Posts Tagged With: baroque

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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