How to Holiday

I’ve just got back from a fortnight’s holiday with my husband in Malta, an island with much to recommend it as a holiday destination – sunshine in November, delicious (and very cheap) pasties for sale everywhere, neolithic temples on dramatic hillsides overlooking the sea, and as many late-medieval fortresses and baroque churches as you could possibly want. The aim of the holiday was to get away from it all for a couple of weeks, leaving the stresses of the past few months behind us, and return to rainy England with our batteries fully recharged.

We were partly successful.

The problem with modern life is that, with wifi everywhere and the temptation to pack all our electronic toys overwhelming, it’s not really possible to get away from it all. Holiday snaps were immediately uploaded to Instagram and Facebook so all my friends could see me relaxing on the beach with a cold glass of Kinnie (a Maltese soft drink with a strong bitter-orange taste). Text alerts kept me fully informed in real time of the latest England cricket scores and the rise of Fascism. I emailed my agent the synopsis of my new book, The Land Only Dragons See, from my balcony. We were on holiday: but we were still connected to everything, and hence still, to an extent, living our normal lives.

But we did at least try to immerse ourselves in the Maltese experience, exploring the island, and sampling as many local foods as we could – the baked goods all come highly recommended, as does the rabbit in red wine sauce. And another method of immersion I always like to practise on holiday is reading books set in the local area. This practice dates from a trip we went on to Turkey years ago, when my ill-chosen holiday read was The Fanatic by James Robertson. This is a novel about religious turmoil in 17th-century Scotland. It’s a great book – but it felt totally wrong to be reading about Christian schisms in rainy Edinburgh while sitting by the pool in Turkey. So since then I’ve always tried to match my holiday reads to my destination – The Leopard in Sicily, The Mauritius Command in – wait for it – Mauritius, and so on. For this trip my husband had very thoughtfully picked out a couple of books for us in advance: The Sword and the Scimitar by David Ball, and The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monserrat.

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The Grand Harbour, taken from the Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. Note cannons and fortress walls.

The first of these is an historical epic set in the 16th century, with a sweeping narrative culminating in the Great Siege of 1565. The second is about a priest during the second world war, telling stories of Malta’s history to a congregation sheltering from bombs in the catacombs. Malta is a place to bring out the military historian in anyone: its very flag incorporates the George Cross which was collectively given to its people for their heroic resistance in WWII. Its capital city is named Valletta, after the Grandmaster of the Knights of St John who led the fighting against the Turks (in person, at the age of 72. What a badass). Today, you can take a boat tour of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, and admire its many impressive
fortresses, bastions and ravelins standing proud through the centuries against Turks and Nazis alike.

It has to be said, there’s nothing like reading about the violence of the past in the comfort of a sun lounger to help you forget about the problems of the present.

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The Gorge

In my last post, I described how I have been laid low with back problems. I’m now sorry to report that my progress towards recovery has been extremely slow, and that accordingly I haven’t been doing terribly much in the last fortnight. Although I have learned that there is an upside to Parkinson’s Law: and, since I’ve decided I can’t face the long journey to visit parents, they will be coming to us for Christmas, so I now have a Christmas dinner to plan, which should take up quite a lot of time, and stop my project management skills from becoming too rusty.

In the meantime, remembering the happy days when I could make it further than the local shopping centre (soon may they return!), here is some travel writing for you, an account of an incident from my holiday to Sicily a few years ago:

Sicilian road designers have an approach best described as whimsical. They enjoy creating motorways with no road markings, changing speed limits at random, and leaving important turnoffs entirely un-signposted. And sometimes, they try to kill you.

I was staying in Ortygia, the old town of Syracuse, with my then-boyfriend (since upgraded to husband). We were there for a week to absorb some culture, and it was our last day before moving on to Taormina and the more beach-focused half of our holiday. Before we abandoned ourselves to sunshine and beer, we decided to make one more cultural excursion: to the necropolis of Pantalica. Part of the Siracusa world heritage site, a rocky gorge honeycombed with over 5,000 prehistoric tombs from the 13th to the 7th centuries BC.

Getting to the nearby town of Sortino should have taken about half an hour, if the satnav was to be believed. It actually took an hour, as the satnav sent us on a ridiculously twisty and steep mountain road, while the road layout and signage were up to the usual standards. The highlight was probably the roundabout where all four exits were signposted to the same place.

Eventually we made it to Sortino and had the fun of navigating the one-way system. As in all Sicilian towns, they like to send you down the narrowest streets and cunningly don’t put any signs at crucial points. At one point my boyfriend had to reverse into a blind junction after he realized he’d gone the wrong way.

But once he got us onto the right route, finding the gorge was very easy. The map showed the road, the Via Pantalica, heading southwards out of Sortino and then over the gorge. This is not, however, quite accurate. In fact, the road stops abruptly at the edge, with nothing but a small wooden fence between you and an exciting but messy Thelma-and-Louise-style death.

You can see the road continuing on the other side of the gorge, but the bridge is missing. Evidently they never bothered to build it, but the mapmakers thought it would be entertaining to put it on the maps anyway. And I’m not just talking about out-of-date road atlases; it was clearly marked on the satnav. Fortunately, we spotted this in time to stop short of the cliff’s edge, but in darkness, or heavy fog… I would not be surprised if the prehistoric graveyard contains a few more recent corpses.

            As we made our way down the footpath the sky was ominously grey, and soon we could hear rumbles of distant thunder. But sunny weather would have ruined the dramatic atmosphere, for Pantalica is a place both spooky and spectacular. Steep rocky walls on either side, pockmarked everywhere by the tomb entrances, the rushing of the unseen river far below. The tombs are extremely simple in design, just square holes cut into the cliff, each one only just big enough for a couple of bodies and maybe a few grave goods. There aren’t any fancy carvings or paintings or flying buttresses or ornamentation, no cherubs or crucifixes. After the ostentation of some of Sicily’s other sights, like the baroque daydream of Noto, or the mighty temples of Agrigento, they seem stark, primitive, almost clumsy. But there are thousands of them, all over the gorge, whichever way you look, cut into even the most inaccessible-looking bits of rock.

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For more about the history of Pantalica, check out this website: http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art320.htm (which is where this picture is from)

The overall effect is of rugged, primeval grandeur, a memento mori on a grand scale. Further on there is the remains of a Byzantine village. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in this place, surrounded by the remains of a distant, unknowable culture, a constantly looming reminder that all things must pass.

            But Pantalica isn’t depressing, rather deeply impressive, humbling. It touches something inside, with an experience at once remote from everyday life and somehow fundamental.

We didn’t linger long. Not because we were bored, but because the thunder soon grew closer and it started to rain. The kind of rain which starts off light, but then rapidly becomes biblical. We ran back to the car and headed off, enjoying our narrow escape from both death and drenching, determined to find a better route back to Ortygia, and, although we didn’t talk about it, quietly haunted by the ancient necropolis.

A few extracts

This last week I’ve been dealing with a lot of real life stuff and I’m not feeling up to writing a full-on blog post. But I have been entering quite a few writing competitions lately, so I thought I’d share some excerpts here which will (I hope) whet your appetite for more.

1. ‘The Gorge’ – non-fiction travel writing on the theme ‘A Narrow Escape’

Sicilian road designers have an approach best described as whimsical. They enjoy creating motorways with no road markings, changing speed limits at random, and leaving important turnoffs entirely un-signposted. And sometimes, they try to kill you.

2. ‘The Muse’ – short story, a venture into ‘literary’ fiction

I’m standing in front of a three-quarters profile portrait of myself. Picture me is gazing out of a window. On the surface of the window is inscribed a poem, about me – my sandy hair, my pale skin, and my ever-changing eyes. The effect is rather like the vertiginous sensation of looking in a mirror with another mirror on the opposite wall which reflects my own reflection. A man in a red velvet jacket comes over and joins me in front of the picture. He looks at the painting, then he glances at me, then back to the painting… and then he does a proper double-take, like something out of an old comedy routine.

3) ‘Dear Mary’ – a short story on the theme ’65 Not Out’

Dear Mary,

You may be quite surprised to receive this letter, as we haven’t seen each other for such a long time. Although perhaps I’m not the only one to suddenly get back in touch. Maybe quite a few people have been coming out of the woodwork lately, to offer their support and say things like ‘You know, I never really liked him’. And maybe a few others, sadly narrow-minded, have gone the other way and stopped inviting you round for tea.

But that’s just speculation, because I don’t really know anything about your life any more. How many years has it been? Far too many. It’s amazing how they just slip away. Whenever I look in the mirror, I still almost expect to see a pretty girl with flyaway hair and a few freckles. It’s always a bit of a shock when some middle-aged woman with a stern grey crew-cut looks back. Well, I say middle-aged. I’m sixty-five now, retirement age, so I guess I have become old. I turned gradually from a fresh young thing into an old maid, as one by one all my friends got married and started families, while each September I returned to school and introduced myself to a new class as ‘Miss Keown’, not ‘Mrs So-and-so’.