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From Napoli to Capri, Part 5: Ischia…our little slice of Paradise

I always knew that Ischia, our next destination after Naples, was going to be a paradise isle. How could it not be, having seen those ravishing scenes filmed in Ischia Ponte in Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley? Yet apart from that film, and the odd garden profiled on Monty Don’s Italian Gardens, I knew very little about the island which many refer to as Capri’s poorer sister. How wrong they are. And how right I was to suspect that Ischia would be a little slice of Paradise.

Embarkation into the little port of Forio, with its little domed churches and pastel coloured buildings jutting alongside a small harbour, gave a first scintillating taster of how pretty Ischia would be. But if Forio was the aperitif, our hotel was set to be the starter, main and dessert all rolled into one. I had laboured over hotel websites long and hard in the run-up to this holiday, uncertain whether to go for a beach side hotel for the views, to a thermal retreat to benefit from the island’s naturally hot mineral waters, or for something altogether more bucolic. In the end, the latter won the day, as the Tenuta del Poggio Antico ensnared me with its promise of olive trees and vineyards, mountainous panoramas and a sweeping cerulean blue pool.

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As we took a little mini bus up perilously narrow roads, each becoming steeper and more green in its turn, and arrived up the perfectly manicured driveway of this boutique hideaway, we discovered a place that not only lived up to its promises, but multiplied on them, ten times over. Here is a hotel which benefits not just from the dramatic mountainous backdrop immediately behind it, but also from the most ravishing views of the bay of Citara and the Mediterranean horizon at sunset.

The decor was subtly chic, but not lacking authenticity – tasteful to the nth degree – its white breakfast room with white drapery wafting slowly in a gentle sea breeze being one such space where my heart melted on contact. Here, a vineyard with grapes growing in miniature made us feel like we were in the heart of Tuscany, while the thermal pool nestled alongside it provided perfect vine-views while being able to enjoy its best vintage from the comfort of Ischia’s warm waters.

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But best of all things was the pool. A sweeping curved basin of perfectly blue water around which the most sumptuous flowering Mediterranean gardens spilled out in every direction. Jasmine, lavender, pomegranate blossom, geraniums and countless others I couldn’t even name – all were present to frame this hotel with a kaleidoscope of ravishing colour.

Thanks to the Tenuta del Poggio Antico, we had truly found our own little slice of Paradise. We could have stayed there in perpetuity. But of course Ischia awaited. More about that next time.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 4: Catacombs, Chiara, Caravaggio

More than any other district of the city, the Spaccanapoli embodies the spirit of a city emboldened by its own insuperable energy, history and cultural superiority. In Napoli, city of dangerous extremes, crimes of passion, astonishing food and stunning geography, the Spaccanapoli feels like the ancient core of a time-battered city, like the old family grandmother ticking along besides the central hearth. It is an area whose quaint narrow streets are intermittently broken by staggering baroque palazzi; which has so many squares and churches and historical buildings that it feels like an open air museum; but whose array of shops and cafes, all overflowing with locals, demonstrates that this is no still life for the tourists: this is the living, breathing heart of a city which never stops.

But for all the life that courses through its streets, Naples is a city that is morbidly fascinated with death. Whether this obsession acts more like a memento mori – a reminder to seize the day and live to the full (which Neapolitans almost certainly do) is unclear. Whatever the reason, I have never before experienced a place quite so haunted by the ghosts of its past, and by the creepy presence of the dead.

 The Catacombs of San Gaudioso

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This was no more so than in the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, a dark cavernous place accessible only through a secret trap door in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanita. There, in the depths of this once historical burial place, the tombs of the dead were marked not only by painted images of their former selves, but by their real skulls embedded into the wall. Meanwhile, downstairs, the alcoves still remain where bodies would be propped to be drained of their liquid selves, before being buried as a decidedly reduced form.

San Gaudioso was spooky to be sure, but offered a fascinating insight into Naples’ extensive underworld. Back in the sunlight, an oozingly cheesy pumpkin and pancetta pizza in the Piazza del Gesù reinvigorated any spirits which might have been temporarily subdued in the world of the dead, and gave us nourishment and energy in sufficient doses to appreciate the magnificence of two staggering places of worship in the heart of the Spaccanapoli – the Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo, with its diamond-like facade and its staggering golden interior, and the mesmerising Cloisters of Santa Chiara.

The Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo

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In Santa Chiara, in particular, we were stunned into submission by the mastery and magnificence which a garden filled with hand-painted majolica tiles embodied. Each depicting pastoral scenes, fruits and floral patterns, the overall effect was dazzling, and was to be a fitting precursor to the many beautiful majolica tiles we were to find decorating the floors of so many homes and hotels in Capri.

The Cloisters of Santa Chiara

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But it was back into the gloom for the end of the day… albeit a gloom punctuated by the staggering light created by the undisputed master of light and shadow: Caravaggio. I have long wanted to see his masterpiece, The Seven Works of Mercy, in person. After all, I have traipsed across Europe admiring so much of the oeuvre of this incredible bad-boy< artist. But as is always the case with a Caravaggio painting, properly lit and embedded within the surroundings he intended, seeing this work in the Pio Monte della Misericordia was quite an experience, and once which was a fitting conclusion for this exhilarating day in the Spaccanapoli.

Caravaggio in the flesh

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 3: It Continued in Naples

See Naples and die, or so they say… well I suppose we all have to die at some point, but the sight of Naples will not be the thing that finishes me off. For with its fantastic tangle of mad urban bustle, its multi-layered, jam-packed and over-constructed landscapes, its fiery hot-blooded temperament, and its mix of the baroque extravaganza with graffiti-strewn slum, Naples is to my mind a city to see, to experience and to savour.

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After the historical still-life that we experienced in Pompeii, we thirsted for something more akin to modern day madness. And where better to find it than in Naples, the city that never sleeps, never tires, but bustles with all the energy of its rather unstable tectonic foundations. So on this second day of our Naples adventure, we took to the streets of the Spaccanapoli, the Vomero, the Via Toledo and the Decumano Maggiore, each regions of a city exuding more character than I did sweat in the searing heat of day.

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From vast churches and convents to spooky catacombs and cocktail bars, we covered an awful lot as we continued our tour of Naples. But let us savour those characterful streets for now. This post concentrates on the fabric of the city, on those splendid baroque spectacles, on the multi-layered cityscapes constructed of palazzo upon pauper’s house, on the cramped shops selling sfogliatelli, and the cafes whose steaming hot terraces proved to be the perfect place for an extra strong negroni. See Naples… and live!

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 2: Pompeii

Pompeii: It’s a story which almost everybody knows, an eruption of such violent magnitude that it has fascinated writers, artists, poets and film-makers throughout the ages, making it a volcanic event more famous than any other. But the reason why Pompeii is so famous is not because of the eruption that destroyed a city in AD79, but because of the ghost of the city that was left behind. For beneath the ashes, the pumice and the multiple strata of volcanic material emerges the perfect footprint of a true Roman town, that gives us a compelling glimpse into the world of ancient Rome, its town planning, society and its people.

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Today’s Pompeii is deeply romantic. The remnants of this ancient world, cast in semi-dereliction but clinging onto mere glimpses of its fully resplendent past, are tinged with the melancholia of the romantic imagination, as weeds and wildflowers grown amongst rubble and the remains of once grand palaces and temples. It all feels rather like a idyllic pastiche from an 18th century imagined landscape… one half expects a giggling maid to sweep into the scene on a flower-strung swing tied onto a nearby tree, her rococo dress shimmering in the setting sun.

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Yet beneath the beauty of decay lies a far sadder truth – the reality of Pompeii’s end. Time is healer, but we should not forget how the people of Pompeii met their end: in an agony of excruciating burning and suffocation as the scalding gases of a pyroclastic surge swept through the town literally boiling people to death. It would have been a truly horrific way to die. Reminders of this cruel ending are all around in Pompeii: figures cast from plaster and created from the vacuum left in layers of volcanic ash as bodies have withered away demonstrate people contorted in pain, their hands rolled into tight fists as their bodies flex against the searing heat and agony, lovers clinging to one another, parents embracing their child in a final embrace.

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It was this tragic demise, and reminders of Pompeii’s daily life in the form of takeaway food bars, piles of bottles, jewellery, brothels, theatres and houses, which filled my mind as we visited Pompeii one very hot afternoon last June. True, I was fascinated by this ancient Roman world which we had so easily and transformatively stepped into. But I was also struck by the great tragedy which this vast archaeological site represents, and by the great irony that without the scale and extent of that vast eruption and its tragic consequences, we would never have had the opportunity to so totally immerse ourselves in a rare slice of the ancient world. For that alone we must be happy.

These are some of my photos from our day, in Pompeii.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Honeymoon and Hotels: Mareluna Napoli

Four years ago, I started what was to become a collection of gouache images of hotels. From my first image painted during our honeymoon, of our pretty pink little bedroom in the ravishing Colombe d’Or Hotel in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, with the iconic Calder mobile visible through the window and my painting tools spread on the wooden desk, a story of images was born – images which have since gone on the capture countless bedrooms and views from the many incredible hotels which have played host to us on our holidays.

As we arrived in Naples and looked onto the most ravishing views of the sea and the Castel dell’Ovo, I knew that the next chapter in my narrative of honeymoon and hotels was just around the corner, and I painted this work: Mareluna Napol, named after the hotel of the same name.

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Mareluna Napoli (©2019 Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, gouache on paper)

This small painting is no traditional capture of the Neapolitan landscape, but in its haphazardness drunkenness, vivacity and freshness of colour, and that centralised seaside view, it is a very much a homage to Naples. All that is missing is a pizza! But true to form, this is very much an image of our hotel room in the Mareluna Suite de Charme, whose wooden floor and ceiling contrasted dramatically with the fresh white walls and retro curved plastic ceiling light, while its wrought iron balcony so perfectly framed that resplendent view in all its Mediterranean majesty.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 1: It Started in Naples

Just like the opening scenes of our favourite Sophia Loren/ Clark Gable film, It Started in Naples (1960), our magnificent trip from Napoli to Capri also began in Naples, on the Bay of Naples in fact. And in parallel with the first scene of that film, our first view of Naples was over the iconic Castel dell’Ovo with the silhouette of the mighty Vesuvius looming up behind it, and the silky blue waters of the Mediterranean sea flowing in around it.

This was to be the beginning of a mighty adventure in what must be one of the most beautiful areas of the world; a stretch of mountainous, fertile, stunning scenery full of contrast: from the bustling, sometimes menacing but beautiful Campanian capital of Naples, to the tranquil paradise of Ischia, and the fashionista’s paradise of Capri.

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Yet it all started in Naples, and that opening scene was framed, liked the most dramatic of theatrical montages, by the drapery of curtains and a proscenium arch, namely the window (and balcony) of our very own room with a view. That room was to be enjoyed at the Mareluna Suite de Charme, a charming little boutique hotel stationed on the first floor of an old Neapolitan palazzo, and from there, we could indulge in the daily blockbuster of the Bay of Naples awakening, the sea glistening, and the outline of Capri emerging out of the mist of the horizon, while in the closer foreground, locals would take a morning dip in the warm waters, and chat/ yell along the seaside promenade.

That same scene was to occupy a prominent place in our admiration of Naples, and this first, photographic post from our holiday is something of a prologue to the story that will follow. It is a collection of our first impressions – the view by sunset, and in the morning; the nearby Castel dell’Ovo and the Port of Santa Lucia, and the tenement blocks clinging precariously to steep hillsides nearby. And of course that looming, dramatic shadow of Vesuvius, an omnipresent backdrop to a city which thrives on its fertile soils, but is always living on the edge of disaster, knowing that a volcanic end is, like the sword of Damocles, a constant and real risk.

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Perhaps the presence of Vesuvius is why Naples feels both dangerous but alive, full of hot fiery tempers but a tangible vivacity for life. It’s a feeling which energises Naples, and makes it one of the most interesting cities to visit in Italy. Come back soon to the Daily Norm, to find out what happened when we made Naples our base for a few days.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

One day in Ferrara

Medici, Farnese, Sforza, Borgia, Visconti, della Rovere... these are the names which dominated the Italian Renaissance… another is Este, one of whom, Alfonso I, was to marry the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Together they moved to the Este stronghold in the city of Ferrara, nestled in the rolling pastures of Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy. And that’s exactly where we headed when, earlier last month, we returned to our beloved Bologna.

Situated just 45km of Bologna’s twin towered metropolis, Ferrara is a small city which packs a historical punch but which could easily be missed. Arriving by train to surroundings so penurious as to inspire fear rather than awe, you might wonder whether the place is worth visiting at all. Yet as with so many Italian towns, buried at the heart of this one is an old city gem which represents the perfect manifestation of its historical past and which is quite the match of its better known neighbours, Bologna, Verona, Milan…

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At the heart of it all, the Castello Estense is an imposing castle from fairytale lore, with four imposing bastions and a water-filled moat encircling the complex with all the romance of ancient chivalry. As the name suggests, this was the home of the Famiglia d’Este, and as we wondered from room after frescoed room, we could imagine the imposing touch of the magnificent Lucrezia dominating her new martial home, picking perhaps at at fragrant blossom which filled a terrace abundant in orange trees. But with their floral bouquet the romance ended – the castle is an otherwise austere and imposing space, and rightfully so given its role to protect one of Italy’s most important families. Outside – another imposing figure lies in wait: a statue of Savonarola, the apocalyptic friar who set himself against the indulgences of the Borgia pope, and burned the excesses of Florentines in scenes which have implanted themselves on history.

Having ventured through the Castello and avoided the icy glare of Savonarola, we wandered down the road to another Este palace – the Palazzo dei Diamanti – named after the characteristic bugnato of its exterior walls, created from some 8500 pieces of marble carved to represent diamonds. The visual effect of the exterior is certainly striking, while inside, today’s National Gallery makes for an interior replete with artistic treasures: on the occasion of our visit, we were able to enjoy an exhibition of the stunning Boldini, painter of society women and magnificent 19th century fashions.

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Ferrara is famous also for its Gothic cathedral, boasting as it does one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in all of Italy. Sadly, for us, it was covered by scaffolding, so this treasure at least had to be saved for another day. Instead, just meandering around the tightly packed, bustling little old streets and enjoying multi-layered views of campanile and cafeteria, and feasting upon the pumkin filled pasta parcels which are unique to the region, was sufficient to prove why Ferrara is a UNESCO protected city, and one not to be missed when you are in the area.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Ode to a Tuscan Sunset

We’ve left Verona now, more’s the pity, and in my mind the single antidote is to dip into Italy once more. In London, sips of creamy limoncello and a bottle or two of Valpolicella Ripasso is partial recompense for our melancholy departure from Italian shores. Another is to look back upon photos and remember breathing deep of that ever-enchanting peninsula.

In so doing, I’ve rewound a few months, to Easter 2018 in fact, when the trees were yet to burst forth on trees ravaged by the cold “beast from the East”, and we took a trip to Tuscany. As is ever the case with a first travel in Spring, the fresh air hit us like a flurry of fresh water in an arid desert. To strip off winter layers and drink in the steady warmth of the Tuscan Spring was a encounter which was all the sweeter for its first annual embrace.

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As well as the air, what struck me was the light. It had none of the harshness of the cold winter back at home. Softness pervaded the landscape, especially as the sun descended towards the end of its shorter day, and around 6pm it sunk beyond the sea line leaving the sky surrounding it to blush in rosy admiration.

The photos on this post are dedicated to that time, when rolling fields layered with olive groves and vines bathed in the first warmth of a new Spring, and exuded the golden optimism of a new season waking up to Summer.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

A Cretan Odyssey | Part 5 – Spinalonga, The Island of No Return

As my last few posts have hopefully demonstrated, the bay of Mirabello in Eastern Crete is every bit as beautiful as the name suggests. And yet its coastline, fractured by little spin-offs of mini mountain islands tracing the coast yet a water’s breadth apart, holds a darker, more ugly secret: Spinalonga. The name sounds like the setting for a fairy tale – a spindle perhaps, upon whose thorny point a princess pricks her finger. But this is no fairy island. It is a place which, up until as recently as 1957, was an island cut off from the mainland not just by sea but by law and stigma: it was the home of Crete’s leper colony, an exile for those afflicted with history’s most devastating illness.

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Those of you who have read Victoria Hislop’s bestselling novel, The Island, will already know about Spinalonga. Once a fortified stronghold created by the Venetian occupiers of Crete and later taken over by the Ottomans, it was put to use as an island on which to keep leper suffers forcibly separated from the rest of society. Once diagnosed as having the condition, suffers would be flagrantly torn from their families and shipped off to the island. Few would ever leave it.

As Hislop describes, as the decades went on, Spinalonga went from an utterly savage backwater completely devoid of civilisation to a thriving little town in its own right fit with electricity, shops, a theatre, even a hairdresser. And when the discovery of a cure for leprosy meant that the island was finally abandoned in 1957, all of that civilisation was forsaken to the elements. It was in that state of utmost dilapidation that we found Spinalonga when we took a boat from nearby Eloundia to visit this most dejected of locations.

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Barren, sun-roasted and rocky, the island on one side was little more than a fortified wall with stark cactus-filled cliffs. However turn landwards and amongst the rubble you could start to see the ghosts of former houses, their shutters half hanging on rusty hinges and their contents long since pillaged. Stone staircases were collapsed under the weight of fallen rubble and punctuated by weeds; the bare bones of wooden beams indicated where once a roof had stood. There is no doubting the feeling of melancholia and claustrophobia which pervades this small tumbledown space, yet few could deny the beauty which was also visible in the stark contrast between rubble and ramshackle, and the stunning turquoise seas which surround the island, and cut it off from the rest of the world.

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We left Spinalonga utterly captivated by the historical significance and emotional impact of the leper island. You cannot escape the sadness which permeates the very fabric of this island of imprisonment and social rebuff. Yet across the Cretan winds, uplifted by the deep ultramarine blue of the island’s surroundings, there is the smallest hint of hope – for Spinalonga’s desertion indicated mankind’s dominance over a disease which had ravaged millions since the beginning of time. And that is surely a cause for celebration.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

A Cretan Odyssey | Part 4 – Nymph Beach and other wonders

When we had had our fill of our perfectly proportioned, utterly private pool (when that was possible – it actually amounted to being dragged away by the fear that we might otherwise be addressed as the kind of philistine pool-huggers who see nothing of the countries they visit on holiday) we only had to stroll 5 minutes down a little lemon and pomegranate tree lined lane to get to the beach. And what a beach it was. Utterly secluded, populated only by the small number of guests from a nearby hotel, a walk some 10 metres along the shingle shore meant complete privacy in waters as clear as Evian. We became accustomed to visiting the beach both first thing in the morning and in the dying light of day. On both occasions there was a tangible magic to the place as the sun, either in its rise or its descent, sent golden sparkles bouncing across the mirror-like waters. It felt mystical, as though Apollo, god of music and harmony, were present.

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Characterised by its rocky promontory, the beach was cosy, enclosed, a safe harbour from winds and an utterly magical place to be. But the mere presence of that promontory had our explorer’s curiosity peeked, and it wasn’t long before we started expiring the cliff tops, an entire plateau covered with olive trees and harsh stones, an ancient biblical landscape tinged with the gold of the Cretan sunshine. We trekked through the landscape, unsure what we would find as the cliffs undulated down to the sea. What we never expected to discover was another beach. This one caught between the dramatic overlap of rocky outcrops and descending hills.

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The beach was perfect. It was completely private. Not a sole around, no one in sight, apart from the mystery of a lone towel abandoned on the shore. That mystery was solved a few minutes later as a lady, perfectly toned, wonderfully naked, appeared on the horizon and glided steadily towards the shore. As she approached the edge of the beach she rose from the water, the sparkling sea sliding off her perfectly tanned and silky skin, and she reclined upon that same towel, almost oblivious to our presence. This was no human. Surely this was a nymph, so perfectly was her body adjusted to the molten waters of the bay.

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We strongly felt that we had entered some kind of mystical place when we swam out away from the shore and came face to face with towering craggy cliffs backlit by the descending sun. Once again Apollo’s touch was here, and when we turned back to shore, no sign remained of the nymph, as though the apparition of her fleeting presence had dissipated into the heady evening air. But we never doubted her existence. Nor the magical moment of our visit to what we now know as Nymph Beach. I won’t tell you where it is. Only that it exists, ripe for discovery by those curious enough to find it.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.