From Rugged To Flat To Rugged

I’ve been exposed to the full spectrum of topography over the past few weeks. After two weeks of enjoying the rugged terrain of Sicily, I was briefly in Columbus, which is about as flat as you can get. Now I’m at meetings in Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains define ruggedness.

Interestingly, Sicily reminded me quite a bit of the American West, and this trip to Colorado just confirms that view. Sicily is mountainous, like the west, has buttes and lots of rocky outcroppings, like the west, and is arid and dusty, like much of the west. The mountains in Colorado are higher than the tallest peaks in Sicily, but the look is very similar. You could film a western in Sicily, and no one would know the difference as long as you kept the ocean out of the frame.

In Praise Of Curated Travel

If you’ve been reading this blog over the past few weeks, you know that our trip to Italy and Sicily was a wonderful experience. It introduced me not only to Sicily, which I had never visited before, but also to the concept of “curated travel”–a phrase used by Life Beyond The Room, a business that offers the chance to experience “sensorial travel.”

Life Beyond The Room planned our trip from beginning to end, selected where to stay in Rome and Sicily and the outings we had the opportunity to experience, and made all of the hotel, travel, and outing arrangements. Everything went off without a hitch, which allowed our little band of travelers to focus on enjoying ourselves, without worrying about details. What really distinguishes LBR, however, is the hands-on, personal element that it offers. Karen Hattaway, one of the founders of LBR, had been to every place we stayed, and she applies exacting standards. In addition, Karen, who is a native Italian speaker, and her husband Jett accompanied us on the trip, and for part of the journey we also were joined by the gregarious Jonathan Urbani, a photographer who also speaks Italian as his native language. They handled all of the on-the-ground details as we moved around the island, fit in seamlessly with our group of seven travelers, and added enormously to the general atmosphere of fun, laughs, and relaxation that prevailed during the entire trip. If not for them, I would have missed learning about briscola (which I never quite got the hang of, but enjoyed anyway) and would never have seen some hilarious, ad hoc karaoke.

The concept of curated travel also came through in how LBR responded to various issues that cropped up before and during our trip. As we approached the departure date, the COVID-related requirements seemed to change on a daily basis, but Karen doggedly followed every development and explained all of them and what it meant for us; she also registered all of us for the COVID test that was required to return to the U.S.

And having a native Italian speaker on the trip proved to be invaluable in dealing with the issues that can crop up during travel. For example, one member of our group was stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction that made his index finger swell up like a discolored sausage; Karen personally drove him to the pharmacist and then a local doctor and secured the medication that allowed his finger to be back to normal by the time of our departure. Even though many Sicilians speak some English, and three people in our group are studying Italian, could we have described what happened and obtained the same happy result without Karen along to interpret and provide guidance on how things worked? Similarly, when another member of the group needed eye drops, Karen accompanied her to the pharmacy to assist in reading the labels and finding the right product. And I doubt that we would have successfully located the grave of a grandfather if Karen had not been there to explain what we were looking for to the cemetery attendant in Mazara del Vallo, who spoke no English at all.

These are the kind of personal touches that can tip the balance and move a trip into the “exceptional” category. And I should add that LBR provided some great swag, some of which is shown in the photo above, including passport holders, a fine map of Sicily, an excellent (and frequently used) water bottle, beach towels, and a nifty straw purse with a bell on it that allowed me to keep track of Kish as she shopped.

Thank you, Karen, Jett, Jonathan, and LBR, for a great vacation!

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.

Three Pizzas

I’d been eager to try some Sicilian pizza, and when we took a break from our fruitless search for the Mazara del Vallo city hall it presented the perfect opportunity to scratch that itch. We stopped at the La Vela restaurant on the road running along the harbor and ordered three pizzas—the frutti di mare pizza, the porcini mushroom pizza, and the mortadella pizza. We didn’t have a clear sense of how big they were, and when they came to the table they were much larger than we expected. Still, we dug in to the challenge, and ate everything but one piece.

When you order pizza in a new place, you always wonder about the crust, the sauce, and the toppings. Our pizza had a nice, crunchy crust that was on the thinner side of the crust spectrum, a light layer of sauce, and more than ample and absolutely fresh toppings. These were definitely knife and fork pizzas. I also liked that each pizza was served with a fresh ball of mozzarella cheese. All of the pizzas were great, but the mortadella pie, shown below, was my favorite.

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.

Birra

One of the fun things to do when traveling is sampling the local beer. On one sunny afternoon during our stay in Scopello, the Georgia BrewDog and I sat outside on the patio and quaffed some of the local birra while having a nice chat about beer, travel, and life in general. Called Messina, it is a smooth, medium-bodied lager that is served in 50 cl (for centileter) bottles, which is about a pint in volume. It has a nice flavor and goes down easy, and the heat is a helpful incentive to not linger over your beer, lest it warm up in the sunshine.

Before we knew it we had each downed two of the bottles. The beer was refreshing, but of course the good company and beautiful surroundings helped.

A Day With The Duchess

Any trip to Italy or Sicily has got to address food. The culinary arts—and I do mean “arts,” in the truest sense—are such an important part of the culture that cooking classes seem like an obvious and essential part of any visit. That’s why yesterday was devoted to a drive to Palermo and A Day Cooking With The Duchess. (If you run a search for that phrase you’ll find the website.)

Our day with Duchess Nicoletta Polo began with a trip to her beautiful rooftop garden, shown in the first photo above, which featured herbs, flowers, turtles, colorful tiles, and a great view of the Palermo harbor. For others, the day began earlier, with a shopping trip to the Palermo market, but we weren’t quite up to the earlier departure time on the morning after the Sicilian CEO Celebration. In the garden, the Duchess selected flowers and herbs to be used in our preparation. Then it was down and into the spacious and well-appointed kitchen, which was home to every kind of pot, pan, utensil, implement, or cooking device you could possibly imagine.

The Duchess is a diminutive dynamo (and, I hope, a fan of alliteration). She speaks six languages, has an easy but total command of the class, and is very much a hands-on teacher. She quickly got everyone involved in each step of the preparation of our meal. Along the way, she shared some of her admirable philosophy about food, cooking, and life, which posits that human beings have a lot in common, that food is a uniting influence, and that people who cook together will necessarily become friends. She also cooks and seasons by feel, and chuckles at the 1/8 teaspoon precision of American cookbooks. Our group of twelve soon functioned like a well-oiled machine. It’s not hard to understand why her cooking class is so highly regarded.

I peeled garlic, chopped octopus, whisked a peach and corn starch concoction, used a two-handed half moon implement to chop herbs, scooped out eggplant, and stuffed calamari, with a welcome wine break thrown in. Perversely, my favorite task was using a spoon to delicately remove the seeds from tomatoes that were destined for the oven. (Of course, I didn’t eat any of them,)

After several hours of food preparation, we took a break so our work product could be cooked, and spent the time touring the Duchess’s home, which is grand and elegant. I was particularly taken with the colorful flooring in the different rooms, which included tile, marble, and parquet woodwork.

Then it was time to be seated in the dining room and enjoy our efforts. As the Duchess forecast, we enjoyed chatting with our newfound cooking class friends. I had the good fortune to be seated next to the Duchess and tried to follow her every move as we savored eggplant, pasta, and stuffed calamari. I was glad to see the Duchess use her fork to twirl the pasta, which is my preferred method. Everything was good, but the pasta dish below was my favorite.

The dessert was a delicate peach gelatin made from peaches bought at the market that morning and topped with a flower plucked from the Duchess’s garden. I’ve never eaten a flower before, but everything else was so good I gladly ate it, and found it was a nice complement to the peach flavor. As we left, saying farewell to our cooking companions, we concluded that A Day Cooking With The Duchess was a day well spent.

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.

Finding Roots In Mazara Del Vallo

Mazara del Vallo is a town on the southwest tip of Sicily. It is a vibrant coastal community that is one of the larger cities in Sicily, with pretty areas like the church vista shown above. When we visited yesterday, however, we weren’t in town to sightsee, but to find some touchstones of the family history of the Sicilian CEO (aka Chuck Pisciotta). Like many Americans, the CEO’s roots trace back to Italy and Sicily.

Our Mission to Mazara had four goals: to find the birthplace of the CEO’s father, to find city hall, where the CEO’s grandfather is listed on a roster of the town’s mayors, and to find the burial sites of the CEO’s grandmother and grandfather. We quickly accomplished our first objective. We knew the building where the CEO’s father was born had been sold by the family decades ago and been converted to a restaurant called the Cafe Garibaldi. We found it, and that is the CEO and his lovely wife, the Landscape Artist, in the photo above in front of the former family homestead. Unfortunately, finding city hall was surprisingly elusive, and we spent hours wandering the central area of town, being given conflicting directions by Google Maps and friendly locals and fruitlessly searching for the right building. After repeated failures, we decided to cross City Hall off the list and head to the cemetery.

The Mazara town cemetery is some distance from the town center and in an interesting place in its own right. It’s enormous—not a surprise in a town that has been in existence for hundreds of years—and includes in-ground burial plots, family burial chapels, and vaults set into long walls, like the ones shown above. Many of the vaults include pictures of the deceased whose remains are inside, as shown in the photo above. We were told that the use of photos is common in Sicilian and Italian cemeteries.

Each wall contains hundreds of burial vaults, and there were dozens of rows of walls, as shown in the photos above and below. When we arrived, we had no idea where the vaults for the CEO’s nonno and nonna were located, and trying to find the right vault in the array of thousands of potential locations seemed like a hopeless task.

Fortunately, the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were able to enlist the help of one of the cemetery caretakers and examine ledgers in a storage area, where they found information about the location of Giulio Pisciotta, the CEO’s grandfather. That is the CEO posed next to the vault in the photo below. Regrettably, we could not locate the vault for the CEO’s nonna, because we didn’t have precise information about her date of death. Still, we accomplished two of our four tasks, and any baseball player will tell you that a .500 average is pretty darned good.

But this day of roots celebration was not over. The CEO had mentioned to the driver who picked us up at the airport on our arrival in Sicily that he would be visiting Mazara del Vallo to find these family connections. By fortunate coincidence, the driver’s parents have a house in town, near one of the nice beaches. Amazingly, the driver’s parents, who we had never met, invited our entire party to dinner as their home. When we arrived last night we were treated to a magical and unforgettable evening by the parents and two of their friends. That is the energetic and outgoing friend at the head of the table in the photo below.

The parents and their friends set a long table in the courtyard and plied us with more food, wine, and beer than you can possibly imagine. Although they did not speak much English, their friendliness and warmth spoke louder than words—and the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were there to translate and break the language barrier.

The meal started with pizza, olives, cheese, shrimp, and fabulous fried sardine and rice balls, then moved to couscous—a delicious nod to the Arabic influence on Sicilian culture—with mussels, shrimp, and freshly caught branzino, which the friend proudly displayed in the photo above. You dole out the couscous, which our hosts dished out liberally, ladle on some tasty broth, and then add the fish on top. It was excellent.

And the hits kept coming, and coming. After the couscous, we had some of the famous red shrimp that had been caught that morning in the waters surrounding Mazara del Vallo, which had been grilled and delicately spiced. Then it was on to fresh cherries—to keep the digestive processes going, the friend explained—and finally a huge platter of cannoli, shown in the photo below.

We munched on the cannoli, which were crisp and not too sweet, with cherries at each end. And just when we thought the parade of fantastic food had finally stopped, our hosts brought out a gelato cake made especially for the Sicilian CEO, as shown in the photo below. Our hosts explained that the cool and creamy gelato would further assist our bellies in processing the enormous meal. The gelato cake was, of course, delicious.

Our hosts also brought out a bottle of champagne, which the CEO deftly opened, and we toasted our meal and our new friends. As I drank my glass of champagne I reflected with amazement on the incredible generosity of these fine people, who invited a throng of previously unknown people who could not speak their language to their home, invested the time and money to prepare a magnificent meal with a special personalized gelato cake, and fed us until we were full to bursting. And I emphasize, again, that before last night none of us had ever met our hosts. It was an astonishing, awesome display of open-hearted kindness and magnanimity.

We should have known, however, that our hosts weren’t quite done. They insisted that the CEO board the back of a rickshaw-like bicycle for a ride around the courtyard. As the evening ended we stood in the gloaming, exchanging hugs and kisses and cheek-to-cheek goodbyes with our newfound friends, thanking them for an evening will live all long remember. What an extraordinary night!

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.

Briscola

Yesterday I (sort of) learned how to play Briscola, an Italian card game. It’s a fun game with rules that are very different from those of an American card game, like euchre or gin rummy. In fact, Briscola suggests that the spectrum of games you could play with a deck of cards is as wide as the human imagination.

And speaking of the deck, forget hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. The suits in a Sicilian deck are coins, swords, cups, and sticks. The card characters also are different, with a horseman instead of a Jack and a young woman rather than a queen. The size of the cards is a bit smaller than the standard American playing card.

The Briscola rules also are strange because the three is a very significant card, second in value only to the ace. That takes some getting used to. Each player is dealt three cards and then the card that establishes the trump suit is turned over. Each player then plays a card, with the card that is led by the first player setting the suit for the hand unless someone trumps in. You don’t need to follow suit, either. The highest card of the suit that was led, or the highest trump card played, takes the hand and wins any points assigned to the card played. And here’s a key point: many cards are assigned no points, whereas aces are worth 11 points and threes are worth 10 points. Why is a three worth 10 points? Only the creator of Briscola knows for sure.

I’m not doing a good job of explaining the rules, and in any event a wooden explanation of the rules doesn’t do justice to the game. It’s a fun, fast moving game that is best learned on a sun-dappled patio overlooking the sea coast.

Party Cove

This morning we learned that the cove below our villa is a big party destination. The festivities started early, as a parade of boats headed to the cove and dropped anchor, and their occupants started playing music, singing, and swimming. Several of the boats anchored side by side and lashed themselves together to form a kind of pontoon arrangement. I’m guessing that a few adult beverages also may have been imbibed.

I don’t know whether all of the boaters that stopped by were Sicilian, but I do know this: they all really seemed to be having a good time.

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.