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!

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Keep it Local

What kind of environment would we like generations to come to inherit? Do we even care about the world that we will no longer inhabit?

In a week that has seen a brand, spanking new shopping centre opening amidst much celebration in large city in the North of the UK I cannot help but heave a weary sigh. This has all happened before. In the 80s there was an explosion of shopping centres, vaunted as exciting, innovative temples to consumerism and incorporating restaurants, cinemas-even an indoor theme park with fairground rides [at The Metro Centre, Gateshead].

The UK is entering an era of financial uncertainty. Many areas of trade, finance and employment are already showing signs of slowing and inflation is set to rise after a long, settled period. You have to wonder why anyone would view a large, new shopping centre as a good idea.

My own, subjective, personal view of shopping centres is that they do not represent [as one of the instigators of the Leeds structure suggested] an ‘experience’:

“You can’t just build the same environments you’ve done for the last 15 years,” he says, “you have to create places that people want to touch, want to feel, want to be in. The retail is almost secondary. Experience is everything.”

The retail is almost secondary? Why go then? And what does he mean by ‘spaces that people want to touch, want to feel’? I am imagining crowds of shoppers, bags in one hand, the other feeling along the walls outside the shops or perhaps bending to pat the shiny floors. I can think of more uplifting ways to ‘experience’. Why not visit an art gallery or a museum? Better still, go outside and walk-in a park or along a canal tow path, or across a field.

I can’t remember when I’ve ever spent an entire day at a shopping centre. These days I take the view that if I can’t find what I’m looking for in an hour I won’t bother. And when I shop I don’t want to run the gauntlet of endless traffic to be enclosed in an emporium consisting of malls, escalators and mile upon mile of over-lit, over-heated, stuffy shops. I may want to visit a couple of shops, but not to be stifled. I want to go outside between one shop and another. I don’t want to spend hours trundling up a multi-story carpark ramp attempting to find a space and then not be able to locate my car again afterwards [or even remember which storey it is on].

Not everyone is fortunate enough to live where they can walk to buy items they need and not everyone is willing to do so, but in these times of increasing traffic and pressure on our economy shouldn’t we be looking to work, shop and pursue leisure activities in our local areas?

A Potted Driving History

I learned to drive when I was twenty four. It was the mid seventies and I had all my lessons in the dark of a snowy winter in London. As my first test approached the instructor suggested I have some lessons during the day because I’d had no experience of driving in daylight.

I hadn’t needed a car for work, as I walked there. I was motivated by a need to be independent. I remember going to a party, staying late and having no means of getting home to my shared flat in Putney. A man I’d been chatting to offered me a lift back to my flat, which I gratefully accepted. Feeling I should reciprocate, when we arrived I offered coffee-an offer that was rejected. He didn’t want coffee, but he did want sex. I considered myself worldly as a twenty something-having been a student through late sixties hippy-dom, the freedom of ‘the pill’ and beyond into laissez-faire student territory, nevertheless I was shocked that someone would offer a lift and expect sex in return.

I needed two tests, failing my first [in Guildford] and taking the second only two weeks later [in Teddington]. Neither test venue was familiar to me. While waiting for the second test, with a new, female instructor we got a coffee and she proceeded to regale me with a tearful discourse on the subject of her messy divorce, an experience that I later conjectured as a device to avert pre-driving test nerves.

I got a car, a classy Austin A40 with a steering wheel so enormous that simply rounding a bend almost wrenched my arms from their sockets and only one door that would open; this was the rear tailgate. Entering the vehicle involved climbing into it and diving to the front seat-not a dignified manoeuvre. None of this mattered. I had my independence.

I got to like driving-I still do, but roads, traffic and vehicles have changed in the intervening years. Here in the UK there are few major roads that don’t become clogged with traffic for at least some time during every day. A few days ago, sitting overlooking the M1 motorway at Leicester Forest services the road seemed like some future dystopian world where colossal titans spewing noxious gas had taken possession of the planet and had multiplied until every vestige of space and air were exhausted.

I’ve also noticed that age strips some driver confidence away, resulting in fearfulness of the speed and aggression you find amongst traffic in large conurbations or on five-lane motorways. I am spooked by angry hooting, vehicles cutting across mine at roundabouts or pushing out from junctions in front of me. ‘Be my guest’ I want to squeak, ‘you go first-if your need is so urgent you must terrify everyone else to satisfy it’.

Symptomatic of today’s society? Perhaps. In larger countries with more space and in less populated areas driving can be reminiscent of my early driving years. This is often true for travel away from the autoroutes in France, although time must be no object. How will it all pan out? I can only imagine the vehicles nose-to-tail habit will progress to being conjoined-and then what? Oh of course-railways.

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?

In the fast lane there’s a shredded, nervous wreck trying to get out.

                A situation at home prompted us to cut short our meanderings on the Med and make a dash back to the ferry and from there onwards. This involved two days’ of nine hour drives. We are accustomed to driving long distances for trips nevertheless it was, to say the least, tiring. The method we employ for driving many kilometres is to take turns of two hours and then swap over.

                At the beginning of my stint at the wheel of the van I always consider myself to be strong, competent, emancipated woman, boldly handling the vehicle upon the highways of Europe amongst the macho, truck-driving fraternity and international travellers of all kinds. By the end of the two hours, however I am usually a freaked-out, whimpering, cowering wreck who finds it necessary to stop, climb out and beg for the alternative driver [Husband] to reverse into a space that could accommodate a double-decker bus.

                Certain conditions inspire terror in my driver persona. For one thing, whilst motorways and dual carriageways are relatively calm, safe conveyors of traffic they become angst provoking nightmares when swept by crosswinds that buffet the van and threaten to tear the wheel from my hands. I’m happy to overtake trucks and lorries, but find it nerve wracking to be sandwiched between giant lorries overtaking each other. Often, during overtaking moves, fellow drivers approach aggressively from behind, headlights blazing in bullying reproach as the van fails to get by fast enough for them, despite the feeble driver’s foot being flat down as far as it can go. Nowhere is this behaviour more prevalent than in Germany, where a glance in the rear view mirror reveals nothing until you are half way round a lorry-then a vehicle appears from out of nowhere virtually stuck to your rear bumper.

                But the situations that induce the most panic by far are large, busy, unfamiliar cities in which the route must be located as well as negotiating the [largely unsympathetic] teeming traffic.

                I happened to be on my ‘shift’ as we neared our selected, overnight stop South of Paris, coinciding with late afternoon rush hour. Lovely.

“Please!” I begged Husband, “Tell me which lane”.

                He ruminated, switching from atlas to satnav and back again-“Um…left…no…right…no…”

I felt myself grow hot and an urge to empty the bladder as we lurched to a stop at a red light, in front of a long, impatient column of cars. From somewhere there was the ominous whine of a siren, and growing louder. I stared around to try and locate the source, finally, and with foreboding seeing the flashing blue light approaching behind us, the lines of cars parting to allow its passage. I was at the light, with nowhere to go, a stalemate as the police car blazed and blared in an insistent decree behind us. The driver in the adjoining lane waved his arms and shouted for us to move. At last a car stopped in its path across us and allowed me to drive through the light. Another five minutes saw us safe into the hotel car park, where I felt like weeping with relief.

I stopped in front of a space and climbed out, wobbly legged. Husband, of course did the reversing into a space thing.

In terms of late life career options, I suppose lorry driver would be somewhere down near the bottom of the list?

Sailing too Close to the Wind?

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So in this rapidly changing world, what will the transport of the future look like? What will fuel it? Will it be air, land or water based [or something else? Virtual?]? Who will travel? What will it cost? Will it be a luxury? Is it a luxury now?

                Indeed, will there be travel at all? Why will anyone need to?

                During a trawl for research into climate change, for a novel I’m attempting to write, I came across this website:

http://flood.firetree.net/?ll=48.3416,14.6777&z=13&m=7

It shows the extent to which the land will flood over progressively higher sea levels, which prompts speculation about the repercussions of such floods. We are already beginning to see the effects of flooding, with disruption to housing and transport. There must surely come a time when, as usable land shrinks, people will need to move higher. It may also be necessary to rethink the way we, and our goods, travel.

                On large waterways, such as the Thames, or the French Seine, barges are a normal sight, but in the future, when land is at [even more of] a premium, why not capitalise by restoring the waterways and even building more? For instance, looking at the flood map it seems that North Somerset and South Devon may shrink to the point where Cornwall is almost an island, making it a fairly simple operation to build a transport waterway between the existing Bristol and the English Channels.

                In thirty years’ time I imagine there will have not only been developments in vehicles and fuels, but in communications technology. Why, then are we going to be spending 33 billion pounds on a land-based transport project that may not even be needed? The intention to take traffic off roads is laudable, but who knows whether road traffic will be the same in 30 years time? It may all be electric, we may not need to travel so much, or maybe a completely new system will get invented.

                Maybe we will even be re-thinking our attitudes to goods transport. We may have to limit imports and exports, grow more [and a greater variety] of foods, make more of what we need, perhaps think about using less. Radical? It’s beginning to happen already.

                In the meantime I’d like to know who is going to be travelling up and down the country by railway on a regular basis and for what reasons? And how on earth this is meant to ‘generate’ wealth and business? If it’s only about shopping outlets at stations then there’s no hope, because how can that succeed where all over the country, high streets are failing?

                Any answers? Chances are that I won’t be around in 30 years, but I’m still interested to know!