Category Archives: Natural Environment

Sicily – An Art Exhibition and a Religious Procession

Our final afternoon in Ortigia and we had by now made our way around the island and and I am certain about this, walked  every street but there remained one last thing to do.  To visit the World Heritage site, fortified castle situated at the very southern end of the island promontory.

To get there we walked along the seafront which I found all rather odd, surely this was one of the best spots in the town with sweeping views over the sea to the west.  This was the place for big fine hotels, tourist apartments and swanky bars but not a bit of it.  The buildings along this stretch were all run down, many abandoned and boarded up and most in a state of serious disrepair.  I came to the conclusion that there must surely be plans for them and someone somewhere was preparing for  a programme of restoration and renewal.  Quite possibly restrictive planning and development rules are slowing down the process, this is after all a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

This is what happens when regulation kicks in.  

After passing the neglected buildings and crossing a curious piece of wasteland (curious because almost everywhere else in Ortigia is developed and built on) we came to the entrance to the fortress. 

The entrance fee was €8 and I have been known to walk away from an €8 entrance fee.  I might have done so today especially as we had already walked through the museum before arriving at the pay desk so there was an opportunity there to walk back out, but on this occasion decided to splash the cash.  

The inside was quite interesting if you like castles but parts of the interior were closed which is often an issue when visiting historical sites out of main season which is a more convenient time to carry out maintenance so we walked the walls and eventually came across an art exhibition in the castle vaults.

Here was a stroke of luck because Italian sculpture and Italian artist Davide Dall’Osso had an interesting exhibition display. Dall’Osso experiments with light and shade and the exhibition consisted of a number of transparent polycarbonate studies which certainly made best use of the location and the sunlight through the windows.

I am no art expert so I rely on this passage from his website which seeks to explain his work…

“Light, which shapes the transparent matter of his works and continuously redefines forms and emotional boundaries. The circular economy with the reuse of industrial waste of polycarbonate and plexiglas for the realisation of his works. Transparency, allowing oneself to be crossed and modified by light, metamorphosis, are the main colours of Dall’Osso’s sculptural language, which he expresses more through the fusion of polycarbonates.”

I liked it and we stayed around for sometime watching the shifting light and shadows as the sun moved around the castle building.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Walking back to the apartment we couldn’t help noticing that there was a lot more activity than usual, litter bins were being emptied for a second time today, the streets were being swept again and a gang of men were filling holes in the roads with tarmac.  There were more police than usual and temporary signs warning motorists not to park or risk having their cars towed away.  Clearly something was taking place and this was the preparation. stage. 

I asked a policeman what was going on and he seemed surprised that we didn’t know that today was The Feast of The Immaculate Conception and that early in the evening there was to be a big procession.  As it turned out today was a holiday all over Italy and other Catholic countries too in celebration of the Virgin Mary.  So that explained why the streets had been busier than usual all day long.

Festa dell’Immacolata is celebrated throughout Italy on 8th December. The day recognises that the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin – something with which, in Catholic dogma, every person is considered to have been born.  Most of us have been making up for it ever since of course.

By Pontifical decree, it is the Patronal feast day of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Korea, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, Spain, the United States, and Uruguay. By royal decree of King John IV (1640-56), it is designated as the day honouring the patroness of Portugal.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse takes place in the Giudecca district where the Church of San Filippo Apostolo is located right where we were staying and after further enquiries we established that it would pass directly below our balcony.  How lucky was that, we were going to miss the Feast of Saint Lucy in three days time but tonight we were going to see the big one.

So we opened a bottle of wine and took up our front row seats and waited.  Bang on time the drumming started and the band began to play.  The Church was less than a hundred yards away so the procession soon reached the corner of our street and the statue of Virgin Mary came into view carried on the broad shoulders of a dozen or so strong men.  Even so the statue is so heavy (250 kilo or thereabouts) they have to stop every twenty yards or so, set it down on stout stakes whilst they draw breath.  On account of these frequent stops the parade took twenty minutes or so to pass by and we enjoyed every minute of it.

It was a wonderful way to finish the holiday.

Sicily – Trouble With Traffic

“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it!”  –  John Steinbeck

By the third day we had used up the breakfast supplies that we had bought on day one in the street market so we needed more.  Having convinced ourselves that we had paid a premium price at the market and having identified a LIDL supermarket barely two miles away we walked there instead.

This involved crossing the bridge over the water again and venturing once more into the untidy side of the city which involved a very dangerous walk along an abandoned industrial site with crumbling buildings and potholed streets.  An area which once provided employment but now nothing, not even hope.

Road construction in Sicily it seems makes little or no provision for pedestrians and there is an almost complete absence of pavements which requires those on foot to take their chances at the side of the road or in the intermittent cycle lanes which provides little help at all because motorists just drive along them regardless.

In Italy, traffic regulations currently in force were approved by the Legislative Decree number 285 of 30th April 1992 and are contained in the Italian Highway Code called the Codice della Strada, but anyone visiting a busy Italian city or town would be certain to dispute that there is such a thing as traffic regulations or a highway code in Italy.

Crossing the road is especially dangerous, there are pedestrian crossings but they haven’t been repainted since Mussolini was in charge and car drivers just ignore them.  Local people seem to have the hang of it, they just step boldly out into the road, look straight ahead and ignore the obvious danger

The only exception to this is nun’s.  Italian drivers will not hit a nun – you see groups of them breezing across eight lane highways with amazing impunity, so if you wish to cross some busy place your only hope is to wait for some nuns to come along and stick to them…” – Bill Bryson

Italy it has to be said has some insanely different driving rules to the rest of Europe and the traffic was murderously busy and dangerously hectic along this stretch of road.

Here is a general speed limit of fifty kilometres an hour but Italians generally ignore that and this is the second problem – the drivers –  because, in my opinion,  one of the biggest mistakes in the development of the modern world was to introduce the Italians to the motor car.

Italian drivers obey no rules and have no self-control, no manners or tolerance; junction priorities mean nothing because show a moment of hesitation and this is interpreted as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull-out, cut you up or just simply push in.  They are impatient and, show a split-second of indecision and they go for their car horn like a trigger-happy wild-west gunslinger.  At a junction or a roundabout the Italian driver narrows his eyes and flashes a ‘do you feel lucky punk’ sort of glare while his right foot hovers menacingly over the accelerator pedal.

Traffic lights are another good example of these different rules because each one resembles the starting grid of a formula one grand prix. 

At an Italian traffic junction there is an intolerant confusion of cars all impatiently throbbing with engines growling, exhaust pipes fuming and clutch plates sizzling whilst behind the wheel the drivers blood pressure reaches somewhere beyond boiling point. 

A regard for the normal habits of road safety is curiously absent so although the traffic light colours are the same as elsewhere they mean completely different things.  Red means slow down, amber means go and green means ‘pedal to the metal‘  At a junction an Italian driver simply points his car at the exit he is aiming for and five seconds before the lights go green he shuts his eyes, presses the accelerator to the floor then races forward and may God have mercy on anything or anyone in his way.

If the normal rules of driving do not apply here then the normal rules associated with parking definitely are completely irrelevant.  But it does look like great fun.  Sometimes there is a small and hopelessly inadequate car park full of impatient drivers looking for non-existing parking spaces, blowing their horns, waving their arms and shouting at each other in that classic Italian driving style.  

More from Bill Bryson…

I love the way Italians park… it looks like a parking competition for blind people.  Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways… fitted into spaces so tight that the only way out would be through the sun roof.  Italians park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.” 

So, we completed our shopping and as we suspected it was a whole lot cheaper than the street market by as much as 40% in our estimation and we had the bonus of sensibly priced bottles of wine.

But now we had to carefully negotiate our return journey, this time with shopping bags.  We were so glad to cross the bridge and get back to relatively normal traffic conditions and as we passed the cathedral we said a quiet thank you to whoever it was that had been watching over and taking care of us…

 

 

A to Z of Postcards – Y is for Yorkshire

A to Z of Postcards – V is for Valladolid in Spain

“The celebrated plateresque façades of Valladolid strike me as being, when one has recovered from the riotous shock of them, actually edible.”    –   Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Valladolid is a very crimson city, the reddest that I have ever seen, a sprawling industrial metropolis, the capital of Castilla y León, the tenth largest city in Spain but with its medieval heart ripped out and trodden under foot in the post civil war industrial boom and it does not feature on many tourist itineraries.

Read the full story Here…

A to Z of Postcards – U is for Umbria in Italy

I live in England and I am a citizen of the United Kingdom of course but…

…I am really struggling with the letter U.  I have never been to Ukraine or Uzbekistan or Uruguay and doubt that I ever will,  I have never been to Uganda or the United Arab Emirates and also doubt that I ever will.

I have overdone Castro Udiales in Spain having used it three times already in my A to Zs.  So I am going to cheat here.  I am not sure if I have ever been to Umbria in Italy but I have half a thought that I have passed through it on a train journey.

The nearest place to Umbria that I have visited is the city of Siena in neighbouring Tuscany.

Read the full story Here…

A to Z of Postcards – T is for Tenerife

I visited Tenerife in 1989 and stayed in the tourist resort of Los Christianos near Playa de Los Americas in a hotel complex called the Parque Santiago.  One day I took a coach tour to the Teide National Park.  It wasn’t a long trip in terms of kilometres but the bus left early because it happens to be an awfully long way to climb to the top.

Read the full story Here…

Hoar Frost in the Garden

The UK is in the grip of winter right now, snow, frost, fog; airport closures, motorway jams and rail cancellations.

Not really so bad here on the east coast, very cold but current weather conditions have provided a hoar frost show in the garden.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Portugal – Doors, Windows and Balconies of Setubal

Setubal has an affluent air, the fourth biggest port in Portugal, a busy modern (redeveloped)  city centre  and a harbour full of swanky boats.  I became concerned that it was rather like Cascais which I did’t care for at all but a bit of probing into the streets beyond the centre really paid off.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Portugal – Setúbal and Seafood Dining

The nearest beach was about three miles away to the west so we laced up our shoes, packed our bags and set off.

First stop was the city market, said to be the largest covered market in all of Portugal, which was a wonderful experience, so much better than next door Pingo Doce supermarket, especially the fish section at the back with slabs and slabs of fresh fish and more varieties than I could ever have guessed at.  And it was selling fast as local shoppers gathered around squabbling over choices and prices.  It was like a rugby scrum.  So we thought that it might be a good idea to come back later and make our own selection for our evening meal.

Next, a second market down on the sea-front, this one exclusively fish and also enjoying brisk trade and then past a harbour of fishing boats where rugged men with weather beaten faces and  hands with broken knuckles were cleaning down and mending nets in preparation for going out to sea again later.

Unsurprisingly this was an area full of fish restaurants and some interesting street art including a boulevard decorated with leaping dolphins and we examined the menus in anticipation of lunch later on. 

We were heading for the Praia Portinho da Arrabida and I was fairly confident that I could plot a course along the sea front to get there but sadly I was badly mistaken and a couple of dead ends required retracing our steps turning the three mile walk into a five mile walk and all the time Kim’s patience slowly draining away and then after only a short while quickly draining away.

We came across some beaches but there was no one on them and there were warning signs saying not to swim there.  They didn’t explain why but the skull and crossbones persuaded us to carry on to our intended destination.

A seafront statue/tribute to the fishermen of Setúbal …

So eventually we arrived at the beach, a rather sad and deserted beach as it turned out and although we rather liked the idea of a swim the previous warning signs had put us off, that and the fact that no one else at all was in the water.  So we went to a beach bar instead, Kim had a coffee and I had a beer.  I refuse to buy tea or coffee because I consider it to be extortionately overpriced.  Why buy a coffee when it costs more than a beer?  It doesn’t make any sense.

 Another Portuguese navigator/explorer – Jose João Besugo

With the beach plan in tatters we had to rethink our day now and as we sat and chatted we went through the menu and we wondered why something called Choco Frito was doing there; we had assumed that it was something like a deep fried mars bar but Google came to our rescue and explained that it was a cuttlefish dish which turns out to be a local speciality.  We agreed that on the way back it was only polite to try some.

No chance.  This being Sunday everyone in  Setúbal was out eating and every café/ bar/restaurant had a line of people waiting for a table.  I thought there was a global cost of living crisis but obviously not in Setúbal. We had spotted a place we liked the look of earlier down a grubby back street close to the fish market.  Not a hope in hell, the place was overflowing, the queue was a mile long and selections were being regularly wiped off the chalk- board menu.  So we moved on.

Back to the city market which was now closing up for the day and most of the fish had gone.  I know that they eat a lot of fish in Portugal but this was quite something and slabs that had been overloaded this morning were now quite empty.  Another plan that now required a rethink.

On Setúbal seafront boulevard we continued to search. At one we were lucky, there were a lot of people in groups of four or more but a waiter called us through for a table of two.  What good fortune.

I don’t as a rule take pictures of food but in this case I made an exception…

We ordered the cuttlefish of course, everyone else was, we declined the optional starters which was a good decision because the main event was huge, a big helping of Choco Frito, a really large portion of fries and a massive plate of salad.  I have to tell you that it was delicious, I like squid and octopus so it was inevitable that I would also like the cuttlefish.

The size of the mid afternoon portion ruled out any thoughts of evening meal so we finished off the chicken from the previous evening with a simple salad.

Later we walked to the sea front again and watched the twinkling ferries making their way back and forth across the waters of the estuary and agreed that tomorrow we would make the crossing in search of a proper beach.

Later, I walked to the supermarket for essential alcohol supplies and by chance passed by a McDonald’s.  I am always interested in what McDonald’s have on their alternative menus across the World and wasn’t so surprised that in  Setúbal I came across fish fingers…

A regional variation in France. is served on a baguette..

And in Spain inevitably there is patatas bravas…

In Greece the burger is served in a pitta bread which looks rather tempting..

but Poutine in Canada looks like slop and needs a leak-proof box…

What is your favourite McDonald’s meal? And I don’t believe anyone who tells me that they have never been there and tried one!

 

 

Portugal – Lisbon to Setúbal

 

So after four days and nights we prepared to leave our city centre apartment in Lisbon and move on to our final stay south of the River Tagus in Setúbal .  This should have been straight-forward but obviously wasn’t.  I could have predicted that.

The cobbled streets are not good for drag bags and Kim lost a wheel after only a few yards so we had to find the missing parts amongst the stones and then put together some sort or temporary repair and cross fingers and hope that it would hold out.  We made the train station and then a two stop ride to the transfer station to Setúbal. 

Now, buying a train ticket in Portugal is not easy but when using the national rail operator the automated ticket machines all have an option to use the process in English.  Not so the service from Lisbon to Setúbal which is run by the only privately operated train service in Portugal and which obviously doesn’t consider the translation service to be essential.  That is the private sector for you of course, private profit rather than public service.

So, after a wait of glacial proportions I made the front of the line but was quite unable to interpret the instructions so with a queue forming behind me and beginning to feel slightly awkward I had no alternative but to  abandon the quest and stand back and observe.  I watched a few  local people to get some tips. 

The first man was far too quick for me  and he galloped through the process but the second and third were thankfully  a bit slower as I tried hard  to remember the sequence.  Eventually I felt mentally prepared and optimistically rejoined the queue.

After twenty minutes I was back at the machine and I sailed through it  this time like a local expert who had been doing it all of their life.  Insert cash now it said and I offered a twenty euro note that was immediately rejected so I tried again and was instantly rejected once more.  I tried a different note and was instantly rejected.  A line was beginning to form behind me again and then someone tapped me on the shoulder and helpfully informed me that the machines only take a maximum 0f  a ten euro note.

Now I needed change so I went to a cafe bar who said that they were unable to help but then discovered that they could help if I was to purchase something.  So I bought a small bottle of beer, drank it quickly and returned to the ticket machine line.  Twenty minutes later I had the tickets to Setúbal  but by this time we had of course missed the train so with fifty minutes to spare we went back to the cafe bar for another beer and spent the change that they had just given me.

After that it was all plain sailing.  The train crossed the 25 de Abril Bridge, the forty-seventh longest suspension bridge in the World (a long way behind the Humber Bridge near where I live at twelfth) and then carried on towards our destination.  I was looking forward to crossing the bridge but it was an inevitable disappointment because from on board the train there is nothing to see.  It is much better to view the bridge from a good viewing point with a train crossing over it than to be on the train crossing over it with nothing to see but flashing girders.  Anyway, I have done it and I was glad of the experience.

This is the Ribblesdale Viaduct in Yorkshire, much better to see a train crossing it than to be on the train crossing it.

On the positive side rail travel in Portugal is very reasonable, no, it is better than reasonable it is cheap, and the benefit of being over sixty-five, the fares are half price.

After the rail delays we arrived in Setúbal  around mid afternoon, stopped immediately for a pavement glass of wine and then proceeded to our city centre apartment which turned out to be quite excellent. 

I think I mentioned before that on this trip we had chosen apartments instead of hotels and we were so glad that we did, so much better value for money and so much space.  I generally wake first in the morning and in a hotel room this means lying still and not being able to make a cup of tea.  In an apartment I can get up, close the bedroom door and enjoy a brew in the kitchen.  We will be doing it this way again.

The facilities were so good that we thought we might stay in tonight and cook for ourselves so we took the short walk to the nearby Pingo Doce supermarket and thereby hangs another tale which I will tell you about next time…