Sicily and Malta.1 – Intro



We returned from a holiday in Sicily and Malta on October 22.

It had started on October 8, dreadfully stress-loaded, with  a 2.5 hour Toronto delay on the tarmac in Air Canada 890, followed by an Air Canada “welcomer” in Rome October 9 who commanded us to “Run!” to our replacement flight – an impossible and dangerous marathon pre-destined to fail epically. We “ran” for 25 minutes…

Though we were both almost 74, no motorized transportation was offered. In fact, when requested, it was denied. We missed that replacement flight and, at one point, my wife and I were so breathless that I was worried that one of us would have a serious medical incident at FCO.

We went to about 4 disinterested, misinformed Alitalia desks/gates until we finally found a veteran Alitalia  supervisor who knew exactly how to solve our problem in about 10 minutes. He and his super efficient staff got us and our bags on Flight 1741 to Catania that left at 3 PM, 2.5  hours after our original Alitalia flight 1711 had been scheduled to depart.

Our destination was Siracusa, that ancient, sacred place that was once more important than Corinth or Athens. We easily found the Interbus kiosk at Catania Airport  that sold tickets to Siracusa for €5.70 pp and arrived at Maison Ortigia in the dark. Emanuele was waiting for us and for a few other patrons of his B&B who had also been delayed in their travels.

The beauty of what we experienced in these two ancient, war-torn lands more than made up for the stress we went through on October 8th and 9th in getting there.

Catania to Siracusa
Route from Catania to the island, Ortigia (ancient Siracusa) is a 63 km bus trip.



Vienna and Melk – May 16

Detail of Courtyard
Detail of Courtyard

May 16: goodbye Insight Vacations Highlights of Eastern Europe Bus Tour. Now for four self-planned nights in Vienna and a change to more  affordable digs. The concierge at the Hilton on Am Stadtpark was very helpful. He suggested leaving our bags with Hilton and leaving asap for Melk. I phoned the amazing Tina at K&T Boardinghouse, where we had booked 4 nights months before, to let them know we would be arriving much later than 9 AM because we were seizing the nice day and going to Melk. Tina suggested 6 PM and promised there would be someone there to welcome us. Going to Melk first made it possible to buy a money-saving 3-consecutive-day transit pass for our last 3 days in Vienna. We grabbed the U3 line right across the street. It took us 3 stops to Westbahnhof Station where we bought our tickets for Melk Abbey for €51 pp. These combi-tickets included the train from Westbahnhof Station to Melk, admission to the Abbey, a Danube boat from Melk to Krems and a train on a different line from Krems back to Vienna.

Vienna ►Melk  Melk ► Krems ► Vienna
Vienna ►Melk
Melk ► Krems ► Vienna

Read on for some photo souvenirs from our trip, followed by a description of our new digs and our Schnitzel dining fun evening in Vienna: Continue reading “Vienna and Melk – May 16”

One Fine Morning In Lisbon

Students at Lisbon's "Discoveries" Monument posed for this and caught my attention
Students at Lisbon’s “Discoveries” Monument posed for this and caught my attention

We visited Lisbon (Lisboa) in 2011 as part of our tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Our local guide took us to this port area on the western outskirts of the capital at the mouth of the Tagus River. Later we bused further along the coast to Cascais and then inland to Sintra. The area around the Monument to the Discoveries is very historic. This monument was built in 1960, 500 years after the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. to honour the Prince and Portugal’s history as a colonial power and its significant contributions to navigation, a profitable skill that came, perhaps a little belatedly, to Europeans. I say belatedly because the folks who populated Polynesia put the Europeans to shame in their ability to navigate their relatively small,  fragile craft nimbly and repeatedly around and throughout the vast Pacific. The Polynesians were the most amazing discoverers on the planet.

Near the new monument is the Belém Tower, an iconic fortification built between 1516 and 1519 to assist with the defense of the mouth of the Tagus River on a basaltic outcrop that was barely connected to shore. It has a small museum inside, which we opted not to enter. Time was limited.

The large, concrete Monument to the Discoveries points toward the water and is best viewed from a boat. If one is, as we were, landlocked in the monument area its prow can only be seen from the side. At the prow, in a big, ribboned hat, is Prince Henry himself. The folks down the sides, behind Henry,  are various heroes of the colonial era, including some explorers, navigators, cartographers, artists, scientists, monarchs and, of course, missionaries – whose diligent work of pagan soul-saving “justified” the ventures. If one were to climb the Monument to the top, she/he would get a great view of its beautiful, circular Wind Rose – a 165′ diameter, stylized map that shows and names all of Portugal’s conquests. We did not have time to go up, but I got some interesting close-ups of the detail.

Across Avenida Brasilia is the beautiful, sprawling Jerónimos Monastery, which we did not enter but photographed close up.

Jerónimos Monastery, now the Archaeology Museum
Jerónimos Monastery, now the Archaeology Museum

I found the afternoon visits to the towns of Cascais and Sintra wonderful. Maybe a post soon on those places… An experienced local guide spent this fascinating day with us – without our tour director. It was pleasant to be without him for the day. I, at least, didn’t mind a bit.

The Cockleshell and the Camino

Sewer cover in Arzúa sports the Cockleshell symbol of the Camino Santiago
Sewer cover in Arzúa sports the Cockleshell symbol of the Camino Santiago

Last year in Spain on our Camino Santiago my wife and I noticed that many sewer covers in towns along The Way contained motifs that showed the ancient symbol of the Camino: the cockleshell.

This shape of shell is found on the Atlantic coast beyond Santiago de Compostela. Early on in the 1000 year history of this pilgrimage, pilgrims returning home used the cockleshell as proof that they had completed The Way.

Among the blessings one, whether religious or non-theist, experiences are the reflective walk itself, the ancient architecture, the completely unspoiled countryside in some parts, researching the crazy, sacred HISTORY (omg!), the making of new, lasting friendships and, an unnecessary but wonderful bonus for us, spending tons of quality time preparing for the challenge, sharing the walk and sharing the memories – and talking about our next one!

Check out my posts in my Category, Camino Santiago. They vary from brief to very detailed with lots of photos and tips.


Tannery workers stir the leather in the dye pots with their hands - and feet
Tannery workers stir the leather in the dye pots with their hands – and feet

We opted against Insight’s included tour of the Fes medina, opting to hire a personal guide for a full day. This gave us more time there and much freer movement. We decided this before leaving Canada. I found a superb young man, named Younes, through a very helpful woman on Lonely Planet’s forum, who visits Fes annually. I communicated with Younes initially by phone and then we worked together on what we wanted to see, arranging this by email.

I made it clear that we did not simply want to be brought around to places where we would be expected to spend so that Younes could get a commission. This must be clear from the start. When we got to Fes I phoned him from the hotel on his cell. We had connection problems so just quickly said, “We will meet you at 10:15 at the hotel as agreed by email,” and hung up.

As our group was about to board the bus for supper, Younes showed up and somehow found us. He went out of his way to assure us that he would come for us in the morning. Our up-tight Insight tour director flipped out when we told him our plans. He threatened to call the police until we explained how we had pre-arranged the whole thing.

Below are three photos taken at Al Karouine University founded in the ninth century, which claims to be the oldest continuing university in the world. While we walked, Younes talked of having guided Nicholas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts during his time as a guide. He was very impressed with Julia Roberts, who had some very specific things she wanted to see. Apparently she is involved in charitable and educational projects to do with young people in Fes. Since he humbly admitted, even though a student in university, that he couldn’t read the 9th century calligraphy I’m inclined to believe him about the celebrities.

A colourful highlight was a major leather tannery in Fes, where we specifically asked Younes to take us. They gave us a sprig of mint to hold near our noses, but the smell wasn’t that bad. The leather goods were amazing, but, even after touching the wonderful softness of the vividly coloured jackets, handbags and other beautiful items, we somehow resisted. Right: We passed by a shop in the metal working area. This was a noisy highlight. There you go; if I include our delicious lunch, there’s something for all five senses in the medina.

Miscellany: An early photo of a square before entering the narrow streets with Younes, patiently waiting for me, on the right. A prayer niche in the restaurant where we lunched; it must have been a very luxurious home at one time. On the right a patient and colourful donkey.

Last Fes group: Left: Carpenters at a factory where wedding seats are made.
Centre: The sacred shrine of Fes’ patron saint, Moulay Idriss, who re-founded the city and ruled Morocco between 807 and 828. Moulay means saint. Idriss means Idriss. Non-Muslims cannot enter the shrine. As the young woman in this frame stolen from video exited with her mother and sisters I respectfully put my camcorder down. After they were out of sight I resumed my video, only to have her pop her smiling face into my camcorder’s view. We laughed and chatted with them outside the door in French. She went in and lit a candle for Anita. A magic moment that would have been missed if we had taken the free medina tour operated by Insight.
Right: This photo proves we had a good time. I should have asked someone to take a photo of the three of us. Silly me.
Next post, perhaps: Marrakech and the capital, Rabat.

Sagrada Familia

After a month in Spain, Portugal and Morocco we felt we were “Churched Out” until we walked into Sagrada Familia. It is a very special place for anyone with eyes and a heart. For a little more info about Gaudí, see my post on the Barcelona of Gaudí.

Seville Alcázar Treasures

This Oriental fan was displayed in the Alcázar, of Seville, a castle built over five centuries. The Alcázar is one of the finest existing examples of mudejar architecture.

Córdova, Spain

Beautiful arches

Our Spain holiday in 2011 focused on Madrid and Andalusía, the area of Southern Spain in which Islam existed for over 700 years. Córdova was the capital of Islamic Spain. Its Islamic scholars were receptive to new ideas, and Catholics and Jews, the People of the Book, were able to reach high levels of influence in the various seats of power. This was truly a golden age, until fundamentalist soldiers from North Africa were brought in by warring city states to assist with battles between them. The fundamentalists stayed and, in the 11th century, gained enough power to cause problems for the enlightened liberals.

It was due to the enthusiasm of the Arabs for Greek philosophy that the writings of Aristotle and Plato spread to France and the rest of Europe. In 961 Córdova, full of translators, was the most enlightened city in Western Europe. Its library possessed 400 000 volumes. Córdova was the home of four great thinkers of different religions:
  1. Seneca the Younger, the Roman Stoic (d. 65 C.E.), teacher of Nero,
  2. Hosius (d. 359 C.E.), a bishop who advised Constantine
  3. Averroés, (d. 1198 C.E.), an Islamic scholar who considered Greek philospohy to be compatible with Islam
  4. Maimonides (d. 1204 C.E.), a Jewish codifier of Talmudic law

I found statues of Seneca, Avveroès and Maimonides but Hosius’ is in Alexandria.

A huge and beautiful mosque still stands there today. It is called the Mezquita, the Great Mosque.  Córdova was reconquered by the Catholics in 1236. A cathedral was built inside it by Charles V in the 16th C. Many Catholic dignitaries and royalty chose to be buried in the Mezquita. It is now a truly unique World Heritage site.

Another World Heritage site only a short bus ride from Córdova is Madinat al-Zahara, the royal city built outside Córdova by Abd ar-Rahman III in the 10th C. to increase his prestige against rival caliphates. It was a place of great beauty. Art was fully appreciated;  even art that contained representations of the animal form, anathema to the stricter sects of Islam. It was sacked ca. 1010 by North African soldiers during a civil war. The site is being busily excavated and rebuilt, largely through funding from the Aga Khan. A large, modern museum has been built to house treasures from the excavations and there is a wonderful computer-generated film that describes what courtly life was like there in the 10th C..