Hi Everybody! We are back from Sicily, saturated with sunshine and ruins, olive oil and pasta. What a wonderful island it is. Here are some of the highlights.
Our first stop was Agrigento, on the western coast, where we stayed in a lovely resort hotel, very near to the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). Agrigento was founded in 581 BC by Greek colonists from Gela (a bit farther south), who named it Akragas. The town was described as "the fairest city inhabited by mortals" by the Greek poet Pindar. They built temples in the valley between the mountain town and the sea (the Tunisian Sea), and dedicated them to Zeus, Herakles, Concord and Hera. We were directed to the Valley of the Temples by our friend and former neighbor Chuck Carder, and enjoyed our visit very much. Excellent audio guides helped us figure it all out. See our photo album entitled Agrigento for some pictures of this beautiful spot, as well as our wonderful hotel where we had our own private terrace.
Our next stop was the Villa del Casale, near Piazza Amerina in south central Sicily. This villa was built as a hunting lodge for the ruling partner of Emporer Diocletian, and is a treasure of 5th century mosaics. The villa is huge--there are baths (a frigidarium, a tepidarium, and a caledaria), latrines, a basilica, a triclinium (dining room with 3 apses) and many private rooms, all opening into a giant peristyle. We checked out the "Bikini Girls" mosaic (Elise had studied it in her Greek and Roman art class) and found it intriguing, but were most impressed with the "Great Hunt Ambulatory", a 60 meter long colonnaded gallery which connects the Imperial family's private apartments at the sides of the great basilica to the basilica itself. The mosaics here portray various hunting scenes which take place in the furthermost provinces of the Roman Empire, and show the animals being transported all the way to Rome to be used for games in the Circus Maximus. See our album "The Villa Romana del Casale" for pictures of this incredible place, which was actually saved by MUD!
In the same album are pictures from the Archeological Museum in Aidone, which displays items from Morgantina, an archeological site where our "World Art" teacher, Steve Gavel, spends time digging from time to time. We can now undertand why he is not too happy with the current practice of returning archeological treasures to the cities from which they came. We were the ONLY people in this very hard to find (an very hard to get to as well!) museum as well as the only people at the site, and thus the only people to enjoy the treasures recently returned from the Getty ($18,000,000 later!) and the Metropolitan Museums.
From there, we wanted to head towards Catania, to pick up the road to Siracusa, our next stop. Confused by conflicting signs, we stopped at a gas station for directions. "You can get to Catania 2 ways: to the left by autostrada, to the right by regular road". We chose the autostrada route, but found that the signs for it were the same as for the regular road. After about 10 minutes of back and forth, we finally returned to the gas station where we got the directions, waved at the man who had sold us gas and given us the directions, and took the way we had chosen not to take in the beginning. Eventually, after a LONG drive through bare and rocky mountains (no villages at all!), we arrived below Catania, and found the autostrada for Siracusa.
Driving in Sicily is incredibly challenging! The roads are not well maintained and the signs are misleading, badly placed (sometimes the sign is only visible from one direction and if you're not going that way, you miss it), and very small. And then there are Sicilian drivers, especially the motos....Even on the autostrada, you take your life in your hands. Thank goodness Les is such a good driver!
The other really challenging thing is finding your hotel! In Agrigento, for our first two nights, we got lucky asking a police blockade. The only woman policeman spoke French, thank goodness, and knew where our hotel was, and even drew us a map. We were about 10 miles away from it, and would never have found it without her. In Siracusa, we asked 5 different people for directions, all of them extremely pleasant, but vague, nonetheless. We did have mapquest directions, but who knows which roundabout is the first one, especially with all the roads dug up? And the street names are not easy to find. We kept finding ourselves looking at the dashboard for our GPS system (we have it on our French car) that did NOT exist. We hadn't realized how dependent we'd become on modern technology.
Siracusa is a large city located on the southeastern coast, that was extremely important as a Greek and Roman metropolis and a busy port in the ancient world. From Frommers: "Of all the Greek cities of antiquity that flourished in Sicily, Sryacuse was the most important, a formidable competitor of Athens, and in its heyday, it dared take on Carthage and even Rome." We stayed on lovely old Ortigia (Ortygia), a small island that connects Siracusa's 2 harbors. We visited the Museo Archeologico and the Parco Archelogico, and you can see what we saw by looking at our pictures labeled "Siracusa".
Our last hotel was easier to find. We went north again up to Taormino, an incredibly beautiful ressort town with the sea on one side and Mt. Etna on the other. Supposedly, it's Sicily's answer to Monte Carlo and D.H.Lawrence was inspired to write "Lady Chatterly's Lover" here. We drove up, up, and up, and even farther up and finally, all the way at the top, we found our little hotel, where once you walk in you walk DOWN to your room. Beautiful views, lots of tourists, charming town. While walking through the town's main shopping street (along with about 3,000 other people), we found a lovely restaurant that had a great view, and what looked like a great menu, so we made reservations for a nice table overlooking the sea. When we got there, we were amazed at how many people were already there at 8:30, and the number of people speaking English. We decided that it must be in a guide book, and sure enough, it is! La Cisterno del Moro (the Well of the Moor) is right there in Frommers! Definitely, it's a great place--can't beat the food, the view, the atmosphere. Check out our Taormino picture album to see why we loved it so much. We also saw 2 Sicilian weddings that day. Lots of shiny suits and sunglasses, and slicked back hair.
Our final touring day was a bit easier on us! We took a bus tour to Mt. Etna, the huge volcano that dominates the island of Sicily. This volcano, the highest and and largest active in Europe, just keeps on growing, erupting frequently. As we climbed up and up the road to the plateau at the top, we saw rivers of lava, and the guide pointed out from which eruption it had come. The latest we saw was 2002. Whole towns and whole forests get destroyed, and life goes on, for people and for trees. New forests grow out of the highly organic lava. We had a lovely lunch (you just cannot beat home made sausage and maraconi!), and took a walk through a lava forest before returning to our last night night in Sicily.
The food is absolutely fabulous! The people are warm and friendly, if they're not in a car! We saw signs of austerity everywhere--no paper/soap in many restrooms, abandoned road projects, empty flower pots, etc. But we also saw incredible views of the sea, the mountains, the little crooked streets, and very happy people enjoying a Sicilian summer, be they real Sicilians or tourists from other places.
Coming home, we had another parking lot experience at the Barcelona airport. Elise had mistakenly thrown away the parking ticket, but the lovely parking lot attendant was able to pull up a picture of our car with a date of entry, so we got out without a penalty. And no lectures about lost tickets, either!
So now, we're back! We're half-way through our stay here in France, and are ready to sit back and enjoy the view from our own terrace. We hope your summer is going well, wherever you are!
Elise & Les