For Greek Temples, Come to Sicily

In the 5th century BCE, Agrigento had a population of 200,000 people making it the third largest city in the Greek world. Today it has a population of 60,000 people and is home to The Valley of the Temples, home to the best preserved Greek Temples in Italy – and as good as any you will find in Greece. They built fifteen Temples in the area in an eighty year period. Each temple honored a different god. For protection and to frighten any warring visitors, a line of Temples was built on a ridge between the sea and the inland mountains. The location was designed to impress any visitors from the sea with their prowess.Temple “D” or the Temple of Juno is located at the top of the ridge. It had six columns on each short side and thirteen on each long side. Since Sicily has no marble, their temples were made of sandstone from a nearby quarry. The columns were made of stacked drums held in place with wooden pegs. The fluting was then added to conceal the fact that it was not one monolithic column. Finally, everything was covered with plaster.About seven miles of walls with nine gates protected the temples and the city. The niches in the walls were used to bury people. Family groups were often buried in one niche.The walls have holes now that give a good view of the sea.Our guide was an archaeologist who was forever picking up pieces of artifacts from the ground and using them to illustrate a point. The ground is literally full of fragments from temple ruins, with more being exposed after every rain.The temple of Concordia, built in 435 BCE, is one of the best preserved Greek Temples in the world. The exterior columns and the pediment have never been rebuilt. In 597 CE, the temple was converted into the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul and was used as a church for nearly 1200 years. In 1788 the church additions were removed and it was returned to its original state as an archeological site. The Greeks had a full understanding of perspective and slanted the outside columns slightly to the center and bowed the base slightly up in the middle so that the columns look straight and the base appears flat when viewed from a distance.They are doing some archeological work in front of the Temple of Concordia and have discovered this ancient cistern.We saw some goats along the path with these unique horns.There was a relatively modern house and gardens along the path joining the temples.The Temple of Hercules was one of the final temples erected in the area and the only one where slaves were not used in its construction.We had lunch in a private home. The grandfather of the daughter who helped cook lunch had a hobby of building carts. After lunch we looked at some of them. The carts are entirely hand made with the grandfather doing all the construction except for the painting. This means he did all the wood work, the wood carving, the wood turning, and the metal work. The carts are perfectly balanced when they are horizontal to minimize strain on the horse.We are staying at another agriturismo tonight. The location and grounds are beautiful. Unfortunately, it was a little windy and cool to enjoy the pool. The dinner tonight at the agriturismo was outstanding with an assortment of appetizers, a pasta course, meatballs that had everyone asking for the recipe, and a chocolate cake that was to die for! The second unfortunate thing is that we are only staying here one night.

Salt and Rain

On Monday, we visited the Museum of Salt near the town of Marsala, the home of Marsala Wine. The museum is actually a working salt facility that produces 10,000 tons of salt per year from ocean water. The salt in this facility is produced entirely with manual labor in a similar manner to what the Phoenicians used when they arrived some 2700 years ago. The facility has numerous, interconnected salt pans with four different levels of salt concentration. The first salt pans, with the lowest concentration of salt, are at sea level and are filled through a sluice at high tide. The second salt pans are at the highest elevation and were originally filled by pumps powered by windmills.Today, water is moved from pan to pan by turning a crank on a hand pump as demonstrated here by one of our fellow travelers. Since the second salt pans are the highest in elevation, gravity and sluice gates can be used to move water to salt pans three and four. In the photo above, water is being pumped out of a fourth salt pan with the highest salt concentration. Salt is harvested from these fourth level salt pans in the summer. There are two types of salt obtained: crystals from the bottom which must be broken up by people standing in the pan and using a type of spade to break it up so it can be shoveled and flor de sal which forms on the surface of the water and is shoveled out with a sieve type of shovel. The crystal production is 10,000 tons per year and the flor de sal production is a few pounds per day per salt pan making it the most expensive salt in the world. The flor de sal can only be harvested by hand. The salt is harvested in the summer months when the temperatures frequently reach 100 F.Brine shrimp are common in the first three stages of salt pans which attracts the flamingoes. The salt level is two high in the fourth stage for brine shrimp so no flamingoes are found there.We all donned boots to walk through the salt pans. Why does Susan always get the best looking shoes???The water was very shallow in the pan as the harvest was completed for the year.All the tiles you see around the salt pile are used to cover the pile in the winter to keep the rain off the salt but allow it to continue to dry. There is a salt master who determines when to move water from one pan to the next and when to harvest.After touring the salt museum, we took a boat past the biggest windmill to the nearby island of Mothya, a Phoenician settlement and trading outpost built 2700 years ago. It is now an uninhabited island with a museum and several archeological sites. We had a “picnic” lunch on the island and finished it with some Marsala wine that Laura had bought for us.Here our luck ran out. We had been doing well with the rain showers occurring an opportune times that didn’t interfere with our explorations. The rain began just as we were going to leave on our one hour hike to the archeological sites. We started on the hike, but decided it wasn’t worth it in the rain.We spent the hour chatting with our fellow travelers. It was still an interesting day.

The Dancing Satyr

On Sunday we visited Mazara where we walked through the historic Kasbah quarter. Tunisia is closer to Sicily than Rome, so many migrants from Tunisia come to Sicily. Some 3000 Tunisians and Maghreb Arabs live and work in Mazara. In a show of respect for the native residents of Mazara, the mosque in the Kasbah skips the two morning calls to prayer so as not to disturb the morning sleep of the natives.A church ruin at the edge of the Kasbah.Yet another tree picture.We kept running into this 5K race that was wandering through the Kasbah just like we were.The town square.We hadn’t seen many cats before Mazara. This one is resting on an electric box on the side of,the building.The Kasbah area was once run down and unsafe. As part of the effort to clean it up, they installed tile street signs at the intersections to illustrate the street name. Pescatori means “fish” in Italian.We got a peak at the living room of a Tunisian family who had decorated it in the traditional style.The ruins of a church.We visited the Museum of the Dancing Satyr named after this Greek bronze statue that was recovered from the sea bed near Sicily in 1998. The statue is believed to have been resting on the seabed for more than 2000 years. A fishing boat found a bronze leg in its fishing nets in 1997. The leg appeared to be quite old, so the captain kept returning to the area in hopes of finding the rest of the statue. Finally, a year later they recovered the rest of the statue from a depth of over 1600 feet. After three years of restoration, the Satyr was placed in a museum along with other artifacts recovered from the waters near Sicily. The Satyr has been exhibited in Japan, London, and the Louvre. The Greek nuns are clearly more open minded than Sicilian nuns.The captain of the ship that recovered the Satyr spoke to us and answered our questions. He was also the host of our home hosted lunch and is showing us some of his mementos of the discovery. We tried to convince him the Satyr should be displayed in New York next.Our tour guide, Laura, lives in Barcelona and her father (on the left) lives in a town near Mazara. They try to see each other when she is leading a tour. The man on the right entertained us with rousing versions of Volare and My Way in an historic theater and then hosted one of the other lunches.In this street scene, six Sicilian women are checking out the new shoes they purchased under the watchful eye of two American women.Carlotta enjoyed showing off her driving skills before our home hosted lunch. The Captain is her grandfather.We cooked our own dinner tonight under the watchful instruction of Pablo, who is listed in a book of top European chefs.Here are two of the chefs in training, dressed and ready to cook!We won Awards of Merit for our tireless efforts and dedicated work in preparing the appetizers, bruschetta mixta (three types of bruschetta).Mazara at night. The shot with the moon is a little fuzzy, but I still like it

Old and Older

Monreale is a small hill town just outside of Palermo. It is a major tourist destination because of the Norman Cathedral, built between 1174 and 1189.It is a blend of Byzantine, Norman, and Arab elements in a Romanesque building. This intermingling of styles reflects the intermingling cultures and religious tolerance of the period.But the main reason you visit this cathedral is the glass mosaics that cover nearly 70,000 square feet of surface. Since the mosaics are glass, the colors we see today are the same as when they were installed. The gold mosaics are made from gold leaf with molten glass poured on both sides. All corners are rounded so they can be covered with mosaics with no edges exposed.The king’s throne.The alter. The picture of Jesus is the same as we have seen at several churches here. It is in the typical style of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The right hand is raised in the gesture of Byzantine blessing and the left hand holds the gospel open to John 8:12. To give you an idea of scale, the right hand is over six feet tall!Pictures are used to tell biblical stories since most people couldn’t read at that time. This panel begins the story of Noah and the arc.Both sides of the Nave have panels on two levels.This is the story of Rebecca at the well. Think of how many pieces of glass had to be put into place, what the scaffolding would have been like at the time, and how they were attached that they have survived all these years.The columns along the sides of the Nave were recycled from Rome. Since the columns were not of uniform length, the mosaic covered “pillows” at the top of the columns are of varying thickness to accommodate the pillars of different length.The side doors to the church.

We also visited the home of an actor who lives in Monreale. From his patio, you had a commanding view of Palermo, the Mediterranean Sea, and the surrounding mountains.

We had lunch at an agriturismo, a farm with lodging and restaurant facilities. The farm made both olive oil and wine which we sampled for lunch. After lunch, we hiked the 2.5 mile narrow dirt road back to our bus (we had ridden a school bus owned by the farm to get to the farm). Along most of the hike we had beautiful views of Segesta, a Doric Greek temple built in 420 BCE on the top of a small hill. It was never finished.We were only looking across a valley to the temple, as we will be visiting the Valley of the Temples later in the trip. Tonight and for the next two days we are staying at another agriturismo.

Of Cathedrals, Castles, Mushrooms, and the Maffia

On Friday we visited two small towns near Palermo: Castelbuono and Cefalu. The former is a mountain town with a castle and the later is a seaside village with a cathedral.Our first stop was Castelbuono. We drove through a heavy rainstorm to get there, but the rain stopped by the time we arrived.

Greta Thunberg is also known in Castelbuono.The castle was initially built in 1316.The interior highlight is this Baroque chapel which was restored in 1683 and is dedicated to St. Anna.We had lunch at a restaurant specializing in mushrooms. They get a variety of fresh mushrooms each morning and make their pasta fresh every morning. We had three different mushroom appetizers and a mushroom pasta. We thought it was our best meal in Sicily to date.Cefalu is a seaside village nestled under a giant rock. I read you can climb the rock for some beautiful views in two hours round trip if you are in excellent condition. We opted to pass.The cathedral had a flight of steps in front. This was good training for the 100 steps we have to climb to get to tomorrow’s cathedral – which is supposed to be the best in Sicily.This was a former public laundry basin using ocean water.We ended the day with a presentation about the Maffia, which began in Sicily to protect the farmers against the landowners. The presentation traced the evolution of the Maffia into the feared criminal organization featured in The Godfather. The two presenters lived five houses apart as children and both of their fathers were in the Maffia. It turns out that the man on the left is the son of the final head of the Maffia who ordered the killing of the two prosecutors who were trying to bring the Maffia leaders to justice. These presentations are part of the OAT program to address controversial topics in the countries they visit. On one hand, the son is ostracized by society because of his father. He can’t get a job when they learn the relationship and he doesn’t want to get married because he doesn’t want his children to suffer the stigma that he suffers. On the other hand, he won’t state that his father was wrong in some of the things he did. Like Tony Soprano, the father was very good to his family and his wife and children love him dearly. – apparently to the point none of the family is able to say anything negative about the father.

It was a very interesting and powerful presentation. However, the victims of the Mafia have an organization that objected to these presentations. Although no journalist has ever attended a presentation, there have been negative articles written about them in the US and Europe. We had to go to a different hotel for the presentation as the hotel we were staying in would not permit it. And yes, the Maffia still exists in Sicily; but they feel they are more effective if they stay out of the news so no more killing.

Our Guided Tour of Palermo

The construction of the Palermo cathedral began in 1168, but the project was underfunded so the construction dragged on for centuries. As each new ruling power took control of Palermo, the cathedral was modified and expanded using the architectural style of the period. While the cathedral was striking from the outside, it was relatively plain on the inside compared to other churches in town,

Most of the residential buildings do not have elevators, but they do have balconies for each apartment.If a resident wants to make a purchase from a street vendor, she lowers a basket on a rope with the appropriate payment and the vendor places the purchase in the basket. The cloth at the bottom of the railing is to hide the legs of ladies wearing skirts.On a walk through the market, our guide, Laura, is showing us a variety of zucchini that is unique to Sicily.We stopped at a gelato shop where some of us tried a Sicilian treat, a brioche bun filled with three flavors of gelato. You could also get it topped with whipped cream. I didn’t want to ruin perfectly good gelato with a brioche bun, so I opted for a cup.

Sicily has a strong tradition of Puppetry. Before the internet, before television, and before cell phones, there were thirty puppet theaters in Palermo. After work you went to one to enjoy the show and also get the news. Each theater would have a Netflix like series of 100 to 300 different shows with a continuing storyline so you had to keep coming back until the conclusion.We visited one of the three remaining theaters that had been operated by the same family for three generations. The father and son shown here plus the son’s wife make the sets, the puppets, and the costumes as well as write the plays, and operate the puppets. The puppets are really marionettes controlled with a rod rather than strings. There is a strong puppet rivalry between Palermo and Catania (the next biggest city in Sicily) Palermo is very proud that their puppets can bend their legs to walk by turning the rod back and forth, can pull a sword from its sheath, and can be beheaded. The shows sound like they are rather violent!The puppets weigh at least 25 pounds, so operating them is good exercise. This was a fascinating introduction to a dying Sicily tradition.

On Thursday night we took a tour of Palermo in an APE taxi (a glorified tuk tuk) ending at our welcome dinner. I am sandwiched in between our trip leader, Laura, and Susan. The tuk tuks have no springs and the Palermo roads are full of pot holes, so it was a very bumpy ride.This is the second major theater in town. It is the home of the symphony orchestra. Tomorrow, we are visiting two towns close to Palermo.

More Palermo

Tuesday and Wednesday we explored parts of Palermo outside the old town. While not in the old town, they were certainly not new.I really didn’t expect to find a banyan tree here, but I couldn’t pass up a picture when I did.The International Museum of Marionettes has a collection of puppets and marionettes from around the world. Sicily has a unique form of puppetry that we will learn more about when we join our OAT trip.They had a lot of puppets on display!

Our second stop was Palazzo Mirta which is one of the few furnished houses in Palermo open to the public. It featured chandeliers, fancy wallpaper, painted ceilings, paintings, exotic furniture, and a wide variety of furnishings.The furniture and furnishings came from all over the world. I am sure Asian objects were the talk of the neighborhood!The patio featured a fountain that was unique in that all the design details were made of seashells.The dining room.We made a brief walk along the waterfront. The Harbor was filled with sailboats. You can see a Costa cruise ship in the background, but we only saw two Costa tours in the city. These city gates are located near the harbor.Our final stop on Tuesday was the inquisition cells at Palazzo Chiaramonte Sheri. The Palazzo was the home of one the most well known families in Sicily during the Middle Ages. In 1392, the head of the family was beheaded by the Spanish who mounted his head on the palace wall and converted his home into their headquarters. During the Spanish Inquisition of the 1600’s, the stables were converted into Jail cells for those awaiting trial. Sicily was hit hard by the Inquisition with many minorities expelled and the period of religious tolerance ended. To pass the time, the prisoners drew the drawings you see above on the prison wall using only dirt, food, and bodily fluids.

The Palatine Chapel in the Norman Palace takes your breath away with its walls fully covered with mosaics. According to Rick, we are going to see an even larger and more spectacular mosaic filled chapel later in our trip. I can’t wait!The Palace also had a small museum where this ivory chest was on display.Some highlights from the palace garden. Sorry about more tree roots.While you don’t often see them from the old town area, Palermo is surrounded by mountains.The Porta Nuova is adjacent to the Norman Palace.The San Giovanni Degli Ermiti church and convent was a pleasant stop. Tomorrow we begin our OAT tour.

Palermo on Our Own

On Monday we took the Rick Steve’s walking tour of old town Palermo, the largest town in Sicily. Rick calls it old, a little shabby, but one of Sicily’s best surprises. Some people we talked to compared it to Naples, Italy as dirty, run down, and unappealing. So far, we agree with Rick. The old town is certainly old, but we found the city generally clean and filled with attractive architecture. Many buildings have been refurbished and certainly more would benefit from refurbishment. Let’s look at a few scenes from our walking tour.Our first stop was the Teatro Massimo, the Palermo opera house. With a footprint of almost two acres, it is the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest in Europe. Construction began in 1875 and it took 22 years to finish it. The final scene of The Godfather trilogy was filmed on the front steps. The building is nice on the outside, but it gets more attractive on the inside.The Theater has 380 seats in the orchestra and a thousand box seats on five levels. The royal box is in the center over the entrance.This is the view from the royal box. They were preparing the stage for an upcoming opera. It has a massive backstage for storing sets and props. Unfortunately, they are between operas during our visit.Most of the streets of the old town are narrow and pedestrian only. All the apartments seem to have balconies and most of them have flower pots.Many of the streets have fountains and graffiti. The doors next to the fountain are street art and the mustache on the woman is vandalism.The Baroque interior of the Oratory of San Lorenzo. The painting over the alter is a reproduction. The original by Caravaggio hung there for 350 years until it was stolen in 1969 and never recovered. The thief used a knife to cut the painting out of the frame. That is no easy feat as the top of the frame must be more than 12 feet off the floor.The exterior of the Church of Santa Catarina is relatively simple.The interior is a Baroque masterpiece. The bottom picture shows the top of a railing where pieces of marble of various colors were cut and pieced together like a puzzle.This is the Fountain of Shame, which was crafted from Carrara marble in 1555 for the Tuscan villa of a Spanish Viceroy. It was sold to the city of Palermo by the Viceroy’s son, who became Palermo’s governor. It was broken down into 640 pieces and moved to its present location in front of city hall.It was called the Fountain of Shame because all the sculptures were nude, which was considered very racy in conservative Sicily. The fountain was located beside the convent of Santa Catarina and the nuns tried to keep the statues clothed. When that didn’t work, they came out in the dead of night with hammers and chisels and removed the offending parts of the statues. An iron fence was added around the fountain in the 19th century to stop any further redesigns.

The Joys of Flying

We are off on an Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Sicily. We are flying into Palermo, Italy a few days before the tour begins so we will have some time to explore Palermo on our own. After the OAT trip, we are flying to Malta to spend four days in one of our favorite ports from our Viking World Cruise. We then fly home via Orlando where we will have a brief time to visit with our world cruise friends, Mary Anne and Steve.

Wilmington is a small airport with American flights to Charlotte, Delta flights to Atlanta, and United flights to Dulles and Chicago. We are flying to Charlotte and onto Heathrow on American Airlines where we connect with a British Airways flight to Palermo. When I checked into our flight out of Wilmington last night, I was surprised by how many empty seat there appeared to be. I was then very surprised when we arrived at the gate and the attendant announced that the flight was full so there would not be room for overhead luggage in the late boarding groups. What happened? Had I misinterpreted the seat chart?

As we began to board and hear the story of many unhappy passengers, it became clear. An earlier flight to Charlotte had left the gate and was waiting to take off when one of the stewardesses was asking a woman in an exit row if she could carry out the required exit row duties. The woman was unable or unwilling to answer the question, so she couldn’t remain in the exit row. The main cabin was full, so the stewardess moved her to the first class section. The stewardess in first class took exception to this. The rest of the story is not entirely clear, but the stewardesses decided they were unable to fly on the same plane, the pilot covered up the incident by claiming engine problems, the plane returned to the gate, and the passengers were advised the flight was cancelled.

Did I mention that Wilmington is a very small airport, so American would not have a lot of customer service personnel to rebook the passengers. Those affected had been waiting five hours to get on our flight. I think American lost a lot of future passengers today. I hope that two stewardesses lost their job.

Fortunately, our flights to Palermo were on time and the travel was mostly uneventful. We did have a tense moment when it appeared that our luggage had not arrived in Palermo. When we went to the lost baggage counter, we learned that our luggage was at another conveyor because it had arrived from outside the European Union and had to go through customs. Problem solved!

On Monday, we did Rick Steve’s walking tour of Palermo. We had heard various reviews of Palermo that were not particularly flattering. So far we have found it an old, but very interesting city. Following are a couple street scenes. I will have more details on a few spots in a future blog.I don’t know what the decorations are in front of the church, but that is my first question when we meet our OAT guide on Wednesday.

Greece Wrapup

On our last day in Greece we had a morning flight to Athens and then took a “Tours by Locals” to see the highlights of the city. In Greece and probably the EU, you have to have a tour guide license to lead tours within a tourist site. Our guide had only a taxi license, so he did all his guiding while driving. He was able to drive, talk, and work a dash mounted iPad simultaneously. We covered a lot of territory in a short time. The Theater of Dionysus is located at the base of the Acropolis. It is believed to be the world’s first theater and is dedicated to the Greek god of plays and wine. The theater on the site today is a restored Roman version of the theater. The site has been used as a theater since the sixth century BCE.The walk up to the Acropolis is on a marble walkway. Even when dry, the stones are quite slick. We saw three people fall, but we all made it safely. The above picture is the entrance; and while it looks crowded, it was much less crowded than the last time we were there.The Erechtheum is a temple on the Acropolis built in the early 400’s BCE and dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. It is best known for the “Porch of the Maidens”.

The best known building on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, a symbol of Ancient Greece and one of the best known cultural monuments in the world. There was a lot of scaffolding when we visited it over five years ago and there was a lot of scaffolding and a crane this time. There is a marble mine in Greece that supplied the original marble, and that same mine is being used exclusively for supplying replacement marble. The replacement pieces are a brighter white.I don’t know what building this is, but it was one of many visible from the top of the Acropolis.Our next stop was Hadrian’s Arch and it’s nearby temple complex. The temple had Corinthian columns.We drove by several other buildings in the vicinity of the Acropolis. These classic Greek buildings seem to be scattered amongst many more contemporary buildings.We watched the changing of the guard ceremony in front of the parliament building. This ceremony occurs every hour on the hour. The guards do what seems to be a ritualistic ballet to show off the pompoms on the toes of their shoes. The old Olympic stadium was built for the first modern Olympic Games. It is made entirely of marble and seats 65,000 people. It is still used for events today.This is a view of the Acropolis from another hill on the outskirts of the city. You can’t see it in the picture, but there were numerous spots of bright reflected light all over the city. We were told that these were solar panels mounted on the roof to provide hot water.From left, Bruce, Susan, Linda, and Jack on the overlook.

On Tuesday we flew from Athens to Washington, Dulles via London, Heathrow. Once again it proved to be an adventure. As we were boarding in Athens, it was announced that we had a limited takeoff window so it was important for everyone to get seated promptly. If we missed the window, the delay would likely be thirty minutes or more. Despite the warning, there were people changing seats after everyone else was seated. We did miss the window, had a lengthy delay and arrived in Heathrow with about twenty minutes to reach our scheduled flight. Fortunately, our flight was delayed so we got to the gate with time to spare. Unfortunately, we were delayed because the 747 at the gate had a mechanical problem; so we had to walk down stairs to the tarmac and into the drizzle, board a bus, ride all over the airport to another 747, and climb the stairs to enter the aircraft. The plane from Athens to Heathrow had the leg room of Spirit Airlines and no free drinks or snacks just like Spirit. Have I ever mentioned that I hate flying?

And now the answer to the question none of you have been asking: “Which island did we like best?” We both have the same answer: Rhodes. We found the old town one of the most interesting in Europe. For best scenery we pick Santorini, but it is way overcrowded. For best beaches, we pick Mykonos; and for best food we pick Crete. My overall second pick would be Santorini despite the crowds. Susan would have a three way tie for second and I would have a two way tie for third.

We are now home in Wilmington. Thanks for traveling with us and a special thanks to everyone who took the time to comment. Our next trip will be this fall with an OAT trip to Sicily with a short extension to Malta. I hope you can join us!

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce