May 5, 2015 -Monreale

Today is our second and last attempt at seeing the Cathedral of Monreale. Our flight to Rome is this afternoon so if the cathedral is not open, too bad for us. Since we already attempted to visit on Sunday, we know exactly what to do – how to get there, where to park, etc. Yay, the cathedral is open. We rent the excellent audio tour and do a thorough job looking at the beautiful mosaics. The Norman Cathedral was begun in 1174 by William II and is a national monument of Italy and one of the most important attractions of Sicily.

Stepping into the Monreale Cathedral

Stepping into the Monreale Cathedral


Jesus dominates the central apse

Jesus dominates the central apse

A madonna and child are beneath

A madonna and child are beneath


Along the sides are three tiers of mosaics depicting old and new testament subjects

Along the sides are three tiers of mosaics depicting old and new testament subjects

Last Supper

Last Supper


We are so glad that Sarah has a chance to see this beautiful cathedral. Now we head to the Palermo airport for the one hour flight to Rome. We check into the horrible Rome airport Hilton and await our endurance test for tomorrow – 9 hours to Philadelphia, 2 hour layover, and 6 hour flight to SFO. It’s been a fabulous trip full of new experiences and old favorites.
Are we home yet?

Are we home yet?

May 4, 2015 – Palermo

First of all, Happy Star Wars Day! Doesn’t seem like a big holiday here and I am not seeing unlimited margaritas and guacamole for Cinquo de Mayo either. Sicilians are really missing out.

Anyway, the force is with us today as we see several outstanding churches, chapels and princely buildings. But first, a walk through the produce market because who doesn’t love to see the produce of other countries?!

Beautiful produce at a Palermo market

Beautiful produce at a Palermo market


The father ofAldo, from the front desk in Trapani, father \Sarah and me one of these to try. It was delicious but we didn't know what a nespola was.  It's a loquat!  Aldo and his dad have a farm near Marsala.

The father of Aldo, from the front desk in Trapani, gave Sarah and me one of these to try. It was delicious but we didn’t know what a nespola was. It’s a loquat! Aldo and his dad have a farm near Marsala.


More vegetables!

More vegetables!

Our real first stop is at the Palermo Cathedral. The Cathedral was built in 1185 on top of Byzantine basilica reputed to be built by St. Gregory. Around 800 AD it was turned in to a mosque when the Saracens conquered the area. Since 1185 it has gone through several renovations so it is really a polyglot of styles.

Exterior view of Palermo cathedral

Exterior view of Palermo cathedral


Another view

Another view


Interior view

Interior view


An interesting aspect of the Cathedral is the heliometer of 1690. The device itself is a tiny hole in one of the minor domes which acts as pinhole camera, projecting an image of the sun onto the floor at solar noon. There is a bronze line on the floor, running precisely north to south. The ends of the line mark the positions of the summer and winter solstices and signs of the zodiac show the various other dates throughout the year. This heliometer was used to standardize time and predict when Easter should fall.
Mary's zodiac sign on the floor of the cathedral

Mary’s zodiac sign on the floor of the cathedral


John's zodiac sign on the floor of the cathedral

John’s zodiac sign on the floor of the cathedral


Next we head over to the Norman Palace. It is the oldest continually operating governmental building in Europe. Inside, along with the government offices, is the beautiful Palantine Chapel. It is decorated shimmering mosaics depicting stories from the old and new testaments. It is a miniature of the Monreale Cathedral that we will see tomorrow.
Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve


Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel

St. Paul being smuggled out of Damascus in a basket

St. Paul being smuggled out of Damascus in a basket


Main apse -Jesus

Main apse -Jesus


Back wall -  Jesus with Sts. Peter and Paul

Back wall – Jesus with Sts. Peter and Paul


Noah's drunkeness

Noah’s drunkeness


Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel


Leaving the princely palace we realize it’s lunchtime. We try to pick a place that is not overrun with tourists and settle upon Trattoria Ai Normann. Unfortunately right after we are seated a large German tour groups sits down outside. Thereupon ensues the slowest lunch ever. Two hours of sitting interrupted by two bouts of ten minute eating. We finally force the issue of the check and are told that good food takes time. We had simple dishes that could have been prepared and served in half the time.

We look through two other churches after lunch. One, La Martorana, also has mosaics. It is interesting to see the different yet similar artistic styles.
Overview

Overview


St. Anne

St. Anne


Jesus taking Mary's soul to heaven

Jesus taking Mary’s soul to heaven


Jesus and the archangels

Jesus and the archangels


Tomorrow is our last day before we head home. We hope to see Monreale Cathedral and then fly to Rome for an overnight before completing the rest of our journey.

May 3, 2015 – Segesta and Palermo

I think we are starting to have vacation fatigue – the ultimate 1st world problem. This past week we’ve been hassled by bad accommodations, bad traffic, and expectations unmet. Having been buoyed by the visit to the Salt Museum yesterday though, we are eager to start some new adventures.

Our first stop is at Segesta, home to a Doric Greek temple built before 430 BC with traces of the Elymians who inhabited the western part of Sicily since about 1200 B.C. The Elymians who had emigrated from Asia Minor intermarried with the Greeks. In the 400’s the Segestans allied themselves first with the Greeks and then with the Carthaginians as the winds of war changed. Ultimately Segesta became a Roman outpost and was destroyed by the Vandals.

Greek temple at Segesta

Greek temple at Segesta

Sarah at the Greek temple

Sarah at the Greek temple


John and Sarah walk up the steep hill to the temple site. I am afraid of slipping on the downhill and stay back at a table in the shade.

Now it is off to Palermo with a stop at Monreale to see their fabulous cathedral. We have trouble negotiating the narrow streets and our GPS seems flummoxed as well. Finally we make it to the parking area around 1:45, just enough time to have a quick snack before the cathedral opens at 2:30. Except it isn’t opening today. It was only open from 8:30 to 9:30 this morning. We see many people in the same boat as we. The guide books and internet sites say that it opens from 9:30 to 11:00 on Sunday mornings and 2:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon. There is nothing to be done, though, so we find a place for lunch before heading to our hotel in Palermo.


Palermo seen from Monreale

Palermo seen from Monreale

It is very hard to find the hotel. Around and around we go dodging people, bikes and other cars. Finally Sarah says TURN RIGHT! and we are at the hotel. Phew! We decide to take a little rest and reconvene at 7 in the bar to discuss plans for tomorrow.

What do you know it’s happy hour! We settle in with some wine and an immense array of happy hour snacks and figure out our agenda for the last two days of our trip.

So many happy hour snacks!!

So many happy hour snacks!!

May 2, 2015 – Selinunte and Trapani

All aboard for the next day of sightseeing!

John by train with train station hotel in background

John by train with train station hotel in background


Today we plan to go to Selinunte, another Greek temple site. We have some difficulty driving there as part of the roadway is shut down due to a collapse and then later there is a serious traffic accident. The infrastructure in Sicily seems to be crumbling in real time. Various sections of roads are single tracked or have warnings due to road and bridge failures. So instead of taking the main highway to Selinunte we are diverted onto surface streets that are very narrow and crowded.
Trying to merge to get through the town gate at Sciacca. (pronounced Shaka)

Trying to merge to get through the town gate at Sciacca. (pronounced Shaka)


We arrive at Selinunte about 40 minutes late but it doesn’t really matter since we don’t have some schedule to keep (except in my mind.)
The audio tour here has also been discontinued and replaced by a downloadable tour for E3,99 available on Android phones only. There is no wi-fi to connect to and roaming upload speeds and prices for American phones make it prohibitive. There are a couple of placards.

Selinunte has also been sacked by the Carthaginians in the late 400’s B.C. The temples here are terrifically large and we wonder how the Carthaginians ever managed to pull them down. The most in tact temple is undergoing restoration so we cannot go inside. The other temples lay like gigantic puzzles on the ground. We can see how they have been put together with a block and peg system. It is a pretty walk among the ruins with the wild flowers totally in bloom.

Temple being renovated

Temple being renovated


Second temple

Second temple


Sarah next to a column piece

Sarah next to a column piece

Gigantic temple pieces

Gigantic temple pieces


Beautiful wild flowers

Beautiful wild flowers

Stone Legos

Stone Legos


After a brief stop at a McDonald’s we head to Trapani which is on a point of land sticking out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. After checking into our hotel we take a walk down to their cathedral, San Lorenzo. Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo) was martyred by being burned to death on a grill. Myth has it that he quipped while burning, “Turn me over I’m done on this side.” The church is 15th century but has been largely redone. In the middle of the main apse are Hebrew letters spelling out Yahweh. (It’s handy having John around.) That’s the Hebrew word for God.
Hebrew word in apse

Hebrew word in apse


We also go to visit a salt factory/museum. Trapani is the perfect spot to harvest snowy white salt since the sea is shallow and there is abundant sunshine and wind. Other colored salts are inferior to Trapani salt because they are colored by the mud they lay in and do not have as good a mineral content. At least that is what the guide tells us. Before electricity pumping out excess water and grinding the salt was done by windmill. We get a thorough explanation and it is really interesting.
Salt evaporation pond

Salt evaporation pond

Windmills that used to drive the production of salt

Windmills that used to drive the production of salt


The salt dries over the winter with ceramic tiles over it

The salt dries over the winter with ceramic tiles over it

Sarah and John at the Salt Museum

Sarah and John at the Salt Museum


Once again we try to have an authentic dinner and manage only part of it. Our hotelier arranges dinner for us at La Mura by the old city wall. The antipasti is very good. The rest is okay. Once again we are joined by an Asian tour group who happens to be staying at our hotel.

May 1, 2015 – Agrigento

Happy May Day! It is a holiday here in Italy and people are out in droves. You would think we would remember this holiday since two years ago we spent May Day with millions of Chinese in Beijing!

We have had a terrible night at the Villa Adriana in San Leone. In addition to being very noisy our sheets are damp. It is incredible uncomfortable and impossible to sleep. We tell the eponymous Adriana that we are not staying another night. She reacts by acting like a wounded small animal and stands and stares at us during breakfast. Creepy.

Then it is off to the Valley of the Gods. Surprisingly the Valley is on a high bluff overlooking the coastal plain.

We spend a couple of hours looking at the various temples in fairly good shape given that they are 2500 years old. The area was sacked by the Carthaginians in around 400 BC. Some temples were pulled down but others were merely repurposed.

Temple of Concordia

Temple of Concordia

Fancy Valley of the Gods goats

Fancy Valley of the Gods goats


Sarah at Temple of Juno

Sarah at Temple of Juno


Obligatory John and a tall object picture

Obligatory John and a tall object picture


This place used to have an audio tour that explained what you were looking at and gave the history of the times. The audio guide is no longer available and all that is left are a few placards. This is the second time we have run up against the defunct audio guide problem. I wonder if they are in the midst of introducing some new sort of guide.

After our visit to the Valley of the Gods we go in search of lunch. Creepy Adriana has recommended the restaurant Ex Panificio as a place for authentic Sicilian food. I guess it is their interpretation of what they think tourists would like to eat because it is pretty much not authentic and caters to tour groups. A large Chinese tour group comes in shortly after we were seated. Among the bad food choices –


We decide for dinner we will get some panini and chips and wash it down with a bottle of red wine that Villa Ducale gave us.

Now we need to find our new hotel. There are not a lot of choices left due to it being May Day. I do find one that is at the train station. Actually it is in the train station adjacent to track #5. The hallways are reminiscent of train aisles and the windows overlook the action on the tracks. The trains are fairly unobtrusive except when one blows off some steam at 4:19 AM. It jolts all of us awake. But on the whole it is so much better than creepy Villa Adriana.

Train station

Train station


Train outside our window

Train outside our window

Train hotel hallway

Train hotel hallway

John in the breakfast room with train outside

John in the breakfast room with train outside

April 30, 2015 – To Agrigento via Villa Romana del Casale

One last breakfast on the porch and one last look at Mt. Etna with smoke streaming out the top and we are on our way. We get many hugs and kissy cheeks from the people at Villa Ducale. They tell us we must come back again and that Sarah should come to the Italian school there. She can live with them. What nice people!

Sarah pouring tea at our last breakfast at Villa Ducale

Sarah pouring tea at our last breakfast at Villa Ducale

We also say so long to Mt. Etna looming above us with smoke curling out of its top.

Smoking Mt. Etna

Smoking Mt. Etna


Our goal today is to see the Villa Romana del Casale, a 3rd-4th century large Roman house that was buried in a landslide and lay undiscovered for 1000 years. The villa would have been the property of a very higher-up in the government or a member of the royal family. It was kind of like the county seat of a large piece of property with numerous serfs and slaves.

The house is decorated with many mosaic floors and frescoed walls. While many of the mosaics have come through largely in tact, the wall decorations have mostly disappeared. Many of the mosaics refer to hunting scenes, games, or displays of Roman power and influence. These are very large scale mosaics covering the whole floor of the rooms.

Mosaic of a wild buffalo being subdued

Mosaic of a wild buffalo being subdued


An elephant being boarded on boat to be taken back to Rome

An elephant being boarded on boat to be taken back to Rome

Fishermen

Fishermen

A hunting scene with a feast in the center

A hunting scene with a feast in the center

The floor of the famous bikini room where girls vie for athletic prizes

The floor of the famous bikini room where girls vie for athletic prizes

Children in a chariot race

Children in a chariot race


After our visit we continue on to our next stop in Agrigento. Along the way wild fennel grows everywhere.
Wild fennel

Wild fennel


We eat at our favorite restaurant in San Leone. The dish of the day? Spaghetti con vongole.
Spaghetti con vongole

Spaghetti con vongole

April 29, 2015 – Taormina, Sicily

Good morning, Taormina!

Good morning, Taormina!


Today is an exciting day. We have contacted the hotel about setting up a cooking class for Sarah. When John and I were here six years ago, we also took a cooking class. Paolo, the manager here, has arranged for his father, Aurelio, to meet us in town and take us back to his house for the lesson.

We meet Aurelio at about 10:45 AM and the first thing we do is go to the market to see what is good and what to buy for lunch.

The local market

The local market


Aurelio chooses a cauliflower

Aurelio chooses a cauliflower


Sarah watches while Aurelio chooses and bargains

Sarah watches while Aurelio chooses and bargains


Round light purple eggplants from Sicily. "Not bitter" says Aurelio so there is no need to salt them.

Round light purple eggplants from Sicily. “Not bitter” says Aurelio so there is no need to salt them.


Everyone we pass knows Aurelio. He has lived here most of his life. At the market women tease him and the men pick out the best produce. When our shopping is done, we follow him to a bar for a quick cup of espresso. We are really getting the total experience!

At his house we meet his wife Angela and the two of them bustle around the kitchen showing Sarah how to make various dishes. Occasionally they even let her cut some things up. Our menu includes a zucchini casserole, involtini of spaghetti and eggplant, zucchini and eggplant stuffed with ground meat, and a dessert of fruit and a wine pudding/gelatine with raisins. Everything is freshly made from the flavored bread crumbs to the tomato sauce.

Big difference between the way their dishes and ours? First of all, the vegetables are so much tastier. This is because they just came out of the ground or off the plant. They only eat what’s in season. All the food is grown locally. And they use in one meal about the amount of oil that we use in a month.

Aurelio going over the menu with Sarah

Aurelio going over the menu with Sarah


Cooking together

Cooking together


Zucchini casserole

Zucchini casserole


Spaghetti and eggplant involtini

Spaghetti and eggplant involtini


Our plate also includes ground meat inside of zucchini  and eggplant strips

Our plate also includes ground meat inside of zucchini and eggplant strips


Kind of weird wine pudding with strawberries

Kind of weird wine pudding with strawberries


But neither Aurelio or Angela are overweight. Although they have cooked a lot, they take only small portions. Plus they have four flights of stairs up to their main living quarters and Taormina is full of very steep hills. While we are huffing and puffing following Aurelio around, he has no problem with the stairs and hills even though he is 76!

We all sit down to a very enjoyable lunch. By the time we leave we have been shopping, cooking, eating and chatting for about 5 hours. What an incredible experience!

Later we sit out on the deck with a glass of prosecco and a couple of small bites and talk about our day. We are way too full to contemplate dinner.
P1050603

April 27-28, 2014 – From Bari to Taormina by way of Cosenza

We have decided to take two driving days to reach Sicily. The driving here is pretty stressful and since our rental car has a manual transmission John has to do all the driving. In order to make the trip more enjoyable I have chosen something interesting to see each day.

We are making our way on the 27th to Cosenza in Calabria. Along the way there is a hilltop town which was a Saracen hold out due to its very remote and inaccessible location. I have read on the internet that there is a church there with a 14th century triptych painted by Giotto’s studio. We definitely need to see this! So up the winding roads John drives until we reach the tiny town and we don’t think we can fit the car up any of the streets. Disembarking we walk up very, very steep streets until we reach the little church. The sign on the door says that it is open between 10 AM and 12:30 PM and then again at 4 PM. Hurrah, it is 11:30 AM so it should be open.

Hill town of Rabatana

Hill town of Rabatana

But, no. I read that it is manned by an elderly nun. We find someone to ask. They say that the nun has gone to Tursi for the day and will be back for the later opening. Unfortunately, we will not be here for the 4 PM opening. Sadly we turn the car around and continue on to Consenza.

Our Lady of the Locked Church

Our Lady of the Locked Church

Once in Cosenza we do some shopping at a nearby mall and find somewhere to have dinner. Monday is usually a day when most restaurants are closed. What they think travelers do between Sunday lunch and Tuesday breakfast, I do not know. Maybe fast? Anyway the hotel knows of a place that is open and we have pizza and a bottle of wine from a grape we have never heard of. We chat with the waiter. It’s a pleasant dinner.

Yay, pizza!

Yay, pizza!


In the morning we are back on the road to Sicily. We catch the 11:20 AM ferry and cross the Strait of Messina.
Crossing the Strait of Messina

Crossing the Strait of Messina


My fun plan for today is to stop in Messina and see the cathedral and then have lunch before heading to Taormina. I am hoping that it turns out better than yesterday’s good idea. All goes smoothly getting off the ship and we find the cathedral with no problem. However, parking is a problem. John finds an inventive parking space which is obviously not a real parking space but others are parked here so, why not?
Our parking spot at the top of a flight of stairs

Our parking spot at the top of a flight of stairs


The Messina cathedral has been largely rebuilt since an earthquake at the beginning of the 20th century and allied bombing in 1943 destroyed much of it. It has some very nice reconstructed 14th century mosaics and a large astronomical clock on its bell tower.
Main apse mosaic in Messina duomo

Main apse mosaic in Messina duomo


We find some lunch and then are on our way to Villa Ducale in Taormina. This will be the third time we have stayed at Villa Ducale and we are greeted like old friends. The B & B has 17 rooms, an unbelievably beautiful view from their porch, exceptional service, and is rated #1 on Tripadvisor. There is complimentary tea at 5 PM, cocktail hour at 7 PM and then you can have dinner al fresco as well. It is a really nice place. Sarah is charmed.
The view from Villa Ducale enjoyed with a welcoming glass of prosecco

The view from Villa Ducale enjoyed with a welcoming glass of prosecco


Our room

Our room

The view from our room's balcony

The view from our room’s balcony


Tea time treats

Tea time treats


We pretty much camp out on their porch from 7 PM until we retire.

Tomorrow, Sarah has a cooking lesson with the hotel manager’s father!

April 26, 2015 – Bari

The other night Yuri, from Vincanto in Pompei, asked us where we were going next. We said, Bari. He looked at us quizzically and said, Bari? There’s not too much to do in Bari but Sarah wanted to come here because of St. Nicholas of Bari and so here we are.

Our first plan is to walk over to the art museum and give it a look. On the way there we find that there is a road race going on and a fabulous fish market. The art museum will have to wait.

The fish market is definitely a man’s affair. There are men beating octopi on the pavement to tenderize it. There are men washing octopi in big tubs of soapy water, men shelling sea urchins and hairy mussels, men shopping, smoking, drinking beer and playing cards. Sarah and I are the only women here. It’s all quite fascinating.

Washing an octopus in a soapy tub

Washing an octopus in a soapy tub


Opening sea urchins

Opening sea urchins


Tasty morsels for sale

Tasty morsels for sale


Road race finish line

Road race finish line


Finally we make it to the art museum. It is an easily manageable size. Since we usually concentrate on the early works through the 1600’s we have good parameters for not getting exhausted. Sarah and I get out our list of Saints and their attributes in art and go to work identifying who’s who in the art museum. We snap a few picture before we get the ominous warning, “NO FOTO!”
St. Nicholas holding his three bags of gold that he gave to three young women so they could have dowries instead of becoming prostitutes

St. Nicholas holding his three bags of gold that he gave to three young women so they could have dowries instead of becoming prostitutes


Back out in the sunshine for a walk in the old city to find San Sabino, the cathedral here. There are extensive excavations under the current cathedral with layers of old churches going back to Paleo-Christian times. An early layer has a mosaic floor.
Mosaic floor from Paleo-Christian church

Mosaic floor from Paleo-Christian church


Detail of an octopus

Detail of an octopus


Done with the cathedral we hurry to make our lunch reservation. We have learned over the years that on Sunday especially Italians eat their big meal with their whole families at lunchtime. Restaurants are not open for dinner. So we know to fill up now and skip dinner later. The restaurant, Gianpolo, is serving many families. There are tables of eight, twelve and more. Kids are running around all dressed up for the big Sunday event. It appears to be multi-generational with nonna and nonno, mom and dad, aunts and uncles and cousins. Our table of three is the smallest. We do a good job, though, at the lunch eating. Like the other tables we get extras for free and presents to take home.

Seriously, all we ordered was mixed antipasti, pasta, and sorbet.

In the meantime the Italian families are still going strong. An hour and a half later when we leave our hotel after a small siesta we see them just coming out of the restaurant. There’s no turning tables here!

We take a walk over to see the Church of St. Nicholas. It’s very old having been built and the 11th and 12th century. It looks like they have some excellent old paintings but they are roped off and we are disappointed that we can’t a closer look. As it turns out, St. Nicholas was actually the bishop of Myra in Turkey. In the 11th century some Italians from Bari stole his remains and built this church for them. I read that Turkey is trying to get them back. Saintly remains are good for tourism.

Madonna and Child with Saints - the saint to Mary's left is St. Nicholas

Madonna and Child with Saints – the saint to Mary’s left is St. Nicholas


Church of St. Nicholas

Church of St. Nicholas


Interior of church

Interior of church


As we walk through the early evening streets people are sitting in cafes and children are playing soccer in the piazzas. We decide to join them. We have a beverage and some snacks to tide us over until the morning.
Sarah at an outdoor cafe

Sarah at an outdoor cafe

April 25, 2015 – Matera

Today is supposed to be just a travel day with a brief stop in Matera but ends up being an opportunity to see amazing art and history spanning 9000 years.

We are traveling from Pompei to Bari today from the west coast to the east coast of Italy. Sarah wants to see the city of St. Nicholas of Bari. Rather than have the trip be uninterrupted driving I find that there is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Matera, which is along the way, and book some tickets to see the the Crypt of the Original Sin, also known as the “Sistine Chapel” of Rupestrian wall painting.

Situated in a rocky hollow overlooking the limestone cliff along the ancient Appian Way, the “Painter of The Flowers of Matera” has narrated scenes from the Old and New Testament in a cycle of frescoes dating back to the 9th century. A. D. We climb down a ravine and settle into the darkness of the cave.

Sarah and Mary waiting at the sketchy gas station for the guide

Sarah and Mary waiting at the sketchy gas station for the guide


The ravine where the paintings were found

The ravine where the paintings were found


Caves in the immediate area show long habitation of the area

Caves in the immediate area show long habitation of the area

As lights pick up the various paintings, we see three niches depicting St. Peter, the Madonna and child, and three archangels. On the side wall there is the creation story with God dividing Light (depicted by a woman) and Darkness (a young man) and the whole Garden of Eden creation and expulsion. Tying this all together is a field of red flowers. It is amazing!

St. Peter with John and Andrew

St. Peter with John and Andrew


Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child


Three archangels

Three archangels


Creation story

Creation story

Our guide, a young Italian man, hands us a written English version of the oral narrative which is all in Italian. Later, in Italian, he explains how the forbidden fruit became an apple instead of a fig. It was a mix-up in translation between mala, evil, and mela, apple. Although our Italian is pretty rudimentary we are able to pick up a few words here and there to get the gist of what he is saying (thanks, Rosetta Stone!)

Our guide at the entrance to the cave

Our guide at the entrance to the cave

After this fabulous experience we head into Matera for a late lunch. We had read that there are limestone caves called “Sassi” in the area once occupied by cave people 9000 years ago. So we figure we will give them a drive-by on our way. Turns out that there is an overlook right off the main piazza of Matera. And it is not just a few caves. It’s a whole city of caves that have been continuously occupied for 9000 years! Some are still just caves while others have had a front extension. People still live here! Everything is built of white limestone.

Pre-historic caves and built up cave city

Pre-historic caves and built up cave city


Sassi of Matera

Sassi of Matera

Sarah and Mary at the overlook

Sarah and Mary at the overlook

So what started as kind of a throw away day has become something extraordinary.

The rest of the day seems pretty anti-climactic. We have pizza for lunch and drive the rest of the way to Bari. We skip dinner and turn in early.

Yay, pizza!

Yay, pizza!

April 24, 2015 – Naples

This morning we take the train to Naples from the scruffy train station in Pompei. The train station and the train cars are covered in graffiti. The Circumvesuviana line runs from Naples all the way out to Sorrento. We didn’t know that when we took the car to Sorrento yesterday. But the train is slow and makes every stop along the way so it probably would have been way slower than the car.

Sarah and John at the train station in Pompei

Sarah and John at the train station in Pompei


M & J on the train

M & J on the train


Disembarking from the train in Naples we find ourselves in a blur of people, vehicles, and noise. It is a very busy place. The urban scene is not interrupted by parks at least as far as we can see. In the streets the people, bicycles, cars, taxis, motor scooters, buses, and trucks play an elaborate game of chicken.

We make our way to the Pio Monte della Misericordia. Founded in 1601 by a brotherhood dedicated to merciful acts, it is famous for its art works, including Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy. In the painting over the altar are depicted the acts of mercy that the brotherhood aspired to – feeding the poor, visiting the sick and incarcerated, burying the dead, giving drink to the thirsty, and clothing the naked. We rent the audio tour and view the paintings in the church and nearby picture gallery.

Caravaggio's  The Seven Works of Mercy

Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy


Next we make our way to Naples’s Duomo. Usually these cathedrals are situated in a large piazza but in Naples everything is pretty much on top of each other. A section of the cathedral traces it roots back to Paleo-Christian times. There are mosaics from the 4th century, about as old as any Christian art there is in Europe.
Naples Duomo

Naples Duomo


Mosaic from the Paleo-Christian remnant of the chuch

Mosaic from the Paleo-Christian remnant of the chuch


Mosaic of St. Mark's attribute, the lion

Mosaic of St. Mark’s attribute, the lion


A stop for lunch at Pizzeria Aiello’s! We are railroaded by the serving person into having a seafood pasta and an octopus starter. I really want a pizza. After all this is Napoli, the birthplace of pizza. I eye other patrons pizzas hungrily as watch John and Sarah suck on their enormous shrimp heads. I am just not that adventurous.

This guy is eating what I really wanted

This guy is eating what I really wanted


So, feeling grumpy for lack of pizza, and achy from all the walking, standing and stair climbing, I dart through the traffic to the Archaeological Museum. Here we are looking forward to seeing the wall paintings and mosaics from the Pompei excavations.
The wall paintings are amazing. Many have an almost impressionistic element to them. Also perspective! After the fall of the Roman Empire it would take until the late 14th century to regain these elements of art. We are wowed.
Dionysius wearing grapes in front of a mountain with impressionistic trees (wall painting from Pompei)

Dionysius wearing grapes in front of a mountain with impressionistic trees (wall painting from Pompei)


Mosaic from Pompei

Mosaic from Pompei

Mosaic from Pompei

Mosaic from Pompei


Dinner tonight is at Vincanto again. What a great place. If you are ever in Pompei, it is a great place to eat. Just let Yuri pick out your wine and courses. You’ll be pleased.

April 23, 2015 – Capri

Today we are super touristy and go to Capri, take a boat ride around the island, Sarah visits the Blue Grotto, and we eat gelato.

Our adventure starts in the usual way with Jack, our GPS, giving us a terrible route so that it takes us way longer to drive to Sorrento than needs be. Jack has turned out to be pretty unreliable on this trip. We finally get to Sorrento where we will take the 20 minute jet ferry to Capri. There are a lot of people going to Capri. Boatloads of them.

Sarah waiting for the boat to Capri

Sarah waiting for the boat to Capri


Mary and John at Sorrento port

Mary and John at Sorrento port


Arriving in Capri

Arriving in Capri

Once on the island we buy tickets to ride a boat around the island with a stop at the Blue Grotto. We see a couple of other grottoes as well – the White Grotto and the Green Grotto. There is also a formation called faraglioni which are sea stacks created by erosion. Often the stack begins as part of the land mass, then an arch forms by erosion and finally the arch falls into the sea leaving a stack or faraglione.

John on the boat for the sail around Capri

John on the boat for the sail around Capri


Mary and John selfie

Mary and John selfie

Capri port in background

Capri port in background


Bronze welcoming statue

Bronze welcoming statue


Boat pulling into White Grotto

Boat pulling into White Grotto


White Grotto

White Grotto


Faraglioni

Faraglioni


Green Grotto

Green Grotto

Sarah takes the trip by rowboat into the Blue Grotto without us. The idea of stepping out of the larger boat into a smaller boat bobbing in the sea is more than I can imagine trying to do. Just getting on and off the bigger boat is difficult. She makes friends with the rower and the people on her little rowboat and has a good time. The pictures she has taken of the Blue Grotto look pretty much like the other grottoes we have been in.

Sarah awaiting rowboat for a ride into the Blue Grotto

Sarah awaiting rowboat for a ride into the Blue Grotto


Sarah arriving back from her rowboat ride

Sarah arriving back from her rowboat ride

After we dock we find a place for lunch, Caffee Augusto. Lunch is followed by gelato. Afterward we wander around and wait for the boat back to Sorrento.


Sarah and Mom wait for the boat

Sarah and Mom wait for the boat

The trip home goes much more smoothly as we ignore Jack and follow the signs back to Pompei. Everyone is pretty much tired out from our outing and we opt for a picnic in the room for dinner.

Picnic in our room

Picnic in our room

Sarah and we are looking forward to tomorrow when we shall forsake the car and take the train into Naples. We plan on looking at less touristy things such as paintings in old churches and an art and archaeological museum.

April 22, 2015 – Mt. Vesuvius and the Excavations at Pompei

Sarah is up before dawn, 3:30 AM to be exact. I rise at the same time as yesterday, 5:50 AM. John sleeps until almost 7 AM. It is the dreaded third day. You think you are doing well with the jetlag but it gets you on the third day. We have a lot planned for today – another attempt at the Mt. Vesuvius climb, clothes washing, and a visit to the Pompei ruins. We are trying to be strategic about all this. We will hit Mt. Vesuvius right at the opening time of 9 AM, do the climb, find some lunch, wash clothes during siesta time (and perhaps the hikers will actually take a little nap), visit the ruins starting around 4 or so after the bulk of tourists have left, and have a late dinner at a wine bar that serves snacks that we spied during our walk last night. It is nearby.

Sarah, by the way, seems fully recovered.

We get to the parking area for the walk up Vesuvius shortly after 9. There are a few tour buses and a sprinkling of private vehicles. I take a picture of John and Sarah before the ascent. I have decided not to join them. It is about a half mile of 14% grade. I could probably make it up but I have no knee brakes and coming down would be extremely difficult. I opt for sitting in the car protecting their valuables and playing on my iPad. A small snooze seems possible.

Sarah and John before the ascent. John looks like he is anticipating pain.

Sarah and John before the ascent. John looks like he is anticipating pain.

After about two hours John and Sarah are back. They report that the climb was difficult and the descent even more so. The views from the summit out over the Bay of Naples are beautiful. The caldera looks like the Pit of Carkoon from Star Wars. Or maybe just a big hole with dirt in it and steam escaping here and there. They have had a great time. John’s two bionic hips seem to have worked well. But I bet he will be mighty sore tomorrow.

Sarah along the trail to the summit

Sarah along the trail to the summit


John pausing on the way to the caldera

John pausing on the way to the caldera


The Pit of Carkoon, home to the Sarlacc or the caldera  of Vesuvius

The Pit of Carkoon, home to the Sarlacc or the caldera of Vesuvius


Sarah at the top!

Sarah at the top!


On the way down we encounter the same enormous traffic jam as yesterday. The taxi driver in front of us seems very upset and keeps getting out of his van to yell at various people. I guess this traffic must occur every day but no one seems to do anything about it. We are really glad that we got to the park early. It takes about half and hour or so to finally get down the mountain.

We stop at Todisco’s for lunch. This is a not-so-promising looking place in Pompei. You look at the dishes they have prepared and pick out what you want. You sit at picnic type tables with oil cloth tablecloths. The lady behind the counter is charming and insists that we try the beer that they have made. We are mostly excited about the vegetables. We have been eating few vegetables while here. They do not automatically come with an entree. We eat two platefuls and go back for a third. The tomatoes, though not in season yet, are really delicious.

Todisco's where the elite meet to eat

Todisco’s where the elite meet to eat


Sarah bringing her glam to Todisco's fancy dining room

Sarah bringing her glam to Todisco’s fancy dining room


Yay, for vegetables! Also the bread is delicious.

Yay, for vegetables! Also the bread is delicious.


John  and I have eggplant parmesan and Sarah has a chicken breast stuffed with egg and sausage

John and I have eggplant parmesan and Sarah has a chicken breast stuffed with egg and sausage


After a small siesta and some laundry we stike out for the ruins of Pompei. We get to the excavations around 4:30 and spend 2+ hours looking around. Once again the audio tour doesn’t quite match up with what you are looking at and several buildings are closed but there is still plenty to see. I cannot help but feel sad for all the people who were leading pretty nice lives here. They go to bed one night and all is fine and the next morning they are all dead from the hot gases and ash pouring out of Mt. Vesuvius.
The excavations at Pompei

The excavations at Pompei


The Temple of Jupiter

The Temple of Jupiter


John at a taverna

John at a taverna


Mosaic at the House of the Chained Dog

Mosaic at the House of the Chained Dog


Entry into the enormous House of the Faun

Entry into the enormous House of the Faun


In the back garden of the House of the Faun you can see Mt. Vesuvius looming

In the back garden of the House of the Faun you can see Mt. Vesuvius looming


In the evening we go to the wine bar, Vincanto, across the street. We ask the proprietor to just pickout stuff for us to eat. He is into using artisinal products. It seems like we have a ton to eat and a bottle of wine and dessert plus after dinner drinks. The bill comes to just 90 euros. Once again we are not sure what he has charged us for and what he just gave us for free. We have really enjoyed the food and hospitality. (And how great is it that the dollar is almost at par with the euro?!)

April 21, 2015 – Castrocielo to Pompei (not our best effort)

After a fond arrivederci to our new friends at Liola Hotel, we hit the road for the Vesuvius National Park. I have programmed our GPS, Jack, to take us there. Jack, though, can sometimes be perverse and we are caught in warren of tiny streets leading to the edge of the Park but no further. After driving and driving through crowded streets. (John actually nudged a pedestrian’s elbow with his side mirror, AGAIN! All time score for Italy vs. John, John 2 and pedestrians 0.)

Jack is totally useless so we try looking at an actual paper map! That’s useless too! So ultimately after driving around fruitlessly we decide to head to our hotel in Pompei and ask them how to get to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius. Arriving at the hotel which is actually a B & B, we find that the owners are not home and we are greeted by Romeo, a large golden retriever who likes to jump up and hump John’s leg and a cleaning lady from Ukraine. Surprisingly none of us are equipped to converse in Ukrainian. We borrow the internet and Sarah takes screen shots of the routing to the summit and we are off again.

Mary and the aptly named golden retriever, Romeo

Mary and the aptly named golden retriever, Romeo

As we drive along the autostrada we can see Mt. Vesuvius looming over us. Somehow we must find the road to the top.

Mt. Vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius

Eureka! We have found the correct road. It is a narrow road with lots of switchbacks. Luckily there is very little traffic coming downhill. It never occurs to us to wonder why there is no downhill traffic. After several minutes of carefree driving we come across an immense traffic jam. Uphill behemoth buses cannot get by downhill behemoth buses. The road is too narrow. We all just sit there for a while. Then some enterprising German tour guide starts directing people to move over as far as possible to the edge of the road. All this is complicated by the fact that some people have abandoned their cars to take a look at what is going on. Whole busloads of people are wandering around. Finally the traffic begins a slow crawl up the mountain again.

On the way to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius

On the way to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius

We stop again. Some guy from the parking lot further up the mountain comes down yelling that the lot is full and we all have to turn around (somehow) and leave. The cars make many point u-turns but the buses have to back down the hill. It’s all a big mess. By the time we get back to the autostrada it is 1 PM. We have wasted a whole morning getting lost and getting stuck. So frustrating!

On the way back down Mt. Vesuvius a picture of the Bay of Naples

On the way back down Mt. Vesuvius a picture of the Bay of Naples

We decide to have lunch and discuss what we will do next. We head back to Pompei and have lunch at Zi Caterina, a place that John and I have eaten on a previous trip. We each have a beer, a salad, and share a smallish pizza.

We decide to try Mt. Vesuvius again first thing tomorrow morning and to head to the ruins of Herculaneum which is the smaller of the two archaeological ruins from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. We find the site and its parking lot with no trouble.

Sarah overlooking the ruins at Herculaneum

Sarah overlooking the ruins at Herculaneum

Whereas the people in Pompei were killed by the ash from the eruption, the people in Herculaneum were killed by hot gases. We rent audio tours and hear the poignant eye-witness story of Pliny the Younger, who survived and his search for his uncle, Pliny the Elder who died. He describes the scene in Herculaneum at the time of the eruption in detail.
We tell Sarah to go at her own speed through the ruins and we will meet later at the end of the audiotour. My knee is making for slow-going from the old folks.

The audiotour is kind of confusing. There are multiple labels on the different houses from earlier audiotours and many of the places that the current audiotour talks about are cordoned off.

A bas-relief from one of the houses

A bas-relief from one of the houses


A taverna where people could stop for a quick hot snack from the pots of food heated from underneath

A taverna where people could stop for a quick hot snack from the pots of food heated from underneath


Beautiful mosaic

Beautiful mosaic


Room decorated with wall paintings

Room decorated with wall paintings

As we make our way back to our meeting spot. I see Sarah waving down at us. Oh good, I think, she has finished the tour and is making sure I see her. We get a little closer. She is still waving. Then she calls out, “I’m sick!” Oh no! I snap into mother-mode and tear up the incline and the stairs. It seems that she has food poisoning and has spent the time while we have been wandering about the ruins throwing up etc. She looks pretty ghastly. The man at the audiotour kiosk has offered to call an ambulance. She says, though, that she is feeling a little better and we should just get back to the hotel. We decide to rest until around 8 PM and then decide what to do.

At 8 she comes down to our room dressed for dinner. Oh, the resilience of youth! We walk the half mile to the restaurant Add’ U Mimi (because no way are we taking the car out again) and have a nice dinner. Sarah appears to be totally over her illness. The place is boisterous and full of mostly Italians although one can never escape a sprinkling of Americans. At the end of the dinner the owner decides which things we will be paying for and what will be free. Weird. He offers us limoncello or meloncello gratis. The meloncello is surprisingly delicious.


On the left our new favorite after dinner treat, meloncello!

On the left our new favorite after dinner treat, meloncello!

What an exciting day it has been. I think we have gotten getting lost, getting stuck in monumental traffic, and Sarah getting sick taken care of. It should all be clear sailing ahead! (I hope)

April 20, 2015 – Pleasanton to Castrocielo, Italy

This morning we get up at 3 AM and 27 hours later we arrive at our hotel in Castrocielo. Each of us has had less than one hour’s worth of sleep.

Our first leg of the trip is from SFO to JFK. I would say it all went very smoothly but the flight is really bumpy and most of the time the “fasten seatbelts” sign is on. But we are still pretty chipper after the first 5+ hours of flying.

Sarah having a beer at the Admiral's Club at JFK

Sarah having a beer at the Admiral’s Club at JFK

We are flying Air Berlin from JFK to Dusseldorf. When one is using frequent flyer miles the routings are less than stellar. We have business class seats. The seats are only 20 inches wide. The full lie down position is less than 6 feet. Really not so good for John to try to get some sleep. The worst part for me, though, is that the entry into a pod of two adjoining seats is like trying to squeeze in and out of your car when another car is parked too close. We are trapped in our “honeymoon” seats for 7 hours.

Then we have a four hour layover in Dusseldorf. We are tired. There is no lounge. There are not enough bathroom stalls for the ladies. It is unpleasant. (Sorry for whinging.) Finally we are off to Rome. John looks tired. But there are great views of the Alps.

Tired John on the leg from Dusseldorf to Rome

Tired John on the leg from Dusseldorf to Rome

Snowy Alps

Snowy Alps

Now we need only to pick up the rental car and drive the hour and a half to our hotel for the night. John is a champ. Sarah is asleep. I keep nodding off. We stop for some espresso.

Our hotel is the Hotel Liota in Castrocielo. It is obviously meant for the short stay visitor. Easy on. Easy off. It appears to cater to tour groups. Our room is fine. We have an enclosed shower! Yay! (Sarah does not have an enclosed shower. Boo.)

Hotel Liota with tour bus out front

Hotel Liota with tour bus out front


We are staying in the gold room. Actually I  think all the rooms are gold.

We are staying in the gold room. Actually I think all the rooms are gold.

Enclosed shower!

Enclosed shower!

We shower and fall into a stuporous sleep until dinner.

Our dinner is in the hotel restaurant. It is quite crowded. A busload of Japanese tourists are here. The dining room is divided into a section where the tour group sits and an area where there are all Italians. Where to put us? We are seated right in between the Italians and the Japanese. Luckily we do not have to act as moderators between the two groups. The food is pretty good. Here’s what we had…

Finally the only thing left to do is write my blog and fall asleep. Mt. Vesuvius tomorrow!!

April 11, 2015 – Second Seder

We celebrate the Passover Seder a second time with the whole family. We have our traditional meal of matzoh ball soup, grilled lamb, mashed potatoes, green beans, and macaroons for dessert. Sam and Nathan hide the afikoman and while Sam is willing to give up its hiding place, Nathan manages to negotiate $20 each from Zayde in some shrewd bargaining.

Happy Passover!

The dining room is ready for our Seder

The dining room is ready for our Seder


I saw this frog bowl on Jon and Ryan's front porch and decided it would make the perfect Seder centerpiece

I saw this frog bowl on Jon and Ryan’s front porch and decided it would make the perfect Seder centerpiece


Before we sit down for dinner, some family pictures are taken

Before we sit down for dinner, some family pictures are taken


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John saying the blessing over the washing of the hands with Nathan assisting

John saying the blessing over the washing of the hands with Nathan assisting


John "Gramps" Henderson washes his hands while John enjoys wine leaning on his left side

John “Gramps” Henderson washes his hands while John enjoys wine leaning on his left side


Nathan is the water boy and Sam mans the towel for Sarah

Nathan is the water boy and Sam mans the towel for Sarah


Sam's favorite part is dipping the parsley and lettuce into the salt water

Sam’s favorite part is dipping the parsley and lettuce into the salt water

April 3, 2015 – First Seder

Our first Seder is strictly a small family affair – just John, Jon, Sarah and me. I want to try out some new recipes that I got from Food and Wine for Passover. One of the recipes calls for a whole piece of short ribs with three ribs. We get the meat from the butcher at Raley’s. It is enormous.

John with giant piece of meat

John with giant piece of meat


John strips the meat of silver skin and extraneous fat while Sarah and I make a rub. Then it goes in the oven to roast for four hours followed by an hour’s braise.
Meat in the oven

Meat in the oven


While it is cooking Sarah and I also tackle a potato kugel, a from-scratch matzoh ball soup, and macaroons. The result of all our work is so-so. The meat is good but our 7 1/2 pound piece of bone-in short ribs ended up weighing about two pounds afterwards. We’ll buy boneless short ribs from Costco next time. Due to an error setting the temperature correctly the kugel is way overdone, the soup is fine and cookies that Sarah makes are great as usual. For our big family Seder next Saturday we will stick with our tried and true menu.

In any case we have a lot of fun. After dinner we recreate a picture taken in 1984 of Sarah and Jon at our Seder then. (Shared with the Kendalls!)

Jon and Sarah before our Seder in 1984. Jon is 7 and Sarah is 4.

Jon and Sarah before our Seder in 1984. Jon is 7 and Sarah is 4.


2015 recreation!

2015 recreation!

March 23, 2015 – Sarah’s Birthday

Along with OMG can you believe that Nathan is 9 this month, the more startling fact is that Sarah is 35. She is a wonderful daughter with whom we have many great discussions and good laughs. We decide to head up to Sonoma for some wine tasting to celebrate the day.

After a brief stop at Jacuzzi Winery for some olive oil tasting we continue on for wine tasting at Kunde Winery, Chateau St. Jean, and Deerfield Ranch Winery.

It’s a fun day although at least two of us snooze a bit on the way home. (Not John who was the driver.)

Sarah outside of Kunde Winery

Sarah outside of Kunde Winery


Sarah in the Kunde tasting room

Sarah in the Kunde tasting room


Charcuterie plate at Chateau St. Jean

Charcuterie plate at Chateau St. Jean


Dad and Sarah at CSJ

Dad and Sarah at CSJ

The proud parents

The proud parents

March 18, 2015 – Tennis at Indian Wells

John and I go back to Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open again this year. We have tickets for four days and reservations at our favorite hotel, the Renaissance Esmeralda. Many of the players stay at the hotel and it is always fun to see them in person. This year I was brave enough to go up to Donald Young for a fist bump and a “Great job!” comment.

We get to see Roger Federer play twice and a lot of our other favorite players. Djokovic wins the tournament but Federer is at least in the final.

Andy Murray

Andy Murray


Serena Williams playing at Indian Wells for the first time in 14 years

Serena Williams playing at Indian Wells for the first time in 14 years


Our favorite player, Roger Federer

Our favorite player, Roger Federer


Feliciano Lopez is easy on the eye

Feliciano Lopez is easy on the eye

Record number of fans attend

Record number of fans attend

March 4, 2015 – Celebration of Nathan’s birthday

Can you believe it? Nathan is turning 9 years old! Wow, does time surely fly by. Since we are not going to be home when Nathan’s actual birthday date occurs, we are having a little early celebration with him. We bring some presents for both Nathan and Sam, some cupcakes, and lots of hugs.

Sarah reads a book to Nathan and Sam

Sarah reads a book to Nathan and Sam


A great hug from Nathan

A great hug from Nathan


One for Zayde too!

One for Zayde too!

Sarah and Jonathan

Sarah and Jonathan