Tag Archives: Europe ’17

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.

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.

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.