The first leg of our sicilian adventure this year includes a visit from my older daughter Lilli and her boyfriend Matt. We’ve agreed to meet in Palermo and then take them to some of our favourite places in Sicily. Frank and I have a couple of days’ time to do a bit more research before they arrive, so we go off to a hot spring we’ve been told about, not far from Palermo in the Trapani direction. We arrive at night to see a beautifully lit temple on the top of a hill, but no sign of a ‘Terme’. Even the next morning, with instructions from a local, it takes us a fair amount of driving up and down various lanes before we get to the place. There’s an obvious desire to keep this spot unmarked and we understand. It is beautiful. A little basin in the middle of high reeds, a few italians with mud-caked faces. Nothing like the throng of people in Saturnia/Toscana. It would not sustain many tourists. For a day, we delve into the hot waters, soaking up energy and warmth. Somehow the information that Frank is a masseur gets out and soon he has a veritable queue of Italian men wanting treatment for their various ailments, right there in the hot spring!
This is definitely a place to take Lilli and Matt to in a few days!
We don’t want to go too far away from Palermo and the airport, so we park overnight in a little town called Terrasini. During a quick trip into town on our bikes that evening, we get the impression that it’s quite a funky little town. There are the most extraordinary sculptures and fountains dotted about, and right in the middle there is a “Café Zero Kilometri”. Next morning, we go there to do some work that requires internet and to find out about the town. We are the first ones in there at 9am, but soon the café fills up with others who have come to do some work on their computers or to meet people to discuss things. It is a veritable hub of activities and meetings, many of them of a political nature, it seems. We meet a Czech woman who lives and works in Terrasini and who puts us in touch with various artists throughout the day. We are introduced to Pino Manzella, a painter who seems to be a focal point of the town, and we are very impressed by a collaborative project which resulted in a travelling exhibition of their work, as well as a book where his paintings on the right hand page are matched by photos on the left hand page, taken by ASADIN, a collective of about 20 photographers. I wish I could procure a link but limited access to the internet has not let me fin anything yet. The book/exhibition is called Sicilie – L’identità Molteplice
Across the years, Manzella went in search of old documents, written on parchment paper, which he uses to paint on. The book states that ‘Sicily, with its excess of light and shadows in its history, is the obsessive centre of his artistic research’. It is very interesting, bringing together all that is incredibly beautiful about Sicily as well as its intractable problems. The juxtaposition of painting and photos engages the mind and heart of the viewer and shows the love the artists have for their homeland.
We pass by the café several times that day and each time, we see people engaged in animated conversation, probably hatching another cultural project. It is great to see creativity at work!
Photos for this chapter are yet to come…
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Our next Etappe leads from the South-Western corner of France all the way across to the east and into Italy, to catch a boat in Genova on the 29th December. As we are practically passing the Luberon, we drop in on Merindol and visit Pierre and Jacqueline, catch up with village news, and spend a day with Véronique and her partner. The two of them are real foodies and we have the pleasure of tasting many of their home made things, such as paté de magret de canard, purée thon a l’aïoli, bread, preserved olives and tapenade, quince cheese and various hand-picked teas. For some of them, Véronique kindly shares her recipe too, so we travel on enriched by food and stories and relaxed from a massage exchange.
The ligurian coast is a great disappointment – so built up there hardly seems a place for us to stop, let alone spend the night! I guess if one does this bit by train, one would have a different experience, as some of the older towns seem to have a lovely historic centre, but we can’t find anywhere to park and have a look around. After a long search, we find a place where we can reverse Emma into a driveway that ends on the beach. We take out our bbq and cook a couple of fish by the sea. All along the coast here, the beach seems to be covered in several metres of plant debris washed up by the sea. I wonder how they get rid of this in time for the tourist season.
Even in Genova, parking comes at a high premium, at 30 Euros for half a day, unsupervised. We decide to drive out into the mountains instead and find a lovely roadside restaurant about 10km out of Genova, where we can park for free and spend our money on food instead. At sundown, we roll back down the hill to the harbour and embark in time for our departure at 11pm.
This feels like the end of one chapter and the beginning of another… we got from the UK down to Genova, 1800 km in one month which, for us, is a lot of driving. We hope that once we arrive in Sicily, we will spend less time driving and more time experiencing the places and people we visit. The boat is the ideal place to stop and do nothing for a day.
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In the evening of December 23rd, we reach the south coast of France. We find a road that ends in a sandy beach and after a short walk to greet the sea, we bed down for the night.
What better way to spend the morning of Christmas eve than going for a swim? The sun is out at 8am and we have a huge sandy beach all to ourselves. The water is pretty cold, really refreshing and invigorating. After the swim, we spend an hour doing our favourite things – Frank does some cooking and I take my violin out to the shore and play to the sun and the waves. Those irish tunes really go well with the sound of waves lapping on the shore and the wind carrying the notes away.
I notice people on the beach listening to me from afar. After a while a man approaches me. It’s wonderful that you play for free for the people on the beach he says. I tell him I’m playing more for the elements, for the sun and the sea, than for the people. He’s undeterred. Hearing you made me start to sing to the sea. I know some Corsican songs and he proceeds to sing to me. But then suddenly it seems he remembers that really he’s a shy person, so he turns around and says, well, I need to go now, bye-bye. I want to invite him to the van and let him hear our CD of Corsican songs, but he’s gone as fast as he arrived, leaving me in mid-sentence. Admittedly, my French is still lacking complete fluency, so maybe he thought I’d finished.
After a leisurely breakfast, we tootle on eastwards along the coast. Soon we enter the Camargue with its tell-tale signs of rice paddies, black bulls and white horses. This is such an amazing landscape and the wide horizons make for an incredible light. We drive all the way down to its southermost point, Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It’s the day of Christmas eve and we take our bicycles and ride along the long dam that separates the mudflats from the beach, looking out for flamingos, herons, cranes and many other smaller but equally exciting birds.
The landscape is wide open, windswept and beautiful and the deep silence is only broken by the flutey calls of the many birds wading in the mudflats.. The sun shines hard and warms us up until it drops in a spectacle of flaming colours and a bitterly cold wind sets in that pushes us back to the village.
We take a stroll around the village to see if anything is going on tonight and we are told that there’ll be a nativity scene outside the church at 10.30pm, before the midnight mass, where people will wear traditional costumes and play local folk music.
We go back to Emma, have a delicious dinner and a quick rest before wrapping up extra warm to go and watch the performance.
We were not prepared for this extraordinary spectacle. To start with, all animals are real. The ox is played by a cow but everything else is absolutely spot on. The donkey is tied to a heavy block of concrete though, discreetly hidden in a bale of hay, just in case it is suddenly fed up with standing by the manger and decides to go home. There’s a young couple with their real baby playing the holy family, and the three wise men are exchanged for three wise women, two of them representing the patron saints of the village.
This is a serious event and the characters are predominantly adult, as is the audience, consisting mainly of locals too. A simple script is read out via microphone and the characters respond by creating tableaus to support the story. Baby Jesus doesn’t like being put in the crib right under the ‘Oxen’s’ muzzle, but that’s how the story goes and there he’ll stay until the next tableau, whether he bawls his head off or not. To be fair, Mary does keep half an eye on the ‘Ox’ who seems bent on licking the baby back to sleep. It wouldn’t do if baby Jesus was nibbled, so stagehands discreetly move around in their very unconspicuous leather bikers outfits with armfuls of hay to distract the lowing cattle.
The cue for the sheep brings in some more commotion, as mother sheep does not want to be separated from her two lambs, so she barges everyone in her way and finally jumps into the manger, disappearing front left.
At the end of the play the priest arrives – hauling us back from the birth of the godchild to today’s formalised religion. His speech is interspersed with the local dialect, Provençal, and at the he end invites everyone to come into the church. To our surprise, this also includes the animals and so for the first time, I see a donkey in the middle of a church rammed full with members of the congregation. The little lambs are dragged along rather unceremoniously by their front legs – I guess that’s how newborn lambs are carried, but it looks rather painful – and worried mum is galloping behind.
The nativity scene carries on inside the church with various donations being made, including the largest, most beautiful fish caught that day, and the church resounds to prayers for the sea to be rich in fish next year and to have good harvests on the land. There is a seriousness in the way all the adults come and genuflect in front of this baby, dropping off livestock, bread and fish, a direct and heartfelt emotional connection to the Christmas messsage like I haven’t seen or felt in many years.
For every plea made on behalf of the local community, there is also a reminder to include in our thoughts those who are without shelter, who have lost their families, who don’t have enough to eat and are, because of war or famine, adrift in a hostile world. Again and again we hear the word ‘Syrians’ in the prayers.
Long after midnight, Frank and I cycle back home – both amused and deeply touched by what we’d experienced.
For more photos of this chapter, including a whole series of amazing sunset photos, click here
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Here is a photoalbum of a few photos we took in Saint Céré and in Carcassone. Saint Céré was the home of Jean Lurçat, an artist and friend of Frank’s father’s, famous for his extraordinary tapestries and ceramics.
The old part of Carcassonne is impressive upon approaching it. Unfortunately it has fallen prey to excess tourism, so we didn’t spend much time there.
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We are on a bit of a mission to get down south, so we fit in a day of driving. Emma is purring up and down hills along the very straight Routes Nationales of the french countryside, the sky is a deep blue and Frank and I exchange stories from the past as we are heading towards the Charentes where Jim and Jess live, Frank’s friends who we met on the boat. There is a LOT of space inside France, miles and miles of countryside, roads going up and down, gently undulating from one town to another. We experience three sunsets in short succession and arrive at Jim & Jess’s just as the last light fades.
The next morning, we explore the place. They have a fantasic dance studio with a sprung floor and a lovely garden with a stream in it. There’s some hedge and tree cutting going on, so I join over the next few days. It’s great to get physical, wield the saw and drag large piles of branches to the big bonfire pile.
Jess’s sister is also around, and her husband – they recently bought a house nearby too, and together they set out to hunt for furniture and fittings. We reconvene in the evenings to share food and stories. Frank and Jess make some fantastic meals and a lot of stories are shared in front of a large open fire.
After a few days, we drive on, our next stopping place being Helmut’s (my first boyfriend), who lives with his lovely wife Emma in the Corrèze where he bought an old dilapidated house about 15 years ago which he painstakingly restored – or shall I say is restoring, as it still an ongoing project. The nights are cold, putting a thin layer of ice on the pond outside the house and making for beautiful frosty sunrises. Here too, we spend time just hanging out and catching up with each other’s news and delving into family memories.
On we go, to visit some friends of Bini’s (our current Mango head-chef), a Dutchman called D.K. and his English wife Angie, who run Puissentut, a chateau near Toulouse that offers many courses and events, from weddings to healing retreats for cancer patients. They bought the chateau as a ruin with not so much as a roof on it and completely restored it in the space of 2 years! D.K. tells us that at age 19 he had a vision quest at which he formulated his life and about 25 years later he has realized it. This included many trips to Indonesia and gathering an enormous amount of things with which to fit out a large place one day. Over twenty years he collected paintings, lamps, furniture etc., then sought and bought this chateau in the South of France and restored it. Every room is renovated individually and to top spec with the finest furniture and fittings. Two years after the purchase, they opened their doors to the public and with 30 events per year are pretty much fully booked throughout the year by now. Oh, and ‘incidentally’, they also have two delightful daughters who are fully integrated into the French education system and they grow their own vegetables! The amount of energy coming from these two people is unbelievable! We are very impressed, because despite a formidable schedule, they are relaxed and smiley and find time to hang out over meals.
From Puissentut, we move on towards Toulouse where we’ve agreed to meet with Tony, a friend of Frank’s from over 40 years ago when they trained as dancers at The Place in London. Tony lives in Australia and occasionally comes over to Europe to visit his daughter. He made the special journey of flying from Vienna to Toulouse to meet Frank again after all these years. We spend a few days with each other, cycling around Toulouse, looking at this beautiful city, sharing meals and many stories. Frank is very touched and honoured by Tony’s effort, spending several days of travel and crossing several countries, to reconnect.
We fell in love with Toulouse – people are friendly and relaxed, the cycling infrastructure is amazing, parking near the centre on a big island in the river is easy and free of charge, the architecture is beautiful and the sun is shining J. One day we wake up to find we have a neighbor in a blue Mercedes. Tom is a circus artist, also doing high-risk abseiling work – the type of person who climbs down skyscrapers on ropes to clean windows etc!
He has a damaged shoulder though… Frank offers him a massage, which he gratefully accepts. It must be hard for someone like him to be out of action for months on end.
We would have liked to have spent more time in Toulouse, but time is pressing a bit, with a boat to catch in Genova in about a week’s time.
There is one more friend on our itinerary, another dance connection of Frank’s from decades ago. Nelson and his partner Richard live in a little village not far from Carcassone. And when I say little, I mean the kind of village where, seeing a car park on the entrance, we decide to park there for fear of getting stuck if we drive on. We like this area of France very much, and we decide to come back this way one day with more leisure to explore.
Nelson and Richard kindly have made space in their forbidding schedule of Christmas visitors to share a meal with us, and again, we delve into stories and memories of the past. After a lovely lunch, we stroll through the village and introduce Nelson and Richard to our Emma before heading off again, to cover a few more miles before sundown.
There is a way of relating to people when they are precious and old-time friends, even when one hasn’t seen each other for a ling time. Somehow one cuts straight through to a deeper place and every conversation carries the knowledge of shared experiences. We are more likely to open up and speak about our worries and vulnerabilities too. This is a rare experience when you are travelling as generally you tend to meet people for the first time. Travelling through France like this feels like one deep long dive into our history, and while journeying, Frank and I share many deep conversations, ‘digesting’ the feelings that were brought up by every visit.
For more photos on this chapter, click here
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