Italy – Palermo and Rome

Palermo flowersIf you cast your mind back to February, gentle reader, I was telling you all about a Mediterranean cruise that Mrs Chrisparkle, I, and several relatives embarked on just before Christmas. Since then, we’ve been to India, to South East Asia, we’ve seen lots of shows, and been generally very busy; and those two last days on our cruise have been ignored. So I’m about to put that right!

Politeama Garibaldi theatreWhen the ship docks at Palermo, you’ve got a wide range of tours you can do round the island of Sicily, but we prefer just to get off and walk around. Although it was December, it was a beautiful sunny day; and maybe the sun just got in our eyes a bit too much because within fifteen minutes of walking around we were completely lost. My map was a bit rubbish, not to scale and it didn’t show where we started from, and I quickly concluded that we weren’t anywhere near where I thought we were. So it was by pure chance that we stumbled across the Politeama Garibaldi theatre,Colourful bikes home of the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana, built in 1874, and looking extraordinarily like a mini Albert Hall. It faces a rather grand square, which features a statue of Ruggiero Settimo, Sicilian patriot and fighter for independence. The area has a jolly feel to it – tourists and shoppers mingling with local families and workers on their lunch break. What also impressed me was a display of civic art that you could use to keep fit – a row of static bicycles in multi colours, all mounted on a bright platform. Anyone who gets on and does a bit of pedalling becomes part of the installation, so in a sense it’s a constantly changing display. Clever, that.

RoarWe walked on, and eventually (after having gone in the wrong direction, again) found ourselves being growled at by a lion (not a real one) outside the Teatro Massimo Victor Emanuele, Italy’s largest opera house. We didn’t go in, but admired its grandeur and superbly stocked gardens. You get an excellent sense of space here – not only because the building is so imposing, but the road outside is wide and not too busy, and you feel as though commerce has given way to art. It’s nice when that happens.

Concave crossroadsFurther on, and into a market area, just off the via Maqueda, full of the usual kind of stalls full of tat, but set alongside shops that are clearly top fashion – which makes for an interesting mix. Onwards to the junction with the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of my favourite spots in Palermo; a simple crossroads but the buildings on all four quarters have a concave shape to give the impression of a circle. From here you can enter the Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini, with its Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatinistunning baroque ceiling, gorgeous dome and intricate statuary. Always a nice place for a fifteen minute rest and re-grouping.

From there it’s a short walk to the Vucciria district. This is a none-too-pretty, hard-working, historical market area, with some narrow warrens reminiscent of the souk. Shops overspill into the street and fight for space with pedestrians and motorbikes, awnings and scaffolding. Here you feel that you’re in the heart of the city, and that the opera houses, theatres and churches are the mere decorations on top. As you wend your way past fruiterers and fishmongers, the smells (not always pleasant) take over from the sights,Vucciria and the alleyways get narrower so that the light gets blocked out. Eventually the column outside the church of San Domenico comes into view like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and you re-emerge into the modern day.

Mafia monumentHeading back to the port, we took a route that led us past some modern architecture, and, imposing as it was, it looked really out of place. On closer inspection this tall edifice bore the inscription “”ai caduti nello lotta contra la mafia” and is a 1983 monument dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the fight against the Mafia. Quite a stark image before you leave Palermo for your onward journey.

St Peter'sFrom the sun of Palermo, the next day saw the rain of Rome. Isn’t always the way? Every time we come to Rome it rains. It’s as predictable as… well, the weather really. Virtually every umbrella we own was bought somewhere between St Peter’s (where the coach from Civitavecchia drops you off) and the Piazza Navona. We splashed our way across the piazza and considered joining the queue to go into the Basilica – as we haven’t been in for some time – but then saw how long it was and realised it would be the only thing we would have time for. So we pushed onwards, on our usual round trip of favourite Roman sights.

refreshment vansThose ubiquitous refreshment vans that you see everywhere in Rome look so drab in the rain. The promise of Bibite and Gelati looks woefully inadequate when what you really want is Bovril and broth. Over the Tiber we went, looking particularly gruesome in wet winter weather – the water is the same colour as a light green Morris Marina. When everyone else is wielding brollies you realise how narrow some of the pavements in Rome are, particularly when you are the only keen tourist wanting to make their way to the sights and not dawdling and taking photos of pigeons like everyone else.

Chiesa NuovaOn the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we nipped into the Chiesa Nuova, just in time to take a quick photo before the caretaker evicted us all for lunch. I always like to go in there to see its amazing ceiling and gold decorations – in any other city it would be revered beyond all measure, but in Rome it’s Just Another Church. We diverted off the back using the via del Corallo to take a look at the Santa Maria della Pace, and then dropped down into the top bit of the Piazza Navona.Piazza Navona I’ve been here many times before – the first time was when I was 18 and there is a very embarrassing photo of me eating spaghetti al fresco, with it going everywhere. The prevalence of messy tomato sauce is not quite as embarrassing as the Rubettes style cap I was wearing at the time. Fashion is so cruel.

We’ve never been to Italy in December before and so I was surprised, but very delighted, to see that the Piazza Navona turns into one big Christmas market. It makes for a very lively clash of culture, with Giacomo della Porta’s fountains dominating rows of Santa hats and glass baubles. Continuing our normal route we crossed a few roads until we ended up at the Pantheon.Pantheon Another of our regular must-see sights when in Rome. From the outside it’s majestic; from the inside it takes your breath away. Designed by Hadrian almost 2000 years ago, the height and diameter of the rotunda are both 142 feet and the only light is provided by the oculus hole at the top. The construction was an extraordinary feat, and to think that it survives today as well as it does is beyond words. Pantheon oculusHome to the tombs of, inter alia, Victor Emanuel, Umberto I and Raphael, it’s a building that keeps pace with modern life, and I think it’s a stunner.

From the Pantheon, it’s another short walk along the via di Pietra onto the via delle Muratte – a good place to buy books and calendars, and also home to an apartment where Mrs Chrisparkle and I spent a lovely week about ten years ago, so we always think of it as being “Our Residence in Rome” – and just follow the crowds to the Trevi Fountain. We could see the Trevi from our flat – Treviand I can confirm, it never sleeps. Crowds are there morning, noon and night; and even in the darkest hour, when few tourists lurk, the city cleaners are out there maintaining it – noisily. Nicola Salvi’s dramatic horses are on a permanent mission to clamber over those splashy rocks whilst Tritons attempt to hold them back. I always find this such an exhilarating place – it’s a combination of the crowds, the noise, the water and the sculpture that I find hard to beat. You just have to gaze at it all for a quarter of an hour and lose yourself. Magic!

Victor Emmanuel MonumentFrom the Trevi, you’ve basically got two choices. Do you head north and find the Spanish Steps? Or do you head south for the Colosseum and Forum? As we were accompanied by our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, plus their male parent D and female parent M, none of whom had been to Rome before, they were desperate to see the Colosseum. That was the decider. The route takes you down the via del Corso and its fashionable shops and its fashionable shoppers, and past the Victor Emmanuel Monument, which I always like to see; that controversial structure has been likened to both a wedding cake and an old fashioned typewriter, but its main source of controversy was that it blocked out the view of the Forum from the centre of town.

ColosseumAs we walked on, we looked over into the Forum area and thought it looked deserted. Odd, I thought, we’ll check it out on the way back. Down at the Colosseum, as it was Christmas, they had an attractive Christmas tree outside. It looked relatively appropriate in the December drizzle, but gave an additional air of bizarreness to the guys dressed as gladiators. No matter how many times you see it, the Colosseum is a wonderful sight. It looms so large at the end of the road,Arch of Constantine and its circular shape puts you in mind of a Roman gasometer; and then as your eyes follow it round you get the harsh reality of where its ancient beauty just stops and the wall falls away at 30 degrees from the top. It’s such a dramatic structure. The queue to get in was almost as long as that at St. Peter’s so we decided just to wander around it and drink in the atmosphere. Nearby is the stunning Arch of Constantine, which looks like (and of course is) an ancient monument but it’s actually 200 years younger than the Pantheon.

ForumWe thought we’d return back through the Forum, which is when I discovered why it was empty. They were charging to get in! I’ve never been charged to get in before. I think they now only have one free day a week or so. It’s a real shame, because, like nipping into a gallery for fifteen minutes to do one room really well, it was always nice to dip in for a short while and be at one with history. Now you have to plan your visit and give yourself enough time to do the whole thing, or else it isn’t worth the entrance fee. And we didn’t have enough time to do the whole thing. So we didn’t go in at all.

Castel Sant' AngeloJust going to give a mention to our other favourite Rome sight, even though it’s one that we didn’t fit in on that day, and that’s the church of San Clemente, at the via di San Giovanni in Laterano. What’s incredible about it is that it consists of three churches in one, each built on top of each other, over centuries of use. In the basement is a pagan church from the 4th century; at street level there is a 12th century church and on top is a 17th century extension dedicated to St Clement. You feel as though, just by travelling a few feet, and going up a few stairs, you pass through eras. A memorable sight.

A Roman ChristmasAnd that concluded our two days in Italy. We returned to St Peter’s using the subway system, and it worked like a dream. A slow coach ride back to Civitavecchia, but by taking the “official” unescorted tour, you know the ship will wait for you if you are delayed. There’s nothing quite like a cheeky Mediterranean cruise to excite the sightseeing buds and the MSC Splendida is a very beautiful ship indeed. Hopefully we’ll be back soon!

Tunisia – Tunis

Welcome PartyAll European cruises always include a non-EU destination so that it can be duty-free, and on this MSC Splendida itinerary last December, that honour was to be bestowed on Tunis. Looking out to land as the ship came closer to shore, we saw a friendly welcome party of four musicians and three camels outside a fast food outlet. I sensed we were in for a cross between the Arabian Nights and an Out of Town retail park.

State of EmergencyWe decided to do the tour that explored the souks, and on the whole it was a pretty wise choice. As the coach took us into the centre of town, we realised there was a heavy military presence. Our guide explained that the country was still in a State of Emergency following the Arab Spring earlier in the year. Barbed wire lined the pavements, camouflage trucks graced the boulevard outside the Catholic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul and the statue of Ibn Khaldun gazed sorrowfully at a socking great military tank.

Siège de la MunicipalitéWe got out of the bus at the Siège de la Municipalité, where bright red Tunisian flags were flapping in the breeze and the military police were watching every step we made. It was a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but being unfazeable travellers we fixed the police with our “so what” stares and followed our guide down the steps, alongside some Moorish buildings till we came to the little alleyways that would lead down to the souk.

Souk doorsWe studiously noted the designs on the great yellow wooden doors that were dotted along the alleys, where Jewish Stars of David made out of studs were closely intermingled with Islamic crescent moons – a symbol that the area had always been one of freedom to follow your own faith, with both communities living happily side by side. Rather superb. There’s also a very interesting clock tower on one of the government buildings in the area – with a normal 1 – 12 clock face on top (the type we all recognise) and an Islamic clock beneath.

Inside the souk (1)Anyway, bypassing the last remnants of the barbed wire, we trudged through the small alleyways and entered the souk at one of its many gates. As soon as you enter, you realise what a hive of activity the place is. Every single nook and cranny seems to be populated with intent, hardworking people, quietly going about their business; cooking, mending, cleaning, stacking, making, cutting, chatting, buying and selling.Inside the souk (2) We saw guys arranging stacks of beret-like caps; a man carefully sewing and stitching an exquisite over garment; and of course, plenty of little cafeterias and drink stalls. It’s a veritable warren of interweaving alleys, full of Arabian mystery. You end up exiting the souks by one path, going outside for short way – maybe seeing a small mosque or some charming typical blue balconies – only then to get plunged back into the warren for some more crisscrossing pathways.Inside the souk (3) At one point you’re standing outside what is apparently still a maternity hospital; at another you’re at a craft market; still another, you’re all trying different scented oils in what appears to be a converted harem. Virtually all trades are represented there – with plenty of precious stones, good quality clothes and mystic antiques to take your fancy.

Terrace viewFrom the souk it’s just a very short walk to an open air terrace that offers tremendous views (that’s my estate agent voice talking again) of the city. The terrace is rather unpromisingly at on the top floor of a souvenir shop but all guides seem to find it, so do as you’re told and you’re bound to get there. At that terrace level, minarets, roofs, but above all, satellite dishes abound. Back downstairs and you have to go through the excruciation of the shop proprietors unfurling endless carpets to entice your hard earned cash out of you, and what you desperately hope is that someone elseMore shopping in your party shows interest and flashes some cash so that you can slink off without causing offence.

Back into the souk again, and time for some souvenir shopping. There’s plenty to choose from. Lanterns, exotic slippers, Italia Football T-shirts, leather goods, even a fez, they’re all here. Mrs Chrisparkle decided not to get a belly-dancing outfit; I thought she was being a bit of a spoilsport. Talking of which, that was the last part of our tour – a trip upstairs in another shop to see two ladies giving it the traditional belly-dance routine, to the plaintive sounds Belly Dancingof an old bloke puffing on a horn instrument, whilst British tourists sat around looking slightly bemused. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of the souk, and although you felt a lot of it was “put on for tourists”, there’s no doubt that this traditional way of life is still thriving. Very enjoyable, and a bit of exotic escapism!

Spain – Barcelona

Sagrada FamiliaI can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been to Barcelona. It all started when I was eleven. My dad had died a few months earlier so Mum decided a Spring holiday to the Costa Dorada would be a boost for both of us. We stayed at the cheap and cheerful Hotel Internacional in Calella de la Costa; went up the Costa Brava coast to Pineda (where I loved the trampolines on the beach), Blanes (fish market), Tossa (rocky coves), Lloret, and as far as San Feliu de Guixols; another day we went to Montserrat (still haven’t been back and I really want to); another day to Gerona (I felt so cosmopolitan); and yet another to Barcelona, where in a whirlwind tour that seemed to last all day and all night we saw the Ramblas, the Sagrada Familia, did a harbour tour on a little boat, saw the Spanish Village, and ended up watching a horse show at Montjuic which culminated with the stunning magic fountain display. I slept all the way home but I don’t think I had ever had such an exciting day.

Custom HouseSince then Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been back to Calella, and had a couple of days in Barcelona; we’ve stopped off there on a number of cruises, and we did once have a long weekend there too. So we really feel an affinity for the city; and whenever we go there on a cruise, we basically have the same routine – a very leisurely walk up the Ramblas; get lunch at El Corte Ingles food hall; and either visit the Sagrada Familia or the Seu Cathedral en route back.

Christopher ColumbusIf you get the “disorganised” tour from the ship – basically a transfer in and out of town – you’re disgorged at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the splendidly marine monument to Christopher Columbus. The old Customs House greets you in its stately glory too. Near here, you can go out into the tourist trap haven that houses the Maremagnum shopping complex. On a sunny day, it looks very enticing. However, I can only recommend a quick wander around and then back into town. Do not, as we did some years ago, have lunch at one of the restaurants. The food was run of the mill, and the service slow, brutish and off-hand. It was one of those rare occasions when I deliberately didn’t leave a tip as we had been treated so poorly. The waiter looked disappointedly at the cash we had left and remonstrated on our way out with the words, “but service isn’t included” to which I replied, “you’re telling me!” Never again.

DragonA gentle stroll in the winter sunshine up the Ramblas is the perfect relaxation exercise. Quieter than usual – it was rather early on a Monday morning – nevertheless the cafes, market stalls, and living statues all have that welcoming feeling, and it’s also a perfect opportunity for people-watching. I always love to catch sight of the stylised dragon emerging from the corner of the old umbrella shop at Plaça de la Boqueria. As we were there on 17th December,Santa Claus Santa Claus also had a big presence in the Ramblas, and was seen clambering in and out of many a balcony and window. Further up the Ramblas and we took a diversion into the food market of Sant Josep, always a colourful and assault of the senses – and mostly it smells ok too. Back on the Ramblas, past the stalls selling guinea pigs, bunny rabbits and fishy-wishies (sorry I couldn’t help myself) which looks anomalous today to a Brit abroad, and upward to the Plaça de Catalunya at the top end.

Sant JosepThis is normally a very welcoming sight, but it had been largely boarded over for some exhibition or other. Still it makes a useful place for a rest, and to devour the lunch titbits that we had bought at El Corte Ingles, which has a pretty substantial separate gluten-free area in the foodhall. Suitably nourished, we decided to go to the Sagrada Familia, but we wanted to go by metro. Plaça de Catalunya has one of the largest and most useful metro stations, so we headed into the bowels of the earth to try to work out how to buy tickets. There were seven of us, and there had been a bit of a kerfuffle at one stage as one of us got lost and another tripped over, so we must have looked like the tourist family from hell. Our defensive guard was down as we were dusting each other off and counting how many children were left and thus we forgot about being aware of our environment. fishy-wishiesEnter a gentleman wearing a uniform who was very helpful to guide us through the intricacies of the metro system. Mrs C and I are always worried about this – as we remember the “helpful gentleman” in Paris back in 1985 who guided us through the ticket buying process and we ended up with an invalid ticket for which we had to pay him top price, and all the ticket inspectors at Charles de Gaulle airport were just waiting to fleece every tourist as they knew we’d all been caught out. Not a very pleasant experience. However, this Barcelona guy seemed genuine. Or at least until after we’d done the deal when he then asked for some money for his help. That was when I realised the uniform was make-believe. Sigh, caught again, I thought. Nevertheless, his advice was good, and he didn’t rip us off, and when we showed our tickets to the ticket inspectors, they were obviously valid. Phew!

Sagrada Familia window effectWhen you finally find your way in to the Sagrada Familia, and your heart has survived the double-take at the entrance prices, it’s just magnificent. We’ve been inside before but I can’t remember it looking so beautiful. The reflected light through the windows throws up a myriad of colours against the plain background of the walls and it really is breathtaking. It stuns you into silence. The place just has a feeling of overwhelming majesty. Sagrada Familia looking upThe last time we took the lift up one of the towers, the weird Gaudi shapes and angles unsettled my stomach and made me feel quite nauseous! Not so this time. It’s very exciting being up at the top, and even though it got a bit confusing as to which way you could walk around – and the space is very limited too – it was a complete thrill.View from the top If there’s a queue to go up, it’s definitely worth the wait. Outside the church there’s a lot of scaffolding and some plucky guys were swaying in the breeze all strapped up doing their work. That sure takes some guts.

And that was basically it.Scaffolders Afterwards we just got the metro back to Catalunya and retraced our steps towards the port. We did go slightly off route to see the Christmas displays outside the Palau de la Generalitat, which were highly original and reminded me of nativity scenes on space-age TV sets. They were, of course, giant Christmas tree baubles, how stupid of me. We didn’t take the opportunityPalau de la Generalitat to eat out this time, or spend large numbers of euros on copious quantities of cava sangria on the pavement. If you haven’t done that before, I can recommend it as good fun! But we thought we’d set a good example to the nieces, and we returned to the ship as sober as the day we were born.

France – Marseille and Aix-en-Provence

MSC SplendidaLet me cast your minds back to December, gentle reader, and tell you about a short sneaky Mediterranean cruise that Mrs Chrisparkle and I took shortly before Christmas. We weren’t alone; accompanying us were the Lady Duncansby, our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, plus their male parent D and female parent M. We flew from London Heathrow to Nice on an early morning British Airways flight, where we were met by “representatives”, who smuggled us out of France and into Italy on the autostrada towards Destination Genoa. From there it was an easy boarding onto the MSC Splendida for a week in the pre-Christmas sunshine.

Swarovski StaircaseA few words about the Splendida. She certainly lives up to her name, being the most beautiful ship I have ever experienced. Elegantly and colourfully furnished, with a stunning central atrium and four (at least) staircases fashioned courtesy of Swarovski. Any minute you expect the Princess Crystal to leave behind a slipper at the top of one of them – especially at Christmas time. During our week on board, the place got progressively more Christmassy. A few decorations at first; but by the end it was chock full of fairy-light trees, tinsel and glitter. We had a balcony cabin which was larger than we expected and as comfortable as we expected; the food and service was excellent; the drinks and tours reasonably priced; the shows were relatively poor by MSC standards; and they made a helluva noise collecting and sorting the luggage on the final night as we were trying to get to sleep, which resulted in the normally docile Mrs C bellowing in her jimjams at bemused-looking crew members. She’s not proud of it, but to be fair she was driven to distraction.

MarseilleAnyway, our first port of call was Marseille. We’d actually cruised this identical itinerary once before in 2004 on the MSC Sinfonia. That time, Marseille was cold and wet and looked drab and miserable. This time, however, the sun was shining and the city wore an altogether glossier coat. I think someone has been around with some cash in the intervening years and definitely given Marseille a makeover. Shortly after breakfast we boarded our coach and drove along the waters edge from the port into the city centre. The marina was looking stunning, and all the shops and cafes were just beginning to wake up as we followed the road round the little harbour, past the archway with its view towards the Count of Monte Cristo’s Chateau d’If, and steeply upwards to visit Notre Dame de la Garde.

Notre Dame de la GardeThis beautiful church stands high on a hill above the city and thus offers enviable views all around, if that’s not too much like an estate agent. There’s been a religious building of some sort there since the 13th century, but this particular building was consecrated in 1864. The gilded figure of Virgin and Child atop the tower cuts a very smart figure as it gleams in the sun. Inside, it is richly decorated in a Moorish style that reminds you of the Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba. Its maritime associations are represented by hanging models of ships – quite an amusing touch – and oil paintings of ships and boats line the walls. It also has the most difficult to find public toilets in Europe. Allow yourself at least an extra twenty minutes to track them down. You won’t be surprised to find that they are deserted.

Aix-en-Provence Christmas Market We weren’t in port for very long, so the tour we chose to do just gave you a feel of the area without any great depth; so after visiting the church it was back on the road to Aix-en-Provence. Not the Aix where they brought the good news from Ghent – that would have been a very long gallop. This Aix is a charming market town with a very relaxed feel and gently attractive French architecture; it’s the kind of place you’d want to find a quite corner and flump down with a book for a few hours. We walked along the Cours Mirabeau, a wide boulevard that you would swear would lead to a stately chateau at the end – it doesn’t, it’s just a T-junction. One side of the road was given over to a Christmas market and it was full of stylish and luxurious items – enticing looking food and drink, elegant crafts, beautiful glassware; honestly, you couldn’t be further from Milton Keynes market. Male Parent D found a café with a French girl’s name on the awning (presumably la propriétaire), but which appears amusingly rude in English, and so took a photograph of it. It’s amazing how travel broadens the mind.

Fruit and Vegetable stallsWe turned left at the T-junction and wandered round into the old town. There we discovered a very atmospheric and typically French market, selling all the usual fruit and veg, fish and meat, fromage et charcuterie. It was charming. Further on up, towards another square, there was a milling-round of expectant looking people and a few locals with flags, all dressed like what I would imagine 16th century Ruritanian soldiers would look like. Mrs C ran ahead to see what all the fuss was about. Really, the soldier-dressing-up routine should have given her a clue. BANG! went a dozen exploding muskets, and the surprise shot her at least two feet off the ground; much to the amusement of the rest of her family, who looked on in smug non-participation. It must have been some re-enactment of some historical event; but what exactly, we did not find out. Probably the ancient practice of frightening the life out of 16th century shoppers.

Ruritanian soldiersWe didn’t have time for a long stroll – one hour was all the meanie guide would allow us, so we headed back to the Cours Mirabeau where our coach awaited. Gasping for some water, Lady Duncansby and I diverted into a quaint looking little shop that sold all sorts of groceries, where we smiled pleasantly to the staff and locals, who ignored us completely. We located the water, and queued up at the till. Our appearance seemed to ensure the slowest possible service to the people in front of us, but nevertheless we waited patiently and said or did nothing. When we eventually got to the till, we were treated to the most antagonistic hostility that I have experienced in a foreign country for some time; a combination of rude resentment and silent animosity. So, if you find that little grocers’ shop on the right hand side of the market square walking back towards Cours Mirabeau, do me a favour and don’t give them your money. Thanks. Sad that should be our parting memory of France!