Tag Archives: travel

Syracuse – The Other Bits

After my earlier Post on the Greek and Roman theatres in Syracuse, I thought I’d like to show you a few of the more colourful parts of the city.   I hope you’ll enjoy the photographs that follow of the transparent seas around the island, Piazza Archimede and its magnificent fountain, the food market, a few more ruins – for how could one not include them as they are part of the street furniture.

Just to recap.  In the 5th century, when Dionysus reigned, Syracuse was one of the biggest and most powerful cities in the Mediterranean, embellished by gardens, fountains, palaces and temples.   Plato called it “an ideal city”, one of enormous military power capable of withstanding the might of Athens and Carthage. 

Today, what remains of those days of glory, is preserved and presented to the visitor with pride, not hidden away or wrapped in cotton wool, but open to all who wish to, literally, enjoy touching the past, like the Temple of Apollo right in the middle of the city by the market-place.

With your back to the sea, you can walk either straight ahead to the old town and the Duomo, or to the left through the Porto Marina and into the old town and Ortygia.  Either way, strolling around Syracuse at your leisure is sheer pleasure.

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Although the image of the fishermen mending their nets is captioned, I hope you notice the massive cruise ship in the background, the old and the new side by side, the old struggling to make a living, the new a disaster, or a dividend to a city?  The jury is still out on that one in Sicily.

As you leave the ruins of the 7th-century Temple of Apollo you will find yourself in the Corso Matteotti with its 14th-century Greek palace, and from here it is a short walk to the Piazza Archimede, opened in 1878 and dedicated to the Greek mathematics and physics genius, Archimedes (287-212 BC), and one of Syracuse’s most illustrious sons.   

In the centre of the Piazza is the beautiful Artemis Fountain by Giulio Moschetti (1906) dedicated to Diana the goddess of the Hunt (Diana was the Roman name of the Goddess, Artemis the Greek).  Appalled by the erotic pursuit of Alpheus the river god, Arethusa had asked the Goddess Diana for help: Diana then transformed Arethusa into a fountain which emerged on the nearby island of Ortygia, the core and oldest part of the Sicilian city, where you will find the spring named after Arethusa.  In the fountain, Alpheus peers from behind the goddess while the nymph is about to slip into the water below where, as the tale goes, she will blend with the stream before re-emerging in Ortygia.  Charging horses, Tritons and nymphs splash in the waters of the fountain and a good hour can be spent just walking around the admiring the work.

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 If you choose to go through the Porta Marina you will find yourself surrounded by fading Baroque Villas and Palaces facing the sea and hidden in the narrow alleyways, secretive dwellings with shades of a once glorious past still clinging to them.  Along this long, narrow promenade you will pass the Church of the Holy Spirit which is worth a visit if time allows (but remember you have the Duomo and Santa Lucia alle Badia to explore as well).

Despite the lack of beach facilities the area around here is popular with swimmers, and often you will see people diving off the rocks into the near transparent waters or sunbathing in what looks like dangerous places along this rocky foreshore.  

There is another church right by the Duomo, often missed by visitors because of the wonderful golden-coloured Duomo with its complex history which stands beside it, and this is the Santa Lucia alla Badia church which houses The Burial of Santa Lucia by Caravaggio, above the altar.  Caravaggio had arrived in Messina from Malta in December 1608 where he was commissioned to paint the Burial of Santa Lucia for the church of the same name: he completed this in less than a month.

It is difficult to see this picture because the church is kept fairly dark – I presume to preserve the painting – and no photography is allowed.  

And with all the sight-seeing, don’t forget to stop occasionally for a snack at one of the many good cafes and restaurants around (very much cheaper in the modern part of the city, by the way), and make sure to have an ice-cream and that Sicilian favourite, a Granita.

 

 

 

SYRACUSE, SICILY

My recent trip to Syracuse gave me lots of material for posts but as I have written before about this Sicilian city I thought that this time I would hone in on the Archaeological Park of Neapolis which holds Syracuse’s most important Greek and Roman remains.  The Park covers approximately 240 square metres and the Greek and Roman periods are divided by a green, tranquil oasis in the midst of the ruins, called Viale Paradiso.

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Between the two cultures, through the Viale Paradaiso.

The Park came into being between 1952 and 1955 with the idea of bringing together all the monuments, pillars and stones which previously had been located on various private properties and were not accessible to the public.  The result has been an outstanding success.

The Roman part dates back to the 3rd century AD and the Amphitheatre (seen below) is the largest in Sicily at 140 x 190 metres, and it is recorded that the first performance of Aeschylus’ Etnean Women was performed here in 476 BC.  To avoid this turning into a history lesson, I shall leave the images, with captions, to speak for themselves.

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The Roman Amphitheatre which originally had a pool in the centre. Gladiators and animals entered from tunnels left and right.

Not only was the amphitheatre used for drama: political life was played out here too, especially the assemblies in which all citizens participated.

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One of the tunnels through which the animals and gladiators would have entered the amphitheatre.
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Part of the Roman remains at the Archeological Park of Syracuse, Sicily.

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The Greek Theatre has more to offer in the way of remains (but excavations are still ongoing on the Roman side), possibly because it is mostly carved from the rock and is in a certain sense permanent and incapable of being seriously damaged.  There are 8 stairways to the top of the theatre with various walkways running along the seats.  At the top is a rectangular terrace sculpted from the rock dating back to when it was first built. 

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Cave of the Nymphaeum

Caves and niches in the walls of the terrace would suggest offerings to honour the Gods or the Heroes, the above Cave of the Nymphaeum being one of them.  This 6-metre deep cave takes its name from the large basin covered with a vaulted ceiling in which a small waterfall tumbles originating from a branch of the ancient Greek aqueduct.  Statues discovered of the Muses dating from the 2nd-century BC are now on display in the Regional Archeological Museum.  

 

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The Spanish carried off much of the remains in the 16th century but what is left is still impressive

The Ear of Dionysius

Possibly the most interesting and popular sites in the Park.  While this looks like a natural cave it is really the result of tons of material having been extracted from the quarry of which it was a part, over many centuries.  The large cave known as the Ear of Dionysius is 65 metres long and 501 metres wide, narrowing towards the top.  The name was given to it by the painter Caravaggio who visited in the 17th century (and whose painting of St. Lucia hangs in the small church by the Duomo) and who thought its shape resembled that of a human ear.  Popular tradition has it that the cave had been used by a local tyrant to imprison his enemies whose whispers he could hear from the small opening at the top.  I like this version.  Myths are always more fascinating than facts.

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Another view of the Cave of the Nymphaeum

Castelmola, Sicily – Medieval Village

From the natural terrace built around the ruins of a Norman castle, you have a spectacular view of the Ionian coast, majestic Etna, Taormina, the Bay of Giardini-Naxos, the straits of Messina, and the Calabrian coast:  on a clear day you can even see way beyond Catania, as far as Syracuse.  You are nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you are in Castelmola in Sicily.

Castelmoro from below

Part of the attraction of Castelmola is gazing up at it from Taormina (as in the featured photo taken from the main square in Taormina,  and above from another part of the town) and wondering how on earth you can get up there.  It looks like the top of the world, this tiny village perched on a craggy hilltop above Taormina.  Not so long ago the village was inaccessible, visited only by a few intrepid travellers who hiked up the seriously uphill mountain paths for about 90 minutes, or drove up the curving, almost perpendicular road, to the top.  Nowadays a bus makes the 15-minute journey every hour from Taormina and things are changing, although slowly.

 

The result of this remoteness is that the people of the village have kept their dialect, their customs and their lives entirely to themselves.

Casteldemoro

Founded in the 8th century BC it was first conquered by the Greeks and afterwards by Saracens and its interesting mix of customs and traditions reflect this history.  The entrance to the village is marked by an ancient arch of Greek-Roman origin, built in 900 BC, and this dominates the Piazza S. Antonino, the main square of the village.  In earlier times the entry was through a gate carved into the rock which was moved to the front of the castle in 1927.

 

This relatively modern Piazza Sant’Antonio, built in 1954, is one of the main squares of the town and attracts the local elders who like to sit on the benches in the square to watch the village activity and the arrival and departure of the buses.  From this Piazza of white and black lava stone, bordered by a white balustrade and tree-lined sidewalks, there is a panoramic view of Taormina, its town, beaches and islands.

 

From the Piazza, roads lead off to other parts of the village, every corner offering more spectacular views whether it’s over the velvety green mountains with their trails delineated as though someone had poured them in swirling patterns on the slopes or the craggy peaks of the barren side.  The street names, numbers and signs are locally crafted in stone and wrought iron, and the pastel-coloured houses range from palest primrose to sky blues and apple greens.  In fact, it is a typical Sicilian village, better preserved than most, as it has not lost all its inhabitants as have most of those in the interior of the island.

 

That said, a fair number of the inhabitants depart in the winter for the slightly warmer temperature along the coast but during the rest of the year, they man the restaurants, bars and lace and embroidery shops for which the village is famed.

One of the most famous and most eccentric attractions is the Turrisi Bar which has a bizarre display of phalluses in wood, clay and ceramic – a sign of abundance and a good omen as per the Hellenic tradition – in every size, from large stone sculptures to bathroom taps, paintings and wooden carvings.  This ancient emblem of fertility is celebrated here in flamboyant style, and among the gifts available from the shop is the locally produced almond wine in phallic-shaped bottles, referred to, of course, as the “elixir of love”.

As so often in Sicily one passes from the profane to the sacred in the blink of an eye and in just a few steps you arrive at the Cathedral which dates back to the 16th century (rebuilt in 1935), known otherwise as the Church of St. Nicholas of Bari, in the Piazza Duomo. There isn’t a lot to hold your attention here but it has a rather beautiful pulpit and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene which, I am told, is of the school of Bagnasco.   I confess I had no knowledge of this sculptor but I found a reference to one Rosario Bagnasco who worked mainly in wood, and who was active mainly in Palermo, so I presume it is his work. Looking towards the Bell Tower Before you leave, look to the beautiful bell tower which offers a wonderful frame for a photograph of Mount Etna in the distance behind it.

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So if you find yourself with a day, or even a half day to spare when you are in Taormina, or if you want to see one of Sicily’s loveliest medieval villages, then be sure to visit Castelmola where you will find narrow streets and quiet solitude in a community of just over one thousand residents.  In fact, if you visit out of season and find your way up the mountain to Castelmola you may feel that you have the entire town to yourself.

 

 

 

Newport, Isle of Wight, a Second Look

On the green in the middle of the town stands a memorial to the last little chimney sweep to die here, and just a few miles away a lovely old pub is the site of the last hanging to take place.  I’m in Newport, the main town on the Isle of Wight, sometimes referred to as the capital.

Valentine Grey

 

The Island is well known as a favourite holiday resort for walkers, cyclists and families with young children, but Newport itself is often dismissed as merely a shopping area.  Yet Newport was the hub of the Island’s rail network until the Beeching cuts of 1996 closed its railway along with many more on the island.  This was a cut too far as the roads can barely cope with the increased traffic that was the result of such drastic pruning.

The only remaining train line runs from the ferry terminal at Ryde to the resort town of Shanklin with stops at Sandown, Brading and Smallbrook (for the Steam Railway), and the hub of the transport network is now the bus station in Newport where routes from across the Island terminate.

A quick visit to the town and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a town of chain stores from the ubiquitous M & S to H & M and Primark, but this historic town centres on two elegant squares surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture, and the town’s quay from which goods from all over the world were shipped along the Medina River from the port at Cowes, is just a short walk away.

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Riverside Pub in Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest

Swans float serenely on the river ignoring the canoes and kayaks, the sailing boats and the odd small yacht or two that are on the water, and on the terrace of the Quay Arts Centre people relax with coffee and cakes, tea and crumpets or lunch.  Inside the Arts Centre is a constantly changing art exhibition, dance classes, open mic occasions and an upmarket shop selling exquisitely crafted goods in silk, silver, ceramic, pottery and paper.

There was an extensive Roman settlement on the island and there remain two Roman villas, one of which is open to the public and whose remains provide a fascinating insight into country life in 3rd century Britain.  Discovered in 1926 when foundations were being dug for a garage, subsequent excavations revealed the remains of a late Roman farmhouse built around 280 AD with a superb bath suite, underfloor heating and remnants of mosaic floors.  You can peep into a Roman kitchen and see a slave preparing a Roman feast and there is a hands-on activity room where you can make a mosaic, repair a broken pot or weave a blanket.  Outside, the plants Romans would have used are grown in the beautiful herb garden.

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Carisbrooke Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Newport is probably more famous for the nearby castle of Carisbrooke in the village of the same name, but although there have been fortifications on the Carisbrooke site since Roman times, what one sees today dates largely from the 12th to the 15th century.

Carisbrooke Castle Copyright David Hill (Flickr)
Carisbrook Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Carisbrooke Castle is most famous as the place where Charles I was held prior to his removal to London and his execution by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The castle is said to be haunted by the King’s young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died during her incarceration in the Castle.

The donkeys of Carisbrook Castle are very popular with children of all ages.  In previous centuries, water for the castle’s occupants was drawn from the 150 foot deep well by two donkeys powering a draw-wheel, walking approximately 270 metres to raise one bucket of water.  When the castle lost its defensive role this practice stopped.

When the castle was restored in the 19th century, the equipment was renewed and the donkeys have been raising the water for the benefit of watching visitors ever since then. English Heritage is keen to say that the donkeys enjoy the exercise and are never over-worked.

Nearby Parkhurst Forest is home to two prisons which together make up the largest prison in the UK: it was once among the few top-security prisons in the United Kingdom. Their names, Parkhurst and Albany, were once synonymous with the major criminals who were housed there, it being presumed that any escapee would have a problem getting off the Island (as indeed it proved on the few occasions when a breakout occurred).

Crowds enjoy the music festival ©VisitIsleofWight.com

The famous Pop Festival shows no signs of losing popularity despite competition from other towns and cities across the country.  Seaclose Park on the east bank of the River Medina has been the location for the revived Isle of Wight Music Festival since 2002 and it is one of the key events in Newport’s events calendar!

So if Newport, Isle of Wight is on your itinerary, please wander around its streets and alleyways, look at the façades of the houses and try and guess in what century it was erected.  Find the row of old Alms Houses and if time permits, take a walk along the banks of the Medina River and try and visualise the days when sailing ships sailed up here from Cowes carrying a cargo of rice from Carolina.  And when it comes to time to eat, whether your taste runs to Mac & Cheese, Burgers, or Fine Dining, Newport can supply you with the best, with the Golden Arches for fast food and Hewitts and Michelin-starred Thompsons for truly superb food.

The Guildhall, Newport.jpg ©VisitIsleofWight.com

 

Wish You Were Here

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.

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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?

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Mount Fuji, Japan

Next time you’re away from home, put away your smartphone, pack up the tablet, venture out and into the touristy gift shops and buy some postcards to send to your friends  Postcards are physical things, things you hold, read and re-read, pass along to friends to read; they give rise to conversations “So-and-so is in Venice this week.  I’ve had a card”.  “Oh, does (s)he like it?” and so on.  A whole conversation opens up in which you discuss former holidays, your bucket-list of places to see, the food you ate, the weather (always good) and how the children loved it.  You don’t need to look down at your phone to check anything, it’s on the card, as is the view, not a blurred selfie taken and then hastily dispatched to all and sundry.

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Russia

You can’t store the postcard in your Inbox only to have it deleted after the set time (in my case 30 days), you can’t Tweet it, upload it to Facebook, Instagram it or save it to your computer. But you can be cheered by it every time you look at it and think that someone has thought about you enough to go out and buy a card, then a stamp, then find a Post Office in which to post it. I know sometimes the shop will sell stamps and take them for posting, but not always.

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Cuba

So, what sort of Postcard are you going to send?  One of those innuendo-laden Donald McGill cards that used to make everyone laugh, even the Vicar on a good day? Or a view of the sea/sand/mountains?  A donkey, Flamenco dancer, famous painting, or two fluffy kittens in a basket?  You have to think of the right card for the right person, and as you do, you’ll realise the pleasure it is going to give to whoever receives it, whether it be an aged aunt or a nine-year-old nephew.

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Rome, Italy

Writing and sending postcards means time away from interfacing on Facebook, emailing the office, or poring over selfies of friends out on the town, but isn’t it a great excuse to ditch the technology for an hour or two?

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Haworth, Yorkshire

I don’t mind what you send me.  I just love that lift I get when I receive one, to know I’ve been remembered, and that you have spent time buying, writing and posting me a Wish you Were Here thought.

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Wish You Were Here!

CYPRUS – Aphrodite’s Island

Once bitten forever smitten, they say of Cyprus, and I can vouch for that.  Lying at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, this island of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, offers a magical blend of romance and relaxation in a landscape untouched by time – away from the coastal resorts that is.

I fell for its charms many years ago when a Zorba-like boat captain whisked us off in his boat for a seafood picnic on an offshore island, later to watch the most glorious sunset I’d ever seen.  In retrospect, the colours of the setting sun and the purple and pink skies probably owed a lot to the wine consumed on deck but that was the start of my love affair with the island.

Aphrodite's Rocks (Limassol to Paphos
Aphrodite’s Rock, Cyprus

The legendary birthplace of the Goddess is a golden yellow rock that juts into the sea on the coastal road between Limassol and Paphos, and 4,000 years on from her tempestuous birth from the foamy ocean, her legacy of love is still attracting young and old.  Swim around the rock three times and you will retain your youthful looks, I was told!

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to test this offer as we were on the way to Paphos to visit the ruins of the nearby ancient city-state of Koúrian, wonderfully situated on the cliffs above the sea, where we sat on the steps of the amphitheatre imagining ourselves as 5th century theatregoers, before wandering off to a nearby site to admire the still discernable central heating system and bath-houses and the well-preserved mosaics of fighting Gladiators.

Four thousand years of civilization and priceless cultural treasures are visible in Paphos where the harbour, still used by the local fishermen, is the focal point of the town, and cafés, bistros and bars line the waterfront.  As the sun sets and the fishing boats chug out to sea for the night’s trawl the medieval fort on the edge of the sea turns honey coloured, lovers stroll up and down the promenade and from bars and restaurants, the musical sounds of Zorba the Greek can just be heard above the tinkle of ice in glasses.   And yes, I know Zorba wasn’t a Cypriot, but the music is everywhere and everyone seems to like it.

If time allows, it is a good idea to alternate days on the beach with days in the mountains, and in this case, Limassol, Cyprus’s second city, is your best base.   You’ll eat well in this town, and cheaply, whether you like chips with everything (Cyprus is big on chips – a boon for those with children) or want to try some of the local dishes like kleftiko (lamb cooked in the oven until it falls off the bone), stifado (a sort of beef stew) Afelia (pork marinated in red wine) or the famous meze (a selection of meat and fish dishes).   With hotels from budget to 5-star, a public beach with changing tents, sun-loungers, jetties on which to stroll, and that always sparkling sea, there is something for everyone.

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Some of the beaches are man-made and the long 8-mile strip of development may appear bland but don’t dismiss Limossol too quickly: the old town makes up for the modernity of the new. There is a daily market that shouldn’t be missed, where soft velvety peaches nudge scarlet cherries, and melons and apricots tumble in perfumed profusion.  And buying a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice for 1 Euro just has to be a bargain.  At night the Tavernas by the Old Harbour offer great seafood and in many of the restaurants you can join in the Greek dancing – to Zorba the Greek, of course – if you have the courage.

Mountain Village, CyprusIf you like driving, Cyprus is one place you should avail yourself of a 4WD.  Up in the Troodos mountains, steep hairpin bends and the lush green mountain backdrop gives way to ancient cobbled trails that lead to peaceful villages nestling on the slopes of 6,500-foot Mount Olympus.

In the fields round about, brown and black goats chomp the grasses among the rosemary and thyme.  Lizards and butterflies vie for your attention and during the mild winter, almond trees blossom and lemon and orange trees perfume the air, but in the summer flowering pink oleander and broom cover the hillsides, a magnet for the bees that produce the exquisite Cyprus honey.  At certain times of the year, birds from Africa, Asia and Europe swoop overhead in compelling formations as they migrate to their various homes.

Most of the villages have an ancient monastery displaying time-worn frescoes and rare icons, and a familiar sight is a monk in full black robes sitting outside his tiny chapel, usually with a mobile ‘phone clasped to his ear.  In the afternoon the only sound is the slap of counters as old men play backgammon in the inky-dark bars of the villages.

Kakopetria set in the northern foothills of the Troodos is one of the loveliest mountain villages.  It straddles two fast-flowing streams in the middle of which lies the old village, lovingly brought back to life by local craftsmen.  Wooden houses with ornate verandahs filled with lemon geraniums and perfumed roses line the narrow streets and the village women making lace shelter from the sun under vine trellises.

Amazingly clear waters surround Cyprus

In complete contrast is Aiya Napa where you’ll find the island’s best beaches, soft golden sands leading to gently shelving seas.  But, Ayia Napa is not for everyone: this is clubbers’ paradise, the “new Ibiza” the so-called “Garage-music capital of Europe” with lighting and sound systems to equal anything London has to offer.  Top UK DJ’s are resident during the summer, the clubs are mega with most having a capacity for over 2,500, and none of them open before midnight.  Those still awake during the day can shop till they drop from designer to downright dodgy goods and for the kids, there is a Waterworld theme park based on the Greek Myths, more family fun than white-knuckle, from April to mid-November.

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Statuary depicting the suffering endured during the wars

Inland from here is the island’s capital, Nicosia, and a visit to the old walled city is worthwhile if just for the walk back in time through the narrow streets of The Folk Neighbourhood – Laïki Geitonia – a renovated pedestrian area of bargain-filled artisan’s shops.  And if borders fascinate you, you can walk to the ‘Green Line’ and from a platform look over to the Turkish side of the island.

Larnaca seafront has an air of sleepy charm with cafes and tavernas lining the palm-fronted promenade but it has little to recommend it apart from its good museums and interesting monasteries but if you want the best seafood in Cyprus then head for MacKenzie Beach just outside the town, where the restaurants along the seafront are outstanding   Reservations are needed if you want Sunday lunch as this is the day Cyprus’s extended families eat out, just like in France.

Village Lacework

Cyprus is one of those blessed islands that can cater for those wanting antiquities and those who want nothing more than to soak up the relentless sun and bathe in the warm, azure sea.  It feels very familiar to visitors from the UK with familiar British chain stores, driving on the left and English being widely spoken, but the 340 days of sunshine and the laidback atmosphere leaves you in no doubt that you are abroad.

Climbing the Rigging in Paphos Harbour
Climbing the rigging 

Palermo: Caravaggio to be Returned?

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.

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Pézanas, where Molière Played

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.

Moliere statue in Pezanas
Homage to Molière in the centre of the town

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).

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A shop full of handmade wooden toys

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.

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The Tourist Office

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.

Scenovision Moliere

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

http://www.scenovcisionmoliere.com

If cruising the canals of France, it is easy to arrange a visit to Pezanas.

 

Oldest Door in Town
In a town of old doors, this is the oldest

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Artisan chocolates – luscious

 

Among my (Japanese) Souveneirs

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.

And now, for something completely different.

Weekly Photo Challenge – SMILE

 

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Laughing Camel at Petra

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.