Sunday, September 20, 2015


We arrived in Sicily deep in the bowels of the large ferry that transports the train from the mainland to the island. Now we returned for a day of sightseeing, this time on one of the many car ferries that cross the straits from Messina back to the port near Reggio Calabria.

The straits, so feared by the ancients, are only two miles wide at this point but are still full of hazards: cargo and cruise ships moving at high speed day and night, along with strong tides as the waters flow back and forth between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas. But we didn’t see any terrified ancient Greeks or Romans rowing frantically while on the lookout for Scylla, the mythical monster, a rock shoal on the mainland side, or Charybdis, a terrifying whirlpool off the Sicilian coast. Both these monsters were said to be women; Scylla had 12 arms and 6 heads on long snaky necks; Charybdis belched water three times in an out. Homer says Odysseus decided to steer closer to Scylla and lose a few sailors rather than chance going near the whirlpool and risk losing the whole ship.

The memories of the ancients live on: Our first stop after disembarking was the small town of Scilla, Now topped by Castle Ruffo, the fearful rock named Scylla still looms over the little seaside town. But as in Sicily, none of the women looked at all like the myths and I wondered why the ancients determined they were women.

No one we saw looked terrified either. In fact, the town was quiet and nearly empty with only a couple of restaurants and bars open and a few sunbathers trying out the early summer sun.

We watched several workers painting and scraping to get everything cleaned up for the coming high season. Others set up two cabins, one with a truly bizarre logo on the side: a man trying to look over a barrier to watch women changing their clothes. Not very inviting to me.

The only other sign of life beyond the few workers and the restaurant and bar next door where we had lunch and coffee was a sword fishing boat, the lookout swaying back and forth high atop the mast. No a job for those prone to seasickness.

The meal was excellent but there was no point in lingering after we enjoyed an iced coffee while looking far out to sea where the distant shapes of the Aeolian Islands shimmered in the haze.

Our goal for the afternoon was the famous Riace Bronzes now in a museum in Reggio di Calabria, at the end of Italy’s boot. The unfinished museum is still nearly empty after years of construction. All we saw besides the bronzes was a small gift shop, and a large hall with three sculptures at the far end.

 A separate climate-controlled room houses the two bronzes plus three bronze heads all set on high-tech earthquake proof pedestals. Tourists are let in in groups of about twenty after a wait in a decontamination room designed to clean the air. We waited our turn behind a group of giggling grade schoolers in their matching outfits.

The museum, empty though it is, was more than worth the journey. The two Greek bronzes were found by chance in 1972 when a snorkeler noticed an arm sticking out of the sand. Not some poor drowned soul but a statue. The second one turned up nearby. They are an astounding example of workmanship. Most likely cast around 450 BC, the larger than life-size figures probably represent two warriors, one a young hero or god conscious of his own beauty and power, and an older more mature hero with a relaxed pose.

The eyes are calcite, their teeth silver, lips and nipples are copper. It is unknown exactly where they came from. One theory holds that they were plunder when the Romans occupied Greece and then were lost in a shipwreck on the way to some emperor's villa or palace,  although no ship remains have yet been found. Wherever they came from they are worth a visit to southern Italy and a stunning reminder of the skills of the ancient Greeks who didn’t need computer programs to produce masterpieces unequaled until the Renaissance.

Back on Sicily, our day of marvels was completed with Mt. Etna spilling fire while we dined at a small seaside restaurant. Nature and man combined to produce an unforgettable experience.

All photos copywrite the author with the exception of the two statues in one photo which are from Wikipedia

Friday, July 31, 2015


The Rome airport was in chaos because of a fire. Our one-hour flight to Catania in Sicily, where Glenn and I were to begin a two-week tour, was cancelled and we were unable to rebook by computer or in person. Our only alternative was to take the train, a ten-hour journey.

After fruitless efforts to book on-line, we headed to the crowded and pickpocket-ridden Stazione Termini to get tickets from an agent who could advise on schedules. But when we saw the number 578 on the slip from the take-a-number machine, there was nothing to do but confront the row of hostile vending machines known to eat victim’s credit cards and refuse to produce tickets. Many were “guasto,” the ubiquitous word for “broken” or “out of service.” I found one that appeared to work and gingerly stuck my credit card in the slot. A whirring noise and two tickets for Catania and my card miraculously appeared.  

The next day we dragged our luggage to the station to find our carriage. It had an old-fashioned arrangement for second-class trains: three seats facing one way and three the other in a compartment with a sliding door opening onto a corridor.
It didn’t take long to find out who our companions for the ride would be when a huge African man dressed in a blue tunic and trousers looked through the door and then down at his ticket. He entered, hauling a folding trolley and two bulging plastic garbage bags and heaved them up on the luggage rack above the seats before sitting knee to knee opposite Glenn. Then a young man with an Adidas sports bag plopped down. My opposite number entered: another young man but with a dog in his arms. The animal was about the size of a small terrier and bald except for tufts of hair on the top of her head, end of tail and around the ankles. The bald part was pink with black polka dots. The young man was beaming with pride but his pet hid her wistful face in the man’s jacket. I wondered if it was from embarrassment at her appearance.

 As the train glided out of Rome, past the ruined Temple of  Minerva Medica and crumbling aqueducts, the compartment door slid open and our last companion arrived: a man with receding hairline, a grey ponytail, flowered shirt, and gold bracelets and necklace.

When you are stuck together with other travelers for ten hours on a train with no restaurant or bar car the only thing to do is talk. Everyone introduced themselves. The man with bundles was a Senegalese street vendor who spoke Italian and French as he talked about his family left behind as he sold knock-off handbags on the streets and beaches. The dog man told us about his timid Chinese Crested dog; the man sitting next to Glenn was a lawyer from Catania, also stuck on the train because of the airport fire and subsequent cancellations. One of his conversational offerings was his name, Gaio. Although the female equivalent, Gaia, Earth goddess, is common, the masculine equivalent is nearly unknown. (I thought his mama must have known how good-looking he would be because he did indeed look like a god.) The man with the ponytail was originally from Uruguay now living in Parma and on his way south to visit his Italian mother. He entertained us with stories of his recent heart surgery after we admired his scar. We volunteered some about our past years living in Rome before asking why there was no bridge to Sicily. The two Italians responded with shrugs and mumblings about corruption.

And so the time passed in conversation conducted in three languages as the train chugged through economically depressed southern Italy, a land where much of “what might have been” is evident with every crumbling and empty factory, fallow field, and one-story house with the rusting re-bar for a never-built second story protruding vainly into the sky. So much beauty in the landscape, so difficult to earn a living. 

Eventually the Senegalese gathered up his goods and got off. Instead of making the expected remarks about street vendors, who are widely seen as a nuisance, the other three began to discuss the tragedy of economic conditions in Africa that forced men to emigrate to support their families with menial work in a foreign country.

The train finally reached the Straits of Messina where it was loaded section by section into the bowels of a ferry.

After a half hour in the dark, we emerged in the city of Messina with a small sense of bonding with our fellow travelers, who we would never meet again, and a large appreciation for the empathy of Italians who recognize the struggles of so many desperate migrants washing up on Italy’s southern shores.

All photos from Wikipedia Commons   

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Surely it is a breakfast suitable for the Greek gods who formerly inhabited this lovely part of Sicily: gelato in a fresh and soft brioche accompanied by ice coffee – cold, creamy, sweet and strong enough to keep me awake for at least 18 hours.

We sat outside a café on the waterfront near the Fountain of Arethusa along with the locals who were analyzing the latest political and soccer news. I was analyzing a guide to the part of Syracuse known as Ortigia. The Greeks founded their city here in 733 B.C. and it gradually grew to rival Athens before the Romans took over in 211 B.C. 

The freshwater spring, which flows into a pond full of ducks and feathery papyrus, is named for a young woman named Arethusa. When a Greek river god fell in love and pursued her she plunged into the sea to escape. She reappeared in Ortigia where the goddess Artemis transformed her into the lovely spring – not a bad fate I thought.

Needing to walk off our breakfast, we strolled toward the bridge linking the island to the main city to contemplate the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, built not long after the city’s founding, The architect’s name, Kleomenes, is still visible chiseled into the ancient stone. Could he ever have dreamed that he would be still remembered 3000 years later?

Daily life goes on no matter how many ruins surround the inhabitants, and there is no better way to see it than in the mouthwatering market. Oh the tomatoes, the tomatoes!

Of course we were hungry afterward. I ordered a salad with the tomatoes mixed with oranges. green and black olives, red onions and topped with a sprig of basil. Divine.

Then a stroll along the seaside to the Castle Maniace built in 1212 by Frederick II to protect the harbor.

Fortunately we had two more days to explore the area so we finally subsided at a sidewalk café across from our hotel, the Antico Roma, to watch the evening passeggiata with lovers embracing, tourists with guidebooks, exuberant children, and elderly couples walking arm in arm to enjoy the warm evening. And a future Formula One driver!

The marvelous Duomo was our first goal the following day. The Baroque façade faces the Piazza Duomo which is ringed with golden- colored Baroque buildings including the Town Hall and the Archbishop’s Palace.

At the far end of the piazza is the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia now housing a Caravaggio painting titled The Burial of St. Lucy. Unfortunately the painting is very dark and set so far back from the viewer that it was difficult to see.

The Duomo’s foundation was begun in 480 B.C. when a tyrant of Syracuse, Gelon, was victorious in a war with another Greek city. In celebration he decided to build a temple to Athena which was filled with ivory, gold, white Parian marble from the island of Paros and considered the best in the ancient world. The Doric temple was famous throughout the Mediterranean world and sailors were guided by the sun reflecting on Athena’s shield above the entrance. The riches were looted by the Romans and have long-since disappeared but 24 of the original 36 columns are still standing.

First converted to a church by the Byzantines, changed to a mosque during the Arab times, the Normans made alterations and the Spanish added a ceiling of chestnut wood. It was rebuilt in its current form after 1693 when it began to crumble due to earthquakes. 

We lingered in two chapels in the Duomo. One is dedicated to St Lucy who was martyred in 304 and supposedly had her eyes gouged out. The very odd Baroque marble plaque shows her eyes on a stand with a sword symbolizing the manner of her death. No surprise to find out she is the patron saint of the blind, those with eye infections, and aptly, us long-suffering writers. (And I thought the sword looked like a pen.)

The Cappella del Crocifisso with a splendid painting of the founder of the church, St. Zosimus, attributed to Antonello da Messina.

Below is a reliquary with many of the saint’s bones. I always wonder how the bones so frequently displayed in churches were obtained, and if they really belong to the person venerated.

In the evening it was time for a change from the sacred to the profane – a traditional puppet show with knights, Moors, and our heroine, Angelica. The theater had a small museum and a workshop where disembodied heads and other body parts hung from the ceiling.

Rather disconcerting until we saw the amusing puppet of a horse pulling a traditional Sicilian cart – the horse has both right legs off the ground, quite a balancing trick.

When the performance was over and all ended happily it was time for an evening prosecco and a discussion of which bar we should try for our morning coffee and gelato. More chocolate or something more daring like pistachio?

All photos except The Burial of St. Lucy and the gelato copyright Judith Works. Photo of Burial of St Lucy is from Wikipedia Commons. Photo of gelato is courtesy Margaret Jessop.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


One of the pleasures of a sunny Roman day in May is taking a leisurely stroll through the Communal Rose Garden which is open during that month when the blooms from over 1100 plants are exuberantly flourishing.

The ancient Romans were rose fanciers and supposedly the current site was originally home to a temple dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers.

Wealthy banquet hosts showered their guests with petals as a finale to the meal. (And in the spirit of excess attributed to several emperors both Nero and Heliogabalus (204-222) were reputed to have suffocated guests by dumping piles of petals from a false ceiling. Anyone who has seen the kitschy overwrought painting by Alma-Tadema done in 1888 won’t forget the story.) Fortunately that sort of thing is out of fashion and the flowers are available for all to enjoy without fear.

The garden overlooks the Circus Maximus and the Palatine Hill. I suspect few other such gardens have a more spectacular setting. The layout is divided into two, the lower half is set aside for the annual competition called the Premio Roma; the upper is a compendium of ancient varieties such as Gallica, Alba, and Damascena, and modern plants with intriguing names like Princess Margaret, Dark Lady, Diana, and Pinocchio. Hybrids, miniature, rambling - all are there for you to breath in their intoxicating scent.

The center walkway and curving pathways recall the shape of a menorah. I thought this a curious choice until I learned the history of the area after the temple to Flora vanished in the dust of time: Originally, Roman Jews were assigned a space for their graves on the opposite side of the Tiber, but when Pope Urban VIII built new fortifications to protect Trastevere the Jews were “allowed” to buy land on the northern slope of the Aventino in 1645. The area was called Ortaccio degli Ebrei and an old photo shows a lovely and peaceful site.

My 1904 Baedeker makes a brief mention recommends the site as a place to get a pretty view of the Palatine (the Circus Maximus was only a faint outline at that time).

By 1930 the deceased had been relocated to the main Roman cemetery, Verano, and the site was designed in its current form. Other than the layout and a couple of plaques a visitor would never know the history although the tall and dark cypresses on one site still evoke the traditional Italian cemetery.

Photos copyright by author except for fresco and painting in public domain and old cemetery from

Monday, April 27, 2015


The ship glided over the still tropical waters of Astolabe Bay toward Madang. 

The romantic name of the bay comes from its “discoverer,” Dumont d’Urville who named it after his ship when he sailed in in 1827. We were accompanied to the dock by locals in small boats singing and waving to us – tourist dollars approaching often brings joy to this part of Papua New Guinea.

The town, deep in the jungle-rimmed bay, seemed to me a hot and humid collection of random buildings, and trees filled with large bats having a nap, although it boasts several resorts for intrepid travelers and NGO workers in need of R&R. 

Near the dock a copra-processing plant was in operation. As we stopped to take a look, one of the workers ambled over to tell us the processed coconut meat would be shipped to Australia for cattle feed. We walked on to the tiny museum. I managed to snap a photo of a sea-going outrigger but was shooed away when I wanted to photograph more artifacts. 

I could not help thinking of the recent book about Michael Rockefeller, Savage Harvest, recounting his end on the other side of the island where he was naively collecting carved poles as primitive art, not understanding that they were memorials of cannibal feasts. And I also thought of Lily Tuck’s recent novel, Euphoria, set far to the west of Madang where Margaret Mead and others studied native tribes who told them imaginative tales which may have been factual – or not.

With nothing much to see in town, we decided on a tour to an outlying village.

While it was interesting to see how people lived we were struck by the enormous number of children – a population explosion it seemed. 

The village hosted a Lutheran school and clinic, a legacy of German domination from 1884 – 1914. It was Sunday and most of the children were at Sunday school and they appeared happy and well cared for. But we could not help wondering about their future in such an impoverished country.

Our visit was for tourists so the locals brought out tattered feathers, grass skirts and bare bosoms for entertainment. It was embarrassing for us to be gawking at their desultory display. And the children were embarrassed too. Sunday school over, they flocked to see the show, giggling and pointing at their parents. Somehow the whole event seemed off, nothing more than a sad remnant of a fast-vanishing culture. Not a National Geographic moment. 

By the time we returned to the dock, the local people had set up a market showcasing their real skills: wood carving. A shopping frenzy began, buyers and sellers smiling as they bartered. I briefly contemplated buying a penis gourd for my son-in-law but decided not to, although he told me later he would have “treasured” the souvenir. We settled for a dolphin and a pig of a size we could carry, along with a bunch of orange and yellow lobster-claw helicona and bird of paradise to grace our cabin, but other passengers bought piles of large carvings that would have to be fumigated before loading.

We walked back to the ship past the dismal sign warning against AIDS, rampant in the country. A sad reminder that trouble still stalks this beautiful, sometimes menacing, and mysterious land.

All photos copyright author, Judith Works