Monday, 31 October 2011

When I was a child...

I spoke as a child, but now that I'm adult - well, I'm pretty much still a kid at times. And what better time to be a kid than Halloween?

Never one to let work get in the way of good fun, this was me in the office today. Yes, I wore my witch's hat to work today. I confess I didn't wear it in the morning when I had external meetings, but for the afternoon it was on my head - and turning heads as people walked past, caught sight of me and laughed. Sometimes they even came back to make sure they did see what they thought they had.

To be honest, I'm not really sure why they were so surprised. I'm fairly daft at the best of times, and usually quick to give people a laugh at my expense. I don't believe in standing on my dignity - at least not when it's not really required. There are times, sure, when things need to be serious. But not all the time. And for those times, well, why not make people smile!

Anyway, it's Halloween. I've had justification to wear my witch's hat at work, without people asking why. I made people smile. What more could a girl ask for??

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Times, they are a-changin'

As I blogged yesterday, it's getting towards that time of year again - autumn, winter, cold, fog, frost, Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas, New Year, snow, and did I mention cold?

It's also when it starts getting darker and, for the UK, when the clocks revert to GMT (or UTC as it now seems to be called). Changing my clocks set my mind to thinking about how time marches on, and how it changes the things around it: - weather, seasons, light, structures, views, fine wine, good cheeses, well cured meat (I'm getting hungry now, time to stop this list...) and me!

Regular readers to this blog will know I've been working through some stuff over the last couple of years. There have been times when it's been really hard and I've wondered how I'll cope. There have been days when even just getting up in the morning and facing the world has been a trial, and I confess at times melancholy won. I have been so sad at moments that I thought I'd never laugh again.

Fortunately, those times didn't happen too often, and when they did I knew I could always rely on my amazing friends to be there for me. They have been tolerant, supportive, loving, long-suffering, cajoling, sensitive, directive, understanding. They have been there. And for that I am truly, truly grateful.

But these last few months, I've been realising that I may just have managed to develop the new me, the more confident, happy, balanced, fun-to-be-with version. The model that doesn't need constant support and reassurance to be able to function effectively, that doesn't feel less than, that is complete in itself.

It hasn't happened suddenly. In fact it's kind of crept up on me and caught me by surprise. I think it was my recent holiday that cemented the realisation. I like me. I like my own company and I think I'm fun to be with. I like other company too, but I don't need it. I don't just cope or get by without it anymore, I live and love life as I find it and as it is. I no longer feel a let down at the end of a great evening out with friends when I go home to my (solo) flat and close the door on the world. I'm left with the happy glow, not the desperation of loneliness. I smile to myself more now. And I think I'm probably the better to know for it!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not happy all the time. I have bad days as well. But they're bad days like we all get - stuff going wrong, frustration, mistakes and cock-ups. They're no longer dark thunder clouds in my life, now they seem to be pretty much just a passing shower. I can carry an umbrella for that!

I still value my friends. My days are undoubtedly happier and more fun because of them. They add to the quality of light, love and laughter, and I wouldn't be without them. But hopefully it's less of a one-way street for them these days, that they feel there's some give and not just take from me, that they can remember again why we are friends in the first place.

So, yay me! Yay you! And thanks... xx

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Fall back

Approach Of Winter by William Carlos Williams
The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden. 
 I guess we're getting to that time of year again. Enjoy your extra hour's sleep tonight!

Friday nights are...

...cocktails night! Or at least they have been since the awesome Just Frances has been in town.

And tonight was no exception. We spent the evening, after a homecooked meal back at Frances new flat, down at the Junk Rooms - drinking delicious decadent cocktails, browsing the owner's new, old book purchases and generally just having fun.

A great way to spend the evening, and one which I'd seriously recommend any time you're in Stirling. Doesn't have to be a Friday night either. But if you're going to drop by, don't forget to give Frances and me a shout and we'll join you there!

And if that doesn't entice you, maybe the wallpaper in the ladies' toilets will...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Food, glorious food

Another set of reflections on my recently completed Italian holiday – this time about something that was a central feature to just about all of it, the food! Apart from the hotels and the travel, it was by far the biggest expense – and believe me, not one I begrudged. I do like my food, particularly good food – I was once asked what my favourite food was and I struggled to answer, other than to say anything as long as it's good. The only thing about food – apart from tripe and boiled cabbage – that I don't like, is a bad meal. I always feel cheated if I've eaten something and it hasn't been good. Doesn't matter what it is, provided it's tasty and well cooked, I'm a happy bunny.

And this holiday has been great for that. The food, on the whole, has been excellent. It's also not been cheap. I think the fact that the pound is so weak against the Euro has something to do with it. Also, eating in predominantly tourist towns will have played a factor too. In fact the only place that had relatively cheap food was Palermo. Cheap, that is, but very very good!!

My rule of thumb on holiday is to try to eat local foods as much as possible. I research in the guidebooks what the local delicacies are and try to find them. This time round I've done pretty well – cannoli, involtini, panelle, an arancine, cassata and pasta norma to name but a few. My other rule of thumb is never to eat in a place that has pictures on the menu, to avoid the places that automatically translate the menu into 4 languages and only to have the menu fixe if it's neither of the first two things!

I also tend to try out places recommended in the guidebooks. Which is in itself a funny experience. You turn up at the place, described as being a quiet place where the locals eat, forgetting that you yourself found it in a book with a print run of several hundred thousand and therefore, you're NOT going to be the only tourist there. No wonder the staff all look a bit bemused, and generally speak very good English (and German, and French...).

The flavours this holiday have been fantastic – tomato, mozzarella, ricotta, seafood, aubergine. And bread – lots of bread. Which leads me to believe that my wheat intolerance is indeed more psychosomatic than real, or at very least, linked to stress. It's no coincidence that after the ferry trip my stomach rebelled when it had been fine for the rest of the holiday. And I'm pleased that seems to be the case, otherwise I'd have missed all sorts of culinary delights – no pizza, no lovely Italian bread, no bruschetta, no (gasp) cannoli and no torte. It would have been a completely different holiday without the wheat!!

I didn't try everything – I gave the panini con la milza a miss, and the ice cream breakfast brioche (yes, really!). I confess I did have veal – and it was lovely. In my defence, it was already dead and it would have been a waste if I hadn't eaten it. Ok, not much of a defence...

There's also been plenty of wine – not in excess, but certainly in everyday quantities. And Limoncello, my new discovery of the holiday. And Almond wine, beautiful.

And yes, I am the size of a house now and will need to get back running again fairly soon to shed some of the pounds and inches I've doubtless gained. But it was worth, oh it was so worth it!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Secret Smiles

There are many reasons for a girl to have a secret smile to herself - private jokes, funny memories, silly thoughts. I've had a few myself recently, and this is the one I thought I'd share with you. (The rest I'm keeping secret!)

I've blogged before (many times!) about my awesome friend, Frances. As regular readers will know, she's been staying with me for a month or so while she found her feet here in Scotland, where she's moved to complete a Masters programme. She's a really amazing woman, and if you read her blog you'll understand why.

She's also been a fantastic flatmate - great company, easy to live with, a kindred spirit and partner in crime, and - more importantly - really, really neat! One might say obsessively so. Not me, obviously. I would never say anything as insensitive as that - at least not the first time I met a person. So, no matter what she says, my first words to her were not - 'My, you're a bit OCD, aren't you?'. [But if I had, her reply would probably have been something like - 'You can't be OCD. You can have it, but you can't be it'.]

Anyway...while I was away on holiday recently (did you know, I went to Italy the other week?), Miss Awesome looked after the flat and Cat for me. Now, I knew, because we'd agreed, that while I was away she would change my bed for me so that I had lovely fresh clean sheets to come home to. And while I was travelling I knew, because she posted on Facebook, that she had even gone so far as to iron aforesaid clean bedlinen. What I didn't know, and am finding out on a day by day basis, is that she did some other 'neatening' for me while I was gone.

Frances has moved out into her own place now but I find myself going round the flat with a secret smile on my face as I discover yet another thing she's tidied up for me.

Wonder what it will be next?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Independent travel for dummies

Not that any of you are dummies, but you know what I mean...

A number of my friends and online buddies have commented on how envious they are of my adventure holidays, how much fun I seem to have had and how much they'd like to do it themselves. My response – what's stopping you? Don't be envious, try it for yourself. It's really not that hard.

In these days of internet, it's easy enough to sort out your travel and accommodation independently. Admittedly it can be time-consuming and going to a travel agent or booking an off the shelf package would probably be quicker but there wouldn't be as much sense of achievement, if you ask me.

There are great websites these days for those who want to do the independent travel option. For trains in Europe I swear by TheMan in Seat 61. I don't know if he really is a man or not, but the site is a veritable gold mine of information and ideas. It was on there that I learned about the great train on boat Sicily option. Need I say more? Since I don't tend to fly on these holiday adventures of mine, I don't often source flights, but a good one if you are is Skyscanner. Less restrictive than the 'all-in-one' sites and generally good value. Oh, and the best site for add-on UK rail journeys is, in my opinion, RailEasy - beats Trainline hands-down!

For accommodation, I tend to use Trip Advisor as a really good starting place, particularly now that it takes you straight to a range of bookings sites for your chosen hotel, and also has information on things to do, places to eat etc all in one handy place.

A good guidebook is the next essential, combined with a decent amount of research. Particularly, if you're a solo female traveller, it's essential that you know where you're going – what's good, what's not, what's safe and where to avoid. A good guidebook (I generally swear by LonelyPlanet) will pay dividends and often saves you cash at your destination through not needing to buy separate booklets about each place you visit. I made the mistake this time of economising on my Paris and Rome guides – never again. It's worth the initial outlay, believe me.

And if you don't want to buy them, why not check out your local library to see if they've got what you're looking for. The only downside of that is you can't write on them – and I do, lots. I mark up where I want to visit, write notes about what I've seen, and occasionally compose bits of blog posts, all in the margins of my book. It also means that when you lend it on to someone, they've got your tailor made version too. But remember, they're a guide book, not a rule book!

Perhaps not as easy as arranging the holiday, is finding the confidence to do it in the first place. I realise that if you're not used to making your own way to strange places it can be a bit intimidating. My advice would be to start small – try it out for a short break, or in a place you already know a little but want to explore more. Choosing somewhere you can speak the language is also a help – along with that other essential, a good phrase book – great for making friends and getting your haircut, as well as a few less useful things like booking a hotel room, ordering a meal and asking for directions.

Your other option is to try out a group holiday that involves travel, preferably not by coach as that doesn't really get you the real adventuring spirit, or if you don't like the idea of groups of strangers (and I'm with you on that one), why not see if you can find a like-minded friend who wants to try it out too. Having company can be great, particularly if you both pledge to push the boundaries and not allow the other to fall too far back into their comfort zone.

My other essential on this type of break is a way of staying in touch with friends and family. For me it's Wifi and my trusty netbook. It allows me to email, Facebook and – in case you haven't noticed – blog incessantly. I always carry a pen and (old fashioned paper) notebook with me when I'm out and about during the day, as well as my camera to capture the sights, and you'll frequently find me composing blog posts – either in my head or straight into my notebook. There something about thinking about how you'll describe a place to others that makes you look at it with a closer eye and sometimes from a slightly different perspective. For the same reason, it can be good to put your camera down every now and again, and just see what's in front of you instead of photographing it. Often the most amazing sights make the worst pictures – they're frequently too big to take in one go, or the light isn't good enough, or it can just be that it's the whole package of sights, sounds, smells and even tastes that makes the memory, not just the picture.

Another defence mechanism that's worked for me in the past has been my iPod. It can be great for creating a bubble around you of 'safe space' that means you don't have interact with anyone, yet can be entertained at the same time. A word of warning, however, don't use this option in an area where you need to be alert to your surroundings - busy roads, dark streets, etc. 

Equally, I tend to book my travel and accommodation in advance at the moment. I'm not quite confident enough when travelling solo to go completely with the flow. Perhaps that's my next travel challenge? But whatever your safety net, don't feel bad about having one. Holidays may be adventures, but they're also meant to be enjoyed – so whatever it takes...

And if you do decide to take on the independent travel challenge, be sure and let me know about it and how you get on!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Coming Home

So, it's done. All over. Finished. Finito. This time had to come, there was no getting away from it, and now my most excellent adventure has ended, I'm back home.

Coming home was sweetened by two things this holiday - the first was that I decided to come home in stages. Not as in parts of me by mail by instalment, but as in breaking my journey on the way back - of which more shortly. The second was that my awesome temporary flatmate, Frances met me off the train in Stirling. It would have been better if she recognised me when she saw me. It was only 2 weeks after all, but it's the thought that counts... (Just kidding, Frances, it was really lovely of you to be there to welcome me home)

I've already blogged about my pit stop in Paris, so tonight it's time to tell you about my overnight in London.

I arrived off the evening Eurostar from Paris to find, sadly, that the Tube wasn't running on the Victoria line, and that was, sadly, just the very line I needed to get to my hotel. I decided to walk it instead because - you know - 'it's not that far'. Wrong! It is. It's very far, particularly when you're lugging a large bag. At night. After days of travelling.

But enough complaining. It was actually fine, and good to stretch my legs after the train journey - although, to be fair, I had been walking round Paris already for much of the day. The hotel was easy enough to find, my room was possibly the smallest of the entire holiday, certainly the shortest - being an attic room. And the meal (and drink) I ordered from room service was by far and away the most expensive of the whole trip - but heck, it was my last night away from home and I was going to enjoy it.

After a reasonable night's sleep, I woke earlier than I'd expected - not early enough to take up the lovely Amber's offer of a home cooked breakfast a sa maison, but with enough time to go out for a wander in the still quiet streets of the capital. And wander I did - I felt like I was starring in a game of Monopoly: Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Picadilly, Park Lane, Mayfair, Hyde Park.

It was a beautifully sunny morning. The leaves had started to turn golden red, and against my expectations I found beauty in a city I've always found a bit too intense for me in the past. I also found beauty in the detail of the buildings I was passing. It's not just Paris, Rome and Palermo that have fascinating vistas and quirky features. I found them in London as well, and as long term readers of the blog will know, I regularly find them in Stirling too. It is true, I don't need to be on holiday to partake of BBPs!!

Anyway, I finished my wander with a walk along Great Portland Street, home of the BBC and I was able to pay homage to my constant companion of travels in the form of the BBC online, BBC Radio iPlayer and BBC World Service. With the joys of the internet, wherever I travelled I could keep in touch and up-to-date courtesy of them - even if listening to Good Morning Scotland's travel reports while planning my day's activities in Palermo could be a bit surreal at times!

And then it was time to catch the train - of which journey least said the better. Other than I have clearly been spoilt by my European train experiences. Still, it left and arrived on time - miraculous for a Sunday - and then I was back in Stirling, eating curry with Frances and boring her with all the tales of my exploits.

Little wonder then perhaps that she moved out today! But that's a whole different story and best told by the woman herself.

So now, here I am. Home from holiday. Back to reality tomorrow I guess, but even though it's ended I've still got my memories - and my photos - and my blogposts. And time to start planning the next one.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A plus to D minus

I like blogging about my holiday as I'm experiencing it – in part because it keeps it fresh in my mind and in (large!) part because it stops my Mum from worrying about me travelling on my own. But it's also good, at the end of it to spend some time thinking about the holiday as a whole and reflecting on the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly.

So here goes:

The good – it's hard to pick out the good bits on their own. In reality, the whole holiday has been fantastic and I've enjoyed it very much. I think even more than I thought I would. My solo travel confidence has grown ten-fold from last year, and in itself that's been a highlight of the holiday.

But as for things I've done and places I've seen, in no particular order, the highlights have been:
  • the food
  • the Sicilian matriarchs who shared my train journey from Rome to Sicily
  • Palermo – all of it
  • Monreale
  • standing on the roof of St Peter's in Rome
  • Limoncello
  • Trying to speak Italian, and finding that I can get by
  • Scoring free food and drinks from sentimental waiters
  • my cabin on board the Palermo-Genoa ferry
  • the almost personal tour of the Teatro Massimo, and my nameless Irish companion
  • Cafe Spinnato in Palermo
  • Paris – the whole experience, including getting completely lost and ending up at Place de la Bastille instead of Rue Monge

Sadly, it's not all been great. There have been a few scary moments, and some ugly times. But fortunately, they've been few and far between. And even better – quickly resolved and easily got over.

For the record, they were:
  • Catania bus station – Dante would have added a 10th circle if he'd been there, I'm sure
  • Genoa ferry terminal, and not being able to find a taxi – at night. On my own.
  • Genoa railway station – the 4 armed police arresting the drunk with the knife was not a pleasant experience
  • the creepy old Sicilian guy who kept rubbing himself up against me on the bus to Monreale – seriously, I wasn't imagining it. Every time I moved, he followed me. Euch!
  • The tourists in Rome – did I say yet that I didn't like them?!
  • Falling over in Taormina and seriously brusing my bum – and my pride. Out of interest, the bruise is now the exactly the same shape as Corsica, but fortunately not the same size – it only feels that way
  • Not being able to visit everywhere and see everything I wanted to – mainly through lack of time, occasionally through lack of confidence.
  • Not eating at that restaurant in Rome that was recommended to me – it looked really good but I wasn't confident enough to stay out late enough for them to start serving. But, I scored a free Limoncello at the alternative restaurant I went in its place, so not all bad!
And there you have it, a quick resume of the past 2 weeks. Well, not really. If you really want to know all the gory details, and have got a spare few hours, take me out for a drink and I'll tell you ALL about it. If you're really lucky I'll bring the holiday photos too...

And for the last time (this year at any rate) – Ciao!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Paris? Parfait!

Mais tres tres froid!

So, it's been the last day of my holiday proper – there's still an overnight in London and the train journey back to Scotland to do, but today was the last day free for adventuring. And, once again, I've had great fun. Are you surprised? Thought not.

The hotel was the same one I stayed in on my way out at the start of my holiday. When I arrived last night, it was like coming home. I was back on the 6th floor, with a (marginally) bigger room this time, but more to the point, with a rooftop view of the Latin Quarter where I was staying. It felt great.

My plans for today were to head for the Musee d'Orsay, fill my socks with art and culture and then see what was left of the day for sight-seeing. But the best laid plans and all that – the museum staff were on strike! I timed my arrival for just after what should have been opening time, only stopping briefly for a cafe espresso en route but when I arrived instead of the open doors, I was met with a disgruntled line of visitors all milling around trying to work out what to do. Me? Well, I got my camera out, took a few photographs of the fascinating surroundings and the building, and got my trusty guidebook out to look for alternative entertainment. Part of my entertainment, I confess, was watching the other visitors steadfastly queuing to get in, despite all the signs advising of the strike, certain that if they waited long enough and in sufficient numbers, the workers would see the error of their ways and open the doors. I don't think it happened, and I certainly didn't hang about to find out.

The only problem was – it was really really cold in Paris this morning. There was a misty cloud settled over the city and with it a crisp fresh wind. Before long, my little fingers were like blocks of ice and my nose had turned its usual winter Rudolph colour. The frozen fingers were a real handicap. I had started enjoying myself with the camera – taking lots of detail shots, quirky features and overlooked perspectives. What a previous partner would have called my BBP shots – Becca's Boring Pictures! But as the cold got to me, my fingers refused to obey and the shutter button got harder and harder to find. There was nothing for it but to find somewhere indoors and warm up. And don't you know it, the closest indoor place was a shopping mall – damn, what a tragedy! 

I spent about an hour wandering round, bought a few more layers, a scarf and a pair of gloves, and then headed off for the next round of girl v. city. Before long I found the Batobus stop and hopped on board. For those who don't know, the Batobus is the cheap version of the Bateaux mouche that ply their way up and down the Seine, fleecing the tourists – sorry, providing quality touristic experiences of Paris.

The Batobus is the water borne equivalent of the Open Top bus tours – hop on, hop off all day – and a great way of seeing the city from a different angle. I hopped on long enough to get me to Ile St Louis, where I promptly hopped off again, found a bistro and settled down to tuck myself round a 3 course, 2 glass of wine lunch – my first ever bistro meal in Paris. The only time I’ve been before – when it was also Baltic as I remember – my then travelling companion insisted in eating in, of all places, Macdonalds the entire time. So it was with great relish that I whiled away a good couple of hours in a pretty side street near Notre Dame.

Back on the Batobus for the afternoon, a trip to the Eiffel Tower – where I hopped off long enough to take a few (?!) photos, marvel at the length of the queue and hop back on for the return trip to Jardin des Plantes and a short walk back to my hotel. From there it was the Metro, Gare du Nord and the Eurostar back to London.

As I waited at Gare du Nord, I couldn't quite believe it had only been 2 weeks previous that I'd got off the train from London at the start of my adventure, little knowing exactly what was in store for me. Have I enjoyed it? Immensely. Was it easy? Much of it was, but not all. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

Tune in tomorrow for my highs and lows, gold stars and D- moments. You know you want to... I only hope you've enjoyed reading about my travels as much as I've enjoyed writing about them. If not, I guess there's not really anyone left to apologise to!!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Choices and consequences

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

The Road Less Travelled
Robert Frost

Heading home

But not quite yet!

When I booked this holiday, I decided that this year I would do it all without flying. Which means a lot of time travelling there and back. One way to do it would be all in one go. But I decided that I might as well make it part of the holiday, so on the way down I broke my journey in Rome for a couple of days and on the way back I'm overnighting in Paris, with a full day exploring before I catch the evening Eurostar back to London. 

There have also been a couple of overnight stops en route – Paris on the way out, Ventimiglia last night and Saturday night (to come) in London. But to be honest, it's all been worth it for the extra experience. While the ferry on Wednesday was to get me back from Sicily, it was also an adventure in its own right – and some of it even in a good way! And the train journeys have, on the whole, been extremely picturesque.

Take today's for example – leaving Ventimiglia just as the sun had risen we wound our way alongside the Mediterranean for a good couple of hours. The light was dancing on the sea to my left and warming the already honey coloured stone of the houses on my right. It was a soft, kind light that made me think of Impressionist paintings and lazy summer afternoons. It also made me think that this might be a good place to explore on a future adventure. Not the built up areas of Nice, Cannes or Monaco – but the smaller villages and towns in between. 

[On which note, I am claiming a new country for my list after today's journey – Monaco! Ok it was only the train station, but I was still there and it still counts!!]

After the Cote d'Azur, we turned our faces inland and took a route through Provence, site of a previous fabulous holiday almost at the very start of my exploring days as a student. The white limestone and bauxite hills shone like teeth above the brown green fields. Picking up speed we headed for Aix en Provence (which you couldn't see from the train) and Avignon (which you could), and then at full tilt we raced towards Paris. Provence to Paris in just over 4 hours – now that's fast!

Arriving in Paris in the late afternoon - to somewhat fresher temperatures than I've been used to of late -  I followed my plan and went for a wander in the Ile de la Cite and Ile St Louis. The setting sun was just hitting Notre Dame and it looked spectacular. There will be lots of photos to look at on my Flickr photostream, but not tonight - the internet connection here is way too slow to attempt uploading them!

The fresher temperatures meant that before long I was chilled to the bone and chocolat chaud and crepes were called for, followed by a glass of vin rouge and some olives. All partaken in a lovely salon de the just next to Notre Dame from which I could watch the sun set behind the buildings, the Pantheon catching the last of the evening's rays - and then as darkness fell, Paris lit up. Beautiful! 

Even though I was too tired to go for the authentic bistro supper I had planned, I've thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon/evening in Paris. I'm planning on hitting Musee D'Orsay tomorrow, and finding that bistro for a cosy lunch instead of tonight's supper. I may just be forced to have another verre du vin too!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Ignorance isn't bliss, it's just plain dumb

Now that I'm leaving Italy, I realise – with some shame – how little I actually knew/know about the place, its history and its people. For example, it wasn't until I was leaving last night on the ferry that I realised where Malta is (I know Malta isn't Italy but it's indicative of my lack of knowledge, embarrassingly!).

I've managed to visit Italy during its 150th birthday celebrations. It was in 1861 that Garibaldi lead the unification of Italy (including Sicily) into one nation state. Before that, I think, it was a series of principalities and small states. It took me some time to realise that the banners I kept seeing everywhere we're celebrating this fact. And even longer to remember that it was Garibaldi who was responsible. I now understand why there are so many streets dedicated to Vittorio Emmanuele – he was their first king. I'm not so sure who Cavour was, but there are lots of streets to him too. [Note to self: remember to look that up on Wiki when you're next online.]

I'd also never put together that Sicily played a significant role in the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Hamilcar and Hannibal both battled over the island. I seem to remember references in the set book passages we had to translate in O Grade Latin. Having been to Tunisia (Carthage, I think?) and now Sicily has brought a bit more to life. Of course, visiting Rome should have done the same, but it was just so full of tourists and tourist tat that it was hard to see beyond it. (Have I mentioned at all, that I didn't like Rome much?!)

As well as Rome and Carthage battling over the island, it seems to have been the target of a huge number of other invaders. Perhaps not surprising, given its prime location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean? Amongst these invaders were – the Greeks, the Turks, the Spanish, the French, the Germans, the Allied Forces towards the end of WWII and now, it seems, waves of hopeful emigrants from North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent – if the media is to be believed, many of them illegal. No wonder then, that the island is such a hotch potch of different cultures, cuisines and traditions. Each of them brought and left a little something, which all put together makes Sicily what it is today.

I would highly recommend a visit to this wonderful island. Don't miss out Palermo despite what everyone says. If you do, you'll miss an important element of what Sicily is. If you don't like edge to your holidays, however, don't stay long – it won't be for you. Head off instead to the seaside towns and hill top villages, visit the remnants of the various civilisations to populate and create the place and – above all – forget any notions of diet and enjoy the food! It's what I'll be doing when I come back next time.

Life on the ocean wave

My latest mode of transport on this great adventure of mine has been a boat – a ferry to be precise, but not any ferry I recognise. This is really quite plush – although if you look closely, I think you'll find it is still just, after all, a ferry. It's just one that people have to spend an extended period of time on, so the facilities are a little more luxurious than the greasy spoon caf├ęs you'll find on most CalMac Hebridean ferries.

I realised, as I was waiting to board last night – feeling a little bit lost and lonely next to this huge boat and without much sign of what you were supposed to do – that it's been about 23 years since I last travelled as a foot passenger on a ferry. In fact, it may well be about 23 years since I last travelled on a ferry full stop. It's certainly a long time since I travelled any distance on one. 23 years ago, it would have been a short hop Channel one to get me and my travelling companion to Paris for onward connections to the Rhone valley and Provence. That was a fantastic trip – lots of lazy sunny days, a very companionable companion and some fabulous experiences and sights.

But back to this boat. When I booked, I took the added extravagance of a suite rather than just a cabin. I say extravagance, but it was actually on 10 Euros more. And I can tell you, they were 10 Euros well spent – I had a sumptious space to spend the night – full size double, nay king size, bed, a proper bathroom and, luxury of luxuries, a window. My suite was right at the front of the boat, so my window pointed exactly where we were going. I left my curtains open and was treated during the night to most dazzling stars I've seen in a long time, and then this morning by the rosy pink light of dawn.

We left Palermo at around 11 pm. When I got up this morning at around 9 am we had already reached Rome. Thinking that couldn't be right, I looked again at the map and realised we were only really half way there. It's 700km from Palermo to Genova – that's one heck of a long way!!

According to the announcement, the sea conditions were 'wavy' today, which I think might mean slightly choppy – but you would barely know we were on water. The boat is so big that it just takes it all in its stride. However, I suppose it is the Mediterranean after all – which is really just a big lake with an opening at one end – and it's never going to be particularly rough. Mind you, when you look out the window and all you can see is, well, sea, it doesn't feel that small.

We are due to arrive in Genoa at around 7pm. My onward train to Ventimiglia is at around 9pm. So just enough time to get to the station, find something to eat and prepare to leave Italy altogether. Tomorrow is TGV to Paris for an evening and a day there. I've already picked out what I want to do – Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite generally, supper on the Left Bank and then Saturday at Musee d'Orsay and a Batobus trip up and down the Seine, with perhaps a visit to la Tour Eiffel if there's time before I board my evening Eurostar back to London – and reality.

Has that really been 2 weeks already? I must start planning my next adventure – any suggestions, anyone?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

No mean city

Well, my time in Sicily is ending. I'm on board the boat to Genoa and it sets sail very soon. Internet connection will be limited, and very expensive so I'm going to have ration myself. This will therefore be a photo-less, link-less post until I get the chance to edit and update it back on dry land! Please bear with me, normal service will be resumed in due course.

Rather than try to pack too much into my last day in Sicily, I forewent the opportunity for an out of town excursion and decided instead to leave the day free for aimless wandering. Not entirely aimless – I had three objectives in mind. And I achieved all three of them, I'm pleased to say. But I'm racing ahead...

Unfortunately, I'm not quite in tune enough with Palermo yet to be able to know where the best places to just sit and savour the atmosphere so most of the day was spent on my feet. I did find a couple, however – in front of the fantastical confection of Norman, Arab, Gothic splendour that is Palermo Cattedrale, and catching the evening sun (and skateboarders) in the Piazza Politeama. But even with all the walking, it's been a great day – and a great end to a fabulous visit in this most surprising of cities.

I confess, as regular readers will know, I did have misgivings about coming here. Everyone I spoke to, every guide book I read seemed to warn against Palermo. There were sharp intakes of breath and raised eyebrows, suggestions of alternative places to go and looks of pity when I explained I'd already booked my hotel. But I'm really glad I stuck with my plans and came here. It's been by far the best bit of the holiday, and I definitely want to come back to this wonderful, shabby, gritty, tumble-down, lively, beautiful city.

Sitting in front of the Cattedrale today, with the late afternoon sun warming the honey coloured stone, I was amazed at how tranquil it actually was – if you ignored the backdrop roar of the traffic inches from my back that is. If this were Rome, there would have been hordes of tourists – and those who prey on tourists – all around me. I would barely have been able to move for tours, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to take my time to enjoy the place at my own pace. I know it may be sacrilegious, but I wish I'd given Rome a miss and spent more time in Sicily. I've enjoyed it far more!

The morning was a strange juxtaposition of everyday life – in the form of Mercato del Capo, and high society – in the form of the grand opera house, Teatro Massimo. The Mercato was very down to earth and very real, no dispensations or accommodations for tourists. In fact my shoes probably still have a slight whiff of fish about them from the run-off from the melting ice. Sadly, I don't have any photos to share of the market – it was so everyday that it felt intrusive and wrong to take photos, so I didn't. You'll just have to take my word for how lively and colourful it all was. The only photos I did take were of a stunning church that just appeared in my line of sight between 2 stalls and the maelstrom of the market. Beautiful stuccos and frescos right there amid the chaos and the clamour.

I wandered at will, taking whichever street seemed most interesting at the time and not really caring where I ended up, trusting my feet and Palermo to see me safe to the other side. It reminded me of a game Mum and I used to play when we were out in a strange place in the car. We'd drive to a junction, choose a direction at random and see where it took us. Truly, there and back to see how far it was.

Wandering the market like that took me through all its departments – food, homewares, toys, haberdashery, clothes. It really is true that Palermo residents live their lives in the open.

And then it was time to visit the Teatro. I'd been in the morning to take the tour and was advised to come back 'after 12' because rehearsals might have stopped by then and I would be able to see the auditorium. They hadn't, but I think that was probably a good thing – firstly, there were only 2 of us on the tour so it was like a personal visit, and secondly, we got to hear what it would be like to go to a performance there. It truly is an amazing place – as stunning from the inside as it is from the outside - and the sound was bellissima. It's the 3rd largest in Europe, apparently – after Paris and Vienna, and has the most enormous stage, a magnificent Royal Box, a roof that opens to let in light and air, with the sections designed to look like petals opening in the sun, and – just because the architect could – a perfect echo chamber in one of the salons.

My tour companion was a kindred spirit, solo traveller from Ireland. I never did catch his name but his company was great for the tour – and for the world's slowest queue while we waited to buy our tickets. It was lovely to have someone to chat to, but I'll be honest, my only regret when I said goodbye to him outside the theatre was that I hadn't recommended more places for him to visit. I've really grown to enjoy my solo travelling. There are times when it would be good to have a companion – like tonight, waiting for the ferry to board and not being sure if I was in the right place or not, or when there's something truly amazing to point out, or even just to be able to visit that slightly out-of-the-way destination with the added confidence of someone else there too. If I do travel with a companion again, it will need to be someone who is equally happy to share experiences and to strike out alone on occasions. And if I do, I will need to work hard not to lose the self reliance and independence I’ve discovered in myself these past few holidays. Not be scared to go it alone at times, and to have the company as a bonus, not a crutch.

But, the boat leaves soon and I have a forward facing cabin to watch the view from. So I'll sign off for now.

Arrivederci Sicilia – because I will be back...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Girl v. City - Round 2

After yesterday's successful walking encounter with Palermo, there was every chance that today would fall flat on its face. It didn't, however, I'm glad to say - the tour bus did, but that's another story.

After braving the pavements and guiding myself round Palermo yesterday on foot, today I opted for the open top bus tour to see what else I could learn about this fascinating city. The answer, somewhat surprisingly and gratifyingly, was not much actually. I had wondered whether I should have done the bus tour first and then walked the city to explore more fully once I'd got my bearings. But the bus route, constrained as it was to the more major streets, barely scratched the surface of the place - even less so than these tours normally do. I would have been no more confident after the bus tour than I was anyway. Diving in was definitely the right approach - it allowed me to be seduced by the city, instead of just learning to tolerate it.

The streets in Palermo, even the main ones are - on the whole - fairly narrow affairs. Negotiating a bus along them would be tough at the best of times, but in amongst the frankly terrifying Palermo traffic, it's nothing short of a miracle. I thought the traffic in Rome was mad, but here it takes on a whole new level of psychosis. It seems to come from all directions at once, even one way streets aren't. And the areas pedonale, well, they're the most dangerous of all. I'm rapidly learning that signs in Italy, whilst extremely stern, are entirely advisory. Or so it would seem.

But back to the bus tour. That the bus manages to thread its way through the traffic, as I said, is amazing. That it does so without incident would be nothing short of miraculous. So, no surprise then, that the bus I was on managed to rear-end a car during our tour. There was much gesticulating and shouting, and then everyone went back on their way again. To be fair, the guy in the car was clearly at fault - he had a whole 10 cm in front of him of unused road space, what did he expect?!

The other effect of the narrow streets is that when you're travelling on an open top bus, you feel like you could just stretch out your hands and touch both sides at once. Unfortunately, this doesn't really come out in a photo so you'll just have to take my word for it.

So, did I see anything new? Yes and No. As I've already said, I don't think I got to Palermo any better than I'd already started to do. I did, however, find some new places and get some new impressions of places I'd already passed. Today's discovery was Monreale - a hilltop cathedral and small town just outside Palermo. Built to rival the Cathedral in Palermo itself, the simple Norman outside belies the glittering and simply dazzling interior - almost the entire inside is covered in the most beautiful mosiacs, telling almost the entire story of the Old and New Testament. Even 3 showings for Rebecca, the loyal (stop laughing!) wife of Isaac, and mother of Jacob. And an exceedingly grumpy looking Eve, post eviction from Eden.

What else? I saw the Villa Malfitano and Castello Zisa - maybe for another trip. I also saw Mercato Del Capo, that's for tomorrow, along with a tour of the Teatro Massimo and lunch at Casa Del Brodo. And then it's the overnight ferry to Genoa and the start of my homeward journey - via Paris and London.

Enough for tonight. This post has taken far longer to write than it should have. Hope you enjoy it!

On getting by

I like to think I can get by in a number of languages, and I always like to at least try to say a few words in the language of the country that I'm visiting. I'm ashamed to say that other than Skol, I failed on that one in Sweden, but most of the time I'm pretty good.

But the more I travel, the more I realise that all I do is get by. I manage, I cope. I can order a drink and a meal, I can buy stuff in shops, and - on a good day - I can ask for, and sometimes even understand, directions. But beyond that I struggle. Responses often floor me, and if I'm not expecting to be spoken to, my ear takes far too long to tune in to what's been said, and by then it's too late for a response. Witness the poor man at the bus stop this morning who only asked me where I was from, but I didn't realise until 10 minutes later and it seemed a bit much to seek him back out and say, I'm from Scotland, you know!

Therefore, while day to day transactions can take place, conversations aren't really an option. You need two people exchanging comments, thoughts and ideas for a good conversation - can I have a glass of red wine and how much does it cost, plus a fair amount of miming doesn't really cut it. The ideal, and probably quite amusing, arrangement might be to find a local who wants to practise their English - they could speak English, I could speak Italian, neither of us would really understand, but it would be great fun.

My favourite phrase of this holiday as I force myself to try out my Italian is, Como se dice in Italiano? Actually, I lie. My favourite phrase of the holiday is un bicchiere di vino bianco, per favore. But the Come se dice one comes a close second, ok after un cafe espresso, per favore.

I do try to speak Italian as much as possible - or, at least to use Italian words and phrases, a lot of pointing and the occasional bit of miming. Usually it's just when I'm feeling tired or vulnerable, or need absolute accuracy, that I resort to English in totality.

I've been immensely helped in this, not just on this holiday but over the years, but the collection of phrase books I've amassed. They really are invaluable. But I don't know if you've ever noticed what fun they can be. All phrase books have a similar layout - essentials, meeting and greeting, getting around, eating, sightseeing, booking a room, and - my personal favourite - making friends. Yes, the compilers of phrase books are obsessed with introducing you to foreigners, completely forgetting the fact, that as noted above, once introduced you're not exactly going to be able to entertain with sparkling wit and conversation. But then a closer look at the choice of phrases might help to explain - hello, are you on your own, my wife and I would like you to join us - ok. I swear phrase books are compiled by frustrated swingers - don't believe me, pick up any phrase book and have a look!!

The other thing that phrasebooks seem to be be particularly interested in is helping you get your hair cut wherever you are in the world. The Berlitz compilers do their best to ensure that wherever you go, you'll be able to ask for a short back and sides and get just that. I'm not sure why tourists need to know how to get their hair cut as an emergency, but there you are. Mind you, if you want anything specific or a bit more unusual, you'll need to be creative with your phrase book use - no pictures allowed, create your haircut using only the phrases to be found in the pages of Berlitz - numero due tutto?  a forma ciotola? un perm del barboncino?

Ciao bella - off to find the perfect trattoria. Anyone wanting to know what I actually did today will need to tune in later...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Going solo

Travelling solo can be great fun. It can be a real adventure. You don't have to cater for anyone else's tastes and you can go at your own pace. If you change your mind, you can just change your plans without needing to negotiate a compromise. If you don't fancy the must see sights at a particular destination, you don't need to be bothered with them. You are your own constraint and your own freedom.

But it can have it's down-side too. There's practical things like not being able to have the special dish (for 2 people minimum), like not being easily able to explore the further flung locations because you're on your own and it's just not safe enough, like not being able to savour the full city experience of a place after dark. There's also emotional things like not having anyone to share your discoveries with, to laugh at the misunderstood phrases, to wonder at the arrogance of your fellow tourists, to help find that well hidden gem that's just off the beaten track, to reassure that it will be alright.

Would I prefer to have company on my holidays? On the whole, yes I probably would. Am I picky about who that company is? Absolutely. I felt myself react with horror to the suggestion of booking a group tour some time. Me, and a whole group of strangers? Having to get along with each other? What a nightmare! But equally, the right person might just be the icing on the cake for the amazing adventures I have on my own.

But until then, I'm not going to let it stop me. I'm going to keep travelling, having adventures, seeing little bits more of the wonderful world that we're lucky to have. And I'm going to keep sharing it with you, my virtual companions, my fellow travellers, my friends.

All life is here

Wow, what an amazing city Palermo is. I wouldn't quite say I conquered it today, it's much too complex for that. But I dived in, I experienced it, I survived. And, can I just say, I loved it too!! I didn't think I would, but I did. I'm so glad I opted not to take the open top bus sightseeing tour today (that's saved for tomorrow) and to head out on foot instead. There was so much to see and experience, it kept me going all day and I finally feel a little bit more at ease in this wild, untamed city.

I decided this morning (after quite the worst breakfast of the entire holiday so far - note to self: business hotels and breakfast buffet are definitely things to be avoided in future bookings), to take the walking tour described in my trusty guidebook. By the time I stopped for a restorative coffee 2 hours in, I had already been lost about 4 times. Not lost as in, no idea at all where you are kind of lost, but not where I'm supposed to be and not really sure where that actually is anyway, kind of lost. But it was all part of the adventure, and I can safely say I loved every single minute of it. OK, the part where I couldn't find the way into the Palazzo Reale was a bit annoying, but otherwise, it was a blast!

I started off in familiar territory at the Teatro Massimo but quickly broke my own rule about empty streets by diving off - as the guidebook told me - down a fairly quiet one. I knew where it was going, the guidebook had directed me there, surely it would be ok? I confess to a momentary flutter of nerves, but I pressed on and I'm so glad that I did. Very quickly the environment changed from major city street to residential barrio - a place where real people lived and worked real lives.

Palermo is a decidedly real city. There is none of the sterile modernity you get in a lot of European urban areas. Here, even right in the city centre, are people's homes and places of work. Not office work either, workshops - people making real things for real use, not just pieces of tourist ephemera. And despite the grime and obvious poverty, it is a city that feels loved. Yes, there's litter overflowing from the communal rubbish collection points, and there's dust and broken buildings wherever you look. But there's also a sense of pride - stubborn, love or leave me, take me as I am kind of pride, but pride all the same.

Of course, heading off down the side street I immediately got lost but fairly quickly found my bearings again - the trick is to find a few landmarks (in reality or on a map) when you start, and orient yourself by them when you lose your way. But once I found my feet again (and again. And again!) I managed to wind my way round several churches in various flavours of Norman, Arab, Roccoco, Baroque and Mediaeval, a full on market, a legendary Palermo eating establishment, several palazzos, the Cattedrale, and the Sicilian Assembly building and attached Palatine chapel and Royal Apartments! Not bad for a day's walk/work.

But the biggest achievement was finding a way to love this city. I didn't think I would manage it, and I might change my mind again tomorrow. But for now, we're an item. And I'm pleased about that.

Why not have a look at my photos on Flickr and see what you think...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Travelling hopefully

As they say, sometimes the journey is part of the destination. And other times, they say better to travel hopefully than something else... Either way, I don't think either commentator had ever visited Catania bus station. It surely is one of the 7 circles of hell! Apparently they're building a new one, and if you ask me it can't come soon enough.

To be honest, during the connection in Catania, which saw me walk from the bus stop (confusingly, not in the bus station but on the street outside) to the railway station, back from the railway station, round the block and into the bus departure area - only to have to retrace my steps back round the block to find the cunningly disguised ticket sales office, and all of this in amidst the most horrendous traffic you've ever seen, I did wonder whether I'd made a huge mistake. Cars were whizzing by all over the place, an annoying taxi driver dogged my footsteps the entire time making me grip ever tighter onto my bags and it was the most squalid, flea-bitten, rubbish strewn, down at heel place I've seen in Europe ever. The only place more intimidating was in India!

But, luckily, at the bus stances two local girls took me in hand, showed me where to buy tickets, warded off the (many) beggars and made sure I got onto the right bus at the right time. I know I would have coped perfectly well without them, but it was just easier - for which, mille grazie ragazzi!

Once on the bus it was fine. The coach was luxurious and sped through the Sicilian countryside at a fair lick. We moved through areas of orange, lemon and olive groves into spaghetti western country, through hills squeezed and folded out of the earth's crust, along side barely visible rivers despite the recent downpours until finally, 2 hours later, we hit the northern coast and there was the sea again. Sparkling blue and alluring.

I was very nervous about getting to Palermo. To be honest, if I could have stayed on the coach I probably would have but that would have been no way to spend 3 days so I thought I'd better get off. Fortunately, Palermo bus station was an idyll in comparison to Catania. Next to the railway station, it was sufficiently shielded from street hawkers, beggars and over enthusiastic taxi drivers to be almost pleasant. The hotel on arrival, while somewhat strangely entered underground, is very well appointed and, it turns out, very well located too.

Palermo is ...interesting. Nowhere near as bad as I had been worried about, but still at the same time somewhat on the seedy side. I'm sure it's a lot safer than it felt, but the streets very quickly turn from wide and welcoming to narrow and frankly quite intimidating. I've been for a quick stretch of my legs to get oriented, found a lovely cafe/wine bar round the corner where I had a (very) late lunch and to which I'll probably return shortly for a light supper, and most importantly, I've found out that the tour bus leaves from just outside the hotel. So that's tomorrow sorted, and my proper orientation to what looks like being a really interesting city - even if it isn't the type of place I'll particularly want to be out and about in of an evening.

Moving on

A quick post this morning before leaving Taormina for the next stage of my adventure. In just over half an hour, I'll be leaving to head off for Palermo. This is the only bit of travel on the journey that I didn't book in advance and I'm hoping it works out ok. I've been advised to take the bus as it's much faster than the train. I think in part that's because the train winds its way round the coast, and in part because they really are old and rickety here in Sicily. I thought perhaps one of the reasons they brought the Rome train across on the ferry was because it was a posh one and they didn't want to leave it on the island. But no, it was as rickety as the other ones here. I think the Italians, like me, just love the idea of putting passengers on a train and then putting the train on a boat. I confess it was partly that experience that persuaded me to train it all the way to Sicily!!

But back to now, I'm off to Palermo. City of grit, bad driving, baroque splendour, poverty, life and cannoli. I'm really not sure what to expect. As the guidebook says, like all big cities, you just need to have your wits about you. Don't look like a tourist - suits me down to the ground!

Interestingly, the guide book also says:

"Visiting here is thrilling for what the city has to offer, but, it can also be a challenge. Traffic is horrible as cars, trucks and buses clog the narrow streets, often coming to a standstill for hours. This has caused a yellow cloud of pollution to hang constantly over the city making air quality less than desirable, covering cars and buildings with dust"

And that's the guidebook - I hate to think what the critics say!! 

But there are also plenty of sights to see and experiences (hopefully good ones) to be had. And if all else fails, I can hop on a train and take a day out to visit one of the surrounding towns or villages. Being the main city in Sicily, Palermo is well connected to most other parts - although not, it would appear, the one I'm in now! Go figure. 

I'll check in later once I get there and let you know how it really is. And in the meantime, (Mum!) don't worry, I'll be careful. I survived Rome after all....

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Rainy Days

They don't get me down.

It may have been raining. I may have walked, in what felt like 100% humidity, up a never ending flight of steps, but no, rainy days definitely don't get me down. Particularly not when I'm on holiday.

Today, to celebrate that the sun was not burning a hole in the pavement, I decided the time was right to take a trek to the neighbouring hilltop village and see what was there. Lured on by promises of a food festival, I put my best foot forward and started the walk.

Now, the words 'hilltop' and 'strenuous' should really have been a warning to me. As should the bemused looks from the locals I stopped to ask for directions. But no, on I headed - up and up, and...up! My only companions, apart from a rather mad Polish Canadian woman, were hundreds of ants - no doubt flooded out by last night's deluge. But on I went, past broken streetlamps and crumbled steps, half finished buildings and long abandoned gardens. I was starting to worry about what I would find at the top - and then I got there. And found...a confusing maze of streets leading to nowhere, or so it seemed.

Like all good hilltop towns, Castelmola is built to confuse, and it did. It took me a good 10 minutes to find my way - in what is really a very small place - to anything resembling a public open space. But when I got there, it was all worth it. Not for the view, which was absent. Well, not absent but suffering from an addition of cloud that meant you couldn't see it. But for the place itself. Everything I hoped for from an Italian hilltop settlement - nestled around its church and castle, winding streets and close built houses, it was idyllic.

And as if that - and the food festival - wasn't enough, what more could a girl ask for than to sit  supping her cappucino, eating her torte di mandorle and tasting her Vino delle mandorla (yup, it's Almond Town!) surrounded by penises! Not the idiot dunderhead kind either, the male genitalia kind. Everywhere you looked - and I mean Everywhere - there they were. Coat hooks, lampstands, beer taps, wall decorations, on the menu, on the napkin. Everywhere. Dicks, penises, wongas, knobs, john thomases - the works. All in honour of the fearsome stone minchia in the church next door - which, by the way, I looked very hard for but couldn't see.

Not even the complete soaking, or the slip on the way back down the hill leading to a jarred shoulder and a very bruised behind could put a dampener (so to speak) on it. It just goes to show, if you look hard enough, you can always find something to entertain yourself with. Ahem!