Friday, March 30, 2012

Platja de les Dunes

A phone call from the hardware store meant that we had to make one more trip to Empuriabrava to double check an order we made. This was the third time this week that we had been there. After a quick shop at our Friday market to stock up on fruits and veg and fortified with our morning cafe con leche, we decided to get a little smoked salmon at the butcher shop, make an open faced sandwich with red onions and capers, take some wine and go for a picnic and walk on the beach before going to the store.

We loaded up the car with our new beach chairs and picnic only to find that it was pretty full.  A two-door four-seater, eco friendly FIAT has very limited room. We knew that when we bought it but the reality of our picnic brought it home to us. Visitors beware. If you are more than one you will need to rent a car.

The trip takes half an hour through lovely countryside. Once again we passed the red poppies lining the road. Today there were fields of vegetation about a foot high with egrets feeding. You couldn't really see the egrets in the vegetation until suddenly their heads popped up. It was quite funny to watch a field of bobbing egrets. Combine harvesters were busy cutting and baling grass. We passed many fields with the bales already covered in white plastic just waiting to be picked up. The leaves on the trees were even bigger today and there were lots of white and hot pink blossoms on the fruit trees.  

Finally, we arrived at one of the San Pescador beaches. Loaded down with our new beach chairs and picnic we set off to find a spot in the dunes. We unpacked our smoked salmon sandwiches and gave them a quick squirt with the penultimate lemon from our tree. Although it was a little blowy and a little sand did get in the wine, it made our hardware trip bearable. Did I mention that it was 28 degrees celsius?

This beautiful sandy beach lined with dunes and palm trees is probably fifty metres wide in some places. There are no hotels along the beach just a few campsites that usually have restaurants attached to them. It is truly a beautiful spot. We decided to go on a new walk for us going in the direction of Empuries, where the Greek and Roman ruins are. As a bonus there was only a handful of people at the beach. We walked most of the way actually paddling in the warm surf as the waves broke. As we walked along we could see one nude fellow going in for a swim and coming out very quickly; however just before we got to his spot he decided to go for another swim and timed it to come out right in front of us. This obviously made him feel very good. And I thought the water was cold! 

As we neared Empuries, I turned to look at Seamus, who had sunk in the sand past his knees. This was a little alarming to say the least. Fortunately, he was able to get out of the sand without too much difficulty. On our way back along the beach we encountered another naked man, who was obviously happy to display that he'd just been newly waxed. Was this a gay enclave? On a birding note, we did spot a white chested cormorant who flew up out of the water with a fishing line attached to him.

After an illy coffee at the Blue Sky Cafe we arrived at the hardware store. We were well past 3:30 so we didn't have to line up outside and wait for the oom-pa-pa band music that marks their afternoon opening. With our business finished we were happy to return home looking forward to the next Sant Pescador trip, when we will take our bathing suits.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring in the Aiguamolls

Yesterday afternoon we made a trip to the Aiguamolls nature reserve to see if any chicks had been hatched. Both sides of the country roads were covered in bright red wild poppies. Spring had well and truly arrived with the twenty-five degree weather. Our first stop was the blind where you can watch the flamingoes. There were many ducks, common moorehens, purple moorehens, mallards, shelducks, swans and the flamingoes. This time the flamingoes, who spent all of their time foraging in the pond,  were much pinker than before, a sign of being healthy. There were no signs of chicks from any of the birds. We spotted a baby deer in the tall reeds but no sign of the mother.

Further down the path one of the fields had been flooded and storks, great egrets, smaller egrets, and a lone black egret were feeding in the water. The water in the Aiguamoll is regularly controlled with the irrigation channels that run throughout the reserve. All of the stork nests in the next field were occupied, some with one stork and some with two. They were making a huge noise clacking their beaks. But still no chicks.

As we crossed one of the bridges over one of the channels there were ten very large carp, about two feet long, stuck at a lock in the channel. Some were trying to make it over but it wasn't working for them.

Many trees are almost in full bloom. I'm looking forward to our next visit when I'm sure we'll see some stork chicks.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday lunch in the hills

The first day of daylight savings time and we decided to go for lunch to the Restaurant Corral de Sant Quirze at the site of the old monastery of Sant Quirze de Colera. In order to reach the restaurant you have to drive over some very rough single track roads. It's mainly locals from both sides of the border who frequent the restaurant, which is on the site of a former farmyard where shepherds used to shelter their animals as they crossed the Pyrenees. The huge, thick walls and buttresses hark back to ancient times.

Huge families come here for lunch with one table today seating twenty-three people. The restaurant isn't huge so we were lucky that we only had to wait half an hour. There is ample space outside on the porch to have a drink in the lovely sunshine and listen to the clang of the bells from the cows, several with calves, that have come down the mountain to the lower pastures.

The time passed very quickly and we were soon seated. Everything is local and cooked on a huge grill. Today I opted for the chicken, which was perhaps the tenderest and best chicken I've tasted. Seamus had the local sausage. Of course both were accompanied by the  . Although the meal was plain, it was delicious.

Afterwards we walked up through the terraces of the former abbey to the font. After all the food and the warm temperatures it was asking too much to walk too far. We sat down and admired the view over the restaurant and the abbey before returning to the car for the short trip home.

Memories of Sicily

The people we met in Sicily were incredibly friendly. In fact on one occasion when we asked at a gas station where a store was the attendant jumped in his car and had us follow him. In Trapani, when we were on foot and asked about a shop, a grizzled old man in the tobacconists had us follow him for at least a kilometre to find our destination.

I did see a handing over of money in one restaurant. Mafioso? Perhaps.

Sicily has the best coffee I've ever tasted. The shots of espresso, which fill only half an espresso cup are full bodied and delicious. The bars where you sit and enjoy your coffee were often pasticcerias selling the most wonderful pastries and marzipan as well as gelato. How civilised! I miss them already.

The Food
The fresh fish: the sea-bass, sea bream, swordfish, tuna, mussels, sepia, cuttlefish, shrimps and squid to name a few were always cooked to perfection. The homemade pasta with fish was sublime. The use of almonds, pine nuts and pistachios with fish, pasta or in risottos was perfect. The little desserts, the pastry, the homemade gelato and the marzipan were heavenly.

The Driving
How can people who are so nice become so angry and aggressive behind the wheel? Gas prices one day reached 190€ a litre.

The Language
Millions speaks the Sicilian dialect, which has variations throughout Sicily but it is the same Sicilian spoken by immigrants to North and South America. It really is a romance language that has been influenced by Greek, Latin, Norman French, Aragonese, Arabic, Old Provencal, Catalan, Spanish and Italian. thank goodness everyone we encountered spoke Italian because when we listened to the Sicilian dialect we couldn't pick up a word of it.

The History
The ancient ruins from Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Arab and Spanish were always interesting and informative. You could spend a lifetime in Sicily studying the history, architecture and art either at the ruins or the museums or churches like St. Lucia in Siracusa with the giant Caravaggio altarpiece "The Burial of St.Lucy."

Mount Etna
Snowcapped Mount Etna looms over eastern Sicily. It is fascinating to watch the vents steaming and in our case spewing ash high in the sky.

The Sea, The Mountains, The Sunshine, The Flowers
Mostly, we travelled along the coast so we could always see the lovely blue, clear Mediterranean. The rugged mountains with their carpets of yellow flowers were beautiful. The constant sunshine, the gardens in bloom and even some wild deep red wild poppies that we spotted on the last day made for a wonderful holiday.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A day in Trapani and Elice

Our first full day in Sicily. After breakfast we decided to retrace our steps by walking around the pedestrian only, old part of Trapani. Daylight, but once again the very elegant shops were shut. Monday. Then it was off to Erice in the car and what a ride that was. The rules of the road are quite often only guidelines to Italians but I must say in several visits to all parts of Italy, I have never seen anything like it. Cars would come lunging out of side streets challenging your right of way and most often just ignoring it. This was made all the more hairy by vendors selling lovely artichokes, cauliflowers, watermelons and seafoods out of the back of their trucks, then the really slow three-wheeler 'apes' screeching very slowly along the road.

Finally, we reached our destination, the funicular to the medieval hill town, Erice. Once parked we noticed men working on the cables to the funicular. Closed until the end of March. However, we did have a wonderful drive up the twisting road past fields of yellow and orange spring flowers carpeting the hillside. Once we arrived we visited a lovely pasticceria and bought figs wrapped in pastry and some little marzipan treats. I consider myself a connoisseur of marzipan and this is the best I have ever tasted. Every kind of marzipan fruit was on display in bright colours as well as marzipan resembling pasta and even sausage sandwiches. We wondered around the maze of cobblestoned streets passing many of the sixty churches. Erice towers over western Sicily at 750 metres above sea level. As we approached the castle, the wind whipped up and clouds whizzed by but with this came a cold blast. We quickly admired the views over Trapani before beating a hasty retreat to the car.

Back in town we had sea bream and swordfish for lunch before driving to the port, where most of the fishing fleet was tied up five abreast. As we were walking around we noticed a few dogs lying around. Suddenly, a car they knew drew up and for some reason we were surrounded by these dogs barking viciously at us. One actually tried to nip Seamus. We kept going and eventually they left and visited their friend but it was a bit disconcerting. Tonight we went on a WiFi search to no avail. However, the shops were now open and the streets filled with people. Dinner was poached branzino or sea-bass in wine with parsley and garlic and a selection of calamari, crayfish and baby squid for Seamus. Once again we started with caponata. So far I think the meals back in our little corner of Spain are as good and are certainly cheaper but the Sicilian pastries and the marzipan are bellissimo!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Favignana Island

We left Castellammare with the stark backdrop of the sheer mountain rising right up behind it and drove towards Trapani. The mountains gradually became rolling hills with vineyards, olive groves, lemon, orange and almond orchards and fields with market garden crops for local markets. We had to slow down once as a shepherd herded his long-haired sheep up the side of the road beside us.

Once settled in Trapani, we decided to take the hydrofoil over to Favignana, the largest of the three Egadi Islands. The international highpoint for the islands came when Catulus defeated the Carthaginian fleet and Sicily became part of the Roman Empire. All the usual suspects have been here, the Saracens, Normans and Bourbons. As you approach the island and look up you see towering over the island the fort built originally by the Saracens as a lookout.

After the short twenty-five minute trip we went off in search of lunch. On the way we passed the now defunct tuna packing plants that were owned by the Florio family, who bought the three islands in the late 1800s. We found a plain little restaurant on one of the squares, which served lovely food. Since Favignana is a seaport we both had grilled swordfish, tuna and 'melt in your mouth' shrimps for me and calamari for Seamus. The meal was excellent.

We walked down some very narrow streets, with rusty old bicycles sitting outside some houses. It became apparent that bicycles were a common mode of transportation. In front of us was the crystal clear sea with an adjacent promenade. Looking over the seawall we could see where the islanders had carved out much of the rock that lined the shore. Much of this was used in walls, which were everywhere. Some you could see had been used for building houses or the two-storey blue and white apartments that we saw everywhere. As we started walking inland we could see more remnants of the tufo mining, the rocks having been cut out of the ground and either used or shipped off to other parts of Sicily. Most of these mini quarries are now overgrown with a profusion of prickly pears, palms, wild fennel, olive, lemon and orange trees. These strange and lovely sunken gardens were often overlooked by groups of houses or apartments.

As we headed down the narrow streets towards the port, we heard a man with a beautiful voice singing about a lost love. As we got closer we could see the eighty-year-old or more leaning out of his window. After exchanging "Buona seras" with us he went back to his love song.

Back in the port once again we watched people buying freshly caught, tiny, skinny, long swordfish for their dinner. What little we saw of the island during our brief visit, we found enchanting; if it wasn't already the last day of our trip we would definitely have spent more time on Favignana. Our hydrofoil arrived and after a short but noisy trip with workers returning home to Trapani, we disembarked.

Tonight, down a side street, we found a lovely authentic pizza restaurant that made pizza just like the owner's nonna. The plastic glasses took nothing away from the lovely melt-in-your-mouth pizza. The walls had old family pictures and some very dusty, old bottles of wine on shelves. It was a treat to eat there with all the locals.

Tomorrow we return home, and will post the first few days of our trip and our pictures. I hope you've enjoyed travelling with us.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cefalu to Castellammare

What a surprise we got this morning when we opened up our drapes to see a huge balcony facing out to the sea. We arrived at our hotel in complete darkness so this was a pleasant surprise. After breakfast on the terrace in the very warm sunshine, we headed in to Cefalu to see it in daylight. The tiny, narrow streets are charming with all the balconies, many with laundry hanging and some with lots of flower pots. After a lovely cappuccino, we strolled our way through the streets with lots of lovely little shops selling ceramics and food and wine from Sicily. We visited the old Norman church built in the 1100s, which has a very famous ceramic of Christ above the altar. Back in the sunshine we headed towards the car parked along the beachfront and lo and behold there were a few people in swimming with many more sunning themselves.

Today we took the autostrada past very dramatic scenery as the mountains come right up from the sea. Some were terraced for olives and vines but most of the time the mountains were too steep for any cultivation. On the sea side of the road were lots of prickly pear cacti and orange and lemon orchards. When I was in elementary school I had Quink Ink for my fountain pen in Mediterranean Blue and today that was exactly the colour of the sea..

We passed Palermo with it's huge high rise apartments and traffic congestion and finally arrived in Castellammare, a little fishing town, where we had huge prawns and grilled local fish for lunch. We couldn't decide where to stay and drove up the coast a bit but didn't like the hotel there. Then we drove down the coast and the same thing. I'm not big on the smell of mildew. After following signs for hotels that petered out and went nowhere and after becoming very frustrated we are back in Castellammare. Some days are just like that. However, the view from our room over the bay is lovely.

Tonight we went to a new very modern restaurant on the front. I had nero de seppia topped with a little light shrimp mousse. The rice was really black and strong and the pieces of cuttlefish were really tasty. Seamus had couscous cooked with a little ground pistachio and maybe lemon and mint topped with julienned onion, eggplant and zucchini, with a pistachio pesto on the side. The taste was amazing. For dessert Seamus had a lemon pear sorbet that was a bit runny and very, very tart. Delicious. This is the second bottle of Nero d'Avola, a Sicilian wine, that we've had. It comes with a glass stopper instead of a cork. We\'ve saved the stoppers to try in wine bottles when we get home.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mount Etna puts on a show

We got off to an early start on another bright sunny day. As we left the city of Siracusa we passed a couple of kilometres of cars, many double parked. There were several flower stalls with lots of irises, canna lilies, tiger lilies, freesias and roses. Our first thought was a Sunday market but it was friends and family visiting a huge cemetery.

Off in the distance we could see the snow capped Mount Etna, which stands currently at 3329 metres high and is more than twice the size of Mount Vesuvius. There was a large dark cloud above the mountain that became fluffier at the top and then spread out for miles. As we moved even closer there was a huge, wide plume of dark smoke and ash shooting into the sky. Later we found out that it was a seven-kilometre high plume, and that lava was sent down into the uninhabited Valley del Bove. It was an amazing sight. We could also see two other vents shooting white steam into the sky. As we travelled around the mountain the vent spewing ash stopped for a while and then started up again. Finally, it was over and there were three areas of white steam vents. Of course at the time we didn't realise that we were seeing something extra special.

We travelled west around the volcano Where there were a few olive trees, stone pines, birch and oak trees scattered about an inhospitable landscape that was covered with volcanic rocks. Eventually, we arrived in Bronte, the Greek name for thunder, and stopped at a bar-pasticerria for coffee and a small cannelloni with pistachios. Heavenly! Bronte is the pistachio capital of Italy. We went in search of a place selling all things pistachio but it was shut. We followed this street, which was in an industrial area, until it brought us to the edge of a huge lava field. We followed a path through the dark brown rocks, large and small. You could plainly see how the molten lava piled up on itself Like swirls of brown whipping cream. I picked up a small rock, which was surprisingly heavy. It was as if we were on the moon. All this with the backdrop of Etna steaming away. We think Bronte has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once over the years; we certainly didn't see any old buildings.

As we left Bronte we did look for Nelson's castle but couldn't find it. Ferdinand III gave Admiral Nelson the title of Duke of Bronte, and estates that went along with it as part of his reward for helping put down an uprising in Naples. Now the countryside became much greener. Still the ferns of the wild fennel lined the road but now there were many olive groves, vineyards, almond trees in bloom and pistachio trees. There were still volcanic rocks in the fields but most had been cleared.

Our drive through the Nebrodi mountains was quite lovely. As we drove higher and higher snow was still lying in the woods by the road. Then all of a sudden each side of the road was piled with snow and the piles eventually grew to a metre and a half high. We were hopeful that we would find lunch and luckily out in the middle of nowhere was Muta, a tiny village with a hotel and restaurant. It was a good sign that a few Italian families were already eating when we arrived. We had some vino de casa, red, which I expect was homemade. Excellent. We ordered two pastas. One sauce was made with pistachios while the other was made with meat from small black pig common to the area. The pistachio pasta was one of the most amazing things I have ever tasted and I will be trying to make it when we return home. The small black pig, which was like wild boar, needed a bit more meat in it. It was still very good. Horse meat with mushrooms and tomatoes pasta was also on the menu but neither of us was tempted! Then I had pork, which was a plate of pieces of pork, slow cooked. I ate one piece but it was too much. Seamus had a mixed grill of sausage, lamb, pork and a thick, really thick, slab of bacon. He ate bits and pieces of his. Again too much. Finally, we finished with a small piece of very moist pistachio cake topped with pistachios. Mmmmmmmm good. As we left the restaurant some people came back from snowshoeing. I was very tempted to stay overnight and go snowshoeing but we decided to keep going.

As we drove down the mountain the road was wet with the melting snow. Soon we were out of the mountains and driving along the rugged north coast towards Cefalu. It was a beautiful drive with the water on one side and olive trees and vineyards on the other.

As the sun was going down we arrived in Cefalu and followed signs to the waterfront. Very quickly we found ourselves in a tangle of narrow streets filled with masses of people. We seemed to be in a pedestrian zone. We turned up some streets to get out of this mess and followed a narrow street barely squeezing by parked cars and motorbikes only to end up in a dead end with no way to turn around. There was only one thing to do, reverse up the entire150 metres back past those same vehicles on one side and the widow ledges, drain pipes and door steps on the other. Try it sometime! One lady leaned out her window to see what was going on. At that moment the driver side car window was exactly opposite this window and about three inches away so Seamus and this lady were able to share a comradely moment together. The lady offered what she presumably thought was helpful advice, but more importantly, there was something encouraging in her expression and Seamus says he took strength from that. In any case, after this hopefully never to be repeated hell, we extracted ourselves from the lane and got the car turned. Of course that only meant that we had to retrace our steps through the throngs of pedestrians, who fortunately were very understanding. Final result: no injured pedestrians, no scrapes to any vehicles, and only one very bad Italian swear word.

We are now recovering in a very nice hotel on the edge of town. Armed with new directions, we will attempt to visit Cefalu tomorrow.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Archimedes lived here

Any floating object replaces it's own weight of fluid. Who's treatise is this? Correct, Archimedes of Syracuse. Archimedes is the favourite son of Siracusa and greatest mathematician of antiquity, who was killed in the Roman siege of Siracusa despite orders to the contrary. This is your Siracusa history lesson of the day.

This morning we visited the market and what a market it is. The fresh fruit and vegetables were piled up high on the stalls: oranges, lemons, strawberries, the largest fennel imaginable, tomatoes, zucchini, apples and lovely purple eggplants. This is market gardening country and it was all on display today. The fresh fish, the sea bream, sea bass, little fishes, cuttlefish, octopus, swordfish, tuna, squid looked like they had just come out of the water. Since we want to make pasta with sea urchins, we stopped and watched a man cut the spiny urchins with a special tool and then scoop the insides out ready for sale. Fascinating. It was a real treat walking through this market.

We wandered about the town, which was incredibly busy and finally stopped at a restaurant outside, overlooking the sea. Soon after we arrived a group of twenty-two Italians arrived for lunch and what a lunch it was. They started with plates of mussels, followed by caponata, then some small scampi, then frittata with seafood, then a plate of fried calamari, octopus, small fishes, and grilled shrimp. Then out came a giant orata or sea bream, which the waiter duly presented to the older gentleman, who was obviously the head of this group. We watched the waiter debone the fish and dish up the twenty-two plates with just a little to spare. We heard the man in charge say he didn't like or want pasta at this kind of meal. I'm not sure what came next as our lunch was long over. It was an odd group, not a family, with several people of the same age. The woman were very dressed up, no jeans as would be usual. Everyone was wearing lovely shoes. The men had on almost desert boots in brown or blue and the ladies four inch heels. We wondered if they all came from a shoe shop. I'm sure they didn't and what they did or why they were there will have to remain a mystery but it was very entertaining watching them.

Tonight we went back to the Temple of Apollo to see the play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Pirandello, an Italian playwright and Nobel prize winning author, who grew up in Sicily. Once again we were in the throngs above the actual theatre and it was difficult to follow the play but what we saw we enjoyed. Then we joined the town's people for passegiata on the main street. Tonight everyone was out walking.

Tomorrow we are looking forward to visiting Mount Etna, which we have seen looming in the distance for the last few days.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Museum day in Siricusa

Today was spent exploring Siracusa. After our drive yesterday, we were happy to walk everywhere today, but first of all we needed to find an ATM. The first machine said that my card wasn't equipped to do international transactions. The second and third machines wouldn't work either and one was the Bank of Sicily. Finally, we found a bank that would take our cards and we were back in business.

Our first stop was the Archeological Museum, which contains an enormous number of exhibits from all over the Siracusa area. It is divided into sections with the first part looking at the geology of Sicily and the prehistoric cultures; the second part is given over to the Greek colonies and the Landolina Venus and freizes from the Temple of Apollo and finally statues, mosaics and pottery from the Roman times. It is quite interesting to see how all the pieces of pottery have been put together like jigsaw puzzles. The giant funerary pottery is most impressive. Much of the pottery isn't really too dissimilar from our clay pottery today. The museum is most impressive if somewhat overwhelming.

Then we walked a bit further up the road to visit the Greek theatre, which dates from 500 BC and could hold up to 15,000 people and was one of the largest ever built. Plays are still performed here each summer. Behind the theatre are the remains of the old stone quarries in what is now a lemon orchard. Of most interest is "the Ear of Diosynius", a twenty metre high arch that tapers at the top and extends 65 metres in to a very dark cave. Apparently it was named by Caravaggio in the early 1600s.

The nearby Roman amphitheatre is one of the largest anywhere and is still in good repair. It was used for the typical Roman entertainment with wild animals and gladiators. It is said that the large rectangular hole in the centre was used to drain the blood.

After a pizza and a mandorola or almond gelato we staggered back to the hotel. I had a swim and met some very interesting ladies, two from Russia and one from Romania, who had moved here and now have Sicilian husbands. I didn't want to ask what they did when they came here but we did have a very entertaining conversation.

Tonight we visited the Temple of Apollo built in the early sixth century BC to listen to a concert about the history of Siracusa. The temple has quite a magnificent setting in the middle of Ortigia, which adjoins Siricusa, and is where we are staying. The local symphony orchestra, a choir and a lady relating the history were all part of the concert. We were standing in the square above watching but we eventually decided to move on; it was getting chilly and the music wasn't to our taste.

Tomorrow we are looking forward to exploring more of Ortigia.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Valley of the Temples

This morning we drove a few kilometres up the road from our seaside town, San Leone to the Valley of the Temples, where the ruins of eight Greek Temples built between 510 and 430 BC lie. They are very imposing sitting high over the countryside near Agrigento. The settlers came from Rhodes and Crete to cultivate olives, grapes and cereals. In its heyday Agrigento became one of the most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean. Although some of the temples are intact and quite beautiful many of them have fallen into huge piles  of gigantic rocks and pillars. It was an amazing feat that the Greeks moved all these large rocks from the quarries to build the temples.

I was sitting admiring one of the temples, when some Italian school kids from Bari started talking to me and asking where I was from. When I said Canada they were quite excited because one of their schoolmates came from Canada and they set off to find him so we could have a chat. It turns out he was on exchange for a year from Newfoundland.

After we had toured around we stopped at a bar in the middle of the site where we had freshly squeezed blood orange juice and for Seamus a pistachio gelato and for me a mandoralo gelato, which is made from almonds and naturally tastes like marzipan. It is definitely the gelato of the gods.

We stopped to look at the necropolis, which was just outside the walls. You could quite clearly see where the bodies had been interred. On the way back to the car I was wondering if the temple up ahead had been used in the Inspector Montalbano TV series, when I managed to trip and take a flyer on to the hard path. No harm done but you have to be sure footed around these ancient ruins.

We then drove to Porto Empodocole, eight kilometres along the coast. This is where Andrea Camilleri, who is now 87, was born and where he still spends the summers. He is the author of the Inspector Montalbano novels, which take place in Viagata, a mythical city based on his home town. The town has a hydro plant on the front and has many quite ugly buildings. Where Montalbano's home should have been was very run down; although there were some nicer places up the beach. We looked for a restaurant he frequented but couldn't find it so settled for some risotto marinara and tagliattelle with shrimp and a salad for lunch.

Back in San Leone we drove up to the sandy beaches to go for a walk but not before going in a really funky bar right on the water, with a number of college students drinking, sunning and playing cards. There was really great jazz and blues playing. What a great coffee spot.

Tomorrow we will head to Siracusa for our next stay.

From Trapani to Marsala and Agrigento

It was back to the cellular phone store as our new sim card wouldn't activate. Apparently, it was defective. With a new card that worked we set off on our day's travels. After being hooted at for stopping at a stop sign we passed Trapani's salt flats with huge mounds of salt set out to dry. In the distance some lovely pink flamingoes were feeding in one of the shallow salt ponds.

Our first stop of the day was in Marsala, where we enjoyed some Marsala wine and a little caramel pastry. After a brief walk around the historical part of town, we stopped to admire Garibaldi's gate before returning to the car. Garibaldi, who was instrumental in the unification of Italy, lived in Sicily for many years. We travelled through some lovely countryside, olive groves, vineyards, fields of artichokes, cauliflowers, swiss chard, spinach and onions as well as fields of the yellow flowers we saw yesterday. I think they might be a kind of forget-me-not.

Finally, we arrived at Selinunte, an old Greek city with temples, an acropolis and agora, lying in dignified ruins. 100,000 Carthaginian troops captured the town after a nine-day siege in 409 BC. There were some attempts to rebuild the city a few hundred years later. Today the 2000-year-old ruins tower over the Mediterranean. It must have been quite a sight approaching the ancient city from the sea.

We continued our drive through bucolic countryside with lots more vineyards and olive groves until finally we reached Agrigento, our next stop. We passed the town where Andrea Camilleri, who writes the Inspector Montalbano novels lives. Because of our internet difficulties I had been unable to book a hotel in this area and the places we wanted to stay were booked up. After a fruitless search in the dark for a B and B down a track that didn't seem to exist, we decided to leave the madness of the city of Agrigento, with it's high density housing and head to San Leone, by the sea, where we found a very nice, quiet hotel. All that was available was a twin-bedded room but after explaining that it was "l'anniversario io e mio marito", they found us a room and later delivered some champagne. Tomorrow the ruins.

We depart for Sicily

Sunday morning and our last coffee in the village before our little trip to Sicily. With the weather a warm 20 degrees at eleven o'clock and the wind blowing, the wind surfers were out in full force. Talk about full frontal nudity, it's rife as the surfers strip right off while facing the oncoming traffic. Todgers, todgers everywhere.

After a much speedier trip than expected we arrived at Girona airport well ahead of our departure time. This was our first Ryanair flight and we weren't quite sure what to expect but we were pleasantly surprised: check in was a breeze, the flight left on time and even arrived in Trapani twenty minutes ahead of schedule.

Our Hertz check-in was speedy but unfortunately the rep hadn't noted that the car had a dent in the back of it. A quick stop back at the counter and we were ready to go. Tonight we are staying at a B and B in Trapani in a very old building with a lovely view of the ferries, which sail to Tunisia, Sardinia and the Egadi Islands.

We abandoned our luggage to go in search of dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant recommended to us was closed and we settled for another nearby. We started with delicious caponata, cooked eggplant, zucchini, and almonds in a sauce. It was delicious. Seamus had grilled swordfish and I had swordfish topped with fresh tomatoes, onions and capers. Many people were still out walking around town so we decided to go for our own passeggiata. Trapani lies on an isthmus so one side of town has the port and the other the beaches. We passed many buildings with beautiful facades and several churches, almost one after the other. We even passed a church of purgatory. Sounds interesting. Window shopping in all the high-end shops was quite enjoyable. In a few of the alcoves that were entrances to the shops lay some quite big sleeping dogs. I think that they were there to guard the shops and I'm sure that if we went by tomorrow night they would be there again. Finally, we stopped for a perfect illy espresso and a baby shortcrust pastry with apricot jam inside. Mmmmmm. There were little desserts including meringues, lovely little tarts and cakes of every colour on display.

When we reached the beach side of town we started walking along the stone promenade with the beach on one side and lit buildings on the other. The shadows from the lighting made the whole thing very spooky and as the wind was coming up we decided to return to our hotel. How different from Spain, where cars always stop at a crosswalk for you. This is Italy and not one car stopped.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sant Onofre

This afternoon we drove up the mountain behind us, dodging a red legged partridge in the middle of the road, past the looming monastery of St Pere de Rodas to Mas Ventos. This is an old ruin of a farmhouse with one side of it renovated to provide a huge barbecue in a covered over space. Picnic tables spread are out among the rocks, with a spectacular view over the Bay of Roses.

From here we followed a well defined, sandy path that goes around the side of the mountain to the church of St. Onofre.  The track is easy to follow and is not too rugged. It is a lovely walk high up on the mountain, approximately six hundred metres, with the mountains and the sea below and huge rocky outcrops interspersed with pine trees, rosemary and flowering juniper above.

 Finally, passing the remnants of an old metal track that provided some kind of transportation up to the church, we reached the dazzling little white church, St. Onofre, built in the 1600s. A previous church was on the site in the 1300s. St.Onofre was the church for the people of  Palau Saverdera, which lies directly below. From the lookout you have wonderful views of Roses, Empuriabrava, the Aiguamolls and the whole Emporda plain, all the places we visit. Unfortunately the church is not open but there is a festival held here in May. There are some lovely, very old black and white pictures depicting locals dancing outside the church. If you walk down to the church gardens and look back up to St. Onofre you appreciate how difficult it must have been to build the church on the huge rocky outcrop.

We are already planning our next trip here but we will take a different route and climb the path from Palau Saverdera to St.Onofre along the path to the Mas and back. This will be more challenging.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Force seven but not from Navarone

Today saw the highest winds  so far in El Port de la Selva, Force seven on the Beaufort scale. Once again all the fishing boats were tied up. When we had our coffee at the Nautica this morning, we watched the wind whip up the water in several directions all at once. In fact when we parked the car the spray was flying up over a nearby building and you could feel it spritzing your face.

We are tired of the tramuntana winds even though everyone assures us that they have never seen anything like it. Today's winds were so intense that we just had to go wave watching once more. We drove to the parking lot for the nearby lighthouse but even before we got out of the car, which was shaking with the pummeling it was getting from the wind, we knew that this might have been a mistake. Finally out of the car, we were pushed down to the walkway by the wind. Fortunately, there was a fence between us and the rocks and turbulent sea right beneath us. Every so often you would have to brace yourself and hang on to the fence just to prevent a Mary Poppins episode. The waves were huge with the spray from them rising twenty metres to splash the walkway above as they drove in to the rocks.

We walked a little further up the path to a lookout. There were whitecaps as far as the eye could see and many spots where the spume travelled behind the waves in a rainbow of colours. By this time the wind was so vicious that we couldn't walk the thirty metres to the lighthouse. It was hard enough just turning back to the car. At one point I felt like a bird flying in to the wind staying in a stationary position. I was very thankful of Seamus' firm grip as we negotiated our way back to the car. The wind was so strong that I had difficulty breathing or maybe it was that I was working so hard I was out of breath by the time I got into the car.

We watched the waves for a while longer and drove in to town for a well deserved espresso. I wonder what tonight will bring with the wind and the solar flares. It should be interesting.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


With gale force winds visiting us once again we decided to visit L'Estartit, further south on the coast, where there was a chance of it being less windy. We drove through a mostly flat landscape dotted with farms. We saw many fields of  tall, skinny vines, which had rolled up nets over them. I'm not sure what they were as they were too skinny to be grape vines.

Finally, we came to the outskirts of L'Estartit, first passing some go-kart tracks and then, dotted between old mas or farms, some very ugly and charmless  tenements. Once in L'Estartit the houses, set against the backdrop of a massive rock-face, looked more like what you might expect to find in what was once a fishing village. It seems that the big housing boom that hit Spain in the 80s and 90s came here in the form of the aesthetically displeasing apartments built in a wasteland.

Here it seemed that unfinished buildings and roads were just a little more prominent than in our neighbourhood. In our village everyone, especially the businesses are fastidious about painting, cleaning, repairing and putting in new windows.

We drove along the sea front, a marina on one side and a strip of restaurants on the other. It was after two now, so time for lunch. We found a spot called Casi, Casi which we eventually entered after some comic misreading of the sign on the door. The sign had an arrow which we interpreted as meaning "entrance to the left" but after walking around the whole building found no other entrance. With a massive reapplication of our linguistic skills we determined that the sign really meant "slide the door to the left!"

But our determination paid off and we were both soon enjoying sole, baby squids and chips all for 9€. This, accompanied by half a litre of the house red, made for a very nice lunch. After lunch we explored the town a little further and eventually found ourselves at the bottom of stone steps that appeared to lead into some hillside apartments. But in fact they lead us to a cliff-top park with a beautiful view of the Medes, a group of rocky islands offshore, a protected home for many seabirds. 

I'm glad that we visited here in the winter months as this, in my book, is definitely a place to avoid in the summer. Uncontrolled growth has sadly marred a once charming fishing village.

On the way home we stopped at what looked like a store selling Reeboks only to find that it was out of business. We did pop in the Lidl supermarket next door. If you are a regular reader you will probably know by now that every supermarket will carry some items  that you can't seem to find anywhere else. This one for example had an excellent selection of frozen fruit. All supermarkets, even small ones, have aisles of wine and liquor. Perhaps that's why they don't have room for everything. After a successful shop it was home to contemplate this evening's Catalan class.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fira in Figueres

This morning it was off to Figueres to see what the Fira was all about. It had been cancelled back in January because of the terribly high winds. We headed over to the Ramblas and after our cafe con leche we crossed the road to the huge square, which was filled with lots of stalls, many with clothes on sale.

There was a wonderful smell coming from the freshly deep fried donuts, which we love but managed to forego. We did stop at the cheese stand, and after tasting several cheeses we bought some creamy roquefort, goat's cheese that you can slice and put on the top of salads, sheep's cheese covered in ash and goat's cheese coated in rosemary. There's going to be some good eating this week.

After wandering around town we went to our favourite restaurant Lizzaran, which is always incredibly busy and has a great atmosphere. There is a lovely selection of tapas along the counter; you just go up and help yourself to. The servers, who are a lot of fun, ring a cow bell and come around with fresh tapas on trays. Usually these tapas don't make it all the way around the restaurant. As well you can order from the extensive menu. Today I had grilled duck breast slices accompanied by a baked potato and Seamus had fried baby squids with patates bravas. So tasty! The meals aren't large, just a perfect size and always everything is cooked to absolute perfection. People are always talking about "the crisis" in Spain and the lack of money. The fact that Lizzaran is always busy shows what great value for money it is.

Couch odyssey ends

Today we made another trip into Empuriabrava to once again look at couches. After a trip to our Friday market to stock up on fruit and veg we set off to visit the stores before they closed for their three hour lunch break. We got one visit in but the other store closes even earlier for lunch so it was down to the sea front for a lovely mushroom and ham pizza and glass of sangria, which always puts a better light on any shopping.

With some time to kill we decided to go for a short walk, in the sunny 23 degree weather, with a warning from Seamus that the walk shouldn't involve any f#@*g flamingoes! We did drive up the Muga River to the Empuriabrava side of the Aiguamolls nature reserve and had a quick visit.  From the first blind we watched a couple of swans feeding and some moorhens skittering about on the top of the water. On the way to the second blind we noticed that some trees already had baby leaves. There were plenty of mallards nesting and lots of coots but alas, sadly for Seamus no flamingoes of any description.

Back in Empuriabrava we finally ordered the couch for our den, which is Spanish and very well made. Tomorrow we are looking forward to the Fira in Figueres

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Walking in sunshine

Since there was little wind and the temperature was a delightful 18 degrees celsius we ventured up the St. Pere de Rodes mountain to go for a walk. We decided to follow the trail towards Llanca, where we had been before, encountering the cows. This time there were no cows but plenty of evidence that they had been in the area. 

As we started down the track we discovered two dolmens, the stones that mark  neolithic burial sites. The hillsides were covered in a  beautiful sea of yellow broom. Today we were more aware of new trails that we could explore on future trips. We walked further along the  newly marked path than before heading down the mountain towards our neighbouring village, Llanca. I imagine the new markings were for a mountain biking event. Right off the trail we spotted another one of Franco's many bunkers that dot the coast. This one was more inland than others we have seen and was quite overgrown. Perhaps it was located where it was, not only to watch the sea but to monitor this rough track between the villages.

Finally, without encountering another person, we decided that the trail was becoming too narrow, rough and washed out to follow and we turned around. As our walk so far had been mostly downhill the return trip was of course mostly uphill - unfortunately!  But we were soon back at our car with minimal whining. The two hour walk had gone by quickly, and we were soon rolling back down the mountain. Literally rolling, as it sometimes amuses Seamus to see how far our little car will roll in neutral - pretty much the full 8 km trip home in this case.

Walking is a way of life in this area. Fortunately, all the walks in the mountains aren't climbs as you can choose to follow old paths that go around the mountains connecting ruined farms and villages. Even our village requires a fair bit of walking as parking is at a premium and we have been warned to leave our car at home between June and the end of September, which is high tourist season here. Already we are seeing a few more tourists in the village and can't imagine what the summer months will be like.