A Xmas in Sicily…a winter hideout

Italy, like Greece, objects to austerity. So when our flight to Italy from Ireland via London was delayed 5 hours thru national strike action in Italy, we readily agreed with Union Italia that austerity sucks…

Milan turned on a cold, grey, wet, windy welcome for us.

Duomo di Milan through window of Museum of Modern Art

Duomo di Milan through window of Museum of Modern Art

She had draped her iconic cathedral spires in scaffolding iron at least six months thick, and her streets and arcades catwalked next millenium’s design style such that even her street beggars looked embarrassed for us!

…So we were understandably excited to be booked first class couchette on a night train to Sicily when again, Union Italia’s shrill whistle blew and….only held us up two hours before we were zipping thru Italian villages on the dark side of the planet, street lights dotting all over the passing hills of twin”kle towns in their Christmas dressings. We had to be grateful for our takeaway pizza and panini that was all we had to feed the first classi-ness myth of our carriage which had me remembering more kindly my Orient Express trip on the Ghan in 1975!

Arrived in Sicily at Messina next morning as scheduled, but noting how completely austerity ruled Messina, we were not surprised at how sagely we responded to the Union cancelling our next connections – all in a good cause, plus an opportunity to meet Arancino,

Meet Arancino, stuffed rice mounds filled with your choice of goodies...

Meet Arancino, stuffed rice mounds filled with your choice of goodies…

whose acquaintance we thenceforward made much of in our Sicilian sojourno….with no further nod to austerity!

Full moon over Duomo San Georgio, Ragusa Ibla

Full moon over Duomo San Georgio, Ragusa Ibla

Over the hiccups and onwards…allora: the next morning…a fabulous breakfast in the charmed hotel garden, next door to the Duomo San Georgio in the panoramic arc of Ragusa Ibla – the magical old city of Ragusa.

 Breakfast with Ragusa  - view from the garden

Breakfast with Ragusa – view from the garden

Heaven. Michael, the owner, did everything and more required to leave us fully impressed with the warmth of Sicilian hospitality and the expectation of delightful discovery of widely-reputed good food, good wine, and good oil to come in Chiaramonte Gulfi, a hill town 17 km from Ragusa where we spent the next month at Casa Mario. It never disappointed.

Our cunning plan to foil the worst of Europe’s winter by extending Xmas in Sicily was almost complete before it snowed!…which of course leads to big appetites, very handy when it happens at a time and a place in which to be jolly…We tried the two best restaurants in Chiaramonte. Despite its Michelin status, the Majore Restaurant, is very cheap and a big Sunday lunch family favourite. With its plain décor, and its lukewarm, condescendingly helpful but efficient waiters serving albeit fine enough food, it didn’t stack up well against our experience of the

Aspic alla Dammasu and assorted antipasti

Aspic alla Dammasu and assorted antipasti

near-Michelin Dammasu, where the décor was elegant, the much more personable waiter was unarguably ‘perfetto’, the food was great, and the dessert wine complimentary – bella bonza !!!! Even though the Aspic Alla Majore – a beautifully seasoned pigs trotter jelly, clear as crystal – wins hands down on that score, perhaps while the Dammasu wait staff still strives for Michelin stars, they take nothing for granted, but indulge their guests almost to the point of intimacy, which in winter, on a small mountain, in crisp, crunchy sunlight, is almost bearable.

A sweet word on desserts – moscato firriato and amaro toffee mixed thru almond semi fredo along with small pieces of roasted almond! “Yuuummbo”. It is considered to be in poor taste (pardon pun) to mention the cost of a fine meal, but we must….. €35 for 2 3-course meals plus wine. Followed by delicious Moscato Firriato. Wouldn’tcha just love Sicily?

If I had survived driving a car in Spain, was I up for a shot at Sicilian roads? But of course! Yes. A no-brainer. Well, after two days of medically-assisted driving, the car we’d rented for a week sat safely parked outside for the duration of my medically-assisted recovery…no, we returned it early, both agreed that our preferred option for an enriched time and experience here was to engage a guide.

Vincenzo, minus moustache, overlooking the family's small olive farm, Lucca

Vincenzo, minus moustache, overlooking the family’s small olive farm, Lucca

Hey Presto! Enter Magic Man! Sicilian-born Vincenzo is a good-humoured young man with impeccable manners, great driving skills, good English, a sound knowledge of local cuisine, and loads of patience. He is also blessed with a family that is warm, charming and hospitable and his Mama, Maria, is a great cook. So off we went…

Syracuse – 2,700-year-old city, once the major power of the Mediterranean world. For our 2-day visit we stayed at Ortigia, the Old City – and enjoyed local food, including a taste of live sea urchin, and a long ramble around the Greek Theatre,

Ancient Greek Tragedies galore-y once staged here

Ancient Greek Tragedies galore-y once staged here

one of the largest ever built by the ancient Greeks who then ruled the region. Its 67 rows, divide into nine sections with eight aisles. Near the theatre are the latomìe, stone quarries, also used as prisons in ancient times. The shapes of these Latomies are very sculptural one is particularly known as the “Ear of Dionysius” for its exceptional sound carrying effects,

Inner Ear, Dionysus; Outer Ear....don't shout, he can 'ear you...

In the ear of Dionysius;….don’t shout!

one can speak in a normal whisper and it will be heard 50 meters away!!

Taormina – the first impression is dramatic seafront cliff drops with hills of equal steepness backgrounding a town made up of impossibly perched boxes – old and new dwellings sitting in niches like nesting birds. We found a beautiful hotel, Bel Soggiorno, with a steep garden looking over the sea to the surrounding islands and sweeping sideways to give us dress circle views of snow capped Mt Etna.

During our evening passagiata we found ourselves among a large crowd in Taormina’s main square, Piazza IX Aprile where, despite the beauty of the piazza, all eyes were on Etna. Yes! She was aglow! And puffing! Who knows? Maybe with pride? A fit of pique, perhaps? A little angry? Yes, she was erupting and did so for 2 hours. This was her first eruption for 2 years so we felt very privileged. Next morning, in villages downwind of the explosion, were buildings, pavements and cars spattered thickly in dark brown ash and local folk casually sweeping Etna’s latest outburst into small manageable piles.

Marzamemi – is in the deep southeast and is one of prettiest seaside villages in Sicily. Narrow streets lead into the main square and out to the the little cobblestone fishing harbour with its multi-coloured fleet of wooden boats bobbing on the turquoise sea to the south and east.


Beautiful earth

...and again, beautiful...

…and again, beautiful…water…

The village is preserved in its original state with the interiors renovated except for the tuna factory which closed years ago after global protests at the way the fish were netted and clubbed to death (Mattanza).

The lumpy streets of Catania are grouted with catshit.  I know because I tripped on a lump and torpedoed into a cement plant pot saying “Curtains!”, “Your Skull Crushed Here”.  My hands shot out, as they do, soft-landing my poor head into the cement. My head took its time to fully forgive my wayward feet and let us, all three, struggle and stumble to the hotel where Annie and I peeled off my reeking cat shit clothes while Vincenzo scuttled off to the Farmacia for dressings. Oh Catania!

Modica’s fully justified claim to fame is chocolate, one of the most famous products of the Ragusa area, still made the same way as the ancient Aztecs made it. The tradition dates back to the 16th century when the Spaniards brought over techniques they’d learned from the Mexicans. The Bonajuto family is the most internationally famous Sicilian chocolatier. We found their shop in the heart of Modica where it’s been since 1880, but two visits and multiple feasted cannoli later we were no closer to picking a favourite from the far too many flavour options.

Visit to Palermo, famed as crime capital of Europe. So our ever-watchful Vincenzo refused to open the car boot in the city in case some hungry urban hunter-gatherer glimpsed its baggage bulges! He also made sure our phones and iPad were kept out of sight around streets and markets. Fortunately we’d chosen a magnificent location in a bay with sea views just a little north west of the city for our 2-night stay, where we were safely enfolded in the rugged arms of Monte Pellagrino. In the end Palermo’s mad traffic proved the only real threat to speak of.

In Palermo we paid homage to the artist Renato Guttuso, and his painting “La Vucciria”, housed at the University of Palermo, which starred in the first episode of the 2012 BBC series Sicily Unpacked and which we aspiring traveller moles were most moved by – especially  when art critic, Andrew Graham explains the painting to his series offsider, Michelin-starred chef, Giorgio Locatelli. The painting’s fame has sky-rocketed since and, while it could be made more generally accessible, the passion of our volunteer art student escort, who clearly loved the work and detailed the socio-political factors it embodies, made our private viewing of it all the more satisfying and memorable.

Equally memorable tho less satisfying….“…anyone who hasn’t tried a spleen sandwich from Palermo in Sicily is simply missing out…” so say all the travel guides. Of course we were up for trying the famous dish of Palermo – just our bodies were sorely tested – spleen burgers:pane con la milza” to the initiated/devoted.

Palmerten delicacy: Spleen Burger

Palmerten delicacy: Spleen Burger

Ugh! Annie had one bite, I had two, the second crash landing into my serviette! Vincenzo was happy with his…but then, he eats horse….another story.

Panelle - chick pea fritters. Very noice!

Panelle – chick pea fritters. Very noice!

Pannelle, a fritter made of chick peas and served in a sandwich is delicious and is also typically Palermeten. We grew very partial to pannelle in Sciacca.

Monreale Cathedral, to the Virin Mary with love, Richard 11...

Monreale Cathedral, to the Virin Mary with love, Richard 11…

Monreale Cathedral has over 64,000 sq ft of golden mosaic tiles.

Monreale Cathedral, detail

Monreale Cathedral, detail

Built from 1174 to 1185. It was commissioned by William II (1154-89), the Norman ruler of Sicily,  to assert the power and glory of his kingdom. A magnificent fusion of eastern and western influences. at this point you may be asking for some more Sicilian history…No,? Oh good. Because it’s altogether a rich (ad)minestrone seasoned with Vanadal, Byzantine, Greek, Islamic, Roman, Catalan, Spanish, Norman and even Irish herbs and spices…and not the stuff of which modest molish blogs are readily made!

Emblem of Sicily, the triskelion,  pre- Celtic symbol, Dated to Malta 44000 BC, and to New-grange,3200. BC. Said to reflect the triangular shape of the island of Sicily

Emblem of Sicily, the triskelion, pre- Celtic symbol, Dated to Malta 44000 BC, and to New-grange,3200. BC. Said to reflect the triangular shape of the island of Sicily

Sciacca – a small southcoast city where festivals and ceramics rule and where we stayed for the second half of our Sicilian siesta.  One of the main religious festivals of Sciacca is the Procession of Madonna del Soccorso through the streets.

She is carried by fishermen running barefoot! (some midwinter feat p/pun – and explains why the procession moves so very quickly!) The festival dates back to 17th Century plague times. Of the many local miracles and stories associated with this Madonna, the most amazing for me is the miracle of 1817: when Sciacca was in the savage grip of terrifying earth tremors, her people feared that the old wooden church of St. Augustine would succumb and their beloved Madonna would be buried beneath it. So the fishermen carried the Madonna statue from the church into the Town square, away from any falling objects. At 3:00 drops of sweat were seen falling from the Madonna’s forehead.

Is that sweat on her forehead?

Is that sweat on her forehead?

At 8:00, when the Madonna stopped sweating the earth tremors ceased. Every year when the fishermen carry the statue through the streets of Sciacca, the Madonna starts to sweat when she reaches that spot in the square. We were present at this procession, only the thousands-thick crowds stopped us from getting close enough to the Madonna to see. But if she was sweating, Annie thought, it could just as likely be due to a touch of agoraphobia.

Sciaccia is famous throughout Italy for its annual Carnival which begins at the start of Lent and ends on Shrove Tuesday with the ceremonial burning of the King, Peppe Nappa. Had it not so savagely rained on parade proceedings such that the event was cancelled halfway through, we may have gained some deeper insight into what now must remain a exclusively arcane event for which the town prepares all year long to ultimately produce extravagant costumery, community-choreographed sparkle, and artistry encroaching into the grotesque. What we saw and felt of it, however, was wonderful, intriguing, and a mystery we are happy leave unresolved

From Sciacca we explored the western side of the Island  of Sicily – Marsala, named for its own fortified wine; Trapani for a forgettable, overpriced, supposedly authentic Tunisian cous cous; Agrigento – the Valley of the Temples;

Icarus fallen at the base of the Temple of Concordia, Agrigento

Icarus fallen at the base of the Temple of Concordia, Agrigento. “Nice firm cheeks, Girls.”

Burgio – an exploration of beautiful ceramics;

Ceramic portraiture, Burgio

Ceramic portraiture, Burgio

Lucca for a wonderful home-cooked lunch as guests of Vincenzo’s parents, Giovanni and Maria Mule, whose friend Guiseppe Salvo, artist/musician, we were later to meet;

Guiseppe Salvo, artist/musician, Lucca

Guiseppe Salvo, artist/musician, Lucca

Caltabellotta – to battle the wind and sleet of this high-altitude Rock-squatting town,

Caltabellotta streetscape detail

Caltabellotta streetscape detail

and much more, including Palermo (as above).

If the home of Sicilian ceramics was not Caltagirone, it would be Sciacca. The public sculpture and the main shopping streets of Sciacca are choc-a-blocked contemporary and traditional ceramic art and craft.

A living museum of immersive beauty, humour and delight. If we stayed years we still wouldn’t get enough.

Much more could be said of our time in Sicily, a wonderful island that can squeeze itself three times into Tasmania. It rolls out from the first chapters of human history, unfolding its awesome beauty at each new turn of the street, each new pin in the map. As objective strangers in this strange land, we felt subjectively safe, at home, not a bit strange. As our departure from Siciliy is imminent, as is our upcoming return to Oz….mmm….it’s time to reflect on the fruits of our year-long journeying that has made us feel so much more at one with this world.

View to the port from "The Lounge Room" the public square - Piazza Scandaliato

View to the port from “The Lounge Room” the public square – Piazza Scandaliato

Steps down to the Port from the main square -  "the Lounge Room"

Steps down to the Port from the main square – “the Lounge Room”

Dark afternoon - fishing boats return to Sciacca.port

Dark afternoon – fishing boats return to Sciacca.port

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Looking out to Smerwick Harbour from the "beehive" ruins up the road

Looking out to Smerwick Harbour from the “beehive” ruins up the road

After our U.S. odyssey we let our inner Celt have her Banshee head. She’d been weeping and wailing for Ireland the whole time since we’d left the Dingle Peninsular six weeks before, having spent only a single intriguing day and a night there. So we went back and proceeded to self-cater in a renovated 200 year-old Rambling House in

Kilmalkedar, a hamlet overlooking Smerwick harbour, close by Dingle, the main town on the peninsular.

Entrance to our Rambling House

Entrance to our Rambling House

We have rambling houses to thank for ensuring the safe passage of traditional folklore, stories and music from generation to generation, as hearty places where people congregated for gossip, storytelling – and doubtless the odd song and dance late into the night.

I should also acknowledge that my recent introduction to a publication called “The House on an Irish Hillside”, by Felicity Hayes-McCoy had amplified the return-to-Dingle call we were hearing. Her rich writing focuses on the way of life on the spectacular Dingle Peninsular, the history, myths and anthropology of the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) people. This book has reinforced my fascination with this spectacular part of the world.

Dingle, long an isolated region, retains much of its tradition and, to a large degree, has resisted economic and cultural change. The Irish name for the peninsular is Corca Dhuibhne, pronounced “Kirka Gwinnie” and is the westernmost point of Ireland, arguably of Europe. Legend has it that the next closest parish is Boston! The region is one of Ireland’s growing number of Gaeltachts, meaning areas where English takes a very humble back seat to Irish. The hundreds of archaeological sites on the peninsula testifies to its rich cultural past.

The main windows of our house looked out over Smerwick Harbour and further to one of the Blaskett Islands, Inishtooskert, fondly known as the ‘Sleeping Giant’ or ‘The Deadman’. Immediately next door we had the Kilmekadar church and cemetery, a Norman centre for worship and burial in the twelfth century.

open-air bathtub, preferred by the small faerie folk of field and fen...

open-air bathtub, preferred by the small faerie folk of field and fen…

There is an Ogham stone dominating the graveyard (see previous Irish post) which has a small hole at the top where important agreements were made and said to be sealed by respective parties placing a finger through each side of the hole. The bulk of Ogham Stones date to the 5th and 6th centuries and are an Early Medieval form of alphabet or cypher, sometimes known as the “Celtic Tree Alphabet”.

During our stay I managed to read four books about the Blaskett Islanders and their relationship with mainland Ireland. On our initial Dingle stay, we had visited the Blaskett Centre where my fascination with Blaskett Islanders began. Their stories are fascinating, unique, and to be celebrated despite the hardships. The islands lacked adequately fortified and maintained infrastructure for sea access, which meant isolation and food shortages during the bad weather months when the islanders were cut off for long periods. Sadly, the persistent emigration of its young people brought an ultimate communal decline and in 1953, when only 22 inhabitants remained, the Islands were abandoned.

To-day, weather permitting, tourists can day-trip to The Great Blaskett, and during the warmer months when the hostel is open for business, stay in what was once the home of Pieg Sayers, one of the greatest story tellers of recent times.

Sunrise and sunset, Pieg looks to her home amid the Wild Atlantic

Sunrise and sunset, Pieg looks to her home amid the Wild Atlantic

As the most prominent writer amongst the Blaskett Islanders, Pieg Sayer’s book was part of the Irish school curriculum for many years.

...a truly

…a truly holy land

Ironically and tragically however, the 1930’s church/state-approved version of Pieg’s original text, purged so much of the keen colour, humour and blinding honesty which rendered her insights so delicious, that it was ruined for generations of school children, who were thus force-fed a hard, dry, bland chew.

 forever and ever...

forever and ever…



We managed to borrow the 1970 David Lean movie, Ryan’s Daughter, from the local library and feasted on its superb cinematography of the haunting natural beauty of the area we were sitting in!!


....and that old time religion...

….and that old time religion…

The sheer majesty of the landscapes and panoramas that had attracted the film-makers, then promptly ushered the start of a tourist stream to the Dingle Peninsula that to-day not only keeps the town well-watered throughout the year, but floods it all summer until well into autumn.


Finally, we are happy to hear that Muireann’s new cooking school has launched and is very busy.

Mick Wallace, Wexford Independent member of Irish Parliament, The Dail

Rambling Traditions flourish…Mick Wallace, Wexford Independent Member of Irish Parliament, The Dail, in Question Time.


On our previous stay, our lovely B&B host Muireann, who had taken meticulous care of our interests in local fare and fun, was immersed in preparations to open a cooking school in Dingle.There was much work to do pre-opening, and she was excited and busy. Before returning to Dingle we read a piece from the Irish Examiner, the writer Tommy Barker wrote a big column praising the town’s food focus,”Chef Martin Bealin of the town’s Michelin-recognised Global Village Restaurant. Bealin, along with Mark Murphy of Tralee IT, and Muireann Nic Giolla Ruaidh, are setting up the Dingle Cookery School”.

Lateral Rambling...

Lateral Rambling…

Rambling Houses flourish

Rambling Houses flourish

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From Big Easy to Bootleg…..



At the Mississippi Esplanade

At the Mississippi Esplanade

Mississippi River running sweet and wild,
running like a slippery dip,
aslidin’ side to side,
dancing Dixie round the Basin,
jelly-rolling round the waist
in hot cuisine of New Orleans
our Mamas never got to taste

like catfish over crawfish


like an Alligator pie
then a big ole bowl of gumbo
followed up with jambalaya
jambalaya – it’s a language of its own
you learn to speak on Bourbon street
between the slide trombones….
oh yeah….burpin’ poboy

We checked in late to our modest hotel in the famous French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, tired and hungry after flying from New York via Charlotte, North Carolina. The very obliging hotel doorman steered us foodwards thus: “Jus woke on down the street a ways to the corner, take a rart one blark, take a left, and ya’ll see a few places”. So off we went. Suddenly we’d left our quiet, unassuming street marles behind and BOOM! We’d hit Crazy Street!! Bourbon Street may well be fondly remembered by many as the highlight of their New Orleans (correctly pronounced N’ Awlins) sojourn, but not by us.

If they saw the street, as we did, overflowing with smashed, noisy people, carrying large “go-cups” to keep from dehydrating between bars, shouting to hear each other above all the Jazz/Beat/Rock bands pumping out competing covers on all sides, we’d conclude that they need to get out more. Not pretty – even a little scary. It’s so popular that traffic is stopped for the evening so the crowd can have the whole street!

Back at our quiet hotel the desk staff laughed, “We never go to Bourbon Street; it’s only for tourists!”


A pleasing set of menus….

Because our N’Awlins’ dates clashed with Halloween, and our accommodation budget couldn’t cheerfully treat hotel accounts tricked to four times their usual size, we had but two short nights to give this wonderful city our best shot. So we grooved out in the French Quarter on down home Cajun grits and pralines,

...coulda sworn I heard Satchmo just now, Miss Bessie...

…coulda sworn I heard Satchmo just now, Miss Bessie…

overloaded ourselves in boutique art shops, power-listened to our great Girl-guide on the best bus tour of the city,


and dined royally on the Creole Queen up and down the Jazz scale, washed generously down with Margaritas and Blue Bayou Daquiris sweetened with pralines brought to Louisiana by the French Settlers because of the abundance of sugar and pecans.

Onboard the paddle-wheel steamer “Creole Queen” for a dinner cruise, we met Elizabeth and Mike from Austin Texas. Annie had picked Mike straight away for a bikie when we’d seen them boarding.

Liz and Mike in mellow mood...

Liz and Mike in mellow mood…

Sure enough, the 60+ couple had, that very day, ridden 500 miles on their Harley! We had a lively chat about him leaving her and her leaving him; their reunitings; his being a tattooist for 30 years; his tattoos; her tattoos; their son’s tattoos! They seemed pretty happy with each other – for now?

Next stop Memphis, Tennessee, “…on the train they call The City of New Orleans”.  which was saved from imminent decommissioning through the power of its story as chronicled by Steve Goodman in 1971, made famous initially by Arlo Guthrie, then Willie Nelson, then everyone who’s anyone plus the creators of “Good Mornin America.”

Such a long, scary way through Bayou swamp and Mississippi Delta waters

Such a long, scary way through Bayou swamp and Mississippi Delta waters

Best bits, apart from riding that iconic train itself, were 1. crossing the 5.8 miles of railbridge over the waters of Lake Ponchatrain on the Mississippi Delta, which, who cares if it is or isn’t the longest in the world – it was scary enough seeing the cars go past in parallel with us on the longest highway bridge in the world 2. dining with Martin and Pam, a fabulously agreeable, multi-talented and accomplished pair of best-culture/agriculture practice advocates in and of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and beyond, who felt sufficiently safe with us to admit being Democrats; and 3. being satisfied that the observation by a fellow passenger, looking out her window that “those woads are lockinbarr”, translated to “those woods are looking bare” – because they were!

Martin and Pam, "social dining" companions on The City of New Orleans

Martin and Pam, “social dining” companions on The City of New Orleans

Memphis…a sad, deeply-wrinkled city we thought, which far from growing old gracefully, desperately flogs its ancient relics in the hope no one notices they’re plastic facsimiles made in China, and that current Memphis posterboy, Justin Timberlake, is unlikely to ever graduate into long pants, so far is he from approaching the ecclesiastical bootsize of his glorious predecessors.

Breakfast in Memphis: 2 nights at a Holiday Inn-equivalent, breakfast included. Those DIY waffles on the first morning: pour batter onto the electric waffle-iron, close lid, wait for happy “beep”, remove golden, light, sweet fluffy thing and drown in syrup….eat. Yum. Annie saw it all. Yum not lost on her. Try that tomorrow. Easy peasy…next morning Annie duly pours liquid onto waffle iron, watched by several laidback breakfasters lining up to take next turn..beep! sudden, rapid beeping…not happy beeping, breakfast-room assailed with frantic waffle-iron distress noise. Breakfast-room attendant attends waffle machine…addresses breakfasters – quizzical; said breakfaster witnesses helpfully suggest that “she put the biscuit gravy in”; b-r attendant duly declares “well that’s over”, glaring Anniewards, and announces pointedly “she messed it up” to every next waffle-seeking breakfaster’s disappointment…Annie does penance with cold, hard-boiled egg…well, who ever heard of white gravy? For breakfast?

Classic Art Deco bus depot....shame about the bus

Classic Art Deco bus depot….shame about the bus

So we high-tailed it on to Nashville by Greyhound for a four-nights/three-day stay on a houseboat at the Port of “Old Hickory” on the Cumberland River, a distant relative of the Mississippi…

very tranquil but far from the city and unserved by any public transport, which prompted us to try “Uber” for the first time. If you haven’t tried it, next time you need a taxi, download the app and be amazed as we were.  Uber is great! It helped us get into and around Nashville and back to the boat, for about a quarter the cost otherwise. And all the drivers were friendly – all going that extra mile as it were, sometimes two. We were the second passengers for our first driver, Greg, a manically “retired” Tennessee native (as in born there), now living six months about in Tennessee and Kalamunda, Western Australia where he listed an extraordinary range of business, mining and investment interests. He dropped us at the history wall, let us ride free, and would’ve wined and dined us with his wife the following evening had we not had a prior commitment….

with our even more manic host, Steve. Steve just loves boats and thinks “anyone who can’t relax around water, well – they just can’t relax anywhere”.

Awake with the daily sunrisers on  Old Hickory

Awake with the daily sunrisers on Old Hickory


Steve collected us off the bus from Memphis with his lovely teenage son who’d bought him birthday tickets to that night’s touring “Queen” performance, plus dinner, which meant a rush for him to drop us 30 miles away, then get back, have dinner, and get seated before curtain up….

and while we immediately felt the maelstrom force of Steve’s tempo, it all blended with the powerful warmth of his generosity which persisted the entire time we were there, until he waved us off at Nashville airport in time for our dawn flight via Charlotte, North Carolina, to Unicoi in eastern Tennessee. So thanks to you Steve, and to your wonderful friend Carol who was our tour guide/driver/cultural advisor on our Saturday morning shopping spree….but we certainly do wish you’d relax a little more often!

Late fall morning view from balcony across Buffalo Valley golf Course to the Smoky Mountains of Cherokee National Park

Morning from The Toms’ balcony over Buffalo Valley Golf Course to the Smoky Mountains of Cherokee National Park, late fall

How wonderful it was to be so warmly welcomed to Tennessee by the very gentle, kind and unflappable Loretta Toms, who Annie used to work with a dozen years or so ago in Alice Springs.

Photograph courtesy, Janet Rattigan No Nonsense or Posing Pix

Photograph courtesy, Janet Rattigan, No Nonsense Fotofits

And we hadn’t aged a day! Nor put on a single extra pound!…uhuh …Loretta and her husband, Jim, collected us from the Tri-Cities airport and transported us deep into the late fall colours of them thar Smoky Mountain woods for a week of down home southern comfort…

What? Not bootlegged? Is nothing sacred?

What? Not bootlegged? Is nothing sacred?

which it was, with bells on.

The most fabulous Jim and Loretta, thank you so much for giving us this very special experience of your great country.

The most fabulous Jim and Loretta, thank you so much for giving us this very special experience of your great country.

Who can tell us now where that week went? Into alotta talk’n food, n wine, n trips to the store,

Display case, Walmart, Johnson City

Display case, Walmart, Johnson City

‘n to this ‘n that town, ‘n some of watching Jim blow leaves….’n learning new applications for spoons and chicken feet…’n sternly assessing Jim’s cocktail repertoire, then? Wal, then, after a modest sleep-in, we’d just start over…

Turkeys, safe in bronze as Thanksgiving nears

Turkeys, safe in bronze as Thanksgiving nears

Until the time was sadly up and we were safely deposited back at Tri-Cities airport for our NY departure to Ireland via – yes, Charlotte, NC, for the 3rd time. Since that sentence, this blog post has been updated and now The last paragraph has been lost.  So I must say again how absolutely touched we are to have been looked after with such  warm care, grace and humour in the home of Loretta and Jim. (See Janet’s review of your effort which speaks for itself!) we can only hope to meet again sometime across the miles. That we will ever be able to return the pleasure is doubtful, since they don’t plan a return visit Down Under, so herewith we post the invitation to your family to make sure you take it up should you ever plan to come our way.


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Nibbling the Apple…..


And a big hand for the lady needing no introduction...

And a big hand for the lady needing no introduction…

Our “cosy in Brooklyn” loft was full of charm and lots of pre-Halloween welcoming goodies. It sat atop a traditional brownstone-fronted apartment in a tree-lined street with flower pots on the front steps.

Our October '14 digs on Greene Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvescent, Brooklyn

On Greene Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvescent, Brooklyn, October ’14 digs

Never mind that we were the only ‘white f

olks; never mind the late night gunshots apparently aimed at sorting the dispute among three now-wounded near-neighbours; never mind the sirens all night and the bin men at sunrise; never mind….We ‘experienced’ it all with (apple) relish!

The Marriage of Figaro at the Met and Glen Close on Broadway

Dressing for Broadway

Dressing for Broadway

barely matched the magic of the Manhattan skyline at dawn, at dusk from the Brooklyn Bridge, late at night, and in the seagull studded twilight wake of the Staten Island Ferry.

Chandeliers explode over Metropolitan Opera diners

Chandeliers explode over Metropolitan Opera diners

The scariest experience – getting separated in the subway. Annie had an iPad and an iphone. Me? Nothing.

if you see an Australian woman whose looking for another Australian woman, tell her to phone home - apparently they lost each other between Queens and the Bronx

if you see an Australian woman whose looking for another Australian woman, tell her to phone home – apparently they lost each other between Queens and the Bronx

My lost phone was in the post en route from Dublin! Annie is on the platform, signalling madly and badly! I was in the train and moving on! Anxious hours later we found each other back at “Cosy” in Brooklyn!

What tour of NYC is complete without an excursion to its MoMA? Now we have the app!

What tour of NYC is complete without an excursion to the original Guggenheim, then on to MoMA? Now we have the app!

We punctuated the four weeks in New York with a few 1 and 2-day trips to discover America in formal Washington DC stateliness; her splendid New England “leaf fall” – oohing and ahhing our faces off

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”  Henry David Thoreau.

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Henry David Thoreau.

and to see both sides of famed Niagara’s “water fall” amazing!!!! Especially the boat trip into the mist at the base of the falls.

Our Washington folly was a 37-hour trip with Chinese tourists. We were the minority group again! Hadn’t we read the small print? What small print? The bit about the commentary being available in translation from Cantonese and Mandarin…No…Did you see it? No…You? No…Me neither… Fortunately the guides’ occasional translation into English kept us somewhat in touch with the itinerary. And the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet meals were generous, diverse, and congenial. (NB: any tour featuring a pick-up point in Chinatown will likely comprise predominately Chinese companions.)

The mighty US Capitol....undergoing de-rusting

The mighty US Capitol….undergoing de-rusting


Abraham’s DC- how far from Ferguson?


Drafting Committee, Declaration of Independence by John Trumball, 1817-19 Apparently Thomas Jefferson is not treading on John Adam’s toes…


The Washington Monument at sunset


Scaffolding around iconic sites has haunted us all year in every country and yes, there it was: the Capitol dome, caged in scaffolding! What a metaphor for “the American Dream”? There is rust in the metal – “not weakness”, the Capitol guide hastened to add.

All of Washington DC is monumentally impressive and the security chillingly real! The Vietnam War Memorial enthralled Annie and I – powerful in its subtle and elegant understatement. But there was little or no interest shown by our Chinese tour companions who seemed mesmerized by the grandeur of the other iconic sites.

World Trade Centre Memorial visit…..On the perimeter of the site I began to feel emotional. Walking on, the feelings became stronger. image imageAll I could see were people and a few trees. By the time we reached a small kiosk asking for donations, I couldn’t see anything – too many tears. Annie had to help. Thank god for sunglasses!

World Trade Centre - work in progress

World Trade Centre – works in progress

Meanwhile my tears became a flood and I walked away to a quieter spot. I hadn’t even reached the Reflecting Absence space! When I did the tears slowed to a trickle and I gazed down into the magnificent emptiness of the falling water, the loss and futility, the hope of water, the thousands of names, the re-building, The Freedom Tower, the ever-present hum of New York traffic and I became grounded again AT GROUND ZERO!

Marie’s Crisis at 59 Grove Street (near Christopher Street) "...a filthy fascinating and fun filled gay bar with a pianist who plays show tunes and all the guests are expected to sing along...." Which we did. Thank you, Akwa!

Marie’s Crisis at 59 Grove Street (near Christopher Street) “…a filthy fascinating and fun filled gay bar with a pianist who plays show tunes and all the guests are expected to sing along….” Which we did. Thank you, Akwa!

Famous New York Blues Streets

In honour of Molesmama’s enduring love for Fred Neill, a pilgrimage to where two famous New York Blues Streets intersect was an absolute must. 

New Yorkers are mostly helpful if you have a map in your hand, if you are navigating a crowded sidewalk you can get trampled. So it pays to keep fit.

Keeping fit in NewYork!! Leaping out of the Brooklyn bed at 5am, leaping into the shower, 6 layers of clothes, leaping down 3 flights of stairs. Cold dark street, brisk walk 4 blocks, bus for 15 minutes, 2 blocks to subway, 45 minutes to 49th street, brisk walk 3 blocks to 8th Ave. Queue for small group day tour, leap in and out of minibus 35 times, walk around every icon. Tip the guide, nearly dark again, find a bar, no decent coffee in sight! Enjoy a well earned Margarita, tip the bar person, start leaping again (backwards) all the way home to Brooklyn!!

Lots to recommend it, especially free wifi

Lots to recommend it, especially free wifi

There’s too many tourists in NYC. It’s too big. It’s too busy. There’s too many tourists. Too many people live there.  The population doubles every day when the work force comes in from New Jersey, Long Island, Yonkers. Traffic is soooo slow, walking is quicker! Besides all this, the biggest disappointment for me, between the terrible coffee served only in paper cups, the Disney takeover of Times Square, the arcane, possibly elitist exhibition at the Guggenheim which left me cold, and not getting back to Grand Central Station for the 2nd time to count it’s

117 platforms…. I’d have to say the biggest disappointment was that I only had such a small nibble. That, and too many tourists….oh, did I already say that?

Guess where we're going....

Guess where we’re goin next…can we get to the Mississippi from here?

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beware of the risen people…

English dominion over Ireland, dates from the 12th Century, when Ireland still comprised small, brash, warring Gaelic-Norse kingdoms, and while its Celtic character had yet to fully engage with St. Patrick’s already five centuries-old gift of Catholicism.

Why the English came when they did, involves at least five star witnesses: Queen Derbforgaill; her husband, Tiernan O’Rourke, the 19th King of Briefne, Connaught, in the north of Ireland, Dermott Mac Murchada, the King of Leinster, in the south; King Henry 2nd of England; and Pope Adrian 4th, the only ever English Pope. Earliest accounts agree that Derbforgaill was abducted by Mac Murchada in 1151, as was the common wont of kings of the day. He holds her for either months or years, after which she returns to her husband. Fourteen years on, alliances by now shifted, O’Rourke overpowers Mac Murchada and sends him into exile, whereupon he successfully petitions the help of England’s King Henry 2nd, to retrieve and to later strengthen, his position.

The later accounts which claim that Derbforgaill wasn’t abducted at all, but went willingly with Mac Murchada, thereby endow Irish history with its very own villain – the mythological Helen of Ireland. And all the subsequent tragedy, disaster and degradation inflicted on this hapless young, Wild Oats state, is blamed on the wicked treachery innate to faithless womankind.

Stage 1 Norman Invasion, 1169

Stage 1 Norman Invasion of Ireland, 1169

That Henry’s inclination to help was backed as well by papal bull, issued in 1155 by the only English pope, Adrian 4th, becomes a mere footnote in light of the above human drama. Adrian authorises Henry’s already divine agency to assist the Irish Church by abolishing the “filthy practices” prevailing in the “barbarous nation” of Ireland. So Henry’s Norman Knights led a two-stage invasion of Ireland, completed by 1171, and added the post of “Lordship of Ireland” to his job description.

We’d like to say “herewith endeth the lesson”, but no such luck of the Irish. Henry may have been benign enough, but wherever a Merry Old English toe takes hold, the foot to follow invariably boasts a heavy tread to suit a stance that wields a lash and is dislodged only with great difficulty, even as blatantly unappreciative host nations find their senses of nationhood thriving on steady diets of cold cuts of dispossession pickled in misery and seasoned in hatred for centuries to come.

After more than eight hundred years of disputed forms of English governance, Ireland is not at peace with itself. The “Irish Question” of national unity remains unanswered.

Above the entrance to Kilmainham Gaol

Above the entrance to Kilmainham Gaol

Our brief excursion through Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin gave us a strong impression of the intense longing for unity that has accompanied the epic struggle of the Nationalist cause for independence. When the gaol opened in 1796, it used state-of-the-art prison technology. It’s function to incarcerate political prisoners may or may not have been specifically planned, but one of its first duties was to detain Robert Emmett until his execution.image

His loyal housekeeper, Anne Devlin, whose immense bravery has inspired ballads, was detained far longer and suffered great crueltyimage

'X' marks the spot...

‘X’ marks the spot..

Uprisings too numerous to list here came and went, but the event that is now seen as the most decisive in breaking England’s hold on Ireland was the Easter uprising in 1916 and the men responsible for its conduct were swiftly despatched and executed in the yard at Kilmainham.

"Beware of the risen people, Ye that have harried and held, Ye that have bullied and bribed" Patrick Pearse, Irish Rebel

“Beware of the risen people, Ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed” Patrick Pearse, Irish Rebel

Irish history, as that of most lands, is a many-faceted and unruly beast. As travellers passing by momentarily, albeit with varying understanding and prior knowledge of that history, we have to be satisfied with the impressions and notions and feelings that our passing encounters inspire. We must know that of course they are woefully incomplete and cannot be taken to express the experience of the people who lived it and made it – who breathed it and ate it; who died in it and died for it. And when something strikes us as tragic or foolish or funny or sad, that this must reflect something in us that is being touched by our own limited understanding, and that’s of course entirely valid and will lead hopefully to deeper knowledge and understanding of events…..because then we might be able to  rewrite these histories? Do we want to? Oh yes! Why? To avoid the tragedies? Oh yes! To live happily ever after? Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!image image

Old Kilmainham cell lock such as those all removed by the women detained during the Civil War

Old Kilmainham cell lock such as those all removed by the women detained during the Civil War

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We arrived in the North by ferry from Scotland en sharpish route to spend a week in coastal Donegal via Belfast and Derry. With limited time, and being very near the Belfast Botanical Gardens, we decided to go there,

Orange on green with white....? Belfast Botanicals

Orange on green with white….? Belfast Botanicals

where our Irish Luck beset us, thrusting us immediately into the terrible thorny heartbreak history of this country, for directly adjoining the Gardens is the Belfast Museum,

Woman in bomb blast. Image by Rachael -  Glass Win

Woman in bomb blast, FE McWilliams, Image by Rachael – Glass Win

showing the exhibition The Art of the Troubles.
Then, via a fast train to Derry later that day, we walked The Wall that split the town into two  famously warring camps divided along religio-political lines. Here at the interface, the 1998 Peace Agreement looks a fragile thing as marches every summer, apparently insisted upon by Protestant Loyalist extremists, not only enrage the minority Republican Catholics, it refreshes memories sorely in need of rest and fans anew the flames of hatred.

On the one side of the wall...

On the one side of the wall Loyalist extremists rage….

...and on the other, the Republicans of The Bog....

…and on the other, the Republicans of The Bog….

...and in the middle is the grief....still

…and in the middle is the grief….still

...and you'd never guess who was there too....

…and you’d never guess who was there too….

Except for our Brit bits and our pre-Abott Australian bits….and perhaps some stray bits, we both have 100% Irish bits, and so feel

Friday night at the Bridge Bar, Bundoran. Our host Connie, buxom bloke in blue checked shirt on a mean guitar

Friday night, Bridge Bar, Bundoran. Our host Connie, buxom bloke in blue checked shirt on a mean  guitar in fine voice

a strong attraction and affection for this country, its tragic history, and especially its Guiness. Our mixed-matched hosts, Catherine and Connie combine Counties Armagh and Donegal/Dublin respectively. For the whole week we were there, we heard not a single voice raised in argument – truly witnessed the eminent possibility of a lasting Irish Peace in our time!

On the strength of our wonderful wild Highland tour of Scotland, we ventured to do the same in Ireland. So we embarked on another wilderness tour which took us to Counties Meath, Mayo, Galway, but unfortunately, not to Kerry. For strictly sensory and learning impact, we’d have to say Rabbie’s Scotland is hard to beat. But for getting down home and personal with all the sad misadventures of any and every Paddy and Joe you may ever meet, Rabbie’ s Ireland wins hands down…if you’d care for proof…bear with…read on… According to Darren, our Irish tour guide: on his homeward trek, following a 3-day bender, Paddy comes upon a priest baptising people in a river…

Not the River in question, but pretty splendid anyway

Not the River in question, but pretty splendid anyway

He watches awhile as the priest solemnly dunks each newly professed believer who then answers him with fulsome assurances that, “Yes, I saw the face of Jesus”, whereupon the priest fervently blesses each one, repeatedly saying something like: “Holy Father, we are grateful to do your good works. We mortal sinners give you our thanks for your gentle mercy and goodness. Satan has been vanquished here today!” When the good priest invites Paddy to take his turn, Paddy agrees and smartly enough is duly dunked.

Not the River in question, but the Monks' fishing trap on Lough Corrib, circa 15th or 16th century

Not the River in question, but the Monks’ fishing trap on Lough Corrib, circa 15th or 16th century

Asked by the priest if he saw the face of Jesus, Paddy replies in the negative and asks to take another dunk. The priest obliges, holding Paddy’s head firmly under the water for a more extended time. Asked again by the priest if he had seen the face of Jesus, Paddy, spluttering and breathless, again replies in the negative, but with some doubt, that maybe he saw something but could he not take another dunk to make it out more clearly? The third time the priest dunks Paddy far more firmly and for a far more extended time. When he finally allows Paddy up, and asks him if this time he’d seen Jesus, a barely conscious, spluttering and coughing Paddy manages to say, “Father, I’m so sorry. I tried and tried. I thought it was Jesus but it wasn’t. Are you sure this where he went down?”

Now if you’ve any PC-derived 2nd thoughts about the humour there, just let the Irish bits of you loose to laugh at it. They’re sure to know a good crack….

Newgrange is a 5000yr old passage tomb in the Boyne valley. It is a place of astrological, spiritual, and religious importance,

Its sheer size and elegant curvature makes New-grange the most visited of all the Irish passage tombs

Its sheer size and elegant curvature makes New-grange the most visited of all the Irish passage tombs

best known for the illumination of the tomb passage at the winter solstice. The Neolithic farming community was a devout tomb building society and before the invention of the wheel, transported stones of tremendous size across vast mileages of land and waterways using-log rolling techniques. Around the Newgrange base there are 97 large stones, some highly decorated- especially the entrance stone.

Entrance stone to Newgrange Tomb

Entrance stone to Newgrange Tomb

We were guided along the 19-metre dimly lit low ceiling passage in small groups to a chamber about a third of the way into the tomb. The dim lights were completely extinguished and we were shoulder to shoulder in total darkness – gulp – under tons of earth and rock – double-gulp – in our small group. Before we could panic, our guide demonstrated in facsimile, the winter solstice.

Typical passage tomb ceiling

Typical passage tomb ceiling

As we watched the winter sun creep up the passage, our relief blended with awe at the dramatic illumination of the chamber. Occurring naturally, the phenomena takes about 17 minutes from start to finish at around 9am in the morning. Our demo was less than a minute (thank goodness!)

My inner catholic was doing battle with my inner Celt as I was confronted suddenly and frequently with reminders of the Presentation Order of nuns that provided all my early education in Western Australia. The first time was in Dingle when our lovely host Muirean encouraged us to visit a local museum/chapel.

Education - established via  the inspired mission of Sister Nano Nagle, Founder of the Presentation Order of teaching Nuns

Education – established via the inspired mission of Sister Nano Nagle, Founder of the Presentation Order of teaching Nuns

There we found a mural depicting the life of Nano Nagle (1718–1784) founder of the Presentation Sisters, it adorns the walls of what used to be the sisters’ community room.

Every town we visited seemed to have a strong presence of Presentation nuns. A late night stroll home after dinner and traditional Irish music in a pub in Galway led me to a beautiful wooden door and yes it was the Presentation Convent door! I felt spooked! After all that I think the inner Celt won as I became more entranced with standing stones

Holy Well,  Dingle Peninsular, County Kerry

Pagan Holy Well, Dingle Peninsular, County Kerry

and Pagan Holy Wells.

Our hairdresser in Sligo fascinated us with her brogue and easy friendly manner as her Catholicism flowed through all her conversation, as natural as breathing.

Scene for wishing or praying at "modern" Catholic Holy Well. County Sligo

Scene for wishing or praying at “modern” Catholic Holy Well. County Sligo

In respect of ancient standing stones. Dingle, County Kerry

In respect of ancient standing stones. Dingle, County Kerry

Having allowed ourselves only 2 bedazzling days on the Dingle Peninsula, we have left a great chunk of our Irish pagan selves unexplored there. To fix that, we shall return! To stay in a 200 year-old cottage by a bay on the Wild Atlanic Way for a month come mid November when our Irish instalment will be continued…..

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Och aye the noo….C’mon the Great Scots!

Havin a Highlands Fling Havin a Highlands Fling
What faeries do in their dells on the Isle of Skye What faeries do in their dells on the Isle of Skye

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Now folks, just a wee bit a history-in-a-nutshell:….When Romans ruled Britannia from the first Century AD, Scotland was never entirely part of the package.

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb - Wikipaedia The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb – Wikipaedia
Silver plaque from the Norrie's Law hoard, Fife, with double disc and Z-rod symbol - Wikipaedia Silver plaque from the Norrie’s Law hoard, Fife, with double disc and Z-rod symbol – Wikipaedia

Those lands were the province of the indigenous Picts/Picti (meaning “painted people” – no, too early for Mel Gibson in Braveheart), tribal people considered ‘barbarians’ by Rome for their want of a written language. After the Romans pulled out about 200 years later, the elaborate infrastructure they left behind, including Hadrian’s Wall, establishes a heritage of passionate defence of these lands.

It is not known precisely when Picts morphed into Caledonians with the “Scoti”, who it is theorised, were Kingdom-crashing Conquistadors from far eastern Eire. But I like to think these themes have all persisted and abound today in the genetic memory, to be further mixed with those who came next with brutish intent who climbed Hadrian’s Wall from the south; and with those Nordics who clambered ashore through wild Shetland and Orkney surfs; plus sundry other assorted folk with inexhaustible immigration tales to tell, including those romantics who must have come simply to live and love among the splendour.

Our most excellent Highlands tour guide was 26-years-old Barney Norris from the border town of Berwick. His home town is the site of an original massacre in which the bloody violent death of every man, woman and child in the village

A Piper at Glencoe, site of English treachery and massacre of Clan MacDonald, 1692 A Piper at Glencoe, site of English treachery and massacre of Clan MacDonald, 1692

was delivered by order of out-of-sorts King Edward1 of England. He gave us to understand that the Romans’ low opinion of the Picts, meant they recorded very little of them. However, just to indicate the prevailing commitment of the Scots to their freedom, that great historian Wikipedia, records that:

In AD 83–84, the General Gnaeus Julius Agricola defeated the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Tacitus wrote that, before the battle, the Caledonian leader, Calgacus, gave a rousing speech in which he called his people the “last of the free” and accused the Romans of “making the world a desert and calling it peace”. After the Roman victory, Roman forts were briefly set along the Gask Ridge close to the Highland line (only Cawdor near Inverness is known to have been constructed beyond that line). Three years after the battle, the Roman armies had withdrawn to the Southern Uplands.

The “Yes” proclaimed by a Highland village where a rear guard action has been fought through community action to redeem lands lost during the “Clearances”

There’s bin Alexanders One, Two, Three,
and Bridie and Belei and Bede
There’s bin Cináed MacAilpín and Oengus MacFergus,
an Andrew, a Wallace and Robert The Bruce;
MacDonalds, MacGregors, and Stewarts to Stuarts;
The Davids, The James, and The Johns on the loose.
There’s bin Gaelic and English and Gaelic and Norse
and Gaelic prevailed in Alba’s due course
from David the First up to Alex the Third
when nary a fool’s angry word would be heard.
But when King Edward One put a John in his gun,
he breached his own peace ’til the next King to come
wore his own crown on his own Scottish head,
and stilled the great flood that brave Scots had bled
until the stand at Stirling Bridge and ‘cross the Bannockburn
wed English blood and roses to their own deaths in turn…
and turn about of crowns from friend to foe and back and back
this history track has worn half thin and fit to crack
where fair Alba’s feet may yet step her Freedom Way

...highly fevered …highly fevered “Yes”-woman

for the time is now or never left for her to say……
the time is now or never left for her to say……

Of course there’s so much more than this brief excursion to the history of The Scots. And although we have no properly informed right to an opinion, we’re hoping hard for the big go-ahead which we may or may not celebrate with…

a Bonnie wee haggis -dressed to kill...? a Bonnie wee haggis – dressed to kill…?

Haggis, steamed or boiled, neeps and tatties with larshings (lashings) of butter. We did it! With instructions from the local Castle Douglas butcher. We enjoyed the meal! Second helping…..Nooooo thanks.

I don’t enjoy bagpipes BUT in Edinburgh I loved the lone pipers. At the Tattoo the pipe bands sent a thrill and chill through me

As sceptics we were surprised to be totally tatooed

As sceptics we were surprised to be totally tatooed

and to top it off the lone piper on the side of the hill in Glencoe, the most beautiful glen in Scotland. The tragedy of the Glencoe Massacre (Feb 3rd 1692) gives the area a terrible beauty! Wild mountains and lochs, foaming salmon rivers and waterfalls, rugged coastlines with mighty sea cliffs, traditional crofts and large farms, small fishing villages and bustling towns.

Guess who's Loch? Yes, she was at home and most gracious, basking in the late summer sun...

Guess whose Loch? Yes, she was at home and most gracious, basking in the late summer sun…

Nessie welcomed us to a certain large loch in Scotland by striking a rather coy pose on a nearby rocky shelf, courtesy of an Englishman who has camped 6 ft from the shore in a wee caravan for the 15 years of his Nessie hunt.
 width= Glasgow was smelly and grey after elegant Edinburgh and all the fun of the Festival. Not very chic.

What about, when returning to the burbs one arvo from Glasgow, we overshot our station by 6 stops! Eventually we retraced our steps to a connection with 3 minutes to spare, the station staff were so understanding they paved the way to that 3 minute connection by yelling thru the levels as we sprinted down several 6 flights of stairs – the nicest thing that happened in Glasgow.

Highlander in the heather, laying about the loch....

Highlander in the heather, laying about the loch….

Sheparding to Moffat Sheparding to Moffat

We can’t sign off this post without a tribute to Amazing Eve, our host in the beautiful border town of Moffat. Eve welcomed us with lovely traditional Scottish goodies, oat cakes, Tunnocks tea cakes, whiskey marmalade and fabulous cheese and crackers as a fantastic starter pack to our self-catering stay in her very comfortable digs. It was our first stop in Scotland and she did her country proud! She was all sorts of invaluable help to us and we can’t thank her enough! So Thanks a Million Eve.

And Gooo Scotland!

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Ahoy to the green and pleasant land

Despite the Rail Workers Union’s stoush threatening to stop the French trains, we made all our connections and saved our no-claim bonus from another near miss. Next day our uncrowded Brittany Ferries’ catamaran sailed us 3 hours from Normandy’s bare cliffs, fabulous French chateaus, and the luxury-yacht-bobbing bays of Le Havre to Portsmouth and the promise of conversation. Yes, what we have missed the most. It’s all very well to stumble around hoping the greetings etc, we try to use are appropriate, but that’s not chatting.

...into dark deep greens

…into dark deep greens

We picked up a hire car, headed for Cornwall, and for the next week drove in and out of the dark deep greens of an endless, unmarked English country laneliness, lined with late Spring wildflowers strobed in early summer sunstreams….exclaiming “Aaah!” And “Oooooh!” and again “Aaah!” as the deep greens darkened, the hedgerows thickened, the road narrowed, daylight dimmed and the sounds of hares outrunning badgers in bedtime stories to sleepy children all tumbled, grinning and delighted, and we knew at any moment we could be lost forever if not for Google Maps – and if the signal would only be a little less capricious!

Ports Wenn and Isaacs

Ports Wenn and Isaacs

Cornwall is wonderful! Of course it is, or Doc Martin would never have set up practice in Port Wenn aka, Port Isaacs; the Pirates of Penzance would not have occurred to Gilbert or Sullivan; Hagrid would’ve missed the castle on St Michael’s Mount, leaving Harry Potter to his Dementor-driven terror;

Youth Refuge that way...

Youth Refuge that way…

Virginia Woolf would have described a different Lighthouse and different Waves; Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca could never have dreamt of Manderley; Barbara Hepworth would have reached the height of her powers somewhere else; Marconi would’ve had to find somewhere else from whence to transmit the first wireless signal across the Atlantic to Newfoundland; no TV audiences anywhere need ever have known of

In Barbara Hepworth's garden

In Barbara Hepworth’s garden

John Nettles’ rugged stamina in sleuthing the obsessive compulsive murderers of Midsommer; and Sandra Clyne might have found Celia Otley’s accent less appealing! Cornwall gave way to Hampshire – lodged in a chocolate box Tudor village where we fully expected to see Beatrix Potter chastising Peter Rabbit, or Big Ears driving Noddy wild around every next bend,

Lodged in the chocolate box at Micheldever, Hampshire

Lodged in the chocolate box at Micheldever, Hampshire

or all Famous Five sharing scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam at their picnic by the river. Stonehenge, which, as the Great Wit says, “Rocks”! Winchester Cathedral, the longest church in the world, forerunner to Westminster Abbey, where commemorative plaques on the north side aisle and the floor honour local late resident, Jane Austen’s work and life, and where we were lucky to hear the choir’s daily evensong. Oxford. Preserving the essence of scenes that make a place variously quaint or beautiful etc demands certain concessions. Our advice was to “take the Park and Ride to Oxford”. Yes, these are cheap carparks serviced by cheap busses, set on the edge of places too busy to drive through or with streets too narrow for heavy traffic. Park the car; ride the bus return fare to the heart of the city. Very practical, very popular. And in Oxford the bicycle rules.

View of Oxford from the tower of The university  Church of St Mary's The Virgin

View of Oxford’s Dreaming Spires from the tower of The University Church of St Mary’s The Virgin

I was not prepared for my emotional response as I entered the quadrangle of Balliol College, I was so overwhelmed with nostalgia that tears trickled down my cheeks. Thank god for sunglasses! I suspect it was just the accumulation of years of vicariously visiting English culture and lifestyle through books, TV, film etc. The imagination can stir up the possibility of some past life experience. If I have had such an experience, I was probably a boy! The first women entered Oxford in 1878 as part-time students, not accepted for degree completion until 1920. In 1973 Balliol was the first of the traditional all-male colleges to elect a woman as a Fellow and Tutor. Yes let’s hear it for Will Shakespeare in London and Anne Hathaway stoking the home fires at Stratford-on-Avon. We visited Anne’s house, and while we weren’t happy about the £16.00 entry fee, we were more disappointed to discover the shop sold no likenesses of her, only him.

Settling for High Tea

Settling for High Tea

And so to London… Just London, poor rich London. The place names; the postcodes…it all counts you know – towards your identity in the Who’s Who and which names you may drop; where you might shop and what you might buy that’s a fair enough cop. Personally I find Harrods suits more than the local Co-op, ‘tho it is frightfully dear there. Still, you get what you pay for everywhere, and they do take such good care. If they relax their prices, blimey, ‘ood shop there then, eh? We’d be left with Fortnum and Mason’s and that’d leave a rather large hole in the basin. Of course we sang and danced the Book of Mormon in the West End. Harassed each other in Harrods, not to mention FORTnam and MASONing nor all the nostalgic rest…like:

Hyde Park, Marble Arch, Notting Hill, Kew, Westminster, Kensington, Chelsea – take the Tube. Brick Lane, Park Lane, Portobello Road Covent Garden, Old Vic, The Globe, Soho, ho,ho. Tate Modern, Albert Hall, Change the Guard to there. Piccadilly Circus, St Paul’s Dome, not far from Leicester Square. Beefeaters, Buckingham, Oxford, Regent, Downing Streets Crown Jewels, Hampton Court tried for hunting Hampstead Heath, Old Bailey, Big Ben, Traitor’s Gate, The London Eye spies high tides on the Thames we all should see before we die…

Kew Gardens . We took a memorable boat ride from Westminster Bridge to the gardens. Being in his last week of service after 50 years on the Thames, our boat Captain needed little encouragement to regale us with tales of the river and folk who have lived along it over the years, an hour of pure gold. The heat of the day stole our enthusiasm for the gardens, so, since the Temperate House is closed until 2018, we found a giant water lily to have a rest in – just kidding.

at the Waterlily House, Kew Gardens

at the Waterlily House, Kew Gardens

Then Annie took off …….while I lingered in the cool cafe. And Annie’s reward for labouring through the mostly unshaded, humid, 33-degree day, was the discovery of two wonderful women – Shirley Sherwood, a dedicated collector of mouth-watering botanical art from over 200 artists world-wide that she’s been amassing since 1990; and Marianne North, a pioneering botanical artist from Victorian England whose body of work, numbering 833 small but intricately-detailed oils, is housed/exhibited in her own purpose-built gallery, upstairs from the Sherwood. A fabulous air-conditioned dalliance with two remarkable women, thoroughly recommended.

Baguette by Bath Waters

Baguetting by Bath Waters

Kathryn Jenkins how great! We bought an extra ticket and invited our host of the moment, Chonette.

Into the rainbow at Chonette's

Into the rainbow at Chonette’s

Chonette is a lovely Spanish-born woman who lived her early years in Mexico until marrying and moving into an English life. During our stay in her very colourful self-catering apartment, she fussed over us and made us feel very special. We chose Chippenham because it was the closest affordable town to Kathryn Jenkins’ Concert at the National Arboretum in Westonbirt.

Kathryn Jenkins with the National Symphony Orchestra, at the National Arboretum, Westonbirt, tetbury, Gloucestershire

Kathryn Jenkins with the National Symphony Orchestra, at the National Arboretum, Westonbirt, Tetbury, Gloucestershire

There we were in the queue with the thousands of others waiting for the gates to open, modestly-equipped with small picnic hamper and bottle of wine – no esky, no chairs. Everyone else had chairs. How would we see anything surrounded by chairs? However, we found a great spot, with a clear view and while all the Brits banqueted royally around us, we sat on Chonette’s blankets and enjoyed Kathryn with our sushi and chicken wraps.

Iconic Bath

Iconic Bath

Hostels. It’s 40 years since either of us did the youth hostel thing, but we found the Snowdon Ranger, YHA, in the Snowdonia National Park, surprisingly quiet and comfortable. Hearty meal, warm, slow lazy evening, early night into easy dream…..then Bang! the famous Grosse German DOOR-BANGER Percussion Gruppe arrived late (nearly 11pm). Giggling Gertrudas’ cymbals pitched high in leading soprano to gaggling Geese stepping up und stepping down the three long-suffering flights of wooden stairs. We cussed and all the doors percussed! But did we climb Mt Snowdon?

Atop Wales

Atop Wales


39 years, but wasn't it just yesterday? Janet and Carolyn catch up

39 years, but wasn’t it just yesterday? Janet and Carolyn catch up

Manchester reunion, Janet had not seen Carolyn for 39 years and now she was a wife, mother and grandmother! Hooker Creek NT now known as Lajamanu was the last contact so lots of tales to tell. Carolyn and husband Richard warmly welcomed us at Stockport station and we enjoyed a divine roast (with Yorkshire puddings) the following two days of splendid catering was punctuated with meeting the family, reworking luggage requirements, relaxing and eating berries from Richards garden.

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…stretching the French connection….

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early June, 2013. Three months ex-Oz…. Coustouge It is a precious thing, when you are a stranger in a strange land, to be given the opportunity to stay with people who live there. Coustouge, a small community in south-eastern France, … Continue reading

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Adios Espanya – hasta la vista…

Our Spanish adventure is over.

...hasta la vista Maria...

…hasta la vista Maria…

I must say we enjoyed the northern half better than the southern. Remember when the south of Spain was the place to be? But even 40 years ago I liked the north much more than the south. Cordoba was the exception, it sparkled for us: the old city, the exquisite mesquite, the Roman bridge across the mighty Guadalquivir River; Royal Andalusian horses dancing on tip-toe, the full-footed, staccato stamp, strum and clap and whirl of Flamenco; and not forgetting the tender touch of rabo de toro (tail of the bull….or, as some may better know: osso buco), all clamouring for our attention…

Mezquita de Cordoba -  first a Mosque; now a Cathedral

Mezquita de Cordoba – first a Mosque; now a Cathedral

Strong emotions make lasting memories, so they say…6 weeks on from Cudillero and the memory of Señora and Señor refusing to relax their heating rations to our apartment still rankles, I’m afraid. Turned on between 5-11pm, despite the meagre 10 degrees of your average early-May Cudillero day, and we shivering two, confined within 3-foot thick Roman stone walls,

...lovely thick stone walls - great in summer...

…lovely thick stone walls – great in summer…

due to constant grey drizzle and wind, and Annie’s bronchioles filled for a 2nd time with muck. We had booked a week there, Cudillero reputedly being one of the finest examples of sleepy fishing villagery left in northern coastal Spain.

Cudillero on a clear day

Cudillero on a clear day

So we felt trapped and defrauded both by the weather and by the people. And no that’s fair to neither the people nor the place, but do we forgive Cudillero? Mmmm… Would you? Of course you would! Just look at the place! Beautiful! You can just feel all those otherwise warm, friendly fishing-connected folk living there. But our on-line review of that accommodation for the booking site certainly lacked no critical detail – nor emotion!

Signposting the Camino for the Pilgrims' progress

Signposting the Camino for the Pilgrims’ progress

From there to the peaceful otherworldliness of very, very famous place of religious sanctuary, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the NW corner of Spain. Santiago de Compostela, is the end of all the Caminos across Spain and we positioned ourselves perfectly to spot our ardent amiga peregrinas, Alison and Monica arrive from their 200km walk from Portugal. It was a joyous reunion.

Where land ends in Spain: Finisterre, (from left Annie, Alison, Monica, Janet)

Where land ends in Spain: Finisterre, (from left Annie, Alison, Monica, Janet)

They were in good spirits and totally enthralled with the whole experience. We felt so good about it we went to the pilgrims’ blessing MASS – twice! The cathedral mass has beautiful singing and the BIG attraction is the Bota Fumeiro (thurible magnum). The incense burner weighs 53kg, but when loaded with charcoal and incense, it’s about 100 kg, and takes 8 monks to swing on the end of a rope. And they swing it high the length of the church. With that and the music it even made this unbeliever tear up. Annie caught it moving beautifully on her mobile.

This video doesn’t exist

The food and the wine were just fine, but the Cherry liqueur! And I mean real cherry liqueur chocolates, Spain has the best, beautifully wrapped, dark chocolate, great cherry brandy, so affordable and Delicious!!! I can enjoy 2 in a row after a tasty dinner and 2 glasses of red wine.

A most appealing public sculpture of two women in Alameda Park, a major point of entry to the city, provides some ‘welcome stranger’ warmth and cheer for many a weary pilgrim.

Las Dos Marias welcome the weary to their holy city...

Las Dos Marias welcome the weary to their holy city…

It is the tribute to Coralia and Maruxa Fandino Ricart, known as Las Dos Marias (The Two Marias), by Cesar Lombero, 1994. They were two of eleven children born around the turn of the century within a family local to Santiago de Compostela. Three of their brothers, being anarchist trade unioinists, politically antagonised the fascist Franco regime which wanted to arrest and imprison them. Convinced the brothers were being hidden by their family during the Civil War, Franco’s thuggish forces subjected the family to extensive, violent harassment. In the early hours of any random morning, police troops would force entry, demanding the brothers’ whereabouts. Their treatment reportedly included stripping the women and parading them naked through the streets. Reports of the sisters’ rape and torture abound, but have not been officially confirmed. Why Coralia and Maruxa then implemented their strict routine of parading themselves through the city, every day at 14.00hrs precisely, come rain; come shine, dressed in the avant garde high fashion of their own creation, and which persisted for the rest of their 80 odd year-lives, is an enduring mystery.

Jose Ledesma Criado, lawyer, poet, Salamanca who would have liked to know more of Las Dos Marias

Jose Ledesma Criado, lawyer, poet of Salamanca who would have liked to know more of Las Dos Marias, but Annie couldn’t tell him.

Was it wild immodesty? Was it the ritualistic compulsion of the obsessive? The harmless antics of an eccentric pair of spinsters? A credible response to their former bastardisation by a powerful totalitarian regime? Were they just mad and therefore a wholly tragic phenomenon. Should the questions even be posed? The sisters died in the early 1980s and it seems no one is left now who can answer these questions with any confidence.

Perhaps this reflects the historically low public profile of women generally in Spain. Apart of course from the ubiquitous one and only Maria herself, we saw very few public references honouring achievements by women: no monuments, no dedications, and certainly no women artists in the fine arts galleries we visited.

...my apologies for being unable to identify the artist or his subject artist

…my apologies for being unable to identify the artist or his subject artist

So this one painting from the Oviedo gallery is here placed to note an oversight, one captured in the defiant gaze of the peaches and cream sitter who dearly loves her Fran….

“La Torera” – her nickname has roots in the bull-ring, where a matador arrogantly breaks the rules and hang the consequences.

Although, to be fair to Oviedo, they did have some fabulous statuary that was most respectful of local women heroes. For example, La Torero,”born in the late 1800s”, pioneered Spanish photography through her invention of a breakthrough exposure/timing technique and perfecting some unique portraiture practises.

The last word of our Spanish sojourn must go to Señor Gaudi. Since we had to return to Barcelona to collect our oversize wheelie bags, we finally took the opportunity to visit his biggest life project which proves Janet’s theory that I’m sure is correct: “When Gaudi was a child he was abducted by aliens. They took him for a ride into the Cosmos, showed him all its wonders and delivered him home to Earth.

Central corridor, Sagrada Familiar Central corridor, Sagrada Familiar

The Sagrada Famiglia is designed from his imagination (he thinks) but it is a pretty close resemblance to the interstellar vehicle that carried him on this wondrous journey especially the inside. Just look at the photo, in the spaceship the pods moved up and down the pillars like pistons. How do I know all this? I’ve been in that ship!!”

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