From Agrigento, the lovely people at Doric B&B were kind enough to drop me at the bus station for the journey to Catania. Travelling along the southern coast, I found the scenery somewhat boring. Every square metre was cultivated as we rolled along gentle hills, valleys and plateaus. At least I saw where the fruit and vegetables I buy at Ventimiglia come from. If there are small farms in this region, I didn’t see any. The agriculture was on a monumental scale.

As it was Sunday afternoon in Catania, the streets were nearly empty. My B&B was XXMiglia in a neighbourhood that I would describe as “seedy-trendy”. It reminded me of Tribeca in the 70s. The owners of the B&B had bought several apartments on various floors of an older building. The breakfast room and a few others were stunning. Ten-foot domed ceilings were adorned with 18th or 19th-century frescoes of cherubs and country landscapes.

I stayed in several rooms but mostly this one:

catania-hotelDig the crazy ceiling! It dates from the 19th century.

Although I had planned to stay a couple of days and then move to Syracuse, I was so comfortable there I decided to stay four nights. The owners were delightful, breakfast was like a four-star hotel and I loved Catania. The ambiance was different from Palermo. Although there were not the architectural sights, there was a vitality and energy that I found invigorating.

Plus, Catania was within easy reach of other sites: Piazza Armerina and the Roman Villa; Syracuse; Taormina. And there was an opera opening at the opera house! I’m in. And, I found such a wonderful restaurant, I didn’t want to go anywhere else.

Sunday October 18

After walking about town, I headed to Trattoria di des Fiori, run by 70-something Roseanna and everything a Sicilian trattoria should be. I ordered homemade pasta with black squid ink sauce which was divine. I fell into conversation with Narelle, a charming young Australian designer, discussing everything under the sun. Neither of us was sure of our plans for the next few days as I still hadn’t decided whether or not to stay in Catania or move on to Syracuse. She mentioned something about Rigoletto playing in the Opera house. “Go!” I said. You’ll love it. We parted without exchanging contact information though.

Monday October 19

Research revealed that visiting the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina via public transport was a dubious proposition. Back to Maggiore at the airport to pick up a car. Papers, waiting, papers, car.

It was a good 1&1/2 hour ride to the Villa Romana but the Roman mosaics made it all worthwhile. The artistic quality of the mosaics was extraordinary.

romana1So much of it involved hunting, it should have come with a trigger warning. The saddest were the “wild animals” captured in North Africa that were destined to be displayed and killed in gladiatorial “games”.


romana3romana4It’s nice to know the ladies of the house were keeping in shape. I guess this was the gym room.

romana5I drove back to Catania thinking that the Romans were basically dreadful people. I imagined conversing with the patrician owner of the villa.

“Do you have to massacre every man, woman, child and dog in a captured town?”

“Losers, losers and losers!”

“And slavery?”

“No free handouts here!”

“Watching gladiators murder each other?”


“Torture? Crucifixions? Beheadings? Drawing and quartering?”

“Evildoers, enemies, traitors and bad guys. Your point?”

It was dark when I got back to Catania. Dinner again at Trattoria des di Fiori. This time I chowed down pasta alla Norma, Sicily’s national dish. Topped with grated ricotta salata and  thick slices of fried eggplant, the chewy pasta and light tomato sauce was filling without being heavy.

Tuesday October 20

It was pouring rain when I left the hotel, intending to take a bus to Taormina. But first I needed to buy my ticket for Rigoletto at the Opera House. As I hadn’t heard of any of the singers, I decided on a cheap ticket in the upper balcony.

On the way to the station I changed my mind reasoning that Syracuse with a lot of interiors to visit would make more sense on a rainy day.

After trudging around the bus and train neighborhood for 20 minutes looking for the ticket booth, I finally found it and bought a ticket for the hour-long trip to Syracuse. I consulted maps and guidebooks along the way trying to figure out the best way to see the Greek ruins and the old town of Ortigia in an afternoon. They are several kilometres apart.

I got off somewhere in between in a commercial district and hunted around for an ATM. Unlike many countries, ATMs are not on every other street; you have to know where they are.

By the time I got to the Greek ruins, the weather had cleared up and it was quite warm. Contrary to other sites, there were no explanations for the major highlights except for a Qcode that opened onto a site in Italian. Also disappointing was the fact that the Roman amphitheatre was closed. The Greek theatre was impressive though.

syracusePlato sat there!

I hopped the free shuttle to Ortigia, a handsome town that was certainly well-trodden by tourists. Lined by shops, the main road led to the bulwarks.

syracuse1There were a lot of nooks and crannies I would have liked to explore.

syracuse3Plus majestic piazzas and buildings.



But the most impressive of all (where pictures were not allowed) was the Cathedral built on the site of an ancient temple to Athena. Seeing Christian forms sprouting from the massive 5th-century BC pillars was stirring. That it was still an active church provided a sense of connection to past worshippers that was more attenuated in the temples at Agrigento and Segesta. Odd, how once a site is recognized as holy, it remains holy for hundreds of years.

Before catching the bus back to Catania, I checked out the ruins of Apollo’s temple.

syracuse5Then it was back to Catania in time for the opera.

Who should I see outside the opera but Narelle? Reunited!

Buzzing around the entrance we fell into conversation with an usher who beckoned us to follow him. Suddenly we were backstage (which was really an interior alley) where singers were milling around in costume and we could hear other singers warming up. Then we found ourselves actually onstage where our guide helpfully took a picture of us with the grand old auditorium in the background.

operaThe production was traditional in terms of staging, costumes, acting. The baritone, Alberto Gazale, sung Rigoletto quite well. The other singers were competent and greatly helped but the excellent acoustics. I was surprised and disappointed that the opera house didn’t sell out though.

Wednesday October 21

It absolutely poured rain in buckets all day. There was nothing to do but rest, contemplate my ceiling and read news reports about the monsoon that swept across the region causing flooding and washed out roads. I crept out for lunch (€5 for pasta, water and coffee) and narrowly managed to avoid drowning.

That night I might Narelle again at Trattoria des di Fiori where she arranged for a special birthday desert. Sweet!

birthdayThursday October 22

The fact that the highway from Catania to Palermo was partially cut off prompted me to take the long route back and stop at Taormina. The town center was swamped with tourists, tourist shops, tourist restaurants but the setting was dramatic.

taorminataormina1I did not visit the Greek amphitheatre (shocking I know). I had already seen three; the line was long; the Guide Routard found it overpriced.

I strolled around for a bit and grabbed a slice of pizza before heading to the car. How could a €2 slice of pizza be so well constructed with a soft, chewy crust and just the right amount of fresh tomato sauce and roasted vegetables?

Something to ponder on my trip back.

For my last night in Sicily, I stayed in Cinisi, close to the airport at stunning B&B Antichi Colori.




Destination Agrigento

Breakfast was a giant cannoli, so rich I knew it would hold me for the day. “Leave the gun, take the cannolis”? Just leave everything and take the cannolis.

Although I never did figure out how to access the car radio (should it exist), at least  the highly computerized dashboard on this Picasso C3 had bluetooth which allowed me to play the tunes on my smartphone. And then somehow I was tricked into uploading my entire contact list.

I tried not to focus on small mishaps and set off for Agrigento.  Unlike Segesta, Agrigento was a strong and prosperous city-state, at least until the Carthagenians came along and sacked in in the 5th century BC. With such a commanding position overlooking the sea, you could see why the Carthagenians and later the Romans wanted to gobble it up.

My goal was the UNESCO listed Valley of the Temples which was nowhere near the town but relatively well-signposted. I was glad I picked up a map at the entrance, even though the temples were lined up like sentries on the ridge and connected by a paved walkway that stretched about two kilometres.

First up was the Temple of Juno:


agrigento-juno2Whoa. Then I looked down the road and saw a skyline of other massive temples. The wealth and power of this city were immediately apparent. They remained influential throughout the Roman era and even hung on against the Ostrogoths until finally the Saracens marched in at the beginning of the 9th century and ended any pretensions to pwoer.

Next up was the even more spectacular Concordia:

agrigento-concordiaThis knocked me out. Could any building be more perfectly proportioned? Clearly this temple has weathered well, mainly because the early Christians converted it into a church in the 6th century AD.

I wandered further down the road and was surprised to come upon a goat family:

agrigento-goatThis is a gigentana, a traditional goat breed that is in danger of extinction and is being preserved here.

I couldn’t get enough of the temples though. They seemed to go on and on and with helpful explanations on each one. Here is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, intended to be the largest Doric temple ever built but now in ruins.

agrigento-zeusThe massive chunks strewn about the columns testified the ambitiousness of this project and I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what it must have looked like.

Then on to the last temple of Castor and Pollux:

agrigento-castorTemples finished but there was more to see! I sprung for an entry to the Kolymbetra Gardens, set in a river valley that provided the ancient Agrigento with a water supply. It was now restored and planted with a variety of Mediterranean species, watered with natural fountains. It was peaceful and shady and provided a new perspective on the old city.

agrigento-gardenBy now it was late afternoon and it was a long, hot walk back to the parking lot. I fortified myself with gelato, decided to put off the archaeological museum until the following morning and headed back.

I reached the parking lot, pressed the button on the magnetic key and then. . .nothing. Whoops. Must be the key battery I thought. I turned the lock of the car, put the key in the ignition and . . . nothing. Uh-oh. I knew I was in for it.

I called Maggiore in Palermo. “Call road assistance”. “Why don’t you call road assistance? I’m paying for a car that actually runs”. So I called road assistance who helpfully instructed me to depress the clutch pedal while turning the key. Thanks pal. Now send a tow truck and a new car.

The tow truck arrived about 40 minutes later trailed by various young men who worked at the site and were eager to lend their limited English vocabulary to help smooth communications. Then the young woman at my hotel (Doric Bed B & B) took charge, insisting on calling Maggiore, road assistance and anyone else necessary.

agrigento-carPeople couldn’t be nicer, including the tow truck driver who deposited me at the hotel. Intense telephone negotiations with Maggiore revealed that, as it was Saturday evening, the earliest I could get the car was Monday morning.

I decided to cancel the whole thing and take buses. After a shower and a nice dinner of tagliatelle with baby shrimp in pistachio sauce I turned in. Sunrise brought this lovely view from my room.

agrigento-sunriseMay Zeus smite me if I ever rent a car on holiday again.


To Segesta and Trapani

I packed up bright and early and headed to the train station to pick up my rental car. Although I had initially planned to take public transport, I reluctantly concluded that it was impossible to execute my itinerary without a car. Segesta was particularly inaccessible but there were other places where public transport seemed dubious.

Upon arriving at the Maggiore desk  I was immediately confronted with a hard, hard sell to buy extra insurance. “Uh-oh. I really should have researched this. Should have read the contract more carefully. What exactly is included?”, thought I. But isn’t a vacation supposed to be, I dunno, a vacation? I declined the extras and was then informed that €1800 was to be blocked on my credit card in case of damage that was supposed to be covered by the CDW I already bought. I started to feel kind of stupid particularly when I drove off without getting clarification on how the radio worked. Or if there was one. I saw no dials or numbers or anything really indicating a radio.

Oh well. The GPS got me to Segesta without too much difficulty. First up was the ruins of the ancient city which, cleverly enough, was built on top of a steep hill. A free shuttle brought visitors to the top but, as always, the stamina of ancient peoples is impressive. On the way we glimpsed the Doric Temple, a good way downhill from the city.


Excavations revealed Roman and medieval ruins in addition to those of the ancient city which was destroyed by the Visigoths. Apparently Segesta was not the best defended of Greek city-states. They were always appealing to someone stronger for help against Carthage or Rome whether it was Athens or Syracuse.  Given that the city was on top of such a steep hill I wondered how the attackers managed to get the better of them.

There was a Roman area, an Arab-Norman area and of course a Greek area. There were panels with explanations in archaelogese and maps but it was not entirely clear what was what, probably because the city plan at the top of the hill has not been completely understood. There are ruins of a market, a Muslim mosque and a Norman castle but imagination is required to visualize the structures.


No such imagination is necessary to visualize the Greek amphitheatre which dates from the 6th century BC.

SegestaThe setting is dramatic. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be sitting there and seeing Aeschylus for the first time. I wished that I could visit the site at night under the stars just as the ancient Segestans did. What I like about Greek amphitheatres is that they were used for plays, not tearing apart slaves and Christians or watching gladiators murder each other. Fortunately, there were few tourists to gum up the ambiance.

I took the bus down, again admiring the temple and then took the short walk up to see it. You don’t need to be an architect to know perfection when you see it. For scale, notice the people to the right.

segesta-temple2segesta-temple3Ah, the glory that was Greece. . .

From Segesta I drove on to Trapani, which I wanted to visit because it’s considered part of “African Sicily” and is known for its fish couscous. I had some trouble finding the Salamureci B&B  which I chose because it had parking and was on the edge of the pedestrianized Old Town.

Arriving in mid-afternoon, I found the town nearly deserted. Where is everybody? I took a walk around and particularly liked the seaside stroll. But where was the Moorish African influence? Nowhere that I could see. The architecture was all Bourbon with a smattering of regal churches built under Spanish rule. Unlike the Normans, the Spanish felt no need to do anything other than stamp out Islamic influences.

trapaniLater, the streets of the Old Town begin to fill, but not too much. There were a fair number of tourists and. . .I don’t know, some locals. Unlike Palermo and (later) Catania, it was ethnically homogenous. It didn’t seem to gel somehow. I thought it would be more interesting.

The fish couscous was unexpected but good. The couscous grains were savory liked spiced rice and there were slices of grilled fish on top.

I turned in to my B&B. The room was fine but I was colossally annoyed to learn that the included breakfast was down the street and not in the hotel. Walking 100m in the morning without caffeine? I made sure to pick up a cup of takeout espresso to drink for fortification in the morning.

Palermo: the Arab-Norman Marriage

Expecting the rain to begin at any moment as forecast, I made sure to pack my raincoat before setting off and resolved to walk the city before I would surely be relegated to indoor sights.

In fact, it stayed sunny and warm throughout the day!

First I did a little shopping, picking up a couple of tops at Blue Sand, an Italian brand selling colorful low-cost fashion.

This made me work up an appetite. I stumbled on Bar Touring around the port where an array of salads, stews, lasagnas and sweets were displayed behind a glass. People streamed in and out with their takeaway treats but fortunately there were a few tables. I ordered both the octopus salad and the vegetable stew, having no idea the portions would be so large. Each was delectable.

Octopus saladDSC_0900How is it possible that tomatoes, potatoes, olives and green beans could be SO GOOD?

Well fortified, I decided to head to Palermo’s premier sight, the Norman Palace, now the seat of the Sicilian Parliament. Like so much in Palermo, it reflects a synthesis of Moorish and Norman styles. Built in the 9th century, it was transformed when King Roger II swept in with his Norman army and made the palace his own. Unlike almost every other Christian ruler, he decided that his court had a lot to learn from the Arabs whom he enlisted both as artisans to work on the building and high-level aides to help him run the place. Was this the last time that Islam and Christianity coexisted peacefully and productively? Maybe.

Many of the rooms are closed off when Parliament is in session but the central courtyard gives an idea of the fusion of elements:

norman-palaceBut the highlight is undoubtedly the exquisite Palatine Chapel, a glittering 12th-century jewel of a chapel encrusted with mosaics, inlaid marble and a muqarnas ceiling.


palatine-chapelThere was just so much to look it; the painstaking workmanship and extraordinary level of artistry was mesmerizing.

Palatine2It was hard to leave but leave I did. I took at look at the Cathedral but didn’t visit.

Rather than queuing up for the Cathedral I decided to pursue the Arab-Norman theme and visit La Zisa, constructed by Arab craftsmen in the 12th century as a residence for the Norman kings.

It was a looooong, hot walk as I passed through crumbling neighborhoods of haphazardly constructed postwar buildings. I needed a rest and an ice cream. Why not a brioche con gelato in which gelato is smooshed into a brioche-style roll?  An ice cream sandwich Palermo style! Why doesn’t everyone eat ice cream this way? Who ever thought of cones anyway?

On to La Zisa which was again a startling reminder of Sicily’s Moorish underpinnings.

via Commons.

ZisaI was glad that funds were found to restore the frescoes and other architectural features inside.

After walking about 20 miles and eating a ton, I was happy to collapse in my room and plan the rest of my itinerary.

It was a good thing I had no dinner plans as the much anticipated rains came at nightfall. The storm was so intense it knocked out the power for 20 minutes or so. My hosts informed me this was most unusual, even for October.


Palermo: First Look

I arrived late last night and checked into my wonderful B&B Bquadro, staying in this room:

The friendly young couple had two other rooms in red and blue. They lived in another part of the house. Breakfast was in their dining room which opened onto a balcony.The room and bathroom were spacious and comfortable.

They set out a good selection of pamphlets and maps which included a few leaflets on addiopizzo, a grass-roots organisation dedicated to stamping out the pizzo which is the protection money businesses in Palermo must pay to the Mafia. My hosts were proudly defiant of the Mafia’s crippling hold on the Sicilian economy.

My first evening I headed out to a nearby wine bar, Buoni Vini, to enjoy the house cocktail in their urban garden, munching  on chewy bread and fresh tomatoes. As I was to discover, every little bite of food in Sicily is prepared with care.

The B&B was in a rather upscale neighborhood a little walk from the town center. I set out today to explore the town, strolling down the Via Settimo, lined with major-brand shops. Around the opera house, the street became pedestrian only. Although I had always heard that Palermo was chaotic and traffic-clogged, I found it the opposite. Major arteries were gridlocked during rush hours but the old town was quiet and a delight to explore.

First up was of course the gorgeous opera house.


Sadly no opera was scheduled for my stay! But central Palermo had enough buildings of operatic grandeur such as the famous corner of Four Fountains, the Quattro Canti:

Palermo-Quattro-CantiAnd the Piazza Pretoria or “Fountain of Shame” for all the nude statues:

Palermo-PretoriaI decided to concentrate more on Palermo’s neighborhoods than its churches for the moment. There, the Use-it  guide provided by my B&B and map was great, pointing out local snack joints, arts centers, nightlife and off-beat sights. The map was large, colorful, and easy-to-follow, better than my Guide Routard and leaving Lonely Planet’s Sicily chapter in the dust.

I headed down Via Vittorio Emanuele towards the port which took me through one of Palermo’s older neighborhoods including the  Vucciria Market and some of Palermo’s best nightlife. But I was hungry and determined to try Palermo’s famous Panelle e Crocché at Nini Francu u’ Vastiddaru. Slices of fried chick pea floor with slices of fried mashed potatoes on a roll is peasant food at its best. Hearty!

Palerm-pannelleThe neighborhood around the port is a grim reminder of the “Sack of Palermo” in the 1960s when the Mafia took a wrecking ball to the old neighborhood and erected horrible concrete monstrosities.

There wasn’t much going on around here. WWII bombings and bad reconstruction drained the life out of the place except for this striking example of Islamic-Norman architecture. This is the Piazza Kalsa, part of the city fortifications which dates back to Islamic rule.

Palermo-KalsaAs I headed back to the center, I stopped in the lovely but strangely deserted Botanical Gardens

Palermo-botanical garden

By now I was starting to think about lunch so I headed to Ballaro market further north. Along the way I was surprised to discover a “little Chinatown” with Chinese shops and even a Chinese restaurant. The people seemed singularly gloomy however so I didn’t linger.

The morning Ballaro market was starting to wind down so I looked for a place to sit, have a bite to eat and cool off a bit as the day was warm. As I wandered toward a a modest but busy cafe with a terrace, a sturdy, carefully dressed woman with dark hair motioned to me vigorously from her seat at the café that I was in TERRIBLE DANGER from a potential necklace-snatcher and I must remove my gold chain IMMEDIATELY. I hesitated, nodded, hesitated and then she beckoned me to join her for lunch as the place was full. Of course!

Her name was Stella and she pointed out that necklace-snatching is a major activity around the market. She had just gotten off work. What kind of work? Stella was a nurse hired to keep an aged lady company at night which sounds easy but apparently not when the lady is waking you up every hour or so insisting on conversation. Anyway the job was ending in a few days and Stella was mightily worried about finding another one given the current “crise”. We fell to talking about our personal lives which, in Stella’s case, was not particularly happy. She had a husband but he had recently left her for another woman. Would I like to see a picture of the homewrecker? I pictured some version of Marisa Tomei. Stella pulled out her phone, flipped through the photos and pointed to the miscreant. “That’s her?” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The woman could only be described as morbidly obese, and not in a good way. Stella giggled too. It was incomprehensible. Stella was slightly stocky but with a pleasant, lively face and expressive brown eyes. I wondered whether the woman was rich and Stella seemed to indicate she was. We shook our heads about the ways of gli uomini and went back to our lunch of fried eggplant and stuffed zucchini. Living up to the Sicilian reputation for generosity, Stella insisted on paying. We took a little walk around the neighborhood and Stella pointed out the Chiesa del Carmine which was near her apartment.

Palermo-CarmineStella needed to rest so I continued on alone to check out the other major sights. As the weather forecast for the following days was dispiriting, I decided to save interior visits for later and concentrate on outdoor explorations. I took a look at the Cathedral, intimidatingly vast from the outside.

palermo-cathedralAlong the way, I came upon the stunning 16th-century Palazzo Castrone-Santa Ninfa, all the more beautiful for being so unexpected. I was ready to move in.

Palermo-PalazzoTime for some refreshment! Following a network of crumbling streets around the Capo district, I came upon the stall selling autista. I didn’t know what to expect but I ordered it and watched the maestro pour out some soda and some fruit juice so the glass was 3/4 full. He put it in front of me and approached with a teaspoon of powder. Beve! Beve! he ordered as the glass nearly exploded in bubbles. It was a delightful, fruity, fizzy mess as it burbled over the sides and I slurped as fast as I could.

Further along the Capo district became a market selling all manner of food, tools, clothes and whatnot. Here a sprang for a ridiculously cheap plate of prickly pears, already peeled.

Would I be hungry again at night? You bet!  There wasn’t a great deal around my B&B but the owner, Mario, recommended the Trattoria Tipica Altri Tempi which served up this plate of unphotogenic but scrumptious sardine balls with bread crumbs and pine nuts in sauce.






Saorge: Circuit de Pieremont


On a beautiful late summer Sunday, I started from the Franciscan Monastery (Balise 20) and climbed slowly up on a wide path,



stopping to rest at a mountain fountain (Balise 162)


It was mostly sunny but with patches of shade. There was some cultivation and a working donkey.


A steady, gentle ascent brought me to the Chappelle Sainte Croix.


Then the road got steeper with a brief climb over schist. Finally I reached La Pinee and its abreuvoir (Balise 433, 360m dénivelé)


Beautiful views


It was a beautiful picnic spot. Then I slowly descended through a pine forest.


The descent was much shader than the ascent which made me wonder if it would be best the other way around.

The vegetation was Mediterranean with fig trees (not yet ripe), blackberries (already dried out) and apple trees (not yet ripe). It was the perfect time of year for this pleasant, not too demanding hike.

Voie Sacrée de Fontanalbe

July 19

The gravures of the Vallée des Merveilles have been a goal of mine for years. I finally made it!

We got an early start at balise 395: 9.10am to be exact. Although definitely warm the heat had not yet become stifling. The patches of shade made it bearable. As we climbed higher it became cooler and the alpine vegetation was cool indeed.


A little over 2 hours later we were here in cooler air:


enroute3We reached balise 388 at 11.30 where a sign directed us to Lac Vert. It took only another 20 minutes but it was a hard 20 minutes as a park official reminded us to put the hiking poles away. The metal tips are forbidden once you enter the area of the gravures.

Then, there it was! Lac Vert de Fontanalbe:

lac-vertBy now the air was cool and refreshing. The lake was cold but swimmable I suppose once you got past the muddy bottom.

lac-vert2After a relaxing lunch, we decided to press on to check out the gravures which involved an easy climb of about 100m to an orientation table with sweeping views that included Mont Bego on one side

begoand its foothills (below) on the other.

foothillsUp here, there was a steady, cool wind and the 360° panorama of peaks made it easy to understand why this was a sacred spot for the Bronze Age peoples (3500BC) who left their mysterious engravings (or graffiti?) on 4000 rocks spread out over 17 sq km.

Not far from the orientation table was the Voie Sacrée, a rocky path with a series of gravures on the left side.

gravuresThis is just a glimpse of the splendours up here. To fully appreciate the site, it’s best to take one of the free guided tours offered by the Parc Mercantour.

On the way back, a butterfly alighted on my hat and made herself comfortable.

butterflyI view it as a good omen. I’m sure the engravers of Mount Bego would have felt the same.

The descent was lengthy but presented no special difficulty apart from the sharp stones along the track.

descentWe staggered into Casterino around 4-ish.

Breil-sur-Roya to Peine Haute

We began at balise 2 right outside Breil. and climbed gently until balise 118, then followed the sign to Peine Haute bearing left and slowly descending.

peine1The trail was extremely comfortable and well-maintained and the vegetation was beautiful and varied with Mediterranean flowers in full bloom.

peine2Soon we walked out of view of the road below and all was peaceful. After a while the trail descended down and down to a mountain stream which would be a great picnic stop.


Then, the hard part began. We began climbing and climbing and climbing. The last part after balise 439 climbed rather steeply to Peine Haute.


It was rather exposed to the sun at this point but still it was not a difficult trail. Instead of taking the predicted 2 1/2 hours to Peine Haute, it was a good 3 1/2 hours.


It then took exactly 3 hours to walk back to Breil.

Although not difficult, it was quite long and very up and down with ascents and descents. It is certainly not a hike for the summer, but a good sporting day for spring and fall. A hike to the stream would be pleasant and cut the time and effort substantially.




March 11 Tianan
Slept poorly my last night in Hong Kong as the weather turned cold and the blanket was thin. There was a space heater but I didn’t want to leave it on all night.

I got to airport in plenty of time only to find out there was engine trouble. China airlines gave is a food voucher, a flight to Taipei and money for a ticket to the high-speed train to Tainan. Arriving in the midst of a rainstorm, I was so glad to take that train to Tainan.  The train sped down at 260kph arriving In Tainan in less than 90 minutes. Unaware that the high speed station was far from city I jumped in cab. Driving on and on I was fearing some $40 bill but no! It was only $15, an introduction to the low prices of Taiwan.

I was immediately happy to check into Fuward Hotel, a real four-star hotel with toiletries, snacks and a large, well-appointed room. I set out to explore the neighborhood and found myself in a curious reconstruction of a traditional Japanese residence.


japanese-houseAt least that’s what I think it was as this tranquil oasis had no English explanations but a smattering of Japanese visitors. It was an introduction to the strong Japanese influence that pervades Taiwan. Continuing the Japanese theme I landed in tiny Japanese place with beautiful, fresh sahimi for $7.  Happiness!

On the way back I stopped in the oldest temple in Tainan, busy Tian Gong or Tiantan temple, built in 1854 and considered the spiritual center of Tainan.


Tiantan is usually translated as the Altar of Heaven. It is the altar to the god that rules over all the mortal realms. He is commonly known as the Jade Emperor (Yù Huáng ? ?). His worship in Taiwan goes back to the early days of Chinese settlement when Zheng Chenggong made sacrifices on the grounds in which this temple was later built. Tainan’s Tiantan, or Tiangong Temple,  is the oldest temple on the island serving this deity. Today it is at the center of Tainan’s spiritual community.

tainancity blog

March 12

My breakfast buffet of choice is Asian and the Hotel Fuward did not disappoint.  Burdock root salad in chili oil! Stir fried spinach! Salted egg! Chinese buns! Congee! Milkfish soup!

I picked up a very basic map from reception and tried to find out where the tourist office was but the staff’s level of English wasn’t up to the task.

No matter. Many sites were nearby. My first stop was the Confucius temple (


A succession of Qing emperors presented plaques in honor of the Great Sage who was the first teacher to advocate for public education. Previously education was accessible only to the high-born. One wonders whether the veneration of Confucius that permeates Asian society is responsible for the high emphasis placed on education throughout these societies.




Across the street was one of many quiet lanes that lent Tainan its “Old Asia” feeling.

confucius-outsideNearby was Lady Linshui temple.


This temple is dedicated to a Lady Linshui, Chen Ching-ku.  Since there are so many people who need the help of the goddess, she is accompanied by 36 assistants who are positioned in a side chamber.  These are all the patron saints of women, who come in large numbers to pray for sons or good health.  For women and children alike, the goddess is a source of spiritual comfort.

Women also come to this temple for a “belly change” which is believed to change the sex of an unborn child.  A Taoist priest performs a ritual which, it is said, can give the child whatever sex the parents desire.

Tainan tourist information.

linshui2This is what I like about Taoism: lots of different gods plus their array of assistants. It’s the monotheistic religions that tend to cause problems.

But it’s not all about temples! Koxinga was a pivotal figure in Taiwanese history. This Chinese-Japanese aristocrat first defended the Ming dynasty against the marauding Manchus. He went on to drive the Dutch East India company out of Formosa (Taiwan) and took the first steps toward taming the wild island.(The Economist).

As Tainan is considered the heart of Taiwanese culture, naturally it hosts the most impressive Koxinga shrine.


Perhaps because Tainan and Taiwan rarely appear on “bucket lists” or “best of” lists, I was enjoying an increasingly rare sense of discovery in this relaxed and super-friendly country.

But my feet were killing me! I finally came across snazzy and super-padded sport shoes at prices that were about 20% cheaper than Hong Kong.

Then I headed to the tourist office where the staff tried to explain to me how I could take the hop-on hop-off bus to see the city’s many sights. I wandered out confused about how the whole day could cost  $1 when in Hong Kong it cost $70. Surely I misunderstood something.

At that point a serious-looking young woman I had seen in the tourist office approached me and asked if I wanted to sightsee with her. Sure! Viera turned out to be a Canadian of Chinese descent who had not forgotten her Mandarin. Even she had some trouble unraveling the bus system but at least she could question the driver.

Our goal was Anping Fort on the outskirts.

anpingThe history of Taiwan’s development began at the Anping district of Tainan.  This is where the Dutch built their stronghold in the 1620’s, naming it Fort Zeelandia.  Most of the old fort is gone now; the only bit left of the original is a piece of red-brick wall, elegant banyan roots growing down its sides.

Tainan tourist information

Part of the fortress compound was the Tait & Co merchant house which had been turned into a museum that traced the history of Tainan as a commercial center. It ended when the bay gradually silted up and could no longer be used as a trading port.

anping-meNearby was the Anping Treehouse, a former warehouse that banyan trees strangled and squeezed over the centuries.


Now, time to eat! Tainan is famous for its unusual cuisine. You just have to try the famous red jelly with tofu.

Time for another temple? Yes. We paid homage at the Matsu temple.

matsouWe then caught a taxi to the famous Hua Yuan night market, the largest in Taiwan. What a sensory explosion of food stalls, games, clothes & trinkets stalls and, did I say food stalls?

hua1Oysters were a big thing but I lack confidence in strange oysters. There was also this:

hua2Cherry tomatoes glazed in sugar. Yum.

And this:

hua3Which is Aiyu jelly. Great in iced bubble tea.

And from the sea:

hua4These tiny snails have pinhead-size meat. No calories there.

So much food. If only I could squeeze in more.

hua5We wandered around for a while; I bought a couple of natural bristle brushes and we headed out. Waiting for a bus, hunger hit and we stopped at a small place to try Tainan’s famous eel noodles.

eelnoodlesEventually we ended up in another “Old Asia” street, Shennong Street.

shennong1Streets like this make Tainan the utterly enchanting destination that it is.

shennong2shennong3The street was clearly restored with tourism in mind which attracted highly original cafes and shops. I bought a gorgeous and practical handmade fabric hand/shoulder/backpack bag and then we found ourselves in the insanely imaginative “Art Cafe Funnywenqing” whose owner had traveled the world amassing curios and odd objects of all kinds.

funnyfunny2funny1The above is about how I felt by the end of this long, exciting day.

March 13

Maybe yesterday was a bit too much. I woke up with a bad head cold. I still managed to get to Chikhan tower, another former Dutch outpost.

chikhan1chikhanchikhan3And what is a day in Tainan without a temple visit? This time it’s the Grand Matsu Temple, a 17th-century Prince’s palace remodeled into a temple. Matsu was the god in charge of fishing and fishermen.


Across from the hotel, I explored the Old Lin Department store, a Japanese-era handsome store, now filled with extremely pricey clothes and accessories.

Then it was back to bed with pills and tissues until my final Japanese meal of sushi and saki.

March 13 Taipei
My head cold improved enough for me to take  bus 88 out past Anping Fort to Sichao Dazhong temple.

sichaoBut today I had another purpose besides temples: the rare blackface spoonbill. Nearly extinct, this lovely bird spends the winter at the mouth of Cengwen River on Tainan’s outskirts. The timing worked out beautifully as I hopped in a small boat for a 70-minute ride along the mangroves to the nesting grounds. There was a guide who, unfortunately, spoke not a word of English but we did see the spoonbills and several other species. It was a nice morning out.

bird speciesBack to the hotel for luggage, a bus to the train station and I zipped up to Taipei arriving in late afternoon at the Dongmen Hotel. On a quiet street and only steps from the metro, it was clearly a good location and I was amused at the large room painted with polar scenes. With a couch and no closet or hanging space it wasn’t the most practical setup though.

Heading out to explore and find food I realized that Tainan spoiled me with food choices. You could hardly go 10 feet without being tempted by a snack stall. Not so here.

I arranged for my metro card and took the train one stop to a heavily commercial district where there were somehow no restaurants. Back in my neighborhood, combing the streets, I finally fell into a hip Japanese place that cooked me up a nice plate of fried tofu.

March 14

Quiet Linyi street outside my hotel burst into life this morning, crowded with a morning market. Unfortunately the Dongmen hotel didn’t provide breakfast so I grabbed some tea eggs and spicy tofu for breakfast. It was a beautiful day so I decided to head up to Tamsui, formerly Taiwan’s largest port and trading post on the Tamsui river. As it was Sunday, the riverside promenade had a wonderfully canivalesque atmosphere crowded with families sipping bubble tea, nibbling on fries and taking selfies.

The British had set up administrative offices a little higher up on historic Xenli street.

xenliThe leafy pleasant walk brought me past old colonial residences and official buildings.

tamsui1tamsuiAlso took a look at San Domingo Fort built by the Dutch in 1644.

domingoThe history of Taipei was astonishingly diverse and complex. I felt like I was only scratching the surface.

Heading back down to the river I was confronted with a heaving mass of humanity so I hopped on the metro to Shilin. I grabbed a snack while waiting for the night market to open at 5 and then strolled the bustling streets. As it wasn’t quite as effervescent as the one in Tainan I decided to stop by Longshan temple, one of Taipei’s “highlights”. The square around the temple was filled with people swaying to a musical act which I watched for a while.

The temple was a festival of light and color. I was so glad to catch a snippet of the Lantern Festival which I had missed. Here’s what was in the temple entrance:

longshanAnd inside:

longshan1The temple was crammed with visitors lighting incense, throwing sticks, praying, offering food.

I checked out the Bialoh historic block nearby which was architecturally interesting but kind of dead at night. I shovelled down some sushi (mediocre) before heading back to the hotel.

March 15

The National Palace is Taipei’s highlight museum, a “must visit” for the incredible porcelain and jade, especially the famous jade cabbage.

nationalpalaceIt was a pleasure to gaze at so many beautiful objects and I learned that jade has spiritual properties for the Chinese.

Later, I followed the tourist office’s suggestion to explore historic Xinshuang Lane, a quiet “old Asia” street of neighborhood temples, traditional crafts and old buildings. It seemed like a laid-back working-class alternative to Taipei’s more modern, commercial neighborhoods.

xinshuangxinshuang1Once again, I wandered afield and became disoriented. As everywhere, hold a map for 15 seconds and someone is bound to come along and ask if they could help. Such lovely people.

I determined to try and locate a Lonely Planet recommended Szechuan restaurant around the train station. It was an incredibly confusing 20 minutes, circling around with Google Maps, tourist maps etc. but no restaurant. Finally I stopped in a hotel who explained there was no sign but it was on the third floor of a certain building. The fiery tofu and eggplant dishes made it worth the hassle.

March 16
The day started with meeting Tim, a local computer engineer and ex-New Yorker who had been referred to me by a friend. What luck! We started out with a copious Asian breakfast at a nearby stall and then headed to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. I wasn’t going to visit but in the end, I’m glad I did as it gave me an insight into an important part of Taiwanese history.
Then on to a Confucius Temple where Tim discussed the importance of Confucius in shaping his culture.
Then, what else? Another temple! We peeked in the Dalongdon Baoan temple and then headed to a really cool cafe for coffee.
taipeicafeStinky tofu is a major Taipei specialty so Tim took me to a place to try it along with noodle soup with fish balls . The tofu is like durian or camembert in that it was an interesting, complex flavor. Unfortunately, it didn’t digest well and left me unsettled for the rest of the day.
Then we took a stroll on fascinating Dihua street, a commercial street little changed from the 19th century.
dihuaDelicious juice!
dihua2Then we moved on to modern, stylish, creative Taiwan. First stop was artsy Huashan 1914 where a variety of shops provided an introduction to Taiwanese design. This creative center is also the place to catch arthouse cinema and theatre. Then on for a stroll of the shopping center at Xinly, ground zero for all the luxury brands. Then, what is a visit to Taiwan without hotpot? Tim knew just the place for a fabulous seafood hotpot, chock full of octopus, scampi and vegetables. Thanks Tim!
 March 17

After packing up, I decided to continue with the exploration of artsy Taiwan by heading to the Songchan Cultural Park. So fascinating! This former tobacco factory had been converted to a center for modern art and design with a museum and numerous studios. The long halls replete with polished wood bordered a stunning garden. Even the restrooms were truly restful with polished wood and clean lines.

songshanI was pleased to see that the State Department financed something called the “American Innovation Center”. I don’t know what they do there but it looked cool and it’s good to know that we provide something other than the fighter jets that blasted through the sky each morning over Tainan.

songshan2I wandered over to an extremely high-end department store nearby in search of Taiwanese tea but found the prices too high for tea and everything else in the store. $300 for a scarf from Mongolia? I finally bought a good selection of oolong tea in the airport and almost missed my flight.

Hong Kong

March 6

Really dead tired this am.I arrived in the rain last night and took a bus from the airport right to the Shangri La Guesthouse in Chunking Mansions. In wandering the busy streets  in a chilly drizzle, I realized that I had badly miscalculated the weather so I sprung for an orange down jacket that had me looking like a lollipop. Only $38!

Mansions! Such a funny joke; the rooms are miniscule and the guesthouse is one of dozens in a 16-story highrise. Although tiny, the room was immaculate and cleverly designed to include hanging space, private facilities, TV, air-con and a kettle with coffee and tea packets.

The ground floor is crammed with south-Asian food stalls, electronics stalls, cheap clothes and sundry stuff. It was a busy scene but definitely safe. What I didn’t like was the lengthy wait for the elevator and the smoke that wafted into the room each morning when the ventilation system carried it from other floors where people had their morning cig.

I finally dragged myself out of bed to take care of arrival business, grateful for the central location. First stop was down to the tourist office to get a local SIM card. I also arranged for my ticket to the Cantonese opera on Sunday. Walked around in drizzle and mist. In northern Kowloon the streets are animated with lots of little shops. It’s a foodie’s paradise! I finally settled on an animated local restaurant on, I believe, Temple street. Lunch was a wonderful spicy soup with veggies, fried fish and tofu and “oily” noodles.


After lunch I headed to phoenix travel to arrange the flight to Taiwan. Nearby was the Hong Kong History Museum housed in an ugly building with a complex entrance. There was a lot of time spent on the geology and Neanderthal era but most interesting was  the folk art and rituals from boat dwellers, Hakka and Punti peoples.There was also an interesting section on Cantonese opera, good preparation for the Sunday show.

Back to Shangrila guesthouse to rest.

Evening was the night market on Temple which was fairly touristy but less so on the northern end around the Ladies Market with the fortune tellers and incredible variety of stalls selling everything from lingerie to kitchen supplies.

The food stalls were the best part.  I settled on one in the middle, downing a big plate of vegetables and boiled chicken in sauce. Filling! I realized I should eat little meals so I could taste more.

food stallLoved wandering the streets. Despite the generally hideous buildings Hong Kong is definitely more soulful than Singapore and Shanghai with a wonderful creative energy cooked up by the plethora of small shops.

March 7

This was kind of a blah day, mostly dominated by changing from Chungking Mansions to “Sonia’s Place”, an AirBnB rental in the Hung Hom neighborhood. In the morning, I took the famous Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, one of Lonely Planet’s infernal “must see” and “don’t miss” sights that they pound on relentlessly in their listicle-ridden and useless guidebook. The mist lent the skyline a mysterious quality but it was a short trip.


Although I landed at the Wan Chai harbour, the confusing nest of overhead walkways connecting skyscrapers made it hard for me to find the smaller streets I was looking for.

DSC_0288Finally I found Wan Chai and was delighted with the small shops and animated streets which were such a change from the slick department stalls and “all business” attitude of Kowloon.


Then, lunchtime! I wandered into the Red Seasons restaurant which vaguely resembled a dim sum place I remember from Chinatown. But the dim sum was so light and savory: shrimp dumplings, red and green pepper slices topped with a chopped shrimp mixture, sweet turnip cakes. It was unbelievable.  It turns out this was a Michelin-recommended restaurant which doesn’t surprise me in the least.The staff seemed amused by my enthusiasm and tried to explain the menu as best they could. The pictures helped!

redseasonsUnfortunately, Sonia was not able to meet me until 3 which broke up the day. Her apartment was small, especially considering that she was sharing it with her young daughter but the high rise was sleek and modern and I loved the view from my room.

skylineSonia was a sweet-faced woman in her thirties of Indian descent who worked as an interpreter. She was welcoming and professional, quickly drawing me a map of the surrounding area with the vital bus stops. It proved to be inconvenient that the MTR station was rather distant as the Hong Kong bus system is complicated. Taking a bus to someplace was easy as Sonia gave clear instructions. Coming back was another matter.

It was 4 by the time I left her apartment, intending to see the 200-foot Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island and the monastery. It was not to be. By the time I got there with another 30-minute tram ride to go, I was informed that the monastery closes at 5.30 (not 6 as LP informed me) and it was clearly way too foggy to see the Buddha from a distance. Another “must see” remained unseen. The long bus ride back took me past vast construction sites along the harbour as Hong Kong expands ever outward.

Sonia’s Bailey Street location was known as the place where Japanese clustered. Across the street was an alley with what appeared to be a number of Japanese restaurants but was in fact all one sprawling place. I finished the day with a plate of cold green tea noodles and a tofu dish that was expensive but tasty.

japaneseMarch 8

With the morning to kill before my 2pm appointment to see Cantonese opera, I decided to head out to Tai Po, known for its street market.

On the bus I fell into conversation with an exuberant, outgoing woman who turned out to be of Hong Kong descent but a resident of New Jersey. Irene and I quickly hit it off and she invited me to a village festival near Tai Po later in the day “if I wasn’t doing anything”. Sure! We exchanged numbers in Tai Po and  went our separate ways.

As a “New Town” in the “New Territories”, I found that Tai Po had a much more relaxed vibe than Kowloon, and certainly was much more old school than Hong Kong island.

TaiPoNaturally, I had to eat so I sampled my first tofu soup, a quivering mass of tofu with a sweet sauce served either hot or cold. I chose hot. Then, of course I had to have dim sum which I nibbled on a bench looking at the street action.

Then on to the Cantonese Opera, “Lovers’ Tears”  which was part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. It was being staged in Shatin, also part of the “New Territories”. The Town Hall was a modern building surrounded by a spacious plaza and a shopping mall. But once the opera started I was transported back to, well, some other time and place. I hardly knew what to expect except that Chinese opera is nothing like Western opera.


From the first moments, I was fascinated. The performers had such an unusual way of moving and gesturing that was at once graceful and theatrical. What surprised me was how much character and emotion was expressed in such a highly stylized form. The story was gripping and I could follow most of it with the aid of the supertitles on the screen which translated the musical numbers if not the dialogue. Of course there was also acrobatics, a little bit of martial arts, sumptuous costumes and gleaming sets. Musically, it was odd to Western ears but I got used to the nasal singing and unpredictable percussion. It was a very human story of love, loyalty and honor that I found strangely moving. It was easy to see that the performers were first-rate and they got a huge ovation at the end.

After the opera, I caught a train and cab to the local festival in a village near Tai Po which was just gearing up. Irene and her friends welcomed me warmly and installed me at the table around a huge pot of food that included stewed vegetables, tofu and shrimp as well as meat.

festivalThe festival reminded me of similar village festivals in Breil-sur-Roya except the food was better, the wine was better, there were five or six musical acts instead of one and every so often someone drifted by in a Chanel outfit. Oh, and the festival was not paid for by taxpayers but by a private family that basically owned the village. Except for that it was just the same!

The music was mostly Hong Kong hits plus the inevitable “Gangnam Style”

gangnamWhat I liked was that the performers connected well with the audience, coming down from the stage, circulating, greeting people. Even the ladies in glitter!

goldbootspinktutuAs the family that sponsored the event were friends of Irene, we finished the evening with a group of other pals in their nearby house, tastefully but not ostentatiously furnished.

What an evening. What a day.

March 9

I got an early start intending to make the most of the improved weather and visit Macao. Sonia clued me in to a little local place that served divine dim sum but only up to 9am. What else but food could get me out of the house so early? I woofed down several shrimp dumplings and a Chinese bun on a little stool outside the shop. Oh, to start every day so well.

Getting an early start is rarely a good idea for me though. I got to Macau ferry terminal and realized that, in my early morning haze,  I forgot my passport. Whoops!

Since the skies were clearing rapidly I decided to visit Victoria Peak, another “must see”. Unfortunately my feet were killing me by that point. I was ready for some better sport shoes with thick cushioning but the prices were shocking. 50% more than New York prices and they’re made about 50 miles away in Schengen? Sneaker stores were everywhere. I got the impression people were flocking from around the world to sell sneakers in Hong Kong and make their fortune on the stupefying markup.

So, I staggered onwards.

Again I boarded the Star Ferry to Central then a bus and a tram to the Peak. As a major tourist attraction, there was no shortage of shopping opportunities in the mini-mall that surrounded the tram exit. More sneaker stores!

peakThe view was great but even better was the extensive park and walking paths that made the area literally a breath of fresh air.

First I walked around Findlay street which was quiet and had harbour views.Then I strolled the more travelled “morning walk” with its lush foliage alive with birdsong.


Back down from the hill I was most confused about getting to Soho and Man Mo temple. The thorniest problem was getting from the tram exit to the MRT. First I took a bus but in the wrong direction. It took me a  good two hours to make my way there (stopping for lunch of course).

I was most pleased with temple, smokey with incense and very busy.

The great thing about Hong Kong is the neigbourhoods, each unique with its own energy.I particularly liked the streets around the Man Mo temple which were very laid back and bohemian. Flights of stairs lead to hidden parks and playgrounds.


The further you climb out of the commercial district the more relaxed the vibe with gentle cafes and modest boutiques.


Descending once again to the Soho area and Hollywood street found more westerners browsing the antique shops and cocktail bars.

soho3I decided to spare my feet by taking a long tram ride to more outlying neighborhoods but it wasn’t as interesting as the street was heavily commercial. Getting back to Kowloon was a nightmare as I ran smack into rush hour. Unpleasant. It was hard to find a taxi and then the first one I found couldn’t comprehend the name of the street. Eventually I got back, ate excellent suchi across the  street and headed up to bed.

 March 10
Good thing I visited the Peak yesterday as the weather today turned cloudy and chillier. Off to Macau! The crossing was smooth and took about an hour. Just a short bus ride from the terminal and there was the historical district with extremely well-preserved buildings from the Portuguese era .
Macau was restful after Hong Kong. The streets with patterned cobblestones reminded me of Andalucia . There were no skyscrapers, only striking colonial-era buildings and a vibrant street scene with markets and food stalls which  lent the area a strange Chinese-Mediterranean ambiance. I also noticed that the people were ethnically different from Hong Kong. A Portuguese lineage was apparent in a swarthier skin tone that combined attractively with Asian features.
  I left the tourist-ridden zone around the surprisingly unimpressive ruins of St Paul church.
More interesting was the walk  toward St Lazarus church on quiet, leafy streets. Such a change from high-octane Hong Kong!
Meandering the leafy streets, I wandered into Fantasia, a “creative arts incubator” that serves as a showcase for local photographers, sculptors, craftspeople and painters.
After stopping for noodle soup with handmade vegetable wontons, I spent more time strolling the old streets before catching a bus back to the port.
The route took us past the casino district, thoughtfully constructed in a discrete Vegas-like corner of the island.
The crossing back was rocky as waves buffeted the boat. I took a taxi back to Bailey Street, scarfed down a bowl of laksa at a local Malaysian joint and headed up to pack for Taiwan.