Tag Archives: Sicily

Year in Review

1 Jan

The older we get the faster time seems to move. (It’s an actual phenomenon that has been scientifically proven: the older you are the faster time seems to pass.) Only yesterday it seems we were dying of the heat in Rome, taking refuge in the mighty Dolomites enjoying brisk mountain air and alpine meadows. But that was July. Looking back over our time in Rome – now 19 months and counting – we have experienced so much, and yet my list of to-dos in Rome (not to mention all of Italy)  has more things on it that we have not accomplished than ones we have managed to check off. There’s a wonder around every corner and we shall never get to all of them. Roma: Una vita non basta!

New Year's Eve Vespers with Papa F! We were right on the aisle. Ric snapped this pic with his phone.

New Year’s Eve Vespers with Papa F! We were right on the aisle. Ric snapped this pic with his phone.

We managed to see a bit more of Italy this year, visiting some old favorites as well as new territory.

  • March saw us in Sicily for our 28th anniversary, where we were constantly cold, but where we ate magnificent food and saw our first-ever Greek ruins. Stunning! Must go back in warmer weather.
  • In May we ventured to the heel of the boot, Puglia, with my brother and sister-in-law. More great food, a fantastically different Italy, and lots of kilometers covered. Can’t count the bottles of wine consumed. Rick & Jane, we had so much fun with you those 10 days in Rome and Puglia! And we “discovered” Abruzzo on our way back to Rome. Wow!
  • In fact we were so enchanted with Abruzzo we went back for a weekend in July. Not many North Americans (or non-Italians) go to Abruzzo as it is not chock-a-block with must-sees, but it is an amazing place to escape the city, practice one’s Italian, and relax.
  • Later in July was our week in the Val Gardena. If only we could figure out a way to live there all summer.
  • Like most Italians, we got away for Ferragosto but only as far as Orvieto for a couple of nights.  It’s always nice to get on a train, and only an hour away is this charming Etruscan hill town.
  • Our youngest son came to visit in September and we made our 4th trip to Venice in less than three years. Three days there flew by and in wonderment Derek observed we still had not seen everything we intended to. Venice has a lot to offer and so many people try to “do” it in 2 nights and one day. We’re going back for the 5th time in April with friends who have never been.
  • The Cinque Terre calls to us each autumn and we made our third trip there in October. Hoping we can squeeze in a weekend there again in 2014.
  • After the Marine Corps 238th Birthday Ball in early November, we made a trek to Ravello just as the town was closing for the season. This is a must-go-back location sometime during the concert season.
Kids, don't try this at home. Our neighbor across the street shot off Roman Candles from his oh-so-tiny balcony on NYE. Note the Santa figure climbing a ladder hanging from the balcony. And this goes on all over the city!

Kids, don’t try this at home. Our neighbor across the street shot off Roman Candles from his oh-so-tiny balcony on NYE. Note the Santa figure climbing a ladder hanging from the balcony. And this goes on all over the city!

Other highlights in 2013:

  • I turned sixty. Can’t believe it, but my mother is there in the mirror every morning, so I guess it’s true.
  • We had a blind date with Nigel and Carol, new friends from England that we met through the Rick Steves’ Helpline and this blog. Hoping to see them again in February!
  • Made Thanksgiving dinner for 11 Italians. We had so much fun doing this! I only hope they will let us do it again next year.
  • Seeing our youngest son (not very young anymore, but still il mio bambino al cuore) after 16 months away.
  • Getting fit(ter) in the gym. I’ve lost about 45 pounds since moving to Rome and had to buy a whole new wardrobe last summer and again this winter.
  • Becoming more comfortable speaking Italian. I am “advanced intermediate” (B2/C1 for those that understand the scale) according to my teacher. I should be fluent by the time I am 85.
  • Seeing Tom and Karen, our in-laws, when they visited Rome after their cruise.
  • Visits by Michael Horne for gastronomic exploration of Rome. (Thanks for the intro to Vino Roma!)
  • New Years’ Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica with Papa Francesco. He was right there, not 2 meters from me during the processional and recessional. The energy in St. Peter’s was palpable, the love for this man overwhelming.

As I wrap up this post, we are aboard a train that departed at 07:20 New Year’s Day, leaving

St. Peter's, NYE 2013. I read today that shortly after we left Papa Francesco came out in his Popemobile to see the Nativity in the square. Purtroppo we had left the scene!

St. Peter’s, NYE 2013. I read today that shortly after we left Papa Francesco came out in his Popemobile to see the Nativity in the square. Purtroppo we had left the scene!

Italy for the first time in 19+ months. The sun is just coming up, outlining the Apennine Mountains in gold. We are headed to Switzerland where, magari, we will do Winterwandern (alpine snow hiking) to wear off the cheese fondue we plan to eat. We have many trips planned this year including a return to Venice, the Dolomites, Florence, Lake Como, and Abruzzo. We have guests coming, too: Kim, John and Aubrey in April; John, Susan, William and Elizabeth (aka JSWE) in July; the Omaha Bartons in August; a return by Derek in September; Rick and Jane in November; and hopefully Helen, Eddie and Debbie will make it over too. Anyone else? Would love to see you!

Buon Anno 2014! 

Fish balls and snow

15 Mar

The food in Sicilia, and most especially our experience in Tràpani, is amazing. It is perhaps the best part of the trip: that and the people.

I am known by many of you to make a fine Köttbullar or Swedish Meatball. Beef, pork and veal meatballs flavored with nutmeg in an artery-clogging cream gravy.  These are the taste of my childhood.


“Fish balls’ does not do justice to this masterpiece. Better in Italian “Polpette di Sarde in Sugo.”

Normally I would not be one to order the unfortunately named item “fish balls in sauce.” Luckily it sounds better in Italian. We’ve had “fish balls” twice: once made of swordfish (polpette di pesce spade) in Palermo, but of particular note were the ones we ate last night in Tràpani – polpette di sarde in sugo – made with fresh sardines and pine nuts with mint in a rich tomato-based sauce. I wanted to lick the plate clean. I am going to learn how to make these Sicilian wonders. Anyone who is open to my trial-and-error experimentation please raise your hand, you are invited for dinner.

The polpette antipasto and accompanying fish dinner were the highlight of our day Thursday. The weather, in a word, sucks. Cold, rainy, violently windy, impossible to partake in the outdoor activities we came for. We have barely glimpsed the Egadi Islands we came here to hike. We finally drove to Erice despite the clouds and during a rare respite from the rain, but found it too cold to walk around. Bitingly cold. (We didn’t think to bring puffy jackets and gloves on our spring trip to the south.) So we passed the day reading, writing, napping. Not all that bad for vacation but not what we had in mind. Friday presented us with more of the same only worse. The winds are about 40 mph so we hopped in the car hoping to escape the brutal coastal conditions and headed inland a bit, planning on seeing Monreale and a bit of the countryside off the autostrada. Ha! We were greeted with terrible traffic and closed roads due to flooding, and a downpour that turned into sleet and snow. We turned around. More reading time today and maybe more “fish balls” for dinner.

Sicilia – II

13 Mar

The weather reports indicate each day will be rainy. Luckily for us, the rain has held off until the afternoon each day, so as early risers we are able to seize the best part of each day.  Since Sicilia is such an outdoor-oriented place, we are blessed, because an entire week of museums was not the plan.

Mozia windmills

Windmills near Mozia, in the salt pans of Western Italy.

We ventured to tiny Mozia, once an important site for Phoenician traders and a very affluent city in its time, today it is an uninhabited island in the midst of the salt pans of western Sicilia.  Once again we are awestruck by the history – the truly ancient history – of this part of the world. You know the old saying: “A hundred miles is a long distance to a European and 100 years is ancient to an American.” When we encounter a place where construction was begun in the 8th century B.C., it gets our attention. Reached by a small launch in a 10-minute ride from the mainland, there’s a fine little museum and the opportunity to explore the island’s many excavations.

Tufa elephant

Little tufa elephant carved by Peppe Genna.

Perhaps the highlight, though, was meeting Peppe Genna, the “craftsman poet of the saltworks.”  Peppe keeps alive ancient traditions of hand-making palm brooms and carving tufa animals, holding court alongside the lagoon, selling his crafts from the trunk of his car. What a character! You can Google him and hear him recite his poetry in Sicilian dialect.

Across the lagoon from Mozia is Marsala, where the Phoenicians retreated when Mozia was destroyed by Siracusa. Of course Marsala is famous for its wines, and it is heavily influenced by North Africa, resulting in a city the looks quite different from any other we have yet encountered in Italy.  It has a lovely old center, very clean, with beautiful iron-work balconies. Perhaps not s huge vacation destination, but interesting if you are a) in the area, and b) a fan of Marsala wine.

Runis at Mozia

Ruins at Mozia; Yes that’s me in the photo.

Erice continues to hide her head from us. As we returned to Tràpani in the afternoon, she briefly cleared, only to be socked-in again before we could mount an approach as it is quite a long drive to the top.

The food here makes amends for the marginal weather. Luckily we are walking enough to indulge, although we are not filling ourselves with pastries; rather with fish, beautiful vegetables, and fresh pasta. (There’s wine, of course, and some pizza. I am, after all, traveling with Ric.) On Mondays and Tuesdays many restaurants close in low season. Tuesday night we tried three places, in the rain, before we found one open near our apartment. Although light on

Melanzane torta

Torta di melanzane, carciofi, pomodori e formaggio. Yum!

customers this dreary night, the staff was gracious and the food divine. We feasted on octopus salad, a layered eggplant/tomato/cheese torte, pasta with sea urchins, and pasta alla Norma, prepared with eggplant and artichokes. All washed down with a fine local white wine and the meal rounded out with an almond semifreddo. We slept well after that meal.

Wednesday held a greater threat of rain – and still no view of Erice – so we braced for traffic and headed to Palermo. I was a bit worried about the reputation Palermo has for bad traffic, gritty neighborhoods, and tough characters. Nothing could be further from the truth. We encountered thoughtful, sweet people who helped us at every turn. (N.B: The drivers in Palermo are even less courteous about pedestrians than Roman drivers. That’s the only negative thing I have to say about the city.)

We navigated to a parking lot near a metro station so we did not have to drive through too

Parking chits

Parking chits look much like lottery tickets in Palermo.

much of the city. I knew parking had a “scratch off” system but really didn’t know what to expect. There are no automated ticket vending machines, so I entered a bar and inquired as to where I could buy a ticket. “Da me, signora,” said a soft-spoken, kind man who proceeded to quiz me about our plans for the day and how long we’d park, then explained the system: one ticket per hour paid, free from 14:00-16:00, so I would buy 4 tickets, one for each hour from 11:00-14:00, and 16:00-17:00, then scratch off year, month day and time, and place them on the dash. Interesting system. The parking lot was filled with cars that looked like they had lottery tickets strewn across their dashboards. As far as I can tell, the sweet man in the bar makes €.25 per ticket he sells. Plus the €1.60 we spent on caffé.

Cappella Palatina

Gold mosaics, Middle Eastern influences, the 12th century Cappella Palatina.

Proceeding by metro to the historic center, we browsed Palermo, had lunch, and visited the brilliant and beautiful Cappella Palatina. This is a 12th century masterpiece that combines Byzantine mosaics and Islamic carvings with Latin Christian tradition. Amazing.

Retracing our steps to the metro, we planned on buying tickets at an automated ticket machine, but the two in the station were broken. Figurati! With trains only every half hour, we were desirous of taking the train that was just pulling in, and not having to go to the street again and search for tickets.  So we jumped on the train and I went immediately to the Capotreno and reported our problem. (My Italian serves me well for these little transactions. I felt almost fluent in my fervor to get my problem across. To fail meant a big fine!)  I asked if we could buy tickets from him. He asked me our stop, and told me to be seated, then left. Ric thought he was going to go get his book and write us a ticket for a fine, not for transit. But at our stop, he came out to ensure we were indeed leaving his train, wished us well, and with a smile encouraged us to buy tickets “la prossima volta.”

BTW, no rain until we were returning to Tràpani. Still no Erice in sight.

Sicilia – Part I

11 Mar
View from apartment, Trapani

City wall of Trapani, as viewed from the terrace of our apartment.

When I said we were going to Sicilia, Italian friends sighed, American colleagues raved, and my dear friend Nicholas whined that he could not be there too.  Thanks to all, I received some great advice on things to do and places to see. Sicilia is beautiful, to say the least, the people are friendly to a fault, and the food is divine.

We took our first flight since arriving in Italy last May. It seemed strange to fly out of Rome instead of taking a train and we were pleased to discover we had not forgotten how to drive, as neither of us had done so for 10 months.

We are staying in the small city of Tràpani in Northwest Sicily. Rather than try to “do” the whole island in one trip, we selected a corner of the region to explore. If we like it – and we do so far – we have plenty of opportunity to return and explore more of this vast and interesting island. With an ocean-front apartment reached via 60 steps (no elevator) we are living local. Luckily we didn’t have to haul our suitcases, although each only weighs 20 pounds or so, because the building has a rope and pulley system to assist in baggage handling. [NB: two-and-half years ago

Laurel in Lo Zingaro

Stopping by the grotto in Lo ZIngaro. People lived here as long as 10,000 yeasr ago.

we stayed in Vernazza in an apartment that had a climb of 57 steps. We struggled with that climb to the point that we really thought about it before we went up or down to minimize the number of trips per day. Now we are both in far better shape with weight loss (both of us), “new legs” and a gym program for me, 6-7km per day walking, and daily jaunts up the 64 steps to our apartment in Roma. The 60 steps in Tràpani are a piece of cake!]


I wanted to stay in Erice, a medieval town about 2400 feet abve Trapani, but Francesco, Rick and Jane were right to advise against it as a base. It has been encased in clouds for 3 days now. It’s much better here at sea level.

Erice in Clouds

Erice is atop the hill hidden in a mass of clouds.

Our arrival day devolved into a miserable rain and chill, warded off by an amazing dinner involving the best caponata we’d ever eaten, fresh fish, and a couscous preparation like none I’ve ever had, served with a whole roasted fish and a tureen of fish broth. With a crisp local white wine, we were satiated and slept a full 8 hours for a change! 

Lo Zingaro

Crystal clear waters far below the trail in Lo Zingaro.

Fortunately Sunday dawned bright and clear, so we headed to La Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro for a hike. What a beautiful and unusual place! It’s a little bit like parts of Hawaii with stark and interesting beauty, unusual plants, and ever-so-quiet. The water is clear with many shades of blue and turquoise contrasting with the lush green of a spring-rain freshened landscape.  I have not been anywhere quite this quiet (only the sounds of birds and the wind) for many many years. We felt far removed from our bustling Roma, which was the point of this vacation. Lizards darted across our path, and the wild flowers opened almost before our eyes

Lizard in sun

Little lizards dart along the trail enjoying the sun. So did we.

as the sun warmed the day. A half-hour or so into the hike, we encountered a small museum dedicated to the contadini (farmers) where an amicable man told us about the activities and dwellings of a typical farm family. We were his first visitors this day so he was ready to chat. My Italian understanding is really coming along, thank God, and we had a decent conversation. There is a grotto along the trail where they have determined people have lived for some 10,000 years. Amazing to consider how ancient this land is. Also, I got some sun as ordered by my doctor who thinks I need more vitamin D.

The hike was a good workout so we indulged in a fine Sunday lunch of fresh fish, fresh pasta, and an arugula salad, enjoying the antics of little children dining with Nonna e Nonno at an adjacent table.


Greek temple at Segesta, viewed from afar.

Clouds come and go, with passing showers. The temperature is not warm enough for beach time, but excellent for exploring, so Monday we headed to Segesta, where we saw our first-ever Greek ruins. This is a marvelous time of year to visit without crowds or the dizzying heat of summer. We found ourselves alone beside the magnificent temple, in the ancient arena, and along quiet paths. The temple is huge and well-preserved. One can walk completely around it for an excellent perspective on the architecture. Built in the 5th century, B.C., it has survived at least three earthquakes, and has withstood the ravages of man for so many centuries, but the courthouse in Salem, OR, barely lasted a decade due to poor construction.

After an up-close encounter with the temple, we ascended the hill opposite (305 meters above sea level) where the city used to be, to the location of an ancient arena. There we found gorgeous views back to the temple across fields of wild-flowers in bloom.

Luckily, as this is Italy, one can get a fine espresso freshly pulled by the barista, and

Ric at Segesta

My favorite travel companion in the ancient arena at Segesta.

a freshly made pastry even at an archeological site. Try that at Silver Creek Falls or the Mount St. Helens.Stay-tuned. More to come….

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