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.

Three Nights in Modica

We had just gotten the hang of Ortigia, easily finding our way around, when it was time to hit the road for Rick Steve’s recommended stop on our way to Modica.

After picking up our rental car, we headed for Noto, following (or trying to follow) Rick’s directions. How many iPhones does it take to get us to the right place? Well, with us, the correct answer is three…using a combo of google and Apple Maps. I’m recommending Diane for sainthood, because she kept her cool driving down impossibly narrow streets, while getting conflicting directions from her three passengers.

We all felt better after our fantastic lunch at Marpessa Restaurant, so we forgave Rick for being somewhat vague with his directions. The restaurant was next to Noto’s historic theater and was the starting point for the little tourist train, so of course, we had to experience both.

The exterior of the theater
That pair singing a duet looks very familiar
It wasn’t a hop on/hop off. It just circled the town. Was it worth it? In my opinion, Hell, no.

Because of our late start, and a few wrong turns, we arrived in Modica much later than expected. Our rental was billed as an elegant private retreat close to St Georgio’s cathedral in the historic center of Modica. All true, although “center” was a bit of a stretch. Equally true, but unsaid, was the fact that everything was just “steps” away… 59 steps, to be exact, UP from the cathedral (where we were instructed to park) to the little lane where our rental was located. I know, because I counted.

Like many Italian towns, Modica is built into the hillside. We were grateful for the occasional flat surface between the steps. We are on our way to the restaurant 268 steps below

Fortunately, we had all agreed to limit ourselves to one carry on, plus one personal item (backpack/small duffel/large purse, as allowed by ITA). Good thing we all are relatively fit, because although the rental agent helped with 2 of the bags, we carried the remaining 6. Guess what? Roller bags don’t work well on stairs.

Our vacation rental in Modica is absolutely beautiful. The three level patio has a hot tub, dining table and lots of chairs for lounging. And we are undoubtedly ladies who lounge. We also eat and drink wine. Lots of wine.

Our home for three nights has some rather exotic features, like my round bed, with a jacuzzi located right behind it.

No, this ISN’T the Poconos.

After frolicking in the jacuzzi, you don’t have far to go to have a different religious experience. Check out how close we are to the cathedral. You can see the dome from our patio. Not only that, but you can HEAR the bells ringing — at 8 AM, noon and 8 PM. Some church bells are lovely. These are not. They sound like someone threw multiple metal instruments into a washing machine and pressed SPIN.

This is what the dome looks like from the inside

Lorenzo, our rental agent, and new best friend, has been a regular visitor. Why? Because four reasonably intelligent, well educated and relatively successful women were unable to: unlock the front door (after returning from dinner our first night), start the dishwasher (our second night), and get the dryer part of the combo washer/dryer to actually dry our wet clothes. The clothes got HOT, but were still wet. How can that be???

It looks like we may have a trifecta of Lorenzo visits, because after heating for two days, the hot tub is actually only a warm tub. We leave for Enna tomorrow morning, so this evening is our last chance to use it.

Despite a few minor glitches, I have to say I love this place and will be sorry to leave it tomorrow. We had fun grocery shopping, cooking together (mostly done by Karen and Diane with Sally and I being a grateful and appreciative audience) and just hanging out.

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!

Mantua and Trent

Well, we are getting ready to hit the road (the one that leads to the airport) soon, so I figured if I had anything further to say about last fall’s trip to Northern Italy, now is the time to say it.

My last post was about the city of Verona. Although it was a lovely city, it was a bit crowded, so when we had the choice of spending another day in Verona, or going on an optional trip to Mantua, we (and everyone else on our tour) opted for the optional, and we were glad we did.

Yes, Mantua had the requisite castle, with beautiful frescoes, but the castle also had something I’d never seen before — a moat with lovely sculptures plopped in it. Were they ballerina or fairy costumes? I have no idea; either one works for me.

Mantua also had the mandatory clock tower, but this one was so beautiful, I felt compelled to include two photos of it- the one below to give you a sense of its placement and scale, and the one atop this post to show the beautiful craftsmanship. Just think how amazing it must have been before the frescoes were damaged.

Can you tell this tower has been repaired more than once?

Like other cities, Mantua has an object, which, if rubbed, promises thAt the rub-ee will grant the rub-er good luck. In Verona, it is Juliet’s right breast. In Mantua, it is Rigoletto’s hump. We avoided the fake Juliet balcony and statue, but we ladies couldn’t resist Rigoletto.

What was MOST memorable to me, however, was the “relic” in the Basilica of Saint Andrew. According to the plaque, the soldier that stabbed Christ (Who later became a saint –Longino– but not all that popular, because I’d never heard of him before. Had you?) was prescient enough to know that the blood soaked earth was worth preserving, so he did. For thousands of years. Quite a story, and I’ll leave it at that.

The legend
The relic repository
The artist’s interpretation of the event

Our next stop was Trento, the site of the Council of Trent, where Catholic bishops got together and did something important that I learned about in high school but have since forgotten. Here too, we encountered a magnificent cathedral. Could this be The Stairway to Heaven that Led Zeppelin sang about? Take a look. It sure doesn’t seem to lead anywhere else. If you took a tumble from the top, Heaven may be where you’d land, but probably only if you went to confession first.

Right outside the church, beside Neptune’s fountain, it was quite festive. Lots of young people holding flowers and plaques, wearing laurel wreaths on their heads were milling about.

Our group is nothing, if not astute. We immediately figured this was some kind of commencement celebration. I’ll tell ya, if I had been given the choice, I definitely would have gone with the laurel wreath instead of the mortarboard monstrosity we had to put on our heads.

If this cold weather continues, I may get it together to do one final post: the last days of our trip in the Dolomites and Alpine villages. Ciao!