Month: May 2018

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!