How I wish I could grow my favourite herb in such quantities. This is truly Mediterranean, typical of a market-stall where the buyers could fill a plastic bag full of the glorious smelling origano for a Euro or two.
When people ask me what my favourite place in Sicily is, I give the name of the last one I visited, because each time I go there, Sicily works her magic on me and I fall in love again with the people, the scenery, the ambiance of wherever I happen to be. Last time it was Cefalù, the medieval town lying just an hour’s drive east of Palermo and located between its own natural bay and the towering rocky granite mass called La Rocca.
I had thought of Cefalù as a touristy town as it seemed to feature in most of the holiday brochures but when I first walked down its winding medieval main street flanked with an array of little shops from artisan bakers and designer boutiques to a beautifully tiled pharmacy complete with ancient fittings, I realised how wrong I’d been. In between the shops are family-run restaurants serving the freshest of fish and local delicacies, and its unique Norman cathedral is right on the street, although set a little way back, its place in the life of the town assured. Doubly so, as there is a bar and a gelateria on the corner!
Cefalù’s origins go back to the Carthegenians. It was then colonised by the Greeks (the name derives from the ancient Greek word for “Cape”) but the town we see today was built at the behest of the Norman King, Roger II.
The building of the two-towered Cathedral began in 1131 and is a fine example of what is termed “Sicilian Romanesque”. There is an exquisite mosaic of Christ Pantocrator on a gold background above the altar, created by twelfth-century Byzantine artists which is twinned with the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the Duomo in Monreale. If there is a chance to see all three on a trip do take advantage of this, because seeing the trio of mosaics enhances one’s appreciation of each one.
Towering above the Duomo and the town centre is La Rocca, a massive crag which presents an interesting challenge to walkers in the hot summer months. The steep ascent winds up ancient, well worn steps and footpaths but it is well worth the effort to reach the top. A bottle of water is essential. Don’t even attempt the climb in very hot weather,
It is an old Saracen stronghold and near the top there are the remains of a megalithic Temple of Diana which dates back to Sicanian-Greek times (the Sicans were one of the native peoples of Sicily, and Diana, of course, is a Latin name for the Greek goddess Artemis). Left to decay over time only parts of the fortress survive – fragments of several small castles and a vast medieval wall encircling the mountain. The crenelated ‘castle’ at the summit is a recent, but faithful, reconstruction and beyond the temple, the mountain is wooded with pine trees and a few indigenous shrubs.
As well as the ruins of the temple, the climb is worth the effort for the truly spectacular views of the cathedral, town and coast. Red roofed houses and the ochre and yellow walls of the town are gilded by the sun and on the dark sapphire of the sea tiny white sail boats are bobbing.
The harbour area with it narrow alleys and medieval buildings is a picturesque spot. Unlike most of the fishing villages that dot Sicily’s coast, Cefalù had a great and grand past – important enough for Roger II to build a cathedral here. Worth seeing are the Saracen wash-house, the Lavatorio, and the Osterio Magno originally thought to have been King Roger’s residence but which now houses art exhibitions.
During the morning the fishermen sit on the quayside by their upturned boats, repairing their nets or getting ready to take to sea again, happy to exchange banter with the curious tourists who are fascinated by the method of net-mending. If it is not a school-day there will be children playing among the ropes of blue and orange and dogs and the occasional brave cat will chase each other around the lobster pots.
While its later history was less distinguished, there is still an indefinable air of something important about this harbour. The beach is indifferent but its position, and views of stunning sunsets through archways in the walls make it a magnet for people at night, to walk along the rocky path that winds along the shore below the sea-facing walls and to drink coffee or wine in dusky bars that hug the waterfront.
Around Cefalù, places of interest include a hillside pilgrimage destination, the Sanctuary of Gibilmanna, and directly south of Cefalù is the Madonie National Park (my own favourite) where holiday-makers will find skiing in winter and hiking in spring and autumn. The pictuesque town of Castelbuono in the park makes a pleasant day out whether you take a taxi or a bus (a 40 minute journey departing from Cefalù railway station), Palermo is just an hour away by train, and the Aeolian Islands can be reached by hydrofoil in the summer, including Volcano Island with its still live volcano (best seen at night if you have time).
Sicilian cooking has a reputation second to none but those with a nut allergy should be careful. Sicilians really love pistachios. They eat these green nuts wherever possible and will even smear pistachio paste from a jar on a slice of panettone. They sprinkle them over pastries, create wonderful ice cream with them and make pasta sauce with them. Pasta with prawns, tomatoes and pistachio has to be eaten to be believed – it’s fabulous. And while pistachio ice cream is not unknown to us in Europe or the USA, that in Sicily has a flavour so intense that most people after the first one, ask for ‘a large one’ next time.
And Cefalu also has beaches. Most beaches have a charge for chairs and umbrellas but along with this you get clean sands and well behaved people, sunshine, sea, boat rides, and often a cafe. What more could the seeker after a hedonistic holiday ask for?
They must have run out of plaques when they erected this sitting man statue on the walls in Salamanca but a student told me it was the writer Unomuno. It’s not shown among the 20 most famous statues in that city of many statues, but I loved it.
Lock down helps remind us of old friends. It also reminds me of when I used to send and receive a lot of postcards, and I remembered also the blog I wrote some years ago. Maybe now is the time to re-blog (and as it’s such a lovely day I can relax outdoors without feeling I should get on with sorting out my photographs for a new blog)!
Today I got a postcard from abroad! So what? you may think.
So absolutely fantastic that I did an impromptu jig in the hallway when I picked it up before reverently placing it in a prominent position so that I could look at it and admire it for a few more days.
Do you remember how exciting it was to receive a postcard in the days when people sent you postcards? Those mountain views, seascapes, hotels with the X placed just where the sender’s room was? The whiff of abroad that unsettled you as you sweltered in a stuffy office or maybe dreamed in your kitchen or garage as the evenings grew shorter and the winter light faded? You remember it now?
Next time you’re away from home, put away your smartphone, pack up the tablet, venture out and into the touristy gift shops and…
Day something in the great lock down and my place is tidier than a monk’s cell so while I’m thinking of what past travels to write about, I’m sorting half a lifetime’s accumulation of trivia, travel books, cards and pamphlets kept from the last great tidying session when I downsized six years ago. It’s been hard, but hey, I’ve managed to throw out two books, and at least five pamphlets I’ll never read again and I have put some of the postcards aside to send to friends! The rest will have to stay put until the next national crisis. More I cannot do!
So here are just a few pictures that remind me of happy times.
Sifting through my memory box I relive and recall trips which have slipped to the back of my mind. These in turn encourage me to look out photographs, some prints, some transparencies which I must get down to converting to digital images one of these days. Black and white prints, slides, then coloured prints and finally digital prints and computer discs. And then there are the old family photos and my husbands wartime photos in Burma to be sorted through one day.
It was the early sixties when we discovered a little village called Castel de Ferro when the son of the owner of the only hotel there jumped out in front of our car to stop us and invite us in to see the new swimming pool. Those were innocent days when we politely stopped and they actually thought it was a good way to get tourists to stay with them.
And stay we did, for two weeks or so, during which time the local boy-goatherds followed me around wherever I went. They had never seen a ‘foreigner’ before and when my husband took them all for a ride in the green Austin van we had in those days, their giddy pleasure knew no bounds. We spent many hours with them and we’d supply a picnic as they were on the mountains from dawn till dusk with only a few scraps to eat, caring for the skinny goats. On the day we left all the little boys were crying and it near broke my heart.
Spain opened to tourism sometime in the fifties, and those of us who went then were greeted with warmth and friendliness. Franco had kept Spain out of World War Two (it was a broken country after the Civil War 1936-39 anyway) but as he leaned heavily towards the Axis’ powers help was not forthcoming to re-structure the country. Until the advent of the Cold War and the West’s fear of Russia that is, when the need for strategic military basis and airports ushered in the Marshall Plan, and Spain, along with other countries in Europe received aid, mainly from the USA, which helped it get back on its feet again.
It took a long time though, for the infrastructure to get into place. For many years the roads throughout Spain bore the chalked message “Franco, Mas Arboles, Mas Agua, Mas Carreteras” (more trees, more water, more roads). Not only were the existing roads in dire states but there were few of them. The above photo of the car breakdown took place on the main road between Valencia and Granada. Our car hit a rock or stone in the middle of the road and combined with driving on many untarmacked roads throughout our trip, it brought us to a halt. Local farm-workers helped move it and we managed to limp on until we came to a repair shop/garage.
Nowadays Spain has some of the best roads in Europe.
The photo of Benidorm is of the town before it became the biggest thing in tourism and the Avenida Hotel (still there) was one of only a handful in 1959. We stayed there in a room where our balcony looked on to the open air cinema which showed mainly very old, heavily censored films, but with a cheap bottle of wine and some nibbles to enjoy, it made for a fun night. I say ‘night’ because the cinema didn’t start until midnight or later – no-one worried about the possibility of people not being able to sleep. You either slept or you went to the cinema. What? You want another option?
I think I’d better stop there as the post is getting too long. I’ve still got a bunch of photographs on the computer which I hope to downsize and caption and I’ll put a few more up after I’ve tussled with the garden where the weeds are in a defiant mood. I’ve got to get them under control before they master me.