The view from the island of Salina, off the north coast of Sicily.
The view from the island of Salina, off the north coast of Sicily.
After getting situated in an agriturismo above town, we rolled into Siracusa (Syracuse) to wander around Ortigia and get a bite to eat.
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.
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.
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.
We had one of our best meals of the trip so far in a little osteria off of the main square.
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.
The tile work is nothing short of incredible, and it represents the peak of quality available from the early-4th century Roman African school.
From the thermae (baths) to the peristyle (central courtyard), unbelievable tile work, some the quality of paintings, can be seen.
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.
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.
The place is very vertical. This is the view from our hotel room window.
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.
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!
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.
From there, we moved on to the complex of ruins at Selinunte, which are huge and very impressive.
We enjoyed our afternoon granita (cooling, flavored ice) in the fishing town of Mazera del Vallo.
Our anniversary dinner was held up the coast in the historic town of Marsala (yep, just like the wine!).
Tomorrow, we are traveling the length of the country to see the ruins of Agrigento and perch atop the medieval hill town of Enna.
After a late breakfast on the rooftop veranda of our hotel, we enjoyed a lovely day in the mostly-medieval hilltop town of Erice..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tonight, we wandered the old town of Trapini, searching for stone faces above doorways and walking off two enormous pizzas.
And tonight we sleep in air conditioning for the first time since landing on the island!
We only scheduled about 24 hours in Palermo for this trip, and we are both thinking that will be plenty.
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.
We’re both eager to be back on the road and away from the heat and crowds.
We experienced another sunny, beautiful day in northern Sicily today, cruising the coast from Capo d’Orlando to beyond Tindari.
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.
After a day of downtime in Catania, I met back up with Kath, and we headed toward Cefalu, in the north coast of Sicily, at noon. We took the autostrada about half of the way, then turned off toward the Madonie Mountains, promptly running into a road closed by a rock slide. This led to an exciting adventure on something better described as a path than a road for several hours, as we threaded our way between peaks, eventually finding the road and Castelbueno, where we met a friendly group of guys running an “American Bar” (they were born in the USA but moved to Sicily while kids) that were preparing to celebrate US Independence Day on July 6th. (“The Sicilians don’t know what day it is, and a Friday night means more students will come.”)
Yesterday, we explored the coast east of Cefalu, including the ruins at Halaesa, the modern artwork around the town of Pettineo, the wonderful town of Santo Stefano di Camastra. We really took some time to chill and relax in Santo Stefano, listening to the old men chat in the piazza and trying to spy the most beautiful tile work.
The place we are staying is about 300 meters up, right on the coast, with a gorgeous view of La Rocca jutting into the Tyrrhenian Sea.
I woke with dreams of summiting Etna and walking the rim of one of the main craters, but the reality of my blistered feet kept me from lacing up my boots too quickly. I decided to push on but only go as far as I was enjoying myself. Plus, I really didn’t have a solid plan about how I was going to get back to Catania, and I had no idea how far I would need to walk to make that happen.
Against my initial plans, I took the cable car up about 500 meters, as there was no way I would be able to climb that section with my blisters. However, I turned down the option of the mega-jeep bus thing that takes you right up close to the volcano rim. I wanted to at least attempt that under my own power.
I had heard that you may not be allowed to walk up or around on the mountain without a guide. As it turns out, that is simply not true. You can go wherever you like up there, and no one even asks you where you are headed. It makes sense; Etna is too big for that level of control.
A few hundred meters from the top, I hit the limit of what I could do and still have a good chance to get off the mountain under my own power. I found a nearby smaller crater and poured the small bottle of seawater that I brought from Catania. It disappeared immediately into the little rocks beneath my feet.
Due to where my blisters were located, I found that I could walk downhill without the same level of pain. I aimed for a town on the east side of the mountain, Zafferena Etnea. Wanting to see as much between here and there, I attempted to find a winter ski run that would serve as a ridgeline trail, eventually connecting with the road to Zaff.
Well, I found the trail for a while, but it eventually gave out, leaving me the option of going back up (no way) or making my own way through the rocks and scrub. I quickly found the road that I was looking for below me, but then clouds rolled in, limiting my view to perhaps 50 feet, and I lost sight of it. I kept going by dead reckoning until I found it again. Approaching the road was the most dangerous part – the ground was steep and covered with large, irregular rocks, holes, and thick foliage. Somehow, I made it down without falling or breaking an ankle.
The road down to Zaff was more scenic than the road up to Rifugio Sapienza, and it helped take my pain off of my blisters. I covered the 8 miles in about 3 hours, eager to make sure I had enough time to find a bus back to Catania – there was no way I could make that last 12 miles on foot.
I made it back to Catania later that evening and was able to bandage my feet and even track down a beer or three before all of the shops closed.
While I didn’t make the summit or transverse Etna from south to north, I had a great time, saw some wonderful vistas, and enjoyed the adventure I was craving. The next time I’m in Sicily, though, look out, Etna. I’ve got your number now.
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.
Tearing up some Huey’s…
Jacob and Jaymie beat up on me in a game of Risk, dumbed down to a 6-year old level.
After some playtime, we’re going to lunch.
This may be John’s last year on the Magically Piglicious BBQ team, as he is moving to DC to teach at St. Albans in about a month.
Dave and I joined him on Wednesday for family night in the MP booth.
Thank you, John, for all of the great times at BBQ Fest over the years. You always found ways to get us in and share some fantastic food, drink, and fellowship with us. We will miss that, but we will miss your constant presence in our lives even more.
Katherine and I are in St. Louis today. She is giving a presentation at the University of Missouri – St. Louis on engaged scholarship, and I’ve been taking in a few sites.
The St. Louis Museum of Art, located in beautiful, manicured, and huge Forest Park was a pleasant surprise. It contains a surprising number of quality Impressionist pieces, plus several rooms of in situ period furniture collections and early Buddhist tapestries.
We’re currently at Busch Stadium, taking in an afternoon game before heading back to Memphis this evening.
A big thank you to UMSL for asking Katherine to come to their campus to speak to their faculty!
While at the CNI conference in Baltimore today, I escaped the hotel for part of lunch and took a walk down to the harbor and up to the top of Federal Hill. It was a beautiful spring day, everything was in bloom, and the gentle breeze blowing over the hill hinted of salt water.
Speaking of Federal Hill, I stumbled into (and out of) a great pub in that neighborhood. If you are looking for a tasty pizza, outstanding local brew, and interesting conversation, I highly recommend Pub Dog Pizza and Drafthouse.