ITALY: Grand Delights PART II

NAPLES–Compania

City of Naples, the Bay, Mt Vesuvius

City of Naples, the Bay, Mt Vesuvius

The panoramic tour of Naples does much to eradicate the judgement of too many visitors that the city is a “hole.” The stops for photographs help us see the beauty of the city, the Gulf of Naples, and the spectre of Mt. Vesuvius (referred to as “the friend” by many Napolese). Our magical bus driver for the grand tour, Raffaele, from Naples, gets us through the traffic as only a native to the city can. We cannot believe how cars, trucks, and buses have to wrestle with Vespas (with as many as three passengers on the back of the scooters) winding wildly through traffic and skipping red lights.

Sorrento–Campania

Sunrise at Sorrento

Sunrise at Sorrento

The twisting, mountainous roads to and from Sorrento offer spectacular landscapes and seascapes. Sorrento has its own charms that make it the important resort community it is.

ISLE OF CAPRI


The ferry ride from Sorrento to Capri was uneventful for our group, but the boat ride around the Isle of Capri offers special perspectives on this famous rock of an island. Sailing around the island offers peeks into grottos that others chose to swim through to explore interior ponds. We looked in vain to see any sandy beaches on the Isle of Capri. We finally broke down to hobble over a stony beach to the waterside to plunge into cold, salty water for a refreshing swim.

CALABRIA REGION

Leaving Campania for Calabria

Leaving Campania for Calabria

Mountains of Calabria

Mountains of Calabria

Heading south toward Sicily, the drive through the Calabrian region is a bit long by bus, but worthwhile for noting the changing geographical features of Southern Italy from familiar landscapes associated with northern and central Italy. Mountains on both sides going south have unusually fertile, lush orange and olive groves despite the lack of rivers and streams. The water sources to nourish the orchards and crops must come from artesian wells, cisterns, and subterranean waterways and caves systems. We understand the numerous caves among these mountains have been traditional hiding places for criminals and kidnap victims. Desert conditions intensify as we cross the countryside and even more so in Sicily. Elaborate irrigation systems allow for every conceivable crop to flourish.

ISLAND OF SICILY

TAORMINA, Sicily

TAORMINA, Sicily

The island of Sicily is beautiful from start to finish. Seaside communities such as Messina, Taormina, Agrigento, Syracuse and Palermo please the eye as mountains are juxtaposed to the seasides of sandy beaches. Interior places such as Mt. Etna (the highest volcano in Europe) or the rolling hills surrounding Piazza Amerino are welcoming and rich with vegetation.

MT. ETNA, Sicily

Initial view of Mt. Etna volcano

Initial view of Mt. Etna volcano

After recent lava flow

After recent lava flow

Mt. Etna offers spectacular views from the top of the long and winding road up the mountain, of the surrounding towns that skirt the bottom of this great, active volcano, and of the seashores beyond. The climb is significant: our tour bus can get us half way up the mountain; a gondola takes up another quarter of the way up; a all-terrain jeep-bus takes us to the highest point on ash (not paved) roads; a guide takes us walking just below the summit (well into the clouds and cold with winds blowing the clouds so that we have a clear view). The ascent is so slow and revealing of lava rivers from previous eruptions, that we realize eruptions are unpredictable with every step we take over warm ash and around smoking fissures. Witness the building buried in lava from an eruption in the last five years.

By the time we are in the middle of our journey through Sicily, travel fatigue and information overload create doubts about what more we can handle in the final days of the second week. Thankfully we push on for there is much to see and remember. An impressive superhighway speeds our bus through the Sicilian countryside. The only thing is: every so often the highway seems to end. The bus moves onto a paved shoulder lane for a minute or so and then continues along a finished expressway. Politics apparently is the culprit. Depending on the party in power (socialist, conservative, or the mafia), road construction seems to stop and start and end.

SYRACUSE, Sicily

Grotto is quarry for stones for Amphitheatre

Grotto is quarry for stones for Amphitheatre

Greek ampitheatre facing stage and harbour

Greek ampitheatre facing stage and harbour

Our guide in Syracuse offers an interesting historical context to make our stroll memorable through the Greek theatre (which is circular for meetings and theatre in the round) and the amphitheatre (which once held audiences of thirty to forty thousand to watch trilogies of Greek tragedies). The amphitheatre offers glorious views of the harbour as dramatic background to the stage.

I am fascinated that people can carve a piece of wood into recognizable and beautiful art pieces. Learning how Athenian prisoners found themselves in the quarry at Syracuse chiselling stones to be used in the theatre and the amphitheatre defies comprehension. A unique grotto from antiquity, named Dionysius’ Ear by a visiting Carrivagio a few centuries ago, set up a challenge for the Canadians touring the site. The grotto is a short, but high tunnel which Carravagio noted offers extraordinary acoustics. The guide encouraged one of us to sing a song so that we could appreciate how sound carries here. One brave soul sang out in a beautifully controlled voice the national anthem of Canada. Dionysius would have been pleased.

AGRIGENTO, Sicily (The Valley of Temples)

The Valley of Temples is one of the most beautiful places anywhere. The big picture is this: a modern city called Agrigento sits on a hilltop which towers over the Valley of Temples. The valley is a plain with rich grasses and mature trees across this flat space. The valley, in turn, towers over a valley below it that stretches out to a beautiful seascape.

Greek politicians in ancient times who settled in Agrigento set out to build a series of temples here that would outclass the temples of Athens and Delphi. Unlike the Temple of Athena atop the acropolis in Athens and the Temple of Zeus below the acropolis, the setting in Sicily evokes a sacredness of place, such as we might feel in the Garden of Eden if we could be transported there in time and space. Late afternoon is kind to the ruins of sandstone. No cold marble here. Warm, vulnerable structures are spread apart on this green campus inviting all to see and reflect upon past people, events, and communities. Thoughts turn to the blinding ambitions of the political leaders who centuries before demanded the construction of these public buildings.

The restoration of the Temple of Concordia from 500 B.C. makes visible the perfection that was impossible to replicate in the restoration of the vainglorious Temple of Heracles. The plan for this last temple was more elaborate than for any structure in antiquity. The partially recovered pieces of the giant Atlas figure (one of many once used to hold up the temple’s roof) lies fallen on the dusty, brown earth (again, no marble here) creating profound pathos and contemplation of the futility of human vanity. The scene echoes the criticism in Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” In that poem, Ozymandias, a vainglorious leader in the ancient past had a monument of his likeness constructed to last forever. Years later, only “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert” along with a pedestal which boasted the following words: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The paradisal setting of the Valley of Temples, by contrast, infuses the ruins and modern viewers with more sadness than criticism.

PIAZZA AMERINO, Sicily (Roman Villa from 400 A.D.)

Piazza Amerino beckons visitors to see the fascinating restoration of a supremely luxurious Roman Villa. Recognized as a World Heritage Site, the Roman Villa is well worth a study of lively marble-tiled mosaics along the animal-themed corridors of the rich, and the remarkable geometric-designed floor tiles on the corridors used by the slaves.

The 4th century A.D. villa contains within its walls large reception rooms, numerous family rooms and guest rooms, gymnasia, a basilica, entertainment rooms, hot and cold running water, and huge kitchens appropriate for a great country estate.
The floor tiles in the women’s gymnasium offer a startling image of how life has not changed—or how the past comes full circle in modern times. Six or seven different women in bikinis are shown playing a variety of sports: running, volleyball, aerobic exercises with hand weights. There is even an image of a woman being crowned with a laurel and handed a flower bouquet for her victory in a competition.

PALERMO, Sicily

Palermo, Sicily’s largest city, deserves time. It is a glorious city embraced by high mountains and the sea—as has been the case in many places we visited throughout Italy. The world-famous Byzantine mosaics of the cathedral at Monreale that we visited just outside Palermo may be outdone by the chapel at the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo itself. The Arab and Norman architectural elements in the city’s buildings are striking contrasts to the many Greek and Roman structures throughout Sicily. Our encountering of gorgeous 18th century buildings in neoclassical style drove home the point of this marvelous city. Spend time here.

Time ran out for us. As much as Sicily and all of Italy delighted us over two weeks of the Grand Tour, our farewell luncheon of Sicilian cuisine signaled the end of our wonderful trip.


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