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Day 12, Wednesday, June 3, 2015 PALERMO HERE WE COME


sunny 80 °F

We awakened to another beautiful morning, warm and filled with sunshine. We had breakfast on the patio and packed for our trip to Palermo. Before we left, I discovered with some amount of joy, that our Volvo was equipped with a Navigation system. Although our hotel had a Castelbuono address, it was some distance from the town. We decided we would take a little side trip to the town which was about 7 miles away.

The countryside was gorgeous, dotted with one little hamlet after another. I guess I had forgotten what is like to drive in small Italian towns. We never did find the town center. One thing is clear in Italy, you cannot drive if your car does not have a horn. So, after chasing wild geese, we saw a sign for the Autostrada and decided to head for Palermo…the next adventure. I stopped and figured out how to program the Nav system and off we went to a delightful woman speaking the Queen’s English…and always saying “Please” when telling me where to turn.

Palermo was about an hour away…in Autostrada miles/time. The Italians are master bridge and tunnel builders and there are many tunnels we have passed through from Milazzo to Palermo. We got into the city and it was crazy…and only noontime when everyone should have either been working or sleeping. There are no rules of the road in Italy. Stop does not mean “stop”. It is survival of the fittest and the fearless. We managed to get to our hotel which is pretty much in the center of the town…the Hotel Opera Plaza. We summoned someone to help with the bags and to make sure the car was out away for the duration of our stay in Palermo. In stark contrast to the 12th century Abbey we just left, this hotel is quite modern. We booked one of two suites in the hotel through Luxury Link (which paid before it filed for bankruptcy the week before we left) and it is quite large and nice. It features a huge Jacuzzi tub that could probably fit eight people, enclosed in glass between the bedroom and the bathroom…there should be pictures.

Palermo is the capital of both the autonomous region of Sicily and the Province of Palermo. The city is noted for its history, culture, architecture and gastronomy, playing an important role throughout much of its existence; it is over 2,700 years old. Palermo is located in the northwest of the island of Sicily, right by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The city was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenicians and was known as Ziz ('flower'). Palermo then became a possession of Carthage, before becoming part of the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire and eventually part of the Byzantine Empire, for over a thousand years. The Greeks named the city Panormus, meaning 'complete port'. From 831 to 1072 it was under Arab rule during the Emirate of Sicily when it first became a capital. Following the Norman reconquest, Palermo became capital of a new kingdom (from 1130 to 1816), the Kingdom of Sicily. Eventually it would be united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification of 1860.The population of Palermo urban area is estimated to be 855,285, while its metropolitan area is the fifth most populated in Italy with around 1.2 million people. In the central area, the city has a population of around 676,000 people.

After we got settled, we walked two blocks to the hop on hop off city tour bus and took a two hour tour of the city, noting the sites to which we would return. The Jacaranda trees are in full bloom. I am curious about how many pedestrian deaths there are in Palermo each year. Our hotel is two blocks from Teatro Massimo which many believe to be the most beautiful opera house in the world. Verdi’s Requiem is tomorrow night and there are no tickets to be had…even through the Sicilian equivalent of Ticketmaster.

We got back to the room in time for a little siesta and a knock on the door brought a tray of fresh fruit and a bottle of wine which was included in the package along with breakfast each morning and free wifi. Free wifi is an oxymoron of sorts. If it is free and it does not work (as on Lipari) then it really does not matter. The abbey had great wifi everywhere. The wifi here works sporadically.

Margaret made dinner reservations at Sesto Canto, a ristorante that is about a half mile from the hotel. Much fish on the menu to someone’s chagrin. Margaret had a salmon amuse bouche to start, spaghetti with eggplant and tomatoes, and more salmon. I had a steak which was too big to eat. We walked back to the hotel, happy that we had not become statistics this day…although there were near misses!

Posted by stevencavalli07 08:09 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Day 13, Thursday June 4, 2015 PALERMO/MONREALE


sunny 80 °F

Another warm day bathed in sunshine. After breakfast we caught the hop on/off bus two blocks from the hotel for the twenty minute drive to Monreale. The hop on/off bus has been a great deal. For twenty euros each we have access to all five lines that the bus travels for 72 hours...which is our entire stay. Monreale was high on the list to see, and we have not taken a taxi in the three days we have been here...and the car has remained parked in the hotel's garage.

Monreale is on the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking the very fertile valley called "La Conca d'oro" (the Golden Shell), famed for its orange, olive and almond trees. The town, which has a population of approximately 30,000, is about 9 miles south of Palermo. After the occupation of Palermo by the Arabs, the Bishop of Palermo was forced to move his seat outside the capitol. The role of the new cathedral was assigned to a modest little church, Aghia Kiriaki, in the village nearby which was later called Monreale. After the Norman conquest in 1072, Christians got back the old city cathedral. Under King William II, the large monastery of Benedictines coming from Cava de' Tirreni, with its church, was founded. It is noteworthy that the new construction had also an important defensive function. Monreale was the seat of the metropolitan archbishop of Sicily, which from then on exerted a significant influence over Sicily. The Cathedral of Monreale is one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture in the world. It was begun in 1174 by William II, and in 1182 the church, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was, by a bull of Pope Lucius III, elevated to the rank of a metropolitan cathedral.

The church is a national monument of Italy and one of the most important attractions of Sicily. It is, however, the large extent (6,500 m2) of the impressive glass mosaics covering the interior which make this church so splendid. With the exception of a high ceiling made of marble slabs with bands of mosaic between them, the whole interior surface of the walls, including soffits and all the arches, is covered with minute mosaic-pictures in bright colors on a gold ground. The mosaic pictures are arranged in tiers, divided by horizontal and vertical bands.

In all of our travels through Europe and the endless number of churches we inevitably see, this may be the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen. The mosaics are simply amazing. The views from Monreale back to Palermo are astounding.

This bit of sightseeing, and the early departure, left us both hungry (really?) and thirsty and we found a little pizzeria just off the piazza where the cathedral was located. We haven't yet learned about the portions in Sicily. Margaret ordered a pizza and I thought I ordered a calzone. When they brought me a pizza I informed that I had ordered a calzone and what I received was this huge thing that looked like an 18" pizza folded in half and stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto. I ate about a third of it and was disappointed to leave the rest behind because it was soooooooo good!!

The hop on/off bus returned us to Palermo and we got off at the Pallazo Royale (Palazzo dei Normanni). The Palazzo dei Normanni or Royal Palace of Palermo was the seat of the Kings of Sicily during the Norman domination and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily. Today it is the seat of the regional parliament of Sicily. The building is the oldest royal residence in Europe, the home of the rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily.

The palace stands in what is the highest point of the ancient center of the city, just above the first Punic settlements, whose remains can still be found in the basement.

The first building is believed to have been started in the 9th century by the Emir of Palermo. Parts of this early building are still visible in the foundations and in the basements, where typical Arabian vaults are present. After the Normans conquered Sicily in 1072 (just 6 years after they conquered England) and established Palermo as the capital of the new Kingdom of Sicily, the palace was chosen as the main residence of the kings. The Norman kings transformed the former Arabian palace into a multifunctional complex with both administrative and residential functions. All the buildings were linked to each other via arcades and enclosed by gardens, designed by the best gardeners of the Middle East. In 1132, King Roger II added the famous Cappella Palatina to the complex, making it the focus of the palace. The Bourbons built additional reception rooms (la Sala Rossa, la Sala Gialla e la Sala Verde) and reconstructed the Sala d'Ercole, named for its frescos depicted the mythological hero, Hercules.
From 1947, the palace was the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. The west wing (with the Porta Nuova) was assigned to the Italian Army and is the seat of the Southern Military Region.

The palace contains the Cappella Palatina, by far the best example of the so-called Arab-Norman-Byzantine style that prevailed in the 12th-century Sicily. The wonderful mosaics, the wooden roof, elaborately fretted and painted, and the marble incrustation of the lower part of the walls and the floor are very fine. The Capella Palatina is a mini version of the cathedral in Monreale with beautiful mosaics, well preserved.

After the palazzo, we returned to the hotel for a little R&R and some dominoes out on the terrace. Dinner was my choice and we ate at a pizzeria/trattoria across the street from the hotel, Blanco. Once again, at 8pm, we were the first customers. Blanco gets high marks from both of us. I had pizza, half of which I took home. Marg had scallops and calamari and baccala (cod...Brewers...if you are reading), followed by spaghetti with clams and she raved about both. Back for an early turn in BECAUSE I FOUND OUT THAT I CAN WATCH THE WARRIORS FIRST GAME AGAINST THE CAVS IN OUR ROOM AT 3AM...SO EXCITED!!

Posted by stevencavalli07 10:38 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Day 14, Friday, June 5, 2015 TEATRO MASSIMO


sunny 80 °F

My day started quite early when the alarm went off at 3am and I turned on Sport TV which was airing the first game of the NBA finals...live. I wasn't thrilled when the game went to OT but the Dubs won a thriller and I turned the TV off at 5:48am.

After breakfast we set off on foot to see the interior of Teatro Massimo. The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele is an opera house and opera company located on the Piazza Verdi It was dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II. It is the biggest in Italy, and one of the largest of Europe (the third after the Opéra National de Paris and the K. K. Hof-Opernhaus in Vienna), renowned for its perfect acoustics. Construction started on 12 January 1874, but was stopped for eight years from 1882 until 1890. Finally, on May 16, 1897, twenty-two years after the laying of the foundation stone, the third largest opera house was inaugurated with a performance of Verdi's Falstaff. The auditorium was planned for 3,000 people, but, in its current format, it seats 1,350, with 7 tiers of boxes rising up around an inclined stage, and shaped in the typical horseshoe style. The final scenes of the film The Godfather Part III were filmed at the theatre.

Next, we walked a couple of miles to the Palazzo Abetellis which also houses the Galleria Regionale di Sicilia. The palazzo dates back to the 15th century and is arranged around an attractive square courtyard. It was designed in the 15th century by Matteo Carnelivari, at the time working in Palermo at the palazzo Aiutamicristo. It was the residence of Francesco Abatellis, port master of the Kingdom of Sicily. After the death of Abatellis, it was bequeathed to his wife, and, after her death, it was given to a female monastery. Several modifications were carried on to adapt it to monastic life. During the night between April 16 and 17, 1943 the palace was struck during an Allied air bombing: the loggia, the portico, the south-western sector and the wall of the western tower crumbled down. The palace was then restored, and it was decided to use it for the Galleria d’Arte per le collezioni d’arte medievale ("Gallery of medieval art collection"). The ground floor contains 12th century wooden works, 14th and 15th century works including some by Antonello Gagini, painted from the 14th-17th centuries, the 15th-century Bust of a Gentlewoman by Francesco Laurana and painted panels of wooden ceilings. The large frescoe of the Triumph of Death (most likely dating to 1445), is exhibited in the former chapel.

We returned to the hotel for a much needed nap (at least for me), followed by cocktails and dominoes on the terrace. Dinner at Blanco was so good last night that we decided to return and it did not disappoint. Margaret had gnocchi which was incredible. I had an appetizer which consisted of prosciutto, mozzarella di bufala, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce, followed by a wonderful spaghetti carbonara. We returned to the room and, as the night before, enjoyed the Jacuzzi while watching the Memorial golf tournament. Tomorrow is packing and moving day. We have enjoyed Palermo.

Posted by stevencavalli07 11:10 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Day 15, Saturday, June 6, 2015 ARGRIGENTO VIA ERICE


semi-overcast 75 °F

After breakfast we packed and the car was loaded. Our destination is Agrigento but we want to make a stop in the ancient city of Erice. Getting out of Palermo was an adventure. The drivers of tiny Fiats try to turn two lane roads into four...and then there are the annoying motor scooters that dart in and out of traffic. Add in the occasional bicyclists and buses and trucks and you have the recipe for disaster. We managed to survive with the assistance of Kate the Navigator and eventually found the Autostrada. About an hour later we climbed almost 3000 feet from sea level on the long and winding road to Erice.

The ancient Greek name of Erice was Eryx and its foundation was associated with the Greek hero Eryx. It was not a Greek colony, as the Phoenicians founded it, but was largely Hellenized. It was destroyed in the First Punic War by the Carthaginians, and from then on declined in importance. It was ruled by Arabs until the Norman conquest. In 1167 the Normans renamed it Monte San Giuliano. It was known as Monte San Giuliano until 1934.

There are two castles that remain in the city: Pepoli Castle, which dates from Saracen times, and the Venus Castle, dating from the Norman period, built on top of the ancient Temple of Venus, where Venus Ericina was worshipped. According to legend, the temple was founded by Aeneas.
In the ancient city there are 60 churches, including the magnificent Chiesa Matrice which dates to the 14th century and is remarkably well preserved. The views from the ancient city are beyond description...so look at the photos which probably do not do it justice.
The drive from Erice to Agrigento took approximately two hours. The countryside is stunning, from the endless acres of grapes, to the olive tree groves, to the mountains and craggy rock formations…with a lot of ocean views. Finally we reach our destination…
Agrigento is renowned as the site of the ancient Greek city, one of the leading cities during the golden age of Ancient Greece with population estimates in the range 200,000 - 800,000 before 406 BC.

Agrigento was founded on a plateau overlooking the sea, with two nearby rivers, the Hypsas and the Akragas, and a ridge to the north offering a degree of natural fortification. Its establishment took place around 582-580 BC and is attributed to Greek colonists from Gela. Akragas grew rapidly, becoming one of the richest and most famous of the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia. It came to prominence under the 6th-century tyrants Phalaris and Theron, and became a democracy after the overthrow of Theron's son Thrasydaeus. Although the city remained neutral in the conflict between Athens and Syracuse, its democracy was overthrown when the city was sacked by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Akragas never fully recovered its former status, though it revived to some extent under Timoleon in the latter part of the 4th century.

The city was fought over between the Romans and the Carthaginians during the First Punic War. The Romans laid siege to the city in 262 BC and captured it after defeating a Carthaginian relief force in 261 BC and sold the population into slavery. Although the Carthaginians recaptured the city in 255 BC the final peace settlement gave Punic Sicily, and with it Akragas, to Rome. It suffered badly during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) when both Rome and Carthage fought to control it. The Romans eventually captured Akragas in 210 BC and renamed it Agrigentum, although it remained a largely Greek-speaking community for centuries thereafter. It became prosperous again under Roman rule and its inhabitants received full Roman citizenship following the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city successively passed into the hands of the Vandalic Kingdom, the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy and then the Byzantine Empire. During this period the inhabitants of Agrigentum largely abandoned the lower parts of the city and moved to the former acropolis, at the top of the hill. The reasons for this move are unclear but were probably related to the destructive coastal raids of the Saracens and other peoples around this time. In 828 AD the Saracens captured the diminished remnant of the city. They pronounced its name as Kerkent in Arabic; it was thus Sicilianized as "Girgenti". It retained this name until 1927, when Benito Mussolini's government reintroduced an Italianized version of the Latin name.

Agrigento was captured by the Normans under Count Roger I in 1087, who established a Latin bishopric there. The population declined during much of the medieval period but revived somewhat after the 18th century. In 1860, the inhabitants enthusiastically supported Giuseppe Garibaldi in his conquest of southern Italy (in the course of the Unification of Italy). The city Agrigento is a major tourist center due to its extraordinarily rich archaeological legacy. Ancient Akragas covers a huge area — much of which is still unexcavated today — but is exemplified by the famous Valle dei Templi ("Valley of the Temples", a misnomer, as it is a ridge, rather than a valley). This comprises a large sacred area on the south side of the ancient city where seven monumental Greek temples in the Doric style were constructed during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Now excavated and partially restored, they constitute some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself.

The best-preserved of the temples are two very similar buildings traditionally attributed to the goddesses Juno Lacinia and Concordia (though archaeologists believe this attribution to be incorrect). The area around the Temple of Concordia was later re-used by early Christians as a catacomb, with tombs hewn out of the rocky cliffs and outcrops..

The other temples are much more fragmentary, having been toppled by earthquakes long ago and quarried for their stones. The largest by far is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, built to commemorate the Battle of Himera in 480 BC: it is believed to have been the largest Doric temple ever built. Although it was apparently used, it appears never to have been completed; construction was abandoned after the Carthaginian invasion of 406 BC.
The remains of the temple were extensively quarried in the 18th century to build the jetties of Porto Empedocle. Temples dedicated to Hephaestus, Heracles and Asclepius were also constructed in the sacred area, which includes a sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone (formerly known as the Temple of Castor and Pollux); the marks of the fires set by the Carthaginians in 406 BC can still be seen on the sanctuary's stones.

Much of present-day Agrigento is modern but it still retains a number of medieval and Baroque buildings. These include the 14th century cathedral and the 13th century Church of Santa Maria dei Greci ("St. Mary of the Greeks"), again standing on the site of an ancient Greek temple (hence the name). The town also has a notable archaeological museum displaying finds from the ancient city.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city successively passed into the hands of the Vandalic Kingdom, the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy and then the Byzantine Empire. During this period the inhabitants of Agrigentum largely abandoned the lower parts of the city and moved to the former acropolis, at the top of the hill. The reasons for this move are unclear but were probably related to the destructive coastal raids of the Saracens and other peoples around this time. In 828 AD the Saracens captured the diminished remnant of the city. They pronounced its name as Kerkent in Arabic; it was thus Sicilianized as "Girgenti". It retained this name until 1927, when Benito Mussolini's government reintroduced an Italianized version of the Latin name.

Agrigento was captured by the Normans under Count Roger I in 1087, who established a Latin bishopric there. The population declined during much of the medieval period but revived somewhat after the 18th century. In 1860, the inhabitants enthusiastically supported Giuseppe Garibaldi in his conquest of southern Italy (in the course of the Unification of Italy). The city suffered a number of destructive bombing raids during World War II.

Enough from Wikipedia…we arrived at our hotel, Villa Athena, about 6pm. I had high expectations and they were immediately exceeded. It is the only 5 star hotel situated in the Archeological Park of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO world heritage site. The hotel is 200 meters from the Temple of Concordia, a Greek temple dating back to the 5th century BC, and which turned out to be visible from the patio adjacent to our wonderful suite. The Villa was originally the private residence of a lawyer, Francesco D’Allessandro who built it at the end of the 18th century. In the garden of the hotel, the remains of an early Christian basilica, dating to the 5th century AD can still be clearly seen.

The hotel has an outdoor restaurant for dinner which is very upscale and has amazing views of the Temple of Concordia which is spectacular at night when it is all lit up. The ambience is enhanced by a piano player who kept playing one beautiful song after another to the applause of the patrons. The menu was not quite my cup of tea. I started with a dish that included fresh mozzarella di bufala in a lemon and tomato sauce, but was heavily infused with truffles, not my favorite. Margaret started with a dish that included fresh mackerel, but there were too many bones for her liking. The maitre’d was very concerned that we did not eat these dishes. I just told him I was a picky eater and he offered another choice which I politely declined. Margaret was not quite as lucky…she was brought another helping of the same fish which had been meticulously gone over to make sure there was not a bone anywhere in sight. The wait staff could not have been more accommodating or doting. The second dishes were better and dessert was very good. We retired early, anxious to visit the Valley of the Temples tomorrow.

Posted by stevencavalli07 09:50 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Day 16, Sunday, June 7, 2015 AGRIGENTO VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES


semi-overcast 78 °F

Villa Athena has a separate restaurant for its breakfast buffet. The dining area is a beautiful room with white table cloths and white coated waiters/waitresses. There is a separate room with probably the most elaborate buffet we have had to date. A big bowl full of half cut oranges and a juicer to make fresh orange juice that was incredibly sweet...a whole section of meats and cheeses...fresh cut fruit...pastries for days...scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage...and more...and then they bring to the table your coffee selection.

After breakfast we set off for a closer look at the Valley of the Temples. We parked and walked up a steep hill to the Temple of Hera which is quite well preserved and very impressive considering it dates back to the 5th century BC. Above us, built on top of the hills is the town of Agrigento, a city of 59,000 people.

The Temple of Concordia, the best preserved of the seven temples, was about a mile walk from Hera. Along the way, we saw remnants of the wall of the city which also dated back about 2500 years. Along the way, of course, there was a little restaurant and we stopped for something cold to drink. While the view of Concordia from the hotel is remarkable, especially at night, to see it close up is almost indescribable. How it has survived the numerous earthquakes that the island has suffered and the bombing during WWII is hard to explain when you see the incredible detail and the structure that remains.

After spending a few hours in the Valley of the Temples, we set off on a wild goose chase to try and find a restaurant that I discovered on TripAdvisor and that was a good candidate for dinner. We set the destination in our trusty (so far) Navigation system ("Kate") and it wanted to take us 68km away...when I thought it told us that it was only a little over a mile from our hotel. While we badmouthed Kate, we later apologized to her for what was my mistake. Next we wanted to find a store to get a few things for the room...including Jameson which had run out on me a couple of nights before. It was Sunday and many businesses were closed. Suddenly we happened on a huge, modern mall and found a SuperMercato where we stocked up on some salami and cheese and bread and a few other necessities.

We returned to the room for a little R&R and then took a taxi to the Akropolis restaurant, another TripAdvisor find. The taxi wound up the winding roads to the town of Agrigento and the restaurant sat on a cliff overlooking the Valley of the Temples and the town below...all the way out to the sea. The views were spectacular and got even better as nightfall came and the temples were brightly lighted. At 8pm, we were, of course, the only diners, so we had the undivided attention of the wait staff. This was the first restaurant where the menu was entirely in Italian and we had a waiter that spoke as much English as we do Italian. But we got by...as we always seem to do. We were brought a complimentary glass of sparkling rose and a cheesy amuse bouche. We shared a salumi plate which did not disappoint, along with their freshly made bread and breadsticks. I had one additional course, a steak with patate frittes. Margaret had a very interesting pasta dish, followed by frito misto. We then called our same taxi driver who brought us back to the hotel where we went to the restaurant and ordered dessert and aperitifs. I had sorbetto and Marg had mascarpone with a shot of espresso over it and shortbread cookies.

We returned to the room and I anxiously searched all the sport channels to see if the Warrior game would be on. It was to start at 2am...and the numerous ads got my hopes up. Alas, it was not on, so I had to try and sleep instead...awakening periodically to check my phone for score updates. I am afraid the Dubs are in trouble in this one. Cleveland takes them to OT twice on the road, winning one, without three of their starters. The MVP will have to come up big on the road. Buona notte from Agrigento.

Posted by stevencavalli07 07:19 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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