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.

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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....