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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Palermo and the Palermitani

We spent 6 nights in Palermo experiencing the city, the people, and making some side trips.  But visiting Palermo is really all about the people and the Sicilian way of life.  Not that we didn’t see and do things (we’ll tell you all about that in a minute), but the best thing about Palermo are the friendly and fascinating people.  The people of Palermo even have a word for themselves – the “Palermitani”.
"Signore Birra Moretti"
A few short human interest stories about the Palermitani will help tell what we mean.  For example, Frank tried twice to buy a lemon from fruit vendors on the street (we use it to flavor our bottled water).  Both times, the vendors refused any money saying, “A gift -- a gift!”  So now we think of Palermo as the city of “free lemons”. 
One day, we asked a little old lady (she was 4 feet tall tops) for directions to the bus stop, using our shoddy Italian.  She didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow understood what we were asking; she not only led us in the right direction, but walked us across a busy Palermo intersection.   Crossing the street is a bigger deal than you may think -- no doubt she was afraid we would be killed if we crossed by ourselves.  The traffic is horrendous – there seem to be no rules, and the speeding cars just keep on coming.  But this little old lady walked right out into the frenetic traffic, patting the air with her hand to halt the cars.  And the cars made way for her (and for us hanging by her side).  Traffic just flowed around her – it was like Moses parting the Red Sea!  We have the hang of it now – it’s all about the flow, and the one thing you never want to do is stop as you cross a street, or even worse, back-up!  If you do, you could end up as Palermo road kill.
One more Palermitani story.  We met a man who looked just like the guy on the Birra Moretti beer bottle (a real gangster type).  Our “Signore Moretti” spoke some English, and we managed a conversation of broken English (his) and fractured Italian (ours).  When we told him we were from America, he got all excited and started yelling, “Dio benedica America!”   (God bless America!)  Soon after this, we had a brief chat with two men who turned out to be bus inspectors – these guys are notorious for imposing big fines on anyone who fails to validate their bus tickets properly.   Well, they got on the bus with us and started checking everybody’s tickets.  Frank started pulling our tickets out of his pocket to show them, and they just laughed and waved him off.  It was like they were saying, “Forget about it!”  Maybe the inspectors saw us talking to “Signore Moretti” and thought Frank was “connected!”

Mosaics at Capella Palatina

Palermo is a hodgepodge of architecture reflecting all the different conquerors over the years ranging from Medieval to Baroque to a Norman/Arab combo.  (Plus too many ugly fascist-type cement block buildings).  The city is filled with old churches often decorated with colorful mosaics.  The most famous mosaics are found just outside of town in a hillside village called Monreale.  Every inch of the upper walls and ceiling are covered with mosaic “pictures.”  Anne had a ball wandering the church identifying all the Bible stories like “Jacob’s Ladder,” Noah’s Ark,” and one we never heard of (but that sounded promising), “Drunken Noah in the Vineyard.”  (Note: We did not make this up!)
Bodies on display in the Catacombs
Our favorite mosaics were in the Cappella Palatina, a chapel located within the Royal Palace.  Smaller and better lit than Monreale, the mosaics sparkled in the intimate space like a little jewel box!  And there too, high on an archway, was another mosaic of a drunken Noah laying out in the grape vineyards; I guess his task of loading animals finally got to him.

More of the skeletons in the Catacombs 

Our favorite sight of all was the Catacombs at Convento dei Cappuccini, the best skeleton collection we have ever seen.  As many of you might know, we love this gruesome stuff, and this place really lived up to its reputation.  Some 8,000 bodies are on display, tied and propped up vertically in niches along the walls.  Some are preserved, but most are in skeletal form.  The dead are all decked out in their funerary finery.  The best ones are men all dressed up in hats, ties, vests, jackets, gloves, and even shoes, with just the skull bones showing.  Very studly dudes!
Really, this is a creepy place, and the best part is that people used to come visit their deceased loved ones here.  Wouldn’t it be better to remember them when they were alive?  It was a big deal to “pick your niche,” and people would stand in their niche for hours just to be sure it was a good fit and a good choice.  One of the saddest bodies is a little girl who looks like she is asleep.  Supposedly, a doctor came up with a special preservation method but died before he could share it.
Okay, on to a happier topic.  How about food?  As you would expect, the pasta is fantastic – Anne especially likes Pasta Norma, made with eggplant and named for the heroine of our favorite Bellini opera, “Norma.”   “Arancini” are also a favorite snack, -- yummy fried rice balls about the size of a baseball filled with meat or vegetables.  Eggplant, pistachios, and capers are a big deal here, and they are prepared in so many remarkable ways.  We have discovered the joys of Sicilian antipasti: carponata (eggplant, capers, olives and tomatoes), lots of grilled veggies like squash and eggplant, roasted red peppers, and tomatoes topped with cheese.  All steeped in the best Sicilian olive oil.  What a feast (and this is just a starter!).
The sweets are simply out of this world (Thank God we are doing a lot of walking!).  Saturday was San Giuseppe’s Day (St. Joseph), and it is quite the holiday here on Sicilia.  Parades, closed off streets, special celebrations, fancy foods, music, and other hoopla engulfs the community.  We had to eat the special pastry made in San Giuseppe’s honor:  the “sfinci.”  This concoction is a cream puff filled with ricotta cheese cream, dotted with dark chocolate chips, and topped with even more ricotta cream and candied fruit.  All Anne could do was moan and say, “Oh my God” with every bite.
The cannoli are the best anywhere.  Anne’s favorite (so far) comes from a specialty shop called Spinnato’s.  These cannoli have a super crusty pastry tube that is lined with chocolate.  Plus, if you want it “to go,” the Spinnato boys place it on a little colored cardboard tray, wrap it all up, and tie it with a bow like a present.  At least this is what they do when Anne does the ordering LOL!  Italian men really know how to treat a lady, and Anne is lovin’ every minute of it!

Temple of Hercules at Agrigento

The favorite nightly entertainment here is the folkloric puppet show.  Frank was not a huge fan, but it was fun (really).  The highlight of the show was the big fight scene when the hero puppet killed at least half a dozen enemies, each one in a different way.  He lobbed off heads, sliced off a face, and even cut one poor puppet in two from head to toe.  Gory, but clever puppetry.

Temple of Concordia at Agrigento

Palermo is a perfect base for day tripping, and we made two side trips: Agrigento and Cefalu.  Agrigento was a large Greek settlement that once rivaled Athens.  The Greek temples here are some of the best preserved in the world.  We spent a wonderful day wandering the ruins and feeling as if we were touching history. 

Waterfront at Cefalu

Cefalu is the most popular resort on the north coast of Sicily -- a sweet little town of narrow, winding streets sitting between the sea and a huge rock looming over head called La Rocco.  We ate lunch in this incredibly scenic square in front of the stunning stone cathedral with La Rocco in the background.  After lunch, we browsed in the shops and walked along the rocky coastline.  A perfect day in Sicilia.
We could not write up Palermo without singing the praises of our wonderful stay at the B & B Amelie.  This B & B was perfectly located near transportation and important sights, and we had a large, sunny, quiet room, colorfully decorated with a big comfortable bed.  But the best part of staying here was the owner, Angela.  Angela is one of those special people who are born to be in the hospitality business.  She speaks English very well and has a great sense of humor.  Every morning, we would talk and laugh together over breakfast, and Angela would spend time helping us plan our day. 

Anne and Frank with our favorite hostess, Angela

On our last morning, Frank asked Angela to translate something he had seen written in Italian.  What Angela didn’t know was that Frank had copied it from a bathroom wall.  (Frank never misses an opportunity to learn some “street Italian” no matter where he finds it!)  The look on Angela’s face as she read his handwritten version of what he saw was priceless.  Apparently, some “Italian stallion” was advertising his well-endowed “wares.”  The guy promised to be discreet and even left a phone number for the ladies to call him!  Angela was a good sport, and she made our stay in Palermo unforgettable as well as fun.
More to come as we move to the western tip of Sicily for our next adventure in the city of Trapani.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

First Stop: Naples

Colorful pastas of Naples
Ciao from Napoli home of some of the world’s best pizza and pasta!  We had an uneventful and unexciting flight from Newark to Naples.  Unfortunately, flying to Europe has become as miserable as any domestic flight at home.  The food was lousy, and the inflight entertainment was poor – just the usual.  The bright spot of the journey was the long layover in Munich that gave us a chance to drink some German beer.

Naples is pretty much what we expected: dirty and loud with towering, crumbling buildings strung with laundry, and narrow lanes infested with fast-moving motorcycles.  But it is vibrant, authentic Italy, and we love it!
Hectic streets of Napoli

   We are staying in a great central location right in the middle of the Citta Antica (Old City) at Hotel Neapolis.  The street called Via Tribunali, which is pretty much pizzeria central here, is just around the corner.  Speaking of corners, Naples has a church on almost every one of them, and we visited several including the impressive Duomo.

The highlight of our first day was a tour of Napoli Sotteranea (Underground Naples).  A whole ancient world lies beneath the city streets.  We started our tour in what was until recently a typical, extremely narrow Naples townhouse.  Our guide pushed back what would have been the owner’s bed to reveal a trap door leading to the basement.  The basement is actually part of a Greek/Roman theater built 5,000 years ago.  The stonework is gorgeous.  In fact, the stones comprising the walls were laid in a diagonal pattern to prevent cracking during earthquakes, one of the first anti-earthquake building techniques.   Nero himself famously performed his own operas in this theater (apparently he considered himself quite a musician – and who was going to argue?).  Legend has it that Nero once performed during an earthquake and even that couldn’t stop him from singing!

Walls designed to withstand earthquakes

The second part of the tour took us down 121 steps (about 50 vertical feet below the surface) to a 260-mile series of tunnels and cisterns that were once part of a Roman aqueduct.  The aqueduct was shut down after a cholera outbreak in 1884, but the tunnels were reopened during WWII to be used as a refuge from the Allied bombing of Naples.  2,000 people found shelter in just this one section of the tunnels for weeks at a time during the bombing.  Displays of artifacts of that time included rusty toy cars plus army helmets and weapons left here by German and Italian deserters who ditched their Army duds and escaped into the tunnels.

Claustrophobic underground tunnels

The cisterns are linked by the narrowest tunnels you can imagine.  The cleaners of the aqueduct moved around the complex by balancing themselves above the water.  Using footholds carved into the walls of the narrow passageways, they moved like circus performers placing one foot into footholds on the left side of the passageway and the other foot into footholds on the right side.  To get a feel for the passageways, we were each given a candle and inched our way through part of a tunnel.  At times, we had to slide along sideways against the walls.  Not an experience for the claustrophobic!
Back at ground level, we headed for a nearby “Limone” store where the friendly owner showed us his vats of homemade Limoncello.  He even gave us a tasting of regular and cream-style.  The Crema Limone was a revelation – creamy and less harsh but still very lemony.  Yum!   At night, we dined on delightful thin-crusted pizza trying various toppings including artichokes, basil and ham. 
Almost all the people we met were very friendly and gregarious.  In fact, once we got them started, they talked non-stop.  One woman joked around with us and pointing to the veins in her arms said, “I am Neapolitan, I have humor in my DNA!”
Our favorite sight of all was the Capella di San Severo.  This ornate baroque chapel was designed by a mysterious character named Prince Raimondo de Sangro who was an inventor, an alchemist, and a Mason.   The 200-year old chapel ceiling was painted with a special concoction invented by Raimondo, and the amazingly vibrant colors have never been retouched in any way.  On display in the basement are two bizarre skeletons with complete circulatory systems also designed by Raimondo that show an understanding of human anatomy that was highly unusual for the time.

"The Veiled Christ" by Giuseppe Sanmartino

Raimondo had a thing for intricate sculpture, and the chapel was filled with remarkable works.  One piece showed a figure untangling himself from a rope net – very detailed right down to what looked like actual knots in the rope.  But the star of the chapel was a sculpture called “The Veiled Christ,” a masterpiece created by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753.  We have never seen a sculpture like this one.  Somehow Giuseppe created a translucent marble veil that drapes over the features of the Christ figure beneath it.  This is a phenomenal engineering and artistic feat, but gazing at the statue is also extraordinarily moving – almost a religious experience.  As you move from the feet of the statue to the head, Christ’s expression changes from painful agony to peace. 
We enjoyed Naples more than we thought we would and were sorry to leave.  Last night, we boarded a ferry operated by the Tirrenia Line and made the overnight journey to Palermo, Sicily.  This is no Celebrity or Holland America cruise ship, but our very basic ferry cabin was bearable, and it was fun to be out to sea again even if it was just for one night.