Irene Shaland’s Cuba article published by Mosaic magazine

Irene Shaland’s Cuba article  The Island within an Island: The Cuban Jewish Story of Survival was published on August 22nd by the Sephardi Ideas Monthly, a magazine of the American Sephardic Federation and Center for Jewish History Research of New York. On August 23rd, the essay was also published by the Mosaic, a magazine dedicated to advancing philosophical discussions related to Jewish history and Judaism. See the excerpts below:

http://bit.ly/2wKtbzx

Read more Jewish history stories in Irene Shaland’s latest book:

http://amzn.to/1PM8I1x

 

Celebrating a Milestone Anniversary inside the Enchanted Fig Tree of Australia

Fig Tree Restaurant
Enchanted Fig Tree Restaurant: One of the most unusual and one of the very best restaurants we ever dined in.

Alex and I have traveled to nearly 70 countries. We celebrated our birthdays and anniversaries in places like a street corner café on Easter Island, tiny seafood restaurant in Cochi, Kerala,  a second century BC villa –turned Renaissance palace-turned art studio in Rome; opera singers’ favorite tavern in Palermo near the famed Teatro Massimo, just to name a few. But we had the most unique experience this year on March 5th, when our new friend Steve Lane, Kangaroo Island’s Sea Dragon Lodge owner and our exceptional guide, took us to the remote Snellings Beach on the north coast. As a present on our milestone wedding anniversary, Steve invited us for a luncheon inside a… tree.

The brain-child of two extraordinary chefs Rachel Hannaford and Sasha Sachs, this pop-up restaurant is called (how else?) “The Enchanted Fig Tree” and is indeed located inside a 150-year-old fig tree on the Hannaford family’s property. Between the mighty tree roots and under its enormous canopy, there are five distinctive large spaces, called “rooms” by the owners. The lucky ones to get reservations, about 30-to- 40 people, sit in these “rooms” by elegantly set tables adorned with white table clothes and candles. Each table is placed in a nook of a sort that looks and feels like a private party room among the leaves and boughs of that tree. Thanks to our friend, on March 5th we were the ones “chosen by the tree” in a room for three people. Outside the tree, the enchanted world inside is not visible: all is covered by a great canopy. We felt we entered the Shakespearean Arden forest.

Our meal was a tasting menu based on the best of island produce. It happened to be nothing short of a marvelous symphony composed of taste sensations, textures, shapes, and colors.  The appetizers –   Carpaccio of local fish with homemade totopos and liver parfait with agrodolce and paper thin sourdough wafers, also homemade – were out of this world. As an entrée, understood in Australia as a first course or a starter, I chose Mexican-inspired pozole made of white chicken broth with lime, avocado, chili and corn, which was excellent. Alex had wild mushroom galette:  Sasha Sachs’s secret recipe puff pastry with local mushrooms on a watercress salad with parsnip puree. It seemed to evaporate from his plate, even before I wanted to ask for a taste. Instead of the main dish, we were treated to a real banquet, a Greek themed variations of taste. Local lamb with sofrito dolma was followed by a fresh grilled local fish with marjoram and vegetables. All was accompanied by Sasha’s wonderful taramasalata and quinoa salad with Kangaroo Island’s sheep cheese, pureed with roasted fennel. The knock-out crescendo of this concerto was a divine desert: raw sugar meringue with figs from the tree inside of which we were eating!

After the meal, we met the owners, Rachel and Sasha, to express our feelings of owe and admiration. When I told them that they are amazing food artists, these talented chefs, two extraordinarily women, seemed surprised. They just do what they love to do: creating an unforgettable experience and thus enriching lives of everyone they host in their magic forest.

Useful links:

  1. The Enchanted Fig Tree Restaurant: http://hannafordandsachs.com.au/enchanted-fig-tree/
  2. The story behind the enchanted tree: http://hannafordandsachs.com.au/our-story/
  3. Pre-requisite: stay in the Sea Dragon Lodge! http://www.seadragonlodge.com.au/
Fig Tree restaurant entrance
Entering this fairy-tale place is like getting inside the Shakespearean magic forest
Steve Lane, Irene Shaland, and Alex Shaland at Fig Tree Restaurant
Thanks to Steve, we had one of the most memorable celebrations!
Irene and Alex Shaland at Fig Tree Restaurant, Kangaroo Island, Australia
Irene and Alex Shaland celebrate their anniversary inside the 150-year-old fig tree
Author Irene Shaland and fig tree restaurant owners
Irene with two extraordinary chefs, restaurant owners, Rachel Hannaford and Sasha Sachs
Home-made appetizers served inside the Fig Tree
Appetizers from the Fig Tree: Carpaccio of local fish with homemade totopos and liver parfait and with agrodolce and paper thin sourdough wafers
Appetizer taramasalata
Sasha Sachs’s taramasalata pureed with roasted fennel
Divine dessert of raw sugar meringue with figs
The knock-out crescendo of this food concerto: a divine dessert made of the raw sugar meringue with figs from the tree inside of which we were eating!
Fig Tree Restaurant owner Sasha Sachs serves salad
Sasha Sachs is serving her quinoa salad with Kangaroo Island’s sheep cheese

Where to Stay on Kangaroo Island, Australia: the Sea Dragon Lodge is an Excellent Choice

Koala looking at visitors
Usually koalas sleep over 20 hours a day but this one was very alert and quite curious

Since childhood, I always wanted to live among the animals of Australia – even if for a few days only. And this was how the Kangaroo Island, a small dot in the Indian Ocean, materialized first in my imagination, and then – in our itinerary for the Spring 2016 trip. Overlooked by most popular guidebooks, this third largest Australian island (after Tasmania and Melville) remains the largest secret of that country for many globe trotters. There are precious few corners left in our 21st century urbanized world where Australian animals could be observed in the wild, and Kangaroo Island is exactly that place.

Just like the island itself, its best accommodation (at least in our opinion!) is not mentioned in either the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, the very books usually consulted by travelers to Australia.  This picturesque luxury establishment with its main lodge and free-standing 5-star villas faces a secluded private beach and seems as ubiquitous to the island landscape as Australian bush. Situated on a 250 acre seafront estate and surrounded by woods, the Sea Dragon Lodge constitutes a true refuge from the modern world – for people and the wild animals alike.

I do not remember how I found the Sea Dragon. Was that just surfing the internet? I believe not in coincidences but rather in that web of connections that brings people together. And before I knew it, the lodge owner Steve Lane and I were corresponding, and I felt I found an understanding friend. I am sure that this is how Steve, as a lodge owner and a guide, operates: treating all his customers with acute sensitivity to their needs and wants. But both my husband photographer Alex and I felt we were the “ones and only” dear, long-awaited friends of Steve who finally arrived to see his island.

Calling the Kangaroo Island “the only guilt-free place in Australia,” Steve introduced us to its history. The British Government commissioned Capitan Matthew Flinders to explore this part of Australia in 1800. He found no humans there but an abundance of – well – kangaroos.  The Aboriginal people avoided this island because they believed that it was inhabited by evil spirits.  Modern archeological evidence suggests that the Aboriginals left the island at least two thousand years prior to Capitan Flinders’s arrival.  After World War I, the Australian Government offered the island’s land to returning soldiers either as a reward for their service to the Crown or to get deeply traumatized veterans out of big cities. Today, most of the island’s land is a national park or reserve established to protect its unique wildlife and sublime natural beauty.  The climate there is very pleasant and mild, of a Mediterranean kind, and could as well be a setting for a Shakespearean play. So it was only natural for us to see Steve becoming our Prospero who instead of creating the Tempest for his old enemies, unveiled for new friends the magic of his island, one treasure at a time. We were treated to two full-day safaris with Steve as our driver and a naturalist guide. Our island discovery trip culminated in a night walking tour of the bush led by Steve’s friends, the Chesters, a renowned photographer and a contributor to the Royal National Geographic, and his wife, a biologist and a National Park ranger.

The island is very diverse landscape-wise and is indeed rather large. It takes almost three hours just to drive east to west, from Cape Willoughby to Flinders Chase National Park, and over an hour – north to south – from Stokes Bay to Vivone Bay. Guided by Steve, we slowly took it all: rolling hills and secluded bays of the North Coast; the rugged, almost surreal landscape of the South Coast; iconic Remarkable Rocks on the western end; the picturesque seaside village of Penneshaw on the Dudley Peninsula; and of course – the animals. The Kangaroo Island was spared by the damage done to the mainland by the species introduced by the European settlers, such as foxes or rabbits. As a result, it preserved its unique environment. Some animals either evolved into distinctly different-looking creatures like long-haired kangaroos, and some, almost extinct on the mainland, like Tammar wallabies, flourished.

We could not drag ourselves away from Steve’s “secret” place, just around the corner from his estate, where Australian sea lions and New Zealand seals sun-bathe on the shore surrounded by their babies. In the morning we were greeted by giant long-haired kangaroos and curious wallabies. Late evening we had the cutest brush-tail possum honoring us with his regular visits to our deck.  One afternoon we encountered two echidnas crossing the road: each one stopped to either pose for Alex or pretending it was a stone. Koalas slept up high on eucalyptus trees, but one was considerate enough to demonstrate us her amazing front and hind paws: she stretched them one at a time in a slow tai-chi-type motion. We were among the animals of Australia, true indigenous custodians of this island.

For us, the Sea Dragon Lodge became the center of this unique world.  Steve, an excellent guide, was a wonderful host as well. He presented us with a bottle of champagne on our milestone anniversary and organized a once-in-a-life-time experience to celebrate our special day: a luncheon inside an…ancient fig tree! (See my next review/blog).

A great majority of US visitors concentrate their exploration of Australia on Sydney and Melbourne, supplementing their experiences by visiting either the Ayers Rock or the Great Barrier Reef. While these iconic places are certainly the “musts,” no true understanding of this country could be complete without a trip to the Kangaroo Island. And, of course, without encountering the host-guide-friend par excellence: Steve Lane and his terrific Sea Dragon Lodge!

Useful links:

1.       The best place to stay and discover the island: Sea Dragon Lodge: http://www.seadragonlodge.com.au/

2.       To get to the island, fly to Adelaide and then take either Regional Express Air: http://www.rex.com.au/ or

3.       SeaLink Ferry: https://www.sealink.com.au/kangaroo-island-ferry/

View on Sea Dragon Lodge, Kangaroo Island, Australia
Rustic-looking five star Sea Dragon Lodge seems to be blending with the bush around it
Terrace in the back of Sea Dragon Lodge
When you are on a Lodge’s terrace, you feel light years away from the 21st century urbanized world
Lodge guest practices yoga on the terrace
With spectacular views all around, terrace seems perfect for morning Yoga practice
Wester Grey Kangaroo resting
The Island’s kangaroos evolved to look different from their mainland cousins: they are bigger and actually brownish-reddish
Small kangaroo came close as if to talk
Long-haired kangaroo seems to be talking to us, the intruders
Small red-necked Wallaby hiding in the bush
Red-necked wallaby earns its name from the rusty-reddish fur on the back of its neck and shoulders
A pair of red-necked pademelons in the shade
Red-necked pademelons seldom ventures outside the forest
Australian kangaroo half asleep
Female kangaroos are usually gray
This huge granite boulder with smaller rocks on top is called Remarkable Rocks
Peculiar clusters of granite boulders on the south-west shore of the island look like they came from one of Dali’s paintings
Closer view of Remarkable Rocks
One of the most popular island’s landmarks , Remarkable Rocks seemed to be a nature’s art gallery of stone abstract sculptures
Visitor standing next to huge rocks
Irene tries to mold herself into Remarkable Rocks formation
Australian Goanna
Called goannas, these lizards have patterned with spots skin arranged in bands. Unlike other lizards, they cannot drop their tails.
The head of huge Emu bird, Australia
The emu is the second-largest living bird by height. It is endemic to Australia where it is the largest native bird.
Sunny day at the black rock beach, Australia
Secluded beaches of the island are truly spectacular
Admiral Arch, Kangaroo Island, Australia
Admiral Arch is one of the most unusual landmarks of this diverse island
Irene Shaland stands on the beach at Kangaroo Island
Exploring the island marine life
Australian fur seal
Australian fur seals like to sun themselves on the stony beach
Australian fur seal pup
A curious seal pup is watching us very intently
Two sea lions and fur seal
Sea lions and fur seal resting near Admiral Arch
Sea lions swim near shore
Watching fur seals swimming was one of our favorite pastimes on the island
Australian koala holding on to a branch of eucalyptus tree
Koalas are adorable
Sleeping koala
When sleeping koalas often turn themselves into a furry ball
Koala sleeps on a branch
This sleepy koala decided to show off her front and hind paws in a super slow Tai Chi-like motions
Australian Echidna
This echidna was leisurely crossing the road and paid no attention to us
Fig Tree Restaurant
Enchanted Fig Tree Restaurant: One of the most unusual and one of the very best restaurants we ever dined in.
Fig Tree restaurant entrance
Entering this fairy-tale place is like getting inside the Shakespearean magic forest
Irene and Alex Shaland at Fig Tree Restaurant, Kangaroo Island, Australia
Irene and Alex Shaland celebrate their anniversary inside the 150-year-old fig tree
Steve Lane, Irene Shaland, and Alex Shaland at Fig Tree Restaurant
Thanks to Steve, we had one of the most memorable celebrations!

 

Going to Iceland? We recommend this book

Iceland

Going to Iceland on vacation or business?  Take a look at this Insight Guides Iceland. This book is a great trip companion. Invaluable for trip planning and once you arrived, for exploring. Lots of historical and current information and photos.  Articles are well written and maps are some of the best.

Includes chapters on Iceland history, features, Insights, photo features, places, travel tips, transportation , accommodations, and activities.


Chasing the Elusive Northern Lights in Iceland

northern lights in iceland
Northern lights, Iceland

by Alex Shaland

All visitors to Iceland fall into two distinctive categories: those who saw the northern lights and those who did not. When Irene set her trip target on Iceland, she was determined to place herself, our daughter, and I squarely in the first category. The problem was that unlike the predictable crowds at JFK on the way to Iceland, the famous northern lights of Iceland are highly unpredictable. However, the best time to see them is from November through December.  So mid-November looked pretty good. Oh, and  it also happens to be one of the coldest months of the year.

In addition to the time of the year, there are several other components essential for seeing the northern lights. First, the surroundings have to be as dark as possible, meaning you have to be far away from Reykjavik, or other areas where humans light the skies with their electric bulbs. Next, the weather has to be just right: clear skies and a cold night are the best combination. Your viewing location is also important: on the same night, one lucky group of tourists might be rewarded for freezing in the open for hours with a fantastic light show, but another unlucky bunch just a two-hour drive away will be turning into icicles for nothing.

Speaking of luck, it increases substantially if you stay in Iceland for at least a week and have all or most nights available to chase the northern lights. As it happens, northern lights have a nasty habit of showing up for a day or two and taking a few days off to rest. The good news is that once you book a Northern Lights excursion through one of the bus companies, they will keep taking you on the northern lights chase until you see the lights, or decide to quit and go home.  But even then, the tickets are good for two years – come back to Iceland and hop on board to continue your quest.

This generosity of the Gray Line Iceland tour company turned out to be our lucky number. After driving from one observation point to another for hours, we returned to our Hotel Borg after 2 AM with only three nighttime photos in my camera: the moon, a boat, and a lighthouse. However, after we boarded the Gray Line Iceland tour bus the following night, Nature reworded our persistence with one of the most spectacular phenomena.

Yeah, yeah, we all saw those highly Photoshopped multi-colored northern light images. What we saw however, were mostly whitish patterns that appeared, disappeared, and morphed into new shapes on the background of the black sky. Digital camera sensors painted those fantastic patterns green.  Out of the three necessary night photography components (a good tripod, a remote shutter release, and knowing what you are doing), I possessed only the first one – the tripod. The shutter release cable I bought a couple of days before the trip did not fit my camera, even though it was “designed” for my model by those creative engineers. My non-existent night photography skills acquired on the brightly lit squares of European capitals at night were as useless as the cable that I tried to exchange the night before the trip. Another factor that did not help was our location: we observed the northern lights over the ocean, and the water vapors made the air less clear. So when you look at the photos, just keep in mind that the northern lights are indeed spectacular!

photo of the moon
First night – the moon was spectacular.
boat at night
Boat on the beach at night – first night.
lit sky
First night – not the view we expected.
northern lights in Iceland
Second night – finally, after an hour of waiting, the northern lights started forming in the sky.
northern lights in iceland
The lights appeared to the right of us.
northern lights
Further to the right – a new pattern over the houses.
Aurora Borealis
They started slowly changing shape.
Aurora Borealis or northern lights
The lights on the left, over the ocean, became brighter.
Iceland northern light
Meanwhile, the pattern over the houses morphed into a horseshoe shape.
vertical pattern of northern lights in Iceland
On the left, the lights formed a column shooting straight up.
horseshoe shape of northern lights
The horseshoe over the houses started straightening up.
Beautiful norhtern lights
And here is the grand finale!

 
This recemmended book includes chapters on Iceland history, features, Insights, photo features, places, travel tips, transportation , accommodations, and activities.


Face-to-Face with Africa and other Wildlife Photography Exhibit

numero chat gay montpellier Buffalo stands in Kruger National Park, South AfricaCuyahoga this hyperlink County Public Library Orange Branch Presents  what first message online dating Photography Exhibit: Face-to-Face with Africa and other Wildlife  web by Alex Shaland

November 5th – December 1st 2015
Cuyahoga County Public Library
Orange Branch, 31975 Chagrin Boulevard
Pepper Pike, Ohio 44124   Phone: 216-831-4282

Internationally-published artist photographer Alex Shaland has a life-long passion for travel. Together with his wife, travel writer Irene Shaland, they have explored close to 70 countries. His photographs have appeared in more than twenty magazines published in the USA, Canada, UK, France, Kenya, and South Korea. Through his photographs, Alex shares his excitement and love for our beautiful world.

MEET-THE-ARTIST Open House:   November 8th   2:00 PM – 4:00 PM
Refreshments will be served

Download a Flyer: Flyer Wildlife Photography

Photo of Giraffe in Africa
Giraffe
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Lion, South Africa

How to Avoid Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees – Part Two

DSCN1669bIn one of our earlier blog posts, we recommended a few credit cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees when you use the card outside of the US.  If you travel abroad and don’t have one of those credit cards, your “conventional” credit card might be charging in the area of 2% for foreign transaction fees every time you swipe your Visa or MasterCard at a restaurant, hotel, or car rental office.

Capital One, Chase, Barclay, and other banks offer credit cards with no foreign transaction fees- you just need to ask and apply for one. However, this is not the end of the story. You have to be aware of the convenience service that will be offered once you swipe the card.  Here is how I finally figured this out.

During our recent trip to Switzerland, I noticed that every restaurant and hotel asked if I wanted to settle my bill in Swiss Franks or US dollars. They all had portable credit card machines that asked to choose US dollars or Swiss Franks before completing the transaction. The first time I had to choose the currency, we just finished dinner at a nice restaurant in Geneva, and I asked the waiter who spoke decent English what he would recommend. His reply was that it did not really matter, but perhaps paying in US dollars would be more convenient. Being an adventurer, or maybe having one too many beers, I chose US dollars. When the card reader printed my receipt, I was informed in rather small print that the local bank that offered this convenient currency conversion also charged me 3% of the entire bill. The transaction was final and could not be reversed. From this point on, I asked for “Swiss Franks only, please!”

So, your best choice would be to use a no-foreign transaction fee credit card and choose local currency when paying the bill.

African Safari Tips: The Importance of Good Company

group going on African safari
The importance of a good company on an African safari cannot be overstated. Marina, Irene, and Anatoly feel perfectly safe when our ranger, Florence is brandishing his rifle. The only question bothering me is “did he actually load the darn thing?”

Text and photos by Alex Shaland

Going on an African safari by yourself or in a small group is not advisable. Suppose, you are standing in front of a lion or a rhinoceros and trying to calculate your chances of getting out of this situation in one piece and hopefully not perforated in too many places. You are staring at the whatever it is that is going to do a very bad thing to you and all that is going through your mind is “o sh….t”. But look at the situation from the lion’s point of view. It has to charge you, yes you. Who else is there to eat? You are the protein!

However, you chances of not becoming the next lion’s meal improve drastically if you are in a large group of preferably slow moving Eco tourists. Simple math tells you that one out of, for example ten, is a much smaller chance of the bad thing happening to you than one out of one. As a bonus, there is actually a better chance of scaring some predators away if you are in a bigger and very loud group, typically American.  Though, I will tell you that the French are probably even better at scaring wildlife away with their loud and incomprehensible speech. I still don’t understand how they missed the opportunity to become part of Great Britain during the 100 years war.  Can you imagine how much easier the life of an average French man, woman and child would be if they spoke English that everybody understands, instead of French that nobody does?  Well, but enough of that.

The good news is loud noise might work with a lion. The bad news is, it won’t with a rhinoceros or a buffalo. So, always go with a group of friends. Remember, strength is in the numbers!

African lion
The first thing people are asking when they find out that we were on an African safari is “did you see the lions?” I guess going on safari and not “bagging in” so to speak a lion is a waste of money. So, my answer is always “Did we see the lions? O yes we did!”

 

African buffalo
Known as “Black death” African Buffalo is one of the most dangerous adversaries.

 

African Black rhinoceros
Though, I would never say it openly to his face, a male rhino’s IQ is rather low. But if you weigh a thousand pounds, have a horn that can skewer almost anything and anybody, and can gallop up to 35 miles per hour, who is going to ask you about your IQ score? I will tell you who, only a person with very low IQ!

Overlooked by visitors, Catania is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque

Duomo cathedral, Catania
The Majestic Duomo of Catania – a World Heritage site

The third largest city of Sicily, a UNESCO-listed Catania lies in close proximity to the majestic mountain Etna. The city was always subject to the brooding moods of that volcano.  In the late 1600s, Mt. Etna struck twice: first drowning Catania and over 12,000 of its inhabitants in boiling lava, and then, in less than 25 years, leveling the city again by a murderous earthquake. Only 2,000 people survived. However, like phoenix out of ashes, Catania, rebuilt by architects from Rome, was reborn as one of the greatest baroque cities of the Mediterranean.

Today, many visitors skip Catania for the sake of Taormina or Siracusa and this is a sad mistake. The city radiates a strange romantic beauty with its broad boulevards and spacious squares, grandiose palazzos, and great cathedrals, still striking in their black and white colors, lava and limestone, crumbling plaster, and cracked marble columns.

Renowned composer Vincenzo Bellini, born and bred in Catania, is buried in the city’s main cathedral, the Duomo. His presence is felt everywhere: monuments, a house-museum, and even in a beloved Sicilian dish-Pasta dela Norma is named after Bellini’s world-famous opera.

Founded by the Greeks in the 8th century BC, Catania became the most prosperous Sicilian city during the Roman age, and still boasts not one but two Roman amphitheaters: the smaller one, near Piazza St. Francesco d’Assisi, was built, as Romans often did, on top of a Greek theater, but the larger one, the largest in Sicily, was a Roman original, and could accommodate 16,000 spectators.  Now we can admire parts of that great structure near Piazza Stesicoro.  

The majestic 13th-century Ursino Castello, built on the orders of Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, is the only city structure not destroyed by Etna. The castle was designed to be the city’s guardian, situated on the top of a seafront cliff, but the volcano changed the landscape and the Castello is now landlocked. Inside the Castello is the city museum, Museo Civico, but the most interesting feature of the castle is outside: near the front gates, its massive wall displays a menorah laid out in small black lava stones like a mosaic. Perhaps the Jews working on the construction wanted to write their own page in the city’s history.

Catania’s main square with the Duomo in its center is a World Heritage site, and is dazzling in its majestically theatrical beauty. Here is Catania at its best, showcasing its black lava-while limestone baroque grandeur. In front of the Duomo, is Fontana dell’Elephante, a funny black lava elephant that smiles at us while carrying a huge Egyptian obelisk on its back.

If you are willing, Catania, this special city, will unveil its treasures for you.

 

Entrance to Anfiteatro Romano

Two Roman pillars mark the entrance to the remains of Anfiteatro Romano, the largest in Sicily

 

 

Teatro Romano, Catania
Teatro Romano, Roman amphitheater built on top of a Greek theater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Castello Ursino
The early 13th century’s Castello Ursino: the only building not ruined by Etna’s earthquake in the late 1600s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Menorah on Castello Ursino Wall
One can see a menorah inlaid in small lava stones in the Castello’s wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monument to composer Vincenzo Bellini in Catania, Sicily
Monument to Catania’s most famous son: the great composer Vincenzo Bellini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomb of famous composer Bellini in Duomo Cathedral in Catania, Sicily
Bellini’s tomb in Catania’s Duomo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania boulevard
Beautiful pedestrians-only boulevard in the old historic center of Catania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania Cathedral
Catania’s beautiful cathedrals may remind visitors of Rome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania baroque building
One of the numerous great palaces: Catania charms visitors with its unique black lava-white limestone baroque buildings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Nicolo church in Catania
Never-completed San Nicolo church, the largest in Sicily and also the strangest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piazza, cathedral, Catania, Sicily
Catania’s picture-perfect piazza and cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baroque cathedral
Theatricality of Catania’s baroque: the cathedrals seem to be dancing on the streets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sculpture of angel
Marble angel in one of Catania’s baroque churches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abbey in Catania
An old abbey in Catania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania University
The University of Catania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo, the Baroque centerpiece of the city, entertains tourists with its amusing Elephant fountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elephant statue
Made of black lava, the Elephant smiles at visitors while carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18th century Sicilian palace
The 18th century noble palace-turned 21st century multi-apartment building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following the Steps of Tennessee Williams in Sicily: Taormina’s Casa Cuseni

Casa Cuseni Taormina, Sicily
Casa Cuseni Taormina, Sicily
Casa Cuseni welcomes its guests, Taormina, Sicily

I came across the name “Casa Cuseni” while reading about Tennessee Williams and his beloved partner, painter/poet Henry Faulkner, spending many happy months in Taormina while staying in Casa Cuseni. I knew then, without a doubt, that when we are in Sicily, we will follow the steps of Tennessee!

We and our four friends arrived at Casa Cuseni on a beautiful late September afternoon. We were met by the B&B’s smiling owner, an MD and art lover, Francesco Spadaro, and we followed him up the stairs through a terraced garden. At that time of the day, Taormina is lit by magical shades of golden-bluish light coming from above and below, the sky and the sea, and indeed seems to become “la bella Trinacria,” Dante’s name for Sicily. The most beautiful city of Sicily, Taormina, was called by Goethe “a little patch of paradise.”

Mount Etna and Taormina Sicily
The treacherous volcano Etna: view from the rooftop, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

Many visitors today, though spell-bounded by Taormina’s almost supernatural beauty, find it hard to believe the great German poet: the city is literally occupied by crowds of tourists; its cathedrals and palaces are taken over by unending weddings. For us, though, it was Casa Cuseni which embodied the best that “paradise” of Taormina has to offer.  Just like Taormina is not your typical Sicilian town, Casa Cuseni is not the B&B one may expect, but a destination by itself, a living museum of arts and letters, “a place where Art has found its Home,” as Francesco Spadaro calls it.

 

Terrace of Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily
On the terrace of Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

The villa called Casa Cuseni was designed and built by the leading member of the British Royal Academy of Arts, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson, in 1905. For Kitson, Casa Cuseni became a refuge, a home away from the world of Victorian morals and his Yorkshire family with their judgmental attitudes toward his life style. Since Kinston was an Art Nouveau or rather Arts & Crafts artist in love with Italy and Sicily, the house and gardens he designed present a harmonious mixture of art nouveau, and Liberty and Sicilian styles. Robert Kitson’s teacher and friend, Frank Brangwyn, designed the paneling and furniture and created a mural in the dining room. This beautiful, elegant, and refined mural invokes a poignant feeling of being singled-out and ostracized. Brangwyn figures symbolize homosexual love, threatened and persecuted by society.

 

Studio of Robert Kinston, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily
Salvatore takes our group to the studio of Robert Kinston, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

Just like gay-friendly Taormina became a refuge for those artists, who like Oscar Wilde were exiled from their home-countries, Casa Cuseni turned into an intellectual oasis for artists whose views or life-styles were not considered moral or conventional: D.H. Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Henry Faulkner, Truman Capote, they all met over drinks on the rooftop of the house overlooking the town and the volcano Etna in the background.

When Robert Kitson died in 1948, his niece, Daphne Phelps, came all the way from Great Britain to Sicily to sell the house. But she fell in love with the place, the country, and the people and decided to stay on and have paying guests. She went on to write A House in Sicily, one of the best books about this island.

 

Picasso’ etchings, Kinston’s paintings, signed Tennessee Williams’ books and private letters in Casa Cuseni
The author in the study: Picasso’ etchings and Kinston’s paintings are on the wall; the bookshelves contain signed Tennessee Williams’ books and private letters, Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

This house, as shown by the wonderful manager Salvatore, has become alive for us and turned into one of the main characters of Sicily. In addition to the beautiful furnishings and a mural, the house’s treasures are displayed everywhere: you live in a living and breathing museum surrounded by Picasso, Faulkner, Kinston, plus the countless treasures of Kinston’s personal connections such as Sumerian, Greek, early medieval, and Renaissance priceless pieces.

I was particularly impressed and deeply touched by Salvatore spending an hour of his time to share with us the house’s collection of Tennessee Williams’ writings and private letters.

 

Casa Cusini museum
Salvatore explains to the author the intricacies of an Iranian medieval ceramic plate, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

Though inseparable from Taormina, Casa Cuseni is a world treasure, a must destination for any art and literature lover.

Our heartfelt gratitude goes to  the owner Francesco Spadaro and manager Salvatore who make every guest feel at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casa Cusini museum
Salvatore showcases the house-museum’s treasures collected by Robert Kinston: Tang dynasty (7th cent.) Chinese figurines, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

Dining room paintings in Casa Cuseni

The soul of Casa Cuseni: the dining room furniture and evocative Art Nouveau paneling designed by Frank Brangwyn, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

 

 

Frank Brangwyn painting Family
“A Family” by Frank Brangwyn, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily
Taormina, Sicily
The breath-taking beauty of Taormina: view from the rooftop of Greta Garbo’s suite, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sitting room in Casa Cuseni
In the sitting room: Greta Garbo’s favorite purple couch is on the foreground; priceless medieval carving is above the fireplace, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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