01 June – Our first few weeks has passed very quickly and still not a drop of rain. Checked out our local surroundings before breakfast – not a lot around here, just a mix of villas/apartments and cultivated fields. Olives and grapes seem to be the predominant crop, but figs, oranges and artichokes are also plentiful. Headed into Sciacca later on – caught the mad lunch time traffic not made much better by navigator making a wrong call on the parking entrance and ending up having to trail around a series of one way streets before we could finally get back to the parking area. Needed to buy an envelope – thought that would be a difficult task but the first shop (a tobacconist) had them for sale so it was then off to the post office to get the letter sent. Post offices seem to be a real social place here – as you enter you take a ticket from the machine and then wait until your number comes up and in the meantime they seem to catch up on the local gossip with each other. With that chore done, we had a little walk around the town, as always plenty of churches. Some of the buildings going back to the Norman times.
A nice little park overlooking the harbour, but not a lot else. Came back to find a parking ticket on our car – sometimes it is a pain when you can’t understand the language. It seems that the car park attendant goes on his siesta break from 2-4pm so during that time you can’t pay and it seems that if you know that you are going to be there over that period then you have to prepay. Our host back at the apartment offered to sort it the next day – we did have to pay the fine of 5euro instead of just the charge for the couple of hours we were there. Lesson learnt!
02 June – After a nice lazy start to the day, made some sammies and set off in the direction of Trapani about and hour’s drive away. As we neared the city, we noticed a much more interesting looking place high up on a hill (2500ft) overlooking the city. Called Erice, it was a fortified medieval town and another neat place to walk around. Seems it was Republic Day Holiday so the locals were our in force, but we did manage to find a parking spot close to the city gate. Ceramics are a huge thing in this area, very gaudy and not at all to our liking but they must sell as there were so many little shops packed to the gunwales – most of them are hand painted and each shop had its own little workshop. Walked up and down the little streets, the paving throughout the little town was amazing – divided into 40 cm squares – the inside of which were bits of stone laid on edge,then surrounding each of these squares were four oblong flat marble stones, each dovetailed to form a larger square. Very hard to walk on, and would be a nightmare in heels or when wet. Can’t imagine that it would have been very easy for horses either as the streets were quite steep.
Visited a very cute display of Erice in miniature, series of diorama depicting early life complete with little mechanised figures going about their work – ie. blacksmith, baker, musician at the restaurant, butcher etc.
We had our first few drops of rain, so ducked into one of the churches until it stopped. It is always a surprise, from the outside these churches look plain and uninspiring but stepping inside it was bright with a very fancy altar and the usual Catholic accoutrements.
Once the rain eased we headed to have a look at the castle then back into the town square for a sit down and taste some Sicilian delicacies. That was well-timed as there was a special medieval procession taking place with a band of incredible young, vigorous drummers.
Back down to our car and then down a different little road laced with switchbacks – getting used to these now – they would make great hill climb roads but with opposing traffic you need a bit more care! Came home via a different route, between Sciacca and Trapani the rolling hills are very heavily cultivated – olives and grapes mainly but also many hectares of greenhouses growing capsicums (they thrive here and the ones you can buy in the markets are huge). On the outskirts of the towns you find little trucks laden with produce for sale – in season at the moment are melons – huge watermelons and all sorts of other ones – too much for us to cope with, we have to be content with cherries, apricots and peaches. Back home to Sanmarcomare and a home cooked meal for a change.
03 June – Moving on again – destination Marina di Modica via Agrigento. Agrigento is home to the Valley of the Temples – a bit of a misnomer as the Temples are all along a ridge – this a World Heritage site with excavated and partially restored temples from the 6th & 5th C BC they constitute some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself. A couple of hours in the heat of the day walking up and down the ridge was enough for us – certainly an impressive site.
Back to the car for a spot of lunch then on the road again for the last couple of hours of our journey. This time we have a small villa, with a couple of bedrooms upstairs and kitchen, bathroom and lounge/kitchen downstairs with a lovely covered patio – we are in a small subdivision called Residence Bougainvillea – the colourful plants are in full bloom and along with scent of other tropical flowers it is very nice. Inside to welcome us was a full fruit bowl, a fridge full of goodies including wine, cheese, sweet things and eggs. A short drive to the supermarket to pick up dinner things for the next few days and then time to settle in and listen to the Americas Cup transmission from Radio Sport NZ.
04 June – Stay put day with just a walk down to the beach – crowded today being a Sunday. Very shallow beaches here but the water is clear and clean. Don’t think I have ever seen so many speedos!! Picked up some nice fresh bread to take home for lunch.We have temps getting up into the low 30’s now, so really should be joining the locals and having our siesta from 1-4pm but somehow not quite managing to co-ordinate ourselves for that.
05 June – A drive into Siracuse today – only about an hour from our base along a variable state road – in places nice and smooth but at times the surface very broken up and not good for the car’s suspension. Travelled through Nota but after getting taken around a series of one way tiny streets with no hope of finding parking flagged it and headed on Siracuse via Fontana Bianca for a morning tea stop. Sampled one of the local Sicilian delicacies – canolo which looks like a brandy snap, but the shell is made of a nutty chocolate concoction filled with whipped cream, more chocolate and pistachio – extremely sweet and rich.
On into Siracuse where we found a great public car park close to the old town so set out to have a good explore. A compact area – separated from the main part of the city in the old port area surrounded all around by water. Docked along the main waterfront parade where a nice collection of fancy yachts and launches were moored (not as flash as St Tropez or Valletta in Malta) but a couple from Aussie and one very large one from the Cayman Islands.
Down one of the little side streets we came across a neat little museum devoted to Leonardo and Archimedes – inside were a about 30 of their models which had been recreated, many of which were interactive so you could have a little play to check out their workings. The inventions were such marvels of engineering brilliance – they were certainly well ahead of their time. Finished our visit with a meander around the maze of tiny streets before heading back to the car.
A large cruise ship was moored out in the harbour but the passengers must have mostly been whipped off to other places as there wasn’t too much sign of them in the town.
06 June – Our first rainy day, but with not too much planned other than moving on to our next destination it didn’t really matter. With only a couple of hours driving to Piazza Armerina our next stop – were able to have a very relaxed start to the day. Drove inland this time, still very highly cultivated, the hills were a little more pronounced but every scrap of hillside seems to have some sort of cropping on it. To begin with the hillsides were divided into paddocks with stone walls, which I guess at once stage contained grazing animals but today the walls are in various states of disrepair and the land seems to used for making hay. Ragusa was our first stop, but we didn’t quite manage to get ourselves in the historic Ragusa Ilba, but a spot midway between that and the new town much higher up. Embarked on a walk down to the old city, but upon reaching a suitable overlook of the town decided that the view was just fine from where we were, it wasn’t necessary to descend down to the lower depths as we would just have to walk all the way back up again.
Contented ourselves with a little spot of lunch in a nice little cafe – Sicilian speciality for me – little deep-fried croquette filled with rice, cheese and spinach – very tasty. Getting out of Ragusa entailed going uphill very steeply for a distance before emerging out onto a high plateau, the views from the top out over the next huge cultivated valley were spectacular. Down into the valley, through the huge areas of cultivation – grapes and olives mostly (three-quarters of the island is given over to horticultural production). Drove through the valley and then up through little more winding roads to get to Piazza Armerina and our next little sojourn – Apartment Sant Andrea. I could see Bob’s mind working overtime when we took the turnoff to the northern end of the town – straight into narrow streets with very dingy looking apartment blocks and Monique advising us that we only had 500m to go. 500m that made a huge amount of difference – our apartment was set in a huge garden, up a little cul-de-sac of about 6 villas – a veritable oasis. Giulia our hostess was there to take us through our apartment – this has to be the best stay yet – immaculately furnished with white walls and furnishings in greys and reds very stunning and all for 52 Euro a night – very good value. A little kitchen and dining area and a nice bottle of local red wine to welcome us. Giulia insisted on taking us around the gardens – the perfumes from all the flowering trees and plants was very heady. A few lemons plucked off the tree for us followed by an explanation of what we must see tomorrow then we were left to settle in. A quick search on google showed that in amongst these little streets of dingy buildings were various little shops for us to re-provision. A tiny grocery store, the butcher next door and the baker a few doors down. It is really nice that the big supermarkets have not dealt to these neighbourhood businesses as they have done in so many other countries. For the grand sum of 3Euro we had our dinner sorted. It was then time to settle in to listen to the disastrous events of the Americas Cup happenings – poor Team NZ doing the nose dive is probably not the best way to get match racing practice.
07 June – Giulia’s recommendation that we must not miss the Villa Romana del Casale was taken on board, so we duly set off before it got too hot to find this Unesco World Heritage site. It was only about 10km from home, nestled in a tree studded valley and wow what a place.
The villa was constructed (on the remains of an older villa) in the first quarter of the 4th century AD, probably as the center of a huge latifundium (agricultural estate) covering the surrounding area. How long the villa had this role is not known, maybe for fewer than 150 years. The complex remained inhabited and a village grew around it, named Platia(derived from the word palatium (palace). The villa was damaged and perhaps destroyed during the domination of the Vandals and the Visigoths. The outbuildings remained in use, at least in part, during the Byzantine and Arab periods. The site was abandoned in the 12th century AD after a landslide covered the villa. Survivors moved to the current location of Piazza Armerina.
The villa was almost entirely forgotten, although some of the tallest parts of the remains were always above ground. The area was cultivated for crops. Early in the 19th century, pieces of mosaics and some columns were found. The first official archaeological excavations were carried out later in that century. What they unearthed was this villa which largely still had its mosaic floors in tact – The Great Hunting Scene, in a corridor almost 200 feet long, portrays a fanciful jungle in which lions, tigers and leopards hunt game and are in turn hunted by rearing horsemen in embroidered tunics and colored cloaks.
Blood drips, and one all but hears the screams. Circuses, chariot races and mythological scenes abound along with scantily clad female athletes performing olympic style sports.
Our visit began however with the bath houses complete with steam rooms, plunge pools and larger swimming pool, ingeniously heated from air forced through under raised floors. From there we entered through into the villa’s porticoes quadrangle – a three phased fountain in the middle, surrounded by gardens then the covered portico, off which were various guests rooms.
Off the large corridor with the hunting scenes were the master’s northern and southern apartments – again with lavishly decorated mosaic floors. It seems that the internal and external walls were all plastered and painted with scenes as well (some were still visible) but in later years these had been covered up with marble facings. The amount of work in the mosaics just beggars belief – the mosaic pieces were sourced from marble from all around the Roman Empire – reds, blues, greys, whites and yellows and some poor devils must have had the job of breaking them into the 10mm squares, whilst others the painstaking work of actually making them into scenes.
The colours looked quite dull until the little man mopped them over with a damp mop and then they came to vibrant life. The villa walls have been extensively reconstructed and the entire villa has been roofed and walled to protect the mosaics with a walkway installed around at ceiling level so that you can look down on each of the rooms. A massive project – reportedly it contains the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world. Got ourselves in sync today so that we were back home in time for siesta.
Headed back out into the wide world to have a peek at the other of Giulia’s recommendations – namely the Greek ruins at Morgantina. Monique had fun with us again getting us out there, I don’t know how she manages to find the most obscure little crappy roads but she does. We did eventually make it to a road that at least fitted two vehicles and wound up through the hills to the site.
For a Unesco site it was very run down and overgrown. Over the years various excavations had been done but it seems that the money kept running out as they were in quite a sad state. The site covered a large area the most interesting area was the main public square with a small theater and adjacent to it another meeting area with more seating where the people gathered to listen to their councillors.
There were the odd bits of columns outlining areas where porticoed streets would have existed. The shopping area was visible with the walls of individual shops partially in tact. There were nice views of the entire valley from the higher points of the town. Odd floors still had some mosaic remains but they were not covered or protected in anyway so just left to the elements and were deteriorating quite badly.
Back home via the little hillside town of Aidone to the peace and calm of our nice little apartment.
08 June – A very vigorous farewell from Giulia as we set off for our last night night’s stay in Sicily. Decided that we would drive around the base of Etna – first off via the motorway then as we neared Catania headed off to a minor road that would do the circle trip for us. Coming down the motorway we had fantastic views of Etna – smoking away out of a couple of fumaroles. It certainly dominates the landscape. The landscape coming down the motorway was dominated by fields of wheat then as we headed off around the base, the sides of the mountain turned green, with the lava flows covered with trees – the trees were mainly pistachios, planted in little spots where stones have been cleared. Just amazing that anything would grow in this harsh environment but they were certainly flourishing.
Out of the relative calm of little farming villages and down close the coast where once again it was built up. Our stop for the night – a little different – an Agriturismo called Antico Borgo. It seems that it is an old converted villa – our room is OK but not quite sure where the promised Etna or sea views are but perfectly adequate. The agriturisom bit means that we are in a little farm – surrounded by citrus trees – lemons and oranges, olives, peaches, figs, mulberries and grapes. I was pleased to finally solve the answer to a tree that I had been seeing in plantations with bright orange flowers – turns out that they are pomegranates which are also growing here.
09 June – A lovely array of fresh fruits and jams straight from the orchard along with freshly squeezed orange juice made a nice finish to our Sicilian adventures. With a backward glance at Mt Etna, it was off up the coast and back to the madness of Messina to catch our ferry back to the mainland. We managed to have trawl 7km through the whole waterfront of Messina and the erratic drivers before coming to the embarkation wharf. Just missed a ferry so it was a wait in the hot sun for about 30 mins for the next one to arrive. Efficient loading and unloading at the other end and we were off up onto the freeway making our way north for the night.
Cosenza was meant to be our destination and here we struck the first hiccup in our bookings – can’t really work out what happened, but we went to the address of our hotel, the picture looked exactly like in the booking but everything was all closed up, and workers next door said the hotel was closed. We called the number I had but only got a message so we went to plan B and headed off to look for somewhere else to stay – we think it must have moved to a different place, because the later on we got an email asking where we had got to. In the meantime I had contacted booking.com to tell them we couldn’t find the place and to make sure that we didn’t get charged – they confirmed that we wouldn’t so that was OK.
Our alternative accommodation was a bit of a budget blowout, but it was Bob’s birthday and it was very nice. High up on a hill in the village of Contessa was this very spiffy hotel complex open but not really geared up yet for the season so we were the only guests. They had a nice restaurant – we were joined by some other local couples who seemed to be there to critique the menu items as they all had pens and paper and the chef kept coming out and asking them about their courses. The complex had all a little mini farm complete with one sad donkey, a couple of black piggies and all manner of chickens and birds; nice swimming pool complex (not open for the season), venues for weddings and functions; nature walks and lovely views out over the countryside.