Scenes from Sicily, Tredici – Erice Behind Us

This is a photo of me and Kath with the mountaintop fortress/town of Erice behind us. It was taken by Iolanda, proprietress of Al Frantoio (“The Crusher,” in English), the B&B we stayed in in Valderice, a larger town just down the hill from Erice. For some reason, this one of the only pictures we have of Erice high up on the hill, though we have quite a few looking down on surrounding towns.

We really enjoyed our stay at Al Frantoio. If you find yourself in northwest Sicily and would like to stay somewhere that is very comfortable and convenient to many sights, all combined with gracious hospitality and sea views, consider booking some nights at Al Frantoio. Their website is

Scenes from Sicily, Dodici – Little House Island

One of our favorite Sicilian towns is Santo Stefano di Camastra, located on the Tyrrhenian Sea, on the north coast of the island. We stopped on the main street (SS113) through town, having read that a good selection of pottery is available, at reasonable prices. Well, some of the pottery was interesting, but as we turned the corner and entered the back streets, especially those that shoot off of Via Vittorio Emanuele, we really started to get a sense of quiet town life.

Sitting in the main square, watching old women in twos and threes heading into Mass, listening to the old men swap stories under the olive trees by the Societa Operaia, and following the young families with babies in carriages strolling slowly down Via Roma at sunset, all of things dug deeper into authenticity than we had experienced up to that point. There was something ageless about it all, balanced, and hopefully sustainable.

Another interesting thing we discovered in Santo Stefano di Camastra that kept reappearing throughout the rest of the trip is the little island of a house, sandwiched between streets. This photo of Kath in front of one of these house (who knows how old it is?) reminds me of our many walks winding through town, moving through an ancient grid while noticing as many as 13 wifi access points at a time coming up on my phone (all, unfortunately, password protected). The juxtaposition of modernity with an a pattern of life from antiquity, meshed, kept me thinking about the place for days after we headed down the road.

More photos from the July 2012 Sicily trip are here.

Scenes from Sicily, Undici – Palermo Graffiti

While on our steamy walk around a sweltering Palermo, Kath and I kept seeing interesting, surreal (and maybe Cubist?) graffiti in various places. I’m used to the Banksy-like stuff that you find in most larger cities these days, but this was something altogether different and exciting. I couldn’t stop looking at it, and now that I’m home with photos of it, I’m still drawn to it. And a lot of it was big, taking up an entire wall.

Apparently, Palermo has a pretty strong underground art movement. Maybe it is only fitting, then, that the word graffiti actually comes from the Italian word graffiato, which is to scratch or scribble.

More pictures from the Sicily trip can be seen here.

Scenes from Sicily, Dieci – Blessed Salemi

Before heading out to see the ruins of Gibellina (and what could be called the ruins of Gibellina Nuova), Kath and stopped in nearby Salemi, an administrative center in the western part of the province of Trapani, about 45 miles southwest of Palermo. This photo shows the view from the municipal traffic circle up to the castle at the top of the hill, where Garibaldi announced the annexation of Sicily to the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. For a short period, Salemi was the capital of Sicily, at least until Garibaldi moved on to complete his conquest of the rest of the island.

We were only in Salemi for a couple of hours, but the more I read about the place, the more interesting I find it. For example, I’m sure, at some future post, I will talk about the decrepit outdoor elevator system we saw there (which you can partially see from Google Street View). However, I just found out about a real bargain, which I love to pass along when I find them.

Anyone for a 1 Euro house in Italy? For the last few years, Salemi has been getting a little bit of press for a scheme to sell houses in the historic town center for only 1 Euro each. Sound like a sweet deal? Well, there is only a bit of a catch. The area of town where the houses are available was wrecked by the 1968 earthquake that decimated the region (and flattened nearby Gibellina). So, while you are only laying out 1 Euro for the deed, you are also required to promise to restore the structure to local, modern building codes. And, even for the homes with the least amount of damage, the cost for these renovations would be at least 100,000 Euro.

More pics from the trip are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Nove – Erice Church Window

The first thing we saw when entering the hilltop, medieval town of Erice, located in northwest Sicily, was the Chiesa Madre (Mother Church) and its accompanying, separate bell tower. Above the entrance to the church is a beautiful window, done in the rose window style. According to the date on the window, it is only about 60 years old (650 years younger than the church).

To get this picture, we went up in the bell tower (which was originally a “vendetta tower” and begun a couple of years before the church). I stuck my camera out one of the openings in the ancient stairwell and zoomed as far as I would dare with one hand.

I love the easy way Italians, and especially Sicilians, mix old and new cultural items. I’m sure there was some debate over the design of the art to be added to such a cultural treasure, but when it was time to add it, everything fit like a glove. You see this over and over again in Sicily: respect for antiquity but the aversion to treat it as something totally of the past. I guess when you are surrounded by structures and detritus of a dozen civilizations that cross a few millennia, all of it is something more than just a background set to your life that you aren’t allowed to touch. They aren’t afraid to be wrong, and more often than not, their changes are something more than right.

More pictures of the trip can be seen here.

Scenes from Sicily, Otto – Two Houses on a Volcano

This photo kinda speaks for itself. Two houses, on the side of a volcano. One of them is a little too close to a recent lava flow, and the other was spared. (Well, somewhat. It looked abandoned, and whoever lived there was probably required to abandon it during the eruption.)

I snapped this image on my way up to Refugio Sapienza, on the first day of my Mount Etna climb. Both of these houses were built in a zone that had been the subject of recent eruptions. The landscape was almost alpine, and I wonder how either housebuilder could have expected anything else but that they would have their house destroyed by the volcano someday.

In the winter, this is a snowy wonderland, and it is probably pretty easy to forget the threat that looms from above. In the summer, with all of the old and new lava around, it is impossible to ignore the inevitable. Or, if you are a house, get out of the way.

More photos of the Mount Etna climb and Sicily trip are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Sette – Tile from the Villa Romana del Casale

Probably the best thing that we almost skipped but didn’t during the Sicily trip was a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Villa Romana del Casale, located just outside of Piazza Armerina.

At first glance, this place looked like an expensive waste of time, the sort of place where you have to fight your way through busloads of tourists in order to get a glimpse of the antiquity, or where the magic and the mystery of what you are seeing vanished due to the hassle of getting to it or the presentation of the thing. I’m happy to say that Villa Romana del Casale had none of those problems. Instead, you were so transfixed on the amazing scene of tile floors that went on and on that the world around you just faded away.

The house was a Roman palace probably expanded over the years starting the first century AD and eventually reaching its peak toward the end of the 3rd century, when it was probably owned by Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, a co-emperor of the Roman Empire. Beautiful tilework covers the floor of almost the entire structure, containing scenes of hunting parties, fishing expeditions, girls in bikinis exercising, mythical creatures, and personal portraits of the ruling family.

The nearly 4000 square meters of tile floors were rediscovered buried under mud in the early-20th century, and excavations took place from 1929 into the 1970s. The river near the villa, which frequently flooded, probably saved the tile floors by keeping them a secret from other groups that used the building for hundreds of years after the Romans abandoned it.

More photos of the Villa Romana del Casale and Sicily are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Sei – Sunset in Salina

The end of our Sicily trip was spent on the island of Salina, as guests of our friend Laura and her family. Salina is located in the Aeolian Islands, which is about 25 miles north of the island of Sicily.

Salina is an extremely relaxing and beautiful place. We enjoyed perfect weather, tranquil, blue seas, and pleasant companionship, getting to meet Laura’s family and friends.

Many evenings were spent simply staring out to sea, watching the fading light reflect off the neighboring island of Lipari, and sipping a local wine. To me, this photo looks like Kath can’t believe her good fortune.

More photos from Salina and the trip are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Cinque – Kath in Selinunte

Some of the best Greek archaeological sites in the world are not in Greece. By the mid-6th century BC, the Greeks had built towns and exerted influence throughout much of the Mediterranean and all of the Black Sea. Modern southern France, Corsica, Libya, Italy, Turkey, and Egypt had Greek towns, and the more successful and permanent the town, the more likely that a temple complex would be built in the area.

Sicily has been conquered by many civilizations through the millennia, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and on and on, but no civilization left as many impressive ruins as the Greeks, and Selinunte is one of the best places in Sicily to get a real sense of the scale of these structures.

In this photo, Kath is located in front of Temple E (the Temple of Hera), a structure that was largely reconstructed decades ago. Other ruins litter the site, the product of ancient earthquakes. These temples are a hill next to the original town of Selinus, which was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 250 BC.

More photos from the trip are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Quattro – Doves Released at a Wedding in Palermo

Everywhere we travel, we always learn about interesting local traditions that we didn’t have a clue about before we showed up and viewed them first-hand. In Australia, an example would be a game of “two-up” played on ANZAC Day (the Australian version of Memorial Day). While traveling through the Peruvian Andes, the two ceramic bulls or house located on the tiles of the roof always captured my attention.

In Sicily, one of the important traditions (and possibly a more recent one) is to release doves after a wedding ceremony. (This may be a more general Italian tradition, but I never saw it in action when we were in mainland Italy in 2009.) We must have arrived during wedding season, because we kept running into them everywhere we went, but while in Palermo, we happened to catch a bride and groom as they were leaving the church.

Before hopping into a very expensive, new Maserati and roaring away, the bride released at least a dozen doves into the air while surrounded by their friends and family. I lucked out on this shot and actually capture a few in mid-flight. I love the mix of guests in this picture, the nun and the priest, the latest fashion and the giant doors of the church. The moment felt as real as the picture indicates, and the bride’s joy is tangible through her smile.

You can see the full album of images from our trip here.

Scenes from Sicily, Tre – Kath in Central Sicily

Soon after leaving Catania on a 9-day trip around Sicily, we were lost. Hopelessly and desperately lost. This is despite having a detailed road atlas and 2 GPS devices.

In all fairness, it wasn’t entirely our fault. We had a route planned from Enna to our destination near Cefalu, one which took us through the historic town of Castelbuono, all while traveling on charming backroads, taking in some rural scenery after days spent in the city. Unfortunately, soon after leaving Enna, our route was blocked by a rockslide, and we were forced to find another way over the rolling, dry hills and into the Madonie Mountains.

At first, the thin ribbon of road we followed north looked decent, if a little underused. A half-hour later, however, after passing several spots where the entire road had washed out and no longer being able to leave first gear, we knew we should have pulled over and gotten our Italian dictionary out for the road signs we passed with the giant exclamation point on them.

The maddening thing was that we could see small villages in the distance, but what was left of the road never seemed to go close to them. Occasionally, we would pass a farmer on a tractor, and the astonished look on his face while we passed told us all we needed to know. Each washout we somehow survived made it more and more difficult to justify turning around, until, eventually, we both knew that our only way out was to push ahead. At one point, Kath started to take stock of our water and food, in case we had to spend the night among the dusty wheat fields, and I questioned how long it would take to trek to one of the distant villages to get help.

Then, as quickly as we got into the mess, we were out of it. The backs of the exclamation point signs started appearing on the left side of the road, and within minutes, we were at an unmarked intersection. By taking the better road at each intersection, we eventually found a regular highway and continued on to Castelbuono.

This picture shows Kath after harrowing road experience, in front of some random castle. I can’t really find the relief in her face with this photo, but I know it was there.

You can see the full album of images from our trip here.

Scenes from Sicily, Due – Near the Top of Mount Etna

After getting off of the plane in Catania, Laura let me use an old water bottle in her car, and we stopped by the beach on the way into town, where a nice Italian guy helped me fill it with seawater, wondering what I was planning to do with it. I didn’t know enough Italian to tell him I wanted to pour it down into a caldera at the top of volcanic Mount Etna.

A little more than 24 hours later, I stood at over 6,000 feet on the side of Mount Etna, having completed a more than 20 mile hike from sea-level, all while acquiring some of the worst blisters and thirst I’ve ever experienced. After crashing as the only guest of a hotel that night, I resumed the climb in the morning, with a little help with a gondola for the next 2,000 feet.

Finally, at about 9,000 feet in elevation but 1,500 short of my goal, I snapped this picture before eventually yielding to my damaged feet and choosing safety over the summit. Before walking down along the ridge of the Valle de Bove, I found a nearby caldera and offered the seawater to the volcano, watching the liquid disappear into the tiny specks of pumice.

You can see the full album of images from our trip here.

Scenes from Sicily, Uno – San Vito Lo Capo

Well, we will have been back from Sicily for a month as of tomorrow, and I can’t believe it has passed so quickly. Re-entry is always difficult after a long trip, but we’re adjusting to life in Memphis again and enjoying the recently cooler weather.

I’ve made some progress on processing the photos we took while over there and was able to cull the image total down to about 1000, which is probably pretty good, given we had 2 cameras going for over 3 weeks each.

While memories of the trip are fresh in my mind, I’m going to post a few over the next few weeks with notes about where they were taken.

This shot of the two of us was taken in the northwest area of Sicily, near San Vito Lo Capo. There, it is possible to drive on a little snaking road, up switchbacks and somehow clinging to the side of crumbing hills, to where civilization gives out and the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro (a nature reserve) picks up. It is very remote remote area (electrical line notwithstanding), with a raw, arid beauty, bounded by mountains and reflected by a turquoise sea.

You can see the full album of images from our trip here.

Great B&B in Western Sicily – Al Frantoio, Valderice


We usually don’t write about the places we stay when we travel. Most of the time, they are nothing special, or we aren’t their long enough to appreciate the amenities. However, occasionally, we discover a gem that that provides everything: a comfortable place to rest, a strong connection to the local area, and friendly folks to help in any way they can.

In the western Sicilian town of Valderice, just down from the hill from the ancient town of Erice, we struck gold with Al Frantoio, a B&B run by Iolanda and Alberto. The name means “the crusher,” as it is located in an old olive oil production facility that dates back to the 1800s. The B&B is only a few years old, lovingly designed by Iolanda.

The rooms are large and fashionably appointed, with obviously a lot of forethought into every detail, large or small. The A/C works well (which is important when it is over 100F outside), the terrace offers sweeping views of Erice and the sea far below, and breakfast is a treat, with Iolanda providing accurate local advice on what to see and how to get there.

That is only half the story, however. Alberto runs an olive oil business downstairs, where they produce bottles for consumption all over Italy from locally-grown olives. Yum!

If you find yourself in western Sicily, trying to decide on a place to stay between the beauty and history of Erice, the wild sandy beaches of St. Vito, and the cosmopolitan spirit of Tripani, consider a stay at Al Frantoio and take in a little small town Sicily at the same time.


Up Mount Etna


Well, my 24-hour trip to Sicily went smoothly, and 24-hours later, I find myself as the only guest in a hotel at 6000 feet. This is very much the low period for hotels high up on the volcano; I guess I’m just lucky that I got a room at all.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Laura and Katherine picked me up at the Catania airport. Then we went to a place that served very yummy shaved ice you eat with a spoon and a piece of bread.

After dessert, it went Laura’s place (I really needed a shower after 4 different flights) and then met some of the professors from the course. We ate in a fascinating place that has a running underground stream in its basement that dates back several hundred years to the last big eruption. There was a stream there before the eruption, and it survived the lava, though underground. And the food was good. Probably the best gnocchi I’ve ever had.


Today, I left Laura’s apartment and headed up hill, all of way up as far as road would take me: Etna Sud. I’m staying in a great place called Hotel Corsaro. I think I’m the only guest, and this place feels a little bit like The Shining.

Why does this hotel rock, you may ask? Well, after being turned away for dinner at Rifugio Sapienza (“we only serve guests at our hotel at out restaurant.” – crazy bad service – I mean, what part of “rifugio” do they not understand?), the nice guy working the desk opened there closed kitchen to make me a couple of sandwiches. Awesome!

I left Catania at 8 AM to start the long walk through Nicolosi and end up here, in this surreal place. I traveled through lots of tiny towns, a few forests misses by the most recent eruptions, and switchback after switchback, going higher with every step. By the afternoon, I had basically left shade behind, and it was me against the crumbling, black hill.





All of the eruptions I walked through were pretty recent, within the past couple of decades.

I nearly ran out of water before I arrived at the hotel, and that would be a very bad thing, as there are no stores the past 14K or so, and it got steeper and steeper, and hotter and hotter.

Anyway, I made it, and my last shot of the day is the Silvestri crater just next to my hotel.


I hope my blistered feet hold up for tomorrow’s attempt on the summit.