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.

Beautiful Salina

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What can I say? Thanks to Laura, we’ve found one of the world’s most beautiful places.

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Our days are spent enjoying the perfect weather, seeing points around island, swimming in the blue, tranquil sea, and conversing with friends over local vino.

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Everything seems a world away from reality, and that feels perfectly fine with me…

Siracusa

After getting situated in an agriturismo above town, we rolled into Siracusa (Syracuse) to wander around Ortigia and get a bite to eat.

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We were only there for a few hours, but Siracusa turned out to be one of the more pleasant places we’ve visited in Sicily. Wandering the tiny ancient streets and shopping in the funky shops is a joy, and if you need a break from that, just snag a little granita treat, find a seat, and watch the human parade stream by.

Caltagirone to Scicli

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Sicily has been so wonderful that some of the biggest surprises occur when something doesn’t live up the hype about it. This was true in Palermo, and it also proved true in Caltagirone and Noto.

Caltagirone is famous for ceramics, most famously displayed in its 142- step La Scala, where every step is decorated with a different tile design. I don’t know why, but it wasn’t impressive at all to me. The town seemed tired and dirty to me, which is strange because the have a big festival in about a week.

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A pleasant surprise, however, was Scicli, where we spent the night. This beautiful southeastern town slopes down to the sea 8 kilometers away and features beautiful churches and a castle above it all, perched on a cliff.

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We had one of our best meals of the trip so far in a little osteria off of the main square.

Villa Romana del Casale

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We rambled south out of Enna, stopping at the World Heritage Site of Villa Romana del Casale, the location of a truly amazing collection of 1700 year-old tile floors in what must have been an emperor’s residence.

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The tile work is nothing short of incredible, and it represents the peak of quality available from the early-4th century Roman African school.

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From the thermae (baths) to the peristyle (central courtyard), unbelievable tile work, some the quality of paintings, can be seen.

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Most of the structure did not survive, but the floors were preserved by the mud from a nearby river that buried them after the structure was abandoned.

Enna

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We are spending the night in Enna, a hilltop town in the center of Sicily. Enna is a very pleasant, beautiful place, and you can see mountains on both sides of Sicily from it.

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The place is very vertical. This is the view from our hotel room window.

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

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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.

http://www.alfrantoiovalderice.it

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Southwest Sicily

We saw and experienced so many wonderful things today that I’m sure I’m going to miss something, but first things first: Katherine and I were married 15 years ago today. We spent our day doing what we love: exploring the world and relishing the new and unexpected. We are fortunate in so many ways, surrounded by caring families and loyal friends, and if you are reading this, you probably fall into one of those two camps, so Thank You!

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The travel day began with a trip to the ruins of Segusa (from a distance), and then the castle at Salem. From there, we saw the modern bleakness of Gibellina Nuova, a new town built to resettle the residents of Gibellina after the devastating 1968 earthquake. Parts of the collapsed original town were covered in concrete, as part of and land article project in the 1980s.

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From there, we moved on to the complex of ruins at Selinunte, which are huge and very impressive.

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We enjoyed our afternoon granita (cooling, flavored ice) in the fishing town of Mazera del Vallo.

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Our anniversary dinner was held up the coast in the historic town of Marsala (yep, just like the wine!).

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Tomorrow, we are traveling the length of the country to see the ruins of Agrigento and perch atop the medieval hill town of Enna.

Erice

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After a late breakfast on the rooftop veranda of our hotel, we enjoyed a lovely day in the mostly-medieval hilltop town of Erice..

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At one point, there were dozens of churches in the town, and many have been restored to their past glory, complete with their artwork and iconography.

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The elevation of Erice kept it tolerable in the shade, and the views of Tripani on one side and Mount Cofano on the other gave us plenty to gaze at when not wandering through deserted monasteries or identifying the stations of the cross.

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We ate dinner late at a place in the town where we are staying, Valderice, at an understated place called Franks. The owner came out and surprised us with perfect English, having grown up on Long Island. We got to talking, and it was fascinating to get her take on life in the center of a small Italian town. It made me wish I spoke a lot more Italian.

Northwest Sicily

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We got out of sweltering Palermo by mid-morning, heading west around the Gulf of Castellammare, toward San Vito Lo Capo, the mountainous tip of northwest Sicily. We drove until the road ran out, stopping along the way to take in the vistas of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

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We haven’t seen a cloud in days, and you could easily believe you were at the end of world, peering over the blueist of waters. We picnicked next to a beach made up of an ancient reef, and you can walk 20 meters our into the water before getting wet above the knees.

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Tonight, we wandered the old town of Trapini, searching for stone faces above doorways and walking off two enormous pizzas.

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And tonight we sleep in air conditioning for the first time since landing on the island!

Hot, Hot Palermo

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We only scheduled about 24 hours in Palermo for this trip, and we are both thinking that will be plenty.

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The heat has us recalling our trip to Morocco in 2009, and Palermo strikes me as similar to Fez, a old, even ancient, city that is self-assured in its importance. You can see the layers of different civilizations that have swept through, leaving their mark but not budging the whole.

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We’re both eager to be back on the road and away from the heat and crowds.

Capo d’Orlando and Tindari

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We experienced another sunny, beautiful day in northern Sicily today, cruising the coast from Capo d’Orlando to beyond Tindari.

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After stopping for a few hours to swim in the sea, we took in the Greek ruins at Tindari, a mountain-top fortress that held out against the Romans for two years. Tindari’s defeat signaled the real shift in power in Sicily from the Greeks to the Romans, and it is a pretty sizable complex.

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Tomorrow, Palermo!