Sunday, October 22, 2017

Food. What Else?

There isn't much that people care more about than food. It helps define them and is filled with significance, for family and the memories of childhood and of good times with friends. To an outsider, of course, people's attachment to a particular food can seem puzzling. We stopped by a grocer and butcher on the way to Etna to pick up some outstanding sandwiches. While we were waiting, the butcher insisted on sharing one of his (and the region's) specialities.
Outside on the sidewalk, a fire continuously simmered the pork for frittole (pronounced like the snack food brand).
To us, it would best be described as a pork fat sandwich.
Or, a great moment with our guide Davide and a welcoming butcher. In fact, throughout Sicily, we found people to be - with few exceptions - very open and warm. It was not unusual for someone to go out of his or her way to be helpful and friendly.
A note on street food: Yes, glorious street food. That's what frittole is and Sicily has plenty of it. Some other ones we tried were arancina (filled and fried rice balls), panelle (chickpea fritters), crocché (potato croquets) and gelato con brioche (see below). We didn't try the spleen sandwiches, thanks just the same!
One of our most memorable meals was in Selinunte, at a place called Boomerang (for some obscure reason).
Sorry for the half-eaten plate. We decided a little late to document the meal.
It's a place with a fixed menu. Everyone gets the same thing, whatever the owner brought in that day on his fishing boat
The fish just kept coming, with a quick identification.
All of it was perfectly prepared and delicious,
As were the very good cannoli that topped it off. [Our all time favorite cannoli (after substantial sampling across Sicily) remain the ones from Cipolli Cannoli in Collingswood, NJ, where the cannoli kits are created fresh before your eyes in their tiny operation.]
Of course, cannoli aren't the only canonical sweet treat in Sicily. The thing to eat in Palermo is gelato on a brioche. But, gelato all over Sicily is hard to beat, and we seldom resisted.
The gelato in Valletta on Malta (spoiler alert) may be more artistically refined, but the quality in Sicily is unsurpassed.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Etna, Alcantara, & the Vendicari Nature Reserve

Mount Etna in some senses helps to define Sicily. It dominates the landscape over a vast terrain. It doesn't have that iconic volcano profile like Mount Fuji, but has currently six active volcanic craters within it and a range of other craters and vents over a substantial area.
It has frequent eruptions and flows of lava, although they are much slower moving than some other volcanos so that it is a less dangerous volcano than many. Here is an area of lava flow from 2002. The depth of the lava at this point is about 10 to 15 meters. What looks like snow stakes are, in fact, snow stakes. There is a ski resort nearby. It was destroyed by the lava flow and has been rebuilt.
As can be seen in the middle distance, lava will flow around higher terrain, leaving swaths of untouched land. Of course, the edges of the untouched land are scorched by the tremendous heat causing vegetation to die off.
There are different kinds of tubes within lava. Here's one that was formed by a tree trunk.
Two older, dormant craters are in the distance.
The "ash" put out by a volcano consists of various sizes, weights and densities of material, ranging from dust to "lava bombs" (near right) that make quite a dent when they land.
As we descended to a lower altitude, the vegetation changed from pines to birch and broom (the Italian term meaning "rock breaker"). The birch is a species unique to the Etna area. It was nice to have a former Park Ranger as our guide for a better understanding of what we were seeing.
Donning helmets to explore a lava tube turned out to be a good idea.
The tubes were formed when a hotter stream of lava flowed through lava starting to cool.
The particular tube we explored was used to store snow over the summer and the steps were carved into the lava to make this easier in the 1770s.
Not far from Etna is a river gorge famous for rafting. Our guide had found a remote spot that offered a quiet way to enjoy the Alcantara Gorge.
The bored hole appears to be a post hole for a bridge from Ottoman times.
In winter, the gorge is full to the brim with its swift flowing river. If the day was any warmer, we would have stopped to go in the water.
Back in Taormina, taking the cable car down to the beach, Ken took advantage of the Mediterranean.
With a farewell to Taormina, we headed down the coast
To Vendicari Nature Preserve
For a walk
A chance to admire herons and flamingos and some spoonbills scurrying through the water chasing their lunch
And our own downtime on the beach.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Greek and Roman Worlds (and More) in Sicily

Greek civilization was a culture, not a geography, and Sicily was where much of that culture was found, although the Greeks typically displaced non-Greek people who were already there. Today, there is a lot to see that has been unearthed from those times and from when Sicily was the granary of the Roman Empire, as well as a tremendous wealth of architecture from medieval times.
SEGESTA
Here's an amphitheater in Segesta, originally a city founded by the non-Greek Elymian people but taken over by Greeks. We enjoyed the impromptu serenade by a group of school children.
And, the temple was just down the hill, actually really far down the hill. We gave ourselves the luxury of taking the shuttle bus up the hill and then down again. (This photo was taken with our biggest telephoto lens.)
Yes, indeed, those ancient Mediterranean civilizations tended to build in the most inaccessible locations. They were generally well out of harms way on the top of mountains so as to defend from attack. Those were tough times! Fortunately, we can now take things like cable cars to make the climb less arduous. This one goes from the resort town of Trapani up to the town of Erice. The watery fields by the sea are for processing sea salt.
ERICE
One amazing place after another.
This Norman Castle was built on the location of the Temple of Venus reputedly founded by Aeneas and where animals simply walked up to be sacrificed. (That last one may be a stretch.)
This 3rd to 4th century BC wall at the Temple of Venus site is said by tradition to have been built by Dedalus, the builder of the labyrinth on Crete to contain the Minotaur. We're not sure how to fact check that one either.
Founded by the Elymians, then settled by the Phoenicians and then the Greeks, Erice is now mostly a Medieval town. It also has a little pastry shop the B&B owner from Palermo sent us to where they make a Genovese filled with creme fraisch after a recipe from the nuns and only sold there. It was worth the search. Delicious.
SELINUNTE
This is the largest archeological site in Europe. Selinunte was a Greek colony founded in the late 7th century BC according to Thucydides.
What's remarkable are the piles upon piles - vast areas - of what looks like rubble and is what has been unearthed in recent centuries, only for archeologists to work out what it was and to reassemble portions of it for us to admire and wonder at the scope and scale of the structures that once stood on the landscape and formed cities for these peoples to live in.
Selinunte had been a relatively large city of about 30,000 free people, plus slaves. There were five temples centered on an Acropolis.
They were in constant conflict with the Elymians of Segesta until Selinunte was sacked by Carthage in the 4th century BC when they didn't choose sides wisely.
And, never regained their stature or strength.
 
AGRIGENTO
Agrigento was another large Greek city of around 100,000 to 200,000 people founded in 580 BC that tried to stay out of the conflict between Athens and Syracuse. However, they didn't avoid sack by Carthage in 406 BC or getting the worst of it when Carthage and Rome went at it in the First Punic War when Rome enslaved all the inhabitants around 260 BC. (Then, back to Carthage, then Rome, until their citizens were given Roman citizenship after the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Phew, too much history!)
The reassembled temples were truly monumental.
And, again, the piles of rubble spoke to the archeological work still to be done.
Meanwhile, in the Archeological Museum in Agrigento there is an impressive collection of artifact with ample English language signage. Here's a 7th Century BC ceramic piece notable for both for being in a style established on Rhodes and for the central motif. It's the triquetra or triskeles, a symbol evoking Sicily because the island is essentially triangular in shape with three substantial capes.
A few segments of one of these enormous human figures is laying on the ground at the archeological park, difficult to decipher in the field.
With an imposing head.
All of which becomes a lot clearer when you see the model helpfully provided by the museum.
 
PIAZZA ARMERINA
Fast forward to the Middle Ages. 11th Century. There are a lot of medieval towns in Sicily, most of them with a certain charm, after you navigate impossible roads and wait for the sheep to be safely crossed by the very alert and attentive sheepdogs. This little cathedral was the reward as seen from the balcony to our room on the cathedral square.
Down here someplace was the restaurant people liked on TripAdvisor.
A terrific place for an overnight and an early start the next day.
 
VILLA ROMANA DEL CASALE
 
Nothing quite prepares you for the Villa Romana del Casale. Thanks to a mudslide long ago, the villa of a very important Roman figure has been remarkably well preserved. It's what Vesuvius did for Pompeii, but Pompeii was a city with ordinary people and a few wealthy ones. The villa exudes power and position. We don't know who owned it, but this appears to be the reception room where he received people when exercising that power.
The courtyard is imposing.
But, it's the mosaics,
The mosaics on every theme
Decorating every room that most impress.
This one of women athletes being rewarded for their prowess is very unique and popular.
The subject matters go on and on.
Even the utilitarian servant's areas are decorated, although "only" in beautiful geometric patterns.
In large rooms and small.
Then there is what is beneath. Here are the works for the heated baths.
And, finally, a nicely decorated lavatory for the master's family.
 
SYRACUSE
Cicero referred to Syracuse as the greatest and most beautiful of the Greek cities. It was certainly one of the most powerful cities of the Mediterranean world, along with Athens and Carthage, and was the equal of Athens in size. It was the home of Archimedes.
Its amphitheater was not built into a hillside, but carved, and would allow 16,000 people to enjoy performances. It's where Aeschylus sat to enjoy the last of his plays.
Dionysius kept prisoners here in a cave now known as the "Dionysius Nose" where he could eavesdrop on their conversations through a small opening at the top.
When the Romans took over, they constructed an arena for their entertainment.
When Christians came to power and wanted a cathedral, it was natural to simply take over a temple and remodel it to current standards. (Notice the columns)
Inside.
And out. Actually, having visited countless cathedrals over the years, the Syracuse cathedral is now our favorite for its intimacy, beauty and human warmth. We respected the "no photos" admonition in the most beautiful side chapel. Notice the Virgin Mary in the center looking over the plaza, placed where Athena stood when it was her temple. We also enjoyed the atmosphere of the old part of the city and the wonderful gelato just across from the cathedral.
 
TAORMINA
 
The entrance to our hotel in Taormina gives some idea of where the town is situated - the town, that is. Of course, our hotel was also a challenge. We asked the hotel staff to drive the car back up the ramp when we departed.
At least we didn't have a big climb to get to the ruins. Not only is the Taormina amphitheater the second largest in Sicily (after Syracuse), performances still take place there. You may remember that they recently hosted the G7, although that must have been a logistical and transportation nightmare.
It is, however, a beautiful view.
And a charming, although really expensive, town.

With a rather quirky cathedral square.