Sunday, 6 January 2013


Since leaving Cardiff on 28th of November, I have lived entirely without television, BBC Radio 4, and newspapers - relying only on an occasional check on internet news-feeds so as not to lose touch with the world entirely. I believe this is a record for me in adult life. I don't feel deprived, but rather enriched by all that has occupied the time and space usually taken up by following the news and staying up to date. I've taken over 1,300 photographs. Less than half of them can be seen properly here:

Now I'm home, I'll continue to write at

Thanks for sharing the journey.

Homecoming: end of an adventure

We awoke at first light, I took photos of the run rising out of the sea from the terrace overlooking the Guardiola for a second morning running, only this time it wasn't raining. Breakfast, clean-up, packing, then returning the keys to the Sisters in time for the 8h45 bus to Catania. Suore Sylvana and Suore Tarcisia walked us to the bus station. It was very moving, there was still so much we wanted to share with them as well as our expressions of deep gratitude for their hospitality and friendship. As the bus pulled out, they stood waving us off from the school gate. I've been so blessed by the time spent with them, not just in the past few days but throughout the past month.

After a twenty minute wait in Catania we were on our way along the autostrada, first to the Airport stop and then West around the southern foothills of Mount Etna towards Palermo. The view was truly spectacular.not just because of the great snow capped peak presiding over the region, but because of the seemingly endless vista of citrous groves, neatly arranged, laden with ripe fruit, orange and yellow. Being winter, and a rainly season, the trees had a carpet of bright green grass laden with pale primrose yellow flowers stretching as far as the horizon, or so it seemed. I was conscious of the change from limestone to sandstone terrain as the road rose into the mountainous central region, with occaisional hill towns precariously perched on very steel escarpments. 

Sicily's mountain valleys being so far south were never excavated by glaciers, and retain their v-shape, so that few have much flat terrain at their bottom. For most of the journey in the uplands, the autostrada runs on stilts thirty metres above the valley floor. A long series of viaducts represents the lowest impact on the environment, as well as the least expensive with no lengthy cuttings, and only a few tunnelled sections. As we climbed, the orange groves gave way to pasture lands, with grazing sheep and cattle, although the further from the coast we went the fewer and further between were trees, settlements and individual farms. This land has lost a great deal of its agrarian population by migration, not only to the cities but to other parts of the world. Here, with such extremes of weather, rural poverty is harsh. Yet, it is hauntingly beautiful as barren looking places go. I'd love to spend more time exploring the Sicilian interior.

We get to Palermo at lunch-time and changed on to our third bus of the day for the three quarter of an hour traipse through quieter suburbs to the airport, named in honour of two murdered anti-mafia judges: Falcone and Borsellino, where we had an hour and a half to wait before checkout opened. There were no problems attached to Clare's temporary travel document, so we were able to deposit our bags at the EasJet desk and relax with our second picnic meal of the day before going through to the departure lounge, just as the sun was setting on a day of travel just half way through.

There were no problems arriving at London Gatwick either. The Borders Agency official was sympathetic when Clare told him how she came to lose her passport. We had time for a drink before boarding out coach at ten past ten, and slept most of the way back to Cardiff, via Heathrow and Bristol. We got a taxi home from the bus station, arriving on the doorstep at twenty past three with do much to unpack, so many different experiences to digest. And a Sicilian recipe book to experiment with in months to come.

We'd both love to explore Sicily properly, but will there ever be another opportunity to return to St George's Taormina? We were asked this. It's so very popular with clergy it may not happen again. But if we do return we'll be sure to stop off and visit the Sisters whose kindness and hospitality confirmed all we've ever known about the Franciscan spirit in the life and mission of God's church throughout the world.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Last day in Taormina

By the time I got up, cloud low on the eastern horizon had just parted to reveal the newly risen sun. It's the first time I've seen it so near the horizon since I've been here as the church apartment faces north. The eastern balcony of the Sisters' guest house, however faces east and the view unobstructed. It was half past seven. With prayer, writing time and breakfast at a leisurely pace, it was after ten when we headed out for a last expedition to the food shops, so that we could prepare picnic food for the journey to Palermo for our home flight tomorrow. Getting to the airport from here involves three changes of coach, so we are both, understandably nervous about the journey. 

The sun continued to shine out of a blue sky, however, and the view of Mount Etna this early in the day was one of the best of my five weeks here. We climbed half way up to Castelmola, but that was far enough for us on this occasion, and after we heard the midday Angelus in the form of a recorded Christmas or Marian hymn (I know not which) echoing across the valley from Castelmola's duomo high above us, we turned back and headed for home. 

After discussion we'd decided it was prudent to make triple photocopies of Clare's emergency travel documents just in case anyone inspecting them at Palermo wanted to keep one. She'll be relieved of it when we arrive at Border Control in Gatwick, so the Consul told us, but we'll be back in a place where we are citizens, and only need a passport to leave again, and we'll have to pay as much again for a new one which isn't a use once only job. So, having returned and collected the necessary documents we then walked back to piazza San Antonio Abate to get the photocopies done at the EDICOLE internet shop. All in all that was about four miles worth of walking before finally sitting down to a very welcome lunch.

At tea time Suore Sylvana, Suore Tarcisia, Bruce and Margaret Duncan all arrived, and we had plenty of time for introductions and briefings on ecumenical affairs before we all went to join the community for Vespers and Adoration. I admit to feeling sad that this would be the last time. I have more than enjoyed sharing in their prayer life, it has fed me and sustained me in this past difficult week, and taught me about pacing and priorities in life. On such a simple foundation, so much can be achieved. At the end we bid farewell to most of the sisters, as we shall be leaving early tomorrow, while most are still at breakfast after Mass. We're taking the earliest practicable coach to Catania we can manage to ensure we have enough time to get across the island. 

Here's hoping it all works out as intended.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Home from home

After a deliciously long and quiet night's sleep, on side of the house facing away from the road, we woke up just after dawn to find it was raining ever so gently, but mild as before. From the side of the house which faces towards the convent, you can look up beyond the garden fifty metres to the top of the steep escarpment, crowned by a balcony which overlooks the sea up behind the Graeco-Roman theatre.

The fact that the Sisters' extensive orchard covers the site of a late Byzantine / Saracen cemetery, from over a thousand years ago, says much about settlement in this area. People lived on this hillside and prospered for so long the town spread along and up the mountain slopes, and shifted its centre as places of worship were built in new locations.

Taormina's first and oldest church, San Pietro is out of sight from this house. It's a flight of steps or a couple of hairpin curves in the road below us to the right. It still has occasional services, but for centuries prior to the Spanish driving out the Saracens, it was used as a cemetery chapel. It has a large ossuary in a vault under the floor of its oldest section. Steps from San Pietro lead up to and originally led into a cemetery with stone built columbaria. Remnants of these form part of the Convent garden retaining wall, overlooking the road. The domain was established as a Friary in the early sixteenth century when Taormina was governed by Spain. Different traces of the past two thousand years of history are woven into the fabic of everyday life here, as in many other European towns and cities.

Mid-morning we went out to do some food shopping. When we returned one of the Sisters was waiting for us with the awaited package from TNT couriers - four hours early! It was such a relief to be in possession of the vital British temporary travel document that will enable us to travel home together. Valid only for one journey home on one day however - so everything else will need to go right to get us to Palermo in good time on Saturday.

This expensive use-once-only document is a reminder of just how insecure British overlords feel about their crowded island home. The fear of exploitation and abuse of such an entry permit, and it is no more than that, even by a fully accredited British citizen whose identity is in no doubt is a symptom of the evil times in which we live.

After lunch and a snooze we went out again, walked the Corso and had a drink in a cafe on the corner of the piazza Victor Emmanuele. Then we went at the usual time for Adoration and Vespers only to find there was a little concert just finishing in the Chapter Room. A dozen young students of the mandolin, with their teachers were performing for relatives and friends, along with a children's singing group. We heard them perform their encore - the theme tune from the film 'Never on Sunday'. Such enthusiasm, such delight. Suore Tarcisia afterwards introduced us to a lively group of five youngsters 8-9 years old with whom she works. The way she interacted with them showed how at ease she is as an educator with children as with adults after a lifetime in mission.

Then, when the guests had departed, we slipped into chapel with the Sisters for a time of silent prayer before Vespers for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus - an observance which is in the Franciscan Divine Office but not in the Roman Breviary. Yet, I recall it was in the old English Missal, so maybe it was a local observance, part of the Sarum Rite which preceded the Book of Common Prayer.

Just as we were about to serve supper, Suore Maddalena one of the English speakers in the Community was knocking at the kitchen window urging us to open our garden gate to a visitor. We'd not heard the door bell ringing. She wanted to tell us that my successor at St George's, Canon Bruce Duncan, was outside. He'd come to pay us a pastoral visit on learning of Clare's calamity. It was lovely to meet him albeit briefly. We arranged a longer visit with him and his wife for tea tomorrow afternoon.

We had to ring the convent to ask them to open the school compound gate when he set off to return to St. George's. Since well before Christmas it has been open daily to permit use of the compound as a visitor car park. Now the holiday rush is over, business has dwindled next to nothing, so the gate, out of school terms, remains closed. Unfortunately the side gate wouldn't open, though the main gate did. Someone drove in hoping to park and had to be re-directed back on to the street by Suore Sylvana, who'd come out from the Convent to see why the side gate wasn't working properly. It was quite comic really, but it gave an opportunity to invite her to join us for tea tomorrow, duties permitting!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Relocation Day

Time this morning to get the chaplains' apartment cleaned up and re-organised ready to welcome my successor Canon Bruce Duncan. But first we had to go up to Porta Catania to get our new boarding passes printed off at Edicole, not to mention a new info sheet for the church notice board advetising the correct contact details for the British Consular Service in all Italy. Clare waited half an hour to be served in the Post Office, to obtain a top-up for the re-chargeable phone card, having waited even longer on New Year's Eve to be served and be told that the electronic system for effecting this had already closed down.

Then there was all the cleaning to do, three loads of washing to run, then hang out to dry, but today was not good drying weather with lines on a shady terrace, so some clean bed linen had to be left to finish off drying on an internal airing rack. When Kath Anto and Rhiannon came up for a last look around and farewells, we walked our packed luggage down to the Sisters' house of hospitality, on the bend in via Pirandello overlooking the Guardiola, and showed them where we'll be staying for the next three nights.

After we'd waved them off from the Convent, there was some food to transfer and our rucksacks to remove before handing over the key to a spic and span house to Salvatore, making our goodbyes at three thirty. He'd been a little exercised earlier, wanting us to leave at two thirty. He'd been told to send a taxi to meet the incoming flight at that hour, but the flight left Gatwick at two thirty and the error wasn't been picked up until after the taxi had gone. A little more concrete interest in Chaplain's travel plans wouldn't go amiss here, I think.

By four were were enjoying the afternoon sun and birdsong in the Convent garden with a cup of coffee in hand, putting for the moment all anxieties to one side and enjoying time to think and breathe. We then joined the Sisters for Adoration and Vespers and cooked rice pasta with chick peas and stewed veggies for supper. Two days ago Suore Sylvana the community Guardiana handed Clare the keys of the house and said with a warm smile: "Vous ĂȘtes libres!" What a great Gospel gift from people who really know what freedom means.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year's Day enchantment

With much on our minds still, we didn't sleep late after seeing the New Year in, but awoke to a bright dawn and mild morning air with Rhiannon still asleep at our feet on the spare camp bed. Mid morning the three of us went down in the cable car to Mazzaro and walked to Isola Bella Hotel to meet with Kath and Anto, who by now had breakfasted and were ready for the day.

We went down to the beach nearby and went over to Isola Bella itself for a look around. The morning tide tugged back by a waning moon rising early evening almost completely reveals the narrow strip of sand and pebbles about 20 metres connecting the beach and the island, so it's possible if you watch your step to run or jump the last three metres without getting wet shoes. Or you can paddle. I made it on the way out no problem, missed my timing on the return stretch and got soaked up to the ankles.

Anyway, the island visit was a complete and magical suprise to all of us. It's a WWF supported protected site of ecological interest, with a museum which wasn't open on not yet functioning, looked after by the regional museum and ancient sites authority. Rhiannon, Clare and I got in free on account of our ages, Kath and Anto paid €4 each. Apart from a walk around the island we didn't really know what this visit would entail. But, as we walked up the first few paths, the nature of the island revealed itself to us.

At the core of the island is an unusual house, a dream house built by a Messina industrialist. It has terraces at different levels, a high lookout platform, plus a variety of rooms built into the rock each with stunnng views in different directions from their terraces. Almost none of this is visible from the beach fifty metres away. External surfaces, balconies, balustrades and walls are covered with pieces of rough white limestone, appearing like dry stone wall, though all wired and concreted together on to shaped support frames to create flowing curves, arches, even moveable doors. Many trees and bushes provide ground cover, allowed to run wild over the rocky surfaces, making the true nature of the structures invisible from outside. Only when you go up from the shore through the gateway into the domain and walk around do you discover its variety of nooks, crannies, secret pathways and outlooks.

The very nature of this intricate environment creates habitats for lizards, bats insects and birds to make their nests. It left us all wide eyed with amazement. So simple, so ingenious an idea for a dream home. The rooms we could see were unfurnished. Whether or not it is ever lived in, or just used as an occasional venue for events I don't know. It's certainly not difficult to imagine grand occasions in such a beautiful place. This was a sunny New year's Day. What must it be like when masses of birds return as the spring flowers emerge?

We lunched at a restaurant with a terrace above the beach overlooking Isola Bella. It was a little chilly and the service slow, so we quit after the main course. Kath drove us up to Taormina town where we bought our third course in the Bar/Pasticceria on via Pirandello. The lady who served us made a great fuss of Rhiannon and made her a present of huge helping of chocolate mousse. She said she'd recognised me as the pastor from St George's having noticed me walking often by this month. To my shame it was the first time I'd been in there. I don't have much of a sweet tooth any longer, so the feast of gorgeous looking cakes and delicate morsels doesn't catch my attention. The others had 'canole', a crispy pastry freshly filled with mascarpone, fruit and pistachio nuts. I had a strawberry and apple turnover. Not as crisp as the French version, sweeter than I really enjoy.

We also paid the Sisters a visit, to introduce them to our family. It was a delightful meeting, with Rhiannon being made a great fuss of and offered a New Year's gift of sweets. I was glad to be able to show them the cloisters and the chapel which has been such a solace to me this month. I think it may be the first visit Anto has ever made to real live convent.

The Corso was still busy with visitors and some shops were open into the evening, though not many. It is a Bank Holiday after all. After a light supper, when Kath, Anto and Rhiannon had returned to their hotel, I took the bottles to the bottle bank down by the Giardino Publico. There I could hear at least half a dozen owls calling out to each other - screech owls and barn owls by their cries, or their Italian cousins. And so close to the heart of town. More magic to revive our minds after the trials of the past few days.

New Year's Eve with a difference

We learned this morning that the Consular office in Rome had processed Clare's documents, but that they cannot be couriered to Sicily for use before Thursday morning, because of the capod'anno holiday. That meant changing our flight home. The first sensible possibility is EasyJet from Palermo on Saturday afternoon. This will allow a couple of days slack just in case the courier doesn't deliver on schedule. Changing both our flights cost about £240. Getting to Palermo airport from Taormina will cost us another £45, and take four hours travel time before the two and three quarter hour flight. The bus to get us home will land us in Cardiff at 3.15am on Sunday. Changing the bus ticket cost a fiver. Not much change out of three hundred quid to get us home.

Clare phoned AGEUK with whom she took out a travel insurance policy to notify them of a situation in which she needs to claim for re-patriation because of the theft. She was informed that the policy sold to her did not cover a missed flight despite the circumstances. She had no idea of this when she bought the policy and was not warned of this. As ever we were told, it's all in the small print - that which older people with weakening eyesight and diminishing patience with lengthy convoluted documents are often less reluctant to read, relying rather on what the salesperson tells them. 

The older we get the more we need to feel sure that the risks entailed in travel are acceptable and tolerable.  AGEUK will be hearing from us very publicy when we return. They are supposed to be in the business of helping older people live their lives in as satisfactory a manner as possible. Not having the risk pointed out before purchase is tantamount to mis-selling insurance. Now what was the name of the insurance industry watchdog? .... No, I'll have to look it up when I have a proper internet connexion again.

Being so late home means I won't be able to fulfil my Sunday Mass duty in Abercanaid, so I emailed my friend Robert the area Dean and had an auto reply to say he won't be checking emails until next Monday, so I had to email the Archdeacon a warning instead. By evening I had a nice reply from both of them. Robert's been hiding away, but not off-line, so the problem will be sorted.

Making arrangements to get home also meant making arrangements to stay on. My locum successor arrives on Wednesday on the flight we were due to take back to Gatwick so we have to make way for him. We went to the Convent to ask Suore Sylvana the community's Guardiana if we could take up her gracious offer of accommodation for the three nights we have to wait before taking our flight. What an offer! One corner of the Convent grounds overlooks the Guardiola and the Gulf of Naxos. There's a house on the edge of an orchard garden and it has eight rooms equipped with beds for guests. One of the community's remarkable quiet ministries is providing hospitality for people supporting and caring for people hospitalised in this area. Some families may come from too far away to commute and are unable to afford hotels. This week there's nobody staying there, so we have an amazing choice of rooms with views!

Shopping for supper took up the end of the afternoon, and as the sun set two bagpipers magnificent in Sicilian costume patrolled the Corso playing out the old year. Tonight I let the others cook and went to Vespers. It was longer than usual with prayer for peace and readings taken from Pope Benedict's letter for the day of prayer for world peace, which is New Year's Day. 

We whiled away New Year's Eve banqueting on fresh tuna and roasted vegetables washed down with Sicilian red wine and pastries from one of the local pasticceria. At eleven thirty, we strolled up a very crowded Corso Umberto to join the countdown street party in piazza Sant' Agostino, hosted by a local deejay. There was lots of exuberance, no violence and no drunken excess. It was mild for a winter's night and no rain to dampen the fireworks. No Auld Lang Syne. Such a refreshing and welcome change from a British Hogmanay.