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Mexico and New Mexico

This winter was different. Instead of our usual travels we decided to go closer to home in consideration of a possible move from upstate New York. The Mexican portion of the trip was the only "abroad" section and was really a chance to have a couple of weeks of warm weather before driving across country to Santa Fe. We had visited both of these places many years ago.

In Mexico we spent all of our time either in Oaxaca or along the Oaxacan coast in the small town of Zipolite. We went on this trip with our friends Debbie and Bill, and stayed in what had been an ancient monastery close to the center of town. Our room, on the second story, faced an inner courtyard where we had breakfast everyday. Oaxaca did not disappoint. Although there are obviously tourists it is not overrun by them, and manages to retain its distinctly Mexican and indigenous feel. The Zocolo is remains the center of life in this mid sized city, and many of the colonial buildings are still standing. It is quite lively during the day as well as the evening, with Mexican families taking a paseo or young people just hanging out. There are shops and restaurants lining the nearby streets.

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The pace of life is relatively slow, and though the province of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico, it doesn't feel that way in the center of town. The poor live on the outskirts and in the rural areas. The city spreads out in a wide valley between two mountain ranges, with the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other.

Most days we spent wandering around the streets, and exploring.

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We went to the nearby market, although we were told there was an even larger one about a mile away.

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We checked out the main catedral, and on one day they were filming a quinceanera.

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Oaxaca is said to have the best food in Mexico, and with four different kinds of moles, great seafood and beer, and inexpensive prices, I would have to concur. So when we weren't walking, we were eating.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches people food air_travel buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (1)

Paleochora

The next morning we set out for Paleochora, following the same route we had taken to Elafonisi two days earlier. This time, instead of stopping at the cave church we went for a walk in the gorge, until we came to a old stone bridge, thick with cedar and other deciduous trees.

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On the way back, we were careful not to step on the bees which swarmed around the clover. We saw more wild, bright red/orange poppies moving in the stiff breeze and the small, but intense yellow and white flowers. We made a short detour to stop back in Elos for another plate of boureki, but the taverna was closed, and we had to make due with one of their competitors. We drove on through forests of evergreens and olive plantations, and briefly stopped in Kandanos, site of a big resistance battle during WW 2. Today, after being rebuilt, it is a sleepy, tidy place with folks, well men, sitting outside a small cafe.

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A few kilometers further, at the end of the road, we arrived at our destination, Paleohora.

It has about two thousand residents, and plenty of small hotels, guest houses, and tavernas, enough to handle the larger crowds of summer. It is slowly being developed as a resort area, but still manages, at least thus far, to hold onto its small town charms.

Upper main street
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Our guest house, where we rented a small apartment for a week, is about as cute as can be, and serves up what is probably the world's best breakfast. Not a exaggeration.

Manto, who is also a Byzantine style artist, moved to Paleohora from Athens with her husband several years ago in order to build the place.

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Detail from Manto's studio
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Unfortunately, as has been the case for most of this trip, the weather in Paleochora has not lived up to its billing as the warmest place in Europe during the winter and early spring. When the sun is out things are fine, but the weather can change in an instant, and the wind can blow fiercely. Yesterday, in anticipation of bad weather today, we undertook the 11K hike to Sougia, where we planned to take the ferry back to Paleochora at the end of the day. It was a highly enjoyable walk across the volcanic rocks near the beach, and then up and over some of the headlands nearby.

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When the clouds parted, there were views of snow covered mountains in the distance.

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About 3/4ths of the way, we came upon Lissos, an ancient Minoan site, which was later occupied by the Greeks and the Romans. The original askepolis is still somewhat intact, as are the Roman mosaics on the floor.

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Greek letters on a nearby wall
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There were also numerous cave-like burial mounds scattered about, and the setting, below two rocky promontories, and not far from a small beach, seemed ideal for defending against enemies from all directions. To us, the place had an almost spiritual vibe, much more so than the famous Knossos, which is more extensive, but not nearly as beautiful.

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Extensive grounds of Lissos from higher up on the trail
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From Lissos we continued through an immense walled canyon, and fortunately we chose the right way, and arrived in the tiny village of Sougia, around 4:30 PM. There was time for a late lunch of fish soup and moussaka, before we walked over to the ferry dock. By now the wind had picked up considerably, and it started raining. The ticket seller let us wait in his small kiosk, after we heard him playing the mandolin. Trying to keep warm as the ferry was late, we chatted with a friendly Swiss woman, perhaps 10 years younger than us, who had taken the boat over in the morning.

The seas were not as rough as they could have been considering the weather, and we made it back to town without getting seasick. By then, the winds were practically gale force, and it was a struggle just to walk back to Manto's.

Although there was more rain in the night, the next day was largely dry, although the cold wind blew unceasingly for a full 24 hours. It reminded us of our time in El Chaten, in Patagonia. Tired of being cooped up for most of the day, we managed a short, blustery walk through town.

Choppy sea even in the harbor on that very windy day
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We stopped for coffee in a newer place next door to our favorite bakery. It had big plate glass windows facing the sea, and the gusts were strong enough to rattle the glass. At times, it felt like it might crack and shatter. Despite the wind, the place was crowded. Cretans are a very social lot, and often spend many hours sipping a coffee, or drinking raki in a cafe, chatting with their friends, and no doubt catching up on the local gossip. As time has gone on, we have fallen into this lifestyle ourselves, going for a late lunch, and sitting around with a cappuccino. We usually are not able to make it to the 10 or 11 PM Greek dinner time, and instead make due with an evening snack, after having a big mid-day meal.

View of the sea and mountains, just outside the cafe
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Paleohora has lots of great hikes. On another day, this one bright and sunny, we went along the shore in the opposite direction, towards Elafonisi. The sea was a clear, intense blue, and turquoise near the shore.

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It is visible from most any vantage point, along with sharp and oddly shaped volcanic rocks that lie in the water, and across the smooth stone beaches that appear amongst the scrub vegetation at every turn.

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In the distance, also visible from many places along the trail, the snowy peaks of the Leki Ori Mountains stand in stark relief to the water. Rocky promontories stretch out like bony fingers, reaching toward the African shores of the Libyan Sea. Here we found Viena, the ruins of another Hellenic city. Though not as impressive as Lissos, which at one point had over 30,000 people, we saw parts of Greek columns lying on the beach near the water, and others that were partially submerged. None of this was even mentioned in our guide book. It seems that no matter what direction you choose to walk, there are ancient discoveries to be made.

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We spent some time just sitting on one of the larger deserted pebble beaches, feeling the soothing smoothness of the rounded stones. There is something comforting about holding the stones in hand, and of course, skimming the flat ones into the calm water.

It was easy to think about Odysseus plying these craggy shores more than 4000 years ago.

Shadows on the beach
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Returning to town, we had the traditional roasted lamb dinner in one of the few tavernas still open on Greek Easter Sunday. Afterwords, we strolled along the seawall, and heard a young mother calling out to her young son, Orfeo, Orfeo, as he trotted along the sidewalk as fast as he could. Another reminder of the ancient heritage of this island. One has the feeling that despite the economic problems, the Cretans,and probably most Greeks, feel very proud of their ancestors, and the rich culture they created.

At night, there were fireworks and a bonfire, along with a parade of Judas down the small streets of Paleochora.. Unfortunately, it didn't start until midnight and we didn't make it. In the evening of Good Friday, a few days before, there was a small candlelight procession with an effigy of the dead Jesus, who was carried from one church to another. Most of the candles had been blown out because of the wind, and it was cold so I didn't stick around for long.

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Our trip is coming to a close. Tomorrow we leave for Chania, and then fly to Athens at night. When the weather is good, which has been true the last two days, I am in no rush to return. In bad weather, a not infrequent occurrence on this trip, then home, with its added comforts, seems like a good idea after 10 weeks on the road. The Greek food continues to impress, as do the Greek people. They are always trying to feed you more. After every meal, raki and desert, even if you order another desert. Most everyone has continued to be extremely friendly and welcoming, including the folks at Manto's place. I will be sad to say goodbye.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:23 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes beaches people photography living_abroad Comments (2)

Rethymno, Crete

A mid sized university town, Rethymno has an old section of narrows alleys and old houses, in various states of repair and disrepair.

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We met a man in this tiny Greek church in the walls of the old city, and talked philosophy. He said he had been coming to this charming place since he was a boy.

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Inside the church
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The Fortezza, a Venetian Fort, parts of which date back to the 1200's, sits high on a hill overlooking the town, harbor, and the sea. It was built to protect the occupants from Barbarosa and other pirates.

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We spent several hours in the warm sun of the afternoon on the grounds around the Fortezza.

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Looking out at the sea from Fortezza grounds
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By contrast, the modern city spreads out along the beach beyond the harbor, and has a number of hotels and cafes, many of which were closed at this time of year.

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As we noticed in Heraklion, the Greeks seems to have a schedule which approximates that of the Spaniards and the Argentinians. That is, a late and big lunch between 2-4 PM, when all the stores close. Often, it seems they close between 1 PM until almost 5, but possibly because this is the off-season. Things don't get started until at least 9 or 10 PM, with dinner and music, and it is not until 11or 12, when things really get hopping.

Tonight we had dinner at Vasilli's, a tiny old place at the base of the Fortezza.

Looking up at wall around Fortezza from sea road. Vasilli"s was on the other side
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We happened there yesterday afternoon when they were closed, and promised the owner we would be back the next night. He and his daughter Eleni gave us a big hug after with chatted with them, and so we were bound to return. Vasilli is a big mustachioed man, more or less our age, who used to run a restaurant close to the port, and more recently has opened this place, where mezes and tapas, are the specialities. He is a larger than life character, more or less as I imagine Zorba the Greek, which I am now re-reading after many years. Zorba it turns out, was from Crete, as was his creator Kazantzakis.

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Of course at 7:20, the place was empty, but he started a fire in the tiny and smokey wood stove so that we would be comfortable. We ordered a bunch of small mezes, including his special salad, fava beans, Greek meatballs, etc., more than enough food. Around 8, a group of six friends came in, and there were smiles all around when they saw us. One of the women, Despina, came over to our table to talk. She is a young, pretty woman in her late 20's, who is a psychologist at the local hospital where she works with schizophrenic patients. Her parents are divorced, and so she is more or less on her own, and wants to complete her education in Integrative psychology. We both felt an instant connection to her, and she to us. Unfortunately her present job lasts only another two months, and like so many young people in Greece, she has no money to pursue further education, even though she is desperate to do so.

Before long, the larger group had bought us extra wine and insisted we join them and share their bottles of raki, an offer we couldn't refuse. We laughed and talked, despite their generally poor English and our non-existent Greek. Much wine and raki was consumed, and I felt a strong connection to these, and other Greek people, who seem so very warm and generous. We also spent time talking to Eleni, who at 22, is quite sophisticated and aware of what is happening, not only in Greece, but in other places. Thanks to her father's hard work, and her own, she has been fortunate to spend time in Istanbul. This is interesting, when you consider the antipathy between the Greeks and the Turks, which she clearly doesn't feel.

Harbor at sunset
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I was thankful that we had spent a few days in Rethymno, despite some chilly weather. It is occasions like the dinner at Vasilli's that I most look forward to in my travels. Thank you Vasilli, for giving me this opportunity, and I hope to spend another night or two at your restaurant.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:43 Archived in Greece Tagged people photography cities_postcards Comments (2)

Modica and Surrounds

The next day, somewhat reluctantly, we left Siracusa, and made our way to Modica Alta. Once again our GPS failed us, and what should have taken about 1& 1/2 hours took at least twice that long. We ended up driving in circles on some tiny mountain roads, with totally conflicting navigational directions. Go straight, turn right, make a U turn, etc. At one point we stopped a group of men on a country road to ask for directions. They seemed to be shouting at one another and arguing, but there was no one else around and we were lost. In our poor Italian, we asked the way to Modica. They stopped arguing long enough to tell us the way, or rather two different ways we could go, and then resumed the argument as soon as we drove away. Asking directions is always an interesting process, as folks seem compelled to tell you multiple directions, which of course, makes things even more confusing.

We finally managed to get to the Piazza Giovanni, through the impossibly narrow streets of the old town. There we called our host, Giuseppe, and then followed him in our car through more narrow alleys, until we arrived in his street and pulled into his garage. Also not an easy task, because the street was barely wide enough for one small car. Our apartment, upstairs from his place, is quite large, but unfortunately at this time of year, also very chilly. There are air conditions in most of the rooms, which work inefficiently as heaters, but you have to keep all of the doors to each room closed to keep in the heat, and like most places in southern Italy, all the floors are tile, hence cold.

Although I was tired from the difficult drive in yet another cloudy, drizzly day, Giuseppe was quick to take me on a short driving tour. A maze of criss-crossing alleys, I instantly forgot where and what he showed me. He then brought me to the only supermarket that was open in the middle of the afternoon, as everything closes between 2 and 5 PM. This makes sense during the Summer, but when it is cold and chilly, it seems like a waste of time. Sense, however, is not something that seems to be in abundant supply down here.

One of the main streets of Modica Alta
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One of hundreds of alleys, it's even narrower than it looks
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Much of Modica was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1693 in what is called Sicilian Baroque style, although the city is much older then that, having been settled by the Greeks as early as 1360 BC. It was later occupied by the Romans, and then the Arabs in 860, and did not become a part of Italy until 1860. Because of the architecture, the city and several others in the Val di Noto are now World Heritage Sites. As with many of the old towns in southern Italy, it seemingly owes it's largely in tact survival to benign neglect.

Modica Alta is built on top of a hillside with old stone and cement houses, narrow alleys, baroque churches, and a few small shops, etc.

Looking up at Modica Alta, San Giorgio Cathedral on right
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Though highly atmospheric, as the Lonely Planet might say, much of it is dilapidated, and seems well off the tourist circuit, at least at this time of year. When we first arrived in the chilly, damp, weather, it felt rather depressing, and we wondered if we had made a mistake renting a place here for a week. The next day was also overcast, but we walked around a bit, and saw some of the sights.

Many ornate building details
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San Giorgio Cathedral
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Later that afternoon, our friends from Germany, Joachim and Antonette, met us as planned, in Piazza Giovanni. It was great to see them, though as luck would have it, they are staying in Modica Bassa, which is about a half hour walk straight down from where we are. On seeing them, we forgot all about the depressing weather, and they came over to our apartment where we drank wine, made a pasta dinner, and caught up on each other's lives, as it had been a few years since our last visit.

Next day we saw the sun, finally, and though not exactly warm, it cheered us immensely. This time we walked down to see them, and although not as old as Modica Alta, the lower town is much more lively with many more shops and restaurants. We explored for a few hours as it was a very nice day to be outside, more like what we expected in Sicily. Then we spent the latter part of the afternoon in true Italian fashion, having an enormous lunch, drinking wine, etc.

Looking down on Modica Bassa and surrounding area
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Centro of Modica Bassa with clock tower above
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Looking up from another angle at Modica Alta and clock tower
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Today is also fair, and our friends are coming back up to our apartment. I will attempt, with some trepidation, to take the car out, so that the four of us can do a little sight seeing in another nearby baroque town, Scicli. Vamos a ver, (we shall see) how this goes, but in the end, we had no problems getting there. And it was a charming old town. Though much smaller, Scicli seems to be doing relatively well, and the houses look better cared for, at least compared to Modica Alta. Following a stop for ice-cream which Joachim and Antonette enjoyed very much......

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We hiked the alleys up the steep hills surrounding the Centro.

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In many places we came to dead ends, and the way was blocked intentionally. It seems that the authorities were concerned about rockfall. We stopped at one point, after being practically pulled inside by the proprietor, in a small private cave museum that purported to show what life was like in Sicily around 1900. The owner had collected old objects and pictures, as well as some furniture. It was somewhat interesting at first, but then, he saw some other Italians outside and lured them in as well. He upped the speed of his Italian, for their benefit I suppose, and went on in great detail about various objects, and since we couldn't understand much, we quickly got bored. He was also rather bossy, insisting we stay with the other folks to get the tour. After a time, we managed to escape, and left him with the 2 euros a piece, no doubt the only way he can make ends meet.

The view outside the cave museum
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Eventually, we found the right path and made our way up to one of the old churches, no longer in use, high on top of one of the ravines. It's visible from the picture of the Centro. From there we could see most of the town below, and all the way to the sea, about 10K distant.

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We walked back to the car and headed for Marina de Modica, which we found in spite of the once again crazy directions of the GPS. We spent an hour or so walking on the beach in the now delightfully warm sun, and somehow drove back to town without getting too lost. The last 15 minutes or so, in the narrow alleys of Modica Alta, were a bit harrowing, as it was hard to know which way to turn, and there were often cars right behind us looking for a way to get past these impossibly slow foreigners. Luckily, we were able to ask directions to Piazza San Giovanni, and I remembered the way to our apartment from there. Trying very hard not to scratch our new rental car, I made the turns carefully through the tiny streets.

On arrival, we polished off the schnapps and cidre that our German friends had made, which provided a much needed respite from the crazy drive (and drivers) through Modica Alta. An hour or two later, we went to the local Taverna Nicastro, which had been recommended for a hearty, yup,you guessed it, pasta dinner. At 7 PM they made a point of opening early just for us, and more wine helped to dispel the cold inside the restaurant. When we left at 8:30 or 9, they didn't seem to have much business, especially for a Saturday night, and it is hard to imagine that they have stayed in business since 1948, as their sign indicated.

The next evening, after a rainy excursion to Ragusa Ibla, including a mad dash through town to catch the last bus out,

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found us back in our apartment, once again drinking wine to dispel the damp cold, but unfortunately we soon ran out. Joachim and I went out into the gloomy mist to see if any place was open. The only store with lights on was a small chocolate shop-cum bakery, which was not likely to sell alcohol, but hey, this is Italy so you never know.

"Vino, per favore?"

"Mi dispiace non abbiamo alcun vino."

We didn't exactly know what this meant, but when he shook his head we figured it meant no. As we were speaking there was another man picking up some cookies and pastry.

He said to us, "Se si desidera che il vino mi segua."

We didn't know what that meant either, but when he motioned with his hand, we figured it meant follow me, and so we headed off down the street to his old beat up car. Even before I had both feet inside, necessitating a mad scramble to climb in and close the door, he started driving incredibly fast through Modica Alta's narrow streets, to a point about 2/3rds of the way down the hill toward the lower town. There he abruptly stopped in front of his house, and motioned for us to wait in front while he went inside. He reappeared a few moments later with two bottles of red wine.

"Ce l'ho fatta. Spero ti piaccia."

Well as you have guessed, we still had no idea what he said, but when he handed us the bottles we assumed they were home-made because they didn't have labels.

"Quanto?" How much, one of the few words we did know.

"Gratuito," Another word we knew.

"Grazi, grazi, molto grazi," we said, and started the 20 minute hike back up to the apartment.

Only in Italy.

And it wasn't too shabby for home-made wine.

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Posted by jonshapiro 05:41 Archived in Italy Tagged people photography living_abroad buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Scilla

We are now in this small seaside town south of Tropea, and are staying in a B&B in the old fishing village of Chinelea. Finding our place while driving in the tiny streets of Scilla was not easy, and it took several phone calls to the owner before we could locate it.

There are three parts to Scilla: Chinelea, and its ancient stone houses practically sitting in the tempestuous sea, with its partially submerged and sharp rocks.

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Marina Grande, a separate beach area with a couple of streets of houses set 20M or so from the sea,

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and finally, there is Scilla Alta, which is the largest.

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To get there, you ascend several steep sets of stairs and narrow cobblestone streets that reach partially up the mountain that descends all the way to Chinelea.

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This part of town consists of a number of streets and narrow alleys, and though most of the houses are old, there are a few newer ones scattered about. Jutting out over one of the lower levels of the upper town, on a high rocky promontory, is the old stone fort, which has commanding view over the ocean and to the port of Reggio Calabria, some 20K distant. Freighters ply the waters in between.

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Actually, there is a 4th part of town between here and Marina Grande, the port of Scilla, where larger boats are moored behind a protected area framed by a long rock jetty.

Here in Chinelea, fisherman cast their rods and work on their small wooden boats, most of whom now have motors. In the past, they would go hunting, as they call it, for spada, or swordfish, in boats without motors. They used a kind of harpoon to try and stab the fish, much like the old whaling boats. Sword fishing is still a way of life here, as is fishing in general, though I suspect that it is greatly supplanted by tourism, during the summer and fall.

Scilla, as described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, is a type of sea monster that would lure sailors to the rocks just offshore, where they would drown. So this place has a long history dating back to the Greeks, and, as I have learned from our proprietor, Francesco, so does much of Calabria, where old people still speak a kind of Greek dialect.

It has been enjoyable wandering the alleys of various parts of town, though unfortunately the weather has remained cloudy and chilly, with intermittent rain. During a morning walk today, we found a small, out of the way place in the upper town to purchase fresh pasta, ravioli, and eggplant parm, but we spent much of the day, reading in our room. Later we went down to the tiny bar attached to our guesthouse, and chatted with the bartender, also named Francesco, and his girlfriend, in a mix of Italian and Spanish. We taught him a few words of Spanish, and he gave us the Italian equivalent, while we sipped on a glass of the local vino. It was a nice way to while away an otherwise dreary afternoon. At one point, a woman came in with her daughter. She was born in Poland and started chatting away with Francesco about the importance of learning English, because when she was recently hospitalized for a month in Reggio, the staff only spoke in English. Of course, she knew almost no English, though her daughter knew a little.

Coast road just south of town
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We have been in touch with our neighbor, Guy Gamello, via email. He is keeping an eye on our house while we travel. It turns out that his relatives are from Messina, in Sicily, where we will go by ferry. Francesco's girlfriend lives in Messina, and she told us that Gamello is a very common name. It seems that Guy probably has a number of his relations still living there. Perhaps we will run into one.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:25 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches people buildings_postcards Comments (2)

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