So how did we end up taking a ferry from Salerno? I knew we'd be in Italy and besides disembarking in Genova (NW), I wanted to see three places that we hadn't seen before: the Blue Grotto (Central west coast), Sicily (South), and the trulli in Alberobello (Central east coast). So pretty much I was maximizing the distances between Italian sights. Add to that an interest in Tunisia and Malta. I originally tried to see everything in Italy and then head over to Tunisia and Malta from Sicily. Well, first of all, it's difficult to get to Sicily overland. It is an island, after all. And on top of that, the Sicilian ferry for Tunisia leaves from Palermo, while the Maltese ferry leaves from the opposite coast. Nothing was working out right. Until I started thinking outside the Italian box and decided to use transport between these additional countries as a way between Italian cities as well. So instead of getting down to Sicily through Italy, we left Salerno for Tunisia, then returned to Italy on the Tunisian-Palermo ferry. Then after traveling across Sicily, we flew from Catania to Malta (which turned out to be cheaper and arrive at a better time than the ferry), and then from Malta to Bari (near the Alberobello trulli), positioning ourselves to take the ferry from Brindisi to Greece.
Overall, this seemingly screwy strategy worked out great. The ferries are transport ferries, not luxury cruises, and anyone who expects anything else is sure to come away disappointed. Also, as we learned in Tunisia, the Italians love to go on strike so that the ferries are often delayed for hours or even a day. So if your schedule is tight and/or you expect turn-down service with a chocolate on your pillow, the ferry is not for you. However, for us, it actually turned out great, especially if you adjust your dreams accordingly.
Confusingly, there are two ports in Salerno...hmmm, just like the two train stations in Castellamare di Stabia...so upon arrival we made sure to investigate which port our Grimaldi ferry was to leave from the next day. We had initially purchased our ferry tickets through Direct ferries, because we somehow couldn't buy tickets directly from Grimaldi while in Indy despite multiple calls to the ferry company and our credit card company. I tried contacting Direct ferries about where the boat leaves from and ask for more details about check in, but got a very unhelpful answer with no additional information telling me to look at the tickets. The emailed tickets had no port information on them. So we began our own investigation. The local ferry at the town's festive waterfront leaves for small, regional boat trips. We then walked all the way to the bigger port outside of town. Fran confirmed, in Italian, with the very nice security man at the port, that our Grimaldi ferry to Tunisia did in fact leave from there. Our tickets indicated that we needed to be there at least three hours before the ferry was due to leave in order to check in, or we would not be able to board the boat. The nice security man assured us, in Italian, that we only needed to be at the gate around two hours before the boat left. No problem!
Armed with our hard-earned ferry info, we flagged down a bus for the ride back to town. The driver said we needed to buy tickets for the bus, but he did not have them. Where do we buy these required tickets? Back in town! Ouch! He sweetly took pity on us and let us on board, even going so far as to show us the way to the center of the old city. He therefore rescued us from slogging several hot and dusty kilometers back to town, giving us the opportunity to take a beautiful stroll through the old city instead. Salerno has a couple of cute, interesting, FREE (or inexpensive) museums, and luckily one of them was open for us at that point on a Sunday. We checked out the talented buskers, artsy museum, and (mandatory) cathedral, then headed back home trying to find some dinner along the main pass. Turned out that our airbnb was located in a new part of the city with no real restaurants offering real food on a Sunday night, just cafes with snacks and coffee. After our long day investigating the ferry options, we needed more sustenance than a sandwich would provide. We ended up heading all the way back to the old city before finally landed on some Venezuelan arepas. But darn, they were good!
Totally unwilling to miss the boat based on our obscure information, in Italian, regarding the port, we decided to get there at least four hours before the boat left. As it was Sunday, we tried to arrange a taxi for early Monday. There was absolutely no taxi to be seen. We even headed all the way to train station in search of one. No luck. Our airbnb hostess tried to help us figure out the local bus. She gave all kinds of information but despite her help and the internet, we never did find what appeared to be a reliable bus stop near our place. Fran finally called a local taxi company, which told him to call just a few minutes before we needed to leave the next morning. Stressed out, I got little sleep and was grumpily awake at our pre-determined departure time. No worries. The taxi was there in no time and even did what he could do to make sure we were at the right port for the Grimaldi ferry. We took a little satisfaction knowing that even the local taxi driver wasn't clear on the ferry information. It wasn't just us being clueless!
Ok, so right place, right time. Not so fast! We communicated with the, again very nice, harbor security guards in Italian about our ferry, waving our electronic ticket. "Yes, yes, you are in the right place, just wait there on the sidewalk" was pretty much the gist of what we got. We waited, and waited, and waited. That first guard was absolutely right, we waited until two hours (10:00 am) before the ferry was due to leave. We could have taken the bus. Heck, we could even have walked all the way back. Then here was the deal. They sent a van from the boat to bring passengers to the "check in, check in" point (this was the only recognizable English word we had heard in all our times hanging around that port). After a brief discussion, I decided to go check in since the tickets were in my name while Fran hung out with the luggage. They brought eight of us in the van to a trailer and voila! The man saw my electronic ticket, grabbed my passports, and quickly gave me our boarding passes. Easy peasy. We all then waited until everyone was done, got back in the van, were brought back to the gate, and then the next group was brought in. Meanwhile, we were able to help two other sets of English speakers who showed up, with the same electronic tickets, trying to talk to the harbor guards in English, stressed that they were supposed to check in at least three hours in advance as well. See, it wasn't just us! We even offered to watch the bag for a girl from Singapore. She was actually told by the guard to just leave it on the sidewalk while she went in to check in. Really? What kind of a system is that? To just leave all your earthly belongings on the sidewalk in Italy?
So we alternately watched her backpack, our stuff, our stuff getting covered with cigarette ashes, and the Tunisians packing their overloaded vehicles, as we sat on the sidewalk waiting for some signal. It was astounding to see what people tried to put on their cars, incredibly poorly packed, huge boxes of baby stuff, electronics, even a refrigerator! Luckily our Singaporean friend arrived just in time as they began bringing people to the ship, and again we were at the mercy of the the screwy van system. They only had room for one, so off the Singaporean girl went, with her backpack, leaving us in the dust. "Siamo amici!" I joked with the guard, trying to follow her. No go! He and I bantered back and forth, him saying things in Italian like "China" and "American" and "no amici." As frustrating as the Italians can be at times, they generally have a wonderful sense of humor and can be a lot of fun.
So next it was our turn to board the van. Now, I still hadn't seen anyone stamp us out of the Schengen region, and we were really counting our 90 out of 180 days allowed in the Schengen area. So I started asking about a stamp, but of course just got a nod and some communication that meant something like "inside." So after the van dropped us off, we started to wander around the port, waving our passports, and asking about a stamp. They were still loading overloaded vehicles so we knew we had time before the boat left.
Eventually somebody thought we were enough of a hazard to stop us and find someone who spoke English. Hooray! We were able to communicate our need for an exit stamp, and they showed us the way to the office in another little portable that provided us with one. I seriously think we could easily have boarded that boat without it if we weren't at the top of our game. That would really have created problems later, as we encountered a border official who was furious with our passports for having a "bad" Italian stamp (the ink was too light to read). But that was later...
We got onto the boat and went to the main check-in office. They very quickly took our tickets and got us checked into our private cabin (we reserved two beds in a four bed cabin, and had it to ourselves). We were quite happy with it. It was clean and neat. The sheets were fresh. Our clean shower had hot water and drained nicely. Again, this is a transport service, not a cruise, so I wouldn't call it luxurious, but very serviceable. We relaxed for a little bit, then decided we should investigate eating options. We had pre-purchased dinner when we bought our tickets based on tripadvisor reviews. We went back to the little check in office, showed them our electronic tickets indicating that we had bought dinner, and they re-issued our tickets with a dinner option on them. Again, we encountered a nice English-speaking man in the dining room who talked us through both lunch and later, our pre-paid dinner options. Now here's one place where the terrible reviews held true. The meal was really bad, flavorless and overcooked, but nothing that made us actually sick. It was unfortunately the worst part of the trip. But I'd still recommend buying the dinner in advance due to the price, unless travelers plan to bring lunch, dinner, and breakfast all with them in their room (with no refrigeration). We brought some food with us to eat but would probably bring more with us, had we known our options.
The rest of our trip passed uneventfully. We enjoyed nice, albeit, windy weather as we pulled out of Salerno, and a calm, steady passage over to Africa. Our arrival was very straightforward and the port in Tunis had a pleasant building for disembarking with obvious procedures for immigration and customs. There was a nice English-speaking man who helped us change money and gave us some advice on the taxi. So off we went into Tunis....