Sicily 8: Catania

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Sicily 8: Catania. Suitcases packed, accounts settled, we were off to spend the day in Catania before dispersing.  A last sighting of Etna as we went south. P1260562001

Francesca had arranged for us to leave our luggage in Catania at a small B and B, The Globetrootter, owned by a friend, for the day, and we set off.

I was thrilled serendipitously at the first place we stopped, a castle built by one of my favourite characters in history, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, 1194-1250, a fascinating, if far from likeable, man.  I had studied him for my ‘A’ levels and he had intrigued me then.  (If you click on the link, skip the history, and go to ‘Personality’, and ‘Literature and Science’.) On my trip to Sicily in 1975 I had paid homage at his tomb in Palermo Cathedral.  This castle was a real bonus for me. P1260563001

Although we went in, it was just to say hello to the woman running the bookshop, another friend of Francesca.  (We came across many more of them during the day – this was her home city after all, and she was well-known as a television journalist on the island.)

We then went on to the fishmarket, which turned out to be so much more.

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Smoking artichokes!

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Francesca and a scampo

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We had been told about long courgettes!

 

The next two photos will be of interest only to geology enthusiasts, especially since one is not at all clear.  We went through a bar to see a lava tube, a tunnel made by flowing lava as it solidifies on the outside.  As the sign indicates, it formed during the eruption of Etna in 1669.  It’s of particular interest because it now has a stream flowing though it – in the other direction from that of the original lava flow.P1260584001P1260585001On to Catania’s cathedral.  I was pleased to see the tomb of Sicily’s famous composer, Bellini, but not nearly as much as I had been to come across that of Monteverdi in Venice some years back.P1260591001P1260592001After a stop for refreshments in the cathedral square, we walked on, and passed this.P1260598001It was communist headquarters, now a popular pubP1260600001

 

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Not a the modern meaning of a gymnasium, but a place of learning. ‘Siculorum’ means ‘of [the] Sicilians’

P1260605001Lunchtime.  At the Trattoria de Fiore, run (that does not adequately describe the force that she is) for the last 40 plus years by Rosanna, who makes wonderful pasta among other things.  Ordering our meal was an event in itself, especially since Rosanna just loves talking – and she wasn’t the only Sicilian present who has the same predilection…P1260608001P1260609001P1260615001P1260616001The others all ordered pasta , but I just didn’t feel hungry enough so I ordered antipasti and a light fish dish…

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My antipasti!

 

But I should have known that antipasti would be more than sufficient. The sardines to follow were delicious, but I could only manage two of the seven, even though they were small as fresh sardines go.  I managed to persuade others to eat three of those left over, and made copious apologies to Rosanna for not finishing the entire dish.

Here is a blurry picture of someone’s ‘pasta alla norma’, resembling a volcano.P1260619001We got up from table well after 4 pm!  It was nearly time to get back to the B and B place to pick up our luggage and say goodbye.  But we just had one more visit to make – to what had once been a monastery and was now a university – where Francesca had done her studies.P1260622001P1260623001P1260630001We were able to peek inside the large rooms where lecturers worked – the monks clearly didn’t stint themselves for space back in the days.

And so we said goodbye.  Geoff was off to Syracusa, Francesca, and Alec and Isobel were staying on in Catania for one extra night before returning to the UK the following day, so it was just Emma and I who took a 20-minute bus ride to the airport to await our plane, which would get us to Gatwick at midnight.

Despite my accidents and being off-colour, it had been a lovely week in good and friendly company, with a great variety of themes and activities.  Being a study tour had made it extra interesting.  If there is one which stands out as both unexpected and ultra enjoyable … it was Food!

I  think it is definitely a case of ‘Arrivederci Sicilia’.  I hope so anyway.

Sicily 7: Taormina

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Sicily 7: Taormina.  I had slept terribly on Monday night, or rather I scarcely slept at all. My ankle was troubling me – discomfort is always worse at night – my cold was now full-blown, and I had a sore shoulder from my fall.  I therefore decided to cut the morning’s programme of discussion on Sicilian writers, notably Sciascia and Verga, (of whom I had  never heard) and to rejoin my companions at lunchtime.  I was greeted at 12.45, ‘Have you heard the news? [Wifi was patchy in the bedrooms.] There’s to be a general election on 8th June.’

Well, that determined conversation over our meal – fortunately and not surprisingly we were all committed Remainers, so there was no falling out.

The afternoon’s programme was a visit to the nearby large town of Taormina. On being dropped, we made out way to the Greek/Roman amphitheatre.  Taormina is to host the G7 for three days at the end of May, so it is being spruced up everywhere.  I counted four separate work sites in the amphitheatre, each of them seemingly driven by a very noisy generator.P1260498001P1260499001And sadly the iconic (sorry!) view towards Etna was restricted by clouds over the volcano.  Oh well, I had had a good view of it in 1975…P1260509001The views north and south from the spot were wonderful. P1260510001P1260517001Francesca, testing out security, then marched the five of us into a very posh hotel nearby.P1260523001P1260524001She so much wanted us to see its gardens.P1260525001Next it was the Parco Duca di Cesaro, created by the Englishwoman, Florence Trevelyan, two centuries ago. P1260533001However, Britain, as it seemed to me, had been once of the few large powers before the nineteenth century never to have ruled Sicily.  Evidence of occupations of Sicily was to be seen everywhere.

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Greek

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Roman

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French

And then it was time to visit the ‘best place in Taormina’ for granita. P1260537001P1260538001P1260540001

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Eating Granita is a serious business

All around the town we had seen wonderful paintings on external walls.  I regret not having taken more photos of them.  But  we stopped to have a particular look at these, which actually were not in the same style as the others.  P1260543001Francesca called on the owner of the house they ornamented, whom she knew to be the author of all these paintings, and chatted to him for a while.P1260545001There were not only paintings everywhere we went but wonderful balcony decorations.  Here is one near the painter’s house.P1260547001But this had been my favourite, a feast for my eyes while my mouth was feasting on my granita.P1260548001There was one more place to be visited.  Geoff was very keen that we should see Fontana Vecchia, the former house of D H Lawrence.  We had to tramp a bit for this, and we had some difficulty finding it. My ankle was troubling me and I was feeling very tired, so at one point I stopped, and sat on a low wall as the sun started going down, while the others continued searching. They were gone for what seemed to me a very long time.   But I was delighted on their coming to pick me up to learn that not only had they found the house, but they been invited in by the current owner.  One very happy group returned to Edoné – and I had managed to buy my amaro to take home.

 

Sicily 6: Foodissimo

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Sicily 6: Foodissimo. Salvatore Romano, and his wife Karin, opened their first restaurant – in London, just off Piccadilly – last year I believe.  It is called Tasting Sicily Enzo’s Kitchen.  But they live in Graniti, in the centre of the small town in which Edoné is also technically located. They have a smallholding there, receive holiday visitors on their house, sell foodstuffs made from their own produce, and have a thousand further projects in mind. Salvatore was mainly in charge of us today.

We arrived at their house shortly after 10.00 am.P1260451001As we did so he collected the best granita (no etymological link with the town) in Sicily – from the local garage!  Granita was a Sicilian, and now Italian, sweet.

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Chocolate, pistacchio, almond and raspberry, and some cream

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Salvatore serves Emma

We could not hang around – it was going to melt quickly.  Here is my portion, and the brioche which went with it.  I tried all the flavours, but not being a great fan of cream, omitted that. P1260455001

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Ever a journalist, Francesca finishes a video interview with Salvatore

Then we were shown round the house.P1260461001P1260462001P1260464001P1260465001P1260466001P1260467001Our ‘lesson’ that morning was to be from Geoff, who has written a book on the Slow Food movement, which started in Italy, and the slogan for which is ‘good, clean and fair’.  We were to be the first to use an artistic workshop that Salvatore and Karin had just created from an old house, a short way from their own residence. We passed the town hall to get there.

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Salvatore opens up the workshop for us

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Geoff, Emma, Alec

Early lunchtime, and Salvatore had prepared us a lovely meal from  his own products, accompanied by the sparkling wine we had first tasted two days previously.P1260474001Some of us bought from him – though we had to ask to be able to do so.  Here is what is left of what I bought.

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I am discovering that, while they are good on bread, they are also wonderful on thin toast. And I’m looking forward to using the voucher Salvatore gave us for his Piccadilly restaurant – where also his products may be bought.

At 4 pm, back at Edoné, we gathered for our cooking lesson in the kitchen with Salvatore and Enzo. (Not the same Enzo of course who runs the restaurant in Piccadilly!)P1260481001P1260484001P1260485001I confess to having been a little half-hearted about this.  I am no cook at the best of times – though adore good food – and the threatening cold, no doubt picked up during travel, was beginning to become evident.  So I kept my distance and limited my direct involvement to halving some delicious small tomatoes.

We starting eating quite early for Sicily. Here are the antipasti.

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The empty chair is mine – see below

A full meal for me already!

Enzo then came from the kitchen to the patio with the pasta. The tomato sauce had been simmering for hours.P1260490001I didn’t get a picture of the lamb once cooked, but I was given an enormous portion of it! This was the entire menu.

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P1260493001and then were offered citrons.  Francesca had already brought us one of these from her parents’ on Easter Day.  While it is a lemon-coloured citrus fruit, it was amazingly sweet, and adding honey takes away any remaining sharpness.P1260495001Finally – and it is my recollection that Francesca brought this – there was an extra sweet.  But in my haste to take a photo, which required my getting up to move around the table, and anxious to protect my ankle, I leant on the back of my chair – which tumbled off the low patio, followed by me, into flower pots and seedlings!  I am not usually accident prone!  Fortunately, other than some bruises – which are now pale yellow, two weeks on – I was not at all hurt, (though I am not too sure about the seedlings) and once helped up I completed what I had set out to do.P1260496001The Paschal lamb was made of a soft icing sugar and marzipan.  (That is a marzipan (Sicilian) medlar at the front.  We ate several of these fruits during the week.)

I went to bed very, very full indeed, even though I had not partaken of the liqueurs on offer.

Sicily 5: Wine-tasting and Wet

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Sicily 5: Wine-tasting and Wet. From Etna, we were taken not very far to the Firriato winery, where we met up once more with Salvatore Romano and his Swiss wife, Karin.  They had joined us for our very first evening meal at Edoné, and they will figure large in the next post.P1260401001Here we had lunch. P1260402001We started by just soaking bread in the most heavenly olive oil you can imagine, accompanied by a little salad, and the first of the wines.P1260403001

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Geoff, Natalie, Salvatore and Karin

P1260405001Next came this assortment of cheeses and meats, accompanied by white, then red, versions of this wine.

P1260413001P1260409001I failed to get a photo of the sweet, but it was accompanied by a very nice sweet wine.P1260415001We were shown around the winery, and given the opportunity to buy their products.  Reluctant to weigh my suitcase down too much, I didn’t purchase anything here, as I planned to buy some amaro before the stay was over.

On just a few more kilometres, and we made a short diversion to a Byzantine basilica, about which nothing appears to be known.P1260427001

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View from the basilica

The programme was light for the next day, Easter Sunday, just a morning discussion around D H Lawrence in Sicily and Di Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’ (which I had actually re-read before leaving home).

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Isobel, Alec, Geoff, Emma and Francesca on the patio

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Francesca at what I believe to be her favourite activity – taking pictures of people

Sunday lunch included these traditional Easter cakes or biscuits, cuddura ccu l’ova.  Those are indeed whole boiled eggs. P1260438001

Nothing was programmed for the afternoon. Just as well, as there was a torrential thunderstorm, trapping Francesca’s parents, who had arrived in the early afternoon to take their daughter out for a couple of hours.   Living in London, Francesca had not seen them for a while, and was looking forward to catching up with them.

(Just as well for me as well. I was developing a sore throat.)

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All three people eventually escaped and the day cleared up.

Tomorrow: Food – seen a lot already? You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet!

Sicily 4: Mount Etna

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Sicily 4: Mount Etna.  When I had visited Sicily in 1975, for me the most exciting discovery, of all the amazing discoveries on the tour of the whole island, had been Mount Etna.  Our visit to it had taken place on a grey day, but that hadn’t mattered at all.  Up first in a jeep, then a funicular, and then a little way on foot to be almost within touching distance of a slow, glowing, tinkling, crinkly, lava flow, from which we could feel the warmth.  I recall that, in those days when you took just one photo of a given area and that was that, because of film and processing costs, I used a whole 36-image film just on that lava flow, so excited was I by it all.  And I came home and bought a book on how volcanoes work.  (Soon afterwards, that particular funicular was destroyed by a further eruption.) Since then I have done an Open University module on geology, a significant part of which was on volcanoes.  So my hopes this day were high.

Nathalie, presumably a self-employed guide, took us in her people carrier. Up and up and up we went, P1260331001

and we stopped to look at a road which was distinctly no longer a Z-bend.P1260332001P1260334001

Then we moved on and up to about 2500 metres, to the north, less tourist-frequented side of the volcano.  Pictures of devastation and desolation.

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The white gas is water vapour, the blue sulphur dioxide

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Geoff surveys where a hotel used to be

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This was the highest we got.  Apparently it is possible to go further up in a funicular, and then further on foot, to get much closer (but not too close!) to where the action is, but that had not been the intention for our particular group.  So I was a little sad.

Francesca looking on.

We moved round and a little lower down by car, and were introduced to Etna birch, Betula Aetnensis, found only on Etna, its peculiarity being that, unlike other birches, it has multiple trunks coming from the ground. (Virtually nothing on it is to be found via search engines on the internet.)  We started off on a walk towards a spectacular view.  Unfortunately my ankle did not at all enjoy the terrain – small broken up lava – on which we were walking, re-twisting itself frequently.  I found a nice Etna birch on which to perch, and Francesca kindly decided to stay with me, stating she had done Etna a thousand times.  I have to say it was really rather pleasant sitting there in the sun, though I didn’t fancy stretching out on the ground as Francesca did.  She insisted on taking a photo of me with Etna in the background,

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then a close-up on the grounds that I had a ladybird in my hair P1260382

which I couldn’t see in the photo until I blew it up…P1260383001

Finally we went on to a refuge/bar where we had a drink – of course – and watched some videos of Etna erupting, and looked at a map.  P1260390001

I took a panorama from that spot.

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Lunch, described in the next post, consisted of a wine tasting and antipasti a few kilometres away…

Sicily 3: Good Friday Procession

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Sicily 3: Good Friday Procession.  For 2500 years, Sicily has been a melting pot of Mediterranean and other cultures and conquerors, : Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, German, Spanish, French, before finally acceding to unity with the Italian mainland in the nineteenth century.  Olive has already commented (Sicily 1) how Good Friday processions in Spain are spooky.  I think therefore that the procession we saw on Venerdì Santo must date from the Spanish era.  We had been told that the processions – the make up of which varied greatly between towns, though all would include statues Christ and the Virgin Mary, and often guild banners – were essentially about the Sicilians’ relationship with death.  And, my, was this mournful.  Very long faces, no chatting, to begin with anyway, and the band playing very solemn music, including at one point Chopin’s Funeral March.

We were driven to Castiglione. After we had parked, I limped along with the others in search of the procession, and after a short while we saw it coming towards us.  We went up some steps, and I managed to get these pretty impressionist photos.

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People in various uniforms, including clergy, a choir of female voices, the band and large numbers of the general population. “That’s it” said Francesca, as the last went by.  “But where is the statue of Christ carried by the four virgins?” I asked.   It had been there she replied.

We moved along by the side of and near to the front of the procession.  This time I saw the Christ figure.  It was much smaller and  less obvious than the Virgin Statue.  Very odd, I thought. (And I’m not sure how I managed to miss it first time anyhow.)

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From time to time the priest intoned prayers, and processors sometimes joined in

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Very young and very old were there…

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… though this push chair is carrying a loudspeaker so that the priest may be heard.

 

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This was the only person I saw looking from a balcony, though I reckon most of the town was taking part.

We continued, accompanying the procession.

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And I stopped to record the band.

The procession ended up at the church.  I didn’t enter and the others just hovered at the door for a few minutes before we all went off to find refreshment.  I discovered amaro, the bitter but tasty drink.

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Yes, that is a conspiratorial look from the proprietor as Francesca takes her drink

 

Saturday: Mount Etna

Sicily 2: Alcantara Gorge

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Sicily 2: Alcantara Gorge. This morning, Friday 14th April, was billed as a nature trail, which I think gave some of us the idea that we were in for a gentle stroll.  We did not imagine that we would be climbing up and down a gorge!

Claudio, of Etna Discovery, was our guide along the three areas of the Alcantara (stress on the second syllable) Gorge. Very knowledgeable he was too, and his strong arms at tricky passages were also most welcome.  He took us first down a shady path to a viewpoint over a particularly narrow part of the gorge.

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Showing the basalt columns through which the river has worn its way

 

Then back up and along a top path to a stretch which gave an impression of a wider part of the Alcantara river valley.

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This and other frogs were in a puddle in the wide path.  Most however buried themselves in the fine mud at our approach

P1260162001Return to the vehicle and then down to a spot where we were able to access the river floor.

 

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A rapidly shrinking pool at the side of the gorge. These tadpoles would be doomed even without the fact that a young snake has discovered them

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One gorged colubro snake (about 18 inches, 45 cm, long). Ibelieve that the English name is the smooth snake.

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Geoff, Claudio, Emma, Alec, Isobel and Francesca, as we emerged once more at the top of the Gorge

 

Finally, after a debate as to how we might best use the rest of our time, Claudio drove us some way away to another spot, where a quite lengthy rising walk took us to further views of the river upstream – to find that others had got there before us.

 

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Distant view, much zoomed, of Castiglione, where we were find ourselves that evening for the procession

 

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Hints of Mount Etna, and its vapours, in the distance

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Views upstream…

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… and downstream, from a footbridge

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A better view of Etna snatched on the drive back to the agriturismo (a farm used partly for tourism purposes)

 

Unfortunately on the way back down to the vehicle, I stumbled on a stone, and twisted my right ankle rather nastily.  This meant that for the rest of the holiday I was having to walk very gingerly, especially where the surface was not totally flat, and when turning corners, though this didn’t prevent me from joining in any of the activities. (Dancing was not on the menu.)

Sicily 1: Edoné

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Edoné. I’d last been to Sicily in 1975, and had longed to go back again ever since.  At last I had the chance, when I booked on to Geoff Andrews’ Sicily Unlimited trip, to spend a week at Edoné (stress on the last syllable), about an hour’s drive north west of Catania, studying a few aspects of Sicilian culture, with appropriate visits.  Geoff organised, and Francesca Marchese, a Sicilian journalist (mainly TV), now living and working freelance in London, was our local guide.

We – a group of just four people – arrived late morning on Thursday, 4th April, and spent the rest of the day quietly settling in, exploring Edoné and getting to know each other.AP1260105 copie001AP1260106001

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The building on the hill is another holiday residence

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Alfresco eating location

I was very pleased with my room, and its very modern bathroom.

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Entrance

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View from

P1260086001Once unpacked, I made the acquaintance of some of Edoné’s personnel.

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Enzo in his kitchen

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Nerina

 

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Luna

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I only ever saw one species of lizard, very green with an amazingly long tail.

P1260114001We had had a delicious lunch, and soon realised that superb food was to be a hallmark of the week.  This is the dining room, and the antipasti at dinner.  (While I was tempted to, I did not take a photo of every dish we were served during the week.)P1260115001P1260116001The next day was Good Friday.  A nature walk and a most extraordinary Good Friday procession will be the subject of the next two posts.

 

Greylake Nature Reserve

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Greylake Nature Reserve, owned by the RSPB.  I’d visited it just once before, and that only briefly. The prospect of a guided tour with birding experts, set up by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, and led by an RSPB volunteer, was too good to miss, so this was my third outdoor outing this week in near freezing temperatures.01-p1250803001The briefing told us that the land had been in cultivation until 2003, when it was bought by the RSPB and converted into wetland for wildlife.  We would make our way to the main hide, where we would spend about half our time, and then walk around those parts accessible to the public.  Most of the area was kept behind electric fencing for the tranquillity of the birds and animals.  It was good to come at all times of the year, but this season was the best time because of the thousands of different birds over-wintering there.

On the way to the hide, I managed to get an indifferent picture of a fieldfare.

02-p1250804001Once at the hide, we had this general view ahead of us.03-p1250869001Looking round, and closing in a little with binoculars and camera, here are other aspects.

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Wigeon, shovelers and coot

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Wigeon, shoveler, coot and gadwall

08b-p1250834001Experienced birders were soon exclaiming at this clump, just 20 metres or so from us.09-p1250825001A pair of teal can be seen easily, especially the male.  But are there really snipe there? And four?10-p1250830001In due course I managed to find three, and indeed once you knew that they were there, it was even possible to pick the nearest one out with the naked eye, they were so close.  But what wonderful camouflage!  They didn’t move the whole of the time we were there.

 

It was not possible to get photos of all the species we saw, but here are some. (If birder readers wish to comment with further names, or corrections to any of these photos, above and below, please feel free!)

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Shovelers, the male’s bill demonstrating just why they bear that name. The female has the same bill, but that is hidden here.

 

I just love lapwings, (also known as peewits) for their green iridescence, their cheeky crest, their wonderful courtship flight, their flappy way of flying (I call them flapwings).  This one all alone entertained us close to the hide for ages.12-p1250850001

13-p1250856001And as at Ham Wall, there was a Great white egret in the distance.14-p1250862001

 

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Three in fact. and here is one of the others flying around

 

Not long after leaving the hide, and keeping to the established path, we were shown by one of the RSPB volunteers, to the right of the path, some otter poo and some mink poo, the former more welcome than the latter.  The otter spraint was on a well-established otter path.16-p1250871001To the left, the other part of the otter path could be seen.17-p1250874001We were pleased then to see crowds and crowds of lapwing flying around, as if there had been a signal to the thousands in the area all to rise up at once. Here are just a few of them.18-p125087700119-p1250878001Swans have no need to fear humans, and they know it. This one made for an easy photo, just a very few metres away from where we were walking.21-p1250882001A distant view of another great white egret.20-p1250881001Evidence of a recent hare boxing match.22-p1250886001And of a sparrowhawk kill.23-p1250890001We hoped to see more small birds, and indeed we did see redwing, and stonechat, but I couldn’t get photos.  We went on to a viewpoint:24-p1250892001But few wetland birds were favouring this area of the reserve. 25-p1250894001Perhaps, along with the small birds, they were favouring the more sheltered areas on this chilly day.  But I, usually spending far too much of my life in front of a computer, had really enjoyed my three outdoors outings this week.  I must do it more often, and certainly return to Greylake at other seasons.

Snowdrop garden

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Snowdrop garden.  For two days, Friday and Saturday, the owners of Higher Yarde Farm, Staplegrove, near Taunton, are opening their wonderful early spring garden to visitors, in support of the Somerset Wildlife Trust.  Last weekend they did the same for the NSPCC.

There had been many visitors before me, despite a typical temperature of around 2°C, but as the last to arrive I had the large garden to myself, and almost missed the tea and cake on offer at the end.   I wondered whether the delightful building I had seen in the grounds was a holiday let, and learned that it was.  If I lived further away, I would be very tempted to use this as a base to explore the Quantock Hills and the Blackdown Hills, not to mention the wonderful Edwardian Hestercombe Gardens by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll just a few miles away.

I’d never seen so many snowdrops in one place before, but just as enjoyable were all the other signs of spring on its way, in this garden clearly designed not only to please the human eye, but to be as friendly as possible to wildlife.p1250700001p1250702001Ap1250704001A little bridge soon tempts you off to the right…p1250705001p1250706001p1250708001p1250711001…towards a pond.p1250712001p1250718001p1250725001p1250727001p1250721001Onward to some glades and woodland.p1250730001p1250733001p1250735001p1250736001p1250739001p1250741001p1250745001p1250747001p1250754001p1250756001

 

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The sun came out for a few minutes

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I think this may be a hedgehog shelter

p1250766001Then another bridge leads you on towards the house, and tea and cake (so much choice).p1250767001p1250769001p1250776001p1250780001p1250782001p1250788001p1250789001p1250791001p1250795001p1250800001This is the converted barn holiday let.p1250802001

 

p1250801001And back down the snowdrop-lined drive.

I have a third outdoor visit for this week tomorrow…