Cefalù, Erice, Segesta, and Rome (Sicily/Italy)

Our last few days in Italy were spent in Cefalù, Sicily…

We had anticipated staying a little bit closer to Palermo, but it turned out we were about an hour away from the big city. Cefalù is located in northern Sicily, next to the Tyrrhenian Sea. I think we ran into less American tourists, but the city was still crowded with a lot of European tourists!

The first thing we saw in Cefalù was The Cathedral. I didn’t go into the cathedral (the Lion did), but what I’ve read about it is that the cathedral was built around the 1100s in the Norman style, as the Normans came and conquered Sicily in the early 1090s. We noticed that the two towers flanking the front/sides of the church were asymmetrical: one tower had a pyramid on top and merlons (the little “window” between posts on castle walls), modeled after the hats of bishops, and the other tower had a rounder “cone” on top (Wikipedia says it’s “octagonal”) and another type of merlon (Ghibelline). …I don’t really understand all the architectural terms myself, but the point is, this cathedral had two different towers, one to represent the Papal authority and the other to represent the Royal authority.

The next day, our driver/tour guide drove us over to Segesta, an ancient city that was once occupied by indigenous Sicilians (Elymians?), Romans, and Muslims. According to our guide, the people of this ancient city were a peaceful folk and relied heavily on their sea port for trade and sustenance. Eventually, of course, Segesta was targeted because of their prime location to the port, and Greek forces began to move in to conquer the area. The people of this ancient city knew they couldn’t handle the conflict themselves, so they sought the help of Carthaginians. Carthage came to their aid and destroyed the Greek city who was looking to conquer Segesta, but instead of eliminating Segesta’s enemy, this victory had the opposite effect. Other Greek cities, angered at this outcome, came to the aid of Selinus, and they all fell on Segesta at once, virtually wiping out all inhabitants of the area. What’s left today are remnants of a sort of “marketplace,” a Greek theater, a Muslim mosque indicating that Muslims inhabited the area at one time, and an unfinished Doric temple.

The 5th century temple is quite an impressive sight, despite it being unfinished. You can see it as you’re driving up to this ancient city and from the ancient city. Located on an adjacent hill from the city ruins, it has six by fourteen stone columns and is raised on a platform with at least three steps. We know that the temple is unfinished because there is no roof, and the columns are still rough and have yet to be “fluted” (the shallow grooves that are commonly found on columns of this style). Additionally, the tabs that were carved into the blocks to make transporting the stones easier have yet to be filed away for the smooth, finished look.

Our next stop was Erice, where I think we had the best meal during the entire trip. I ordered a pasta dish from Ristorante Donte S. Giuliano, and it was perfect. Pasta is always perfectly al dente in Italy, but something about the pasta, sauce, and cheese really made this dish a home run. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the dish or the restaurant except for this entrance picture, but that is a cliff-top restaurant I won’t forget about anytime soon!

We walked around Erice without much of an agenda, just enjoying being there and learning about whatever we came across. We eventually made it to the Castle of Venus, a Norman-period castle that was built on top of a temple of Venus. The castle/temple was partially covered with scaffolding and tourists, but the views up there were amazing. I only wish we had a knowledgeable guide to tell us more about this castle as were walking around it…

On our last day in Cefalù, the Lion and I went to walk the main streets and ate lunch at a restaurant who had a dock that extended far out into the sea (well, “far out” relative to the coast and other restaurants). It was pretty nice to be so far away from the hustle and bustle and enjoying delicious Sicilian cuisine!

The next morning, we boarded an early flight to head over to Rome for the day before flying home to the US. We only had about 12 hours in Rome, so we hit up some tourist destinations without the intent of going in to learn about its history. We walked through the Piazza Navona to see the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelias (one of the Lion’s idols), a replica of the Romulus and Remus statue, the Typewriter (Altare della Patria or Altar of the Fatherland), and the Roman Forum ruins. I won’t try to summarize the history of it all because I don’t think I spent enough time at each of those places, but it was a really neat experience and a trip I’d love to do again so that I can see it all again without a time limit.

We stopped by this really neat gastropub in Rome, at the recommendation of the Lion’s sister who had studied abroad in Rome earlier in the summer. I only sipped some of the Lion’s beers, but the food was really unique. We had cheese wrapped in pumpkin flowers drizzled with balsamic, a variety of cheeses with honey or hot sauce, caprese salad, bruschetta with eggplant, figs with a slice of cheese and a dot of balsamic, salami-wrapped toast, liver sausage, a sweet sausage (tasted like Chinese sausage, “lap cheung”), more bruschetta with either red peppers, cabbage, or green peppers, and delicious homemade Italian “ginger snap-doodles” (that’s just what I’m calling them because they reminded me of ginger snaps with the texture of snickerdoodles). Uh-maze.

And that concludes our Italy trip! I would like to do a sort of “reflections” post on our time in Italy, but that might not be until the Lion and I have a breather from travelling/TSA/jetlag/cramped seating/hotel beds/living out of a suitcase…

Advertisements

Taormina, Part II (Sicily)

On our second day in Taormina, we went to climb Mt Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world!…

Mt Etna was another one of those sights that I didn’t really care for until I got there. It’s difficult to marvel at nature when you’ve only seen it through the computer or TV screen! We learned from our tour guide from the day before, Marcello, that the Taormimians are actually waiting for Mt Eta to erupt and hoping that it’ll do so soon in order to boost the tourism economy of Taormina. The lava that flows from Etna tends to be very slow-moving, so tourists are actually able to get within a couple feet of the flow to observe it live. I also just learned from Wikipedia that footage of Etna’s 2003 eruption and flow was recorded and used in Revenge of the Sith! Cool 4-minute video of Etna eruption.

We decided to climb some of the craters around Mt Etna despite our poor choice of footwear of TOMS and Rainbow flip-flops. Our driver/tour guide of the day, Antonio, told us a story of an elderly English couple who he had taken to Etna and who climbed the craters, took a fall and tumbled down, and came back to the car badly bruised and battered and bloody… We took the longer but less steep route up.

I took a quick nap to avoid carsickness as we left Etna and drove over to a winery, Vini Gambino. They served us with delicious food: a multitude of cheeses, cured meats, olives, roasted red peppers, eggplant, and of course, bread and wine. I didn’t have any of the wine, but the Lion gave high accolades to their wines. The grapes that are grown here are unique because of the volcanic soil and the particular climate, where temperatures drop down to the mid-50s in the evening which allows for “aromatic ripening” of the grapes and wine.

During our walk through the Public Gardens (Giardino Pubblico), Marcello told us that the etymology of “carat,” the unit for measuring gemstones, came from a Greek word meaning ‘carob seed.’ Marcello said that the reason for this was because every carob seed has exactly the same weight and was therefore a reliable unit of measurement. Wikipedia claims that there isn’t a definitive answer on whether there is high or low variability of carob seed weights, and the skeptical scientific researcher in me also believes this is more likely (zero variability is highly improbable). Regardless, I hadn’t known or considered the etymology of “carat” before, so this was a new and interesting fact!

I had noticed that a lot of the souvenir shops sold these ceramic pine cone-looking items. Additionally, a lot of apartment buildings and balconies had these displayed outside on their patio or their gates. I asked Marcello about this, and he told us that for the Sicilians, the pine cone represents family/hospitality, fertility/abundance/wealth, and immortality (basically, all the good stuffs). The Lion and I were really interested in getting one to keep in our home, but we put it off because we didn’t want to carry it around with us and ended up never getting one 😦

I also thought that Marcello had told us that the artichoke represents the mafia, but I have been unable to find that link elsewhere on the internet (or maybe I misunderstood Marcello). But I did find that there was indeed a mafia member, Ciro Terranova, who was nicknamed the “Artichoke King” because he purchased all the artichokes going from California to New York, started a produce company, and re-sold them making a 30-40% profit. Apparently, he terrorized distributors and merchants and attacked artichoke fields with machetes (why would he want to terrorize his own money-making field?). Naturally, the government stepped in, and the Mayor of NY declared an “artichoke war,” making artichokes illegal in New York…for a week. The mayor was too big a fan of those tasty arties and lifted the ban. Thank goodness rules are so flexible and can come and go!

Our last day in Taormina before heading over to Cefalu’ was spent lounging around the pool, playing video games, walking the main streets

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!