Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Palermo


We caught the inter-city bus directly from Licata to Palermo, capital of Sicily. The trip takes three hours, but the buses are very comfortable, the drivers skilled at negotiating the unpredictable traffic, and it’s an opportunity to take in some of the beautiful scenery. At this time of the year, early spring, the countryside is vividly green, the fruit trees are in blossom and wild flowers splash patches of yellow and crimson across the fields.

Palermo has lots of accommodation options, from exclusive hotels to B&Bs. This time we rented an apartment, Casa Vacanza Bellini, in the old town in what appears to be the Bangladeshi neighbourhood. The extra facilities enabled us to do a bit of our own cooking (with produce from the famous markets) and to wash clothes rather than packing a lot of stuff. It was a perfect location for exploring this beautiful and historic city.
 
Pretoria Fountain in the 'Square of Shame'

Like most of the Med, Sicily has been settled since human history began, and its position in the middle of the Middle Sea has made it a centre of wealth, power, culture and conflict throughout the last 5000 or so years. Palermo itself was an important port for the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and Bourbons prior to the unification of Italy. Some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings date from the Norman occupation, making them nearly 900 years old. The amusingly named Roger the Norman was responsible for many of these, including the breathtaking Palatine Chapel. Almost every square foot of the chapel is covered in mosaics depicting Biblical themes, in rich blues and golds. The figures are Medieval in style, but much more fluid and expressive than the icons of the Eastern (Greek) church, and they are in perfect condition. It is one of the most beautiful religious artworks I have ever seen. (To quote Terry, “It beats the crap out of the Sistine Chapel.”) The Norman Palace and Monreale Cathedral (built by Roger’s son William) are also spectacular and well worth a visit. You begin to imagine these Norman Kings as enlightened and cultivated leaders until you read that Roger and William shared another hobby of personally devising new and excruciating tortures for their prisoners.
 Mosaics in the Palatine Chapel

 
We toured the lovely Massimo Teatro, where the last part of The Godfather III was filmed (Michael Corleone’s daughter is shot on these steps.) The Royal Box and antechamber never served the King of the time – he said the theatre was far too grand for a second-rate city like Palermo! Sadly, no performances were running while we were in town so we’ll have to make do with Cruisers’ Monday Night Singalong at the Las Vegas Bar in Licata.
 Steps of the Massimo
 
 The royal box - Al Pacino sat here

Palermo is a great town to walk around. It has the usual cafes, bars and restaurants, including some excellent ones representing the migrant groups who have settled there. The shops are fascinating. All the Italian and international brand stores are there, but also lots of tiny, specialised shops – the cravat shop, the beret shop, the puppet mender, the man who crafts inlaid wood, the artisan chocolates, the hand-made baby clothes – and the coffin maker right next door. The public buildings are stately and there are gardens, fountains and a fine waterfront.
Crafting marquetry 
 
Puppet maker's workshop
 
 Majestic ficus tree

The harbour
 
On Sunday we made our way to the famous weekly market, which took up about six full streets – the biggest and best market we’ve yet seen. The fresh produce was amazing, with oranges, strawberries (four euros per kilo!!), and winter vegetables in season. I’ve developed a serious wild asparagus habit, which fortunately is quite sustainable at two euros for a good sized bunch. It will be hard to see the season end, but I will try to console myself with cherries…  Meat, fish, cheeses and fresh pasta - so much to choose from! We bought what we needed, along with a bottle of local wine and enjoyed a fine home-cooked, market-fresh dinner.
 
 
 Sunday market scenes

I was curious to see the Cappuccin Mausoleum – a bit macabre, perhaps but I have rather a fascination with funeral rites and traditions. You learn a lot about a culture from the way it manages death. We made our way to the monastery by taxi as it is a bit out of town, then took the stairs down into the half-lit catacombs. The mummified bodies are either tied upright in niches, or laid out in shelves cut into the rock. All are dressed in the clothing of their time – the monks in their simple hessian robes, the priests in the rags of their regalia, the workmen in the uniforms of their trade, the ladies in remnants of their finery and the children and infants in lovingly stitched robes and bonnets. Most are little more than gaping skulls and skeletons, but some are better preserved, with skin, hair and even eyelashes. One child, known as “the Princess” sleeps perfectly preserved in her sealed glass coffin. A stroll through the various chambers (“the infants”, “the virgins”…) is a powerful Memento Mori which is exactly what the church intended, “to this end we all must come”. The effect was spoiled somewhat by a group of American tourists, laughing, joking and talking so loudly that the attendant had to settle them down. This was obviously their way of dealing with anxiety – as I said, you learn a lot about a culture from the way it handles death.
 
When you compare this to the older postcard shown above, you can see that there are now fewer bodies on display.
The catacombs (from a postcard - no photos permitted)
 

Another pleasant bus ride back to Licata, despite extensive roadworks, and now it’s time to do those last few jobs before setting sail again.
 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

#13th Instalment of the Beer Tour of the World


Beer, Food & Liquor Reviews

  13th Instalment of the Beer Tour of the World




We arrived from Ithaka, Ulysses' capital, in Otranto, Italy.  The closest tavern/café we have is the Quarta Caffe, or the Dolfino, depending on when you knew the place.  It is a simple tavern with beer, coffee, wine etc.  Surprise surprise – he has Tennents on tap!  Nice after an overnighter in less than ideal weather.  He also has bottle beers and I had a Dreher (previously reviewed in these august pages).  A 660cl bottle goes for …….€2.50!    I asked him about wiffy.  He didn’t have wiffy in his bar.  He put his hand over his heart to say “sorry” but he couldn’t afford it in his small café/tavern.   At €2.5 for a 660cl bottle of Dreher (a fine lager for sure) I couldn’t disagree with him and said there was no need to apologise, I would sit outside and drink my Dreher/Tennents and eat the complimentary olives and snacks while watching the sun go down over the Aragonese Castle.  As castles go, I am a great fan of the Aragonese variety, with their fake “come in this way, it’s easy” points.  I commented on this in Malta and also in Kos.  There’s nothing quite like getting your enemy to march a bucketload of guys under fire down a slowly declining plane to find out it’s a dead end!  The sheer delight on the face of the Siege Master when it all came off must have been something to see.

 

G Marabrea e Figli
Blond and Strong. An old Italian brewery of considerable class and style.  This is good stuff.  I've run into it several times since then and it doesn't disappoint, excepting that the Rosso isn't much to write home about.
 

La Quaffe
http://www.achouffe.be/en

Brasserie d’Achouffe, Belgium.  A nice light Belgian, no extra-this or extra-that.  Just good beer.  Hasn’t been around long.  Go to the Website, visit the "Valley of the Fairies" and play the song!

 

Tonnaro – red and blond.  Local brewery, on tap in a busy pizza bar in Otranto.  Pizzas were exceptional and this beer was a good local also.  So small it doesn't have a web presence and the labels seem to be stuck on with Clag.

 

Mastri Birrai Umbri.  5.9% Blond.  750ml wire top bottle

Artisan beer from a family who have had 7 generations producing fine Umbrian products.  Sour, fizzy.  Very nice, with strong hops flavour. 

 

Tuborg Green.
Have no idea what the Green refers to.  Perhaps a little less intense than normal Tuborg.  I prefer the Tuborg Gold you get in Turkey but this is OK.

 

Grimbergen
These guys have been brewing in their Abbey since 1128.  Superlative product.  Makes you want to go on a retreat there.  This is up with the best ever.
 

Angelo Poretti
Another fine Italian product.  Pick it up if it's what's on offer in the pub.  Certainly acceptable.

 
Moretti “Baffo d’Oro”
A special Moretti.  Despite Heineken, whom I despise, owning this brand now, this is a good drop, in contrast with their ordinary Moretti.
 

Prato Rosso
http://www.pratorosso.com/
Great website - you need to look at the opening scenes.
Great beer too.  Getting quite fond of red beer now.
&
Birra Bionda
Artisan beer.  A bit sharpish, like a wheat beer which I suppose it could nearly be.  Double malted, 6.6%
&
Chiara Cruda
https://untappd.com/w/birra-artigianale-khamen/25021
 
I like it better than the Bionda but really they are priced high because they are micro-brewery product and they are competing with beers that are just as good for lower prices.  Nothing against them but no point buying them.

iCavalieri
https://pirkanbeerlog.wordpress.com/category/italy/

Another Umbrian, again double malted and 7.5% ABV.  Not nice.  750ml wire-topped bottle - I could only drink a glass and a half.  Very strong grassy taste, sour and hits you fairly strongly on the alcohol level.  Threw it out.

ps – went back to the supermarket to discover that all the bottles had been removed from the shelf and the ticket was gone also.  The whole batch was off so maybe the beer is better than I thought but the production is questionable.

 

Berlin Premium Lager.
http://www.eza.gr/index.php?lang=en
 

Brewed in Greece.  Brewed to a price but OK for that.  No particular taste other than some fizz and it’s wet.  I do take issue with the company promotion that attempts to suggest this beer has a long and storied history - it doesn't.  If you read carefully, it was created in 2010, despite references in the narrative to The German Purity Act of 1790-something to make it sound older.
 
I also take issue with the claim that it is made with water from Mt Parnassus - it's made in Atalanta, near Piraeus, where we have spent quite some time and like it for its modern industrial vigour, and it sure is not the home of the Gods, Parnassus is. (Parnassus is about 100 miles west - you think they truck water 100 miles??)
 
Not that I am against new beers, unless they are IPAs, because in Australia we once had only Coopers making good beer and all the great additions to the menu are very recent.
 

 
Red Erik
http://www.royalunibrew.com/Default.aspx?ID=467&PageNum=5

 6.5%.  Red from added fruit juices.  Starts off OK but then it gets a little sweet for mine.  OK but only just.  Not to be chased after.  Humorous label, though.  The Scandinavians in the marina thought it was funny.

 
Eichbaum 4.8%  Pilsener.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eichbaum

Fairly sour, sharp beer.  Nice but you can’t drink it quickly.  Known locally in its home town of Mannheim as "Corpse Water",  because the brewery is located alongside the cemetery. Nice, eh?

2nd large can (poured into a glass, naturally) on 18th Nov. was just as good.  Moving up in my list of go-to’s

 

Warsteiner.
http://www.warsteiner.com/#/uk/
I’m sure I’ve had this before but I can’t find it in the records.  Another supermarket special but the brewery has been around since 1753.  Drinkable on a warm day at a BBQ and pleasant enough. 4.8%.  Only criticism is that it’s a bit on the bland side, but it’s not at all sweet, which is good, and not too sharp.  Available in several bars here in Licata.

 

Side Note.
We went to Agrigento for 4 days and while there took a bus down to Porto Empedocle, the port for Agrigento.  We went to see where Andrea Camilleri was born but we were told “a Campagno” so without a car, no go.  However, there is 1. A statue of him in town and 2. A statue of Montalbano (not of Luca Zingarelli, who plays him in the TV series.)  They were setting up for a beer festival in the square alongside the church.  In this beer festival, you could buy 5 (Five) different Hacker-Pschorrs, Paulaner, Becks, Stella Artois, Nastro Azzura and something called DAM which I couldn’t determine.  If you’re going to have a beer night, might as well have 3 of the best Germans, one of the best Belgian lagers and a top Italian also.  Trouble was, it began at 9pm and the last bus back to Agrigento was at 7pm

 
One of the world's great breweries, from Munich
 
Peroni Rosso
 A rich red from one of my favourite breweries. 
 
 
Had a couple with dinner in a restaurant called  "Opera", overlooking the Valley d'Templi
 
McFarland Red
Had this in an Indian restaurant in Catania, Sicily.  Weird combination - Irish beer in an Indian restaurant serving Indonesian Samosas in Italy.  Oh well, that's the modern world.
Made by Murphys Brewery.  Very nice indeed.  2.5 Euros for a 500ml bottle. 
 
Norbertus Heller Bock
Now we are getting to the top end of the beer world.  I had this in bottles in Syracusa a year or so ago and liked it very much indeed then.  This time, we were walking back from the Vatican to our apartment in Rome and it began to rain.  We ducked into a nice modern suburban bar/café for a spell and this was on tap (La Spina in Italy).  Amazing - one of the worlds great beers over the counter and 3 euros for a 600ml glass.  Had to have a couple.
 
 Home in Oz again.
Coopers to the left of me, Coopers to the right.  Coopers everywhere.  Wonderful way to be.  Good to see some great new additions also.
 
Began to question my judgement on the way back so I went and bought a six-pack of VB and a sixer of Nastro Azzurro.  Had Carol pour them into identical glasses, remove the bottles and the caps and give me a taste test.  Sure enough, the VB was instantly identifiable as pure crap.  I managed to palm off the rest of the pack to my nephew.  Drank the Nastro.
 
Have tried a couple of Squires' offerings and liked them - despite being owned by a major brewery, they seem to have been left alone to do their own thing.  Had lots of Coopers. 
 
I was also introduced to Nail Brewery's Pale Ale - very nice indeed.
Currently drinking Lowenbrau, which I managed to score at BWS for $36 a carton, which is getting down to a very reasonable price.
 
There really is no reason to drink the rubbish put out by the likes of VB, XXXX etc when there are so many better offerings out there.
 


 

Living in Licata


We’ve been back on Common Sense in Licata for almost a month but we’ve been boat-bound for a lot of that time by wet, windy weather and a particularly bad bout of man-flu for Terry. He’s only just starting to recover with the first of the very welcome spring sunshine. The situation has been redeemed somewhat by the pleasant company of the international cruising community here, with all the usual happy hours, Sunday barbecues, fitness groups and other activities, along with typical Sicilian life in the town. On a normal day we might have a morning Pilates class with Dave, then a ten minute walk into town to pick up a few oranges or tomatoes from Frutteria Rosso or bread from the paneria, followed by a coffee at any number of great little cafes. There is usually a bit of boatwork to do – fixing something, cleaning or working on some improvement project. Lunch – soup, bread, cheese or whatever is good at the market – then rest, read, write, play boules or molkke, whatever you like until it’s time for a drink with friends, a passegiata around town, perhaps a meal at one of the many restaurants ranging from simple pizzerias to some very fine dining. A film from our ridiculously large collection, maybe, then sleep to the gentle rocking of the boat. Or in a few recent cases, heeling to starboard and listening to the wind howl. The marina is well constructed so at least we haven’t had any swell to deal with.
Playing Molkke

Walking around town is a pleasure. Almost everyone nods or greets you with a buongiorno or buona sera, and the well-to-do older people especially dress in their smart clothes to go for a stroll. Three quarter coats, smart hats and fine shoes are the look for both ladies and gents. Young people are pretty stylish – even five year olds have trendy soccer star haircuts and wear their scarves just right. The old blokes hang out at the cafes, just as they do through the entire Mediterranean, but here they are welcoming and jovial rather than stern-faced and a bit threatening as they are in some places. Shop keepers and restaurateurs treat you like their long lost best friend – a sign of hard financial times, perhaps, but I think it is the authentic Siciliano character, generous and expressive. Terry has become very close friends with the nice lady in the central Farmacia.

 I always enjoy the little architectural surprises that you find in towns that have been lived in for a very long time.
Grotesques on the bank, modelled on the board of directors?

So now we are just awaiting a new battery, then after the Easter celebrations (the crucified Christ icon will be carried through town this evening then he’s due to rise for another parade on Sunday) we will head off by land for a bit of sight-seeing. The plan is to do the Montalbano tour next – we’ll keep you posted.
Thousands gather to watch the crucifixion

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!!)

 
Silvia
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



 
 

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. 

facebook.com/OsteriaExPanificio/timeline


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’avola.  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.