Category: Travel abroad (page 2 of 3)

5 days in Iceland

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!

downloadTravelling 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 IMG_6004 (1)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!

download (27)download (23)download (14)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 IMG_5535eat 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 IMG_6055made 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.IMG_5655 (2)



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.IMG_6001 (1)

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?

Alone in Iceland

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.

IMG_6159IMG_6190Next 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 IMG_6225 (2)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 famousdownload (45)


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 IMG_6257window 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?

Sicily, Day 8: Catania to Hebden Bridge


Above my breakfast table at Hotel Gresi, Catania

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 . . . .  .


Back home in Hebden Bridge the rhododendrons and the bluebells had blossomed.

Sicily: Day 7 – Etna

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.IMG_4237

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!

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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

IMG_4185the 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.

IMG_4217Our 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

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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. IMG_4228


Sicily: Day 6 – Siracusa

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 IMG_3804place 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 IMG_3800dating 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

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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.

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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 IMG_4103courtyard. Someone drove into the courtyard and a big motorbike. The contrast between IMG_4100the 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 IMG_4031before 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!

IMG_4007What 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 IMG_4069Richard 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.


Ding dong bell, pussy’s ON the well

Sicily: Modica, Scicli, Siracusa

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. IMG_3599This glorious baroque town, rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1693 just like Ragusa, provides a backdrop of many of the street scenes.

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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 5e10fb83-ffe7-4710-8370-220fdb6f323ataken 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.


A side street – one of my favourite photos


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!


Watching the sunset – I’m too busy talking! 


Sicily: At last: Montalbano territory


Men group!

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 IMG_3552ordered 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.


Posted my postcards in that post box. Let’s see how long they take to get to the U.S!

Sicily: Day 3 Palermo

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


The cathedral, built in the 1180s, is a curious combination of three styles – Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab

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?


Nice view from my balcony when I opened the shutters this morning

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


New gate (1669) to Palermo.Atlantes depicting the Moors defeated by Charles V,

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!


from the 2014 Don Giovanni production

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.


Day 2: To Palermo


Mt Etna from Catania – lots of snow

I slept well and woke at 6:30, knowing that I had to have breakfast at 7:30. That’s really early for me! An elderly gentleman joined us at breakfast. Ian, the only other person on the tour from England, was dressed in a linen suit and looked as if he’d come straight out of a Merchant Ivory film.

We took a van to the bus station and I chatted to Ian for a few minutes as we waited for the public bus that would take us all the way to Palermo. I stepped aside to take a photo only to find that Ian had collapsed. Alicia called the paramedics who arrived in six minutes, but it didn’t look good for Ian. We boarded the bus, on Alicia’s instructions as she ran around on her phone trying to contact various people.

The bus picked up people at various stops in Catania and then found the freeway and headed through a landscape that I could easily have mistaken for the Napa Valley, filled with vineyards, orange groves and olive trees. I found myself thinking about my 2003 trip to Southern Italy. That was in November, at the height of the olive harvest. I was sitting across from an Italian guy in his 20s who cried his eyes out throughout the journey. We passed a couple of hilltop towns reminding me of out trip to  Tuscany.

We arrived in Palermo at 12:30 and checked into Hotel Alessandria. We had been warned that the hotel is on the second floor and that there is no lift. What I’d forgotten, however, is that each floor had 20 foot high ceilings, making it a long, long way up those stairs. I was so glad that I could turn my roly bag into a backpack. I asked the concierge about the history of the building. He believed it had been built by a wealthy family around 1885 and had served as a soldiers’ barracks during the war. It has been a hotel for about 25 years.


My bedroom and view from my balcony

After checking in we were escorted to a place for lunch of salad, pasta and beer. This wasn’t heavy, stodgy pasta but light and fluffy and I had seconds of the salad and the pasta. Then our group wandered around the capital city for an hour or so before meeting


Our group on a city tour

up with our Sicilian guide for a two hour walking tour of the old city. As usual the focus was on duomos, fountains and statues, while trying not to be run over by vespas. Other things to avoid in Palermo are dog pooh and rubbish from overflowing rubbish bins, which obviously haven’t been emptied in months. I don’t think our group as a whole was particularly interested in the details that the guide gave us: it was more of following someone around who knew the best spots for photos. I gleaned from her talk that Sicily had been severely bombed during the Second World War. We saw buildings that had


Bombed during the war

been bombed that are still held up by scaffolding. During the Spanish occupation, much earlier, the Spanish didn’t really have any use for the island and left it to go to rack and ruin. Only one Spanish King ever visited the island and his only visit is commemorated by a statue – what else?


Lunch beneath a photo of the market

The Americans funded the rebuilding of much of Europe after


the Second World War but the Americans didn’t put any money into Sicily whose strategically placed port of Palermo was a major target for the bombing. But it’s this lack of funding for the rebuilding that has left Sicily so poor, and it remains so today. Only licensed guides can give tours. Alicia was recently fined 50 Euros for pointing something out to a member of one of her groups.

After the tour the group opted to meet again at 8 p.m. for dinner together, and we hoped we would have word from Alicia about Ian. 8 p.m. came and went. 15 minutes later we were still waiting for a few of the group to appear. Meanwhile everyone seemed to have their own idea where to eat. It was like something from a Woody Allen movie. I didn’t mind where we ate, so I just sat back and watched the antics. The couple from Colorado had checked out a few possible places during the afternoon. We passed an inviting outdoor restaurant with accordion player but the Colorado people said, “You can go there. We’re not,” so we all ended up at Antica Trattoria which was just fine.  I opted for the pizza Napoli (with anchovies) which was lovely. Everyone was very sociable as people shared their travel stories. I ended up relaying my journey to Kashmir.

I went straight to sleep after my nightly journal and Facebook report and for once the street outside my balcony was quiet. I tried for a few minutes to turn on the TV using the 3 remote controls, but the only thing I managed to turn on was the air conditioning!

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.

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