Sunday, April 17, 2011

Malta, Gozo, and Milan

Hydrofoil from Sicily to Malta
We took a rather large catamaran hydrofoil from Sicily to Malta, arriving in the capital city of Valletta in about three hours.  Valletta is considered to have one of Europe’s finest cityscapes, and entering the Grand Harbor by boat offered an impressive view of this very hilly city of stone that is surrounded by massive fortifications. 
View of Valletta from the Grand Harbor
 Since you probably know as much about Malta as we did a few months ago (i.e. next to nothing), here is a mini-Malta history lesson.  Much like Sicily, Malta was conquered by every bully on the block including the Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, French, and British.  In 1530, Malta was given to the Knights of St. John (aka Knights of Malta).  These Knights came from all over Europe and were originally charged with protecting pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. 

Another view across the Grand Harbor
 In 1565, the Knights became the heroes of Europe when their outnumbered force of less than 9,000 held off a Turkish invasion force of over 30,000.  In fact, the stone fortifications that we admire so much were built out of fear that the Turks would return.

The Maltese people were put to the test once again during WWII when they suffered 154 days of continuous bombing (even London during the Blitz numbered only 57 days of continuous bombing).  As a result of their bravery, the people of Malta were awarded the George Cross, Great Britain’s highest civilian honor.  

Colorful wooden balconies in Valletta
The Knights have a long history of providing excellent hospital services.  After the turmoil in Gallipoli (circa 1915), the Maltese gained renown by caring for the survivors of that infamous battle. Surprisingly, the Knights still exist with about 12,000 Knights and Dames (yes, they now allow women!) providing medical care and disaster relief around the world.

Steep streets in Valletta
In Valletta, we stayed in a studio apartment carved right out of the fortifications.  We even had a view of the Grand Harbor from about 100 feet up from our balcony!  The city layout of Valletta was a bit challenging with steep streets that reminded us of San Francisco.  Valletta sits on a hill, and cross streets go up one side of the hill and down the other with lots of steps along the way.  The architecture is also unusual with bright red, blue, or green enclosed wooden balconies hanging on the outside of the stone walls of the buildings. 

Looking out over the Grand Harbor
English is the second language of Malta, so everyone speaks it, making Malta a very user friendly place for us English speakers.  And because of the British influence, all street signs and storefronts are in English too.  It’s a good thing, because Maltese is a strange and difficult language, a mix of the languages of all its former conquerors.  

Co-Cathedral of St. John inValletta
 We began our tour of the city at the Knight’s church, the “Co-Cathedral of St. John”.  The original Knights may have taken a vow of poverty, but their cathedral must have been exempt!  The interior was a stunner: a kaleidoscope of rich colors with an ornate Bernini-like altar, and a marble inlaid floor that marked the tombs of the Knights buried below.  

We also visited Valletta’s Archaeology Museum where we first learned about the remarkable prehistoric sites on Malta.  Believe it or not, the megalithic temples of Malta, built between 3600 and 2500 B.C., are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world (500 years older than the oldest Pyramid).  

Tarxien Temple

We explored several of them including the prehistoric temples at Hagar Qim & Mnajdra (you can really see the Arab influence in the Maltese language), and the even more impressive Tarxien Temples.  All the temples were built with great craftsmanship over 5000 years ago with standing stones weighing as much as 20 tons, marvelous swirly stone carvings, and unusual stone portals with holes in the stone doorways believed to have been used to hang animal skin “doors.”

"The Sleeping Lady"
Statues found at the sites were equally fascinating: the famous “fat lady” artifacts which may have been fertility goddesses, the tiny, but detailed “Venus of Malta”, and a sinuous “Sleeping Lady” who looks just like a Picasso sculpture.  Plus, several of these ingenious temples are aligned with the sun so that the inner altar is illuminated during the summer and winter solstices.

The "Holy of Holies"
Our favorite ancient site was the Hypogeum, a strange underground burial site.  Anne had bought tickets months ago, and with only 60 people permitted to enter each day, we felt privileged to climb down into the elaborate subterranean chambers carved from the rock.  The builders of the Hypogeum actually replicated the aboveground temples by carving pillars and portals out of the solid rock.  Remember, this burial site was created 5000 years ago; what tools did these people use?  How’d they lift the heavy stones? And, no traces of soot were found in these labyrinths, the implication being that these ancient people carved these underground rooms in almost total darkness!  The most special room of all was the “Holy of Holies,” so beautifully carved that you would swear you were looking at a Greek masterwork (even though the Hypogeum appeared several thousand years earlier).

No one knows who these people were, or more importantly, why they abruptly stopped building temples and seemed to disappear.  Honestly, the more of these mysterious sites that we visit, the more we start to believe in aliens!  

Fishing boats of Marsaxlokk
We also visited the village of Marsaxlokk, home to about 70% of the fishermen on Malta, with a colorful harbor filled with distinctive boats painted in primary shades of red, blue, and yellow.  The bow of each boat is decorated with the “Eyes of Osiris” to ward off evil spirits.  Not being a big fan of evil spirits ourselves, Anne did the proper touristy thing, and bought a ceramic version of an “eye” to bring back home with us.   

Island of Gozo
We checked out the island of Gozo, spending two nights on this laidback little island that is only 8.5 miles long by 4.5 miles wide, and just a ½ hour ferry ride from the northwestern tip of Malta.  Gozo belongs to Malta, and is similar to the mother island, but much more rural and with more of an Arab look.  Everybody seems to know each other on this tiny island, and we really enjoyed the folksy small-town ambience.  

Franky, our excellent guide and taxi cab driver
We spent a real “Gozo Day” with a taxi cab driver we happened to meet when we first arrived.  Franky Camilleri, a gentle and knowledgeable 45-year old cab driver here on Gozo who had lived for 16 years in Manhattan, gave us a complete tour or the island. 

The Miracle Church
We enjoyed lovely sea views, and the Miracle Church (the Maltese are some of the most devout Roman Catholics in the world) where the faithful come hoping for medical cures. 

Gozo "bobbin" lace in progress
  We were also able to buy some of the famous handmade Gozo lace in a village craft shop from a woman who showed us how she makes lace doilies.  It was fascinating to observe this artisan flipping her hand-held bobbins around, each tied to a piece of lace thread, to make the resulting lace.  She worked so fast, it was hard to see exactly what she was doing, even though we watched intently at the operation. But the end result was an unmistakably beautiful handcrafted piece of lace.  This is really an “almost lost” art, we thought. 

A lot of fun was had at the Folklore Museum that, like Doylestown’s Mercer Museum, contained one man’s well-organized collection of tools, devices, and other historical memorabilia of Gozo.  Later, we stopped at the super friendly Ta ‘Mena winery for a taste of unique Gozo wine! 

Da Vinci's "The Last Supper"
 After returning to Malta, we flew Easy Jet from Valletta to Milan where we spent just one night before flying home.  But this stop gave us time to partake of a long sought-after view of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous wall mural in the chapel of Santa Maria della Grazie - “The Last Supper.”  The painting is in much better shape than we expected with surprisingly vibrant colors.  Anne was most intrigued by all the different hand gestures (something she had never noticed before), as the apostles pondered the statement that Jesus had just made: “one of you will betray me”.  Leonardo was a real master hand painter.  We had a mere 15-minute time slot with Da Vinci, but the memory will be infinitely more long lasting.

We had an uneventful but lengthy 9-1/2 hour flight back to Newark – and were greeted by cold, rainy and dreary weather.  We had worried that we might miss some of our spring flowers, but it looks like Spring decided to wait for us.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Siracusa and Ragusa

Fisherman catching Sunday dinner on Ortigia

Siracusa has always been a glorious city, from ancient times till now, located here in the southeastern corner of Sicily. The city was once the most important in the Western world eclipsing Corinth and even Athens.  We are staying in the old part of town that is actually a tiny island (5 football fields wide and under a mile long), called Ortigia (pronounced: oar-TEE-jee-a).  This is the city that Anne has always dreamed of seeing.  Of all the places we have visited in Sicily, Ortigia is the most magical.
When we left Catania, we had a perfect plan to take the bus to Siracusa and arrived at the bus station with time to spare.  However, when we tried to buy our bus tickets, the abrupt clerk said, “No bus today; strike.”  A man of few words, but his message was loud and crystal clear: no bus was going to take us to Siracusa today!  Now what?  Fortunately, Anne pulled our bacon out of the fire; she had read in her travel research that the trains also run to Siracusa, and the station was only a few blocks away.  Only one lingering question: are the trains also on strike today?  When we hustled over there, we got lucky; the bus strike was not connected to the trains.  We had transportation!! 
We lost a few hours since the trains do not run as frequently – but we made good use of our time, working on our trip reports (love that Netbook!) as we sat in the station awaiting the train arrival.  Strikes are infamous in Italy, so it was inevitable that one would catch up with us.
Elaborate stonework on the elegant balconies of Ortigia

Back to the dreamy ambience of Ortigia.  The buildings on this island are totally made of an old world style stonework that exudes grace and elegance and reminds us of Venice sans the canals.  Many of these structures are former palaces with elaborate stone carvings decorating the windows and hundreds of different styles of wrought iron balconies.  This is a place Anne may never want to leave.

Piazza di Duomo in Ortigia

The Piazza di Duomo may be the most beautiful plaza in all of Sicily – a huge open expanse with a Duomo (domed church,) covered with statues, that turns a brilliant sparkly cream color in the glow of the late afternoon sun.  This area was once the acropolis of the Greek town, and the Duomo (with some Greek columns still visible) was once the Temple of Minerva.  Other Greek remains include the Temple to Apollo with its Norman arched window reminding us that Christian churches often incorporated the earlier temples into their own walled structures (which is why so many of the ancient buildings have survived).

Duomo in Ortigia

One of the most unusual sights was the Bagno Ebraico, the Hebrew ritual baths.  The ritual baths were sacred places fed by natural spring waters where Jewish men would bathe before entering the Synagogue, and Jewish women would bathe before their weddings, after childbirth, and after each menstrual period.  These baths date back to 75 AD, and were used until 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Sicily.  At that time, the stairs to the baths were blocked with rubble by fleeing Jews to hide and protect them.  No one knew the baths even existed until 1991 when renovations at the hotel next door revealed the old subterranean stairway.
The baths themselves are not terribly attractive, but are a fascinating place to visit with the undeniable mystique of a finding a secret place that had been hidden for over 500 years. The outer room contains three baths for the women, and private baths on each side, hewn out of solid rock for the men.  Each bath was entered by climbing down several steps, and a special prayer was associated with each step. 
Greek Theater in Siracusa
We spent a day in the larger and newer part of the city of Siracusa to see the 60-acre Archaeological Park and the nearby Museum.  The Greek theater was quite large and impressive and very well preserved; in its heyday, the bleachers held nearly 20,000 Greek theatergoers.  The Roman Arena at the other corner of the archeological digs was also quite interesting.  The arena was mostly in ruins (because many of the stone blocks were used to build Ortigia), but we could still easily see the elliptical shape of the arena, and the deep rectangular dugout in the arena’s center that was used to clean up the blood and gore after gladiatorial combat. 
That brings up an interesting dichotomy between the Romans and the Greeks – they both built arenas to put on “shows” for the entertainment of their people; the Romans put on shows of death and destruction, one gladiator killing another; while the Greeks put on stage shows and theatrical performances, no murders or killing.  Yet in battle, each faction could be equally vicious.

Anne does her ear trick in front of the
Ear of Dionysius

We also saw the ruins of the altar “Ara di Ierone II” which was the largest altar of its kind in the world.  The Greeks once slaughtered 450 bulls on this altar during an annual feast and celebration.  But our favorite sight was an ear-shaped cavern some 75 feet high, 30 feet wide, and 200 feet deep down in the quarries, called “Orrechio di Dionisio” (the ear of Dionysius).  The huge cavern was a remarkable echo chamber, and once inside, Frank was inspired to vocalize a few bars of the Verdi aria, “La donne è mobile”.  A woman further inside the cavern (and out of our sight) responded with the next few bars of the same aria!  Over the next 15 minutes or so, we heard several tourists going into and out of the cave singing the same tune; they must have heard Frank and picked up the same idea. Haaaa!  There is no living with Frank now – he is convinced that he is the next Pavarotti!

Raimondo and Raul
The nearby Archaeology Museum was a bit much for us with over 18,000 artifacts on display, most of them chards of pottery.  However, the excellent Roman sculptures (copies of the Greek) were carved in the sparkly local limestone and gave us an idea of how the people who used to walk these streets would have looked.  Frank thought they looked much like the hippies of the 60’s, with long hair and simple dress.

On the human interest front, we met a delightful family with two little boys named Raimondo and Raul (9 and 6 year’s old respectively) in a little café.  Frank got them going with some high fives and some picture-taking fun, but it was clear that neither boy could figure out why we didn’t understand what they were saying.  After we left the restaurant, Raimondo came running after us – with Frank’s sunglasses in his hand!  Yea, Frank had stupidly left his sunglasses on the table, and Raimondo wanted to return them.  Frank offered him a euro reward for his good deed, but Raimondo shook his head “no”, and sauntered back into the café.  What a great kid!

Boating on the Ionian Sea near Siracusa

On our last day, we took a boat ride around the island and along the craggy cave-ridden coastline.  We enjoyed splendid views from the water, and our boat captain Roberto steered us slowly into some grottos where newly formed orange coral contrasted with the emerald green water.

In front of the Castello on Ortigia 

Our fantastico Siclian feast!
We are staying at Arethusa Vacanze in an ancient building with a gorgeous rooftop terrace where we eat breakfast every morning, overlooking the blue-green Ionian Sea amidst an expanse of terra cotta rooftops.  We have a comfortable, roomy apartment (Sicily has some of the largest hotel rooms we have ever come across in Europe) with a romantic canopy bed and a small kitchen. 
One day, we shopped at the outdoor market and created our very own Sicilian feast.  We weren’t always sure what we were buying, but the shopping experience was priceless.  We ended up with Spigola (sea bass) “on the hoof,” Tenerumi (white zucchini), a baked ricotta cheese still warm from the oven, sundried tomatoes in olive oil, a baggie of spices con pesce (spices especially blended for fish) that included the freshest smelling rosemary and oregano, an onion, and Finocchio (fennel).  We weren’t sure what to expect from the finocchio, but it was a great fresh additive with a slight licorice flavor when we chopped it up like an onion and added it to the mix.  We had a blast buying, cooking, and trying new flavors – and with all those super fresh ingredients, the end result meal was fantastico!!
After 5 days of scenic wonder and great experiences here, Ortigia had captured Anne’s heart.  Frank had to carry Anne out of Ortigia kicking and screaming, but we managed to move on to the hill town of “Ragusa Ibla” (old Ragusa).  The entire town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, but it was completely rebuilt in the latest style of the time: Baroque.

Duomo in Ragusa

The town’s most beautiful square surrounds the Duomo, and we are staying in an elegant townhouse right around the corner.  Our room (a suite actually) at the Risveglia Ibleo B&B is immense with three rooms plus an enormous bathroom.  We have a separate bedroom plus two living areas furnished with a TV, two more beds, and even a large upright piano!   We can really spread out here – the big rooms are perfect for Anne to practice some Tai Chi!

The "money shot" view of Ragusa Ibla

Ragusa is actually divided into 2 towns, Ragusa the “modern” town, and Ragusa Ibla, the old town.  Each is its own hill town, separated by a valley between.  We took a bus to the upper “modern” town of Ragusa and followed a series of stone staircases back down here to the old town, where we are staying.  A young woman named Mona kindly helped us locate the staircase.  She was taking her little boy for a ride in his stroller when she found us two “lost” Americans.  She even asked Anne to watch her little boy for a few minutes while she ran into a shop.  Once Mona walked us across town (or so it seemed) to the stairs we were searching for, we had a great hike past stunning Baroque churches and fantastic viewpoints of the old town of Ragusa Ibla.
Tomorrow, we say a sad arrivederci to Sicily and take an early ferry to the nearby island of Malta – a new place and an all new adventure.  We will miss Sicilia; it has been our friendly home for the past 3 weeks!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Catania, Taormina, and Mt. Etna

Our first impression of Catania was that it was not the garden spot of Sicily.  However as it turned out, the town was special for us.  We are staying in a quiet alley at a B & B called The Globetrotter, a cute little place off the main roads where we felt as if we were staying with friends. 

Baroque Duomo Square in Catania

Catania is a city of faded glory with beautiful baroque buildings, many sporting a good coating of graffiti, and a place to keep a good eye on your belongings.  But Catania is also quite atmospheric, and having survived earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as one guidebook puts it, “The most amazing thing about Catania is that it is still here.”
One of the reasons we came to Catania was to visit the home town of a favorite operatic composer of ours, Vincenzo Bellini.  Located in the house where Bellini was born, the Bellini Museum is small but powerful with Bellini’s death mask on display along with various old-style pianos and memorabilia including the original poster for the first performance of the opera “Norma” at La Scala in Milan.  Anne told the woman at the Bellini museum, “Mi piace Bellini.”  ( I love Bellini.)  And the woman showered Anne with gifts of informational booklets on Bellini and the city of Catania (which, after we digested, we left at the B & B for future tourists).  The Sicilian people love to give presents!  (You almost hesitate to be too nice because you know if you are, a present will be coming your way!)

Fisherman with machete prepares fish for sale

Catania is renowned for its fish, and La Pescheteria (fish market) is one of the wildest markets we have visited yet.  The fish market has a real theatrical ambience – the fish vendors shout things out in Italian at a 100+ decibel level throughout the marketplace, as they chop up fresh fish for their clients, or delicately fillet small fish with that very same machete.  They wield these foot and a half long machetes, performing butcher work one moment, then surgery the next.  

View of the hubbub in the fish market from the balcony

A tiered upper street overlooks a busy section of the market, almost like a balcony – and the old men (old fishermen?) gather there leaning over a railing to observe and assess the daily performance below.

Coastline below Taormina

We took a day trip by bus to Taormina, a lovely hill town beautifully perched on a mountain top between Mt. Etna and the sea.  The highlight here was the Teatro Greco (which is actually mostly Roman), an ancient amphitheater with incomparable views of Etna, the sea, and the old buildings of Taormina. 

Teatro Greco in Taormina

The acoustics here are quite remarkable; in an extemporaneous moment of craziness, Frank belted out a verse of opera from center stage, and the folks high up in the seating area applauded him!  Now he fancies himself a budding opera star, and you can’t shut the man up LOL!  He’s already practicing “La Donne e Mobile” for the next Roman/Greek theater venue that we encounter.
Hiking up to one of the craters on Mt. Etna
Another reason for coming to Catania was to hike on Mt. Etna whose snow-covered, ever-visible presence looms over the town like an evil god watching the everyday happenings in Catania.  This is one impressive volcano.  We took a day tour called “The Volcano and Wine Tour” (how could we resist that combination?)  Of course, we had to earn our wine, so our well-spoken 42-year old Italian tour guide, Vincenzo Romeo, drove us to the volcano first.  He was a tall dude with a slender build made for climbing mountains – a nice guy and VERY knowledgeable.
Patchy, snow-covered trails on Mt. Etna
Vincenzo took us up on Etna (a mile high) where unusual yellow birch trees gleamed among patches of remaining snow.  We hiked around the lateral craters – Mt. Etna has 4 active craters up at the top, but these are closed to visitors.  The locals refer to Mt. Etna as the “good volcano” because, unlike Mt. Vesuvius (on the mainland) that tends to explode without warning, Mt. Etna has regular eruptions to relieve internal pressures.  And, when the lava flows, it moves very slowly giving people plenty of time to evacuate, or just sit on the sidelines with a cup of wine in hand and watch the lava dribble down the mountain side toward the ocean.
And this is no joke; Vincenzo told us about a villager who lost the middle portion of his orchard to the lava flow.  This man brought a lawn chair, a bowl of pasta, and a glass of wine out to his orchard where he sat to watch the lava flow on by.
Descending into the crater on Etna
This was a strenuous hike up and down parts of Etna, visiting several of the craters that comprise Etna.  We definitely earned our wine.  The nearby Gambino Winery offered a beautiful tasting room overlooking vineyards on the fertile volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna.  Six wines were accompanied by a great selection of antipasti, cheese, salami, and bread.  Afterwards, we hiked into a lava cave, a perfectly shaped tube with a resident bat and lots of crumbly volcanic rock underfoot.  With the low ceilings, we were glad for the hard hats provided by our tour guide– and the large LED flashlights to find our way in the dank cold cave.

Around the city of Catania

Naturally, we have eaten a lot of fish here in Catania.  After seeing the fish market, we knew we had to try some red tuna, and the ubiquitous Sicilian favorite, swordfish.  Fish in Sicily is some of the most juicy and tasty fish we have ever had.  Plus, we needed to try some Pasta Bellini, here in Bellini’s home town – the dish features eggplant which is remarkably good here.  Of course, Anne continues her sweets kick (although she is trying to cut back – seriously!).  Casserta is a Sicilan delicacy not to be missed – white chocolate on top and ricotta cream with chocolate chips in the center, it is another highly caloric sweet worth moaning over.
And, the human interest stories continue.  The best part of our stay in Catania was the wonderful people that we met on the streets and at the B &B Globetrotter.  One day, we were standing at a bus stop wondering why no buses were coming by.  An older gent, 80-year old Salvatore, came to our rescue helping us to understand (eventually) that the buses were not stopping here, but running just a few blocks away.  Salvatore spoke Italian, French, and German (but almost no English).  We ended up communicating in a polyglot of those three languages.  Really quite entertaining – Salvatore got a good laugh out of it, that’s for sure, and we made a new friend!

New friends at the Globetrotter: 
Daniele, Gaetana, Anne, and Sophia

At the Globetrotter B&B, we enjoyed hotel staff members Sophia, Sylvia, and Daniele, and a fellow guest named Gaetana from Connecticut.  Gaetana was on her own in Catania studying Italian – it was great fun sharing the joys of Sicily with a fellow American. 
  When we left this morning, we took a lot of group photos.  In one of them, Frank was pleased to pose with 26-year old Sophia and wife Anne.  He said to Daniele who was standing nearby and watching carefully, “Every man needs two women.”  Without skipping a beat, Daniele, the young Italian proprietor of the B & B responded, “Why stop at just two???”  We all had a good laugh; there was definitely special camaraderie at the B&B Globtrotter in Catania.

Frank with his two women: Sophia and Anne

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Trapani and Environs

Fishing port of Trapani
The bus ride that took us from Palermo to Trapani was just over two hours long.  We thoroughly enjoyed the ride along the north coast and thru some of rural Sicily where sheep graze on the mountainsides and peasants prepare their gardens for a summer filled with fresh fruits and veggies.
Upon stepping off the bus in the city of Trapani, an older gent approached us and gently said “Bienvenutu a Trapani” (welcome to Trapani).  We were astounded that a total stranger would just approach us with such a warm, direct, unsolicited welcome.  In America, when someone approaches you this abruptly, the red flags of suspicion immediately go up. Well, he wanted nothing but to provide a sincere welcome, and disappeared as quickly as he appeared; his simple words gave us a warm feeling about our new “home.”
Our apartment is near the fishing port and markets, and the locals in this fishing town set out every morning in search of swordfish, tuna, triglia (red mullet), and calamari.  Our apartment is large with a terrific private terrace, but the people who operate the rooms are nothing like our favorite Palermitani, Angela.

Temple at Segesta

Trapani is a transportation center, and therefore a perfect home base for “day trips”.  Our first day trip was to the ancient Greek site of Segesta.  Although Segesta had a close alliance with Athens, the temple was never completed; it was OBE (overcome by events), such as the invasion of the Carthaginians.  The location was as beautiful as we have ever seen, set on a mountainside in front of another mountain and among fields of colorful yellow and purple wildflowers. 

 We spent a half day there, starting with the ruins of a medieval castle and a Roman theater located high above the temple, and then hiking down through the wildflowers to the magnificent  Parthenon-like Greek temple.  All we can say is how lucky we are that places like this still exist -- and that we get to see them!
An easy day trip to the town of Marsala just south of Trapani offered the chance to discover the wines of this famous region.  Cantine Florio (here in Sicilia, they call wineries “Cantine”) gave us a good look at a traditional Marsala winery, the first one to be Italian-owned. 
Cantine Florio
Back in the 1700’s, the Brits started the Marsala wine industry when shipments of port and sherry were disrupted by war between England and Spain.  Marsala is a specially fortified wine, meaning that hard alcohol is added to make the wine stronger than usual (about 20 % alcohol) giving the wine a longer shelf-life; hence, it travelled well for long ship voyages that often occurred in these times. 
Cantine Florio’s first business was as a pharmacy, so they always advertised their Marsala wine as “good for your health”.  During prohibition (1920’s and 30’s}, they exported LOTS of Marsala wine to the U.S. marketed under the name Marsala “tonic” – in the small museum  at the winery, we saw an actual bottle of the 18% alcohol “tonic” with a label that read “Approved by the U.S. Treasury.  Dosage:  A small glassful twice a day!”   Haaaa!  A neat workaround for prohibition times!

Winetasting with our tour guide Sara

One benefit of travelling in the off-season is that our “group tour” was just the two of us with our guide Sara.  She did an excellent job of describing the Marsala winemaking process, and of course, gave us a tasting of the delicious stuff!
Our second winery, Donnafugata, offered an interesting contrast.  Donnafugata is also an old winery, but about 15 years ago the owners decided to stop making Marsala wine and switch to more popular unfortified reds and whites.  This is definitely a forward-thinking winery with state-of-the-art equipment and brilliant marketing.  Once again, we had the guide all to ourselves -- Zane (a young woman from Latvia who is fluent in 5 languages) gave us a terrific tour through the impressive facility.  One of her 5 languages was Russian, so Frank found an opportunity here to practice his fading Russian language skills. 
Donnafugata experiments with all kinds of grapes including the Sicilian Nero d’Avolo, French grapes like cabernet sauvignon, and many grapes we had never heard of before, like damaschia, insola, catarratio, and zibibbo.  Zane gave us quite a tasting experience too:  4 whites, 3 reds, and a dessert wine.  All were excellent and intriguing (and you can look for them in the U.S.!).  Boy, that winery didn’t make any money on us with all those very generous pourings; glad we were on foot when we left for the train station.

Erice perched at top of mountain approx. 1/2 mile up

The medieval town of Erice (pronounced: air-EE-cha) sits high on a rock-like mountain that protrudes 750 meters above sea level.  We took the local bus up there, holding our breath as the bus negotiated treacherous hairpin switchbacks and steep dropoffs.  It was raining slightly, and that exacerbated the treachery, making those switchbacks slipperier than usual.  Luckily, we had a young “cool-as-a-cucumber” bus driver who must be the calmest and most confident bus driver in all of Sicily.   None of these situations bothered him a bit -- he was the ideal guy to take us up the mountain.

Castle at Erice

Erice dates back to ancient times with the usual host of local conquerors (Normans, Greeks, Romans, etc.).  The best viewpoint is a medieval castle situated on the outermost tip of this mountain perch.  A Temple to Athena once stood here, and much of the castle’s stone comes from the original temple.  The views were as sublime as the guidebooks promised.  The green valley, the craggy mountains, the busy peninsula that is our town of Trapani, and the blue Med were all magnificently displayed beneath us.
Streets of Erice

Until we reached the main souvenir street, the town appeared to be unpopulated – just us strolling the windy streets admiring the medieval stone architecture.  Eventually, we located Caffe Maria, a pretty tea shop owned by Maria Grammatico, the most famous pastry chef in Sicily. 
 We ate a light lunch (in order to save room for a sweet).  Anne selected a “Cassatine Siciliano” – a gorgeous little green dish topped with ricotta cream and candied fruit.  Inside, this candy-like dessert had a thin layer of cake, chopped almonds, and more ricotta cream (Sicilians must go thru tons of ricotta cream!).  Totally decadent. 
The delectable Cassatine Siciliano

We have some more human interest stories for you, too.  The Trapanese are also quite a fascinating bunch.   In Marsala, a young English-speaking avvocato introduced himself to us on the streets.  No, not a piece of fruit that you pick from a tree, i.e., the avocado -- although that’s what we thought we were hearing at first; an avvocato, we learned, is a lawyer (as in advocate).  Francesco, the avvocato, volunteered his help in locating our destination, after he saw us pass by him twice on some backstreet in Marsala.  These unexpected offerings are so commonplace here in Sicily, and the nicest part is that the offerors want nothing in return.  We often end up feeling guilty that we suspected a ruse, when it was just a stranger offering a gesture of kindness. And, it seems to happen so often here in Sicily.
Typical Trapanese man, his home, and his laundry
As a side note, we’ve been told that Sicily has over 100,000 lawyers (maybe a bit of an exaggeration), and that “avvocato” is the most common profession on this island.  And, the second most common profession here in Sicily is that of fisherman!
 Later, a young wine shop owner named Allessandro engaged us in conversation as we passed by; after a short period of learning a little bit about each other, he locked up his wine shop to walk us to a recommended restaurant.  When we protested, and told him not to leave his shop for us, he said, “It is not good to work too much.”  Along the way to the restaurant, Allessandro took us on a walking tour of the town, pointing out important sights that we never would have known about.  We were a little concerned that Allessandro would hit us up for some recompense for his services, and that we were going to be a threesome for lunch, but Allessandro delivered us to a wonderful  restaurant and went on his merry way – no strings attached. 
And, the day we took the bus to Erice, a man at a nearby snack shop helped direct us to the Biglietteria (the place to buy bus tickets).  Ten minutes later, after getting tickets,  as we were waiting for the bus, the man left his shop to walk over and make sure that we had our tickets and were okay, and that we understood the departure time for the bus.  We shouldn’t be so amazed anymore, but It is remarkable how well the people of Sicily continue to look out for us strangers.

Kite flying at the docks in Trapani

On our last day here in Trapani, we took a vacation from our vacation -- just taking it easy, strolling the streets of sunny Trapani for a last time, watching the kite flying event down at the port, reflecting on our stay here, and prepping for our exodus and new adventures tomorrow.