Tag Archives: Mediterranean

The French and Italian Riviera

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If the smell of strawberry ice cream turns you on, then you’ll easily be allured to the aroma of a gelateria in Portofino, San Remo or Menton. These are the towns of the Franco-Italian Riviera and they bask in sun for two-thirds of the year.

If that sounds good to you, then the Riviera is the place for you. Whether it is the sunny ice creams, pizzerias and cappuccino’s in Italy, or Arabic cafes, bakeries and beaches on the French side, this place is truly enchanting.

It is full of all the glories of life in this part of the world. I remember about eleven years ago now, when my dad flew into Nice to see us. However, this was only because this was the nearest point to us that he could fly to. One problem.

We lived in Brittany…northwest…and not southeast…France. Why were we living there? A story for another time.

So we piled into our Volvo Estate and set off for the long journey across France. It was one to remember too. After we had left, we passed through France’s equivalent of the Canadian prairies. It is the breadbasket of the country, with wheat being the chief product and fertile soil lying in the land.

The Pays De La Loire and Poitou-Charente regions stretch from St Nazaire in the north to Bordeaux in the south and from the Bay of Biscay in the west to Clermont-Ferrand in the east.

An overnight stop was spent in Clermont in an Etap hotel for a good rate, about forty Euros, as I recall. It was a clean and well-dressed city. We left the next morning and spent most of the day driving south to Narbonne, a fun little town in Provence. Green trees line the avenue of this sweet, beautiful town.

We had to travel this far south to reach the main road, the E15 to Montpellier and then the E80 Salon-de-Provence, outside Marseille. Then on to Aix-en-Provence where you’ll pass through Parc Jourdan and straight on to our destination.

Now, about Nice. After a night in a seaside hotel, we entered the city in order to pick up my dad from the airport. The city didn’t make a good impression with me. Aside from that, though, we had a decent stay, punctuated by the beaches, or, namely, the topless women on them.

I was fourteen years old and, for me, it was paradise. As we crossed the border into Italy, I felt a distinct sense of adventure. My first impression of San Remo on the Italian side was one of surrealism. It was January and the christmas lights were  still up.

This did not gel at all with the  temperate beaches and sunshine that the city glowed in. I passed through Monaco twice to get there by train. The view of the water was dazzling! It only cost 5 Euros and the station was clean. Not so in San Remo.

The longest tunnel-walk in the world between the train and the station front door is here. It takes a few minutes. Happy days were spent there, as my dad purchased a flat in Ceriana, a tiny hill village just a few miles north of San Remo.

Ceriana (IM), 2010.

Ceriana (IM), 2010. (Photo credit: Fiore S. Barbato)

It was a sweet place, as is shown below, but the flat was uninhabited and unprepared. My dad had rather unrealistic ideas about renting it out to tourists.

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We met up with a real estate agent in the village, called Martina, who ran a real estate business with her husband, Klaus. We spent a day overlooking the flat and discussing terms. It wasn’t very interesting for me and I didn’t like the property. I think my dad was the only one who did.

But that was the first time I went down. Over the next few years, I grew fond of the flat, having stayed in it twice in 2005 for a week’s stretch and a two-week stretch. The first time I went down, my dad picked me up from the airport.

We crossed into France again one day as we headed for the seaside town of Menton. I’ll remember that day forever. There was a festival of oranges on and it was bright screaming sunshine. And as for the bakeries, there were fruit-flavoured pastries abound!

Menton

Menton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We tried some oranges and they are probably the best I’ve ever had. I really appreciated my dad doing that for me. He was so impressed with the town. It was a really special week.

The bus trip…anyone who has been on the road between Ceriana on the bus  is either extremely brave, foolish or insane. A the bus veers close to the steep drop-off on one side, my heart leaps. My faith in the drivers is not well-founded either.

They gab on their cell-phones, talk to the passengers and throw their hands up in the air, completely oblivious to the concept that they might have to keep those things that have fingers on them gripped to the big wheel that steers the thing called a bus with loads of innocent people, whose life flashes before their eyes, in it.

Mine did. I was quite peaceful about that. Scared stiff about dying though.

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If you get there, though, this is what awaits. A calm, cosy square with cafes all around and a pleasant, gentle atmosphere to suit. I felt as though life could not be more contented. The marina was just adjacent to the square, leisure boats and the like.

Well I sure hope Mario enjoyed the English tea that I got for him and the strawberry jam, among with other items. It was only on later trips that I found out about all the eateries in the vicinity. The communities are tiny, but they have traditionally cooked, very palatable food.

One may dine at the pizzeria in Ceriana itself, run by Esmerelda and Dario. It has the finest Margherita’s around. Then there are, of course, numerous counterparts such as the Restaurant Vecchia Fattoria. Don’t be mistaken. Of the dozen or so items on the menu, you don’t get to choose one.

They’ll serve you the entire menu, one item after another. There was also a cafe in Bajardo, further north about two miles. I don’t recall the name. Portofino and the cove around the harbour are not to be forgotten. The colour of its sweet little cottages embedded on the hillside is an image that will last for decades in my memory.

It’s gaudy-painted boats only add to this glamorous retreat. You can spend hours by the waterfront there and getting to it by car is a fun adventure of relaxing, winding roads and sunshine. Along with car honks. someone may be around the bend in front of you, so you’d better warn them of your presence!

There was Turin too, of course. I flew in there once to catch a train to San Remo. Two remarkable things happened to me. One, the first time I went there, the bus driver forgot to tell me when I was at the station. This resulted in me missing my train and having to connect via Savona.

It added about four hours to my journey. The second experience was when I went back. My dad and I took the train, kipping in the station. We got about two hours of sleep and decided to wander round at three a.m. Bizarrely, all the cafes were buzzing.

That morning, we checked into a decent hotel, shadowed a monastery above the city. We ate in a cosmopolitan restaurant and flew out the next day.

It was with sadness, therefore, that my father had to sell his flat, never having rented it to so much as dormouse. They were lovely days…

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Where: The Maltese Islands

When: March

Why: Sunspot

How long: Four days

06:30 hours GMT. I awake for my trip to Malta. Its going to be exciting, after all these months of winter, to get a few days in the Med. I chose Malta not just because of its location, but also because of the legend the island is immersed with. The siege of the Second World War. The Knights of St John. Fabulous!

Re-enactment of 16th century military drills c...

Re-enactment of 16th century military drills conducted by the Knights. Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta, Malta, 8 May 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was dull and dreary as we made our way to Bristol airport. Just get on the flight and go there, I think to myself. After being dropped off at departures, I head straight for security, having opted for an online check-in. This made life much more easy. No long queues, although I paid a little extra.

After that, I just sat and had a raspberry fruit drink in the cafe area looking out onto airport tarmac at the usual activity. Little did I know that I was going to arrive on Malta and see a bit of history made…I was fully conscious of a cash problem that I had…namely no Euros.

I would have to get my pounds sterling exchanged into Euros when I got there. So the gate comes up and I dutifully proceed to it. A long line awaits me inside the warm air of the gate. Rather in there than outside.

As the gate opened, we filed out onto the tarmac into the cold winter air. At least, in a few minutes, we would break into bright sunshine. After boarding and having settled into my seat, I relaxed for a nice flight, no delays. just some de-icing before take off.

It wasn’t long before I felt that familiar roar of the engines and tug in the back of my seat, what a rush! Only a few seconds after we slip the bounds of earth do we break into bright sunshine.

The flight passed uneventfully with an old English couple next to me. The alps, a few drinks, blue azure waters, a steep approach and a hard thump later we land in Malta, the Jewel of the Mediterranean. Passport Control, no problem.

I’d bought a ticket for a hotel transfer on the flight and now I headed to the company’s desk. They were called MaltaTransfer. They had a reasonable rate as well; £12. Keep ’em in mind. the whole holiday was very cheap and great value.

£20 a night for the room and £110 for the flight. So if anybody wants a cheap sunspot in March, Malta’s your goal. The first thing the driver told us, after we piled into the minibus, was that, in the first time for 25 years, the Nationalist government had lost its election. Not only that, but the Labour Party had won! Suits me.

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DSC07359 (Photo credit: fchmksfkcb)

He warned us that the place would be heaving. He was right. We heard nothing but car horns, screechers, fireworks and chanting for the next three days! I’ve never seen people so jubilant, quite moving. I asked a lady where my hotel was…she didn’t know.

Finally, I found it. It wasn’t easy to find the sign tucked away beneath Burger King and about half a dozen other signs. So I went to reception and found that I had booked the hotel twice. I suspected this, having booking once and not receiving a confirmation e-mail. I still have to contact expedia to ask about a refund.

The Sliema Marina hotel is where I stayed, located, surprisingly, in the community of Sliema. It lies northwest of Valletta, across St Julian’s bay and Marsamxett Harbour from Valletta with Manoel Island between.

Deutsch: Valletta vom Marsamxett-Harbour

Deutsch: Valletta vom Marsamxett-Harbour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The community has a strip of hotels, clubs and cafeterias along the road next to the water’s edge, yet the view still attracts. The header photograph above is the view of Valletta from my room.

My money problem was not resolved until the next morning. Meanwhile, I would have to do with bribing someone to take Stirling in order to serve me food. I walked down the strip, trying various cash machines. No go. No money in the account either, as I was later to find out.

Eventually, after wondering what to do, I found a Pizza Hut. I had my usual, a Margherita. Now, what about payment? The card didn’t work, and I called Lloyd’s TSB, only to find out the aforementioned; no cash.

We eventually agreed that another group of customers would put the Margherita on their tab and take some stirling to exchange into Euros. They were very understanding and, frankly, I feel a little bad about it.

I also casually asked the waitress if she was single. No. In a relationship and had been for a year. So that concluded the first night.

The next day was a national holiday. This meant walking around the harbour, some 2.5 miles. No problem, although my feet rubbed badly due to a hole in my sock. The city gate entrance to Valletta lies on a hill above the town, preceded by the bus station if you come from the landward side.

Valletta bus station.

Valletta bus station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had no such trouble, I just passed straight through the gate and began my jaunt to the city centre. I slowly descended down the slope of the hill on which Valletta partially lies, traipsing through Republic Square where I found a taxi to take me to the airport.

That was 45 Euros that I would rather have kept. Next time, I’ll have my money transferred plenty in advance. After having a hair-raising ride/suicide run with the cab driver, I came back into town to watch the proceedings. The place was stuffed!

St. Paul's shipwreck celebration

St. Paul’s shipwreck celebration (Photo credit: Te lo juro por Madonna)

Half of Valletta’s population must have been crammed into Republic Square. And then there was the crowd that stretched down the street where I was that ran down to the harbour adjacent to the square.

I couldn’t see up to the square and we all had to rely on a large monitor to see what was happening. It was really cramped, as later my back really hurt. An old lady had to be pulled to one side, short of breath.

As Prime Minister Joseph Muscat came out, screechers howled like banshees. So did the people. He gave his speech over the next few minutes and I was thoroughly impressed.

However, I was also relieved to be able to move around again once the crowd began to disperse. I began to head down to the harbour, people still waving “Partit Labour” flags all over the place.

I walked down to Fort St Elmo, at the headland of Valletta. The town is situated on a peninsula, surrounded by Marsamxett Harbour on one side and Grand Harbour on the other. There are six forts that surround the city.

It was, after all, founded by Jean Paul de Vallette, leader of the Grand Order of the Knights of St John. The foundation stone was laid down in 1565 to mark the beginning of construction for the fortress-city.

The other five forts are Tigne Fort across Marsamxett Harbour and Fort Manoel on Manoel Island plus Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo and Fort St Michael on the other side of Grand Harbour.

So I took a few photographs and headed back to the bus station, where I bought a weekly pass for 12 Euros, headed back to the hotel and crashed out. The weather was cloudy and beginning to rain when I went to sleep around 16:30. When I woke up at 18:00, it was glorious sunshine.

I stepped onto the balcony and took the shot at the beginning of the article.

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Also to be noted was the ferry from Sliema to Valletta. A ten-minute journey and with a nice view as well. I snapped the shot just above on the embankment on Valletta’s side when I disembarked.

The ferry was a well-equipped boat with indoor and outdoor seating, the outdoor being at the bow. Only one Euro forty each way. Good price:)

The saluting battery was an enchanting experience. They fire a breech-loading cannon off every day 12:00 and the uniforms of the Royal Malta Artillery foundation are spectacular.

They can be seen walking around Valletta in their blue tunics and sun helmets. They gave a fascinating talk prior to firing and are well worth a visit in Upper Barakka Gardens, from where they fire across Grand Harbour…with no shot in the cannon.

The pre-talk lasted about an hour and went through the history of the foundation. With a green forecourt and eight guns overlooking the harbour, it certainly is impressive.

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After having seen the gardens, I took a bus to the airport and purchased a transfer from the hotel for 04:40 in the morning, happy times! I was handed a confirmation sheet that was dutifully stowed away on my return to the room, shortly after.

I spent my final evening in Malta the way any sane person might, around the clubs and cafes. There was also a gelateria, or ice cream shop. I tried it…pretty good. The drinks were expensive, though. I asked one counter employee if he had any soft drinks. He let me know that he could mix a punch for me and I agreed to that.

It cost FOUR EUROS! I finished that evening again with a Margherita Pizza, they’re handy if you’re vegetarian. It was almost the size of the table I ate it on. Back to the hotel, a shower and good night.

View of Valletta from Sliema

View of Valletta from Sliema (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next morning, I was up, showered and dressed, sitting on the bed awaiting my room call. Down to the cab and away to the airport. There were other occupants at this hour, too. Seemingly unbelievable but true.

I guess they were on Ryanair too. The airport was a small affair, but it had a cafeteria. It wasn’t long before I decided to head for security and that only took a few minutes. No chance of getting lost, there were only fifteen gates. I arrived at mine and queued dutifully. No priority boarding or the like.

Not long before were stood on the cold, blustery tarmac that I’m so familiar with. I stand next to and chat with another young Englishman whose dad lived on Malta. He said in the summer, the temperature could rise to 47 degrees! Phew. Glad I went in March.

It was good to be home when I arrived back in Bristol that day.

Venice and Dubrovnik

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Dubrovnik“. The name conjures up images of a city so beautiful, many respect it as paradise. The town, as you enter it, sets a sight that you’ll never forget. The entrance to the old town from the north is very quaint indeed.

You walk slowly down a windy, s-shaped street that descends gradually towards the water until you reach the shaded area that has a waterfront overlooking the harbour from the south.

The 'old town' of Dubrovnik From the photograp...

The ‘old town’ of Dubrovnik From the photographer: Canon 5d + 24-70mm @ 45mm Slik Sprint Pro 2 tripod Redsnapper RSH-61 ballhead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many cafes stretch across fortified medieval city walls next to the water’s edge. It’s a lovely cool walk along the pavement down here and you may also find harbour tours. The sea was as turquoise as the word itself. The waters as calm as silk.

A brief pass through Bosnia and a small stop at a convenient store later and we pass back into Croatia again. The drive into Dubrovnik was eventful, as was negotiating who wanted to park where in the lot when we got there.

There, of course, was not much space between the mountains and the sea for a city, let alone a parking lot. It was here that we spent the day, drinking cold drinks, repeatedly saying how gorgeous it was and basking in the sun.

The drive home was uneventful. We dined eagerly by Split‘s Old Town harbour area and boarded the ferry for Ancona. The boarding process was long and laborious and the passage equally so.

 

English: Countryside along the Adriatic shore ...

English: Countryside along the Adriatic shore en route from Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia. June 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The unloading process was dreadful. The cars were being brought off the ship at the same time the walk-off passengers! Ancona.

The town of seagulls! Not much to see here…just a dreary port and its docks. Full speed ahead to Venice!

There is one thing that I will never forget about the day we arrived. The rain. Boy it poured! It I stared deep into the blue. I was thoughtful.

Happy. Contented. Many good things. After all, maybe life had a calling for me after all. I was, of course, in Croatia.

A country that must have some of the most desirable coast in Europe. Our location, at that point, was a hotel just south of Split. We were situated by the sea as well.

Always a plus. We sat out on the terrace and had a scrumptious breakfast. We set out around eight-thirty.

A brief pass through Bosnia and a small stop at a convenient store later and we pass back into Croatia again. The drive into Dubrovnik was eventful, as was negotiating who wanted to park where in the lot when we got there. There, of course, was not much space between the mountains and the sea for a city, let alone a parking lot.

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As for the hotel, very posh. It was quite a walk from here to the train station. And the trains were crowded too, cattle class. In fact, I recall my mother saying that she was quite claustrophobic.

The train stopped at a lot of stations before reaching Venice and we passed Marco Polo Intl. Venezia Santa Lucia is the main station and you’ll have, at some point, to pass through Venezia Mestre station on solid land if you wish to see the island city.

 

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venice-grand-canal-from-train-station (Photo credit: hartingale)

 

Once you’re there, then the fun begins. You’ll be able to enjoy the famous “Vaporetto’s”. These famous little boats are the buses and life-blood of Venice.

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The Rialto bridge . My mother spent some time photographing this as I eagerly looked on. The rain had abated and I had removed my raincoat.

It was really magical, despite the smell of the brown stuff. The sun began to shine from behind those dark and brooding clouds above.

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How about seeing the Piazza San Marco. Thats a wonderful place. You pay a small fee to go up the tower and have the most wonderful view. The centre of the tower stretches high above the square and you can see the whole city from here!

I took the sight in really well, feeling slightly giddy because of the height, and returned to terra firma.

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After this, we felt like having a drink. Why not stop off in a Cafe? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because two regular-sized glasses of lemonade will set you back six Euros! Yeah, its expensive here. Next, the shopping district. After a happy hour here, we headed again for our water-bus Vaporettos and casually made our way back to Central Station.

During our stay, a cruise ship came into harbour. Sacrilege if you ask me. Why couldn’t that hundred-thousand-plus-tonne monstrosity stay outside the city and boat its passengers into the city. The passengers were quite irritating too. Loud. Smelly. Overweight.

 

At least we left the next day. I never thought I’d say that about Venice, but I’d had just the right dose of holiday…