km) walk and, unless physically challengedor pulling large suitcases, this is the best solution (or take a cab for the short distance). Incidentally, the statue of the sailor kissing the woman in Times Square at the announcement of the end of World War II which used to be here has been moved to Norway.
Trains from Civitavecchia to Rome are about € 5.50 each way. But, a better deal is to pick up the “BIRG” card for 13 € (including 1 € tax) from the Tabacchi (tobacco shop) next to the train station entrance which gives 24 hours of universal local transit – including the train to Rome and all Roman Metro and bus lines.
Check the schedules posted in the stations. (There is usually reduced service on Sunday).
Reserving or researching more complicated travel by train in Italy can be done on http://www.trenitalia.com/.
On our latest trip, because we were traveling with a large suitcase (to be left in Rome at our hotel for the month of European travel we have planned, only to be retrieved when we stay a night there again before boarding our ship home, we are taking a car service to Rome. Four of us (we shared with another couple) hired Rome-Airport.net (https://www.rome-airport.net/, firstname.lastname@example.org) to bring us, in a large mini-van, from the ship to a pair of hotels at a cost of 150 Euros, plus 20 Euros for the second drop-off of the other couple.
We have also, on occasion, checked our larger suitcases at “Left Luggage” Rome Airport’s Terminal 3 (International terminal, near exit number 6) at 10 Euros per piece, per day, and taken small “cabin sized” bags into the city by SIT Shuttle bus (6 Euros each way, 11 Euros round-trip).
The options for sightseeing close to Civitavecchia not only include Rome, but also a number of Etruscan tombs nearby and the ancient port of Rome, Ostia Antiqua, but we are going to concentrate on our wanderings through the port city here.
Today was a holiday devoted to the town’s patron saint and the plaza in front of the cathedral hosted a rotating cast of drummers, flag-throwing teams clergy marching to the ringing of church bells and so on. The day culminated with a flotilla of commercial fishing and pleasure boats parading to a serenade of foghorns as they carried the effigy of the saint during the annual “blessing of the fleet”.
The ship was docked out by the city’s container port and the port shuttle bus dumped us about a mile from town (sometimes there are taxis and tuk-tuks here, but the return trip was hampered by the center of town being turned into pedestrian malls.
The municipal archeological museum charges 3 Euros, but isn’t worth the money (except for the clean toilet there). There is a municipal market which sells veggies and low-end underwear and another along the seaside lungomare (promenade) which sells somewhat higher-end clothing and has food carts. The Cathedral is worth taking a peek at and, of course, there is the ancient Fort Michelangelo (generally kept locked). In short, you can see everything worthwhile in the town in a couple of hours.
Osteria del Pirgo, near the lungomare (Lungomare Ammiraglio Thaon de Revel, 10) is a good seafood restaurant.
Livorno (Pisa, Florence, Lucca, Cinqua Terre), Italy
“You do not travel if you are afraid of the unknown, you travel for the unknown, that reveals you with yourself.” – Ella Maillart
Cruise ships stop at the seaport pf Livorno and most passengers dash off to Florence, Lucca, Pisa or the Cinque Terra. All of these are worth seeing (though trying to cram Florence into a few hours of a cruise ship excursion is like trying to eat three dozen cannoli in five minutes – nearly impossible). Livorno itself is usually ignored but, unlike Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, Livorno does have quite a few interesting places to visit if you have already been to the other sites.
In 1405, the Visconti of Milan sold the swampy former Roman port of Livorno to the Republic of Genoa. Then, in its conflict with Pisa, that had a port on the Arno (before a change in river course silted it up), the Republic of Florence bought Livorno in 1427 to have a port of its own. At the time, a census counted 118 families in Livorno, including 423 persons. Monks, Jews, military personnel, and the homeless were not included in the census.
After the arrival of the Medici, the ruling dynasty of Florence, the Fortezza Vecchia (Old Fortress) was constructed between 1518 and 1534. During the Italian Renaissance, Livorno was rebuilt as a new fortified town, defended by towers and fortresses leading to the town center. Voluntary resettlement of the population to Livorno was stimulated by offering freedom from prison to thieves, prostitutes and others if they would move there, but Livorno still remained small.
In the late 16th century, Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, established the Leggi Livornine to regulate the trade and declared Livorno a duty free port (porto franco).
These laws protected merchant activities, established a well-regulated market and offered the right of public freedom of religion and amnesty. The Grand Duke attracted numerous Turks, Persians, Moors, Greeks, and Armenians, along with Jewish immigrants. Arrival of the latter begun in the late sixteenth century with the Alhambra Decree, which resulted in the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal - while Livorno extended to them rights and privileges and they contributed to the mercantile wealth and scholarship in the city. The local Livorno dialect adopted many Spanish and Arabic words, as well as various sounds found in Hebrew, but not in Italian. Livorno became an enlightened European city and one of the most important ports of the entire Mediterranean Basin.
Leaving the port, turn to the left, crossing a bridge and passing the Quattro Mori, a bronze statue commemorating the abolition of slavery. We made another left turn and walked along the Piazza del Pamiglione over the bridge, getting our first view of “Little Venice”. The old part of the city is crisscrossed with a number of canals called, but which were destroyed during the World War II bombings and have been reconstructed.
We continued along the Via della Cinta Estetna along the canal to the Chiesa di San Fernando. The exterior of this church is spectacularly ugly as all of its marble cladding has been removed for unknown reasons. The inside, however, is spectacular with an octagonal structure. Look for a door to the right of the alter for access to a hidden room filled with silver “body part” gifts to the church as thanks for various cures.
Continuing on you will see the “California-Mission” façade of the Museo dela Citta (City Museum) and library. The library and clean toilet are free, but there is an admission charge for the museum.
We continued on to the “not bad” Chiesa Santa Caterina and then entered the (not overly interesting inside) Fortezza Nuova (“New Fort”, despite being built around 1600) built by the Medici rulers to protect the canals and warehouse district.
Walking around the perimeter of the fort a bit, we crossed the vast Piazza Repubblica to the Mercato Centrale (Central Market). The outdoor section of the markets sells low-end stuff of little interest to the tourist. The massive indoor building as a vast fish market adjacent to a market selling all sorts of fruits/veggies, cheese, wine, Chiesa , meat, olive oil, etc., etc.
Head to Via Cairoli (also the spot where some cruise shuttle buses will drop you). Looking to your right, as you pass the Cathedral, on the next street will show you the modern synagogue which replaced the grander one destroyed during World War II. The destroyed synagogue was built in 1642 when the Jewish population of the town was about 3000. The congregation had about 700 members at the end of the war, but has now shrunk to about 400 members.
Continuing along Via Cairoli, it will turn into Via Ricasoli. About a ten minute walk will bring you to the Piazza Attias. Via Roma is to the right and you will find a statue of the famous painter Amedeo Modigliani, born in Livorno and visually a near clone of Marcello Mastroianni. The city has helpfully implanted small brass plaques into the sidewalk in a path along Via Cairoli to his birthplace.
On the 1st floor of Via Roma, 38 (to the right) is the apartment that is the birthplace of Amedeo Modigliani which has been turned into a museum (10 Euro, 8 Euro for over 60 years old and free for under 12). We had an expert and complete tour given by a young intern, Martina Eliseo, under the watchful supervision of Gilda Vigoni.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884 –1920) was an Italian Jewish painter and sculptor who worked mainly in France. He is known for portraits and nudes in a modern style characterized by elongation of faces, necks, and figures. Modigliani spent his youth in Italy and in 1906 he moved to Paris, where he came into contact with such artists as Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brâncu?i. Managing only one solo exhibition in his life and giving his work away in exchange for meals in restaurants, Modigliani died destitute of tubercular meningitis, at the age of 35. Modigliani was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris. His epitaph reads: “Struck down by death at the moment of glory”.
Modigliani had little success while alive, but after his death achieved great popularity and his paintings fetch over 100 million dollars when they hit the market.
Local Transportation in Livorno
If a shuttle bus is provided (our 2018 trip here had us dock about 1km from Piaza Grande, so we just walked), it will drop you off near Piazza Grande. From here, it is a 1.5 mile walk to the train station or you can take bus 1 (Aug 2018, €1.50 if the ticket is bought at a magazine kiosk or “taboc” shop, but €2.50 if purchased on the bus) to Stazione Livorno Centrale. Bus tickets may be purchased from the small convenience store at the bus stop. Do not forget to validate your bus tickets in the machine on the bus. The stop is across from the McDonalds. http://g.co/maps/bch24 http://www.atl.livorno.it/
I’m never less at leisure than when at leisure, or less alone than when alone. - Scipio Africanus (236 BC – 183 BC)
While some ships apparently dock at La Seyne sur Mer, across the bay (requiring a ferry to get to Toulon), we are docking in Toulon itself at the Quay Fournel pier on the edge of the small city. There is a promenade along the marina with restaurants and cafes, a shopping mall with a huge Carrefour supermarket and a C&H department store alongside roughly 100 other stores.
Marseille and Aix en Provence, are on most shore excursions lists. The train station of Toulon is a 15 minute walk away from where the transfer boats dock and there are good train connections between Toulon and Marseille Saint Charles (every 30 minutes). The ride takes about 45min to 1 hour and costs around 14 € per person.
We started our day by wandering through the old medieval quarter and its picturesque Provencal street market (the biggest one in Provence). It is open daily (except on Mondays) from 8 am to 1 pm and lines the Cours Lafayette pedestrian street, opposite the marina, just outside the port exit. The stalls are full of colorful vegetables, Arabic spices, olives, fish and clothing. Many, if not most of the shoppers seem to be ethnic Arabs or North Africans and many of the offerings suit their palette. From the market we walked to the city’s cathedral, Ste Marie de la Seds. While the elderly church does not stand out, its modern stained glass windows do, as they are innovative and vibrant. From the cathedral, we admired the fountain and statues at the Place de la Liberte near the Gallery Lafayette department store, but found the supposedly impressive Opera house not offering tours.
We were attracted by the freeform murals leading to “Le Port des Createurs” (Place des Savonnieres, leportdescreateurs.nert), a non-profit organization dedicated to creating artist studios for all forms of creativity (music, painting, ceramics, 3D-printing, whatever).
Toulon is one of France’s major naval bases and there are numerous navy ships sporting futuristic slab-sided designs in port. Toulon harbor is one of the best natural anchorages on the Mediterranean, and one of the largest harbors in Europe. A naval arsenal and shipyard was built in 1599 and then, greatly enlarged by Cardinal Richelieu, who wished to make France into a Mediterranean naval power. Beginning in 1678, Vauban (France’s innovative master of fortress design) constructed an elaborate system of fortifications around Toulon, some of which still exist.
We spent over an hour in the Navel museum (normally 6.00 €, but reduced to 4.50 € for ship passengers) which provided a fascinating series of models and displays tracing the history of Toulon as a major port of the French Navy. The Museum of the French Navy (Musée National de la Marine) is located on Place Monsenergue, next to the west side of the old port, a short distance from the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). The museum was founded in 1814, during the reign of the Emperor Napoleon. It is located today behind what was formerly the monumental gate to the Arsenal of Toulon, built in 1738. The museum building, along with the clock tower next to it, is one of the few buildings of the port and arsenal which survived Allied bombardments during World War II.
Lunch was at a stand called “Falafels Factory” at 16, Rue Moliere facing the opera. They prepare both the chickpea balls as well as kafta and kibbe meatballs – inexpensive and delicious.
We finished our day ashore by relaxing with coffees and a mixture of outstanding mini-langoustine pastries (almond, citron, Nutella, pistachio, etc.) in one of the bakery/patisseries facing the market – Maitre Panisse on Place du Pavi D’Amour. The town is a very typical French seaside town and could pass for one in many parts of the country.
If you are unlucky enough to be on a ship docking at Seyne sur Mer, instead of using the shuttle bus (typically sold by cruise lines for $12.00), you can take the boat (maritime line 8M) for only 2.00 € (or buy a day pass valid for bus, boat and cable for 6.00 €; or buy a day pass for unlimited land only trips for 3.90 €). The 8M maritime line (transfer boat) runs every 25-35 minutes and the ride to Toulon takes 20 minutes. Sanary sur Mer and Bandol are beach resorts which can be reached by taking the bus 8806 in front of the Kyriad hotel in the center of La Seyne sur Mer (40 minute, 3€ each way).
For a great view of Toulon, its harbor and the fleet take the cable car up Mount Faron. Mount Faron (584 meters/1,916 feet) dominates the city of Toulon. The top can be reached either by a cable car from Toulon, or by a narrow and terrifying road which ascends from the west side and descends on the east side. The road is one of the most challenging stages of the annual Paris–Nice and Tour Méditerranéen bicycle races. At the top of Mount Faron is a memorial dedicated to the 1944 Allied landings in Provence (Operation Dragoon), and to the liberation of Toulon. Check at the tourism office in the market, to see if the cable car is running (it won’t be if it is too windy) and grab a special offer ticket, 6 € including bus and cable car and take bus no. 40 to the cable car.
The port of Toulon is also the main port of departure for ferries to Corsica.
While many of our fellow passengers spent ten hours running out to Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, that’s a lot of work for the little bit of time you can spend sightseeing. They can be seen by car or train at leisure at a future date and instead you’ll find Toulon to be a simple, yet diverting town for a leisurely day.