Palermo, Day 2. 3/26/18

We have a lot scheduled today to make up for losing a day yesterday. We start by walking through an outdoor market on the way to the Palermo Cathedral. Sicily has fertile, volcanic soil and a great climate for growing everything. On the sides of the road and between sidewalk slabs there is fennel growing! Also, being an island, Sicily has wonderful fish and shellfish.

A type of cauliflower, artichokes, fennel fronds, and more
Fish and squid

We round a cornier and see the very Norman looking towers of the cathedral. They look a lot like the towers we saw in Cefalu.

Towers of the Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral is a mash up of building styles from different ages. It was begun in the 12th century but not finished until the 18th century.

Palermo Cathedral

The beautiful portico on the front hails from around 1500.

Portico entrance to the Palermo Cathedral

Inside any of the older components have been redecorated away. The most interesting thing is the meridian or solar observatory. A small hole was made in a minor dome and the image of the sun is projected on the floor. With this device they were able to fix the time of  the vernal equinox and to provide the correct date for Easter. The signs of the zodiac are a part of the instrument. Of course I take a picture of my sign, Sagittarius.

Solar observatory
My sign, Sagittarius

Lots of church helpers are scurrying around getting the church ready for Easter. We see a guy on a ladder with a long pole shining up some of the decorations.

Man on ladder attending to shining up decorations for Easter

From here we walk to the Palace of the Normans. Much like the Palermo Cathedral it is a building that was added to over the centuries starting with the Emir of Palermo in the 800’s. The building is the oldest royal residence in Europe, the home of the rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily and imperial seat of Frederick II and Conrad IV. But what everyone comes to see is the Palatine Chapel added by King Roger II in 1132. The chapel is a mosaic jewel with influences from Arabic, Byzantine, and Norman architecture and art.

Sarah in the gardens in front of the palace


Palatine Chapel
Back wall – Jesus with Peter and Paul
Creating Adam
Creating Eve (on the right)
St. Paul hiding in a basket
Islamic wall decoration
Hipster lion
Noah’s Ark

Every inch of the Palatine Chapel is decorated with sparkling mosaics. The mosaics were made in the 12th century but they look like they could have been created yesterday.

We look around the rest of the building which is interesting but really takes a backseat to the chapel with the exception of King Roger II’s Hall which is interestingly mosaiced with each mosaic being a mirror image.

Mirror-imaged mosaics in King Roger’s Hall in the Norman Palace, Palermo

Time for lunch! It is hard to escape the “tourist special” kind of restaurant when you are in this section of the old city. We finally decide on Antica Trattoria mostly because they did not accost us as we walk down the street. The lunch is so-so. After seeing the tremendous amount of pasta in a serving I decide on pizza – bad choice. Sarah’s lunch turns out best. She has cacio e pepe.

Sarah’s cacio e pepe
My not-so-good pizza margarita. John’s pizza was about the same except with pepperoni

After lunch we head to Martorana, another church with mosaics. Since no one has checked to see when it is open, we find that it is closed until 3:30 PM. I am somewhat annoyed that my companions never take the initiative to find out when things are open. I have left the planning of the day to them and now we are stuck with over two hours to kill. We stop at the Liberty Bar and Sarah and I have an afigato which is espresso with vanilla gelato. John has a caffe corretto which is espressos with grappa.

Afigato – we should have ordered the espresso and gelato separately because the gelato was a tiny scoop and melted too quickly

Since we cannot figure out how to kill the two hours left, we decide to go back to the hotel for a little rest. I decide to opt out of the long walk back to the church. I have seen it once before and my knee needs a rest. Sarah and John go and have brought back pictures of this little church which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and built in the mid-12th century.

Exterior of the Martorana
Church interior overview
Nativity scene mosaic
Mary death with Jesus carrying her soul to heaven
St. Joachim, Mary’s father
St. Anne, Mary’s mother
Dome mosaic
Two angels
Jesus crowning Roger II

All the buildings we have seen today are part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the Cefalu Cathedral. Tomorrow we will see the Monreale Cathedral which is the biggest example of this confluence of Byzantine, Norman, and Islamic art and architecture.

For dinner tonight we are going to Sapurito, Cucina Povera e Pizza. It belongs to the Slow Food Movment. We last ate at one of these restaurants in Pompeii . We hope this one will be as good. Turns out later I have some horrible distress from something I have eaten but I cannot say which of today’s foods is to blame.

We share an appetizer of fried artichoke
John has grilled squid that he really likes
Mary has involtini of veal (I think)
Sarah has an ancient grain pizza with pine nuts
We share a small dessert

Tomorrow (Tuesday) we are off to nearby Monreale to see the fabulous cathedral and then we head to the Palermo airport for a flight to Rome. On Wednesday we take the long flights home.

Spleen sandwich. 3/25/18

No, this is not just an attention-getter. It is a famous Palermo street food. And there are some people in our family who want to try this delicacy. I am not one of them.

We wake up to a rainy day in Palermo. The high today is around 50F and along with the rain, windy conditions are expected. It is a perfect day to stay in, do some laundry, write my blog, and read a book or play games on my iPad. Sarah suggests that she and John go out and find a purveyor of pane di ca meusa, spleen sandwich. I am happy to have them go without me.

Spleen sandwiches

Sarah has found a restaurant, Nino U’ Ballerino that sells them. They have big pots of spleens and other innard parts bubbling away. Their pane di ca meusa is so good they have won the 2017 award for best street food!

Nino U’ Ballerino’s pot of guts
Many tasty things to choose from
The red shrimp award for best street food

All I ask is that they bring me back a can of Pringles to munch on. They stop in at the local supermarket, Conad, and find my Pringle lunch. Sarah strolls around the store comparing Italian to American prices. Most things in Europe are pretty pricy but we have found that bread, wine, vegetables, and pasta in Italy are much cheaper.

Barilla pasta – we are excited when it is $1 a pound at home. Here it is for .69 euro for a kilogram (2.2 lbs.)

In case you are wondering what they thought of the spleen sandwich John found it quite delicious with a bit of a funky taste and soft texture. Salt, pepper, cheese, and lemon finish off the preparation and it is served on a soft sesame bun. He wished there had been a little raw onion served on it for some crunch. Sarah did not make much comment, only that she needed to go lie down to let things digest.

Not much else to report today. Even after their spleen sandwiches Sarah and John were ready to go out to dinner around 8 PM. We got a recommendation from the front desk to try Trattoria Bionda. It is quite full when we get there. Lots of Sicilian families are eating in the front room and several tables of Germans and us are in the back room. There is a German tour group staying at our hotel. The front desk guy probably gave the same recommendation to everyone. The food was good and we enjoyed ourselves.

Fancy stoneware at Trattoria Bionda
Sarah’s penne with eggplant, meat, and mushrooms
John’s rice curry with shrimp
Mary’s veal with a lemon and white wine sauce, roasted potatoes and onions (This was really good!)


In search of Odysseus and more… 3/24/18

As we are leaving Taormina and the lovely Villa Ducale, Paolo says to me, “we see you next year, yes?” And I wonder if I will see these places again. Then Sarah says to me, “you said that last year, too, Mom.”  So too much drama and gloom and doom. I will get my knee fixed and I will back in fighting form next year. That is a promise to myself.

Before heading down the hill and towards Messina we take a ride up to Castelmola, high above already high Taormina. I have been wanting to go up there for years. Unfortunately a    police officer comes after us tweeting her whistle as we stop to take a picture. “NO PARKING!” she yells at us. Since we tend to get at least one ticket every trip, we scoot away and take some pictures as we descend the hill.

Looking down on Taormina from the heights of Castelmola

Usually I have quite a few shots of Mt. Etna but the volcano has been hiding in the clouds the whole time we have been here. There is a little clearing as we descend the mountain and I get a partial picture.

Mt. Etna with snow and probably some steam

Okay, wish one granted. Now on to Odysseus.

”Then seizing two strong spears I took my stand on the ship’s bow, for it was there I expected first to see the monster of the rock…Then we entered the Straits in great fear of mind for on the one hand was Scylla and on the other dread Charybdis.“

As you approach the embarkation point for the ferry across the Strait of Messina there is an exit for Scylla. We have never taken it and I wish we had. I figure that on Sicily there should be a spot for Charybdis. So we drive all the way out to the point, Torre Faro, in search of Charybdis but there is no mention of her. You can, however, see the giant rock which is Scylla. This point is between the spit of Sicilian land and the great rock of Scylla is the narrowest point of the strait and no doubt the most turbulent and dangerous for ships.

The distant large rock in the water on the right is Scylla, and Charybdis is a whirlpool on the Sicily side

We have been trying to time ourselves so that when we get to Cefalu, our next stop, the cathedral will be open. It seems that almost all the churches take the most holy of institutions, the three to three and a half hour lunch break. We decide to take our lunch break too and stop at a rather grotty Autogrill for a salami sandwich.

Haute cuisine

By the time we reach Cefalu, park the car, and take the pleasant walk to the cathedral it is 3:30 PM and time for the church attendants to go back to work.

Pretty seaside town of Cefalu

The Cefalu Cathedral is in a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses Arab-Norman Palermo and The Cathedral Churches of Cefalu and Monreale. These nine sites are examples of the meeting of Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures on Sicily which gave rise to new concepts of architecture and showed how people of different origins had a fruitful coexistence (at least for a time.)

The Cefalu Cathedral was begun in 1131 and the mosaics inside were begun in 1145. In the picture below imagine the cathedral without the two spires on top of the towers and lacking the porch facade, both of which were added later, and the church is very much a fortress.

The facade of the Norman Cefalu Cathedral

Inside only the apse is decorated in mosaic. I read somewhere that they ran out of money. They had brought in masters in mosaics from Constantinople and the mosaic artists and the materials were probably pretty pricy.

Looking toward the apse

The mosaic features Christ giving a blessing with one hand and holding the Gospel of John in the other. His face is a little less Byzantine then many others we have seen. Below him are Mary and four angels and then the Apostles.

Fabulous mosaic
Mosaic of Christ Pantokrator on a golden field

After a lengthy look at this beautiful cathedral we head back to the car for the rest of our journey to Palermo.

Sun reflecting on the Tyrrhenian Sea

We check into our hotel, the Best Western Ai Cavalieri in Palermo. It is kind of a big let down after Villa Ducale. We go down to the Graal Bar which we have been to before. Last time when we ordered glasses of wine we got a giant free spread of appetizers. In the last three years they have wised up. We have to pay for the appetizers now and they are not nearly as good but are definitely plentiful!

Un-free appetizers at Graal Bar but still a cheap dinner


Happy Birthday, Sarah!

Today is Sarah’s birthday.  We have been celebrating in Italy the past few years. I cannot believe she is 38.  That makes me….old. Anyway she and I are going to have a mom and Sarah day and then later the three of us will go out to dinner.

The Villa Ducale has an awesome breakfast. There are a wide array of choices to munch on while sitting on the porch with a view of lower Taormina, Mt. Etna, and the Ionian Sea. Here is an example from one of John’s plates.

Clockwise from 12 o’clock: caponata, stuffed tomato, egg and herb frittata, eggplant parmesan with frico, and bacon. There are a vast array of normal breakfast things plus a whole table of sweets.

While we are planning on going to the Roman theater down in town, John is planning on taking a hike up to Castelmola, a town high above Taormina. We think he is crazy but on the other hand Sarah and I are planning on walking down the mountain.

Castelmola is the town high up on the mountain

First Sarah and I must walk up the hill to the old church and then descend a twisting staircase down to the commercial part of town and the site of the Roman theater. You can see the Roman theater behind Sarah in the next picture.

Sarah with Roman theater in the background

It is a long way down to the theater on a set of switchback steps especially for someone with a bad knee who is using a cane. But Sarah is a sweetie and holds my hand a lot to help me. Ladies holding hands is not so unusual in Italy.

In the next picture you can see a portion of the switchback stairs and the Roman theater in the distance.

Our starting point at the upper right and the switchback stairs
We are part way down! The theater is on a slight hill near the sea.

We finally reach the bottom and find our way to the ancient theater, buy tickets, and audio guides. We take time for a mom and Sarah selfie and a picture of Sarah.

After a lot of downhill walking and stair descending we are in the Roman theater
Sarah in the Roman theater

I am still amazed that we made it to the Roman theater from the bump to the left of the high point of the mountain.

Sarah looking out to our starting point which is the lump to the left of the highest point in the picture. Wow!

Some views of the Roman theater.

The Ionian Sea through an ancient arch
Another view of the Roman theater

The wind picks up and it starts spitting little daggers of cold rain. We finish up at the Roman theater and find a place to have lunch, La Botte. I order spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, and chiles and Sarah has a pizza with mushroom, sausage, and onions.

I have earned every strand of this spaghetti today
Can Sarah eat a whole pizza? Yes, she can.

Sarah has read about this place, Bam Bar, in Food and Wine Magazine as the best place to get granita. On the recommendation of the waiter we both get an almond granita on the bottom, followed by coffee granita, and then kind of whipped cream on top. For someone who doesn’t like desserts, I am surely doing a good job eating them!

We finish lunch with almond/coffe granite with cream on top at Bam Bar

Later John, Sarah and I meet to discuss the day and tonight’s plans. John has made it part was up to Castelmola but decided it was just too far and steep. He also wrote part of my yesterday’s blog post for me while I was gone. We decide we are just too tired out to go out to dinner and after birthday hugs return to our rooms to collapse.


Rainy driving day. 3/22/18

Mary: Today’s post is written by both John and me.

John: It’s raining as we leave Matera. We drive up out of the Sassi cautiously, make our way to the SS7 towards Metaponto where we pick up the SS106 and drive southwest along the shoreline of the arch of the Italian boot. We have driven on very few good roads this trip, and a lot of bad ones, but this is the worst. Fortunately we cut over to the A3 in Calabria more toward the boot’s instep and head down toward the toe.

We stop for coffee, of course. When we resume, it starts pouring. I am not doing a good job controlling the weather. Fortunately Mary has done a superb job making sure the bad weather falls on a travel day.

Mary: Ever since we heard the ridiculous and anti-Semitic remark by the Washington D.C. city councilor that Jews control the weather, we have been on John’s case to keep the weather pleasant for our vacation. I, on the other hand, am well-known for my magic powers so it is no surprise that it only rains on travel days.

John: Italian civil engineers love tunnels. We go through many very new ones that are wide and well-lit. At Villa San Giovanni we exit the highway (toll-free even for the long stretch we drove) and make our way to the ferry. Thanks to Sarah spotting the critical “Imbarco” sign we catch the ferry with just a couple of minutes to spare and sail over to Messina. We successfully wind our way through Messina onto the Autostrada down to Taormina.

Sailing across the Strait of Messina under threatening skies

While ascending the narrow twisty streets to Villa Ducale I am once again appreciating the automatic transmission of our Opel and the fact that it is a bit less wide than the Alfa Giulia. We arrive at our hotel with only the occasional raindrop coming down. Maybe I have done my job after all.

Sarah enjoying a welcoming glass of prosecco at our hotel in Taormina, Villa Ducale
Our room with spectacular view at Villa Ducale

Mary: This is actually the fourth time John and I have stayed at Villa Ducale. It has become a lot more boutique than when we first came here almost ten years ago. A lot of the staff has changed with the exception of Paolo, the hotel manager. His father, Aurelio, gave John a cooking lesson the first time we were here and Sarah had a lesson three years ago. Sadly we hear that Aurelio has passed away.

At the hotel is a superb breakfast, afternoon tea with treats, and cocktail time with hors d’oeuvres. We stop in for a glass of wine on the porch around 6:15.

Hors d’oeuvres
View from the porch

We decide to have dinner at the hotel. We are tired from the long day’s drive. The food here (other than breakfast) is okay and the view is great. Getting down to town involves expensive taxi rides or meshing with a shuttle schedule and that seems like too much trouble tonight.

Fusilli with pistachio pesto for Mary and Sarah
Veal Marsala for John

Matera. 3/21/18

Today is a pretty quiet day for me. It is John and Sarah’s opinion that I should not be walking around the Matera sassi with its uneven pavement, hills, and lots of steps. I spend the morning in our cave catching up on my posting. Sarah and John go to visit the Crypt of Original Sin. I have been there before and it is a lot of uneven ground and sitting on the floor of a cave. Not in my ability zone.

The Crypt of Original Sin is situated in a rocky hollow overlooking the limestone cliff along the ancient Appian Way. Inside 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.

Lights in the cave pick up the various paintings. There are 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.

St. Peter with St. John and St. Andrew
Three archangels
Madonna and Child
Creation story

Sarah and John get back around lunchtime and seem pleased that they were able to go see this amazing 1000 year old work of art. I in the meantime am pleased that I was able to catch up on my blog and have a little alone quiet time.

For lunch we head across our little alley to Osteria Pico. For once I choose something truly delicious.

Since we all need more vegetables we order insalata mista
Sarah’s spaghettoni, is made from grano arso,  blackened oven sweepings. A true dish of poverty.This is served with tomato sauce and beans.


My fabulous dish is ferricelli with pistachio pesto
John’s selection is strozzapreti with pepper sauce and bread crumbs

After lunch Sarah heads off to the cathedral in the sassi. This activity is deemed too difficult for me. She sees some excellent frescoes.

The upper panel of this fresco from the cathedral reminds me of the Final Judgement in Santa Maria Del Casale outside of Brindisi

John and I laze around the rest of the afternoon. After Sarah returns she has a two hour session in the Roman thermal baths at the hotel. Around 8PM we go out in the rain in search of pizza.

At Ristorante La Talpa John and I split a sausage, cardoncelli, and mushroom pizza. Yum!


Sarah has a Pizza Arso (or burnt flour) with chef’s choice for toppings. This is a kitchen sink pizza!

Since we have a long drive tomorrow, we are off after dinner to pack and turn in early.



Trulli. Sassi. 3/20/18

Today we pay a visit to Alberobello to see the trulli, buy a loaf of what is supposed to be the best bread in the world in Altamura, and sleep among the sassi.

About an hour from Lecce in the Itria Valley is Alberobello, home of a large concentration of  trulli. These are traditional Apulia dry stone huts which used to be temporary field shelters or storehouses and were sometimes used as permanent homes for small businesses and agricultural laborers. They were built in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Because they are odd and charming, they have become big business in Alberobello. Some hold B & Bs, or restaurants, and there is even a Trulli church. The most common business, though, is gift shop. There are many, many gift shops selling exactly the same thing although we are told that everything has been lovingly made by someone’s mother.

Some houses houses have symbols on their roofs which are usually related to Christian themes.

Explanation of symbols include a tree cross, the pierced heart of the BVM, Christ, and a host
Famous line-up of Trulli houses
Trulli rooftops with a tiny head of Mary
Trulli schlock stores
John in Trulli-land
Sarah with rooftops

Leaving Alberobello we head to Altamura which is famous for having the world’s best bread. These large boules of bread supposedly looking like priests’ hats have only four ingredients. We need to find a bakery and buy one before everything closes down for siesta. We want to have lunch but I insist that bread must come first or we will be out of luck after lunch. We stop in at Fantasie del Grano and pick up a half kilo loaf. It costs 1 Euro! We will eat it later. (BTW when we come back from lunch every store is closed.)

Now we need to find lunch which is not an easy task and we meander about without finding anything. I know how to find lunch. I did it in Manfredonia and I will do it here too. While my esteemed companions with their smattering of Italian hope to stumble across something, I flag down a butcher outside a market and say,  “Scusi, Senore. Ristorante pranzo?” I find using all nouns works best for me. Well, of course the butcher is happy to help and yells to another guy that we need lunch and he should take us to so-and-so restaurant. The new guy walks us there and, voila, we have lunch.

Ristorante Alla Povera Vita
There is no menu just the waiter saying a bunch of Italian so I pick the first thing he says, orchiette with sausage and mushrooms. Sarah has it too.
John has the last thing the waiter says which turns out to trofie with strips of veal and some cherry tomatoes
Unbidden the waiter brings us zeppole at the end of lunch

We have accomplished two things on our list and now we just have to get to Matera and find our way through the sassi to our hotel, Locanda San Marino. The sassi are ancient cave dwellings which originate from a prehistoric troglodyte settlement and are suspected to be among the first human settlements in Italy.  There is evidence that people were living here as early as the year 7000 BC.

Originally the houses were dug into the soft rock on a slope that led down to a river. Although it was an area of  poverty in the 1980s, it has now been regenerated into an area of tourism with businesses, pubs, and hotels. It is a UNESCO site. Our hotel is in this warren of dwellings. We will be sleeping in a cave.

The sassi area of Matera looks rather bleak in the daytime
Our room is nice with all the mod-cons you would expect although some of the walls are actual cave

Instead of going out for dinner we go down to the bar, order some wine, and ask for plates and olive oil. Tonight our dinner is the pane di Altamura, the best bread in the world.

Pane di Altamura and a glass of Chardonnay

Walking back to our cave room, the sassi of Matera look pretty magical.

Sassi of Matera at night

The heel. 3/19/18

Today our plan is to do some olive oil tasting, sip some wine and have a gourmet lunch fillled with local products. Hah!

”The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy! ”

Perhaps a bit heavy, Robert Burns. Plans often go awry but can be replaced by something new and exciting!

This morning we start out with olive oil and wine tasting at Azienda Zacheo.

At Aviendo Zacheo you bring your giant wine container in its wicker basket, put it on the low metal tables, and they fill it with the hoses attached to a large supply of house wine

We are greeted warmly and there is a barrage of Italian which even our best Italian speakers (not me!) are having trouble with.  I am immediately flustered and forget to take any pictures. (Thank you internet for the pictures!) We must have said something correctly because the server pulls out a big plate and some stale bread which she proceeds to inundate with olive oil, a lot of olive oil. She also pours three glasses of wine – red, rose, and white. We are not too taken with the wine but the oilive oil is superb. We decide that we can somehow nestle the olive oil into our suitcases along with the meloncello that we bought in Pompeii.

Delicious olive oil!

This whole transaction took maybe 20 minutes so now we are way ahead of the schedule that I have in mind for today’s activities. We move on to the wine tasting part of the program which is back towards Lecce. This is suppose to occur after lunch and now it is 10:30 AM. We decide to follow one of the brown signs which mean something to see of significance historically. We stop in a town, Martano, in order to see the Cappella dell’ Immacolata and waste some time. This is a bust as the church doesn’t have anything of particular interest to us.

Baroque to the max (Cappella dell’Immacolata)

Italy Traveling Tip: If you need to use a restroom while sightseeing drop into a caffe and order a cafe (espresso). It will cost about 1 Euro. Mostly this is drunk while standing at the coffee bar but there are usually tables as well. Now you have entry to the bathroom facilities. If you are lucky the toilet will be full American but sometimes it is just a bowl and no seat. I think you are supposed to stand over this and pee. We tend to clean them off carefully and perch on the edge. If you are really unlucky it will be a hole in a porcelain surround that you stand over. We have not run into any of these this trip.

So we stop in at Caffe Ficile and use the restroom which has a seat! Yay!

Off we go to our wine tasting stop. John wrote to them on Friday that we were coming on Monday so we are looking for the proverbial red carpet. Before going in we stop for a picture.

Sarah and John in front of Apollonio Winery

We go inside and encounter no one. While waiting for the welcoming committee we take some more pictures.

John in the tasting room of Apollonio

Finally someone shows up and says “chiuso” closed. What? We explain as best we can in Italian that we have written to say that we are coming. But he shrugs and says chiuso. Well, okay, but can we at least buy some wine? Si.

Sarah with our wine purchase

We have had the Apollonio Chardonnay and know we like it and John wants a bottle of red so we buy two bottles and are on our way. It is now noon. We have completed our day’s activities in about two hours. It is still too early for lunch.

We are about an hour away from the bottom of Italy’s heel so we decide to travel down and look at the sea and have lunch. It is a pleasant ride with the Italian fields on either side newly planted and fruits trees blossoming. We reach the very bottom of the heel and take some pictures before finding a place for lunch.

Sarah looking out at the sea

We opt for the Hotel Rizieri for lunch since John and I have eaten there on a prior trip. Once again I choose badly. Swordfish and eggplant? Why did I think that would be good?! John and Sarah decline my leftovers.

Spaghetti vongole
Linguine with swordfish and eggplant (?)

On the way in we have seen signs for the Devil’s Grotto. We decide to go and take a look. It is at the southernmost point on the heel (punta ristola). The path to the point is rather rocky so John and Sarah go ahead and I stay on the sturdier land behind.

Looking east from punta ristola towards the lighthouse
Sarah on the southernmost point of Italy’s heel
Looking down towards the Devil’s Grotto
Mary looking windblown

Later back at the hotel John finds a store and buys some chips and instead of going out to dinner we have a wine and chips picnic in our room.

Instead of grief and pain that our plans went awry we made our own joy!


You can see Albania from Otranto. 3/18/18

Today our plan is to go to Otranto and see the cathedral plus wander around and have lunch. It turns out to be a lovely day with fun, sightseeing, creative time-wasting, and great art.

Since today is Sunday we know that there will be services during the morning at the cathedral. After parking the car we scurry up the hill to the cathedral in hopes of catching some viewing time after Mass and before Italian lunch. As we walk up to the door it clangs shut. Closed until 3 PM.

Otranto Cathedral now closed for the next three hours

So now we are left with three hours to kill. We find a free exhibition where an artist has captured the look of Byzantine icons and frescoes by analyzing brush strokes, hand positions, and facial proportions. He will not allow us to take pictures though.

It is still too early for lunch so we go out into the piazza and look at the Adriatic Sea which is quite beautiful today and take pictures of each other. On our way into Otranto we could see snow-dusted mountains across the sea. Turns out we were looking at Albania which is only 45 miles away. Gosh!

Mary and John in Otranto (my new accessoriy, a stylish cane to take the pressure off my back and knee)
Sarah and mom

Then Sarah gives John and me a lesson in taking selfies. It seems that you have to hold the phone in a certain way so that you can still use your thumb to take the picture. Also hold it high enough so that you are not shooting up at your face which is an unflattering angle. Sarah decides that I could probably use a selfie stick since my arms are too short so my head keeps coming out too big in the pictures. (Which is amazing because I have a small head.) Much laughing ensues.

Too-  big head selfie
John’s selfie

We have wasted an hour so it is time to go in search of lunch. This proves more difficult than anticipated. Places are booked up. Finally we are granted an uninviting table next to the front door and the noisy espresso machine at Ristorante da Sergio. We need to really draw out this lunch. Sergio is not going to be able to turn this table quickly!

We dawdle over our salads rearranging our lettuces and putting our forks down frequently. Fast eating Americans have real trouble eating slowly! Then on to the main courses. I refuse to choose something safe and mediocre today. I can see that Sergio is impressed by my bold choice, linguine ai ricci, linguine with sea urchin!

Sarah and I both have the linguine with sea urchin
John has a massive pile of mussels
We order dessert to extend our lunch. This is a zeppole stuffed with cream. It is so sweet. Sarah and I salt each of our bites to try to make it taste like something other than sweet.

Sea urchin tastes and smells like the sea. Turns out that I prefer food that does not taste like this. At least I tried.

We still have half an hour to go so we buy gelato and sit around eating it slowly and taking more pictures. I do not like desserts and now we have had two in a row!

My stracciatella gelato

We climb back up the hill to the church. There is a crowd waiting to get in. Finally the door is unlocked and we rush in like it is Black Friday at Walmart.

The Otranto Cathedral is a Norman church consecrated in 1088. Those Vikings were everywhere in the 11th century! The most amazing thing about it is that the entire floor is covered by a mosaic done by Panteleone and his helpers. On it are Bible scenes, fantastic animals, the months of the year, and the zodiac signs. It is somewhat blocked because there are pews on it. Amazingly they let parishioners use it like a regular floor!

A picture of the entire floor from a postcard I bought
The Tree of Life running up the middle
An elephant (they had obviously never seen a real elephant)
Satan and a damned soul
Cain and Abel
A lion
Signs of the Zodiac
A siren or as we know it, the Starbucks logo

There is also a grisly side chapel where the skulls of the martyrs of Otranto are displayed. These were 813 inhabitants of Otranto who were killed on August 14, 1480. The mass execution is often explained as taking place after the Otranto citizens refused to convert to Islam when the city fell to an Ottoman force.

Grisly side chapel full of bones and skulls of the Otranto martyrs

Time to head back to Lecce. We go out later for pizza at 9cento around the corner. There are lots of people in the streets even at 9PM, more than we have seen our whole time here.

John in his traditional beer pose
Sarah’s salsicce, nduja (a spicy Italian andouille) and arugula pizza
John and I split a pizza Margarita

Tomorrow no old churches on the schedule. We are in search of a wine tasting, olive oil sipping, local specialties gastronomic kind of day!

Brindisi and Lecce. 3/17/18

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! There doesn’t seem to be much celebrating of the Irish here in southern Italy.

We leave Bari today to make our way to Lecce via Brindisi. The wind is really blowing today even though the temperature is around 70F. We are hoping to find Chiesa Santa Maria del Casale near the airport in Brindisi. Amazingly this 13th century church is right next to a runway even though it was named an historic site in 1875. Santa Maria del Casale was in use in1310 when a trial took place involving the Knights Templar of Sicily.

Santa Maria del Casale near the Brindisi airport

The outside called a “hut facade” of this church is beautiful but the inside is astounding. It was once covered with frescoes and luckily many of them still survive. There are layers of frescoes inside. One of the most striking is the Last Judgement on the side nearest the door.

In this fresco the good are weeded out and appear on the left. The devil and fires of hell appear on the lower right along with a multitude of sins that can get you there.

Last Judgement

In the upper portion of the following fresco stands St. Catherine surrounded by scenes from her life. She is holding a broken wheel since that was the instrument of her martyrdom.

Life of St. Catherine
Last Supper

I have lots of pictures but this sums it up.

St. Maria del Casale looking towards the altar

After a quick stop at the airport for a bathroom break because finding a bathroom in Italy can be tricky we are off to the city center of Brindisi. Brindisi is not as charming as Bari as we drive in.

We are looking for.the Temple of St. John entombed (Tiempo S. Giovanni al sepolcro) an11th to 12th century reconstruction of a 6th century circular building.

Tiempo S. Giovanni al Sepolcro (picture from Wikipedia)

This building is wedged between apartments and business down a little alley. Along with sadly deteriorated frescoes and fanciful animal carvings on the door jambs there is a glimpse of a mosaic floor underneath from a 1st century Roman house.

Interior of temple
A look down at the mosaic floor of a 1st century house
Badly deteriorated frescoes – one on top of another
Bird carving on door jamb

We find another church that we are looking for but it appears closed and there is no parking nearby so we head off to Lecce which is the next stop on our tour of southern Italy. We are able to check in early at the Risorgimento Resort which is not a resort but just a hotel. We stayed here in 2011 and the hotel looks a little more worn than when we were here last.

Our room (picture included so I know for the next time we are in Lecce. Also stall shower!)

John has found a restaurant nearby that rates highly on TripAdvisor. Sometimes I wonder who rates these places. People who have never eaten anything good before?

John lunch – chickpeas and pasta
Sarah lunch – the local dish orecchiette di rape
My horrible lunch – orichiette with tomato sauce and cheese (the tomato sauce was thick puréed tomato glop)

After siesta we explore our environs. Lecce is more of a central base to do other things and less a place to examine old churches. We look at the Roman theater, the statue of St. Oronzo, and visit some Baroque churches.

Roman theater around the corner from our hotel
St. Oronzo, patron saint of Lecce, atop the marker for the end of the Appian Way taken from Brindisi

St. Oronzo was bishop when there was an outbreak of plague. Lecce came through it quite well so the populace decided it was because of their bishop rather than their nice lady patron saint, St. Irene.

Baroque churches make me tired. Too much over-the-top decoration.

Santa Croce
Former patron saint Irene’s church
Exterior of Lecce duomo
Interior of the cathedral

We meet for drinks on the rooftop bar and to plan tomorrow’s activities. We are supposed to go out to dinner tonight but Sarah is practically falling asleep at 7 PM and we all decide just to call it a night. What is up?! We are supposed to be over jet lag by now!!!!