After our week or so leisurely exploring the delights of northern Italy, we boarded our ship the MSC Magnifica and started our seven day cruise. The first port of call was to be Bari, in the Puglia district of southern Italy. I’d always thought that ships stopped here simply to refuel but that would be most unfair to this charming city, albeit in a workaday fashion. From what I’ve seen, very little of Italy is what you could term “pretty” – but its natural colour, warmth and architectural styles make it a very pleasing destination. And so it is with Bari. The ship docks centrally so just a fifteen minute walk takes you to the centre of the old town.
There aren’t that many actual “sights” as such, but a good place to start is at the Basilica di San Nicola. We arrived at about 11.00 on a Sunday morning and the church service was in full swing, as you would imagine, so we didn’t linger inside making a nuisance of ourselves. Nevertheless I could establish it has a beautiful ornate ceiling and it’s one of those churches that is light and bright inside rather than dark and austere. It dominates a small square, in one corner of which is a rather impressive statue of San Nicola himself. Off the square are narrow streets with just enough room to accommodate you, the locals, the motorbikes, and the tradespeople who are all jostling for supremacy.
We had arranged to meet Mrs Chrisparkle’s uncle Professor Plum and his wife the Lady Plum, as they were touring southern Italy at the same time, as chance would have it. We found a nice little café in the early spring sunshine just off the San Nicola piazza and sat outside and drank coffee whilst we reminisced about old times. From there we followed the narrow streets to the Cathedral, with its impressive tower and dome, and inside it’s full of interesting statues, carvings and artwork. We had a long linger here.
We wandered round to the castle, which is grand and imposing from the outside but when you enter it you realise they charge you to see plaster casts of sculpture and you think, actually, I can spend my time and money better elsewhere. So we moved on and simply followed our noses in a circular direction that took us back to the centre of town. Avon were sponsoring a road running race so the town was busy with spectators. We didn’t see many runners though – I think they’d already finished and set about having lunch, which is precisely what we decided to do. We found a lovely little place to sit outside in a square, the Trattoria Mercantile, where we had pizza and a bottle of Greco di Tufo at an extremely reasonable price. The time flew by but we had the opportunity afterwards briefly to walk around the coastal road admiring the views before we’d completed a full circle and were back at the ship. We bade farewell to Professor and Lady Plum who continued their Puglian Odyssey, and we got back on board the Magnifica for the onward sailing to Olympia.
Of course it’s not Olympia where you dock, it’s Katakolon, but what else are you going to do when you get off your ship in a village artificially extended purely for the purpose of taking hordes of cruising tourists the short drive to Olympia. I hadn’t done my pre-travel preparation properly – not like me at all – and I was convinced we were going to Mount Olympus. Wrong – it was Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games. I would say it is vital to go with a good guide or a good guidebook at least, because if you just wander round by yourself it’s very hard to get a clue as to precisely what you are looking at. It’s an impressive sight overall, although with poor facilities – Mrs C and Lady D would not recommend the Ladies’ toilets. The little town alongside Olympia has a few shops – not bad quality at all – and some bars and restaurants that advertise free wifi, that sadly seem to be only accessible by one person at a time, hence a lot of frustrated people flipping shut netbooks and shaking smartphones. But that’s not the reason you come to Olympia – you come for the history of the birthplace of the games, to stand or run on the running track yourself, to imagine yourself taking the Victor Ludorum and becoming the Local Hero. The track is very interesting, as it’s still completely visible and clear – and is a long “straight line” track, as opposed to the circular tracks we expect to see today. The archway entrance is still in good condition, although a lot of the rest of the site comes across as varying degrees of rubble, which is why you need a guide to make sense of it. The loud and cheeky lady taking us round brought it to life and it was very informative.
From Katakolon it’s a short hop – maritimely speaking – to reach Izmir in Turkey, from whence one of your tourist options is to take an excursion to Ephesus. I’d wanted to go to Ephesus ever since I first saw “Comedy of Errors”, so that I could imagine Antipholus and Dromio in situ, and, wandering around the place, you really get a feeling of how rich and privileged a place it must have been to live. But before you reach Ephesus, first you visit Mary’s House. Yes, this is indeed the Virgin Mary’s house, apparently; for many years it had generally been believed that Mary spent her last years in the Ephesus area, and about 200 years ago a nun had a vision of precisely where her house was, and how it was constructed. Clerics and dignatories identified this building as the one in the nun’s dream; ergo, it’s her house. Of course, it is a holy place, and treated with a lot of reverence. If you go, you will join a queue of people shuffling to get in; you will smile benignly at the nun on duty who will scowl back at you; you will go through the living room and bedroom, both of which look just like chapels, and then you leave. You don’t really get a chance to linger and look around, which is a shame, but to be fair you do get something of a frisson that this just might be where Mary ended her days.
Outside there is a spring where the devout go to bottle some water and drink it or take it home as a blessing. Apparently you should make a wish when you drink the water. Lady D wouldn’t tell us what she wished for, but she’s started doing the lottery again. The long walls alongside the well are completely covered with prayers for the Virgin Mary – little pieces of paper which make an impressive sight. There’s also a humdinger of a wide well outside the house; you wouldn’t want to be stumbling back late after a night at the tavern, guessing the route home in the dark. Between Mary’s House and Ephesus there is a splendid golden statue of Mary alongside the road. It’s really rather beautiful.
And so on to Ephesus. We’ve been to Palmyra in Syria; and unfortunately once you’ve been there nearly all other sites of ruins look like just a bunch of ruins. But Ephesus is special; it covers a considerable area and has a comparatively large number of extant buildings so you really get a good impression of the town as it was. Unlike Olympia, many of the major buildings and sights are well described on information boards, including in English, so you can easily just wander round by yourself, learn a lot and drink in the atmosphere. There are at least two amphitheatres, as far as I recall, and a number of houses, temples and so on. But the big pleasure of Ephesus is the main street, with buildings and mosaics either side, going down a hill towards the Library on the left hand side. The Library is great – it puts you a little in mind of the Treasury in Petra, although Petra is in much better condition. As usual in these places, there are a lot of entertaining things to see – like the directional footprint on a marble slab pointing the way to the House of Ill Repute, and the rather splendid communal latrine. On the way out there are a number of sarcophaguses just lying around in the grass and the carvings on them make it well worth the detour. So I would say a day trip to Ephesus is a must, even if, as on this cruise, by coming directly after a day at Olympia, it means negotiating non-stop rubble for two days.