or – a lovely 5 days in the Franconia region of Germany
or – a lovely 5 days in the Franconia region of Germany
The idea of this trip came from a few ladies in a Meetup group that I’d joined last year. We decided we’d like to travel together for a few days, somewhere within easy reach. We all put forward a list of choices and we decided upon Amsterdam. Unlike the others I’d never been to Holland. When I’d lived in England before moving to the U.S we’d always spent vacations in far away, exotic places, knowing that we’d be more comfortable travelling to places closer to England when we were older . . . little did we know that I’d end up living in the U.S for 32 years . . . but now that I’ve moved back to England here’s a wonderful opportunity to visit those places closer to home.
And just how close is Amsterdam from where I live now? Well, I had breakfast at home in Hebden Bridge, and elevenses in Holland! We flew together from Leeds/Bradford airport, a 45 minute drive from home, and the flight was 50 minutes. It was a lovely sunny day as we left but I didn’t get much of a view from my aisle seat on the plane either going or coming back home.
Our hotel was in Zaandam, a 20 minute train journey from the airport and only 12 minutes by train from the centre of Amsterdam. I knew that Zaandam was famous for some crazy architecture but that was about the extent of my knowledge. My trip to the U.S and moving apartments a few days after I’d returned had taken up my time and I’d done zero preparation for the Holland adventure.
We checked into Easy hotel which is on the floors above Primark! My room was on the 10th floor and I could see a large portion of Zaandam below me. It’s population is around 76,000 and the amazing thing is that apart from one elevated road in the distance I couldn’t see a single car! But almost every street had its own canal. We went to explore the city with its narrow buildings, all different and brightly colored, though I was surprised by the lack of blooming flowers in the city. I’d seen far more daffodils driving from Hebden Bridge to the airport than I could see in Zaandam. The same comment was to be made in Amsterdam too. We found the town square and parked ourselves in a bar there to people watch but it was rather chilly to sit outside. A large statue of a ship builder dominated the square and I was surprised to see that the name below was written in Russian. I needed to find out why – and who this person was. We found the main sluice gate to the main canal with its ornate stone columns and date stones and a new rusty iron sculpture of a sinking bridge has been added. I even found a Mozartstrasse. What’s Mozart got to do with Zaandam? We had dinner in an Italian restaurant where large black and white portraits of old Italian movie stars decorated the walls. By 9 o’clock we were ready to turn in for the night.
A day in Amsterdam.
We found a little coffee/pancake shop opposite the hotel to have breakfast it it became ‘our’ breakfast place each morning of the trip. It had rained during the night but there was lots of blue sky as we crossed the canal to get our morning tea – but it was decidedly chilly. Nowhere in Holland did we find pots of tea, and since our hotel, though excellent in many other ways, didn’t have a kettle in the room, we were constantly on the look-out for tea as we wandered around all day.
We spent the day in Amsterdam, traveling there by train in 12 minutes from Zaandam. I was excited to step foot in the city but I soon realized that my idea of Amsterdam in my imagination was nothing like the vibrant modern city that I was seeing. It seems primarily a city made up of people in their 20’s but perhaps that can be said of most capital cities, and probably reflects more my age than anything else. Fast moving bicycles were a devil to negotiate, making me realize just how much I rely on my hearing to cross roads normally. Here silent bikes charge towards you, suddenly appearing from around corners at crazy speeds. Dodging between the trams outside the train station also took some skill. Canals were everywhere, not just the four main canals but a veritable fabric of interwoven watery threads bordered by immaculate four story houses painted in beautiful colors but often perched at crazy angles as though they are falling over – and that comment was made before I’d had my first beer at lunch time! Who built them? When? Why? My head was filled with questions. But then, that’s one of the reasons I enjoy traveling to new places.
Leaving the station, where the mirrors on the ceiling had the interesting effect of portraying everyone upside down, taking our life in our hands we crossed the tram tracks, moved swiftly to avoid bicycles and jumped on the free ferry across to the A’Dam centre. It was very, very windy and the water was choppy on the ferry. There seemed to be just as many bicycles as people! The A’Dam tower is a high rise building housing clubs, restaurants, a music school, a lookout tower and a crazy swing that swings you over the edge of the top of the building. Rising 100 meters in 22 seconds, complete with light show, we found ourselves in a bar with spectacular views, but even better was the outdoor platform where the booming sound of the wind was amazing. Several times we were almost blown over, and I couldn’t imagine how the swing was still allowed to operate in such windy conditions.
Heading past 100s, probably 1000s of bikes on racks at the station I found myself wondering how people remember where they’ve parked their bikes. I mean, who hasn’t forgotten which floor they parked their car on in a multi story car park? There are around 880,000 bikes in Amsterdam and on average between 12,000 and 15,000 are pulled out of the canals each year. Amsterdam also has 4 full time divers who are on 24 hour standby to pull out occupants of the cars which fall into the canals – about one per week! The three main canals were built in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age when the Dutch were exploring and colonizing many places around the world and were becoming one of the most important trading nations. Even the Tzar of Russia came to learn the tricks of the trade from the Dutch . . . no, not from the famous Red Light district but from their ship building experts. But more of that later.
Even Primark had gotten into the spirit of the scenery!
We had lunch in a loverly little cafe bar and continued exploring the large square with their imposing buildings. Most of the paths and squares are surfaced in brick tiles, sometimes in intricate patterns. Apparently because the ground surface is so marshy macadam roads would disintegrate but the brick absorbs the water and makes the paths quiet stable. The same can’t really be said of the oldest houses in the cities. The oldest I saw dated from 1590 but many proudly sported date stones in the 1600’s. To find stable ground to form the foundation of a building wooden poles had to be sunk to find the stable sand and these formed the footings of the buildings. Because stable, dry land was at such a premium buildings tended to haver a space footprint and so extended upwards rather than outwards. Merchants built their warehouse adjacent to their home. Overhanging winches were used to get the wares into the warehouses and apparently these winches are often updated and still used to enable large piece of furniture to be taken up onto the 3rd and 4th floor apartments.
The Prince’s canal was began in 1612 and during the 50 years it took to complete the population of Amsterdam had grown from 50,000 to 200,000 making it the 3rd biggest city in the world after London and Paris. Built in 1630 the Westerkerk has the highest spire in Amsterdam and Rembrandt is buried somewhere in the church although the exact location has been lost.Very close to the church is the Anne Frank house and the spire with its clock face was visible from the attic and Anne described in her diary the chiming of its carillon as a source of comfort. There is a photo in Anne’s house of the Nazi troupes driving right past the church.
We’d booked our tickets to Anne Frank’s house before we left England and we had been lucky to get tickets at such short notice. We’d got the final time slot of the day, yet even so it was packed. I’ve never read her diary, but Anna had visited the house a few years ago so I knew it was worth going to. I think the thing that made the biggest impression on me was the silence. Yes, everyone was given a listening commentary and so everyone was intent on listening to the commentary so no-one was chattering to their friends and family. The journals Anne kept reminded me so much of my journals which I wrote at around the same age – and still have – filled with little sketches. The posters that her father had put on her wall I found very poignant. Only Anne’s father Otto, survived out of the 8 people who were in the house, and I found his interview much later in his life very hard to watch.
We’d planned on having dinner in the Grand cafe at Amsterdam’s grand central station situated in the former 1881 waiting room with impressive Art Nouveau decor. We hadn’t made reservations and we were fortunate to get a table, but it was very busy and when I asked our waiter to take a photo of us enjoying our meal he told is flatly that no, he was too busy. We had already noted and commented on the rather brusque service we’d had in several cafes and bars and I read an interesting interpretation of this characteristic. Holland is flat. The landscape is bare, open. There’s nowhere to hide. Perhaps this accounts for the forthright demeanor of the Dutch: they say it like it is. No gratuitous smile masking the real feeling that is so often the order of the day in other countries. Maybe there’s something in that. One of the more bizarre residents of this restaurant is a white cockatoo by the name of Elvis!
The next morning we were to go exploring rural Holland and we began our day by going to Zaanse Schans where restored and reconstructed windmills still operate, but now primarily for tourists. Our journey didn’t quite work out as we expected since we got off at the wrong station but not to worry. We figured it out. There’s a comfort in being with a group, even when we all get it wrong! Eventually we back tracked on a bus and found a student who was going our way and was happy to walk with us to the village. We had to wait to cross a draw bridge which was just being raised to let a couple of boats through, and then it got stuck going down, but eventually we were able to cross and soon found ourselves confronted by several picturesque windmills. It dawned on me that this is what I’d been expecting in Amsterdam! Yes, crazy, I know, but in my imagination Holland is Monet and Van Gogh’s paintings of the country – pre-industrial revolution. It’s this ubiquitous tulip strewn landscape, dotted with windmills and clog wearing millers that Holland promotes to tourists, and I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker – ha! But now we were firmly in tourist land and I set off to explore by myself arranging to meet the others for lunch later.
I set off along the canal bank to the farthest windmill, stopping to take lots of photos, and ultimately decided on visiting the saw mill that was hard at work. An interesting movie showed the rebuilding of this windmill. So many moving parts – amazingly intricate. The sound of the sawing was interesting too and I stopped to watch the sawdust piling into clear bags in layers. Another of the mills grinds spices and another grinds pigments for paint. One had a date stone of 1667. I was surprised to see that the body of some of the mills were thatched. At the height of its power around 1720 there were 600 mills in this area. Traditionally, the wood processing and food industries have been the most important industries in the Zaan region. In the 17th and 18th centuries, along the banks of the Zaan there were weaving mills, forges and various other processing industries (tobacco, cocoa, paper, paint, candles), but also shipbuilding and maritime shipping were well represented. Almost every village in the Zaan region participated in whaling. In 1697 almost 80 Greenland sailors sailed on the Zaan at the same time, with no fewer than 40,000 barrels of whale bacon!
A cheese shop showed the cheese making process (something that I’d seen for the first time in Sicily last year) and the servers were dressed in traditional costume. We explored some of the local merchants’ houses, very pretty 17th to 19th century, with swans gliding along the small canals and then we had lunch in D’Swarte Walvis. 20 years ago it lost its Michelin star but at least that means it’s now within my price range. we had a lovely window seat and were occupied by watching workers preparing the gardens and courtyard for the upcoming summer season – power washing everything.
As we returned to the station we could smell chocolate coming from a large cocoa factory, another tradition of this region.
The gardens of Keukenhof were next on our itinerary. It had been overcast in Zaanse Schans but here at Keukenhof it was decidedly chilly too, and it felt a little weird to be wandering around these lovely gardens in such weather. In fact the gardens only opened a couple of days ago for the season so they probably weren’t looking quite their best. What I found quite lovely however, were the 6 or so buildings featuring amazing floral displays. Around 7 million bulbs are planted annually. It opened in 1950 in the grounds of a former castle dating back to the 15th century. The theme of this year’s displays is Flower Power and the displays were inventive, colorful and amusing at times. I particularly enjoyed the orchid building, and reading the names of the tulips. I tried to find names of people I know: I found a Marie Jo and a Danny – and Oracle! There was even a Pleyel piano bedecked with flower pots.
We headed back to Zaandam after a full day of beautiful colors and experiences, not to mention 8 miles of walking! We had dinner in a bar in Zaandam and were alarmed to find shards of glass on the table. We moved tables and were even more alarmed to find shards of glass on that table too! Walking back I noticed Tulip Vodka for sale – hmmm.
Haarlem was our destination this morning. The railway station had the most beautiful gift shop which, if my understanding of the Dutch sign above the entrance served me correctly, used to be the first class waiting room. But I was anxious to get my first glimpse of the city and we spent a lovely three and a half hours wandering the streets and taking in the sights. It seemed a more more approachable place than Amsterdam. Most of the bikes here were more like people carriers with carriages for children attached at the front. The window displays in the shops were incredible, and I thought of Paul McCartney whose goal in life was to be a window dresser! A bakery caught my eye, where the window was filled with suspended bread rolls. The entrance to a cannabis shop was guarded by a fierce, good looking policeman who posed with me for a photo! A boutique with brightly colored dresses invited more exploration and I found a dress that Sarah would have loved – every color! For myself I couldn’t resist buying a lacey pale blue shirt. it will look good with my newly purchased tulip socks and windmill earrings!!! The coffee shop that George Clooney advertises looked like no coffee shop I’ve ever seen before. I even found a variety called Arpeggio. Street art graffiti was tasteful, and reminded me of the colorful walls in Reykjavik. The town square is dominated by the Grote Kerk. The church is dedicated to St Bavo who died in 653AD. After fires damaged the original church the current church was built between 1370 and 1538. The organ was built by Christian Muller between 1735 and 1738 and underwent extensive renovation in the early 1960’s. It is a stunning piece of craftsmanship consisting of over 5000 pipes, 68 registers and is almost 30 meters high, but I wasn’t able to see the three manual organ console. Mozart played this organ when he was 10 years old and Handel played it too. There was quite a lot of modern art too, stained glass, sculpture, painting, reminding me of Blackburn cathedral, but here it complements the ancient artwork too.
For once it was warm enough to have lunch at cafe overlooking the square. I had a lovely Thai chicken skewer and a Belgian beer – delightful. Town squares and streets in general are set with bricks rather than macadam so that they don’t buckle with the dampness of the underlying soil. A line of espalier trees provided resting places for birds but I’m glad our table wasn’t directly beneath!
Next we were off to the seaside – or Overveen – Amsterdam’s beach. It didn’t take long to get there by bus and we were lucky that the weather was so good. Beautiful blue sky and a long almost deserted beach to explore. Thousands of razor shells were washed up and walking on them made a wonderful scrunchy sound. We could see high rise buildings of Zandvoort in the distance through the sea mist.
Back in Amsterdam we were bound for an hour and a half’s cruise on the canal. I was anxious that we too late in the day for good light for taking photographs but it was fine. Occasionally we passed by a gap in the rows of merchants’ houses and the low sunlight was able to skim the canal surface – very pretty. I elected not to listen to the running commentary on the headset and just soak in the picture in front of me – beautiful. We passed the dock where the Viking river boat cruise liners dock. They are huge! In the Amstel district we saw the row of houses called the Dancing Ladies because they are now situated at rather weird angles as they sink into the wet soil. Yet all these picturesque houses are immaculately maintained. Apparently there’s a city ordinance requiring this.Also in the Amstel district is the modern opera and ballet hall, built onto the canal, its location and architecture again reminding me of Reykjavik.
It was getting dark by the time our cruise was complete and we headed to the Red Light district which was busy with people my age eager to see what the fuss is all about. The sex toy shops were doing a roaring business. I expected seeing scantily clad girls beckoning guys into the blue movie houses or girls posing seductively in red lighted windows as was the case in Brussels. Perhaps it was just too early in the evening.
Back in Zaandam we tried to ‘go Thai’ but the restaurant didn’t look particularly inviting (lighting makes such a big difference to the ambiance of a place) so we ended up at the nice Italian place for a second night, hungry after another full day of sight seeing and walking 8 miles.
We had planned to spend the morning exploring more of Zaandam before our mid afternoon flight home. I began the day by trying to find postage stamps for the postcards I’d written. This was easier said than done. The first concierge I spoke to didn’t know where I could buy stamps. The second suggested I try the supermarket. No luck there, but a helpful assistant suggested I should try the bookstore. Hmmm. So I set off in search of the book store. Success. Then I asked where I could post my postcards sporting their new stamps. “Ah,” she said, “You need to go to another book store.” This time her instructions of how to locate the bookstore with the mail box was less than accurate, but at least I was having a good time exploring the streets of Zaandam. Having given up and retraced my steps I found the bookstore and, hey presto, there was even a mail box for my postcards!
Next was a visit to Tzar Peter’s house, one of the oldest buildings in Holland. This is the building in which Tzar peter de Grote stayed in 1697. he came to Zaandam in order to learn the trade of ship building. At the time Russia was a country that was way behind the Netherlands in its industry, exploration of the world, and transportation and so Tzar Peter came, incognito, to learn the shipwright’s trade. Incognito was difficult for him because he was 6’8″. The Russian tzars and Dutch monarchs realised that the house needed protection from the elements and in the 19th century a building was built around the wooden house to protect it.
A death mask of Tzar Peter is on display. The windows are completely covered in scratched signature spanning several centuries, and the subsidence causes everything to learn at a precarious angle. it was a great place to take photos and since there were only another couple of people touring the site I was able to take lots of pictures. The were even bottles of Russian Imperial stout for sale, named, of course, Czar Peter.
Back in the town centre I had half an hour to wait for the rest of the group so I indulged myself at a lovely cafe, which was named an ‘American’ cafe. the deserts looked amazing , and I was disappointed that this was the wrong time of day for such extravagance! Still, the place provided me with the best cup of tea on the trip.
Our next port of call was the Monet Atelier located in a house right above the canal. Monet lived for 4 months in Zaandam in 1871 and painted 25 works. He was just in time to capture the old Zaandam, the one that I’d pictured in my mind. The Industrial Revolution, which had taken hold throughout most of Europe, and the advent of the steam engine, would within a few years irrevocably change the characteristic landscape of the Zaandam area, dotted with windmills, as Monet saw it. The small building contains replicas of all 25 paintings and its wonderful to see these all gathered in one small room, when, in actual fact, they are scattered around the world in museums and private collections.
It was time to set off on our journey home and our flight was delayed an hour but Schiphol airport is not a bad place to spend a little extra time. The flight was only 45 minutes and we landed in a lovely sunlit Yorkshire. I took the bus to the centre of Leeds passing Kirkstall Abbey. Perhaps it warrants a day out now that I know it’s quite reachable by public transport. From Leeds a train took me back to Hebden Bridge where I called in at the Chinese to take home some dinner.
Getting to Reykjavik – and learning how to spell it!
We took a taxi to the station since the girls had lots of luggage and then changed trains in Manchester. The first four trains to the airport were cancelled and we were just about to get a taxi when a train showed up. There are big problems with Northern Rail at the
moment. I hadn’t done any planning for this trip – and I know next to nothing about Iceland such as the island’s size, its currency, let alone how bloody expensive the place is! The idea had come from Rachel and I’d jumped at the opportunity of spending 5 days with her in Reykjavik on her way back to the US. Sarah flew with us, changing planes in Iceland in the amazingly crowded Keflavik airport. Not knowing anything about Iceland I’d presumed it would be a small airport with few travellers, instead of which it was packed with people from all over the world, totally overcrowded with people sitting on the floor waiting at the gates to board their flights. My attempt at procuring some Icelandic Kroner from an ATM machine failed miserably but I just presumed that we’d be able to rectify that problem in the centre of town. Sarah’s gate was just setting up a table of drinks under a big banner celebrating the first flight – of the season? She was to discover that during her flight to SFO she was served free champagne and beverages. Unfortunately there was no free food on the flight and she had to make do with the one bag of crisps she had in her bag – for a nine hour flight!
Travelling with Rachel made me feel as if I had my own private tour guide and she shepherded me to a stand where we purchased buy tix into town at some astronomical price – thousands of Kroner each! The airport building itself looked ultra new and sported coloured glass panels – all very chic. Since 2015 the number of passengers traveling through Keflvik airport has doubled. That’s an amazing statistic. Sarah even took a photo of the bathroom commenting that it looked more like a hospital corridor than a highly used public restroom. This was true of all the toilets we encountered, and they often had an honesty box outside for payment. I didn’t catch a glimpse of one piece of litter in the street in our five days either.
We said our tearful farewells to Sarah and then boarded the bus into the town. Every building that we passed in the hour’s drive looked new, yet the buildings didn’t look permanent. All the road looked new too and it was not until we reached the centre that we saw any traffic to speak of, despite it being rush hour. We changed buses and alighted at Bus stop #5, Harpa. There was a huge glass building perched right on the water’s edge which I mistakenly though was the Harbour building, when it was, in fact, the Harpa concert hall! It was only a 10 minute walk to our Airbnb, passed some spiffy new apartment high rises and some older crumbling ones – like ours. Scattered amidst these tall buildings are single storey family homes with garden, trees and bushes, often brightly coloured. One right across the street from us is dated 1898. This really is a new country: not just volcanically but socially. The English occupied Iceland during the war and then the country took off from there. From what I could see in Reykjavik the entire economy is based on tourism: Vikings, puffins, Icelandic knitwear, volcanoes and glaciers. Our hosts are a Vietnamese couple with a toddler. I wondered what brought them to Iceland. She’s been here 15 years, and he 4 years. It felt off to think that we had had breakfast in Hebden Bridge, and now, just a few hours later, we were drinking tea in a Vietnamese household in Iceland!
We headed out to find a drink before dinner. I was delighted to find that our apartment was only one small block from Reykjavik’s main street – perfect planning by Rachel. We found a small bar and I had to try half a Viking, of course, while Rachel sampled the raspberry cider. Finding somewhere affordable to eat dinner – now that WAS difficult. Eventually we found a small bar/cafe with a board in the street advertising the ‘street food’ menu. We reckoned that a fish stew with flat bread might not break the bank. However, having sat down inside we were handed a completely different menu – which was definitely not affordable. It would have racked up $100 for the two of us – without drinks. We contemplated leaving, but when I asked the waitress she produced the menu we had seen outside. We ordered, then waited. And waited, And waited. eventually our fish stew and flatbread arrived. Our drink and a meal had taken 3 hours.
We called in at the only grocery store we could find. There were long lines of tourists doing exactly what we were doing – buying snacks and breakfasts. Rachel had booked us on an all day bus tour of the South coast of the island but the brochure hadn’t mentioned food stops.
It was after 10 by the time we got back to our place. It was freezing cold but just as light as when we’d arrived in the afternoon. Outdoor cafes provided heavy duty blankets, even sheepskins, to help people enjoy this land of the midnight sun. Now the sky was white with clouds but occasionally a stray ray of golden sunlight would penetrate the white blanket and I was able to get a few good shots of the street art and ubiquitous murals which graced every nook and cranny – including the entrance to our apartment. Pham told me that the huge kitten and ball of wool had cost the residents $700! The whole town seemed to be under a state of construction with huge cranes on most streets. I got into bed at midnight with a myriad of questions in my head: why are there so many tourists? Why does everything look new? How would I deal with the total darkness in the winter? Can I go to sleep in the daylight? Why are Icelandic folk so tall?
Cranes, black sand and humbug icebergs
I set the alarm for 7:10 since we had to be on our way by 8 a.m. to catch our tour bus. The sky was overcast and there was dampness in the air. It was a ha;f hour walk to the bus station through residential areas where the daffodils and tulips were in full bloom. I’ve never seen a city with so many single family homes interspersed between shops, offices, high rise apartments, embassies. It was a big coach with less than 20 people on board so we were able to spread out. Our guide gave us a running commentary through the day until we retraced our route back into the city. There are very few roads and though technically it is possible to travel around the island by public bus the services only operate in July and August. We had considered renting a car, but we were glad that we’d made the decision not to. Rachel was taken aback by the quietness of the people on board the bus. On the tours with her travel company everyone gets to know each other because they are going to be travelling together for a couple of weeks, but on this bus no-one spoke to each other. even the people travelling together didn’t seem to speak to each other. A middle age couple in front of us never spoke. Their teenage son was glued to his laptop the entire time, and I never once caught him looking out of the window.
Another question. Why are the buildings so brightly coloured? We’d first seen this in Burano, a small island off Venice where the main industry is fishing. It’s the same in Ireland and the Shetlands. Anyone any thought on this? At ‘Lavaland’ we stopped to see a live display of all the earthquakes on the island that were happening at that moment – about a dozen, but all small.
We passed snow capped mountains, hanging waterfalls and the beautifully termed ‘braided’ snow-melt rivers. It felt a bit like Alaska to me. I asked Rachel if this is what Patagonia looks like – but the mountains are much much higher there. Scattered farms dotted the landscape. But there were no villages, no shops, no towns. Where do children go to school? Perhaps they board in Reykjavik like they do in the Outer Hebrides. Where do people buy their food?
We stopped at a huge waterfall – Rangarping eystra. Trying say that fast! Next stop was the mouth of a glacier where global warming can be seen. The glacial lagoon has retreated up the valley dramatically over the past ten year requiring an extension of the road to it and the construction of a new parking lot. At every tourist stop for glaciers and volcanoes huge cranes are evidence of new or enlarged tourist centres and hotels under construction. Much to Rachel’s dismay I headed down to the lagoon, away from the trail, so that I could get a close up shifty at the newly formed icebergs. Their striped reminded my of the humbugs I’d bought at Blackburn market last week! We watched people set off on crampon tours. Pity we didn’t have time for that.
Just before reaching ‘so called’ Black Sands beach we stopped at a quieter beach and rather than eat in we picked up something to go and sat on the beach, amidst the prickly grass, to eat our lunch. It was so like being back on St. Kilda with its sea stacks just off the coast. Just as we were relishing the empty beach along came one of the jeep tours, running as close as possible to the water, and that was followed by a pony trek. Our tour guide said that all the Icelandic ponies have Mongolian ancestry. (?!?)
Then onto Black Sands beach, rated one of the world’s top 10 beaches. Black volcanic sand, basalt columns, a sea caves, sea stacks, strange rocks with natural white scratchings, and one human one saying SARAH. The wind was amazing. I could lean into it and almost double over without falling over. People were climbing the basalt columns and exploring the cave.
A stop at another magnificent waterfall allowed us to follow the rock strewn path behind the falls. At that moment the sun came out and so we could see the sun shining through the falls.
This was our furthest East and we retraced our route back into the city. We stopped at Hallgrimskirk, the really tall church that dominates the whole city. Fresh from the basalt columns of the south coast it was easy to see where the architect of the church had got his inspiration from. Inside the church is stark apart from a huge organ that completely covers the West wall. We picked up a flier and saw that there’s a choral and organ concert during our stay. We made a note also that you can get an elevator to the top of the tower too.
Dinner was a Loki, (a figure in Norse mythology) a famous Icelandic food restaurant right across the street from the church. We were lucky enough to get a table right by the window. We had cod, salad and lamb pate – all traditional Icelandic faire – and I was excited to drink an Icelandic Einstok white ale, which I used to buy in Cost Plus in Santa Cruz, little thinking I’d get to drink a bottle in Iceland itself! I was in bed by 11 pm after a very full, exciting day.
Of Vikings, hot dogs and the Northern Lights
We had to devise our own activities for the day. We’d picked up lots of fliers and newspapers. We noticed a lot of humour even in serious articles. We left just before noon and the sky was overcast and it was ‘trying to rain.’ We headed for City Hall and passed a church where the service was just finishing. Today is the celebration of Seaman’s Day and several people in military uniform were exiting the church and greeting each other. Then I spotted a Lexus drive up. It’s registration plate was ‘1.’ I presumed the president must be there and the Lexus quickly whisked him away. I noticed that there wasn’t a single policeman in sight. We’d come to the City hall, the first building made of stone that we’d seen in the country, to see an exhibit – Demoncrazy – that is part of the feminist movement here. It’s paintings of topless women positioned in front of portraits of clothed male politicians. I didn’t realise the exhibition was to be outdoors and so I caught a quick glimpse of one of the paintings and said, “Oh, look. That looks like you and your sisters!” Then we got close and I saw they were all topless – whoops!
Next we saw what Rachel named the ‘blockhead statue’ close to what is now called The Pond but was originally a lake on the shores of which a Viking Hall dating from 1000A.D was discovered in 2011. The Museum of Settlement had lots of interactive opportunities and helped to answer several of my questions about when the island had been settled, by whom and why? We even got to write our names in Icelandic runes. Tolkein was very interested in the culture of Iceland, drawing upon its mythology and landscape, and he even taught himself Icelandic – an amazingly difficult language for English speaking peoples. The roof was held up by timbers and the walls and the roof were made from sod. The Vikings expanded their territory to the Shetland Isles and the Hebrides, both of which I’ve travelled to in the past 2 years.Oh, yes, and Ireland too!
We stopped for lunch at a Hot Dog stand and both commented that we could easily have consumed three of them. There was a lovely little drawing of Trump sticking out of a cup on the counter: ” Huge tips. ”
Then down to the waterfront where the skyline was again dominated by huge cranes. There was an interesting exhibit of famous ships of the harbour and then we took a peek into Harpa. This is the only serious contender I’ve seen for the best location of a performing arts center to rival Sydney Opera House. It opened in 2011 and the original plans were for a performing arts centre, a shopping mall and a hotel. I think it’s the hotel that’s currently under construction. Harpa’s exterior is made from glass panels that look like fish scales and if anything the decor inside is even more spectacular. There was a cafe and a restaurant, but the bill for two would probably come to a six figure number so we elected to have lunch part two, chicken nuggets, in the flea market across the road.
We headed back to the apartment where, after a quick cat nap, I headed out by myself to go to the concert in the big church, Hallgrimskirkja. I had booked online, relieved that I’d been able to purchase a ticket at such short notice but the place was only half full- if that. The pew backs had all been swivelled so that the seats were now facing the organ. The audience appeared to be made up of mainly locals with a few tourists. The title of the program – Northern lights, referred to the composers who were primarily Icelandic. The second half was a rendering of Durufle’s Requiem. In a couple of days the choir are taking this program to the church in Paris where Durufle was organist and choir master for several decades. The acoustics were wonderful for the choir’s performance and the director knew just how to handle the reverb.
Of fish, chips and puffins
It was just before 11 by the time we left the apartment, having had a lazy morning discussing possible changes in Rachel’s job. The streets were much quieter this Monday mornings and there wasn’t a single car parked on our street when i opened the blinds. First stop was a Crepe place that Rachel had spotted on her shopping trip last night while I’d been at the concert. Freshly made crepes to order within view of our table was just the ticket to get us up and rolling for the day.
The sky looked less heavy as we crossed town heading in the direction of a church with twin spires that I’d glimpsed before. I loved walking around these quiet neighbourhoods which had much more the ambience of a small town than a capital city. But them the total population of Iceland is only 3500,000. There was a funeral taking place in the church so we weren’t able to go in. Close by was a large imposing building with a tall clock tower but we couldn’t figure out what it was – a university perhaps?
By the time we got down to the waterfront the clouds were clearing and we could see the snow capped hills across the harbour – the first time we’d been able to see their existence. By 12:30 the sky was totally clear. This was my first venture outdoors without my beanie since we’d arrived. A major road hugs the coast her, just like the old Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, but the one here has a cute sign saying No tractors between certain hours! Very quaint.
Back home for a cat nap before setting off on our boating adventure at 4 p.m. Rachel had booked us on a 90 minute boat tour – Reykjavik by boat. I was very surprised that we were the only ones on board beside a brother and sister from Washington DC. Rachel was on the lookout for puffins and I wanted to see the city from the sea and we both had our wishes fulfilled. Though we didn’t see any nesting puffins we saw many flying around, beating their wings at 300 flaps to the minute. We were a bit disappointed that our tour only lasted 60 out of the proposed 90 minutes but . . .
Back on shore we headed for a coffee house in one of the former fisherman’s huts where they used to repair their nets. We had the best coffee and a perfect view from our window seat overlooking the harbour. Tonight was going to be Rachel’s last opportunity to go up the Hallsgrimkirkja Tower so we headed back into town. There was quite a queue for the elevator but the view from the top was spectacular. We were ‘inside’ the
clock and we watched the minute hand approach 7:30 from the inside! It was a perfectly clear evening and the light was fantastic. The tiny houses with their steeply pitch, brightly coloured rooves did not look real. They looked more like something from a cartoon or a model of a village.
We’d had our eye on a fish and chip shop that we’d passed a few times and we were lucky enough, yet again, to get a window seat. Even the counter was decorated in dried fish skins and a light had been made from a whole dried fish carcass. I just loved the ambience and creativity at every nook and turn. We had perfectly fried cod, of course, with not a hint of grease on our napkins.
On the way back home we stopped in to buy snacks for Rachel’s 9 hour flight home tomorrow. I decided to book a 6 hour tour for the following day knowing that I’d have a hard time being by myself after being with my daughters every moment of the previous 19 days. Thoughts of future trips to Iceland began to form in my head. Christmas with the Northern Lights perhaps?
I woke up at 4 a.m. no doubt with apprehension. Rachel had finished her packing last night so there wasn’t a lot for her to do this morning in preparation for her flight home. She was concened that the shuttle bus to the airport wouldn’t give her enough time but despite repeated attempts to phone the bus company she couldn’t gt through. Eventually an email I had sent them did elicit a response so I left her trying to sort out an earlier ride.
Meanwhile my first few miutes on my own resulted infailure: I was unable to get my key to turn the lock on the outside gate to our apartment so I rushed back upstairs to ask for Rachel’s help. So much for my first few minutes alone! However, the rest of the day went smoother. I walked down to the Harpa and waited at bus stop #5 for my shuttle bus to the bus station to meet my tour for the day – an express version of The Golden Circle, though in fact the three stops during the course of the tour, for one hour, 45 minutes and 30 minutes didn’t feel rushed. I boarded the bus and 12:30 and got dropped off back at bus stop at 7p.m. Just as on the previous bus tour no-one spoke to each other. Our guided, Lily, was excellent and she gave us a more informed account of th geology and settlement of the island. Our first stop was an hour and a half’s drive to the Geyser area. Having been to see Old Faithful in Yellowstone erupt, and being very familiar with
Bumpass Hell in Lassen this geyser wasn’t high on my ‘must see’ list . However, once we had headed off our previous bus tour’s route the settlemts on the landscape were quite different. A few scattered villages with 150 or so people, each village with its oen communal swimming pool we were informed. We passed a boarding school for childen from the surrounding farms but it’s no longer needed. I had fun taking photos of the people standing there waiting for the geyser to erupt which it does every 7-10 minutes and has been doing so with regularity for the past 40 year. Its name is Blaskogabyggo. By this time the cloud cover of the morning had dissipated and we had beautiful blue sky for the rest of the day. In fact, it was too hot on the bus even though the air conditioning was cranked up to its limit.
Next stop was an amazing waterfall that I immediately recognized from Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man show. The watsunlight through the waterfall was producing rainbows of such intensity that people walking through them looked multicloured. Ayoade went here by helicopter and pointed with fun at the crowds of tourists on ‘my’ side. Only a thin rope stopped people from fall – or jumping- into the raging water.
Next stop was Pinguellir National Park, scene of Iceland’s first parliament which met in this remote place every June for two weeks beginning in the year 900 where the tectonic plates of Asia and North America meet. It was quite thrilling to walk through the cravass caused by the plates pulling apart. Even at this remote site cranes were present enlarging the visitors’ centre. Also at the site was a Iceland’s largest lake where the rich and famous
spend $15,000 per day salmon fishing. Eric Clapton and Prince Charles have been known to fish here. The whole site is a UNESCO heritage site and it’s here where Christianity was adopted in the year 1000AD and where, in 1944, Iceland signed its independence from Denmark. Our guided pointed out the bathrooms – 200 Icelandic Kroner – and yes, you can pay by credit card.
I returned to the apartment for the first time without Rachel being there. She’s excited to get back home to see her boyfriend who was scheduled to get his first tattoo as she was on her flight back to SFO. It’s also the first time I’ve been alone for 19 days – a very unusual situation for me and one that I’d been dreading ever since the girls first planned their trip to Hebden Bridge.
I’d bought a salad for dinner to eat in and it was comforting to listen to BBC Radio 4 as I tried to get to sleep nice and early. I’d set my alarm for 3:10 a.m. – an ungodly hour for me. But I had little to do besides put my pjs into my suitcase and set off into a deserted city. I only passed on other person on foot as I walked down to the Harpa to catch a green bus. The bus company ask you to be there half an hour early to give them a pick up window of time. It was totally light but overcast and I was happy to see the light display on the ‘scales’ of Harpa still in their evening mode. I’d had visions of having to wait the full half hour in pouring rain amidst a gale, exposed on the waterfront but that wasn’t to be. The bus arrived just two minutes into the window and then I had to swap buses to catch the one to the airport but it all went smoothly and I arrived at the airport at 5:45. It was already busy with people having breakfast, and the bar, too, was doing a roaring trade. With a couple of hours to kill I hit the souvenir shops, eventually adding a shot glass celebrating Iceland’s World Cup qualifying to my souvenir T shirt of Pingvellir National Park.
Slept for most of the short journey back to Manchester, though from my window seat I did get to see some of Scotland’s hills and dales. I was back in Hebden Bridge mid afternoon. I always used to finish a travel journey diary with Milo or Tilly was there to greet our arrival home. This time I was met with 4 stuffed clowns and a family of knitted hedgehogs – different, yes?
I was awake by 7, so that I could take my time getting to the airport for a noon flight. Unlike my outward journey this would be a direct flight, and also my first experience with Ryan Air. Feeling much more confident after a week on the island I elected to take the bus to the airport and it stopped just outside Hotel Gresi. As I was checking out along came Kathleen also bound for the airport, though her journey home to Australia was going to be a LOT longer than my little flight. We were both pleased that we’d have someone to negotiate the bus with, especially since it didn’t arrive for 40 minutes (they are every 20 minutes – ha! ha!) and by the time it arrived we’d been joined in our wait by Lisa and Trish who were flying back to Canada. I felt so lucky to have such an easy journey home.
I’d planned to write in my journal about the trip to Etna at the airport. I have to say Catania airport was really busy, noisy, frenetic and I had to put on my headphones to escape the hustle and bustle. Listening to Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air seemed appropriate in many ways, though Philip Glass’s visions of frenetic New York City would have worked just as well. I asked the lady sitting next to me, on the uncomfortable backless bench, to take my photo. She and her husband live in Holmfirth, just a hop and a skip from Hebden Bridge. Safely on board I noticed that the man in the row in front of me was reading Simon Armitage’s book (which I have) called A Walk Home. How appropos.
Back in Manchester it felt rather chilly, especially since I didn’t have a jacket but it wasn’t a problem until I found out I had an hour to wait at Manchester Victoria for the last leg of my journey. There is no, absolutely no, waiting room at this large busy station. There is a little Marks and Sparks food store where I could pick up a tiny carton of milk and a ready made Indian tikka masala that would provide dinner when I arrived home. Meanwhile I went in the almost deserted bar, with view of Cheetham’s music school, to while away the hour in a less drafty place than the station platform.
I arrived home just before 5 and found myself daydreaming about where I’d like to go next! Islands seem high on the list judging by my last few trips: Outer Hebrides, St. Kilda, Orkneys, Shetland, Ireland and Sicily – hmmm . . . . .
It’s 10:40 a.m. and sitting on a backless bench waiting at Gate 22 in Catania airport to fly home. When I use that word ‘home’ I catch myself double thinking it. Is home where I live, or is it where my children live? What must they think when I use that word meaning on the other side of the planet from them. OK, ok. It must be time to turn on the headphones and write rather than ask myself answerless questions. How about A rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley? Recently watched an excellent documentary about the minimalist movement. I hadn’t realised that he lived so close to me, just outside San Francisco.
I saw Alicia at breakfast and she is leading another tour group, going out today. It’s probably both a case of getting on the horse again after a fall, and a need for distraction.
Last night was the first night I didn’t write up my journal before I went to sleep. I knew there’d be lots of time at the airport to do it. Yesterday was our Etna day. It was a little chilly and overcast as we left the farm and piled onto the minibus. Francesco explained that if the weather looked troublesome in any way once we were at the drop off point we wouldn’t be hiking. In my effort to pack as lightly as possible I hadn’t brought a jacket so I just put on as many layers as I could deal with. It was also the first day that I’d worn my sneakers – brought especially for this day.
It was a much longer drive to the ‘Etna village’ than I expected seeing how close we looked to the upper crater. It took two hours of traversing across lava beds radiant with Spring wild flowers. The top of the mountain was still covered in mist. Yesterday we had seen smoke billowing from the top. It’s very much an active volcano and we were given strict instructions about keeping to the designated paths. Visions of Bumpass Hell, the area at Lassen Volcanic park came to mind. Mr Bumpass fell into a boiling mud pot and had to have his leg amputated. After a brief bathroom and coffee stop at ‘the village’, merely a tourist stop off point, we drove to our drop off point – 1986 metres. It was quite cold as we set off through the pine forest – so Lassen! Our path was really, really steep but at least it was on blocks of lava rather than cinders where you take two steps forward and slide one step back!
I immediately became enthralled by caterpillars – of all things! They were in processions across the path, nose to tail in strands several yards long. Sometimes they were in a big mound, and on closer observation I could discern that before they reached the path they were suspended from the pine trees in huge webs that looked like giant cotton balls – hundreds to a pod. Ah, these were the webs I had seen on the trees at the farm last night. I eventually picked one up in my hand. It wasn’t until I arrived home I found out more about these fascinating creatures: ‘The pine processionary moth is one of the most destructive species to pines and cedars in Central Asia, North Africa and the countries of southern Europe. The urticating hairs of the caterpillar larvae cause
harmful reactions in humans and other mammals. The species is notable for the behaviour of its caterpillars, which overwinter in tent-like nests high in pine trees, and which proceed through the woods in nose-to-tail columns, protected by their severely irritating hairs.’ OK. I’d better keep a look out for any ‘harmful reaction’ I experience. I’d never seen anything like it. I think it would have been wise of Francesco to give a note of warning to his group before the hike. he did remark that he was surprised that so many were out on the path on a Saturday morning since they must know that the tourists will be out in force. These creatures were everywhere!
As we reached the top of the treeline the top of Etna came into view in one direction, and in the other was the vast expanse of Catania with hits beaches beyond. It was a landscape dotted with cinder cones almost all the way to the coast. Our goal was the 2200 metre outlook point which overlooks a recent lava flow. Very little vegetation had managed to establish itself so far here, just the odd wildflower clinging precariously to in some sheltered niche. I was a little disappointed not to be hiking farther, but we’d
reached out goal, walked 5 miles, and, according to me iphone, had climbed 64 floors. I’d like to have had the time to go up the chair lift too. On the way down the clouds had blown away and it had become muggy. I was glad we’d had an early start. We met a few other small groups like hours but back at ‘the village’ the big tour buses were just arriving. School groups were being herded along the road. The line at the ladies’ was so long I went into the men’s.
It was an hour’s drive back to Catania and Hotel Gresi from where we had started our adventure. We were to have a free afternoon and meet at 7:15 for a farewell dinner. I emptied half a shoe-ful of volcanic cinders from my sneakers and jumped into the shower. I explored the outdoor market with fruit, veggies and second hand clothing filled
the square. Most of the shop keepers in this particular market were North African. It was unusual day weather-wise and in spite of there not being a cloud in the sky it suddenly began to rain – really big drops. Everyone looked upwards presuming that something was leaking! Then a tremendous gust of wind send the awnings from the stalls flying and litter danced in the air. All very peculiar – even for the locals.
Our farewell dinner was lovely, fresh salad, prawn cocktail and fresh fruit salad. I hadn’t had a moment’s rest or lone time all day – 8:30 a.m.-10:30p.m. I wandered back to the hotel with Trish and Lisa pausing to look at some colourful artisan street stalls. Although there were lots and lots of people in the streets it was nowhere near as busy as the area
by the opera house where I’d stayed on my first night. I’d seen and done and met so many people in one week that it was all beginning to get a little jumbled in my head. Everyone said the same. Thank goodness I’d kept up my journal daily (which I hadn’t managed to do in my trip to Ireland the previous month). At least my iphone records the location where each photo was taken – that’s helpful.
I had breakfast on the covered patio, managing to procure the first pot of tea that I’ve had on the trip. I knew that Italians are coffee drinkers but I had never imagined that it would be virtually impossible to get a cup of tea – and even then it was the American version with luke warm water and a tea bag!
I’d arranged to meet up with Trish and Lisa, the two friends from Winnipeg, and we were going to explore Siracusa o the Hop on, hop off bus. As we headed for the bus stop we passed through the fish market, hiding a little corner in the shadow of the old prison I’d seen last night. On one of the slabs was a live octopus wriggling around. we hopped off the bus at the archaeological site where we paid an entrance fee of 10 Euros. The place was packed with tour buses and lots of school groups but the place was so extensive that once past the entrance gate it wasn’t too crowded at this early hour. One of the main features is a Greek theatre from the 3rd century BC, though the Romans did some later renovation. The place was bustling with activity. The rough stone seats were, in some areas, being replaced with smooth wooden particle board. We’d had a few drops of rain this morning and Trish remarked that unlike the stone seats the wooden ones don’t soak up the water, so you’d be sitting in a puddle if it rained. Gantries were being erected for floodlights and scaffolding moved. Some big production was in the offing. I later found out that the preparations were for the 54th festival running May 10-July. Plays by Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles were being produced and . . . the author of Montalbano, Andrea Camilleri, would be ‘in conversation.’ Just above the theatre were man-made caves. The Syracusan nymphaeum is thought to have been the ancient location of the Mouseion (the sanctuary of the Muses), seat of the artistic guild, where the Syracusan actors gathered before descending into the theatre to put on comedies and tragedies. There’s also a waterfall dedicated to the nymphs, created from the aquaducts dating from the ancient Greeks. Next stop was the Ear of Dionysus, a natural cave that was once part of a stone quarry. It appears to have been extended by hand and used as for water storage until an earthquake prevents its further use. It is also claimed that political prisoners were imprisoned there and the acoustics were said to amplify their screams. Pigeons now roost high above the tourists. It’s 69 ft high!
I stopped to have a cup of coffee in a quiet grove of trees before going back to the bus stop. Here a large number of souvenir stalls had been set up and while I waited for the bus I explored the stalls. I hadn’t done any souvenir shopping apart from my Montalbano fridge magnet and book. I hadn’t even been in a shop! I came away with an owl necklace to match the earrings that Rachel had brought me back from Japan, and three lemon Sicilian soaps.
I got back to the hotel just in time to leave on the boat trip. This was an optional excursion but we were fortunate that only members from our tour were on this little boat. By now we had all got to know each other quite well, so I think that was one of the pleasures of this little hour’s cruise right around the island of Ortigia. Of course, wine
and delicious finger foods were provided for our cruise. We started out by going under the bridge – which is very low. We all had to duck level with the seat height. I’ve always made fun of people who rave about the colour of the sea in that part of the world, but I found myself doing exactly that! Dotted along the cliffs were sea grottos into which our
captain steered us carefully. I was reminded of the sea grottos on Capri. Why did the girls hate that place? The tourists? The water was surprisingly choppy and I had visions of the four hours of sea-sickness I had on my trip to St. Kilda, but I was fine here. I was totally exhilarated – and felt like crying, just like when I was in the boat under the cliffs around St. Kilda. I felt as though I was an extra on a movie set, especially when I sat up front in the prow of the boat. Someone mentioned The Talented Mr Ripley – yep! We all had a drink and light snack outdoors and were serenaded by a local band.
Back at the hotel we met up with a van that would take us on a two hour drive to the foothills of Mt Etna. I listened to Vivaldi on my headphones – the recorders concertos and the violin concerto in a minor. They seemed to fit this landscape. We were soon amidst the lava flows and the vegetation changed immediately. Now we were in pistachio and
prickly pear country. There was snow on top of the volcano and all around us were wonderful displays of wild flowers. Just past the town of Bronte we came to the farmhouse where we were to have dinner and 8 and stay overnight. My room has a view of Mt Etna. How that? It was just after 6 when we arrived and we were in the best light of the day for taking photos so I threw down my bag and straight back out to explore the
working farm. There were vineyards all around and several avenues covered in vines. A lava folly was in the middle of one vineyard. I mean, what else could you do with all the lava rocks when you cleared the field for planting other than build a three storey folly? There were horse, goats, sheep, three cats. The cats had the purr-fect sitting spots in the courtyard. Someone drove into the courtyard and a big motorbike. The contrast between the bright shiny bike and the rustic charm of the farm buildings was interesting. Some strange trees were covered in some sort of dense cobweb – how weird. The light, just before sunset was golden and it was almost full moon too. The farm, the restaurant and
the rooms are all owned by the family. The dining room was covered in antiques associated with the wine industry and my room was filled with antique furnishings. I even had my portrait drawn by a local artist!
What a great place to stay! We were offered far too much food. In fact, Francesco asked for us not to be served some, but we got it anyway! As our group was leaving the restaurant at 10:30 (we’d been the only ones in for more of the time) the place was just beginning to fill up with customers. By the way. Our waiter was the spitting image of Richard Ayoade – only Tristan knew who I was talking about. The conversations that evening were about families: buying children 3000+ square foot house, second homes were beach houses on the lake etc. After dinner some of the guys went into the next room to play billiards but first they had to locate their balls.
It’s 5:50 and I’m sitting in an outdoor bar in Ortega, the old town of Siracusa. Technically it is an island but the bridge is no longer than the bridge over the Rochdale canal in Hebden Bridge. From my spot I can see a few tourist boat and a liner out at sea. Out hotel, Hotel Posta, is centrally located. Here’s the view from my room:
We started the day by chocolate tasting in Modica. I can say that drinking warm liquid chocolate at 9:30 could be addictive. Modica is the centre of the chocolate making in Sicily. It has something to do with Aztecs developing the process and the Spanish bringing that art to Sicily, during one of the multitude of invasions that Sicily endured. We donned protective clothing and caps and were taken into the inner sanctum of the chocolate kitchen. We sampled lots of tiny chocolate chips. My favourite were the ones flavoured with ginger. I even learned that white chocolate isn’t chocolate at all. It’s condensed milk! We also sampled several different flavours of nougat – and crystallised orange peel.
As we waited for the van to pick us up I found a poster, smashed up pretty badly, but it
was a picture of Montalbano. This glorious baroque town, rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1693 just like Ragusa, provides a backdrop of many of the street scenes.
Scicli, our next stop, has a similar history and a similar connection to Montalbano. We were dropped off in the centre of town and given an hour to explore by ourselves. I headed upwards thinking I’d get a good view. There’s a lot about this place that reminds me of Hebden Bridge – old buildings clinging precariously to precipitous slopes. Just like
Hebden, too, there are lots of stairs to the top of the hill, but unlike Hebden, here there’s a church on top. What a climb for the people attending church. No wonder they can eat so much pasta and still look slim! At various intervals on the steep path I found elderly
women gardening. it all looked very relaxed. Indeed, I think that’s one thing that I have noticed wherever I’ve gone in this country. Yes, there’s a lot of wild gesticulating but people appear relaxed and happy. I asked someone to take my photo with the lovely view into the town, and then I was joined by Sheryl from our group and we wandered back into town together.
Next stop was cheese tasting at an eighty year old farm that is run by one family – from feeding and milking the cows, to making the cheese, to serving delicious food. I was quite fascinated by the cheese making demonstration, especially when we were told that earlier in the day the milk was still inside the cows. We even got to try out hand at
shaping the cheese. I made a treble clef (what else?). I couldn’t resist having my photo taken with the owners saying “cheese!” While lunch was being prepared I wandered around the farm – donkeys, rabbits, chickens and ducks. The lunch we were served was the best of the trip in everyone’s estimation. I didn’t like the warm ricotta, served in a bowl with homemade bread, but the cheese plate and selections of salami, back bacon, sausage, salads, lemon desert, wine and coffee were yummy. Before we left we watched the cows being herded along the road to the milking shed for their afternoon appointment.
Back on the bus I think everyone except me fell asleep instantly, not waking up until we arrived in Siracusa. The entire town is a UNESCO site.
We had an hour and a half to explore by ourselves before meeting for an evening drink. I went to explore the waterfront and found and old prison, boarded up, full of graffiti, looking like something from a movie set. No-one wanted dinner so we all headed out to a bar on the ocean from where there was a good view of the sunsetting, and we had drinks and appetisers. We even gate crashed another wedding!
We boarded the minibus to take us to Ragusa and set off at 10. We were scheduled to arrive there at 2 but it was 3 before we arrived in Ragusa, the town that provided the scenes for the fictional Vigata in the Montalbano books. It was Ragusa, therefore, that had inspired me to take this trip to Sicily.
Our journey took us through lush countryside covered in fruit trees. We could see the main motorway that crosses the island below us in the valley. For the most part it is a viaduct. Our journey, however, took us up and down the steep hills, criss crossing the
main valley. Was the motorway closed for construction? We arrived at the hotel Montreale which was in a newer section of the town, right across from the pst office which was adorned with enormous Communist era statues. Once there Alicia gathered us together and told us that she was too traumatised to carry on as leader of the tour. She hadn’t managed to sleep since the tragedy.She introduced us to Francesco who would be taking over. She, however, would continue on the tour since she didn’t want to be alone, and public transport from this area was not easy. In fact, she stayed with our tour for the remainder of the trip. Francesco, 34, had visited 118 countries and taught in China, but only lasted a month. He’s worked for G adventures for 6 years it it was he who suggested that Alicia join the company.
The old part of town, where the series was filmed is Ragusa Ibla and we were later that scheduled for our walk to the gardens there. We all walked down the 300 steps of the stairs leading to the old town, so familiar to me from the flat screen, and then hiked all the way up to the church at the top of the old town. And suddenly we found ourselves i the middle of a wedding. No, this wasn’t a film set, this was for real. Apparently it was a Bank Holiday and so that’s when people get married. A lot of tourists scrambled to get photos of the couple and guests, me included.
Standing in Montalbano’s footsteps
We wandered round the old town, seeing the church with the blue dome that features in the series and at 7 we went wine tasting. It involved one white, and one red wine with delicious salamis and cheese. We were told that Italians, or maybe I should say Sicilians, don’t drink alcohol without eating. I actually didn’t see a single drunk on the trip. Then I ordered a salad with delicious lemon new potatoes. Must try to make those when i get home. I left at 9:30 and went to look at the statues by the post office. Spooky, in an Eastern block sort of way. My evening ritual of charging my phone and my emergency charger was thwarted for the first time when I found that the plug that I’d bought at Manchester airport wouldn’t go into the socket. Strange. It had fit in all the other hotels. Trish lent me hers, so at least I could post my photos of the day on Facebook.
I was pleased to find yogurt on the breakfast buffet this morning. Cheese, ham and sweet breads and croissants don’t cut it for me first thing in the morning. Ooo, and it was a mango yogurt – yummy. I kept digging and digging for mangoes and wondered where they were hiding. Then I reread the label: not mango but magro, which means plain!
Ah, well. I was off to explore the market before meeting up with the group. It was sunny again which meant that it would be good for photos and I took lots of the huge trays of tomatoes and peppers, and the strange fish with faces! I became so enthralled by the whole scene that I had to run back to the hotel to meet with the group at 9 a.m.
Alicia met us to tell us the news that we dreaded, but anticipated. Ian had died, and his family were en route from England. She recounted her horrendous day having to deal with the police authorities and British embassy officials in Rome who were unhelpful.
We should have been heading out by bus but Alicia couldn’t face going to a bus station again and so she had ordered two vans to pick us up and take us to Monreale, a small town perched high above Palermo. Parts of the newer sections of the town reminded me
of the homes in the Berkeley Hills. The whole economy of the town is built on tourism, centered around the duomo. It was filled to capacity with groups of school children in their brightly coloured caps, reminding me of my trip to Japan in 2006. The ceiling was one mass of mosaics, begging the question in my mind – when is so much too much?
After, we wandered round the town which was obviously preparing for some sort of festival with men putting up huge lights across the narrow streets. Then back in the vans to Palermo. We were all hungry and I found a place to eat outdoors and ordered a selection for fresh veggies to make a change from all the pizza and pasta we’d had over the last couple of days. Sheryl and Alicia joined me and as we were heading back to the hotel we passed a horse drawn carriage. On a whim I asked how much it would be to take a ride. How touristy is that? But we’d been walking around Monreale for 3 hours
and so it seemed a good way to see other parts of Palermo. Alicia negotiated with the driver, and after much, I mean much, gesticulating, she settled on 30 Euros each and rather than going on the regular route Sheryl and I would be taken for a ride along the waterfront. It was a surprisingly calm ride despite the cars, police cars and vespas whizzing past and almost, but never quite, colliding at crazy angles. We passed three opera houses and, on the recommendation of our driver, we stopped briefly at the Botanical gardens. The large greenhouse had very little inside and I was quite disappointed, expecting to see ‘weird and wonderful blooms.’ (That’s the name of one of my piano compositions). We did get to see the most amazing trees, however, with strange interweaving trunks that looked like human limbs intertwined. There was also a bamboo grove and an avenue of trees with spikes on the trunks. The trunks were bottle shaped:
most un-treelike and had cotton balls along the branches. We passed yachts in the harbour and real fishermen gathered together mending their nets. This was for real, not a tourist ruse. It was a pity we couldn’t stop for a photo of that. It would have looked great in sepia!
After the hour’s ride I was ready for a drink before heading off to the catacombs. So Sheryl and I found a lovely outdoor place and we swapped life-stories. Is there something about meeting fellow travellers that allows people to be so open. Perhaps it’s because you suspect you’ll never meet them again. If so, what does that say about society in general?
Sheryl returned to the hotel and I headed off to the catacombs which were just off the top of my tourist map. I knew they closed at 6 and I suspected that perhaps the last entry would be at 5, so I walked pretty briskly. Well, as briskly as possible with vespas parked on the 12″ pavement making me walk into the traffic every couple of yards. Uneven pavements, potholes, sink holes, dog shit – yet it was totally exhilarating. Why? I think it was because I was alone in a huge city, finding my way around. Books that had spoken to me about such adventures filled my head: ‘Without Reservations,’ ‘Eat Pray Love.’ The day before I’d left for Sicily I’d watched a couple of documentaries and learned of these catacombs. Here the bodies are not skeletons but have been mummified and the bodies clothed.
Initislly only monks were buried here but over time it became the final resting place of the aristocracy too. Some of the bodies are posed in chairs and in family groups. Some wealthy merchants left clothing and instructions as to when their clothes needed to be changed. I knew that there was also one much more recent body, that of a two year old girl who died in the early 1900s. I hoped that there was some warning of that burial because, judging from the documentary footage, I didn’t think I could handle that. There were only a couple more people in the underground crypt at this late hour and I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about being so close to these mummies. If I’d have stretch out my hand I could have touched them. No photography was allowed. All of a sudden I nearly jumped out of my skin. Someone’s cell phone rang! The newer grave was clearly marked and I avoided that section of the crypt. I wondered if I’d have nightmares, but I didn’t.
Returning along via Victor Emanuel I passed through the original gate to the city from where you had a direct view to the sea. The huge statues adorning the gate certainly
looked more African than European. I wanted to give myself an hour’s rest at the hotel before I met with the group for dinner but just before I arrived I caught a glimpse of a courtyard leading to the opera library and opera museum. Ah well, I thought. I’m not going to pay an entrance fee since I don’t have the time to spent there. Whoops! It was free, so here I go. There were costumes and pieces of sets from various operatic productions including a tiger, an elephant and a horse. In the library people were actually doing research with big books of old newspapers stretched out before them on enormous tables. I asked someone to take my photo ‘inside’ one of the props!
I found a bookshop close by. “Montalbano. Inglese.” The shopkeeper understood me perfectly and showed me to a shelf of Detective Montalbano books in English. I bought one. By the time I got back to the hotel I only had 15 minutes before we left for another al fresco dinner in the square. I’d walked 11.6 miles. Yeah for me.