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Sardinian Safari

baaaa

Sardinian traffic jam

From Oristano we set off for a day trip to the center of the island, where wild and ancient Sardinian sights awaited.  Country roads led us through sleepy looking towns, where farmers sat beside their fields selling their radishes and artichokes out of carts, and old men sat outside the local shops watching the lazy Sunday go by.  We found our way to Gesturi, where the skinny mountain road, and numerous camoflauged hunters, probably out looking for wild boar, took us to the top of a plateau, the Giara di Gesturi…last remaining wild home of the island’s own cavallini, or miniature horses.  At the top, we braved the dirt roads through the natural preserve in search of the elusive horses, of which only 500 are remaining in the wild.  I was sure we would never be able to spot them, but eventually we caught sight of some in the distant forest and pulled over the car to catch a closer look.  They’re no dog-sized pony, but are considered miniature because they have all of the proportions of a horse but are under-sized.  By the end, we even caught one crossing the road, to say goodbye as we left the park. 

mini horse awww

a cavallino of Gesturi

The horses aren’t the only ones we caught in the middle of the road, though.  By the end of the trip, we had braked for goats, swerved to miss calmly grazing cattle, honked at flocks of sheep crossing, and even caught a few plump pigs snuffling in the dirt on the side of the highway.snoooort

After the morning’s animal adventures, we stopped at Barumini, a small town not far from Gesturi, best known as the home of Su Nuraxi, a large complex of nuraghe–the prehistoric stone towers found all over the island–and UNESCO World Heritage site.  The nuraghe are key to Sardinian cultural heritage and ancient history, as they belong to some of the earliest people of the island, despite the fact that very little is known about them.  I took a tour of the nuraghic complex and was able to see the inside of the fortress as well as an overhead view of its layout, set on the bright green pastoral backdrop of Sardinian countryside.

nuraghe

the Su Nuraxi of Barumini

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Naxos and Taormina

The last two nights in Sicily were spent in the small resort town of Giardini Naxos, which was very quiet this time of year (fine with us, since by this time we were fairly exhausted from climbing temples, long bus rides and moving hotels every few days).  In Naxos, we visited the archaeological site of the ancient Greek city there, which consisted mostly of stone foundations and walls, as well as a small museum of artifacts found in the area.  We also took the bus up the hill a short distance to the neighboring town of Taormina, a tourist hotspot in summer, now empty during the low-season, and perhaps the most beautiful place we visited.  On the ride to Taormina the road snakes along the coast, with incredible views of the blue sea, the hills, and cute villas.  The town itself is filled with cute shops selling Sicilian souvenirs: lava and coral jewelry, pottery, limoncello and other liqueurs, marzipan creations, and lace.  The most famous site in Taormina, the Greek theater, did not disappoint.  Sitting in the theater stands, we looked down on the sparkling water and town below, framed by the ruins and overlooked by snow-capped Mount Etna.

Taormina theater

the theater at Taormina

I couldn’t possibly end my account of the trip to Sicily without mentioning food one more time.  For these last two nights in Naxos the whole group ate together at the hotel, where they prepared us an incredible multi-course dinner using local ingredients and traditions.  For just a sample, here’s what was on the menu the first night:
aperitivo
: assorted appetizers and an orange juice cocktail
hors d’oeuvres: steamed mussels or eggplant caponata
primi: swordfish risotto or potato and zucchini soup
secondi: stuffed anchovies or veal stew
side dish: potato and ricotta pie or grilled vegetables
dessert: chocolate and almond cake and cactus fruit

blue waters ahhh

view from Taormina

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Syracuse

Ortigia

walking along the water in Ortigia

Syracuse was my favorite city we visited on the trip.  It seemed to have just the right combination of charm, beauty, culture, and grittiness, and the nice hotel we stayed in didn’t hurt either.  Hotel Gutkowski was right on the water in Ortigia, a neighborhood of Sicily that is actually it’s own little island, connected by bridges to the rest of the city.  The rooms were clean and crisp, designed as if to feel like a neat beachside cottage (and impression helped by the shores of the Mediterranean just outside our window).  Ortigia, small and very walkable, is the oldest part of the city featuring many historic sites, such as the Castel Maniace, the Duomo, and the ruins of a temple to Apollo.  We spent the morning of the first day walking around Ortigia to see these sights, and then took a break in the market district for lunch.  The markets were chaotic, but were just what I would have imagined a Sicilian street market to be: dirty, loud, filled with strange scents of pungent cheese and seafood, and home to all sorts of things that one wouldn’t find a tame American farmer’s market.  Right next to a stand selling prickly pear fruit was a bucket of little squid and next to those a massive swordfish head, and so on.

swordfish heads :-(

swordfish at the Syracuse market

My birthday, the first one I’ve celebrated abroad, was on the first day in Syracuse, and we celebrated that night by doing the same thing that we did during all our free evenings: eat and drink.

pizza yumyyumyyumyuum

just part of my amazing birthday feast

Some of the guys on the trip had been lucky enough to be assigned to a palatial apartment-style room in the hotel, which had it’s own living room, so we had a little apiritivo party there before heading out to another incredible Italian dinner. I split a pizza diavole con olive (pizza with mozzarella, tomato, spicy pepperoni, garlic, and olives) and pasta alla norma (pasta with eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and cheese).  And a free lemon sorbetto for dessert!

The next day, we visited the Neapolis, home to many of Syracuse’s ancient sites, including two amphitheaters, a quarry, monastic rock dwellings, and a giant altar.  In the old quarry area is a cave called “The Ear of Dionysus,” which looks a lot like an ear opening carved in the rock, and has astounding acoustics.  We all walked through the “canal” to the very back, where one of the grad students with an astounding voice sang while our eyes adjusted to the darkness.  Once outside the ear (we decided it was time to go after someone got pooped on by one of the caves winged residents), we collected fallen limes from the many trees in the area on our walk to the exit, where a stand was selling freshly squeezed juice.  The next stop in Syracuse were the Catacombs of San Giovanni, an underground labyrinth of early Christian tombs (now without bodies) that our hilariously bad at English tour guide gave us a whirlwind tour of before shooing us away so she could get off work for the day.  On our way out of Syracuse we visited the Castello Euriale, ruins of an inland defensive structure, whose best feature was the stunning vista of the city, the sea, and the countryside.

view of Syracuse

looking out toward Syracuse

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Archaeology and Gastronomy

temple

temple at Selinunte

On the way from Palermo to Agrigento, which was our home for the next two nights, the group stopped in the towns of Segesta and Selinunte to see the archaeological sites, which are ruins from the ancient Greek settlement of Sicily.  In Segesta, we began at the standing temple and then hiked up to the amphitheater, which (like many Greek amphitheaters at the time), had a stunning natural backdrop: the surrounding countryside, rolling hills and mountains, and a vista that stretched to the sea.  Selinunte, also known as the Greek town of Selinus, had extensive archaeological sites, so we got to take a caravan of golf carts in order to get from one to another, making it feel like we were on safari.  The temples were in order of increasing ruinedness, and the final larger temple was collapsed in chunks which were fun to climb on–the whole place was like an ancient playground for archaeologists.  In keeping with the theme of gorgeous scenery, our tour of Selinunte ended at the acropolis, situated on cliffs over the sea, just as the sun was beginning to set.

amphitheater

view from the amphitheater at Segesta

The next day, we took in the ancient sights of Agrigento, a mid-sized modern city on the southern coast of the island.  Here, we spent a morning looking at artifacts up close in the archaeological museum and and afternoon exploring more temples in the scenic “Valle dei Templi.”

marzipan fruit!more marzipan!

some realistic marzipan creations

Looking at crumbling columns wasn’t the only thing we we did, though.  Each evening, we usually got done with our touring between 4 and 6, and had the rest of the day off until the next morning.  We were in Italy, so eating naturally played a big part in filling these free hours.  Each evening, we would find a place for dinner around 8, and meals would last 2 to 2.5 hours, between bread, wine, antipasti (appetizers), and main dishes.  As hard as I tried to diversify the different foods I tried, I averaged about one pizza per day–they were just too good to resist!  And these weren’t “I’ll have a slice or two” shared pizzas, these were 16″ one-person-eats-the-whole-thing pizzas with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, and a thin crust.  It was impossible to order something bad.  Aside from the usual cheese and bread, Sicilian food featured lots of citrus, seafood (especially swordfish and anchovies), and eggplant.  For dessert, there was the unbeatable gelato, freshly-filled cannoli (pastry shell filled with sweet ricotta), and, in every bakery window, elaborate marzipan creations.  Molto delizioso!

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Filed under Agrigento, Italy, Segesta, Selinunte