Reflections on Hong Kong from Five Miles Up

I don’t much like long haul flights. The seats aren’t built for sleep, there is too much noise, the entertainment screen – good as it is on Virgin planes – is too close to my face, and you never quite know what time it is. The food, whilst palatable, sits on one’s stomach and disrupts the body clock. And if the flight doesn’t get to you, the waiting around for hours in airport queues probably will.

Is it worth all of this disruption to one’s bodily routines?

If there was another way to travel the world that overcame these drawbacks, I’d do it. Until that happens (I’m  thinking Star Trek transporter system) we’ll just have to make do.

Because the pain is definitely worth it. Our trip to Hong Kong has been something else.

As I reflect back on the last few days, I realise that our initial apprehension as we first experienced the city’s frenetic lifestyle and energy, its multiculturalism and its diversity, has turned into admiration for a new-found friend. Hong Kong grows on you.

It’s a city in which you soon begin to feel at home. The people  are unfailingly polite and helpful, such as when an elderly gentleman stopped to help us work the ticket machine on the  MTR underground platform in the middle of rush hour, or when the lady on duty at Nan Lian Gardens welcomed us to the park, told us about the layout, and made us feel special.

Our visit to the Gardens was earlier today (or was it yesterday? I’m writing this in mid-air). Sitting a little way out of the city centre right next to the Diamond Hill MTR station, itself underneath the Hollywood Plaza shopping centre, the Gardens are superb. Relatively recent, they are laid out in 1,200 year-old Tang Dynasty style with typical Chinese flair. A line of Banyan trees, with their amazing exposed root systems, leads to quiet pathways, delightful greenery and typically Chinese buildings constructed of beautiful redwood, including a gold pagoda at the centre, striking against the backdrop of residential towers that frame it in the distance.

Nan Lian Gardens

Nan Lian Gardens

Above the Gardens lies the Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist temple set out around a wide ornate courtyard. There is a service taking place and the sounds of passages being read out to the accompaniment of Buddhist bells mixes with the scent of incense.

And yet, only yards away, busy flyovers carry traffic through the city, whilst every view contains an image of the ever-present skyscrapers towering over the scene. It’s another example of the conjunction of old and new, East and West, that makes Hong Kong so fascinating. It’s claim to be ‘Asia’s World City’ seems fully justified to this not-so-seasoned traveller.

The Chinese are obviously pleased to have got their city back. The reunification was 18 years ago, and the agreement signed by Mrs Thatcher at that time stipulated that the new ‘SAR’ – Special Administrative Region – would remain unaltered, with its own separate legal systems and democratic processes, for at least another 50 years. That doesn’t seem so long now we’re a third of the way through it.

Earlier we had visited the Hong Kong History Museum on Chatham Road South. Through a series of large halls the story of the area is told, from the formation of the rocks on which the city is built (mostly volcanic granite) to the earliest tribes, the rise of agriculture and Chinese traditions, cultures and beliefs, through to the Opium Wars, the Cessation of Hong Kong, the creation of the banking systems (especially the good old Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, whose Head Office stands proudly overlooking the Harbour, and which is responsible for printing and supervising the local currency, the HK Dollar), the Japanese occupation during WW2, and finally to the handover in 1997. It’s all handled in an open and informative way, with apparent balance. That is, until the final audiovisual presentation which sums up in a few minutes the story of the SAR. The emphasis is heavily on the return of the Region to the fold, with the Brits cast as the interlopers and no recognition of the obvious benefits they’ve brought over the course of their 150 year tenureship.

Local elections are in train during our visit, with lots of posters showing headshots of the local candidates. Yet this week an item appears on BBC News reporting that the owner and three staff of a bookshop In Causeway Bay have mysteriously disappeared simultaneously. The shop was known for publishing texts critical of the Chinese Government and its leaders, and was popular with visitors from the mainland where those same books are banned from sale.

China has itself changed significantly in recent years, but by Western standards it has a long way to go in areas of free speech and personal liberty. Let’s hope that Hong Kong can remain the truly international jewel that we have so enjoyed during this last two weeks for many years to come. It’s been a great trip.

Breaking The Dragon’s Back

It’s oppressively hot, the humidity making us feel even warmer as well as perpetually damp as we fail to evaporate our sweat. The trail is well-used and clearly defined but quite demanding as we pick our way across rocks and boulders. As we face a 45 degree climb up the next rise we stop to catch our breath in the heavy air.

We’re on the Dragon’s Back, one of Hong Kong’s most famous trails. It’s popular on a Saturday afternoon, with plenty of locals as well as tourists taking the hike with us, some dressed in serious hiking gear and others in shorts and flip-flops. We’re pleased we’ve donned our walking shoes though.

It seemed an arduous journey to get here. Instead of opting for the highly efficient MTR underground service to the far end of Hong Kong, we decided on the scenic route of Star Ferry across the harbour, then the ancient but busy tramline all the way to its terminus at Shau Kei Wan. You board the trams at the rear and pay on exit, and at busy times (i.e., always) you’ll have to stand as people get off at each stop, gradually moving through the vehicle. Our persistence pays off as we eventually find seats at the back of the upper deck, with great views of the street scene. As everywhere on the island, high tech business towers mix with densely packed residential blocks, the latter displaying drying laundry at every other balcony. A walk along the street here seems as likely to result in being rained on by other people’s underwear as by the regular precipitation, although both have held off for us up to now.

We’re already feeling stiff as we emerge from the tram, it’s a rickety ride and the seats are hard. We walk around the block and eventually ask a minibus driver where we can find the number 9 bus. He guides us to the next street, where we find the bus station and a long queue already formed for our bus to Shek O, Hong Kong’s beachside ‘resort’. We climb aboard and look out for our stop as detailed in our Pocket Rough Guide (very helpful and highly recommended). Most buses have a display board showing progress, but this one was obviously broken so I ask the young man sitting next to me if we’re at the Dragon’s Back stop as he and his party get up to leave. ‘Yes, yes, this is it’ he tells us, and indeed when we alight we find a wooden sign pointing to the Dragon’s Back trail. Something doesn’t feel right, though, so we study the helpful maps displayed on boards a few yards up the path. After working out that this map shows South at the top (not always obvious) we realise that we’re at the wrong end of the trail. The intended route would have involved turning right at the ‘end’ and walking down to Big Wave Bay for a welcome drink, but going this way means we’ll either have to retrace our steps or catch the bus back at the other end.

So we return to the road and wait for the next No 9 to arrive. Fortunately they are every few minutes, so before long we’re at the ‘proper’ end of the trail and making our way up through the undergrowth.

As we get higher the views become more rewarding. There’s a lot of cloud about today and it’s nowhere near as warm as it could be – we wouldn’t fancy doing this walk in midsummer – and the top of Victoria Peak in the near distance is intermittently shrouded in cloud. Further away to the west are the islands of Lamma and Lantau, whilst as we get even higher the east coast comes into the picture too. At one point we reach the top of a rise to find a panoramic view of Shek O, with its beach, golf course, and executive homes directly below. It’s a great sight.

We understand how the Dragon’s Back got its name as the trail is displayed before us, rising and falling over successive peaks like travelling along the spine of a huge reptile. We stop to enjoy our sandwiches on a bench looking out to sea. As we do so a hang glider soars past for the third time, its pilot obviously highly skilled in riding the updrafts as he serenely criss-crosses only a few yards away.

Walking the Spine of the Dragon

Walking the Spine of the Dragon

Eventually the trail drops down onto the steep slopes of the hillside, it’s well-trodden route offering lots of opportunities for twisted ankles. It doesn’t slow down several runners, though, obviously much fitter and braver than us.

Finally we get back to our ‘starting’ point, and turn right under the trees heading for the beach. Our legs are getting tired now and the light is starting to fail. The concrete road is level for a good way offering easy walking, but halfway along the trail suddenly turns at right angles down a steep path, regular steps cut into the stone. It’s hard work going constantly downwards, jarring bones on some of the deeper drops.

The town still looks a good distance away, but suddenly we’re there, emerging alongside homes and next to a children’s playground. We buy cold Coke from the stall by the beach and guzzle it down, grateful for the refreshment after our exertions.

Big Wave Bay is lovely, with golden sand leading out to the sea. It’s obviously a mecca for surfers, and there are many of them out among the waves. It’s getting late in the day but this place is worth another visit.

After a few minutes enjoying the view we catch the minibus that’s just leaving the car park, which drops us right next to Shau Kei Wan MTR station. This time we opt for the quick way home.

Except we don’t stop at Tsim Sha Tsui and our hotel, but carry on to Yau Ma Tei, two stops further on up Nathan Road and next to the Temple Street Night Market. We’ve got some bargaining to do, but that’s a story for another time.

People, People Everywhere…..

One of the characteristics of Hong Kong that most people have mentioned is that it’s full of people. As one of the most densely populated places in the world, that’s certainly true.

Walking down busy Nathan Road, adjacent to our hotel, we’re constantly changing direction, stopping and sidestepping as one does on busy streets. I’m reminded of one of James Herriot’s stories where farmer Arnold Summergill describes one of his rare visits to the local town and why he couldn’t walk on the street. There were too many people about, he said, and he’d had to take ‘big steps and little ‘uns’ and couldn’t get going. ‘Big steps and little ‘uns’ well describes progress here.

It gets far worse, though. We took the MTR underground train last night during rush hour, feeling like fish in a massive moving shoal as we swept with the tide towards our destination. Getting on the wrong side of the people stream can be risky, because having to cross to regain your direction of travel requires bravery and focus. Once across, though, you go with the flow once again until the next change of direction. Just have your ticket ready for the exit barriers.

And then there’s a different kind of crowd as we meander through the Ladies Market. This kilometre-long row of stalls is jammed into the street, with narrow walkways through which we thread carefully. It’s effectively a six-lane market, with two sides to each row of stalls plus the adjacent shops on either side, many of them open-fronted. Here you can buy formal wear, casual wear, outerwear, underwear, rainwear, footwear and sportswear, and a massive range of goods, bags, trinkets, beauty products,,, the list goes on.

Hong Kong Ladies Market

Ladies Market

It’s been markets day today. We started at the Flower Market, a street full of cut flowers, garden products, and shrubs, offering a colourful spectacle and delightful scents. At the end of Flower Market Street is the Bird Market, an area full of semi-permanent stalls selling a vast array of cage birds, from parrots to finches and everything in between, as well as all of the paraphernalia you need to keep your bird, including cages and stands, trinkets and food.

In the latter category it’s possible to buy not only bags of assorted seeds, but also live bird food in the form of bags of crickets and beetles. Apparently the crickets are fed to the hungry bird using chopsticks, an implement we haven’t yet mastered. Perhaps we ought to practice a bit more if we’re to avoid a nasty accident with the cricket supply.

But Hong Kong isn’t all surging crowds. Like all great cities, there are many small oases of calm dotted around. Street gardens and parks offer shaded sitting areas, many of them in delightful surroundings. The Bird Market itself is an unflustered area of calm despite the accompanying trill of thousands of tiny finches. On our return journey we stop in at the Tin Hau Temple, it’s interior a place for quiet reflection like any religious house. Here, it’s the nose and eyes that are assaulted by the constant burning of incense, obviously an important part of the ritual of worship.

Hong Kong Bird Market

Bird Market

We eventually retreat to our hotel to spend some time by the pool. Nine floors up, we’re untroubled by the hustle and bustle below. The peace and quiet is welcome.

View From The Peak

Sitting in Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, the restaurant themed around Tom Hanks’ famous film character Forrest Gump, being served by Chinese staff whilst watching the Darts Championship on the TV, is a reminder of the multicultural nature of this great city. I may be wrong, but I’m not sure that the staff really appreciated the significance of each diner’s table top sign instructing them to ‘Run Forrest, Run’ or ‘Stop Forrest, Stop’ when service was required, even with the film constantly repeating itself on a monitor on the wall. Highly attentive service is a feature, we had discovered, of this part of the world and the signs almost seemed to get in the way of that.

To recap, we’re in the Sky Terrace 428, a shopping mall near the top of Victoria Peak, 428 metres above sea level in Hong Kong. Above us is the viewing platform that any tourist worthy of the name has to visit, including us. Below, shimmering in the darkness like a massive fairground, are the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Kowloon and beyond, a superb accompaniment to our chosen dish of multiple types of shrimp in batter.

Getting up here is either a demanding climb up the hillside in the clinging humidity, or the easy option of the famous Peak Tram. This ancient funicular railway, the first ever built in Asia during the reign of Queen Victoria after whom the area draws its name,  charges up the hillside at an oblique angle, rising over 1,300 feet in less than a mile and around 8 minutes. We choose the easy option. The orientation of the seats makes it seem that the adjacent towers are leaning heavily to one side as you ascend, a weird feeling. It’s a popular trip, and the carriages are packed with people both ways.

The views from the Sky Terrace are well worth it, though. From Happy Valley, just out of sight to the east, to the islands lying to the west, it’s a fabulous panorama of high rise towers, boats, sea and mountains. It’s one of those views you have to experience to appreciate.

We’d travelled up in daytime, but night falls quickly here and before you know it, it’s dark. The city transforms below you as the lights flicker on, and I reckon the guidebook is right when it says that this is a view you never tire of, because it’s constantly changing.

We were thinking of walking back down through the forest, but we change our minds in the dark and ride the tram back to Central. From there it’s a short walk to the financial centre, with it’s massive buildings and harbour-facing illuminations jockeying to show how rich, powerful and important are the owning institutions. Pride of place has to go to HSBC’s massive block, looking like a giant elongated toaster. Apparently having an unrestricted view of the water the building has great ‘feng shui’, an important consideration in HK, which guarantees it future prosperity. So if you want to bring down the bank, you just need to build something else in front of it. You might have trouble with planning permission, though.

We’re soon back to sea level on the famous Star Ferry for it’s short but dramatic trip across the Harbour to our hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui after a great introduction to the city.

Who Needs A Suntan Anyway?

The rain patters down on the tonneau cover as we sit watching hardy narrowboaters gliding past through the deluge.

It’s the second time in two weeks that we’ve been afloat on the canals. Last week we hired a 67 footer to navigate the delightful Kennet & Avon waterway from Bath to Devizes and back, and this weekend we’re visiting Dave and Ju on their own boat near Leighton Buzzard on the Grand Union.

The weather pattern has been similar on both trips, with warm and sunny August days transposed with days of torrential rain which makes lock working somewhat less attractive. But hey, this is England and who needs a suntan anyway?

Especially when you’re enjoying the pleasures of the English waterways.

Kennet & Avon Canal

Kennet & Avon Canal

I’ve had a fascination with our canal system ever since Sue introduced me to it in the mid 1970’s. A journey by narrow boat offers a unique and highly intimate perspective on our countryside, towns and cities, as well as a window into our recent industrial past.

The rise, fall and regeneration of this man-made network of communication is the story of the industrial revolution and the subsequent technological advances that rendered canals redundant. The engineering prowess of the early canal pioneers is there for all to see in structures such as the Dundas Aqueduct a few miles out from Bath, with it’s elegant solution to spanning the River Avon below. But it is also testament to the sheer physical efforts of the thousands of navigators – ‘navvies’ as they became known – who formed the pathways for the canals to run on  with their bare hands. Embankments, cuttings, bridges and tunnels were created without the benefit of the huge earthmoving machines that seem to construct modern motorways with hardly a human to be seen.

The accumulation of knowledge was rapid as canal-building technology improved. The early ‘contour’ canals followed the lie of the land, resulting in stretches such as the South Oxford taking it’s leisurely, meandering path from Coventry down towards the Thames. In one place, at Wormleighton, a mile long sweeping bend brings the cut within  a few yards of itself as it seeks to avoid the need to bridge the rolling hills and hollows of the land.

As the canals became more profitable and those profits rose with rapid journey times, later engineers such as Thomas Telford found ways to forge straight through the countryside, compensating for the contours with huge earthworks and dramatic structures, of which the  most striking example has to be the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen.

Of course, like any arterial route, the joy is in the travelling of it, and the canals bring such joy in spades. The locks, an  early engineering solution to hills, have matured into quaint and picturesque places of beauty, activity and camaraderie. Boaters and bystanders alike gather at the side of locks, still inspired by the cleverness of it all, and sharing a friendly acknowledgement and often an interesting anecdote.

If you enjoy this country, are happy to be outside, and relish the opportunity to explore, try taking a trip on a narrow boat.

There’s just one thing. Make sure you take your raincoat.


Beauty And The Beasts

As our plane gains height above Naples we get a fantastic view of the lights of the city spreading out before us, the dark shadow of Vesuvius just visible in the background. The last night-time takeoff we experienced was at Los Angeles, and we remember being impressed by the clearly laid out grid structure, each ‘block’ in sharp definition. Here perhaps it’s no coincidence that the city from the air resembles a plate of spaghetti, with the sodium lamps even adding the hue of tomato sauce.

So what are my impressions of Italy after our first visit?

It’s tempting to continue the American comparison, not least because the place is full with Yanks. I’m sure that Sorrento, our home for the last week, is no more representative of Italy than L.A. is of the States, but it’s all I’ve got. I’m sure you’ll draw your own conclusions if you’re familiar with the country.

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are very lovely to behold. Yesterday we took the boat to the island of Capri, probably the jewel in the area’s glittering crown. Riding the chairlift to the highest point on the island was an amazing experience, and the views from the top were stunning, not least the near 2,000 foot sheer drop to the sea below. The limestone cliffs, the sun reflecting off the azure sea, the multicolored buildings below – if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean, and also agree that words can’t do it justice.

Capri View

Capri View

One reason that the Americans come here in droves is clearly because of the antiquity of the place. In San Diego, California, our bus driver proudly showed us the City’s oldest building, dating back to 1850. Here, our walking tour of Sorrento included a visit to a pub proudly displaying a portion of original 2,000 year-old Roman wall in its basement along with a number of earthenware pots discovered during renovations. It could easily have been part of the pub run by the landlords’ ancestors.

Of course, many Americans have Italian roots, their own ancestors moving continents only a generation or two ago. No wonder they want to explore their past.

It’s no wonder either that Americans are so entrepreneurial given our experience in Sorrento. Every restaurant, it seems, has a staffer stationed outside ready to explain why you should visit their establishment, pushing a menu into your hand whilst pointing out the chef’s recommendations. Every shop beckons you inside, and they all have their sales pitch. Capitalism is in full swing here.

So why is Italy apparently in such economic trouble whilst it’s sons and daughters in the US are racing ahead?

I don’t know the answer to that one, although I suspect it is to do with a combination of politics, Eurozone austerity and demographics. However one factor that I’m sure is a contributor is the absence of the large corporation.

In America the streets are dominated by the big chains, from McDonalds’ to Applebee’s, from Days Inn to Marriott, and from Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts. Here there is no sign of any of them. On the contrary, every establishment we visit seems to be owned and run by a family, anxious to please and committed to great service. It’s one of the features that makes a visit here so enjoyable.

We order some bottles of Limoncello, the delicious local liqueur speciality. We are served by Roberto, who proudly tells us that he is the sixth and youngest child in his family. His parents run the farm that supplies produce to the shop, whilst his sister manages the fashion store across the road that is another family venture. He seems very happy, with no plans for world domination. This is a family business, not a corporation.

I’m intrigued by this so I look up the statistics. According to a report from PwC, in 2014 American companies accounted for 47 of the top 100 firms in the world. Italy had 1, Eni Spa whose oil and gas business was ranked 92nd (the UK had 6). I’m not at all surprised.

Now I’m a fan of business, and I understand that they need to grow to survive. But I have to say that it would be a real shame if Italy – or at least the bit of Italy we got to see – got taken over by mega-corporations. It’s happened elsewhere, not least in the States where many people lament the loss of the ‘mom and pop’ stores that used to be the backbone of small town retailing across America, squeezed out by the Wal-Mart’s and the Safeway’s.

Ultimately it will be the consumer who chooses where and with whom they want to shop, and times of austerity make it easier for the retail big guns to attract business, so who knows what the future may bring.

But I suspect that, so far as Sorrento and the Amalfi coast area is concerned, it will be business as usual for a while yet. So if you haven’t yet discovered this lovely area, come and visit Roberto and friends. I’m sure that, like us, you’ll get a very warm welcome.


The Loveliest Coast In The World

Tuesday, 28th October 2014

Roger Moore’s house is beautiful. It’s a white painted villa set in the cliffs near Amalfi, with a stunning setting and amazing views across the Mediterranean Sea.

It pales besides Gina Lollobrigida’s pink painted home, however. And that in turn looks small next to Sophia Loren’s lovely villa atop a crag, framed by the glorious Amalfi mountain coastal backdrop. And looking down on them all from on high is Gore Vidal’s white mansion, all 70 million euros worth of it according to our skipper.

The Amalfi coast is generally reckoned to be the most gorgeous in the world, and we’ve come out by bus and boat to see for ourselves. We’re strongly inclined to agree.

Gina, we love your house!

Gina, we love your house!

We’ve driven across from Sorrento, following the coast road to Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. At Amalfi our guide has arranged a boat excursion to view the coast as it should be viewed, from the sea. And what a fabulous view it is.

It’s the complexity of the scene that is its key. The multi-textured cliffs are full of interest, changing constantly as layer builds upon layer. Interwoven into the cliffs are houses, villas, churches and other buildings forming a riot of colour. Added to them are the vineyards, rosemary gardens, inlets, caves, crags and beaches that have been threaded into the picture like silks in an intricate embroidery.

I’m reminded of the coast of Southern Ireland that I visited last year. That was glorious for its emptiness, its remoteness. Here the contrast is clear. The beauty of the Amalfi coast is in its vibrant humanity, its ancient relationship with the peoples of the area, and its modern-day connection with the beauty and confidence that is Italy.

I could write a lot more about it, and many others have done so. But there are some places that you just have to experience to understand. Here is one of them.

Sharpen your passport now.




The Biggest Bang in Europe

Monday 27th October 2014

Steam is rising in gentle plumes from the rock face. It’s evidence of the heat that’s present several kilometres below, gradually building in intensity. We’re standing on top of the release valve of a gigantic pressure cooker, and one day it’s going to blow. When it does, the results will be spectacular and lethal. This is Vesuvius, Europe’s biggest active volcano.

It last went off in 1944, but notable as that eruption was, it was a mere fizzle compared with the most famous bang in the year 79. Apparently on that occasion 1.5 million tons of rocks, earth and ash spewed out every second for days, reaching over 20 miles high before it started falling to earth. There was enough material to cover the whole surrounding area to a depth of many metres, including the complete town of Pompeii which would remain buried for another one and a half millennia.

It’s probably appropriate that we’re here a week before Guy Fawkes night, because that must have been the firework display to end all firework displays. And we’re standing right on its top lip, looking down at the blue touch paper.

We’ve come up the lower slopes by 4×4 bus, feeling as though we’re in an Indiana Jones adventure as we bounce and lurch from pothole to pothole along the rough mountain track as we climb the peak, often inches from a sudden rapid descent as we peer down to the valley below. Our last few minutes are on foot, kicking through the grey ash that this mountain seems to be made of. We reach the summit to find the inevitable wooden shack selling volcanic gifts, postcards and Coke before we meet our guide who explains in heavily-accented English the main features of the volcano.

There are two adjacent peaks that are part of the mountain, he explains, Vesuvio (as the Italians know it) and Monte Somme sit alongside each other. Volcanologists now believe that instead of forming two separate channels with Vesuvio being the source of the AD 79 eruption, they are instead both what’s left of a much bigger, single peak that was massively reduced in size by the scale of the explosion. Considering the amount of material that was launched skyward it’s a theory that’s easy to believe.

What strikes me as we gaze down into the huge caldera is the perpendicular nature of the rock face. It’s clear that this is the visible end of a huge pipe, and I get a sense of the massive pressure behind the eruption as it forced upwards and outwards from its start point many, many miles below.

Caldera posing

Caldera posing

The views from the top are magnificent, with the panorama of the Bay of Napoli stretching away to the west, and the Monti Lattari – the Milk Mountains – to the south-east. It’s a lovely sunny day and our guide points out Pompeii, 8 kilometres away. Despite being impressed by its scale when we visited a couple of days ago, it looks insignificant now, swallowed into the heavily built up landscape.

Adding to the beauty of the vista is the heavily wooded National Park land adorning Vesuvio’s slopes. This, we learn, is a deliberate ploy to limit the number of people within the volcano’s immediate vicinity, part of the evacuation master plan in case the numerous sensors and monitors strategically placed around the caldera start to give their warning signals.

Sorrento coast from Vesuvius

Sorrento coast from Vesuvius

On the return journey we stop for lunch at a winery located on the lower slopes, in the mountain’s shadow. They proudly tell us the history of their wine, a family business since it began in the1940’s. They’ve obviously grown up living with the threat of possible annihilation and don’t seem concerned by it. This is their home, just as it’s home for another million+ people within the bay area. Judging by the density of development just a mile or two away, when the next big bang finally comes – as it inevitably will – that evacuation plan is going to have to be pretty slick.

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to be tested in our lifetimes.



The Empty Streets of Pompeii

Saturday, 25th October 2014

It’s a man, stretched out on the ground. His hands are to his mouth, fighting for breath. He’s been in this pose for nearly 2,000 years, since the day in 79AD when the sky fell in.

The sight leaves us with mixed feelings. We’re fascinated by the antiquity, and by the drama of the story of life suddenly cut short for thousands of people as a result of this most famous of natural disasters, but at the same time we feel like interlopers, voyeurs on the moment when a whole town was obliterated in minutes. Pompeii is a grand mausoleum, a monument to its residents who died that day. It’s a huge site and amazingly preserved, but it’s sterile and curiously silent, with grey walls and fragments of Roman tiles where there were once people, smells and noise.

Pompeii street

Pompeii street

Our experience of Pompeii stands in contrast to our journey to find it. We weave through the vibrant streets of Sorrento, dodging people, cars and the ubiquitous scooters thronging the roads like noisy insects. We negotiate the hordes to buy our tickets and catch the train, arriving early to a half empty carriage that gradually fills with young people as the departure time nears. We guess they are just out of school – it’s early afternoon – and like most young teenagers they are boisterous. The volume rises as the babble grows.

We set off towards Naples past busy apartment blocks, washing lines full to overflowing. One false move with a clothes peg means certain loss of lingerie as it plummets to earth several floors below. The impression is of life being lived, in all it’s daily grime and glory.

The train speeds us on its way, making numerous stops at which teenagers leave and enter, along with men in suits, men in overalls, women with designer bags and designer children, and old people with walking sticks, all off to who knows where. By the time we reach Pompeii it’s standing room only. It reminds me of London Underground, especially when we go through the numerous tunnels that line the route.

The entrance to Pompeii is a short walk from the ‘Stazione’, and the approach road is lined with alfresco restaurants. “Come in to our garden,” pleads the swarthy sentry outside one of them, “bring your…. money!” He grins widely and we accept, admiring his honesty. The garden is indeed pleasant, with a lovely herb garden at the rear making for a delightful feature on this pleasant late October afternoon.

So the contrast once we enter the impressive walled city is stark. We’ve been told that Pompeii is huge, but we didn’t begin to appreciate it’s scale until we experienced it for ourselves. The streets go on for what seems like miles, the buildings are overwhelming in their number as well as their state of preservation, and there are high points including the amazing amphitheatre and the two-millennia-old frescoes. We’re glad we came.

Pompeii amphitheatre

Pompeii amphitheatre

But comparing notes afterwards, we both had a real sense of being intruders, as though we shouldn’t really be disturbing these ancient stones. We realise that we needed to visit to understand it, and reading about it later we appreciate the huge wealth of knowledge that this place has revealed about daily life in an important Roman town at the time of Christ. But neither of us feels especially drawn to return.

In the evening we find a family restaurant in a side street of Sorrento where the host again pulls us in with his enthusiasm. As we enjoy our meal whilst he entertains his guests with his version of ‘My Way’ accompanied by his friend on the guitar, we reflect that life is for the living. And perhaps Pompeii should be left to the historians.

My first visit to Italy – again!

Friday, 24th October 2014

I get the distinct feeling that I’ve been here before.

The flat landscape densely populated by cultivated trees with a periodic patch of tightly spaced vines filling in the gaps. The brick, gold, russet and amber coloured farmhouses dotted amongst the orchards. The sense of every spare centimetre of land having been put to productive use. And the long, arrow-straight road cutting directly through the middle.

Except that last time I experienced these things the trees were almonds, not olives. The cars were big Dodge and Ford trucks, not Fiat 500s and Opel Corsas. And the signs were mostly in Spanish, not Italian.

The similarity, though, is striking and it doesn’t abate as we climb into the hills. Even the huge bank of wind turbines stretching across the hills were present in California.

We’ve landed at Bari airport on the eastern side of Italy, flying in over the Adriatic. We should have been heading for Naples, but they’re on strike and Thomas Cook has taken the decision to divert. Neither our fellow passengers nor the ground staff seem to have heard of Bari, much less know where it is.

But we’ve arrived and filtered through the airport. We get the impression that an international arrival here is a big event, but perhaps that’s unfair. They’ve clearly seen planes before. Perhaps it’s tourists that are new.

All credit to Thomas Cook, the whole thing runs seamlessly. We are welcomed out of the airport and guided to our coach by the helpful and bubbly Andrea. “I’ve never been to Bari before,” she chirpily informs us as we set off, “and don’t make me come again!”

The main difference between here and California Central Valley is that here it’s heavily overcast and a bit chilly. “It’s beauuuuutiful in Sorrento,” Andrea informs us as the rain starts to batter the coach windscreen, clearly not appreciating her excursion.

Together with a comfort break at a motorway service area (much the same wherever you go) it’s about four hours in the coach to add to the three spent in the air. But for me I find this opportunity to witness the different landscape in the east, and the journey over the hills to the Amalfi coast as very much part of the experience. Thank you, Neapolitan strikers.

The foothills rising up from the plain are again reminiscent of our drive across California a couple of years ago, as the rich farmland turns into rolling hills and green slopes. But as we carve deeper into the country, the landscape changes. The patchwork of colours, the intensity of the land, and especially the frequency and design of the buildings start to take on a distinct feel, looking much more like the Italy I might have expected. Villages cluster atop some of the hills like barnacles in a very unAmerican way, houses jostling for space as they cling on to avoid dropping off the tops into the valleys below.

We reach Avellino and the hills have turned to mountains, meaning less cultivation as the trees become a tangle of dark green foliage instead of neat rows of olives, and the buildings cluster the sides and base of the slopes as they abandon the peaks. We stop for a break, and soon after setting off again I’m struck by the unusual shape of one mountain, curious ridges running down its sides as though it has been concertina folded. As I’m pondering how it acquired this design, Andrea picks up her mike to fill me in. We are passing Mount Vesuvio, most famous of Europe’s volcanoes. That explains it, then.

The Bay of Naples

The Bay of Naples

We skirt Naples, a jumbled riot of concrete spreading across the Bay area. Again every spare metre of land is occupied, this time by a block of homes, all appearing to have a line of washing hanging outside. The buildings aren’t in great condition, in fact the vast majority could do with a repaint and some repair work. Andrea tells us that Al Capone’s parents came from here, and despite the beauty of the bay as it conjoins with the sea and the mountains it’s clear that this is a land of contrasts for the people who live here.

We head towards Sorrento and our coach enters a series of tunnels. We emerge from the last one into a land that’s different again. This is the scenic Amalfi coast that poets and princes have visited for centuries to find their inspiration, and it’s why we’re here too. The view across the bay is outstanding, the sky is blue and the road is tortuous as it grips the coastline. Sorrento awaits. Our holiday has begun!