Monthly Archives: November 2015

Toulon – Art and Architecture

DSCF9505I arrive back in mainland France at the port of Toulon. At 7am I pay little attention as I drive through the city streets to the coastal tourist resort of Les Sablettes but I do notice that the main road is strung with Christmas lights.

The next day I take the marine navette across the sheltered harbour to the city. The docks are full of navy battleships and aircraft carriers as well as a Cunard cruise ship. Back on land, I head straight for the tourist office but find they have little information to offer except for a useful city map.

DSCF9518The Cours Lafayette is a main artery for the city with a busy and colourful market every morning. I hear a lot of Arabic voices and it feels more like a North African town than a city in the south of France. Stalls are filled with bright red peppers and tomatoes, deep brown chestnuts and wild mushrooms, orange pumpkins and floral fabrics. The air is filled with the scent of roasting chickens and fresh fish while the men sit chatting outside cafes with a strong expresso.

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DSCF9547In the Place de la Liberte I find a Christmas market where the stalls are selling hot wine, biscuits and gifts. Children are entertained by an animated display feature Father Christmas and a lot of funny elves, as well as a huge Christmas tree with giant baubles that they can ride in. Sadly, the beautiful Fountain of the Federation has been swamped by fairy lights. It’s one of 200 fountains which are dotted around the city and I find many other smaller examples as I wander around the streets.

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I had wanted to visit the Naval Museum down by the port but, as it is adjacent to the Naval compound and in light of the recent terrorist attacks in France, it has been closed indefinitely. However, the art galleries remain open and are free so I make my way to those instead.

In the Hotel des Arts I discover a temporary exhibition of modern art works by Edouardo Arroyo. I’ve never heard of him but his paintings, sculptures and collages are certainly intriguing.

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Wall of ChocolateThe larger Musee D’Art offers more contemporary landscapes by local artists and an exhibition of art related to food. Some paintings use crockery and glass and there’s a photograph replicating the famous Carmen Miranda pose, though the creative hat is now composed of rotten fruit. The largest exhibit covers the whole end wall and is a large dark brown 8m long canvas, but it is the pervading scent of chocolate which reveals the true nature of this particular work by local artist Claire Dantzer. Unfortunately no photos are allowed.

DSCF9537Outside of the museums I find that the streets are full of interesting architecture. Despite being heavily bombed during WWII many beautiful buildings remain, such as the opera house built in 1862. There are also many sculptures hidden in the streets and squares and several glorious murals on the walls.

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I wonder if any of the Cruise ship passengers bothered to visit Toulon, or if they just hopped onto a coach and drove to the more picturesque Provencal villages or the jet-set coastal resort of St Tropez.

 

 

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The Legend of the Monk and the Nun

While travelling in Sardinia and Corsica I came upon this story on both of the islands. It goes something like this: Many, many years ago, there was a monk and a nun who fell in love. They planned to run away together but on the day of their elopement they were turned to stone by divine wrath.

This story is in reference to a pair of menhirs. One pair stands close to the isle of St Antioco, by the causeway from mainland Sardinia, while the other pair stands next to the bridge south of Propriano on Corsica. Unfortunately, the directions I had were vague and there were no signs to help me so I failed to find either of the doomed couples.

I did manage to find a lovely site in the fields of Cauria, in southern Corsica, where a handsome pair of menhir statues can be seen as well as many others and an ancient dolmen.

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Also, in the hills outside Ajaccio, I climbed a tall stile, rock-hopped two streams and trudged through cow fields to see a lonely menhir statue.

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Unfortunately, the most well known site for menhirs in Corsica (Filitosa) is privately owned and was closed while I was visiting.

 

The Menhirs of Carnac

The Kindness of Strangers: Part 3

DSCF9354I almost didn’t visit Corsica after reading some terrible articles about French motorhomers being attacked by youths and having their windscreens smashed whilst wild camping on the island in 2009. They suspected that the local campsites and garage owners where behind it in an attempt to increase business. However, after a few positive remarks by non-French motorhomers, I took the plunge (well actually the ferry) and set out to tour the island.

no camping carsI knew from my research that only 2 campsites on the island are open all year and one of them is a nudist camp on the east coast. I know, a bit chilly for the naturists out of season! On the first night I stayed in the quayside car park of the lovely town of Propriano, with no problems at all. The second night was in a very unglamorous supermarket car park at the beach resort of Porticcio where I was woken at the ungodly hour of 5am by the workers arriving and the even noisier dustbin men.

DSCF9168As I travelled up the very scenic west coast on the D81, I had planned to find somewhere near Porto, possibly in the harbour. After defying all the “No Motorhome” signs and driving right down to the seafront, I enquired at the tourist information office where I might stay for the night. They very helpfully suggested I try a small campsite just out of town (though it was officially closed) or, failing that, the beach car park. It was still early so I decided to tour the mountains which are full of chestnut forests and are split by the deep chasm of the Spelunca Gorge.

DSCF9173On the way back I stopped at the Funtana a L’ Ora campsite and found a very friendly guardian called Cederic who confirmed that they were closed. However, he phoned the owner who generously suggested that I would be welcome to stay there for the night, and use the services which were available. “How much?” I asked Cederic. “Gratuit (Free)”, he replied, but perhaps I could write a review for Trip Advisor. I was amazed and very pleased with this selfless invitation and after a very peaceful night, decided that I loved Corsica.

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Unfortunately, my bubble was burst the next day while trying to find somewhere to overnight on the north coast. The woman in the tourist office of L’Ile Rousse was the most aggressive and unpleasant person I have ever met. She made it quite clear that I must stay at a campsite 8 km away, being the only one which is open all year, and that free camping is illegal (which officially it is). Based on her attitude and comments it was clear that she detested motorhomers. I dutifully went to the Ranch Cantarettu Campsite but it was deserted and when I phoned I was abruptly told that it was closed. I ended up in a beach car park, further along the coast. The police passed by at 10pm but completely ignored me. They obviously had better things to do than arrest illegally parked motorhome owners.

 

The kindness of strangers: part 2

The kindness of strangers: part 1

 

Corsica: Death and Penitence

DSCF8974As I depart for the French Island of Corsica, the passengers of the ferry are transfixed by the TV news for the headline story is the terrifying terrorist attacks in Paris. The carefully coordinated and calculated shooting and bombing reminds me of similar events in Mumbai in 2008 and the news coverage is shockingly similar. My more immediate concern is how this might affect my border entry into Bonifacio on the south coast of Corsica. However, I’m waved off the ferry without a single stop.

DSCF9010The town of Bonifacio, which hovers precariously on the edge of a high cliff, is quiet in the early morning and in a state of restoration. On my way to the point, I pass by the Church of St Domenic which is shrouded in scaffolding and the former barracks of the foreign legion, mostly abandoned and vandalised, though there is one building which has been renovated which shows signs of things to come. Although the largest church is closed, the smaller chapels are open, each displaying a sculpted group of saints and angels which are carried around the town and out to the Hermitage of the Trinity, during the Procession of the Five Orders.

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Inland, at the hilltown of Sartene they have the Catenecciu (Penitent), where a local man deemed in need of redemption is chosen to carry a 32kg cross on a long and tortuous route through the town which symbolises the station of the cross. The Penitent is hidden under a hooded red cloak and only the local priest who chose him knows his identity. Further north, the laid back tourist port of Propriano may seem very chic and modern but in the church of Notre Dame de Misericorde I find another 30kg cross and large set of chains which are also carried through the streets on Good Friday.

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Fairy Houses, Nuragic Towers, Sacred Wells, Roman Cities and a Giant Army – A History of Sardinia.

Sardinia has a wealth of historical sites dating from as far back as 6000 BC. Evidence of Palaeolithic caves, Nuragic settlements, Phoenician ports and Roman colonies can be found all around the island and I managed to visit a few of the best during my two week tour.

Fairy Houses

DSCF8597Known locally as “domus de Janus”, these are not houses at all but tombs cut into the rock by the Ozieri culture between 3400 and 2700 BC. I visited the necropolis of Montessu which is set in the stunning natural amphitheatre of Sa Pranedda hill in the south west of Sardinia. I set off into the wilds with only a simple map embellished by the ticket vendor to indicate the best route and the most interesting tombs. Luckily, I also had my sun hat and some water because I spent nearly two hours trekking around the site and in that time I was completely alone. Whilst the 35 tombs are very intriguing, especially the large shrines with their face-like windows and the one decorated with spiral motifs, it is the 360 degree views which lifted my spirits the most.

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Nuragic Towers

DSCF8425According to the Archaeological Museum in Cagliari, there are 88 identified Nuragic sites in Sardinia, and there are probably even more yet to be discovered. However, there is only one which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is there that I received my education in this ancient society. The Sardinian Nuragic remains date from 1800 BC to 300 BC and the site of Su Nuraxi has been dated to 1500 BC. I had a private tour with guide Pamela who explained the Nuragic lifestyle as she led me through the ruins of the village and up into the fortified tower which was built from large, dark, volcanic boulders. It was an adventurous route into the interior of the tower complex but I gained a better understanding of the building techniques and defensive engineering from inside. As I left, it began to rain but the result was a beautiful rainbow that could not fail to put a smile on my face.

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The nearby local museum, in an Aragonese Governer’s Palace built over the site of another Nuragic site, was even more informative, with digital displays and videos in English. Unfortunately, their key exhibit, a statue of a Nuragic tower, was on tour in Milan!

Sacred Wells

While Su Nuraxi clearly functioned as a defensive structure during civil wars, other Nuragic sites are associated with peace and in particular the worship of water. I was able to visit three sacred wells during my tour of Sardinia and each was quite different.

DSCF8118The first is found close to the town of Olbia in the north east of the island. Unfortunately it is situated behind a modern shopping centre but once inside the site I discovered pleasant landscaped gardens with information about all the plants and trees along a stone footpath to the well. As I approached the remains of the site, I realised that the path had become a cover over a water channel which circles out from the source. The well itself lies within a covered chamber with 17 steps leading down into it.

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DSCF8144Further inland, near the hilltop town of Orune and at the end of a 5km mountain road, is the sacred well of Su Tiempsu. Again, thoughtfully landscaped paths lead down to the site which was discovered by a farmer in 1953 and considerably restored to its present state by archaeologists. The temple building projects from the rocky cliff face with a steeply sloping roof and a tapering chamber where the water is collected. The keystone, which is adorned with 20 bronze swords, is now in the Nuoro Archaeological Museum, but the visitors centre has a very good replica, as well as a model of the well construction. I can easily understand how the Nuragic people felt about this holy site as it was a very peaceful spot and I was completely undisturbed during my visit.

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DSCF8734The most impressive of the sacred wells that I visited is unfortunately now situated next to the dual carriageway which services the west coast. This means that it is a very noisy place and also very accessible but luckily I’d completed my visit before the coachload of students arrived. Sitting in the middle of a large olive grove is a low, oval, stone wall which conceals a perfectly constructed chamber leading down to the Santa Cristina well. The steps, walls and ceiling of the entrance are formed with perfectly cut blocks and its triangular form reminded me of the entrances to the Egyptian Pyramids. It is said that on certain days the sun or the moon are aligned to illuminate the water below.

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Roman Cities

DSCF8441The Phoenician traders chose the promontory of Nora as a settlement in the 9th century BC due to the wide protected bays on either side. A stone tablet was found at the site with a Phoenician inscription featuring the name “Sardinia”; the first recorded use of this name. There’s not much left of the Phoenician era as the Romans arrived in 238 BC and started building a provincial capital at the site. Francesca, a young, enthusiastic archaeology student, guided me around the site, pointing out the various rooms of the Roman bath complexes, as well as the courtyard pillars and mosaic floors of the houses owned by the wealthy elite. A well preserved Roman road took us past the shopping area and down to the port on the lagoon side.

DSCF8534Divers were working to uncover some of the former city which is now below the level of the sea, other areas are under military control and the Spanish watchtower, which could offer great views over the site, was out of bounds for safety reasons. They’re quite strict about the security of the site, as proven by the shrill loudspeaker which had caught two interlopers near the port. But it’s probably too little, too late as many of the archaeological finds have already been scavenged by treasure hunters over the years.

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DSCF8694On the west coast, the Sinis peninsula was also chosen by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans for its strategic position and sheltered harbours. The site was first excavated in the 1830s and continues up to now but it looks extremely neglected. Apart from a few workers repairing the wooden footpaths which partially cover the Roman streets, I had the site to myself. There was no guide to herd me around and I was able to wander freely among the ruins. I was given a map which indicated the most important buildings such as temples, baths and houses but they were mostly overgrown with trees and weeds. The theatre seats were completely obscured by sand and if I hadn’t seen a black and white photo on the very useful website, I would never have known it was there. At the very top of the site is a Nuragic settlement with a fortified wall and moat, and to the west is a Spanish watchtower with a small chapel on the top.

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Giants of Mont’e Prama

DSCF8718Although the giants found at the site of Mont’e Prama were discovered in 1979, they have only recently been restored and put on display in the Museums of Cagliari and Cabras (close to the site where they were discovered). They are large, carefully sculpted figures which bear a striking similarity to the many bronze votive statues found at Nuragic sites across Sardinia. The difficult reassembly of the 5178 fragments and the restoration work to enable them to be exhibited was recognised with a 2015 Europa Nostra Award. Archaeologists believe that the archers, warriors and boxers may be part of a temple related to a nearby necropolis and perhaps erected to commemorate Nuragic victories against Carthaginian invaders.

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Menhirs of Laconi

DSCF8280I have a bit of a fascination with menhirs and when I read that there was a museum dedicated to them in the mountain town of Laconi, I simply had to visit. Obviously, it’s always better to see them in situ but I can understand the need to place them somewhere protected from the elements and they provide a good educational tool. Not as big or as numerous as the menhirs of Carnac in Brittany, they are more intriguing for their distinctive carvings, and the fact that there are male and female versions. Many more males have been discovered than females – why am I not surprised!

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In Search of a Good Lunch and a Local Liquor

Alghero is the main town on the west coast of Sardinia. With its walled seafront old town and a cosmopolitan new centre, I had hoped to find a good restaurant for lunch.

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The old town eateries are renowned for their seafood but they are also very expensive and, out of season, unlikely to be serving fresh produce. I followed a hand-drawn map on a chalk board which led me to the restaurant Teatro, close to the old theatre as the name suggests, and boards outside offered tempting Sardinian feasts, such as roast lamb on a bed of myrtle leaves. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any of the local specialities and the fact that the chef and waiter burst from the restaurant, armed with big sticks and chasing a rat the size of a rabbit didn’t really entice me to eat there.

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The tourist office recommended a small restaurant called the Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons – like the Vivaldi music and not the pizza!), but it was located down a dirty side road of the new town and wasn’t really any cheaper than the tourist traps in the old quarter.

In the end, as I walked back to the car park in defeat, I spotted some umbrellas and a sign for Taverna Catalana. The builder’s trucks parked outside told me that this would not be expensive and a blackboard offered a dish of the day with two side dishes for only €10. What I got was an enormous plate of steak, fries and grilled vegetables. The local Ichnusa beer was the perfect accompaniment.

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By evening I had moved on to Stintino, a lovely fishing town in the far north of Sardinia, and was struggling to find a place to park for the night due to all the unwelcoming “no camping” signs. It was dark and I’d just decided to seek out the local Carabinieri for advice when I spotted a sign for the port (always a viable option), though the steep dirt track leading down to it almost put me off. Luckily, I was warmly greeted by Maximilliano who offered me a safe place to stay for the night and some welcome conversation. But I had a yearning to try the local liquor made from wine and myrtle berries.

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It was quite a long walk from the Minolo Port into the town centre and the streets were deserted, except for a few fishermen down by the boats and a few fruit and veg shops which were still open. Eventually I found La Piazzetta Bar down a side street. A very bright, white and airy bar compared to most of the tabacchi I usually end up in. The mirto (which is available in red or white) was served from the freezer but it certainly warmed me up inside due to the alcohol content of 32%. It was the perfect end to a gastronomic day.

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Cagliari: A Monumental Waste of Time

Cagliari may be the capital of Sardinia, and seems an obvious place to indulge in museums, viewpoints and gastronomic feasts, but after spending a full day in the city I wonder why I bothered.

DSCF8372It’s a long, hot trek up to the oldest part of the city and my journey quickly becomes even longer. My guidebook suggests that the best way to enter the Castello is through the Bastione San Remy, an imposing flight of marble steps and a grand arch. Unfortunately, the rather sad looking edifice is sealed off so I seek entry elsewhere. A sign indicates a lift nearby but when I get there I discover it is not functioning. A second lift along the eastern side is also out of order and I end up walking almost a kilometre up to the main vehicle entrance and Piazza Arsenale.

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DSCF8409The cathedral is due to close at midday so I head there first. Despite there being clear signs saying “no photographs”, a German tour group is blatantly ignoring them, so I pretend to be German for a while. The cathedral is adorned with marble: marble stairs, marble pulpits, marble columns and four marble lions devouring their prey. Beneath the altar is a marble crypt containing the marble tombs of the Savoyard royal family and decorated with carvings of Sardinian saints.

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DSCF8442I trudge back uphill to the museum complex, a group of ugly, modern, concrete buildings. The Archaeological Museum holds most of the important finds from the island and I’m keen to see them. On the top floor is an exhibition called “Giants of Mont’e Prama” which is well laid out with detailed information in English and interactive digital facilities. However, the rest of the museum is lacking in information and not in a very logical sequence.

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Just behind the Archaeological Museum, the Pinacoteca houses some important religious art from churches around Sardinia, but the fact that the modern building has been constructed around the old castle walls is more interesting for me. Next door is an Ethnographic Museum consisting solely of textiles and jewellery, overflow from the main archaeological collection.

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The San Pancrazio Tower is one of two which overlooks the Castello and as it is situated at the higher end of the old town I expect it to offer the best views. The wooden stairs are very steep and the tower is open on one side so it’s not good for those who have problems with heights, but the reward is worth the effort and the views are as good as I’d hoped.

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DSCF8377There are not many places to eat in the old town, but I find a nice buffet lunch of salads and some fantastic local white wine in a small café with wide views to the west. My dining experience is let down though by the cheap plastic cutlery. I get the impression that the people of Cagliari don’t care about their city. Some beautiful street art on the narrow lane of Via San Saturnino has been tagged by some aerosol spraying louts and the parks are full of graffiti and rubbish. The buildings are dirtied by polluting traffic and basic services, such as the lifts to the Castello, are not functioning. Even the grand, seafront Meditterano Hotel, mentioned in my guidebook as the perfect place for coffee and cake, is decaying behind metal builder’s fencing.

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DSCF8365However, the locals do care about their faith and I find some hope in the Sanctuary of Bonaria, built to house the legendary Madonna which washed safely ashore in 1370 from a shipwreck and calmed the waters to save the drowning crew. Since then she has been saving the souls of Cagliari, whose gifts are displayed in the adjacent cloister and maritime museum. So, perhaps there is hope yet that the city of Cagliari can be saved from its indifference.

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