Sunday, 15 November 2015

You Have Been Loved

She came to us back in the summer of 2000.
I think I remember the date so easily because, not only was it Millennium Year, but also, most of my family were visiting from the UK to celebrate my parents 50th Wedding Anniversary.
The circumstances of how she came were unusual enough to need no aide-memoire.
Three little boys, classmates of my sons, rang the front door bell.
'Is this your kitten?' they asked guilelessly. 'We found it on the bridge.'

So lovable

I didn't think for a moment that they had found her on the bridge, I assumed she was from an unwanted litter, but the bridge is narrow and sees a constant flow of traffic, and would be a very dangerous place for a tiny kitten, so it made a perfect opening gambit.
We had quite a few cats at the time, most of which had been dumped on us, literally dumped. - just left in sacks or boxes somewhere on our property. Everyone knew we were animal-lovers, and back then neutering just didn't happen by and large - especially for cats.
'Have you tried Denise?' I asked hopefully, although I wasn't counting on anything. Denise, who lived at the other end of the bridge, was another cat-lover.
'Yes,' they replied promptly.

I looked at the kitten and knew that the patience of three small boys wouldn't stretch very far. I guess her future hadn't really been in doubt from the moment I opened the door.

My boys fell in love with her straight away

My own two small boys were thrilled to bits, the In-Charge less so, but he's good at bowing to the inevitable.
Dottie was over the moon, but then Dottie loved nothing so much as someone who needed a bit of mothering, and the kitten was only too happy to be mothered.
We named her Pushkin, but mostly she was called Pushy

Beautiful Dottie was a born mother

Even the puppies loved her.
But then, she was a very lovable cat.

She got on with everybody

She rapidly became #1 Son's cat, and - unbeknownst to me - slept in his bed every night.
When I say in his bed, I mean in his bed. Apparently, she wasn't content with curling up in the crook of his knees or anything external, she would crawl under the duvet and lie against him, playing the piano with her little claws against his tummy.
She was quite happy being smothered under the bedclothes, and he adored her.
She disappeared once - while I was out shopping - and we turned the place upside-down, frantically searching for her. Eventually we found her in the bottom of the sleeping bag stuffed underneath his bed, warm and boneless and fast asleep.

SurferSon adored her too

She was quite a small cat. What the In-Charge calls 'a short wheel-base', but she was a demon-hunter nonetheless, and when she'd caught something she'd come to the back door, yowling like a soul in pain until I went out to be presented with her trophy.
I remember one evening, she was curled up on my lap in the Library, when some movement caught my eye. To my horror, a mouse was scurrying along the bottom edge of the bookcase. I don't mind how many mice live in my sheds, but I do not like sharing my living space with them, I'm afraid. As a sort of reflex action, I threw Pushy off my lap. From fast asleep, to - literally - the mouse firmly locked in her jaws was instantaneous. In cars it would be 1-60 in two seconds.
I picked her up gingerly and put her outside the front door and, politely, neither of us mentioned the incident again.

One of her favourite perches - an old ladder propping up the Solanum crispum

The potager was her private garden

She loved the garden. On sunny days she'd always be out in the potager, sleeping on the bench, or stretched out on the warm gravel - highly camouflaged. In really hot weather, I'd find her curled under a shrub.

I nearly trod on her often, lying right beside me, she just disappeared into the gravel

If I was working outside, she'd always come and roll in the flower bed beside me, and many a time she'd take me on a tour of the whole garden if I'd been away for a few days, as if to tell me that she'd looked after everything in my absence.

Rhubarb from her very own potager

In the house, she was the only cat allowed beyond the kitchen door, because she was the only one who could be trusted never to pee in some corner if she got shut in for too long.
These last few years she's had her own little routine. #1 Son has worked abroad for years now, but if SurferSon was home, she'd usually go to bed with him. If not, she'd go outside for the night, spurning the cat beds I have thoughtfully placed in the turf shed in favour of doing who-knows-what, although in the mornings she would generally appear from the direction of the garden.

Breakfast was always on the kitchen window sill, where she could enjoy the sunshine, if there was any, and, from the comfort of her warm seat, watch the birds on the bird-table outside the window, no doubt catching at least a dozen in between mouthfuls of food. The window-sill was her domain, where she could take as long as she liked to eat, as none of the other cats were allowed up there to muscle in on her. Afterwards, she would wait patiently by the door until I let her into the house where she'd spend the entire day either following the sun, or just sleeping on our bed until supper time.
If we were at home, she'd then spend as much of the evening as possible on my lap.

She helped me knit the pole warmer for Beltra Market

She'd not been in great form, the last little while, and I knew she was slipping, but she was still eating well, and sitting in my lap every evening. But finally I took her to the vet to see if there was anything we could do to make her more comfortable.
So soon after losing my little Pixie, I was desperately hoping she'd be all right for a few more months.
It was such a relief to bring her home with antibiotics and a glimmer of hope that I felt a bit light-headed, but by the next morning we knew she wasn't happy, and that is the only signal I ever need.
We took her in together, the In-Charge and I, and held her, and told her how much she'd been loved.

It is the end of an era, to lose someone who has been a part of the family for so long.
Such a quiet, untroublesome little member of the family, too.
It was only when I drove her to the vet's that first day, I realized that I couldn't even remember when she had last left the property. She has never been sick. And she was as good as gold in the car, not making a sound, just staring at me with saucer-wide eyes while I tried to stroke her through the bars of the cat basket.

Even SuperModel loved her, against all her lurcher principles

It is a couple of weeks ago now, that we lost her, but I haven't felt able to put it down in black and white.  It was so hard, after losing my little Pixie just a few weeks ago.
The house seems empty.
My lap is cold and empty night after night.
I miss her. I see her every day in so many places. I go into our room for something and - before I catch myself - I find I am wondering why she's not lying on my bed in the sun. Her blanket is still on the sofa in the drawing room - I've shied away from moving it.

SurferSon came home for her funeral, and wept with us, but #1 Son was far away, doing exams that day, so we didn't tell him until afterwards. Everyone else came too. They usually do, though it's up to them.
Model Dog sat shaking, pressed against me, and then lay down and put her head into the grave. SuperModel danced around the edges and wouldn't come very close, her eyes big and anxious. In the kitchen, when I had left her in her bed for them all to say goodbye, Model Dog had licked her face and SuperModel had nudged her, and nudged her again, as if to try and make her get up.
Hobbes and Henri, who had circled her and sniffed, and stared, sat near us in the orchard and watched, wide-eyed and sombre.
And Hobbes has been restless and upset since she went, walking round the kitchen crying.
He misses her too.
She was only a little cat, and very quiet.
But she's left a huge gap that none of us quite knows how to fill.

She didn't take up much space, but she's left a massive gap

Monday, 9 November 2015

Sicily: Hot on the Heels of Montalbano

Italy 5

The main reason we wanted to visit Sicily was because - some years ago - we fell in love with Inspector Montalbano.
I know - I know - his fans are multitudinous, but we couldn't help ourselves.
And strictly speaking, I fell in love with Inspector Montalbano, the In-Charge just fell in love with the series.
Many a Saturday night we'd happily stay in with Il Commissario - Il Dottore - Salvo, call him what you will. We felt practically fluent in Italian, and totally fluent in the art of the Latin grunt.
We longed to see his stamping-iground for ourselves.

Inspector Montalbano  Pic online images Italy

So you can imagine how happy we were to wake up on Sicilian soil.
In fact, we were woken long before dawn by torrential rain sheeting off the roof and thunder resounding off the mountains like canon fire. It was all very spectacular.
But the next morning we wondered if we'd dreamed it.
We wandered around San Giorgio Montforte in hot sunshine, had breakfast in a cafe and at length headed off towards Cefalu.

Despite Angelica's renewed attempts to keep us off motorways, we did eventually find one. (We wondered, en passant, if she is just parsimonious and doesn't like paying out? Which would explain why she let us onto the Autostrada through Calabria - it was free, whereas, in Sicily, as further north on the mainland we had to pay.)

Angelica didn't like paying for the Autostrade

The motorways on Sicily are not for the tunnel-phobic, but they are good, and when you're not buried beneath a mountain, the views are spectacular.
So was Cefalu.
It looked Biblical, and Greek. And it was packed.


We wandered around the old town, drank more Prosecco, had lunch and shopped in the market and then carried on to Palermo, but - with hindsight - we'd rather have just headed south east.
We didn't spend time in the capital, but we did at least stop the next day to see the Valley of the Temples, although - the temperature being in the high thirties still - I wasn't sure that I wanted a long walk around a 1300 hectare site in the heat of the noon-day sun.
But the main places of interest cover just a few kilometres, and the area is full of shady olive trees, so it was well worth the walk to see such amazing ruins, many of which date to the 5th century BC.

The Temple of Concordia

The sculpture of Icarus was interesting too.
We couldn't decide whether the total lack of expression on his face lent it more meaning or less.
In one way we felt that his failed break for the stars could only have left him gnashing his teeth as he fell to earth, but on the other hand, who can say what acceptance a close encounter with the sun might bring?
I stood looking at him for a long time, trying to read what might have been going on behind his closed eyelids.

Icarus, fallen and broken, yet emotionally unscathed

I couldn't help but notice how fascinated most tourists were by his eye-level penis. Most touched it, or went to touch it but drew back coyly and simply posed beside it for a photo, or laughed and made some comment. 
What a funny lot we are.

The centre of the island had taken us by surprise. We'd expected mountains and more mountains, but instead were greeted by a dun coloured agricultural scene; and on the south coast, by mile after mile of commercial polytunnels.

Agricultural interior

We did also find ourselves on a road that had somehow been - well, squished. We had to turn around and retrace our route. We're still puzzling over what could have happened to it.

A squished road

In the end, we only had a day to explore Montalbano's 'manor'.
We stayed in a pretty seaside town on the south coast, and set off promptly the next morning for Scicli and the mountainous scenery that suddenly we recognised.
We stopped on the outskirts of the picturesque town to explore the cemetery. We'd passed many on our travels and I wanted to have a look around.
It was beautiful, the older mausoleums as imposing as the British Victorian equivalents in places like Highgate and Nunhead, or Pere Lachaise in Paris. The Italian cypruses could have been bred with cemeteries in mind, they lend so much atmosphere, rather like the British and Irish yews.
One old tomb bore a sculpture of a woman desolate with grief. I could still feel it, 100 years later.
The newer parts reminded me of Spain, the photographs on each plaque lending a particular poignancy, and they were bedecked with fresh flowers, far more so than at home.  

Lots of flowers

Weeping forever on the tomb of her beloved

Scicli was beautiful. After Amalfi, it seemed ridiculous that we could park for free.
And it was weird walking down the street we have seen so often on TV (although I wasn't sure about the large plastic tubs that have replaced the line of police cars.)

 Inspector Montalbano would have had those  plastic tubs removed immediately

Sadly, Luca Zingaretti didn't stride down the steps of the police station (it's actually the town hall) as we approached, but then life is full of disappointments. Still, we did get to see the room that is used as his boss's office in the series.
Not adequate recompense, but there you go.

We went to Modica and Ragusa too, both of which were beautiful, especially the latter.
250 steps down to the old quarter from Ragusa's high town, but you can get a bus back up. 


Ragusa with the blue glassed cupola of Duomo di San Giorgio

We wished we'd skipped Palermo and had longer to explore these spectacular, baroque towns in the south east. I did visit the Duomo di San Giorgio in Ragusa, but I didn't find a place where I could see the blue glass of its cupola properly.

I took a photo of the lovely marble flags on the floor, though, patinated, smoothed with age. But not the dome.
Regrets regrets... 

Beautiful, old floor

More regrets that we had to by-pass Syracusa altogether. 
'Idiots!' I hear you cry.
I know. 
We'll just have to go back.

I had to content myself with photographing a poster outside the tourist office in Modica

We left Sicily the next day, after staying in a little coastal resort nestled under the fuming Mount Etna.
No one seemed in any way bothered by the funnel of wispy smoke emanating from its peak.
I suppose it does that all the time. 

I was conscious of giving it a wary glance or two as we drove north towards the Messina ferry.
You just never know, with volcanoes.

Mt Etna smoking quietly to itself

(My hopes for more dancers on the return journey had been dashed when the In-Charge spotted a newspaper article reporting that the dancers were celebrating the ferry's 50th anniversary. We were lucky to be aboard that day.)

But our regrets were tinged with anticipation too.
We had booked the lovely hotel on the beach at Fiumicello for our last two nights in Italy.
Quite frankly, we needed some down-time after over 2000 km, and before the 5 hour drive to Rome for our flight home. 
We couldn't think of a better place to relax.
And I couldn't wait to be lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea below our balcony

The sea below our balcony

This is the final part of our trip to Italy.
You can read part 4 here: Tango-ing to Messina
Part 3: Amalfi: The Road More Travelled 
Part 2: Sipping Limoncello in Sorrento
Part 1: See Naples and Die 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Tango-ing to Messina

Italy 4

We drove the length of the Calabrian coast after leaving the glorious cliff-top towns, hairpin bends and incredible views of Amalfi.
It was a lovely journey.
I'd looked for a place to stay half way to the toe of Italy, and came up with Maratea, a tiny seaside town that the Romans have taken to, apparently, as a weekend retreat.
I'm not surprised. It was just what we were looking for.

The harbour at Maratea

An iconic hill-top town, a winding, 5km road down to sea level and the tiny, original harbour, with a newer marina a short distance along the coast. We stopped for a drink in the old harbour. It was a sweltering afternoon - in the high 30s again. The harbour reminded us a little of places that we have loved elsewhere. We would probably have been happy to stay there, but the tiny town was deserted, half the world was still having a siesta, and we couldn't see a hotel or B&B that was open.

The old harbour at Maratea

Instead we drove round the corner and found Fiumicello, with it's little bay, village spread down the hillside, and a hotel on the beach.

Settebello, the hotel on the beach. The Redentore on top of the mountain is huge

We went for a swim, sat and watched the sun set over the sea from our balcony, and later drove up the mountain to eat in the hill-top town. From the streets of the town we could see up to the floodlit Redentore high, high above us. It is a massive statue of Christ on the actual peak of the mountain. Apparently it is second in size only to the one in Rio de Janeiro.

The beach in front of the hotel

We watched the sun go down sitting on our balcony

I think we'd have happily stayed at Settebello for the rest of the week, but Sicily was calling, so the next day we headed for the Calabrian coast - mile after mile beside a cobalt and turquoise sea, with an unbroken beach that stretched to infinity. For once we didn't mind Angelica's choice of route.
We stopped in a little town called Diamante - well, you'd have to, wouldn't you! - and, feeling distinctly less than glamorous, I went in search of a hairdresser.
I found an empty salon (as worrying as an empty restaurant!) but an elderly chap appeared from nowhere before I could back out onto the street, and - assuring me that of course he catered for ladies, ushered me to a basin. I left him to it and emerged half an hour later, if not with quite my usual hairstyle, at least with shining, coiffed locks.

We bought a map (trusting Angelica was going to take time), had a drink overlooking the sea and headed off again for Reggio Calabria and the Messina ferry.
On the way, the traffic got less and less, the road got better and better and we saw beautiful landscapes, forest fires, yet another traffic accident (we saw six in our meagre 11 days) and miles and miles of ocean. Also lots of mile-high grass of some sort - possibly the Japanese Knotweed of Italy. It is everywhere.

Grass taking over Italy

The ferry from Villa San Giovanni to Messina leaves every half hour, so we drove straight onto one.
The In-Charge was particularly interested in the Straits, as he had sailed through them with #1 Son only a few weeks before, when they'd been packed with swordfish-fishing boats performing some unfathomable ritual.
We saw no other boats at all that afternoon, so made our way to the forward deck instead, to watch Messina drawing closer.
I'm glad we did. There was a group of musicians sitting to one side playing various instruments, and suddenly a whole lot of people got up and started to dance.
We stood - along with half the ship's passengers - and gawped as, brow to cheekbone, they tango'd all over the deck. I'm not a 'Strictly' fan, but I could have watch these people all night. They were graceful, beautiful and danced as if it came naturally.

'Well, you don't get that on the Dover to Calais,' the In-Charge said as we headed back to the car deck.
You certainly don't.
I think it was truly one of the best moments of our whole trip.

Tango-ing to Messina

Wonderfully, the AirBnB we had booked at random for that night turned out to be in yet another hilltop town in the mountains behind Messina.
To be honest, I was wishing it anywhere else as Angelica forced us up narrower and narrower, steeper and steeper streets. I had reason to be worried. She had taken us down streets in Sorrento that were so narrow we had - literally - had to stop and pull the wing mirrors in on both sides in order to fit through, and even then it was touch and go.
She's probably one of those women who think they're much thinner than they really are - isn't that what they say about the women/cars/space conundrum?
Anyway - Montforte San Giorgio was proving to be even more hair-raising than Sorrento's alleyways.
At one point we had to stop on practically vertical, slickly-shiny cobbles at a red traffic light - because the gateway into the town's tiny 'main square' was so narrow that only a donkey cart could comfortably pass through, so it was definitely One Way. When we got into the square, there was a wedding in full swing in the church and the place was jam packed with cars, old men sitting around, and small children racing about.

The main square in Montforte San Giorgio later that evening. The wedding had moved on by then

We did eventually find our B&B - no thanks to Angelica, who gave up at the Church. It turned out to be an entire town house on three levels with a stable/storeroom on the ground floor and a roof terrace above - all for us. There was no one living there.
Before he left, we asked our host to recommend somewhere to eat, and the somewhat surprising answer was 'Fort Apache'. Sicily aka the Wild West.
We wandered back into town, but actually finding Fort Apache proved slightly more difficult.
We did find a couple of vehicles that I'd gladly have packed into my luggage, though.

Another vehicle I'd like to have brought home

And this one as well

Eventually, we stopped at the old mens' bar back in the square to ask where Fort Apache was, and spotted a priest chatting inside. He was that beautiful, bluish-black of many African people, and not only spoke French but offered to take us to the restaurant in his car. He wasn't, he told us, the local priest as we had assumed. He had been adopted as a child by a family in the town and was on a visit home. He was delightful.
So was Fort Apache, which was a little way out of the town.
The place was full to bursting, the food was delicious, and the olives were the best we'd had anywhere.
We sat out under their vine-covered terrace, drinking and feasting and loving every moment.
It had been a very good day.
(Alas, we didn't find out until later that the mossies were also feasting. On rare Northern meat. Us.)

A war memorial in Montforte San Giorgio

A view from the town

This is the 4th part of our trip to Italy.
You can read the first part here: See Naples and Die
Part 2: Sipping Limoncello in Sorrento
Part 3: Amalfi: The Road More Travelled
The last part: Sicily: Hot on the Heels of Montalbano

Monday, 2 November 2015

Amalfi: The Road More Travelled

Italy 3

It was stunning, the Amalfi Coast.
It seems that everyone thinks it's stunning, so all in all I'm glad we weren't there in July.
It's probably like the M25. Or the Ring of Kerry on super-steroids.

Every hairpin bend brings another wonderful view. Buildings perched on sheer mountain sides, rocky peaks towering above, boats strewn haphazardly on a jewel coloured sea far below.
It's enough to cause a traffic jam - everyone stopping to take photos.
You can't blame them. We did the same. It's a place where you can capture Italy (the south, anyway) in a single shot.

Southern Italy in a single shot

We didn't stop in Positano. I'd love to have pottered around the town, but it was too full of visitors for comfort.
We stopped further down the coast instead, at a tiny inlet the In-Charge spotted from our lofty height on the road. We wound our way down and happily paid the extortionate parking fee so that we could sit under an umbrella in the blazing midday sun drinking Prosecco. And watch some lads loading crates of beer onto a boat to deliver to a bar a few inlets along. Apparently, the only other way for them to get their beer is to tote it down a thousand or so steps.
There'd be none left by the time they got to the bottom.

We did stop in Amalfi. It was €5 an hour to park, which was even more expensive than the little inlet, but we found a vacant slot right on the front, so we did a lightning tour of the town.
It was beautiful, but to be honest, an hour was enough.
The place was packed and the locals in the shops and bars had obvious tourist-fatigue. Hardly surprising.


The town was packed

Everyone photographing everyone photographing everyone

I had the most expensive ice cream in the world, and then we sat looking over the sea and yacht-gazing while we had a drink before heading along the coast to Ravello.

We sat under the iconic umbrella pines overlooking the sea

A spot of yacht-watching is always fun. It reminds us of #1 Son

It was, thankfully, a good bit calmer in Ravello, despite the town's illustrious catalogue of earlier visitors.
The list of people who have visited the place, or written famous books or operas there, or just stayed with other famous people is endless.
In a more romantic era these included Ruskin, Grieg, most of the Bloomsbury Set including Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Bertrand Russell, Vita Sackville-West, DH Lawrence and TS Elliot. Wagner wrote Parsifal in Ravello, André Gide wrote L'Immortaliste, Churchill painted and Escher drew.
And in more recent times the tiny town has been host to Paul Newman, Rod Stewart, Harrison Ford, Roger Moore, Nicholas Cage, Mel Gibson, John Malkovich and Pierce Brosnan - amongst others. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie shot parts of Mr and Mrs Smith in the town, Gary Lineker got married there and Woody Harrelson's daughter was born there, so he named her Ravello.

The view down from the old town

Inside one of the hotels. Who knows which celebrities might have been lurking within?

None of those people were in the streets on the day we visited. In fact, we didn't spot any celebrities - though to be honest, I wasn't really looking.
I got waylaid by several shops selling pottery and the maiolica typical of the area.
I loved the spotty-ware, and some of the maiolica pieces were stunning. I was very taken by an interesting platter fixed to the wall, but in the end I settled for a much simpler (and smaller) memento. A Christmas tree decoration with a bird on it.

Lovely spotty pottery

An interesting platter stuck to the wall

I bought a little Christmas tree decoration. I like birds

We decided to drive back cross-country, through the mountains, and reluctantly roused Angelica. She'd had a day off.
It was a good decision. Angelica rose to the challenge and we hardly met anyone, beyond a flock of goats, the goatherd and his dogs.
We'd loved the stunning views, the towns clinging to the mountain-sides, the yachts and the jewel coloured sea - everything.
But we were ready to head further south to quieter places.

On duty

This is part 3 of our travels in Italy
You might also like Part 1: See Naples and Die
Part 2: Sipping Limoncello in Sorrento
Part 4: Tango-ing to Messina
And the last part: Sicily: Hot on the Heels of Montalbano