Tag Archives: Sicily

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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Piazza Armerina and Morgantina

En route to Syracuse from Agrigento, the group made two stops.  First, we went to the little town of Piazza Armerina, best known for the lavish ancient Roman villa found in the area, Villa del Casale.  The villa, largely protected from the time and the elements by its situation beside a mountain, is most famous for its fascinating and mostly well-preserved mosaics, which cover all of the floors.  Some of the mosaics illustrate common legends, like the Labors of Hercules, in the large dining hall.  Others explain a little bit about their time, like The Great Hunt, which extends through a hallway and depicts a scene of men trapping exotic animals (tigers, ostriches, elephants) and boarding them onto a boat, to be put on display or pitted in area battles in Europe.

bikini girls

some of the famous bikini girls

The most popular of all the mosaics here is “The Bikini Girls” which is likely meant to depict the Roman imagination of Olympic sports for women, but is so well-preserved and comical to the modern eye that it really looks like it could have been put up just a few years ago…  Since we were visiting in the off-season for tourists, lots of the mosaics were under restoration, which was unfortunate because they were all covered in a layer of dust, which made photographs difficult and much less vivid than if they had been polished.  Some of the viewing areas were blocked off as well, but since our group was getting a tour from the site director, we were granted special privileges–like actually walking on some of the mosaics to see them up close!

In the afternoon following the villa visit we stopped at the archaeological site of Morgantina, where we walked all around to get an idea of what the ancient city would have been like–the old temples, houses, kilns, theaters.  One of the grad students in our group took over from the professors to give the tour here because he had been involved with the site’s excavation for the last six years.

Morgantina

the site at Morgantina

These day stops, along with Segesta a few days earlier, were our only glimpses of inland Sicily, since everywhere else we stayed on the island was on a coast.  The countryside around Morgantina was particularly beautiful and pastoral.  As we climbed a hill to investigate the ancient houses, we heard the ringing of little bells and watched as a procession of sheep marched purposefully down the road, heading to their Sicilian farmhouse somewhere for dinner.

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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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Palermo

After arriving from Monreale, we spent the next two nights of the trip in Palermo, which is Sicily’s largest city with a population of over 1 million. Palermo has a grittier feel than most of the other cities we went to, with strange smells emanating from bags of trash on the street, hoards of speeding mopeds, and guys on the street corner who will yell “bella” at any literally any woman who walks by. This is not to say Palermo is unpleasant though, it just has its own character. I still found the city to have plenty of good restaurants, impressive sites and welcoming locals. My hotel room also had plenty of its own character: my roommate and I ended up on the top floor, with a window that looked out onto the elevator shaft, which had been pleasantly decorated for our viewing pleasure. The bathroom ceiling slanted with the roof, so our shower curtain was diagonal, and even I had to duck to manage to take a shower under the low ceiling.

Palermo cathedral

the Palermo cathedral

We continued our tour of Norman churches and Byzantine art in Palermo. The first stop was the Cappella Palatina, a royal chapel with all the mosaic-ed splendor of the Monreale church, but on a smaller and more accessible scale. We stopped at several other churches, including La Martorana, which interestingly combines Byzantine and later baroque art in its décor, and the Palermo cathedral, where All Saint’s Day services were taking place. The last stop was La Zisa, an old Norman palace, with Arab architectural influences.

lunch

appetizer buffet lunch...straight from the kitchen

During a lunch break from sightseeing, I cut through the market area of Palermo with some friends, looking for a good place to eat. We dodged gangs of little kids, some who looked as young as five, who were speeding around on kid-sized mopeds (I guess they start early). While we were looking for a particular restaurant a waiter from a different place accosted us: “What are you looking for? Why would you want to go there? My place is better, come in!” So we went in, and instead of ordering, we got to file into the kitchen, two by two, to put whatever we wanted on our plate as an appetizer buffet. After a big plate of eggplant, stuffed tomatoes, and other local veggies, no one was hungry enough to order anything else.

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Sicily, At Last!

Today is my sixth day in Sicily and the first that I have wifi. I’ve been disappointed not to be able to post my many photos and stories as I go along, but I suppose it reflects a cultural difference between the US and Italy. For us (especially us college students who are glued to our laptops and iPhones), internet seems like a necessity, but here it’s still a luxury. So despite the fact that we’ve been staying in fairly nice hotels, this is the first that has free wireless.

I’m writing from Syracuse, but I’ll start my stories from the beginning and update from the last few days as I go along (who knows if I’ll have internet in our next stop, so I may have to finish when we return).

Cefalu

the city of Cefalu and cathedral from above

We arrived in Sicily on Friday morning after flying from Newark to Rome to Palermo. As the plane began its descent over the island, the striking mountains came into sight, and despite my exhaustion, I knew that I was in for an incredible trip. We met our bus (which has a crazy circular “party booth” in the back) and headed to Cefalu, a small town on the northern coast of the island where we spent our first night. Cefalu is an incredibly charming seaside town, which is apparently packed in the summer but was very peaceful now. It is picturesque and Sicilian, with winding streets, laundry hanging from apartment balconies, and streets lined with citrus trees. Of interest: the Academy Award-winning Italian film Cinema Paradiso was filmed here.

I took a walk with some other group members after arriving and eating my first Sicilian pizza, to avoid napping. We climbed up “La Rocca” a large cliff overlooking the city, which has ruins of a temple to Diana and an old castle, and a breathtaking view of the small town, the mountains, and the blue waters of the Mediterranean. We arrived right before closing as the sun was setting, and instantly fell in love with Sicily.

Cefalu sunset

sunset over Cefalu, as seen from La Rocca

The next day, Saturday, the organized group trip began. Our class has been focusing on Sicilian history, art, and architecture under Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman rule and so our trip has been taking us to various sites of interest that we’ve studied in class, from old Greek temples and city ruins to Norman churches. We began with the Cathedral in Cefalu, which rises high above the rest of the city and features Byzantine mosaics. We next took the bus to Monreale, a town just outside of Palermo with a similar cathedral that was modelled after Cefalu’s but whose mosaics are mind-blowing, for lack of a better word. Intricate details in the floor, ceiling, and all of the walls and dizzying and practically every square inch of wall is covered in sparkling mosaics which narrate scenes from the New and Old Testaments. The cloisters outside of the cathedral were equally fascinating, as each column was topped with a different sculpture or scene.

the Monreale cathedral

interior of the Monreale cathedral

Visiting the two churches took up most of the day, and we arrived in Palermo to check into our hotel and in time to celebrate Halloween in Sicily. I won’t be able to post more photos until getting back to Princeton, but check back for those and for my next installment on the trip.

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Leaving on a Jet Plane

Though Princeton is generally beautiful this time of year, midterms and the recent rainy weather has got me ready to leave campus…just in time for fall break!  This semester, I’m taking an Art History and Classics course on the ancient history of Sicily, and the many civilizations that left their cultural and architectural marks on the island.  As part of the class, I’ll be traveling to Sicily for fall break with the 15 or so other undergraduate and graduate students and our two professors, and we’ll tour the island, focusing on sites of archeological and artistic interest.  Tomorrow, only minutes after finishing a midterm, I’ll be leaving for Newark Airport with the rest of the class, and we won’t stop until we reach Cefalu, a city in the north of Sicily which is our final destination for Friday evening.  Assuming I am able to get regular internet access while we’re traveling, check back for frequent posts and photos from Sicily.

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