On Memorial Day we have a BBQ. It’s all the usual fare – burgers, sausages, potato salad, etc. Nathan brings along his football and we all have a spirited game of Three Flags. Three Flags is a game that Nathan and his friends play at school. One person is the flinger and everyone else tries to catch the ball. Whoever catches three balls first is the new flinger. Jonathan is especially adept at poaching catches. I am adept at ducking and covering and also smashing fingers. Good times!
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.