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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The Garden Birdwatch

The previous occupants of our house had two, small, yappy dogs whose favoured latrine area seems to have been the roughly triangular patch of scruffy grass in what is now our back garden. I know this because I’ve had to spend time and effort removing the evidence. In the beginning there were no bird visitors to the modest space that we call a garden, presumably due to fear of the two yappy dogs.

We’ve spent the six months since we moved attempting to lure birds back into the garden, wooing them with a fortune’s worth of tasty treats. Peanuts, mixed seeds, fat slabs, sunflower hearts, bread scraps and [their favourite] mealworms are displayed for their delectation, with the result that we now have a regular flow of tiny [and not so tiny] feathered guests to the cafeteria in the back yard, where a bird table and a contraption like a hat stand with hooks display a range of titbits.

Following the success of this enterprise I applied to do the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ ‘Great Garden Birdwatch’. This initiative exists to investigate how numbers of differing species are changing. It does not involve a terrific investment of time [one hour over the course of a specific weekend] and requires little more than observation and recording. I am, however confused. We are not asked to count the birds or to record the different species. We must record the greatest number of any given species at one time. OK. How is ‘one time’ defined? The birds are not obligingly cooperative in this respect, visiting in pairs or serially as individuals.

We settled down at our large window with sheets of paper and pens. The most frequent visitors to the feeders are great tits, an almost incessant stream of them, though rarely in numbers of more than two at a time. There is the inevitable pair of robins who are mostly enamoured of the bird table. Husband, as part of the war he is continuing to wage against squirrels has encased the open sides in wire netting which has nevertheless been breached a few times. Then there are blue tits, lumbering wood pigeons and intermittent groups of starlings.

The traffic flow was slow at the beginning but then there are flurries of frantic activity. I’ve noticed before how a mixture of species come into the space in waves, perhaps as security in numbers. I was both disappointed with the lack of some of our frequent visitors [like wrens] and delighted by the appearance of others, especially the long-tailed tits, who never deigned to visit our previous residence and a pair of chaffinches who are rarely seen.

How scientific is the exercise? The surveys can hardly be expected to be reliable, since some are bound to be a little over enthusiastic with their data. I suppose the collators must cross-check with postal codes. If I were to note that a golden eagle had entered our portals the credibility would be stretched somewhat.

But it was an enjoyable hour. If nothing else it gave us an excuse to sit and stare and [as William Henry Davies famously penned] what is this life otherwise?

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?