Itineries


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Palermo airport is on the headland at Punta Raisi west of the city. The city itself is around the headland and out of sight as our flight makes the approach but there is a fine view of the hills on the promontory across the bay. After collecting the hire car we took the autostrada west towards Alcamo and then south to Castelvetrano. The road doesn’t follow the contours of the land but floats over the valleys on viaducts and tunnels through the hills. The central reservation is a drift of pink and white Oleanders.

At Castelvetrano we picked up the SS115. We made good time to Agrigento but then missed the turning to Palma di Montechiaro which delayed our arrival at the hotel. We were staying at the Azienda Agricola Mandranova (*) . The hotel is at kilometre 217 on the SS115 but the entrance was not on the main road and it took us a few passes to locate the turn, which is at kilometre 215 and signposted to Campobello di Licata.

Mandranova is an olive farm now also diversifying into almonds. Our room was in the old railway station. Supper is a four course meal which was served communally at 8:30pm on the terrace, except for on the last night of our stay when the wind, the Scirocco, blew in from Africa and we had to move indoors. To go with the food there was an excellent selection of Sicilian wines. We tried three of the whites, a rose and a red on subsequent evenings, all from vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna.

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During our recent trip to Ankara we visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations (*). The museum houses artefacts from the Palaeolithic through to the modern period, including the finds at Çatalhöyük, the most important Neolithic site, and Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite state.

Çatalhöyük is south of present day Konya in southern Turkey and at the northern edge of the Levant where agriculture in Europe originated. The site at  Çatalhöyük was occupied between 9,500 and 7,700 years ago. Unlike modern villages, the public space was the rooftop, from which the building was accessed by ladder or steps. There is evidence of the domestication of sheep and cattle as well as hunting. There is also evidence of the use of woven cloth to wrap the dead. The artworks produced include murals and figurines, such as the massive women giving birth. There is little sign of social stratification. The dwellings are of similar size and there is no obvious ceremonial centre.

Something I hadn’t appreciated before visiting the museum is that the sedentary lifestyle preceded farming rather than being a consequence of it. The sedentary lifestyle is thought to have originated in the Levant in what is called the Natufian period between 15,000 and 11,800 years ago. Although still a hunter gatherer economy, the sedentary lifestyle was made possible here by very favourable conditions. The hypothesis is that farming first developed in the Near East as a response to a period of colder weather between 12,200 and 10,800 years ago and then later spread across Europe, westwards and northwards, between 8,500 and 6,500 years ago.

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Cappadocia, Kappadokya as it is pronounced, was not as difficult to reach as I expected (Turkish).

We had arrived in Turkey through Istanbul’s second airport Sabiha Gökçen (*). The airport hotel  is only a couple of minutes walk from the terminal and is surprisingly good for overnight stopovers. We flew to Ankara the next morning and then hired a car for the remainder of the journey. In retrospect, I think it would have been better to drive from Istanbul. It’s about 600 km, 300 km to Ankara and another 300 km to Cappadocia and on good roads I estimate around 6 hours travelling time.

We arrived in Uçhisar towards 4pm and checked into our hotel, argos in Cappadocia (*). The hotel is essentially the old village rebuilt. Some years ago Uçhisar was moved from the east to the west side of the hill and the old village fell into disrepair, a ruin rather than a ghost town. Since 1997 the houses and courtyards have been gradually renovated and in 2010 the hotel was opened. There are now 53 rooms. The concept “a village with a reception desk” is perhaps overstated, but the labyrinth of narrow streets, stairways, passages and courtyards does give the sense of a hill-top village. From the terrace outside our room we had a panoramic view of the whole region.

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Here is the itinerary for one day in Delhi. First drop is the Jantar Mantar. Completed in 1724, this is one of the five parks built by Jai Singh II of Jaipur. The park contains 13 instruments designed to take observations of the positions of the sun, moon and planets. It is not at all clear as we stroll round the park how the instruments were used, but the park is well maintained and the instruments themselves, reddish plastered and white edged, make interesting patterns. It is still early in the morning and there are few other tourists about.

Our next stop is the Old Fort, Purana Qila, a sprawling walled enclave on the banks of the Yamuna River. It dates from the middle of the 16th century and the beginning of the Mughal period. The empire was founded by Babur in 1526 with the defeat of the Lodhi regime. Babur was a descendent of Genghis Khan (1167-1227) on his mother’s and Timur (1337-1405) on his father’s side. He was succeeded by Hamuyun (1531-40, 1555-56), Akbar (1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-27), Shah Jahan (1628-58) and Aurangzeb (1658-1707). At the time of Aurangzeb the empire extended across most of the Indian subcontinent. There then followed a period of decline and loss of territory to local rulers and foreigners, until the last nominal emperor was exiled for supporting the 1857 rebellion and the empire was replaced by the British Raj. The most interesting features of the site are the three gates, each topped by stone pavilions, and the old mosque. The mosque is a single aisle with five doors to the side opening onto the courtyard. It was completed in 1541.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of foresight, we were in Delhi only a few days before the Independence Day celebrations on August 15th, and some of the main sites such as India Gate, the Rajghat Gandhi memorial and the Red Fort were closed. Our next stop then was Humayun’s tomb. This is the earliest example of the royal mausoleum in India. It is based on the tomb of Timur in Samarkand and is surrounded by a formal garden representing the gardens of paradise. It is a fine building but I found the visit somewhat flattening.

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We should have been in Cuxhaven that morning, but we had missed the overnight ferry sailing from Harwich. So we had bought tickets on a boat going to Holland, the only other ferry leaving that day. Disembarking late at night at Hoek van Holland, we had found a room for the night at an Ibis hotel just off the highway. Cuxhaven to Rostock would have been a leisurely day driving along the coast, but it’s 530 kilometres from Hoek van Holland to Hamburg and a further 300 kilometres from Hamburg to Rostock, around 8 hours driving in all.

We drove east across the Netherlands, skirting Rotterdam and Utrecht and crossed the German border north of Enschede from where we picked up the autobahn to Bremen and Hamburg. We stopped briefly in Hamburg and then continued on, taking first the Berlin road and then heading north from Wittstock. Although a longer drive, at the time I don’t think there was an autobahn directly between Hamburg and Rostock. It’s often the case that you can travel faster on the restricted autoroutes in France than on the unrestricted autobahns in Germany because traffic is lighter and average speeds higher, but here the traffic quickly thinned out and we could make rapid progress, at least until it became apparent that there were few service stations on this section and we had to nurse the fuel.

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The weather is fine when we leave Santiago, but the pilot warns that it is going to be a bumpy ride when we land in Buenos Aires. And it is. But we arrive ahead of schedule; presumably there is some slack in a flight time which can be cashed in when the pilot is heading into bad weather. In the terminal, we are fortunate that most of the arriving passengers are from South American countries and have to queue in the Mercosur line while we join the much shorter queue for locals and others. But customs is slow. Every bag is x-rayed and most are searched. On the customs declaration form you are supposed to detail every item purchased abroad and even specify the make and model of your own personal mobile phone. Presumably all the others you are carrying will be confiscated as contraband. It is apparent that, given Argentina’s economic situation, smuggling from neighbouring countries is common. But nobody is interested in our luggage or our declaration form and there hadn’t been the same procedure when we arrived in Buenos Aires from the Middle East a week earlier.

The taxi whisks us in to town. We are staying at the Lola House Boutique Hotel (*) on Avenida Castro Barros in the barrio of Boedo. It is a rainy night and we are off the tourist grid here. A street walker approaches the car at the lights. At the hotel, the driver waits until we are safely inside. But things quickly pick up. After unpacking, a quick dash across the street to the grocery store opposite secures a bottle of wine and some snacks. The shutters are coming down but Arturo, the hotel’s overnight desk, holas across the road and they wait for me. Arturo supplies the glasses and a corkscrew and we find a channel on the television showing a couple of episodes of a US medical drama. The story is about the aftermath of a plane crash.

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The fasten seat belts sign comes on as the plane crosses the Andes, apparently a routine precaution against the turbulence created by air flowing over the high mountains. But we don’t see the summits through the thick layer of cloud until we have banked left and started the descent into Santiago. The airport looks new and immigration is efficient. We have a slight delay while customs inspect a flask in our luggage. The Chileans, protected behind their high walls, are very concerned about importing agricultural pests and diseases.

We are staying in Santiago as house guests with my brother and his family. They live in the suburb of Los Trapenses on the mountain side of Santiago. This is all new development. Building is allowed up to the 1000 metre mark and their place is at around 990 metres. Looking back down the valley, Santiago sprawls into the distance. There is a noticeable layer of pollution in the air. Warm air carrying pollution from traffic and factories gets trapped beneath a layer of cold air creating, particularly in winter, poor air quality. Already in the foothills, from here the heights rise quickly. The highest peak visible from Santiago is El Plomo at 5,434 metres. Now in October, there is still some snow on the summits. Looking towards the peaks from the back garden we can see the condors circling on the air currents, mobbed occasionally by smaller birds, and then, riding a draft, rapidly disappearing into the mountains.

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The Norfolkline ferry from Dover to Dunkerque is primarily for trucks, but the fares are good and it is more relaxing than the regular passenger ferries. The truck drivers have their own lounge and the canteen serves canteen food. Our boat sailed at 8:15 in the morning and we were on the road south an hour or so later. Even with the time difference, this should have been enough time for us to reach our overnight stop at Zug in Switzerland at a leisurely pace. However, road works pushed us off our expected route across northern France onto another course through Belgium, Luxembourg and the Saarland region of Germany. We then got lost at Saarbrucken trying to find our way back onto the Strasbourg road, with the result that the sun was setting when we reached the Rhine with still some 3 hours driving to go until we reached our hotel. Despite having to pay for the no-show, we stopped at a hotel in Strasbourg. There was a pleasant family restaurant next door.

The second days drive was therefore that much longer. First the sprint down the autobahn to Basel, then across Switzerland and through the San Gotthard Tunnel into Ticino, then follow the valley southward to Italy. From Milan we drove east on the autostrada across the Po valley, past Bologna to Rimini and then it’s a run down the coast to Ancona and Pescara. There are fine views of the Adriatic from the road. At Pescara we turned inland on the road that runs back across the Apennines to Rome. Up in the mountains, we turned south to follow the winding mountain road to Pescassaroli.

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The plan for our tour of Greece was to complete a triangle with the three principle cities, Thessaloniki, Patras and Athens at the corners. The first two legs, from Thessaloniki to Patras and from Patras to Athens would be completed by car and the final leg from Athens back to Thessaloniki by rail. The only reason for starting in Thessaloniki was that the airfares were cheaper than to Athens.

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency (*) in Thessaloniki, on the outskirts of town not far from the airport. The hotel has a very nice restaurant with an excellent list of local wines. We also discovered the ideal Greek breakfast here: fruit, yoghurt and honey. The only downside of the hotel was the intrusive piped music, impossible to escape by the pool and in the lobby areas.

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Our trip to the US Pacific North West did not begin well. Our Delta airlines flight was substantially delayed at take-off. By the time we had crossed the Atlantic the flight crew were running out of working hours. We landed at JFK and sat on the tarmac while the cockpit tried to persuade Immigration to allow us to land, without success. So we continued to the airlines hub at Cincinnati. Here we were put up for the night in a English-history themed hotel in Northern Kentucky, before flying on to Seattle the following morning. Immigration officials at Cincinnati were remarkably cordial and welcoming, given that they were being delayed on site especially for our very late arrival.

It rains frequently in Seattle, but we must have been due some good fortune, because our day touring was perfect. We went up the Space needle, amused by the 45 seconds of in transit commentary from the lift attendant, and took a boat ride round the harbour, with a lively commentary provided by a local guide. Lunch was at the Elliott Bay Restaurant on the harbour front, watching the sun sparkle off the waves in the bay.

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