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Archive for January 2014

Malta’s Silent City M’dina

 

With a sixtieth birthday coming up in about five weeks, retirement still seems a long way away but I’m already being asked by daughters and friends about where I would like to retire.

street2Having lived in Spain for many years, I´m obviously happy here; sea, sunshine and good quality cheap red wine by the bucketful! Who could ask for more? However, since my first visit to Malta more than forty years ago, I have been in love with Malta’s old capital M’dina and, with a little luck that cirrhosis of the liver (caused by the aforesaid red wine) doesn’t finish me off early, this is where I will put my old bones to rest…….

streetM’dina, Città Vecchia, Città Notabile, the “Silent City”, whatever name you like best, is truly unique. With a history of more than 4,000 years, M’dina is one of Europe’s best examples of an ancient walled city.

Mdina - GateMalta, as the centre of the Mediteranean, lying between Sicily and North Africa, has been prized and occupied by just about everyone; Phoenicians, Romans (the Roman Governor’s villa is here and can still be visited), Sararacens Normans, Crusaders (The Knights of the Order of St John), French and British have all been and each has left a little of their cultural legacy.

The Apostle St. Paul is said to have been shipwrecked on Malta and lived inside the grotto, Fuori le Mura, St. Paul’s Grotto, in neighbouring Rabat with its fascinating and extensive catacombs, once used by early Christians to hide from the Romans.

facadeHome still to the island’s gentry and nobility, M’dina’s closed and silent doors intrigue while impressive palaces line its narrow, shady streets. The city gates are locked at night and no motor vehicles (other than resident’s cars, emergency vehicles, wedding cars and funeral hearses) are allowed entry. If you are averse to walking there are plenty of horse-drawn carriages.

cathThe fabulous Cathedral of the Conversion of St Paul, which rivals the Vatican in its internal decoration, dominates this lovely ‘city’ which only has about 300 residents.

Malta, Mdina, Kathedrale St. PaulNot a great place for window shopping, M’dina is a ‘must’ when visiting Malta, you’ll be hard-pressed to experience anything like it!

Because of its proximity to equally fascinating Sicily, with which it has much in common, my recommendation would be a combined tour of the two. Specialists Italy Travel Tours have a great new programme for 2014. Take a look at: http://www.italytraveltours.biz/sicily-and-malta

bacchusDo try and visit and don’t miss the wonderful Bacchus Restaurant, set in the old Roman dungeons. If you return in about five years, you’ll hopefully see me propping up a bar somewhere (there are only three or four). The red wine is on me.

With special thanks to Claire Kadoch for introducing me many years ago to this enchanting place.

Taormina, Sicily a ‘bucket list’ favourite of old poets, writers, actors and painters.

1 Taormina is, without doubt, one of the jewels of Sicily. Its mixture of magic and myth, medieval streets and secret passages has enchanted visitors for centuries.


Constructed on a terrace of Mount Tauros, at about two hundred metres, the city occupies a glorious position overlooking the sea with views of Mount Etna. Taormina was the base of the ancient Tauromerion colony and was founded by colonists from nearby Naxos who fled there when their city was razed to the ground. Taormina was one of the first cities to support Rome in the Punic Wars and was later the execution site of thousands of slaves when Rome reclaimed the city after the slave revolt in Sicily. Although the city flourished under Julius Caesar, the city’s worthies backed the wrong horse in their support of Pompey and suffered by losing their homes and daughters which were offered to the victorious soldiers of Octavian.

 

3Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French, all came, all left but all left a substantial part of their culture and heritage which can be seen and enjoyed today particularly in food and architecture.

 

4In the early part of the twentieth century the town became a centre for foreign artists, writers, philosophers and poets. Although Goethe was probably the first famous ‘tourist’, the painter Gelang was probably responsible for putting Taormina on the intellectual tourist map. He spent considerable time capturing the beauty of Sicily (and Taormina in particular) on canvas. The subject matter, being so different to that usually seen in the salons of London, Paris and Berlin, led to criticism of his work as ‘unbridled imagination’. Putting his money where his mouth was, he offered to reimburse the travel costs of anyone who, after a visit, felt that his works untruly represented the magic and beauty of the region…….

 

5Wagner and Brahms composed here and German Emperor William II loved the place. D.H. Lawrence was inspired to write Lady Chatterly’s Lover here (rumour has it that the story was based on his wife’s intimate experiences with a Sicilian mule driver).

 

6Truman Capote, Alexander Dumas,Tenessee Williams,Thomas Mann, Guy de Maupassant and Cocteau wrote here. Greta Garbo (who returned every spring for 30 years), Cary Grant, Gustav Klimt, John Steinbeck, Ingmar Bergmann, Francis Ford Coppola, Leonard Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Dalí, Federico Fellini, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Woody Allen, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth were all entranced by the place.

 

7One the slightly more obscure side, you’ll find tourist shops still selling sepia postcard photographs of ‘nubile’ youths. Taormina had once become a centre for this early ‘soft-porn’ possibly because Taormina had been one of Europe’s top gay resorts since the Greeks! Oscar Wilde was also a frequent visitor, need we say more about the beauty of Taorminian youth?

 

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After WW2, Taormina shook off its rather seedy reputation as the ‘Sodom of Sicily’. The British writer, Evelyn Waugh, coming across a sign advertising “Ye Olde English Teas”, sighed and commented that Taormina ‘was now quite as boring as Bournemouth’.

Visit Sicily this year, you’ll love it. Have a look at http://www.italytraveltours.biz/sicily-tours for the best choice of tours from the leading specialists.

‘God’s Kitchen’.

With a population of more than five million people, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean (it’s more than 4 hours by car from Taormina to Palermo). Not much by world standards but, in Europe, pretty big indeed.

god1 God’s kitchen? With a rich and unique culture, in many ways different to mainland Italy, especially with regard to the arts, cuisine, architecture and even language, Sicily is possibly Europe’s most historically cosmopolitan region. It has a ‘potpourri’ of a kitchen with influences left on its cuisine by a history of conquest and culinary influences from Greece, Rome, Byzantium, North Africa, Spain, Normandy and Germany. For instance apricots, sugar, citrus, rice, cinnamon, saffron, raisins, nutmeg, clove, pepper and pine nuts all came from the Arabs while cocoa, maize, peppers, turkey, and tomatoes were introduced by the Spanish from the Americas.

godfoodTraditionally the grain store of Rome, Sicily is an agriculturally rich, sunny island ranging from temperate coastal areas to the sub tropical heat of of the interior in summer. It’s not surprising that Sicily offers some of the most diverse and mouth-watering food in Europe.

godgelLet’s look at a few of uniquely Sicilian dishes. However, before we continue, be warned…… If you are planning a diet, do it after your holiday in Sicily!

godcaponPossibly the most popular salad is Caponata, made with aubergines, olives, capers and celery.

godpizSfincione is a local ‘pizza’ variant but usually found in a bakery rather than a pizzeria. It’s made with tomatoes, onions and occasionally anchovies, baked on a thick bread base and great as a snack. Also don’t miss ‘gatò di patate’, a potato and cheese pie.

godpanel

 Starters include ‘panelle’, a pastry of chick peas (ceci) which are deep-fried or ‘maccu’, a creamy soup, also made with a chick pea base. ‘Crocché’ are potato dumplings or croquettes made with cheese, parsley and eggs and ‘arancine’ are fried balls of rice filled with cheese or meat.

godfishSicily, as you would expect with such an extensive coast, has a great range of fish and seafood. Various types of cuttlefish, octopus and squid are often served with pasta (in the Trapani area, they use couscous). A local variant is cuttlefish and pasta cooked in its natural black ink, a similar dish is popular my part of Spain but made with rice, ‘arroz negro’. Snapper, tuna, bream, bass and swordfish are particularly good while sardines are a mainstay, one delicious Sicilian variant being ‘finnochio con sarde’, sardines cooked with fennel. My personal favourite is ‘spaghetti ai ricci’, spaghetti with sea urchin, which has become widely known in neighbouring Malta.godrici

godvitello‘Vitello al marsala’ (veal cooked in sweet marsala wine), or its chicken alternative, is probably the most popular dish for tourists. Goat and lamb, often served of flavoured with citrus fruit are generally very good but you might like to try ‘milza’ a sandwich made with calves spleen. This is actually very tasty but, for most of us, one particular dish only for the brave-hearted and adventurous…..

godpastieriSicily really gets into its own with desserts and this is why you will certainly need to either diet after your vacations or buy a larger trouser or dress size!

godfrutaSONY DSC

‘Cannoli’ are wonderful tubes of light pastry stuffed with a creamy, sweetened ewe’s milk filling, ‘cassata’ being similar but in the form of a cake. A feast for your eyes as well as your tastebuds are ‘frutta di martorana’, marzipan moulded, flavoured and coloured to resemble real fruit.

GODGRAN‘Granita’ a kind of sorbet usually flavoured with orange, lemon or strawberry is renowned worldwide but the true ‘king’ of Sicilian dessert is the ice-cream, ‘gelato’. With a truly stunning selection of flavours, gelato can probably be described as the world’s first ice-cream, dating back to when fleets of runners were despatched from the icy peaks of Mount Etna with their precious parcels of snow to produce the gelato with which liven up jaded Roman palates. Interestingly, India has a similar history with ‘kulfi’ being produced in the same way with ice from the Himalayas. In the limited space we have here it’s impossible to really do justice to the Sicilian kitchen and we haven’t even started on the wines! Do try to visit this fantastic, enchanting and bewitching island this year, it’s as different from Venice or Milan as London is from Moscow….

Choose your tour operator well as some holiday companies do not specialise. My personal recommendation is a holiday which also combines the fascination of nearby Malta: http://www.italytraveltours.biz/sicily-and-malta

Many thanks to my Sicilian friend, Davide Reale, for his corrections here (he’s a great cook too). Passati na buona iurnata.