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Marvejols and the Beast of Gévaudan

dscf6932My journey back through France takes me north on the A75 Mediterranean Motorway past many places that I have already visited: Roquefort, Brioude, Issoire and Vichy.

This year I stop at the town of Marvejols, once a Royal borough and the capital of the Gévaudan. The town was fortified during the Hundred Years War but later, during the 16th century, much of the town was destroyed when the Catholics, led by the Duke of Joyeuse, massacred the protestant population, burned their homes and destroyed the fortifications.

Henry of Navarre, who later became King Henry IV, stepped in to save Marvejols, rebuilding much of the town, including the three main gateways.

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dscf6948The former province of Gévaudan is synonymous with a terrible tale of the Beast of Gévaudan. Not some mysterious myth but a real story of terror which took place between 1764 and 1767. Research of historical records show that the ‘beast’ may have killed up to 100 people as it hunted throughout an area of about 80 square kilometres. Witnesses who survived attacks described it as being similar to a wolf, but as large as a calf and with red hair. Some people have speculated that it may have been an escaped exotic animal such as a lion or hyena and the attacks do seem similar to man-eating lion accounts from Africa.

beast-of-gevaudanThe first recorded attack was of a young woman tending cattle in the Mercoire forest in the summer of 1764 and the first fatal victim took place soon after when 14-year-old Janne Boulet was killed near the village of Les Hubacs. The attacks continued throughout the year, victims being mostly lone men, women and children tending livestock in the forests around Gévaudan.

beast-of-gevaudan-2On January 12, 1765, Jacques Portefaix and some friends were attacked by the Beast but managed to drive it away. Louis XV heard about this and compensated the men, declaring that the French state would help find and kill the beast. Two professional wolf-hunters, Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, were sent to Gévaudan. They arrived on February 17, 1765, with bloodhounds trained in wolf-hunting. For four months they hunted Eurasian wolves believing them to be the beast but the attacks continued. In June 1765 they were replaced by François Antoine the king’s Lieutenant of the Hunt and on September 20 he killed a very large grey wolf, nicknamed Le Loup de Chazes after the nearby Abbaye des Chazes. The animal was stuffed and sent to Versailles where Antoine was received as a hero and well rewarded. However, the attacks continued.

When Jean Chastel shot a large wolf during a hunt on June 19, 1767, the attacks finally stopped. Some writers suggested that it was shot with a blessed silver bullet and when opened, human remains were found in the animal’s stomach.

wolfThere are no wild wolves in the region today but just north of Mavejols is the Parc Les Loups du Gévaudan, where some 100 wolves from Poland, Siberia, Mongolia, the Arctic and Canada can be visited. There are exhibitions about the Beast of Gévaudan as well as educational displays about wolves to dispel the myth that they are ferocious, deadly animals. Perhaps one day they will be reintroduced to the wild here, as has occurred in other places in Europe.

 

 

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Santa Rosalia and the Black Madonna

dscf6885It’s not an auspicious start to my pilgrimage up Monte Pellegrino, a large rocky promontory to the west of Palermo. I’ve decided to catch the bus up the mountain but I’m standing on the wrong side of the road. Luckily, the driver has seen enough wayward tourists to realise my intended destination and stops to beckon me over. There’s only one other passenger and he seems intent on explaining the best spot for the views. This seems to be up front, next to the driver who is swinging wildly round hairpin bends with one hand. In the other is a cigarette. He honks his horn loudly at each blind bend to warn oncoming traffic of his intent (not to stop) and narrowly overtakes the masochistic cyclists who are practising to be ‘King of the Mountains’.

dscf6863We reach the sanctuary of Santa Rosalia in one piece and I give an offering in thanks for my safe arrival. Rosalia was probably the daughter of the Duke of Sinibaldo who decided to reject her wealthy life and live as a hermit in one of the caves on the mountain and ultimately died there in 1166. Her bones were miraculously rediscovered in 1624, just in time to save the city of Palermo from the plague, and since then she has been honoured as the patron saint of the city.

dscf6869Her cave is now hidden behind the Baroque façade of a church, but inside it is still just a cave. The ‘miraculous’ water dripping down the walls is captured by metal plates artistically arranged to direct it into a stone basin.

 

 

 

 

 

dscf6868Rosalia is everywhere – a statue in a glass coffin with one of her bones in a reliquary, another smaller statue on top with a tooth embedded in its heart, a bust half hidden in a cavity above, another statue at the end and a fresco on the wall. In the entrance are traditional silver votive offerings as well as less traditional ones which mostly seem to be children’s clothes or toys, though I do spy the odd football scarf.

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dscf6879I return to Palermo on foot using a very scenic cobbled pilgrim’s path which passes through the pine forest and then zig-zags down a gorge where it finally emerges into frantic downtown traffic. I pass a few more masochistic cyclists who for some reason are straining up the cobbled path instead of the smooth tarmac road. Perhaps it is their form of penance.

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dscf6806100 kms to the east I’m driving to another rocky promontory (there are quite a few along the north coast of Sicily) to visit another religious sanctuary. This one is dedicated to a Byzantine Black Madonna which arrived from Constantinople in the 9th century and has been known to perform miracles, such as producing a soft cushion of sand to break the fall of a child who fell from the cliffs above. 

I arrive at the large lower car park and find it completely empty with no sign of the promised shuttle bus, so I continue up the road and park in the higher disabled parking area which is also completely empty. After several months of observing the driving rules (or rather lack of them) in Greece and Italy, I’ve finally gone native.

dscf6810The sanctuary was built in the 1960’s to replace a much smaller chapel but it’s not over-the-top like many others I have visited, In fact it’s quite tasteful with paintings of the life and death of Jesus lining the walls, colourful stained-glass window of saints and a large apse where the Black Madonna is enthroned, looking down upon those who have come to pray for her help.

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dscf6826Beyond the sanctuary is the archaeological site of Tyndaris. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I’m keen to clamber around some more Roman remains but I’m to be disappointed for this is one of the poorest maintained sites that I have visited in Sicily. There are no information boards, even in Italian, and no marked pathways. The paths that do exist are completely overgrown, and very wet after a night of showers, and high wire fences stop me from reaching any decent viewpoints.

dscf6838I’m a little placated when I finally find the partially restored Basilica and a Roman house which has some interesting mosaic floors, though these would be even better if someone bothered to sweep and clean them occasionally. I’m tempted to ask for my money back but the staff at the reception desk made it quite clear that they didn’t understand any English and my Italian is certainly not good enough to argue my case.

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dscf6850dscf6856As I leave I spot a police car that has driven up to the viewpoint. It’s unclear whether it is patrolling or if the occupants just want a nice view for their coffee break. It makes me wonder if Trixie might have been penalised for her poor choice of parking spot but when I get back to the car park there is no ticket, no clamp and not even any other cars. Perhaps I’m being protected by the Black Madonna or, more likely I’m just benefitting from the laissez-faire attitude of the Italian police.

 

 

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Caccamo, Cefalu and Castelbuono

dscf6723In my last week on Sicily, I potter along the northern coast. The S113 runs close to the shore, criss-crossing the railway line, which does the same, providing wonderful views out to sea and occasionally I can spot the volcanic Aeolian Islands. However, I manage to drag myself away from the coast and venture inland to the mountains where the Normans erected some pretty impressive castles.

dscf6633The first of these dominates the town of Caccamo. Built in the 12th century, it is a memorial to the art of defence. Thick walls, steep approaches, plus twists and turns all combine to confuse would-be attackers. Not to mention the boiling oil, sling shots and arrows that any invader would have to face if they did get that close.

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Captives were slung into the prison cells where they doodled on the plaster walls until they were freed or, more often, killed. There’s also an oubliette for those unlucky enough to be forgotten and left to starve to death in the dark hole.

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On the scenic terrace above is a plaque which details the story of two prisoners who escaped the hangman’s noose by using sheets as parachutes to jump from the walls. One died and the survivor, badly injured, was put back into the prison until the lord of the castle felt that he should be freed for his bravery, or perhaps his stupidity!

 

 

Most of the rooms are decorated with period pieces, such as furniture, clothing and arms. They are also being used to exhibit artwork by Sicilian artists.

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dscf6683In the small chapel I learn of another gruesome tale. Undesired guests were brought here believing they could pray, but when they knelt at the altar, a trapdoor opened and they fell onto spikes in the chamber below. It is commonly known as the ‘Trick Room’.

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dscf6726Leaving behind the medieval torture tales of Caccamo, I head back to the coast and the town of Cefalu, which sits below a rocky promontory known as La Rocca. I’m here to see the cathedral, built by Roger II in gratitude for his safe landing during a violent storm. The 12th century Duomo features an apse with a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, much like the one in Monreale, but overall I’m disappointed with the visit.

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More interesting is the Saracen lavatoio, a stone wash house near the beach which I arrive at just before a large school party of Palermo teenagers.

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dscf6768I head back into the mountains to see the beautiful castle of Castelbuono, although it’s not actually that beautiful and, after Caccamo, is a real let down. Even the fact that the chapel on the top floor houses the skull of St Anne is not enough to hold my interest.

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Luckily, the 14th century Church of Matrice Vecchia charms me. The interior is not that special but a trip down into the crypt causes my jaw to drop. The walls are covered with amazing 16th and 17th century frescos depicting Christ’s life from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. They are so vibrant in colour that I find it hard to believe that they haven’t been retouched.

 

 

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Another charming aspect of the town is its determination to be eco-friendly. Greengrocer trucks selling local produce are parked at the edge of town, a water dispenser offers locals (and me) the chance to recycle bottles and fill them with cheap, clean water (5c per litre) and best of all, donkeys patrol the streets to collect the rubbish. Unlike the 5* hotel at Eze in France, Castelbuono wants to retain these cheap and cheerful animals instead of replacing them with electric golf carts!

 

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The Cappuccini Catacombs – I See Dead People!

catacombs-3In a northern district of Palermo, surrounded by ugly concrete apartment blocks, hides the church of Santa Maria della Pace where, in tunnels beneath the church the Capuchin monks have been storing the preserved bodies of the dead for nearly 500 years. It all began in 1534 and it was initially only the bodies of the monks who were left in the colatoio (preserving room) to dry out. Later, local prominent families bought their dearly beloved here for storage.

catacombs-1I’m alone for my visit and it is quite creepy down below. The corridors are literally lined with bodies, some mere skeletons clothed in their Sunday best, others with leathery skin and hair. They are segregated into sections: Clergy, soldiers, professionals, virgins and babies. Indeed, it is the children who are most scary, still wearing their best bonnets. In the furthest corner I find one of the last to be interred in the catacombs and one of the best preserved. 2 year old Rosalia looks like she is asleep in her glass-topped coffin. Doctor Alfredo Salafia had trialled a new process in 1920 which seems to have preserved her features perfectly. Luckily he died before he could work his magic on more cadavers or the catacombs would have ended up looking like a wax museum.

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catacombs-5Out of respect for the dead there are signs asking for no photos to be taken, so those illustrating this blog post are taken from the internet.

capuchin-monks-2You may be asking yourself if the Capuchin Monks had anything to do with the delicious cappuccino coffee that has become very popular all over the world. Well there is a connection but the exact truth is hard to decipher.

Some people believe it is because the colour of the coffee matched the colour of the monks’ robes. The word ‘cappuccino’ comes from Latin caputium and the Italian form means ‘hood’ or something that covers the head, and it is the hooded robes worn by monks and nuns of the capuchin order that it is named after.

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Others think that a monk invented the drink in the 17th century and named it after his order. Legend says that in 1683, following a victory over the Ottomans in the Battle of Vienna, soldiers fighting for Marco d’Aviano, a monk from the Capuchin order, found a hoard of coffee. They found the coffee alone too strong and so they diluted it with cream and honey creating a new version of coffee drink.

 

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The Churches of Palermo and Monreale

dscf6348As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m not a religious person but I do find it hard to pass a church without popping inside. I’m drawn by the amazing architecture and interior decoration that I usually find within, as well as the opportunity for a moment of peace in what is sometimes a busy town or city.

Most people who visit Palermo will find themselves at the Cathedral. The exterior is a beautiful mish-mash of styles; Norman arches, Gothic turrets and Baroque capitals. However, the interior is a disappointment. The Royal Tombs are screened off and inaccessible without paying a fee and the chapels are rather plain.

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dscf6200Luckily, there are plenty of other churches in the city and, although they may not be as grand in scale, they are actually a lot more interesting and beautiful. The first church I find near to La Cala, in an area that was mostly destroyed by WWII bombing. Santa Maria della Pieta has a very theatrical feel – red curtains, and gold wooden boxes topped with organ pipes.

 

 

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I only have 5 minutes to see the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi as the guardian is about to lock up but he patiently waits while I wander and examine the exquisitely carved marble apse and a marble tomb by Domenico Gagini that seems so lifelike that I half expect the occupant to wake up and wander off.

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dscf6381Probably one of the most visited churches in Palermo is also one of the smallest. The 12th century San Cataldo was built by Maione di Bari using Arab labour, hence the Arabic influenced décor in the windows and the domes on the roof. There is also a lovely mosaic floor and it is a very peaceful place. Bizarrely, during the 18th century it was deconsecrated and used as a post office.

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dscf6383Next door is the 12th century La Martorana, so called because Eloisa della Martorana, who founded the nearby convent, used to decorate the church with marzipan fruits which are still a local Palermo treat. The ceilings are covered with a mixture of golden mosaics and Baroque frescos but somehow the two complement each other and it is one of the most beautiful churches that I have ever visited, and I’ve seen quite a lot.

 

 

 

 

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dscf6365I want to visit the church of San Nicolo which is advertised as having a 13th century watchtower offering some of the best views of the city. Even though I am not far from the Cathedral, I find myself in the Albergheria, the oldest and now the poorest area of Palermo. The streets are full of graffiti, dripping laundry, abandoned broken toys and immigrant youths. Changing direction, I duck into the 17th century Il Gesu, also known as Casa Professa. Founded by the Jesuits, it took more than 100 years to complete and was later badly damaged in WWII. However, the church was lovingly restored to its former Baroque splendour and even featured in the 1963 film Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), based on the book by Tomasi di Lampedusa.

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dscf6371dscf6448San Salvatore church, on the main thoroughfare of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is an unusual shape, almost completely circular. The original church was founded in 1071 by Robert Guiscard as a convent for Basilian nuns. In 1682 the nuns decided that they needed a new structure and the present elliptical design was proposed by architect Paolo Amato. Like many other buildings in Palermo, the church suffered severe damage during WWII causing the collapse of the dome but it was restored and found a new use as a concert hall.

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dscf6432I decide against visiting the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo Normani due to the extortionate entrance fee but, just around the corner, I stumble upon the church of San Giorgio di Kemonia which is frustratingly closed. However, for €2 I can climb the tower for a proposed view of the city. I’m given a hard hat to wear before I set off and, at first as I climb the interior stairs, I wonder why, but when I reach the spiral metal staircase which is loosely fixed within the tower, all becomes clear, as does the vista. The tower is not that high but it does offer a great view across to the Palazzo Normanni, the Cathedral and Monte Pellegrino in the distance. I can also see down to the red domed roof of the 12th century church of San Gregorio degli Ermiti and the charming little cloister in the garden.

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8kms from Palermo, in the foothills to the south, is the town of Monreale (Royal Mountain). The cathedral and adjoining monastery were endowed by King William II in 1174 and he employed some of the best craftsmen to build and decorate them.

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dscf6155Having already seen the marvellous mosaics of the churches in Ravenna, I have a good idea of what to expect from the Duomo of Monreale. However, what I really find distinctive about the mosaics in this cathedral is their ability to tell a story. The bible has literally been lifted from the page onto the walls and ceilings. It’s easy to appreciate God creating the earth, then Adam and Eve, Cain killing his brother Abel, Abraham about to sacrifice his son and Noah leading the animals onto and then off of the ark. The New Testament is also featured and Christ stands proudly in the central Apse, arms outstretched in a welcoming posture.

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dscf6128In a side chapel I find the tombs of William I and William II, and beyond are the cloisters, accessed through and external doorway off the piazza. More than 200 columns with intricately carved capitals surround the open courtyard. Again, they tell biblical stories, illustrate battles and depict other historical events, such as William II giving the church to the Virgin Mary. Some feature tradesmen, others depict animals, both real and mythical, and a few are rather sexual in nature. I’ve seen several beautiful cloisters in my travels but this is one of the best and I spent almost an hour in the tranquil space examining the capitals, amazed at the artistic skill of the men who produced them more than 800 years ago.

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Palermo – 2500 Years of History

dscf6406Arriving in Palermo after 24 hours of continuous rain does have its advantages as I don’t have to play dog shit hopscotch as many other visitors have done in the past. Although incredibly busy, the streets are remarkably clean. With a population of 700,000, not including the many illegal immigrants living here, it’s hard to imagine what the city would have been like 2500 years ago when it was a small Phoenician colony.

dscf6205I start my tour of historical Palermo at the 16th century Porta Felice, the main gate next to the quaint, old harbour of La Cala. Although the area was badly damaged by WWII bombing, some ancient buildings survived, including the fortress-like, 14th century Palazzo Chiaramonte, which housed the inquisition between 1685 and 1782. The walls still feature graffiti of the former prisoners and it is a popular tourist attraction managed by students of the university which is now located in the building. It overlooks the jungle-like Giardino Garibaldi where some very old and very large fig trees still reside.

dscf6262Down a side alley, I locate the 18th century Palazzo Mirto which boasts original décor and furnishings. A visit is like stepping back in time, with carriages stored in the stables, collections of china and artwork, black & white family photos and even a secret passage hidden behind a Greek marble statue. The Filangeri family lived here until 1982 when the house was donated to the Region of Sicily.

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dscf6256dscf6314My favourite places to visit are often the ones not mentioned in the guide books and it is only thanks to the lovely lady in the Tourist Office that I dare to enter the Municipo (Town Hall). With half a dozen intimidating police officers stood in the doorway it’s easy to assume that there is no public access but I am welcomed inside and directed up a large marble staircase to the council chambers where I’m allowed to roam around at will. Some of the rooms are quite sumptuous, filled with statues and busts of famous Palermitani and a collection of golden guns presented to Palermo by Napoleon.

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dscf6329-2dscf6309Outside in Piazza Pretoria is the beautiful 16th century Florentine fountain, so called because it was originally designed for a villa in Florence. Its alternative name is the ‘Fountain of Shame’ due to the presence of naked female figures fondling their breasts. The lower part of the fountain is surrounded with all manner of beasts spouting water.

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Beyond the 12th century Cathedral, next to the impressive 14th century Porta Nuova, is the massive Palazzo dei Normanni. Built by the Saracens in the 9th century, it is one of the oldest surviving structures in the city. The Normans enlarged it and the Spanish expanded it further resulting in hundreds of rooms, many of which are used by the Sicilian Parliament. Sadly, the Royal Apartments are closed when I try to visit and the main exhibition happens to be ‘Treasures of the Sicilian Seas’ which I have already seen at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

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dscf6529Instead, I move on to the Salinas Archaeological Museum, named for its most important Director of Antiquities. It is currently being refurbished and only the ground floor is open to visitors. However, because of this it is free. I mainly want to see the metopes from Selinunte and fortunately they are on display in one of the ground floor rooms. I’m interested to discover that many of the founding pieces of the museum once belonged to the English Consul Robert Fagan who funded many archaeological digs on Sicily and amassed a large collection of artefacts. When he committed suicide in 1816, due to concerns over huge debts, the Sicilian government took possession of his collection before his widow could sell them off.

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dscf6490dscf6536The narrow backstreet between the Museum and the Massimo is lined with puppet theatres and I’m lucky to find someone cleaning the puppets in preparation for a weekend show. Palermo has a long history of puppet theatre. Pupi, the large Sicilian rod puppets, date from the 1600s and traditional stories enacted often tell of the adventures of Charlemagne. However, other famous Italians are also featured, such as Garibaldi and King Vittorio Emanuele.

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dscf6544The 19th century Massimo Theatre is the largest opera house in Italy with an impressive neoclassical design. The façade was influenced by the temples of Agrigento and Selinunte and the entrance is guarded by two lions. Inside are five rows of boxes and an opulent gallery with a beautiful ceiling fresco, but I don’t see them as, although it’s possible to have a guided tour inside the theatre, at €8 per person for 30 mins I decide to save my money for other things.

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dscf6551Just down the road is another theatre, the 19th century Politeama Garibaldi. It’s not as beautiful as the Massimo but the bronze chariot and horses above the entrance reminds me of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. However, instead of pigeons, the pedestrianised square in front of the theatre is populated by skateboarders and homeless men.

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Odysseus and George Clooney

odysseusMy path has crossed that of the mythical Odysseus several times already on this trip. The Nekromanteion in Greece is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, as is Nestor’s Palace in the Peloponnese where Telemachus sought help from the king while searching for his father Odysseus. In Sicily, the port of Aci Trezza is supposedly the site where Odysseus escaped from the cyclops Polyphemus and the picturesque islands in the harbour are said to be the rocks that the blinded cyclops threw after him.

dscf5961Now, I find myself having lunch in the Bay of Guidaloca, believed to be the place where Naisicaa found the shipwrecked Odysseus and helped him to set off on the final part of his return journey to Ithaca.

dscf5956Not far away is the Tonnara di Scopello, an old tuna fishery set in an idyllic cove, guarded by ancient watchtowers built upon rocky columns. Since it closed down in the 1980s it has become a tourist attraction and was also used for the filming of ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones.

dscf5964In Castellamare del Golfo, the largest of the local fishing ports along the coastline, I learn more about the tuna fishing industry in the Museum, which is housed in the Norman castle overlooking the harbour. I’m amazed at the size of the tuna fish shown in the black and white photos and wonder if any of the tuna are allowed to get that big these days due to overfishing.

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