Historic Akaroa

Akaroa, on Banks peninsula, in Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island, has a superb setting, a fascinating bi-cultural history, quaint colonial architecture, a great ambiance and a small, artistic, welcoming population that seems dedicated to preserving and sharing all four.

Akaroa from above

The township sits at the edge of a long, deep harbour, in the shelter of steep, gold and dark green hills.  Against them the sea is luminescent turquoise. The long view from the summit road overlooking the town is one of the country’s best and most memorable.

Akaroa’s human history begins some 800 years ago, with the arrival of the great fleet from Hawaiki.  The first Iwi, or tribe, to settle here were Waitaha, followed later by Ngati Mamoe and later still, in the 17th century, by Ngai Tahu. The hilltops are still traced with the terraces of ancient pas. Modern settlements, Marae and churches now stand on the sites of ancient villages and the descendants of those first Iwi still live, meet and worship there.  

By the 1830s, Akaroa had become a European whaling centre. Then, in 1838, with a view to establishing a French colony, Captain Jean Langlois negotiated a land deal with the local Iwi and set sail for France to seek funds and to recruit settlers. By the time he returned, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed, the Union Jack was flying from the hilltop and the land deal was declared invalid. Nonetheless, the French stayed and Akaroa village became Aotearoa New Zealand’s little patch of France. It still is and many of the descendants of those first French settlers still live in the district. French family, and first names, are common here.

 To learn more about the history of the area, visit the Akaroa Museum.  Both the displays and the film, shown in the Courthouse theatre next door, give an excellent overview.  Be sure too, to take a drive to the Maori and Colonial Museum at historic Okains Bay.

Akaroa signage.

To steep yourself in the ambiance of Akaroa, take a stroll through the streets – or rather, rues and chemins – past charming colonial houses with tall, narrow windows and tiny front gardens, blooming with the daisies, hydrangeas and roses typical of the south of France. Study the French signage! Browse in the shops, check out the local produce, the antiques, the crafts and the art. Stop for a coffee or a meal in one of the town’s cafes and restaurants français. Explore the old French Cemetery. Light a candle at historic St Patrick’s Church. Head out to the wharf for a magnificent harbour view and with a bit of luck you’ll see a cruise ship sail in or out.

To experience truly outstanding and unforgettable Akaroa hospitality, stay at beautiful Beaufort House. 

Beautiful Beaufort House

More of this in Travelstripe’s next post. 

 

 

Arabian Nights

It’s late afternoon. The sun slants across the dunes, throwing long shadows behind the sparse desert grasses. Everywhere there is sand, vast rolling hills of it, ridged and scored as if by the sweep of an invisible tide.

The endless dunes

We’re in a caravan of white Toyota land-cruisers. I’m wedged into the centre of the back seat, thrust backwards as the vehicle strains towards the top of a ridge, then hurled forward as it tilts over the crest, rolls sideways and plunges down. There are screams and expletives from my travelling companions. I’m mute with terror.

In the driver’s seat, Ramzan is po-faced and silent behind his sunglasses. With one hand on the wheel, he steers us up and down the dunes. Ed Sheerin’s In Love With The Shape Of You blasts from a speaker behind me.

I’m light years from my comfort zone, heading into the Arabian night, location – desert wilderness, destination – a camp somewhere out there in the dunes, distance – unknown. I’m alone with my language, cut off from my culture, far from anything familiar. My only means of communication is an eye roll, a scream, a gasp. This is travel adventure, I think

Just an hour ago, Ramzan picked us up from our hotel. We sped down the freeway, through the sprawling outer fringes of Dubal, past scattered enclaves and occasional lone houses. We pulled in at a busy general store, the last outpost before the desert. My fellow passengers robed up – black abayas for the ladies, white robes for the men, checked headscarves for both. Later, standing on a dune, with my shoes full of sand, the sun burning through my city active-wear and my hair whipped into stringy threads by the scorching desert wind, I wish I had too.

We pass camel farms, flimsy fences in the middle of nowhere and flat-roofed huts, but apart from us, there’s not another human in sight.

The desert camp

With a sense of regret and relief we roll into camp. There’s a faded, sand-blasted look to it, but within its walls there’s shelter from the wind, shady corners and cool shadowy rooms. There’s a stand with cold drinks and tea. I make a beeline for it. Nearby a white-robed man is preparing shisha. I try that too. Next, I line up to hold a hooded falcon. Its wrinkled feet curl around my arm.

Outside the walls there are more adventures; quad-biking, camel rides and sand surfing. I watch two bikers disappear in shower of spraying sand.  I opt for a camel ride. It groans when it feels my 56 kilos on its back, staggers protesting to its feet and moans loudly as it takes a short circle around the carpark. I swear it gives an extra forward lurch as I dismount. I head over the dunes to check out the sand surfing.

A sand-surfie conquers the dune

The sun is setting now and an orange glow filters up from the horizon. Back inside, I sink onto the cushions at my stage-side table. On the left a couple of white-robed men giggle like schoolboys at the halfway point of a wine-bottle while their black-robed wives twitch and fidget over cans of red-bull. On the right a gang of lads in checked headscarves drag with concentration on sheesha and survey the scene through cool, narrowed eyes.

We cue up for dinner – ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other. After the parched, monochrome desert landscape, the brightly-coloured dishes on the buffet (tabouleh, cucumber with yoghurt couscous, chicpea and rice, curries and kebabs, chicken, fish and lamb) are a welcome sight.

Night falls. There’s a bright orange moon overhead and a scattering of stars in the dark sky. It’s showtime. To the beat of urgent drums and the clash of cymbals, a young man in heavy embroidered skirts whirls onto the stage. His skirts separate into layers. They light up. He peels them off layer by layer, revealing more and more with brighter and brighter lights, all the time spinning faster and faster on the spot, a master of control and balance. Later, he invites a trio of ladies to give the skirts a whirl. Their clumsy attempts highlight his mastery of the art. The music changes.  A belly-dancer takes the stage. We all love a belly-dancer. There’s something surprising and delightful about her exposed flesh and sinuous movements in this modest culture. She shows her skill but doesn’t seek to flaunt it against the audience’s efforts. Thank goodness!

The evening is over. The moon throws silver light across the car-park. Ramzan is waiting, a dark silhouette against his white Toyota. ‘Are we going on the dunes again?” ventures a timid voice. “Show us your night-driving skills” says a bolder one. But Ramzan is giving nothing away as he rolls out of camp. I must confess to a tinge disappointment when we turn onto a straight, sealed highway and speed towards Dubai’s distant glow.

The desert safari is a quintessential Dubai experience. Do it with Arabian Nights.

 

Burj Khalifa; At The Top Sky

This post is dedicated to Gerard Moore Junior (taku tama arohaina) whose generosity took me to the top.

From a distance, Burj Khalifa is alarmingly fragile. Up close it’s terrifyingly tall. At night, it’s a slender silhouette of gold light against the ink-black sky. In the daytime, it cuts like a giant blade of steel and glass into the blue.

 

For a while, I admired this stellar centrepiece of downtown Dubai from below. But, as mountains are to adventurers, so are towers to travellers. They compel us to climb them. From the Eureka to the Eiffel, I’ve conquered a few. In the end, I had to do the Burj Khalifa too.

Yet, I was nervous, as I waited with my fellow travellers for the At The Top Sky tour to the Burj Khalifa’s 148th floor. The couches, cushions, potted palms, Arabian coffee and platters of dates in the SKY Lounge did nothing to dispel the disturbing pictures haunting my thoughts. In one I was stranded in a lifeless elevator, deep in the burj’s concrete core. In another I clung to a flimsy ledge that tilted slowly into space. Was Burj Khalifa, a tower too many, too high?

Still, when the time came, I put my fears aside and followed our guide, Ahmed, into one of the burj’s 57 elevators.

As we soared skywards at an ear-popping 65 kilometers per hour, with the urgent drums of the Burj Khalifa’s dedicated elevator music beating ever faster, images of tall city landmarks streamed past.

Somewhere, up beyond the very tallest of them, we stopped for the Burj Khalifa’s story. It’s a bold tale and Ahmed told it with righteous pride. It began with a big dream – of a mighty burj, or tower, that would stand as an emblem of Dubai and as an iconic landmark to the world.

12,000 people, of 196 nationalities, from 149 countries, came together to build the dream. Chicago architect Adrian Smith designed it, taking inspiration from the ancient towers of Islam and the desert flower, hymenocallis, or spider lily. In 2004, construction began. 6 years, 22 million man-hours and 1.5 billion dollars later, it was completed. At 828 metres, the Burj Dubai was the world’s tallest building. On January 4, 2010, it opened, re-named as the Burj Khalifa, in honour of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE. That same year, it won the World Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Global Icon Award. The dream had come true.

Now, here I was at the heart of that global icon, surrounded by world wonders. I was at the centre of the largest vertical city on earth, home to the world’s highest nightclub, library and mosque. I was heading for the highest outdoor viewing platform on the planet, 555 metres from the ground.      

With the music winding to a crescendo and with outlandish feats of celebrity daring playing out on the elevator walls, we soared up again. I stared, mesmerised and horrified, as a grinning Tom Cruise flapped around the burj’s spire while Spiderman inched up its sheer glass walls.     

…there were flowers

The lift delivered us to an oasis of quiet, calm, and stillness. There was soothing orchestral music. There were flowers. There were waiters with trays of drinks and petit fours. There were smiling hostesses to guide us around. There was soft carpet patterned with rippling sand. There were armchairs beside tall windows which curved out into the sky.

I sat and looked down. Below, Dubai fell into patterns. Buildings shaped into cylinders. City blocks formed squares, rectangles and triangles. Roads curved and cut between them, curled into petals and pointed in parallel rows towards the horizon. Parks and gardens became bands and circles of green.  Ponds, pools and streams turned into oblongs, ovals and wriggling snakes of blue. Then, defying the order of the built city, there were patches of parched dirt – some etched with the beginnings of future construction, others just fragments of desert.   

… the patterns of Dubai…

On the world’s highest viewing platform, safe behind a solid glass wall, I stood in the sky. I felt rushes of fear and exhilaration, of arrogance and awe. I could see all the way across the desert to the end of the earth. I could see where the sea dissolved into the sky. Below, the city was tiny and fragile. People were slow-moving specks. Big words, like omniscient and omnipotent came to mind.

…where the sea meets the sky…

In a dark theatrette, I waved my hand through a tube of light and watched myself take flight on giant screen.  Launching from the burj’s spire, I glided through space, circling around landmarks, swooping over rooftops, between buildings, through windows, into shops and houses, into the everyday lives of old Dubai. I peered over the shoulders of men smoking shisha and women stirring pots. I chased after children in the streets. Now I really felt superhuman.

I could have lingered on high forever, in this rarefied state, but in truth, I’m a mere mortal. I belong on earth. I need the noise, the sun and the warm air below.

“Leaving already?” asked the hostess at the elevator. I’d been there for hours but she seemed sorry to see me go.

Down on level 124 I was back in the busy real world. I was swept from the lift into a photo studio. There was a flash. Minutes later, a picture showed me smiling foolishly from a beam on the half-built burj. I joined the memorabilia hunters in the souvenir shop. Among mugs and key rings, I found something new and slightly unnerving – leftover burj bolts. I circled the deck. Below, the neat patterns of Dubai had disappeared.

One swift, silent elevator and a long, slow escalator took me down to earth.

The People who built the Burj Khalifa

I wandered alone in the quiet ground floor gallery where the At The Top Sky experience ends. Here, interactive stations tell the stories of the people who built the Burj Khalifa.

It’s a perfect finale. It is fitting that the last words on the greatest project in human history should come from the architects, engineers, contractors, artists, tradespeople, craftspeople and labourers who worked on it, shaping 330 cubic metres of concrete, 31,400 metric tons of steel, 103, 000 square metres of glass and 15, 500 square metres of embossed stainless steel into the world’s most iconic tower.  

Cost of the At The Top Sky Tour – 500 dirhams. Value – priceless.

 

 

Kia ora rawa atu, Gez

Wonder at Oamaru’s Home Gallery Fine Arts and Living

Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct is full of wonderful surprises. Every time I visit I discover another. My most recent and, to date, my most wonderful find was Home Gallery Fine Arts and Living on the top floor of a former grain store, overlooking the old harbour.

Home Gallery – the old grain store

I have some beautiful memories of Art Galleries. They’re memories not just of treasures but of amazing spaces and extra-ordinary vistas. I remember the Tate Modern as much for the view of the Thames, the millennium bridge that spans it, and the dome of Old St Paul’s against the sky behind it, as I do for Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. I remember the azure sea framed in the deep, white stone windows of the Picasso museum at Antibes as well as the great works it houses.

Persian Rugs and pictures

Like the Picasso Museum in Antibes, Oamaru’s Home Gallery is a memorable space. Just like the Picasso House, it’s not a purpose-built space, but a space that has been re-purposed. Just as Picasso’s sea-side villa became a showcase for the master’s works, so this old grain store has become a showcase for New Zealand artists. In the Picasso Museum works of art are scattered through living rooms and courtyards. In Home Gallery paintings hang on the limestone walls where once sacks of grain leaned. A display of Persian rugs lies scattered across a work-worn wooden floor. Like the Picasso Museum, Home Gallery has spectacular windows with unforgettable views. They’re tall, broad and arched at the top like church windows and set in aged limestone walls. They look out across the Pacific Ocean , Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, with its warm, turquoise light.

The view from Home Gallery’s windows

Home Gallery is clearly still an old grain store.  Light streams in from skylights and through the cracks in the double loading doors at the far end of the room. The ceiling is crisscrossed with heavy beams. The old conveyer that once hauled heavy sacks through the building sits still in the centre of the room. There’s a lingering smell of wheat and hessian. It isn’t hard to picture people at work here – the thud of grain-sacks and the creak of pulleys.  It must have taken imagination and vision to see it as showcase for art – imagination, vision and a great deal of hard work.

Home Gallery of fine arts was established by artist/ photographer Lucy Gardner in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes. The devastation of the city had left artists without spaces to show their works and the local community without places to engage with art. Home Gallery was a new beginning ‘inspired and driven to help create places to deliver art for local community to engage with and provide audiences for investing in artists’ work’.

This inspiration and drive no doubt sustained Lucy Gardner, through the mammoth task of transforming the old grain store into a gallery. For weeks, she says, she spent all day, every day, scrubbing the beams and freeing the skylights of dust and cobwebs, cleaning the windows and walls of dirt and grime and sweeping debris from the floor.

Pictures on limestone walls

Now Home Gallery is a clean, light, quiet and restful place – a perfect backdrop for some beautiful works of art. They include pieces by significant New Zealand artists, from Beatrix Dobie to Charles Worsley as well as photographs by Lucy Gardner herself. Standouts for me were; Blair Grieg’s moody, misty oils which capture Aotearoa’s unique landscapes and singular light; Brian Strong’s Profiles of the West and The Summer Front with their glimpses of bush, waterfalls, tranquil bays and brooding skies; Lisa Wisse’s clair/obsur A Timeless Land where the light traces a path across the sea between dark hills and islands to the sky; and Lucy Gardner’s band and club life photos.

I have just finished reading Ariana Huffington’s Thrive. Among the “pillars” she sees as essential to thriving is a sense of wonder – the kind of feeling inspired by works of art, views and nature.

Home Gallery offers many wonders – the windows in those limestone walls, framing the Pacific ocean; the old grain-store – a piece of Oamaru’s past;  and most of all, those wonderful works of art with their insights into Aotearoa New Zealand and the way we see it.

If you can’t drop into Home Gallery Fine Arts and Living to enjoy its  wonders (but it’s worthwhile making the effort to do so) then visit www.homegalleryfinearts.com

 

 

 

WOW, Wellington’s festival of wearable art

It’s WOW, or World of Wearable Art, time in Wellington.

WOW Treasure Box
WOW Treasure Box

Every year in September, in Wellington, New Zealand’s cool little capital, designers from all over the world unleash their creativity in this extraordinary competition where art, in every expression and material meets fashion in all its forms. Competitors vie for over 150,00 dollars worth of prizes. The most coveted reward of all though is an internship in creative Nirvana, Weta Workshop.

A WOW pink cube
A WOW pink cube

WOW draws international costume designers and their creations (some of Madonna’s unforgettable garments are on display this year) as well as established locals and their works. It also  brings complete unknowns and absolute design novices of all ages and from all walks of life, into the spotlight. The competition’s history is rich with heart-warming stories of the “little people” who have taken to the WOW stage – like the middle-aged commercial cleaner who dreamed up a stunning plastic frock worthy of a Disney Cinderella.

A glimpse through the peephole
A glimpse through the peephole

Unfortunately, I wasn’t in Wellington for the main event but I was there for the build up. Wellington is a place accustomed to thinking the outside the square. It has carved serpentine roads into vertical hillsides, planted elaborate houses on slivers of cliff, underpinned precious public buildings with rubber foundations to withstand earthquakes, built a hive for MPs then called it the Beehive and created an edgy, layered fashion look to defend against gale-force winds and sideways rain. So I wasn’t surprised to find that Wellington had come with an innovative way to advertise and preview the wonderful WOW experience.

Pink cubes, called treasure boxes, with multi-level and multi-sized peepholes, all around the city, provided glimpses of wearable art from WOW festivals past. I spent my day in Wellington, running like a Pokemon gamester, defying traffic hazards, short-cutting through shops and offices, hot on the treasure box trail. Fixing my eye, then my camera, to the average-level peephole, I enjoyed my very own WOW experience and brought away WOW memories to share.

Uprising Beach resort, where Fiji’s Sevens Rugby Team prepared for Olympic gold

When Fiji defeated England 43 to 7 in the Olympic Rugby Sevens Competition, it marked two historic firsts. It was Fiji’s first gold medal and it was won in the first Olympic Rugby Sevens competition since 1924.

The palm-shaded beach at Fiji's Uprising resort where the Fiji Olympic Sevens Rugby Team prepared for gold
The palm-shaded beach at Fiji’s Uprising resort where the Fiji Olympic Sevens Rugby Team prepared for gold

The win set off a world-wide flurry of Fiji fervour. Within minutes Fiji’s Olympic victory went viral. Within hours the Fijian Rugby Sevens team was a social media sensation. By the end of the day, the most searched subject on Google was Fiji.

Lush tropical gardens at Uprising Beach Resort where the Fijian Rugby Sevens Team prepared for Olympic gold
Lush tropical gardens at Uprising Beach Resort where the Fijian Rugby Sevens Team prepared for Olympic gold

Googlers who clicked on Fiji images would have found page after page of pictures of calm blue sea, palm fringed sands, verdant bush and lush gardens. That’s Fiji, the South Pacific island paradise that produced the best Sevens Rugby Team in the world.

The view from a beachside villa at Uprising
The view from a beachside villa at Uprising

Read on with travelstripe.com to discover Uprising Beach Resort, the corner of that tropical paradise where the Fiji Rugby Sevens team prepared for their historic win.

A garden villa at Uprising
A garden villa at Uprising

Uprising Beach Resort is on the Coral Coast, at the southern end of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. Set on the edge of the lagoon, in a secluded garden of frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea and coconut palms, it is quintessential Eden. The only sounds are birdsong, the whisper of waves on sand, the rustle of the wind in the trees and the occasional thud of a falling coconut.

A villa beside the sea at Uprising
A villa beside the sea at Uprising

Uprising’s villas have all the charm of traditional and colonial Fiji, with thatched rooves, native timber interiors, cool paved floors, ticking ceiling fans and wooden shutters, as well as all the luxuries of 21st century life, like room service, air-conditioning, refrigerators stocked with Fiji water and sumptuous bathrooms, both indoor and outdoor, with generous supplies of fluffy towels and coconut-scented toiletries. French doors open onto a veranda with steps leading down to a deserted beach.

The garden pool and restaurant at Uprising
The garden pool and restaurant at Uprising

Life at Uprising, at least for holidaying guests, is bliss. Days begin with breakfasts of local fruits and patisserie (bacon and eggs if you must) Hours are filled with strolls along the sand, swims in the sea or the pool, canoeing, windsurfing, paddle boarding, volleyball or horse-riding and massages with tropical oils. Days end with cocktails (mango daiquiris) at sunset in the beachside bar and dinners of local cuisine (say kokonda or raw fish with cassava chips) on the restaurant terrace.

Uprising Beach Resort, Fiji Travelstripe
Sunset at Uprising Beach Resort, Fiji

Seclusion, scenic beauty, luxury and leisure – these are the essentials of the heavenly retreat.  Uprising has all of these and moreThe things that set Uprising apart from any other resort in the world are the Rugby field alongside the drive, the evening training sessions that bring players together there and “the big house“ for group and team accommodation at the rear of the complex.  The most interesting points of difference, though, are the story behind Uprising and the man behind Uprising’s story.

Tropical gardens at Uprising Beach Resort
Tropical gardens at Uprising Beach Resort

Uprising Beach Resort was the brainchild of René Phillippe. René enjoyed an idyllic childhood just up the road, in Pacific Harbour, hanging out and playing Rugby with the other local kids. When they finished school, the inevitable move away for work or further study meant the end of the idyll. Rene was determined to find a way to retrieve that idyll, to bring that team of kids back together as adults and to keep Pacific Harbour Rugby alive. Uprising Beach Resort was that “way”.

Uprising Beach resort's Rugby goals tower behind a roadside stall
Uprising Beach resort’s Rugby goals tower behind a roadside stall

The name Uprising comes from the Bob Marley album, a boyhood favourite. It’s a name that says it all. Uprising Beach Resort did bring that original group of neighbourhood Rugby players back together. Many now work at Uprising. For others it’s a home away from their far-flung, new-found homes.

Now,  Uprising is a centrepoint not only of  local but also of national Fijian Rugby. The careers of notable international players have been launched from the Uprising Rugby field. And, yes, now,  Uprising Beach Resort can lay claim to nourishing and sheltering the world famous Fijian Sevens Rugby team as they prepared to carry off Olympic gold.

So, for all those who’ve fallen under the spell of Fiji images and are heading off to the South Pacific paradise, don’t miss Uprising Beach Resort. Luxuriate in tropical island bliss and take in some Fijian Rugby magic too.

 

 

New Zealand Noir

It’s July in the Mackenzie Country, at the foot of the Southern Alps, in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Winter has drained the colour from the land and left it in shades of grey and white.

Winter in the Mackenzie Country
Winter in the Mackenzie Country

The distant mountains are lost in the mist. It’s a strange, surreal and eerie landscape, like a scene from a Nordic Noir film.

It’s late morning and the road, closed because of heavy ice, has just opened. We have it all to ourselves, until our headlights pick out a hazy shape looming, like a ghost, in the mist ahead. It’s a motorbike rider in billowing overalls. We keep a safe distance. The roads are still slippery. The rider raises a hand to wave us past. We dare not. Beyond him is obscurity. He half turns his head. We drop back, leaving him to his lonely ride and wondering what pressing business, what unavoidable mission brought him out on a morning like this.

Getting language in Milan

Having decided that, in order to make the most of my new Milan locale, I need to learn Italian and quickly, I set about the business of finding a suitable course.

Piazza Duomo, Milan
Piazza Duomo, Milan

I turn to my new bible, Easy Milano, the magazine for English speakers in Milan. Among its pages of useful information are lists of Italian language schools – hundreds of them. How to choose? Scanning the list I spot Societa Dante Alligieri, courses in Italian for foreigners. I know the Societa Dante Alligieri! Once, an historic age ago, as a student teacher, I performed with my Introduction to Italian class at the Societa Dante Alligieri, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The title of the song we sang – La Bella Polenta – remains with me still. The words and the tune, alas, are lost, along with most of the language I learned in my “Introduction to Italian”.

Throwing on my coat, I head out to the Societa Dante Alligieri to enrol. I sign up for A1, the beginner’s course, which is where students with only basic greetings and a few random phrases belong. But Maria Grazia, who handles my enrolment, assures me that after a month of daily A1 three hour total immersion classes, I’ll be set for everyday life in Milan.

I start the next morning. The course is brilliant – two hours of written language with Patrizia and one hour of conversation with Myrta. Both are great teachers – fun and interesting. My classmates are fascinating. There’s a student chef from Korea, a Frenchman working in Milan’s textile industry, a young woman from China studying fashion, a model from Belorus and a Russian lawyer, learning Italian before beginning work.

The course moves swiftly and after a week, my language has increased fifty fold and most importantly, my confidence has doubled.

Lost for language at Da Candido

Just around the corner from Via Taormina is the Cooperativa La Vittoria, with its Bar/Trattoria, Da Candido. Of solid, late 19th century style and stature, La Vittoria’s stern façade stares down the glass front of the cool 21st century wine bar across the road with an air that says “wine bars like you will come and go, but I’ll go on for ever”.

Da Candido at Cooperativa La Vittoria
Da Candido at Cooperativa La Vittoria

That evening, as G. and I take a stroll through the streets, the wine bar’s lights are already dim and its chairs are stacked on tables. La Vittoria’s door and Da Candido’s lights are bright and beckoning. We venture in for nightcap. The place is empty and the bar is unmanned but there are sounds of merriment offstage and through a half open door, I see curls of cigarette smoke, a table with glasses and heads bent over hands of playing cards. As if by ESP, a Signora appears. She seems neither surprised, nor pleased, to see us and says an unsmiling but not unwelcoming “Buona sera”. She’s a generously built, plump-faced white-haired lady, of indeterminate age – perhaps a well-preserved seventy or maybe a worse for wear forty.   We timidly ask for “vino, per favore” Without enquiring bianco or rosso, Signora points us to a nearby table.

We head to the window. As we pass the half-open door, silence falls and heads turn. I nod and smile. The heads nod back briefly, then turn away. The talk resumes and the game goes on.

Signora arrives with coasters, grissini and two glasses of red wine. I really prefer white but I’m not prepared to argue. I don’t have the language anyway. Signora is watching from the bar, so I take a nervous sip. It tastes good. I determine to drink more red from now. I nod and smile at Signora. She nods unsmilingly back and continues to watch. Conversation feels awkward, so we gaze around da Candido. It’s a room full tables. Those in the front half are casually scattered. At the back, they’re lined up in ranks, refectory-style. In one corner is a large plastic palm tree and dotted around the walls are pictures of tropical isles and postcards of sunny beaches. There is also photo of the Pope and a print of the Virgin Mary. There are posters for bierra, aqua minerale, vino and even cigarettes. I feel Signora’s eyes studying us, studying the walls. Is she waiting for us to finish our drinks, or is she waiting for us to order another? It’s really hard to know. We finish them, nod, smile and head to the door. Signora follows us and locks it behind us. Was Da Candido closed when we arrived asking for drinks? Is it really closing time now? Is Signora making sure that nobody else comes in and interrupts her evening? Is she telling us not to come back? Impossible to know. There’s a lesson here – we need language.

A few weeks later, I’m passing La Vittoria with my son. It’s lunchtime. Da Candido looks busy. Perhaps we can slip in and blend with the crowd. The tables are filled with men in work-boots and overalls. Even in casual jeans and t shirts, we don’t blend in. We watch from the bar as a duo of Signore, both dressed in crisp yellow, button-up, belted, white-collared uniforms burst backwards through a swing door with steaming plates and reverse out again with stacks of empties. People don’t linger. When their plates are empty, they head out the door, lighting up smokes as they leave. Should we leave too? But Signora has seen us. She waves us over. We obey. She stands at the table holding our chairs. We sit. Glasses and bread basket appear. People give us quick, indifferent glances. I nod and smile. They look away.

“I feel out of place” I whisper

“Me too” mutters Gez

But  its contorni, primo, pasta, scallopine and  dolci. We’re just two people eating lunch, like everyone else, except that we eat slowly, savouring new tastes, like tourists, with no work to hurry back to. By the time we’ve finished, the tables are empty and the Signore are whipping table-cloths away and whisking a broom across the floor. The lunch costs a laughable few euros.

“Delicioso” I venture. Signora nods, “Gratie mille” I try. She nods again. She follows us to the door. Behind us we hear the lock turn. Did we just crash a private lunch? Is it really closing time? Impossible to know.

I really need language.

Later, when I do have language, I discover Cooperativa, La Vittoria is, traditionally, a neighbourhood and workers’ establishment. Da Candido still is. Foreigners like us rarely venture in. In fact, foreigners like us rarely venture into this area. It’s not on the tourist beat. It’s not in the guide books. It’s a neighbourhood of workers and families of workers. If I’m to understand it, fit in, make friends, or even survive, I need language.

 

Our Via Taormina market

Every Saturday, the market colonises the streets at the end of Via Taormina. My very first week finds me trundling down there with our apartment’s deluxe convertible backpack/shopping trolley.

The market near Via Taormina
The deluxe backpack shopping trolley and G. at the market near Via Taormina

There are stalls of seasonal fruit and vegetables and very other imaginable kind of fare – meat, cheese, oils, olives, nuts, preserves, sweets, cakes, bread, cheese, milk, yoghurt and wine. I am bamboozled by the variety and paralysed by the staggering number of choices. In the end, I stalk a matron of upper middle-age. She looks as if she knows a thing or two about cibo. I don’t yet know the Italian for “I’ll have what she’s having”, so I stay close, watch keenly and point. Her choices of olio, olive, formaggio, legume, pane and pollo are faultless, I later discover.

Clothes at the market are seasonal too – warm coats, jumpers, scarves, beanies, vests and boots in winter, sandals, frocks and shorts in summer. Here I need no help, nor do I need words. My first purchase, on a chilly autumn morning, is long black padded coat, of unidentifiable material, but of such warmth that I could venture into the snow with nothing more than a bikini underneath and not feel the slightest chill. Furthermore, despite its bulk, it is as light as feather. Best impulse buy I ever made!

Alongside the perennials there are classics;  baby layettes, shawls, christening gowns, communion frocks and suits. There’s underwear of a kind not seen since the first half of the last century, including corsets, bloomers and liberty bodices.

Gadgetry abounds – peelers, corers, squeezers and stoners, miracle knives and magic dusters.

There’s a multitude of Manchester from duvets to doilies, table cloths to tapestries. There are beads, buttons and wool.

Among all this merchandise dedicated to worldly needs and pastimes, the soul and spirit are not forgotten; there are holy pictures and statues, shrines and votive candles too.

I stare in wonder as bloomers, buttons, coats, candles, self sharpening scissors, artichokes and apples fly off the stalls and into trolleys.

This a market, I think, as I trundle back along Via Taormina,  with the bulging  deluxe/convertible backpack/ shopping trolley, that truly serves its community.