A Travellerspoint blog

November 2015

Mt. Aetna and Siracusa (Sicily)

To get to Sicily we took the ferry to Messina, which was quick and easy.

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Then we drove on to Nicolosi, near the slopes of slopes of Mt. Aetna, which took hours in a driving rain. The main problem was that google maps didn't seem able to find its way on these crazy Italian roads, where there are more roundabouts than you can shake a stick at. The major roads are fine, but as soon as you get off of them, the GPS gets lost, and it doesn't help that the name of the same road seems to change every few miles. At any rate, it was cold and damp when we arrived, and so we left a day early and drove to Siracusa.

We were lucky to get some nice views of the mountain, totally snow covered, as the weather cleared overnight.

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In the more distant view, you can see smoke rising from the top of this very active volcano
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Siracusa turned out to be a delightful city with a mostly restored old section, Ortigya, about a ten minute walk from our B&B. Ortigya is on a small island separated from the rest of the city by a causeway. We spent most of the day there just wandering its narrow alleys and piazzas, going to the papyrus museum, and later to a crazy puppet show, in Italian, which didn't seem to make a lot of sense even when we read the plot in English.

Houses and sea wall near papyrus museum
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Siracusa has a long history of several thousand years. The Greeks occupied the place for quite some time around 1000 BC to 2 or 300 BC. In fact there is still an ancient Greek amphitheater where aeschylus' plays are performed as they were during Greek times. Aeschylus lived here for a while, as did Archimedes. Siracusa was a major maritime power and Greek city/state. Eventually it was taken over by the Romans, and then the Arabs, and finally the Normans who came in around 1000 AD.

The Duomo, the towns most famous cathedral, is built on top of the columns of the Temple of Apollo, which dates to 600BC. The old columns of the temple are still quite visible, and the building is, in a word, magnificent, both inside and out.

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Side view with columns still visible on the outside
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Inside the building
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Inside of dome,
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Not quite Michelangelo, but almost
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Our B and B, Siracusa, is newly opened by two very friendly women, one of whom speaks some English. We spent some time talking with them at breakfast and soon they felt like good friends. We are very happy to be staying here, and they invited us back for breakfast on our return trip to Rome in a week or so. Nanette even arranged for an inter-cambio over skype with one of the women.

Nanette with our hostess' showing off breakfast pie
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Posted by jonshapiro 06:31 Archived in Italy Tagged mountains buildings cities_postcards Comments (1)

Scilla

We are now in this small seaside town south of Tropea, and are staying in a B&B in the old fishing village of Chinelea. Finding our place while driving in the tiny streets of Scilla was not easy, and it took several phone calls to the owner before we could locate it.

There are three parts to Scilla: Chinelea, and its ancient stone houses practically sitting in the tempestuous sea, with its partially submerged and sharp rocks.

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Marina Grande, a separate beach area with a couple of streets of houses set 20M or so from the sea,

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and finally, there is Scilla Alta, which is the largest.

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To get there, you ascend several steep sets of stairs and narrow cobblestone streets that reach partially up the mountain that descends all the way to Chinelea.

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This part of town consists of a number of streets and narrow alleys, and though most of the houses are old, there are a few newer ones scattered about. Jutting out over one of the lower levels of the upper town, on a high rocky promontory, is the old stone fort, which has commanding view over the ocean and to the port of Reggio Calabria, some 20K distant. Freighters ply the waters in between.

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Actually, there is a 4th part of town between here and Marina Grande, the port of Scilla, where larger boats are moored behind a protected area framed by a long rock jetty.

Here in Chinelea, fisherman cast their rods and work on their small wooden boats, most of whom now have motors. In the past, they would go hunting, as they call it, for spada, or swordfish, in boats without motors. They used a kind of harpoon to try and stab the fish, much like the old whaling boats. Sword fishing is still a way of life here, as is fishing in general, though I suspect that it is greatly supplanted by tourism, during the summer and fall.

Scilla, as described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, is a type of sea monster that would lure sailors to the rocks just offshore, where they would drown. So this place has a long history dating back to the Greeks, and, as I have learned from our proprietor, Francesco, so does much of Calabria, where old people still speak a kind of Greek dialect.

It has been enjoyable wandering the alleys of various parts of town, though unfortunately the weather has remained cloudy and chilly, with intermittent rain. During a morning walk today, we found a small, out of the way place in the upper town to purchase fresh pasta, ravioli, and eggplant parm, but we spent much of the day, reading in our room. Later we went down to the tiny bar attached to our guesthouse, and chatted with the bartender, also named Francesco, and his girlfriend, in a mix of Italian and Spanish. We taught him a few words of Spanish, and he gave us the Italian equivalent, while we sipped on a glass of the local vino. It was a nice way to while away an otherwise dreary afternoon. At one point, a woman came in with her daughter. She was born in Poland and started chatting away with Francesco about the importance of learning English, because when she was recently hospitalized for a month in Reggio, the staff only spoke in English. Of course, she knew almost no English, though her daughter knew a little.

Coast road just south of town
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We have been in touch with our neighbor, Guy Gamello, via email. He is keeping an eye on our house while we travel. It turns out that his relatives are from Messina, in Sicily, where we will go by ferry. Francesco's girlfriend lives in Messina, and she told us that Gamello is a very common name. It seems that Guy probably has a number of his relations still living there. Perhaps we will run into one.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:25 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches people buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Tropea

It was with some reluctance that we left Matera, and drove to this small seaside town on the Tyrrhenian coast in Calabria. Bustling in the summer, it is largely dead at this time of year, and many of the restaurants and shops are closed. It has a very attractive old part of town, with narrow lanes and pretty piazzas. Unfortunately there is a lot of ugly development that surrounds it, and much of the old town could use repair, some of which is going on during this slow time of year.

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When we went to the tourist office to get a map,

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there was a young woman from New Hampshire who was staffing the place. She has lived in Tropea for 16 years. After her parents divorced, she came to Italy with her Italian mother. She told us about an interesting pizza joint for dinner, not far from our little apartment, and later we decided to try it out.

Ali Baba is run by a very friendly Egyptian man, who spoke relatively good English after spending three years in London. Trained as an archeologist,he says he is content making pizza because he gets to meet people from all over the world. It is a tiny place, mostly take-out, but the pizza, with kabobs, was quite good, and he seemed to be doing a good business even during this slow time of year. While we were there a young woman, who looked to be in her mid 20's showed up with her father, Roberto. She had some English, and so we started talking to her. She has worked as a journalist for a regional Calabrian paper for nine years. Although she really likes the job, often several years go by before she gets paid for each article she writes. She is still studying in university, but feels she knows far more about journalism than any of her professors, none of whom have any journalism training or experience.

We asked if she was angry about not getting paid, and the answer,not surprisingly, was, "Yes."

"Why don't you get another job?"

"There are no other jobs."

"What if you went into something other than journalism"

"Well, I love my job, but it wouldn't make any difference. There are no other jobs."

"Even in other fields?"

"Yes. It wouldn't matter."

"Do you think it is the fault of the government?"

"No,not really. The Italians are lazy. It's in their DNA."

" So you mean they are really laid back,and easy going?"

"Yes, you could say that. They like the sun and the sea, and they don't want to work hard."

"Do you think anything can be done?"

"No, not really. I have my family, but I would like to get married and have children, and maybe buy a car, but there is no way I can afford that. There is nothing I can do."

She seemed resigned to a vicious cycle of barely being able to make ends meet, and living a very restricted life. This seems to be the fate of many young people here in southern Italy. The desk person at the Alpi Hotel in Rome, more or less told me the same thing. She was urging her daughter to learn English so that she could move somewhere else in the EU where there might be more job opportunities.

Soon after that, "The King of Ice Cream" walked into Ali Baba, or that is what the Egyptian proprietor said to us. Then this gentleman said, "No, not me, my father is the King." His father runs a successful gelato business, and has invented all kinds of different flavors, including sweet onion, cipolla, which is a local specialty here in Tropea. Not the ice-cream, but the onions. The following day we went to a trattoria for lunch, and although we did not have this dish, the man next to us insisted we try his frittata cipolla. Similar to a Spanish tortilla, it was delicious. At any rate, the son of the King of Ice-cream, or the Prince, as he called himself, makes a good enough living to be able to travel to the States, and has done so twice. However, he agreed with the twenty-something journalist that it is very hard for young people in today's economy, and also agreed that in southern Italy many people don't want to work hard.

On the surface, the roads seem good, the bathrooms are generally clean, though often minus toilet seats, there is not a lot of garbage everywhere, but at the same time, the cycle of poverty seems to take on a life of its own here. It seems quite difficult to escape what appears to be the southern Italian culture. It was disheartening to hear to the resignation, and to some extent the hopelessness, in our young journalists' words.

Stromboli Island
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Posted by jonshapiro 09:59 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches people buildings_postcards Comments (1)

Matera

Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment
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Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background
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Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church
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Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo
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Basilica at the edge of ravine
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Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side
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Alley's about town. Nanette on right
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There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set
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Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman
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A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.

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Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.

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We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea
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Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.

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Though on a few days we had sun.

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We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.

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We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.

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Selfie from across the ravine
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After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

Sorrento and Pompeii

Sorrento 2/24/15

The drive from Rome was easy, but we got bad advice about the route and went first to Salerno, which is on the southern end of the Amalfi coast. This was 60 or 70K out of the way, and then we had to drive back the 50k up the narrow coast road just as it was getting dark. Though not quite as scary as some of the Himalayan roads I have been on, it was nonetheless extremely narrow, with many curves and steep drop offs to the sea, hundreds of feet below.

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Unlike in India I was driving, but we made it, and then struggled to find our Airbnb apartment in the narrow lanes of Sorrento. Our host's English was poor, she couldn't understand our Spanish, and she didn't seem to recognize any of the landmarks we mentioned. Also, our phone GPS was useless, a harbinger of things to come while driving in Italy. Exhausted we were glad to arrive.

Yesterday we made the pilgrimage to Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the sun was out for part of the day. Pompeii was especially impressive as it goes on for what seems like miles, and gives you a real feel for what a Roman town of some 20,000 must have been like. However, having seen Angkor Wat and its vast ruins, we are a bit jaded.

Pompeii with Vesuvius in background
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Long avenue in Pompeii
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House details in Pompeii
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Sport complex
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Street Scene Herculenium
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Today was spent wandering the postcard pretty streets of Sorrento in the rain, which lasted for the entire day. At one end of the Amalfi coast, the town still had it's share of tourists even at this time of year. The narrow lanes did not lend themselves to driving, and I was only too glad to leave the car at our little apartment. Even walking was difficult, what with the other traffic and the rain. Nanette went to a museum of wood inlay objects and purchased a couple of music boxes from the factory, and then we spent the remainder of the afternoon reading before I ran out just before dark to get more pasta and arugula for dinner.

Tomorrow we drive to Matera, and luckily will not have to repeat the coast road again.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:52 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (3)

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