The countryside on the way to Olvera was more verdant than the earth toned landscape we traversed on our way to Zahara de la Sierra at the beginning of our road trip. Now the hillsides were a mosaic of greens, light and soft, dark and vibrant, signaling the arrival of spring.
As the road curved, Olvera’s Castle and the belltowers of the town’s church broke the horizon. We are never quite sure where to park in small villages. Worried about getting fined for a parking violation, we always opt to play it safe and find a car lot. But the parking in Olvera was at the bottom of a steep incline below the historic castle and we just didn’t have the oomph that morning to walk from there uphill and then continue higher to the top of the tower. With some persistence we navigated the town’s labyrinth of narrow one-way lanes into the Plaza de la Iglesia. At the apex of the village, the plaza straddles the area between Olvera’s citadel and the town’s majestic church, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish. Since it was still the off-season, we were in luck and found the last, barely viable parking spot on the plaza. It was a narrow space that required the driver’s side door to be parked tightly against a wall. Fortunately, I’m still limber enough to climb over the car’s center console and stick shift, with a limited amount of grunting and moaning.
The view from the mirador at the edge of the plaza was wonderful. Incredibly, the views across the village continued to get better and better as we climbed the different levels to the top of the Castillo de Olvera, perched atop a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 2000 feet. The climax was a spectacular view of the cathedral and panorama of whitewashed homes with red tiled roofs backed by a shimmering sea of silver green foiliage. Outside the village, the surrounding olive groves harbor nearly two million trees.
Constructed in the 12th century, the castle was part of a line of signal towers along the Moorish frontier in southern Spain. The castle was expanded in the 14th century when it was captured by King Alfonso XI during the Reconquista. The castilo is one of five in proximity to each other on The Castles Route, Witnesses of the Spanish Reconquest through the Moorish Strip, a no-man’s land that separated the ancient Christian Andalusia frontier from the Arab Kingdom of Granada. The other castles on the circuit are Castillo de las Aguzaderas, Castillo de Cote, Castillo de Morón de la Frontera, and the Castillo del Hierro.
With its size and architectural presence, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish looks more like a cathedral than just a church. The neoclassical church was started in 1823 on the foundation of an earlier dismantled, gothic- mudéjar style church and dramatically counterbalances the castle on ridge above the village. Ordered built by The Dukes of Osuna, the feudal lords over Olvera, the vaulted interior is lined with marble imported from Italy and has many interesting religious icons. To fulfill this extravagance the Dukes diverted the town’s taxes, away from improving the village, to pay for it. They were the last feudal lords over Olvera and declared bankruptcy in 1843 when the church was completed. Then fled, never to be seen again.
A cloudless morning in Olvera turned overcast by the time we arrived in Setenil de las Bodegas only thirty minutes later. While considered a pueblo blanco, it’s totally different from Olvera and Zahara de la Sierra where the homes ascend the steep slopes under their town’s hilltop fortress. In Setenil de las Bodegas, whitewashed homes front caves under large stone overhangs which line both sides of a gorge, created eons ago from the erosion caused by the swift moving water.
The homes along the gorge use the mammoth natural stone ledge as their roofs. The once raging Rio Trejo is now a quiet stream in the narrow gorge, which widens into a shallow ravine where an ancient Moorish castle still guards the approach to the village. When the Romans colonized the area two thousand years ago folks had already been dwelling in the natural caves along the gorge for several millennia. Over the centuries the cave fronts were enclosed to create the unique village that still survives.
Before touring the village, we checked into the Hotel El Almendra to drop our bags, just oustside the historic district, with the intent of driving back and finding parking closer to the gorge. We were just about to pull out of the hotel parking lot when a group of police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing roared past. A slower patrol car parked and blocked the hotel driveway. Folks were beginning to gather on the sidewalk. We had no idea why until a motorcycle carrying a cameraman facing backward led the first wave of bicycle racers that were a blur of pedaling color as they sped by. A continual surge of racers crested the knoll of the road and coursed downhill towards the village. The race was one leg of the annual Vuelta a Andalucia – Ruta del Sol. A five-day, 500 mile cross-country cycling event that summits 17 mountain passes in the region and attracts 600 riders. Leaving the car at the hotel, we decided to walk the half mile into the village.
By the time we reached Cuevas del Sol, Caves of the Sun, the narrow one-way road through the gorge lined with small taverns and inns, the sun was brightly shining again. Even though the road is open to cars, it was filled with folks walking and was almost pinched closed by tables from the restaurants narrowing its width. We found a table and enjoyed both the lunch and the warmth of the February sun.
Afterwards we walked the length of the lane through the deep chasm until a set of stairs led to the Mirador del Carmen and the small 18th century chapel Ermita de Ntra. Sra. Del Carmen. The view from the overlook encompassed a sweeping vista of the valley filled with whitewashed pueblos stacked atop one another filling the valley to its rim.
The Nazari Castle, the town’s 12th century Moorish fortress, still stands vigilantly on the edge of the valley, the invaders now camera-wielding tourists. Across from it the Gothic style Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation, itself an imposing fortress-like structure, was ordered built by the Spanish Crown. It was constructed in 1505, above the town’s previous mosque, to celebrate the liberation of the village from centuries of Arab rule. We walked back to our hotel along a lane above the gorge lined with newer buildings.
Heading back to Seville before sunrise the next morning we stopped high above the village on the road that followed the ridge opposite the Cuevas del Sol, in one last attempt to capture the iconic pueblos of the village as dawn cast its first rays of light across the gorge.
Till next time, Craig & Donna
PS. Our 226-mile weekend roundtrip from Seville only used slightly more than a half tank of gasoline.
The view from the train window was a blur of greenery, a vast landscape of undulating hills dotted sporadically with small villages and the remnants of ancient fortresses crowning the hilltops, set amidst a sea of olive trees, that seemed to spread from the wake of the speeding train to the horizon. Seventy million olive trees, 24 different varieties, covering over three million acres in Andalusia produce 900,000 tons of olive oil and 380,000 tons of table olives annually. No wonder we’ve been enjoying Spain so much – the olives are so good!
We were nearing the end of our stay in Seville, but there were still destinations outside the city we wanted to explore before we departed Spain. Being so close to the ancient Moorish cities of Cordoba and Granada, how could we not visit? Plans were made to catch an early train from Seville and spend the day exploring the major sites in Cordoba, before continuing to an Airbnb rental in Granada for three days. There were always debates about budgeting, wanting to do it all and affording it are issues we continually faced during our two-year journey, fortunately the highly discounted rate we received for booking an apartment in Seville during the shoulder season made this side trip financially reasonable.
It was 152 BC when Pliny the Realtor, standing on the bank of the Guadalquivir River, toga blowing in the wind, turned to General Claudio Marcelo, the founder of Roman Cordoba, and with the swoop of his arm across the grand vista before them proclaimed future realtors’ favorite adage, “location, location, location!”
Situated along the last navigable section of the river, Granada prospered as a river port, exporting grain, wine and olives down the river to the Atlantic Ocean, where the goods were then sailed around the Rock of Gibralta into the Mediterranean Sea, eventually reaching ancient Rome. In the 1st century BC Roman engineers built a graceful, sixteen arch stone bridge that spanned 820ft across the Guadalquivir River and has been in continual use, with renovations of course, for two-thousand years.
The city continued to flourish for centuries under Visigoth rule and later Muslim conquest. In the year 1000 the city was estimated to have an enlightened and tolerant population of 450,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews, surpassing Constantinople, making it the largest city in Europe. The intellectuals of the city were renown throughout Europe for their contributions to the advancement of astronomy, medicine, philosophy, and mathematics.
Cordoba slowly lost its significance as a riverport trading center after the reconquest when the waterway eventually silted up and navigation to the city became impossible. By the 1700s its prosperity had diminished, and its population reduced to only 20,000.
Our first stop was Córdoba’s Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Castle of the Christian Kings, a royal residence and fortress built in the Mudéjar-style on the site of a former Muslim Fortress. While the castle is interesting, the exquisite formal gardens were a splendid oasis, wonderfully colorful even in early March. Here Christopher Columbus initiated his negotiations with Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon to finance his voyage of discovery in 1492.
The city’s most famous landmark, the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, was a short walk from the Alcazar. It’s an enormous structure occupying the equivalent of a New York City office block, part of which features an enclosed courtyard with a central fountain surrounded by an orange grove. The worn exterior was fascinating with its elaborate brickwork, and Moorish arches around the windows. The ancient doors into the space are offset by horseshoe shaped arches, a design influence copied from Visigoth architecture. Construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba started in 786 AD and lasted for three-centuries as it was continually expanded.
Using 850 recycled Roman columns, topped with two tiers of arches, the Great Mosque of Cordoba’s prayer hall is a dazzling space with rows and isles of geometrically precise columns that seem to recede to infinity, in every direction. It was one of the largest mosques in the Muslim world when it was built.
Fortunately, in 1236 when Ferdinand III, king of Castile and León, captured the city, he was enamored with the mosque’s magnificent architecture, and he chose to leave it totally intact including the mihrab, an elaborate prayer niche in a wall that faces Mecca.
For a time, Muslims and Christians were allowed to pray in the same space. This lasted to 1499 when Muslims were expelled or forced to convert if they wished to stay in Spain. The original mosque remained unchanged until the mid-1500s when a towering high altar and choir loft were built in the center and numerous side altars were added along the exterior walls. The old minaret was finally incased within a magnificent, squared belltower.
Afterwards we wandered through the narrow alleys adjacent to the cathedral, peeking into verdant courtyards that looked so lovely we were tempted to invite ourselves in, but did not. The only thing missing were flowers in bloom. The sun was not yet high enough in the March sky to warm the cold stones and prompt the first blossoms of spring.
Later that evening upon our arrival in Granada we took an Uber from the train station to our rental in the Albaicín district, on Cta. de Alhacaba, a steep cobbled lane just down from Plaza Larga. It was an attractively gentrified apartment in an older traditional Spanish home, with a center courtyard, that had been divided into several units. Looking out from our window the next morning, we could see on a ridge above us the ruins of an extensive fortress wall, built during the 11th century Zirid kingdom.
Getting our day underway, we walked uphill to Plaza Larga and ventured into the traditional colmados, a small grocery store where you tell the shop clerk everything you need and they pull it from the shelf behind the counter for you. Our Spanish was minimally up to the task.
A few steps from the shop a limited section of the citadel wall containing the Arco de las Pesas has been renovated. Known as the Arch of Weights, this was an important entrance into the city where merchants had their goods weighed and taxed. Its distinctive zigzag tunnel was designed to slow and throw off balance any attacking enemy who had breached its door. The passageway’s vaulted ceiling now provides perfect acoustics for buskers. Crossing through we headed toward the Mirador de San Nicolás.
There are several overlooks on Albaicín hill, but the view of the Alhambra from San Nicolás Plaza was sublime. We stopped here several times as we explored this hilltop across the valley from the Alhambra. We enjoyed lunch and sangria on the terrace at El Huerto de Juan Ranas or dangled our legs over the edge of the mirador as the sun arced across the sky.
We watched the play of light change the shadows and the intensity of the red walls from which al-qal’a al-hamra, in Arabic the red fortress, takes its name. The palace is dramatically situated on a hill, with the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and Mt. Mulhacén, the Iberian peninsula’s highest peak in the background.
For centuries since the Muslim time, continuing into the 1950s, muleteers ran mule trains laden with fresh produce, fish, and merchandise from the coast up over the Sierra Mountains along a vast network of trails to Granada. Much of this 8-12 hour journey was done at night to take advantage of the cooler evening temperatures to ensure the quick arrival of perishable food. The mountains also provided sanctuary to the maquis, resistance fighters, in the 1940s and 50s who opposed the dictatorship of General Franco after the Spanish Civil War.
The historic Albaicín district is extremely hilly, think San Francisco hilly, a severe contrast compared to the flatness of Seville and Cordoba, but the labyrinth of narrow alleys that twist up and down the ancient hillside was intriguing. The Palacio de Dar al-Horra, “Home of the Honest Lady”- the mother of the last Emir of Granada, was an interesting example of 14th century Moorish domestic architecture, with its intricate Alfarje, carved wood ceilings, verandas, and courtyard.
Nearby we accidentally stumbled upon the 16th century Royal Convent of Saint Isabel and entered the courtyard in hope that its church was open. Unfortunately it wasn’t, but as we wandered we discovered the “cookie door.” Actually, it is a cabinet built into the wall of the convent with a door on each side that separates the cloistered nuns from the public. Ring the bell above the door, speak your order when someone answers and place your money in the cabinet and close the door. You will hear the other door open and then close when your dulces have been placed inside. It’s a sweet centuries old tradition which helps the nuns support their convent.
We were enjoying our stroll through the whitewashed alleys as we headed down the hillside toward Plaza Nueva, when “Splat Splat!” Honestly it felt like we had been shat upon by a flock of tourist hating birds. Something akin to the Spanish version of the Hitchcock movie classic. And the smell was awful! We don’t remember exactly what was said, but quickly a well-dressed middle-aged couple guided us into an empty plaza and pulled a huge roll of paper towels out of their bag and proceeded to “help,” clean the mess off our jackets as they patted us down and attempted to pickpocket us. I wish I had been quick witted enough to yell, I KNOW KARATE!, with an intimidating scowl. At least my wife would have burst into laughter and perhaps that would have broken their concentration. It was over in a flash and they vanished. Fortunately, we keep all our valuables under our clothing, not in any exterior pockets. Rattled, we continued on. A beautiful city, good tapas and sangria helped our mood rebound. Later that evening when I was reviewing the photos taken during the day, I spotted them in the lower corner of a picture taken moments before that encounter.
Bar los Diamantes and La Gran Taberna, located next to each other on Plaza Nueva, were excellent places to dine, and we tried them on separate days. At home in the states now we are making tapas inspired from dishes we tasted at both places.
Afterwards we walked along the thin ribbon of road that follows the Darro River through this section of the old town. It’s lined with numerous historical sites and bridges that cross the river; the ambience was wonderful.
After a long day we couldn’t muster the strength to walk the steep uphill back to our apartment and opted to use the local bus. The routes in the historic sectionuse micro-buses to navigate the ancient parts of Granada and took us pretty close to where we needed to go.
Only a limited number of people are allowed to visit the Alhambra each day, so we made reservations for a group tour early the next morning.
As we were leaving our rental the next morning, we couldn’t extract the key from the interior lock on the front door. We can’t recall how many doors we’ve unlocked during our travels, but this was a first! Apartment doors in Europe are intriguing, especially if they are in newly renovated buildings. The trend seems to be to install a very sturdy door with numerous deadbolts that insert into the door frame with the turn of single key. They appear to be designed to thwart any home invasions or resist the battering ram of a S.W.A.T team. The rental agent asked us to stay at the apartment until a locksmith arrived, without offering a time. That was unacceptable and we asked them to have the door repaired by the end of the day. We took the key to the courtyard with us and hoped for the best.
The Alhambra is massive and originally served as a fortress for many centuries before Mohammed ben Al-Hamar, the first king of the Nasrid dynasty arrived in the 13th century and established it as his royal residence. Each subsequent Muslim ruler continued to add and beautifully renovate every interior surface lavishly adorned yesería, intricately carved or cast stucco featuring arabesque, geometric and calligraphic designs. Later the Christian monarchs would introduce mudejar tiles and Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque techniques to various building sprees.
The most significant Spanish contribution to the Alhambra was the Palace of Charles the V. It is an immense renaissance style building with a two tiered colonnaded balcony surrounding a circular courtyard at its center.
Construction started in 1527 and was continually interrupted over the next 430 years and was eventually abandoned until the government dedicated funds to finish it by 1957. Somehow this amazing amalgamation of diverse architectural styles at the Alhambra creates a unique and satisfying visual harmony.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Catedral de Granada Royal and next to it the Capilla Real de Granada. Both were built over the ruins of the Granada’s Grand Mosque in the old medina after the reconquest. The cathedral features a towering white and gold interior and a stained-glass cupola above the high altar.
The Capilla Real de Granada is a burial chamber for the Catholic Monarchs Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand and features their ornately carved marble tomb. Joanna of Castile, Queen of Castile and Aragon, and her husband Philip I “the Handsome” of Castile, are entombed next to them in an equally elaborate sarcophagus. The Sacristy-Museum here also displays gilded church panels, along with renaissance paintings from Flemish, Italian and Spanish artist. The monarchs’ crowns and scepter are also on display.
Across the lane the wonderful Moorish architecture of Palacio de la Madraza, a former Islamic school dating from the 1300s, has been well preserved.
To our relief the door lock was fixed when we returned to the apartment that evening. Though to our dismay the landlord left a bill for the locksmith’s services of 150€! Attached to the invoice was a note that said the locksmith could not find any fault with the door, that it was in perfect working, and we were responsible for the bill. We did not agree that this was our “operating error” and questioned it. Thinking it was a maintenance issue and ultimately the apartment owners’ responsibility. There was an exchange of text messages, with the rental agent demanding payment. We refused to pay. Things deteriorated – ancient ancestors and future generations to come were flavorfully cursed. We left early the next morning to avoid any confrontation.
With a half day to fill before our train departed, we dragged our suitcase clickity clacking over the cobblestones of the historic center as we made our way to the Basilica de San Juan de Dios. Built in the 1700s, when a seemingly unending supply of gold and silver flowed back to Spain from their colonies in the Americas, the church is a temple not only to Christ, but a shrine to all things Baroque, with every surface ornately detailed, much of it gilded. The sacristy and the other rooms behind the altar hold a museum-like collection of artwork, precious religious objects, and gold adorned reliquary.
Across the street at Candelas Bocadilleria we sat at a table in the sun and enjoyed the best churrerias of our time in Spain.
Two blocks away and two centuries older, the Monasterio de San Jeronimo (1504) stands as the first great Renaissance style achievement of Spanish architect Diego de Siloe, who was trained in Italy. He followed this with the Grand Cathedral of Granada (1528.) This royal monastery was the first in Granada commissioned by Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand after the conquest of the city. It’s a massive structure with a two-tiered cloister surrounding a large courtyard fully planted with orange trees.
The monastery’s main chapel is cavernous with a barrel-vaulted ceiling that leads your eye to a towering gilded high altar, minutely detailed with religious iconography. The tomb of El Gran Capitan, Fernandez de Cordoba, lies in the chapel. A hero, he is credited with several reconquests across Andalucía, and after a ten-year campaign, the surrender of Granada from Boabil, Muhammad XII of Granada, the 22nd and last Moorish Sultan in Spain.
We barely scratched the surface of all the places to see in Granada. It’s a good excuse to plan a return, our own Reconquista, of this beautiful and fascinating region in the future.
“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time toBelize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.” As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida. Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises. Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.
On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see. It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502. Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.
The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.
Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico. Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize. Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.
The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood. Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot.
Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood. After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats. In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean. The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning. By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles. Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize.
In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.
Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief, his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied. In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872. Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.
Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”
Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture. English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.
The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reefwhich is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site. Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.
We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy.
In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless. Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael. It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany. The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.
Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.
Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks. Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.
The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents. A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there. Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.
For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye. The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico. But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay. The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.
We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.
Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst. Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard.
In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery. Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.
Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry. Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.
On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning. They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms. Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.
The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs. Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.
There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties. The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.
Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.
The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals. Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people. The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.
Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day. If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.
The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.
There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation. We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.
Somewhere along our route on the A4 motorway to Bergamo the tire blew. It wasn’t an obvious blowout, the car still handled well, but the car felt different. Our dilemma was, if we stop on the shoulder of the highway to call for assistance how do we explain our location in our non-existent Italian, or do we keep driving to the next exit. We kept going. In the time it took to stop and pay the toll the tire totally deflated, and we limped off the highway on three wheels. Luck was with us we when we rolled into the gas station at the top of the exit ramp. They didn’t offer any repair services, but did have a small café, and it being Italy, they served excellent cappuccino and pistacchio pasticcino. With the barista’s help our exact location was given to the roadside assistance agent, and we settled in for what we thought would be a very long wait. Surprisingly, we were back on the road again in less than one hour.
Bergamo was a well-established ancient village before it became a Roman town in 49 BC and today is a hub of industrialization in the Lombardy region. The newer portion of the city, Citta Bassa, or lower city, is a smart looking collection of contemporary buildings along tree-lined boulevards and pedestrian malls worthy of exploration. Though we were here to wander around the narrow lanes and ancient churches within the 16th century Venetian defensive walls of the Città Alta, the high city. The historic upper center of Bergamo was strategically located on a rock promontory with commanding views of the surrounding region.
Completely pedestrian only, the old town is connected to the new town by a funicular that runs up the side of a steep hill through an ivy-covered channel. We knew the old town would be full of history, but soon realized it was an unexpected foodie’s delight when we were faced with a gauntlet of gourmet food stores that started as soon as we got off the funicular.
With each shop window more tempting than the previous, it was a challenging task walking along Via Gombito to Piazza Vecchia, the historic center of Bergamo. It was the last week of November now and even though the days were sunny there was a definite chill to the air. Fortunately, the cafes on the piazza were still in full swing with outdoor dining and had heavy lap blankets available to ward off the chill. The ambiance of the old town is wonderful and there’s plenty to absorb just by wandering around, but if you are short on time concentrating on the historic buildings that line Piazza Vecchia is rewarding.
Dominating the piazza is the Campanone, the town’s clock and bell tower. When it was built in the 12th century it was the private residence of the wealthy and influential Suardi family. With admission there is an elevator that will take you most of the way to the top. Interestingly at ten o’clock every evening the town keeps an ancient Venetian tradition alive by chiming the bells of the clock tower 100 times to signal the closing of the city gates. It was cloudy after lunch so we decided to delay our tower visit till later, hoping that the weather would change, and the sun would come out. Next to the tower stands the Palazzo del Podestà e Museo del Cinquecento a wonderful, high-tech, multimedia and interactive museum housed in a Renaissance era palazzo that highlights Bergamo’s history.
The Cattedrale (duomo) di Sant’Alessandro, the Bergamo Cathedral, is almost hidden away behind the arched portico that separates the Piazza Vecchia from the Piazza Duomo. Majestic in scale, the duomo dates from the 1400s and has undergone many alterations over the centuries that has evolved the church into a treasured, religious art-filled sanctuary that is the Bishop of Bergamo’s seat. An important center for Christianity since the religion was accepted by the Roman Empire in the third century, Bergamo has had a bishop since the fourth century. Underneath the Presbytery the Bishops’ Crypt of The Cathedral Of Bergamo holds, in a semi-circle, twelve tombs of bishops who guided the See in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Strikingly, the façade of the crypt, in my opinion, could pass as the entrance to a retro café; it just had that feel.
The highlight for us on Piazza Duomo was the Romanesque Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore with its intricately designed marble façade and ornate gilded interior, and the Cappella Colleoni, a separate 15th century funerary chapel with a frescoed ceiling that seamlessly stands next to it. Founded in 1137, like so many other churches in Italy, it was built over the ruins of an earlier 8th century church and an older Roman temple.
To our delight the church organist was practicing during our visit, and we stayed for twenty minutes and enjoyed this impromptu concert.
Just wandering around, we eventually arrived at the Torre della Campanella, the bell tower and arched gate entrance to Piazza Mascheroni and the Visconti Citadel which guarded the western entrance of the city from invasion, and protected the Visconti family from civil rebellion. The citadel is now home to the Civic Archaeological Museum and the Bergamo Science Museum.
Remarkably, the buildings adjacent to the gateway still have faded remnants of renaissance era frescoes adorning their exterior walls.
Outside the city walls, the landscape opened to vistas of rolling hills, still holding the fading colors of fall.
Back at Piazza Vecchia the afternoon sun was beginning to break through the clouds when we decided to head to the top of the Campanone.
The elevator stopped short of the top and we had to navigate a narrow passage to reach the highest level.
Each corner of the tower offered an amazing bird’s eye perspective of the ancient city, from soaring above the cathedrals on Piazza Duomo, to cityscapes of red tiled rooftops with smoke wafting from their chimneys, to distant still green hills.
The city is full of potential, and you won’t be disappointed if you spend two nights here to fully explore the Città Alta. But Old Town Bergamo is the perfect size to entertain you for four or five hours, on your way to or from Milan or Verona, either by train or car, without feeling you might have missed something.
The clickity clack of our suitcase wheels reverberated through the Porta Catania, the ancient gate through a defensive wall that once encircled the town, as we pulled them past the 14th century Duomo of Taormina, over cobblestones polished smooth by centuries of use and time. Adorned with crenelations, the church looks more like a fortress than sanctuary and seems at odds with the playful Baroque fountain in the plaza across from it.
Lined with colorful shops Corso Umberto, barely wide enough for a horse cart, connects the two old entrances to the city and is pedestrian only. The adjoining steep, staired alleys were sized just right for the width of a donkey.
Meeting us at the corner, our young host graciously carried our bags up the passageway and to the third-floor room we had rented in a newly renovated guest house. It was a compact space, but it would work if we sucked in our stomachs. Effortlessly, he trotted up two more flights to the rooftop where he showed us the kitchen, as well as distant views of the Teatro Antico di Taormina, the castle above town, and Mount Etna, all bathed in the last of the sun’s rays.
The next morning, before the day became too hot, we followed a steep switch-backed trail up the side of Mount Tauro to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca and the Saracen Castle. The Arab fortress is believed to be built over an ancient Greek acropolis. Unfortunately, it was closed due to disrepair, but the panoramic view of Naxos on the coast with Mt Etna in the background was phenomenal.
Sicily’s history follows Mount Etna’s turbulent eruptions – quiet for long periods then thrown into turmoil by foreign invasions. Hanging off the toe of Italy, its large land mass pinches the Mediterranean Sea to the point that the island is only 372 miles from North Africa’s Tunisian coast. For ancient mariners sailing East to West or South to North it was unavoidable, and they collided with it. Its easy location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean brought Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, British, and Spanish for varying lengths of conquest and cultural influence. It’s an interesting gene pool for sure.
Appreciating a good beach when they found one, the Greeks rowed ashore and established their first colony, Naxos, on the island in 734 BC. Later siding with the city state Athens in a war against Syracuse, upon defeat the city was completely destroyed in retaliation. The survivors fled to the high ground and founded Taormina. Visitors continue to be dazzled by their vision to dramatically construct an amphitheater on the edge of a cliff towering over the sea with Mt. Etna, an active volcano, in the background.
Finally, Piedmontese volunteers, the red shirts of Northern Italy, invaded to unite Italy. Commanded by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the army defeated the Kingdom of Sicily whose territory extended across the boot of Italy and North to Naples.
But before that Taormina with its multiculturalism was a required stop on the “Grand Tours” of the 18th and early 19th centuries once it was mentioned by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Journey to Italy. Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo and Seville were also treasured destinations. Remember, this was the time when all land travel was by horse-drawn carriage and water crossings by sailing ships. Think of it as an extended gap year, when young aristocrats were sent abroad for two to four years to sharpen their sensibilities and further their knowledge of the arts, antiquities and the classics. Taormina’s big draw though, over those other sophisticated cities, was its clifftop location high above the Mediterranean that caught the cool breezes blowing in from the sea during the summer.
The Nordic invasion continued with landscape painter Otto Geleng. Exhibitions of his paintings in Paris and Berlin left critics saying such landscapes couldn’t exist and that he had an “over-active imagination.” He encouraged all his doubters to see Sicily for themselves, then returned to Taormina and opened the town’s first hotel, Timeo, in a renovated palace. His vision inspired a wave of artists, writers, and actors to visit. In the 1920s D.H. Lawrence lived there. The books In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s were written by Truman Capote during his stay on the island.
The town can really name drop some famous visitors: Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, John Steinbeck, Cary Grant and Tennessee Williams have all worked on their tans in the golden rays of the Mediterranean sun here.
The Taormina Film Festival, now in its 67th year, still premieres movies every June on a large outdoor screen set up in the 2300-year-old Greek amphitheater. It attracts a new generation of sunscreen-wearing A listers: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crow, Leonardo DiCaprio and Salma Hayek. Imagine watching Spiderman: Far from Home there, as Mt. Etna sputters trails of lava into the night sky in the background. Aside from the film festival, the amphitheater hosts a vast number of concerts and stage productions throughout the year.
Not being on any lists, including Interpol’s or the FBI’s most wanted, we enjoyed a still warm early November day as we wandered through the Giardino Storico Ex Villa Trevelyan, now the town’s public formal garden, but once the grounds of a villa owned by a Scottish noblewoman. Lady Florence Trevelyan fled rumors of an affair with King Edward VIII, settled in Taormina and eventually married the mayor. During our visit, intricately stoned paths along the cliff edge, with views of the sea, were still lush with blooming bougainvillea and hibiscus. Eventually they led to fanciful, ornamental architectural constructions called Victorian follies.
Rambling on, we passed an antique Rolls Royce being readied at the Grand Hotel Timeo to whisk the bride and groom away after their destination wedding.
From the top row of seats at Teatro Antico di Taormina, the views continued to be enthralling; Mt. Etna was perfectly framed by the ancient columns of the stage.
In the other direction, the coast toward Spisone dazzled in the afternoon sun. Inland, the homes of Castelmola were precariously balanced to avoid sliding off their treacherous slope.
A stay isn’t complete in Taormina without multiple strolls along Corso Umberto in the mornings for café and pistachio pastries, and later in the day for pistachio Aranchino or gelato.
The broad expanse of Piazza IX Aprile, adjacent to the Porta di Mezzo clock tower and the elegant Baroque Church of San Giuseppe draws a large crowd at sunset to admire the view, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a classic Aperol spritz.
Located in the foothills surrounding Mt. Etna, Castiglione di Sicilia is on the list of most beautiful villages in Sicily. Less than an hour from Taormina, it beckoned us to visit. The scenic drive along SS185 through the Alcantara Valley was uneventful. The fields were dormant now and farm tractors were parked to await the spring planting season. The multiple arches of Ponte San Cataldo, a historical railway bridge, graced one curve of the road. It was now a bridge to nowhere, the train tracks at both ends long ago removed for scrap. Villages we passed showed barely any signs of life beyond a barking dog or two.
Numerous signs for campgrounds and agrotourism farms along the route promised outdoor enthusiasts escape from city life. Turning onto SP7i we eventually passed the rustic 12th century Norman Chiesa Di San Nicola, then crossed a small bridge over the Alcantara River, within sight of Castiglione di Sicilia. Fed by snow melt from Mt. Etna and Nebrodi Mountains, the Alcantara River is one of the few rivers in Sicily that flows all year-round. Over the millennia the cool waters of the river have carved a dramatic gorge through lava fields left from Mt. Etna’s volcanic eruptions. Hiking trails above the gorge and swimming in its cool natural pools are popular summer activities in the region.
Commanding the high ground helped increase your chance of survival in the days when pillaging and plunder ruled the land. Defenders hoped that attackers would tire and move on to an easier target. From the road in the valley, Castiglione di Sicilia looked formidable, with Castello di Lauria commanding the promontory like the rock of Gibraltar.
Driving into the center of the village, mid-week in the off-season, we nearly had the whole village to ourselves. It felt deserted, almost as if the village had been sacked and the residents had been taken captive. We followed a warren of narrow alleys and stairways around the upper village until we reached Castelluccio, the ruins a of Byzantine tower, in a small park with an overview of the village.
From here we spotted the belltowers of six ancient churches and monasteries that dot the hilltop. The oldest, Chiesa San Pietro, dates to 1105. Castelluccio, slightly lower than Castello di Lauria, would be our highest point in the village, since the castle was closed in the off-season. That’s the one disappointment we experience when traveling in the off-season – many points of interest are closed due to a lack of tourists. It’s the old double-edged sword, less crowding versus less accessibility. For the most part we are okay with this and enjoy wandering to soak up the ambiance of a locale.
A looping around the huge monolithic rock, Via Edoardo Pantano brought us to the foot of Castello di Lauria, the 12th century Norman fortress built upon earlier Greek and Roman battlements. The views of the Alcantara Valley were beautiful from this vantage point. Farther on the Basilica of Maria Santissima della Catena stood atop a wide staircase at the end of a quiet plaza. The patron saint of the town, she is believed to have saved Castiglione di Sicilia from the wrath of Mount Etna on many occasions. Her feast day is celebrated every May with a procession through the village.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we were ready for lunch, and our options had dwindled dramatically since arriving. Only La Dispensa dell’Etna was still open with all the inside tables taken by a large party. Interestingly, part of the floor of the restaurant has glass tiles that allow you to look down onto artifacts discovered during a renovation. It was a little chilly for outside dining, but we enjoyed, with the guidance of our waiter, several specialties of the Alcantara Valley. The addition of wonderful home-made house wines from the regional grapes, Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, native to the slopes of Mt. Etna, combined with the delicious food made this one of our most pleasurable meals in Sicily. Following the Etna Wine Path might be the catalyst for future visits to Sicily.
Normally in November we’d head to warmer climes south of the equator, but it was payback time for an extended stay in Africa, and the Italian homeland of Donna’s ancestors was calling. We’d realized for awhile that Italy was going to be the most expensive part of our two-year journey. Even with a very favorable exchange rate, traveling through Italy in the off-season was the best way for us to afford this portion of the trip. We’d keep our fingers crossed about Italy’s rainy season. Grey clouds hung low and were as thick as tiramisu as we neared Paestum. Known for its ancient Greek temples dating from 550 BC, we had planned to stop there, but the day was just too damp and dreary. We drove on to Maratea.
The weather improved, with the sun occasionally making an appearance as we turned off the E45 and headed west, through a rural hilly landscape covered with trees and olive orchards, to the Tyrrhenian coast. Here again most hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, but we found a very nice, four-room Bed & Breakfast in Acquafredda, just above Maratea. This part of Basilicata resembled the Amalfi Coast with its narrow cliff-hugging road and rocky coves. It’s one of the regions where Italian families head to escape the crush of foreign tourists that descends on Italy during the summer months. It also makes Basilicata one of the few Italian provinces that borders two seas. The road narrowed to a single lane as we entered the old village.
Fortunately, Donna spotted the traffic light that dictated the direction of traffic flow through the narrow passage before an oncoming bus would have forced us to back down the lane. We had a little difficulty finding La Giarauntil we realized it was down at the end of a rutted farm lane more suitable for a tractor than a sedan. Run by a gracious older couple who patiently dealt with our rudimentary Italian, the inn was wonderful, with our upstairs room having a view of the distant sea. We were the only guests. The turquoise waters and the pebbly, black sand beach of Spiaggia Acquafredda were a short walk away from the inn. We had the shoreline to ourselves one crisp morning as we walked along its frothy surf.
The sun’s golden rays were now shining on the sea as we drove along the serpentine road into Maratea for dinner. We’ve found that even though many tourist establishments are closed in the off-season there is always someone who stays open year-round to cook for his friends and neighbors. And with their reputations online with a discerning community we’ve found that these very local places are inexpensive and great. Ristorante Pizzeria Sapore Di Mare did not disappoint us with its variety of fresh seafood and pasta dishes, and we ended up having three meals there over two days. Blame it on the off-season. There were not any streetlights or shoulders along this cliff hugging road. Fortunately, there was a solid stone guardrail and no oncoming traffic when we rounded a curve and our car’s headlights lit up a man and woman raking hedge cuttings into the middle of our right lane. A quick zig zag avoided catastrophe as screams filled the night air inside and outside of the car. Our hearts were pounding after such a close call!
Breakfast the next morning was delicious though a little strained by our lack of Italian until the husband’s eyes widened when we expressed interest in the olive oil that was served with the homemade bread. Pridefully he brought us small tastings of different olive pressings. A large olive orchard was their true livelihood, and this time of year they were busy harvesting the first olives of the season and pressing them for this coveted golden liquid.
We hadn’t done much research on this part of our trip, only knowing that we would encounter some stunning coastline, so we were pleasantly surprised when we found ourselves in the picturesque, man-made harbor of Marina di Maratea. A small port, with an assortment of pleasure craft and fishing boats, it embraces the coast under a towering 2113-foot-high Monte San Biagio. The mountain is topped with a statue of Christ the Redeemer that is visible for miles along the Tyrrhenian coast.
The day was brilliant and with café on the quay at the aptly named Bar Del Porto we planned our ascent of Monte San Biagio. We were relieved to find we could drive to the top of the mountain, a revered pilgrimage site that celebrates the fourth century martyr San Biagio who is credited with several miracles in Maratea, the most important of which was shielding the town from Charles VIII’s French cannon fire during an attempted invasion in the 1400s. As proof of his intervention, next to the altar in the basilica there is a cannonball with a mysterious fingerprint pressed into the iron; it is believed to be San Biagio’s, left there when he deflected the shot with his hands. Legend states that his relics arrived in Maratea in 723 when a ship carrying them from Turkey to Rome for safety was mysteriously stopped by a bright beam of light from the sky; the vessel was unable to sail forward until the relics of the saint were removed from the ship and brought to the mountaintop. A church was then built over the ruins of an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the pagan goddess Athena. Maratea celebrates San Biagio’s feast day every May by carrying his silver statue from the basilica in a processional, on the shoulders of teams of men, down the steep mountainside trail. It is a journey of 4-5 hours into the center of town, through streets filled with the faithful, to Maratea’s oldest church, Saint Vitus, built in the 9th century.
During the high season you are not permitted to drive all the way to the basilica. Instead, for a small fee, a shuttle bus delivers you to the church. In November luck was with us and we were able to zoom up the elevated switchbacks that seemed to float ethereally above the steep slope to the parking lot. The only other vehicle in the lot was a truck belonging to workers repairing the church roof. Regrettably, mid-week, the church was closed.
A gentle sloped walkway led to the summit past the stone ruins of old Maratea. Founded by Greeks over two-thousand years ago, they occupied the hilltop for centuries before the lower village was built in the 11th century to accommodate an expanding populace. The landscape around the ruins was dotted with fragrant wild fennel for which Maratea got its name (from the Greek word marathus, wild fennel.) In the mountains behind the church the clouds were almost low enough to cover the tiny Hermitage of Our Lady of the Olive Trees that sits isolated in the rugged terrain.
In 1963, Italian sculptor Bruno Innocenti was commissioned to create a statue of Christ to crown the summit. His youthful portrayal of Jesus without a beard, made from poured concrete mixed with crushed marble from the famous quarries in Carrara, faces East, inland toward the rugged mountains and the church that holds San Biagio’s relics. Standing 70ft high with an arm span 62ft wide, it is the fifth tallest statue of Christ in the world.
The views up and down the rugged coastline and inland were spectacular. Maratea is also known as “the Holy City of Southern Italy,” so named because the small town has 44 churches. We were excited when we spotted several tiny bell towers in the distant village from the overlook.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the newer village which lines the slope of a valley that leads to the sea. Archeological evidence found in local caves reveals that the area has been inhabited since the Stone Age.
Far below the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, steep cobbled alleys branched off the main road and wove their way up the lower slope of the hill, past centuries-old homes worn by the elements.
Occasionally trees and vines sprouted through the cracked sidewalks and clutched the walls. It felt like the village was deserted. Nearing the end of the day we found a wonderful vantage point to capture the silhouette of the village and the valley against a colorful sunset.
Only a two-hour train ride from Naples, Maratea, Basilicata’s “pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea” has stayed off the radar of foreign tourists and remains “the Amalfi without the crowds,” and one of “Italy’s best kept secrets.” It’s definitely an area worth exploring in greater depth.
The next morning, we contemplated driving 2.5 hours along the scenic coast to Lamezia Terme, where we would connect to route E45 and continue south through the Calabria region to the ferry port in Villa San Giovanni, on the toe of the boot, across from Sicily.
Fearing I would insist on stopping too many times along the coastal route to take pictures, we opted to head inland for the drive instead. The day got warmer as we proceeded further south through a verdant landscape of rolling hills covered with olive trees or freshly tilled fields.
Spotting the seaside town of Scilla from the highway, we decided to detour for awhile since we were making good time. Famous in Greek mythology for its legendary sea monster, Scylla, the town is set dramatically high on the cliffs that front the sea. Castello Ruffo commands a hooked promontory below the town.
Its defenses that once protected the village from invasion are now just a historic backdrop for a wide crystalline beach that sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sun.
Back on the highway we stopped to refuel and have lunch before boarding the ferry in Villa San Giovanni to cross to Messina, Sicily. Back in the states we would only eat at a highway rest stop if we were desperate. In Italy, we eagerly searched for them, since there we found them to be gourmet havens for travelers. They serve delicious plain or grilled panini, pizza, and of course good espresso. They also usually have an interesting assortment of snacks for later, as well as the usual assortment of souvenirs. Yes, magnets and coffee mugs. But also a candy known as Pocket Espresso! After making our purchases, we picnicked under a tree on the edge of the parking lot which overlooked the Strait of Messina.
The powerful currents that race through this narrow strait have been legendary since the time of Homer, when Greek sailors first started to explore the unknown waters around southern Italy. The dangerous opposing currents on either side of the strait personified in the Odyssey as the mythical sirens Scylla and Charybdis who lured unwary mariners to their deaths in their turbulent waters. The phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis,” refers to being stuck in a difficult situation with poor options, similar to the common expression, between a rock and a hard place.
After stopping to get our ticket stamped, we drove aboard the Giuseppe Franza, operated by Caronte & Tourist, and parked on the car deck amidst a variety of large commercial and private vehicles. We stood outside on the passenger deck as the ship’s powerful engines easily pushed the 308ft ferry, capable of carrying 600 passengers and 120 cars, off the dock for the forty-minute crossing to Messina. So different from the ancient Greek bireme that Odysseus’s men would have rowed on their journey.
Our destination was the coastal town Taormina. Fortunately, we didn’t have to row there.
The car rental agent across from the Naples train station enthusiastically informed us that we were the first drivers of a brand-new Peugeot. Leading us to a shiny set of wheels, parked on busy street in front of the office, he offered a rudimentary description of the car’s technological features, a collision avoidance system and satellite navigation that would show every radar speed camera on the Italian highways.
With our luggage in the trunk and a friendly wave we were off, or so we thought. Just barely moving forward, the collision avoidance system screeched alive with alarms and red blinking threats on the dashboard display. It happened frequently as we worked our way through heavy Neapolitan traffic. Scooters, cars, trucks and pedestrians getting close to our bumpers set the system into a frenzy of piercing alarms and flashing lights. Nerve wracking – it felt like I was Luke Skywalker thundering along in an X-wing fighter while R2D2 whizzed with anxiety, as we tried to evade the Empire’s eradication. In reality we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Fortunately, the congestion eased, and Herculaneum was only a twenty-minute drive from Naples.
We had visited Pompei years earlier, one June when Italy was having an early heat wave and the temperature was over 100F. As interesting as Pompei was, the size of the site and the heat dampened our enthusiasm for it. This day was quite a different experience, as the weather in November was very agreeable for visiting Herculaneum.
We descended into its excavated ruins, which were destroyed and covered with 53ft of ash on the same fateful night as Pompeii in 79AD. The towering black walls of solidified ash surrounding the site reinforced the magnitude of the catastrophe. The coastal town was popular with wealthy Romans who built Domus style homes which were richly decorated with frescoes and mosaics. Arched workshops of boatbuilders lined the shore and were the last refuge of citizens trying to flee, their agony now eternally preserved in casts of their bodies. The massive amount of ash and volcanic rock that fell created a new shoreline on the Bay of Naples, 2000ft farther west.
Only a fraction of the size of Pompeii, the Herculaneum archeological area doesn’t draw the immense crowds of the larger site, but is just as interesting and in some ways more so. Unlike Pompeii, which was engulfed in a scorching lava flow which destroyed most of the wood and decorative elements of the homes there, the cooler ash and poisonous gases that killed the populace of Herculaneum preserved the homes to a greater degree, leaving the wooden internal structure of buildings and their interior décors intact. This combined with an earlier visit to the Naples National Archaeological Museum to see the finest examples of relics recovered from the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii provided us with deeper insight into the opulent lifestyle of the 1st century AD Roman Empire. Herculaneum was easily explored in a half day and enabled us to continue to Sorrento in a timely manner.
With fond memories of the serpentine Amalfi Coast from a trip a fifteen years earlier, we decided to base our new weeklong exploration of the Sorrentine Peninsula in Sorrento. The route into town along SS145 didn’t disappoint us when rounding a cliff-hugging bend of the road revealed a view all the way out to the Isle of Capri. By staying in the largest town of the region we didn’t have to worry about seasonal closures, which unfortunately were beginning to happen in mid-November. Only a short walk from the center of town and the waterfront with Mount Vesuvius commanding the horizon across the Bay of Naples, the lovely Villa Rosa Sorrento with its modest off-season pricing and free parking was a terrific value and perfect for us.
With our attempts at immersive travel, we avoid scratching off a list of designated tourist highlights; rather, we explore a place seeking how to experience how folks live, the everydayness of a place, and whether we would enjoy living there. “Walk a little, then café,” is our slow travel approach as we soak up the ambience of a locale.