BYE BYE SCHENGEN LAND
Our last full day in Schengen Europe. Because of this stupid visa we have to leave countries that signed the treaty, which is basically most of the major countries of Europe. I know it is some attempt to control immigration, but really it is unfair to travellers, expecting you to see 16 or more countries in 90 days. So with 89 days down, we headed off to look at the Royal Palace in Palermo. Stopped at the local market area on the way and also found a delightful baroque church, Pieta. Every inch of the interior was decorated, and there was also some interesting inlaid marble murals. The palace has been Norman, Muslim, Spanish and everyone else. Much of it is now the Sicilian parliament, which is an amazing concept in itself. The highlight is the Palatine Chapel, the church of the Kings, a splendid (oh my god I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before) Byzantine mosaic frenzy. Upstairs are the Royal Apartments, though many of the rooms were closed. We then stupidly decided to walk to the Botanic Gardens which turned out to be further than we thought, only to find they cost more than many of the other sites in Sicily. So we got a bus back and cheered ourselves up with gelato and coffee. This didn’t cheer our waiter up though, as he hinted to us for a tip as we left. We don’t generally tip much anyway, but have done less so in Sicily because of their cover charge, where you pay €1 to €2 per person for the right to sit in their restaurant and give them money. Can you imagine if all small businesses did this, and you had to pay $2 just for going to your local hardware shop? After a rest it was off to a restaurant near the theatre (you can tell we have been travelling a while as I can’t be bothered recording the names of every place we ate at any more). It was a nice one too, had a very good pasta and salad there.
Our last morning and we were off early to catch our ferry. We got there just after 7 am and checked in and waited and waited only to find the ferry wasn’t even there yet. Even when it did it was another 90 minutes before we finally departed on our way to North Africa. The ferry was very slow, which we had guessed as it takes 10 hours to cover about 100 km. It was pretty boring but sometimes there was an island to watch go past. In fact sometimes the islands seemed to move faster than the ferry. Every few hours it was prayer time on the stairway for the Tunisians on board, some seemed to have a different idea of where Mecca was, but maybe it doesn’t apply on the ocean. And so we headed towards the sunset, and the end of our European days. Have enjoyed all the countries we went to. We didn’t have long enough for Spain, but we can always go back, and we probably stayed in Malta too long, but overall there’s no regrets about how our time in Europe turned out. I’m not even going to pick a highlight. We certainly enjoyed the lifestyle of the French and Spanish, Portugal had a rich history and richer cakes, Sicily was the ultimate for ancient historians, and Malta was quirky and an odd mix of Britain, the middle east and Italy. Everything was cheaper than we expected. 3 months travelling in Australia would have cost us double what we spent in Europe. Of course it still has its tourist traps and rorts, but relative to Australia it’s nothing. best thing though was doing it and all with my darling girl, Merrill.
TRAPANI AND PALERMO
Most people in our age group instantly recognise Marsala as the wine made by Boronia that was liberally added by mum to make meat tastier and a bit fancier.the real Marsala wine was a big money earner in the 19th century for British traders, like the port wine trade in Portugal. The town itself is a busy modern regional centre and an easy day trip from our base in Trapani. We caught the train down which only took half an hour and walked along the waterfront, which looked like Brighton on Botany Bay in Sydney. Actually it was a surprise to see apartments on the waterfront in Sicily. Our destination was the Archaeological Museum, housed in an old British wine warehouse. The collections highlight is the remains of a Carthaginian warship found off the coast of Marsala. Found with the wreck were hundreds of storage pots and urns, ballast rocks, pottery and anchors.. Other treasures of the collection include numerous items grow ancient Marsala, known then as Lilybaeum, and especially a Venus statue dug up not far from the museum. Outside there is a vast overgrown field that was Lilybaeum. Next to the museum is a church that has tombs, mosaics and a well under it. Supposedly the water of the well can give you supernatural powers. We then walked down the main street, passing a Rotary Club conference, a Pommy wedding party, some Carthaginian walls and some nice churches and palazzos. Had a quick snack then back on the train to Trapani. Had pizzas at a family pizza place on the waterfront. We have been very mystified by how much pizzas vary from restaurant to restaurant in Sicily. There is no standard and they have been everything from rubbish to superb. After dinner went to the trendy bar we had seen before with lots of odd shaped couches and giant lanterns. Had cocktails and we’re in awe of the procession of people doing the passagiata. It looked like the e tire town was walking by, even after midnight. Next day was a designated rest day so did our usual travel research, diaries, sleeping and channel surfing on cable TV. Even ate at home, omelette and biriyani. Our plans for the next day were to go to the beach at San Vito de Capo which is supposed to be nice but couldn’t be bothered getting a bus that far, so went to the local beach instead which was pretty good. For dinner had a fantastic pizza at Popitone, one of the best so far. Next day went to the station for the train to Palermo. Have really enjoyed Trapani, it’s a relaxed seaside place and a great base for day trips. Unfortunately the transport system let us down and we discovered we had somehow missed the connecting rail bus for the train to Palermo. So once again we had to forego our train tickets and jump on a bus instead, which we probably should have done in the first place. Two hours later we were in the traffic of Palermo, passing grand sandstone buildings and the bustling port. We found our B and B after waiting a while in a cafe for someone to let us in. It was very cute and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Went down to the ferry terminal to book tickets but didn’t have passports with us so couldn’t do it. Had dinner outside a historic church, reasonable pasta but staff seemed more interested in impressing some special guest and the local police. After a ice breakfast we bought our ferry tickets to Tunis. Caught a bus from there down to to the impressive city gates, with the marina on one side and some palazzos on the other.one of these has featured in many movies, of course the Godfather series being one of them. Also passed by a lovely garden with some huge banyan trees which was opposite the Inquisition headquarters. After a trip to the supermarket which was actually fun because it was like leading a normal life, we went to the local market where we had Palermo traditional deep fried food. I had a panelle which is like falafel, and a Mez had eggplant in panini. Then went to the fascinating churches of Marterana, which has amazing Greek mosaics and where we watched a wedding, and Cataldo, a squat mosque like church dating back to the 11th century. The Marterana church also gives it’s name to the marzipan fruits sold all over Sicily. Final stop was the famous 4 corners, four large statue decorated structures representing the four seasons, and the inspirations for the pizza variety.. These also mark the four quarters of the city that each had its own culture and identity. Had a South Indian dinner at Poorinams which although not great food, was spicy and a welcome change from endless pastas and pizzas. Caught a bus the next day for Monreale. Waited ages for it and then it was totally packed and crawled up the hill. But it was worth the journey, as we got to visit the amazing church there with its walls covered in gold and coloured mosaics that told stories of the old and new testament. After the church we visited the cloisters next door. These are unique in that the 210 pairs of columns are all different. Had pizzas at a restaurant in the square, watching cats, pigeons and brat Polish children while we waited. Headed back on the bus and had what is known as a happy hour buffet at one of the local bars. For the price of a drink you can help yourself to tapas style food. The one we went to was next door to the odd Australian Aboriginal Internet Cafe, which had nothing Australian about it other than a few photos of Australian aboriginals on the wall. Didn’t even have Aussie beer!
Checked out of our apartment, which was quite good value but a bit dark. Hopped on the train and were in Siracusa less than 2 hours later. Took a taxi to our next apartment, which was in the old town of Ortigia, a little island that has been settled since ancient Greek times. Our apartment was a bit different, spread over 3 levels and featuring a large terrace of our own. Went for a wander, stopping first at the spring of Artusa, a freshwater pool that has been a water supply since ancient times as well as a home for nymphs, but now just has resident ducks. Popped into a cafe for lunch, which turned out to be a tourist ripoff place and the only place in Sicily where we have been grossly overcharged. $20 for 2 coffees and 2 arancini. Then again you’d probably pay that in Haberfield, but not in Sicily. Headed down towards the bridge, past lots of cafes, souvenir and craft shops and many ancient buildings. Did some shopping for our apartment then headed back. Cooked enchiladas for dinner.
Set out the next day to explore the island of Ortigia. Out late because of a thunderstorm and talking to Tara. Went to the unusual cathedral, built around an ancient Greek temple to Athena with massive columns along the two sides. Inside was gloomy as it had few windows. Some interesting relics related to saint Lucia, a sad saint that carries a pair of eyes on a plate and has a dagger through her throat. The eyes have made her patron saint of the blind so hopefully she will do something about my eyesight. The piazza was really pretty with nice glowing stone and an semi circular shape. From there we went to the remains of the temple of Apollo, not much remains but it was clearly a large and once important 5th century bc temple. Watched the boats in the harbour for a while before heading back. Dinner at the Shanghai restaurant, so wonderful to have Asian food again and especially tofu. How Italians survive on pizza and pasta all the time I don’t know.
Next morning was an exciting one with the RABBITOHS making the Grand final! Mixed emotions as I really wanted to be there and could have easily jumped on the first flight home. But then again I was in Siracusa. Once I had calmed down we went into new Siracusa and stopped first at San Giovannis church and did a tour of its extensive catacombs. These differ from others because the Christians weren’t in hiding, and the tombs were once richly decorated. Now all are empty but the tunnels head off in all directions full of cut out graves, sarcophagi and tombs. Very creepy but a bit disappointed as the two best tombs were closed. Across the road is the weirdest church in Europe, only built in the 1980s for a Madonna that cried real tears. Hideously ugly inside and out, and had a freaky display of orthopaedic equipment.. Went past St Lucia ‘ s other church and a nice octagonal chapel where you could see catacombs behind the altar. Dinner at the Vecchio pub in their nice garden.
Before the souths game, we visited the Maniace fortress at the end of the island. Really interesting fort with large walls, sea views and some unusual vaults and arched passages. In the evening we also went in the tunnels under the duomo, which had some tombs and served as an air raid shelter during the war.
The next day we excitedly headed off to the Archaeological park, a collection of sites all accessible in the same area. Ended up walking there because the little bus (there are 3 routes that run from Ortigia connecting all the tourist sites) was stuck in traffic. Didn’t take that long and got to see the main business and shopping street of the new town. In the park we started with the 5th century Roman amphitheatre, mainly used for gladiatorial games and other bloody activities. It is an unusual elipse shape and as big as many modern sports grounds. Next to it was the base of what was believed to be the biggest building in Magna Grecia but is now just a platform, an altar built around the 3rd century BC. The undoubted highlight of the park was next, the 5th century BC Greek theatre, built into a slope facing towards the sea. It was later used by the Romans for games but most of the Greek part is intact, with a large stage and seating. Above the amphitheatre runs an ancient paved street lined with graves cut into the rock like shelving and a gushing spring dedicated to nymphs. A later medieval tower sits above all. Outside the park lies the remains of the ancient city itself, so the park is a sort of ancient entertainment complex. But wait there is more. Down some stairs is a sunken garden facing a high cliff full of caves. The most famous is known as the Ears of Dionysus, a name given to this cave by the larrikin of art, Carravaggio. The Cave was used by the tyrants of Syracuse as a prison, and it was believed that they could hear every word uttered by the prisoners because of the acoustics. After a lunch of spinach pastries that have been a handy lunch for us in Sicily, we visited the Archaeology museum, housed in a spaceship like circular building. Each room was a treasure trove of the numerous findings around Siracusa, from neolithic to medieval times, as well as from other sites in eastern and southern Sicily. It was all fascinating and mind blowing at just how much well preserved relics have been discovered. Glad we went and ignored the stupid comments about the museum by the Rough Guide author, who is really bugging us with her opinionated rubbish. Did some shopping on the way back then had dinner at the MOON vegetarian restaurant, which cooked probably the weirdest vegetarian food I have had, none of it particularly tasty. All the more bizarre was the after dinner poetry reading that brought out the bohemians of Ortigia in force.
Had a lazy day in our flat the next day, skyping, researching and reading. Weather improved so went for a walk and a gelati. Dinner was at Calliope restaurant and was very enjoyable. Following day we went to the little town of Noto, famous for its baroque buildings erected following the big 1693 earthquake. Had to rush a bit to get the train, just making it on. Guard wouldn’t let anyone on after us. Walked up the hill from Noto station and wandered down its main street, and majestic as the buildings were it really lacked any sort of atmosphere and was all a bit overrated. Had a pizza slice for lunch then went up higher above town which was a bit more interesting but really it was a bit of a nothing town compared to other places we had been like Segovia and Taormina. Sat in a park and ate pistachios until it was time to get the train back from the deserted station that doesn’t even have a seat! Back in Siracusa had pastries from a bakery near the station and also bought a slab of a very burek style spinach pie for dinner. Cooked broccoli and risotto out of a packet which took ages, in fact as long as it would take to make a real risotto.
Next day it was the bus station to get a bus to the beach. Had some time to kill as buses were infrequent, like all over Sicily, so it was delicious gelati at our favourite local chain, Bianco. Eventually the bus left and we got off at Fontane Bianche, which had a nice beach with lovely clear water. Spent the afternoon there but then had a long wait for a bus back, but luckily the shopkeeper took pity on us and let him sit in his chairs while we waited. Once back in Ortigia had best pizza so far in Sicily at the “Sicily” pizzeria which claims to only use locally sourced ingredients.
Wasted part of the next morning at post office, which charged us a ridiculous $4 per postcard! Looked around the little produce market, marvelling again at the good quality, cheap veggies that you never see in the restaurants. Spent some time in apartment then did some shopping before another dinner at Calliope. Have really enjoyed Siracusa and glad we could take our time seeing it.
Finally said goodbye to our apartment, which I had named the “SS Travelpossum” because it’s layout was more like a boat. So it was onto the electric bus, walk to the station, on to the train to Catania and then across to the Catania bus station for the SAIS bus to the little town of Enna. After an interesting trip that ends with a winding climb up the hill, we walked to our B&B, with the clouds building overhead. Once there we discovered that there was no one at reception so went to a nice Cafe for drinks, eggplant pie, coffee and a delicious ricotta and pistachio canoli. The storm broke and there was quite a bit of rain and lightning. Eventually someone appeared at reception, the bouncy jolly daughter of the owner, Laura, who bundled us into her tiny FIAT and took us to their other building. Not quite what we booked and a bit dingy, with the bathroom across the corridor. Oh well. Had dinner at a very old fashioned restaurant run by a granny, then back to our room to warm up.
Next morning we went to breakfast, in the other b and b a few blocks from ours. Very nice too, with some yummy almond croissants and cakes. Then it was down to the square to catch the bus to the town of Piazza Almerina. From there you can catch another bus to the Villa Romana de Casale, the ruins of a vast Roman nobleman’s house. Well so we thought because when we arrived at the town a taxi driver told us the bus had finished for summer, a common occurrence in Sicily, but our experience of Indian taxi drivers made us wonder if it was true. But we will never know. The timetable the driver showed us said buses ran until the end of October, but a bus driver from another bus told us it was finished. As did the guys in the kiosk. Conspiracy or truth? So we took the taxi, arranging for him to come and get us later. We then spent a couple of hours in total wonder at the highlight of the villas, the incredible mosaics. They are as detailed as paintings and many are huge. One is over 30 metres long. They depict hunting scenes, people at work and play and stories from mythology. They are on the floors of at least 20 rooms and halls, even in the toilet. It is impossible to describe them, you will just have to visit yourself, preferably when the bus is running. When we left, of course there was no sign of the taxi driver, so we had to resort to hitchhiking and being the travelpossums, got lucky with the first car. A French Canadian couple, who gave us a lift into Piazza Almerina (8km). We had a wander around town and it was quite cute and made me wish we had stayed there instead of gloomy Enna. Got the bus back and of course it started raining again so sat in our room and watched the storm. Bought takeaway pizza which we had in our room, not bad either.
Next day we caught a taxi down to the totally deserted station. Our taxi driver obviously felt sorry for us and stayed with us on the deserted platform and we had a great 30 minute conversation using all of our handful of Italian and English words. He showed us some great pictures of Etna taken from his house with flames and smoke erupting from the cone. He has a great view of it, something we didn’t see because of the cloud. He was the total opposite of the Piazza driver yesterday. He waved us off and we discovered on the train that we had to change twice. The first change was at Caltanissetta, but we had to wait almost two hours. I wandered down to the bus station and there was an Agrigento bus leaving soon, so ran back and got Mez and we got back in time to catch it, saving us hours and possible missed connections. On arrival at Agrigento a thunderstorm started, so we waited at the bus station for a while but gave up and went to our hotel in the rain. The Hotel Del Viale was quite nice and just off a beautiful tree lined Avenue on the top of a cliff, with views to the ancient sites below. When the rain stopped we went for an explore of the old town, which was quite lively and atmospheric, with nice sandstone buildings and lots of cafes. It also has a theatre dedicated to local boy Luigi Pirandello and some great viewpoints over the valley to the sea. Had an excellent pasta at the Trattoria Concordia. The following day was devoted to the most significant event since 1971, the rabbitohs in a grand final. Up early to test the Skype link. My brother Michael and my plan was to watch the game by pointing the skype camera at the TV. Our test worked and the excitement built. Watched the first half, which was very tense and made more so by skype and wifi dropping out all the time. I dashed down to the pc in the lobby and luckily the Live stream site worked and the picture was better and didn’t drop out, so watched the mighty bunnies run away with the game and the trophy 30 to 6. So I have done a great service to all by leaving the country, with the rabbitohs, the waratahs, my soccer team and taras netball team all winning competitions. Maybe if we stay until May, Tottenham might win too!
Celebrated the win at a local pub in a park, as the restaurant we were planning on going to was closed. Explored more of the old town, going up high to the derelict cathedral that is collapsing down the hill, before having dinner at the Opera restaurant which was ordinary. After a reasonable breakfast in the hotel we caught the bus down the hill to the Valley of the Temples. This is an amazing collection of Greek temples from the ancient town of Akrygas, many in almost intact state spread over a few kilometres. We started with the better preserved eastern temples. These were all spectacular, sitting on a ridge above the sea. Truly wondrous. The western site is more in ruins, but contains the remains of one of the largest Greek temples anywhere. Another amazing site that is so little known outside of Sicily. After spending the day here we headed back to town and had another yummy dinner at Concordia, though how we fitted it in I don’t know, as for late lunch, we had a huge serving of gelato filled crepes (mine had the best pistachio gelato in Sicily) at the gelateria near our hotel.
Off to Trapani the next day, an interesting 3 hour bus trip across western Sicily. Our apartment is nice and near to the alleged beach. So I had a bit of a swim but the murky seaweed filled water wasn’t that enjoyable. Had dinner at the Cafe up the road where we had a snack lunch, but it was crap. My pasta wasn’t even cooked properly and Merrill’s looked like it was a frozen dinner from the supermarket.
Next morning we did some shopping so we could cook dinner. In the afternoon we caught the cable car up to the old town of Erice. The cable car went for miles up the steep hillside but unfortunately the views weren’t great as the windows were filthy and made of perspex. Once at the top we climbed the old church tower for even more impressive views back over Trapani and checked out some other historic churches, some made from the stones of ancient Greek temples that were famous in the ancient World. At the far end of town the were some impressive castles sitting up on high cliffs with more spectacular views. For dinner cooked a vegetable curry and rice which was so good. So nice to have vegetables, spices and no sign of pasta.
Caught a ferry the next day to the island of Favignana. Well it was actually a hydrofoil, probably the worst form of water transport, bumpy, noisy, and stifling inside. We felt quite queasy by the time we reached the Island. Headed off to the beaches in the south of the island, passing trough a very plain looking town. The beach wasn’t much better, nice soft sand but more seaweed and a gale force wind. Lasted about an hour there before heading back to the town for a drink and then sat on a rocky headland for a while. Caught the car ferry back which was the best part of the day trip, nice and slow with great views of the other islands and the port of Trapani. Had nice dinner at the Popitone restaurant. I had the local dish of busciate with pesto trapanese, caterpillar shaped pasta in a tomato and almond sauce, and Merrill had chicken marsala seeing as we are only 39km from Marsala.
Next day caught the bus to Segesta, the last of our ancient wonders of Sicily tour. There’s only one bus each way, so we had to make sure we got on them. The temple was quite impressive, with all its columns still standing high up on a hill with nice views over the valley. Higher up, a bus takes you to the ancient town, agora and a pretty Roman theatre with views to the sea to the north. A pleasant little excursion.
On our our last full day in Catania we decided to do the train trip around Mount Etna. You can do tours to the top, but we weren’t so keen on that, given it is a very active volcano. We caught the funny little metro to Borgo station ( the metro only has 6 stations) and only just made it onto the little Ferrovea Circumetnea, the line that runs around the volcano. This was because the timetable had changed only the week before and hadn’t been added to their website. We rattled along through the outer suburbs of Catania, then into hilly country with some deep valleys. Along the way it became the school train. We hopped off at the medieval town of Randazzo. We had a few hours until the next train but kept ourselves busy strolling the rough stone block streets, with its unusual old churches. We headed up the hill and finally got a decent but brief view of Etna from behind someone’s block of apartments. The clouds soon enveloped the mountain again, so we headed to the station Cafe for drinks before hopping on the train for the last leg of the circuit. This was the prettiest part, with the famous pistachio groves of Bronte, some pine forest, vineyards and orchards and even black grotesque patches of cooled lava. The journey ended at Reposto, where we swapped back onto the train to Catania. Had dinner at Carboneri again, with the usual indifferent service but nice food. One annoying thing in Sicily is the cover charge, where you have to pay a fee for the privilege of eating in their restaurant. This has ranged from 1 to 2 euros per person. So as far as we are concerned it means no tip!
Started the day with a delicious breakfast at Cafe Mazzini, including a huge custard bun and cipollini, onion, tomato and cheese pastries. Had time before our train to also check out the castle, now surrounded by apartments but once was on the coast until lava surrounded it. Also went to the local market, full of beautiful, fresh produce at amazing prices. Bought some bananas, grapes and even broccoli, because it is such a rarity on restaurant menus in Italy. All of this cost us half of the equivalent in Sydney
Landed at Catania airport after a very short flight from Malta. Caught a meandering bus into the city, passing from broad avenues to narrow busy streets and tunnelss of dark buildings built of lava from Mount Etna. Checked into our apartment in Via Politi in an old 18th century mansion. Headed off for a walk and in only minutes we had found a cake shop so had yummy creamy cakes and coffee from a friendly guy that looked more like a wrestler than a pastry chef. Continued on up the hill to the impressive Garabaldi gate where the piazza was in party mode. Back past more bakeries and pizza shops and “tavola calda” bars that are pubs, cafes and lounge rooms combined. After a rest it was dinner near the cathedral, where we had the famous Sicilian dish, “alla norma”, pasta, eggplant and salty ricotta cheese. Next morning grabbed a coffee and cake at the “banco” or counter of a fancier pasticceria which we didn’t enjoy because of the rude staff. Started at the cathedral where mass was in full swing with a really dull priest droning on. The cathedral houses poor old St Agatha ‘ s relics (look her up). The church’s main feature is it’s use of lava blocks mixed in with the marble, a result of its rebuilding after the earthquake of 1693. Wandered up Via Etna, the volcano itself totally hidden by haze, and sat in the pretty Bellini gardens for a while before wandering down a road lined by mansions and numerous baroque churches. Did the tour of St Benedicts convent, which was interesting. Also looked at the remains of the amphitheatre, believed to be second only to the Colliseum in the Roman world, but now mostly covered by buildings. On the way back to our apartment I visited the Roman theatre, which anywhere else would be a major attraction, but compared to other Sicilian sites it is ignored, tucked in behind a scaffolded building on Via Victor Emmanuel. I thought it was pretty good and it is pretty big, seating 5000 in its time, but the high entry charge and lack of information probably deters visitors. Had a nice dinner with typical crap service at the Carbonari restaurant near the Bellini theatre. The carbonari were apparently a secret political society that had lots of secret meetings but never actually did much, like some of Australia’s minor parties. Anyway our pizza was pretty good.
Off to the station early for a day trip to Taormina, playground of the rich and famous and home of o e of the first film festivals. Had a coffee from the caravan outside the station, then onto a comfy train. From Taormina station we caught the bus up the winding toad to the town, high on a ridge above the sea. Of course it was straight to the Roman theatre, built on a high slope above the sea facing mount Etna, that is if you could see the volcano. The theatre is very big, but rather split by all the seating and stage added for the summer concerts. The views were however quite spectacular. The theatre was built on an older Greek one, but little remains of this. The rest od the day was spent strolling the main street, with some more ruins, exposed Roman mosaics, old churches, craft and pottery shops and overpriced restaurants.we were very surprised to chance upon the granite sign that is on the cover of our guide book, especially as Rough guides don’t even say where it is. Had pizza for lunch and a delicious chocolate canolis for sweets. Caught the bus and train home, and had a quick dinner at the local kebab shop. Taormina was a fun day trip but glad we didn’t stay up there.