21 Apr 2014

The Next Train Arrives At …

5 Comments Italy

Welcome mat. Please wipe your feet.


What is it about Italy that charms?

Is it that nothing works as you expect it will?

There were ominous signs, starting off with a brief chat with the goddess in the breakfast room. I found out later she was Miss Italy (a Sicilian). And you think I am weak in the knees. You should have seen Paul. And the second sign occurred while waiting at the train station and entering the toilets immediately after a junkie decided to turn it into his own personal slaughterhouse. I will spare you the details, suffice to say I no longer required the toilet.

I had an inkling it was going to be one of those days!

The plan was to take the train and go to Paestum to visit the ancient city of Poseidonia. For anyone who has been to Italy you will know that trains and buses have minds of their own and schedules are as worthless as the paper they are printed on.

The train was on time. It was too good to be true. And it was. At Paestum the train doors refused to budge and by the time we made it to the next carriage the train was hurtling towards Agropoli. The next train from Agropoli back to Paestum was not due for more than an hour. We started on the pleasant eight kilometre walk to Paestum, however when the weather turned nasty we turned back and decided to wait for the train. Big mistake. The train was delayed several times and then eventually cancelled. The next train was three hours away. Again we ventured off on foot with a watchful eye on the weather, finally reaching Paestum an hour-and-a-half later.

It was worth the eventual twelve kilometre stop-start walk. Three Ancient Greek temples in better condition than anything at the Acropolis, though not commanding quite the same godly lofty presence as Parthenon. A partially excavated ancient city surrounds the temples. In true Italian style the whole operation is run haphazardly. There is nothing to prevent you walking through the old houses and across the remains of the mosaic floors, or traipsing over the walls — for a true tactile experience, destroy your very own ancient city, this is the place to go! There is an excellent museum where fortunately most of the exhibits are safe behind glass.

Back at Paestum station the scheduled train to Salerno failed to arrive. A group of us paced the platforms for two hours resignedly until the next train arrived.

You just have to shake your head, grit your teeth and bear it. This is Italy.

Salerno is a wonderful city, full of life, close to Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Naples, and yet somehow escaping the normal tourist influx. Like Sicily, the south of Italy is very poor. Unemployment is high. But unlike Sicily, the people seem energised and as a consequence it is a much more pleasant place to spend time than anywhere we visited in Sicily. Hush, hush … don’t tell the Sicilians.

We are staying in a seventh floor B&B commanding great views along the coast and up into the mountains. Last night, Luca (the proprietor), Paul and I, and two American women (a mother and daughter) went out for one of those memorable long slow Italian meals, to a busy family run restaurant. At the end of the night the bill arrived and we watched while the waitress scratched out the total and for no good reason rounded it down to practically nothing.

Amid the chaos and the confusion, the non-conformity, the systems that don't work, washed down with generous splashings of red and shots of Limoncello at the end of each day, is making me see it clearly now. The charm of Italy is simply Italy.

It couldn't be anywhere else!


Zeus - circa 530 BC


Are we related?




18 Apr 2014

Ear Infection

Comments Off on Ear Infection Italy

Duomo in Ortigia. Caravaggio hiding just around the corner.

Early Sicilian toll-free highway

Corporate box at the Ancient Greek ampitheatre

Ear of Dionysius

The Inner Ear

Roman ampitheatre Syracusa


We are staying on Ortigia, the tiny island only thirty steps from Syracusa on the big island of Sicily. It is connected to the mainland by three bridges. Blink and you’ll miss them. Ortigia had a history of being a bit on the seedy side; sailors and whores, that sort of thing. Nowadays it has gone upmarket — you are more likely to see cruise-liners and super motor yachts dockside than a sailing vessel, or a discarded Rolex than a Durex.

Ortigia is full of narrow curved alleyways and it is a great place for hide-and-seek. We couldn't resist 10, 9, 8 … 3, 2, 1, ready or not, here I come. It was down one of these narrow alleyways that we made a discovery: Caravaggio’s Restaurant and Pizzeria. So we are not the intrepid pioneers we once thought we were. He beat us to it, the rogue. It turns out after he fled Malta, he ended up here. Makes sense.

In a nondescript church in the same large piazza as the impressive Duomo, Caravaggio painted The Burial of St Lucy (the patron saint of Syracusa). To my mind it is not quite as good as the the two pieces in Malta. The brush strokes are not as defined — they are painted almost with a judder, as if he was painting while looking nervously over his shoulder, and so he should have been. But his pizza was not half bad!

Step over the bridge and into Syracasa and you are a world away. Syracusa's nothing special, however on the outskirts of town two impressive sites exist:

  • the modern and quite brutal Shrine Of Our Lady Of Tears. Our host, Angela, cringes and almost cries herself when I mention it — as does most of Syracusa — but I love it.
  • The Archeological Park which houses: an impressive untouched Roman amphitheatre; an equally impressive Greek amphitheatre overlooking the Ionian Sea and modernised to hold current special events; and best of all The Ear of Dionysius, (named by Caravaggio of course, after the tyrant Dionysius, not the god Dionysus). It is an ancient cave that was originally carved out for water storage, but when some of the walls collapsed it proved unusable. It is now a tourist attraction as much for its interesting form as its echoey acoustic properties. While we were inside someone began whistling The Lion Sleeps Tonight and now I am stuck endlessly in that tune.

I think the best thing we can do is get out of Sicily fast.


Shrine of Our Lady Of Tears



13 Apr 2014

A Long Way To Come For Gelato

1 Comment Italy, Malta

Beach on Comino


The Blue Lagoon - Comino


St John's Cathedral - Valletta Malta. Caravaggio's are off limits to cameras

Caravaggio was a ratbag and a murderer. The Pope at the time issued a death warrant on him (my how times have changed), so he fled Italy to Malta. While in Malta, he:

was knighted

painted a couple of excellent works including The Beheading of John the Baptist which hangs in the incredible St John’s Cathedral where every inch of the cathedral is detailed. It is over-the-top but somehow beautiful.

managed to assault one of his fellow knights and fled Malta.

All we leave in our trail are rabbit bones and mopped clean plates of linguine.

I like Malta. I like the way people stop on the streets and say hello. I will miss it.

On our second last day we took an old wooden boat to Comino, Maltest third largest island. We lay on the deck catching a tan.

Careful you’ll singe, Paul said.

It was a so-so tour with only a brief period on Comino — enough time for a short walk, enough time to reflect on Malta. Malta is a small country with a big heart. Malta is no supermodel, but it does have a character all of its own.


Etna from the bus

Arriving in Sicily, I was expecting more. Then it came flooding back to me: Italia —synonymous with disfunction. I immediately yearned for Malta, Perth, Athens, anywhere really.

Two and a half hours to get a phone SIM card sorted compared to 10 minutes elsewhere (yes, including Greece!).

On the bus from the port to Catania, Etna peeked from the clouds. She puffed a little, teasing us, then disappeared behind clouds for the remainder of our stay.

A day later, a bus ride to Taormina, after stopping at five different bus terminuses only to be told: no, try that one over there. Everyone one was confused. I watched the same people trundling from station-to-station, each of them with that same glazed over look in their eyes. We finally reached Taormina. It is a beautiful village cut into the side of the mountain. At the top of the village, taking pride of place, is an ancient Greek amphitheatre with Etna behind it obscured by clouds. Taormina is touristy though and it feels like it may have sold its soul.

And Catania, though full of people, grandiose architecture, a lively market and large piazzas, also feels a little soulless, a little dirty and slightly unloved.

I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then she appeared again, on my last day, peeking from the clouds — Etna. She who had thwarted us at every attempt to reach her. At the bus station they said: No, there will be no bus until tomorrow. And at the train station, the circumetnea railcar that rings Etna was on strike. But then standing there and watching Etna simmer in the distance, I sensed their fear, Etna’s power — the way she paralysed them, the way she made everything seem temporary … and I think I understood.

I wanted to like Catania, I really did, but even riding pillion on a motorbike through the heavily trafficked streets of Catania without a helmet was somehow less exhilarating than it should have been.

At the risk of Il Padrino reading this and deciding I should be fitted up for a pair of boots (concrete size 00000), I will sign off by saying the Gelato is the best I have ever had!


Al was 'ere - Taormina


Etna in the other direction was obscured under cloud





07 Apr 2014

Run Rabbit Run

5 Comments Malta

Get well soon postcard from Exiles Bay

After a couple of days burrowed deep in a crummy waterfront hotel at Exiles Bay (seemed appropriate) with the tall one sniffing, blowing his nose and feeling sorry for himself, I was twisting myself in knots out of sheer boredom. The view out the front was not making it any easier. I was itching to pick up where we left off last year and see some more of Malta.

He recovered, you'll be pleased to know.

By the weekend we were in touch with the old crew. The Maltese are a close knit bunch. They all come from big families. Befriend one Maltese and you inherit their forty-five cousins. Pretty soon you will know everyone in Malta.

There were all sorts of plans being made for the weekend, including my favourite, a walk along the length of the Victoria Line, the old British-built fortifications built in the late 19th century. The Line straddles Malta from north to south and is 12 kilometres long. In parts you walk high on the walls that resemble a mini Great Wall of China. There were between a 100 and 150 walkers in all. We congregated in a small village at the foot of a large clock tower and set off single file dodging oncoming cars on our way out of town.

It was a wonderful walk once we got onto the trail and off the roads. At this time of the year rural Malta is green and pretty. We spoke to various people on our way and eventually met a very chatty walker called Ann-Marie who told us she always started at the front of the group and always ended up at the rear. On this day she was determined not to be last, she said. By the time we finished the walk — talking all the way about various types of foods and the detailed preparation of said foods — we were famished and near enough to last. Oh well! Along the way, we also chatted about how few animals we saw: cattle and sheep, and she said, maybe so, but we have rabbit in abundance and rabbit is delicious.

A word of advice Al, she also said. Cover up, disguise yourself, lest you get mistaken for a bunny with those cute furry ears and that wonderful woolly coat.



After the walk, a group of us decided to continue on and drive to another village for lunch. It seemed like we were all talking about food while we walked because we descended upon and devoured the half dozen platters of roast bunny like it was our last supper.

So far, since we have been in Malta, we have had bunny pizza, bunny pasta, bunny stuffed ravioli and now roast bunny.

I'm going to keep myself covered up just in case I end up being the Easter bunny!



29 Mar 2014

Unmelodious Ode to Raki

2 Comments Greece

Athens poured on her charms again — like sweet honeyed raki (ouzo without the anise) neat and warm into small shot glasses — and left us pleasantly smiling.

We trundled along on the metro, which is fast, cheap and clean. We met up with the random mob: the hotelier, the curators and the artists, and some strays we collected along the way for an exhibition opening at Sarri 12. This was no champagne affair. There was raki, cheap wine and chips; there were dogs and cats roaming inside and outside of the gallery, and an eclectic gathering of people.

Later, a group of us went in search of food. We found a tiny local restaurant in one of the quietest streets of Psiri. I have no recollection of anyone having ordered, but plate after plate of food continued to arrive slowly throughout the night until well after we were full. And with the food cam hot jugs of raki. Raki is supposedly the cure for all ailments. And after this past few days of driving in Crete, where we sat with our stiff aching backs, white-faced, fearful of the horror awaiting us around every mountain bend, we can confirm it is true. The raki worked. It is the miracle cure after all. We were relaxed again. Glorious ever so slightly blurry Athena.

A half-cut Dionysus, god of inebriation among other things


On Monday, before our boat ride to Paros, we wandered into Monistiraki for one last glimpse of the Acropolis. And while we were there we went to the Acropolis museum. Wow! It is new (less than five years old) and impressive, and built over the ruins of an ancient city. Peering through the glass floors of the gallery you can see the ancient city below. It has an incredible collection of sculptures and artefacts taken from the Acropolis. Above the museum, on the hillside, the Acropolis beams down upon it.

The Greeks are quick to point out, and rightly so — via a large multi-screen video presentation — that many of their marbles were stolen and now sit proudly in the British Museum, and they want them back. Naughty Lord Elgin, schoolyard bully. There is mounting pressure for the British Museum to return them to Greece and now with the opening of this museum the pressure has increased several-fold. Let's hope they win.

And now I am sitting on the terrace in the sleepy port town of Parikia on Paros. Earlier we went for a long walk through the narrow streets admiring the island houses. Everyone is busy painting, getting ready for the summer season ahead. There is something appealing about this simple island life, even the mundane chores, the annual trips to the hardware shop have appeal.

I come for the paint.

Which one, the blue or the white?

A bucket of each, efharistó polí.


My favourite graffiti discovery so far