Yesterday Beachview Retreat bid it’s last guests of the busy 2013 summer season adieu. It will not greet the next until November 8th, over six weeks from now. Six weeks! Yahoo! The proprietors are certainly ready for a break after a very busy time this summer. ‘How busy?’, you ask. Well, during the 16 week span June through Sep there were a total of only 15 nights without a guest in the house. Our longest stretch was 36 days without a break. Now we absolutely love what we do but there are times when a bit of fatigue sets in. We all know that one effective fatigue remedy is travel. We see this in our own guests time and time again. After a day or two amid new and different surroundings most people manage to slow down and relax a bit, thrilled to be exploring new places and experiences. Well, it’s our turn to receive the balm of travel rather than dispensing it. This time to Italy. This time with our intrepid travel companions: neighbours, Dave and Mary; Torontonians, Brian and Laurel. Our adventure begins on Wed Oct 2 when we depart for an overnight stay in Toronto and then off to Rome for an overnight flight to arrive there Friday morning. From there we will take the train to Naples and on to the Hotel Jacarino in Sant Agata where we will join up with our Walker’s World group.
Thursday, Oct 3
We are sitting at our gate in the Toronto airport, boarding to begin shortly. Still feels a bit unreal. Last night we dined at a small restaurant in Toronto’s little Italy. A taste of things to come or at least a baseline for comparison. Toronto has been hot, sunny & beautiful – just a tad better than the home sweet home we said goodbye to only yesterday. Italy beckons and we are only hours away from answering its siren call.
Friday Oct 4, Sant Agata Sui Due Golfi (near Sorrento)
Three Hundred Kilometer Per Hour. I knew we were moving along pretty well on the train from Rome to Naples. The train moved so smoothly, no clickedy-clack of steel wheels over rail and very little sway back and forth like home and none of the screeching. StilI I was shocked! shocked! I say when Brian pointed out the on speedometer we could watch from our seats. Expecting we were maybe north of 160k it was registering 297 when I first looked and then registered 300.
This is probably twice the land speed I have ever experienced (well, maybe not quite twice thanks to my grandfather’s T-bird) and it was awesome.
Backing up a bit, the flight to Rome was uneventful. The customs interview upon arrival took maybe two seconds and consisted of a glance at our passports by a very bored customs official. Then after negotiating the train to take us to the Rome train station we boarded the train to Naples, which, despite our travel fatigue was a thrill due to the astonishing speeds we experienced. We met up with Dave and Mary as planned at the train station. Having already been in Naples for a couple of days they had picked out a restaurant nearby where we all enjoyed a first Italian meal. We were a bit too early for pizza which was not really a hardship as herein evidenced.
After exploring the streets around the station for an hour or so (not to mention trying to walk off a bit of our lunch) we then met up with our Walker’s World group for the trip to Sant Agata and the Hotel Jaccarino where we will stay for the week.
This is the view from our room. It seems that Dave and Mary have drawn the short straw regarding room allocations – but more and that later.
The 90 minute drive from Naples to the hotel was our first chance to see a bit of the countryside and the coastline. We enjoyed the very twisting coastal road and the stunning views looking out to the ‘Golfo di Napoli’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQCb8Gq8dDI
Our walking group of 18 are all Canadians with representatives pretty much from coast to coast. We are looking forward to getting to know them all. As many of you might imagine, Julie is well on her way in this regard. Dinner was at 8 and much to our surprise we managed to stay awake and relatively alert during dinner but so grateful to surrender to the siren call of slumber for this our first night in Italy. Ciao
Saturday, Oct 5, Sant Agata
Sant Agata is a small town perhaps 400 meters above sea level. Like many of the towns and villages in this region they have been here for centuries. The current church dates back to the 1700’s. Narrow, cobbled streets host a mix of ancient sometimes ramshackle looking dwellings along with the newer.
This has never been a prosperous area and like so may parts of the world now seems to depend heavily on tourism. Agriculturally, the local olives are used mostly for oil. However the region is renowned more for it’s lemons and consequently the locals boast the best limoncello in the land. For those that have never sampled it, this intensely lemon flavored liquor packs a punch with an alcohol content running at 60 proof.
Today’s plan was to walk from the hotel down to Sorrento where we would have lunch and then hike out to a point of land where the remains of a Roman villa commands a fabulous view. Unfortunately these plans went somewhat awry. Needless to say, we were all very keen to have the first of our Walker’s world day hikes. The forecast was calling for light rain beginning mid morning with the possibility of heavier rains in the afternoon. This daunted no one – after all, we came prepared with rain gear and a bit of the wet stuff would not put us off. Ha! Our route to Sorrento took us along a combination of small local roads, some cobbled and some paved and also some footpaths.
The rain began to fall lightly soon after we departed. This would not have been much of an issue except that, as I mentioned earlier, Sant Agata is 400 meters higher than Sorrento and the cobbled roads and stone pathways, worn smooth from so much use over so many years were slippery to the point of treachery given the sometimes steep inlines we were negotiating.
Baby steps and careful balance was the order of the day. Undaunted we carried on as the rain steadily increased in intensity. One of our group, Bob, decided to bail and taxi down to Sorrento after slipping and nearly falling. A wise choice, we all agreed although no one else put up there hand. Then closer to town, the rain now a downpour, a woman not of our group but walking close to us fell and broke her ankle. This on a road impeding all traffic (save one impatient motorcyclist). Anyway, leaving this trauma behind we finally arrived in Sorrento around noon, everyone pretty much soaked to the skin despite the high tech gear. The afternoon hike which was optional, was to commence at 2pm, but I am sorry to report that not one of the 18 showed up. Yes, the daunting of the undaunted was complete today. Besides, we had found an excellent restaurant that served an exceedingly passable house wine which helped us while away the time until the bus back to the hotel at 4. Perhaps it was the jet lag, perhaps it was the wine, but the nap before dinner was a necessity.
Sunday Oct 6, Sant Agata
Before I get into today’s activities I want to tell you about last night’s fabulous dining adventure. Dinners are part of the Walker’s World package and while most will be here at the hotel, last night we were taken to a small, family run restaurant just a few minutes from the hotel. No pictures I’m afraid, but it wasn’t about the plating, it was about the taste. We began with a plate of steamed mussels in a light tomato broth. As I was sopping up the broth after devouring the mussels one of our hosts, JR, complemented me on my good manners. I asked if was also OK to lick the plate, but no, using the bread to soak up the last of the broth was enough of a compliment to the chef. Julie, who is not all that keen on bivalves was served a plate that consisted of a ball of fresh cheese about the size of a baseball covered by a mound of thinly sliced proscuitto. The cheese is like a mozzarella only somehow fresher and better tasting than home. The combination of the melt-in-your mouth proscuitto and the cheese was amazing. Next up was a plate with four different kinds of stuffed pasta. One was a ravioli but the other three I was not familiar with, but each was delicious in its own way. At this stage everyone was pretty much full but as the waiter proceeded to clear plates he was leaving each setting with a new knife and fork. Uh oh, this was not the end we realized and before we knew it down came a dinner plate occupied by two large pieces of veal scallopini in a lemon-based sauce. Then came bowls of salad and fresh cut French fries. Sucking up some courage (not to mention more wine) we attacked this latest assault with varying degrees of gusto. (Brian was very supportive of Laurel). Dessert, again baseball shaped and sized was a delectable confection that I do not know the name of. In any event, this Weightwatcher’s nemesis of a meal was terrific and we all waddled back to the hotel feeling truly full and truly blessed.
Now, on to Sunday’s events. The plan was to walk from the hotel to a small village called Termini in the morning where we would have lunch and then walk down to the seaside village of Marina del Cantone in the afternoon where would would catch the local bus back to Sant Agata. There was not a huge amount of enthusiasm given the fact that we woke up to drizzle and thick fog and the forecast was calling for chance of rain all day. Many of the group were undecided given the events of the previous day and not really wanting to repeat such an adventure. Anyway, the fog had lifted and the rain stopped by our 9:30 departure time and in the end only 4 decided to stay. I am happy to report that we experienced perhaps 5 minutes of very light rain all day. Our route today was more level and where there were hills to negotiate footing was not an issue. As a result we were able to enjoy a lovely day drinking in the scenery and snacking on fresh figs plucked from fig trees, grapes from vines within reach and even pine nuts.
The island of Capri is just offshore and we enjoyed many fine vistas during the day.
Unfortunately the view from a hilltop monastery was hampered by the fog but this did not really diminish the experience. The following photo shows Marina del Cantone some 500 meters below.
A fine day in all respects!
Monday, Oct 7
I have many events to impart today but will try to be brief. The plan for the day was the ascent of Mt Vesuvius before lunch and then a tour of Pompeii after. Brian and Laurel, having summited Vesuvius during a previous visit to this area and not wanting to repeat arranged to be dropped off along the way. Their plan was to go by train to another of Vesuvius’s victims, Herculeum, and then join the rest of us at 3 in Pompeii. Thus we all cheerily waved goodbye to them around 10 am as they left the bus to wait for the train. Their adventure began rather unexpectedly when they discovered that the railway workers had decided to go on strike that day between the hours of 9 & 1. With no other means to get there plan B turned out to be touring a small village nearby where they acquired an excellent lunch and a fine bottle of wine. Sure enough, the trains resumed and the rendezvous occurred as planned.
Meanwhile, the rest of us slogged up the slopes of Vesuvius to enjoy the walk around the rim of the crater. Awesome views both of the crater itself and the surrounding countryside.
Then after lunch we made our way to Pompeii. I’m sure everyone remembers the story of how thousands of Pompeii’s residents died breathing in poisonous gasses in 79 AD. The entire city was then buried under about 10 meters of volcanic ash. I can ‘t remember how old I was when I learned this story but I do remember being both fascinated and horrified by the photos of some of the excavated victims. Seems like not much has changed as my reaction was just about the same seeing them for real.
We spent a couple of hours with an excellent guide viewing but a small sample of the excavations (which have pretty much come to a halt given Italy’s finances). Here is but a small sample of the many photos I took of this amazing place.
With Vesuvius in the background.
The dining room in an upper class home.
Some amazing artwork adorned the walls.
Some were really amazing. It would be necessary to spend several days here to see everything which was just not in the cards for us this time and so reluctantly we boarded the bus for the 1 hour ride back to Sant Agata.
A bit later on our way to dinner we noted a guitarist strumming away in the bar area and thus decided to pause there briefly after dinner to enjoy a bit of music and perhaps an aperitif. At around 10pm with only a handful of rather sedate people there our somewhat boisterous group of 8 or so seemed a bit disruptive, what with pulling several small tables together and scraping chairs across the tiled floors etc. No sooner had we settled a bit when a couple from Calgary stood up and started dancing. Before the song was through all the Canadians were up on the floor, the bemused patrons looking on. The fact that some of the hotel staff came to see what was happening suggested that this didn’t happen too often. A couple of songs later our musician picked up the pace a bit. Then a British guest went up and spoke a few words to the guitarist and then proceeded to plug her iPod into his sound system. She brought the house down with her amazing voice. Choosing very danceable well known songs the population of jubilant dancers was growing quickly. Shortly thereafter, Brian and Laurel appeared at the door along with several more people. They had been out to a local wine festival and as they were already in a very …festive… mood were only to happy to hit the floor dancing. This very spontaneous dance party lasted maybe an hour and ended only because the guitarist called it quits. What fun! What a day!
Tuesday, Oct 8
Today was a free day – no planned activities other than dinner, and so everyone was free to do or go wherever. Brian & Laurel ended up on a boat cruise to Positano. Dave and Mary ended up in Sorrento. Julie & Eric ended up in Sant Agata, ie not moving at all given that Julie seems to have been attacked by a gastro bug. She rallied at bit by noon and made a valiant effort to eat something at lunch however it ended up largely untouched.
I on the other hand enjoyed the best gnocchi I have tasted so far. After lunch we took a walk up to a monastery and while it was closed the view from there was stunning as this video will attest.
Julie was not up to dinner tonight which was very unfortunate given that it was probably the best meal we have enjoyed to date. We were the only ones in the restaurant and it was a fine evening. The dessert, a lemon cake, was outstanding as was our host and his staff.
Wednesday, Oct 9
Today’s adventure was a trip to the magic island of Capri. I’m not really sure why it’s called that. It is certainly a beautiful island, jutting majestically out of the sea only a 25 minute boat ride from Sorrento.
A popular destination for decades we were perhaps 50 years too late as, like so many places of great beauty, tourism has perhaps taken the upper hand to the detriment of the overall charm of the place. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a beautiful place but the two small towns are clearly straining to contain the number of people coming for a visit. Like everywhere else we have travelled in the local surrounds, the twisting roads are impossibly narrow and too small to handle the volume do traffic. No doubt anyone not involved or dependent on tourism looks forward to the end of October when the tourists stop coming and most of the hotels and many restaurants close until April.
This day, like several over the past week, began with a deluge however by the time we reached the harbour in Sorrento it had stopped and happily we stayed dry for the rest of the day. Julie was still struggling a bit and was the only no show of out troupe. Upon arrival we jumped on one of the tiny local buses and proceeded to the village of Anacapri and proceeded to the 18th century St Micheal’s church. It’s claim to fame is an astounding mosaic floor representing the earthly paradise and the expulsion of Adam and Eve.
After visiting the church we embarked on our morning walk that took us along the cliffs on the steep ocean side of the island and the looped back to Anacapri for a quick lunch.
For the afternoon walk only Dave, Mary and I followed our guide to a viewpoint where we could view the legendary sea giants which are rocks just off Capri named Stella, di Mezzo & di Fuori. I’m afraid I have not researched why they have earned the term legendary, but, they are very impressive from our vantage point.
The journey back to Hotel Jaccarino in the charming town of Sant Agata was uneventful. Julie had a quiet, recuperative day, which was good because she rallied for Thursday, the Path of the gods, a truly singular trail.
Thursday, Oct 10
This is one of those days that will be forever etched in my mind. Over the course of 4 hours we walked about 6k along a trail six hundred meters above sea level between the villages of Bomerano and Nocelle. From there we decended (by bus) to the very popular village of Positano. With perfect weather conditions the Amalfi coast displayed in all it’s splendor with the Bay of Solerno to our left. Coined the Path of the Gods and used for centuries by local inhabitants to get from A to B it offers we touristos heart stopping views all along this ancient trail. There are even goat herds on the pathways just to add local color.
Here we are with with the island of Capri off in the distance. It is said to be along this coast that the sirens tried to lure Ulysses down to the sea.
Even our guides remarked on how good the weather was – clear and sunny – and the lower humidity allowed rare clarity. We were simply happy that it wasn’t raining and felt blessed to have been so fortunate to be here in such fine conditions.
It ‘s hard to imagine how much labour went into terracing the steep and rocky terrain yet terraced they were, every available inch.
Of the 18 in our group only 10 did the walk. We were warned that those prone to vertigo or those not keen on rough and rocky trails should consider giving the trail a pass. While the trail was certainly rough and rocky in a Quarry Rock way we all agreed that the vertigo warning was perhaps a bit exaggerated. Sure, there were spots where a cliff dropped away to the sea one never felt exposed.
Just after a picnic lunch the picturesque seaside village of Positano came into view. Nestled far below us it seemed carved into the cliffs, which indeed it is.
This was the last day of our Walker’s World tour. This walk was originally planned for earlier in the week but postponed in hopes of suitable weather. We all agreed that this was the best outcome given that all the other walks, while enjoyable, paled in comparison the Path of the Gods.
Tomorrow we say goodbye to the Sorrento Peninsula and say hello to Sicily.
Saturday, Oct 12, Palermo, Sicily
Yesterday was a travel day and while it was sad to say goodbye to the friends we have made during our Walker’s World days we were all excited to begin the next leg of our Italian
adventure: Sicily, which has given the world not only the mafia but so much more. We arrived in Palermo not long after a huge downpour. Consequently many roads had flooded and our driver was doing his best to avoid the resultant traffic jams.
Still, after a week of coolish temperatures it was great to walk around in the warm, silky evening air. Palermo is a very old European city and it shows it, sometimes in a majestic way and sometimes in a rather squalid one. We saw glimpses of the majestic but you had to lift your eyes above street level to see it. In the old town many buildings are ancient with a handful still in their bombed-out WW2 condition. Everything was still soaked from the downpour which may have contributed to the somewhat spooky feeling our first walkabout left me with. We had been warned in advance that, similar to Naples, Palermo was a city that tourists needed to be cautious in, and here we were blindly walking around in a gritty part of town.
On our way back to the hotel we found 1) a nice wine store & 2) a nice restaurant (both quite close by the hotel) and despite the fact that it was pretty much empty at around 7 we made a reservation for an outside table for 8:30. This turned out to be a good move as when we returned the place was full.
Saturday morning we met our driver, Carmello. Today’s plan was to drive to a hilltop town about 90 minutes away called Erice and then stop at the basilica of Monreale on the way back to the city. Carmello, who grew up in Sicily, worked in Switzerland for many years but decided to move back here because the Swiss were just too orderly – just not enough chaos & trouble in his life, and so he returned to Sicily. We had decided to picnic this day and so on the way out of town we stopped at a small deli (a salumeria) where they prepared sandwiches for us. It was fun.
Two doors down was the fruit vendor, also not to be missed.
Thus provisioned – oh, we also had a couple of bottles of nicely chilled local wine – grillo – stowed away in our backpacks. Have I talked about the wine yet? Of course we see grape vines just about everywhere and have been doing our best to seek out and consume wines only from the region we are in. If we stick to the small, family run restaurants the house wine, very inexpensive, can indeed be just that: wine the proprietor has made himself. It is not to be confused with our notion of home made wine as the quality is excellent. The only reason you would not find it for sale in a store is that they have not sought out the license to sell it and are probably producing too small a quantity.
Erice is an ancient town with evidence of habitation dating back to the 15th century BC. I am told it is mentioned by Virgil in the Aeneid. Perched 750 above Sicily’s west coast it was a difficult pace to attack. The views were stunning and the narrow streets, the old churches, the Norman Keep and the 12th century castle were interesting to explore.
We had our picnic with this view as our backdrop. As usual, we could have spent more time exploring about as it seemed you need only take a few steps to discover some new curiousity, like this door knocker for instance.
The road up to Erice had been recently repaved and we could imagine a group of longboarders bombing this one.
On the return trip to Palermo we stopped at what is reputed to be one of Europe’s finest cathedrals, Monreale. Built in the mid 1100’s the interior was magnificent.
The mosaics, all 65,000 square feet of them were astonishing and with something like 2,200 kg of gold used it is somewhat surprising that it has never been plundered it he 900 odd years of it’s existence. We were fortunate to be there at the same time as a wedding. The sound as the organist played the wedding processional was majestic.
This cathedral is not to be missed should you ever find yourself in Palermo.
Back to the hotel we wandered out for dinner around 9 pm or so. This being a Saturday night the streets were alive with throngs of people. They were every bit as busy when we emerged from dinner a little after 11. A Michelin rated restaurant this was the most we’d spent on a meal so far, but by limiting ourselves of one lonely bottle of (modest) wine it still only amounted to 65 euros per couple. All in all a fine day as we gratefully fell into bed.
Sunday, Oct 13, Taormina
Carmello picked us up at 9 for the trip to Taormina. En route our first stop was the seaside town of Cefalu.
Even from a distance you can tell what the main elements might be. If you said the craggy rock, the church and the sea, you’d be right. We walked from the beach area up to the Piazza del Duomo, the square in front of this 12th century cathedral. High up at the top of the crag Arabs had built a citadel in the 9th century and while we did not do the climb, it’s a pretty impressive backdrop. The medieval streets were interesting, the many, many shops were high end.
In the cathedral’s Pantocrator, Christ’s eyes follow you everywhere.
I’m afraid the photo doesn’t really do it justice. Anyway, after a walk back through the narrow streets towards the beach we departed and resumed our drive along the coast road, but only after a detour up into the Madonie foothills to Castelbuono, a small town built around a 14th century castle. Shortly before 1 pm We each paid our 4 euro fee to see the castle not knowing that it closes at 1 for the afternoon. I think it was maybe 1:30 when we were asked to get out but that time we had seen the highlights which included a chapel dedicated to Mary’s mother, St Anne, whose skull is tucked in just behind the alter.
The hundreds of plaster figures that adorned the walls were both fantastic and in many cases fantastical.
Then, after another pleasant streetside lunch we were back in our van for a long stretch along the coast.
We were all simply blown away by our hotel in Taormina. The San Domenico Palace Hotel was originally a 15th century Dominican monastery but was transformed into a hotel in 1896. Reminders of the monastic life are everywhere, except if I could only use one word to describe it, I think the word would be sumptuous. After reception a a bit of a tour of the public spaces we were shown to our rooms. The view looking east from our patio when we arrived was fabulous.
Being in such a marvelous spot we had no desire to wander in to town for dinner, opting to dine in one of the hotel’s restaurants – not the top one, you understand, as we were informed that it was completely booked and so we settled on making a reservation at the second best, Les Bougainvillees Restaurant. Now I ask my readers: when was the last time you were in a restaurant where only the men had menus which revealed the prices? The heart-stopping prices? Right, us too. Sure, I like caviar as much as the next guy, but at 120 euros for a generous ounce (ie 30 grams), this very first item on the menu had a curious affect on our appetites (at least those to whom the prices had been revealed). We weren’t quite so thirsty either given that the cheapest (sorry, least expensive) wine in the 100 page wine list was 35 euros and a litre of water was 6.50. I shan’t bore you with descriptions of the pretentious servers, but the food was passable and we managed to get out of there for about 100 euros per couple. An experience we are determined not to repeat. Sipping our limoncello aperitif back on our private outdoor patio helped settle both our stomachs and our minds and we all drifted off to sleep in our very comfortable surroundings knowing we were going to be staying out in this wonderful space for the next three nights. We agreed wholeheartedly with Goethe’s comment at the town of Taormina was a ‘patch of paradise on earth’ and we all looked forward to exploring it for the next couple of days.
Thanksgiving Monday, Oct 14th, Taormina, Sicily
Breakfast did not disappoint and it was a delight to eat on the very same patio and be served by the
very same wait staff enjoying excellent Italian coffee and grazing acres of food laid out inside.
The hotel is truly a delight. It was damaged somewhat during the war by Allied bombing raids given that, being the finest hotel in the area, it became the German headquarters for Field Marshall Kesselring. Here are a few images:
We spent the day wandering about the town, our greatest accomplishment locating the laundromat and arranging to be by the following day to pick up. We found a few supplies and enjoyed a pleasant lunch on the patio.
Before we knew it, cocktail hour was upon us and the six of us enjoyed the luxury of our fabulous location and the warmth of our fabulous companionship. Then dinner under the stars at a lovely little restaurant sourced by Dave earlier in the day. Did I mention that the limoncello bottle was the 1 liter size? No? Well, it is and as a result we were able to yet again close the day with a glass of this perfectly chilled delight. Unless Brian continued on after the rest of us said our goodnights it could well be a threepeat tomorrow night.
PS: we have heard from several of the inability to leave a comment & are hopeful that this can be solved by selecting to leave an anonymous comment rather than trying to use a google account. Caio!
Tuesday, Oct 15, Taormina. (HAPPY BIRTHDAY LAUREN!)
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but we were up with the sun as it rose from the Ionian Sea. Today was another very relaxing day. We had our first really good view of Mt Etna while visiting the Greek Teatro.
Not much happened during the afternoon and we all ended up at the hotel pool for a bit of a swim and a bit of a read. Cocktail hour started a little earlier than normal but didn’t end until the usual time. Hmmm. Perhaps not a good trend but our little private patio was simply delightful and we all enjoyed this little bit of luxury and the expansive views. Only one of us (who shall remain nameless) admitted to a bit of fuzzy-headedness the following morning.
Wed, Oct 15, Siracusa
OK, first of all, the fuzzy-headed one was not Brian. If he was also that way then he suffered in silence. Right. That’s not the Brian we all know and love.
Siracusa, or Syracuse in English, a short drive down the coast from Taormina. Like several other places we have visited on Sicily, it’s time in the sun was centuries ago and you can tell. The Greeks founded this place in 733 BC and only a few centuries later had grown so powerful that it was able to muster the forces to defeat Athens in a huge battle that heralded the end of the golden age of Greece around 400 BC. Plato taught here. Archimedes was born here. It was considered the most powerful city in the known world for a couple of centuries. That was then. This is now.
There are some wonderful old, no ancient, buildings and it seems most of the buildings in the old section are in need of a lot of repair. Some perhaps are beyond repair. A few exceptions, though, like the Duomo. There has been a place of worship on this site for about 2,500 years. A recent renovation (in the 1700’s) after an earthquake produced this facade but there are still remnants of the original structure inside. Knowing we were standing in such a magnificent place that has survived so many centuries was awesome and humbling, stirring a lot of emotion (both dark and light) about humanity and civilization.
We wandered further, enjoying sites like the fountain in Archimedes’ square.
Then a bit later we decided that Mary won the prize for choosing the best lunch.
After lunch Dave, Mary, Brian & Laurel headed for the Archimedes museum while Julie and I decided to keep on walking. Earlier in the day we had gazed at a very famous and very massive painting by Caravaggio depicting the martyring of Sant Lucia, now the Patron Saint of this city. Julie & I ended up on a tour of the church that was built on the spot where she died then viewed the crypt where her remains had rested until someone discovered them and spirited them away to Constantinople as a gift. She has been in Florence for the last 600 years or so and perhaps we will see her there.
We then trudged on to the Parco Archeologico to see the Greek Theatre however it was after 4:30 so we had to content ourselves with strolling around the grounds a bit and viewing the remains of the coliseum.
Dinner tonight was at a restaurant that featured Suppa de Pesces. I have no photos but this fish soup was long on fish and short on soup.
Yet another wonderful and thought provoking day in Sicily.
Thursday, Oct 17, Siracusa
This is the view from Brian & Laurel’s room and it is about the best thing going. I will not display the view from our room. Domus Mariae is owned by a catholic order, the Urselines, and operated by Sister Rosa Mariae, and we are praying hard for her and the future of this establishment that they might shine the light of repair and refurbishment upon it. ’nuff said…. Except that our digs in Taormina were such a hard act to follow. OK, the breakfast room was very passable.
Today we had a car, driver & guide for a day touring about the local surrounds. At the top of the agenda was a visit to the town of Pachino where a monument commemorates Canada’s role in ‘Operation Husky’ wherein Allied forces landed along the southeastern Sicilian coastline in 1943. It took our guide a bit of time to find it as up until this past July it did not exist. Here, our ‘Tilly Trio’ pose beside it.
Driving around this area gave us a really good appreciation of just how difficult it would have been for our soldiers to press on by foot from the beaches through the forbidding landscape and in to the searing heat of a Sicilian July with temperatures in the mid 40’s. Our generation benefits so much from the efforts of the men and women involved.
From Pachino we drove to a seaside village, Marzamemi, which was once a centre for a tuna fleet & processing plants. Alas, no longer. While our guide was planning lunch here, the suitable establishment had closed and thus, with no time for a swim, we had to content ourselves with dipping our toes and then back in the van for our next destination, Ragusa.
En route we enjoyed driving along some rural roads which gave us a chance to see a bit of Sicily’s agricultural land with it’s nutrient rich volcanic soils. The area we drove through had acres and a acres of greenhouses growing primarily cherry tomatoes. Then yet another town boasting a glorious and prosperous past it is filled with glorious spaces and soaring churches.
And cheese. Yes, Ragusa is known worldwide for Cacciocavallo Ragusano. Look for it in your local fromagerie and if they have never heard of it then you better buy your cheese elsewhere. We are told it is best if made between November and May before the Sicilian sun has scorched the rich, grassy pastures Ragusan cows enjoy so to produce the milk that leads to this ancient specialty.
As a result of the last couple of weeks I have a better understanding of Italian-Canadian’s love for ornamentation. It reminds them of home.
After Ragusa we drove to yet another town overflowing with baroque splendor, Noto. Our guide, who was also overflowing with facts about buildings and events, was great, but by now I am all muddled as to what happened when, who did what to whom and which families intermarried too much etc. In any event, we were in Noto in the late afternoon and the light on the local stone gave these wonderful buildings a simply wonderful glow that my photos don’t really do justice to.
This was our last night in Sicily and as we sat around our dinner table at yet another outdoor courtyard enjoying the warm Sicilian air, the chilled Sicilian wine, the friendly Sicilian waiter and the delicious Sicilian pastas we all agreed that this, the second leg of our Italian adventure had been completely different from the first but every bit as pleasurable.
I can’t help but reflect a bit on one’s sense of place and how this affects one’s sense of self. How would I have been impacted if the evidence of the efforts of my ancestors over the last many thousands of years were perhaps just around the corner from where I lived or grew up? What was going on in Vancouver 2,500 years ago when the Greeks were building the Temple of Apollo in Siracusa and making plans to spruce up the already imposing Duomo? What was happening in Toronto around 415 BC when Sircusa’s victory over Athenian forces marked the end of the golden age of Greece. But then again, how would I feel knowing my once all powerful city has had centuries of sad decline, suffering at the hands of so many invaders. I have no answers, but somehow I feel the flow of time so much stronger in these places where just a tiny slice of mankind’s efforts are right before our eyes, sometimes in ruins, but always tinged with such humanity. For me these thoughts are the balm of travel, a form of renewal and simply delicious to contemplate.
Friday, Oct 18, Florence
Today, late afternoon we arrived in Florence. Oh, my!
Saturday, Oct 19, Florence
Michelangelo & Leonardo Da Vinci used to like to hang out here. Raphael, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Rubens, Botticelli and many, many others – their works can all be found in Firenze’s Uffizi Gallery which was our first stop today. We have Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany to thank for deciding to build a structure to show off some of the works of art he and his all powerful family had accumulated. It was completed in 1581 and while there is and has been lots of renovations over the centuries we were walking halls goggling paintings and sculptures the same way people have been doing it for more than 500 years. Unfortunately, I can’t show you any photos as cameras are strictly verboten. Well, not completely because at the end of one of the halls we are permitted to photograph Ponte Vecchio just downriver.
For you Dan Brown enthusiasts, this is a good angle to show how he gets across the bridge and into the gallery through the Vasari Corridor. Thanks to Mary and her Rick Steve’s guidebook we were able to tour the 13,000 sq ft gallery focussing on the highlights. This still took us a bit more than three hours, and let me tell you, it was thirsty work indeed. Thanks goodness there are just as many restaurants in Florence as there are works of art in the gallery.
After lunch the plan was to cross the bridge and walk through the Boboli Gardens given that we had been indoors the entire morning. There was a slight delay actually crossing the bridge given that both sides are lined with jewelry shops. Brian & I made it across with only a gelato in hand however Dave the newlywed Apps found a more lasting memento for his bride.
I have to say the gardens were a bit disappointing. After seeing all the splendorous piazzas, buildings, etc. I was expecting something that would knock Victoria’s Butchart Gardens for a loop. This was not the case. Still, it was enjoyable to stroll around this huge but somewhat scruffy garden and enjoy some the statutory.
As some of you know, this is not one of my favorite things and I have to say I was grateful for a bit of respite back in our hotel at the end of the day and then yet another delightful dinner. Tomorrow we take a bus tour and visit three amazing places: Sienna, San Gimignano and Pisa and I look forward to relating the events of the day… But not just now as it is too late in the day to begin.
Sunday, Oct 20, Florence
This morning we were up early in order to board a bus for an all day tour of the Tuscany region. Our guide, Stefano, was a delight, not only full of historical facts but also a playful sense of humour and charm. He does this same excursion 4 days a week and yet we did not detect a hint of boredom, fatigue or lack of interest in us.
Perhaps the best known of the Tuscan hill towns, Sienna is a Unesco World Heritage site which certainly seems worthy of this designation and was our first stop. While Florence is richly adorned by renaissance buildings, Sienna is medieval and thus buildings are not ornate, but the narrow streets and the smaller scale buildings are every bit as appealing to me. Above is the Medici coat of arms adorning the city walls given that the king of Spain ceded the city to the Medici to settle a huge debt.
One factoid our guide proudly delivered was the fact that the world’s longest operating bank, Monte Dei Paschi Siena, has been in continuous operation since it’s founding in 1472. What they didn’t bother to mention was this statement is only possible due to the recent government bailout involving billions. Also not mentioned was the scandal caused by concealing undisclosed losses approaching 1 billion euros from EU regulators. How the mighty have fallen. However, in fairness, they are certainly not alone.
The gothic style Duomo was spectacular, both inside and out. Masters including Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo contributed in various ways. The frescoes in the library are hundreds of years old yet look like new.
We were fortunate that the marble floors, begun in the 14th century and not completed for another 200 years, had been uncovered. They were amazing – each one depicting something different and covering the entire area. It was tough to get a decent photo. This one at least gives you an idea.
In the main square the famous Palio horse race has been held for centuries. Fifty thousand people are jammed into an impossibly small area to witness the sometimes dangerous and crazy race. If you are interested check out the 2012 Palio on YouTube.
After Sienna we were back on the bus to head to our lunch stop, an organic farm and winery, Fattoria Poggio Allora. Not only was this one of the best lunches we have enjoyed so far, the view across a beautiful Tuscan valley to the medieval town of San Gimignano was to die for.
Lunch was great, with everything, including the wine, the pasta, the tomatoes, the salad, the salamis, the breads, the olive oil – all were produced at the farm. Belissimo!
Then back on the bus, feeling no pain, with two bottles of grappa that we will enjoy with family in November safely stowed, we headed for our next stop, San Gimignano, nicknamed the Medieval Manhattan because several of the towers that have survived through the ages create a skyscraper effect. In fact, Dave, Brian and I, in need of some post-feast exercise climbed one of them to admire the view from the top.
The town itself was a delight to stroll through, lovely views all around it’s hilltop location.
Then, back on the bus for a 90 minute drive along some lovely rural roads where wild boar, wild mushrooms and truffles are foraged – not necessarily at the same time or by the same people. If only I could have kept my eyes open for the entire journey. Try as I might I had only periodic episodes of this picture perfect countryside.
Then on to Pisa and it ‘s iconic leaning tower. We learned that it has now been stabilized by the same Italian company that recently righted the Costa Concordia.
Another fabulous Duomo that we peeked into during Sunday evening mass. The guards were zealous watching for touristas with their cameras. Aside from the grounds surrounding the Duomo, it’s tower and Baptistery, there wasn’t much more to see here, largely because Pisa was heavily bombed during WW2, and like Siracusa, the post war rebuild is utilitarian at best.
This was our last stop of the day and Stefano had us back in Florence by 8:30. Tired and spent, Julie and I decided to pick up a panini in a shop nearby then crash while the rest of our troupe managed to schmooze their way onto the outdoor patio of a very full and very popular nearby restaurant. I don’t think I have to tell you which of the four achieved this feat. Tomorrow we are off to Venice by train, but before that, an early morning viewing of Michelangelo’s David and then a climb to the top of the Duomo to survey Dante’s marvelous city that is Firenza.
Monday, Oct 21, Venice
The doors to David open at 8:15 and the guidebooks suggest that if you get the a bit early it’s great to be amoung the first to visit in the morning light. As it turned out it was only Brian and I that set off about 7:45. The rainy forecast didn’t really concern us – light rain in the morning then chance of thunder showers in the afternoon. Thus we set off for the 10 minute walk in a bit of light rain. Before we reached our destination we had zipped up our raincoats and Brian had unfurled his umbrella. Me? Well, I had full confidence in my waterproof MEC rain shell with my BR cap atop the hood. First in line! This was too good to be true! And it was. Too good to be true I mean as the exhibit is closed on Mondays. Oh well. Next time. The on to the Duomo for the second part of our plan – the walk up to the top of the dome. We were there with about 20 minutes to spare and with nobody standing in line in the ever intensifying rain we intermittently huddled close to buildings then dashed though the rain until we found a coffee shop within sit of the entrance.
There had been the occasional rumble of thunder over the past half hour but then we had not a rumble, it was a crack of lightning that was so loud it made everyone flinch. Ever hopeful, even in the pelting rain and crashing thunder we waited for a chance to climb to the highest point for miles around. We finally came to the realization that they were not going to let anyone up there in such a fierce storm and thus, abandoning our second objective decided we might as well at least go and see inside. We were soaked anyway, so a ross the square to the magnificent front doors at around 9 am. Firmly shut. Not open until 10. I will not blaspheme given the situation here, but my words were not full of praise. Soaking wet, cold and hungry we concocted lies about how magnificent David was and what a thrill it was to witness the storm high above the Duomo.
Our train for Venice departed at 11:30. Warm, dry and fed we boarded car #6 and fought our way to our seats along with everyone else, manhandling bags along rows that might be narrower than those on airplanes. While this train did not reach the speeds of our first one, it was no slouch and two hours (and two bottles of wine) later we arrived in Venice. After purchasing tickets we were herded onto a vaporetti. Given the are no vehicles in Venice, the vaporetti are the only way of getting from A to B. Think seabus except with many stops, not just back and forth across Burrard Inlet.
I have to say it was very exciting to exit the train station to be confronted, not with a street full of buses, cars and trucks but rather a canal full of a variety of specialized watercraft.
The train station is at the top of the Grand Canal, the main thoroughfare however route number 2 took us in the opposite direction and so it took maybe half an hour to reach our stop. The initial views were of the more industrial areas and the cruise ship terminal, but soon the central area on Venice came into view.
It was fabulous! The after finding our B&B (actually our host Fabio found us) and checking in, we set off for a walkabout. It was hard to walk more than a few paces before wanting to stop and photograph yet another interesting scene. Here are but a few of these.
Perhaps only slightly less distracting were the shop windows, the most colourful being the ones displaying objects fashioned using Murano glass.
We found a cozy little restaurant for dinner and had a nice meal, however, the was to be no lingering over the last few mouthfuls of wine once we were finished. They wanted our table for the next group waiting outside and no sooner had the last bit of food been lifted from plate to mouth the waiter plunked down the bill and commenced clearing the table, rather stone faced, with us sitting there. We got the hint. We continued to wander about this unique and very picturesque city all of us very happy that we decided to come here.
Tuesday, Oct 22, Venice
Venice is the only city in the world which can never be confused with others. Damn! I wish I could lay claim to that sentence but I can’t as I lifted it from the program for the chamber music concert we attended. But I’m getting ahead of myself as Vivaldi came at the end of the day, not the beginning.
In the beginning there was Vivianna, the guide who took us on a morning walking tour.
She was terrific, leading us around the labyrinthine streets and giving us lots of interesting background. She was raised in this city – her grandfather was a gondolier all his life. His timing was bad though as he sold his gondola and his license in the eighties for around 5,000 lira. Today the license alone is worth more than 100,000 euros.
Speaking of gondolas, yes, we paid our 80 euros for a ride of about 40 minutes. Yes, it was a bit touristic, but it was still fun, and thanks to Vivianna we were able to imagine what it was like for the many centuries before tourism was invented when the gondolas were the main mode of transportation for pretty much everybody of any means. Just like cars used to be, the quality of your gondola was an important status symbol.
Speaking of centuries, the Republic of Venice survived for more than 1,000 years. After it’s founding in AD421, the first doge was elected in 697 and it wasn’t until Napoleon invaded in 1797 that the republic was no longer. In between those dates for a time Venetians ruled the seas and accumulated fabulous wealth and power as is evident in the (now faded) splendor in the buildings and their exterior and interior adornments. Marco Polo was a Venetian. So was John Cabot who discovered Newfoundland in the 1400’s. So was the composer Vivaldi. Of his more than 500 concertos, probably the best known is The Four Seasons and we had the pleasure of listening to a performance of it in an old church now used as a concert hall.
This evening will be one of those that will stay with me for a long, long time and it’s hard to describe just how perfect it was. This was not a concert put on for tourists by bored journeymen musicians. The musicians were very accomplished in their music and their abilities. We were close enough to see the joy and the passion in their faces. The acoustics were perfect and the sound of the violins, the sweet music of Vivaldi and then Bach, and the sight of these musicians producing music in this wondrous space, well, it just defies description. All I can say is that if any of you reading this journal should happen to visit Venice in the future, you must! you must! attend one of the concerti at the Chiesa San Vidal.
Wednesday, Oct 23, Venice
This is Julie standing on the famed Rialto Bridge, one of the three bridges crossing the Grand Canal. I have dozens and dozens of photos of this city and it’s waterways, bu you are going to have to come for a visit to Beachview Retreat see them all.
Today started with breakfast at our B&B. In Venice, space is a luxury as witnessed by this breakfast nook. The owner & our host Fabio isn’t really sure how old this building is, maybe 400 years, but recently renovated it was very comfy and well located. Mind you everything is well located given the islands that form the city of Venice might total the size of Stanley Park. At it’s peak the population was around 160,000 but currently there are about 60,000 inhabitants. There can be that many tourists arrive in cruise ships on a single day. Millions come to visit every year and I have no idea how many pillows await these hoards. Yikes!
After breakfast we headed to the Doges Palace. The Doge was essentially the elected head of state and as befitting what was once the most powerful state in the known world, the palace is magnificent, both inside and out. Unfortunately I cannot show any of the interior as cameras were strictly verboten, a requirement aggressively enforced. Paintings and frescoes of a majestic scale adorned the walls and the ceilings, everything on an immense scale. Bellini, Tintoretto, Titian, works from these ionic Italian masters are everywhere. But you have to come here to see them in person as no photograph (even if I snuck a few in) would do justice.
The final bit of the tour was a visit to the dungeons. It’s interesting how the extreme opulence was mirrored by the extreme harshness of the dank, dark prison cells (not to mention the instruments of torture) just meters away.
Happy to be back in the light of day our plan was to purchase a 24 hour pass for the transit system, allowing us to jump on and off the vaporetti at will. It really was a thrill to be on the bus steaming up the Grand Canal. It was alive with all manner of Watercraft and the were simply too many photos ops coming at us too quickly to capture them all.
Some of the taxis were very spiffy. We did not use them as they were the costliest option.
While we were too late in the day for the fish market the veggie section was very colorful and so very tempting.
Tonight we had perhaps the best dinner we have had – at least in the top two or three. Fabio, having noted that we all seemed to enjoy wine suggested we might enjoy the Enoiteca Mascarata Wine Bar. Man! Did he have us pegged! The food and the wine was delicious and this being the last night that all six of us would be together it was just about perfect for the occasion.
To it I think we all went to bed truly contented after yet another wonderful day in Venice.
Thursday, Oct 24, Rome
I’m in trouble now because I am two days behind and so much has happened – all good, well mostly all good – but now it is late at night and we have to be up very early tomorrow for our day at the Vatican and so I don’t have enough time to catch up. Tomorrow will be our last full day in Italy and so I doubt I will have much time to sit with the iPad and reflect then either. It’s a good thing it’s a long flight back to Toronto on Monday as I suspect it won’t be until then that I will have the time to relate some of the adventures we have had and reflect a bit on them.
Meanwhile, back to Venice and our departure from this truly unique place. While it is true that there are no cars, no trucks, no motorcycles, no bicycles in this city and therefore there is no traffic noise, no smelly exhaust fumes, no dodging of or avoiding traffic, no honking of horns, there are sirens. It’s very easy to hear a siren due to the lack of competing noises. When you hear a siren, it’s either the ambulance or the fire truck. Except that I use the word truck loosely given that the fire trucks and the ambulances are boats. By the way, the police set up speed traps in Venice, just like police in every other city in the world, except here their radar guns are trained on the watercraft tooling up and own the Grand Canal. The speed limit is 5km/hr and the fine for exceeding this limit is 500 euros. Of course the only vessels exempt from this limit are said ambulances and said fire trucks. We watched several charge down the canal while we were there and we immediately understood why the 5 k limit is in place as the wake these speeding boats generated created havoc along the canal which is quite narrow in places but with hundreds of boats plying the waters. Of course you can hear the siren a long way off and the boaters, knowing what is coming, position their boats so that the mini tsunami that is the wake can be ridden without a) swamping or b) crashing up against somebody’s house or crushing some foolish tourist standing too close to the canal. At one canal-side restaurant we watched all the patrons sitting in the primo seats right at water’s edge get soaked to the knees as an ambulance streaked by.
This but one small example of how different Venice is. Well, now it really is getting late, so I am not going to talk about Rome just now, so I will post this bit and pick it up again from here when time permits. Ciao
Saturday, Oct 26, Rome
We have seen mystical relics, like the chains that held St Peter before his martyrdom (Honest! There’s a church built around them). We have seen many remnants of ancient Rome, often in the most unlikely places. We have had some terrific food and it’s a good thing we like to go Italian – otherwise you choice of restaurants is pretty limited. We have tasted many wines and have often been thirsty enough to enjoy an ice cold Peroni (or two) at lunch. We have dined each night outdoors, each time finding the perfect little spot serving just the right dishes that are always accompanied by the perfect wine pairing (vino de casa). We seldom made it as far down the menu as dessert but sometimes a gelato was procured somewhere between the restaurant and our hotel. We have elbowed our way through endless streams of people, many of them tourists, but certainly not all. We declined to buy any from the hundreds of hucksters infecting the piazzas and historic sites (this applies throughout Italy, not just Roma).
Rome, the eternal city, or as so many Romans proudly proclaimed to us – the greatest city in the world – is without doubt a place you really have to see for yourself.
This morning, our last morning in Rome, we walked back to the coliseum to spend a bit more than the ten minutes allotted by our tour guide Georgio, the bombastic bore who presumed we valued his pearls of wit and wisdom more than experiencing the sites themselves. Thus we spent a very enjoyable morning walking about the very core of ancient Rome, the coliseum and the forum. It was a fitting way to end our trip, strolling about this huge area where archeologists are still uncovering new layers of history.
I have really enjoyed our travels. For me our stay in Venice stands out as a real highlight, as does the day we walked the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi coast, as does the day we visited several Tuscan towns and enjoyed a delicious lunch at a winery, as does the day we climbed Mount Vesuvius and toured Pompeii, as do the many fine pasta dishes we sampled, as do the many fine wines we tasted, as do the figs and grapes plucked from their sources, as do the four travelling companions we shared all this with. I could go on and on, but, I have already done that, haven’t I?
In a few short hours we will be back on Canadian soil. Home. Despite all the wonders in the wide world it is home that gives me the most joy and the sense of life and of living. I am my most content there and for me it is so true: Home is where my heart is and I pray this to always be so.
Home is also where I hope to be able to figure out how to upload a video or two and so it is my intention to do one last posting when we are back in Vancouver on the 31st. Julie and I are spending the next couple of days at Brian & Laurel’s place in Toronto and will arrive in Vancouver along with all the ghosts and goblins.
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