First time Sicily

The paparus is the logo plant of Syracusa, here planted in a fontain.

The paparus is the logo plant of Syracusa, here planted in a fontain.

For the first time for both of us, we are visiting Sicily. Friday (3/7) we arrived to Catania from Naples. Strange route, but we got an offer from Air France that brought us there very cheaply from Paris. There was a slight delay to board as we waited for ten policemen to transfer two prisoners to the back of the plane. Welcome to Sicily! We had reserved a car, but were so flabbergasted by the additional theft insurance which made the total insurance higher than the car rental, that we left Avis and went to National. They gave us a cheaper price, and not before having made the deal we realized that they were smart enough to offer us a reduction of 25% to get us as customers. Remember that next time you rent a car: go to the dealer next door and provoke a cheaper price!

In rain and early darkness – we are further south and more east compared to Nantes – we arrived in Siracusa halfway helped by a GPS from our French cell phone. Right up to the seashore of the original peninsula of Ortygia, but in a room without a view, we settled into this nice palazzio-hotel. After the obligatory technical problems of installing our computer and smartphones to the local Internet, we had a lovely dinner, pure Italian style with excellent local wines: Centopassi red and white organic wines produced on lands confiscated from The Mafia by the government!

A strong wind gave spectacular views.

A strong wind gave spectacular views.

Our first full day in Siracusa was windy as a storm. Protected in our windbreakers, we explored the sea-side streets of the island of the Ortygia, the oldest center of the city, settled by the Greeks in the 8th century B.C. Most of the buildings in the city date from the Renaissance or later, squeezed into the ancient Greek city street pattern.

The Baroque cathedral encases Greek temple columns.

The Baroque cathedral encases Greek temple columns.

On the mainland we toured the ruins of the Roman Arena and the enormous Greek theatre with around 2.500 (uncomfortable) seats where Aeschylus first performed his tragedies.

On the mainland we toured the ruins of the Roman Arena and the enormous Greek theatre with around 2.500 (uncomfortable) seats where Aeschylus first performed his tragedies.

In the same location were ancient quarries today full of citrus trees and with access to some impressive grottos where you could test your vocal performance.

In the same location were ancient quarries today full of citrus trees and with access to some impressive grottos where you could test your vocal performance.

Back at the hotel we sent postcards to family members in Syracuse, New York.

A flower greeting from family in Denmark marked the breakfast table of the birthday boy.

A flower greeting from family in Denmark marked the breakfast table of the birthday boy.

For the celebration of Stephen’s 59th birthday we went to a one-star Michelin restaurant, disappointing in two ways: Stephen was indisposed due to a poisoned clam the evening before, and Flemming did not find the menu worth the star. But we did not forget that the 8th of March is also the International Women’s Day. In the castle we peeked in on a conference with the theme “Women and the Sea”. Four female navy officers presided the event:

La Donna e el Mare*

Sunday we first went to the papyrus museum and learned about the oldest way of producing paper for writing and painting. Then we went by car to the most beautiful of the towns rebuilt in the Baroque period after the big earthquake in 1693: all too many churches for today’s need surrounded by the modern, rundown city of Noto:

Noto Domkirke* Udsigt3*

Monday we drove through many long tunnels on the autostrada to Taormina. 100 years ago this was the place to be for the European cultural elite. The city, perched high on a cliff overlooking the ocean, has the second largest Greek theater on the island:

greektheatertaormina

and a beautiful public garden created by an English aristocratic lady, a girlfriend of the Prince of Wales, but Queen Victoria was not amused. Unfortunately today the city is overrun by busloads of tourists who shop and eat. We didn’t shop!

We returned that evening to Catania, the second largest city in Sicily. The city was destroyed by earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt by use of the easily accessible lava stone from nearby volcano Mount Etna. The black elephant is the symbol of the city. Flemming found an excellent seafood restaurant.

Elefant*

Octopus* [Here is a little video – click on "Octopus" and take the time to upload it.]

We saw a large octopus in the lively fish market Tuesday morning before leaving for the 220 km long drive on the autostrada crossing the island to Palermo. We have no photos from Enna, a little mountain top medieval town where we tried to stop in the middle of a pouring hail storm. We never found the cathedral. Apart from that the landscape of inland Sicily is strikingly empty and mountainous with colors oscillating from yellow to all shades of green, very beautiful.

The next morning in Palermo upon leaving our hotel, we were surrounded by military and local police. Later that day the hotel receptionist explained that an anti-mafia judge was staying at our hotel, and he receives the highest level of protection in Italy. All alone we managed to reach the huge Operahouse, Teatro Massimo, the biggest operahouse in Italy and on an European level second only to Opera Garnier in Paris. “The Godfather” was filmed in the theatre, and we were shown around by a young lady of sufficient knowledge.

The enormous Norman- and Baroque-blended cathedral features a marble-calvaire in the obligatory 14 steps running high up on the walls surrounding the church conter clockwise:

No. 13 of the 14 posts of the "Calvaire", in marble and gold mosaic.

No. 13 of the 14 posts of the “Calvaire”, in marble and gold mosaic.

Koret*

But the highlight of the day as a tourist was the Palatine chapel in the Duke’s Palace: A small church packed with Byzantine mosaics from the 12th century. The afternoon was spent in the hotel beds where Flemming suffered from a slight food poisoning. Once recovered we shopped like tourists: new shoes and the long-sought-after Italian men’s cologne, Trussardi. There are more shops selling expensive watches than in Switzerland; we didn’t buy any. No dinner, but a second visit to the “Berlin” bar, very trendy with free appetizers:

Bar Berlin *

From an Italien barman in a thalasso place in Pornic back in Britanny we had a referral to his cousin’s restaurant in the small fishing port of Cefalu. We went there by train on Thursday. Visited the 12th century Duomo, again with splendid Byzantine mosaics and Arab artisans woodwork. Was lunch worth the detour? Well, we met the first smiling Renaissance man from before Mona Lisa.

8-ritratto-duomo-antonello-da-messina-cefalc3b9

This painting from 1465 by Antonello da Messina is the opus magnum of a 9,000 items bric-à-brac museum, collected through a lifetime by the 19th century Baron de Mandralisca.

Back in Palermo we had an evening meal in a difficult-to-find but good-to-be-in resto; the most innovative cuisine of the week.

middagsret3

middagsret4

Friday we had to go to Monreale, the third but the most beautiful Byzantine mosaic-decorated church of them all. There is no end of the pictures. No event from the Old Testament and no figure from The New is missing. We had to buy a book to capture them all!

Monreale

Back to the continent Friday night by ferry. No dinner, nothing was worth eating and we had too many opulent meals. We spent a long morning waiting in Napoli Airport where this blog was finished.

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“The Argonauts”, Melbourne’s queer rowing club, has been the social yeast of our two month stay here in the city. We are very thankful for the warm welcome we met here and the friendships we established. Going back to Nantes, we are better prepared to cope with the young, and not so young, crowd of the UNA (Université Nantes Aviron). We will return as better rowers than we arrived.

Last Tuesday we went out with Mark as cox in a 4xskiff. Our rounded backs are placed between Catalonian Xavier and the born rower David. It is only David’s fourth time rowing, but look at his back!. We are on our way back to the club house (to the left of the two blue portals) after nearly two hours of rowing up and down, up and down the Albert Park Lake. We are all doing our best. – Photo: Big Ben.

Next to cricket and football, horseracing and rowing are high on the list of the sports-engaged Melburnians. Saturday we had our weekly “social rowing” which turned out in a rather tough two hours in an 8-sweep (one oar per person). The sun was bright and the temperature increased to 30 degrees. So after the social breakfast, Stephen stayed indoors while Flemming joined the biking team of club supporters along the Yarra river during the biggest rowing contest of the year, “Head of the Yarra”, with 180 crews competing over the 8.6 km course. The Argonauts took part with one single crew. The day ended around a well-deserved BBQ with Ron & Frederick. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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When you back in Europe or in the US read about forest fires in Australia, you may think they are caused by uncautious behaviour or natural catastrophy. But we, at least, did not get the point before coming here: The bushfires are an inevitable and useful part of the ecological system; like the flodding of rivers in France in changing seasons. The difference is that in Australia there is too little water, in France too much. So here the dried-out vegetation dies in fire and renews itself afterward. Only if you build houses too close to the forest or, in France, to the river, you call for catastrophy.

The burned trees grow new leaves from their black trunks. Wherever we came out in Victoria, in the endless forests of eucalyptus trees, we saw this exclamation marks of horror in the midst of new green. We saw them up in Eltham the bushland-suburb of Melbourne when we last Saturday went around with Debbie and Alicia to the local “hippie”-market in St. Andrews.

Alicia and Debbie in the chai tea tent of St. Andrew’s hippie market.

And we saw the black trunks on visits to the open houses of local artists. Among the artists, Lloyd Godman attracted our attention most.

For years this former photographer has been replacing ground with space for plants. Sucking the necessary humidity from the night air, these plants, developed from the family of bromeliads (of South American origin), can form hanging gardens. Botanical science, environmental politics and visual arts go together in the work of Lloyd Godman. We would like him to come to Nantes next year for the World Green Rooftop Conference.

Sunday we went to the Melbourne Bay town of Geelong, one hour train ride from the city. With Stephen’s collegue from La Trobe University, Suzanne Young, a native of the Geelong area, we visited some of the wineries, tasted their product and bought some bottles. Next day, after staying overnight in a very talkative Irish lady’s spacious and neat B&B, Suzanne took us on the long tour of the Great Ocean Road, constructed from scratch by Australian veterans after World War I, those who were left after a third of them were killed in battle, another third wounded, the highest proportion of all the participating nations. Australiens, the offspring of British convicts sent out a hundred years earlier, were exposed by the British officers to the most dangerous missions. Here, on the Great Ocean road, they were at least spared from our days “Homeland”-desperation.

Stephen and collegue Suzanne on Lorne beach.

Midway through the 120 km long coastline we turned off, up into the rain forest:

At home we have difficulty growing ferns in our garden. Sorry we can’t bring a fern tree back from the rain forest.

Along an officially closed track we reached the 25 m high Beauchamp Falls surrounded by black trees.

(To be continued)

Australia 13

Back from Sydney, we moved into an apartment north of the Yarra River to approach the city from another angle and continue our important work –:].  Our new neighborhood, East Melbourne, is more fashionable and much, much quieter.  Victorian houses here make it a tourist destination with all the iron-lace and balcony columns.

This house, Dorset Terrace, has front doors unusually placed diagonally to the gates.

Our house is not special and, in common with most Melbournian houses, have a total lack of insolation and heating except for a small electric radiator.  The apartment faces south (not an advantage Down Under!), so often the temperature is higher outside than inside.

Also here we have a church rebuilt after a fire in the 1980′s. Not for social or spiritual purposes, but to create exclusive private apartments.

We came back from Sydney together with/at the same time as Prince Charles and his duchess.  On Tuesday they went to award the trophees at the sport event of the year, the Melbourne Cup horse races (therefore a public holiday in Melbourne), when everybody, really everybody in the country, has to bet, knowing or not knowing what they are doing.   We too lost our AUD20 not winning anything but this odd experience.  We stayed downtown drinking beers in big quantities and looking at the three-minute-long race from a big screen on Federation Square:

A 100 m2 big TV-screen let the people on Federation Square follow the short race.

In the Australian news, in the papers and on TV, the sports events are part of the “serious” newsstream, not shunted off to the back pages.  And the Australians are so crazy about horse racing that the fastest horse in history has been stuffed (taxidermied) and placed in The Melbourne museum:

Phar Lap was the name of this horse. From 1929 to 1931, he ran 41 races, winning 36 of them. It was easier to bet those days.

On the waterfront we have made progress.  Tuesday morning we went out together in a double skiff called “Medea” (there is also a “Jason”).  But no child was killed.  The boat is known to tip over easily.  But we didn’t.  Well, one rowed and the other balanced the boat and vice-versa.  Thursday afternoon Flemming went out with Kerry (see “Australia 8″), who is more experienced than we are.  We took out “Jason”, more demanding than “Medea”, higher in the water and with longer oars.  We had several good lengths during our two hours of rowing.  Kerry is as good a trainer as his countryman Jeff back in Nantes.

This weekend we visited several museums to broaden our knowledge from reading respectively The Fatal Shore and True History of the Kelly Gang.  The Immigrant Museum gave us more Irish background to the Kelly Gang; The Melbourne Museum a less politically correct picture of the aborigines and their sad story.  We learned that Tasmania, the home state of Danish Crown Princess Mary, has no reason to be proud of its handling of convicts, a labor force as cheap and suppressed as the American slaves, and its extermination of aborigines.

Australia 12

In Sydney we stayed in a B&B run by a gay Australian-American couple with their house as full of books and their mind as obsessed with music as ours. Sure, they have already experienced Strauss’ “Salome” and, yes, they hope to be in Antwerp for The Gay Games next year. Are we going to meet them there? First night we just got a taste of the city, went down to the harbor to pay our tribute to the pearl of Jørn Utzon and ended up in a Belgian(!) restaurant for moules-frites and a couple of our favorite Belgian beers. Were we homesick? No, but there is no cuisine Australienne, it is always a choice of “ethnic” food.

Friday morning we had to find a replacement for our broken Nikon camera. It was not so easy as just five years ago. We chose a Canon and we proudly present the results here.

From the Circular Quay at the foot of Utzon’s Opera we took one of the many harbor ferries to Watson’s Bay, and had a delightful lunch in plein soleil with the background of the Sydney skyline.

Saturday we walked through the beautiful Botanical Garden, where we learned the origin of the name Begonia and admired the blooming jacaranda:

The Sydney and Utzon Opera is smaller than you imagine, and so is the opera part of the building, the minor of the two parts, in opposition to Utzon’s original idea. But as you may know he left the project before it was finalized, in deep disagreement with the demands of the city/entrepreneur. Strauss’ Salome is directed by the Australian female director Gale Edwards (earlier awarded by the Sydney critics for a production of Festen, the play made after Thomas Vinterbergs movie). She had chosen to parodize to the extreme the opera’s quite ordinary 1900-male-chauvinistic-view of the female monster. The music gives her full credit, and the production could tour the world.

We finished our day and our stay with fireworks Saturday night over the harbor outside the Chinese restaurant where we had dinner.

Early Sunday morning we took the not-too-fast train back to Melbourne. “Why take a flight, you will see nothing,” was our reason to take the train from Sydney back to Melbourne. “Yeh,” commented our host Tom, “take the train, and you will also see nothing.” Maybe it was not the most diverse landscape we had before our eyes during the 11 hours of train ride. But we got the full treatment of the size, the dimensions of this continent while crossing the open landscapes from New South Wales to Victoria going through Ned Kelly-land. Flemming was reading Peter Carey novel from 2000 True History of the Kelly Gang, while Stephen was reading Robert Hughes’ history The Fatal Shore from 1987. The novel is the fictionalized story about the son of an Irish convict send to Australia after the first three to four waves of British convicts of all kinds expelled to the remotest possible place on earth, here down under, in all bloody, stinking details described in Hughes’ mastodon of a book.

Australia 11


The last two Saturdays we have been rowing in boats with eight rowers each with one oar (coxed eight). It is hard work for an hour and the closest you can get to the life of a galley slave, led by a demanding cox. Is there an element of masochism in that sport – or in any sport exercised with vigor? Anyway we are very much enjoying our new sport and the company.

We are now sitting in the train from Canberra to Sydney. A small train of two wagons with few passengers and no difference between first and second class except for the price. We are relaxing after three days of disoriented driving (it’s like writing with your left hand!) the 900 km between Melbourne and Canberra. We started with a visit to the just-enlarged Australian Botanical Gardens 60 km south of Melbourne. We already visited the “World” botanical garden in town and have now a rich supplement to our own impressive Jardin des plantes in Nantes. We have photos enough to illuminate the head of our blog-posts for years to come. The first night, we stayed in Metung, a seaside (actually a lake near the sea) resort of high beauty and expensive houses (see pictures).

The most expensive house in Metung

The three million Australian dollars for this summer residence has to be compared with the most expensive house recently sold in Melbourne at 30 mill. The Autralian dollar is equivalent to six Danish crowns or US$1.04.

The three million dollar view at Metung.

After 250 km of inland driving through eucalyptus forest and a lunch stopover in Eden (it needs the name), we spent the next night at Tathra Beach (see header picture of the Pacific view from our balcony) and had the morning opportunity of dipping our feet in the real Pacific – still too cold to swim in spring. The last 220 km inland and up to Canberra was impressively steep through broad landscapes of cattle, then sheep in the highland and small towns with the necessary coffee shops for our comfort.

We arrived in Canberra (and had a slight problem by matching our hotel reservation with the date of our arrival) too late to visit any museum. Fortunately instead we found a small motor boat with a humoresque and sarcastic captain-guide who took us on the last trip of the day. With no co-passengers we spent an hour on the big artificial lake which gives Canberra its particularity. We ended up being very well-informed about several aspects of this artificial capital in the same league as Brasilia, Ottawa and Washington D.C.

A team of schoolboys paddling a Dragon boat on the artificial lake of Canberra.

This morning there was time for a short visit to The National Museum of Australia with its politically correct but still very informative exhibit about the Aborigines. Now we are looking forward to Sydney.

Australia 10


St. Matthews Church in Prahran, Melbourne

From the balcony of our apartment in High Street, we look down on this strange building. It was a big church until a fire destroyed the roof in 1982. The church, already too large for a congregation of only 100+ churchgoers, was restored. A new metallic roof divides the building into three parts: a room for religious service around the alter, an open playground for children and a three-story part (two of which are rented out thus financing the social activity of the church taking place in the ground floor).

On Monday and Tuesday, the unemployed and homeless people come for help and a little food. But right around the corner in Chapel Street is The Mission, a second-hand shop (or op[portunity]shop as the Australians call it) and a café, which are the “windows” of a more than 50 year old organization taking care of long-term unemployed people living with a mental illness and homelessness. We have had several nice meals from the “newish” menu of The Mission where at least 25 per cent of staff are long-term unemployed or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the cafe, we pay a reasonable high price, behind the gliding door in the background homeless people are having free meals.

We now have lived in our 36 m2 apartment for more than three weeks, without books, apart from the few new ones we bought. It does not feel odd or uncomfortable, so maybe we have too much space at home (and too many books). But next week we will be off travelling, and we got tickets for Strauss’ “Salome” in the Sidney Opera!

In the rich neighborhood Toorak we saw these strawberries at a price of 2 Australian dollars each or three for AUD$5.

Life in Australia is very expensive for foreigners. According to the International Monetary Fund, Australia is the most expensive of the world’s 20 largest economies. In 2012 a basket of goods and services costing US$100 to produce in the US costs US$161 to produce in Australia.

Australia 9

On Thursday, Flemming succeeded to get out in a single tub on Albert Park Lake. He is not yet able to row in a single scull, since it tips easily, and therefore requires somebody to watch the rower. But it will come.

One of the teams of The Argonauts at the Bendigo Regatta ready for start.

Saturday we went with The Argonauts to a regatta in Bendigo, 150 km north of Melbourne. The weather was bad: cold and windy. Even as a spectator you can learn something. For example, competitive rowers can also tip the boat (poor young guy!). Now we may have met half of the members of the rowing club who have all been very nice to us.

Today springtime returned: 23 degrees and bright sun. So off we went on our bikes to play the tourists. We went to see two old Victorian estates, Rippon Lea and Como House. Both are run by The National Trust, a privately financed organization, driven by volunteers even though visitors pay an entrance fee. Nevertheless, this afternoon the house was not open so we could only gain access Rippon Lea’s beautiful garden. Upon arriving at the Como House, we read a permanent painted sign on the closed gate informing us that there was “temporarily” no access at all except for prearranged group tours and private functions. Welcome to the Anglosaxon cultural economy.

One of the local TV stations, SCB2, is overflowing with Nordic crime series. In one week, we could see “The Bridge”, “Lifeguards” and “The Neighbors”.

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Preparing to go out: Stewart (who did not go out), Meaghin, Reuben, Stephen and Kerry.

The weekly “twilight training” session at The Argonauts on Albert Park Lake, Mellbourne, took place Tuesday at 6.30 pm. With Kerry, Reuben and the two of us at the oars and Meaghin as the firm and encouraging cox, we went up and down the lake and half again in a more solid boat than the “nervous as a horse” boat last week.

 

Kerry was the happy number 1 rower.

Back at the dock.

The boat is named after the club’s patron, Justice Michael Kirby, Australia’s first openly gay High Court Judge.