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.

Eureka, We Found Syracusa!

For the last three days of our OAT tour, we were based in Catania.  Enroute, we stopped in Syracusa, the birthplace of Archimedes.  Remember him?  He’s the guy in the bathtub, who shouted “eureka” when he discovered something of great importance?  I don’t remember what he discovered, but I sure did like his word choice.

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If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering why he’s holding a mirror, instead of sitting in a bathtub, like a Cialis commercial.  Well, there are a couple of stories:  The original legend was that Archimedes developed a parabolic mirror that captured the sun’s rays and then directed them toward the invaders’ wooden ships, setting  them ablaze.  Valeria, our local guide, said it was more likely that the mirror was indeed used to capture the sun’s rays, but was probably more effective temporarily blinding the enemy.  You are free to pick whichever version you prefer.   Archimedes also invented a crane with a metal hook that could pull a ship out of the water, known as “Archimedes Claw”.   Now THAT would have made one hell of a statue!

We didn’t spend much time in Syracuse, instead moving to the fortress island of Ortigia, another lovely Sicilian town just packed with Greek and Roman ruins, Medieval Norman structures, and Baroque buildings, plus great restaurants and lovely boutiques.  We weren’t there long enough!

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Typical street in Ortigia.  Lots of pedestrian only walkways.

We made a stop by the Fountain of Arethusa.  You’ve all seen fountains before, so I decided to share a photo of this plaque instead.  Don’t you just love it when there is an English translation?  I hope it comes through large enough for you to read it!

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Arethusa was one “wiry” nymph who didn’t rejoice in the “gifts of her body”.  What a great translation!

After lunch we took a boat ride around Ortigia Bay.  (This photo is courtesy of sweet Daniel, our guide, who shared the photos he’d been taking of us during the entire trip.)See that bridge?  Wonder how we were able to fit under it?  P1180508

Don’t worry.  I’m going to show you…

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Our captain instructed us all to scrunch down, then the awning was lowered.  Okay, so it isn’t the best photo I’ve ever taken, but I’ll bet got the idea!

Something else to wonder.  How do people on boats get take-out delivered?  Wonder no more, because once again, I’m going to show you.

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Yes indeed.  That IS a pizza being lowered.

Our day wasn’t over.  We had one more stop before we checked into the hotel.  The World War II Museum commemorated the allies landing in Sicily.   My favorite part of the museum was entering the replica of a Sicilian town, hearing the air raid sirens go off, piling in to the bomb shelter (which shook as the “bombs” went off) then exiting to see the devastation that took place.

There was lots more to see, but I decided to share this poster with the folks back home.

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Lucky Luciano was sprung from a US prison so that he could communicate with his Sicilian Cosa Nostra connections to ensure that the US knew exactly where to land.   As you can imagine, this was somewhat controversial, especially because some claim the US support of the Cosa Nostra leaders only strengthened their hold on the region after the war ended.

After settling in to the Katane Palace Hotel, Daniel took us for a quick tour, pointing out Catania’s version of “Restaurant Row”, where we had a wonderful dinner.

The perfect ending to a fantastic first day in Catania.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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!

On the Road to Piazza Armerina 


I know.  You are all just itchin’ to find out how we are getting from point A to point B on this island.  Well, itch no more, because not only will I  TELL you, I’m also giving you the visual.  We have been traveling in comfort on this lovely bus.  There are only 16 of us, plus our guide, so we have LOTS of room to to spread out.  

The view from these huge windows has been amazing.  We definitely chose the right time to visit Sicily–the wild flowers are blooming, everything is lush and green, and the temperature has been perfect! 

We are all so grateful that Marco, our bus driver,  is manouvering along these winding, VERY narrow roads, up and down the hillsides.   All we had to do is sit back, relax and take it all in.  

Once again, we will be time traveling, all the way back to Ancient Greece.  I don’t know why, but I just got a flash back to Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman, of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  (“Every dog should have a boy”. God, I loved that show! ) How sad that so much of my knowledge of history, at least what stuck,  came from cartoons and Walt Disney!  But I digress. 

When we arrived at the Valley of the Temples, we were greeted by another Marco, our guide for the site.  An archaeologist,  he came equipped with maps, diagrams, and an abundance of enthusiasm.  

Sadly, the site had been picked clean by those successive waves of conquerors, so it was difficult to extract much information about the lifestyle of the original Greek inhabitants of Akragas (as the area was once known) from artifacts, bones, shards, etc.  

Fortunately, though, eight Greek temples remain at this UNESCO site, all built between 510 and 430 BC.  The best preserved temple, called “Concordia” by the non-archaeologists, (because the archaeologists didn’t have sufficient info to determine the correct names of the temples) was saved from being scavenged by the locals because it was transformed into a church by the Normans.  Walls were built between the pillars, and the entrance was changed, then at some point (and yeah, I forgot what Marco said.  Sorry!) it was all changed back.


From the valley, you can see the modern city of Agrigento, just beyond Greek temple F (the archaeologists’ name for Concordia. ) 

What Marco COULD tell us was that these arches were once the entrance to Greek tombs, that were later repurposed by the Normans for shelter, with the actual grave used as a manger for their animals.  The Greeks dug shallow graves — only about a foot and a half deep– and covered the hole with rocks.  Who knows what the Norman’s did with the remains they found when they moved those rocks! 


My favorite part of the site, however, was this incredible sculpture of Icarus, who fell from the skies because he flew too close to the sun.  Clearly, HE hadn’t been under water for 2,000 years!  Also clear was that he was a modern addition to the site.


After our tour, it was time for lunch at this lovely private home.  


You’d think we would have figured it out by now.  What we THOUGHT was the lunch, was actually just the antipasto, followed by several other courses.  We have concluded that we need to get much better at pacing ourselves!  But if the food wasn’t enough, there was yet another surprise in store for us:  The owner’s grandfather had been a renown craftsman, creating donkey carts that were truly works of art.  

The paintings on the sides of the carts were of historical events, like this one depicting the assassination of Julius Caesar.


Even the spokes on the wheels were intricately carved.  


Here’s our hostess, who also functioned as guide, cook and server.

These magical interludes are a big reason that Mike and I travel with OAT.  We NEVER would have been able to arrange for some of these fascinating encounters on our own!  

By now, we were completely sated with food and culture, ready for our one night stay at Vecchia Masseria in Piazza Amerina.  

And yes, it really WAS that beautiful.  Another agritourismo, in a pastoral setting with delicious,  locally sourced food.  Life is good.