Catania, Taormina, Mt Etna–Oh My!

Okay, be honest.  Before the G7 meeting, had you ever heard of Taormina?  If I had, it didn’t register, until we booked this trip.

But before heading to Taormina, we still had lots to see and do in Catania.  I’ll tell ya, I was totally unprepared for how much I enjoyed Catania.  What a pleasant surprise.  It was easy to get around, with lots to see, and of course,  with an abundance of great restaurants.

The city was conquered by the Romans in 263 BC, and as with other areas in their empire, the Romans left their mark, which the city has wisely preserved.

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I love the way the old and modern structures coexist.  This amphitheater lies beneath the modern city

Yes,  Catania has the requisite number of churches, fountains and statues.  It also has lots of interesting streets,  like this one.  It isn’t immediately apparent, but as you climb all those stairs,   P1010550

you are rewarded with views like this.    P1180568

As one would expect of a city smack dab on the ocean, Catania’s fish market was HUGE, as were its products.  Check out that swordfish.  P1010572

Coming from coastal Massachusetts, however, this girl wasn’t all that impressed.

I DID get excited about the market’s fruit, though, especially those cherries.  I don’t know who was more excited about my purchase–him or me?  To show his appreciation,  he gave me a slice of the most delicious cantaloupe I’ve ever tasted.   Fresh, delicious fruit… aah, that’s what I call quality of life!P1180580

But I didn’t fill up on cherries.  Good thing because we had yet another incredible lunch at a little outdoor cafe off of the main square, across from the cathedral.  You’d think by now I would remember to write the cafe’s name down or take a picture of the menu, but I did neither.  Sorry, future visitors to Catania.  I believe it was on the corner, facing the elephant’s behind, where the tan umbrellas are.

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On to Taormina, where security was tight.  Good thing our group was in great shape, because we had to walk quite a distance.  Bus access into the town and to the amphitheater was limited, even though the leaders would not be arriving for another week.

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Notice the two different uniforms of the military/security people in this photo.  I think every country must have sent their own people.  There were LOTS more milling about!

The amphitheater was the perfect spot for a group photo.  And what a group we were! All seasoned travelers, everyone was considerate, friendly and easy to be with.  Of course I had my favorites (and they know who they are), but I would be thrilled to see any of them on a future trip.

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Great traveling companions!  Back row: Tom, Maxine, Jane, Sharon, Ann,  Carol. (Ann should have been in the front!)  Middle row: Sue, Sue, Lavonne, Al, Joel and Henry  Front row: Mike, me, Daniel (way in front), Shirley and Owen.

The Greek Amphitheater is still used for outdoor concerts, but those white plastic chairs are not normally in place.  People usually sit on the stone steps, bleachers or the grassy sections.  The plastic seats were set up for the following week’s G-7 conference.

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The view from the site is unforgettable.  See that cloud of smoke in the distance?  That’s Mount Etna.

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And that’s where we were headed on our last day in Catania.  But first, one last shot of Taormina.  Yes, the streets in the city are a bit steep, but none of our group needed a golf cart to get around.  (I’m just sayin’…)

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Okay, so I’ll admit it.  I was absolutely thrilled to be able to hike on an active volcano.  Of course, this being OAT, we were accompanied by Marco, our expert local guide who made sure we were safe at all times.  Marco came equipped wth visual aids, walking sticks and hard hats!P1010643

We learned our group was unique, in that EVERYONE made the hike and descended into the lava tubes.  Apparently this was a first for Marco.  He said on all his other tours a couple of people waited at the base and didn’t take part in all the activities.  Yay us!

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Here’s one of our guide, Daniel’s, photos.  As you can see from our clothing (and my hat) It was cold and windy on the volcano.  I was glad I’d packed my fleece!

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That’s not OUR group in the distance.  I wasn’t that brave (foolhardy) to stay behind to get that shot!  In fact, WE were up higher than they, as you can see from the angle of my shot.

So why did we need hard hats?  Well, when you climbed down into a lava tube, it’s a good idea to protect your head and turn your head lamp on.

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Yet another one of Daniel’s photos–the group inside the lava tube.

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If you think this blog post was a whirlwind, you’d be right. And that’s how it felt to be on the trip.  A very nice, interesting, FUN whirlwind.  We definitely got a lot for our money!

We said good-bye to our new friends at that night’s farewell dinner.

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Once again, thank you Daniel!

 

Most were headed home, but very early the following morning (5 AM),  Mike, Owen, Shirley and I started our Malta adventure, which I’ll be posting about next.

Oh, To Be Rich in Ancient Sicily! 

No one knows for sure who lived in the Villa Romana del Casale.  Some think it might have been the country home of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius; others theorize a provincial governor lived and conducted administrative duties here.

It was constructed in the middle of the 4th century AD, and owes its remarkable preservation to the mudslide that covered the villa in the 12th century.  The building remained hidden until the 1950’s excavations.

Katya, our local expert, explained that we were going to view some of the finest examples of Roman mosaics in all of Europe, with scenes ranging from Homeric escapades to depictions of daily life, at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Katya was excellent, and that was true of all the local guides on our trip.  We learned that our main guide, Daniel, had a choice of 4 or 5 different local guides for each site, and I have to say, he chose very well. Katya was interesting and so informative, a delight to listen to.

We began our tour by the aqueduct, which was the source of water for the baths–starting with the hot bath, and ending with the frigidarium, the cold bath.

The slaves kept the fires going in these ovens so that the baths were at the proper temperature.
I wasn’t taking notes, so don’t hold me to it, but I THINK this was the frigidarium.  Or it was something else.  Whatever.  It was impressive.


The main attraction of the villa is the floor mosaics, and they are absolutely magnificent.

Probably the most famous room, the 10  maidens are exercising, wearing the ancient version of bikinis.  And look, someone appears to have won the swimsuit competition, earning her a crown and a palm leaf to wave around.


Not quite so famous, but certainly as intriguing were these: one  example  of the many scenes of a hunt.

This woman’s clothing indicates she was from the eastern empire, possibly Muslim.  There is another mosaic of a similarly attired woman, being carried off by soldiers.   It isn’t hard to imagine what that mosaic was illustrating.

No commentary necessary for this one.


I particularly liked the depiction of the theater.  Looks like the legend of the Cyclops was being featured.

Those white squares on the mosaic–I thought someone had been littering, but no.  They were placed there intentionally to absorb moisture.


Here’s a close up of Cyclops.  I really DID like that mosaic!  Isn’t it amazing what the craftsmen were able to do with little colored stones?

One last look at the countryside and we’ll be on our way.  Our timing was fantastic.  We were leaving, just as hoards of tourists were arriving!

Phoenicians, Salt and The Port of God

What an island!  Strategically placed between Africa and Europe, the east and the west, Sicily was home to successive waves of conquerors, and for our second day, we visited one of the conquering heroes’ settlements.  The Phoenicians, originally from the area that is now Lebanon, were among the first waves.

But first,  we took a close look at the commodity that gave us the word “salary”.  Sal (salt) was once used by the Romans as currency.  Unlike other parts of the world, where salt is mined, the salt here is extracted from the sea.  The water evaporates from shallow beds, leaving behind a substance that is low in sodium, high in potassium and magnesium.  The Trapani salt is practically a health food!  The sea, the wind, the sun all work together, with a little help from human workers, to create this miracle ingredient.  Doesn’t get more natural than that.



After learning more than I ever thought possible about salt, we boarded a boat for the little island of Mothya, where almost 3000 years ago,  Phoenicians built a fortress and a settlement.


There’s not much left on Mothya, just some walls, (header photo) and a museum that once was the home of Giuseppe Whittaker.  Whittaker, in fact, owned the entire island.  Fortunately, he was interested in archaeology and history, left his home and property to the public.

The salt museum contained this rendition of what the settlement was imagined to be.


It’s not a big island; we were able to walk from one end to the other, working up an appetite for this amazing feast!


Our last stop was at the place the Arabs called “Marsa Allah”, the Port of God, now known as Marsala, for wine tasting.   Check  out the size of those barrels.  That’s a whole lot of Chicken Marsala!


It is rare indeed that my wine glass is still full after a wine tasting.  In fact, I would say that this was a first.  To me, Marsala is way too sweet.  Okay for cooking, but definitely not my choice for drinking.

Next stop, the Valley of the Temples.