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‘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.

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 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!

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‘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.

 

Amalfi, resting place of the Scottish patron saint….

amalfi Amalfi, in the Middle Ages, was an important, independent maritime state with a population of over fifty thousand. It’s now just pretty but very popular tourist destination. The main architectural attraction is the fabulous cathedral with its Cripta di Sant’Andrea (Crypt of Saint Andrew), housing bones of the Scottish patron saint, Andrew.

amalfi-cathedral outside Certainly this is a little known fact to most of the good citizens of Scotland and, if you were to ask the majority of Scots shoppers in Buchanan Street, Glasgow or Prince’s Street, Edinburgh, the current whereabouts of the majority their saint, you would be treated to looks of bewilderment; tell them most the remains are in Italy and you will be greeted to looks of incredulity.

cath inside In the early days of the Christian church, during the reign of Nero, Andrew lived in Patras, the current regional capital of Western Greece. After baptising the family of the Governor (not a politically correct action at the time!), he was crucified. The X shaped cross became the symbol of St Andrew and forms the Scottish national flag (the Saltire), later a part of the flag of Great Britain after the union of England and Scotland.

crucifix History has it that, in 357 AD, the bones were transferred to Constantinople from Patras on the orders of the emperor Constantine. When, in 1204, the French and Venetian attacked Constantinople, many relics (including the Shroud of Turin), were sent to Western Europe. The Cardinal of Capua, brought the remains of St Andrew to the town of his birth, Amalfi.

St_Andrew_reliquary Andrew is not just patron saint of Scotland but also of Russia, Romania, Barbados and Greece. Relics were important ‘magic’ in the work of Christian missionaries and the probability is that the all bones did not remain in Amalfi but some (certainly a tooth, a kneecap, an arm and some finger bones) were exhumed by the missionary monk, St Rule, who landed in Scotland, at the village of Kirrymont , now known as the city of St Andrews.

St_Andrews_Cathedral_Ruins The bones of the first Apostle eventually became a centre of European pilgrimage, second only to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Sadly the remains were destroyed in the 16th century during the Scottish Reformation. It would be interesting to know just what parts of poor old Andrew still reside in Amalfi….. To add insult to injury, in 1879, the Archbishop of Amalfi gave a further part of Andrew, his shoulder blade, to St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh!

cath inside Bones apart, Amalfi remains one of the most pleasant towns on this spectacularly beautiful stretch of Italian coast and is a great base for exploring the surrounding towns and villages including lovely Positano.

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Carnevale di Venezia, a little (light-hearted and condensed) history.

One of the greatest parties in the world, certainly the most flamboyant in terms of color, cost and style, the Venice Carnival has not had the unbroken history most tourists ven1believe.

The word “carnevale” derives from the Latin for “farewell to meat” and refers to the Christian tradition of giving up meat-eating in Lent (the time before Easter). Naturally, it’s a great opportunity to overindulge in the days preceding Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, Martidi Grasso or Mardi Gras, whatever you want to call it, with plenty of merrymaking before the ‘suffering’ begins…. It’s a tradition celebration time in many parts of the world but, with the extravagant masks and costumes, Venice does it a little differently, with a great deal of style from the comic to the sinister, the bizarre to the beautiful.ven2

The wearing of masks for street parties in Italy long precedes Christian times. The Romans celebrated in the same vein, with even slaves being allowed to wear masks. A little like school uniforms, the mask was a social leveller offering little distinction between social classes (except the evident cost of the outfit! Sorry I’m a cynic). ven9

The tradition of masks in Venice can be traced back to the 1200’s but the heyday of the Carnival was in the 1700’s when, decadence really set in. This was possibly as a result of Venice´s loss of mercantile power and influence due to the rise of Dutch and British trade monopoly. What better way to forget your problems than in an orgy of vice, fornication, drunkenness, dancing, music, gluttony, gambling and general irresponsibility. Sounds good to me…..     ven3

After the dastardly French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, conquered Venice in 1797, the glory days of the Venetian Republic virtually ended, cash flow declined as did the carnival. ven4

Astonishingly fascist dictators and puritans have something in common, they’re all killjoys! The final death note of the carnival was in the 1930s when Mussolini banned it totally. ven5

Thankfully, Venetian businessmen, never ones to miss a moneymaking opportunity, revived the tradition in 1979 and the cash registers continue to ring more loudly every year. ITALY-CARNIVAL-VENICE

Whatever the history, the Carnival is one of the events that no tourist should miss, it´s spectacular. However beware…. trying to find accommodation in Venice during Carnival is more than a nightmare, it´s impossible. ven8

If you want to visit and I do urge you to go, use an experienced specialist tour operator such as Allegro Holidays (part of the award-winning Blue Danube Holidays Group), they will even help you rent costumes. For dates and prices, have a look at: http://www.allegroholidays.com/Carnival_in_Venice-Package-Independent.htm

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Grand Ball of Serenissima at the Venice Carnival 2014

Grand Ball of Serenissima at the Venice Carnival 2014

Venice Serenissima Ball 2014One of the most grandiose celebrations anywhere open to the public for those who do not mind paying the hefty entrance ticket of euro  333, is the historic Serenissima  (Republic of Venice) Grand Ball

The ball will take place on the main floor of an authentic  14th century palace located on the canal of Misericordia, with its elegant Gothic windows overlooking the canal. The palace will be illuminated entirely by candlelight to create the historic ambiance

This year the Grand Ball of the Serenissima is dedicated entirely to the great composer Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most popular opera composers in the world. His melodies  performed by first grade musicians and singers dressed in authentic costumes, will uplift your soul and spirit. Enjoy a gourmet your candlelight Gala Dinner with wines and cocktails.  There will be opportunity to sing along Verdi’s most famous arias. At midnight the ball culminates with a cavalcade of dances. Join in the mascaraed and forget who you are!  It is an experience of a lifetime.

We are at your disposal for historical costume rentals. For further details on Venice Carnival balls click here.

Christmas in Sicily.

 

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In common with many latin countries, the Christmas season really starts as early as 8th December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when people start decorating their homes. Those of us from North America or Northern Europe have always been used to christmas trees but, while they are now popular in Sicily, they were unknown until the U.S. liberation when the G.I.s brought a little bit of home to the Mediterranean!

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Traditional decoration, as in the rest of Italy (the presepi) and Spain (the belen) is the ‘crib’ or nativity scene. From simple home-made cribs to fantastic and intricate scenes in all the churches and cathedrals, the common theme is always the stable in Bethlehem with Mum, Dad, baby Jesus, shepherds, three kings and assorted domestic animals.

 

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One notable event takes place each year in Custonaci is the ‘Presepe Vivente’ where the locals re-enact the nativity. In many of the smaller mountain villages the locals light massive bonfires to ‘keep the baby Jesus warm’.

 

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As in many catholic countries, Christmas Eve is the main family occasion. Most families are large and meet up for a truly sumptuous dinner at home, enjoyed by everyone from small children to the great grandparents. The presents are exchanged after dinner, rather than Christmas day.

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Turkey is starting to appear fairly regularly but there is no special Christmas dish except, perhaps, lamb. In a country famed for its sweet dishes, ‘buccellati’ (large round biscuity cakes with almond, pistachio and dried fruits filling) are obligatory festive fare.

 

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For the next week, Sicilians carry on feasting with plenty of wine, conversation, family reunions and general partying. The highlight comes on New Years eve with the ‘cenone’ (big dinner), another family affair with tables groaning under the weight of food and bottles of Castelmonte Frizzante, a naturally effervescent Champagne alternative, similar to Spumante. Strangely lasagne (but no other pasta) is thought to be lucky eating but the mainland tradition of ‘lucky lentils’ is making inroads and thereby adding to methane gas emissions throughout the island!

 

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Don’t tell the kids at home but Sicilian children are on a double winner. Not only do they get presents on Christmas Eve, but La Beffana, an ugly old witch, comes and distributes sweets and gifts for all. This is a local alternative to the rest of Southern Europe where it is usually the Three Kings.

 

Sicily is an amazing place to visit at any time of the year. For me, Blue Danube Holidays, are the specialists with a mountain of experience of this charming island.

 

Venice Carnival Balls For Music Lovers

Venice Carnival Balls For Music Lovers

A cavalcade of costumes, music and lights. The most grandiose celebrations on the arrival of spring anywhere. It takes palace  in  beautiful Venice  during the Carnival period from February to March starting two Saturdays before Ash Wednesday. The origin of the festival goes back to the 15th century. There are parades, masquerades, costume competition and musical performances all over the city.

Feel free and liberated! Conceal your identity under the disguise of your mask and period costume! Experience the flamboyant extravagance of aristocracy of by-gone eras by attending one of the grandiose balls

This year’s highlights are the different theme balls dedicated to certain periods. There is the Baroque ball, the Verdi Ball, the Renaissance Ball, the Carmen ball or the Bel Canto ball, just to name a few. All grand balls take place in 14th century palaces where guest can enjoy live music with top singers, dancers, musicians and other performers. To attend the balls you have to wear authentic costumes and mask and if your suitcase size is limited, we can arrange for costume rentals if booked in advance.

Venice Carnival

Rotten stew, prostitute´s spaghetti, old clothes, English soup and maggotty cheese…..

 

Italy and Spain have one major thing in common, great food. However, in a lighthearted way, let’s take a look at five food dishes with strange or rather unsavoury names.

 

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From Italy, the ‘puttanesca’ sauce, usually made from tomatoes, olive oil, anchovies, capers, chilli, garlic and black olives is known throughout the world, but puttanesca? The translation is literally ‘in the style of the prostitute’….. There are many and varied opinions as to the origin of the name. One is that a Signor Petti, the owner of a restaurant on the island of Ischia was, late at night, just about out of ingredients. Some friends were still waiting to dine and, realising his predicament, shouted out “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi” (Chuck in any old rubbish). My own favourite, and probably correct, version is that it was a cheap, quick and easy meal for the Neapolitan prostitutes to prepare between clients. The added benefit being that the lovely smell would waft out to the street and attract even more business.

 

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Ollia podrida (literally rotten stew) originates from the Burgos area of Spain, A hearty dish of beans, lentils, meat, vegetables, quail, lamb, beef, sausage etc., the name is probably a corruption of olla poderida (casserole for the powerful), which, because of its varied and expensive ingredients, only the rich could afford.

 

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Ropa vieja, again from Spain, means ‘old clothes’, a dish of shredded beef in a tomato sauce, is popular in the Cadiz area but now more well known in Latin America. The really rather charming origin of this dish´s name is that a poor Spaniard returned home to his family one night with no money and no food. In despair he took some old clothes out of the wardrobe, kissed them and cooked them with a prayer of love for his starving children. Miraculously the old clothes changed into a delicious beef stew….

 

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Many of the most popular dishes enjoyed in England have Italian origins partly due the the large numbers of Italian immigrants over the past couple of centuries. However, it wasn’t only a one-way street. Zuppa Inglese, translating as ‘English soup‘, is actually a version of sherry trifle and very popular in Italy, although Marsala wine is used instead of sherry (the Brits didn´t have the same relationship with Sicily as they had with Jerez de la Frontera in Spain which like Oporto, became a ‘little England’). Again, there are multiple explanations as to the origin of the name. My own theory was that most rich British families sent their children on the ‘Grand Tour of Europe’. These rich kids, missing home comforts and cuisine, surely persuaded obliging Sicilian hoteliers to whip up a rough copy of a beloved dessert..

 

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Staying with Italy, or more precisely Sardinia, we come to the truly awful (although I have Italian friends who swear by its viagra like properties), Casu Marzu, maggot cheese…. This is like something out of a horror film. Flies are encourages to lay their eggs in the cheese-making process, they then hatch making a truly original stink bomb which tastes worse than decomposing meat. If trying this cheese, remember to wear spectacles as, if you can stop the cheese from running around the plate, the nasty little things can jump up to six inches!Thankfully illegal now, it is still obtainable. Try it if you must but purchase a good supply of toilet paper for the next day.

 

 

Fideua, the ‘accidental’ alternative to the ubiquitous paella….

Everyone who has visited Spain will have tried ‘paella’, the blend of rice (and whatever is available/in season), served in every tourist restaurant around the country. Me, I live in Valencia, and, while I’m not a great fan of rice, I do appreciate that a true paella is a very different beast to the mass-produced, even microwaved, dishes served to many unfortunates who think they have tried authentic Spanish cooking.fid2

Anyway, enough about paella. I live in the town of Gandia, south of Valencia, the ‘home’ of Spanish rice dishes. Gandia, with its fantastic beach, is the main tourist destination for the residents of Madrid and is jokingly known as ‘Madrid beach’. However, fid6Gandia is also famous, on a world level, as the spiritual temple´of fideua, a true taste of Spain.

Let the story begin, there are several versions but I like this one best.

fid1Being lovers of rice, as are all Valencianos, the fishermen from Gandia would take their paella to sea (the paella is also the name of the wide, shallow dish used to cook the paella). Using some of their catch of the day, they would make a daily seafood paella at sea. Story has it that three brothers Paco, Jesus and Pepe, or it could have been just as easily, Pablo, Diego and Antonio, had a problem; they liked to demolish a few garrafas of wine every night before setting out to sea. Easily enough, someone forgot to bring the rice one day!

”Hijo de puta! que hacemos ahora….?” Delving deep into the boat´s cupboards, Gonzalez finds a packet of noodles. ”Vamos a probar!” And, so a legend was born. ‘Such is the stuff that dreams are made on….’fid4

Today, top chefs, from as far away as Japan, flock annually to Gandia to partake in an annual fideua cooking competition.

Fideua is pretty easy to prepare. If you haven’t got a paella, a wide frying pan will suffice. Give it a try:

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Ingredients:

  • 1 kg. fish
  • 6 cups of good fish stock
  • quarter kg. Shrimps or prawns
  • quarter kg. clams
  • 10 mussels
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • red pepper
  • quarter kilo cuttlefish
  • 1/2 large red pepper
  • ½ kg. thick Vermicelli style pasta
  • saffron
  • a little olive oil
  • salt

Heat the stock and keep for use later. Clean the seafood and fish and cut into 5cm cubes. Clean the cuttlefish and cut into small ‘bite-size’ portions. Seed and slice the red pepper into thin strips. Skin and chop the tomato. Place the paella or pan on a medium heat and, when the oil is hot, sautée the onion, shrimp and cuttlefish. When cooked, remove from the pan and set aside, leaving the oil in the pan. Add the tomato and red pepper and sautée for two minutes. Add the fish stock and saffron, stir and bring to the boil. When boiling, add the pasta, cuttlefish and fish and stir. Arrange and decorate the clams, mussels and shrimp in the pan above the pasta. Cook for about 15 minutes until the pasta is still slightly firm. Remove the fideua from the heat and cover with foil to “rest” for 5 minutes. Serve with lemon slices.fid5

Murano, the city of glass.

Only a mile or so from Venice, Murano is not one island but a cluster of five little isles. While not as famous as it once was, Murano still historically symbolizes the best of Venetian glass and production continues today.

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For over one thousand years, glass has been produced in Venice but, with the high risk of fire from the open glass furnaces, the Doge (ruler of Venice, something akin to a duke) ordered the workshops to be moved to Murano in 1292. At the time most of the buildings were of wooden construction, not a ideal combination with fires below. The Venetian rich realized the value of their unique export and so made it illegal for glass makers ever to leave the island, on pain of death or amputation, as a way of safeguarding the secret. The positive side of the coin for these artisans was that, being the source of such revenue, they were flattered and bribed with such rights as being able to wear swords and even marry into the aristocracy.

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This canny group of workers kept their glass-making techniques a closely guarded secret for centuries and had virtually a world monopoly in the manufacture of fine mirrors. Interestingly there is some evidence that the first spectacles originally came from Murano!

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Some of the techniques developed were: types of enamelled glass (smalto), fake gemstones, glass with flakes of pure of gold (aventurine), glass in many colours (millefiori), opaque glass and imitation gemstones.

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At its peak, the ísland had some 30,000 inhabitants, many of them involved in a trade supplying fine glass to most of the great palaces´and noble houses of Europe. As history always shows, there is no such thing as an everlasting secret. Eventually other countries learnt the secret processes and the fame of Murano glass slipped into partial obscurity.

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With the rise in tourism over the last couple of centuries. The Venetians (never a race to miss a way of relieving the itinerant traveller of his buck, pound or yen), revived the industry. Your Italy escorted tour representative will no doubt give you some good advice on this subject.

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To be honest, it is worthwhile accepting the ´free´invitation to look inside a workshop but do be prepared for the hard sell which will duly follow….. It is also fair to say, looking at the quality of work in the excellent museum, the standards now are somewhat lacking. That, said, there are still some beautiful pieces to be bought, particularly the less gaudy wine glasses, and some beautiful contemporary work is being produced by some of the younger designers, many of whom were not born here.

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Spain, ‘Everything under the Sun’ (or underground).

What unusual sights have Spain, Italy and Turkey in common? Without doubt, several but we’re looking today at troglodytic (cave dwelling) life in a modern age……

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There are many examples in Europe of people still living in caves but the most well know are Capadocia in Turkey, Matera in Italy and Guardix in Spain. For no other reason other than I live here, let’s look at Spain or, more particularly, Guadix in Granada Province, Andalucia.

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For millennia, humans have tunnelled into limestone to make homes, churches, wine cellars, funeral sites etc. Guardix is undoubtedly the largest troglodytic site in Europe with over 4,000 cave dwellings and more than half the population living in them still. This is no ‘Bedrock’ with fur-clad Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble lookalikes. Most of the inhabited homes are very comfortable indeed and the barrio even has luxury hotel rooms deep below ground.

 

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The Romans really put Guadix on the map, Julius Caesar, developed the town which became prosperous for its silver mines. Later, occupied by the North African Moors (who renamed the town Guadh-Haix, the River of Life), it became a centre of silk production.

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Forget the idea of cold, chilly caverns, dripping with water and with moss-covered walls. These caves are dry and, in a land of scorching summers and cold winters nights, the internal temperature is a constant 20 degrees throughout the year. What a saving on central heating and air-conditioning bills. Also think of the additional benefit of being able to dig out another bedroom when too many guests arrive for Christmas.

 

The people of Guadix are extremely friendly and ‘caveproud. Stroll around, smile and you’ll almost certainly be invited inside one of these fascinating dwellings.

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While visiting Guadix, remember that there are a number of other cave villages nearby, one of which even has a cave discothèque! Other sights in the town, not to be missed are the splendid Cathedral (founded1594), the medieval Arab citadel and the remarkable Cave Museum.

 

One other sight not to be missed is the nearby Castle of the Calahorra with its wonderful renaissance patio, built in Florentine marble. Be advised though that, unless things have changed recently, you will have to seek out the curator in the village and, if you drive him up to the castle, he will open it up for you to look inside….

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The Blue Danube Group of Toronto are the acknowledged experts in tours of Spain. Check them out on: http://www.spaintours.biz/index.htm

 

…..another blog by peter harrison, thanks for your interest.

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