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……


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.


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.



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.


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.


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….


The Blue Danube Group of Toronto are the acknowledged experts in tours of Spain. Check them out on:


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

The Park of Monsters

Il Parco dei Mostri di Bomarzo

The Park of the Monsters

OK, you’ve seen the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Parthenon, the Trevi etc. so many times that you could get a free Italy tourist guide badge from Rome City Council. You’ve got your grandchildren with you on vacation; they’re bored and want to see something different than ‘dead people’s houses’. Where do you take them?

Orcus Grotto at Parco dei Mostri

Bomarzo is only about 60/70 kilometres from Rome and the Park is a great day out for all the family but, be warned, do not try using public transport, it’s virtually impossible. If you are brave or foolish enough to drive in Rome, hire a car…..


We tend to think that Disney were the inventors of the theme park. The Park of the Monsters precedes our modern offerings by more than 400 years! Originally planned and constructed around 1552, its name was originally the “Villa of Wonders”.


The astonishing concept of possibly the world’s first theme park was the brainchild of one Prince Pier Francesco Orsini who dedicated the park to the memory of his dead wife, Giulia. What is an interesting, but lesser known snippet of information, is that the design was the work of the great Italian architect Pirro Ligorio who completed Saint Peter’s of Vatican fame after Michelangelo’s death and went on to construct the exquisite Villa d’Este in Tivoli.


Over the last couple of centuries, the park slipped into oblivion and became totally overgrown but, in the 1950’s, restoration work started in earnest and the majesty, myth, legend and history are once again available to the public to admire and be inspired by.


Traditionally, the Italian garden was always neat, symmetric and formal. Bormazo is a counterfoil; a higgledy-piggledy, surreal and eclectic mix of statuary randomly thrown around sol per sfogare il Core (only to set the heart free) as one engraved stone explains.


From Hannibal‘s elephants to The Temple of Eternity, from the Dragon with Lions to the wonderful Ceres, you (and almost certainly, your grandchildren) will be amused, perplexed, enthralled and fascinated as were such luminaries as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau.


With the added benefit of a sight of the lovely Castle of Bomarzo, it is, in all, a wonderful and enlightening day out for all the family.


Something Spanish, for Latin lovers……

flamencoFlamenco…. a passion for life 

The fire of flamenco is a genre and complex culture that has been burning in Andalucía for nearly half a millennia. Today  the flames still burn hot and strong in this passionate and seductive form of art, which has evolved and diversified over the years. 

From an original ‘gypsy’ form of music/dance expression, flamenco is now a rich spectacle enjoyed all over the world from true, basic participation level to tourist ‘tablao’; from tiny ‘peñas’ in Jerez de la Frontera to concert halls in Tokyo. 

For centuries, flamenco has been a mystery to ‘payos’ (the word used by Spanish gypsies to describe anyone who is not of gypsy descent).

Traditionally the ‘payo’ concept of flamenco ranged from fiest and wedding ‘sevillanas’ (which are really just folk dances from Seville with a flamenco influence) to the spectaculars performed in Benidorm and Torremolinos hotels in the first days of  cheap package tours for lobster-red, inebriated Brits and Germans. 

Deeply emotional forms of flamenco such as ‘cante jondo’, a type of deeply emotional song, usually sad, rooted in the tradition were born in small Andalucian villages such as Lebrija and Utrera. It’s historically, very nicely described as a music form which ‘……still reflect the spirit of desperation, struggle, hope, and pride of the people during a time of persecution.

The colourful polka-dot dresses, castanets and the frenetic or, conversely, richly and haunting tones of the Spanish guitar have become the standard tourist concept of Andalucía. These do not represent authentic flamenco; castanets, for example, are only a modern addition added to enhance the clicking of fingers.

Flamenco traditionally came from around the lovely city of Jerez (home of sherry wine) originating from Hispanic, Celtic, Islamic, Sephardic Jewish, and Gypsy cultures that survived, and sometimes thrived, in Moorish conquered Andalusia, before the Christian re-conquest of Southern Spain. Latin, blues, rock and jazz have been influences in the more evolved flamenco styles, sometimes called flamenco ‘fusion’.

 There has been much academic argument about what constitutes flamenco. I’m not an expert but when you experience the singing sometimes accompanied by flamenco guitar (toque), rhythmic hand clapping (palmas), rhythmic feet stomping (zapateado) and dance (baile) and your heart doesn’t miss a beat, you are probably in the wrong place and wrong country for a vacation….. 

My name is Peter Harrison. I live here and love flamenco with a vengeance. If you’re ever visiting Valencia, mail me on [email protected]. We’ll share a bottle (or two) of sherry and my wife, Mercedes, from Jerez, might show you how the ‘palmas’ work. If you’re looking for a holiday or vacation in this land of ‘everything under the sun’ have a look at the experts:

The Curse of Ca’Dario, One of Venice’s Spooky Palaces

A Place to Die for… or In 

Remember a great British group ‘The Who’ (of ‘Tommy’ and ‘My generation fame)? Kit Lambert, not John Entwhistle as urban legend has it, their producer and manager, owned the Palazzo in the early 1970s. He died shortly afterwards in London, falling from a staircase or possibly killed by his drug supplier. A coincidence? Read on…..

Palazzo Ca’Dario

Ca’Dario is a rather lovely Venetian palace on the Grand Canal with distinctive chimneys, a beautiful facade of marble and Istria stone and built in floral Venetian Gothic style. However the number of  owners, their friends, lovers or members of their families, who have died shortly after owning or being associated with this building, is truly astonishing. 

Giovanni Dario, a mega-rich merchant and distinguished diplomat bought and remodelled the palace at the end of 15th century. Within a very short time his daughter committed suicide following the murder of her husband. Their son was later murdered while doing business in Crete.

 The palace was later bought by an Armenian diamond merchant who died there in poverty (some say of hunger) after his business mysteriously went bankrupt in very strange circumstances.

 In 1837, an Englishman, Rawdon Brown, bought the palazzo for the princely sum of £480, a fortune in those days. His untimely death was again by suicide caused by rapid and mysterious financial ruin and possibly because of the scandal caused by his homosexual liaisons. 

The French poet Henry De Regnier, who wrote “L’altana ou la vie vénitienne” there, died an untimely death after taking ill shortly after his visit.

 The famous tenor Mario del Monaco bought the palace in the 1960’s but had a serious car crash on the way to sign the contracts and was crippled for life.

 The next instalment in this horrific, haunted tale: In the same decade, an American multimillionaire, Charles Briggs, bought the house to share with his gay lover who committed suicide a few months later.

 The next tragedy strangely also has a reoccurring homosexual link. In 1970 the palace’s owner, Count Filippo Giordano delle Lanze, was murdered by his lover, a Croatian seaman who was, in turn, later murdered in London 

A few years later Fabrizio Ferrari a Venetian financier bought the building. He too was bankrupt within no time and duly committed suicide (how many now?) and his sister, Nicoletta, promptly died in a suspicious road crash.

 Later the palazzo was bought by the financier Raul Gardini, who, after a series of economic problems and scandals, later committed suicide……..

 I’ve never thought of him as being clairvoyant but, when Woody Allen nearly bought the structure, he pulled out at the last moment: possibly very lucky for him.

 Palazzo Ca’Dario2

Inscribed on a part of the building, is a message in Latin: “genio urbis joannes dario” which means “Giovanni Dario is the genius of the city”.  However an anagram of the Latin phrase is “Sub ruina insidiosa genero”, meaning “I bring treacherous ruin to those who live under this roof”. A mostly true (but slightly embellished) historical legend!

Visit Venice at least once before you die but don’t buy the Ca’Dario or maybe the Ca’Dario will visit you.

 Have a look at some great tours to Venice and other Italian cities



Winter in Italy

Winter in Italy
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Venice in the winter

Venice in Winter

Winter is a great time to visit Italy if you want to avoid overcrowded hotels, hordes of tourists and take advantage of low hotel prices. According to the BitLab report, commissioned by Klaus Davi & Co and produced by Nathan il Saggio, winter tourism in Italy seems to have excellent potential, at least as far as the foreign press is concerned. The study monitored 90 newspapers in 12 foreign countries between September and December, finding 3,714 articles on Italian tourism. Most of them emphasised how winter is a great time to visit Italy. Three trends were identified: the boom of eco-hotels, low-cost skiing, with prices decreasing with respect to the spring and fall seaoson and tours or pacakges  in art cities and shopping. Italy’s south part and Sicily are excellent for long-stay winter holidays ideal for seniors escaping from Northern climates. It is also the best time to travel to the mythical island of Sicily, the most sunny part of the country




Understanding Italy. Part One: Eating

Understanding Italy. Part One: Eating
There are very few towns in the Western World without at least one ‘Italian’ restaurant, whether it be a true family run trattoria or a takeaway pizza joint.
Rightly so, true Italian food is considered one of the world’s greatest and most varied cuisines. One of the delightful parts of a holiday in Italyis sampling the sheer joy that Italians attach to food and drink.
I live in Spainwhere it isn’t unusual to eat five times a day. Italy has more in common with northern European or American culture, Italians eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Italian Breakfast: While you’ll find cereals, fruit and bacon and eggs in tourist establishments, a croissant and espresso are the general fare.
Lunch and dinner: Generally there is little difference in the fare but lunch menus may be a little ‘heavier’ especially in the north. You’ll start with ‘antipasto’ which is like finger food, followed by ‘primo’, (entrée) usually a  pasta or rice dish. Main course is ‘secondo’, usually meat or fish (vegetables, salads, potatoes etc. are ordered as side dishes).
Next course is an assortment of cheeses and cold, sliced cured meats. This is followed by ‘dolce’, desserts or fruits (but not normally ice-cream, which is often enjoyed afterwards in a “gelateria” ice cream place.
Finally comes the espresso (never a cappuccino…) often with a brandy or liqueur (do try ‘strega’, the ‘witch’, if you see it but, unless you want a hangover from hell, don’t overdo it.

Lastly here are a few misconceptions about Italian food.
  • Caesar salad is American.
  • Bread is not usually served with olive oil or butter.
  • Pasta sauces are generally light with just enough sauce to flavour the pasta.
  • ‘Italian dressing’ does not exist. You will be served with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to dress your own salad. Croutons or crispy bacon or onion pieces are an unknown.
  • Plain grilled meats or steaks are not usually served.
  • Fresh vegetables are generally served sautéed with a little oil.
  • Plain water is not served. You will have to pay for bottled mineral water carbonated or regular.
  • ‘Peperoni’ means peppers.
  • If you want pastrami, bring it from a New York deli as it’s almost unknown in Italy as is ‘alfredo’ sauce and spaghetti served with meatballs!
  • Pizza is made with a thin base, nothing like the Chicago variety!
Buon Appetito!
Peter Harrison


Tomasso, a onetime Roman stray, now the richest cat in the world…
By Peter Harrison

Chatting with friends over dinner the other night, the conversation turned somehow to the subject of Leona Helmsley, the ‘Queen of Mean’. Remember her? A super-rich hotelier, pretty much averse to paying tax who was said to say “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes”. When Helmsley died she left $12 million to her dog ‘Trouble’ causing much ridicule, scandal, mirth and the opportunity for an army of lawyers to earn a fortune!

An Italian friend managed to trump the American story by another $1 million by telling us the story of Tomasso, Rome’s most famous (and richest) cat.


Tomasso had gone from living in the streets from Rome as a stray to being adopted by the childless Maria Assunta (the wealthy widow of an Italian property tycoon) who died a couple of years ago at the age of 94 and left her fortune to her pet moggy. As well as a huge cash balance in the bank, Tomasso is also the proud owner of properties in Rome, Milan and land in Calabria.


Romans have always been cat lovers and the cat, in former times, was highly valued for defending mankind against rodent borne diseases like the plague.

Rome’s cats are largely feral with about 300,000 prowling the ancient monuments. Indeed, feral cats living in the Coliseum, the Forum and Torre Argentina are part of the city’s “bio-heritage” and protected by law.

As a footnote, Tomasso is only third in the ‘world rich list’ behind a chimp named Kalu ($80m) and a German shepherd, Gunter IV (a colossal $372m)!

‘Invasion of the body-snatchers’

‘Invasion of the body-snatchers’

by Peter Harrison.

Everyone who has visited Venice knows St Marks’ Square with its Basilica di San Marco supposedly containing the saintly remains of Saint Mark, the important Christian evangelist and apostle.

I wouldn’t like to and truly couldn’t, put you off this, one of the most wonderful cities in the world, but……

In the early and latterly medieval days of the Christian Church, relics were powerfully attractive. How many knucklebones of Saint Baldo were revered? There were enough splinters of the holy cross sold to make a forest and enough iron nails from the body of Christ to set up a modern day foundry!

The riches brought to the church were greatly enhanced by donations from rural pilgrims, easily impressed by the opportunity to kiss the left toenail of a saint.

Long before the 25th of April became the National Holiday of Italian Liberation, the day was the celebration of the Patron Saint of Venice, Marco, whose bones (earthly remains!) were traditionally thought to be on Muslim soil in Alexandria, Egypt.

The perceived history was that they were transferred to Venice, in the year 828, by two legendary Venetian merchants, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello.

Sent by the Doge (Prince) of Venice to steal from the Muslims the precious remains (Islam, strangely for some who know nothing of its history, venerates Jesus Christ and his disciples), two resourceful merchants, not being able to discover the true body, dug up a ‘lesser Christian celebrity’, covered the body up in a cargo of pork and passed through ‘customs’ without being inspected: this because kanzir (pork) was an ‘unclean’ and untouchable export. Thus they earned their fee by selling a ‘load of old bones’ which had nothing to do with Saint Mark.

To add further to the confusion, a British historian, Andrew Chugg, claims that the venerated tomb of St Mark in Venice contains not the great evangelist but the body of the most famous warlord in history. He claims that the mummified remains, buried beneath the altar of St Mark’s Basilica, in fact belong to Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king lived in the 4th century BC and had divine status in his lifetime and a following for many centuries after. By his 30th birthday he had conquered an empire stretching 3,000 miles from Greece to India.

died aged 32 or 33 and for 700 years his corpse lay entombed in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which he founded. In the 4th century AD it vanished. Chugg, the author of several books on Alexander, believes the confusion occurred when the warrior’s body was disguised as St Mark to protect it from destruction during a Christian uprising.

“Both bodies were said to be mummified in linen, and one seems to disappear at the same time that the other appears – in almost exactly the same place, near the central crossroads of Alexandria,” he writes. “It’s a strong possibility that somebody in the Church hierarchy, perhaps even the Patriarch himself, decided it might be a good plan to pretend the remains of Alexander were those of St Mark”. If this is true, then it was Alexander’s remains – not those of St Mark – that were stolen by Venetian merchants and taken back to their native city some four centuries later.” In fact, three early Christian sources state that St Mark’s body was burnt after his death.

Happily, whoever lies in the Basilica is not of great importance. Venice
remains one of the world’s most picturesque destinations and a visit will give the traveller a lifetime of memories…..

How did the Bridge of Sighs get its tragic name?


The only covered bridge in Venice, pretty from the outside but gloomy and entirely enclosed inside. Narrow windows let in very little light through their wire netting and, for many who passed through, Casanova included, this was their last chance of a glimpse of  the outside world, San Giorgio and the Lagoon; a very macabre history.

The most accepted opinion is that the Ponte dei Sospiri got its name in the 17thcentury when it was the connection between the old prison and interrogation (often/usually torture) rooms in the Doge’s Palace and the new prison.  Prisoners, who passed through it, would most likely see the beautiful sight of the city and freedom for the last time and let out a deep sigh…..

 Truthfully, by the time the bridge was completed, summary executions at the hands of the inquisitors had ceased but many who were incarcerated would never see freedom again and ‘investigations’ were still far from gentle!
 A nicer and more romantic theory is that, if lovers kiss under the bridge while drifting below on a gondola at sunset, they will enjoy eternal love. Therefore, the “sighs” come from lovers, overwhelmed by their love and the romantic imagery of the location and its legend.
Venice‘s Bridge of Sighswas designed by Antonio Contino and built to span the Rio di Palazzo (Palace River).
If you are old enough to remember the science-fiction comics from the ‘50s showing skyscrapers connected by enclosed bridges above the ground, Venice’s Ponte dei Sospiri, could well have been have been the inspiration for such architectural fantasy.


Part III: Food, drink, eggs and…… chocolate.  
As Easter is the end of the Lent ‘fast’, food naturally plays a major part in the celebrations. Eggs and roasted lamb are common elements everywhere. A generous supply of good wine is, naturally, a requisite.

Eggs represent life, fertility and renewal; all essentially symbolic. Dyed or decorated eggs abound and eggs are often found in soups and in a traditional Easter pie (Torta Pasqualina). Roast lamb, or sometimes kid, is a symbol of birth and the shepherd, Artichokes are popular (an imagery, I can’t explain) and special Easter breads vary from region to region. Pannetone and Colomba(dove shaped) breads, are the most well-known.

As in many countries, hollow chocolate eggs, sometimes with a gift inside are given. The tradition is dying out but, years ago, an engagement ring was often enclosed as a marriage proposal!

The biggest chocolate Easter egg in the world, measured over ten metres in height. The egg weighed over seven tons and must have kept the children  of Cortenuova happy for months