I find, quite naturally, that there needs to be a reason – excuse possibly – to make a trip even more exciting. Having read that opening sentence, I realise that it may sound as if travelling and trips can be a chore but far from it: I have seen many countries and been very lucky but some events make certain trips even more fulfilling and this latest trip was certainly one of them. During it, I visited Albania for the first time and that became the fifty-seventh country which I have been fortunate to visit and, at the end of the trip, I changed my return flight from Rome when I read that I might be a face in the crowd at one of the Sunday blessings given by Pope Francis. It was to be a magical moment.
So, including the day I left work for Gatwick, I visited four countries in four days and ended off in the fifth, Italy, later in the week. The reason for visiting Italy was for my mother who is the only person in our family not to have visited The Eternal City. She was also a Classics teacher so I was delighted to be able to take a lot of photos and videos to give her a feel for the city. ( I don’t like to say it but she is only the member of our family not to have been blessed by a Pope, my father having, he tells me with no great conviction, been blessed by Pope Pius XII when he was strolling around Rome and happened upon the vast gathering in St.Peter’s).
I started off in Croatia in the city where essentially I caught the travel bug: Dubrovnik. I had two nights there either side of a four night stay in Montenegro and, for whatever reason, Dubrovnik was as enjoyable on both days as any previous visit. The Old City at night was as wonderful as ever but times have changed since my first visit in the late 70s: there was a rock concert in the Stradun, the main street. Al fresco dining complemented the atmosphere and it was difficult to tear myself away from it. I was staying the first night at the Hotel Sumratin near Lapad as it was fairly close to the bus station – it probably was but, having worked out the way, oh dear, my walk wasn’t, well, the most direct way... It wasn’t wrong either but a beer was welcome at the end of it. I don’t take much interest in the articles which people write about hotels on the internet but, when I had looked for directions on Google Maps and read of reports that the place had closed down, I inevitably looked a bit closer and came up with not one which was complimentary. It made me curious but I found the place absolutely fine. I’m fairly easily pleased and the staff were friendly, the room decent and an adequate breakfast provided.
On Sunday, I went to Montenegro and stayed four nights in the Iberostar Bellevue near Budva. Yes, it is a busy place with loads of people, tour groups and the restaurants filled up as soon as meals became available. It has in one guidebook – I realise that I’m still admitting to reading up about places but, really, I don’t take too much notice: maybe the worse the review, the more curious I am to see the place! – been suggested that the town of Becici, where the Iberostar lies, is the Benidorm of Montenegro. I can see to a degree what they mean but the Iberostar has very friendly and, dare I say, tolerant staff, the food was plentiful, varied and very good and there were plenty of facilities. Okay, if you want wi-fi, you pay for it but the prices which I saw bandied about were far more reasonable when I arrived. A special offer and, at 13.50 euros for three days, far better than I had been led to suggest. It was a decent base also, my room was very good and, having booked an early-bird offer, 40 euros a night for half-board, was superb value.
The day trip to Albania took place on Monday. Montenegro Hostel arranges a tour and had been very helpful but, reluctantly, I didn’t take them up simply because another local company, Globtour, had online bookings which could be paid for online and they would collect me fairly early from the hotel. As it turned out, after booking, I was told that there may be insufficient numbers so the tour might not go ahead. They quickly refunded the money but, when they did acquire sufficient people, they contacted me to say it was booked and that I should pay the driver. The chap from Globtour who made the booking, Nebojsa, pronounced loosely Naybosha and whose name, he assures me, means not afraid of anything, was excellent. ( I was afraid of trying to pronounce his name but he and Globtour were excellent and can be contacted at www.globtour.me ).

Two ladies from the Bellevue also went on the trip and we were picked up right on time at 7.30 am and picked up a Finnish trio at another Budva hotel before travelling down the Montenegrin coast to the border which took a little while to cross before we met our excellent guide, Andi. First impressions were odd and amusing: no sooner had we stopped the minivan than an old farmer came along at quite a good lick with two cows and headed for the border. Someone as mischievous as me took a photo of this, got shouted at by the old man whilst I, less brave and less well-prepared having not got my camera out in time, took him as he hot-footed it towards the border. Presumably he stopped short but who knows? Further fun was had when a menu offered as one of its main courses, krap... Fish.
Dubrovnik at dawn

Dubrovnik’s main street at night with musical accompaniment

Dubrovnik’s Stradun

Shkodra’s main street and mosque

Shkodra’s mosque, the largest in Albania

Rozafa Castle near Shkodra

The bay of Kotor with Kotor to the right

Budva’s old town

Sveti Stefan

One of the impressive corridors within the Vatican Museums

St. Peter’s by night

The Forum in Rome

The baths of Caracalla

The Capitoline Wolf

The Holy Father gives one of his Sunday addresses to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square

There wasn’t naturally a vast amount of time but, during the day, we saw sights around Albania’s second-largest city, Shkodra. It seems to have various spellings, none of which I can easily get my tongue around but it is pleasant and has the largest mosque in Albania. 70% of the country, we were told, are Muslim. The first stop was at Rozafa Castle which has splendid views over Shkodra City and was built by three brothers. Legend has it that, as it kept collapsing in its preliminary stages, the brothers were told that a human sacrifice had to be made to prevent this and one of the brother’s wives, Rozafa, was the unfortunate chosen one.

We visited the mosque before souvenir shopping and then returned to a restaurant close to Rozafa Castle. A three course meal with a drink was included in the 48 euro price for the day trip and it was very good. I settled on the local krap and we were later back at the Iberostar around 4.20 pm to far poorer weather than we had enjoyed in Albania. It had been an excellent day and a very good introduction to Albania.

The remaining two days of my stay were spent at the walled town of Kotor and the tiny but famous Montenegrin island of Sveti Stefan. Both are well-known in their different ways, Kotor for his beautiful old town and wonderful bay views and Sveti Stefan for its small size and which can be reached on foot from the mainland. It is essentially a hotel and, whilst I knew this, I was certainly surprised if disappointed that no-one was allowed on.

I was up early on the Thursday to take a 7.30 bus back to Dubrovnik. Buses aren’t that regular and I rather fancied a day in Dubrovnik so 7.30 am it had to be and it was worthwhile. I stayed in the Pupo Rooms near the main bus station in Gruz as I had another even earlier start the following morning. Such rooms, Sobe, are common in Croatia but this place has almost twenty-five and, for 30 euros, my room was a thoroughly good size, had a nice view over the port and was convenient even if the steps to them were quite a strain with luggage. My day was terrific in beautiful weather and I bumped into the Finnish trio I had been to Albania with and went back to two restaurants I had been to over the years and I am sure that, in one of them, we both recognised each other. I bought a day pass on the buses which at 30 kuna (£3) was excellent value.

It was an early start on Friday being on the Atlas Airport bus at 6.30am as the Vueling flight to Rome left at 8.30 am. Everything went smoothly at Dubrovnik and on the flight to Rome which arrived early just an hour later. I had booked online bus tickets to Termini Station from FiumIcino Airport with Terravision but, sad to relate, found them rather chaotic. I thought that I might have made the earlier bus and indeed was allowed on it as the last one on only to be asked to give way to someone else. Never mind. As no-one helped with bags and everyone had put their own bags on, I did so for the bus I was booked on – as did others – only for an abrupt Terravision staff member to shout at us and, in my case, order me to the back of the queue where I would have missed that one. Naturally, I refused telling him how long I had been waiting – both buses were late – and a more civilised girl allowed me on without fuss.

I stayed at the Ding House near Termini Station. It didn’t take too long to find but the sign suggested that residents had first to check in at another hotel around the corner. Once there, I was told that, as there were three places within this part of a large building housing various apartments, it was only the last one and not the Ding House which required this check-in. The chap at the hotel was very helpful, rung the lady in the Ding House but I must say that I was slightly offended when, assuming that he thought I couldn’t understand a little Italian, I heard him describe me as a signor alto. Making the mistake of thinking that alt in German means old, I thought that he was describing me as an old man only to repeat this episode to my mother who told me that alto means tall... I am happy to accept my mistake and offer humblest apologies although I didn’t say anything about it to the helpful man.

Ding House is a small area within a big building and needed four keys to get into my room. The place is basic but the room a decent size and the lady in charge, Lina, was very friendly and helpful. It is in an ideal position and, after unpacking, I bought a 48 hour ticket on the metro and buses for 13.50 euros. I would have preferred to have walked but did something to my leg. The pass helped but I still had plenty of walking to do which did nothing for the leg.

I had bought a ticket in advance for the Colosseum and Forum which avoided the long queue was very well worthwhile. I have been to both places before and enjoyed the Forum more as I did this time. The Colosseum is large whereas the Forum initially doesn’t seem as big and appears higgledy piggledy. We have found a reconstruction in a book and it most certainly looks impressive. For whatever reason, the three remaining pillars of the Temple of Castor and Pollux are what stand out for me in this wonderful area.

I went on in search of the statue of the Capitoline Wolf, the saver of Romulus and Remus as babies and, in essence, the saviour of Rome. I made the mistake of looking at a map and thinking that the distances were greater than they actually were so it took me sometime to find the elusive wolf in Campidoglia which adjoins the impressive Il Vittoriano building. Well, doubtless, the wolf was a good animal to nurse the twins and maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a far from savage looking creature. In fact, it looked positively tame and slightly lugubrious. My mother once worked with a chap who travelled adventurously, made the headlines by being kidnapped in the Yemen and, on another occasion, claimed to come into the orbit of a wolf and decided to play dead and came back saying that the wolf had been taken in. The Capitoline Wolf, I imagine, would have seemed to be similar.

On the first evening it started to rain bringing a foreboding of the weather the following day. I did manage to go to St.Peter’s and, lit up, it was a delight. Few people about and it was a treat. I slept well that night after two early mornings and enjoyed a lie-in on the Saturday as I had just to make my way back to the Vatican to visit the museums at 10 am. This was another ticket which I had bought online earlier and, whilst initially feeling that the 4 euro additional fee for the privilege was a cheek, I quickly revised my decision when I reached the museum area. The rain was heavy and the queue must have been half a mile long and, of course, my advance ticket meant that I could bypass all this. It would have taken hours to get in and I cannot recommend buying in advance and paying this extra amount highly enough.

The Colosseum is busy but I have rarely seen such numbers as I did in the Vatican Museums. The collections are impressive, the paintings, tapestries, frescoes remarkable and the possible highlight is the Sistine Chapel, whose high walls are adorned by Michelangelo’s work. No photography is allowed in the chapel. Actually, the corridors with the elaborate paintings on the walls and ceilings were every bit as impressive for me. Sadly, I couldn’t visit St.Peter’s afterwards as the queue was again vast, the rain was even heavier and I was thoroughly drenched. I’m not sure whether tour groups could reach the inside of the Basilica from the Sistine Chapel but certainly private individuals were discouraged by another marked exit which, on that day, would have meant a wet walk.

After a change of clothes, I went to the Circo Massimo station to visit the Terme di Caracalla, the baths the area of which has been used for concerts. I was very pleased, despite the continuing rain, that my mother wanted photos of this area as it was most impressive and much bigger than I had expected. Entrance, at 6 euros, was much less than other sites and was well worth it. I would have preferred slightly longer there but was drenched again despite my best attempts at staying dry.

After a decent if slightly long meal near Termini, my mother’s suggestion over the ‘phone that afternoon had been to try to see the Pantheon. I admit that I had worked out the Metro system – which wasn’t always that convenient for the main sites – but not the buses so it was quite a hobble from one station and past the under renovation Trevi Fountain – like the Piazza di Spagna – to the Pantheon. It took a time to find also by which time I was again wet and running out of dry clothes but, again, this is a vast and impressive building. Afterwards, I decided that I must return by bus, worked it out satisfactorily only to take the correct bus in the wrong direction... Say nothing. I did save the situation somewhat but was only back in my room at 10.30 pm – unusually late for me.

I managed to dry some clothes and was relieved on the Sunday, the big day, to see sunshine and fine weather. Actually, it couldn’t have been a nicer day. I made my way over to St. Peter’s having checked out of the Ding House at 10 am and arrived in good time at 10.45 am. It allowed plenty of time to find a decent spot to stand and, whilst naturally busy, it was far from being unbearably so. As midday loomed, it became busier but didn’t seem uncomfortable and, amid slight pomp, a purple drape was lowered at 11.45 am from one of the windows presumably so that the faithful flock knew where to expect the Holy Father. Right on noon, Pope Francis – or, as he seems to be known in Italy, Papa Francesco – appeared and, with the benefit of a very impressive loudspeaker system, his reading of the Angelus and further prayers could be very easily heard. ( If not quite understood for those of us with a limited knowledge of Italian). It was a magical moment and how pleased I was to have been and to have moved my original flight. I wouldn’t have easily forgiven myself for being on a flight just an hour before the Pope’s appearance. People clapped and waved and it was a wonderfully happy atmosphere. These fifteen minutes will always live with me.

I had an easy enough return to Ding House to collect my luggage but thereafter it was a struggle. There was further chaos with Terravision as no-one quite established which queue went to Fiumicino or Ciampino Airports and, when I did reach Fiumicino correctly and in good time, work was going on there too and the whole process took ages. So much for having a sit-down meal as I was lucky to make the departure gate in time but, afterwards, the flight arrived early, Gatwick was excellent and I even arrived back in Swindon earlier than anticipated.

A happy postscript too. Mum is delighted with the photos and video thus pleasing both of us. Apparently, I have exceeded her hopes and, until I started this article, had been asked to go back to Athens next year on a similar quest for her. Having, though, given her an early Christmas present in the form of a Rome guidebook, she has found much more that she wants to see so Athens may have to wait and I may be returning again to Rome (and attempting a walk up Mount Etna during the same trip)...