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.

Close Encounters with American Tourists

I wrote about our meagre experience of Mexico in last week’s post, explaining that there were no negatives in that small, tourist-friendly slice of the country.

Mexico, however has a troubled relationship with its next door neighbour, the USA and more so than ever since The Donald made his debut as premier in America. Americans are unhappy that Mexicans enter their country.

Americans, on the other hand seem more than happy to visit Mexico. The narrow strip between the lagoon and the ocean at Cancun that is crammed with hotels housing tourists is full-to-bursting with Americans, weekenders. Before departure I’d thought that our chosen hotel was vast-that is until we arrived and saw the array of gargantuan tourist inns stretching along the beach in both directions.

Nevertheless our own, seemingly modest accommodation boasted five or six restaurants, seven or eight swimming pools, numerous bars and terraces and the inevitable beach front with thatched sun shades over sun loungers.

My feelings about the American tourists are, I’m afraid ambivalent. On the one hand they are open, friendly and gregarious. ‘Wheer ya fraaam?’ they shriek from their sun loungers as you stroll past on your way to the beach, inviting us to respond with far-fetched replies. On the other hand their conversations are loud and designed for all to hear. In the lobby bar they become garrulous with increasing amounts of alcohol. They demand high standards from the hotel staff, which benefits everyone but their consumption is a spectacle to behold.

Here is the flaw in the all-inclusive deal; the temptation is to over-consume. We rein in, eating only twice each day, taking only what we will eat. A glance around the dining rooms reveals how much is wasted, piled on to plates to be discarded by the waiting staff, meanwhile the girths of so many tell the tale of their many-caloried intake.

Then there is the on-going sun lounger dilemma. On the first day we wander down from brunch in an innocent bid to find a patch of shade to enjoy a quiet read-but each and every place is reserved by a body or a beach towel. We retreat to a shady area of tables by the ‘Sushi bar’. Next day we are up early, like the Third Little Pig beating the wolf, dashing down to the beach to bag our own small patch. If you can’t beat them, join them. At seven o’clock the number of unreserved sun loungers is already depleted but Husband returns triumphant, having draped the beach towels and anchored them.

‘Please refrain’ says the hotel information, ‘from the practice of placing articles on sunbeds in order to reserve them. Security personnel have been instructed to remove items left longer than two hours’.

We scan the beach for signs of the sun lounger police but spot nobody-neither in uniform nor disguised in beach wear. Nobody is going to mess with the Americans, wall or no wall-nor will they be turning their backs on the not inconsiderable sums they bring in revenue!

Now there’s a cheaper option than a wall, Donald-just buy Mexico and be done with it…

[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!

 

The Only Brits in the Kommune

Behind Husband, as he waited for a barman to appear and furnish him with a beer, a giant of a German loomed. This was on North Germany’s coast-a strange but likeable portion of seaside, stripy, canopied, wicker seats for couples dotting the grassy foreshore and a jolly collection of recycled, metal containers standing in as ice cream booths and beach bars. The portly German sported a bristling moustache and wore a checked shirt stretched around his girth, baggy shorts, bulbous, reddened calves and feet splayed in plastic flip flops. He clapped an arm around Husband’s shoulders, leaning over him as if to swallow him up.

‘VOT’, he bellowed, ‘Are you doing HERE?’

It was a good question. We were, as we have been for the last few weeks, the ‘only Brits in the village’. We were in transit to Denmark at the time, wanting only a night’s stopover before the crossing. Having travelled for miles in the quiet countryside it was a shock to find the sites full to bursting with holidaying Germans, their receptions closed by six pm. We’d been lucky to get a place.

As we’ve continued north through Denmark and into Norway we’ve been almost the only British visitors, except for once or twice spotting British plates amongst the traffic and once meeting a British couple on a desolate piece of waste-ground by a lake, [posing as a site] in an anonymous Swedish town as we travelled south again.

At the top of Geirangar Fjord, as we prepared to descend via the series of hairpin bends that is the road down, a miniature cruise ship, plastic-white against the green water dominates the view. That is where the British tourists are-enjoying Norway ‘best seen from the water’ as Brother [the cruise addict] informs me by email.

In Scandinavia, road tourists are dominated by Scandinavians themselves, followed by a heavy German presence, a fair number of Dutch [as usual], some Swiss, a few Polish and Czechs, the occasional Finn. We’ve seen a Russian, a couple of Austrians and French, one or two Lithuanians. But only one other British couple to speak to, briefly as we perused a piece of wasteland masquerading as a town site. We moved on to lovelier surroundings [not because of the British couple!].

As something of a novelty, many are keen to chat to us, perhaps to demonstrate their [undeniable] prowess in English or they are eager to tell us where they’ve been in the UK. A Danish couple stop in their attempt to attach an awning to their new, dinky, teardrop caravan to eulogise on its attributes and to share their touring adventures. A German couple tell us of their visits to England-Cornwall, Bath, Salisbury, Wales-everyone has been very helpful to them. I am startled by this revelatory snippet-the same as an American told me en route from Harwich to the Netherlands. Kind and helpful? We Brits? We of the stiff-upper-lips and standoffishness? Who would have thought it?

A Long Tale of Long Tails

                Despite the blazing sun, white sandy beach, extensive, tropical gardens, azure sea, herds of cushioned sunbeds and unlimited mango shakes, after two days of lolling around reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ [which I can highly recommend when travelling to foreign climes] I was itching for some activity.

                ‘This hotel is too posh for us’ was Husband’s pronouncement-a judgement I considered perhaps appropriate for him, but did not necessarily relate to myself.

                The fact was, the hotel-or rather the ‘resort’ as it liked to be known was certainly ‘posh’, in that it boasted two infinity pools, a spa, three restaurants, numerous bars [including one of those incorporated into a swimming pool], a fitness centre, beach barbecues, those low platforms with cushions for lounging around, coy, individual nooks furnished with pairs of sun loungers and a range of accommodation including private suites with personal pools etc

                That it was plush and luxurious could not be ignored. Neither could the problem that it was a taxi or a long tail boat ride away from anywhere we wanted to visit or activity we’d like to undertake.

                We set off for the nearest town, Ao Nang- a busy seaside resort awash with tourists; not unlike Torquay in high season, but with hot weather. Along the shore throngs of long tail boats bobbed gently in the waves, waiting to take eager tourists to a variety of destinations. We bought our tickets from the booth at the end of the promenade and were amongst the waiting passengers swept down on to the beach and into the sea to heave ourselves up a crude ladder [a dousing is unavoidable] and into the boat.

                A few minutes later we were chugging past an astonishing array of limestone outcrops and fascinating, sculptural cliff formations dotted with tiny fringes of beach as we made our way to Railay Rocks-a popular magnet for tourists; as demonstrated by the multitude of boats jostling for position on the beach. Most were disgorging visitors, some of whom were shouldering luggage in an attempt to keep it dry as they waded ashore.

                If you ignore the ‘walking street’ with its cafes, bars, shops and trinket sellers and walk through to the other side of the peninsula [ten minutes at most] you come to a bay furnished with mangroves. You turn right and walk towards the end and right again to encounter a warren of fantastic caves with dangling creepers and hoards of cheeky macaques; continue through the cave complex to a beach so beautiful as to be almost unreal, although predictably busy. Here there were more boats, some sporting fast food menus-fresh roasted corn, spring rolls and burgers. There were more caves, this time bizarre forests of enormous phalluses replacing the monkeys.

                Later we walked past the burgeoning hotels, bars and [strangely] a Thai boxing ring, around the mangrove bay to the other end. It was wilder, quieter with pockets of discreet accommodation. Later we joined the assembly of waiting passengers on the beach for our return to Ao Nang and our shuttle back to the opulent splendour of  the resort.