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Posts Tagged ‘italy’

April 29 and 10, 2008

The (beautiful) mosaics at the Villa Casale were Roman, secular, and pastel. The (beautiful) mosaics at Monreale were Byzantine, Christian, and vibrant with color and gold. I loved them both, and I recommend seeing them both. However, it is easier to get to Monreale if you aren’t driving and don’t want to take a tour. The villa is somewhat isolated, while Monreale is just a short bus ride from Palermo. I visited Monreale twice, once with the tour group on the way to Cefalu, and once on my own when I returned to Palermo at the end of my trip. And while the mosaics are a sufficient reason for a return visit, Monreale also has a cloister full of fascinating columns and capitals. The tour visited in the morning, competing with crowds from three cruise ships, so I chose go back in the afternoon. It didn’t help much.


Monreale was commissioned by the Norman King William II, in 1174. At first sight it might seem overkill to build a massive cathedral so close to Palermo, where one was already under construction, begun in 1168. However, just as the Norman King Henry II in England was attempting to reduce the power of the church in opposition to that “troublesome priest” Thomas a Becket, William was contending with the archbishop building Palermo’s cathedral. William seems to have done better than Henry, and unlike Becket the cardinal escaped martyrdom. I find it interesting that we have Norman kings at both the northern and southern peripheries of Europe at the same time, although since the Normans were originally Vikings, perhaps it is not so strange. The Normans had wrested control of Sicily from the Moors (the same Moors then occupying the Iberian peninsula), and for a time Sicily was a flourishing example of multiculturalism. (But not for long.)


Monreale is definitely one of those places where pictures are more evocative than words (although my photos of the mosaics did not turn out well). However, I will mention that the entire interior is covered with Byzantine-style mosaics, 6,340 square meters of them, with a background of gold. Forty-two separate scenes depict key episodes from the Bible, culminating in a huge Christ Pantocrator above the main altar. Outside, the cloister is bordered by 228 slender, paired columns, all different, all with intriguing capitals carved with scenes from Sicilian history, and many with mosaic inlay. An Arab fountain is tucked into one corner.

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April 27-28, 2008

My notes for April 27th are extremely sparse, possibly because I had gotten sick again. (I had spent most of my time on the Amalfi Coast suffering from a cold followed by a cough.) My fellow travelers rallied round with an assortment of remedies, and I would find that Advil for Sinus (which I’d never heard of – I don’t watch ads) shortened the transition from cold to cough.

We spent the morning at Agrigento, where remarkably intact Greek temples stood proud on high ground above the sea, even though the site is known as the Valley of the Temples (go figure). No “closed for renovation” problems here. The Greek colonization of Sicily, which started in the 8th century BCE, left a rich legacy, and these temples are as fine as any in Greece proper. The setting is dramatic, and the ruins among the best I’ve seen. I hear it’s even better at night, when the temples are lit. Our local guide, while not as dynamic as Rosa, nonetheless knew his subject well. Not a good person to entrust with the group photo, though – the result was dominated by one of the temples, with the people hard to identify! After a group lunch, featuring disappointing chickpea fritters, we made the long drive to Scopello, a little village in the northwest corner of the triangular island, near the entrance to the Zingaro National Park, where we spent two nights.


After Greek temples, Roman mosaics and lots of Spanish baroque, we were going to have a day in the country, hiking a seven kilometer coast path through the Riserva Nationale della Zingaro. We had beautiful weather for the trek, but, unfortunately, I woke up feeling decidedly off color. What to do? We had four hours to make it from the southern entrance to the northern, where our coach would meet us. Or I could do a very short trek at the southern end and then backtrack to take the coach north. Or I could forget the whole thing. There was no public transport at either end, and although Scopello was only two kms. from the southern entrance, San Vito Lo Capo was 20 kms. from the northern.

Initially I planned to backtrack, but quickly realized I wouldn’t have enough time to reach even the first cove, and that the scenery would be well worth some effort. I had already slathered on sunscreen (I hate the stuff), and with a borrowed bandana to cover my thinning hair I decided to keep going. It’s surprising how far you can get just putting one foot in front of the other. Four hours only gave most of the group, including me, enough time to make the walk and take a short lunch break (our hotel had provided sandwiches). I’d have liked to take it more slowly, and not just because I was sick. I live in North Carolina, where a three hour drive will get me to mile after mile of sandy beaches, but I really prefer my coastline rugged, with cliffs and breaking waves, and this was much more my kind of place.

To my right a dark blue sea met a sky just a few shades lighter. To my left, open, rocky slopes climbed high, home to birds and wildflowers. I could now recognize acanthus, but I still don’t know the name of the big cactus with a spire that looks like a giant asparagus. And at ground level yellow and red and pink decorated the plants where darting lizards took refuge. We weren’t the only visitors, but only a few others were walking the paths or sunbathing in the coves. The coach duly collected us at the northern entrance, and we drove on to San Vito, where Alfio treated us to gelato. (I know that there are many gelato fans, but I’m afraid I’m a heretic – I’m just not that fond of frozen treats.) San Vito’s long sandy beach had even fewer sunbathers than the coves in Zingaro.

We stayed at Albergo La Tavernetta, where I had a room with a small balcony. The second night we ate a group dinner there, and apparently they felt we needed feeding up after our hike, because they served way too much food! Assorted bruschetta were followed by no fewer than three kinds of pasta, including pasta con le sarde (not as good as the Granduca’s). The swordfish, accompanied by French fries and salad, seemed a little dry, but dessert, pineapple and little cakes filled with ricotta, was good. The previous night many of us ate at Il Bagnio, said to have food with Arabian influences. My seafood couscous was more couscous than seafood, and very short on expected spice. I ate cassata for dessert, rich with sugar and candied fruits and also on my list of things to try, but found it too sweet for my taste. I’ll stick with cannoli!

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April 25-26, 2008
Now we left the east coast behind us and drove through the inland hills to Piazza Armerina for two nights in an agriturismo. The next day would star the mosaics of Villa Casale – one of my absolute must-see sights on Sicily (I just love mosaics). I looked forward to the agriturismo, too – not the kind of place you get to stay at if you only use public transport. Before we left Siracusa, though, Alfio had added a visit to the recently opened WWII bomb shelters near the Duomo. As shelters go, these weren’t at all bad, cleaner and less claustrophobic than the London tube, for sure. Originally caves, they featured a big cistern for water.

I had been a little concerned that our lunch stop might have been Noto: instead it turned out to be Caltagirone, which I had really wanted to see, but had thought too far for a day trip from Siracusa. Ceramics have been produced there for over a thousand years, but I didn’t want to shop, I wanted to see the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, 142 wide steps leading up to the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Monte , each riser faced with hand-decorated ceramic tiles. And indeed, while the plates and vases in the shops were a little florid for my taste, the tiles were just right – birds and flowers and lions and horses and geometric shapes, each riser different. Before releasing us to find lunch, Alfio took us to see a huge “nativity”” (presepe in Italian). Think of a model railway layout, but without the railway and with the nativity scene as the centerpiece. This one occupied most of a church, and included numerous tableaux of people going about their daily lives – fixing meals, gathering firewood, catching fish.

Again, we were given only sketchy directions for places to eat. I headed straight for La Scala, listed in Lonely Planet and actually on the Scalinata, but they were only offering a tourist menu at 25 euro. I should mention that April 25th was a holiday, Liberation Day, both celebrating the end of WWII in Italy, and commemorating the war dead. On a different day I would expect to find a regular menu. Unfortunately, many places were closed because of the holiday, and I wasn’t having much luck when I ran into a couple from the tour looking equally hungry. Then I took another look at Lonely Planet and we found Non Solo Vino, almost hidden up a staircase, where I enjoyed an excellent piece of swordfish with fennel and orange. Apparently the antipasto buffet and spaghetti with clams were also good.

We couldn’t linger over lunch, though, as we were supposed to meet up with the group for a pottery demonstration. This was where I realized that one pottery demonstration is really much like another – I would have done better to visit the ceramics museum. I didn’t have time for that after the demonstration, but I did abandon the shoppers, which let me spend a little time in Caltagirone’s pretty public gardens, and take a quick peek at a religious festival that seemed to center on the cloak of S. Francesco di Paola.

We were staying at Torre di Renda for two nights, and ate dinner there both nights. My room, a double, was small enough I wondered where two people would put their luggage, and again I didn’t have much of a view. There were great views available however, looking across a valley to Piazza Armerina. I thought dinner good but not great – stronger on quantity than quality. The antipasto, as usual in Italy, was good, the pasta just OK (although since I’m not really a pasta fan, maybe I’m not a fair judge), then we had tough pork as well as tasty rabbit and potatoes. Dessert included both cake and tiramisu. Turned out that a group of 27 made unrealistic demands on the agriturismo’s hot water supplies, and some on this tour weren’t up to the challenge. Faced with the choice of a cold shower, getting up earlier or showering in the afternoon, I picked the latter, but I did miss my morning shower.

This trip had already included museums closed for renovation, and now the Villa Casale, one of my main reasons for coming to Sicily, was also partially closed for renovation! True, renovation is a good and necessary thing, (very necessary in the case of the Naples museum), but I was beginning to feel I had chosen the wrong year for the trip. I do hope that renovation at the Villa includes a new roof – the current monstrosity makes it very hard to take decent photographs, and must turn the place into a sauna in the summer. Still, the Villa is huge, and although some of the most famous mosaics were covered, I had plenty to admire. Built in the early fourth century, probably as the manor for a large estate, it survived the invasions of the Vandals and the Visigoths, and later the Arabs, but was buried by a landslide in the twelfth century, and remained hidden until the 1900s. The UNESCO listing for the site says simply: “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”. Just stunning. While the “bikini girls” may be the most famous, a long procession of wild animals is even more arresting (it’s thought that the Villa’s owner may have traded in wild animals). In all, 37,000 square feet of mosaics await the visitor.

Almost anywhere would be an anticlimax after a morning at the Villa Casale, but Piazza Armerina wasn’t bad. I made a quick getaway from the group to be sure I could buy a panini before the shops shut. With a happy hour and another large meal scheduled for the evening I wanted a light lunch, which I ate on a bench across from the duomo. Exploring the town afterwards, I found several people from the group in a nice-looking trattoria, and was invited to join them for coffee and dessert. Heading back to the coach we walked into the first rain I had encountered since Herculaneum back on April 15th – and hail as well – but it cleared by the time we reached the agriturismo. Now, later in the year, I imagine people would spend the afternoon at the pool, but not in April. I admired the views, I went for a walk among the wildflowers and I caught up on my journal, but it was definitely a slow afternoon.

In contrast, the evening was lively. We all showed up with contributions for happy hour (I took olives, from the same alimentari as my lunchtime panini), and then took turns introducing our “buddy”. RS tours have everyone pair up on the first day and then check that our buddy is present when otherwise the guide would need to count heads. (Turns out that “buddy” is a dirty word in Sicilian!) I tried to graze sparingly on the assorted goodies, but getting through four courses after happy hour was a bit difficult. We had the usual mixed antipasto, followed by another pasta Norma, meat and very mediocre spinach, and my favorite cannoli.

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Back to Ortigia

April 23-24, 2008

On the itinerary, days 3 and 4 looked good. This day, we would visit Mt. Etna in the morning, drive to Siracusa, and then meet in the early evening for a walk and dinner. The next morning we’d visit the Archaeological Park, which would leave me nicely positioned to spend the afternoon at the museum. It didn’t work out that way, as Alfio changed the schedule. The day started well, despite an early start, with a good talk and good views from the coach. But our visit to Mt. Etna itself disappointed me. The place we stopped at was mobbed, and then we just got to follow a well-worn path round the rim of a small crater. A freezing wind tried to blow us off the mountain, and only dead black ash surrounded us. Alfio had told a stirring story about a close encounter with live lava on the way up, but we didn’t see so much as a spark. Then we stopped off in Catania on the way south for a walk round the town center and a disorganized lunch stop. I did fine – I picked the closest café, shared a table and figured out the buffet system, but others had more trouble. Then, back on the bus, Alfio announced that we would tour the Archaeological Park that afternoon, instead of the next morning. This meant that the tour would include two full “free” (i.e. no activity) days instead of one. I like having some free time, but I don’t see a need to pay tour prices for too much of it.

Rosa, our local guide for the Archaeological Park, was dynamite, bringing the site vividly to life. The Greek theater was disappearing under plywood in preparation for the summer drama series, but nothing could hide the size of the quarry behind it. The Athenians who had survived the disastrous (for them) naval battle of 413 BC had been forced to work there for seven years, before ending as slaves. Rosa was so good that, when we were given the option to tour the Duomo with her that afternoon, instead of with Alfio the next morning, most of us chose to do so. While I had admired the outside of the Duomo earlier, I had saved the inside for the visit with a guide, and was not disappointed.

Since there were no activities scheduled the next day I was able to get up a bit later. The tour was staying at the Residence alla Guidecca, self-catering apartments in renovated palazzos in the heart of the old town. I had a big bedroom with a lovely double bed, a sitting room with a mini-kitchen concealed in a cupboard, and a bathroom. My rooms were dark, as they looked out onto a narrow street rather than a courtyard, and there was an easily missed step a few paces inside the bedroom door, but otherwise this would be a good place to settle in for a few days. A couple of other women on the tour were also interested in visiting the museums in the new town, so we rode the shuttle to the train station together and then shared a taxi to the Papyrus Museum (now moved to new quarters in Ortigia). Good thing it was free, as the labels were all in Italian, and there wasn’t a great deal to see. Some papyrus sheets with Egyptian hieroglyphics and a couple of canoes caught my attention, but I soon moved on to the Archaeological Museum next door.

In Naples I had been disappointed in the Archaeological Museum because part was closed for renovation. Guess what, same thing here! At least they reduced the admission charge. The prehistoric section was still open, and I found this especially worth visiting as most of the Sicilian history I had read had started with the arrival of the Greeks in the 8th century BCE. Although the Greek section was also accessible when I was there, I was still a little Greek museumed-out from my six weeks there in 2006. I was more interested to learn that Sicily had been a magnet for invaders even before the Greeks – just too tempting to resist, apparently. And then there were the dwarf elephants – I had absolutely no idea that such things had existed, never mind on Sicily (and other Mediterranean islands too, it turns out). I finished with the museum around lunchtime, and walked back to Ortigia just in time to score a panini before the shops shut for the afternoon break. I ate it under the trees on the lungomare, and then revisited the Café Minerva for coffee and cannolo.

I had not forgotten that I wanted to take a boat ride. I had mentioned it to Alfio in the hope that he might pass the message on, but no. Luckily I ran into two people from the tour who were interested, and we agreed to take a boat around the island. Our boatman doubled as a tour guide, but he spoke no English – the Italian couple sharing the boat with us were able to help out with a little translation. We had a lot of fun – getting to see the castle at the end of the island, meeting up with a scuba diver who handed up a few sea urchins, and finally sitting in the bottom of the boat as the awning came down to get us under a low bridge.

Underneath the alla Guidecca’s main building lies a surprise – Jewish ritual baths dating back to the Byzantine era. Alfio arranged a reduced admission price for the group, and most of us headed down the steep stairs to have a look at the small, deep, rock-hewn pools before dinner. The water came from an underground spring, and I couldn’t help reflecting that it was mostly women who were supposed to purify themselves in the cold water, not men.

After touring the Duomo, we didn’t reach our hotel until 7:30, with no real orientation to the island, and only a couple of vague suggestions for dinner. (Alfio was swapping the group dinner on Ortigia with two lunches later on.) I had announced my intention of eating again at Il Fermento, where I had eaten my second night on Sicily, and several people wanted to join me, so I asked Alfio to make us a reservation. When he called me to say he couldn’t get an answer, I pulled out my restaurant list for Siracusa, and headed down a little early to meet my group so I could confer with the front desk. We settled on Oinos, just round the corner at Via della Giudecca 71, where I had perhaps the best meal of the whole trip. We had to split the group, and my table of three shared appetizers – asparagus with quail eggs, and a tuna tartare sampler. Then I had Argentinian beef with Jerusalem artichokes, and got a taste from the duck breast and leg with foie gras. Everything was delicious, and the wine, a Shiraz and Nero d’Avola blend, so good it seemed a steal at 15 euro a bottle. The next night I planned to eat dinner with the same couple, after confirming that Il Fermento would be open, but in all eleven of us showed up at the restaurant. We took over a big table in the back room, and fortunately one of the men spoke some Italian, and was able to translate the message that with so many of us, and only one person cooking, it would help if we didn’t order too many different dishes. The risotto and king prawns I had had before were popular, and I gathered that the ravioli and salad were appreciated, too.

Capital from the Duomo
In Catania

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April 21 – 22, 2008

Taormina is one of those places that has become a victim of its own success, like Dubrovnik and Venice. Of course, it is still cute, it still has a fabulous view of the coast and Mount Etna, and it still has a largely intact Romanized Greek theater, but you are liable to find yourself enjoying them crammed shoulder to shoulder with a lot of other people. Apparently, as cruise ships have grown bigger and bigger, the crowds on bad days have become larger and larger. One solution is to arrive late and leave early, or to spend the day up the hill in Castlemola, or out touring Mount Etna.

While I was glad to see Taormina, I was even more glad that I had spent the time before my tour in Ortigia instead. Now I backtracked to Taormina to join the first Rick Steves tour to focus just on Sicily. I started traveling back in the 90s, with tour groups, but over the years I switched more and more to independent travel. I do take an occasional tour – when it makes sense for transport, when I’m feeling lazy, when I want some company in the middle of a long trip. This was my fourth Rick Steves’ tour – I’d done two back in the 90s, and then Greece in 2006. I’d found the guides to be excellent, and the other tour members interesting travel companions, but the groups have grown larger and the prices higher, and most of the tours go to places where I’d rather travel alone. I had carefully compared itineraries before deciding, and this one came closest to including all the places I wanted to visit .

I began the day by buying a panini for lunch from the alimentari conveniently located in the same building as my B&B. Then I rode the shuttle back to the train station. Initially I thought that a bus would be faster, but then learned I would have to change in Catania. Besides, I really prefer trains – no worries about luggage disappearing from the storage area under the bus, and easy access to a toilet. At the station I found that a strike has caused the cancellation of trains coming from the mainland – good thing I was already on the island! (One couple joining the tour had to find a car and driver in a hurry because of this.) I also found that groups of schoolchildren were being taken through the train – apparently this was an educational outing…

At the Taormina train station, at the bottom of the cliff, I met up with a young Swedish couple on a long trip, unaccountably lugging a large suitcase around with them. Since the taxis at the station wouldn’t take me to my hotel, we rode the bus up to town, to find one that would. After dropping the Swedes in town, the driver negotiated some remarkably narrow streets – just wide enough for the car, but not for the car and a pedestrian – on the way to the tour hotel, the Vello d’Oro. Here I was surprised to find that I had a single room (these tours operate on a mandatory share/no single supplement basis), and a very nice single room at that, with a balcony with a good view (once I got the sticky door fixed). Turned out I was the only solo traveler on the tour. This might sound good – I wouldn’t have to share a room – but single rooms are usually the worst, and I would have to work harder on socializing.

I went out to look around – quickly abandoning the shops for the lovely Villa Communale gardens. Gorgeous views, pretty flowers, quirky buildings and some welcome shade – even so early in the season the sun had developed some noticeable heat. Then I compensated for a very bad coffee at the café just outside the gardens (I suppose they thought they were selling the view rather than the coffee), with a much better one back at the hotel.

At 5:00 o’clock it was time to switch to group mode and show up for the introductory meeting. Our tour guide, Alfio, turned out to be a tall, dark Sicilian with a charming accent and an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of things Sicilian, but he seemed not to feel the sun, as this meeting was out in the open – no shade, and tables too far apart to hear each other properly. After the introductions, and a move indoors, Alfio went through the entire itinerary with us – did he think we had signed up without reading it? Then we went out for a pre-dinner walk to visit a stretch of Roman wall. Nice piece of wall, but Alfio used it as the starting point for a complete outline of the history of Sicily. Standing around listening to things I already know, or would prefer to hear while sitting down with a drink, is a major complaint I have with tours. No complaint about dinner, though. Antipasto, including cheese, lasagna and veggies, pasta alla Norma (with eggplant and an excellent cheese, a Sicilian specialty), beef involtini and salad, and a huge slab of tiramisu. And wine – later the wine drinkers would chip in for a wine kitty, but this first night it was included.

The next morning I started the day on my balcony, with a view out to sea over the main piazza. Late in the morning we visited the Greek Theater, where the views were still stellar despite the stage wall (happily now somewhat ruined) built across the best view by the Romans. And I spent the afternoon up above Taormina in Castelmola, which had the best views of all. The town itself did have attractions beyond the shops. My photographs include several churches, a baroque fountain with an angel-faced centaur centerpiece (the symbol of Taormina), the narrow streets (staircases in places), a flower-bedecked balcony, a quaint door, but, of course, lots and lots of shots of Mt. Etna and the coast.

The morning included a walking tour of the town, taking in the Villa Communale gardens and the Greek Theater, with an informative local guide (of course Alfio was also a local!). Then a group of us rushed off to catch the bus up to Castelmola. One hardy sub-group decided to walk up, but I did mention that Sicily was short on trees, didn’t I? No trees means no shade, and I didn’t want to trek up a steep hill in full sunshine when I had an alternative. (I do my hiking in the Appalachians – plenty of trees!) Too many people wanted the bus and I wound up sharing a taxi with three fellow group members. We picked a quiet place for lunch, and then I went off to enjoy the spectacular views from the castle and explore the town. It was festival time – in the Church of St. George a big statue of the saint and the dragon was up on a float, being decorated with red roses.

Back in Taormina (by shared taxi again) I checked out the restaurants on my list. I had done a fair amount of research and had a list of possibles for most of the towns I would visit. Here the first couple of places seemed too pricey, and I settled on the Granduca. The town seemed crowded and one reason to eat at the Granduca was to enjoy the view, so I had my hotel make a reservation. Perhaps as a result, I had a table right in front of their big glass windows, and even after the sun set I could watch the palm trees tossing in the wind. For the first time I had brought my iPod to dinner, and I listened to Marlena de Blasi taking about Orvieto while I ate. And I ate well. A carpaccio of swordfish with greens was excellent. I followed that with a Sicilian specialty, pasta con le sarde, with sardines, raisins and pine nuts. I had had doubts about pasta with sardines, but promptly became a convert. With wine and water, the bill was around 30 euros.

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19-20 April, 2008

I would visit the Archaeological Park in Siracusa proper with the tour group, so I had planned a day trip to Noto and then a day (Sunday) exploring Ortigia. Over breakfast I discussed my plans with my landlady. The bus station, which I had expected to find practically next door to the B&B, had been moved over near the train station, I learned. Marriott had bought a big building two streets away, and not content with renovating the building itself, was intent on cleaning up the neighborhood, and the bus station didn’t fit their plans. Even the market, which set up right below my window, was in jeopardy. The bus to Noto was either very late or very early, but when we passed a parade (demonstration?) on the main street I saw why. A whole line of inbound buses waited behind the marchers. Modern Siracusa did indeed look uninspired, but I enjoyed the countryside – again, wildflowers brightened otherwise rocky hillsides. I learned later that between the demands of shipbuilding and of agriculture, Sicily lost its trees many centuries back.

One thing you hear a lot about on Sicily, at least while you have a guide, and especially if that guide is from Catania, is the earthquake of 1693. This devastated many of towns in the east, including Catania itself (already largely destroyed by Mt. Etna in 1669) and Noto. I’m not quite sure why I wanted to visit Noto, as it was rebuilt after the earthquake in baroque style, and I’m not generally fond of baroque, but the pictures looked good. I had expected the town to be quiet, with scaffolding covering the damaged cathedral (the dome collapsed in 1996). Well, I knew my guidebooks needed updating, and I found that Noto had been discovered, and also cleaned up. No scaffolding in evidence. Just a main street punctuated by shining clean, honey-colored, impressive buildings. Very beautiful. Very sterile. Even though a wedding was underway in one of the churches, all those clean buildings combined with the tourist crowds made the whole place feel inauthentic. I took to the back streets and the Trattoria del Carmine, where I tucked into an excellent antipasto and so-so ravioli. Then I went back to the main street and took pictures – the crowds had disappeared, no doubt in search of lunch.

My landlady had warned me not to miss the bus back. This had worried me a little – I knew there would be few buses on Sunday, but did the service shut down on Saturday afternoon, too? I had been unable to find a timetable anywhere near the bus stop in Noto, but I finally discovered that you could find out the bus times in the same place you bought the tickets – the Tabacchi. Still, when I saw a bus show up I decided to take it, instead of exploring further. So, I started wandering round Ortigia a little earlier than planned, and was enchanted. I found a promising looking place to try for dinner, and then stopped off for coffee on a side street before retiring to my B&B to rest my feet. (I had recently spent a month limping round Budapest, Austria and Venice, but so far this trip my feet were holding up well – no reason to stress them too far, though.)

After my initial exploration of Ortigia, I knew I would spend the next day just wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the buildings and the views. Beautifully restored palazzos stood right next door to ones gently crumbling into ruin. In contrast, the main street had plenty of modern shops, and the whole place had a lived-in feel I had missed in Noto. I started down by the water and had the lungomare, the port and the Fontana Aretusa largely to myself. By the waterfront the lungomare, dark and cold two nights before, now basked in sunshine. Further back, a double row of big trees offered shade. I had been thinking of taking a boat ride, but this seemed an activity better organized for a group than a solo traveler – I would wait until I came back with the tour group.

At the fountain I took pictures of the papyrus – a pretty, feathery plant that I would never have imagined could be used to make paper – and the ducks, before moving on for more pictures of the Duomo and of the Artemis fountain in the Piazza Archimede. Here I picked up a copy of the Herald Tribune to go with an espresso macchiato at the Café Diana, a place that seemed popular with locals. I should say more about the Duomo, a spectacular building on a spectacular piazza. This day, I mostly admired the outside (Spanish), but later I would learn that it was the oldest continuously occupied religious building in Europe. (I think the tour guide said the world, but Europe seems more likely!) Not the same religion for all those centuries, of course. It started as a temple to Athena, and the 5th century BCE columns still support the roof. Inside I could feel the age – and the peace.

Lunch – less than 2 euros – was a mortadella and cheese sandwich from a nearby alimentari, followed by a siesta. For dessert and coffee I picked a different café – Café Minerva, near the duomo – with delicious cannoli. I’ve never had a sweet tooth, and now too much sweet stuff at the wrong time messes up my blood sugar, but I don’t really think of cannoli as sweet. On Sicily the shells were much lighter, and the ricotta much creamier, than those I’ve had at home. I wouldn’t waste any opportunity to indulge. I walked off some of the calories by exploring the southern end of the island, finding access to the castle at the very tip completely blocked off. The more time I spent on its back streets, the more I liked Ortigia. Yes, there were tourists around, but not that many. Yes, there were tourist shops, but not whole streets of them. Yes, the buildings were often baroque, but not aggressively so. Mostly, I think I liked the town because of the variety. Greek ruins here, a Spanish church round the corner, modern apartment blocks down the street. It had the feel of a place that had just grown over the centuries, rather than being designed and built all at once. Both evenings, there were crowds out on the streets and I strolled with them down the main streets. When I got home I watched the parking game being played below me, finally realizing that the helpful man directing cars into spaces was actually running the show, as the drivers tipped him.

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September 21-24, 2015: Switzerland’s scenic mountain railways are a major tourist draw. I rode one of them, from Montreux to Interlaken (although part of the journey was on a bus) on my ill-fated 2005 trip. That ride I went first class, paying extra for a front row seat in the dome car, sitting above the driver. But just as there are multiple scenic routes (the most famous – or most promoted – are the Glacier Express, the Bernina, the Golden Pass and the William Tell) there are different ways to experience them. The tourist trains offer options at different price points, you don’t have to take the most expensive, as I did in 2005, but regular passenger trains also run those routes. True, you don’t get a dome car, but you get a pretty good view anyway, at potentially much lower cost.
I planned a variation of the William Tell route, which starts with a slow boat trip down Lake Lucerne, before passing through the Gotthard tunnel and finishing at Locarno or Lugano (change at Bellinzona). My train from Zurich would also go through the Gotthard tunnel, but instead of changing trains at Bellinzona I would ride all the way to Como, where I would take the ferry up the lake to Varenna. Only one train a day would stop at Como and not require me to change trains, and by booking ahead I paid a mere 10 CHF for it (10.39 USD at today’s exchange rate). The base price for the William Tell route (which admittedly included the boat ride), without any kind of pass, was 197 CHF, or 123 CHF with a half-fare travel card, and that wouldn’t get me to Como.


My cheapskate train ride was a great success. Lake and mountain views alike were excellent. The Swiss railway website had said that second class would be packed the whole way, but at the back end of the last second class coach, where I was sitting, there was space to change sides when the sun started hitting my reserved seat. Yes, I arrived in Como on a hot, sunny day, the first in what felt like forever. I hefted my case down the steps in front of the station, and then rolled it easily through town to the ferry dock, where I found a mob of day trippers. Since they all wanted to sit outside in the sun, and I chose to sit just inside in the shade, they were not a problem. Although I abandoned my nighttime cough medicine in Zurich (I had been waking up groggy) I was still feeling fragile, and just sat and admired the beautiful lake views instead of taking photographs.

I had had some difficulty with reservations for the Italian Lakes, even at the end of the season, and was sleeping rather more expensively than usual at the Villa Cipressi, although they had put me in the annex above the breakfast room instead of in the more impressive main building. I still had a pretty good lake view, which I appreciated, and a big room with a comfortable bed, but wifi was so bad as to be essentially useless. This would have been less of an annoyance if the weather had stayed fine, but I should have taken photographs on the lake trip, as my first full day was grey and cloudy, and the second featured driving rain and wind so strong it blew my supposedly sturdy Norwegian umbrella inside out.


I did make it to Bellagio the first day, finding it, as I had expected, well provided with expensive shops and restaurants, but also with with good views. I found a neat little place, Art in Flower, near the top of the main drag, for a quite reasonable lunch, wandered back down through a quiet park, and then around the point that divides Lake Lecco from Lake Como. I caught the boat back as rain started. Given the horrible weather, and my lack of energy, meals occupied more of my attention than the mostly non-existent views. I enjoyed one excellent dinner in the Villa Cipressi’s dining room – although a big group of women from Missouri (or was it Michigan) kept the noise level high. I highly recommend the delicious veal. I can also recommend the pizzas at the Royal Victoria Grill, just a short walk away, and the friendly service at the Albergo del Sole, also nearby, although the food was just average.

What I can’t do is recommend the Osteria Quatro Pass, since they did not honor my reservation. They claimed to have mixed up the names, but not only is mine unusual, but I had a reservation for one, and all the tables held at least two people. Their offer of an aperitif and a suggestion that the wait might only be twenty minutes did not impress me. I rarely drink aperitifs, I would have had to drink this one standing out in the alley, and I had no faith at all in the estimate of the wait time. I went back to Albergo del Sole, where I was comped a much more welcome limoncello at the end of the meal.


Of course, the morning I left the sun was out, but I took a taxi to the station anyway (it was uphill). Although I was early I found Platform One already packed with people, several with huge suitcases, and few of whom had apparently bothered to look for the departure board (hidden in the waiting room), which said that the train we were all waiting for would leave from Platform Two (there were only two). True, we didn’t need to cross the tracks until shortly before the train was due, but even after a few of us led the way, there were still die hards on Platform One when the train to Milan pulled in.

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Triste in Trieste

Nov 5-8, 2014: Jan Morris wrote a whole, evocative, book about Trieste. A romantic castle perches on a headland nearby. It makes a convenient stop between Ljubljana and Ferrara. I even found a more or less reasonably priced apartment hotel. So I was all set to like the place. But I didn’t.

Of course, the weather didn’t help, being uniformly grey and often wet while I was there, and limiting my sightseeing – I had to abandon my plan to visit Miramare, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian’s castle, as it required a fifteen minute trek over an exposed headland. But I think it was more that the town, resolutely monumental and heavily Hapsburg, was just not my style. Coming right after small and charming Ljubljana, it suffered by contrast.

Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia

Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia

Aside from getting up at 6:10 to make the bus from Ljubljana, the first day started well enough, with attractive scenery out of the window, and a Croatian woman married to an Italian in the seat next to me. I had no difficulty finding my hotel, walking distance from the bus and train station, but the apartment, big but bleak, felt unwelcoming. The main square, fronting the Mediterranean, felt equally big but bleak, although there some sunshine might indeed have helped. As it was, the grey skies matched the grey buildings, and the grey battleships temporarily moored offshore. The ships were in town for a national holiday, and some local veterans were clearly pleased to see them. I joined the queue to board, but gave it up in favor of coffee when rain was added to half an hour or so of no movement.

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I had little better luck with Trieste’s permanent sights. Despite checking with the T.I. I never did find the aquarium. The Roman theater was small and neglected. The Museum of Oriental Art was tiny with hardly any English signs, although I enjoyed the suits of samurai armor. The Museo Revoltella had no English at all, awful paintings, and resolutely baroque decor. The Castello di San Giusto had too many steps and too much armor, although the basilica next door did have one nice mosaic. About the only item on my things to do list that I actually found interesting was the tram that labored up the steep hill behind Trieste to Villa Opicina, and even then the weather was too gloomy for any worthwhile views.

Basilica di San Giusto

Basilica di San Giusto

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The only bright spots were an Austrian restaurant, conveniently situated round the corner from my hotel, and one of the canal-side cafes. Given the wet weather, I was just as happy to eat close to home, and with the Hapsburg vibe Austrian food seemed perfectly appropriate. The place was cheap and cheerful, the food edible. The cafe I picked was also cheap and cheerful, and served a most generous spritz, a drink I love and cannot seem to find in the Italian restaurants in North Carolina. Maybe it is a northern Italian specialty, and I am dealing with southerners?

I am sorry not to write a more upbeat piece, but Trieste was a place I was glad to leave, and do not plan  to revisit. I was more than ready to move on to Ferrara, a place I had enjoyed in 2004.

The old-fashioned tram to Villa Opicina

The old-fashioned tram to Villa Opicina

A stair-rail finial in the Museo Revolterra

A stair-rail finial in the Museo Revoltella

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Pompeii - and Vesuvius

Pompeii – and Vesuvius

April 15-16, 2008: I’ve never been that fond of the Ancient Romans: if they weren’t marching off to invade new territory or to supress an uprising, they were cheering on the slaughter of men and animals in the Colosseum at home. The Ancient Greeks seemed so much more civilized (not that they were pacifists!). Sure the Colosseum is impressive, but any dictator can put up an impressive monument if he puts his mind – and his subject’s taxes – to it. But I do have to hand it to the Romans when it comes to living well. I remember visiting a couple of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall on a typically chilly northern English day, and admiring the remains of the bath houses, and the provision of hot water.

Hadrian’s Wall was just a provincial outpost, at the furthest reach of the Empire. Pompeii and Herculaneum were just 150 miles from Rome: Pompeii a port town, and Herculaneum more of a seaside resort for the wealthy. I visited both, along with the sumptuous Villa Oplontis, thought to have belonged to the infamous Nero’s also infamous second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Although people rave about Pompeii, I have to confess that I preferred Herculaneum, but I saw it first.

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

I heard that the day I went to Herculaneum actual hail fell, but I didn’t see that myself. I did see plenty of rain, starting almost as soon as I got off the Circumvesuviana train at Ercolano Scavi station, and I waited out the worst of it with an espresso in a handy cafe. The morning alternated between sunshine and rain, but since the many of the ruins at Herculaneum retain their second stories, I could always find shelter when needed. In fact, it proved to be a very user-friendly site, not too crowded, with a good free brochure and plenty to see.

I started at the Visitor’s Center, standing across from the site, looking down at the store rooms and boat houses that once opened onto the beach. I felt a little uneasy, thinking of the 300 inhabitants who sought an illusory refuge there, their bodies discovered only in 1982. Looking up, I saw only clouds, although at other times Vesuvius’ dark cones had been an all-too present reminder that around the Bay of Naples people still live with an active volcano.

Wall decoration, Herculaneum

Wall decoration, Herculaneum

While I visited the “sacred area” above the warehouses, with its two temples, and an altar dedicated to one M. Nonius Balbus, a senator and local benefactor, and the huge palaestra, reserved for sports, for the most part I wandered in and out of villas and tavernas. I admired the pillars and frescoes in the villas, and checked out the jars sunk into the counters of the tavernas. I especially liked the women’s baths, with black and white mosaic floors and marble seats, and the Hall of the Augustals, the freed slaves, which had featured in the reading I had done before the trip. (I think we tend to forget how many inhabitants of Ancient Greece and Rome were slaves.) Everywhere I looked in Herculaneum I found some reminder of the lives cut short in 79AD, but I didn’t find the site morbid. I could easily imagine the excitement of the archaeologists who first worked here.

Villa Oplontis

Villa Oplontis

On the way to the Villa Oplontis I picked up a sandwich, and when the rain started up again I found a seat under cover and ate my lunch where Nero must often have passed. As would become a theme on this trip, much of the villa was under renovation and off limits, but I could see enough to make me keenly aware of the luxury enjoyed by the Roman upper crust – not just the hot baths and flushing toilets, but a personal swimming pool and room after room full of frescoes and mosaics.

Next day I made an early start for Pompeii, armed with a six hour tour outline and lots of anticipation. The good news about Pompeii? It was a full-size working town, with a forum, temples, theaters (for plays) and an amphitheater (for games). The bad news about Pompeii? It was a full-size town, requiring a great deal more walking per interesting sight than Herculaneum. (Again, some parts were closed.)

Pompeii

Pompeii

The best part of the day, for me, came early, at the Villa of Mysteries, outside the city walls to the northeast, which I had almost to myself. I also liked the Botanical Gardens, which smelt wonderful. As I walked the streets, being careful not to turn an ankle on the uneven surface, and taking advantage of the stepping stones set between the sidewalks at key intersections, I pondered the advantage of having slaves to do the shopping. I also noted with interest that penises were protective symbols here just as they still are in Bhutan. By the time I finally finished dodging tour groups and reached the amphitheater, at the far end of the site, I had little energy left to imagine the gladiators and wild animals fighting and dying for the amusement of the crowds seated above me, especially as most of the seats were missing.

Of course, Pompeii is a truly remarkable sight, but if you only have time for one of the towns buried by Vesuvius, I would recommend Herculaneum.

Roog, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Roof, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

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