Thursday 23 February 2012


16 Feb - Oy vey! Up at 345 this morning to catch a 735 flight to Sicily. We didn't actually get to bed until 1030 and then I had repeated dreams of waking up. On the plane now, somewhere over France, and I'm so tired I just want to cry. The funny thing about this flight is, being full of Italians, they are all standing around in the aisle having animated conversations. Perhaps they should pull out an in-flight stoop on which they could gossip? This is the beginning of our Golden Girls Heritage Tour, which isn't offensive at all, I'm sure. I'm Rose, David is Dorothy, Robin is Blanche and Avi is Sophia. Between the four of us, we might know enough Italian to order a cappuccino. Maybe.


17 Feb - So, first impression of flying into Palermo was something along the lines of flying into Beirut (or, at least, how I imagine Beirut) - lots of very square, tired looking, beige concrete buildings that look like they had seen better days. We were unloaded from the plane and onto an enormous bus - the only bus I have ever seen that opened also from the back. The bus drove us the 100 or so yards to the terminal, which was undergoing, um, extensive renovation. There we waited 20 or so minutes to file past the two border guards to the luggage carousel, on top of which was running a very amped up, drug sniffing German Shepherd. Mamma mia! Remind me not to smuggle drugs into Sicily... Then it was off to the large, aptly named "RentaCar" building, in which we got to wait again. The car, a (relatively) recent Peugeot 308 automatic (very hard to get an automatic!) had a number of scratches (which we dutifully noted), was dirty, misssing an antenna (which we swiped from the car parked next to it - figured, hey, when in, um, not Rome...) and cost more than it should have. Welcome to Sicily.

I was too tired to drive (in fact, I didn't drive this trip and only had to change my underpants a few hundred times with Robin at the wheel... ;-). So, Robin drove the 200 miles across the island. It actually looks very much like Southern California - sort of coastal Orange County, though it seems to have been mostly denuded of just about anything other than grass in many places. The drivers are a bit more southern than that though - think Tijuana. My God! Officially, there are 2 lanes each direction on the Autostrade. Unofficially, there seem to be three. There is the get the hell out of the way lane (which you can putter along in as long as you have your left turn signal on permanently). There is the slow lane, and, sort of halfway over into the shoulder, there is the old Fiat lane. Using one's left turn signal seems to be mandatory, and it is always left on when in the fast lane. I'm pretty sure the right turn signal is prohibited though, as we almost never saw them in use. Car horns and light flashing are absolutely required. There is also quite a lot of hedging one's bet, lane-wise - hmm, right lane, left lane, who can say - best to stay in the middle! One cool thing is that since everything was in km/h, we cruised along happily at 170kph. We did, however, at one point do the math and figure out that was over 100mph. But there are so many more number on the dial! (The speed limit is 130kph, btw). Signage was generally of the sort of "ha ha, you missed your exit" variety. All I can say is thank God for Jane (we named our GPS Jane).

We stopped on the way at a supermarket (a "hypermarket"). I love foreign supermarkets, especially the meat and cheese sections. The Italians are big meat and cheese eaters. There was a wheel of cheese as big as a tractor tire and meat with God knows what in it. (It was all very tasty except something I bought that slighty resembled a horse wang. It tasted OK, but had these big strings of fat that kept getting stuck in my teeth. Some of it went to a nice stray kitty and the rest of it in the trash. One can only eat so much horse wang, it turns out...). Oh, apparently "speck" is not Italian for "bacon". It's more like prosciutto, and, when cooked bacon-style ends up turning into sort of wafer-thin beef jerky with the general texture of shoe leather. Oh well, live and learn.

So, we're staying in a holiday apartment in the middle of Taormina, which is a sort of slightly faded glory coastal resort town that seems to be slowly reawakening to it's cuteness potential (based on the large amount of Prada that could be found on sale in the pedestrianised centre). The town perches on cliffs 600 feet straight up from the Ionian Sea, with and astounding view southwards along the coast to the steaming, snow covered hulk of Mt Etna (which erupted just last week, apparently). We met the owner of the apartment at a parking lot at the edge of town. He showed up on a Vespa (of course) and then led us, in the car, down increasingly narrow streets to the apartment. Once there, we unloaded the car as quickly as humanly possible, as we were blocking the street. Robin then followed the guy back to the parking lot to drop off the car, then rode back with the guy on the back of the scooter. I'm so glad that wasn't me - I would have likely wet myself.

Anyway, we walked around the nearly completely desolate town last night, but mostly hung around here eating breat and salami and wathing "The Core" in Italian because we were so exhausted.

The apartment itself is on four levels, with one main room on each level, and with a fantastic roof balcony, from which one could look up the street to the 400 foot cliff with a cross on top of it backing up the town. The guy who owns it seems to have an African fetish, as the decorating motif is quite African, with the occasional ceramic head thrown in just for fun (these are all over town - very odd - as well as for sale in the many schlock shops full of brightly coloured pottery and nativity scenes).

Today we slept in late, then I went for a morning run down the hairping road to the sea (and then back up). We spent the day walking and oohing and aahing at things. From the beach there is a gondola ("funivia") back up to the town. We had the enormous pleasure of watching Avi scream like a girl as the gondola lifted off into the air, climbing the 600 feet back up to the town. I think Robin is going to put the video on Facebook.

The coastline looks like California thinks it looks (minus the awful housing developments), but it really does feel of yesterday's glory - lots of grand old abandoned houses. The town itself does have a lot of money, and definitely caters for tourists, but we hit it on the low season, meaning about half the stores were closed. None of us knew that they rigorously adhere to the siesta. Everything closes at 130pm and then reopens at 430pm. It is damn near impossible to get anything to eat between those hours, save at a very few places.


21 Feb - On the plane back to London, feeling tired and a little bit fat. Didn't get much sleep last night. The next door neighbours were clomping around and moving chairs on hard floors (I think they had a party, it being the end of Carnival) until about 230 and we had to be up at 6. Ugh.

Anyway, we had a really great time, and only a few changes of underpants - not bad for Robin driving! Saturday, we drove down to Etna, which rises over 10000 feet from the coast and periodically trashes the surrounding towns and cities. We exited the Autostrade on a rather poorly maintained road that climbed through vineyards, forests and eventually snow covered lava fields to Sicily's only ski area (I think) - parked right smack dab under the smouldering crater and partially wiped out by lava in 2009. Gotta love the Italians. The place was thronging with chattering Italians in expensive ski wear and the ubiquitous large sunglasses (do Italians whisper? I don't think so). We definitely looked out of place, dressed for mildly chilly weather, in jeans with sensible shoes. The view - spectacular - and way down there, past the numerous cinder cones - Catania - the 2nd city of Sicily - last obliterated in 1693.

We had dinner back in Taormina. I ordered clam and mussel soup, thinking it would be like clam chowder. Wrong! What I got instead was a smallish bowl of large pile of clams and mussels on top - their tongues lolling out. I was very brave and managed not to look completely horrified, and Robin showed me how to eat a clam by using the shell for a scoop and a spoon (yeah, I know - somehow I grew up in a cave or something). Admittedly, it as tasty, but eek! The rest of hte dinner was some sort of unidentified meat (it was a "meat plate").

Sunday we drove down to Catania, a fairly sprawling coastal city of faded glory, sitting at the base of Etna. The suburbs were mostly of the sort of drab, stacked concrete apartment blocks you see people getting stuck in during an earthquake. Driving rules in the city seemed fairly optional and large intersections swarmed with squeegee men. It seemed people were even paying them not do do the windows. I would have just hosed them off with the windshield washers, but I suppsoe that might have meant bad news for the wipers. The centre of town consisted of mostly what would have once been grand, baroque buildings laid out in blocks, now in various stages of quiet decay. There definitely was once a lot of money there - wonder what happened? It being Carnivale, the world's entire supply of silly string and confetti seemed to have been strewn about the streets. Hmm - confetti sounds Italian (as does graffiti, which is)- wonder if there is a link? Most of the cathedral, were built of lava. When life gives you a volcano...

Yesterday (and today) it rained. We spent yesterday doing other things in Taormina - climbing the 9 million steps up to the cross on the hill (from where they play "Ave Maria" over the town every day at noon - nice!) and then wandering around the Greek (and later Roman) amphitheatre. I sat in one of the seats and tried to imagine a Greek play going on - slightly difficult with the annoying loud group of Spaniards. Seriously - whispering - try it sometime! And - last night, we had pasta in the apartment and sat around watching Fashion TV (surprisingly addictive, actually, those runway shows!).

Today - 300km back to Palermo, in the rain, an emergency run back out with the rantal car to get gas (as none at the airport!), a slightly chaotic process of loading the plane (Italy) and now we are starting our descent into London. Thank you for flying Queasyjet; don't let the door hit you on the way out!

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Giant 3 inch blizzard paralyzes London under miles of snow

Or so you'd think. The way I see it, there has been a city here for, what, 2000 or so years, and very nearly every one of those years it has snowed. That's a lot of snow, a lot of times. What happens then? Well, every time it does snow it's like, well, it's like my god what is this white fluffy slippery stuff falling out of the sky? Granted, they have gotten a little better lately. They actually managed to salt the main roads BEFORE it snowed this time - not like the massive 6 inch dump that stranded all the city buses in their yards (something that not even the Blitz managed to do, apparently). The side streets though, well, forget them. Oh, my favourite - last time we got significant snow, I believe it was on the day it finally started to melt that they decided to spread salt in front of Town Hall, and today - the single and only place that was still icy on the way in was - wait for it, in front of the main government services building. Nice.

Oh, an interesting phenomenon in the local park was observed that did seem to correlate to the weather. Normally, this being a rather multi-ethnic area, the people out and about in the park reflect this mix. On Sunday, however, amidst quite a number of hastily crafted snow-people (I'm being 21st century politically correct, of course), one could play the game of "spot the ethnic minority". Very odd...

Saturday night I went out walking in the snow. David, Robin and Robin's friend, Mike decided to watch "Warrior", which seemed to have some amount of plot, but mostly a lot of beefy men beating the crap out of each other. Now, I'm all for beefy men, but I'm not so big on them beating each other up.

Some pics (most of them taken at night, hence the funny tone...)

Our poor little palm tree!

A beckoning door in the cold night... ;-)

Finsen Road, in the night-time snow.

A very cold monkey puzzle...

Almost Dickensian, except for those big lumpy buildings in the background...