John Edward Cooper’s Notes

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Wednesday 3 June 2015

[Tuesday 2 June 2015]

Manchester–Catania — Agrigento

Premier Inn, Runger Lane South
06:25–10:45 Manchester–Catania
BEST WESTERN Dioscuri Bay Palace Hotel - Lungomare Falcone Borsellino, 1-92100 - Agrigento (AG)
Phone: +39 0922 406111

Day 1
You should arrive at the airport to take your flight to Catania. On arrival a coach will take us to our four star hotel where we stay for three nights on a dinner bed and breakfast basis.
The Dioscuri Bay Palace is situated overlooking the picturesque harbour in San Leone, just eight kilometres from Agrigento, right on the coast. Set on the seafront the hotel boasts a beautiful pool and expansive terrace looking out over the sparkling sea, American bar and lounge and restaurant serving traditional local food. All rooms boast either a balcony or terrace, are air conditioned and have safe, minibar and satellite TV. Pools are open summer months, weather permitting.

Was in bed just before 9pm, and slept till some noisy loony or drunk in the corridor uttered a loud bleat ca. midnight. Within his room, he continued to do so a time or two. So I lay awake till perhaps 1am. I was thirsty too, and got up a couple of times for water. Then next I knew, the travel-clock alarm was going off at 2.45am. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat at the computer.… Shaved and showered. Janet did the small amount of packing, and we were down in the lobby by 3.55am. I handed over the key-cards at Reception, and we waited for the shuttle minibus, which duly came. A Polish guy got on after us, named “Stan” (Stanisław, I assume). He was going to the same terminal as we were (Terminal 1) for a flight to Frankfurt, thence to Berlin, and thence to Poland. A couple of young men, one of them (Aidan) a bit aggressive-seeming, also got on, heading for… (he did name it: one of the Balearic Islands, I think) from Terminal 3. He gave the impression of being drunk, and indeed his stated intention on arriving at the terminal was to drink lager. At Terminal 1, there was a long, snaking queue at the EasyJet check-in desks; but there was one desk for “Speedy Boarding” which we were entitled to go to, having booked extra-legroom seats, that had only one person at it depositing baggage. Similarly, and unexpectedly, there was a “Speedy Boarding” route through the security scans. (Janet was pulled over to open her bag, as frequently happens.) And when we finally reported to Gate 2 for the flight, after initially queuing to go downstairs to the Gate area, there was a “Speedy Boarding” queue that was much shorter than the other one (though when boarding started, people from the other queue were merging with the people from ours instead of letting ours go first. It was a short walk on the tarmac and up a the steps of a “stairs truck” to board the plane; previously, we’ve gone through a “concertina” tube to board. I read some of Leaving Alexandria[i] on the flight.

[i] Richard Holloway, Leaving Alexandria — A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012)

We landed some 10 minutes ahead of schedule at Catania airport. It was hot and sunny as we descended the steps to the tarmac and proceeded the short distance to the terminal building. There was no queue at Passport Control, so we were through that straight away. The wait at Baggage Claim wasn’t a long one. Once the carousel had started, one case appeared very quickly; the other took longer; and we were going through “Nothing to Declare” ca.11am. We saw the tour manager Denise holding up a “Riviera” sign; she marked our names off on her clipboard, and pointed out where everyone was assembling. Then something happened that rankled afterwards: Janet asked if it was OK to go to the loo, and Denise pointed out where they were; yet when she’d marked off everyone on her list, she quickly led the way out, and I was left behind. I was too stunned to open my mouth (though I did so with obscene eloquence when Janet appeared). I followed the group to the glass doors to see in which direction they were heading, then waited. When Janet came out of the toilets, we went in that direction, but couldn’t see them. But there were several coaches parked there, so I left Janet with the luggage and went off in search. Before long I found a coach with a “Riviera” sign on the front; the driver who didn’t understand me got the tour manager, who when she appeared was in fact Denise, so I’d found the right coach. I went back and brought Janet. The driver reopened the already-closed luggage compartment, and we boarded the coach and found two vacant seats at the back. The coach seated ca.50 people, and it was almost completely filled. Denise introduced the same driver — our driver for the week — Rosario. These are my notes (in double quotes), made en route, mainly of things seen:

  • “Hibiscus bushes at the roadside” (but judging by the ones we saw later just about everywhere, they were in fact oleander);
  • “very few tall cypress trees or umbrella pines”, i.e. that we think of as characteristic of Italy, so a lot of Sicily looked ‘un-Italian’ to our eyes;
  • “olive trees”;
  • “orange trees”;
  • “Mount Etna to the right”;
  • “prickly pears”, which we recognised from our encountering them for the first time only four months previously in Perú; indeed, they are native to the Americas and have been introduced elsewhere. They’d been bearing fruit in Perú; here they were in flower;
  • “We crossed a railway (single track)”, then I noted that it ran “parallel at some distance from us”; indeed, it more or less followed our route, sometimes near, sometimes turning off and disappearing in the distance; and at one point a train passed us;
  • “wheat fields”, some yellow with ripe grain, some already harvested;
  • “a British Servicemen’s cemetery”;
  • “poppies” in the fields;
  • “hills” that tended to be “brown” (not green as in Perú), “except where forested”; many of them were “rocky” especially towards the summit;
  • “hilltop wind turbines” in numerous places; also, a few level roadside areas carpeted with solar panels;
  • “stop for refreshments” at a motorway service station. I had a ‘BIRRA CL33 BTG 3,50’ (a 33cl bottle of beer for €3.50) at ‘12:31’, according to the till receipt. I also had a ham sandwich;
  • “swifts” wheeling and dodging around; also swallows, not what we usually mean by ‘swallows’ (Hirundo rustica) but house martins or similar;
  • a tendency for there to be “raised carriageways” in broad valleys, supported on concrete piers;
  • “stark rocks”, narrow, sometimes pointed, tall rock formations sticking out of the ground;
  • “vines”: many vineyards — both for wine and for consumption as ‘table grapes’, Denise told us;
  • “Temple of Juno on a ridge” to our right, just in front of the sprawl of Agrigento on the hills behind it, before we turned left to the nearby village of “San Leone”.

En route, Denise told us what the plan was for the next few days:

  • a “welcome drink” at “7pm” at the hotel we were going to;
  • an 8.30am start tomorrow:
    • Visit to the Valley of the Temples (not a valley, in fact, but really a ridge);
    • Visit to the archaeological museum;
    • Visit to Agrigento.
  • an 8.00am start the day after tomorrow:
    • Visit to Monreale, a.m.: the Duomo and the monastery cloisters;
    • Sightseeing coach-tour of Palermo; the “Teatro Massimo” was mentioned.

There was only a brief mention of the day after that: the journey to Taormina, with a stop en route at the remains near Piazza Armerina of a Roman villa with its extensive mosaics and a brief visit to the hill-top town of Piazza Armerina itself. Denise also gave instructions for rotating the seating on the coach: each day those on the left would sit three seats forward of the one they sat in the day before, and those on the right would sit three rows behind. People near the back right would transfer to the left, and people near the front left would transfer to the right.
 She described Sicily as a triangle, on each side of which was a different sea: on the north there was the Tyrrhenian Sea; on the south-west, the Mediterranean Sea; and on the east, the Ionian Sea. She described the succession of peoples occupying or ruling the island: among them, the eponymous Sicels, the Greeks, the Romans, the Goths and Vandals, the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs (9th century), the Normans (with the authority of the Pope, to restore from Islam the Christian religion), the Swabians, the French Angevins, the Sicilians during the “Sicilian Vespers” uprising when most of the French were killed, the Spanish (including the time of the Spanish Inquisition, also the eruption of Etna, 1669, and the devastating earthquake, 1693), Savoy, Austria, etc., etc. It was taken by Garibadi and his Thousand in the 1860 struggle for the unification of Italy. The upheaval gave rise to the “Cosa Nostra”, the Mafia.
 Check-in at the hotel was straightforward — just one’s name needed (no need to hand over one’s passport) in order to receive the room key-card. We weren’t long waiting for the lift to take us and the luggage to the floor where our room was. The balcony partly overlooked the sea and partly the coast more or less to the west.

Wednesday 3 June 2015 15:41:46
View from the balcony of our room at the Hotel Dioscuri, San Leone

There was free Wi-Fi that didn’t need any “login” or password, and although it wasn’t as speedy as that at the Premier Inn it was adequate.… We went out for a stroll. Usually we find a supermarket or convenience store, but there was nothing like that here within easy walking distance: a hairdresser’s here, an estate agent’s there — sparsely scattered along the road as we proceeded, not grouped together — but no shop for cheap food-and-drink items. We walked as far as the limits of the village, then turned back.

Wednesday 3 June 2015 16:53:42
“San Leone”

Wednesday 3 June 2015 16:54:30
Prickly pear in flower

On the way back we looked in the small church we’d passed on the way out.

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:01:34
Church in San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:02:14
Church in San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:03:30
Church in San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:03:50
Church in San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:05:54
Church in San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:07:38
Church in San Leone: statuette of Pope Leo II (611–683) — “San Leone II Papa” — the eponym of the place-name San Leone

We went along the outside wall of the hotel grounds till we got to the sea. To the left was the mole of the marina; to the right was the mouth of the River San Leone (according to Bing Maps), that I understood to be the Akragas River, forming a natural harbour in antiquity.

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:31:30
The Mediterranean Sea at San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:36:00
Nearby Agrigento

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:39:44
The mouth of the Akragas River, which was once navigable and formed a natural harbour. Right: wall of the Hotel Dioscuri, San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:40:32
Seen while going back along the wall of the Hotel Dioscuri, San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:41:00
Seen while going back along the wall of the Hotel Dioscuri, San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:43:16
Seen while going back along the wall of the Hotel Dioscuri, San Leone

We walked back and looked at the marina: in front of it was a fairly vast car-parking space, but there were very few cars; and the marina had many boats, but there was very little activity on them. Ahead of us with the marina on our right was a road running parallel to the sea, but with not a hint of any sidewalk bars and cafés that one would expect in a holiday resort. Also ahead, on the sea side of the road, was a funfair, but it was closed. It reminded us of the similar situation in Rhyl, a has-been resort with all the attractions closed down. It was probably Janet who realised that one of the small buildings beside the marina was a bar. We bought drinks inside, then took them out and sat under an umbrella. I’d forgotten that the Italians (and indeed others, e.g. the Greeks) serve savoury snack-items with alcoholic drinks, till a man came out and deposited on the table a small ceramic or plastic tray with three bowls of the same: crisps; pretzels; and spicy and tasty, hard puffed wheat kernels.[ii] I couldn’t resist nibbling, despite dinner being in an hour and a half, till the bowls were more or less empty.

[ii] I’m confused as I review this on 12 June 2015, for the photo below shows, not “hard puffed wheat kernels” but mini rice-cakes, with a spicy-flavoured coating. Perhaps we had two rounds.

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:46:22
The marina at San Leone

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:52:50
Drinks and nibbles at the harbour-side bar Controvento (“Against the Wind”)

Wednesday 3 June 2015 17:57:10
Reflection of the sunlight sparkling on the water

Wednesday 3 June 2015 18:18:40
Madonnina del Molo

Wednesday 3 June 2015 18:19:12
Madonnina del Molo: “Proteggici” (Protect us)

Wednesday 3 June 2015 18:19:28
Plaque: ”Madonnina del Molo — 3 June 1993”. I guess “molo” (mole: a structure serving as a pier, breakwater, or causeway) refers to the harbour contained by the mole, and the boats within.

Back at the hotel, up in our room, I transferred 21 photos from the camera to the WD Elements HDD (18:41). We went down for dinner. As mentioned earlier, there were “welcome” drinks for new guests at 7pm — the “aperativo” — at the poolside bar. I had Prosecco and Janet had blood-orange juice. When I saw a member of our party take her glass back to the servers for more I did the same. Dinner, from ca.7.30pm, was a very slow affair in the nearby poolside restaurant. We found seats at one of the “Riviera”-reserved round tables seating eight. Janet was to my right, and to my left was a couple: Jonathan and Mary. He’d lived behind a shop on Grimsby Road till the age of 18.

The “antipasto” was disappointing: just olives, sliced tomatoes, sweet corn, and some salad bits, which I chose, and couscous and something else, which I didn’t. I sprinkled some supposed balsamic vinegar, but it wasn’t very good; it just tasted like vinegar. For “primo” there was a choice of pasta with dentex sauce with cherry tomatoes and ground pistachios, which I had and found tolerable, and vegetable soup, a small amount of which Janet had. (I didn’t know just then that dentex is a Mediterranean fish, and it must have been the “fishiness”, not identified as such though, that made it only “tolerable”.) There were sesame-seeded bread buns on the table, of which I had more than one throughout the meal. For “secondo” there was a choice of loin of pork in pastry with a mushroom sauce, which I didn’t have because I dislike mushrooms, and grouper with citrus fruits of Sicily, which both of us had. It was, in fact, a fishcake, and because of the herbs it contained it was like fishy-flavoured sausage-meat. I ordered a bottle of Sicilian red wine, which I liked, for €15, and asked the waiter for a cork, so I could take the undrunk wine away and bring it back tomorrow. For “dolce” I had ice cream with coffee drizzled over it. Normally I wouldn’t choose coffee-flavoured things that were not coffee, but I quite enjoyed this. Shortly after we left and returned to the room, I edited today’s photos with Photoshop (21:42–22:01); but after I copied them to the Asus netbook/tablet, the three photos which I’d rotated from 4 x 3 to 3 x 4 using Photoshop (so they’d be the right way up), appeared when viewed on the Asus in their original aspect (the wrong way up). So I rotated these on the Asus using its Windows Photo Viewer (22:20–22:21). Janet had had a shower and was in bed by this time, and I got ready for bed soon afterwards.

[Thursday 4 June 2015]

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