Monday, 25 February 2013

the italian circus

Roll up! Roll up! Is that the Big Top we see in the port? It's 9pm and there are bright lights and a marquee inside a holding pen on the quayside. We enter and a friendly policeman in a clown's uniform invites us to leave our bikes near him and go over to immigration control.  We weave through about thirty cars and vans all with roofracks stacked high with white goods and bikes and all sorts of goodies from Europe.  Two portacabins house immigration and check-in.  At check-in there is a little chaotic queuing and an evident lack of anyone knowing what they are doing.  We get the necessary and probably pointless stamp on our tickets and then move over to portacabin no. 2.   

Here a resigned bunch of Tunisian men are all pushing forward half-heartedly towards the single doorway.  We meet a tall young South African woman here looking slightly out of place.  We join her and gradually inch forward.  Now and again a successful person emerges from the doorway and has to fight past the oncoming press of bodies.  Finally a female immigration officer comes outside and remonstrates with us all as if we were naughty schoolchildren.  It's rather insulting.   Why don’t you have two doors? I ask her, entrata and uscita? Am I putting my head in the lion's mouth?  My Italian is crap but she understands, and gives one of those expressive gestures that seem to say so much but in fact says nothing of use to us poor punters.  We all have to step back three paces.  As soon as she steps back inside we all steal forwards again.  

Finally entrance is gained to portacabin no. 2, we get ticked off a list, and the excitement is suddenly over.  Everyone disperses quietly to their vehicles and we retrieve our bicycles from the laughing policeman.  Now all we have to do is wait for the gate to open so that we can board the ship.  Ahh, but this ship is off to Africa.  The excitement starts to build again....

Sunday, 24 February 2013

palermitanos (part two)

Marta and Gabrielle have kindly offered to put us up for a couple of nights.  They live in the centre so we don’t have to go far.  When we buzz their buzzer a lot of barking breaks out up on the second floor.  Gayle looks at me and says “You know Marta has a dog, don’t you?”  Pedro is not just any old dog, he’s like a hyperactive two year old that can’t sit still.  Marta invites us to take some tea while she takes him for a walk and when they come back we are relaxing on the sofa unprepared for a hound to come charging across the room at us, tail wagging like a metronome on speed.  Anyone who knows me might know of my fear of dogs and I get quite a bit of 'immersion therapy', as the psychologists call it, with Pedro - especially the bit when he holds my forearm between his teeth.  We get our first and very good Italian pizza from the restaurant downstairs and quickly get into a conversation ranging from politics to religion – probably the two best subjects if you want an argument.  A couple of friends arrive and the conversation gets more excitable but not without laughs. And I'm happy because Pedro has someone else to jump on.
who needs religion and politics?

We are disappointed to find that Marta and Gabrielle do not sound like they really enjoyed their motorbike tour around Tunisia, but when they explain it was August and Ramadan we begin to feel some relief.  Marta admits they went a little bit unprepared.  It was up to 45 degrees in the desert and that's hot even before you get into bike leathers.  We'll be there soon and the warmest we expect it in the south is around 20 degrees.  In the back of my mind is the memory of arriving in Morocco for the first time by boat in Tangiers and the culture shock of a place so close to Europe and yet so different.  Exciting, thrilling, irritating and exotic.  I'm wondering if we'll feel the same thrill when we arrive in Tunisia.  
We are conscious that we do not meet many Italians travelling for a long time or travelling cheaply, unlike the Dutch, Germans, English and French we have met.  There’s not the same tradition in Italy it seems.  But when you understand that finding a job in Italy may be more about who you know than what you know, then maybe that explains why no-one here wants to take the risk. The thought is reinforced when we stay with Fillipo and his wife Anna-Maria.  Lea in Cagliari told us that Fillipo is Mr. Couch Surfing.  Not only has he hosted thousands but he also surfs every time he goes abroad.  He has been to many many places and is keen to talk about them.  His enthusiasm is boundless.  He's thinking about Central Asia next.  But he has to fit his journeys in with his job. They went with their son, who is only three, to Iran last year and of course enjoyed it.  We want so much to return there on this journey but are unsure as to the prospects of this happening.  Instead, as we look at photos of their trip, we silently reminisce about the people we met and the friends we made there.

Sunday morning in Palermo is a quiet affair although there are large numbers of people around.  The main thoroughfare has been closed to traffic and we see more cyclists on this morning than all the other days put together.  On Monday morning we buy our ferry tickets for the evening boat. It's a showery day and we take it in turns to peruse a big bookshop, while one of us sits with the bikes outside.  At some point in the afternoon when we're sat together like a pair of down-and-outs a young man approaches to ask where we've come from and where we're going.  He tells us he'd like to travel by bike and then offers us use of his shared house if we need anything like a place to stay or a shower.  We decline with thanks - such a generous thought.  We've had such wonderful hospitality here in Palermo - I only wish we could tell those northern Italians who warned us to beware........

Saturday, 23 February 2013

wild geese

The last time we met Jeff was in the Fitzroy National Park in Argentina in 2003.  Ten years is a long gap but after only a few minutes the years have slipped away.  Jeff travels every winter to escape the cold and wet of his home in Portland and in the past few years has been coming to Europe.   This year he’s in Italy and we finally contrive to meet in Palermo.  He came here three years ago and so can offer some insight on the sights worth seeing.  This is the first city we have visited on this journey where we feel tempted to splash some cash on entry fees but we want to be a little discerning, as only tight-arses can be.  We have already visited the Monreale cathedral, which sits outside the city, to see its ornate mosaic interior.  The trip was a little disappointing – the mosaics of scenes from Old and New Testament are remarkable but the church was gloomy, and the mosaics were unlit.   
But Jeff remembers that the mosaics in La Palatina Chapel, built inside the old Norman palace, are much better and much closer to view, so we force open the wallet and pay our way in.  The chapel is stunning – decorated with rich vibrant mosaics up above and wonderful colourful marble on almost every other surface.  The central ceiling is made of carved and painted wood.  It’s difficult to know what to look at first but we take our time so as to absorb it all.

add your own caption
We seem to talk incessantly for the three days we spend together.  Jeff is great company and full of good stories.  He tells us that when people ask him 
about his trips abroad he has to explain that travelling is another form of further education, not a lazy holiday – it’s an opportunity to learn and experience things beyond what you can see on TV.  He has to research and he often produces shows or books from the photos he takes.  As we wander he keeps an eye out for the common absurdities that are everywhere to be seen but normally overlooked.  Then photographs them.  We  enjoy doing this too, so it’s great fun to be with an expert in this field.   

A local had told us that when the Arabs were here for 200 years after the Normans, they did more for the city than the Spanish did in the succeeding 600 years.  In particular they built a network of qanats, underground water channels, to bring water to the city from the hills.  We are told about a palazzo with an underground cistern and a room cooled with a wind tower - ‘the Scirocco Room’.  So off we go in search.  Through the maze of streets we wander, into small piazzas, along back alleys, through a passageway.  At a street market we ask a couple of stall holders for help and get pointed in opposite directions.  A woman on a balcony hears us asking and sends us one way.  About half an hour later we turn a corner and find ourselves back under her balcony.  No where can we find the palazzo, but meanwhile we see a little more of the old quarter.  Finally we find the big wooden doorway with the palazzo’s name on it.  The doors are chained and padlocked, of course.  Chasing a wild goose can’t be as fun as this.
There are catacombs in the city that the Capuchin monks who run it have opened as a museum to the public.  A strange place, full of bodies put on display, hung on the walls or lying in niches, all still dressed in their best funereal garb, some quite well preserved.  You can walk through and get a good close up of the most awful looking specimens you’d ever imagine, mainly from the late 1800’s.  As Jeff said, when he first saw these he never wanted to die.  Some have heads bent and turned to each other as if they’re in conversation.  Gayle and he try to surreptitiously snap some photos, despite the big signs in four languages saying ‘no photos’.  At some point a voice booms over a tannoy “Signor please do not take photographs.  This is a cemetery.”  We feel a bit guilty but can’t help wondering about the hypocrisy as postcards of some of the finest exhibits are on sale at the entrance.  
Down by the harbour there are some still quite grand buildings that survived the bombing in the Second World War.  There are signs of restoration going on in places and the city seems quite lively.   The days pass quickly with so much to talk about and so many streets to wander, and we part with a promise to meet again before another ten years has passed.   We would have loved Jeff to come with us to Tunisia but unfortunately he has not enough time.   We wonder where we’ll meet again.  And what we'll look like when we do....

Friday, 22 February 2013

palermitanos (part one)

There’s something special about arriving in a big city by ship, particularly if that city has a great setting.  Palermo sits in a large bay backed by big hills that are dusted in snow this morning.  The sunshine gives the old stone buildings in the centre a welcoming glow.  It’s Sunday morning and the streets are quiet.  A cloudburst washes the streets clear of pedestrians as we head over to the station.  We are planning to stay a week here in the city as the best ferry to Tunisia leaves weekly on a Monday night and in the meantime we are hoping to meet our American friend Jeff, and also collect a parcel at Poste Restante.  There‘re also plenty of sights to keep us occupied here as the city has a fine collection of buildings dating from its time as a wealthy medieval metropolis and we’re excited at the prospect of a city described as one that bridges the gap between Europe and Africa.  A couple of Italians (northerners) have warned us to be careful in Palermo – what better recommendation for a city than that?

Gayle has been in touch with several Couch Surfers here.  Mario and Eliana have offered to host us over the weekend whilst Marta and Fillipo have both said to keep in touch if we need help.  Normally we would not ask to stay with so many Surfers, but in fact Marta has visited Tunisia in the past year and Fillipo is thinking of visiting Central Asia where we’ve been and so we should have something to share.  Mario and Eliana live near the station and have written to say they’ll meet us there.   It seems that Mario is a shy man because he has a cartoon penguin for his profile photo.  As we stand around outside the station with all the usual station loiterers, departees and new arrivals I’m half-hoping that a cartoon penguin will appear around the corner.   Alas, Mario and Eliana seem quite normal, although after a few days we believe they may not be typical Palermitanos.  We have a quick cuppa at theirs before heading out to their local street market to pick up some fresh fruit (gorgeous oranges) and veg
(artichokes) and fresh cockles, amongst other items, all of which are served up later for us to enjoy.  We chat in English and some Spanish – Mario seems to understand a lot of English but speaks less than Eliana.  She works in the Post Office on the banking side and he keeps bees – he has a hundred hives just out of the city.  But Mario doesn’t look like a bee-keeper, he looks more like an artist with his grey cap sat askance on his head, his glasses sometimes perched on the end of his nose and a cigarette always on the go.
 We go for a stroll around the old town centre and down the back lanes.  The buildings are intermittently shabby and falling down and then you turn a corner and there’s a grand church or a restored house standing in front of you.   Piles of rubbish are sprawled in corners or down alleyways and there’s graffiti everywhere, which you’d expect for an ancient Italian art form.  In the centre are Bangladeshi men selling scarves and mobile phone accessories at stalls or walking around with handfuls of brollies for sale.  The city's golden era may have been some centuries ago, but it's got plenty to offer us right now.

We instantly feel at home with Eliana and Mario, a sensation which is a real luxury for travellers.  In the evening we are invited to join the family meal. Sonia, their daughter who lives downstairs, joins us with her boyfriend Alessandro, and Massimo, an old friend, turns up a couple of evenings.  Massimo is an animated Palermitano.  When he tells a story he acts it out.  Neither of us can follow the story properly but the mime is incredible.  One evening he arrives and we make small talk.  He looks weary, and he mops the sweat from his brow, saying “Work hard all day”.  He then turns his pockets out “and no money!” He then mimes someone taking and pocketing wads of cash “In Italy only the thieves get rich”, pause for breath, “and the workers get…” ending with a universal gesture.

The meals are traditional Italian – an appetiser, a pasta, some meat, then salad, then dessert, usually fruit.  It’s a far cry from our one-course carbo-high camping dinners.  Mario is a wonderful film obsessive – with a huge collection of films - and has just started blogging about the more obscure ones.  So we are given the rare treat of after-dinner cinema evenings.   It may seem churlish of me then to complain that the first film we watch together is Les Miserables.  Like a boy in a sweet shop who ends up with a liquorice stick, when all around him are jars and jars of much better offerings.  Whilst tiring of the libretto I get to wondering how the title could be translated into English and settle for The Blighted, for that is exactly how I selfishly feel. However, Mario thoughtfully picks out two other films for us to enjoy on other nights.   We stay four nights with them in the end and manage to cook a traditional English dinner of kofta curry, dhal, gobi aloo and rice as a nominal thank you.   It would be much better for us to host them in Hebden Bridge some day – a common desire when we are Couch Surfing – and perhaps this may happen as Eliana and Mario only visit islands when they travel.  Somehow I think they may prefer Polynesia to Britain, but we can always hope.....

Sunday, 10 February 2013

our ship comes in

12.20pm We knock at the door of the ferry ticket office but to no avail.  The office closed at 12.15pm  It reopens at 4.15pm and the boat to Palermo goes at 5pm. Mmmmm.  We head over to the Port Authority building on the wonderful open waterfront of Cagliari.  Behind the grand facades of the shops along the front we can see the old town climbing the hill to the great walls and bastions of the citadel overlooking the whole scene.  We're wondering what to do when a friendly young guy in shorts and flip flops comments on our bikes.  We start talking and Gayle gets a sense of deja vu.  Bart is living on an old boat in the harbour with his girlfriend Lea.  They work for the owner who lives in Australia.  It turns out that Gayle has already read about them from another blog by cyclists who also met them here.  Strange thing the internet.  They're a very friendly couple and before we know it we've had a shower and lunch with them.  No, that sounds wrong.  We take a shower and then join them for lunch.   We explain we're taking the ferry to Palermo with the hope of connecting with an onward ferry to Tunis.  After some discussion and a little indecision on our part, followed by a visit back to the ferry office, we decide to stay in Cagliari and get the weekly ferry next week instead.  In another of what we call 'spontaneous acts of hospitality' we are offered a berth on board for a few nights. 

The Daphne is an old Danish coastguard vessel built to look like a fishing boat.  Bart shows us around and explains that there are only three boats left in the world with the same engine.  With one load of fuel they could sail to Cuba and back.  Mind you, the fuel would cost about 70,000 Euros.  Bart joined the boat in Norway and the owner intended to circumnavigate the globe, but when they got to the Med he liked it so much that they haven't left yet.  Bart has been moored in Tunis and Palermo, where he met Lea, and they are both full of insights and recommendations for us ahead.  The harbour is a tranquil place - despite being in the centre of the city and we have a happy few days here before setting off along the south coast to see a little more of the island.

Our trip takes us to the south east 'corner' and we camp wild for three nights visiting lovely empty beaches and taking it easy.  In summer these places are swamped with visitors but at this time of year it's very peaceful and beautiful.

We return to Cagliari to do a few chores and have more of a look around and are hosted by Ileana and Enrico, two cheerful Italians.  Enrico is a native Sardinian.  What do Italians think of Sardinians, we ask.  They say we're lovers of sheep, he laughs.  Ileana is an engineer who teaches belly dancing as well.  They are both busy but we have a couple of meals with them when we get a chance to chatter.  

On Friday afternoon we return to the harbour to board our ferry to Palermo.  It's low season - just a few passengers and some freight on board - plenty of room to spread out on the floor for a good night's sleep in the passenger lounge.  We are rocked gently to sleep as the boat crosses the Mediterranean.