Monday, 31 December 2007

Me vs. Winter: 0-1

As it appears that it will never stop snowing in Ottawa--I had to shovel the driveway yet again today--I thought that I would get serious about trying to do something outdoors. Yesterday I went with my friend Peter, who is an excellent skier, to Gatineau Park for some cross-country skiing. We rented me some nice skis in Old Chelsea and then drove to Camp Fortune, the downhill ski area, and parked the car.

The weather was quite nice, hovering around the freezing mark, and in spite of having been off skis for a decade (and being not so good even then) I did fairly well. The concept of the snowplough turn appears still to be somewhat beyond my grasp and on a number of trails I found the most effective to stop and/or turn was to, well, fall down. This became more regular as we came back and as I got tired my already-marginal ski handling skills degraded. But there was lots of fresh air and nice scenery. I saw many red squirrels and even stood close to a woodpecker near one of the chalets where we stopped for a snack.

Gatineau Park must be one of the finest placed to do x-country in North America. The trails were beautifully-groomed and quite challenging.

As for myself, I have a sore left wrist today but I would like to try again and perhaps get more serious about figuring out how to do those turns.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Friday, 28 December 2007

The Santiago Road: The Eleventh Day

Monday, June 3, 2002
Portomarin to Santiago de Compostela
97.54 km, total for trip 952.29 km

After an excellent night’s sleep in Portomarín, I packed up the bicycle and headed west. Leaving the town I immediately came to a long, steepish hill and the road gradually took me away from the Río Miño watershed, through a green region of thick gorse and heather and rolling hills. Apparently in medieval pilgrimage times this section was notorious as an open-air brothel but 800 years later there was no sign of anyone. The green landscape was barely settled and I enjoyed riding along the quiet road although skies were overcast. After 20 kms or so I came to the hamlet of Ligonde and then went on to Palas de Rei. The latter, according to legend, was named after a palace constructed by a Visigothic king of the 8th Century, Witiza, but there is no sign today of its significance.

I took a break in a little park near the path and using the last bit of power in my cellphone gave my friend Karl in Canada a call for his birthday. It was nice to hear a familiar voice after this length of time cruising semi-inhabited Spain by myself.

I was now on a major road, the N 547, which would take me most of the way in to Santiago. It was still early in the day and rather than hurry the ride, which was going to be less than 80 kms, I made a detour and followed the original pilgrimage route for a while. This was a dirt track not far from the main road and although it was muddy in some parts that fact that I was riding on 25 mm tires helped my passage. It was nice to have the feeling again of being on the original Camino and occasionally I saw old stone crosses or milestones marking the distance and direction to Santiago. I passed a few hostels, and numerous walking pilgrims, and had my credencia stamped in several places as well before I turned back towards the N 547. It was getting darker and I was worried about the weather. This proved to be well-founded as an extremely light rain began to fall.

Next on the road was the village of Leboreiro, which had blossomed during the pilgrimage heyday, offering support for pilgrims from the 11th to 13th Centuries but there is not much there today but an old church which was rebuilt in the 18th Century. Continuing onwards, I crossed a small medieval bridge with four arches over the Río Furelos into the village of Furelos and then arrived in Melide, which spread out along the Camino.

I passed several smaller towns: Arca, Ferreiro, Cerdeda. Soon I saw signs for the Santiago de Compostela airport and passed through Lavacolla, where pilgrims traditionally stopped to bathe in the stream before entering Santiago. Ahead of me now was a 5 km climb up Monte de Gozo. Arrival at this summit was a momentous event for many pilgrims, who recorded their joy at reaching the top of the last hill, from which they had a view of their destination, Santiago de Compostela.

The Monte de Gozo today has a number of communications towers on it, along with a huge establishment for housing visitors. Rather than being isolated, it is actually now within the easternmost suburbs of Santiago. I swiftly rolled down the hill and entered the outskirts of the city. As I approached the Old Town, the roads narrowed and traffic was pretty terrible. I went in through one of the gates but turned around as I saw a likely-looking little hotel. A room was available and there was an courtyard where I could lock my bicycle up, although it was open to the elements.

After unpacking my panniers, having a shower and getting dressed, I went outside to survey the city. I decided to bring my credencia with me in the hope that I could get it stamped, which I did at the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos opposite the Puerta de Platería. I was given a questionnaire to complete about my motives for making the pilgrimage and after I had done this I was presented with my compostelana, the treasured certificate (in Latin) entitling me to all the benefits of being a successful pilgrim, such as spending a reduced time in Purgatory.

I had actually taken less time to ride the Camino than I had expected and now I found myself in Santiago with a few days to spare. I decided to just relax and enjoy the city to its fullest. I looked briefly at the cathedral, deciding to spend more time in it tomorrow, and then found a musical performance was being offered at the University. So on my first day in Santiago I not only became a certified pilgrim but I enjoyed a lovely concert version of Gluck’s opera “Iphigenie en Tauride.”

Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Santiago Road: The Tenth Day

Sunday, June 2, 2002
O Cebreiro to Portomarin
75.99 km, total for trip 854.75

Cycling above the clouds

O Cebeiro is a significant stop on the Camino for several reasons. A hospice for pilgrims that was run by the Benedictines and was supported by the Crown and donations poured in after 1072. There is a tradition that the Holy Grail was hidden in O Cebeiro and a miracle in the 14th Century was attributed to it. There is a small pre-Romanesque church in the village but in fact this is a reconstruction undertaken after 1965 after foundations were discovered. The other feature are the low, oval stone houses with thatched roofs. They are of a style that dates back to the Celts and are called pallozas. They have two rooms--one for people, one for livestock-- and a single door. There are no chimneys, but smoke simply escapes through the thatch, curing hung meats and sausages on the way out. The structure is perfectly suited to the environment with its fierce mountains winds.

Again the rain had ended when I woke up and after a cup of coffee and some dry peanuts, I rolled out of O Cerbeiro, ever towards the west, on a very minor road, the LU 634. In a few minutes I came to San Roque, which at 1264 m marks the highest point on the pass. There once was a hermitage here but today the location is distinguished by modern bronze statue of Santiago fighting the wind, a feeling not unknown to me on this trip.

The road was excellent and I was looking forward to a fast descent. The miles rolled on and after an hour or so I looked ahead and in the distance I could see what looked like a large lake in the valley but as I approached I discovered that in fact it was thick fog. I was approaching Triacastela, according to my map, and after a few more minutes I rolled right into the fog. It was immediately obvious that to proceed would be insanely dangerous as I could only see about a foot in front of me. No car would ever see me if one came (rather unlikely) but I would have to ride at a walking pace to be sure that I would stay on the road! I decided that discretion would be the better part of valour and turned around and rode the 50 feet out of the fog.

To my delight, I emerged right next to a cafe-bar that I had noticed on the way into the fog. I leaned the bike against the front wall and went inside to discover I was the only customer. Early Sunday morning was clearly not the happening time in Galicia but no matter: I was dry and I could relax and have breakfast. The choice was pretty limited so once again I had a Tortilla Frances, an omelette on a baguette, along with a cup of hot chocolate. As I warmed up, the fog began to disipate and by the time I had finished my meal it had almost completely disappeared. As I went outside I realized I was about to enjoy a beautiful day.

The road took me on a smooth descent through the lifting fog, along a river gorge and soon I found myself at the monastery of Samos. This was established in the 6th Century and grew in prestige and power, holding an important place in Galician religious life. The monastery became so wealthy that it was actually sacked by several times by pirates in the early Middle Ages. Benedictine monks were brought to Samos in 922 and in the 12th Century it became part of the Cluniac network. At its height it controlled 200 towns, 105 churches and 300 monasteries. The main building, which features an 18th Century baroque facade, is distinguished by the cockleshell motif of the Camino and has undergone many changes to the recent day, including destruction of its library by fire in 1951. It continues to serve as a monastery.

Close to the monastery, in a small park, stands a tiny chapel that was constructed in the 9th or 10th Century for Mozarabic refugees who had come to Samos from the south. These were Christians living in the parts of Spain occupied since 711 by Muslims as second-class citizens. In times of less religious tolerance, many of them fled to the mountainous regions of Northern Spain for safety and brought their customs, dating back to Visigothic times, and their liturgy with them. The Mozarabs, who admired many aspects of Islamic culture, claimed that Jesus was not divine but actually the adopted son of God, which much have made them popular with the locals in Samos. The constant movement of people is a feature of Spanish history in spite of its current static nature.

After Samos I continued to follow the river gorge, now along LU 633, and after 12 kms of riding I soon found myself in the small town of Sarria. This small town was the site of a minor pre-Roman settlement but grew primarily as a pilgrimage waystop. There are a few fine old buildings remaining, although the castle that once dominated the town was turned into building materials. Of particular interest was that the day I cycled into town was Corpus Christi and the main streets were all filled with designs made from flowers and coloured sand.

Corpus Christi is a feast celebrating the Holy Eucharist. In Catholic terms this relates to transubstantiation, or the element of communion involving wine and bread as representative of Christ's body. It appears to be celebrated on a Thursday in some areas and on Sundays in others. As a non-religious person I am not completely clear on this whole concept but everyone in Sarria was involved and walking around, admiring the designs. I got off my bicycle and joined them, and when I passed the rather boring modern church I saw several musicians preparing to go in. One of them, a teenage boy, was carrying bagpipes, a traditional Galician instrument.

On the outskirts of Sarria stands the Iglesia de San Salvador, which has Romanesque features although much of the interior dates to the 14th Century. I got off the bike to take a photograph and as I did so an old man came out. He seemed delighted to see me and was very keen to stamp my credencia. We went into the church and looked around, he cheerfully going on in some kind of Spanish that I understand almost nothing of. Everyone was obviously at the new church in town since we were all alone. He went to a little desk and took out a rubber stamp and with an almost-Herculean effort he stamped the credenica, making an imprint so faint I could barely read it in spite of all his effort. He cheerfully waved goodbye as I left Sarria, heading ever westwards.

Although I attempted to follow the narrow dirt path, at this point, my path diverged from the historical pilgrimage route as I continued along the paved road, C 535, towards Paradela. From Sarria to my evening's destination of Portomarín was 24 kms but there actually was not a great deal to see along this stretch. Galicia is pretty empty in places and the villages, such as there are, seem to have only a handful of houses. Traffic was not very heavy and I made good progress, soon crossing a huge bridge over the Río Miño and entering Portomarín. This town's origins were pre-Roman and it had strategic importance at one time: the bridge had been attacked, destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since the 9th Century. But it served primarily as a pilgrimage waystop. The emergence of Lugo, only 30 kms to the north, with its highway connections meant that Portomarín shrivelled, cut off from commerical activity. Apparently it was not even reachable by wheeled traffic until 1919!

Portomarín immediately struck me as looking a bit odd compared to the other towns I had seen on my travels. The main street had arcades with a vague Wild West feel and the streets were all wider than what I had been used to. It turned out that in 1956 a large hydroelectric dam had been begun futher south on the Río Miño and the old town was permanently flooded after its monuments were dismanteld and relocated. In 1962 the new town of Portomarín was completed on the west bank of the river.

I found a little hotel and after attempting to communicate in crypto-Spanish discovered that the pleasant lady at the front desk spoke fluent German so arrangements became very easy. I unpacked my panniers and, as usual rearranged all my gear and then had a welcome shower. I went for a walk in the town in the blazing late afternoon heat and found a grocery store where I put together my usual pilgrim's meal of bread and cheese.

The primary monument in Portomaín is the Iglesia de San Juan, which is now the parish church of St. Nicholas. This is a massive church/fortress thing that was occupied by the Knights of St. John. It was constructed in the late 12th Century and is extensively decorated, which is a bit unusual for a Romanesque building. Its four towers feature battlements, so after prayer you could go upstairs and dump boiling oil on your enemies outside, I guess. The west facade has a fine arch with an impressive rose window. It was certainly unlike any other church I had seen on the Camino.

The Santiago Road: The Ninth Day

Saturday, June 1, 2002
Rabanal del Camino to O Cebreiro
94.92 km, total for trip 778.76 km

After the previous night’s pouring rain, I was relieved to see that the skies had cleared and I was greeted by bright blue skies and cold morning mountain air. After another modest breakfast, I continued my trip northwestwards, still going along the quiet LE 142. The road, which had originally been built by the Romans, was in good condition and climbed very gently. On either side were markers for snowplows, indicative of the kind of weather that this mountain region gets in winter. After 6 kms or so I came to the ruined 2000 year-old village of Foncebadón, where there are only some piles of local slate to indicate where the houses once were.

A short distance beyond a more serious climb began and I passed a surprising number of pilgrims walking towards the summit. The Marinoni and I were in synch and rolled swiftly up to the top of the pass of Foncebadón, crossing the top of Monte Irago at 1504 m. The summit was marked with a large iron cross, the Cruz de Fierro, and a huge pile of rocks. This is, I think, the highest point on the Camino de Santiago. The Celts had marked passes with stone cairns (in fact, the word cairn is itself Celtic), and the Romans had also carried on this custom. Modern pilgrims leave stones at the top of the rock pile but I had not brought one with me, considering that I already had enough stuff to schlep across Spain, but from the summit I had a fine, if daunting, view of the mountains of Galicia ahead.

I began the descent, passing through more villages. El Acebo was not much more than a single street and a church, although there is a monument on the edge of the settlement to a German cyclist, Heinrich Krause, who died here of a heart attack in 1987 at the age of 70. Historically, a lot of pilgrims had never come back from the trip but it was strange to think of it happening so recently. And ironic that somebody would die of a heart attack on the descent...

The road was now in rather poor condition, with potholes everywhere. Luckily there was no traffic so I was able to pick my way through the least rough sections. However, the road became quite steep and I was forced to break heavily to prevent the bike from getting away on the rough road since my speed would instantly jump to 50 km/h if I relented. At one point I stopped to take a photograph and let the aluminum rims cool down as I did not want to run the risk of a flat caused by excessive heat!

The next village of note was Molinaseca which I passed at high speed, tearing down the superb empty road, with its excellent curves, at 60 km/h. The village sits across a gorge cut by the Río Meruelo and two ancient bridges remain. It was another important pilgrim waystop but not as important my next stop, the large market town of Ponferrada.

Originally owing its wealth the major mineral deposits, Ponferrada was already ancient when the Romans added it to their empire. The Visigoths destroyed it around 456 and the Moors did it again in the 9th Century but it was soon after reconquered and, in 1178, at the height of the pilgrimage, was entrused to the Knights Templar as a base to protect the pilgrim roads. Subsequently it became an important market town, with a well-integrated Jewish community, resisting segregation until an agent was sent by Queen Isabel in 1884 to enforce conformity with royal decrees.

The city became something of a backwater, although the railroad reached it in 1882, but boomed with the development of local collieries in the 1940s. These were pretty well abandoned by the 1980s and the town, which has a population of 65,000, survives today primarily on agriculture and tourism connected to the Camino. In fact, there are ancient Roman gold mines nearby that have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

What is most notable about the town today, besides the very attractive Municipal Square and not much else, is the Templar castle, which was constructed very rapidly (between 1218 and 1282) over the ruins of a pre-Roman fortress. It was the seat of the Grand Master of Castile (now there’s a title for you!). Unfortunately, the Knights Templar were disbanded as a result of various scandals and political machinations in 1312 and the castle was fought over by several local noble families embroiled in dynastic wars. It was finally confiscated for the Crown in 1507, and then eventually sold to the Marqués de Villafranca in 1558. It actually was attacked during the 19th Century Peninsular War. Afterwards, with no military function any longer, it was used as a quarry for other buildings in the town. It has been undergoing restoration and it is very impressive in its dimensions, covering some 16,000 square meters. However, it appears to me to be suffering severely from over-restoration, looking more Disney than Templar. After a few decades of aging this will probably improve its appearance. Jousting tournaments are held at the castle and the banners flying on the parapets were wonderful to see under the cloudless Spanish skies.

My route took me alongside the Río Valcarce to Villafranca del Bierzo, which is situated at the west end of the fertile Bierzo basin. The name is interesting as it translates out to "Foreigners’ Town", owing its growth to the increase in pilgrimage traffic in the early 12th Century. But nothing lasts forever and the place was decimated by plague in 1589. The river flooded in the 18th Century and wrecked a good deal of the place, and then the English made a mess of the place in 1808. However, much of Villafranca’s Medieval and Renaissance character has been preserved and cycling into town was quite dramatic as one rises up from the river on a series of terraced inclines. There are three impressive churches in the main square.

But I was eager for the road ahead and soon the way began to go up again. I stopped for something to drink at a store and hotel near Terabadelo. A cute German girl was working there and she seemed very happy to have someone chat to her for a while. But pilgrims have itineraries to meet. However, if I had known what was coming I might have dallied a while longer...

The road began to pitch up pretty seriously now, and a highway ran parallel to my little road, sometimes crossing it, and not doing much for the atmosphere. I was getting hot and tired and the road showed no sign of relenting. Annoying flies began to buzz around my face as I ground my way slowly onwards. I was hurting on what was the hardest stretch of road on the trip so far and it was no surprise that in pilgrimage times the area had been infested with bandits. Although still part of León the architecture and culture are Galician. I had excellent views of the mountains ahead, which I would have enjoyed–the countryside is open and brushy, with heather and occasional stands of scrub oak--if I was not in such pain from the climb and if I was not also concerned about the weather. I thought of Herr Krause and his heart attack with some sympathy. The temperature had dropped and the sky had become dark, suggesting that we were going to be hit with another massive rainstorm. I was really at the limit when I finally crested the last ridge and came into the village of O Cebreiro, at 1293 m.

My inn in O Cebreiro
It was pretty cold here on top and the place, all dark slate, looked dreary. Interestingly, a number of the buildings were circular and had straw roofs. It was clear that the place was surviving because of the pilgrim traffic and I was very worried that I would not be able to find a place to stay but the second place I came to, a tavern, had rooms available and I checked in, exhausted. Shortly afterwards it began to rain heavily.

I had to go outside and in through another day to get something to eat and by the time I left to go back to my room the rain was coming down so hard I was soaked in the short time I needed to just go around the building. Soon the rain was joined by thunder and lightning so violent it seemed to coming from just outside my window.

My day had been a good one, for the most part. I had seen a great deal, ridden just under 100 km and not gotten lost. On the other hand, I was completely exhausted. I had expected that the Roncesvalles Pass would be the hardest section of the Camino but I had been very mistaken.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Now For Something Completely Different...Puppet Carnage!

Mimmo Cuttichio and his Sicilian Puppets

"Does your life revolve entirely around cycling?," people ask me. Distressingly often. In fact, there is usually eye-rolling involved. Or running away.
Just to indicate how well-rounded my interests are and given that the massive snowfall in Ottawa has meant the end of cycling for the time being, I have gone back to my Archive of Interesting Things, back to March 29, 2001. I was living in Berlin at the time and decided to go to a training camp put on by Mallorca-Aktiv, a German group generally setting up trips to Spain but this time they were offering a Southern Italian adventure: two weeks in Sicily.
In preparation for my imminent trip to Sicily for bicycle training, I decided to acclimatize myself by going to a performance by Mimmo Cuticchio, a traditional puppeteer from Palermo. This is probably a little like reading Julius Caesar in Latin to get ready for a trip to Rome, but I could not pass up any production named: "The Terrible and Frightening Story of the Prince of Venosa and His Beautiful Maria." On the other hand, I was alarmed by the idea that the accompanying music was described as a composition for human voice, saxophones and percussion. When I purchased my ticket at the box office the night before the performance, I had no difficulty getting an excellent seat (Row 7, in the middle) and I was distinctly worried about being the only audience member watching a baroque puppet show entirely in Italian.

The Hebbel Theater, where the show took place, is a very interesting building and was constructed in 1907, when Art Nouveau seems to have been going through a particularly organic, and slightly creepy, phase. The facade of the building is poured concrete set with various geometric patterns the height of the theatre. Inside, it is rather dark, with lost of curved dark brown wood panelling but very little ornamentation. In the lobby are pictures of various pre- World War II theatres in Berlin, most of them since destroyed. There seem to be no fewer than three coat check areas on the main floor, although the place is not all that large. On the second floor, there is a large lounge where you can have something to eat or drink.

The seats in the Hebbel are definitely not one of its highlights, being too close together and having too short cushions, but I thought that surviving the eighty minutes of the performance would not be too hard, particularly since I was going to be the only one there. But then I noticed that the theatre was beginning to fill quite rapidly and before I realized it, the place was quite full. The audience looked very artsy-trendy, with lots of black turtlenecks visible. As I was to soon learn, most of those present spoke Italian, as they were all laughing at the jokes before I could figure them out.

On the stage as the puppet theatre, which had brightly-painted wings of cloth and, over the proscenium arch, an inscription describing the Cuticchios as "Sons of Art" [Pupi Siciliani Della Compagnia Figli D’Arte Cuticchio]. With Italian punctuality (15 minutes late), the lights went down and the orchestra pit filled, if filled is the right word when applied to a female vocalist, four saxophonists and a percussionist. The woman began the overture, which was sung in Italian but whose meaning was unclear to me. Was this the famous impenetrable dialect of Sicily? The music was dissonant and pretty weird.

After this went on for a while and I was beginning to regret the 30 DM and the evening lost, out from behind the puppet theatre came Mimmo Cuticchio, a tall, sturdy man with a big grey beard, resembling Verdi with long hair. He was carrying a wooden sword.

Standing centre stage, he began to recite a story about the childhood of composer Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1561-1613). Carlo’s grandfather enjoyed telling the little boy stories about brave knights and famous battles, but one day he told a different story. This was about how King Pippin’s intended bride Bertha is kidnapped by hired assassins, who then release her in the woods to die, rather than kill her (Snow White Syndrome). She is rescued by a woodcutter and gratefully marries him, with several bambini resulting.

In the meantime, a serving girl has been fobbed off on King Pippin as Bertha and the result of this union is two sons. Eventually, Pippin learns of the deception and gets the real Bertha back (but what about the woodcutter?) and two more children, Carlo and Bertha, result from this now-corrected marital situation. But, alas, Pippin’s sons by his marriage to the servant want to usurp the throne and war breaks out. The young Carlo is sent to the Court of Spain, where he falls in love but then returns to claim his inheritance by killing his stepbrothers in fierce knightly battle and becoming Charlemagne, Charles the Great.

I followed this story, which is both a staple of Sicilian puppet theatre and a load of old cobblers, partially through reading the woefully slow and very limited German surtitles and through watching Mimmo Cuticchio very closely. The story went on for quite some time and, except for the reference to Carlo Gesualdo, seemed to have absolutely nothing whatever to do with the following puppet show. But to see Mimmo Cuticchio recite a story was to see a master at work. This method of reciting is also an old Sicilian art.

He portrayed the little Carlo Gesualdo, he played the wise old grandfather. The wooden sword became a potent multiple prop, as it metamorphosized from a sword in battle scenes to a cross in a church. But I was completely transfixed by the seductive beauty of the Italian language as Mimmo Cuticchio played it like a violin. It cajoled, it laughed, it trumped, it regretted, it wept–all in a completely hypnotic music. I really only know Italian from bad opera libretti, a few phrases at a time and I was unprepared for its teasing subtlety, its incomparable attractiveness. I forgot about the not-yet-seen puppets and the weird music and the uncomfortable seat and just wanted Mimmo Cuticchio’s story never to end.

But end it did, as the puppetmaster replaced the storyteller and we learned that Carlo Gesualdo, a nobleman, went on to became the Prince of Venosa and a celebrated composer and musician and that we would now see his (and the Beautiful Maria’s) Terrible and Frightening Story.
In the opening scene, Carlo Gesualdo and his beautiful wife, Maria d’Avalos, are guests of honour at a party to celebrate his latest madrigal. Carlo lives for his music and has begun to take Maria for granted. Carlo’s wicked uncle, seeing a golden opportunity, makes a pass at Maria, who rejects him forcefully. She tells him to join the others, who have left for a hunt.

Carlo is an excellent huntsman, and when his uncle’s attempt to kill a wild boar fails, the nephew returns shortly afterwards with the kill. This angers Uncle even further. In the meanwhile, a band of brigands waits in the woods for a likely victim to waylay. Ignoring a poor old man with a donkey–to rob him would be dishonourable–they instead attack a wealthy young nobleman, Fabrizio Carafa, who is travelling with his cowardly servant on horseback. Using the time-honoured Let’s-Attack-One-At-A-Time style so beloved of movie villain gangs, the brigands attempt to do battle with Fabrizio Carafa, who kills all but one single-handed. This is quite a remarkable thing to see when do with marionettes. The FX (Special Effects) marionettes are used, with heads and various appendages flying off when struck with swords.

The surviving brigand admits he is not the leader of the group but works for the notorious Sciarra. "You steal from the rich and give to the poor, don’t you?" asks Fabrizio. He is impressed by this socialist attitude enough to let the brigand go, taking a message to the notorious Sciarra that if he ever wanted to fight, Fabrizio Carafa was ready to meet him man-to-man.

Carafa’s servant comes out of hiding to tell him that the horse has run off. They walk through the forest to reach yet another party chez Gesualdo. Everyone is delighted to see the popular Fabrizio Carafa and for the bored but beautiful Maria, it is love at first sight. And reciprocal. "You are as beautiful as an archangel," she coos to Fabrizio. This line, which even sounds corny in Italian, provoked huge amusement amongst the audience. For Maria, this is no slavering uncle-by-marriage: this is Hot Stuff indeed! Uncle notices Maria and Fabrizio’s mutual attraction and really goes around the bend. And a Spanish nobleman offers Fabrizio the use of his nearby hunting lodge, so we know that Big Trouble is Brewing.

Having failed with his words of honey, Uncle turns to the obvious alternative: sorcery. Casting spells in the basement, he summons up a remarkable array of demons who fly off to their assignment of poisoning the minds of all those at the court of Carlo Gesualdo. Then Uncle goes to tell the poor Prince of Venosa all about the affair.

Unable to believe what he hears, Carlo demands confirmation, asking his trusty chamberlain if the sordid story is true. At this moment, a demon stands behind the chamberlain and directs his every word, spewing out the whole dreadful story. Carlo, now himself possessed by a particularly original red-and-black winged demon, feels that court etiquette demands that his honour can only be salvaged in one way: Italian Revenge!!

We see the hunting lodge, where the naked Maria (!) and Fabrizio (!) cavort in innocence (actually, they are cavorting in bed, so perhaps it is not so innocent). Then there is the arrival of Carlo Gesualdo’s hired assassins, who shoot Fabrizio, a nicely modern touch for 1590, although I suppose they needed two killers as the guns were so unreliable then. The Prince of Venosa finishes the crime by personally stabbing his wife repeatedly.

Horrified, and apparently shed of his winged demon, Carlo Gesualdo is contrite for what he has done. He tells his chamberlain that he will never leave his castle again and will receive no one for the remainder of his days. And so ends "La Terrible e spavantosa storia del Principe de Venosa e della bella Maria." The curtains fall and we are left to reflect on the Depravity of Mankind yet once again.

The puppets used to portray this story (which is a true one, incidentally) are marionettes about 80 cm tall and fairly heavy. Generally, a rod is used to operate the left arm and a string is used for the right, but others of the puppets are controlled only by the highly-visible rods. Some of the puppets have been used by three generations of Cuticchios and there must be a fair amount of repair work needed, particularly after the fight sequences which are a notable feature of Sicilian puppetry. In the scene where Fabrizio fights the brigands, the puppets crash together with swords or spears in their hands. One puppet is decapitated, another is cut in half through the torso while the others just collapse dramatically into heaps.

The scene where Uncle summons the demons was also very memorable. Not only were the demons wonderfully creepy to look at, but their entrance was marked by a blinding flash of light as a fiery comet crossed the stage, leaving a strong brimstone (cordite?) smell in the Hebbel-Theater.

The music, by Sicilian-born Salvatore Sciarrino, was based on works by Carlo Gesualdo and Domenico Scarlatti and was surprisingly very good. The four saxophones, of assorted ranges, sounded almost like trumpets and gave a properly baroque feel to the proceedings.
After the show was over, the wings of the puppet theatre were pulled down to reveal the core structure and the puppets on their stands. Mimmo Cuticchio returned to the stage to invite us all not only to see the company perform in Palermo, but also to come on stage and exam the marionettes up close and personal. (As I suspected, the semi-nude Maria puppet was a stand-in). The audience accepted with alacrity and there was soon a big crowd of Italian-speaking party animals, including the musicians, the five puppeteers and, of course, me–except for the Italian part--, on the boards.

Puppetry was first imported from Naples in the 19th Century, but the Sicilian variety, with its emphasis on tales of chivalry, including the stories of Orlando Furioso and Charlemagne battling the Moors, has achieved its own reputation. Its popularity survived the advent of the movie theatre, but television threatens it with extinction. It is performed now primarily for tourists. Mimmo Cuticchio has worked to revive this traditional art since 1977 and his apprentices all must undergo a difficult four years of learning.

Puppetry has a very long history and is a powerful metaphoric tool that is rarely used now in the modern world. Unless you count the brilliant and hilarious film "Being John Malkovitch." Watching the fairly simple Sicilian puppets, whose rods were visible and whose facial expressions cannot change, we accept them for who they are meant to portray. In their movements, they come alive for us and their fates are interesting and meaningful. I remember reading a quote from someone involved with the Salzburg Marionettes, who pointed out that when using puppets to perform opera, you are not limited by the physical appearance of a particular singer. A puppet can look exactly as you expect the character to look.

I was reminded of this as well during a visit to London when I saw "Shock-Headed Peter," where puppets are used as a complement to the human actors. As one reviewer wrote, the puppets actually seem more real and sympathetic than the people. The most frightening moment came when the Boy-Who-Sucked-His-Thumbs, portrayed by a rather forlorn and harmless marionette, had his thumbs cut off by a pair of scissors wielded by Mr. Snip-Snip, just as his mother warned would happen. This was done to a puppet, yet you could sense the frisson that went through the appalled audience, an audience inured to the violence on film and television present every night.
So there you have it: non-cycling on my blog. But I will post an account of my trip to Sicily in 2001 since it was a lot of fun too.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Definitely the end of the 2007 Cycling Season

A Big Storm!

The Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada are being hammered by a very impressive snowstorm that has probably already dumped nearly 2 feet of snow on us.

The NOAA image at right shows the satellite image as of 4 pm today and there is still a lot of the white stuff yet to come. Amazingly, we will be barbecuing some veggie burgers tonight, once I dig out the barbeque on the deck of course.

So for those of you suffering the same storm, may your shovels be light. For those without snow, be sure to go for a ride for me since I think it will be some time before we dig out, let alone before I get on a bicycle for an outdoor ride!

The deck--it was clear this morning!

Our street, somewhere in there...

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Sustrans wins the lottery!

Sustrans, the UK organization developing a national cycling network, was in the running for a massive lottery prize to develop its Connect 2 program in 79 communities. The project, one of four in contention, received 42 percent of the votes cast, making it the clear public favourite. Sustrans has identified an additional 100 million pounds of community money that it can now access over the coming years in addition to the 50 million pounds of lottery money.

From today's issue of

Dreams do come true, and you can bet on that. Cycling in the United Kingdom has just been granted $102 million (50 million pounds) by the U.K.'s Big Lottery Fund. Several weeks ago we ran a note asking you to help the cause by voting in favor of cycling receiving the big prize. (Pedestrians get a piece of the pie too.) The windfall will be supplemented with a matching amount from local authorities. According to Carlton Reid at, the money will fund 79 projects in the next five years, such as bridges to connect disjointed bike paths. It was the biggest-ever U.K. lottery grant awarded by public vote, with cycling receiving 42% of the tally against three other projects.

Winter Motivation

It is not getting much more Spring-like in Ottawa these days and the dark and cold are pretty relentless: when I got up this morning it was -15C and it was ages before the sun came up. Rather than cycling outdoors, I have been going to the gym to lift weights (boring), treadmill running (boring, except when the belt goes too fast) and riding the time trial bike in the basement while watching racing DVDs. The latter is not so bad since I usually just spend an hour doing this, but I have really enjoyed watching the DVD of the 2003 version of one of my favourite races, Switzerland's Tour of Romandy.

This race, in the French-speaking part of the country, began in 1947 and runs through some glorious countryside. When living in Europe I followed this 5-stage race on television and always enjoyed it very much. And the parcours for the 2008 race has just been announced so as I whirl away in the basement I am riding, at least in spirit, through the wonderful hills of Springtime.

From today:

2007 Tour de Romandie announced

The itinerary of next year's Tour de Romandie has been unveiled by the event organisers. The 62nd edition of the ProTour stage race taking place in the French-speaking part of Switzerland will be run from April 29-May 4, 2008, and serve, as usual, as a final preparation for Giro d'Italia contenders. But next season, the Tour de Romandie outcome may be more open to climbers as there will be less overall time trial kilometres than this year, when Thomas Dekker of Team Rabobank scored the final victory.

The prologue held in the streets of Geneva will be extra-short, only 1900 metres, and the long time trial usually raced on the final day will take place on Friday, May 2 in Sion. In between, the Swiss mountains will surely do some damage and provide a worthy winner of the event.
The six stages outline as follows:

Tuesday, April 29 - prologue: Genève-Genève (1,9 km)
Wednesday, April 30 - Stage 1: Morges-Saignelégier (182,4 km)
Thursday, May 1 - Stage 2: Moutier-Fribourg (170 km)
Friday, May 2 - Stage 3: Sion-Sion (18,8 km ITT)
Saturday, May 3 - Stage 4: Sion-Zinal (126,5 km)
Sunday, May 4 - Stage 5: Le Bouveret-Lausanne (159,4 km)

Monday, 3 December 2007

The 2007 Cycling Season: finito

Alas, a major snowfall has meant the end of my 2007 cycling season. A winter storm, originating in Colorado, has brought us 25 cm of snow so far and no end is in sight. My workout today consisted of shoveling the driveway in what appears to be an exercise in futility. I actually was going to ride BlackAdder one more time but when I went out of the garage and the snow came up to his pedals, that was the end of that.

Looking back, I can count on some accomplishments for this year:

It was probably the best season ever as I put in 7800 km on the road, which is pretty good as my goal was 7500.

My weight dropped from around 90 kg in January to a low of 76 kg in August, currently holding steady at 77+ kg. I placed third in the Fat Cyclist's B7 Weight Loss Challenge and scored some neat stuff.

I managed to keep up at the California training camp in San Diego in January. I not only have great memories of this trip, but also a new coach and more enthusiasm for training.

I would have kept up at the Squadra Coppi training camp in April but the weather was so terrible everyone went home early.

My time on the Wintergreen Ascent was a big improvement over the previous year's.

I did some great rides in the hills of Maryland, breaking in the fabulous new Specialized S-Works Tarmac E5, and Harp Hill holds no fear for me now.

It was the first time that I did the longest ride of the Wilderness Road Ride and the Mountains of Misery on one weekend.

I rode the Mountain Mama century for the first time and really enjoyed it; the Do-it-Yourself Century ride we did on Skyline Drive was even better but even harder!

The flat time trials I did were a great learning experience, and I know that I can hit the elusive 40 km in one hour mark in 2008. Only 2.5 minutes to knock off!

We had a super time cycling in Alsace and the Black Forest, in spite of the weather. I ride with the best friends a cyclist could have. And I correspond with a lot of other great people about cycling too: cyclingphun, the Historian, DOM from PA, Pez...

The C&O Canal towpath tour I did with Dr. Chef was certainly one of the highlights of the year and reminded me of just how much fun meandering touring can be.

I enjoyed riding with the Oakville Bicycling Club--if only they had been around when I was growing up in Oakville!--and have enjoyed getting reacquainted with Gatineau Park and my cycling buddies here.

My review of "Paris-Roubaix" was published to great acclaim on

I attended Cirque du Cyclisme in Greensboro and made new friends, as well as riding the beloved Marinoni with a herd of vintage lugged steel bikes.

So I have a lot to be happy about as I look outside and see the snow cascade down. And I am already training hard for 2008 and have lots of great plans in development.