Thursday, March 29, 2012

Softly, As We Leave You

We sprinted to Italy after our unsettling experiences in Morocco back in early December, but we reluctantly eased out of this wonderful country, taking as long as possible to let go. We hung on with our fingertips, not wanting to leave her warm embrace as we prepared to head north and east. After our stay in Chianti and a few additional days in Florence, we took the train north to treat ourselves to a second dose of fairytale Val Gardena in the Dolomites, stalling our departure with a final few days of skiing. Rather than abandon Italy cold turkey, we decided to spend a few days in Ortisei, Italian on the map but Tyrolean in language, culture and demeanor, to temper the shock of heading straight into Austria. The bus ride to Val Gardena from the Bolzano train station confirmed that we were indeed venturing back into the Italian Tyrol. A beaming, burly-bodied woman boarded the bus and sat in front of us. She was perfectly coiffed with a 1-1/2 inch crown of a salt-and-pepper braid affixed on its edge such that it stood on its side encircling her head like a halo. She sported a traditional black wool vest and long skirt, both brightly embroidered with multicolored flowers and black boots that laced up to the middle of her shins. She and the other locals chatted with each other -- and occasionally threw a comment our way, not realizing we were “outsiders” -- in Ladin, the uncommon language spoken in only a handful of communes of the Dolomites. Yes, we agreed, it was definitely a good decision to return to Val Gardena – the perfect path for tiptoeing into Austria while still enjoying Italy.

Our days on the slopes were blissful. It was spring skiing at its best with sunny skies (and the inevitable raccoon tans from our sunglasses), the thermometer at close to 60 degrees (no bulky thermal layers needed), nonexistent lift lines (we were consistently alone on the quad chairs) and the snow rather slow towards the base (I can deal with the mashed potatoes stuff as a trade-off for the magnificent conditions on the summits). Red was the color of the season as the lion’s share of parkas, pants and related ski paraphernalia were crimson, scarlet and ruby. We marveled at the number of older people – those who’d already celebrated their 70th birthdays – who schussed down the trails around us, every one of them in incredible shape and all accomplished skiers. On several occasions we pointed out graceful, controlled figures weaving down difficult terrain and discovered as they zipped by that they were senior citizens. We can only hope that that will be us in twenty years, we agreed, fingers crossed. Being among the international ski crowd with such a mix of languages on the slopes, hearing not a word of English until we got to the lunch hütte to order a mug of beer and a glass of wine to accompany the sandwiches we’d packed from the morning’s breakfast buffet was an experience we relished. At the end of each day on the mountains, we had the incomparable Hotel Gardena Grödnerhof, the inn we’d fallen in love with on our previous visit with Chris and Caroline, and the nicest people in the world to return to, including Angelica, the loquacious ginger-haired 6-year old from Rome assigned with her family to the dining room table next to ours. Angelica was a bundle of enthusiasm at every meal, chatting away with her parents in melodious Italian punctuated with dramatic hand gestures and animated expressions across her freckle-sprinkled face about her day, the food and how she was feeling overall. She was the epitome of what we’d come to love in Italy.

Joe and I spoke at length on chair lifts, over drinks, at dinner and after coffee, about all we’d experienced and loved best over the course of our three months in Italy. We’d learned to relax about things that drove us crazy at home (like unexpected signs announcing sudden closures), doing our best to emulate the Italians who are patient, forgiving of delays and gracious about mistakes. They appear to recognize that people are human and not automatons of daily perfection. We continue to repeat our favorite Italian words: la macchina (the car), andiamo (let’s go) and allora (the equivalent of “alors” in French or “so” or “well then,” in English). The first is simply so melodic and pleasing to the ear when pronounced by an Italian, the middle word is essential (who doesn’t need to be able to say “let’s go”) and the latter, another lovely-sounding word, is the perfect conversational segue.

We assessed our Italian eating experiences and tallied a new reckoning. Coming into Italy, the rankings on the Gap Year Culinary Scorecard were as follows: France in first place by a considerable margin, Morocco in the number two slot and Spain a distant third. Our appetites were ready when we’d arrived in Italy and as expected, the fabulous food did not disappoint. The old favorites provided familiar delight (lasagna, pizza, pasta fagioli and insalate miste), but we developed brand new appreciations for newly discovered Italian tastes. Tender, olive oiled Roman artichokes; gnocchi swimming in creamy Sorrentina sauce; pan-fried scamorza cheese; arancini (fried rice balls with a variety of flavors inside); pasta arrabiata (pasta with an “angry” spicy tomato sauce); bruschetta smothered with all kinds of toppings like olives, eggplant and anchovies, not simply tomatoes; saltimbocca alla Romana (sautéed veal that “jumps in your mouth, Roman style”), with its savory sprigs of fresh sage; all were among our favorites. Is it any wonder we never tired of Italian food? I will readily admit, however, that the buffalo mozzarella (which we’d never realized is actually made from the milk of a water buffalo) never tempted my taste buds (it was just too bland and the texture didn’t appeal) and the bread is only occasionally as good as what we consistently found in France. For special, gourmet, celebratory meals accompanied by delectable wines, France wins the trophy -- hands-down. Any country that came up with the notion of combining creamy goat cheese with a crisp salad or creating a surprising foie gras crème brûlée simply has to be awarded the haute cuisine cordon bleu. However, when it comes to delicious daily fare that one can find all over the country at almost any ristorante, trattoria or tavola calda, Italy takes the prize. We enjoyed so many meals in so many terrific, comfortable eateries up and down “the boot” and each one confirmed what we’d read about dining out in Italy. People don’t go out for a unique or different dining experience. They go out to eat for more of what they have at home on a day-to-day basis: food that is basic, delicious and familiar but without the long hours of shopping, preparing and cooking. The updated tally on the Culinary Scorecard has been rendered: Italy is at the top, France is nipping at its heels and then come Morocco and Spain.

We’re finally, slowly, half-heartedly saying arrivederci to our good friend, il bel paese, since Austria, Central Europe and Holland await us. (I can only guess how the cuisine of these countries will score, but who knows, a juicy wiener schnitzel may surprise us...) Italy, you were a warmhearted winter companion and we’ll always remember your kindness. Allora, andiamo -- it’s time to move on, so softly we will leave you.

Pictures of our adventures:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chianti Classico

Our foremost stopover on our way to Chianti was the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial. The 70-acre site sits in a wooded bowl at the top of the Chianti Valley just south of the autostrada. It includes a symmetrical array of 4,402 headstones that march up the hillside to a white marble World War II memorial on which are inscribed the names of the missing. The aggressively pruned plane trees that line the central pathway and were still stark and bare in early March, adding to the air of melancholy. Many of the U.S. Fifth Army’s military dead were originally buried between Rome and the Alps. Most died in fighting after Rome had been captured in June 1944 but many were casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennine Mountains just before the May 2, 1945 German surrender in northern Italy. We wandered among the uniform Latin cross and Star of David white marble gravestones, carefully reading the names and dates of death and imagined every one as an individual – each with a family, each with a story, and each of whom died for his or her country. We’d been watching the Ken Burns documentary, The War, the account of the Second World War as remembered and recounted by individuals from four American towns and their stories were fresh in our minds. About half the size of the American Cemetery in Normandy and the final resting place for just under fifty percent of the number of dead on the bluff above Omaha Beach, the Florence American Cemetery was deserted the day we visited. We appeared to be the lone callers that morning, in contrast to the cemetery on France’s northern shore, which draws almost a million and a half visitors every year. Perhaps it is overlooked as tourists flock directly to the vineyards, thirsty for wine, but we were indeed honored to have been able to stop and pay our respects.
Justifiably somber with tears in our eyes and lumps in our throats, we left the cemetery and drove south into the heart of Chianti, the wine-producing area between Florence and Siena. When we’d asked directions after lunch in Greve in Chianti, the principal town in the region, to Tavarnelle, the location of our hotel, we were directed well back north, almost as far as the cemetery to a main road since the local passage was “difficult.” Such an admonition had never stopped us before so we searched out the route used by the natives and once we found it, almost immediately started climbing. The “thoroughfare” alternated between mostly paved and barely navigable, but after a few rough spots, it took us uneventfully to where we needed to go. We passed by the walled village of Montefioralle, reported to be the birthplace of Amerigo Vespucci, and then tiny Passignano in Chianti with its 11th century Benedictine Monastery. Neither hamlet generally makes it onto a tourist map since they are little more than clusters of buildings, but they both cry out for photos and the landscape in which they’re found is classic Chianti. Dirt roads behind us, we continued to Tavarnelle, just outside of which our hotel sat on a hill facing west, overlooking a broad valley: perfect for gorgeous sunset viewing. Over the next three days we got a good feel for the area by visiting several wine villages including Radda and Castellina, each with the suffix “in Chianti,” just so you remember where you are. We traveled the backroads of Tuscany, up vineyard-covered hills still in drab, late-winter brown (it was hard to believe that in six shorts month the gnarled black vines would be filled with red and green leaves, heavy with ripe fruit ready to harvest) and through lush pine dales.

Our brief time in Chianti included visits to two fortified hill towns: San Gimignano, famous for its medieval towers of various heights and Volterra, with its 1st century BC Roman amphitheater. The Etruscan mystery people (the origin of the appellation Tuscany), who existed prior to the Roman Empire and about whom little is known, originally settled the two towns in the 3rd century BC. We had an interesting visit to San Gimignano’s main basilica, the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, and received a lovely entry coupon in exchange for three euros fifty. One side was graced by a full-color image of a medieval painting, thus winning the most beautiful ticket award; it was ready for its very own miniature gilded frame. The church interior was richly decorated on every available inch of space. Frescoes of Old Testament scenes filled one side, the life of Christ covered the other and the most graphic -- a horrific depiction of the Last Judgment with deformed nudes committing or on the receiving end of all variety of violence – was reserved for an elevated back wall; it was a ghastly visual interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. Volterra was the quieter, and for us more appealing, of the two walled towns with its 13th century Palazzo dei Priori town hall of crenelated stone (the oldest in Tuscany), thick Etruscan walls and dramatic cliffs. Important scenes from the Twilight series vampire novels take place in Volterra and it’s understandable why author Stephanie Meyer chose the location. It’s easy to imagine walking in the footsteps of Bella and Edward as they make their way through the dark, narrow alleyways of the ancient town.

Tuscany is known for its dry red Chiantis, but Joe and I may have been the only people in the valley drinking white. The warmer weather made us thirsty and after all the reds we’d enjoyed in southern Italy, our palates needed a change. We discovered the deliciously refreshing Vernaccia di San Gimignano, the star of Tuscan whites, and now have a new favorite Italian wine. We went into our Chianti visit knowing little about the wines of the region but came away with a much better appreciation of the nectars it produces. We learned about the different appellations and disabused ourselves of the misconception that Chianti Classico (usually identifiable by a black rooster, the gallo nero, on the label) is necessarily a better wine than a plain old humble Chianti. It’s simply a different terroir and designation, like Chianti, Chianti Rufina and Chianti Montespertoli, with no indication of quality inherent in the name.

Chianti was indeed lovely and I suppose I shouldn’t feel guilty for having my viticulture favorites, but the vineyards of France, the Loire and Cher Valleys, Chablis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Saint-Émilion, just to name a few, and those in Napa and Sonoma in California, remain at the top of my list.

Pictures of our adventures:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Well into our year, we decided to significantly lighten our luggage load. On the way back to northern Italy through Sicily, we packed one of our two large duffels with everything we deemed non-essential and left it behind at the Taormina train station, “for donation.” All along, we’ve been leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of bits and pieces across Europe: a t-shirt here, a pair of khakis there; the extra box of Band-Aids and the threadbare pair of hiking shorts went by the wayside. But six months into it, we were finally inspired and mustered the courage to do some serious unloading. Traveling with four overstuffed bags literally weighed us down and had simply become too onerous. To be fair, however, we had packed for four seasons, marathon training, skiing, hiking and some nice meals out. But it was at long last the beginning of March and with most of the cold weather we expect to encounter behind us, we decided to divest ourselves of our warmest layers and everything else we could make do without.

Our resolve was further bolstered by a chance encounter on a train. On our way south from Naples, we’d met John and Connie, a retired couple from Colorado who looked and acted much younger than their 65 years and who were 10 months into an extended five-year adventure around the world. All they were carrying was a backpack and medium-sized suitcase each. Once they saw our bags, they good-naturedly chided us that we hadn’t exactly “left it all behind.” Their comment sealed the deal: one of our Ogio millstones would be staying in Sicily. We attacked the pruning with a vengeance and were brutal about what we eliminated. If Joe can live without that pair of jeans, I can get by just fine without my travel blazer. No need for that second white shirt – I’ll just wash the other one more often. It’s amazing the difference our bold move has made; we’re just one bag lighter but so much less burdened. We’d drastically simplified our stateside possessions before leaving on our trip and now we’ve stripped down what we’re lugging behind us. The duffel divestiture is already paying dividends. Fewer bags and much less weight have put an extra bounce in our step, lightened the psychological load and will actually save us a significant amount of money. It will be easier to take busses rather than the occasional cab, we can rent smaller cars with smaller trunks and the exorbitant luggage-by-the-kilo fees charged by the discount airlines we patronize will shrink. Our goal, which surely we can meet once we leave Paris, the marathon and the requisite running gear behind us, is to be down to just two bags in addition to our packs. We’ll then be heading far to the south and fingers crossed, will only have need for our lightweight summer essentials. Simplifying is always good for the soul.

Pictures of our adventures:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Golden Malta

Not content to rest on our travel laurels, having ventured as far as Sicily, we continued our southern trajectory and journeyed an additional 50 miles to the Republic of Malta. After several bag drags, two bus rides, a two-hour high-speed ferry and an even higher speed taxi trip to our hotel, we arrived safely in St. Julian’s, Malta.

The Maltese archipelago of seven islands, three of which are inhabited (Malta, Gozo and Comino), is stuck in the middle of the Mediterranean due south of Sicily, to the north of Libya and east of Tunisia. For such tiny islands (the largest is just 95 square miles), they have witnessed more history than I’ll ever have time to digest. The country’s crossroad location has long made Malta strategically important, from the time of the first Phoenician settlements through today. During World War II, the islands played a key role as an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the Allies since from their shores they were able to disrupt critical Axis supply lines to Northern Africa. For its assistance, Malta paid the ultimate price; it lost thousands of lives and sustained serious damage all over the islands from German air attacks. A procession of powers (the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French and British) all laid claim to the islands at one time or another with each individual culture leaving its mark such that Malta became a uniquely Mediterranean microcosm. Finally, in 1974, the little island nation that could gained full independence from the UK and became part of the European Union thirty years later. Malta’s official languages are Maltese and English, the former of Semitic origin (as are Arabic and Hebrew) and many citizens also speak Italian. I naively expected the residents to speak with a British lilt, but perhaps because the UK arrived late to the game after so many others (it took possession in 1814), Maltese English is heavily accented with an eclectic mix of difficult to discern pronunciations. If you listen closely, their speech is laden with Arabic, British, Hebrew, Italian and Northern African influences all mixed together into a charming amalgam.

Our ferry from Pozzallo, Sicily arrived in Malta’s capital, Valletta, well after dark. The imposing walls of the fortified harbor were so thick you could drive a car atop them and, along with the city that rose up the hill behind them, were clad in enormous slabs of taupe sandstone. Given its vulnerable position in the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta’s busy port of Valletta was built and rebuilt, buttressed and bolstered, to always be on the defensive since it has seen its share of attacks over the course of its storied millennia. I almost expected to see the Knights of Malta standing watch over the harbor, arms at the ready, as we disembarked from the ship. We opted to stay in St. Julian’s, a bustling coastal town with cafes galore a few miles west of Valletta. When we awoke the next morning, the view from our upper story hotel room confirmed that not only was the main harbor a bastion of stone, all the construction along the northern coast was much the same. In the brilliance of the morning, however, what had appeared an infinite accumulation of drab beige and taupe in the dark blended into a golden ochre glow in in the sunlight. It was a perfect day for outdoor exercise, so we took advantage of the cool coastal breezes and wide waterfront walkway and did a long marathon training run. We hadn’t been in the company of so many walkers and runners since we’d left the States; clearly, Malta is a land of health-conscious enthusiasts like us.

Hoping to see as much of Malta as we could quickly, we took a hop-on/hop-off bus ride to visit the major sights. The all-day excursion took us across the main island’s low, rocky hills, terraced fields, shoreline cliffs and a few pebbly beaches. Officially Roman Catholic, Malta’s landscape is filled with churches, all of them prominently displaying twin clocks on their towers: one with the correct time and one the incorrect hour in a quirky effort to trick the devil and keep him away from the celebration of mass. Somehow I can't believe that wily Lucifer would be so easily fooled, especially by the old double clock trick. We walked through Mdina, the country’s former capital, a peaceful, stylish town still sequestered behind its medieval stone walls and set high on a hill in the island’s center. Every town we passed through was filled with residential buildings, each floor graced by distinctively Maltese loggia – shallow, window-lined front porches that must provide welcome drafts during the scorching island summers. Around the northeast corner of the big island, we passed by a rocky bay, the site where the Acts of the Apostles reports that St. Paul and his ministry were shipwrecked. Our bus ticket included an hour-long harbor ride on a colorfully painted wooden fishing boat the following day. In the few minutes we had while waiting to board, we enjoyed frothy Burger King cappuccinos on a sunny outdoor terrace overlooking the harbor, surprisingly the best and biggest coffees we’d had on our trip. As we sat sipping our frothy drinks and the seagulls swooped and screamed, I recalled the graffiti that quoted from Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Man and the Sea, and adorned the wall of the tavola calda where we’d eaten at the ferry port in Sicily, “Uomo libero, amerai sempre il mare!” – (Free man, you will always love the sea!).

Malta was as far south as we would venture until mid-April when Chris and Caroline make their encore Gap Year appearance. They’ll be with us for five days in Paris to cheer us on at the marathon, and then we’ll all fly far to the south to our next island destination: the Greece isles. In the meantime, our brief three-day visit to Malta complete, we needed to leave the fascinating melting pot of cultures to retrace our steps and head back north. Our island-hopping visits to Capri, Sicily and Malta had far exceeded our expectations but there were bottles of wine in Tuscany with our names on them and we were anxious to pull the corks. It was time to trade golden-hued Malta for the reds and whites of Chianti.

Pictures of our adventures:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sicily, Then and Now

The Roman ruins that abound on mainland Italy are fascinating but it’s the architecture of the Greeks that really sparks my imagination. After all, what the Romans built was in large part derivative of the masterpieces their Hellenistic predecessors constructed, no? Sicily has its share of outstanding Greek ruins so, anxious to see some precursors of what we’ll experience once we land in Greece, we headed straight for Agrigento’s renowned Valle dei Templi.

Perhaps my captivation with Greek architecture stems from so easily being able to picture myself strolling around the temples with Caroline, the two of us lithe and bronzed (remember, this is my imagination and I can appear as I like...) with flowers in our hair, bedecked in diaphanous draped Grecian gowns and golden leather sandals, blithely discussing philosophy (or more likely the latest fashions). But the real reason, I’m sure, is that I was fortunate to have had a simply wonderful Classical Art and Architecture professor in college, so very intelligent, albeit more than a little loopy, who was passionate about her subject, taught me so much in her classroom and helped the past come alive in a very real way. Knowledge reveals worlds previously unknown; it breeds understanding and if you’re fortunate, appreciation, and in my case, as concerns all-things-Greek, it brought life-long fascination. I read the writings of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes and have reread my favorites over the years (Antigone, Electra, and of course, Lysistrata). I would so love to transport myself back to the glory days of Greek theater to witness the performances of the playwrights’ great works with their contemporaries in incomparable open-air theaters. And perhaps early on a summer morning, I would join a lively conversation between Socrates and his acolytes about the meaning of life and the critical issues of the day. Given the bitter tenor of current debate in our country, I often think we could use an infusion of reason from the golden age of Athens: Pericles, where are you when we need you?

We rented a car for two days and while we did our best to see as much of Sicily as we could, the distances are significant and we only managed to scratch the surface of the large island. The ruins at Agrigento, Siracusa and Taormina made our list; the sites at Segesta and Selinunte will have to wait for a future visit. The over three-hour drive to see the Greek temples at Agrigento’s Valle dei Templi took us across the island’s center, up and over hills and through black lava outcroppings, reminders of the island’s volcanic beginnings. The drive was uneventful, other than the inherent madness of the Sicilian roads, until we began the initial descent on the autostrada down towards Agrigento and the southwestern coast. Alone on the highway, we sped into an extended mountain tunnel and instantly plunged into pitch-black obscurity with not a single lamp to light our way. Joe jammed on the breaks as we drifted in the dark, frantically searching for the headlight control in our unfamiliar rented Renault Clio. It seemed like minutes but was likely only seconds until the lights clicked on, illuminating the underground shaft. Disaster averted, hearts back in our chests, we emerged from the tunnel and continued to the coast.

So unlike the white limestone Parthenon and Acropolis, Agrigento’s beauties are crafted of warm, honey-colored sandstone. First spied from afar, they appeared to be miniature cardboard models but as we approached their monumentality became clear. The great row of golden-hued structures actually sits in the middle of a park on an elevated plateau below a ridge on which the modern city lives, and not in a valley at all. The seven Doric temples of this Sicilian acropolis, constructed when Agrigento was founded as the Greek colony of Akragas in the 6th century BC and then became one of the greatest cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, are some of the largest and best-preserved classical temples outside the borders of Greece itself. They’re surrounded by groves of almond trees, in beautiful pale pink bloom during our visit (a much-welcomed sign of the approaching spring), and look out over the Mediterranean Sea and an immensity of Sicilian blue sky. Miniature brown lizards preceded us up the stepped path, dryly skittering into nooks and crannies in the rough stone wall, and spindly wind-bent cypresses lined the trail as we approached the crest. The first temple, that of Juno, rose majestically above us with the others in file behind it down the hill, including the remarkably preserved and almost intact Temple of Concordia. As we drew close, the stunning view drew gasps and then left us speechless with mouths agape as we absorbed the architectural grandeur of the ancients. During the Carthaginian invasion in 406 BC, Agrigento was set aflame and if you look closely, signs of the fires that ravaged the temples is still visible since sandstone turns red when heated. Just amazing...we were able to witness forensic evidence from over 2,400 years ago. Next along our walk was a twisted, thick-trunked olive tree, still thriving and bearing fruit and reported to be over 1,000 years old on our way towards the Valle dei Templi’s largest structure by far: the mighty Temple of Olympian Zeus. Had its construction been completed it would have been the biggest temple ever built -- almost large enough to fill a regulation soccer field. Earthquakes and stone-robbers have reduced the structure to rubble but there is still an enormous Doric capital in the pile and just like Gulliver lying prone in the land of the Lilliputians is a copy of one of the temple’s unique elements. Now featureless and badly eroded, a 25-foot tall stone telamon – a carved architectural support in the form of a man – is fast asleep on his back in the dust.

Just as when we’d visited elegant, eerie Pompeii from our base in Sorrento ten days earlier, both the enduring and the ephemeral competed for my attention. I was effortlessly able to envision the citizens of ancient Akragas, much as it had been easy to conjure up the ghosts of frozen-in-time Pompeii while ambling the grid-patterned streets of the excavated town in the shadow of ominous Vesuvius. Pompeii’s intact brick ovens so like modern day pizza ovens and the colorful mosaics, including one in a residential entryway that warns “Cave Canem/Beware of the Dog,” and Agrigento’s excavated gymnasium are the human, everyday details that bring the ancient sites alive and make visiting them so poignant. Whether sitting on the foundation stones of what used to be Pompeii’s forum or a grand ceremonial altar in Agrigento, both experiences released feelings of personal insignificance and led to melancholy reflection on the fleeting nature of individual human lives. What were they like, these inhabitants of metropolises so very lovely but so long ago abandoned? The people of so very many generations past are long gone while the remnants of what they constructed remain and the permanence of the land, as always, prevails.

Not inclined to simply retrace our steps on the autostrada from Agrigento back to Taormina, we opted for a different route home and new Sicilian vistas along the coast. Once again in the driver’s seat with me, his trusty navigator beside him, Joe reiterated what he’d admitted that morning: “Every time I get behind the wheel in this country, I have to readjust to the disorder and I know I’ll never get used to it.” Little did we know the chaos that awaited us on the road ahead. A well traveled local road on which Sicilian drivers took the art of tailgating to a new level, practically kissing the left corner of our rear bumper before swerving around and giving us another peck on our front left bumper as they cut back in front, took us southwest and exposed us to the less attractive side of the island. In one of those jarring disparities we’ve so often encountered on our trip, after relishing the glories of Agrigento and heading southwest for 50 miles, we came upon Gela, site of the 1943 American landing on Sicily and the beginning of the long advance north to Rome during World War II. It was possibly the ugliest town I’ve ever seen. Gela was a drab and colorless and chaos reigned. Its coast was dominated by oil refinery sprawl and poured concrete buildings, gray, gulag-like utilitarian constructions with no aesthetic relief, lined both sides of the main street, many of them unfinished and inhabited by what appeared to be squatters. The dystopian town was a mess of busted neon signs, an invasion of weeds and unsightly wires and antennae that hung and sprouted from every surface. Its appearance was that of a ghost town yet the streets were alive with activity. Vehicles were everywhere: motorini, cars and ramshackle vans were double-parked all along the road and on the sidewalks. The streets, none with any lane markings, were like NASCAR speedways: it was a driving free-for-all where the rules of the road were optional and traffic signs mere suggestions. The two official lanes of traffic more or less made their way past each other through town but a makeshift lane far to our left on the opposite shoulder was used by cars going every which way along the periphery. If you don’t want to use the road provided, just create a new lane of your own. If people get in your way, simply drive around them, the no-passing signage be damned. One-way street signs mean, ”go ahead and do as you please, just be a little careful as you drive in the wrong direction.” Traffic lights and roadway signs are for tourists only since we appeared to be the sole drivers who read them and paid any attention. Joe repeatedly mumbled, trying to convince himself as a rebel driver yet again cut him off, “The disorder, it’s cultural... I have to understand about the’s how they do things here.” I don’t know how we made it through Gela without losing either a bumper or our sanity, but we did manage to survive the bedlam and then escaped with the first left that would take us into the hills away from the coast and back to our hotel in Taormina.

The following day, with Siracusa as our destination, we headed south along the coast past Mount Etna and Catania, Sicily’s capital. As we drove by road sign after road sign, I made a mental list of all the towns that sounded familiar because they were the names of people I’ve known or have heard of and combined the list with those I’d noticed on the previous day’s excursion to Agrigento. There were more names that rang a bell than all we’d seen in almost three months on mainland Italy: Butera, Carrabba, Corleone, Falcone, Iannello, Mangano, Mineo, Pachino, Paterno, Prizzi, Randazzo and Siracusano, just to name a few. The number of Americans with roots in Sicily must be astounding. The first Siracusan site on our list was the archeological park and its ancient treasures. We filled our morning exploring the semicircular open Greek theatre, hewn directly from the hillside rock in the 5th century BC and one of the largest ever constructed; the latomìe, the stone quarries of which the most famous is the vertically yawning cave, the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius) that winds its way deep into the cliff; the crumbling Altar of Hieron II, the longest ever built; and finally, the 1st century AD oval Roman amphitheater, so different from its Greek neighbor and site of violent gladiator battles and other bloody circus fare.

Our next stop was Siracusa’s island of Ortygia, at the eastern end of the city, inhabited since the Bronze Age and where in 735 BC the Corinthians first founded a metropolis that once rivaled Athens. We crossed the Ponte Nuova bridge over the narrow channel that separates it from Sicily, took the advice of the guidebooks and simply wandered the compact, elegant, graffiti-free island. A rich variety of architectural styles has accumulated over the ages, from the ancient Temple of Apollo to the sunny Piazza del Duomo made of beautiful, light stone, in lovely juxtaposition to the dark, tightly knit lanes radiating from the broad, elliptical plaza. Late lunch on the island, a seafood-centric, leisurely affair under an outdoor awning overlooking the harbor capped our visit to Siracusa.

Our tour of the ancients on Sicily ended in our Taormina backyard. A very well-preserved theater, refashioned by the Romans several centuries after the original was built by the Greeks, sits perched high on the hill in the middle of town, perfectly sited to frame Mount Etna behind its stage. It would have been difficult for me, had I been a spectator, to decide whether to concentrate on the performance or gaze at the smoking volcano backdrop while sitting in the stands.

Have I mentioned that we loved Sicily? The cadence of the language is just a bit more pronounced, the gestures more emphatic, the food delicious and the people genuinely gracious. I’m going to choose to ignore Gela and our post-apocalyptic drive-through and only remember the glories of Agrigento, Siracusa and Taormina. And whenever I need a dreamy pick-me-up, I’ll go back to losing myself in my sun-kissed Sicilian fantasy, Caroline at my side, rambling around the agora with the ancients.

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sicilia By-the-Sea

The treasure trove of ancient ruins first drew us to the largest island in the Mediterranean but what made us love Sicily was that she had so much more to offer. Although we visited for a full week, we still didn’t have enough time to see all she had to show us.

We boarded the train for Sicily in Naples behind a pack of fully armed carabinieri, images of the Italian Wild West, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano dancing in our heads. We guessed that there must occasionally be some seriously illegal goings-on aboard the train on this particular itinerary. The train to Taormina, our Sicilian destination, took about seven hours including the two-mile ferry trip to the island. They actually split the train into two pieces and roll the cars onto rails on the ship for the 20-minute passage across the Strait of Messina. While building a tunnel might seem logical, it makes no seismic sense; the earthquake-prone region categorically rules out that possibility. Joe, ship engineer that he is, went up on deck to observe the logistics while I stayed in our train compartment chatting with the 30-something young woman sitting across from us. She was among that rare breed of seriously overweight women who don’t act like they’re heavy; she was confident, wore perfect makeup, was dressed to the nines and carried herself with panache. She knew what to do with what she had, in true Italian bella figura style. While she understood some English, she didn’t speak it and I could understand enough Italian such that we were able to carry on a conversation for a good long while. She spoke to me in Italian and I responded in English; it was a particularly satisfying experience and we had a terrific exchange. She taught me the lovely, lilting Italian pronunciation of Sicily (Sicilia--See-CHEE-lya) and I filled her in on US geography. Like many Europeans, she was anxious to visit both New York City and California and I explained just how far apart they are, suggesting that she would need at least three weeks to see them properly. She was a Neopolitana and was headed for a long weekend in Taormina to visit her boyfriend; she makes the trip south once a month to see him and he travels north with the same frequency to see her in Naples. Joe returned to the compartment once the train was reconnected in Messina for the final leg of our most-of-the-day journey. Our companion’s destination was the same as ours, so clutching her bright pink suitcase, the travel gear of choice among so many young Italian women, she waved goodbye and warbled, “Arrivederci” as she headed for her boyfriend’s car and we proceeded to the taxi stand. La bella figura was our first taste of Sicily and she was lovely.

Taormina is a captivating hilltop town on Sicily’s northeastern coast and the Hotel Bel Soggiorno, our bright white, stately hotel, an early 19th century villa with tall arched windows and a sunny, glassed-in breakfast veranda, was perched about halfway up the rise. Thankful, yet again, for affordable off-season rates of under $100 a night, we marveled at the corner room we were given. It was quite small but had 14-foot high ceilings and two French doors, each with its own balcony, one looking south over the coast with Mount Etna as its backdrop and the other facing east over the hotel’s gardens and the blue-green sea. We had scored, we were told, “the most requested room at the inn.” Honestly, as Joe so aptly observed, we’re not sure we’ve ever stayed in a place with more dramatic views. We never tired of looking out the windows and although we took the very same pictures every morning and evening, the nuanced light made each one unique. Mt. Etna, an active volcano, broods majestically yet ominously over Taormina, lazily puffing smoke now and then just to remind you she’s there. It’s difficult to forget her potential power when gazing up at her snow-capped cone, its peak blown off long ago leaving a yawning, uneven gap below which churning lava continues to boil. While we had notions of hiking to the top of Mt. Etna before we arrived, those hopes quickly evaporated once we saw the snowy winds swirling around her summit 11,000 feet in the air.

We used Taormina as our home base for exploring Sicily, returning to the Bel Soggiorno at the end of each day and experiencing two shades of evening: one a premature precursor when the sun disappeared behind Mt. Etna and the second producing indisputable darkness as the sun sank below the horizon. We made the steep ascent into town for dinner on several evenings, tackling the many stairs and ramps slowly to ensure we didn’t arrive bathed in sweat. The Taverna al Paladino, a small ristorante with only five tables became our evening meal venue of choice. The Mom and Pop operation with her in the kitchen, him in the dining room and the children coming and going, served mouth-watering local specialties at reasonable prices. Seafood dominates Sicilian cuisine and we certainly enjoyed our share during our visit: swordfish and tuna, mussels and clams, anchovies and shrimp, cuttlefish and prawns. As you might expect, Sicily is all about living by the sea, and I so enjoy saying this phrase over and over in Italian, letting the melodious vowel sounds roll around my mouth: la bella Sicilia al mare, la bella Sicilia al mare.

Pictures of our adventures:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Heaven on Earth

I’ve died and gone to Capri. We spent four days and three nights on this romantic island, which appeared to have been art directed to perfection by a brilliant designer. It looks exactly like a Mediterranean island should, its colors vibrant, water clear, gardens abundant and shoreline rugged.

Our Gap Year has been the ultimate lesson in geography. I have to admit that before we started planning our visit to Southern Italy, all I had was a vague notion of Capri as an island somewhere in the Mediterranean; I’m not even sure I realized it was part of Italy. Once we situated it on a map just three miles off the point of the Sorrentine peninsula and read so much that referred to it as a Mediterranean jewel, we decided to make it part of our itinerary. We also learned that if we wanted to sound like locals, we needed to accent its first syllable and not the second: it’s CAP-ree in Italian, not ca-PREE as we Americans say.

It was a quick 25-minute ferry ride from Sorrento across the Bay of Naples to the island, the first of three we’ll be visiting in succession (Sicily and then Malta will be next). The ship was filled with day-trippers on a brief excursion, leaving us feeling particularly special to be two of only a few dragging suitcases behind them and overnighting on the island, which has drawn pleasure seekers since Roman times. Capri is small (just ten miles around) and vertical; the sea meets the shore and then everything goes up – straight up. High in the hills above opposite sides of the port sit Capri Town and her sister village, Anacapri. In season, a funicular continuously shuttles quayside visitors from the ferry skyward to Capri’s main square, the Piazzetta, but since we were off-season February interlopers, our only option was to ride the packed local bus up the corkscrewed road to the top. Once past the surprisingly efficient bus depot, the town is pedestrian-only, so we rolled our suitcases up through the undulating center, over the crest in the middle of town and then down several blocks to the other side of the island that looks away from the mainland out south over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Delicately painted street signs in tandem with helpful glazed ceramic maps mounted on every corner directed us to the elegant Via Tragara, the narrow lane that wanders east away from town and on which our hotel was located. Even before we saw our lovely room at La Certosella, an 1880 villa set high on the hill and one of the few hotels open before April, our walk through the meticulously maintained town assured us that the decision to come to Capri was a wise one. And once we entered our bright, everything white, sunny room with daintily decorated floor tiles, sheer, breezy curtains and a broad balcony that overlooked a citrus garden and the azure sea beyond, we knew that our visit to the island would be special indeed.

Was it our imagination or did the sun shine a bit brighter and warmer and sit higher in the sky while we were on Capri? Could we possibly be glimpsing the very first signs that winter is finally giving in and letting spring take over? On our many walks through town, I noticed gnarled, gray wisteria and bougainvillea vines just beginning to sprout pale green new growth and buds on branches atop the twisted trunks of compact oleander trees hinted of color to come. It actually made me stop, close my eyes, feel the warmth and smile: ah, spring. Although most of the countless flower boxes, pots and planters scattered wherever we went remained empty, waiting to be filled with springtime blooms, the Augustus Gardens with its incomparable views over the Marina Piccola, a tiny fishing village on the island’s south side, was already adorned with early plantings: hardy purple pansies and bright pink cyclamen. We could only speculate about the island’s in-season brilliance; if it’s this beautiful now, imagine how gorgeous it must be in full season splendor when the hedges are heavy with blossoms and the trees and gardens are in full flower. But despite this lesser lament, we felt ourselves lucky to be able to witness Capri before the hordes of visitors descend in May. We had what was perhaps a more special experience walking the streets with the locals and watching workers busy patching stucco, freshening whitewash, trimming trees, replacing broken tiles and stocking the stores. A few shops selling postcards and various Capri tchotchkes were open, along with a cafe or two on the Piazzetta. But the many purveyors of all manner of designer luxury items from Prada, Blumarine and Ferragamo for the soon-to-arrive beautiful people were busy slicing open stacks of boxes filled with the latest must-haves delivered on motorized carts which managed to make their way with the precious inventory through the jumble of streets.

In contrast to its refined main town, much of Capri remains a wilderness, the result of its harsh topography, and there are plenty of trails for exploring. Needing to appease our hiking yen, we did a scramble of a walk along the overlooked western coast, three miles as the crow flies but the distance may have doubled with all the ups and downs we negotiated along the craggy limestone cliffs. The recently restored Sentiero dei Fortini, the Trail of the Forts, starts at the lighthouse on Capri’s southwest corner and skirts the coast to the famed Grotta Azzurra, the Blue Grotto, in the northwest. We had the remote trail all to ourselves as we passed through stunning landscape that looked much as it has since emperors vacationed on the island two millennia ago. The footpath climbed up dramatic cactus-strewn cliffs around wild headlands jutting into the dazzling sea and then back down carved stone steps that led to the water along the rocky shoreline; there was not even the hint of a sandy beach en route. We took our time, hiking at a leisurely pace, stopping to munch on sandwiches and including many stops to admire the spectacular scenery.

As we rounded the final point and made our way down the hill towards the Blue Grotto, we were belted with the wind from the north that had picked up substantially since the morning, whipping up white-capped peaks across the bay. With such rough waters, the grotto was closed and we had to cross our fingers that the wind would calm by the following day so that we could visit Capri’s number one sight the next morning. Subside it did and the sun shone bright so we booked a ride with Gerardo in his small motorboat named, “Pizza Man,” from the Marina Grande. Outside the watery cave we transferred to a small rowboat that would allow us, lying down flat, to swoop through the two by two meter entry into the mystical sapphire blue cave as our oarsman grabbed a chain and pulled us in. Refracted sunlight from a hidden opening in the cave illuminates the grotto and tints the water such that all appears to shimmer with an iridescent pale blue light; it was just breathtaking.

Our final Caprese pursuit turned out to be one of the most beautiful walks we’ve ever taken, around the southeastern edge of the island. The guidebooks promised panoramas and the trek did not disappoint. Much more lush than the barren, rocky western side, this corner is covered with soaring pines, spindly cypress and a tangle of vines. A simply gorgeous trail wanders through the rainforest-like microclimate and passes the towering natural stone arch, descends to the Matermania Grotto and then winds around to the Punta Tragara and the Faraglioni, three huge limestone eggs that sit guarding the end of the Via Tragara. The crystal clear sea around the massive rock formations allowed us to see to its very depths and the pale sand underneath formed a perfect canvas for its translucent aquamarine.

On our final morning on Capri, we sat on our sunny balcony with an enchanting view over orange, lemon and grapefruit trees so close we could practically pick our own breakfast fruit. All sound but the rustling palms and a background of birdsong seemed to have evaporated from around us. A teeny gray and orange sparrow with shiny black eyes paid us a visit and he accepted our invitation to stay when we tossed him crumbs from our basket of breakfast cornetti. We imagined returning to Capri someday in the full finery of the season, but decided that it would be overrun with the stiletto-sandaled, Bermuda-shorted jet set licking the windows of the bright luxury emporia, the streets would be jammed, prices would triple and we just wouldn’t fit in. Better that we’d visited Capri in her heavenly natural glory -- the epitome of effortless luxury.

Pictures of our adventures: