Chenini and the legend of the Seven Sleepers

There are a few different versions of the legend of the Seven Sleepers, which dates to around 250 AD. In the Catholic tradition, the story is of seven Christians persecuted by the Romans who took refuge in a cave near Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, where they were discovered asleep. The cave was sealed with them inside and still alive. Centuries later, a farmer discovered the cave and, presumably to his great surprise, opened it to find all seven men alive and well, and believing they’d only slept for a single day.

The legend is shared by Islam and a near identical version of the story appears in the Quran. In this the sleepers are persecuted for their faith and are said to have spent 309 years in the cave. During which time they had grown to be four metres tall. The Quran is silent on the exact whereabouts of the cave, but the stunning location of the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers near the ancient town of Chenini is dramatic enough to claim the right.

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape around Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape around Tataouine, Tunisia

In the brown, barren landscapes close to Tataouine, the brilliant white of mosques can be seen on hillsides for miles around. As I turned off the main highway towards the modern village of Chenini and the ancient ruined Berber village of the same name, the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers could be seen from several kilometres away. A side road took me underneath the ancient village to the mosque, where I climbed a nearby hill to get a view. It was magnificent.

The landscapes here are undoubtably harsh, and life must be tough for its inhabitants, but it is a region of extraordinary beauty as well. I’d seen photos of this area, but they don’t really prepare you for the reality of it. I wandered back to the car and drove back to the equally dramatic ruined hilltop village of Chenini. The oldest parts of the village date to the 12th century, and most of them seemed to be crumbling back into the earth from which they were first moulded.

From a distance it’s not easy to pick out that there is a village built on the steep sides of the hill, everything is a uniform brown colour and blends seamlessly together. The site of the village was strategic and defensive, communities like Chenini would have been easy picking from raiding parties otherwise. I parked the car at the foot of the hill and walked upwards through the steep maze-like streets. From afar it’s easy to imagine the village is abandoned, but I came across a few of the 500 or so people still living there.

It was clear that renovation works were well under way in an attempt to attract more visitors, and there are places you can stay in the village. Quite frankly, it deserves to be far more popular than the grand total of zero tourists that I encountered the day I was there. It’s hardly a hidden gem – it’s big and sits on a hilltop – but that day it might as well have been invisible to modern tourism. I suppose I should have been grateful, it was fabulous exploring the ruins by myself.

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ancient Berber village of Chenini, Tataouine, Tunisia

I wandered down the hillside looking for somewhere to get a drink and maybe a snack, most things seemed to be closed, if they’d ever been open. Eventually I found a place on the road beneath the village serving mint tea and some pastries, both tooth achingly sweet. I watched the world not going by for half an hour and then hit the road towards another ancient Berber hill village, Douiret.

Berber fortresses and desert landscapes, Tataouine

The deep blue and turquoise waters of the Mediterranean sparkled below as my flight from Tunis came in to land on the island of Djerba. The contrast between the brilliance of the sea and the dusty brown of the land was stunning. The lure of the water was almost enough to make me abandon my half-baked plan to hire a car at the airport and head into the southern Tunisian interior. How much more rewarding, I thought, would it be to return to this idyllic-looking place after a week in the desert?

I hired a car from a local outfit, largely because they were the only place that was open. It wasn’t the newest of vehicles but I thought that would help me to blend in with local traffic. I acquired a fairly old looking map, figuring that there was unlikely to have been a radical road building plan that made it obsolete, and set off for Star Wars country: Tataouine. First though I had to get off Djerba and onto the mainland. My route took me past one of the most ancient sites on the island.

Landscape near Tataouine, Tunisia

Landscape near Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

The brilliant white 14th century Fadhloun Mosque is a stunning sight seen across the dusty landscape, but somehow it seems to fit perfectly with its surroundings of olive trees. The shape of the mosque is both attractive and surprising, I’d assumed its thick walls were a result of the climate, but it doubled as a fortification in case of invasion. It was one link in a chain of fortified mosques. I found myself alone in this atmospheric and photogenic place.

I stopped to visit a couple more mosques before heading off for the two to three hour drive. I didn’t want to miss out on seeing Ksar Ouled Soltane, one of the most famous of the fortified Berber granaries. A good place to base yourself, Tataouine is an eminently missable modern town that was established by the French as a garrison town at the end of the 19th century. The surrounding countryside though, holds some of the most extraordinary places in the region.

It is also home to some of the most evocative and gloriously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, especially in the ‘golden hour’ of sunrise and sunset. Which was lucky since it had taken longer than expected to reach the area close to Tataouine, and by the time I arrived at Ksar Ouled Soltane the sun was getting low in the sky. This brought with it the benefit of having the ksar to myself. This is definitely one of the more visited of the region’s sights but, with the exception of someone selling pencil drawings, I was alone.

The vaulted store rooms known as ghorfas that once would have held grain, and were built to be defended against marauding bandits, were glowing an impossible golden orange in the sunlight. I wandered around in the silence of the gathering twilight and tried to absorb the atmosphere of this truly magical place. As I left I stopped to chat to the guy selling drawings, I really wanted a cold drink but everything was closed in the late afternoon.

Ksar Tounket, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Tounket, Tataouine, Tunisia

Village near Tataouine, Tunisia

Village near Tataouine, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Fadhloun Mosque, Djerba, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tataouine, Tunisia

Hotel Sangho Privilege Tataouine, Tunisia

Hotel Sangho Privilege Tataouine, Tunisia

Back in the car I headed to Tataouine and the pleasant Sangho Privilege Tataouine, my hotel for the next couple of days. The landscape all around me glowed red and orange, it was so beautiful I kept stopping to take photos. On the outskirts of Tataouine a small miracle occurred and I found the hotel without a satnav or a functioning smart phone – in the dark. I was tired and just wanted to eat and sleep, but the lure of having a beer by the hotel pool as the stars came out was too enticing.

A Tunisian road trip remembered

It was early, still dark, as the taxi took me from my Tunis hotel to the airport close to what remains of the ancient city of Carthage. We drove in silence, as much because of language difficulties as the unsociable hour. There was no other traffic on the roads, and there was just a hint of sunlight on the horizon as a dark coloured van pulled out of a side street and slipped close behind us. The driver looked in his mirror and, with what can only be described as disdain in his voice, said, “Les flics”.

It was like being in a French film noir. The police followed us for a couple of kilometres before deciding we were of no interest to them, and I was deposited at the airport to catch my flight to the famed island of Djerba. After spending several days in Tunis at various meetings, I was escaping to explore the other-worldly landscapes and cultures of southern Tunisia. There’s a good reason that this is where the Star Wars films were shot, it’s an extraordinary place that really does feel like another planet.

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Ksar Ouled Soltane, Tatouine, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, Chenini, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Door in the Souk, Tunis, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Ksar Guermassa, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

Fish market, Djerba, Tunisia

I had a vague plan involving picking up a hire car in Djerba and plotting a course south and inland towards Tataouine – Star Wars references are everywhere in this area. This is Berber country, their unique culture and history can been seen dotted throughout the region’s landscape. In particular, the fortified granaries and villages known as ksar, although often referred to as ‘Berber castles’. Their striking architecture makes them a ‘must see’, but since they merge seamlessly with the landscape that’s easier said than done.

The extremes of living amongst these beautiful and severe landscapes have meant the human population has had to adapt to survive. Here you’ll find underground cave dwellings and caves hacked from rugged hillsides. Homes designed to be cool in the ferocious heat of summer, yet warm in the bitter cold nighttime of the desert winter. Many of these traditional communities have now been abandoned for modern housing in ‘new’ villages a short distant from the original, but some still have inhabitants.

At both Douirette and Chenini, as well as plenty of other smaller places, I’d find myself exploring alone. It doesn’t take much of an active imagination to imagine yourself as a latter day Indiana Jones; it was a little spooky at times, the quiet desert landscape accentuating every single noise as I nosed through abandoned homes. Without people, many of these former villages have fallen into ruin, but some, like Chenini, are being renovated with the hope of a tourist influx.

If these old Berber settlements weren’t atmospheric enough, on a whim I decided to experience a couple of days in the ‘real’ desert of the Grand Erg Oriental. This vast sandy void of over 40,000kmin Tunisia alone is part of the Sahara Desert, and home to Berber communities and oases. It has to be seen to be believed, and was probably worth the freak accident that saw me crash my hire car in the desert about 60km from the town of Douz.

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Douz, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Grand Erg Oriental, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Douirette, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Beni Barka, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Mosque on Djerba, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunis, Tunisia

Happily, I was able to walk away from the accident with the help of three Tunisian men who had been camping in the desert. The same could not be said for the car, which was towed back to Djerba to be used for scrap metal and spare parts. Apart from the shock of the accident, it meant I was stuck in the desert without my own transport 500km from where I needed to be get my flight back to Tunis. I found a driver willing to take me to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane and then on to Djerba.

Rather than spend time on Djerba at the start of my trip, I planned to have a refreshing couple of days on the island on my return from the heat and dust of the desert. The car crash had put me behind schedule. In the end, I only had a day to explore this attractive place. It was a shame, but my flight back to Tunis was booked and time had run out. The beguiling landscapes and friendly people of southern Tunisia will remain with me for a long time though.

The year that brought us to Berlin, 2018 in review

2018 has been a year of upheaval. After four-and-a half-years living in The Hague we relocated 700km east to start a new chapter of life in Berlin. Truth be told, we didn’t want to leave our Dutch lives behind, but circumstances don’t always give you the choice. So, with heavy hearts, we loaded up our belongings for the third time in seven years and headed towards a new beginning.

Six months in Berlin has been enough to underscore the cultural chasm between the two countries – plus it’s over 250km to the beach from here. As we adjust to our new world there will be opportunities to explore Germany’s fascinating regions, and to look further east (Poland is a 100km away) and after sampling Berlin’s winter, I’m already looking forward to the Berlin spring.

These are my 2018 highlights (France features ‘biggly’, to quote the US President) … and here’s to 2019, the Year of the Bear.

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Leaving the Netherlands

If there’s one thing to be said for leaving a country, it’s that it gives you pause to recall all the wonderful places you’ve visited. For me, it also meant a few days photographing and writing about the city we called home, The Hague. We hadn’t planned to move to the Netherlands, but it is a country that has seared its way into our affections in a big way. Each photo is a place I’d like to return to, at least once I’ve visited the places we missed the first time around.

Arriving in Berlin

Contemporary Berlin comes with huge expectations: history and culture merge with a reputation as one of the coolest cities on the planet. Yet our early impressions were  of dealing with bureaucracy and trying to find an apartment in a hostile housing market. This took place in a heatwave, temperatures hovering around 35ºC. Uncomfortable in our new home in more ways than one, we’re slowly adapting to Berlin life and trying to learn basic German.

Seafaring history in Bremen and Hamburg

An early summer road trip introduced us to two of Germany’s great North Sea port cities, Bremen and Hamburg. I’d never been to either and both left a lasting impression. They suffered massive damage in the war but both have reinvented themselves for the modern era. Bremen mixes Hanseatic history with cultural riches and good food; while Hamburg became my favourite city of 2018, effortlessly cool, relaxed, friendly and full of culture.

Remembering da Vinci in the Loire Valley

The Loire Valley is a place filled with glories. Beautiful landscapes hide magnificent château, ancient towns and world class vineyards. I’d been bouncing around the French countryside and stopped in the utterly beguiling town of Amboise. Dominated by the Château d’Amboise, this is where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years, dying in the town and buried in the Royal château. My final day was spent at the extraordinary Château de Villandry.

World Cup fever in Metz

Just before we left the Netherlands, there was one final road trip to France – it won’t be so easy to hop in the car and head to Champagne, Burgundy or the Loire from Berlin. It was a trip of firsts that included the city of Metz, home to the Pompidou Centre and where I got to experience the massive street party that was France winning the World Cup. It was a crazy few days of culture, good food and partying.

The wine routes of Alsace

We stopped in the distinctly French town of Nancy en route to Alsace. The difference between it and the decidedly Germanic Alsace region came as a bit of a surprise. That didn’t take away from the rolling landscapes and the even more extraordinary historic villages of timber-framed buildings that we encountered. Our journey through Alsace’s vineyards was fantastic and introduced us to German wine varieties – which, ironically, has subsequently come in handy.

Roman history and foodie heaven, Segovia

Rarely a year goes past without a visit to Spain. 2018 was no different, with a few days in Madrid followed by a trip to nearby Segovia. I’d heard of this historic town but was unprepared for just how beautiful it was, especially coming with a backdrop of snow covered mountains. There is so much to admire in the town, from the 12th century Alcázar to the lamb and suckling pig specialities, but it is the Roman aqueduct that takes centre stage.

24 hours in Copenhagen

It’s been nearly 30 years since I last visited Copenhagen, a few hours of wandering its historic centre had me wondering why it had taken so long to return. It was a shame that, after spending a week in various meetings and at a conference, I only had a day to reacquaint myself with the city. It was enough to make sure we’ll be returning when the weather improves in the spring.

A Sicilian adventure

Italy remains an under-explored country for me. This trip to Sicily was a first visit to the country’s most southerly region. We immersed ourselves in millennia of history while enjoying excellent seafood and local wines; took in ancient hilltop villages that are a byword for baroque architecture; ate fresh fish on the Mediterranean in a former tuna fishing village; and visited the Ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Morgantina and Villa Romana del Casale. The highlight though, was the near-mythical city of Syracuse.

A visit to Berlin’s Winter Markets

One of life’s great truisms is that visiting a Winter Market in daylight is a very bad idea. Nothing spoils the ‘magic of Xmas’ more thoroughly than rampant commercialism pretending to be the magic of Xmas. No, it is far wiser to wait for the cover of darkness, when strategically placed lighting and hot spiced wine can warm even the most cynical of hearts. I can’t stress enough the importance of the hot wine for turning the average Xmas market from endurance test to seasonally acceptable experience.

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Stilt walkers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Stilt walkers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

I’m not a big fan of Xmas markets, but I had high hopes for Berlin. If for no other reason than it’s in Germany, home of the Xmas market. It’s not Bavaria, where they go ‘big’ on the whole Xmas thing, but with about twenty different markets to choose from, there seemed a reasonable chance of hitting the jackpot. Or at least a jackpot. In the end, it was a case of third time lucky, with the Gendarmenmarkt market providing best value. Although that might have been due to taking the sensible precaution of adding a shot of rum to my gluhwein.

The pressure was really on by the time I arrived at the Gendarmenmarkt, and not just because they charge you a €1 entrance fee. Despite having a very exciting miniature train and being the biggest of the three I visited, the market at Alexanderplatz was a bit low rent and didn’t really provide good shopping. It has a skating rink and a ferris wheel though. Making it an odd mixture of travelling funfair and Xmas market. One colleague claimed they had the best gluhwein in Berlin. They didn’t (see previous point about the rum).

I’d anticipated that Charlottenburg market would be an upmarket affair, based solely on the fact that it takes place in the courtyard of an old palace. True, the backdrop was glamorous, and the ‘winter wonderland’ projections onto the palace were great. Again though there wasn’t much in the way of shopping beyond food and drink, but there was some entertainment. This market stands out because it actually snowed when we were there. I heard an English woman on the phone say, “it’s magical”. It wasn’t.

Which leaves Gendarmenmarkt. It’s just around the corner from where we live and has a setting almost as dramatic as Charlottenburg, in a square that is bookended by two of the city’s most pleasant churches, the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom. The attractive Berlin Konzerthaus sits along one side. As usual, there were plenty of eating and drinking options, but also quite a lot of good stalls selling actual gifts for those who might have left present shopping a little late.

Best of all though, and what set this market apart, was the entertainment. In front of the Konzerthaus was a stage that, at first, just had someone playing songs on a piano, but, as things started to warm up, there was a dance troop and later a children’s choir, both of which were fantastic. There was even a master of ceremonies dressed as the Kaiser. What could be more German than that?

The youth choir – some of the kids could only have been 4 or 5 years old – was the star attraction, and a large crowd had assembled by the time they’d got into the third or fourth song. It was only late afternoon but the place was packed with families, I did a final sweep of the stalls to see if I could pick up any last minute gifts and, just as the rain began to fall, I headed into the Berlin night filled with what I can only assume was Xmas spirit … although that may have been a side effect of the rum.

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Sausages, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Sausages, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Catania, a city of surprises

If we’d left Catania twenty-four hours earlier, we’d have left feeling underwhelmed by this attractive and dynamic city. The Catania we encountered during the first day and a half of our stay was grey, damp and dreary. On Saturday night though, grubby streets with graffitied buildings that made us feel a bit depressed in daylight, suddenly burst into life. Metal shutters were unfurled to reveal hip cafes, bars and restaurants. People crowded the pavements, and formerly quiet streets pulsated to the sound of music and conversation.

Catania successfully combines the stylish with the gritty and down-at-heel, modern life happily coexists with ancient history. It was a relief to see this other side of the city because I badly wanted to like it … and not only because I was expected to report back my impressions to an Italian colleague who is from here. This is a legendary city built at the foot of Mount Etna, and its destiny, from ancient history to the modern day, has been intertwined with Europe’s most active volcano.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

That history includes the devastating earthquake of 1693, which left an indelible mark on the whole region, and left Catania in ruins. The city was rebuilt in the baroque style seen so often throughout this region for exactly the same reason. It has bequeathed the city some magnificent buildings. Other earthquakes have caused severe damage to the city over its more than 2,800 year history*, which dates back to the 8th century BC and includes centuries of Ancient Greek and Roman rule.

Regular volcanic eruptions have done their worst, only for the city to be reborn, but all that volcanic activity has also produced rich, fertile soils, especially good for growing grapes. An upside that can still be tasted in the excellent wines grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. The Sicilian wine business has been around for over 6,000 years according to research published last year, but it really took off when the Ancient Greeks arrived and began cultivation in earnest.

The Romans valued Sicilian wines for their distinctive flavour, and traded them around the Mediterranean. No visit to Catania would be complete without sitting in a square sipping a local wine. Viticulture though, isn’t the only wonder to survive from Greek and Roman times. We left the lovely Piazza del Duomo with its massive Cattedrale di Sant’Agata and delightful Fontana dell’Elefante, a Roman-era volcanic rock elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk, and wandered along the Via Vittorio Emanuele II.

This ordinary-looking street hides an extraordinary secret, one easily missed if you’re not paying attention. The entrance comes with little fanfare, but once you’re inside a truly wondrous sight reveals itself, a 2,300 year-old Roman theatre. It’s utterly and completely spellbinding. You could walk around this area and never know the theatre existed, surrounded as it is by houses, churches and a former palace. We arrived early in the morning and had this atmospheric place to ourselves.

In the centre of the theatre’s semi-circle is a pond, into which runs a stream containing fish. The Romans used it to stage water ballets. There’s a small practice theatre behind the main event. From here we walked through streets lined with beautiful baroque churches and palaces to find a Benedictine Monastery, today a 16th century UNESCO World Heritage Site that today houses part of the University of Catania. We were out of luck for an English language tour, but were able to go inside and wander around.

We popped inside the huge, but unfinished, Church of Saint Nicolò. Destroyed by a lava flow from a Mount Etna eruption in 1669, reconstruction began in 1687, just in time for the 1693 earthquake. The interior’s an immense space of white marble. Afterwards we headed north through interesting streets to an area close to Park Villa Bellini – the composer was born in Catania – where there are plenty of bars and restaurants for a lazy lunch.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

The maze of streets in this area are filled with old palaces and baroque churches, not many of which were open. We simply didn’t have the time to fully appreciate it, but the little we saw was fascinating. Our last few hours were spent pottering, before heading back to the Piazza del Duomo to do some people watching over a coffee. Catania in the sun was a much more attractive proposition, we really need to come back in Spring.

 

* This includes the recent volcanic activity and earthquake that has damaged villages and towns, and injured several people.

Sicilian Street Art, Catania

A little like the city which acts as their canvas, street art in Catania feels a little rough around the edges. The streets of Sicily’s second city are undoubtedly gritty. Crumbling plaster falls from many historic buildings, rubbish collects on corners or in doorways, dirt and grime are ubiquitous. Look hard enough though, and it’s not difficult to find spots of brightness where street art illuminates dark nooks and crannies, and brings light to grey buildings.

As we walked around, we saw a lot of graffiti that made use of the decay found in the urban landscape. This made it all the more poignant. At one point I found myself taking a photo in a side street unaware that I’d strayed into San Berillo, Catania’s red light district. An area of unofficial brothels packed into a warren of narrow lanes where women sit on chairs outside doorways, wielding a camera seems inappropriate and can attract unwanted attention.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ironically, San Berillo is a hotspot of street art, and the handful of pictures I took before realising where I was, were all faces of young women. The area itself has a fascinating history, once an upmarket area that includes old palaces of Sicilian aristocracy, it fell into decay and was gradually abandoned from the 1950s onwards. A lot of the original houses were destroyed for a redevelopment project that never materialised, leaving a physical hole in the city.

As people left the area, sex workers moved in and have never left. In the 1990s, things were so bad that this was considered one of the largest red light districts in Europe. In response, a project called Red Line Distreet has brought street art to many walls in the district. I left the area behind and within a few minutes was in the heart of Catania’s commercial district, the Via Etna. It seemed a world away from San Berillo’s streets, but in reality these areas rub shoulders with each other.

I found myself in San Berillo after failing to reach the one area where I knew there were several massive pieces of street art, the Art Silos found in Catania harbour. This was a project that dates back to 2015, when the I-ART Festival commissioned pieces to be painted onto eight disused wheat and corn silos on the docks. At 28 metres high, the silos are pretty imposing, and I could see them in the distance as I made my way down an access road.

Unfortunately, I was stopped at a security check where the pleasant police officer told me it was far too dangerous for pedestrians to go any further. As a large lorry roared past, I understood what he meant. My only other option was to walk down a busy dual carriageway, which seemed about as appealing as being run over by a lorry. So I made my way back into town, checking out the small fishing boats in the publicly accessible parts of the harbour en route.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania does have a lot of street art, but I only found a few building-sized pieces, and most of those were two or three years old and often faded. A few artists appear over and over though – one in particular who has a line in fanged creatures and balls. Local art occasionally mingles with international art, but I didn’t recognise any of the artists with whom I’ve become familiar. Perhaps next time I’ll have more luck.

La Pescheria, fish tales in stormy Catania

The last time I saw rain like that which pummelled Catania on our first day in the city, I was in Nepal and the monsoon was sweeping all before it. This though was a European city, the sight of water cascading down the streets and flooding the central square was shocking. Judging by the reactions of local people, it wasn’t just me who was surprised by the ferocity of the storm. We’d taken shelter in a small bar just off the main square, the older clientele spoke of a year of weather extremes. This type of storm has become common.

The rain relented and we were able to make our way to a restaurant for a late lunch. That was when the hailstones began falling. Accompanied by fierce winds, deafening thunder and alarming lightening, sizeable pieces of ice were hurtling to earth. I can say, without fear of contradiction, being hit by large hailstones travelling at heroic speeds towards earth was not very enjoyable. The noise, of what must have been tonnes of ice colliding with the city, was unbelievable.

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

The rain continued well into the night and we gave up on plans to find a restaurant in a distant part of the city, retreating instead to our hotel room. The following morning grey clouds still filled the sky, but it felt as if Catania had been cleansed by the storm. The air was fresh and the humidity of earlier days had relented, even while signs of storm damage were everywhere. We were staying on the main square and ventured out to have strong coffee and sickly sweet breakfast treats in one of the local cafes.

It was Saturday morning and, around the corner from the square, we could hear the city’s traditional fish market starting to come to life. After breakfast we wandered into the compact area where the freshest fish imaginable were on sale. Some stalls also sell meat, cheese and a range of fruits and vegetables. The cries of the seagulls wheeling overhead competed with the cries of stall holders, in a piece of street theatre that has been running for centuries.

The market is fascinating and entertaining in equal measure. I can imagine that on a hot day the sounds and smells could be a little overwhelming, but today it drew a crowd of onlookers, passing the time of day while watching the cut and thrust of negotiations as sellers haggled over the price. Swordfish was popular in La Pescheria, as it’s properly known, but a variety of fish and shellfish all caught within a boat ride of the Piazza del Duomo were on offer. In a changing world, this traditional market remains one of the largest in Italy.

Afterwards, we headed into town to explore more of Catania’s atmospheric streets. It might have been the dark clouds, or the damp in the air, but after the excitement of the market our stroll around the city was tinged with a feeling of disappointment. Catania is part workaday port city which has been through difficult economic times, and part rising star with chic squares, excellent food, lovely buildings and a renowned nightlife. The Catania we encountered was the slightly disreputable, down-at-heel version of the city.

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

The city seemed subdued, and so were we. Thankfully, a delicious lunch in a bustling and noisy restaurant revived our spirits, and inspired us to explore more of the historic centre and further afield. Mount Etna, which towers over the cityscape at the northern end of the Via Etna – a snazzy shopping street – was shrouded in low cloud. Invisible it might have been but, as we discovered on our meanderings, this is a city defined by its relationship with one of Europe’s most active volcanoes.

Ancient Morgantina, a Greek city on the edge of civilisation

Amidst the rolling hills and valleys of south eastern Sicily, in sight of Mount Etna and boasting panoramas over the surrounding countryside, sits one of the most important archeological sites in Sicily. The Ancient Greek town of Morgantina was an outpost of Greek civilisation, sitting on the boundary between Hellenistic civilisation to the south and the indigenous tribes of the north. At its height, in the 4th century BC, it was an affluent town of around 7,000 inhabitants connected by trade to the great city states of Ancient Greece: Sparta, Corinth and Athens.

Sitting on the Serra Orlando ridge, Morgantina commands a spectacular and strategic location. It had been populated for centuries before Greek colonists arrived sometime around the 8th century BC. Over the next 200 years, it was transformed into a typical Greek city, with the same style of urban planning that you’d have found throughout the Ancient Greek world: a large flat area was created for the agora or marketplace, baths, a rectangular street grid of residential houses, and an amphitheatre.

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Kiln, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Kiln, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

We arrived late in the afternoon after a visit to the Villa Romana del Casale and left the car in an empty car park. Unlike the heavily touristed Villa Romana, Morgantina was deserted. We had to hunt around to find someone so we could pay the entry fee. We were pointed in the general direction of the ruins, and set off in search of the ancient Greek city. We passed a few information boards along the way, most of the information on them had been obliterated by time and intense sunlight. Not an encouraging sign.

The reality is, that although this is a most extraordinary historic site, it feels unloved and certainly underfunded. It was impossible to know what we were looking at thanks to the poor signage, but that disappointment was dispelled by walking undisturbed through this magical and atmospheric place as the sun began to set. We could just make out the shape of Mount Etna through the haze way off in the distance. On a clear day it must be a magnificent sight.

We walked up to the top of a hill, at one time part of the city, but today it feels more like a natural viewing platform over the ancient heart of Morgantina. The vistas are pretty spectacular. The bird’s eye view that you get from on high is wonderful, from here you can see the layout of the city below, and despite the lack of information, you can piece together the workings of the city. We wandered down to walk amongst the ruins of this fascinating place, only the sound of sheep bells disturbed the peace.

We were too late to visit the museum dedicated to Morgantina in the nearby town of Aidone, and our journey the next day would be back to Catania, which meant that we’d miss seeing some of the ancient marvels that have been discovered, not always legally, at the site. One of these is the Goddess of Morgantina, a statue illegally removed from Morgantina before being smuggled to Switzerland. It would later become an US$18 million acquisition of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

The looted statue was finally returned to Sicily in 2011, but it isn’t the only Morgantina artefact to be illegally trafficked. A hoard of silver pieces from the 3rd century BC were also returned after finding their way to New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1982. The American archaeologist, Malcolm Bell, who led the excavations of the city believes the silver pieces were, “most likely hidden beneath the floor of a house by a Greek man named Eupolemos, who was trying to protect his wealth from invading Roman armies.”

The pieces were sold to the Metropolitan by Robert Hecht Jr., an infamous American antiquities dealer. Before his death in 2012, he was on trial charged with conspiring to traffic looted artefacts. Hecht came to fame in the 1970s when he sold another piece to the Metropolitan, the Euphronios Krater looted from an ancient Greek tomb in Italy. The museum didn’t learn its lesson from that experience, or at least didn’t care to, but all these stolen antiquities are now back where they started.

The mesmerising mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

One thousand and six hundred years ago, a wealthy and powerful Roman government official built a splendid villa in the hills of south eastern Sicily, close to the modern-day town of Piazza Armerina. The owner was clearly a man of stature, used to having the finest things life could offer, and wealthy enough to employ a small army of artists from North Africa to decorate his home with a collection of the most extraordinary mosaics imaginable.

In total, some forty-five rooms – or more than 3,500 m2 – of the sprawling complex are covered in mosaics. The energy, artistry and money that was poured into creating such masterpieces is mind-boggling. Even in decadent Rome, the Villa Romana del Casale seems extravagant. Even more impressive, many of the mosaics have survived time and tribulation to make it to the 21st century. It is one of the finest, best preserved Roman villas to have survived from antiquity.

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

UNESCO, who made this a World Heritage Site in 1997, say simply that they are “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”. It’s hard to disagree. I’m not sure what we expected when we arrived, but we left feeling profoundly uplifted. It is a truly magnificent place and the sense of wonder stayed with us for days. Which I consider reward for a journey that was blighted by the satnav sending us down a series of minor roads. At one point we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of cows and a bemused Sicilian farmer.

The Villa Romana del Casale is set in a green and fertile valley and, if you’re fortunate enough to arrive when there aren’t any tour groups, you can still get a sense of the tranquility that must have existed all those centuries ago. It’s easy to understand why a wealthy Roman would want to live here. The villa was huge, more than fifty rooms, a large bath complex, and a remarkably decorative Christian Basilica with Egyptian pink granite columns, and a floor of marble sourced from across the Mediterranean.

Marble was the most valuable and prised building material of the time, but the mosaics are the number one attraction these days. Perhaps the most famous of all is the room named the Chamber of the Ten Maidens, which depicts female athletes attired in what, to the modern eye, look like bikinis. Sporting scenes include running, weightlifting, ball games and discus. One of the athletes is being crowned champion. It’s as exquisite as it is intriguing.

In reality though, there are far more intricate and detailed mosaics in other rooms of the villa. The colourful creations depict all sorts of scenes from literature and real life. This includes some beguiling mosaics of hunting scenes, one of which shows a wild boar being attacked with dogs and spears while a bleeding and badly injured Roman lays on the floor. In one only partially preserved mosaic, women wearing what look like chains around their ankles appear to be being abducted.

The detail is incredible. Another massive mosaic probably gives more than a hint of the business interests of the villa’s owner. A boat waits in the sea as a range of wild African animals are captured and prepared for transport to Rome, presumably to ‘fight’ in the Colosseum. Lions, elephants, gazelles and a rhinoceros are being captured in dramatic scenes. There is even a tiger being ingeniously caught by using a mirror to lure it into a trap.

There are also scenes of lustful lovers, figures from Greek mythology and depictions of Homer’s writings. One remarkable piece shows Ulysses giving Polyphemus, the giant son of Poseidon and Thoosa, a cup of wine. You could spend days here and still not take in all the detail of these ancient artworks. The fact that you can still see them is largely down to luck. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the villa continued to thrive until the medieval period until a major earthquake struck the area in 1169.

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

The earthquake destroyed parts of the building and also caused a mud slide, covering the entire area of the former Roman villa. There the mosaics lay buried and protected from both people, sunlight and natural decay. For 700 years they lay undisturbed until archeologists unearthed them. What lay under the layer of mud must have come as a surprise, and what a surprise. This is an extraordinary and unmissable place, I’d return in a heartbeat.