This picture is one I love because it captures, for me, a moment of total relaxation during a cargo ship cruise we took about 30 years ago. The ship was ‘The Author’, one of what I learned to call “the big whites”, boats of the South African Safmarine line.
Sunday was a big day for the crew when they had the brai, or barbeque, a tradition that was almost a religion for the South African crew on board. It was dress-down day when even the captain sported shorts and tee shirt, hair-cutting took place in quiet corners on the decks, and the crew relaxed in their ‘civvies’.
I was surprised that a barbeque was allowed on the deck, but I was assured all was perfectly safe. Eddie, the chef, had everyone’s favourite food ready, from salads to heavy carbs, fruits to exotic vegetables, and a fine selection of meats, fish and shellfish. As passenger we numbered only 7 but we had become friends with the crew over the course of our trip from Tilbury via northern Europe to South America. In fact we were their ‘shoppers’ as well, as some of the countries we stopped at would not allow the S.A. crew to disembark (political not racist) so we were given shopping lists when we disembarked – usually tee shirts for themselves and a gift for a Mum or a son or daughter.
I know this isn’t a good photograph, it’s blurry and lacks definition but it’s one of my all-time favourites because that holiday was one of the best ever and that evening sums it up so well. I must add here that I don’t go on cruises as floating hotels are not my cup of tea but a trip on a cargo-ship is a world apart.
On “The Author” we mixed with the crew as they went about their work during the day, and in the evening we socialised with them over drinks and dinner, played games in either their lounge or ours and swapped books and DVDs. Some evenings we lay on our backs on the deck and were taken through the star system by one of the crew, seen to its best away from the lights on land.
Thirty years after and I’m still in contact with one of the captains and two of the crew. It was an unforgettable holiday and I remember every minute of my time aboard “The Author”, Eddie’s great food, and the treats left in our cabin daily, from warm biscuits to gooey cake, the ever-changing menus due to the fresh produce he picked up at the different ports, and the tears and the hugs when we all said good-bye to some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
Amalfi, tiny and expensive is one of the easier coastal towns to walk around as it rises gently up the hillside from the waterfront rather than clinging vertically to it, like Positano for instance.
It is hard to believe that this very small town had a glorious history as a maritime republic on a par with Venice and Genoa, but Amalfi was a trade bridge between the Byzantine and western worlds for centuries with a population exceeding 70,000 (today, less than 5,000). Unfortunately, there are very few historical buildings of note to see as most of the old city, and its inhabitants, slid into the sea during the 1343 earthquake.
There is a delightful promenade along the waterfront and a marina full of colorful boats but the focal point of the historic center is the Piazza del Duomo with its striking cathedral dedicated to St. Andrew. There are sixty steps leading up to the Byzantine-style church with its Moorish-influenced arches and decoration and inside the church is a forest of columns and Arabesque arches and the hidden Cloister of Paradise, dating to 1266. The Piazza is lined with bars, cafes, gelaterias, artisan and tourist shops, and is a perfect place for people watching – if you can bag a table. It seems to be permanently busy. Don’t forget the water if you decide to walk up the steps, those 65 can feel like 100 when the sun is out.
Famous for the manufactire pf paper, the Paper Museum (Museo della Carta) is well worth a visit to see how the products were made by hand. There are still some family-owned paper mills that carry on the tradition of hand-made paper which can be bought in some of the high-end shops – good, if expensive buys, for that special present for someone who still likes to write letters.
However, the primary product of the area is lemons, enormous in size, picked fresh to make limoncello liqueur and to be used in local dishes. Lemon ice-cream features a lot in restaurants and gelaterias, the one by the town gate serving quite the biggest lemon sorbet I have every seen (or eaten).
If you don’t spend too much time over lunch or coffee, there will still be time to visit hilltop Ravello, full of historic, artistic, monumental and architectural treasures – another expensive town but exquisite in its layout, and its 13th century Villa Rufolo which has breathtaking views from gardens overlooking the sea. Famous names you’ll hear mentioned a lot in Ravello are Richard Wagner who was inspired by the Villa to compose some verses of the Parsifal, Boccaccio who stayed here while writing the Decameron, D. H. Lawrence who supposedly got inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover while holidaying in the town and Gore Vidal who came for a visit and stayed for 30 years!
Shopping is rather special in Ravello too, as there are many craft and high-end fashion stops where you will find one-off garments – at a price, of course. Even the ice-cream advertises as ‘gourmet’ gelato though what that is I have no idea.
Restaurants bars and bistros abound, but walk around the interesting narrow backstreets of cobble-stones, peering in at dark interiors, looking over dry-stone walls fronting overgrown gardens and vegetable plots, if you want to see what this hill-top village is really like. Ravello is a great starting point for walks in the surrounding Lattari mountains along ancient paths.
Amalfi’s trading importance may have declined but its maritime importance continues, as you can hop ferries and hydrofoils to Capri, Salerno, and Positano. For me, the best way to view Amalfi is from the sea and the best way to do that is to take a boat trip around the bay, either in one of the 45-minute trips or by hiring a boat to take you to hidden coves to enjoy some private sun and surf. You will see the homes of Gina Llolabrigida, Sofia Loren, George Clooney (before he moved to Como I presume) and other famous names, smaller than you’d imagine because of their position built into the rocks. In the above slide show of scenes from the sea, the blue and white house set ino the hillside is that of Sofia Loren.
I have an urge to go to Provence again. I think it’s because my lavender is thriving this year and that the rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano are flourishing as never before that makes me want to immerse myself in the pungent scent of wild herbs crushed underfoot and the juniper, golden broom, and cistus that cover the hills of Provence.
I like the journey there too, on the Eurostar from London (less than 6 hours): with a change at Paris, there is enough time to enjoy a leisurely meal to get the trip off to a good start. The views from Paris down to Avignon of tiny, half-deserted medieval villages perched on steep hillsides, red geraniums and lime-green ferns tumbling over balconies, fertile valleys of yellow corn and wheat, occasionally highlighted with a blaze of red poppies like a Van Gogh landscape, and the occasional field of wild irises and lavender, always make me happy that I’ve taken the train to this corner of France.
Avignon: The best viewpoint is from the Gardens of Rocher des Doms above the Palais des Papes. The gardens are not worth the trip for themselves, but there are benches on which to sit to take in the peacocks and the panoramic views over the entire city and the surrounding areas.
If you visit only one monument, make it the Papal Palace, the Palais des Papes, which includes the Popes’ private apartments with some fabulous frescoes, and is one of the musts of Avignon. This emblem of the city, an awe-inspiring monument to the importance of Avignon in the Christian world of the Middle Ages was built in the 1300s by two popes – Benedict XII and his successor, Clement V. It was to become the biggest gothic edifice in all of Europe and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the episcopal buildings and the Saint Bénézet Bridge.
Next to the palace is the Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral, built in 1150, with the statue of the Virgin Mary, entirely covered in gold, 6 metres high and weighing 4500 kilos, protecting the city from the bell tower.
The historic centre radiates from the Place de l’Horloge, a popular square bordered by cafés and restaurants. Just like the Place du Palais higher up you could spend the day just watching the street performers. Here is the City Hall built in the mid 19th century over a former cardinal’s palace. Next to it is the 19th-century municipal theatre which houses the Avignon opera.
Avignon is a city full of ancient dwellings, museums, churches, chapels and art galleries and you can easily fill a week here without leaving the city but it also has a hippy, boho area. In the Rue des Teinturiers, a delightful cobblestone street dating from the Middle Ages, the street is lined with wine bars and small restaurants, and artists and musicians mingle here in a village-like ambience. Then there is bourgeois Avignon on one side of the main avenue, the Rue de la Repúblic, a chic designer clothing and luxury shops area. The other side of Repúblicc leads to the Place Pie and the Halles, the famous covered market and meeting place for the people of Avignon.
But most people come to Avignon to see the famous bridge, the St. Bénézet Bridge, built around 1180 (by a simple shepherd, or so goes the story) to link the city to Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Over the years, war and flooding took their toll on the bridge and today, the 12th-century St. Nicholas chapel along with four arches of the bridge are all that remain of the original structure.
The historic region (Luberon) between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon is often cited as being the most beautiful in France, rolling hills streaked with lavender and medieval villages perched on craggy rocks.
Villages like Gordes, a compact hilltop town at the foot of the Vaucluse Mountains which is one of the trendiest places to live in Provence. The ancient Borie village, an impressive complex of stone houses which was once the homes of shepherds and agricultural workers before the industrial revolution, was lovingly restored in the 1970s by a team of archaeologists and locals. There are 300 of these in Gordes.
Roussillon: This area has to be visited, if only for the startling ochre colour of the earth as it is located in the very heart of the biggest ochre deposits in the world. These natural pigments are used throughout the village, the walls of the houses being washed with the traditional ochre rendering, the many different oxides in the ochre sands combining in countless shades.
The hills are streaked with it, and an Ochre Trail has been laid out and marked.
Ochres was mined by the Romans
during their settlement of Provence but only became a widespread, industrial product in the late 18th century when Jean-Etienne Astier had the idea of washing the ochre-laden sands to extract the pure pigment. Today, though natural ochre faces strong competition from synthetic pigments, it remains unrivalled for use in certain applications.
Arles and Aix de Provence. More like Spain or Italy with narrow streets and shady squares it is the gateway to the Camargue. Arles has a Roman theatre ringed by cobbled, medieval streets and is one of the most interesting towns in France.
It was home to Van Gogh in the 1880’s and because of this the town now has a flourishing artistic centre. Buy books on Van Gogh and postcards here which you won’t find anywhere else. The elegant spa town of Aix is Cezanne’s own town where you can visit his workshop and take a guided tour of landmarks in the life of the painter and that of the writer, Emile Zola.
After Arles, Van Gogh went to the pretty little town of St. Remy which nestles at the foot of the magnificent Massif des Alpilles, now classified as the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles. Stroll along the boulevards under the shade of century-old plane trees in the evening and raid the boutiques and art galleries for bargains (well, perhaps not, the Provencals are not as slow as Peter Mayle made them out to be and they strike a hard bargain).
And then there is Baux de Provence, officially classified and labelled as “one of the most beautiful villages in France” (by the French).
About 15 Kl from Arles this is a village high up in the limestone-mountains of Les Alpilles, located on a 245m. rocky plateau from where magnificent views of Arles and the Camargue can be had. It is rich in cultural treasures, with 22 architectural monuments classified as “Historic”, including the church, chateau, town-hall, hospital, chapels, houses, doorways and many items of furniture.
The village (pop. 400) has been painstakingly restored, beautiful Renaissance façades and ‘hôtels particuliers’today serving as art galleries and museums, visited by more than one-and-a-half-million tourists a year, even though the visits must be made on foot.
The narrow streets leading up to the Citadelle des Baux are lined with bistros and restaurants with terraces hanging over the cliffs – all with views to die for. Many of these restaurants have international reputations and offer high quality dining.
I’ve probably missed off your favourite village: this is just a sample of what you can see comfortably within a week using local buses. Many years ago we toured the area by car but I found the local transport both easy to understand and very efficient.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And now, my favourite part of the city, after a day spent among the relics of the past, the food market which runs along two streets in the town. The market is full of noise and energy from the buyers and sellers of the dried fruits, the cheeses, the fish, the olives, the urns of capers of all sizes (an essential in Sicilian cooking), the many different varieties of tomatoes, the aubergines, the jewel-coloured peppers, and the huge hessian bags full of pistachios, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, hazelnuts, cobnuts, you name it, they have it here, all fresh and all ready to use.
The modern part of town is less interesting to those seeking signs of the past, but it has something worth seeing in the lovely Basilica Sanctuario Madonna delle Lacrime, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Tears, located across the street from the archaeological museum. It was originally built to house a mass-produced gypsum bas-relief of the Madonna that had miraculously wept for 3 days in 1953 in the home of a poor Siracusan family. Although often described as resembling an upside-down ice-cream cone, the building is actually meant to represent a teardrop
Inside, the building is quite spacious, and there is always a number of the faithful praying to the little Madonna who is credited with having performed several miracles, mostly of the healing the halt and lame and the curing the blind type. There is a large shop attached to the Santuario (so, what’s new?) but it does have a marvellous collection of books and postcards.
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.
Altar with Caravaggio Painting
Marble Christening Font
Street entertainers outside the church
Mosaic Floor in Foyer
Santa Lucia alla Badia
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.
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.
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.
Not only was the amphitheatre used for drama: political life was played out here too, especially the assemblies in which all citizens participated.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Yes, a long time ago! Circa 1980
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.