I am into my third week at my Tuscan home….and I can’t decide whether I have been here for just a day or already for a lifetime. It is that sort of place…..timeless, endless bliss, nothing and everything. It is indeed my paradiso.

Twenty four years ago about now I stood on the crumbling wreck of a terrace overlooking a crumbling wreck of a 10th century fortress and declared “If you can’t catch a dream once in a lifetime, why are we here?”

It sealed the fate of this crumbling ruin and fortunately over the past years the other, on the hill opposite, has also been restored. European Union money paid for it, such a significant monument it is thought to be. Some say it is the backdrop for the famous Mona Lisa painting. The EU purse was needed to restore this one too, but they were not looking our way at the time!

Much has changed in my life in those 24 years: but here not much. Some of my older neighbours are now in the sweet little village cemetery but not before their time. Teresa next door was interred last summer at 104 ½ which in anybody’s terms is a bloody good innings. I was fortunate to be at her 100th birthday party where she drank champagne, made a speech and received a beautiful gold necklace from the entire village, all of whom were present. 

The church bells still ring daily although not so often. The farm machinery is about the only other sound you hear until hunting season when the dogs are on the go, straining to find something to kill.

There are again birds singing through the day. Given the Italians’ propensity to shoot everything they can, for years there was little birdcall and much on the table. Now it is more regulated and I am awakened each morning by the sound of birds and the sight of the swallows frolicking around in the sky.

Last week I saw a pair of pheasants in a neighbour’s field strutting their stuff; a marmot for the very first time, a deer or three and I honestly don’t know if it was in my imagination or not but I feel I saw a couple of young fox cubs playing near the roadside. Let’s pretend it was this year even if it was not.

The only time I’ve seen cinghiali live, after whom the villa is named, was the day 24 years ago when we said “yes” to our expectant agent. These wild boar are plentiful in the hills above the house and hard to see: perhaps it was an omen that we saw them that morning, a mother and 3 or 4 cubs, making that decision to say yes so much easier.

Oh and of course because it’s high summer we are blessed to witness the magic of the fireflies. They appear at the end of the day, even before the sky turns dark about 9.30 or 10pm and they flit in and out of the rooms lighting themselves up as they move. Sometimes in my almost slumber after the light is out I see them flying around my barn offering a magical end to my day.

The economic situation here is disastro my neighbour and villa manager Anna tells me. Certainly I have made it my business to pay everyone who needed to be paid since my last visit in October: the painter who has repainted the entire villa, the carpenter for his three new windows, my mechanic for lovingly attending to my car, and my insurance man to whom I pay an outrageous sum for my car and half the price for my entire villa. They don’t want to do credit anymore because times are tough. And because it’s the biggest black community in the world (money under the bed that is) I can only imagine that the suitcases are getting thinner rather than fatter.

For me with gin at 4 Euro something, I am in bliss. Vino is still only a few Euros a litre and the best to be had is the bulk wine in my  town…which tastes much better than all the regular bottles on the supermarket shelves. A morning at the market gives me all the freshest vegetables I can possibly want for 10 Euros and that includes mouth-watering tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and melons….none of which when I buy in Australia taste anything like these gems. Another reason for making this my home! Not forgetting the mouth watering dolce latte or gorgonzola that only costs me a couple of Euros.

My focus is very much on food here only because it is amongst the best and freshest on the planet, often coming from the next field or certainly the next village in the case of cheese. I took my PhD class there when we had our meeting here last week and we dug in and actually helped make the day’s cheese which was a first.

I went back to the Comune yesterday….the Town Hall….with papers in hand to become an Italian Resident again….hopefully. I left with a stamped piece of paper and the promise of the policeman coming to see if I really live here!!  A decade ago we all did it…painfully lining up with all the African boat people at the Police Station in Lucca but because I have an EU passport it seems it will be much easier. At least then my taxes and utilities will be halved so whatever hassle is well worth it.

I’ve upgraded some of the entertainment systems….egged on by a guest on his 4th visit who decided to buy me a flat screen tele in the villa so HE could stream his favourite Aussie programs. So a new Hi-Fi came yesterday, Sky TV and a DVD has been added to the barn and I wonder why I bother!

I have bothered, however, to do what I can about Wi-Fi….and after several hours of the technician drinking my wine, it seems to be behaving better. One never knows if it will continue to work in my absence but let’s hope so. It is, after all, a long time coming…..two years ago I was still on dial up….can you believe that???? The world leader in fashion and lagging far behind in technical stuff. Perhaps it says a lot about the people who live in these hills….they live a life here today, planting their vegies, drinking their wine, chatting with their neighbours, going to church for a social catch up if nothing else and so on … the technical stuff is of less importance to them. I think they have it right!

In the heat of the noon day sun  I came in from the terrace to try the Tele out.  999 Channels offering sex “Hot”, “listen to two for the price of one”; much jewellery, and much god, furniture, food (of course) how to get rid of fat or pests (presuming they are different), fortune telling, although the Nostradamus channel was actually a hot girlie site where girls in street attire were half heartedly blowing up blue balloons (I’m afraid I missed the point if there was one!), and sport…cycling and soccer, the two national pastimes of the Italians, and for the other few, fishing and yachting. And there were grey men talking politics from Sri Lanka to the Middle East and particularly in Cairo where the election results took hours to be announced and I went back into the sunshine before I heard the final celebration! The not so great news is that the local TV channels, RAI, encode all the major sporting features….like the soccer, the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Grand Prix’s etc so you can’t get them on Sky and you have to get yet another decoder and pay RAI another hefty fee. Forget it!  I can read the results on the internet….now I have it!!

It is wonderful to be back. I so love this place. It is ever green, the hills are blue and green and both close and distant. There is peace and quiet apart from the church bells and the birds. Oh, and that damned wasp that bit me the other day. I was glad to find his corpse almost out the window…I wanted to see him dead after inflicting some, only minor thankfully, pain on me.

Anyway I now know the antidote to the sting of a wasp. Go down the valley, meet with a friend for coffee and have two glasses of prosecco instead. Finito. Done. No wasp sting. Gone. Only a bit of an itch for a couple of days and the knowledge gathering was invaluable!

And so today is my last day here for a while: tomorrow I move out so another group of 4th time visitors can take over the entire premises and hopefully work the internet.

I head to Paris to learn French. God knows why when I should be working on my Italian but I had a whim to do this madness and it seemed like a good idea. I am reluctant to leave this haven but I must for the moment, and for July. I will be back in August for the figs on my heavily laden tree and the harvest of my walnuts and the apples and the nespole….which I bought and planted years ago thinking it was a nectarine..which is in fact a pesche noce…a peach with a nut!

Meanwhile, I shall trade my farro salad and cheese from the next village for a good baguette and some brie; my cheap Italian vino for some probably not cheap French vino, and my Buon Giorno to Bonjour. It will be fun.

Next time from there.

A bientot I think is the phrase!

With heart….




Ahh…more muezzins to wake to. I’ve begun to quite like it in the distance, not unlike the church bells in my Tuscan village where I am still smarting from the vespa….alias wasp. I remember those little Vespa scooters…sexy things, too bad they were called the name of a horrid wasp.


Anyway back in Constantinople…..why was it ever changed to Istanbul??? Such a shame I think.


The Aya Sofia…a third reincarnation of its ancestors…first built about the 400’s, burned down in a riot in 404, the second destroyed by riots in 532 and completed yet again in 537 and used as a mosque until 1934 when the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, declared it a museum (with an entrance fee of course!!)


Beautiful lights with dozens of globes each, reaching out in rounds as if like lilies on a pond, almost touching as they light up the huge space. The dome is 30 metres in diameter and supported by 40 massive ribs made of special hollow bricks made in the Greek island of Rhodes….which amuses me because I’ve always thought the Greeks and Turks hated each other. Not much left of the Christian mosaic pictures…mostly covered up as it became a Muslim church but what is still there is stunning. It’s an amazing place, and unlike some of the mosques used as mosques, does not exhibit any dirty-feet smelly carpet! Thankfully.


Who would have thought the Ottomans had soup kitchens?  They have the feeling of “us and them” however today we sampled the food at one of these ancient soup kitchens in an exquisite garden, private as if it belonged to some rich spice trader or merchant of former days. In its time it was a place for the poor and hungry to eat and yet the setting was fit for a king, and certainly more than adequately did for ever hungry Sfinx Women.  As for all our meals on this wonderful experience, we have been blessed with eating at places where the Turks eat. We have hardly heard a foreign voice outside our group, and have our friend Kathy to thank for finding us places only the local know about and frequent. Again she is a blessing.


Mehmet, my friend from last year is with us daily to guide us around, call our van when we digress into shops or bazaars and to organise our tickets and drinking water. He doesn’t have much English but is utterly lovely and a delight to share our adventures in his city (well not quite, he’s from Eastern Turkey but has lived here for quite some time.)  Today he scoots on ahead to purchase tickets to the Basilica Cistern, a seriously old underground watering hole built in 532.  It is a magnificent subterranean experience where the city’s water was stored from a reservoir near the Black Sea 20 kilometres distant. With a roof held up by 336 huge columns, and formerly holding up to 100,000 cubic metres of water, it is incredibly beautiful. Some will know it from a scene in one of the 007 Bond movies.


Before we dined this evening we were blessed to witness a sacred experience of whirling dervishes. Held in a circular brick room of ancient times, the reverence and the symbolism evoked a silence amongst the watchers. We were instructed neither to film nor applaud and in hindsight both would have shattered the sacredness of the occasion.


Six musicians and two singers graced the stage in white shirts and black pants to lull us into the style of music their colleagues would whirl to; we were surprised that one was a woman. Is this like a woman entering the hallowed portals of the Masons? We don’t find out, and neither does it matter. After a short interval they return to the stage with their black cloaks and tall felt hats that remind me of thimbles. The men’s were all ochre yellow and hers was red…the only difference in their attire.


As the whirlers appeared a hush descended on the crowd of a couple of hundred people in our round room. They reverently laid goat skins on the ground and on them their black cloaks, but only after folding and kissing them reverentially. Then they danced…or meditated…or whirled. It is all the same. Magical, enthralling, not a step out of place. They cock their heads to one side, hold up their arms, right arm with palm up and left arm with palm down and whirl and whirl and whirl. Their left foot never leaves the ground. The right one does a complete spin in two steps. Some had their eyes closed, others half open..all in trance, never meeting each other despite the close proximity in the small space that was theirs. Each of the 5 had a turn in the middle; it was like ballet choreographed with the ultimate precision of a Nureyev and Fonteyn Swan Lake. Sacred, reverential and breathtaking, I think we were all in a trance at the close.


And for more breathtaking, we went on to dinner on the top floor of the Hamdi Restaurant overlooking the Bosporus. Talk about location, location and location!  The man who started this started out very small, was successful and built up his business to become one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Istanbul. Even though it is recommended by Istanbul Eats we were surrounded only by Turkish people out on the town and were probably out of place making our way to the edge to take photos of the magnificent skyline, a mosque or two and a myriad lit craft on the water.


Last year I was gobsmacked at the Istanbul Modern…an art gallery showcasing the work of Turkish artists over the past hundred or so years and so incorporated another visit in our Sfinx itinerary.  Very Tate Modern it is, with some of its older artists having ventured into another and older world of Paris to extend their education, and its more modern artists exhibiting grand pianos hanging from the ceiling, an entire library of books also hanging from the ceiling, some exquisite old photographs of life in a different Istanbul and many other highly creative and artistic delights…altogether a surprise in their city with seems to juxtapose modern and ancient so easily.


Lunch was another delight. A restaurant which could have been in any modern city in the world with a chef so famed that wherever she goes, her fans follow. The Locanta Maya in Karakoy is home to Chef Didem Senol who I read about only yesterday in the July edition of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine. It seems she comes from a culinary hierarchy: her father Ahmet owns the Dionysos Estate in Bozburun which is noted for its 12 course meals with “regular hosings-down with dangerously moreish Turkish wines”. (Memo: I must go there soonest!)  Locanta Maya has an astonishing menu of gastronomic treats and a marvellous wall of walnuts caged in chicken wire. I am regretting profusely that I did not purchase her “Aegean Flavours” latest cookbook…I did not only on the grounds of already exceptionally heavy luggage and the hope that it was on Amazon. It is not. Hopefully Kathy will come to the rescue but she has already told me mail out of the country is problematical!


We look at carpets at Kathy’s husband’s family shop but I think we are all shopped out. Well not quite…I lead some of us to my carpet place of last year…to the famous Sinbad who regaled Rozi and I of his sex life with the screwed up psychologist girlfriend, and other wonderful tales as he plied us with coffee and told us he didn’t want to sell us anything, he wanted to build a relationship. For the record he was superb at both and I was delighted that he had a little something that Andy signed up for this year. I wouldn’t have wanted to disappoint him!


Another dusk rooftop experience at our hotel with Yeliz Rugzar talking to us on Sufism and the Kabala and using their principals of divine love to be your ultimate soulmate.  What a magnificent setting for a talk on Rumi and his life, and for the playing of a wonderful flute by her friend.  Later that night the tempo changed at the Artiste Teras, a rooftop restaurant that is opposite the apartment I stayed in last year with Rozi, and which we had watched and listened to the music emanating from there night after night without venturing in.


We had a riotous night….music…dancing…food…wine…amazing views (yet again) and such energy. It was sort of Bo-Ho, and came right off French Street, a narrow stepped street where one restaurant blends into another and you only know the delineation when purple sofas become red or green becomes pink. It is slightly seedy and yet fabulous. Not chic but very chic. And fun fun fun.  A pencil thin singer in tight jeans croons songs of our past, and one by one we get up and dance. Because we can. And because we are moved to. It is fabulous.


With one more day in wonderful Constantinople to enjoy before we depart for the sea, we start with a treatise on Business Plans which is simple, elegant and works, then head for an ancient Christian Church, the Chora Church which is magnificent but shows little of its ancient magnificence, and lunch as Asitane in a splendid garden nearby.  Again we are overwhelmed at the quality of the food; many of the recipes dated from the Topkapi Palace days and some from the circumcision parties of the sons of Suleiman the Magnificent. I had quails hanging out of a scooped out aubergine and they were utterly delicious. 


We have been very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the wine here in Turkey. The white is dry and fresh and the malbec, mainly the red we have liked, is equal to anything I have had elsewhere. My earlier experience of Turkish wine, back in ’69 goes like this:  we were camping in inadequate equipment outside the Ankara football stadium one night and it was bloody freezing. Fortunately we had managed to get hold of two essential elements before bed:  a few newspapers and a few bottles of six penny muscat. We drank as much of the muscat as we could before passing out and wrapped our feet in the newspapers inside our sleeping bags to ensure an adequate night’s sleep without freezing to death.


After lunch it was back to the bazaar if you liked and most of us liked.  Mehmet ran around trying to find my handbag shop from last year and when he did it was full of other victims and most of us could not be bothered waiting. I spied some beautiful old glass light fittings and made a mental note to return if I was restoring another house in Europe,  Christine collected her new suede coat just off the sewing machine, Connie and I returned to Kathy’s favourite bazaar jeweller for a few more bracelets and rubies for her and pearls for me before we vanished to our favourite non-bazaar jeweller where I had completely indulged on periodots on our first day and Connie was picking up some beautiful cushions made from old Turkish kilims. Finally we made our way to the travel agent to finalise hotel and transportation in Bodrum for the next three days.


We decided to dress up for our final night’s dinner at what we were told was a rather splendid place.  Travelling for an hour and a half in Friday night traffic, it seemed that it was a million miles away but it was interesting to travel through the outskirts of this huge city, see a few gals of the night in the red light district and finally make our way to a magnificent rooftop restaurant lit by a thousand lights and candles. Perched on the edge of Europe over the Bosporus Sea, we reached out to Asia on the other side, watching the modern bridge dividing east and west change colours over and over again as we ate.  Ulus was the place to see and be seen and co-incidentally eat a magnificent meal and drink a highly overpriced bottle of bubbly to celebrate our fantastic time here. It was breathtaking, and again, devoid of tourists other than us. Well done Kathy for your choices!!


The next three days were spent winding down at Bodrum in and around the pool of the El Vino hotel, with its bougainvillea in various hues, lovely fragrant plants, fabulous breakfasts, afternoon tea and cake and stunning views from its rooftop restaurant.  Shopping was again on the agenda when we discovered a fabulous shopping street offering all sorts of goodies we had overlooked in Istanbul. Sadly the museum was closed…it is supposed to have a wonderful collection of relics of this ancient city of Halicarnassus…once one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.


But our favourite day without doubt was spent on a boat:  all day on the Mediterranean….clear, wonderful, blue sea, refreshing sea air, beautiful fresh fish for lunch, crisp white wine, hot sun, all the elements of a magical day to end another fabulous Sfinx adventure.


And so to Italy ……  without my suitcase….for the second time this trip….and the wasp. 


Until next time…..With Heart




Ouch, what the hell was that???

And as my hand goes to my rump to brush off a long nasty wasp I am glad he will die for taking the edge off an otherwise beautiful, tranquil morning in my Tuscan hills. At least it was not a brother of the calabrone (hornet) that had my husband a minute from cardiac arrest/death a dozen years ago.

But I am ahead of myself.

My ears hear the words “how can I take your money?” and I laugh at the honesty of the traders in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. I have just sampled some of the most delicious nougat and Turkish delight or Locum on the planet … pomegranate and almond, pistachio, and more at a kind of herbal pharmacy I found a year ago when my travelling companion was a little poorly and needed a potion of twigs and powders to cure her. This time I had my friend in his white coat mix me an elixir of love. It is called Aphrodisiac for Women and I buy a bottle hoping to beguile someone soon!

Another trader cries out “Come here, I have something to poison your mother-in-law” and I love his creativity. I think he probably has a fabulous business…especially here! Elsewhere traders are selling spices and oils and potions, loofas and sponges, dates and figs, and a smattering of ceramics and scarves that are probably an overflow from the magnificent Grand Bazaar.

Our Sfinx Women event gets underway on our hotel roof in the heart of the Sultanahmet district, where we meet for wine and a talk on Hurrem, the first wife of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and her influence over the Ottoman Empire for 600 years prior to dinner with breathtaking views of the water at Mikla, the top floor restaurant at the famed Marmara Pera hotel, known for its best views of the city….and to us, for its sumptuous food. I loved the violet sauce on my pannacotta best, with crystallised violets floating on the beautiful white plate.

Interspersed with unbelievable cuisine we are also here to experience the best of Istanbul’s history, and of course, to shop. In the city for the first time when I was 22, I was enthralled at the emeralds in the Topkapi Palace and my thrall has not lessened. They are amazing. Built in the 1400’s and lived in by successive sultans and their sultanas until the 19th century when they moved to more ostentations European style palaces, there is a magnificent collection of precious and beautiful things here. One of the diamonds has 86 carats and there are chairs and swords and chairs and tables encrusted with everything precious that comes from the ground and it is all too overwhelming to take in. I like the tranquillity of the circumcision room….noting the faucets and sinks were no doubt needed for these proceedings! Small boys still undergo the knife about the age of 8 and to celebrate are dressed in satin and gold braid for a day or two, just like a mini sultan.

Waking to the sound of the muezzin became OK after a day or so and surprisingly then once used to it, we slept through it.

Our visit to the oldest bathhouse in the city was scheduled for day two just in case any of our guests was suffering a dose of jetlag and needed a good pummelling to revive. Stripped down to a pair of regulation black knickers with a sort of tea towel to cover us and some slippery slippers, we appeared in the huge domed room with an enormous marble plinth in its centre. Ordered to lie down, a black-knickered woman wielding a pillow case of suds appeared out of nowhere to beat this thing upon us from head to foot. Massage, soap suds, loofas, hot water, cold water, “turn over”, “come here”, gesticulations to put your sudsy hair under a tap over a marble basin were all part of this amazing experience. Then into a pool of 38 degrees Celsius and another cooler one to languish in and take stock of what has just happened and prepare for an oil massage that lasted half an hour and could have been half a day it was so wonderful.

Dinner in Fish Street is always wonderful…. as is the fish of course, and later a walk down Istikal Street for the famed ice creams given with sleight of hand and taken away a dozen times until you can’t laugh any more and you eventually retain yours to enjoy!

Back in 69 when I first visited Istanbul the Grand Bazaar was a place of hashish and hookah pipes, reminiscent of the film Midnight Express. It was a dingy place, with men in baggy pants sitting on little stools and making things in their stalls, bashing tin, tooling leather. Then, apart from the hashish smell, the smell of under-cured leather and goat hair embroidered coats and jackets was rampant. I even bought one and wonder how on earth it got into Australia without being killed or at least fumigated!!!! Now it is all tricked up with neon lights and signs and Hermes and Prada and Roberto Cavalli handbags (well one generation removed) and pashminas and carpets and sweet smelling soaps and even proper loos! And of course, ATM machines which dispense Turkish Lire or US Dollars so the traders can be perpetually happy!!

And happy they were with our day….my leather man sold us 9 jackets and a skirt and that was just our first stop!! Accompanied by our great “find”, American Kathy Hamilton who calls herself Istanbul Personal Shopper we enjoyed watching as she bargained for us. Last year in Istanbul I decided to do a Sfinx trip here and on the plane home was delighted to find a piece in the Qantas mag about Kathy. She was a gem. An amazing woman who tossed in a cook’s job in Washington DC at the age of 40, she came here and has carved out an amazing life, married, had a son, was a week away from a happy divorce when we met up, writer, editor, personal shopper…all manner of entrepreneurial biz maker and outstanding with her 6 foot height and orange red hair. She was a find!

Last year I made a jeweller very happy when I spent 5 figures on some trinkets with diamonds and emeralds and cabochon rubies who told us he had a special box of exquisite gems he brought out for bad husbands, and as I noted then, I missed the bus on that score! If I’d met him earlier he would have perhaps got 6 figures or more to equal the score! Thankfully I could not find his shop this year…..

But I digress again.

We eat a delicious meal at a workers cafe and view some carpets but I think we are shopped out and need a rest before our visit to the Galata tower. I remember the first time I went over the Galata bridge, some 40 something years ago, in a bus somewhere between London and Kathmandu…a shepherd was coaxing dozens of sheep, all marked on their backs with a different coloured dye, across the bridge. Now it is full of bright yellow taxis and fast cars and not an animal to be seen. The Galata was first built in 528 and affords a brilliant 360 degree view of this magical city, and looks just as lovely from the other side of the water lit up against the night sky.

Tonight we celebrated Sandy’s birthday at Dai Pera Lokanta in the street in which I stayed last year. A magnificent casual restaurant with a female chef who totally loves what she does. And another day is over.

And enough for now of these jottings or else you will be as tired as we were after that day….shopping, eating, drinking delicious Turkish wine (now that was a complete surprise) and laughing as if there were no tomorrow.

There is a tomorrow and that and the remainder of our time in Turkey will come soon….as will the results of the Wasp Sting!

Until next time, with heart…