A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Kathrin_E

A rushed coach tour of Sicily and along the whole of Italy

How did I get myself into this tour?!?

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Landscape view from Enna

This page is based on a tour through Italy in October 2001. A rather strange tour it was, which I would never do again because the group was really difficult to cope with. But more about that later on. It was my first visit to Sicily and I joined this tour as a trip “for the notebook”, to get an idea of the island and see some places quickly, hoping to return some day - a hope which I am still nourishing.

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Baroque Siracusa

This is going to be an unusual and somewhat superficial report. Since it has been more than 15 years, my memory is dim and I do not have too many details present. So I am telling you about the memories that remained. Those that remain vivid after so many years are the most important memories anyway.

After I got a slide scanner for Christmas, I unearthed two boxes of old slides and started scanning. Apologies for the dust in the pictures, I dusted them carefully (or so I thought) but there is still… **ahem.** Amazing how few photos I took in those times. I have a total of 200 pictures from a 14 day trip – the amount that I now, in the digital era, take in one morning.

We came by coach from Germany and boarded a ferry in Genoa. One day and night was spent on board on an enjoyable mini-cruise, and the following evening we landed in Palermo. We stayed for two nights on the outskirts of Palermo to see Palermo and Monreale. Then we continued south to the temples of Selinunte, and on to Agrigento with more temples. After an overnight in Agrigento we continued to the east coast with a stop at Villa Casale on the way. Our next base was a hotel in Acireale. From there we had a brief visit to Catania, went to Siracusa, halfway up Mount Etna, to Taormina, and on a day trip to the Eolian Islands.

Then we crossed over to the mainland by ferry from Messina and returned home by coach, along the whole length of the “boot” with a couple of stops on the way. Via Paestum we reached Sorrento where we stayed for three nights. One day was spent on Capri, the other combined the Amalfi coast and Pompeii (phew!) Via Assisi and Verona we reached the Alps and then drove home to Germany.

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Ancient temples in Agrigento

The background of this tour needs some explanation, as this is, as you know, not my usual style of travel. It was meant as a tour for our parish community (not where I live now but a different town), organized by our parson. He offered similar tours every year or two and planned them together with the owner of a local coach company he knew well. This was the one and only of his tours that I joined, as his ultra-rushed itineraries were not to my liking. Anyway, this was a chance to see a bit of Sicily. I also knew quite a number of the participants from our parish.
However, and that was the big minus – the parson had previously been working on a military base, and his old mates from the army, mostly retired officers and their wives, filled half the posts in the group just like they did on all his trips, and dominated everything. They set up the rules that everyone else had to follow. Some were nice but many of them were of the We-Know-Everything-Better sort. Young people (i. e. under 50) were a minority in the group – there were four: one couple of new lovers who saw only each other, yours truly, and the bus driver = coach company owner, a really nice guy I got on very well with. (Not what you think, though, nothing romantic.) I more and more turned into his assistant for purposes of organization, since I was the only one in the group who spoke decent Italian and since our dear parson, the group leader, took care of himself and no one else. A problematic constellation altogether. I was glad I could help with stuff like managing the change of unacceptable rooms for a quarter of the group, dealing with the reservations for the ferry to Lipari, finding a bakery and buying bread for 40 people at 5 a.m. in the morning… From my friend the bus driver I learned a lot about the tour business (and came to the conclusion that I’d never want to be a tour guide).

Posted by Kathrin_E 01:20 Archived in Italy Tagged sicilia Comments (1)

By ferry from Genoa to Palermo

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In order to break up the long trip from Germany to Sicily, we took an overnight ferry from Genoa. This saved us about half the way on the road. The coach ride from Marburg to Genoa was already long enough. When we arrived in Genoa in the late afternoon it was almost time for boarding. So we did not have time to see anything of Genoa except the port. Does this count as "having been there"? I think not.

The large ferry - according to my photos the ferry company was Grimaldi Lines - left Genoa at dusk. Due to dinner time for the group, we could not really enjoy the evening view of the city. We were assigned our cabins and I must have gone to bed rather early. At least i do not remember anything about partying on board.

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Sunset behind Capo Gallo

In the next morning we were far out in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The day was mostly spent on deck, relaxing in a deck chair and chatting to some people I knew. The ferry ride took almost 24 hours. Just before dusk we approached Palermo. We were greeted with a beautiful sunset behind Capo Gallo. A full moon rose above Bagheria on the other side. When the ferry pulled into the port of Palermo it was already getting dark, and until everyone including the big coach were unloaded it was pitch dark. Since our hotel was located far out in the sticks beyond the airport (tour companies, eh!), we were facing another lengthy ride on the coach, and the driver was rather stressed because finding the way was not easy. With the help of a friendly local and my language skills we finally made it to the hotel.

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Posted by Kathrin_E 02:01 Archived in Italy Tagged sicilia Comments (1)

Palermo

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Palermo is the largest city on the island and surely offers a lot more than we got to see in a few hours. Our group had a guided tour of the city including Monreale, all in the same day. We started at Palazzo Reale and the ancient church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, then went into the centre to see the Duomo. We had a guided walking tour in the centre but it was a blur – I remember that we walked through some street market (of which Palermo has several) and the greatest worry was not to lose the group among the crowds. No chance to take photos on the way. So my advice for anyone who is visiting Palermo is: Take your time, go with a small party not a large group, carry a street map, and take your time. Take your time!

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San Giovanni degli Eremiti is an old site of worship. The first church in this place was built in the 6th century. The present church (photo 1-3) is a work of the 12th century, the Normannic era, with several later extensions and refurbishments. The nave of the church is covered by two small domes, now painted red on the outside. The adjacent cloister is in ruins but has been turned into a beautiful garden. The Normannic Palazzo Reale, once the residence of the Normannic kings, is nearby and can be spotted through the arches of the cloister (photo 3).

Il Duomo Maria Santissima Assunta is the cathedral of the archdiocese of Palermo. The church is huge – the core is a Normannic church from the 12th century that has been extended and refurbished again and again in the run of the centuries. The late medieval extensions show the Sicilian version of the gothic style – I remember in particular the arched portico on the southern transept, which appeared in several lectures on gothic architecture during my studies. The dome, the roofs and the interior were then redesigned in the late 18th century in the then popular neoclassical style.
The cathedral is of special interest to German historians, too, because it contains the tombs of two Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire from the Staufer dynasty, Heinrich VI and Friedrich II., and Friedrich’s spouse, Queen Konstanze of Aragon.

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Norman architecture

The Normans conquered Sicily from the Arabs in the 11th century. Norman kings ruled over Sicily and the southern part of the Italian mainland until the era of the Staufer in the 13th century. You’d think of blood-thirsty Vikings with neither culture nor manners… but no. They wisely treated with respect what they found. The Norman era was a time of tolerance and religious diversity, highly developed arts and sciences which united the best of Greek-Byzantine, Arab and Western European culture.

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The architecture of the Normans has unique features that tell of these mixed influences. The majority of the population, and also the architects and craftsmen, were of Byzantine and Arab descent and learning. Arab-Islamic and Byzantine elements shape the Sicilian Romanesque and gothic architecture. Facades like Palazzo Reale in Palermo (photo 1) and the chancel of the cathedral in Monreale (photos 2 and 3) show the characteristic structure of intertwined pointed arches. Monreale’s ornaments in mosaic-like stone inlays are also typical. Photo 4 shows the interior of a dome in the 12th century church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo: note the construction in the corners, an element of Arab masonry.

Mondello

We had our lunch break in Mondello, before going to the monastery of Monreale. Mondello is a beach resort and suburb of Palermo, close to Capo Gallo. While the group wasted the precious time at a restaurant, I grabbed a panino from the nearest bar and went for a walk on a beach. It was October, so the beach was deserted – no Italian would go swimming in the sea outside August;-) It is a fine sandy beach with shallow, turquoise water. I would have liked to hop into the water but had neither enough time nor swimwear with me.

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Posted by Kathrin_E 02:14 Archived in Italy Tagged sicilia Comments (1)

Monreale Cathedral and Cloister

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Monreale is a small town on a hill south of Palermo. It is a major tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage site because of the cathedral and its cloister. The cathedral was built in the 1170s as the abbey church of a newly founded Benedictine convent. The founder is the Norman King William II of Sicily, so royal ambitions are behind this project. The church is one of the most important Norman buildings in Sicily. Its architecture unites elements of Romanesque, Byzantine and Arab-Islamic styles to the mix which is so characteristic for the Norman era in Sicily and Southern Italy. The facades are covered in a pattern of intertwined pointed arches and ornated with stone inlays.

The general structure of the church is Romanesque. The interior follows Byzantine designs and was created by artists from Constantinople together with Sicilian colleagues. The lower parts of the walls and the floor are covered in marble, the upper parts and the vaults in mosaics on gilded ground. The giant Christus Pantokrator, Christ as ruler of the world, in the central apse is the dominating figure. The golden surfaces give the church a mystic light and atmosphere.

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The roofs of the cathedral can be climbed. A walkway leads round the whole building. The views from up there over the city of Palermo, the valley and the coast must be fabulous. Unfortunately the tight schedule of our tour forced us to choose either the walk on the roof or seeing the cloister, there was not enough time for both. (Shame on the planners.) I chose the cloister, of course. A quick walk to the cliff behind the cathedral allowed a glimpse of the panoramic view.

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The cloister, a remnant of the Benedictine abbey, is of equal artistic value and not to be missed. The wide square inner courtyard is supported by arcades of 26 arches each on all sides. The arches are carried by pairs of columns. Each column is unique. Some are smooth, some sculpted with zigzag patterns, while others have mosaic inlays. The capitals are sculpted in finest stonemasonry and all different. They show biblical characters and religious symbols. So it is worth looking at the details carefully.

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Posted by Kathrin_E 02:34 Archived in Italy Tagged sicilia Comments (1)

A Day of Temples: Selinunte and Agrigento

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We left our hotel on the outskirts of Palermo after breakfast and drove across the island on a new highway to the southern coast. This day was dedicated to the ancient Greek colonies on Sicily. We visited the temples and excavation sites of Selinunte and Agrigento - "lots of old rubble" to certain other participants on the tour. Yeah right. To the art historian it was a study of classical Greek architecture. It was a sunny day with a glorious blue sky that went well with the whiteish limestone of the temples, so the photographers were happy.

Selinunte

Selinunte used to be an ancient Greek colony on the south-western coast of the island. The old Greek-Latin name (Selinus, italianized to Selinunte) is used for the archaeological site but there is no modern settlement with that name. The Greek city was founded in the 7th century B.C. and stayed busy and thriving for about 400 years. It is located on a low hill above the coast between two rivers that brought freshwater. In the 3rd century B.C. it was ruled and inhabited by Carthaginians. The destruction in the 1st Punic War set an end to its history.

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The city had a large acropolis with various temples. The temple area is now an archaeological park. Eight temples have been preserved and excavated; since their patron gods are unknown they are, very imaginatively, named with the letters of the Alphabet: A to G and O (no idea why O not H for the eighth). In the run of the century the temples have collapsed in earthquakes and whatnot. You can see how the columns and architraves fell. One of them, the so-called Temple E, has been reconstructed by assembling the original pieces in upright position, so you get an idea of the size and outlines. Parts of the city are also excavated, and there is a little museum that presents archaeological finds from the site.

The ancient Greek ruins are said to be equal rivals to those in for example Athens, if not even bigger. I do not want to judge, though. No matter if you are after superlatives or not, they are large and impressive. We caught a fine sunny day with deep blue sky that contrasted with the whitish stone of the temples and the green vegetation in between.

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I also remember our local guide. The lady who did the German tours did not speak High German, but perfect Swabian dialect although she was 100% Sicilian. It turned out that she lived in Böblingen as a child because her father worked in a factory there; later the family returned home to Sicily. Becoming tour guides seems to be a frequent career for the children of the so-called “guest workers” of the 1960s and 70s, they make use of the language skills they acquired in their youth. It is not uncommon to encounter tour guides in Sicily who surprise their German-speaking groups with an unexpected dialect.

We then drove onwards along the coastline. Our lunch break took place by the road this time, somewhere near Sciacca. Our bus driver was well prepared. He had a large supply of food and snacks in the belly of his bus, including ten Hessian sausages the size of his lower arm that he sold portion-wise. Two brave people including yours truly even ventured for a quick dip into the Mediterranean Sea.

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Agrigento

The temples of Agrigento are lined up on a low ridge above the valley that divides the modern town from the ancient site. After Selinunte this was our second site with Greek temples in one day. So I don’t think we really did it justice. The temples of Agrigento are even better preserved respective reconstructed than those in Selinunte.

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The Concordia Temple most of all, it still has both gables and parts of the roof and looks almost complete. It was preserved this well because since the early middle ages the building had been used as a church. Only in the 18th century, when the era of classicism saw a rising interest in ancient Greek and Roman monuments, it was profaned and returned to its antique shape.

The local quarries provide ochre coloured limestone which gives the temples, the soil, and also the modern town its characteristic, predominant yellow-brownish colour.

At night the temples are illuminated. We stayed in a hotel in modern Agrigento and had the view over to the archaeological park from the terrace. This hotel had a beautiful garden full of mosquitoes which ate me alive...

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Posted by Kathrin_E 02:55 Archived in Italy Tagged sicilia Comments (1)

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