23 August 2005
When I returned to the church in Manfredonia with my new batteries there was only time to take one picture as a wedding party was arriving. Here she is, on the left.
I went outside to join the crowd of onlookers and found myself apparently on the set of a “Godfather” movie. There was the beautiful bride, all in white, with friends, bridesmaids, in all colours but many in smart black. A lone trumpeter followed the procession. As the ceremony proceeded, I noticed a lot of men in ice-cream coloured silk suits standing around outside in the square, vigilant. As I approached my car, one quizzed me and I gave him to understand that I was leaving, didn’t want to intrude. He was very happy to hear this and helped me out of the tight parking space. Who were they? My guess is brothers of the bride, perhaps more distant relatives, too. Was my imagination working overtime? Were they there as protection from rival families, or, surely more likely, for tradition, protecting the honour of the bride?
I drove to Lucera next, in search of my next Madonna, in a 12th century cathedral, but unfortunately when I arrived all was boarded up and work going on. I hoped the cathedral would be open anyway, but on walking round found doors locked and scaffolding everywhere. The building was in appalling condition, so I’m glad something is being done, but sad to miss another Madonna.
It was still fairly early so I decided to drive towards Reggio di Calabria (where I take the ferry for Sicily). Eventually I joined the motorway heading for Taranto, where the road begins to follow the instep of Italy, and was driving along minding my own business when a chap in another car started to harass me – he would pass me, slowing down and making obscene gestures, then slow or even stop until I passed, and repeat the process. I was driving along pretending that nothing was happening, of course. As time went on he was moving closer and closer to the back of my car and I began to get really scared. Would he force me off the road? With this thought came anger – I would NOT be his victim! Part of me – a large part – wanted to stop and confront him, but I realised I probably wouldn’t be understood in any case. Dammit, I can make myself understood in four languages, why the hell don’t I know any Italian? I couldn’t see how big or old the man was, didn’t want to look too closely and he had dark glasses on. In Britain, maybe I would have confronted him in a service area or somewhere else very public, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea here.
Exits are infrequent on Italian motorways – probably because of the toll booths on each one – but I got lucky and spotted one coming up just as the man was passed my car again (this had gone on for about 50 miles). Without indicating, I drove off the motorway, performed a series of hair-raising manoeuvres (probably just normal driving to most Italians) and drove off in a random direction.
I was really scared and also surprised – hadn’t expected to attract any sort of unwelcome male attention, but clearly my age is less important than my “unprotected” status. Because the unwanted attention didn’t stop there. Today, I got lost in Reggio di Calabria, couldn’t find the place I was staying. After an hour, in despair, I saw three old guys round a car and stopped to ask for directions. They looked blank, then one brightened and said something that sounded like “Sigue me”, which in Spanish would mean “Follow me”. “Si, si, grazie,” I said and he got in the car and set off like the clappers. After about half a mile he drew up, jumped out of his car and came to my window – I had started to feel uneasy as this looked like a pretty random stopping place to me. He then started to ask me questions – who was I with, when did I plan to leave, what time would I like dinner … I kept saying I didn’t understand and made sure he saw the wedding ring I’d decided to wear while here. He didn’t get it and came closer, so that I could smell his alcoholic breath and sweat. At this point I lost it a bit – he got some of the anger from yesterday – and yelled at him in Spanish. “What is the matter with you? I’m a grandmother, leave me alone! Act your age!” He stepped back in surprise and I drove off quickly. From the rear window I could see him gesture, as if to say “Women! Who can understand them?”
I don’t get it – I am discreet to the point of disappearing, as much as possible. I think it is the foreign car, my long hair (which has got very light in the sun). I’ve noticed that older Italian women don’t wear their hair down, and am considering getting mine cut short when I can find somewhere. I don’t want to look, or feel, like prey. This all seems unfair, I have seen young women walking round alone, unmolested, in bikinis.
Pity about all the hassle – it made me forget that on the Adriatic Coast motorway I passed a town with the truly wonderful name of Val Vibrata. Sounds like a minor member of an feminist punk rock band! Calabria is beautiful, as almost everywhere has been. Very mountainous, there are incredible views of sea and mountain all the way down to Reggio and when I finally saw Sicily, I could see that it is no further from Italy than the Isle of Wight from the south coast of England – in fact, not quite so far.
23 August 2005
The ferry to Sicily was uneventful and after disembarking I set off in entirely the wrong direction for the motorway, of course. There’s a (rather dark) view from the ferry on the left.
First stop Modica, near the south coast – the motorway is still under construction for much of the way, and roads dwindle down until the last 20 miles or so of the drive to Modica is very deserted, very dusty. I could see why, after a while – passed a quarry where what looked like beautiful white marble was being excavated. It is easy to forget that I’m now almost as far south as northern Africa and it is hot, and dusty. I can hear crickets outside right now. There is plenty of green, lots of olive, fig and lemon trees, I believe there are carob trees, but don’t know what they look like.
I passed Mount Etna – which is pretty hard to miss! The fertility of the land around the volcano has to be seen to be believed, the soil looks extraordinary and the land is just bursting with – well, everything! This is so much the land of the Goddess, with, again, lots of roadside shrines to the Lady: Madonnas everywhere. I’ve passed more than one stream called Briga, interestingly. There are so many places I’d love to go to but don’t think there will be time. Also, my stomach is complaining about something I’ve eaten, which is a bit worrying.
24 August 2005
Set out early for Syracuse yesterday. First called into Pozzallo to pay for the ferry to Malta tomorrow. I must admit that I gulped when I saw the size of the catamaran that runs the regular ferry service – it is very small! The journey only takes an hour and a half; apparently this is the fastest ferry in the world. Better check that I have some seasickness tablets!
At Syracuse I couldn’t resist the sanctuary of the weeping madonna. Dubbed an official miracle by the church in the 1960s, this is an ordinary statue of the virgin which apparently wept real tears for several days in 1953. The church did get the fluid tested by a laboratory, which found that the liquid was consistent with human tears. Who knows? The locals have constructed an 800 foot high upturned ice-cream cone over her, (well, that’s what it looks like!) complete with a crypt. Judge for yourself, left.
In the crypt I was hesitating, wondering how to get down to see interesting ruins (a sign of an earlier place of worship?) when a man came over and asked me in a sort of prayerful manner if I’d like to get down to the lower floor. I was a bit hesitant, but agreed. He set off and half-way down the stairs, took my arm, which was a bit surprising. My firm “No!” made him let go, but then he got even friendlier, so I kicked him and ran away. Should probably have gone to the Information Office and told them they had a creep hanging around but hardly anyone I’ve met in Sicily speaks any English at all. There also seems to be a great love of filling in forms, and I could imagine completing half a dozen, in triplicate, and maybe trying to explain it all to the local police.
A bit shaken, I went off towards the archeological park, to see the Greek ruins, but my stomach was getting the better of me and I already felt too hot – have got a bit burned, despite taking care. So I decided to leave the ruins until a cooler time of day and visit the Archeological Museum, which was fascinating. Full of images of Demeter and Kore, there must have been a hundred of them to every warrior or god. Photographs not allowed, again, but I got a few sneaky ones …. I was particularly struck by this lovely Goddess on the left (can you see the little person inside her?)
Also by the Gorgon on the right. I believe she is also at the centre of the Sicilian coat-of-arms, which is apparently otherwise almost identical to the one of the Isle of Man. I can’t remember the name of it …
This (below right) was my favourite though – I hope you can see it. A beautifully tender Mother Goddess, nursing two infants. She was in a roped off area but I ducked under it, I was so thrilled by her ….
Returning to the car, realized to my horror that I’d left the lights on full after going through a tunnel earlier. In the bright sunlight you don’t notice. Of course, the battery was flat. I went to find the car-park attendant to see if he had any jump leads. An elaborate mime and explanation in Spanish, Latin and a bit of French were watched in silence, then he suddenly brightened and started to mouth something. I realised that he couldn’t hear or speak properly, and just wanted me to pay for the parking.
He finally got a colleague, but they simply pushed me out of the car park and didn’t care to be worried about this mad Englishwoman. I called the AA European Helpline; they got me a breakdown truck eventually. Not that I needed one, only a push or jump leads. But forms had to be filled in, passport produced, car documents carefully noted. I had spent quite a while telling the nice Italian helpline operator all about it – thought I’d done quite well until later when I finally found the Italian dictionary and realised I told her that the battery had a small rodent in it!
Annoyed that I haven’t got to see very much yet, but stomach is demanding a rest, I’m dehydrated from sitting in a hot, dead car for a long time and quite frankly don’t want to be too far from a loo for the next few hours.
29 August 2005
The ferry was brilliant – very fast and a nice, calm day. Arrived at Valletta mid-morning on 25th August and there was Rose right by the harbour. We’d never met, nor had I seen a photograph, but I recognised her immediately. She jumped into the car and directed me back to her house for some lunch.
It was great to be made so welcome, I’d been feeling lonely for the past few days. Rose is a real Goddess woman with a big heart. It was also wonderful to meet her husband, Fernando, who is a talented musician, also six-year-old Adriel – who didn’t realise at this point that he was hardly going to see his mother for the next three days as we embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the island.
I’m told you either love Malta or hate it. I loved it. I couldn’t tell one city or town from the next – to me they all blended into one big one. But it was lovely to drive on the left for a few days (although the drivers are almost as insane as in Italy) and not to get lost quite as often.
Rose knew of my interest in Madonnas, especially dark ones, and in the afternoon we went straight to Rabat to see the Madonna Tal-Ghar (Madonna of the Grotto) – there are two, the one in the church being a reproduction of the older one in the crypt. She is reputed to be a Black Madonna because of the red and brown streaked marble used to make her. The reproduction madonna is said to have wept tears of blood in the past; the woman who helped us to find the crypt couldn’t understand why we weren’t interested in the more famous madonna.
Unfortunately, the crypt was locked and we couldn’t get in. Frustratingly, we could see her through a barred hatch in the floor and I tried to get a photograph. Rose did better, with me virtually hanging onto her ankles she managed to wriggle into a better position. Well, she is almost exactly half my age!
Here she is, to the left. The blue colour is due to the lighting in the crypt.
We also photographed a virgin found in the grotto of St Paul in Rabat (which was apparently once a Roman prison) but none of the images worked well enough to put online. We did, however, spot this caryatid (right) in the grotto – one of two holding up an altar/table. On to the catacombs – first St Paul’s – there are odd circular shapes cut into horizontal stones that suggest a labyrinth form, unfortunately, again, none of the images would show up well. Some research done on the internet just now tells me that archeologists say these are “agape tables” – where, reclining like Romans, the people would hold funeral feasts. I’ve added in a photo from Wikimedia commons, below:
Most extraordinary, I thought, was the 12th century madonna fresco in the catacomb of St Agatha, which for some reason has a hole cut right through the top of it. One of the guides tried to convince us that the painting was deliberately made that way.
A fairly rare image (left) the madonna is breast-feeding. If the vandalism had been deliberate, I would expected the church to have removed this sight from our view – the way the hole has been cut looks for all the world like somebody just went at the wall with a hammer and chisel from the other side, without checking to see what might be there.
What’s left of the image (left) includes something possibly painted even earlier, but it was hard to make out. It looked almost like an early Celtic style, possibly depicting snakes.
I did spot a dark Madonna hidden in a niche – and took a terrible photograph, very unlike me to only take one (right). I’ll blame the heat!
St Agatha, you may recall, is one of the virgin martyrs – a Sicilian by birth, she was imprisoned there in a brothel by one wicked Quintianus who wished to have his way with her. I was fascinated to read later that the brothel-keeper was called Aphrodisia. Agatha resisted all temptation for thirty days, following which Quintianus had her subjected to torture, not only the rack but also crushing and cutting off her breasts. Agatha is credited with stopping an eruption of Mount Etna on Sicily, and is revered in Malta as she is thought to have interceded to prevent a Turkish invasion in the sixteenth century.
I think she is actually Artemis – and the hatred of the patriarchs meant her breasts had to be torn off (think of the Artemis/Diana of Ephesus statue, with all the breasts.) Next stop was the Cathedral in Mdina. This is a fascinating, ancient city – it can trace its origins back some 4,000 years. The streets are very narrow, too much so for cars, which is great. In the cathedral we found a very dark Madonna, here she is below – a tiny shot, but I couldn’t get any closer to her. The cathedrals and major churches in Malta are rich and ornate, which to me seems to keep the power, the saints, the spirituality, even, away from the people. Black Madonnas in particular, I think, belong entirely to the people and by removing them to such a distance they don’t have the powerful effect – at least on me.
Right at the top of this entry is the view over the Mdina Bastion; you can see all the way to the coast, (well, nothing is very far away from anything else in Malta!)
31 August 2005
It appears that the wireless card on my laptop has failed so I’m now entirely reliant on internet cafes, which is not good.
Back to Malta – memories are fading already. Does this happen to everyone so quickly?
After the tour of Rabat and Mdina on the first day, Rose took me to meet some friends and we held a small ceremony in a beautiful wooded garden, then later sat on one of the flat’s many terraces and watched the moon – which has been a beautiful guiding presence throughout this trip. Tonight she was red on first rising, a lovely sight over a harbour dotted with little boats. Good food, kindred spirits to talk to, clear skies, sea all around me, fruit to die for … I can’t help but wonder how easy it would be to come and live in Malta?
I didn’t think I would ever sleep, it was so hot. I had already noticed that my bed was made up with only a bottom sheet and a pillow and had to ask Rose for a top sheet – I’ve never slept without any sort of cover in my life and don’t think I could! She told me I would be too hot and of course was right, but I still needed that sheet for some odd reason.
I was so much looking forward to the temples and certainly wasn’t disappointed. First we went to Hagar Quim, which dates from around 3,000 BCE, and where some of the so-called “fat lady” statues were unearthed (these are now in the museum at Valletta).
There are some fabulous pictures of this temple, unlike anything I could manage, here:
We moved on to the nearby Temple of Mnajdra, which is in a beautiful setting, close to the sea. This was a walk of less than a kilometre, but it was so hot I was afraid of passing out.
The ticket sellers at the temples all seemed to know Rose well – she is a frequent visitor. Because of this we were allowed carefully to step into areas normally not shown to tourists. The shot above left shows damage done to the Mnajdra temple by blasting at nearby quarries.
The shot below the blast damage one shows what Rose said was the Maiden section of the temple – and sure enough, this part is sealed by rocks, as with a hymen.
There’s also a photograph (above right) of the island of Filfla, which you can just see – a tiny rock, this is the smallest island of the Maltese Archipelago and is unhabited, except by the birds for whom it is a sanctuary.
You can see excellent photographs of Mnajdra here.
Time to down the first of many cold drinks and have some lunch. Rose will kill me for this, but I decided she looked rather like an El Greco painting, and took the photo on the right.
31 August 2005
Next time, I’m coming for a fortnight, at least. There is so much to see and do, I can barely scrape the surface. I particularly regret having to rush round the temples. We were late for the hypogeum and missed our slot, unfortunately. I wasn’t that disappointed, in fact, because I don’t think I could have taken much more in. Instead I suggested we went back the next day (although we couldn’t get an appointment, that needs to be booked about ten days in advance) just in case somebody didn’t turn up. That didn’t work either and also meant we couldn’t go to Gozo.
But I can hardly complain, because such riches have been mine and I will definitely come again.
We did go to Tarxien, where my overworked camera refused to function. I’ve added some from Wikimedia, the page seemed a bit bare without them! You can also see some wonderful images here.
Instead, on Saturday afternoon, we went to the beach and sat just outside an amazing cave. The water was clear – I only paddled but it felt like heaven. This was my last day and I felt like a rest, knowing I would have to get up at 4am for the ferry back to Sicily and very sad.
I will write much more about Malta, some time, some place. For now, I just want to thank Rose for her incredible hospitality, and her family for putting up with us both constantly disappearing over the horizon. Rose, as I said to you once before – mi casa es tu casa. You are welcome anytime.
28 August 2005
I’m now on the long journey home, alas, but there is a little more to come.
The ferry back to Sicily was even better than the beautiful journey to Malta. The catamaran skimmed across the blue Med and was so calm I even felt hungry (which is unheard of for someone who is usually ill on a five-minute crossing!) and ate a sandwich.
After a 4am start I didn’t think I would drive very far but in the end made it to the ferry back to the Italian mainland (I was delighted to see that it was called the Fata Morgana – what a great omen.)
I even managed to drive as far as Cosenza in southern Italy before succumbing and then slept for about twelve hours. I found somewhere to stay pretty quickly but thanks to Italian drivers found it almost impossible to actually get to the place and park. I was so tired I wanted to scream and had completely and totally lost patience with the awful driving. Yes, I’m going to have a rant, so skip the next three paragraphs if you don’t want to read it!
They are unbelievable – and in fact don’t make their own roads faster but slower. It took me three days to drive from one end of Italy to the other – a distance that I covered in one long day in France. Wouldn’t advise anyone without a lot of driving experience to try Italy – I’ve been driving for thirty years and learned in Africa in the 70s, so drive very defensively. But a couple of times I really thought my last hour had come and was wondering what music my partner would choose for the funeral …!
The speed limit is completely ignored, by everyone, everywhere. On the motorways and on ordinary roads, you can be overtaken on either side at any moment and when the overtaker is doing about 140 mph (yes, really!) you barely see them coming. The little motorcycle things appear to be treated as pedestrians as far as rules are concerned and ignore boring things like traffic lights and pedestrian crossings entirely. People double and triple-park – in fact, they don’t so much park as abandon their vehicles. Or, quite often, they have just stopped for a chat.
The funniest thing I saw – but also the most terrifying – was on the A3 motorway just south of Naples. The whole motorway is under repair and down to one lane with contraflows everywhere – which is hairy enough when it is all tunnels and high overpasses with half missing. But one little motor cycle had two huge fat blokes astride, dwarfing the poor machine. On a contraflow they wove in and out of the traffic and at will drove over the double line into the path of the oncoming traffic – must have given several people near heart attacks. They certainly did me. Two policemen in a patrol sat and watched this with a complete lack of interest.
Oh, and while I’m in the mood for a rant, I’d also like to thank the men of Southern Italy for costing me hundreds of pounds in hotel bills. There were lots of campsites around but after some of the experiences I had I just didn’t have the courage to use them.
But I did get my hair cut, and that helped on the way back!
31st August 2005
On the way home I realised that I had to go back to the Camargue one last time. It was noticeably cooler than southern Italy and Malta, but still very hot and there were tourists everywhere (whom I resented, of course, even though that’s exactly what I was!)
The stairway up to the top of the church of Les Saintes Maries was open, so I was able to see the view over the town this time – and then back to the crypt to say goodbye to Sara-Kali, who has somehow found her way into my heart very quickly.
I sat in the crypt for a long time – crying, of course – but also watching people and their reactions. This is so much a living cult. More than one big, tough-looking man came in, possibly gypsies but I don’t know. One kissed the hem of one of Sara-Kali’s many robes. Another put a lot of money into the collection box. All crossed themselves and one had rosary beads. I haven’t completely decided what to make of all this, but if Sara was simply a servant to the two Maries who came to convert the local heathen then I will eat my camera.
3 September 2005
While driving to Calais I realised that the journey – pilgrimage? – should start as it began – with a visit to one of the Madonnas who rule the waves on the French side of the Channel. Boulogne has a black madonna, so I set off early and found the church on top of a hill, as is so often the case.
Unfortunately, a funeral was about to begin and although I could see the dark virgin at the side of the main altar, there was no way I was going to be insensitive enough to start taking photographs. I noticed there was a crypt, but that wasn’t open until 2pm so it looked as though that was that.
Then I saw a sign to “the sanctuary” and followed it, curiously. In a large, round space there seemed to be madonnas everywhere. Copies of Walsingham and Canterbury (although Walsingham seemed to have been whitened). Madonnas receiving their churches and basilicas from worshippers. Frescos in appalling condition showing every possible scene from the life of Mary the Virgin.
And there, over the altar, was the image of Mary in her boat. This was obviously a copy, and whitened, but here was Stella Maris, the Goddess of the Sea (who arrived in Boulogne, according to the tale, as a crowned statue, holding her baby, in a rudderless boat, as she so often does. They’ve added the angels but I think we get the picture. So the journey ends as it started … for now.
6 September 2005
Well, I’ve been home for a day or so and felt like I needed to sleep for a week at first. And now it feels as though I was never away ….
But I have a treasure of memories, images and thoughts stored away. I’m still not entirely sure why I had to go looking for Black Madonnas, but at least I now have a better idea. I know that the dark mother – the one the patriarchs have tried to do away with so many times and in so many ways – will never leave us. I know that she is infinitely compassionate and wise. I know that she is my mother, and the mother of the whole human race. For even when her statues are whitened, made to disappear, destroyed and damaged, somehow artists reach into that deep place where we are all one, and yet again pull out the image that is beyond words, beyond academic study … but which exists now and forever in our hearts and souls.
I’d like to acknowledge a debt to Ean Begg and his marvellous book, The Cult of the Black Virgin (Arcana, 1996). Without it, I wouldn’t have known where to start.