How many ways can you define "EXPERIENCE"

Although as Hilly says, it’s all an adventurealmost!

Well where to start? I arrived in Florence this morning but I’ll back track to Sicily. Note the colour I chose to highlight this island – after Lisbon, the dog sh!t capital of the world – yuk!

There was a very good looking and helpful young man on the night desk in the hotel in Siracusa. He said most people holiday in Spain: take it from him and learn from my experience – do the Spain thing! Although I’m told that if you hit Palermo then head for the Aeolian Islands that that’s excellent.

But first, the 10 3/4 hours train trip from Rome – excellent for scenery; bad for the young man with the loud voice who was on his mobile for the six hours he was in my compartment; excellent, when The Voice got off, for chatting to the German who has lived in Bologna for 18 years; wonderful for the train going on a ship (yes!) to cross the Strait at Messina. From the train, Sicily looked full of promise. The German Italian was going to Siracusa for a couple of days to lecture on Project Management. I said “Ah, how to get organised?!” He laughed like mad and said you couldn’t organise the Italians to do anything! I came to realise what he meant.

Sicily in general I came to think of it as a slum: to say it’s a third world country and that the Mafia have done for it what Mugabe has done for Zimbabwe is to offend by exaggeration the victims in those two latter groups but you get my drift. Hotels, shops and presumably homes are clean inside but everything is filthy in the streets and public spaces (streets, gardens, archeological parks, etc,) are a neglected mess. Many new buildings abandonned during construction; some unfinished buildings are inhabited!; existing buildings not maintained; old photos show a place where people did take pride, once upon a time.

Why did I go there? I’d read about the cathedral in Siracusa being built up over the centuries on the remains of earlier buildings, going back to pre-Christian times. I’d hoped to see those excavations, as I did in San Clemente in Rome. I tried to find out about it and found my way to an office off the nave of the cathrdral. I asked if anybody spoke English. No. And they turned away and resumed what they were doing – as bluntly as that. This was the worst example but, to be honest, the Sicilians are what the French are reputed to be like (although I’ve not experienced the French that bad – in fact, on my second visit, the French were jolly helpful!)

In the end, I found an opening in a wall in the Cathedral Piazza and saw the WWII air raid shelters under the cathedral. Interesting, and horrible to think of the war and needing to take shelter.

But there were highlights in Siracusa …. the aforementioned lovely young man didn’t charge to access email at the hotel (he was supposed to!). I bought a button from a woman who didn’t speak English but she tried very hard and I learned that she was the ceramic artist who made the button and other jewellery in her shop, and I got across to her that I have a young friend who makes gold and silver jewellery. Such a contrast to the church experience! (I bought the button to go on a jacket I’ll be knitting when I get home – wool bought already!!)

Watching canoe polo …. I hadn’t been able to envisage it when Morwenna described it – but it was entertaining and skillful – and I imagine could be quite, shall we say, “physical” …. I was watching team members doing training exercises, not a game.
And the Polish IT guy who, in his holidays, was teaching for free so he could also sail on Poland’s Pogoria, the equivalent to Australia’s Young Endeavour. I told him I once had a daughter who did a Young Endeavour trip and he invited me on board to see his ship.

So it was far from all bad but nevertheless I was keen to get out of there. And getting out of there wasn’t going to be easy so I thought: Mick can do it, Piers can do itI must be able to do it. and so I did what I swore I never would do – hired a car and drove on the wrong side of the road. Aaaaaaargh!!!!!!!!! I got there in the end but when you’re white-knuckling it and sweating like the proverbial …. you see even less scenery than you do as driver!

Agrigento …. is built on the side of a very steep hill. You need to be a mountain goat. The cathedral there at the very top of the hill was closed for repairs – as is so much … or shut for siesta. That is so annoying! But you did get served water with coffee without even asking. A bit out of town is a place with lots of Greek ruins. I haven’t been to Athens but these would have to rival what Athens has got, I’m sure. The Valley of the Temples was one of the highlights of Sicily.

Before leaving Agrigento I thought I’d check with the Avis office where the drop-off place was in Palermo … she didn’t have a clue 😦 And to make matters worse, going back to the car (downhill after climbing up!) my right foot slipped as I was about to cross the road – my right leg shot forward and kept going while my left knee hit the ground …. BIG bruise! A lovely woman helped me up …. while I was thinking of journals at work: Falls and the Elderly; Fall Prevention …. I’m getting into that age bracket. Scary!

And so on to Palermo. This was much easier – less traffic and no stops. On the way to Agrigento I finally found the sights of Noto and walked up and down the main street. I got out of the car in the carpark at Ragusa – but that was it. Imagine an icecream cone ….. the carpark was at it’s base and the town was “up” – every direction you looked! To find the Avis place though … I met another Angel – a young woman on a Vespa who said (signed, really!) “Follow me” and guided me to the very long road I should have been going down.

Palermo – place of the highlight and the lowlight of Sicily. The city was just another city of old churches …. says the traveller! But 8km out of town at Monreale is one of the wonders of the world – a cathedral with gold mosaics like you wouldn’t believe. It made the negatives all worthwhile …. and some of the positives quite undeserved!! I hope some of the photos will turn out and do it justice.

And for the lowlight I have to describe the traffic. Sicily traffic makes that of Rome look sane, considerate and civilised. You’re just not driving if you
– don’t have a mobile clamped to your ear
– don’t ignore every traffic signal, including pedestrians who have Green Man supposedly going for them
– don’t race everywhere at full throttle
– do wear a helmet
– don’t have your 10y/o son riding pillion while you pull up onto one wheel while going down one of Palermo’s main thoroughfares
– don’t have you 6y/o daughter standing on your Vespa, holding the shopping bags with her feet
Parking is another matter – anywhere will do … on crossings, footpaths (where footpaths exist – pedestrians aren’t always so lucky), on the road – double, triple parked, on the wrong side of the road, “angle parking” has a whole different meaning to that in Oz ….

So cars and bikes are often beaten up. But I didn’t want to be part of any of those “accidents” – but I was 😦 I was crossing a road on a pedestrian crossing, doing the best I could given all the above. My arm was brushed by a rider who slid off his bike as he swerved – unsuccessfully – through the traffic and across the crossing. He got up and seemed OK so I hope he was. I was fine but shaken – and Catholic guilt being what it is, I thought it was my fault. Not that it was – the only way I could have avoided it would have been by staying put in my hotel room.

All in all, the exceptions duly noted and very much appreciated, I was happy to get to Florence this morning. Meridiana is obviously Italy’s Virgin Blue – 1 free plastic cup of water offered on board – but a good flight, on time, no hassle. Walked about Florence a bit, read a bit (I’ll have to mail some books home before the RyanAir flight – the Shopaholic series is great for travelling!), rested a bit once I got access to my room. And before writing this – loaded more money onto my credit card!!!

Markets – the most amazing fresh food market was down the street from my Siracusa hotel – better, fresher, more variety than at Vic Market – the chefs amongst my friends would love it – although the meat-eaters wouldn’t – none of that! And outside the hotel in Florence – leather, leather and more leather, plus a fair bit of junk!

I’ve eaten pizza, foccacia, gelati but the weight is OK with all the walking (though still not the feet). Perhaps the cholesterol isn’t so good though 😉

It’s probably not politically correct to say so but since my first visit to Italy in 1999 the street vendors have all turned African. There are so many of them. Beggars seem to have multiplied too – no Africans amonst them though.

I could spit at Florence’s Duomo from my hotel, except there’s a basilica in the way! It’s a great location!!

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