Monreale Revisited

concaThere were two sites we wanted to revisit from our trip last year, and one of them was Monreale. Last year, we had wanted to get there on our own steam and ended up wasting so much time that we had very little left to look at the church, and none at all to walk the town. To add insult to injury, there were so many people and tour groups, the church resembled more a circus -and a loud one at that- than a place of repose and reflection. The grandiose aspects of the cathedral seemed completely lost on most people there, who were more intent on taking pictures for later than taking in the atmosphere, the artistry, the celebration of art and God. Continue reading

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Roaming in Palermo (Part Two)

There are so many fantastic places to discover in Palermo, one post wasn’t enough. In fact, two might not be enough. Every time we purposely get lost in the city, we discover other marvels. Here are some others: Continue reading

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Roaming in Palermo (Part One)

Palermob-wVisiting the major sites in any new city is always exciting and often awe-inspiring. We love to feel the weight of time, of tradition, of history. However, if you have time it’s good to give your brain -if not your feet- a rest and just explore the streets. There’s a surprise at every corner: a piece of architecture, a museum, a pretty balcony, a crusty old man and his dog. Over the past three weeks, we’ve enjoyed many of these days. It was a journey of discovery, not always successful but, in its way, enlightening, surprising, often delightful. This is a compendium of our several days of roaming around the city of Palermo.
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Villa Romana del Casale

Etna-sudAfter a three-day stint oceanside, we decided to return to Palermo by going through the island and stopping at one of the most impressive Antiquity sites of Sicily, the Villa Romana del Casale. We took the A18 south to Catania then the A19 west toward Palermo. As we turned west, the Etna showed itself again, maybe as a wink goodbye. The day was clearer and you could see furmeroles being lazily taken by the wind and merged with the clouds. Continue reading

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Messina and Capo Peloro

After our two days in Giardini-Naxos, and visiting the heights of the countryside with Taormina and Castelmola, we decided to stay at sea level and go around the most northeastern part of the island, the spit of land beyond Messina that straddles both the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian Sea and stares at the rest of Italy.

messinastraitIt is where you find the Strait of Messina, Strittu di Missina in Sicilian, the narrow passage between the eastern tip of Sicily (Punta del Faro or Capo Peloro) and the western end of Italy in Calabria. Continue reading

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Castelmola

If you don’t have a car, getting to Castelmola can be problematic. There is a set of stairs and a path starting from Taormina, but at 500 meters above sea level, it’s steep and you need a good set of lungs and lots of water. Interbus, the regional bus line, goes there, but its schedule is spotty, with buses over one hour apart and sometimes more (for a 15 minutes trip). Taxis are an option but they are very expensive, and it is advised to settle on a price before entering the cab (drivers tend to be creative with the rate, as most don’t have meters). One of the best ways, although pricey (20 Euros per person), is to take a hop-on, hop-off bus that takes you through Giardini-Naxos, Taormina and Castelmola.
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Taormina

TaorminaTaormina is situated about 200 meters above sea-level and overlooks the bay of Naxos and the Ionian Sea. Because of its obvious strategic position, it has a complex history of invasions and conquests, first by the Greeks, then by a series of tyrants (someone who obtained executive power by unconventional means), and was the subject of a war between Pompey VI and Octavian (Octavian won).
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Destination: Giardini-Naxos

Up to now, we’ve stayed mainly on the west coast of Sicily, but this time we decided to head east for a few days. This requires renting a car and driving the roads of Sicily, which we suspect will be a challenge, as many things are in this beautiful island.

Because we were unsure of how we would be able to negotiate the streets of Palermo, with its one-ways and unmarked streets, we decided to get the car from the airport. The shuttle (Prestia e Commande) costs 11 Euros each, but we feel the price is worth the headache. Continue reading

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La Martorana

Every Sunday, a big chunk of Via Maqueda and Via della LibertĂ  (one becomes the other) is closed to car traffic and becomes an area pedonale, open to pedestrian and cyclists. Between Teatro Massimo and Politeama artisans, bakers, cheese makers sell their products in a fair atmosphere. There are not many of them, maybe because it is the end of the warm season, but everything is of good quality and handmade. None of the “Made in China” stuff street vendors, like ants over the city, peddle constantly.

pretoriaWe go down Corso Vittorio Emmanuele to Maqueda and stop again to admire the Fontana Pretoria. The light is different in the morning, there’s more shade, and we can see more of it without being blinded by the white of the marble and the walls of the buildings around the piazza. Since I know we’re close, I ask two police where the Chiesa Martorana is situated. They direct us around the corner. Continue reading

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Ustica

harbor_palermoAfter having seen the Egadi Islands from Erice and understanding a little better Palermo’s transport system, we decided to do a side trip to Ustica, a volcanic island known for its underwater grottoes and scuba diving areas but also with an interesting history. It is the island closest to Palermo, 54km away, and the oldest, geologically of all the islands surrounding Sicily. The black color of the lava, Ustum, gave it its name. Legend also says that Ustica was the home of the sorceress CircĂ©, who changed Ulysses’s men into pigs in the Odyssey. (In fact, most Greek legends, including Hercules’s tasks, seeme to have taken place on Sicily).
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The Valley of the Temples

Our next excursion was to the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) in Agrigento, one of the best preserved Greek temple sites outside Greece.
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Erice

If you don’t have a car or don’t want to rent one, getting to Erice, this medieval city high above Trapani, is not easy.

Information on trains and buses is scant, whether in person or on the Internet and the schedules set for the locals, a fact that was confirmed to us again and again for other places we wanted to get to, maybe because October is getting to be outside the tourist season.

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Palermo’s Greenspaces

giardinoinglesePalermo may seem like a maze of narrow streets and grand avenues, full of traffic and people, but it also has its share of green spaces, even in the centro. They provide a welcome respite from the noise and the diesel fumes, and a chance to soak in a bit of green among all the concrete.

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Duomos of Cefalu and Monreale

Although we visited the Duomos at Cefalu and Monreale on different days, I felt it important to talk about them together since they have a close connection not only to Palermo but to King Roger II, who also built the Capella Palatina in the Palazzo dei Normanni.

DSCN1958Named “Kephaloidion” (the Head) by the Greeks, the town of Cefalu seems to lean of La Rocca, an impressive promontory that surges from the land around it and advances into the Tyrrhenian sea. Located 70km east of Palermo, its 14,000 population can triple in summer. In October, however, although busy and lively, it was fairly easy to walk around.

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Catacombs of the Cappuccini

Reader beware: Some descriptions and pictures in this post may be considered gruesome.

Palemo’s center is small, but compact. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much to visit sites fuori le mure (outside the walls), so it was easy to be in and out of the city center without feeling we were in the burbs.

teatro_massimoWe started in the Centro with the Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s main Opera House, a grande dame in great need of an interior facelift.

The Teatro was closed for 23 years and was only reopened in 1997 after extensive renovations to the exterior and to the concert hall, but the rest of the building, from the imposing entrance to the small salons, is in dire need of restoration. We can clearly see water damage in several places and many frescoes and paintings need repair.
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