Ah, Palermo! Haven’t I Seen Your Face Before?

April 30, May 1 – 3, 2012

Throughout history Palermo has been dominated by many powerful invaders due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean. Some of the invaders include the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Saracen Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French and the Spanish Bourbons – just to name the major ones. They have all left a mark on the beautiful architecture of Palermo.

Our Road Scholar group arrived the day before May Day and the city was very quiet as most of the population had ventured out to the countryside or seaside for the May Day holiday tradition of picnics and relaxation. Because of this we had a couple of days where we were able to wander the streets and alleyways without much concern of being run down by a car. You need to understand that cars drive through alleys that are barely able to hold one car width, let alone one car driving past a parked car. The cost for car insurance must be sky-high – like the gasoline. Must be why so many people ride scooters. The tourists seem to prefer the horse carriages.

A fellow group member, Sandy and myself had an adventurous walkabout late one afternoon. We wandered around a supermarket, ogling the cheeses, various cured meats and were amazed by the looooong aisles of dried pasta. Palermo had returned to business as usual and we crossed major thoroughfares, dodging cars along the way and hugging the brick walls of the alleys. As a reward, we enjoyed a gelato while watching the cars whiz past the designer clothing stores. Several times we encountered people who would start speaking in Italian to me (assuming I understood what they were saying). Then I remembered that our guide, Enrico had told me, that once we reached Palermo, I would start to see my face in the faces of the people of Palermo. He was right – I found that my face belonged in that region. I’d always been proud of being half Italian – more specifically, if someone asked – Sicilian. I just never realized that I had a look about me that actually belonged to the Western region of Sicily. That night I met Ciro Grillo, who would take me to my family in Santa Ninfa, he asked me if I’d been at a certain street corner at a certain time that afternoon with another woman. I said yes, why? He said he thought he’d recognized me from my blog photo, but didn’t stop because he was driving his scooter. I was amazed that I could be recognized on the streets of Palermo by someone I’d never met.

One day while walking through the Palermo back streets deciding what to have for lunch, several of my fellow group members and I came across a small wedding  in progress when we decided to have a look inside a church – oops. It was a very traditional Italian Catholic wedding and we went back outside to wait for the bride and groom to emerge from the church. We cheered along with their family and friends. What a beautiful sight and a beautiful bride. In case you are wondering we had arancini (fried rice balls with parma ham and mozzarella inside), and I finished with, of course, a gelato.

Palermo with its diversity of people, flavors (of gelato) and architecture have left an indelible mark in my memory. What wonderful city.

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Villas, Chapels and Archaeogical Sites – Oh My!

April 30 – May 6, 2012 Villa Romana del Casale, Palatine Chapel, Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Erice, Agrigento, Selinunte, Monreale

Monday, April 30, 2012 – Villa Romana del Casale
On our drive to Palermo we stopped at the small town of Piazza Armerina. Outside of the town were discovered the ruins of a private Roman villa containing an extensive and extraordinary series of floor mosaics which are in impeccable condition. The Villa Romana del Casale is a UNESCO World Heritage site. With an area of over 11,482 square feet, it is thought that the Villa may have been the residence of someone in the management of the Roman Empire. There is ongoing restoration of mosaics and we were lucky enough to arrive on the day that a new section was unveiled. Today’s gelato choice was a simple, refreshing fiore di latte.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012 – Palatine Chapel (Palace of the Normans)
I am rarely speechless, as my husband and friends will tell you. Upon entering the Palatine Chapel I was left both speechless and breathless. The Palatine Chapel was built for the Norman kings in 1132 and is a jewel, covered from floor to ceiling with golden mosaics.

John Julius Norwich described it best in his book The Normans in Sicily: “It is in this building, with more stunning effect than anywhere else in Sicily, that we see the Siculo-Norman political miracle given visual expression – a seemingly effortless fusion of all that is most brilliant in the Latin, Byzantine and Islamic traditions into a single harmonious masterpiece.”

If you are ever in Palermo you must visit the Palatine Chapel. Be aware, that for security reasons, it is only open Monday and Friday when the Sicilian Parliament is not in session. The Sala di Ercole (Hall of Hercules), where the Sicilian Parliament now sits, is just as it was when used in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 – Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Oratorios are small, simple structures built as religious and social gathering places for men of the Sicilian nobility in the 16th century. Unremarkable on the outside, inside they exemplify the extravagance of the aristocrats of the era.  A local Franciscan order, Compagnia di San Francesco, commanded the Oratorio di San Lorenzo be constructed back in 1569.

I admit that I have never been a big fan of either Baroque or Rococo art – but I loved the extraordinary elegance of Giacomo Serpotta’s fluid stucco work. His putti (I think of them as cherubs – but properly translated – little boys with wings) romp on the walls, making soap bubbles, playing games, pulling pants down and kissing one another. In contrast to the stark

white walls of stucco are beautiful mahogany pews, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, and resting on carved supports were created during the 18th century.

Thursday, May 3, 2012 – Erice
The medieval city of Erice sits about 2,400 feet above sea level above the Trapani coast. We took the VERY NARROW WINDING road up the side of the mountain. Luckily the cloud that had been hanging over Erice when we past it in the morning had cleared, so the views were incredible – if you could keep your eyes open for the ride. Thankfully, I could. One of Erice’s claims to fame is its wonderful pastries. If you like almonds you’ll love them here. One of the best pastry shops is owned by Maria Grammatico, who learned her art during her childhood spent in a convent. Maria Grammatico with Mary Taylor Simeti wrote Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood. I, of course, opted for a gelato across the way. Today it was After Eight and fiore di latte. Mmmmmmm – Brisk – just like the breeze blowing through Erice.

Friday, May 4, 2012 – Agrigento
Ciro picked me up this morning in a beautiful red Italian Fiat. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive about driving through Palermo in a car – since all my experience thus far had been in a tour bus or on foot (both of which, at times, had been hair-raising). Members of my tour group and I had long ago decided that any lights or traffic signs in Sicily were merely suggestions for drivers and pedestrians, not necessarily to be obeyed.

In other words, a red light means if you think you can make it or don’t care if you get hit – then go for it. All the time I’d been walking in Palermo I was amazed at how cars would be parked in a small alley and have the side mirrors folded in so they wouldn’t be hit by a (barely) passing car. When I got to Ciro’s car the mirrors were folded in even though he was parked in a parking lot stall. When he started the engine the mirrors folded out automatically – this must be a special feature for cars sold in Sicily – Cool!!! We drove through the beautiful countryside of the  Province of Trapani. The rolling hills were painted by wildflowers  with patches of red, pink, yellow, blue and purple. Ah, Sicily in Spring – I just knew it would be beautiful.

Because I would not be with my Road Scholar group for its visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Agrigento, Ciro and I decided that I shouldn’t miss it – since one of my biggest interest is archaeology. Ciro dropped me at one entrance and parked the car at the other entrance so we would walk through the huge site and not have to go back through to get to the car. Thank goodness because the sun was scorching that day. I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer.

The site sits on a high plateau overlooking the twinkling turquoise sea. This site has some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself.  Its impressive array of archaeological ruins include seven monumental Greek temples in the Doric style, dating back to 6th and 5th centuries BC. The Temple of Concord  is the most impressive surviving Doric temple in the Greek world after the Parthenon in Athens.

Saturday, May 5, 2012 – Selinunte
This morning we decided that since I enjoyed Agrigento so much I needed to see Selinunte since it is so close to Santa Ninfa. It is situated on the Southern coast of Sicily. It is considered to be the largest Archaeological Park in the Mediterranean and in fact in the whole of Europe. It has the ruins of ancient temples around an old city or Acropolis. Even though Hannibal and earthquakes managed to destroy it, it is easy to imagine just how large and important a city Selinunte must have been during its glory.

As we walked through site ominous clouds hung over us. At one point I could see a rain squall out over the sea coming towards us and we took cover under a large olive tree. The rain made the details of the temples truly stand out as if they had been polished just for us.

Sunday, May 6, 2012 – Monreale

Just above Palermo, the massive Norman cathedral at Monreale is adorned in the interior with Byzantine medieval mosaics of the highest workmanship. Two sets of Romanesque bronze doors, of which there are only a handful remaining in Europe. They depict 42 reliefs of biblical scenes set within decorative frames. While Monreale is an enormous and beautiful cathedral, I am still most enamored with the Palatine Chapel.

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Food, Fabulous Food!

April 26, 27, 28 & 29, 2012
Syracusa, Ortygia, Buscemi and Noto

On Thursday, April 26 we moved hotels from Gardini-Naxos to Syracusa/Ortygia. We had a very pleasant journey through the Sicilian countryside and stopped at a lovely rural villa, Azienda Trinita in Masalucia that has belonged to the Bonajuto family for at least eight generations. The villa was built in 1609 and has a beautiful garden with a mixture of native and exotic species growing in the fertile volcanic soil of the foothills of Mt. Etna. As Barone Antonio took us on an engaging tour of the garden we welcomed the shade of the trees as a respite from the brilliant Sicilian sun. Lunch was an amazing combination of tastes that I would never have imagined combining. We had a refreshing fennel and orange salad, along with a lemon risotto that was so delicate I had another plateful. I will be spending a lot of time once I get home trying to replicate both dishes. I bought jars of artichoke hearts and honey to bring home a little taste of Sicily. As usual our lunch was accompanied by a Nero d’Avalo red wine. I do not typically drink red wine, but I have come to really enjoy this wine.

Ortygia was the name given by the Greeks to the island south of the city of Syracusa, the greatest city in the Greek Empire after its capture in 415 BC. Situated on the eastern coast of the island, it is in the area of Sicily known as ‘La Sicilia Orientale’. Ortygia is a small island connected by a bridge to Syracusa. Our tour bus parked in a large lot and we walked across the bridge and through the island to our hotel. There was a little dog wearing a welcome bib who would greet us every time we passed. We will do this every day that we are here, as tour buses are not allowed on the island. Every day on our walk to the bridge connecting the island of Ortygia to the island of Sicily (hmmm, island off of an island – can’t really say connecting to mainland Sicily, can you?) we pass the oldest Doric temple to be found anywhere in Sicily – the Temple of Apollo.

The Piazzo del Duomo is the central point of the city, and features the Syracusa Cathedral (duomo), the most important monument in Ortygia – the cathedral facade was built in the 18th century in front of the 5th century Temple of Athena – the Greek Temple of Athena was simply transformed into the Duomo,

the city’s cathedral, leaving the original

temple columns intact. Our hotel, the Hotel Roma is at the back of the Duomo – built over the altar of the Temple of Athena. Here’s the really cool part – if you venture into the conference room behind the front desk you can see portions of the altar under the floor covered by Plexiglas. When I would walk up to my room at the back of the hotel sometimes the window at the top of the stairs would be open and I could reach out and touch one of the columns of the Temple of Athena. I really love staying in hotels that have a part of history in them.

The hotel is so well situated it is easy to enjoy the impressive baroque architecture of the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco across the square from the cathedral) and the Basilica of Santa Lucia. The patron saint of the city is St. Lucia (you know that song “Santa Lucia”).

On Friday, April 27 we took a morning walk around Ortygia. Afterward a few of my travel companions and I decided to stroll through the local food market street. At times I was on visual overload. The fruits and vegetables were so fresh and beautiful I just kept snapping photos. The fish was freshly caught and being prepared for purchase. Near the end of the market street we came upon the Caseificio Borderi cheese/deli storefront that Enrico had mentioned if we were lucky enough we might be able to get some tasty samples. There was freshly baked tricotta samples – baked ricotta that was prepared that morning beginning at 2:30 a.m., a little olive oil, oregano, and garlic clove on top. I was in cheese heaven upon putting it in my mouth – at home I don’t like ricotta on its own. This I loved and proceeded to buy a container to take with me back to my room to have for lunch. We then went in the shop – just to check out it out.

A handsome young Sicilian offered to make us his specialty and began slicing a large baguette. He then sliced fresh thin strips of prosciutto, and thick slices of fresh smoked mozzarella, placing them along with house made sun-dried tomatoes and a balsamic vinegar that was so thick it went on like syrup. He then gave us each a three-inch sandwich “to taste”. Needless to say we were all overwhelmed by the taste combination and each purchased a sandwich to take back as our “dinner on our own” selection. We had it with wine sitting in the Piazzo del Duomo as the sun was setting. YUMMY!!

Syracusa is probably the oldest settlement on the island of Sicily, and was thought to have been founded in the 7th century BC by the Corinthians. It was the centre of the Ancient Greek Empire for about two centuries (from the 5th century BC to the 3rd century BC). An interesting historical note: it is believed that Archimedes, generally considered to be the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time, died in Syracuse in 211 BC during the major battle which saw the city fall into the hands of the Romans. One of the most important archaeological sites at Syracuse is the Greek Theatre. Built in 470 BC, the Greek Theatre is the largest one in the world – perhaps there is irony that the largest Greek theatre is no longer in Greece! The Sicilians keep the tradition alive by performing Italian versions of classical Greek drama in the theatre every summer. The theatre is within Neapolis (the ancient city), which also includes the Roman Amphitheatre and Quarry Caves. We visited all these sites and I still found a way to grab a quick gelato along the way – I’m beginning to think of myself as a gelato Zorro – whisking in and out of gelaterias before anyone notices.

On Saturday, April 28 we took a drive to Buscemi, a small village, spread on a plateau between Syracusa and Ragusa. It is home to the Museo dei Luoghi del Lavoro Contadino (Museum of the Places of the Farmers and Country Life/Work). Rather, Buscemi is the museum. Instead of housing all the artifacts in a separate building, the town decided to protect and maintain the actual places where people lived and worked, in their original state. We visited a wine press, a shoemaker and dish-repairer’s shop and a home of a property manager. Peering inside these spaces is like walking into the past. Unfortunately photographs are not permitted inside the museum buildings but you can view more information on their website.

We had a wonderful lunch in the hills above Syracusa at Giannavi, an agriturisim restaurant. The views were incredible and the meal seemed to never end.

There was a wonderful cat named Napoleon who let me play with him for a bit – missing my girls.

On Sunday, April 29 a lesson in olive growing and olive oil was in the making for us at Ispica. At Mastri San Basilio we did some olive oil tasting – very similar to wine tasting. Mastri San Basilio presses its olives into oil within the first 24-hours after picking them. After our tasting lesson, we had a light yummy lunch of fresh made ricotta with olive oi drizzled over it, olives, sausage slices, sun-dried tomato pesto, and  bread, lots of bread to scoop up the ricotta. The flavors were all wonderful. I purchased several small bottles of their Due Sicilie olive oil to bring home.

After our lovely lunch, including some more Navo d’Avola wine, we headed to Noto, a UNESCO world heritage site. During a 1693 earthquake, the town of Noto was destroyed. When the town rebuilt, it was in the Baroque style of the day. Noto is known as Sicily’s Baroque City. We walked past beautiful Baroque buildings and of course, I found a way to grab not one, but two gelatos within 20 minutes. The first one was sooooo good I went back and got the same selections again – mulberry cream as well as lemon/mandarin/almond/saffron. Once again flavors that I would never imagine together but a taste sensation that required a second serving. Needless to say, I skipped dessert that evening.

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Liberation Day in Sicily

April 25, 2012

Happy Liberation Day Sicily – Today they celebrate the 1943  landing of the Allied troops on Sicily and the beginning of its liberation.

Today we visited Tindari by way of Messina. Tindari is home to the Sanctuary of the Black Madonna. The story of how the Black Madonna arrived in Tindari

is the stuff that legends are made of. According to local tradition, the statue, which is certainly of Byzantine origin, was one of many works of art smuggled out of Constantinople in the 8th and 9th Centuries. A storm forced the ship carrying the Black Madonna into the port of Tindari, where the sailors deposited their load at the local abbey for safekeeping. She now sits behind the altar with the inscription “nigro sum sed formosa” (black am I, but beautiful). People still make pilgrimages to the Black Madonna.

At Tindari there is a wonderfully preserved Greco-Roman archaeological site which includes Roman habitations, thermal baths, as well as a Greek theatre and during the summer it is possible to see Greek plays. There are several mosaics that have survived and can be viewed in the baths.

We had lunch at a restaurant with stunning views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Aeolian Islands. While  walking down the hill to the bus I stopped and got some fresh picked and roasted hazelnuts. I’ve never been a big fan of them but these tasted sooooo good – I couldn’t resist.

We stopped at Messina on the way back to our hotel. Messina is the closest point to the Italian mainland (2 miles). The main mode of transportation between the islands is ferries. There are even ferries that transport trains. The trains are broken down and then reassembled.

While we were at Messina there was a gathering of vintage Vespa enthusiasts. These people have taken broken down, rusting Vespas and brought them back to their original condition. This reduces the motor tax paid on them. Enrico went around and took photos as many of the Vespas, as he has two vintage Vespas himself that he has reconditioned.

No gelato today – just fresh roasted hazelnuts.

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Under The Volcano

April 24, 2012

Right on schedule (12 days from the last eruption) Mt. Etna erupted last night. I slept through it – obviously not much seismic movement or I’d have been out of bed in a heartbeat. Apparently, it sounded like rain.

Here’s a video of the eruption:

There was lots of black pumice all over the patio of my room, in the pool,

on the deck chairs – everywhere. When we went out the shopkeepers looked a bit perturbed as they swept up the mess left behind. The car roofs and hoods were coated – I understand that most people immediately go to a wash station to get if off – you certainly couldn’t brush it off or

you’d strip your car. Roger would hate it on the “Carsenal”.

After breakfast we headed to Taormina,

a beautiful resort town with the second largest Greek theatre in Sicily. There are many shops well-known for their beautiful marzipan creations.

There are breathtaking views of Taormina Bay and Mt. Etna (puffing a bit).

The architecture and small alley streets and walks makes me glad I have a digital camera and not film – I would have gone through many rolls today.

Had my first taste of Sicilian pizza today. Very thin ,crispy crust with prosciutto and mozzarella cheese – delizioso (with hand jesture). Of course, before leaving Taormina I tried nero cioccolata (black chocolate) gelato – so much darker than dark chocolate. MMMMMMM.

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First Greek Settlement – Gardini-Naxos

April 23, 2012

Today was very a leisurely day to help with any jetlag. In the morning Enrico gave a PowerPoint introduction to Sicily and its colonizers. A lot of  hands touched  Sicily at some time – Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans…

In the early afternoon, Vera Mazzara, a vibrant young beautiful Sicilian told us about traditions and folklore. We then took a walk into the tiny town of Gardini-Naxos along the oceanfront promenade.

Gardini-Naxos was the first colony founded in Sicily by the Greeks in the second half of the eighth century B.C. (734-735 B.C.)

No gelato today – shocking isn’t it!! This time I decided to try and arnacini instead of gelato. Arancini is a “rice ball” filled with either ground beef and tomato sauce or a pistachio mixture, coated with breadcrumbs and then deep fried. I had the beef one – much bigger size than my grandmother made – in fact it was huge – delicious though.

Back to the hotel for a wonderful dinner and dessert (oh, the desserts). Tonight it was a pistachio cake with some creamy filling!

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Ciao Sicily – Nice to Meet You

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Early morning departure for Catania, Sicily. Today I join up with the Road Scholar tour group for my journey through Sicily. Roma airport was chaotic. Had a bunch of American teenagers on the flight – several “Snookie” wannabes. Please don’t let them be at the Hellenia Hotel in Gardini Naxos.

I met up with the tour escort, Enrico outside of baggage claim. Once the rest of the group arrived we climbed on our bus and headed to the hotel. We had some wonderful views of Mt. Etna during our drive to the hotel. What a spectacular view it was a really clear day and the volcano was smoking. Eruptions have caused the closure of the Catania airport a number of times in the last year due to ash and smoke, so I was a little concerned about the status of my flight. It is the most active volcano in the world and highest in Europe. It has the longest period of documented eruptions in the world. On January 6th of this year a new crater was formed during an eruption. Recently it has erupted about every 12 days. Here is video of the eruption that took place on Friday, April 13, just prior to my departure from the U.S. It is really spectacular.

We arrived at our hotel in Gardini Naxos, had a lovely lunch and went to our rooms to settle in for the next four nights. The Hellenia Hotel fronts the Bay of Naxos. I have a lovely room with a patio facing the bay. I also had a lovely surprise – no roommate, although I had agreed to have one. Had a nice dinner and a chance to get to meet the members of my tour group. It seems to be a good group and experienced travelers so that should bode well.

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How The Search For My Roots Began

When I decided to take a vacation to Sicily (birthplace of my maternal grandparents) I knew I wanted to thoroughly cover the island – not just a 4/5 day tour. So I selected a 16 day tour through Road Scholar – The Treasures of Sicily.

Once I’d booked the tour, I decided that even though I had been unsuccessful many years before trying to find my grandparents immigration information that I would try again before going to Sicily. This time the research was successful and did not take long to find Ellis Island immigration documents for Vincenzo Palmeri and Francesca Giaramida from Santa Ninfa, Sicily. Finding them in the 1930 U.S. Census assured me that I the right people because the address where they were living was the same one I would visit them at as a child in Akron, Ohio. Having found Grandma and Grandpa Palmeri, I decided to see if there was anyone related to me still living in Santa Ninfa or nearby. There had been a devastating earthquake in 1968 and all contact with the family there had been lost. I reached a bit of stumbling block when I was unsuccessful in contacting the local “clerk” for the town via email or telephone.

One last Google search brought me to someone who recommended a couple of researchers in Palermo, Ciro Grillo and Giovanni Montanti. I emailed them the Ellis Island information I’d found about my grandparents immigration (departure date, arrival date, ship’s name) and their approximate dates of birth. Within a few weeks Giovanni was able to send me copies of my grandparent’s birth certificates. From there he found that my grandfather’s brother stayed in Santa Ninfa and from that discovered that I have at least 50 relatives in a town of 5,400!! Oh how I wish my mother could have been around for this news.

And so my journey to find my Sicilian family roots begins. I have decided I will leave the Road Scholar tour near the end and go to spend three days in Santa Ninfa meeting MY FAMILY!!

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Roman Holiday – Part Two

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Buongiorno Roma! What a beautiful day.

I did a LOT of walking today. Met the tour I’d booked at 8:30 a.m. in order to try to get into the Colosseum. SUCCESS!! They opened the gates – a surprise because the public transportation strike was still taking place for 4 more hours.

The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre built during the Roman Empire it is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture. The Colosseum held more of fifty thousand spectators, and was used for gladiatorial games and public spectacles.

We went into the underground portion of the Colosseum after viewing the layout upstairs. The underground has only been opened about two years and was closed this past winter due to flooding. It just reopened on April 7, which is why I was so excited to obtain my ticket. Being in the underground portion gives the opportunity to better understand how people and animals were moved around for events. The use of concrete (invented it), arches (invented it, to build multi-story buildings), intercoms and elevators reconfirmed what an advanced civilization the Romans had.

When I came out of the underground portion I encountered one of the few remaining Colosseum cats – I was quite surprised when he came over to me and let me pet him as I was told they were very feral. Guess he sensed that I give good ear rubs.

The Roman Forum set in a valley between Palatine hill and Capitoline hill was the marketplace of Roma, considered the central area of political and social life around which the ancient roman civilization developed. Not much has survived, but what has is pretty impressive – such as the triumphal arches.

The Palatine hill one of the seven hills of Roma, considered the ancient part of the ancient town and according to the legend where the twins, Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf. Romulus killed his brother and then founded Roma on the Palatine hill on April 21, 753 B.C. – yes, that was 2,765 years ago today! No, I didn’t plan to be here on Roma’s birthday. As I walked through the ruins on Palatine hill I could hear the music from a concert in the Circus Maximus area for the birthday celebration. Buon Natale Roma!!

After the tour finished I decided to walk by the Circus Maximus area to hear some of the concert and to see the sight that had been the host of chariot races in Roma’s past. It is enormous. It is easy to use your imagination and visualize a chariot racing around the long oval shape.

Continuing on I strolled through various neighborhoods and found a cute little shop selling – you guessed it gelato! This time I tried the standard chocolate. Yummy again – any surprise? I rounded a corner into an alley and viewed a terrace filled with what appeared to be multi-colored pots – nope – it was the Spanish Steps covered with people wearing all different colors. Quite a beautiful sight. I’d anticipated not enjoying seeing the Spanish Steps because I thought it would be too touristy. I bought a cone of roasted chestnuts – one of my favorite foods, and enjoyed them while walking around the piazza. I saw a dog with his family enjoying a relaxing afternoon on the steps. After taking his picture I was about to leave the piazza when the family got up and started to leave as well. I showed the father and mother the photo I’d taken and they were very excited that I’d thought to take a photo of their dog. With broken Italian and English we realized that they were from Sicily and that I am going there to find family. Apparently, my Sicilian origins were recognizable to them. It was a lovely encounter that I will always remember.

After walking what I think were six of Roma’s seven hills, I headed back to my accommodations to rest a bit (been walking for 8 ½ hours without sitting) before a much-anticipated Vespa tour with Nerone Tour Italy. No, I won’t be driving, just a passenger.

Valerio arrived at 8:00 p.m. to take me around Roma ala Roman Holiday. For those of you who don’t know the classic Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie check it out and you’ll understand just why I HAD to take this tour.

Valerio made me feel totally comfortable and took me to the sights of Roma that must be seen at night: A beautiful vantage point for the Colosseum at night; The Appian Way and the arch which was the main entrance to the old city of Roma; St. Peter’s Square to see if the Pope was still up – perhaps watching Italian Idol; Trevi Fountain to throw another coin In so I can

return again to Roma (I threw one in as a child and it worked); Victor Emmanuel Piazza; Baths of Caracalla (this was an ancient bath house that now hosts operas and ballets during the summer).

We then stopped at Valerio’s favorite gelato shop. I can understand why the place was packed – I had a trifecta of gelato: After Eight (mint), chocolate, fiore di latte (cream). It is amazing how they can get three flavors all in a tiny little “cuppa”. Valerio informed me that I would love the gelato that I would eat in Sicily. Unbeknownst to me when I decided upon the title of this blog – gelato was originally created in Sicily using the snow from Mt. Etna. I can’t wait to eat more gelato in Sicily!

Valerio was so knowledgeable and entertaining I hated for our ride to end. But it did and Valerio, as promised, took me to where the evening celebration for Roma’s birthday was being held. We arrived just in time for the spectacular visual show and fireworks at Trajan’s Market. I bid Valerio buonanotte.

The birthday celebration finale show was incredible. There was a projection of Roma being built, Roma burning, Roma being built again, a tribute to Roma films all projected on the remaining ruined walls of Trajan’s Market. A truly unique and beautiful way to celebrate the birthday of an enduring city. The fireworks show was about 45 minutes long after the film projection and was in true Roman spectacular style. It’s kind of weird because I felt a sense of “national” pride while watching it even though I’m not Roman. Although my feet were still tired from the long day of walking, I thoroughly enjoyed the walk past the Roman Forum and around the Colosseum at 11:45 p.m. surrounded by the hundreds of thousands of Romans that had gathered to celebrate.

Arrivederci Roma – Hoping my coin will bring me back again!!

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Di’s Roman Holiday – Part One

Friday, April 20, 2012

I  arrived in Roma to pouring rain – So I took the time to settle into my petite (nicer than small) room at the Arena Guest House about a ½ block from the Colosseum. The rain let up and the sun welcomed me to Roma.

First things first – get some gelato – Yummy crema lemoncello flavor! Not too tart, not too sweet – like a creamy lemon meringue. There is something about eating gelato while walking towards the Colosseum that just can’t be beat.

While waiting to cross the street I smelled what I believed was air freshener – thinking that a nearby shop must have it near its door. What I discovered was that I was standing under a jasmine tree! I took some more really deep breaths of the fragrance and continued on my walk.

The Colosseum is still a spectacular sight to behold even though I’ve seen it many times as a child. I strolled leisurely around its circumference, prior to going to pick up my ticket for the 4:20 p.m. tour of the newly opened underground and third tier portions of the Colosseum. When arriving at the ticket booth area I discovered that the one-day public transportation strike had managed to extend itself to the Colosseum ticket agents and that they decided to close at the Colosseum at 3:15!! Well after all it was Friday, so why not start the weekend early…And it’s Roma!!

After speaking with several people it became abundantly clear that there was no way I was going to get into the Colosseum and that there was also no recourse to receive a refund of the fee I paid for the tour. Determined to get to see the underground and third tier – as well as the rest of the interior of the Colosseum I quickly went back to my room and got on-line to book a tour for the next morning at 8:30 a.m.

I went out to wonder the Colosseum neighborhood some more, grab a slice of mushroom pizza (sold by the size you indicate and priced by the weight) and stand under what I now considered “my jasmine tree” to eat it. Then, in order to take the edge off my disappointment of not getting into the Colosseum, I had another crema lemoncello gelato. Uh oh, I’d better start walking more.

In order to cover a large area in the short time that I had I decided to take a tour in an old Fiat 500.

A lovely young Roman woman, Regina, met me at the Arena Guest House at 6:30 p.m. to take me on a whirlwind drive through Roma in her vintage car. We zipped through small alleys that were made for chariots not cars.

Some stops we made:

Largo Argentina –where Julius Caesar was assassinated (not the Senate building, which was under renovation). These ruins are in a sunken area and have been taken over by the famed Roman Cats.

Since it was dusk only a few were roaming around because their dinner had been served and most were eating in various protected areas. There are a number of people who care (very well) for these cats. The cats were declared part of Rome’s heritage and a treasure years ago and have a protected status (their lineage goes back further than the Colosseum). The residents at Largo Argentina include thousands of cats that were relocated from the Colosseum. These cats are HUGE – but not in a fat way. They are healthy, have been spayed/neutered and some have been adopted by the City’s residents.

Aventine Hill – Piazza Cavalieri di Malta – The Door of the Knights of Malta — the “Keyhole”. This unassuming piazza is at the top of the Aventine hill. There is a door with a small keyhole –it is rarely opened — in which through this small

keyhole I viewed one of the best-known monuments in Rome with a beautiful garden in the foreground.

I’m not sure the photo does it justice – it was amazing.

Gianicolo Hill – As the sun began to set we ventured to the top of Gianicolo Hill for a sweeping view over Roma. You can see the many domes, including the Pantheon. The curve of the Colosseum is to the right. What a magnificent sight as the sky turns an indescribable hue of pink. There is a different buzz to Roma as night starts to fall.

Bocca della Verita – The Mouth of Truth.

At the end of our drive Regina took me to Luzzi a restaurant that was one of her favorites, for me to have dinner – funny enough it was in my Colosseum neighborhood and I had already scoped it out in the afternoon and decided I would have dinner there. FABULOUS cannelloni for only 6 Euro – it was very much a local restaurant and I don’t think I saw any tourists so the atmosphere on a Friday was very authentic.

Buona Sera Roma – See you in the morning.

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