Friday, 27 May 2011

ROME Euro Pride


Roma, capitale dell’orgoglio GLBT europeo.

Europride è il più grande evento internazionale GLBT, ospitato da una città europea diversa ogni anno. Il 2011 è l’anno di Roma, la città eterna. Per 15 giorni, si svolgono eventi artistici e culturali in tutta la città ospitante. Europride culmina con la tradizionale parata dell’orgoglio, concerti, feste spettacolo a carattere sociale e party con club internazionali.


Thursday, 26 May 2011

Breakfast Italian style

For many years now, I think at least since 1998 we have made all our hotel bookings with, we really like their site and how it is structured. We usually chose an hotel based on the comments left by other people who have stayed at the same hotel and rated it on various grounds, in terms of service, cleanliness, staff, location, etc.

Some comments leave me laughing or seriously wondering if some people should travel at all, let alone leave their house.

In Italy the way meals are structured is very different from elsewhere in Northern Europe or North America. There is no culture or idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day for kids or adults, that concept does not exist, it is unknown. Usually in the morning people will have a cappuccino or an espresso with a croissant, either plain or filled with honey or jam, you may also have a juice or a fruit cup or a yogurt, that is breakfast. 

Then by 10 am you will have another coffee and maybe a tramensino, which is a sandwich of white bread with a filling like tomato and tuna or ham and cheese, usually warmed up. But again most people will just have an espresso.

No one is having ham and eggs or sausages and bacon or oatmeal or French toast, steak and beans, waffles and whatever else is eaten elsewhere in Northern climes. So I am usually surprise to hear people comment that while they stayed in an hotel in Italy the breakfast was poor or the selection limited. In fact what you are served is an Italian breakfast, what 60 million Italians eat each day.
If you wish to explain to those 60 million people how wrong they are and how you are here to enlightened them, go ahead, you will probably get strange looks. Since you are on vacation just relax and enjoy, you may shed a few unwanted pounds.

Of course if you wish to have such foods for breakfast any 3 star hotel and up will be happy to prepare such items for you, all you have to do is asked. This is the way it is done in Italy. 

Monday, 23 May 2011

Today’s tourism

Tourism has always been about seeing things you heard about or wanting something exotic as a break from everyday routine. There was a time only the privilege and wealthy could travel, modern tourism apparently appeared around 1850 when Britain had firmly established its garrisons abroad allowing people to travel to far away lands and be assured that military protection or Law and Order was at hand from the restless native. I think of places like Egypt and the Holy Land or India or even further away like the Far East. Such trips required months of free time to travel, money and hiring local staff and bringing your own personal attendants just to handle all your luggage and what not. This was not necessarily the best form of tourism since it often conveyed the worst racist attitudes towards people living in those far away countries.

In the 1960’s traveling was still an adventure, today with mass tourism and ease of travel, you can go almost anywhere and meet crowds of people brought there by charter airlines. The magic of certain far off destination is pretty much gone, all the same food, same shops, same souvenirs, same hotel chains and same music playing in restaurants, shopping malls or hotel lobbies. There is not much danger that you will be challenged in what you know or expect at most you will be amused at worst bored and wonder why it can’t be just like it is back home. I was recently reading the book of Durrell on the Greek Islands when he first visited in the 1930's and compared it to what I saw last October, things have changed and not for the better.

One of my pet peeves has to do with the lack of respect people have in general when visiting a different country.
I always wonder why the natural reserve or barrier you would feel at home to behaving outlandishly is suddenly gone. Is it because you think that I will never be back so it does not matter what I do or say or is it a sense of entitlement because this vacation is costing a lot, so they owe me for the money I am spending in their country.

In Catania I witnessed some truly awful behaviour, it seems to occur either in Museums or in Churches, groups come in with a guide and proceed to march around as if they own the place, shoving aside other people not in their group or blocking areas completely or speaking loudly about this and that or simply run around to take pictures of anything that attract their fancy or of themselves, using flash when told not too. In Syracuse we visited one church with a famous painting by Caravaggio, it clearly says NO photography, luckily in this case the guards pounce on anyone who tries to take a picture. One lady of a certain age who should have known better nonetheless pleaded like a 5 year old with the guard who politely but firmly told her NO. In Catania in the Cathedral a group of school kids around 14-15 years of age where visiting with their teachers, the group was about 25 strong. They ran around the church playing tag, spoke loudly, this was an outing for them. Even in the chapel where the sacrament is exposed and reserved for prayers, there they were pushing and showing each other to the dismay of people trying to pray. I realize that visiting old churches nowadays is no different than going to the mall or an amusement park. But is it so difficult to be respectful of others? In another church a Dutch tourist walks in and does not take his hat off as is customary in any Christian church, his wife came in with her dog on a leash. The excuse we are Protestants this is a Roman Catholic Church we don’t believe in this stuff. It is not a matter of what you believe but a matter of respect. I witnessed the same thing in Cairo and in Istanbul in the great mosques when non-Muslims wish to visit, women and men appear to fail to understand that modest dress is required, meaning no shorts and no sleeveless T-shirts or blouse. In Rome the Vatican enforces a dress code, no one objects but elsewhere it seems that lack of sensitivity and lack of respect is the rule.

Unfortunately when you have mass tourism and a general lack of awareness this appears bound to happen.
The worst offenders are not children but mature adults, the older it seems the ruder. I have seen some truly foul mouth rude people in there 70’s and 80’s; you wonder how can this be. Is this an effect of popular culture today or is it that people are fed up with the change they see around them and this is a form of protest. All this to say that the veneer of civilized behaviour is pretty thin.

Catania to Napoli

We left Sicily at 19:40 on the good ship Partenone, not many many people on board, but the ship is a lot cleaner than the one we took coming down to Sicily, in fact it even smells clean. The company TTT lines has 2 ships and they simply do the route Napoli, Catania and back.
 Sailing out of Catania into the Ionian Sea and turning left to sail up to the straits of Messina

Lots of tourists, mostly Germans and a few Italians, and some truck drivers. Dinner was a very simple affair, 2 pastas, 2 mystery meats, some salad, bread and water, good but simple. It also seems that in Italy, on ferries dinner is served early and ends early, usually by 20:45 it is all done. Then everyone goes to the lounge for coffee and a drink.
 Catania with Mount Etna in the background barely visible hidden by clouds, only the slope is visible.

As we left the port of Catania we made a sharp left turn into the wind, we are having squalls tonight up the coast of Sicily and the boat is experiencing some rolling, despite the fact that it weighs 7000 tons. We were also able to get a dramatic view of Mount Etna though is was partilly hidden by low clouds it still occupies a good part of the immediate horizon, that is how big it is and how it dwarfs the city of Catania. We are not far off the coast, you can see clearly the lights of each little town as we go up to Messina and in fact you can also see the cars on the highway. Messina is the narrowest point with the toe of the Italian boot, to cross to Reggio Calabria is only 20 minutes at that point. After Messina we are back into open sea all the way up to Napoli. Hopefully the sea will be calmer after that point.
In all the trip takes 12 hours. On arrival in Napoli we will take the highway up to Rome and should be in Rome in under 3 hours time tops.
 Vesuvius in the early morning as we enter the port of Napoli.

Katane, Catania, eastern Sicily

We drove today from Siracusa to Catania, an easy 60 Km on the highway. As you approach Catania there in front of you it looms large, very large, it looks like any other mountain, lost in the clouds. This is no ordinary mountain this is Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe and a deadly one at that, in its known history it has probably killed one hundred thousand people and destroyed numerous towns and villages, provoked great earthquakes and enormous tidal waves (tsunamis). At the moment it looks peaceful but like any monster it can wake-up and wreak havoc. Catania spreads at its feet, and Etna has destroyed Catania and killed its inhabitants about 8 times so far in recorded history, but they hung on and rebuilt.

Catania has several great churches, a Royal Chapel Santa Maria of the Alms blessed by Pope Eugene IV so that the Royal Bourbon Family of Spain who ruled Sicily for nearly 500 years would have a place to go and pray when they came to town. Several great princely families had palaces rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693 called Earthquake Baroque out of black lava rock and limestone giving the town sort of a Mexico City look. The most famous avenue is Via Aetna which crosses the city and ends on the slopes of the volcano. The cathedral is dedicated to Santa Agatha who is the patron saint of the city. She was a pretty local virgin who refused the advances of a powerful Roman official on the grounds that good girls don’t do things like that, early Christian morality which did not hold water with the old Roman morality and values of the time.
Her punishment was to be raped, have her breast cut off and rolled in hot sizzling charcoal for good measure, ouch!

In the cathedral you can also see the body of Blessed Cardinal Dusmet, he died a long time ago, but his body is on display in fine Cardinal red robes, it is quite obvious that under the robes is nothing but a skeleton, the skin of the hands are paper thin and black and his cardinal ring hangs loosely from the dried up fingers. This is something about Catholicism I find very disturbing, why do they have to expose corpses to pray too? The same thing is about to happen to the late Pope Jean-Paul II who is going to be placed in Saint Sebastian Chapel next to the Pieta in the basilica of St-Peter in Rome.

The local musical celebrity who is also buried in the Cathedral in a beautiful mausoleum is Vincenzo Bellini who was born in Catania. In his short life, he died at 34 he wrote 10 operas like Norma and I Puritani. The opera house in Catania one of the largest in Europe and also in need of a major restoration is named after him.

Catania is a port city and of all the cities I have seen in Sicily so far on this trip, I cannot say that it is appealing.
Since 2002 an effort has been made by the authorities to clean up and restore monuments but much remains to be done and I have to say that I found it all a bit sad looking. The black lava stone used in construction of so many buildings with the downtrodden aspect of the city does not help in the overall aesthetics. Let’s hope the authorities continue to improve the city and services and clean up its monuments, much has been done so far. The business people are friendly, the locals less so, it is a port city, you hear many foreign languages, French, German, Turk and Russian.

The one monument I really liked is in the Piazza del Duomo and it is the smiling statue of the Elephant Leotru, it is made of black lava rock. The story goes that he belonged to a famous magician in the 8th century A.D. Leotru is the symbol of Catania found on the Coat of Arms of the City. We also took the little train around town, a 30 minute tour of the most famous sites. Like many such tours it is not made for accuracy in details but to show off what the city has to offer. The comments are a rattle of statistics and names of places as you go down the streets. Most of it is entertaining and gives you a good idea of the layout of the city. The city is known for its fish and seafood restaurants. We did find good restaurants Antica Sicilia near the Piazza del’universita was one and the other was Metro an enoteca with very good food at reasonable prices, friendly and knowledgeable waiters.

We sail from Catania Sunday on our 12 hour ride up the coast of Italy to Naples.


Saturday, 21 May 2011

Noto, City of the Hermit Saint Corrado, Sicilia

Lovely Noto just a few minutes away from Siracusa, a new town really, reborn after the terrible earthquake on the evening of 11 January 1693 as Mount Etna was erupting devastating all of South East Sicily and destroying numerous towns and villages. Ancient Noto lays in ruin to this day, abandoned some 10 Km away from the new city. No one wanted to live there after the destruction and death of so many people.
                         The cathedral of Noto rebuilt in 2007.

Noto today is a city built a new with baroque churches and palaces, well laid out. It can be visited in a few hours, museums and churches are open in the morning, usually from 8:30 to 12:30 and then close for lunch time.
If you start at the Porta Real and go down the main avenue you will see all the important buildings including the newly re-built cathedral (2007). The original cathedral’s dome collapsed in 1995 after one of the columns supporting it gave way suddenly, the church was severely damaged, it was however rebuilt identical to the original. The drum of the dome has a new fresco showing the nearly naked apostles dancing around with the Mary Magdalene and they point to the Holy Ghost hovering above them, symbol of Pentecost. This representation of the apostles is somewhat startling, they are usually shown as old and serious, dressed as Roman Senators. Here it is the opposite, they could pass for devotees of Dionysius.

Noto also has several other beautiful palaces like the one of Prince Nicolace di Villadorata, one of the first palace to be built in new Noto around 1698. On the street it has these figures supporting balconies, ferocious lions, galloping horses, round face putis, bearded men, etc.
The inside gives you a glimpse of what life was like in the age of Princes.

Noto also has several good restaurants and one good gelateria Costanzo Dolceria behind the Ducezio Palace in the centre of town. There is a funny fresco in this Dolceria, Costanzo who is now dead, stands behind Christ at the last supper and Christ is having a nice glass of red wine while giving the thumbs up, the wine of Salvation or in Vino Veritas. Some might think this sacrilegious but in Sicily it is not, the meaning here is more on the joyful aspects of Faith and Salvation, Sicilians like in the celebration of Easter and of their Patron Saints love to sing and dance and be joyful for the triumph of Good over Evil. Sicily is a place of agriculture and of wine making, the soil is very rich and fertile, people work the earth and produce some of the best fruits, vegetables and wines in all of Italy, not to mention some excellent cheeses. So these activities influences the way they see the world or their world.
                         God the father blessing all from Heaven

You can get easily to Noto by train from Siracusa, a regional train comes by every 2 hours. Though be warned that the Noto Station is closed like most small train stations and no services are provided, you can only board or leave the train. An automatic voice announcement warns you of the imminent arrival of the train. If you do not have a return ticket you can purchase one at a Travel Agency on the main street in Noto.

We were going to skip the visit in Noto but now we are glad we went, it is only a few minutes away from Siracusa and it is so lovely. 

Well our trip to Sicily is coming to an end, tomorrow we go to Catania about 45 minutes driving time from Siracusa, where we will take the ferry to Naples and then on to home in Rome to our puppies Nicky and Nora. We really miss them and the babysitter says that Nicky has behaved himself this time. Some of the cases of wine have also arrived in Rome. This trip was a good deal in terms of gathering excellent Sicilian wines.

The boys from Siracusa and Santa Lucia

You probably all know the Broadway musical ‘’The boys from Siracuse’’ by Rogers and Hart set in antiquity in old Siracusa under the Greeks in Sicily. Today Siracusa has a lot to show for itself including the only ancient Greek language theatre school outside of Athens. There is a Classical Greek theatre Season in Siracuse in May and June, many of the more famous Greek drama plays were first performed here in Siracuse before being seen in Athens.
The ancient Greek theatre with the set of Andromacus by Euripides. SOLD OUT!

Poster for this season's Greek tragedies in Siracuse

Siracuse is a lovely city by the sea and the island of Ortigia is connected to the mainland part of the city by two short bridges, this was and remains an important city of about 120,000 people. The numerous ancient and more contemporary buildings attest to its greatness, Santa Lucia Patron Saint of the City lived and died here, she is also the patron Saint of Eye doctors.
Inside the Cathedral of Siracuse formely the Temple of the Goddess Athena, look at those beautiful Doric columns.

We visited the archaeological park which has a large antique theatre with a capacity of 60,000 seats. The largest sacrificial Altar to Zeus in the ancient world can also be seen, it is quite amazing in size, it was built by King Hiero 2700 years ago in marble, it is the size of a football field. White bulls where brought there and 100 of them would be sacrificed each day during a 30 day period in the summer, prayers and a strict religious ritual had to be observed. Because the bulls throat was slit you can imagine there was a lot of blood and this is why priests wore red leather shoes, this tradition comes down to us today with the Pope wearing red shoes. The entrails were offered to Zeus and burnt and the rest of the meat was roasted and given to worshippers, somewhat like a giant bar-b-q.
The cave known as the Ear of Dionysius.

The other site to be seen is the quarry, today this is a lovely park full of lemon and orange trees and beautiful flowers everywhere, in Antiquity though it was a concentration camp were prisoners of the Siracusans went to work to quarry the stone for all public buildings. Those who survived were then sold off into slavery. The most amazing place in this quarry is called the ear of  Dionysius, not the God but an infamous ruled of Siracuse. This enormous cave with a height of 25 meters and a depth of 65 meters, looks like a human ear canal, Caravaggio named it that after seeing it. It was use to house the inmate-workers and the ruler of Siracuse could spy on them by listening to their conversations at night. The acoustics are so good that even a whisper can clearly be heard.

The other sites are in Siracuse itself, Piazza del Duomo where the Cathedral is housed in what was obviously the Temple of the Goddess Athena, I say obviously because from the outside you clearly see the Doric columns and inside you can see the Chapel that once was the main body of the Temple, the Altar is the same as the one used when it was the Temple to Athena. So you see it is very simple, Athena is the Virgin Mary, Zeus is God the Father, Jesus is Apollo.

We also went to see the famous Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi (puppet theatre) it is quite famous in Italy and the family Mauceri operates the facilities, gives the performances, makes the puppets, etc. The shows last only about 40 minutes but are highly entertaining. The story is based on the Chanson de Roland or Orlando Furioso or Jerusalem Liberata, from the times of the Crusades, its about the cruel Tartars, the bad Saracens, the Noble if a little daft Knights saving a Princess in distress and about some giant or Cyclops or dragon. Great fun and a beautiful show for children but also for adults. In fact there were about 30 adults attending and only 6 kids, the piccolo theatre was full, you can see their website at The show is in Italian but the story is very simple to follow, everyone knows what a Princess is distress looks like and about the knight on his white steed.  We also visited the atelier where they make the puppets it was fascinating. We had seen the puppet theatre in Bangkok where 3 people are required to articulate the puppets, here 2 people are required.
                              The fountain of Diana

Siracuse has many wonderful sights, the wonderful restaurants, the great Enotecas. It is well worth spending 3 days here to simply walk in the old streets, enjoy its beaches or rent a boat. The people are friendly and welcoming. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, City of the Arts

We arrived in Ragusa on a Sunday afternoon at lunch time. The city was deserted not a soul to be seen anywhere, no cars, absolute quiet, very strange really.
Suddenly we turn a corner and a big crowd of children coming out of Church from their First Communion with parents etc. But that was it for people, nothing else, just a quiet sunny day in Ragusa. The city is 537 meters above sea level and the sea is only about 20 minutes away by car, it is a very steep ascension by car on a narrow road with numerous hair pin turns, you have to drive no more than 40 km per hour otherwise you are over the cliff. Once in Ragusa you discover that there is actually 2 towns with two enormous cathedrals. 

                      Cathedral of St-John the Baptist in Ragusa, our hotel is in front of this church.

One is dedicated to St-John the Baptist in the newer part of Ragusa and across the narrow valley on the other hill is the other Cathedral to St-George in Ragusa Ibla. This is the old historic city destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt immediately more splendid than before. Ragusa Ibla is a city lined with Palaces to the great families, and of course the two cathedrals would probably fit in a large metropolis instead of a small town with pretension of imperial glory. It is a beautiful city, the baroque architecture and the steep geography makes of the people of Raguzza cliff dwellers with a fantastic panorama. For walking you need good shoes and be ready to go up and down steep streets and long staircases. It seems that staircases is sort of a feature of the town, the cathedral of St-George has no less than 250 steps on its grand front entrance.
 The Cathedral of St-George (Patron Saint of Ragusa) in old Ragusa Ibla.

Arriving at lunch time we were hungry, we decided to look for a place to eat but everything was closed. So we walked for about 45 minutes admiring the panorama all along the way, you see Ragusa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We finally arrived at Don Serafino which is an award winning restaurant and is featured in Le  Soste di Ulisse.  The restaurant is located in a huge cave which use to be a horse stable. The décor of stark rock and white marble floor is startling. The tables and chairs are very modern, it is elegant and simple but also very refined. We did not choose this restaurant but since we were tired from the drive and very hungry we went for it.
                                   Piazza del Duomo

It’s a high end restaurant but the food was wonderful,
absolutely delicious. I had rabbit meat on a bed of diced green and red peppers with a light Madeira sauce to start. Then I went for the ravioli with a light lemon sauce. The dessert was a granita of blood oranges, very Sicilian.
 Via della Scala ( a long staircase street) 

We then walked back up and down the old streets of Ragusa to our hotel for a well deserved nap.

But before we got to our hotel we crossed Piazza Repubblica and heard organ music in an otherwise totally quiet and deserted Piazza, the music was coming from the Church of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. We went in and were entertained by the organist who was practising. However the music he was playing was Circus music like Barnum and Bailey music, I thought this very odd and could not understand how it could be associated with a church service, but we did find out the next day.

                      A view of Holy Souls in Purgatory Church on Piazza Repubblica 

 You see Ragusa has a great tradition like so many Sicilian cities of the I Misteri, which is a strong link with Easter but also the cult of the Patron Saint of the City. In Antiquity, Greek Gods and Godesses protected the city when Christianity became the new religion patron saints replaced the old Gods. The Festivities remained the same just new names, that is all. In Ragusa May 28-29 are the Feast days of St-George and this involves great parties and the entire city will participate, fireworks, marching bands, great parades throughout the city, ordinary life stops for those 2 days and it all starts in the Cathedral Church building itself.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Agrigento, Agrigentum or Akragas

Akragas was the great Greek colony in Greater Greece (Sicily). The Doric temples of Akragas were so magnificent as to be described by all as wonders of the ancient world. Pliny, Virgil, Cicero and many others wrote about them when they visited, Goethe in the XIXth century rediscovered in his fashion the site and wrote of it in his travel journal, this may explain why so many German speaking tourists find their way here. The temples are made of the local friable sandstone instead of Pentelic Marble like the temples in Greece.  The temples of Akragas were covered with a white glaze as to imitate the effect of white pentelic marble, from the sea they shone like bright objects and in the sunset you could not look at them, because they were so bright, conveying a look of austere majesty.
 The Doric style temple of Concord in Agrigento.

What you see today is still immensely beautiful, in a peaceful and tranquil setting.  UNESCO designate the site as World Heritage and the National Trust of Italy (FAI) have taken over the whole valley of the temples come under their protection away from unscrupulous speculators. Another Englishmen Alexander Hardcastle and his wife came to live in the Valley and built a great house amongst the temples. His wife developed a garden of exotic plants, he got into his head that he would rebuilt the Temple of Ercole (Hercules), so he did manage to raise several columns and clear the site, unfortunately disaster struck and one worker was killed during restoration work by a piece sandstone from the temple which crushed him to death. Hardcastle was dispirited by this accident and after compensating the family of the dead worker abandoned the project, he died in 1933. He probably knew of Whitaker who lived in Mozia, I mentioned him in a previous entry. They were all part of these Englishmen who did the grand tour and wrote about their travels and often settled abroad by getting involved in some project. 
 The temple of Ercole restored in part by Hardcastle.

The park of the valley of the temples is currently hosting the works of Mitoraj the great Polish sculptor who has integrated his creation into the historical complex.
 One of the works by Mitoraj on display in Agrigento until November 2011.

The temples are well preserved considering the terrible damage inflicted upon them by zealot Christian groups who under a decree of Emperor Theodosius of Bysantium were incited to destroy anything pagan and kill priests working in such temples. In Agrigento per example the Christians destroyed completely the great temple of Olympian Zeus which was considered one of the great marvels of the ancient world. A little like the Taliban in Afghanistan went about destroying to our horror the Buddhas of Bamyan.

It is best to travel to Agrigento between March and end of May and then from October to end November, as of June and the summer months the heat will be unbearable often reaching upwards of 42 C, in the shade.
 One of the many olive trees in the park, they are considered sacred to the Cult of the Goddess Athena, this one is said to be 1800 years old. Many plants were brought to Sicily by various conquerors, the olive tree was brought by the Greeks, the Arabs brought date palm and almond trees, the Spaniards imported from Mexico the Nopales Cactus and other flowers which now bloom everywhere.

We arrived at the park by 10:00 am and left by 12:30 pm thus avoiding the heat of the mid-day. As we were leaving huge throngs of tourists were arriving at the park, this reminded me instantly of the song of Noel Coward about Mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the mid-day sun.

We truly enjoyed our stay in Agrigento and the visit to the valley. It gives a real appreciation for Greek influence in the Mediterranean at the dawn of Western Civilization.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Mazara del Vallo to Agrigento

Mazara del Vallo is a small town with an old Arab population, you are no more than 110 Km from the coast of the Magreb in North Africa and Arabic or Saracen influences are visible, despite the Greek then Roman and later heavy Norman and then Spanish influences. Mazara has a Kasbah like any Magreb town and a Turkish quarter though the Turks or Ottoman are long gone. Again we visited the town and had some pretty good food, we have been eating a lot of seafood on this trip. Mazara was also the site of the First Norman Parliament under Count Ruggero (Roger) and has a long association with the Spanish Crown and the Court of Aragon. Saint-Vito is the patron of Mazara and a majestic cathedral is dedicated to him. 
Cathedral of Mazara del Vallo, first built as a Norman church and then modified by the Aragonese
Sicilian Baroque see the Angels lifting the curtain of the dais to reveal Christ

While looking at the architecture I could not help think that I could be in Mexico or Spain, the layout of the town, its public squares and its buildings have that flavour. The clue of the visit to Mazara is to see the Satiro, this statue was discovered in 1995 by a group of fishermen who caught it in their nets. The Satiro is a rare bronze statue from antiquity, it is very well conserved given its great age (2700 years old) and depicts a satyr in ecstasy both sexual and from drinking too much wine during a celebration to Dionysius, the God of Wine. Satyrs were always spirits who were either evil connected with Hades or bringer of merriment and connected with Dionysius. This Satiro is an original statue but no one knows exactly where it comes from or how it got to the bottom of the sea, there are no less than 5 hypothesis presented by different archaeologists on this question.  The body is not masculine as in other Greek statues, there is a very feminine softness and the face has the features of Venus, this is part of the cult of Dionysius, a certain ambivalence, nothing is clear, probably due to the intoxication of its participants.
 Museum of the Satiro housed in the ex-Church of Saint Egidio built like a muslim mosque.

We then drove on to Agrigento to see the Valley of the Temples a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Magnificent Doric style temples on the original site of the city of Akragas or Agrigento.

The approach to Agrigento through Porto Empedocle on SS115 can be very disappointing, it is a heavy industrial area, very ugly and even sinister looking in parts, with lots of half finished buildings. Agrigento is not a wealthy city, it lives from agriculture and seasonal tourism. It is difficult to understand who can afford to buy all the luxury products in the high end shops on Via Atenea. Maybe it is best not to ask any questions.

We stayed at an excellent B&B Marchese Sala on Via Atenea, the owner was a delightful fellow and we had a very pleasant stay. The purpose of our visit to Agrigento was to see the Temples and we had one of those WOW! moments.  

Speaking of driving in Sicily, it is a lot like driving in Cairo, Egypt or driving in a small village where everyone thinks they are alone on the road or pedestrian think they are merely crossing their garden. NO ONE looks before doing anything, I have had quite a few near misses with drivers pulling into traffic with no warning or cutting you off or stopping in the middle of the road to look at something. Pedestrians simply walk right into traffic without looking, you have to avoid them, that's your job.  We also got quite a few odd looks because our plates are not like others in the region. People ask, where are you from, funny licence plate. Sicily is still a small place in many ways. 

Traveling in Magna Grecia

From Erice-Trapani we drove to Marsala and on the way stopped at the Island of Mozia to admire the sea salt flats.  After our over night stop in Marsala, we continued on to Mazara del Vallo to finally arrive in Agrigento or Akragas as the ancient Greeks knew it. Sicily in far away antiquity was a Greek colony and much of what you see today is from that era some 2500 years ago when Rome was still a small town about to burst unto the world and Greece still reign over the Mediterranean. All the major towns in Sicily where founded by Greek colonists and had Greek names with Doric temples, the Romans will simply copy Greek civilization by giving it Latin names but keeping the rest. In fact in Rome an educated person spoke Greek fluently and had Greek teachers, Latin was for the uneducated common folk.

In Marsala we sampled the famous Marsala wine and bought 2 cases of Buffa di Marsala which has a rich amber colour it is a superior variety unknown in North America, has more the quality of a dry sherry than a sweet wine and to enjoy our Buffa wine, we had a little spread of bread with apple sauce and anchovies to taste, delicious! Who knew that these food elements mixed so well. Of course when I say anchovies I do not mean the salty type which comes in a tin or bottle, it is the fish without the salt. The owner of the Enoteca the Drunk Mermaid, Salvatore then gaves us a bottle of Grillo, a very good dry white in the higher end of the price range and then showed us the way to Pino’s New Trattoria. He is a regular at this restaurant, he warned us that the décor was ‘’Brutto’’ meaning plain unsophisticated and the service so so, but Michele would take care of us. We walked in and the room was packed, at least 150 people were having dinner around 10:30 pm, all the patrons were men except for 2 women who were part of a family group. It was a very Sicilian place, men have dinner together, to talk and enjoy each other’s company, women are at home with the kids and mother-in-law. The men eat and talk about all manner of things and with much gesturing, life is theatre after all. The food was fish and seafood, lots of it, you pick your fish, they weigh it, tell you the price and grill it. It is serve with a simple green salad and wedges of lemons. We had our wine and we chose a lobster which was served with gluten free pasta with a simple sauce of crushed cherry tomatoes. Dessert fresh strawberries and an espresso. A great evening and lots of fun.  Since Will has an intolerance to gluten, all the restaurants were we have been eating offered to make a pasta dish for him with gluten free pasta. Italy is a country which numbers the highest amount of sicilac cases. So the restaurateurs are aware and able to please their customers.
 A delicious dish of warm octopus on a bed of mash potatoes flavoured with lemon juice and fresh parsley. Amazing! We had this dish as an Antipasto, at the Rooster in Love in Marsala (Il Gallo e l'innamorata on Via Bilardello 18). 

On our way to Marsala, we drove down the Punic road (see Punic wars) towards the salt flats and the Island of Mozia or Motya one of the world’s most important site of Phoenician civilization settlement discovered by accident by Mr. Joseph Isaac Whitaker (1850-1936) whose family came from Yorkshire to Marsala and developed an important wine business. He was like so many excentric Englishmen of the time, interested in painting little birds of Sicily in the Audubon style and archaeology. The island can be reached by a short boat ride, it is a little paradise of quiet. The house of Whitaker is now a museum with stunning display of Phoenician art including the famous life size marble statue of a young Greek Charioteer measuring 1.94 meters, discovered in 1979, it is exquisite and the only other one I ever saw was in bronze in Athens. The rest of the island is one large archeological dig and botanical garden with a vineyard of Grillo grapes which finances the operation of the Whitaker Foundation to this day.

We had the most lovely time in Mozia and I highly recommend a stop there and also don’t forget to buy some sea salt gathered from the flats.
                                 Joseph Whitaker and the little birds he painted.


Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Mount Eryx, Sicily

Today was another beautiful sunny day, we visited Erice which is located 750 meters above the town of Trapani in Sicily. Erice is very ancient, Virgil compared Mount Eryx (Erice) to Mount Athos in Greece and it is mentioned in the Aeneid as a holy landmark to Venus mother of Aeneas of Troy, the ancestor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty of Rome. The town established some 2800 years ago by the Greeks and Phoenicians who worshipped Goddess Astarte or Aphrodite, the Romans called her Venus daughter of Jupiter, the Catholics transformed it into a cult to the Virgin Mary. An enormous temple to Venus stood on this mountain where the acolytes practiced sacred prostitution. The weather can be unpredictable because the mountain overlooks the Tyrrhenian sea.

With a population of about 28,000, the town features a Royal Cathedral, the first building was apparently built under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century and the current building was commissioned by Frederick II of Aragon,(Spain) there are also 17 churches all built during the high middle ages about a thousand years ago. It is a small town with tortuous cobbled stones streets, massive defensive walls, two castles, numerous palaces to the aristocratic families who given the limited space must have lived all crammed together, not to mention convents and monasteries of various religious orders like the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans.

Until the 20th century the town was fairly prosperous but with the changing social and political mores, massive emigration to Canada and USA by thousands of poor Sicilians, hard economic times and ruined aristocrats, Erice went into a period of steep decline. The churches all closed one my one and many were abandoned falling into ruin. Only the Cathedral managed to remain open to worship but it too suffered from neglect due to lack of funds to maintain such an elaborate building. By the year 2000 the economy had once again picked up and the people of Erice decided to band together and seek financing to restore their convent and churches and re-open them to the traveling public. Massive work has been undertaken to save this beautiful village. The churches have undergone a rebirth, being faithfully restored so they could be once again opened to the public. The art work was restored and so was the many homes and other buildings of the small town. By visiting Erice and its churches you buy one price ticket, the proceeds of which goes to continue restoration works.

Erice has several excellent restaurants and the most famous pastry chef in Sicily, Maria Grammatico, we tried her Erice pastries, absolutely wonderful and there is so much variety, you can’t be on a diet in such a shop.

We had a very good lunch at La Pentolaccia, I had red pasta ravioli’s stuffed with ricotta and spinach in a sauce of prosciuto, onions and tomatoes, Will had grilled sausage stuffed with anis seeds and herbs, made just across the street by the local butcher. The red pasta is made using beet juice, the pasta being made on the premises was light and delicious. Given that I was the driver and the road to and from Erice is a 6 km steep road on a cliff zigzagging all the way, I needed all my concentration so I only had water and a coffee. Will enjoyed a nice glass of white wine. You can also take the funicular up the hill from Trapani but you must not be afraid of heights. The view from Erice is breathtaking.

I am very glad Will suggested we go to Erice today, it is on the doorstep of Trapani and well worth the visit. Tonite we return to Cantina Siciliana to try more local Sicilian dishes.         

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Trapani, Sicilia

Today we explored Trapani, (pop. 68,000), a small town which sits on the edge of western Sicily, occupied by Spain from 1282 until 1860. Once populated by numerous Spanish aristocrats whose palaces and private churches line Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle and Via Garibaldi, the old town juts out into the Tyrrhenian Sea on three sides. The wind is pretty strong and so is the sunshine, it feels almost as if you are out to sea with water any which way you look. 

Trapani today has this look of sad melancholy, an old town which went through periods of boom and bust and now is experiencing a new boom, thanks of giant cruise ships stopping here daily.  The town has gentrified itself in some parts, but other parts are still waiting for renovation. The old streets are narrow like that of an North African Kasbah allowing only a donkey or pedestrians to pass.

Trapani is a fishing port, known for its excellent fish and sea food, some of the best fish in the whole of the Mediterranean can be found here in its restaurants, not to mention good quality sardines and blood red tuna a local specialty. Sea Salt production is the other industry. Sicily also boast a large variety of wines, many of high quality, the enotecas allow you to discover many wonderful wines including the sweet wines like the Passita.

Today we visited in the decommissioned church of St-Agostino an exhibit on a local tradition, the Misteri, they are statues created by local craftsmen and artisans representing the different actors in the stations in the Passion of Christ and carried around town during Easter week in day long processions.

I often wondered about those statues, they are life size and are mounted on altars surrounded by long processional candles. The exhibit showed how all this is made and how light it is in reality. The statues head, hands and feet are made of cork wood, very light and easy to sculpt, then covered with papier maché and painted, the rest of the body, clothing etc, is made of canvas shaped and glued and then painted. So what looks like a heavy wood statue is in fact nothing more that a few pieces of cork wood and canvas. It is then mounted on a cart with wheels and pulled by men who belong to a religious confraternity through city streets with marching band and banners, local parish priest and Altarboys.
                                   Santa Lucia 

                                 Saint Joseph

Many of the churches in Trapani are now permanently closed, many have been abandoned and like the church of the Carmine next to our hotel, it is opened a few hours a day enough to collect a few euros in the hope that maybe they can restore it one day. The churches in Trapani were built in the 16 and 17th century by noble families, employing artists and craftsmen of the time. But nowadays only the Cathedral of San Lorenzo is fully functioning, all other churches have been closed or turned into exhibit space.
 Dome of San Lorenzo Cathedral Trapani, with its green majolica tile roof.

One church that did look closed, was in fact opened today, Santa Maria del Soccoro the inside have seen better days but today it was decorated with huge arrangements of white roses placed all over the church, the scent of the roses made the whole building come alive. A wedding was taking place and we arrived just a few minutes prior to the event. It had an air of surreal, old decaying baroque church building of an age gone by, decorated with a multitude of flowers which will last only a day.

We had lunch in a Enoteca-Trattoria on Via Giudecca 32,described as the best in Italy by numerous guides like Michelin and Gambero Rosso and the magazine Saveur, see March 2011 issue. The owner of Cantina Siciliana, Pino Maggiore is charming and very knowledgeable on wines.   

We had a wonderful lunch of Sardines in oil which are then breaded and fried, served very hot, it is basically made fresh when you order it. Then I had a freshly made pasta called Busiate di Pesto alla Trapanese, a very local dish, Excellent! See the website

Will had red shrimps ceviche and then Swordfish alla Putanesca in tomatoes and capers. Our Sicilian wine was a dry white called Baaria with a beautiful golden colour.

After the meal we spoke with Pino and asked him to recommend some wines we could purchase and send home. He recommended Baaria, Cutti and Quojane, we did not know the last one, so he opened a bottle for us, wise move as we bought 2 cases of it.

This evening we are going down to Via Carolina which ends literally into the Tyrrhenian Sea without warning, the sun sets at the end of that street over the water. There is a little enoteca called Trapani e Vini and friends recommended it to us. Tomorrow we will visit Erice just 10 Km from Trapani. As I sit here gazing out at the sea through the large window of my room, I imagine that in the distant horizon I see the coast of Spain and Gibraltar.   

Monday, 9 May 2011

Palermo, Massimo Opera House, French Tourists and R.C.Church

We got up late this Sunday morning, I am more tired than I imagined, I was telling Will that I feel jet lagged as if I just returned from a 20 hour flight from the Far East.
Been sleeping a lot, taking naps in the afternoon, just trying to decompress. Palermo is lovely as always, the wealth of history and tradition, the fine wines and food and the people gives the impression that you are in South America or Spain but not Italy. Sicily or Sicilians like to say that they are Sicilians and not Italians, the island joined Italy in 1860 it was ruled previously by the Spanish Bourbon Royal Family, same family who rules Spain, the colours of Palermo and Sicily are yellow and red, Spain’s colours. Today we went walking and in front of the Politeama Garibaldi theatre there were lots of people and some police officers, this being Mother’s Day lots of flower vendors. I looked around and the mix of architecture, people and uniforms and I thought I could be in Santiago Chile, Buenos Aires or Madrid but not Italy. By the museum of Archeology and the Church of Santa Maria All’Olivella, the S.S. Crocifisso ( a confraternity of the the Holy Cross has erected giant light displays spanning the piazza and streets around the neighborhood, very Mexican, it was put up for Easter and it lends a very festive air. 

Palermo also seems to have a lot of French tourists, the Normands ruled here with the Counts of Anjou for centuries and St-Louis is buried or parts of him are, believe his entrails, are entombed in the great Cathedral Mausoleum of Monreale. They as tourists are very funny especially if you understand the conversations. Yesterday these 3 people, a husband and wife and another female friend had a 20 minute discussion on what drinks to order. First lady wanted an espresso, husband wanted a beer, a blond beer not a dark beer and he wanted it on tap not in a bottle, his wife first wanted a freshly squeezed lemon juice, which is easy enough but then decided against it for no apparent reasons and then went on to ask for a mineral water but flat not with bubbles and went on to explain in French with that annoying and condescending tone to the waiter who only spoke Italian why she was ordering flat mineral water. She then picked a fight with the other lady because she wanted to sit in the sun next to her and not in the shade. We were then entertained at lunch by a French family, dad, mom and 3 kids, the eldest was probably around 13 or 14, the ungrateful age, the other child a boy was about 7 years old and the other girl around 5. Mom decided to look at the menu and order for the family, all the while going through her guide book for explanations on what the dishes were, she wanted to order only typical Sicilian dishes and needed her guide book to confirm what was typical, the waiter of course could not do that because he did not have the gravitas of a guide book. She then went on to order and also convince her oldest daughter that she would love the food, just trust me she said, it would not be like the food at a friend’s house they had recently which was apparently not very good. Dad only wanted to order a large bottle of red wine. Mom only wanted a glass, he insisted on a large bottle, I wonder why. Was she driving him to drink? I can just imagine her husband thinking, why did I ever decide I needed a wife and 3 kids on a vacation.

The Massimo Opera house is of course featured in the movie the Godfather 3, it’s a huge opera house built at a time when the King of Italy was still trying to convince the Sicilians what a good deal they had in joining Italy.

So no expenses were spared in building this great theatre and it is beautiful with good acoustics. We saw the Greek Passion by Czech composer Martinu, a powerful piece of music, it really does not leave you indifferent. The message of the opera and its connection to modern Greek history and the current refugee crisis in Southern Europe due to the upheaval in Arab countries is fascinating. The passion of course is the story of Christ but set in a Greek village around 1900, involving the powerful Village priest and the village people, the wealthy and a group of Greeks fleeing Turkish oppression. The set is spectacular and apparently several opera houses are looking at buying this production. Martinu died in 1959 and he composed this opera at a time when he would have been influenced by events in Europe. A great work in a beautiful opera house.

Afterwards we went to dinner and then took a stroll down the street passing in front of the Massimo and came face to face with a religious procession at 10 pm.
The traffic was snarled but no one honked their horns, this was a church procession with priests and banners and a marching band. Sicilians can be very respectful of such things and everyone knows how to behave, it was like a scene out of the 1930’s.

Sicily is a fascinating place.   

Saturday, 7 May 2011

From Rome to Sicily on the M.C. Splendid

Our ferry is owned by the Grandi Navi company of Genoa. The Splendid is far from that, it must have been 10 years ago or more a very nice ferry but today it looks tired and needs refurbishment or replacement all together, maybe this ferry is coming to the end of its life, in other words it is grotty looking, this is not ferry season yet, it is still considered low winter season. The SNAV ferry company which has much newer ferries does not operate passenger service until end of May. Grimaldi Lines is also another with higher standards.

Our ferry can carry up to 2300 cars and 25 large long haul trucks (18 wheelers). It has or had a casino, a night club, several bars, cafeteria and a dining room plus pool, gymnasium and conference rooms, cinema etc. Though most of the attractions on board are either closed or paired down to the essential. It does the liaison between Rome Civitavechia, Palermo and Tunis.
We do have a fair number of Arab passengers with tons of personal belongings.
I can recognize their Magreb accented Arabic when they speak. Most are poor labourers and their families who are guests workers in Italy, they make about 1000 euros per month or $1300 USD, an average wage. Few people realize that in Italy any salary above 1600 euros per month is considered a good wage, that’s about $1900 dollars. Compared to a North American salary that would appear low but it is not. Did you know that in Italy the Director of any large important museum housing world heritage treasures makes no more than about $2000 dollars per month.

Civitavechia is the Port of Rome, it is about 60 Km from Rome itself and is reached by exiting Rome at Vatican City where the ancient Via Aurelia now the SS1 begins. Because Friday 6 May was apparently a General Strike day, I say apparently because I did not see signs of a strike anywhere and we live right in the centre of Rome at Porta Pia near Piazza Repubblica, I decided to take the G.R.A. which is the great ring road around the city, instead of trying to cross town to get to the Aurelia. From Via Salaria, another ancient road, we slowly made our way to the G.R.A. it took us about 40 minutes a distance of about 10 Km.  Via Salaria is the old salt road built by a Roman Consul about 2700 years and is still a major artery of the City, it has not been widened and in some parts is quite narrow. The Romans built it so 2 ox carts could pass each other, modern cars are wider than an ox cart. It would be difficult to modify or widen the road because of all the ancient sites, monuments, Palaces and catacombs along the way.  Once on the G.R.A. it was a fast drive out.

We had to be at the dock ready to board at 5 p.m. it takes about 2 hours to load the ferry with cars and passengers. We left the port with a 50 minutes delay. It seems we had to follow a giant 10 story cruise ship out of port.
The Port of Rome is in fact small, but most cruise ships make a day stop with little room to move around. Cargo and container ships all use Naples to the south, merchandise comes to Rome by truck on the A-1.

Once on board we went to our cabin on the top deck, the crossing down to Sicily takes about 12 hours. We then walked around exploring the ship, as I said before it needs refurbishing. The bar by the marble pool has a few sandwiches and drinks on offer at steep prices. We had a couple of drinks watching Gerry, a well known Italian TV host on the program Who wants to be a millionaire.
We then went on deck to see the departure and then to the restaurant, which according to the sign on the wall part of the Chaine des rotisseurs, though I find that hard to believe. The food was good I had to start a dish of thinly slices eggplant topped with thinly slices zucchini and lightly covered with melted smoked scamorza cheese and diced tomatoes, it was quite good. I then had a nice steak with fries. W, had a very good quality prosciuto with melon. He had the veal and on second thought he should have had the Orata fish. Our waiter was the old style Italian waiter, you are in his dining room and he makes you feel at home. Talks to everyone, has lots to say about the food and will encourage you, as he did to take the fresh fish. He was right, he had been doing this like all waiters in this country for a long time, it’s a profession, not a job.  The other waiter was in charge of water and wine, so we ordered a bottle of white Feudi San Gregorio which is nice, light and dry. Everyone orders bottled water, not that the water from the tap is not good it’s in the culture. Italy has some of the best spring water in all of Europe. We usually order agua lisha (flat), the table next to us ordered lightly sparkling water ( a few bubbles).

I like to observe diners in a restaurant, the table next to us where too elderly gentlemen, well dressed in a casual way, they were having steak and salad with a half bottle of chianti. You can tell the class of people in Italy, there is a certain formal air about people depending in which social group they belong. The older of the two gentlemen had a canny resemblance to Prince Charles. The other table where 3 gentlemen again nicely dressed in a sporty way. They had the fresh fish, they were involved in a discussion about this and that. There was another gentlemen in his 60’s having dinner on his own, he seemed to know everyone. Very well dressed in a nice suit, maybe a lawyer doing his crosswords during dinner. He too had the fish and a salad.

The large cafeteria down the hall, had all the kids at least 100 of them, must have been a school group, 14-15 years old, a mixture of people, lots of loud German speaking tourists. A group of senior bikers, people mostly in their 50’s but not the sort of bikers you would think, this is the European version, there is a certain air about them, maybe people reliving their youth or just enjoying the motorcycle ride in a vintage 1960 sort of way. The ferry also has a dining hall for truck drivers, sort of a chow line, the food is quite good but basic. The fellows are a bit rough looking, they drive their lorries all around Italy and in this case all around major cities in Sicily. Their companies pay for them to have their own dining room and food service.

We went to bed early, the ferry is very quiet. Tomorrow morning we will be docking in Palermo.

We did dock in Palermo around 8:45 am and were off the boat by 9:45 am. I was glad to get off, I would not recommend Grandi Navi to anyone.