The View From The Balcony of Port Elizabeth

Standing in the Donkin Reserve gazing over Port Elizabeth, the CBD below looking as if it may tumble into the bay, I realised that my perception of this city had been entirely wrong, and it was a wonderful thing.

Port Elizabeth’s CBD is like one of those inspiring and miraculous stories of a recovering junkie. She’s been through the mill, hung out with dodgy characters, looked like a lost cause and then she went to rehab. After years of grimy decay, she’s back – plumper, livelier, wiser, more determined and creative and with the colour back in her cheeks.

While I realise that’s a fairly weird analogy, it is apt for this inner city that found itself falling into disrepair and decrepitude at the end of the last century (sheesh, I sound old). In 2004, the Mandela Bay Development Agency started its first project to  regenerate the area and it’s just been getting better and better.

I have to admit I was somewhat mean about PE in the past. My experience of the city consisted of fleeting visits as a child to get groceries to stock our beach shack in Port Alfred in December. Memories of Christmas-crazy, Boney M-filled, Checkers-trolley-into-your-ankles trips calmed slightly by a visit to the magical old library and gelato (with real bits of chocolate) from the hole-in-the-wall ice cream shop as a reward for surviving.

Some years later, as a student at Rhodes,  PE to me was the occasional trip to Greenacres – a real shopping mall, which Grahamstown-of-yore didn’t have … What bliss, I’m not really a mall fan – and a long, dark, laser-infused night in the docks at one the first raves there. Youthfully oblivious of our own mortality, we drove that treacherous road between Grahamstown and PE on the back of a bakkie, hot-pantsed and silvery-topped. After dancing the night away, we returned as the sun rose over the bay. We didn’t even stay to look around.

So, yes, my impression was that of shopping malls and dark dockside warehouses, interspersed with cars with CB number plates. Standing up there in the Donkin Reserve, I had to to admit that I was wrong. Certainly about 2017 PE, interspersed by the more inclusive EC number plates. As an aside – I miss the town-specific plates. They satisfied (some of) my curiosity about where people were from.

 

I stray. Back to the point that PE’s CBD has (and still is) undergoing an incredible rejuvenation. The stately old buildings with their gorgeous architecture are being renovated and upgraded back to their former graciousness and the whole area is becoming people-friendly. Public spaces dotted with art, coffee shops and breweries, old churches and statues, restaurants and performance spaces and, right up there in the Donkin Reserve (both literally and metaphorically), a pervading sense of the history of this – in South African terms – ancient city.

There’s plenty of history in this city, but that of its namesake and her husband is the most beautifully tragic and is the source of the somewhat unlikely pyramid up in the Donkin Reserve, slap-bang in the middle of the city.

Elizabeth Donkin died of ‘The Fever’ in India in August 1818 at the age of 27. She left behind her heartbroken husband, Rufus, and tiny 7-month old son. Their son was sent back to the family in the UK and the devastated Rufus went to not-yet-called-PE to act as governor. In August 1820, he erected the pyramid in honour of her. It is inscribed:

‘To the memory of the most perfect of human beings who has given her name to the Town below.’

See? Tragic. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be loved like that? Without The Fever and dying bit, of course. Urban legend has it that he placed her head inside the pyramid. I like that. It’s macabre and beautiful. A new addition is a gorgeous, swirling mosaic – part of the 67 Steps, which I’ll write about in my next blog, this is getting too long! – that leads up to the pyramid, the lighthouse beaming behind it and the whole bay laid out in front.

It is, without doubt, ‘The Balcony of Port Elizabeth’!


Wheelchair Accessibility

Port Elizabeth balances on a hill. The Donkin Reserve, however, is on top of the hill and if you park on Athol Fugard Terrace, there are bricked pathways with a gentle slope to see all the cool things at Donkin Reserve.

Penguin Love in PE, Cape Recife

It’s hard to believe that you’re ten minutes away from Port Elizabeth city when you enter the Cape Recife Nature Reserve. 366 hectares of unspoilt coastal bush, stretches of beautiful beach and fantastic rock pools are there with a number of hiking trails. If you’re lucky, you see otters.

At the point – the southern tip of the over 90 km-wide bay – the lighthouse stands looking glorious in its stripy onesie and red cap. It’s one of the oldest lighthouses in South Africa, established in 1851 off the aptly-named Thunderbolt Reef. This is a prickly coastline if you’re a sailor … it’s wrecked over 400 ships.

Down the road from the lighthouse, an odd-looking building lurks amongst the fragrant bush that smells like my childhood seaside holidays in Port Alfred. It’s one of five observation posts around PE that were built in World War II to look out for German U-boats. They were staffed by women. In 1942, a radar was built (by men) and legend has it that a fence had to be built between the two because the women were partial to raucous parties! Tsk, tsk.

Plum in the midst of Cape Recife Nature Reserve is the SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre, now SANCCOB PE. Here, mainly volunteers rehabilitate injured birds and have an amazing education centre because those cute – but bitey! – li’l tuxedoed birds are in trouble.

Over the last 50 years, a time during which we’ve known better, the African penguin population has declined by 91%. That’s left the world with an estimated total population of 45 000 penguins. By 2025, it is predicted that there will be none left in the wild. None. Why? Humans. We are, to put it simply, starving them into extinction. Overfishing has led to not enough fish; climate change has made the penguins need to swim further to find the cold current fish resulting in them not being able to feed their chicks and then … pollution: oil leaks. It’s heart-breaking.

But, the guys at SANCCOB are passionate about turning this around and they deserve all the support they can get. Keith, who took us around, was fabulous and funny and, well, a perfect penguin ambassador. Also, they’re cool at naming the penguins (who are, if they’re well, returned to the wild as soon as possible). Verona. Barbie. Turtle.

Penguins will return to their home from wherever you release them. Remember Peter, Pamela and Percy? They were living happily on Robben Island when Treasure, a bulk carrier ship, sank off Cape Town, spilling oil into the sea that threatened 76 000 penguins. 20 000 clean penguins were taken to PE and released in the hope that the spill would’ve cleared by the time they made it home. It did, with Peter arriving home – 470 miles away – first. Now that’s called homing instinct.

Note: if you find a penguin in trouble, don’t move it and don’t leave it. Get hold of SANCCOB on 041 583 1830 (business hours) or 064 019 8936 (after hours).


Wheelchair Accessibility

The centre is completely accessible, including the courtyard in which you can watch the li’l guys being fed.

 

Modica Meanderings, Sicily 2017

There’s a church half way down the Corso Umberto toward the circle in the centre of Modica. This church – Chiesa Madre di San Pietro – is not the most grand one in this beautiful town, which is difficult to fathom, due to its grandiosity. No, that prize goes to the Duomo di San Giorgio, up an impossibly steep back road that leads up one of the cliffs upon which most of the town of Modica precariously balance.

We pass the church, with its huge, wide steps watched by the twelve apostles who flank them, twice each time we go for an amble (which is often, there’s much to see): once on our way down the gentle slope and again on our way up. Each time it offers up a different view as the sun changes position and the huge blocks of stone from which it’s made change from rock-coloured to pink in the setting sun and then golden in the orange light of Mediterranean nights. The apostles, too, take on different looks as they watch frilly brides and their grooms posing for photos, exuding love; black-clad old Sicilian women clutching rosaries heading in to the ornate church to pray; and youngsters gathering on the steps to watch the town on their evening ramble.

The evening ramble was one of my (many) favourite things in Sicily. In fact, the whole lifestyle is. The Mediterranean countries just get it right. It’s hot in the middle of the day so they close up shop and head home for a siesta. Later, when its cooling (slightly), everything opens up again. Even later – because the sun only sets at about ten – families go out for their evening stroll and, often, dinner at a sidewalk Osteria. Friends stop and greet, discuss their days, pass the baby around to be cuddled and made to gurgle and laugh. It’s just so friendly.

Our amblings during the day and ramblings at night take us past – and into – ancient buildings that glow, huge doorways and tiny side alleys, music schools and town halls and gelateria, all wound around the aroma of one of Modica’s most famous things … chocolate.The original Aztec way of making chocolate was learnt in Modica during that occupation and it is the best I’ve ever come across (not forgetting that I’ve tasted plenty of chocolate in my time).

Hemingway’s, in the back alley behind the church, serves amazing aperitivo – which will get their own blog, they’re so wonderful – at sunset, while old men play chess watched by their teenage grandsons. At the end of the alley, the disciples from Chiesa San Pietro turn pink in the setting sun.

Later, as we amble home, we happen across the local orchestra practicing. Standing next to ancient buildings that are burnt orange in the evening light, the sky that blue that squelches my heart, we listen to a full orchestral soundtrack of an ABBA medley as we stand listening on a pavement worn smooth by hundreds of years of just such ambling. It is entirely surreal and wonderful.

*For in-depth wheelchair accessibility advice, contact me via e-mail on shinybriony@gmail.com.

Tennessee Williams in a Hotel

 Only some radical change can divert the downward course of my spirit, some startling new place or people to arrest the drift, the drag.

Tennessee Williams travelled a lot, living in hotels and writing plays, many – unsurprisingly – set in hotels. I can fully relate to his thoughts, above. Travelling makes me happy, too, and far more creative. His having lived in hotels so much, though, is one of many reasons that the Hotel Plays, which use a suite in a hotel, work so well.

Two by Tenn is hosted by the grand ol’ dame of Claremont, the elegant Vineyard Hotel, and included a gourmet 3-course, wine-paired menu: Field mushrooms in a bouche case followed by lamb shank, finished off with sticky pecan tart and brandy ice cream – a perfectly delicious feast for the rainy winter’s night that it was. We sat at a long table and met lovely people.

Welcomed by the oh-so-fabulous Mme Le Monde in her gorgeous lace dress and over the top make-up, we enjoyed starters before heading upstairs for the first short play, wonderfully entitled A Perfect Analysis Given By A Parrot.

One of the suites in the old section of the hotel has been magically transformed into an intimate theatre that seats just forty people. It makes for an entirely different theatre experience, with the audience so close to the actors that one feels involved in the scene.

Life-size puppets of Dame Elizabeth Taylor (Marcel Meyer) and Joan Crawford (Dean Balie) are sat at a bar table discussing their plight as ageing good-time girls … and hoping to be picked up. Puppeteers, Meyer and Bailie – both superb – sit behind the puppets, their suspender-and- stockinged legs, are the puppet’s legs. They control the puppets’ heads with one hand and are the puppets’ arm with the other … hard to describe, but brilliant in execution.The script is irreverent and laugh-out-loud funny.

Back down for mains and a chat with fellow-diners and then its upstairs again for a slightly more provocative and in-your-face production of The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme Le Monde. Young and pretty Mint, very well played by Matthew Baldwin, is visited by Hall (Dean Balie), an old school friend from Scrotum-on-Swansea. Unable to use his legs, Mint lives in a garret above Mme Le Monde’s rather shady rooming house where he uses a series of hooks to swing across the room.

Not only that, he also seems to be regularly abused by one of Mme Le Monde’s numerous ‘male spawn’ and often goes without food. Set amongst this background, the story is darkly funny and illustrates Tennessee William’s tendency toward inappropriate laughter and eliciting it from his audiences.

Back down in the gracious, chandeliered dining room, the pecan pie is enjoyed over much mirthful discussion that lasts well through the after-dinner coffee. This is perfect winter entertainment and ‘dinner theatre’ in its prime.

A version of this review was published at What’s On In Cape Town.

Sicily Incoming: Modica Welcomings

Coming in to land in Sicily at the tiny airport in Comiso, the sun was just setting over the island, turning the Meditteranean golden and the fields pink as Mount Etna smoked in the far distance. It felt welcoming and friendly – the customs guy smiled and happily stamped my passport on request. The air was warm and fragrant and we were met by Walter – he of no English, us of no Italian. Communication via smiles and nods and the quintessential Italian hand gestures was perfectly adequate. 

Darkness had fallen as we wound our way through hairpin bends at breakneck speed, most often halfway across the middle line. Road travel in Sicily is not for sissies. I caught brief glimpses of dry stone walls, blooming oleanders and olive trees as the cars headlights punctured the darkness. Balancing on top of hills, villages glowed gold.

Modica at night

Modica is approached down multiple hair pin bends that open up into a wide main road, Corso Umberto I, which runs – relatively flatly – through town. The buildings on both sides are all ancient, made with huge golden blocks of stone that glimmered in the street lights. Walter dropped us at our Air BnB, down the end of the road, just off Corso Umberto I. It was in a perfect position.

But …

Travel must obviously have hurdles otherwise there’d be no stories to tell, would there? And here we stumbled – well, crash-banged, really – into our first. The eighth floor apartment that I’d booked as it had a lift and a gorgeous view had both, but the lift was hardly big enough for two people and definitely not big enough for a wheelchair.

Floriana, our lovely host, was mortified and offered her husband to carry me up the stairs. A very kind but completely crazy idea. She got on the phone, called her cousin at the other end of town who works at the hotel there, and got us booked in, apologising repeatedly throughout. She and Leigh headed up there with the suitcase in the car and GM and I ambled up the Corso Umberto I behind them, marvelling at the architecture and being greeted by all we passed. An old man invited us in for coffee, the Duomo San Pietro watched over us, the aromas of the almost-closing restaurants spilled onto the streets. It was gorgeous.

A clean, spacious hotel room and dinner at the Osteria a couple of steps down the road – which stayed open especially for us and fed us freshly made pasta that defied description in its deliciousness served with red wine and followed by a digestif as the family’s youngest son played football in the kitchen … it was the perfect wobbly welcome to Sicily.

 

Small Town Girl in London

Everybody knows that I’m a Small Town Girl, despite the fact that I live in the biggest city in South Africa. (This actually came as news to me when I did a quick search on that … Cape Town is the biggest, population-wise, followed by Durban, and then only Jozi! As Joe always used to say Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.) Anyway, back to the point … my Small Townism and its view on London.

Well, my view on London is this: it is an incredible city with the most enormous number of things to do, places to see, people to meet, and my The Weatherman was so kind to me and kept the sky blue and the sun shining, yet my African blood gets nervous and my African heart gets claustrophobic and I find myself thinking that everybody on those streets of London is just having such a hard time of keeping up and it makes me sad and leaves me feeling entirely drained.

Cue: my friends. So many of them that live and love in London, and love it and thrive, which is why on day two in that bustling city I met a bunch of them in Greenwich at The Old Brewery (perfect accessibility), watched over by the huge trees (another thing that will keep me loving London) of the park and side-eyed by the Cutty Sark, and it was wonderful.

Friends from forever ago and friends from more recently and even some new friends, a beautiful hound called Paloma and a surprise pop-in by wonderful family friends made for a day so filled with joy and loveliness and love, that I felt entirely refreshed. Oh, and I met a knight – Sir Ian McKellan, or Gandalf, as I like to think of him – which was pretty bloody marvellous. He was just lovely. Also marvellous – being able to hop on a bus (the right way around, this time) and get home safely and easily.

Gandalf and me, London

The next day we braaied under the hot London sky (yip!) and frolicked in the ‘hot tub’ – set on cool due to extreme heat – with one of my oldest friends (and hostess with the mostest) and her lovely neighbour. Perfect, lazy, Sunday. Then Gogglebox … GOGGLEBOX! It’s brilliant. Voyeurism to the max.

Travelling stories and pics will resume with the next blog – to Sicily we go!

Hot and Heavy in London

We arrived early on Friday morning, mid-June, our pilot cheerily informing us that the day was forecast to be hot in London. I’m from Africa, so I sniggered to myself. Hot. In London. As the great doors of the BA plane were opened, a rush of warm air replaced the stale, over-breathed, sneeze-and-cough-filled air of the 12 hour flight from Cape Town. This pilot wasn’t having us on. My snigger wilted and left.

Leaving on a Jet Plane, Cape Town Airport

A frustrating no-show of the booked-and-paid-for shuttle and we were in a black cab*, heading through the centre of London during Friday morning rush hour. I’d forgotten about the chattiness of London cabbies. For the two-and-a-half-hour trip (eek!) he kept up a running commentary, and now I know his entire history, and all about his daughter’s relationship dramas. And his best friend, Clive’s. And their medical histories. In infinite detail. (Note to self: don’t mention you’re a pharmacist.) He also drinks down the pub with the terrorist attack hero dude that shouted ‘I’m Millwall’.

Past Buckingham Palace, along Pall Mall as she dressed up for the parade the next day, winding through green parks, the terraced buildings of the story books of my childhood interspersed with areas of barricaded shops, broken windows and graffiti, the streets filled with people of every nationality. London is nothing if not diverse. Yet oh-so-British.

 

Flat to Let, London

Finally reaching Aimee’s house, we threw our cases down and headed to the bus stop to go to central London, where I had two appointments. Ah, London, and your accessibility. A ramp from the bus to the pavement, a place to sit (first facing the wrong direction, resulting in some fairly hairy stops – especially with the driver of the 10:37 89 bus to Lewisham Station, who could give Cape Town taxi drivers a run for their money – until we worked it out, turned me around, and got me stable). Admittedly, we looked a bit like Idiots Abroad for a while there.

Big Ben and a Bus, London

The air is thick with heat and city bustle as we drive into the city on this bus with an ever-changing population and a soundtrack of the pinging bell for stops and almost-indecipherable teenage conversations of who’s hot and what’s happening this weekend. I am reminded that teen pregnancy is alive and well and living in London. One baby is called Chicken and her mum is proudly telling her sister that she’s just received her first dole payment. (Chicken may or may not have been a term of endearment.)

Tower Bridge from London Bridge, London

Stuck behind Friday afternoon traffic over London Bridge I watch the hundreds of handwritten notes to the previous week’s terrorist victims flapping lazily in the hot breeze that is doing nothing to cool the concrete walkways and buildings of the inner city. On the bridge, tourists take grim pictures of the flowers at the site. Here the air is humid and heavy with sadness as the muddy Thames rushes under the bridge, heading away away to the sea, seeking coolth and solace.

Ancients Dwarfed by Youngsters, London

The ancients mix in with the young there in the city. I’m talking buildings, because, weirdly, there are almost no ancient people in the city. Except us.  We make the two appointments by the skin of our teeth, stopping on street corners to marvel at the ancients and watch the people. The appointments are dull, the city not. It seems that here, work ends at lunchtime on Fridays … the pubs are spilling out onto the streets, cold beer, icy white wine in the hands of the suits.

Leadenhall Market, London

We pop in to Leadenhall Market, a glass-domed Victorian market built in the 14th Century. It is gorgeous, intricate and heaving with Friday afternoon revellers. We stand beneath the main dome, enthralled, until our stomachs start shouting. It’s been a long time since the stiff old eggs on the plane at 5 am. Leadenhall Market is too full, we want an olde pub. Twenty minutes of walking about, we find one next to the monument. It too is heaving, and the one bar man disappears, presumably terrified by the mass of thirsty customers demanding his attention.

Hangry, we head over the street, past the Monument to the Great Fire of London (you can go nowhere in London without passing something amazing) and find The Hydrant, which has the friendliest waitress. A cold beer for GM – London Pride because London – and a cold glass of wine for me, the biggest Scotch Egg with Black Pudding I’ve ever seen (the chickens in the UK must be ginormous!), Potato and Leek Croquettes and Hummus, Tzatziki, Babaganoush and Pitas. We guzzle, it’s good, and our personalities reappear.

It’s time to get back on the bus to head back to Woolwich, to old friends and comfy beds.

*Accessibility in London

Transport is a breeze on buses and in black cabs. They all have ramps that go into them and space for you to be, remaining in the wheelchair.