Eddie Vedder Found: Taormina, Sicily

My history with Eddie Vedder’s music goes way back. The night before I had my accident in 1996 I listened to Off He Goes, sobbing for a life I was leaving behind in a small town in South Africa. In that moment, I had no idea of how my life would really change the following morning, in the few seconds, filled with crashing glass and crunching metal and breaking thorn trees followed by the hot still silence of a clear Karoo day, it took to put me in a wheelchair.

That was not the only moment in my life that had a PJ track attached to it – there were many moments, from gentle, quiet ones to gleeful ones to heartbroken, sad ones, that had a range of their tracks attached, and still do.  And there’ll be more to come.

And that’s the back story as to why this trip to Sicily from Cape Town is a dream. I’ve been wanting to see Eddie Vedder for years. Many, many years. When I saw the Florence festival announced, I hesitated for a split second, and booked, living by the cliched (but true) ‘Life is short’. Then Sicily was announced and the plan changed. Sicily! In an Ancient Greek ruin? No brainer.

And so it came to be that last night, in an amphitheatre dating back to the early Seventh Century BC (BC!), I saw Eddie Vedder, live. It may well have been the best night of my life.

One advantage of being in a wheelchair is that the ancient Greeks didn’t really build amphitheatres for us, so the only place I can go (after negotiating some pretty fabulously steep ramps, with the help of some pretty fabulously handsome medics and firemen), is right in front! The lovely Federica, from Rome, sat next us, having broken her knee saving a guy from falling during a stage dive in a mosh pit three days ago. She shared her water with us

As the sky deepened to cerulean blue, the new moon flirted with the Evening Star above Mount Etna and the Mediterranean turned dark. The ancient walls of the amphitheatre that have seen so much in their time twitched in anticipation. The hot evening air, filled with the whispers and stories of thousands of years, was electric. A couple got engaged in the front seats as the crowd exuded love. And then the electricity multiplied …

(Thanks to Martin Grundberg for this gorgeous pic from up at the back.)

The crowd roared – echoes of gladiator fights of years ago – as Eddie Vedder walked on stage, 25 m from me. As he picked up his guitar and sang those first few words, I dissolved, grinning like a loon, my lips quivered and tears overflowed. That voice. The one I’ve listened to a thousand times, on tapes, on CDs, on YouTube videos … live.

For two-and-a-half hours he sang, no break. Just Breathe, Society, Without You, the best rendition of Jeremy, with the string quartet, the list went on and the crowd went wild and my lungs scrunched up and my heart expanded and I was enthralled. And an R.E.M. track, with a Michael Stipe in Berlin story attached – my second favourite band – swoon!

During Jeremy he came into the crowd, shaking hands, hugging people, coming closer to us, until he was right there, so close I could’ve touched him, but I was totally frozen in awe. Leigh put out her hand, he shook it. And then he hugged Federica, before going back to the stage. We all cried, like teen fans, but much more sophisticated (of course).

Pigeons flapped from rampart to rampart, momentarily lit by the stage lights, and bats flitted across the sky. A heavily pregnant woman in a white dress walked up and down in one of the top tiers, beautifully lit and looking like a Greek goddess. The whole thing was surreal.

And Eddie Vedder sang and chatted and shared his wine and congratulated the newly engaged couple and brought his daughters and wife on stage and it just all felt so incredibly lovely. And, dare I say it again? That voice.

Fascinating fact of the day: Eddie Vedder with a ukulele and Glen Hansard can sing, without microphones, in that ancient amphitheatre, and the sound is perfect and the audience will be hushed in wonder and it will be magical.

Second fascinating fact of the day: Five thousand people singing Hard Sun on a hot night in an amphitheatre overlooking Mount Etna and The Med can change the cells in your body, rearranging them into something that just feels better, man. (See what I did?)

Tonight, I’m lucky enough to go again. Hold thumbs for Off He Goes, please.

Havoc Beer

Everybody knows how much I adore The Weatherman. On occassion, he likes to show off, and I love it. Using wind and precipitation, and a little magic – you know, the things at his disposal – he makes cloud formations in front of a golden sun that defy description they’re so pretty. Last Friday afternoon was one of those times, as we sat up in the Hillcrest Quarry looking over toward the Atlantic in the distance. What a lovely man The Weatherman is.


We were at the launch of Havoc Beer, which seems apt. Brewer, Graeme Reed, previously winemaker, and before that, marine biologist, has, like The Weatherman, using hops and barley (all carefully chosen and mixed with scientific precision), and a little magic – you know, the things at his disposal – made an equally spectacular range of beers. And he, too, is such a lovely man.

What a treat to watch the sun set over the sea while tasting four newcomers to the beer scene, and chatting to the brewer and making new friends and meeting old friends in the flesh who were previously only a name on Facebook.

Testimony to how beer brings people together. Sorry, that’s so schmaltzy I should be in advertising, but it’s true!

Cinema Paradiso, Small Town-Style

I like to think that the seats were covered in red velvet. Perhaps they were. More likely, though, they’d been reupholstered in something more durable, something that’d withstand the Tassies stains and cigarette burns and melted Smarties that accompanied the students watching films. I’m going to go with my ‘romantic recollection’ of the two cinemas in Grahamstown when I was a student there. His Majesty’s and The Odeon. Beautiful in their worn-outedness, their slight dilapidation, even then. Now His Majesty’s is gone, burnt in a fire.

(Yes, you could smoke up on the balcony at His Majesty’s, and I may be aging, but I’m not old … this was, unbelievably, in the early 90s, not the 1950s. That wasn’t what caused the fire, though. I don’t think.)

Both cinemas, if I remember correctly, were owned by Sonny Six Fingers, who also owned the video shop (and the under-the-counter ‘X-Files’. The other two X’s presumably left out to ensure the undercoveredness of the whole operation.) They were beautiful old buildings and inside the air was thick with snippets of films and gasps of audiences (and smoke.) It was like being transported back to a time where TV didn’t exist and films had heroes who wore tuxedos. At 6 PM at The Odeon they’d show art movies – Cinema Pradiso, Delicatessen, The Big Blue.

And there’s the hint to why the sudden reminiscence of cinemas gone by. I rewatched The Big Blue yesterday. For research, of course, because for anybody who hasn’t heard me shouting it from the roof tops (read: plastering it all over Stalkbook, my blog, the neighbour’s walls), I’m going to watch Eddie Vedder play in Sicily and The Big Blue was set there and we’re, obviously, going to do some exploring on the beautiful island. So, yes, research.

Watching it (and anybody who hasn’t, do, it’s beautiful), threw me back to being a student and seeing it in that gorgeous old cinema. I watched it with my friend Gareth, after a sunny afternoon skipping a Chemistry prac in favour of friends on the beach in Kowie. We’d driven back along that oh-so-familiar windy road from Port Alfred to Grahamstown with sandy feet and salty bodies, our hair blowing in the wind on the back of a bakkie.

A quick stop for a bottle of Tassies and some (slightly stale) popcorn and we found velvet-covered (it’s my story and I’m sticking to it) seats that worked – many were lopsided, or lacked a sitting part completely – and off we went into the deepest blue seas and the perfect shores of Sicily. Sicily!

Little did I know then, as a 20-year old, that I’d be rewatching that film before heading for those shores and that the excitement and wonder that I felt then, watching a film, in that perfectly ramshackle cinema, I’d feel again, this time in triplicate – the joy and love of those perfect afternoons of my youth; the awe and wonder at the perfection of Jean-Marc Barr The Big Blue; and the anticipatory excitement of a trip to Sicily and seeing Eddie Vedder, who I’ve loved since those precise days of youthful exuberance.

London, Paris, Taormina

Wandering through the streets of Paris, London and Taormina yesterday, I was reminded of our tininess in this world. Well, my tininess, really. I can’t speak for the rest of you. Looking at aerial shots of inner city London, with its mix of ancient and shiny new buildings, I was reminded of an ant midden. So busy, so full.

I headed up The Shard – that name, to me, seems somehow rude – and looked down over London, imagining the little cobbled alleys that hadn’t been gobbled up by tar and pavement and hundreds of thousands of rushing people, exhaust fumes intermingling with the whispers and stories of thousands of years of humans.

In Paris, I did the same, heading up the Eiffel Tower and looking at Paris spread out below, as far as the eye can see, in every direction. There, the humans spoke a softer language, the whispers and stories more passionate and on breath that smelt like croissants and champagne.

Paris Railways and Buses

In both, I wandered from airports to stations to friends’ houses and hotels, weaving through streets in cabs and ducking into the underground tunnels that shunt people around deep in the underbellies of both cities. Familiar station names and unfamiliar ones, all of them enticed me back up into the daylight to see the places, peer down the alleyways and sit at pavement cafes watching, listening, absorbing.

Millenium Bridge (Google Earth Street View)

Back in London, I spent an hour in the Tate Modern, and then walked across the Millenium Bridge, over the Thames toward the golden dome of St Pauls, stopping in the middle to admire that ancient flowing river that coped with the city, welcoming both the living and those tired of living. How many canoodling couples on bridges, children happily chasing pigeons, broken-hearted jumpers and adventurous sailors has that old lady river seen in her time?

Taormina (Google Earth)

In Sicily, I marvelled at ancient ruins and checked out Mount Etna’s plume, before learning the history of Modica’s relationship with chocolate. I spent ages sipping coffee at a seaside café, intrigued by the changing blues of the Mediterranean. Then I plotted the route from our Air BnB to the concert venue – through the beautiful streets of Taormina that’ll be filled with equally-excited (it’s hard to imagine the electricity that’ll create) Eddie Vedder fans. I had to pull myself away. I had things to do.

But I got distracted again, and, I ambled about in Paris some more, finding interesting corners and back streets that had more stories to tell than their parallel, tourist-filled brothers and sisters. I was supposed to be booking shuttles and planning routes without stairs or too many steep, cobbled roads and finding suitable places to stay, because today, in a month, if all goes according to plan, I really will be in London. And then Sicily. And then Paris. And then London again.

I guess I’ll just have to go back today and continue my research. How I love the internet and Google Maps with its Street View. Because that’s half the fun of travelling, isn’t it?

All the couch travelling you get to do before.

 

Thali Thali Game Lodge

Heading up the west coast on the R27, the brilliant blue Atlantic glitters to the left, the vast fynbos-filled brush synonymous with this region flies by to the right, and fluffy white clouds play in the clear autumn sky. It’s the perfect day to escape city claustrophobia. We take a quick detour to Tori Oso in Mamre for coffee, a quick explore, and heavenly chocolate cake.

Then back onto the R27, too full to stop at all the enticing padstals, we pass the West Coast National Park and turn right into Thali Thali, just before the Langebaan road and a gentle hour’s drive from Cape Town. Here, on their 1,460 hectare game reserve, they keep a family of gangley giraffe, herds of zebra, wildebeest and a wide array of buck. This is not the Kruger Park, but rather ‘Safari Lite’: perfect for people wanting a little taste of South Africa’s wild, close to Cape Town.

Giraffe mama saying hello

The accommodation is arranged around the central lodge, with a pool that’s home to three friendly ducks, a restaurant and deck overlooking a little waterhole, a lapa and a children’s playground. The staff are wonderfully friendly and incredibly obliging.

The accommodation close to the main area are three converted self-catering cottages and, a little further away, five luxury en-suite tents. There’s a big old 4-bedroomed farmhouse with massive fireplace in the kitchen and a wrap-around porch situated more privately a little way down the road.

We stayed in one of the 2-sleeper self-catering cottages. They’re well-equipped, with everything you’d need for a weekend away and a big, comfy bed with crisp linen. The stoep overlooks the kid’s playground and has a great fire pit to the side, in which we braaied (and next to which we huddled – winter is in the air!) The kitchen/lounge has a fabulous big fireplace which, I’m sure, is welcome on wintery nights. We ate in the warmth of inside but, luckily, left the door open so we saw two of the tame-but-shy deer come to visit us just outside. What a treat.

A one-and-a-half hour game drive in the morning took us out into the oh-so-dry bush (The Weatherman, sir, please send some rain) along with other guests and a sweet young guide. Emus and springbok and wildebeest watched us drive by under a darkening sky that threatened rain, but didn’t bring any. Round a bend in the road we came across the giraffe family, out for a morning stroll – mom, dad, and the two girls (8-months old and 22-months old and already very tall!) Fun fact of the day: giraffe can pick their own nose with their tongue. Useful when you don’t have fingers, I guess.

Some tiny mongooses (mongeese?) chasing frankolins down the sandy path ahead of us, views across to Saldanha, some gorgeous eland and a bunch of zebra in their stripy onesies, and we returned to the main lodge for a warming cup of coffee on the stoep. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning, for sure. Or a weekend out of the city, for that matter.

A night away felt like a little holiday – some quiet, lots of fresh air, lovely people and gorgeous animals.

(Accessibility info, for those interested, is below this gallery)

Accessibility

Andriette and Amalia, from Thali Thali, were lovely when I phoned to organise and was completely upfront with what they could offer accessibility-wise, and offered help with anything we needed.

The cottage and me

The 2-sleeper cottage we stayed in was all on one level (including the stoep, which was bricked, so a little rough), with a concrete floor and moveable mats. There is a tiny lip into the front door. The cottage is divided into two rooms and an en-suite bathroom.

The front door opens into a lounge/kitchen/dining room with a lovely big, open fireplace. There’s enough space to move around. This room opens into a large bedroom with double bed (without a foot board, luckily – I’m 6-foot!)  which has plenty of space on both sides to get in with a wheelchair. Fan, heater, big cupboard, safe and hanging horse all there.

The bathroom is more than big enough, with plenty of space next to the toilet, but no bars. The shower has a lip into it and no bars, but is big enough to put a plastic chair in, for those who can manage that. The basin has a cupboard underneath it.

From our cottage (right next door) to the main lodge was across a little patch of grass and on a bricked (slightly bumpy and slightly sloped) to a bit of a steep ramp (I’d say about 1-in-6, at a guess) up to the entrance to the bar/restaurant. Once inside it’s all flat leading out to a lovely deck with a view. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the resident Jack Russell chasing the emus from here. There are both high tables and chairs and normal ones.

The game drive vehicle is not specifically adapted to make it accessible, but Thys – who is tall and strong – with the help of GM and the game ranger hauled me into the front seat and I tied my scarf around my shoulders and head rest to stabilise me. All good. They have plans to build a ramp and are keen for suggestions and very helpful!

One of the tents is also accessible but was unfortunately booked, so I couldn’t see in and give a report back but I think the privacy of the location of the tent and being inside one would give a lovely feeling of being in the wild.

Thali Thali is a perfect place for a break from the city or a beginner’s safari experience.

 

Mamre Werf and Tori Oso Coffee

The road into Mamre is announced by a welcoming white sign beset with sweet graffiti detailing who loves who in this tiny village with a big history. It’s one of those places whose turn-off you pass on your way to somewhere else. Darling, in this case. You shouldn’t pass it, though, because there are treasures there. Follow the road all the way in until you reach the circle, then turn toward the big old trees of Mamre Werf.

Welcome to Mamre

Tyrone is 5-years old. He goes to school at the school behind the old church. At weekends, he hangs out with Noah, 1, at the coffee shop. They’re a delightful welcoming committee and Tyrone’s drawings in salt and pepper are fabulous. Tyrone and Noah are here with the lovely Stephanie and Marlene, proprietors of the Tori Oso Coffee Shop.

Tori Oso Coffee Shop, Mamre Werf

Situated in a beautiful old thatched Cape Dutch building – the old shop, built in 1880 – at the incredibly well-kept old Moravian Mission in Mamre, It is one of those welcoming family restaurants with high ceilings, thick walls and warm wooden floors. Outside, two newish-looking hitching rails stand waiting for horses. Apparently this coffee shop is a movie star too – a Western was shot there last year.

The menu is down-to-earth food: moer coffee, a range of toasted sandwiches, some light lunch options and, if they’ve baked, chocolate cake of the gods (at less than R20 a slice!).

Cemetery Hill, Mamre Werf

There was a funeral on at the church, so we settled at the coffee shop and ate toasted sandwiches as the mourners left the church. Once it was empty we took an amble around the beautiful old mission, set up a gentle hill overlooked by the graves on Cemetery Hill. The air in the church still shivered with sadness.

Everything at Mamre Werf is beautifully maintained – the church (1818), parsonage (1679), Longhouse (1697), Bakhuisie (1700), Old School (1876) and the mill (1830). A local guy does a walking tour and gives the, by all accounts, fascinating history. We were sorry not to have phoned and booked him as we walked around a place that was swirling with stories.

Then we had cake and chatted to Stephanie and Marlene, who are just fabulous. The cake is moist and dark and utterly delicious.

What a surprising little treat on an autumnal Saturday morning.

Wheelchair Accessibility

Mamre Werf is not specifically geared to wheelchairs, but is completely do-able with a bit of strength on your side. A tar road leads up a gentle slope on one side, a slightly bumpy (due to roots of the gorgeous old trees)  dust road on the other. There is a ramp up to the church and a couple of little steps along the way to the entrance (more lips than steps, and not a series of them: just one at a time).

Tori Oso Coffee Shop is easy to get into and has a wide toilet (no handles or bars) which is currently used as a store room, but they’re incredibly sweet and helpful and with a little forewarning would get it sorted in a jiffy.

Sicily On My Mind

Sicily has never been on my list of ‘Places I Want To Go’. Not that it’s been on my list of ‘Places I Don’t Want To Go’, either (I don’t really have one of those), it’s just not been on my radar at all, really. I come from a travel-lovin’ family. My childhood was filled with back roads, exploring old graveyards and farmhouses, stopping to swim in rivers, look at rocks (my Dad’s a geologist) and follow paths to see where they went.

As a 16-year old, my parents took me on a Whistle Stop Tour of Europe, to open my eyes to the world outside of my Small Town, South Africa. Open my eyes it did, to the splendour of the world and the tinyness of each of us in the greater scheme of things, and the tinyness of the block of time in which we live, and the joy of seeing new places and meeting new people, trying food whose name you don’t understand and whose taste you’ve never experienced, seeing cultures that are so removed from your own, yet, in some ways, comfortingly familiar.

I loved Italy on that Whistle Stop Tour and swore that when I finished school I’d become a plumber and go and live in Venice, because Venice, surely, needs plumbers. I didn’t though, and got swept up by life and all that goes with it and went to university and, and … I didn’t stop travelling and exploring throughout, but  didn’t go to live in Venice. Italy has remained up there on my list, but not Sicily. Sicily never crossed my mind. But now, it’s very much on my mind.

Here I sit, reading my umpteenth article on Sicily, tickets on my desk from Cape Town to London, London into Comiso and two weeks later out of Catania to Paris, then to London, then back home to Cape Town. I now know all about the Mafia, towns with names like Modica, Noto and Ortigia, ancient buildings, beautiful ruins, shining beaches lapped by the Med, and I haven’t, yet, been there. But I’m going. Next month. Next. Month. To Sicily. The place that I’d never really thought about going to.

And here I get to my point: the most marvellous way that the world manages to throw ideas at you, randomly and beautifully. You see, I’d never have thought of going to Sicily, but Eddie Vedder’s going, and I’ve loved his music since my teens. And he chose to play in an ancient Greek amphitheatre that overlooks the even-more ancient Mount Etna, with her rumbling tummy, and the Med. Who could resist? Certainly not me.

So, though the culture and the history and the food and the scenery are only some of the reasons to visit Sicily (I know now, having armchair-travelled a lot in the past six weeks because, really, the planning is half the fun, isn’t it?), seeing your favourite musician play, is the cherry on the top of those reasons.  The fact that I’ll be seeing Eddie Vedder, live, TWICE, in the midst of such scenery makes me grin like a loon and squeal like a teen. Music really does broaden your horizons.

The fact that Sicily sounds particularly, let’s say … challenging, in a wheelchair doesn’t put me off one iota – I’m travelling with two of my favourite allies (credit to RHCP, and now we all have an Ear Worm), and I can’t wait.

I do love an adventure.