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.
Needing a break from city life we rented a car at the Santa Justa train station and within minutes we were out of Seville heading south to Ronda, one of Andalucia’s many “Pueblos Blancos,” the white villages, so called because of their uniformly whitewashed houses. Although it was less than two hours from Seville, it took us all day due to the number of planned stops and spontaneous detours we made.
Lime paint was introduced to the region when Rome controlled the Iberian peninsular. Its use was greatly expanded during the mid-1300’s when a bubonic plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean countries. Residents of villages were required yearly to cover the outside and the interiors of their homes and churches with a limewash, known for its natural anti-bacterial and insecticidal properties, in an effort to reduce the spread of disease. Community inspections were done, and folks were fined for noncompliance. This mandated conformity was eventually appreciated as an aesthetically pleasing look and a symbol of meticulous tidiness. Fortunately, the custom stayed and has become an iconic signature of southern Andalusia.
Cresting a low hill on the A-375, we spotted a small castle with crenellated walls and towers in a shallow valley not far from the road. Turning towards it we followed a dirt track through farmland not yet ploughed for the Spring planting to a small intersection where the castle stood next to a narrow, babbling brook. The history of the Castillo de Las Aguzaderas isn’t really known, but it is thought to have been built in the 1300’s by the Moors as they retreated from advancing territorial gains made by the Spanish during the Reconquista.
Of Spain’s 2500 castles this is the only one that does not sit atop the high ground of a hill or mountain to command the surrounding terrain, but according to its historical placard, stands in a hollow to protect the spring that emerges from the earth outside its wall. With no attendant and an open gate, we were free to scramble around the walls and climb stairs in a terrible state of disrepair to the top of the castle keep for views all around. In the distance an ancient stone watchtower, Torre del Bollo, dominated a hill.
From afar the whitewashed casas of Zahara de la Sierra brilliantly reflected the sunlight like polished marble. The homes, stacked like building blocks, rose up the hillside until they met a sheer butte. A square tower crowned the butte’s summit.
We followed the long ring road that circles the mount through the village and decided to have lunch at Meson Oñate where we were drawn to the outdoor patio that overlooks the Zahara-El Gastor Reservoir and the rolling farmland that surrounds it.
After lunch, to work off our delicous meal, we hiked to the Castillo de Zahara, which crowns the mountaintop above the village. It was a well paved steep path at the start, but soon the slope decreased to a manageable incline that zigzagged up the mountain. For our effort we were rewarded with stunning bird’s eye views over the red tiled roofs of the village and to the distant lake below. A tower is all that is left of a larger Moorish castle from the 13th century that was built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement that once called the mountaintop home. Barely accessible, it provided a safe haven during times of trouble. The castle had a turbulent history with its control passing back and forth several times between the Moors and Spanish. Even French troops once commanded its summit through Napoleon’s conquest of Spain during the Peninsular War that raged in the early 1800’s.
With a last-minute decision to take a longer route to Ronda, we headed into the mountains outside of Zahara de la Sierra on CA-9104, a serpentine road with steep slopes that took us into the Sendero La Garganta Verde, a rugged and wild scenic area that is known for its population of Griffon vultures, and Monte Prieto. The wind was insanely whipping around us when we parked the car at the Puerto de las Palomas (4500ft above sea level) mountain pass and walked to an observation deck in hope of viewing some vultures. Griffons are large birds of prey that have wing spans up to nine feet across. We were fortunate to spot some, far off in the distance before we ran back to the car, chilled to the bone.
The sun sets early when you are on the eastern side of the steep Sierra del Pinar mountain range. The last rays of sunlight still illuminated Grazalema as we drove into the village, but the temperature dropped along with the vanishing light of a February afternoon.
We sat in the plaza and had café across the sidewalk from an interesting statue of a bull being roped. The statue commemorates the ancient practice of hunting wild bulls. The tradition continued through the Romans and Arabs and was Christianized by the church into the feast of the bull to celebrate the Virgen del Carmen. During the festival, three times a day, a bull is released to run through the village for an hour with the men chasing after, in hopes of roping it. The beginning and end of each bull’s run is announced with fireworks throughout the day. Sections of an old Roman road that led up into the village are still visible from the mirador on the edge of town.
Enjoying the freedom and spontaneity a rental car offers is a big plus when developing itineraries. Finding convenient and affordable hotels that have free or inexpensive onsite parking was another whole issue. It was dark by the time we reached Ronda and we were having difficulty finding the hotel’s parking. With one last call to the hotel receptionist the garage door to their secret lair, that was our parking space, was magically revealed to us on a back alley, under the Hotel Plaza de Toros. Only big enough for six cars, our tiny Fiat 500 easily fit in its tight confines.
The next morning revealed that the hotel was in an excellent location, just a block from the town’s famous bullring, Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, built in 1784. Aside from bullfights it has been used as an armory and calvary training grounds by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, a noble order of horsemen in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The promenade next to bullring is dedicated to famous literary talents who were enamored with the “Ciudad Sońada” or “Dreamed City,” as Ronda is also called. While Don Quixote didn’t tilt at any windmills in Ronda, his creator Miguel de Cervantes certainly drew inspiration from the area as he traveled between villages for his day job as Royal Tax Collector. Washington Irving found inspiration in the rugged landscape of southern Spain when he traveled through Ronda in 1828 prompting him to write, “There is something in the austere presence of this Spanish landscape that wounds the soul with a feeling close to the sublime.” He also romanticized the brigands, who some saw as Robin Hood figures that lived in the mountainous terrain surrounding Ronda, and Irving was disappointed in not encountering any on his journey through Andalusia, ignoring the poverty and repressive feudal system that forced many into a life of crime. Ernst Hemingway was drawn to the machismo and pageantry of bullfighting in Ronda, where the sword and red muleta cape were first introduced into the ring by the legendary matador Francisco Romero in 1726. Orson Welles explained bullfighting as “an unjustifiable yet irresistible, three-act tragedy.” Wells was so fascinated with this quintessential Andalusian village that he chose to be buried here on the hacienda of a bullfighter friend – “A man does not belong to the place he was born in, but to the place he chooses to die.” Spanish poet, José Agustín Goytisolo summed it up best for us with, “We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.”
The mirador beyond the park overlooked olive groves and spring fields still dormant. Past them distant mountains faded into the horizon. The path through the mirador led to the Puente Nuevo bridge that connects the younger old town to the ancient village across the steep sided El Tajo (The Deep Cut) gorge, carved out eons ago by the rushing waters of the Rio Guadalevín. Finished in 1793 after 34 years of construction, the new bridge isn’t so new anymore, but it was an engineering feat when it was constructed across the shear 390ft deep chasm that divided the village. It replaced a poorly built 1735 bridge that tragically collapsed after only six years’ use, killing fifty people.
Ronda is a fabulous city for walking and as we continued across the bridge into La Ciudad, Ronda’s old-town quarter, we stopped in awe, to photograph the iconic whitewashed houses that are tenuously perched atop the walls of the gorge. Precarious to the point that if their front door slammed too hard the back of the house might fall into the gorge!
We worked our way to Plaza Duquesa de Parcent in the center of the historic district for lunch. Passing architectural details from Ronda’s Moorish and Spanish past still evident on some of the ancient buildings.
In the off-season not all of the restaurants were open, but it was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind waiting for a table in the fascinating historical surroundings. A few minutes later we were seated at a table in the sun, caddy corner between the Convento de Clarisas de Santa Isabel de los Ángeles and the Convento De La Caridad, both built in the 16th century. The classic symmetry of Ronda’s Town Hall with its two-tier colonnade anchored the far side of the plaza.
Adjacent to the town hall the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor is the real draw to this side of the historic district. With two rows of covered balconies next to an adjoining former minaret turned belltower, it’s a unique façade for a church and it’s built on the foundation of a 14th century mosque. Ronda and Granada were the last Moorish strongholds in Andalusia, and the mosque was ordered destroyed after Ronda surrendered in 1485. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel immediately ordered that a Gothic church be built upon the spot.
The balconies on the front were added during the reign of King Felipe II in the 1500s for the well-to-do and nobles of the city to watch maestranza tournaments in the plaza, before the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda was built. A century later the church was partially destroyed in an earthquake and the rebuilding over the next two centuries embraced a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that sends architectural purists into a frenzy of “how could they.” Though smaller than the churches in Seville, we found the Iglesia very refreshing with its lofty interior and fabulous religious art.
Just inside one of the side entrances, a worn stone stairwell led up to a walled catwalk that wrapped around the side and back of the building. The views from it over the red tiled roofs of the old quarter seemed not to have changed for centuries.
Later that evening we explored the new town and found Grabados Somera, Shallow Engravings, a wonderful workshop and gallery filled with etchings of matadors, senoritas and Ronda, all the creations of master printmaker engraver Pedro Somera Abad. Writing this now we regret not purchasing a print as a souvenir of our time in Spain.
We eventually came across La Casa de Jamon, a gourmet store and Iberian Ham bar that will leave any carnivorous epicure salivating. Here a leg of the best jamon to take back to your casa will dent your wallet an extravagant 600€. We never realized those acorn fed porkers could command such a price. Along with jamon, they have locally sourced sausages, wine and cheese from the Andalusia region. We decided to order a charcuterie board for dinner and we were not dissappointed with the tasty assortment presented.
The next morning we walked through the Jardines De Cuenca along a walled path that traced the course of the Rio Guadalevín through El Tajo gorge far below. Across the chasm the hanging gardens of the old palatial homes that lined the cliff edge were redolent with color. The path through the park slowly descended to the Puente Viejo; built in 1616, it is the oldest stone bridge over the river.
Across the bridge the route split to go back into La Ciudad, the old town, through the Renaissance era Puerta de Carlos V, where taxes were once levied on the wares merchants brought into the city. Or we could go downhill to the impressive arched ruins of the Baños Arabes, a 13th century Moorish bathhouse on the outskirts of the city, that provided heated water, an impressive feat 800 years ago.
Along the river that supplied water to the Arab baths, grist mills once stood just inside Ronda’s double ring of fortress walls that protected this side of La Ciudad. The mills ground wheat harvested from the surrounding countryside. The stones of the outer wall were repurposed long ago. Now only remnants of the massive inner wall, the last line of defense before entering the city still stands, causing us to pause and imagine its former glory. Walking under the last vestiges of Ronda’s mighty defenses, we headed back.
It was lightly raining as we strolled along Carrera Espinel in search of an interesting place for dinner. Most of the inside tables at the restaurants we passed were taken with diners escaping the damp evening chill. But the aroma of savory clams drew us to an outside table at Restaurante Las Maravillas, where the waiter was attentive and refueled the tower heater next to our table to help keep us warm. The dinner and wine were delicious.
Plans to visit Olvera and Setenil de las Bodegas the next day were made over dessert and coffee. It had been a long satisfying day, our “walk a little then café” evolved to “walk a little more, then bed.”
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.
A curtain of fog blanketed our route as we traversed the Po River Valley and crossed into the Emilia-Romagna region on our way to Ravenna. The purpose – to see some of the finest Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople, present day Istanbul, which was once the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Not to be outdone, Ravenna’s golden mosaics rival Constantinople’s and were created in the 5th century when Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire after Rome’s demise. Eight churches have been recognized by UNESCO for their cultural significance as “Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna.” Most of them are credited to a building boom by Justinian I after a reconquest of the city from the Ostrogoths in 535 that solidified Byzantine power on the Italian Peninsula along the Adriatic coast.
The valley had been the breadbasket of Northern Italy for several millennia when the Etruscans and Romans first started to drain the wetlands to expand areas for cultivation to support a growing populace aligned with city-states of the region. The spring floods from the snow melt of the Alps, Apennines and Dolomite mountain ranges replenish the valley’s fertile soil every year before pouring into the Northern Adriatic Sea.
With the belief that the valleys are always greener on the other side of the Alps, invading armies contested the area for centuries. French kings, German tribes, Galls, Hannibal with eighty war elephants, Goths, Attila the Hun, Papal armies, and Napoleon have all wanted this green acreage, and were willing to shed blood for it.
The fog had lifted, but it was still a moody day as we entered the Basilica di San Vital. The unique octagonal church was one of Justinian’s first commissions to celebrate Christianity in the city on a grand scale. The splendor of its lofty mosaics that rise from the floor, on all sides, to encompass the domed ceiling are dazzling. The golden tiles warmly reflecting the ambient light even on a dreary day.
Byzantine mosaics evolved from the Greek use of different colored river stones to create sturdy designs in ancient roads. Durable marble was preferred for its vast array of colors and was used for interiors floors in palaces. Lasting centuries, these intricate designs are often referred to as “eternal pictures.”
The Byzantine artists’ innovation was to use physically lighter and more fragile material such as different colored glass pieces and mother of pearl, along with incorporation of gold and silver leaf. The color palette expanded with the refinement of glazed tiles.
A short distance behind the basilica stands the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, intended as the final resting place for Teodosius the Great’s daughter. It was never used as a tomb, as she died in Rome. The small, modest brick structure is designed in the shape of a Latin cross and is inspirationally decorated as a “prelude to paradise.” A surprisingly intimate and tranquil space, it is one of the oldest religious monuments in Ravenna dating to 430 AD.
A short walk across town, the Cattedrale della Risurrezione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo or Duomo of Ravenna, the Baptistery of Neon, and the Archiepiscopal Museum of Ravenna all share the same campus. Though considerably newer, the 18th century Duomo is built over the ruins of an early fourth century church and retains several early side chapels and fifth century sarcophagi.
Behind the cathedral the former bishop’s residence has been converted into a museum displaying a diverse collection of religious relics. The highlight though was the exquisitely mosaiced sanctuary, the Chapel of St. Andrew. It was built in 495 AD for the private use of Ravenna’s archbishops.
The museum directly behind the cathedral was also interesting. with its diverse collection of religious relics and an exquisite private chapel for the bishop.
The real reward for the trek across town was the early fifth century Baptistry of Neon. The octagon-shaped brick building appears to have settled into the ground, but in actuality, centuries’ worth of construction detritus from earlier settlements in Ravenna have raised the surrounding terrain ten feet since the structure was built. This necessitates the occasional raising of the entrance.
At the baptistry it’s all about the magnificent mosaics that adorn the dome. Above arched windows, the center medallion features John the Baptist christening Jesus in the River Jordan, followed by an encircling outer ring that depicts the twelve apostles. Astonishingly, most of the original mosaic work survives and is still intact. During a minor 19th century restoration, a mosaic artist freelanced with creative license and added the bowl that St. John is using to pour water – a scandal at the time.
The tall ridge of Monte Titano rose above the gentle hills of the Emilia-Romagna countryside surrounding San Marino like a tall ship’s white sail on the ocean; its three fortress towers mimicked the crow’s nest atop a schooner’s mast. The towers served the same purpose: as lookout posts, to spot any approaching threat. They have served the Republic well since its founding in 301 AD, when the Christian stonemason Marinus, who was later beatified as San Marino, fled Rimini to avoid the Diocletianic Persecutions. Also known as the Great Persecution, it was the last and harshest repression of Christianity in the Western Roman Empire before it was accepted as the state religion in 313 AD. The rugged terrain of the mountain provided safe refuge for the small community of followers who built a small chapel and monastery. As the community grew, a governing system evolved that included representation of each family by the head of the household in an assembly called the Arengo. Representatives were summoned to the meetings by the ringing of the church bell. This eventually changed to a Grand and General Council which elected two Captains Regents for six-month terms. In 1861 the tiny constitutional republic bestowed honorary citizenship on Abraham Lincoln. In his acceptance letter he wrote, “Although your dominion is small, your State is nevertheless one of the most honored, in all history. It has by its experience demonstrated the truth…that Government founded on Republican principles is capable of being so administered as to be secure and enduring.” On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, in 2015, San Marino minted a ten-euro commemorative coin that highlights the great orator’s words to the tiny republic: “Great and Good Friends.”
Giuseppe Garibaldi and a band of followers received refuge in San Marino before the tide of the unification movement turned in his favor. In the 1870’s, San Marino was asked to join with the rest of the Italian peninsula. However, the good will engendered by their gracious treatment of Garibaldi prevented the tiny republic from suffering invasion after they politely declined.
Along with Andorra, Monaco and Liechtenstein, San Marino is a surviving example of a medieval city-state that was once quite common throughout Europe and especially the Italian peninsula. In such esteemed company, one would expect the place be expensively exclusive. That would have held true if we had visited during the high season. But that’s not the case in November when cold winds whip across Monte Titano. With some internet sleuthing, Donna found us a great rate at Hotel Rosa San Marino.
The last vestiges of autumn colors still clung to the trees that lined our serpentine route up the mountain that ended at one of the ancient city gates through a crenelated wall. The hotel had assured us that parking was available on site when we made the reservation several months prior, but a traffic sign warned that vehicles were prohibited and to proceed no farther. With a quick phone call to the hotel they confirmed that they would register our car with the city and that we could drive through the gate and into the historic district without any worries.
With a few tight turns between buildings, we drove higher and literally parked beneath the Guaita Tower, San Marco’s first tower and iconic fortress built in the 11th century. Only a few steps from the paths along Monte Titano’s ridgeline, the hotel was in an ideal location to explore the mountaintop city and had wonderful views from its balcony.
The next morning, we braved the chill wind and climbed to the top of the tower. Donna loves these vertical expeditions. Steep ladders, crumbling fortress walls, and cliffside trails don’t intimidate her. I on the other hand have a healthy fear of heights and am only emboldened with a camera in hand in order to pursue the best photo ops. Spots along the ridge trail connecting the towers were challenging for me, but extremely rewarding for the views.
The panoramic, birds-eye-views from the tower were phenomenal and well worth my shaky knee syndrome while on the ladder to the top. The region of Montefeltro spread out below us toward all the compass points. Northward and south the gentle valleys and hills of Emilia-Romagna were saturated with the earthen tones of autumn. To the east the Adriatic coastline near Rimini shimmered on the horizon and it’s said on the best days you can see the mountains in Croatia. To the west the borders of Tuscany, Marche and Umbria straddled the rugged Appenine mountains around the Regional Natural Park of Sasso Simone and Simoncello. During the day the towers were manned by lookouts for signs of any approaching armies and at night to spot their campfires.
To get to the second and third towers we had to pass through defensive wall that protected the core of ancient village and cross an arched stone bridge, called the Witches Path, Passo delle Streghe, above a deep gorge that divides the ridge. It gets its name from the howling winds that whip through the high, narrow gorge and sound like voices. Allegedly, during the Dark Ages a coven of witches practiced their black magic here. More accurately though, suspected witches in San Marino were thrown to their deaths from the cliff edge. Falesia, the 13th century second tower, was built on the highest point of the ridge (2,425 ft) and used to house a garrison of crossbowmen. It now houses a military museum that showcases ancient weaponry, but was unfortunately closed for repairs during our November visit.
A small door through the Falesia’s outer wall connected to a rugged cobbled path that continued to Terza Torre, the third tower or Montale. The slender 14th century tower stands alone in a wooded area on the bow of the ridge. Built as a lookout tower and prison, the only door to the structure is twenty feet off the ground where prisoners were thrown into one large pit in the tower’s foundation. This tower has never been open to tourists, but the scenery along the trail makes it well worth the visit. Challenging trails off this path circumnavigate Monte Titano and eventually lead to the valley below. The early morning and sunset light on the mountain are totally different and enhance a romantic ambience that is especially rewarding for photographers.
Fortunately, at the other end of the tower path there were many restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating. Opting to eat outside on a breezy day, so that we could continue to enjoy the view, we lucked out and were able to get a table along the cliff edge that was out of the wind. Another advantage to November travel is that merchants are gearing up for Christmas. The town was very pretty with its holiday decorations, and we were just a bit early for the Christmas market, although the cute little cottages were already set up. Donna had fun browsing the shops, and found a nice commemorative: a roof tile with a miniature Christmas scene built into it.
The next morning it almost seemed easier to walk the ridge trail than the steep streets of San Marino’s historic center that were giving our calf muscles a workout.
The Basilica di San Marino and the much smaller Chiesa di San Pietro stand next to each other on Piazzale Domus Plebis. Encompassing the mountain into its structure, Chiesa di San Pietro originally dates to the 600s and has a carved stone recess that legend believes was San Marino’s bed when he first sought sanctuary on the mountain. The basilica was rebuilt in 1826 in a Neoclassical style over the ruins of an earlier 4th century church. In the church, relics of San Marino are safely kept under the altar.
Following narrow lanes we came to the Funivia · Città (Libertà), a cable car, that can whisk tourists up or down the mountain in two minutes, to the parking lot by the Castle of Borgo Maggiore. At this end of the city the wide terrace of Contrada del Pianello offered different yet equally enthralling vistas of the surrounding countryside. The panoramas were especially dramatic late one afternoon, when the sun broke through the cloud cover and cast dramatic shadows cross the countryside.
There is no passport control when you enter San Marino from Italy, which is disappointing if you enjoy getting those passport stamps as reminders of your travels, but for diehards like us, the San Marino Tourist Office, located by the cable car station, will stamp your book for five euros.
San Marino has some interesting public sculpture and the first piece we encountered was in a small park plaza across from the tourist office. The Alle Vittime Del Bombardament, depicts a young woman rescuing a small child. It commemorates the bombing of the country, a neutral territory, in June 1944 when allied forces mistakenly believed the German Army had retreated onto Monte Titano. Two hundred sixty-three Sammarinese were killed during that air raid.
Working our way to the Museo di Stato, the National Museum, we passed the old stone quarry where the country’s crossbowmen, a military unit formed in 1295, once trained. It’s still used by The San Marino Federation of Crossbowmen, a group of ceremonial crossbowmen, musicians and flag-wavers who now entertain at festivals in Renaissance dress. Further along, just before the Palazzo Pubblico, San Marino’s capital building where the Captains Regents and the Grand Council conduct the business of the country, more whimsical sculptures graced a small area with benches.
Piazza della Libertà in front of the Palazzo Pubblico gets its name from San Marino’s own version of Lady Liberty. Sculpted from brilliant white Carrara marble, the Statua della Libertà depicts a striding female warrior, carrying a flag-draped spear and extending a hand in peace, with the three towers of Monte Titano as her crown. It was donated to the country in 1876 by German Countess Otilia Heyroth Wagener, a former Berlin ballerina, who married an Italian nobleman. This was ten years before the French Statue of Liberty was finished in New York harbor.
Adjacent to the entrance of the National Museum, the Grande Statua Nudo Femminile or the “Great Female Nude Statue,” (this title creates such an unflattering visualization for a tranquil figure and anyway the sculpture is only 5.5ft tall) by Italian sculptor Francesco Messina stands in front of the Cassa di Risparmio della Repubblica di San Marino, a bank. The bronze was purchased to celebrate the bank’s 100th anniversary. I can just imagine the discussion around the board of directors table, “Profits are up this year, we should invest.” “Yeah, big nude sculptures are symbolic of banking success, financial stability!” “One would look good in front of the building.” “Okay, let’s vote.” I’m being sarcastic, of course, though San Marino does have liberal banking regulations and welcomes offshore accounts from wealthy individuals looking to hide their assets.
The Museo di Stato, the National Museum, has an interesting collection of archeological items discovered on Monte Titano and its surrounding territory that spans its early history, along with art and religious items. We were not aware of it at the time, but San Marino offers a museum pass for 8€ that allows you visit all seven of the country’s national museums. It is a very good value.
It was a long uphill walk back to our hotel, but well worth it to enjoy the quaint lanes of this unique republic one last time before our departure the next morning. If you are looking for an aerial experience over the Italian countryside without renting a helicopter, a trip up Mount Titano in San Marino might fit the bill.
The weather in mid-November was still nice; most of the days were sunny, but cooler. Sometimes a damp dreary, grey day snuck in and reminded us that winter did come this far south as was the occasion when we started our drive to Cefalu. It was honestly just plain yucky! On the wet roadtrip south, we passed two men selling roasted chestnuts and plastic, one-liter bottles of Vino Novello, young wine, or the Italian version of Beaujolais Nouveau, made from an accelerated fermentation process that eliminates the aging normally associated with vinting wines. With a quick u-turn and purchase our spirits were immediately lifted, as the aroma of the freshly roasted chestnuts filled the car. They took the chill off the day. The bottles of wine would wait until Palermo. This continues a tradition started years ago, stopping at roadside stands for any type of food, craft or wine purchase. Some days we made very slow progress indeed.
Heading inland from the coast road we followed the A19 west across the desolate, mountainous interior of Sicily past sporadically placed hilltop villages of various size. Calascibetta was particularly impressive from the road; its recorded history dates to its Arabic settlement in 851 AD. An area of 300 rock-cut tombs, Necropoli di Realmese, and a warren of cave dug dwellings at the Byzantine Village of Vallone Canalotto called for further exploration. “Next time,” we agreed as we raced to spend the afternoon in Cefalu.
On the Sicilian list of most beautiful villages, it is also thought to be one of the inspirations for the coastal village “Vigata” where our favorite fictional detective, Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, enjoys quietly eating his beloved Sicilian dishes on his patio overlooking the beach. A step above the typical crime novel, Andrea Camilleri’s inspector Montalbano critically confronts Italy’s difficult political and social issues.
A graceful, curved beach, with ancient stone homes built to the Tyrrhenian Sea’s edge, under a bold headland defines Cefalu’s beauty. Offshore lie the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago.
The town’s first settlement was atop the nearly inaccessible 1200ft tall promontory that dominates this spur of land that protrudes into the ocean like a bent knuckle. A new town was established on the coast under the cliff face when the Normans captured it from the Arabs in 1063 and proceeded to anchor the new village with a cathedral that was built to fulfill a promise to the Holy Savior by Roger II, the King of Sicily, upon his survival of a vicious storm at sea that cast him ashore at Cefalu. Started in 1131, the fortress-like church, with Arab influenced architectural elements, took over 100 years to construct and was finished in 1240.
A handful of tourists sheltered under the tent of a café on the plaza in front of the Cefalù Cathedral, trying to ward of the November chill with coffee or wine. Unfortunately, the church was closed and we were unable to view its Byzantine mosaics. A trailhead on Via Pitre leads to the top of the massive promontory that towers over the town. Paths connect the ruins of a Greek temple dedicated to Diana that dates to the 9th century BC, as well as a Saracenic castle. The panoramic views of the Cefalu and the Sicilian coast are phenomenal.
A plastic curtain at the restaurant shielded us from a sudden downpour as we sat enjoying pizza, just above the gentle lapping waves. By the end of lunch, the rain had lessened to a misty drizzle and we ventured forth, with our umbrellas at the ready, down slick cobbled lanes to a wide, curved stone staircase.
Legend says the waters of the Cefalino River that feed the The Lavatoio Medievale, a medieval washhouse, were created from the tears of a nymph mourning the loss of her lover. The waters originate six miles away in the Madonie Mountains near the village of Gratteri and flow under the streets of Cefalu before reaching the sea. Lion-headed spouts filled a series of stone basins that the town’s women used from their construction in 1665 until the last traditionalist scrubbed clothes there in the 1990s. An ancient stone plaque at the top of the stairs is inscribed with the saying “Here flows Cefalino, healthier than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow.”
Our stay on Via Bara All’Olivella, a street known for its Opera dei Pupi, puppet theatres, was on the edge of Palermo’s historic district and near the classical Massimo Theater. Craftspeople carve and dress the puppets with fine cloth and metal armor, and their workshops can still be visited along the lane. The shows, which can last two hours and have three acts, re-tell the legends of medieval Christians kings, chivalric knights, damsels in distress, and Saracen nobles, with a supporting cast of sorcerers, witches, dragons, giants, and various other evil doers. Sicilian puppetry is a dying art and has been recognized by UNESCO an “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”
Sicily and Palermo have a long, convoluted history with the city as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily when the Normans ruled. Later it was a sister city to Naples when it was part of the Kingdom of Naples. Eventually the distinct regions finally agreed to be called Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1816, until the unification of Italy in 1870. The prestige of both cities is seen in the wealth and the number of their churches. And there really are a lot of them.
Like Naples, this large urban center has fallen on hard times in recent decades. In the historic center the landmarks have been maintained, but the remaining residential areas have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where the crumbling buildings seem to cry out for restoration. With oases of beauty scattered about between gritty and raw neighborhoods, Palermo stands in stark contrast to the experience of Cefalu and Taormina. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable and interesting. On the contrary, along with being fascinating and different, it was a very urban experience! Plotting our routes between churches exposed us to high culture and art along with the rough-and-tumble ambience of the city, sprinkled with graffiti, as we wandered the streets.
Only a few blocks away from our lodging, we started our morning at Chiesa di San Domenico. It has under undergone many incarnations since the Dominicans commissioned the first church in 1280. The Baroque façade and interior are the result of an expansion in the 1700s. With the burial of many notable Sicilian artists and politicians within its wall, it is recognized as the “pantheon of illustrious Sicilians,” and continues this tradition with modern heroes, most notably the tomb of anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated by organized crime in 1992, and which still receives tributes.
Somehow, we ended up on the top floor of the department store next to the church. Surprisingly, it had a nice café and patio with a view of the Colonna dell’Immacolata on the piazza and the gateway to the La Loggia quarter, one of the original Palermo neighborhoods.
The colorful Vucciria Market on Piazza Caracciolo and the decaying remnants of past glories on the surrounding streets led to the fountain on Piazza Garraffello. Built in 1591, its beauty was overshadowed by the street art on the grim encircling buildings and haphazardly parked cars that nearly obscured it from view. The area was very quiet when we strolled through but is known for its raucous nightlife that lasts until morning.
Across from the port a heavenly aroma emerged from a small storefront that was doing an active business. The place got its name from its specialty, Pani câ Meusa – Porta Carbone, a street food sandwich famous in Palermo that is made with boiled and then fried cow spleen and cow lung, grated caciocavallo cheese and lemon, served on a sesame roll. We thought its strong and rich flavor was a taste that might take a lifetime to acquire.
Two blocks away, the Giardino Garibaldi’s stately centuries-old specimen trees anchored a neighborhood of fine palazzo now functioning as museums and university buildings.
Around the corner a large, tall-wheeled float shaped like boat, called a Carro Trionfale, was on display in front of the municipal office. On top was a statue of Santa Rosalia, a 12th century hermit who is credited with saving the city from the plague when a relic of the saint was paraded three times around the city in 1624. The highlight of her weeklong festival, held every July, is the procession when the carro is pulled through the streets by teams of men from the Cathedral of Palermo to the waterfront. Every year a different district gets the honor of hosting the carro until the next festival.
Farther afield, our wanderings took us down blocks that seemed to retreat further back in time with every step. We saw contemporary street art on urban housing projects within steps of a ghostly unfinished renaissance cathedral, the Santa Maria Dello Spasimo. Started in 1506, it was never completed and now is used as an open-air theater and concert venue. The juxtapositions of the treasured and the forgotten in Palermo are stunning.
The warren of narrow lanes off the Il Capo district between the Massimo Theater and the Cattedrale di Palermo were ripe for exploration. Off Via Volturno, two stone columns with decorative capitals, Porta Carini, grace the entrance to the Mercato del Capo, one of the oldest outdoor markets in the city. Built before 1310, the columns symbolize the neighborhood’s grand past that’s difficult to visualize amidst the colorful canvas awnings of the raucous street vendors.
Nearby is the site of the brutal assassination of Carabinieri General Dalla Chiesa, an anti-mafia investigator, his wife and a police escort. They were murdered by AK47 wielding gunmen on motorcycles one night in 1982. This vicious event epitomizes the Mafia war or Mattanza, the Slaughter, that gripped Palermo and the whole of Sicily from the 1970s to the 90s with thousands of homicides of rival mafioso foot soldiers, journalists, politicians and judges. Fortunately, things are vastly different now.
Farther along, the street narrows enough that from their balconies, neighbors can easily talk to one other across the lane. At Piazza Domenico Peranni haphazard stalls, some with trees growing through the roofs, house a permanent flea market filled with dusty curiosities.
Every seat of power in antiquity had a triumphal arch to signify its greatness, and Palermo’s is certainly unusual with its columns depicting turbaned Arab slaves. The Porta Nuova gateway was reconstructed in 1570 to celebrate the 1535 triumph of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, over Ottoman forces in Tunis. Landing in Palermo after his victory, the monarch paraded 14,000 Arab slaves through the city. Standing next to Palermo’s Royal Palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni, the 140ft tall monument was part of the defensive wall that once surrounded the city.
When the Normans won Palermo in 1072, it is believed they found 300 mosques in the ancient city and proceeded to change them all to churches, many sponsored by baronial families. Grand, lesser and forgotten, it was nearly impossible to avoid the churches as we walked through the historic district. Many were closed, but the larger ones still open to tourists were all different and magnificent.
The Cathedral of Palermo is definitely one not to miss. It was constructed by the Normans in 1184 over a mosque that was built atop the ruins of an earlier Christian church. It’s undergone many architectural alterations over the centuries, embracing Arabic, Gothic and Renaissance influences which have combined to create a visual compelling architectural façade with numerous interesting details.
The cavernous inside is rather plain in comparison to some of the richly decorated interiors of other Palermo churches. The piazza in front of the church is perfectly scaled for viewers to appreciate the grandeur of the church behind it. The roof, tombs and treasury of the cathedral are all accessible for a fee, while entrance to the church is free.
If you are short of time head to the Quattro Canti (Four Corners) intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. It is the heart of Palermo’s historic district. A short walk took to us to the fanciful Fontana Pretoria, a tiered fountain from the 1500s, which is bedecked with mythological figures.
Beyond it three ancient churches ring Piazza Bellini, and back-to-back visits of all three then required Bellini cocktails to loosen our stiff neck muscles afterward to reground us after this celestial bliss. The Church and Convent of Santa Caterina d’Alessandriawas originally built as a hospice in the 1300s. Its caverneous, highly decorated Baroque interior, with every surface sculpted or painted with cherubs, angels, saints and martyrs celebrating the heavenly kingdom, was built for the cloistered Domenican nuns from wealthy and noble families who arrived a century later, only to close the hospital and open a bakeshop, “i Segreti del Chiostro – the secrets of the cloister,” instead. Hey, everyone enjoys a good cookie, and the nuns are still turning out traditional Sicilianbaked marzipan sweetslike frutta di Martorana today, from the convent’s original recipes. Near the entrance to the convent its original ruota, a small wheel-like door, is still in use. Through it the cloistered nuns can pass baked goods while remaining unseen, and poor mothers could anonymously leave babies for adoption. The last nuns left the monastery in 2014 and it was opened to the public in 2017.
Across the piazza stands Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion, named after the Norman admiral, who commissioned it in 1143. Its exterior is a hybrid of Baroque and Romanesque styles with Arab influences. Inside, golden Byzantine mosaics cover the walls, arches, and domes.
The Arab-Norman architecture continues next door with the fortress-like Church of San Cataldo. The smallest church on the square, its austere block shape has three red bulging domes of Arabic style on the roof. During the 18th century it was unceremoniously used as a post office until its façade was restored in the 19th century and the building annexed to Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion. Without clues to its original interior decoration the inside has been left unadorned, just bare stone.
We only scratched the surface of places to explore on an island that we found enchanting and fascinating. It could take a lifetime to experience all it has to offer – an interesting idea. We hope to return one day.
The wing of the plane dipped one last time to reveal the turquoise waters along the Sicilian coast as we headed for Northern Italy.
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.
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.
La Tana Del Vino on Via Parsano was a delightful find. This small enoteca features regionally produced wines that they decant for you from large stainless-steel vats into your own glass or plastic bottles. A variety of red, white and rose’ wines were available, most between 3-4€ per liter. Samples were freely poured and we very pleased with our selection of these table wines.
Sorrento with its ferry service to Capri gears itself to the high season. There were still tourists out and about, but the large tour buses and groups were absent in November, the beginning of the rainy season. We ran between rain drops the best we could on several occasions.
With the port as our destination for lunch, it was a pleasant stroll along near empty sidewalks to Chiostro di San Francesco, a 14th century convent with a lush, greenery-filled cloister that now hosted other activities and concerts. On the top floor Raffaele Celentano’s photography school and gallery had a marvelous patio shaded by the canopy of stately tree. A wooden swing hanging from its branches brought smiles to the faces of many gallery visitors as they playfully took a turn.
The panoramic balcony in the public garden across from the convent is a magnet for sunset worshippers. In the garden the city operates the Sorrento Lift, two elevators that take tourists and residents down to the harbor level where hydrofoils and ferry service is available to Capri, Ischia, Positano and Naples, along with access to the beach clubs and the city’s public beach.
After washing our clothes in various sinks for two weeks it was time for a thorough laundering, and we lugged our bundle to a laundromat in town. It was a very clean facility. We were amused to notice that the vending machine that dispensed soap products also offered a very broad selection of marijuana products as well, presumably to allay the tedium of the task. The selections weren’t inexpensive, with many items costing over twenty euros. This was something unique that we had never come across before in our travels. The world is changing so quickly, but we can’t imagine dropping a twenty euro note into a vending machine for anything.
With our clothes in the dryer, we decided to head to lunch, and immediately got drenched to the bone in a sudden downpour. Looking like water rats, we sought shelter under the awning of a pizzeria. Seeing us, the proprietor ofMaster Hosts (not a very atmospheric name) ushered us inside and kindly insisted we warm ourselves in front of the pizza oven. Even if we hadn’t been so extremely grateful for his hospitality, this was some of the best pizza and wine we had in Italy, while our fingers de-wrinkled. His graciousness turned a gloomy day into a wonderful afternoon.
Another rainy night we made our way early to La Cantinaccia del Popolo, a rustic neighborhood restaurant that stays open all year to cater to its loyal following. Part deli, part gourmet restaurant, the open kitchen is fronted by a glass charcuterie case with an exotic display of dried meats, cheeses, pates, terrines, and olives. The gastronomic delights from the kitchen are plated in their signature deep dish pans. Packed and noisy, with a friendly staff, delicious food, and a good house wine, this was a cozy place to enjoy the evening. Fortified with a great meal and drink, we faced a cold November rain as we walked back to our inn. If you prefer to dine later in the evening, reservations are suggested after 8 PM.
Lemons, lemons everywhere! Regional seafood, pasta, rice, chicken, pastry, and gelato recipes all use this tart fruit in delectable ways. And remember limoncello! The cool breezes of the Mediterranean that blow against the steep mountains of the Amalfi coast create a unique microclimate where lemons flourish and are harvested multiple times of the year, though the most desirable crop is picked between March and July. This is a strenuous labor-intensive activity as the steep terrain requires all the fruit to be picked by hand and the heavy grates are carried out of the orchards on the backs of men.
A morning drive along the sinuous coast and a turn into the mountains brought us to Ravello in time for lunch at a small restaurant with only six indoor tables. Fifteen years ago, as a wedding present to each other, we splurged and purchased a dinnerware set of ceramics featuring the iconic Amalfi lemons, set against a rich blue background. Over the years everyday use had taken its toll on our plates. Fortunately, Pascal Ceramiche d’Arte was still painting our pattern and they ship internationally, so we were able to fill in a few gaps in our service.
After coffee we wandered the town’s narrow, high walled lanes down the hill towards the Monastero Di S. Chiara. Along the way we encountered a construction worker leading a team of donkeys with rigid saddlebags full of sand to a worksite, the ancient alley too tight for any vehicle to maneuver through.
There’s no way around it, “they have you by the coglioni!” when you are trying to find a parking garage in Positano. In this most beautiful village on the Amalfi Coast we paid through the nose for the privilege of parking. Water, café, food and parking, even in the off season, are exorbitantly priced. But on a sunny day, when the sky clears after a morning storm, the dramatic setting of the terraced village is at its best. Positano rises steeply into the mountains from the sea sparkling like a spectacular Byzantine mosaic, radiating light and color. It’s well worth the splurge even if you have to eat Ramen noodles for the next three days to get back on budget.
To our delight we found a wonderful, affordable spot for a late lunch in Agerola called Jerla as we navigated our way across the mountaintop on the way back to Sorrento.
Getting there required a breathtaking drive through the numerous switchbacks of Strada Statale 366, also referred to as the Via Panoramica, that climbed through the terraced vineyards of San Michele and had incredible views of the Amalfi Coast below.
We each wanted to be in control on this treacherous road. We argued about who got to drive as we sped around the curves, and who was relegated to digging their fingernails into the dashboard.
To the south, the Ionian Sea sparkled in the distance as we left Alberobello behind and headed west along the E90. Our destination in three days’ time – Naples. There was some family history to investigate before that, though, and we set the GPS course to Sassano on a journey to explore the ancestral village of Donna’s maternal grandmother. On the far side of Basilicata, the small hilltop village sits just inside the border of the Campania region. This would be the culmination of a trip planned years ago, that was originally going to be shared with her mother, before her passing. Nearer to Naples, we also planned to visit Volturara Irpina, the birthplace of her paternal grandfather.
Our road trips rarely involved a direct route between destinations and this held true as we turned away from the coast and followed the E847 through the Basento River Valley into the rugged mountains of Basilicata. Ancient hilltop villages crowned the ridges on either side of the roadway, each looking worthy of future investigation. The Basilicata region has been referred to as “Italy’s best-kept secret” by the New York Times, but it was once the realm of roving bands of brigands. Highwaymen of legend made traveling in the region notoriously unsafe after the unification of Italy in the 1870s.
Under the Royal House of Bourbon, southern Italy fought against unification. After the war the residents were disenfranchised by unfulfilled promises; with support from Bourbons in exile and the church, which had much of its lands seized, many in opposition to the new government headed to the hills. These brigands were informally comprised of people with different motives. Former soldiers, some nobles, criminals, peasants, and farmers filled their ranks. The most famous one, Carmine Crocco, aka Donatello, led a band of two thousand men. Your criminal is my guerilla-fighter hero. I guess it depends on which folksongs you listen to. The region was remote, and severely poverty stricken. During the fascist era of the 1930’s and 40’s, the Basilicata region was used as an open-air prison, where political dissidents were sentenced to exile in remote villages – Italy’s Siberia.