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.

Ragusa

Full disclosure.  This is no longer coming to you “live”.  We have been home for a week.  My blogging just couldn’t keep pace with our activities.  We were BUSY!  And when we weren’t busy, we were recuperating from the busyness… and drinking…and eating…and drinking.

Speaking of recuperation, the good news is that our friends recovered in time to join us the evening before we left for Ragusa.  Daniel, our wonderful guide (We all love you, Daniel!) sent a doctor to the hotel in Palermo, then arranged for a driver to pick them up and bring them to our next lodging–the beautiful Agriturismo Berlingeri.  AND while they were in Palermo, he had them moved to a larger room so they could be more comfortable.  Pretty thoughtful!

Looking good after taking advantage of the Italian medical system!

So, about Ragusa. It is actually TWO towns–lower and upper Ragusa.  After the earthquake in 1693, the majority of the population moved upward, but fortunately, some stayed behind to rebuild what is now Ragusa Ibla, the old town.

The two towns are connected by a LOOONG staircase. Graciela, our local guide, packed us onto a bus (and we were indeed packed) to the upper city so we could walk DOWN, which gave us ample opportunity to take in the panoramic views.

I didn’t count the steps, however it was NOT a strenuous stroll, especially given our frequent pauses–bathroom break, cold drinks, ogling everything.  Graciela’s interesting stories kept us entertained and engaged all the way down.

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See, not too bad.

Take a look at the underside of this balcony.  Graciela pointed out that the top figure on the left is asking the top figure on the right for more food and drink.  The figure on the left is responding with the universal hand signal for “go do something unmentionable to yourself.” Too bad the central figure is missing.  Wonder what HE would have had to contribute to this interaction.

Lesson learned: take time to look UP.  Cool things are EVERYWHERE!

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Is it just me, or are some of these characters in dire need of dental care?

Our walk ended at the cathedral, where St. George plays a prominent role. Here’s HIS story.  Initially, St. George was portrayed as a Roman soldier, who saw the light and ended up slaying the dragon.  Graciela explained the dragon symbolized the pagans who were threatening the Christians.

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Sometime during the middle ages, St. George got a make-over, becoming a medieval knight.  This time the dragon was more specific; he represented the Muslims and Turks who were battling the Christians for control of the holy land.  THAT St. George is portrayed in the huge painting on the cathedral wall.  Nobody seemed bothered that George was killing dragons in two different centuries!

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I bet you’re wondering what that silver and gold box in the middle of the cathedral is all about.  Nope, it doesn’t hold the 10 Commandments and it isn’t a casket–but close.   It holds 32 relics!  Fingers, toes, pieces of the original cross–who knows?  We didn’t get the specifics.  One of our guides later commented “How many fingers and toes do you think the saints had?”  Let’s ponder that for a while, and commend the entrepreneurs of the middle ages.

After our tour ended, we had free time to enjoy this lovely little mountain town.

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Although there is a little trolley that can take you on a tour, we decided to walk off some of the great food and wine we had been consuming.  Good thing, because the next day we headed off to a farm for a “Day in the Life” of a Sicilian family.

All OAT trips include a home visit or some kind of cultural exchange, and this trip was no exception.  Here are Maria and her son John Baptiste, welcoming us to the family farm.  John Baptiste, an archaeologist by training, is restoring the farm, which was his mother’s childhood home.  P1180424.jpg

I know this looks like it could be an instrument of torture from the Spanish Inquisition, but it is actually the original wine press.

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We didn’t make wine, but we DID help with the cooking, sorta the way my little 3 and 4 year old nieces help with cooking.  The woman in the brown shirt and white apron?  If it weren’t for her, the result would have been VERY different!

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The food was magnificent!  We could even tell ourselves that WE did some of the cooking.

Check out the oven.  Doesn’t get more authentic than this.

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So what else would you need to know if you are going to visit Ragusa?  Well, the hotel we stayed at–the San Giorgio Palace Hotel– is ideally located.  It is at the edge of town, carved into the hillside, and is within walking distance of everything — all of the restaurants, shops, cathedral and park.  There is a nice patio on the 4th floor, where you can sip a glass of wine and watch the sun go down over the hillside.  It was quite wonderful.

Next stop–Catania.

 

 

 

Sicilian Celebration

Mike and I stopped giving each other “stuff” years ago.  We already have more than enough future yard sale items.  No more birthday, anniversary, Valentine’s, Christmas or Groundhog’s Day presents for us. Instead, we mark life’s milestones by making memories, mostly through traveling.  Refusing to succumb to the tyranny of the calendar, we are free to celebrate whatever we want, whenever we want.  If we happen to be traveling during an anniversary or birthday month, well then, that’s just a bonus.  THIS year is one of those bonus years.

We will be in Sicily during May, our anniversary month,  hoisting our glasses to toast 41 years of wedded bliss.  Okay, full disclosure.  Those years haven’t ALL been blissful (my sisters would add ” especially for poor Mike” ) but on the whole, it’s been pretty darn great!

We will be embarking on an OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) trip with our good friends, Shirley and Owen.  Two years ago we spent  two weeks wandering through Tuscany and the Amalfi coast with OAT’s sister company, Grand Circle.  They had never been on an organized tour before, but had such a wonderful time, it was not difficult to persuade them to come along again. What’s especially exciting is that Shirley’s grandfather hails from a small village two hours from Palermo.  She and Owen plan to make their way to the village on one of our “free” days.  

This is what our OAT itinerary looks like.  As you can see, we are covering quite a lot of ground.

We will be staying for three nights in four of the cities: Palermo, Mazara, Ragusa and Catania, with a single night in Piazza Armerina.  At the end of the OAT tour, the four of us will head to Malta.  From Catania, we will fly to Valetta and will use that as our base during our five days in Malta.  

As usual, I’ve been learning the history of the places we’ll be visiting, and I have to tell you, theose poor inhabitants of Sicily did not have an easy time of it.  Here’s the Cliff’s Note version:  There was a lot of fighting and conquering going on–with Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards taking turns raping, pillaging, plundering and selling inhabitants into slavery.   Sicily isn’t at the bottom of “the boot” for nothing.  It sure got kicked around a lot!

Augustus, Hannibal, Constantine, Archimedes, and several Williams, Charles and Fredericks all had starring roles in Sicily’s narrative.  (Don’t you just hate it when the rulers all have the same name and you need to remember their numbers?  At least for the Williams there was William the Bad and William the Good.)  Throw in a couple of popes, an emperor or two, some knights plus a couple of earthquakes and an active volcano and you are guaranteed some interesting stories with even better ruins.

What fascinates me  more than the political history is the mythology.  Unlike the kings, whose moms sorely lacked imagination when it came time to name their offspring, the mythological figures have double names:  Zeus and Jupiter, Ulysses and Odysseus, Venus and Aphrodite.  So confusing to an already confused American, but that’s what happens when Greek and Roman cultures share the same territory.  

For now, that’s all you need to know about Sicily’s history.  More will be forthcoming, and there’s always the possibility of a pop quiz or two.

Preview of coming attractions:

  • Lots of cathedrals, temples, palaces, amphitheaters plus a dancing satyr
  • Eye popping mosaics, fit for an emperor, like maybe Marcus Aurelius?
  • an educational encounter with a member of the Mafia
  • a cooking class (hope we do better than the last time we tried this!)
  • “Come with me to the kasbah, where we will make ” whatever they make there.  (If you got that reference, you are probably as old as I am!) 
  • wine tasting at a Marsala vineyard
  • a day in the life of a Sicilian dairy farm family
  • a visit to Mt Etna to watch the volcano do its thing

Plus join us for some armchair traveling.  I’ll be posting whenever wi-fi and my energy levels allow.  But I have to warn you, I plan to be toasting those 41 years a whole LOT!  Expect typos.  

Oh yeah, about that photo at the top of this post.  It’s actually Sorrento, from our 2015 trip.  I just wanted a little visual to start us all off.