Category Archives: Hotels

Travels in Spain, Car Hire and Trouble with Maps

postcard-map-andalucia

“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than most countries.  How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell – ‘Homage to Catalonia’

In the summer a cheap flight opportunity to Seville and Andalusia in November provided the perfect opportunity to continue the quest to discover the real Spain.  A visit to the South and the part of the peninsula with which, thanks to the travel brochures I suppose, we are all familiar, the Spain of flamenco, Moorish architecture, sherry, tapas bars and bull fighting.

The first task after arrival at Seville airport was to pick up the hire car and the lady at the desk took me step by step through the formalities and then showed me a diagram that identified all of the previous damage that the car had suffered.  This took some considerable time because it turned out to be practically every single panel, front back and sides and when we collected it from the car park it was in a real mess and looking quite sorry for itself and my first reaction was to be a bit annoyed that we had been allocated such a tatty vehicle.

I was soon to discover however that this was quite normal for cars in this part of Spain!  The interior was clean but there was an overpowering smell of industrial strength air freshener that was so unpleasant that we had to drive with the windows down and we began to worry about what sort of previous smell the deodoriser was covering up.

Carmona 02

Instead of staying in the city of Seville, where the hotels seemed to be a little expensive and beyond our budget, we had chosen instead to book a cheaper alternative in the nearby town of Carmona that was about twenty miles away.  The first part of the journey along the Autovia du Sur was pleasant and without incident and then we left at the junction for the town and things started to unravel.  We didn’t have a proper town map, only something from the multimap website and this didn’t prove to be especially helpful.

We (I) became confused and did a couple of circuits of the town looking for street names that we could identify but these proved to be illusive and of little assistance because they didn’t seem to correspond in any way to the map.  Eventually, on third time around the main town square I found a bar that was still open and asked (pleaded)  for help.

The man was just as confused by multimap as we were and it took him some time to interpret it for himself before he could even begin to draw the route that we needed through what looked like a tangled web of streets with a baffling one way system.  Finally he provided comprehensive instructions but in rapid fire Spanish that made it difficult to follow but it was helpful just to discover that we were in the new part of the town and what we really needed was the centro historico, which was a few hundred yards away.

Confident now of directions we set off again and this time took the correct turning through an imposing medieval fortress gate and into a labyrinth of confusing narrow streets.  At a fork in the road we were presented with two options.  We were staying at a hotel in San Fernando Square and there was a sign that seemed to suggest that we should turn left but I overruled Micky who pointed this out and foolishly decided to ignore the sensible thing to do and took the right fork instead.

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This was a very big mistake because the road climbed up a narrow cobbled street barely wide enough for the car to pass through and then seemed to abruptly stop at what looked like a pedestrian alleyway.  There was an elderly Spanish couple out strolling so we asked for help and after they had studied the map seemed to suggest to us that we should carry on down this narrow path.  We were not entirely convinced about this and asked for clarification several times and the man, who spoke no English and was not terribly useful, was determined not to let his wife, who could speak a little English and was a lot more helpful, have her turn with the map.

Maps and men must be the same everywhere, let me explain, it’s a macho sort of thing that drives us to take control and this is based on years of experience of being sent in the wrong direction.  Women generally are as hopeless with maps and town plans as men are with knitting patterns.  Anyway, while we were debating the situation another car pulled up behind and seemed to be heading in the direction of the alleyway so this was a clue that this was indeed the correct way to go.  As we pulled away the woman looked into the car and in a genuinely caring sort of way said ‘Be careful, good luck’ and this parting comment filled my cup of confidence full to the brim and overflowing.

We set off and it soon became clear why we needed both precision and good fortune because if we had thought that the previous street had been narrow this one made it look like a six lane highway.  First of all it was necessary to negotiate a dog leg gate that was barely wider than the car and we all had to collectively breathe in so that we could squeeze through and after that the street narrowed down still further and I needed delicate keyhole surgery skills to manoeuvre through 90º bends and past carelessly parked cars and iron bollards strategically placed to impede progress at every turn.

It was like threading a needle blindfolded and we now understood why the car was covered in dents and scratches and probably why the air freshener was so strong; the previous hirer had possibly driven down the same street and had an unfortunate bowel incident in the process!

Going forward was tricky and we were making slow progress but what really concerned me was the possibility of reaching a – and having to reverse all the way back because that would have been impossible.  Finally however we came out into a square (that was actually a circle) and by luck we had found our hotel.  After three circuits of the square it was obvious that there was nowhere to park however so we had to settle for a side street and a hundred yard walk back to the Hotel Posada San Fernando where a lady on reception was waiting to check us in.

Carmona 07

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Travels in Italy, Borgo San Giuliano in Rimini

 

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Travels in Italy, A Walk Around San Marino

San Marino View

The bus left more or less on time and drove inland away from Rimini and towards the three peaks of Mount Titano part of the Appenine Mountain Range and each with a fortress built on the very top.

We watched for the state border but with no passport controls we passed through and barely noticed and then the bus began to climb and the road weaved this way and that in extravagant hairpin bends and loops and the engine and the gearbox began to groan and complain.

It was quite a climb because at 1076 feet above sea level and about half way to the top of the mountain the city of San Marino is the sixth highest capital in Europe after Andorra la Vella (3356), Madrid (2188), Bern (1778), Sarajevo (1699) and Vaduz (1403); it is also the fifth highest city in the Italian peninsular.

As it happens I have been to Vaduz, in 2007 on a visit to Liechtenstein and it was probably one of the worst cities that I have been to in Europe, drab and featureless it is on my list of recommended places to avoid and I hoped that San Marino wouldn’t be a similar disappointment.

Eventually the bus wheezed to a halt in a coach park and immediately there were grand sweeping views across the mountains towards the plains and eventually the Adriatic Sea to the east.  It was breath-taking and wonderful.

San Marino Traffic Control

But we were at the bottom of the city and now there was a long walk to the very top, another fifteen hundred feet or so above us and this involved negotiating an awful lot of steps so we set off and entered the city and into a world of mazy streets and secret alleyways that all offered alternative routes to the top.

My immediate impression was that this was a very well maintained city, spotlessly clean with immaculate flower borders and neatly trimmed lawns, quite unlike anything that we had seen so far.  It was a Disney EPCOT World Showcase sort of place where the emphasis was firmly on entertaining the tourists.

It reminded me of Carcassonne, Rocamador and Mont St Michel in France where there is an obvious disconnection with the real world, passing into a place such as this is like temporarily leaving the real world and the route to the top took us past rows and rows of well-stocked tourist shops, restaurants and duty free boutiques.  Thankfully not like Vaduz at all.

San Marino Garibaldi

Inevitably we passed through Piazza Garibaldi and found the statue that I was looking for to add to my collection of photographs and I stopped for a while to reflect on it.  In almost every city and town in Italy there is a statue of Garibaldi to commemorate the Unification of Italy into one single State but here in San Marino there is a statue of Garibaldi to commemorate not being included in that unification.

After Garibaldi we passed through the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall of the city with the entrance protected by three members of the Fortress Guard Corps in their bottle green jackets and scarlet trousers and although I know very little about fashion I thought this to be a rather odd combination of colours and then the Basilica of the Saint designed and built, starting in 1826, by Antonio Serra, an architect from Bologna.

San Marino Army Guard

Despite these worthy distractions it didn’t take long to reach the top, well, we didn’t actually reach the top as we declined the visit to the battlements because there was an entrance fee involved so returned instead more or less the way that we had come and found a bar for a late lunch time drink.

We wondered if we should stay a while longer but that would only mean walking the same circuit again so at mid-afternoon we made our way back to the coach park and after another frantic tussle to board the bus returned directly to Rimini and walked back to our hotel along the sea-front which was continuing to be dismantled.

They seemed to be in a rush to complete the job but someone told us that a storm was forecast for the next day and they urgently needed to get things stored safely away.  We ignored the news about the storm and went to the same place for evening meal, we didn’t want to spoil our holiday.  Nine and a half miles walked today.

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Travels in Italy, A Walk Around Rimini

I was pleasantly surprised by Rimini, I was expecting a ghastly Mediterranean holiday resort but found history, charm, elegance and a busy fishing port.

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Travels in Italy, Bologna to Rimini

Rimini Postcard

I had bought with me to Italy high expectations of Bologna but I am sorry to say that on balance I was disappointed and was happy to leave.

After a final futile search for the lost credit card we made our final packing adjustments and closed the door on the apartment where we had lived for three days.  Odd that, that you can live in a place for three days or three years or three decades and then close the door and just leave.  All you leave behind are memories, or perhaps a misplaced credit card.

We walked to the railway station of course and found it curiously calm.  We purchased our tickets and with forty unexpected minutes to spare found a café in the sunshine for a coffee before returning to the station in good time for our train which rather unusually turned up just a few minutes late.

I didn’t look back as we left Bologna (the sixth most visited city in Italy) and just a few miles out of the city the scenery improved and happily became more picturesque.  To the south were the blue misty Apennine Mountains shrouded still in early morning fog and to the north the fertile plain of the Po Valley, in late September the rich colours of harvest and autumn, umber, terracotta and gold.  The train picked up speed and began to hum and predictably Kim fell asleep.

An hour so later we arrived in Rimini and stepped out of the railway station into streets bathed in a glorious golden glow of late morning sun, we ignored the line of taxis of course and set out to walk the mile or so to our hotel on the beach-front strip.

I have to say that didn’t have high expectations of the Hotel Diplomat Palace on account of how cheap it was at only €40 a night bed and breakfast but the lobby was well-appointed and the reception desk was efficient and welcoming and we were allocated our room on the fifth floor. What a result that turned out to be as we had a top floor room with an uninterrupted sea view looking out over the beach and we congratulated ourselves on our very good fortune.

The beach was a surprise I have to say. Rimini is a popular holiday resort and hundreds of thousands of people visit every year and when they do the beach looks like this…

rimini

But when they go home and the sun-beds and umbrellas have gone then it looks like this…

Rimini Beach

In late September the holiday visitor season was over, everything on the beach was being dismantled and stored safely away until the following year and the view from our balcony provided a panoramic scene of ten miles of sandy beach stretching in both directions to the north and the south.

With the accommodation approved we returned to the streets to take a walk along the promenade and to assess suitable dining options for later.  We actually walked further than we originally intended until we reached the swanky marina and could walk no further north so we turned inland and continued to walk to the city centre along the Porto Canale through the fishing port area of Rimini.  From here approximately one hundred boats operate daily and although it was well into the afternoon there was still some busy trading activity taking place.

Rimini Fishing Wife and daughter

Eventually the Porto Canale came to a dead-end so this is where we agreed that we should find a route back to the hotel but we had unexpectedly found ourselves in the trendy district of Borgo San Giuliano, originally a poor fishermen’s settlement but now a charming neighbourhood of small cobbled streets, trendy piazzas, and colourful street murals. This is now one of the most picturesque places in the city and one of Rimini’s most popular areas, with narrow streets and squares, colourful small houses and many frescoes representing characters and locations of Federico Fellini’s films.

The neighbourhood is closely linked to the famous Rimini filmmaker who despite being born and raised on the opposite side of the city is said had a special affection for the Borgo.  In 1994, the Festa del Borgo was officially dedicated to him and many of the most striking murals lining the walls of the buildings depict scenes and characters from his films.

Rimini Borgo Street 2.jpg

The district was once a lot bigger but it a lot of it was demolished during the frenzy of the Fascist redevelopment period of the 1930s and it suffered more damage in World-War-Two.  On account of that it didn’t take a great deal of time to walk around and soon we were plotting a route home with only an inadequate tourist map to assist us.

After several interpretations we eventually arrived back at the coast somewhere close to the Rimini Grand Hotel, an elegant building of shining white stucco and Art Nouveau decoration.  This wasn’t where we were staying of course but I checked later and although it looks like a hotel for the travelling elite it was surprisingly inexpensive. Fellini liked the Grand Hotel and he kept a suite there permanently reserved for himself.

We made our way back to the much more modest Diplomat Palace, sat on the balcony for a while and then went to the beach and had a swim in the sea and collected some driftwood to take back home to reboot the boat building hobby.

Later we dined at a simple restaurant and declared ourselves satisfied that we had changed our plans and arrived a day early.  We liked Rimini.  We had walked seven miles today.

Rimini Grand Hotel.jpg

 

 

Travels in Italy, Milan to Lake Como

Milan Central Station

“This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty. It is long and narrow, and has the appearance of a mighty river winding among the mountains and the forests” – Percy Bysshe Shelley

After an average breakfast at the Hotel IBIS we checked out and fearing chaotic queues swiftly made our way to the Central Station.  Two days earlier we had arrived in the dark and had not fully appreciated just what a magnificent building this is, almost as good, it has to be said, as the Cathedral in the heart of the city.  Completed in 1931 it is built in the Italian Fascist style with a combination of brutalism and neo-classicism.  It shouldn’t really work but it does.

Buying a train ticket in Italy isn’t especially easy because Italians have the same ill-discipline in a railway station booking hall as they do when they are driving on the roads.  They don’t especially like queuing and will constantly switch lines just like suddenly changing lanes on a motorway, they are impatient and have zero tolerance for anyone that struggle with the automatic ticket machines.  Lose concentration for a fraction of a second and you will find two or three people suddenly ahead in the queue who weren’t there previously.

It was only a short journey of thirty minutes or so through unremarkable countryside and stopping frequently at a succession of graffiti scarred concrete stations of no special significance until the tired and scruffy train finally approached the foothills of the Alps and the southern tip of the lake and the railway station.

Lake Como

We chose to walk from the station to the accommodation, I always choose to walk rather than take a taxi, I don’t like taxis, it was about a mile away to the edge of the water and the lakeside fringe of the town and after we had found it, checked in and approved it we ventured out onto the streets.

To begin with we explored the town centre and found somewhere for a coffee and then we made our way inevitably towards the lake.

East or west? We chose east and we walked around the lake as far as we could until we came to a hotel car park and lido and a dead-end so we were obliged to turn around and walk back in the same direction running the gauntlet for a second time of a succession of insistent waiters all touting for business in the sprawling ribbon of restaurants and cafés that lined this section of the lake.  We declined every invitation because Como turned out to be rather expensive and whilst I like to sit at a pavement table and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine I find it less enjoyable when the cost is higher than my skinflint budget allows.

To be fair these places were in prime position overlooking the lake and probably entitled to charge a premium so we headed towards the periphery of the town in search of a place with prices more to our liking and after thirty minutes or so found exactly what we were looking for.

Como Funicular

Later we walked around the attractive town in search of somewhere to eat and came across a traditional trattoria and enjoyed a simple pasta meal.  We took our time over the meal and relaxed, we had walked nine miles today.

One of the main tourist attractions in Como is a funicular railway which links lakeside Como to the elevated town of Brunate over one thousand, six hundred feet higher and with commanding views of the town and the lake.  It seemed to us to be forever busy and when we walked past there was a queue much longer than my short patience quota so the next day we started early and took a ride before breakfast to the top.

We sauntered along the mountain paths looking for the best views which sadly were few and far between blotted out as they were by the high fences of the expensive houses and villas which decorate the mountain top. Eventually we reached a panoramic viewing point and below us we could enjoy the red-roofed town and the shining blue lake below with a panoramic view across to Switzerland barely five miles to the west.

Lake Como is a curious shape rather like the three-legged crest of the Isle of Man, after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore it is the third largest lake in Italy and at one thousand three hundred feet deep it is the third deepest lake in Europe after Lakes Hornindalsvatnet and Tinnsjå, both in Norway.

We spent a very pleasant hour or so at Brunate but quickly ran out of things to do so took the funicular back to Como and swaggered smugly past the long queue that was beginning to form. We stopped for breakfast now and as we ate planned our itinerary for the remainder of the day.

Como Postcard

Travels in Italy, Looking Back

Travels in Italy

Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites; it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites in Europe.  I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter.

This time in Italy I was planning to add a few more, Milan (The Last Supper), Modena and Ferrara.

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