Category Archives: Travel & Exploring

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.

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.

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.