Japan – Kyoto, Nara and Arashiyama

Reference: Inside Kyoto.

16 April. We arrived by highway bus from Kawaguchiko into Kyoto at around 6am. Found toilets at Kyoto station and proceeded to our hotel for the next 5 nights – Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex, a block away from the station. Left our bags, unable to check-in yet as it’s too early.

Grabbed breakfast at a cafe nearby and planned to go to Kiyomizudera temple, taking advantage of the early morning.

We bought a one-day bus pass JPY500. At the end of the day, we only used the bus 2x and the bus pass had not been worth it.  Board the bus at the rear door, put your bus pass into the machine by the driver as you get off, and if you’re not sure what to do – present it to the driver. Bus stops are announced in english as well, and there are plenty of signs in the bus. I was armed with google maps as well to track where we are.

Kiyomizudera temple

Kiyomizu-dera temple is best explored early in the morning. But there were already plenty of students on their field trips. The approach to the temple, the Higashimaya district, is lined with shops and restaurants and well-worth the wander around even as it gets busy from midday. Plenty of local potteries here to tempt you.

Higashiyama district

I wasn’t able to find the entrance to the ‘secret’ subterranean grotto (described here). But knowing it would be pitch black in there and slightly in a foul mood because of lack of sleep, I did not really bother looking hard.

We also found this massive cemetery at the back of the temple. It was quite peaceful there. And the headstones were fascinating to look at.

cemetery

For lunch, we sampled the region’s famed yuba (tofu skin) and had a kaiseki lunch made of different-flavoured yuba. I didn’t realise tofu can be delicious. I wouldn’t have chosen to eat here if I realised that was all they serve. Happy mistake (but maybe not for the teen sis in law ha ha).

yuba
yuba

Back at Kyoto station to check in and catch up on sleep. Kyoto Tower Hotel annex is a basic hotel. Dated facilities and bathroom that reminded me of easyHotel, but still quite clean. Room was cramped with an extra sofa bed laid out in a room meant for 2. No wardrobes/drawers for clothes, but I am getting used to that now. At an average of JPY15,600.00/night, this was the cheapest hotel we’re staying in and I am not expecting much. Toiletries provided throughout Japan hotels seems to be the same quality. Oh, and you get free tickets to go up Kyoto Tower – we didn’t get to use ours and it doesn’t seem exciting enough.

Just a note that any Kyoto hotels need to be booked way ahead of time. I started looking more than 2 months before and already didn’t have much choices. When we were there, Kyoto tourist office had a sign up saying all hotels in Kyoto are fully booked :0. This is not a place for spontaneous trips, even in non-peak seasons.

We have depleted 2 camera batteries and SD card space. Which had been unexpected because I only ever use 1 battery pack. Never occurred to me that I’d need to bring the charger. So off we went to Yodobashi (BIC camera and yodobashi are the place to go for anything electronics in Japan) for our camera emergencies.

Dinner, we inadvertently ended up in a chinese-japanese fusion restaurant for chicken yakitori. There are plenty of food choices around Kyoto station, but I really think you have to venture elsewhere get better food.

17 April. Daytrip to Nara. Didn’t mean to be venturing out of Kyoto so soon but I don’t want to leave a trip to a popular spot for the weekend.

I was here for the deer, more than anything. And not that there was a shortage of deer in the UK, just that it’s rare to be able to go near them or be able to feed them. Once you go past the shops from JR Nara station, the deers roam free. I purchased a deer biscuit (JPY150) and handed to the sis in law. They were a fairly rowdy bunch, approaching you as soon as they smell biscuits, biting clothes and will crowd and pressure you until you run out of food. I planned on buying more biscuits and feed them myself, but watching the sis in law had been fun enough.

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deers at Nara begging for biscuits

We dare to ask, the deer had been quick to approach people with deer biscuits yet they don’t crowd near the biscuit sellers. the biscuits are not packed with a simple band of paper, and surely they can smell it. why?

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deer biscuits at JPY150 if you want to be mobbed by deers

There was an english-speaking guide at Todaiji temple. She was explaining from the guidebook. Worth to stay a short while for some tidbits of information, but i felt it was better to read up the information on the internet yourself.

towards Todaiji temple

We were discussing about not taking photos inside temples/holy places. But the great buddha was magnificent-looking. Truth is, i thought, tourist presence in places of worship somehow undermines the sacredness of a place for believers. But it is in this sharing of culture and space that people learn more about tolerance and how similar we all are. learning always starts with fascination and curiosity.

I had another kamameshi lunch at Nara. And dinner was a kaiseki back at Kyoto station at one of the restaurants at the top of Isetan after failing to find a recommended sushi place in the same area. Discovered that I enjoy a cold sake (i never liked hot sake). And yuba features a lot in the dishes here in Kyoto (which i think the sis in law hates by now).

18 April. Visiting Kyoto, you can get a bit temple crazy and I was trying to rearrange our itinerary so we don’t get a bit too much of the same thing.

But you have to see the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Head early, we didn’t, as the stream of people never ends if you want the perfect photo of the toriis.

ultimate torii gate experience

We went to Nishiki market for lunch – grilled pork, rice balls, curry ramen. All wonderfully good and wonderfully cheap! We had dreams of owning japanese knives. And Aritsugu in Nishiki market was the place to buy. We now proudly own a his and hers knives for ‘only’ JPY24,300 – cash only and wait 30mins+ for them to sharpen/engrave knives. (back at home: they were almost scary sharp. they do require cleaning right away as they are not stainless).

Aritsugu
Nishiki market

Walking around the market and getting desperate for a cafe, the husband spotted a cafe sign within the Christian book shop. Turned out we disturbed a weekly gathering. They made way for us and welcomed us like we were there for the gathering, when we only wanted coffee. Only one of them spoke english and we introduced ourselves and what we’ve been up to. Halfway through, they had to bring it up and told us ‘please go to church’. It was funny, embarassing. Tea and cakes and you only need to donate money in return. Find them near the shrines.

We claimed our knives and went back to the hotel for a brief rest.

We made our way to Shijo Dori at Gion at dusk. People were crowding around a corner and word has it that geishas/maiko go past here. So we stayed as a few geishas/maikos scurried past. It was hard to take a photo, they walk by really fast. Some people were getting caught up in the excitement and were running behind them acting like paparazzis that I feel sorry for the geishas having to put up with all these on a daily basis.

at Gion

If you’re planning to eat in Gion, better book in advance. We didn’t and ended up in a yo-shoku restaurant in the side streets paying JPY3,000 each for a bento box meal that wasn’t really worth talking about.

19 April. I had almost forgotten about going to Arashiyama, and did not plan accordingly.

So right after breakfast we went to the JR ticket office to get tickets for the Saga Scenic railway (you really should be booking way in advance and not on the day). The staff kept repeating the details of the tickets and telling me everything else is booked. Typical tourist me only assumes he was making sure we were ok with the time, as none of us were aware of the station names. So we got our tickets for 4pm and decided to see the rest of Arahisyama first.

After getting off at Arashiyama, we piled into a taxi and headed off to Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple with it’s quirky-looking rakans. Very few people were here and it was a really nice place.

rakans
rakans

From the temple, we walked towards Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street. It really isn’t that far. Getting hungry, we got into the first place offering hot meals and got ourselves a curry rice. I found it too spicy and not really that tasty. The private houses here are really beautiful. I got too close to the chained cones on one house and promptly warned off with a siren blast.

thatched house

We made our way into the bamboo groves near the station. That would have been a really nice spot if it were quiet. But lots of tourists here.

bamboo grove
bamboo grove

Tried to find Togetsyuko bridge and almost got lost getting there.

Togetsukyo bridge

I wanted to get to Torokko saga station early as I was having doubts about our tickets. Turns out we were supposed to board the scenic train at the other end of the line – Kameoka! It was too late to get there (1 hour by bus) and we can’t change our tickets as the last train from Torokko Saga has already left. We were offered a refund minus a fee. Good thing the husband told me to try and get the refund at Kyoto Station instead (where we bought the tickets).

JR staff at Kyoto station was insistent he tried to make sure we were aware of the details of the tickets we bought and refused us any refund. We persisted and he spoke to his boss and finally agreed to refund us the full amount.

So we bought another set of tickets for the next day, wrote everything down on paper and handed that and rechecked the ticket way too many times.

Dinner was at Sushi Ina at COCON Karasuma mall near Shijo station. I was hunting for the sushi I can rave about and have failed to find that when we were in Tokyo. I had the Takumi sushi course – miso soup, appetizer, 13 pcs of nigiri and an option to not have wasabi, I was already impressed. We were seated at the counter and was awed by the skills of the sushi chef. And when my nigiris were served, it almost melts in the mouth – that was a spiritual moment for me. The sake they serve here are also worth trying.

takumi sushi course at at sushi ina

20 April. Quick breakfast at Yoshinoya and we were off to Arashiyama again. We were on the first train out from Torokko Saga. It was chilly. The views on both sides were indeed scenic. I can imagine how beautiful it could have been with the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Saga scenic train

We reached Torokko Kameoka station and got directions for the Hozugawa River cruise to go back to Arashiyama. Tourist info at station near the exit has maps. It was a relatively relaxing ride, nice sceneries. Boat was full. The boatmen are quite used to the rapids and dodging shallow rocks, but this is far from a river rafting in spite of the nervous laughter of the other passengers. They entertain passengers with stories and point out sceneries – but only in japanese. We did feel a bit left out as everyone else was japanese and laughing along. There is a point where your picture will be taken (photographer was on a bridge/cliff) and they pass out a form so they can send it to you – we did not understand the form as it was in japanese!  You will get a bit wet, but they have plastic sheet to cover your lap so it will not get too wet. Towards the end of the ride, a motorised boat selling food and drinks will attach to your boat and you can eat dango and fried squid on the boat.

Hozugawa River cruise

We had lunch at the open air restaurant over looking the river. It quickly got too cold.

We spent most of the afternoon napping back at the hotel. I had asked reception to book dinner for us at Sukiyaki Iroha at Pontocho (near Gion) and made our way there in the evening. I had to rely on google map and ask around as there were no english signs and I had no photo of the restaurant front.

at sukiyaki iroha, pontocho

My mom cooks (filipino-style) sukiyaki and this is not far off from that. We were shown a tatami-lined room, with a low, sunken table. There is a heater and heated foot pads. A gas burner is placed on the table and the kimono-clad waitress showed us how to cook our sukiyaki – a teaspoon of sugar, a splash of soy sauce, add in the thinly sliced wagyu beef, veggies and vermicelli. crack an egg into a bowl and dip the beef in it. eat with rice. We were left to our own devices after that, but they check on you regularly. You can always order more meat and veggies. That was an amazing meal and well worth it.

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Japan – Fujikyu

14 April. Checked out of Shinjuku Granbell hotel this morning. And proceeded to the Shinjuku highway bus terminal to catch our bus to Kawaguchiko. Reservations made here (pay on the day you travel at the Keio office at the bus terminal – cash only – and you get your tickets there. bus leaves on time).

Quick lunch at the first restaurant we saw nearby (which turned out to be chinese instead of japanese).

Travel time of around 2 hours from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko station.

highway bus to kawaguchiko

Paid and got our bus tickets out of Kawaguchiko for the next day (lovely staff at Shinjuku Granbell Hotel made the booking for us as you can only book via phone, which was always busy – [Yamanashi]0555-43-8181). Got our bearing and walked to our ryokan. Mt Fuji should be visible behind Kawaguchiko station, but was hidden in clouds that afternoon.

Our ryokan (traditional inn), Rakuyu Onsen (JPY34,950/night), was about 20 mins walk uphill. Monkeys run wild in this area. I was armed with a picture of the ryokan, so it was easy to spot, never mind that the name was only in japanese characters.

monkeys at kawaguchiko

We were welcomed with a cup of tea and delicious sweets as they check us in. me and sis in law were asked to choose our yukatas (summer kimonos) and belts to wear for lounging. We were shown the facilities – public onsen, unlimited free coffee/tea and wifi in the reception area with huge windows overlooking lake kawaguchiko (no views of Mt. Fuji from here, but you’d barely notice).

Our room was a good size (coming in from a cramped room in Tokyo) – separate toilets+bath+sink area, 3 futons laid out, space for a table with 3 seats on the side, and another table with 2 chairs overlooking the huge windows with the same majestic view of Lake Kawaguchiko. I think we were all giddy.

Rakuyu ryokan at Fujikyu

Usual toiletries + baskets to carry your stuff to the onsen. Tea and coffee facilities. We quickly made ourselves at home. Sis in law and I made our way down to town to look for snacks. Plenty of shops and restaurants around, or so I thought.

It was a bit of a climb from the town to the ryokan though. And we proceeded to enjoy our cheesecake and tea and the view.

the view from our room at Rakuyu

Dinner time came and we were armed with a map supplied by the ryokan. It listed various restaurants in the area. It was still early, before 7, walked around and there was no restaurant open! We ended up in a chinese eatery run by a husband and wife team. It was fun watching them cook in front of you in their well-used kitchen. They were poking fun at sis in law (most likely thinking the 18 year old was still a child) for not eating her veggies. She was rewarded with a candy too!

When in Kawaguchiko, prebook your dinner in your hotel, else you might go hungry!

we took photos of ourselves in our yukatas. and husband and i booked a private onsen (extra fee), sis in law tried the public onsen. 45mins in the private onsen seems plenty of time to soak in a hot tub. we had the same great view of the lake.

15 April. We were booked for a 7:30am breakfast at the hotel. And what a delicious and impressive kaiseki breakfast it was!

kaiseki breakfast at Rakuyu

Glad there was another customer who translated for us on checkout as there were no staff to answer our queries. We were given a lift to kawaguchiko station and deposited our bags in the coin locker (big and small lockers available).

We got on the Fujikyu commuter trains to head to Shimo Yoshida station. From Shimo Yoshida, we walked to Arakura Sengen shrine (follow the signs or follow the people). Headed up the stairs for some magnificent views of Mt. Fuji. It is better to head out early as Mt. Fuji is almost always hidden in clouds from mid-morning. We were lucky it was a very clear day and Mt. Fuji was visible even in the late afternoons that day. For the money shot, head up to the Chureito pagoda (lots of people gather there).

Mt. Fuji and the chureito pagoda
Mt. Fuji and the chureito pagoda

Even this late in the season, Arakura Sengen Shrine is still beautifully bedecked in cherry blossoms.

Arakura Sengen Shrine, Fujikyu

Lunch was back at Kawaguchiko station at a restaurant across the street.

We got on the bus to go to the Music Forest. With it’s european-inspired gardens, it looked like a typical tourist trap on paper. But the collection of music boxes intrigued me from the rest of the museums around kawaguchiko. And by music boxes, they don’t mean the jewellery box type music boxes – these are complicated machines (swiss and japan made) that can sound like a tinkling piano to a whole orchestra. There are regular demonstrations in the museum where the machines come to life, and that was fascinating.

And the trees, anywhere in Japan, they prune and primp their trees – they are so beautiful!

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We were back by bus late afternoon to Kawaguchiko station (check the bus times, they stop around 5pm depending on season). Note that driver speaks in Japanese but announces the bus stop numbers, so make sure you know where you’re getting off.

Restaurants around the station start closing at around 5:30pm. We settled for hurried noodles at the station canteen (closes at 8pm) after failing again to find dinner.

We are taking the overnight highway bus to Kyoto from Kawaguchiko. The bus is laid out differently, 3 in a row with space in between. Slippers and seats you can fully recline. But please mind the person behind you as it is possible to recline right into their lap. Curtains, too, if you need extra privacy. Toilets available, too as with most highway bus. I did manage to sleep.

Japan – Tokyo

9-26 April 2014

Probably one of the more longer trips we’ve done and quite easily the most expensive. It was quite hard to plan what to see and do as there are plenty of choices. References: Japan Guide is a one-stop shop packed with ideas. HyperDia was indispensable for checking intercity train times and which platform to go to.

Tokyo is a city of ironies: smoking banned on the street, but you can smoke your heart out in a lot of indoor places; on the media we see colourful clothes and extreme fashion, but they highly prize uniformity and you can see throngs of schoolchildren looking so much alike down to their hairstyles, and the office workers in black suits; they are very courteous to a fault when they serve you, but they act like nothing happened when they step on your toes in the subway. So many people wearing masks, though it did not bother me.  But I also saw a lot of people taking pride in their work. And they take their emergency training seriously that handbooks are always present in hotels and emergency alarm buttons are found everywhere (even in toilet cubicles).

An incident in the subway – a sick man fell down onto the laps of a group of older women. None of them dared touch him, people cleared out and he was left on the floor. I had to stop myself approaching as it seems I would be breaking a rule. Men hurried out to alert staff. He got up with everyone staring but keeping clear. Only the staff dared touch him. I do wonder if Tokyo citizens are mostly hypochondriacs.

9 April. It’s going to be a really long flight to Narita (more than 12 hours). Virgin Atlantic was not exactly as expected. Service was not really any different in economy. Better seating layout, slightly better food, drinks always available, cheap-looking amenity pack, no footrest, same uncomfortable chair, blankets that leave your clothes covered in red fibers, old entertainment system, they don’t wake you up for meals (not always a good thing). Hardly slept.

10 April. Arrived at Narita. First meal of gyudon (beef strips over rice). Found a free bus to go from Terminal 1 to 2. Rented a miFi at sky (JPY 1k/day 3G unlimited use). UK 3G phones work fine in Japan. Waited for sis in law’s plane to arrive. Bought Narita Express tickets from the JR offices at the airport (JPY1,500 discounted when you show your foreign passport), credit cards accepted. There are plenty of ways to get to Tokyo from Narita. N’EX was relatively fast (limited express is under 1 hour) and cheap and runs direct to Shinjuku, our final stop. The airport and train station are well signed in English.

Staying at Shinjuku Granbell Hotel (google map location). JPY21,600/night for a triple room with loft. 12th floor with a view of Tokyo. As expected, it was a small room, with not much space for storing clothes.  But the loft helps a bit, offering extra privacy for 3 people (but you can’t stand whilst on the loft). It was immaculately clean and well stocked with toiletries and water (always appreciated as this is the first thing we need). And as with most hotels in Japan, toilets are high-tech – heated seats, bidet functions with dryer. Vending machines on ground floor, coin washers on 2nd floor, ice machine on each floor. Hotel was some 15min walk to shinjuku station with plenty of shops and restaurants along the way. At 12th floor, you barely notice the busyness of Shinjuku nightlife. It was comfortable and the staff the most welcoming and helpful in Tokyo. The toilet does have a window, but comes with a curtain, so privacy has not been an issue (i actually emailed the hotel and asked about this).

loft room photo from booking.com

After settling in, we went out to look for a cat cafe. We found Calico cat cafe, at the 6th floor of a building off Yasukuni Dori (google map), and you have to look up for the cat cafe sign. You pay by the hour and you don’t have to buy drinks/food. Lovely, but indifferent cats who seemed to be too used and annoyed at the constant attention. You’ll be warned which ones bite. Trick here, we found out too late, is to buy treats and the cats will be jumping all over you.

Dinner was yakiniku at DonDon in Shinjuku. Try Japanese beef, really tender and tasty. They understand a bit of english and you can get by as there are pictures in the menu. You’ll be given ice cubes to help control the smoke and fire. And anywhere in Japan, if you’re looking for a recommended restaurant, it’s best to come armed with pictures of the store front or the restaurant’s logo, as more often than not, there are only Japanese characters.

DonDon at Shinjuku for yakiniku

11 April. Bought a pasmo IC at a machine at Shinjuku station. Pasmo is a prepaid card you can use in the trains/subway/buses around Tokyo (we’ve used it in Kyoto subway as well). Saves time in having to buy tickets each time. JPY500 deposit and charged(top-up) in multiples of JPY1k. If it runs low, there are ticket machines inside the station to charge it so you can get out.

We were off to Tsukiji fish market for some of Tokyo’s famed sushi. Most shops close as as soon as they run out of ingredients (12:00 noon is too late). We settle for Yonehana and were handed green tea, miso soup, bamboo shoots, sashimi, unagi, cooked cod and rice. No sushi here, but we were entertained with Japanese language lessons. Fun experience. Afterwards, we explored a bit more of the outer market.

Tsukiji fish market

Walked to neighbouring Hama-Rikyu gardens to see if there are any more cherry blossoms left. Found a few trees still in bloom! though we missed the blooming season by about 2 weeks.

at Hama-Rikyu gardens

Walked to Ginza and had coffee, cakes and people watching at Cafe Miyukikan. Walked around Ginza.

Subway to Shibuya to find the statue of Hachiko (faithful dog who waited at Shibuya station for his owner, who had died suddenly and never returned to their meeting spot). And photographed the famed Shibuya crossing. Not sure why this one is famous, as there are other crossings like these around Tokyo. Walked around Center Gai and entered Shibuya 109 looking for the purikura mecca (no purikuras there). Finally found a purikura one street behind the Zara shop.

Back to Shinjuku for dinner. And found a ramen place. No english was spoken and we had to rely on some of the customers to help us pay and choose a ramen from the vending machine (no pictures too). Ticket was handed to the chef who prepared our ramen. It was worth the extra trouble. The ramen was out of this world.

Ramen place in Shinjuku

Passed by Shinjuku’s robot restaurant and saw Shinjuku nightlife in full swing. Considering this is a red-light district, you don’t feel unsafe here (or anywhere else in Japan).

Robot restaurant, Shinjuku

12 April. A late morning start and brunch of tempura at hotel restaurant on the way and we were off to skytree. Didn’t realise the queues here would be sooo long. 60-90 mins wait, but the lines move fast. Should not be a weekend activity, if it can be helped. Lots of shopping areas here and the views are good from the top. Very touristy thing to do, but we had time.

Skytree

Dinner at a kaiten sushi place at basement of MyBuilding, Shinjuku. Kaiten sushi places are usuallly great for quick meals, and not famed for quality of food. This one was ok. But their sushi was nothing to rave about.

13 April. Asakusa in the morning and we were waiting at the Kaminarimon gate for the shirasagi-no mai. Didn’t see it.

Nakamise street was crowded, but we had a great time looking at traditional food and wares on offer. Sensoji temple was at the end of the street.

Nakamise street, Asakusa

We pulled out sticks to find out our fortune. Challenge here is the sticks have numbers in japanese characters which you need to match to a drawer to pull out your fortune from.

We had kamameshi for lunch. You wait for some 25 mins whilst the rice soaks up the broth as it cooks on the table over a paraffin fire. It’s basically a flavoured rice with some meat/fish/veggies.

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kamameshi

Subway to Harajuku. Walked to Takeshita Dori street, but it was just packed with people that it would be impossible to browse at the shops. We made a u-turn and headed for Meiji shrine instead.

Meiji shrine was a bit of an escape from the frenzy of the rest of Tokyo. With its rough, gravelled paths, I am amazed to find a few japanese women walking in heels. Trying to wear out their shoes perhaps?

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Meiji Shrine

Found a couple of cosplayers on the way out on the bridge from Meiji shrine to the station. I was expecting more of them gathering here.

We had dinner at this cosy-looking restaurant with no english menus back at Shinjuku. Good thing sis in law passed on dinner. We sampled Japanese tapas and raw meat. I had a bit of a fright here as they look like raw chicken fillets (i still have no idea what meat it was, but it doesn’t taste like chicken). We were waiting a bit if they would be giving us a bbq pot, none arrived. Seems like raw meat is quite common here (we had no food poisoning episodes).

Matera, Italy

29 March to 1 April 2014

fifth time in Italy. food and wine just tastes so much better there. the weather is great. the landscapes varied. but i don’t think i’d ever want to live there.

Saturday. left home at 9:30, a quick breakfast on the train, a leisurely lunch at Gatwick. Flight at 13:45. Exited Bari airport around 6pm, had a coffee break at the airport while waiting for the 19:15 puglia air bus to Matera. We were picked up at Matera’s Piazza Matteoti (bus stop) at 20:40 and were ushered to this lovely home in the sassi. It was a slow but long day.

We stayed at La Casa di Alice and got a huge cave. The ceilings and walls were carved out of limestone and a mix of other materials. The place has a lounge area and a bathroom that looked like it belonged in a spa. It’s connected to to the owners’ main home.  And they speak english well enough, and introduced us to the house dog Alice or Ali? We were accompanied to the local restaurant and made sure we are well taken care of. The locals in Matera don’t speak much english, but everybody had been accomodating. If i have to find fault, i found it disconcerting to find a connecting door to the main house in the bathroom. lying in the tub, as you hear the family eating dinner just beyond the door. It gets a bit chilly too, even with the heating turned all the way up, but i am sure the huge oven/fireplace can compensate during winter, it wasn’t much of an issue when we were there.

food and wine in Italy never fails to excite me. this is one of those places where i always pick something i’ve never tried – fried ricotta for antipasti, anchovies and chickpeas with conchiegli for mains. Al found the basilicata wine too sweet. but everything else left me in awe. i am amazed how well they balance the tastes.

Sunday. got up late. espresso and croissants at a local cafe off Via Ridola. almost every cafe and restaurants here are family trades. charming. sun was out and the view of the sassi from the busy vantage point at Piazza Pascoli was stunning. this town is a labyrinth of stairs and caves carved out of the hills. many caves are not in use and in ruin, which i thought added to the appeal of the place.

went into a museum of sorts, casa grotta del casanuovo, that displays what life was living in these caves. the town had a shameful past of abject poverty. these caves were virtually slums just a few decades ago.

we explored the streets and tried to find our bearing. getting lost is always the best way to explore. and i am getting quite good at getting lost.

the only trouble in such a sleepy town is finding lunch. we were either too early or too late or maybe just because it’s a sunday. we hunted down a few recommended restaurants and all were closed. there were no signs that say what time they open – i think they open when they want to.

pizza for lunch at piazza sedile wasn’t too impressive. everywhere in europe, they would love these chunks of crusty bread and pane del matera was very much sought after – i find this hard to appreciate as i feel my gums recede a bit with each bite.

back at the house for a leisurely siesta and we were out hunting for food again. dinner was a hearty soup, a mash of local vegetables that i would find revolting if this wasn’t italy. yes, they even made vegetable soup taste so good.

we had a stroll across town at night, finding good spots to take night photos of this haunting place.

Monday. we’ve pretty much been everywhere and we had nothing left to do but sit in cafes and hunt down the restaurants we failed to find the previous day. we were back at plaza sedile for lunch again after finding all other restaurants closed. and though i wouldn’t normally choose this cafe for food, they did serve up a very simple but still so tasty orecchiette with tomato sauce and strong cheese. Al had bread chunks with brocolli that we’d want to replicate. that and 1 litre of house wine.

Ristorante Francesca.Via Bruno Buozzi. Closed on Sundays. Dinner is at 7:30pm. We were there at 3pm for lunch, they were closed.

Baccanti. Via Sant Angelo. no sign of life here on Sunday nor on Monday.

Il Cantuccio. Via del Beccherie. We had dinner here when they opened at 8pm. Small place, and I read that you’d normally need to book in advance. Nearby restaurants hardly have any customers this night, but all tables but one was occupied by 9. Owner/chef did everything, so it was hard to be too demanding here. But food was so good, i am almost moved to tears (over reaction, but it was really good). ordered sausages with potatoes for antipasti, but swapped with Al’s aubergines caponata because it was a bit too spicy. my mains was skewered tender beef with tomato sauce, which reminded me of a really good morcon (a ratatouille moment as this is a childhood comfort food).

whilst killing time, we passed by this family having a small row. conversation went like this – young child: ‘I am 80% sure that’s where i left it….’ mother: ‘oh, brother!’. and that pretty much was how we spoke for the night, adding percentages to every sentence, and ‘oh brother’ was our expression for exasperation.

Tuesday. time to make the long trek back to reality. Piazza Matteoti, where the bus to Bari airport stops, is a good 10 minutes walk from Piazza Veneto.