You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.
I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland. The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses). The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.
To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.
Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.
Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.
The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily. I hope it happens soon.
Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.
A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.
It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days. It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater. This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.
During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit. Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière, frequently made Pézanas his base.
The famous playwright toured with a troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son. In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.
At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends. Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.
As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th century. It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem. Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl. (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).
Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving. New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.
The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.
The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners. You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building. Details herewith.
The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break. Adults €6: children €4: families €15
Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc
Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels. I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.
And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.
The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.
Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art. Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed. The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.
The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger. I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food. There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.
However, here are some pictures of the food. Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.
All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion. I think it shows in his compositions.
There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person). Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.
As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating. The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.
Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.
The camel was probably laughing at the tourists who were trying to bribe the owners of the few horses that were there to help those who couldn’t walk through the old city in the heat. I won’t disclose the nationality of those who had disembarked from a cruise ship and thought to buy their way on to a horse, but they all seemed overweight to me. Surprisingly, in this poor country, the horse owners insisted on first come firsdt served. Or could there have been someone overlooking overlooking the situation, who wasn’t obvious to us?
Another reminder from that trip. One in our group asked the guide if he could stop the sellers of jewellery from pestering us. He just quietly said., “No, Madam. Your buying a small trinket from him could mean the difference between his children eating tonight or not”. Something I’ve never forgotten when I’m feeling under pressure from itinerant sellers.
I didn’t imagine it would be so difficult to write about my walk on the Ypres Salient in Belgium, as I followed the course of the World War l battle of 1917 but it’s impossible to write about the horrors of the 3rd Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele) without including great chunks of history to explain just why we were walking there, and a blog is no place for a history essay. That being the case, I have to forget my idea of doing a Monday walk for Jo and just add a few photos with connecting text. A few historical notes will be appended at the end of the blog for those who want to read them.
First though, a few details.
During the course of the war, Ypres was all but obliterated by artillery fire. At the end of what we now call The Great War, it lay in ruins, only a handful of buildings left standing. First-time visitors to Ypres find it hard to believe that this magnificent town with its enormous square surrounded by medieval and Renaissance buildings was completely flattened by 1918. Virtually the whole of the town you see today was reconstructed from scratch, stone by stone, brick by brick during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rubble that could be incorporated into the buildings was collected, cleaned and re-used and the planners, by referring to the medieval sketches and diagrams that had survived, were able to painstakingly rebuild the squares, streets and beautiful buildings of this ancient Flemish town.
Throughout the town, you will see bronze plaques bearing the outline of the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Menin Gate at street corners. These are the signposts for the 5.5km provincial Heritage Footpath, the most complete footpath in the Ypres inner city.
Ypres had been fortified since about the 10th century and the Ypres ramparts are the best preserved in the country. The town originated on the banks of the Ieperlee and some ten centuries ago it was contained within little more than an earth wall and some moats, parts of which, dating from 1385, still survive. Later, stone walls and towers were added and later still, under occupation by the Habsburgs and then the French in the 17th and 18th centuries, the walls were strengthened, and bastions, advanced redoubts and more moats were added. The Lille Gate is the only city gate left out of the many that existed in the past.
The Ypres Ramparts are wide: strolling them in autumn is delightful as the falling leaves cushion the feet of the walker. The signposted route is 2.6 km long and meanders past lakes and ponds (the remains of the moat), interesting statuary, and through the Lille Gate into a small W.W.l military cemetery filled with the upright white headstones erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a sight all too familiar to visitors to France and Belgium. The municipal museum is located not far from the gate. Along the route, 23 panels provide information on the various points of Vauban’s ramparts.
There are 198 soldiers buried here, among them the graves of six New Zealand troops who were killed simultaneously by the same shell: their graves are now symbolically grouped together.
There follows some photographs I took on this walk which ended at the back of the Menin Gate, in some ways more beautiful than the gate whose picture we are familiar with at which buglers from the local Fire Brigade play the Last Post every night at 8 p.m. This custom has continued since 1928 when it was first inaugurated, save for 4 years during World War ll when the German occupation prevented it. This year being an Anniversary Year it attracts a few hundred people every night but sometimes there are just a few onlookers, yet the volunteer buglers nightly continue their tribute to the fallen.
A. Engraved on The Menin Gate Memorial are the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave. Tyne Cot has 35,000 names and there are 75,000 engraved on the Thiepval Memorial.
B.Menin Gate Last Post: At 7.30pm the police arrive and all traffic is stopped from driving through the Menin Gate until 8.30pm. For one hour the noise of traffic ceases. A stillness descends and the crowd is hushed.
7.55pm: Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade arrive and stand ready at the eastern entrance of the Menin Gate Memorial. They then step into the roadway under the Memorial arch facing towards the town. The Last Post is played.
C. Of the battles, the largest and most costly in terms of human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), in which the British, Canadian, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele Ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. It had been a battle across muddy, swampy fields taken and lost, then lost and taken again. After months of fighting only a few miles of ground had been won by the Allied forces at a cost of nearly half a million casualties on all sides.
D. The defence of Ypres was essential for the Allied forces as the town was a strategic point blocking the route of the Imperial German Army to the Belgian and French coastal ports (the ‘race to the sea’). Thousands of Allied troops died in the rubble of its buildings, the shattered farmland around it and in the fields and meadows that had been deliberately flooded by the Belgian King to try and prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold. Both sides fought ferocious battles and lived in inhuman conditions to maintain possession. The Allied losses were horrendous but thousands of German lives were also lost on the battlefields around Ypres during their four years of offensive and defensive battles.
With the UK about to depart the EU after the 2016 Referendum, albeit with only an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to that lovely city, Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament.
This delightful city, full of medieval churches and half-timbered houses seems to have become a byword for what some in the UK see as a hijacker of British sovereignty. Which is a shame, because it is blinding people to an elegant, international city of great charm that in the Middle Ages was referred to as The Crossroads of Europe. At that time, goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East poured across the borders to be traded for wines, grain and fabrics and just like today, when the languages of the 46 member states can be heard in the squares and streets of the city, traders speaking a dozen different languages, met and conducted business. People from different countries working together and mingling in Strasbourg’s squares means that the city continues to be the crossroads of Europe.
Once a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg later came under periods of French and German rule, which has given the ancient centre a unique appeal, enhanced by the half-timbered Medieval houses that sit alongside elegant French-style mansions. In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument, the first time such an honour was given to an entire city centre.
It is an easy place for visitors to discover, as the traffic problems that beset most big cities have been solved here with a combination of canal boats, a sleek and comfortable light rail system, local buses, and pedestrianised squares. Although it presents itself as a folksy-like small town, Strasbourg is very international, cosmopolitan and multilingual.
GRAND ILE ISLAND
This is the historic part of the city where you will find the main sights and using the 142-metre high spire of the Cathedral as your landmark, you will soon find your way around Strasbourg.
The city’s charm has much to do with its canals which surround the Grand Ill island where Petite France, is located. A 70-minute boat trip (open-top in fine weather) on Batorama’s Twenty Centuries of History, circumnavigates the whole of the Grande-Île before skirting the 19th-century German Quarter. The turn-around point and good photo opportunity is where the European Parliament, Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are head-quartered, a magnificent architectural display of concrete, steel and glass.
If you take the boat cruise, the Vauban Dam will be pointed out, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war. It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.
Walking around the canals, especially in the early part of the year when everything seems green and lush and the spring flowers are out in abundance, is an equally attractive method of seeing the main sights. This is a city that loves nature and it takes pride in decorating every bridge and windowsill with baskets of flowers, changed according to the seasons.
PETITE FRANCE, STRASBOURG (a UNESCO site)
The number one attraction in Strasbourg is Petite France, the historic part of town, a photographic cluster of 16th and 17th-century half-timbered houses reflected in the waters of the canal. These houses were originally built for the millers, fishermen and tanners who used to live and work in this part of town. If you have taken the boat tour, you may like also to take a tour of the historic centre with an audio guide (€5.50) from the Tourist Office which will introduce you, via a winding route through the narrow streets, to a truly fascinating old town.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL Opening hours: 7am-7pm
The Cathedral, an imposing red sandstone edifice, stands alone in its square and towers above the city. It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century and is the second most visited cathedral in France after Notre Dame in Paris, receiving 4 million visitors a year. Built in 1439 it is considered to be an outstanding masterpiece of Romanesque and late Gothic art with outstanding 12th-century stained glass windows. Inside is one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.
Try to arrive at the cathedral by noon to get a good viewpoint for the 12.30 display of the famous Astronomical Clock. The procession of sixteenth-century automata was designed to remind us of our mortality. Afterwards, you can climb 332 steps to the platform below the cathedral’s twin towers for a stunning view.
The narrow street that leads to the cathedral and the Place de Cathedral is the liveliest place in Strasbourg, especially in summer, and are filled with outdoor restaurants that remain open late into the night. Entertainment is in the form of jazz musicians, mime artists and clowns.
And finally, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market has a high reputation but its popularity may be its undoing. After a few evenings of mulled wine, yuletide cake, Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis, a spring or autumn visit begins to look very attractive.
But Strasbourg is a city that has a very special charm at any time of the year and the organisations that dominate its life are what still guarantees peace in Europe. If you are looking for culture, cuisine and character, Strasbourg is hard to beat.
A few recommended eating places: Expect the usual French coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, crème Brulee and crepe Suzette, but be prepared also for the German influence of pork and sauerkraut.
First up though, is wine. Strasbourg is the capital of one of France’s premier wine regions and if you are in the mood to sample some of the best, head for Terres à Vin, 1 Rue du Miroir, tel +33 3 88 51 37 20, with several by-the-glass options from €3.20 to over €10).
Pain d’Epices, 14 Rue des Dentelles, for indulgent gingerbreads and cake and for the heady scents of spices.
Master-Patissier, Christian Mayer, offers a tea room second to none in Strasbourg at 10 Rue Mercière, just a few yards from the cathedral.
Maison Kammerzell 16 Place du Cathédrale, tel +33 3 88 32 42 14, where the oldest section dates back to 1427, is a Strasbourg institution. Occupying rooms on four floors, you can sample the house speciality of fish sauerkraut if you fancy that but there are many less thought-provoking dishes from which to choose, average €40 for three courses.
Au Pont Corbeau, 21 Quai Saint-Nicolas, tel +33 3 88 35 60 68, – a warm and welcoming place where the onion soup is so thick you could stand your spoon up in it. A modest but excellent wine list available. Average €32 for three courses.
I never thought I’d find myself on a bird-watching walk as although I’m fond of all feathered creatures, spending time in their contemplation is not something that I ever imagined I would do on holiday. Yet on my recent trip to Malaga with SilverSpain.com I became just as enthusiastic as any died-in-the-wool bird-watcher when I joined the walk through the wetlands of the Desembocdura del Guadalhorce Natural Park.
Desembocdura del Guadalhorce Natural Park. Photo Mari Nicholson
The name is quite a mouthful (it means river mouth of the Guadalhorce), but the simplicity of the place, the peace and tranquillity to be found just 20 Km. outside the city was something I hadn’t expected: nor had I expected the series of lagoons or man-make lakes, beautiful in the light of the setting sun. I had always imagined wetlands to be marshy, boggy areas, with tufted grasses being the main feature of the landscape.
How wrong I was. This area of five permanent lakes populated with fish and eels, supports a variety of plants that enjoy the presence of water and salt, the banks yielding tamarisks, giant reeds and rushes, with here and there scattered poplars.
SilverSpain.com had organized an expert in the field to guide us on the walk, Luis Alberto Rodriguez from BIRDAYTRIP. Luis was just perfect both in the pace he set and in his ability to spot birds before we did. SilverSpain.com had found someone who embraced their concept of the over-55s living an active life, enjoying varied and interesting activities often outside their comfort zone, and his enthusiasm for the area and its inhabitants infected us all.
The area is one of the most important stopover places for coastal migratory birds in the province and it is said that you can spot any bird at the river mouth during the passage periods. The Guadalhorce river estuary is on one of the main Mediterranean-crossing routes between Europe and Africa but there is no sure way to guarantee what birds you are likely to see as much depends on winds, storms, rains, predators – and our old friend, climate change.
The snowy plover breeds in the wetlands and at different times of the year you will see glossy ibis, flamingo, spoonbill, black stork, Caspian tern and coots. Present all year are the endangered white-headed ducks which have been successfully breeding in the estuary since 2003, little egrets, grey herons, Kentish plovers, hoopoes (above), and Cetti’s warblers. In summer the bitterns, Audouin’s Gulls and bee-eaters are welcome visitors and in winter the short-eared owl puts in an appearance. Ospreys, kestrels, buzzards and sparrowhawks wheel in the sky and the marsh harrier can often be seen among the reeds.
Of 350 bird species that have been recorded in Andalucia, 260 have been spotted in this Rio Guadalhorce Nature Reserve which covers 67 hectares of prime wetland. The Park’s five lagoons are backed by palm trees, willows, tamarisks, eucalyptus and poplars and in this woodland and by the lagoon’s edges have been erected five comfortable birding hides.
The area is also a popular place for mountain-bikers, hikers and those just looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Malaga for a few hours. Like these seasoned sportspeople, always make sure to carry water with you as there are no facilities nearby and you can de-hydrate quickly in the heat. Depending on the season, an anti-mosquito repellent would also be a good idea.
This bird-watching walk was only one event organized by SilverSpain.com during the week in which we ate healthy, but delicious, meals in restaurants and hotels, visited bodegas and bars dating from 1840, watched an equestrian show, a flamenco show and had a session of mindfulness in a tranquil retreat. Their website gives full details.
Shine can have many meanings: a high gloss polish, a brilliant lacquer finish, a light on a mirror, moonlight on water, a child’s freshly washed face before bedtime any or all of these can be offered. I’ve found one or two that fitted these categories but they weren’t my favourites, instead, I’ve gone for the photographs below.
The first ‘Shine’ is the colourful and exquisite marble floor of the covered-in Galleria Emmanuelle in Milano, the trendy, upmarket shopping area that stretches from the famous Duomo to the Opera House. All the top-named brands have shops here (dare one call them shops, I wonder?) and apart from the gloss of the beautiful marble, the whole place has a ‘shininess’ that seems part of this monied world.
Exquisite marble floor of the Galleria Emmanuelle in Milano – Mari Nicholson
And now for something completely different. The photograph below was taken when I visited a workshop outside Hanoi where dedicated instructors were teaching children who had been injured by landmines in Vietnam, a trade that would eventually enable them to work in the world outside. The glass jar on the table is full of wafer-thin sheets of gold leaf and this young girl is painstakingly applying it to parts of a picture.
Vietnam, Applying gold leaf to a picture to make it shine.
On on the same trip in S.E. Asia, in Cambodia, we came across a school .with something of the same idea. A group of young students were being taught how to use gold leaf on religious icons, how to make Buddha statues, how to do intricate woodwork etc. To me, it seemed incredibly difficult and needing great patience, but the ever-smiling children assured me it was easy for them and better than working in the rice fields where they never had enough to eat.
And what is nicer than a sunset with the falling sun shining on the water, the rustle of palm trees, and the lap of the waves.
And lastly, probably the best shine of all, the moon on the water, in this case a silvery moon that turned the sea a shiny gunmetal grey that could have been anywhere but was actually in a tropical land.
No rain promised in my area for a while so I’ve looked through my photos to see what I could come up with and here are two. Both of these were taken in Thailand, one in Koh Samui, the other in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Siam just a couple of hours drive from Bangkok.
This little boy was having the time of his life on his polystyrene box lid which served as a raft from which he was trying to catch fish. I don’t think it mattered whether he caught any or not, the fun was in trying, and in having such a marvellous float to carry him along the seashore. Don’t worry, Dad was trawling the near water keeping an eye out so that he didn’t drift off. They had little money, it was obvious. Mum was digging in the sand for tiny little sandfish and crabs for supper and his sisters were gathering leaves from the hedges around. Tech toys were unknown to him and even though I am sure he hankered after them, I confess I hoped he could continue to enjoy the childlike life he was having at the moment I took this photograph.
Oh dear, it wasn’t supposed to rain in Koh Samui, but it did, and heavily. Two days of torrential rain rendered the hotel’s umbrellas unusable, the decking awash, and the grey sea a hazard if one wanted to swim. Day and night it pounded the beach, the noise like thunder at night. Room service was needed but by the time food got to the rooms it was cold – and sometimes very wet – so everyone waded through the water to the restaurant where the staff did their best to serve us with hot food.
Two days later it was all over. We woke up to sunshine, dry decking, dry beaches and a placid blue sea. Had it really been as bad as I remember? As the locals say, “TIT” – This is Thailand”.