Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern

An interactive exhibition by this Danish-Icelandic artist is full of light and reflections – a mixture of the beauty of the natural world with the science that it is made up of and a universe that we don’t totally understand. Oddly, I had bought a ‘Little Sun’ (renewable energy) at the Design Museum in Copenhagen earlier in the year, unaware that it was conceived by Eliasson as one of his many projects. Eliasson is also keen that people should welcome being part of a community. In his own studio he established a kitchen using local, seasonal, vegetarian ingredients in order to help bring his team together.

On my way to Tate

I walked along the river from Waterloo with plenty of time to explore the river front. Such a glorious mixture of buildings, old and new. The weather was mild – it was good to be out and about.

Blackfriars bridge from the South Bank
Designs for the first Blackfriars bridge

If you have time to stop and stare for a moment, it’s worth a look.

An inviting prospect?

But I had already had breakfast and so I moseyed along the river thinking about the treasures that lay beneath the water in the mud and the mudlarks who patiently search for them. At the moment I’m reading all about this in a fascinating book by Lara Maiklem, unsurprisingly entitled ‘Mudlarking’. It is a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’.

Tate Modern

I’ve arrived – the poster for the exhibition is outside and to the left is the Millennium Bridge just touching base on the South Bank. I’m early, I find a bench, sit down and take in my surroundings.

Tate Modern – waterfront

‘Elbow’ skyscraper

There are two men on top of this building. I feel dizzy watching them.

A head for heights!

Not a job I would have the qualifications for …

My companion arrives and we make our way into the world of Olafur Eliasson. Light, mirrors, reflections, ice, fog, moss, multiple images …

Bubble
Geometry leaking light

We come upon a long passage filled with fog called ‘Den blinden passager’.It is suffused in a yellow light but I can’t see very far in front of my nose. We are encouraged to keep moving forward. I feel disorientated and my balance is wonky but I persevere and begin to become acclimatised. It makes you think – good to be out of one’s comfort zone !

Moving on … touching the void!

Alien
Catching quantum physics
‘In the mood’ – a shadow community …
Glacial melt water
Wherever next … into the blue

Colours, light, reflections – all these I am drawn to. I love artists like John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Claude Monet and many of the Impressionists who capture those things in their paintings. I love other artists as much in different ways but I would never choose to live on a planet without light and colours. I don’t expect I would be given a choice but as Jim Al-Khalili moots – your reality may be based on something that doesn’t exist … or at least things we haven’t yet understood. So there’s still room for learning and dreaming. It’s a pity I won’t be able to come back in a hundred years from now. But as it is, the planet has given me enough food for thought in my life to date …

Workshop in spatial experiment

I love this ‘hands on’ room in the final zone where everyone looks completely fascinated by what they are discovering.

And finally, there’s a special treat. The Kitchen team have been set up by ‘Tate Eats’ for us to have a lunch which is similar to the ones made for Eliasson’s team. It is exciting, delicious and wraps up an excellent exhibition. Thank you Olafur Eliasson.

SUNLIGHT
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Wimereux – 1st October 2019

This old fashioned, Hulot-esque town overlooks the sea on the north coast of France. I was introduced to it by my sister and her husband. Almost fifty years ago Mickey and his friend managed to cross the Channel in not much more than a leaky dinghy. They lost their way and finally landed somewhere in total darkness, not knowing if they were still in England or had made it to France. France it was and Wimereux welcomed them. Mickey came back regularly over many decades …

Sadly, he is no longer with us. Times have changed and luckily the Channel tunnel is more reliable than the dinghy. We arrived in good time to board, the sky like grey goose down, shedding a few heavy raindrops onto the windscreen.

Rain, steam and speed – entrance to Channel tunnel

We left England at 11.20am. The photo below will remind me to take the coast road to Wimereux rather than the autoroute. It is empty of cars and full of fresh sea air, the waves rolling in like white horses.

Take the coast road to Wimereux via Peuplingues

An hour later and we are settled in at ‘Les Oyats’ café by the sea, enjoying a ‘crêpe nature’ with salad and a ‘thé au citron’ – or maybe ‘un verre’. The sea is quite wild. ‘Oyats’ translates as marram (sea) grass. The café is busy, despite the weather.

Wild waves
At ‘Les Oyats’
A breath of fresh air

We walked along the ‘digue’ afterwards, feeling madly invigorated. Sun isn’t always a given for holidays – the force of the sea was pulsing through my veins, filling me with a new found energy.

Back at the hotel I noticed a couple at the reception desk and recognised the man straight away even though I hadn’t seen him for many years. Struggling through the cobwebs of my memory, I finally came up with it. A TV programme called ‘The Likely Lads’ – a series shown between 1964 – 66. He was James Bolam – his other half being played by Rodney Bewes.

Sun bursting through …

The clouds are breaking up this morning. The rain has moved on and we have a clear palette for the day ahead. I sometimes wish I could paint but taking photos captures the moment very well. We are off to Boulogne, fifteen minutes away – market day.

Boulogne – market day
Boulogne – la fromagerie roulante
Temptations galore

However, I’m even more interested in the notice above which is anti pesticides. It says pesticides are a tragedy for health – ‘nous voulons des coquelicots'(.org) (we want poppies). It has a message advertising a meeting about the environment on the first Friday of each month at the Place Gustave Charpentier. ‘Chapeau’ for the French!

It’s lunchtime and before we know it we’ve found ourselves in a ‘biker’ café, which is obviously very popular. We plump for a Flemish dish called ‘Flammekueche’ – roasted peppers, aubergines and courgettes on a base which resembles matzos. It’s super delicious, paired with a glass of red wine and a (glass) bottle of ‘Vittel’. There is quite a lot of Belgian influence on this north coast of France.

Biker café – lunchtime
Lunch companion …

The man sitting on the right must be a basketball player. When he stood up, he was over 6’6″!

Boulogne – entrance to fish market at the harbour

We decided to visit the aquarium in the afternoon. Got slightly sidetracked by the most delicious looking patisserie called ‘Fred’.

This box contains the most divine …
…Tartelette au citron …

The aquarium is on the seashore and contains 10 million litres of sea water and 58,000 sea creatures. The entry, through curtains, leading to a down escalator, is dramatic.

Wavepower

This photo didn’t come out well because I was persuading my sister onto the escalator, while this enormous video screen seemed to be enveloping us over and over in a giant wave with a suitably mega soundtrack.

Having descended into the depths, we were met with a huge metal cage and surrounded by roving sharks …

Face to face!

I feel very small – one tiny, tasty morsel …

!!!
Marine wonderland …
Jellyfish!
This is a great coastline for windpower
…and for ‘moules marinières’ …

Dinner time was at the delightful ‘Cap Nord’ – a restaurant/brasserie on the sea front. We were in for an extra treat – front seats to watch a wonderful sunset while eating our ‘moules’.

A lone runner …
A couple watching the sunset on the shoreline
Towards the end of the day …
Nightfall

At this point you could read Shakespeare’s sonnet number 73, which expresses some of the feelings going through my mind at this moment better than I could. It was such a fabulous show this evening. What will tomorrow bring?

Our hotel has been in the same family for at least three generations. It has preserved its traditional French atmosphere downstairs in the hallway and restaurant. A modern addition however has been added at the back, overlooking the garden. Having breakfast with a Fornasetti vase examining your credentials is a sight to behold. I think we passed muster.

Tessellated entrance hall
Glimpse of the traditional hotel dining room
The Fornasetti vase with its uncompromising gaze

It’s worth looking up the Milanese designer, Piero Fornasetti (1913 – 1988). His designs are witty and surreal and continue to be popular.

The sky was becoming bluer by the moment and we headed for the beach, where the tide was out, passing some traditional buildings along the way.

House with traditional ‘oeil de boeuf’ windows …
Paul et Virginie – erstwhile stables made into holiday apartments
Wimereux – an especially ‘grande maison’
Extraordinary companions

This building is on the main street. I find it bizarre that Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Christophe seem to be advertising ‘Express Cars’ and ‘Automobiles’ ! But 100% preferable to having a flimsy, tacky, garage advertising burgers. In fact, the non sequitur arrangement very much appeals!

Wimereux – panorama

In the summer, Wimereux is known for its kite surfing, sand yachting and hot air ballooning. On the beach, there are still a few hardy souls riding the waves from dawn until dusk.

Wimereux – kite surfing

This photo somewhat reminds me of Eugène Boudin, who was one of the first artists to paint ‘en plein air’ and was a mentor to the young Claude Monet, who was brought up in Le Havre. Boudin, (1824 – 1898), was born in Honfleur, the son of a sailor. He met Monet in 1858. Boudin is especially well known for his beach scenes.

On the beach – big sky …
The lone and level sands stretch far away …

… and we had them almost exclusively to ourselves save for a few dog walkers. Magnifique. This is just the place to clear your head and make a fresh start.

On a more sombre note there have been a lot of landslides – the cliffs are friable and several pillboxes and blockhouses left from the Second World War are victims, hurled down onto the rocks below.

WW2 fallen pillbox covered in surreal graffiti

Maybe the eye is a reminder. ‘Lest we forget’. There are still many pillboxes dotted along this coast and also a huge, sinister looking blockhouse containing a small museum of memorabilia near Wissant. Worth a visit.

We retraced our steps and were soon striding back along the ‘digue’ with the wind in our hair.

Back at ‘Les Oyats’, writing a few postcards

Nowadays with email, many fewer postcards are sent, which is a pity. I hope the two I sent will be enjoyed!

I wonder what will have happened at the end of this month. Will Brexit have isolated us from the rest of Europe? Since the end of WW2 people have forgotten that an enormous effort was made to work out a structure of international agreements to prevent another war. The risk now looms again, ever larger, forces that seem to be out of our control.

A great percentage of the population know little about history in general. And some have no wish to learn or remember. I include here a lot of politicians, which is a disastrous situation. I am looking around in vain for a visionary with an addition of common sense.

However, there are a lot of good people doing great things out there and I am positive that at some point the tide will turn in their favour. There are natural cycles in our history, just as in nature.

A second cup for contemplation …

The Channel is looking cold.

Dinner at the hotel is in the offing after a quick visit to the Carrefour supermarket and some of the exclusive looking delicatessens and wine shops in the rue Carnot.

Tasty
Rose garlic
Côte D’Orgood quality chocolate
Tintin

A delicious box of biscuits with Snowy – Milo en français – on the lid. I have always been a fan of Tintin books and obviously he is as popular here. The author, Hergé, hailed from Belgium.

And thinking of things being delicious, here is our last dish in France coming up.

Slightly out of focus – nice wine!

Time to leave but it’s not far to drive to the Channel tunnel. I always think just three or four days away from normal daily life gives a great boost to morale. Speaking another language, enveloping yourself in another culture, welcomed with delicious food and drink and a comfortable place to lay your head.

Au revoir, Wimereux et à bientôt
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Bank Holiday with Roland Mouret et al …

The ‘dog days’ of August – people on holiday, searching for the sun, which they seem to have left behind in London. It was so very hot. I used to work in Mayfair in the 1970s for Heinemann – publishers in Curzon Street, near Shepherd’s Market. Mayfair was always wealthy and quiet, with an ambient buzz around the narrow streets of the market area. Not the Berwick Street type of market with stalls – more an ancient pub or two, bijou boutiques, art galleries and discreet restaurants. And one or two ‘ladies of the night’. The Mayfair Curzon cinema with its marble ‘toilettes’ is nearby – always a treat. And the upmarket Connaught hotel. I’ve never been inside but it was a favourite watering hole for Alec Guinness … (he played ‘Smiley’ in John Le Carré’s novels, which were adapted for television).

Carlos Place Mayfair – yellow awnings are at the Connaught hotel

I stood next to the refreshing spray coming from the fountains – opposite was an exotic floral display at Roland Mouret – fashion designer. The display is by a friend of mine.

Mayfair – exotics at Roland Mouret
Roland Mouret

Designer fashion and sleek, purring cars with Dubai number plates are two a penny around here …

Caroline Herrera – headless …
Mayfair – Picasso-esque
Luxurious Lanvin …
Exquisite Lalique
Lalique too …
N. Peal – sumptuous cashmere – Burlington Arcade
Mayfair – a stork in Cork Street
Gallery ‘refurb’ in Cork Street

A lot of galleries have had to leave Cork Street because of modern redevelopment and presumably higher rents. Some have reverted to being ‘online’ only. I’m glad this one seems to have survived and look forward to its new persona. I especially miss the Medici … Some months ago I turned the corner left out of Cork Street, where there is a small café. It has been there for many years – this time I was especially happy to see Bill Nighy sitting outside, enjoying a cup of coffee. I smiled at him and hurried on.

In Albemarle Street …

So that was my Bank Holiday Saturday. In a few minutes I will see my two favourite bookshops on Piccadilly – Hatchards and Waterstones. I can’t pass a bookshop without buying a book … but first, a glamorous afternoon needs to finish with a glamorous cup of tea.

Tea at Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly

P.S. The book I came home with was ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White. She used to be as well known as Agatha Christie, writing over fifteen mysteries and Hitchcock made a great film of this book. Sadly, she fell into obscurity after her sudden death in 1944. Recommended!

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My family of houseplants

Last year I was given a giant terracotta pot, full of succulents, for Christmas. They looked exquisite and in the early Spring I decided to put them out on the garden table for a day or two. The sun was warm and I thought they would benefit from fresh air.

On the second morning, I looked out of the window only to find an unbelievable scene of frenzied destruction and total carnage. Some monster had, under cover of dark, uprooted the plants, scattering earth everywhere. The plants were massacred, half eaten and thrown on the ground. Was it a fox, a squirrel or a malign force – was this sinister night visitor still lurking somewhere nearby, waiting to wreak more vengeance …

I was horrified and then sad. It became grey and cold outside. I put out seeds for the birds – robins, blackbirds, goldfinches and a tiny wren. Undeterred by the late frost, primroses appeared. The demise of the succulents slowly faded …

As Spring gave in to Summer I started buying small plants, one at a time. And now I have a new family of succulents – kept safely inside for the moment …

My family of succulents

One morning I came down to find that one plant had grown a beanstalk type stem in the middle, showing a crowning glory of pink, starry flowers. If the initial pot had survived, I doubt that I would have started this collection – so some good came out of disaster …

Pretty in pink!
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Barcelona – a kaleidoscope

John was speaking at a conference here and I was invited along by ‘Atlas For The Future’. This is a company run by two very talented women – Lisa Goldapple and Cathy Runciman. They are both fabulous.

This was my first visit to Barcelona and it would be only for two days. Early evening sun lit up the city. The Jazz hotel is central and our room was probably designed by a female brain because all the mirrors, hooks, lighting etc were in the right places! So often I can’t believe how badly designed some hotel rooms are. Even expensive ones.

We were met in the lobby by Judith and Naledi who spirited us off at a fast pace through the streets to a roof top terrace where bottles of ‘cava’ flowed and exquisite ‘tapas’ were enjoyed by an eclectic group of all the conference speakers.

Barcelona jacarandas
The Gothic quarter
Barcelona – the cathedral
Arriving at our destination for the evening …

Not only were there delicious tapas treats but for my first time we were strapped into a virtual reality gadget, which showed us future scenes of the results of climate change on the planet. I found it very disturbing but we need to be faced with this reality and be encouraged to take steps to prevent some of these scenes happening. Will we be in time?

This conference was made up of wonderful people, all trying to do their best to save us from a tragic outcome. A warmth of spirit and enthusiasm for the good things in life and how we can preserve them prevailed throughout.

Comfortable bed, reviving sleep, day 1 of the conference.

On our way to the conference
The library – an interesting concept …
Entrance to the university
‘Atlas of the FutureConference – speaker

We had a little window of time before the afternoon session and made our way to the Picasso Museum, which stretches across five medieval palace buildings. It’s very impressive.

Picasso museum
Picasso museum – him and her
Picasso’s birds …
Picasso reflections …
Mirrors within mirrors

I’m now leaving the museum but feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass – not sure how this photo came to be but I’m reflected behind the red dot. Somewhat confused, I eventually found myself back on the street … this is a great place to show Picasso.

Near the Picasso museum

There was still a short time to explore and we made best use of it.

Looks fun – maybe next time …
An inviting enclave …
Trapped under a bell jar

I wanted to buy him but he wasn’t for sale. So – trapped for ever …

A quick lunch with the best olives …
Rose tuna
lemon sorbet
the bird awaits the crumbs …

Scurrying back for the afternoon session – do we know the way? Barcelona is so picturesque it’s hard not to stop and stare – so I do a bit of that … while hurrying on in the heat of the day……….

Statuesque
Ever onwards …
People watching and a pretty dress …

The afternoon session goes well – a lot of discussion on nutrition and I am impressed by a British journalist called Bee Wilson and a Scottish/Italian chef who lives in Adelaide and has a top restaurant. The two of them create huge sparks of energy together.

Pan pipes – music fills the street
No, I don’t know – it remains a mystery …

I noticed some small ‘vintage’ boutiques as we were speeding along today and planned to return alone to check them out. John is fast track, while I am slow and love to potter about.

Bona nit
Barcelona boutiques
shoe shop!
delicatessen
pink fashionista
meringues galore!
dog – boutique style
a bar – looking inside out …
‘vintage’ silky purchase in fifties pattern

This is from a tiny boutique near the university called ‘ZIEL’. I think they look through old patterns, then reprint onto new material. This pattern reminds me of ‘jiving’ – great rock n’ roll dance steps of the fifties. It’s also classy, unlike many modern ‘tops’ today. I am so happy!

Restaurant

This looks inviting but time is of the essence as the conference is now coming to a close at the end of the day. We had wanted to see the Sagrada Família but the queues were much too long – a colleague suggested to John that we should go and see the first house Gaudi created, both inside and out, for an industrialist, politician and patron, Eusebi Güell. It now belongs to Barcelona, given by his youngest daughter and has been named a UNESCO world heritage site. It is ‘out of this world’ original and wonderful.

On our way to Palau Güell
City street with Catalan flag
Barcelona bikes

The city has many trees lining the streets – some with impressive seed pods.

Impressive seed pods!
Palau Güellentrance
The stairs beckon …
Ceiling 1
A floral chest
Ceiling 2
Ceiling 3
Could come in handy!

Cut to the roof top. As you are probably aware by now, there was no limit to the budget and Gaudí went on to create Parc Güell, which is a must for the next time in Barcelona.

A magical roof top
Gaudí at play
Captured mistily in a beautiful mirror
Reminds me somewhat of Jack Nicholson in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’?
Palau Güell – garden
Palau Güell – exit

We left and our short time in Barcelona came to its end too … I hope we return.

Adéu Barcelona
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Corsica – Four days in Ajaccio

Corsica! I’d never been but the word conjures up a wild, mountainous landscape where shepherds and brigands roast whole goats on spits and live out their lives far away from society in towns and cities. Savage cliffs plunge into rough seas. And the interior is somewhat like the lost world, feral and untamed … some of which eventually came to greet us …

Wild Corsica

However, the number 5 bus to Marinella beach was our less wild transport, only a few kilometres from Ajaccio. After waiting an hour, the driver finally appeared and set off at high speed with an almost full load. That night we did walk forty five minutes to a fish restaurant overlooking the sea – La Crête – but later called for a taxi home, as the pink and violet colours of the sunset were finally extinguished and inky darkness took over with its ever present terrors.

Apartment

The shepherds of yesteryear, who guarded their flocks at night, seem to have become the fit and handsome restaurateurs of today, who now serve wild boar stew, fragrant cheeses and tasty charcuterie of all kinds. They know how to present their Corsican aperitifs and wines to best advantage. I asked where the vineyards were – there are tours from Ajaccio from July to September with tastings.

Corsica – a restaurant by the sea …

Sleep engulfed me in my little pallet bed and early sunshine promised a visit to the market in Ajaccio. This is set up every day on Place Foch, which is close to the harbour. It is a cornucopia of ‘produits du terroir’ and very popular.

Place Foch, Ajaccio, where the daily market is held

Place Foch, which runs down to the sea …
A few purchases were made …

There’s a small, pedestrian street snaking off from the square, which has a shop stuffed full to the brim with all Corsican food and drink. www.villages.corses.com. Salami sausage, including that of wild boar, hangs spicily from the ceiling, bottles of cédrat liqueur (you should try the Cap Corse aperitif), olive oil and wine line the shelves in serried ranks. I espied a small jar of truffles, which I couldn’t resist, some soft cédrat nougat and a packet of ‘thé immortelle’ made with helianthus flowers. Good thing I brought my bigger suitcase!

Next on the agenda was a cédrat flavoured ice cream which I happily demolished, sitting in the gardens in front of the art gallery. Instant gratification!

A note on cédrat, which is, in a word, the ur-lemon. A sweetish lemon with a yellow, bumpy skin and very thick, fleshy pith. The strong scent of the blossom means that the bees make a very fragrant honey. The fruit is not as acid as a normal lemon and is made into jam and used a lot in cookery – and ice cream! It can be sliced very thinly and eaten as a salad with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. Original and excellent.

It was getting hotter. Sunglasses a must but I now also needed a hat and found a bargain for fifteen euros.

Not my hat – Crown at Place de Gaulle, Ajaccio

This crown is linked to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born here in Ajaccio in 1769. It’s a permanent fixture and quite bizarre, hanging seemingly precariously above the traffic and slightly reminding me of the star in Moustiers-St- Marie, France, which hangs by a chain between two mountains, celebrating the successful return of a soldier from the war.

A perfect sunhat with two interesting books I plan on reading …

I set off on a walk around the centre of town and met Napoleon and other personalities from the past. Ajaccio is buzzy and easy to get to know. It’s a whole lot more welcoming if you speak French too.

Relaxing in the centre of Place de Gaulle

Ajaccio – Bonjour Napoleon!
Ajaccio – le joli chien
Ajaccio – near the market
Ajaccio – in pursuit …
Old Ajaccio – painting in the main art gallery

The musée Fesch is well worth a visit. It was a treat to spend time looking at the three floors of paintings without struggling through crowds or queueing. Your ticket includes the church which is alongside. And the ice cream parlour is opposite …

Touches of Impressionism, Manet and van Gogh …

I meant to take a photo of my cédrat ice cream cone but too late – I ate it before thinking! An excuse for another one …

Ajaccio – an elegant ‘Glacier’
Would this make a good still life painting?

Later on, we drove out towards Les Iles Sanguinaires in the hope that a boat would take us out there – and we were lucky!

Corsica with Les Iles Sanguinaires in the distance
Les Iles Sanguinaires – on our way …
Les Iles Sanguinaires – to the lighthouse
Les Iles Sanguinaires – making landfall

We climbed up to the lighthouse and had a picnic. Glorious weather. Nobody lives here and the gulls, lizards and wild flowers have the place to themselves in the winter months. Although there are a few other people here today, you do have the feeling of an uninhabited island with that unidentifiable, unspoilt ‘spirit of place’.

Les Iles Sanguinaires – a year round resident

As well as the islands, there are magnificent coastal paths full of butterflies and beetles, which bring you to empty, sandy beaches, where the sea is like glass. Swimming in the sea – I had forgotten how wonderful that is. The beach is waiting for me to come back!

That evening we sat out on our large balcony with a view of the sea. In front of us was a ruined farmhouse, surrounded by wild shrubs and bushes. Earlier we had found a short cut through it to the beach. We were to find out more about its nocturnal inhabitants later …

The ruined farmhouse
Wild flowers
Corsica – hills covered in impenetrable ‘garrigue’

These hills rise up behind the apartments. We were watching the sunset fade over the sea, while sipping a glass of cédrat liqueur. As night fell, I heard snuffles and squeaks in the rough shrubby ground below us. There were animals, rootling around. We couldn’t see them but they sounded bigger than rodents and quite determined on their search for food. They turned out to be wild boar – in French, ‘sangliers’, a word which describes them more onomatopoeically. ‘Le sang’ in French means blood and they were definitely on the rampage. Lucky we didn’t take the short cut at night! They come down from the hills above in the hopes of a treat or two and could be quite fierce if approached.

The ‘sangliers’ represent the wild celebrities of the island but it’s also worth mentioning a couple of others.

Tino Rossi was a celebrated French singer and actor, who was born in Ajaccio (1907 – 1983). He had an operatic voice and sang romantic songs of the era, only losing out to rock and roll in later years. He built a house at the end of our local beach, Marinella, which still stands today. He sang a song with the same name …

Another celebrity is Dorothy Carrington, (1910 – 2002), an English woman, who lived for over fifty years in Corsica and wrote a book about the island, which has become a classic, after winning the Heinemann Award in 1971. Its title – ‘Granite Island – A Portrait of Corsica’. She lived an enormously full life on the international scene and her obituary is a fascinating read.

Both Tino Rossi and Dorothy Carrington have graves in the Ajaccio cemetery, which resembles a miniature city – for the dead.

A ‘street’ in the cemetery, Ajaccio

Our four days were almost at an end and our last dinner was eaten under the starry roof of a rustic restaurant in Ajaccio. Very Corsican!

Goodnight, Corsica

Just a little taster of a beautiful island – lots more to explore…

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Copenhagen – Incommunicado, followed by a death

A big conference here at the beginning of February beckoned, asking John as one of the main speakers. My birthday was looming, I had hardly been to Copenhagen, so I got to come along. I say ‘hardly’ because we hitch hiked back from Stockholm in 1969 and were dropped off at a bus stop with a view of Elsinore castle. My mother loved Copenhagen porcelain and I bought her a pale blue dish with ‘the little mermaid’ sitting in the middle of it. But we didn’t stay.

This time we chose to come in from the airport on the smart metro and walk to our hotel by the water – Nyhavn 41. Interesting panorama from our window. Lots of new buildings planned.

Copenhagen – the waterfront from Hotel Nyhavn


We ventured out for a quick supper – delicious, as it turned out, at a restaurant a few steps away, called ‘Hummer’. When we came out, it was dark and steely cold but we didn’t have far to go and I took a picture of the bridge, which we walked over later in the week.

Copenhagen – bridge for cycles and pedestrians
Night moves

Looking out of the window just before I went to sleep, the light below seemed to be seeking me out across the water and I couldn’t help thinking of that quote from ‘The Great Gatsby’ – ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’. I sleep well in cold weather.

Goodnight, Jay Gatsby

Next morning, John went to meet his colleague, Louise, at the conference centre. I thought of my mother, so many years ago, and decided to walk upriver to see the actual ‘little mermaid’ as my birthday celebration to myself. And at that moment my mobile phone fell off the bed onto the wooden floor and gave up the ghost. Nothing I did could get it started. Did I panic? Only for a moment. I left a note in the room, asked at reception to send an email to John to say I had no phone and walked out to a stiff breeze coming off the water. I was incommunicado, liberated from any intrusion by gadgets. I felt refreshingly loose, like a dog off the lead.

On my way

There weren’t many people, which was enjoyable – a change from London’s busy pavements. And a super oxygenated influx of fresh air. Phew!

Michelangelo’s David takes a trip from Florence

These old warehouses are now apartments. The wind is sheer as I focus on the way ahead. I am in my element.

I come upon a lonely giant

And a strange lady appearing out of the shrubbery.

A mysterious ‘revenante’

And, finally, the little mermaid herself.

The Little Mermaid – Copenhagen

She is beautiful and perfectly formed. On 23rd August 2013 she turned a hundred years old. A gift to the city from the Danish brewer, Carl Jacobsen, who was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. A busload of tourists were suddenly surging towards me – it was time to go.

The lonely giant had acquired some companions and the sun was trying to pierce the mist which hung over the water.

The path back was straight as a die and I strode along feeling full of the energy of youth – which I miss!

Copenhagen waterfront

There was no noise except for the ripples on the water, the occasional muted sussuration of a boat or ferry and the distant sound of construction. It made me aware of how stressful continuous noise can be. John had bought me cancelling noise headphones which I now use on the tube and bus – when I take them off, the noise factor is appalling. How could I have put up with it?! Does it contribute to deafness in later life, I wonder?

At my feet

Even the energy grids have an attractive design! Now I decided to branch off into the streetscape and explore more of the city.

Copenhagen – an old couple!

There are lots of picturesque signs offering various services as I wander wherever the mood takes me …

Maritime

Cafés and small restaurants are many and varied …

A sailor’s refuge

It’s always worth looking upwards …

Comfortingly portly!

Nyhavn, where we are based, is very picturesque and must be bursting in summertime. It’s just beginning to wake up now. A great place to be by the water.

Nyhavn
15 Nyhavn
Cornucopia of restaurants!
A place to enjoy by the water …

Meeting John back at the hotel later, he told me all had gone very well at the conference but his father had just died. We had been invited out to a special dinner. John’s father, Tim, really enjoyed his food and also cooking, so we treated ‘Veve’ as a celebration and wished he could have been with us. The dinner of many courses was phenomenal! Our hosts were full of interesting stories and delightful company.

Next day, John had time to visit the Design Centre, where old and new is well put together. I do like a lot of modern Scandinavian design with its minimalism but I also need some things to be more ornate and glamorously romantic.

Eye catching

Three bees – no explanation!

Elegant and intriguing – who sent this letter to whom?!
A ‘face’ dress, (Gandalf?), a bicycle and domestic items at the Design Museum

Exotic shop window – nose to the glass!

Sadly, this shop wasn’t open … probably for the best

Minimalism at the Design Museum
Historic design
A significant presence with its sturdy feet

I almost expected it to speak to me in old Danish!

A beautiful carpet

Exquisite glasses
All I want to do now is plunge into this chair
Eye catching environmental posters

Enmeshed in design

There is so much to take in – all of it fascinating but what I needed now was a rest, a drink and something sweet to keep my energy levels up. All was provided!

Having a rest …
At restaurant Els
Not usually a beer drinker but this was quite special
… and a little sweetness
An ice cream thief patrols the streets …

On the way back I looked at some Danish boutiques. I did manage to squeeze in some shopping on my own and bought a simple, stylish. wrap around summer dress – silky material, bon marché, dark navy with tiny white spots – the equivalent of £40 sterling. I have worn it a lot which always adds to the pleasure of a bargain – and it hardly needs ironing. Win win! The name is ‘boii’ – I recommend this shop!

Copenhagen upmarket fashion boutique

Just a note to say this is not ‘boii’ which I didn’t get a photo of, so much was my excitement in finding a dress I liked at a good price – this shop above would be more expensive – but nonetheless alluring!

Back at the hotel, I was looking out at the view across the water. It’s interesting that I’m taking two photos of roughly the same view – one is expanded, showing all the construction going on across the water, the other could be an impressionist/Netherlandish painting of a rowing boat in a bygone age.

The old and the new side by side

See below …

Copenhagen – the rowers

Look at the older buildings in the middle of the top photo – the same buildings are here, close up, shown at eventide. Expand the photo of the rowers and you would see the modern construction going on. For the most part, Copenhagen is succeeding in mixing the old and the new today.

The Opera House – modern can look beautiful too!

My birthday was celebrated with Danish friends at Krogs – one of the oldest restaurants in Copenhagen. I do feel my Scandinavian genes coming out – except I don’t speak Danish – and they are so good at English.

Dessert at Krogs

Given that we’re just coming into February, I was charmed by the amount of Christmas roses (hellebores) I saw everywhere, welcoming in a new year.

Christmas roses (hellebores)

Giant grape hyacinths
Colour coordinated flowers

and an appealing poster

Next day – and the sky was overcast. We made our way, raindrops falling on our heads, towards the new Architectural Museum next to the modern Library, overlooking the water. Both buildings inside and out are very impressive.

On our way …

Rain soaked


I love frogs and frogs love rain

New Architecture building

This is close by the new Library, called ‘The Black Diamond’, which also overlooks the water and incorporates part of the original library. It is where I found my birthday present, which I love!

My birthday present

This is the most fragile and beautiful mobile which sparkles both in the light and in the dark and is now hanging in our kitchen.

A reviving cup of tea

That evening we ate very well and simply at Koefoed – recommended but took a long time to track down. Worth the effort. Another place we should try next time is called ‘Geist’ – I like its logo – but I don’t know what it’s like.

Intriguing
Please hand me a glassful …

Champagne is always welcome …

In the evening when it became dark, we strolled across the bridge near the hotel and I sort of fell in love with Copenhagen. I love lots of other places and cities but my genes for the most part are rooted in Scandinavia. And I like the thought that Danes are rated high on the ‘happiness’ list!

Copenhagen – the bridge at night
Goodnight Copenhagen

We were recommended to see The David Collection. C. I. David was a lawyer and entrepreneur, coming from a wealthy family. He was interested in all forms of art and was finally able to open his collection to the general public. It’s eclectically impressive.

Open sesame!

David Collection – three fish plate
Sunflowers in silk – exquisite
Sea horses – now an endangered species
It must have been a beautiful bowl …
Paeonies?
A few things from the David Collection

Coming out of the building which houses The David Collection, the view is of the Rosenborg castle and park on the other side of the road. There are also some small pavilions, containing design and art works.

Copenhagen – Rosenborg castle and park
Copenhagen – flying high, looking glam …
Smash and grab
Another unexpectedly high flyer

Feeling pretty exhausted – the David Collection is massive – we suddenly realised that within one of these small pavilions which decorate the edge of the park was a restaurant – the ‘Orangeriet’. What joy. They were busy but a table was found and we immediately felt cosseted and warm. The back of the restaurant is like a greenhouse with olive trees growing inside.

Copenhagen – restaurant ‘Orangeriet’
Old forks recycled as drawer handles – great idea – this place is laid back and lovely
Wrapping up a delicious day …

This was our last morning. We went to look for a copy of ‘the Times’ which had an obituary of John’s father. The sun was bright, illuminating the pristine layer of frost which stretched before us.

Copenhagen – frosty morning
Searching – without success – for a copy of ‘The Times’

John has three siblings. A brother and a sister who live in the village and another sister who is a nurse. John had been there a few days before we left for Copenhagen. His father was being well looked after at home in bed but had lost consciousness. A final stroke left him in peace. He was 98 years old and will be honoured as a Battle of Britain pilot. It was time for us to go home. Oddly, my phone came back to life this morning. It must have had concussion.

Morning constitutional

A perfect winter’s day


Packed and ready to leave. I never like this crossover time and airports seem to drag it out, sapping your energy with endless queueing, crushed on all sides by a world gone mad with consumer goods, automatic ticketing and baggage to contend with, automatic passports manned by robots. Aaargh! ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ (thanks, John Milton, for this well used phrase) – that’s me! We wait, we hope. There were no aeroplanes in John Milton’s time. He was ahead of the game. In fact, the poem was written ‘On his Blindness’. I can see but am somewhat blinded by technology. Maybe I should grow wings!


Wings

Copenhagen has been a joy and I want to come back.

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Sicily with Jules Verne

Sicily was on our list of places to go for a long time.  The thought of being a navigator in a rental car as well as working out all the places to visit (in a week), led me to thinking that going in a group and being ‘looked after’ was a tempting alternative.  A friend had recommended Jules Verne. I rang them, there were two spaces, I paid the deposit and all was set in aspic.

Reading about Jules Verne, the explorer…  set in pink aspic at the airport ..

Arriving at Catania airport at twilight, Rosaria,  our guide, was waiting for us.  Salvatore, our driver, was soon busy packing our bags into the bus.  One hiccough, as somebody left something on the plane but we were soon ensconced in the Hotel Principe for two nights.

By now, it was quite dark but the steep flight of steps outside the hotel leading upwards, beckoned. A white ghost of a church facade peered down on us from the top.

Catania – church façade – like crumbling icing sugar … we are in Sicily!

We climbed many steps, then it was right or left? Right.  A white oleander tree in full bloom led to a small restaurant with vases of flowers on rustic tables outside, and a lively ambience of 60s music.

Food in Sicily is excellent … courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta

Back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep …

If you travel in a group, you get up early because you’re going to see as much as possible in a short time.  As a group we were impeccably punctual  –  although the Frenchman often sloped off for a coffee rather than listening to the local guide  –  he had bad feet …

Catania – cathedral

Catania – early morning in the square …

Catania has a special bond with elephants …

Catania – remains of amphitheatre made from lava from Mount Etna …

Catania – a headless statue miraculously directs the traffic …

Catania – the ubiquitous Fiat …

Catania – passing by the docks …

There is endless graffiti everywhere.  That and the amount of plastic rubbish lying around is the downside of an otherwise beautiful and fascinating island, drenched in the history of numerous invasions.  Some of the graffiti is just ugly but some of it, with a colour palette of Renoir, is quite beautiful in its way.

Graffiti by night

Catania – graffiti by night …1

Catania – graffiti by night 2

Graffiti by night 3

Catania – graffiti by night 4 -steps leading to the underworld …

Washing and graffiti by day …

Catania – vibrant washing lines …

Catania – graffiti by day

Catania – garden graffiti with a Renoir palette …

A glimpse of a private garden belonging to the university … graffiti – less!

Rosaria loves her city,  set under the shadow of Mount Etna.  It has a strong character and I would like to explore it further.  But now it was time for supper and next day we were bound for Syracuse and Ortigia.

Catania – fish supper

The sun came through as we left the hotel next morning.  This city is very different from what I had expected  –  curiously engaging.

Catania – Arrivederci …

Salvatore greets us as we arrive at the bus.  He’s a good man and will turn out to be an excellent driver.

Leaving Catania for Syracuse and Ortigia … the sun is shining… the bus is waiting …

Speeding along to Syracuse and Ortigia

On the way to Syracuse we stop off to explore ‘the Ear of Dionysus’. This cave was so named by the artist Caravaggio, when he was taken to see these old stone quarries.  It is pointed and rather satyr like. The stone was used for building and the enormous caves left over were used as prisons over many centuries.  The echo effect in ‘the Ear’ is extraordinarily powerful.  The site is vast, with many other caverns.

The Ear of Dionysus in the old stone quarries at Latomie …

Inside the ‘Ear’

Escape – it was easy to get lost in here – and we did!

Guardian of the caves

Syracuse – an exotic fountain

Syracuse

Map of Syracuse and Ortigia island …

Syracuse, one of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean round about 500BC,  is where Archimedes was born and where Plato and Pythagoras lived. Both Syracuse and Ortigia very much appealed to me  – Ortigia is an island, part of Syracuse, reached by a bridge.

Crossing the bridge to Ortigia island

An Englishman abroad sees a distant bishop on top of his cathedral … a cool cat?

The square in front of the Duomo …

Ortigia – Duomo and bishop – full frontal

There was an ongoing miracle outside a building which housed a small museum, dedicated to Archimedes.  John enjoyed the exhibition inside – much balancing of things in order to achieve more miracles.  It was actually very interesting but physics is not my strong point.  I’m impressed by people who do understand it and will in the end, discover the meaning of the universe and what makes it tick. I will be listening …

I liked this small miracle though … how did she do that?!

…  spectacular, barley sugar pillars

Mirror images

By now, hunger was setting in and Rosaria gave us one and a half hours to have lunch.  We moseyed down some narrow streets …

Where should we choose to eat?!

Ending up at the harbour, we then retraced our steps down a narrow alleyway …

Ortigia – the harbour … feeling hungry …

… coming upon a modest restaurant. With no more ado, we found ourselves sitting down and being served by the most delightful waiters,  one of whom looked of a literary bent – tall, lanky, round glasses, floppy brown hair.  All of them wearing long, white, tied aprons.  I was famished … all was delicious. ‘Locanda del Collegio’, Siracusa.

Sicily is known for its delicious dishes …

Ortigia jewels …

I didn’t buy any jewels but as we made our way back, I saw this plate and had to have it. I bought it in the ‘Ortigia’ shop which also sells soaps and perfumes.  There is now a branch in London, just off Sloane Square. I was recently given a very pretty box of bath salts, ‘Fico d’India’, which have a delicious perfume.

Near the bus there were several makeshift stalls, hooking in tourists. Young Arab or Egyptian men selling belts, hats and scarves. I bought a soft, muslin scarf – blue butterflies on a grey background –  for five euros.  These young men have a precarious existence. They persevere. But what does the future hold for them?

Butterflies, scattered by the winds …

Next day and we are speeding inland, to visit the fabulous Roman Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina.

Taken from the bus – lemon trees

The exquisite mosaics here were preserved because of flooding which covered them in mud in the 12th century.  They were rediscovered in the 19th century.  The number of them is overwhelming – I can only show a few but this visit is a must, should you go to Sicily. There were bikini girls long before modern times!

Entrance to the Villa del Casale – Piazza Armerina

Leaders …

On land and sea

Red in tooth and claw …

Big birds …

Girls in bikinis at the gym! What goes around, comes around …

Picnic in the forest ?

More leisure pursuits …

Farewell from a mysterious beauty …

The major discoveries, which made the villa famous for these Roman mosaics were excavated between 1950-1960.  it’s an exciting and beautiful place to visit. And apparently even more to discover …

But it was time to move on, to explore the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.  I don’t know what Salvatore does while we are sightseeing but he’s always waiting for us by the bus, with a welcoming smile.

Lots more to see –  a fresh sea breeze gently fans my face. The temples are not in a valley but on a ridge outside the town. We walk all the way along it.

The Valley of the Temples – Agrigento

At Agrigento

Trees at Agrigento

Agrigento – unknown couple looking out to sea …

High drama … Icarus at Agrigento

Agrigento – conducting the cloudscape …

Temple of Heracles (6th century) – Agrigento

A fabulous day and we now arrive at the hotel Dioscuri on the waterfront, surrounded by palm trees.  Our spacious room looks out to sea.  It has a balcony, a king size comfortable bed, lots of hot water and a bath to luxuriate in. A great choice for us by Jules Verne!

Our guide, Rosaria, has recommended a restaurant nearby.  The sun is going down as we make our way over there. The holiday season has almost come to an end and most tourists have gone home.  I’m quite glad about this.

Evening shadow captured on way to restaurant …

I wanted to watch the sun go down over the horizon  –  thoughts of seeing ‘le rayon vert’ –  the colour wasn’t green  – but it was spectacular.

Evening light, Agrigento

Nightfall

For a few minutes the sky was lit up like a fireball.  I didn’t think a photo would come out looking directly at the sun – but it did!

Spectacular sunset, Agrigento

Next morning we were up bright and early but couldn’t find breakfast  –  finally tracked it down to a separate building in the gardens, where everyone was busy scoffing delicious pastries.  We had a short time to explore the harbour before setting off for the archaeological museum.

Sea wall with weird boat on the horizon …

The wall has collapsed in a number of places  –  due to storms?

Maritime poster  –  appealing colours …

At least it’s a start … I hope it’s all recycled  …

Why are you not in the bin?!

One of the downsides of Sicily is the amount of plastic rubbish overflowing almost everywhere in towns and cities.  This happens all over the world but it wouldn’t take long for Sicily to clear theirs up and to have more of these recycling bins everywhere. This was the only one I saw.

Lost dog looking mournful …

It would be easy to drive off the edge into the harbour by mistake, especially in the dark – but you have been warned!

No bathing as the harbour is chock full of boats.

Picture postcard – beautiful blues …deeply tranquil …

The Agrigento Archaeological Museum, set within picturesque gardens, is quite special – well worth a visit.  As ever, Salvatore is here on time to take us there.

Arriving at the bus …

Entrance to the Archaeological Museum …

Siamese twins!

Gardens at the Archaeological Museum

A very portly pot – could be full of a delicious goat or rabbit stew?

A vigorous youth …

A lion roars …

Amphora recovered from the deep …

So adorable … so old, so full of sweet humour … and, miraculously, still in one piece …

Ghostly amphorae with a story to tell … robots of yesteryear?  They have me in their sights I fear … shades of the Daleks

Like Atlas – holding up the world …

Under the arches …

Black cat …

An implacable stare –  I get the hissy feeling we should be on our way …

Next stop Selinunte.  We follow the coast road  – lots of EU money has been spent on the modern roads in Sicily and we speed along smoothly.  Many of the motorways are elevated. Selinunte is near the sea and the landscape round and about is enchantingly beautiful.  We meet up with a local guide, who explains the history of the temples.   She knows her stuff.  Will I remember it all? Sadly, the battery ran out on my camera so I have no photos  –  I can only say that I really recommend spending time here.  I’m now a bit grumpy as we once again return to the bus to plough on to Palermo.

House with orchards taken from bus …

Sicilian oranges and lemons are famous and grow here in abundance. If you want to know more of their history in Sicily and Italy in general, there is a very informative book called ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’ by Helena Attlee.  Here’s a picture of my own, somewhat dog eared, copy. It’s delightful and even includes recipes …

‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’ by Helena Attlee.

After the peace of the day, Palermo is exactly how it sounds – buzzing (noisy), agitated, full of traffic, busy shops and restaurants.  The hotel Excelsior is very central and our room is light and spacious. Recovery.

Rosaria suggests we might have supper at a restaurant she knows well.  In the end, nearly everybody turns up there and more tables and chairs have to be found. Salvatore shepherds us back to the hotel as darkness falls.

Seafood includes squid, octopus, swordfish, sardines, lobsters, anchovies, whitebait. Anything cooked using aubergines is simply delicious.  Pasta alla Norma is a typical Sicilian dish with tomatoes and aubergines …  Try caponata, frittedda,  arancini  …  Oranges and lemons, grown on the island, are used in many desserts, which include sorbets, ice creams, granitas and pastries stuffed full of ricotta.  Rosaria has said on many occasions that Sicilians love their food  –  and they know how to cook! I would be so easily distracted and find myself eating a lot more – if we weren’t trapped on the bus.

We did stop off at an artisanal shop today where we bought olive oil, olives with herbs, almonds and we ate delicious panini with a pomegranate granita.  One of the favourite granitas here is made with mulberries, so mulberry trees must grow here too.

Next morning is warm and sunny and our local guide in Palermo arrives with audio guides for everyone  –  she’s very organised.

Palermo – two churches, side by side …

Sicily has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, barbarians and Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, the Spanish and the French over the years.  These two churches are quite different – one mostly richly Baroque, the other Arab, plain but airy with an arched roof.

Palermo – Baroque interior

Murano glass mosaics

Palermo – Arab interior

This reminds me of Duccio’s ‘Rucellai Madonna’  –  same expression on the face, similar cloak trimmed with gold … I don’t know who did this …

The old and the new …

Palermo – arab influence

Flagstones – Palermo

Ever onwards, through the city streets on the way to the Palatine Chapel in the Norman palace.  The street views show how modern commerce is imprinted, sometimes unhappily, on the magnificence of the past.  But somehow, it weirdly works …

A WALK THROUGH PALERMO

The ‘dark heart’ of Italy still stalks the land but there is hope …

Palermo – baby dinosaur escapes ……..

Statues, doorways, narrow alleys,  stray dogs, modern consumers – except for ‘Romano’- who looked from a different era, yet surviving amongst the multi coloured trainers … spreading a little gravitas.

Now to the rather different Palatine Chapel and Palace, which is truly breathtaking.

Palermo – The Palatine Chapel – I am blown away!

Manhandling a bouquet in the palace …

A formidable profile

Palermo – palace lovers

The palace, Palermo – Roger’s room

Unknown boy exploring the palace …

We finally emerge into the sunshine and Rosaria tries to herd us all into the bus, which finds its way through the back streets of the city before dropping us in the centre.  Lunch time.

John and I start exploring one of many small alleyways, where restaurants abound.  We finally decide on one where we can sit outside that is by buildings with green ferns adorning wrought iron balconies.  It’s also a bit off the beaten track – and seems less touristy.

In my element – a whole squid – so unbearably delicious!

Squid restaurant, Palermo

I don’t know the name of the restaurant but this is the view from where we are sitting towards the pretty church at the end. Seek it out – you will be rewarded with an excellent meal at a reasonable price!

Back streets of Palermo …

Back streets – a curious window that has seen better days …

Rosaria told us that rosary beads were made from the tree berries …

Statues feeling weary with age …

Can’t help but think the one in the middle resembles Sylvester Stallone.

We’re for the most part feeling somewhat weary too – but as tourists, we must trudge on to a special Jules Verne visit to meet a Contessa, who will show us around her domain, which is built into the ramparts. Her husband, the Comte, is a racing driver but not in evidence.

A ‘Juliet’ style welcome from the glamorous Contessa … we are charmed…

We meet up with the Comte’s racing car  at the entrance and are impressed …

Open Sesame!

Beautiful, tiled floor …

Close up …

A somewhat splendiferous mirror – can you spot the rabbit?

Some older parts of the house have been excavated.

The treasures found are protected by glass …

I could only include half of the glamorous Contessa but her other half is just as ‘glam’.

Treasure under the floorboards …

Reflections on times past and present …

A creepy silhouette …

An exotic collection of travel labels …

Racing, fencing and a collection of pistols – the Comte is a busy man …

We finish on a high note  –  the Contessa sings for us and we are offered aperitifs.  An extraordinary and fascinating visit has been had.

That black cat keeps turning up!

The day is over. We sleep well.

The sun is with us once more and Salvatore appears.  Today we’re up and away to Monreale and Cefalù.  These are both unknown to me and I have no idea that such treats are in store.  I wasn’t sure about joining a group but it’s such a joy that your only responsibility is to be ready for the bus leaving.  We would never have seen so many wonderful places in one week on our own. And our guide, Rosaria, is a joy.

The skies are azure blue as we climb the steps up to the cathedral at Monreale.  On either side are stalls with scarves, dresses, jewellery and souvenirs of the cathedral.

After the Palatine Chapel and Palace in  Palermo I couldn’t believe we would see anything as magnificent but am overwhelmed by the beauty and exquisite workmanship here. The attention to detail is perfection. I am just standing here, completely transfixed.

Monreale – ‘look upwards’

Exquisite

Monreale – the old …

Monreale – the modern …

Monreale – cloisters …

Monreale – illustrious kapok tree

I never imagined kapok should have come from such beauty  –  well, some things are both beautiful AND useful!

In the town square … the shadow of the mafia is still present in Sicily

Monreale – market

I wish we could stop here but the bus is gathering speed as we leave Monreale and very soon we are out on the open road to Cefalù, an erstwhile ancient city/fishing village by the sea.

Cefalù, Sicily – belle vue

We’ve had to take in a lot of history and art and architecture over the last few days  –  and I’m hoping that Cefalù will provide some relaxation – just a little fishing village by the sea  …  ?

Cefalù – walking into the village – looks promising …

Time is relaxed here and Rosaria leaves us to our own devices.  Sort of like playtime!

Cefalù – afternoon siesta

A yellow devil – a handsome fellow …

The little town is very picturesque and but rather grand also with its magnificent Cathedral and stone sculptured doorways.

Cefalù – in the centre of town

Arch leading out to the beach …

Cefalù – the Cathedral

This has an Arab-Norman façade, was built in 1131 and looks somewhat fortress like. It is splendid – not to be missed. Make sure you go inside too. In the museum opposite the cathedral is a portrait of an unknown man by Antonello da Messina.  This one and the one of the Virgin Annunciate have very contemporary faces, as does his self portrait.  I’m afraid the one of the unknown man has shades of Putin to him but is saved by the twinkle in his eyes! The Virgin Mary is understated and exquisite. You will find it in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.  It was probably painted in 1476.

If you want to know more about these paintings and the artist, there is a great ‘blog’ called ‘my daily art display’ which I have just come upon.  Much recommended for all art lovers – absolutely bursting with fascinating information.

I love these old doorways …  the light on the stone makes me think of John Singer Sargent paintings.

But now lunch is uppermost in my mind.  A lot of the restaurants look out to sea and I think we make a good choice.

Idyllic?!

John in indigo mood …

The cat doesn’t know how lucky she is  –  fresh air, freedom to roam and all those scraps to be had from all those restaurants … she has some kittens, if you look carefully!

The kittens are learning fast …

Just time for a mulberry and a pomegranate granita  –  which we enjoy sitting by the cathedral while waiting for Rosaria to turn up.  Cefalù shouldn’t be missed but best not to be here in the height of summer.

Leaving Cefalù … ever onwards …

Next stop, Messina, which is the closest Sicily is to the mainland. We don’t stay long as we need to be in Taormina and it’s already late afternoon. But we do get a glimpse of the Straits and of a beautiful ship.

Messina – looking over towards mainland italy

The city was almost all destroyed in 1908 by an earthquake and a tsunami striking at the same time.  Within the rebuilding some of what was saved has been incorporated. But 91% of the buildings were destroyed and 60,000 people died.

Photo taken from the bus …

Pressing on to Taormina, where the local guide was waiting to show us round. Our trip was coming to an end, except for an amazing finale  –  the ascent of Mount Etna.

Climbing up the hill to Taormina

Taormina is high up and its famous amphitheatre has a magnificent view overlooking the sea.  The streets are picturesque, a coral reef of small, tempting shops.   Many celebrated people stayed here and were enchanted with this place. Ovid,  Goethe, Guy de Maupassant, D.H. Lawrence, and  more recently, Daphne Phelps, the aunt of a friend of mine, who bought a house here with her husband after the war and delighted in welcoming countless artists and writers to ‘Casa Cuseni’ -which still exists as a ’boutique’ hotel.

We had a special date for aperitifs on the terrace at the Hotel Villa Schuler, a place of sanctuary hidden behind the busy street outside.  They also welcome writers  –  I was given a Campari Soda, decorated beautifully with Sicilian oranges, followed by an excellent red wine from grapes growing on the slopes of Mount Etna. We sat on a flowery terrace with a dreamy view of the sea.  So many romantic villas still to explore and now, so little time … this one exceeded expectations.

No photos unfortunately  –  my camera ran out of battery again  –  so you have to go and experience Taormina for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed!

Meanwhile, our own hotel was a short bus drive away with a private terrace, the most comfortable beds yet and great breakfasts on the terrace looking out to sea. I feel a great sense of (glitzy) pampering!

The pool at the Hilton, Giardini-Naxos

The Hilton – foyer – Giardini-Naxos

The Hilton – foyer – Giardini-Naxos

The grand finale  –  our ascent of Mount Etna!  The sun is out, the mountain is smoking and Salvatore is waiting.

“Its a long and winding road”  –  towards the sky.  We stop off at a small village to look at the view below.

Sunburst – climbing up to Mount Etna- stopping off for a ‘belle vue’ …

Etna –  refreshing fountains en route …

Ever upwards …

Taken from the bus – these cushion type plants survive the harsh conditions …

This ‘travelling’ photo rather reminds me of a Peter Doig painting.  There are few plants which can cope with the conditions on the higher slopes but one is known as Etna broom, which bursts into yellow blossom in Spring.  On the lower slopes, besides vineyards, there are lemon, pear and apple orchards, pistachio, walnut, almond and chestnut trees. Etna honey from chestnut flowers is highly prized.  But as we get higher, plants and trees disappear.

Etna – a tough, hardy plant

Etna has many craters, not just one – I didn’t know that!

Etna – a defunct crater

Etna – lava fields

Etna – onwards and upwards

Etna – walking on lava in not so sensible shoes!

Shadows on Mount Etna …

Etna – kings of the castle!

Etna – John’s view

Hundreds of ladybirds live amongst the lava fields, feasting off the remains of insects  and other creatures who have died during eruptions.

Lava living ladybirds …

A local goatherd has an entrepreneurial  sideline.  He makes and paints wooden ladybirds and sells them sitting on a piece of lava  –  he’ll never run out of that!

Etna – lonely goatherd with a sideline in ladybirds …  !

Time to retrace our steps and  fall upon freshly squeezed juices in the café.  Mine is pomegranate, John’s is orange.  We have two each. Then I buy a necklace, fashioned out of lava, in the shop.

The sun has dipped and clouds are rolling in.  We have only lost one person.  He finally turns up having been waiting at the wrong car park.  I am relieved he is not at the bottom of a crater.

There’s a small supermarket near our hotel and instead of going out again to find a restaurant we buy bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives and grapes  –  and a bottle of wine.  Early night and it’s home tomorrow.

Bread, cheese and a glass of wine – perfetto!

We have the morning free and can do what we like as long as we’re packed and ready at the hotel by 2pm.  I will miss Rosaria and Salvatore.  I hope we go down as a ‘good’ group! They were both excellent.

We decide to just walk and explore the shoreline.  The port of Giardini Naxos was the first Greek colony in Sicily.  Now it’s full of hotels and restaurants and boats and must be buzzing throughout the summer but it has more to it than just a beach.  However, if we went back there I would prefer to stay in Taormina itself.  There’s more to see and do and I’m not a sunbather by nature as I wilt quickly in the heat.

There are many flowers still blooming even though it’s the end of September.

I don’t know the name of this plant but it’s magnificent and grows freely …

Agave –  fabulously vibrant and prickly

Complementary colours

Green vistas …

Hibiscus and water carrier

Bougainvillea – queen of southern climes

Giardini-Naxos – Blue Queen

Old lava flow from Etna in the sea being re-colonised …

An impressive wall …

Another impressive way of designing a stylish wall …

We came upon the Archaeological museum by chance. Being the end of the season, we had it to ourselves.

Entrance to the Archaeological Museum, Giardini-Naxos

Welcome to museum …

Here are some of the inhabitants …

lost and found …

The amphora that never made it …

Just thinking of the hands that squashed it up ! Somehow, it survived when it wasn’t even meant to!

Elegance Incorporated …

Sculpture in gardens … rebirth  in a land of volcanoes and earthquakes …

Sleeping goose …

But for us there’s still a long day ahead.  We walk back to the hotel along the coast and I manage to do something I’ve failed to achieve during our time here.

I see a movement out of the corner of my eye – I whirl round the camera and press the button without looking.  Got it!  I think this also would make a great painting  –  except that I have no talent in that direction!

Lizard!

I was thinking that you could take Sicily as a microcosm of the world.   What can be improved e.g. peoples’ living conditions,  agriculture into being more organic  and self sustaining so we also help to conserve natural habitats for wildlife. What we must get rid of: e.g. plastic waste in the ocean and on land, corruption and greed (difficult)  and not least, how we must preserve the history and cultures of the past.  And we need the cooperation of people and nations to do this for ourselves and for future generations. There’s a lot of work to be done but small improvements help towards bigger ones.

This has been a tremendous week.  I’ve learned a lot about the history of Sicily  –  so much so, that I know I’ve got a lot more to learn!  We’ll be back.

A necklace made of lava from Mount Etna …

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Books of the Month – October 2018

It’s not often that I’m so utterly bowled over by a chance buy that I want to tell everybody about it and insist they read it.   And it’s even more exciting when I’ve never heard of the author.

‘Only To Sleep’, by Lawrence Osborne, has written on the front cover of the book ‘A Philip Marlowe thriller’.  In recent times, well known authors have been asked to write a ‘James Bond’ or a ‘Hercule Poirot’ in the vein of the original author.   I’m not against this but I wasn’t sure whether I’d want to read a ‘new’ Raymond Chandler by somebody else.  I love Chandler’s writing and would put him in my favourite writers’ list.  However, here is a revived Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s detective, who is now retired and living in Mexico, when he is approached by two American insurance agents, asking if he’d look into what they think may be a fraudulent claim.

Unputdownable …

The Sunday Times describes this novel as ‘sumptuous and sinister, languorous and tense’. Joseph Knox, author of ‘Sirens’, comments … ‘If you like noir, pour yourself something cool and enjoy one final dark night of the soul’.  Well, I thought, ‘You’re on’ and popped the book into my bag.  Lawrence’s talent for description and dialogue pulls you right in  –  you become completely addicted to the atmosphere it creates. A much recommended read.

So much so that I bought another of his books, ‘Hunters In The Dark’, set in Thailand and Cambodia. This would make a great film.  It engenders the edgy fear of a pit viper lurking in the dark, intent on claiming an unsuspecting victim.

But ‘Only To Sleep’ is a book that wins hands down  –  a glittering diamond of the first water. I’m envious of whoever has this treat still in store.

 

Dangerous decisions in a foreign country …  high tension on every page

A friend asked me if I’d read the Booker Prize winner – ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns.  I looked at it but thought I’d only get through it if I had to come up with a review.  If I’m not keen and know I’m not going to really connect with a book, I’ll read the end.  Or random pages.  This book is not for me.

However, thinking of the Booker Prize and wondering if I had ever read a winner, I remembered ‘Moon Tiger’ by Penelope Lively, whose writing I do like.  ‘Moon Tiger’ won The Booker in 1987. I have also read ‘Oleander, Jacaranda’, a memoir of her childhood days in Egypt (Cairo) and more recently, ‘The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories’  –  fifteen exquisitely written, funny and wickedly observant tales, examining the underside of how human beings really relate to one another. There is much to discover and enjoy beneath the surface. Lots of ‘schadenfreude’, when things don’t go according to plan.  How the underdog sometimes wins. Penelope Lively is delightfully astute in these stories, juicily laced with black humour.

‘Moon Tiger’ tells you that it’s a haunting story of loss and desire.  I have finished it and it haunts me still.  How you live your life, decisions taken that you can’t reverse, memories that you can’t or don’t want to extinguish.  A life lived widely, impulsively, by a beautiful, independent woman.  Brushstrokes of humour throughout, as when young Laszlo brings Claudia a large bunch of daffodils.  “He has picked them, it emerges, in Kensington Gardens.  Amazingly, no one noticed”.

Winner of Booker Prize 1987  –  full of twists and turns, love and loss …

Penelope Lively and Lawrence Osborne are my reads of the month but  I have also added them to my list of favourite writers.

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The Call of the Wild

Vera, our neighbour’s cat, peers at me through the fig tree.  She’s lying on the shed roof, enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Vera

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