Crossing the border part 1: Chiang Khong

Chiang Khong is primarily known for being a stop-off en route to Laos. Some people might argue that it is more than just a service station for backpackers, that it is in fact a destination in its own right. Those people would be wrong.

We arrived in Chiang Khong after a long, hot bus journey from Chiang Mai. We got dropped off on the main road and were immediately swamped by tuk-tuk drivers offering their services. Elisa must have been feeling particularly sporty and/or sadistic, because she suggested we walk to the guesthouse rather than get a lift.

I popped into a 7-Eleven to ask for directions, whilst Elisa waited outside with our impossibly heavy rucksacks. I showed my map to the girl inside, and tried to ask whereabouts we were. Due to a communication breakdown, the most we could establish was which road we were on, not where we were on it. Seeing as we already knew which road we were on, this wasn’t particularly helpful. Nevertheless, I bought some seaweed flavoured crisps to show my appreciation.

Eventually, we worked out where we were going, and set off in the direction of our guesthouse, the Baanrimtaling. We arrived after about ten minutes, and were pleased to see that the place looked a lot better than the places we had passed on our journey. We had booked a bungalow in advance, but were shown to a twin room with no bathroom and lots of pet insects. I casually mentioned that we would probably prefer the room we’d booked, so we were shown to a bungalow overlooking the river. Laos was in our sights.

The room was decent enough, although there was no glass or insect screen in the bathroom window, which was a shame. We guessed it was as comfortable as we would find in Chiang Khong. It was closer to a backpacker style room than Chiang Rai’s Orchids guesthouse or Chiang Mai’s hotel-standard Green Tulip. Elisa said I should stop being such a nancy boy and get on with it, so that’s what I did.

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By this point, it was dark, and we went out looking for a place to grab some dinner. We passed a small market selling food, but sadly neither of us were in the mood for battered chicken feet. After walking almost out of the town, we decided to head back and eat at the Baanrimtaling. The restaurant area overlooks the river and there’s a good selection of Western and Thai dishes. I had chicken Tom Yum, which was excellent.

When we got back to the room, there was some kind of dragon sitting on the wall. It was bigger than my foot, and that’s coming from someone who has to buy shoes from specialist websites because their feet are so large. Neither myself or the lizard knew what to do, and there was a sort of embarrassed silence before it thumped off.

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Banana for scale

It was pancakes for breakfast, before jogging off in search of a tuk-tuk to take us to the Thai/Laos border. On the way, we spotted a small, black van decorated with a number of swastikas and the word ‘Naze’. I tried to take a photo, but Elisa made us walk on, worried that we’d get beaten up by a bunch of dyslexic anti-semites.

Baanrimtaling Home Stay: 6.5/10

Chiang Khong: 5/10

 

Holiday to a Cornish Tesco

The most magical place I knew as a child was the Tesco supermarket cafe in Truro, Cornwall. Long after I had unearthed the fiction behind pounds under the pillow and Christianity’s various bearded men, the cafe’s spell remained a mysterious phenomenon.

Our family of four held an annual pilgrimage to visit the hallowed site. My sister and I would tell our school friends that we were going on holiday to Cornwall and my parents dutifully held up this charade in front of the grown ups. We would spend a week at a nearby campsite, but this was merely a ruse to pull the wool over the eyes of the people back home. It wasn’t Southern England’s tropical conditions, or even the deluxe four-berth static caravan that we made the trip for. It was the hour spent after a long overnight drive, eating sausages and drinking Fanta from a paper cup. It was the thrill of breaking the normal rules and having the whole family in on it.

The supermarket building was a dirty off-white structure, sitting across the road from a set of equally ugly flat-pack buildings. They looked as though they had all come from the same miserable production line. Alone they were unsightly, and together, earth-shatteringly so. The other buildings were stationers, but not the fun kind – rather than empty notebooks with limitless possibilities, they sold printer paper and A3 guillotines. I know this because it said so on the side of the building, not because we ever went in.

There was a car-park that stretched all around the circumference of the building. When it wasn’t raining, the wet cars and puddle filled pot-holes showed that it recently had been. The sun was always smothered by cloud, and our early morning arrival meant that it would be hours before it had a serious go at breaking through.

Despite the lure of the Tesco cafe, getting out of the car proved difficult. I was reluctant to leave the warm nest I had fashioned amongst the cases and coats that were overspill from the creatively packed boot. When I was finally coaxed out of the car by the promise of the awaiting breakfast, my senses were spiked with familiarity. The smell of sea air and petrol, combined with the sound of seagulls and the rattle of trolleys, remains one of the most significant sensory combinations I have stored in my brain.

If my parents knew that we were in a supermarket, they never let on. Supermarket shopping at home was a fact of life for them, and mission improbable for me. I would spent the first ten minutes attempting to slip contraband confectionery into the trolley and the remaining fifty putting things back as my mum found them in there. Worried someone else might buy the remaining stock of whatever item I was returning, I took to hiding the things I wanted behind other, less desirable products. I often lost this game of hide and seek to the weary shelf-stackers, who must have wondered why someone kept putting Hubba Bubba behind packets of Sainsbury’s Basics bran flakes.

The Tesco cafe was located just before the main shopping area, a sharp left after coming through the main automatic doors. On either side of the entrance to the cafe were security scanners, so anyone wanting to make off with a stolen sachet of ketchup would trigger an alarm when they crossed the threshold.

The cafe’s fridge held various kids’ lunchboxes, in which the main offering was a selection of cheese and ham sandwiches. The fact that they came in a Happy Meal style box piqued my interest, but I had the self discipline to concentrate on the important element, the food. Triangular-cut sandwiches paled in comparison to the enchanting full English breakfast. Each part of the breakfast could be selected or rejected. I typically chose a plate heavy with sausages and bacon, reasoning that I needed to build up a blanket of body fat to protect myself against the harsh Cornish summer.

The food was enough of a novelty to be pleasurable, but both taste and nutritional value could be justly called into question. However, to do so would be to miss the point. We don’t love our families or partners for their individual qualities, but because of what they are as a whole. Refusing to eat Tesco canteen sausages because they’re eighty percent gristle would be the same as refusing to love your child because they have a lazy eye and they’re shit at the violin. We went to that Tesco because it was our Tesco.

Though there was much that stayed the same over the years of visiting the cafe, there were also things that changed. A branch of Tesco opened at home, and I finally realised that it was a shop, not an amusement park. My sister and I stopped hitting each other as much and started collaborating on important things like buying scratchcards without our parents noticing. An initial investment of one pound once provided enough wins amongst the the many losses to play eleven consecutive cards before finally losing on number twelve. We were so unlucky that we lost one card away from thirteen, which would have made a much better story.

We still go to the cafe every year, eat the same food and sit at the same tables made of artificial wood. I still look forward to it just as much, but the reasons behind my excitement have evolved. Tesco used to be about the fry-up in the same way Christmas used to be about the dinner. In the past they were about things you could get, and now they’re about sitting around a table with your family, appreciating what you already have. Although, Christmas might still be about the food.

Chiang Rai

It would be too easy to say that Chiang Rai is essentially a smaller version of Chiang Mai, but it is, so I will.

Chiang Rai is essentially a smaller version of Chiang Mai.

After dumping our growing rucksacks at the Orchids Guesthouse, we headed out to find some lunch. We were delighted to find that, unlike Phayao, Chiang Rai had a wide selection of Thai and Western restaurants. We decided on BaanChivitMai, a Scandinavian style bakery that served bread, pastries, brownies, cakes, pasta, sandwiches, and all manner of delicious things that were so good they made me question my life long commitment to atheism.

We explored the town, working out where to go for the night markets and scouting potential dinner locations. After letting a nearly acceptable amount of time pass since lunch, we went back to the guesthouse to get ready for dinner. After combing my hair and shining my flip-flops, we went out to Siam Corner, a nearby restaurant serving up cheap and tasty Thai food. Whilst we were eating dinner, a couple of blokes came by taking their elephant for a walk.

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We spent the following day on a temple tour of our own creation. After some careful negotiating, we rented a 125cc automatic motorbike for four days at 700 baht, about fourteen quid. Renting scooters and motorbikes turned out to be one of the best decisions of our time in South East Asia, allowing us to see more places and do things in our own time. It was also pretty fun, and made me start to think that I was probably cool.

We went to Ngam Muang temple, which is famous for holding the ashes of Chiang Rai’s founder, King Mengrai. We looked around, ate some pre-prepared sandwiches with bread from the Scandinavian bakery, and carried on our merry way. Next up was Wat Phra Kaew, one of the oldest temples in Chiang Rai. Despite being only 300m away, we spent about forty minutes riding around the town due to the creatively designed one way road system.

That night we went to Chiang Rai’s night bazaar, a smaller version of Chiang Mai’s walking street. The same Chang Beer t-shirts and elephant patterned trousers that had been on sale in Chiang Mai were available here, but there were some additional stalls. One specialised in particularly dangerous looking knives, whilst another sold completely genuine Dre Beats that had dead spiders trapped inside the boxes.

We had dinner at Da Vincis, a slightly over-priced but decent standard Italian. The Orchids was just a street away, and after some bruschetta and pizza, we headed home.

After a slow morning, we took the scooter out to Wat Rung Khun, the White Temple. Temples have a habit of looking a bit samey, which artist Chalermchai Kositpipat was clearly trying to avoid when he designed this monstrosity.

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Unfortunately only men are allowed to go naked below the knee, so Elisa was made to wrap a tablecloth around her legs. If you’re thinking of visiting the White Temple, but you’re not sure what to wear, this handy infographic should let you know what is and isn’t okay:

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After surviving the treacherous road back to Chiang Rai town, we went for dinner at Easy Bar. I looked to see if they had a website, but all I could find was a forum thread beginning: ‘Anyone know if the easy bar is still run by the women who runs around with a giant wooden cock chasing customers? I love that bar and planning to come back this year…. tanks’

The next day we headed out of town to visit the Buddha Cave and Tom Tu Pu. The Lonely Planet says you can cycle out here, but unless you have the thighs or amphetamines of Lance Armstrong, motorised transport is preferable.

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The Buddha Cave pretty much lives up to its name, although the Buddha and owl-shit cave would have been more accurate.

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Tom Tu Pu is a much more interesting stop. There are huge groups of bats which occasionally swoop down in their hundreds, terrifying everybody before flying back up to the roof of the cave. There entrance is guarded by a terrified seal:

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After looking around the cave area, you can continue a short distance to the riverside for a picnic or swim. We had a packet of pockys, the chocolate coated biscuit sticks. In my attempt to inject some humour into our snacking, I accidentally bit through my lip whilst pretending to be a rodent.

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After patching myself up with our emergency first-aid kit, we drove back to town. We spent a few hours looking around the Saturday walking street, which ended with Elisa trying to buy a puppy from a man who had six of them in a hamster cage. We decided to discuss it over a meal at Siam Corner. After dinner, we went to check if the puppies were still in the same spot, which they weren’t, and neither was the man. I did my best to act disappointed.

Our final day in Chiang Rai was spent packing up and getting ready for the next leg of our journey. We had a farewell meal at the Connect Cafe, just a few doors away from the BaanChivitMai bakery. We weren’t able to connect, having had the brilliant idea to leave all internet enabled devices at home for the twelve weeks we were away. The two or three occasions that this was a problem were completely overshadowed by the hundreds of times we found ourselves glad not to be tied to our phones and laptops.

The bus to Chiang Khong, our next and final Chiang, was just a short walk from our guesthouse. We came to realise that everything was a short walk, such was the scale of Chiang Rai. What it lacked in size, it made up for in convenience and comfort. Well worth a visit.

Orchids guesthouse: 7/10

Chiang Rai: 7/10

 

Phayao

After a few hours on the coach from Chiang Mai, we arrived in Phayao. The town itself was pretty unattractive, but I decided to hold my judgement until we had seen more of Phayao than the road to the bus station. We took a tuk-tuk to the Tharn Thong Hotel, which we had booked after seeing it recommended in my Lonely Planet: Thailand guidebook.

About a minute down the road, we turned into the reception area of our hotel. We had agreed to pay 50 baht for the tuk-tuk ride, which turned out to be about one baht per meter. We unloaded the bags and I headed to the reception desk to check-in. The woman behind the desk didn’t understand when I said we had a booking, but it didn’t matter – of around 50 numbered pegs behind the desk, only three had been relieved of their keys. Lulled into a false sense of security by the great accommodation we had enjoyed so far in Thailand, we didn’t ask look around the room before paying for our night’s stay.

A man led us through to a tall, ugly building behind the reception area and first lot of rooms. Having shown us to the door and left us in the empty foyer, he took off. We stepped into the lift, noticing a sign which said it was ‘out of order between the hours of 10.30 – 15.30′ and headed up to the fourth floor. The sense of relief from having survived the ascent soon disappeared when we stepped out and saw a starkly lit corridor with rubbish pushed against the walls at various intervals. We let ourselves into the room and let out simultaneous groans. The room, like the building it sat in, looked like it had been abandoned some years ago.

The wall sockets and light switches were either hanging out the walls or completely missing, revealing a tangle of exposed electrical wires. The walls and floor were dirty, with large mucus stains on the walls around the bed and there were long, black hairs hanging from the thick cobwebs in every corner. The bathroom was worse, with a small, filthy toilet and the faint smell of sewerage coming from a drain in the floor. Thankfully, the view was stunning:

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We decided to get out of the Tharn Thong as soon as possible, reasoning that if wejust used it for sleep, it might not be too much of a problem. We walked about half a mile to the edge of the Kwan Phayao, a large swamp/lake, the reason for our visit. We were initially underwhelmed, but as the sun began to set we saw the real beauty of the town’s one saving grace.

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Unfortunately the tourist map didn’t have great dinner suggestions:

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After the sun had set, we took a boat over to the site of the Wat Tilok Aram, a temple that was submerged beneath the lake.

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After seeing the temple site, there was nothing left to do, so we filled time in the classic small-town way.

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After a few drinks, we headed back to the hotel. We quickly got ready for bed and settled down to sleep on the papier-mache mattress. We couldn’t sleep, and the mosquito net we had put up to discourage any insects from coming for a cuddle came down in the middle of the night. By the early hours of the morning, the eggy sewerage smell coming from the bathroom intensified to the point that at 5.30am we decided to get out before choking to death. We quickly packed up and headed out of the hotel and towards the lake to watch the sunrise.

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With the sun in the sky, we headed to the station and got the first bus out of Phayao.

Tharn Thong: 2/10 – two points awarded for the (apparent) absence of rats

Phayao: 4/10  - four points awarded for the beautiful views across the lake

Chiang Mai

The train journey from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai was a drawn out, uncomfortable slog. Luckily, it was the sort of drawn out, uncomfortable slog that comes with incredible views of rice fields, banana trees and lush valleys. Standing in between the carriages of the train whilst it chugged along northwards provided an experience that was unique to Thailand and reinforced our decision to travel in the day and not via the popular night train.

We arrived in Chiang Mai and took a tuk-tuk to our hostel, the Green Tulip. The long journey and my unwillingness to get out of bed before 10am meant that we didn’t arrive until around midnight. Despite getting our hosts out of bed, we were shown our room in a friendly fashion and asked to check-in formally in the morning. Our room, like the others at the Green Tulip, was clean, colourful and comfortable. We were treated well throughout our stay and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the hostel to anyone travelling to Chaing Mai. We had a little pet:

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After a day feeling our way around the city, we spent the evening shuffling through the expansive and slow-moving Sunday street market. We each bought a few pairs of the de rigueur traveller trousers and tried an enjoyable selection of street food. Oyster sauce is considered vegetarian in Thailand, something that only became clear to us after Elisa had started eating a plate of fishy noodles. For a girl who once cried because Wetherspoons served meat gravy with her nutroast, she was very brave and didn’t kick over the food stall.

The following day, we walked out of the old city and caught a songthaew heading to Bo(r) Sang, roughly eleven kilometers from Chiang Mai. Out of respect for the people of Bo Sang, I will limit my appraisal to one word, even if that word is ‘shit’. It was so vastly uninteresting that Elisa came close to having a dragon painted on her backpack for lack of anything else to do. By the time we were hurtling back to Chiang Mai, hanging off the ladders soldered to the back of the songthaew, she couldn’t believe she had come so close to humiliating the both of us.

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Zoo day came next. I’m awfully fond of animals in general, so zoos always conjure up a mixed bag of feelings – on one hand, I want to see and be close to interesting animals, whilst on the other, I don’t like seeing animals in captivity. Chiang Mai Zoo ranked above average on the animal satisfaction scale – we didn’t see any signs of distress and the animals seemed well looked after. The zoo day turned out to be one of the best days yet, and entrance was only 150 baht, one of the best value attractions in Chiang Mai.

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After the following day spent planning and booking hostels for our later leg in Vietnam, we went out to New Delhi for dinner. They served good Indian food, a nice change from the Thai food that we’d been eating day in, day out.  It was on this day that I discovered I had been saying the female greeting instead of the male for the entirety of my stay. I had been under the impression that you altered the ending ‘ka’ or ‘krab’ when speaking to a woman and man respectively. In fact, the ending alters based on who is doing the greeting, not who is being greeted. This blunder had led to me introducing myself as a woman to 95% of the people I’d dealt with in Thailand. What surprised me, when discovering the truth, is that no one had pointed out my mistake. There’d been the occasional bit of tittering, but most people hadn’t been surprised when I’d introduced myself as a woman. Presumably Thai people think that all European women are 6’2, two-hundred pounders.

Having been obsessed with motorcycles since the age of about fifteen, I found the regular ‘for rent’ signs stuck to scooters around the city too tempting to ignore. We rented a scooter for 24 hours and on the first day I went from learning how to get the engine started to navigating a busy Thai city and riding up and down the local mountain, Doi Suthep. The 30°c heat was making my hands a little slippy on the throttle, so I stopped off at a supermarket and bought some rubber washing up gloves designed for extra grip. They worked a treat and even looked the part. I looked a little less cool the following day when I had two dark brown arms and a pair of white hands and wrists.

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To even out the tan, we re-rented the scooter  and rode out to Mae Rim, an area dotted with various different tourist attractions. We avoided most and instead opted to walk up the ten levels of Mae Rim waterfall, which my pores were doing a good impression of by the time we reached the top.

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After packing up and saying goodbye to the old city, we left the Green Tulip and Chiang Mai.

The Green Tulip: 8.5/10

Chiang Mai: 7/10

Shropshire to Ayutthaya

Packing the night before:

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We decided to temporarily bypass Bangkok and head straight for the temples 70km north. After a journey lasting longer than Britney’s marriage to Jason Alexander, we arrived at the Tamarind, our guesthouse in Ayutthaya.

Havigng dumped our bags, we got a lift to a nearby street-market where we enjoyed our first taste of the local cuisine. I’m not entirely sure which meat I ate, but I’m pretty sure it was quail. I think it’s only right to show some respect to the animal you’re consuming, so I did some research into famous quails and found this:

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It’s basically a weird chicken that looks a bit like Munch’s The Scream.

After returning to the guesthouse, we struggled with the mosquito net for about an hour before deciding that malaria couldn’t possibly be as bad as another hour of sleep deprived attempts to sellotape the net to the ceiling. We left it hanging from one corner in the hope that it would deter mosquitos by having a sort of scarecrow effect.

When we woke on the 16th, the 10 hour sleep had done us a lot of good and we realised how lucky we were with our location. We were staying just opposite the Wat Mha That, the ruins of an expansive ancient temple. It was incredibly striking, and we spent a few hours looking around the whole site, imagining what it would have been like if it hadn’t been destroyed. Bloody Burmese.

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Ayutthaya seemed quite ruins-heavy, so we took a stroll to the Old Palace area to have a look at some more.

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After a few hours exploring the site, we didn’t fancy the long walk back to the entrance/exit, so we hopped over a fence at the other end end carried on our way. Our route took us along a 1.5km stretch of road that couldn’t be further from the tourist traps we had been warned about when coming to Thailand. Thai shops and homes lined the streets, and the walk was fascinating.

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We finally arrived at what we thought was the market we had been heading for, only to be disappointing when we discovered it to be a rat infested warehouse with just a few small, dirty stalls. We carried on searching and found the real market a few hundred meters down the road. After looking around, we sat down for dinner at the riverside, looking at the illuminated temple across the water, and the boats drifting by.

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The next day was spent touring the whole town by bicycle, which was a lot of fun until we went a bit off-piste and started cycling down the Thai equivilant of the M6. On our trip we stopped off at the floating market and saw a few elephants, deciding to feed one whose job it was to stand between the stalls, looking hungry for the tourists. The trick worked on us, although we did manage to haggle down the bowl of potatoes to a steal at 10 baht.

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After the market we cycled to another large temple before putting our bikes on a boat for the short river crossing. Disembarking at the other side, we cycled back to the backpacker type streets we had seen on our way to the market and stopped at a small restaurant for dinner. We paid a little more for the privilege of sitting somewhere with a building attached, but the food was much the same.

The next day we said our goodbyes to the guesthouse and took a tuk-tuk to the station.

Ayutthaya: 6/10

Tamarind guesthouse: 7/10

Next post: Chiang Mai

Palermo, Sicily

We boarded the train from Palermo to Cefalù fifteen minutes early, and didn’t start moving until thirty minutes later. Every second away from fresh air was punishing my prosecco poisoned body, my t-shirt starting to turn damp.  I realised with horror that the train’s air conditioning was pumping out hot air.  It was twenty-two degrees outside and the sun was beating through the window. Coming from frostbitten London, the vague warmth seemed tropical to me.

I turned to my sister, the local, with pleading eyes.

“It’s November. It’s winter to them.” She shrugged.

In Palermo, the temperature is the only thing that the locals feel the need to compensate for. Life is bold; it spills out onto the streets all year round, regularly congregating to punctuate the city’s gentle pace with animated and theatrical markets.

I was staying in the part of the Old Town that is home to the Mercato Ballarò, popular with visitors but preserving the critical endorsement of the Palermitani.  As well as a spectacular array of fresh fruit and vegetables, there are countless meats and fish, including the local speciality, Swordfish. A walk through the market is an exploration of sensory satisfaction – what the eyes take in is complimented by the smells and sounds of Sicilian authenticity.

Around twenty minutes walk from Ballarò is Palermo’s city centre, peppered with a number of beautiful piazze. Politeama, which sits on the Piazza Ruggero Settimo, has hosted L’Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana and Gallery of Modern Art and, most importantly, was a striking welcome on my arrival to the city. A bus to Politeama runs from Palermo’s Falcone–Borsellino Airport every half an hour for €6.10, dropping you in the ideal starting location.

Not far from the city centre, it is easy to see that Palermo has not always been well maintained. The occasional shell of an abandoned building is jarring when viewed against the natural beauty of the surrounding Monte Pellegrino and Tyrrhenian Sea. To experience a more unblemished setting, I took the train from Palermo to Cefalù. At €10 for a return ticket, and only an hour each way, I was willing to put up with the overhead heater that was slowly cooking off the alcohol in my bloodstream.

After a childhood interjected with annual trips to Cornwall, I am no stranger to less than toasty beaches, and a November swim in Cefalù was considerably warmer than many I’ve experienced. The time of year meant that I had the sea to myself, and crucially, there were less people around to watch me skip out of my soaking boxers and back into my shorts. The couple that remained were wearing a combined total of eighty layers of clothing, and didn’t understand why anybody would get undressed in anything below 25 degrees.

Palermo and the surrounding areas are an affordable, attractive and authentic way of experiencing Sicily. Just remember to layer up for the return to Blighty.

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