Thursday, March 19, 2009

Castello Ursino

It only took me four and half years, but I finally got to see the inside of Catania's Castello Ursino. The interior is a museum of sorts, although the randomness of the collection make it hard to say what it is supposed to be. Nonetheless, the architecture of the interior just by itself is quite interesting, and old, old, old! Originally, it was on the sea, but the centuries of destruction and rebuilding of Catania have changed the shoreline so much that now it is nowhere near the water!

The castle was built in 1239-50 by Riccardo da Lentini for Frederick II. It is a unique square castle with four matching towers at the corners and a full moat. It has been used as a royal residence, the seat of parliament, and a prison. Primarily, though, it was defensive, part of a whole string of castles that included Motta, Paterno', and Adrano, all very close to me. This one, though, is the most impressive and best-restored of them. You can't imagine anyone penetrating its walls.

There are a few interesting details like a mysterious five-pointed star (a supposed occult sign) and a carved eagle with a lamb in its claws, the symbol of imperial power.

It's just beautiful to walk around the entire structure, which is surrounded on all sides by a pretty buildings and a piazza, and then to do the same on the inside. In a city of Baroque and Roman architecture, this is an interesting medieval diversion.

Go HERE to see more photos.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Where the Dead Don't Sleep

The February 2009 edition of National Geographic has a feature on the uniquely Sicilian custom of preserving (mummifying) bodies for public viewing. The article is called "Where the Dead Don't Sleep."

The author writes: "In Europe the desiccation and preservation of corpses is a particularly Sicilian affair. There are other examples in Italy, but the great majority are in Sicily, where the relationship between the living and the dead is especially strong. Nobody knows how many there really are, or how many have since been removed from catacombs and buried in cemeteries by priests uneasy with the theology of keeping votive corpses. The phenomenon provokes an instant question: Why would anyone do this? Why would you exhibit decaying bodies?"

Of course, I have seen the famous Capuchin crypt that he writes about (and shows in a slide show that is amazing) many times. Visitors often ask to see this unusual attraction. In fact, I wrote about it in 2005, calling it "Those Creepy Capuchins." And I still find it creepy! However, I didn't know that there were other places in Sicily where bodies are preserved like this. One is not even too far from where I live, just on the other side of Taormina, in a little town where they filmed part of The Godfather.

"Sicily's macabre mummies offer lessons about life," says the magazine . . . although I still don't know what it is.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sicilian Driving Experiences

Having been here for five and a half years, I thought I had seen it all as far as driving in Sicily. In fact, I wrote about it way back in October of 2004. Just last week, though, I was on my way to work and thought I would be clever and take a shortcut. Instead, I got stuck behind a garbage truck that was stopping at every dumpster on the one-way, narrow street we were on. A long line of cars quickly formed behind me. There was nothing to do but wait. At the third stop for trash, the truck was unable to move forward because someone had parked halfway into the road (no surprise here). Undaunted, the two trashmen ran up front and picked up the little car and just moved it so the garbage truck could get through! And these were not big garbage men, or young ones! Obviously, they were used to this.

I drive fairly fearlessly most of the time, but sometimes even I am amazed. The three craziest instances of driving in Sicily have all happened in the past six months:

1) The guy ahead of me wanted to pass the guy ahead of him, so he went the wrong way around a traffic circle to do so!

2) On a two-way busy highway, the car in front of me could not wait for the smaller car in front of him to pass a truck, so when smaller car pulled out and floored it, this guy went onto the left shoulder and passed them both at once!

3) Very recently, on my way to work on the autostrada (divided highway), the traffic began to get heavy and slow down a bit, so one hot-rodder goes onto the right shoulder and speeds up to pass everyone, right through an on-ramp with cars merging onto our road! Mamma mia!!

I pray I can get my car and me out of Sicily unharmed in the next five months.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

My Top 10 Travel Memories of 2008 in the style of Rick Steves

I recently read Rick Steves' Top 10 Travel Memories of 2008 and thought, "Hey! I can match that!" At my age, though, they may not be the "top" 10, but just any 10 I might recall! So here we go (in no particular order):

1) Eating granita and a warm brioche for Sunday breakfast in August with friends at my favorite local bar here in Nicolosi. Technically, this is not "travel," but it is Sicily and I won't be here forever!

2) Being taken in from a soaking, driving rain by the owner of a restaurant that was actually closed in Piazza Armerina and being given a wonderful lunch. And there were six of us!

3) Backing out of a dead-end, uphill, narrow street in Sicily with the help of the locals who were probably thinking, "Who ARE these people?

4) Visiting Moldavian painted monasteries in Romania.

5) Immersing myself in the Gaudi architecture of Barcelona. What a genius! He had to have influenced Hundertwasser!

6) Slip-sliding on the Rodelbahn in the Austrian Alps. Why did I never do this before? Thanks, Bob.

7) Being charmed by Chattanooga with its unexpected treasures . . . the riverfront, the art.

8) Touring the Thousand Islands mansions on the St. Lawrence by boat with Alison and Randy. And finding out where Thousand Island dressing comes from.

9) Taking fifty students to the Greek theater in Siracusa to see an original Greek play and returning with the same students.

10) Returning to Erice and still not finding the Phoenician carvings. But we did see a green dog! :-)

There you have it! Let's see what 2009 will bring.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Catania-Bucharest Connection

Over the Columbus Day weekend, I flew with my friend Michael to Romania, a place neither of us had ever been. It came about like this: I was looking for cheap airfares from Catania and on I found roundtrip tickets to Bucharest for less than ten euros each! In the end, with taxes and fees, each ticket came out to 69 euros, still slightly less than $100. I had always wanted to see the painted monasteries of Romania, so here was my chance!

Next, I went online and found a private tour agent who would arrange everything--airport pickup and delivery, car and driver, three nights' accommodations, and all sightseeing for a very reasonable price. This lucky find was Fernando and his wife Elena at Fernando's Hideaway.

I wondered why and how MyAir could have flights to Bucharest from Catania every day . . . it seemed very odd. Our flight was jam-packed on a Friday afternoon. We later learned from Fernando that many Italians have investments and businesses, even large factories and corporations in Romania. Why? One reason is the cheap labor; Romania is in the EU but not yet on the euro currency. Designers and producers of Italian clothing and accessories are finding it very convenient and cheap to have them made in Romania. Secondly, the Romanian language is the closest language to Italian--they are very similar. Even I could read and understand much and make myself understood pretty much! Amazing! Romanians also love all things Italian--food, clothing, shoes, furniture. Like America, if it says "Italian," it's a sure hit.

Although there was a lot of car time, Fernando did a great job of driving and his new vehicle is very comfortable. We stayed for two nights in their country home built specifically for visitors in the countryside of Moldavia. The house was built on a historic pattern of a house in their village and all built in the old, traditional ways--log structure with mud, sticks, and plaster, a wood oven/furnace and wrap-around porch. Their only concession to modern times was the installation of two large, modern bathrooms. Many of their rural neighbors do not have indoor bathrooms. We got there very late, but their elderly neighbor had come and made the fire to heat the house, and everything was immaculately clean and perfectly arranged for us. We found we were the first guests to stay in their new house!

Because of Fernando and Elena, we learned everything and more about Romania and its culture, history, geography, politics, economy, and religions. We were able to see three of the most famous painted monasteries, all UNESCO sites, and that alone was worth the trip for me! They are indeed international treasures! We met Elena's mother, who made us delicious sandwiches for lunch and pressed upon us a bottle of wine and another of Romania blueberry liqueur. We visited with an elderly but lively Romanian nun, now retired from her administrative position at her monastery, and admired the beautiful rugs she now weaves. We spent time with a pair of retired Romania teachers who have established their own award-winning ethnographic museum of Romanian artifacts and art, filling several buildings. Because of Fernando and Elena, we got a private tour complete with demonstrations and funny stories given by the wife.

I ate some of the best soup I've had anywhere in the world in Romania. Every day I tried a different one--capon with cream, vegetable-meatball, and borscht (beet)--all fabulous. The food everywhere was plentiful and comforting and cheap! The wine, both red and white, was also surprisingly good.

My own paternal grandparents came from this part of Romania about one hundred years ago. I shared what I knew of them with Fernando, who is a bit of an expert in the various groups that settled in northern Romania--Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews. He has promised to help me continue to research my grandfather's ancestry, as he was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army of Prince Ferdinand and later a farmer married to a German settler before they emigrated to the United States. I came to know how it was this all could have easily happened in this area, which was surprisingly diverse and peacefully so, so long ago.
I will return to Romania.

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Alison's R&R Lunch at Lisa and Onorio's

When Alison arrived in Sicily for the start of her R&R from Iraq, I was in Romania, so my friends took care of her for the afternoon. Kendra picked her up at the Catania airport and whisked her away, top down, of course, to Lisa and Onorio's house. It was Lisa's birthday!

Here is Lisa's description of the lunch: "Well, we started with a prosecco. Onorio was out grilling the beasts we were about to partake of. They included the following: two Florentine steaks (extremely thick), two large turkey thighs, eight sausages, one salami, and one whole chicken. (This for four people, mind you.)

"In addition, he made the Florentine special called Fetunta. In Sicily, they call it bruschetta, but ours is brushed with a garlic cloves, grilled, and then olive oil is poured over it with some salt. Then, for veggies, it was a tomato, onion and zucchini salad, and then my famous beet salad. For dessert, it was cannolis as they couldn't make my birthday cake . . . .

"Then, we made our way to the digestivos . . . which your daughter tried them all. :) ,then coffee. I forgot to bring out the blueberry pie and Onorio forgot to bring out the antipasto . . . which was prosciutto and salami. I thought we were missing something when we were drinking the prosecco. Oh, well.

"Then, I put her in the shower. I didn't know what kind of water pressure you would have at home, so I told her that she would see Jesus in my shower with such hot water and super-duper water pressure. She did say that she saw Jesus."

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunshine and Seafood in Scoglitti

Some of my friends have been after me for quite some time to organize a roadtrip to Scoglitti, on the southeast corner of Sicily, a sleepy little beach town where our friend and auto mechanic Tony owns a restaurant. I had been there once before and told them how much I'd enjoyed it. Finally, we settled on a day and arranged it with Tony, who would meet us near Ragusa and guide us around the area before having lunch at his restaurant in Scoglitti.

After about an hour's drive from Sigonella, Tony met us "at the second Tamoil" on the highway to Ragusa. (Tamoil is the biggest gas station chain in Sicily.) We drove through Comiso and past the now-abandoned U.S. Air Force base there (brand-new school, closed). We stopped for a coffee and the best little ricotta "cream puff" with a crunchy crust I've ever had. The area is famous for ricotta made from cow's milk (usually it is sheep's). I hope to return to try the Sicilian breakfast of warm ricotta sometime.

Tony took us to his son Anthony's new house, still under construction, and Anthony gave us a tour of the whole place. He is currently laying tiles and stones mosaic-style in the entire front yard, quite a large and ambitious project. His wife studied art and it helping design it. Like many Sicilians, Anthony is doing all of the finishing of the house himself with the help of family members. This saves a lot of money but takes a lot of time. He's going to have a beautiful place when it's all done.

Next, we went to the famous Sicilian Donnafugata Castello, a popular destination for both locals and tourists in the area. This is not where the wine by the same name is produced, but it is a nicely situated and attractive palace that has been somewhat restord for tours. We enjoyed the various rooms--the standard "hall of mirrors," banqueting rooms, the bishop's rooms, the painted ceilings, suits of armor, statues, chandeliers, hand-painted wallpaper, antique furniture, and the surrounding gardens. Photos are not permitted inside, although we sneaked a few.

By then, we were all starving, so we proceeded on to the little fishing/beach town of Scoglitti (sko-YEE-tee) and the restaurant run by Tony's other son, John. Along the way, we passed the Greek archaeological site of Kamerina, where 100,000 people once lived. John wasn't quite ready for us, so we took a little walk across the piazza and down to the seaside, which has a great esplanade and fisherman statue along with a view of the fishing boats and beaches. The palm trees and sunny day combined to make us all happy we had come to see "Tony's World." Scoglitti by the way, was the site of the Allied invasion in 1943, although today there is not a trace of it. Below are Lisa, Pat, Kendra, and me.

Finally, we settled down to a fine lunch at Pizza in Piazza prepared by John for us--cold seafood salad, pasta with lobster and salmon, mixed salad, and a whole fresh fish for each of us. We ate every bit, washing it down with bottles of the local Cerasuola wine and followed, of course, by expresso.

Fine food, fine friends, and a fine day for all. Life is good!

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