A Tourist in my Birthplace

So last weekend we became tourists in the city of my birth. Strictly speaking, since, like my siblings I was born at home in a house with the aid of midwife I was not born in Salisbury but nine miles away in what was then a small village but officialdom does not accept small villages as places of birth, so Salisbury it is.

We parked up in a site overlooking ancient Old Sarum [http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/old-sarum/]

Clearly, Salisbury and its environs are a magnet for overseas visitors as we were surrounded by vans and tents from Germany, The Netherlands, France and Italy. So we are not yet ostracised to the extent that ‘etrangers’ will not set foot upon our shores; rather that we are, I suppose cheap for visitors from the EU.

We followed a nifty, easy cycle path down into the city, where I dragged Husband around in a search for my old Aunty Ethel’s house, long since occupied by others. Aunty Ethel was one of that breed of spinster aunts whose vocation was to care for elderly relatives, which she did in return for occupying a small apartment upstairs in their house. She also worked on my uncle’s market stall, as did my mother, on Saturdays. My father would then bring me on the bus to ‘Miss Pinegar’s’ ballet school for my morning session, after which he’s buy me ‘99’ ice cream in the market and I’d sit at the back of the stall swinging my legs and eating it. The stall backed on to a second hand bookstall which, together with the ice cream combined to create small-girl heaven.

I’d been convinced that the house had an arched porch but memory is a fickle attendant; the arched houses occupy the opposite side of the terraced road. Aunty Ethel’s had a square porch. The road now seems quaint and fashionable, having been gentrified and tiddled up.

We cycled up the steep slope to The Wyndham Arms, once a lowly backstreet corner pub, now with a trendy, real-ale, Tripadvisor reputation and ate at ‘The Wig and Quill’ where banners announced a third birthday party [for the pub] to be hosted by ‘Beaky’ who we assume is Beaky from the 60s pop quintet ‘Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch’. We consumed our [presentable] steaks as a trickle of blinged-up party arrivals entered for the celebrations and it was time to leave.

Next day we undertook a hilly cycle to Amesbury, narrow lanes along the Avon Valley and some steep climbs causing intermittent knee protests. The rolling English countryside is voluptuous in late summer, full blown oaks and beeches in their last Hurrah before Autumn begins to get a grip. Arriving at Amesbury we quickly decided that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for visiting this unremarkable, small town and I imagine the population might be on their knees every day in a debt of gratitude to Wetherspoons, whose establishment dominates the main street and who are able to provide a decent cup of coffee.

On the return and after more hills we stopped at The Bridge Inn for a glass of cider in the sun, with a view of the river flanked by weeping willows and bulrushes. Beautiful!

 

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The Freedom of Finistere-[except for supermarket car parks]

We are in Brittany, France; ‘bimbling’ as Husband calls it-meaning a slow-paced meander with no real plan.

This is in marked contrast to our April/May jaunt of Italian island hopping , which depended on ferry timetables and during which we spent very little time in any one place [insert link]. There are benefits and drawbacks to both types of tour, but travel this way-with no particular expectation or goal can have unexpected results.

So we look at a map. On this occasion, since ‘high summer’ and the holiday season is getting underway [and we are in motorhome heaven-France] we are attempting to do as much as possible without the need of campsites, rather using ‘aires’, which are either very inexpensive or free-hooray! The ‘aires’ Bible we use may dictate where we go to a certain extent, although they are mostly around the coast and are bound to be in popular spots. So far so good.

Since there is a heatwave both here and in the UK, the first aire, situated on a hilltop above the tiny, picturesque fishing port of Cancale is most welcome. It has shady, grass spaces and a pretty footpath down to the town.

We plant a pin in the map and head West to Tregastel. At first sight it appears very Cornish, except that the gigantic boulders strewn around the bay are smooth, organic, granite shapes like fabricated, concrete rocks on a theme park ride. Tregastel is postcard pretty, but the aire looks unpromising in a car park opposite Super-U supermarket. In the end we opt for it, meaning to move next day-except that next day we discover it is by the beach and a knockout coast path-perfect! The supermarket turns out to be an added bonus.

The aire becomes busy, a well-known and well-trodden route. We get into difficulties with renewing our ticket in the machine, which refuses to accept any of our bank cards. In desperation we take the van out and attempt re-entry, only to be refused. When I call the emergency number a weary woman tells me a van is on its way. Their computer system is down. Phew! Our bank cards have lived to finance another day.

Before leaving Tregastel we take the van into Super-U, where there are plenty of empty spaces in the car park, in a corner where a number of other campervans are parked. Having shopped, I am busy transferring meat from polystyrene trays into freezer bags when an elderly man stops by the door and I realise he’s saying something along the lines of ‘Do you have the right to be here?’

I’m nonplussed. Does he mean ‘in France’? Perhaps he is issuing a protest in the wake of the Brexit vote. I manage my best gallic shrug, bag of steak in hand, ‘Je ne sais pas’. He gestures at the parking spaces [empty around us, for the most part]. ‘Oh!’ I say, understanding, ‘Ici dans le parking? Mais il y a beaucoup des autres comme nous!’ It’s my turn to gesture. I point the steak bag at the massed ranks of gargantuan motorhomes lined up in the car park, at which he, in turn shrugs and shuffles away leaving us to wonder ‘why us?’. Perhaps it is the Brexit effect after all and we are no longer welcome. Tragic!

Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

Oh The Joys of Sicilian Public Transport…

Taorminha. Sicily’s tourist jewel; the magnet for package holiday visitors and justifiably so, perched high on cliffs, the many levels of buildings clinging like limpets in precarious view of the azure sea and topped by the Greco-Roman amphitheatre with its outstanding panorama of Mount Etna.

We shouldn’t miss Taorminha. Having settled into our ramshackle site overlooking a black beach at the edge of the small seaside town of San Alesso Sicula we investigated transport options. Driving up the almost sheer cliff face was out of the question but buses made regular trips and a timetable was posted at reception.  We strolled out into the modest little town and stopped for a seafront beer then found the bus ‘fermata’ ready for tomorrow.

The bus came, and on time. There were some moments of anxiety as it appeared to go in the opposite direction but then it turned in towards our goal, along the autostrada the finally up a series of hairpin bends, up and up into the town, where the driver reassured us that we should wait, later for the return bus. So far so good.

Even now, in April the historic streets were thronged with tourists, the bars and gelaterias doing thriving business. The theatre and its views are worth the hype. The lackadaisical service at the famous ‘Wunderbar’ was not. We gave up waiting and got a drink at the modest bar by the bus stop. Then we waited. And watched the battered, scraped, stove-in and dented vehicles lurching by. And waited.

‘He’s just late’ suggested Husband, ‘It’s the traffic’.

Less sanguine, I nipped into the information booth and learned that the return stop had been changed that afternoon and was now the bus station, many levels down. It had left. The next bus was at 19.40pm. Wonderful.

We got an overpriced and mediocre meal before trudging down to the bus depot to wait. The sun was gone, the evening cooling. Buses came and went with shrugging drivers. At last, cold and disillusioned we returned to the information booth to be told the bus driver, who’d evidently chosen to go home for dinner rather than do his last run, would come back for us at 21.30pm. Unable to face the inhospitable bus station once more we climbed into a taxi. This is Sicily.

We left San Alesso to meander along the south coast towards Mount Etna and a site that boasted an uninterrupted view of this, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. There among a strip of unedifying bars, guest houses and hotels with bizarre South American influenced names-‘Ipanema’, ‘Mokambo’-we found our site. Clearly Sicilians feel there is no advantage in capitalising on proximity to another tourist magnet. There was no ‘Etna Bar’, ‘Lava Lounge’ or ‘Eruptions Night Club’. The site was modest but clean and adequate, with precious few visitors for such a prestigious position. Etna’s head lay still shrouded in clouds but remained an impressive sight, towering above the coast with snow clad slopes.

Next morning, however we were treated to a clear, unsullied view of the entire volcano and its vast crater. Result!

Crossing the Void and having to Avoid…

We wrenched ourselves from beautiful, sunny Paestum having ascertained that thunderstorms were amassing and that the next day, Easter Sunday would be a quiet, truck-free day on the roads.

Italy’s south west coast takes in Basilicata first then Calabria-the toe and the poor relation of Italy’s mainland. But the coast road is stunning and scenic, twisting and turning around a mountainous fringe as it wends south; a coastline to rival the famous Amalfi road and far less travelled. It was indeed quiet, Italy’s biggest religious holiday when families get together to celebrate.

As promised, towards mid-afternoon the glowering clouds vented in a thunderous, lightning-ridden deluge as we neared Italy’s toe and a few glimpses of Sicily.

Since Abruzzo we’d descended into internet silence and it was becoming clear that something was amiss concerning connectivity. We stopped just before the port town at ‘The Mimosas’, quiet, low season and dispiriting in the showery weather. The small beach, however offered our first, shadowy view of Sicily.

In the town where we were to get across the Straights of Messina we were to experience a taste of what was to come in terms of southern Italian driving behaviour. In the narrow streets there were vehicles parked on both sides, cars coming through, cars reversing, cars double-parked or parked across the road. Knowing where the port was located was no help in determining how to get to it. We drove around and around, helpless until a bystander helped out for a small remuneration, showing where to buy a ticket and where to join the queue. The stretch of water is narrow and offers a view of Messina sprawled along the coastline of Sicily.

The ferries came and went in a relentless stream, uninfluenced by the religious holiday of Easter Monday and soon we’d driven into the bowels of one. We joined the throng of passengers climbing up to the café and there was just time to get a coffee before the vessel docked-at Messina!

Having disembarked and trundled off the dockside into the rambling town we began to experience the complete and utter bun-fight that is Sicilian driving. Vehicles shooting out of side roads and parking spaces, no indication of intention, overtaking on both sides, double and triple parking, stopping mid-road and getting out, disregarding red lights, other cars and any kind of safety procedure. This was to be the norm.

The outskirts of Messina, a long built-up stretch were lined with scruffy housing, numerous assorted vans, trucks and cars selling mostly green beans heaped up in mountains in car boots and on truck beds. This is clearly not a wealthy area.

Later the road morphed into seaside suburbia and we found the way to the autostrada where we made for the first site [near as we could get to the tourist hotspot of Taormina]. Elements of doubt crept in as we bumped around an unmade road and past a cement works sporting a statue of a praying monk, [San Cementus, perhaps? –the patron saint of concrete?] but there was the entrance, shrouded in a choking cloud of barbecue smoke on this holiday afternoon; the small, dishevelled site crammed with holidaying Italians. We were shown a spot overlooking the sea front. Here at last!

 

Going South

While it is fair to say I’m less confident at driving the van than I was I don’t expect Husband to undertake all the driving. On a trip like this it would be tricky to do the distance. So I take a turn to give him a break.

We leave Venice and turn south on the coast road towards Rimini and Ancona. The journey is without incident and a little slow due to the 50kmh limit almost all the way. I am happy enough driving through the built up area where I cannot overtake and cannot be overtaken. At the end of the long day we arrive at a coastal site south of Ancona where a handful of motorhomes have also stopped. The site opened a few days before but is clearly not ready to receive visitors, the bathrooms strewn with electrical cables and tins of paint, the sound of sawing and the to-iing and fro-ing of the workmen as they labour.

At reception I am told to return in half an hour, even though the vast expanse of site is so sparsely occupied as to be almost empty. At last we are supplied with a shower key for a slot to provide hot water, the delivery of which lasts all of 2 minutes-enough time to work shampoo up to a lather and little else…

Of the numerous toilets, only one is able to be sat on, the remaining cubicles being the archaic, squatty type. Half of these are filled to the brim with excrement. We are not impressed!

Next day I take first turn, assured by Husband that we’ll do autostrada; that we can ‘just drive’ and it will be easy. I turn on to the motorway, settling behind a lorry until I feel confident enough to overtake. It is a large tanker. Seeing a space, I pull out into the middle and begin to pass-just at the sign for a lane closure, the tanker’s lane. Horrors! The lorry driver makes his predictable, terrifying move as I am part-way past, indicating and lurching sideways in a bid to bully us in. By now I’m hyperventilating, yelping. Husband urges me to put my foot down and go, which I do…then I am past and I can swing back in, gasping in relief. A few moments later, as we limp along behind the next lorry the tanker driver regains his advantage, displaying his superiority from his testosterone filled cab and I let him go. That’s enough near-death experiences for one day.

Later we leave the motorway to climb into the mountains of Abruzzo and stop at Opi to be greeted by the owner speaking American English in a beautiful, remote site surrounded by towering peaks and woods supposedly occupied by bears and wolves. Across the field there is a lone, Dutch motor-home but the couple are enjoying their solitude. After dinner we sit by a huge wood burner in the empty restaurant, share a local brew of beer and chat to the owner’s daughter, recently returned from Boston.

In the cold night I fancy I hear wolves baying. The friendly site dog is sitting outside in the sunshine waiting to greet us next morning and as I wander up the lane to supply the fluffy donkey with a carrot a troupe of little pigs and a gaggle of white ducks come running up.

Then we are off again, heading down off the Appenines and away to the west to skirt Naples-I am adamant this time that I will not drive on the motorway. But we are to encounter far worse driving related incidents as we progress south.

At last we are over at the opposite coast, The Mediterranean, at Paestum and we settle down for a couple of nights by a beach under the shade of some eucalyptus trees with a handful of German, Swiss and Austrian neighbours soaking up the warm sunshine.

The Muddle that is Memory

As I grow older I realise more that memory is a capricious servant and not to be relied on. It unnerves me, this haphazard facility, as it would anyone who has more years behind them than in front. We joke about senility. ‘He makes new friends every day’ we say about close relatives suffering from Alzeimers. But it is a state to be feared as we age, even though research turns up new developments in treatment all the time.

We have travelled down the west coast of France more times than I can either count or care to admit-certainly, during the last twenty five years or so far more times than to London. And yet it takes re-visiting to stir my memories. I am as unable to grasp the gist of a place from Husband’s descriptions as I am able to recall what I went upstairs to get when I’m at home. ‘You must remember’ he says, ‘there was an Irish couple’ [there are many Irish couples] or-‘there was a small bar by the entrance’ [true of so many places].

We visit old haunts, reluctant this time to be intrepid adventurers, having done enough pioneering on the house move front this year.

We find a site, new to us. We cycle out along the salt marsh, a wide, flat expanse of watery fields criss-crossed by irrigation channels. Grey eels undulate along in the water, darting from one clump of weed to another. It all looks eerily familiar then we approach an oyster farm and there, there is the little sea-food shack and bar where I took Husband’s photo on our anniversary-memorable in that his chin rests on his hand and his expression as he peers over the top of his beer is nothing short of grumpy.

We did remember Pornic and eventually the site we’d stayed in. We’d walked there last time and caught the train back. I had a sudden recognition; a path over a deep, rocky cove peopled with dozens of naked men-many in couples. Such sights are not unusual on French beaches. I’ve long since adopted a ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ strategy for them.

We travel further south to another small, seaside town I’m sure we’ve visited before. The large town square bordered by the post office and the town hall seems familiar, as do the narrow streets lined with bars, ice cream parlours, ‘churros’ counters and stalls selling bracelets, hats and keepsakes. Here in September there is a throng of tourists-many our age or older-wending their way along and pausing to browse the proffered nick-knacks as they chew on sugary, doughnutty churros or tuck into mountainous ice cream cones.

So the memories are there-not readily available as a neat, annotated and dated time-line but in a jumbled, half-buried pile in the cobwebby cupboard of my brain. When one is prompted to surface it is a pleasure. The offspring jest, as I myself would have done when stories are repeated or exaggerated, but this will happen to them, too at some unspecified future date.