Venice and Sicily

Friday 1st July 2016

By 10am UK time we were in our hotel in Venice!

We transferred from the airport by water taxi, which is a lovely way to arrive. We’d exchanged e-mails with the hotel last night and they’d made sure that our room was ready for us, which was a lovely touch. The Ca’ San Giorgio is one building back from the Grand Canal in a very quiet area to the west of the Grand Canal. We’re on the top floor under the rafters and roof tiles, and the room was really quite warm with radiated heat when we arrived, but air conditioning soon sorted that out!

Knowing that we’d have a doze in the afternoon (we got up at 2.30am!) we went straight out for a walk. It was already gloriously sunny and quite hot; as Gill remarked, it was the sort of summer weather that we used to take for granted in the UK and haven’t seen for ages. At an early point we found a bar with outside tables and ordered a sharing plate of prosciutto and cheese, soaking up the atmosphere in a lovely tree-shaded square.

We then ambled to the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church where, over the altar, there’s an enormous painting by Titian of the Assumption. There’s a monument to Canova, the burial place of Monteverdi and quite a few artworks by other Renaissance masters, so it’s quite a place to visit – well worth the є3 entrance fee. Walking further, we found Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which also seemed to have a lot of well-preserved artworks, but the є10 entrance price seemed a bit steep so we carried on.

By 2.30pm we were back in our (by now) beautifully cool room, and we dozed for a couple of hours. Gill had booked a food walking tour for 6.30pm, billed as a ‘Progressive Dinner through Cannaregio’. We travelled five stops down the Grand Canal by vaporetto to Rialto Mercato where we met our guides and four others who’d booked the same tour.

The first stage of the evening was crossing the Grand Canal by gondola. There followed a series of stops at bars for various local ‘Cicchetti’ (Italian Tapas) such as deep-fried meatballs and dried cod pate. After three such stops we stayed for an hour in a trattoria for dinner, which gave us a very welcome rest. By this point I’d had a glass of white wine at every stop and was starting to notice it – Gill had already switched to water! – but neither of us could turn down a glass of Prosecco here. We had risotto and a delicious ‘fritto misto’ with prawns, sardines and fried courgette.

The final food stop was at a Gelateria, where I ticked off one of my targets for this holiday – Liquorice Gelato! The final stop was in a nice bar back across the Rialto bridge on the square where we’d started the tour. Here we had a local alcoholic drink called ‘Select’ that’s a mid-point between Campari and Aperol. Very nice.

Our guides bade us farewell – they do this tour twice a day five days a week – and left us with the four Americans, who were exceptionally good company. Then it was the vaporetto back to our hotel and a whole, long night of unbroken sleep!

Saturday 2nd July 2016

We had a leisurely start to the day and didn’t leave the hotel until 10.30. At breakfast I was approached by an English woman who said she and her husband had been away from home since before the referendum and wanted to know why Johnson had declined to stand for the party leadership.

We took a vaporetto to St. Mark’s where we changed routes and headed for Murano. We disembarked on the quiet side, out of the main tourist area, and Gill immediately found a glass shop whose prices were really very reasonable. She bought some lovely Murano glass ear-rings the last time we were here, and today she added to her collection!

We wandered about for an hour or so before taking another vaporetto to Burano, another half hour away. We were feeling peckish by now, and Gill had already set her eyes on lunch at the ‘Trattoria al Gatto Nero’. TripAdvisor said that the food there was phenomenal, but did warn that bookings were essential. On our way there we stumbled over a really nice restaurant with outside tables and white table linen, so stopped there instead. We had a sharing plate of seafoods, with prawns, langoustines, scallops, cod and sardines. Gorgeous, and washed down with the house white.

As we ambled around Burano we stumbled upon the Gatto Nero, which was packed with a raucous crowd. A sign said ‘Completo’, so we’d been wise to eat where we did.

By 4pm it was time for the 45 minutes hike back across the lagoon. We walked through the back street to the Rialto, stopping on the way to pick up superb ripe cherries and some cakes to have with our tea. Then it was back to our hotel by vaporetto.

We relaxed for about an hour before changing into our posh clothes and heading back down the Grand Canal to a palazzo in a back street not far from St. Mark’s. Here we experienced an unusual performance of ‘La Traviata’ amongst an audience of only 80 people, presented by one female and two male singers and accompanied by piano, two violins and a cello. It was in three acts, and after each act there was a 15 minute intermission, during which the audience was moved to another room ready for the next one. The singers were superb, and I marvelled at the power of the female singer’s voice. I switched off my hearing aids because I feared for what remains of my hearing!

It ended at 10.30pm and we were back in our hotel an hour later. Tomorrow, if anything, will be even more hectic!

Sunday 3rd July

Another exhausting, action-packed day! It seemed likely to start badly when we were wakened at dawn by the sound of incredibly heavy rain on the roof tiles immediately above us. However, by the time we left the hotel the sun was coming through and it stayed dry for the rest of the day.

We had to be away from the hotel by 7.45 to catch the vaporetto down to St. Mark’s in time to start the tour of the Doges’ Palace that began at 9am. We joined a party of about 20 people, led by an Italian woman whose English was really very good.

She gave us a brief history of the Republic of Venice before we entered the palace. Venice lasted for 1100 years as an independent entity, with a long line of Doges, until Napoleon invaded in 1797 and swept away all of its political structures. Until then it had a few aspects of democracy that we still don’t have in the UK today. Mind you, it was a military state that was constantly at war with one neighbouring state or another, and conflicts with the Ottoman Empire were a recurring theme.

The Doge was elected as head of the government by a council of 2,000 (all men, of course – I don’t think one woman got a mention at any point during the tour apart from Mary and Venus – and he then headed a council of seven, including himself, that ran the Republic. As an individual he had little to no power.

The state had a laudable distaste for corruption and applied strict limits on the terms of office for elected officials. One Doge was actually executed in public for trying to advance the career of his son. There was a system whereby anyone could denounce anyone else for crimes against the state by posting a denunciation in a special letter box on the ground floor of the palace. If the accusation was found to be untrue the punishment for the accuser would be that which would have applied to his victim for the alleged crime, and this included the death penalty.

We went up to the first floor and, over the next hour, were led through a series of rooms decorated by masters of Renaissance art. There can be nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. Room after room with huge oil paintings on ceilings and walls, plus some frescos, mostly by Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto. Breathtaking.

The guide took quite a lot of time with quite a few of the paintings to explain the symbolism and name the people/characters depicted. It became quite obvious that this wouldn’t have been necessary at the time since those viewing these works would immediately have recognised the individuals and understood the points being made. For instance, peacocks were a recurring theme, symbolising immortality – Venice by now saw itself as immortal. Also, Venus kept popping up to represent the state itself; Venice ruled the seas both militarily and commercially and Venus was believed to have risen from the waves.

The Doges’ Palace was the residence of the political leader, the seat of government and a prison. Lower status offenders were incarcerated in cells on the ground floor that tended to flood with high tides. The nobility were locked away at higher levels in a neighbouring building that was accessed by the Bridge of Sighs. On previous visits I’d taken photos of the outside of the bridge, but today we actually crossed inside it. The prison conditions were grim, even for the nobility.

One famous inmate was Casanova, who was imprisoned not for licentiousness but for gambling! Gambling was a crime, but was also very popular. This led to the habit of people wearing face masks, big black cloaks and tricorn hats to conceal their identity, even their gender - just think of Salieri in ‘Amadeus’.

This was a magnificent tour and we both really enjoyed it. When it ended we had three hours to kill before our guided tour of St. Marks, so we crossed the Grand Canal and visited Santa Maria della Salute. This was an interesting church as the body of it was circular and bathed with light from high windows. The altar and congregation were in an wide annexe up a couple of steps. It’s also notable for being the burial place of Titian.

Having had to rush breakfast we needed to have a decent lunch, so we headed for a hotel that Gill had stayed in years ago on the south-western side of Venice. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem ready to serve lunch, so Gill took us to another restaurant nearby that she’d been to previously. We had ‘fritto misto’ seafood, sitting by a sunny canal in a quiet part of the city.

Back at St. Marks at 2pm we joined a party of over 20 for the tour of St. Mark’s cathedral. St. Marks came into existence to house the alleged relics of the apostle when they were stolen by Venetian merchants from Alexandria in the 800s AD. It’s fairly clear that this was in the (fulfilled!) hope of attracting pilgrims and raising the status of Venice itself.

The queue outside was extremely long – being Sunday there had been morning service, and the doors weren’t opened to visitors until 2.30pm. Being part of an official tour we were able to skip to the front of the queue. However, once inside we had to keep moving and didn’t have the chance to linger. There were 4,000 square metres of fabulous mosaics on the ceilings and walls. As we’d seen some years ago in Ravenna there was extravagant use of gold mosaic tiles for a really stunning effect.

St. Marks came into existence to house the alleged relics of the apostle when they were stolen by Venetian merchants from Alexandria in the 800s AD. It’s fairly clear that this was in the (fulfilled!) hope of attracting pilgrims and raising the status of Venice itself.

At the end of the tour the guide gave us a tour of the area around St. Marks, finishing back in the square at 4pm. This gave us 20 minutes to meet up with the next guide for a tour of the Grand Canal. This time there were only eight of us, which meant that the boat wasn’t at all crowded and the tour was very relaxed. By now, we were hearing some of the stories for the fourth time, but the guide did her best to keep things fresh.

We eventually got back to our hotel at about 6pm, quite exhausted. However, we needed to eat, so after relaxing and showering we went out at 8pm to the same restaurant that we’d visited three weeks ago after leaving the cruise and before catching our flight home. It was after 10pm when we finally shut the door for the night.

Tomorrow we fly to Palermo and then drive down to Agrigento on the south coast of Italy.

Monday 4th July 2016

From Venice to Agrigento via Palermo

It was another early start, without the chance for a proper breakfast. We were picked up near our hotel at 8am by water taxi and taken back to Marco Polo Airport, and we grabbed breakfast there while waiting for our internal flight to Palermo. We flew with Volotea, an airline that neither of us had heard of before. The aircraft had an odd seating configuration – two seats then the aisle then three seats. The flight took only an hour and we landed at Palermo at 1pm.

It then took us a full two hours before we could leave the airport in our hire car – Italians certainly take their time to get things done. We’d hired a Peugeot 307 convertible, just for fun! Then it was off by road to Agrigento. Unfortunately, the cigarette lighter socket didn’t seem to be getting power through to our SatNav, and driving round Palermo it just ran out of power, so we had to rely on one of Gill’s old road maps.

We chose what seemed to be the most direct route through the centre of the island south to Agrigento, but it turned out to be the worst as far as roadworks-induced traffic delays were concerned. A journey that should have taken a little over two hours ended up taking four! Still, with the top down at least we could sunbathe as we plodded along!

Halfway down we stopped for cold drinks and I connected the SatNav to the large rechargeable battery that I’ve taken to carrying with me. The only problem was that the address of the Agriturismo we were heading to didn’t register, so I programmed in ‘Naro’, the nearest town. When we reached Naro we had to finish the journey using Google Maps on my mobile.

We arrived at 7pm, thirty and hungry, but both of these problems were solved (and more!) by our dinner at 8pm. As with other Agriturismos this one has no meal menu – excellent local food keeps on arriving. There was even a one litre carafe of red wine waiting for us on our table. We got talking before dinner with a young Swiss couple who assured us that the food was excellent and that there was a lot of it.

The first course was an absolutely scrummy antipasto, with sweet red peppers, aubergines, truffle on bruschetta, cooked and cold cheese and a sort of ratatouille of at least six vegetables. It was a huge course, and as we finished it I joked with Gill, ‘Now comes the pasta!’ And it did! Luckily, it wasn’t quite as big as the previous course, but Gill was already panicking about feeling full, so neither of us finished the course. And then came the meat course - we just about survived it! The dessert was a welcome relief – fresh melon with a little ricotta pastry on a bed of apricot puree.

We were exhausted by now, and so we went back to our room and turned in. Luckily, the room was nice and cool, with a very efficient air-con.

Tuesday 5th July 2016

We must have been tired – we slept right through to 7am.

Breakfast was a typically continental affair, with brioche, cheese and cooked meats. As usual in Europe, we were asked if we wanted coffee, with the next question likely to be which type exactly. But no, they also had English Breakfast tea bags. Trouble was, when we asked for milk it was supplied warm, as coffee drinkers want it. The enduring curse of coffee!

We wanted to see the 2,500 year old Greek temples at Agrigento, but first, on the recommendation of the Swiss couple, we drove into Naro, intending to see the hilltop castle. The problem was that SatNav seemed completely at sea, continually telling us to turn right where no road existed. Also, the town’s street were extremely narrow, and I’m always nervous about bumps and scratches when I’m driving a hire car. Eventually, we gave up and headed for the ‘Valley of the Temples’.

The name is inappropriate, since the ruins sit on a hilltop! It was another 30 degrees day with clear blue skies, so perfect for photos. We’d seen one magnificent ruin when, scrambling up rocks to get a better view of the terrain, I fell and badly bashed my right knee, shin and big toe. It’s the first grazed knee I’ve had in nearly 60 years! It was surprisingly painful, and I couldn’t walk without pain in my knee, which kept buckling. The site is huge – several kilometres from end to end – so we took the little shuttle vehicle that lets you cut out the boring bit in  the middle.

There are two large temples which were restored to some extent 200 years ago from the pieces scattered on the ground. This was a challenge, you’d imagine, since it was sacked and burned by the Carthaginians in about 400 BC!

We took the shuttle back to the start and decided to go back and relax in and by the pool, mainly because my knee was causing me some discomfort. At the time of writing (7pm) it’s much better because of painkillers, water therapy :o) and intense sunlight!

We’re now psyching ourselves up for dinner. Tomorrow we set off for Syracuse.

Wednesday 6th July 2016

We were much better prepared for dinner last night – the second course was a cheese and smoked ham risotto and we asked to share one plate, which meant that we got through the rest of the meal without difficulty.

The Baglio San Nicola was an incredibly relaxed place and also very generous. Our fridge was stocked with bottles of water and there were two more on our dinner table every evening alongside a litre carafe of red wine. The meals were even over-generous, and there was excellent free WiFi, and all for є120 per night.

We set off at about 10.15am to drive to our next stop near Syracuse, near a town called Ferla. We’ve now learned that predicted journey times in Sicily are hugely inaccurate, usually underestimated by 50-100%. Today’s journey should have taken a little over two hours and instead it took nearly three. This is mainly because of the shoddiness of the road system, with unexplained road closures with no diversion routes indicated and sudden speed restrictions because part of the road has fallen down a hillside. You suspect that the warning signs have been in place for years, with no great sense of urgency about dealing with the hazard that they’re marking.

Once again SatNav couldn’t find our agriturismo, so on approaching Ferla we were ready to use my mobile for the final approach. However, we started to see signposts for ‘Agriturismo Villagio Agrituristico Campanio’, and these led us straight to our destination. At reception, the receptionist spoke no English, but used Google Translate on her mobile to convert her spoken Italian to spoken English. Genius! I had no idea that this was possible, and I’m going to have fun with Mali and Ana when we next see them!

We have a nice room, or as it’s called, a suite. It has a four poster, a really elaborate shower that throws water at you not only from above but also from all sides, and also a separate jacuzzi that also has shower jets above and all around.

Gill had booked half board, but we opted for lunch today because, once again, we’re in the middle of nowhere. We were asked whether we wanted Antipasti Italiana or Antipasta della Casa. How to choose? We chose one of each and shared :o)

Afterwards, it was off to the pool for the afternoon, reading and dozing, with an occasional splash. Well, when it’s 30+ degrees even I feel the need to cool down! When we eventually got back to our suite it was wonderful to freshen up in the Jacuzzi, being lashed by water jets from all sides.

Dinner tonight was mercifully lighter than at San Nicola – antipasti, meat and fruit. At agriturismos you have no idea what will arrive in front of you for dinner, so it doesn’t pay to be a picky eater. Luckily, Gill and I both have fairly catholic tastes ;o)

Thursday 7th July 2016

We have no means of making tea in our room, so were really very keen to get our cuppas at breakfast - we just had to ask for boiling water, and cold milk was already available for those who wanted cereals. At last, a cuppa!

Syracuse is over an hour’s drive from Ferla over very slow roads. We got there just before midday, and parked close to the bridges that cross to the island of Ortigia, which is where Syracuse was founded as a Greek settlement around 700BC. It’s quite a pretty place, with some archaeological remains and a magnificently restored Duomo that we didn’t enter, opting instead for the church of Santa Lucia. Here we saw an enormous painting by Caravaggio, painted in situ in 1608, of the burial of the martyred Lucia.

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant near the harbour and enjoyed really phenomenal salads. Gill’s had the usual green stuff plus melon, kiwi, strawberry, and mine included avocado, small beefburger pieces and almonds. I wouldn’t normally choose salad, but the location and climate are everything.

We wandered along by the harbour, admiring the enormous private yachts and saying that if we won the lottery we’d hire one, with captain and crew, for a Greek Islands cruise with all the family – can’t imagine it’d be *that* expensive :o)

We were heading back to the car when Gill spotted a one hour hop on hop off bus tour, so we hopped on – only є4 each. But Syracuse isn’t a terribly big place and the driver was hanging around at some of the stops to keep to the one hour timetable. The tour ended at 4pm, and when we went to pay for the car park the charge for four hours was only є1!

I’d marked our agriturismo in the SatNav, and it brought us back to base faultlessly by 5.15pm. We had an hour in/by the pool before freshening up in the rather wonderful Jacuzzi in our room.

Tomorrow we’re off to Piazza Armerina for two nights before we fly home on Sunday.

Friday 8th July 2016

We arrived in Piazza Armerina at 12.30pm, much too early to go on to the agriturismo, so we looked around a bit, topped up on Euros and bought some fruit juice.

The Sicilian roads don’t make an awful lot of sense. A particular road seems to be the most direct route from A to B, and then it drops from a reasonable dual carriageway to almost a dirt track in the space of only a few kilometres whilst still retaining the same road number. This sort of confusion can really delay your journey.

We were still too early to arrive at the agriturismo, so went to the Villa Romana del Casale, ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Romana_del_Casale ) which was our main reason for wanting to stay in this area. It turned out to be the best preserved and most extensive Roman villa we’ve ever seen, with the most superb mosaics and with standing walls that gave an excellent impression of what the original complex must have looked like. The only downside was that photography was forbidden (they want you to buy their illustrated books), but I took a few sneaky shots anyway.

While we were there the temperature climbed to over 34 degrees and Gill was wilting, so we headed to Agriturismo Bannata, a few kilometres north of Piazza Armerina. Gill said that the web site promised that English was spoken, but Mario, who greeted us on arrival spoke none. He asked, Francais?, hopefully, so I said, ‘Un petit peu’, and we were off; ‘Francais’ it was :o)

Our room is in a block of rustic buildings that has been converted from agricultural use. It’s OK, except that we will have to negotiate uneven stone steps to get down to the bathroom in the dark if we need the loo in the night ;o)

We asked Mario, in a combination of Italian and French, for an electric kettle for tea-making, and enjoyed our first cup so much that we immediately made a second. Why is it that tea refreshes on a scorching hot day in a way that cold drinks can’t? We then moved to the pool for the rest of the afternoon.

Dinner this evening was lovely – antipasti, pasta and a meat course followed by cake. We were slightly distracted by a sweet Japanese couple who found the food not to their taste and asked if there was a menu. ‘Non’, said the lugubrious Mario. I showed them how Google Translate could help them express themselves better. I spoke, ‘Good Afternoon’ into my phone and the spoken Japanese translation came straight back, to their amazement.

Mario offered wine and seemed surprised when we opted for white. However, it was a very pleasant wine that we might well have again tomorrow. We ended the meal with a shared Sicilian Limoncello.

Tomorrow we might simply stay here and relax all day; after all, we have pretty much been on the go for a solid eight days!

Saturday 9th July 2016

We’ve had an incredibly lazy day to make up for all the buzzing around we’ve been doing. We’ve spent all day reading by the pool and having the occasional dip.

We went back to our room for an hour in the middle of the day to escape the intense heat and have a cuppa. Unfortunately, the ladies who make the beds clearly didn’t know about us and tea, because they removed our cups and saucers AND the fresh milk that we’d asked Mario for at breakfast time. So, with a quick bit of research on Google Translate and some creaky A Level French I had to explain the situation to Mario, and he replaced it all toot sweet :o)

There’s a lovely (unattended) bar by the pool where you can take drinks from the fridges and write down what you’ve taken – all very reasonably priced. It makes up for the uncomfortable sun loungers, which are just great lumps of plastic. At the end of the afternoon another little gripe was resolved when Gill worked out how to get hot water out of the shower. One unresolved issue was the step down into the bathroom, which were steep and made out of rough-cut lumps of stone that are very hard on bare feet. Still, when last night’s magnificent dinner and wine are taken into account this has been an excellent place to stay.

Tomorrow we leave and set off back to Palermo – it should take about two hours to get there, but in Sicily it seems that you just can’t be sure. The plan is to explore the city a bit before heading to the airport for out 9.30pm flight.

We’ve had a wonderful time here in Sicily, but the highlight of the holiday has to have been Venice. It’s almost unbelievably attractive, even with its crumbling, poorly maintained facades, and the islands of Murano and Burano are just beautiful on a smaller scale. I heard that some people who haven’t visited Venice assume that the water in the canals is stagnant and that the city smells. This is so far from the truth that it’s laughable. The lagoon is open to the Adriatic and is therefore tidal, and no matter which canal you look at the water is flowing gently all the time. Also the water is so very clean and see-through that you almost feel that you could drink it, apart from the salt! The streets are clean and tidy, and when you’re away from the crowds around St Mark’s Square and the Rialto the place is very peaceful. If you love Venice it’ll love you right back ;o)

Sunday 10th July 2016

Palermo and home

We had a leisurely start to the day and set off for Palermo at about 10.30am.

On the way we said goodbye to the French family we'd been chatting to over dinner last night. The two children were very fed up to be away from Paris for the final match of Euro 2016 and their Dad had been enquiring if there were any bars in town where they might watch it tonight – the agriturismo has no TVs at all. As we parted I said, optimistically, 'Bonne chance ce soir', which obviously did France's hopes no good at all :o)

The route north-westwards to Palermo looked straightforward enough and should have taken a little over two hours, but, as we've learned in Sicily, it never works out like that, taking us over three. My theory is that, just as the Sicilians take relatively little apparent interest in the state of their roads, allowing them to decay quite dangerously, they seem not to send updates to the mapping authorities about permanent road closures. All too often we've come to a grinding halt, with the road ahead physically blocked and with SatNav telling us we can proceed. And even when the closures seems temporary (even though it's obvious that the road's been closed for months, even years) there's absolutely no diversion signage. In the end, you just have to make sure that you allow plenty of contingency time for getting anywhere. Still, with gorgeous weather and travelling in a convertible through fantastic scenery that's not really a hardship.

In Palermo we parked without too much trouble considering how busy the city is and were pleased when a local told us that parking is free on Sundays. We wandered in intense heat to the port, decided that this part of it wasn't worth seeing and so we stopped for lunch. It was a nice bar/restaurant with good air-conditioning, a nice menu and attentive staff. The problems was that mistakes were made with our order – carpaccio of tuna was delivered instead of a fish fritto misto that included red mullet, so that had to go back.

When the replacement arrived it consisted of two large prawns, some deep-fried calamari (ugh!) and about a dozen baby cuttlefish. Gill reminded them that she'd ordered mullet, to which their reply, in Fawlty Towers fashion, was that mullet was off. They were sweet girls, making valiant efforts to speak in English, and we didn't have the heart to send back a second dish. So, on the very strict understanding that Gill would eat the rubber bands, sorry, calamari, I undertook to have a go at the cuttlefish.

You had to slip out the tiny cuttlefish bone, and after a couple of the things, with Gill saying, 'Your mouth is *black!*', I tried to remove the ink sack as well, with limited success. I got through about half of them in the end. They weren't quite as dreadful as they looked – if they'd been baby octopus or squid I'd have drawn a line – but, just like Tripeiros in Porto, they were a culinary experience that I intend never to repeat!

We'd learned over recent years the extent to which the Normans, as they expanded from Normandy a thousand years ago, had colonised Sicily and permanently left their mark. With the intention of walking through the Old Town on the way we set off for the Palazzo dei Normani. Unfortunately, it was SO hot that it became a bit of a trudge, but we stopped in the Duomo on the way for some relief.

Unfortunately, as we approached the Palazzo, which is set in a lovely park full of tall trees, we learned that it had already closed for the day. We therefore set off back to our car, intending to find a beach on the way to the airport. However, being Sunday, the locals were out in force, the roads were busy and parking was virtually non-existent, so after a little refreshment break we set off back to the airport, just a little earlier than planned.

We were a little apprehensive about handing the car back, because even though the considerable numbers of bumps and scratches it already had when we picked it up had been marked on the paperwork and signed off by us, there's always the worry that there'll be a time-consuming debate about this scratch here or that dent there. Still, it was fairly quickly agreed that the car was in acceptable condition.

Our Ryanair (booo!) flight didn't leave until 10pm local time, and we landed at Stansted just before midnight BST. We left in our pre-arranged taxi at about 12.30am and our cabbie raced us home in a little over an hour. After the intense heat of Sicily and Venice it was a bit of a shock to come back to a fully air-conditioned country!