No problem Sir!

Polished, waiting and ready to serve
Polished, waiting and ready to serve

Anyone who’s spent any time on the roads there will know that traffic in India is an absolute nightmare. Road discipline is patchy at best and the application of basic common sense breathtakingly absent; vehicles hurtle into blind bends or career towards each other in hoards down the centre of bumpy, narrow and fragmenting roads before lurching aside only to avoid a collision. For the remainder of the time they are, well, anywhere on the road but most frequently in the oncoming lane. Drivers continually sound their horns while ignoring road signs, line markings and speed limits; more worryingly, received knowledge is that any obstacles in the way – be they cows, people, cycles, carts or other vehicles – must be either ignored or passed, depending on what speed they are moving at. Crowds of pedestrians spill out into the roads due to badly parked vehicles and rubble-strewn verges, vying for space with innumerable ‘two-wheelers’ and seemingly suicidal truck and bus drivers – especially those ferrying pilgrims.

And most numerous of all, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws – ‘tuk-tuks’ – weave in and out of the traffic trailing clouds of blue smoke and constantly tooting their horns to generate a of noise and chaos. Put simply; it’s bedlam. There are rules, of course, but as they are ignored with single-minded thoroughness by everyone, including the police, foreigners require a car and driver if they aren’t up for any of the public transport options that the sub-continent offers. And anyway, my days of sitting three to a seat with people that don’t use underwear were over years ago.

In Kerala this week we left the relative safety [and luxury] of the delightful and highly recommended surroundings of the Raviz for a few days in the forests of the Western Ghats, a mountainous region away from the humid coastal plain. Our driver, supplied by the genuinely helpful people at the hotel, was selected, I’m guessing, for his command of English rather than his ability to coordinate hand and eye movements but we didn’t know that at the time. Smiling and positive in the hotel coffee lounge where we were introduced, he readily agreed that our journey of some 160km would be a benign but wondrous adventure, punctuated with invaluable local knowledge, pearls of cultural insight and occasional roadside stops for fresh pineapple juice or opportunities to snap shimmering vistas. To each of my questions he smilingly replied, ‘no problem, Sir! I should have known better.

As we set off I asked him if he was clear about the journey, the route we’d take and so on – the kind of amiable banter that one enters into in order to bond with someone who will, after all, be an enforced travel companion for the next four or five hours. His response was to gaze serenely into the middle distance, raise a finger in assertion, and, with a gentle shake of his head, reply, ‘God will take us there’. That, I believe, and the accompanying whimsical smile, was meant to reassure us but my faith in divine intervention, frail at the best of times, had evaporated with the fumbling gear changes and sudden braking. A brief shadow of alarm passed over Mission Control’s face and, as our little car meandered erratically across the tarmac I was advised in the most unambiguous terms that I was expected to wrestle control of the vehicle from him in the event of a confrontation with a truck, overloaded two-wheeler or washed-out road.

From previous experience I know that driving in India can be somewhat eccentric and I’m not a nervous passenger but I was already fighting the urge to grab the wheel and drag the car back onto our side of the road, especially after a bus full of shrieking worshippers avoided us by so narrow a margin that the car was filled with an intoxicating aroma of incense, garlic and body-odour. Interspersed with changes in velocity and sudden lurches, our progress became increasingly hesitant and he clearly sensed something in my tone when I asked if he actually knew the way, especially after he’d stopped and engaged in animated conversations with several taxi drivers, a shopkeeper and, at one point, a cyclist who pointed back in the direction we’d come.

At that point the road was climbing through 2000m on hairpin bends alongside precipitous drops into forested ravines. We should have been about 15km from our destination and less than an hour from the hotel but we passed a road sign that informed us we still had over 60km to go – two hours at least. Rather than invoke a spiritual solution in the face of my polite irritation our driver, clear now that my patience had gone the way of the setting sun, merely refused to answer me when I asked where the hell we were and when the hell we’d reach the hotel. I clearly wouldn’t take silence for an answer and my persistence eventually elicited a slow, deep breath and the adoption of an appropriately formal tone before he replied with dignified resignation, ‘I have no absolutely no idea, sir.’ This was surprisingly disarming and took us both aback as this is the last thing you’d expect your driver to say when you are high in the mountains of a foreign land with darkness closing in and an unknown distance still to cover. After all, that was the only reason he was there.

Well, we eventually arrived and it was dark, some two hours later than planned and a mysteriously unaccounted-for 75km extra on the journey. 

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in India tells us in its latest statistical report [for 2011] that 140000 people were killed in road accidents during the year [cows, dogs and elephants are not mentioned] as the consequence of ‘one road accident every minute, and one road accident death in less than four minutes’. It also lists the causes of fatal accidents and, while acknowledging that the majority of these are due to the fault of the driver, a significant number – I calculate that to be around 20% – is due to other related causes that include issues with passengers.

I can’t find the data but I suspect a great many of these involve the driver being murdered.

Taking Mum shopping

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Road through Kollom

Just follow the signs, dummy

Brahmin bull in the road

Look out for pedestrians and monks

Another road hazard to be passed

Sicily – a last fling; Modica

EtnaA blog ought to make a reasonable effort at being contemporaneous; this post isn’t – it’s more an excuse for posting some photographs. As soon as I’d left Sicily I was travelling again and a note closing the island adventure was put on the back burner. Our last flirtation – and perhaps a determining factor in ensuring a return visit – was the superb Modica, where antiquity and ambience provided a perfect counterpoint to the noise and pointless urgency of Dubai.

The long drive from Taormina to Palermo provided time to consider what Sicily had been for us. We were captivated but had been ambitious in attempting a brief glimpse of every part of the island; it was just too big and with each region having such a strong identity, pin-balling from one location to another had proven frustrating and self-defeating. The uncomfortable autostrada to Palermo – Sicily’s main route – was little better than we’d experienced elsewhere. We never quite got used to the bumps in the surface but, ruts aside, the journey wasn’t too unpleasant; lots of tunnels, Etna beyond the mountains on one side and misty views to the Aeolian Islands on the other. But Pollina and Sicily’s remaining forest were relegated to the bucket list as we’d arranged to meet Greg and Vibeke for dinner, who were flying to Palermo that evening for our few days together.

Along the way there was time for a nervous peek at Cefalù and its Romanesque cathedral. The coastal town is described as the ‘second most popular tourist destination’ in Sicily and the immediate impression as the view opens up across the bay goes some way to explaining why. Its picturesque setting and medieval profile, nestled in the lee of the rock from which its ancient Greek name and original settlement originate, suggest why all the tourists that weren’t in Taormina were here. Even the guidebooks offer gentle warnings about the crowds but mass tourism and narrow streets make for an uncomfortable marriage so you’d need to be tolerant of the hoi polloi to enjoy spending time there. The number of visitors dwindled significantly as the sun went down and there followed an enchanted hour when the streets quietened and became populated only with local residents. Most would have been of an age, I guess, that could recall an economy based on fishing and a life centred around the port and communal wash-houses; I wonder what they make of it all now.

In Taormina, where we’d enquired about our forthcoming evening in Palermo, Villa Belvedere had directed us to a restaurant where we and our friends could have a ‘real’ Sicilian dinner, free of tourists. It was called Frederick III and located way off the beaten track in a neighbourhood marked by seedy streets, darkened shop doorways and occasional eye-contact with a brooding picciotto. We were welcomed like old friends; an open bottle of wine was set on the table and replenished until we protested that we really had to leave. In between, animated conversation with the other customers punctuated with a variety of excellent fish dishes made every aspect of the evening memorable. It was interrupted only by the arrival of three suited men who sat briefly around a table at the far end of the room, engaged in a hushed conversation over a glass of vino bianco and left without eating or saying a word to anyone else. Maybe I’ve watched too much American television but I had the feeling, as they slipped silently into the night, that they worked in waste management and were about to make someone an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Palermo was regrettably a short visit so we limited our outings to walking the markets and visiting the superb Norman cathedral at Monreale, yet another site that deserved more time than we afforded it. Mission Control had found us bed and breakfast on the south coast at Selinunte so we drove through a vast expanse of olive groves, vineyards and rolling hills where EU funds were replacing trees with wind turbines. The Villa Sogno was ‘award-winning’ [there are a lot of award winners around these days, aren’t there?] due to its high standards of accommodation and home-made food and, indeed, that’s exactly what we found. The manicured garden was set in a walled compound and it proved a tranquil place to swim and enjoy wine, cheese and salumi from the store in Selinunte; a pity, then, that our hosts dealt with the garbage – in a manner common in Sicily but by no means limited to it – by throwing it over the fence into the olive grove next door. Villa Sogno delivered on comfort and food but pleasant as that was, our hosts clearly had an eye on the next award as they were just a little too busy making it the best bed and breakfast in the region to tolerate, with any degree of enthusiasm, encumbrances such as guests.

Just down the road however, the little port of Marinella di Selinunte was far more welcoming. It was quiet in the off-season but relaxed and very pleasant without tourists to trouble the friendly residents. We ate one evening at a local hostelry with the unlikely name of ‘Boomerang’. It looked a little dubious but was busy and clearly very popular. No one managed to explain where the name came from but the fish – fried or grilled in more varieties than you could shake a stick at – was as fresh as it was unpretentious. This part of Sicily caters mostly for local visitors so development tends to be limited even if occasionally, er, illegal. The coast, archaeological sites and small towns are unencumbered by the hoards witnessed at Taormina and Cefalù, which was very pleasant.

Throughout our tour of Sicily we had been surprised by the number and variety of good quality wines that were produced. Some were very good indeed. Greg is something of an aficionado when it comes to matters oenological so in short time we were at the excellent Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, tasting some of the quality wine produced at this small, local casa vinicola. The south-west corner of Sicily and the Vallo di Mazara in particular is a principal area of viniculture and as a result the island produces about a sixth of Italy’s total.

Nearby Mazara del Vallo is described as being the town with the largest immigrant population of Arabic origin on the island, harking back to its roots when it was occupied by Arabs in 827;   it’s further south than Tangier and nearer to Tunis than it is to Rome or Naples. The centre of town is known as the Kasbah and it does have the feel of an Arab town even though there are remnants of several occupying cultures. And typically, while the Polpi in Umido might just have been the best we had in Sicily, the driving was certainly the worst – we saw two serious accidents as we parked.

We wanted to see Modica before we left Sicily; it would be the last stop so we drove the interesting and at times picturesque coastal road that would allow a pit-stop along the way at Agrigento and the Valle dei Templi. This is an impressive site and worth seeing but it’s popular and very much on the tourist bus route. That means crowds, souvenirs and expensive gelato but at least you can take comfort in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, from Japan or Korea will have captured your embarrassing image as you crouched in diaphoretic inquietude whilst trying for that one photograph of the Temple of Concordia that didn’t have a small crowd leaning against it.

The route from there, through Licata and Gela, before the land rises to the west of Ragusa and Modica, is a microcosm of the chaos and uneven distribution of wealth that’s prevalent on the island; a seemingly random pattern of new and unimproved roads, uncontrolled development, an occasional high-quality villa juxtaposed with a decrepit ruin, piles of rubble and garbage, agriculture that is, on the one hand, well-funded and thriving or, on the other, almost medieval in its lack of facility. It made one wonder how those people not on the Sicilian gravy-train could ever improve their lot. Ashleigh Brilliant had it about right when he wrote ‘I either want less corruption or more chance to participate in it’.

After winding our way up from the coastal plain and traversing the Ponte Irminio – 140m above the valley floor – Modica came into view, raking down the hillside in a breathtaking, Baroque backdrop. Not content with seducing us with its pastel splendour, the townspeople were preparing for an annual street race that had filled the centre with every living soul in the region. Our spritz on the crowded terrace along the Corso Umberto was taken amidst hoards of runners; young and old, experienced and novice. Teams in matching tee-shirts exchanged banter with shopkeepers and waiters while individuals in Lycra shorts – altogether more serious and focussed – worked their stretching routine. And in-between, coaches, water carriers, mothers, hangers-on, small children and dogs wandered between participants. We watched with growing enthusiasm as the motley throng sped easily or, in some cases, limped back and forth up the road, the event eventually being won by a very slim and very competent young woman. As the evening drew on the crowds were supplemented with students from the local university, filling the pavements, cafés and bars. We picked our way through the milieu for the essential visit to Modica’s famous chocolate shops and especially L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where it’s made in a fashion said to date back to the Aztecs. Cadbury’s it isn’t and the shop is an experience in itself. Modica’s sense of self was further reinforced when we ordered dinner after the race; the offerings on the menu at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti were described in the local dialect, served with enthusiasm and were superb examples of local cuisine.

That was our last evening with Greg and Vibeke before spending a couple of nights in relative luxury at Donna Carmela before heading to Catania and the Emirates. Sicily had delivered. There were some aspects that irked us – the stripping of the native vegetation and loss of natural habitat [not unexpected after a couple of thousand years of cultivation, I guess, but still an issue]; the shooting; the corruption and the consequences of nepotistic and self-interested authorities. But there was so much more to savour – the history and the culture; in the broadest terms a friendly populace; a unique cuisine; a surprising variety of wine and, eventually, more birds than I’d expected to see with no ‘serious’ birding on the agenda; 109 species in all. Yes, we’ll be back.  

Aeolian islands Lipari and Vulcano

Cefalu

Cefalu Duomo

Cefalu laundry

Palermo market - gamberi-a secret artist-lamps and pesce

Palermo market - old buildings

Monreal duomo - apse of Christ Pantocrator

Monreale duomo - nave with ornate golden mosaics

Monreale duomo - mosaic detail

Monreale duomo - window

Selinunte olive plantation

Selinunte acropolis looking over the site of the port

Valle dei Mazara cherubs

Valle dei Templi

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Concordia

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio in Modica Alta

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio dome

Modica - housing in Modica Alta behind Duomo di San Giorgio

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio ceiling detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio sundial - noon, average midday, time in Italy and signs of the zodiac

Modica - church of San Pietro in Modica Bassa

Modica - roofs

Modica - tiles

Modica - looking up to Modica Alta

Modica Alta

Modica - bicycle

Sicily – a tantalising taste of Baroque

Although we were aware of just how big the island was the poor quality of the roads, appalling traffic in towns and difficulty in parking when we actually got somewhere meant that we were in the car far too much. It was an important point that we’d remember for next time as it became a little frustrating, especially when we didn’t get as much time to explore as we would have wished. We’d planned a trip that would take us through as many places as possible and while that has good and bad aspects, on balance we were satisfied that we were seeing as much of Sicily as we could and were getting a real impression of the place.

We liked the south-east corner of the island and before embarking on the long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo we spent a few more days looking around. We stayed at the very pleasant La Corte del Sole. This is a country hotel in a rebuilt masseria, set on the side of the flat river basin of the Val di Noto. A masseria is a farmhouse that is fortified or, at least, capable of being defended and typically dates from the late middle ages. The appellation is used somewhat loosely but then the marauding hoards that invade Sicily these days come with easyJet or Thomson so a degree of poetic licence is forgivable. To be fair, Le Corte doesn’t look old and actually feels pretty new but it has a satisfying solidity that we liked nonetheless. The rural location balances country walks to the relatively empty beach with a short drive to nearby Noto, one of Sicily’s Baroque towns. It’s also well-placed to see most of the region between the Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari and Isola delle Correnti, Sicily’s southernmost point. A very pleasant dining terrace overlooks the verdant valley and has views to the sea. We had a memorable dinner; spada alla griglia con finocchio selvatico [grilled swordfish with wild fennel] for Mission Control and maccheroni con le sarde for me. This is one of my favourite Sicilian dishes – local pasta, sardines, saffron, currants, pine nuts all turned in fried bread crumbs. The food and substantial breakfast were actually very good. La Corte del Sole is a bit off the beaten track and quiet but well worth finding.

Noto is a particularly attractive town that was largely rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and we liked it a lot. The splendid buildings are faced with the local honey-coloured limestone that develops a unique luminosity in evening sunlight. It’s laid out on a grid and this adds a formality to the ornate architecture that is frequently absent elsewhere on the island. Noto’s UNESCO world heritage status is apparent when wandering its streets; taking time with a cool aperitivo delivers, in many respects, both the charm and the acute fascination of Sicily in a single bite. During our visit it seemed that all of Noto’s residents were either strolling back and forth along the Corsa Vittorio Emanuele or watching life pass by from church steps or the piazzas. And Caffé Sicilia produced simply the best cannoli that we found, with the finest scorze [that’s the pastry shell]. Equally interesting, however, was to walk off the main streets and find, as I did, evidence of a less comfortable side to life away from the mainstream. Browsing a row of local shops I found myself gazing at a display of weapons. Not small guns for target shooting or keeping the sparrow population in control and not a few but dozens of AK series assault rifles, carbines, Berettas, machine pistols and shotguns – the kind of weapons that are used to kill people. And there they were, on open display between a hairdresser and a pharmacy. It was sobering to ponder what ‘I’m just popping to the shops, dear’ might mean in Noto.

We resolved to return as the town deserved far more time than we were able to give it but we had a rendezvous and there were more places to visit on the way. I wanted to see Messina again after gazing at it under a smouldering Etna from across the straits as a student. And now that I’d finally decided to visit the island there was also that remaining piece of endemic woodland in the Nebrodi Mountains.

Getting to Palermo from Noto was tortuous; driving between the ‘three points’ of Palermo, Messina and Catania makes travellers heavily dependent on the autostrada network, which peters out away from these centres. Fortunately Noto is linked to it and getting to Palermo by way of Messina would take about the same time as using the cross-country route through Enna we’d arrived on. We headed for Messina and north of Catania the autostrada became a toll road. The rates are not high but not for the first time I found myself wondering about how the fees don’t appear to resurface as improvements, maintenance or repairs.

While we were thinking about that and trying to keep our Autogrill coffee in the cup – almost impossible on Sicilian roads, by the way –  Taormina and its teetering, cliff-top buildings came into view.

Sicily – birding a bare island

There are birds to see in Sicily although it doesn’t appear so at first glance. Aside from some crows and starlings we saw none on fence posts, none flying overhead and none in the fields during our initial bumpy introduction to Sicily’s autostradas. Birding the island is patchy so you must be reasonably single-minded and cover it all. You need inside knowledge and careful timing, too, all of which made it difficult for me given the nature of our visit and that neither Mission Control nor our companions were birders. I had to get my birds where I could and adopt an opportunistic approach to osservare gli uccelli. Before we travelled I’d assumed I’d see very little and although it wouldn’t be entirely honest to say I was pleasantly surprised I did record 109 species and could have done better. Nonetheless, I found the total birding experience in Sicily to be less than the sum of its parts.

The island gets a bad press and deservedly so because by and large it doesn’t give the birds much chance. Areas described as riserva naturale have virtually no protection and those not yet cultivated or developed live a charmed life as the authorities can be exceedingly – to coin a phrase – malleable. The current favourite is wind energy, where Italy pays a whopping €180 per kwh generated. Last year police disrupted corrupt plans to erect a discordant backdrop of wind turbines overlooking the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] reserve at Trapani and, in Mazara del Vallo, arrests have been made for bribing officials for permits to erect unapproved turbines. You’d believe that someone outside those deals would notice a 100m tower being erected so what on earth were they thinking? The travesty is that minimal protection and management could transform Sicily but it has its head so far up its nepotistic backside that the chances of conservation even making it to the agenda are non-existent unless ‘opportunities’ are exploited. That said, I can appreciate that a lot needs sorting out before a put-upon and disenfranchised population can be encouraged to embrace the esoteric values of wildlife conservation.

Organised trips that target specific sites provide notable birding and are necessarily supported by the rest that Sicily offers – Mediterranean weather and scenery, great food, historical culture and all those gaily-painted fishing boats. But if you are serious about your birding there are other places to go and there’s the rub, because Sicily has a lot going ornithologically; this spring a Bar-tailed lark and an Atlas flycatcher were recorded – very special birds for European birders. Sicily holds the only wintering group of Pallas’s gulls in Europe as well the only Italian-breeding Bonelli’s eagles. Migration across the Straits of Messina can be spectacular and an internationally important population of Lanner falcon and endemics such as the Sicilian Rock partridge and Long-tailed tit are worth the air fare alone. Why is it then that conservation and its consequent nature tourism – given all the other delights on offer – isn’t a better deal here? I concluded that Sicilians mostly don’t like birds – unless they are served with a passable Nero D’Avola, that is. In Pozzo di Mazza we were woken early on Saturday morning by continuous blasts from propane cannon bird scarers before local hunters went on to spend the weekend shooting across the adjoining fields and above our heads in an alarming barrage. The coordination of explosions from cannons and shooting led me to suspect that the former weren’t used to scare birds away from crops [after all, they didn’t use them during the week] but instead to keep them in the air for the benefit of the latter. Just ponder the logic of that for a moment. The same thing happened at Corte del Sole near Vendicari, suggesting it was common practice. At Lago della Priola, another WWF reserve, even putative birders are denied unaccompanied access for fear of them secreting guns into the bird hide or using the tiny remaining piece of endemic woodland for firewood. You wonder how that could be a concern when Sicily employs over 26000 people in its forestry department – more than they employ in British Columbia.

It appears that, a few good men such as Andrea Corso and Antonini at WWF or the hard-working volunteers at CABS notwithstanding, no one who can really make a difference gives a flying whatever; especially where money can be made. I was humbled by Antonini’s calm determination and persistence in the face of insurmountable barriers – he represents WWF locally and has been working with them for twenty years – but confess to being less than comfortable with the brand of nature tourism we bring. It provides a pleasant sojourn in the sun, holiday-island accompaniments, that list of interesting – and sometimes exciting – birds and, probably, a very nice set of photographs but it doesn’t give much back. I couldn’t, for example, find one reference to contact with conservation organisations on any of the birding holiday websites. Certainly some money trickles into the economy but it’s channeled neither into conservation nor a local organisation that might eventually ease these issues onto the agenda. Trips that target a list of species in pleasant surroundings merely perpetuate an archaic and ultimately self-defeating situation.

When we stayed near Selinunte we awoke each morning to a silence broken only by the sound of occasional passing cars. There was no birdsong at all, not even a chirping sparrow. The adjacent fields were liberally covered with spent shotgun cartridges and although it might be different in spring the picture was there to see. Sicily is unique and has huge potential but it needs to find a way for conservation and appreciation of a rapidly-diminishing natural heritage to gain at least as much kudos as self-interest and destructive machismo.

 Without that, even the listers and nature tourists won’t have anything to come for.

 

Sicily – the boys from Syracuse market

I avoid being an itinerant tourist, preferring to stay in one place and getting to know it inside out even when it means missing something just down the road. Sicily made that difficult; with so much on offer we’d decided before we travelled to get as big a picture as possible and, if it delivered on its promises, come back and stay for a while. Consequently, we didn’t plan anything in detail because on the one hand there would be so much to see and on the other, plenty to avoid; we’d stay light on our feet.

We’d arranged to visit with friends and had initially set out to spend a couple of weeks together but despite best intentions and a year talking about it over ‘Sicilian-themed’ lunches the plan was disrupted by business commitments, migration in Sweden and our forthcoming trip to Dubai. By the time we’d eventually fixed flights it worked out that they would arrive a week or so after us and we’d have to leave several days before them, leaving just a few days together in the middle. Mission Control eased us through this by booking a few places to anchor the Grand Tour, between which we’d drift in the direction the wind took us.

Pozzo di Mazza was perfect for our introduction to Sicily. As well as being handily located to visit some of the sites recommended by Andrea Corso, it was close enough to Siracusa to spend plenty of time in the city. The agriturismo provided a relaxing and authentic springboard to the south-east corner of the island.

Agriturismi are a popular and relatively inexpensive way of holidaying in Italy. The term, in a statement of the obvious, means ‘agricultural tourism’ and was formalised in the mid 1980s as a means of putting some life back into the rural economy by allowing working farms the opportunity to supplement their income with tourist accommodation. Given this basis it means that standards can vary and whilst that is clearly part of the charm our experience in using them over many years has been excellent. And so it was at Pozzo di Mazza. We were provided with good and satisfying food derived from local produce and near-perfect preserves, a lot of which we’ve hauled back. The rooms were spotless, the staff simply charming and there was also a refreshing and welcome absence of television. That meant that guests were left to their own devices although it clearly didn’t suit one Dutch couple who bleated about the place being too quiet, too isolated and too far from any bars. It was actually very pleasant to sit under the quiet, shaded terrace outside the room or in the garden although I was frustrated at the lack of internet access, as all my information for the trip sat in the cloud and was consequently inaccessible.

We knew something of Siracusa before we arrived but weren’t prepared for the sheer magnificence of the crumbling and decrepit buildings, matched in intricacy of detail only by the service and communication cables strung along and between them. Siracusa and its adjoining island Ortigia were largely rebuilt in 1693 after a devastating earthquake in a style that became known as ‘Sicilian Baroque’ and this forms a chiaroscuro backdrop to Greco-Roman and Norman relics. Together they create an intense ambiance of history and immediately we’d absorbed the initial visual impact we knew we’d be back for a longer stay. Like many Italian cities, Siracusa makes one want to live and breathe it. We walked narrow streets and courtyards and, in the Piazza Duomo, watched a Siracusan tableau unfold as its residents married or enjoyed an evening stroll or, like us, simply sipped a slow Spritz.

Siracusa was established on Ortigia in about 734BC and was the most significant city-state in the Mediterranean. I guess the vendors in the market were probably shouting much the same thing then as we heard when we squeezed between the stalls below the market hall. That isn’t in use these days – due, I suspect, to the endemic lack of maintenance – but we did spend a lot of time in the not-to-be-missed delicatessen I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti. Our only regret was that we didn’t have a nearby kitchen as I can’t wait to get back to the widest range of Sicilian wines I’ve ever seen and an exquisite olive oil scented with orange juice, but that will be remedied next time. Walking Mercato di Ortigia and coming out the other end without buying something was a frustrating experience but in brief but sublime compensation we had lunch in a market restaurant supplied by one of the fish vendors; Ristorante Il Porticciolo in via Trento. We ate fried baby fish, risotto with saffron, pistachio and prawns and ravioli of minced prawn in a tomato and ricotta sauce. The [of course] local wine was recommended by the restaurant and was exactly matched, making the entire experience perfetto.

A lot to see and come back for but before that we’d be taking a long, circuitous drive north and west to meet Greg and Vibeke in Palermo.

Sicily – down on the farm

The guy at the car rental desk didn’t say ‘forget about it’ once, which was disappointing. This was, after all, the land that spawned mobsters and, ultimately, The Sopranos. We’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and, on occasion, been victims of the minor scams that proliferate in and around car rental agencies. Sometimes it’s been difficult to shield oneself from the national pastime of adding little ‘extras’ to the bill like refuelling, booking or administration fees, drop-off charges that weren’t mentioned when you made your reservation or, as I’ve just read in an exasperated forum post, the cost of two replacement wheels. In Sicily it was autostrada tax, which isn’t a great cost and wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, if the money was spent on improving the roads. It’s not, of course. But the island is huge so despite there being a cute rail system between the main points you need a car if you want to get off the beaten track.

We had rented the smallest car available – an essential asset where streets are narrow, parking is impossible and most of the oncoming vehicles are on your side of the road – before setting-off for a little agriturismo near Siracusa. The route from Palermo through Termini Imerese and Catania is autostrada all the way to Cassibile. There wasn’t a lot of traffic but as we bounced and swayed our way down the uneven surface I became increasingly convinced that either one of the distracted drivers hurtling past me – I was driving at 130kph or so – or a hidden pothole would inflict catastrophic damage on our already battle-scarred banger. The roads really are in a very sad condition, but then a lot of Sicily looks a little threadbare. I read that public works tendering is unprincipled in Sicily; that once a contract is let for a road project it’s sold on to a lower bidder then sold on again so that the work eventually ends up being undertaken for a fraction of it’s real worth. The autostrada felt and looked like it had been constructed with cheap cutlery.

Once I’d lifted my eyes from the road, however, the landscape provided expansive, sun-bleached vistas. It was parched and pretty much given over to cultivation so it was interesting and not interesting at the same time, so to speak. Then, as the terrain broke up and became steeper, the hill towns of Enna and Calascibetta came into spectacular view; a perfect place for a break and a perfect chance to take in, for the first time, the unique essence of Sicily. We drove up to Calascibetta and sat in the square beside local residents – Enna gets the tourists – and lunched on panzerotti [bread filled with vegetables], a glass of vino rosso and our first gelato. It was so pleasant in the shade of the huge trees – I didn’t realise at that early stage of our trip just how rare an experience that would prove to be in Sicily – that I barely stirred as a Short-toed treecreeper paraded in front of us.

Andrea Corso had recommended we stayed at Pozza di Mazza and we got there just as the afternoon turned golden. It was all pan and barrel tiles, stone walls and terraces in the open. The rooms were airy, the pool excellent and the quiet, green garden immediately delivered a Black-eared wheatear.

 

 

Island life

If Bornholm was in the Mediterranean or Caribbean it would probably be described as a pearl, in the manner that quaint and verdant holiday islands are. You’ve read it in travel brochures and possibly the less than objective Wikitravel.com but ‘Bornholm – pearl of the Baltic’ doesn’t really work and I’m struggling to find the appropriate cognomen for a place that’s unique, green and very attractive in parts, hosts nearly three-quarters of a million holidaymakers each year during its short summer season but which still seems, despite initiatives and huge effort to bring more tourists aboard, to fall short of appearing at the top of bucket lists.

Bornholm has a lot of history and works hard at attracting tourists since fishing all but collapsed in the 1990s – less than 300 work in fishing now out of an island population of 42000 – but it has few claims to fame; breeding Tengmalm’s owls, round churches, a small ceramics industry, some attractive countryside and an increasingly important food sector are about it. The owls are very difficult to see at this time of year (being nocturnal in most things they do), we didn’t have time to visit any of the churches and pottery sucks so that left the culinary angle. After all, the principal reason for being on the island was to enjoy Sol Over Gudhjem, a competition for international chefs that takes its name from a local dish (smoked herring, raw onion and egg yolk) and which aims to promote Bornholm’s local produce and ‘gourmet tourism’.

We’d decided – not without some trepidation on my part – to forego the car and arrive, in what I like to think of as the true spirit of this picturesque corner of Denmark, with only our bikes. So, attired in tee-shirts and sneakers with newly-purchased saddle-bags strapped on, we boarded the ferry in Ystad – just down the road – for the crossing to Rønne, the main town on the island. Actually, I thought we looked fetching and rather sporty. We know a little about the Danes so the ungainly scramble for coffee and elbowing for seats was less of a shock than the sight of hoards of Danish cyclists kitted out to survive a combination of Arctic storm and tropical deluge. I hadn’t seen so much professional weather-protection before and, as the front gate on the catamaran was lowered ahead of docking, Mission Control was nervously tugging at the hem of her shorts as all around us zips were pulled, Velcro straps tightened and the general rustle of breathable, waterproof shell jackets reached a crescendo.

As we swept onto the dockside we felt very under-dressed but the weather forecast had been mixed and light rain was only a possibility late in the afternoon. It was bright as we turned north and we’d easily cover the 25km to Allinge, where we were booked into the charming but snug Byskrivergaarden Hotel Garni, before then. And we almost made it. The cycle track, a stunningly-pretty route through forests and along shoreline cliff tops well away from main roads, was a joy. At every turn there was wildlife, the perfume of woodland in summer and all around us the song of Wood warblers, Thrush nightingales and Redstarts. By the half-way point the sun was shining and we sat at the Café Emajoka in Hasle harbour with coffee and very passable apple cake discussing plans for future – and more adventurous – cycle expeditions. Cycling was to be our desideratum; we had conjoined with nature and life was wonderful.

By the time the weather closed in and the rain started we were at the point aircraft reach when in mid-Atlantic; too far to turn back and still a long way to go. With water running down my back and dripping off my nose I suddenly understood all those microfibre-lined jackets and tight-fitting cuffs. Visibility was down to about 50m in Allinge and we probably looked a sad sight as we made our solitary and sodden way to the waterfront and the hotel. But by evening the sky was clearing and the rain stopped. Stepping over puddles we made our way to meet friends at Det Gamle Posthus in Allinge. This was recommended as the best restaurant in town and it was pretty good; well-served tapas, fresh local plaice and Svaneke ‘Gold’ beer contributed to a great evening and the forecast for next day was optimistic – sunshine and temperatures above twenty degrees.

We woke to bright sunshine and the island looked different under a cloudless sky. Gudhjem, a picturesque hamlet below wooded hills with two small harbours and a profusion of smokery chimneys, was warm and thronged with visitors. A food market displaying that local produce surrounded the competition arena and TV crews jostled with visiting cruise ship passengers for the best vantage points. As the chefs conjured up dishes that artfully arranged tiny morsels of pork neck with cornflowers and radish (it’s a small island, OK?) we toured the market stalls, sampling smoked herring, sausage and chocolate; wine and oil, honey, soft ice cream (the residents’ favourite treat) and ice cold ‘Sol over Gudhjem’ beer from Svaneke, brewed especially for the occasion. We sampled quite a lot of the beer during the afternoon, to be honest. The standard of the produce on offer was high; this was clearly Bornholm at its best and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I wondered, though, how many of the people complimenting the gourmet delights surrounding us would be scuttling back to their campsites for kebab and chilli sauce, which is a Danish staple.

At the after-party we sipped chilled champagne on the quayside as Bornholm’s clear blue sky turned midsummer white. Dinner later was over on the west coast at Le Port in Vang, which is located high on cliffs and has stunning views to Sweden. A superb meal of smoked cod and veal, a near-perfect Sancerre and excellent service made nonsense of the increasingly tangential Tripadvisor. This place really is very good and the only cloud on the horizon, so to speak, was the cloud gathering over Sweden and drifting in our direction.

By morning the sky was overcast, a sea mist surrounded us and rain was imminent. Nevertheless, we were on our bikes and heading south along cycle route 10 again in an effort to get to Rønne before the downpour. We weren’t even close and being made to wait in torrential rain while cars boarded the ferry ahead of us turned ‘being wet’ into ‘thoroughly soaked’. When we eventually boarded the ferry appeared full – all the seats were taken – as campers and desolate Danish tourists tried to keep children amused and dogs quiet while fending off boredom with family-sized white Toblerone.

We liked Bornholm and have talked about visiting again, perhaps after the summer season, but we’ve been warned by those who say they know that the island closes when the campers, cyclists and gourmet tourists stop coming. I suspect the gourmet food producers take a holiday themselves then but I’m certain we’ll be able to get a kebab. Meanwhile, I’ll have a look at waterproof coats, just in case.