Taormina, Part I (Sicily)

This was, by far, my most favorite part of the trip and the city I’d visit again.

Our arrival was a little rocky initially because our shuttle driver took us to the wrong hotel at first. When we arrived at the hotel where we DID have a reservation, we discovered it to be a gorgeous hotel, The San Domenico Palace, a 15th (16th?) century monastery-turned-luxury-hotel. And my, was it luxurious. You can see from the pictures itself– there were garden courtyards  at every turn (picked some delish kumquats in some of them…), old stone steps, luxurious rugs, statues and antique wood furniture, and seemingly endless hallways lined with doors where monks would retire for solitude or sleep. The pool was gorgeous, as was the outdoor garden, the sea view from our room was amazing to wake up to every morning, the bathroom was uniquely decorated, the breakfast buffet was delish, and service was impeccable. SDP certainly lives up to its 5-star rating, except for the fact that it had poor air conditioning and limited WiFi, two really basic and expected American commodities, but I guess “you win some, you lose some,” right? And despite those two things, this was my favorite hotel by far.

The SDP was a personal mansion owned by a Dominican friar named Damiano Rosso, a descendant of the Altavilla family and prince of Cerami. When he became a friar, he donated all his possessions to the Dominican order and the mansion was converted into a Dominican monastery. A few centuries later, the monastery was apparently returned to Rosso’s heirs, who converted it into a hotel. The chapel part of the monastery-hotel was destroyed in WWII bombings, but the rest of the hotel, including the 50+ cells (hotel rooms) were not. The hotel is high atop a cliff and has a view of Mt Etna (next post).

Our first day in Taormina, we spent with a tour guide named Marcello, who was fantastic at his job. We learned a lot about Taormina from him, and he didn’t mind our incessant questions (I think what was supposed to be a two-hour tour turned into a 2.5-3h tour!).

One of our first stops was the town square, of course, where we saw the “minotaur” statue atop the fountain. The minotaur is Taormina’s coat-of-arms, but the reason why it’s “minotaur” with quotation marks is because the statue is half horse (/bull), half woman, which has never been shown before in any records of Greek mythology. It is unknown why a female minotaur is depicted here, but what makes this statue and even more unique is that she only has two hind legs, despite her body position of standing on four. Taormina was hit with bombs during WWII and miraculously, the female minotaur atop the fountain survived but lost her two front legs. Her two front legs were left unfixed and missing in memorial of Taorminian lives lost during that bombing.

We then walked over to see the ruins of the Greek theater in Taormina. I never thought much about these theater/amphitheater ruins when I’d seen them on TV or read about them in history books, but in person, they are quite an impressive sight. The one in Taormina is the second-largest one in Sicily and was originally built by the Greeks (and rebuilt by the Romans when they came), but Marcello was careful to note that this was a theater and not an amphitheater–the Greeks mainly used the semi-circular theater style for operas and plays, building specialty arches behind the audience for improved acoustics. The Romans used amphitheaters for chariot races, gladiator fights, animal fights, and executions, and the Roman amphitheaters are more circular/oval. The theater was well thought out; it has side hallways for actors to enter and rooms for them to get ready in, and it also has an orchestra chamber allowing musicians to contribute emotion to the plays. When the Romans came, they converted this theater meant for plays and operas into a fighting ring, bringing in exotic animals to fight brave (but stupid) people. Marcello explained that they know this because the Romans had dug out a chamber and a drainage trench (underneath and behind the stage, respectively) for disposing for animal carcass/blood/guts, and archaeologists have found animal bones in those areas.

While walking the streets, I noticed this three-legged, body-less head symbol everywhere. Marcello explained that the trinacria is the symbol of Sicily. Sicily has a lot of Greek and Roman influences because it was under their rule for a long period of time. Sicily has a very complicated history, and what makes it interesting, I think, is that Sicily has been taken over and ruled by numerous countries, and it wasn’t a part of Italy until the early 1860s. In short, the Sicani were the first settlers in Sicily, then the Greek settled north and southeast regions, from Messina to Syracusa, and the Carthaginians (Phoenicians) settled the west, and then the Romans came and conquered and killed (as they are known to do), then Muslims came and took control awhile, then Normans (crusaders of the pope), Bourbons (Spanish), then French (?), then somewhere along the lines, Sicily became part of the Neapolitan, then part of Italy after WWII/Italy Unification.

So, back to its flag: the head in the middle was originally the Greek goddess of wheat (what Sicily is known for), Demeter (Roman: Ceres). Now, the head has snakes surrounding it, more akin to Medusa. It’s unclear why a Medusa is on the flag, but perhaps her appearance and history of turning enemies into stone was used as an intimidation tactic, seeing as how war-prone Sicily is. The three legs represent the triangular shape of Sicily and the three extreme points of the island capes: Cape Pelorus, Cape Passero, and Lilybaeum head (Messina, Siracusa, and Marsala, respectively), the wheat sprouting from Medusa’s head retains some of Demeter’s symbol of the fertility of the land, and the red-yellow color block represents Palermo and Corleone, the two cities who founded the confederation to overthrow the Sicilian Vespers (more here).

This may be a future post on its own, but one of the reasons why I really like Sicily is because of their mindset and identification as independent of Italy. I knew ahead of time that Sicilians to tend to consider themselves to be Sicilians, not Italians, and the general response of Sicilians when we asked them about this confirmed it. Sicilians all have a island identity, where they first identify themselves as Sicilians, and then Italians (“I am Sicilian in my heart!”). For a reason I am unable to put in words at the moment, I am attracted to that sort of independence (“rebellion”?), and perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to Texas as well! Indeed, being in Sicily is a really different feeling, atmosphere, attitude than being in the boot of Italy.

My next post (Taormina Part II) will recount our hike on Mt Etna, a winery we visited, the importance of pine cones in Sicily and artichokes in the Mafia, the Sicilian Mafia, and why we measure gold in carats!

Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino (Italy)

The rest of our time in SML was spent eating…

Actually, that’s not entirely true. We just did things that don’t really warrant pictures, like lounging around on the rooftop pool, reading outside on our balcony, and playing Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing (but not for too long bc we didn’t have a way to charge the battery).

The duomo of SML wasn’t a recommended sightseeing spot, but the Lion and I went in on a whim one day and found one of the most ornate cathedrals we’ve seen on this trip. The basilica of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, was built in 1658 on top of remnants of a 13th century church. The inside was quite magnificent, with crystal chandeliers and columns, walls, and ceilings lined with gold. It really took our breaths away when we walked in!

The day we had to leave SML, we took a cab ride over to Portofino, the wealthy city-next-door to SML. Portofino is a fishing village, but the natives have really taken advantage of their location and turned the place into a luxury resort for the rich and famous.

We walked up to see Castello Brown, a castle that was built in the 15th century and used for various military purposes. In the 1860s, an English consul named Montague Yeats Brown purchased the castle and turned it into a villa. Then, in the 1949, Brown’s descendants sold it to another English couple, who then sold it to the city of Portofino a couple decades later in the early 1960s. The view of the harbor was beautiful from up top, but we didn’t get to see inside the castle because it turned out there was an admission fee…

Just before we had to head back to SML to go to the airport, we stopped by Divo Martino (partly to see this recommended sight but also to catch a break from the sun), a 12th century church built for St Martin. See pic here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ltangelini/2330481704/

Last but not least: Four-seasons pizza with olives, artichokes, ham, mushrooms with a drizzled of spiced evoo… Awes.

Cinque Terre (Italy)

By the time we finished at Lucca, we were heatstroke’d and passed out all the way to Santa Margherita Ligure. I woke up to find this beautiful view:

We were staying at a Best Western in SML, but it was unlike what I imagined a BW to look like! I mean sure, the internet wasn’t great and neither was the AC, and the overall decor and atmosphere was at least a full star below what we stayed at in Florence, but the seaview really made up for it!!

The next day, we set off for Cinque Terre with the intention of starting our hike at Corniglia (pictured above) and hiking through Vernazza to Monterosso. It was a good, optimistic, intention. The weather was not kind, and I believe it was at least 85 when we started our hike in the am and slowly increased to about 95+ when we were hiking. Furthermore, I hadn’t anticipated such a hike with dirt, rocks, uneven terrain, relentless sun, and so did not pack adequately. Oh, and we only had one 20oz bottle of water each…

Luckily, there was a little rest stop halfway from Corniglia to Vernazza that offered free water, and we took a rest there, fully appreciating and accepting the kindness and generosity of the host and his sweet kitty. Water has never tasted so good…

We eventually made it to Vernazza (not without a few complaints and curse words from me) and stopped for a quick lunch. Unfort, all the restaurants there that we could find were pretty touristy, but it was still a tasty meal, what with mussels and caprese and such.

We decided to take the easy way out to get to Monterosso: by ferry. I think we spent probably a total of one hour in Monterosso, forty of them waiting for a delayed train back to the hotel, which explains the lack of pix/interesting things to say about it. Honestly, I don’t know much about Cinque Terre and whether it has anything to offer aside from the hiking trails and the views… Does it have any historical significance or sights? Specialty foods??

In short, the three terre that we saw were indeed charming, and the views from the hike were breathtaking, but I think that sort of activity and those views would be better enjoyed in the spring or autumn, before/after the heatwave. Cinque Terre was a part of the trip that I was expecting to be the highlight, but little did I know, the best part of the trip (so far) was yet to come…

Tuscany and Lucca (Italy)

We probably spent less than eight hours in Tuscany and Lucca combined…

After leaving Firenze, we stopped by a winery in Tuscany, called Varramista. It’s a gorgeous estate that was built in the 1400s as an outpost against the Pisans. The estate was gifted to the Capponi family to thank Gino de Neri for leading the Florentine troops to victory against the Pisans. Then, in the 1950s, the Piaggio family, the manufacturers of the Vespa scooter, made Varramista their permanent residence.

It wasn’t until the 90s that the Agnelli family, with the help of enologist, Federico Staderini, convert the land to vineyards. In its present form, the winery is fairly high-tech; the barrels are individually temperature-controlled and managed from a switchboard. The inside of the buildings where the barrels are kept are covered in mold. When we asked why they don’t clean it, our guide replied that they’re not allowed to because the vineyard is considered a historical landmark, and so cleaning off the mold would be illegal!

Then we drove over to Lucca, where we spent a couple hours walking around town to see the cathedrals, the garden atop the tower (no pix bc it cost money to go up/in), and the ex-amphitheater. The San Martino is the duomo of Lucca, built in the mid-/late- 1000s and renovated over many centuries. It is revered as gorgeous architecture, and it has many fine details in its structure that is almost impossible to capture in photos. For more info, go here.

We also visited the city walls of Lucca, which were built in the Renaissance era. I am unsure of their designer and purpose (some sources say flood prevention, others claim military purposes), but regardless, the top of the wall has become a park of sorts, where people lounge around and bike and walk and enjoy the sun. The wall is very wide, and they used to host car races on it!

We finished our time in Lucca with lunch in the square (Piazza Anfiteatro), which isn’t square-ish in the slightest. The elliptical-shaped piazza was initially built as an amphitheater by the Romans as a place for socialization and fights and other entertainments, but eventually became many things, including a fort during wars, a prison, and now, a piazza with restaurants, shops, and residences. Overall, I didn’t find Lucca to be too interesting, but perhaps that’s because we didn’t spend enough time there.

This post is as short as our stay in both places! We stayed in our next city, St. Margherita Ligure for a few days and visited a few terre of the Cinque Terre, so a longer post is forthcoming!

Competitive Dynamics In Foreign Markets

I like to think that wait staffing is a pretty standard economic activity in any country but watching carefully in Florence, Verzanna (Cinque Terre) and Santa Margherita (Portofino) is giving me second thoughts. All the waiters and waitresses we’ve encountered seem harried and overwhelmed. Its especially puzzling because they appear to handle volume which is half or two thirds of what someone might be responsible for in a larger establishment in the United States.

Its got me wondering…

–what are the average ratios of tables/patrons to waitstaff in the US vs Italy?
–average sales per wait staff?
–average profit?
–average kitchen size to waitstaff?
–average profit per restaurant sqft?
–average patrons per sqft per day?
Etc.

Another thought I had as we were waiting for the ferry in Vernazza was that I might see the prospect of a tourist business in Italy as appealing if I were a local but I’m not sure I could summon the same enthusiasm for potential market entry as someone looking from the outside in. I wonder how many others like me had that thought?

Ignoring possible legal restrictions, it seems most of the businesses are local owned whereas in the United States people come from all over the world to compete. It seems like that’d be a recipe for great, protected profits and market position. But its such a grind! I can’t stand tourists. And El Dorado rarely exists. So there must be some catch here I’m not getting.

Maybe its just the high taxes.

Diversity And Sameness

Walking into a small Florentine osteria like Cinghiale Bianco — there don’t appear to be any large eateries, and even after spending a whole semester in Florence and now revisiting, I still can’t figure out what the difference is between osterie, ristoranti, tratorrie and the like — I am immediately struck by the diversity and efficiency of these spaces.

In the United States at least there is a seeming obsession with uniform geometry. Every place, fancy or hole in the wall alike, is cubic and utilized in cubic form. All I have to do to clarify what I mean by this is to paint a picture for you of Cinghiale.

This little restaurant has three galleries for diners. The first is rectangular in the front and seats two rows of 4 seat tables and two rows of six seat tables. The second gallery is another rectangle behind it but attached at one of the corners and perpendicular to it. It has three tables of four and a table of two as well as a “nook” buried in the street side wall (bordering the first gallery) which seats 4 or 5. This nook has an arch and the whole thing is constructed of gloss painted brick. Above it is the third gallery, seating 2 or 3, which is accessed by a small ladder step way as if it belongs in a library bookshelf. The ladder is in the second gallery but the third gallery looks out on the first. Its claustrophobic, romantic and dangerous– a sign warns you in Italian to watch your head as you climb up because a support arch of the wall leaps out and cuts across about three feet from the top of the ladder.

I can’t even imagine how many OSHA and fire code regulations such a design would garner in the US. In Italy I’m sure this place is legally protected from ever being renovated!! The law is a singularly irrational and subjective institution wherever in the world it is crafted.

The interior of the restaurant is white washed plaster over occasionally exposed brick and dark painted timber support beams. The walls are lined with shelves covered in wine bottles and carrafe pottery. The tiny hallway segueing the first two galleries has an indent about five feet up that serves as the coat hang.

Cubic architecture should be more economical and efficient both to construct and maintain and utilize for a variety of functions, which is why I assume it is so prevalent in the US. And yet, its hard to not be charmed by the efficiency of this humanistic design in little Italy.

To a traveler, this is diversity. But the shocking truth of Italy is that all these little towns are like this. All the restaurants are ancient and cute and cozy. All the towns you ride the trains through up and down the coast are painted in a variety of dark pastel tones such as red, pink, and yellow with green window shutters. Everywhere they offer the “cucina tipica.”

Every city and village has a copy of the Garibaldi statue.

They serve the same food at every restaurant. The pasta is always good even when the meat dishes are second rate at the tourist traps. Its actually hard to find anything that isn’t Italian. Its a country that has failed by successfully and faithfully embracing mercantilist self-sufficiency, even though the osterie sometimes serve Tunisian olive oil, a blasphemy of ever there was one.

And in these ancient places nothing ever changes. It will all be here, the statues and paintings and museums and history and restaurants and hotels, next time.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I suppose it depends who you are and what you’re after. Its hard to imagine businesses shutting down, even in a recession — more economic thoughts in a coming post — and I’ve yet to see entire city blocks with For Lease or for Sale signs as there would be in the US. But I also don’t see how you could avoid being a 60 year old waiter one day. Or how you’d ever get to live a “modern” life of new things if you were just an average Joe. Or Jiacomo as it were.

Many of the portraits in the Uffizi, it turns out, were the likenesses of various condottieri of Florence under the Medicis. They were celebrating these military contractors who helped them crush their neighbors and enemies.

Today there are no more contractors in Italy. But the US government employs thousands. Do things ever change? Are we all that different? Which is modern, and which is not?

Firenze (Italy)

A few things I’ve learned about Italy:

  1. Italy is ridiculously hot in August. Like 100F+ when you’re inland.
  2. Italy is a lot more poor and a lot less glamorous than Americans (me) think (thought).
  3. Toscanans hate Pisans.

Our Italy trip began with a short stay in Florence. It was extremely hot, and it took some getting used to. Our jetlag made us even more uncomfortable, and so we took it easy for the first couple days. We stayed right in front of the River Arno by the Ponte Vecchio.

River Arno is about 150 miles long and originates from Casentino and flows thru Pisa to the sea (east to west). “Ponte Vecchio” means “old bridge,” and, according to our shuttle driver, it was initially built as a slaughterhouse. The initial slaughterhouses on land were too stinky, so they added theses houses on the bridge. The animals would be led there and slaughtered, and their guts and remains would be dumped straight into the river. The stinky water would flow to Pisa, which was perfect because no one liked the Pisans anyway.

Our hotel was also really close to the city center, where the Duomo is. Florence’s Duomo is really an impressive building. My pictures don’t really do it justice. There are a lot of details in the stonework that is really humbling. The city center is also where all the fake (replicas) statues are, but I don’t have any pictures of them because I was too lazy…

We also went to the huge market in Florence to try the roast pork sammiches, as recommended by our friends. I noticed that this place was particularly popular with the Japanese crowd, as they had an article displayed where they were featured in a Japanese magazine. There were also many signs in Japanese describing their foods, and many Asian tourists were clamoring for a photo-op with their storefront… Anyway, the sammiches were good, although a bit salty for me.

Our first dinner in Florence was fantastic. We went to this restaurant called Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco (Restaurant of the White Boar) (also at the recommendation of our friends) and ordered a meat appetizer, a cheese plate, and delicious entrees, including my “chicken in cheese sauce with truffles.” The decor was very unique, and it made the place feel very homey, like a mom-and-pop. Definitely a memorable eating experience. We also went to get gelato at least once a day so far, but it’s usually consumed pretty quickly before I get a pic 😉

On another day in Florence, we went to see The David. Michelangelo was only 26 when he was able to convince the Operai (essentially a public works committee) to let him finish what Agostino started, and it took Michy two years to finish what is now one of the most revered statues. The David is revered because it’s so different from all the other Davids. For example, in Michy’s David, David isn’t standing on the head of Goliath, a monster he’d slain. Instead, this statue captures him in the moment after he has decided to fight Goliath but before the fight has begun; in other words, “It is a representation of the moment between conscious choice and conscious action” (wiki article of The David). I don’t have any personal pics of the guy because we weren’t allowed to take pix. Plus you can just find him online.

Overall, Firenze was neat to experience but I’m not sure if it’s the most beautiful city in Italy, and unfortunately, I think the weather has had a really negative impact on my experience thus far. Like most tourist cities, Florence is a bit stinky and crowded (though probably less so than early summer when even more people are there). Wikipedia: Italy says that Italy is the 25th most developed country and ranks in the top ten of the Quality of Life index, but I think those stats are misleading. According to our Italian shuttle driver, 72% of their paycheck is taken from them in taxes- 51% top marginal tax (based on income) and 21% VAT (value added tax, or tax when a service, product, or material is added… I think). That’s a lot of money to have stolen from you!! So Italians have a difficult time covering living expenses and saving money. The Italian economy isn’t doing so hot, making it a less than ideal place where I’d want to live.

Our time in Florence was short, but there’s still a lot left to do elsewhere in Italy! Next post will be about our half day in Tuscany and Lucca!

Oh, and the answer to why the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built! We heard an interesting story from our shuttle driver the other day: LTP was built to boost the Pisan economy by increasing foot traffic in the area. The idea was that by building a structure that was a little off kilter (literally), it would increase public interest (because a leaning tower is way more interesting than a straight tower) and draw people to Pisa, as there was mass pilgrimage through the area at that time. An interesting and plausible theory!

Intro to Italy & Question of the Day

We made it to Pisa, Italy!

Our shuttle to Florence picked us up and took a special detour for us to see the Leaning Tower.

That’s our morning so far, it’s terribly hot here, and we’re all irritably jet-lagged, so maybe more later tonight!

QOTD: Why was the Tower of Pisa constructed?

(Answer tomorrow 🙂 )

At The Cabbage (Wisconsin)

I always thought of myself as a city girl.

Born and raised in St. Louis, schooled in St. Louis, worked in Dallas, living in Orange County. And Winston-Salem, a step off a beaten path.

The past few days, the Lion and I have been hanging out with his extended family at a beautiful cabin by the lake in Door County, Wisconsin. I don’t know how much you know about Door County (I hadn’t even heard of it before), but apparently it is THE place to go if you’re a Chicagoan.

The towns here are so small that I only have 1G on my phone (I didn’t even know 1G existed)! We spent our time here talking and eating with everyone, enjoying the views, playing video games, and of course, playing Settlers of Catan.

One morning, we got to visit the sheep from a nearby sheep farm (“wool farm”?) run by a couple who also hosts a b&b. The couple, Gretchen and Dick, are wonderful people, and their sheep are sweethearts who aren’t afraid to come up to you and ask for kisses (or give you kisses if you happen to be squatting down for a picture!)! The Lion and I have visited a small variety of backyard and larger farms, and they never cease to amaze and inspire us. I am really looking forward to having chickens and goats in our future backyard, and of course some herbs and flowers and vegetables and fruits too (fertilized naturally by our animals and compost bin). I think the quality and freshness of homegrown, organic foods just can’t be beat (plus the animals are extremely entertaining).

But let’s be real, there are some real downsides to Wisconsin country life too: the least powerful shower head I’ve ever experienced, lack of organic produce, fruits, and free-range protein, a heavy emphasis on breads and sugars, and no internet or cell reception…

While many compromises were made, being in a secluded place was enjoyable still because we could hear the water and the trees, breathe in clean air, see all the stars, and enjoy the company and warmth of a wonderful family (and their little canine and bat friends) around a bonfire.

Sometimes it’s good to get away from the city for a bit, girl.

Tempus Fugit

The grandfather clock in the dining room of this little B&B we’re staying at in Wisconsin bears the timeless wisdom, “Tempus Fugit”. I had to look that one up on my phone, it sounded familiar but I couldn’t remember exactly what it meant.

I have a feeling this trip will involve another expression, “Feast or famine”, and quite literally so. We’re used to eating a certain way at home, and while we’re all about experiencing the local fare, unfortunately the local fare seems to vary wildly in terms of quality and quantity in each place we go.

Sicily I think will be more of a feast place. Wisconsin is seeming more like a famine place. Of course, there’s plenty of soda and beer and such!

The time with family here is welcome. But luckily, time flies, so we won’t have to worry about the famine for too long…

This, too, shall pass?