Southwest Italy and Sicily (November 2006)


Destination: Italy, south of Rome. We understand that a stronger, more genuine dose of Italy is to be found here. We decide to avoid the hot summer days and the throng of tourists by delaying our trip from summer to late fall. We are to arrive in Rome on the morning of November 18th.

 But as we pass through airports on our way to Rome, every newspaper, TV show, and magazine has screaming, media-frenzy, headline CNN news. World-wide mega-movie star Tom Cruise to marry Kate Holmes.

 On the day of their wedding, they are staying in a hotel.

 On November 18th.

 In Rome.

 A few blocks from our bed and breakfast.


 We press on. Celebrity craze be damned. A brief tour of Rome, as Maureen has not visited this great city before. We opt for a guided tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum, because it puts us at the head of the long tourist line. The decision is a good one, as we learn quite a bit from our guide.

 If only our guide was with us as we walked the streets of Rome, as many of them are unnamed, which makes life perplexing and adds to walking mileage due to getting lost in search of destinations.

 Late on our first day in Rome, we are relieved to have somehow avoided the "TomKat" wedding spectacle. But as we walk from the Forum back to our bed and breakfast (the Daphne, which is affordable, with very nice rooms, nice staff, and in the heart of historic Rome), we come upon a large group of gawkers. Sure enough, we look up the street to see a long procession of cars with headlights on, and a helicopter hovering above.

 First thing next morning, we hop a quiet Eurostar luxury train to head for Napoli. Mountains flank us on both sides as our train whisks us to the west coast. Napoli, we learn, is intense, dirty and grimy. We quickly find the old medieval quarter with its narrow, flag-stoned streets and its splendidly ornate building architecture. The streets and alleys, as we are to learn over the course of our travels in Italy, are jammed with small, recklessly racing cars and scooters (indeed, more scooters than cars).

 While we have escaped the TomKat crowds and are out of tourist season, we have forgotten about something else this time of year.

 Local winter holiday shoppers.

 The street markets in old town Napoli are alive and filled with bustling shoppers and sellers hawking their fresh, authentic Italian produce. I feel exhilaration as I stroll. Without tourists, we experience the real Italian market scene. Everyone is Italian and speaking the language and selling local products.

 One thing I particularly enjoy about the Italians (myself included) is that much more so than other peoples I have experienced, the Italians clearly enjoy speaking their colorful, romantic language. They relish exaggerating consonants. Emphasizing verbs. Highlighting their accents. They are physically animated when they speak with a big smile on their faces. "Arrividerrrrrrrrrrrrciiiiiiiii!!!!!!"

 The side streets are jammed with peddlers and cafes. Because nearly all streets are narrow, flagstone, and filled with ancient buildings, walks are romantic and the cities are charming.

 We notice that a great many Italians practice a simple form of using solar energy. Nearly all residential balconies double as clotheslines.

 In Napoli, as in the rest of our travels in southern Italy, the homemade pizza, homemade pasta, and the vino de la cassa rosso (the local red house wine) are delicious. And affordable.

 Next stop for us is a train to Sorrento along the coast. Sorrento is ritzy, tropical, and much like Key West Florida in character. A pleasant, worthwhile town to visit. We find a great many Americans here on vacation.

 We hop a train to Pompeii. An ancient Roman city frozen in time because it was abruptly covered in hot ash by the explosive eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. An absolutely fascinating experience. We walk the extremely well-preserved stone streets and feel as if we are citizens of the ancient city (see photo at left). Even the buildings are preserved quite well. We enter a Pompeii brothel which still has rooms for "clients", complete with stone beds and stone pillows. And walls containing frescoes showing various sex scenes (a pictorial menu with prices?).

 A "Bachelor Pad" (House of the Vetti) we come to is extremely interesting. Inside, one can clearly see a fresco of man with an enormous penis, next to a scale containing money. Meaning: Only with a balance of fertility and money will you have abundance.

 The plaster casts of Pompeiian slaves killed in the eruption are astonishing.

 Salerno. A relatively large port city along the Amalfi Coast. At the gigantic port, I notice an enormous number of new cars waiting to be shipped out.

 The City of Salerno, like most other cities, has its share of large, traffic-choked "car sewer" roads. In this case, some of them run along the waterfront, cutting the city off from the sea. Indeed, I am thinking that I should give up on Salerno as a city worth my time. But here along the waterfront, one also finds a very pleasant, tree-lined, miles-long promenade.

 Also, just upslope from this area is the medieval quarter of walkable, vibrant, charming flagstone streets that redeem the city.

 This leads me to one of my most important realizations during our travels. That is, for each of the many Italian cities we visit, we find that our task is to seek out the older, medieval, traditional section of the city. This is where the quality of life is high. Where one finds pleasant cafes. Romance. Charm. Beauty. A relaxed, unhurried atmosphere. Happy people.

 By contrast, the newer parts of the cities are high-speed car raceways. Auto slums that are simply awful for pedestrians. The quality of life is grim. People are unsociable and in a hurry.

 This to me is a complete indictment of how human civilization has ruinously abandoned the timeless tradition of designing wonderful places for a quality HUMAN habitat. Rather than learning lessons from past mistakes and improving on them (to build a better city), the designers of the newer parts of town instead are building places that are WORSE. The newer the construction, the more unpleasant the quality of life has become. Today, for most of the world, designing for cars, not people, has become the imperative. And as a direct result, our more contemporary development nearly always worsens our communities.

 The guidebooks rave about the scenic splendor of the Amalfi Coast. By bus, it is breathtaking to see the dramatic sea vistas from 500 feet up on roads that abruptly drop off to the sea. The large number of narrow, hair-pin-turn roads here makes my stomach feel queasy, but the views and hidden beaches below are wonderful.

 We hop a sleeper train to travel from the Italian mainland to Palermo Sicily overnight.

 Palermo is a frenzied and historically impressive city. Again, it is quite noticeable that unlike America, one finds more scooters than cars on Palermo streets. The scooters roam around town like hordes of bees, as they are often clustered together buzzing and weaving along the streets, darting from lane to lane and around bulkier cars. Always seeming to be first in line at a red stoplight.

 We walk a stone-surfaced street market absolutely PACKED with shoppers. The medieval character again is quite charming. We buy samples of fresh "formaggio" (cheese) and freshly-baked bread. Along with the Calabrese olives we find (where my mother grew up), and our excellent $2 Sangiovese wine, our lunch today is very tasty and very local.

 The market on this day is so crowded with shoppers (on a Tuesday afternoon) that one must squeeze by and turn sideways to press through. Nevertheless, the hornet swarms of scooters (and the occasional CAR) impossibly find a way to snake through the mass of pedestrians.

 Quattro Canti in Palermo is perhaps the most stupendous street intersection I have ever come across. At each of the four corners stands a magnificent, ornate, concave building graced with statues. One can only look with awe and disbelief (see photo at right).

 Like Salerno, we find awful, car-centric roads that are misery for pedestrians along the perimeter of the city. These roads are filled with crazed, suicidal motorists. I feel my blood pressure rise and my stress level go way up when we leave the historic sections and find ourselves in the assaulting cacophony of these newer roads.

 Overall, my speculation about the origins of seemingly reckless, angry, high-speed motorist behavior we experience in Italy is that many citizens find that driving a space-hogging motor vehicle is extremely frustrating on the human-scaled, narrow, compact street dimensions of Italy. Italian cities are simply not designed for cars, but many Italians insist on trying to shoe-horn their car travel into these quaint spaces.

 Like Napoli, Palermo is a dirty, grimy city. We notice quite frequently the sound of wailing emergency vehicle sirens (rushing to scooter crashes, perhaps?). Everyone seems hurried.

 Parking by Palermo residents, like in many other Italian cities, is entirely opportunistic. Motorists seem to have no concern about double- or triple-parking. Or parking on a busy street lane. Or leaving their car on a busy sidewalk.

 Lots of city-degrading, high-volume, high-speed, one-way streets are found in Palermo. Motorists in Palermo, like Napoli, LOVE to honk their horns, probably indicating high levels of impatience and frustration.

 So far, we find that this time of year brings brief, frequent, light drizzle rain which we are mostly able to avoid.

 Dinner is at La Sparviero. A highly authentic ristorante. Superb swordfish and farafelle salmone pasta.

 Our hotel is Hotel del Centro, a very nice and affordable place located in the heart of Palermo.

 Our visit to Palermo ends at the original city portico. A splendid architectural gateway.

 We depart Palermo on a bus bound for Agrigento - the town full of Greek Temples. But the blustery winter drizzle follows us there, so we opt not to stop. Extremely unfortunate timing, apparently, as it is said that it is almost always sunny and dry in Agrigento (a town name I was never able to pronounce!).

 We find ourselves now in Piazza Armenia. Our hotel, the Ostello del Borgo is centrally located in the medieval quarter. The hotel is housed within an ancient monastery, and reasonably priced.

 While I am on the verge of writing off the day as a chilly, cloudy, windy, rain-soaked loss, we take the advice of our very enjoyable hotel staff to eat at Garibaldi Ristorante, an extremely authentic Sicilian restaurant. A classy place with superb, home-cooked food. Scrumptious handmade raviolis and pasta shells (pesto and pistachio), and an excellent Sicilian house wine. My secondi pitti is an outstanding fresh seafood dish: Large crawfish shrimp, a small lobster and a gigantic swordfish filet. Our bill ("il conte") is, once again, quite reasonable.

 Walking home to our hotel is quite memorable, as the medieval, flagstone streets are particularly charming and romantic. They are without street lights and therefore absolutely pitch black.

 We awake to a church bell and throw open our room window to a bracingly chilly morning air. Glancing to our left, we see that our hotel is situated in the heart of medieval Piazza Armenia. As always in Italy, my morning is free of the annoying headache one often experiences after a night of drinking wine. The wines in Italy are not only tasty and affordable. They also free one from headaches. My local wine merchant says that the lack of headache is because of my drinking the wine along with a large and delicious meal there, and the pleasant feelings of being in Italy, rather than there being caustic ingredients in the American wine.

 We wander the very narrow streets and drink in the wonderful delight of walking the ancient, human-scaled vias.

 Maureen and I decide to walk to Villa Romana del Casale, an ancient Roman castle buried and preserved in a mudslide just outside of town, and now being unveiled by restoration specialists. The castle is fascinating, as the splendid, abundant frescos found on its tile and marble floors are quite well-preserved (including an image of bikini-clad Roman girls in what must have been considered rather risqué in the 4th Century).

 While walking to the castle, a kind Italian man stops and picks us up to give us a ride. Like other Italian drivers, he speeds to the castle at break-neck speeds. We decide, after our castle visit, to walk back to town, hoping to hitch a ride again. Astonishingly, the very same man stops and picks us up for a ride back a number of hours after he had given us a ride there. He has, for this day at least, become our chauffeur.

 On the day before, I had remarked to Maureen that in all of my time being driven around in motor vehicles screaming down impossibly narrow streets full of cars in Italy and other locations in Europe, I was astounded to realize that not a single time had one of those drivers clipped or bumped a building or vehicle, despite countless near-misses that in some cases must have been no more than half a centimeter. So it was with astounding coincidence that on this day, as we are taking a bus to Catania, our bus has its side-view mirror whacked by a truck going the opposite direction. Fortunately, this does not stop our bus, despite the fact that most of the mirror is shattered and the driver must re-adjust the now loosened mirror every few kilometers.

 For dining this night, we go to Trattoria S'Agata in Catania, an absolutely bona fide Siclian food in their enchanting little side street ristorante. I opt for Con de le Sarde, the Sicilian favorite of pasta and sardines. It is delightful.

 For secondi, I sample their Messina Scuttlefish, a flaky and yummy dish served with red sauce and potatoes. Their cassa rosso vino is again superior in its smoothness and quality.

 A pleasant bonus on our first Catania night is that in the wee hours of the morning, as I lie awake with insomnia, I hear not a single car, honk, scooter or siren, despite being in the centro city. And in a nation of cities full of such noises.

 The Piazza Duomo in Catania is fittingly superlative. We have breakfast at an outdoor café on the piazza. We take in the pleasure of people-watching and admiration of the architecture around us, and dine on nutella croissants, tea and cappuccino.

 As an aside, it is curious that we see very few bicyclists in Italian cities such as Catania.

 The guidebooks indicate that the fishmarket next to the piazza is a MUST visit. The guidebook is correct. The market is a dizzying spectacle of an enormous array of the freshest seafoods, nuts, fruits and produce being loudly hawked by venders (see photo above). So mind-boggling is the scene that even LOCALS gather on an upper-level walkway wall to observe.

 We buy fresh pepato (pepper) cheese, figs, freshly-baked nut and fig bread, yellow-squash-topped pizza and fresh olive salad for lunch on the piazza. We then enter the Duomo and are humbled by the remarkable immensity and exploding ornamentation inside. So staggering is it that we are compelled to speak in hushed tones (as one is always asked to do inside a Duomo).

 Catania is full of ancient churches (chiesas) and a profusion of stunning building architecture (see photo at right).

 We buy a bottle of Sicilian wine ($2.50 in euros) for our trip south to Ragusa. Mount Etnea's volcanic plume ominously looms on the horizon all day.

 Catania surprisingly turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable. Our hotel - a good one - is Hotel Gesi downtown.

 Medieval Ragusa Ibla sits perched on a steep hill above a deep, narrow, picturesque valley filled with agricultural fields. Ibla's ancient, flat-stone streets are tiny in width, and perfect for our romantic walk this first evening there. We enter the stupendous Duomo with its glowing green nighttime dome at the peak of the hill and sit in on the Catholic mass.

 After a rain, by the way, we find that the slate and marble stone streets in these Italian towns is quite slippery to walk on. As slick as ice.

 Our dinner is again superb at a ristorante a few steps from our bed and breakfast (the town seems filled to the brim with marvelously-located bed and breakfast establishments). Off in the distance into the valley at the stone railing along the edges of town, we don't see a single light in the inky, quiet darkness. Indeed, the town turns out to be quite sleepy with a noticeable lack of cars.

 The taxi we use to get to the Ragusa bus station the next day is a late-model Mercedes sedan. Our driver wears a suit and tie. Even the fast food-style restaurant we dine at just before leaving town serves us luscious homemade gnocchi's, a loaf of homemade olive bread, and a ricotta and spinach roll made on the premises. There seems to be a noticeable absence of mindless, low-wage, zero-skill jobs in Italy. Even the fast food workers and taxi drivers can take pride in their product.

Our first night in Siracusa, we have a sumptuous dinner at Spaghetteria do Scogghia in Ortigia - the ancient portion of Siracusa that is much more charming and pleasant than the newer mainland portion of Siracusa (as expected). This ristorante serves a wide range of immensely tasty Sicilian pastas (a mind-boggling selection of various types). Ortigia is noticeably more bustling with pedestrians after 9 pm. We go for a romantic wander on a seawall walkway. Very pleasant and quiet. Piazza Archimede and Duomo are particularly lovely when lit up in the evening.

We set out for a stroll in old-town Siracusa the next morning. The alleys are petite in width and therefore especially charming (see photo at left). Our first destination is Piazza Archimede, which features a fabulous fountain full of sculptures. We walk to the mainland and visit the Greek and Roman "Neapolis" section to see the Roman and Greek Theatres, and the Siracusa stone quarry (which contains a stone crevasse that simply dwarfs us due to its immensity). At the Neapolis, we see Ara di Ierone II, the world's largest alter.

For lunch, we dine at La Siciliana on Via Savoia. My Quattro Formaggio pizza and Maureen's spinach and ricotta calzone are unforgettably good (our Let's Go travel guide, which recommended this and other destinations we've enjoyed on this trip, is turning out to be quite reliable).

The bus takes us to our final Sicilian destination: Taormina. A coastal town that attracts large numbers of tourists.

For good reason.

The town is the most scenic and panoramic of our stops during our trip. We walk the very pleasant Corso Umberto, the main pedestrian shopping street in town (a street that we end up walking countless times during our two-day stay here). The street is perfect for window-shopping, people-watching, and safe and enjoyable strolls to most destinations in town. Very romantic, ancient stairways and side streets intersect Umberto along the way.

The panoramic views of the sea and coastline from points throughout the city are simply breathtaking. Perhaps the development that has best taken advantage of this fact is the superbly located Greco Theatre. The location of the Theatre offers spectators watching a play to also enjoy stunning views of the sea and the town skyline - views that envelope the Theatre. The architecture of the Theatre is equally stunning, and the Theatre still hosts plays to this day (see photo below).

Despite being relatively touristy, Taormina is a recommended visit. Quite pleasant, and perhaps the city I am most likely to return to again in Sicily.

Dinner is at A'Zammora Ristorante off of Via Umberto. Recommended to us by our very nice hotel proprieter. Very high quality food. Several homemade pasta menu choices and a superb wine (Maria Costanza 1998 Rosso).

On our second day, we bus to the mountaintop looming over Taormina. The castle sits at the peak of the mountain. The castle is, to me, not the highlight. The noteworthy aspect is the absolutely astonishing panoramic views of the entire region (including an array of terraced farm fields) and coastlines surrounding Taormina. Certainly a strategic advantage. Also more enjoyable for me than the castle is the tiny medieval town that surrounds the castle walls. Absolutely delightful.

After we've had our fill of these wonderful environs, we opt for the winding walkway that leads us back to town. It is a pleasant walk that takes us approximately 35 minutes from the top. We stop at a local ristorante near the Duomo. They serve us simply outstanding Italian pizza.

Then, we are on a cable car down to the beach from Taormina, where we find a roaring surf in a cute little cove, two dive shops, and colorfully cute dingy boats.

For dinner, I have more homemade ("fresca") pasta.

Our direct train to Rome from Taormina is, again, a sleeper train. The trip, like the trip from the north to Sicily, features the nearly impossible-to-believe task of loading our train onto a ferry for a 45-minute crossing back to Reggio Calabria and the mainland.

Back in Rome, after a tour of the Vatican Museum, Saint Peter's Basilica, and the Pantheon, we lunch at an invigoratingly boisterous ristorante packed with the local office lunch crowd. So wild is the ordering at the counter that I feel as if I am bidding at a large auction. I feel rather disconcerted, as I realize I must quickly decide on what I am ordering from a vast array within the case in front of me, do so in understandable Italian, and not embarrass myself by sounding like a "greenhorn" American in front of these Italian office workers.

Here, very good spinach and mozzarella paninis are served, as I am pleased to learn when I bite into one.

We stop and enjoy the tremendous Piazza Del Popolo.

Our Italian finale for food is at Navona Notle, a ristorante just off Piazza Navona. Unlike the doughnut-loving cops in the US, we notice that here in Italy, the police run into our ristorante, hurriedly, for two pizzas (we had thought there was a robbery in progress, since the cop had such a worried expression and was in such a hurry, but it was for something much more urgent...).

Piazza Navona, when I first visited 3 years ago, is (was?) the most bustling, spectacular piazza in all of Rome, so I save it for our last Rome visit. Sadly, however, the piazza is now infested (and cheapened) by a swarm of cheap tourist vendors selling plastic trinkets - their carts now blocking and obscuring the magnificence of the expansive, sculpture-filled piazza.

For our last gelato, we go to Il Gelato Di San Crispino, the shop recommended by our bed and breakfast. Near Trevi Fountain, the gelato served here is the most delicious I have had in all of Italy. Earlier, I am trying to find this shop for Maureen, so that I can show her the perfectly cute little puppy leash parking hooks embedded in the wall outside the shop (not to mention sampling the to-die-for gelato). We look for it, unsuccessfully, near Piazza Navona, as I had a recollection that it was in a small alley off that piazza. It is therefore a wonderful coincidence, then, that our recommended shop is that very shop.

A fitting conclusion to our unforgettable days in southern Italy and Sicily.

 This link shows photos from our trip. When the link brings you to the Picasa photo album page, select “slideshow” in the upper left.



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