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!
We also say so long to Mt. Etna looming above us with smoke curling out of its top.
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.
After our visit we continue on to our next stop in Agrigento. Along the way wild fennel grows everywhere.
We eat at our favorite restaurant in San Leone. The dish of the day? Spaghetti con vongole.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the morning we are back on the road to Sicily. We catch the 11:20 AM ferry and cross 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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!)
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.
As we drive along the autostrada we can see Mt. Vesuvius looming over us. Somehow we must find the road to the top.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.)
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!!