Month: April 2018

Sicily Day 1: Catania


My alarm went off at 8 a.m. I was sleepy but far too excited to go back to sleep. My friendly concierge suggested a place on the square for breakfast: brioche and gelato. He said it would be the only place open. No wonder! The whole town was still sleeping it off from last night’s escapades. He explained that weekends here begin on Wednesday afternoons. When I inquired about tea, cereal and toast he told me that I would never find these – and his words were so true for the rest of the trip. He told me that the hotel was once an aristocrat’s home and it was probably built in the mid 1600s. The marble floor tiles and stairs are not reproductions! I took a look from my balcony. WOW!

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View from my balcony

Apart from a couple of elderly gentlemen walking their dogs at this ‘early’ hour the square and the adjoining streets were deserted. I wandered around for a couple of hours and managed to find a coffee (50p) and a pastry on the waterfront. There was graffiti everywhere. If this was the U.S the graffiti would imply that this was an unsafe area, but not here. Here it’s accepted. Lines of washing hung from balconies high above me as I watched the town slowly come to life. It was fun watching the men erecting the

Graffiti galore

enormous umbrellas that cover the outdoor restaurants. A man was standing at the opera house door looking very official. I indicated that I’d like to go in. He told me that there was a rehearsal in progress but I could come back at 11. I did. Then he told me that the rehearsal was still in progress and I should come back at 3. As I spoke to him I peeked inside and sure enough I could see and entire orchestra in rehearsal. I wonder if I could go to a performance this evening. I meet with the tour group at 6 p.m. but that’s only for an hour. I’ll check.

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Plants arriving at the opera hose

By the waterfront I found a monk standing by the road. He was in the same spot a week later. Perhaps he’s collecting alms.

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My morning coffee – and a monk

By mid-morning it was already getting warm for my liking so I found an outdoor café, Comis, with a view of the Bellini opera house, and sat in the shade of one of the umbrellas and watched the world go by.

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View of the opera house from my mid morning coffee cafe

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Statue to Bellini outside the opera house

Next stop was a huge church, St Nicholas, adjacent to a monastery. It’s  one of the largest Catholic church buildings in Sicily and it’s construction began after the eruption of Etna in 1669 replacing an older Renaissance temple. Then the earthquake in1693 destroyed it completely. Construction resumed in the eighteenth century, first by the architect Amato, then by Francesco Battaglia, and at the end by Stefano Ittar who in 1780 completed the great dome, while the facade remained incomplete until today. The church was confiscated by the United Government in 1866 and then it returned to the Benedictines and rededicated.  During the Second World War was badly bombed. There was an amazing Baroque organ built in the 1700s and, for a couple of Euros, I was able to take the stairs to the dome high above the nave. I found myself the only one on the roof of the building – and I don’t really like heights. I could see a block of apartments whose rear wall was the

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outside wall of a Roman amphitheatre. Such a hodge podge of buildings. If a wall, of whatever age or design, is still standing it is incorporated into the newer building regardless of ‘design.’ It’s so practical, and so unique.

It’s 2:15 now and I’m just finishing lunch at Etoile d’or. It’s an outdoor patio opposite the park and I have a view of little stalls are set up in the railway arches, mainly peopled by

stall owners from Africa. I’m trying an arancini, a Sicilian speciality of rice and  ragu in the shape of a pear. It reminded me of the Eric Satie’s ‘Three pieces in the form of a pear” which title he gave to a group of piano pieces after people criticised him for his lack of form! When I went to the bathroom I came back to my table and found the waiter doing and amazing impression of Basil Fawlty. He was strutting around, flapping his arms and saying “Pig-e-on.” Apparently while I’d been in the bathroom the pigeons had come and eaten my arancini! He quickly brought me another. I had a beer, then a mini strawberry tart, then another beer. After lunch I explored the odd sight of the elephant in the square. This is a carved chunk of lava, reminding me of Bolton, my home town, whose symbol is also an elephant. I went to see a bar below which there’s a lava tube and you can see the original town walls on top of which is lava from the 1693 eruption of Etna.


In the background is the strange unfinished facade of the church of St Nicholas

It was time to get my bag from Hotel Trieste and move to Hotel Gresi where I would meet the G Adventures group. Lots of vespas tried to run me over but most of the passengers now wear helmets unlike when I last came to Italy in 2003. There was rubbish everywhere, even strewn around the historical sites. I arrived at the hotel, got stuck in

the lift, and then locked in the bathroom in the lobby but eventually figured it all out! I headed for the G adventures meeting room at 6 p.m. The place was deserted but a banner suspended from a table indicated that I was in the right place at least. I stayed put, sifted through my photos and wrote up my journal as a few fellow travelers drifted in. We met Alicia, our 30 year old tour guide and 11 travellers. Three were missing. Apart from a German couple we were all English speaking: a newly retired couple who had moved to Colorado Springs after working in Texas for 20 something years, two women who were friends from Winnipeg, Canada, two women from Australia, and a mother and adult son also from Australia. I was the only Brit which surprised me, though one of the ‘missing’ travellers who would be joining the group tomorrow was a Brit. I found it interesting that the only men in the group were travelling with a woman, whereas 5 women were travelling alone. What does this say? That single men are more comfortable travelling without the security of a group, or that single men don’t travel. I’d love to see some statistics on this. Maybe Rachel can give me some information.

So the hour meeting began thirty minutes late, ran til 7:30 and then it was suggested that we all went out for dinner together. That was fine with me, though it meant that I wouldn’t get to the opera. We had dinner at ‘Be Quiet’ which nobody was, fortunately. It took 3 hours for dinner – a pace  that I became acquainted with over the next seven days. I enjoyed both the meal and the conversations. This is Alicia’s second season with G adventures. I asked her what her background was. She has a master’s degree in economics but before this job she worked in the hospitality field in a lot of different service jobs. I shared a fish platter and a bottle of Chardonnay with the couple from Colorado, and then had a delicious seafood linguine.

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Our group at dinner in Be Quiet

I was back in my room by 11 to write my journal and sift through today’s photos and post a few onto Facebook.

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View from my room

During my wanderings I had found a street named D’Agostino. I have Denton ancestors who married a D’Agostino who was, by profession, an ice-cream maker, in Lancashire!

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I particularly like this Baroque face. It looks like a real portrait of a child.


A Sicilian Journey: Getting there

What drew me to Sicily? Pure and simply: Montalbano! In general I watch very little TV but over the last few years two detective series have fascinated me – not for their plot, or for their characters, though I have to admit I think  Luca Zingaretti is very cute, but for their settings. One of these was Shetland,  and so in the summer of 2017 off I went for a week on the Shetland Isles. So next on my list was the Sicily of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books. I knew that most of it was filmed in the area of Ragusa, the fictional Vigata, so any trip had to include Ragusa. The towns built on the steep hills are another take on Hebden Bridge, I guess, just 2000 years older. There have been 12 series which have done much to popularize the region and there are many ‘Montalbano tours’ but I wanted something less touristy, so a small group tour that travelled mainly by public transport seemed just the ticket. I found what I wanted online, with a group called G Adventures. it seemed to have the right mix of free time and group time, something that’s always important to me since I’m someone who  needs ‘alone time.’

This was to be my first trip to a non-English speaking country since 2006 when I went to Japan to visit Rachel for her 21st birthday. When I realised that that was 12 years ago I was amazed. I spent the week before my trip in a state of anxiety mixed with eagerness – what a strange combination! I cancelled some regular weekly events because I was so anxious, yet I couldn’t wait to pack my bag (a new one purchased for the trip – a backpack with wheels) and get going. Go figure!

2:40 p.m. Dublin airport, April 21st

A ‘dear diary’ moment: It already feels that I’m getting to know Dublin airport – and it’s not a bad airport to get to know. It’s small enough to be manageable and quiet enough not to be in a state of complete sensory overload. When i emigrated to England last September (can you emigrate to somewhere where you were born and lived for 30 years?) I had had a layover in Dublin, my first visit to that fair city (‘where the boys are so pretty’ quoth Anna). On that occasion I was cocooned in the business class lounge enjoying a pot of Irish breakfast tea – well it was breakfast time and I was in Ireland for the first time.) Then  my first vacation last month was to Ireland, and now, a month later, I’m on a stopover to Catania. The man at the passport control asked me why I was going to Sicily. “To see the architecture,” I replied. “Oh, really?” was his response. “And drink the vino?” he suggested. “Maybe. I’ll see.”

Yesterday a watched a two hour documentary about Sicily on YouTube, pretty well the only forward planning I’d done about what I’d be seeing. I’d no idea the island has so many connections with North Africa and Syria. I saw new vines springing from recent lava flows and 2000 year old stone cisterns where grapes were treaded under foot. The catacombs of Palermo were also featured. Unlike those of rome these bodies are not skeletal. The bodies were mummified, dressed in clothing, and in some instance, posed in family groups, sitting at a table. 8000 bodies lie there. At first it was only monks who were buried there but eventually the aristocracy joined them. I’m not sure if I’ll be brave enough to go there.

It’s a very warm day. On the spur of the moment I’ve decided not to take a jacket on this trip, just a fuzzy blue cardigan I bought earlier this week in the market in Blackburn for a £5 bargain.  Also  at the last minute I added my turquoise ‘evening’ top for the evening passeggiata. I do hope the weather’s not too hot. Looking at the weather forecast I had realised that I couldn’t go to Sicily any later in the Spring because it would be too hot for me to enjoy wandering around the towns and cities. The daytime temperatures are expected to be in the upper 70’sF.

Before the plane could take off from Dublin a man had to be ejected for singing on the plane. OK, he was drunk too. Five security people boarded the plane just as we were about to leave the gate. They handled the situation in a very low key way. When the man insisted that they remove him by force they refused, so there was a stand-off for a while, but in the end he went peaceably enough.


Ejection from the plane before take off

I had a window seat and at one point I could see both the white cliffs of Dover and the French coast at the same time. We had a good view of Paris


Flying over Paris

and the winding Seine before crossing the Alps just as the light was beginning to fade. ‘Pink time’ we used to call this back  in Walnut Creek. IMG_2805

One of my biggest sources of anxiety was the fact that it would already be dark when I arrived in Catania and the thought of trying to negotiate a bus from the airport to my hotel was overwhelming, so the day before I contacted the concierge at Hotel Trieste and he arranged for a taxi to be waiting at the airport – complete with man with sign with my name on it in Arrivals. And, sure enough, it all came to pass just as planned.

We passed the docks and the long train bridge before getting to the centre of Catania, about 7 kilometres. My first impression as we drove through the town was that I was back in San Francisco. All the vegitation was the same: prickly pear cacti, eucalyptus trees. We passed a McDonalds, and, of course, we were driving on the right. But IMG_2859 (2)everything was covered in graffiti. One sign read ‘refugees welcome.’ I asked my driver about that very issue. He was very anti refugee. Sicily doesn’t have the infrastructure, the hospitals, the schools, to deal with such large numbers of refugees. But, of course, that’s what all the countries are saying.  I asked my taxi driver if there would still be eateries open for a quick dinner since it was now after 10 p.m. He laughed,  “The restaurants are just opening. It’s Saturday. ” Indeed. The streets were absolutely full of people, just walking around. I’d landed just as the passeggiata was beginning. We stopped at the end of a tiny alley – just wide enough for one pedestrian and one vespa to pass. He pointed down the alley. “Your hotel is down there.” Should I believe him? Is this is scam to get my money? OMG! A sign, about 9″ wide, announced Hotel Trieste, but huge iron  gates 10ft high were firmly closed. A group of a dozen young teenage boys were gathered around the gate. “How do I get in?” They gave me blank looks. There was a shop next door, and the shopkeeper was standing outside smoking. I asked him the same question – in my best English, of course. He took me by the arm, guided me back to the gate and pointed to  a bell with a sign adjacent the size of a business card. He pressed the buzzer. Magic! IMG_2845 (2)The gate opened and found myself in an unlit courtyard. I peered into the gloom, saw some steps, went up, carting my case uncertainly, opened a door and suddenly “Morris” IMG_2844 (2)came to my ears. Was I ever so  thankful to hear that word? “Your plane was late.” The owner showed me to my room. “There are 7 rooms. You are in number 7.” OMG. I have shutters. I raced to open them and found my very own verandah overlooking the hustle and bustle of the street below. I asked him where I could get something quick and easy to eat. He explained carefully that when you come to Sicily you have to adopt the time frame of the locals. “Forget quick. Here everything is slow.” He produced a map and pointed out that the hotel is next to the Opera House. Literally the next building. OMG. This is amazing. He gave me a business card of an eatery and 5 minutes after arriving I was off into the street.


The nightly passeggiata (midnight)

There were thousands of people milling to and fro. I remembered this from a night in Naples back in 2003. Remembering the first rule of the tourist in a city at night which is not to look like a tourist I put my map out of sight and headed to the main door of the opera house and the square. I found the place he’d recommended but I just couldn’t get any service at the take-away counter. Groups of people just kept getting in front of me, and I began to wonder if you had to have a ticket first, or even order somewhere else. Besides I didn’t recognise any of the food! I wandered away, across the buzzing square lined with big outdoor TVs showing football on this Saturday night. I found a quieter sit down outdoors restaurant serving pizza. There was no way I could eat a whole pizza so I managed to ask to waitress through sign language if I could order a slice. No, but at Ceres, just past the next TV I could order a mini pizza! So here I am, at 11:20  eating a


Journal writing at Ceres


Dinner at midnight!

whole mini pizza and watching the world go by. It’s a very pleasant temperature for sitting outdoors. I’m the only person sitting alone, or walking through the square alone. Dead giveaway that I’m a tourist! I think I must be the oldest too. I can see the crumbling walls of the opera house, the ubiquitous graffiti, elaborate wrought iron grills on windows, lighted balconies with terracotta plantpots. Everyone seems in good spirits too. I haven’t seen one drunk, and though there’s a little car with a couple of polizia standing by it they are just observing the crowd, mainly in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m being constantly bombarded by flower sellers and trinket sellers, but nothing too aggressive.

When I finally got back to my room the street noise below was LOUD. I tried closing the shutters but it didn’t make any different –  niente. The floors of the hotel are marble. The rooms must be 20 feet high and the whole building acts as an echo chamber. When I re-watched a Montalbano episode on the evening I got back to England that echo sound effect was what I noticed the most. By the time I’d posted some photos onto Facebook and Instagram to assure friends and family that I had arrived safely, it was 1 a.m. before I got into bed and in spite of the noise I went to sleep immediately. I woke up at 3:30 and peaking through the shutters I could see that the street below was still busy.


View from my room 3:30 a.m.

A week later – and another view of Stoodley Pike

IMG_2594For the past few months I’ve been noticing a steep path crossing the hillside below Heptonstall, and I eventually picked up a small guide to Eaves Wood somewhere in my travels. So today I decided to go and check it out. It was the first warm, sunny day that we’ve had this year!

IMG_2457One of my favourite views from Heptonstall across to Stoodley Pike which I hiked up to last weekend. Daffies are out in bloom in the village.

Just past the church in Heptonstall the cliff drops down very steeply. I’d explored just the top of this path with Anna in November. It’s called Hell Hole. Officially, no-one knows why these terraces and paths were created, but they probably were constructed in the 19th century. So I started off right at the top of the hill.

Hell Hole rocks



Great view for my picnic –  right into Hebden Bridge.


You can’t imagine how long it took me to set up this selfie!


My ancestors built this – no, not the ruined shed, the terrace behind! 

Hebden was PACKED with people. The pubs were jammed. There was no space on any of the outdoor tables in the square. And just think, only two weeks ago I took this photo of a lone pint at the Shoulder of Mutton!


A 3 hour walk for a packet of pasta?

I knew today would be difficult. It’s 8 years ago today that my mum died. I’d been thinking about it all week, and I knew that I didn’t have anything pencilled into my calendar for today, so nothing to distract me. Speaking of calendars my wall calendar (the one that just looks pretty above my desk) has a photo of Heptonstall in the distance and a steep cobbled path in the foreground. Hmm – I can’t think of where that would be.

Yesterday’s walk in Pecket Well

I did some quilting, sewing, knitting, and even went to buy a couple of new canvasses in case I felt inspired to paint. But by 3 o’clock I was looking for some distraction and thought I’d go and buy some pasta from the Coop. Yesterday I’d had my second grocery delivery since moving in so I had mussels and prawns and salmon so I decided to make seafood pasta. It takes about 5 minutes to walk to the Co-op. Though when I set off from home I thought I might end up checking out a certain path that goes above the Coop that my ride home from band had told me about last night. Apparently it has great views and is paved, so it’s possible to do it without sinking to your knees in mud. So I took a map and some water and set off. Three hours, 7 miles and 61 flights climbed and 61 flights descended I got home with my pasta, having climbed to Stoodley Pike and back  – right from my apartment!!! Or maybe I should say right from the Coop.

I passed a lady from Horsehold and a man from Kilnshaw Farm, some pheasants and  one new born lamb. Oh yes, and a dry stone waller who told me all about ‘throughs.’ Well, I did ask him! It was a fascinating hike. There’s a whole community perched way up on the hill across from my apartment. The man told me that this area had once been a

model farm which explained why the stone walls and therefore paths are all at 90degree angles – so unusual for these moors. He also explained that beneath the fields is a whole drainage system which delineates the grazing pasture from the moorland. I’ll have to find out more about this.  I did, after eating the pasta! And, you’ll never guess what. The man in charge of the archives  in Hebden Bridge, where I’ll be helping out tomorrow, did his Phd thesis about this area and goes into great detail about the division of the land . Most of it is gobbledy-gook to me, but with a bit of time I should be able to get the gist of it. Back in the 1400’s the whole area was once a deer park and so when it did eventually get divided into fields it was done so in a methodical way, all around the same time – hence the geometrical field shapes and unity in the wall construction. AND looking back down to Heptonstall I realised I was on the IMG_2242.JPGcobbled road that is on my wall calendar that I looked at this morning. Of course all along the hike  I was thinking of the time I climbed up to Stoodley Pike with Sarah last summer and was wondering if my daughters would like to do this hike. The farms, especially Horshold is

amazing – a tiny community perched high above Hebden Bridge. I was the only one on Stoodley Moor as a reached the tower. I was both amazed and proud of myself as I thought about my mum. It was her love of the countryside and hiking that stays with me in all my hikes.

Great use for old supermarket trolleys.

The guardian of the path.

We’re looking at you!

IMG_2334 My glass of wine is finished. Time to make the seafood pasta img_2335.jpg

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                                                The quiet of the countryside??

Easter week

The weather looked decidedly un-Easterlike, so I stocked up with heart-warming provisions!

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As I waited for the bus up to Heptonstall on Easter Sunday morning I found myself in a hail storm. Now, I WAS expecting to sing “All hail the power of Jesu’s name” at the Easter service but I didn’t expect him to be taking this literally. As I tried to send a text I found that my phone auto completes Jesu to Jedi. ohm what a gay day!

Easter Sunday in Heptonstall involves a short service at the Methodist octagonal chapel, a parade of parishoners along the steep cobbled streets to the church of St Michael’s. With temperature below freezing and a mixture of hail and sleet falling from the heavens only one brave soul was dressed in Easter togs and an Easter bonnet to crown it!


What I woke up to on Easter Sunday. White Christmas I’m all for. A white Easter? No thanks.

Easter Monday is the Hebden Bridge duck race. Only the bravest of souls ventured out for this event. It’s a fund raiser done by the Rotary club.

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It involves 10,000, yes, ten thousand plastic ducks being thrown over one bridge and fished out at the next bridge. The purchaser of the winning duck got a vacation for 2. Ducks are a £1 each.

A net across the river stops the ducks from wandering downstream and polluting the river. But this means that volunteers have to wade in, shovel them up into buckets and take them up the ladder.

Meanwhile the Hebden Bridge Brass Band played – and the local geese got very disoriented.

Since my regular Tuesday events weren’t taking place because of Easter week I took the opportunity to revisit Bradford Cathedral and work on one of  the tapestries that will adorn the altar when they’re completed. I did some work on them in the summer. I also checked out the new rooftop restaurant  in the South Asian Arts organisation – great place full of interesting art, photography and poetry. Last time I was there I met Delius!

A day out in Leeds to see Art – the play with Nigel Havers  (Man child) and Stephen Tompkinson (Brassed Off). Most movies and TV I watched in the US were English. I didn’t have actors I wanted to see live. In any case they’d probably in New York or LA and the tickets would be just too expensive anyway. So today I got to see two of my favourite all-time actors together. The Grand Theatre in Leeds really IS grand – a step back into Victoriana. It was built in 1878 as a backlash to the craze for music halls which let the tone of the city down! Not sure what Beethoven was doing there.