The Dolomites – Italy’s Limestone Rooftop

If you have never been in the eastern Alpine area of northern Italy called the Dolomites, then now is the time to pull out your trusty Michelin maps of the area and look for Bolzano (Bozen for the German speaking inhabitants). A short distance on the map to the east is Cortina d’Ampezzo; almost due north is Innsbruck. This is where the mountains are called the Dolomites.

This part of Italy was fought over many times and ruled by a variety of entities, empires and republics; Germans, Austrians, Hungarians and eventually the Italians themselves, as it is today. The biggest influence over the last few centuries has been Austria and Germany, with the result that most everyone here speaks German and many wish they were still part of either Austria or Germany. The Tirol is the western part of Austria, but the town itself is across the border in Italy. The signs are usually in Italian and German and when you approach a local, they will begin in German, then switching to Italian.

Be forewarned, it is one of the most expensive regions in Italy. It has excellent activity-oriented tourist offices, lifts, well maintained trails together with a very good bus system that invites tourists from all over. As a result, in most towns doubles in hotels run 100 Euros at a minimum, B&Bs about 70 Euros, with few alternatives. There is a short tourist season – mid July to late September – so they have to make their year’s income in two months.

The best way to tour this area, is by bus, in fact some of areas are only accessible by bus. Start from Venice and get your bus tickets to Cortina, then travel west to Bolzano. That’s the short description. Actually there is a route called the Great Dolomite Road. North of Venice there is a town called Belluno, from there north through tunnels and narrow passes to Cortina, then west through two passes, the Pordoi and Sella passes, then through the Val di Fassa to Bolzano.

You can take the easy and short tour by taking the cable car into the hills above Bolzano to the quintessential tourist town of Oberbozan. But if you have the time, take the bus – up from Venice or east across from Bolzano to Cortina, it’s well worth it.

In season, the Dolomites bask in the sun almost every day. Bolzano looks like Innsbruck but with much more sun. It’s not a big city, only 100,000 or so but certainly has all the amenities you would expect of a much larger city. It has a great open-air market on the Piazza Erbe and has an excellent tourist information centre to get up to speed on this entire area of Italy. Ask them about the 5,000-year-old Ice Man found frozen with his gear a few years ago.

The two most famous Dolomite ski areas are Val di Fassa and Val Gardenna. Between these two valleys, there is Europe’s highest and largest alpine meadow, the Alpe di Siusi. The meadow is five by 12 kilometers and is 2000 meters above sea level. It has a few scattered farm huts, loads of alpine wildflowers and is virtually car-free. There is a vary good view of Mount Schlern, a mountain that made middle age peasants think the entire meadow was bewitched and left it vacant for centuries. If you let your imagination run a little wild, Mount Schlern from the meadow top does look like a bat with its wings spread out or a witch with her cape spread wide over her shoulders. If your own broomstick isn’t up to flying to the top, there are buses to access the meadow and a couple of chair lifts.

A good base of operations for the area between Bolzano and Cortina is the town of Castelrotto, Kastleruth if your Michelin maps are German in origin. With a population of about 5,000, it has some very nice reasonably priced little hotels and the people here are the friendliest in the Dolomites. Castelrotto has more of that special Italian village charm than anywhere else in this region. It also has very good bus connections in every direction in case you must leave.

During its short summer tourist season, the Dolomites can be crowded and expensive, but it’s a part of Italy that you should not miss if you have the time and can afford it.

The Popular Inspector Morse Series

The detective drama series of Inspector Morse is based on the Chief Inspector fictional books written by Colin Dexter. Chief Inspector Morse was played by John Thaw in the series while Sergeant Lewis was played by Kevin Whately. There are cameo appearances made by Dexter in most of the episodes.

The series consists of 33 one hundred minute episodes that were produced from 1987 up to 2000. There are only thirteen novels. This means that twenty extra episodes were produced for TV. The series is still popular and is often repeated on ITV3 and ITV1 in Britain. The police series is located within the stately area surrounding Oxford. Chief Inspector Morse is a mild mannered but nonetheless very thorough man, and together with Detective Sergeant Lewis, his trusted and faithful colleague, solve numerous murder mysteries. Each episode entails a complete story.

The main actors amongst others include John Thaw who stars as Inspector Morse (in all 33 episodes), Kevin Whately who stars as Detective Sergeant Lewis (in 32 episodes), Colin Dexter as the college porter (in 30 episodes), and James Grout as Chief Superintendant Strange (in 22 episodes).

The first episode was aired on January 6th 1987 and was called ‘The Dead of Jericho’. The storyline revolves around Morse’s friend Ann Stavely who apparently commits suicide in her Jericho home. Morse is not convinced, though. He then starts working alongside Sergeant Lewis. Gemma Jones is included in the cast.

The final episode was aired on November 15th 2000 and was called ‘The Remorseful Day’. The storyline revolves around Morse trying to solve Yvonne Harrison’s unsolved murder while his own health is deteriorating. He later suffers a major heart attack and subsequently dies at the hospital. His final words are ‘Thank Lewis for me’.

Inspector Morse fans have the opportunity of enjoying a bus tour from London to look into the famous detective’s world. Many locations familiar to Inspector Morse and his trusty colleague Lewis can be visited in Oxford, and includes a guided walk of 1 ½ hours around the Morse locations. Fans will be able to hear snippets about their enigmatic detective.

The charming Monkey Island where scenes were also filmed is included in the itinerary, and guests can enjoy afternoon tea. Other highlights of the tour include visiting the St. Michaels Church Bray where the episode ‘The Service of All the Dead’ was filmed. Another spot is in the pub that overlooks the Thames where Morse took Helen. Oxford colleges can also be visited that were used as locations in the series. The house can also be discovered from the episode ‘The Dead of Jericho’ where Anne was found hanging. Throughout the fun tour, questions are asked that relate to Inspector Morse to see if guests can solve any answers.

All Aboard The Doggie Express

“Oh look! They’re putting a dog in a bag into the luggage storage space!” my trusty travel companion Richard remarked, no, shouted, just as I was settling in on the top bunk of the virtually empty sleeper bus taking us from southern Sichuan to Yunnan.

I had been looking forward to some relaxed reading and gnawing on peanut sweets when my zen-like bliss was disturbed by Richard’s outburst. I could see nothing from my window, but now I could hear yelps and moans from a dog in evident distress.

Damn. I knew there had been something wrong about this bus. No means of transportation in China is “virtually empty” and especially not in the run-up to Chinese New Year which, like Christmas in Hong Kong, comes earlier and earlier each year.

And here we had been thinking we’d hit the transport jackpot on our Christmas trip, even welcoming the fact that the journey would take five hours instead of the normal three so we could relax properly! Now we had to stare in horror as the Dog Torture Express, winding its way around the unpaved country roads of southern Sichuan at 30 km an hour, stopped again and again to pick up ever more dogs trussed up like turkeys, some of them with their jaws bound with wire.

“I can’t be here,” I said, just as Richard was jumping off his bunk and getting his luggage.

Outside the bus was mayhem. The un-muffled dogs were yelping, howling and generally shouting for help. They seemed to understand that they were heading for restaurant tables to be gristly snacks for men who think eating dog meat makes them more virile. The yelping wasn’t the worst, however, although it cut us to the marrow. It was their eyes looking at us, pleading for mercy, which really made me wish I was a huge, AK-47 brandishing bruiser, no, had heaps of money so I could free them and set up a doggie rescue center and …

The driver and his gloved henchmen, wielding metal wire and shoving the dogs like so many postal packages into shallow shelves in the bus luggage hold, sniggered derisively; staring at us like we were some bleeding-heart liberal tree-huggers or something.

And really, having twice eaten dog meat in my youth and on this trip commenting on all the restaurants proudly proclaiming they served the best dog meat – where had I thought it came from? Organically reared dogs which happened to wander into the kitchen of an afternoon, accidentally impaling themselves on cleavers?

The driver’s assistant, it has to be said, was kind enough to drive us to the nearest train station, where we only had to wait five hours for the next train. He also gave us 80% of our money back. He seemed almost sheepish when I commented on the fact that the upholstery in his car featured cute cartoon dog figures.

That was New Year’s Day, something of a nadir of an otherwise suitably dramatic Christmas holiday with ample opportunity to wear our winter clothes, and with excellent hovelage.

Was it the repeated reading of Oliver Twist in my childhood that set me up for a life incessantly seeking out grim places full of hovels? I’m drawn to them like other tourists are drawn to beaches and dry martinies. In that respect, the trip didn’t disappoint. Guizhou, Guangxi and Sichuan all have their share of mud-encrusted, run-down, grey and grimy villages and city neighbourhoods with snotty children playing among stinking rubbish heaps and teenagers whose soot-blackened faces make them look like 65 year-old – truly hovelage to rival Dickens’ Isle of Dogs.

Grimmest of all and therefore my favourite, was Guizhou. Apart from superior grimness, Guizhou is the best province for winter travel: Its restaurants have coal-fired stoves with large surfaces on which you can put your condom-thin plastic beerglass without its melting.

Is that why large parts of the province’s population like to wander around in their pyjamas at all times of day, even when temperatures get uncomfortably close to zero? They know there’s always a stove waiting around the corner in Guizhou, whereas in for example Sichuan there is no source of heating, none, and even the tea they serve is cold.

Yes, Guizhou is in every way a place dedicated to people’s creature comfort and also their need for law and order. It was in Liupanshui (six basins of water) in the north-western part of the province, that Richard and I felt the full, crushing weight of the Chinese legal system.

We had remarked upon the ease with which we had been able to check into hotels of late; a glance at my Hong Kong ID card with my name in Chinese seemed to be sufficient to register us both – the receptionists were only too happy not to have to bother with cumbersome passports and tricky spelling.

Wandering through a market where chilies in their myriad forms ruled the roost, we were approached by a geezer in a black leather jacket. He pulled out a police ID.

“Police. What are you doing here?”

“Why are you asking?”

“I work at a station down the road and we’ve had a phone call about two foreigners walking around the market. Where are you staying?”

I showed him the hotel card. Cool! 19 years of travelling in China and I was reported on at last! He thanked us and buggered off.

Back at the hotel, the receptionists were in a state.

“You have to fill in forms! We forgot! It’s for your own safety! We need passports! Visas! … and your Hong Kong ID, how long is it valid?”

“I see. You’ve had a phone call from the police?”

“Er… yes. You must wait for them here. They must see your … er… your safety…”

Having already checked out hours before and with our luggage stored in reception, we saw no need to fill out any more forms. Ignoring the receptionists’ plaintive cries about our safety we legged it down to the train station to lose ourselves in the crowds heading home for Chinese New Year. With my blonde head and Richard’s 6 foot 3 frame, the law would never find us.

But the rozzers got us in the end. We were just about to board the train, congratulating ourselves on our lucky escape when a fat, uniformed policeman, a bruiser in fact, caught me by the elbow.
“Have you been taking photos in the station area?”

“Er… yes? And?” Damn! I should have said: What took you so long?

“We’ve been told about a foreigner taking photos in the station area. It is illegal and you have to erase them.”

It was true; I did have one photo of thousands of people fighting to get through the gates to the platform and also a particularly incriminating one of a Yi minority woman with a baby in a sling. These I deleted amid much commenting by bystanders. Oh well, the photos were of inferior quality anyway.

And reported, no, ratted on, twice in one day! This was the life. I made a mental note of looking up “I am a spy working for the Norwegian government.” Oh, the fun one can have in China … but I probably won’t eat dog meat again…