Having visited Italy over the years from Florence and the north to Umbria/Tuscany and Rome down to Sorrento and Capri, now it was time for southern Italy and Sicily. This region is unique in that it shows the footprints of so many ancient civilization and empires. The Cretan/Minoan peoples, the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, Carthaginians, Vandals/Ostrogoths, Arabs, Normans, Hapsburgs, Spanish and French all settled and dominated here over the last 3,000 years. They have left their mark reflected in the peoples and culture.
In Matera we would see the ancient Sassi habitations carved out of rock cliffs and occupied from prehistoric times up through the years immediately following WWII. In the small town of Alberobella we encountered dry stone dwellings without mortar first constructed by farm families in the fifteen hundreds. Finally in the Puglia area of southern Italy we would spend time in the historic city of Lecce, over two thousand years old and preserving superb Baroque architecture.
Our travels in Sicily began in Palermo and continued counter clockwise around this beautiful island. Named by its Phoenician founders, Palermo’s golden age was under Arab domination. The old city is fascinating and the Arab-Norman Cathedral of Monreale with its gold mosaics is incredible . Medieval Cefalu, situated on a steep promontory along a beautiful stretch of Sicily’s northern coast, was well worth the visit. Traveling south along the island’s west coast, Mazara del Vallo’s historic Arab Kasbah quarter and a rare Greek bronze statue of a dancing satyr reflected this historic city’s heritage.
Further south near Agregento we encountered the remains of the ancient Greek city of Akragos with its eight temples dating back to around 500BC. We moved on to the site of a Roman villa from the third and fourth centuryAD. Its incredible floor mosaics far exceeded any we have seen previously around the Mediterranean world. Ragusa with its upper and lower towns provided further examples of Baroque architecture. In Fiat 500’s we toured the hilly town of Modica with its narrow, winding streets.
We had a most enjoyable visit with a Sicilian farm family featuring ricotta cheese making and a great meal. Coming around to the east coast of Sicily our first stop was the powerful ancient Greek port of Syracuse with a boat ride around Ortygia Bay. In Catania, Sicily’s second largest city going back to the eighth century BC, we visited a WWII museum covering the Allied landing and more recent history of this island.
Further north we enjoyed Taormina, pearl of the Ionian coast. This famous historic resort town on a bluff above the sea is a stunning setting. Our trip was capped off on the last day with a visit to Linguaglossa and a donkey ride up the slope of majestic Mt. Etna.
Our Daily Activities
After our overnight flight on Alitalia Air from Miami to Rome and then on to Bari, we arrived in Bari at 3:15 pm on June 3. After a taxi ride we arrived at our Cave Hotel in Matera. We were greeted by our Southern Italy OAT guide, Flo, who welcomed us with open arms and Italian charm. Our hotel, Locanda San Martino, was literally carved out of the limestone hillside. We were immediately entranced by our room with its limestone ceiling and walls. Our one window offered us a spectacular view of the Matera homes clinging to the cliffs. A very comfortable and unique welcome to our Southern Italy adventure.
After resting and getting organized we went to meet the other 10 members participating in our pre-trip Southern Italy visit. We looked forward to getting to know these people.
At dinner we enjoyed the first of many antipasto as our first course. This antipasto consisted of fresh ricotta, barley salad, roasted tomatoes, eggplant and frittata. This wasn’t your grandmother’s antipasto. The entree was either cod or veal – we enjoyed a tender, delicious slice of veal. After dinner we walked up to the upper plaza a short walk from our hotel to enjoy the scenery and take night photos.
June 4 Today we first visited Casa Noha, a remarkable museum which traces the history of Matera. The Sassi is the ancient portion of Matera where a prehistoric troglodyte settlement was carved out of the limestone cliffs on one side of the canyon. This area was thought to be among the earliest human dwellings in Italy. Initially the persons lived in these dug out caves but eventually the caves were dug deeper into the hillside while the back was used as storage and the blocks carved out of the limestone were used to build homes in the front.The 1800’s were considered the “peasant time”. The inhabitants lived in the caves and traveled to farms to work during the day. In the 1930’s there were 14,000 inhabitants in dwellings, 4,000 in caves and 12,000 in the farming areas outside the city. Until 1915 people used cisterns to gather water. in the 1950’s concerned people began to question what would happen without chronicling the history of the area. The government chose to move all inhabitants out of the area. 80% of the population moved and the government took over all property. Everything in the town was abandoned. Part of the population was ashamed of the area while part of the population believed the area was worth saving. In 1952 old owners of buildings were allowed to come back. Most of the people were able to get their home back for free for 99 years but were required to rehabilitate the home and preserve it. Until the 1980’s this area was considered poverty stricken and the cavernous dwellings uninhabitable. Today with the aid of the Italian government the population has left the caves and moved into housing in the city itself. UNESCO has recognized Matera has an historic site and the town has become a tourist destination.
June 5 Today we were given information about Puglia, the region of Southern Italy we were visiting. The area has 6 million inhabitants. During the 8th to 5th century BC Greek sailors visited the area and planted olive trees. In the 3rd century BC Romans carried olive trees throughout Italy. During this time Italy exported olive oil and wheat to the Orient until the 3rd century AD. During the invasions following the fall of Rome this area was abandoned due to the poor governance of these conquerors. In the 9th century AD the Byzantines brought life back to the area producing beautiful tile and mosaic work until the 10th century when the Norman Vikings arrived.
We all know Italian olive oil. There are 50 varieties in Puglia. Five types are chosen for oil. Virgin olive oil must be pressed within 12 hours of picking. We spent a most enjoyable morning touring an olive oil mill. This mill has been owned by the family for 6 generations. They have 6,000 trees which are pruned every 3-4 years. Cold press olive oil is processed below 27 degrees centigrade . The oldest trees produce the most oil. We enjoyed a tasting of 5 different varieties of olive before leaving the mill.
At lunch we enjoyed another delightful antipasto consisting of fava bean puree, salami,potatoes, chicory and broccoli and roasted peppers. Pasta was then served as usual.
On our drive south to Lecce, we stopped in Alberobello famous for its unique trulli buildings. The
Trully of Alberobello have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996.The small town was first mentioned in the early sixteenth century when the first 40 families got land to farm in the area. The abundance of calcareous sedimentary material in the area lead to the building of houses with dry stone without the use of mortar.
In the afternoon we continued to Lecce, and our next hotel , Patria Palace Hotel, a lovely historic early 19th century hotel. In the evening we went to Alle de Corte Restaurant where we enjoyed pizza and beer followed by gelato in the square which was filled with families enjoying the early evening. We would enjoy many evenings such as this with two members of our group, Steve and Betsy Barrie with whom we spent many pleasant days and evenings.
June 6 Today we had our introduction to Lecce known for its baroque buildings. Lecce is commonly known as the Florence of Southern Italy because of the rich Baroque architectural monuments throughout the city. Its rich Greek culture goes back to its founding by the Messapii said to have been Cretans in Greek records. Lecce stone, the city’s main export, is a very soft and workable type of limestone.
The Basilica of Saint Croce very close to our hotel was the epitome of Baroque architecture built in 1641. It was constructed of the local stone of a honey tone from the myostene period. Because this stone is quite malleable, the facade of the Basilica is covered with many sculptures depicting both representations of the flesh and the soul or spiritual and temporal forms. The Romans first established the city and we observed the amphitheater built during the 2nd century AD which could seat 25,000 people.Early in the 20th century it was discovered when the city was digging to build a bank. Our next stop was at the Church of St. Chiara built to recognize the nun who worked with the poor and was a friend of St. Francis with the same philosophy. The interior of the church was our first introduction to the work of Papier Mache used in the ceiling of the church.
We next visited the workshop of a couple producing amazing paper mache sculptures. Venetians first taught this technique to some local barbers. One day a barber had a toy sitting outside his shop to dry when the bishop saw it and asked if the barber could make human size sculptures. He agreed and created a sculpture of Jesus which the bishop sent to the pope.That created an explosion of this craft. The couple whose workshop we visited still makes all of the paper by hand. In 105 AD paper was made in China. The process involves strips of cloth mixed with quick lime which dissolves the cloth producing cellulose. Water and glue are mixed with the cellulose . A frame is dipped into the liquid and then the frame is placed on wool and pressed down to deposit the liquid onto the wool.The frame is then removed leaving a film on the wool which is then placed in a press and left for 4-5 hours to dry.After this the paper is then hung to dry. While the husband makes the paper , the wife creates the form first over a wire frame and then draping the form to create the finished product. We were awed to watch her create the sculpture using many pieces of paper, painting each layer and finishing the piece. We have a lovely little doll from the shop.
After our visit to the paper maiche craft shop we visited the Musee Fraggiano, a museum owned by a father and son. The home was owned by the family and made into apartments. in 2,000 the current renters complained of water leakage and left the home. The father and son began digging into the foundation to find the “plumbing problem”. What they found were artifacts from the 13 century including Knights Templar artifacts. Until 1609 it had been a nunnery. It is believed that the Masabi were the first inhabitants . 16th century frescoes have been uncovered as well as 5,000 artifacts many of which have been taken by the state to be examined by archaeologists who worked along with the son and father as they excavated. The museum was opened in 2008 to the public but work goes on. These photos show a portion of the 16th century tile, an artifact and an example of the excavations which are still going on.
June 7 We chose not to go on an optional tour today but to stay in Lecce and visit more of the city. We spent our time walking to the Castle grounds and finding a large flea market as well as walking through an extensive park and enjoying a lovely espresso. Lunch was at Alle du Corti where Marilyn had roasted sausage and Warren had roasted pork while we shared a salad and a torte cream. Later in the afternoon we walked back into the square and enjoyed another espresso with Steve and Betsy. Our farewell dinner was in the evening where we all thanked Flo for the amazing experiences she shared with us.
June 8 We were up at 3:45 to leave the hotel at 4:30 and fly from Brindisi to Rome and then Rome to Palermo for the beginning of our Sicily tour. Our taxi driver from Palermo airport to our hotel was the classic Italian, speeding up one way streets the wrong way, cutting in and out of traffic, commenting frequently on other drivers and talking to us the whole way. We tried to admire the scenery on our less than an hour drive. The red poppies were nodding at us as we streaked by and the farms and fields were beautiful. Our suite at Porta Felice Hotel was amazing. We met our guide, Luca, whom we had spoken with over the phone. He was a friendly, welcoming 24 year old Sicilian, handsome and warm. We of course were anxious to enjoy a cup of coffee and he directed us to his favorite spot aways from the hotel. As we were walking and wondering if we had misunderstood the directions, Luca appeared and escorted us a bit further to Baldo’s espresso shop. Baldo was a tall, energetic but quiet coffee genius. His espresso which took a bit of time to make was amazing. After enjoying the coffee we stopped at an outside area of cafe tables where we had a delicious pasta and orange salad which we learned later is typical fare of Palermo. We returned to the hotel where we had a good rest and then gathered to meet the other 5 members of our group including Larry and Cindy, friends of Steve and Betsy.
The next morning we had a tour of Palermo with an excellent local guide, Laura. Palermo is the capital of Sicily It has been a port since 8 BC. It first was settled by the Phoenicians when it was called Panoramas or port. It grew and prospered under the Romans but its golden age was under the Arabs when it rivaled Cordoba and Cairo in beauty. In the 15th century its gate, Porta Felice, became the entrance to the city. We walked through the Piazza Marina, one of the largest parks in Palermo, The large ficus trees were imported by the Arabs in the 9th century.The park is surrounded by a cast- iron fence decorated with rabbits, bows and arrows and birds. We next walked into the center of Palermo where we visited Fontana Pretoria, called by the name The Fountain of Shame, due to the many nude statues. It was designed and built by a Tuscan sculptor, Faancesco Camilliani in 1552-54 for the garden of a Florentine villa and was later installed here in Piazza Pretoria. It is built on three concentric levels with many statues representing mythological figures,monsters, tritons ,sirens and the four rivers of Palermo.
We then visited the Cathedral which is dedicated to the patron saint of Palermo, Saint Rosalie who is reputed to be a descendant of Charlemagne and lived in a cave on Mt. Pelegrino the site of Palermo. Centuries later a man dreamed that Rosalie visited him and asked him to find her bones on Mt. Pellegrino and bring them to Palermo. The remains of the saint were found and removed from the cave in 1624 and are within the Cathedral in a separate chamber. A great procession led the gentlemen into Palermo. This cathedral was built between 1179 and 1184 but due to frequent renovations and rebuilding little of the original Norman structure remains. It is on the site of an Early Christian Basilica which was then followed by a mosque prior to this building.
We then drove to Monreale Cathedral outside of Palermo. The cathedral is said to be the epitome of achievement of Arab-Norman art. It was founded in 1172 by William II. The cathedral is famous for its interior covered with magnificent gold mosaics depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The church is dominated by the 12-13th C. mosaic of Christ. 68,000 feet of gold leaf covers these mosaics. Although there are legends concerning the building of this immense cathedral the truth appears to be that William II whose father Roger was given Sicily by the Pope gave William the right to be his representative in Sicily. The Archbishop was so angry he began building a cathedral in Palermo. Learning this, William built Monreale.
After our visit to Monreale, we returned to Palermo’s historic old city to visit a market and have lunch. We sat at long tables on the edge of the market where we were served a large variety of foods including pasta, fish, and vegetables.
After lunch we continued our walking about the old city, stopping for espresso and cake and then returning to the hotel for a rest. We then walked down to the old gate and along the water stopping for a delicious gelato at an outside cafe.
In the evening we had a very interesting presentation by two gentlemen whose fathers were members of the Cosa Nostra. They began the talk by discussing the complex history of the Cosa Nostra in Sicily. Sicily was the easiest entry to Europe from the Mediterranean. Invaders from around the Mediterranean in the early 18th and 19th century were hostile to the Sicilians . Groups were formed to protect the citizens. The feudal system pitted landowners versus the farmers. The government needed the Mafia to be a medium between the landowners and the farmers. The name Cosa Nostra means “our country” and the organization had gained control in Sicily.By 1860, Italy had named the Cosa Nostra as criminals. Our speakers, Geno and Angelo lived in Corleone, Sicily, the epicenter of the Cosa Nostra. This town was a center of agriculture in Sicily and a lucrative trade route. In the 1930’s Geno’s and Angelo’s fathers took them out of school to work with them in the Mafia. In 1943 the allies entered Corleone . Mussolini had restricted the Mafia but the allies turned to the Mafia for intelligence. Angelo’s Dad ,Bernardo Provenzano, has been described as the most famous mafia boss in Sicily involved in the killing of magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. In the 1980’s-90’s the leader, Salvatore Reino collaborated with Gotti to send heroin refined in Sicily in large tomato tins used in the pizza industry to Philadelphia. Reino was arrested in 1993 and Angelo’s Dad became the head of the Cosa Rostra. In 2006 Angelo’s Dad was arrested and the whole family became fugitives. The government now recognizes that neither Angelo nor Geno are criminals. After graduating from high school in 1997, Angelo opened a laundry where he worked until 2002 when the business was confiscated and he was blacklisted for 5 years. Both men now speak to OAT travelers about the Mafia and their fathers’ connections. This was an interesting and enlightening presentation.
June 10 On our trip to Castlebuono Luca gave us information on the educational system in Sicily. In high school students must specify an area of study such as humanities or science. This selection will affect one’s acceptance for college. For students either not choosing college or unable to go there are trade schools.
Our first stop today was at Castlebuono. This small village with a very large fortress castle was built on a hill .The town was originally called Castello del buon aere or castle of good air. We enjoyed the small town and visiting a most interesting display of life size military dressed puppets. Luca said that the hand of the puppeteer represented the hand of history also a reminder of the power of the Mafia.
After a delicious lunch of fungi (mushrooms ,vegetables and cheese), bread pudding, ragu with black pasta and for dessert Pana Cotta, we drove on to Cefalu. Cefalu has retained its medieval appearance through the centuries. It is situated between the Mediterranean Bay and the large towering granite cliff called “La Rocca.
The town surrounds the Norman cathedral built by Roger II in the 12th century. Roger was shipwrecked off the coast of Cefalu and built this enormous and impressive cathedral in thanks for his survival. The duomo has a lovely altar and mosaics. The architecture is Arab/Norman. The town itself is well protected as it is built on cliffs overlooking the harbor. We then walked to the “medieval laundry” which is a cave set within an area where the river flows through into the sea. A series of stone depressions has been constructed where women were able to wash their clothes in the water and on the rocks. Lion heads directs the flowing water into the depressed chambers.
June 11 – Today we drove to the ancient town of Erice. This medieval center has its origin in the 4th century BC by the Greeks. In 200 BC the settlement was destroyed by the Carthaginians followed by the Arabs in 831 AD and the Normans in 1567. The town is 2,470 feet above the Mediterranean. The road was a bit disturbing to some of our group since it was 8 km of hairpin curves and steep hills. The town itself is very picturesque with narrow alleys. We walked up to the castle as well as admiring the 14th century Gothic Duomo with a lovely interior of carvings of stucco and plaster – no gold here.
Following our visit to Erice we traveled on to Segestra where we visited an agriturismo overlooking the valley for a lovely lunch. Segesta is purported to have been the ancient capital of the Elymians founded by exiles from Troy. A temple with lovely Doric columns has survived from the 5th century.
We then drove on to Mazara del Vallee to our next hotel, the Visir Hotel, built in the Arabian style. Warren and I went down to the pool before dinner to join our friends. Unbeknownst to Warren a little bird had alerted some of our group that it was Warren’s birthday. When we arrived at the bar by the pool he was greeted with Happy Birthday and presented with a large bottle of Persecco. What a fun way to celebrate his 80th birthday with our new friends. Dinner was a treat. It began with an appetizer of grilled eggplant, zucchini and tomato with carbonate. The entree was pork with a marsala wine garnish and potato. Dessert was a delicious panna cotta.The red wine served with the meal was a delicious Nero d”Avola.
June 12 At the beginning of the 2nd century AD the Arabs divided Sicily into three regions or valleys. The Northeast was controlled by the Normans, the West by the Arabs and the Southeast by the Greeks. Mazurka del Valle became prosperous under the Arabs which they named as the capital of their region. Mazara is one of the most important fishing harbors in Italy. 2,000 fisherman live here. Until the 9th century the Arabs controlled this area; in 1092 it became Norman after the conquest by Roger I. We first visited the Museo del Satiro Danzante. This museum houses the Dancing Satyr a lovely statue of the late Hellenistic period. How this statue was discovered is quite a story. Fishermen had been bringing various Greek treasures up in the nets for sometime. In 1998 about 60 miles from Mazara a fisherman pulled up this unique bronze statue in his net. It took 2 1/2 years of examination of other bronze satyrs to determine the satyr was 2,000 years old.
We then met Mustafa a 65 year old Tunisian gentleman who had come to Mazara in 1974 when he was 24. He left Tunisia to find work in this community which is the largest fishing village in Europe. His wife is Tunisian and works with the Franciscans to teach the Arabic language. His 34 year old daughter is studying at the University, his 24 year old son has a few problems and his younger son is studying in Germany. When he first arrived there were many jobs for fishermen however he needed Italian citizenship. After 6 years he had a job, and house. Now the same benefits are available for everyone. Tunisia is 10 hours away by boat. The community of fishermen is a low-middle class group whose children face prejudice at school, He walked us around Mazara’s historic Kasbah quarter where approximately 3000 Tunisians and other Maghreb Arabs live and work. There are 5 gates to enter the Kasbah with narrow alleyways which were built as a defense against the Spanish Inquisition. We walked by the mosque and Mustafa told us the Kasbah is the largest muslim community in Italy. 64% of the immigrants arrive here in Mazara.
In the evening we had a cooking lesson at a restaurant which was an hysterical event. We entered the restaurant and met Pablo, the owner and peripatetic instructor for our lesson. We were divided up into groups to make our meal. Warren, Ceci and Marilyn were assigned to make the dessert which would be a parfait. After we donned our aprons and chef’s hats we were given our instructions. Salad, pasta and sauce were the other teams assignments. It was great fun and at the end of the meal our parfaits were voted the best. A super evening for all.
June 13 Today Luca provided us with information on Sicily’s citizens. In Sicily, healthcare is free. Persons working in the public earn from $700-$800 per month. A pension for a public worker is $800, a private worker $400-500. The retirement age is now 65. Costs for education are $50 per year for elementary and $80 per year for high school; college depends upon the family income. A middle class family of 4 would pay $400 – $1,000 for rent with the average income being $2-3,000. Unemployment for the 18-35 year olds is 40%; the general population is 18-20%. 10% of Sicilians emigrate to Northern Italy.
We arrived at the salt ponds near Mazara where from July to September the salt is harvested by hand. We observed the ponds where the salt water is allowed to evaporate. We visited the salt museum where we were told how the salt is collected. The ponds are connected to each other. The first is the cold pond connected directly to the sea; sluices allow the cold water to then pass to the “farming ponds” and then to the warm ponds where the temperature is increased to release minerals from the water; finally the ponds called crystallizers where the precipitates sink to the bottom. A master salter determines the salinity of the water. A crust forms on the water which is rich in magnesium and potassium. This crust is called “the flower” and is considered the best salt since the crystals are strong. Salt workers crush the crust and harvest the salt. In the winter the ponds are covered with tiles to protect them. There are 6 windmills where the crust was originally ground; now the crust is ground in a factory where the salt is ground to fine, medium and coarse grind.
We then took small boats to the island of Mothya. In the 12th century BC the Phoenicians settled here and built an important trading center. In the 8th century BC the Phoenicians escaped from the Greeks on the island to Sicily. The island was abandoned for centuries. In 1906, an archaeologist named Whitaker came to the island to explore the ruins.In the museum we were able to see 2 Phoenician figures, a terra-cotta woman from 490 BC, gravesite markers from the 6th C. BC, a greek vase from 4BC and a face from 5BC, heads from the 5th C. a statue called ‘youth of Motya” from 5 BC and more heads from 510-500 BC.
After a sumptuous “picnic lunch” under the trees we walked to the ruins of the island and watched archaeologists and students continuing to sift through the soil for further remains.
Once we had walked about the island we took the boat back to the mainland and visited the Cantino Pellegrino , a family winery from 1880 which produces a variety of wines from the grillo (white) grape. We tasted 3 types of Marsala wine. The first, called the virgin or pure Marsala wine was dry and intense; the second called amber, is fortified with brandy and the third, our favorite, was dolce(sweet) and recommended to be enjoyed with chocolate. Taking their recommendation we enjoyed a bottle with chocolate the next night with Larry and Cindy and Betsy and Steve.While at the winery we saw a collection of Sicilian wine carts from the 17th C.
June 14 Today we traveled to Argento which was settled in 581BC by colonists from Gela, a Greek colony on the coast. The many temples here in the Valle dei Templi were used to defend the area as well as places of worship. Our guide through this 1300 hectares was Karamina. She walked with us to the Temple of Hero where the colors red representing fire, blue representing the sky, and yellow representing the sun were painted around the top. Karamina told us the origin of the term “tie the knot”: when a man came to the temple to be married he put a belt around the bride and “tied the knot”. At the Temple of Heracles, the oldest temple of 2,000 years we saw the eight original columns which had been put back in place in 1924 where the Romans worshipped the hero Heracles (Greek) and Hercules (Roman). We spent quite awhile touring the many temples some intact and some simple ruins. We also observed an olive tree which was 700-800 years old. The goats who were roaming around the area are unique, originally from Afghanistan, a breed which is 1,000 years old. In 2005 a marble statue was found among the ruins which is assumed to be from the 1st century AD. This statue with an intact hand, a ring on a finger and clothing is believed to be someone important in the time.
We visited a delightful family for a delicious lunch and admired the collection of Sicilian carts of the late 19th C. for which the grandfather received an UNESCO award. He did all the carving and construction of the carts. The paintings were done by another craftsman. Paintings on Sicilian carts were used to educate using either biblical or historical events.
In the early evening we arrived at our agriturismo deep in the Sicilian hinterlands in Piazza Armerina.An agriturismo is a traditional farm house certified by the Italian government for lodging. This amazing spot was originally owned by the family of a Baron in the 18th C. and certainly did not look like a traditional farmhouse with numerous lodgings scattered around a beautiful courtyard and nestled against a hill. The restaurant was a Michelin 2 star restaurant and our evening meal was both delicious and artistically presented. The dining room was filled with persons who had driven to the site for dinner.
June 15 This morning we drove by acres of prickly pear farms . 80% of all prickly pear production occurs here. Luca continued to provide us with information on Sicily. 25% of all energy in Sicily is either solar or wind. There are 49 UNESCO sites in Italy and 9 are in Sicily. Today we will visit one of these sites – Villa Romana del Casale built between 3rd and 4th century AD. It was selected by UNESCO in 1997 as a world heritage site. In the 12th C. a flood buried the Villa thereby preserving this archaeological treasure.The Villa was first discovered at the end of the 19th century but it was the 1950-60 excavations that resulted in the major discoveries.The 36,000 square feet of mosaics have been called “the most exceptional Roman mosaics in the world.”
This was an amazing experience. The villa was frequented by Roman guests and the various rooms are areas such as the frigidarium ( cold bath room) where the mosaics reflect mythical sea creatures; the hall of the female gymnasts in bikinis and the 400 foot long corridor containing mosaics depicting wild game hunting and animals being loaded on ships after capture. It is believed that N. African artisans created the excellent mosaics. We spent the morning exploring the many rooms in the villa and marveling over the condition of the mosaics.
After this tour we continued on our trip to the next city, Ragusa. On the way Luca give us information on the role of women in Sicily; 37% of mothers work. 67% of women in northern Italy work. Some men influenced by the Catholic Church believe women should be in the home and raise the children. Luca’s Mom works . Women earn 16% less than what men earn for the same work. 1 in 4 women leave work after their first child. Women are offered a maternity leave of 2 months before and 3 months after the birth.A woman is given 600 euros for 1 year if she leaves work. 51% of grandparents care for the children. Public nurseries provide care without charge except for lunch.
We continued our ride through the countryside observing the yellow brown hills and fields of prickly pear. We had lunch in Chiaramonte.This town was settled in 230 BC. In 1693 an earthquake devastated the town. Our lunch was another treat – an aperitif of salami, cheese with honey, and pork jelly followed by ravioli and risotto. While in this town, Luca began talking to a gentleman , Giovanni, who had worked at the brick factory in town since 2007. The brick factory is now closed and he is has been out of work for 3 years. He receives 800 euros per month from the state.
We arrived in Ragusa and drove to the upper town where we walked to our hotel, Villa De Stefano, a former palace. Another beautiful spot. After espresso and an orientation walk around the area we had a light dinner and some gelato.
June 16 Ragusa, a World Heritage Site, is divided into two communities Ibla Ragusa or the lower town was our destination for the morning. Baroque Ragusa is the higher new town built after the city was devastated by an earthquake in 1693.
The area is noted for its agriculture, in particular wheat, wine and cattle. The cattle are known for their milk and cheese. Local cows give 15 liters of excellent quality milk. This area has a strong economy. It is 500 meters above sea level. The economy was originally in the hands of nobles. In 1693 after the earthquake the noble families stayed in Ibla. After the earthquake homes were built low and connected to one another to provide a stronger foundation. The Duomo , Church of St. George, was built in 1738-75. This church was built on a hill at the top of a stairway which begins in the center of Ibla. It is an impressive cathedral. St. George is the patron saint of Ibla. He was a Roman soldier who became Christian and was beheaded by Roman soldiers. St. George’s. legend is that St. George with the King’s daughter killed the dragon (representative of the pagans). The Normans adopted the symbol of George dressed as a medieval knight – in this version the dragon symbolized Muslims.St. George is no longer considered a saint in the Vatican records because he killed.
We stopped at a small deli for lunch. This typical Italian deli displayed numerous types of cheeses and salami. One chose the cheese and salami and the sandwich was made as one waited. After some consultation with the owner we chose the ragusano cheese and salami on a long roll.Wow, a delicious lunch.
One of our friends from Colorado, Ceci, joined us for lunch and then for gelato for dessert. Marilyn had Moscata strawberry and Warren had Torrone chocolate pepper.
In the afternoon we had a real treat. Luca invited those who wanted to join him to visit the home of an older man, a musical friend of Luca’s, . This humble home in a small cul-de-sac off the square was a 15th century building that appeared very innocuous from the outside. When we stepped inside it was as if we had stepped into an amazing museum of paintings, sculpture and fine antiques.
After admiring his many treasures, we were treated to a lovely piano recital from this classical pianist Sr. Apiano who had performed at the Palermo Opera House.
Our next adventure of the day was truly a thrilling experience. We drove to Modica , another World Heritage town, perched on rocky spurs between two rivers. This ancient town was a most important area during medieval and Renaissance Sicily. When we arrived in Modica we were separated in 5 groups and met our drivers who would be touring us in the Modica Fiat 500 Club. These small cars sped around corners, up and down steep hills and generally gave us a ride of a lifetime through the narrow alleyways of the upper town.
After our rides we were driven to a chocolate factory where we watched this factory’s unique chocolate being prepared. The best treat was a tasting of a large selection of their chocolates.
June 17 Today was a great “day in the life” of a Sicilian farm family.We drove to the village of Castelluccio where we visited a dairy farmer and his family. The parents names were Touri and Concetta. They invited us all into a large room where we enjoyed delicious espresso and cookies and learned a bit about the family. Touri was 69 and married to Concetta for 41 years. They had 4 children and 7 grandchildren. Concetta was 15 when Touri, then 26, saw her and after 4 attempts finally got her to become engaged to him. They were married a year later. During their courtship Touri could visit 3 times per week. 9 months and 1 day after their marriage their first baby was born. After this engaging conversation we were invited to join their son to watch ricotta being made. The milk is mixed with water and enzymes to speed the process. The whey is scooped off the liquid. Hot water is added and stirred until smooth. The mixture then separates into light ricotta and solid tomasi. The ricotta is scooped into a pot and cooked while the tomasi is blended with herbs and seasoning and placed in slotted containers to squeeze the water out. The tomasi is then dipped into hot water to form a crust and salted.
We then proceeded to assist Concetta in making bread. Some of us kneaded the dough with a long wooden handle with a paddle at the end. We then had a tour of the farm visiting the chickens, rabbits, pigs and puppies. We also visited the diary cows where Warren was able to milk one of the cows.We stopped in a grove where we enjoyed persicco and and cheese. Then back to the farmhouse where we had a great lunch of barbecued chicken, fresh ricotta, homegrown salami and sausages from the pigs , lovely red wine from their vineyard and fresh apricots and lemon jelly with espresso.
June 18 After breakfast we departed for Syracuse. We rode through acres of agriculture which included many covered greenhouses growing cherry tomatoes, carrots and zucchini as well as acres of citrus trees.when we arrived in Syracuse we met our guide Valeria and drove over the Santa Lucia bridge to visit Ortygia island separating the city’s two harbors. It was developed in 734 by the Greeks. The Ionian Sea separates Greece from Syracuse. We first visited the ruins of the Temple of Apollo built in the first half of the 6th century BC. It had 17 Doric columns and 6 sides. It was used as a Basilica by the Byzantines, a Mosque by the Arabs and then again as a Basilica by the Normans. We visited the Duomo ( Temple of Minerva) built in 1728-53 which incorporates an ancient Temple of Minerva . We were able to see the ancient structure by walking around the northern side where we observed a series of columns form the temple.We viewed the Fonte Arethusa spring which still gushes just as it did in Greek times. The legend is that Arethusa was a nymph who was changed into a spring by the goddess Artemis. After lunch we took a boat ride that circled the island and gave us a good opportunity to observe the many beautiful buildings.
We left Syracuse for our next stop in Catania. Our hotel, Una Palace Catania, was another 17th century palace. Dinner this evening was a real treat. Betsy had found a fish restaurant, D’Antonio, in her guide book which sounded great. We were able to determine the route and set off to walk through the large plaza of Catania and on through winding streets until we finally arrived at the restaurant. The guide book had said no reservations so we were surprised when the maitre d shook his head when Steve and Warren approached him for a table. We explained that we had found this restaurant in a guide book and had walked a long distance to find them. After consultation they agreed we could eat inside but must eat “quickly”. Our waiter was a delightful older gentleman who helped us select our dinner. For appetizer we all enjoyed delicious ripe cantaloupe with prosciutto. Marilyn’s entree was clams and shrimp in a pumpkin sauce and Warren’s was clams with spaghetti. We had delicious wine and enjoyed our elegant meal. As we were finishing we heard fireworks and went outside to see quite a display over the nearby fort. After leaving the area we spent quite a while walking back and taking night photos, one of
Warren’s favorite photography activities.
June 19 Today we toured Catania. In 1693 an earthquake destroyed the city. The city was named by the Greek settlers . It is Sicily’s second city and a World Heritage site. Located between the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna it has a close relationship with the volcano and has used its black lava for many of its building.Catania was bombed 87 times during WWII until 6th of July 1943 when bombing proceeded the allied invasion.
After the 1693 earthquake, Catania was rebuilt using black lava. We first visited the cathedral dedicated to Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania. Vincenzo Bellini is buried in the chapel. In the center of the plaza is the Fontana dell’Elefante, a well known fountain . On a pedestal in the basin is an elephant made of black lava,on the elephant’s back is an Egyptian obelisk with a globe on the top. This has become the symbol of Catania.
At lunch we joined Luca and had a polpetteria, a dish featuring meatballs with black pork sausage- delicious. We then drove to one of the most beautiful villages we had visited on our trip- Taormina. – overlooking the azure blue Bay of Mazzano from a high cliff with small narrow streets and homes covered with flowering balconies.
We also climbed to the Greek Roman Theatre where we observed the ruins of the theatre where the town still has performances on the stage from both American and Italian performers. Susan Sarandon appeared there last year. This theatre housed 5,000 persons in Greek time and 10,000 in Roman days. Only Roman citizens were allowed entrance after the 4th century AD. The theatre was destroyed as people came to gather stones and columns for subsequent construction. In the 17th century it was an area for grazing cattle. Now the theater is used for film festivals. In 2001 Jose Carreras performed in the theatre with its excellent acoustics.
We had a superb dinner at Antica Sicilia consisting of mussels, veal scallopini and red wine.
June 20 Today we drove to Linguaglossa the largest village on the northeastern slope of Mt. Etna. The streets of the village are paved with black lava .We met Santino who had lived in the village for many years and ran a small almond pastry shop with his wife. We first visited his shop and admired the life-like marzipan on display as well as tasting the delicious almond pastry. We also admire the many lovely frescoes painted on the walls of this village.
Almond trees grow well in lava soil which makes the fruit very sweet according to Santino. Lava soil is full of minerals. The main product of the area has been red wine since Greek times. The Romans improved the grapes and Sicily was finally recognized as producing a good red wine.
We had a lovely drive from Linguaglossa up the mountain past heavily forested land. We drove past the lava flow of 2002 which destroyed 3 hotels, 3 restaurants, a church and a ski area. The flow was 8 km long by 300 meters wide. We stopped and met Serafina, Santino’s son, who introduced us to the donkeys we would be riding into the lava flow. At this point the lava is 43 meters deep. In 2002 7 craters opened in the mountain. We had a great time greeting the donkeys and becoming friends with the two young donkeys “in training”.
This was our last day of our tour and what a way to end. We returned to the village and had lunch with Santino’s home with his wife.The meal began with a lovely garbanzo soup and then proceeded to a feast of green salad, bruschetta, sausage, meatballs and homemade wine, ending with fresh peaches.The special treat was a song fest with Santino’s wife singing and Santino accompanying her on the table “drum”. What a great family.
Before our farewell dinner we went to the rooftop terrace of the hotel to have espresso and one last look at Mt. Etna. She certainly gave us a great parting gift. Our farewell dinner as always was festive and sad since we would be leaving our amazing tour manager Luca and the many friends we had made during the trip. Our meal consisted of goat cheese salad, roast beef slices and tiramisu for dessert. We were in bed at 9:30 for our early morning flight.
June 21 today we were transported in a Mercedes limo to the airport at 5:15 am for an easy flight to Rome and time for an espresso in Rome before our non-stop flight to Miami and our overnight at the hotel before driving back to Port St. Lucie. Another unforgettable experience.