Saturday, 14 March 2015

Home, then Rome (then Home),

Ten weeks at home in Perth and the south west has flown by in a bit of a blur – in this case a very pleasant blur of sunshine, white beaches, clear blue water, coffee, drinks or meals with dear friends, house and dog-sitting, medicals, haircuts (for me, not Terry) and other personal maintenance, family gatherings and time with our kids, several new babies to welcome, all culminating in a gorgeous country wedding at our friends’ farm. The downside of life in Western Australia? The endless sprawling suburbs and accompanying aggressive traffic of Perth, the high cost of living and the isolation from everywhere else, resulting in long, long flights to the rest of the world.
Christmas in Perth

Terry bonding with our beautiful great-niece, Pia
On the positive side again, arriving in Perth International is now very quick and easy.  The electronic recognition system is superb and you no longer have to stand in an outrageously long queue while indifferent Immigration bureaucrats dawdle over each incoming returnee.  It never made any sense trying to complain about the lack of service – they and their bosses knew exactly how little they were doing to expedite the wait.  Removing them from the process is wonderful.  Departing Perth not so good yet but when the upper level renovations are completed it should be fine.

Apart from spending many weeks with Pauline, cooking up a storm, buying new toys like remote FM headphones for the TV, being treated to a fantastic birthday dinner and going on photographic trips, we spent time at Terry’s brother’s house and then at his sister’s house while she was away.  We got to spend some quality time with our nephew Louis and enjoyed his company, as well as that of Oscar the dog. It was great to meet Martin's new (to us) partner Claire, and to do some long overdue mother-daughter stuff with Lizzy (and Keith - nice hair!)
Martin and Claire
Down home, we spent a couple of weeks in our home-away-from home while Andy and Cherry were off in France and were entrusted this time with looking after Nala the Labrador.  She can be a bit of a handful as she is quite cunning but overall it was nice to take her for walks and have her following us around the house, presenting us with a dried gumleaf from the garden each time we returned home.  Andy and Cherry installed a new oven last year and Terry says it’s the best thing ever – it is a magnificent Electrolux with all sorts of whizz-bang features, plus a second oven below.  The matching cooktop was also a treat.

On our second trip “down south” we stayed with our friends Leonie and Steve.  Unfortunately, school terms had recommenced so they couldn’t be home during the day but we did enjoy our evenings.  Steve and Terry had a mini beer-tasting and we had a great time catching up on travel gossip (Steve and Leonie have visited about 50 countries to date.) Morning swims with Kath, Kim and the crew were wonderful, and something I will sadly miss until the weather warms up here.
Lots of good times with good friends
We had plenty of time to chase Geocaches this time and managed to get 61 while we were home, our best ever haul. Our final week was Hayley and Bryce’s wedding at the Lone Crow vineyard, and a wonderful country wedding it was, with Jenny and Robbie’s farm looking splendid and contributions from friends and relatives making it an especially memorable day. I wish I’d kept my menu – the food was all sourced locally and grown, caught, cooked and served by friends and neighbours – it was awesome. Hayley and Bryce looked radiantly happy, and the bridesmaids were particularly stunning (:
Proud dad and lovely daughter
Bridesmaids delivered by tractor

On our last day in Bunbury, we enjoyed a birthday lunch with our friends Ann, Robin, Colin, Sol, Simone, Michael and Glenys  and Paddy, our ancient garden gnome who is under Ann's care while we're away, at the Water’s Edge restaurant.  It was a great way to wind up the summer. Heartfelt thanks once again to everyone who put us up, or put up with us! After three more days in Perth, it was time to leave again for our home on the water, Common Sense.

So, after yet another long flight, here we were again in Rome, this time staying at a nice little B&B near the Vatican.  Named “ La Lanterna di San Pietro” after the illuminated dome of St Peter’s that can be viewed from the balcony, it has very comfortable beds, a wonderful hot bath/shower, fresh croissants and coffee for breakfast and best of all, the lovely Silvia, who speaks excellent English and can help you with anything you need to know about Rome. (p.s. – it also has a lift!!)

Roman breakfast at La Lanterna

Our first day dawned in teeming rain, so it seemed like a good idea to spend it inside the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s. A lot of other people obviously had the same thought, though I’m sure it is way more crowded in the high season. The Vatican has to be one of the ultimate people-watching locations on earth – flocks of nuns of many denominations, earnest American Bible study groups, important men in fine suits, colourful African delegations and tourists of every nation milling about, stopping to snap the inevitable selfie with the majestic cathedral as background. Our guide, Silvio, was easy to follow through the throng: a six-foot-four giant with ginger hair and a booming voice, he was adept at crowd control and passionate about art. Particularly fascinating were the contrasts he drew between the serenity and perfection of “religious art” and the realism and energy of the Humanists. The highlight of the Basilica for me was the beautiful Pieta. I couldn't believe we were really there looking at the most perfect of Renaissance sculptures (in my humble opinion!)
Michelangelo's Pieta

Of course the crowning glory of Renaissance humanist art is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is revered as a holy site – the chapel where the cardinals gather to pray for guidance as they elect a new Pope – so silence and respectful behaviour are required. But to me, the whole glorious edifice seems to be a shrine to the human body, specifically the male body, in all its sinewy strength, suffering and drama. I’m sure that many others have observed that even the female figures are drawn from male models, either powerfully muscled athletes or beautiful boys – with breasts attached as a kind of afterthought. Some theorise that it is also a shrine to the human mind. God’s cloak in the creation scene forms a perfect cross-section of a brain (Michelangelo was a keen practical anatomist), the whole composition hinting that the idea of God is contained within the human mind. That kind of heretical thinking would probably get you excommunicated even today!  Terry was distinctly underwhelmed by the Chapel but was in awe of the Basilica; homoerotic art doesn’t seem to be his thing.

We managed to do a bit of geocaching in Rome, despite the challenges of litter, crowds and an abiding concern about lurking suspiciously near important landmarks. Italy seems to have about fifteen separate police forces and I don’t imagine any of them take kindly to suspected terrorists! Nevertheless we had a few successes, and took our tally to 300 across about ten countries.

Our third day was fine and cold, perfect for a kind of rally through some of Rome’s finest old churches in search of works by my favourite Italian painter, Caravaggio. Silvia turned out to be a fellow enthusiast, and she helped us to create a walking plan.
The Martyrdom of St Matthew

My first encounter with Caravaggio’s painting “in real life” was in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta, where two amazing paintings stand out, even in the richest and most ornate context you can imagine. “The Beheading of John the Baptist” is like a snapshot at the moment of highest drama, with the figures and their facial expressions vividly lit against the darkness. “St Jerome Writing” is a similar work of chiaroscuro but its mood is a total contrast. The old man is all quiet power and concentration. In Rome on our last visit we saw the graphic and quite horrifying “Judith Beheading Holofernes” in the Palazzo Barbarini. The realism of the characters makes it look like a still from a horror drama - it’s as though Caravaggio has invented stage lighting in his imagination, ising a ‘spotlight’ to emphasise stricken faces and violent gestures. On this latest walk we first found the ancient church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where “The Crucifixion of St Peter” and “The Conversion of St Paul” hang in a small chapel. Three paintings from the life of St Matthew hang in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, and there is a wonderful Madonna in the church of Sant’ Agostino, famous for the dirty feet of the pilgrims who dominate the foreground. All the pictures have such power because they represent people struggling and suffering, not beatific saints with painted haloes. They make every other painting in a place seem pallid and lifeless. Caravaggio’s life was as full of passion and violence as his paintings – but you can read about that elsewhere.

Madonna (and the dirty-footed pilgrims)

Of course it’s Italy and you can’t forget about food, even if you wanted to. There was yet another great fresh market near our place, Mercato Trionfale (called “the stomach of Rome”) with mounds of oranges, artichokes and gigantic cauliflowers the big items of seasonal produce, bulk wine to be bottled, butchers, cheese vendors and bakers.  We grabbed two simple pork rolls in fresh bread (€3) and took them on a walk down to the Tiber. Later that night, we enjoyed an excellent meal at Falcone’s, recommended by Silvia as typical of the local fare. Each day we took a Hobbit-style ‘second breakfast’ at a magnificent Sicilian pasticceria presided over by a vivacious young woman from Transylvania. How do Italians stay relatively slim surrounded by all this? (1. Walking up hills 2. Smoking like chimneys)
Second breakfast...
Market produce
Winter walk along the Tiber
And then, after one last wonderful hot bath at La Lanterna, it was time to hop on the overnight bus to Licata to see how Common Sense had fared in our long absence.
Now a few random pictures of things that amused me...
Authentic wild boar sausages
We repair dolls, ornaments and holy icons
Another Memento Mori
Smart cars get to park like this. Or on the footpath.


Saturday, 10 January 2015

Rome, then Home

I don’t imagine that our few days of brief impressions can add much to the volumes written about Rome over the last few thousand years, but here they are, for what it’s worth. Firstly, of course, Rome was the centre of the greatest and richest of ancient empires. What remains from the age of the Caesars is grandiose, designed as a display of wealth and power. The remnants of the Fascist era seek to echo that sense of empire. With a bit of effort you can imagine triumphal marches down the broad Appian Way (we saw its terminus back in Brindisi), games and spectacles in the Coliseum and Circus Maximus, impassioned speeches from the balconies of grand public buildings. To be honest, touring the major attractions lacked something – perhaps it was overexposure, the fact that we’ve seen far better sites in Tunisia and Turkey, or the decidedly less than enthusiastic attitude of those who work there, but James Joyce’s cutting comment resonated a little for me: “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse”. Not as bad as that, but you get the idea.

It is pretty impressive though
Rome feels as though it’s been thoroughly lived-in forever. A stroll around any part of the city reveals layers of human activity from Neolithic foundations to contemporary fashion houses, and everything in between. The Roman ruins are not the only ones – decaying remnants of houses, factories and office buildings of every age are everywhere. It feels as if nothing is ever demolished and replaced – you simply build on and leave the old stuff to collect litter and crumble away. But it is never dull. Just sitting and watching the tourists and the fashionable, flamboyant Romans is endlessly entertaining, as are the interesting little shops and cafes. (There is no such thing as a bad coffee here.)
Gepetto's workshop

 We stayed in a terrific four room apartment, Lilium House, not too far from town and easily accessed by bus, metro or on foot. The apartment’s owners, Angelo and Marcia, provide a pickup service from the train station for €15, an airport dropoff for €30 (a taxi has a fixed price of €48!) They are also very helpful with advice, directions and tips for enjoying the city. The usual reconnoitre on an open top bus was a good way to orient ourselves to the city, followed by a few days of sightseeing, shopping and plenty of eating. We decided to save some major attractions, like the Vatican, until we return in March.

Then the long haul home to Western Australia!  Similar climate – different in almost every other respect…

It’s been a fantastic few weeks so far, spending time with Lizzy and Martin and their partners, catching up with family and dear friends in Perth and the south west. And despite the wonders of the Med, its history, culture, people and beautiful places, it really is a pleasure to return to a place that is clean, shiny and prosperous, set on a glorious coastline. There are still plenty of wild places. I walked a couple of kilometres along our local beach the other day in perfect weather, meeting just two people fishing for whiting and a bloke walking his dog. Not a single plastic bag, can, pile of dog poop or chunk of polystyrene to be seen. Let’s try to keep it that way.

Saturday, 22 November 2014



Agrigento from the Valli d'Templi

Just a one hour bus trip from the marina in Licata, Agrigento is the regional capital and the jumping off point to tour the Valli di Templi, Sicily’s best preserved Greco-Roman site. We stayed in a great little place called B&B Rabate, which is just outside the old hilltop town and has a fine view over the valley and a beautiful old church just opposite. Francesca the proprietor clearly loves her town and Sicily, and is very helpful with ideas for things to see, places to go and great restaurants to visit. She speaks only a little English, but our Italian is improving and we find the Sicilian people so expressive that it’s usually easy to pick up what they mean. Comfortable bed, good shower, everything very clean, nice breakfast – a fine place to stay if you’re in this part of the world!

Francesca and two of her children
On our first morning it was pouring with rain, so the visit to the temples would have to be postponed – but only for an hour or so, as it turned out. The rain stopped, the sun came out and the light was gloriously clear. Francesca dropped us off at the start of the walk and we were treated to the sight of the beautiful golden sandstone structures glowing in the sunlight, washed clean by the rain. The temple complex dates from the fifth to the fourth century BC, from the Greek city Akragas which was described in ancient texts as “the most beautiful city mortals had ever built” and also as “exceedingly opulent”.  The remains of seven temples and various other buildings sit along a ridge in the middle of the Akragas Valley, which is filled with olive and almond trees, with the Temple of Concord the best preserved. A museum holds the archaeological finds from this extensive site, including a giant male figure which formed a supporting pillar for the Temple of Zeus. A brother to this figure lies on his back at the temple itself, looking like an eternal sunbather.
 Ancient olive tree and the Temple di Concordia


The old town was a great place for shopping and exploring, with the tiny steep back alleys, interesting shops and surprising architectural treasures we’ve come to expect in this part of the world. The big difference seems to be that the old places are seldom pulled down to make way for the new. New interiors are created within 15th century walls, or added on right next door while the old stuff slowly crumbles away in scenic fashion. Highly visible are certain big developments that are sitting where they clearly shouldn’t be, because “someone knew someone who paid someone”.
Back alley, Agrigento 
The Street of Street Art (that's what they call it)

Via Atenea
 Via Atenea
Teatro Pirandello (Agrigento's Nobel Laureate of about 1934 or so)

We had several excellent meals, notably at “Opera”

The view from the window is out over the Valley d'Templi

and a great restaurant called Osteria ExPanificio.

For Christine’s benefit, this is what we had:-

Pappardelle with a rich and chunky wild boar and Porcini sauce.  A tiny touch of cream added.  It was strong and superb.
Ravioli stuffed with goat’s cheese and walnuts.  Melt-in-your-mouth pasta (not “al-dente” thank goodness!) with a creamy filling and crushed walnuts, plus crushed walnuts in the sauce.

Potatoes, cut into cubes and roasted in the oven with EVOO and Rosemary.  Simple Sicilian potatoes with flavour.  Excellent.
Panna Cotta with a reduction of raspberries.  Probably the best Panna Cotta the Admiral has had.

2 x aqua, one still, one with gas
660cl Moretti

½ litre of the house Nero D’avolo.  Not at all bad for a house wine.
1 coffee  €42 all up.

We took the local bus out to Port Empedocle, home of the dramatist Pirandello and also Andrea Cammilleri, author of the Montalbano novels. We established that he is alive and well, residing in Rome, that another Montalbano book (about number 18) is about to come out in English and that a statue of the famous Sicilian detective is about to be re-erected in Via Roma, the main street when new paving is completed.

Art Nouveau Customs House in Porto Empedocle
The "Wedding Cake" church in Porto Empedocle

Virginia d'Alessandro in her ceramic studio "Ceramicando" on Via Atenea.  We called a halt to the buying spree at 5 pieces.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Marina di Cala del Sole, Licata

Marina di Cala del Sole

One of the famous sunsets, after which the Marina is named
We are comfortably settled in our winter haven here in the southern Sicilian town of Licata, and so far all is going well. The marina provides excellent all-round shelter and the dock staff are helpful and vigilant – they were very much in evidence last week when the wind blew up, checking docklines and making sure boats were safe. The office staff are great, the bathrooms are clean and functional and – joy of joys! - there is a self-service laundry with industrial standard washers and dryers! (Who ever imagined that that would be cause for celebration?)  We have a real international community of cruisers here once again – fellow Aussies and New Zealanders, Brits, French, Brazilians, Germans, Dutch, Indonesian, Swedish, Finns and Norwegians, plus the locals of course. The Sunday barbecue seems to be a universal cruising tradition, and Licata has its own version accompanied by games (boules and the Finnish bowling game, Molkky) on our specially constructed courts.
The marina adjoins the town and is a popular spot for families and couples to make their evening passagiata. Everything is close by, including an excellent supermarket. Licata town itself is a bit run down, but many of its baroque buildings have been attractively renovated and there are some fascinating hidden gems – grotesques and carved balconies, tiny cavern-like shops, memorials like the statue and home of the physicist Filippo Re Capriata. It is an everyday working town rather than a tourist town, with village-style remnants like the old carpenter's workshop, unsigned and down a back alley - everyone just knows that's where Giovanni's place is. Ambitious plans are in place for the marina complex, so let's hope it doesn't change all that.
Grotesques on the fa├žade of the bank
And it’s Sicily so the food, even in the most ordinary places, is sensational. Besides fantastic pizzas, our local pizza joint serves Peroni on tap and about five metres counter space of fresh salads, vegetable dishes, pasta, breads, fruit and desserts. At the other end of the scale is La Madia, Licata’s Michelin star restaurant which is supposed to be one of the best in Italy (to be sampled later, perhaps, on a special occasion!)
Deli counter in an ordinary supermarket (Antonio is Terry's best friend in Sicily!)
We did go with friends Louise and Gary from Takamoana to an exceptional little restaurant called L’Oste E il Sacrestano where Chiara and Chef Peppe delighted in explaining each dish of the delicious six plate tasting menu. The restaurant specialises in showcasing the fresh foods of the region, particularly its fish, vegetables and olive oil. Every single bite was a sensation, from the lovely peppery oil to the cherry tomatoes cooked in vinegar and sugar, to the rich creamy potatoes, the smoky marinated octopus, the fresh home made pasta, the fresh tuna, the sea bass which was absolutely perfect … Peppe finished by preparing dessert at the table – a delicate concoction of coffee, artisan ice-cream, chocolate and marscapone mmm! The dishes were an ideal size, so each could be appreciated and you left feeling satisfied rather than stuffed. Our hosts were so friendly and knowledgeable – what a great showcase for Sicilian food and hospitality!
Peppe prepares dessert
So far I have seen every character from The Godfather, including several scary incarnations of Luca Brasi and some well-dressed elderly gentlemen who seem to command a lot of respect. Famiglia is certainly the core of life here, including those who have passed on. Every day is busy at the very prominent hillside cemetery, but All Saints Day saw virtually the whole town turn out, with vast bouquets of chrysanthemums, to commune with the dead at the family vault.

View from the Castle over the cemetery and marina
The weather is beautiful, the food is sensational, the company is good, the boat is safe. Next week we will do a bit of travelling around the local area. There are good vineyards in the hills, and much to see in Ragusa and Agrigento. Not to be missed, of course, is Montalbano’s villa – I hope it will stay warm enough to do the morning swim!
Cruising crew celebrate Hallowe'en  (the local kids have learnt that boats are a good bet for Trick or treat!)


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Santa Maria de Leuca and on to Porto Paolo (Terry)

Leaving Brindisi
We went to Santa Maria de Leuca after Brindisi and stayed for a few days in the marina there.  Not very nice:-  it rolls all the visiting boats terribly and it was hard to sleep.  Was hard to get on and off, too, and that was when there was very little swell outside!  For the first time ever, I was pitched getting off the passareille and ended up on the pontoon.  No damage, I rolled to my shoulder on the way down but it was a shock nonetheless.  The problem is that the visiting boats are all lined up along the entrance way, which gets the first of the swell that comes in.  It seems a little better further in and to the side away from the floating pontoons.

It is a Municipal Marina, owned by the town/city.  Very pleasant staff.  We arrived around 6:00am on the Monday morning and motored around outside a bit until I could see where to go.  At 6:45, we called the Ormeggiotore and he came out and helped us in.  In a first, and pleasant surprise, once the manager worked out we were staying longer than overnight, he got the Ormeggiotore to go out to the car and bring back a gift box of local wines (red and white), artisan pasta and artisan spaghetti sauce and also a very large jar of local olive paste.  All boxed up and laid out with cellophane etc.

We were going to stay until Saturday, as it's a nice town to be in, even if half-closed as all the tourists have gone home.  The town is famous for its many mansions, as the holiday makers in this part of the world were not dissimilar to the inhabitants of the Hamptons etc.  They competed for the best architects and the best designs.
This one's on the beachfront

With its own Cabana (there are a couple more with these as well, plus many not on the beach with their own guardhouses)

The link is worth a look.

It is also famous for its lighthouse, and almost on the same block, a Basilica.  From these heights runs a water cascade that is turned on only a couple of times a year but is quite a sight when it is.  Work is under way to install LED lighting, probably to give the illusion of a cascade while saving water.

 The walk to the Basilica and the Cascade

It really is a very nice place to be, except for the rolling in the marina.

We say what was forecast as a good weather window beginning Friday, with north wind on Saturday and Sunday, so we decided not to stay on and left on Friday morning.

Forecast was bullshit as usual.  Friday night turned into the voyage from hell.  Instead of 4-8 knot winds drifting lazily from all parts of the compass, we had 28-40 knot Westerly winds for hour after hour, side on.  The seas built and we got hammered and hammered.  Carol was still sick for two days from it.   That’s what you get for producing weather forecasts with computers and sidelining the people who used to do it.

The next day was better, but we got invaded by thousands upon thousands of some kind of fly.  Not normal ones.  Didn't respond to fly spray or surface spray, so I connected up the hose that washes the anchor to another hose and we washed them off.  They were on everything.  I think they got blown offshore in a swarm and just happened to find a boat to land on.  Luckily, they weren't bitey ones.

Things quietened down a little after that and we motorsailed lazily along recovering from the beating of the night before.

Then, early a.m. Sunday, just when I wanted to get some sleep around 1am, we ran into the annual Rolex Middle Sea Race off Syracusa.  Some of the contestants had called in to Leuca on their way to Valetta, Malta,  for the start.  We didn't know then that was where they were going, but there they were, coming back towards us.  One called "Oz" actually came down from Brindisi with us.  They were really moving and unfortunately they were moving straight towards us, about 30 or 40 of them.  With all the masts, their AIS wasn’t transmitting correctly – one minute you’d see a boat on the screen, next minute it was gone, then back again!  There was only a sliver of a moon and it was near impossible to see them unless they were skylighted agains the lights of Syracusa.  Those to seaward of us we couldn’t see until they were broadside to us. Took almost two hours of threading my way through them in the dark (they had right-of-way because they were under sail and we had the engine on).  No real danger in it, because as well as we could see them on our screen, they could see us.  AIS must be a race directive as we didn't pass any unaccounted for boats. 

 There may be no wind, there may be too much wind, but there is rarely nothing going on out here.

Finally we were clear of them and I tried to sleep.  No luck, as the radio piped up with "Common Sense, Common Sense, Common Sense, this is Italian Warship “Mars something”.   Perhaps it was the Maestrale?.  Not big enough for a Destroyer, too big for a PB, too dark to get a good look. 

Something registered that they were talking to me and I answered on the second call.  All they wanted to do was set up a passing routine and we agreed on "Green to Green", which means both our starboard sides, instead of the more usual port-to-port.  They were a mile away so I suspect they were just going through a radio training routine for newbie bridge officers, and also practising their English.  No problem, except that Navies here take a very dim view of people not responding to Channel 16 calls.  They think that perhaps you are maybe sleeping a little bit and not paying attention J

Maestrale Class Frigate

Finally we arrived in Porto Paolo, where we anchored last year (Porto Paolo with a Koala Bar!)  As usual, the Admiral’s straight over the side for a swim and I was straight into the bunk for a catch up on sleep. 
After a good rest and a hot dinner, we left at around 21:30 for the last 13-hour trip on up to Licata and a full stop to 2014's cruising.