Friday, 4 December 2009

Highs and lows in Southern Italy

One of the few downsides about traveling in the cities and towns of Europe is that, after a while, you get the feeling you´ve seen almost everything before, in different forms. The castle on the hill beside the river, the grand church, the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town. Caucasians and some immigrants walking around in the same clothes you´d see on the streets of Wellington or Toronto. Sure, in Stockholm you see considerably more blondes. In the UK it´s terraced houses rather than the apartment blocks of the Continent. There´s differences in architecture and culture. But really it´s usually variations on the same themes.

Sunday morning in Sorrento's old town

So Southern Italy came as a bit of a shock. In terms of the people it´s the most distinctive area of Europe I´ve been to. There's such uniformity: almost everyone has black hair, olive skin, strong noses and shiny, puffy and ugly jackets. It´s also as close to the Developing World as you get in the European Union. Lauren lived here for most of a year in her teens and has mixed feelings about the place. Me too - Southern Italy is all about highs and lows.
What's not to love about hideous apartment blocks and manky train stations?

The reputation of Italy is that the further south of Rome you get, the poorer, more corrupt and crime-ridden it is. There´s certainly a lot of scuminess around, but also plenty of gems. Take Naples. There are some of the ugliest decaying apartment blocks you´ll see outside of Cambodia. There´s an air of dodginess around the train station. There´s the murder rate, easily the highest in the country. But there are also plenty of elegant apartment blocks, spectacular state and religious buildings, a superb ancient history museum and real buzz in the air at night.
Then there was the day we spent trying to get to the famous Greek ruins of Paestum. We started off in lovely Sorrento, which is perched on the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, then took a graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train to our accommodation near Pompeii. Unfortunately, turns out near is a relative term. We were actually in Scafarti, a non-too-nice town next to Pompeii. To get to our b&b we had to trek from the train station, with its distinctive spraypaint, rubbish and concrete decor, in our backpacks down a busy road with no footpaths.
Happily, it turned out the b&b was lovely, with really nice owners and a cute garden. But we then had to get another train to Paestum, on a different Circumvesuviana line, from a different Scafarti station. That station was a whole other level of dirtiness, the ticket machine was broken and the store we were directed to for a ticket was closed.

Scafarti Stazione. Bella.

By now we were pushing it to get to Paestum in time. Some freeriding and transfers later, and a long wait at yet another ugly station, and we were finally there. Ten minutes after the gates closed. But after the day we had, that was not going to stop us. We managed to get in and as the setting sun turned the temples to gold, it was magic.

And, maybe best of all, the pizza place down the road from the b&b was sensationally cheap and sensationally good. So at the end of the day, like Southern Italy as a whole, the highs definitely outnumbered the lows.

All for just two Euros and fifty cents

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