Thursday, September 29, 2016


My first full day in Palermo was a Sunday, which kind of hampered my planning for two reasons: one, because many of the sites I wanted to see on my trip, such as churches, were open only limited hours, and two, because there was an F1 race on in the middle of the afternoon which I wanted to see, which pretty much ruled out my 'trip to the beach' idea.

So, after scouring through a bewildering array of options, I decided to tick off one of my must-see destinations first thing in the morning, and set off on a 20-minute walk to the Capuchin Catacombs. I visited some of the catacombs in Rome on my 2009 trip and was, to be honest, a bit disappointed at the lack of dead bodies. So the Palermo catacombs, the "largest collection of mummies in the world" had been on my travel bucket list for a while.

This probably makes me sound quite macabre. I don't know, really. I'm not especially interested in death or creepy things, and thoroughly sceptical about ghosts and goblins. But I do love a wander about in an old cemetery, and I've enjoyed other human remains-themed destinations such as the bone church in Kutna Hora, near Prague, and the Kievo-Pecherska Larva in Ukraine. I'd like to think it's a way of connecting in a very immediate way with people from the past, but I don't know, maybe it is just morbidness.

I just dodged a tour group coming out as I was coming in, so luckily enough I was able to walk around the catacombs virtually all by myself, with just the occasional other visitor passing in the distance. They had that sort of intense underground silence to them, a silence so profound it rings in your ears. For me, despite the title, it wasn't really a creepy place, mostly it was just interesting seeing the different clothing and facial features of those who did still have faces. Which does sound very creepy now that I write it, ha ha.

The catacombs were originally intended as a normal cemetery for members of the Capuchin friars who passed away. However, they eventually ran out of room and decided to exhume the bodies and move them into a larger space, whereupon they discovered 45 of them had been naturally mummified. Seeing this as a miracle, they decided to put them on display, and over the years, they both refined the mummification techniques (most bodies there are still naturally mummified, but they started deliberately helping the process along by removing organs and draining fluids and stuffing the body with straw) and started accepting laypeople into the catacombs. There was quite a range of states of decomposition, with some basically completely skeletalised, some with just odd bits of hair and flesh hanging on, and some looking like what you probably imagine a mummy to look like. I can't quite imagine wanting to gaze upon half the face of a mummified loved one, but apparently it was quite an honour and status symbol for wealthy families to be interred there.

There was a strict no photos rule, which I didn't want to sneakily breach, plus I don't know if people want to see any of these sorts of things. But if you're interested, there is the (I suppose) official website, surprisingly thorough and in English, and here is a blog with a lot of good images.

Narrow streets on the walk to the catacombs

I liked the sort of fading glamour of this place

And then on to something completely different. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped in at the Church of the Gesu, which is quite plain from the outside but a riot of Baroque detail on the inside. The strangest thing on arriving there was that it was absolutely packed with Indian families dressed in their Sunday best and blaring Indian music over loudspeakers. It's true there were three or four Indian restaurants in the immediate area of my B&B, which was just a few hundred metres from the church, but I would not have imagined there was such a large Indian community in Palermo, let alone that they would be Catholic. (Fun semi-relevant fact: I have been reading a book about the Portuguese exploration/colonisation of the Indian Ocean and one of the more bizarre tidbits is that the Portuguese had no idea that Hinduism existed and had it fixed in their minds that the Indians they met were Christians 'of a deviant sect'. There are even first-person descriptions of them seeing illustrations of Hindu gods with horns and extra arms and just assuming they were weird drawings of saints. Another story was that they were met by people chanting "Christ! Christ!" which the author speculates may have actually been "Krishna! Krishna!" They figured it out eventually, but it definitely seems to fit the ass out of u and me rule.)

I found an article online which, although written in the context of a Hindu celebration, explains that there are around 8,000 Tamil people in Palermo, mostly refugees from Sri Lanka. So you learn something every day. It was quite beautiful seeing all the brightly-coloured saris against the intricate backdrop of the baroque church. The ceremony (it seemed to be a First Communion or Confirmation, since there were a number of kids lined up at the front of the church) was just finishing as I got there, so I tried to take some action shots of people as they socialised and milled about the place, but I'm not such a great portraitist, so I had to filter out a lot of blurry shorts of people, unfortunately.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Flying solo in Sicily

Due to work stuff, I had to spend all summer there, chained to my desk. I know! Such hardship and injustice has never been exceeded. Summer was slow to get going here in Brussels, but it has been hot and sunny for quite some time now (thankfully no longer as hot as it was).

So in September, when the situation at work changed, I leapt at the chance to take a few days away somewhere. I booked one week to travel the next, so looked for somewhere not too expensive, where the weather would still be reliably good and not too far away. I fired up Skyscanner, set my search options to "everywhere", and after considering Croatia and Greece, my eye fell on Palermo. Sicily had never been particularly in my consciousness, but it seems in the last couple of years I've been noticing more blog posts and articles about it, and I have a few pictures of its beautiful golden cathedrals on my pinboard.

So, Sicily it was. And as soon as I booked, it seemed more articles started coming out of the woodwork. Articles that spoke of the mafia, of pickpocketing and drive-by scooter muggings, of which areas you shouldn't walk alone at night and which areas you shouldn't walk alone full stop. I told an Italian colleague I was visiting his country. "Oh, all of Italy is fantastic, where are you going?" "Sicily." "Where in Sicily?" "Palermo." "Ah, all of Italy is fantastic, except Palermo. Palermo is terrible, dangerous". He did admit he'd never been and "didn't go south of Rome", but I was uncharacteristically unsettled. I told myself that I'd travelled, mostly solo, to places as diverse as Ukraine, Morocco and Albania, but doubts over my choice of destination lingered. Jules wasn't able to come, due to work, and I realised this would be my first truly solo trip since we met two and a half years ago. I worried that I'd gotten older and more fearful and lost my self-reliance and adventurousness. Getting ready for the trip, I took off all my jewellery, took all unnecessary cards out of my wallet, equipped myself with an old-model iPhone and dug out and old handbag with a chain strap so it would be less easily snatched or cut.

View flying in to Sicily

As you may guess, the trip actually passed without incident. I spent the first day or two on high alert, but gradually reduced my vigilance. There were a few times when I wandered into some narrow back streets at night or early in the day and my heart beat faster, but for the most part I stuck to main streets in the mostly pedestrianised centre and felt perfectly safe. Outside the pedestrian area, I found cars were used to negotiating pedestrians walking in the narrow roads, so it felt perfectly safe wandering along in the middle of the street and moving aside when I heard a car or bike coming up behind me (I think I've seen studies that show it's actually safer for pedestrians and vehicles to share space - presumably only in certain circumstances i.e. not multilane highways - because everyone is more careful and alert). I even got used to the strange habit of letting fireworks off in daylight hours (I heard them around my hotel pretty much every day I was there).

That's another thing. Palermo is noisy. If you're looking for a really relaxing, chill-out destination, it's probably not here. Shouting, drumming, blaring music from cars, loud motorbikes, honking horns, it has it all. Funnily enough though, when it got to about 11 pm, and not much later on the weekend, pretty much everyone quitened down by universal accord and other than the odd passing bike and a garbage collection one night at 2 am, it was quite peaceful.

View from my hotel room
I arrived late afternoon/early evening on Saturday, so just had time to wander up and down the Via Maqueda, one of the main and semi-pedestrianised streets of the old town, just steps away from my (very nice) B&B.

The "passeggiata" (evening stroll) on Via Maqueda

One side of the "Quattro Canti", a crossroads adorned by four matching buildings with statues of Kings and saints

The Opera Massimo. Not sure if this guy just likes dressing up or if that's a real uniform of some description

The Fontana Pretoria. The square was nicknamed the "Square of Shame", due to the naked statues on the fountain and also the historical corruption of the municipal institutions housed there

San Cataldo church

Statue on the Fontana Pretoria

When I ventured out for dinner, I came across a noisy parade featuring banners on long poles, which lined up in the Piazza Pretoria. They proceeded to toss the banners, balance them on their chests, palms or even in their mouths and generally dance with them, all while wearing medieval-style costumes. Unfortunately, I don't have any great photos and I have no idea what was going on, but it was quite cool to see.

A young boy with some of the banners

It was quite a good introduction to Sicily - traditional, noisy, lively and mysterious. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

1 hundred dogs, 1 hundred dogs... 1 hundred dogs!

(Does anyone else remember 2 Stupid Dogs, or just me?)

2016 was my 7th trip to the Vitiloire wine festival in Tours and Jules's 3rd. Every year since the first, I've managed to forestall a trip to Chenonceau by promising "maybe next year". This year, I couldn't get out of it any more, so we duly made a detour to the château on our way to Tours.

Don't get me wrong, Chenonceau is one of the fabled châteaux of the Loire that people dream their whole lives of visiting. It's just this was my fourth visit (trip one, two and three), so you can fairly count it crossed off the old bucket list. But Jules had never been, so finally we went along to tick it off his list too.

They have actually opened up a new part of the château since my last trip - the second story of the bridge across the Loire that you can see in the photo above. It had quite a lot more information on the history of the château through the ages, so trip not wasted. My favourite sign in the new exhibition:

"Hey, fish! Your mum smells like cabbage!"

Other than that, it's fair to say we did a relatively whirlwind tour, trying to dodge the inevitable coach-loads of Russian and Chinese tourists.

From Chenonceau, it was on to the main event in Tours. Our group this year was a little smaller, with my sister and my friend Caroline having moved to New Zealand (in separate incidents), but my sisters' friends have got such a taste for it that several of them came along anyway! I didn't go quite as crazy as the year before (since we still had a few bottles left over), but we acquitted ourselves pretty well. 

Ready for wine

Me and the British (slash Kiwi) contingent

Mel very proud of her wine purchases and her wine boy who had to run around after her carrying them

As you can see, the weather for the festival was pretty good, but by Sunday evening, the heavens had opened, and on Monday it rained solidly the entire way home across France and Belgium. I don't know if it registered with people outside France, but that week saw flooding across big areas of the country. We were lucky to get home, because the next day I saw friends on facebook posting pictures of some of the motorways we travelled home on completely washed out.

So it wasn't the greatest weather to go and do a partially outdoor activity, but we forged ahead with our plans to visit another of the dwindling list of major châteaux of the Loire I haven't yet been to. Namely, Cheverny, the inspiration behind Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin comics.

Walking in the footsteps of Tintin (and Snowy!)

Hergé lopped off the wings on the sides to make it a bit less grand
I promptly forgot pretty much everything about the inside of the château, but looking back through my photos, it has some pretty sumptuous rooms. It's not huge, but I'd rather a small but pretty château than a huge empty one, (looking at you, Palais des Papes). 

The hall was covered in vignettes from Don Quixote

Apart from the Tintin collection (assiduously promoted in the gift shop and also in an exhibition that we didn't visit since you had to pay extra), the big attraction of Cheverny is seeing the feeding of the more than one hundred hunting dogs which live there. We got in position fairly early, but even with the rain we had to stand way over on one side, so I imagine it gets really crowded on a nice day in the middle of summer. As it was, I got constantly dripped on by the umbrella of the woman next to me, but at least we got a reasonable view of the dogs.

There was a lot of waiting around, and then more time spent herding the dogs out of the yard to clean it, spreading the food, and then the master made them all line up patiently for a while before they were allowed to eat. The dogs were pretty well-behaved up to that point, and then when they got the signal to go eat, it was a total scrum. They all climbed over each other to get to the food, some even doing a comical handstand over the backs of the other dogs to make sure they got some. Which was just as well, since in under a minute, all the meat was gone. There was at least one thin and presumably timid dog who got fed separately to fatten her up, but otherwise, you snooze you lose.

The dogs and their master before feeding time

My wet sleeve and I go in for a pat

Waiting to get fed (video doesn't work on mobile, sadly)

 As usual, it was a great blend of visiting new and familiar tourist attractions, catching up with friends, and - of course - drinking a lot of wine. I especially like the new little tradition we've had the last couple of years of stopping off somewhere on the way to/from Tours. It really turns a long weekend into a proper mini holiday.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A weekend in Miffytown: Utrecht, The Netherlands

Back in July, to celebrate a long weekend due to Belgium's national day we naturally headed out of the country. Both of us fancied something low-key, preferably without having to fly, so we decided it was high time to check out a bit of Belgium's northern neighbour. There are any number of interesting cities within a few hours' drive (The Hague, Delft, Leiden, Maastricht, Rotterdam to name a few) but after some deliberation, we settled on Utrecht. Basically just because it seemed quite a pleasant place.

On the way, we took a small detour through Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau, a place I've wanted to visit for some time. If you google Baarle, you'll find all manner of enthusiastic articles that basically make it seem like a wonderland of geographical oddities. Basically, although the whole area is surrounded by the Netherlands, you have scattered bits which belong to Belgium, and within these are further Dutch enclaves. It looks like this:

These articles make the town sound super-exciting: you have a restaurant where the clients all have to switch tables at a certain time of night because the Dutch side can stay open longer than the Belgian! You have houses which have their kitchen in Belgium and their dining room in the Netherlands! The insanity! Truth is, it's actually a pretty boring place. We thought you'd see borders running back and forth all over the town centre, but, although there were some, they're just lines on the road. There's a reason all the photos in those articles look pretty much the same. It's hard to find a spot that isn't just the border running across some tarmac and terminating in a garage wall with a wheelie bin next to it. Anyway, fun enough to visit for half an hour on the way to somewhere else, but if we had driven out there specifically I would have been a grumpy bunny.

Jules astride the border
Utrecht proved to be pleasant indeed. It still had the vibe of a laidback student town even in the middle of summer. Its main feature are the canals running through the centre, which are the perfect places to go for a drink and to watch the world go by.

Enjoying a drink right next to the water 

The canal area was also a prime location for Pokémon Go players. This was maybe the week after the game was released in Europe, and there were a crazy amount of people playing outside on the fine summer evenings.

Including me!
The Dom, or cathedral, is another prominent feature. The inside of the cathedral itself was not that exciting, but next to it is a really pretty cloister garden we liked a lot. You can climb up the Dom tower, but only as part of a guided tour that takes like an hour, so on the first day we were too tired and then the weather was not as good on the other days, so we didn't bother. The Dom tower is actually no longer attached to the cathedral proper, because the section in between was destroyed in a storm in the 17th century.

View of the Dom tower

Canal and Dom tower by night

The beautiful cloister garden

Heading in to the cloisters

The only thing of note we really did was a visit to the Catharijneconvent museum, which focuses on religious art. Long-time followers of the blog will know I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. It had a beautiful treasury, full of reliquaries and monstrances and such things, and a nice collection of paintings through the ages. Probably not for everyone, but nice enough.

"You wanna go? I'll take you down mofo!"

When he tries to sneak out without waking you up

A creepy modern version of the Pietà
Finally, Utrecht is the birthplace of Miffy, the adorable little bunny! Did you know Miffy's real name is Nijntje? We didn't make it to the Miffy museum but we saw Miffy's traffic light!

High excitement! All in all, Utrecht is a great place for a short break if you're looking to eat and drink and take it easy. Pro tip: we left the car in a park and ride outside the city which cost 5€ for the whole time we were there, plus a day bus pass for both of us. Versus parking in the centre near our hotel, which was 30€ overnight! As you might expect from a Dutch city, the place is car-unfriendly and bike-friendly. Try not to get run over!