SICILY

It seems like it has taken us so long to arrive here in Sicily.  With our hops from the mainland first to Corsica, then Sardinia and now at the beginning of February we’re finally here.

The overnight cruise was in style this time, we booked a cabin! No more trying to sleep in reclining chairs or in desperation moving to the floor, no we said let’s splurge and spend 68 euro, approx 100 hard earned Aussie dollars on a cabin, so we slept well, had long hot showers then drove off the ferry and into Palermo.

Fought over for centuries for it’s superb location the capital city of Sicily, Palermo, sits in the Gulf of Palermo and at the foot of Mount Pellegrino.

We wander the older historical section for hours, getting lost more than once in it’s grimy and chaotic maze of streets where there seems to be a church or a palace around every corner, or piazza’s with beautiful 16th century fountains created by Florentine sculptors

Palermo has strong historical ties to the Arab world because of it’s proximity, and when you wander the old street markets it’s very evident.  Stalls of spices, mouth-watering street food, items that have probably ‘fallen off the back of a truck’ and fishmongers that will skin an eel, filet your swordfish or cook and serve you octopus that was swimming in the tank only moments before.

What you can’t always see, but feel is the darker side of Sicily, especially in the cities, where you feel an air of suspicion or distrust, and people seem to watch you knowing you are an outsider.  But offer a friendly smile or a Buongiorno and the suspicion fades almost immediately, and the one’s that you do have chance to speak to, are generous and friendly.

In December 2018, forty six ‘alleged’ mobsters, including an 80-year-old man recently elected head of the Cosa Nostra or Sicilian Mafia were arrested in Palermo, after reports of the resurrection of the fearsome Cupola, a body of leading members of the Cosa Nostra that decides the criminal actions, including killings

It’s not un-common to see soldiers and police with machine guns walking the streets, although sadly in most large European cites you see this these days. 

MARSALA

Well we just couldn’t drive through such a famous named place, could we? 

Who can remember the bottle of Boronia Marsala in their parent’s liquor cabinet, and Mum’s special recipe for Marsala Chicken or Veal Marsala?

An interesting fact about Marsala (the wine) is that it was discovered by an Englishman, John Woodhouse in 1773, and after tasting the local product decided it should be marketed throughout Europe, USA and Australia.   It’s not like the sicky sweet Boronia type either, in fact you can buy a very dry Marsala used to clean your palate between courses.

Not much else to see in town really, and a huge funeral was being held at the Cathedral, too many people in black and we stood out way too much, so just bought my special bottle, had a coffee and got back on the road.

Brian has tasted a few of the local beers, but has yet to find one he loves, he is enjoying the challenge though.  I have tried the local red wine and Marsala which I like, and there have been a couple of interesting looking bottles at the supermarket like the Julia Grappa, but yet to try it.

ANCIENT GREEK CITIES- Selinute and Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples

We have seen some really good Greek ruins, The Acropolis in Athens, Delphi and the fantastic open-air theatre at Epidavros where we were lucky to see Helen Mirren and the British Theatre company in Phaedra.   But the ruins in Sicily are probably some of the best preserved we have ever seen. 

Temple to the Olympian Zeus, built to celebrate a victory over in Carthaginians in 480 BC, and in the Temple of Hercules a huge bronze statue of Hercules was found, and the Temple of Concordia with it’s huge and very well-preserved Doric columns

There are only seven temples left standing now in this 13 sq km site of the ruined city of Akragas, with most of the temples built high on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and using the natural stone as a defensive wall.  A very straight road about 4 kms in length runs straight through the centre and there are remains of an Olympian field on the opposite side of the road where now are gardens filled with olive and almond trees and grape vines.    There are also a herd of strange looking dairy goats called Girgentana, which have tall spiral, corkscrew shaped horns, and are indigenous to the area.

Every town and village in Sicily operate on the same timescales, so no matter where you are you know that shops, banks, post offices, museums even the churches are open from 9am till 1pm then close until 4 or 5pm when they reopen until 7pm. And whatever you do don’t get in their way when they are trying to get home for lunch at 1pm.                                

There are not many large supermarkets, but in most villages, you will find a grocer that sells fruit and veg as well, a tabac, a coffee shop/bar/ local hangout for the guy’s and if there isn’t a baker you will see small trucks parked on the side of the road selling bread, rolls and some pastries. And our fav Lidl are in larger centres.

Cyclists in their flash gear are a common sight especially on weekends, but it’s also not unusual to see an elderly man cycling up steep hill, and at a steady pace at that.  The women walk often in pairs or groups chatting away and, on the weekend, especially if the sun is out families will head to the beach for a walk along the promenade or go to the park.

Scooters are everywhere, I think every teenager must have one, and most ride with no helmets on, although you will see they have one near their feet or slung over their shoulder.  And they are fearless, overtaking and dodging in and around the cars and potholes the size of a swimming pool.

Little three-wheel Piagio vans are common in the countryside, I think one would be perfect for me for a trip to the supermarket at home and I’m not sure how you qualify for a license in Sicily but it mustn’t take much.  They basically jump in the car turn on the ignition, put it in gear and stomp on the gas pedal and not take it off again until they reach their destination where they will park as close to you or in the smallest space possible. And if they can’t find a spot they will double or triple park and just put on their 4-way flashers and go to the bank, bakery or just chat with someone they have seen  It never seems to occur to a Sicilian driver to stop or let someone pass, they will dent their car first before using their common sense.  Most drive with a cell phone in one hand and if they happen to stop for you to cross the road it’s probably just so that they can swap hands with their phone. Most cars have some sort of dent or scrape on them, sadly even the nice new ones.

All manner of seafood is available, and at the local markets you can buy fresh mussels, sardines, swordfish, tuna and all kinds of fish that we have no idea what they are.  Fresh pecorino cheese is a local speciality, and you often find it infused with olives or peppercorns.  You do see the occasional butcher and of course red meat is available in the supermarkets, but seafood seems to be eaten mostly.

The Villa Romana del Casale is in south east of Sicily and is thought to have been the hunting lodge of a Roman dignitary.  Built in the 3rd century has the most spectacular mosaics of sport, hunting, ships, giant sea creatures, even bikini clad young girls.

Covered by a landslide and flood for more than 700 years the floor mosaics and wall frescoes are still in excellent condition. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site with the mosaics said to be some of the best in the world.  Excavations are still on-going, we saw more than 60 rooms that you view from elevated walkways, and that was probably only half of the villa that’s open to the public.

The south east coast of Sicily is quieter and less developed, and now in the early spring the orange and lemon trees are full of fruit.  You can buy a flat of oranges or mandarins for a euro or so, and they have those lovely red blood oranges as well.

With Mount Etna still very active and puffing away earthquakes are also a concern here.                    In 2017 she blasted into life again sending a 7km plume of ash and smoke into the air.  And just before Christmas 2018 Etna erupted and during a 3-hour period more than 130 earthquakes were reported, and a few people were hurt from falling debris.

A few years ago, the dome of the spectacular baroque Cathedral in Noto collapse due to an earthquake, – apparently the local authorities knew it was cracked but nothing was done.  Fortunately, it was empty at the time.

Talking about Mt Etna, for the next day or so we are parked at a tiny sea side village of Agnone with the mountain right in front of us so if she decides to blow off some steam we will be in the perfect position for the show.  There has been a small puff of white and sometimes a larger plume of grey smoke emerging for most of the afternoon and the local volcano ‘activity’ centre give her a 3.5 chance out of 5 for some greater activity in the next few days.                                                                

The experts predict though there is more chance that one day Etna will just collapse towards the sea, causing a devastating tsunami.  Hopefully that will never happen, as although there are no villages close to Etna, the densely populated cities of Catania and Messina sit either side of her on the coast.

Rubbish is by far the worst we have seen.  It’s everywhere!  They don’t have residential collections instead they have communal collections.  So, every town will have several spaces where residents can dump rubbish, and between stray dogs and cats that rip the bags apart, and people that don’t seem to care where they dump stuff there is rubbish strewn everywhere, and if anything spoils Sicily for us that would be it.

This last few pictures are so typical of Sicily for me.

So next we catch another ferry, just a short one this time, only 30 minutes or so that will take us to Calabria back on the mainland.

SARDINIA an Italian Island in the Mediterranean Sea

You wouldn’t think that two islands only 14kms apart and both in the Med could be so different, but that is exactly what Corsica and Sardinia are.

Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It lies 200kms west of mainland Italy, and 200kms north of Tunisia on the African continent, and just south of the French island of Corsica.

Our arrival into the port Santa Teresa di Gallura after our 60 min, very rough crossing was easy and in no time we were on the dock and having a cuppa.      We head south along the west coast towards Porto Torres where our first stop is Lidl to stock up on food and wine, mostly wine actually. 

We stop at Stintino for the night.  Arriving after dark we didn’t realize it is a bird habitat where flamingos and other migratory birds rest on the salt flats, but sadly none where here today.

The countryside is hilly with broad valley’s filled with lush crops of at present artichokes growing in the fertile soil, vineyards, olive groves, and our favourite Euculypts are everywhere. 

artichokes

And the coast line is picture postcard perfect around every bend.  Old towers, huge sand dunes, small protected fishing harbours, and the marinas are not only filled with yachts and other luxury craft, but sturdy painted wooden fishing boats that venture out most days to catch bream, seabass and lobsters into the most spectacular crystal clear turquoise coloured water.

The roads, when you’re not dodging potholes are reasonably straight, we have even made into fifth gear a few times.  So that helps us cover ground faster between stops, and have more time to linger and chat to the locals called ‘Sardi’, who we have found to be friendly and welcoming.

The colours are what stand out most to me, village houses are painted in candy colours of yellow, orange, green, pink, sometimes both pink and yellow, and even a few purples make a beautiful foreground to the stunning sunsets we see most nights.                                                                                                                              

Beautiful murals are painted on the walls of houses and buildings in many of the older villages, most depicting everyday life, sheep shearing, the harvest, traditional costumes, but some are comical, like a lady shaking her blanket out of an upstairs window while someone walks underneath.

There are also more sheep than we have seen since leaving Australia, with fantastic big Maremma sheepdogs that stand guard over them.  Yesterday we rounded a corner to see a Mareema standing in the middle of the road and barking at us to stop, while behind him his flock crossed to another paddock.  He was certainly not letting us drive any further.

NURAGHI

Sardinia is dotted with over 7000 nuraghi, conical megalithic stone fortresses, that are the only remnants of the islands Bronze Age Nuraghic people.   These people were not the first inhabitants of Sardinia, but they have left the most significant structures in stone.  There are no written records of this civilisation, apart from literature from the Romans who finally conquered the Nuraghi, calling them ‘fierce warrior shepherds’.

The key element of the Nuragic society was fertility. The Madre, Mother Goddess was worshiped and many of their symbols and statues depict a female diety.  Massive stone alters are found at some Nuraghi sites, where animals were thought to be sacrificed, their blood flowing back to the earth in hope of a good harvest.

These sheep rearing people lived in separate communities, based in clans and led by warrior kings, and their culture flourished from around the 18th to the 2nd century BC.  Their economy was based on farming, fishing and trading silver, lead, copper and most importantly the black volcanic glass obsidian, from which they could forge weapons and tools, and is what brought the Romans here and the end of the Nuraghi.

Santu Antine near Sassasi in the north west – is one of the Nuraghic archaeological sites we visited.  It was extraordinary in that is was still standing, and the size and scale of the village which at the time was between 150 to 200 huts, surrounding three lateral, conical towers, 25m high built of massive volcanic stones and spaced apart at almost the same distance of 42m.  Winding stairwells lead to an upper floor, with long corridors off which are several rooms, possibly used to store grain. A system of wells was also dug on the lower level. There was also a circular meeting house, lined by stone seats and around what is thought to be a throne.  

As we were the only visitors there, we had a chance to chat to one of the archaeologists working, and she was able to explain more about the site.  

The architecture of their construction testifies to the extraordinary skills of the fascinating and mysterious Nuragic civilisation.

In the little that I knew about Sardinia I had heard of the Giants of Mont’e Prama, which are a group of 44 statues that were discovered in a farmer’s field, near Cabras in the area of Oristano in 1974.   Thought to be placed as guards to an ancient necropolis, forty-four colossal stone statues of boxers, warriors and archers, most over 2.5m tall, and found sadly broken into more than 5000 stone fragments. After 4 years of someone’s patient restoration of what must have been a giant puzzle, we were able to see a couple of the Giants in the Museum of Archaeology in Cabras.   Usually we drive around for ages trying to find these museums, but we just happened stop for lunch, and voila there it was right in front of us. 

We leave the coastal area to drive through the hinterlands, where winding roads lead you up to the high pasture areas, where small wild ponies, sheep and goats seem to roam freely.                         

There are steep gorges of basalt rock, freshwater lakes and rivers that all seem to be overflowing their banks due to all the rain that has fallen over the past couple of weeks.  We pass through the occasional village, but this area seems to be mostly uninhabited only seeing the small stone huts that the shepherds may use.    Stopping for a coffee we notice a sign for Roman Baths at Fordongianus and decide it worth a visit. If the river hadn’t been a raging torrent it would have been a great place to stay overnight as underground thermal springs are still pumping out steaming hot water.

Not far from Tharros is a small church called the Church of the Holy Saviour with a very special Hypogeum an underground chapel.  Originally it is thought to have been a Nuraghic sacred site where water was worshiped. Then around the 4th century AD it used by the Romans as a Temple dedicated to Hercules, Venus and Mars.  It’s vaulted ceilings and the wells used are all still in amazing condition, and you can just make out frescoes on the walls, one of Hercules fighting a lion and another they say is a winged Eros.  In the late 17th century a Christian church (no longer in use) was built on top of the underground hypogeum.

Finally, it’s a beautiful sunny day so we head to Sant’Antioco, a small island on the SW coast and connected to the mainland by a strip of land called an isthmus, that was originally built by Romans. Inhabited these days mostly by fisherman, and in summer apparently tourists, but today it’s quiet, we do see loads of flamingos though when we stop for lunch on the isthmus.

We don’t stay on Sant’Antioco for the night but head back to the Costa del Sud and find the most perfect place to sleep.  It’s a small sheltered beach near Teulada that is part sand, part stone with the most beautiful quartz pebbles.  It so quiet, all we hear is the sound of the small waves breaking onto the pebbles and making a lovely tinkling sound as it goes back out.

Around 7am we hear bells and thought it was a herd of sheep passing by, but when Brian went out to investigate, he found we were surrounded by a large herd of very curious goats, probably wondering what this big vehicle was doing parked on their usual morning walking track.                                                                                 

Tonight, we sit overlooking the stormy Mediterranean Sea on the Sinis Peninsula. The ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Tharros on our left, and a Nuraghi tower on our right, being buffeted by the Mistral wind that blows from the west that has carried Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and Barbery pirates from Africa.                        

Finally, Sardinia was given to Italy and the Sardi.  

The Sardi are friendly, giving you a smile and a Buongiorno when you pass by, and don’t even seem to mind when we stumble with our Italian, if you have the chance visit this lovely island of Sardinia.

Oops
Gum trees

Sardinia wasn’t a place we had previously thought to visit, it was just a good way for us to island hop from the mainland, via Corsica to see Sicily, but we are so happy we visited this island and learned about the culture of the Nuraghe and see the countryside.                                                                                                                    

Tomorrow we catch another ferry, this time our destination is the island of Sicily.