The Number 65 bus

View from Mdina

In Malta, many vehicles have windscreen stickers bearing slogans: boasts about the kind of journey you might expect to take in them, or a statement about the driver. Among others I’ve seen ‘Hardcore Ride’, ‘Daddy’s Taxi’, ‘Baby Think Twice’ and ‘Life In Heaven’. The last two worried me because they appeared on public buses. 

The Number 65 is one of those buses: a 1960s orange-and-chrome Leyland rattler, the sort the EU is trying to phase out. Its slogan is ‘Gallant’-something; I can’t make out the second word because the letters are peeling away. 

Gallant certainly doesn’t refer to the driver. He barks: “One way or whole day? One way or whole day? One way or whole day?” until I make my choice and hand over the fare. He keeps the change. 

I’m not confident he knows how to drive a bus. He fails to pull in at the next stop, slamming on the brakes five metres later when he notices the running, waving woman. She hauls herself aboard, breathless, and we’re away again before she can even close her handbag. An empty seat catches up with her and she topples into it. 

We pass dry-stone rubble walls which look as though they might collapse at the merest touch. The last of the summer’s prickly pears protrude from swollen cacti like sexually transmitted diseases only the pages of medical textbooks should have to suffer. In the interior mirror I can see the driver picking his nose and eating what he reaps. There’s a black rubber spider dangling from his mirror and I wonder whether it’s been hung for Halloween, which is two days away, or whether it’s always there. I suspect the latter. 

A ticket inspector hops on: he’s all of sixteen with the air of authority that comes with a bumfluff beard. He checks people’s tickets, one by one, tearing them slightly to show they meet with his approval. I bet he wishes he had a proper gadget for clipping holes. Then he sits behind me, playing noisy beeping games on his mobile phone. 

We are ascending a steep, straight hill toward Malta’s former capital city of Mdina and the driver leaves the engine in first gear so it shudders and roars all the way. He stops steering and this buys him time to count all the notes in his cash register, leafing through them like a deck of cards. I wonder how he’s acquired so many when the maximum fare is only a few euros. The bus is still groaning and I lean forward instinctively to help with its plight.

The driver decides to steer again for a while and I am relieved, but only a little. I have noticed a five-litre can of what looks like petrol standing behind his seat, the liquid line slopping from side to side as the bus judders up the hill. 

At last we arrive in Mdina, swerving into a space outside the City Gate. As I alight I find myself thanking the driver, perhaps out of habit and also relief at surviving the journey. He blinks at me, as surprised by my gratitude as I am.

A Tuscan remedy

Statue at Il Giardino

They call it Stendhal Syndrome or Florence Syndrome: a psychosomatic illness featuring dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations as a result of overexposure to art. Add Tuscan sunshine and the heady joy of being newly married, and there was no way I could be trusted to meet Michelangelo’s David without falling into a swoon.

Two hours south of Florence, on the slopes of Monte Amiata, my husband and I found the perfect antidote. Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri is an open-air sculpture park, empty of crowds and full of magic, where we trampled for hours over the parched straw fields, finding quirky-looking iron monsters, a greenhouse sheltering lightbulb flowers, and, in the woods, the handprints of a make-believe pilot who had crawled out from a crashed tin biplane.

We peered inside a small brick hut and met the leers of straggly haired skulls in a witchcraft cabinet; climbed up to a mock zoo enclosure on a hillcrest where life-size model elephants lay in varying states of decay. In a seemingly neglected farm building, Steve flicked a switch and a hideous automaton roared into life, its two heads whirring towards us with garish grins.

“Turn it off – I don’t like it!”

But I loved the fact that every sculpture was affecting us. In the stuffy confines of the Uffizi gallery, Botticelli, Lippi and Raphael had stirred quiet awe within me; now we were wandering through pine-scented gardens, alive and free. Rock lizards darted over bronze busts, while the cypress shrubs chirruped with cicadas. Steve lagged behind and silently picked up a fallen wisp of a branch, making me shriek in fear when he used it to tickle my bare ankles. He knew I would react: visitor signs everywhere warned of poisonous snakes in the long grass. I’m one of those people who screams at worms.

Later, after walking along the stone walls of a labyrinth, trying not to tread on the crickets that hopped across our path, we grew weary and thirsty. Our thoughts turned to pizza from a wood-fired oven, to cold beers on the terrace of our hired casetta where we could watch the fading sun pour honeyed light over the mountains.

“Shall we go back now?” said Steve, pulling my clammy little hand into his bigger, clammier one. “And are you better now, my funny wife?”

I beamed at him. The Stendhal Syndrome had gone. This was our honeymoon, we were in Italy and life felt magnifico.