Saturday, 20 July 2019Marseille, Bouches-du-Rhône, France
We got up very early in the morning to head to Kings Cross for the Eurostar. There had been so much uncertainty around Brexit earlier in the year we had decided that it was best to stick to the trains for this years road trip to Greece. For the first hop we were amazed to find a Eurostar which went direct from London to Marseille with only a single stop in Avignon. So we spent the day staring at the countryside and reading books as we whizzed through France. We got to Marseille just before 1500 and checked into our hotel.
We spent the afternoon exploring the old port, walking up the hill to Place de Lenche to have some afternoon refreshments and people watch. It was fairly hot but the winding back alleys afforded some protection from the sun. We then worked our way back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
Dinner was at Une Table au Sud, a rather nice restaurant by the side of the port. We were able to stare out at the super yachts whilst enjoying our seafood. The first floor window also afforded a view of the promenade and as the night wore on the crowds increased and the street vendors flourished. Particularly innovative were the balloon sellers who had rigged their helium balloons with cheap flashing lights allowing them to sell well into the night.
Sunday, 21 July 2019Iles d'Hyères, Var, France
The next morning we had a train ride from Marseille along the Côte d'Azur to Hyères. Top tip for anyone turning up at Gare de Marseille Blancarde at 0800 on Sunday is do not panic. It may look like it is shuttered (and with plants growing over the tracks like it has been closed for years) but it is all automated and the train does indeed turn up on time. We then had a very pleasant trundle along the coast enjoying the limestone scenery before it swung inland at Toulon.
Thursday, 25 July 2019Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France
As always with beach holidays there is not much to say so I will skip forwards to Thursday when we woke up early to catch the ferry back to the mainland. We then took a train back to Toulon and after a pleasant lunch jumped on another train to Nice . This route is inland until Frejus where it swings out on the coast to give you a glorious view of the wide beaches of Cannes and Antibes.
At Nice we checked into our hotel and then went out to explore. It was 40 degrees so not exactly the most pleasant walk. We explored the old town below the castle where the narrow streets as always provided some respite from the sun. Then we walked over the ridge to the Quartier du Port to look at the boats and peer up at Mount Boron where Elton John lives, and famously hosted Harry and Meghan that summer.
We returned to the hotel and after a rest went for dinner at a seafood restaurant in the old quarter. We had spotted the restaurant earlier but it turned out to be just as touristy and average as those on the promenade.
Friday, 26 July 2019Rome, Lazio, Italy
We had to get to Gare de Ville station at 0700 then catch the train to Genoa. This train ride along this part of the Côte d'Azur is incredibly scenic, repeatedly plunging into a tunnel, emerging to give you a brief view of a picture postcard coastal town and then plunging back in a tunnel again. Particularly notable is Monaco where land is at such a premium you only see a tiny sliver of it through the tunnel wall.
At Genoa we had an hour wait so were able to go out and get our first sample of Italian cafe culture. We then got on the 1100 train to Rome, a lengthy ride spent mostly reading books. We finally pulled into Rome at 1600. We had tactically booked a hotel near the train station so after a quick change were able to see a bit of the city before dinner.
Having been to Rome before we restricted ourselves to a couple of favorites: the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon. Then we walked up the Aventine hill to look through the Aventine Keyhole. To find this you need to go to the Palace of the Knights of Malta, their extra territorial headquarters since being kicked out of Malta in the 19th century. You then look through a well worn keyhole into their garden, which gives you a perfect view through a tunnel of greenery to the dome of St Peters Basilica.
From there we walked down the hill to our restaurant Checchino next to the Monte Testaccio, quite literally the mountain of pot shards. This is where the Romans, having imported goods in then, threw amphora's away creating a man made hill. The restaurant is considered the best offal restaurant in Rome. Whilst offal is perhaps not the most obvious meal in the height of summer, it meant that we had it almost to ourselves. Plus the owner was more than happy to give us a tour of his cellars, literally dug into the Roman trash pile.
Saturday, 27 July 2019Martina Franco, Apulia, Italy
If you have a lot of luggage it is not a very good idea to travel on a train to the South of Italy on the last weekend of July. The universities had just broken up and scores of girls were piling into the train with suitcases which could hold a terms worth of clothes. The aisles were full of cases, the people next to us had a case on their table and leg space was minimal. We were fortunate in not having a lot of luggage and reserved seats but going to the toilet was an obstacle course.
We got to Brindisi at 1200 and picked up a hire car. We had booked an AirBnB for five days stay in Martina Franca in Apulia. We found it with not much difficulty, the well appointed downstairs flat of a family house in the countryside five minutes from the old town. The son, whose flat it was, gave us the keys and gave us a few pointers to the area. The first of these was the location of the local supermarket to which we went immediately to make sure we had breakfast for the next few days.
That night we had a very nice dinner in Martina Franca at I Templari. The restaurant had a magnificent terrace and we were served course after course of local antipasti. We barely had space for dessert!
Sunday, 28 July 2019Martina Franco, Apulia, Italy
After breakfast we set out for Alberobello another town in the Valle d'Itria. The Valle is actually on a plateau which runs for some of the length of Apulia, the "heal" of the boot of Italy. Dotted along the Valle are a series of towns situated on hills rising from the valley floor. These have been made famous by the Trullo, a house with conical roofs, as well as a culture of slow cooked food. Of the towns Alberobello undoubtedly has the most Trulli and tourists run riot on its white washed streets.
I would like to say we found a way to avoid our fellow tourists but we did not. Coupled with the difficulty in parking and the heat I found the place a bit underwhelming. But the Trulli were indeed many in number and had a degree of charm. After this we hit another town Cisternino which was a lot more laid back. Here we were able to sample some of the town's famous slow cooking in the quiet of the afternoon.
That evening we went into the centre of Martina Franca. We did not really feel that hungry but we felt we had to observe the spectacle of the Sunday evening promenade. The pavements of the old town and a lot of its buildings are marble and every Sunday the townsfolk get dressed in their finest and walk the length of this white corridor. From what we observed from our al fresco table on one of the main streets some of them repeat the process two or three times. It was very charming and we thoroughly enjoyed the people watching.
Monday, 29 July 2019Martina Franco, Apulia, Italy
We had decided to go to the beach near Ostuni in the morning. The beaches at this point are not incredibly wide so you are pretty much forced to rent a sun lounger and hope that you do not end up next to a family of smokers with multiple dogs and children. We were in the event pretty lucky and managed to last until 1300 when we headed back to the house for a siesta.
Late in the afternoon we went to Polignano a Mare . Perched on the cliffs above the sea the town it features one of the most picturesque coves and an amazing (and expensive) restaurant in a cave. We explored the streets popping to the cliffs between whitewashed buildings at every available opportunity to listen to the sound of the sea crashing against the tufa cliffs. The end of the afternoon was spent having a cocktail in the central square.
I found the town very evocative being a fan of Benson and Moorhead's film Spring which was set in the town. For anyone that had not seen it, and I imagine that is pretty much everyone, it is a film about mermaids that amply demonstrates why Splash was such a poor film.
We had an incredible seafood dinner watching the sunset at the Meraviglioso Osteria. Particularly memorable was the octopus, I had mine cooked but Anna went for raw and regretted it. This was followed by a sneaky cocktail at Malidea before heading back to the hills to sleep.
Tuesday, 30 July 2019Martina Franco, Apulia, Italy
We had originally had plans of driving all over the region but we realised once we settled in that there were ample local attractions. Today we had our hearts set on a walk and the Bosco delle Pianelle seemed ideal. A national forest on the South Western edge of the plateau the Bosco was very under populated. We hardly saw anyone as we walked a long loop around the park, to a mirador, past an abandoned trullo and back.
That evening we had some planned entertainment. The first week of August sees the Valle d'Istria Opera Festival hit Martina Franca. It features some quite obscure operas and we had booked to see Ecuba. This was taking place in the Pallazo Ducale and the setting was one of the highlights. Even though the heat was stifling that night the Pallazo was cool, catching a lot of the passing breeze. The audience sat in rows of folding chairs in front of a very minamilist white stage. Ecuba is one of only two operas written by the Italian Nicola Manfroce. His obscurity is perhaps a reflection of the fact he died at the age of 22 having only produced a small body of work. It was a fairly enjoyable tragedy adapted from the Euripides play Hecuba with all the murders and revenge you would expect.
One thing we did find notable was the curtain calls at the end. Everyone including the director met with rapturous applause. Then for some reason they dragged a local politician on stage, and he was immediately met with booing. We could only assume that he thought he was more popular than he actually was!
Wednesday, 31 July 2019Martina Franco, Apulia, Italy
We wanted to go to the beach again but wanted to escape from the crowds and sun loungers. A bit of research found us the promising looking Torre Gauceto nature reserve. When we arrived at 1000 we found the car park closed (presumably to protect the dunes in the summer) and a sign directed us to a car park at nearby Punta Penna Grossa. We then took a shuttle bus to the coast and started walking. The reserve has a series of beaches each of which is pristine with clear blue waters. Near where the bus dropped us off there were quite a few people, but as we walked we soon found ourselves on our own. We stopped at one of the further beaches, which we initially had to ourselves and enjoyed the sun and solitude.
The only downside to Torre Gauceto being a marine reserve is that you are prohibited from swimming in the southern half of the park but we stayed just at the edge of the zone where it was permitted. By about 1300 we had enough of the sun so took a short walk on paths through the dunes to visit the Torre, a small 16th century coastal watch tower. We then headed back to the car. There were a lot more people by this point but mostly concentrated around the point where the shuttle bus drops you off.
We then drove to the ancient port of Taranto. It was more of a drive to explore the countryside and see what remained of Taranto's Spartan glory. The conclusion was that it is pretty industrial and the old town pretty run down, but if we ever went back to the region it may be worth a night out.
Our last evening in Martina Franca was spent eating outside at a really nice restaurant called Gaonas. We had very quickly gotten into a routine with the town. Since it was hot and a little too far from the AirBnB to walk we would drive to a car park on the outskirts of the town then walk into the centre. We would then walk through the cool marble streets and deposit ourselves at one of the many excellent restaurants, enjoy a good meal and some local Apassimento wine. It was a routine we would definitely miss.
Thursday, 1 August 2019Agios Nikitas, Lefkada, Greece
The purpose of our road trip was to get ourselves to Greece and the day had come to leave Apulia and head over the Ionian sea. We had booked ourselves on the ferry from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa . This has the advantage of being the shortest ferry crossing to Greece and can be done during the day. We did not have to leave particularly early so had a leisurely morning and then dropped our car back at Brindisi airport and got a taxi to the ferry port.
The ferry crossing was uneventful but as usual a bit blighted with smokers and dogs. We enjoyed the sun and read books and soon enough found ourselves approaching the Greek mainland. By the time we docked it was 2200. We had thought about renting a car from Igoumenitsa but as always it is fairly expensive renting one way and Anna would not herself be returning to the port for a few weeks. So instead we had opted to book a car from Igoumenitsa to the village of Agios Nikitas on the island of Lefkada. This was a fairly manic one and a half hour drive in the middle of the night but eventually we got to our hotel, checked in and went to sleep.
Friday, 2 August 2019Agios Nikitas, Lefkada, Greece
We were in Lefkada for the beaches and right behind our hotel was the best of the lot, Milos beach. Agios Nikitas is in a small valley between two largish ridges that fall into the sea. Our hotel was part of the way up one of the ridges so we just needed to go uphill from our hotel to reach the top of the ridge and then down the other side to reach the beach. It is a pristine beach with crystal clear water, and we really enjoyed our morning in peace. As the morning wore on boats start to arrive from Lefkada town so it got a bit busier, but for the peak of the season it really was not overcrowded.
At 1300 we walked back to the village and went for a leisurely lunch at a taverna. Then we had to go into Lefkada town to book our bus tickets to Athens. We spent as little time as possible before getting the bus back to Agios Nikitas. After relaxing at our hotel for some time we went out for a drink by the beach and watched the sun setting into the sea.
Saturday, 3 August 2019Agios Nikitas, Lefkada, Greece
Not a huge amount more to report. We tried out Pefkoluia beach which involved walking a couple of kilometres on the highway North of the village. This was fine in the morning but we had to take the bus back in the middy heat. The beach itself was not as idyllic as Milos but as a result it was a lot quieter. After that it was the obligatory large lunch and then some relaxation before going to sleep early.
Sunday, 4 August 2019Athens airport, Athens, Greece
We had to get up early to get the first bus into Lefkada town. I had a flight back to the UK booked leaving from Athens at 1900. So rather than spend a night in Athens we had taken the slightly risky option of travelling all the way there in a day. In the end it was uneventful, the bus ride along the coast was incredibly scenic and everything on time. At the airport I said my goodbyes to Anna as she was to spend another few weeks in Greece. Then back to the UK, the end of a very enjoyable two week (mostly) train trip to Greece.