Slip Sliding Away

I’ve never been much of a sports spectator. Other than a brief phase of tennis watching in the 70s [I happened to live in a flat a few minutes’ walk away from Wimbledon’s famous club]. I’ve positively avoided watching the sporting activities of others. Exceptions include international rugby games [I’m currently enjoying the six nations championship] and winter sports.
There is something magical about the winter Olympics. The settings are beautiful; other-worldly and mountainous landscapes providing a background for breath-taking races and stunts. Watching daring ski jumpers hurtling down a slope and flinging themselves skywards before landing the right way up and sliding away is enough to make your stomach lurch, as is the downhill skiing or the crazy free-for-all of the speed-skating.
Most of all the new [since 2014], tricksy snow-boarding contests are spectacular and a compelling watch.
It is more than twenty years since I had my own, brief taste of snow-related activity, when I took myself off for a week of beginner skiing in the much-poopooed [by seasoned skiers] resort of Borovets, Bulgaria. I’m sure it wouldn’t do for those who take to the slopes on a regular basis or those for whom a fashionable resort matters most. But for someone who was new to skiing-and approaching middle age, Borovets was just cheap, cheerful and more than demanding enough.
To this intrepid week of discovery I’d added an extra anxiety-inducing element. I was travelling solo. I did have the advantage of being physically fit, having undertaken running and aerobics in the preceding years but I was also reeling in the aftermath of a relationship breakdown, which meant that solo travel would be a risky business for my battered emotions. Would I be able to forge friendships, find some kind of transitory support network, have any conversations, bond with fellow novices? Friends counselled for and against but in the end the ‘for’ camp won for advising me to see it as learning a new skill-just like going on a course, which of course, I was!
There is an art to lone travel. When I boarded the transfer bus at the airport I was asked which ‘party’ I was travelling with, a difficult question. When a couple, faced with no spare seats at the hotel’s evening meal, were forced to share my table I thanked them for joining me, shifting my novel [a prop] across to make room. Next morning’s breakfast was a solitary affair.
Then I had to find my ski class. I headed down to the boot room, where we virgin skiers were to be parcelled up into groups, get our lift passes and our boots and skis. Once I was in a group everything changed. We were united in anticipation, endeavour and terror! We laughed, clutched each other, fell over, encouraged one another, made progress. At the end of that first, exhausting, exhilarating day I had a group of friends. We ate together, went out together, drank together, shared our stories.
I loved skiing, but I never did it again. It was not long before he who was to become Husband came along and lone holidays became a thing of the past. There is no doubt that, like most sports, skiing needs to be taken up when young. But that holiday holds fond memories for me, as does skiing, so for anyone who is wavering about skiing-or indeed about holidaying as a singleton I’d say go for it! What can go wrong?


The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!

Fresh from Cuba-



We have returned from ten days in Cuba, leaving the frozen, grey UK and taking almost ten hours to fly to a warm, bright and colourful Havana. After hearing about the plight of tourists to Jamaica, who must remain in hotel lock-down due to violent crime I’d advise anyone with Caribbean travel plans to choose Cuba-one of the safest holiday destinations in the world.

Even in my deprived-sleep-addled state, on the journey to the hotel I could see that there is NO advertising of any sort along the roads, not on the highway from the airport or in the suburban streets and nowhere in the bustle of the city. It is refreshing not to be faced with hoardings and neon everywhere.

Continuing this theme, there is nothing anywhere that resembles a ‘chain’ company. No Starbucks, MacDonalds, KFC, Wagamama, TGI Fridays, Specsavers, H&M, Monsoon, Wallmart, Top Shop or IKEA. Magic! It is, in fact difficult to determine where there are any shops at all. There are tiny corner kiosks nestling among crumbling facades or murky windows displaying manekins sporting faded, dusty outfits. There are also alleyways with market stalls touting Che Guevara T-shirts, baseball caps and a range of hand-made items. There is also a riot of lively, busy bars and restaurants thronged with tourists and locals alike and often alive with a band of musicians.

Bars. There is no shortage of these; some mere holes in the wall, others ornately panelled, art-deco monuments to a rum-and-salsa culture much celebrated by writer Ernest Hemingway [whose heritage is much exploited by Havana traders]. There is a limitless supply of musicians. In a small street outside a Hemingway-themed bar where exuberant music is entertaining the area an impromptu accompaniment was played on water bottles as several individuals ran fingernails up and down the furrowed sides [proving my theory that almost anything can be employed as a musical instrument].

Cars. Cuba is well-known for its old, American classic cars. I was unprepared for the number of them [allegedly 150, 000].They range from lovingly restored, smooth, gleaming limousines to pitted, filled and battered jalopies. All, however spew out a filthy, noxious cloud of lung-clogging fumes which requires some adjustment of the respiratory passages when out walking.

People are friendly, happy and not above exploitative. We were offered welcome, advice, conversation and cigars or a visit to an outlet. We were never, at any time hassled or pursued. Rejection was accepted with relaxed, good-natured smiles. There were a small number of beggars, some of which had gone to lengths to create artful outfits to enhance their plight-a frayed and patched jacket or [in one case] a masterpiece of sackcloth trousers. There was no evidence at all of rough sleeping.

There was an overall sense of well being. Nobody appeared embittered or unhappy with their lot. The population is a mixture of black and white with all groups of diners, musicians, shoppers and travellers joining in together as one, never allied to one or other ethnic type. It is safe; a tourist could walk alone anywhere at any time of day or night without fear of molestation. We were unlucky with the weather, which was uncharacteristically overcast and windy. Otherwise it was a fun-filled and happy experience. Thank-you Cuba!





Think Yourself Lucky!

It is generally agreed by those of us who live here in the UK that 2017’s summer has been, at best, disappointing. Other than one or two early heat waves, when you had to take to the shade or expire, the traditional July and August holiday’s weather has been unpredictable, heavy showers alternating with wind and cloud, occasional bright patches but never a sustained period of warm sunshine.

This has been good for some; UK tourism is booming [see last week’s post] with ancient monuments, museums, attractions and theme parks all doing well. Other customary, outdoor summer events such as festivals have fared less well, with many having been cancelled altogether.

As a teenager and a young adult I adored hot weather. There was never a hint that exposure to hot sun could be in any way detrimental to health. On a [somewhat abortive, though that is a different story told in an older post] trip with fellow students to southern Europe I equipped myself with some dubious tablets that purported to allow tanning without burning, thus imbuing me with the confidence to strip off and fry myself to a crisp. Later, with the advent of sunblock creams I became more circumspect but nevertheless continued to sunbathe in the interests of maintaining a glowing, tanned skin.

For many retirees a home in the sun is a longed for goal with the result that areas like the Spanish Med are crowded with ageing ex-pats, [many of whom were further encouraged by the ability to draw their pension and enjoy free healthcare whilst living in Europe-benefits that may not, now sustain].

Despite the few remaining climate change deniers, such as Trump, our weather patterns are altering. We bemoaning Brits may grumble about our ropey summers, but southern Europe has begun to experience heat waves with unprecedented frequency and to extremes. Will those who abandoned Great Britain for warmer climes be able to manage life in the dangerously high temperatures we have begun to see?

Myself, while I love the sunshine as much as anyone else I am no longer able to tolerate the punishing heat that I used to enjoy when young and this is a feature of older age. Extreme heat is dangerous for older people as it is for the very young. We travel widely in Europe, Husband and I-but outside of high summer, in late spring or early autumn, when the edge of heat is no longer there, nor are the crowds.

I am as guilty as anyone of moaning about the British weather, but perhaps we Brits should consider ourselves lucky that we are not yet too drought-ridden and baked to live our lives here. We are starting to see the impact of too much rain on our country’s crops and we are prey to floods but other, less lucky parts of the world are seeing far worse conditions. Perhaps a cloudy, breezy, showery summer is not so bad after all!



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!


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.