A Travellerspoint blog

November 2015

Under the Sicilian Sun

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The west coast of Sicily is noted for its year round sunshine and for the warm winds that blow directly from North Africa, so it’s not surprising solar and wind farms are springing up across the land…
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However, solar and wind power have been harnessed to produce salt here since the time of the Phoenicians in 800 BC. Numerous invaders have conquered Sicily from time immemorial. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans and even Moors and Normans have been drawn to this sunny isle because of its defensive location at the southern tip of Europe. They have also come for the salt...
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This six hundred year old windmill on the salinas near Marsala was used for draining the salt pans of fresh water after the winter rains so that sea water could flood in and evaporate under the hot summer sun. But Marsala is best known for the sweet dessert wine of the same name. and we were expecting to find a rural city full of tractors and wineries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marsala is a smart sophisticated city with posh shops and wide pedestrian streets paved with marble,…
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The nearby medieval city of Erice is a different kettle of fish. It is a rugged place perched atop a mountain at the northwest tip of Sicily. The narrow streets paved with rough cobbles snake around the mountain and lead up to a crumbling Norman castle…
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The roads are so narrow that it is impossible to believe that traffic is allowed – but it is…
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Although this alleyway in the medieval city of Cefalu was a tight squeeze even for us…
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The Normans conquered this island a thousand years ago and stamped their culture on the place with numerous cathedrals and churches. This is the cathedral, (Chiesa Madre) in Erice, together with its lofty bell tower that was used as a lookout to spot potential marauders in the middle ages…
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It is said that you can see Tunisia from here on a clear day and although the sun was shining we were out of luck. We did however have fabulous views of the coast and the cities beneath us…
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Now we are going back in time – to the amazing ruined cities of Selinunte and Agrigento – built more than two thousand five hundred years ago. Here’s a glimpse into the distant past…
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Hope you can join us under the Sicilian sun in a day or so.

Posted by Hawkson 09:40 Archived in Italy Comments (2)

A Sicilian Miscellany

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We stay in many excellent hotels and guest houses each year so we only mention the truly memorable – like those where we are greeted and treated as long lost family members. So we want to say: mille grazie to Maria and Patrizia at Villa Raineri in Giardini Naxos for welcoming us to their beautiful beachside villa. Vi auguriamo molto successo …
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However, time moves on and so must we. From Giardini we drove the 300 kilometres to the outskirts of Palermo and spent most of the time in the dark…
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The Sicilians certainly know a thing or two about tunnelling and when it comes to mountains they just burrow straight through. We lost count after a couple of dozen but figured that we probably travelled at least 40 kilometres underground.The autostradas (toll highways) are excellent and the drivers not quite as crazy as you might imagine. The same cannot be said of city drivers who play chicken at every intersection and squeeze through impossibly narrow medieval streets jammed with badly parked cars – apparently a car is deemed parked once the nose hits the kerb irrespective of where this might leave the back end.

Our home now is an apartment in the slightly seedy fishing village of Aspra not far from Palermo…
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Each morning the numerous fishermen haul up their wooden boats and sell their catch off the beach …
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While each evening they hang out on the promenade to decry the lack of fish, the poor prices and the state of the humanity in general. But this is real Italy – none of the polish of Positano or the Ritz of Rome; no Fendi handbags here. Life goes on here much as it has done for centuries and we are merely observers as we stroll the beach at sunset…
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However, we are not here for the beach – even though it is warm enough for a swim. We are here to discover Sicily’s past and our first stop is the ancient Elimi city of Segesta. This enormous acropolis was built 2,450 years ago by Hellenic people who had fled from the city of Troy in, what is now, Turkey…
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It is difficult to believe that this building was already two thousand years old when the Incas built Machu Picchu in Peru. This mountaintop theatre is another of the incredible constructions of the Elimi in Segesta…
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Who needs scenery with a backdrop like this…
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Sicily has a wealth of historic monuments and we will be visiting the most important ones in the coming week. We will also be trying the local dishes like the antipasta where everything was produced on the farm where we dined…
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An authentic hundred metre diet!

Posted by Hawkson 01:30 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

Surprising Sicily

sunny 24 °C

We’ve only been in Sicily a few days and we already love the place. Where to begin? The architecture, the history, the people, the food, the wine and the weather have all been absolutely amazing. For example - the city of Catania is just stuffed with architectural gems. The main streets are lined with elegant baroque palaces…
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The central piazza has an elephant carved from volcanic lava supporting a 3,500 year old Egyptian obelisk and the university is housed in many magnificent buildings including a splendid Benedictine monastery dating from the 17th century …
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But these relatively modern buildings pale to insignificance compared to this enormous Roman theatre that seated 7,000 people in its heyday in the 1st century AD…
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(Can you spot Sheila standing against the back wall?)
However, this two thousand year old theatre was actually built from the original Greek theatre which existed here in 415 BC. It seems that the Romans just knocked down the old one and used many of the stones to build the new one. After the fall of the Roman Empire the locals built houses on top of the theatre and these were only demolished in the 20th century to reveal this ancient monument.

The Sicilians are intensely proud of their produce and the daily market that sprawls around the narrow streets and squares in the centre of Catania is a visual and olfactory delight for those of us who can enjoy food as an art form. Who could not love the abundance of fresh fish…
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…or these vegetables presented in their prime?...
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...or this selection of local wines for just 4 euros a bottle...
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If only we had the time and the facilities to cook. But we must move quickly on. The longer we are in Sicily the more we realise that it has an amazing amount to offer. We are now in Giardini Naxos, a delightful seaside town at the foot of towering cliffs surmounted by ancient castles and precariously perched villas. This is Castelmola…
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It is a nosebleed ride up in a bus, but the views of a smouldering snow-capped Mount Etna are simply stunning...
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...as are the views of the coast far below...
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Posted by Hawkson 12:53 Archived in Italy Comments (6)

The Italian Way

From the Amalfi coast to Sicily

sunny 24 °C

As we hop from one interesting place to another we do so without acknowledging that the path we take can be as spectacular as the places themselves. For instance: our journey to Sicily. We begin in Positano – once a sleepy fishing village squeezed into a narrow rocky ravine just south of Naples. But today’s Positano has climbed high into the surrounding mountainsides and high on the bucket list of deep-pocketed tourists…
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Positano is beautiful but is best visited at this time of the year when the glitterati have packed their bags and most of the pricier hotels and restaurants have shut up shop for the winter. The same can be said of our next stop – Amalfi – a few kilometres along the coast…
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The white-knuckle road that winds along the cliff face is no more than a narrow ledge with heart-stopping hairpin bends and tunnels barely wide enough for a car let alone the numerous tour busses that blare a path with their horns. But, for those with the nerve to look, the coastal views are spectacular…
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With Amalfi in the rear view mirror we climb a thousand tortuous feet to the mountain top town of Ravello where we stop for lunch in the Medieval square…
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From here we drop back to the coast road (which most guidebooks warn drivers to avoid).
Our little Renault loves the circuitous climbs and the serpentine curves and in no time we are in Salerno where we board the southbound train for a distant Sicily...
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The olive, lemon and bergamot groves of Calabria zip past as we skim along the Mediterranean coast and we marvel at the enormity of the lemons from which the delicious limoncello is made….
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Sandy beaches, rocky shores and quaint fishing villages quickly come and go as we zip in and out of the numerous tunnels that take us through this mountainous land. And then we arrive in Reggio Calabria where our train is shunted aboard a ferry to cross the treacherous Strait of Messina…
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Now in Sicily we follow the eastern coast until we reach today’s destination, the ancient city of Catania – nestled under the still smouldering volcano of Mount Etna…
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Two hours driving and seven hours by train and ship leave us savouring a kaleidoscope of images and colours and we love every minute.
This is a beautiful land.

Posted by Hawkson 07:46 Archived in Italy Comments (6)

The Wrath of Vesuvius

sunny 24 °C

It is 12.30pm on Friday August 24th. AD79 - precisely one thousand nine hundred and thirty six years and eleven weeks ago. The folks living in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the other towns under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius on the west coast of Italy, are simply going about their daily routine. Ordinary folk are having lunch at this restaurant where the food is kept hot with wood fires under these actual pots…
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...while the aristocracy are dining in the shady courtyards of their homes…
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Local senators are meeting in the town hall to discuss politics. They are admiring these newly painted murals that still adorn the walls…
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Other townsfolk are gathered in the square around this statue…
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Some women are preparing to bathe in the hot baths and are walking on these actual mosaic tiles as they disrobe…
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Groups of children are playing in these actual streets – stepping on exactly the same paving stones that we are treading today…
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Storekeepers and their workers are making and selling all manner of metal, ceramic and everyday objects while customers choose products from these adverts painted on the shop wall…
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Now it is 1pm on that fateful day nearly two thousand years ago and an enormous mushroom cloud bursts from the volcano into the sky above the town. Thousands flee as hot ash begins to rain down and then a pyroclastic flow of superheated gas, travelling faster than a bullet, vaporises everything combustible while leaving perfectly preserved scorched timber in its wake…
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There is pandemonium in the streets. Many rush to the boats and head out to sea. Those neither able nor willing to run, shelter in the boathouses that line the beach. But no one escapes the asphyxiating gasses that fill the air, nor can they escape the sixty feet of volcanic ash and magma that engulfs everything in its path…
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For nearly two millenia the victims have lain here undisturbed by wars, tempests and further eruptions. Stripped of flesh and blood by the intense heat, but still crying out in agony as their beautiful town is swallowed by the volcano, these residents of Herculaneum will forever be a symbol of human fragility in the face of raw nature…
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Posted by Hawkson 00:22 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

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