Catania: Living Dangerously

Catania is Sicily’s second largest city. Home to more than a million people in the metropolitan area, it is located 24 miles from Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano.

Snowy Mount Etna looms over Catania. Here you see the main street, lined with 18th century buildings and leading directly to the volcano which is still very active. I stayed just two blocks from the yellow building in the background of this picture.

The city was destroyed by an eruption of Etna in 1669 and by an earthquake in 1693. Little remains of pre-1700 Catania. I have read that one-third of the city population died. There was so much lava that the city’s port was partially filled and the city’s area became much larger.

Much of Catania is built on the lava rock that was left in the late 1600s, The owners of this large building just left it there and built on top of it several centuries ago.

Today much of the city is comprised of large buildings lining the streets densely, most of them dating from the 18th century. Grand palaces are scattered throughout the city but today many of them are broken up into small apartments where laundry flies from the windows. Catania seemed to me to be smaller Naples. Like Napoli, there are no traffic lights in the busiest area of the city. I thought I was going to die in the taxi that took me from the railroad station to my apartment.

Beautiful old churches seem to be found in nearly every block. I thought this one was especially fine. Can you spot the angel?

Crossing streets is really a challenge!

Catania has two famous market areas: the fish market located just outside the cathedral  where I found the man with the swordfish head shown at the top of this post, and a larger market that stretches through the center of the city beginning within a couple of blocks of my AirBnB rental. That one not only sells food of all kinds but also shoes and clothing, household gadgets – just about anything you can imagine. If you’ve followed this blog for a while you know I love taking photographs of markets. Here’s some of my favorites from Catania.

 

Lecce: Things I’ll Remember

Wandering the narrow streets of Lecce (and always getting lost) over several days was one of the best travel experiences I’ve had. Although the city has a population of about 100,000 and a very active and successful business community, the ancient city at the center is protected, authentic, delightful. I thought it might be fun for you to read about and see some of the bits of Lecce that made it very special.

Roman around
On my first night in town, taking a walk without any idea where I was going or how to find my way back… stumbled upon the remains of the Roman amphitheater. Just behind it was a recently restored  14th century building that’s served as the center of town forever. The next day I found the stage and remaining seats of the Roman theatre. Everywhere I found late renaissance churches and palaces and ordinary homes. A block from the theatre stand the pair of ancient olive trees I’ve shown above. I wonder if the Romans planted them?  I think I slept in a renaissance barn. It was all enchanting.

Some of the extant Roman coliseum with the 13th century building at the upper left. Hidden somewhere in this picture is the symbol of a famous 20th century American institution. Can you find it?

Getting lost
No matter how hard I  tried, how much attention I paid, how much I planned ahead, how many maps I used, I got lost every day at least once.  This is a really small area! I got the most lost on the last morning lugging my bags to the train station. I had been there at least three times but I got so twisted up near my apartment! I came upon a group of men chatting on a Sunday morning and asked “which way to the stazione?” Two of them immediately disengaged from their friends and began leading me to the station, taking my luggage in hand. On the way there one of them had to head off in another direction but the other stayed with me all the way.  He was so nice, dragging my stuff, testing his English with me. I have found the young people everywhere I’ve gone in Italy to be very good to old ladies!

This lovely young woman allowed me to take her picture because I told her she looks like someone I know.

Hard-headed carvings
As reported in my last post, the soft stone of Lecce is said to be easy to carve. Saints and angels peer down at pedestrians all over town. The palaces (palazzi) have lushly carved window and door surrounds but my favorite thing about them were the balconies outside every window. Balconies held up for centuries by carved heads and shoulders of men and women and animals.

An example of frequently seen carvings holding up an 18th century balcony.

Another tradition in Lecce is papier maché. Our guide pointed out to us in one 17th century church that the ceiling was entirely made of the original papier maché.  But the most fun use of it appears as small souvenirs for tourists to take home and small street sculptures. Here’s one example.

A very old elephant made of papier mache and his rider.

Pastries, pasta and prosciutto
Of course food!  Good homemade (bakery and restaurant made) traditional food. Every day begins with a “cornetto” – a croissant filled with vanilla custard or Nutella or something equally good and a tiny cup of espresso used to transport several teaspoons of sugar into a body.  Cheese: I ordered a caprese salad and got an entire mozzarella the size of a baseball. Pizza everywhere! Naples style. Pasta with an unending variety of toppings.  Sandwiches and salads topped with ham, usually thin slices of prosciutto. My favorite restaurant was called Nonna Tetti (correct me if I’m wrong but I believe “nonna” means grandmother). A charming small trattoria with a varied menu and low prices.

Charming Nonna Tetti, a good restaurant near “my house.”

Humor.
I must share with my friends this work of art I found in the town’s modern art museum.

This man has few admirers in Europe. I’m told the two-finger salute is the Italian version of the American one-finger salute!

Next: surprising Catania!  Come back soon.

Libbie

In the Heel of the Boot!

If you look at a map of Italy you will see that it’s shaped like a high-heeled boot. This week I’ve been in Lecce, an ancient city in the center of the heel. There was an organized society living here 4000 years before the Romans came. The Appian Way, the most famous Roman road, ended here. In the next 1000 years or so following the demise of Rome a highly successful agricultural economy based on olive oil and wine developed here with Lecce the financial capitol. Some of the merchants and financiers became extraordinarily wealthy. They built massive, ornate homes that continue to exist today. They financed the building of a great many baroque and rococo churches.

I’ve been wandering through a maze of narrow streets that wind around those palaces (palazzi in Italian) for several days, getting lost every time I venture out, feeling grateful that the historic district of the town is too small to become permanently lost in. Google maps led me home most days. Let me show you a bit of what I’ve been seeing:

This church is my landmark, the nearest one to where I’m staying. It’s dedicated to Saint Matthew. Inside and out it is beautiful

Here’s another example of an ornate church. The map I’ve been using lists 25 churches like this within the old town walls. My guess is that the town is about 1 mile on each side.

An early evening view of the street behind one of the most decorative palaces — in pink and white stripes and with a tower.

This doorway surround is typical of many found on the old palaces. Huge doors insured the privacy of the inhabitants.

This town is a mixture of ancient beauty and the 21st century ugliness.

Here’s the street my tiny apartment is on. Too narrow for automobiles but ok for bikes. It’s quiet.

My corner of King’s Lynn

street

The beautiful home in which I’m staying is situated in a building constructed in the 1600s as an addition to a large place built as a medieval home and warehouse around 1350 and added onto in the 1420s.  Located on the river’s edge, it was one of the most important buildings in the town.  As recently as the 1930s it was a disaster. In the mid-20th century some people in the town of King’s Lynn organized a trust and raised funds to rescue this property and one other.  Now it houses 15 townhouses. One of them is owned by Helen, a gracious and charming lady who is hosting me for two weeks. Lucky me!

Each time I walk out the door I see a magnificent church built in the 12th century. Next to it a small row of brick cottages, originally part of a priory (monastery) from about 1100 AD.  I see the spectacular city hall built in the 1400s. Next door is a warehouse built by the Hanseatic League in medieval times. Nelson Street, on which this house is placed, is lined for its entire length by medieval and renaissance era homes. I love being here! Thank you AirBnB!

Please come out with me now, on a walk out of my medieval home in King’s Lynn.

This big orange building is Hampton Court. The house across the street is from the medieval period.

Here’s the entrance to Hampton Court. Notice how the oak threshold has been worn away over the ages. The black posts on either side are also oak, but they feel petrified: hard as stone.

The arched doorway on the left is the entrance to the part of the house built about 1320.

Here’s “my” door, with spring bulbs and primroses blooming in pots by the door in February.

When I walk out this is the first sight I see.

This old cobblestone street runs between Helen’s kitchen on the left, and a warehouse built by the Hanseatic League in the 1400s.

This is the backside of the priory cottages built in the early 12th century. Notice all the different patches of brick and stone used as the buildings have been patched and changed. The owners maintain container gardens in the small space between their cottages and the church.

I can’t resist including this photo of a spring time window in one of the priory cottages.

I write this blog to share the things I’m enjoying on my travels with my family and friends. Others are welcome to come along, but I feel a need to explain that I realize my blog is more personal than most, but that’s what’s intended.

Libbie

Living History: King’s Lynn, England

The medieval town of King’s Lynn exists today. On narrow streets along the edge of a river named Great Ouse, buildings dating from the 12th century through Georgian times proudly serve as homes and offices.  An 12th century minster (a cathedral-like church shown above) anchors one end of town while the site of the ancient fair granted by a long-ago king is at the other.

Shakespeare played here! The 15th century theatre, one of the oldest in Great Britain.

A nearly 600-year-old theatre where it’s believed Shakespeare and his band of actors  once worked is still active.  Lovingly restored homes, inhabited by proud citizens of the town, bear plaques attesting to the century in which they were built. During the Middle Ages King’s Lynn was an important port city. Sifting sands moved the river, taking business and money away, and leaving the town in its original state. Today visitors can walk on the quays along the river and on the streets through original town, past relics of centuries past.

Originally a guild hall, today this 15th century building is the city hall. The “checkerboard” facade was created by alternating white stones with black.

One of the oldest and most important buildings is the town hall, built originally about 1400 by a guild of wealthy ship owners and merchants. The building was constructed one century at a time, but the checkerboard façade of white stone and shale keeps that a secret.

St. Margaret’s church was begun in 1101 and has been a place of worship since. The towers have both a clock and a “tide clock.”

Just across the narrow street stands the “minster.” A great church honoring Saint Margaret was built here beginning about 1100 AD. It would be a cathedral in another country. Extraordinarily long, the east end of the church is graced by a large stained glass window with a huge carved Tree of Jesse below it. A 20th century stained glass masterpiece can be seen on the western end.

The other very impressive old church in King’s Lynn is St. Nicolas, built in the 1500s by the the town’s rich merchants and shippers.

Another church, Saint Nicolas chapel, is at the opposite end of the mile-long center of town. Built during the renaissance by and for the many wealthy ship owners, traders and merchants, this church now only serves its original purpose on Christmas and other special occasions.  The hammer-beam roof is graced by a large winged angel attached between each pair of roof trusses. The floor is paved in memorial stones and polished stone 17th century sculptures memorialize entire families.

In a corner of St. Margaret’s: an old tree, some very old gravesstones and the buildings of the 12th century priory.

A priory, just south of the minster, dates from the early 1100s.  Today the row of ancient 2-story buildings where monks once lived advjacent to St. Margaret’s church are small homes sharing a secret garden. Medieval windows and walls built of a jumble of stone and bricks overlook the minster church.

Buillt in sections between 1350 and the early 1600s, Hampton Court is comprised of four connected former warehouses than now house large homes.

Remnant of an old monastery, the Red Tower is now the centerpiece of “The Walks,” the town’s large, central 18th century park.

All over the town buildings that are centuries old have become gracious homes and offices. One such is Hampton Court, a large connected group of 14th and 15th century warehouses rescued by citizens of King’s Lynn and converted into 15 gracious townhouses. The streets near the river’s edge are the oldest in town. Many Georgian-era fine brick homes are seen on the city’s streets interposed with older homes, some of them medieval. A large park forms the center of the city. Designed for exercising the upper class in the 18th century, today it’s perfect for walkers and runners. In “The Walks” as the park is known, the visitor finds the remains of a city gate and a small part of the old city walls. In the center of the park a small, squat tower on a gentle rise named the “Red Mount Tower,” built in the 1483 and restored recently is open to visitors. Nearby a Victorian library and a church built to “seat everyone” (unlike the other churches in the city which sold seating) represent community life in King’s Lynn in the 19th century as do terraces of large and small brick homes.

A view of the “”High Street” shopping district in King’s Lynn.

King’s Lynn’s traditional “High Street” shopping area is comprised of several blocks of popular retail shops as well as antique stores and theatres.

Two Sunday morning joggers pass by the charming Duke’s Head Hotel.

Continue the “historical” ambience of time spent in King’s Lynn at one of several long-serving hotels which are still active here.  The Duke’s Head hotel, overlooking the ancient marketplace, is a lovely shade of blue.  Near it, the Globe Hotel is also a long-time favorite. The Bank House is a fine hotel near the Custom House and the river. All these hotels have traditional English restaurants. Other fine dining establishments are found throughout the old town.  On river’s edge, Marriott Warehouse is a wine bar and popular restaurant – try their Sunday lunch!  Hotels and restaurants to fit all budgets are plentiful in King’s Lynn.

A repurposed old warehouse on the quay is a fine restaurant and summer eating space now.

To discover a town that proudly protects and enjoys its history, add this lovely small city to your next U.K. itinerary.

The Eden Project

The Eden Project is an environmental education project housed in six enormous semi-transparent domes in Cornwall, England. Created in 1999, it has continued to inspire and educate children and adults for the past 20 years.  I’ve wanted to go there for a long while and finally was able to do so recently. The leaders of this project can explain it much better than I can so I begin by asking you to view this 5-minute video to learn from one of the co-creators the history, the purpose and the aspirations of the project.
Please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8unx8-pZxg

Here’s the link to the Eden Project website: https://www.edenproject.com/

On the wall of the welcome center at the Eden Project I found the following. I want to share it with you and your family. On the internet I found it here: https://www.100people.org/index.php

If the World were 100 PEOPLE:

Gender 50 would be female
50 would be male
Age 25 would be 0-14
66 would be 15-64
9 would be 65 and older
Geography 60 would be from Asia
16 would be from Africa
10 would be from Europe
9 would be from Latin America & the Caribbean
5 would be from North America
Religion 31 would be Christian
23 would be Muslim
16 would not be religious or identify themselves
as being aligned with a particular faith
15 would be Hindu
7 would be Buddhist
8 would believe in other religions
First Language 12 would speak Chinese
6 would speak Spanish
5 would speak English
4 would speak Hindi
3 would speak Arabic
3 would speak Bengali
3 would speak Portuguese
2 would speak Russian
2 would speak Japanese
60 would speak other languages
Overall Literacy 86 would be able to read and write
14 would not
Literacy by Gender 90% of males would be able to read and write
10% of males would not be able to read and write
82% of females would be able to read and write
18% of females would not be able to read and write
Education 78% of eligible males would have a
primary school education
76% of eligible females would have a
primary school education66% of eligible males would have a
secondary school education
63% of eligible females would have a
secondary school education7 would have a college degree
Shelter 78 people would have a place to shelter them
from the wind and the rain, but 22 would not
Urban/Rural 54 would be urban dwellers
46 would be rural dwellers
Drinking Water 91 would have access to safe drinking water
9 would use unimproved water
Food 11 would be undernourished
Infectious Disease 1 would have HIV/AIDS
1 would have tuberculosis
Poverty 11 would live on less than $1.90 USD per day
Electricity 82 would have electricity
18 would not
Technology 65 would be cell phone users
47 would be active internet users
95 live in an area with a mobile- cellular network
Sanitation 68 would have improved sanitation
14 would have no toilets
18 would have unimproved toilets

These school kids from France were in one of the three school groups at the Eden Project on the day I was there.

 

Ancient Exeter England

Imagine walking through a Roman town that was hidden for 1700 years or so. Actually, we still walk on top of it because following its discovery, it had to be re-buried for safekeeping until money becomes available to permanently expose it. The Roman walls left from that time still surround the old city.

 

Imagine walking with a delightful guide through one of the most outstanding gothic cathedrals. Learning that this cathedral has the longest domed roof in the world. Learning where the bombs fell on the building when the town of Exeter was bombed in 1942 – and about the soccer game that paid for the restoration of the damage done.

Imagine enjoying a delicious breakfast in a French bistro while admiring the ancient façade of the cathedral just a stone’s throw away.

Imagine walking down the commercial street (almost always called “High Street” in England) past buildings that have been housing merchants’ stores since Victorian times or before. Today some of them are selling mobile phones and sporting goods and computers but others are doing what they’ve done for a very long time: vending high quality clothing in the latest styles. It’s always good to find Marks & Spencer and Debenhams on the shopping streets of British towns.

Imagine staying in a tiny cottage built in 1822, sleeping under a heavy down-filled duvet, enjoying for a few days the company and assistance of an AirBnB hostess. Truly, were it not for the existence of AirBnb and RyanAir, I could not be taking the trip that I’m now enjoying.

I did all that on my first day in Exeter. For the next week I’ll be exploring counties Devon and Cornwall in southwest England. I plan to blog more often, showing you my discoveries.  Please come again.

And if you’ve visited England, please add a comment, sharing with us your favorite part of this “green and pleasant land.”

Libbie

Beautiful Buildings in Budapest

The streets of Budapest are lined with beautifully decorated buildings dating from the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) and much earlier. Government buildings and churches were extravagantly decorated. Along the major avenues large apartment buildings with carved exteriors stand proudly, continuing to be prime places to live. Following World War 2 the Soviet Union gained control of Hungary. As in many places in eastern Europe, the poverty of the Iron Curtain era protected beautiful old buildings from change or destruction. Today these countries proudly protect their architectural heritage.

The photo above shows the “Chain Bridge” — the first of today’s bridges to cross the Danube in Budapest. Behind it, along the water’s edge, the extraordinary Parliament building of Hungary is seen, the building with the dome. (Learn more about it here.)

Here are a few examples of the beautiful buildings that line the streets of Budapest.

The castle hill above the Danube in Budapest.

 

A closer view of the beautiful church on the castle hill.

 

This building standing watch over the Danube is dated 1782.

This building just across the Danube from the building shown above is the three-level market hall.

This is a view of the church on the campus of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. It was founded as an engineering university in 1782, making it the oldest such college in Europe.

 

Another view of the campus and its church, plus the connecting bridge. It’s common in Austria and Hungary for churches to have patterned tile roofs. This one might be due for some upkeep.

The Blooming Desert

In the country where the Sahara Desert is found it’s unsurprising that gardens are special features. Cities are dotted with them. Mosques are surrounded by them. Giant palm trees, exotic flowering plants and water features star in Morocco’s many gardens.

In Rabat on New Year’s Day a physician I’d just met took me on a long walk around Rabat, a walk that included the Kasbah of the Udayas where we found one lone white rose in full bloom.

In Rabat a large park named Jardin Nouzhat Hassan, sited on the edge of the medina, quickly became my favorite place.

On my first day in Marrakech I stumbled upon Jardin Majorelle, created by French painter Jacques Majorelle and nurtured by him for 40 years. Rescued by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, the garden today is filled with massive bamboo plants, many-year-old cactus plants, and inanimate objects brightly painted in bold blue and screaming yellow. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in Marrakech.  Comprised of several acres of mature plants, paths through the garden and the home of Saint Laurent and Bergé, the garden has also become the memorial to the designer. In addition to the garden there are small museums on the property and an upscale shop. Several small restaurants and café’s are adjacent.

The entrance to the garden is lined with enormous, old bamboo.

The narrow paths and the bright yellow pots were found througout the Jardin Majorelle

Here you see the Marrakech home of Saint Laurent and Berge.

Several other large gardens are found in Marrakech including the Agdal Garden covering of one and a half square miles and featuring a large square man-made pond and a botanical garden. Adjacent to it the Koutoubia Garden ,filled with roses and orange trees, surrounds the most visited mosque and minaret in Marrakech. Inside the medina a beautiful place named Le Jardin Secret [Secret Garden] is popular with visitors. In January the days are short, the flowers are few, and my time was limited. I didn’t get to all these gardens so I’ve given you links to share some images with you.

The Koutoubia minaret, surrounded by orange trees.

This is my last post about Morocco. Problems with my computer caused me to be unable to blog as I traveled there.  Morocco is a very affordable place to visit. Prices of hotels and restaurants and taxi cabs (among other things) were extremely low. French is an official language and most people used it. Moroccans I encountered, mostly in hotels and restaurants, were very pleasant and helpful. Marrakech is rather thrilling: the thousands of zooming vehicles will raise your heart rate! I recommend the Hotel Racine where I stayed in Marrakech (very good value) and the Ibis Rabat Agdal hotel in Rabat (delicious food in the on-premises restaurant). There seemed to be lots of honey-mooning couples in Marrakesh.

Libbie

Morocco in the 21st century

Morocco is a kingdom. It is modern and progressive economically. One example: it’s in the midst of a building program that will create 800,000 new housing units by 2021.  On the outskirts of Rabat I saw some of these apartment buildings from the window of the train as I traveled to Casablanca: row after row of identical modern buildings, each holding perhaps eight apartments.

Morocco’s tourism industry is a major part of its economy.  I experienced two newer structures that will play an important role in the growth of tourism in Morocco.  A new train station in Rabat and a recently built airport in Marrakech.  Both of these are spectacular.

You may be familiar with the high speed trains in France called TGV. The French are sharing this technology with its former colony, Morocco. The first high-speed rail line in Africa, Morocco’s TGV line, opened very recently, is in use from Tangiers to Casablanca with a stop in Rabat. It will eventually reach Marrakech. In Rabat an enormous new train station has been built in an area designated as that city’s new financial and transportation center.  Just completed in November, the station will have a number of banks, restaurants and shops although most are under construction now. Here are a photos of what I found there at the end of December 2018.

The new Rabat Agdal rail station.

Interior of the new Agdal train station will be occupied by banks, shops and restaurants. McDonald’s is already here! Can Starbucks be far behind?

The airport in Marakech has the most spectacular airport terminal.  It consists of buildings for arrivals and departures connected at the center. “Completed in 2008, the terminal extension of the Marrakech Menara Airport in Morocco—designed by Swiss Architects E2A Architecture…” This is a quote from an article entitled The Most Beautiful Airports in the World.

Another view of the arrivals hall exterior at the Marrakech airport. I like the “front porch cafe” but suspect it’s really the smokers lounge.

The interior of the arrivals hall.

The exterior of the departures hall.

The departures area interior

The front wall of the departures hall from the inside. I was truly delighted by this giant room.

Here’s a website about 21st century African-Arabic architecture that provides more information about this airport: http://www.archidatum.com/projects/marrakech-menara-airport-extension-e2a-architecture/

And one you may recognize!

Note added 28 January 2019: I’ve just found this long, detailed article about Morocco’s new high-speed train system. You can read it here:  https://www.businessinsider.com/bullet-train-africa-morocco-casablanca-tangier-2019-1#i-bought-a-bag-of-chips-and-took-a-moment-to-take-in-the-landscape-as-it-blew-by-36