Three Nights in Palermo

First, let me say that right now I’m having an absolutely wonderful time. I’m with great friends, the sun is shining, we are drinking Prosecco. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Yesterday, however, was a different experience. You know that old saying, “you ain’t seen nothing yet?” Well, that’s what came to mind when we arrived in Palermo. Remember the bad food in Ortigia? The 59 steps in Modica? The “terrifying” ride? Well, we got ‘em all in Palermo, and then some.

That scary ride I described in my last post? Well, yes, that road was indeed narrow and winding, but it wasn’t lined with trash cans, and there were no motorbikes, pedestrians or oncoming traffic on it. Palermo had all that — and more. I would still be recovering from PTSD if I’d been driving, or if Mike had been driving, one of us would probably have filed for divorce. But once again, Diane amazed us all with her calm, proficient driving.

It was MUCH worse than this. People were also flying by on scooters.

After driving down what WE would call alleys, but Italians call streets, we arrived at the “meeting point”. We succeeded in effectively blocking traffic, while we waited for Giovanni to find us. He then guided three of us (with our luggage) to the “bed and breakfast”, leaving Diane blocking traffic until he could return to guide her to a parking lot.

Entrance to Ad Hoc Rooms

Meanwhile, our three heroines were confronted with 59 steps (the exact number of steps as Modica—if my grandmother had been alive she would have called her bookie to “play” that number). Once again, I was grateful to the exercises classes at the Y, because we carried our own bags —and my two weigh about 27 pounds. But the best is yet to come. After our trek, we discovered that Sally and I were not only sharing a room, we were also sharing a bed. Fortunately king sized, but still.

I’ll confess, I was NOT happy. (Neither was Sally). For a brief period, I turned into the Ugly American, muttering, frowning and using my phone to search for alternative lodging. But the thought of carrying those bags DOWN 59 steps, and then someplace else gave us all pause.

My three traveling companions found solace in the cafe across the street, while I, knowing how drunk I would get on an empty stomach, dug into the cheese and salami we’d brought with us. Lo and behold, when I tried to join them, I discovered I couldn’t unlock the lobby’s front door. And I was alone. All alone.

The instructions SHOULD have read “push the button in the middle, wait till the light stops circling and forms an upside down horse shoe shape, grab the handle, then PULL.

After trying every single combo I could think of, except the correct one, I finally called Karen, who willingly walked up those 59 steps to rescue me. I owe her BIG time!

Our dinner that night could not be described as delicious, but the chef acknowledged the lack of culinary excellence by offering us free lemoncello. We ended a rather challenging day on a positive note, and after a good night’s sleep, everything seemed MUCH better!

Time for some photos of the GOOD stuff:

The main altar in the cathedral at Monreale

Mosaics along the walls visualize biblical stories. Check out Eve telling Adam to eat the apple so he’d get smarter, Adam and Eve modeling the latest fig leaf fashions, Abraham getting ready to kill his son and Rebecca at the well.
The view of Palermo from Monreale
The best seats in the house are, of course, in the “royal box”. We got a glimpse during our tour of Teatro Massimo, the third largest opera house in Europe.
This fountain was created in Florence and reassembled here in Palermo. Check out the expressions on the statues’ faces.

One full day left until we leave for Taormina.

Caltagirone and Enna Surprises

Ever heard of Caltagirone? Enna? Neither had I before this trip. They are two places in Italy that Sally put on our itinerary as our next stops, after leaving Modica. I’m so glad she did.

Obviously, neither place is a tourist trap. Sally chose Caltagirone because it is noted for its ceramics and it is on the way to Enna, then ultimately Palermo. The other notable thing about Caltagirone is this 142 step staircase, which prominently displays different examples of those very works of art. At the top of the steps is (what else) a church.

Check out the beautiful ceramics, after you finish checking out the 4 babes

Karen and I made the ascent, which according to my Apple Watch (and my body) was not as challenging as some of our Modica strolls. Despite that, we felt rightfully proud of ourselves.

No, we didn’t go in to the church. Too many additional steps.

En route, we stopped at Villa Romana del Cásale. Mike and I had seen the spectacular mosaics when we visited the villa on our 2017 OAT trip, so I didn’t feel the need to view them again. Instead, I hung out in the plaza, enjoying the view. If you have a deep desire to experience the villa, you can check out my 2017 post:

The day’s biggest surprise was our vacation rental. The VRBO listing indicated there was only one bathroom. Since clearly none of us travels with a plethora of beautification items, like curling irons or make up, we decided we could certainly make do, especially since our stay was only for two nights. (Oh, how very spoiled I’ve become! For several years in my youth, SIX of us shared ONE bathroom.)

The trunk of our car, not including some purses, water bottles and one bag stowed amidst the passengers in the back seat. Good thing we went with “carry on only”

We were pleasantly surprised to find that there were actually THREE bathrooms, and two of the bedrooms should have been described as suites.

Our host, Francesco, and his sister Anna greeted us with wine and homemade cannoli. That was enough to ensure that they would be our friends for life and our dinner guests for our last night in Pergusa.

A warm welcome from a fabulous host

We immediately informed Francesco that he needed to fix the inaccuracies in his VRBO description. Travelers need to know about this spectacular rental in this gorgeous location. From our wrap around deck, we can gaze at the countryside, including Lake Pergusa.

Full disclosure: the drive TO the rental was midway between harrowing and TERRIFYING. We accessed a one way, winding road, complete with potholes and steep uphill climbs. I’ve been less scared on roller coaster rides. Fortunately, Diane has nerves of steel, and once again kept her cool despite not knowing EXACTLY where the rental was located. Did we all kill that bottle of wine as soon as we arrived? Did we need more than one bottle? You betcha.

This gives you an idea of the size of the road.

Because our rental is actually in Pergusa, not Enna, we traveled down that same road to explore the city on yet another hill. May 1 is a national holiday, Italy’s Labor Day, so almost everything was closed. That was great for us—no crowds! No traffic! Available parking! There WAS one tourist bus at the Lombard Castle, but the tourists were all Italian. Guess the locals know about this little gem and have kept it secret and safe from invasion by hoards of Americans.

Some of Enna’s highlights:

Crocheted trees
A beautiful park with a statue of Hades abducting Persephone. For a fun version of the myth, see Hadestown on Broadway, or at least listen to the music
This guy—outside the castle. I have NO idea who he is, but I liked the theme.
And, of course, the castle with the watchtower, if you want to climb to get yet another spectacular view

We didn’t have enough time to tour the castle, climb the watchtower, visit the Museum of Myths, walk the Sacred Path or consume more gelato. But YOU can, if you choose to visit this beautiful mountain town.

We ended our day at a Pergusa pizza place that was clearly a favorite with the locals. We were there early, 7:30. By the time we left, after 10 PM, the place was packed.

The best part, other than the delicious pizza, was getting to know Francesco and Anna, two fascinating people.

I’d never seen a menu with so many different kinds of pizza. Mine was “Norma”, covered with roasted eggplant—delicious!

We leave for Palermo this morning. That scary route to the rental is no longer scary. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Especially with Diane doing all the driving.

The Four B’s: Brixen, Bressanone, Bolzano, Bassano del Grappa

There is something about a snowy day in New Jersey that gets me thinking about our Northern Italy trip, which is a good thing, because those days wandering among these “B” towns definitely belong with my on-line memories.

Our base for our last days was the Goldene Krone Vital Hotel in Brixen/Bressanone. Yes, the town has two names, an Italian one and a German one. Like a few other areas on our lovely planet, this ground had been fought over many times, with the conquerors imposing their language and customs on the conquered. For the current inhabitants of German/Austrian ancestry, the preferred name is Brixen. The Italians opt for Bressanone.

Regardless of what you call it, the town is absolutely charming. We were lucky enough to be there during some kind of street fair. There was music, food and of course, lots of beer.

This alpine town is famous for its very realistic wood carvings. Admit it, if you look quickly, doesn’t this man and his dog look real? I was almost fooled. (But then, that’s not all that difficult to do.

At night, the streets quieted down, but the shops and restaurants were still open and within walking distance of our hotel. We took advantage of a “dinner on our own” night to enjoy a fantastic wine cellar type meal with two of the new friends we made on this trip–Julie and Roger. My only regret is I didn’t write down the name of that fantastic restaurant!

Our first hike, oh so many days ago, was in the Swiss Alps. Now we were given the opportunity to experience the Dolomites. We could either ride a lift way up the mountain to a station hiding in the cleft between the two peaks on the right, or we could go for a hike –but we clearly wouldn’t get as far up. Mike rode; I hiked.

It was hard to believe that it had snowed two days before we arrived, unless you chose to walk–then you were slipping and sliding on a trail that was quite muddy. Any guesses as to who ended up with a muddy butt?

This was the first year the trip was offered by OAT, so the itinerary was still being modified, based on feedback from prior travelers. One wonderful addition was a visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, home of Otzi, the “ice man”.

Otzi was found by two German hikers in 1991. What the archaeologists have been able to learn from that discovery is truly amazing. From his remains, they were able to recreate a model showing what they believe Otzi looked like. His tools, weapons, clothes and even the contents of his stomach were incredibly well preserved–for about 4,000 YEARS! Yikes.

The exhibits are accompanied by interesting explanations of what you are viewing. I apologize for the crooked photos that follow. I didn’t want to be a jerk, blocking the exhibits while I attempted to grab a perfectly centered, nicely squared off photo, but I figure you’ll get the idea.

The researchers finally determined Otzi was murdered, and that he probably bled to death from the arrow wound in his shoulder. But Otzi didn’t give up without a fight. From DNA analysis, scientists determined that there were traces of blood from at least four other people on his knife, coat and an arrowhead. Can you tell I really loved that museum?

Fast forward several thousands years to Bassano del Grappa. Over all those centuries, man’s inhumanity to man hasn’t changed.

You can still see the bullet holes in some of the the buildings in Bassano del Grappa’s old town from WWII, when the Italian partisans battled the Nazis.

This plaque tells the story about what happened along the river in 1944.

The trees from which the young Italians were hanged have been turned into memorials.

We all know how devastating WWII was, but when you see the long row of trees, each festooned with photos, names, dates and flowers, you get a feel for the very personal pain felt by the families in this area.

The town of Bassano del Grappa is also noted for (guess what) grappa, and we got to sample some after lunch at the Nardini Distillery. I’ll be honest. I didn’t like it. I’m more of a Franciacorta girl.

Overall, this was a wonderful trip to a part of Italy that I knew very little about. Next trip– to a different continent!

The Land of The Lombards

When you think Italy, what comes to mind?  Art in Florence, Rome’s colosseum, the Amalfi Coast?  Bet you didn’t immediately think of the Lombard region, and that’s too bad, because it is pretty special. This post will introduce you to three gems of Lombardy: one well known, the other two less so.

Lake Isola
Remember Christo, whose 2005 spectacular Gates in Central Park had New Yorkers smiling even during a frigid February?  (If you don’t, that’s okay. It isn’t essential to the post. I just happen to have fond memories of the event, so why not throw it in?)
Well, in 2016, he created the Floating Piers in Lake Isola. So, ya gotta figure this area must be pretty terrific for Christo to travel all the way across the Atlantic to Italy to create one of his massive installations.

These posters give you an idea of the scope of Christo’s project.

Even though our visit was post-Christo art exhibition, it was still worth spending time in the Isola Lake area. Check out what the little island looks like “unwrapped”. It was once a monastery, but now it probably is privately owned, by someone who is fantastically wealthy, who wants to escape people like us ogling his/ her (probably his) property.

Almost everyone has heard of Prosecco.  But what about Franciacorta?  This sparkling wine, made from the Franciacorta region’s grapes, is equally delightful.  I suspect that, like the Lombardy region, it just hasn’t been successfully marketed.

We walked through the Berlucci Vineyards, to their winery, where we enjoyed a tour, wine tasting and a great lunch.

Our hotel, the Relais Franciacorta was absolutely beautiful. It was rather far out, in the countryside, which was fine with us. We loved the gardens and all the hotel’s little nooks and crannies, one of which was the perfect venue for sharing the bottle of Franciacorta purchased at the vineyard.

And, as a bonus, a huge motorcycle group was holding an event at the hotel, giving us an opportunity to view totally unique bikes, like this one. I’m guessing that’s the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) riding shotgun (or would that position be called “front gun”? They didn’t have motorcycles during those Wild West days, so who knows.)

One of the big attractions in Verona is “Juliet’s Balcony”. Yeah, Shakespeare’s Juliet. There was a long line at the entrance to the jam-packed courtyard where Roméo was supposed to have stood while gazing at Juliet, who was above, on that legendary balcony. But this “balcony” was actually a movie set, created several decades ago. We figured if we wanted to see movie sets, we could go to Universal studios, so we skipped that attraction. Instead, we visited the Juliet Society.

The Juliet Society is a group of volunteers who answer letters written to Juliet that come from all over the world, like the one below.

Still, even we couldn’t escape Hollywood’s reach. You see, the Juliet Society was used as inspiration for the movie, Letters to Juliet.  
Okay, I’ll confess, when I got home I borrowed the movie from our library, and it was really, really sappy. It’s all about a letter that had been lost for several decades, was found by a volunteer, who then went on a mission to find and reunite both the writer and the intended recipient of the letter. I don’t have to tell you how it ends. I’m sure you just know.

The actual site, the one WE visited, bore no resemblance to the movie set. For the movie, the Juliet Society was housed in a gorgeous villa, complete with mamas in an adjoining kitchen, cooking great lunches for the volunteers. How surprising that Hollywood’s “take” is so very, very different from reality.

When in Italy, I usually find it difficult to decide which meal was THE BEST and which restaurant experience was THE BEST, but this time I had no problem proclaiming that Il Punto Rosa Hosteria deserves both titles. This little gem is on a side street, and it isn’t very big, but between Google and Trip Advisor, I’m sure you’d be able to find it. If we ever get back to Verona, you can bet we will be having dinner there!

Time for a couple of random photos of Verona, a heartfelt confession, and we’ll call this post done.

First the confession. I am a lazy blogger, who lives the Quaker philosophy of “when the spirit moves you“. (Okay so that’s one of the only two things I know about Quakers. The other being that they are pacifists. Oh wait. I just thought of one more. Richard Nixon was supposedly a Quaker. But I digress.) The point of that digression is I blog when the spirit moves me. And it didn’t move me last October, during the second half of our trip. It took a frigid January day in New Jersey to get me hankering to revisit those glorious Italian fall days. What could be better than reliving wonderful days in Italy when it is icy outside? Nothing, right?
We were in Verona on day 9 and 10 of a 15 day trip, so who knows? If it is cold again this week, we may just taking another trip down memory lane, to Brixen, Bassano del Grappa and the Dolomites.

Okay, so here are those random Verona photos I promised earlier.

We walked past the mob waiting to get in to see the fake Juliet balcony. What’s with the sticky notes, you ask? The sappy movie erroneously led viewers to believe that the Juliets pluck them from the wall, then answer them. They don’t.

As with most Italian cities, Verona has its share of beautiful buildings, and statues, but hey, just look at what else you can experience while there.

Verona has it all. Go shopping for cannabis “light” first, then wander down to the Colosseum. Yes, Verona has one too. If you get wasted enough, you might actually believe you are in Rome, doing battle with gladiators. One more thing to cross off your bucket list.

Speaking of bucket lists, I sure hope Lombardy is now on yours.

Torino and the Bernina Express

Why visit Torino, a charming little town close to the Swiss border?  How about vineyards, apple farms, lakes, mountains, a beautiful cathedral, archaeological sites, cobbled streets and a train station from which you can board a single gauge train?  Are those reasons enough?

Enroute from Milan, we stopped at Orrido di Bellano, to view the gorge and waterfall,then headed to Varenna for lunch alongside Lake Como.  Dinner was in the wine cellar of a restored old Torino villa.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The first two days were great and action packed, but the BEST day was the third, when we boarded the Bernina Express.  Theoretically, we could have ridden it all the way to St. Mortitz, but instead we disembarked in Diavolezza to take a cable car part way up the mountain to a terrace and restaurant.


The view was spectacular from there, but some of us wanted an even better glimpse of the glacier, so off we went.   I was very glad I had packed my hiking boots, because  we had to get past a couple of icy patches to reach the summit.


From left: me, Ellen, Julie and Elisa.  Can you figure out which one is the guide?

What a great place for a photo op!