Palermo -Sicily’s Chaotic Capital

Palermo is like nowhere else in Europe.  It’s a crazy, chaotic, crumbling city with a vibrant life that has led it to defy the Mafia, the last in a line of exploiters bent on conquering and subduing the spirit of its people.  Every neighbouring power at one time or another. has occupied this island that lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with the result that it offers the visitor a heady mixture of aromatic Arabic food served in tiled restaurants that hark back to Spanish invaders, and stunning architecture and artefacts from Greek and Norman periods.  All this in streets lined with crumbling buildings, visual proof of the Italian Government’s neglect of a region for which it seems to have no respect.


View from the Cathedral by Solange Hando

We all think we know Palermo from years of watching films like The Godfather (in all its parts), and Scarface, but the films have never shown the beauty of the baroque palaces, the marble statues that are public art, the beauty of the bay at sunset and the tranquillity of the surrounding countryside.


Outdoor Art in Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson

The façade of the Teatro Massimo, the magnificence of the Cathedrale at Monreale, five miles south of the city, with its fabulous mosaics brought to Sicily from Byzantium, and the hidden beauties of the marble Serpotto Cherubs in the Oratorio del Santissimo Rosario, are Palermo at its best.  At its worst are the alleys strewn with litter, the almost feral children that chase each other around the stalls in the markets, itinerant sellers of silver jewellery and leather belts who accost you at tourist spots, and neighbourhoods filled with ghosts.


Teatro Massimo In Piazza Verdi, Palermo – Photo Mari Nicholson

Italy in the raw is on every Rococo street corner, the Italy of Andrea Camilleri’s  Inspector Montalbano (he operates in a different region of Sicily but the sense of his world is here).  Stand in the Piazza Verdi opposite the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third largest opera house, and look towards the steps of the theatre on which the final scene of The Godfather III took place, and I defy you not to hear the swelling music of Cavalleria Rusticana and hear the howl of anguish from Al Pacino as his beloved daughter died in his arms.

But it is in its streets that the real Palermo, and Sicily, is revealed and in its boisterous street markets with their mixture of fresh food, dusty shoes and lurid outerwear vying for your attention with the fast-food stall, the fresh orange-juice seller and the suspect ‘antiques’.  Crumbling baroque facades look down on this carnival of life which attracts the rich and poor of the city.


The Orange Juice Seller, Palermo, Sicily  –  Photo by Mari

Despite advances made by the justice system and the reverence in which Giovanne Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are held (the two Judges gunned down by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992) the honoured society is still a reality in Palermo.  Its presence is a burden the Sicilians have had to bear for many years because few were prepared to defy the demands of the organised crime ring and, let’s face it, it dispensed a type of justice, the only sort on which the poor could rely.


Herb Stall in Palermo Market, Sicily – Photo by Mari Nicholson

Yet by the end of the 20th century and as a result of the assassination of the two popular judges, the Sicilians began to challenge the status quo.  Led by Rita Borsellino, sister of the assassinated judge, a native of Palermo and anti-Mafia activist,  an anti-Mafia movement, Libera, was formed.  Now another movement called Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to protection payments’ is operating but this movement is trying to involve tourists for the good of the city.

Addiopizzo was founded in 1994 by a few young restaurateurs who had a vision of  a Sicily where the Mafia did not control all sectors of the economy and where businesses of all sizes could keep 100% of their profits.

This organisation has now moved into offering anti-Mafia tours and accommodation and lists of bars and restaurants are available where it is guaranteed that the owners are  refusing to pay protection money.  Addiopizzo offers walking and cycling tours, car hire and accommodation, and can even arrange a tour to Corleone.

Addiopizzo could be the saviour of Palermo and the means by which the people’s pride and their strength to resist the corruption which has ruined their city, could be resurrected.  I personally, can highly recommend all their tours and the walk around Palermo is truly an eye-opener.

In the midst of the chaos, the crumbling architecture, the fading grandeur and beauty of its palaces and mansions, the city has a vibrancy not felt in any other city in Italy.  It has a life of its own, a language of its own, and it has art spilling out on to the streets.  Go see for yourself, and when you’re there, do support ADDIO PIZZO.


The Ubiquitous Scooter – Photo by Mari Nicholson



An article in The Guardian (UK) a few days ago alerted me to the fact that the world’s biggest fish market is about to close.   This is the Tsukiji wholesale Market in Tokyo where Japan’s obsession with seafood is transformed into an operation worth almost 2 billion Yen a day (about £15.5 million).

But Tokyo’s new governor, Yuiko Koike put a halt to the move to the new premises in Toyosu, about a mile south along Tokyo Bay, as rumours have arisen that the new site, built at a cost of Y588 billion, is contaminated with dangerous toxins.


Let’s get the stats. out of the way fist.  The current site handles more than 400 varieties of seafood a day and sells nearly 300 varieties of fruit at stalls around the periphery.  Approximately 200,000 vehicles pass through its gates every day and it is estimated that about 60,000 people depend on the market for their livelihood.  Those are the numbers that put the market at No. 1.

The auctions at Tsukiji start at dawn and by the time they have ended, hundreds of thousands of tuna, prawns, lobsters, crayfish, octopus and squid, will have passed through the market on their way to fish stalls and restaurant around the country and beyond.  The Japanese eat more fish per head than any other developed country, about 27 kg. compared with the global average of 19 kg. and they consume 80% of the bluefin tuna caught.

When I went there I was struck by how this very old market was equipped with the most modern technology on the floor, from the automatic carts and floats that buzzed around to the ice-making machines, and how huge blocks of ice were loaded into a hopper which then disgorged crushed ice to be rushed along to the dispatching area to be packed around the fish.

Like the London markets which were forced to leave their hallowed premises, the Tokyo move to new premises is acknowledged as necessary.  At the same time, it is recognised that something is always lost when atmosphere and charm are swapped for modernity and clean lines.

Although the outer market is being spared – good news for the thousands of tourists who flock here for the most refreshing sushi breakfast in Japan – for the thousands of people with an emotional attachment to the Tsukdji Market, the city planners are ripping the heart out of Japan’s food tradition.

The jury is still out on the move.  We must wait and see.


Below, a slideshow of some of the photographs I took inside the market. They are not pretty, but then this isn’t a retail market, it’s a very busy wholesale market where the fish are inspected, bought and shipped out within an hour.  The knives were in a shop that sold only fish knives like these: I feel sure I could gut a fish if I had one of these, but then I’d have to close my eyes as I’m squeamish and I might cut off a finger!

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Essential Thai – Mai Pen Rai

Foreigners (farangs) are not especially known for their linguistic  abilities in Thailand, perhaps because the Thai language is tonal which makes it more difficult to learn.   Words may be pronounced in five tones which can give five different meanings, a high, a low, a rising, a falling, and a level tone.

There is, however, one phrase that everyone soon learns even if the tone in which it is spoken is often wrong –  Mai pen rai.  You will hear this used every day in many different circumstances and will soon begin to use it yourself.  I used to have a tee-shirt emblazoned with the phrase Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mine – the misspelling of the last word in the translation being excused by the tee-shirt seller himself with the words ‘Mai pen rai’. ‘Never mind.  It doesn’t matter?’


Mai pen rai cannot be literally translated: ‘not is what’ would be more or less the literal meaning but what it really means is ‘Never mind’ or ‘Don’t worry’, or ‘You’ve broken my foot but it’s OK” or one of those meaningless phrases we use in daily life to avoid embarrassment.   In Thailand, it’s always accompanied with a smile.

You tread on someone’s sandalled foot and as the damaged one limps away you will probably hear  ‘ Mai pen rai’ – it doesn’t matter.  You spill red wine on someone’s white shirt, ‘Mai pen rai’ – no problem.  The waiter spills soup down the back of your neck, ‘Mai pen rai’ – it wasn’t hot you say, as your skin starts to blister.

It can also mean ‘tomorrow’.  ‘I’m sorry I cannot meet you tonight’.  Mai pen rai (I’m in no hurry).  Your partner has left you?  Mai pen rai – plenty more fish in the sea.


This cover-all phrase is linked to the Thai character and their belief in ‘karma’ and the inevitable consequences of a past life.  It is also linked to their dislike of confrontation and the wish to not upset anyone.  The Thais will invariably tell you what you want to hear, not what is true, as in ‘Is it far to Bangkok?’:  answer  ‘No, just a little bit further down the road’, i.e. two hours drive away.   And this isn’t far removed from embarrassment which is also tied to losing face.  You lose face if you argue, you lose face if you are confrontational, so a Mai pen rai is always better.

If, when on holiday in Thailand, the waiter gets your order wrong then merely smiles at your anger and says Mai pen rai, it’s not that he is uncaring, it’s the Thai way of turning away wrath.   If he doesn’t even come back with your order it could be that you weren’t understood and rather than embarrass you, he has ignored you.

In that case, just say Mai pen rai, and order again – with a smile.


The Japanese Doll Studio

It was the window full of beautiful dolls dressed in exquisite kimonos that stopped me in my tracks as we strolled along Sanjyo Avenue, an area with many Meiji and Taisho-era buildings in Kyoto, former Imperial capital of Japan. This is a city where traditional arts and crafts flourish, where the scent of green tea drifts from the many long-established tea shops, and where it is customary to hire a kimono in which to stroll around and even to have matching make-up applied.


Lured into the shop, Doll Studio Tomo, by the window display, we found a veritable heaven full of dolls, each one exquisitely dressed in costumes made from antique kimonos, each with a slightly different facial expression and posture. The dolls are the product of carefully selected materials and technical skills and have the faces, forms and postures of young children, projecting the image of an ideal child.  These are not dolls for children, but ‘collectables’ for very sophisticated grown-ups.


Speaking to the proprietor of Studio Tomo, a member of the family that has been making these dolls since 1983, he explained that the dolls, which measure 26cm – 64cm, are the product of the maker’s awareness of the feelings of those who will look at them and enjoy them in their everyday lives, or as we would say, someone who knows his customers.


The uniquely patterned costumes of these traditional Japanese dolls are made of priceless antique kimono fabric dating from the late Edo period (1600-1867) to the early Showa era (1926-1989).  The heads and bodies are made of pulverised seashells combined with a heated natural glue, which is poured into moulds until it hardens.  After this, the moulds are removed, the parts are polished with soft cloths, and the eyes, mouth, and other features are individually incised with a chisel.


The eyes are made in the same way as artificial human eyes, then they are fixed in position to give the dolls a slightly shy, downturned glance.  The hair should sway naturally, so Tomo Studio is as careful in its selection of hair as it is in all other aspects of doll-making and the hair moves so that it evokes the image of the child doll.


The costumes for all Tomo dolls are made from antique fabric. According to my research into the subject, Masako Morishige, who produces the dolls’ clothes, says that

“the history of these textiles goes back as far as the Momoyama period (1568-1600). Most of the dyed and woven cloth for the kimonos was made from the later Edo period to the early Showa era. The vivid reds and purples that are striking even in a dim exhibition hall cannot be produced by modern industrial methods. The patterns and design of traditional kimonos are reworked into fresh new creations. Valuable silk crepe from the Edo period and examples of Yuzen dyeing are also used”.


Antique kimonos sell for huge sums, and £10,000 is nothing to spend on a garment, hence the high price of the dolls.  Alongside one of the dolls photographed above, is the price of 850,000 Yen and this is fairly average. The costumes are made from the undamaged parts that can be cut without ruining the original embroidery and the patterns in the cloth, a skill that demands artistic insight and an ability to be able to see the completed figure. Nothing is wasted, tiny pieces left over are used to make accessories.


Doll Studio Tomo occasionally has exhibitions outside Japan (they were in London in 2015). Contact the Japanese National Tourism Board to enquire as to when they may be in your area.

Doll Studio Tomo Gallery, First Floor, SACRA Building, 20 Nakanomachi Saniyo Tominokouji, Nakagyoku, Kyoto, Japan 604-8083

Tel: +81 (0)75 211 5914

Krka National Park, Croatia

One of the loveliest areas in Dalmatia is the Krka National Park which can be easily reached from either Split or Dubrovnik and all towns in between.  Named after the river of the same name, the Park covers an area of over 142 square km and includes two-thirds of the river itself and it lies about 10km from the pretty town of Sibenik.


Rushing Waters in the Krka Valley

© Mari Nicholson

Most people go there to see the magnificent waterfalls, but it deserves a visit for the feeling of peace and tranquility one finds walking through the exceptional wealth of flora and fauna – to date over 1020 plant species and subspecies have been recorded in the park area, including amphibians, reptiles and endemic fish species – listening to the birdsong and relishing the aromas from the pine trees, the wild herbs and the flowers (especially the lavender).  Due to the river’s exceptional importance for the spring and autumn bird migrations. this is also one of Europe’s foremost ornithological areas: 800 different species have been identified.


Carpet of wild cyclamen in Krka Valley

© Mari Nicholson

Without doubt however, the top attractions of the Park are the waterfalls, especially the famous Skradinski Buk Falls which are one of Croatia’s most famous sights. This is a collection of 17 waterfalls that range in height from over 45 metres.  The Roski Slap is another famous fall within the park, actually a series of 12 waterfalls in a space of just 450 metres.


Reflections in a Tranquil Pond on the Krka River

© Mari Nicholson

There is a boardwalk throughout the park which makes traversing the paths fairly easy and although it may pose a problem for those who find difficulty walking, or need help, there are always people around ready to lend a hand.  There are also railings to help guide those less nimble on their feet.


Fish enjoy the waters of the tranquil ponds in Krka River

© Mari Nicholson

There is a well laid out picnic area with seating, and surrounding this area are kiosks selling food and ice-cream, tea and coffee, and souvenirs.  From here you can take a boat excursion which affords an opportunity to relax and ‘listen to the silence’.  Some of the boats include stop-offs which give a chance to wander on footpaths along the water before hopping back on at the next stop.

Looking down on Town and Swimming area on the Krka River-

© Mari Nicholson

Best of all though, unlike the Plitvice Lakes National Park, swimming is allowed at Krka River in designated places (under the main falls and by the picnic area).  The stunning vista of the falls and the thunder of the water as it pours down drowns out the excited shouts of adults and children swimming in the lake formed beneath the waterfall and revelling in the unique experience of swimming in such a fantastic spot.


Swimming under the Waterfalls at Krka Valley Waterfalls.

© Mari Nicholson


Glorious Turquoise Waters of the Krka River

© Mari Nicholson

Getting to Krka National Park:

From Split Bus Station take one of the many daily buses to Sibenik (journey time about 1 hour 40 minutes), then from Sibenik  take a bus to Skradin, a town just outside the park.

If you’re travelling from elsewhere in Croatia, likewise make your way to Sibenik first and then travel on to Skradin and Krka National Park.  There are organised excursions to Krka from many towns in Dalmatia, details from a local travel agency.

You can also embark on an organised excursion to Krka from many towns in Dalmatia – enquire at a local travel agency for details.


Fish in the river Krka

© Mari Nicholson