Italy through my Lens

Rick Steves' Best of Sicily in 10 Days - 2013

The Rick Steves' Best of Sicily Tour I joined began in Palermo on May 5, 2013 and ended back in Palermo on May 14th.  This tour really should be called "Eating your way through Sicily in 10 Days" because that's what we did.  We had some fantastic four and five course meals along with seeing some great sights.

 

  • A Brief History of Sicily

     

    My Mom has always raved about what great cooks her cousins are who have a Sicilian heritage.  No wonder, because Sicily is truly a melting pot of people and cultures.  Its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean made Sicily a constant target and was fought over throughout history.  The variety of inhabitants this brought to Sicily has greatly influenced the types of foods served in Sicily making it a wonderful culinary adventure with some truly unique foods.

     

    The Melting Pot nature of the island can even be seen in those who left the first traces of themselves in Sicily (the Siculi, Sicani, and Elymni) as they also came to

    Sicily from other parts of the Mediterranean.  These groups were followed by the Carthaginians (northern Africa) and then the Greeks, who left their mark on Sicily in the form of  ceramic making,Temples, and Theaters.  The Romans followed the Greeks and controlled Sicily from roughly 200 BC to 440 AD after winning the Punic Wars against Carthage.  After the fall of the Roman Empire (5th Century AD), the Vandals, Goths and Byzantines took their turns ruling Sicily.  The Arabs took over after the Byzantines (9th Century) and greatly influenced the agriculture, including the introduction of Pistachio trees.

     

    In the 11th Century, the Normans (Vikings, by way of France) gained control and were fairly benevolent to the people of Sicily.  After the Norman control of the island, the French and then Spanish took turns ruling Sicily.  These foreign Kings became increasingly unpopular with the masses who faced abject poverty.  So, when Giusepe Garibaldi landed at Marsala on May 11, 1860 with 1000 volunteers to free Sicily from Spain, the Sicilian peasantry joined him to helped defeat the Spanish Bourbon armies.  Unfortunately, poverty continued, which caused many Sicilians to leave Sicily between 1880 and 1910 for the US and the promise of a better life.  Even today unemployment / low employment is an issue for Sicily.

     

    During World War II, Sicily became an important entry point and stepping stone for the Allies as they moved up from North Africa to invade Italy proper.  In the WWII "Soldiers Guide to Sicily" distributed to Allied troops, the position of Sicily at the narrowest point in the Mediterranean to Tunis (only 90 miles) is highlighted as a real key to its importance as this proximity allowed the Axis to attack east bound Allied convoys and force the Allies to send most convoys 12,000 miles around the Cape of Africa.  The "Soldiers Guide to Sicily" also highlights the fact that Sicily is only 2 miles from mainland Italy (near the toe of Italy and the Province of Calabria) at Messina .  The Guide goes on to point out that control of Sicily would provide the Allies bomber bases within 2 hours of Rome, 3.5 hours of Genoa, and within 4 hours of Milan and Turin.  The Allies used the Mafia to help infiltrate Sicily, which helped the Mafia increase their power after having gone underground under Mussolini.

    Tour Destinations

  • Best of Sicily Tour Overview

    At the start of each Rick Steves' Tour, the tour guide holds a meeting where we all introduce ourselves and the guide gives us  a brief overview of the tour.  We also choose our "Buddy" for the tour at this time.  Your "Buddy" is someone who is not a traveling companion who you will check for whenever we leave a location to insure they are not left behind.  On our tour, besides a great tour guide in Donald White, we had the added advantage of having Mari, a native from Palermo, join us for an observation trip as her first step in becoming a tour guide for Rick Steves' Europe Through The Back Door.

     

    The beginning of the tour meeting is a great opportunity to begin to get to know each other.  Additionally, on the three Rick Steves' Tours I've been on, I've discovered that you will often meet some of your fellow travelers prior to the tour, especially if you arrive a day or two early since the tour often take most of the hotel's rooms.  Some great friendships are made throughout the tour.

     

    During our opening tour meeting for the Rick Steves' Best of Sicily in 10 Day's Tour, Donald told us about a tee-shirt he once saw that epitomizes Sicily's history.  "Invade Us, Everyone Else Has."   What an apt description of Sicily's history.

     

    As mentioned in the Brief History of Sicily section of this web page, even those who left the first traces of themselves in Sicily (the Siculi, Sicani, and Elymni) had come to to the island from other parts of the Mediterranean.  These groups were followed by the Carthaginians (northern Africa) and then the Greeks, who left behind the the Theater remains we'll visit in Taormina, Syracusa, and Segesta; the Temple remains we'll explore in Agrigento and Segesta; and the Ceramics that we'll see in Caltagrione.

     

    We'll also see evidence of  the Romans, who followed the Greeks, and their lavish lifestyles in the mosaic floors at the Imperial Villa at Casale.  More evidence of the Romans remain in the ruins of a Roman Amphitheater near Syracusa.  After the fall of the Roman Empire (5th Century AD), the Vandals, Goths and Byzantines took their turns ruling Sicily.  The influence of the Byzantines and Arabs will be seen in the mosaics decorating the churches and cathedrals we'll see in Palermo, Monreale, and in Cefalù, which were built during the Norman period.

     

    During World War II, Sicily became an important entry point and stepping stone for the Allies as they moved up from North Africa to invade Italy proper.  We'll get to visit a World War II Museum in Catania where we'll learn about the importance of Sicily to the Allied invasion of mainland Italy and experience what it was like to undergo an air raid.

     

    Throughout the tour, we'll get to sample the great food of Sicily.  Prior to the tour, I made a list of all things food related mentioned in The Rick Steves' "Best of Sicily 2013 Sightseeing Guide" and ended up with nearly a page of food to try.  As it turned out, based on all of the fantastic meals we were provided, this tour really should be called "Eating Your Way Through Sicily in 10 Days!"  Mangia!!!

     

     

     

     

     

    Tour Destinations

    Used with permission from Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, Inc.

  • Getting to the Tour can be Half the Fun

    I leave for Sicily - May 1, 2013

    My favorite way to get to Italy is to fly overnight from my home in the Denver area to a major hub in Europe and then make the connections to my final destination.  I usually fly to Frankfurt, arriving mid morning, and then take a connection on to Italy.  This way, by the time I get to my final destination, its late afternoon or evening and after a nice meal, some wine, and a gelato, I'm truly exhausted and ready for bed.  I've found that this approach is the easiest way to transition onto Italian time.

     

    For this trip, I had trouble finding a set of flights to get me from Denver all the way to Palermo, so I decided I'd layover in Rome.  Obviously not a  disaster since Rome is a great place to visit over and over again.  I booked a room at the Nazionale Hotel & Conference Center located at Piazza Montecitorio, 131 (http://www.hotelnazionale.it/index.html).  This is a nice hotel with a great location as it is next to the Parliament House and less than a five minute walk to the Pantheon.  Like all hotels I've stayed at in Italy, the hotel provides breakfast.  Their breakfast room is one of the prettiest breakfast rooms I’ve encountered.

     

    Arriving in Rome - May 2, 2013

    On the night I arrived in Rome, I decided to eat diner at a restaurant on Piazza Navona.  For me, the night was more about the atmosphere of being on Piazza Navona rather than trying to find the top restaurant in Rome.  I walked around the Piazza a bit before settling on Caffe Barocco for dinner.  I had Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.  While at Caffe Barocco, I was entertained by the activity on the Piazza, including a mime in front of the restaurant that hassled most of the people walking by the restaurant.  Mimes are irritating in any language!

     

    After dinner, I took some pictures of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651) and for the first time went into the 17th Century Baroque church Sant'Agnese in Agone.  It is beautiful inside.  It had never been open before when I'd been in Rome.  On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at Giolitti  to get my first gelato of the trip – chocolate of course, my favorite flavor (http://www.giolitti.it/en).

     

    My Day in Rome - May 3, 2013

    Capitoline Museum Tour

    While on the Best of South Italy Tour in 2011, we were scheduled to visit the Capitoline Museum but didn’t get to because of a strike.  When I was studying my Rick Steves’ Guide Book prior to that tour, I had become very interested in the museum, especially with its views into the Forum, so I decided that this would be a great way to spend the morning of my only full day in Rome.  Francesca Caruso (francescainroma@gmail.com) was our local guide back in 2011 when our tour missed seeing the Capitoline Museum so I arranged for a  private museum tour with her.  Francesca is the best and nicest local guide I’ve encountered in all of Italy.

     

    Francesca remembered the situation and seemed glad that we were going to get to make up for that miss.  While she went to buy my ticket, she asked me to study the Marcus Aurelius statue so I could compare it to the original, which is now housed within the museum.  Interestingly, the original statue survived the fate of most bronze statues in medieval times because it was believed that statue was of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome.  Before we went in, Francesca talked a bit about the Campidoglio (Kahm-­pee-DOHL-yoh), the square in front of the museum buildings, and about Capitoline Hill.

     

    Capitoline Hill is the most famous of Rome’s seven hills.  While it is the smallest of the seven hills, it is the tallest and became the home of the ancient “Temple of Jupiter.”  The Temple became the symbol of ancient Roman civilization, and as such, became the model for smaller versions, which were replicated in all new cities founded by ancient Rome.  The Temple was also the final destination for victorious generals after parading their spoils of war along Via Sacra.  Portions of the Temple’s walls can be seen within the Capitoline Museum.  The Temple was destroyed and rebuilt on the same foundation three times before finally being abandoned.

     

    Capitoline Hill has been the center of Rome’s government for 2,500 years.  In the 1530's, Michelangelo was called upon by Pope Paul III to reestablish the grandeur of the Campidoglio square, which in reality is a trapezoid.  The two buildings of the Capitoline Museum make up each side of the square and the mayoral palace, Palazzo Senatorio, makes up the back of the square.  The stone pattern of the Piazza and the Marcus Aurelius statue make up the design on the backside of the Italian two Euro coin.

     

    The Capitoline Museum building on the right as you face mayoral palace is the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the one on the left is Palazzo Nuovo (New Palace).  These separate buildings are connected by an underground passage beneath the mayoral palace which also provides great views into the Forum.  The Palazzo dei Conservatori is one of the world’s oldest museums.  It was founded in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV gave ancient statues to the people of Rome.  In its courtyard you can find massive chunks of what was a statue of Constantine that once stood in the Basilica of Constantine in the Forum.  Two key statues that were worth seeing in Palazzo Nuovo were the Dying Gaul and the Capitoline Venus.

     

    After we left the Capitoline Museum, we went to the Jewish Ghetto.  During Francisca’s time with us on the Best of South Italy Tour in 2011, we stopped here and she told us about how the Jews living here were rounded up during World War II.  After reading several Daniel Silva novels that touched on the Vatican’s lack of support for Italian Jews during World War II, I wanted to revisit this area and get Francesca’s take on the subject.

     

    Borghese Gallery

    After my time with Francesca, I start walking toward the Borghese Gallery and in search for a  place for lunch.  I found a Café (The Gallery Café) and had a Panino and a Coca Lite with ice.  After lunch and a pretty steady uphill hike, I came to the entrance of the Borghese Gardens.  From here, it is an easy walk up Viale del Museo Borghese directly to the Borghese Gallery.  After providing my reservation information at the ticket desk, I received my entry ticket for the my entry period.  The reservation process was a bit different this time compared to the last time I was here in that I couldn’t book the reservation on-line; the on-line system was only in Italian.  I had to call them this time to make the reservation (+39 06 695001).  I gave them my family name and they provided a confirmation number.

     

    I didn't take the guided tour of the Borghese Gallery this time, and simply focused my time on the Bernini statues that had created such interest for me during my first visit to the Borghese Gallery in 2011.  As a result of my time in Italy, which has included several tours of various museums, I have discovered that I am completely drawn in by sculptures and the Bernini sculptures within the Borghese Gallery evoke some of the strongest emotions and amazement within me of any I have seen.

     

    My two favorites within the Borghese Gallery are the “Rape of Proserpina” and “Apollo and Daphne.”  The Rape of Proserpina is amazing because of the facial expressions and especially because of how Bernini captured the indentations of Pluto’s grip on Proserpina’s thigh and waist.  Simply amazing detail.  The statue of Apollo and Daphne depicts the end of Apollo’s chase of Daphne where Gaia the goddess of Earth transforms Daphne into a laurel tree to save her from Apollo.  Daphne’s toes are transforming into tree roots and her fingers into leaves.  The detail, delicateness, and amount of air between the leaves at the top of this sculpture are breathtaking.  It is hard to conceive how these works of art were carved from marble, especially since this is a skill set rarely seen today.  The third Bernini statue within the Borghese Gallery that I find interesting for its detail and timing is the statue of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius Fleeing Troy.  Bernini was just 19 when he created this work, which depicts Aeneas’s flight from Troy with his elderly father, Anchises with his legs paralyzed, being carried upon Aeneas’ shoulders and his son Ascanius, carrying the eternal flame from the Temple of Vesta, peaking around his father’s legs.  Some believe this is actually the work of Bernini’s father, Pietro.  Regardless, it is an amazing piece.  Sadly, the Borghese Gallery doesn’t allow photographs to be taken so your only option other then your memories is to buy books or postcards.

     

    After spending my time at the Borghese gallery, I walked back to the hotel via the Piazza del Popolo.  I love this Piazza with its twin churches on adjacent corners.  For old movie buffs, you'll recognize it from the opening scenes of Roman Holiday staring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.  That night I ate dinner at Spago (https://www.facebook.com/SpagoAlParlamento).  Rome was uncomfortably crowded during this visit.  I discovered later  that this was because many Italians take vacations between April 25th Liberation Day, a national holiday commemorating the end of WWII in Italy, and Labor Day, which is May 1 and another national holiday in Italy.

     

    It's on to Sicily - May 4, 2013

    The next morning it was a quick cab ride to Rome's Fiumicino Airport and then on onto Palermo via Alitalia.  Because I'd already cleared Immigation within the European Union when I came through Frankfurt, traveling from Rome to Palermo was just like taking a domestic flight in the US.  The one thing I've found challenging with travel in Europe is only being allowed one carry-on, especially when traveling with camera equipment.  It makes you really think about what to bring.  I keep repeating Rick Steves' mantra of packing light.  It never seems to happen though!

    Tour Destinations

  • Palermo and Monreale

    Arriving in Palermo - May 4, 2013

    My flight from Rome landed at the Palermo airport shortly after 11:00 a.m.  The airport is fairly small and is literally right on the coast so the approach for landing is low over the water.  Across from the airport are cliffs, so you're immediately struck with the ruggedness of Sicily.

     

    With Rick Steves' tours, you're on your own to get from the airport to the first hotel.  My familiarity with the area and the complexity of getting to the first hotel, determines my approach.  Often times I will prearrange for a car service, which really cuts down on the stress if you've been traveling all day and arrive at your destination exhausted.  It's a bit of a splurge but, hey, you're on vacation!  Since this was my first trip to Sicily and I didn't know what to expect, this is what I did for my arrival into Palermo.  It really made for an enjoyable ride into the city.  It took about 45 minutes to get from the airport to our first hotel, the Hotel Tonic (http://www.hoteltonic.it/uk/index.php), which is near the Taetro Politeama.  While traveling into Palermo, I was reminded a bit of Naples.  There were areas of intense congestion and heavy traffic but once near the hotel, this seemed to drop off.

     

    After getting settled into my room, I asked for recommendations for a nearby restaurant for lunch.  When I begin my adventures in a new area, I like to get my bearings in the area around the hotel first so I know I have a good feel for its location.  I also make sure I get a card from the hotel and take a few pictures of unique buildings near the hotel in case I need to ask for directions back to the hotel later.  It turned out there was a nice pedestrian mall with several restaurants to choose from a couple of blocks from Hotel Tonic.  I had spaghetti cozze vongole (speghetti with clams and mussels) at Vino e Pomodoro (Via P.pe di Belmonte, 87 - Palermo), which was good.  I got hooked on this dish in Positano during the Rick Steves' South Italy in 13 Day Tour I'd taken in 2012 and have it whenever I can.

     

    Once lunch was over, I began to explore Palermo.  I had made a list of sights I wanted to see before the start of the tour and had prioritized these based on my Saturday arrival and the potential for some sites being closed on Sunday, my other free day of sightseeing before the start of the tour.  This made finding the Vucciria Market (Mercato della Vucciria) my first goal since it is closed on Sundays.  After a bit of wandering, I found the church of San Domenico, which in turn helped me locate the Vucciria Market.  I love markets like this because you're experiencing an element of everyday life for the area.  I ran across a small shop within the Vucciria Market that reminded me of a small Italian store my Mom took us to in North Denver when we were kids and North Denver still had a large Italian influence.

     

    While exploring the market, it started to rain so I went back to the hotel.  Once there, I met Jane who was going to be on the tour.  It turned out that she was also from the Denver area.  We decided to go explore the area near the Teatro Politema Garibaldi (a few blocks northwest of the Hotel).  By walking in this direction, we discovered Viale della Lebert, which is a beautiful wide boulevard.  Very enjoyable.  After diving back into the sides streets, we saw some of the street vendors and fry shops mentioned in the Best of Sicily 2013 Sightseeing Guide. We eventually wandered by a wonderful pastry shop called Pasticceria Fratelli Magrì (Via Carini Isidoro 42; (http://www.pasticceriamagri.com).  This spot was definitely worth the visit!  Eventually we found our way back near the hotel and had a nice dinner together at Al Cancelletto Verde (www.alcancellettoverde.it).

    Palermo - May 5, 2013 (Day 1 of our Tour)

    Today is the first day of the tour.  We have an introductory meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. at Hotel Tonic.  Until then, it's a free day to further explore Palermo.  While reading Rick Steves' Best of Sicily 2013 Sightseeing Guide prior to starting the tour, I became fascinated by the descriptions of the puppets and their performances so I decided the first thing I'd do today was to visit the Puppet Museum.  I walked down Via Roma to Corso Vittorio Emanuele and then turned toward the harbor.  I didn't have too much trouble finding the road for the museum (Via Betera near Piazza Santo Spirito) but I had a difficult time actually finding the museum.  Turned out it was just a bit off of Via Vittorio Emanuele but the sign for the museum wasn't very obvious; it was actually only visible if you'd been walking in the other direction.  The museum is both a museum and a Theater.  There are a lot of puppets to see here of various sizes.  Puppeteers have been traveling Sicily for centuries entertaining Sicilians.  As pointed out in the Sightseeing Guide, the puppets are carved from olive, lemon, or beech wood and can be as tall as 5 feet tall and weigh as much as 30 pounds.  I was very impressed by the detail in both the large and small puppets, and with the variety of puppets.

     

    After leaving the Puppet Museum, I walked along the harbor and was reminded how much Palermo matches my mental image of Cuba - kind of stuck in the 1950's.  Its probably born in the fact that Palermo endured a lot of bombing damage in WWII and would have been rebuilt at that time.

     

    I had lunch back near the hotel and then went in search of the Cart Museum located behind Palermo's Cathedral.  Again I walked down Via Roma to Corso Vittorio Emanuele.  This time I turned away from the harbor and walked straight through the Quattro Canti intersection on to the Cathedral, which was built in the Norman style in 1184.  Little of the style can be seen now due to frequent alterations and rebuilding projects.  I worked my way to the back of the Cathedral and found the Cart Museum.  The Museum itself was closed but there were a variety of carts parked along the street that show scenes of Knights from the Crusades and biblical epics.  After some photographs here, it was time to head back to the hotel and get ready for our opening meeting.

     

    During the meeting, our Tour Guide, Donald White, mentioned that a neighborhood church, Sant' Ignazio all' Olivella (about a 5 minute walk southeast of the hotel), was scheduled to have a procession tonight to celebrate S.S. Crocifisso.  He suggested that prior to going to see a performance at the Opera dei Pupi (Via Bara all'Olivella 95, Palermo, Italy 90138), that we go over and experience the pageantry of the procession.  What a treat.  I think its great that the Tour Guides for Rick Steves' insert unique, spontaneous opportunities like this into the tour itinerary.  After experiencing the sights and sounds of the procession, we went to the Puppet Theater and got to enjoy this Sicilian tradition.  While there, one of our tour members had a medical issue and I was very impressed with how well it was managed.  It turned out to be a minor issue and this person continued on with the tour.  I'm glad he did as he became a good friend on the tour.

     

    After our time at Opera dei Pupi, we had a group dinner at a restaurant called La Medina (http://www.ristorantelamedina.it).  We had a great meal that included couscous.

     

    Palermo and Monreale - May 6, 2013 (Day 2 of our Tour)

    Today we leave the hotel at 9:00 a.m. and head for Monreale in the hills south of Palermo.  Monreale is famous for its Norman style cathedral, Cattedrale di Monreale, which is adorned with mosaics.  It was built in the 12th century by the same craftsman who built the cathedral in Cefalù.  We got caught in a massive traffic jam due to an accident so our time in Monreale was compressed.  We'd been told there was a good place to get panoramic photos of Palermo near the church but because of our condensed schedule, it appeared  that we wouldn't have time to do this so I chose to skip visiting the cloisters and go to the overlook of Palermo.  Its too bad the accident and heavy traffic we encountered slowed us down so much as it would have been nice to have more time here.

     

    Once back in Palermo, we walked through one of Palermo's markets.  I think it was Mercato del Capo because we ended up near Teatro Massimo at lunch time where several of us went to Antica Pasticceria Mazzera.  Here I had my first taste of Arancini (rice balls stuffed with ragu meat, sauce, and cheese), which was very good.  We were to meet back on the side of the Teatro Massimo where a couple of our group showed up with Brioche.  I never did get a chance to try one, but they looked good but very messy!

    After lunch, we walked to Quattro Canti, which is the intersection of of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda.  Quattro Canti dates from 1600 and divides old Palermo into four parts.  Each building of the Quarttro Canti has concave facades, decorated with a fountain and statues.  Just off of the  Quattro Canti is The Fontana Pretoria.  This fountain was originally placed in a garden of a Florentine villa and was later moved to Palermo.  Because of its use of nude statues, the fountain has been known as the "fountain of shame."

     

    From here, we walked a short distance to our next stop, Chiesa di S. Maria dell'Ammiraglio.  This church is also called La Martorana in memory of Eloisa della Martorana who founded the nearby Benedictine convent.  In an interesting side note, she use to decorate the church with handmade marzipan fruit.  As a result, Frutta di Martorana is now a famed delicacy.  After entering the church through near the bell tower, you'll see a Baroque style interior.  It has a combination of beautiful frescoes and mosaics.  I found the Arabic inscription on one of its columns very interesting.  Right next to La Martorana, is San Cataldo its Arab-Norman style and three red domes.

     

    Our last stop in Palermo was the Palermo Cathedral.  As we were walking toward the Cathedral, we passed another market, which I think must have been the Mercarto di Ballero.  Now its onto Cefalù.

    Tour Destinations

  • Cefalù

    Cefalù - May 6, 2013 (Day 2 of our Tour)

    As we approached Cefalù, our Tour Guide had our bus driver stop so we could take some panoramic photos of Cefalù.  What a beautiful setting.  After getting our room assignments and settling into Hotel La Giara (Via Veterani, 40; www.hotel-lagiara.it), we met for an orientation walk around old town Cefalù and down to the beach.  Along the way, Donald took us by the Duomo and the Piazza Duomo, which is where we would meet for breakfast (Bar Duomo) since our hotel didn't have a breakfast room.  We then walked down toward the beach and then past Lavatoio Mediovale, a laundry dating from the 9th century, which was used until recently.  Our Tour Guide Donald pointed out several places to eat dinner.  Several of us went to a place we found near the beach.  It was a nice evening.  Tomorrow we have all day free until "Buddy Introductions" at 6:00 p.m.

     

    Cefalù - May 7, 2013 (Day 3 of our Tour)

    Donald had mentioned that the hike up La Rocca, the hill behind the town, to the Temple of Diana lent itself to some good views of Cefalù.  I decided to do this first thing in the morning while it was still somewhat cool.  I initially missed the turn that led to the staircase making up the initial part of the climb.  After a lot of stairs, a lot of breaks, and then a steady climb up a dirt path, I reached the Temple of Diana.  Diana was a goddess of the moon, forest, and childbirth.  An Internet search indicated that the Temple may have been built by the Sicani, one of Sicily's early inhabitants.  Rick Steves' Best of Sicily 2013 Sightseeing Guide indicates that the Temple is a prehistoric structure that was later built upon in the 5th Century BC.  Regardless of the Temple's background, reaching the Temple definitely offers some great vistas of Cefalù.

     

    Upon my return to town, I went down to the beach and found a restaurant for lunch.  Cefalù has a nice beach area so it was very relaxing sitting outside at this restaurant and watching the world go by at a nice slow pace.  After lunch I ducked into the restaurant and had my first pistachio flavored gelato.  Good, but its not chocolate!!!  From here, I walked back along Via Vittorio Emanuele back to the Lavatoio Mediovale where I took a few pictures.  Next I walked down to the end of the pier where I watched some kids goofing around on the pier.  After a stop at the hotel, I walked a few blocks to the Piazza Duomo and took some pictures in and around the Duomo.  The Duomo dominates the skyline of the old section of Cefalù and is known for its Byzantine mosaics.  It is one of Sicily's major Arab-Norman monuments.  It's very pretty inside with mosaics that rival those found in the cathedral in Monreale.

     

    Later in the evening while waiting for everyone to gather on the roof of our hotel for "Buddy Introductions," I noticed some parasailers above La Rocca.  With a well developed fear of heights, this would be a bit much for me!  We had a nice party with wine, pistachios,  cheese, meats and some good laughs with each other during our Buddy Introductions.  We also were treated to a beautiful sunset with its light warming the facade of the Cathedral.  That night I joined my "Buddy" Karen and her sister Patty for dinner just up from the hotel.  After searching for gelato after dinner it was off to bed as tomorrow we're off to Mount Etna, a lunch at a winery on the slopes of Mount Etna, and then on to Taormina.

    Tour Destinations

  • Mount Etna and Taormina

    Mount Etna - May 8, 2013 (Day 4 of our Tour)

    Today we experienced Mount Etna.  From Cefalù, we drove through Sicily's interior, at times through a  light drizzle, toward Mount Etna.  I wish we could have stopped somewhere for photographs as the interior is lush with rolling green hills and is very beautiful.  A very different feel from the coastal areas.  Trying to photograph this from a moving bus met with very limited success.  However, if you watch Rick Steves' The Best of Sicily on his Italy's Countryside DVD, you'll see examples of how beautiful the interior of Sicily is.

     

    We were warned to keep our eyes open as you'll begin to catch glimpses of Mount Etna long before you get close to it.  Mount Etna dominates the horizon when you are in this part of Sicily.  In fact, Mount Etna is Italy's highest mountain south of the Alps and Europe's largest volcano.  Eruptions can be devastating.  In an eruption during 1669, lava reached as far as Catania.   Eruptions can also change Mount Etna's overall elevation (currently about 10,900 feet).

     

    Today's weather remained gloomy and cool looking as we drove up the switchbacks toward Mount Etna's Visitor Center.  Before exiting the bus, we were warned to watch our step as the ash can be very slippery.  Based on this and the drizzle, I decided to take my waterproof, compact camera instead of my normal rig, a Sony NEX-7.  I'm really glad I made this switch.  After taking a few photos of Crateri Silvestri, I suddenly found myself on my backside.  I'd have to agree, the ash can be slippery.  I went down fast without any chance of catching myself.  I'm not sure my bigger camera would have survived the fall.  Luckily I did.  I jumped right up hoping no one had noticed but a few on our tour did comment on how graceful my fall was!  Before returning to the bus, I went into the combination Visitor Center, Souvenir Shop, and Restaurant.  Here I bought a few items carved from Mount Etna volcanic ash for my science teacher sister and brother-in-law.  I knew they'd enjoy something made from Mount Etna ash.  I had read about a fiery red drink called Fuco d'Etna, in Rick Steves' Best of Sicily 2013 Sightseeing Guide so I also bought a small bottle to try.  I saved it for the last night in Palermo; really, really bad!

     

    Mount Etna's lush soil makes the area surrounding it and the valley below very fertile supporting almonds, olives, grapes used in wine production, citrus fruit, and vegetables.  We visited one of the wineries on the slopes of Mount Etna (Barone di Villagrande; http://www.villagrande.it/en/) where we had one of our many wonderful, multi-course lunches.  Barone di Villagrande sits at an altitude of 700 meters (2,296.6 feet) above sea level and has been producing wine since 1727.  After lunch, we wound our way down the balance of Mount Etna and then on to Taormina.

    Taormina - May 8, 2013 (Day 4 of our Tour)

    Taormina sits on a bluff above the Ionian Sea at the base of Monte Tauro.  It was founded in 304 BC as a colony of Syracuse.  Today, it is Sicily's most famous tourist resort and really very beautiful.  With the town situated high above the sea and its main street, Corso Umberto, lined with high end, chic designer shops, Taormina proper reminds me a bit of Capri.  This comparison ends however when you encounter its fantastic Greek ruins and the ever present views of Mount Etna.  I was lucky enough to get a great view of Mount Etna from my hotel room.

     

    Before we arrived, Donald discovered that a large cruise ship was due into Taormina the next day.

    Rather than fight the inevitable crowds this would bring, Donald suggested we move our tour of Taormina scheduled for tomorrow to late this afternoon.  So after settling into our hotel (Hotel Continental; http://www.continentaltaormina.com/uk/), this is exactly what we did.  We met our local guide just below the hotel on Corso Umberto.  Two medieval gates mark the ends of Corso Umberto with another in its middle.  We strolled down the Corso taking in the sights until we reached Piazza IX Aprile, where we had a nice panoramic view of the bay.  Our next stop was the Roman Odeon.  This is a small Roman era theater dating from the 2nd Century AD, which was rediscovered in 1892.  It is thought that this theater was used mainly for small-scale vocal performances.  Alongside the Odeon, we could also see marble steps from the base of an ancient Greek temple.  It fascinated me how often on this tour we encountered Greek and Roman ruins so close together and at times even intertwined.

     

    Just a few steps away from the Roman Odeon, we found ourselves in front of the Palazzo Corvaja, which besides having a very interesting facade, houses Taormina's tourist office.  Here we saw examples of both Sicily's puppets but also its painted carts.  After a bit more wandering through beautiful Taormina, we ended up at Teatro Antico, Taormina's ancient Greek Theater.  This is the second largest ancient theater in Sicily, second only to the theater we'll see in Syracuse, and is Taormina's premier tourist attraction.  Switching this tour to late afternoon turned out to be a great plan.  In addition to missing the crowds, we got to visit the Theater in great early evening light, which is ideal for taking photographs.  It also gave us a free day the next day, which opened up opportunities for additional adventures.

     

    As we  were exiting the Teatro Antico, we went to an overlook behind it where we could see mainland Italy.  We were literally looking at the toe of Italy.  Cool.  I especially appreciated this view as this section of Italy is the Province of Calabria and is the area my Grandfather's family is from.  This is the closest I'd been to this part of Italy.  My Grandfather was adopted so even if I one day make it to Calabria, we don't really know exactly where he was from within Calabria.  Still, I was really glad to see this and be this close to where this part of my family originated.

    Taormina - May 9, 2013 (Day 5 of our Tour)

    Because of the change of plans yesterday, today is a free day to explore Taormina.  One of the ideas mentioned in the Rick Steves' Best of Sicily 2013 Sightseeing Guide was a boat tour.  Donald also mentioned this last night and indicated he'd be happy to help those interested make arrangements as he planned to go and do this himself for the first time.  This is an example of one of the things I really like about Rick Steves' tours.  The guides often help arrange for activities not included in the tour but unlike other tours, don't turn this into a money making scheme for themselves.  They simply facilitate the process and we pay what we'd normally pay or maybe even less than if we'd made these arrangements on our own.

     

    To get to the beaches and starting point for the boat ride, we had to take the cable car (funivia) down to the beach.  Enough of us went that we needed three boats.  We had an hour long ride, which was very enjoyable.  It even included a stop where we were served a sweet wine by our Capitan.  We had great views of Taormina and even got to see Grotta Azzurra, which is similar to Capri's Blue Grotto but larger and much easier to get into.  After our ride, I joined the two families traveling together on this tour for a nice lunch down on the beach before heading back up to Taormina proper.  This afternoon I spent time walking around Taormina, taking a few photos and enjoying the hotel patio.  Besides a great patio, the hotel also has a lower courtyard with beautiful flowers.

     

    Tonight we have a cooking demonstration and pizza party at Villa Zuccaro Pizzeria located just below the hotel.  The first part of the demonstration was a review of the dough recipe and showing how to mix and kneed the dough.  With the exception of using fresh yeast, instead of packaged yeast, and substituting 30% of the flour with Manitoba Flour, the dough recipe is exactly the same as the one my Mom gave me.  I had not heard of Manitoba Flour before and discovered it comes from the Canadian region of Manitoba.  It is used in order to obtain a specific strength of dough, which is important for "tossing the dough.

    Mom's Pizza Dough Recipe

     

    Dissolve 1 package of dry yeast in 1 cup warm water

    Combine in a mixing bowl

    1 teaspoon sugar

    1 teaspoon salt

    2 tablespoons vegetable oil

    2 1/2 cups flour

    Yeast previously dissolved in warm water

    Mix/kneed dough until no longer sticky (may need to add addition flour)

    Let dough rest for 5 minutes

     

    Bake 425 degrees for 20 - 25 minutes

    Next they showed us how to easily make a round pizza.  This simply involved spinning and stretching the dough on a floured board until you get the pie size you want.  For fun they also showed us how to toss the dough.  Our pizza chef often competes in contests and had some great moves.  I was joking that if they weren't careful that they'd hit the umbrella above the tables when they'd toss the dough.  Donald thought I was volunteering so I ended up in a dough tossing contest with our chef.  Ya, I lost!!!  The last demonstration of the night was how to make Tiramisu.  Finally, we got to the best part, eating the pizza.  Wow.  Some of the best pizza I've ever had.  I lost count but I think we had 5-6 different kinds of pizza before we ended the meal with Tiramisu.  What a great night.

    Tour Destinations

  • Catania and lunch with the Contessa

    Catania - May 10, 2013 (Day 6 of our Tour)

    Today after a short drive, we arrive in Catania.  Here we get to tour the Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Sicila where we learn about the 1943 Allied landing in Sicily.  This is a really good museum with the minor drawbacks of no photos being allowed and no bookstore to purchase anything to help document our experiences here.  There is though a lot of material available on the Internet to help provide reminders of the hows and whys of battles waged here however.

     

    Once we entered the museum, we first encounter a mock up of a small Piazza of a typical Sicilian village.  We could look into a variety of rooms within the building facades to see what life in Sicily was like back then.  Small groups were then allowed into a small, cramped air raid shelter where we experienced the sounds and vibrations of an air raid.  I can only imagine how stifling a shelter would have been during an actual air raid with the air permeated with sweat and fear.  From here we walked up a ramp to the upper floor were we could see displays outlining the importance of Sicily to the Allied invasion of Italy.  There were also displays showing the uniforms and weapons used by both Allied and Axis forces.  One item that caught my eye was a small blue booklet titled, "Soldier's Guide to Sicily."  After leaving the museum, I commented about this to a couple of tour members and we all agreed this would make an interesting souvenir.

     

    After returning home, I went on eBay and was able to buy a copy from someone in England.  It's an interesting little booklet with a forward by then General, U.S. Army, C.-in-C., Dwight D. Eisenhower.  In less than 20 pages, the Guide covers everything from why Sicily was important to both the Allied and Axis powers, to descriptions of the land, climate, people, government, industry, food, antiquities that may be encountered, feasts, and major towns.  Toward the end, it even outlines English to Metric conversions and provides a few Italian phrases.  I was really surprised at how complete a booklet this turned out to be.  Based on its somewhat tattered condition, it would be interesting to know its story.  It obviously had been carried by someone.

     

    Back on the road, but before we travel onto Syracuse, we head out to a local farm to have lunch with the Contessa of Casabianca.  As we got close to her farm, we drove through field after field of artichokes.  After a bit of time to walk around the farm, we were served a large variety of appetizers, which were all very good.  They sure disappeared fast!  Next we had a demonstration of how to make Lemon Zest Pasta, which we then had during lunch.  The recipe, courtesy of one of our tour members, is outlined below:

     

    Lemon Zest Pasta

    From The Contessa of Casabianca

     

    Boil water and cook linguine pasta

     

    In a separate sauté pan, combine

    2-3 Tbs butter and

    2-3 Tbs Olive Oil

    with 1/2 - 3/4 cup Spring Onion diced small  (may be the white portion of our green onions but they could also be the white onions that are harvested early in the spring).  Sauté onion in oils until soft and translucent.

     

    Add zest of three lemons and then juice from those lemons to the onions and cook to thicken a bit.  To lemon and onion mixture add ½ liter of heavy cream (be careful not to add too much or this mixture won't thicken enough).  Cook on low heat to thicken.  Do not bring to boil.

     

    Next add

    2-3 teaspoons of white sugar

    Salt and Pepper (Taste and adjust seasonings)

     

    Toss with cooked linguine.  Mangia!

     

    What a great meal.  Several pasta dishes, followed by a course of meats, and then desert left me absolutely stuffed.  I joked with Mari that I felt like an Arancini with legs.  Her translation for this complete with artwork is "Mi sento un'arancina con i piedi."  This was my theme for this tour!

     

    Tour Destinations

  • Syracuse

    Syracuse - May 10, 2013 (Day 6 of our Tour)

    After our lunch with the Contessa, we returned to our bus and traveled to Syracuse, which is located near the southeast corner of Sicily.  We actually stayed on the island of Ortygia (Isola di Ortigia), the focal point and historical center of Syracuse.  Our hotel is Domus Mariae (http://www.domusmariaebenessere.com/en/).  Domus Mariae is made up of two properties, Domus Mariae Benessere and Domus Mariae Hotel. These properties are run by the Ursuline Sisters of the Holy Family.  Within the Domus Mariae Benessere is a beautiful chapel the Sisters still use.  We were allowed a quick visit during our stay.  The Domus Mariae Hotel has rooms with beautiful views of the sea and is where my room was located.  Lucky me.  I had a great room here (Room 101).  The Domus Mariae Hotel was first used as a language institute by the Ursuline Sisters before being converted to a hotel in 1995.  On a side note, I was desperate for laundry facilities by this point of the trip and much to Donald's surprise and my relief, we discovered that the Domus Mariae Benessere could arrange to have our laundry done - Yea!

     

    Syracuse and Isola di Ortigia were defiantly highlights of the tour.  In its heyday, Syracuse was even bigger than Athens.  It was, in fact, the largest city in the ancient world.  The Greek Theater ruins located here are the largest in Sicily and one of the largest in the world.  It sat up to 15,000 spectators.  We'll see these tomorrow.  This evening, we met at 7:00 p.m. for an orientation walk with Donald around Ortygia.  It is really very picturesque.  Dinner was on our own.  I ended up going back to the Piazza Duomo with Donald and Mari and had a light dinner of Prosciutto and Ananas Melone (pineapple) with them at Gran Caffé Del Duomo.  It was a nice, relaxing evening.

     

    Syracuse Past and Present - May 11, 2013 (Day 7 of our Tour)

    Ortygia is connected to modern Syracuse proper by three bridges.  We had to walk over one of these bridges into modern Syracuse in order to find our bus for the drive out to the Neapolis Archaeological Zone, which was established in 1955.  It's here where we'll tour the Greek and Roman archaeological sites we'll visit today.

     

    Our first stop with our local guide, Rosa, was the ancient Greek Theater.   Designed in the 5th Century BC it was expanded in the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC.  Its size was very impressive despite the fact that much of the stone was removed to build the walls around Ortygia between 1520-1531.  Like all Greek Theaters, it is built into a hillside.  This was a necessity because the Greeks needed a hillside setting to support the theater seating.  It wasn't until the Romans later began building with arches and concrete that a freestanding theater, like the Colosseum was possible.   Greek Theaters' semi-circle shape were used to aid with acoustics.  Workers were busy today as they were getting ready for a production that would be beginning this evening.  The tradition of performing ancient Greek plays was revived in Syracuse in 1914.  Plays first performed here over 2,500 years ago are now performed in May and June each year.

     

    Behind the theater were the Grotta del Museion, where an aqueduct flowed, as well as Votive Niches that are thought to have housed votive paintings or tablets in honor of Syracusan heroes.  East of the theater is one of the stone quarries (latomie del Paradiso) used to build parts of Syracuse.  It is here where we got to see the Ear of Dionysius, which is a grotto carved into the rock wall of the quarry.  Named by the painter Caravaggio because of is shape like an elfin ear and the amazing acoustics, which supposedly allowed Dionysius to eavesdrop on prisoners housed here, the Ear of Dionysius measures 69 feet high and 211 feet deep.  We were serenaded by one of our tour members here and the acoustics are indeed fantastic, as was her voice.

    Our next stop was the Altar of Heron II.  This was a monument dedicated to Zeus and was used for public sacrifices.  This is a huge alter measuring 649 x 75 feet and would allow for 400 - 450 bulls being sacrificed at one time.  Only the foundations remain now.

     

    Just beyond the Altar of Heron II we encounter a Roman Amphitheater.  This is another example of how ruins from different cultures and times comingle in close proximity within Sicily.  Measuring 459 x 390 feet, this amphitheater is only slightly smaller than the Arena in Verona.  It was originally used for gladiator fights and horse races.

     

    The Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum, dedicated to Paolo Orsi who was the archeologist who uncovered many of Syracuse's archaeological sites is our last stop in this area of Syracuse.  One of the areas within the museum that we visited that really stood out was a section housing old coins.  The intricacies on these coins, some smaller than a dime, were truly amazing especially when you consider how and when they were "minted."  Directly across the street from the Museum is Santuario di Santa Maria delle Lacrime (the Sanctuary of Holy Mary of the Tears).  Building was begun on the church in 1966, which was intended to resemble a tear, and completed in 1995.  It dominates the skyline at 283 feet tall.  It is quite large and can hold a congregation of 11,000.  It was built to commemorate a miracle that occurred in Syracuse in August 1953 where a chalk painting of Mary of the Immaculate Heart cried human tears for three days, which was verified by the Vatican.  This explains its shape.  I think its a pretty neat looking church inside and out.  Once you know to look for it, you will even see it as you walk around Ortygia.  We only had about 10 minutes to visit the church after our museum tour before our bus went back to Ortygia.  It would have been nice to have a bit more time.

     

    Once we walked back to Ortygia from where the bus dropped us off, we had the rest of the day to ourselves.  I went for a walk to explore the Island of Ortygia and to have some lunch.  I had a nice lunch at Luna Rossa, where I sat outside with a nice view of the area.  Later that afternoon I shared a Coca Light with a fellow tour member on the roof top patio of Domus Mariae Benessere before joining him and a few others for dinner at a restaurant on the Duomo Piazza.

    Tour Destinations

  • Caltagirone

    Caltagirone - May 12, 2013 (Day 8 of our Tour)

    Today we begin working our way back across Sicily.  The pace of the tour seems to be increasing, probably because tonight is the last night out before returning to Palermo.  Our first stop today is the hill town of Caltagirone known for its ceramics making, which was greatly influenced by the Arabs and their arrival in the 10th Century.  Upon arrival into town, we went to a ceramics shop where we got a demonstration of all aspects of ceramic making.  This was a fun stop.

     

    After our tour of the ceramic shop, we were pretty much free to explore the town.  I really wanted to see the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, a staircase built in the early 17th Century to connect the old, upper town to the newer Piazza Municipio.  In the 1880s the series of short flights of stairs were joined to make one continuous staircase of 142 stairs.  What makes this really unique and the reason to see it is that hand painted majolica tiles were added in the 1950s.  Each row of steps are different making for a very beautiful tapestry as you ascend the staircase.

     

    There are shops and restaurants lining the staircase.  A couple of us found a nice place for lunch near the bottom called La Scala Ristorante Pizzeria (http://www.lascalaristorantepizzeria.it).  I had a great lunch that started with prosciutto and melon followed by a calzone.  Afterward I found some gelato while walking around before meeting up with the rest of the tour to walk to the bus.  From here, our next stop is Villa Romana del Casale.

    Tour Destinations

  • Villa Romana del Casale and Piazza Armerina

    Villa Romana del Casale - May 12, 2013 (Day 8 of our Tour)

    This afternoon we visit the Villa Romana del Casale located three miles outside of Piazza Armerina.  What an amazing site.  As described in Rick Steves' Best of Sicily 2013 Sightseeing Guide, the villa was a luxurious hunting lodge that may have been used by Roman Emperor Maximan.  It was abandoned in the 1200s and then covered by a mudslide, which ended up protecting the amazing mosaic floors until they were re-discovered in the late 19th Century.

     

    Unlike with other excavations, such as Pompeii, the mosaic floors have been left in place instead of being removed and moved elsewhere.  This makes it more interesting because you can really see how it is all laid out and how it all fits together.  The creative use of elevated walkways makes for great viewing although you do have to fight the crowds a bit.  Originally, clear fiberglass panels were used to simulate the roof line of the Villa but this has been replaced by wood roofs in all but one area.  This is a very positive change as the area with the fiberglass roof was extremely hot and uncomfortable.  This is a case where pictures speak much loader than words, so I'll let my photos tell the rest of  the story of our visit to Villa Romana del Casale.

     

    Sleeping near Piazza Armerina - May 12, 2013 (Day 8 of our Tour)

    After visiting the Villa Romana del Casale, we have a short drive to our lodging for tonight the Farm House "Torre di Renda."  After getting settled into our rooms, we have dinner scheduled a 7:00 p.m., and wow what a dinner.  We started with a nice plate of antipasti followed by pasta and meat dishes and some very good wine.  What a nice night.

    Tour Destinations

  • Agrigento, Segesta and return to Palermo

    Agrigento - May 13, 2013 (Day 9 of our Tour)

    While not officially the last day of the tour, it really is the last day and it's going to be a busy one.  With breakfast at the farm house "Torre di Renda" in Piazza Armerina out of the way, we travel across the south of Sicily to Agrigento.  Here we get to see the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) and some of the best Greek ruins anywhere in the world, including those found in Greece.  The Valle dei Templi was built in the 5th Century BC on a ridge so it was visible from the nearby sea.  This was an amazing stop.  Our local guide was good and one of the things he mentioned that I had not heard or read elsewhere is that the negative space between columns of Greek Temples form the shape of a sarcophagus.  Pretty cool.

     

    After our stop at the Valle dei Templi we go into Agrigento for our farewell lunch at Trattoria Caico (Via Nettuno, 35, 92100 San Leone, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy).  We will arrive in Palermo late this evening so Donald made the farewell dinner, which is typical of Rick Steves' tours, into a farewell lunch.  What a fantastic meal.  Once again, I was reminded as to why the name of this tour should be changed to "Eating your way through Sicily!"  After lunch, its back to our bus and onto Segesta.  But first we make a stop along the way to drop off my tour Buddy and her sister.  They have family in the area and Donald made this stop so they could catch a cab and go meet their family.  Another nice touch by Rick Steves' tours to make this kind of accommodation.

     

    Segesta - May 13, 2013 (Day 9 of our Tour)

    Now we turn north as we head toward Segesta, our final sightseeing stop of the tour and site of more great Greek ruins.  Segesta's two major sites are an unfinished Doric Greek Temple from the 5th Century BC and a compact Greek Theater dating from the 3rd Century BC where plays are still performed.  These two sites are in a beautiful setting and with late afternoon approaching, the light was great for photography.  I enjoyed this stop.  I just wish we could have taken another 15 - 20 minutes to really have time to take it all in.

     

    Once back on the bus we're on our way back to Palermo and our last night at the Hotel Tonic.  The tour is almost over.

     

    Palermo - May 13, 2013 (Day 9 of our Tour)

    We're back.  Donald's plan for a simple farewell cocktail party is a good one as we're fairly late getting back to the hotel in Palermo and the tour officially ends after breakfast in the morning.  We are treated to some appetizers and wine as well as sharing some final memories with tour friends.  I always find these farewells to be a bit melancholy; having to say farewell to new friends.

     

    Palermo - May 14, 2013 (Day 10 of our Tour)

    For all intents and purposes, the tour concluded last night when we had our farewell cocktail party back at Hotel Tonic.  For me, it really did as I have a very early flight to Rome and then another onto Milan.  From there I plan to spend four nights in Bellagio and another three nights in Venice before heading back home to the Denver area.  I worked with the hotel to arrange for a cab to pick me up at 3:45 a.m. to take me to the Palermo airport.  I misjudged this a bit as there was no traffic and we got to the airport a bit after 4:00 a.m. and well before the airline counter or security opened at 5:00 a.m.  Once through security, I had time for a quick bite to eat before boarding my 6:30 a.m. Alitalia flight to Rome.

    Tour Destinations

  • Post Tour Excursions - Bellagio

    Bellagio - May 14, 2013

    Ah, Bellagio.  My favorite place in Italy.  If you've never been here you need to put this on your Italy to do list.  I read something once in a Rick Steves' Italy Guide Book that if you can't decompress and chill out in Bellagio, you can't do it anywhere.  I completely agree.

     

    I had a car pick me up at the Milan Malpensa Airport and drive me to Bellagio.  We drove north through Como and then up the eastern side of this leg of Lake Como.  Lake Como looks like an inverted Y with Como situated at the base of the left hand leg.  I'd never driven up the eastern side of this leg of Lake Como before and it is even prettier than the drive up the west side, which I have done in the past.  We went through many small towns, dodging several bicyclists along the windy road.  The drive really reinforced for me my mantra of never driving in Italy!  Once in Bellagio, which is located where all the legs of the lake come together, my driver took me directly my hotel, the Hotel Florence (http://www.hotelflorencebellagio.it/home_eng.html).  Hotel Florence is a fantastic hotel with a great staff.  This is the second time I've stayed here and I splurged this time on a room with a lake view (Room 6).  A beautiful room with a great view.  It was really pleasant and relaxing just sitting at the window and watching the boat traffic on the lake and taking in the scenery.  The hotel has been run by the same family for seven generations and 150 years.  It's obviously old, but well maintained.  Each room is a bit different than the others, so definitely not a cookie cutter hotel.  Its breakfast room is also one of the prettiest I've encountered in Italy.  The Hotel Florence has a lot of character and I'd give this hotel and its staff the highest recommendation possible.  I was even able to get my laundry done here.

     

    By the time I reached Bellagio, the day had turned gloomy and rainy.  With a brief reprieve one afternoon, this unfortunately was the weather I encountered during my entire stay in Bellagio.  I was told that it had been raining since April, which has kept tourists away.  Bellagio was as quiet as I have ever seen it.

     

    Bellagio is built on a hillside so from along the lake front, there are several staircases lined with shops and restaurants leading up the hill.  Once at the top, you can walk along Via Garibaldi but be on the lookout for traffic.  After getting settled into my room, I went to my favorite restaurant, Far Out!  I had a good meal followed by an afternoon and evening walking around Bellagio and enjoying its atmosphere.

     

    Bellagio - May 15, 2013

    During my second day in Bellagio, I visited the Basilica of San Giacomo.  I had walked past this church many times during past visits but had never gone in.  It is dark inside but really contains some beautiful mosaics.  After my visit here, I joined a tour facilitated by the Comune di Bellagio (Municipality of Bellagio) of the park above Via Garibaldi.  This property has an interesting history, which included use from the 1870's as a hotel.  In 1907, the heirs of the property (Serbelloni) sold the property to a swiss company and the property became known as the Hotel Villas Serbelloni.  In 1930, the property was bought again and converted into a private residence until the owner bequeathed it to the Rockefeller Foundation of New York in 1959.  The Rockefeller Foundation now uses it as a place for scholars, artists, and scientists to come and study, write, and be inspired.  We were allowed to take pictures of everything except the main building in order to protect the privacy of anyone who may be in residence.  It really is a very beautiful piece of land with some beautiful views of Bellagio below and Varenna across the lake.  The rain started again this afternoon so I spent much of the remainder of the day relaxing around the hotel.

    Bellagio - May 16, 2013

    The weather has actually turned worse and its raining more today than it has the past couple of days.  These are the days when I'm glad I packed a raincoat and have a waterproof compact camera to use.  I spent the day simply relaxing around Bellagio and taking a few pictures.  Dinner tonight was a highlight.  The hotel recommended La Grotta Pirzzeria Ristorante (http://www.en.lagrottabellagio.com) where I had one of the best pizzas of the trip.  Really good.

     

    Bellagio - May 17, 2013

    Despite the rain, I decided to go to Varenna today.  I had spent some time here as part of my first Rick Steves' tour I took in 2010 (Best of Italy in 17 Days).  Its really a pretty town with a great picturesque, seaside walk that is lined with restaurants and shops.  Once there, I decided to see if I could find the hotel we stayed at in 2010 and I managed to walk right to it.  Once there I chatted with the young woman at the front desk and mentioned my previous stay as part of a Rick Steves' tour.  She told me that they had the same tour starting from there the next day and that the tour guide, Stephanie, was already there.  I asked if she would call her room as Stephanie was the guide I had on the tour and I wanted to say hello.  It turned out that Stephanie was on the stairs and heard us talking about her so she came down.  It was great seeing her.  It always amazes me what a small world it can be when this type of coincidence occurs.  Who would have guessed she would have been there at the same time I decided to wander into Varenna.

     

    From here I took the ferry to Bellano, which is the next town going north on Lake Como.  Bellano didn't seem to have much to draw tourists.  I found a place for lunch before taking the ferry back to Bellagio.  There was a small break in the weather this afternoon but for the most part, my time in Bellagio was a bust for a weather perspective.  It's still a great place to visit.

     

    Departing Bellagio - May 18, 2013

    Today I have a car service take me to the train station in Milan and travel to Venice.  I'm a huge train fan and was looking forward to the time on the train.  I'd made sure I had a window seat but discovered when I got on the train that my window seat had a wide support pillar running through it.  What a bummer.  The train car did clear out a bit prior to getting to Santa Lucia Train Station in Venice so I at least got to see Venice as we approached it.  For future reference, I'll sit on the left side of the train when traveling into Venice to get the best views (right side when departing).

    Tour Destinations

  • Post Tour Excursions - Venice

    Venice - May 18, 2013

    I love Venice, and arriving by train was really cool.  Even better was taking a private water taxi to my hotel.  What a thrill having a water taxi waiting for you and then taking you down the Grand Canal.  Definitely worth the price of admission!  They took me right to the door of my hotel down the narrow canal just past Cà Rezzonico, which surprised the folks at the hotel.

     

    Prior to my trip I had done a lot of research on hotels in Venice using the Rick Steves' Italy Guide Book.  So many of the hotels don't have a secure website for making reservations and they want you to simply e-mail them with your credit card number.  I'm not willing to take this chance in this age of identity theft, and so I was limited by those who were willing to take the card over the phone.  I ended up selecting Casa Rezzonico (http://www.casarezzonico.it/list_events.asp).   A nice hotel with a quiet backyard area, which seems like  a unique, extravagance in Venice.  As a single, I got the attic room, which was actually very nice once past the steep stairs.  The only drawback to this hotel is that it is pretty far away from San Marco (20 minute walk) and even further from the Rialto Bridge.  On the upside it forced me to experience parts of Venice I'd never been in before and exploring Venice is always fun.  I actually love getting lost in Venice.

     

    One of the things I wanted to do during this visit to Venice was to take a tour of the Clock Tower in Piazza San Macro.  By the time I got there, I discovered that the English tours were done for the day and that only an Italian tour was available to take.  The folks at the museum where you buy the tickets indicated that the next few days looked like rain, which would prevent doing the full Clock Tower tour that would include stepping out onto the roof (too slick if it rained).  Based on this, I decided to take the tour even though I wouldn't understand what was said.  Much to my surprise, the tour guide caught me up between floors so I did get to have a good experience here.

     

    I should have gone to San Giorgio Maggiore across from Piazza San Marco to take pictures from the bell tower back into Piazza San Marco since the weather was good but was tired and didn't feel like figuring out how to get there, so I stayed around San Marco long enough to have dinner in this area before going back to the hotel.  As I got close to the hotel, I came across a street performer in Campo S. Barnaba.

    Venice - May 19, 2013

    Today I woke up to overcast weather again.  After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I headed out in the gloomy weather to see Venice.  Much to my surprise, I found myself in the middle of an annual non-competitive rowing event called the Vogalonga.  According to the official Vogalonga website (http://www.vogalonga.com/?lang=en), it was conceived to "invite fans and all those who had 'laid the oars’ too long to unite against the deterioration of the city and the waves and the restoration of the Venetian tradition."  What a cool spectacle.  Boats of all shapes and sizes with crews from one to many; sitting and standing.  Everywhere you looked you saw boats being rowed down the Grand Canal and side canals.  What fun.  I wish I had known it was going to happen so I could have seen it from the start.

     

    After watching the Vogalonga for a bit, I headed to Piazza San Marco so I could catch a boat to San Giorgio Maggiore and photograph Piazza San Marco from across the Grand Canal.  This was my number one priority for today.  Getting there turned out to be pretty easy.  I walked past both the Bridge of Sighs and the famous Danielle Hotel to the #2 Vaporetto stop.  The first stop for the Vaporetto is San Georgio.  I took the elevator up the bell tower and took some photos of San Marco.  It was very cloudy and dreary.  I could see it was raining back in Piazza San Marco.  By the time I got on the Vaporetto to go back, it had started sprinkling on me.  It ended up raining pretty hard all morning, but it broke in the afternoon and the weather during the rest of my time in Venice was good.

     

    This afternoon I embarked on the long walk from my hotel to the Rialto Bridge and took some photos of this beautiful trademark of Venice.  The weather was so good I decided to go back to San Georgio to get some better pictures of Piazza San Marco.  I was about three groups from the elevator when the power went out.  Thank goodness for small favors.  It would have been unnerving to get stuck in the elevator.  With my failed second attempt at taking these photographs, I went back to the San Marco area and simply enjoyed walking around and taking the kind of unique photos that you can only capture in Venice!  When I returned to my hotel area, I discovered my street performer friend was back.  I had a very good dinner near the hotel, followed by a gelato and then bed.

     

    Venice - May 20, 2013

    In my version of Ground Hog Day in Venice, I head back toward Piazza San Marco and the #2 Vaporetto start to try once again to get a good picture from San Giorgio Maggiore looking back into Saint Mark's Square.  Its a beautiful day so I have much better success today with my photography aspirations.  My next stop this morning was the Fenice Opera House (Teatro La Fenice).  Once there, I found that you can pay extra to get a photo pass that allows you to take pictures within the Opera House, which is not allowed otherwise.  I purchased the pass but was hassled anyway.  Communication between the staff didn't appear to be up to speed.  It was worth it though, as this is a beautiful Opera House.  When I left, I walked around the exterior and discovered that I had been walking within 100 yards of the Opera House every time I walked between my hotel and Piazza San Marco.

     

    I had a pizza back near my hotel and then walked up the back side of the Dorsoduro section of Venice to the point that marks the beginning of the Grand Canal.  From here, I walked back down the Grand Canal, sticking to the Canal as much as possible.  Eventually, I found myself in an area with a lot of art shops and all of a sudden found myself in front of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  Turned out that this was very close to the Accademia Bridge, which I crossed whenever I walked from my hotel toward Piazza San Marco.  Tonight I had a nice meal at a restaurant in Campo Santa Margarita before going back to the hotel to finish packing before my early departure for home tomorrow.

    Tour Destinations

  • Departing Venice and heading Home

    Venice - May 21, 2013

    I was picked up at my hotel in Venice a 3:45 a.m. by a private Water Taxi.  My flight from Venice to Frankfurt leaves at 6:45 a.m. and I've not traveled though Venice's Marco Polo Airport before so I don't know what to expect here.  I'd rather be early than late.

     

    The water taxi backed down the narrow canal near the hotel into the Grand Canal.  It was cool and quiet on the Grand Canal with virtually no one else on the Canal.  The water taxi driver had to keep his speed down so this ended up being a surreal, incredible ride with the Grand Canal lit up and no one around but me.  Absolutely beautiful.  I decided then and there that the next time I'm in Venice I'm going to make arrangements to have a private boat pick me up early like this and then spend the next hour or two photographing the Grand Canal from a boat.

     

    Just beyond the Rialto Bridge, we turned to the right and pretty soon we were traveling across open water for about six miles toward the Airport.  It took about 25 minutes to get from the hotel to the Airport dock.  Once we docked at the Airport, I would have had about a ten minute walk from the boat dock to the terminal but the boat driver talked me into taking a taxi cab.  Since I was traveling alone and had never been here before, the cab probably was the best choice.  Certainly the safest at this early hour.  Once again I was there before the ticket counter or security opened (4:45 a.m.).  The good news is that security was already open and there was no line.  While having a danish at the gate, I was treated to a beautiful sunrise at Venice's Marco Polo Airport.

     

    I sat on the left side of the plane and got to see Saint Mark's as we taxied but Venice was on the opposite side of the plane when we took off.  Based on the comments, I could tell I was missing a great view.  Just as I thought this, the plane made a circle to head north and I got a fantastic view of Venice out my window.  I could pick out Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, and could definitely see how Venice looks like a fish.  The sky was clear so I even got some shots of the Dolomites as we flew over them toward Frankfurt.  After a layover in Frankfurt, it was on to Denver.  I woke up from a nap over Greenland and got a few pictures.  It was really a bit surreal to see this part of the world.

     

    My day started with me having an amazing ride down the Grand Canal at 4:00 a.m.  At 4:00 p.m., I'm in a Toyota Prius Taxi Cab traveling home from Denver's Airport.  What a strange world we live in that your start and end of the same 24 hour period can be so different!!!

    Tour Destinations