Archive for December, 2018

Sicilian holiday 2016

December 24, 2018

Saturday 24th

After breakfast we loaded the car up with our bags and set off for Brindisi airport, arriving in good time, although the boarding was early and we had no time for coffee until Rome where we spent four hours in the Diners Club partner lounge before finding our departure gate for the flight to Palermo. Sicily here we come!


The flight was absolutely full, plane late arriving and departing, but by 6.45 we had made contact with our driver Giuseppe who took us into Palermo at breakneck speed. We made it in half an hour and were greeted at the front lion door of Butera 28 by the Duchess, Nicoletta, the wife of the Duke of Palma who had inherited the property on the death of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, author of The Leopard. Checked in and taken to our apartment by English student intern Bianca who was enormously enthusiastic, we settled in and realised Alastair and Pat were next door, with a terrace linking the apartments. After their flight from NZ via Rome they had had a sleep and were ready for dinner. We went across the road to Ottava Nota where they fitted us in and we tried our first Sicilian meal with local wines. We had a nightcap and retired to bed.


Sunday 25th

We woke late to find the Wrights had got up at 7, been to the market and had breakfast at a cafe nearby. We grabbed a cup of tea and Italian toast and followed our tour guide Pat who already knew the lie of the land. We went back to the market which stretched all the way round a square and had a massive selection of stuff – vinyl records, books, comic strips, old newspapers, espresso makers (I bought one for 20 euros), old candelabra and chandelier pieces (Vanessa and Pat bought some), shoehorns (bought one of those too), glasses and sunglasses, Nazi seals and countless other bits and bobs.


Alastair and I went for coffee while the girls continued their forage before joining us. We chose pastries, ordered and paid for coffees etc, then joined the three deep throng at the coffee counter to gain attention for coffee delivery. Ours came, but Alastair had great difficulty in getting his beer. At last he was served at the same time as I succeeded in getting my second long espresso, by which time the queue was down to one row.


After coffee we headed up Via Alora to the fountain across the road from the Chiesa Di San Giuseppe Di Teatina where a priest was delivering a sermon to a small congregation. We threaded our way back through the lanes and side streets as it was close to lunchtime. We found the Ristorante Palazzo Tiabucco (?) and I was able to get a Moretti beer instead of the Peroni that seems to be ubiquitous and is like Becks, Heineken, and all the other bland international lagers. We enjoyed sardines, clams, grilled fritta mista, prawns and risotto, washed down with water and a local white wine that tasted slightly corked…but the waitress triumphantly produced a plastic cork. Still not convinced, but hard to prove!


We went back to Butera 28 for a well-earned rest before joining Lisa our tour leader at 7 for drinks and dinner. We were invited up to Nicoletta’s apartment for our tour introduction and meeting. Then Lisa led us out to dinner which was a bit daunting after our lunch, but the two different pastas, one with sardines and the other with seafood and tomatoes, were very good. We finished up with a Marsala and coffee. When we returned to our room, there were a lot of loudspeaker speeches outside which suddenly turned into quite a good concert, much better than the one in Lecce. It was apparently a combination of political meeting and concert.


Monday 26th

After a breakfast on the run at a cafe opposite the Botanic Gardens we go west from Palermo to the Arab region of Sicily past Trapeni and Marsala, where we visit the Villa Franca for a wine tour and lunch. The main purpose of the estate is to make a ‘perpetual’ Marsala using the same yeast every vintage as well as a very good dry white and Nero d’Avola blend red, as well as a Marsala from grapes dried on the vine, all of which we enjoyed with a beautiful lunch of thinly sliced swordfish and tuna, followed by busiate pasta with Trapenese pesto made with tomatoes and almonds.


The estate looks out over salt marshes, as well as two other estates, now with derelict houses, but the one built in the 18th century by John Woodhouse, the founder of the Marsala industry in Sicily, is a beautiful building and could be rebuilt to its former splendour. The Villa Franca has been faithfully reconstructed and restored by the current owners.


After lunch we climbed up to Erice which was a very touristy town with a Norman castle at the top and speciality Marzipan fruits sold in a convent owned producer. We travelled back to Palermo feeling replete and unable to summon up the appetite or energy for dinner.


Tuesday 27th

We meet downstairs for the short drive to the Capa market where Nicoletta will buy all the produce required for our cooking lesson and lunch. Two Americans have appeared much to Nicoletta’s surprise, not having confirmed their participation, but they have to be fitted in the small van with the other seven of us. The wife had already announced herself by pronouncing her skill as a cook and grower of produce which went down like a lead balloon.


The market is a fascinating experience, notably for the quality of the produce and Nicoletta’s relationship with her chosen suppliers. We spend 45 minutes sourcing wheels of swordfish, cherry tomatoes, bread and other ingredients, then return for coffee, cooking lesson and tour of the apartment. We don our aprons and are set to work, stirring, chopping and oiling, but it isn’t long before the American Fran has thrust herself into the forefront of jobs to be done, then losing interest and moving on to the next chance to shine. Her husband stood by looking somewhat henpecked.


Under Nicoletta’s expert direction, cherry tomatoes are laid out and covered with oil, mint and parsley are chopped and pistachios ground up with olive and peanut oil for the pesto, chickpea flower stirred with parsley and water for the panelle and almond milk mixed with corn starch and sugar for the blancmange. Once all the preparation is done and the dishes are either in the oven or ready to be put in, we grab a glass of wine and go for a tour of the apartment – there are amazing pieces of furniture, three libraries with a large volume of old books, paintings of family members, including three portraits by Picasso and a painting by Miro.


We sit down for lunch, seated round the elegantly set dining table, and are served the results of the cooking lesson. The fried panelle followed by the fusilli with pesto, swordfish with caramelised tomatoes and the almond blancmange. For us the pasta with pesto was the standout dish.


We have been joined by Giochino, Duke of Palma and adopted son and heir of Giuseppe de Lampedusa who is now over 80 and retired from his various positions as opera director in Rome and Naples, as well as a period in New York. Since their move to live at the palazzo in Palermo, Nicoletta has developed her Dinners with the Duchess business plus cooking classes and apartment accommodation. Most recently she has been filmed with Rick Stein for the BBC who she said was charming, although she had never heard of him. It took seven hours to film the process of making panelle, same as the ones we had helped prepare in a fraction of the time.


With many kisses and expressions of delight, we bid our farewells and leave Nicoletta to prepare dinner for 20 for tonight, wondering how she finds the energy. We can now leave the Americans behind as we load up the van for Giuseppe to take us to Cefalu via Monreale where we stop for an hour to see a magnificent Norman 11th century cathedral with mosaics that rival Aya Sofia in Istanbul. We climb to the top of the tower from which there was a panoramic view over Palermo.


Back down the hill, through Palermo and along the coast to Cefalu where we arrived at the Hotel Alberi del Paradiso at 5.30, too tired or lazy to make it down the hill to the old town. After a couple of drinks and nibbles we decided to retire to our room to watch BBC World and update the diary. Tomorrow we will make a trip inland and to the Mediterranean Coast at Agrigento.


Wednesday 28th

At 9 am Fabio loads us into the bus and we start the 90 minute journey to the middle of the island where our next cooking lesson is scheduled with Fabrizia Tasca Lanza who has taken over the business started in 1989 by her mother Anna. The countryside is quite barren on the way, but once we get close to the vineyard and estate near Vallelunga, it becomes more lush and fertile with sheep, goats and vineyards as well as evidence of heavy recent rain.


We arrive at the Tasca Lanza property, Casa Vecchie and Villa Regaleali, to be greeted by American intern Elissa, Rosella and then the Marchesa, Fabrizia. We prepared the ingredients for a timbale, sardine benafico and choux pastry sfinci, like profiteroles but expanded three times in the oven and coated with honey. Lunch was preceded by some deep fried sage leaves and the estate white wine and we then sat down in the kitchen/dining room to lunch joined by Fabrizia, Michael the Irish chef and Ashley, the new gardener from South London. Another very enjoyable lunch was followed by copious buying of Fabrizia’s book Come Home to Sicily, all personally signed, group photos outside and departure for Agrigento overlooking the Mediterranean.


We drove straight through the shoddily built town with amazing views to reach the Valley of Temples just after 4.30, but the queues were horrendous, so we were dropped at the end of the valley so we could walk back to the beginning avoiding the worst of the crowds. Stunning Greek temples from the 5th century BC, including ruins dedicated to Castor and Pollux, Hercules and Juno and the fully intact Temple of Concord which had avoided destruction by earthquake because it was built on a layer of soft clay which absorbed the tremors.


We had a two hour trip back to Cefalu and it was well after dark when we made it to the hotel, after arranging a meeting place in town for the next morning, so we could walk round the old town before we leave.


Thursday 29th

Up early to get round the town after breakfast before a 9.15 collection in the piazza by the waterfront. We followed directions and ended up on the corso before taking the fork to the duomo which was a 20 minute stroll on a supposedly traffic free road, but the exterior of the duomo was worth every step, a perfect Norman 12th century frontage with towers at both corners – the nave and apse were hidden from easy view, but could be seen clearly from the water. We took a short cut and found ourselves just above a beach from where it was only a short walk to our meeting point.


Faithful Fabio and Lisa arrived with our bags and we headed for the fishing port to meet Pascuale, his son Nino and the other Nino who took us out fishing on Pelicano on the harbour. There were marvellous views of the duomo’s profile which confirmed the beauty of the building’s design and construction under King Roger II nearly 1000 years ago (Alastair is less enthusiastic about Norman architecture than I am, but I grew up near a Norman church, so it brings back memories of my childhood in the Cotswolds). Cefalu from the water was very attractive with its muted palette of yellow, pink and off white. We arrived at a fishing spot and the team of fishermen let out 100 metres each of rope and netting before hauling in the first load of small fish including an octopus which kept climbing out of the bucket. Dissatisfied with the first haul, the net went out again and they were happy with the catch for lunch.


We headed back to the wharf to pick up anchovies for our entree before finding a swimming spot near the seven brothers rocks close to the shore. Three of us had a swim before the first glass of Vita Nuda wine with anchovy bruschetta. Then the first course of Pasta Norma (in case we caught no fish) was served – it was delicious, containing tomato passato made by Pascuale’s wife, eggplant and topped with salted ricotta. Then came the fish, mainly mullet, cooked in oil on the back of the boat. It was the freshest fish any of us had ever eaten, washed down with plenty of wine, fortunately a conservative 11.5 degrees ABV.


In a holiday of highlights our fishing trip with Pascuale and team on Pelicano was right up there with the best. Fabio then drove us east for 90 minutes to catch the ferry to Salina. We arrived about 7 pm to be met at the port and driven to Malfa where we checked in to the lovely Hotel Ravesi. As usual we had very little appetite after our lunch, but spent several hours drinking wine with Alastair, Pat, Chris and Lee before Lisa joined us, somewhat unwisely, since Pat was determined to organise her life for her. After a great day we went to bed about midnight which was very late for us, but slept well.


Friday 30th

We had a late start with no tour events till 7 this evening, so breakfast was a leisurely occasion outside the bar and breakfast room. Then there was time to check out the spa (fully booked out) and wander down to the village to the chemist and to get a coffee next door. After that we stretched out by the pool for a couple of hours before going for a short walk to find somewhere for a small bite to eat. The choice was very limited, as the Ravesi’s pizza place was shut till evening, and we crossed the road to the Bar Malvasia where we had a sort of pizza with tomatoes and mozzarella. After that it was time for a read as Commisario Brunetti and Venice were calling!


We joined the Wrights for a glass of wine outside their room before it was time to join Lisa for the walk to the restaurant which was in a part of the village we hadn’t realised existed. It was called the

PInnatta and we sat on the terrace where it was pleasant despite the cooling breeze. Dinner was a very interesting collection of vegetable and seafood dishes including a caponata. After dinner we had a brisk walk back up the hill past a ceramic place and along the main village road to the hotel.


Saturday 1st October

After our lazy afternoon, we were determined to get up in time to have a better look at Malfa after breakfast, as our departure wasn’t until 10.45 to catch the ferry back to Salina. We walked past the church and branched left at the cafe, being overtaken by the mushroom man in his Ape and a dog chasing him and his dog down the road and across a short cut.


Excitement over we went up a cutting and discovered a sign advertising ‘io bibo Salina’ which turned out to be a small winery with Malvasia grapes on racks drying for 15 days outside the storage and sales shed. We were invited in by the owner for a tasting before 10 am which we agreed to out of curiosity, although we refused the offer of tasting the red having sampled the Malvasia. We bought a bottle as well as a small packet of Salina’s capers to bring home. After this exciting interlude and chance to practice Italian, it was time for a coffee at the cafe where we discovered Alastair and Pat doing the same thing.


Check out completed, we were picked up from the Ravesi and conveyed to the port on the other side of the island. The hydrofoil was on time and an hour and a half later we were back on the mainland where Fabio met us to drive us to Taormina which is a very picturesque tourist town on a hill above the coast from which a gondola operates return trips. We checked out the language school before finding a restaurant along a lane where we had a beer and a pizza.


Next we walked to the Greek Theatre which was in an impressive state of preservation and still used for performances. We then wandered down the Main Street which was pedestrians only, joined the Wrights for a drink before meeting the van for the trip to Siracusa where we were booked to spend two nights at Henry’s House, a charming boutique hotel on Ortigia with eccentric paintings in every room and antique furniture. Luckily for us our room was served by a lift, unlike the Wrights’ which was up another staircase altogether.


We were booked for dinner at Sicilia in Tavolo on the Via Cavour where we were due to enjoy fresh seafood (vongole, cozze and gamberi), pasta and an excellent tiramisu, all washed down as usual with beautiful local wines and finished with a digestivo. Before dinner, as it was raining, our table wasn’t ready and in fact the people must have sat there for an hour waiting for the rain to stop, so we went back up the road to the Bar Al Sud where we had drinks and bruschetta. On the way out I discovered Baffo d’Oro in the fridge, so decided to go back there on my birthday to have one in celebration.


Sunday 2nd October

My birthday morning was cloudy but dry and we had a very pleasant breakfast on one of the terraces which had a view across the harbour to Siracusa new town on the other side. After breakfast we set out for Ragusa in the south eastern interior where we were due to attend an agricultural show, the 47th annual occasion, because Lisa’s food suppliers were there for the day. There was a long queue to get in, but by the time we arrived the weather was warm and sunny. We were met by the artisan donkey milk producer’s daughter and went, inevitably for a coffee and pastry near the cattle stalls, before going in search of the food hall. There were lots of cheese stands, selling Ragusana DOP Cariocavallo which is a very local hard cheese produced and matured in large blocks, ancient grain pastas and wines.


We climbed in the van and drove to Chiaramonte Gulfi in the Iblei mountains where the Ristorante Majore upstairs from the original butcher’s shop specialises in traditional pork recipes including a superb risotto. Pigs in the area are fed on acorns and broad beans as an important part of their diet. At the end of a very filling and liquid lunch, including birthday bubbles, my 70th birthday cake was brought in and the whole restaurant joined in singing Happy Birthday. As we got in the van, a local appeared at the door, pointing at me and saying I looked like Bobby from Dallas which I think was a compliment.


Our day was still far from done. The next stop was the Fantoi Cutrera olive mill which was in full swing processing the olive harvest, using the most modern pressing machinery. After our lunch, the olive oil tasting was a bit hard to get through, but we were also able to buy some of their pestos.


It was quite a long drive back to Siracusa which we didn’t reach until after 7 pm. We had no room for dinner, but I was determined to go in search of my birthday Baffo d’Oro at the Al Sud. We had a quiet couple of drinks there and retired to bed after a very enjoyable day.


Monday 3rd October

This morning we have our final cooking class of the tour which requires a drive to Catania, Sicily’s second largest city about 45 minutes north of Siracusa. We were met by our cooking tutor in front of the Duomo de Sant Agata, built in baroque style from traditional black lava stone combined with white stone. We then toured La Pescheria fish market and the vegetable sellers, buying produce for lunch, which was to be prepared and eaten in the house belonging to the Catanese Historical Society. The kitchen was true to the principles of the historical society and lunch was served in the elegant dining room hung with old paintings and photographs of historical figures. A notable dish was the Pasta Norma, previously enjoyed on the fishing trip and named after the opera by Bellini, Catania’s most famous son (not sure our pasta was acceptable, so it might have been replaced by a more professionally made pasta), and the cannoli for which we had created the hollow pastry cornets, subsequently filled with pistachio cream.


The final visit was to a winery on the southern slopes of Mount Etna where the owner Michele Murgo gave us a tour of the bottling plant before a tasting of their range of wines, both white and red, accompanied by olives, bread and olive oil. Unfortunately we weren’t able to do full justice to the tasting, but I did buy a bottle of Mt Etna Nero d’Avola/Carricante to take home. We said goodbye to Fabio who was leaving to drive back to his home in Cefalu. On our return to Henry’s House we all sat on the terrace looking out over the harbour to enjoy our final evening on tour.


Tuesday 4th October

We got up and went for a walk round the shore line of Ortigia including the Jewish quarter and Temple of Apollo before returning to the hotel for breakfast. After a leisurely breakfast, we took our cases downstairs and checked out, before heading up the street to the Aretusa Fountain where Vanessa had some shopping to do while I sat at a table on the street drinking a lungo expresso. We had a wander past the Duomo and along Via Cavour where we found the Tami stores which had some excellent items for Christmas presents. Finally we joined the Wrights for a beer in the Piazza Duomo while we waited for Lisa at 1 pm and had a quick tour of the Duomo which was part baroque, part 19th century and part Greek with columns that survived the 1693 earthquake.


We walked to Ortigia’s market and Fratelli Burgo’s La Salumeria for a last look at the amazing range of fresh produce and delicatessen products before sitting down for our last lunch at a restaurant around the corner where we were able to order what we wanted from the menu. There was a superb selection of antipasto dishes for sharing, including baccala, anchovies and prawns, followed by spaghetti con sarde for me and pasta con vongole for Vanessa (magnificent).


Our transport arrived, having picked up our bags from the hotel, and we set off for Catania where the others were all due to catch planes to Rome while we had our last night at a hotel in Catania on the Via Etnea. We checked into the San Max which was clean and comfortable, although not palatial, booked our taxi for the morning and walked down the street in search of a last drink and something to eat, although we probably didn’t need anything. I had a pizza which was very good, but too big to finish.


Wednesday 5th October

The taxi arrived at 5.45 am to take us to the airport and check in was slow, including being stung with an excess baggage charge for our extra suitcase bought a couple of days ago. The plane left nearly on time and we arrived in Rome with plenty of time to find our check in, although we had two espressos while waiting for the check in counter to show on the screen. We found the Cathay counters and checked our bags through to Auckland before remembering we had kept nothing out for the Hong Kong stopover.


Then it was time to go through immigration before finding the Alfore lounge where our Diner’s Cards permitted entry. We had an hour and a half to kill before boarding, which I used to start writing my column on Sicily for Farmers Weekly, in the hope it would be needed for this week, to be finished on arrival in Hong Kong.


We flew out at 1.10 and our wonderful Italian holiday was over!


Italian holiday 2016

December 24, 2018

Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th September

Got to the airport efficiently in time and checked in, boarded and waited and waited, finally departing two hours late for Hong Kong. Fortunately the delay was not a problem, just meant a shorter stopover, but at the far back of the aircraft it was a very ordinary flight. Not sure what on earth travel agent Angela was doing, as we booked the flights nine months ago!


The next flight was better from HK to Rome, but we were pretty shot when we arrived after about 36 hours. The train from the airport to Rome Termini was very quick and meant we had about two and a half hours to kill before the train to Florence, time for a coffee, saltimbocca, shave and a beer. The train was right on time and 90 minutes later we arrived to find our hotel less than five minutes from the station.


The Club Hotel was comfortable and convenient and we had a very welcome shower before heading back to the station for a pizza at the Fratelli Cuore restaurant. After that we walked to the Accademia Gallery to try to see Michelangelo’s David, but the enormous queue meant we had to buy a guided tour and wait for it to begin. The guide was good, but the headsets’ distortion meant it was very hard to understand her. However that was our first significant attraction ticked off – the David is magnificent, especially the original, and well worth seeing. We went back to the hotel and were so tired we went to bed at 7.30 with inevitable results, as both slept but woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep until early morning.


Monday 12th

Having finally got back to sleep, it was frustrating to be woken up by a phone call from NZ about the A&P movie night – someone wanted money back because they hadn’t been able to come on the night and thought they should have been able to use them two weeks later. No way!


After that there was no point trying to sleep again and we had plenty to do, so up for breakfast and the start of the day’s touring. We caught the bus to the Piazzale Michelangelo on the other side of the River Arno, through a very prosperous hill suburb of Florence at the top of a hill with an amazing view back over the city. We then wended our way down through the Rose Garden which was well over its main season, but also had some very witty and interesting sculptures by a Belgian sculptor, Jean Michelle Folons I think, a mixture of cats, dogs, frogs, boats and top hatted figures.


At the bottom of the hill, we found a very old suburb called San Nicolo, with quite a bit of renovation of old buildings happening. There was also a fascinating shop with eccentric timepieces manufactured on site by the clock maker, a young guy called Allesandro Dari. Then we crossed the river to the main part of the city, where we found the Galileo Museum open which was a surprise as we thought all museums were closed on Mondays. After a coffee at a small bar by the museum, we spent a very interesting couple of hours viewing Galileo’s and others’ inventions of telescopes and other amazing sight related pieces of equipment.


We walked from the museum to the Ponte Vecchio which had to be seen, if not much expenditure of time or money devoted to it. After that it was time for lunch which we had at a trattoria with a few tables on the street named after the Via Capacino it was on – very light Caprese salad and prosciutto and melon.


Feeling footsore after the big morning, we decided to hire a bike tour although our guide’s English was fractured and conversation a bit difficult. He showed us round most of the key parts of the centre of Florence including the Orsanmichele Church which used to be a grain store and the outside of the Basilica Di Santa Croce at the end of the Piazza Santa Croce which was once an arena for sporting competitions. At the end of the hour’s tour he dropped us back within five minutes’ walk of the hotel. We went back for a rest followed by dinner round the corner from the hotel, although we decided we didn’t like the look of the recommended restaurant and found another traditional family run trattoria which suited our needs. We had a great risotto, a lasagne and shared a wonderful mixed salad with radicchio and anchovies as well as very acceptable house wine.


Then it was time for another intermittent night’s sleep, interrupted by me going for a wander and locking myself out of the bedroom in nothing but knickers, fortunately able to wake Vanessa up before too long. There was another phone call at 5.15 but we have now learnt we need to turn our phones off at night.


Tuesday 13th

The news had come through by email that our tour of the Uffizi Galleries for this morning had been cancelled without any news about a refund. After breakfast we walked to the Uffizi to find a massive queue and no chance of being able to get in before we had to leave, so we paid for another guided tour.


The guide was really good, but the sheer numbers of people made her job very difficult. She gave us an excellent introduction to medieval art and the transition through Giotto to three-dimensional painting before showing us the further transition to the Renaissance. We saw Michelangelo’s only painting apart from the Sistine Chapel, for which he was paid twice his original asking price, Leonardo’s painting of the Virgin Mary with the use of perspective and Botticelli’s Venus, the most famous works in the Uffizi. Although we could have stayed to look at other areas, there were so many people, it had become a complete bun fight, especially with people insisting on taking selfies with their backs to the painting. Sounding like a couple of grumpy oldies, this trend was the worst development since our last European trip – selfy sticks ought to be banned in art galleries and other public places!


We escaped from the Uffizi and, after an unsuccessful hunt for a particular shoe shop, we walked back to the Basilica Di Santa Croce which Lonely Planet describes in glowing terms as being so beautiful it causes faintness in people, named Stendahlismus after the French author who first experienced it. It was beautiful, simple and restful with a wood beamed ceiling. We walked out through the gardens back into the streets, found somewhere for lunch and walked back to our hotel to pick up suitcases.


We headed back to the station for the 3.30 to Venice which arrived 20 minutes late at nearly 6 pm. We had no idea where to go, but headed towards the taxi sign and found a porter in a high viz vest. He grabbed our bags, took us to buy Vaporetto tickets and took us to the boarding point for the ferry to San Marco, all for 10 Euros plus the tickets. After a half hour ride we arrived at San Marco, again with no idea how to find our hotel, but a porter offered to take us there for. 20 Euros. By this time we had not enough cash and didn’t want to spend it anyway and luckily he gave us instructions I could follow, so after a five minute walk and two bridges we found the Hotel Violino d’Oro.


A quick shower later we were recommended to eat at Vino Vino which proved to be an affordable and good quality place very near the hotel. After dinner it was back to the hotel and a much better night’s sleep, although by this time Vanessa’s cold was making her feel a bit rough.


Wednesday 14th

A slower start to the morning, but Venice seems to start later anyway, although the breakfast room was pretty full when we got there. We wanted to see the Doge’s Palace just off Piazza San Marco and the most efficient way to do this was to buy tickets from the Correr Museum which included several other museums. We spent an hour and a half at the Palace, spending quite a lot of time in the prison which is reached by crossing the Bridge of Sighs as well as seeing all the main rooms of the Palace where various justice committees met to run the Duchy of Venice in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The main hall is enormous, 53 x 25 metres, and has a Tintoretto painting covering the whole of one end.


After lunch we returned to the Correr Museum which is an eclectic combination of period spaces, ranging from Empress Elizabeth or Sissi of the Habsburg dynasty to archaeological findings, Roman busts and statues, coins and ceramics, Venetian armaments and naval history, and a collection of paintings collected by Teodoro Correr who was a rich merchant.


It was a very hot afternoon, San Marco was covered in tourists taking selfies and photos, so it was time to head back to the hotel for a cup of tea and a rest. We then set out to find a restaurant we had spotted on our way past in the morning and, with the help of the map on the phone we found it. Luckily we had a table for two sandwiched between two fellow hotel guests from Seattle and the husband originally from Trieste on one side and a couple from Brussels on the other. It appears the Trattoria Algazettino is a very highly rated and much recommended Venice restaurant, very justifiably as we discovered. Our meal of Caprese salad followed by seafood gnocchi and Venetian style liver with onions was superb, succeeded by free apple tart, grappa and sweet red slightly frizz ante red wine with a packet of pasta to take home. It was a very successful find.


Thursday 15th

Vanessa’s cold was worse in the morning and we took it a bit more slowly after breakfast, but walked to the Accademia Bridge and Gallery where we spent an hour looking at famous Venetian artists’ work – Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Tiepolo and others. At the end of it we had seen as many versions of Mary and the baby Jesus as we could cope with, although beautiful paintings they undoubtedly are.


It was getting greyer outside and started raining while we had coffee, but we carried on to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum where we saw some amazing sculptures (by Henry Moore, Giacometti, Brancusi and others) and paintings by Braque, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, Miro and countless others. There was a brilliant cubist painting by Matzinger of a professional cyclist in the Paris – Roubaix road race, giving a great impression of speed and the crowd visible through the cyclist’s head.


We ran into Rob and Rosemary Hargraves who had spent a couple of nights in Venice and were about to leave on a cruise round the coast to Rome. We found a good little osteria just back along the road where we had respectively cuttlefish in black sauce and three versions of baccala smoked and dried cod. After lunch it was racing seriously, so we bought a couple of ponchos and boarded the Vaporetto for Rialto which was seriously overcrowded and wet. We decided to stay on the ferry and complete the round trip via the railway station, boatyards and the outer canal back to San Marco. It had stopped raining by this time and the walk back was seething with tourists, a bit of a shock after a very pleasant day on the other side of the Grand Canal without a selfie stick in sight. Outside our hotel it was absolute bedlam with crowds waiting for gondolas.


We went for dinner soon after 7, to be in time for the Vivaldi concert at the Chiesa San Vidal in the piazza before the Ponte Vecchio starting at 9. We stopped at the Tavernetta Mauricio for marinated anchovies, mussels and clams and cotelette a la Milanese, heading for the concert in good time. However we had completely misconstrued the popularity of the concert which was full! Fortunately after a wait of 15 minutes, they let us in, the last two to make it. The Interpreti Veneziani, five violinists, two cellists and a harpsichord player, gave a lively, beautifully played version of the Four Seasons and some other pieces. It was a great evening, marred by Vanessa leaving her glasses at the church.


Friday 16th

We left the hotel at 8.30 to catch the Vaporetto to the station and made it with plenty of time to spare before the train to Naples. We used a cafe table to write postcards, but there was no hope of being served, so we went to a stand up coffee bar next door which worked perfectly. Then we caught the Naples train and it started raining before Padua and is forecast to rain all the way south.


We went to the dining car to get lunch which at 18 euros including wine was the cheapest meal we had eaten, but it did the job and induced a certain doziness. The Bulgarian family group who talked incessantly must have got off at Rome Termini, but by then I had fallen asleep and only woke up as we slowed down to pass through the outskirts of Naples. We arrived 25 minutes late which wasn’t a problem, but it put us firmly into rush hour, as we found our way to the Garibaldi station for the trip to Sorrento on the Circumvesuviana line. The train was full, standing room only for most of the 35 stops and hour long trip to Sorrento. We took a taxi up the hill to our hotel La Tonnarella with a magnificent view across the Bay of Naples to Vesuvius, Pompei and Naples.


It was a brisk 10 minute walk down the hill and another 10 minutes down to the fishing port where we went, me somewhat grumpily, in search of dinner. But at the port we found the Ristorante Azzuria which looked promising and served a delicious seafood ravioli. We soon got into conversation with our neighbours who were from London; Trevor was ex political editor for the Sun and still writes a weekly column and his wife Jacqui was originally from Sydney. We had an entertaining conversation about UK politics and politicians and they also introduced us to a free driving directional app called Waze which has turned out to be a fantastic substitute for GPS at 22 euros a day.


We got a ride up the hill from a helper at the restaurant who also operates a taxi service for clients, but much to my surprise this was the only time we paid for a taxi.


Saturday 17th

We had a late start after the exertions of the previous day, enjoying our breakfast in the dining room with the wonderful views of the bay. Next it was back to the station to catch the train back towards Naples with the objective of stopping at Herculaneum rather than Pompei, as we had read that it was less crowded, but very worth visiting. After getting off at Ercolano Scavi station, we strolled down the Main Street with the entrance to the ruins at the bottom, stopping for a coffee on the way.


After buying our tickets we joined an English speaking tour group at 10 euros each which was well worthwhile, as our guide Maria was both extremely knowledgeable and passionate about Herculaneum which has suffered from lack of investment compared with Pompei until David Packard of Hewlett Packard fame decided a few years ago to take it on as a personal mission. A prime example of the underinvestment is the museum built 40 years ago and never opened because of lack of money to staff it.


Herculaneum was a Roman holiday resort with spacious holiday houses and shops to service the wealthy Romans and the sea, now 400 metres away, used to come to the edge of the town. When Vesuvius erupted in 63 BC, the town was flooded by a tsunami of mud, unlike Pompei which was submerged by volcanic ash. The mud then set fast, preserving the buildings in perfect condition. The town was first discovered in the 18th century when a local resident fell into a hole through which he ended up in the theatre. However a shortage of money has seen it take a lot longer to carry out the excavations.


After lunch we visited the Virtual Archaeological Museum nearby to watch a series of virtual recreations of life in Herculaneum in the first century BC. Then it was back to Sorrento, although not before we witnessed another example of couples getting separated by making a late decision to get on or off the train with the result one half had to carry on to the next station. In the morning we had met a woman who had been separated from her husband who was left on the platform with their luggage and had no phone or money to get in touch with him. Luckily she managed to borrow a phone to get a message to her husband via her daughter and we saw them reunited as our train pulled out.


On the way from the station Vanessa stopped to buy some sun glasses, very stylish leopard spots on the frames. Then we had a drink at a cafe in the middle of town while the sun went down, watching among other excitements a man fall over and hit his nose on the pavement, requiring medical attention and an ambulance. We decided to find somewhere for dinner before walking up the hill to the hotel and found a restaurant in a square down a side street; part way through dinner the heavens opened, but luckily we were under a solid umbrella canopy. By the time we had finished, the rain had cleared for our walk up the hill. However during the night there was a major thunder storm.

Sunday 18th

We planned to catch the bus to Positano after breakfast, but as usual this took a little longer than intended. We obtained an upgrade to a room with a terrace and view for our last night, so needed to pack our bags before heading back to town. We arrived at the bus station and managed to buy tickets to Positano, but the bus was crowded and we squeezed on to stand at the front. Traffic out of Sorrento was very heavy, so the journey took nearly an hour on a very winding road round the coast.


On arrival the driver shouted Positano, finito! We got off and began the walk down the road to the town when the rain started. We stopped for a coffee in a hotel restaurant with a great view, an expensive coffee naturally. Then after the rain stopped we wended our way down steps, past tourist shops to the beach at the bottom. There was nothing of great interest to look at, so not surprisingly we decided to have lunch which was pleasant and expensive as the location suggested. By the time we had finished the rain was threatening again, so back up the hill with a stop at a clothes shop called Vanilla. The stock was on special because of the approaching end of season, so Vanessa was able to find some really good buys.


When we emerged it was really raining, so with some trepidation we joined the bus queue and waited nearly half an hour for the Sorrento bus and used positive thinking and sheer determination to be two of only half a dozen to manage to get on what was already a very full bus. A prick with blue shoes had a violent argument with another would be passenger and the bus driver, before heading off never to be seen again. This may have been the difference between getting on and being left on the side of the road with the other thirty odd unfortunate people.


Soaking wet, although rain jacket and poncho helped, we set off on the return trip and arrived back about 4 pm very relieved if a trifle damp. We stopped to buy provisions on the way back to the hotel, so we could enjoy the evening in our new hotel room, instead of going out again. The view was superb and we enjoyed a very pleasant supper of salami, hard cheese, bread and wine. That night there was an almighty thunder storm, although I am glad to report I slept through it!


Monday 19th

The day of our departure dawned with a couple of uncertainties concerning rental car pick up and buying a SIM card for using the Waze app on the IPad while travelling. We arranged for the car to be delivered to the hotel, just as well as the Hertz franchise had moved and the traffic was virtually at a standstill. After breakfast we set off for the town to buy the SIM card, found the TIM shop open, only to realise we needed a passport. So back up the hill to fetch the passport, testing the ability to send each other text messages, and Vanessa went to buy the SIM card while I waited for the car. We arranged a place for me to pick Vanessa up when ready and the car duly arrived. I then waited and waited, sending a couple of texts without reply, then finally my phone rang. Vanessa had been waiting for 15 minutes, but her texts hadn’t arrived (I got all four of them the next morning), so I was able to start the crawl down the hill and at 11.22 we were on our way.


It took half an hour at least to get out of the town and an hour to hit the autostrada to Salerno, but after that it was all quite simple. We stopped at a motorway cafe for something to eat and carried on our route east to Puglia, arriving in Alberobello at about 4.30 after an uneventful drive of five hours. We found the Rosa dei Trulli with a little difficulty, but by 5 pm we were installed. It was quite a comfortable little unit, but the ladder up to the bedroom looked fairly scary.


Our hostess, Katya, suggested a booking at 8 pm for dinner, on the basis the restaurants feed their staff first and guests afterwards. Anyway we decided to cancel that arrangement and take pot luck in town. We spotted a wine bar on the tourist map which we found quite easily and enjoyed a couple of glasses of a local Verdeca with a board of local cheeses, served by a couple who were passionate about local wines and produce. We then missed one restaurant (it turned out to be closed on Mondays), but found another one nearby.


We got back to the trulli, but the remote wouldn’t open the gates, so we had to press the buzzer to be let in. Once we got to bed in the upstairs bedroom, just under the roof cone, sleep was hard to achieve because the property’s dog spent half the night barking.


Tuesday 20th

It was quite chilly in the morning and rain clouds threatened, but there were croissants, bread, ham and cheese for breakfast which we ate in the small main room. After breakfast we set off on an exploration of small towns in the region, but they were closed for the most part, so after having a coffee in quite a stylish cafe in Putignano which was said to be caught in a time warp after much of the population left after the war, cashing some money and buying tomatoes, grapes and plums from the last stall just closing in the  market in Noci, we felt there was nothing to do but head back for Alberbello for a late lunch.


It was raining intermittently and we went to a restaurant at the southern end of the Main Street, where we had our light lunch talking to a lone Canadian woman from Florida and Nova Scotia about 80, travelling on her own except for her 6lb miniature dog. The duo were setting off the next day for Palermo by coach and ferry which sounded very brave of her.


On return to the trulli, we hung out our washing which had built up and most of it was dry before evening, a great relief. Then we set out on our evening voyage of exploration, including another trip to Paco Wine bar and dinner at Pinacola which had been closed the night before. It was pretty fully booked and we sat out under cover, but with a chilly breeze. Luckily my long trousers were nearly dry, especially after ironing. Dinner was OK, but not a standout, which rather summed up our view of Alberobello. Apart from the wine bar, we found it all a bit lack lustre and too reliant on all the trulli which have made it such an attraction.


Wednesday 21st

Without a huge amount of regret we left after breakfast and the rest of the ironing to our next destination, Lecce, hopefully via Taranto and the coast road to Gallipoli. We drove into Taranto and along the waterfront, but didn’t park or find the Greek ruins, because Waze insisted that we shouldn’t take the coast road and sent us against our wishes directly to Lecce.


On arrival we found roughly where we needed to go and parked so we could get a late lunch, very enjoyable pasta with clams and mussels, much smaller and less rubbery than the New Zealand version. The waiter asked me if we intended to visit the Museo Faggiano which he said was an amazing archaeological museum in the Centro Storico.


So we parked the car near the correct gate, walked to find our B&B and saw the sign for the museum immediately. Julian arrived to check us in and gave us lots of information about Lecce and its restaurants and showed us to our room which was a delightfully bright and clean fresh room with a small terrace overlooking the Via dei Perroni.


Before dinner we wandered up to the Piazza San’Oronzo to have a glass of wine beside the Roman amphitheatre and watch the cars and people go past. We walked back towards our B&B and found the restaurant Julian had recommended which was busy but had space up a slightly rickety staircase. Our dining neighbours engaged us in conversation which led to one of the more amazing discussions we had ever had. Dan and Melanie were from Denver, Colorado about our age and turned out to be very conservative Republicans who considered Hillary Clinton to be the Devil and Trump to be the answer to all America’s problems. They were passionate defenders of the right to carry guns and owned several which they fortunately weren’t carrying round Europe. Dan was a rocket scientist and really interesting on uncontentious topics.


We sensibly decided not to argue with them, although we had a detailed talk about gun laws and police brutality towards black Americans. On these subjects, as well as Donald Trump, it was all a media beat up! We said our fond farewells and left the restaurant, relieved we hadn’t caused a major scene, but had managed to enjoy our dinner which in my case was lamb intestines.



Thursday 22nd

A fine morning dawned, although there were signs of cloud building up from the south. We had breakfast upstairs on the rooftop terrace, a bit later than expected because Pasquale had to check in four Italians who had arrived at 9 am. We had decided to leave the car parked on the metre for the day while we explored Lecce’s old town, so we set out after 10 and our first stop was the Museo Faggiano about 50 metres up the next road. This was an incredible excavation of an old house which started when Signor Faggiano tried to sort his plumbing out when planning a trattoria and found Roman ruins underneath the house. He was prevented from continuing with his restaurant plans, so decided to work with the relevant historical authority to develop the museum. It is on four storeys with ruins underground and examples of Norman and 16th century architecture, including signs of the Knights Templar on the ground and upper floors.


Then it was time for coffee in the Piazza San’Oronzo when it began to rain quite hard, but within half an hour it had stopped, so we continued through the old town which was quite beautiful. We walked to the Porto Napoli and spotted a good cafe called Paisiello where we ended up having a Caprese salad with mozzarella and a bruschetta with tomatoes, cheese and anchovies, served by a waitress with a great sense of humour. It was actually in our outdated version of Lonely Planet, so must have been good for at least 20 years.


We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and resting before heading back to the main square. We took another of Julian’s tips for dinner at a fish restaurant called Pescheria con Cottura, basically a fish shop with tables, designed to be cool. We were a bit annoyed at being instructed how to order and pay, directed to our table, then having our main causes dumped on us before we had finished our anchovies and marinated fish starter. After dinner we stopped for a final glass of red wine at a cafe on the square with a concert happening in the amphitheatre. A rather staid Italian group was playing in front of a dutifully enthusiastic crowd.


Friday 23rd

Another breakfast on the terrace, chatting to a couple from Devon and heading to Alberobello for a week in a trulli villa – not sure how they will fill their time.


Today we were determined to find the coast at Gallipoli and Porto Cesario, so off we went with Waze dutifully programmed to guide us. We had coffee by the leisure port in Porto Cesario with ducks quacking and geese honking in the harbour, but no sign of seagulls. It was all very peaceful. Next on to Gallipoli, but we turned off just before it and found a beach at Rivabella where I had a lovely swim, but apart from a few other people and a couple of dogs, there was no sign of life.


We set off for Gallipoli and spotted a restaurant called La Caravelle on a roundabout with a beautiful view back up the coast. We had freshly caught, grilled and filleted sea bream which was superb. We had a brief drive along the front at Gallipoli and set off back to Lecce to make sure we got a good parking space before the evening rush.


In the evening we went into town a bit later than previously, had a drink at Il Paisiello before going foraging for somewhere to have dinner. We had seen a restaurant next to the Pescheria which looked quite good and decided to try it. It was called Semiserio, but its approach to the food was very innovative and totally serious. We had a great dinner, including calamari cooked in coconut and served on a fava bean mash and a pasta dish with very small tubes of pasta served with seafood.

Japan Diary

December 24, 2018

Saturday 8 – Wednesday 12 September

Arrived at Shiba Park Hotel at about 8.30 but check in wasn’t till 3, so we caught the subway to Asakusa and looked around for a couple of hours, then caught the train back to Daimon. Went to visit a nearby garden with lakes, hillocks and pine trees.


Checked in and showered before going out to find something to eat and drink. We found a small restaurant where we had a couple of beers and snacks, then walked back to a restaurant in the street towards the hotel. Had another beer, sake and a couple of light dishes, including tempura eggplant.


Next morning after breakfast we decided to spend the day at Ueno Park visiting museums. We spent a very interesting time at the National Museum which traced Japanese history from the beginning with lots of art, samurai swords and armour, geishas and kimonos. After lunch we visited the Museum of Science and Technology which had a lot of information and displays about geology, plant life and mechanical inventions, but with no English translations.


Back to the hotel and out to forage for food and drink, more sake and very good mackerel.


Day three was our day with a guide in the morning and a tour of Tokyo’s street food in the evening. Kei took us on a great tour of the underground as our main means of transport which involved a lot of walking and not a lot of scenery, although we saw one lovely garden, the park where sake barrels and burgundy barrels line opposite sides of the walkway before reaching the biggest shrine in Tokyo, an abortive attempt to go up the Observatory tower (it was closed), a walk along the Ginza before a very good Tendon lunch very close to the geographical centre of Tokyo.


After lunch we went back to the hotel for a rest before our street food tour. This was actually a walk in the rain along a very long street full of nothing but restaurants before finding somewhere for dinner, so no street food as such. Our guide Shin introduced us to Kirin Ichiban Shibori, a new premium beer, and ordered many courses of food including shabu shabu.


On our last day in Tokyo we had tickets for the Sumo wrestling tournament at Ryogoku in the afternoon, so we went early to visit the Tokyo Museum next door which concentrated on the Edo Period (1603-1868), ending with the change of feudal government to the Meiji Restoration which transferred power from the shogunate to the emperor. This resulted in the modernisation of Japan over the next 70 years, leading to war in the Pacific.


Dinner was a bit of a mistake. The restaurant in the same street as the hotel was full, so we found another which specialised in sashimi which was far too much of a raw fish fest for us. We ordered too much of the wrong thing and had another jug of sake to make up for it.


Wednesday 12 – Sunday 16 September

Next stop Kyoto. We caught the Shinkansen without any problem and watched the countryside and cities rush past for two and a half hours. Our hotel was up a pedestrian street just off a main city street with a huge shopping arcade as an extension.


After checking in we walked to the Kyoto Museum – very disappointing with only two rooms of exhibits about Kyoto’s history, an appalling audio guide and hardly anything to look at – and an Arts Centre which turned out to be an art school, but no public gallery space. On the way back towards the hotel near the shopping arcade we found Tato’s tapas bar where we stopped for a couple of glasses of Spanish wine and some tapas.


The owner, Jorge, was fluent in Japanese and English and entertained all his guests with a nonstop commentary on everything from sport to politics to his travels and life in Japan with a wife and child. We went back there the next three nights for a wine before or after dinner because we enjoyed the atmosphere so much.


On the Thursday we had a reservation at the moss garden and temple for 10.30 so we took a taxi to make sure we got there in time which we did with time for a coffee at a pop up in front of a house opposite the temple gates. The husband and wife team served excellent filter coffee, although it took so long they can’t have made much money, but he turned out to be a musician. He went into the house and brought out his hand pan on which he played some beautiful harp like music.


Next the temple with calligraphy lessons and chanting before walking round the moss garden with 160 different moss species. There was some tree damage from the previous week’s typhoon but it was very restful and attractive. We decided to catch the bus back into the city and succeeded in getting off at the right stop for the Niijo Castle which used to house the Shogun in earlier days. Again not a lot to see inside apart from state rooms with reproduction paintings of tigers and occasional figures of the shogun and samurai in session. Also the gardens were off limits because of typhoon damage. Again this was disappointing.


After a brief lunch in a local cafe we walked to the Imperial Gardens but after a short stroll and a longer sit down we walked back to the hotel.


On Friday we had a guide for the day. In the morning we caught the train to the north west of the city to visit two temples and gardens, one with a temple all in gold leaf (stunning) and the other with a very minimalist rock and gravel garden. After lunch we headed across the river to the east side of the city to walk around small streets with antique shops and a geisha training academy before visiting another temple, although by now it was raining and we were getting tired so we stopped for a caffeine and sugar boost instead. At night we stopped in the arcade at a deep fried pork restaurant for dinner which was very good.


The Saturday was damp, but we set off on the bus across the river to find the Philosophers’ Walk beside the canal which was very quiet and relaxing. It took a couple of hours to return to the city with some rain along the way. In the evening we were booked for dinner at the smart Tempura Endo restaurant which turned out to be pretentious and overpriced, costing about eight times as much as the night before. Very mediocre.


Sunday 16 – Tuesday 18 September

We caught the Shinkansen to Hiroshima and before leaving were able to have a good look at the stunning new Kyoto station building with escalators up six floors and magnificent views of the city.


By the time we checked into the Sunroute Hotel it was nearly 2 and we were starving. Just round the corner we found a cheap, tiny restaurant serving, I think, Mazuren which was a very tasty bowl of noodles with an egg and sauce. After lunch we wandered along the river side towards the A Bomb Dome which was directly where the bomb fell and the only building in about a 500 metre radius to survive almost intact.


We crossed the river and walked back through the Peace Park, looking at the very impressive War Memorial on several levels, a timeline of the events leading up to the Atom bomb and the gardens, but not the Museum which was still closed for renovations. The overall impression from an area in complete ruins 70 years earlier was one of peaceful harmony and a determination such a disaster should never happen again.


Hiroshima impressed as a city which had come to terms with the past and faced the world with optimism. This was reinforced by our boat trip down the river, looking at the buildings and bridges which had all been constructed since the 1950s and the oyster beds between the river mouth and Miyajima. The island boasts the famous Torii gate which appears to float when the tide is in, the Itsukushima Shrine behind it on land, parks with many species of trees, a six storey pagoda and a craft brewery. We had oyster don buri with a bottle of local caramel beer for lunch which were both very good. In the evening we decided to try local speciality okonomiyaki, a pancake with sorba or udon noodles, topped with pork, shrimp and cheese among other things. On balance it was a bit too heavy on the noodles and made me think of fried spaghetti cooked on a hotplate but it was filling and tasty. There was a long queue back down the street, so it was popular with locals and tourists alike.


Tuesday 18 – Thursday 20 September

On Tuesday morning we caught a taxi with a friendly driver and an automatic translation service to take us to Ujina Port to catch the ferry to Matsuyama on Shikoku Island about 75 minutes’ journey away. On arrival we caught a coach into town and were dropped right outside our hotel, having seen the city improve progressively the further inland and away from the port it was. Our hotel was ideally located within walking distance of the castle, beautiful gardens, a shopping and restaurant arcade, Ropeway Street leading past shops and restaurants to the cable car, and the tram stop for both the Dogo Onsen baths and the station.


On Tuesday afternoon we walked across the moat and round the park which formed part of the castle lands, seeing the Ninomaru Historical Garden originally constructed in the early 17th century. Wednesday morning was devoted to walking round the castle built between 1602 and 1627 with magnificent views over the city and entailed a lot of climbing up and down very steep stairs to see all the exhibits, as well as the gates, windows and loopholes in the castle walls.


After descending in the cable car, we toured the replica chateau built in 1922, Banso Suiso, whIch should have been impressive, but was somewhat lifeless because there were only a few portraits and photo montages, but hardly any furniture. It is now used for weddings and functions.


Next stop was the tram to the baths at Dogo Onsen, a very smart suburb with older buildings including the early 19th century baths where we had our first Japanese bath experience. After that it was time for lunch next door at the Dogo craft brewery bar. After all that exercise it was time to get back for a rest before dinner. We headed back up Ropeway Street and found a barbecue restaurant where we sat at the counter and ordered, although unfortunately the sardines were sold out. However one of the chefs carefully cooked two snapper fillets which he had caught the day before and presented them to us with his compliments.


Thursday 20 – Saturday 22 September

After breakfast we caught the tram in pouring rain to the station to catch our train to Takamatsu and the forecast wasn’t any better for the next few days. Luckily on arrival we found our hotel was only about a two minute walk from the station and it was a very smart new building with large conference facilities just over the road from the port.


In the afternoon the rain stopped for a time and we caught the local train to the Ritsurin Gardens which have been awarded three Michelin Green Guide stars, started in the early 17th century at the beginning of the Edo period and completed 100 years later. They were truly stunning with magnificent pines and maples, large rocks and beautifully landscaped lakes and water features. The gardens were one of if not the loveliest thing we have seen on our trip.


It rained again most of the night, but it had stopped in time for the fast ferry trip to Naoshima Island where we visited three museums, Benesse House, Lee Ufan Museum and Chichu Museum, all housed in massive concrete buildings designed by Tadao Ando. Many of the artworks were specially commissioned and Ando’s designs accommodate them, particularly those at Chichu (Monet’s water lilies and a massive polished granite ball by Walter de Maria) which are lit by natural light despite the works being in an underground space.


We walked back to the port and it started raining again as we arrived in time to catch the mid afternoon slow ferry.


Saturday 23 September

It was time to pick up our rental car and begin the Ryokan part of our trip. We collected a hybrid Prius from Toyota a short walk from the hotel which involved masses of forms and examination for damage, a cursory explanation of how to drive the car and an equally short demonstration of the GPS system. Trying to find our way out of Takamatsu, looking for sites of interest on the way, was confusing and stressful, as we seemed to be going in the wrong direction most of the time. However we found a lovely temple site up multiple steps and in the middle of very tall trees.


We set off for Kotohira, as we didn’t feel we had made much positive progress since leaving Takamatsu and fortunately found a small, crowded noodle cafe by the road with parking on the verge. Suitably fed and watered we carried on our way. We arrived too early for checkin at the Ryokan, so decided to visit a large park and garden near Kotohira which had large planting of cosmos, but nothing else was out. There were children’s play areas, large expanses of grass land families on bikes enjoying their weekend.


After walking round a man-made lake with mass hydrangea planting beside it (severely clipped back for winter), we returned to the hotel and checked in. It was a new experience, for me at least, with Japanese baths, futon bed on the floor, a magnificent Japanese dinner and breakfast. The baths were most impressive, strictly segregated, many different baths, a sauna, cold and rock pools. The dinner was served and partly cooked at the table with masses of different tastes and textures.


Sunday 24 September

In the morning we were back in the baths by 7 am, as we were under guidance to get to breakfast before 8 to avoid the worst of the crowds. Next it was on the road heading for the Iya Valley and Kazurabashi Hotel. This turned out to be even more stressful than yesterday, as we tried to enter tourist items to visit on the GPS, mistakenly thinking they were before our hotel destination, but apart from one they were very close to it.


Our first stop was the Harashi Kurasan cable car with a beautiful temple at the top which we walked round and up a number of steps, although not making it right to the main building up several hundred steps. There were other buildings and a bell tower that made up for our omission.

After that stress levels rose, as the GPS didn’t seem to know where it or we were going. Without a real map to put an area in context, we found it very confusing and frustrating.


We finally found the hotel and it was a lovely Japanese style hotel with rooms with a view, comfortable chairs as well as those at floor level if needed and very comfortable futons, public baths and an even more impressive dinner, again partly cooked at the table. For breakfast we had the full Japanese treatment, although a western breakfast is an option tomorrow.


Our day’s sightseeing started at the Kazurabashi vine bridge strung between four large cedars on opposite sides of the Iya Gorge which is an absolutely spectacular stretch of river with rapids with huge rock formations on either side. Nearby was the Biwa-no Taki waterfall, also magnificent. The next venture was almost still born, because the road was so narrow with a lot of traffic that we abandoned our plan – very unadventurous, but suitably cautious to protect the rental car.


We went instead to Oboke back on the main road beside the Yoshino River, one of Japan’s longest, and visited the delightful Heike Yashiki Museum of Folklore which was completed at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate at the time of the Meiji restoration; it was then owned by a doctor who was descended from the Heike clan which had escaped to Iya from Kyoto and became rulers of the local domain. He had looked after the Meiji emperor Antoku and the house was full of tools of his profession, a sewing machine, doctor’s bag and projector from the late 19th century. The house had a thatched roof that is said to be able to withstand 50 winters.


Next we took a boat trip through the Oboke Gorge which also has spectacular schist rock formations. On the way back we stopped at a Forest Adventure place which also offered a monorail trip amongst the tall trees for the less adventurous. It was hardly worth the cost of the eight minute round trip!


Another beautiful Japanese dinner and a couple of glasses of sake ended the day.


Tuesday 25 September

After our morning bath ritual and a (sort of) western breakfast, we were farewelled by the elegant manager who had performed a greeting and song at dinner and the reception staff as we set off back up route 32 in one of its many variations for Tokushima. The trip was uneventful with a quick break at a service area by the expressway and we arrived at the car rental depot soon after midday.


Our hotel, another JR Clement beside the railway station, wasn’t ready until 2 pm and we walked round in a circle to find an Italian deli/cafe which did a pizza special with salad and glass of wine. After lunch we walked round the park below the ruins of Tokushima Castle at the bottom of the hill across the railway line before checking in.


Our evening plan was to walk across the river and have a beer at the Awa craft brewery and bar, but it was closed, as we found out later because it was the Tuesday after a public holiday. Disappointed we strolled along the very pleasant riverside in the dusk, then crossed in search of Hassun’s restaurant and bar which our travel agency had recommended as a quirky, but cheap place with good food and a charismatic host. Hassun turned out to be an entertaining grey haired Japanese guy who spoke pretty good English with a strong accent and a wife who looked up translations for him when needed.


He had a collection of a thousand LPs, Japanese, British and American, with a preference for 70s folk and rock. We had a beer and talked to him for half an hour before the next clients arrived, a couple of English language teachers, Irish and English respectively, who spoke and understood Japanese. The woman had been to Hassun’s a year previously, but the Irishman had only been in Tokushima for two months after spending two years in Tokyo.


Hassun cooked us some dishes for dinner as well as emerging to choose more music, while his wife poured us some wine. We chatted happily for an hour, listening to some good Japanese 70s and 80s LPs, before the couple’s requests for Derek and the Dominoes and Johnny Cash took over. The restaurant cat, Peter, was brought in to greet us and be photographed, although not surprisingly he got a bit grumpy after a few minutes.


After a very pleasant evening, we wandered back to the hotel.


Wednesday 26 – Friday 28 September

I am writing this while sitting at the port waiting for our ferry to Wakayama before catching the train to Osaka. After all the forecasts of rain, as well as typhoons and earthquakes, the weather has been very kind with very little rain and hardly any wind. This morning is no exception and the two hour ferry journey should be calm.


After a very calm crossing to Wakayama, the weather was getting murkier and it was raining quite heavily by the time we reached Osaka. We caught a train from the port to the station and had lots of help to make sure we were on the right platform and train for Namba near our hotel. We came up an exit to catch a taxi which surprisingly agreed to take us several hundred metres only to the Cross Hotel. It was very smart, as was our room on the 14th floor.


After a cup of tea we wandered outside with our umbrellas and walked through the nearby Dotomburi shopping arcade which was very noisy and full of life despite the rain. After trying the delicious local speciality street food octopus dumplings, we escaped the mall, crossed Mido-Suji and wandered down a side street where we found a Spanish bar (no visible sign of a Spanish owner this time, but flags and posters) which served decanters of wine and small dishes, including paella, sardines and eggplant. We spent a couple of hours there and then returned to the Cross for an early night.


The Friday dawned reasonably fine and we had our best breakfast so far of the trip. We got hold of a map of Osaka from reception which made it possible to get our heads round the city and its subway system. The nearest station was Namba, less than five minutes walk away from the nearest access point, where we found a very helpful official guide who fixed us up with subway passes for the day, free entry to the Aquarium and discounts on other attractions.


We took the subway to the pleasure port where we found the aquarium, shopping malls and a massive cruise ship, after stopping at a cool cafe (industrial chic) for the obligatory espresso. The Aquarium was amazing, starting on the 6th floor with otters and warm water fish and moving down through Ecuadorian rain forest, Aleutian Islands, Pacific Ocean, Cook Strait, Ring of Fire, Seto Inland Sea, Great Barrier Reef and the Antarctic. The sealife was all housed in massive tanks with super thick glass with the temperature adjusted according to the natural habitat of the relevant species. There were lots of primary school groups which added to the enjoyment.


We next set off for Osaka Castle which is the largest in Asia surrounded by a large moat which had only ever had water in two sides since it was built in 1583. It had a chequered history, being burnt down not many years after construction by opposing armies and again in 1868 to prevent it being taken by the restored Meiji emperor. The present castle was rebuilt in 1931 to the original design, but we contented ourselves with looking at it from the outside, as the inside was unlikely to be particularly interesting.


The park was littered with fallen trees and branches after the typhoon, but must be beautiful in spring and autumn, although it wasn’t at its best at the time.


We decided to try and find the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living which provides displays of live in 1830, as well as dressing in Kimonos to get into the spirit of the 19th century (Vanessa passed up the opportunity). Our GPS sent us on a wild goose chase from the nearest subway station and it took us at least half an hour walking in a circle and help from a local to find the village on the eighth floor of an office block. It was less than absorbing and not really worth the effort, but it had some interesting street and shop reconstructions to simulate the times.


It was high time for our cup of tea and a rest, having walked nearly 12 km according to Fitbit by the time we got back to the hotel after 5. We went out looking for somewhere congenial for our last dinner in Japan and, after a brief excursion into the shopping mall, escaped to the pathway beside the river and found a really cool bar which served beer, wine, sake and small dishes, just up our alley. A couple of beers, a decanter of (cold) red wine and some sardines, shredded squid, Wagyu beef, ajillo with octopus and vegetables and some French fries saw us very well fed and watered.

So ended our last evening in Japan.


We had a leisurely breakfast, checked out and had a coffee before walking to Namba station to start the journey home. It was a beautiful day and Osaka looked at its brightest and freshest. We absolutely loved the city, an ideal finishing point to what has been an enthralling and fascinating three weeks. We leave Japan totally impressed by the delightfully friendly people, the wonderful food and some amazing experiences, as well as walking close to 150 km over the three weeks.

Reflections on the year that was

December 19, 2018

2018 is nearly over and it’s now time to reflect on what were the most notable events and issues of the year. It is also time to think about the implications for the future. (more…)

Alliance puts positive spin on disappointing result

December 7, 2018

It was a profit, but, as Alliance chairman Murray Taggart told me, “we don’t budget to make $8 million on turnover of $1.8 billion.” The just announced 2018 result compared with the previous year’s operating profit of $20.2 million, although after pool payments the 2017 profit was only 11% higher than the latest year. (more…)