Thursday, April 25, 2013


We just returned from a wonderful biking trip with VBT to Sicily - a place we had never visited before.  Arriving in the late afternoon at Palermo for the pre-trip, the capital city on the northwest coast of the island we were greeted by blue sky and sunshine, a year round condition.  Nestled in a natural harbor on the Gulf of Palermo, the city was founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC, over 2,700 years ago.  It is now a bustling city of a million people (about 1/4 of the population of all of Sicily).
We arrived at our centrally located hotel in the late afternoon with enough energy to get settled in our room for a good night's sleep, in preparation of exploring the city on our own the next morning.

Just a few short blocks from our hotel was the Theatro Politeama Garibaldi which houses the Symphonic Orchestra.  It is an imposing and elaborate circular structure with a majestic entrance similar to a triumphal arch.  Unfortunately for us there was no performance that night.

We soon realized how congested the city was - a place not for the timid driver looking for a place to park his car.  Even finding a safe place to consult your map was not easy.

However, we managed to find our way to the Theatro Messimo, one of the largest and most prestigious theaters in Europe and most renowned for opera performances - none that week though.

However, we did take a guided tour of the theater, sat in the royal box, but were only allowed photos of the costumes from the Opera Falstaff which were on display.

Outside of the Messimo we decided to take a carriage tour to get a quick overview of some of the places we wanted to visit.  The Palermo Cathedral was one of those.and we returned the next day when I took this composite of the grounds,

And visited the beautiful interior of this magnificent church.

The wonderful boat in the courtyard was a great attraction, especially to the children.

We passed the Piazza Pretoria and I had to dismount the carriage to grab a few shots of the dramatic Fountain Pretoria.
As we requested, our ride ended at the Capo Market, one of 3 markets in the area.  It went on for blocks, with every kind of produce, fish, clothing, and nicknacks imaginable.  These strawberries particularly took my eye - large ones and mini sized ones too.

And of course what would Italy be without its gorgeous tomatoes.


On our 2nd full day in Palermo we decided to begin with a long walk to the sea - to see what we could see!!
As we neared the water we saw a section of the old city walls that still remained very much intact.

The Harbor itself was filled with a large variety of boats - everything from small working fishing boats to large luxurious yachts and sailing vessels.

From there we took a short walk to the gardens of Villa Guilia which were adjacent to the botanical gardens.  This ceiling dome of one of the rest areas gives testaments to the Moorish period after the downfall of the Western Roman Empire.

The gardens in this area were abloom with colorful flowers even so early in April.

Continuing on to Orto Botanico, flowers were not so profuse, but the variety of trees and bamboo was plentiful.   This section was started along with a medical school as a source of healing and medicinal plants of all varieties, many of which were growing in pots.

The streets were crowded not only with cars but motorcycles were a very popular form of transportation.  At least they were loud enough that you could hear them coming.

We passed through the Potra Nuova on the way back to our hotel.  It was begun in the 2nd half of the 16th century to commemorate the entry of Charles V to the city almost 50 years earlier through the
15th c. gate that stood there at that time. It unites the characteristics of the triumphal arch with marked Renaissance elements.
Heading back to our hotel, I had to get a picture of this old camera on display there.  I would not have been happy to have had to carry it around for very long.

That evening after packing we decided to forgo dinner for a drink in the Hotel Bar tended by 
Maurizio who we had gotten to know the night before.

He surprised us with a sampling of Sicilian appetizers - a very welcome end to a very nice day.


With our fellow bikers we left Palermo by bus and traveled through the central part of the island towards Ragusa in the south where we would start our biking the next day.
The countryside was varied and beautiful from rolling green hills to

jagged rock outcroppings, and everything in between. 

Our first stop was the world Heritage site of the Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman Villa built in the 1st quarter of the 4th century and located about 3 km outside the town of Piazza Armerina.  The villa was probably the center of a huge agricultural estate and a village grew around it.   The site was abandoned in the 12th century when a landslide covered the villa, and it remained buried and the area was cultivated for crops.  Early in the 19th century some pieces of mosaic and columns were found and official archaeological excavations were carried out later in that century.

Beneath the dirt was found a wealth of well preserved mosaic tile floors,  the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman Mosaics in the world.

Some of the rooms of the villa still had remnants of painted boarders.

And many of the mosaics depicted scenes of the time.
A roof was built over the exposed rooms to help preserve them for the future.

After leaving the excavation we drove by the town of Piazza Armeina where most of the survivors of the landslide had moved.

Continuing on our bus ride we passed many cultivated farm lands.

Also many fields of Prickly Pear Cactus  (the edible "big bastards" of Sicily). The color of the prickly pear fruit can be deep yellow, pure white, or a stunning crimson.  The fruit has a slight floral  fragrance reminiscent of citrus, and a very mild flavor,

Approaching the southern coast we were treated with a beautiful view of Mt. Etna cloaked in
a blanket of white snow.  What a treat!!
And as our guide told us, you could tell you were in Ragusa when the hillsides were covered with stone walls.  There is a plethora of rocks in this part of Sicily.


On our first full day of biking we left from our hotel and rode through the quiet countryside.
When I got near the top of the first hill this mare and her colt gave me a good reason to stop.

The scenery was lovely with green meadows filled with yellow flowers.

Stone walls lined the road, bordered with a variety of wild flowers.

These stone fences were everywhere with never a drop of mortar to hold them together, a great job of fitting the rocks together.

Off in the distance were buildings also built of the same stone which was plentiful everywhere.

But best of all, at the crest of the hill sat the VBT Van with our guides and an assortment of snacks.  Most welcome!!

Back on our bikes, much refreshed, we rode to the Donnafugata Castle, not a real medieval castle but a late 19th century noble palace belonging to a wealthy  Sicilian family.

The castle is surrounded by a large park which has more than 1500 plant species and various
"distractions" to entertain and amuse the guests.

Lunch at the castle was both light and delicious.  A welcome change from all of the big meals.

Our ride after lunch was downhill to the water and it was great to be peddling by the sea.  We met the bus there and got a ride back to our hotel to change.

In the evening we were given a ride to Ragusa Ibla, the ancient heart of Ragusa lying on top of the hill overlooking the valley.  The town is one of the best examples of Sicilian Baroque and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The town was entirely rebuilt after the terrible earthquake of 1693, which devastated the Val di Noto.  It seemed funny to see a car and motorcycle parked on the "ancient" street up the hill.

It seemed to be a time for brides as we walked up the hill with our guide to see the San Giorgio Church.  This groom was posing by a bicycle which seems quite appropriate in Sicily.

The Church was lit by lights and was a pretty sight against the darkening sky.

And returning down the hill, looking for a restaurant for supper I spotted another bride and groom.

The restaurant we chose was empty when we entered but filled up rapidly with locals.  The meal was delicious.
As we walked back towards our waiting bus we spied this cat that had found a place for itself on the church steps.
Our last view was this old church at the foot of the town where it meets the highway. A fitting end.


This morning we woke up to a cold drizzling rain, and still dealing with a cough, and being saddle sore from yesterday's long uphill rides, I decided not to bike.

But a wonderful breakfast spread awaited us all in the dining room.

 The younger members of our group all decided to bike and went over the directions with the guides.
It is always a fun and informative time.

From the van I grabbed a few photos of the countryside as we traveled up the hill.  Some areas were
lush green with the new rain.
 Some of the hills were covered with rocks and stone walls.

 We slowed as the van caught up with the riders - the rain had diminished and I snapped this shot of Cindy on her bike.

 From the top of the hill we could see Scicli, one of the towns in the Val di Noto listed since 2002 as UNESCO Wold Heritage site for the extraordinary importance and beauty of their late-baroque architecture, developed after the 1693 earthquake which devastated Sicily.

 While waiting for the bikers to arrive we had a chance to briefly visit the mausoleum cemetery. .                                                                        

As  Mauro, our guide prepared snacks on the back of the van for the bikers.


Our next stop was Modica, another World Heritage town and home of Antica Dalceria Juto, the oldest
chocolate maker in Modica and one of the most famous in Italy.  Its ancient traditions go back to 1880 when they started processing cocoa seeds according to the old Aztecan techniques imported by the Spanish more than 400 years ago.

        We dressed in "cover-ups and toured the    kitchen, and got to sample some of the sweets.                     

Arriving back at our hotel where the late afternoon view from our room is below -

We were given a tour of the grounds before dinner. The Kallikoros Spa & Camp Resort is a restored small village set in fertile land which includes large areas of orchards, vineyards, olive and carob.  Because of its cleanliness and brightness of the sky it has been chosen by the National Astrophysics Institute for Astronomical studies.  And the lemon blossoms smell wonderful!!