Monday 29 April 2013

Hussey's gifts

Here's a churchman who has left the world a better place: the remarkable, or at least remarkably persuasive, Walter Hussey (1909-85). I was going to put 'the good dean', but then I read Frances Spalding in her book on the Pipers describing him as 'a conflicted person...unable to conceal his passion for boys' (not so much of a problem only if, like Britten, he never acted on it, and Spalding's turn of phrase suggests he did).

The almost-finished portrait by Graham Sutherland below hangs in Chichester's Pallant House Gallery, which we're returning to visit when it's open; Hussey chose Pallant House as the recipient of his own collection and it now has one of the best selections of British 20th century art in the country as well as a series of enticing exhibitions.

Anyway, as vicar of St Matthew's Northampton, his home town, Hussey helped to commission wonders I'd like to go and see there, chiefly a Madonna and Child by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland's striking Crucifixion. These gave the cue for the art of the new Coventry Cathedral. The others we can hear or read at will - Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb was composed for the church's 50th anniversary, and there was other music from Finzi, Tippett. Malcom Arnold, Rubbra and Lennox Berkeley.

Auden (pictured below in 1939, some years before the commission in question)  wrote Hussey a rather tart prose Litany followed by an Anthem for St Matthew's Day - hard to find, though I've just come across excerpts in an Australian newspaper. They include an amusing-serious prayer for 'all who, like our patron saint, the Blessed Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, occupy positions of petty and unpopular authority, through whose persons we suffer the impersonal discipline of the state...deliver us, as private citizens, from confusing the office with the man...and from forgetting that it is our impatience and indolence, our own injustice, that creates the state to be a punishment and a remedy for sin'.

I'm getting carried away by Auden's drollness, but let me just also include the following: 'deliver us, we pray thee, in our pleasure and in our pain, in our hour of elation and our hour of wan hope, from insolence and envy, from pride in our virtue, from fear of public opinion, from the craving to be amusing at all costs, and from the temptation to pray, if we pray at all: "I thank Thee, Lord, that I am an interesting sinner and not as this Phrarisee" '.

Our Easter weekend visit to Themy and Eben in the Cathedral Close was the chance to find out how much we owe to Hussey, the great yet cosy building's dean from 1955 to 1977: chiefly the John Piper altarpiece, Sutherland painting and Chagall window. Arriving there as a known advocate of the new, Hussey had to tread more carefully at first with the antique sensibilities of the clergy.  The first task was to reinstate the Arundel Screen we so admired on Easter Saturday. Work on the chapel of St Mary Magdalen followed, showcasing Noli me tangere, a work by Sutherland more miniature by far than the Northampton Crucifixion or the vast Coventry tapestry.

Introduced to John Piper by Spence and Moore, Hussey discussed with him what might be done with the high altar reredos now that the 16th century Sherburne Screen was revealed. Piper didn't much care for Hussey's proposal of gleaming enamels, suggesting instead a tapestry which he wanted to avoid approaching in 'too painterly a way' like Sutherland's in Coventry and settling on shapes rather than figures. Woven by Pinton Frères near Aubusson, the finished work has six panels. Central are symbols of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, while on either side are those of the four Evangelists matched to the four elements.

What a marvellous designer Piper would have made for Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, on the evidence of his earth, air, fire and water. The latter two are to the right of the Tau cross, matched to Luke's winged ox and John's winged eagle (seen in the detail up top) while to the left earth joins Matthew's winged man and air Mark's winged lion (below)

Of course the installation in 1966 caused a hubbub. A canon pointedly attended the opening evensong in dark glasses. But there were plenty of others who loved it, like the Chichester resident who wrote, as quoted in Spalding's book, that she 'felt here was something glowing and alive and symbolic of what the church must and should be in the present age. It took away the feeling that Christianity is old and crumbling like the cathedral'.

I love its vibrancy, and never more than at the Easter Vigil when the lights finally went up and the altarpiece's magic was glimpsed through the Arundel Screen. J thinks it's a bit of its time, but agrees that high quality art works don't often join the old in churches and cathedrals (I think of the amateurish tapestries in Durham). Hussey also had commissioned for Chichester a window by Chagall

which is based on the celebration of the final psalm, 150: 'Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord'.

It's encouraged us to make an expedition in due course to Tudeley Church near Tonbridge, which has no less than 12 Chagall windows designed and executed over a period of 15 years.

Curiously, nothing can seem more modern in Chichester Cathedral than the two Romanesque panels in Caen limestone (second quarter of the 12th century, it's now believed) depicting Christ arriving in Bethany and the subsequent Raising of Lazarus. Those expressive heads seem both old and new. Sadly they're now behind glass, and hard to see, but we illuminated them with torchlight, which may give the faces a rather unwonted look. Thus Christ

as well as Martha and Mary.

But I digress. One final extraordinary commission, thanks to Hussey's far-sightedness, was Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Humphrey Burton's magnificent biography of 'Lenny' quotes a letter Hussey wrote to him in which he notes,  'I think many of us would be very delighted  if there was a hint of "West Side Story" about the music'. More than a hint emerged: Burton also tells us that the 'Why do the heathens' sequence, cutting percussively into the lyric treble/countertenor solo of the middle movement, was reworked from a discarded chorus in the musical's Prologue.

There was some debate about Bernstein's slightly tricksy wish for the actual premiere to take place in New York first; Hussey soon graciously deferred. But how remarkable that soon after, in July 1965, an Anglican cathedral played host to the Psalms as sung in Hebrew. That makes them, along with all the metrical changes apparent even in the opening,

devilishly difficult as well as liberating to sing, as I know from performing them with the Renaissance Singers, organ and percussion, in Edinburgh during my student days.

Later I heard Bernstein not long before his death conduct the Chichester Psalms with the London Symphony Orchestra and then-treble Aled Jones; by that time the master was taking them a bit too slow and reverently. I met him not long afterwards, courtesy of Ted Greenfield who took me along to the Candide recording sessions in December 1989, Bernstein's last. He grabbed me by the hand, and strode towards the gents with me still locked in his grasp, fortunately soon released. But what a man! Like half the cast, he was struggling with a nasty strain of influenza that was doing the rounds and even attacked Buckingham Palace, leading Bernstein to call it 'the royal flu'. He died the following October.

Here he is, anyway, conducting the three movements of the Chichester Psalms. The coming-together nature of the piece is further emphasised in 1977 by the Berlin location, the young Austrians in the choir alongside the Vienna Boys' Choir soloist and the collaboration of Bernstein's beloved Israel Philharmonic.

Bach cantata for the week is 'Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe', BWV 108, for the fourth (Cantate) Sunday after Easter. Composed for Leipzig in 1725, so for performance exactly a week later than the pick of last week's three cantatas ' Ihr werdet weinen und heulen', it boasts another splendid chorus, this time at its very core: a fugue in which the theme is very briskly snatched up, that opening idea varied with an elegantly rhythmed turn or gruppetto on 'zukünftig' (the future) in the third set of 'runs'. The text of the bass's opening aria, with a lightness-of-being oboe d'amore stealing the show, is taken from Christ's so-called 'Farewell Discourse' in John 16. Strictly speaking, the 'true vine' speech belongs to the previous chapter, but it's all I need as excuse for its fascinating realisation in a 16th century eastern orthodox manuscript.

Third of the vocal solos, with a second solo instrument in the shape of a violin obbligato, is the alto's 'Was mein Herz von dir begehrt'. There are interesting expressive shadings on 'Herz' and later, in the setting of 'überschutte' ('shower') and repeated notes on 'schaue' (regard). These new sentiments having run their course, there's no vocal repeat of the first section, and the short cantata is quickly tied up with the affirmative final chorale. Once again Suzuki with Gilchrist and Blaze - bass Dominic Wörner much less good, salvaged by the Japanese oboe d'amoreist - delivered the goods; on YouTube Harnoncourt is the only familiar choice.

The photos of the Piper altarpiece, the detail of the Chagall window and the Romanesque faces are mine. Sutherland portrait courtesy of the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester; the rest (I think) Wikidomain.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Cannoli in the Albergheria

'Leave the gun. Take the cannoli', says the character Peter Clemenza over the body of a driver he's just had murdered in The Godfather Part One. In Part Three - much the weakest of the trilogy - Eli Wallach's Don Altobello dies from a poisoned cannolo while watching Cavalleria Rusticana at the Teatro Massimo. And what self-respecting mafioso could resist these delicious tubes of fried pastry dough filled with ricotta (usually candied)? The cannolo originated in Palermo, supposedly created as a kind of phallic symbol during carnival season. Photos of our consumption don't make for pleasant viewing, so I revert to Paolo Piscolla's Wikishot of the traditional cannolo. Surely the chocolate in the background is a step too far.

The best place to buy cannoli is at the very modest Rosciglione bakery in Palermo's toughest, most run-down but very characterful old town quarter, the Albergheria.

In fact, when we first visited, an Italian customer enthusiastically pointed out that the brothers Rosciglione's cannoli and other cakes are exported all over the world. On our second visit, the two delightful ladies up top were behind the counter - the one on the right, coyly blushing, had to be persuaded that she would adorn the picture. Wrapped-up easter cakes and chocolate sculpures sit on the shelves behind them.

Avoiding cheese for the most part, I had only a mouthful of cannolo and became addicted instead to the pastine di mandorla, almond biscuit/cakes like none I've ever tasted. J ate two cannoli and after a subsequent late, heavy lunch had to go and lie down. Mind you, we were both a little wiped out by our one day of sirocco.

Just up the same street, we came across a group of guerrilla gardeners, local neighbourhood greeners, call them what you will.

I was later chuffed to read about the grass-roots activism of the fabulous Letizia Battaglia, photographer-chronicler of the mafia over 20 years - two of her old pictures helped prove that the ghastly spider Andreotti  had actually met the capos in Palermo when he always denied having even gone there - as well as Green party representative on the city council and later parliamentarian. What a woman!

In Midnight in Sicily, Peter Robb goes off with Battaglia (image above by photopartner Franco Zecchin) on one of her trips with council workers to create green spaces in the heart of the crumbling old city. And here were people carrying on the same good work. When we returned to Rosciglione four days later, the garden included a shrine of sorts to Palermo's beloved Santa Rosalia.

The Albergheria, which some think takes its name from the rulers of Sind known as Ap-Vallaraja because of the Indian spice traders who once gathered here, has more shrines than any of the other quarters. Here are another to Santa Rosalia

and down a street where I'd be very happy to settle, the Via Porta di Castro, a lovingly tended one to the Virgin.

In marked contrast is the bronze statue by Scipione Li Volsi celebrating the victorious return of that anti-Protestant zealot Charles V from Tunisia in 1535. It stands on the edge of the Albergheria in Piazza Bologni.

Palermitans have pride in the outstretched arm of the King and Holy Roman Emperor, without, I suspect, dwelling too much on his deeds. The marble pedestal by Cirasoli and Geraci with bas reliefs by Giovanni Tagliavia, moved here in 1631, has a many headed monster carved on the south-facing panel.

This turns out to be Charles's arch-enemy the 'Lutheran hydra' written about on the opposite side.

There was a fascinating parallel to this, which J saw and I missed, in the contemporary art gallery of Castelbuono's castle, in which the artist depicts those truly heroic 20th century pursuers of justice Falcone and Borsellino fighting the hydra of the Casa Nostra. Quite a different fable.

Piazza Bologni is currently a building site; there's a lot to do on the Palazzo Villafranca. A plaque records that on 27 May 1860, Garibaldi rested his 'weary limbs' here for a mere two hours. Needless to say, trenchant graffitisti (if there's such a word, if not I just made it up) have left their mark in the piazza with protests against, among others, 'ingrained paedophile priests'.

Round the corner is another spontaneous artwork.

Many of the buildings in the Albergheria are in varying degrees of dilapidation, some picturesquely so,

and some were clearly once very grand, including this one near Roscigilione, in front of which we stood and listened to a recorded carillon from the Torre di San Nicolò pealing out Schubert's Ave Maria

though no expense has been spared on the splendid Palazzo Sclafani constructed in 1335 by the count of that name.

It subsequently underwent transformation as a 15th century civic hospital and a 19th century barracks. Today the military lodges here. The fine portal includes the Sclafani coat of arms and an eagle to denote the family's nobility sculpted by Bonaiuto Pisano.

In less good nick is the church of Santa Maria del Carmine at the heart of the Ballerò market (no less atmospheric than its Capo counterpart, incidentally, but we've had enough market pics in the entry for that quarter). The predictably grandiose Jesuit Church was reconstructed, rather impressively, after its bombing in the Second World War, but that one's Palermitan baroque as usual. Few books or web entries have much to say about this rather more interesting, clearly much used building other than to note its majolica dome, seen here from the cloisters which seem to be home to some evangelizing organisation.

Santa Maria del Carmine has one glory, or rather a cluster of glories: the extraordinary if not exactly beautiful twisted baroque pillars with stucco work by the amazing Serpotta firm in the chapels either side of the high altar.

The Vucciria entry will be the time and place to wax lyrical about the Serpotta phenomenon in Palermo, but in the meantime the little 'theatres' we saw elsewhere are placed here at the foot of the pillars, around which are depicted Biblical scenes including an annunciation

and more decorative birds and flowers.

If you think that's odd, you ain't seen nothing yet...

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Getting Tippett

Remember when there was a lot of stuff about 'Get Carter' around the time of the BBC's minifestival for that now-late composer? Well, I never have got him and never shall (get him). But slowly and surely I and my City Lit students on the BBC Symphony Orchestra course are getting some of Tippett's orchestral works. We've had to, because that fabulous band has been featuring all four symphonies and the Piano Concerto this season.

It's been a bumpy ride, nothing like as welcome or easy as the Martinů year, which I knew would be exciting before I even began. As for Tippett, we started with the late-ish Triple Concerto, parts of which are undoubtedly extremely beautiful and soundwise very arresting; but the mosaic-like stop-starts and some of the greyer music defeat me.

None of us could find any sort of soft spot for the Third Symphony, with those ludicrous last-movement blues written for a soprano who doesn't really exist (you can see the absurdity in what happened with the choice of soloist for the performance: Wagnerian soprano Susan Bullock was booked, light coloratura - and wonderful singing-actress - Marie Arnet took over). At least Tippett's awkward settings of his own faintly embarrassing texts turned me back to the inspiration - ha! - of Bessie and Louis in 1925.

Head back to before Tippett's 1960s watershed - King Priam is the very last, that's to say only the second, of his operas I can take, which is why I decided we'd cover it during next year's Opera in Focus course - and there, to my ears, are the masterpieces. I came to love the Piano Concerto not just for its luminous, tonally very rooted beauty but also for the logically developing parade of sounds. The interpretation which converted me was Steven Osborne's with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Hyperion.

And there are still those piano sonatas to get to know.

Similarly, how could you not be swept up by the pounding Vivaldi-inspired Cs in the bass, the pulsating horns, the flurrying strings which kick off the Second Symphony?

Here, too, the perfectly imagined parade of sounds somehow develops, above all when the strings, having failed to push forward their bewitching melody at the heart of the second movement, take flight in the finale and propel us to a really satisfying apotheosis.

I've written about the BBCSO's ravishing Barbican performance, also conducted by Brabbins, on the Arts Desk;  what a shame early Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra is so hard to find on CD. Hickox, rhythmically weak, is the only current YouTube contender, and he won't do; try Spotify for LSO/Davis. As for the concert, you have until Friday evening to listen again on the BBC iPlayer. There's a second chance this year to hear the Second Symphony live, at the Proms, where the BBCSO will be conducted by another firm favourite, Oliver Knussen. Addendum (30/4): don't miss a far too rare BBC blog post from the orchestra's sub-principal viola Phil Hall on the last time the players did a Tippett cycle 20 years ago and took two of the works into the recording studio...with hair-raising results brilliantly described.

In the main season, we only have the First to go, and I must look at the Fourth with the score I have here (couldn't get to that performance). But I think it's fair to say that the 1950s, such a grey time with the Darmstadt school holding sway, was Tippett's heyday. There are enough masterpieces from then to put him in the very front row of original thinkers among composers. And he was in danger of vanishing from the concert scene altogether, so bravo to the BBC for making us agnostics partial believers.

With Poulenc, I've needed no persuasion. The Southwark Cathedral Gloria left me wobbly-ecstatic, and I can't wait to hear these forces, radiant soprano Lizzie Watts included, joining others in Gloucester Cathedral as part of the Cheltenham Festival (Fauré's Requiem is the other work on the programme). Again, look at the date: 1960, such an unlikely time for tuneful exuberance outside the world of musical theatre. I'd already been playing over and over Stéphane Denève's sensational new disc with his Stuttgart orchestra of Les Biches - can't get it out of my head - and the Stabat Mater.

That liturgical masterpiece I hardly knew at all, and was hoping the Proms might do something for the 50th anniversary of Poulenc's death. But there's nothing large-scale at all, only the Sextet. Bizarre. In the meantime, don't miss adorable Stéphane's BBCSO concert on Friday: the suite from the La Fontaine-based ballet Les animaux modèles- I'd hope for the whole ballet - with Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges, a desert-island opera which Denève will be certain to do superbly. In the meantime, this is already on my shortlist of the year's best discs.

The Poulenc path led me to a previously unplayed disc of two-piano and chamber works. Perhaps the simplest, but typically affecting, is the Elégie 'a la memoire de Marie-Blanche'. Poulenc's instruction to his pianists in the score is characteristic: 'This Elegy should be played as if you were improvising it, a cigar in your mouth and a glass of cognac on the piano'. Pity the performers here aren't listed, but the fishtank effect is rather fun..

As if the to-be-read pile wasn't big enough already, with post-Sicily literature accumulating by the day, I splashed out at Travis and Emery yesterday on the long out-of-print collection of Poulenc correspondence Echo and Source (Gollancz). I loved what I'd already encountered of the composer in his own words so had to get it. Will report back anon.

The Bach cantata 'pilgrimage' continues to unearth new and original beauties, though I was seriously behind with the Sunday ritual until I caught up by listening to three in a row four days ago.

'Halt im Gedächtnis, Jesum Christ', BWV 67, illustrates the mixture of fear and belief in the resurrected Christ; the first Sunday after Easter is the intriguingly titled Quasimodogeniti. I'll call it 'Doubting Thomas Day', which allows for the magnificent Caravaggio above. I've seen Thomas's finger, you know, in Rome's Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, or so they tell me.

The cantata starts with one of Bach's most intoxicating choral fantasias, typical of the instrumental riches in the composer's first Leipzig year: corno di tirarsi, flute and two oboes d'amore elaborate. There are frightened hiccoughs on 'schreckt' in the tenor aria's phrase 'what frightens me still?', and the real dramatic/operatic novelty is the contrast in No. 4 between the assured bass with woodwind chords proclaiming 'peace be unto you' and the lively strings which assail each of the chorus's combative responses before fading into agreement with the Christ-figure. Let's hope Suzuki's soloists here are better than Gardiner's, my own listening last Sunday.

Second Sunday after Easter is Good Shepherd time - I prefer Samuel Palmer to any representations I found of Christ with lamb -

so cue delicious flowing (9/8, 12/8) pastorals in 'Du Hirte Israel, höre', BWV 104, also from the first Leipzig annus mirabilis 1724 with three appropriately bucolic baroque oboes. The tenor is still tracing graphic 'feeble steps in the desert'; prefaced by four compellingly varied instrumental phrases, the bass raises us to a heavenly kingdom on earth. These are obviously winsome arias, but again wretchedly sung on the only disappointing JEG instalment so far. Here we trust in Harnoncourt's Kurt Equiluz and Philippe Huttenlocher.

The spectacular strikes in 'Ihr werdet weinen und heulen', BWV 103, from the second Leipzig year. Here the post-Easter contrasts of human weakness bolstered by divine assurance are at their most vivid; Christ consoles the disciples with intelligence of the Second Coming (Russian icon depiction below). I'd love to sing in the opening number crowned by a flauto piccolo - our stalwart descant recorder - where the chorus get to deliver chromatic howls and exuberant jubilates. Bass-Christ pops up to declare 'ye shall be sorrowful', to which they answer with yet more expressiveness 'but your sorrow shall be turned to joy'. This is the gist of Brahms's soprano in the German Requiem's 'Ihr hab nun Traurigkeit', another great setting where serenity encompasses sadness.

Here are two more arias that follow querulous human searching with divine response. The alto has the flauto piccolo for company on the journey - with Suzuki, the superb Dan Laurin - while the bass banishes passing worries with the aid of a trumpet, heard for the first time. Irresistible. Let's try Koopman for this one.

Thursday 18 April 2013

A long walk in the Madonie

Here's somewhere beautiful and seemingly remote you can reach without a car. One hour's train journey from Palermo along the coast to heavenly Cefalù (more on which anon) and then a 40 minute bus journey will take you into the Madonie mountains. I was especially chuffed later to learn that they mark the southernmost extension of the Italian Apennines, stretches of which we've walked from Eric Newby's Crinale above Parma via the Abruzzi to the Pollino National Park in Basilicata. Only the Sila in Calabria remains for us to join the dots.

Our only snag was that we set out on the one vile day of our week - 'l'ultima colpa della coda dell'inverno', the paper called it, 'the last blow of winter's coda', and indeed two young men were drowned in a small boat off Palermo. So we arrived in amiable Castelbuono in buffeting winds and heavy rain.

Our agriturismo was three normally easy and pleasant kilometres' walk from there, but undoable by us wusses on that day. So we hung around in the only open lunch place waiting for the gusts and downpour to abate before giving up and calling our hostess to ask about a taxi. There's wasn't one, she said, but she came and picked us up.

Like other 'agri's we've stayed in, this of course was foodlovers' heaven: tutto produtto biologico e locale. Dad farmed and mum baked; the four daughters, including Laura who'd studied in England but felt the pull of home, worked hard in various capacities. No wonder we opted for the four course meals on each of our three nights. Our experience of Sicily's very distinct cuisine deserves another entry, but there's no harm in a quick tour of the farm's sizeable estate on our sunny second morning, when it was warm enough for me to wish that the pool had been filled. So of course we have lemons

 and blood oranges in abundance, glasshouses full of vegetables, olive groves and the baby spring green of budding trees

and a nicely planted sloping garden with handsome strelitzia

as well as the ubiquitous prickly pears, from the 'flowers' of which the family makes one of their many jams.

Plus of course a menagerie including yappy but affectionate dogs Whisky and Maia and a slightly unnerving cat.

Clearly there were paths in all directions, but we wanted to ascend on our first full day, and mamma, showing us a book with pictures of wild and wonderful trees, recommended Piano Pomo. The daughters protested that you had to have a car, but we blithely said we'd walk it. And in truth the best solution would have been to drive to the Rifugio Crispi at 1197 metres and stride the heights from there. Even so, the route from Castelbuono and through villaland was not without interest in the strange mix of sun overhead and constant light rain (a mountain weather front was clearly reluctant to shift). We began to look down on the town

and up towards the Milocco ridge.

At this level there were quite a few flowers, though generally the locals think it's too early. We saw cyclamens and a solitary orchid

before officially entering the park zone. The signs all have pat slogans: the first declared 'silence, listen: nature is in concert' to the accompaniment of a rampant chainsaw. But soon we did enter the natural concert of a strong wind in the ilexes as we ascended towards the Piano Sempria and the Rifugio Crispi. Solitary mossy oaks began to dominate the wooded scene

and we saw neither human nor vehicle until a bus-load of yelling schoolchildren overtook us. It soon transpired that they were from Palermo, bound for a couple of days in the refuge which hardly seemed big enough to contain them. As the rain had now begun to pelt and the air was conspicuously colder, we were glad of the retreat, and even more delighted when a vegetable risotto was proposed, which we consumed in a cosy room with a welcoming fire apart from the hooligans.

As we'd already walked much further than anticipated, it would have been easy to turn round and go back down. But fortunately the guys running the hostel told us the Piano Pomo was only another quarter of an hour's walk, and am I glad we continued. Not least for the rainbow in the valley

and the sudden change of treescape as we neared the high meadow: the reddy-oranges of beeches beginning to leaf, the tall shapes of giant hollies. The sign for Piano Pomo told us we'd climbed 1071 metres, from the agriturismo at 282m to the mountain plateau at 1360m.

There's a shepherd's hut, the Paghiaru, which must be used as a lodge for walkers in season

and the grove of trees - I can't identify this splendid specimen -

is high enough for patches of snow

as well as reluctantly emerging snowdrops. As the rain had stopped I thought we could go a little higher towards the Croce dei Monticelli, which gave us views not only over Castelbuono but out to the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Even bigger oaks stood gnarled in glades, presumably the Quercus pubescens or downy oak of which a placard spoke, though clearly not as grand as the ones 800 years old in the Macchia d'inferno further down.

Then we began our descent, back past the creepy smashed up hotel which we later learnt had been plundered by folk from all round Sicily the minute its owners closed down. Still we saw not a single fellow walker; the ones I thought I could see ahead turned out to be cows,

the great bells hung on wooden halters round their necks clanking as they wandered.

At the junction with the road back to Castelbuono, zeal outstripped common sense: never liking to retrace the route already taken, I decided we could take footpaths around the southern ridges to reach home. It was a beautiful way, to be sure, the valley and the opposite range including the village of Geraci Siculo shining in the late afternoon sun.

The vegetation, too, changed dramatically, with aloes and cork trees lining the way as we took a path down at Santa Foca towards the Saraceno which was more of a river.

Then, at a lush fork glancing back towards the Pizzo Canna,

it all went a bit pear-shaped. I still maintain the problem was to do with the scale of our map (1: 50,000): there has been none specifically geared to the walker for 50 years, and though paths are marked, when there's more than one turning you will only be given the biggest one. So I knew we were taking a risk by branching off past orchards on a well-defined track. Confidence rose at the sight of habitations. Football playing youths, presumably with the best intentions, told us that if we just descended, we'd reach our agriturismo in good time. But I began to doubt this, especially as it was getting too late to experiment, and in the gloaming asked another homeowner cleaning his car.

With Pietro we struck gold. In fumbling Italian, I told him I thought we'd gone wrong, and after expressing disbelief that we'd come down from Piano Pomo - not possible without a car, he said - he laughed and told us the agriturismo was a good six kilometres away, albeit less as the crow flies (ie no direct paths).

Having pointed out the sights we'd already walked to, clearly not crediting our tale, the good Pietro then drove us all the way back. He'd been born and raised in Castelbuono, lived near Stuttgart for 30 odd years running a pizzeria and gelateria, and now he was back with his 97 year old mother. She was down there in the town, and he was just fixing up ther summer retreat. What, only a few kilometres from home? Well, the air was better up here, and Castelbuono got noisy and traffic-filled in August, so why not?

He also told us the sorry story of the smashed-up hotel. And then there we were at the drive of the agriturismo. Could we give him some money for the petrol, buy him a beer, we asked? No, he replied, it was out of friendship and he had to be getting on. And with that heartening conclusion to our 25 kilometre walk, we headed towards a shower and supper.