Stuttgart: from Mercedes to Meridian ... and Christmas

I'm with Tim, my cousin Julia and her boyfriend Joe, and we have our heads stuck in other people's armpits as the underground train rattles along somewhere beneath Stuttgart in Germany. How crowded the city has become since its origins in the 10th century as a stud farm ('Stute' means 'mare'). And I mean, I know Mercedes is a popular make of car, but not this popular. For that is where we are headed: the home of Mercedes-Benz. (The brand was born here in the early 1900s.)

We pour out between the doors like water released from a dam and breathe in cool air at last. The hoards stream direction Mercedes-Benz Museum. According to TripAdvisor, it is the top attraction in this, the capital of southwest Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region, but really? However, it soon becomes clear, as we hear banging music pouring from the nearby Mercedes-Benz Arena. "Stars and Cars", some annual event for car fans that this year featured Lewis Hamilton and attracted some 35,000 people, as I later read, is in town.

At the Mercedes-Benz Museum, admission is free for the day, to celebrate its 10th anniversary - nice. The museum documents the history of cars over 125 years, from the very beginnings to the present day. The building is striking: it is arranged over nine levels and has cars racing up walls, cars spotlit in huge showrooms and films of cars projected onto blank spaces. Architecturally, it is award-winning. Designed like a helix, it comprises 1,800 unique window panes. So far, so impressive?

Unfortunately, I find the exhibition somewhat disappointing. I feel like I am in a posh garage where the super-rich keep their fancy wheels. There is no interactivity, no cars you can climb into. What I do like is the timeline connecting the different rooms: it tracks events going on in history between the developments of the cars. I do love the first automobile ever, too. It dates from 1879 and looks like a carriage that is missing a horse! Some of the classic cars are really beautiful. I don't get a buzz from seeing them though, unlike Tim, who can't take his eyes off a particularly ritzy red number with doors that open skywards like a butterfly.

We jump back on the U-Bahn - thankfully quieter - and head for central Schlossplatz, which is hemmed in by an 18th-century castle and, when we visit, is gloriously illuminated by Christmas lights. It is a pretty corner of Stuttgart. We sip mulled wine at the little Christmas market before dining in Italian restaurant Il Pomodoro on Silberburgstrasse. It gets busier and busier as the evening goes on, and there is such a buzz in the air that we could be in Italy. The food is delicious: I try salmon roasted with tomatoes and capers.

The following day, I wake up feeling really ill (darned winter), but we have appointments at Le Spa in Le Meridian five-star hotel. They won't let us cancel, despite my sickness - not a great sign. However, when we get there we find a slick but welcoming spa: spotlighting, comfy seating by glass panels that overlook the pool, and bar serving tea and healthy light lunches. A pedicure is perhaps just what I need, but it might have been nicer of the place to let us cancel so I could get home earlier and rest up ... As we drive out of the city, we notice that Stuttgart is set in glorious surroundings - undulating hills with patchwork vineyards that soon open into the widest open countryside I have seen recently. It is mesmerising as the sun sinks, leaving behind a colourful chiffon veil.

Zurich: The Singing Christmas Tree

Rockin' around the Christmas tree? Well, rockin' on it is more like it... It is that time of year again: twinkling Christmas lights tumble down above Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse; the scent of mulled wine, roasting chestnuts and smelly feet (fondue!) lingers on the air; while at Werdmühleplatz's Christmas Market, dulcet tones drift into the night. The carol singers, who are dressed in red and green like Santa's little helpers, are arranged on a stepped, Christmas tree-shaped bandstand.

Since it first sang out to Zurich ten years ago, The Singing Christmas Tree has become iconic. From the end of November until just before Christmas, junior and adult choirs come from across the region to perform all sorts of music - from modern pop to Christmas hits and carols. It is a live concert with a difference, and with or without the mulled wine, the atmosphere is contagious in the most bizarre but lovely way.

A week in Scicli: people watching, Sicilian style

The old lady with a balconied apartment on the third floor winched down her basket. She looked like Rapunzel letting down her hair. But there was no prince at the bottom, just the local fishmonger. He placed the fresh produce into the basket, and it was winched back up. This happened a few times, subsequently with the butcher and fruit seller, both of whom had loudspeakers attached to their van bonnets to announce their coming.

We had arrived in Scicli (shick - lee), a lively Baroque town pitched against a craggy limestone face, for the second week of our holiday in southeastern Sicily in Italy. Although sad to leave Donnalucata, we were enjoying our new base, not least thanks to the people watching. From above (a view granted by ascending to the abandoned church of San Matteo), we watched the chaotic tangle of battered Fiats and nifty scooters - Sicilian roads are as bad as people say: double parking is the norm, and road markings? Not to be seen! - and listened to the bark of a dog chiming from one side of the craggy gorge to the other.

In the town streets, which were lined with stunning Baroque architecture, much of it crumbling but some of it carefully restored, we saw elderly locals grouped on benches having a chat, and well-heeled couples strolling between the bars and restaurants. We discovered that the way to the start the day is with a Sicilian granita (crushed ice blended with fruit pulp) served with a brioche, preferably while sitting on a Piazza and people-watching. Cafe Gritti on Piazza Busacca was our favourite spot.

Scicli is perfectly placed for venturing further afield. It is situated amid a rolling landscape of olive groves and golden-huded country piles that looks like a Mediterranean version of the Yorkshire Dales, and is within easy striking distance of both the coast and inland treasures such as Modica and Noto. One day took us to the Cava Grande del Fiume Cassibile. It had something of the Grand Canyon about it - all plunging cliffs and chilly turquoise pools some 450 steps from the main entrance. It was very steep and, as we passed lots of sweaty-faced people climbing back out, we started dreading the ascent. The pools were lovely though, if populated by the ubiquitous posing Italian and perhaps not as secluded as promised.

We concluded the day with a walk around Noto, a honeycomb of beautifully restored Baroque facades in golden limestone, to try what is thought to be Italy's best ice cream. Prize-winning Costanzo did an orange chocolate fondant that melted in the mouth. Just for good measure, we tried a scoop at Noto's other renowned gelateria - Caffe Sicilia is a regal affair producing eccentric flavours such as saffron and basil.

Of the region's Baroque treasures, we now just had Modica to tick off the list. There, it is all about the chocolate. Cioccolato di Modica has been made in the same way since 1880; contains only cocoa, sugar and a selection of natural flavours - think cinnamon, orange, pepper and lemon; and has a solid, honeycomb texture that is like nothing else. We spent an evening there, wandering the main drag with its intricate buttresses and chic boutiques, before dining at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti on the Corso. It specialises in regional fare: we shared an 'antipasti mixte' of caponata (vegetable stew), fried egg balls, bruschetta and filled focaccia, then I dined on topped aubergines. Oh, and for afters we must have bought more than 10 bars of chocolate from Sicily's oldest chocolate manufacturer, the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.

A must when in the area is the Riserva Naturale di Vendircari. We spent a very sweaty afternoon there - it's further south than Tunis and suitably sweltering - exploring its salty lagoons (a habitat for ibis and flamingoes), flats covered in fan palms, papyrus and cacti against a sea of impossibly bold emerald, and its abandoned tuna processing plant and 15th-century lookout tower, which provided an austere point of interest. There was no shade, but a sea breeze that was welcome.

But my favourite day out was to Cava d'Ispica, where a rustling lizard made me think I was about to come face-to-face with Stig of the Dump. The canyon close to Modica is peppered with cave dwellings. Some date from the era of cave men, while others were living quarters for medieval folk. There was also a Roman training area and a vast cave cobwebbed with neat little catacombs. It was overwhelming, and I was pleased to emerge into the evening sun, which lent the caves a cliffs tint and cast a golden light on the bamboo plants and Indian fig trees. Between sightseeing, we spent a lot of time at the beach. Sampieri was only a short drive from Scicli - anyone driving that way should look out for the family-run Aprile olive oil shop, where you can sample three types of olive oil produced on the premises. We also sampled Punta Secca, a pretty stretch of sand where you can swim in choppy waves and admire the town's striking white lighthouse. It was perhaps fitting though that our stay in Scicli concluded not at the beach, but on the tacky tourist train that trundles around town during the evenings, twinkling and playing cheesy music. We were the ones being people-watched this time, or perhaps just laughed at!
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