Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ending on a High Note

Taormina, Sicily - More than one Italian expert has called this lovely medeival resort "the most beautiful town in Sicily." I can't really confirm or deny the superlatives, but it certainly is striking, its rolling hills and rocky cliffs dropping down to sweeping seascapes, not to mention the smoking Mt Etna, always lurking in the background.

Besides all that, Taormina is home to a large - and mostly intact - Greek theater. Its setting high atop a rocky cliff guaranteed that theater-goers not only had excellent views of the stage, but also of the towering Mt Etna and the crystalline Ionian Sea. It has been called "the most spectacularly situated Greek theater in the world." Again with the superlatives! But it was gorgeous when we visited - clear blue skies and a blazing sun made the place irresistably photogenic, and we spent hours climbing around the ruins and snapping pictures.

We spent the afternoon strolling the cobblestone streets and browsing the chique boutiques. And resting up for the next day's adventure...

It might have been the only day that we were actually on schedule - out of bed early, finishing breakfast and checking out of our hotel right on time. That's when we noticed that all the clocks in the hotel read 10am - not 9am - and we had unknowingly lost an hour in the night for daylight savings. So on the day we were supposed to get up early and go climb Mt Etna, we were an hour late before we even started. I feared that we would not have time to climb to the crater.

Nonetheless, we drove to the Refugio Sapenza on the southside of the mountain, stopping only to purchase some local artwork for our garden: a Sicilian Baroque-style grotesque face, carved out of Etna lava (we would later regret this, when security personnel at the Palermo airport would not let us carry it on the plane). It was cloudy and cold; visibility was about five feet. And the mountain - blanketed in black lava - was not exactly picturesque. This appeared to be an ill-fated expedition.

Anyway, we rode the cable car as far as it would take us, which was about 2500m. We could see nothing whatsoever from the sky ride. But as we approached the top, the fog seemed to dissipate as we rose above the clouds, and suddenly the sky was unbroken blue with an unimpeded view of the smoking summit. The workers informed us that the hike to the craters (3200m) takes about three hours - less than we anticipated - so we set out along the trail to the top.

The sun was warm, even as we trudged through snowbanks. And the surrounding scenery was so stark - just a barren patchwork of black and white against an icy blue sky. I'm not sure I have ever seen anything like it.

When we reached the top, we followed the trail around the rim of a smoking crater. It was incredibly windy, as if a gust might come along and blow us right into the crater or alternatively, off the side of the mountain, which seemed like the edge of the earth. Then we went off-trail, across the gravelly landscape to another smaller crater that was smoking like a steam engine. There we found our place in the sun, out of the wind, and warmed by the thermal heat from below - the perfect place to unpack our picnic of ricotta pastries!

Here is the place for the obvious metaphor... like all trips, this one certainly had its highs and lows, but this was a good place to end!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sicilian Baroque

Ragusa, Sicily - In 1693, Sicily experienced a massive earthquake that flattened many of the towns in the southeastern part of the island. They were all rebuilt by the same architect - a bloke named Rosario Gagliardi, whose Baroque inclinations are reflected in the swirls and twirls that adorn every facade; the monumental porticos flanked by columns; and - of course - the massive domes that crown the oversized cathedrals.

All that pomp and circumstance - I could take or leave it. But I adore the tiny details: the figures of philosophers and poets that perch atop the pillars, as if they are still proclaiming some wise words; the grotesque faces that peek out from from otherwise unadorned edifices; and the whimsical creatures that crouch under the eaves or bear the weight of the balconies on their backs.

We spent one day in Noto, which is considered to be one of the finest Baroque towns in Sicily. Nonetheless, there is not a lot going on in Noto, aside from the gi-normous cathedral and the shops stocked with Sicilian ceramics. I think the reason to stop in Noto is to study the many beasts and beauties that inhabit the Palazzo Nicoloci. This baroque building is adorned by at least half a dozen balconies, each supported by a team of carved creatures, whether gargoyle or gryphon, siren or sage. We spent an hour admiring the architecture and snapping photos; but then we were done. "Thanks for Noto!" Jerry said as we drove out of town.

Then we were on our way to Ragusa, another ancient city that was wiped out in 1693. After the earthquake, the town was rebuilt further up the mountain. But the old part of the city - Ragusa Iblea - was never abandoned. In 1730, Gagliardi came to town and built his signature spectacular cathedral, and redesigned the rest of the city around it. Today, Ragusa Iblea is a jumble of narrow streets and sand-colored structures that seem to be built on top of each other, climbing up the steep hillside. Driving into town, it looks like the city was carved out of the side of the mountain.

From here, we head further inland. first stop: Piazza Amerina and the Villa del Casale. Second stop: Enna and the Lombardy Castle.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's all Greek to me...

Syracuse, Sicily - First, let me observe that the food is better in Sicily. Maybe this is a north-south thing - even Venetians have told me that the produce is fresher and more flavorful in the south. Also, the southerners invented - and have really perfected - the art of tomato sauces. And Sicilan chefs use nuts - pinenuts, walnuts and almonds - in ways you never imagined. So when I ordered spada alla sircusana, it turned out to be grilled swordfish with a tomato sauce with capers and almonds - delicious!

And the cheese... ravioli, panini and of course cannoli, all made with the freshest, smoothest ricotta. Note to self: eat as many canoli as possible while in Sicily.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's get on with exploring Syracuse. Set on the peninsula of Ortygia, which juts out into the Ionian Sea, Syracuse dates to 734 BC. Its Greek heritage is still evident in the ruins that are scattered about the city... a Temple to Apollo, the Castle of Euryalus,  Even the centerpiece Cathedral was built on the foundation of a Greek Temple that stood on the site. So the Doric columns that line the sanctuary are the same columns that upheld the Temple of Athena, dating back to the 5th century BC.

 Equally impressive is the Greek theater that is on the outskirts of town. It is still used for summer theater! I know some of my readers are fans of classical comedies... consider a trip to Syracuse to see them performed in them performed in their element!

 With the decline of the Greek Empire, the Romans moved in, and they also built an amphiteater. It's not clear why they could not use the perfectly good Greek theater up the road. Perhaps it was not suitable for the animal slaughters and gladiator fights that would be held in this arena.

From here, we head inland. Next stop: Noto.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Buona Pascqua

Palermo, Sicily - Two items of good news: (1) it's mid-term break; (2) we are spending the week in Sicily! We got in late Saturday night, and woke up Easter morning to the ringing of church bells.

We are staying at a fantastic little hotel that occupies the second floor of an incredible 12th-century palazzo. The Hotel Orientale is nondescript (at best) from the street, but inside, the crumbling courtyard is surrounded by huge arcades, and a marble staircase leads the way upstairs. Inside the rooms are simple and modern enough, with the exception of the library, which still has an original fresco on the ceiling.

The hotel is typical of old Palermo. The whole city seems to be falling apart, which I suppose is not suprising conisding that much of it was built in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. But the architecture is amazing. And even its decrepitude makes it more dramatic, more intriguing. The place oozes Arabic influences. More than once, I had to remind myself that we are still in Italy - not in Morocco!

Especially when wandering through the maze-like Mercato di BallarĂ² that is just behind the hotel. I expected the streets to be quiet on Easter morning, but the market was packed with patrons shopping for Easter dinner and vendors yelling, singing and whistling in attempt to get their attention. Tables were piled high with tempting produce in all shapes and colors, not to mention the fresh fish, huge cuts of beef, piles of olives, nuts and figs, trucks full of fresh bread, bins of fresh ricotta... We couldn't resist and we bought a fresh baguette and cheese and some spicy Sicilian olives for a picnic later on.

We did not mean to spend all morning at the market, but once we were there, we had a hard time finding our way out. Instead, we kept getting lured deeper and deeper by the sights and smells. But eventually, we made our way to the Cathedral, which is the centerpiece of the city.

The Norman-built Cathedral is an amazing amalgamation of tall towers topped with crenellations, majolica cupolas with tiled roofs and a vast dome at one end. As luck would have it, Easter Mass was ongoing when we arrived, so we stayed for the end. Even Jerry had to admit that it was fun to hear the Mass in Italian and figure out where we were in the service.

From here we are traveling to the Ionian Coast on the eastern part of the island. Next stop: Catania

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Making of a TV Star

Venice, Italy - Sometimes people tell me that I would be a good host for a TV show on the Travel Channel. Okay, one of those people is my mom, so maybe that doesn't count. But there have been a few others.

When I attended a writers' workshop in January, I learned that this is the dream of many travel writers. Just like shower-singers want to be Kelly Clarkson or joke-tellers want to be Jon Stewart, travel writers really want to be Samantha Brown.

By the way, this is not because we long for fame and glory. This is because we want to be able to stay at the swanky hotels and resorts we review, but cannot afford.

Anyway, a few months back, travel writers were invited to submit video auditions for a new TV series (I really know nothing about it so I can't divulge any details). I decided to do this - not because I think I might become a TV star - but because it sounded like a lark. Beside, you can't win it if you're not in it!

So when we arrived in Venice, I turned my attention to this project. I had to create a 3-minute clip, and what more picturesque setting than the Queen of the Adriatic?

I decided to do a blurb about the art of mask-making and the festivities surrounding Carnival. In retrospect, this subject is probably a little tired. But I had only been in town for a week - all of which was consumed by Carnival - so I think I can be forgiven.

Unfortunately, aside from my webcam, I don't own a video camera nor do I know the first thing about filming. Once when I was in the 9th grade I was interviewed by the local news about the pressures facing teenagers. Then there were a few cameo appearances in Uncle Randy's holiday specials. But that is the extent of my experience in front of the camera.

So I felt pretty certain that I needed to hire a professional to do the filming and - most importantly - the editing. And as with all things I undertake, I had no time, as the deadline was already past. I needed some help - fast.

There were no listings for "videographer" in the Venetian yellow pages. So I set to calling every business that might somehow have some video connection, however remote. I got my first promising lead from a wedding planner, who suggested I call this guy named Andrea Rizzo, who lives on Lido (an island in the Venice lagoon). The wedding planner assured me that this video man does excellent, highly professional work. She also indicated that he charges about 1000 euros a day... I didn't bother.

My next brilliant idea was to call a conference and event organizing agency that advertised equipment rental. This proved to be false advertising, but the woman on the phone did pass along the name and number for the camera man they usually use... Andrea Rizzo, from Lido.

The two owners of the photography shop were stumped by my inquiry. Then one suggested to his partner "Do you think this is something Andrea would do?"

The guy at the video store was completely flummoxed, but I pressed him. "There is this guy on Lido, but I don't know his number."

"That's okay," I said. "I have his number."

So I called Andrea Rizzo, who seems to have cornered the Venetian video market, and he came over from Lido to meet me for a capuccino. I was very straightforward about my financial limitations. I think he realized it would be an easy job, or maybe he recognized that diamond-in-the-rough quality and he wanted to be involved in the making of a star. In any case, he agreed to the (much lower) price I proposed. And the next morning we were traipsing about Venice with a giant camera in tow.

So here it is: Mask Maker, Mask Maker.. an Andrea Rizzo production. 

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Parlare Italiano...

Venice, Italy - "One week down and eleven to go..." I'm sure my drinking companions had a slightly different perspective when we raised our glasses to toast the completion of the first week of classes, as they are all faculty at Venice International University. (This is the school where Jerry is teaching this semester; indeed it is the reason we are in Venice.)

But I felt I also earned the right to toast, not because I am teaching but because I am taking classes - all part of my goal to eat, drink and speak as much Italian as possible while I am here.

 VIU is located on San Servolo, an island in the Venice lagoon. In former incarnations it was a monastery and an assylum, but now it is a univerisity, which inspires many jokes about how the place has not really changed.

We go to school on a vaporetto, which is like a water bus - quite a pleasant commute! So this was the first week of a new routine: getting up early to study vocabulary and drill verbs; stopping for a capuccino on the way across the campo; then waiting for the boat, just like all the other Venetian commuters.

Somehow I ended up in the intermediate Italian class (which I am sure says more about the VIU evaluation process than it does about my Italian skills!). The other students in the class are Chinese, Japanese, German and Israeli. I am the only American. I am also the only student over the age of 25 (however slightly). I think my presence adds a real element of diversity to the class, allowing us to learn such important words as sposata (married) and lavora (job).

And although I have been studying all week, this weekend we have our first real homework assignment: a 250-word essay about my family and my life in America. This intermediate class is serious business.

 Stay tuned: if my essay comes out good, I might just post the masterpiece (in the original Italian, of course)