A Taste of Sicilian Markets


Blood oranges on display in a Siricusa market in Sicily.


Sicily is famous for its food, fresh and brimming with exquisite tastes, whether it be fruit,  vegetables, meats, seafood or home-made pasta. The smallest village has at least a weekly market, while the bigger cities can have more than one market open 6 days a week, and most of these markets have been held at the same market stalls, often by the same families, for generations. Whenever possible during our three week stay in Sicily, we shopped at the local market and cooked our dinners with the freshest foods available. The concept of farm-to-table may be trendy in 21st century U.S., but it’s been a way of life in Sicily for centuries.




Entrance to La Pescheria, Catania’s famous seafood market. For about 3 sq. blocks to the right is a maze of crowded medieval streets and alleys thronged by covered stalls offering seafood, meats, fruits, vegetables, and a melange of dry goods and even household wares.

Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, is famous for its seafood. Thus it’s no surprise that its largest market, La Pescheria, revolves around seafood. A few steps from the city’s duomo (cathedral), La Pescheria is open six days a week and is crowded from early morning until mid-afternoon. While the focus is on seafood, the hundreds of stalls offer an extensive range of fruits and vegetables and meats from the local favorite, rabbit, to pork, beef and chicken — and all the by products one can imagine coming from them.


Swordfish, or la spada, is plentiful as well as a favorite local fish. This baby was nearly 5 ft. long.


Swordfish tails andblades decorate the back wall of one seafood stand.



Plucked chickens and skinned carcasses are offered whole at the meat stalls, as well as every cut and body part of four-footed animals one can imagine: pig feet and heads, tripe, sausages, whole rabbits, steaks and chops are all at hand.



A small sampling of the fruits and vegetables available at market.


Part of one day’s haul at the market. The oranges were particularly delicious. We ate 1-2 each a day while in Sicily.


Ortigia, Siricusa Market

Ortigia, a small island now part of modern Siricusa, was one of the early Greek colonies dating to the 5th c. B.C. Daily markets have been held in roughly the same location for hundreds of years. The Ortigia market had the usual offerings of fish, meats, fruits, vegetables, dried products and general goods, but the following displays caught my eye:



Sun-dried tomatoes, a must in every Sicilian kitchen! Here it was offered up by the bucketful.



Artichokes, a personal favorite! (Actually I was hard pressed to find anything that wasn’t a favorite!)


P1020344_Bacalo, salted cod

Bacala, dried, salted cod, is sold everywhere in most Mediterranean countries and is found on most seafood menus.


Fresh and dried herbs and spices, sold by the gram.



Along with fresh and dried pasta, dried nuts and fruits were for sale at most markets.



Luscious fresh vegetable soups are the fare in restaurants near Ortigia’s market. We asked for a vegetable soup at the Cafe Archimede and were told, a bit hesitantly, it would take about “20-30 minutes.” About 35 minutes later we were served this wonderful and obviously freshly prepared soup. Delicious!


P1020388_lunch platter of meats and cheeses with shaved fennel salad and orange fruit salad with olives and oil

Sampler platters like this or equally good (and massive sandwiches) are what draws daily crowds to the Borderi gli Artisti deli on the edge of Ortigia’s market. The huge molded, slightly browned cheese at the right is sheep’s milk ricotta, made fresh that morning, which was absolutely heavenly. Prosciutto, other cheeses, sausage, fennel salad, and oranges with chopped olives and honey rounded off this luncheon feast.


Locals and tourists daily line up outside the deli at lunchtime. Luckily our driver/guide Alessio Patane of Sicily Grand Tour knows the owner and was able to reserve us a table inside to enjoy our feast!



Sicily’s city neighborhoods abound with small markets, from the one-room mini-mart to roadside fruit and vegetable stands. One can find them in the least expected places. The Giudecca, or old Jewish Quarter in Ortigia, originated most likely during the Roman era of Siricusa although Jews had been present during the Greeks’ earlier reign. The community was large, comprising by some accounts almost a third of the large Siricusa population. The ruins of an ancient mikveh, or ritual bath, is thought to be one of if not the oldest mikveh in Europe. We wandered the ancient streets, admiring the stone houses, many now renovated into trendy apartments or boutique hotels, but many small colorful spots caught my eye:


One dwelling was its own outdoor mini-mart, with fresh veggies and fruits for sale. I heard soft music coming from inside the house so I suppose you just called out when you were ready to purchase. Either that or leave some Euros in the red pot to the left!


Colorful pots and plants and a touch of  paint make this dwelling appealing.

P1020327_On Via del Crocifissi, Ortigia

This doorway was my favorite in all of Giudecca. Not related to a market, just randomly placed items that made a fetching photo.



Palermo was our last stop in Sicily, and while, for once, we didn’t stay in an apartment with a kitchen, we still shopped at the famous Ballaro Market in the historic section of the city. After all, we had to feed our daily addiction to Sicilian oranges! While there were certainly a number of seafood stalls, the Ballaro didn’t come close to having the scope of seafood stalls and offerings of La Pescheria in Catania, but there were certainly a number of luscious fruits and vegetables to drool over.



Just a sampling of the fruits and vegetables on offer.


A colorful array of dried fruits, herbs and spices available from one vendor.


And, of course, being a port town, Palermo’s Ballero displayed many varieties of seafood for sale.

So goodbye to Sicily’s markets, and on to Tuscany’s allures. It will be interesting to see if the street markets there can offer such a colorful and variable selection as Sicily’s!



Ancient Greco-Roman Ruins of Sicily


Greek Doric temple in Segesta, northwestern Sicily. Built about 410 B.C., it is believed to be unfinished and it is unknown to whom it was to be dedicated. (More on Segesta further in the post.)


Sicily is renowned for many qualities: its luscious fruits and vegetables, varied and bountiful seafood, and drool-inducing pasta; the mountainous terrain, including Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest and most violent volcano; even for being “that weird-shaped ball” at the toe of Italy’s “boot.” But most people aren’t aware that Sicily has a rich and varied history, which includes centuries of occupation from many of the Mediterranean cultures: Phoenician, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman and Arabic, to name a few. Perhaps because the Greeks and Romans were the last of the major pre-Christian civilizations to inhabit Sicily, their relics are most visible of those remaining on the island. In our three week ramble through Sicily we sampled some of Sicily’s Greco-Roman past.


We were fortunate to have Alessio Patane of Sicily Grand Tour to take us through Siracusa-Ortigia and Agrigento. With his expert knowledge of Sicilian history in general, and specifically of the Greco-Roman period, we could fully appreciate the influence of these cultures on Sicily and Italy as a whole, and thus on our own modern, Western culture. Primarily because I’m an unabashed history geek, I knew that Siricusa, founded 2700 years ago as a Corinthian Greek colony, grew in size and importance to successfulyy rival Athens, once the mightiest of the Greek city-states of the period.. But I hadn’t realized just how extensive the Greek influence was within and beyond Siricusa.

The Corinthians first established their colony on the small island of Ortigia, which is now part of modern Siricusa. The earliest remains are of the Temple of Appollo, and columns of a Doric temple to Athena, which were incorporated into the walls of the cathedral:


The modern buildings of Ortigia ring the remains of the early 6th c. BC temple to Appollo.


Doric columns from a 5th c. BC temple to Athena were incorporated into both the interior and exterior walls of the cathedral or duomo of Siracusa.

The gems of the Greek and Roman remains lie a couple of miles north in the now protected Parco Archeologico:

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The Greek amphitheater at 138 m. across (151 yards) is the largest outside of Greece. First built in 5th c. BC, it was rebuilt in the 3rd c. BC.


Near the amphitheater is the remains of a stone quarry where captives and slaves were forced to work the stone. The shell-shaped interior cone of this formation enabled people at the top of the quarry to eavesdrop on what the captives below were saying. Supposedly the artist Caravaggio  named it the Ear of Dionysus, after the Greek tyrant who ruled Siracusa in the 4th c. BC and kept prisoners in the quarry.

P1020385_Roman amphitheater, 1st c. A.D.

Roman amphitheater from 1st c. AD. Unlike the Greeks who built their amphitheaters in the proscenium style, the Romans built round or elliptically shaped forums with several entry points and no single stage. This difference in style reflects the Roman penchant for multiple forms of arena entertainment from gladiators battling each other or wild animals, even flooding the arena to stage mock sea battles. The Greeks, on the other hand, preferred theater, which was best suited to the proscenium style of amphitheater.


Valley of the Temples, Agrigento

Alessio took us also to Agrigento, in southwest Sicily, to view the magnificent temple ruins that stand along a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. (It’s thus a mystery as to why this site was named the valley of the temples.) Another interesting oddity is that the individual temples are still called by names given to them somewhat arbitrarily a century or more earlier, when more modern research clearly states most of the temples’ dedications were unknown. Nevertheless, the temples of Agrigento are spectacular.


Although Greek in origin, in the Doric style, these remains are called the Temple of Juno (Greek name, Hera), from about 450 BC.



Almond trees line the roadway along the mountain ridge known as the Valley of the Temples. The well-preserved Temple of Concordia is seen in the center, with the Mediterranean to the center left.



Temple of Concordia, built about 440 BC in the Doric style. It is the best preserved of the temples probably because it was used as a church for several centuries.


The temple of Hercules, from about 6th c. BC, is one of the oldest in Agrigento.



One of the most impressive settings for the ancient sights we saw was the 3rd c. BC Greek amphitheater in the hill town of Taormina. How can you beat the view of smoking Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean Sea as part of the backdrop to the stage?


The remains of the stage area of the Greek amphitheater in Taormina, with Mt. Etna in the background.  Later under Roman rule, this area of the amphitheater was incorporated into a wealthy family’s villa; even later, thousands of stones were hauled away for use in constructing other buildings. Centuries later, what could be recovered of the original theater is what is seen here today.


The  seating area of the proscenium amphitheater in Taormina.



The fabulous Doric Greek temple in Segesta was one of the great surprises of our trip. We decided to check it out on our way to Erice, northwestern Sicily, and as often happens with the unexpected, we were astounded. The temple is featured above as the lead photograph, from the top of another, higher hillside which featured a Greek amphitheater as well as the ruins of a medieval church and a mosque.

P1020797_end Segesta

The magnificent temple, uncompleted, whose function and dedication has remained unknown. he stone columns have remained in remarkable shape.



Both the front and back facades have been well protected. The tipani at both ends of the temple are well preserved.


P1020780_Gr3eek amphpiteater, Segesta

Hilltop Greek amphitheater, possibly 3rd or 2nd c. BC.


Mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale

Not all the reminders of Greece and Rome are temple ruins. We visited a semi-recovered Roman villa in the mountains of central Sicily that had some of the most beautiful and well-preserved floor mosaics I’ve ever seen. While archaeologists can date the construction to early 4th c. AD, the exact identity of the owner of this 3,000 sq. meter dwelling is unclear, other than he must have been wealthy and in the upper Roman hierarchy of his time. What is clear is that the rooms of mosaics were preserved due to an enormous landslide in the 12th c. which destroyed the second level of the villa but covered and thus protected the ground floor’s mosaics over the ensuing centuries.

Dusk was already falling when we entered the villa’s remains, where we walked along raised cat-walks and peered down through the gloom at the mosaic floors. Yet despite the centuries, the avalanche of mud, and poor lighting, the beauty and colors of the mosaics were readily visible.


The majority of mosaics we saw were in ground level rooms off the four sides of the peristyle, the villa’s open courtyard surrounded by a columned portico.


These mosaics are on the floor under the shaded portico. From the hall residents of the villa could enter private interior rooms, all with their own mosaic floors.



Conflict through the ages…


Many of the mosaics (see above and below) featured elaborate hunting scenes — or were scenarios depicting the capture of exotic animal specimens to exhibit in Rome or to set loose on gladiators in the great Colosseum. In addition to the rhinoceros and hippopotamus featured here, nearby mosaics showed lions, tigers, panthers,giraffes and leopards being rounded up and boarded onto ships for the long sea trip back to Rome.




Lithe young women in bikinis never fail too attract!


Some of the floor mosaics depicted incredible range of subject matter, style and detail. Such a variety suggests to archaeologists and scholars that many artists of different designs and backgrounds contributed to the mosaics.


By no means is Sicily’s Greco-Roman past limited to these few archaeological sites. It’s probable that many relics remain, either destroyed as later civilizations built upon them, or simply buried by lava, landslides or earthquakes and are as yet waiting discovery.



Mt. Etna — Mongibello, the Beautiful Mountain

P1020579 (3)

Mt. Etna, seen from the north in Taormina. She has four active summit craters (two here are smoking), and about 300 side fissures and vents.

Mt. Etna, called Mongibello, or “beautiful mountain” in Sicilian dialect, is one beaut of a lady. Albeit a very large and temperamental lady, but nevertheless, a beauty. At 3,330 meters high (10,925 ft.), she is Europe’s tallest volcano as well its most active. She’s been particularly lively the last 60+ years, with several eruptions from the late 1980’s on, with a few large belches every year but one since 2001. (The last one of this writing was March 16, 2017.) There are four active craters forming the summit, but more than 300 vents and fissures along her flanks, with some craters several hundred meters in diameter.


At 2,000 meters is Il Crateri Silvestri, an area on Etna’s south flank which is fissure-pocked and punctuated with several mini-cones from past eruptions. In the center just to the right of a blast of steam from one of the summit craters is a group of people who opted to hike to the top of this lava cone. To the right is a smaller cone from another fissure’s blast. The front of the photo shows the lip of a crater (shown below). There is a small village to the left, Refugio Sapienza, from which intrepid travelers can take a cable car further up the mountain for an additional couple hundred dolars


Many people enter this crater and leave messages written in stones. The largest display is at center, a lava stone maze many contribute to. This crater is a couple hundred meters across, as evidenced by the small figures making their way down the inside flank.

We spent several hours on and around Mt. Etna with local guide Alessio Patane, owner-operator of Sicily Grand Tour. He was a wealth of information about the mountain, its history of eruptions, its geology and lore. One story involved an extended eruption George Lucas filmed and was able to include in his Star Wars Revenge of the Siti. I asked Alessio about a picture I’d seen of a house buried in lava up to the eaves. Alessio promptly drove us to the house in question, pointing out that it was the second floor of that dwelling that had been covered to the eaves by the lava.


Guide Alessio Patane of Grand Sicily Tour pointing out this house, buried two levels up to the eaves from a Mt. Etna eruption in the 1980’s.

Another fascinating stop was to crawl into a lava tube, one of many that riddle the surface below the flanks of Mt. Etna. Without getting all geeky in explanation, a lava tube is formed when flows of molten lava push and burrow down under a heavy crust of hardened lava rock; the molten stone melts the softer rock underneath, creating tunnels called lava tubes.


Alone, we would have driven past this small opening to a lava tube right on the roadway on Etna’s southeast flank. Alessio knew its location exactly. We donned hard hats, and flashlights in hand, went exploring.


From about four dozen meters, looking back towards the entrance to the lava tube. We had to scramble a bit to get in and out, and the hard hats came in handy in tight spots! The spotlight at center was Alessio’s beam pointing out a formation, somewhat like stalagmites, but made of iron, not calcium, that make jagged protrusions from the tube roof, hence the nickname, “dogsteeth”.  Unfortunately, my close-up photos of the dogsteeth did not turn out well.

Our last stop before leaving Mt. Etna was the town of Zafferana, on the southeast flank of the mountain. In a 14 month series of eruptions between 1991-3, Zafferana  was threatened by a steady albeit slow progression of lava heading straight toward town. Italy’s best volcanologists and even the U.S.marines from a nearby base tried different tactics to divert the flow, using explosives and earth dams to redirect it. Nothing worked. But…the flow eventually stopped just a few meters from a house on the edge of town. The locals attributed this miracle to the intervention of Mother Mary and erected a statue nearby in her honor.


the lava flow halted just a few meters from this house.


A last look at Mt. Etna from the northeast as we headed to Taormina.


Here you can see all four of Mt. Etna’s summit craters letting off steam. Note the lava field in the foreground, probably from one or several flows from the early 1990 eruptions, with shrubs and saplings just starting to grow. It takes about 20+ years for plant life to return to a lava field.





Malta: In the Crosshairs of History

Valletta waterfront

Valletta, capital of Malta. Historical Fort St. Elmo is to the left, while domes and steeples pierce the skyline.


Attempting to comprehend Malta’s history is like trying to synthesize Western civilization for the last 7,000 years – and most of that’s covering only those glimpses of tangible clues left by the ancients. While not the oldest inhabited of Old World areas, the Maltese archipelago boasts some of the world’s earliest temple ruins from 3600 B.C., predating Egypt’s pyramids by 1100 years. Just as important, if not more so, is Malta’s place in history as one of the most sought after and fought over spots on earth. And it is just a spot – the main island, Malta, is a speck in the Mediterranean Sea of just 95 sq. miles (the entire archipelago totals 122 sq. mi.). But as the mantra goes, it’s all about location.

The Maltese archipelago lies 50 mi. south Sicily, east of the curve of northern Africa where Tunisia and Libya meet. Most likely it was once part of a land bridge connecting mainland Europe to Africa. First inhabited by Stone Age migrants from Sicily, Malta subsequently was conquered by nearly every pre-Christian civilization of the Mediterranean, followed by half of Europe during the next two millennia: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Pre-Ottoman Muslims, Normans, Aragonese, the Holy Roman Empire, the Knights of the Order of St. John, the French, and, finally, the British. Malta’s unique location at the center of the Mediterranean and the cradle of Western civilization made it a focal point of shipping, trade, and political power for centuries. Never a stranger to war and conflict, Malta is probably best known for two epic historical conflicts: the centuries-long battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of Malta (as the spearhead for Christian Europe), and, the battle for control of the Mediterranean in World War II.

Re-enactment of Knights of Malta. The white cross on the red background was the standard of their Order and was often worn into battle. Note long tunic on the soldier at center right; this was a tunic often worn into battle.


The Knights of Malta began humbly enough as monks of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem who cared for the Christian wounded and sick during the early crusades, and thus became known also as the Knights of St. John, or Knights Hospitallers. (For simplicity’s sake I will refer to them hereafter as the Knights of Malta, their papal name since 1530.) Eventually they evolved a military function in addition to their ministrations, defending Christendom’s tenuous hold on the Holy Lands from the dreaded Saracens (Muslim Arabs). The Saracens, then later, the Ottoman Turks, drove the Knights first from the Levant, then Cyprus and Rhodes, before the Knights finally settled in Malta in 1530, granted to them by Charles V of Spain & the Holy Roman Emperor, for the simple annual tithe of one Maltese (peregrine) falcon. By this time the Knights had become very militaristic and popular, viewed by Christian Europe as the Defenders of the Faith,” their ranks drawn from the most noble (and wealthy) families of Europe. In Rhodes and Malta the militarized Knights fought the Muslims, and Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean eastern rim, yet themselves began to act more as “corsairs” — a gentlemanly term for pirates — as they harassed and plundered non-Christian ships plying the Mediterranean. Certainly, the Ottomans were not pleased, as the pesky Knights were impeding the empire’s westward control of the Mediterranean, their sea trade, and their designs on snaring this island to gain a toehold toward conquering Europe.

The Ottoman-Knights conflict culminated in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 where the greatly outnumbered Knights prevailed after months of bloody battles, reinforced at the last moment by a Spanish-led relief force from Sicily. Both sides sustained extensive casualties, and much of the fortifications and towns surrounding Malta’s greatest asset, its magnificent harbor, lay in ruins. Recognizing Malta’s fragile vulnerability as well as its strength of location, the Grand Master of the Order, Jean de Valette, ordered massive reconstruction of the former forts and towns, as well as a new Maltese home-base for the Knights, the exquisitely designed city of Valletta.


Fort St. Elmo, which fell to the Ottomans in 1565, was rebuilt many times over the centuries. Although the Knights lost St. Elmo, they withstood the siege and continued to rule Malta for over 250 years. Reconstructed authentically, Ft. St. Elmo houses Malta’s National War Museum which displays entertaining and educational exhibits on Malta’s war experiences through the centuries.


Fast forward 375 years and Malta, now a British colony, found itself again a focal point in the early years of WWII. The British Mediterranean fleet was based in Valletta, battling Axis naval and air forces to control the crucial shipping and supply routes of the Mediterranean. Caught geographically between Axis forces in Africa, Sicily, and the Italian mainland, Malta was pounded from 1940-42 by the Italian and Nazi air forces with 3,343 air raids dropping over 15,000 tons of bombs, the greatest amount of bombing in WWII. By mid-1942 the island’s civilian and military population were near starvation due to the relentless Axis bombing of cities and ports and minefield blockades. The British naval and air forces were nearly out of fuel and sitting ducks on the airfields and in harbor. Malta was only a day or two from surrender when the crippled British tanker Ohio, engines gone, her back broken and decks awash after days of Luftwaffe attacks, limped into the Grand Harbour on August 15, literally towed and pushed the last 40 miles to Valletta by two British destroyers and a few merchant ships, the sole remnants of a 60+ ship Allied relief convoy. The much-needed food and fuel enabled the island to survive long enough for Allied forces to gain control of the North African campaign and begin to turn the tide in the Mediterranean.

The Ohio, a British tanker, supported by destroyers and tugs as she limps into Grand Harbour, Valletta on August 15, 1942. Source.


King George VI of great Britain awarded the Maltese collectively the George Cross for their bravery, endurance and contributions in WWII; the cross is incorporated into the national flag:

Left: The Malta national flag, incorporating the Cross of St. George in the upper left corner. Right: the flag of the  Sovereign Military Order of Malta (Knights of Malta). Both flags are often flown together. Source.

In the aftermath of WWII, Valletta and the cities surrounding the Grand Harbour were in ruins. Whole areas had to be razed and rebuilt. By and large, the municipalities strove to retain the 16th c. architectural style as envisioned by Grand Master de Valette and his architects, thus maintaining an elegance and individuality recognizable world-wide. The native, honey-hued sandstone also adds a softness and glow unique to Maltese architecture which still, to this day, incorporates distinctive balconies into even the smallest buildings’ facades.

P1020233_a glimpse of contraasts show renovated and untouched townhouses and galleries; displayed on one is the Maltese flag; in foreground,the Cross of St. John's Knights Hospitallers

Note how narrow the houses are, and that not all have been renovated. The wood-enclosed balconies are a fixture of Maltese architecture. Here, in the tallest building, the balconies are somewhat modified from the traditional.

P1010826_Typical Maltese gallerjas or enclosed balconies

Typical Maltese enclosed balconies or gallerjas. 


Valletta is built on the ridge of a hill rising to the west of Ft. Elmo. Thus, it’s a steep walk up from the water on both sides of the peninsula forming the city.

Malta gained independence from Great Britain in 1964, but remained a constitutional monarchy until full independence as a republic in 1974. In 2004 Malta joined the European Union, and has generally prospered, with tourism a major economic factor.  Most recently the country celebrated another milestone, celebrating Valletta’s recognition as the European Capital of Culture for 2018. We attended the opening ceremonies on January 20, enjoying seeing this ancient city aglow in lights, showing off its historic sites with modern 3-D computer imaging displays, acrobatic feats, chorale ensembles, and old-fashioned fireworks.


Valletta’s streets were strung with bright banners and colorful lights (below) in celebration as the city’s appointment as the 2018 Capital of Culture for Europe.



The beautifully restored Auberge de Castille was used as the “screen” for a stunning 3D display of the history of Malta. Depicted here is the Ottoman fleet’s arrival, initiating the Great Siege of 1565.

Malta has a far richer, deeper history than the few events I’ve focused upon – or would want to attempt in this forum. From ancient temples with their perplexing imagery and statuary to medieval times then contemporary life, Malta is a fascinating and complex country which deserves attention and appreciation.


Scenes in and around Valletta:

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Triton Fountain sits before the city gate to Valletta and Ft. St. Elmo at its point.

P1010796_Grand Hall of Sacra Infirma (hospital). Each patient had his own privy behind the wooden door. Winndows & ventilation shafts brought in fresh air and light.

Over the centuries, the Knights of Malta continued to minister to the sick. The Sacra Infermia, built in the 16th century, catered to hundreds at a time. This upper hall, 155 meters long, was reserved for the rich. Each bed, placed between the doors, held only one patient, and behind each door was a private, enclosed commode, one per patient. The hall had plenty of windows and air shafts to provide sunlight and proper ventilation.

P1010803_Lower hall for the poor or not so rich, with 3 to 1 ratio of patients to toilet, but doors on right led to enormous outdoor garden.

The poor were consigned to a lower hall, actually much prettier in my opinion, although the poor had to settle for one toilet per three persons. Large doors on the right led to an enormous garden courtyard. Today, both halls are used for ceremonial functions, banquets, and wedding venues. Both  halls are part of the huge Mediterranean Conference Center complex next to Ft. St. Elmo.

P1010827_front of St. John's Co-Cathedral

The austere front of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the church of the Knights of Malta, belies the brilliant, somewhat over-the-top decor inside (see below).


The entire floor of St. John’s is covered with elaborate “tombstones” of many Grand Masters and other personages of the Knights of Malta as well as other dignitaries. The cathedral’s interior is primarily Baroque in style, although the church dates back to the late 1500’s.

P1020001_altarpiece of St. John's showing the aptism of Chrisst by the patro saints of the KOM, John the Baptist

The altarpiece depicts Christ baptized by John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Knights of the Order of St. John, aka the Knights of Malta. The sculpture is by Giuseppe Mazzuoli, a leading High Baroque artist.


The main body of the cathedral is lined with chapels representing the eight “Langues” or origins of the knights: Castille-Leon-Portugal, Aragon,  Italy, France, Anglo-Bavaria, Auverne, Germany, and Provence, depicted here. The painting is of St. George slaying the dragon. All are in the Baroque style.


The arches at the top of Valletta near the city entrance enclose the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a lovely green space created for the Knights for relaxation.


The Upper Barrakka Gardens. More trees, shrubs and flowers extend to the left.

Lighthouses at entrnce of Grand Harbour. Fort St. Elmo's lighthouse & breakwater to the right, Fort Rikasoli, breakwater and light house to the right.

The lighthouses and entrance to Grand Harbour, on the south side of the Valletta peninsula, is protected by breakwaters extending from Ft. St. Elmo (left) and Ft. Ricasoli (right).

P1020214_Ft. St. Angelo

Ft. St. Angelo sits on the south side of Grand Harbour, facing Valletta. This imposing fort, originally built in the 1500s, was badly damaged during WWII and has been carefully restored. There are impressive displays and videos that detail the fort’s and Valletta’s history over the ages.


These stanchions are actually old cannons, inverted and sunk into concrete for boats to tie up to.

P1010898_Traditional Maltese boats reused to ferry passengers across the harbors on either side of Valletta

Traditional Maltese boats, now used to ferry passengers across Grand Harbour to Valletta. Nearly all Maltese boats have the Eye of Osiris painted on either side of the bow (see below) to ward off evil and bring luck, a practice most likely derived from the Phoenicians who first came to Malta about 2800 years ago.  In the background is Fort St. Angelo with the city of Vittoriosa behind — and plenty of monstrous yachts at the mouth of the creek.

P1010909_Eye of Osiris painted on bow of traditional Maltese fishing boats or luzzus. Legend has this prctice brought by Phoenicians by way of Egypt & is belieed to protect fishermen

The Eye of Osiris is painted on Maltese boats to ward off evil. The Eye is found in many seafaring cultures surrounding the Mediterranean and is thought to have come from the ancient Phoenicians.

P1010722_Ft. Manoel,, two points of the 81th c. star fort

Fort Manoel on the island of the same name in Marsamxett Harbour, on the north side of the Valletta peninsula. The early 18th c. fort was built in the star shape popular at that time. Here you can see two of the five points of the star shape. Off and on in use over the centuries, it was heavily bombed in WWII and reconstruction has only taken place in recent years.

P1020226_Rebuilt facade of the early 18th c. star-fort, Ft Manoel

The reconstructed facade of Ft. Manoel. The fort has been used as a scenic location for television and films, including the popular Game of Thrones, where it was used for the Great Sept of Baelor, and the execution of Ned Stark.


P1020227_former quarantine center and Lazaretto Hospital, with oldest remains dating to 17th c.; in process of renovation

On the other side of Manoel Island is the old Lazaretto Hospital, used to quarantine visitors, particularly those suspected of carrying  the bubonic plague in the early 1500s. The oldest extant remains, above, date back to the 1700s. The buildings are now under reconstruction.


Valletta and Malta were stunning and far too complex to try and condense into pictures in this one posting. Perhaps a future post will show more of the island and its wonders. Stay tuned to updates that will direct to an additional post on Malta.

Soaring with Falcons in Malta



Helena, a Peregrine falcon, or also known as a Maltese falcon.


Growing up on mysteries and detective stories, I’d always thought that the Maltese Falcon was a mythical if not totally Hollywood-fictional bird. Welcome to the Malta Falconry Centre in Siggiewi, on the island of Malta, where you meet a variety of birds of prey, including the Maltese or Peregrine falcon.

Here’s how the story began: In 1530 King Charles V of Spain (and an assortment of areas in Europe) granted the crucially situated Mediterranean island of Malta to the medieval Christian order of the Knights of St. John’s Hospitallers. His annual tithe for granting this prize piece of real estate was the payment of a falcon, a Peregrine falcon, now known as a “Maltese” falcon regardless of the fact that the bird was never native to the island. And so the legend began.

We spent a day at the Falconry Centre, guided by the owner, Doreen, and then with chief falconer Warren Galea, who was a font of information on birds of prey. During that magical day, we learned about multiple species of eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls.

A sampling:

P1020042_American Bald Eagle

An American bald eagle, a familiar sight.

P1020049_White-backed Vulture

A white-backed vulture named Lurch

P1020070_European Eagle Owl

A European eagle owl.

After a couple of hours of fascinating husbandry of birds of prey, Warren introduced us to several birds in their collection:

P1020112_with Harry the Barn Owl

Harry, the congenial barn owl. (He’s a twin set with “Potter” — no joking!

P1020121Dexter, a Harris hawk, whom we came to know very well. Quite a friendly bird.


Tamara, the Little Owl, about 6 in. long.

And, beautiful, calm, truly affectionate (as difficult as that may seem in an owl):


Tinkerbelle, a Tawny Owl. (She was one of several “rescues” of would-be bird owners who found their cute chicks get out of hand.)

And, of course, there was Helena, the Maltese falcon at the top of this post.

And, finally, we were taught how to “fly” a bird — Dexter, the Harris hawk who really seems to think he’s part of the human race (very unlike his sister, Beauty, who is a formidable presence).


Dexter, circling around to come land on a gauntlet, and, receiving his reward (below).


Having worked with animals all my life, from cats to horses to dolphins, I was appreciative of the care (husbandry) and intricate training involved at the Falconry Centre, whether they worked with birds born there or rescued from elsewhere. It was a magical day that was a focal point in our visit to Malta.

Priscilla, the Beer-Swilling Pig


Priscilla’s sign makes it clear the lady is in want of a beer!

Charmed by a pig? Better yet, out-guzzled by a pig called Priscilla? Only in Tasmania. And only at the Pub in the Paddock.


As we drove through northeast Tasmania, I perused a guidebook between glances at the hilly, verdant countryside – a very unpopulated landscape, with the occasional farm tucked into small valleys. A short sidebar caught my eye, headlined “Pub in the Paddock.”

“There’s a pig called Priscilla up ahead that drinks beer,” I announced. “It’s at a place called ‘The Pub in the Paddock.’ We should stop and take a look.”

“Okay,” said my husband. “Sounds kind of interesting. Different at least.”

A few detours and missed turns – as well as stymied and thoroughly blocked by a recalcitrant herd of bovines in the roadway – we indeed found the pub, also known as St. Colomba Falls Hotel, smack in the middle of a paddock, as promised, in a large farm valley in Pyengana, Tasmania.

P1000590_Pub in the Paddock, Pyangana

And, indeed, the premises boasted a large pig, Priscilla II, in residence along with her companion and guzzler-in-training, Pinky:


Priscilla II, the Princess of the Paddock.



Pinky, Priscilla’s companion.

Priscilla the First had gone to the great mud hole in the sky, the pub’s barkeep informed us. (I refrained from asking if she’d died of cirrhosis and whether she’d ended up on the menu or under a gravestone. But I held my curiosity and tongue in check.) In short order, we’d plunked down our $2 for the specially-brewed, low alcohol pig ale and were off to the pigsty in search of Priscilla.


I guess the Pub in the Paddock sees Priscilla as a blonde. This specially brewed ale is of reduced alcoholic content. No reason to let the Princess drink herself  silly. 

Priscilla, it turned out, not only loves beer, she’s unwilling to give up the bottle. A “swill” is no exaggeration when it comes to this lady. Priscilla gripped that sucker with her teeth and would have made off with the bottle or pulled me into the pigsty with her to gulp down that beer. To say she savored her brew is so much of an understatement it should be deep in the muck of the pigsty. Nervous about losing the bottle down Priscilla’s gullet and possibly killing off the biggest tourist attraction in northeast Tasmania, I passed the bottle on to Michael:

P1000599_Priscilla II guzzling beer

Michael holding fast to the bottle while Priscilla drains it to the last drop.

Having taken her fill (leaving nary a drop) Priscilla ambled off, content to wait for the next sucker tourist to come her way, bottle in hand. But despite her somewhat piggy manners, Priscilla was worth the detour, the $2 watered-down beer and the fun of seeing a master tippler guzzle her brew. And in her own way, Priscilla was, well, charming. And didn’t smell too bad either.

Note on The Pub in the Paddock: The pub is both a full service pub and restaurant and also has a few hotel rooms. The interior is quite charming, with a decent looking menu; unfortunately, we’d already eaten lunch and simply settled for mid-afternoon coffee. And, of course, the pub is chock-full of porcine memorabilia.



The Pub in the Paddock has quite an operation going: branded beer (for both swine and human consumption), its own wine label, and enough porcine porcelain to decorate a dozen fusty sitting rooms.


And to quote another famous pig:




Australia’s Unusual Marsupials


Wild Koala in Kennett River, Victoria, Australia.

Australia holds many distinctions from other countries: for starters, it’s the only island that is both a continent and a country, and, it has many of the strangest and most lethal animals on earth. Of its many weird fauna, none are as instantly recognizable as Australian as the kangaroo and koala, two of many marsupial species found only Down Under. In fact, Australia holds 70% of the world’s marsupials, with the remainder found in the Americas, predominantly South America.

So why are Australian marsupials so special and extraordinary? Probably their sheer uniqueness in looks and physiology, for starters. Definitely at least one, the koala, gets the Oooh and Ahhh Cuteness Award, hands down. But what I find interesting is the variety among these marsupial mammals.



Grey or “Forester” Kangaroo at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo in Taranna, Tasmania.


Australian Icon: The Kangaroo

Take the most famous of Australian mammal, the kangaroo. The roos, as Aussies like to call them, are unusual because they are the largest marsupials in the world, and claim an additional distinction of being classified as macropods, a suborder of marsupials with disproportionally large hind legs and feet, and, disproportionally short forelimbs.


Note the delicate forepaws of this Grey Kangaroo. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory).

There are several species of kangaroo, with another dozen or so macropod marsupials ranging downwards in size from wallabies to pademelons to bettongs, also called rat kangaroos. Regardless of their size, these macropods’ long, strong rear legs give them their only form of locomotion: hopping.

Bettongia tropica (northern bettong) © Queensland Government

Bettong, or rat kangaroo, the smallest of the macropods. Source

Being a marsupial in the animal world means the female, a mammal, gives live birth to an incompletely formed fetus which continues to develop ex utero for several months within the female’s external pouch, feeding on the mother’s milk. Typically, the kangaroo offspring is called a “joey,” which also applies to the young of other pouched animals in the Australian marsupial order. With kangaroos the reproductive cycle gets even weirder as at any given time the mom could be nourishing three joeys in separate life stages: (1) an adolescent joey, out of the pouch, but still somewhat dependent on the mother’s milk; (2) a still-forming joey in the pouch, fully dependent on the female for life; (3) an unborn joey, just waiting to be “birthed” as soon as #2 moves out of the pouch. Or, as I like to think of it, the Kangaroo Halfway House.


Joeys often hang upside down in their mother’s pouch. This particular one looks rather relaxed…I thought it might be dead, the way it was just hanging there.

P1000337_Joey emerging from lunch & snooze

Eventually the joey emerged for a look-see. Apparently it didn’t like what it saw as it retracted back into Mom’s pouch. Both photos above taken at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania.


A few more facts:

  • The kangaroo is the largest marsupial alive today; among the varieties of roos, the Western Red is the largest, with males averaging 200 lbs. and 2 meters/6+ ft. in height.
  • The Western Red Kangaroo. Source.

  • Eastern grey kangaroo/ Forester kangaroos can be as tall as the Reds, but have a smaller body mass. Males grow up to 6 ft.,& 145 lbs. (2+ m and 66 kg). They are quite fast and can reach speeds of 35 mph/56kmph. (This species is called “Eastern Grey” Kangaroo on mainland Australia and the “Forester” Kangaroo on the Australian island of Tasmania.

Michael making friends with a “mob” of young Forester kangaroos at the Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania. The kangaroos in their several-acre compound at the Unzoo were very tame and obviously not bothered by close contact with humans.

  • Among macropods, males are larger than females.
  • Tree kangaroos, such as Goodfellow’s below, are found in both eastern Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Goodfellow’s TreeKangaroo, Taronga Zoo, Sydney.

  • A group of wallabies or kangaroos is most often called a “mob,” but can also be referred to as a herd or troop.
  • Both kangaroo and wallaby females can provide two nutritionally different types of milk to their joeys (off-spring), both to the one still developing in the mother’s pouch, and to another, older joey out of the pouch but still needing supplemental nursing.

Adolescent joey nursing. The Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania.


Icon or Pest?

Now you’d think that Aussies hold the kangaroo in high esteem, since after all, the kangaroo is a national symbol — in fact, is the national animal — and is depicted on the Australian coat of arms.

P1000276_Australia's Coat of Arms

Neither the kangaroo nor the emu can walk backwards, and thus were chosen for the Australian coat of arms. Early “colonists” were British convicts, working off their sentences, followed later by voluntary immigrants, seeking a better life. For both groups, there was no “going backwards.” (Photo is of a display at the Melbourne Museum.)

Nevertheless, many Australians consider roos pests as well as dangerous impediments to highway driving. (Which they are: an adult Eastern grey kangaroo has a larger body mass than a white-tail deer, and we’ve all had experiences with how much damage to car and person a deer collision can cause.) But there are other dangers posed by kangaroos.

Kangaroos are found everywhere in Australia, including the desert, or outback, which comprises the bulk of the continent’s landmass. However, being herbivores, kangaroos tend to congregate where there’s plenty of vegetation, such as agricultural areas, and parks, lawns and gardens in more urban areas ringing the continent.

And…golf courses.

P1000120_Golf course near Eden, NSW

Golf course in Eden, New South Wales. The kangaroos are listening to loud wooden clappers wielded by golfers trying to scare the roos off the fairway.

One afternoon we spotted a large “mob” of a dozen plus kangaroos grazing on a fairway, surprisingly close to the highway. Pulling into the club parking lot, I skedaddled over to the edge of the fairway to get some photos. Somebody out of sight started banging clappers — loudly – and shouting at the kangaroos. At first the animals just raised on their haunches and stared at the source of the clapping, which I couldn’t see due to shrubs and trees shielding a bend in the course. As the clapping noise came closer, the kangaroos took off. The golfers appeared, the game went on.

Apparently, not all golf course-munching kangaroos are that skittish. The on-line edition of Golf Digest posted a video of two extremely rattled golfers in Australia taking off in their cart like bats out of hell, chased off the fairway by one royally pissed – and very fast — kangaroo. A Google search came up with several other entertaining videos of roos run amok. They really do “box,” using forearms and their huge hind legs to pound their opponents – it’s a bit like watching a male kangaroo version of Xtreme Martial Arts. Except XMA-ers don’t have lethally sharp hind claws that can eviscerate their rivals. No wonder those Aussie golfers were scared out of their minds.

All amusing roo stories aside, Australia, particularly along the eastern coast, has become inundated with kangaroos who are wreaking havoc in urban, agricultural and open-land areas. Mobs of kangaroos are “de-greening” huge swathes of parks and open land, as well as eating farmers’ crops – and causing vehicular accidents. As a result, for many years the national government has permitted the culling of up to 5 million kangaroos and wallabies per year, even though the kangaroo, the Australian national animal, is legally protected throughout the country. (Government estimates give the total number of kangaroos to be about 50 million. )

The government has specific regulations that the animals must be killed “humanely”, with a kill-shot to the brain or heart, and issues cull licenses only to individuals with proven marksmanship skills. The authorized hunts are conducted to eliminate kangaroos in an area where they have caused environmental destruction, or, hunts for “a commercial purpose…where the animal shot is to be used as a product to be sold within Australia or overseas.” (Source: the National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies for Commercial Purposes 2008.) “Product” is the hide and meat of the kangaroo; of the latter, 76% is exported to Russia. Who knew the Russkies had a hankering for Aussie roo?)

Australians are in continual debate about these cullings, both on ethical and legal bases. The issues are many and complex, not the least of which that Australia is the only country that authorizes the killing of its national animal, and that these “culls” supposedly constitute the largest kill-offs of any single species on earth (although I question if the kangaroo & wallaby “culls” are as massive as the white man’s wholesale slaughter of the American bison in the 1800s).



Rock wallabies at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, Australian Capital Territory. The wallbies’ brush diet is supplemented with hay and fruit by the Reserve staff.

Wallabies and Pademelons

Wallabies and pademelons are mid-sized to small macropods and closely related to the kangaroo. There are several species of both inhabiting mainland Australia and Tasmania.

Both are marsupial mammals and herbivores, but in general, wallabies are smaller than kangaroos, and pademelons are smaller than wallabies. There are other, morphological differences, and, generally, wallabies and pademelons prefer forested or brush and rocky areas where protection is more easily found. Their choice of habitat reflects their primary food source, leaves, along with some grasses, fruits and flowers, while kangaroos tend to eat mostly grasses. However, all these macropods – like their kangaroo cousins — like to plunder crops and gardens, earning themselves the enmity of farmers and gardeners throughout Australia. They are nearly equally good as kangaroos at causing thousands of road accidents each year. However, because of their smaller size, they tend to be on the wrong end of vehicular “intercepts” if the amount of roadkill is any indicator — especially among the small pademelons.

P1000327_Pademelon or Red-Necked Wallaby

Pademelon at the Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania. Normally very shy as a species, this pademelon, a larger male, allowed me to get within about 10 feet. Pademelons have extremely soft, fine fur and were once hunted for their pelts.

The species we saw most frequently were Rock or Swamp wallabies and the Tasmanian pademelon. As with kangaroos, many Australians regard wallabies and pademelons as pests. As I snapped my dozens of photos we heard more than one Aussie deride tourists’ fascination with these critters. I’m sure a heap load of Americans say the same thing about tourists gawking at and photographing bison — except wallabies and pademelons are a heck of a lot cuter and smaller and can’t kill you if you mistakenly try to pet them. Unlike bison.




Grumpy Gramps just after awakening. This koala is one of several rescued during the massive brush fires of 2003 in which thousands of koalas and other animals died. About 70% of the total land area of the Australia Capital Territory was destroyed or damaged during the fires. Those rescued animals which could be rehabilitated were returned to the wild; this koala and several others could not be released and are comfortably living in an artificial habitat at the Tidbindilla Nature Reserve.

Just “Koala,” Please!

Almost iconic as the kangaroo, the koala holds a special mushy place in hearts worldwide. Once called koala “bears,” the Politically Correct Zoological Police have been able to educate most of us to now chant, “They’re koalas, they’re marsupials, not bears.” Nevertheless, these fat, stubby, near-sighted and fuzzy-eared marsupes have continued to captivate peoples’ hearts and sappy adoration on a level rivaling the panda. However, this state of admiration hasn’t been the norm historically: through much of the 19th and well into the 20th c. koalas were hunted for their thick, soft fur. Souvenir shops commonly sold koala “toy animals” covered in real koala fur.

Nowadays the koala’s major threats are still human-related, but not through hunting: their greatest threat is from habitat destruction (primarily from land clearing, brush fires, and food source loss due to eucalyptus dieback), as well as vehicular traffic, and attacks by domestic dogs, feral cats, and foxes. Chlamydia is an endemic bacteria naturally occurring among the koalas, although not as a sexual disease. (No, koalas aren’t any more promiscuous than any other mammal.) The presence of chlamydia normally doesn’t kill off healthy koalas, but can weaken their systems in times of major stress, rendering the animals unable to recover. While not endangered or threatened as a whole, the Australian government has listed koalas only in certain mainland eastern zones as “threatened,” but has not as yet enacted legislation to actively protect koalas or limit habitat destruction.

The mostly nocturnal, tree-dwelling koala sleeps about 18-20 hours during the day, and when not sleeping, scoots languidly along the branches of eucalyptus trees munching on the tender leaves of its choice. They are fairly social animals among themselves and several will live harmoniously together within the same home range, but can be territorially protective against invading koalas.

P1000814_Taragna Zoo Koala

Koala at Taronga Zoo, Sydney. Note the thick digits and claws; these enable the koalas to climb about eucalyptus trees, their sole food source. These exceptionally strong and long claws can also be the koala’s only defense against predators (other than helping them to climb out of range).




A young devil at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania.

Bedeviled in Tasmania

Tasmanian devils break the mold of the grazing, group-gregarious, gentle marsupial. Devils are strictly carnivorous, and nastily so; they are solitary, coming together primarily for mating, which itself is surprisingly brutal. Over-sized heads with bone-crushing jaws and razor teeth, devils unsurprisingly have a hellish reputation for an animal that averages 20 pounds. All in all, devils are one of the most aggressive and hard-living of marsupials – nothing like that lovable, Loony Tunes whirlwind Taz.



The devil can rip apart the flesh of prey with their razor teeth and forceful bite. The bromide that the devil has the greatest bite force of any mammal is not exactly true, but one would be a fool to stick fingers in this little guy’s mouth. Source, picture. Source, bite force.


Image result for looney tune cartoon tasmanian devil

The gaping jaws are probably the only similarity to the Looney Tune version of Taz.

Once found throughout Australia, devils are now native only to the island of Tasmania. Through the last 200 years devils have survived aggressive hunting from bounties placed on their heads by settlers seeking to protect their livestock (although devils rarely went after anything larger than chickens). Numbers steadily increased once the government extended total protection in 1941, but the Tasmanian devil is once again facing possible extinction, this time from a species-specific, virulently infectious, fatal cancer called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) which first appeared in the mid-90s. Government experts have estimated that as much as three-fourths of wild devils have died due to DFTD. The Tasmanian devils are classified as endangered by the Australian government and world conservation organizations.

In the absence of any cure or vaccine, the Tasmanian Parks Service and conservationists are establishing protected DFTD-free zones and preserves, hoping to keep a small percentage of the wild devils healthy and breeding while allowing the diseased population to die off. Sounds cruel or defeatist, but with no cure or vaccine in sight, saving some of the species is currently the only recourse available, especially as the disease is rampant among the wild population. Fortunately, the devils in the few protected preserves seem to be breeding in sufficient numbers that could help provide and sustain a disease-free devil population for the future.


“Neville the Devil” at 6 years is a Senior Citizen. Nevertheless, he attacks his meal (a wallaby haunch) with great gusto and fierce growls.

P1000514_Neville the Devil asleep

Neville in repose. Tasmanian devils are mostly nocturnal and Neville as an aging devil likes his naps.

Some devilish facts:

  • When devils eat, they consume everything, including the bones of their prey.
  • Despite their aggressive, fearsome natures, devils are predominantly scavengers, not hunters.
  • Devils are primarily solitary and nocturnal.
  • Devils aren’t large, the size of a small but sturdy dog, with large males weighing up to 12 kg (26 lbs.).
  • The black coloration, bone-chilling screech and massive, toothy gape of the devil helps this critter live up to its name. Listen to a devil vocalization here.
  • The average devil lives to about 5-7 years.
  • Once hunted and reviled, the Tasmanian devil is now the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service.
P1000293_Two young Taz Devils

These two young devils were bred at the Unzoo. Hopefully, captive breeding programs will continue to produce healthy devils which can be released to the wild in the future to protected, DFTD-free zones to establish new, healthy populations.



Eastern Quolls

I’d never heard of the Eastern quoll, another of Australia’s carnivorous marsupials. About the size of a small cat, the Eastern quoll commonly is found these days only in Tasmania, which has a stable population of these little critters. Of the six extant species of quoll found in greater Australia, only the Eastern quoll has gone extinct on mainland Australia, although there have been claims of isolated sightings in the southeastern region in recent years.


Three young Eastern quolls. The fawn-colored duo are males; their coloring is typical of most quolls. The black and white is a female, and was much shyer than her male counterpart. The black and white coloring appears in about 30% of the quolls.

Some facts:

  • The quolls are carnivorous, eating insects, reptiles and small mammals, especially rodents; they will both hunt and scavenge.
  • In the wild they are fairly solitary, congregating primarily for mating.
  • They are crepuscular/nocturnal in the wild.
  • Certain predators such as foxes, dogs and cats prey on the Eastern quoll as well as compete with them for food.
  • The greatest threat to quolls is habitat destruction from human activities: urbanization, agricultural expansion, and mining. Forest and brush fires also have destroyed much habitat.
  • The quoll is often referred to as the “native cat.” In fact, many settlers kept quolls as pets, as these little carnivores often kept the farmstead free of mice and rats.


And last but definitely not least….

Wombat in sun

The wombat. Definitely a very unusual animal. Source.

The Wombat

Confession time: I never saw a live wombat once during our 6 weeks in Australia. Stuffed wombats in dead-wildlife displays, dead wombats on the road verge – saw lots of those. Not one in the flesh, alive. But, wombats are among the oddest of Australia’s marsupials, which is why I saved them for last.

These large, pudgy, furry marsupials are herbivores, feeding on grasses, roots, moss and even bark. They look like small, barrel-like bears, and have strong legs and long claws for digging burrows.

As always, some basic facts: (But wait! There’s more!)

  • Wombats are the closest relative to the koala.
  • Generally they are solitary, but live in extensive burrow systems. These multi-chambered burrows may be occupied by a number of wombats, but with one wombat per den within the burrow.
  • Wombats only produce one offspring every 2 years.
  • They are primarily nocturnal but also crepuscular as well.
  • The wombat can reach a meter or 40 in. in length, with an average weight between 20 and 35 kg (44 to 77 lbs.).
  • Wombats are deceptively fast, running at speeds of up to 40 km or 25 miles per hour. Unfortunately, they aren’t fast enough; they have a high fatality rate along highways, despite the frequent Wombat Warning signs.


Yes, there really are wombat warning signs along the highways, along with similar signs for kangaroos, koalas, and other critters. Source.

  • Wombats suffer from sarcoptic mange, caused by a parasite. Once infected, the animal eventually becomes blind and deaf, and often dies from bacterial infections, if not starvation. Die-off in Eastern Australia has been massive.

The penultimate fun fact about wombats:

  • Wombats have very strong, tough butts. If attacked by another animal, the wombat jumps into its burrow, using its butt to block the burrow entrance. If the attacking animal persists (foolishly) in attempting to unwedge or bite-and-pull out the wombat by worming its head into the burrow, the wombat uses its powerful hind legs to suddenly push its massive butt up, crushing the attacker’s skull. (Now that’s impressive. The “killer-butt maneuver.”) Wombats must have a thing about butts, because that’s what they aim for when they attack another animal.

But the most interesting feature of wombats is their “fecal waste,” those cubed pellets of poop:

wombat poop

Wombat poop. Tootsie Rolls, anyone? Source.

Yup. Wombats poop out cubes. A lot of them. As do many animals, wombats use their scat to to “mark” their territory, strewing up to 100 of these squared off Tootsie Roll-like cubes around their turf.  Nothing new or different with their intentions to poop and mark – but in cubes?

Image result for bearman cartoon wombats

So, hats off to the lowly, weird wombat, probably the weirdest marsupial in Australia.

Who’d’ve thunk it?


Image result for looney toons logo




Stunning Sydney

IMG_0349 (2)

Sydney Harbor Bridge with the Opera House in the distance.

Sydney Harbor without a doubt defines the city of Sydney, Australia.Distinguishing landmarks such as the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge simply help define this long, magnificent stretch of water. As symbolic as the Opera House is to the city, if it were not located on the harbor, much of its unique beauty would be diminished. Strong words, yes, but now having spent nearly 2 weeks in Sydney — much of it on or next to the harbor — I feel able to stake this opinion. Three factors brought me into the fold of devoted Sydney fans: the Opera House, the James Craig, an 1840 barque of the Sydney Heritage Fleet & the Maritime Museum, and the city’s harbor fleet.

Sydney operates a fleet of vessels from catamarans to refurbished tugs that are the harbor contingent of the city’s transportation system. The city is spread across the northern and southern shores for about 40 kilometers from the headlands on the Tasman Sea to where the Paramatta River empties into the harbor in the west, the ferry system is a complex web which is thoroughly enjoyable to travel upon. We spent many hours traversing the harbor on the ferry system, a very enjoyable and relaxing mode of transportation that shows off the harbor’s treasures.



Sydney Opera House — simply none other like it.

View a picture of Jorn Utzon’s innovative Opera House and you immediately recognize the setting as Sydney, Australia.

The Sydney Opera House has become as iconic to Sydney as the Eiffel tower is to Paris. What most people do not realize, is that the Sydney Opera House came close to never being built.

For starters, Utzon’s simple schematic – he didn’t submit architectural drawings – initially didn’t come close to making the short list. When a fourth person, belatedly, was added to the original design committee, he insisted on reviewing all the submissions. Spotting Utzon’s design, he pulled it from the rejection pile and requested a second review.

And just like that, Utzon shot from obscurity as a minor Danish architect to front page news.

The road from acceptance of a basic line drawing to a finished, functioning arts venue was neither easy nor pleasant. While the construction followed Utzon’s original design, the interior was designed and made functional by other architects and engineers. “Professional disagreements,” or squabbles between design committee, architect(s), engineers, and others; massive cost overruns; hash-slinging in the media; led to withholding of funding and even project termination due to a change in government. The wrangling between Utzon, the engineers and other architects, and the project’s various powerful backers became so inflamed that Utzon left Australia in 1966, washing his hands of the entire process, never to return during his lifetime to see the completion of his greatest work

Photo of opera house with ferry

Nonetheless, the political issues, the architectural and engineering snafus and even the funding were smoothed out sufficiently for the Opera House to be completed and open its doors in 1973 – 14 years after construction began. The project at completion was also severely in the red. The solution? A national lottery. Over several years the special lottery raised over $105 million – debt paid. Even the feud between Utzon and Sydney was resolved 1999. Although invited back to Sydney to see “his” opera house, Utzon was unable to return to Australia due to fragile health in his declining years. However, his son, also an architect, has continued to work with the city — with Jorn’s participation before his death in 2008 – to lay out Design Principles to govern future  renovations or modifications to the facility.


The exterior tiles of the Opera House are multi-layered ceramic of slightly different shades of both glossy and matte white, designed to radiantly reflect ambient light both day and night.

The third aspect that made Sydney special to us was the Australian National Maritime Museum and, specifically, our day cruise on the James Craig, a renovated 1840 square sailed merchant barque on loan to the museum. Rescued from a slow, rusting death in Tasmania, the ship was restored over a 20+ year period and is part of the Sydney Heritage Fleet. Usually a replica of Captain James Cook’s Endeavor occupies this berth at the museum, but she was on exhibit elsewhere in Australia at the time of our visit. The James Craig  is the only known 19th century merchant vessel still afloat, under sail, and taking on passengers on cruises. We were lucky enough to do so.


The James Craig as seen from the Maritime Museum’s 1920 lighthouse relocated from Queensland, Australia.

We spent nearly 5 hours touring the historic lighthouse and several retired commercial and naval vessels. When we were informed that a special cruise on the  James Craig was scheduled for the next day, we signed on. Guests could participate as they wished in the manning of the ship, and many of us did, from hauling on lines to raise or lower sails, or determining speed the old fashioned way with a knotted rope and wood plank, and ringing the hours on the ship’s bell (my forte). With perfect weather, the day was exceptional.


Michael and other volunteers readying to haul on a line to raise some sheets (sails).


Square-rigged sails lowered by the volunteer crew as we sailed into harbor.


Just a pretty shot I wanted to include.


As we returned to Sydney from the headlands of the harbor, it seemed that every boat in the region was taking advantage of the perfect weather and wind conditions to have a sail.


Crew hauling in the sails and rigging.

And end to a perfect day — perfect two weeks — in Sydney. The James Craig battened down for the night.

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The James Craig at dock for the night.


The Best of New Zealand: Mt. Cook and Doubtful Sound

Mt. Cook, known also by its Maori name, Aoraki, is the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 3754 meters. The lake is formed from melted glacier ice which gives the water beautiful hues from turquoise to cobalt, depending on the depth and amount of sediment in the water.



New Zealand is a small country yet chock-filled with natural beauty everywhere you look. It’s difficult to name any particular site as my favorite — and I certainly haven’t seen every square meter of NZ — but I’ve settled on two: Aoraki, also known as Mt. Cook, and Doubtful Sound, both on the South Island.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

We spent three days in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, hiking, sightseeing, and taking a thousand pictures. Aoraki absolutely captivated both of us. There are certain places in the world that capture the soul of everyone regardless of their background or beliefs. I believe Mt. Aoraki is one of them. The Maori name, Aoraki, means “cloud piercer,” and for centuries has been a sacred spot for Maoris. The great mountain certainly emits a form of raw splendor and an irresistible pull for people, regardless of whether they aim to climb it or simply bask in its beauty.

Aoraki is not a simple mountain to summit. Mountaineers deem it a highly technica, difficult climb. Sir Edmund Hillary first climbed Aoraki in January, 1948 and was part of the first team to scale the South Face of Aoraki a month later. Hillary prepared for the first succcesssful Everest ascent of 1953 by climbing Aoraki and other South Island Mountains.

IMG_9864_zSir Edmund Hillary statue

Statue of Sir Edmund Hillary as he was on the successful Everest ascent in 1953. It stands on the deck of the Hermitage Hotel in AorakiMt. Cook Village within the national park.


Aoraki as seen from the foot of the Hillary statue. The weather often blows from the west and the Tasman Sea, often causing rapid and extreme weather conditions. Upwards of 70 climbers a year are rescued from the heights of Aoraki.

We hiked several trails (or parts thereof) in the park. One of the most popular is Hooker Valley Track, which winds past the Hooker Glacier and Lake Mueller in its initial stages.


Hooker Glacier with Lake Mueller in the foreground.


The left peak is Mt. Sefton; at far right is The Footstool.


A huge moraine wall from the Mueller and Hooker glaciers. Mt. Aoraki stands in the background.

IMG_9938_Lake Tasman with glacier remnants, kayaks

Milky Tasman Lake at the foot of the Tasman Glacier, the longest in NZ. We tried for 3 days to go kayaking on this lake but the excursion was cancelled each day due to high winds.


Aoraki as seen from Lake Tasman; this is the eastern face, from which it is easier to see the triple peaks of the mountain.

Aoraki is 3754 meters high, 10 meters shorter than it was 25 years ago. In 1991 a massive avalanche — a common occurrence on the mountain — shaved 10 meters off the mountain top and caused such a rumble that the slide caused a 3.9 earthquake.


Our last look at Aoraki before heading to the Christchurch airport and Australia.


Doubtful Sound

Most tourists traveling to New Zealand’s Fjordland opt to take a 2-3 hour boat ride on Milford Sound, one of the dozens of fjords carved into the southwestern coast. We preferred to take an overnight cruise on a less-sailed fjord, Doubtful Sound. Deep Cove Charters, with whom we booked, carried no more than 12 passengers on its boat — a far cry from some of the fjord cruisers which have upwards of 100 people on their day trips. Our decision turned out to be a marvelous one. From the moment we departed the dock in Manapouri, we were on an adventure in a natural wonderland.


Dusk on Lake Manapouri — easily one of my favorite lakes in New Zealand.

Getting to Doubtful Sound was a bit more complicated than hopping a tourist bus. We took a 1-hr. boat ride across Manapouri, then the boat captain picked us up and drove us to the far side of these mountains, where we picked up the boat on Doubtful Sound. The extra travel was well worth it.

IMG_9627_First glimpse of Doubtful Sound. Waterfall is in background right of center.

First look at Doubtful Sound from the top of the mountains’ pass.


Another boat on the Sound — just to give some perspective.

After getting settled, the first order of business was lunch, fresh-caught lobster (or crawfish, as the Kiwis call it). And then the adventure began. The variety of landscape and wildlife within the Sound was amazing: penguins, dolphins, fish (and sharks), fur seals, albatross and seagulls, and waterfalls cascading off the steep slopes everywhere you looked. It didn’t matter too much that our two days’ were cloudy and ended in a light drizzle — the fjord was delightful.

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Crested Fjordland penguins.


This penguin steadfastly held his ground despite gawking kayakers and boaters.


Most of the passengers went fishing off the stern. For the most part, we caught perch, sea bass, and a few blue cod. One guy reeled in this 4-ft. school shark. The captain earned a lot of gold stars from me for hauling it on board to remove the hook (despite some very sharp, triangular teeth) and returning it to the fjord.


A Buller’s Albatross. Several of these birds as well as some Stewart Island albatrosses followed our boat. The captain used some of the smaller perch we caught to toss to the birds, so we had an ample entourage of seabirds.


A Buller’s in flight.


A sleek-winged Stewart Island albatross in flight.

IMG_9690_Buller's Albatross Landing

A squawking Buller’s comes in for landing and free fish.


The captain and mate pulled some set lobster traps. In one trap, an octopus showed up with the lobsters. When tipped out of the trap it rapidly crawled across the deck to the nearest scupper and disappeared overboard. We dined that night on fresh-caught fish and had some of these lobsters the next day for lunch. Lobster twice in 24 hours!


Three adolescent pups were part of a huge colony of New Zealand fur seals near the mouth of the Sound.


And so we said goodbye to Doubtful Sound, just one of the incredible sights in New Zealand.

Off-Track in New Zealand

IMG_9215_Lighthouse, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula.JPG

Lighthouse on Taiaroa Head, Otago Peinsula, South Island, New Zealand. A Royal Albatross rides the thermals at center left. The Royal Albatross Colony protects the only “mainland” breeding colony for these magnificent birds in the world.


Traveling off the beaten path without an itinerary or reservations can lead to some unexpected pleasures and adventures. this devil-may-care approach can and has landed us in unnerving situations, but in Otago, South Island of New Zealand, we found ourselves happily diverted to unusual events and sights. At least one — a sheep shearing contest — certainly isn’t on your average tourist itinerary.

Sheep Shearing in Balclutha, Otago

Finding ourselves with some extra days, we decided to head to The Catlins in NZ’s southeastern corner to see or ourselves the magnificent terrain. Entering the town of Balclutha, I spied a sign advertising a sheep shearing competition. We decided we just had to go.

IMG_8937_Balacluth-Otago Sheep Shearing_the contestants, NZ v. Wales

The contestants line up: the men in black are Kiwis, the men in red are challengers from Wales, UK. 

The contest centered around an “international” competition highlighting the shearing prowess of native Kiwis against Wales’ best shearers. The competition was amazing. The entire process had hawk-eyed judges examining shearers’ technique (not good to nick the sheep too many times) and assure that no cheating occurred. (I wasn’t sure about the “no cheating” bit; is cheating leaving too much wool on the sheep or ripping it off the sheep with something other than the prescribed set of shears?)

Throughout the competition every clip and buzz of the shears was narrated by a man who sounded somewhere between a carnival barker and the guy who calls the Kentucky Derby. And wool was flying everywhere. It appeared that whoever sheared ten sheep first, won. The Kiwi who finished first sheared his ten in less than 20 minutes, which seemed pretty fast to me.




The competition looked back-breaking for both shearers and sheep.

What was interesting was watching the wool-gatherers — almost all women and no slouches — as they scurried around gathering up the shorn wool, sorting it in a mad frenzy of whirling arms into different baskets, or swiftly sweeping up those pesky remnants of wool balls all over the floor. I later found out that the wool-gatherers are also judged as to how well they sort the wool. Apparently you have to put the belly wool in one basket, armpit wool in another, dirty, backside wool in yet another. (OK, I’m probably exaggerating a bit here, but not much. there really are standards and rules for wool sorting.) In fact, there are a whole host of shearing rules that must be adhered to; an infraction leads to added points, and, as in golf, the less points you accrue, the better you are.

IMG_8969_The sorters

Wool-sorters picking feverishly through the wool. 

Needless to say, the Kiwis won. The two Men in Black will advance to the National Sheep Shearing Competition.

On to the Catlins

Having amused ourselves with the shearing competition, we set off again for The Catlins, a scenic stretch of southeastern NZ coastline with peaks and bays, blowholes and rocks waiting to cause a shipwreck. Absolutely breathtaking.

IMG_9025_Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point, Catlins

Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point.


Sea grasses in the breeze at Nugget Point.

IMG_9040_Taurakapanui Falls

Purukaunui Falls. Being summer, these tiered falls were a bit low on water, but still beautiful. 


The walk to the falls led through some beautiful forest, lush at all levels.

Onward to Otago Peninsula

We spent three delightful days exploring the Otago Peninsula in the southeast of NZ’s South Island, east of the city of Dunedin. The scenery was stunning, which we eagerly explored, but the real draw for us was the wildlife.


A Royal Albatross raises up to allow the nesting chick to cool off. The adult’s open mouth also indicates that she (or he, both parents take tuns on the nest) is also feeling the heat.

I mentioned in the beginning the Royal Albatross Colony on Taiaroa Head, at the tip of the Peninsula. We hiked to the top of the RAC’s land to observe nesting albatrosses. The staff at the center take seriously their mission to protect this magnificent birds and assist in their breeding. On hot days such as the day we visited, rangers turn on sprinklers planted at intervals among the nests to give the laying birds a cooling mist.

The Royal Albatross is second only to the Wandering Albatross in wingspan; the RA  runs an average of a 3 m. span (9.8+ ft.). They generally lay an egg every other year; the juvenile albatross leaves the home territory at about age 9-12 months, and stays aloft at sea for five years before returning to the natal home. The juniors usually are usually about 7+ years old before they find a mate and begin to reproduce. A combination of their late breeding and the devastation in numbers during the 19th-20th c. keep their numbers sufficiently low to be considered vulnerable.

IMG_9172_Blue Penguins, Otago Peninsula

Little Blue Penguins coming ashore at night, Otago Peninsula.

My favorite of the wildlife we observed were the Blue Penguins, the smallest of the 17 penguin species. Previously we had seen up close a molting Blue in Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, east of Christ Church, and, observed in Omaru the penguins’ ritual nighttime “parade” as they waddled ashore from a long day’s hunting out in the ocean. Otago is the only place in NZ where people are allowed to photograph these extremely shy birds, and only without use of flash.

IMG_8738_Molting blue penguin in nestig box

Blue penguins molt 1-2 times a year. During this phase, they are extremely vulnerable to introduced predators such as the Australian possum, stoats, weasels, feral cats, rats and even wild pigs. Many conservation groups as well as farmers are providing nesting boxes as safe havens for these threatened birds during their most vulnerable times: breeding and molting.

IMG_9202_Little Shag or cormarants, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula

The slopes of Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula are home to large colonies of Little Shags, as the Kiwis call this local cormorant.

IMG_9257_Yellow Eyed Penguin coming in to shore in late afternoon, Otago Peninsula

A Yellow-eyed Penguin — found only in NZ — waddles ashore late afternoon. They are among the rarest of penguin species and are considered highly vulnerable.


A rare close-up of a yellow-eyed penguin. Each penguin marches off the beach and into the scrub to his/her territory for the night. Note the yellow device in the foreground. It is part of a trap to ensnare and kill stoats, one of several invasive species that have threatened most of NZ’s birds near to extinction if not a vulnerable status. The farmer who owns this land has partitioned off several expanses to be used for penguin and other species’ habitat. In addition to Blue & yellow-eyed penguin nesting boxes, he places traps every few meters in the conservation zones to help eliminate these predators.


These sea lions couldn’t have cared less that we were taking their picture.


Young NZ fur seal. Once nearly hunted to extinction, this species has rebounded quite well and is beginning to thrive.


One other form of critter caught our attention, but not out in the wild but at the Otago Museum’s Discovery World Tropical Forest, a multi-story tropical rain forest biosphere full of butterflies and moths from around the world. I became a bit attached to them myself.


For some reason, these paper kites from SE Asia decided to light upon me — at one point there were 4 or 5.

IMG_9364_Paper Kite from SE Asia


I’m not sure what species this is. My only complaint about the museum’s butterfly exhibit was the distinct lack of signage or photo identification of the butterflies.


A last look at a Blue Penguin heading “home” for the night.