Friday, August 31, 2007

Scatterday - G

SCATTERDAY is the name of a fun challenge I've joined, designed for scatter-brained people like me who often need a little spark to help their creativity to keep firing.

It's the brainchild of my fiendishly creative friend, Michelle and her friend Dy, and it goes like this.......

Each week they pick a letter of the alphabet + 3 categories. Our assignment (should we choose to accept it) is to take a photograph of an item beginning with that letter of the alphabet in each of the 3 categories. We plan to post our photo mosaics on our blogs each Saturday. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

This week's photos are brought to you by the letter "G" and the categories Car, Colour and Household Item.

Car - This is my little car, a Getz, which I love. It's only a 3 door manual hatchback, but that's plenty big enough for me. It getz me wherever I want to go, and twice a week it even ventures through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel to visit my parents on Sydney's North Shore and to pick up the typing my brother gives me.

Colour - Gold. Not exactly Wordsworth's "host of golden daffodils", but a single bloom from a bunch I bought for a friend yesterday. After all, it is Daffodil Day, the first day of spring.

Household Item - Grater! I love the idea of photographing an everyday item up close, or from an unusual angle, so that it takes a few seconds longer to recognise.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bugis Street Markets

Meeting Mona

This is me (and Boak below) with Mona at the Singapore Zoo.

She's a HUGE snake. I can't remember whether she's a constrictor or a biter, but either way I wouldn't like to get her angry, or frightened. However her keeper was just out of the photo, so I thought I'd be brave.

After all, if Sarah could hug tigers in Thailand, surely we could pat a python?

Singapore Slings at Raffles

No visit to Singapore would be complete, at least for us, without a long cool Singapore Sling in the Long Bar at Raffles, where you are actually encouraged to drop your peanut shells on the tiled floor!

Singapore - our last port of call

We're home now, but my account of our trip wouldn't be complete without a little on our Singapore stopover, which proved the perfect antidote to jet-lag.

Until we landed at Changi Airport in Singapore I had no idea where Boak had booked to stay for our 3 day Singapore stopover. It was to be a surprise, and I was so excited to find that we were to stay at the luxurious Raffles - The Plaza, across the road from the original Raffles.

Breakfast with the orangutans at the Singapore Zoo the next day was fun - and no, we didn't share the same food! While we sat at tables eating our delicious smorgasbord breakfast, zookeepers brought the orangutans across from their enclosure, via platforms and vines hanging from the trees, to a raised platform nearby. Here we watched them eating their own breakfast, and could have our photo taken standing near them.

Do you think it's just possible they might have thought they were being brought across to watch the humans having breakfast, and to have their photo taken near these curious creatures??

Afterwards we were able to spend a few hours wandering around this beautiful zoo. The gardens are lush and, like all of Singapore, immaculately kept. The animals all looked happy (if it's possible to make such an assessment from a brief visit) and their environments were very comfortable looking.

The Singapore Zoo also impressed me with its care for visitors. Bearing in mind the high temperatures and humidity all year round, they have built air conditioned viewing shelters beside various popular animals, so you can scurry inside and cool off while you observe the wildlife - how very civilised!

Below is a collage of some of the many animals we saw, including a polar bear, white rhino, zebra, giraffe, lioness, cheetah, turtle, crocodile and flamingoes.

Here is a collage of some of the brightly coloured flowers and foliage I photographed in Singapore, including a brilliant bright pink frangipani.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Flashback to Rome - Coins in the fountain

Oops, I almost forgot to assure you that we did throw our coins in the Trevi Fountain - once we had waded through the crowds that seemed to be there all hours of the day.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fine? dining in Manciano

This is a wild boar, a stuffed one. He's called a cinghiale and we've eaten him in many forms this week - casseroled, roasted, skewered, cured, and minced on crostini. He's delicious!!!

And this is the view over Manciano, at dusk (around 9pm) from our regular table at our favourite trattoria. We loved it so much we ate here every night this week, and even had our regular table. Manciano isn't one of the most picturesque towns, but it's quite pretty and romantic on a balmy summer night at dusk nevertheless. We even danced (just one dance) one night!

Some photos of Angela's villa, the fruit, flowers, and views ...

A couple of these flowers were from elsewhere in Tuscany on our travels - but the roses are from the villa. There was a huge bowl of them on the table to welcome us!

We picked almonds from the tree, a treat for city-slickers!

The almond tree.

San Gimignano - at last!

Boak continues to put the ‘fang’ into “Fangio”. Yesterday he revved the rented Nissan and we were off again, this time zipping up to the area between Siena and Florence, to the little hill town famous for its towers, San Gimignano.

I’ve been trying to get to San Gimignano for almost twenty years. That’s how long it’s been since I first walked into the Tourist Information office at the railway station in Florence and asked if there were buses that could take me to any of the famous hill-towns in Tuscany. At that stage I had no names of towns to go by, just vague pictures in my mind, memories of places I’d read about.

“Where do you want to go?” was the reply.
“I don’t mind,” I had replied. “Any of those beautiful little walled towns Tuscany is famous for. “
“You have to tell me where you want to go”, came the petulant reply.

And there we had remained - a Florentine stand-off. San Gimignano could have had my meagre tourist lire (as they then were) twenty years ago, but better late than never, and yesterday I finally managed to leave a few Euros there.

The weather was hotter than it was earlier in the week, and after a long trek from the dirt road about a kilometre from town where we were forced to park our car, all official car parks being full, we abandoned our initial plan to climb up the tower on the Palazzo Communale from where the view across the terracotta-tiled rooftops is apparently spectacular. (There used to be 73 towers in San Gimignano - now there are 14, and twice as many leather goods shops). Instead we explored the cool palazzo, took lots of photos of buildings, and wandered the narrow, crowded (pedestrian-only) streets browsing in shops and deeply inhaling the aroma whenever we passed a leather shop.

Eventually we settled ourselves at a table on the shady side of the street and ordered ice-cold Cokes, and while I stitched and Boak read his book we watched the passing parade of visitors like ourselves, snapping photos and pointing and licking gelati.

We didn’t neglect the gelati either. A cone with two scoops for each of us – mango and saffron for me, and chocolate and saffron for Boak. Saffron? Apparently it’s the local specialty, so we had to try it, but it was quite ordinary and not nearly as exciting as the delicious fruit flavours I’ve had here. Still, our cold gelati cones kept us cool for the long walk, mercifully downhill, back to our car and the 3 hour ‘fang’ home via the autostrada.

Tootling around Tuscany

Perhaps so much “tootling” as “tearing” around Tuscany where 'Fangio' (you may know him as 'Boak') is concerned! He’s been at it again, fearlessly chewing up the miles as we zipped up to Assisi today. It’s a three hour drive each way, about half of it on a wide straight autostrada and the rest winding through the beautiful Tuscan and Umbrian countryside.

Assisi was a photographer’s paradise and I went quite snap-happy as I collected plenty of photographic material for the stitcheries on The Italian Job.

The Church of St Francis - and its magnificent rose window below.

We wandered around licking gelati and checking out the shops selling exquisite embroidery (Assisi work) and ceramics to die for, but waaaaaaaaay beyond our budget. A huge plate (not this one here, though) I spotted in a window had a price tag of 900 Euros!!!

However, ten minutes after Fangio drove out of the car park at Assisi it slowly dawned on us that we were travelling in the wrong direction. Not one to stop immediately, ask directions or turn back, Fangio drove on (hoping the road might miraculously take a U turn and begin to go in the opposite direction?). Not until we were 50 km from Assisi, and well on the way towards the other coast of Italy’s boot, did he execute Plan B, but by then we were thoroughly enjoying our proverbial “scenic route”.

If it hadn’t been for our unscheduled detour we might never have been pulled over by the Polizia.

Our hearts raced. Had Fangio been exceeding the speed limit? Never! (ahem…) Did they have RBT here in Italy? He’d at least be squeaky clean if this were the case.

The officer stepped out from the roadside and waved a paddle at us.

With infinite cool Fangio slowed the car and nudged the indicator. The windscreen wipers went into a frantic slip slapping!

Even before Fangio produced his International Driver’s Licence it was crystal clear to the officer that what he had here were a couple of nervous foreigners – and he played it up.

For what seemed like 5 minutes he flipped back and forwards through the licence, checking and rechecking Fangio’s photo before finally telling us we didn’t have our headlights fully on, as required here even in daylight, and letting us proceed.

We drove off ever-so sedately. Then we collapsed with laughter!

Manciano, as it was meant to be

Tuscany, as always, refreshes my mind, body and spirit. We’ve been here four times, though this is only our second visit to Manciano.

There are the familiar pleasures of the countryside – the flat-topped Aleppi pines on the plains, and the thick wooded terrain, where the cinghiale (wild boar) roams, as the road winds upward through the hills.

It’s too early for the autumn carpet of miniature cyclamen that had me so enraptured last time when we turned onto the dirt road that leads to the villa, and the grassy open hillsides are toast-coloured rather than green .

But there are fresh delights – summer delights. Hedgerows of Queen Anne’s Lace, a white flowering creeper looking like snow dusting the top of the dry stone wall, flowering oleanders in every shade of pink, fields of ripe corn, vines heavy with bunches of grapes and, of course, acres of yellow sunflowers – a little past their prime for the photographer but ready for harvesting their seeds and still a splendid sight.

The pastures have already been mown and the hay bundled into huge round bales, looking like giant reels of golden thread, scattered on their sides across the fields.

I felt so ill for much of last time we were here, still weakened by my Cairo dysentery, suffering complications from my hospitalisation, and nauseous from the cocktail of medications I needed to take – though Manciano, in the end, was the perfect place to convalesce. (If you’d like to read about our previous visit click on the Di’s Diary link in the right hand column, or go to

So returning to Manciano is especially wonderful for me, allowing me to enjoy it to the full. We arrived late on Saturday, around 8pm, as the sun was low on the horizon, and as we sipped our wine to the sound of …. silence … I couldn’t help but think of Michael Caton’s words from “The Castle” –

“Aaaahhh, you can feel the serenity!”

Peace at last - and lots of quiet!

On Sunday we silently blessed Angela for her generosity in letting us use her villa, breathed a collective “Aaaahhhhh!” and sank into deck chairs on the terrace in the shade of the wisteria.

Boak disappeared into a Dick Francis novel, while I stitched scenes from Sicily into “The Italian Job” (my quilt) and listened to Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” being read on my iPod.

There we stayed all day, only stopping to fix bread rolls with tomatoes, cheese and prosciutto for lunch, which we ate where we were, accompanied by glasses of chilled white wine.

Another Day, Another Palazzo!

Today I came face to face with the painter Velasquez. Quite literally!

[Eeeeyieeew!!!!! warning here]

His is one of around 2000 mummified bodies on display in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. I already knew about the Cappuchin monks’ penchant for putting the bones of their dead brothers to use in their interior décor, having visited their church in Rome almost 20 years ago. There you can see wall after wall of knuckles, femurs, skulls etc artfully arranged into patterns.

I had wondered whether the thoughts of the living monks ever turned, in idle moments, to coveting the body parts of another.

Can you imagine it…. “Hmmmm, Brother Bernardo has such slender fingers, just what I need for the sun’s rays to finish off my latest mural. I wonder if he’s feeling a little peaky……”

Anyway, feeling a little cathedral-ed out on this final day in Palermo, I thought I’d take myself off to see something completely different. And was this different!!!

This mummification business all started with the Cappuchin priests themselves around 400 years ago, but soon their benefactors wanted the treatment too. Eventually it seems that anyone in Palermo who could afford it was queueing up to be preserved on the walls of the Cappuchins’ cellars where, apparently, their family would visit on Sundays and enjoy a thermos of tea.

The mummification was done by placing the body in a hermetically sealed room for 8 months, after which it was taken out, washed in arsenic, dressed in the finery of the day, and hung on the wall or laid on a shelf in the appropriate corridor.

Emaciated and brown, they are grouped – professionals, priests, men, children, women, and a special place for virgins.

The priests stopped the practice in the late 1800’s but one last body was placed there in 1920, that of little Rosalia Lombardo, a 2 year old whose mummification was undertaken by a local doctor (using his own secret recipe) so skilfully that today, 87 years later, she looks as if she is simply asleep, such is her colour and state of preservation. Apparently when she died her father was away in America. Heartbroken, he expressed a desire to see his little girl one last time, but since the journey home would have taken at least three weeks in those days, the doctor came up with this solution.

By now, a long cool drink sounded good to me, at the final place on my “Must See” list – the glamorous Villa Igea.

Now part of the Sheraton hotel chain, it’s a place where the super-rich stay, and was built in the exotic Arab/Norman style we’ve seen everywhere in Western Sicily, with gorgeous friezes of majolica tiles running along the façade.

The gardens are lush, colourful, and have green grass! It is situated on a cliff overlooking a marina where luxury yachts bob in the turquoise water.

Apart from a few staff, the main building seemed almost deserted so, unable to locate a bar or snack area, I wandered out to where a dozen or so uber-cool but bored-looking hotel guests were stretched out by the pool.

Not much life here either, I thought.

Someone with more spunk than I have would have fronted the pool bar, ordered an icy cold glass of prosecco, and sipped it slowly, while adopting a suitably aloof and bored expression, under an umbrella overlooking the Mediterranean. But not this little black duck.

I bought a cold bottle of water in a little shop and caught a bus back to the hotel.

After all, I had a palazzo to go to!

The Sicilians pride themselves on their hospitality, the success of which seems to be measured by the amount of food they can get you to consume. For the past two weeks we’ve been fed morning, noon and night by our conference hosts.

The staple diet in Sicily is seafood, in every imaginable (and unimaginable!) form. Swordfish, calamari, octopus, squid, shrimps, mussels – and various other suspiciously unidentifiable sea creatures that they manage to secrete into an otherwise perfectly respectable risotto whenever they can.

Now, I’m not averse to a little fish from time to time, even a few prawns, but after a couple of days a sizeable number of us were requesting the “non pesce” option whenever another fishy-smelling platter was brought around.

The other Sicilian specialty is their dolce (desserts) – sweet pastries with custard and fruit fillings in every imaginable colour, the more garish the better.

I suspect the world sugar market would collapse if the Sicilians stopped making their dolce. Again, after a few days of these delectable morsels we were begging for “frutta” instead.

There’s no such thing as a light snack. Every meal consists of at least two courses, and tonight, at our final dinner at the Palazzo Asmundo, there were seven!!!! We were delivered back to our hotel around 1am. Delicious though they were, the courses became successively more difficult to tackle, and empty plates remained upturned all over the room as the signal to a waiter to pass on by.

It’s been wonderful to have been on the receiving end of such generous and warm hospitality. However it will be a relief to return to our normal pattern of eating next week. We fly to Rome tomorrow afternoon, pick up a rental car, and drive north to Angela’s villa in Manciano (Tuscany). A week of rest after all the excitement of the last two weeks will be very welcome.

Priceless in Palermo

Getting lost with Boak in Palermo, finding ourselves in a small piazza way off the beaten track, meeting a little priest and being invited in to see the painting by Van Dyck that he has in his church.

Being ushered by our friendly little priest through the church, then through a curtain to a back room, a kind of vestry, where the painting (rather in need of a good restorer’s touch) was hanging, and having our own private viewing of the masterpiece.

Being led on further, to a room beyond this, and proudly shown a splendidly decorated, hand painted beamed ceiling from around 1400.

Telling the priest (as we left our donation to the Restoration Fund) that Boak is a priest too and seeing the excited little man beam, exclaim “Anglicano!” and pinch Boak’s cheek like a little boy’s – Priceless!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Big Day Out (2) Monreale Cathedral

Just look at all those patchwork patterns!

This huge mosaic dominates the church - the figure of Christ alone is around 3 metres high.

Big Day Out (1) Cefalu Cathedral

Today was the big (15 hours long!!!!!) conference excursion day, and we were taken by bus to first to Cefalu, on the northern coast, with its magnificent cathedral dating back to the 12th century, and then to Monreale where there was another from the same period, but even grander.

Both feature gigantic golden mosaics of Christ Pantocrator (ruler of all) in their central apses, and were built by the Normans.

Rather than tell you about our day, I’ll let some of my photos tell the story.

Things that make you go "What the....? in Sicily

* Most public parks have no grass. Beautiful trees and hedging, but just hard dirt underfoot. Of course it’s more practical in this climate, but it just seems strange.

* I’ve seen dozens of families driving along with their children not wearing seatbelts, just bouncing around loose in the back or sitting on mum’s knee in the front. Scary.

* One-way streets that aren’t. It’s quite alarming to turn into a 5 lane main street in a taxi and come face to face with 5 lanes all coming your way! The system is that the fifth lane is for taxis and buses to use when going in the opposite direction. However if no buses or taxis are currently using their lane, anyone can. They just need to get out of the way in time when they see an oncoming vehicle, and it’s quite a scramble to see!

* Only tourists seem to validate their tickets on buses (and even some of us sometimes get a free ride!) However last Sunday we were on a bus when an inspector got on, and it was quite a sight watching everyone suddenly jumping up and looking terribly law-abiding as they lined up to poke their biglietti in the machines.

* Cars aren’t exactly parked here in Palermo, rather they are abandoned. On the footpath (so pedestrians have to detour and walk on the road), in bus stops, sideways, double-and triple-parked. Someone here at the conference actually saw a driver stop his Smart car the other day, then get out and lift it to manoeuvre it into the tiny space!

How's this for nifty parking? This one was in Rome.

Escape to Taormina

In our rented Mafia-black Renault Megane Cabriolet, with the top down and the wind in our hair, Boak and I hit the road today, bound for Taormina on the eastern coast of Sicily. It was a three hour drive on the autostrada, but manageable, and well worth it. Taormina was beautiful!

I’ve always dreamt of sitting at a table on a terrace overlooking the blue Mediterranean sea, surrounded by colourful geraniums, and sipping a chilled white wine – and today we did it!

The wine was very cheap, the meal was only pizza, and it wasn’t exactly the classiest trattoria in town, nevertheless it was one of those precious experiences. As the maitre d’ announced loudly (in Italian) as he took my hand and led me down the stairs to the terrace, “This will fulfil your fantasy!”

We trekked up the cobbled street to the Greek theatre where the view across the water, through the proscenium arches, was spectacular. There were road crews everywhere scrambling to set it up for a performance by Liza Minnelli next week, so it wasn’t possible to test out the theatre’s legendary acoustics, but I can just imagine the Greeks and Romans enjoying a performance there on a balmy summer evening.

The beach, which I rode down to on the cable car to see while Boak stayed up in the town, was a bit of a disappointment. As I’ve commented before, I think we are spoiled for beaches in Australia.

However the (window) shopping in the car-free town of Taormina on the hill was delightful, with lots of shops selling linen, antique jewellery and clothes. One of our French speaking delegates here at the conference tells me the French have a phrase for window-shopping (I forget just what it is) which roughly translates as “licking the window” – and I’ve done a lot of window-licking!

On the way home we pulled over to admire Mount Etna, smoking away in the background, then continued on and arrived in Palermo around 10.30pm. Boak handled the Italian roads quite well – though driving through a red light and up a one-way street just as we were almost back here was probably taking the Italian assimilation a tad too far.