Tag Archives: Travel

Scottish Borders, Galashiels, Walter Scott and William Wallace

Neidpath Castle Peebles Scotland

Every year thirty or so members of my golf club go for a week away golfing in Scotland and after three years on the reserve list I finally got an invite.

Unfortunately the week prior to departure I entertained my three grandchildren and one of them left me a parting gift of a very heavy cold so when I set off one Sunday morning I was sniffing and sneezing and relying on cold relief capsules to help me through the journey north.

Actually I think it was probably ‘man flu’ and  I digress here for a moment to explain that this is a condition that this is a strain of flu so powerful and so deadly that it can only be matched by the Bubonic Plague.  It is an incurable virus, which has adapted to only effect the “XY” gene found in men. The virus attacks the immune system ten thousand times more seriously than an average flu and causes excruciating pain and discomfort for the victim.

For all of the week I felt awful but I played golf for four days but on Friday I woke to grey skies and persistent rain so on account of the fact that I was due to go on holiday to Wales a couple of days later and I didn’t want to get worse and spoil that I decided against putting on the leaking waterproofs and dragging myself around the fifth course of the week and thought that I might do a little bit of sightseeing instead.

I was staying in the town of Galashiels in the Scottish Borders  which is so far south in Scotland that it is even nearer the equator than the town of Berwick-on-Tweed, the furthest town north in England but what a wonderfully scenic and historic part of the country.

This is Walter Scott country where the great man of Scottish literature chose to live and receive his literary inspiration and the land of William Wallace and the marcher lands that separated England from Scotland and was the scene of much medieval warfare and fighting.

Galashiels Raid Stane Englishman's Syke

And so it was in Galashiels where I came across memorial called “The Raid Stane” the site of an incident in 1337 when a raiding party of English soldiers were picking wild plums close to the town and and were caught by angry Scots who came across them by chance and slaughtered them all.  It seems that they were picking and eating sour fruit and they were so unwell that they were unable to fight back.

Today the town’s coat of arms shows two foxes reaching up to eat plums from a tree, and the motto is Sour Plums pronounced in Scots as soor plooms.  Every year in June there is an event in the town called the Galashiels Braw Lads Gathering which celebrates the event and by all accounts if you are English you really don’t want to be in town that particular night.

Angry Scots

I spent a half an hour or so in the granite town of Galashiels and with the rain getting heavier returned to the car and with the stubborn grey skies refusing to clear away planned a route south towards the town of Jedburgh and followed a route through sweeping hills, purple with heather and decorated with the ragged stumps of the ruins of castles and derelict lookout towers, testimony to its turbulent history.

I passed through the town of Melrose with its ruined Abbey which is said to be the secret  burial site of the heart of Robert the Bruce but I didn’t stop there because I calculated that I only had time for one ruined abbey and that was going to be Jedburgh.

I did however make detour into a valley of the River Tweed and stopped for a while at Scott’s view which is a place where allegedly he liked to stop by and reflect on life.  I am not disputing this but it this rather remote place is about ten miles or so from where he lived so in days before automobiles this would not be something that the average person, or even the great Sir Walter Scott, would be able to do on impulse.  It was a nice view all the same and apparently his funeral cortege stopped off here for a short while on his way to his burial spot in the grounds of nearby Dryburgh Abbey.

One of my favourite Scott stories is how he saved the Scottish bank note.  In 1826 there was a proposal to abandon Scottish notes and adopt the English notes instead.  Under the pseudonym Malachi Malagrowther Scott campaigned hard against the proposal and was eventually successful.  In recognition of this a picture of Scott even today appears on every Bank of Scotland note.

Walter Scott bank note

Instead of visiting the Abbey I sought out a massive stone statue of William Wallace standing solitary and magnificent in half armour and kilt, a massive claymore hanging menacingly from his belt and leaning on a giant sword fully fifteen feet tall.

Thanks to the hopelessly historically inaccurate Mel Gibson film ‘Braveheart’, quite possibly the most aggressively Anglophobe and historically inaccurate film ever made, William Wallace remains a burning symbol of Scottish nationalism but the truth is that his fame is based on one lucky victory against the English and a conveniently overlooked string of subsequent defeats.

I thought he looked rather sad and forlorn stuck out here abandoned on a ridge overlooking the river wondering what might have been and with nothing to detain me here for more than a few minutes I swiftly moved on towards my intended destination.

William Wallace

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A Competition, Compostela, Cahors and a Chateau

In the early summer of 1998 the Times Newspaper ran a daily competition one week to win a prize of an all expenses paid trip for two nights in an up market Relais and Chateau Hotel somewhere in Europe.  One day the competition required answers to three questions about Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and the Way of St James.  I was confident of the answers and telephoned them in several times over the course of the day.

Over the following couple of weeks I forgot all about the competition but one day was surprised to receive a letter from the Times telling me that I was the winner and that the prize was first class air travel to Toulouse in South West France, car hire and two nights all-inclusive at the Château de Mercuès just outside the provincial town of Cahors.

Chateau de Mercures Cahors

Early in the Autumn we flew with British Airways in a first class cabin that we shared with the actor Robin Ellis (Ross Poldark) and his wife (his real wife not Demelza)and enjoyed a silver service meal and complimentary champagne.  When we arrived at Toulouse in the early afternoon we picked up the Renault hire car and set off in a northerly direction on our way to the Chateau.

On the way we stopped at the town of Cahors and after we had walked around the centre, sitting within a protective loop of the River Lot, we found a traditional patisserie and sat and gloated about our unusual good fortune.

The village of Mercuès was just a few kilometres west of the town and eventually we set off again following the course of the river as it swept through the countryside and soon in front of us we saw a splendid castle with soaring towers and blue slate conical roofs and we imagined that it looked somewhere interesting to visit.

After only a short distance there was a sign to our hotel and we took a narrow road that climbed high away from the river and after one final turn we were confronted with the entrance to the very same magnificent building.  This was the Château de Mercuès and way beyond the standard of any hotel that we had ever stayed in before.

The car had hardly come to a halt before a porter rushed through the front doors and took our luggage from the car and indicated that we should follow him to the reception.  Inside there were wonderful furnishings and treasured artefacts and I worried that we were in the wrong place.  But no, it was true, this was prize for winning the competition.

After registration we were shown to our room at the very top of the tallest tower with stone walls, wooden beams and an external walkway on the outside with long distance views over the Lot valley, the Chateau gardens and the raging River Lot rushing by below swollen by days of heavy rain and carrying fallen trees and other debris hurriedly downstream.

Chateau de MERCURES

Our room at the top of the tower with personal balcony!

It took a while for all this to sink in but fortunately there was a complimentary bottle of Cahors wine to help us and when we had settled down we took some time to explore the castle and its gardens, its wine cellars and it public rooms.  Dinner off of an expensive menu was included and I remember that this was the first time that I ever tasted Foie Gras and feeling guilty about it because I was certain that my vegetarian teenage daughter would certainly not approve.

For our full day in France after breakfast we chose to drive the thirty-five kilometres north to the tourist town and Christian pilgrimage centre of Rocamadour.

At first the road was straight and driving was easy but the final few kilometres were on twisting bendy roads that swooped through gullies and over ravines as we got closer.  Rocamadour is one of the busiest tourist sites in France because the picturesque town is built almost vertically into the side of the mountain with its golden houses overhanging a rocky gorge and the River Alzou below.  The car park was at the bottom of the mountain and to get to the entrance gate of the town required an ascent up several flights of wooden steps that eventually brought us out at the main tourist street.

It was quiet today because this was October and outside the main tourist season but the summer months bring thousands of visitors to this place daily.  Years later I visited Carcassonne and Mont St Michel and found them rather similar in a touristy sort of way.

It didn’t help matters that the weather was rather poor and although it wasn’t raining it was misty and rather damp and the honey coloured stones looked disappointingly dull and lifeless today, the place was full of tourist shops that weren’t doing enough business to justify being open and we had the streets and medieval staircases almost to ourselves as we wandered past churches and chapels on ancient streets punctuated with shops and restaurants every few metres.  We stopped for lunch and then made our way back down the steps and drove back to the Chateau where we enjoyed a second gourmet meal in the expensive dining room.

004

The next morning when it was time to check out I suddenly began to panic in case I had to pay for any of this unaccustomed extravagance and finery that we had enjoyed and the thoughts got stronger as I waited behind an American guest who settled his obscenely large bill and then made a dreadful fuss about being charged a couple of Francs for a postcard that he picked up while waiting.

My hands were sweating and I avoided the postcards but I needn’t have worried of course, the whole bill was taken care of by the Sunday Times and with the sun shining now we had one final walk around the delightful gardens before setting off for the return journey to Toulouse airport.

The Huldufólk of Iceland

“This is a land where everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect” –  Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland

We have moved on from Wroclaw in Poland and its street dwarfs so I thought you might like some pictures of the Huldufólk. the “hidden folk” of Icelandic folklore who live in a mystical landscape of mountain passes with peaks lost in the clouds, of arctic chill, windswept valleys, gnarled volcanic rock, wild moss and winter scorched meadows.

“It’s sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It’s all about respect, you know.” – Icelandic Singer Bjork.

In a land like this. of fire and ice, a place that is wild and magical, where the fog-shrouded lava fields provide a spooky landscape in which it is possible that anything out of the ordinary might lurk, stories flourish about the “hidden folk”.

According to Icelanders these are the thousands of elves who make their homes in the wilderness,  supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic people.

People in Iceland do not throw stones into the wilderness just in case they carelessly injure an Elf!

“It has caused a lot of arguments, as it’s something that’s very difficult to prove. Iceland is full of álagablettir, or enchanted spots, places you don’t touch – just like the fairy forts and peat bogs in Ireland. They’re protected by stories about the bad things that will happen if you do” – Terry Gunnell

If you are wondering where the Huldufólk are in my pictures? Well, according to Icelandic lore they are hidden beings that inhabit a parallel world that is invisible to human eyes, and can only be spotted by psychics and little children, unless they willingly decide to reveal themselves to people.

Sometimes however you can see their houses…

Have you been to Iceland – Have you seen the the Huldufólk?

Greek Islands – Tinos, St Pelagia and Pilgrimage

tinos-pilgrim-statue

“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.” – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’

The ferry from Syros took us first to the intriguing island of nearby Tinos which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries.  As we approached the port we could see that not being a holiday island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was rather functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.

Actually, although it didn’t seem a tourist hot spot to us as we approached the harbour, it turns out that Tinos, a large island just northwest of Mykonos, is in fact the most visited of all Greek Islands.  Not with overseas visitors however because 90% are Greek and since Greeks come looking for an authentic experience even the most tourist friendly places retain a feeling of originality and visiting the island is a more genuine and unique experience than say Mykonos or Santorini.

Greek Doors 2016 (3)

One of the reasons so many Greeks visit Tinos is that it is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean.

Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as an extreme sign of devotion.  It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a ragged strip of dusty red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds or getting stuck in the melting tarmac.

On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body.

The shopkeepers could speak little English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves.  If you have a bad limp then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture, if you are going to crawl to the church you will probably need a knee picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and secure it to an icon and when you leave just to be certain so that God doesn’t just simply forget about it shortly after you have gone light a candle to remind him.  The bigger the candle the better and some of these monsters, without exaggeration, were easily four feet tall and a real fire hazard I can tell you!

pelagia-of-tinos

We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church, gleaming like a fresh fall of snow and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was conveniently found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.

By suspicious coincidence the icon was found on the very first days after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation.  Inside the church it was hard to find because in contrast to the bright sunshine outside it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.

All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.

After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the ferry to Mykonos.

 

European Capital of Culture, 2002 – Bruges

“Everything about it is perfect – its cobbled streets, its placid bottle-green canals, its steep roofed medieval houses, its market square, its slumbering parks, everything.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

We were driving to neighbouring Belgium today to visit the town of Bruges in the north of the country and by the time we had packed the car and set off there were big spots of rain falling on the windscreen.

This didn’t last long and it was one of those days when there were different weather conditions in all directions and it was a bit of a lottery about what we were likely to get.  It was about a hundred kilometres to drive and on the way we passed through a variety of different weather fronts so we were unsure of just what to expect when we arrived.

Northern France Wimereaux

We needn’t have worried because as we parked the car the sun came out and the skies turned a settled shade of blue and without a map we let instinct guide us down sun-dappled mazy cobbled streets towards the city centre.

I had visited Bruges before in 1981 so I thought I knew what I was looking for but over the years I must have got mixed up because the place looked nothing like I remembered it.  I knew that we were looking for a large square and I had in mind something classical like St Marks in Venice so I was surprised when we reached the famous market square to find nothing like that at all.

Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium.  In the middle ages, thanks to the wool trade, it was one of the most important cities in Europe and the historic city centre is an important  UNESCO World Heritage Site because most of its medieval architecture is intact. The Church of Our Lady has a hundred and twenty metre high spire making it one of the world’s highest brick towers.

I Love Bruges Postcard

The sculpture Madonna and Child, which can be seen in the transept, is believed to be Michelangelo’s only work to have left Italy within his lifetime, it isthe most famous landmark is its thirteenth century belfry and also a pivotal part of the George Clooney film “Monuments Men”.  The church is also home to a municipal carillon comprising forty-eight bells where the city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.

The city is also famous for its picturesque waterways and along with other canal based northern cities, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands it is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North”;  but this isn’t a title that it holds uniquely because it has also been applied to Saint Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh amongst others.

bruges-crop-xlarge

Bruges is a fine place and we really needed more time to appreciate all of this but the price to be paid for convenient close to the centre parking was that we were restricted to just two hours.  Even though I didn’t remember it quite like this the city square was delightful, fully pedestrianised except for the odd horse and carriage and surrounded by bars and cafés all around the perimeter.  We liked the look of the Bruges Tavern which had tables surrounded by pretty flowers tumbling effervescently from boxes and containers and a vacant table with a good view of the square.

The official language in this part of Belgium is Flemish, which is similar to Dutch and the man who came to take our order identified immediately that we were English and spoke to us in that delightful lilting sing-song voice that Dutch and Belgian people have when they speak English.  He made us feel welcome and we enjoyed a glass of beer sitting in the sunshine.

The girls wanted to shop so whilst they went off in the direction of the main  street we finished our drinks and then took a leisurely walk around the square overlooked by brightly painted houses with Dutch style gables and facades and then disappeared down the warren of quiet side streets that had something interesting to stop for around every corner.

Making our way back to the car we stopped in another, more modern, large square for a second drink where the service was slow and there was an amusing exchange between a flustered waitress and an impatient diner. ‘Alright, alright, the food is coming’the waitress snapped in a reproachful way when she was asked for a third time when it would be served.

Our beer took a long time to come as well but we thought it best not to complain.

As we left Bruges to drive back towards Boulogne the sun disappeared underneath a blanket of cloud and we drove through intermittent showers along a road cluttered with heavy trucks all making their way to and from the Channel ports.  This was not an especially interesting journey through a flat featureless landscape and although we had taken our passports with us there wasn’t even any real indication that we had passed from Belgium back to France except for a small EU sign that could be easily missed.

Past Calais the weather improved and by the time we returned to the gîte the sun was out again but it was still quite windy.  Richard complained about this several times but it was really not so bad and it didn’t stop us sitting in the garden.

Interested in Belgium – take a look at this website – https://discoveringbelgium.com/

European Capital of Culture 2001 – Porto

Ribiera Porto

When we went to bed the sky was clear but at some time during the night the clouds must have rolled in because when we woke the sky was heavy with mist and weather prospects looked desperate.

We hoped that it might improve during breakfast but we had to admit that this was most unlikely especially as the clouds thickened and the rain began to fall even more steadily.  Postponed from day one we were planning to visit the beaches today but it seemed pointless to wander aimlessly from damp town to damp town getting thoroughly wet and feeling miserable so we agreed instead to change our plans and return to Porto where at least there would be churches and museums where it would be dry inside and if the worst came to the very worst probably a shopping centre or a covered market and we could look at shoes and sparkly things.

Porto Ribiera District

After checking out we drove a couple of stops down the metro line and found an empty car park and left the car all alone without any sort of automobile company while we waited for the tram to arrive.  The driving rain slowed to a drizzle but it stayed with us for the entire journey into Porto first through farms with irregular shaped fields, no doubt the result of years of complicated inheritances, then wild meadows, pine-woods and copses of eucalyptus trees on a journey frequently punctuated with stops at every village en route.

Nearer to the city the farms shrunk to smallholdings and on the urban outskirts further still to allotments and gardens but everywhere there was an abundance of fruit and vegetables.

Porto Port Wine

The tram arrived in Trindade and we could see outside in the street that it was still raining and people were hurrying by sheltered under umbrellas so we stayed underground and changed lines for a couple of stops to San Bento.  It only took a few minutes but when we emerged from the subterranean metro system it was a whole lot brighter and there was only the odd spit of rain.  We visited the train station, which today was being used for its more traditional function and then we walked towards the direction of the river down the Rua de Flores.

Here there were small shops and traditional bars and cafés side by side with derelict and decrepit buildings with rotting timbers, rusting balconies, cracked tiled facades trying in vain to disguise years of neglect and so many washing lines that laundry could almost be a national pastime.  The road channels were grubby and the buildings were grimy but it wasn’t without a certain charm and the defiant message from the residents seemed to be “Come and visit us if you like, we know it’s untidy but this is the way we like it!”

This lady seemed especially pleased to welcome us to her city…

As we walked to the end of the street there were spreading patches of blue in the sky and things were beginning to brighten up.  We were heading for the City’s covered market but when we arrived there it had clearly been closed and unused for some time and on the map we located its modern replacement but it was back in the direction that we had walked so we abandoned the idea of visiting it.

Miraculously the sun was out now, which was good news for Micky because it meant that we didn’t have to take the church visit option (Micky doesn’t like churches) as we passed underneath Igrija de São Fransisco, one of the few medieval buildings in Porto, ignored a multi-lingual beggar and continued on to the Douro.

Not only was the sun out now but it was hot and as we walked along the side of the river shutters were being thrown back in the apartments and more washing was beginning to appear on the balconies.  This change in the weather cheered us up no end and on the Ribeira near to the Ponte Dom Luis we selected a restaurant with outside tables for a drink and a convenient place for an application of sun lotion.  Now it was really hot and the waiter was encouraged enough by this to begin fussily laying the outside tables for lunch and brought out table cloths, plates, cutlery and menus and then began to look for customers.

He should have looked up because just out to sea the sky was blackening with alarming speed and it was obvious that we were in for a drenching.  Sure enough the cloud rolled in like a fleet of water bowsers and the heavens opened.  He had to clear the tables a lot quicker than he had laid them and without the attention to detail either and soon the rain was bouncing off the pavement like shrapnel.  The patio umbrellas proved little protection against this Atlantic squall as the rain drove in sideways and soon we were forced to take shelter inside.

It passed by however and as quickly as it had started it stopped again and the blue sky advancing from the west chased the clouds away inland and within only a matter of minutes the sun was shining, the pavements were steaming and the washing was coming back out again.  That was a close shave because rain could well have meant an afternoon around the shops but at the bridge we were able to take the fair weather option and we crossed once more over to Vila Nova de Gaia.

Travelling – Car Hire Advice – Driving in Italy

“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It
seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver
ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it!”  –  John Steinbeck

There are three main problems when driving in Italy and the first is the condition of the roads.  Unlike Spain, where the Government has spent millions of Euros investing in and improving the transport infrastructure and built many new roads and where driving is a pleasure, in Italy they clearly haven’t spent any of their EU money on highway improvements and the annual maintenance budget is zero.

The condition of the roads is appalling which makes using them rather like like playing Russian roulette. Pot holed and poorly maintained and with white lines that were first painted when Mussolini was in charge they are down-right dangerous.

On account of this there is a general speed limit of fifty kilometres an hour but Italians generally ignore that and this is the second problem – the drivers.

In Italy, traffic regulations currently in force were approved by the Legislative Decree number 285 of 30th April 1992 and are contained in the Italian Highway Code called the Codice della Strada, but anyone visiting a busy Italian city or town would be certain to dispute that there is such a thing as a highway code in Italy.

Italian drivers obey no rules and have no self-control, manners or tolerance,  junction priorities mean nothing because show a moment of hesitation and this is interpreted as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull-out, cut you up or just simply push in.  They are ignorant and impatient and show a split-second of indecision and they go for their car horn like a trigger-happy wild-west gunslinger.  At a junction or a roundabout the Italian driver narrows his eyes and flashes a ‘do you feel lucky punk’ sort of glare while his right foot hovers menacingly over the accelerator pedal.

Street Parking in Italy

Driving in Italy is like one massive demolition derby!  Red lights are ignored, speed limits are purely advisory and it appears to be compulsory to drive while speaking on a mobile phone.  After half an hour or so my nerves were in complete tatters and my stomach was as twisted as Chubby Checker and as knotted as one of the trunks of the thousand year olive trees at the side of the road.

Then there is the third problem – parking!  There is no parking discipline because an Italian will gladly block you in, double-park, use the bumpers to nudge other cars out of the way, scratch and graze other parked vehicles on the way in or the way out and generally disregard all of the normal civilised rules of parking a car.

Car Parking In Italy

I love the way Italians park… it looks like a parking competition for blind people.  Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways… fitted into spaces so tight that the only way out would be through the sun roof.  (Italians) park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.” –  Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

We thought that we might now leave the coast and take the main road towards the town of Fasano and then on to another of the white cities, Martina Franca where we arrived about forty minutes later and where the traffic was at its murderous worst and by the time we had found an empty car park  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Kim wasn’t too far behind me.

I found a car park the size of a football pitch and to be safe I parked the car right in the middle where there was no other vehicles and then walked towards the centre.  I wasn’t absolutely confident  because what normally happens to me in these situations is that I find a good parking spot like this and then a few seconds later someone in a 4×4 or a twenty year old beat-up Transit van comes along and parks right up next to me.

Perched on a hillside Martina Franca didn’t look anything special so we rather unfairly wrote it off as not worth stopping for and we carried on to Massafra where the driving deteriorated even further where I swear the drivers were all competing in some sort of scrap-heap challenge.  Caught up in the flow of speeding traffic I was terrified by the narrow lanes, the closeness of the steel barriers at the side of the road and just how near people were prepared to drive to the rear end of our car.

At every junction I had an expectation of a collision – at a roundabout I showed some hesitation and a twenty tonne truck just cut straight across me, missing me by inches!  I realised by now that stop signs are completely meaningless as, on approaching one, an Italian driver just ignores it and simply pushes the front of his car into the flow of traffic while he continues to chat away on his mobile phone.

My nerves were in shreds and I was so pleased to get back  to Alberobello and park the car in a safe place where it was now going to stay until tomorrow morning when happily we would be returning it to the Sixt car rental office in Ostuni.

You have probably guessed this already but I didn’t enjoy driving in Italy and it will be a very long time before I do it again!

Sicily Car Hire

The next day it was only a short drive to Ostuni and when we arrived there I was really, really glad to be able to return the car.  The man at the hire car desk silently and menacingly checked the documents and then looked up and with just a momentary look of threat and anticipation in his eyes asked one simple question “what damage to car?” as though this was surely inevitable.

I told him that I was absolutely certain that there was none and he looked at me as though I was the World’s biggest liar and came round from behind the desk and went off to check.

He inspected both inside and out, several times as I recall,  and then had to concede that there was no damage and then, with a look that had turned from anticipation to disappointment, almost reluctantly it seemed to me, signed off the hire release papers.

Italy’s roads are dangerous and 2014 was probably the worst year and according to EuroStat there were thirty two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-one road deaths in the EU and five thousand, six-hundred and twenty-five of them were in Italy. That is about 17%.  In the ten years up to 2014 the Italians slaughtered sixty-five thousand, one hundred and twenty five people in traffic accidents so it pays to have your wits about you when crossing the road and why if you want to be sure of avoiding death on the highway in Italy it is probably safest to visit Venice.