Posts Tagged ‘travel’

When I first became aware of the Mastermind quiz programme on television many years ago I decided that, if pressed to compete, the only thing I could possibly answer questions on would be points of the horse.

Once through to the next round, my specialist subject would have to be the only thing left in my scrambled brain at the time: how to get a baby to sleep.

I’d be eliminated at that point, not necessarily for too low a score but for falling asleep in the black chair. Yes, those were the days of baby-induced narcolepsy.

Nowadays, I’d choose a different specialist subject, but I’d have to share the chair and compete as a duo with Geoff because neither of us has a reliable memory and it wouldn’t do to fly helplessly solo in front of the terrifying John Humphrys.

Our subject would be Italy – but only the bits we know, and not too much detail about its history. We don’t need any winding up on the topic to strut our stuff interminably, tediously and to everyone’s dismay. Light our blue touch paper on, say, which region has the better weather in October, and we’re off like a pair of galloping racehorses.

Imagine our delight, therefore, when friends consulted us – by email, wisely, thus avoiding an earful – on our suggestions for an itinerary for their planned 10-day trip to Italy in May. Geoff and I rose to the challenge and gave them the benefit of our (questionable) wisdom and knowledge of a number of places.

We suggested they start in Bologna, from where they could visit Ravenna and Parma, then move on to beautiful Lucca and enjoy day trips to Florence and Siena. Finally, head down to Rome and, taking care not to stumble over the piles of rubbish that we’ve heard are currently blighting the place, indulge in a feast for all the senses in the Eternal City.

Oh, how wonderful it sounded! We emailed off our thoughts but were wise enough to add at the end, “Of course you’ll probably choose to go to Guatemala instead!”
This is because Roger and Mary rarely bother with short hops to Europe. They’re such seasoned travellers that they think nothing of disappearing every winter for three months on a round-the-world tour, always taking in south-east Asia because they are passionate ‘collectors’ of obscure temples, Australia, where they have family, and America, where they have friends from West coast to East.

There can be  few countries they have not yet visited. They ‘did’ Syria and Libya, before those now-ravaged places became off-limits. At the time, war and unrest were only a year or two away but our intrepid friends were at least safe to explore all the sights, unaccompanied, as usual.

India, China and Japan, even the more remote parts, hold no fears for them, although we and their other friends who appreciate their regular emailed travel bulletins, did offer up silent prayers when they recently returned safe and sound from Central and South America.

The world just seems very small to them, and it’s there to be explored, appreciated and, with luck, revisited.

Interestingly, both Roger and Mary had brushes with cancer some years ago and afterwards they decided to wring all the goodness out of life for as long as they could.

They’re lucky – and they know it – to have the money to finance all this glorious hedonism, but for those of us who cannot hope to emulate them, we enjoy their experiences second-hand. It saves the faff of packing, after all.


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What a difference one letter can make. The calamitous power outage that brought such chaos to British Airways flights and caused untold misery to so many thousands of passengers over several days, can also be described, with the addition of just one letter, as a power outrage.

The incident, if such a trivial-sounding word can be applied to an event of such magnitude, caused exactly that: an outrage of such power and fury that it is hard to imagine how BA can ever rebuild its reputation.

What an outrage it has been. What an absolute scandal and disaster that British Airways, which we could happily rely upon to fly the nation’s pride confidently and competently across the skies, has come to this.

And yet it need not have done. OK, so the power outage brought flights to a standstill, but BA only had to tell its passengers (I bet they’re called customers) what was going on, or not going on, and everyone would have let a little sympathy mingle with their disappointment.

What happened instead? Utter chaos, confusion and outrage. And why? Because the company was too arrogant to communicate with its punters, choosing to leave them in the dark for hours, days, while hiding behind the great excuse of our age: “computer problems beyond our control”.

We’ve all suffered from those, or those of us who have technology in our lives and who have to rely on it to work.

As soon as we heard about the BA power outage, Geoff said it would have been because someone had pulled a plug out somewhere. No large company would ever admit to that, I’m sure, but it happens.

I once worked with a young chap who decided to turn off what he thought was a heater. He was hot and the room seemed airless. He flicked the switch of the offending machine and returned to his desk.

Within seconds the entire production of a newspaper was halted as computer screens blanked out and the office fell eerily quiet.

My colleague had turned off not a heater, as he’d thought, but the server that was powering everyone’s computers.

He had no idea that his action had been the cause of the shutdown and it took the office Darren (IT chaps were always called Darren then) the whole afternoon to track down the problem.

BA must have loads of Darrens. More to the point, it must also, surely, have loads of highly paid public relations advisors and spokesmen. Big, big fail on their part.

Who would muster enough confidence now to book a flight with such a flaky outfit as BA? Someone, somewhere, has some serious brand-building to do, but that’s unlikely to be achieved by dressing a baffled CEO in a high-viz jacket and standing him in an office to give a statement.

It is hard to accept that ‘our’ British Airways, in its heyday described by its marketing department as ‘the world’s favourite airline’, is so terribly tarnished by this outrage. I’m taking it slightly personally, since I am related to the company: my niece is married to a BA pilot.

Well, he was working for them. Perhaps, now, like us, he’s feeling outraged by the handling of the outage and is thinking of pulling the plug on his employers.

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Two incidents on our journeys to and from Naples this month brought home to me the difference in the way The Young undertake travel from the way those, er, Less Young do so.

On our flight out, while Geoff alternately read, dozed and gazed out of the window, a young couple engaged me in conversation.

They were on their first visit to Italy. I learnt this because, while they demolished between them a full-size tube of Pringles crisps, they peppered me with questions.

Is it true the Italians drive on the wrong side of the road, was the first question. Yes, I said, and then froze when the girl – she was 23, I learnt later – said that they were hiring a car at Naples airport and she’d be driving into the city where they were staying for two nights.

My instinct was to shriek in alarm and say “Don’t even think about it!” because no one but a lobotomised loony with a death wish would willingly drive in Naples. It is one of the most crazy free-for-alls in the world. The joke about traffic lights being merely a suggestion is actually true in Naples. No one observes any of the rules of the road, everyone hoots the whole time, fists are shaken, tempers flare, shoulders are shrugged – and everyone, whether a driver or pedestrian, is permanently transfixed by their mobile phones so there is never any eye contact. It’s all done by feel or, more often, by bang, which is why most vehicles bear huge dents and grazes, and presumably the pedestrians too.

You need nerves of steel even to think about driving in Naples. You don’t need to be 23, on your first visit to Italy, with a boyfriend’s life as well as your own to consider, and a terrifying ignorance of how to drive on the left. “Are the pedals sort of in the same order, then?” came another question.

I invoked Geoff’s help. The most important thing, he told the girl, as she casually tipped the final crumbs of Pringles into her mouth, is to hold your nerve.

Soon after, sated with crisps and their heads full of our pleadings to be careful and not be intimidated by anything on the road, especially a lorry attached to their bumper and hooting wildly, love’s young dream slipped into a carefree sleep. Geoff and I, of course, worried about them the whole time we were in Naples.

On the return flight I settled myself into my seat with my usual battery of comforts to hand: iPad, selection of books, bottle of water and iPhone for snapping photos of Geoff asleep with his mouth wide open – I’m so childish.

The seat to my right was taken by a young man who had only a book with him. After a little judicious focusing I could see it was about starting your own business.

The book totally absorbed him throughout the flight. He really deserves to succeed if he has that amount of concentration, I thought, and no Pringles to distract him, either, much to my relief.

Later, when I’d noticed that the young entrepreneur was already striding away from the carousel with his smart piece of luggage while Geoff and I were still walking into each other trying to locate our un-smart one, I realised what a wide chasm exists between us and them – ‘them’ being the young, confident, world-at-their-feet travellers. We might have been there, done that, picked up the knowledge, but they’re discovering and learning and emphatically doing their own thing. I suppose we were like that once, though it’s hard to believe.

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Coming home from our holiday, we feel as though we’ve been away for weeks, so immersed have we been in living the life of Palermo flat-dwellers and all that entails.

Actually, while most of it entailed the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures such as sight-seeing and eating for Queen and country, the location of our flat meant that a fair amount of time was spent dodging the snarling, roaring traffic to get to the other side of the road and thence along something dangerously uneven that might once have been a pavement.

We became quite practised at it as the days went by, though we never had the courage to adopt the locals’ way of crossing the road. They step straight out into the maelstrom of traffic without seeming to notice it is even there, strolling between moving vehicles, shouting into their phones and flapping their arms.

Geoff and I were more British about it. We’d teeter on the pavement trying to catch the eye of a driver, adopt a pleading look and then hurry across while raising our hands in multiple gestures of pathetic gratitude.

As if any of the drivers cared. They had places to go, cars to bump into, scratches, scuffs and dents to inflict, kerbs to mount, buses to cut in front of, cyclists to clip and send into a spin, speed records to break, just as they do every hour of every day, while blasting their horns for the fun of it.

As city breaks go, this was one of the more frenetic. No, the most frenetic. Nothing compares. Even busy Berlin, Krakow, Prague and Amsterdam are remembered now as quiet, orderly and calm. Palermo eclipses the lot.

That said, it makes a fabulous destination for anyone, like us, who appreciates la dolce vita. You merely have to adjust your usual volume tolerance levels to excessively high and not allow yourself to be upset or depressed by any of the less savoury sights.

There is a great deal of beauty, so many stunning buildings of immense age and history, yet so many of them sit surrounded by decay and neglect. The overflowing rubbish bins and the litter are one thing, and are just about tolerable because there is the slight hope (very slight, I know) that someone will be along one day to do a big tidy-up, but the graffiti spreads all over the ancient city like some appalling rash. No surface is left unsprayed or unembellished in some way, not even the war memorials, so that after a while the eye becomes almost used to its hideous intrusion.

Come on, you want to say to the Sicilians, you have this fabulous city, its every pore oozing history, but you don’t look after it. Show some pride! Stop chucking away your heritage with your fag ends! Stop ruining those beautiful sights with your spray cans and your mis-spelt words of rebellion!

And yet, deep among all the mess, Palermo still manages to reveal its beautiful soul to us and proudly show off its many treasures. We love it for sharing so much with us, and we also love it for its friendly people, eager to chat, give directions or recommend a dish.

After 10 days as Palermitans we have returned to the tranquillity of Dorset, swapping the cacophonous sounds of a city for birdsong and church bells. It’s good to be home.

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FOR reasons that could perhaps be described as a mix of autumn madness and a sense of the ridiculous, Geoff and I have just completed a 2,655-mile drive to central Italy and back.

There was a proper purpose, I promise. We really aren’t that keen on consuming fuel unnecessarily and being sent half-demented with boredom as mile after mile of featureless tarmac unfolds in front of us, day after relentless day.

Either side of the endless roads, of course, there were views, sometimes great ones, especially in sunny, snowy Austria, and a fair few stunning landscapes to relieve the tedium in Germany, too.

Big on trees, Germany. Also big on roadworks, contraflow, diversions and mammoth earthmoving machinery. The people aren’t exactly diminutive, either, and from where I sat or, occasionally stood, I felt like a visitor from Planet Mini.

We did a tiny bit of France (avoiding the rest of the country for fear of being bankrupted by the road tolls and over-officious gendarmes), most of Belgium plus a few miles of southern Holland where it bulges unexpectedly into its neighbour, a vast swathe of Germany, an artistic diagonal across Austria, an oo-er crossing of the Brenner Pass marvelling at the engineering, and then a descent, at times literally, into the sheer madness of Italy.

Three days later, we turned round and retraced our tyre-treads. Punishing stuff indeed, but by breaking up the odyssey into days of 350-425 miles, we made it bearable and entirely doable.

We stayed in a succession of hotels, each one booked the night before so we knew our exact destination when setting off in the morning and could instruct the sat-nav with the irritating voice to deliver us to whichever front door we had chosen.

It was a system that worked perfectly, thanks to Wi-Fi connections at each hotel which enabled internet research to see where there were vacancies for the following night and which had the most favourable guests’ reviews.

Three of the six hotels – on the way down in Belgium and southern Germany, and on the way back in northern Italy – were so delightful and comfortable that it seemed a shame to be moving on so soon after breakfast.

Two others were certainly good enough to make us think we’d return if ever we should find ourselves doing such an utterly ridiculous journey again. The sixth, in Belgium on our last night before the glorious familiarity of our own bed in Dorset, was the most expensive and the least impressive.

It was only little things that let it down. For example, no smile was forthcoming at reception when we walked in, and our bedroom was like an ice-box, as though we hadn’t been expected. Someone should have been thoughtful enough to have turned on the heating.

Later, when we needed to ask the guy on reception – who turned out to be the owner – where we could eat in town because the hotel restaurant was unaccountably closed, we couldn’t find him. Eventually we tracked him down to the garden within sight of the front door where he was standing in the cold having what is colloquially termed a ‘fag break’. Charming.

I mean, it’s not rocket science, is it? Why run a business if you can’t smile, you don’t plan ahead for your guests’ comfort and you can’t cope without sneaking out for a cigarette?

Never mind, it worked a treat because it made coming home all the sweeter. The White Cliffs of Dover have never looked more majestic, more uplifting or more jolly welcoming. Job done, mission accomplished, odyssey completed. Phew.

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GETTING away from it all is something many of us have probably dreamt of these past few miserable months. Somewhere, anywhere, where the sun comes out and stays out, the daytime temperature is pleasant, and the way of life amenable enough to cause a little drift on to estate agents’ websites in one of those ‘what if’ sessions.

However, there are down sides to such indulgence, which is just as well or there’d be a stampede at the first hint of autumn and ports and airports would grind to a halt under the pressure.

The worst bit about going away is, unsurprisingly, coming back. Geoff and I have a friend who last year upped all his sticks to a Greek island, there to degenerate from early middle-age into something disgraceful and old, the epitome of the bar-stool bore with a leathery skin. Being that canny combination of bachelor and property investor, he can afford to do what he’s doing but only if he plays the wise tax avoider. This means he has to divide his time between the UK and abroad for certain periods in the first few years of his new life, to comply with the tax laws. He is currently on his first visit ‘home’ and can’t wait to get back to his island. Well, don’t we all feel sorry for him? No, me neither.

Also back in the old country this week are two London friends who splurged a lump of inheritance on a trip round the world, carefully researched and long planned, which took them to many countries where the temperatures were much warmer than here and life was altogether more comfortable.

Home again but still in a state of denial that the fun is all over, they are taking their minds off March by planning a similar escape next winter.

Meanwhile, our dear friends from Devon are home, unpacking their bags and adjusting their body clocks after three months of a most exciting adventure that saw them over-wintering in New Zealand.

Of course they’ve had a wonderful time, of course they wish they hadn’t had to come back so soon (soon? three months?) but they have been forgiving enough to find one or two positives. Well, one, in fact.

They are delighted to be reunited with their bed. Daft though it may sound, and, by their own admission, a most damning sign of their age, they have really missed their bed. Because they stayed in one place near Auckland for most of their time away it meant there was no getting away from the discomfort of the rather bumpy, lumpy and unforgiving one in their home from home, a remote farm cottage.

Mind you, their own bed must have seemed an awfully long way away even once they’d landed at Heathrow at the weekend. Their journey back to Plymouth by train was one of those that test even the most committed Anglophile, let alone two whose hearts and souls were still among the lush hills and valleys of sunny North Island.

The train took our weary travellers as far as Tiverton where they were offloaded, with their mountain of luggage, on to a coach to complete their journey to a freezing cold house. Engineering works, delays, a freezing night. They certainly knew they were back in Blighty all right.

By the next morning, after a night of broken sleep in spite of the much-missed bed, they were ready to get in the car and head off – anywhere. Except they couldn’t because the battery was dead.

As I said, coming back is the worst part.

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