Caltagirone

We stayed in this picturesque,  hilltop city for a few days while we explored the west side of Sicily.  The town is known for a few things.  For many centuries it has produced quality ceramic tiles, masks, sculptures and vases.  The town center displays them with masks on the walls next to a long staircase with each stair featuring a different style tile pattern. It is also known for the high concentration of Roman Catholic churches, there are over 100 of them in this quaint town. Most of them are used once or twice a year on big holidays or the church patron’s day.

We stayed in a little apartment on the one side of town.  It was decorated in an older style of Italian furnishings.  We used this as a place to sleep while we did day trips to Syracuse to the south, Agrigento to the north and to an ancient Roman villa of Casale.

We enjoyed many home cooked Italian meals.  They were simple yet very enjoyable.  I must have gained 10 lbs in the week were there.  All the women loved the girl and always wanted to hold her, feed her and show her things.   We spent many of walks just visiting with the locals.

In this little town our friend’s parents live.  We visited their country house and it was beautiful.  We played soccer on the field, swam in the pool and wandered around the grounds admiring the orchirds, chickens and ducks.  The dog was happy to have us around and followed us everywhere trying to get us to play with him.

Taormina, A Legendary Town

Taormina has been in existence for over 2500 years. It sits high up on the hills above the salty Iaoian Sea with a ancient Saracen Citadel above it.   The citadel is not in good condition but The Greek Theatre is.  It was started by the Greeks and expanded by the Romans over the next 5 centuries.  It’s incredible location overlooking the ancient port of Nexos makes a beautiful stage backdrop.

[scrollGallery id=6]

Our journey into Taormina took us past Mount Etna, a 10,000′ + active volcano’s with lava flows we can see from the road.  We drove 1/2 hour through a couple long tunnels to get to the beach house.   We stayed in a beautiful 4 story beach house overlooking one of the prettiest bays in the area.  The water was definitely salty but very warm.  It was a great place to swim and the girl loved to play in it.  The beaches were not sandy like we are used to but a rocky beach which was a nice change. We wandered up into the city and enjoyed the walk through town.  The view from there was spectacular.   There we saw one of the narrowest streets in Italy. You shoulders brushes the walls as you walk.   We spent many hours sitting on the porch, enjoying the view. While in Toarmina for those few short days we visited a few restaurants and bars.  The one restaurant just down the street was wonderful.  We had a great time and the food was excellent.  We also checked out a bar in a little village about Taormina.  It was a 4 story bar with an amazing view of the lava flows and Catania.  The bar was nice and has occupied the place for over 150 years.  The decor of the place caught me a bit off guard and we thought it was funny. After visiting that place we decided to take a drive up the mountain.  It was very dark and cold, so we didn’t even feel like getting out of the car.  We couldn’t see anything and we didn’t have a light to help guide us up to the lookout.  We headed back down the mountain and home to relax in the warmth by the sea.

Fiery and Fabulous Florence

Florence, or as the Italians call it “Firenze”, was like something out of a vivid dream where you were taken into the past, yet it still exists today with it’s epic churches, ornate palaces, an ancient fortress and striking, historic homes that blend one or more of these elements, oftentimes adding a modern twist. The days were unseasonably hot for October and because of that the evenings were just barely comfortable. Staying near the train station made for easy access to everything and all of the amenities but the humidity forced us to take shelter between noon and 6 p.m. The early evenings cooled down the air just enough to allow us to begin our explorations of the city center and try the local cuisine.

Everything is picturesque and it’s not too difficult to imagine what things must have been like centuries ago in this bustling, artistic city centre.  We began our trek through Florence, as soon as the temperature would abide, by wandering up and around to the other side of the river to a local eatery for an ultra-creamy gelato, (the kind only Italy is best known for), and a crisp, tasty proscuitto panini, consumed in just that order.  After a quick cappuccino on ice, we followed the river up to the next bridge and in towards the Duomo.

The Duomo itself causes you to just stop and take a deep breath while absorbing the complexity of it all.  The tile work is intricate and mesmerizing.  Inside you’ll find perhaps the most beautiful tile work seen anywhere in Europe, maybe the most beautiful on Earth.  Nearly in shock, we wandered inside and around the plaza looking for treasures in the surrounding marketplace and little shops.  Finally, hunger once again got the best of us and we began to look for places to have dinner.  The aromas wafting out of the pizzerias was irresistible and we unconsciously set our minds to having one.  It did not disappoint.  Some friends had warned us that there wasn’t any good food in Italy.  We were a bit worried because we are picky eaters but we let our noses do the choosing in Florence and didn’t have a bit of trouble, especially when we went a little out of the way and off the beaten track.

Also, we still can’t figure out why people don’t like traveling with children.  All throughout Europe, but especially in Italy and France, the owners, waiters, waitresses and other patrons made an extra effort to interact with us and it made what might have been just another trip to Europe a magical experience for us all. Our little one year old was always happy and kept herself busy entertaining the owners and staff, and vice versa, so we used that time to relax and enjoy our first of many flavorful pizzas in Italy.

The Italian people are so loving towards children that we sometimes couldn’t hardly get a block down the street without someone wanting to hug or kiss our little girl.  It really took some getting used to, but we’re learning to trust.  Certainly perfect strangers wanting to pick up, hold, and take your child around the restaurant, bar or hotel isn’t commonplace in the US or Canada, but it is here and when in Rome… or rather, Florence, do as the Florencians do!  It also afforded us both a moment to eat… together!  We always kept a watchful eye on her, of course, but somehow it made us feel a renewed sense of caring in people, which, these days is refreshing to say the least.

The next day began with a quick grocery trip and transitioned into seeking refuge in artsy studio apartment we rented for the remainder of the hellacious heat of the day, until the evening’s reprieve.  On our way to dinner we did a bit of last minute clothes shopping, and found prices in line or just slightly above those found in US, depending on what you were looking for, and then embarked on our twilight trek towards the Fort.  It’s tall tower is a Florence landmark and can be seen throughout the city.  Underneath it sits the famous, stunning statues of Neptune and David.

Being so lifelike, had they begun to move one would have just thought it was another talented street performer who somehow made themselves a bit larger than life. Someone had mentioned that they are replicas, due to their popularity there is a fear of vandalism, but certainly some of the other statues in the area are the genuine articles.

The Neptune and David statues are in a busy, open courtyard where people gather in large numbers to listen to the nightly entertainment, which, of all things, is comprised mostly of American music! We began to wonder when the rumored impromptu opera was going to begin, but, alas it did not. Perhaps the heat kept the tenors away?  However, there was a high end karaoke machine, accompanied at times by live musicians, which allowed for an extensive repertoire of the Beatles, and a plethora of American bands, to be performed.  They won out the night and the crowd.  There are certainly other types of art and music events held at this plaza on a regular basis, but the evenings we were there it was rock and roll all the way with talented vocalists from all over the globe.

On the edge of the plaza is an Italian restaurant, frequented by locals and expats which is always a good sign when choosing a place to chow, where we had a wonderful spaghetti pasta with meat sauce that was identical to Mom’s recipe!  There was no difference what so ever.   Everyone always enjoyed Mom’s pasta sauce.  She makes it for us, OK, me… religiously when we go back to Canada to visit.

Our last full day in Florence consisted of wandering about checking out the statues in the daylight, heading across the river on the ancient, two level bridge for another wonderful meal while listening to string instruments being played in the street.  It was a hot, beautiful time in Florence.  We will definitely hit the museums next time and plan to get reservations months, if not years, earlier as we missed seeing the original David and some others… but we had to have a reason to come back, and what a great reason it is!

The Duomo, originally designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, is an amazing work of art inside and out. The inside of the dome is a beautiful mosaic with 44 wonderful stain glass windows.

The Duomo is one of the centerpieces of Florence. Below the Duomo is the evolved remains of many versions of former churches.

The Duomo in Florence, Italy is a beautiful structure made from Green and Pink marble panels bordered by white. The building was started at the end of the 12th century and continued for many years. The dome is a landmark and is recognized throughout the world as a symbol of Florence.

The Arno River that cuts through the center of Florence is beautiful and was the source of water for the city. This day we are seeing pickup soccer happening on a pitch right at the water’s edge. The two story bridge with the shops underneath is known the world over and is located just downstream.

We checked out of our place on Tuesday morning and took another high speed train down to Rome.  Our flight left that evening for Sicily.  We wanted very much to check out some of the sites but the distances were too great in that hot weather.  We instead decided on having a beer and gelato then doing some more treasure hunting.

We hopped onto another train to take us the 30 min drive into the airport.  We made the trip in plenty of time to wander around the airport a bit.  We particularly thought the wine bar was a good idea for all airports.

Our plane took off without a hitch and we were in Catania in just over an hour.

Agrigento – Greek Temple in The Valley of Temples

One Sunday afternoon from our base in Caltagirone we set out to Agrigento and it’s famed Valley of the Temples.  The weather was hot but it was overcast which was nice.  We strolled around this hilltop in a valley that was covered with ancient Greek temples and other ruins.

[scrollGallery id=7]

We wandered through them marveling at how well they were preserved. It is said that the Tempio Della Concordia is one of the best preserved Greek temple in the world.   In total there are over 20 ruins that run the length of the hill.  We explored and touched the stones and pillars of Tempo Di Ercole.  The dimensions were impressive and with a prominent spot on the ridge had a beautiful view towards the sea.

These temples had a spectacular setting.  Aligned East West on a cliff looking out to sea.  Over the years they have been converted to Mosques and Churches depending on who was in power.  Some were toppled by earthquakes over the centuries and the stone was used in new buildings.

They now are closely protected, like other ruins in Italy, structural  enhancements have been made to reduce further degradation and collapse.

We left after the moon started to rise.  They were getting ready to close the park to prepare it for a wedding and ballet concert.  People were in for a magical night.  We just had a great experience connecting with the ancient world.  We had visited Greece and didn’t have to leave Sicily.

In the valley of the Temples near the sea is where the Greeks built many temples over 2500 years ago. Near this ruined one is the best preserved temple of all.

Europe, A Quick Introduction

Travel Through Europe

Travel Through Europe

Our travels to Europe started in late August 2008. It would be my husband’s first adventure on another continent. The trip we dreamed up would allow us to experience a good overview of the western side of the continent, visit the major western cities like Amsterdam, Paris, Florence, Rome, Barcelona and Madrid in style, but without having to sell our first born to do it. Since we had our cute little eight month old baby along for the trip, this was imperative! I had already been to England, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Northern Italy and the South of France. We wanted to make sure we didn’t repeat any spot I’d stayed in already so that the trip would be equally exciting for both of us. We had an incredibly tight schedule. We had to be back in the U.S. to go to North Carolina to meet at our friend, Bud’s beach house in Nags Head. My family would be meeting us there in a mere 6 weeks. Looking back now, our journey to the EU was simply incredible and we definitely are planning on going back, maybe even living there.

Below are the countries and the places we visited during our trip of a lifetime in Europe. The countries and the cities listed are in order of visitation. We visited 8 countries and 9 major cities if you include the Vatican and Vatican City as ones. We spent at most only 6 days in one location which made the trip seem to go by pretty fast.

Netherlands

We started our tour of Holland by staying in an apartment in Amsterdam, on the canals, for a few days to shake off the jet lag, which is a formidable opponent, then moved onto Kampen and the province of Overijessel. Our reasons for visiting this area were numerous but the main reasons were friends who lived there and the fact that Dan’s father lived there until he moved to Canada at age 7, right after WWII. We then traveled down to the south of the Netherlands to Maastricht to check out one of the oldest cities in Holland. We made Maastricht our base for day trips to Cologne and Brussels.

Germany

Cologne was our only stop in Germany and it was for just one day. Our goal here was to visit the cathedral, eat some good German sausages and sample the beer. We had a great day and it was a packed one with lots of adventure.

Belgium

We spent only an afternoon in Brussels but it gave us time to taste some Belgian beer and waffles. We spent a good bit of time wandering around the city in search of the peeing boy, (Yes, that’s right., a peeing boy is a major tourist attraction, go figure!), the Palace and Central Square.

France

Sadly, our only stop in France was Paris. I must say how much Paris had changed in ten years. I had only had a layover in Paris on my way to the Cannes Film Festival the last time I was in France. I was lied to by someone who worked for the airline I was taking and thank goodness I knew enough French to understand and… ahem.. correct the problem. France has changed so much, I was shocked at how kind, helpful and interactive everyone was. We had four days in total to spend here, two days at the start of our trip and two days near the end of our 6 week trek. We explored the city during the day with the help of an excellent guide, Emmanuelle, whom we met at dinner our first night there. Our second trip on the return leg we reunited with our new friend, Emmanuelle, visited the Lourve, went to a birthday party and saw an old friend from C.A., Greg Corinth, who was in Paris visiting relatives.

Italy

We arrived at our first stop, Florence, by high speed train from Paris. We explored only in the evenings as the heat was pretty incredible during the day. After staying five days, we then headed down to Rome for an afternoon while we waited for our flight to the island of Sicily. We were met by our good friend, Giovanella at the airport and the adventure began immediately. If you have ever driven or ridden in a car in Italy, you know what I mean. Although we spent most of the week white knuckled, driving in the car, a week spent in Sicily was just not enough. Amazing doesn’t even come close to describing it’s treasure chest of spots. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to stop and pour over relics, take photos of architecture and art in all of the places we wanted to do so. We toured through some absolutely beautiful places like: Taormina, Caltagirone, Agrigento and Syracuse. Our friend, Giovanella and her family, gave us the grand tour and treated us to the best of everything. It made me fall even deeper in love with Italy and it’s people. We then flew back to Rome to explore the eternal city. The fountains, buildings, ruins and piazzas must be seen and experienced by everyone. The beauty of this country is truly a global treasure which must be preserved.

Vatican City

Although this country / city is located within Rome it has a much different feel then the rest of Rome. The piazza, museum, cathedral and fountains are definitely worth the couple days we devoted to it. While in Rome, we stayed just outside the walls of the Vatican and passed through St. Peter’s Square everyday.

Spain

From Rome we flew to Madrid. Our time in Spain was divided between Madrid, Barcelona and Cardona. We didn’t exactly have a plan, but it worked out perfectly. We couldn’t have done a better job had we gone to all of the toil and trouble of planning it months in advance. Our first full night in Madrid we saw the Real Madrid football game, (Be sure to bring a gas mask because the plumes of cigarette smoke can ruin a great night and the next few days, if you have allergies). Then, a few days later, we met up with Margaux, an old friend of mine who just so happens to be one of the few well published, American wine and food critics in Spain and she gave us two days of city tours and introduced us to many local people and cuisine styles too. Having spent a few days in amazing Madrid we were off to Barcelona, which is a beautiful city with a plethora of amazing architectural feats designed by Gaudi. We didn’t have a lot of time in the city as we were on a mission to visit the countryside and Andorra. The only time we rented a car on this trip was to travel between Barcelona and Andorra. Magical Spain allowed us to fulfill another lifelong dream. Both of us had always wanted to stay in a medieval castle. The parador, (castle in Spanish), we stayed in can be found in historical Cardona.

Andorra

It is a beautiful mountain country, very small and wedged between France and Spain. It is pretty much only accessible by road so we drove in from Barcelona. The drive was a mere few hours, but it was some of the prettiest scenery on our trip. The mountains were calling to us the entire way. Mist covered some and others stood proudly into the clouds above. Our main goal in Andorra was to visit the amazing Caldea spa for my birthday, detox my throat, sinuses and lungs from the smokers and auto exhaust while relaxing, away from the busy cities where we had been spending a good portion of our time. We stayed in our timeshare, a chalet, which we had reserved many months prior. It was the off season so the restaurants, stores and streets were quite empty. It was a nice change. We enjoyed a few days exploring, tasting the local fare and driving around before we headed back to Spain, eager to stay in our first castle.