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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School Days-not Always the Best Days

For four years, from the age of seven until eleven I lived with my family in a village in a remote part of north Norfolk-the part which is generally known as ‘The Fens’. Here the landscape is, at best minimalist-bearing no hills or trees as far as the horizon-only flat cultivated fields bordered by drainage ditches or ‘dykes’. At that time, the early 1960s, transport links were sketchy. Many village inhabitants had travelled no further than the village boundary and never to the nearest metropolis of Wisbech, six miles away, which was accessible by private car or by the school bus-leaving in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon. I attended the small village school until the ’11 plus’ examination decreed that I should make the daily journey to Wisbech High School, a grammar school for girls housed in an old building along the side of the River Nene. It was a culture shock. My primary school in the remote village had been tiny-only two classes-and now I entered an institution as disturbing as a mausoleum, with winding staircases, austere classrooms and landscaped grounds. We wore scarlet berets as part of our ‘outer wear’ and many of these could be spotted floating along the river each morning as we crossed the bridge from the bus stop, so that we soon learned to clutch our hands to our heads on the way over. I was relieved that my best friend, Gillian Farley had also ‘passed’ the exam and could share an experience which could only be described as a kind of endurance test for small girls. Our form mistress, Miss MacFarlane presided over us in a ferocious manner and with a draconian set of rules and regulations. She was also our mathematics teacher, an unhappy situation for those of us for whom maths was a constant mystery. Gillian was even worse off than I and was sent home one weekend with 2,000 [yes-2,000] lines to write on the subject of x times x = x squared. She’d committed the unforgivable sin of writing x times x = 2x. What a shocking crime! My red shoe-bag, proudly constructed by my mother as a money-saving ploy, was not quite the same ‘red’ as everyone else’s. My gymslip, again a proud home-make, did not appear to be shop bought. These differences led to daily mortification. Small errors, omissions or mishaps were punished by shaming order marks, a collection of three leading to detention. This would mean staying behind after school in the library and copying from books, a huge deterrent to those of us who would then miss the only bus home at the end of the day. When I collected an order mark for forgetting to bring a text book to a class and having to share with someone I spent weeks worrying about getting two more. After we sat end of term exams our desks in the form room were positioned in ‘exam order’ beginning at the back of class, to affirm the superior status of those whose average was top as opposed to those at the front-near Miss MacFarlane’s elevated platform-who had struggled. Poor Gillian was one of these, doomed to spend form time under Miss MacFarlane’s disapproving nose. I had somehow managed to get myself into the anonymous ranks of the middle. Do schools like this still exist? I hope not! I could never reflect that days at Wisbech High School were the happiest of my life. No child should ever be terrified of school!

Flights of Fancy [not]

To fly anywhere these days requires surrendering yourself to a surreal experience in which you are engulfed in a dystopian world and required to submit to various practices which never occur in your normal, day-to-day life.

First you must access the airport. If you drive there you must take your vehicle to one of countless, vast car parks marked with ‘bays’. Your vehicle is spookily ‘recognised’ and allowed in. You wait in a remote shelter for a shuttle bus, which exists solely for the purpose of car park to airport, airport to car park.

If you arrive by public transport you may stay in an airport hotel. They are strange, anonymous tower blocks accommodating all nationalities, everyone staying for just one night, the hospitality focused on food, drink and sleep-with TV and WIFI thrown in and, of course a shuttle bus to the terminal. In your room, which has a view over the access road, the car park or a petrol station you may be prey to gabbling in foreign tongues as they impregnate the thin walls separating you from next door. There are rumblings as suitcases are trundled along the carpeted corridors and feverish key card insertions. Your dreams are punctuated by strange roars and muffled voices.

Next morning you rise up, shower in your en-suite [serviceable], down a quick cup of tea and trundle your own case to the lift, where you descend to the lobby. Others pulling cases may join you. It is early. Almost everyone is silent, save for the bus driver, who greets with an almost indecent jollity. There is a diverse assortment of luggage, from gargantuan, shiny designer to old, battered, market-for-peanuts [ours]. The bus rattles around the hotels collecting travellers then on to the terminal to spew you all out.

You claw your case from the rack and traipse with it and everyone else, following the yellow arrows to ‘departures’. You locate your ‘check-in’ from the screen [what did they do before screens?]. You join a long, meandering queue penned in with webbing, in which you shuffle and shuffle, shifting your wheelie case a few inches at a time towards the check-in desk.

At last you gain the desk and an unsmiling, efficient check-in clerk who scrutinises your paperwork in a brusque way and affixes labels to your case, now lolling on the scales before you bid it goodbye-praying that you may meet again at your destination.

Lightened of your burden, you join the next queue for another shuffle to be relieved of your belt, your shoes and your dignity as you are scanned and deemed non-threatening enough to fly. You are then released into the cavernous shopping outlet that is the departures lounge and set about filling the hours until the flight leaves in the most painless fashion achievable. For some this means an early start in the ‘English pub’. For others a swoop into the retail outlets.

You are called to the ‘gate’. You travel endless corridors on a moving belt. Your documents get another perusal. You wait for your seat number to be called. You walk down a ramp, along another corridor, through a hatchway into the metal tube that is your conveyance. You are greeted by the handmaidens and handmen who are to minister to you. You locate the seat and shoehorn yourself into it, fasten the belt, plug in to the entertainment, eat everything they give you, sleep a bit, get stiff, hot, yawn a lot.

You arrive. Has it been worth it? Actually yes-we are in Barbados!

Oil or Nothing

On the face of it to us proles, it seems like a wonderful, unexpected gift that oil prices have fallen to such an extent. We take our vehicles to the pumps and Whoopee! The price of filling up to the brim has dropped like a brick in a mine shaft.

It doesn’t stop there. Prices of things, dependent on transport costs are also down. Hoorah! Rejoice! This leaves more cash in the pocket. We can travel further, travel more often, buy more stuff, throw old stuff away, make journeys we don’t need to, buy new, bigger vehicles and use more fuel. This is all marvellous…isn’t it?

Actually, while I am as pleased as anyone else at how cheap it has become to fuel the car, I have to confess to feeling uneasy about the falling petrol prices. Yes, we are all enjoying the benefits, but when the price of petrol and oil was prohibitive who didn’t rein in accordingly? There can be few ordinary people who didn’t count the cost of superfluous journeys or make other, thriftier arrangements for regular travel. During a particularly expensive period of fuel prices and shortages when I was still travelling for work I car-shared. Since then I’ve made every attempt to get to places by bike or on foot.

During the recession people bought less ‘stuff’. They made do. They decided they didn’t need the gargantuan flat-screen TV, the new Land Rover or the bespoke kitchen. They could fling a colourful throw over the tired sofa, buy a cheerful rug to cover the worn carpet and make the ten-year-old hatchback do the school run a bit longer. It was bad news for the retailers of course, but if it had continued, wouldn’t new, re-conditioning industries have sprung up? Years ago appliances could be repaired. Now there is no one who will mend a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner.

I’m not saying I want to go back fifty years in time. Heaven forbid! But isn’t it time we progressed past the ‘petrol-head’ stage? The car manufacturers ran out of inspiration for their ads years ago. It is time to make green, clean and mean on fuel sexy, not fast, enormous and petrol-glugging.

I know I’ve banged on about the odious ‘Top Gear’ and its moronic presenters before, but it is dispiriting that it should be one of the best-selling TV shows around the world. If the BBC can’t ditch it because of the revenue, surely it could be given a more eco-friendly slant? But now that oil is cheap this is even less likely to happen.

It has been proposed that the view that our house faces, the English Channel, should house an extensive wind farm. The forest of turbines would be visible like a distant swarm of insects from our decked balcony. It is a scenario that many cannot contemplate but myself, I would welcome the construction of the plant. We are all accustomed to electricity pylons-why not wind turbines? And after all, what alternatives are there?

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!