Sicily- part 2

To pick up where I left off in part 1, we were just leaving Taormina (the world’s prettiest town).

We had a long drive from Taormina right across Sicily to our next stop in Palermo (3+ hours), so we decided to break it up with a small side trip to the Canadian War Cemetery in Agira.

While back in Catania, we had a visit to the Sicilian WWII museum. It concentrated on the Allies’ Operation Husky (the invasion and taking of Sicily) and the bombing of Sicilian towns. It was a great museum but less than one-third of the exhibits and displays had English translations. We got the gist and it was very humbling to see it from the Sicilians’ point-of-view: they appreciated the Allies helping them break their ties with Hitler, but they took heavy bombing and casualties, too. For a few weeks, we Canadians were ‘the bad guys’.




However, once the Allies won the island, the Sicilians were then glad to see the Nazis gone and didn’t mind having the Allies around for the next couple years of the war.

So now while we were driving across the island, we took the bumpy and windy 15km detour to the beautifully situated Agira War Cemetery. Agira was the Canadians’ largest battle and where they took the heaviest casualties. There are 490 men buried here, on a hill overlooking valleys, a lake, and with the mountain town of Agira on the horizon. We took our time to pay our respects.

We then continued on to Palermo but now sort of wish we hadn’t. Every trip has a low point, and Palermo was ours. Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and the one that tour guides like Rick Steves say not to miss… But there were little redeeming qualities in the city for us. It didn’t help that it was raining and cold; a Sunday, so a lot was closed or inaccessible; and we had just come from the world’s prettiest town, so our standards were set high.

Palermo was full of garbage, everywhere in the streets, litter. And shit, literally. Excuse my language, but there’s no way to delicately describe the heaps of smelly dog shit on the side of the road. I’m not talking about the little piles here and there like you encounter in Paris and most other European cities; but we passed one unpaved part of the sidewalk where a tree was growing, about 2m x 1m of no pavement (dirt, or ‘grassy’ area) and it was overflowing with dog poop. If someone tried to scoop it all, it would be 3 big black Hefty bags full, and the stench was utterly overwhelming.

We were down to our last pairs of socks and underwear but couldn’t get our clothes washed because laundromats don’t open on Sundays and our hotel didn’t accept laundry on a Sunday. We were going to do a bus tour but they barely ran on Sundays (only 2 times, not all day) and wouldn’t be worth the cost, we took cabs instead (and one cabbie ripped us off). Restaurants were hard to find that served food, not just drinks; and in the end when we got in the car to leave, our gas seemed awfully low- we think it was siphoned off!

So we didn’t love Palermo, but we got around and saw some of the bigger sites, even if just from the outside. The one place that was open and we could actually go in was the Capuchin Catacombs that Sophie read about in her kids’ Atlas Obscura (a great book for any kid interested in geography and/or seeing the world!) and wanted to see. It certainly was interesting to see but of course we couldn’t take any photos inside and we respected this rule (though again, it seems like we’re the only tourists who know how to respect things like religion and the dead).

However, please enjoy some other photos of Palermo landmarks from the outside.

The Opera House
The large cathedral. It was Sunday so there was mass. It doesn’t look anything like we’d expect inside. All white sheetrock and paint and no stained glass and stone arches like we’re used to in France and England, even older cathedrals in Canada.
The theatre near our hotel.

Those 3 photos are about the only redeeming sights and parts of Palermo I can show. We left by 9am on our check-out day and didn’t look back. The drive south-east was perilous, hilly, and full of switch-back, winding bends; but we knew we were going in the right direction to leave Palermo in our rear-view when a rainbow came out in the Sicilian countryside.

Our next stop was the tourist destination, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. These are Greek temple ruins built in 400-200BC on a high mountain ridge with expansive views of the valley below and the sea beyond.

This showed how they made wheels with the stones and moved the even larger stones.

It’s a long walk along the ridge and you spend a few hours there. When we started it was windy but the sun was warm. About 2/3 through, it clouded over and started to rain and just became miserable. I didn’t care then how ancient or special it all was, I couldn’t feel my feet, I could hardly walk, I just wanted to get to an exit and get out!!!

After our time in Agrigento we got back on the windy road and headed to Modica, where our agriturismo B&B (farm-stay) was just outside of.

We stayed at the Nacalino Agriturismo which simply blew us away. It is a beautiful little olive oil farm, they also grow their own vegetables and fruit (there’s a lemon tree in the courtyard) organically. Our host made us a 4-course Sicilian dinner every night with fresh, local produce. Things that didn’t come from their farm came from the neighbouring farms (there were a lot of cows around, and the next farm over looked to specialise in ricotta and mozzarella). Everything was so fresh, so authentic, and so tasty.

One of our 4-course meals. Always an antipasto plate, then pasta, then meat, then sweet.

The grounds were so lovely as well. There were friendly cats and an old golden labrador that Sophie and I liked to cuddle. We liked to walk around and explore. We had full use of the common rooms with fireplace, and we could finally get our laundry done (in fact, Tina, the proprietor, did it all for us, for free!!). I’m sure the place would be really stunning to use in the summer with the outdoor pool under the palm trees. However, being there when the pool is closed also means we get the off-season pricing.

Breakfast was a buffet just as impressive as our dinners. Fresh-made cappuccinos, oodles of home-made pastries, freshly squeezed juice, local meats and cheeses, and everything else one gets at breakfast buffets.

The food is delicious, however breakfast buffets are a ridiculous amount of work for a type-1 diabetic. The breakfast she has pictured above looks great, then we calculated it to be about 120g of carbs. Her first bolus was 17 units of insulin (at home on a regular day she usually doesn’t go over 35 units for her entire daily dose!). This was only her first pass of the buffet. I think she went over 200-250g of carbs by the time she was done breakfast. And why not, she’s in Italy, enjoy! (Just bring extra insulin!)

On New Year’s Eve day, we headed in to the old town of Modica, a UNESCO world heritage site. It was full of Baroque architecture built into the cliffsides of a gorge down to a valley. The churches were like the others we’ve seen in Sicily, so beautiful from the outside then white, painted, and overdone inside.

One of the smaller churches in town, the Church of St. Peter
We were finally in a Sicilian church without a mass going on, so we grabbed a photo. They are still beautiful, but not the same beauty we’re used to.
Sophie and me on the 250-stair climb up to the next cathedral. You can see the town carved into the cliffside behind us.
We finally made it up 200+ stairs, halfway up the cliff, to this church, Church of St. Giorgio

We stayed at Nacalino Agriturismo for 3 nights, our longest stay in Sicily. We knew there wouldn’t be much open on New Year’s Day and we’d been tired, so we happily took a day to rest and stay around our room and the estate. We took walks, we read, played games, watched TV, and Sophie and I did a little photo shoot. Here’s one photo but you can see a carousel of 7 in my Instagram links below this post:

We were sad to leave the agriturismo, we so enjoyed our stay, but it was time to move on east to Siracusa, which I’ll outline in Part 3.

Happy New Year 2020 to all!

Remembrance Day 2019 (Normandy part 2)

As I said in my last post, Normandy was amazing but our Remembrance Day was just overwhelmingly beautiful, I had to give it its own post.

We checked out of our lovely hotel and left Bayeux in mid-morning. We expected to have a bit of time on our hands and to take things slowly. The Remembrance ceremony wasn’t until 1500h at Juno Beach.

We headed to Bény-sur-Mer, where the Canadian war cemetery is. There are many Canadian war cemeteries across Europe, but this is one of the biggest and the one associated with D-Day.


Unlike the American cemetery, we could walk these rows. We spent an hour or so here, reading the names and the epitaphs on the stones.

It meant so much to be here today, and to be able to reflect. I’m sure it would also feel just as heavy on June 6. I know it is somber on any day of the year, but I’m just saying that today felt different.

One thing in particular that was sad to see, for us, was the number of graves that had no adornment- no flowers and nothing left from visitors. I suppose we can’t expect them all to, but it felt sort of empty.

As we were leaving, I saw a family come in. They had a bouquet with them and were wearing Canadian poppies. I saw them head to a specific grave. They had their quiet moment and laid the flowers. Then they were taking photos of them with it. They were clearly a Canadian family who had travelled to be here and to see this grave. So I headed over to offer to take a photo of all 4 of them together with the grave. It turns out they were from BC and it was the man’s uncle’s grave. They were planning to head to Juno Beach later on as well. We were happy to have met another Canadian family doing their remembering.

Next, we headed on to the Juno Beach Centre. We planned to tour the museum for a while and have a picnic lunch before the ceremony.

The centre is beautiful, with so much information and history included. If you have a loved one who was a part of a Canadian regiment in WWII, especially in Normandy, then I highly recommend you check it out sometime.

As I’ve mentioned (many times), my grandfather was in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (1CPB) and fought in Normandy. Knowing this, I of course gravitated to learning all I could about this elite unit.

(My paternal grandfather was also in WWII, an RCAF aerial photographer. However, I never had the pleasure of meeting him and forging a bond. Also, he was never stationed in Normandy. Though there was a small section about our military in Italy, where he was, and I found it fascinating).

There was one great interactive computer exhibit that I was playing with. It was a large touch-screen wherein you could select any Canadian regiment that was in Normandy and then be lead through a slideshow of their movements through the area after landing. I selected the 1CPB and it started with them helping liberate Pegasus Bridge and fend off the Nazis for many days to keep it. With my knowledge of my grandfather’s battle history and when he entered Normandy, it was at about slide 8 or 9 of about 25. The unit had a week off starting 17 June 1944 and got reinforcements (that’s my Papa!). Throughout this slideshow, there are a few photos and snapshots, not many- mostly of the men in repose or relaxing. About halfway through, this large close-up photo pops up:

It looked somewhat familiar. I read the caption. And then I burst into tears. My Papa spent our whole lives telling us about Andy. Andy was his best friend. They went through training together and then entered battle together.

Andy died in Operation Varsity in the Battle of the Bulge on March 24, 1945.

Papa never forgot. He never let us forget, either. Every year when Papa attended a Remembrance Day ceremony, we knew he was thinking of Andy.

And here Andy was staring up at me at our nation’s WWII memorial museum in France.

I couldn’t help but feel Papa with me. I know how pleased he would be to know that of all the 1CPB soldiers’ photos to be had, Juno Beach Centre shows Andy’s. He will not be forgotten.

After I dried my tears from that moment, we continued on. Then I came across another 1CPB exhibit talking about who they were and what they did and there was a uniform jacket in it. I glanced to the side and saw it was the jacket of one Sid Pass, an old buddy of my Papa’s. They were in the war together then lived in the same city and were friends for many years until Sid died just a few years before Papa. His granddaughter contacted me when Papa died and expressed her condolences. I just feel it’s such a small world sometimes. It certainly was a small 1CPB!

After we toured the museum and had our picnic lunch, it was time to get ready for the ceremony. Easy enough for Sophie and me… A lot more work for Eric. He is supposed to be in full dress uniform for these ceremonies, even just as an attendee.

Before the ceremony, everyone was milling about in the lobby. This also became a bit of a meet and greet. The people present were a mix of French locals and Canadians. Of course with Eric in uniform, it opened a lot of conversations. Some other Canadians came and said hi, and a few French wanted to hi too. One little old lady (and I mean little!) came and told Eric that her father fought with the French Resistance and was awarded a Commander of the French Legion of Honour. Eric told her (as this conversation was all in French) that my grandfather was a Knight of the Legion of Honour because he was a Canadian who fought in Normandy. Oh! She got so excited! She started showing me the papers that showed who her father was and his medal (a photo of it). I showed her photos of my Papa with his medal and him in the war. She cried. She insisted on a photo together (as I had my phone out showing her photos, she told me to take a photo now!).

We hugged and kissed and she even gave me her address! Haha. I’ll send her a nice card. She was so sweet.

Then it was time to start the ceremony. There was a large turnout, including the local mayor and Senator, Chief of Police, and other important locals. They all had wreaths to lay before the ceremony could start inside. Inside there was a local band and bagpiper, too.

The ceremony was beautiful, though I only understood half of it. That’s ok, I got the jist.

Eric was asked to read the Act of Remembrance in English. He did, rather well.

During the ceremony, a woman from Ottawa had a small presentation explaining a project she’s been working on called ‘Flags2Bény’. She explained that on her first trip to Juno Beach, she was so touched by everything that she wanted to find a way to spread the word more at home in Canada. One thing she did was get a bridge near the airport in Ottawa renamed Juno Bridge. She also got schoolchildren to sign messages of thanks on over 2000 Canadian flags and brought them here to Juno today. She asked us to each take some flags and go to the Canadian war cemetery after the ceremony and put them on a few graves.

Well, we went to her after and snagged the last few flags she had! She was worried people wouldn’t participate but instead more people wanted to help than she had flags!! This was French locals and the Canadians alike all wanting to help and honour our dead.

We also then met an amazing, sweet woman who said she was a local girl in the area when the Canadians landed on D-Day and liberated the town. She said she was 11 years old and remembers being friends with the soldiers. Amazing! Eric pointed out that our daughter is 11 now, the same age this woman was on D-Day. We got a photo with her.

I love that 75 years later, she still comes to the Canadian Armistice Day ceremonies to say thanks. (And wanted to plant some flags at the cemetery, as well!).

After the ceremony, they did something so very dignified, so very French- they served delicate pastries and sparkling cider (the cider the region is known for).

Then we went outside to pay our own, private respects. We were asked if we wanted to lay a wreath but I explained that no, thank you, we had different plans.

You see, when my Papa died in March, there was a beautiful flower arrangement atop his casket with a few red poppies in it. The poppies were artificial because the florist couldn’t exactly get real poppies in March in Canada. Family kept those poppies. I have two, and plans to take them to the places I promised Papa we’d go when I last spoke to him.

Today I had one of those poppies and we were laying it at the Juno Beach memorial instead of a wreath. We didn’t want to lay it at the big wreath laying ceremony because it was too important, and people wouldn’t understand the significance of this tiny, fake poppy that looked a little worse for wear after travelling about a 13,000km trip (Brantford to Victoria to Bristol to Normandy).

But it got here, and we laid it in Papa’s memory.

Then we took a few other photos. Eric was here for Remembrance Day in 2006 so we took a photo so we could compare, haha.

Thirteen years ago, that uniform was  barely broken in!

Then because there were a few new things since 2006, including a Naval memorial, more photos:

However, do you think we managed to get a photo of the 3 of us while he was in uniform, or during this special day? I thought of it while I was waiting for him to change into his civi clothes. Sigh. And there were so many people around that we ‘knew’ by then that we could ask, too. But we just never thought of it, and forgot. Oh well, my hair was a disaster from the gale outside so I probably wouldn’t have liked any photo we got anyway.

Then we went back to the war cemetery to fulfill our promise to plant the flags on the graves. When we had gone earlier in the day, we were the only car in the parking lot. This time when we pulled up, there were a dozen cars or so! Wonderful!

When we got to the cemetery, we saw that plenty of people had already been and had and were still planting their flags. One older man in a retiree’s Legion uniform made sure to stand up and salute with every single flag he placed, it was touching.

Flags-2-Bény was a success! The cemetery looked much more loved afterwards and more importantly, the graves were each individually respected.

They were still planting a few flags by the time we left but we had to hit the road.

It’s been the most amazing day of reflection, introduction, pride, and enlightenment. We all loved our day and will never forget it.

Thank you for letting me share it with you.

A somber, reflective weekend in Normandy (Part 1)

For those of you who don’t know, Remembrance Day is 11 November in Canada. It is Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of WWI and the day we remember the men and women who died in the wars to keep us free. In the UK, they commemorate this day on the second Sunday in November, and it is called Remembrance Sunday. Not in Canada, in Canada, the day is too important to be swept off to the weekend, and to work through 11 November. So, I applied to Sophie’s school for special consideration to pull her from school so we could commemorate this solemn day.

Remembrance Day was on a Monday this year. It will be on a Wednesday next year and a Thursday our last year in the UK. So if we ever wanted to pilgrimage to a Canadian war memorial like Juno Beach for Remembrance Day, we figured this would be the best year for it so as to miss the least amount of school and work.

We took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth on Friday night. We landed in Normandy at 7am on Saturday morning. It was still dark, nothing was open, it was cold, and we were hungry. We eventually found a bakery open to grab a few pains au chocolate.

Then we headed east and the first thing we encountered, as the sun was rising, was Pegasus Bridge.

Pegasus Bridge is important to me and my family because my grandfather was in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which was a part of the British 6th Airborne Division, who liberated this bridge. (However, my papa wasn’t a part of D-Day, he came a couple weeks later as reinforcements, so he himself wasn’t a part of the liberation of this bridge, it is just emblematic of his time in the war).

There is a picture of my grandparents at this bridge in 1974 when they came to Normandy for the 30th anniversary of D-Day. I love that we have a matching photo.

My Papa died only 8 months ago, at the age of 96. So this entire trip is very moving, and I feel he is with me.

After our little stop at Pegasus Bridge, we continued on east. There is a memorial museum to the Airborne at Pegasus Bridge, but it wouldn’t be open for hours. We planned to return.

We went to Honfleur, a beautiful little port famous for its artists. It turns out, that because it was Saturday morning, there is a huge farmer’s market spanning blocks and blocks amongst the medieval buildings. We had so much fun going up and down these stalls, sampling the wares, and buying a few treats.

After an hour or two or walking around here, we hear the familiar alarm of Sophie’s Dexcom telling us she’s going low. I was about to reach into my bag for some of the candy I have there but she remembered about 2 stalls back they were selling homemade caramels. We figured why not, shouldn’t that be a perk of a travelling diabetic? Eric quickly ran back and bought a few pieces of freshly-made caramels. We had no idea how well a caramel treats a low (or not) — it is mostly sugar but it is also a high fat content, which slows the absorption of sugar. But we weren’t too worried, as we were about to head to lunch.

Me resting my legs and Sophie eating her sugar.
Sophie in Honfleur after lunch

After our beautiful morning in Honfleur we headed back to the Pegasus Memorial Museum. Here, we learned a lot about the 6th Airborne Division and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. In case you’re curious as to the exact relation:

The 1CPB fought under the 3rd Parachute Brigade
This is the original sign placed by the Airborne on 20 June 1944. This is the sign my grandparents are beside in the photo above.

After lots of learning, and crying, we left the museum. Our hotel was in Bayeux and seeing as we’d only slept a few hours on the ferry, we were ready to turn in. Of course, it was hard to find a place for supper, but eventually we got some pizzas and called it a night.

Sunday morning brought sleeping in then a visit to the Bayeux Cathedral.

The cathedral is a remarkable building, mostly spared by WWII. We went in, but it was Sunday Mass. Unlike some tourists, we actually respect other peoples’ religious ceremonies. There were tourists walking around in their hats, taking photos of Holy Communion… I mean come on people!!!! Whenever you walk into a church, even if it’s not your denomination, remove your hats out of respect. And don’t take photos of the clergy or anyone performing religious ceremony. Be respectful. I should not have to say this out loud- yet here we are…

We didn’t manage to get photos but we did manage to light one of the special votives they had for Remembrance in the cathedral. (The candle had a poppy on it).

So then we headed back north to the beaches. We decided to go see Omaha Beach and Point du Hoc, American landing beaches that Eric and I hadn’t seen before. The Americans treat their beaches much differently, but we’ve tried and can’t find a way to put this into words. Touristy? The French are certainly aware of the way the Americans are and they are trying to capitalise on it- much more roadside tourist traps (mini-museums for high entry fee and low reward, in some farmer’s barn). However, the beach itself is impressive. Point du Hoc is even more impressive- it is the cliff the commandos/rangers scaled and claimed at the beginning of the movie Saving Private Ryan.

At Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach
Point du Hoc is riddled with explosion craters from the shells the Navy sent on to the cliff to give cover for the boys about to scale the edge.
The cliff at Point du Hoc
Sophie in a Nazi bunker at Point du Hoc.
The infinity pool at the American cemetery

The American cemetery was huge and beautiful. Crosses row upon row. However, it was all roped off. We couldn’t walk up and down the aisles and read the names on the crosses. I found this upsetting, especially this weekend. To me, part of ‘Lest We Forget’ is saying the names of the dead. In Canadian war cemeteries, there is always a large monument at the front that says ‘Their Name Liveth Forevermore’. So, I suppose that is what I’ve been taught and I value, so it was disappointing to me to not be able to read and say the names of the War Dead. Though, in classic ‘American’ fashion, the grass was just perfect and that was clearly the look they were going for. I would have much preferred a muddy path up and down the aisles between the crosses showing that people have visited the graves and shown their respects.

The American cemetery near Omaha Beach.

We then decided to visit a newer looking museum we had passed called the ‘Operation Overlord’ museum. We thought it would be very American-centric and a possible tourist trap like some of the roadside museums, but we thought we’d take a chance on this bigger-looking one.

It turned out great. It was a museum about all of D-Day and spoke readily and heartedly about other Allied countries’ involvements. Then it was a large collection of things found in the area since the war by farmers and locals; everything from Jeeps and motorcycles to bomb shells and helmets, papers and uniforms. There was a lot of Nazi things too, simply from being found in the area.

Lastly, after the Overlord museum, we went to Arromanches-les-Bains, where Gold Beach is, a British landing beach and the location of the floating harbour (named Mulberry Harbour or Churchill Harbour in some places). This floating harbour was just huge, and built in mere days by the Allies after landing on D-Day so that larger Navy ships could tie up and unload supplies for the troops who were still quite busy in battle. Much of the floating harbour is still there.

That’s Sophie and Eric in the very middle. You can see floats both near are far in the distance.

I was so physically exhausted from the day, my legs would not carry me further and I could not go down on the beach. I sat on a bench near the beach while Sophie and Eric explored a bit.

Me waiting for them in front of the beach.

Well that was 2 of our 3 days in Normandy. Our last day was Remembrance Day and Canadian-centric. It turns out that this is already quite long, and I have a lot to reflect on the most amazing Remembrance Day ever, so I’m going to do-so in a second post (probably still today, as I have 3 hours still before our ferry to England leaves). I just want to keep my feelings and thoughts of this day contained all in one.

But that doesn’t make the earlier part of our weekend any less amazing. Pegasus Bridge will always be such a memory, but the towns of Normandy and American beaches have made an imprint as well.

Stay tuned for my next post…