Saturday, September 16, 2017

Southern Italian Charm

“Traveling.  It leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller.”  -- I. Battuta
I’ve told many stories through this blog.  It is one of the joys of my life, writing and sharing.   As I write, I hope to transport the reader to the dinner table, into the renovation,  to the beach, or across the world.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel and for that, I am grateful.  Not only for the opportunity to make memories but also the chance to see things I’ve read and learned about.  For instance, I never really understood the concept of an aqueduct until I saw a cross section of one built by the Romans!

About a year ago, I received a brochure from a tour company with an enticing proposition, a 13-day trip to Southern Italy and Sicily. I’ve been north and in a few years I hope to go east,  spending several weeks in my family’s home town of Sulmona, but I’ve not been south.  

So, I called my bestie from way back and asked her if she wanted to go.  She said yes.  So did her husband.  So did her sister, and in early June, we were off to Mezzogiorno (the nickname for southern Italy) and Sicily, the largest region of Italy and the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea.

We landed in Rome on a gorgeous, sunny day.  Rome is stunning and we had some time the first day to walk around the city.  Of course, we had gelato and a wonderful dinner at an outdoor garden cafe at which local Italian wine was served.  
The next day, it was off to the Colosseum.  The entertainment the Romans enjoyed in this magnificent structure was brutal and, since the floors are missing, you can see the chutes through which the lions, tigers, boar and other wild animals would pace about getting ready for a staged fight or be released to their prey.  
After the Colosseum, we enjoyed a walking tour of renaissance Rome and tossed some coins into the Trevi Fountain, a beautiful, massive structure showcased in such movies as Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in the Fountain.  The last time I visited Trevi, I threw one coin in, guaranteeing a return trip to Rome.  That worked!  So this time I tossed two..legend has it that two coins will bring romance so we’ll see what happens! And how could we not visit the Spanish Steps and the impressive Pantheon. These works of art are quite breathtaking. 

The noble and wealthy Barberini family were among Rome's greatest patrons of the arts and their coat of arms, a beautiful three bees and keys motif in a V-formation adorn many buildings and fountains.  Some other visitors may have looked at the bees and keys and quickly moved on, but as a lover of bees, I stopped and admired them, often trailing my group.  I took many photos!

We left Rome the next day and hopped on our bus to head south to Pompeii.  When Vesuvius erupted on that fateful day in 79AD, the toxic ash devoured and destroyed this ancient city. There were warnings of an eruption and those who did not evacuate were immediately killed.  

But, the ash did something else, it encased the city in a protective shell and we were amazed by the perfectly-preserved remains that gave us a glimpse into daily Pompeian life, including the worlds oldest profession! The figure you see is not a statue but rather a Pompeian boy, encased in ash in the crouched position he assumed during the eruption.

It was blazing hot that day and we were thankful to board the cool bus to head south to Naples.  The Bay of Naples is stunning and majestic Vesuvius stands in the background reminding us of its mighty force.  When we arrived at our hotel, we suspected that our rooms would be facing the water and, like giddy school children, we threw open the balcony blinds and rushed to enjoy the view over looking the Bay of Naples.   We enjoyed a leisurely afternoon and dinner at the hotel, the main course being the view of the legendary Castel dell’Ovo.  The structure is Naples’ oldest castle and the lore is the Roman scribe,Virgil, buried an egg on the site warning that when the egg cracks, Naples will fall. 

It was an almost full moon that evening and that photo does not begin to capture the breathtaking beauty.

And then, Capri.  I sigh as I write because I really don’t know what to say about this enchanting place and the magic became immediately apparent as our ferry sailed into the harbor.  We boarded a private boat and toured the perimeter of the island enjoying the sea caves and the towering rock formations.  We sailed through the three Faraglioni, Stella, Faraglione di Mezzo (with its famous arch) and Scopolo.  Legend has it, if you’re with your sweetheart, a kiss as you sail through the arched rock will bring good luck. We sailed to the lesser known but equally magnificant Grotta Bianca, named because of the bright white reflection of sunlight off the the bottom of the sea.  Capri was a favorite vacation destination of Jackie Kennedy and, during one trip, she ordered a pair of custom-made sandals, still made on the the island….I regret not buying a pair while there!

After the boat excursion, we toured Anacapri, the upper part of the island. To reach the top one must gird their loins through the hairpin turns and edge-of-the-cliff roads but the reward for the adventure is stunning views, charming white-washed buildings and wonderful shopping! 

Still pinching ourselves after enjoying our little slice of paradise, the next day we headed south towards the Puglia Region, stopping in beautiful Matera, known as the "la Città Sotterranea" (the Subterranean City).  Matera lies in a canyon carved out by the Gravina River.  

This city of stone, thought to be among the first settlements in what is now Italy, is incredible and it was hard to stop imagining the routine of daily life in these carved caves and grottoes. Its historical center, Sassi, is considered a World Heritage Site, an honor shared with my beloved Philadelphia.  In the town center, we enjoyed a caprese salad lunch with fresh baked bread, and I can still taste the freshness of the tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and bread!

After our wonderful pitstop, we continued our bus ride to the Florence of the South, Lecce, in the heel of the boot.  Lecce is full of Baroque architecture and the most beautiful and elaborate cherubs and other critters, creatures and characters welcome you through building entrances.

Unfortunately the facade of the most ornate and fantastical structure, the Basilica
di Santa Croce, was under restoration during our visit, but we did, however, see a wedding party in the Piazza!  

We strolled by the remains of an excavated Roman amphitheater in Piazza Sant’Oronzo, in the core of the city.  Each year in winter, the amphitheater displays a magnificent nativity scene and in summer hosts musicians and rallies for sports teams.  Helen Mirren and Gerard Depardieu can often been seen enjoying a glass of wine in Lecce’s cobbled square…we were not lucky to see either celebrity!

Lecce is a baroque masterpiece with Roman and Greek influences everywhere. Its buildings are also adorned with many ornamental balconies, built to accommodate socialization among the town’s ladies, who were forbidden to stroll about the town at that time. 

The balconies are filled beautiful geraniums and folklore says that when the geraniums were put out, the coast was clear for lovers to visit! 

And while in Lecce we enjoyed Burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made with mozzarella, stracciatella and cream.  Buratta is a like a cheesy lava cake explosion and absolutely delicious.  I was full but I could not stop eating this artisanal delight!  

The stunning churches are also filled with beautiful and detailed statues made of wood and paper mache or cartapesta, a craft unique to Lecce.  Artisans did not have access to more preferred materials, like marble or bronze or the tools to sculpt so they developed this method working with old rages, paper, and straw that could be easily worked and manipulated.  There was also a practical purpose for this...wood and paper are lighter than stone or metal and made for a lighter load when carrying statues through the streets during processions. 

Later, while strolling about that evening, my travel mate, Maureen, stumbled upon fig and almond gelato that she said was absolutely delectable. 

The next day we took a day trip to the fairytale town of Alberobello.  This was one of my favorite stops of the whole trip.  This delightful little town is filled with 14th Century trulli houses, derived from the greek word for dome, and are beehive shaped, white-washed with conical-roofed houses made from local limestone. On top of each trullo house is a keystone, a "signature" of the stonemason who built the house.  Some of the trulli houses are now used for restaurants, Bed and Breakfasts and stores (believe me, we shopped in a few) but many are still residences.  We had a wonderful lunch at a rustic local farmhouse, with the best bread, then it was back to Lecce for the evening.  Alberobello is also a (well deserved!) World Heritage Site.

The next morning, we drove south to Calabria to board a ferry to cross the Strait of Messina to Sicily.  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention in geography, but I did not realize that the Mediterranean Sea is made up of several local seas and we drove along two - The Ionian to the south and The Tyrrhenian to the west (our tour guide would quiz us!).  We stood near the bow of the boat and watched as we sailed into Sicily and then we re-boarded our bus for the 33-mile ride to Taormina where we stayed in Villa Diodoro, enjoying stunning views of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Naxos.  We had dinner, cannoli for dessert, because, after all, the cannoli was invented in Sicily.  Then we relaxed and got ready for touring the next day.

There are ruins and then there are ruins with a view!  Such is the case with the  Greek Theatre in Taormina.  Before making our way to the ruins, we strolled through the charming and enchanting streets of the city, taking in the shops filled with pottery, pastries and pizza.  There were also tons of places buy jewelry, clothing, and other treasures and to enjoy yet more cannolis!
The Greek Theatre, perched high on a hill in Taormina, was built in the third century BC.  Mainly brick (so it may have been rebuilt by the Romans at some point), the theatre is incredibly well preserved and still hosts operas and other musical performances. As a matter of fact, while visiting we were serenaded by a group of singing tourists!  A cherished memory indeed.
That evening we enjoyed dinner on the Corso Umberto, Taormina's main street, and while dining, we heard a brass band playing.  We were delighted to see a parade through the streets honoring St. Anthony Abate complete with the faithful carrying a tall statue of the Saint on a platform.  It was so special and what I always imagined an Italian neighborhood festival to be!

Some other photos of charming Taormina.
The pottery and pastries were amazing.  I bought a little sun you see down there and a holy water font.  Maureen bought the most beautiful serving pieces bejeweled with pomegranates, oranges and lemons.  

The next morning, we were off to Mt. Etna, located between the cities of Messina and Catania.  Mt. Etna is in an almost constant state of eruption and, as a matter of fact, we could see ash plumes from the distance as we were driving towards our dusty destination.    Mt. Etna is massive, the tallest active volcano in Europe, only does the volcanic rock make wonderful jewelry and other trinkets — including a beautiful pair of rosary beads I purchased — the fertile volcanic soil supports extensive agriculture, orchards and vineyards so this was a perfect excuse to visit the Gambino Family Winery where we were treated to a wine tasting and light lunch!  One of the oh-so-handsome employees looked like a young Rocky and, being from Philadelphia, I could not resist mentioning that to him.  I was so smitten, I bought four bottles of wine!

That night we traveled back to our hotel in Taormina.  I loved Taormina, the Jewel of Sicily, and didn’t want to leave but leave we did to head to our next and final destination, Palermo.

Palermo is the capital of Sicily and walking around felt no different than walking through any other large city.   On our way, we stopped to tour the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina. The elaborate villa, owned by a Roman aristocrat from the 4th Century, is famous for its intricate mosaics, including bikini-clad woman...the Romans were certainly ahead of their time!

We visited the Royal Palace that General George Patton turned into his headquarters in 1943. The Palazzo dei Normanni was the seat of the Kings of Sicily during the Norman domination and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily.  We visited the Palatine Chapel and were amazed by it’s beautiful and colorful mosaics.   We had just enough time to squeeze in another visit to a vineyard in Marsala.  Marsala was the landing site for Garibaldi’s army in1860, an arrival that eventually lead to Italy's unification.  Garibaldi is revered in Italy.  When my sister was a toddler my Grandfather used to affectionately call her Garibaldi when she wore her red coat!
The next day, exhausted but also thoroughly awestruck, we headed to the airport to begin our journey home (which is another story that I won’t bore you with).

I am happy to say we saw things we never would have known to see, like the charming houses of Alberobello, the carved city of Matera or Garibaldi’s weapons given as a gift to the founders of the Marsala vineyard we visited.  Southern Italy and Sicily are quite different from the north with its amber countryside courtesy of abundant wheat fields.  Driving thorough is a memory I will never forget.
Through our 13-day journey we met some amazing people and formed friendships that hopefully will last a life time. And I hope you noticed in the photos that we had absolutely glorious weather EVERY day!  Our journey was made even more special by our funny, caring and knowledgeable guide, Rafalelle, who called us his “family” and would wake us from our road-trip naps with a gentle microphone tap and an endearing “wakey, wakey.”  Oh, and I can’t forget to mention our amazing bus driver, Claudio, who kept us safe and on schedule despite two mechanical situations with the bus, although hitchhiking along the Italian countryside may have been it’s own kind of adventure!

This was a trip of a lifetime and, if you are planning an Italian vacation, please do consider visiting the south…you will not be disappointed.