The Ideal Sicilian Hill Town?

Our Tuesday began with a visit to the World War II museum in Catania. While I am not generally a big fan of war museums, this one was well done and had some interesting features. You enter the museum in a room replicating a town plaza in the time of Mussolini complete with fascist flags and slogans. When a siren sounds, you are ushered into a mock shelter. As you sit there in near darkness, the room shakes, sirens sound, and you hear planes overhead and bombshells dropping outside. It reminded me of what it must be like at home to sit through a hurricane with storm shutters covering all your windows. You emerge from another door to the shelter to find the same plaza in ruins. While that was certainly the most dramatic exhibit, there were plenty more that showed uniforms and weapons and other information about the Allied liberation of Sicily.

Our primary destination for the day was Taormina, a hilltop town about an hour north of Catania, Several people had told us it was their favorite destination in Sicily. When I read what Rick Steves had to say the night before, he described it as too touristy and not his favorite. While it is certainly in a beautiful location, we would have to agree with Rick.On the way there, I was on the right side of the bus to get a shot of Mount Etna.Taormina has one main street about a mile long filled with tourist shops with a gate at each end.It has the required churches.It has lots of attractive balconies.It even has overlooks onto the Mediterranean Sea which many cities don’t have.This is a shop featuring marzipan made to look like different fruits. It is also famous for granita, something like a slushee or what Susan calls Italian ice. I tried a raspberry lemon granita for desert and found it very refreshing.

But the main attraction in Taormina is the Greek-Roman Theater. The Theater is located at a high point in town and has magnificent views of Mount Etna, the Mediterranean, and the surrounding mountains.This shot shows the town of Taormina. If you look at the mountain above the left brick wall, you will see a valley that looks like a “u”. If you squint and look closely at the mountain top to the left of that valley, you will see some trees and buildings.This is a close up of those trees and buildings. Talk about living on the edge!Some more shots from the theater. We think we would like to live in the house in the center of the spit of land in the middle picture,This is the view from the cheap seats of the theater. On a clearer day you could see Mount Etna. The wooden stage and the plastic seats at the bottom are added because they have concerts here in the summer. Their season is over now and they are going to be removed next week and reinstalled at the beginning of the season next year.The stage area. While there is a lot to like about Taormina, we agree that it is too crowded and touristy. And we were there after the peak of the tourist season.

Tomorrow we leave Sicily and head to Malta for five nights on our own.

A Walk on Mount Etna

On Monday, four wheel drive vehicles picked us up at the hotel and drove us half way up the 10,000 foot high Mount Etna. When we left, the top of Etna was clearly visible and you could see smoke and steam arising from at least one of the four summit craters. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the vehicle to get the picture. By the time we got to a place where I could take a picture, the summit was in the clouds. Our guide said this was the normal pattern.There are thirteen towns built on the slopes of Mount Etna that circle the base of the mountain. We only drove through a couple of them before turning to go up the mountain. One of them had been damaged by an earthquake last Christmas and still had significant visible damage. This church had vertical cracks on both sides of the door and both sides of the clock.

These birch trees, one of the five most endangered trees in the world are found on the slopes of Etna. They are distinguished by growing in clumps, though they will sometimes grow as single trees as shown on the left of the bottom photo.

Our hiking destination was this cinder cone at an elevation of 5000 feet. There were not many people there when we arrived; but when we were leaving, they were arriving by the bus load. The cone looks much higher in the picture than it really is.

Some views along the walk.Proof we made it to the top.This is the hole from which the lava emerged. There are numerous lava eruptions that have occurred at lower elevations. For reasons unclear to me, it is not possible for a second eruption at these holes; so we were in no danger. Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Europe.

We drove on a paved road to get to our hike. After we all returned to our vehicles without falling, we did a little four wheel driving on a dirt path until we reached another paved road.Clearly, falling that road sign is not going to do us any good. If we turned the other way, we encountered this:Seventeen years ago, a lava flow had blocked the road up the mountain, and a new cement road had to be built nearby.

Unfortunately, I forgot the name of these cool looking mushrooms. The top one was spotted about fifty feet off the road by a driver while navigating a rock covered, narrow dirt road filled with numerous holes. The bottom picture shows one of the same mushrooms after it has opened. They are edible.

In the evening we visited Palazzo Biscari which has about 700 rooms. The tour is led by its occupant, Prince Ruggero Moncada who tells numerous stories about his family. Unfortunately, I had great trouble understanding him; so I am unable to tell you anything about him.The rooms we visited were sparsely finished and in need of refurbishing, but they had been quite impressive at one time.We passed by the university on the way back to our hotel.


Catania is the second largest city in Sicily and is our home until the end of the OAT trip.This was the view from the street in front of our hotel this morning. The mountain you see faintly in the background is Mount Etna, and what looks like a cloud over the building on the left is steam from the summit of the mountain. On Monday we are taking four wheel drive vehicles part way up the mountain.

Catania is home to the third largest Roman amphitheater in Italy after the Coliseum in Rome and Verona. The only part of the amphitheater remaining is the basement of a small section. The rest of the basement is buried under adjoining buildings. The complete amphitheater was three stories above this basement and could seat 15,000 people.

There seemed to be a church on every corner.

Many window balconies have some sort of decoration. This window is unusual in its use of tee shirts and kitchen utensils.

This corner had a building of similar color and design on each corner. One of the four buildings had the following unusual statue on the wall:It is unclear if the statue is of Greek or Roman origin.

The umbrellas make a colorful street covering.

This is the Catania Cathedral dedicated to the patron saint of Catania, Saint Agatha. According to legend, Agatha made a vow of virginity at the age of 15 and pledged her devotion to the church. When in accordance with her beliefs she rejected the advances of a “low born” suitor and reaffirmed her commitment to the church, she was thrown in jail, tortured, and her breasts were cut off. While her wounds were healed, she ultimately died in prison. I tell you all this because of the surprise Laura had for us at the end of our walking tour.These breast shaped pastries made from sweet cheese and marzipan are a popular treat in Catania and are named after Saint Agatha. Susan thought they were too sweet. I had no such problem.

A popular activity on Sunday morning is playing cards in the shade of the bridge.

Grand Circle, the owner of OAT has a charitable foundation that helps people in the countries they visit. Ten dollars from every traveler goes to support the foundation and on most trips you visit something sponsored by the foundation. Today we visited a family that operates a foster home for children. It is run by six family members and they presently have ten children in their care. Most of the children are Italian but several are Nigerian girls who were victims of human trafficking. They keep their address secret for fear that the Nigerian girls could be in danger. The children above are practicing their grape stomping.Simone, in the red shirt and her husband, are the leaders of the foster home. She said their life is chaotic every morning when they try to get the children off to school, but they clearly love all the children in their care. The government is supposed to provide financial support, but is 1.5 years behind in payments. In order to provide needed funds, they raise grapes and make their own wine, have a restaurant for friends and family they trust on Sundays, and serve lunch to OAT groups. One of the Nigerian girls told us her story of arriving in Sicily eight months pregnant at the age of 15.This young lady is from New York State and is in Sicily on a Fulbright Scholarship to stay at the foster home and to document the work they are doing there. She had been out picking grapes before we met her.

Our second surprise of the day was a discussion and demonstration of traditional Sicilian music in a nearby park. The instruments were a Sicilian bagpipe, a mouth harp, and several types of flutes.

Of course, the worlds problems still have to be solved, so Hugh, Dallas, and Bruce were doing their part before we left for the walking tour this morning.

Take a Walk Through Ortigia

Ortigia is an island that is the historic center of Siracusa.The bus took us to a large parking lot with the most buses we had seen the whole trip. The parking lot had about a half dozen vendors equipped with these wheeled carts so they could easily and quickly move to whatever bus was in the process of loading or unloading passengers.

The Temple of Apollo is the remains of the first Doric stone temple in Sicily dating back to 580 BCE. The columns are shorter and closer together than more modern Greek Temples. Also, the columns are each made from a single piece of stone. As time went by, the Greeks found it easier to make the columns by stacking drums and learned to make the columns taller and spaced further apart.

We are getting used to walking through charming, narrow alleys. I am not sure why the family in the top picture had books outside their window. The rain had not helped the books!

The Fish House Gallery has fish mobiles hanging over the street to advertise their store.

This building was once a Synagogue located in the Jewish section of the city. The area was never a ghetto where Jews were forced to live, but was an area where they chose to live. It is now an active, open air church; but it is used only in the summertime since it has no roof.

This picture shows the Baroque front of the Siracusa Cathedral. The church has a long history as revealed by studying its architecture. The building was originally a Greek temple built in 480 BCE with 6 columns in the front and back and 14 on each side. In 535 CE, the Byzantines took over Sicily and converted the temple into a church. They created solid walls by simply filling in the space between the columns. In 827, the Arabs from North Africa captured Sicily and converted the church into a Mosque.In the late 11th century, the Normans conquered Sicily, raised the roof of the building, and turned it back into a church. The building was severely damaged in the quake of 1693. The facade was rebuilt in the Baroque style we see today.

We presumed this groom was in the military, but he is a policeman wearing his formal uniform.

This is officially called the Fountain of Arethusa. It is the freshwater spring that the Greeks discovered when they first arrived at Sicily. With a natural harbor, and easily defended island, and abundant water, it was an ideal place to settle. The large plant growing in the spring is papyrus.

The market was filled with spices and olives. I am not sure what the red things are. If someone can read the sign, let me know. Google Translate wasn’t able to help me. We are in Catania for the next four nights.

Seeing Modica in Catarina

On Thursday afternoon, we left Ragusa to visit the nearby hill town of Modica. OAT had arranged for us to tour the town in vintage Fiat 500 cars. Our car was a 1972 model who the owner lovingly called Catarina. In its 47 years, Catarina has traveled about 450,000 miles and has never been in an accident. It is on its third engine which gets about 40 miles per gallon. The owner said he is not a mechanic, but built the engine himself from an instruction book. It is apparently easy to get parts and find mechanics who can work on these vintage cars. Susan is pictured with one of Catarina’s friends.. There were seven in our fleet.

Following is a video which illustrates rather nicely what it is like riding in a tiny Fiat 500 through the very narrow streets of Modica. We went on streets so narrow the driver said only a Fiat 500 could squeeze through. I Have never added a video to a blog before, so I hope someone will let me know if it works for them.

Our first stop in Modica was the Cathedral of San Pietro, which marks the dividing line between the lower town and the upper town.Our next stop was at an overlook at the top of the upper town.Along the narrow streets we drove by caves in the cliffs occupied primarily by immigrants. The caves have their openings enclosed by cement and conventional doors. One of these doors was open and the caves appeared to be about the size of a large bathroom.We also visited the Cathedral of San Giorgio in the upper town. It was designed by the same architect as the Ragusa cathedral.We finally got to what Modica is most famous for: chocolate. They do not add any fat or milk to their chocolate, but they make it in flavors such as orange, cinnamon, and spicy pepper. They had samples of each flavor for us to try. The chocolate had a very different texture from our chocolate which I found very appealing. Rick Steves says since there is no fat added, it is practically a health food. Works for me!!! Following our chocolate tasting, we had dinner in a nearby restaurant.

Friday, we had the traditional OAT experience, “A Day in the Life”, where we spend the day seeing how a local family lives.Today we visited the family of Enrique who owns and manages Gli Aromi in a rural area about 45 minutes from Ragusa. Aromi is Italian for herbs and his business consists of selling herb plants in Sicily and Italy, selling packaged herbs around the world, and using his herb farm for destination weddings, outdoor concerts, and anything else he can come up with. He was the one who approached OAT to visit his farm. He started out by Googling best tour companies in Sicily. OAT visited his farm four times before sending the first group there last month.

His wife, Rita, is on the right. She was born in Brooklyn and came to his farm to get some coriander. They fell in love and were married last year. She was a chef in a Michelin recommended restaurant, but quit to help with event hosting on the farm. His sister-in-law, on the left, is his bookkeeper.This is the amphitheater he made for musical events. They had five events in the last year from a classical music concert to a black and white movie with two violinists playing the movie score. The amphitheater overlooks the Mediterranean and the sunset. You have to admire his determination to make a living out of this. His next plan is to build some apartment units on the property. He said that the internet is what enables him to make a living by giving him a way to promote and sell his different products.This is an Asian flower he had growing in one of his greenhouses.This man is starting new lavender plants from cuttings.Rita is showing us how to make fried sage leaves. They were part of our lunch and were quite good. Susan is thinking of making fried spinach leaves.Another unusual treat was fried eggs prepared on the barbecue with capers scattered over them. I learned today that a caper is not a berry, but is a flower bud. It was an interesting Day in the Life with a good lunch included.


Ragusa is a charming town clinging to the side of a hill in southeast Sicily. In 1693 an earthquake killed just over half the population and leveled the town. Over the years, the town was rebuilt in the Baroque style that was popular at the time, but most of the people moved up the hill to newer construction better designed to withstand earthquakes. The lower town was rebuilt by the people who couldn’t afford to start over in the upper town. There are two Ragusas today: the more modern Ragusa Superiore on the higher hill and the more historic Ragusa Ibla with narrow winding roads and houses built into the sides of cliffs. Our room in our hotel is one that is built into the side of the cliffs.Our walking tour was through the old town. Our local guide stopped to visit a sculptor and joke teller in his studio.The bread truck arrived in the middle of our visit with the sculptor. Walking is nearly as difficult as San Miguel. The sidewalks are very narrow to nonexistent and a car cannot readily pass if people are in the street.The senior men in the town were busy solving the world’s problems. They were also eager to talk to our tour guide.This is one of the finest Baroque balconies in town.Most of the churches have alters made of marble of different colors.This is the beginning of some 400 steps leading from the old town to the new town.The cathedral dominates the central square in lower Ragusa. The organ has over 3000 pipes, which does not place it among the largest, but there is only one person in town who is able to play it. The windows are interesting because they are not stained glass, but are painted glass.But the highlight of the morning was going to the home of this man, the one man in town who can play the cathedral organ and who earlier in his career coached Maria Callas. He played the piano for us and gave us a tour of his home, which reminded us of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia. The walls were covered from ceiling to floor with art work, photographs, and other objects. The rooms were filled with antique furniture displaying more collectible items. Following are some pictures of several rooms to give you an idea, but you really need to be in the room surrounded by all this art work to fully appreciate the experience.The second picture from the bottom is a model of the cathedral from many years ago.

On our free time in the afternoon, we walked through the gardens at the foot of town and did a little shopping.The late afternoon and evening experience was another highlight, but I am going to save that for the next blog.

For Roman Mosaics, Come to Sicily

In 300 CE, the Roman Empire was beginning to fail so the rich and famous preferred to build their palaces away from the impending chaos in Rome. One Roman built his villa near Piazza Armerina and covered the floors with 37,000 square feet of marble mosaics. No one knows who built Villa Romana Del Casale; but based on the themes of the mosaics, it is believed to be a Roman senator who imported exotic animals. The Villa is special as it is one of the few remaining Roman sites in Sicily. Centuries of invaders looted, destroyed, or recycled the ancient buildings of Sicily. Villa Romana survived because of its remote location and a landslide that sealed off the area in the 1300’s. By the time it was rediscovered in the 1930’s, civilization was ready to preserve ancient treasures. The mosaics are some of the best preserved in the Mediterranean area. The site has been preserved by covering it with a roof, but the mosaics are original without restoration. Since the mosaics are marble, their color is the same today as when they were created.This was part of the viaduct that supplied water to the thermal baths in the villa.This dog accompanied us for much of the tour. He was very popular with the guards.The palestra was the home gym located adjacent to the spa area which had hot, warm, and cold baths.The peristyle courtyard had a walkway on all four sides featuring faces of exotic animals. Rick Steves speculates that they may have served as a catalog of the animals offered for sale by the owner.The Hall of the Small Hunt features hunting scenes. In the top picture the hunters are enjoying a barbecue lunch. In the bottom the man with the spear is fending off a wild boar after his companion had been injured by the boar. This room is thought to be the dining room.The Ambulatory of the Great Hunt. This 200 foot long hunting scene may depict how the owner obtained exotic animals to sell. The scenes shown above illustrate an antelope and elephant being loaded on a boat and a rhinoceros being captured. I question that the boat shown would hold an elephant and that a rhino would be that passive when caught.This shows convincingly that Bridget Bardot did not originate the bikini. The mosaic depicts women athletes competing in sporting events.I placed a Euro on the nose of this animal for scale. The Euro has a bronze edge and is about the size of a quarter. The mosaic tiles are typically the size of a finger nail and some are much smaller.I included these two pictures to show that there were also frescoes on the wall. Most of them were in poor condition. The bottom picture is the alcove of the master’s bedroom where the bed would be located.A mosaic from the master bedroom. The basilica had a marble tile floor instead of mosaics.The prickly pear cactus by the villa was loaded with fruit.We had lunch in the hill town of Caltagirone. It was a charming town with Baroque balconies.The alter of this church is made from different colors of marble. It is the only church I have ever been in that had an operating model railroad including a working waterfall.These 141 steps all lined with ceramic tile lead from the old town to the new town. Fortunately, we had no need to get to the new town.The town is famous for its ceramics. The ceramic pinecones on the corners of the railing are a symbol of hospitality.The town is filled with scenic, narrow streets with views of churches at the end. We are staying in another hillside town, Ragusa, the next three nights.

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

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce