Category Archives: TRAVEL

On land and at sea, at home and abroad

A spin through Italy’s Motor Valley, where supercars are born

It is not an exclusively Italian trait, but spend any time in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and you soon learn that deification is a popular pastime. Instead of the vulgar creeds of football and celebrity, however, the religions that enchant the denizens of the corridor linking Piacenza with Rimini are altogether more refined: good food and righteous cars.

The gods of the former are, in the main, pasta (handmade), parmesan and balsamic vinegar, while dominating the latter doctrine are such familiar names as Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini. So revered are these two that you might imagine they led lives entirely free from moral blemish, yet after surveying and savouring the motoring creations that bear their name – and which wouldn’t have existed without them – you forgive the more hyperbolic aspects of the tourist “experience” attached to them.

Modena is the de facto capital of Motor Valley, as the tourist chiefs have branded it: here you will find Ferrari, Maserati and Pagani, while just outside the city limits you’ll find Lamborghini. Of the four, Pagani cares not for the attentions of the hoi polloi and Maserati has no official museum or factory tour, but the other two marques have created predictably high-quality tourist experiences.

It’s at a farm outside Modena that I get my first exposure to a platoon of indescribably handsome Italian vehicles. Built by Umberto Panini (of the sticker dynasty), Hombre is a quirky operation that, on one hand, produces organic Parmigiano-Reggiano and, on the other, houses the late publisher’s collection of cars, motorbikes and tractors.

A rare Maserati motorcycle in the car and motorcycle collection at Hombre, near Modena

Maseratis – polished to within an inch of their lives – form the bulk of the collection, and being a child of the 1970s it’s the Bora, Khamsin and Merak that bring me out in a sweat, but the 3500 GT and Ghibli Coupe are impossibly handsome too. There are also examples of the short-lived Maserati line of motorcycles on the ground floor next to a staircase that leads to a row of lovingly fettled classic two-wheelers, among them models by Moto Guzzi, Ducati, BSA, Norton, Ariel and Triumph. There’s even a Scott Super Squirrel from the 1920s.

A Maserati Bora at the car and motorcycle collection at Hombre near Modena

Unlike collections closer to home which we won’t name, here you are free to wander among the treasures away from the prying eyes of CCTV. Astonishingly, entry is free, as is parking.

A few miles east of Modena and a few hours later I find myself on a guided tour of the Lamborghini factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese. As we are led through the various stages of assembly, first for the V10 Huracan then the V12 Aventador, it’s quite clear the company has come an indescribably long way from its founder’s origins in the manufacture of agricultural machinery.

A characteristically subtle Lamborghini Aventador outside the marque’s factory at Sant’Agata Bolognese

Conspicuously clean and tidy and operating to a meticulous schedule whereby the vehicles spend exactly 37 minutes at each stage on the production line, this is more laboratory than assembly line, making 11 Huracans and five Aventadors every day, Monday to Friday. That’s correct: Monday to Friday. So exclusive are Lambos that the cars are built to order and the chassis are put together by parent company Audi in Germany. This means the assembly line staff can work from 8am to 5pm, five days a week, with the factory closing at weekends. The perks aren’t too bad either: while they don’t qualify for a staff discount, workers are given the use of a Huracan for the duration of their wedding day. The guide laughs when asked how many times an employee can take advantage of the offer.

Next door to the factory is the Lamborghini museum, where you’ll see the first car to wear the marque’s fighting bull badge, the understated 350 GT, which Ferruccio Lamborghini was prompted to create after a disagreement with Enzo Ferrari about the Ferrari 250 GTO he had bought. But it’s the Miura, arguably the first supercar, which takes the breath away. Designed by Marcello Gandini, who would go on to create the outlines of the Miura’s unapologetically futuristic successor, the Countach, as well as those of another Top Trumps ace card, the Lancia Stratos, there were fewer than 800 Miuras made from 1966 to 1972. If you can find one, it’ll cost you several million pounds.

The Lamborghini Urus SUV prototype has 24-inch wheels. Yes: 24-inch

Less pleasing on the eye is the prototype of a car Lamborghini is placing a lot of faith in and building a new factory for – the Urus, a 4.9m-long SUV. The mere idea of the Urus seems anathema to the marque’s ethos, but money talks and the market research says more and more very wealthy people want very big vehicles in which to gad about. It’ll reputedly top out at 205mph; in my book, anybody who wants to drive an SUV at such a speed is welcome to throw their money away. Also worth mentioning is the fact the prototype has 24-inch wheels (305/35/R24 to be precise). I endeavour to price a full set online but draw a blank.

Running upstairs at the museum until October is an exhibition that will appeal to fans of Formula 1 before it became a sanitised snorefest: Ayrton Senna – The Last Night. Here you can feast your eyes on all the Brazilian’s race cars, including two Formula Fords and his Toleman TG184, as well as the McLaren with a Lamborghini V12 which Senna test drove but never raced. Again, you can get as close to the exhibits as you like short of sitting on them.

Back up the road in Modena it’s time to see what Ferrari has to offer. The answer is not one but two museums. One, dedicated to the company and its creations, is in Maranello, also the location of the Ferrari factory and the F1 team HQ (Ferrari’s test track, Fiorano, is nearby). Here in Modena, however, the motivation behind the Enzo Ferrari Museum appears to be ensuring if not the deification of the car maker’s founder then at least his canonisation.

The Enzo Ferrari Museum, Modena

Firstly you can saunter through the house Ferrari grew up in and the officina or workshop of Ferrari’s father, Alfredo, who died when his son was 18. Ferrari persuaded his widowed mother to sell the building to fund his racing career, and many decades later the company leases it from its owner, who (understandably) refuses to sell it back. If ogling engines is your thing you’ll like the exhibits, but if, like me, you can’t tell a piston from a pulley then you’d do well to march over to the hyper-modern museum itself.

As with Umberto Panini’s Maserati collection, it’s here that you can behold from all angles some of the most elegant objects ever designed by man: a 330 GTC Speciale (one of four), the 166 Mille Miglia, a Dino 206 GT and a 246 GT. After these the more modern models – everything from the 288 GTO to the LaFerrari via the F12tdf – seem rather crass, which perhaps explains why the modern equivalents of celebrated Ferraristi such as Peter Sellers and John Lennon, depicted in a film projected on to a wall of the museum, include Justin Bieber and Gordon Ramsay.

A Ferrari F12tdf at the Enzo Ferrari Museum, Modena

Give me a Dino 246 GT any day, or a 330 GTC Speciale. In fact, make it a Bora. No, scratch that. Give me a Countach.

That’s the effect Motor Valley has on you. It places you at the heart of automotive utopia. Even if only for a few hours, it’s a very nice place to be.

Getting there

British Airways (ba.com) has return flights from Glasgow to Bologna via London Heathrow from £232.

Where to stay

Central Park Modena (centralparkmodena.com) has double rooms from €135 per night.

Where to visit

Umberto Panini Motor Museum, Modena

Free entry. Visit paninimotormuseum.it

Museo Automobili Lamborghini and Automobili Lamborghini, Modena

Guided tour and museum entry costs €75 (adults) and €50 (children). Visit lamborghini.com

Museo Enzo Ferrari, Modena

Entry costs €16 (adults) and €5 (children). Visit musei.ferrari.com

Other information

Visit emiliaromagnaturismo.it/en

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

The bonds that form at sea

Hirta, St Kilda: Ruabhal headland
Ruabhal on Hirta, the main island in the archipelago of St Kilda

The value of much you take for granted or overlook can be driven home in the unlikeliest of circumstances, in this case a week among strangers on a converted rescue ship ploughing the seas around the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

Over the course of the trip – 314 nautical miles from Oban to St Kilda and back, via Mull, the Monach Islands, Taransay, Soay and Morvern – nature claims the No 1 spot, with human endeavour and fellowship close behind.

The natural world engulfs you on the ocean wave – both deep within the roiling mass on which you sail and above it. As Elizabeth G makes her way along the Sound of Mull after overnighting in Tobermory, a couple of hours into the day’s schedule, a school of dolphins appears out of nowhere and proceeds to chum along with us for 45 minutes, making the collective heart skip a few beats. Such is the creatures’ proximity, most of the party lean over the gunwales to inch even closer, an act that forces several to retire to their beds in the aftermath to doze off the consequent queasiness.

But the sea clasps many species to its bosom. One morning while anchored in Camas nan Gall, the east bay of Soay in the shadow of the Black Cuillin of Skye, our skipper Rob Barlow zips off in the dinghy with crew member Helen Ricketts, diving gear to the ready. Half an hour later he’s back on board the boat carrying a net plump with glistening scallops. Over the proceeding hours the scallops pop and fart in protest at their new environment on deck, yet none of us has an ethical fit when, later that day, they are expertly pan-fried by Rob’s chef Martin and served with lardons.

From the sea to the sky. The next day, en route to Oban from our final anchorage at Ardtornish Bay between Loch Aline and Loch Linnhe, Rob kills the engines to allow his passengers the best possible view of a sea eagle at the southernmost point of the Morvern peninsula. By this point we have seen enough birds to last a lifetime – guillemot, fulmar, gannet, great skua, black-backed gull, oystercatcher, lapwing, puffin, black-throated diver – yet when Andy Bennett, an owlish ex-supermarket manager turned tour guide, says he’s spotted an example of the UK’s largest bird of prey, we all hurry to the rear deck with binoculars at the ready. And there it is, its wingspan up to eight feet in width yet so distant as to be a lone speck atop a crag. We look, and look, and look, necks craned. Eventually it takes off, wheeling lazily perhaps 400 feet above us, a mote caught in the sunlight.

Yet the human marvels I witness, albeit less alien, are equally humbling. Chief among these are the travelogues of fellow passengers John and Heera Barton, long retired from remarkable careers in law and nursing respectively yet bristling with vigour and a yen for adventure. Despite surviving maritime chaos crossing the Drake Passage, which separates the tip of South America and Antarctica, and walking the 490-mile Camino de Santiago de Compostela in three weeks in their 60s, each carrying little more than one change of clothing, John and Heera are the embodiment of fearlessness in the face of encroaching age. You sense this cruise to St Kilda was deemed the soft option when they were planning their jaunts for 2014.

Other human enterprises that blow the mind are historic, and spark a flurry of further reading on my return home. It was on Soay that Gavin Maxwell gambled his fortune – and lost, as told in his first book, the disarmingly frank Harpoon At A Venture. Having bought the island in 1943, he was demobbed in 1944 and set about building a factory that would, he hoped, reap dividends from the various parts of the then-unprotected basking shark, particularly the oil of the liver. Thus began a series of ruinously expensive experiments, recruitment failures, administrative struggles and equipment blunders. Within four years he had lost a fortune.

After sailing across the Minch and down the west coast of Skye, past Moonen Bay where Maxwell had his first major success hunting the second-biggest fish in the world’s oceans, we go onshore to Soay, the air thick with midges, and make the short trek across the isthmus to the north harbour where the remains of the factory lie static and untended. Even under the gabbro scowl of the Cuillin, you can see why Maxwell lost both his heart and his savings to Soay.

 

The basking shark factory on Soay, Inner Hebrides, which Gavin Maxwell built when he was demobbed after the Second World War
The ruins of Gavin Maxwell’s shark factory on Soay, with the Black Cuillinn of Skye in the background

On a further sojourn onshore the following morning, our party meets the niece of Tex Geddes, a colleague of Maxwell in the Special Forces who became his first employee at the factory and quite a character. “He could handle a boat well and had a keenness for adventure which appealed to me,” wrote Maxwell. “On the debit side were a violent temper and a periodic liking for drink.” Now 79, Geddes’s niece splits her time between Soay and Dingwall and is thrilled that visitors to the island have heard of her late uncle.

There are myriad other spectacles on the cruise – Hirta; the tranquillity and gin-clear waters of Taransay after a hellish six-hour journey back from St Kilda; ploughing along the Sounds of Harris, Barra, Rum and Mull – but while it’s possible to revisit places, you can’t revisit those evenings on board when the food is flavoursome and plentiful and the atmosphere rich with companionship and mirth. It’s an experience you can’t put a price on.

Hebrides Cruises runs a variety of trips throughout the Inner and Outer Hebrides, including the six-night St Kilda Expedition Cruise. Places cost £1390 including full board, wine with meals and guided onshore excursions.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

St Kilda: a journey into the unknowable

St Kilda, Hirta, Scotland, main street
The main street of the village on Hirta, the slopes of Conachair rising into cloud

Through the starboard porthole come flashes of a familiar grey lump or two, perhaps four miles away. It’s hard to gauge distances at sea unless you’re accustomed to it; harder still when you’re looking a few feet above the waterline of a moving ship. I turn to the port window – another lump, much smaller, closer, less identifiable. Despite having just awakened from one of many kips in the past couple of days at sea – the restlessness of the ocean can have the opposite effect on even the sharpest sailor – my pulse soars. I throw on my warmest togs and alert Katherine, who has also been dozing, to the situation. It’s time for the big reveal.

We scoot up top to join our confreres, all of whom are out on deck, looking dead ahead, some through binoculars. Boreray and Stac Lee, the bigger lump and its neighbour, are already shrinking beyond the stern. Standing sentinel on the port side is Levenish, at 203 feet and six acres a runt of a stack among brawlers out here in the Atlantic, 40-odd miles west of the Outer Hebrides. Boreray, by comparison, sprouts ogreishly to a height of 1260 feet and 189 acres, a dense mass made up of diabolical eruptions of rock with the odd dizzyingly tilted sheet of guano-flecked grass. The main event, though, lies before us. This is the closest Scotland gets to an ultima Thule: the island of Hirta.

Since our ship Elizabeth G departed Oban fewer than 48 hours ago, we have been warned that the weather and sea conditions can, with scant warning, become insuperable, rendering St Kilda off-limits. A weather window has opened, however. The south-easterly of the past day or so has run out of puff during its metamorphosis into a northerly, and our imperturbable skipper Rob Barlow has modified the schedule accordingly. Here we go.

Though compelling from afar, Boreray and Hirta, viewed up close, elicit paroxysms of awe. Soay – the island of sheep – stands in the lee of the main island, indiscernible unless you hike up the brae partitioning Village Bay and Glen Bay to the north-west. We will behold it soon. For now, Elizabeth G is edging along the long, slender island of Dun, an arm separated from Hirta by 50 yards. Besides serving as a barrier between the village and south-westerly winds, Dun is carpeted with clover grass which the islanders favoured for wintering their precious lambs. The sky teems with fulmar, gannet, gull and guillemot; bobbing puffin gawkily flee the prow of the advancing ship, struggling to get airborne. Dun’s north-east face is flecked with the nests of birds whose droppings accumulate to form grey-white rivulets that stripe the mossy rock. The air is pregnant with a sense of immensity and isolation.

Springing from the upper reaches of the old village, the vertiginous slopes of Conachair stretch into the clouds, rising giddily to 1410 feet (430m) in about half a mile. Its summit forms the peak of the highest cliffs in Great Britain, a hazard that claimed the lives of two officers whose RAF Beaufighter crashed into this beast of a hill on a training exercise in 1943. The meagreness of the remains – a propeller and engine parts, which lie rusting to this day – suggests the plane catapulted over the cliffs into the ocean far below, taking with it the airmen, the only effects of whom to be found were a flying boot and a shoe.

To the east of the village as we sneak beneath the shifting avian canopy rise the marginally less hostile slopes of Oiseval (961ft/293m), whose name, like many place names in the Inner and Outer Hebrides including Soay, echoes the islands’ Norse history. The hillside connecting its summit to the village below is pimpled with cleits, the stone chambers St Kildans built as stores for food, peat and other essentials they wished to secrete away from the snouts of their animals and the eviscerating wind (speeds of more than 180 knots – 198 mph – have been reported). But it is those cleits on Conachair that most fox the mind, built as they are on inclines you’d imagine unconquerable by man let alone sheep. Was constructing cleits in inaccessible spots a rite of passage? An endurance test? A source of amusement? Later, back on the boat, none of us can agree.

Hirta, St Kilda, Scotland: one of the many cleits on the island
One of the many cleits on Hirta, St Kilda

To the west lies Ruabhal, a headland splitting the south coast of Hirta in two and the location for a fairly easy coastal walk, or as easy as they come in this land of storm, struggle and survival. Ruabhal’s nose rises up to meet the broad ridge that gives way to Glean Mor, the deep, north-facing bowl where the women and children of Hirta would graze their cattle in summer. Further west under the sharp peak of Mullach Bi (1175ft/358m) there unfolds a motley rabble of cliffs, caves and coves (or geodhas), magnets for divers and sea kayakers and the unforgiving environment in which for centuries male islanders would hunt fulmar, harnessed to each other using primitive ropes and armed with fowling rods for lassoing the most inaccessible birds.

Anchored in the bay is Hjalmar Bjorge, like Elizabeth G a Norwegian rescue vessel turned cruise boat. Owned and skippered by Rob’s friend Mark Henrys, the ship and Elizabeth G form a loose alliance, plotting the same course and their owners trading information on the weather and conditions. Out here, it pays to know you are not alone.

The anchor dropped and our rucksacks packed with supplies, Rob and his lone crew member Helen Ricketts ferry our entourage in groups to the pier, built by the military during its stay on Hirta from 1957 until 1999 (a dozen or so MoD contractors are still based on the island). The islanders, the last 36 of whom were evacuated in 1930, could have done with such a sturdy pier – tales of supply ships and fishing boats coming to grief due to the caprice of the storm beach are legion.

Greeting our group on shore is Kevin Grant, an archaeologist and the National Trust for Scotland’s jack-of-all-trades on Hirta. He points out the facilities, doles out practical advice – don’t interact with the lambs dotting the village; they’re dafter than brushes and will think you’re their mother – and bids us a pleasant sojourn. Then, almost immediately, Katherine and I splinter from the main group and head for the military road up to Mullach Mor.

A steeper road is hard to imagine. We stop every few minutes to remove another layer of clothing and catch our breath. The hardy women of St Kilda would hike over to Glean Mor to milk their cattle twice a day in summer, knitting as they went. It makes you think.

Once we’ve climbed as high as is sensible – the summit of Mullach Mor (1185ft/361m) is shrouded in cloud – we gaze down on the glen, the bay at its head and An Campar, a headland pointing like a finger north-west to Soay. Through my binoculars I spy two bonxies, or great skuas, bullying a lamb who has likely strayed too close to a nest. I didn’t even know what a bonxie was until a few hours earlier, when one divebombed me as I stood on deck. “Get inside,” urged Rob from the wheelhouse. I didn’t need much persuasion. As did I, the lamb survives, for now at least.

The velocity of the wind rising steadily, we tramp over to the lip of the glen then crouch where the land falls precipitously to the sea, gawping at the serrated coastline, of which Ruabhal is the furthest point. Our stay is as brief as it is functional – a snap or two is a must – by dint of the ferocious wind, which having climbed the glen begins its descent to the Atlantic at this very cusp. I refrain from scrambling on to the nearby Lover’s Stone, an overhang on which it’s said young St Kildan men would perform a perilous balancing act to prove their worth to prospective wives. Squinting from deep inside the hood of her hard shell jacket, Katherine doesn’t seem overly disappointed.

Defeated by the worsening conditions, we descend the military road to investigate the village, or Am Baile in the tongue that was spoken by the native islanders. Trouble is, we are not alone. As we saunter along Main Street – which, when built in the 1860s, was the only street in the Western Isles – we must negotiate a steady stream of gaudily attired passengers from the vulgar cruise ship that dropped anchor while we were up the hill. Few smile; fewer still look anything but bored. It turns out these are the well-heeled folks of middle America, paying $1500 a day to cruise round the islands of Ireland, Scotland and the Faroes before docking at Bergen in Norway and flying home.

We meet Doug, a geologist from Atlanta with a thick beard, a ready smile and the instantly recognisable outdoor gear and optical equipment of a pro. He works on the ship much of the year, giving talks and helping passengers understand the places they visit. “It’s a great job,” he gushes, “and you meet some incredible people.” Among them ex-senators, CEOs of Wall Street firms and Buzz Aldrin, says Doug. Today we make do with a childishly excited old fellow from Butte, Montana – “pronounced ‘Bute’, not ‘but’!” – whom we literally bump into in the compact school room, an annexe to the restored church which became the place where, from 1829 onwards, the St Kildans were dominated by successive Presbyterian ministers. The educational benefits they brought to Hirta (the first schoolmaster wasn’t appointed until 1884) were arguably overshadowed by their strict demands for church attendance – in summer the islanders had better things to do, such as gathering enough food to survive from September to May – and rejection of traditional joyful song and dance in preference for the solemn singing of psalms with no accompaniment.

Soon enough, though, the American tourists are gone, leaving the village to the remaining dozen or so visitors from the handful of boats in the bay. There’s barely a sound. Soay sheep graze, St Kilda wrens hop along the ground looking for worms and the emptiness threatens to swallow you. We enter abandoned house after abandoned house; we visit the graveyard, filled with the bones of countless children who fell to tetanus; we stare uncomprehending at the cleits on the uncouth slopes of Conachair. How, you wonder, did people cope with the unrelenting hostility of this island?

The church pulpit on Hirta, St Kilda, Scotland
The pulpit in the church on Hirta, St Kilda

Our anchorage for the night is Village Bay, where sleep comes in fits and starts. The cabin abuts the prow, near the port and starboard anchors. All night, the latter anchor chain loudly scrapes, tenses and pings against the hull mere feet from our heads, like the soundtrack to an obscure psychedelic horror movie. From 3am until 6am we resort to sleeping on the benches in the lounge, before lightly dozing through the final 90 minutes of the night in our bunks.

We rise at 7.30am to learn the source of the buffeting was a katabatic wind, accelerating down Conachair and angrily pummelling Elizabeth G and Hjalmar Bjorge. Within minutes of us entering the lounge for breakfast, Rob sounds the equivalent of high alert, demanding all movable objects be stored away and cancelling breakfast. The weather has worsened dramatically overnight and there’s not a second to be wasted. We’re off.

A split-second after the ship emerges from the shelter of Village Bay behind Hjalmar Bjorge we understand where Rob’s coming from. The vessel starts to pitch and roll, those of us in the lounge gripping tables and seats for dear life. The ocean seethes – swells of up to four and a half metres, Helen estimates; when I press her for a score out of 10 for roughness, she says eight – as Rob guides his ship east. The windows are repeatedly slicked with seawater, and the horizon rises and falls in sickening lurches throughout the four hours I spend motionless, hungerless and stupefied by the circumstances, my body saturated with adrenalin.

At noon I sense a slight lull and creep charily below deck, where I catch up on kip for an hour or so before awaking to blink once more out of the starboard porthole.

Looks familiar, I think. I peer out of the port window. Harris. We’re 20 minutes from dropping anchor off Taransay. We made it.

With thanks to Hebrides Cruises. Visit kilda.org.uk for information about St Kilda’s past and present. The Life And Death Of St Kilda by Tom Steel (Harper Press, £9.99) is a detailed if sporadically dubious history of the islands and their culture.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.