Alghero and the Wonderful, Watery Caves of Neptune

The boat to the Grotte di Nettuno, off the quayside at Alghero, Sardinia is just about to leave when we make a spontaneous decision to buy tickets and get on board. There’s just enough room inside the boat’s seating area, although when we choose a seat a couple across the aisle shoo us away, which is a mystery, since nobody else takes the seat. It’s a forty-five minutes or so trip, the first part simply going out to sea but then it becomes much more interesting as we near huge limestone cliffs with interesting formations and caves.

The boat begins to pull into a bay, which has us wondering where on earth the caves can be, but it is merely stopping to pick up more passengers. Once they’re on we round a gigantic rock and into a rocky inlet. Along the cliff side there’s a tiny walkway with people clambering along it, up and down- another way to access the grotte.

Once we’re off the boat there’s a mass of tourists to buy tickets- because of course, the boat trip does not include entry to the caves. There are a lot of visitors, and very little in the way of orderly queuing but we get our tickets [and with a concession for old age. I ask the ticket seller how he knows we’re eligible and he tells me; ‘because you are nice’…]

Even in this outer part of the caves the sight is other-worldly. But as we climb the steps and begin to make our way around it’s clear these are no ordinary caves. They are magic! The stalactites and stalagmites, the columns, the pools and the reflections are extraordinary and breath-taking. And it’s extensive, the path winding round and round and sometimes we must duck and walk bent over as we wind around the caverns and pools.

We eventually emerge and there’s a boat to meet us, stopping as before to disgorge some of the passengers.

Back at Alghero, there’s little time to explore the town as we need to get our bus back to site. We’ll return next day.

In the event, the following day we wait at the bus stop opposite the site as before and wait…and wait. It’s hot. We’re on the point of giving up when a bus appears and pulls up. Hooray! But then the driver gives us a stern look and points at his face, which is partly covered by a mask, of course- masks being still obligatory here on public transport. We are wearing our masks. I point to mine, in case he is mistaking it for my face. He shakes his head. Apparently we are wearing the wrong sort of masks. Who knew? Certainly not yesterday’s bus driver. He pulls away without opening the door. We wait.

A kind Irishman, also waiting, gives us the ‘correct’ masks. Another bus comes, eventually. In the town we find the phone shop the lady at tourist info told us about and get a replacement memory card for my camera plus a SIM card for our mobile wifi device.

The old town of Alghero is quaint, though not extensive and we feel we’ve done it after an hour or two. The historic area is behind substantial walls by the port. We get our bus [without incident this time] and return to site. I have the tricky task of getting the damaged memory card out of my camera and downloading the photos into my laptop, which goes fine until I need to remove the card from the computer, when it leaves the broken part inside the slot. I do manage to remove it but clearly the slot is damaged.

Then again, the Italian SIM card does not work. Hmmmmmm…………

A Wander in West Sussex

Having regrouped from our debacle in Iceland, picked ourselves up and dusted down we opt for a modest, local jaunt in our campervan. It’s a while since we packed and prepped for such a trip so I resort to consulting our inventory list in the certain knowledge that we’ll have forgotten something. A few years ago we arrived to one of our favourite Isle of Purbeck sites to discover I’d loaded no bedding of any description, which resulted in a visit to Swanage’s one and only duvet and sheet stockists.

This March has come in like the proverbial lion, with ferocious, biting winds. At least the abortive Iceland trip was good for something, in that we amassed excellent cold weather gear. The van itself is cosy and warm- [warmer than our house!]. Also I’m reminded that the Ukrainian refugees are fleeing their war-torn country in icy, snowy conditions with their babies and all they can carry.

On our way back from Gatwick last month, the train passed through Emsworth, leading us to consider returning to have a look. It’s a modest distance from our home but not an area we’ve explored much so we’ve headed there, to a site at ‘Southbourne’, not the Southbourne, Bournemouth we moved from 5 years ago…

For our first day we wrap up well and walk down to the coast path and along to Emsworth, which is either a large village or a tiny town. It’s attractive, with a pretty harbour and not a lot else, including shopping, so I give up on the soft toothbrush I was hoping to pick up [having- yes- neglected to pack mine]. We get a coffee outside a small harbourfront cafe, sitting in a sunny, sheltered spot then it’s a short bus ride back to Southbourne.

Next day we opt for a visit to Chichester, accessed by a bus ride in the opposite direction. On the bus a single, portly, mature man feels the need to chat, starting with harmless remarks about bus stops and gradually progressing to rants about his pension, his dentist, his rent and why doesn’t everyone vote Conservative, at which point I no longer feel able to nod and murmur and I’m praying for his stop to be soon, please…When he gets up to leave the bus the woman who’d sat behind him is moved to tell me ‘Well that’s lucky…’ I also noticed that Husband, who’d been lucky to have taken the window seat, had found the passing countryside totally absorbing throughout the man’s diatribe.

We alight right beside Chichester’s magnificent cathedral but don’t enter as a recital is taking place. Instead we walk through the cloisters with their barrel-vaulted ceilings and the close- all very scenic. Then it’s a stroll of the streets and a quick look in a gallery or two. It’s a beautiful city with many historic pieces of architecture, including a wonderful market cross. There’s just time for a look at the Bishop’s Palace Gardens before we head back and the garden is extensive, although it’s too early in the year for many colourful displays.

The return bus is full to the gunnels, mostly with schoolchildren who act just exactly as you would expect groups of adolescents to-

Then we’re off to the pub, just a step along the road, for a very acceptable meal. We’re gearing up to move on to the next site in the morning…

Australia: The Long, Hot Road South

We were on the next leg of our Australian Odyssey, travelling by bus, a seven hour road trip. In the previous post I described how our driver made what could have been a tedious and tiring journey a fascinating and enlightening seven hours by sharing stories and radio clips as well as entertaining facts. The beginning of our drive was early- and dark, meaning that visibilty was limited and as the driver explained, roadkill was inevitable along the road, even though traffic was sparse. Enormous ‘land trains’ are not designed to make emergency stops.

There were breaks along the way at lonely cafes where we could buy meals and drinks as well as art and craft work by indigenous Australians, who were sometimes around, seated outside. The sun’s heat was as unrelenting as the red, dusty road was straight.

We arrived to our stop at King’s Canyon National Park, where we were to undertake a guided walk. As we descended from the cool of the bus the heat assaulted us. Our guide explained that we must choose between a shorter, less taxing walk or a longer, more arduous one. We needed to make this choice on the basis of how fit we were, as if we chose the longer route we’d have to carry at least 2 litres of water. We judged that we could manage the longer hike, a smaller group. Before we got going we were advised not to gulp down large amounts of water but to sip, swigging leading to the necessity for bladder emptying- not a convenient situation out here in the bush. I must point out here, however, that those of us who are used to camping are also used to dealing with peeing outdoors. I’d say the guide was more concerned with leaving the landscape unsullied than our sensibilities.

It was hot. The walk was, at times, hard. Sometimes we had to clamber up and down. There was a point when, on the way down some rocks, I inadvertently trod on a snake. We’d been specifically warned to avoid them, but whilst negotiating a steep descent I hadn’t seen the small, black, wriggling creature and it fell foul of my boot. Horrors! I watched aghast as it threw itself out of the path. At least I hadn’t murdered it- although Husband issued a stern admonishment!

There were some wonderful views, including a pristine pool- astonishing in the desert environment- the reflections beautiful. There were also beautiful birds and flowering plants, eking out a living in this parched, unforgiving environment. The rock stacks and ravines towered or plunged, the colours changing through a varying palette of russet, ochre and deep red. It was worth the effort- the climbs and the seering heat, to see such an astonishing place.

We returned to the bus, filthy from sweat and dust but jubilant from having completed the hike. Then it was on to our next destination, Alice Springs, for a stopover and I was looking forward to seeing such an iconic town…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

New York 1997. Part 5. The Walk to Canada.

During the [albeit sketchy, pre-internet] innocent planning of our New York trip I’d felt sure that Buffalo would be the ideal stopover point for visiting Niagara. It turned out that nobody else ever did this. No single person stayed at Buffalo in order to take a trip to the falls. Except for we two-Husband and myself. We’d made an error.

But we were prepared to make the best of things. After all-we’d overcome the hurdle of having to forego our vehicle [see Part 1], we’d find a way to mitigate this current crisis.

Evening in Buffalo and the streets were deserted, a few pieces of garbage blowing around in a stiff breeze and some tumbleweed rolling down the road in contemptuous abandon. As we approached what could be the centre of town there were cinemas, bars and restaurants, but patronised by no one. We saw no more than 2 or 3 others in the town. We walked on and selected a bar, part of a luxurious hotel complex. You could be forgiven for thinking we’d walked into a dystopian future world where unwitting tourists were lured by aliens to be consumed later.

There were 2 couples in the otherwise empty bar. We ordered beers and watched the TV screen, where ice-skating was being shown. Husband intimated that he’d prefer to watch paint dry. Then 2 men entered and we got chatting. ‘So how come you 2 ended up in a place like this?’ one asked. My thoughts exactly. We explained and I asked why the town was empty and quiet. He shrugged. ‘Used to be a boomtown, but it’s all old industry and now it’s died’. His wife was Scottish and they’d be visiting Scotland in the fall.

We left the bar and walked back up the dead street, now neon-lit but no more lively for it. En route there was the sound of a rock band playing, practising perhaps? A crumbling, stucco-fronted house held the sign ‘The Roxy’ over its porch. The windows were dark. It was a club. Inside was a strobe-lit disco floor [empty] and a bar with a few noisy teenagers [mostly girls] and a loud, blond, gum-chewing barmaid. The girls shouted and argued-mostly for display purposes. We returned to The Lenox, having judged Buffalo to be a sad place.

Next morning we rose quickly and went down to reception. The receptionist rang us a cab and we grabbed a coffee. Back at the bus depot we had time for a ‘biscuit’ filled with bacon, egg and cheese and more coffee. We climbed on to the Niagara bus, which pulled out and went swinging and lurching off to the falls. The one hour drive was unremarkable, although I always enjoy riding through foreign suburbs where the more trivial, domestic aspects of life are played out. There were pastel-coloured timber homes, porches with swing seats, screen doors and all the sights we are familiar with from watching movies.

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At the falls bus station all went according to the new plan and we deposited our luggage in a locker before walking the 4 blocks down to the Niagara river. Then there was a modest sign: Pedestrian Walkway to Canada. Through some gardens there was a visitor centre which provided a map. There were tantalising glimpses of the river but as yet, no falls. Here the flow was fast and foamed into rapids, separating past small islands and rushing along, a dim roar in the background.

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We walked down towards the American Falls and there was a sudden cut-off point where the river appeared to stop in mid-air. Moments later the American Falls were in sight, water roaring fiercely over a precipice in billowing clouds of spray and creating a sunlight rainbow. We were awestruck, although once the Canadian Falls, the ‘horseshoe falls’ came into view the American Falls were forgotten. A few hundred yards down the road a semi-circular tract plummeting over a cliff. We’d need to cross a bridge to Canada to see properly. Our Amtrak train would leave at 1.30pm. We’d have time.

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We spent time looking from different viewpoints, cameras in hand, then walked back, crossed the bridge, through a turnstile, into Canadian customs for a passport stamp before setting foot on Canadian soil, with an increasingly dramatic view of both sets of falls.

Eventually we reached a place at the top of the horseshoe falls where the Niagara river thundered over the cliff in a pale green arc of froth and fell in a billowing spray below. Small sightseeing boats chugged, ant-like into the spray, carrying blue plastic-covered sight-seers.

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We lingered as long as we dared, until time ran out and we needed to get our bus, then our train, but we felt euphoric to have made the effort. We arrived to the bus depot with 5 minutes to spare, retrieved the luggage and boarded the bus to Buffalo station, where we had an hour to wait, there being nothing but a water tap and the surly ticket clerk.

We were to return to New York, retracing our route before we could set off once more to execute the final part of the plan-to Boston!

Bajan Escape [part 2]

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[To continue…]

After a few days it’s clear why Tom and Francine have holidayed here in this hotel in Barbados for 45 years. It’s Tom’s kingdom, his empire. He knows everyone and everything. He spends his days wandering the grounds and pool, chatting to anyone he comes across and teasing the housekeeping staff. When she arrives to their room with a mop and bucket he tells Harriet, ‘Here-let me show you how to do it’. They all adore him. ‘I’m nearly 80!’ he says, grinning and rubbing his bare chest, ‘People think I dye my hair’.

One afternoon we go to Oistins, which boasts an extensive fish market, for a walk to the southern tip of the island. A parade of rocks has been eroded underneath by repeated waves so that they seem to hover above the foam, each wave producing a booming sound as it pounds in and back on itself in a tall plume of spray.

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On Friday nights Oistins Fish Market turns into a huge party with live music and nowhere to sit at the trestle tables that host diners every evening for freshly grilled fish-marlin, lobster tails, shrimp and a plethora of other sea produce. We choose a different night to sample the menu at ‘Uncle George’s’ [recommended by our neighbour, Mike] and we are not disappointed. We also get to chat to 2 young Canadians on a Caribbean tour away from their busy hospital jobs.

In the evenings we stroll to our local ‘KT’s’ bar or a little further into St Lawrence Gap-a magnet for revellers, cocktail seekers and diners, many who’ve hotfooted straight from the cricket ground where England has trounced the West Indies. The tiny bay is lined with bars and restaurants of any and every cuisine and all busy.

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The flight home draws closer. We conquer the mysteries of the public transport system and board a bus to ‘Sam Lord’s Castle’ on the Eastern coast. It is a bone-shaking ride up and across plains, through villages, past the airport; some homes are traditional, single-storey cottages in paint-box hues, others grand mansions in the making, ever more ambitious as we near our destination. There is some confusion when we alight as ‘Sam Lord’s Castle’ is neither a castle nor is it indicated in any way. This is because it is a bus stop, and the driver has not seen fit to tell us we have arrived, with the result that we must travel a few stops back.

Down a narrow road and through a passageway we access the sea at last, the Atlantic crashing against limestone outcrops in mountainous plumes, booming as it ploughs a relentless furrow under each knobbly spur. This is Shark Hole-mentioned in guide books but without a café, a bar, a gift shop or so much as a sign to advertise its thrilling allure, hence the complete absence of human life except for ourselves and a lone fisherman.

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There is little shade as we walk along the rugged coast, needing to cut in at intervals to avoid trespassing over manicured lawns. Fearful of the searing heat and of missing the bus back we return to the shade of ‘Sam Lord’s Castle’ [the bus shelter] where we wait 40 minutes to be rewarded by the appearance of one.

Our water supply was running low when we stepped off the bus outside KT’s bar, where cold beers and washrooms are both very welcome!

Later it’s down to Sharkey’s at St Lawrence Gap for the last supper-coconut prawns at a long table where we’ve been squeezed in between cricket fans and 2 ladies having an earnest conversation about relationships. We wait for our meals [Husband has opted for West Indian curry] and watch plates of wings and bottles of beer go past and I think there could hardly be a better place to holiday in February-unless you know better, Reader, perhaps?

 

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!