Our Thing

It would be impossible for me to write about my travels in Sicily without a mention of their most famous export. Or perhaps as we shall see it also falls under the category of import.

I’m talking about the Mafia of course and let me be clear from the outset that this a personal reflection; and there are countless works of fiction and non fiction that will be more informative than these few words.  (It’s been a while since I plugged The Dark Heart of Italy)

I could have passed the two weeks there and returned oblivious to the presence of any rackets. It was certainly no different to any other part of Italy in that respect.  I’d been warned about “car park attendants” in Palermo who loiter in the free car parks demanding money for showing you an empty space (with the implicit threat to your vehicle if you don’t) but on the Sunday I arrived there was no sign.  Perhaps they were in church.  When I left three days later there were two guys who looked very pleased with vacancy I’d created but let’s not assume the worst.   I knew that shops displaying the addiopizzo* sticker in their windows were refusing to pay extortionists, but it was so far off my radar I didn’t even look for them to photograph.

None of which prevented me from visiting the tiny hilltop settlements of Forza D’Agro and Savoca which Coppola chose to represent the town of Corleone in his trilogy (don’t mention the third one) of Godfather films.    And yes I did take a seat outside Bar Vitelli where Michael seeks the hand of Appolonia.

Corleone exists but wasn’t suitably photogenic, and at the time that Mario Puzo wrote the book (1969), didn’t have a strong mafia presence to speak of.  That was to change in the 80’s and 90’s when the Corleone clan were the leading, and arguably most violent group.

All of which creates a dichotomy.  Sicily would like to consign the mafia to history, in much the same way that we in the UK would like to see the end of terrorism in Northern Ireland.  Both have made great progress, but cultures are not easily changed when people have a fondness for their history.  In Belfast the painted kerbstones, bunting and murals remain and continue to be inflammatory.  In Sicily they may eschew the past but then they can’t help but capitalise upon it, and who is to say it cannot rise again?

The political and judicial forces that combined to tackle the mafia have been weakened by the likes of Berlusconi as a way of mitigating his own corruption, and indeed in Blood Rain, Michael Dibdin makes the point that the politicians are now a greater threat.

So it would be easy to see the Mafia purely through the eyes of Hollywood and the pages of crime novels, but let’s just examine two more experiences from my first day in Sicily and my last.  On the former I had some time to kill in Monreale while waiting for the cathedral to open.  It was cold and wet, the latter making taking pictures less attractive than usual.  So I grabbed a slice of sfincione  and made small talk with a man on a street corner despite the limitations of our respective linguistic skills.  On one corner opposite us was the grey concrete of the police headquarters, but it was another corner he wanted me to see where two marble plaques were erected.

Basile was a Carabinieri captain investigating the Mafia who was shot and killed here in 1980.  The murderers fired repeatedly into his back.  He was carrying his four-year old daughter at the time who was luckily unharmed.

The second experience was as I returned to Palermo airport and travelled along the main A29 road where tall obelisks rise above a lay-by on either side of the road at a place called Capaci.

Falcone & Borsellino mural, Palermo. Borsellino was another magistrate killed by Mafia.
Hills above Capaci

Here in 1992 they killed the anti-Mafia magistrate Giuseppe Falcone (after whom the airport is now named).  They did so by planting a 400kg bomb under the road which was triggered remotely from the hillside above the road.

Falcone’s wife and three policemen were not as fortunate as Basile’s daughter and were killed too.  The Mafia toasted the Capaci bombing with champagne.

The hillside now bears a clear message…

… if you have a lens that can pick it out.

*Goodbye Extortion


Excursion to Vigàta

I’ve referred in earlier Italian posts to my enjoyment of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen detective novels, which through locating the protagonist in a different city for each story combine whodunnit, travelogue and social commentary.  In Blood Rain, Zen is posted to Catania in Sicily, where the rivalries of different crime families and darker political forces combine to tragic effect.
But there is a more famous and far less peripatetic crime fighter to be found in Sicily.  Inspector Montalbano has so far featured in 25 novels, spawning two TV series along the way (Young Montalbano is a prequel), and all based in the little town of Vigàta and the larger conurbation of Montelusa.
You’d be hard pressed to find them on a map for each is as fictional as the police officer himself, yet they are very much based on real places.

Montalbano’s creator, Andrea Camilleri, was born in Porto Empedocle in the Province of Agrigento (Empedocles was a Greek philosopher born in what is now Agrigento) and these are Vigàta and Montelusa respectively.   For a few years Porto Empedocle even changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta before the decision was overturned.  There are a couple of pleasant streets in town (and some locations which are clearly mirrored in the books) but the area is dominated by the port and some derelict industrial areas in its vicinity.

Which is perhaps why those television series gave both the locations and characters a makeover.  The slim, mustachioed detective with his full head of hair is portrayed in a statue on the main street of Porto Empedocle, but you would never associate the figure with the man we see on screen.  Salvo Montalbano’s screen persona is provided by the squat, bald and usually clean-shaven Luca Zingaretti, and the action moved to the more photogenic Province of Ragusa.  Muddying the waters further, the taller Michele Rondino plays the younger version with a mop of curly hair and stubbly beard.
It matters little, for the gently comedic tales that Camilleri has produced have been captured perfectly.  Each episode dawdles slowly to its resolution like an old nonna climbing the alleys of Modica, which gives plenty of time to take in the food, the ambience and the culture of Sicilia.  (Modica is another preferred filming location for the TV company).

Camilleri, who is in his 90’s, has already delivered the final novel to his publisher doubtless in anticipation of his own demise.  Whether his creation meets the same fate we shall have to see.  Perhaps there was a clue in Blood Rain, though the seemingly deadly attack on Zen was subsequently lessened when Dibdin wrote another novel.  Camilleri won’t have that option.

“It’s where my family live”* (CH2)

Its perhaps a consequence of the reluctant study of my school years that some of the great authors I read at the time had any future appeal completely extinguished.  The burden of completing Nostromo was sufficient to deter me from reading Conrad ever again.  Eliot’s poetry was another victim, despite the fact that a line from The Waste Land was echoed as the title for another of the books on our reading list; Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.  Waugh fared magically better; his work being an easier read I went as far as reaching for some of his other works but I didn’t make it as far as Brideshead Revisited.  Nor did I watch the TV series.  Or see the film.

The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.*

_pw_9113So there you have it; a self-confessed Philistine!  And one who can walk the corridors of Castle Howard without the moments of recognition that come from entering a film location that he’s familiar with, or equally knowingly spotting where directors have taken liberties in moving seamlessly between locations that are often quite separate in reality.  I’ve done my share of that when skiing on Schilthorn or enjoying the gardens of Villa del Balbianello.  The point is that both the series and the movie were filmed here so that Castle Howard has become synonymous with Brideshead.

The interiors of a stately home can be as much of an attraction as the exterior, and in some cases more so.  Personally I’m less inclined to wonder at the table settings and bed linen than I am at the spaces and the artistry that has been applied to them but each to their own.  Consequently I didn’t linger too much in Lady Georgiana’s Bedroom (that’s how rumours start), the Turquoise Drawing Room (imaginative name) or many places in between other than the Great Hall.

Now you might think that access to these colourful chambers was the reason for the interest of location scouts, but the truth is a little stranger.  The magnificent great hall is mostly a restoration, but the original fresco inside the dome was Fall of Phaeton by Pellegrini.  The irony being that this myth tells of Phaeton losing control of his father’s chariot which carried the sun across the sky and the earth being in danger of incineration as a result and yet the artwork was lost when in November 1940 a chimney fire quickly spread through the property resulting in several rooms being gutted and the dome collapsing into the hall below.

I sought inspiration among gutted places*

Castle Howard Garden Hall complete with screen makeover

It was those rooms where filming took place since they provided a blank canvas for the set designers but in a setting with the high ceilings and grand doorways as standard.

What does it matter when its built if its beautiful?*

For years afterwards Castle Howard has traded on its Brideshead alter ego, though when I visited a new TV series was being aired  which was filmed here and at several other locations in Yorkshire where grand buildings stood in for royal palaces.  The series is an account of the early life of Queen Victoria and Castle Howard represents Kensington Palace.  Had they concentrated on a later period of her rein the house could finally have played itself.  She came here in August 1850.

* Quotations from Brideshead Revisited




Zzzzz Mr Hemingway. (Habana 58)

One of the less likely destinations for visiting tourists can be found in the Ambos Mundos hotel.  The rooftop bar and perhaps the experience of travelling to it in the original metal cage lift, are the draw for most, and with cold mojitos, smooth salsa and views over the city on offer from the shade of its canopies it’s an understandable choice.

Perhaps when they leave they’re a little too unsteady on their feet to venture down the stairs to the fifth floor and specifically room 511.  There was no trace of other interested parties when I ventured there and no queue was building outside as I left.  Nevertheless the room justifies the constant presence of permanent guardian, a white-uniformed guide who answers to your knock and for a few pesos supervises your stay in the room.

Its attraction lies in its former occupant; for this was Hemingway’s base in Cuba at one point and it is preserved in tribute to him along with various personal ephemera and of course his Remington typewriter on its height-adjustable table.  (Hemingway couldn’t sit for long periods of time as a result of an array of injuries and health problems).  The hotel proudly proclaims that this is where he began For Whom the Bell Tolls, the title being taken from a work by John Donne written while convalescing from serious illness.  Deliberate or ironic?

Whatever the answer it seems fitting place to come to rest after my alphabetical perspective on this city don’t you think?


The Icing on the Cake

Fellow blogger and poet Becky Kilsby recently posted a new work which immediately resonated with me.

I am often that person grabbing a quick breakfast courtesy of Pret (or less frequently Nero), catching up on the news with my iPhone, and people watching as my fellows dash to offices in the city.  Of course the city in question often varies in my case; Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham…  and London, the city that inspired Becky.

My recent work there has been in the City.  Note the capital letter that denotes a specific part of the capital!  The City of London is the historic heart, where commerce held sway (until the big boys decamped to Canary Wharf) and the River Fleet became a street where newsprint flowed instead of water (until Rupert Murdoch decamped to Wapping).

On my last visit, skinny capp and pain au raisin duly despatched, I had time after setting up the room where I was working to take a different view of the City, a roofscape of Ludgate Circus._PW_9370_1_2-Edit

There are more exciting views of the city, the London Eye being too distant to make much of an impression, and I might have chosen to spurn the photographic opportunity were it not for the needle of white that dominated the view; one of the churches rebuilt following The Great Fire of London.  This one is dedicated to St Bridget of Ireland.

Ever since reading Peter Ackroyd’s metaphysical novel Hawksmoor I’ve been intrigued my the work of the architect whose work inspired the tale.  Nicholas Hawksmoor was one of a number of British Baroque architects whose style was inspired by Palladio such as Wren and Vanbrugh.  Hawksmoor’s London churches are marked out by their adoption of unusual symbolism and decoration that wouldn’t normally be found on an English Church where stolid towers and simple spires seem to be the norm.  In fact so unusual are Hawksmoor’s churches that they have inspired writers as diverse as Ackroyd and Alan Moore to ascribe some more sinister meaning to them.

Consequently I assumed the multi-tiered structure here to be one of Hawksmoor’s, but I was wrong.  This is the second tallest church in London, and there’s the clue to its creator.  Only the nearby St Paul’s Cathedral is taller, and both were designed by Hawksmoor’s mentor Sir Christopher Wren.  And yet I can’t help but wonder whether this peculiar spire was suggested by his student, so unique is its appearance.

The church is widely known as the Journalists’ Church given its location, though ironically it recently hosted the wedding of Rupert Murdoch to Jerry Hall; the very man who signed Fleet Street’s death warrant.

But back to that spire.  Does it remind you of anything?

Whether apocryphal or not, it is believed that shortly after the spire was completed, a local baker’s apprentice called Thomas Rich took it as inspiration for a cake he made to impress his employer and prospective father-in-law.  Thus was the traditional wedding cake design created.

I hope it’s true for nothing could be more fitting for a church of this name; St Bride’s.

St Brides, City of London
St Brides, City of London

Quixote (Habana 45)

William Shakespeare is probably the greatest writer that England has produced; more than that he is probably the greatest ever writer in the English language. Curiously he had a Spanish contemporary of similar stature, and in the same way that Shakespeare is revered not just in the UK, but also in the US, so Miguel de Cervantes is honoured in Cuba. Both New World countries fought bitter wars to gain independence from their European masters, but both clearly retained much of their original culture.

So you will find a statue of Cervantes in a small park that also bears his name in Havana Vieja. Placed here in the first decade of the 20th Century, not so long after independence was gained, it was paid for by public subscription.  There is something very wrong about the sculpture however.

Cervantes’ military knowledge comes from personal experience, and he took part in one of the most significant naval battles of the Mediterranean, the Battle of Lepanto, where the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was halted by an alliance of Catholic states in the Holy League fleet.  These galley battles were dominated by infantry forces firing crossbows and arquebus (early rifles) and Cervantes took three shots from the latter, two in the chest and one in the left arm.  A number of accounts refer to the loss of his left hand, and though it seems that it was never amputated it was certainly maimed to the point of being rendered useless.  Cervantes remarked:

“The loss of my left arm is for the greater glory of my right.”

He was 24 at the time.


But it’s not just the writer who is feted. So too are two of his heroes.

Halfway down Obispo you will find Leo D’Lazaro’s bronze of Sancho Panza borne by his long-suffering donkey. The bronze was created in the final decade of the 20th Century so creates a nice symmetry, though the two monuments couldn’t be more different in style. Reverence and Ridicule.


Of course this post couldn’t be complete without reference to Cervante’s protagonist Don Quixote. The deranged knight, to whom Sancho Panza was squire, could not be overlooked, though he is some distance away from his friend and creator. Sergio Martinez’ work features him naked astride his horse Rocinante; two gaunt figures who are each past their best. Why he is here in Vedado, near the ice cream emporium of Coppelia, is rather puzzling when you would expect this man who revered history to be in the old quarter.

What Quixotic caprice brought him here?Havana-3

Hemingway (Habana 27)

I’ve read some Ernest Hemingway over the years.  Some, but not enough.

I say that because I’ve unintentionally become something of a Hemingway stalker; it seems that everywhere I travel these days I find myself in a bar that was once frequented by the writer.

The process began many years ago on a trip to Paris with my ex-wife, and continued on my first visit to Venice.  I’ve blogged before about Harry’s New York Bar and Harry’s bar each of which was frequented by Hemingway.  Did he have some fixation about the name?  Not quite.  The common factor isn’t the name but the commodity on sale.

I extended my collection of Hemingway Haunts last December with Locanda Cipriani, a small inn on Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon but then I came to Havana.  There are probably dozens of drinking establishments here that could claim him as a former customer; he came to Cuba in 1939 to escape his second wife and became a resident of one of the hotels in Havana Vieja, plenty of opportunity to discover new watering holes.

There are a couple of particularly notorious spots.  He reportedly wrote

My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita

on the wall of the former, and consequently now the tiny bar has become a tourist trap where visitors queue to add their own graffiti and fight their way inside for the mint based cocktail.  (This piece of art parodying The Scream tells its own story!) I declined to follow them, but I did enjoy the second of his recommendations.

It was nice to see the man was still enjoying life there.