Thursday, 1 October 2015

Charming Cefalu

Main beach at Cefalu.
In late April, after a busy week travelling together, we said goodbye to Bill, Gen and our hire car at Palermo Airport.   From there we took a train to Cefalu, a resort town on the northern coast of Sicily. For the first time on this trip we didn't have any accommodation booked.  We were 'winging it', just like we did as backpackers in the 1980s.
We had few requirements for this next stop in Sicily: an apartment within an easy walk of the town centre, a beach for strolling along, bars for enjoying an evening aperitivo and a good internet connection so I could complete some work online.
The local tourist office was most helpful. We were pleased to find that the old method for finding accommodation still works. After viewing several apartments we found one which met all our criteria.
The view from the balcony of our apartment
For the next week we settled into a predictable routine.  By day, I tapped away at the computer while Stefano explored in and around Cefalu.  He took the steep, hour-long walk to La Rocca, the craggy bluff overlooking the town, where on a clear day you can see the Aeolian islands beyond.

He also visited Cefalu's famous cathedral,

just as a confirmation ceremony was about to commence.
Stefano's most important goal each day was to find a bar for our evening aperitivo, my reward after a day of staring at a computer screen.
Late spring was the perfect time to visit this part of Sicily.  The temperatures were mild, the beaches empty and accommodation was easy to find.  Perhaps in summer it would be less charming as it is a very popular resort with Italian and English holiday makers.

The weather was finally warming up as we left Cefalu on our way to Lipari, one of the Aeolian islands.

A Lipari con il treno e la barca.

Where we stayed:
Although the one bedroom apartment in the centre of town was reasonably priced at 50E per night, it isn't one we would recommend as it was fairly basic.  

Where we ate:
Rather than eating out we enjoyed an evening drink at the various bars along the beach front.  All were fine but none outstanding.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Marvelous mosaics and towering temples

The exterior of Villa Romana del Casale, just a couple of kilometres from the town of Piazza Armerina, looked ordinary.  On arrival, we were puzzled as to how the seemingly random collection of stone walls and modern shed-like buildings could possibly warrant classification as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 
But once we entered the seemingly ordinary buildings, we were stunned by the extent of the most magnificent mosaics we'd seen during our stay in Italy.  
The villa, built during the height of the Roman empire in 350 AD, is regarded as containing the richest and largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  The site reopened to the public two years ago after under going extensive reconstruction of the shelters protecting the architectural remains and incredible frescos and artworks.  
We arrived at lunchtime, that very important time for Italians, which meant we didn't have to cope with crowds and could enjoy the villa at our leisure. We marvelled at the detailed scenes of the Great Hunt, the largest and most complete of the mosaics.  It portrays the capture and transport of wild animals from the far reaches of the Roman empire to the circuses of Rome.  
In addition to the mosaic scenes of life in this outpost of the Roman empire, the villa incorporates a series of Roman baths.  Some of the most charming mosaics decorate these wet rooms.  The most famous of these mosaics features young women competing in various sporting events dressed in what appear to be bikinis.  
These photos don't do justice to the enormous scale, delicate intricacy and glowing colours of the mosaics.  If you are ever visiting Sicily, add this Villa to your list of 'must sees'.

After a most enjoyable couple of hours at Villa Romana del Casale we departed just as the afternoon tour buses were arriving, and made our way into the heart of Sicily.  
Our destination was Tenuta San Giovanni, an agriturismo 20 kilometres from our next destination, the Valley of Temples outside Agrigento.   After a challenging drive, we finally located the argiturismo where we gratefully accepted a welcoming glass of the house wine.  It was a pleasant way to end the day, watching the last rays of sunlight disappear over the valley of vines.
The reason we decided to stay at this agriturismo was because we'd heard that while the Valley of the Temples was spectacular and not to be missed, the opposite recommendation was given for the modern town of Agrigento.  Best avoided, so we did.
Agrigento is Sicily's most popular archaeological tourist site for a very good reason.  It is incredible.  

In preparation for our visit I'd done a little research and learned that the best way to tour the Valley of the Temples, Valle dei templi, was to hire a local guide.  We usually avoid tour groups, preferring to do our own thing, but this time we were very glad to be led along the low plateau overlooking the sea by Nicola, a local secondary school history teacher who works as a guide during the tourist season. 
Nicola explained that the 8 temples in the valley were built around 580 BC as part of the large Greek colony known as Akragas.  During that time between 100,000 and 200,000 people lived in the area surrounding the temples. Today the modern town of Agrigento has a population of only 50,000, very much a shadow of what it was during the height of the Greek empire when the temples were built.
Agrigento hosts some of the most complete ruins of Doric-style temples anywhere in the world, including Greece.
It was fascinating to learn how the temples were built.  Nicola explained that the large u-shaped carvings in the blocks of stone that lay scattered among the ruins were not decorative. The carvings revealed the construction methods that the ancient Greeks used to lift the building blocks into position with ropes and pulleys - what amazing ingenuity resulted in these breathtaking buildings.
Once again we were delighted to be visiting Sicily in spring.  The Valley of the Temples is an exposed site so in summer it would be blisteringly hot.  Luckily we enjoyed a warm spring day, perfect for touring this memorable archaeological park. 
Although we'd had a long day of walking and sightseeing, we couldn't resist a quick detour on our way back the agriturismo.  
One of the reasons we enjoy staying in agriturismi is that the owners are usually keen to share their local knowledge.  Thanks to our hosts at Tenuta San Giovanni, we learned that the Easter decorations, the Archi di Pasqua in the nearby village of San Biagio Platani, were still on display as part of a month long Easter festival.  With the promise of refreshing Sicilian gelati, we thought the detour would be worth the drive, and it was.
The bamboo arches lining the main street are decorated bread and pasta.
We thoroughly enjoyed our week of feasting and sightseeing with Bill and Gen.  As we sadly said good-bye, we all agreed that we needed a holiday, to recover from our holiday.

Prossima fermata, Cefalu per un lungo dormire.

Where we stayed:
Tenuta San Giovanni, an agriturismo set in the hills about 25 kilometres from Agrigento.
CLICK HERE for information
CLICK HERE for reviews.

What we saw:

Villa Romana del Casale
Open throughout the year but times vary according to the season.  Tickets 10E.
For more information about Villa Romana del Casale CLICK HERE.  In peak season it would be essential to visit early in the day to enjoy this stunning site in relative peace.

For opening times and more information CLICK HERE

San Biagio Platani
The Easter festival at San Biagio Platani lasts for a month.  CLICK HERE for more information.

Monday, 24 August 2015

More Baroque towns - Noto and Ragusa

A second guest post from my conscientious brother-in-law, Bill.  Grazie Mille!
According to many tourist guides and websites, Noto is the most perfect of Sicily's Baroque towns. After a quiet Sunday morning waiting for the sun to come out we backtracked down the road from Modica towards Syracuse, arriving in Noto at lunchtime just as a local cycling race finished.  The streets quickly emptied as the restaurants filled with hungry cyclists and spectators, and made us wish we'd booked.
But up an unassuming side street, past trays of cherry tomatoes drying in the early spring sunshine, we found a small restaurant with an unusually English/Italian name - Enoteca, Emily’s Wine.  And, as we've come to expect in Sicily, we were the only patrons - well for a short while anyway
Maurizio, the waiter/sommelier/owner, offered us some rustic appetisers, including a fresh homemade ricotta to die for. Perhaps it was made from donkey’s milk in a grotty cave. We didn't ask as it was delicious. Then we enjoyed more Sicilian specialties of involtini, sardines in a roll with orange, and caponata-topped swordfish. Maurizio spoke to us in Italian and described in detail the ingredients and cooking techniques. Needless to say we smiled and nodded our appreciation as once again we ate very well in this charming little restaurant.  
Suitably fortified we set out to see the sights of Noto.
The centrepiece of the town is the baroque Cathedral of St Nicholas.  It was reopened in 2007 after 11 years of rebuilding following its collapse in 1996, caused by “unremedied structural weakening” and “injudicious building alterations” discovered following an earthquake in December 1990 which seriously weakened it. 
After wandering through the Cathedral we popped across the road to the small theatre Comunale Vittorio Emmanuale which, although charming, wasn't particularly spectacular.  In fact, that was our general feeling about Noto.  For us, it didn't quite live up to the rave reviews in the tourist guides but it was a pleasant enough town to wander around as we walked off another delicious Sicilian lunch.
Ragusa was the final Baroque town we visited during our week exploring this tiny but fascinating corner of Sicily. We came to a unanimous agreement that the guidebooks have done Ragusa a disservice, as in our collective opinion, Ragusa was more interesting and spectacular than Noto. 
There are two Ragusas: Ragusa Ibla, the old town on the lower hill, and Ragusa Superiore, ironically inferior in interest to Ragusa Ibla but on the higher hill. We parked at the lowest possible point and initially climbed 300 plus steps to what we thought was Ragusa Ibla, but which turned out to be Ragusa Superiore. 
On the positive side we discovered an extremely helpful, but badly located tourist information office which provided excellent information about Ragusa Ibla, 300 steps back down and 200 steps back up. And an extra 50 steps up to the Duomo San Giorgio. 
In summary, Ragusa Ibla has lovely baroque buildings, palaces, gardens and several cafes selling artisan gelato, which was just what we needed to replenish our blood sugar levels after climbing those stairs.  

Prossima fermata, Agrigento!

Friday, 14 August 2015

A golden day in Scicli

We made the most of our week with Gen and Bill, touring the Baroque towns of Sicily.  Each day, we left the apartment bound for another Baroque town certain that it couldn't be as charming as Modica.  And each afternoon, we returned to the apartment bubbling with excitement after discovering another uniquely beautiful spot.  The Baroque towns of Sicily charmed us, completely.

Scicli was my favourite, but the competition was tough.
Sicili's almost empty streets were dotted with
the odd, enterprising local.
Some of the locals persuaded a gullible tourist to model the local pasta making process.
Same town, different gullible tourist model, with another charmingly enterprising Scicli local.
Local romance...
provided welcome entertainment when viewed from a shady seat.
And of course there was a delicious lunch of local pasta,
where once again, we had the restaurant to ourselves.  
A perfect day in Scicli.
E' stata una giornata d'oro!

Where we ate:
La Grotta is a fabulous little restaurant set into a cave in the side of the mountain behind the main town of Scicli.  The food is traditional cucina povera: simple pastas with delicious vegetable sauces topped with roasted breadcrumbs, the poor man's parmesan, as the chef explained.  
Click HERE for the menu etc.
Read reviews HERE.

And just one more thing.  
Just after we left Milan, I was invited to contribute a photo to a travel blog.  If you are heading to the northern Italy over the next couple of months, have a look at the links in the following blogpost.  There are some great photos showcasing different places to visit in our old 'home town'.
20 Italy Bloggers Share Favorite Photos of Milan.