The Travelling Sofa of 2020

We must not complain. It’s been my silent mantra this year. Be glad we are safe, well and adequately fed, live in a lovely home in a pleasant place. Nevertheless this has been the first year for almost thirty years we haven’t crossed the water to Europe and set off, meandering with no fixed plans and half an eye on the weather forecast.

We have, in fact holidayed during 2020. Way back in February, in what seems like a century ago we took the plunge and went off on our pre-booked, long-haul, winter sun trip to Thailand, to Koh Samui. We deliberated, yes, worried, yes, took advice, yes-and then went, carrying face masks, hand gel and all the paraphernalia we have subsequently become accustomed to. It was tricky; hot, suffocating queueing in Bankok airport wearing masks, but now I look back and am so glad we braved it. Our ten days was wonderful, with no virus on Koh Samui, everything relaxed and easy.

In the summer we were able to get away to UK destinations in our camper van, starting with a cautious outing locally, down the coast to Osmington near Weymouth. We became more confident and travelled to Suffolk for a couple of weeks, looking at a part of the UK we are unfamiliar with. Later on we stayed in Cornwall, the sites busy but safe so that the trip felt almost ‘normal’. All these trips are documented on Anecdotage in previous posts.

We have not planned any travel for 2021. Unlike many, I’m not expecting a miraculous transformation of our viral fortunes just because it’s a new year. We are consistently [and annoyingly] reminded that ‘the virus doesn’t recognise Christmas’ so why should it then recognise that the date has changed?

Instead I’ve daydreamed, ogled at and imagined all the places I’d still love to go, as yet unvisited or fond favourites we’ve returned to many times. Here then, in no particular order is my list.

New to us

* Canada. We went to Canada for a few hours, once, walking across the border at Niagara from the USA. Perhaps we’ve watched too many snowy landscaped serial killer thrillers [including the excellent ‘Cardinal’] during lockdown, but I feel myself drawn to those vast frozen expanses and opportunities to see bears and whales. A rail trip through the Rockies would make a wonderful addition to a visit, too!

*Likewise, Iceland. Without the polar bears and whales but with hot springs and a chance to see the Northern Lights, perhaps. Scandinavia has been another source of serial killer TV entertainment this year, with Iceland’s own, bleak contributions.

*Santorini. I’ve visited many of Greece’s gorgeous islands, but have still to set foot on Santorini, with its towering cliffs and nearby volcano. I believe it does suffer from heavy tourist footfall but this does not prevent me dreaming about standing and taking in those views with a stunning sunset.

*St Petersburg. I may be basing my desire to see St Petersburg on screenings of films like Dr Zivago, but portrayals of this iconic city look impossibly romantic.

*Rorke’s Drift. I’d like to visit this site, famous for a battle during the Zulu wars, for personal reasons. An uncle on my mother’s side of our family won the VC at the battle, for defending the place [which was a hospital and stores]. He is depicted in the film, ‘Zulu’. I’ve little interest in safari holidays, but this is a part of Africa that tempts me. I’d also be excited to go to the Victoria Falls, of course!

*In due course, the USA may become visitable again, now that a sensible choice of president has been made. I’d love to see southern states and also to explore more of the East Coast.

Old Favourites

*The Italian Lakes. In 2019 we made a late summer trip to Lakes Lugano, Como, Iseo, Garda and Maggiore. Every lake was sheer magic, each with its own character and features. Each lake was a wrench to leave-until we arrived at the next. The lakes are like a siren call, with their beguiling sunsets and abundance of art. Let me at them!

*Croatia. A stunning, unbeatable coastline and islands. And Dubrovnik is one of my favourite European cities. Then there is Plitvice-a world heritage lake site with astonishing waterfalls, an unforgettable experience.

*Romania. Strictly speaking it isn’t an old favourite, as we whisked through on our return from the Greek mainland, but the brief glimpses we got made me long to go back and explore properly. Transylvania next time!

*South West France. We’ve spent more holiday time here than anywhere else, so much that there is nowhere from Bordeaux to the Spanish border we havent been! But it is beautiful and feels like home each time we go.

There are countless more places-places I only visit on my travelling sofa. I can’t complain. Until we are set free again I’ll continue to sofa-travel-and maybe you, reader can achieve some sofa-trips of your own? Have a Happy New Year in whatever way you are able!

Tented Travels-1

Before we got our first van, during our first few years together Husband and I toured European countries using tents. This was in part due to the penurious nature of our lives [we’d come together in similarly, newly-single circumstances] but also knowing that travel was a shared interest. We’d also both gained plenty of experience as campers from both childhood and as adults. I’d already single-handedly hauled four children off camping in my battered Volvo, with mixed results.

One of our very first trips as a couple was to the South of France and on round to the Italian Riviera, then Tuscany; an ambitious holiday to undertake in my ancient car with my parents’ cast-off frame tent. In its heyday, the tent had already been many miles, but still had some usage in it. Nowadays of course, tent technology is much advanced and bendy hoop tents have more or less taken over the camping market.

Husband, ever the map fanatic, is a competent route planner. We travelled down the centre of France. Overnight stops are tedious when using a frame tent, so we planned our sleepovers using Formule 1 hotels. For the uninitiated, these are remarkably cheap, chain hotels dotted all over France on industrial estates. They are clean and comfortable, and usually situated next to a budget chain restaurant, too. The drawback is that the rooms do not include en-suite and employ a colour-coded system for the bathrooms, which is tricky if you need the loo during the night, since the rooms are accessed by numbered code. We used to overcome this by leaving a shoe lodged in the doorway when we dived out at night. Red-doored rooms must use the red-doored lavatories, and so on, which might mean a bit of a trek.

On our odysseys through France we still see Formule 1 hotels, flanked by Buffalo Grills or some similar restaurant, although they’ve largely been superceded by Premier Classe hotels, superior only in that they have a tiny, integrated toilet and shower cubicle in one corner.

I’ve no idea whether, in these early days of tent touring, discount camping cards existed, but if they did we had no knowledge of them, no ACSI or Camping and Caravan Club cards. We simply did a day’s travel, stopped to look for a site and pitched up.

To begin with we had lilos, inflated by foot pump, and sleeping bags which zipped together. After a couple of trips I decided I’d become too old to dive out and across fields for the loo, so Husband recycled an old toilet seat by attaching it to a bucket. This became the precursor of the porta-loo.

Our tented trips were made not only from necessity, but for preference. We’ve always enjoyed the freedom of touring this way, but there is something magical about sleeping in a tent-a magic that I still feel nostalgic about, even though we’ve swapped tents for vans. It’s something about how close you are to the air, warm and cosy with a waft of breeze and a gentle flap of canvas…magic!

2019-The Year in Travel

Featured

One way or another, this year we’ve indulged in seven trips, which seems, on first reading to be self-indulgent [a view that is certainly hinted at by some]. I don’t like to call our pieces of travel ‘holidays’, because holiday is an ambiguous term that means different things to different people. A holiday to many [myself included when I was a proper working person] is simply a break from work, lolling on a sofa in pyjamas watching movies. To others it is somewhere hot, lolling by a pool in swimwear. For us it is a foray into learning about places-their history and geography, the art and the culture.

The first 2019 trip was in January-to Scotland in our camper van, which may appear a strange choice to some, but the weather, though cold [-6 at Loch Ness] was mainly crisp and sunny, ideal for seeing the dramatic scenery of The Cairngorms or the grandiose architecture of Glasgow.

P1060617

Next, in February, we made a self-indulgent winter sun visit to Barbados, a tiny, laid-back, friendly island, where we self-catered in a modest ‘apart-hotel’ and enjoyed the company of our fellow guests, jovial Canadians, most of them.

P1060803

In the spring we trundled off along the [extremely wet] north coast of Spain, a spectacular journey following the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela. This rugged coast includes many cliffside towns that would rival the Amalfi Coast, if only there was sunshine and dry weather. We continued on around the corner to Portugal, which defied our experience of always being warm and sunny to be cloudy and windy. There is not much left of Portugal we haven’t seen but it remains a favourite destination.

northern spanish coast

We undertook an early summer jaunt to Brittany, to cycle some of the Nantes-Brest canal. This was a spectacularly successful trip, the well-appointed, municipal sites along the canal cheap and conveniently placed by the towpath. But the temperature soared into the 40s, making cycling tricky even in the evenings. It was, however scenic, memorable and pleasant and we are likely to cycle some more French canal paths.

Brittany cycling

Later in the summer we stayed locally in a New Forest site by a small, handy railway station and a large pub, hosting a small granddaughter who had requested to come camping with us and fell in love with it all immediately, especially riding around on her bike, being surrounded by wild ponies and cows and eating outside in the fresh air.

IMG_20190821_141311

This was followed in the autumn by a visit to the outrageously gorgeous Italian lakes, starting with Lugano and continuing on to Como, Iseo, Garda and Maggiore-all very different but all breathtakingly beautiful-and new to us as a destination. The return drive over The Alps via the Simplon Pass was spectacular and I’ve no doubt we’ll return to the lakes at some point.

P1080354

Our last outing, in October,  was to visit Norwegian friends where they live overlooking a fjord near Aalesund. We were gifted with cool, clear sunshine and our hosts’ hospitality was lavish.

norway 19

So a brilliant year of travel; but where to in 2020? Well-weather permitting we’ll be sampling the delights of the Lake District, UK in January, then heading for long-haul sun in February. After that, who knows? Will European travel even be feasible? We can only wait to find out…

Simplon or Simpleton?

It is a wrench to tear ourselves away from beautiful Lake Maggiore, but the weather is due to deteriorate and we must begin the slow haul north and west. To do this we must cross the Alps, and the nearest pass happens to be The Simplon, a route that we have not used before.

In the beginning I am confused by large signs displaying ‘Sempione’, which I’m unable to locate in the road atlas, until I realise this is the Italian for ‘Simplon Pass’, which is an example of my ineptitude with map reading…

As you might expect, though it is sad to leave the lakes, the scenery soon becomes breath-taking in an Alpine way; the villages picturesque as we wind up and through the mountains on what is an unexpectedly quiet road.

P1080372

The engineering along the pass, the road constructed through, around and over mountains is spectacular and it is not long before snow-topped peaks appear. Before long we’ve crossed into Switzerland again.

The landscape, as we continue to ascend becomes bleaker and less green, the conditions less hospitable to vegetation.

P1080387

You know you’ve reached the top of the pass, because the road widens, there is a lay-by, a restaurant and a gift shop. We make coffee and I scoot across to the shop, which is lined from floor to ceiling with all the objects you would never need, from gaily painted miniature cowbells to carved wooden whistles adorned with jaunty birds-all very ‘Alpine’.

We are not alone in the lay-by, and two of our fellow parkers are gargantuan, lorry-style motor-homes travelling in convoy.

P1080388

The German occupants hop out for a quick cigarette then rumble on again, leaving us wondering if we’ll be stuck behind them on the hairpin bends, but when we resume our journey they are long gone.

It’s down the other side of the pass and an hour or so later we are alongside Lake Geneva, passing through the Swiss border with France.

Then it’s a quick whisk through ‘Evian-les-Bains’ [where the expensive bottled water comes from] on to our destination for the next couple of days-Lake Annecy; distinctly non-Italian, cooler and decidedly popular, much to our dismay. Every lakeside site is full-and it’s getting late. We are obliged to make a night stop in a site on a hillside, which at least has a lake view. We’ll try the lakeside sites in the morning.

P1080471

And when we do we are not disappointed. Lake Annecy may not be Italian but it does have a charm of its own. We discover that the cycle path runs from the site entrance and that the historic town of Annecy itself is not so far-nor is the Carrefour supermarket. The morning dawns clear and sunny and we are set to explore.

 

Elevating Sights

P1080281

The site on the shores of Lake Maggiore seems big enough to swallow its neighbouring village, tiny Feriolo. And it is packed with Dutch and German visitors, making us almost the only British [there is one other unit I can see], unlike Garda, where almost everyone was from the UK.

Maggiore’s beach is sandy, making it a pleasant spot to spend an hour or two with a good book-or merely to stare into the distance as ferries criss-cross from Stresa, a few km along the lake, to the lake islands and back.

Mornings are becoming misty and moist now, although as the sun rises higher the weather is still blistering hot. We decide to give the cycle path that leads from the site a go, and it does appear at first as if it may take us to Verbania-a sizeable town further round the lake. We take a track down through a nature reserve and come to a dead end before finding another path over a small bridge. Following the road, it becomes tarmac and well-managed. We ride on. Then it stops.

P1080295

I am far too much of a coward to cycle along with Italian lorries so we turn back. This following paths and turning back when they peter out becomes the theme for the afternoon-but in the end we decide that all the back and forth paths probably gave us a good enough ride-if a little frustrating!

At Stresa, a short bus ride away, we can get a cable car ride up the mountain, Monte Mottarone, a compelling idea. When the bus picks us up from the stop at Feriolo it is packed with school students, most of whom are fixed on their phones. Clearly there is no custom of giving up seats for older passengers here, as Husband has to stand by the driver and I am obliged to occupy the steps by the front windscreen.

After we purchase the cable car tickets there is a short wait then we pile in to the car and it lurches away and up through the trees. Soon there are spectacular views of the lake and its islands, with darting, miniature boats against the blue waters. At the half way point we must disembark and swap on to a new car, which lurches away again. At the top the air is cool and thin but the mountain panorama is glorious.

P1080310

We get a coffee, although the restaurant’s terrace with a stunning view is reserved for those ordering meals! A clanking sound precedes the arrival of several bell-wearing donkeys, who wander down and past us to graze in the cable car area.

P1080332

I’ve suffered altitude sickness on two previous occasions and am not inclined to clamber about much at this height, so we eschew the chair-lift and the trolley switch-back and ride back down the mountain to the cable-car station, then on into Stresa.

The town has a swish waterfront promenade, landscaped with beautiful planting and with stunning views of Maggiore. There are also some seriously top-end hotels!

It’s tricky locating the bus stop for our return to Feriolo but I employ some of my ameobic [but burgeoning!] Italian and we find it, managing to get a seat, too.

The weather is set to change and it is time to be heading north and west on a slow journey home. And we are not yet finished with lakes…

 

 

 

Lake Garda by Ferry

P1080215

Despite a disparaging response from the receptionist at our site in Moniga, on Lake Garda’s southern end, we discover that the passenger ferry makes a convenient stop a few minute’s walk from the gate leading out to the beach. Hooray!

Husband, abler than myself at these tasks, scrutinises the timetable and ascertains that we can visit two different locations in one afternoon using ferries.

After some confusion we purchase tickets from the promenade café and wait on the jetty, where there is no shade from a relentless sun as the minutes tick by and our faith in the timetable begins to waver. We have, after all been subjected to the vagaries of Italian public transport timetables before…

Nevertheless, 10 minutes late-a ferry approaches and we are ushered on board, the only passengers from this stop. The boat wastes no time and swooshes away towards Guardione-our first choice of visit. En route we pass an impressive villa-turned-hotel on a lush island.

P1080223

Soon we are pulling up at Guardione and the waterfront is redolent of a fifties film set, so that I expect Audrey Hepburn to step out of the swish ‘Savoy’ hotel clutching a parasol at any minute.

P1080229

On our tight schedule, and after buying our next tickets we have little more than an hour to stroll the promenade-but this enough to catch a flavour of this town-meant for the well-heeled of we tourists [ie-not us]. On the front, a bride is posing for the photographer, a tiny, white, classic Fiat as an accessory. There is no time to see whether, adorned in her mushroom frock she is able to use little car as a conveyance, which is disappointing.

P1080238

We get a quick coffee before catching the next ferry to Sirmione, which retraces our journey and stops at our own place, Moniga, en route.

Sirmione, lying on a peninsula that protrudes into the centre of the lake, is picturesque, has an exquisite castle and is heaving with tourists.

The cobbled streets are lined with gift shops and gelati parlours heaped with pastel mounds of ice cream. How can they possibly sell the mountains of ice cream on offer? Among the hoards of visitors there are more people grasping loaded cones than not…

Resisting the siren call of ice-cream, we sit down by the quay to await our ferry back to Moniga and our site, where 2 out of every 3 pitches are occupied by British tourers. Clearly Lago di Garda is popular with our countrymen, or it may be the large swimming pool on site, the dinky beach and the blistering sunshine…

But it’s time for us to move on and we’re not finished with lakes yet because we haven’t seen Maggiore yet, so we up sticks and move on, heading for another lakeside site beside the small town of Feriolo. And this is where you will find us next post!

 

Three Lakes

It is tricky enough to park a camper van at Lake Como, let alone find a place to stay, but we do find a site, albeit at the uninteresting end of the lake. The village is hosting a ‘truck’ festival and is thronged with fans of lorries. At the end of this Sunday the trucks are heading home, bedecked with lights, tinsel and decorations and, unburdened of a trailer,  showing off with a turn of speed.

We wander back to the site, where we are the only touring unit. The surrounding mountains are white-topped and have taken on a pinkish glow from the sunset.P1080117

It is time to get along to another lake and we’ve chosen one we’ve never heard of-Lake Iseo, which has the distinction of Europe’s largest lake island [according to our ‘Rough Guide’]. To get there we drive along a long way through a verdant valley where vineyards, orchards and salad crops line the hillsides and roadsides, eventually turning to climb up into a mountain pass. Here the buildings are Alpine chalets, the industry skiing. The largest town is Aprico, bustling even in the summer season.

Lunch is a stop in a lay-by outside a monastery. An opportunistic van is selling momastic produce: cheese, wine and nibbles, from which I feel duty bound to buy a sample. Soon we are plunging into a series of tunnels and there is our next lake,  Iseo, sparkling in the afternoon sun.

Lake Iseo, we find contains the largest European lake island, Monte Isolo, a circular mound rising from the lake, 9km in circumference and inhospitable to all traffic except deliveries and bikes. We can take our bikes on to the ferry, where a cycle rack at the prow provides parking.

P1080145

The cycle path around the island is picturesque, although sometimes challenging!

A rustic bar at a [lofty] half-way point provides cold beers, which are much needed!

On our second day we cycle from our site near the town of Iseo around to the southern end of the lake-pleasant and undemanding.

P1080196

Then it’s time to pack up and head off to Lake Garda, the largest of these Italian lakes, where we find a shady spot on a site in an old olive grove and are surprised to find a large number of British tourers for the first time this trip. The site has a large pool and a beach and is dog-friendly [unlike some], which may explain its popularity with my fellow-countrymen?

By now it’s hot and the olive trees are most welcome for the shade they provide. This is our second visit to Lake Garda, the first having been made en route to Sicily a couple of years ago, when we stayed at Peschiera, a few miles further around this southern end of the lake.

It doesn’t take too long to discover that cycling here is not for the faint-hearted [such as myself]-as the roads are not cycle-friendly, nor are the gradients. We will have to find another way to explore the vast expanse of Lago di Garda…

P1080208

 

On to Sunnier Parts

The weather has turned gloomy and drizzly as we leave Unterager and head towards Italy. Lake Lucerne is shrouded in mizzle, its frame of snowy peaks almost obliterated.

P1080045

We drive through the St Gotthard tunnel, waiting in line for our batch of vehicles to get a green light [presumably this is to avoid jams inside the tunnel]. Then it’s a short hop to Lugano, which holds a promise of stunning views as we travel through the pretty town and suddenly we are alongside the lake itself, adorned with intriguing towers, villas and churches. A quick glimpse and we are winding up hairpin bends, through tunnels and the border is upon us, vestiges of the old controls still there in the customs sign and the checkpoint.

P1080048

The weather brightens and soon we are driving into Porlezza, our first stop in Italy, a large site on the shores of lovely Lake Lugano.

P1080051

The town is a tiny, little known gem, with narrow, cobbled lanes against a backdrop of steep cliffs, a miniature square, a little church painted with frescoes on the walls and ceiling, bars and cafes along the waterfront, where I’m surprised to see a terrapin swimming alongside the ducks!

Rain sets in overnight and for half the next morning, before clearing enough for us to set off on along an old railway track turned cycle path towards Menaggio at Lake Como. As it’s a rail track we think the gradient can’t get too steep and to begin with it isn’t, leading off through the back of town and along the side of pretty Lake Piano, a nature reserve.

P1080069

The track climbs-and climbs. It becomes a relentless, knee-numbing challenge. We are overtaken by the inevitable E-bikes, prompting teeth-gnashing and finger gestures [from ourselves of course]. I begin to run out of gears. At last we reach the top and begin the descent, during which my hands become numb from holding the brakes on. We come to an abrupt halt at a road which snakes down in hairpin bends into Menaggio and I decide that’s enough, since mixing with Italian traffic on steep bends is not my cappuccino.

Then it’s back up again; up and up, and more up.

And then down.

The next day is to be devoted to Lake Como. We’ll drive to Menaggio and get a ferry across to Bellagio. Easy! But there is nowhere to park a van along the steep sides of the lake and we don’t find a car park until we reach Cadenabbia, which is ok because the ferries cross from here.

IMG_20190908_152147

Bellagio swarms with tourists, its steep, narrow lanes lined with designer outlets and gift shops. But it is pretty and worth the effort. After a wander up and down the streets and an ice cream we return to Cadenabbia to drive up the lakeside and find a site. Easier said than done!

 

 

Ten Things about Italy

We moved towards the last leg of the trip, leaving Italy to return to French soil in the shape of Corsica-one hour from and in sight of Sardinia. I began to reflect on the things I’d learned about Italy from having spent a longer and more comprehensive block of time in the country [albeit mainly in the south]. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  • If you want a coffee in Italy, forget about Starbucks and Costa. It will be no use asking for a cortado, a machiatto, a cappucino or a flat white. These are coffees that sound Italian, that someone in marketing has thought up. You may get a latte [although to my mind you may just as well get a cup of hot milk, but in any bar you can have an espresso [beloved by most Italians]-a tiny shot or an Americano-a tiny shot with extra hot water. I achieved my preferred coffee by asking for Americano with ‘piccolo latte’.
  • Despite the Walls ice cream ad, asking for a cornetto will get you a croissant. The custard ones are wonderful.
  • It is well known that Italian drivers are amongst the worst, most aggressive and dangerous in the world.Sicilian drivers are the worst in Italy. The cities of Messina, Catania and Palermo boast the worst of the worst. Intersections in Palermo are akin to some demonic, vehicule version of the Hokey-Cokey, with everyone rushing into the middle, hooting, shouting and gesticulating. Traffic lights are entirely superfluous.
  • Service stations and some cafes have a most eccentric and baffling system for purchasing coffees and snacks whereby a ticket must be got from a cashier in advance of items being prepared. So confused were we the first time that we gave up altogether.
  • Whilst we sweltered in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce May sun the locals went about their business swathed in multiple layers of puffa jackets, body warmers and scarves. I imagine we seemed insane to their chilly selves.
  • Despite the likes of Versace etc Italians slob around as style-less as the rest of us. On the ferry to Sardinia there was a distressing array of bri-nylon track suits. The women are welded to their cosmetics, rarely to be seen without a full face of make-up and the men are fond of their hair, often sporting outrageous styles. Thy are also as weight challenged as anybody else.
  • To chomp your way through a typical Italian menu you would have to be Billy Bunter. There is a bewildering number of courses, the second of which is a full plate of pasta. Best advice is to skip the pasta course.
  • It seems a cliche but Italians are correct to be proud of their gelati. Italian ice cream really is the best. The coffee cone I had in Venice was the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • The contrasts are extreme. In the East of Sicily, where package tourists congregate the roads are akin to the Etna volcanic landscape, the fly tippers have carte blanche and the drivers are suicidal maniacs. The West is a pristine, smooth, quiet haven. In Palermo there are beautiful, renovated piazzas with clean, restored basilicas, cathedrals and monuments. Step away down a narrow alley and you will be instantly into a third world ghetto of open sewers, garbage, feral dogs and dodgy characters.
  • Italian is a most beautiful, musical language about which I intend to devote an entire post in due course…

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!