Isn’t it always the way when you have an early start that you wake at least an hour before you need to, and regret it sorely at the other end of the day? And so I did on that Monday morning in August when I was headed for Sicily.


The previous days in the high Tuscan hills had been excruciatingly hot. A plethora of village festivals preceded the long-awaited Ferragosto, the 15th of August, Assumption for the religious I believe, when if you haven’t yet gone on holiday, it’s the signal that you must. So the festivals of farro, of porchetta, of vino and whatever else they come up with my in hills, cease and there is nothing but quiet.


I had done nothing for days other than languish on my sofa, take small bursts in the sun to work on my tan, eat, drink and read. It is heaven and it is a totally new kind of life for me. Unused to not having projects and goals and stuff to do, this is the time just to be. The transition I am in now is well overdue in my life. But it all comes when it is meant to and right now, I am liking doing nothing. Slothful? Yes maybe. And quite frankly I am totally OK about it.


The palest of dawn woke me at 5am and I lay there enjoying it knowing that I didn’t have to get up until 6.15 or be in my car before 7. The pink ribbon of cloud caressing my mountains stirs me as always as I make my way downstairs to the bathroom.


I am in Il Fienile…The Barn. In my part of Tuscany the barn was built under the same roof line as the house and is an extension of the house. When we bought I Cinghiali the barn was full of rubbish…. bales of hay which fell through a hole in the ground to feed the animals kept in the stables underneath, old farm equipment which I now keep as treasures of the past, and a couple of wooden saddles that would have added considerable pain to the already uncomfortable activity of horse riding. But they are still used and not long ago I saw three horses tethered nearby with these very rustic pieces strapped onto their backs. There were stacks of old timber, the chestnut of the area, and a partial mezzanine which in fact inspired the renovation of the barn a decade after the restoration of the villa.


I love the barn; I decided last week that it’s my favourite living space in the world. It is also the most simple. There are lots of windows on both levels and I leave them permanently open. Yes the odd sparrow flies in, occasionally a pipistrelli or two (tiny bats) in the depth of the night but they don’t stay and they are a reminder that I am in the country and not in suburban Melbourne. Downstairs lies the kitchen, living room, dining room, all open plan and spacious and lovely and the bathroom which is the only enclosed space. Upstairs, reached by open wooden stairs, a wrought iron balustrade contains the sleeping space which takes up half of the size of the barn and allows the vista of the beautiful mountains to be enjoyed from a prostate position in the beds.


It was this very mezzanine that almost prevented the barn being restored! Plans had been drawn up, submitted to the local Comune and work was due to start on Monday. By chance we were there, as we had not been for the restoration of the villa, and when Monday came but Giovanni didn’t we wonder why. No sightings on Tuesday either so on Wednesday we decide to take a drive, knowing we could come across his van where he would either be working on a site or drinking a glass of vino with a satisfied customer or a prospective new one!

Of course we found him and, as I had only just begun to understand his version of the local dialect, Garfagnino, I was able to ask why we hadn’t seen him and to understand his response.  “They won’t let us build the mezzanine, it’s not seismic proof” was the explanation and I wondered why the architect had been on the job for two years, submitted the plans to council and accepted her payment when she must have known there was a problem!! Later I wondered about her even being an architect when I mentioned the Taj Mahal and she had never heard of it!!!


A terremoto had razed our entire village to the ground in 1921 and since then all new houses had at least metre thick stone walls in case of a recurrence. All the old houses had to be tied together, with steel rods going through them at various intervals with a rod on the outside at each end holding the tie in place.


Giovanni’s news was not welcome. Momentarily we were disappointed and furious; then I became instantly Italian and knew there must be a solution. One of the things I love about this country is the fact that the bureaucracy can be got around. A “no” is not necessarily a “no”, which it is in Australia and which I, as a consummate rule breaker, find maddening. So I said to Giovanni “What has to happen for the work to commence tomorrow?” A simple question with a very simple and immediate answer. ”Valerio at the Comune needs five million lire.” I wrote the cheque, Giovanni delivered it that afternoon and our gang was on the job at 8am the following day. No receipt of course and I would have been beyond stupid to anticipate one.


So the barn was restored in a very non-traditional way that had the builders, plumbers, electricians, and our wonderful carpenter Franco who died of lung cancer shortly after, scratching their collective heads. My region is very traditional and what was suggested to them was entirely outside their known parameters. However they got into the swing of things, came up with some wonderful suggestions and we left them to it and flew to Australia.


Returning the following February for the huge, heavy, 5 inch bull nose piece of marble for the kitchen bench to be carried by 4 men down our steep drive on a pouring wet day and to be placed on spindly thin little stainless steel legs that was its base. One step wrong on that slippery path and our 300 kilo piece of the Carrara Mountains would have been in 1000 bits. Only when it was in situ making our barn complete did our team realise what a special and different space we had created and lent their enthusiasm to the finished project.


This is the space I crept out of on Monday at 7am in already 20 degree heat to head down to Pisa and eventually Sicily to stay with my friends who are in their own restoration process.


Down the road and around the corner I spied a curious sight: an old man in white in the middle of a field, and standing only a metre from a scarecrow, doing what looked like Tai Chi. Given the ageing population of my area and the traditional lives of the people this sight was extraordinary. Having to stop a few hundred metres down the road on the perimeter of the next town for a beautiful deer to cross safely is far more common.


An easy two hours drive to Pisa airport, car parked and there even too early for check in for my flight to Catania. So what else is a girl to do that check out the rather nice assortment of shops for the travelling public? Ah, renovations here too….a new loo and greatly modernised. A new underwear and bikini shop. Maybe time to chuck the ancient model I found in my cellar last week and woo hoo…everything is on sale…so what’s to lose by checking out the racks. If only I’d known….half in and half out of a pretty pink model the strains of that dismal pre-Dickens music came into my dressing room bringing about an immediate state change. I had to buy them quickly and get out thinking that after all these years and after all those UPW’s how it could still affect me like that.


The deep blue Mediterranean is a huge contrast against the parched brown landscape from Pisa to Rome and then to Sicily. Once over Sicily I am reminded of the hundreds of thousands of Sicilians who left their homes in the early 1900’s not just to try their luck in America but to avoid starvation in Sicily. The evidence is the dozens of abandoned stone houses with crumbling walls and caved-in roofs. They had nothing here, the land is very unforgiving save for oranges and olives and some grapes in certain areas, and these men walked down to the ports and left, probably with a piece of fabric carrying everything they owned on their backs. They changed American society I am sure, just as their absence changed life in Sicily.


I read what I wrote about Sicily a decade ago in Interlude with Wild Boars: “The poverty is depressing: the hundreds of derelict farmhouses long since deserted; the phenomenon of casa abusiva where houses, built without planning permits, are lived in but never finished; the heavily fortified prisons of Palermo and its overflowing rubbish bins which are never emptied. Almost the entire population of a block of apartments is arrested on narcotics charges and I read that over ten billion dollars of Mafia property in the capital has been seized by the magistrates over the past ten years. The 1986 trials of five hundred top Mafiosi took place in a specially-constructed bunker in Palermo, resulting in jail sentences of over two thousand years. The roads are pretty average and even the marzipan is disappointing.”


I wonder what has changed and am delighted the wonderful gelati are still wonderful. The prisons are still lenient I understand … fathers and sons languish inside with their mobile phones arranging the next deal and mums and wives pop in each day with their hot midday meal and for a chat. I’m not sure if sex is on the agenda, but this is Italy, nay, this is Sicily and I am sure everything can be arranged for a price.


The hour and a half drive to my friends’ renovation site is full of barren fields and lots of goats. It’s definitely goat territory and quite frankly I think some of them are sheep but it’s hard to tell the difference. A few forested parts offer some green respite to offset the white stone that is Sicily’s.


My Tuscany is grey. Grey stone houses with red tegole…the half pipe round roof tiles. Here huge chunks of white stone poke out of the ground as far as the eye can see and the case are built of the white stone with matching tegole for their roofs. It is such a different look and every bit as lovely.


The roads are narrow, terrible and match the Sicilian drivers. If they have a Patente, a driving licence, I reckon it was handed out in the Weetie packets. No one stays on their side of the road and most of the intersections have no logic to them. There are no rules, other than watch out for yourself and drive slowly. My friends say the locals are patient if you want to chat to someone along the way and hold up the traffic a bit and deafeningly horn blowing when you do something stupid. Good to know if you want to drive.


Greg I’ve known since Pontius was a Pilot…his father was my boss in my first job. We met at the Blue Posts in Rupert Street, Soho when he was pulling beers and some years later I introduced him to his first wife. Later I was a guest at his second marriage and now I am about to meet Lizzy, Numero 3 who has single handed and initially with no Italian, let alone Siciliano, bought two properties here and is almost through a huge restoration of the one we are going to. I am impressed before I meet her. When we drive up the Strada Privata and come across a beautiful long low white stone building, faced with a huge loggia, two lovely cottages for guests (one of which is mine for the duration) I am significantly beyond impressed. As I look through the huge piles of stone that landscape the front of the villa there is a sparkling blue pool and a spa and a crazy wooden day bed which I mentally reserve for myself.


Pots of fragrant green basilico line the side wall of the house, a beautiful big green tree is hemmed in with a round stone seat, outdoor barbecues and a stone oven add to their entertaining area and elsewhere there are the digging machines, scaffolding, concrete mixers, the remnants of road making equipment and other impedimenta that tell a whole other story about how this piece of magnificence was created.


I finally meet Lizzie in the kitchen where she is preparing wonderful fresh, from someone’s garden, but not theirs – yet, vegetables for dinner and Greg gets out the bubbly and the cold glasses. It is all perfect.


The house is lovely and Liz has captured all its original features in the modernisation including glassing part of the floor in the living room covering what seems like an archaeological dig below. Not what it seems, it was created as a secret grain storage area in case Mussolini came to rape, pillage and plunder. Not much else of its origins is evident save the tiny windows and the low low lintel off the kitchen that even the tiny men sitting in the streets outside bars on old wooden chairs would probably have to duck for. The big stone fireplace is another feat of Lizzie’s determination and it is stunning. But it’s hot and the pool beckons. Greg calls for George who will materialise with the drinks and now I’m very impressed wondering who will show up and thinking George is not a very Sicilian name…or Albanian, as there are a lot of them here too. George however is floated on the pool hiding a bottle of chilled white and a set of plastic glasses and I am impressed. Even more.


Liz came to this part of Sicily a bit on a whim some years ago. Born a Brit, lived in New York for 10 years, chartered her own yacht around the Caribbean for more years, and for the last about 12 lived in the Marshall Islands running the store there. The where? I hear you asking, and I had to as well. The Marshall Islands are somewhere in the Pacific, have a population of bugger all, none of whom seem to go much anywhere else or have particularly functional lives. Most houses have no running water and no sewerage. There is a huge diabetes problem because of the white rice consumed and most things have to be shipped in. Hence Lizzie’s store. She is a go-go woman with beautiful eyes and boundless energy… she can do anything, and certainly, as I discover this piece of magnificence in Sicily, has done an absolutely brilliant job creating a Sicilian casa. To her it is but half complete…to the naked eye, yes, there is landscaping to do and the odd extra touch but it is already more than stunning.


Their local “town”, St Jacobo has more stores and bars than my hamlet in Tuscany including a common feature of Sicily, or at least this part, called a circolo. These circolo’s are effectively men’s clubs where men go to chat, have a coffee, probably escape from their women and talk about sport and politics, and probably their women. The women, even if they wanted to pay the subscription, are not generally allowed. In Ragusa we saw the adjoining building to the circolo had a first floor covered-in balcony where the women sat to try and overhear the conversation without being seen, which reminded me of the carved screens in India and the screened area in the Colon, the opera house of Buenos Aires, where the widows could enjoy the opera without being condemned for not mourning their late lamented and most likely philandering husbands properly.


Going to the local town Giarratana for market day I am delighted to see a different type of housecoat hanging for the housewives and their daily chores. My son Hugo always wants to buy me one when he comes to my market day, and I make a mental note that the Tuscan numbers are just a tad more stylish!


I think the economy of Sicily is not anywhere as prosperous as that of la bella Toscana. Here the villages look poor, the landscape is hard and unforgiving and to eke out a living would be terribly hard and arduous, unless of course you are engaged in the most prosperous occupation of Sicilians – drugs and money laundering.


But the harsh landscape is tempered with the beautiful green of the olive trees, old, gnarled and capable of putting out a fabulous oil that equals any of the Tuscan greats. In Melbourne I used to alternate in my oil shopping between the big Tuscans and the small Sicilians and now, tasting the local at source, I want more of it.


There are lots of people on market day, and, as it happens, it is also the festival of horses although as much as we looked, and smelt for evidence, we could not come across them. They have just had the festival of the frozen virgin as Greg calls it – the Lady of the Snows (snows here in hot Sicily?? I dont think so!) and the festival of the onion and I marvel at the Italians for their ability to create a holiday atmosphere and a week of festivities over something as humble as the onion. When I see a truck on the roadside selling bright yellow melons and what appears to be huge white melons I am told that the latter are in fact the revered onions. Yes I think even I would create a festival to celebrate such greatness!


Our days are languid and long. I don’t do much but sloth around and in the pool, taking an afternoon siesta as one should in this heat. Lizzie spends her time rounding up bits of timber and metal strewn across her 22 acres and putting them all in piles for later use. She is not a gal who wastes a moment or a thing. Greg is engaged in his laboratorio making a shed. Workmen come and go and Lizzie speaks with and understands them perfectly. I am impressed and vow to work on my Italian which I don’t use enough even though I know it well.


One night we go to the beautiful baroque town of Ragusa for drinks and dinner, and a tour with their friend Consuelo, who points out the three big bridges and the caves in the hillside and the red light area before we even start our descent into this beautiful town built after its predecessor was razed to the ground in 1693. Dining in a small square surrounded by motor bikes, cars, kids playing, death notices pasted on anything that will take them, paying 5 Euros for a main pasta course and feeling deliciously warm even though it is about 11pm, we all comment that life here is pretty damned good and we wouldn’t be anywhere else for quids. Or Lire, or, in fact, Euros! Or whatever the currency is on the Marshall Islands or Fiji where Greg lived for more than two decades running the Cousteau resort and Turtle Island before that. Or was it Lizard, I always get the two muddled up.


Modica, another beautiful town a couple of nights later offers the best pizzeria on the planet. When Lizzie discovered I Baccanti some years ago there were 4 or 5 tables in an alleyway and one room inside beside the kitchen. Now there are more than 20 tables in the alleyway, at least 8 rooms inside leading to another alleyway the other side. At midnight they are still full and people waiting for take-aways. Liz asks La Padrona how many pizzas they make a day, and she shrugs and says non lo so.…I dont know. I do know it was one of the best pizzas I have ever had and for a few mere Euros it filled my plate and me before I was half way through. Modica is out and about even though it is only Wednesday. It seems like a festive Saturday night. So despite what I might have previously thought about the economy here, it would seem there is enough money to eat out and some places would be making a substantial living.


I notice all the men are wearing a bag. Not for them the discrete leather clutch with a wrist strap…these are big bags stretched across their chests and carrying all their bits and pieces. Greg approves. And in the shops, the remnants of summer shoes all with 5 inch heels and platform soles which are, for me, never an option on these cobblestones.


Lizzie decides to do some entertaining. No use having just a few….lets ring a bunch of Italians and invite them for a barbecue. Greg and I are despatched one very hot morning to go shopping. The local butcher offers a wonderful display of things: we leave with meat for the five thousand at a cost of 16 Euros. The same price buys us all the accoutrements at Conad, the ubiquitous supermarket chain around the corner. I’ve just read that Melbourne is again the world’s most liveable city where what we bought would have cost not E32/AUD37 but at the very least three times that. So Melbourne, you are not the world’s most liveable city: at least for these three Italophiles.


Dinner Party Sicilian Style: prepare food, lay table, pour a drink, consume a drink, maybe two, wonder who will come, and when, or if. But they did: Enzo with a magnificent head of hair just waiting to run your fingers through as countless have done before and will again, and his playful pup Rino, and Giorgio the builder and his girlfriend Stefania (No 1) on his motor bike. Between them they speak a few words of English but I determine to speak Italian all night and hope they don’t lapse into Siciliano. They don’t, and I do. All night, asking questions, making comments, answering questions and everyone totally understood me. It’s the most Italian I have spoken for ages, and it works. Greg starts the BBQ but Enzo takes over. He’s lived here more than Greg, accompanying a friend of Lizzie’s who moved in to look after the casa when she was back in the Marshall Islands.


Greg decides Enzo’s dog is like all Sicilian men: very good with emotion, and no good at discipline. There is no word of dissent from Enzo and I make a mental note. At 11.30 the phone rings to remind us of the fireworks and I learn a new term… fuoco artificiali which are to go off at midnight in our town…for another festival no doubt, or just because they had some left over from the last one. Greg says let’s not go because they won’t start them until 1am. And he was right. Just at 1 when I decide to go to my piccola casa the first shower of light is seen in the dark night sky. He may be a relative newcomer to Italy and indeed Sicily but he’s got their character in one!


Another day, my last, and before I am awake Angelo is out there beavering away with the noisy digger moving the rocks that are Sicily. I love this place. It has a great spirit. It has a heart that I hadn’t felt on my previous visit which was all ruins and trying to find decent hotels and avoiding the Mafiosi. This time I have been for some days almost a local in a tiny locale of this large island which has been raped, pillaged and plundered by many over the centuries and I love it.


We are expected for lunch with a friend of Lizzie’s. She is making her signature bread …sought after by all the locals and we are running late. She calls our hostess…no worries says Stefania No 2, an hour in ritardo is fine. We are in their summer house, only a couple of kilometres from their usual house, and tiny but with a beautiful garden and a large pool in which there are dozens of Sicilians. Lunch, for 30 people mostly in bathers, is wonderful: easy, casual, delicious flavours that keep coming served by good looking men and women with darkened skins. My neighbour, a female architect tells me that if Sicilians are not eating they are talking about food. She is not just talking about women; men talk endlessly about how zucchinis are prepared with oil and garlic and fresh oregano and just a hint of balsamico. You have got to love these people.

Later we drive out to meet up with Francesco, a very good looking (and mysterious and I think available) Venetian lawyer who divides his time between his studio legale in Venice and restoring an old stone house that is surrounded by what he loves: olive trees, and his next business. Sitting under a rough matting logia on a quasi terrace made from scaffolding boards, Francesco has laid out a huge delicious-smelling Pecorino cheese, some purple plums from his tree, sweet dried tomatoes, semi dried tomatoes in olive oil and herbs and garlic and some amazing bread made from old grain called orzo. He pours the local tipple: white wine, Campari and aqua frizzante, complete with lemon and ice. It is a setting fit for royalty, surrounded by his 1300 old olive trees, and 1500 freshly planted ones.


We talk to Francesco in Italian and learn about olive production here in Sicily…or at least his part: what it takes to be designated DOC or its equivalent, why he doesn’t get his olives crushed locally by a friend but instead takes the entire harvest an hour away, and how he is setting up his own facility on this magnificent property. All his olives are expensively hand-picked rather than using a machine or a man with a bastone…a bit stick: 4 men to a tree and the best, the first pressed, rich and low yield, comes in October. The yield from his 100 year old trees is 10 litres. Later in December and January he gets more yield but lesser quality. Nonetheless Francesco’s oil must be hideously expensive as it comes in as small as 100 mil bottles and is exported to Germany. Purchasing is on demand. No oil of his will sit on a supermarket shelf going rancid for months, or, like cheap commercial oils be filled with cleansing products to mask the already rancid flavour evident before it even hits the shelves. When you order one of Francesco’s oils it is made for you, or at least bottled from the huge temperature controlled and gassed vats so that you get it fresh and lovely. When he gets his facility up and running he plans to get some geese to shoo away the ladri who might have in mind a bit of theft: he thinks they are more effective and louder than any guard dog.

Later we leave this heaven and find a tiny restaurant down a narrow cobblestoned alleyway in Buccheri and I recall how when I was in Sicily 11 years ago we could never find restaurants. Now I know why. This particular alley, opposite another magnificent baroque locked and fenced church which Sicily is littered with, and is totally inconspicuous to the non-local.  Run by two brothers, one who cooks and one who is front of house, we are greeted by Chico in jeans and a striped t-shirt and looking like Billy Crystal, who brings a small plate over to our table with four types of pasta on it. Thick white strips, tiny white conch shells, green ribbons and chunky pink worm like pasta: all made in their kitchen and, I am told, all wonderful. I go for the pink which is full of chilli and comes with a bit of oil and some ruccola. It is delicious. We are learning words from Francesco and to Greg’s and my amazement Liz learns the word kitsch: and then we realise it describes the restaurant perfectly. But olde worlde kitsch…pictures on every wall alongside certificates and an old photograph of some boys pushing a cart up one of the towns hills. One boy has the bottom totally out of his woollen dungarees showing his bare backside to all who follow; a reminder of the poverty that was Sicily’s. Local produce: net bags of snails, the huge and revered onions in rush baskets behind my chair and a disused German prosciutto cutter on a shelf high on the wall. The litre of local red was magnificent and cost only a few Euros. Francesco silently paid for us all and we crept out under the midnight sky to our own haven in San Jacobo where the stars shone and the moon was half way between invisible and full.

My last night in Sicily, for now. I have a new love and respect for the place and vow to return sooner than the 11 years since I was last here. Thank you Lizzie and Greg for your amazing generosity and hospitality for allowing me into your Sicilian world for a moment.

Until next time, with heart






I loved being in Tunisia and I loved leaving Tunisia; apart from the 4.15 am start and the failure of the hotel to give me a wake-up call. My driver was young, handsome and dressed in a shirt and tie. The car had seatbelts and the roads were practically empty. At the airport x-ray scanners they did not want to see my computer, nor did they want me to toss away my water bottle or see any little bottles of liquid in a zip lock bag. Bliss. A return to normal times.


Air France efficiency and I was first on the plane. Nice. Sardinia and Corsica have always been on my do list and flying over them made me know why. Wild, hilly; tiny little villages on beautiful coastlines; lots of boats coming and going. They looked gorgeous. Further north the captain announced that Mont Blanc was a gauche. Since I was a droit, I missed out but was surprised to see so much snow on the Alps … particularly after the intense heat in Tunisia.


I am excited and delighted to be heading back to Europe….even though I’ve only been south of the Med for a week, it seems home and I can’t wait to be there. Europe is where I feel alive…every day. Australia has not done that for me for a long long time. I am glad I made this decision to take off with just a lap top and a begging bowl, so to speak. The steward serves me good coffee, fig jam and croissants, after the mandatory mushroom omelette of course, and suddenly, with great sadness, I know the season has been and gone in my absence. I hope at least my neighbours have eaten them rather than the birds.


In all the 24 years I have owned this piece of heaven I have only partaken of the bountiful crop from the huge old fig tree twice. In 2009 there was a bumper crop: delicious with prosciutto or gorgonzola or just as they came, straight off the tree, plump, moist and sensual. The other time was so long ago it was in the last century, and I can’t remember if I ate one or a hundred.


As I struggle onto the little two-carriage train that takes me up to the valley, with too much stuff in too many bags from my 6 weeks away, I am overcome with joy at coming home and speechless with gratitude that I own a piece of this magnificent part of Italy, although truthfully I oft feel I am merely custodian, for friends and family and guests to enjoy. I remember falling in love with Italy, and with Tuscany in particular, when at the age of 22 I was first here, and I remember too the scornful laughter of my travelling buddies when I announced that one day I would buy a villa here. I believed it; they clearly did not.


I want to look out of the train as we pass through familiar places, even just to see discarded water bottles and plastic bags lying by the rail tracks and the graffiti for which the Italians could win Olympic gold, but the train windows are, of course, too filthy and the 7pm sun shines brightly in my eyes. It is still 34 degrees and a much nicer heat than in Tunisia which had that almost breathless quality about it.


As I lift my face to the sun and smile, a tiny tear escapes my left eye and I blame the sun but secretly I weep that tear with gratitude for my life: my health, my son, my friends, and my ability, not to escape the reality of life in Melbourne, but rather to create a new reality someplace else where my heart really sings.


It’s not as if I was born in close proximity to a silver spoon, I was not. But I did have a very wise father who instilled in me from the age of 2 that I could be whoever I wanted to be, do whatever I wanted to do and have whatever I wanted to have; all I had to do was want it badly enough.


This is pretty much what a tall Yank with big teeth told me several decades later but I hadn’t waited for the second telling. Rather, I’d taken action at 16, spurred on by my deep desire to travel the world, trading shares on the Melbourne Stock Exchange. Those were the days; by 19 I had three brokers in three different broking firms working for me and I would break off from my $40 a week job several times a day, on a good day, to call them with buy and sell orders. I must have known even then that if you wanted economic freedom you had to invest and that your day job would only ever pay the bills.


But what has all this to do with Tuscany and arriving home?


Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.


Eventually I reach my station and, to my delight, my friend Mary and her brother Stephen AND a glass of good red from the station bar!!!


My next village, like mine, an ancient hamlet, is having its annual midsummer party and Mary and Stephen suggest I join them. But to be honest, I am so excited to be home with my own bottle of red and Mary’s lasagne to tuck into, I forgo the invitation and instead listen to the fabulous rock band well after midnight. I wonder how the aged population is enjoying it…or not…and I laugh when Mary tells me they walked the length and breadth of the village and could not find a drink, so moved on to somewhere they knew they could!


Even though it’s been a long day, I wake at at 5 something to the sounds of utter silence. The glow of dawn greets me through every window of my restored barn, which I have decided is the most wonderful home I have ever had anywhere in the world, and my blue hills have a pink ribbon caressing their peaks. I think I am in heaven.


I’ve been out of touch with the world’s media for, it seems, ever, so later, I turn on my television which has limited English coverage. Its Olympics, Olympics, Olympics…..UK version, so it’s their gold medal winners and events that predominate, and stories of a grisly murder in the suburbs of London. Later I am greeted with journalists wearing raincoats in Moscow giving their thoughts on Pussy Riot (whilst I am in my newly-discovered bikini) and Julian Assange being holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy behind Harrods. Did I really miss anything important????


And of course I was right about my figs. Not one single one left: just dried out old leaves and a few tiny green ones on my terrace. With a complete absence of rain there is no hope of those tiny ones growing, so I will have to wait for next year and resolve not to leave town in July.


A week later and I have done nothing. This is unheard of for me. An entire week of blissful nothing. Reading, eating, lots of sleep, the odd gin and tonic or glass of vino, and a bit of writing. I did try to finish my tax returns but the discovery of the old bikini and the sun filled terrace got the better of me.


Oh there was the annual village knees-up. I’d been invited of course, but on the day there was a delegation of the village men on my doorstep asking if they could use my huge old stone oven (which my neighbour tells me is the largest in the area) to cook some of the dinner for tonight’s shin-dig. “Of course”, I respond, delighted to have my forno stoked up again. I’ve cooked several Christmas dinners on white hot coals in that huge space not to mention a couple of rather large pigs.


For a village of less than 40 houses, the numbers dining in our square that night tell a story of their own. August is a time for people to return to their ancestral villages and catch up with family. So they leave their hot offices and apartments in Milano or Rome or Cremona and return home. After the war many men who considered themselves unemployable here, headed to Perth, Western Australia, and they too often return in August to visit their families. At the dinner I sat next to a man whose wife was from Perth; conversation was made easier when they changed places. I could not believe the number of people dining that night…it was around 180 including the kids who had their own tables apart from the adults. We were served about four courses of delicious food…all for 15 Euros which is not much more than 16 Aussie dollars these days. Afterwards there was music and dancing at the bar for some hours.


Today Caprignana sleeps and mourns the passing of another inhabitant, as I gather  from the tolling of the bells a couple of hours ago.


And so to Sicily for a few days to visit some friends whose time there is passing too quickly and I want to catch up with before they leave. Like Tunisia and like Sardinia and Corsica, it will be wild and dry and I love that wild and dry just as much as the picture perfect green and lush. Then it’s back to Tuscan bliss and the arrival of my annual Women of Wisdom ladies for their adventure.


Until then, and as its way beyond the witching hour of noon and there is not a sound to be heard anywhere, I shall find my favourite glass and pour a Cinzano bianco, pop in some ice and a slice of lemon and cut a few slices of my favourite local cheese. Just because I can.


With heart until next time



I’ve only just been here a minute and already I wish my French studies had a wider vocabulary. All very well to learn how to get tell someone where you are from and what you do, learn about the Metro, find your way around the monuments of Paris and in our last days delve into the imperative and the simple past and future tenses, but now I’m here I need words to describe what they do to your body in a torture chamber. I have been given a menu of 26 things over a period of 6 days, only about 4 of which I have a clue about…like ‘massage a la rose’ and ‘shiatsu’ which is a name I know of although I had never had one.

Yes, I know I came here willingly and it’s supposed to be fun but holy shit the first experience was daunting to say the least: after being left in a steam room (read ‘oven’) for too long and not being able to escape because the water on the floor was boiling hot (read ‘cool moss cool moss’) I was led into the first chamber, stripped almost naked and attacked by a women who had clearly just escaped from the pot scrubbing pantry with a piece of steel wool and a can of Ajax. Hells bells, in no time my suntan was on the floor and I felt like a skinned cat.
The next piece on the agenda was ‘gommage’. My only reference was the Italian word for car tyre, gomma, so I imagine being smeared with a sticky black rubber like substance, but no, that can’t be it. No of course not. Wrong!

Going from room to room I was then smeared from head to toe with algae and wrapped up in a big plastic sheet before being put into a heavy straight jacket which was locked up and then the heat turned on. Holy cow. And I paid for this stuff???

This is the Mediterranean from a different perspective under a huge full moon. I am in Tunisia, a tiny country of 10.7 million people, mainly Arab Berber and Muslim, wedged between Algeria and Libya on the north coast of Africa.

Flying from Denmark to Paris, I hurriedly changed terminals, said some magic words to my suitcases given the tight changeover, and eventually find the right flight queue: not difficult, lots of dark skinned people, headscarves and I stand out as being the only blonde. I’d make a mistake and booked up the pointy end of the plane and am very glad I did. Memo to self: do that more often, it’s SO much nicer! And they don’t care about how much luggage you have. (This was important bearing in mind the Paris and Danish sales!!!)

There was a hooded lady next to me who spent the entire flight fiddling in her handbag and I was the only one in my row who drank the proffered champagne…well it was Air France so I knew it would be good….and the last one for a while!

Arriving was easy and the luggage fairies did me proud again. I exited to a sea of faces, wondering if my brief Skype call to the hotel would materialise in a driver, and laughed when I saw a big sign BUZZY McCARTHY. It’s a name my family and close friends affectionately call me but I found it rather endearing here in this, my 71st country where I know no-one.

“No problems Madam” my driver said when I tried unsuccessfully to find a seatbelt, thinking of our indoctrination and the late lamented Princess Di’s end in that Paris tunnel.

So I sat back to enjoy the ride not having a clue how far it was to Hammamet, my destination for a week of thalassotherapy. I laugh at the Amen Bank, wondering if it’s the customers who give thanks or whether it’s the banks way of offering a pathway to heaven if you deposit your very hard earned money there.

Alongside the highway on the 60 km journey were farms: cornfields, not yet harvested, prickly pears, and dozens of sheep and goats and the odd donkey being looked after by dozens of young shepherds. Vendors were selling grapes but I’d already decided on a no-wine week so I took my mind away from their luscious looks.

So I’m here for a week of Thalassotherapy which was a foreign word to me just a couple of weeks ago when this was suggested to me as a panacea to the then dismal summer in Paris.

Thalassotherapy is the therapeutic use of the ocean, its climate, and marine products like algae, seaweed, and alluvial mud. The principle behind it is that repeated exposure to sea air and immersion in warm seawater, mud, clay, and protein-rich algae helps restore the body’s natural chemical balance. As seawater and human plasma are very similar the body absorbs the minerals it needs through the skin when immersed in warm seawater.The name comes from the Greek words thalassa (“the sea”) and therap (“treat”). It was pioneered in France in the early 1900’s and there are about 100 treatment centres mainly in North Africa and France.

So onto the rest of day one and a massage à la rose and a wonderful facial that made up for the earlier punishments!

Day Two’s offerings are a bit of the same and a bit different. Another wrap in a straight jacket and I begin to like this bit. Then I hear about a massage under water and I wonder who is under water……me or the person who massages me. No snorkel is issued with my kit and I see this huge pool with spas in it and huge spouts issuing forth water that would send you flying if you were any smaller than the vast number of beached-whale looking Russians who are here for treatment. I wonder, even with my extra covering of pains au chocolate, if I dare go into this pool.

So I wait and hold my breath when I am led off by a dark skinned young man in a towelling robe which he removes to reveal a pair of bathers. Indicating where to hang my similar robe he then tells me to pull my bathers down and without a whimper I do so. If this man or his brother or cousin had as much as looked at me in the Souk I would have accused him of something and called the police, but here, despite the fact that I have never set eyes on him before and he could be a mass murderer (under water) or a serial rapist, I strip down to almost naked.

Lying on a table face down a huge arm comes out and spurts litres of water over me whilst he rubs more green goo on me and massages it off. This is massage under water, and I like it. Later I have it with a woman who is perpetually in a soaked dress and I wonder about workers conditions and employment contracts here!

My menu then says something about a massage with hot Pierres and I again wish my vocab was better. Lying half naked in a darkened room an unknown man places a hot stone on my third eye and one between each of my toes and I am in heaven. The last time I had one of these was in Bhutan on a Sfinx Adventure and it was extraordinary. Smooth hot stones being rubbed all over my body is bliss and I just wish I could turn off the discordant Tunisian music over the loudspeaker.

The days go on: a rushed breakfast in the garden before my 10am therapies, some time in the big sea water pool to finish and then into another pair of bathers and down to the beach, about 200 metres away. Thatched roof ‘umbrellas’, comfortable beach lounges and big towels are the order of the day and quite frankly it is too hot to sit or lie in the sun. I am still lamenting my suntan on the floor of that room on day one, but looking around I see a lot of very white and red beached whales who speak Russian, and I hide under my umbrella. What an interesting bunch of humanity. Thin French ladies in elegant bikinis, a few beer gutted Germans, some gorgeous looking Italians who make me feel homesick and desperate for a good bottle of vino rosso, but the majority are Russian or Ukrainian or both. Bikinis are worn by women who should not, but it’s clearly OK to have yards of blubber hanging around visible to the world. In any event even after a month of croissants under the belt I feel svelte in comparison. Bathers right up the crack of bottoms…for both men and women, and for women, tattoos in every conceivable place. What with the Olympics and men in Lycra who seem to have smuggled in weapons of mass destruction, I am presented with the best and the worst of the human form this week, whilst spending hours every morning doing something good about mine!

Pretty young girls who are mirror images of their mothers; young sons who already have the start of the father’s beer belly frolic in the waves alongside the occasional Russian industrialist laden with gold chains, an obese wife and a very busy mobile phone on which he is no doubt creating the next deal. No one speaks English and I haven’t spoken to anyone but the therapists who are good at “face down”, “turn over”, “finish now”, and the waiters who are largely rude and arrogant and to a French man with whom I commiserated this morning in the omelette queue when the young cook stalked off sullenly to take a call on his mobile phone leaving us waiting and omelette-less.

Evenings are spent dining in the garden restaurant, taking a coffee in the lounge and then back to my room in this good looking Moorish hotel. What I didn’t realise when I was shown to this beautiful room overlooking the pool after I’d complained that the original one had dodgy internet access, was that there is a disco around the pool each night. Oh my god…the wailing of “My Way” nearly led me to leap out of the window.. but I wait until 11pm when they close up and listen to the only English-speaking channel on the Television or watch the Olympics is French, which is generally the best option.

On Day Three a small dark man led me into an almost black room with a huge mattress on the floor telling me to lie down. Holy shit…isn’t this what my mother warned me about all those years ago????? But again I stripped down and did what he wanted. This was the shiatsu experience. I thought he was the least skilled of all the therapists but that afternoon I slept like a baby so imagine he got all the right meridians to relax me.

Day Four I was back in the massage under water but this time my masseur was different. This guy must have spent his childhood pulling the wings off cicadas and the legs off grasshoppers. He practically pulled my toes off and after yanking my knee practically out of its socket asked me if I had a problem with it. Well I didn’t before but I’m not sure I don’t have one now.

The Day Five highlight was the agony and the ecstasy…and as I was being expertly massaged by the four hands of two strong young men I sneaked a look to see if I was in fact in the Red Room…no, the walls were only deep salmon coloured. The last offering was the agony. Back on the sheet of plastic in the torture chamber, a lady entered carrying yet another tub of thick dark mud. Listed as Cryogene I wondered if I was being whisked away to another galaxy or whether I was going to be cryogenically packed up for 100 years, but its neither. I’ve loved being smothered by all this good smelling stuff but suddenly it lost its appeal … when applied to my legs this stuff was absolutely freezing. Tricking me by warming up a fraction, it then felt I was standing up to my whatsits in a tub of ice. For ever. I thought I had better concentrate on something so I started listing all the countries on the Med: Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Malta…no that was too easy and it did not distract me from the pain. How about all the ‘ikstan’ countries on the Baltic but that was too hard so I went back to feeling freezing and waiting for my legs to break off.

Day Six was more of the same, except that no day has been the same at the other, even if the listing on my now perpetually wet program is. More algae but two horse rugs on top of me this time, my last massage under water without a snorkel, a massage in almond oil by a guy who definitely massacred butterflies as a child and a divine facial to end my six day program.

Back to the beach. The lovely Med. Not as clear and crystal as in Greece and Turkey, but it’s the beach, it’s hot and it’s lovely. I lie in the shade, I read, I swim, I go to the restaurant for a beer and a salad and I observe. Hawkers ply their wares up and down the beach: pareos tie-dyed to match your costume, grapes, shells, sun hats, silver bracelets and camel and horse rides. Not exactly Sandringham on a summer’s day.

And I think. I wonder about my life and what I am doing. I wonder where I will be next month or for Christmas or next year and what having a winter will be like. Where it will be seems to intrigue others more than me right now. It will show up when it needs to. For now I am living in the now and despite my occasional thoughts that I am floating about homeless and purposeless at this time of my life (when my 21 year old son seems more settled) it feels just fine and a hell of a lot more fun than sitting at home in a Melbourne winter. I’d no doubt rather be doing it with a man I was in love with but he hasn’t shown up just yet and I’m not waiting.

So, almost off to my home in Italy. It will be wonderful to be back. I can’t wait to get into my cellar for a good red (have I said that before??) and work on my tan on the terrace where I am the only beached whale. And wait for the next adventure.

Until then, with heart


They say you never forget once you’ve learned how. It’s probably about a decade since I’ve done it and last time it was in Denmark too. But as it seems to be the local pastime of the Danes I decide to get in the swing and try it again.

Now before you get your minds on to things below the belt….I’m talking about riding a bike! Borrowing my friend Gertrud’s brand new purple number I wobble down the cobblestone path from her and Peter’s gorgeous 1762 cottage in Helsingor, on the north east coast of Zealand in eastern Denmark and head off peddling like hell behind Peter to the town’s famous landmark, Hamlet’s Castle. Really Kronborg Castle, it is one of northern Europe’s most important. Built by King Frederik II in 1574, its position at the narrowest neck of the Sound between Denmark and Sweden, made it the Renaissance counterpart of a modern motorway as all trading vessels who sailed through it from all over the world had to pay a tax to the Danish King.

I’d arrived a couple of days before after my fabulous five weeks in Paris to catch up with Gertrud and Peter who I’d seen last in Rhodos, Greece in 2009 when they deposited me into a taxi headed for the airport and London after three amazing weeks on their yacht “Rosa” sailing in the Med. An unforgettable experience that was; starting the day with several laps round the boat in that deep blue salty sea before a 3 course breakfast, and the only decisions of the day being shall we stay in Greece or shall we sail to Turkey, or vice versa. Often we’d hop into the rubber ducky after breakfast or after our second swim to head to the nearest town for some provisions, and usually to stock up the tonic water for Peter’s delightfully heavy handed evening’s gin and tonics. Oh and there were Peter’s noon moments with Ouzo…never my favourite so sometimes I shared mine with the sea. It was an amazing experience I vow to repeat next summer.

But I digress…I am visiting them in Denmark.Arriving at Copenhagen with a large bottle of Sapphire Blue and a variety of smelly French cheeses, it was chaos in the baggage department in the height of the tourist season but mine turned up, albeit late and after a call over the loudspeaker from an anxious Gertrud wondering if I’d arrived.

Denmark: red brick houses with high pitched roofs. I immediately knew I was back with the cry of seagulls which I hate in Australia and love in this country, like it is their signature tune. Amazing green grass and sunshine, flowers – roses and hollyhocks growing from tiny cracks in pavements and cobblestones and beautifully colourful.

I love the simpleness of the Danish houses, red and white curtains because they are fiercely nationalistic, unpolished boards – pine that has a whitish hue and is cleaned with soft soap and water, it makes a lovely change from stained and highly polished boards that scratch from the furniture.

Driving through Copenhagen I was impressed by the beautiful buildings, the ancient stock exchange…so different from the steel and glass of modern exchanges around the world, this building was built in 1619-1640 by King Christian the Fourth with its fabulous dragon spire made of four entwined dragon tails. The copper covered spires on the lovely churches I remember well from previous visits and the crowds eating and drinking in the quaintly colourful area of Nyhavn on the canals.

It has just started to rain and the sky is pale grey but it is not cold. Actually it is pleasant after the final heat of Paris and quiet after a very noisy last night with kids yelling in the street outside my apartment until 6am. So after dinner I had an early night and slept not just like a log, but a dead log!

On our first morning I discovered the best cheese shop in Denmark, just outside our house! Having had the best in Paris around the corner, this is fatal! Gertrud took me on a foot journey through the town, exploring the sales in the upmarket shops. Well, if it’s good enough for our Mary, its good enough for me….I thought, and yes, I did buy a selection of beautifully designed Danish clothes. Just because!

Helsingor has its answer to the Little Mermaid…a stainless steel statue of a young man called He recently placed near the municipal library which is in the process of becoming a very interesting precinct with a new nautical museum being built this year and leading on to the famous castle. The quaint and beautiful town is very busy. Some of the people are huge and I wonder why. Gertrud tells me they are invaded by Swedes daily especially in the summer months. In Sweden I understand all the grog shops are state controlled and very expensive. Denmark is cheap and the Swedes pour over on the every-20-minutes ferries from Helsingborg to stock up.

Wandering around the following day we went into the beautiful railway station to have a look at the architecture and ended up following the line to the ferry and to Sweden just because we could! Now I see the meaning of the grog shopping. Not just shopping trolleys but commercial delivery trolleys were used to load the booze onto, as well as backpacks and stout hand held slabs of beer. It was extraordinary. And they wonder why the Swedes have a problem with drink!

I’m amazed at the amount of second hand clothes shops everywhere, in Helsingborg, in Helsingor, and in the other towns I passed through or visited in Denmark and fuddy-duddy looking shops…a bit like the 50’s in Melbourne, shops that sell everything but nothing you’d want, and lots of empty shops that tell a story of their economic situation too.

I visit a local art gallery called Louisiana and am gobsmacked by the exhibits. The garden is full of Henry Moore statues and inside the rambling halls are exhibits from some of Denmark’s most artistic sons and daughters, my favourite being the many colourful works from Asger Jorn who was born in 1914 and died in 1973. But what I loved most was the huge exhibit of Scandinavian architecture. Always known for its cutting edge design, the examples shown particularly of public buildings such as the concert hall in Greenland which is circular and you can actually walk on part of the roof, and the 5 embassies in Berlin were breathtaking. What a concept to put the embassies of the five Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland in the same precinct; each with its own unique characteristics and materials! I could have spent more hours in this fabulous gallery but we had to move on.

A couple of hours away on the island of Falster, shaped like a smaller version of South America, Gertrud and Peter have a summer house in a tiny community called Sortso. Right on the sea, it is a unique location to spend long summer days and nights away from the madding crowd. Their little cottage is built for the outdoor life…with wooden tables and chairs everywhere that could possibly catch the sun.

But on the way we had passed by a number of large castles and I am beginning to think Denmark is littered with them. Mostly they are open to the public and upkept very well. Some are still lived in and it would seem these big manor houses came with an estate of farm workers similar to the old system in England. The farm buildings are huge and attractive buildings often dated and built of red brick mainly in the 1800’s and were used to house not just the feed but mostly the animals which makes me think I have not seen too many in the fields….just a few cows and a few sheep and lots of corn, maize and sugar beet. Not a pig in sight as they are kept indoors until 22 million of them annually enter the export markets.

Over a gin and tonic when we get there Peter tells me Denmark has 700 islands, 70 of them populated and 7000 miles of coastline. And as we watch the rowing and sailing on the Olympics I guess there is reason for them to excel in these sports (even though I check later to find the number of islands is actually 406 plus the Faroe Islands and Greenland).

Interesting to watch the Olympics in another country…not just the impossible Danish language but each country has its own specialty and I have never watched a game of badminton or handball before and I saw plenty! Indoor games, I suspect because of their weather. We Aussies are more into beach volleyball and swimming, although the Danes did field a few swimmers too. My friends say they find Swedish hard, and Norwegian also: they are able to understand both and read neither, and of course Finnish is impossible. The only language it is related to is Hungarian…god knows why…..they are nowhere near each other.

We spend a couple of nights and a lovely day and a half in this gorgeous underpopulated part of Denmark with its random coastline that is owned by no one and enjoyed by everyone. Walking around we see a tiny harbour where their second boat is on land and under a tarp: evidence that most of their summer this year is being spent on the Med. What a life!! Beautiful homes with thatched roofs meld with tiny summer cottages and large farms with flaxen wheat almost ready to be harvested and the green tops of sugar beet, still growing strong in the Danish summer. In our sight is a beautiful big bridge linking this island to another, and the graceful flow of wind turbines. I cannot imagine why we are so anti them in Australia. They are so efficient and look so lovely with their blades rotating in the breeze.

And all of a sudden it is time to move on. At the airport the Air France rep asks me if I have a visa. I must be getting lazy in my travels: I had not even thought about a visa and acknowledge it is North Africa and I might need one. But I do not. Thankfully I have made another blunder and booked myself up the pointy end by mistake. God moves in mysterious ways. All aboard please. I am off to my 71st country. But that’s for next time.

Until then, with heart