In anticipation of this trip, I decided to take up a friend’s suggestion and set up a blog site. At this stage, I had no idea what a blog was. Settled on Travelpod, (no longer extant) as a new way of journal writing and sharing with friends, overcoming the ‘I’m too old to learn this new technology’ script. I DO love to write and take photographs when travelling. This is a slight re-writing of the original Blog. Though mostly in Sicily, a few days in Singapore and at the end, Florence, Rome and London are included. Hope you enjoy.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide: March 17, 2014
Let’s see how I manage this. Here goes, first blog, checking with a friend to see if she can access it…just learning the ropes like a baby.
Not Quite Such A Techno-idiot: March 19
I have survived a little hissy fit or two, taken advantage of the blog site’s good support service and am ready to roll. Blog up and running, Bonney and Jon’s Big Flying Carpet Ride to Sicily via Singapore & Rome, followed by London
Beautiful Rain And Closer To Departure : April 9, 2014
In the absence of a normal wet season, usually peaking in February or, if not, an abundance of rain in March, some 120 mm fell over a few days late in March, so now our Jamaican Lime is festooned with little yellow and green fruit, sufficient to share with friends ; passionfruit are ripening; the Curry Bush grows taller before my eyes, it’s beautiful fragrance graces Jon’s daily rice cooking; one last brilliant burst of red appeared on the huge Poinciana tree, an unexpected gift for his 71st birthday and Milly smells doggier by the day-shampoo day tomorrow!
Counting the days till our departure, little more than a week now, the seemingly endless chores continue in preparation and I dream of all that travel offers up and quiet time to write……
Some Days Later, Still At Home….hot chilli pastes and packing and techno- challenges abound with Amazon, Telstra and Apple…and lo & behold, just when I think everything is under control, Jon suddenly says what about your USA visa?…so panic when it should be restful, well we both forgot, funny stories to tell, but later.
Mean times some beautiful things …2 days of running workshops for Art Whitsunday using recycled materials…a quirky child’s play teapot with plastic bouquet sprouting for a lid, blood red silk pouring from its spout; a reclining nude bas relief sculpture, belly down, head on folded arm, legs crossed, entirely of coloured electrical wire; a 3D post holocaustic landscape, all black and industrial mounted on fabric covered polystyrene..and so it went, endlessly creative (see ART/ART EDUCATOR/WORKSHOPS/UPCYCLING WORKSHOP ART WHITSUNDAY & then follow link below to Exhibition, Trash to Treasure)
A Small Intervention, Murwillumbah & Brisbane: April 11-14
fffff…finally free from the frantic frizzle frazzle, finished. Cyclone approaches the coast of Far North Queensland, our dear Melbourne friends ensconced in our house- oh dear, (and yes, they did cop it but not a bad one). We depart on another hot, sun-drenched day, making our way via plane and train to N. NSW & our best friends from farm days. Sitting overlooking the serene Tweed River, the heat rises through the day, by afternoon a swim in the river with Jill and the dogs, Tonto and Louis, all squealing and splashing. Feels like some sort of intervention perhaps in parallel to my transient environmental installations (see ART/3D/INSTALLATION/SITE-SPECIFIC EPHEMERAL..) where the little dirt track might become a golden flow of carefully placed yellow mulberry leaves, thus something transformed, but some in-between-ness, having left home but not yet quite entered the realm of the Magic Flying Carpet Ride. At home, I am told, some 80mm of rain fell last night with the same amount expected each day for the following few.
Awake to a different birdsong, something unfamiliar, and a soft-clouded sky. The familiar mountainscapes of our former home area, a tiny intervention in Murwillumbah with my best friend and her splendid and elegant food in the River House where the terrace overlooks cane fields and the Tweed River backed with Mt Warning and the Border Ranges. Back to overnight with Brisbane friends to enjoy the intellectual stimulation of great conversation (and food, again!)as well as their incredible, quirky collection of art, books and everything else.
Brisbane International: April 14
As we go through the efficient and streamlined airport processing, people-watching fascinates- a family with three kids, all teasing and poking and hugging, mother gets increasingly tense ‘Don’t touch her’ she forcibly instructs the son as he teases his younger twin sisters; the 40- something, obviously ‘new’ couple, gazing into each other’s eyes, she all retro with blond hair wrapped in a red polka-dotted head scarf and the ubiquitous, too cold air conditioning.
And seven hours later, Jonny stretched out sleeping on four seats while I share three with another guy, study my Italian, read London Review of Books, eat some food and…
Gardens By The Bay: Singapore, April 15
Orchids of great beauty welcome us at the airport, the taxi ride to our Chinatown hotel smoothly passing along tropically landscaped, bougainvillea-lined freeway unlike any entry to any city we have ever seen. Returning here after 3 years, the new Gardens by the Bay with half a million plants of more than 2000 species from around the world have been created in 100 hectares, part of which consists of two giant cooled conservatories, contemporary glass and steel structures, the entirety being a model of eco- efficiency. A bio-mass created from green waste of the 3 million trees in Singapore is converted to heat which fuels the cooling systems necessary for the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome and plants housed therein. These beautiful sculptural structures, the scale of which is impossible to capture in photos, encompass vertically planted walls of exotic and some ancient plants, curving walkways winding their way up to the heights with views over this extraordinary city which in itself is a model of green-consciousness. Whatever the investment (one taxi driver quoted 1 billion, another $150 million) this has become the central attraction of the city with most of the area affording free entry and the enclosed areas described costing $28 for Seniors. With a considerable educational component and school groups making up part of the large numbers enjoying it, this looks like a far better prospect than the $800 million per day military spending of the USA.
Our hotel is in a small curving, tree-lined street in the heart of Chinatown and, like most of this area, is sited in a row of lovely old Shop Houses, formerly brothels and opium dens, amongst other things. On arrival, it transpires that our room was tiny, mouldy- smelling and dark. Reception were shocked when I mentioned the mouldy smell and gave us a free upgrade to a huge, street- facing room with beautiful old furniture, chairs and couch, really beautiful! Thank you thank you!
All our meals are in food courts, two of which are close to the hotel with a choice of Malay, Chinese, and Indian and ridiculously inexpensive. Two of us can eat a lovely meal and fresh fruit drink for $14.
The Urban Green Wonder, Botanic Gardens & Singapore Art Museum (S.A.M): 16 April
Can’t keep ourselves away from gardens, taxi passing through tree-lined streets. Throughout the dense, high-rise city with tiny pockets of the old still present, one is surrounded by greenery and shade. Many modern buildings even within the commercial and business centres, have live green walls of foliage and trees planted at various levels on the exterior. In fact, we were told that now it is compulsory to incorporate greenery. Little parks dot the area and some main roads are divided with hedges and then the huge tropical trees. Pollution and congestion are addressed with social engineering exemplified in many ways. As a result, it costs around $6000 for a permit to own a second-hand car, $75,000 for a new car. Public transport is first rate and taxis cheap hence roads not badly crowded and there is no pollution.
The ‘cost’ of all this development is reinforced by the show at S.A.M, ex Singapore Biennale, entitled Unearthed with a stunning collection of installations, video art and sculpture exploring different facets of this. One artist speaks of corals, having missed out on a long-planned scuba dive experience, by creating her own gold, black and silver coral-shaped forms comprised of nails, screws, bolts, metal buttons, thimbles etc, things metallic, beautifully illuminated and fashioned into coralline shapes of varying sizes displayed on black plinths with mirrored surfaces in a darkened room. Another creates an eerie, abstracted miniaturized city fashioned entirely of propeller-pencil leads resembling buildings, sitting on narrow shelving with a powdered graphite surface and smudges blown on the white wall behind. Yet others speak of post-holocaustic scenarios, the devastation caused by huge coalmines or dams, the disturbance of cemeteries for urban renewal and so on. The Botanic Gardens are famous for their Gingers and Orchids in specialized areas as well as generally throughout. Orchids number 25-30,000 varieties, probably the largest family of any known plants, and what a palette of colours and forms, admired by visitors from all over, a veritable UN of languages are heard.
AND SO TO ITALY..Termini, SIM Cards & Other Travails: Rome, Apr 18
One forgets about the travails of travel, the little slumps and anxieties that beset one. And so from sleepless plane flights and a smart but ridiculously short sleep overnight in Dubai airport, on to Rome, mercifully a 7 hr daytime flight. Rome’s Fiumicino airport catches me making a bad choice in SIM card for my mobile phone-embarrassingly expensive- and which later proves to not even work! However, it’s too late to change. Jon’s suitcase is almost the last to appear and we begin to think it isn’t coming at all. Poor signage (again) and inadequate airport assistance and eventually on a dirty train to Stazione Termini, the central station of Rome where we are to overnight in a hotel. On exiting at Termini we are immediately confronted by drunks and others living on the streets and traffic noise levels I had forgotten about- heart sinks at the sight of the hotel ‘reception’ area and I am reminded of being 22yrs old again and my first night in this same area in Rome before settling in to live there for six months. At least it’s clean and only for one night but at almost $200, the cheapest we could find at Easter time!
Noisy, grimy out in the streets. All too much for Jon who returns to the room as I lurch out to re-explore the immediate area, passing many beautiful buildings but contending with extreme noise levels, sirens and much rubbish in the streets. Only by stepping into smaller streets does it immediately become more pleasant and much quieter. And a disappointing first meal in a nice atmosphere but wait, Sicily is only a flight away.
Blablabla, No Smooth Sailing: Palermo, Sicily, April 19
My phone indicates that the SMS to our Airbnb ‘host’ was sent but we arrive at the building and no one answers the enormous heavy door of the 450 yr old former palace opposite the great Norman/Islamic Cathedral in which we have a little ‘apartment’. The kindest of taxi drivers wants to be sure we are OK and so waits as we ring the bell. My newly SIM-ed phone refuses to perform and so he uses his and finally reaches our host who had not received my SMS…bla bla bla.
At the only ATM open on Good Friday further confusion reigns as the password isn’t accepted…more bla bla bla, eventually to find we have inadvertently switched our respective cards! Eventually we find the humour in the muddle. Hopefully we will rediscover our experienced traveller’s legs and not feel we are getting too dotty for this sort of travel.
A Room With A View and Markets: Palermo, April 20
I am astonished by the drama of the rugged mountains that thrust down into the ocean. Rather bare and arid but patterned by extraordinary geological folds- I sense the movement of millennia deep beneath the surface,perhaps a little unnerving even, given the many devastating eruptions of Vesuvius.
Booked through Airbnb, our mini apartment was the bedroom of Prince Asmundo within the Asmundo Palace, overlooking the great Palermo Cathedral. Though lacking in some ways, we are well compensated by both the view and the extraordinary interior decoration including frescoes on the ceiling and a raised alcove with a four-poster bed!
Things have been rosy today with mild weather. When stocking up at the nearby supermarket, the kind checkout guy, on seeing that I hadn’t known to weigh my fruit and veggies and having queued for so long, asked if I was happy for him to ‘gesitimate’ the cost of my 2 pears, 2 apples and tomatoes!
The historic centre where we live is divided into four quarters and today we explore one and discover the lovely nearby park and head through one of the two city ‘ gates’ (Porta Nuova) to the 10th Century Norman Palace, another wondrous edifice now also serving as the seat of regional parliament. The Palatine Chapel within the Palace is covered in its entirety in magnificent mosaics. One corridor within is dedicated to a parliamentarian killed by the Mafia, alive and well – Palermo is crawling with carabinieri (police) – and fire engines, ambulances and police sirens shrill their way up and down. (Also, we noted a sniffer dog as we approached the luggage carousels at the airport).
Making our way through side streets, we fall upon the Ballaro food market, one of the four big ones, admiring the delicious fresh produce and lively hustle and bustle. Eat local, so we choose one of many eateries within the market-a small serve of very fresh fried calamari and squid, a small salad of tiny fresh anchovy-like fish with tomatoes, olives and a beer. Delicious! Many African migrants, as we see all over, most doing it tough but three snazzy dressers among this lot! Now we find the olive verde, the huge succulent green olives we fell in love with 3 years ago, unavailable at home and buy a very large bag for about $8. Lunch of freshly cooked asparagus and dinner of a huge salad, fresh bread, my favourite Stracciatella cheese, (inexpensive soft white elasticy cheese I fell in love with when living in Rome in the mid 60’s with little money), good salami and prosciutto crudo and a glass of wine our ‘host’ left for us! All this, overlooking the Norman/Arab Cathedral that I visited in the late afternoon. Not bad, eh!
Food, Street Scene & People Watching: Palermo, 21 April
It’s already 18C at 8.30 and by 2pm I’m wearing sandals and light top and jeans! Perfect and SO nice to be out of the heat and humidity of home! Jonny planned a walk to the Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens), supposedly the oldest in Europe but apparently our entry fees go to the mafia or some such and, for garden-lovers like us, a rather sad sight of neglect. Although beautifully laid out with extensive labelling and including many very old species, weeds abound, paths are neglected and, worst of all, many potted plants are thirsty and drooping. Oranges and lemons are full of fruit just falling to the ground to rot, always a message of wastage.
Walking back to yesterday’s Ballaro market we pass through an area full of African and Chinese migrants. Top up with supplies at the market amidst the loud calls of the stall-holders clearing stock before an early, holiday closing time- many very friendly , others distinctly less so. Another delicious lunch there including spaghetti con vongole (clams) for Jon and grilled squid stuffed with breadcrumbs, sultanas and pine nuts, an exotic Arab- influenced traditional dish to match the architecture!) Too beautiful to sit, my tired legs and I go to the nearby park, write, and watch dogs, children, and the many Italian Easter tourists. There, surprisingly, I meet a young Chinese woman seeking directions, speaking very good Italian. It emerges she speaks very good English She has been in Modena studying Italian for three months with another eight to go, but has applied to enter the university in Bologna. She, like I, simply loves the language though she is far better at it than I am.
Day Trip to Cefalu: Sicily, April 22
Taking advantage of another predicted fine day before some rain, we take a train to Cefalu, some 70 km east of Palermo along the Tyrrhenian Sea, a touristy but apparently beautiful place. At Central Station Jon spots some wall graffiti in red saying eat the rich accompanied by an image of a fork, good source of amusement. A comfortable 50 min. train ride on the rather narrow strip of land between the sea and the folded mountains, passing at first through poorer areas of 5-6 storey buildings before emerging into countryside and houses, with citrus trees in abundance and also many olive trees and cumquats laden with fruit. Leaving Palermo behind one appreciates its position right on the sea with two dramatic mountains as backdrop.
Before reaching Cefalu, we passed through an extensive area full of gated communities, little angular homes and narrow streets leading toward the beach, permanent or holiday homes?
Cefalu is tiny, so only a five-minute walk from the station to the historic centre with its large, grey, smooth-worn stone streets and smaller non-vehicular lanes of beach pebbles. It is immediately charming, clean, full of small restaurants and tourist shops and, concentrated in the very centre, tourists, largely unattractive and speaking many languages, disgorge from buses. Must be ghastly in summer! I remind myself that we too are tourists but perhaps rather, travellers.
The little town, with remnants of medieval fortress walls, is wedged between nearly vertical cliff faces and the sea. With an almost complete absence of beach, it is lined with what appears to be volcanic rocks with step-ways inlaid so that it’s possible to walk along stretches of the coast. Beyond the town centre where cars must park, the little road is fringed with seven or eight different colourful blooming plants including thistles, tall, yellow-blooming fennel, grasses, daisies and more and it is unclear if seeds have been intentionally scattered to create this wild, lovely ‘garden’.
A beautiful Piazza slopes up a hill with café tables filling the centre and potted plants fringing it. It is backed by another very beautiful Norman cathedral, approached via a broad flight of steps and then a sloping path. The fortress-like character of the building, which, seen from a distance, rises as a huge bulk above the medieval town, must reflect the vulnerability of the site to attack from the sea. It also made a powerful statement of the Norman presence.
There have been extensive restoration works so the exterior is a light sand colour although the stonework is quite degraded. Inside, magnificent mosaic images of The Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary adorn the apse and presbytery. The work is of the highest order, having great elegance in the draping of the robes and sensitivity in the faces and gestures. It is considered the finest Byzantine mosaic in Italy and comparable to other fine Late Byzantine work from Constantinople.
Starting in 1985, Palermo artist Michele Canzoneri has installed 72 apparently controversial, modern, abstract stained glass windows based on episodes from the Old and New Testaments, which Jon thought ‘cheap’ but I found to be quite stunning.
In one of the tiny paved laneways away from the crowds, we find a delightful place with three little tables placed outside on the narrowest imaginable area just one step up from the laneway. We complete the day with an excellent repast consisting of Pizza Vulcano– spicy salami, mozzarella, oregano, tomato paste and beautiful dough with that indefinable and subtle something extra as with the spaghetti con vongole yesterday. As we are by then the only customers, we have a nice interaction with the owner/chef who says his customers, having tried other places, reckon his pizza is the best in Cefalu and we have no reason to doubt this! Jon loves the local beer and I have very generous glass of absolutely delicious white wine grown on the slopes of the local Madonie mountains (which have rocks dating back over 200 million years and thus a designated Geopark and part of UNESCO Geoparks network). All this accompanied by a wonderful salad of rocket, parmesan, radicchio and prosciutto crudo. And great bread!
And so onto the 3pm train back to Palermo, tired and happy-a cafe doppia and shared gelato (another exquisite Sicilian treat) en route, a quick stop at the Ballero market to buy strawberries and cumquats and nail clippers and a scourer (so domesticated!) and eventually a delicious home-made salad for dinner…and you think we must be fat by now, but no, 4-5 hours of daily walking keeps that in check!
The Overfed, The Underfed & Bacciolemani: Palermo, April 23
On our first cool and slightly wet day we set out after another asparagus breakfast at home aiming for the archaeological museum, dropping in on churches en route. Close to the cathedral, we spot someone closely resembling Friar Tuck dressed in brown with a rope around his middle. Jon immediately coins him Father Fatso and quipped the pay is not good but the food is plentiful!
The city is rather shabby with many beautiful but neglected and grimy buildings. Many lovely statues are now headless, having been purloined for various collections, an act of vandalism of the highest degree. There are a few people, Italian, African and Romany, begging for money and we tend to give to the Africans in favour of the others. There are many buildings surrounded by protective screening though little evidence of any actual restoration work being undertaken, perhaps due to Easter holidays. There is also a considerable presence of seemingly unattached dogs in public places, usually asleep on the grounds, all of whom are large and appear well fed. Not much dog poo on the footpaths, blessedly! I am fascinated by rubbish collection which is different everywhere we stay. Here we must carry our plastic rubbish bags down three- storeys in the lift, walk out of the glorious but heavy doors onto the street, around the corner, up two lanes where we dispose of it unsorted in skiffs.
We fall upon a 17thC Church of The Immaculate Conception, which, although incredibly lavish in its detail, is magnificent due to the prominence of sculpted white marble figures emerging from colourful inlaid stonework and four remarkable panels depicting biblical scenes in brilliant, semi-precious stones including lapis lazuli.
After lunching at home on delicious, still warm bread-sticks (2 for €1) and sugar-sweet Truss tomatoes at €1 per kilo, fat fatter fattest green olives and prosciutto, I saunter out to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art located in an old Palazzo. Interesting video installations, photography and some paintings. Work by the redoubtable Christian Boltanski with his usual evocation of absence, loss, death….a room with several black garments attached to the walls surrounded by illuminated light bulbs, a text work, A Sicilian Walk ,by Richard Long, , describing events and observations of a solitary journey across the island from Palermo to Agrigento in 1997.
It is 16C by early evening but, on the recommendation of the concierge of our building, we walk some ten minutes to a restaurant quirkily called Bacciamolemani, which translates as ‘kiss the hands’. We are greatly amused by a French Canadian couple next to us who speak no Italian (and very little English!) and rely on my translation which is interrupted between course two and three when the man indulges in elaborate hand-kissing (my hand!), repeated again as we are leaving. This place specializes in fish and we choose the fixed menu of five tasting plates. Each plate is divided into four sections each with different morsels including smoked salmon, raw fish marinated in lemon, marinated octopus, sardine stuffed with pumpkin, a huge prawn fried in a particularly fine batter and so on, each with a distinctive flavour; then come little mussels and finally little triangular potato-ey somethings. The little tastes were great albeit very fishy; several were superb, all quite strongly flavoured and again the distinctly Arab influence in many. I love the orange, fennel and pickled herring salad and another dish of rolled eggplant filled with a ricotta mix of some sort, perhaps with pumpkin. It’s just delicious. Interesting and distinctly different food and it would be difficult even for a foodie to identify all the subtleties within the overall strong flavours.
Coming home, we pass the same young African man named Charles whom we met yesterday, so stop and talk with him. He is Nigerian, arrived in Lampedusa, which we hear much of in the news, having had a tough time getting away from the terrible problems in his country. However, the Italians have been very good taking in refugees though, as things are worse now economically, it is difficult for many of these refuges to get work.
A Grouchy Start, Monreale & Rescue The Hat: Palermo, April 24
Small trials and tribulations- Jon realizes that last night, distracted by the hand-kissing Canadian , he had left his Panama cap so loved and admired by all, behind,. I am still struggling with unresolved SIM card issues, the lesson being never to buy a global SIM card at Rome airport! Nonetheless, we set off for the short local bus trip to visit Monreale on the steep hill just above Palermo. A short walk and VERY long wait for the bus (45 mins instead of 15 mins.) through heavily congested traffic only to find we then have another 4 km up the steep mountain and so apparently a second little bus. We opt for a nearby taxi, winding steeply and gloriously up until we emerge at the incredible Monreale Cathedral on a beautiful Piazza.
After the occupation of Palermo by the Arabs round 800, the Bishop of Palermo was forced to move his seat outside the capital. After the Norman Conquest in 1072, Christians got the old city back and King William II began to build his famous Cathedral in 1174. It is one of the greatest extant examples of Norman architecture in the world. Vast of scale, the entire interior upper walls and domes, 6,500 s q. metres in all, are covered with glorious mosaics each piece of which is 1/3 the size of the pinkie fingernail . They depict stories from the Old Testament. Jonny looks at one with camels and quips, it’s easier to lead a camel to drink than to get a priest to think, one of innumerable digs at religion and the church, which might not find amusing but I adore. Well the church has a bloody (literally) lot to answer for but has left a brilliant legacy of art and architecture for us cultchavultchas.
The town itself is delightful, steep little roadways and stepped lanes strung with washing as usual but with little potted gardens in front of many houses and in tiny courtyards. I enjoy myself as I greet old women, young children and a small group of pubescent boys with fat little paunches calling themselves porco and amazing views straight up this colossally steep mountain. Before me is a panoramic view down to Palermo and the coast, covering an area referred to as the Conco d’oro, the concave valley of gold, so named because of all the golden lemons and oranges grown there on fertile soil.
Back in Palermo before dinner, we go to a one-hour show at Teatro dei Pupi, a traditional Palermitan puppet theatre that started around 1880, now in its 5th generation. Delightful show of elaborately costumed puppets, some 3-4 ft tall, an historical rendition based around a love story and the Christian Crusades against the Muslims. The sword fights between the puppets are uproariously funny, with great sounds and movement. The vanquished are dispatched with their heads being decapitated and their bodies cleaved in half, the enchanted audience, we included, laugh at this very clever puppetry.
En route to collect the cap left at last night’s restaurant, Mr and Mrs hand-kisser are there again but we have decided to try a little ristorante up a narrow lane we spotted. Suddenly a crowd- several police cars, whose sirens we had heard earlier, line up in front of a house, a cordon of police, screaming women pounding on the police cars. One by one, young white men are escorted out of the building each with his very own cop, and bustled into individual police cars who then roar off dramatically with blue lights flashing and sirens wailing! We ask nearby locals what it is all about but they don’t know either.
And so to the ristorante-up-the-lane which proves another delight. Part of a 15thC former palace, it’s a small place with lovely vaulted brick ceilings. Delicious pizza and the hugest-couldn’t -even-finish-it- glass of local white wine, very good as all have been and very economical.
Magnificent Churches, Sorry Story Of A Polish Worker & Independence Day: Palermo, April 25
Chiesa Eremiti (Church of St John the Hermit) is one of the most outstanding medieval buildings in Palermo. Standing on a previously pagan site, it became a Gregorian monastery in 581 AD dedicated to St Hermes (coined St Herpes by Jon) and in the 10th century taken over by the Muslims before eventually becoming a 12th C Monastery dedicated to St John the Evangelist and St Hermes and later consigned to the Benedictines by King Roger II. This amazing history and the resulting architecture together with the particularity of vegetation is what drew me to Sicily as a destination within Italy.
A beautiful structure without adornment, pale stonewalls, vaulted ceilings and five small pink domes. We enter via a lovely garden where little paths step up past an old olive tree, a large mandarin tree fully laden, a stand of banana plants, some cycads then to enter an upper garden surrounded by different parts of the building including one area where a tiny portion of faded fresco is the only decoration. This garden additionally has pomegranate, fig, cumquat and a lemon tree laden with enormous lemons and fragrant flowers. There are also various palms and large, hence very old, cycads. A beautiful cloister wall remains. This and the Monreale Cathedral have to be my absolute favourites to date.
We walk through the market again for a delicious meal of stuffed squid, admire the profusion of colourful vegetable and fresh, clear-eyed seafood all on vast beds of ice and the enjoyable, raucous sounds of vendors plying their goods. Fun.
Up The Cathedral Roof
I walk up to the roof of the great cathedral in a group, the only way permissible, via a very narrow spiral of stone steps to a wonderful 360 degree view over rooftops, seeing all the major landmarks including other church domes, the sea, the entire bay and all the surrounding mountains. Later I sit in the sun at the local park and eventually initiate conversation with a woman sharing the bench. She is a Polish worker, speaks better Italian than I, who had her bag snatched in March with all her documents in it and is still waiting for replacements, a traveller’s worst nightmare. Meanwhile she is unable to work and is being housed and fed in a church-run hostel sharing a room with six men. Poor thing. I think about how to help and as I get up to leave, she asks if I could spare €1. I say I just had the same thought but have no change and tell her I will get some. Returning shortly, I give her €4. She is genuinely touched and grateful and, smiling, wishes me all the best as I do her. This story as well as personal interactions with the two previously mentioned Africans, reminds us of the plight of many refugees throughout the world and our sorrow at the Australian government’s heartless and ungenerous response to people in crisis.
On our late afternoon walk, we wonder why again, as on Easter Sunday, there are people celebrating and bar-b-q-ing out in the little laneways in front of their houses. Curiosity gets the better of me. Que fa? , what’s going on I ask an elderly man, who tells me today is Italy’s Independence Day, Bravo!
The streets are a delight. Above us a woman leans over her balcony, three storey’s up, observing the scene below, then shouts to somebody on the street; another woman chats to her neighbour on the adjoining fourth-storey balcony to another. Living is congested.
As it’s Independence Day our little restaurant of last night is closed, which encourages us to eat elsewhere. All the reports we read about the Sicilian food culture are true- every meal we have had is first class and different from anything eaten before. Tonight’s delight is a pasta con sarde e finocchio, sardine and fennel, pine nuts and currants, each balancing the other so that nothing dominated- simply delicious. Our host, who is so wonderful to watch as he lovingly serves other patrons with antipasto delicacies. Later he brings gratuitous cannoli, such a favourite-a small pastry tube filled with ricotta and tiny bursts of chocolate, oh man!
Upsides, Downsides & Journey to Taormina: Sicily, April 26
Our Palermo ‘host’ coupled with SIM problems makes communications difficult with attendant stresses. By way of recompense he, very nicely, pays our taxi fare to the bus terminal where we set out from Palermo in the NE of Sicily, to Taormina in the NW via Catania and a change of bus. The first leg, to Catania, is in a very new, quiet, smooth Mercedes bus that keeps a constant speed on the excellent and, I am told, Mafia-made autostrada, traverses ravines of such depth that tall barricades enclose the edge. We speed through tunnels, the folded mountains and sea a backdrop for some time but eventually give way to hills, the bigger mountains now more distant. A cool cloudy day with occasional light rain, the landscape is green with vast citrus orchards, olives, big fields of artichokes and later some grain crop, bright green and occasional fully loaded trucks. For the first time we see Eucalypts and, in a couple of places, bright yellow Acacias in full bloom; occasional areas of brilliant red opium Poppies and swathes of Ginestra (yellow blooming Broom); as well, lots of Prickly Pear and some beautiful , tall Papyrus-like grasses. Very few animals- two horses, one paddock of cows and two flocks of sheep in two hours. Pass a large paddock full of huge solar panels and one hillside with five gigantic wind turbines.
Both buses leave exactly on time. The second leg of the journey, from Catania, follows the coast south and after a short time leaves the autostrada, stopping at three little towns en route. This was much more intimate- small roads, views of the sea and eventually Giardini-Naxos, the seaside town below glamorous Taormina which is perched high and dramatically above the Ionian sea with splendid views of the still active Mt Etna. Then the bus winds up steeply. It’s magnificent, the mountain towering, brilliant views, wonderful buildings, reminiscent of but different from the Amalfi coast of SE mainland Italy. Finally, siamo arrivato! Here we are! We are met by a friend of our absent ‘host’ who drives us to our little apartment on the 4th floor (this time not a Palazzo and thus no lift) and ushers us in. It is small but pleasant, gleamingly clean, well maintained with a wonderful balcony from which we overlook a steep mountain to the left with the famous Teatro Greco. Below in front, a cloistered convent and far below, the sweeping curve of Ionian coast and Giardini-Naxos. However, most fantastic of all is our clear view of snow-capped Mt Etna. A fine layer of black granular volcanic ash covers our just-swept balcony, a recurring phenomenon and when I look below to the balcony of another building, I see it is entirely blackened! The volcano is alive and well! Horror of horrors, a minute after we are deposited, I realize the beds have only sheets, not a blanket in sight and it’s about 15C outside and falling!
Venturing out to find the only supermercato to stock up, it is SO stunning. I cannot wait to get out and explore tomorrow. We enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal, the tomatoes so sweet and fresh, as are the mandarins that still have their leaves attached, not surprising as Sicily supplies all of Italy with citrus and tomatoes. SO happy to be out of the Palermo city stuff and in a very small town.
However, half way through cooking all the electricity goes off -panic, what to do? I trot down the stairs knocking on every door until finally we find someone named Irene. Struggling now with the language, she understands my problem and flicks the mains switch in the entry of the building and voila! Problem solved. Terrified of being cold, we had turned the two heaters up too high, overloading the rickety system! Lesson learned. I’m off to bed with layers of cotton sheets, other cupboard-scrounged bits, pieces, and the heater on all night. Jon, who never feels cold, remains unperturbed and is already asleep.
In the middle of the night I throw off some the cotton covers and reduce the heater but we struggle a bit sharing a 3/4 sized bed, the joys of the unknown…but wake to brilliant morning sun and snow-covered Mt Etna, emerging and disappearing amidst clouds!
Catching Our Breath Up High & The Joys Of Volcanic Ash: Taormina, Sicily, April 27
Saturday night revelry gives way to quiet Sunday streets as we set out at 9.30 delighting in it all and, following our noses, edge through step-ways towards the huge steep hill behind our place on top of which appears to be an old fort and perhaps a church way way up! 600 steps each way with 180 degree views of Greek/Roman amphitheatre, the entire coast and eventually the whole of Taormina with tiled roofs and medieval churches and beautiful palazzi (palaces). Stopping to catch our breath periodically and engaging in little conversations with a few others from many countries, we come to Chiesa Maria Della Rocca, a tiny church, part rock-cave, part rendered walls with charming decorative peasant-style painted fragments and a Madonna statue with illuminated halo! By way of contrast, the route up is interspersed with expressive, modern religious sculptures.
We are pleased to see that we are still up to doing such steep and stepped walks, albeit more slowly than three years ago- even going in and out of our little apartment three times a day adds another 500 steps to the daily exercise…so the good bread, pasta, and cheeses can be eaten without too much worry!
By arrangement via our host, the delightful Mariarosa from two floors below delivers warm blankets. She also directs us to the washing machine. The washing line is on volcanic ash covered courtyard overlooking a precipitous drop, a little dizzying even for me. Having completed our washing chores, we set out for another walk only to return shortly thereafter as rain now threatens! Washing rescued, we set out yet again with umbrellas seeking a nearby place to have a coffee and people-watch as the rain sets in; we perch at a little table just out of reach of the rain as cars battle to negotiate the tiny traffic- restricted streets, backing up when realizing they shouldn’t be there! Occasional horns honk; people pass by huddling under umbrellas, their reluctant dogs on leashes apparently not wanting to get their feet wet. Fathers indulge their little daughters with chocolate ice creams, adoringly wiping their small smeared faces as only Italian father’s do. American women with obvious face-lifts, elegant Italians, girls with gorgeous mops of long natural curls make for a fun time but it is now too cold and we head back to our little haven. Looking out the double glass doors to the terrace and the ocean far below and beyond, the rain has stopped, the Ionian Sea now a pale flat grey-blue, the sky a mix of clouds-pinkish,white,pale and dark greys- and occasional swathes of blue, the aroma of garlic from our tiny kitchen, another day passing….
Teatro Greco, People Watching & Little Girl’s Dance Class: Taormina, April 28
All the streets in the central part of this little town are pedestrian only. Corso Umberto, the main street, runs along the ridge with its elegant shops and wonderful displays of clothing, accessories, marzipan fruits, jewellery, ceramics, shoes, all stylish. Much is innovative.
Taormina has long been high on the tourist agenda, with commercial rents amongst the highest in Italy and prices to match e.g. $3500 sports jackets. The abundant availability of fine fresh produce from which Jon is whipping up wonderful meals, is compensation indeed.
The so-called Teatro Greco is actually a Roman amphitheatre built between 36-21 BC when Taormina became a Roman colony. A Greek amphitheatre built in 2nd-1st century BC preceded it. The impressive site is of reddish coloured brick, a marvel of construction, with remnants of Greek stone pillars and some interesting Greek stone tablets which are ‘published’ accounts describing aspects of both public and private life- for example the administration of the gymnasium (which encompassed education, physical fitness etc) whose example, Jon reckons, the Whitsunday Shire could benefit from. Indeed! Sited high at one end of the small town, like all else here it overlooks the sea far below with extended views along the coastline and overlooks Mt Etna which is seductively revealed more and more as clouds shifted around.
More people-watching over a mid morning coffee on the biggest and most beautiful Piazza in town. There is a woman beyond ‘a certain age’ with bright red hair red (literally), orange dress, jazzy jacket and gold shoes; a hot young blond, chignoned, sporting the shortest shorts and cellulite, who had passed ten minutes earlier and now returns carrying two packages of newly acquired items and sits down near us. She orders a glass of something red and elegant-looking accompanied by two small bowls of nibbles and pays with a €100 note. A few minutes later, drink untouched, she departs! There are many dogs- men with puppies, shop attendants standing with smart little dogs on leashes in front of the shops. A machine embroiderer has her tiny dog sitting on the machine next to her. Funny.
Having spotted some lovely gardens from the Teatro Greco, we find our way down to them. Once private, they are now the Municipal Gardens with a magnificent variety of exotic trees including many different pines and Araucarias, red Indian Coral trees. There is a blaze of purple- flowered shrubbery, a formal maze, a 19th C folly of imitation Arab- Norman towers, beautiful flowerbeds and, like everywhere here, orange, mandarin and lemon trees in fruit and bloom. Their fragrance mingles with another small tree with yellow and cream flowers, which I see repeatedly, always pruned into cloud-like formation with yet another heavenly fragrance.
There are flowers everywhere in Taormina – Petunias, Geraniums of brilliant colour and enormous blooms, presumably from the rich volcanic soil, massed in huge pots or hanging baskets; walls are blanketed in ivy or similar and a creeper with bright yellow flowers often drapes over vast expanses.
Our last outing today is to a WIFI bar to send emails and blog since we don’t have Wi-Fi in our apartment. A Moretti beer and Aperol spritz (delicious Campari-like aperitif with soda) make both of us happy as we listen to cool jazz. It’s cold by the time we leave. At the foot of the 80 steps up to our apartment, we near music coming from a nearby basement window. I peer in and discover a contemporary dance class for little girls in progress. Exciting! So, up the 80 stairs to fetch my wool jacket readying to return down to take a proper look. Jon says he admires but is not inspired by my energy! Peering through the window takes me back to similar classes I participated in as a 7 yr old in Melbourne and then again as an adult in Nimbin, but with some adorable Italian touches to the rehearsal – capelli (hair) calls the groovy young teacher which prompts the little girls into hair tossing ensues; baci (kiss) she then prompts and little kisses are blown. After ten minutes the class finishes, the little girls stream out but two return to give both her and her even younger assistant a kiss on each cheek. She then turns to make eye contact with me through the window, che carina (how sweet) I say. Her reply, with a wry smile, paziencia (patience). Up the 80 steps for the last time for dinner, reading and bed.
A Fit Old Man, Corso Umberto & Isola Bella: Taormina, April 29
Off to the fresh-food market at 9.30, Corso Umberto surprisingly quiet. We ask directions from an elderly man who, it transpires, is a very bright-eyed and fit 89 yr old who starts and continues chatting non-stop as he accompanies us most of the way. A former police officer from the north, he has lived here with his wife for 46 yrs. He starts telling us stories from the war years but I can only follow bits and pieces and whenever I say that I can’t understand, he pauses momentarily, then recommences. Jon does a lot of laughing and smiling as if understanding, and a good time is had by all. We encounter him again on our way back, whereupon he discontinues his chat with some locals, and the performance is repeated with lots of tanti auguri, buone cose, fa una bella vacanza ( best wishes, all good things, have a beautiful holiday), really endearing. We return with fresh salmon, chicken schnitzel, spinach and loquats!
A different walk today-along Corso Umberto, before winding down past beautiful villas and gardens following a volcanic ash covered stepway. Ascending steeply, we overlook Isola Bella, a tiny island connected to land by an almost exposed sandbar. On reaching the bottom, we enjoy a coffee and a beer where Jon stays while I ascend another flight of 130 steps onto the pebble beach below-a charming sight of bathers under blue and white beach umbrellas, little restaurants along the edge with geraniums of every possible colour in abundance in planter boxes. There are two small islands at either end of the curved bay and I walk across the sandbar to the public one, climb more stepped paths to the building on top of it, which affords a splendid 360-degree view. The sea is so clear you can see every rock and pebble. Looking back to the land, a road winds around the coast and the train line runs almost at sea level, a train appearing then disappearing into a tunnel through the mountain. We return to Taormina via the Funivia, a cable car as the weather suddenly changes, rain threatening and make it home just in time for a meal of home- cooked salmon.
Jazz, Hospitality & Tiny Morsels: Taormina, May 1.
Our last night in Taormina! Having seen a Jazz Night advertised, we dress up as elegantly and warmly as our travel wardrobe permits, off through the Corso, so beautiful at night with its stylish old street lights and all the shops still open as they are often are at 9pm in Italy. Throngs of people, restaurants full, people still eating outside in a charming, intimate ambience.
We are ushered onto the terrace, set out with small tables, chairs, lovely couches, and two beautifully designed gas heaters with tall flames enclosed by stainless steel bars. We order a beer and a local wine that, unlike anywhere else we have been, is a small amount in a large glass. However, waiters emerged three times with tiny morsels- first two little sardines in tomato, then a rather peculiar creamy mix with bacon in a tiny glass, followed by a skewer with three different fruit pieces. In the background, another person is stirring a huge shallow pan and suddenly we are given a small portion of risotto con fungi (mushrooms). Very hospitable indeed. Actually anytime one sits down at a bar or cafe for a drink (alcohol) it is accompanied by one or two little bowls of crisps/peanuts/savoury biscuits- very civilized. The other patrons are mostly Italians, beautifully dressed, the men casual, elegant, often with neck scarves; a sleazy guy smoking a cigar chats up a younger woman near us. The singer, a black woman from the UK, does a little soft-shoe shuffle in high heels as she grooves to the music in tight black pants and tails! She is delightfully communicative, moving beyond the immediate area where her 4-piece Italian band plays cool jazz, edging round the corner to the terrace to make eye contact with those of us sitting there. Somewhat surprisingly, she then ‘works the room’ – suddenly she is making personal contact with us before moving on to the next group. The waiters are impeccable and, as everywhere, incredibly efficient and attentive and courteous. I have been impressed with them throughout our time here- they remember orders perfectly, they run rather than walk, they often remember what you ordered on a previous occasion. We hope their salary reflects this!
Oh Oh, No Hire Car: Giardini-Naxos, Sicily, May 1
Packed up, apartment in order, we drag our cases down all the stairs and up more to the taxi for the short ride down endless S-bends to Giardini-Naxos on the sea collect our hire car and drive south to Scicli. Immediately upon seeing the face of the man in the office I sense something is wrong-OMG! They were expecting us two days earlier but today is a Public Holiday, no cars are available. Some giant stuff-up on our part! How foolish can one feel! hey-ho what to do? Probably (note, not ‘definitely’) a car will be available tomorrow. Therefore, we contact our next Airbnb host, discuss options to get there tomorrow. Luckily, there is a B &B across the road with an available, inexpensive room almost on top of the main rail line that runs along the sea. Beyond the tourist ‘haven’, it is clean & comfortable with a nice, Italian- speaking proprietor. We decide to make the best of the day. Within three minutes, we are walking along the sea on what is the warmest, sunniest day to date, peaking at 22 degrees, just perfetto! As it’s a holiday, the place is packed with Italians, locals and day-trippers. The beach, the first part of which is stony then gives way to not-so -yellow sand, is full of people in a variety of bathing garb. Aside from lots of kids, there are many dogs- being washed in the street, swimming in the sea, eating bones on tiny verandas, barking from said tiny verandas at passing dogs below.
The little bars and restaurants are packed. Before lunch people are eating gelati and pastries and drinking coffee or wine; noise blares from one area where activities are being held. It’s full of life but quite different from the crowded streets in Taormina above-another, more real Sicily.
At the port end of the little town is the Archaeological area which includes a small museum with wonderful Greek and Roman artefacts including amphora, figurines, pots and other vessels, stone anchors and clay masks. Giardini-Naxos was the first Greek colony of Sicily, so named because the colonists came from Naxos in the Cyclades. However when archaeological remains of the Greek city were excavated (minimal except for the items in the museum), it was discovered that habitation there could be traced back to 5000-6000 BC!
We love walking through the site as it is quiet, green, almost devoid of visitors and includes an old lemon orchard, some very old olive trees, a few huge fig trees, and a copse of enormous mulberry trees, a few Ozzie gum trees, oleanders, wild poppies, bird song and an ancient river, now a diverted stream. Lunch of zuppa di cozze (mussel soup), with at least three if not four dozen mussels, a lovely large salad, fried calamari with huge chunks of lemon, beer and glass of wine-all very reasonably priced.
It’s not only we who stuff-up! In true Italian fashion, someone has double-parked on this narrow main coast road and a tourist bus is unable to proceed. Driver begins to honk the horn hoping to attract the culprit’s notice, continues for a couple of minutes, and gets out of the bus. Cars start piling up behind. No one else honks (when I lived in Italy in the ‘ 60’s everyone honked furiously ALL the time). By now, the back- up of cars is beyond imagining, still no culprit to move the car. Passengers are disembarking, waiting on the street. A small crowd of onlookers gathers, we included. Locals hang over the three- storey balconies calling out suggestions as to where the culprit might be. We hear a small group of passing Americans ‘in Detroit …’ and I speculate as to the end of the sentence. Bus driver is now on his mobile phone, presumably calling the local carabinieri to report the problem. Neighbours still hang over their walls! What a hoot! By now, the traffic is backed-up at least 2 km. Eventually, after some 10-15 minutes, a guy appears, quickly apologizes, jumps into the offending car and drives off. Bus driver doesn’t even berate him (probably reported the car registration to police by now) and the traffic starts to move on. Phewww!
Hours later, we share an antipasto of char-grilled eggplant in delicious tomato passata followed by an oh-so-sweet-and-fresh shrimp pasta dish for Jon and a subtle fennel and anchovy pasta for me with little dots of something black and unidentifiable sprinkled through. Upon asking ,it’s identified as some sort of frutto di bosco, (literally fruit of the forest i.e. berry).Very loud music blares from a little Pizza joint- a group of teenagers is doing the hoe-down with jeans and boots and bare bellies and hats, in the middle of Sicily! It’s followed by very loud rock music from which we escape.
Meeting Francesca: Scicli, May 2
After the night in the railway-line B & B we return to the car hire place and decide to recoup what we can and take train and bus to our next destination, Scicli. Beautiful old railway station in Giardina-Naxos, less than an hour to Catania and wait for 3/4 hr in a kebab joint thronging with what Jon described as ‘shifty looking dudes’. A two-hour bus trip at a constant speed, we tunnel through hillsides, over steep gullies, pass unending citrus orchards, some paddocks of artichoke, olive groves and three huge gas plants. The sea is sometimes visible in the distance; it is generally an unprepossessing landscape. We arrive in Modica where Francesca, our Airbnb host, meets us and drives us ‘home’ to Scicli. She is bright, educated, mother of 9 yr old twin girls, her husband an architect. We immediately click. She speaks exceptional English that prompts me to dig further. When she began teaching her girls English, her friends expressed interest for their own children. This resulted in regular small classes she offers from home. I ask if I might sit in on such a class and she is delighted, suggesting I could assist with pronunciation. We make a date. She gives us a short guided tour as we approach Scicli, clearly taking pride in this jewel of S.E. Sicily, close to but not within sight of the Mediterranean. The little house is a four- minute walk from the centre of this very small, un-touristy town. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style after the 1693 earthquake that devastated several towns in this Ragusa region. Its origins go back some 5000 years with troglodytic villages and archaeological treasures from prehistory. Close to both Malta and Africa, it was thus territory to conquer, but also a meeting point of many cultures- Siculean, Phoenician ,Greek, Roman, Norman, briefly Spanish and Arab.
Scicli sits between two rocky valleys divided by steep hills punctuated by black ‘holes’, the entrance to the former cave-dwellings and, like nearby Ragusa, Modica and Noto, is UNESCO heritage- listed for its classic Baroque splendour. I ‘discovered’ it because of careful scrutiny of credits from my much-loved TV series Inspector Montalbano that was located entirely in this region.
Although close to the centre, our small house is on the edge of town, approached via a curving stone-paved road, gleaming white as are they all, with houses to one side and on the other, a steep mountain topped with ruins of a Medieval fortification dating from 800 AD. Narrowing down to little stepped walkways, our place is almost the last along the narrow stone-paved path, the steep mountain behind it against which the houses are built. We enter off the street into a stylishly renovated tiny living/dining/kitchen space, large light coloured tiles downstairs, the only light source of which are the entry doors with panels that open; part of the walls are the pale original rough hewn stone, the rest white render. Narrow marble stairs lead up to a generous bedroom and second bathroom with terrazzo floors and a second flight of marble stairs lead to a wonderful balcony overlooking the mountains, the fortification and zigzagging stonewalls. Terrifying canon fire ofsome saint day celebration punctuates the early evening. Taormina’s warmth has vanished, we rug up, Bonney goes brrr brrr brrrrrrrr…
Church Bells, Birdsong, Step-ways and White: Scicli, Sicily, May 3 I love how each place is so completely different from the previous. Cannot believe the number of churches and convents even in this very small historic centre- St Ignazio, on one of the two main Piazzas, is a gorgeous baroque number, originally 17th C. with lots of blue! Church bells ring out regularly and melodiously, almost as lovely as the birdsong that is everywhere here unlike in the larger towns or cities where its absence is palpable.
Like all these little towns, it is bigger than first meets the eye, perhaps due to the topography (population 18,000 but considered a village). Small streets, walkways and step-ways wind up and down and in and out, piazzas narrow to little streets, which, in turn, narrow to walkways. A river once coursed through the valley when the original town was high up the mountain. It was covered over when, after the earthquake, the town was rebuilt lower down in the valley. Now a wide, deep stone-paved channel runs through the town undoubtedly carrying a torrent in heavy rain.
Many of the walkways, step-ways and houses have been restored as if in preparation for a tourist boom that has not yet happened. There are, however, many houses still in a state of ruin as was our place before architect Luigi, Francesca’s husband, renovated it six years ago.
The steep hills are dotted with caves from prehistoric times, used as burial chambers and later as habitations and still occupied by the poor until the 1950’s when it was considered unsanitary. The inhabitants were then compulsorily moved to public housing on the edge of the village. Some of those folk now own renovated houses, many of which are built into the rocky hillside. Often the owners live and work overseas, returning in summer, renting them out as B & B’s. One original cave dwelling open to the public, demonstrates how poor Sicilian peasants lived; hard lives, cramped spaces, one for the donkey, one to live in consisting of one bed with straw mattress and pillow, home spun blankets, kids sleeping on the floor at end of bed, baby in a woven sling, water drawn from a well, bread made once a week and stored all week. Another Museum in town replicates an upper middle class kitchen/dining set- up and utensils-lovely ceramic platters, elegant crockery etc and, most interestingly, ceramic ‘hot water bottles’, one for the bed and one for individual heating, a convex cage-like metal structure sitting over a small pot of glowing coals to place on the floor under women’s long dresses.
The Fruit And Veggie Seller
A tingling sound reaches my ears and I follow it to discover the fruit and veggie seller in little three- wheel motorized van. I now learn that he comes daily to certain fixed points with the freshest of produce (this option is additional to bigger stalls, markets and supermarkets). The oranges are huge and peel like mandarins. I point to the very large loquats, como si chiamo, signor? And learn a new word, nespoli, and another, when he asks me if I want them in a plastic carry bag or una busta, a paper bag or envelope .So today I choose una busta.
The bread sellers also do the rounds in little vans from which they sell a delicious assortment – the local specialty being pane duro, hard white crusty bread with very chewy crust. We can also buy various pane morbido, soft breads including crusty elongated Toscana, which in Taormina in the N.E and hence a different region, referred to as baguette!
Fab Meal At La Grotta
Sicily is famed for its food culture and we enjoy another exceptional meal at La Grotta , one of several recommendations of our host Francesca. Previously a granary this charming restaurant consists of several adjoining cave rooms with niches in the walls as decorative touches and very low rock ceilings. The antipasto – crumbed fried ricotta as delicate and smooth as junket, a spectacular chopped eggplant dish, slightly sweet perhaps with balsamic, a tiny delicate anchovy, bruschetta with tomato etc. Jon’s ravioli is another winner – very soft pasta filled with ricotta with a subtle hint of nutmeg which I have noticed in several dishes, a little bit of pork, all in a rich tomato passata. My fish soup with couscous, a delicious mix of mussels (cozze), clams (vongole), tiny whole fish and squid.
It’s now 15-16 C and Jonny stays home with a book. I venture out to find wi-fi in a nearby Internet Point full of young men watching football, horseracing and dog racing on TV. They speak in unintelligible dialect, so funny. They seemed unfamiliar with wi-fi- for iPads but after a little discussion, agreed I could do it. They gave me a twenty- letter / three- number password and refused payment!
Francesca tells me that people here are noted for their generosity and I have found only friendliness and kindness so it is a lovely experience shopping for food after wi-fi-ing. Sweet young shopkeepers are very pleased to offer a taste before I choose an item and people are very gracious as I ask for directions or information. I ask for recommendations from the man at the little fruit stand. He advises against the beans meglior a lunedí (better on Monday) but agrees the zucchini, oranges, pears and capsicum are good. As I walk through the streets between 5-6pm, the large number of (mostly) elderly men strikes me- men walking and sitting around. I barely see a woman. It’s like in the village in Greece in the 60’s. Francesca is right; it still is a (big) village.
Sun comes out, I peel off a layer, drop in on another church, San Bartolomeo, nearest to our home with its gorgeous statues high in front. As I approach the narrowing valley, a bitterly cold wind suddenly tunnels down, nearly knocks me over. Beginning A Friendship
I email Francesca and invite her to drop in. We make an arrangement to meet next week. Before long, she turns up with the twins, Marta and Sara. She invites me to join her tomorrow when she must collect the girls from her in-laws in Sampieri, a few kilometres away on the sea, another Salvo Montalbano location. This is first time an Airbnb host has wanted to engage like this and it’s great. We have much in common and she loves Jon’s humour! Now that they have met me, Marta and Sara are disappointed that my attendance at heir English class is still a few days away!
They stay for nearly two hours, we speak mostly in English but, as she knows I want to practise my Italian, she indulges me in that too. Sadly, I don’t think my spoken Italian has improved very much in recent years but comprehension seems much better, so that is pleasing! Contrary to expectations, I am not finding time to study further while here. Just too busy!
Commenting on the number of churches, I ask about church attendance, knowing it is now low in Italy, so was surprised to hear her estimate that 85% of people here would attend. She explains it is because this is still a ‘ village’ with a largely uneducated population of rural workers.
An Unexpected Ride & Spring Wildflowers: Scicli, May 4
High above our house stands a former church and convent, Santa Maria Della Croce. On enquiring from a nearby gentleman how we might reach it, he & wife offer us a lift. She is a Professor of English at University of Milan, he a cardiologist, a classy and very nice couple who own a renovated house close to ours. From where they leave, we walk uphill between wonderful dry -stonewalls, gaining ever- increasing views of the town below which winds through the rock-littered hills with a profusion of windflowers, probably 15-20 varieties of all colours, a distant view of the Mediterranean to one side. I am immediately reminded of Jerusalem of fifty years ago. We are alone here but as we approach the church, find, disappointingly, that it is fenced off. Then we spot another couple and confirm that indeed we can’t actually enter the church grounds. Perche, why? I ask. He explains it is ‘political’ and with some irony and a laugh, adds, privilegio della Sicilia!
View from so high up over the old town, including our section and the Chiafura caves area is breath- taking. It gives an overall understanding of the topography of Scicli located between three hills, the river valley, the layout of the piazzas, the baroque churches dotting the landscape.
Walking back down, we have a charming interaction with three elderly men wearing jackets and caps, who invite us to join them sitting on the wall. I enjoy having to speak my pigeon-Italian, which, only to the unknowing, sounds fluent and impressive!
At the bottom, amazingly, we bump into Prof English and Dr Cardiologist again, who drive us back home regretting that they are about to leave for their permanent home in Milan. They would have loved to invite us to their home. Che pecato! , what a pity, it would have been fun and interesting. As Jonny opens the car door for me, he steps back and whoa…he disappears…he apparently fell over a foot-high step he didn’t see. Fortunately, I do not see him actually falling thus avoiding a terrible fright. I just see just the expression of shock on Prof. English’s face before she pronounces how beautifully he rolled on the hard stone pavement from which I see him rise! Service of Dr Cardiologist fortunately not required – just a tiny scrape on the elbow, perhaps a slight pull on the shoulder, and up he gets, no sign of shock, refusing the water offered by a nearby inhabitant who observed it all; his only discomfort a little bit of hurt pride.
Familiarizing The Locals
After hanging out our washing in the strong wind and sunshine on the rooftop balcony, we set out to explore a different section of town that is almost completely deserted as everything shuts down between 1-4pm. I’m now starting to pass people I recognize and mutual greetings are exchanged-buon’ giorno Signor/Signora, come sta – with women in our little lane way, the short older woman in black around the corner who houses a multitude of stray cats, the red faced man who sells second-hand metal ware. By the time we circle back, things are opening again and a few people emerge. The Costume Museum is open and I recognize the young man in attendance! It’s the very elegant Giovanni, who was in attendance at San Bartolomeo church yesterday! (every church has one or two young people up front to answer questions or take a small but not obligatory monetary offering.) Giovanni and I ,speaking a mix of English and Italian, are having fun. When we leave, everyone is out and about, old, young, parents, babies, mourners, coffin carriers, soccer fans – it’s lively man! But soon the temperature starts dropping so we decide on dinner around 7pm, well before anyone else, and try out a little osteria. A small, four-roomed space with high ceilings, some painted and vaulted. My glass of wine and Jon’s beer appear , unexpectedly accompanied by bruschetta , two with tomato passata, two with a pesto of basil, tomato and almonds, delicious. We share an antipasto plate of three different salami/prosciutto crudo slices, four different cheeses, marinated red capsicum, green beans, bocconcinni, chargrilled eggplant and zucchini slices, a side dish of Sicilian caponata (mixed fried vegetables doused in vinegar) and a separate tomato jam for the cheese! All this followed by two different pasta dishes. Everything is of the highest quality.
Day Trip To A Roman Villa: Piazza Armerina, Sicily, May 6
Some months ago I saw a documentary on TV of a relatively recently discovered Roman Villa near the town of Piazza Armerina in central Sicily. The Roman Villa del Casale has 3,500 square metres of the most astonishing mosaic floors and I vowed to visit this place, renting a car for a day to do so. Being so small, Scicli seemed the most sensible place from which to undertake this 100km trip. Jon is to be the designated navigator (OMG), I the driver. We set off driving through a lane barely wider than the small car and find the exit from the town. Shortly thereafter, we discover that the GPS will not talk to us, which creates a bit of tension. However, it is largely straightforward with almost no traffic on these small roads and an abundance of spring flowers adorning every bit of the way. White rocky outcrops punctuate steep rolling hillsides of verdant grasses and grain crops; vast tracts of Prickly Pear grow in neat harvestable rows; a variety of crops and ploughing patterns create a mosaic effect. The views are expansive. We spot enormous white surfaces, difficult to identify at first. They are plastic-covered green houses for tomatoes on an unimaginable scale, sometimes extending all the way to the sea.
The only town on this journey is Caltagirone, famed for its ceramics and by now, we are hungry, so we park on the main road and walk uphill toward the centre. Almost immediately in front of us is a high wall extending uphill. Huge ceramic pots sit proudly at intervals atop the wall and large decorative plaques adorn the vertical surface. Standing on tiptoes, I look over and see a beautiful formal park. At the top of the steep road marking the entrance to the park and to the old town centre, stands a gorgeous Islamic- styled rotunda and the Regional Ceramic Museum.
The museum consists of seven large rooms representing 5000 yrs of ceramic artefacts -amphora, vessels, tiles, decorated functional ware, and religious icons. Incredible stuff.
A Treat From Roman Antiquity
As usual, we feel the frustration of not being able to see everything. The old Centre looks so inviting but time does not permit, so we return to the car and head on to the Villa Romana del Casale. The first sight is the huge dusty car park and several tourist buses but our timing is perfect and although there are many people, it is not a problem. What a wonderful architectural site-an enormous Patrician Villa, more a complex really, once thought to have been the hunting palace of Roman Emperor but now thought to have belonged to a Roman Senator. It was built between 3rd-5th centuries AD. A terrible earthquake in 346 AD and then a huge landslide in 1161 left the villa completely buried thus preserving much of it. To quote some staggering figures: the villa comprised sixty-three rooms, courtyards, galleries, pools, bathrooms and corridors. It covers some 7000 sq.mts, half of which retains elaborate mosaic flooring made from 120,000,000 tiny mosaic tesserae in thirty-seven colours, estimated to have taken 21,000 days of work (1 sq.mt requires 6 days) by teams of North African craftsmen. Exquisitely beautiful, they depict many aspects of life of the ultra rich- hunting scenes, bikini-clad women gymnasts, children at play, exotic animals; one room alone is 60mt long! In the TV documentary, the mosaic colours appeared richer-presumably wetted-down for filming but it is beautiful and still mind-boggling and speaks so much about the period it represents.
Still Chasing Inspector Montalbano: Scicli, Sicily, May 7
Taking advantage of the remaining time on our 24 hr hire car, I check out the nearby coast at Donnalucata, one of the locations of Inspector Montalbano that whetted my appetite for this part of Sicily. I have a particular building in mind, set on a striking diagonal on the edge of the sea, but to no avail. Instead, I enjoy an Italian breakfast of caffe latte and a sweet pastry, muesli not being part of the Italian cultural experience! Back home to the first warmth so I can sit and write on the rooftop balcony with a view I could never tire of – the dry hillside curving along the narrow valley dotted with black holes of trogdalite caves.
Francesca and I are enjoying our connection and she has invited us to go with her to Sampieri, another nearby coastal village, to collect the twins from their grandparents, nonna and nonno. Jon is unwell and remains at home. It is a lovely village with a sandy beach, small old limestone houses and yes, a location for Inspector Salvo Montalbano! I even recognize bits and pieces including the iconic two-story industrial building that now stands at the far end of the sweeping bay! Nonna sends us away with tiny fresh sweet tomatoes and loquats from her garden. Francesca has invited me to join the family in their home for dinner that night so again collects me and en route we stop at a pastry shop to buy a local specialty, Mustazzoli which she has told me about, and another stop to buy scacce, a local savoury pastry eaten instead of Pizza. This is for me to take home to share with Jon. Their large apartment is in the new part of town. She serves a delicious meal of caponata and baked chicken. Her husband is warm and I feel so at home with them all. The little girls and I play games, reading to each other in Italian and English from their impressive library of 300 books! Tomorrow, I will join them in the English class for the children. She drops me home and I carry out the rather charming evening rubbish ritual. I hang out the plastic bags of rubbish bags on hooks on the outside house walls after 8pm. The idea, Francesca had explained, is to keep streets beautiful and prevent cats, of which there are many, getting into it. Here, rubbish is strictly sorted into four categories. Whitsunday Shire Council could take a lesson from this!
Italian Conversations: Scicli, May 9
Another fine sunny morning, our last day in Scicli. I explore a different section of the old village, the hillside full of caves and more old houses in the process of being renovated. It’s a warren of little paved pathways and step ways all of which, like the old streets and piazzas, are gleaming warm white granite, often polished from wear. The building walls are of limestone. I love these places with constant unknowns and surprises in the layout of the town/village that create a sense of intimacy reminiscent of childhood with its secret places and sense of discovery. The morning is full of conversations. First with the wrinkled old man who sells an amazing assortment of recycled ‘junk’ that hangs from the external walls of his cave. We have greeted one another daily for six days and he is delighted when I stop and talk. Then, with the women in our laneway who tell me where this one and that one lives. Next with women hanging washing from the lines strung in front of their balconies, sometimes two-three storey’s up, as I ask permission to photograph while admiring their potted garden on the street below. A conversation with old Nonno (grandpa) with his baby grandson follows, yet another with a woman also hanging washing who lives next to a beautiful church high on the hill. She tells me she is Jehovah’s Witness and that there are quite a few here! As I leave her, a woman in black approaches carrying a small bunch of freshly picked nespoli, loquats, still with leaves attached. She offers me some and sits down on a bench in a tiny ‘piazza’ off which several step-ways run up and down in various directions. So I sit down with her, we talk about many things for some 10-15 minutes, and now I realize I am actually able to have meaningful conversations quite easily. We speak of travels and her sister who lives in Strasbourg and how she has visited twice and where else she has been. She tells me which others Scicliati might have travelled. We talk about education, dialects, and local farmers.
Up higher, at the level of the cave-dwellings, it is obviously poorer and I encounter a couple sitting at a small table in front of their very shabby little home looking very much like Roma (gypsies). We exchange words, I photograph them. The last conversation is with a young mother of three, herself one of ten children. Her father is from Scicli, mother from Calabria. She is lively, bright and engaging and takes me back round the corner to show me how the Mediterranean is visible from here.
The Little English Lesson & Sad To Leave This Wonderful Place Francesca collects me in the late afternoon. Four little girls aged seven to nine wait expectantly for my arrival. We read together and play the games Francesca has devised. They are delighted and it is heart-warming to be doing this. The twins, not surprisingly given the quality of Francesca’s English, are better at English, especially reading, than are the others in this little group. After dinner, they drop me home. Although always exciting to anticipate the next place of travel, I am also usually sad to leave, a testament to well-chosen destinations. In this case, I feel it particularly strongly. Scicli has touched me deeply- arid rocky landscapes and spring wildflowers, the convoluted, hilly topography which dictates the curving, flowing layout of the old town, the intimacy of step-ways wending up hillsides in a seemingly never-ending maze, the glorious baroque architecture, the warmth of the people, the strong presence of its ancient past…and Il Commissario Montalbano! I know this place will remain special to me always as does the memory of Lindos, a village on the island of Rhodos in Greece, where I spent some months when I first travelled to Europe as a 22-year old.
And So To Siracusa: Scicli-Syracuse, May 10
Francesca drops us at the early train which will take us 60 km N.E to Siracusa on the East coast of Sicily, a 1.5 hour train trip. We pass through olive groves, ample citrus groves and fields of lettuce. After the first stop, a group of fifty primary school children, accompanied by eight parents and two teachers, join us. The noise level soars with excited voices. The adults are tolerant of everything the kids do and the children are lovely. Now the Iblean hills appear- white layered limestone. We arrive in Siracusa, inhabited since the Bronze Age and notable for its rich Greek history, culture, amphitheatres, architecture, and as the birthplace of the pre-eminent mathematician and engineer, Archimedes. Founded over 2,700 years ago, Syracuse is one of the oldest and most influential cities of the Mediterranean region. The Greek Corinthians, who settled in this area around 734 BC, transformed the small island of Ortygia into the nucleus of this rapidly growing Mediterranean city. For a time, Siracusa was the most powerful and prosperous Greek city in the Mediterranean.
We walk from the train station to Ortygia, which is only 1 km long and 600m wide, connected to Syracuse by a short bridge. A seawall that overlooks the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea offers spectacular views of the surrounding coast. It is here that we are staying, right in its heart. As in Scicli, the old centre is non-vehicular and our ground-floor apartment opens straight onto the narrow street-way. Another small, elegant stonewalled, architect -designed renovation, we enter directly into a small kitchen/living/dining space. On a mezzanine level above, sits the bedroom/bathroom though, unlike Scicli, there is no roof terrace or view. Italian design always impresses this time with a contemporary industrial look. The floors and kitchen bench are of grey polished concrete, original stones of different hues and sizes make up the walls, interspersed with white rendered areas. There is one original petrified wood beam in the bedroom wall. The minimalist furniture is white, cabinets are of metal. The bathroom adjoining the bedroom consists of heavy tinted glass and dark brown textured render walls. As in Scicli, on ground level the only opening to the outside is the front door that must be kept closed as it opens directly to the street. The disadvantage is that the main living space is not only small but also lacks light.
Being so small, Ortygia is easily navigable by foot and an adventure to explore. It is a maze of interconnecting streets /laneways which criss-cross the island but, being circular, it is confusing and we are often briefly lost. Magnificent trees pruned flat on top line one section of the waterfront and another roadway runs above it from which we look down on the treetops. It looks like a road made of leaves! The main Piazza is long and rectangular and the beautiful Duomo (Cathedral) dominates, a long sweep of shallow steps leading to the entrance. As in Scicli, the church, piazza, the old buildings all gleam white. Dotted here and there are Ancient Greece remains; under the Duomo, part of which is excavated including an ancient cistern lies the ionic Temple of Athena, later reused as an ossuary. Some of the huge pillars of the Duomo are part of this Greek structure. One section of the external wall is built around the ancient pillar. A 13th century wall section contains pottery shards from the 10th & 12th century BC, some parts date to the Bronze Age. It’s fantastic. A smaller church at one end houses a large Caravaggio painting.
In the week that we are here, I am impressed to see many primary and secondary school groups around the place. The little ones wearing smocks with large white collars walk in pairs holding hands. They are taken to churches, art galleries and other museums, introduced early to culture. On one occasion, we walk the promenade of the flat-topped trees and chance upon a meeting of Fiat 500’s, the famous Cinquecento. It’s a fantastic line- up of a large number of them, in an array of colours, some standard, some custom paint jobs. Jon is in his element and I feel like I am looking at a packet of Smarties or 100’s & 1000’s!
The Mikvah (bagno ebraico, literally, Jewish baths)
A mikvah is the ritual bath in which an observant married Jewish woman is required to dip monthly, seven days after the end of her menstrual cycle. This is to restore her spiritually from a state of impurity (absence of a new life) to a state of purity in which she has the potential to create new life. The Jews came to Italy after the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem, around 1stC A.D and remained here until the Spanish Inquisition when many fled to Venice and other places. The building we visit dates to that period. From a tiny white paved lane, I descend some 18 meters down a flight of ancient worn stone steps to a vaulted chamber with several deep square pools, the largest of which is no larger than 2 sq. meters, entered via a few more steps. Off this room are two or three other tiny spaces, each with one such pool, apparently used by the rabbis. The water source is a constantly replenishing spring with water temperature a constant 50 degrees (brrrr!) The once thriving Guideca (Jewish quarter) is now devoid of Jews but a few remain in another part of Siracusa. It reminds me of my former ignorance about the existence of Jews in Catholic Italy. When living in Rome for six months as a young woman, I was surprised to meet not one but two local Jews within a few weeks of arriving.
Aeschylus In Parco Archeologico
Two of the most significant ancient archaeological sites from both Greek and Roman history are situated adjacent to one another in Siracusa. The Roman Amphitheatre is one of the largest ever constructed and dates back to the 3rdcentury AD. As with other Roman amphitheatres, it was used primarily for violent gladiator contests and fights with wild animals. However, the star attraction of the park, the purpose of which is quite different from the Roman Amphitheatre, is the very well preserved Greek Theatre, Teatro Greco, which dates back to at least the 5th century BC. The ancient seats have been largely eaten away by time, but you can still stand on the remnants of the stone stage where plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides were performed. Today, the Italian Institute of Ancient Drama presents these classical plays under Italy’s top Directors performed in Italian.
Many months ago, I learned of these performances and, on advice of our prospective Airbnb host, pre-booked in order to obtain both good seats and a better price. The performance was to be Coefore & the Eumenides, the 2nd and 3rd plays of the Aeschylus trilogy The Oresteia. Unlike my classically educated mother, neither Jon nor I have read many Greek tragedies but this promised to be something special. It takes us about 25 minutes to walk across from Ortygia to the park in the late afternoon with a couple of hours of daylight still before us. Many people arrive at the same time and we stream along the earthen path to the amphitheatre. People shuffle along the narrow ‘aisles’ to their seats with lively excited banter, as more continue to arrive. We settle in on a perfect evening with barely a spare seat, take in the vision before us-bronze/browns predominate in contemporary and dramatic sets which promise an extraordinary performance to match.We are grateful for the cushions provided in these more expensive seats, as it is a three- hour long performance and the benches are hard and low to the ground, not easy on older hips so a bit of wriggling and repositioning in the limited space occurs. Jon nudges me- almost in front of us is a large man with what, in Australia, we refer to as a Plumbers Crack – his trousers have ridden down to expose a not particularly attractive bum cleavage! We smother giggles and try not to look too often.
Set after the fall of Troy, Orestes, on order of the god Apollo, seeks to avenge the murder of his father Agamemnon by his mother Clytemnestra. The Chorus of the Furies are mysterious speakers of intense, ferocious, and mysterious incantations, primitive and ritualized. In summary, the play deals with the relationship between justice and fear, about man’s primal nature and the supernatural power of the Curse, about purification and the reconciliation of opposites. The Chorus of the Furies deliver intense songs of death and destruction. They are dark, brutal, and quite terrifying to watch as they hurl themselves and screech around the stage, hair flying. However overall this is an optimistic work of ultimate redemption. With a huge cast, brilliant sets, costumes and some wonderful music and voice, it is completely compelling and thrilling and, as night falls, wonderfully lit. An unforgettable theatrical experience.
Another 25 min walk back, we are now hungry but as we pass the Duomo, we hear an astonishing voice coming from within-an advertised free concert of piano and voice by two Russian women and are lucky to catch the last few minutes. The soprano has a stupendous voice and the acoustics in this huge cathedral are unsurpassable. We find a wonderful little restaurant on a narrow step -way and begin our meal at 10.30 pm finishing not long before midnight. I know those who know him can’t believe my Jon would be awake let alone having dinner at this time, but you had better believe it! Life is different here and the place is jumping at night. Given the 1-4pm siesta, people do not eat until 8.30 at earliest and diners and people having drinks well into the night pack the streets.
A Disabled Muso & Santa Lucia: Syracusa, May 11
Walking round the waterfront I spot a young man in a wheelchair who we heard yesterday playing a mouth harp and singing the blues. He is one of many buskers here. He is very wasted with arms the size of my wrist and has no muscle power in his legs, wears a cool little cap over a head of curls and dons a nice neck scarf. I say g’day and ask him if he is going to play, telling him how much we enjoyed his music. Jonny joins us and a long conversation ensues. He is from Quebec, lives in Italy part of every year in a hippy commune out of town, likewise when in Canada. Since childhood he has played piano & violin but clearly is now too disabled…how brave, leading a much more adventurous life than most able-bodied people and making wonderful, passionate music. Another interesting conversation in the late afternoon sun on the treed waterfront where so many Africans and Bangladeshis ply their trade of sunglasses, belts, cheap jewellery and so on; this with a 17 yr old boy from Bangladesh, here with his father and brother. His mum and other siblings remain in Bangladesh. He displays his jewellery charmingly pinned to a red umbrella.
In the same area, we see what appears to be fireworks being set-up, then suddenly a procession appears wending its way down the little street toward the waterfront, men wearing pale green velvet fez-style caps. Some carry large silk banners. A large number are carrying a very old, life-size religious statue. She is crafted of pure silver mounted on an elaborate silver podium. The procession pauses intermittently and people lift their young babies up against the silver podium to kiss her. The statue will be carried round the entire waterfront of Ortygia to eventually be deposited back in the cathedral round 9pm.
Back home as I sit writing, suddenly we hear loud explosions. Curious, I rush out to follow the sounds toward the waterfront. As I round the corner, brilliant fireworks rain down in showers of gold and silver. When it finishes I check the cathedral again as it is about 9pm but the statue had not yet returned though the streets. The Piazza and restaurants are full of people. The pedestrian-only main street of the old centre is also dense with people leaving after the fireworks, including many gorgeous young women in their six-inch stilettos, sheer stockings, hairdo’s and makeup with their equally chic boyfriends with shaven hairdo’s and pompadour bits on top, smoking profusely (yes, shockingly, loads of Italians still smoke). The Piazza is a solid mass of people now but I proceed up the stairs of the Cathedral and slowly manage to enter. The statue has just beaten me up the stairs and there she stands in all her silver glory, supported by her army of bearers, surrounded by a cathedral jammed full of Italian believers. Words are yelled from somewhere in what I think of as a sacred space, Viva Santa Lucia, Viva Santa Lucia. It is crazy and just wonderful and, to my mind, as pagan as anything one might see anywhere. I ask a woman next to me what it is all about. She explains that it is Santa Lucia, the patron saint of the city and when in 1693, the dreadful earthquake ravaged the region, people were destitute and prayed to her and she performed a miracle and made a river. This is not the first time I hear people speak of miracles that they clearly embrace as factual events and it reminds me that Catholicism is alive and well in Sicily. Man, what a wonderful day and night!
Parco Archeologico Revisted: Syracuse, Sicily, May 14
So it is breakfast at our little place seated on the street just around the corner from home. The extremely large padrone and I have become good pals – he is a darling, greets me every day with a big grin and handshake, Buon giorno, Signora, come stai? Good morning, how are you?
Still slightly struggling with the various terms for different types of coffee, here we have settled on the designation latte macchiato, i.e. a strong coffee with some milk. To eat, something called raviola di ricotta, an unbelievably delicious, warm, ricotta-filled pastry looking much like an Ozzie pasty.
Having only been to Parco Archeologico to see the Aeschylus plays, I set off, without Jon, to investigate it in its entirety. Of course, as the season of these Greek plays is on, wooden seats and stage decor covers the amphitheatre so little is visible of the magnificent ancient structure. I encounter some furious Italians resentful of the entry fee with this major site obscured! Still, there is much to see including the impressively deep ruts left by the Roman chariots in the ancient paving stones as at Pompeii, quite incredible. A Roman arena stands nearby. Clearly described with part walls, foundations, the steps leading down where lions and poor gladiators entered into the arena through tunnels- the weight of history lies heavy, yet treading in the steps of the ancients is for me, always a powerful experience.
A Meal At Scui Scui
Once back home we set off to lunch a second time at Scui Scui -Neapolitan dialect, though used all over Italy, for freshly prepared food. The owner is originally from Naples. This is a tiny restaurant that the very round Teresa, a real character, runs single- handed. Her four -week old puppy sleeps in a basket next to her desk as she tells the stray cat that she will have fish scraps to give him. She explains that she refuses to hire people, as she cannot afford to pay a decent salary. Quite rightly, she prides herself on her fresh non-fatty food advertised thus: Si mange bene senza ingrassare (you eat well without getting fat)…one wonders whose food she then is eating, dear woman! A brilliant cook, she jokes that she wants us to find her an Australian husband! The tiny place has only four tables, set out in the narrow laneway under colourful umbrellas only meters from the small road that circumnavigates the island. She greets us warmly and now I learn that the Sirocco is here today hence the heat and humidity. Exotic flavours of Africa and the Sirocco bring back school geography lessons.
Today’s feast- I choose a typical Sicilian salad of sliced blood orange sprinkled with chilli flakes and chopped spring onion-delicious. Jon has bread with tiny fresh tomatoes, basil leaves and fresh mozzarella, followed by a very unusual lasagne, which he reports, is sensational. I have polpette bianche, white bait fritters mixed with Parmesan – delicious.
It’s our last night here in Sicily so ,overlooking the marina full of huge private luxury boats, we share another fantastic gelato – the chocolate half for Jon (dark, rich like chocolate mousse), while I eat the frutti di bosco, mixed berries. Three such boats have been anchored here for some time, owned by Russian oligarchs! We leave the pale, still-warm, sunny waterfront around 7pm to pack in readiness for Firenze tomorrow, by plane via Rome. I know it will be wonderful. Jon has never been there and has not been there since I lived in Italy aged twenty-two but I feel sad to leave the south and the sea.
Our Charming Apartment: Florence/Firenze, May 14
Only in Italy is the airport full of eateries with people standing or sitting at the bar or at seated at tables eating delicious food or panini or any one of a large variety of delicious breads with great cheeses, salamis, meats, or salads, drinking a good glass of wine and looking a million dollars! The Sirocco well behind us, we arrive in some 18-20 degrees and as the taxi winds toward the old centre a few km away, my heart sinks just a little….back to a city-no more buildings and piazzas of gleaming, light-reflecting limestone. Everything looks at once darkish and a little grimy.
Our little apartment is on the 2nd floor of an old four-storey building with heavy carved wooden doors directly off the street followed by wrought iron gates a few meters into the vestibule. We go up by lift or stairs, down a corridor, through another wrought iron gate and finally a heavy timber door to the apartment. Each door and gate has a key, though so far none has been locked. The apartment door has four locks on it. This should tell us something! It is a light-filled charmer with a loft bed above the living area and a warm blue feature wall behind the bed. Below, a pull-out couch-bed with a faded fresco-blue feature wall, comfy armchair, large round white table, cute decor, light terrazzo flooring, all brightly lit by two windows facing out over a minute balcony with tiny white table, two chairs and still more potted plants. It overlooks an open car park area surrounded by huge trees and beautiful, Florentine ochre-coloured buildings as in a Renaissance painting! The walls of the tiny bathroom are tiled in bright orange, the floor with warm yellow tiles-curiously, the same colours as my 1970 London kitchen yet somehow fun and idiosyncratic. The minute kitchen, with its own bright window and same view as the living room, features blues again. The living room sports some quirky 1940’s cabinets.
After unpacking and settling in, we venture out, well rugged up for a windy 15 degrees. The apartment is a two- minute walk from the fabulous, gigantic and so-famous Duomo just at the end of our street. Stepping into the street, half the gigantic dome of the Duomo fills the entire end of the street. We pass leather shops full of stylish, colourful handbags, backpacks & satchels as we walk round the base of the Duomo with its awe-inspiring warm orange brick dome, its soaring walls of white, green and pinkish marble, ending up at Eataly, one of the recommended eating-places. This is a new concept, something unique -a combo of upmarket, organic supermarket and stool-at-bar eating in four sections-carne(meat), pesce (fish), pizza and pasta or tables upstairs with the same menu. All the staff is young and hip, the four section chefs are all men. Very enjoyable meal in interesting though not at all traditional environment. An experience!
Ah! The Duomo, The Vistas, The Delight: Florence, May 15
We set off to the nearby food market housed in an enormous and beautiful light-filled two- storey building. We stock up on fabulous bread, eggs, delicious sausages, mixed salad greens, tiny sweet tomatoes, salami, and stracchino and that favourite cheese. I spot the cantaloupe, give it the smell test and comment to the fruiterer that it has no fragrance. Knowing better than I, he cuts one open and gives me a sample taste. It is absolutely delicious so we buy one. We LOVE the markets and enjoy cooking at home, both tiring of eating out too much.
Then some serious looking about.
Piazza San Giovanni is home to the Duomo, otherwise known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (of the flowers) which stands on the site of an early Christian basilica the ruins of which are visible in the crypt of the cathedral. Together with the Baptistery of San Giovanni, it was the centre of Florence’s religious life for 1600 years. The octagonal Baptistery, with its vast domed space not unlike the Pantheon in Rome, was a Pagan temple erected round 5th C AD, reconstructed on a larger scale mid 11th century when Florence broke free from the Holy Roman Empire. It was further enlarged in 12th & 13th centuries with a monumental dome covered entirely in sumptuous, Byzantine-influenced gilt mosaics depicting biblical stories. The floor is of Islamic influence with geometric inlaid marble. In 14th-16th century, three sets of bronze doors by Ghiberti and Pisano (extraordinarily beautiful cast bronze panels depicting biblical stories) and three magnificent marble sculptures by Donatello were put in place.
The Duomo, one of the most famous religious buildings in the world, was built in the last decades of 13th century as the ancient St Reparata Basilica was crumbling. With a burgeoning population, the city wanted an impressive cathedral to rival Pisa and Sienna, the other great cities of Tuscany at that time. Unlike the giant dome of the baptistery, Vasari and Zuccari covered this huge dome in magnificent frescoes. Truly, these buildings are indescribable-the scale, the vision, and the artworks they hold, the great architects who designed them, all the most famous names of Italian art history abound. The power and magnetism of the Church and the Medici’s together with other rich, powerful families who supported and controlled, is evident.
The Campanile, or bell tower, designed by Giotto, is one of the showpieces of Florentine Gothic architecture. Like the Duomo itself, the 14th and 15th century Florentine masters Donatello, Pisano, and Della Robbia decorated it with inlaid stone, sculptures and reliefs. Many artists, like Giotto, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo gave rise to the term Renaissance man, being painters, sculptors and sometimes architects. I slowly walk four-hundred steps to the top which yields an unforgettable 360 degree vista of this glorious Tuscan city – terracotta tiled roofs, many church domes, verdant villa-dotted hills that surround the city, the complex plan of the city streets, the Arno river, the great museum palace buildings (the Pitti and Uffizzi) and the great city and palace gardens. The greatest dome of all, the Duomo, rises to a height greater than where I stand so far up the hill. I can hardly tear myself away.
And so to a delicious cake and coffee at home before another quick jaunt, this time alone to revel in the huge bronze horse and rider in the square behind us, yet another amazing church, Santissimma Annunziata, with its richly decorated gold ceiling and interior, different again from any others. When I return, Jon has prepared a lovely meal of those great sausages, tiny new potatoes, the freshest asparagus and the cantaloupe that which is the deepest orange and rimmed in astounding green.
A Day Of Many Great Things & Little Friendships: Florence, May 16
Two great things today (at least!) In the Museo del Duomo is one of the great Ghiberti doors, entitled Gates of Paradise, removed from the Baptistery in the 1990’s to clean & conserve, now encased in a giant, temperature- controlled glass box in perpetuity. Combining a goldsmith’s delicacy with a foundry man’s bravura, sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti condensed the Old Testament into ten panels to produce one of the defining masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. He included recent innovations of scientific perspective and played with sculptural illusion by extending some of his figures almost off the panel, while depicting others in low relief. It includes a bald self-portrait and beside him is his father Bartoluccio. Near them, these words LAURENTII CIONIS DE GHIBERTIS MIRA ARTE FABRICATUM (look at the art made).This 550-year-old masterpiece ago utterly overwhelms me, bringing tears to my eyes that remain with me for some time. The second great item is one of four Michelangelo Pieta’s, carved in the middle of the 16th century. This one includes four figures, so strictly should not be called a Pieta. It is also known as The Deposition. Nicodemus, whose face is supposedly modelled on Michelangelo’s, embraces Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary who holds Jesus in her arms. The deep humanity of this work is striking-take away the religious theme and it stands powerfully as a universal statement of loss and grief so deeply moving, tears again!
I pass the market and seek out my fruiterer to thank his for his brilliant cantaloupe of yesterday-he loves this and teases me about my initial hesitation in buying it. In front of the Duomo a young musician plays brilliant classical guitar. It stops me in my tracks. I approach him when he takes short break to learn that he is Polish, trained both there, in Spain and Germany. He has lived in Florence for the last 14 yrs. His CD tucked in my bag, the music leaves me singing all day. I head toward the River Arno but én route am overwhelmed with cultural richness (also by the crowds, though only in key places). In and around the famous Piazza della Signora where the original Michelangelo David stood when I was here forty-five years ago, replicas and many other sculptures have been added. It is not as I remember it. This is an odd experience, which I also have in Rome, trying to make sense of the disjunction between memory and what now stands before me. There are also SO many more tourists than at that time. Still I push on, set to get to the river and into a more natural environment. We need this after Sicily-I really miss that light-filled place, the sea, the fragrance of lemons, and the dazzling white limestone architecture and actually am happier in that environment than in the glory of Firenze full of art and tourists, as is Jon. Nature vs. culture represents a split in my needs/desires yet ultimately, nature has taken precedence hence I/we have lived in nature rather than the city for the last forty years. Having said that, I look forward with the greatest pleasure to the Uffizi tomorrow.
Here it is. What a sight. The great river, lined on each side with wonderful buildings, surrounded by hills and greenery and my heart sings a different tune. Maybe it will burst with so much beauty! Over the bridge, I see signs to Piazalle Michelangelo. Away from the crowds, along the river in glorious sun, up a couple of little streets and I am climbing up steeply. Tuscan villas climb the hills too and I look back over the river and the old city. Along with others, I follow a broad flight of and come to the Rose Garden, a tiered garden/park. In it are sculptures by a contemporary Belgian artist and plantings of roses and green lawns upon which young couples and others loll in the sun. The fragrance of lemon trees in huge tubs fills the air. Higher still, I wend my way through small paths and arrive at the Piazzale Michelangelo, accompanied by large numbers of people and tour buses but as it is a huge area, it isn’t congested. The view is considered the best in Florence other than, of course, those from the Camponile or Duomo
I’m after a moderately priced wine and I ask the man in our small neighbouring supermarket for a recommendation to accompany the chicken and asparagus dinner we have planned. He suggests a €5 2013 Tuscan red which is unbelievably fine. Jon uses some of it in the chicken, which makes for a great dish. Tomorrow I will thank signor for this recommendation. Thus we easily make little ‘friendships’ wherever we are, I get to practise my Italian and it makes us feel ‘at home’.
The Medicis & A Wily Roma: Florence, Italy, May 16
The magic of street artists and musicians pervades the city and I pass several as we make our way to the overcrowded 14th century Piazza Signoria, assembly point for the citizens of Florence. Here the original Michelangelo David stood, now a replica but extraordinary nonetheless, as are the other famous sculptures – a bronze equestrian statue, The Rape of the Sabines commissioned by Cosimo de Medici in the late 16th century, the Neptune fountain and more. But it is all a bit overwhelming and overcrowded so we push on heading for the Boboli Gardens, crossing the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest and most famous bridge in Florence built in 1345 where once stood a Roman bridge. On the bridge are many beautiful jewellery shops but the crowds are off-putting. Unfortunately, a pick pocketing incident mars the day. We are usually so careful but road works near the bridge cause a bottleneck along the narrow footpath so we walk in single file. Jon carries the small day pack on his back. I look up and suddenly notice the side pocket is wide open! We panic, stop and examine it to find money and travel card are missing. I ask Jon whether he was aware of anything which prompts a subliminal memory of being pushed in the crowd and then noticing young Roma woman ahead of him, probably the culprit and very skilful! We don’t even consider reporting it to the police, perhaps a mistake, we of little faith, but later hear it would have taken many hours and almost certainly borne no results. We decide to deal with this later, so push on to the gardens and a small museum of porcelain ware.
We return to a trying time-our Airbnb owner is less than helpful as we phone Australia to cancel our stolen card and we have problems getting the backup card to function. It leaves a bit of a bad taste and sadly, we now feel less sympathetic to the bunch of Roma folk who sleep on the ground outside the university gates behind our apartment building. A new day tomorrow and I am off to the Uffizzi museum, which had such a profound influence on me as a young twenty-two-year old living in Italy. It was then that I fell in love with all things Byzantine.
Stylish Florence & La Passeggiata: Florence, May 17
I set out, inadvisably on a Saturday, for the great Uffizi Gallery with my pre-booked entry ticket (first time I have ever done this). I have to detour around a block near the Duomo as the density of the crowd is literally impenetrable- glad Jon isn’t with me- he would have spit the dummy! Fwittt! The dummy flies…after only a ten- minute queue I am in for the next two and a half hours, about my limit. Interestingly, the things I most love are the same as forty-five years ago when I was here- a few Greek and Roman sculptures, Medieval and early Renaissance works with a few absolute standouts and some gorgeous views through some windows. The crowds are significant and I dive hither and thither against the tide (my nature, I guess) to avoid the worst of it.
I arrive back hungry to tackle the dreaded Travel Card issue, which on first try again doesn’t work, but an hour later success and with it, a lot of anxiety dissolves! As a reward and with appetite returned, we eat out -delicious ricotta-filled ravioli with pesto sauce for a very good pizza and me with mushrooms for Jon, beer and vino. Then a walk along the river in the sun. Summer- is- nigh. We pass three bridges, red and ochre buildings dot the green hills behind, and great old Palazzi (palaces) line the riverbanks. We stop for a beer and Aperol in a small side street before crossing the river and heading back along one of the upmarket streets full of window displays with Florentine panache and irresistible colour-coordination- in the suitcase shop, exclusively muted greens, eggplant, pale blues, greys, burnt orange and white; the glove and tie shop has one window of autumn colours, another of blues and greys; the stationary shop has three window displays, each a different feature colour; a lighting shop is full of extraordinary contemporary design; children’s clothes are mini fashion plates; handbags, ties and belts are all reds, oranges and greens in one display; a specialty iced biscuits shop all pink and pale greens. It’s very gorgeous like that first set of Derwent colour pencils in childhood, a visual feast of another kind. Then people watching. Its late afternoon/early evening, time of La Passeggiata. It’s not just a word. In Italy, it’s an art form. The passeggiata is a time-honoured tradition in which the whole town participates on Sunday evenings and holidays, if not most nights of the week. People usually dress up in their fanciest designer clothing with shoes that are not made for walking in! As evening falls in Italy, everyone comes out onto the main streets of the city, town or village, usually around the main piazza, through the centro storico (old town) or, if by the sea, the lungomare (seafront).The locals walk their dogs, which are permitted, into shops, bars and cafés. In Sicily, they were almost exclusively large dogs with a predominance of Labradors and Golden Retrievers. They remain common here in Florence but there are more small dogs and we have our usual fun observing the match between dogs and their owners! And the Italians with their babies! Adoring parents, friends, uncles and shop assistants cooing che carina (how sweet), cuore mio (my heart), patatino (little potato), cucciolo (little puppy or any baby animal, this expression especially sweet because it touches on the bond between parents and children! I love it. It feels like a mirror of me.
The Far Bank Revisited, Spotting The Thief, More Gorgeous Churches: Florence, May, 19
I take Jonny across the Arno to show him the Rose garden, the stunning Firenze views, and then San Miniato al Monte. Presumed originally Roman, the current church, started around 1020, sits on the Tuscan hills overlooking the Arno and the town. It is considered an outstanding example of Florentine Romanesque architecture with its alternating green and white marble facade (like the Duomo and the Baptistery), inlaid floors of Eastern influence and imposing 13th century mosaics in the apse. Inside, it is decorated with magnificent 14th century frescoes. We then discover a back way down, behind gorgeous villas. We are hungry and, given that it’s Sunday, are fortunate to find the last available seat at a tiny table for two. We enjoy a beautiful lunch of baked ham and Brie on thickly toasted bread, followed by a really different hamburger of bar- b-q’d meat and side greens for Jon, and Carpaccio of beef- thinly sliced raw beef and rocket for me with the usual balsamic and olive oil to add oneself, a beer and lovely glass of wine. All this for same cost as very ordinary meal at Montes, our local at home. First class.
On the way back home as we cross the piazza in front of the Duomo, we spot the young Roma woman we believe stole our stuff. She is doing the rounds asking everyone for money. When we first spot her, she does a 360-degree turn away from us though we sense she has seen us and is avoiding us. Therefore, on my initiative, we deliberately move toward her several times and it becomes patently clear that she is avoiding making eye contact. We are easily recognizable, as we are carrying the same small day pack-rich egg-yolk yellow, none others like it. We are now sure that she is the culprit and is one of those who sleep on the street below our place. I have the thought to take a quick photo of her next time we see her to give her a big fat fright!
Setting out in the late afternoon to the railway station to purchase tickets to Rome for next week, we find ourselves in front of another very famous church, Basilica di Sta Maria Novella (do I hear you groan, like Jon, not another church?). Nonetheless, he joins me inside for a short time and then happily waits outside until I am ready). Huge, remodelled in the second half of the 13th century, green and white marble facade, Gothic interior with masterpieces by Masaccio, a stunning Giotto crucifix of 1200- something, frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi. I prefer seeing these masterpieces in churches rather than in the huge galleries- less overwhelming- though it is impossible, ultimately, to remember much detail or distinguish on from another. However, I refuse to be too bothered by that-some of it remains and certainly an overall sense of different periods of art and architecture and always bits and pieces are retained such that, after forty-five years I still recognize and remember certain things. At least I won’t have to worry if I remember things forty-five years hence! The dark clouds that threaten rain every day dissolve into nothing, and the evening sky at 7.45 pm still casts bright light outside our windows onto the enormous tree in the carpark/square where the gypsies sleep outside the university. A yellow light illuminates the old tiered building to my left behind which puffy clouds, all pinkish and whitish-greys, billow over the terracotta roofs.
A Day Trip To Fiesole & A Charming Street Scene: Florence, May 20
At our age we prefer a leisurely start to the day and make the short walk to the bus stop at 10am. In the five- minute wait for the bus, I notice an interesting looking Asian woman and start a conversation with her. It transpires that she is Chinese and speaks very good English. In fact, she speaks nine Languages! She comes from the Russian border area so speaks four minority group languages plus Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, English and some Spanish. She is here doing her PhD in history and has a very firm handshake. I wish we had more time with her, she was cool and admirable.
We enjoy the ride through a part of the city we don’t know with wider, tree-lined streets still within the old part of Florence. The bus starts the climb, the road winds; tall stone walls line both sides. Large villas with beautiful gardens and many trees sit behind electronically operated gates. The steepness dictates a series of S-bends and the higher we rise the more beautiful the views, now of verdant hillsides studded with villas painted in ochre, burnt red and sienna. The ubiquitous pencil pines, olive groves, some large fig and loquat tress and many more grace the landscape. Twenty minutes later, we arrive at the main piazza of this very small town. There are few people around. Its modest sized Duomo, much to Jon’s delight, is closed. We pass through the small central square, along the narrow main road and soon have unobstructed view away from Florence overlooking hills. We find a bar with a wonderful terrace full of potted geraniums overlooking the view. We have the place to ourselves and enjoy a coffee and morning pastry before continuing up into little side streets, walled and narrow. The gardens of the villas are resplendent with Geraniums, Roses, Jasmine and Pittosporum, so the air is scented. Other than birdsong it is utterly quiet, we barely pass a soul. Peeking into every possible garden, we stop to chat to a woman watering her potted Geraniums, continue steeply up and into yet another little byway. A gorgeous row of houses appears to one side, their gardens full of roses. A couple is walking back and forth from house to garden carrying watering cans. I ask if I might take a photo of their beautiful garden and thus a long conversation ensues. Ten contiguous Tuscan- style houses, all with shutters, were built in 1920 though look the same as the much older ones in the town. Extended families own them. The grandfathers worked as labourers in the nearby stone quarry where Michelangelo, who lived in this area, is said to have obtained his stone, Pietra Serena, when not using Carrara marble. Local legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci did his flight experiments from this very hillside! Yet again, we are walking in the path of the greats!
On a lower terrace veggie gardens and fruit trees, including a cherry tree in full fruit, prosper. A man tending the garden has now entered into our conversation. The woman explains that has a nephew in Melbourne. The man disappears and reappears shortly with a large book in hand, a gift for us! . It is a book he curated of old Fiesole postcards, an incredibly touching and generous offering. In spite of my protests, he won’t shake hands with us as he thinks them too dirty from working in the garden. I am irritated that I am not carrying my calling card to offer in return!
By way of contrast, we find the few people we deal with in the main square rather unfriendly-a waiter, a woman in street we want to ask something of, bus ticket seller-jaded perhaps by tourism though this hasn’t been our common experience at all. Jon observes that such small slights can easily become amplified when travelling in a foreign country. Conversely, a little kindness is amplified, as if ones sensitivities are heightened. In spite of this, it is a delightful day. Back in Florence, we encounter a charming scene. Several people gather in a semi circle by the curb. One woman with a Jack Russell straining on its leash crouches down videoing something with her phone. Looking down we see a tiny mouse up against the curve on a grate. It is munching on something, unconcerned at the dog only a couple of feet away and likewise undaunted by the people surrounding it. How intelligent to realize it was out of reach of the leashed dog. The videoing continues. By now at least ten people have gathered-an old woman and her daughter and several middle-aged women all looking tenderly at the little mouse. Videoing continues. A young macho looking dude arrives, takes one look at the scene, and takes out his phone, face instantly softening…Italians! So warm and tender and upfront about their feelings.
The Tiniest Apartment In Rome Beautiful Rome: May 21
Our fast train from Florence was delayed en route by an hour and unable to contact our next Airbnb ‘host’ , created some anxiety; however he was there to meet us at the apartment. We have never stayed in this part of Rome, on Piazza Torre Argentina, named for its Roman ruin around which the Piazza was subsequently built. It is very central and actually less crowded than the beautiful Trastevere where we stayed three years ago. Our tiny apartment is barely big enough to swing a cat in, really like a dolls house. It has a tiny folding pink metal table and two chairs in one corner, a pullout couch bed and a tiny sink and hot plate in another corner. Again a loft bed under a beautiful vaulted ceiling accessed by very steep stairs. Don’t sit-up in bed or you will hit your noggin! The entry door provides the only light source so it’s rather dark, creating a feeling of dampness. We are spoiled for space and light in Australia and will need to look more carefully at this in future travels. Nonetheless, the location in the cobbled street is wonderful and so is the context of the tiny apartment. A heavy door opens directly off the street onto a covered walkway bringing us into a rectangular courtyard. Higgledy-piggledy three-storey buildings surrounded it on every side. Nothing is symmetrical and it feels quite medieval. There are forty-two letterboxes in the entry area as well as impressive large recycling bins. In the courtyard is an area of greenery with a small tree in the centre. Many bicycles are parked to one side. Dragging our chairs out into the summery sun for a very late bite to eat, I hear a TV soapy softly from one window one floor higher and late, see two older women dressed in black looking at me from one still higher level.
Campo Di Fiori & The Thrill Of Antiquity: Rome, May 22
Our diminutive apartment is a two-minute walk from Campo di Fiori (field of flowers). A famous fruit and vegetable market is held in the rectangular piazza, once fields growing food and flowers. Full of colour, flowers spill from tubs and buckets, fruit and vegetables, exuberant with goodness, are arranged in pyramids or rows, people thronging. An eager crowd surrounds one stall where a man is demonstrating something. Our curiosity draws us. Using a nifty device, coils of fruit roil from his hand and would delight any salad or fruit salad bowl. We are sold on it and purchase one. A quick spin around to buy spinaci and sweet melone from Sicily! Dropping our purchases back home, we set off, unsure where we will actually go, but decide to make it an Ancient Rome day via a sweep along the glorious Tiber in warm weather.
Everything about this city thrills me and Jon seems to be enjoying it much more than three-years ago when he was overwhelmed. In spite of huge numbers of tourists, the city feels open and un- congested, as there are piazzas both large and small everywhere. There is such a quantity of monuments, fountains, sculptures, churches, parks, gardens, and buildings, from the ancient through every age. The great Tiber curves its way through it all. It’s gorgeous but hot and our feet are tired yet we both want to have a good look at the Forum Romanum, the Colosseum and Palatino and it is truly awe-inspiring. The extent of preservation, the scale of the temples, the great triumphal arches with their elaborate carved images, the cisterns, the arenas and villas is astonishing. Sections the ancient city walls are dotted throughout Rome in giant chunks as are many other amazing Roman remains such as the famous baths. The Roman engineering is extraordinary and everything is imposing.
Off to the dentist for Jon’s second stage of root canal job. As I wait for him, I observe the receptionists who are kind and warm and chat uninhibitedly with the (mostly) well-dressed patients. An elegant possible transvestite and now a well-dressed 40-something couple come in bearing dolce (pastries) which all seem to enjoy. It is utterly different from the whispered reserve, indifference or even brusqueness so common at home.
We spend the evening with our Italian friends, Antonella and her 30 yr old nephew Giovanni, old family connections of my mother, whom we got to know three years ago and with whom a close bond was established. We wanted to take them to dinner but had no chance of their accepting –tu sei a Roma! -you are in Rome (hence OUR guests). Antonella drives to a favoured restaurant for a delightful meal and evening. I feel like she is a like a sister, her father and my mother having had a very close bond since they were at university students in Vienna in the late 1920’s and having maintained a loving friendship until his death. I now regret not having made the effort to connect with her when I was living in Rome in the 1960’s. I feel we have missed forty-seven years of friendship and must make up for lost time! We have agreed to keep in touch by phone as unfortunately she doesn’t do email.
Another Year Older: Rome, May 23
It’s my birthday but sadly and our last day in Rome. Also, Jon isn’t up to doing sightseeing by car with Antonella as we had arranged. She takes me to the Protestant cemetery where Keats, Shelley, and the Italian communist leader Grimschi are buried. It is moving to be here and a beautiful spot on a gently sloping hill with perfectly maintained grounds of trees, shrubs and flowers. Next, to Aventina, an upper-class area of villas in ochres and oranges, old churches and convents, an original Roman drinking fount and the gorgeous Giardino Degli Aranci, the Orange Garden. Italian Stone Pines, with their softly rounded shape and dark trunks, line either side of the main path. Perfectly centred in the distance below, I see the dome of St Peters. Antonella is so enjoyable to be with, so smart and full of life and her energy leaves me for dead! I appreciate getting to places I wouldn’t see on my own. I love her company and wish we had more of it. Sadly, that’s it, time’s up! A brief interlude in London en route to the USA
Welcome To Cosmopolitan London: May 25
Last off the plane, donning extra layers of clothes, changing € to £, everything looks weird and unfamiliar! Oh no, we are being crushed with thousands of people on the train to the city, another adjustment. Instead of changing to another line we inadvertently exit and must talk our way back in only to find our required line is closed for repairs! Three changes later, though thankfully everyone has been helpful, we finally make it into our East End hotel more than three hours after touch down! It’s about 14 degrees.
Hotel Ibis, part of a chain, is multi storied, with uniformly excellent, friendly young staff. None is English! We have Italian, Romanian, Hungarian and Polish. Although living in London in the late ’60’s and again early 70’s, the East End is largely unfamiliar to me, a new experience. We go for a bite to eat on the nearby main road, a mix of sophisticated little cafés- Italian, Vietnamese. It is very multicultural and there are many people of colour. The famous Whitechapel Gallery is one minute from our hotel and we see a wonderful retrospective exhibition of a French artist unknown to me, Chris Marker, 1921-2012 (multimedia, filmic, large screen video art, poetic, political, intellectual, and brilliant), Jon simply LOVED it. The predicted cold day grows lovelier and sunnier by the minute reaching 18 degrees. I take a walk alone heading toward the Thames, until I am overlooking the medieval London Tower with its gory history, the river and skyline full of new buildings and high rise splendours. This includes Norman Foster’s 180 m tall skyscraper nicknamed The Gherkin, familiar to me only on TV until now. The river is wide and splendid, the place bulging with people of every conceivable nationality, just pulsing with life. I walk a few blocks more to Bermondsey St, the location of White Cube and other well-regarded contemporary galleries, but being an architecture buff, the nearby Shard, Renzo Piano’s 310-metre skyscraper, distracts me. It is my first real actual sighting of this building too. Heading toward it, I pass a charming little park with decorative gates and beautiful flower plantings that leads through to the embankment and finally arrive. Expensive to go to the top, I find a way to see the view free of charge from the restaurant on the 36th floor. It is a splendid, almost 360 degree view of London, the river winding through and a changed cityscape from the years I lived in this great city in the 1960’s. I suddenly feel that I would like much longer here. Back on the ground, I look up at this extraordinary glass spire and see the sky and clouds reflected in it. One of my favourite architects, it’s another Renzo Piano masterpiece.
We venture out for dinner along the grimy, rough, unattractive main road. Young people line the footpaths in front of pubs, sitting on its edge drinking their beer. We don’t find anywhere of interest to eat until we deviate to Brick Lane which is a vibrant and extraordinary scene. Full of restaurants predominantly Indian and Bangladeshi, it is thronging with people-Africans, Indians, many Muslims, the men wearing their little caps. Some of the women are completely covered. A mosque replaces what was once a synagogue. The area was once home to many Jewish people and a thriving rag trade. Now curry houses and takeaways specializing in sweets predominate. We enjoy a very good Bangladeshi meal as a stream of good-looking young women dressed in traditional Muslim clothing make their way upstairs to a special occasion.
Tate Modern: London, May 26
For years I have looked forward to the day I would be able to see this incredible art museum. We set off enthusiastically on the Underground from East Aldgate, a minute from our very good economy hotel. It’s a cold, grey day so, armed with our brollies, we cross the Thames via the Millennium footbridge. It is brown, energized with its tide. Entry to the Tate is free but quite expensive for the special exhibitions (Matisse’s cutouts and Richard Hamilton). As there is SO much to see in the permanent exhibits, we opt out of these two. The exhibition space within this huge edifice which was formerly a power station, is on four levels and exhibits are divided into subjects: Structure and Clarity ,abstract art since early 20thC encompassing Cubism, Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism; Energy and Process ,the radical 1960’s & 1970’s Italian Arte Povera movement and it’s international context. This includes a room of huge Cy Twombly works; Transformed Visions, post WW11 Abstract Expressionism, the human figure, war and contemplative immersion focussing on some huge and marvellous works of Mark Rothko; Poetry and Dream, Surrealism, a magnificent collection of paintings, sculptures, video works and video interviews with some of the artists. So breathtaking, we wanted to take in as much as possible and more than four hours slipped by. With a coffee break and sitting quietly watching some of the videos we managed to cover most of each floor at our separate and respective pace without losing one another! It was packed with people and we hear many different languages being spoken including lots of Italian!
On leaving, we stop at Blackfriars pub, a tiny narrow building on a corner opposite the Underground. Built in 1875 on the site of a Dominican monastery dating from 1276, was also the site of the divorce hearing in 1529 of Catherine of Aragon and Henry V111. A charming Art nouveau interior and, as everywhere here, friendly and polite people. Must say the English seem to go out of their way to be gracious and helpful. What a great day! After a break at our hotel, we head to Brick Lane to try a Halal restaurant we had observed the night before packed with Bangladeshis. Upon entering, we are barely acknowledged and, after sitting for some minutes without any attention, we feel irritated and unwelcome and choose to leave. Instead, we eat in a Bangladeshi restaurant, with the standard performance of being enticed off the street with offers of a free drink and various extras. The service was friendly and the meal delicious – pappadams with condiments followed by an excellent meat thali , a vegetable thali, two different breads, rice, free beer and glass of wine , all for $22 pp. Nice to get good value because London IS expensive. We rolled our way home!
And here’s one for all our Ozzie Mates! May 27
God save Australia…Tony Abbott asks the Queen, Your Majesty, how do you run such an efficient government? Are there any tips you can give me? Well, said the Queen, the most important thing is to surround yourself with intelligent people. Abbott then asked, But how do I know if the people around me are really intelligent? The Queen took a sip of champagne. Oh, that’s easy; you just ask them to answer an intelligent riddle, watch. The Queen pushed a button on her intercom. Please send Prince Charles in here, would you? Prince Charles walked into the room and said, Yes, Mummy? The Queen smiled and said, Answer me this please Charlie. Your mother and father have a child. It is not your brother and it is not your sister. Who is it? Without pausing for a moment, Prince Charles answered, That would be me. Yes! Very good, said the Queen. Tony Abbott went back home to Australia by Qantas. He decided to ask Joe Hockey the same question. Joe, answer this for me. Your mother and your father have a child. It’s not your brother and it’s not your sister. Who is it? I’m not sure, said Hockey, let me get back to you on that one. He went to his advisors and asked everyone, but none could give him an answer. Frustrated, Hockey went to the toilet, and found Clive Palmer there. Joe Hockey went up to him and asked, Hey Clive, see if you can answer this question. Shoot Joe. Your mother and father have a child and it’s not your brother or your sister. Who is it? Clive Palmer answered, That’s easy, it’s me! Joe Hockey grinned, and said, Good answer Clive, I see it all now! Joe Hockey then, went back to find Tony Abbott. Tony, I did some research, and I have the answer to that riddle. It’s Clive Palmer. Tony Abbott got up, stomped over to Joe Hockey, and angrily yelled into his face, No! You bloody idiot! It’s Prince Charles!
.. . . AND THAT MY FRIENDS IS PRECISELY WHAT’S GOING ON IN CANBERRA