Ardent globetrotter, John Carter, former presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ programme extolls the many virtues of a short escape to a number of fascinating destinations with a tour leader to guide one every step of the way.
Threading my way through the traffic, which seemed to be coming at me from all directions, I tried to ignore the cacophony of horns, decipher unfamiliar road signs and keep driving more or less in the desired direction. A little over half an hour earlier I had collected the hire car at the airport and set off, not realising that the route took me into the heart of a city I did not know. At the height of the afternoon rush hour.
My companion had given up all attempts at map reading and navigation. He sat back with folded arms and muttered something along the lines of “… see Naples and die …”, which I thought was not only tactless, but defeatist, too.
That was my first impression of Naples. I subsequently visited the city many times, discovering that, though the traffic flow can be bewildering, it is not as frightening as I thought. Especially when you arrive, as I often did, on a cruise ship, are transported by coach on your various excursions, and know you’ll be back on board in time for dinner.
My son was almost born in Naples, but that’s a story for another time. For now, let me tell you that the reason the city is in my thoughts is that I’ve been looking at the itinerary for a short holiday there. As it is based on the four-star Hotel Francesco al Monte, it gets off to a fine start, with an itinerary including the Caserta Palace – Italy’s Versailles – the archaeological museum, which contains some of the best relics from Pompeii, and the Capella Sansevero sculptures.
Now all that is more than enough to occupy a visitor on a short break, but the appeal of Naples lies not in the prescribed sights, but at a personal level – for example, the uninhibited character of Neapolitans, the rich variety of its food (and drink) and the sheer enjoyment to be had from the simplest of encounters. Once you have eaten and drank in a local pizzeria, the restaurant chains in your local High Street pale into insignificance.
It was the same in Seville quite recently, when we were there for a few days as part of a tour around Andalucia. We had to visit the splendid Cathedral (which may, or may not, contain the bones of Christopher Columbus), the Alcazar, the San Bartolome area and the Pilatos Palace. All extremely worth one’s time – as are the fine buildings erected for a long-forgotten World Fair. But the tapas restaurant opposite our hotel is what I shall remember over everything else, as well as the evening spent at a performance of flamenco dancing, music and singing – the genuine article, not the dumbed-down version you encounter along the Costas. It was in those two locations that I felt closest to the character of Seville and its inhabitants. They are, rightly, proud of their city and their heritage, and what you gain from such experiences cannot be expressed in the pages of a holiday brochure.
Seville is another destination in that programme of short break holidays, as is Marrakech. And in Marrakech I had a similar experience involving an element of the holiday that could never have been included in the brochure’s descriptive pages. Admittedly this was several years ago, and I am sure the sort of thing I am going to describe no longer occurs. But you never know.
Our hotel on that occasion was the magnificent Mamounia and – along with a group of British holidaymakers – I explored that most fascinating of cities. The little shops, no more than a single room opening directly on to the street, where spices were heaped in colourful and exotically scented displays; the streets in which men sat hammering away at brass and copper, or worked intricate designs on to leather, the huge main square called Jemma el Fna (where, according to legend, we shall all assemble on Judgement Day to be separated, “… like sheep from goats …”) and the impressive Koutoubia minaret.
All these were great holiday experiences, as was the sight of the distant Atlas Mountains, their peaks dusted with snow, and the orange groves surrounding the city. But the main memory is of an evening excursion to a large restaurant where, along with other tour groups, we enjoyed a meal whose main course was a tajine of curried goat, and a display of folk dancing.
Though they had been very careful to drink very little wine – which was, I have to say, not the finest I have ever tasted – my fellow travellers could not understand why they felt so light-headed and skittish as the evening came to an end. What they did not realise was that Moroccan cuisine makes use of herbs that are, to put it delicately, on the “exotic” side. They weren’t drunk. They were high.
All these cities – Naples, Seville and Marrakech – are well worth visiting. I have similar memories of Athens and Nice but unfortunately no space to recall them here.
To visit any one, especially in the company of like-minded folk and a guide who can reveal the city’s secrets, would be an excellent holiday experience.
For short guided walking breaks including return flights, transfers and half board accommodation and the services of a dedicated tour leader, visit www.ramblersholidays.co.uk/experience/guided-europe-walking