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.

[Not] All about Mexico…

So, Mexico then. We’ve had a short, winter sun break there. Of course I realise my impressions are not too representative, since we’ve only looked at a small, sanitised-for-tourists part, but here are some observations about this much-maligned and despised by reactionary Americans country.

Weather

                The eastern coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the principal tourist destination, is termed part of the Caribbean and rightly so, since the climate, like most West Indian islands is warm, tropical and cooled by a breeze. During our ten days there was one overcast day with the occasional five minute shower. It was, however still very warm-a perfect destination for those of us who’ve tired of our harsh, British winter temperatures.

Interior

                We did venture inland, albeit in the care of the [excellent] tour guides running the excursion. I was as fascinated [being possessed of a writer’s nosy nature] to see the villages with their pastel-hued cottages and the thatched, traditional Mayan homes as I was by the ancient archaeology of the site we went to visit. The open countryside was tropical forest and extremely flat. Here, away from the coast it felt much hotter.

History

There are many fine archaeological sites to visit but we opted for Chichen Itza since it’s the best known and was nearest to our resort. It has been very well excavated and restored, extensive and the only drawback is the cacophony of howler monkey calls fabricated by the stallholders using wooden devices for the purpose of attracting attention to their wares. Our tour guide was experienced and knowledgeable. We went on to the beautiful city of Valladolid, where the colonial buildings lining the streets make for an elegant setting, no more so than our lunch venue in a wonderfully restored Spanish style house with a palm-shaded courtyard.

Mexicans

                All those we encountered were friendly, cheerful and helpful. This applies not only to the hotel staff, who you might expect to have been indoctrinated with a corporate hospitality vibe, but to people we met when out and about in the town, helping us when we were consulting the map, serving us in bars and using public transport [which was efficient and very cheap]. Mexicans, on the whole are smallish, an attribute that I find particularly endearing being somewhat height-challenged myself.

Food

Everything we ate was delicious. The hotel breakfasts and dinners were a spectacular plethora of everything comestible you can imagine, so much that three meals daily would have been impossible. We especially loved the variety of fruit, vegetables and salads available although one could easily have lived upon burgers and chips [fries] for the entire time-as indeed many seemed to. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘all-inclusive’ mentality, where anything is served at any time to anywhere, so that if I am reading on a beach I still prefer to get up and find sustenance for myself rather than be waited on. I realise this is a dated attitude and we were, to an extent berated by the waiting staff themselves for under-consuming…

So-to conclude. We did not venture into the lawless, violent lands of the drug cartels. We eschewed the west coast and the south, where heartless kidnappers commandeer innocent travellers and ransom them to their families. We met nobody who wanted to burgle, extort or shoot us at close range. Everyone we met was lovely. Some people are nice and some are not. QED.

Welcome to our Shores!

It can’t have escaped the greater part of the world that here in little old Britain we are experiencing a time of flux. Amongst the dire predictions of disaster that are flying from every media orifice are those of unaffordable foreign holidays, difficulties over flights, problems with customs queues, visas, reciprocal health cover and more besides. Horrors!

The gloom that has settled over our British summer is further compounded by an unseasonal bout of wet, windy and miserable weather. So not only are we facing the prospect of holidaying in the domestic bliss of our home shores but will be doing it in thick sweaters, raincoats and wellington boots.

To be fair, wet, windy and miserable summer weather is so far embedded in the ethos of a British holiday it has become an essential component-part of the essence of a traditional British seaside vacation. For the uninitiated, what else should a new visitor to British shores expect from their holiday?

To begin with, there is the matchless experience of staying in a British hotel, guest house or B&B. Where else are you provided with sticky carpets and overpowering aromas of disinfectant? You may get to sample the famous, ‘full English’ breakfast-a carb and fat-fest consisting of a lack lustre sausage, some pinkish, slimy bacon, a greasy egg and blotting paper toast. This feast is designed to arm you for the rigours of the day to come, when you are to set off out into the gales and torrential rain for some sightseeing.

What should you see? You should not miss the delights of the pier, where you may stagger along against the wind to the end, where although the view may have been obliterated you will be able to while away an hour or two feeding coins into slot machines-this will also provide some shelter. Exiting the slot machine arcade gives you an opportunity to enjoy the pier for a second time as you stumble back to the promenade. You may wish to hire a deck chair for an hour or two, weather permitting. Be sure to open your umbrella. You will be rewarded by the sights of British beach-goers as they walk their dogs or scour the beach with metal detectors. There may even be a lone swimmer-dressed of course in wet suit, goggles and cap.

If you have made it to lunch time you should not pass up an opportunity to try that great bastion of traditional English cuisine, fish and chips. Years ago this mainstay of the national diet was served rolled up inside sheets of newspaper, providing the added bonus of reading material once the contents had been consumed. These days, with the onset of health and safety, together with dwindling newspapers the packaging consists of a polystyrene box and may or may not be furnished with a plastic fork. Examples of the packaging are readily available to view around the streets and pavements of our towns.

The afternoon can be spent browsing the shopping centres, where a range of pound stores and super-buy  emporia interspersed with charity shops will clamour for your attention. Your evening will consist of a return to your accommodation for a tepid shower in your rustic ensuite, followed by an evening meal in one of the many and culturally varied restaurants at your disposal. Will you choose the kebab house, the Indian, the Chinese or MacDonald’s?

Well-what are you waiting for, international tourists? The pound has rarely been lower! Welcome to the UK!

 

Spanish Nights and Gourmet Delights

We are sitting outside at a restaurant table in Caceres, central Spain. It is 9.30pm. The balmy evening sky is a clear cobalt blue and I pause in my perusal of the incomprehensible menu to zoom my camera lens up to the summit of a church steeple where two storks have mounted guard over their mountainous nest. It is a pleasing shot-mostly silhouette. At any rate-I am pleased.

Meandering up from Portugal through central Spain has become an unexpected pleasure and explains why this kind of travel is such a joy. You happen across places you’ve barely, or never heard of and yet they may be tourist magnets [underlining your ignorance] or simply unpretentious, lovely and little known.

Caceres is evidently well known, judging by the thronging masses clogging up the centre on this Tuesday evening, although it is Holy Week-only the most important week of the world in the entire Christian world, which explains the crowds waiting outside the cathedral, lining the roads and blocking our access to any likely-looking restaurants. From the grand cathedral doors some elaborately got-up figures have emerged. They are dressed in white habits with purple capes and some sport alarming pointy headgear a la Klu-Klux-Klan. One is trudging along with a black timber cross slung over his shoulder, for all the world as if he is off to complete some roofing work.

We perform some lengthy manoeuvres in order to access the square offering up most of the restaurants which takes up enough time for Husband to become vociferously grumpy, such are his hunger pangs. He has expressed a desire for steak and nothing else will do.

Having accomplished the mission and found a table by virtue of being only two rather than a family of eight we enter a period of confusion involving several waiters until someone is found who can explain the list of delights. The attention of a Spanish diner at the neighbouring table is captured. My schoolgirl Spanish fails beyond ‘carne’. Earlier I’d thought myself accomplished when asking ‘Hay aseos aqui?’ in the tourist office but my understanding of the rapid stream that issued as reply let me down. Fortunately the toilets were next door.

We finish our starters-enormous plates of salad-and some small plates are brought, plus steak knives-we are evidently to get a shared dish. A large area of table is cleared. A waiter emerges bearing aloft a platter the size of a tray which spits and sizzles like a cornered alley cat then lowers into the cleared space something that may be the pieces of half a cow. Full of salad we stare speechless at the mountain of sputtering ribs before dissolving into semi-hysterical laughter, which is vastly entertaining for the neighbouring Spaniard.

We do our best, struggling through as much as we can before admitting defeat. Would we like desert? Er…

When I ask Husband why they are taking so long with the bill he tells me they are in the kitchen chewing on the returned ribs. He mimes this, using his hands, prompting a loud explosion of laughter from me and causing the Spaniard’s face to crease into mirth despite having no knowledge of the cause. I mop my tears with the napkin, we pay up and leave, only to discover we’ve missed the last bus back. Ho hum.

Hello? OK-can we Take a Break now?

                In my semi-conscious, post celebratory state I felt I must be hallucinating. Each time I turned on a screen to attempt to catch up on current affairs, the same, confusing, surreal images and words flooded the waves, hour in, hour out in a relentless deluge. Babies. Crowds. Photographers. The news was…no news. She was in labour. She was still in labour. She went into labour on Monday morning. There was still no news. Would it be a girl? Would it be something else?

                After what seemed like days [no doubt the Duchess herself felt it to be so], the announcement of the baby’s arrival was made, taking up hours more of the news broadcasts. Then there was more speculation-when would she be leaving the hospital? The massed ranks of reporters and photographers were in a frenzy of feverish speculation and excitement. Clearly nothing else had occurred in the world since Kate went in to pop out a sprog. I presume the loyalist, ‘Hello’ reading nation took a day off, stayed indoors, drew the curtains and glued themselves to their screen while they waited, breath baited for the thrilling moment when the Cambridges would emerge with their offspring.

                At long last, and I’m guessing after having been groomed, styled, primped, made up and dressed by a post-partum designer, the Duchess and husband appeared with their wrapped bundle of baby-a tiny, screwed up face in a swathe of blankets. There were a few, bland remarks about parenthood-then they were off in their swanky Range Rover [or something], driven by someone.

                The next round of intense build-up concerned the name [much exploited by the turf accountants of this world]. Charles was favourite-then James-then…

                Then all was quiet, except, perhaps in the Cambridge household.

                I suppose the Royals must generate an amount of tourist income. Other than that there seems little purpose, especially for the periphery-the ‘hangers on’; the likes of Charles and Camilla, Andrew [who, under his designation of ‘trade ambassador’ appears to do little except to play in a middle Eastern playboys’ playground involving some unsavoury entertainment with young girls]. In the meantime, we, the proletariat fund it all through tax. If this sounds mean spirited, I make no excuse-I feel mean about it.

                I am sure the Queen herself feels she has served the nation, and in her own way she has. And yes, a lot of people feel affection for her and her batty, eccentric husband. Perhaps it is all part of their appeal. But their upkeep is all monstrously expensive. I wonder if the return justifies the expense? Answers on a postcard please…or in the comments?

 

 

The Road West

                “Bacon and cabbage now, that’d be the thing,”

                We were in ‘Brendan’s Bar, Clogheen. It was our second night, and second attempt to find some life. The first evening we’d walked into the village, a single, long street of terraced houses broken only by the ‘supermarket’-an exaggeration, a grocer’s shop, a pharmacy, a diminutive fire department, a takeaway [the only remotely animated spot in the street] and three bars. It had been a gloomy day and continued a gloomy evening. There was little sign of habitation and I fully expected to see tumbleweed whisking down the long sweep of the street. We squinted into the window of the first bar-‘Nerdeen’s’-and detected a light, and yes, the door opened when pushed. A teenage barman, distracted by his mobile phone, managed to serve us. Sky Sports News played to the empty bar. We sat in a corner of the desultory space with our drinks. A man came in to sit at the bar, staring morosely into his cider, then one other. The landlady came in, talking on her phone.

                I know that Husband is seeking wild, folksy nights with impromptu musicians and perhaps some spontaneous dancers leaping about with ramrod backs and high kicking feet.  This was definitely not the ‘craic’.

                Brendan’s Bar was distinguished in having a lone, redundant, ancient petrol pump outside, growing out of the pavement. Brendan, sitting on a stool, arms folded, was a fountain of Irish knowledge, backed up by his friend-the only other customer in the pub. I quizzed him on Irish cuisine; and why was the petrol pump there? The friend mumbled that perhaps it should have been taken away. ‘The tank’s in the middle of the road there’, Brendan affirmed, as if in explanation. He urged us to visit all the places he recommended, even ringing his wife [who may have been upstairs], when a name escaped him.

                Next morning as we left Clogheen I felt I’d warmed to the place. We drove into the centre to find our onward road, past a wandering, stray donkey strolling along the pavement.

                It was relentlessly wet. We stopped only to make a visit to Blarney Castle, running the gauntlet of a swathe of visitors from all parts of the globe, their enthusiasm not dampened. We queued to climb the spiral stone staircase to the top of the keep, queued again for an unceremonious tipping back in the rain to kiss the famous stone for the gift of the gab. Husband, I feel, hopes that by brushing my lips against the damp slab, the opposite may occur.

                Then on to Kerry-wild, wet, windy and a tourist magnet, judging by the abundance of hand woven garment, pottery, craft, fudge, woodwork and local art outlets. We find our site at Cahersiveen with a prime view across to Valentia and the prospect of some spectacular sunsets-if there is ever any sun!