Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Visiting Catania, the other Sicilian city

Piazza Duomo

The Amazing Ms. D, our friend Marge, and I arrived in Catania after spending a wonderful week in Palermo. We came in on the Sais Autolinee bus (€13.5). It was a nice way to travel, because we really had a chance to see Sicily, as the highway passed right through the middle of the island. We weren’t sure what to expect. Palermo had been a beautiful surprise, and we hoped for the same in Catania. Well, we found out that while Catania was not as beautiful as Palermo (in my opinion), it certainly had its own charms that made our stay there just as much fun.

Catania is the second largest city in Sicily, and is its economic, industrial and shipping center. It dates back to the 8th century BCE, but it is also considered a “new” city, an interesting dichotomy.

Mt. Etna

Catania’s history is tied to the fact that it sits at the foot Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. The volcanic eruptions have made the area around it one of the most fertile regions in Italy. On the other hand, Etna has also destroyed Catania and other near-by towns many times over the centuries. The largest modern eruption of Mt. Etna was in 1669. It destroyed 10 towns on the southern flank of the volcano and much of the city Catania over the course of five to six weeks. It also provided most of the land that today makes up the port of Catania. Being near a volcano also means that earthquakes are common, and in 1693 there was a massive one that wiped out most of the city of Catania and killed over 15,000 people (out of a population of around 20,000). The result of this devastation was the entire center of the city had to be rebuilt, and so it is still thought of as being the new part of town. The “new” buildings are mostly in the baroque style. These beautiful, opulent buildings use a mix of volcanic basalt and limestone to create wonderful patterns and designs.

At the heart of the historic center of Catania is the Piazza Duomo. The first thing that caught my eye was the Fontana dell’Elefanta. Sitting in the center of the piazza, this statue of a basalt elephant supporting a limestone obelisk was built in 1736. The elephant has been a symbol of Catania since Roman times. To quote the website

Why are there elephants in Catania?

Some claim there once lived flocks of dwarf elephants at the foot of Mount Etna. Others say it is in memory of the wizard Eliodoro from the 8th century, who could turn into an elephant, or at least shape a magical elephant out of clay to carry him back and forth between Catania and Constantinople. Still others argue that the elephant stands as a symbol of the victory Catania won over Libya, and Catania was known as elephant town already during the Arab occupation. And then there are those who believe that the local elephant myth comes from an antique circus, and that the people of Catania since the 1200s have used elephants as good-luck charm to protect them against outbreaks of Etna.
This statue is often described as “whimsical” because the elephant has his trunk raised and a smile on his face. I will let the reader draw thier own conclusions.

This piazza is also home to the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, the main cathedral of Catania. This is a beautiful baroque structure , built in 1711 and designed by Gian Battista Vaccarini, to replace the old cathedral, which had been destroyed in the earthquake of 1693. It is surrounded by other baroque buildings, most of which today are hotels.

The Amanzing Ms. D and I like to take a city tour when we get to a new city. It gives us a feel for the layout of the city and points us towards sights and neighborhoods that we might not have found in the guide books. We especially like hop-on/hop-off busses because, if something catches our eye, or if we just get hungry, we can get off, and then continue on when we are ready. We found a tour in Catania that went beyond the center of the city and took us to some sights out along the coast, north of the city. The bus took us past the marina of Ognino out to the suburb of Aci Castello. Here the Castello Norman sits on a rocky promontory along the Sicilian coast. The castle was built during the Norman Conquest out of basalt rock. Its square tower looks out over the water, helping to guard the entrance to Catania’s harbor. 


Catillo Normano

The tour continued on to its turnaround point in Aci Trezza. This lovely seaside town is best known for the Isoli dei Ciclopi. According to legend these are the rocks that the Cyclops threw at the fleeing Odysseus as told in Homer’s Odyssey. The tour stopped here for about 15 minutes, enough time take a couple of photos and grab some water before the trip back to Catania.  

Isoli di Ciclopi in the distance

Getting There:
The Piazza Duomo is in the historic center of Catania, at the southern end of Via Etnea, the main shopping street. Here you can find two different companies offering the Hop-on/Hop-off tour. We used Tourist Services (the red bus) which offered a two day ticket that included a tour of Mt.Etna for €40/person.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Visiting the Temples at Agrigento

Temple of Concordia

 When you visit Palermo, there is one trip out of town that is as close to a must see as anything, The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. But this trip takes a little planning because Agrigento is about a 3-hour drive across Sicily.

The easy way is to use one of the on-line companies that organizes group tours. For about $100 they will put you on a large bus with 50 other people. It will be comfortable, easy and not at all personal. Or you can rent a car for the day. For about $35 you can rent a car. But add in the taxes, insurance (because your home insurance probably doesn’t cover foreign rentals, and gas, which is was $7/gallon in Sept. 2017, and this can cost significantly more. You will control your trip, but not have any guidance other than what you can find on-line.

We opted for something in between these two. We hired an individual guide to take us. This cost us $90 each for our group of 3. Our guide was well worth the price. Francesco ( is a 20-something Palermitano, and he provided personal service and crafted our day to provide the things that we wanted to do and see.

The trip to Agrigento starts early, because, without traffic, it is a 2.5-hour drive across Sicily. More if you hit traffic leaving Palermo, as we did. One nice thing about having our own driver was that we were able to stop when we needed to, rather than having to meet the schedule of a tour company. After spending an hour in traffic, this was very important. 

The drive across the center of Sicily was a look into the life of the island. We passed many working farms growing wheat, olives and grapes. While poor, none of the towns we saw seemed to suffer from the abject poverty that we sometimes see in the United States.

A farm along the highway

When we arrived at Agrigento, Francesco arranged for us to have lunch in the suburb of San Leone. This is a beach community south of the town. Francesco made reservations at a restaurant called Il Pescatore, which is across the street from the beach and a small amusement park. We were there on a cool and windy Monday, so we had the place to ourselves. In fact, the whole beach front seemed deserted. But the food was excellent, and we enjoyed our fresh seafood tremendously. Francesco had made an excellent recommendation.

The beach in San Leone

After lunch we went to the Valley of the Temples. Really a misnomer, the temples actually are on ridge just outside of the town of Agrigento. Here the remains of seven temples from the era of ancient Greece, sit overlooking to sea. They were placed here so that sailors entering the bay would see them and know that Greece was in power here.

We climbed the path from the entrance, listening to excellent audio guide, and arrived at the first temple – the Temple of Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux). This temple has been pretty much torn apart and its stones are strewn over a large field. In one corner there is a recreation of part of the temple, built in the early 1800’s.

The Amazing Ms. D at Gate V of the Valley

You author and our friend Marge among the stones

The Amazing Ms. D in front of the temple of Dioscuri

The temples are situated along the top of a ridge, so it is easy to follow the main path from one to the next, and the next temple along is the Temple of Zeus. This temple has also been pretty much destroyed, but it known for the telamons that were part of the temple. Telamons are human figures that represent the gods holding up the universe. These large carvings were not just decorations, they were architectural support for the roof of the temple.

Temple of Zeus

A Tamelon in front of the Temple of Zeus

We crossed a footbridge over the main road from town and arrived at the Temple of Hercules. Here eight of the columns on one side of the temple are still standing. They make a wonderful backdrop for photos and selfies.

Temple of Hercules

Your Author

We continued up the path, past the museum at the House of Alexander Hardcastle, and we reached the jewel of this ancient collection, the Temple of Concordia. Don’t go to your mythology books looking for a god named Concordia, the temple was named after a plaque found nearby that spoke of building peace (concord) among the people of Agrigento. The plaque probably was made in the middle ages. This temple has survived in excellent shape. The reason is that it was consecrated as a church in the early Christian era, and it served this role until the late 1700’s. In 1810, archaeologist Domenico Pietrasanta received permission from the local religious authorities to restore it to the form it held as a temple, and so its columns and walls are mostly intact.

Which brings me to issue of the condition of the temples. For many years, the official story was that the temples were destroyed in an earthquake. However, the Temple of Concordia survived intact. Now you might believe it was a miracle, but most historians now accept that the temples were destroyed by the early Christian church, in an effort to do away with worship of older religions.

This is where my tour of the temples ended. It was already getting late, and we had a long drive home awaiting us. Francesco took great care of us on the trip home, and even though we found construction at almost every turn, we arrived in reasonable time. He even took the time for a much needed stop at an ATM.

We had a wonderful day. Having a private guide gave us a chance to see more of Sicily and talking to Francesco taught us more about the life of Sicilian people.

Getting There:
Agrigento is about 130 Km (80 miles) from Palermo, but traffic, construction and the general state of the highways make this a trip that takes over 2 hours. You can rent a car, take Italrail or take a tour. We highly recommend Francesco. His email is His phone - +39-391.721.4040 He is also available for airport transfers.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Walk Historic Palermo and Discover Great Food and People

Teatro Massio

When you visit Palermo, you have the chance to walk through history. With buildings that are up to 900 years old, the historic center of the Sicilian capital is a beautiful place to explore.

Palermo is an old city. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BCE, but its importance and architectural history dates to around 900 AD, when Arabs took control of the city and made it the capital of the Emirate of Sicily. In 1072, the Norman Crusades captured Palermo, and it served as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily until Italian Unification in 1861.

Palermo, and Sicily, have not done well since Italy became a unified country. Sicily is the poorest part of the country and while more popular areas have received funds for the development of tourism, Sicily has not been so fortunate. It is only recently that that the world has rediscovered the football on Italy’s toe. The result of this “neglect” is that, unlike cities like Florence, the historical center or Palermo is a part of the daily life of many residents of the city. Walking around Palermo is a walk through the lives of the people who live there.

The old section of Palermo is bound by the Stazione Centrale to the south and Piazza Verdi to the north. It is between Via Roma to the east and Via Papireto to the west. It is the center of tourism and home to three markets and several thousand Palermitanos.

There is a lot to see in the historic center, and it is worth taking the time to just wander. Small streets and alleys curve around each other. They open on to time piazzas. And the people who live here are always out taking care of their daily lives.

If you want something more organized you can take one of the many walking tours. I highly recommend the STREATY street food tour. They offer a wonderful 3.5-hour exploration of Palermo. Our guide, Marcos, met us at Piazza Verdi, in front of the Teatro Massimo. We were a group of 10, from the U.S., England and New Zealand. We began walking to the entrance of the Capo market, named because it is at the highest point of the old city. Marcos gave us a running history of the city and market throughout the tour. The market is divided into sections, each selling something different. We started in the food section. Here vendors display fresh fruit, seafood and meat.

Our first stop was and introduction to three Sicilian staples – Pane panelle e crocchi and arancina. Pane panelle is a fried square of chickpea flour, and crocchi is a potato croquette. They are often served together stuffed in a roll. Arancina is a deep-fried rice ball, and the king of Palerman street food. It is usually stuffed with meat or spinach and cheese. You will see a lot of take out places with anacini in display cases, but the best ones are fried fresh to order.

Out tour continued through the market. We entered and area that specialized in selling fabric, but here we encountered the Italian version of the piragua man. 3 generations of family selling shaved ice with your choice of juice or flavored syrup poured over it.

Shaved ice and fresh orange juice

Leaving the Capo Market, we came to a stand selling sfincione – Sicilian pizza. If you are thinking of the squares of thick, dry pizza sold under that name in the U.S. think again. These are moist, tender loafs, covered with a light tomato sauce, oregano and pepper. No cheese. They are heated in a portable oven. Soft and delicious, the perfect street food.

From here Marcos took us to the Mercato Vuccina for some special treats. First stop here was the Taverna Azzurra for some wine with olives and bread. This old bar was filled with locals (mostly men), who Marcos and the owners kind of pushed aside to make room for our group. We drank a local blend of wines called Sangre or blood, along with fresh olives and an excellent semolina bread. This lovely old bar is definitely a local hang out with good wine and great company.

pouring the SANGRE

Next came the “highlight” of our tour – Pane ca’ meusa – the spleen sandwich. Actually, this sandwich is made mostly of veal lung that has been boiled and then fried in lard. It is served on a sesame roll. This was a tough one for me. I tried it, swallowed one bite, but that was all I could take. However, the Brits and New Zealanders loved it.

The Amazing Ms. D Serving the spleen

I really did try it

Marcos - our tour guide

Our last stop of the tour was at the Gelateria Lucchese. Dating back to the 1920’s, this ice cream shop gave us the best way to get the taste of the spleen out of our mouths – Gelato on Brioche. That’s right! Ice cream served on a roll! What could be more indulgent? We chose our flavors and sat around a table, together one last time. We relaxed, sharing stories and a sweet snack, before going our own ways.

So, walk around the historic center of Palermo. Do so on your own, or take a tour. It is a great way to discover the city.