Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Waldhaus Flims: Early season snow and much-needed wellness

Narnia comes to mind - that moment when the White Witch has been defeated and winter is beginning to melt. For we are walking between frozen trees, their branches like intricate wrought iron railings dusted in snow. But above, the vivid palette of autumn rages in a froth of rust and sienna. Our walk started at the Waldhaus Flims, one of our favourite spa hotels in Switzerland and a lovely escape from the foggy swathes that are Zurich in November. It is situated amid skyscraper pine trees that cloak the resort's Belle Epoque grand hotel, villa and chalet in a tranquil pillow of woodland. Visible above the trees are the jagged Tschingelhörner summits and the concertina-like Flimserstein. Our walk took us first down to Lake Cauma, an impossible shade of turquoise in the frozen landscape, then up through woodland and along a panoramic ridge to the viewpoint over the Rhine Gorge that we had set out to find. The platform strained against the sheer drop, suspended above the impressive swathes of rock that looked like a gushing waterfall. The Ruinaulta, as the gorge is known in the local language Romansch, was formed 10,000 years ago by a formidable rockfall. Some 400 metres beneath us, woodland clustered around the horseshoe bend in the Rhine. A little red train, the Rhaetian Railway's Glacier Express, chugged along beside the river. Apparently the woodland here has never been disturbed by man and is a good example of how trees develop naturally when left alone. My mind boggled at how trees could grow on such steep slopes. Onward, we entered this frozen woodland, finally reaching Lake Cresta. Mist moves across the water. The air is so still we can hear the whir of ski infrastructure in the distance.
The following morning, we awake to tumbling snowflakes, falling silently but so densely the treetops are obscured by a creamy cloud. The ground is already half-a-foot deep in snow. We can't resist: no sooner have we finished breakfast than we dash outside to crunch through the fresh snowfall before it is cleared. Later, a sudden bout of madness urges us to try out the hotel's natural pond - a sort of plunge pool outside a wood-burning-fire-warmed sauna. It is frozen over, with just an ice hole left for the mad and insane. I put one foot in, then another, and before I know it am up to my neck. It feels like a thousand needles are jabbing me all over, but it's wonderful - so refreshing to be in this glassy water. It obviously feels much better once I am sitting in the sauna, peering past the crackling fire to the snow falling outside, which is tumbling down towards the steam rising from the hotel's heated outdoor pool.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Postcards from southeastern Sicily

DONNALUCATA We arrive the aftermath of a summer storm. The angry sea is thrashing the sand, giant waves hurrying to offload their watery weight. The sound is like when you put a shell to your ear, but amplified as if played from a stereo. The following morning, we walk along the beach from our apartment to central Donnalucata, a charming little resort in southeastern Sicily where golden shoebox-shaped cottages tumble over one another down to the shore. We find that nothing has changed since our visit two years ago - the place and its pace of life as enduring as the moods of the ocean are fleeting. We recognise the fruit seller, Michele, whose open-backed three-wheeler truck parked up by the sea is bulging with peaches, lettuces, tomatoes and melons. Then there's the checkout guy in the grocery store, who seems to know everyone in town but is equally chatty to the tourists. We easily settle into the pace of life, spending hours on our indulgently huge sea-view terrace reading and practising slow yoga. I enjoy watching as the sea oscillates between pistachio, grey and turquoise as it rolls up into a frothy carpet on the sand.
SAMPIERI Our favourite beach in southeastern Sicily. Today, the sea is turquoise as rich as velvet, and lapping gently rather than charging towards the shore. There's a stiff breeze along the wild beach, which is bookended by the romantic ruins of a brick factory and the tangle of golden fishermen's cottages that constitute Sampieri. We're almost alone, and of our few fellow beachgoers, none are swimming. I plunge into the water anyway - I can never resist the sea. It stabs like knives but is invigorating. We soon come to realise that not much swimming goes on here. It is instead all about the surf walk: grab your bag (especially if you're a man) and promenade up and down the beach in the surf.
SCICLI Scicli is often overlooked as one of southeastern Sicily's Baroque beauties compared to its more famous neighbours, Monica, Ragusa and Noto. But I find it the most rewarding to visit. Within its tangled alleyways of tumbledown sand-coloured townhouses and crumbling Palazzi, the lot adorned with trailing balustrades and worn stuccowork and interspersed with shaded piazze, there is a microcosm of Sicilian life. Grocery vans rattle through the narrow alleys, loudspeakers announcing their daily specials. As we stroll past Chiesa Madre, admiring its ornate facade, an elderly lady pokes her head out a nearby window and points to urge us into the church. It proves a good recommendation: inside, glass-panelled turrets illuminate Baroque detailing. Later, we order granites - the local speciality; a type of fresh fruit sorbet served with brioche - and are buffeted by the wind as the world whistles past. We're horrified when, after a gust of wind lifts the napkins from our table and drops then on the square, the locals at the adjacent tables tell us to just leave it. No wonder there is a litter problem on the island.
DONNAFUGATA It's rare for a stately home long uninhabited to retain lifelike character. But Donnafugata, a 14th-century tan-coloured pile with turrets atop a hill surrounded by olive groves that plunge down to the Mediterranean, oozes charisma. Beyond the gates, which are manned by locally bred glossy chestnut Modicana cattle, a courtyard gives onto a series of rooms in Gothic to Renaissance style. The wallpaper in each is beautifully detailed - ranging from floral arrangements to murals of the Sicilian countryside - and the palette is warm, seeping from cornflower blue through to sunshine yellow and rose. Indeed the whole is like a masterpiece of Italian art, free from the stuffy, overdone trappings of many stately homes. Perhaps especially because of the humour within the design: peacock detailing on the wallpaper in the men's smoking room represents vanity; a butterfly painted onto a mirror was intended to startle guests; and the stone vases look uniform until closer inspection reveals an occasional comical face. Outside, the shaded grounds radiate from the castle in symmetrical blocks blooming with olive and carob trees, cypress and rosemary bushes. We get lost in the stone labyrinth and wonder if the designer's last laugh was leaving a maze with no centre.
PUNTA SECCA A polished and postcard-perfect village, where manicured cottages glisten above the turquoise sea. Punta Secca was made famous by the Montalbano TV series, but it is sleepy when we visit. The water is as still as a millpond, and give ourselves over to it, gliding along and admiring the pristine white lighthouse juxtaposed against the cerulean sky. I wonder if this was a charm held by St. Tropez before it became world famous.
THE GOLDEN HOUR IN DONNALUCATA There are a few stragglers on the beach, reluctant to leave their deckchairs. The whispers of a beach day wait for the sea to wash them away - love hearts carved into the sand and sandcastles already eroding. The waves slosh lazily onto the shore and the sun teeters on the horizon, projecting a shivering golden beam across the water. It's all go at the fish market, where crowds are gathered to buy the evening's catch. A stray fish lies discarded on the flagstones, its petrified eye staring up at the sky. Locals swagger along the promenade, an achingly stylish set with their mirrored sunglasses and man bags. By the time we settle on a bench to enjoy an ice cream, the sun is slipping behind the sea, which is slowly turning midnight blue, assuming its nighttime cloak beneath an emerging canopy of stars.
ORTIGIA, SYRACUSE It's market day in Ortigia, the ancient core of Siracusa, where crumbling facades are bordered by the sea. Between stalls overloaded with richly toned produce and fish fresh from the sea, crowds throng. A stout fishmonger with wind-worn cheeks shouts and gesticulates, his eyes rolling furiously at his staff, as he massacres a slab of tuna with a knife that resembles an axe. We're amazed when a frothy bunch of basil, a mango from Sicily and a handful of chard comes to a grand total of three euros. Heaped mounds of organic herbs grown locally make my saliva glands tingle - and my taste buds too, when I later infuse a glass of water with rosemary and whip up some cinnamon porridge. We lunch at La Foglio, a quintessentially Sicilian affair tucked into the old town, where bric-a-brac crowds every surface and the tables slope downhill. The bread appetiser is outstanding - chunky white loaf served with olive oil and oregano hand picked locally. It's not all about food, however. The layers of history here are mind-boggling - peel back one period and you get to another. In the Duomo, Ancient Greek Doric columns are tapestried between Norman stonework and Baroque fancy. We immerse ourselves further with the ancient world at the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. Here, we find an Ancient Roman amphitheatre and an enormous stone altar for sacrifices, the lot concealed among explosions of citrus and pine trees. The most impressive feature is the Orecchio di Dionisio, a cave over 60m long and 20m high. Lord Byron likened it to an ear for its acoustics.
VALLEI DEI TEMPLI Beneath the sand-coloured sprawl of hilltop high-rises that is Agrigento in southwestern Sicily there is a sight that beggars belief: the remains of five startlingly well preserved Ancient Greek temples. Akragas, as the city was then called, was one of the most powerful Greek cities. Its impressive temples were erected over a period of 75 years by 30,000 Carthaginian slaves. Its inhabitants progressed thanks to their fertile surroundings, and exported olive oil, wheat and wine, according to our guide Michele. After exploring the temples, we descend into the Giardino della Kolymbethra, the Greeks' former irrigation system and now a billowing orchard of citrus, orange blossom and myrtle trees.
BLUE MOON, DONNALUCATA An ice cream parlour offering lactose-free gelato!! I could hardly believe my luck. Since being told I have a lactose-intolerance, I have really missed being able to eat ice cream, so I was delighted when I found a chocolate-olive oil variety here containing absolutely no nasties. It was delicious - especially with the added character of eating it on the wind-blasted promenade mingled with salty seaspray. The wind holds the chill of autumn; it's late September and summer has certainly bid adieu.
MEZZAPAROLA, DONNALUCATA A lamplit courtyard secreted away within Donnalucata's tangle of golden cottages with a menu full of fish-straight-from-the-sea dishes. Ordering 'fish of the day' means being shown inside to a market-style counter with a selection of the day's gleaming catch. There's sea bream, swordfish and sea bass among the choice. We opt for a 1kg-sea bass with roast potatoes and tomatoes to share. A note on tomatoes: they're such a thing here that billboards advertise the latest varieties, with models posing sensually with a bunch of tomatoes dangling in front of their lips. But back to dinner. Our fish is delicious, mouthwateringly so, with the freshest taste and velvetiest texture we have ever been privy to. Tim opts for three courses, and his creamy fish mousse starter is narrowly pipped at the post by his chilled chocolate pudding with spongy pistachio heart. As we leave at around 10pm, the place is just starting to fill up. The dining hours here baffle me.
GOODBYE I'm writing huddled up on the sofa from the cold, as the wind travels sideways across the balcony, taking the patio furniture by the hand and walking it towards the sea. Donnalucata has disappeared behind a silvery veil, while the sea boldly whips up in a rage, the crest of each wave lifting into a dancing cloud like steam from a kettle. The sand is on the move, too, suspended in the horizontal gusts like a storm of fireflies above the desert. So much for a last swim. The rumble of thunder absorbs even the rush of the sea. But it's autumn now, and even on the Med, patio doors are rattling in the late September storm. As we prepare to return to reality, the weather has come full circle.