November 14, 2011 Selinunte and Menfi

After we go to Selinunte today, we’ve exhausted our possibilities here in Menfi. Originally the plan was to see the local sights and take some cooking classes that were advertised on their website. Given that we are having so-so quite expensive dinners here, that the cooking classes do not exist, that the chef has left for some other event, and also because one can stay in the room with the door closed to the outside and be hot or open the screenless door and be bitten all night, we decide to terminate our stay at La Foresteria on Tuesday. The hotel is not happy about this and says it will charge us anyway for the unused night. We are resolute in our decision to leave a day early. (This is especially made easy when this morning (Tues.), I wake up with my left eye partially swollen shut due to a mosquito bite during last night.) Their policy may be to charge us but my policy is to give them the review they deserve on TripAdvisor, and whatever other website I can find that rates hotels.

But, on to Selinunte. Selinunte is an archeological site situated on a rise above the Mediterranean Sea. It was built between 760 and 490 B.C. It must have been a beautiful sight especially as one approached from the sea. There now exists a partially reconstructed Temple of Hera. It is quite exciting as this is the first temple we’ve been allowed to walk into.

Front exterior - Temple of Hera, Selinunte

Mary at the Temple of Hera

John inside the Temple of Hera

Surprisingly the other two temples, one to Athena or Dionysius and the other to Zeus, are even more interesting although they have been reduced to rubble by the Cartheginians. Since the city was attacked and sacked by Hannibal maybe he used elephants to pull down the structure after all the burnable bits were consumed. We see how the pillars were fit together and pieces of architrave among the stone slabs.

Temple of Athena or Dionysius

John next to fallen Doric capital

There is another section a distance away where the Temple of Demeter stands partially reconstructed looking to the east.

Temple of Demeter

We go back to the hotel and give them the bad news. We just say we need to leave and they just say too bad for you. I guess we should have complained. I do not like to make a scene, though. Our final night’s dinner is set at the enormous table which seats like 26 but there is only the three of us, John, me, and Katie, the English lady who has spent the last 5 days as the sole member of the cooking class. The chef has left for an event in eastern Sicily. Tonight’s food is being made by one of his helpers.

We start with melon with proscuitto. It’s tasty but not very complex. This is followed by cardoons and fried mushrooms which is also okay.

Cardoons with breaded and fried mushrooms

Then we have a minestrone soup which is quite good. As usual, we dive into it before taking a picture. The main course is a pork involtini with tomatoes and greens. It is fine, not remarkable.

Pork involtini with greens and tomatoes

The dessert is pistachio ice cream with almonds on a crumbly biscuit. Too bad they put chocolate sauce on it but I think it is quite good.

Pistachio ice cream with almonds, biscuit and chocolate sauce

It is really too bad that the whole adventure here at La Foresteria did not work out better. This area of Sicily is a summer resort so there are few restaurants open and few guests at the hotel this time of year. It might be better for La Foresteria to close during the off season and not have guests such as ourselves come and have a sub-optimal experience.

November 13, 2011 Menfi and Marsala

John: This morning we get up to sunshine and the smell of herbs from our patio. Our plan for today is to explore Marsala at the westernmost tip of Sicily, have some lunch, and return for a 5pm cooking class. We are expecting to cook veal falso magro (a giant veal roll-up stuffed with vegetables, cheese and hard-boiled egg), a zucchini and mint contorno, and a cassata (a really sweet Sicilian dessert torta). All sounds like a good plan.

Breakfast is somewhat sparse. ‘Nuff said.

Mary: I am starting to pine for my simple breakfast of toast with peanut butter and a cup of tea accompanied by puzzles. Sitting in my comfy corner with my feet up on the ottoman is what I crave.

Clark and Lewis are dining al fresco today

John: The drive to Marsala takes a bit over an hour. Any disagreements with Jack the GPS are minimal this time. He proposes no magic shortcuts; we have plotted the route on Google Maps beforehand. We make good time along a windy SP road, then a very good SS road, and finally the A29 Autostrada towards Marsala (which we will take north to Palermo at the end of our Sicilian stay).

After a bit the A29 ends abruptly and it becomes once again our old friend the SS115. Straight as an arrow, things get pretty ugly-looking as we travel through Marsala’s suburbs and into the city.

RANT: for all their wonderful design talent in the areas of cars, fashion, small appliances, and interior furnishings, the Italians display inexplicable indifference to their urban architecture and exterior design. To put it mildly, it’s really cruddy and tends to be unmaintained. We just don’t get it.

As we get into downtown Marsala, we drive along the waterfront, which appears much nicer and better-maintained. Mary spots a sign to Mozia (Jack is no help at this point), which is one of the sites we want to visit. We locate the archaeological museum there, park the car (after a questionable U-turn maneuver) and buy our tickets. Whew!

Marsala, home of Marsala wine (we didn't have any)

The museum is in two parts, The first contains artifacts from the local excavations spanning prehistory (through 7th century BC), Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman and Medieval (6th C. BC through 13th C. AD). Our guidebook has told us that most of what the world knows today about the Phoenicians comes from 1) the Bible and 2) the excavations at Mozia (or Motya) and Lilybaeum). We are jazzed. Unfortunately, virtually all the explanations are only in Italian. Nonetheless, the trip through time is fascinating, and the artifacts well-presented. We are partularly taken by ceramic pieces that have the maker’s name embossed in them, the earliest examples we have seen of “brand names”.

There is no photography allowed. However, at Lewis’ insistence, we sneak a photo of a ceramic duck from the 3rd C. BC. (Clark is mortified.)

Mary: Me, the ultimate rule follower, took a picture when there were no photos allowed

The second part of the museum houses a fragment of a Carthaginian ship sunk in 241 BC in the naval battle that ended one of the Punic Wars. It was discovered in the early 1970s and recovered, preserved and reconstructed in ways similar to the Viking ships in Roskilde and the Vasa is Stockholm. And, best of all, the extensive narrative is presented in both Italian and (drum roll…) English!

We are also fascinated by the large number of amphoras on display, with explanations of their places of manufacture, determined based on seemingly minute differences in shape, size and handle construction. Archaeology is not a profession for those seeking instant gratification.

Mary: Perhaps “fascinated” by the hundreds of amphorae is a little strong.

Mary: After getting out of Marsala with a modest amount of difficulty, we head back toward Menfi to have lunch at Da Vittorio in Portopalo. At Da Vittorio we have our now usual lunch of pasta with clams and a salad. Sunday is family day at restaurants in Italy. We have come not as Italians and not as a large family ergo we are seated at a small table next to the restrooms. But lunch is fine although not quite as good as at Il Pescatore. Then we hit the beach.

Since we have promised Clark and Lewis a little playtime every day. We let them hop and flutter around the beach, catch some rays, and dip their little webbed feet in the Mediterranean Sea.

Clark and Lewis soaking up the rays

We return to the hotel to get ready for our cooking class. We are informed that our cooking class is cancelled. Rats! They have made everything we were supposed to make this evening, this morning. The only thing left are some desserts. I am not interested in making desserts. We are annoyed.

We are only three at dinner – John, me and Katie, the English lady. Katie has helped make all the food for dinner tonight at this morning’s cooking class. She is quite frank with what she finds terrible.

The first thing (and the best thing) of the evening is smoked swordfish with zucchini. As often happens, when something looks good, we eat it and forget to take a picture. Next is arancini, one stuffed with spinach and cheese and one stuffed with meat and vegetables. It is heavy.


This is followed by a a primo of pasta and eggplant pie. The good bits are the eggplant and the crispy part of the angelhair pasta. No one eats much of it.

Pasta pie with eggplant

Moving on to the main course, we are served veal falso magro. This is a kind of veal meatloaf stuffed with a whole hard boiled egg, vegetables, and cheese. I like my meatloaf a lot better.

Veal falso magro served with a vegetable puree and zucchini

For dessert we are served a dessert called cassata. It’s a ricotta cake/pie with a bunch of marzipan and candied fruit. The ricotta filling is good. The rest is unbelievably sweet.


We order some espresso and grappa afterward. The grappa is pretty tasty. It does not take your breath away like some grappas do. Unfortunately, while our backs are turned, Clark takes a few sips with the expected results.

Oh, Clark, will you ever learn? Grappa is not for frogs!

November 12, 2011 Agrigento and Menfi

Today we leave Ragusa for the last stop on our Sicily tour, Menfi. Our plan is to go to the Valley of the Temples and then on to Menfi where we are staying at La Foresteria. La Foresteria is owned by the Planeta Estate, makers of Planeta wines.

Nothing is ever straightforward when it comes to finding our way using our crazed GPS, Jack. Today is no exception. We end up on small roads and driving along cliffs but we do end up in Agrigento. We find the Valley of the Gods, rent audio-guides, and start our tour. Oddly the Valley is on a hilltop. These are some of the most intact Greek temples anywhere outside of Athens. Their golden sandstone glows in the bright sunlight. (Yes, it is not raining!) Our first stop is at the Temple of Heracles, built around 600 B.C.

My personal Heracles

Then it’s up the hill to the Temple of Concordia. This temple is the best preserved due to the fact that it was converted into a Christian church in the early Middle ages.

At the Temple of Concordia

Scattered in amongst the ruins are modern sculptures like this giant head that Clark and Lewis try to appreciate.

Clark and Lewis contemplate a modern sculpture

We continue to climb up the main route passing many old olive trees. Several were in early drawings of the temples and are estimated to be 500-600 years old.

In among the ancient temples there are ancient olive trees and ancient Americans

At the very top of the site is the temple to Hera (Greek) or Juno (Roman.) As Agrigento changed hands the temples were re-dedicated to the appropriate gods. Much like the rest of Sicily, the people of Agrigento were attacked and defeated many times. They were ruled and/or enslaved by Cartheginians, Greeks, Romans, Swabians, Moors, Angevins, etc.

Temple of Hera or Juno depending on which gods you're backing

We have now walked what seems like miles up and down uneven paving stones and it is time for lunch. Last time we were here, John had a wonderful plateful of spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) in San Leone at Il Pescatore (The Fisherman.) San Leone is a seaside town and both times we have been here, in early April and now in November, it is definitely not bustling. But the restaurant is open and there are a few patrons. This lunch is perhaps the best food we have had on our trip.

Spaghetti alle vongole at Il Pescatore in San Leone

Once again Jack takes us on an exciting adventure getting to our hotel. We finally find it shortly before dark. We have a nice room that looks out on an herb garden, vineyards, and the Mediterranean Sea. We open a bottle of wine to celebrate another safe driving adventure. While we are here we plan on visiting some local ruins, going to Marsala, participating in a cooking class and just generally chhilling.

The view from our patio

Dinner is served each night at a big communal dining table. Oh, dear, this means we have to talk to strangers. Perhaps even strangers who do not speak English. I am filled with dread. As it turns out there are two couples and a single lady at our big table. The single lady is British and is the sole member of the week-long cooking class. (She is very annoyed about this.) There’s an Italian couple, and an American couple from Milwaukee. My table companions speak a mixture of Italian, French and English. So I only get parts of the conversation. Poor John is too far away to hear a lot of the conversation. Our first course is sardines wrapped around breadcrumbs, raisins, pinenuts and herbs.

Sardine involtini

It’s pretty good. The sardines are not overly fishy. We have to be careful of what we say since the English lady has spent the day slaving in the kitchen. Next we have tuna meatballs.

Tuna meatballs

The meatballs are rather dry and I keep hoping that they will taste like regular meatballs to no avail. This is followed by pasta with sea urchin. This was probably the best dish of the evening.

Pasta with sea urchin

Now it is on to the main course which is swordfish with the same breadcrumb mixture that was inside the sardine involtini. My swordfish is dry and shreddy.

Dry breaded swordfish

Finally we have a semifreddo for dessert. The ice creamy part is pretty good full of almonds and not too sweet. For some reason it is served with a persimmon sauce and a chocolate sauce. I am not blown away by this combination.


So all in all a mediocre meal but lots of wine which always helps. About our dinner companions – the Italian couple seems nice but I don’t know what they are saying. The guy from Milwaukee who is a lawyer sitting next to me explains, when I say we are retired, that he would never retire because he doesn’t want to have his brain cells wither away. Comments like that don’t bring out the best in me so I go about proving that my brain cells are better than his. Luckily I have my giant information universe sitting next to me as backup. The lawyer’s wife is visiting the old country where her parents were originally from. She speaks some Italian and seems nice. The English lady seems quite proper and a little dither-y.

Tomorrow night John and I are part of the cooking class. There better not be any complaints!

November 11, 2011 Touring Ragusa – Second attempt

Many thanks to John for writing today’s blog.

The plan for today is to go to Malta and return. Regrettably, the weather forecast is just marginal enough that we decide we don’t want to be on a fast ferry that might have to slow down to fight rain and wind. There is still a lot to see in Ragusa since almost everything was either closed or washed out yesterday.

Our first goal is the Cathedral of St. George. We take this opportunity to photograph Clark and Lewis struggling up the many steps leading to the entrance. They do not take kindly to the mechanics of pilgrimage. We just hope that any video surveillance cameras do not pick up our activities.

Clark and Lewis struggle up the cathedral stairs

The Cathedral aka Duomo is quite impressive, though a bit hard to decipher, there being no brochures. The most notable works of art are a painting of a very young St. Nicholas (Mary can tell this because one of the angels appears to be juggling three gold balls, a painting of the Holy Family resting on the flight to Egypt, a carving of St. George astride his horse that resembles nothing so much as a carousel ride, and a giant organ (Organum Maximum) with over 1800 pipe. All built, of course, in the Baroque style following the earthquake of 1693.

St. Nicholas with angel holding golden balls

St. George astride his horse

Organum maximum

As we exit the Duomo, we are treated to what must be the happiest sounding and most up-tempo carillon in the world. We come back down to earth when we find that the diocesan museum is once again closed. Grumble.

Next we head back down the main piazza towards the Public Garden. It’s at one end of Ragusa Ibla, and overlooks the surrounding valleys. It’s really quite pretty. We let Clark and Lewis play on the playground equipment to make up for the ordeal of the stairs. We note that a grounds crew is actually doing preventative maintenance on the many palm trees in the garden. We are impressed.


A swinging pair

Just outside the garden is the Portale San Georgio, which is all that remains of a 1450-era church that pretty much bit the dust in 1693. Most of the stones were used to construct the new Duomo, but the doorway and tympanum remain. Although highly weathered, some of the carving still shines.

Portale San Giorgio

We stop by a local forno a legno (wood oven bakery) and pick up some stuff for lunch. We are not going to make the same two-giant-meal mistake as yesterday.

In the evening, we head back to La Piazzetta, where the owner greets us again warmly. We order the delicious antipasto tipico again, and again consume it before we remember to take a photo. We also share a pizza Ragusano (essentially a sausage pizza). It’s good, but not as good as the mushroom pizza we had in Siracusa.(and neither was as sublime as the one we had a Zi Caterina in Pompei in 2009).

Needed a hotter oven or a longer cooking time but still pretty good

Nonetheless, a great way to end our stay here in Ragusa.

Tomorrow, on to the temples at Agrigento, to spaghetti vongole in San Leone and finally to La Forestiera at the Planeta Wine Estate in Menfi!

November 10, 2011 Touring Ragusa – Attempt 1

Mary: WARNING! This post mostly consists of food!

John: We go down to breakfast to find that there are actually other people staying here. Not that this has any material effect on the buffet, however. Instead of raw eggs today, there are no eggs. An improvement, somewhat.

Today we decide to tour Ragusa. The man at the desk suggests we walk about ten minutes to the information kiosk to pick up a good map of the town and to see some UNESCO Heritage buildings. We head down the street with dark clouds looming overhead.

John with Ragusa Superiore and dark clouds in the background

It begins to rain. Fortunately, we have brought our umbrellas. Unfortunately, the information kiosk is closed and the little cabinet that’s supposed to have maps is empty. Not a good start.

We trek back to the Piazza del Duomo, and climb a significant set of stairs up to the side entrance. Unfortunately, there’s a sign that says it’s Closed for Cleaning. What? Cleaning? Italy? Did God (or San Giorgio, the patron saint of the city) say to the bishop: “No more miracles until you clean this place up!”?

To add insult to injury, the diocesan museum is also closed.

Wet, closed, Baroque duomo

This is all too bad, because Ragusa is a city of beautiful Baroque churches. After the terrible earthquake of 1693, a whole lot of churches were built (or rebuilt) in the contemporary Baroque style. Every noble family seemed to have built their own church. We wander down the attractive, long and wide street leading from the Duomo and stop at the (thankfully open) small church of San Giuseppi. It’s a little Baroque gem.

Welcome shelter from the storm

We next try to see the public gardens, but the sudden appearance of thunder and lightning makes us seek other endeavors. That would be lunch.

We choose La Piazzetta next to San Giuseppi. The owner greets us, we return the greeting in our halting Italian. He graciously uses his halting Engish mixed with Italian, and we actually engage in relatively high-bandwidth communication.

We talk about everything: politics, Sicilian roads (ascertaining that there had been, in fact, no good route from Siracusa to Ragusa), the recent weather. and the geology of the island.

But most of all, we talk of food and wine. He is incredibly proud of Sicilian cuisine, and of Ragusan products specifically. The food lives up to its billing. The antipasto of grilled vegetables, caponata, and local cheeses is the best we’ve had, bar none. We eat it so eagerly that we forget to take a picture.

Mary has a ravioli stuffed with pistachio-infused ricotta in a lovely (but rich) pistachio cream sauce. The owner tells us that the pistachios come from the Catania side of Mt. Etna and are harvested only every two years! We can believe it.

Ravioli stuffed with ricotta and pistachios in a pistachio cream sauce

Mary: This is incredibly delicious. But oh so rich and filling. I give away half of it to John.

John: My risotto with radicchio and local sausage is also a winner. The white wine is a Grillo varietal from nearby Agrigento. It’s fantastic. We lament with the owner that the only Sicilian wines that make it to the US seem to be Nero d’Avola. All the other great varietals: Fiano, Grillo, Greco, Zibibbo… haven’t yet been discovered.

Risotto and wine

The whole lunch experience is wonderful. We say our good-byes to the owner and head back to the hotel for siesta time. We have made reservations at Ai Lumi (where we ate the first night), requesting that the chef cook us what he wants us to eat. Should be interesting and delicious!

Mary: Obviously we made the reservation before we ate lunch because there is no way I would have gone out to dinner after eating that lunch! But they are expecting us so we need to go. I sleep for a couple of hours and wake up still full. John is going to have do double duty at the restaurant tonight.

Somehow climbing the stairs up to the piazza tonight to go to dinner seems more difficult. I think it is the result of lunch. But we soldier on and get to the restaurant so we can eat again. John tells the chef that we want all fish. I am imagining another fish extravaganza like we had in Bari. But it is easier to order just one type of food in our not-so-good Italian.

The first course comes out – the antipasto. It is crispy little fish (with their heads thankfully removed but not their bones), octopus and a lasagna-type layered concoction of sardines and eggplant. We gamely fillet the little fish and they are the star of the plate. I eat some of the octopus which is pretty tasty and I am not thrilled with the sardine thing. John eats some of my octopus and I try to hide the uneaten stuff on the plate. The chef checks on us often speaking an unintelligible Italian. We keep saying “Molto bene!”

Crispy fish, octopus and sardine/eggplant lasagna thing

I have to admit at this point I am regretting the whole “only fish” thing. I am also really not hungry. Next course, the primo of large rigatoni-like noodles with fried artichokes and bottarga which is dried and cured tuna roe. The bottarga is grated over the top. I could have done without the bottarga but John seems happy. I let him steal several of my noodles.

Rigatoni with artichokes and bottarga

For our secondi we get a whole grilled squid. Even though there is no way I can eat the whole thing, the part that I do eat is wonderful. The squid has been cooked quickly and is tender and the grilling has lent it a fabulous flavor. This and the crispy fish from the antipasto are my favorite foods of the night. (Actually I was quite fond of the bread, too.)

Grilled squid

Okay, we’ve done it! We have eaten this whole meal without exploding. Oh, wait, they are bringing dessert. It’s a cannoli with a ricotta cream and, what is this, a cactus fruit? Interestingly, on the way back from the Villa Romana we saw fields of cactus. They were actually cultivating cacti. And now here it is on our plate. Hmmm, how to eat this? There are millions of hard seeds in it. We try to find the non-seedy section to no avail. John eats his cannoli. I try mine. Ew, so sweet. I give it to John. We give up on the cactus fruit. The server comes over to clear our plates and explains that we are supposed to eat everything – seeds, pulp, the whole nine yards. Thanks but no thanks.

Cactus fruit and cannoli

We say our arrivedercis and depart waddling down the stairs to the hotel. What a day! I vow that this will not happen again!

November 9, 2011 Ragusa and Villa Romana

Mary: According to the brochure in our room, we are invited to partake in the hotel’s “fantastic buffet” for breakfast. Maybe we are just spoiled since we have been enjoying the Villa Ducale’s truly fantastic breakfast buffet. This breakfast is far from fantastic. The weirdest thing on the breakfast buffet today is a plate full of eggs. Usually one finds these hard-boiled. Sometimes they are soft-boiled. I crack one open. These eggs are raw. Oops, the waiter says, I must have taken the wrong ones from the refrigerator. He whisks them away but apparently they were the only eggs. No eggs for you today, Mary. There is also no milk. But there is cereal. We ask for milk. Off the general factotum goes (he also mans the front desk, carries luggage etc.) and does not reappear for quite a while. Also, no butter, canned fruit, and a bowl of water which John spills. Oh, these Americani, such strange tastes for breakfast.

Clark and Lewis's opinion? Not a fantastic breakfast.

John: After the memorable breakfast involving the uovo crudo (the raw egg), we plan our route to see the mosaics at Villa Romana di Casale outside Piazza Armerina. We went there two and a half years ago. We are hoping some new areas will be accessible and especially that we will have better luck avoiding the horrible traffic in Piazza Armerina. (Avid readers of this blog may recall that this was the place where Tom the visiting GPS tried to get us killed by suggesting we head up and off-ramp.)

Our route appears to take us from Ragusa to Caltagirone to Piazza Armerina. We have some trouble getting out of Ragusa. Ragusa has the curious property that the new city is actually on a higher piece of land than the old city (Ragusa Ibla, where our hotel is located). This is all compounded by Jack the GPS changing his mind about the route just as we enter a roundabout. In hindsight, we should have taken this as a portent of routing decisions to come.

We make our along many back roads. We cheer wildly when Jack sends us down a 29 km stretch of some Strada Statale that lets us actually go 90 kph and use 6th gear. After this, however, we sense that Jack is taking us by a secret shortcut up and over some hills to Piazza Armerina.

The weather deteriorates as we climb. Then, WHACK!, followed by WHACK!, WHACK!, WHACK! and more. We find ourselves in a hailstorm, with hailstones the size of marbles. The accompanying rain builds to a deluge. Here we are on a narrow mountain road, in a hailstorm, rain coming down in buckets, and torrents of muddy ocher-colored water pouring onto the road from driveways and paths that intersect our road. This is hairy. I just want to get over the hills before the standing water makes things impassible and pull in to a safe parking place that won’t get flooded, and wait for things to subside.

We get to the outskirts of Piazza Armerina and find a place to pull over. We are shaking. We watch as the brown flood gushes down the street. After about 30 minutes, things subside and it’s safe to proceed.

(Mary: please excuse the lack of pictures. Taking pictures while envisioning being carried down the hillside in a flash flood wasn’t an option.)

Jack proceeds to justify his existence. He has found a route that bypasses the city center and gets us to Villa Romana incredibly easily. We decide to forgive him all his trespasses against us so far.

Mary: Finally reaching the Villa Romana, the vacation home of a very wealthy 4th century Roman, we pick our way through the mud to the ticket office. We are looking forward to renting the audio tour again and hearing the explanations for the mosaics in the rooms in the villa. But the tickets are half-price and there is no longer an audio tour due to the closure of many of the rooms in the villa for further excavation. Doing work on the villa is a good thing. Doing work on the villa when we happen to be visiting is a bad thing. But we enjoy the parts of it that are open.

Lewis is excited to find a mosaic of a duck

One of the most famous room is the one with the “bikini girls.” These are young women scantily clad doing various gymnastics and games.

Bikini girls

Most of the floors are quite dusty. You can see the difference here where the rain has seeped through and cleaned off a section of the hunt scene.

View of the hunt scene

The long hallway of the hunt scene is full of exotic animals. It appears that they are not killing them but loading them on a boat to take home. Perhaps the villa had an exotic animal park.

Men capturing a rhinoceros

And speaking of exotic animals…

John beside a piece of the hunt scene

We finish our tour and have lunch. Now we must negotiate our way back.

Clark and Lewis feel certain they can find a better way back than Jack

John: Ain’t no way we are going to return to Ragusa the way we came. We’re going for the big roads this time even if it is few kilometers longer. In getting to the big road (the SS 117 bis, whatever that means), Jack plays his old tricks and leads us along narrow roads until we get to a flooded patch, We turn around with some difficulty, but ultimately get on the road to Gela.

Jack protests all the way. We are resolute, however. We get to Gela quickly and without any hassle, and turn onto the SS 115 toward Ragusa. Jack protests even more strenuously. Can’t he see the signs pointing to Ragusa, plain as day? Things go pretty well on this stretch as long as we ignore Jack.

We finally allow Jack to take over when we get within 10 km of our destination. He does the right thing, gets us through the upper town without going walkabout mid-roundabout this time, and leads us efficiently to our hotel. It’s taken only about 1:15 to get back whereas it took nearly 2 hours outbound. Go figure. Jack appears to have an odd definition of “shortest time”. Perhaps we shall write to Garmin about this.

November 8, 2011 Taormina to Siracusa to Ragusa

Sadly today we leave the Villa Ducale. They give us gifts and many European-style two-kisses on the cheeks. John seems a little awkward when Paolo does this with him. So armed with many great memories we head back down the autostrada. This time our goal is Siracusa. Jack, our GPS, heads us through a semi-pedestrian zone but ultimately we find a parking space by the sea. I hold the fort at the car while John goes off in search of the machine that prints the biglietti. I take a picture of the shoreline while I am waiting.

Picture taken in Siracusa while waiting for John to return from parking meter search

Okay, I’ve lost sight of John. What’s he doing? He is supposed to be getting a few hours on the parking meter. I am trying not to make eye contact with a derelict looking guy during this time. Ah, here he comes but no ticket. What to do? I suggest asking the couple who have parked a few cars up from us. Hurrah, they are English! The man has just been through the same trek as John while his wife waits by the car in case the Carabinieri happen to come by. The solution? They moved the ticket dispenser a couple of weeks ago and almost nobody knows where it is. Our English friend points the way. Yay, for independent traveling! It makes one resourceful and you make interesting new acquaintances.

That done we head towards the center of the old city. Nearby there is a temple to Apollo. We stop to admire its Doric columns and architecure.

Ruins of Temple to Apollo in Siracusa

Now we are off in search of the duomo. We find it up the street a ways in a beautiful square. We walk in and, wow, it is so apparently built on the remains of the Temple of Athena. The cathedral is built around it. I am awestruck.

Doric columns in the cathedral from the Temple of Athena

I take a lot of pictures, never getting it all so that you can see the juxtaposition of the church with the ancient temple. Frustrating!

Here’s a picture of the baroque outside of the church – nothing like the ancient Greek architecture of the inside.

Duomo in Siracusa - exterior

Next we go to the Church of Saint Lucia. St. Lucy is one of my favorites. Her eyes were poked out while she was being martyred. All the paintings have Lucy with her martyr’s palm frond holding a plate with her eyes on it. But not her portrait in the Church of St. Lucia! This is a painting by Caravaggio, he of the dynamic figures, diagonal lines and striking light. Lucy lies dead with her eyeless eyes closed. Two men in the foreground use spades to dig her grave and the mourners fade into the background. A powerful painting. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed.

Clark and Lewis are complaining so it must be time for lunch. We’ve promised them pizza today. We have been looking forward to pizza they way it is supposed to be made. Take a dough where the gluten has been developed by stretching and throwing, cook it in an intensely hot oven and, voila, the pizza of my youth. Yes, I know it is a cliche these days coming from the Jersey shore, but oh the pizza.

Thin crust pizza done the right way

Now for the driving adventure of the day. We no longer trust Jack, our GPS. He takes us on tiny twisty roads for the sake of saving a kilometer. So we decide to ignore him but then change our minds and pay attention to him – a very scary mix. Our trip to Ragusa ends up on backroads that are full of hairpin turns and rutted roads. It takes us twice as long to get to Ragusa and then I find the hotel accidently by looking out the window. John is exhausted from the driving.

And now our unusual hotel, the San Giorgio in Ibla (lower) Ragusa. We pull up to the curb, get out and walk up a steep incline. There is a gate reading San Giorgio Hotel. We press a button. The gate clicks. We go in. This leads to a tunnel sloping upwards. It ends at an elevator. We take the elevator from -4 (where we are) to 1, reception. We are shown our room. Even though the area is old, old, old, the hotel is quite modern.

Bedroom at San Giorgio Hotel in Ragusa

There’s also a little sitting room with a desk, refrigerator and TV. Where this hotel has really spent its money is on the bathrooms. In fact we have two. One has a giant sink, a toilet, a bidet and a long tall shower.

Bathroom One

The other bathroom (and I really didn’t know this room came with two bathrooms) has a jacuzzi and the usual accoutrements.

Bathroom Two

The amazing thing is what these bathrooms don’t have – tissues, lotion, conditioner, washclothes. And the bed has no blanket and the sheets don’t fit. It also appears that we are the only people here. Weird.

Anyway, we settle in and go out to dinner up a flight of stairs near the duomo. We have such a good time. It is the quintessential Italian experience. All the waitstaff help. The chef comes out of the kitchen to talk about what we should eat. First we all decide that we should have a vegetable soup with garbanzo beans. It is really good.

Vegetable soup with garbanzo beans

Then the chef brings out a platter of fish – one big and two smaller. We pick out the medium size fish to share. He goes back into the kitchen to cook it. We also order caponata as our vegetable. The server says it is molto bene.

Molto bene caponata

The fish is presented and John does a great job filleting it. I have no bones.

Whole roasted sea bass

At the end of the dinner the chef comes out of the kitchen. He wants to cook us some spaghetti in the typical Sicilian way. Apparently he feels we have not eaten enough. I wish we had said yes but we were so stuffed already. They walk us to the door and wave goodbye. What a great first day in Ragusa!

November 7, 2011 Touring Taormina

John: We leave the car untouched today, determined to explore Taormina top to bottom. The top will be an attempt to see the Saracen fortress above us, and the bottom will be the main town down below (which is still many hundred feet above the lower town at shore level). Our goal in town is the Greek theater, unfinished business from our last visit to Taormina in spring of 2009.

The Saracen fortress requires that we head up a narrow street that originates just down from our hotel. We start to climb some irregular stairs leading towards the fortress. There are no handrails. We see fennel growing wild alongside the staircase.

Fennel growing along the uneven, un-railinged stairs to the fortress

Up we go, switching back and forth a number of times. Still no handrails. We end our quest at a locked gate. Drat. No wonder this fortress, built by the Saracens following their taking of the Taormina in 902 AD until their displacement by the Norman Count Roger I in 1078, is so impenetrable.

Mary getting the news from John that the gate is locked

Gingerly we trek back down the stairs, admiring the views briefly and enduring the longer periods of terror. On to our next goal: the Greek theater in the main town. This involves climbing down a very large number (nearly an Avogadro number. There… I got the reference in for all you chemists) of steps starting at a church located at the base of the fortress peak. Along the way are great views of the town and the ocean, and back up to the fortress, as well as a series of contemporary sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross.

Steps switchback down to the town

A view up towards the fortress

The Greek theater from a distance

We finally get down to the town level and set off in what we think is the general direction of the Greek theater. Instead, we first encounter a smaller Roman theater, wander about some, and finally find a landmark that actually appears on our little map of Taormina. We take careful note of the taxi rank in the vicinity in case we need to avail ourselves of this mode of transport for the return leg.

Sure enough, we find the Greek theater, buy our tickets and rent audioguides. We learn that Greeks probably first settled the area in 795 BC, with a serious boost in development after about 345 BC, when the original theater was probably built. What we see today is almost entirely Roman, however. The only Greek components are some inscribed special seats for the wealthiest patrons. The Romans, who took control in 263 BC, expanded its capacity and functionality throughout their rule. What for the Greeks was a venue for tragedy and comedy became for the Romans a venue for grand spectacles such as mock naval battles and gladiatorial contests.

The Greek theater

This is the second-largest amphitheater in Sicily. It’s a great place to learn some interesting facts about Greek plays, to view the southern end of the Strait of Messina, and to view Mount Etna letting off steam in the background behind the stage, just as it must have done in the Greek and Roman eras.

John with the fortress in the distance

Mary: Do you see how far we have walked?! If you look at the top of the mountain you see two little bumps. That’s the fortress we walked up to first and then we walked down from there, down into town and finally over to the theater. We were planning on walking back up but Clark and Lewis were so tired that we gave in to their pleas for a taxi back to the hotel.

John: We are tired, with sore feet, hips and thighs. We take a taxi back. 15 euros seems like an exceptional value.

Mary: Later we go down to the porch for our final set of hors d’ouevres and dinner. Clark and Lewis make friends with the people on the porch. The waitstaff is referring to them as Carlo and Luigi. We have gnocchi and pasta alla norma for dinner. We are both of exhausted from our trek today and we tumble into bed without my writing the blog. On to Ragusa tomorrow.

November 6, 2011 Taormina and Enna

Mary: We wake up to the same howling wind and rain of yesterday. It is quite intense with gusts up to 40 mph. But we are not hanging around the hotel today! We will find somewhere to go where the weather is better.

But first, breakfast. Of all the food here at Villa Ducale, breakfast is the best. There is a whole table of savory choices – frittata, marinated vegetables, eggplant parmesan, cheeses, meats and on and on. Then there is a whole table of fruit and pastries. There’s also an area of English breakfast with scrambled eggs, pancetta and a vegetable. And a warming dome underwhich might be a savory pie. And of course there is cereal and breads. It is really fabulous!

Savory breakfast table

Sweet breakfast table

John: We decide to brave the elements and hope for better weather at our target for the day, Enna. We get the car and snake our way down to the Autostrada. The rain intensifies as we drive 40 km south to Catania, but thankfully clears as we head west through the heart of Sicily. After about 70 km we spy a city a bit off the road and quite high up on a rocky plateau.
Town on the hill next to Enna

Up we go, never leaving second gear. Jack the GPS is up to his old tricks, trying to get us to take shortcuts through streets no wider than the car, but we persist in following the signs for the Castello. Bingo, we are there, and find a parking spot right by the castle. We take this as a good omen.

Castello di Lombardi

Enna is at about 1000 feet in elevation. It’s Sicily’s highest major town, and was the central focus of the island’s indigenous populations. They chose well, because this place would have been really hard to attack. Nevertheless, it was conquered many times, by Romans (who crushed a major slave revolt as well), Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Swabians (go Frederick II!) and later the Aragonese. All a familiar pattern to us by now. The only new wrinkle is that Mussolini brought back the Roman name in 1927. Prior to that it was Castrogiovanni (John’s castle, in Sicilian dialect Castrugiuvann’)

We tour the castle which underwent a certain amount of reconstruction from 1994 to 1999, so it’s still a work in progress. We are engaged by a local official tour guide who explains in English the history of the place to us. It’s very complicated. We climb the Torre Pisano and survey the countryside. It must have been incredibly stressful to live one’s life wondering from where and when the next invader would arrive.

Picture taken by local tour guide. We are obviously not his main focal point. Pisan tower in the background.

Mary at the top of the tower

After the castle we try to find the archaeological museum, but instead find the Duomo. It’s around noon and the bells are ringing away. Mass is letting out. We spend a little time inside the church appreciating the mix of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque styles that came about due to various fires and earthquakes.

Being nigh on to 1pm, when everything that we might want to see would be closed anyway, we walk back to our car, stopping at a local (and open!!!) Supermercato to pick up some wine and snacks, and head back to Taormina.

Traveling eastbound, we get a fine view of Mount Etna. It’s really big. Steam is emanating from the summit. Should we worry? Nah.

Steam escaping from Mt. Etna

We get off at Taormina and snake back up the hill. We arrive at the hotel to find good weather. Soon the wind dies down. Yay! We write blog posts and look forward to another enjoyable evening at the Villa Ducale. When the sun moves a bit further west we will try to get some good shots of the volcano doing its (hopefully benign) thing.

Mountain man

November 5, 2011 Taormina

Since this is Guy Fawkes day, I shall start my post with Thomas Hardy’s immortal lines from The Return of the Native, “It was a dark and stormy night…” except, of course in our case, it is a dark and stormy day. Up here in the rafters of the hotel, the wind is making booming sounds and we decide that today is no day for adventuring abroad in Sicily.

Bad weather moving in on Taormina

We spend our time catching up on sleep, blogs and the news of the world. Having eaten a large breakfast (pictures in the blog tomorrow), we venture down to the porch at tea time. In an act unfathomable even to myself, I eat pastries with my tea.

Clark and Lewis help out with the pastries

John discusses chestnuts with Paolo. He tells us that chestnut trees grow on the slopes of Mt. Etna (which we haven’t seen yet due to the bad weather) and that the furry chestnut balls drop off the trees and the local people go up to collect them. The best way, he says, to crack a chestnut is to stomp on it and take the chestnuts out. Then I guess they roast them so they can crack the hard shell. A lot of work but life sustaining when food is scarce.

Representations of chestnuts in their furry husks

Then we only have to wait a short while until cocktail time. The hors d’ouevres are so yummy. I especially like one that tastes like a combination of egg salad and hummus. We enjoy some time on the porch with Clark and Lewis and the appetizers.

John with Clark and Lewis

Clark and Lewis enjoy Sicilan wine

Moving on to the final meal of the day, we order dinner. John orders sardines wrapped in lemon leaves.

Sardines wrapped in lemon leaves with peppers, zucchini, potatoes and eggplant

I am trying hard to eat something reasonable for dinner so I order swordfish involtini. In my mind it will be thin pieces of swordfish wrapped around something and probably baked in a tomato sauce. I am so wrong. It turns out that it is a thin piece of swordfish wrapped around cheese and breadcrumbs then breaded and deep-fried. It is frustrating to keep trying to eat right only to be sabotaged.

Swordfish involtini which is really swordfish croccante

We have dinner. We chat with other people on the porch. Everyone is here because TripAdvisor has recommended Villa Ducale so highly. While our backs are turned, Clark and Lewis finish the wine.

Naughty frog and duck!

Tomorrow, regardless of the weather, we are getting out and doing something!!!!