Category Archives: Music

The Cyclops Rocks and the Catania Calendar

dscf4378The small port of Aci Trezza is dominated by several lava formations which surge out of the water. One is 60m high and features a statue of the Virgin Mary, while another shows traces of early settlement including Sicel tombs. Legend says that the blinded cyclops Polyphemus threw the rocks at Greek ships as Odysseus escaped from his land.

dscf4390A kilometre along the coast, at Aci Castello, a Norman castle has been built on top of a lava formation. Once a perfect watch tower, now a perfect viewpoint for photos of the bay.




The next day I take the bus to Catania. When we reach the city, two inspectors board and noisily remove two locals who do not have validated tickets. The terminus, at Piazza Borsellino, is next to the lively fish market and I wonder how many of the vendors might be from Aci Trezza. They display their fish and shellfish on metal trays, the pungent fishy aroma filling the air and salty sea water soaking the floor. Close by, enterprising souls are selling fresh dill and lemons to enhance your fish dish.

dscf4399I climb up a wide stairway topped with an impressive ornamental fountain, which is spraying anyone who passes due to the strong wind, and emerge into Piazza del Duomo. In the middle is a small elephant carved from lava stone and topped with an Egyptian obelisk. It is said to protect the city from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The last big one in 1693 destroyed most of the city.


dscf4407The Duomo has a beautiful, baroque façade and a clean, white interior. Churches in Italy seem rather plain after the ornately decorated orthodox churches in Greece. Near the entrance I find the tomb of composer Bellini, who was born in Catania in 1801. His name can be found across the city adorning roads, parks, hotels and restaurants, as well as the main theatre. He also has a pasta dish in honour of him – spaghetti all Norma.


dscf4475My guidebook is 5 years old but I’m still shocked to discover that the Civic Museum in the Urbino Castle, which was free in 2011, is now charging €10. So, with the help of some lovely ladies in the Tourist Information office I decide to try and find some alternative and cheaper places to visit.

dscf4422Their recommendation of the St Nicolo Church and the adjoining Benedictine Monastery turns out to be a good one. The church is cavernous and in front of the main alter is a very long, marble calendar, decorated with signs of the zodiac. At noon each day, a hole in the roof allows the sun to enter and it falls on the spot which marks the day and the month.


dscf4425dscf4444Attached is the huge monastery complex, the second largest in Europe after Mafra in Portugal. Today it is part of the university and so open to the public for free. It’s also empty, save for a few students seeking out sunny spots to study. I wander the long corridors that surround ornate former cloisters and wonder what it would have been like 300 years ago when the offices were monastic cells and the lecture halls were full of feasting monks. When I go to use the toilets I discover that they have been built over the remains of the original ones!



dscf4371Despite having found some hidden gems in Catania, I have to say that the city is really a shithole, and I mean that quite literally. The walls are covered with graffiti and the streets are strewn with litter and dog shit. Traffic fumes choke the air and soil the church facades, and shady characters lurk at street corners. I’m quite relieved to return to Aci Trezza where people are strolling along the promenade and fishermen are sitting in the main square drinking coffee and playing cards.


Romantic Road – Nordlingen, Harburg and Donauworth

dscf0945One of the larger towns on the Romantic Road, Nordlingen is surrounded by an almost perfectly circular defensive wall and it is possible to walk all 2.7 kms of it undercover, perfect for the grey, damp day on which I visit.




In the centre of the town is a small market place. On one side is the 13th century town hall with a beautiful renaissance staircase and underneath is a former prison cell. Next to the locked door is a stone carving of a jester and beneath which is written the words ‘Now there are two of us’, a reference to the fool within the cell and the fool who looks in upon him.


dscf0921On the other side of the square is St George’s Church which boasts not one, but two fabulous organs and a 90m tall tower called the ‘Daniel’, offering wonderful views over the town for anyone willing to climb the 350 steps! Each night, between 10pm and midnight, the watchman calls out ‘All’s well’ from the top of the tower.




nordlingen-pigsThe town seems to have an obsession with pigs and I find out from the Tourist Office that this is related to a legend from 1440 when a clever pig indicated that the town gate had been left open. The guards had been bribed by Count Hans of Oettingen so he could attack the town during the night. Official records show that two gate guards were charged with treason and executed in 1440 but no one really knows if it was actually a pig that saved the town.

dscf0928At the Reis Crater Museum I learn about how the geography and geology of the region was the result of a 1km wide meteorite striking the earth about 15 million years ago. The impact would have been 250,000 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb and life would have been wiped out in the surrounding 100kms. The museum shows how in 1961 American scientists Shoemaker and Chao proved that the Reis structure was caused by a meteorite impact. It also has examples of meteorite fragments from all over the world and a piece of meteorite which was brought back from the moon.

I complete my day with a coffee and a rather large piece of Reiser Bauerntorte, a thin pastry pie filled with applesauce and flavoured with vanilla, lemon and rum.

dscf0966Perched on a cliff above the small village of Harburg and the River Wornitz sits a well preserved Castle dating from the 12th century, though the majority of buildings within it were built in the 16th or 17th centuries. Access is through a fortified gate with an iron portcullis with openings above for pouring hot oil onto attackers. This leads into a large open courtyard surrounded by walls, towers and buildings of various styles.

dscf0962To find out more about the castle and see the interiors, I have to take an organised tour. The guide gives the information in German but an additional leaflet in English is provided which covers a lot of the same points. We start in a beautiful white church with stucco decoration, pretty ceiling frescos and tombs of the Counts of Oettingen. Then we climb up to the defensive walls to get a closer look at the loopholes which include spherical wooden balls with holes through them to assist the snipers with their aim and offer them better protection from attacking fire. In the prison tower we find a model of a sad looking peasant guarded by a mean looking soldier and further on, in the keep, is a 10m deep dungeon and torture chambers.

dscf0969More pleasant is the former granary building which in the 19th century was used as courtrooms. The floor is tiled which seems a bit out of place but presumably much harder wearing than the wooden floors and easier to clean. The wooden ceiling is beautifully painted with figures of women and there are huge treasure chests with complex locking mechanisms and a dog motif on the base, indicating bankruptcy when the chest is empty.


The final rooms, in the Princes Building, are decorated like a hunting lodge with armoury and animal skins. After the tour I take a walk around the base of the castle walls along the top of the cliff and come across a local hunter – a white cat!


dscf0992There is a large market setting up in the back streets of Donauworth when I arrive in the town. Stalls of clothes, spices, kitchen equipment and colourful plants line the route from the car park to the high street. Unlike most of the medieval bastides on the Romantic Road, Donauworth is focused on one long main street running from the monastery complex to the Town Hall, which is hosting a Fairtrade exhibition.

dscf0988What I’m really interested in are the bells hanging above the door of the Town Hall which at 11am and 4pm each day sound out a tune from the opera ‘The Magic Fiddle’ by Werner Egk. I wait in the warmth of an adjacent café until the time comes and find myself joined by a couple of hiking groups who curiously decide to leave shortly after the bells begin their melody.





Halfway along the high street I pop into the 15th century minster which boasts the biggest bell in Swabia, weighing in at 6.5 tons and called ‘Pummerin’. Unfortunately, the tower is closed so I am unable to climb up and see it but the interior frescos are enough to keep me happy. In the monastery complex at the top of the high street is the Church of the Holy Cross. So called, because it houses a relic of the cross on which Jesus was crucified attracting pilgrims from around the world.

dscf1026I end my day in Friedberg at an aire in the car park of the Hergottsruh Church. The church is quite beautiful with wonderful stucco work and delicate ceiling frescos. There is an unusual montage called the ‘Picture of Grace’ illustrating Christ resting during his ordeal of carrying the cross, and outside is a lovely cave shrine filled with candles and a series of pictures representing the way of the cross. Unfortunately, the bells are rather loud and ring every ¼ hour throughout the night.


The Legend of Count Arnau

As the weather was good, I decided to take the scenic route from the South of France into Catalonia. The roads took me high up into the Pyrenees to the Col d’Ares where cowbells tinkled and cool winds blew across the mountain tops.


Descending into Catalonia, I came upon the interesting town of St Joan de les Abadesses, where a Christmas fair was taking place in the main square. I also discovered the beautiful abbey and the legend of Count Arnau.


MontgronyIt is believed that the story originated as a song in the 16th century, which relayed the conversation of the dead Count and his grieving widow. As often happens with oral stories, the tale changed and grew over the years incorporating other historical events and associating them with the Count.

Count Arnau was supposedly a wealthy landowner in Catalonia. One day, he decided to build a chapel in the mountains near his home. He promised the local labourers a heaped measure of grain per day in payment for their work, carving steps into the rock face to lead up to the chapel entrance. However, when it was time to pay, he only gave them a level measure and because of this fraud he was cursed by the village.

DSCF0173The Count was also a shameless philanderer who supposedly carved a tunnel through the mountain in order to reach the Abbey of St Joan in order to have an affair with the abbess, and possibly several of the nuns too. Because of the supposed licentiousness of the abbess and the nuns, the Abbey was closed down in 1017 and given over to monks instead, though it is more likely that this was due to religious reforms at the time rather than a secret tryst between the Count and the abbess.

DSCF0306After visiting the Abbey of St Joan and a wonderful exhibition about the tales of Count Arnau above the local tourist office, I decided to seek out his possible castle home and the church of Montgrony where the villagers carved the steps. They were in a remote area of the mountains, north of the village of Gombren. The church perched high up on the cliff and the castle in a valley down below. Although fenced off and locked up, I was able to gain access to the ruins of Mataplana Castle through a cow field. It was not a scary place, especially as there was a small chapel next to it, but I didn’t hang around for nightfall, as it is then that the Count is said to roam the hills on his black stallion, chased by howling hounds.



Monteriggioni and the Assassin’s Creed

The small walled town of Monteriggioni is just 20 kms to the north west of Siena. It was built in the 13th century as a fortified outpost for the Sienese during the wars against Florence and was referenced by Dante in his work “Inferno”.

As with circling round

 Of turrets, Monteriggioni crowns his walls;

 E’en thus the shore, encompassing the abyss,

 Was turreted with giants, half their length

 Uprearing, horrible, whom Jove from heaven

 Yet threatens, when his muttering thunder rolls.

(Translated by Henry Francis Cary during the years 1805–1844.)

monteriggioni aerial

Except for some minor restoration in the 16th century, the 570m of external walls and 14 towers remain unchanged and it’s possible to walk along part of them. I actually enjoy walking around the outside where they are bordered by vineyards which produce the local wines. Entry to the town can be made through two gates, one of which opens out into the main square, surrounded by restaurants, shops and a small church.


On seeing signs for a free museum, I am intrigued to see what lies inside. What I discover are a few scenes of knights, some helmets to try on and a pillory where an Italian family are posing for photos. The museum is really nothing more than a trick to get you into the souvenir shop where they are selling toy weapons, trinkets and T-shirts with Assassin’s Creed pictures. It now becomes clear that the online information about the town’s history that I found was really the plot for a computer game.


Next door I find a cellar filled with wine and local food products where Seila, the sommelier, allows me to try some delicious rose wine and some strong pecorino cheese. When I leave with my purchases, I find a handsome young man, dressed in a suit, playing classical music on his cello in the middle of the square. “That’s the theme to Lord of the Rings”, Seila informs me, and somehow I’m not surprised.


Lake Garda and the German Invasion

DSCF6016When I decided to stop at Lake Garda on my way to Venice I thought it would be a peaceful place to stop for a few days. Little did I realise that October is a popular month for German motorhomers and caravanners to visit and sample the local food and wine.

Camping San Nicolo in Bardolino, on the south east shore of the lake, was chock-a-block with Germans. In fact the staff were rather surprised that I was English and equally amazed that I was travelling alone.

DSCF6013On the first day I decided to walk up to the Zeni Winery to try the local Bardolino wine. After a small and informative museum there was an area for sampling and buying their products. 14 of the cheaper wines were offered for free on a self-service basis, while the more expensive wines were served at a counter for a small fee. I managed to try 8 of the free wines but didn’t really like any of them and poured most of the samples into the spit bucket. Meanwhile, the Germans were knocking back everything on offer, piling boxes into their cars and driving off drunkenly to their hotel or campsite.


DSCF6069The best way to explore the largest lake in Italy is by boat, so I took the early morning ferry to Sirmione, the most southerly of the Lake Garda towns. As I walked from the dock to the striking Scaligera Castle, I was relieved to hear more English being spoken and as I climbed up the tall tower for some excellent views of the promontory, I bumped into several Asian families.


DSCF6115Lazise is an impressive walled town just south of Bardolino and its narrow, cobbled lanes are lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and gelaterias. A huge, noisy morning market, stretched out along the lakefront was just beginning to pack up when I arrived, but beyond it I found the tranquil gardens circling the outside of the impressively thick walls. It had been a hot and tiring day so I indulged myself with some of the soft and smooth ice cream before the final leg of my boat tour back to Bardolino.



DSCF6134 (2)In the central church of San Severo, I attended an evening concert by the Bardolino Philharmonic, a 30-member choir accompanied by an organist and featuring an operatic soloist who happens to be the aunt of the campsite receptionist. For an hour they presented a wide range of pieces from Bach to Verdi and even Ennio Morricone’s theme from the film “The Mission”. However, it was the spiritual setting with its backdrop of religious frescoes which made it a magical evening.

My Own Montserrat

“Nowhere but in his own Montserrat will a man find happiness and peace”



I first visited Montserrat over 20 years ago, on a day trip from the coast. It was summer and our coach accompanied many others winding their way up the mountain to the revered pilgrimage site where the Virgin of Montserrat resides. According to the information office, Montserrat received 2 million visitors last year and in the summer months that can be up to 5000 in one day.

DSCF1296Luckily, January is a much quieter time to visit and, on this bright winter’s day, I am joined by only a few Asian tours groups, an American school party and some individuals. First, I pay my respects to the Virgin by following the corridor of side chapels and up the marble staircase to where she sits enthroned, looking down upon the congregation of the basilica through an arched window. Then I pick up a leaflet from the information office and read about the many walks in the area.

DSCF1319Although the monastery site is in the shadow of the mountain, I can see the sun is shining high above, so I take the funicular up to the Tarantulas Plain with a large number of loud, American teenagers and a terrified Spanish grandmother.

DSCF1354At one point, there were 300 hermitages dotted around the mountains and a path from the upper funicular station takes me to the site of two of them, St Joan and St Onofre, which were originally built around natural caves. I find a secluded spot in the sun with a spectacular view and enjoy a picnic lunch, until the teenagers catch up with me and so I decide it is time to move on. Retracing my steps to the funicular, I then follow a long, but easy, downhill route back to the monastery, via the chapel of Sant Miquel.


“What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours.”

Stanley Adams / Dinah Washington

DSCF1409The next day I can no longer see the valley below due to low lying cloud, or the peaks of the mountain, which are also shrouded. However, I can see the destination of my morning walk – the chapel of Santa Cova, built on the site of the cave where the Virgin was first discovered in 880. Legend says that some shepherd boys saw a bright light on the mountain, and when this was investigated with the local priest, they found the cave and the image of the Virgin inside. However, when they tried to remove her to the town of Manresa, they got no further than the site of the present monastery, where she became too heavy to move and so a shrine was built around her. It was also said that she was carved by St Luke and bought to Spain by St Peter in 50AD, though as the Virgin has been dated to the 12th century this cannot possibly be true.

DSCF1450As I climb back up to the monastery complex, it starts to rain, so I treat myself to a hot cup of coffee in the self-service cafeteria. It could easily seat several hundred people, and there’s another, even larger restaurant next to the coach park, though it is currently closed. The cafeteria is linked to a long shopping area, so I don’t have to go back out into the rain. Postcards, books, CDs and many religious souvenirs are on offer but I prefer to spend my money on entrance to the Audio-visual Centre where I can learn more about the mountain, the monastery and the history of this fascinating place. A short introductory video is followed by a display of key historical dates for both the monastery and the world. Then further videos inform me about the increasing popularity of the pilgrimage site and the modern day monastic life of the monks who live there. The final section is about the Escolania, the music and choral school for young boys, who perform daily in the basilica for a brief, though magical moment. The Audio-visual tour concludes with an enthralling music video, using three separate screens to show the two opera singers, the choir and the magnificent mountain scenery of Montserrat.

For me, Montserrat is not the spiritual sanctuary, or the myth of the Madonna, but it is the majestic mountains and the memorable music.

Zambombas and Carreras de Caballo

I find myself in the city of Sanlucar de Barrameda for the long weekend. Both the Saturday 6th and the Monday 8th of December are public holidays and it’s a time for celebration. The helpful tourist information office has given me a list of places to visit and another list of activities taking place in the town this month. There seems to be plenty to keep me occupied for the next few days.

DSCF9183On the first day I walk through the busy indoor market, smelling of salty fish and Arabic spices, and up to the old part of city. Amongst the large sherry warehouses I find the 15th century castle with a pleasant café inside the walls. Nearby is the Barbadillo sherry shop and museum where I learn about the 7 types of sherry that are produced in the region and get to try a few. The locally produced manzanilla is served chilled and has a sharp, acidic dryness that wakes me up but curls my tongue.

DSCF9256Down the road, hidden behind the imposing medieval Church of Our Lady of O, is the Ducal Palace of Medina Sidonia. There are some public areas, the palace is also a hotel, but to access the state rooms I need to join a guided tour in Spanish. I struggle to keep up with all the historical dates and names of the artists who painted the dreary religious paintings, which are badly in need of some restoration. There is antique furniture from all over Europe and beyond, displays of fans and ceramics, four poster beds with copper bedpans to warm the sheets and picture windows looking down on the city and beyond to the river Guadalquivir and the Donana National Park beyond.

DSCF9288On the second day I go in search of Zambombas. The tourist office described it as flamenco to Jingle Bells so I’m not quite sure what to expect. Perhaps professional flamenco dancers stamping away to Christmas carols? I check out the main squares, which are busy with people chatting over tapas and glasses of manzanilla, but no flamenco. However, as I stroll further into the maze of side streets, I can hear singing. Following the sounds, I arrive at a bar where a group of musicians are playing away while the locals dance in the streets. The young girls are particularly keen to show off their talents. There’s no Jingle Bells but the spirit of Christmas flamenco is definitely flowing through their bodies to the tips of their fingers.

DSCF9322On the third day I walk along the promenade to the far end of the beach to see a tradition dating back to 1845. Each August, horse races are held along the beach and I am lucky to arrive during an additional event for the younger riders. It’s all very professional with a parade ground where the judges and onlookers can view the horses and riders before the race. Then the horses are ridden along the beach for the stated distance of race before thundering back down along the sand to the finish line. There is a chill wind blowing but everyone is wrapped up and the stalls of free sherry help to warm us from the inside out.