Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sights of Sicily - 2003

Sights of Sicily
For our spring break, another teacher and I chose to spend our time touring the nearby island of Sicily. The direct 1 1/2 hour flight brought us to the seaside airport outside of capitol city of Palermo. Renting a car, we drove to the Bed&Breakfast we had reserved over the internet and via email. After Gabriella, the B&B owner, opened the large iron gate, we carried our luggage through the large cobblestone with huge trees and into the renovated castle. Inside, the rooms were cozy, filled with antique furniture and magazines, mostly of Gabriella’s passion – gardening. Our room overlooked her large garden, still waiting for its glory in later spring and summer.

A route planned by Gabriella, we followed the map to downtown Palermo. Despite the lack of road signs, we reached downtown and found a place to park outside the main central area. Conscious of the limited time we had before nightfall, we decided to concentrate on a particular area. After being in a Moslem country, it was pleasant to see so many churches and cathedrals, many with Norman influences. Hearing the bells toll the hour was indeed a pleasant sound I missed. In the same neighborhood with the beautiful old cathedrals, we saw many buildings that were run-down, crumbling, or bombed. It made me think of how Palermo and other European cities must have looked after the bombings of WWII. As darkness descended, navigating by landmarks was more difficult. The worn cobblestone streets shined in the luminescence of the street lights, giving it the glazed appearance of icy sidewalks. After eating at a well-known restaurant right across from the St. Francisican church, we headed back to the car and made our way back to the old castle awaiting us.

The next afternoon, we ventured back to Palermo on the way back from Monreale. Unfortunately, we arrived during the Sicilian lunch break, so nothing was open until 3:30pm. Sitting at a small café overlooking the main cathedral, we enjoyed the views and the warmth of the sun as we ate our ice cream. The cathedral was indeed beautiful, but didn’t in my opinion come close to the splendor of the one in Monreale. The streets were often narrow and very crowded. The tiny “Smart Cars” were definitely at an advantage here, but even so, the double-parked cars made maneuvering around the city challenging. Gabriella had made reservations for us to a restaurant she highly recommended, but again lack of signs made even this a challenge. On the spot she had indicated on the map for us, we found no signs for a restaurant. We stopped at a hotel, and they told us that it was just meters away in the direction we had walked from. Still not finding it, we walked into a bookstore which seemed to be about the right location. After checking our email at the local cybercafe, we read for a while, waiting for the time of our reservation. Tucked away up some stairs of the old building was a restaurant with no signs – presumably that way so it remained a place for locals. Here, we had good food (including seafood) and some of the best dessert on the trip.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was the town of Monreale. Although tourists do come and visit its spectacular cathedral and cloisters, the town had a sense of authenticity – full of local people greeting friends and carrying on their daily lives. After “touring” the town trying to find a parking spot on those narrow streets, we finally made our way to the cathedral piazza. A masterpiece incorporating Norman, Arabic, Byzantine and classical elements, the cathedral is a site not to be missed. Along the sides of the interior, Biblical events were presented in a more Byzantine style - entirely of gilded mosaics! In the front of the cathedral the central apse was dominated by a chest-up figure of Christ giving the benediction, also (as were the figures below) beautifully executed in mosaics. It’s especially amazing when one hears that all the mosaics were completed in 10 years!

After touring the cathedral, we went next door to the cloisters, were we were treated to some of the most beautiful columns I have seen. Here, there are 228 columns with polychrome ornamentation, some having the same shiny gold color seen in the cathedral mosaics. As an added bonus to the beauty of the columns, each of the Romanesque capitals is different, some depicting animals, plants, and other fantastic motifs. At one end was a fountain, also adorned in mosaics. Because there was a crew with its equipment trying to film, freedom of movement wasn’t quite as plentiful, but I thought of what a treat it must have been to walk the cloisters every day, each time seeing something different and inspiring.

Leaving Mondello the next morning, we headed westward towards our first destination, the Greek ruins in Segesta. Judging from the distance on the map, I thought it would take longer, but the destination was only a short drive due to the good autostrada and the manageable size of the island. Here, green hills dominated the countryside landscape, accentuated by flowing fields of wild yellow flowers, essentially some of the same types we have in Tunisia. The Doric temple from about 430 BC was in a remarkable state of preservation, except for the absence of a roof. Through the plain columns, one could see quite a distance, distracted only by a few tour groups. After a snack at the shop, I walked up the mountain to see the theatre (cut in stone) with commanding views. Much smaller than the theatre in Dougga, Tunisia, I was a little disappointed in its scale but was treated to a great panorama of the area. Hiking back down the mountain, I once again caught sight of the temple, dominated by the sea of flowers, clothed in colors of yellow, purple, white, and orange.

Moving onward, we headed towards the medieval hill-town off Erice. The view going up the mountain was spectacular, but the narrow windy road prevented us from stopping to enjoy the view of the sea below. Remembering our difficulty finding parking in Monreale, we parked at one of the first lots we saw. The streets were narrow in the characteristic medieval fashion (some barely wide enough for one car – we would have to step in a doorway to let the car pass by), and I was fascinated by the pattern created with the cobblestones, also worn smooth over the years. Hungry, we wandered the streets looking for an open restaurant, eating a tasty meal of fried squid and pasta.
Satisfied with our meal, we headed towards the castle. Fog suddenly rolled in. Within a few minutes, we couldn’t even see the castle right in front of us! Capturing a view of the sea below was also impossible. Clumped between stone slabs were purple flowers we hadn’t seen before. The castle, essentially a ruin, had moss growing over its walls, with the fog accentuating a sense of ancient mystery.

Eager to make it down the mountain to Trampani for the evening, we descended in the fog. Although I found the hotels recommended in the guidebook, there was no place to park in this historical section. After driving around some more, we settled on a 2 star hotel right on the sea. Along with some bicycle racers, we were the only people in the hotel.

Route to Piazza Armerina
After a good breakfast, we headed eastward though central Sicily, determined to make it as close as we could to our next destination, the Roman Villa near Piazza Armerina. Once again in an agricultural area, we encountered sights that would become familiar to us – old stone homes and buildings dotting the green hills and mountains, and herds of sheep. Sometimes the sheep were crossing the road, with their bells tied to their necks sounding their every move. Other times, we saw them at a distance, looking like “moving stones” on the lush hills. True to character, the narrow windy roads had few signs, providing little assurance that the last turn was the correct one. Along the way, we passed by some tractors, a few motorists, and some brave bicyclists. Clouds began to hug the mountains, threatening inclement weather.
Hungry, we reached the town of Caltanissetta. Shortly after we entered the “R” patisserie, it began to rain and hail. The owner and his family were very friendly, fondly recalling their recent trip to the US. Following his recommendations, we ate some local specialities and then each had a cannolicchi all ricotta – a sweet but tasty dessert filled with ricotta and dusted with cinnamon, ground hazelnuts and almonds. Due to the cool, unpredictable weather, we decided to check into the hotel a short drive from the Roman Villa and spend the time lounging with a book.

Vila Romana del Casale
The next morning, we started our adventure by touring the Roman villa, property of a Roman dignitary of some standing and wealth. The sheer size of the 4th century villa was impressive, but its mosaics (enclosed with a protective structure) were in a remarkable state of preservation, most likely due to the mud under which it had been buried and only recently excavated in 1950. Unlike in Tunisia where one could walk right over the ancient mosaics, this site had the mosaics cordioned off with ropes and elevated walkways. A long corridor contained a highly detailed hunting scene, considered to be one of the finest mosaics ever found. After touring many rooms with mosaics of different themes, we finally came to the famed mosaics of girls sporting bikinis, demonstrating their athletic abilities! Over 50 rooms were labeled, with many others unlabeled and still other sections remaining buried under mud. An impressive site indeed!

Satisfied that we had now seen the “bikini girls” mosaic and others of higher quality, we pushed onward, taking a lunch break at Enna, another medieval city high on a hill, with the newer parts down below. Spotting the castle, it took a walk around the entire perimeter to find the entrance. Once inside, there wasn’t much left to see. Near the castle, we found a restaurant with a friendly waiter. Here, I had ravioli with shrimp and a cream sauce.

Route to Taorima
The ride to Taorima was beautiful – full of curvy roads, up and down through medieval towns, and past small country stone homes. Some larger villas were perched on the hilltops or settled along the side of hills. Often unable to stop due to the narrow curvy roads, we commented on the villas, speculating on how beautiful they could be if restored. Sheep and cows with bells lazily crossed the road. Along the way, I took a few photos of Mt. Etna, appearing ever closer. Instead of intersection signs providing some guidance, they were confusing, sometimes posting in the same direction cities on opposite parts of the island! Or, others had the same town on signs pointing in two different directions, with no indication of which path was better or more direct. Nearing dusk, we found the interstate, taking us to the seaside touristy village of Taorima. In absence of seeing signs in the now dark environment, we drove too far up the hill when we realized we were in another town. Driving back down, we tried to find some of the recommended hotels without success – I couldn’t even orient myself! We finally found a hotel, run by an older kindly man. Showing him the map of Taorima in the guidebook, I asked him if he could indicate where exactly we were. Smiling, he said we were in Giardini-Naxos – we went down too far! Right by the sea (and unfortunately the view hindered by an Esso gas station), we slept with the sounds of waves rolling in to the shore. The next morning, I was awaken by the sunrise streaming light through the balcony window, providing me the opportunity to take a few sunrise photos overlooking the sea.

Giardina-Naxos and Taorima
After a slightly more substantial breakfast, we walked over to the nearby information office to check on possible tours up Mt. Etna. Unfortunately, most start in April. They also said that there were no cable cars up one section – a fact confirmed by the hotel owner, indicating that it was “kaput,” destroyed in the last eruption. Hoping to find a hotel right by the water in a more quiet area, we walked along sea past the docked small fishing boats in the direction of several hotels. Along the way, we stopped by a few shops, including one selling higher quality pieces. Here, Andrea spotted some nicely-done lemon and fruit paintings on canvas and on terra-cotta plates. In fact, she really liked them. We went in a few more places, containing pieces that weren’t nearly of the same quality. Man, shopping is fun – even if you don’t buy anything! Right on the sea we found the 1 star hotel recommended by the information office. Satisfied, we decided to make the hotel our base for two days. As we walked out, I noticed a keychain in the lock in the shape of the hand of Fatima. Commenting on it, the manager’s face brightened as he told us that he was Tunisian! Whether or not it made a difference, we got great service there after that.

We then walked back towards the hotel and the paintings that were calling Andrea’s name. People strolled along, with parents playing with their children on the playgrounds. After a lengthy debate, Andrea bought the painting – and the ceramic plate. We also bought a colorful hand-painted plate for school, knowing that the cafeteria manager would be delighted to hang it as part of her collection on the cafeteria wall.

After a lunch of mussles and clams with spaghetti in a small restaurant near the hotel, we drove up to Taorima and strolled along. Here, tourist shops lined the main street. Some were filled with antiques or ceramic wares, while others contained cheap souvenirs. With Andrea’s shopping out of the way, we focused on finding a doll representative of Sicily to add to my collection. Unfortunately, we found none of decent quality. On the main piazza, men sat on the church steps and chatted away. Contemplating the great hillside view of the sea below, people silently ate ice cream. Vendors tried to sell cheap trinkets, including inflatable Tellitubbies and other figures as well as obnoxious mewing toy cats. When we reached our rental car, we were dismayed to find a parking ticket – we had unknowingly parked in a spot reserved for local people only! ☹
Back at our one star hotel, I paused to take a picture of nearby Mt. Etna, with even its smoke cast in the pink of the sunset. With our patio door open all day, the room was now rather cold – with no heater to be found! That night it was rather cold sleeping. In the morning, the balcony provided welcome warmth, enhanced by the sounds of the water rushing and pooling against the dark volcanic rocks. In the distance, boats headed towards the sun. That morning, we had our best breakfast of the entire trip. Once again, the manager was very friendly and accommodating. Asked how our sleep was, I commented that I enjoyed hearing the ocean but was a bit cold. Horrified, the manager apologized and said he would ensure that extra blankets and a portable heater would be brought up promptly.

Mt. Etna and the Circumetna Route
Inspired by the clear, blue sky, we promptly headed towards the smoking giant of Mt. Etna. As we neared the volcano, we passed through several towns, all dirtied with a film of ash/dust. Produce vendors hauling their fresh goods in the bed of their 3-wheel trucks announced their appearance with loudspeakers. In one town, an entrepreneurial man even sold clothing from the back of his truck! Along the sides of the road, the same black soot piled up, much like snow.
The ascent was not as steep as other routes we had taken in recent days. Petrified lava flow, including some areas with small trees/bushes growing began appearing. Off to one side, forests of trees stood still in their sleepy leafless state of early spring, clearly demarking the location where the lava flow boundary ended. Other areas had little or no plant life, likely indicating site of a more recent flow. Melting white snow contrasted against the charcoal black lava. The road abruptly ended near Rifugio Sapienza with the lava flow from the 2001 eruption. As we had been told, the cable car service was not in service, also victim to the furies of the eruption.

Parking near the tourist shop, we walked up the snowy mound to the crater formed in the 1986 eruption. Varying mounds of black contrasted with the white patches of snow. Teenagers on a class trip resumed activities of younger years, picking up snowballs and throwing them at classmates.

After a short while, we got back in the car and went down the volcano by another route, circumnavigating Etna. Seeing a sign for pistachios, we stopped into the small roadside store. Although there were no pistachios this time of the year, the man did have some local specialties including pistachio pesto. Hungry, we stopped in the town of Randazzo in search of some restaurants. Hampered by construction and lack of signs, we were unable to quickly locate the places recommended in the guidebooks. Walking past a grocery store, we asked a lady for the location of a good restaurant to eat. After looking and thinking a moment, she decided that it would be too difficult to explain how to get there, so she offered to give us a lift. The generous woman dropped us off at the restaurant we had been searching for! Indeed, the long noodles with mushrooms and butter were very tasty.

After making good time traveling through the small towns, we decided to visit the gorge the information center had recommended. Suddenly we saw a sign that said panoramic view. Was this it? Several steep and sharp turns later, we realized that this probably wasn’t the right route – and even if it was, we didn’t care to go there. Unfortunately, there was no place to turn around. So, we had to make the best of the situation, closely watching the road while at the same time capturing glimpses of the beautiful terraced fields, trees, and orchards. Old small homes dotted the hillside, many constructed out of volcanic rock. Ahead of us on the road was a man with some cows and a few sheep. Smiling but looking a bit perplexed as to why tourists would be up this way, he herded his animals off to the side and motioned us to drive forward – except his dog contentedly sat right in our path seemingly unconcerned! Finally the valleys became closer. Essentially deciding that we were not slated to discover the site of the gorge, we drove onward towards our seaside hotel. There in front of us was a sign pointing to the gorge! Due to high rainfall and consequential high water levels, a large portion of the walk was unavailable. The river view was pretty, but nothing that different from many I have seen in northern Wisconsin. A short distance later, we saw some unusual rocks whose thinly terraced vertical or horizontal formations must have been created by a great force.

Giardini to Stefano
After eating another pleasant breakfast, we grudgingly packed our belongings and left our little one star hotel, heading to the coastal area on the way to Palermo. Along the way, we passed by more villas in varying states of disrepair. Lemon and citrus groves looked even brighter against the blue sky. Along the windy roads, we also passed by numerous vineyards. Although unmarked by signs indicating which was the main route to Stefano, we soon realized that the increasingly windy narrow steep road was not the route we had wanted, instead creating a slight diversion through the Parc Nebrodi. In one area, the road was so narrow that a stoplight was installed, permitting safe travel in one direction while the cars at the opposite end waited their turn. As we waited for our turn, the birds happily serenaded us, filling the wildflower-covered steep hill with music.

With the delay of the “scenic route,” we arrived in Stefano a little later than anticipated. Many stores in this town noted for its ceramics production had already closed down for lunch. Unfortunately, most were still closed even after we finished our lunch. We chose a café with outdoor seating in hopes of soaking up some of the pleasant sunrays. Although the food was rather unremarkable, we will remember the café for its bathroom – the lights in the bathroom were on a very short timer, plundering the small room in total darkness if you weren’t quick enough!

Moving onward, we reached the coastal city of Cefalù, once a quiet fishing with a medieval center and now the premier tourist destination along the Tyrrhenian coast. We spotted what looked like a hotel, but found it challenging to reach it due to the multitude of one-way and dead-end streets – only to find out that it was closed for the day due to major cleaning! We found a second hotel farther away from the center, but since it had available parking, we decided to take it. This two star hotel lacked the charm of our previous one. Hoping that the open window would air out the lingering smoky smell in the room, we decided to leave and head towards the medieval center on foot. The steep streets finally took us to the cobblestoned narrow streets with shops and other touristy things. We went inside the cathedral to see the mosaics touted in the guidebook to be some of the most beautiful in Sicily, but were disappointed to find the stark walls of restoration. After an “early” supper of tasty gnocci around 6:45, we once again meandered the old streets, peering into some stores.

The guidebook led us to the high town of Cuccamo, a popular day trip out of Termini Imerese. Walking towards the Norman castle, we passed through the medieval residential section of the city, complete with narrow cobblestone arched alleys and steep paths aided by stairs. Finally I walked up the stony cobbled path up to the courtyard of the well-preserved castle. Vines and grasses grew up one wall. Even up here I could still hear the veggie seller, announcing with a microphone as he drove through the narrow old streets. Entering the main building, I was disappointed to see that the interior was remodeled and even had a conference room. Hoping that some areas would be unspoiled by the remodeling, I instead found many closed doors or areas blocked off. A strange collection of latrines and washbasins were on display in a few rooms. Another contained a display of art prints of drawings of the old city. Outside once again, I looked over the lower castle walls and viewed the man-made lake and rolling green hills.

Termini Imerese
Going through the new, more industrial part off Termini, we reached the old higher section and found a good parking spot near the Piazza del Duomo. Unfortunately, the cathedral was not open. In the piazza, people happily ate ice cream, chatting amongst themselves or on cell phones. Walking a little further, I stopped by the overlook displaying panoramic views of the sea and industry below. Ferries docked along the port. Large industrial plants marred the seaside. The city seemed to be in a state of decline, probably due to the widespread unemployment caused by closure of several plants. Walking along, I headed towards the tree-lined public garden known as Villa Palmieri. Along one side of the pretty cobblestoned main path were some faint remains of a Roman amphitheatre.

Back to Palermo and Mondello
Once on the autoroute, it didn’t take long for us to get back to the congested busy streets of Palermo. Finding a pleasant-looking Mondello restaurant with outdoor seating, we happily sampled a tasty meal of fresh seafood. Along the street, darker-skinned men peddled cheap sunglasses, incense and miscellaneous items. Several video game and pool halls catered to the younger crowds. Minutes away, we reached the B&B we stayed at for the first two nights of our trip. A short distance away from the airport, this we felt would be a good location for the last night as well. That evening we drove for the last time to downtown Palermo, There, Andrea found a needed luggage item, had her hair done, and then we ate a smaller meal at a patisserie. Back again at the renovated castle, we spent the night and got up a little earlier to make it to the airport and gas up the rental car. Our sight-filled trip was now over.

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