I watch from the Autostrada as the explosion of black cloud erupts from the snow-capped peak of Etna. A single long, dark grey cloud forms and snakes towards us. This is not weather, not a rain cloud. This is volcanic dust. Within a matter of seconds my car has changed from silver to black, the streets have gone from pale concrete to dark graphite. It’s raining pebbles of ash!
6.00pm Wednesday evening and it’s still an energy-sapping 33°, made worse by the lack of any significant breeze to cool the brow. The heady scent of Brugmansia from the garden below hangs in the air but it’s just too hot to muse, too late to go to the beach and way too early to go out in search of entertainment. What to do?
“Why don’t you pop up and see the jazz concert.” Suggests Maria. “I think it starts about seven. It’s somewhere in the hills above the village.”
“Seven? Are you sure?” Nothing starts here much before 11.00pm, even when it’s advertised for 9.00pm. Continue reading
“I see your mum!” Cried Maria excitedly. “Stop the car!”
I hesitated as I checked the rear view mirror and pulled into the side of the kerb…on the brow of the shallow bridge. The swarm of Vespas and scooters hit their horns in unison as they took evasive action and swerved into each others’ paths. “Pazzo, cretino.” They turned back to face me with a Sicilian gesture or two….causing yet more chaos.
“Listen, let us out here and you and Egidio go and find somewhere to park.” She said as she and Maria Carmela got out, waving enthusiastically at the launch that had just arrived at the harbour steps. I peeped the horn a couple of times for good measure as I drove off to relieve the traffic of the blind hazard awaiting it.
We were on the bridge which joins the ancient town of Siracusa (Syracuse) with the even older quarter of Ortigia. Where Archimedes was born, raised and eventually killed – when the Greek city was captured by the Romans. It was a rare opportunity to meet my mother who was on a cruise day-release with her old school friend, Sheena. Siracusa is only a ferry trip and a couple of hours drive from Reggio so it was a great chance to see mum and the fabled city. She might be eighty odd but she has the heart and ambition of a teenage explorer. It was 8.00am.
Edgidio and I went in search of a parking spot and after a few turns found ourselves in a vast empty car park. Result, I thought. We tried the ticket machine a few times before we realised it was out of order. We looked around a little and in the far corner of the car-park we spotted a local by an old grey Apè van beckoning to us. We calculated the walk to be about 200 meters but, as we saw no alternative, we strolled over.
“Machine doesn’t work” he informed us sagely.
“We know that” said Egidio, a little unkindly I thought.
“1 Euro an hour.” He muttered, showing some genuine enough looking parking tickets with 50c stamped on them.
“The machine says 50cents.” I said. “ And so do these.”
“Ah well it depends how much value you put on your time getting a ticket from the tabacchi.” “We’ll risk it.” Snorted Egidio. “Where’s the tabacchi?”
“In the Piazza.”
He turned back to his crates of cherries and garlic with a shrug as we walked off in the direction we’d come. It took us a good 40 minutes before we found the piazza, the tabacchi, bought our tickets, returned to the car and then made our way finally to the point we’d dropped off the girls near the harbour. By now I was fretting that mum and Sheena had been waiting in the hot sun for longer than was wise.
As we approached the bridge I could see Maria and Maria-Carmela sitting on the harbour wall, chatting. “Where’s mum?” I asked, puzzled.
“It wasn’t her.”
“I thought you said you saw her on the launch, you can’t mistake my mum surely.”
“Just wait.” Said Maria, pointing at the launch making a return journey from the cruise ship. “This is the 4th since we’ve arrived.”
As the boat approached I suddenly realised why. All I could see above pier level was a bobbing row of about fifty well-groomed heads of pure white hair. This was Saga holidays, specialist in octogenarian cruises. “We’ve waived at every tender as if it was your mum.” Said Maria chuckling….”they all look the same”
I had to admit, I wouldn’t have known my own mother, never mind Sheena who I hadn’t seen for the best part of thirty years. We looked on as line after line of white perms made their way slowly up the steps from their carrier. I couldn’t help wondering what those first passengers had thought as they’d arrived to the sight of some attractive women waving frantically at them and motorists beeping their horns.
“I say Mable, the natives seem awfully friendly here.”
“Be careful Ralph, I’m pretty sure it’s not your body they’re after!”
“Hey look.” Said Egidio, pointing at a sixty-something woman with brown hair getting off the boat. “There’s hot chicks on this boat too…..bet all the guys are after her.” I had to hold onto his arm to stop falling into the dock with mirth.
Eventually the last launch arrived bearing our expected visitors and after some tearful reunions we made the difficult decision of heading to the piazza, now well-known to Edgidio and me, for some breakfast.
“Weel” Said mum, as we sat down in the beginnings of a very hot day, “We’ve just had a lovely English breakfast on the ship… of sausages, eggs, black pudding, bacon and toast, I think a coffee would be just fine.” The envy welled up inside me. It was the only thing I missed and hadn’t tasted for over a year. “Marmalade cornetto and coffee please…I suppose.”
We slowly awoke to the fact that we were sitting in the heart of a place that has thrived for over 2,500 years without missing a heartbeat. The Temple of Apollo was on the other side of the road. Artisan traders were setting up their stalls for the day, probably as they’d so long ago, and we could see groups of people making their way towards what we’d been told was the old market. If you ever get the chance to come here you’ll be told about the old Magna Grecian theatre and the period plays which you must watch in the open arena….and you must. But, please spend the morning in Ortigia market…..you cannot imagine how the millennia will roll back. This is where merchants sailed thousands of years ago to trade wine and spices. From Persia, Egypt, the Orient and Ancient Greece they came to buy and sell everything from papyrus to slaves, to exchange the fruits of the slopes for oils and potions. Nothing much seems to have changed. We walked slowly through the narrow street of stalls of the most varied and rich-coloured fare. We stopped to watch how sea urchins are prepared for eating, scampi the size of lobsters tossed in a little oil just for a taste, fruit and vegetables whose skins shone in the morning sun and my own little discovery…..a spice shop that can’t have changed in 2,000 years. It was a library of old jars rising from floor to ceiling, from Jamaica to India. The aroma was intoxicating and the first instinct was…taste…buy….cook…Now! “Bring me some fish, slave. Some herbs, olives and some virgins, sorry virgin oil, ….oh and don’t forget the oysters.”
Maria came back and found me and pulled me back from the past and into the street just as we were asked, politely, to move aside. A camera crew were backing up the narrow lane filming the white-robed Archimedes himself, wandering through the stalls reading aloud from a yellowish scroll. Strangely it didn’t look or even sound at all out of place. A slow walk through this town takes you through narrow winding lanes, always leading you towards the Duomo and the cafè lined square. Pristine and romantic, this is where you find small local restaurants that make choice so difficult. We stopped to buy some presents for home (Scotland) and found ourselves talking to the cousin of a friend who knew a cousin who served the best food in town….we went and were not disappointed. We sat inside a small trattoria where washing lines hung from the ceiling and we ate hand-made Sicilian pasta blended with seafood and white wine….with the sort of service that makes you feel you’re part of the family. Who’s washing up?
Can you imagine the moment when we had to part, when the cruise ship’s horn sounded? There is a unique bond that comes from ocean-bound farewells, between my mother and me. It’s something I’ve inherited from a sea-faring grandfather I never got to know, from a long line of accidental travellers and adventurers. It’s all in the wave, I’m told.
Glendaruel (Gaelic; Gleann Dà Ruadhail)
The river flowed red with the blood of the Norse invaders who were defeated there over a thousand years ago.
Moving to a new country brings wonder, delight and inspiration, but it can also refresh memories of home. This is a song about a small, fertile (i.e. often wet) Scottish glen with a glorious past which has inspired a few pipers in its time. Now, sadly, it’s almost abandoned but its secrets and ghosts still drift through the twilight mist….the salmon still come home to the tumbling, whisky-coloured waters.
Please listen to the song and, if you like it, share with your friends. By the way that’s me with the red guitar. Thank you.
Also available on all digital stores.
One of the few things I’ve missed is a good 6-Nations Saturday. The ritual of starting the day with a big breakfast before heading for a fire-warmed pub to review the rugby pages with a few mates till the first game of the afternoon begins…..with a Guinness or two.
Instead I had to make do. The chores were done and the afternoon set aside to watch Scotland v Italy, glass of red wine and a little cheese for company as we (me and the cheese) huddled round the little gas heater in front of the T.V.
3.30pm and I rubbed my hands as much against the cold as the prospect of a long awaited Scottish victory. The teams trotted out and lined up for the anthems, the first lungful of bagpipe lifting the hairs on the back of my neck. I felt suddenly homesick.
Shrill ring of phone interrupts
“Who can that be? Do I answer?” Sighing as I turn down the volume, I pick up the handset. “Pronto”.
“Hi Charles, It’s Sergio.” (master instrument maker from Scilla)
“Sergio, what’s up?”
“Are you still selling your bass amp?”
“Well, yes, I haven’t got round to putting it on the internet, why?”
“I’ve got a client here in the workshop who might be interested, do you mind if I give him your number?”
“No, not at all..go for it.”
I put the phone down rather abruptly as out of the corner of my eye I had just seen a rare Scottish score. Maybe this was good karma. I tensed again (you can never relax watching Scotland). Ten minutes later I was beginning to warm up as much as the game when…..Shrill ring of phone interrupts.
I sigh again. The number on the display is not allocated to anyone I know. Do I ignore or not? I mean, I can always call back later. I gave in and answered. “Pronto.”
“Excuse me but my name is Pasquale, Sergio in Scilla gave me your number. Can you talk?”
I really didn’t want to as the crowd were going mad in Edinburgh and I so wanted to join them.
“Yea, what can I do for you Pasquale?”
“You have a bass amp for sale, is there a possibility I can have a look at it?”
“Yes, of course, when were you thinking?”
“Well, now if that’s possible. We’re already in Pellaro.”
My jaw dropped. I screwed up my face in angst as I found myself suddenly confronted by the worst possible dilemma for a Scot. On one hand a very real chance of a very rare rugby victory, on the other…..cash! The words ‘iron’ and ‘hot’ sprang to mind as I pondered.
“Hello, hello?” said the voice on the phone….”Are you still there?”
I came back to my senses and responded reluctantly, yea sure he could view the amp. After all how long would it take and I would probably catch all of the second half.
Pellaro is a small place so it was hardly surprising when a few minutes later I was dragging myself to answer a knock on the front door. What was surprising however, was the very large grey moustache that was waiting on the other side of the threshold. I stepped aside as it manoeuvred its way slowly into the living room. I was staring at the shiny dome of a bald topped head with what looked like a curtain of long hair that had slipped down a few inches from its proper position. So surprised was I, that I very nearly shut the door in the faces of the three very elderly-looking gentlemen that had just struggled up the stairs and were now catching their collective breath on the balcony.
“Er, come in.” I beckoned, half looking over their shoulders for a line of waiting zimmer frames. The rugby was still very much on my mind and my composure was being sorely tested by the roar of the crowd at Murrayfield stadium.
“Well this is it.” I said indicating the amp in the corner. After untying themselves from a variety of sound cables and managing to hang my bass guitar over Pasquale’s creaking neck….they plugged in. The room shook for a few minutes while he pounded the strings, things started shaking on the table and my father-in-law was woken from his siesta in the house below. Pasquale stopped. “Does it go any louder?”
“Louder!” Yes, of course but….” I was tempted to check if he’d switched his hearing aid on.
“Well what do think?” I said getting a little impatient.
“Would you mind if we tried it out with the band?” Band! I thought. I’d imagined this was to be a gift for some lucky grandchild, not a band with an average age of eighty.
With some reluctance I gave up on the idea of seeing out the rugby and helped them lug the gear down to a row of waiting cars and followed them to their rehearsal room which they told me was just down the road in Lazzaro. When we arrived at the agreed meeting point (The Hunter’s Cafe) I got out and looked around. I could see nothing that resembled a practice studio.
“This way” said the ‘boys’.
We staggered (literally) down a few steps towards the beach and turned towards a large steel door that had been hidden from the road. As we carried the amp into the room I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was huge! Charlie Watt’s uncle was setting up a drum kit to one side and a little head was bobbing around behind a bank of keyboards whilst a middle aged woman prepared coffee and Limoncello (was this the groupie?). The Four Tops put the amp into position in the heart of the great room and argued about what cable should go where. I looked around in awe. I was in an Aladin’s Cave of classic instruments and hi-tech performance. Beside the large EV speakers and digital mixing consol lay an array of collector guitars and original amps. A ’61 Telecaster, a ’67 Strat, a worn left-hand Les Paul (that was strangely played right-handed later) and a bank of amps that would provide collateral on any new Hard Rock Cafe enterprise. It dawned on me that these were the guitars and amps they’d bought when they were in their early teens. For them it was just their ‘axes’…..for me it was a very expensive museum of the most desirable instruments I’d ever seen in one place.
All thought of the rugby had evaporated…..I had been transported into another age. Only problem was, I couldn’t work out if it was the future or the past.
When they counted 1,2,3, 4….there were at least 9 musicians hitting the beat. Santana. Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Albert King, Garry Moore……They rocked!!! I couldn’t believe my eyes, nor my ears. The lead guitarist, whose hands had been shaking Parkinson’s style minutes before, had become one with the fret-board, the drummer had gone from unsteady to rock-steady and even the singer who looked as if he was hanging onto the mic stand, more as a means of support, was managing to do a mean version of Ian Gillan….even if his glasses kept slipping off his nose during the chorus.
The rehearsal finished about 7.00pm and I’d even forgotten why I was there. It wasn’t till one of the roadies asked me to help carry the meat for the traditional BBQ-after-practice that I thought to ask if Pasquale liked the amp enough to part with some dough. “Great he said. Would I mind taking the money in instalments?” By this time it seemed churlish to refuse. They had been getting me cunningly drunk with local wine and great music.
I had to decline the tempting food as I had to go and collect Maria from Reggio but I took up their offer of going back any weekend…..sing for your supper they say. I have since been back and had enormous fun jamming with these guys and I’ve learnt a great truth…..
Here’s the thing. When you put an instrument round your neck and step up to the microphone, the years just roll away and you’re young again. The secret of long life is bop till you drop!
The early morning sun is already hot, dazzling the soft ripples of the Adriatic. We sit admiring the carved strata of the cliffs that rise from the sea up to the ancient town of Vieste above us. Two traditional stilt fishing platforms (trabucchi) act like sun-bleached sentinels, guarding each side of our private lagoon on the Gargano coast.
I’m writing from a sun-bed by the hotel swimming pool, set near the foot of the rock-face, overlooking a scene of turquoise tranquillity. The pool can be reached by the many steep steps that twist and climb up to Hotel Seggio, our spur of the moment stop-over….however we chose to reach it by the conveniently placed lift in the lobby, it’s a holiday after all. We’re on a mini tour of the south that has taken us away from Calabria through Basilicata, Napoli, Abruzzo and now Puglia.
We’d only intended to stay one night in Vieste but the romance of the lantern-lit alleyways and the slew of late-night restaurants and tavernas seduced us into extending our visit another day. It also seemed a little rude not to enjoy a poolside ‘bibite’ when the hotel had been so thoughtful in supplying the facility in the first place.
This is the joy that an unorganised, even disorganised, road trip brings….No plans to break, no bookings to cancel. Early September is still pleasantly hot but the majority of holiday makers have gone, the botigas and museums are still open but without the chaos of Ferragosto. There is probably no better time to enjoy the ‘spur’ of the Italian boot, the peninsula of Gargano with its historic towns, national park and sublime sandy beaches. The long and winding coast road lies ahead, the secrets of Puglia await….but they’ll keep until tomorrow.
Today I arrived! Today I made a decsion. I got to the beach for the first time this summer at 8.00am. The water is so clear, clear enough to drink and so calm! The heat (at 8.00am) is about 27°. From today and for the next two months I am going to get up early and go for a swim….I am going to feel healthy. For the last two months it’s all been about promises, promises. The work is nearly finished, so now it’s time to watch the ketch sail up the Straits, the children absorb the pleasure of the cool water and play their games. Next week Maria and I start to enjoy our first true holiday…Naples, Pompei, Abruzzo, Bari and the coast roads back to Calabria…
Only last night we were on the beach at midnight. The band started up. I was standing on the beach, the full moon above me, the waves lapping luxuriously on the sand and surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis! The singer in the band was kind enough to intoduce me ” I cannot understand why this man has left London to come and live in Calabria” She said!
If only you knew!!!