What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Notice anything wrong with this picture? Well, you’re not supposed to….

Here, Let’s take a closer look.Obviously, we’re looking at the Rialto Bridge – one of Venice’s most famous landmarks. The oversize billboard was up to promote one of the venues of the 2015 Art Biennale, but that’s not what’s curious about this picture.

The richness of its antiquities and artistic treasures is both Italy’s blessing and curse. It’s part of the intense beauty that draws more than 48 million visitors to the country each year. But all of  these ancient structures need maintenance. They must be preserved or they will not survive for future generations. This enormous burden falls upon a relatively small country, which derives more than ten percent of its GDP from tourism. So what’s a country to do?

Tourists don’t flock to Venice to see scaffolding. Now let’s take an even closer look at our photo….

 Do you see it now? The entire left side of the Rialto bridge (as you’re looking up the Grand Canal in the direction of the train station) is covered in scaffolding. Some ingenious  companies have found a way to lessen the aesthetic impact of the constant construction that must be done. The scaffolding is draped with a scrim that is imprinted with a convincing  rendering of the structure beneath. Notice the variety in the arched windows – some opened and others closed? Convincing isn’t it?

Compare it to the uncovered right side of the bridge…

Now let’s look back again. You’ll notice that he building just behind the Rialto is similarly covered with scaffolding and scrim.

Even the false window shades are drawn differently – Such attention to aesthetics and detail!

Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.


Posted in Italy, Matthew Daub, Uncategorized, Venice | Comments Off on What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Walking with Dinosaurs – and Ichthyosaurs!

Steve Etches’ Museum – aka the Museum of Jurassic Marine Life, Kimmeridge

Our interest in the Steve Etches Museum goes back to February 2015 when a very good friend invited us to a talk at Wareham Archaeology Society. The speaker was Steve Etches who captivated us with images of finds he had made over many, many years on Kimmeridge beach.

Steve Etches

Steve Etches (right) shows his collection, housed in his garage, to Professor Chris Wilson in October 2012 (photo credit: The Geological Society)


At the time, the home of Steve’s vast collection was his garage – this makes it sound like a very amateur-ish affair, but when we were privileged to visit there a month after his talk, we were astounded.  The quality of the presentation of the various treasures Steve had found over the years was incredible. This was the first we knew of an exciting project to house Steve’s collection in a dedicated Museum and we have tracked its progress ever since.  It opened in October 2016 and again we felt very privileged to be there as this project came to fruition and opened its doors to the public.  When we realised that we could book a bay tour with Steve Etches, this was a ‘no-brainer’ as they say!

The 26th February was a truly memorable day – the type that you find yourself saying “do you remember when…..”   Along with several of our special friends, we headed to Kimmeridge Bay where Steve has made so many amazing finds over the years. 

When (Caves & Castles) Steve takes our visitors around the Vezere Valley, to sites such as Lascaux 2 or Lascaux 4, he takes them back about 30 – 40,000 years.  With Steve Etches it is 160 million years ago! 

Steve Etches, Kimmeridge

Steve gives us an overview from the top of the cliffs, before we descend into Kimmeridge Bay

Having gone through the safety routine at the Museum, we set off with Steve and his assistant, Rebecca for the bay.  We can’t say it was a warm blue sky day, it was a bit on the wild side, but nothing was going to dampen everyone’s enthusiasm.  The tour had been planned at low tide so we could get to the most interesting parts of the shore – we were literally walking where dinosaurs had been.  It seemed like every slab of rock, every pool was known to Steve. Most of us had visited Kimmeridge before, but with Steve there, so many treasures were revealed that we just would not have seen, nor recognised.

Kimmeridge, Jurassic Coast, Weymouth, Wareham

Kimmeridge is on the south coast of England, between Weymouth and Wareham, Dorset. Part of an area known as the Jurassic Coast

Kimmeridge Bay is part of the Jurassic coast of southern Dorset, England.  If we travel back in time, historically sea levels changed and where dinosaurs had walked, the land became submerged under 200 feet of water and became the final resting place of pleisiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. It is these fossilised remains that are found today.

Steve shows us how a geological fault has altered the stratigraphy of the cliffs

The cliffs at Kimmeridge are spectacular and fossils are heavily compressed within the rock. To find them you need very sharp eyes and amazing dedication – such as Steve Etches has.   He is out in all weathers – after a storm is particularly lucrative for fossil hunters.  At times he runs the gauntlet of the incoming tide when urgently working to retrieve a newly exposed buried specimen before it can be whisked away by the sea.  Having freed perhaps a huge fossil-bearing piece of stone, he then has the problem of getting it back to his workshop – previously at his home, now at the newly opened Museum. Some pieces are so large, that reinforcements have to be called in – often Steve’s long suffering family!  His wife and children deserve a lot of credit along with Steve and much would have been lost without their assistance (but they keep a low profile!).  Steve has made many discoveries of new species – not by luck, but through his extraordinary dedication.

ammonite, fossilised, Steve Etches

A fossilised ammonite at Steve Etches’s feet (which give an idea of scale)


Closer shot of same ammonite

Ammonite, Kimmeridge

A magnificent ammonite specimen from Kimmeridge – and note the smaller ones adjacent

After lunch, our next treat was a personal tour of the Museum itself again with Steve.  It all comes to life so much more when the hunter himself describes not only the find and the significance of it, but also relates tales of how he found items, how long he monitored a particular find before it became accessible, the difficulties he encountered.  The gallery contains the results of Steve’s painstaking collecting over 35 years – and the countless hours he spent cleaning and preparing the exhibits for display. Using dental probes and compressed air abrasives, it would often take months to fully expose some fossils.

A Tour of the gallery with Steve really brings everything to life

We saw more pterosaurs and plesiosaurs – utterly fearsome ancestors of modern dolphins – in an afternoon than the world-famous Natural History Museum in Kensington, West London possesses!



The remains of the juvenile ichthyosaur – including its lunch!

A young adult ichthyosaur had enjoyed a really good fish lunch and was happily swimming around having a ‘pause digestive’ as the French would say, then wallop! – it was cut in half by a real monster – maybe a plesiosaur, the largest marine reptile with teeth up to 16 cms long.  What was left of the ichthyosaur, including its yet to be digested lunch, fell to the muddy bottom of the sea.  It was covered in silts and fossilised and to eventually be found by Steve Etches millions of years later. This truly amazing specimen including even skin, took 10 months work in the laboratory and workshop to clean and reveal its story.

Ammonites really get Steve Etches going!  There are about 8000 different species and at Kimmeridge he has discovered – twice – the only ammonite eggs yet known. Incredible.And, if that were not enough, he filled in a gap in Darwin’s record.  During the voyage of ‘The Beagle’ he discovered a new type of barnacle growing in the Sea of Japan.  He surmised these had evolved from very ancient times – et voila – 160 million year old examples were found by Steve at Kimmeridge thus proving Darwin’s hunch was indeed spot on!  What an achievement and further proof of this amazing man’s dedication.

Charles Darwin, missing link, barnacle

Charles Darwin’s missing link in the barnacle chain

 Kimmeridge is only a tiny place between Wareham and Weymouth, Dorset, but it is well worth a diversion to see this fascinating, world beating collection of fossils from an area and period that has been largely overlooked by geologists in the past.  The area was not really recognised as being significant – except by one man, Steve Etches. How fortunate we are that he persevered for so long – and is now so generous with his time and knowledge.  Thank you Steve.

To find out more visit the Museum’s website  or contact Rachel Harris (rachael.harris@theetchescollection.org) to book yourselves a Bay Tour with Steve Etches.

(Photos are our own and Myra Sealy’s (to whom many thanks) unless otherwise stated)


Steve and Judie Burman live in the beautiful Vezere Valley in the Dordogne region of South-West France. Together they run Caves and Castles, specialising in prehistoric Cave Art and medieval Castles Tours. You can join a small group (up to 6) 4 night/5 day Tour based 2 nights each in the medieval towns of Sarlat and Montignac-sur-Vezere or book a custom Tour for a day or more.

Professional archaeologist, Steve loves to share his passion for the ‘Cradle of Humanity.’ World famous sites such as Lascaux, the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’ and Font de Gaume are close by. Coupled with gastronomic meals and superb wines, your Caves & Castles Tour is really special.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.


Posted in Dordogne, England, European Travel, France, Southwest France, Steve and Judie Burman, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Walking with Dinosaurs – and Ichthyosaurs!

Cross-dressing in Sardinia

On 28 February I was in Oristano in Sardinia. It was martedì grasso, Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnival before Lent. Oristano has celebrated this day for a long time, 552 years to be precise, as the festival Sa Sartiglia. You can imagine that in over more than half a millennium it has accumulated many meanings and observances.

Horseman at Sa Sartiglia

Cavaliere galloping toward his star

At its most basic and obvious it’s a giostra, a joust like the one at Arezzo with a feat to perform at the end of a charge on horseback. At Sa Sartiglia the horseman (with one or two exceptions they are all men) attempts to insert his lance in a small hole in a star dangling by a thread while galloping at full speed.

At a more fundamental level is the idea of trasvestire. Although our noun ‘transvestite’ derives ultimately from the same Latin root as this Italian verb, the similarity is misleading. In Italian the word means simply ‘to disguise’ or ‘to dress up as’ anyone or anything. For Sa Sartiglia, farmers and craftsmen dress up as knights and joust with fate. In the past it was their day of glory in which to display their horsemanship and affirm their equality with the nobility. Wearing their eerie, expressionless white masks, they could be anyone.

Sa Sartiglia masked horsemen

Despite the merriment, the masks seem sad.

Today two charitable organisations, descendants of the mediaeval gremi or guilds are entrusted with perpetuating the tradition. The contadini (farmers) guarantee the funding and the falegnami (carpenters) do the organising. Is this division of labour significant, I wonder. The word ‘gremio’ turned up some interesting meanings. It’s the archaic version of the present day grembo meaning ‘lap’ or ‘womb’ and by extension any community with the aim of giving spiritual refuge. Now you can figure out why the word for ‘apron’ is grembiule, not that my lap feels much spiritual uplift when I’m  doing the washing up in one!

Each gremo has its own day for the tournament. On Fat Tuesday it’s the carpenters’ turn. After some preliminary waving of banners and sounding of trumpets and drums, the ceremony of dressing of the Componidori (the leader of the event) begins at noon. The outdoor courtyard is packed with spectators. I squeeze in and some kind veterans give me a place near the front because it’s my first time there.

Public dressing at Sartiglia

Playing to a packed house

Don’t imagine the buttoning of a shirt, the zipping of trousers, the throwing on of a cape and the balancing of a hat on a head. The dressing takes an hour an a half during which expert seamstresses stitch every garment in place, especially the mask. I overheard one spectator wondering whether he’d remembered to fare la pipì before taking his place on the stage. 

Masking the horseman

Women in traditional dress patiently stitch the mask in place.

It was thoroughly boring at the same time as being absolutely fascinating. Maybe for him, a craftsman, to be transformed into a noble in the space of 90 minutes was a dream come true, a great honour to participate in a ritual not only of his own city but practised by kings from Charlemagne onwards, who invited the public to their bedchambers for their rising and dressing.

From time to time the tedium was broken by a roll of snare drums or the blast of trumpets, one of which finally signalled the Componidori rising from his chair, mounting a horse, and, before exiting to lead the cavalcade, making the sign of a cross with a baton of sweet violets, symbol of spring and new growth.

Dressing finished

The fully dressed Componidori finds his feet and salutes the cheering crowd.

Componidori on horse

He mounts his bedecked horse and the seamstresses admire their handiwork.

The rest was more exciting but less intriguing: the procession, the pounding hooves, the cheers when a lance pierced the star.

Drummers marching

The drummers lead the procession to the start of the joust.


The trumpeters announce the imminent arrival of a cavaliere.


Here he comes!

Once you get your eyes and ears in, you realise Sa Sartiglia had its roots in pagan solstice festivals heralding fresh spring growth and appealing for a bountiful harvest. For those lucky horsemen who manage to insert their lances in the hole in the star, the earth will bear abundant fruit. Some of it was available at the food stalls lining the streets of Oristano.

Sardinian pecorino

You can’t beat Sardinian pecorino cheese (apologies to Tuscany).

I’d like to thank Antonio Arca, my Sardinian friend who suggested I attend Sa Sartiglia. We hope to offer more tours to Sardinia in future. Right now, there’s still one place left on the Celebrating Sardinia tour in April 2017, and new dates for 2018 are already on the website: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/celebrating-sardinia/. If you’re lucky enough to live near London, you can get some of the wonderful food from Antonio’s market stalls: http://www.capocaccia.co.uk/.

Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.


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