why do we travel? (plus three great hotel websites)

I had an existential moment as I stood for three hours on the train from Naples to Rome. Why do we travel?, I asked myself. The train was packed solid, but for only 12 euros I could buy a ticket that allowed me to stand with others in the standing-only area. The three hours passed faster than I thought they would. I chatted with a nice man from Atlanta. I self-consciously ate two slices of pizza while eight pairs of eyes stared at me. I witnessed an angry exchange between two Italian women and didn’t have a clue what it was about (and didn’t want to know.) I looked out the window at the passing landscape. And I watched as two policemen boarded the train and accosted two black men. It turned out they were African boat migrants who, no doubt, had paid a smuggler to break into Fortress Europe. At the next station they were escorted off the train. What awaited them?, I wondered. A detention camp, maybe, and deportation. I felt sorry for them.

And I guess that’s one of the reasons why we travel – to see the world, in all its splendor and misery. To see how other people live. To step out of our lives – for some people, their ivory towers – and observe the diversity and destiny and danger of our fellow humans, even if that view is voyeuristic or from a privileged perch.

Other reasons to travel – to unstick oneself from routine (I hate routine). It’s good to change our daily habits and shake things up. Or, as the French say, “changer les idées”.

To step out of our comfort zone, to test and challenge ourselves, to not stand still, to feel inspired. To connect with humanity. To have great conversations with complete strangers, until they’re no longer strangers but new friends with whom you’ve exchanged email addresses. To see great art and taste gorgeous foods that we normally wouldn’t see or eat at home. To extend our boundaries and stretch our minds. To feel the sea wind in our face and hear a foreign, lyrical language in our ears. To unplug from our computers and our hard drives and see things from another perspective because there are, in this world, differing points of view.

Jonah Lehrer, a British journalist, wrote this –

We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.


To plan your next escape, take a look at these (terrific) hotel websites –




And this website for the best hostels –


see Naples and die…


Naples is a slap in the face, a hard slap. Within 5 minutes of my arrival – in plain daylight and in the middle of a street – I was attacked by a purse-snatcher and found myself tussling with him over my handbag. I won and he lost, but more on that in a minute.

My arrival into Naples was as inauspicious as my (shortened) stay there. As the Air France jet started its descent, we flew into thick black cloud which hovered menacingly over the city. An omen? I found the presence of the clouds odd because the two hour flight from Paris had been sunny and uneventful all the way down. Suddenly a rainstorm of biblical proportions broke out. Turbulence ensued and we landed, rather rockily.  The taxi ride to the hotel was worse. We descended a slippery slope (in the pouring rain) with such velocity that I found myself sliding across the back seat from one side of the car to the other. I groped for the seatbelt. It was broken. To worsen matters, every time we passed a roadside shrine to the Virgin Mary – of which there were many and erected for each fatal road accident that had occurred there – my pious taxi driver made the sign of the cross, not once or twice, but three times. Kissing the side of his index finger, he then touched his fingers to his forehead, chest and two shoulders. Three times. All without lifting his foot from the gas pedal.

Not knowing how to say “Slow down!” in Italian, I invented a word. “Tranquillo!” I squeaked, now clutching a shred of leather strap that dangled from the ceiling. My taxi driver laughed uproariously. “Calmo! Calmo!” he said, then slowed a tad. The phrase “See Naples and die” ran through my head. Only I hadn’t seen Naples yet … just the airport, black cloud, rain, and a portion of shrine-studded road.

Then his cell phone rang and he launched into a lengthy and animated discussion with his mother. I know this because every sentence was punctuated with “Mamma”. “Oh dear God, if there is one,” I muttered to myself, “Must he speak with his mother now??”  With the phone clamped to his ear, he spoke and made gestures with his one free hand – all the while reaffirming the Holy Trinity every time another Virgin Mary appeared. We continued our descent into Dante’s inferno, or rather, the city.

Finally reaching the hotel, I staggered out of the car, checked in, dumped my bag in my room, went out again and was immediately attacked by a purse snatcher.

And it’s funny because just as I entered the road marked Via Alessandro, a mere four minutes from the hotel, I had a flash-like premonition. A small voice in my head said “What if something should befall you in this street?  Like a car running you over or a flower pot landing on your head from an above balcony?”  And it was while I was looking up that a motorcycle drove by, driven by a male whose face was covered like a jihadist. Slowing down, he grabbed the strap of my handbag which was wrapped around my torso, causing me to spin around. I remember standing there, visibly shaken, and staring at the back of this cowardly brute with disbelief and defiance as he drove away. The next day my torso would be black and blue.

But he had failed to snatch my bag, so he turned around and came back. By this time I was walking quickly back to the hotel. He reached out and grabbed the strap of my bag again. I was now holding the bag with all my might while he was pulling on the strap which broke. Babbling unintelligible words to me in Italian, I shrieked intelligible words to him in English.

There was NO WAY he was going to get his hands on that bag. Everything essential was in it – my passport, my bank cards, my phone, my brand new YSL fuschia lipstick…. My determination was greater than his and in the end he drove off, bagless.  Vigliacco!  That’s “coward” in Italian (I looked it up). It’s too bad I didn’t know this word at the time because when you say it with force accompanied by a flamboyant hand gesture, it comes out as a guttural rasping utterance which is very satisfying.


Marching into the hotel, me and my broken handbag, I recounted my street scuffle to the two men at reception. They were embarrassed because only ten minutes earlier they had greeted me with a hearty “Welcome to Naples!  We hope you’ll enjoy your stay in our fine city!” They apologized profusely. “We are very sorry, Signora,” they said. They instructed me to leave everything in my room safe and go out with nothing.  “Nothing?” I said.  “But I need to take some cash, at least. And a map.”  They told me to put a few things in zippered pockets or in a secure money belt hidden under my coat.

And so I went out again, unhappily, sans camera, sans handbag. But for someone like me who lives and breathes freedom, I found this restriction on my personal liberté very depressing.

Photos taken from my hotel balcony.  I only took two photos the whole time I was there. I left earlier than planned and took the train up to Rome.


Italy (region of Puglia)

PUGLIA June 2014 143PUGLIA June 2014 141

In June 2013, I spent ten days in a region of Italy that I had wanted to explore for a long time. Puglia is located in the heel of Italy’s boot and now easily accessible thanks to the two low-cost European airlines, Ryanair and Easyjet. I paid 30 euros for a flight from Paris to Brindisi. Brindisi is an old, rundown but interesting port city (watch out for pickpockets and don’t wander around at night.)

The region is not one of Italy’s traditional tourist destinations, but is becoming increasingly popular as travellers discover the area’s varied charms: baroque towns, white-washed trullo houses, olive groves and orchards, blue sea and beaches, plenty of sunshine and excellent cuisine.

The people of Puglia are lovely – authentic, generous and happy to be of service. The tourist industry is crucial to the economy of this once very poor agricultural region. Arriving at Brindisi train station and unsure of the location of my hotel, I asked one person for directions. Within 10 minutes a small crowd had gathered. Even though every person gave a different direction and, in the end, they were all wrong, I was touched by their solicitousness.  Below are my travel posts from June 2013.


Off to Italy…..ci vediamo dopo!

I’m disconnecting from the internet and escaping to Italy. To the south. To a region I’ve never visited, but have always wanted to explore. Deep in the heel of Italy, to the region of Puglia.

I’m travelling light: a few books, my camera, sunscreen, light clothes and a writing pad. No phone, no laptop, no tablet. Just like the old days. Remember those days? Those carefree, uncluttered days? The idea is to work on my book project, but also to sightsee. And eat. And drink many caffès. And wander. And visit old churches and cathedrals. Of which there are many.

First stop: a secluded hotel among olive groves, near a coastal town called Otranto and the Adriatic Sea. And then onwards to Lecce, capital city known as the “Florence of the south” before meandering up the coast to Polignano a Mare.


Here’s Luigi who, on my third day at the countryside hotel where I was staying, picked me up and drove me to nearby Otranto.

PUGLIA June 2014 045

Half a day will suffice in this windswept small town. Just time enough for a brisk walk along the seafront (if you peer across the Adriatic Sea, you can see Albania on the other side), a seafood lunch and a visit to the old church to gaze at the spectacular and beautifully preserved mosaic floor depicting the Tree of Life. Crafted between 1163 and 1165, it’s the largest in Europe and almost intact.

PUGLIA June 2014 048PUGLIA June 2014 064PUGLIA June 2014 063

On Day 4, I took a taxi from my countryside hotel to the capital city of Lecce, pronounced Lechay (the “ch” pronounced like “church”). Someone has (incorrectly) coined the phrase “Florence of the south” for this city and I wonder why.  Lecce is a Baroque city whereas Florence is a Renaissance city with a wealth of Renaissance art and architecture. (Lecce has few art galleries and museums.)  As I walked, the words that came to mind to describe this place were “le bijou baroque du sud” (Baroque jewel of the south). 

PUGLIA June 2014 072

As soon as I arrived, I had a good feeling about this sun-baked, southern city despite it being 2 pm and everything shut up tight for siesta. Even the big fountain in the town square had been turned off.  Even the animals were napping!  My hotel also being closed (because I didn’t inform them of my arrival time), I strolled the deserted streets, wheeling my suitcase along the soft, porous cobblestones. Lecce stone is remarkable – white, smooth and composed of limestone and granite.

PUGLIA June 2014 131PUGLIA June 2014 146PUGLIA June 2014 170PUGLIA June 2014 169

There are churches galore here – lavishly and exuberantly decorated. One guidebook describes the city as “a riot of cherubs”.

PUGLIA June 2014 135PUGLIA June 2014 070

Click on this link below to keep travelling –


onwards to Polignano a Mare

PUGLIA June 2014 213

At precisely 1:20 pm the regional train – near-empty and spanking clean – pulled out of Lecce train station and made its way through scrub countryside to the coastal town of Polignano a Mare.  Perched dramatically on a clifftop overlooking the Adriatic Sea, this dazzling città will instantly seduce you. 

PUGLIA June 2014 272

If I had only one word to describe this utterly charming town, it would have to be clean. Clean and sparkling white.  It was a joy to walk through the maze of narrow lanes in the old town, past the small shops and private homes.  At one point I even removed my sandals just to feel the smooth, velvety stone under my feet.  The wind that blows in from the sea is also clean – constant, cleansing and calming.  Lecce and Polignano a Mare are, in my opinion, two feel-good, regenerating places.

PUGLIA June 2014 241PUGLIA June 2014 240PUGLIA June 2014 245

Below is the view from my hotel.  As I peered over the ledge, I was horrified to see groups of teenagers clustered on the rocks below, some diving into the water. It looked awfully dangerous and I thought to myself – How can their parents let them do this?  They probably did the same when they were young!

PUGLIA June 2014 227PUGLIA June 2014 223PUGLIA June 2014 221The hotel has this lovely rooftop terrace where breakfast is served. I recommend this family-run establishment for its location, its super comfortable beds and its fresh, clean décor.PUGLIA June 2014 237I meandered into the old town and came across this beautiful old church (look at that gorgeous stonework).  It’s called the Purgatory Church.PUGLIA June 2014 254

I pushed open the door and, as is my wont, walked around its cool, dim interior.  It was only when my eyes became accustomed to the dark did I realize I was not alone. In the nave of the small church was a casket – an open one – and I saw an elderly man lying inside, his hands folded across his chest.  I froze.  There was no-one else in the church, just him and me.  A shiver passed through my body and I suddenly felt cold.  And then the heavy door creaked open and a group of women came in, swathed in black.  I muttered “Scusi”, and slid discreetly past them.  Stepping out of the church, I stood blinking in the strong sunlight.  I felt sad.  Sad for their loss…and for loss in general.


Hotel – Malù Bed & Breakfast

exploring Lecce (part 2)


My hotel was perfectly located in the modern part of town but within 5 minutes’ walking distance to the old part of town.

It turns out that there’s an inexpensive jewellery and design boutique two doors down from the hotel.PUGLIA June 2014 091PUGLIA June 2014 094PUGLIA June 2014 095PUGLIA June 2014 099

I bought these (inexpensive) pieces which are composed of an alloy of four metals: zinc, aluminium, magnesium and copper covered in silver and nickel.

Craving coffee, I headed into the old town and entered a café.  Here’s what I ordered:  the speciality coffee that the good people of Lecce drink in hot weather.  Called caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla, it’s a mixture of almond milk, almond syrup and espresso poured over ice cubes and then frothed with the espresso machine.  It costs two euros.  Delizioso!   I could drink this all day long.

PUGLIA June 2014 164“Why not add a dollop of mocha gelati?” said one of the laughing baristas, heading for the gelati counter.  Why not indeed?PUGLIA June 2014 166Everywhere I went, I encountered smiling faces, generous spirits and joviality. Such a refreshing change from the peevish Parisians.  I envisaged myself living here, at least part time.  PUGLIA June 2014 167Who can resist their kindness, their divine gelati and their pastries?  I can’t!PUGLIA June 2014 161PUGLIA June 2014 118Here’s one of the more popular ice cream and pastry shops situated at the entrance of the old town.PUGLIA June 2014 192

Towards evening, I came across this casual deli-wine bar while wandering the narrow back streets. The Enogastronomia Povero serves up delicious, local dishes. One word of warning however: I chose to eat vegetarian because the origin of meat can be questionable in the south of Italy. That lasagna you’re eating?  It could be filled with horse or donkey meat.  Vegetable-based dishes – along with fava beans, chick peas, etc. – are in abundance, so non-meat eaters need not feel deprived in any way.  Au contraire! I could hardly finish my samplings of aubergine parmigiana, artichoke frittata, ricotta lasagna, potato-rice-courgette-mussel dish and aubergine-mint fritters.  Corn bread studded with olives and sun-dried tomatoes was offered in a small basket and the wine was outstanding, a local Negroamaro from the outlying Salento region.

PUGLIA June 2014 195PUGLIA June 2014 196

Leaving Povero, I turned right down a narrow backstreet and came across a vintage clothing shop.  Walking inside, my eye fell on an attractive leather handbag.  “Quanto costa?” I said to the man at the back of the shop.  35 euros was his reply.  I handed over 35 euros and he gave me 5 euros back.  I’m not quite sure why, but I didn’t argue with him.  I was really pleased with my purchase.

PUGLIA June 2014 201

Jewellery store
AL Design
Via 47 Reggimento Fanteria, 26

Mirage B&B
Via 47 Reggimento Fanteria, 12

Deli/Wine Bar
Via Rubichi, 4

Below, click on “onwards to Polignano a Mare” to visit the small, glittering coastal town on the Adriatic coast.