Scopello

The last week of our Sicilian Sojourn was spent in a villa a mile or so from Scopello, a small town built into the mountains rising from the sea on the northwest corner of the beautiful island we have been exploring. In Scopello, around every corner you will find pretty views of the ocean, the mountains, and towers (and tower ruins) improbably built on rocky peaks, like the lookout towers situated below the town, as shown in the photo above, and the structure far above the sunny town square, seen in the photo below.

We visited Scopello several times during our stay. We engaged in general exploration and shopping, had lunch in one of the restaurants that are found when you pass through the arch shown in the photo below, had before dinner drinks at a table in the town square, and enjoyed an excellent meal in a restaurant was a magnificent view of the mountains and ocean beyond. In every setting, Scopello was a charming place.

It’s also a colorful place, with lots of brilliant flowers climbing up the white-washed walls of buildings and growing along the stone walkways. You’ll see unattended cats and dogs roaming free on the town square and the narrow streets, or dozing in a shaded doorway. The locals and shopkeepers don’t mind, and we didn’t, either, as one feline-loving member of our party seized the opportunity to feed a local cat the remains of her lunch..

Scopello also is very much a walking town. You’ll see an occasional car or scooter on the streets, as shown in the photo below, but the vast majority of cars park outside the city limits, making the entire town a kind of pedestrian-only zone. The car-free reality gives Scopello a significantly different vibe than towns like Catania or Palermo, where careful awareness of cars and scooters is a must.

My favorite moment in Scopello came when we ate an excellent meal at one of the restaurants, polished off some fine (and very reasonably priced) Sicilian wine, and then sat chatting as the sun dropped below the horizon to the west. It was a beautiful sunset and an appropriate end to a wonderful night.

On A Walk To Scopello

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a confirmed walker. I enjoy walking not only because I need and like the exercise, but also because walking allows you to notice and appreciate things you might not see if you are driving past in a car traveling at 30 mph.

Our villa is about a mile from Scopello. I hadn’t taken the walk to town before today because it had previously been hot and cloudless, and it didn’t seem smart to trudge a mile uphill on a blazing, hot day. Today was cooler, however, with a nice breeze—ideal conditions for my walk. It began with a stroll up the tree-lined driveway, shown the photo above. At the top of the driveway you turn left and follow a level roadway for several hundred yards.

Almost immediately after turning onto the road I saw something I really hadn’t noticed before, even though I had driven past the area multiple times already. To the left of the road, past some flowers and a fence, there was a Sicilian farm field on the hillside tumbling down to the sea. The crop had been planted in tidy rows, and a charming stone building—a barn, perhaps?—stood framed against the blue waters behind and lit by a stray ray of sunshine. It was a beautiful scene.

At the first intersection you turn right and begin the uphill climb to Scopello, which rests on a mountainside far above the sea. The road winds steadily upward, and there are many pretty flowers along the way. As you near Scopello, your eye is drawn to an old structure that sits on a rocky crag above the town, as shown at the top of the photo above.

By the time you reach the outskirts of Scopello, you have a panoramic view of the coastline and can distinctly see the different colors caused by shallower coastal waters versus the deep sea. Today the ocean waters were a magnificent royal blue, while the shore waters were a bright, almost luminescent green, and white clouds sailed by in the blue skies above it all. The surrounding mountains rise abruptly from the sea, and the whole area was alive with color and wind blown movement. Much of the land near the coast is cultivated and beautifully maintained. Sicilians obviously care about their farms as much as they they care about their food—which means they care a lot.

I really liked this walk to Scopello.

Sunrise In Scopello

This Thursday morning I woke up early, trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to awaken the rest of our merry band of travelers. I fixed myself a cup of strong coffee, opened the door to the patio, and stepped outside to feel the pre-dawn coolness of the air and listen to the chirps and coos of the neighborhood birds. The sea was calm and the sun had just started to color the eastern horizon when I took this picture.

Segesta

Segesta is an architectural park that features one of these best surviving Greek temples in the world and also a fine example of a Greek theater. We visited there yesterday morning on a brilliantly sunny day—the afternoon would have been a bit too warm for comfort.

After entering the park you climb a set of steps to reach the temple structure. Sicily is a mountainous place pretty much everywhere, including Segesta. If you come for a visit, be sure to bring your walking and climbing shoes. In this instance, the climb makes for an impressive introduction to the temple facade.

The temple is magnificent, and miraculously intact. Archeologists believe that it was constructed around 500 B.C. and has survived to the present day because it was never completed and therefore never became a functioning temple, and therefore was not a threat to the successive civilizations with different religious beliefs that conquered this area. There are many clues in the structure itself that support the never-completed theory, including the absence of the characteristic beveled burrows in the columns and the lack of any sign of construction of the central room in the temple, where the image of the god would be displayed.

The temple building backs up on a small gorge, with beautiful cultivated, rolling farmland on the other side, as seen in the picture above. Imagine looking up from your labors in the fields and seeing a Greek temple only a stone’s throw away. I imagine it would make the work a bit easier.

We left the temple grounds and headed to the Greek theatre. You could walk up a dusty path to the theater, but we decided to take a bus that runs up and down the promontory on which the theater is found. This meant participating in a chaotic scrum to get seats on the bus to the theater and the nearby agora. We’re glad we did, though, because the theater is far, far above the temple, as you can see in the photo below. It was a hot, bright day, and the trek up the mountain to the pinnacle would have been very thirsty work.

The agora next to the theater is mostly rubble. Sicilian and Segesta history speak of conquest and competing cultures, as the area was settled and successively conquered by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans, each of which built using materials that prior conquerors had used before. Most of the theater survived, however.

The theater sits at the edge of the mountain top, with the seats facing the surrounding countryside far below and the sea beyond. Our guide explained that the siting was intentional, to provide for cooling sea breezes that also could lift the actors’ voices to the audience. The theater is huge and once had multiple decks and could seat 4,000 people, but the stones of the two highest sections were scavenged by later settlements to provide building materials. I’m just glad that some of it survived.

Trapani, Favignana, Levanzo, And The Egadi Islands

Yesterday we drove from Scopello to Trapani, a town on the western edge of Sicily. We stopped at Trapani’s working harbor—filled with well used but well kept fishing boats—admired the green-topped dome at the harbor, and boarded a ship that was to take us out to tour the Egadi Islands off Sicily’s west coast. As we boarded the ship we had to remove our shoes, which were secured in a large canvas bag, because when we were aboard ship it was strictly a barefoot affair. I sat on the bow of the boat as it chugged out of the harbor, past rows of sailboats and the fortress-like building shown below, which used to be a prison.

Our first stop was the island of Favignana, also known as “butterfly island” because of its shape. We anchored off the cliffs for some swimming and snorkeling. The water was a bright turquoise—the kind of color you associate with the Caribbean—and was crystal clear. The cliffs were mined and worked in the past and are honeycombed with holes created for mining. Now the area is a recreational area and nature preserve. We splashed into the water, which was bracing at first but quickly warmed up, and swam about along with snorkelers and swimmers from other boats.

Our next stop was the town of Favignana. The entrance to the harbor is dominated by a medieval structure on top of a small peak, shown in the photo below. The structure, which once was a convent, was so high that it occasionally was shroud by a passing cloud.

We disembarked on the pier of Favignana, then explored the town, which includes a beautiful church, shown below. The church has a striking green dome, barely visible in the photo, that showed up brilliantly against the deep blue sky. There were many people out and about and we witnessed the “Sicilian siesta,” when shops close at about 1:30 p.m. and everyone takes a break.

Then it was back on the boat to continue our exploration of the islands. We stopped to snorkel into “lovers’ cave” on the coastline of Favignana, which was very cool. You swim into the cave then follow a kind of watery tunnel through the cliffside until you reach a rock and sand interior beach, where the cave opens up and the ceiling is far overhead. You need a torch to light the way, and there were many fish near the entrance to the cave.

Then it was back on the boat and a short ride to Levanzo, another of the islands. It looks like a Greek island as you approach. We pulled around the corner of the island to drop anchor for more sunshine, snorkeling, and swimming—and a fabulous lunch that included arancini, mussels, bread salad, prawns, and fresh anchovies, which don’t taste at all like the anchovies you find on an American pizza. It was all delicious, and a great capstone for a perfect day.

On The Road To Scopello

Yesterday we drove through the interior of Sicily from the Siracusa area to Scopello on the opposite coast. With the resolute Granite State Commander at the wheel, we followed roads that climbed the mountainous spine of Sicily and rolled through tunnels that burrowed through the rugged terrain. We stopped for lunch at Enna, a striking walled town in the middle of Sicily, where the fortress shown above stands at the highest point.

As is the case with other Italian walled towns, Enna is built on a peak that towers over the surrounding countryside. Many of the homes rise straight up from the road. The road that rims the perimeter of the town offers sweeping, panoramic views of the area, including the neighboring walled town of Calascibetta, seen in the photo below. We had a fine lunch of pasta dishes at a restaurant called Il Mito.

After leaving Enna, the terrain grew more mountainous, as seen in the photo below. The road was in good condition, and the road signs were easy to follow. After clearing the mountains, the road dropped down to the sea coast and the streets of Palermo, Sicily’s most populated city. Scopello is only a short distance away, after you clear the outskirts of Palermo, and lies on the coast facing the Tyrrhenian Sea.

No post about driving through Italy or Sicily would be complete without a word about the Auto Grill rest stops. To put it mildly, they blow American rest stops out of the water. The photo below shows some of the freshly made items that were available at our Auto Grill stop. The Auto Grill also sells wine. You could easily make an excellent picnic lunch from what you can buy from the Auto Grill.

Ortigia

Ortigia is the island town that is the most ancient part of Siracusa. Like Taormina, it is a quaint and picturesque town of narrow streets—but with some surprises. We went to visit on a sun-bleached day where the temperature may have touched 90.

Ortigia is ancient, indeed. It was first settled by Greeks circa 600 B.C., when Greek architecture was still developing. The ruins of the Temple of Apollo, which are in the center of town, are an example of an early Greek temple. The two Doric columns at right, which have amazingly survived for two thousand years, were hewn from single massive stones, which limited their height. After the Greeks in Siracusa were defeated by the Romans, the temple was repurposed by succeeding conquerors, including the Byzantines, the Muslims, and the Normans. It is a testament to the quality of Greek architecture that the columns have served for so long in so many guises and have survived the occasional earthquake, too.

The Duomo that stands in a sprawling square at the heart of Ortigia is an even better example of the practical repurposing of an ancient Greek building. It began as a temple, built later than the temple of Apollo, when advances in building techniques allowed the Greeks to erect much taller columns. You can see one of the columns exposed in an inset to the outer wall of the church in the photo above. Successive conquerors then built outer walls around the temple columns, and the Normans added their characteristic windows that make the church look like a battlement.

The facade and entrance to the church, on the other hand, are classic examples of later, baroque architecture. Visitors to the church huddled in the shadows to escape the blazing sunshine, and—for the first time on this trip—we had to mask up to enter the church. Fortunately, the church supplied a mask with each admission ticket. Once inside, the presence of the towering ancient Greek columns was clear, as seen in the photo below. And somehow, the melange of different styles and eras works as a cohesive unit. The Duomo in Ortigia in a magnificent structure.

The interior of the Duomo includes many beautiful chapels, but you need to be sure to look everywhere to capture the full range of the structure’s history—some of which is embedded in the floor. The Duomo is the burial ground for certain high-ranking church officials, including the individual buried beneath the slab with skull and crossbones shown below. Some of the chapels also include glass cases containing human bones, including what is reputed to be the arm bone of Santa Lucia.

After leaving the Duomo we emerged into the blazing sunshine and walked down to the waterfront. There is a huge, freshwater basin along the waterfront, shown in the photo below. Those are papyrus plants growing in the water next to the palm tree, which gives you a sense of the tropical nature of Sicily’s climate. The pool of cool, dark water looked very inviting. We resisted the temptation to take a plunge, however, and decided instead to have another spectacular seafood meal under umbrellas at a local pescheria.

The Catania Fish Market

After we left the Barone di Villagrande Vineyard, we visited Catania, a large town on the Sicilian coastline. There we stopped at the Catania fish market, a sprawling collection of shops and booths selling colorful produce, fish just off the boat, pig’s feet, and just about everything you can imagine.

The market is a rambling journey that winds through some patios and narrow passageways that were filled with shoppers and—because scooters go everywhere—guys on scooters like the one shown above trying to take a shortcut through the crowds. And, because it is an actual working market, you also might encounter, as we did, an employee carrying a box of debris topped with a severed goat’s head making his way through the crowd.

The sun was bright and so were the colors of the market. I liked the whimsical nature of some of the shops, like the old-fashioned lemon stand above or the boat-shaped food stand shown below. As we strolled along, the Landscape Artist bought a kind of mixed nut brittle for our merry band to munch on.

My favorite artistic aspect of the market were the many bright umbrellas hanging overhead in parts of the marketplace. The umbrellas not only made a colorful canopy overhead, they also cast shadowed patterns on the ground. It’s the kind of little touch you might not find in America but you do find in Italy and Sicily.

Up The Slope Of Mt. Etna

Yesterday’s hike up the slope of Mt. Etna began with a volcano primer from our indefatigable guide, Marco. We stopped at this spot on the slope, where an old lava flow has cooled and been broken up into a collection of razor-sharp black stones and gravel. There Marco explained that a volcano is not inert like a mountain, but instead is ever changing, like a living thing. Mt. Etna, which has been active for generations, has been through countless transformations and is changing even now.

We then drove a short distance, parked our van, and started the trek up the slope of the volcano. The trail followed a series of switchbacks as we trudged ever upward. The gardener in me thought the black rock, gravel, and sand looked like the finest black mulch imaginable, bringing out all of the colors of the plants growing in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil. Marco noted that Mt. Etna’s eruptions have helped nourish countless vineyards and fruit and vegetable farms in the area. He also noted that the plant life in the vicinity of the volcano can help you recreate the flow of lava from past eruptions. Little plants reflect recent eruptions, whereas trees mean territory that has not been touched for much longer periods. The photo above, for example, tells you that the most recent eruptions in this area flowed down and to the left.

The rocky soil made for a challenging climb. In some spots the ground was covered with tiny rocks like very coarse sand, where your foot would sink in, and in other spots the loose rocks made footing treacherous. Our doughty band of hardy hikers exercised due case and fortunately avoided falls, spills, twisted ankles, or other mishaps. We did end up covered with dust and with sharp rocks in our shoes, however.

Marco explained that the area we were climbing was once densely populated and covered with beautiful gardens—until an eruption buried the area in fiery molten rock. Only one house, shown above, was spared. The lava reached up to the roofline on one side but left the other largely unscathed. Marco noted that the owners still use it for cookouts and hiking rest stops.

Just past the half-buried house you come up to a summit of sorts, and when you reach the top you are treated to an awesome, otherworldly scene that could be the lost world or an alien landscape. The summit is a ledge that looks down on an area formed by the collapse of a caldera long ago. The rocks are covered with lichens, the first step in the circle of life, and only the toughest plants grow in the rocky ground. Behind it all is the smoking, steaming cone of Mt. Etna, and when the wind shifts you can see crooked fingers of lava reaching down the exterior of the volcano.

Marco convinced us to go the extra mile—actually, he said it was only a few hundred meters—to find an even better view. We then followed more switchbacks upward, finally scrambling up a 45-degree slope of loose rock and gravel. We emerged on a rocky promontory, 4500 feet above sea level, that looked down upon a valley 2000 feet below. Because one false move could send you hurtling off the precipice to certain death, I didn’t get close to the edge. Marco, who is apparently part mountain goat, and the Swiss Shutterbug had no qualms about venturing out to the edge while the rest of us wished they would come back to solid ground. That’s Marco in the photo below, taking in the extraordinary view.

The sun was starting to sink behind the clouds of smoke and steam billowing from Mt. Etna’s crater, casting a golden glow over rocks, hikers, and the entire landscape. It was time to go. We grabbed fallen branches to serve as walking sticks, skidded down the gravel-covered hill, and headed back to our van, knowing that fine wine and a fine meal awaited at Barone di Villagrande vineyard.

In Taormina

Yesterday we visited Taormina, a cliffside town that is a short drive from our vineyard lodgings. Originally founded by Greek settlers in the B.C. period, the town is a melange of Greek, Byzantine, Moorish, Norman, and Italian influences, with bright colors and patterns everywhere you look. The town square shown above, with its fabulous tile inlaid floor, is a good example. You get a sense of Taormina’s cliffside status from the steep hills immediately behind the church.

The town square also affords a sweeping view of the cliffside and the Mediterranean Sea far below. Those are prickly pear cactus plants in the foreground, and you can see a few boats on the bright blue water.

The buildings in town are colorfully painted, and many feature second story railings with plantings and traditional figures. The streets in the town are narrow—being built into the hillside means space is at a premium—and you get a close-up view of the buildings as you stroll along.

From the town square you pass through an arched gate in the wall that leads to an older part of town where the streets are even narrower. The archway features a beautiful traditional Madonna and child mosaic, shown below, that is set into the wall for all to enjoy and that attests to the Byzantine influences in the town.

Part of the fun of visiting Taormina is taking a peek at the tiny alleyways that branch off from the main street. You’ll see lots of stairs leading up and down and planters, too. The stairs also can serve as seats for the footsore visitor looking for shade. Stopping in the beautiful local churches also is a good way to beat the heat.

There was an amazing variety of plants along the passageways, with the kinds of deep color you expect to find in tropical settings. That should come as no surprise in a seaside town on an island off the coast of southern Italy.

Taormina is a popular tourist destination, and it is not hard to see why: it is a charming and interesting place with some very dramatic views.

Mt. Etna, Day And Night

Over the past two days we’ve been knocking around Sicily on the slopes of Mt. Etna, an active volcano. During our visit we’ve seen just how “active” it truly is. I’ve never seen a live volcano up close before, but Mt. Etna definitely lives up to the billing. The volcano has produced a steady stream of steam and smoke during the day, as shown in the photo above. At night that activity is even more spectacular, as shown in the photo below, with red hot lava spilling down the side of the volcano like melted ice cream running down a sugar cone.

It’s an awesome nighttime display, made even more impressive by the fact that tomorrow we’ll be hiking Mt. Etna. I’m not sure my sneakers are fireproof, though.

The Tiber, Castel Sant’Angelo, And St. Peter’s Square

Our last jaunt on our Sightseeing Saturday was a walk over to Castel Sant’Angelo and Vatican City. The Sicilian CEO and I took the path along the Tiber to avoid the crosswalks and check out Rome’s famous river. Our plan succeeded in that we didn’t have to cross many streets, but the Tiber isn’t much to see—or smell. The area around the river seemed to be trashier than the rest of Rome and the river odor was pungent. You could take an upper path or a lower path right along the river. We wisely opted for the upper path to minimize the assault on our olfactory senses.

The river opens up and the scenery improves as you approach Castel Sant’Angelo, the iconic circular castle of the Popes. The castle is a reminder that the Popes were once active (and occasionally martial) figures in Italian politics, as the head of the Papal States. You can still see the castle moat, although it has been drained.

There is a nice pedestrian bridge over the Tiber to the entrance of the castle. The bridge is lined with religious statues—I’m guessing the figure above is the angel Gabriel with his trademark horn—and also street vendors selling handbags, souvenirs, and religious medals. As we passed by the castle itself a really good two-guitar group was playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond (and Dire Strait’s Sultans of Swing on our walk back).

The castle is very close to St. Peter’s, and once you cross the street you find yourself part of the stream of humanity coursing toward Michelangelo’s dome. The main street to St. Peter’s is dramatically lined with pillars. St. Peter’s Square itself is huge and spectacular and stands as Bernini’s architectural masterwork. The square was crowded, with a long line of tourists waiting to get into St. Peter’s basilica as they were being harangued by an angry street preacher. We didn’t have tickets so we didn’t go in, but the CEO calculated we had exceeded 20,000 steps on our Sightseeing Saturday. That meant we had burned enough calories for a carbo-heavy Roman dinner fit for a centurion. it was time to head back to the hotel.

The View From Our Balcony

This morning we flew from Rome to Sicily, where we ended up at the Barone de Villagrande vineyard. You could not find a more abrupt change in setting. From the hustle and bustle of scooter-infested Rome, we came to a bucolic, absolutely quiet place on the footprint of Mt. Etna. As we enjoyed the greenery and the silence, the shadows lengthened on the vineyard terraces and gave the area a richer, more sculpted look.

Sicily is a very pretty place.

The Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, And The Pantheon

After a refreshing birra, we ventured into serious Roman Tourist Territory. Our first stop was the Spanish Steps, shown in the photo above. Even though the Piazza di Spagna offers plenty of open space, the area was overrun with people. Still, the steps themselves are beautiful. We found that we enjoyed them most by simply looking at them from below, without climbing.

Weirdly, people were filling water bottles with water from the fountain right in front of the Spanish Steps, as the guy is doing in the photo above. That’s putting a lot of faith in the Roman municipal water system, and I wondered how many of the people who quaffed the fountain water ended up desperately regretting it a few hours later. I don’t think you could pay me enough Euros to drink fountain water, no matter how thirsty I might be.

It was a pretty day, and there were many people out and about. Even though it is still May, the temperatures were hot, and probably touched 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Because much of Rome is unshaded, walking from point to point can be steamy and sweaty work. The fact that the crowds were out, as indicated in the photo above, added a bit to the heat as we followed a well-traveled path from the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain.

The Trevi Fountain is magnificent. It also is probably the most “selfied” photo opportunity in Rome. There are multiple levels around the fountain, and each one featured people jostling for position as they tried to take the perfect selfie. The photo below, of people gathered at the top tier of the fountain, gives you an idea of the selfie scrum that was underway. You couldn’t really move in any direction without checking to make sure you weren’t photobombing somebody’s selfie.

From the Trevi Fountain we followed the throngs over to the Pantheon, which is another magnificent structure shown in the photo below. The admission lines were long, so we didn’t go inside to check out the famous oculus, but instead just enjoyed the graceful lines of one of the world’s most famous buildings from an outside vantage point.

Many of the visitors to the Pantheon were camped out on the steps leading to an obelisk in the middle of the piazza in front of the Pantheon, hoping for a cool breeze to beat the heat. As for us, it was time to find some shade and a place to settle for a late lunch. We stumbled across a nice little sidewalk restaurant on a side street and enjoyed a light lunch al fresco. I polished off a wooden board of prosciutto and absolutely fresh mozzarella, washed down with another birra and guzzled water, and concluded that a bit more walking was in order.