The story of Otranto – the furthest east of Italian cities

Otranto is Italy’s most easterly town and its position on the Adriatic coast has long made it strategically important in defending the narrow Strait of Otranto between Italy and Albania. The massive perimeter walls and tall, sturdy towers, an imposing sight by today’s standards, were constructed after the town was liberated from the Turks in the 15th century.

Today a number of wide promenades iced with cafe tables run along the top the walls that stretch high from the turquoise-clear waters of the Adriatic below. Narrow alleys dive up into the old town, cutting through vast turrets and stone-flat walls. In amongst the passageways and the hidden piazzas, small restaurants offer pizzas and fresh fish and pasta before breaking through to the main gates of the castle.

It is only a short distance through the shaded streets of the old town, lined with small shops selling classy cloths, local jewellery and the usual tourist tat, to reach the small piazzas at the heart of the old town. From the walls a large marina is revealed and at the other end of town a sandy beach provides opportunities for swimming and sun lounging.

One piazza is home to the 11th century duomo.

Inside two features stand out. One is a magnificent mosaic floor depicting hell.

The other is a collection of 100s of human skulls that are kept behind a sheet of glass. In 1480 the town was attacked by the Turks. The locals held out for two weeks but were eventually overcome. 800 took refuge in the cathedral. The Turks promised to let them go free if they renounced their faith but none did so and they were all taken out and beheaded. In 1771 a papal decree beatified them as martyrs and their skulls retrieved and displayed here.

The frontier town of Kalimpong

Leaving Gangtok today, I head for the border and leave the Kingdom of Sikkim. The road winds it way up the side of the mountain, crosses the ridge & winds its way down to the next boulder strewn river. The bus follows the Ranipul valley to the border.

My last afternoon back in West Bengal is spent in the scruffy boder town of Kalimpong stuck to the side of a mountain at 1,800 metres. The town was a frontier trading post for wool merchants coming from Tibet. It is a hotch potch of little narrow streets in the shadow of tall tatty buildings with busy people trading & going about their business from small stalls or workshops. In the people’s faces there is evidence dozens of cultures & religions. A spagetti of electricity wires & telephone cables tangle their way around the roads & streets. See what you think.

20150329100452_IMG_2201 20150329094351_IMG_2167 20150329092538_IMG_2128 20150329094146_IMG_2166 20150329100047_IMG_2193

So tomorrow I enter Bhutan. I have no idea what to expect but am so excited. There may be Wi-Fi, there may not. You may hear from me. You may not  😉 😕😢.


Feeling very spiritual in Gangtok

It is another long day’s drive along mountain roads to reach Gangtok. The least said the better although needless to say the rear suspension on the bus found it all too tough & gave up the ghost with a loud clunk. The driver got down to making emergency repairs, squatting underneath the rear axle, while the passengers exercised their posteriors and gained a short relief from the Brocking Bronko fairground ride.

20150327091640_IMG_1801 20150327091747_IMG_1802


Today is the anniversary of Rama & Sita’s wedding. The Hindu celebrations started in the streets with bells, symbols & chants. It all happens at the temple & is over by midmorning. However it did get me up on the roof for dawn. The sky was clear and, yes, I saw sunrise over the Himalaya (the correct name for the whole range without an ‘s’) and over Gamtok. It was worth the wait. This is Kanchenjunga at 8,586m.20150328032354_IMG_1928 20150328000227_IMG_1877


Gamtok is the present day capital of Sikkim. Here are some images of the town centre (apologies, for the two that are a bit wonky because taken out of the front window) and some of the side streets.

20150328034335_IMG_1932 20150328040058_IMG_193320150328092350_IMG_2108 20150328092253_IMG_2107 20150328081200_IMG_2088 20150328060740_IMG_2038


Rumtek Monastery was built in the 1960s and is the headquarters of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It an awesome building, its colourful facades towering over monks & novices & visitors & tourists. This is a bit of a Where’s Wally -find the single monk and find the group down the alley & try and work out what is going on.

20150328052227_IMG_1963 20150328051510_IMG_1953 20150328054757_IMG_2019 20150328054812_IMG_2020


Drodul Chorten is a monastery and a stupa and it has 108 prayer wheels around the central chorten. It was built to commemorate the victory of good over evil. Chants, drums & bells could be heard from the prayer hall. Visitors could only listen from outside – only the Buddhist monks were taking part including these guys from Bhutan. Check out their robe gear – their’s is very David Beckham!

20150328074652_IMG_2074 20150328074408_IMG_2070 20150328074938_IMG_2079

In and around Pelling in the Himalayan foothills

Today is a chance to explore, in the bus & on foot, in & around the town of Pelling. The haze lifts for a bit and the sun warms the valleys & hillsides. The first stop is a village that dots its houses, shops & barns along the winding road.

20150326024131_IMG_1442 20150326025846_IMG_1498 20150326024905_IMG_1465 20150326025854_IMG_1501 20150326030604_IMG_1504 20150326035240_IMG_1552

The next stop is a chance to walk around Kecheopelri or the Wishing Lake. A small cafe, a tatty gift shed, a tiny Buddhist prayer wheel & monastry huddle at the top of the path that leads to the lake itself – considered the most holy lake in Sikkim and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists & Hindus alike.

20150326043311_IMG_1598 20150326044822_IMG_1615 20150326043105_IMG_1593 20150326041504_IMG_1575 20150326040814_IMG_1565


Pemayangtse Monastery is the second oldest and is one of the 60 still active in the kingdom. As well as the male monkss, young boys age 7 to 13 attend for up to 3 years. Its members are devotees of a mystical type of Tantric Buddhism characterised by the red caps they wear.

20150326065749_IMG_1635 20150326065814_IMG_1637 20150326074217_IMG_1699 20150326074843_IMG_1706


Banging and bashing into the Kingdom of Sikkim

Well, it started off fine. This was a 140 km drive north from Darjeeling to Pelling in Sikkim. The bus left at 8 in the morning in warm sunshine and it arrived in Pelling at 6 o’clock in the evening in the middle of a thunder & lighting storm. You do the maths – with an hour off for stops it took 9 hours. The average speed was 14 km per hour!!! The driver never got out of third the whole way.

The first part took me through tall broad leaf forests with dappled sunlight through high foliage onto grasses, ferns, mosses, bamboos. The road snaked its way through the forest. At one point teak trees appeared. It took a fair while as the bus was old & lacked any acceleration and the road was a single & a half carriage way,which meant vehicles had to slow right down to pass each other. But the scenery was wonderful and the road relatively smooth.

20150325035741_IMG_1332 20150325045047_IMG_1345 20150325045454_IMG_1352

Then when the bus dropped down through the trees to the border to enter Sikkim it all went very wrong and the real problems started. I will let the images tell the story. Needless to say, it can be summed up as the ‘rocky horror journey’ along pitted, unmade up roads where dust & shakes & rolls & grinding gears & exhaust fumes & horns hit the senses at every stage of this journey from Mad Max 3. I’ll let you use your imagination!!!

20150325055053_IMG_1363 20150325065541_IMG_1368 20150325070518_IMG_1371 20150325100737_IMG_1384 20150325101746_IMG_1399 20150325101551_IMG_1396 20150325101343_IMG_1386


Dawn over the Himalayas

At 4am a convoy of 100 or so Jeeps race up the narrow streets and lanes to Tiger Hill at 2,590 metres (that’s over 8,000 feet!) to watch the sun rise & to see its rays illuminate the west facing peaks of the Himalayas. Sadly the haze sploit the occasion. This what we were supposed to see:



And here we all are not seeing it.20150323233845_IMG_1106 20150324002402_IMG_1160

After breakfast I set out to explore this town of 140,000 mostly Mongol origin people. Darjeeling is so near Tibet & Nepal & China that it i easy to forget that we are very much in India. I share the first part of my walk up the main street & along an open road with the joggers & speed walkers. The haze is really disconcerting because there is never a clear view down the hills (I’m going to start calling them mountains because that’s what they are) so the views out & between houses are simply blankets of grey.

20150323010453_IMG_0565 20150323010748_IMG_0570 20150323004457_IMG_0554 20150323013736_IMG_0645

Being so near Nepal the locals are mostly Buddhist. There is a wonderful temple hidden in a grove of trees with a huge flutter of a thousand prayer flags, a clanginging of prayer bells & a haze of smell – smoke from hundreds of incense sticks.


Darjeeling is a really busy place. The houses are multistoried as space is such a premium. Their frontages are in need of a good sand down and a bit of exterior emulsion applied. Streets are very narrow and wind through the buildings, the deep descents and steep slopes of the mountain sides. The most amazing sight is that of a handful of porters who climb these steep slopes with enormous weights on their backs and a strap attached around their foreheads. The most amazing was one with 3 large gas containers.

20150324024651_IMG_1211 20150323042900_IMG_0733 20150323085027_IMG_1077 20150323084253_IMG_1063 20150323084202_IMG_1062


Hundreds of Jeeps scurry through the maze of streets honking constantly to no avail as parked vehicles, pedestrians, huge potholes that could swallow a small car, market stalls (I saw a market being held on the railway line!!) or one of the many water lorries cause an obstruction & everything stops for 5 mins, the problem is sorted & the traffic moves on to the next obstruction a few hundred metres further on. The streets of the old town are full of stalls & bustling traders & tributaries &streams of busy shoppers who manage to snag up the vehicles that are also sharing the flow. Great fun buy everything is on the mountain so you know if you go down and some point it is a long slope or a steep climb back up.

20150323035333_IMG_0697 20150323041414_IMG_0708

At this altitude the temperature has drops to a chilly 12 or so degrees so it’s goodbye to shorts & out with the fleece. Day & night the locals go about well wrapped up in coats, blankets & heavy woollen hats.

Tea plantations were visible through the mist in the distance but it is20150323085440_IMG_1095 20150323090132_IMG_1101

still hard to believe that this place is the source of some the world’s best tea. Tomorrow I move onto Spelling in the former Kingdom of Sikkim. Am hoping Wi-Fi is available!!

Up to the hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal

The luscious green paddy fields of Bangladesh are at their best in the early morning haze. Driving through the manicured patchwork of luscious emerald fields it feels like Shangri-La. This makes the coming contrast even more marked. Today is the day I head for the border with India. Once all formalities have been completed by over zealous bureaucrats on both side, golly – paperwork in triplicate, I cross into West Bengal and within a few kilometres all has changed. All that clean gas & pedal power is replaced by Mr Tata’s diesel driven cars & lorries & buses, old rusty tuk tuk favourites, all still honking before passing the vehicle in front, with louder alpine horns I have to say. Air pollution is back on the agenda. The landscape loses all its order & colour and is replaced by dusty, rather scruffy fields of potatoes & skinny grazing cattle. The towns & villages are full of groups of men hanging about while the women are out in the fields doing all the work. Religion has changed from Muslim to Hindu. The overwhelming friendliness of Bangladesh is replaced by a general apathy to the presence of Westerners.

All is flat & dry for an hour or so and then, all of a sudden the bus starts a slow climb. No warning, it has been flat and now the hills start, simple. It takes several hours to climb from 150 metres above sea level up to Darjeeling at over 2,100 metres. Up & up the bus meanders through the sunlit mist as if entering a hidden kingdom up in the skies.

20150323052220_IMG_0857 20150323044443_IMG_0794 20150323082247_IMG_1047 20150323011032_IMG_0575

Shortly the railway track of the narrow guage railway that bought the Brits up from the sweltering plain, appears from a small engine shed on the side of the road & hugs the now narrow road as they both make their tedious way together through shabby houses & shops to the top.Vehicles have become small lorries & lines of beeping Jeeps acting as buses & taxis chug or beetle up & down the hills.

And then the bus drives through the little main square of Darjeeling. It is nothing like I imagine it to be. The buildings are tall and scruffy; they cling on to the side of the tall hills & look like they might almost peel of the walls. Yet the place has a real charm. The weather has changed at this altitude – fresh, even chilly at night. What I thought was romantic cloud is pollution from the towns below. The people are descended from Mongul tribes coming down from Tibet. To find out more I take the Toy Train to Ghoom, a slow 1 hour journey out of Darjeeling.

20150323043307_IMG_0746 20150323043800_IMG_0770 20150323044951_IMG_0814 20150323063941_IMG_0943 20150323065349_IMG_0977 20150323065213_IMG_0972 20150323064816_IMG_0965 20150323065743_IMG_0985