Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cefalu, the last Sicilian adventure.

Arriving in Cefalu, I left the train station with no plan ahead of me. I had no map, no address scribbled down, and no plans of where to stay that night. I only had one night that was growing shorter by the minute and half a day to see the small town of Cefalu, but my first task was securing a place to sleep. After wandering around for some time, my bag growing heavier, I popped into a tourist information point and met a very chatty Italian man who was able to call a B&B for me to try, and they said they were on there way to pick me up. When they didn’t arrive he started carrying on about the apartments he rents out, but I was still set on the idea of a cheap B&B and didn’t allow him to sell me on this idea. That was until he called back to check on the status of their arrival and found out they had rented out their last room while I was waiting. Full of solutions, he told me not to worry because he would call “his guy” who showed up in a minute to escort me to the surprisingly reasonably priced apartment for the night. Walking down the main road, passing the Duomo Cathedral and adorable streets, and stepping into the large spacious apartment all just for me, I began wishing for more nights in Cefalu. Alas, my return ferry ticket had already been purchased to Napoli and I had to leave the next day. After collecting loads of advise from “the guy” about what to see that night and the following day he left me to it.

The following morning, well rested from a peaceful sleep in a room of my own, I got up early and began exploring. After wandering the streets aimlessly for some time, I visited the plaza of the Duomo Cathdral, exploring the inside while trying to eavesdrop some information from all the tours going through, since some of them were in English. Continuing on I decided to climb up, “La Rocca,” the giant mountain rock that sits behind Cefalu, and at the top is full of many historical ruins including a large castle and the Temple of Diana, which is made from massive stones. Though not quite as large, the people of Cefalu relate the creation of the Temple to the mystery of Stonehenge, both leaving archeologists puzzled about how such massive stones would be transported during the time of its creation. On the hike up I underestimated the height of the rock, and was exhausted by the time I was only a quarter of the way to the top, stopping often not only to bask in the scenery but mostly to catch my breathe. Reaching the top you can see all of Cefalu, along the beaches and every building in sight. After exploring the Temple of Diana and some of the other sights, I trekked back down to find the recommended beach from “the guy” and spent the last couple hours of my time in Cefalu people watching on the beach and enjoying the sea before heading off to the train station once again. 

Panarea, a piece of paradise.

Stepping off the miniature ferryboat onto the port platform, that could only be a handful of meters wide, I strolled towards the edge of the dock, greeted by my new host along the way. With a comforting grin on his face, he shook my hand and welcomed me to the island of Panarea. He has a kind demeanor, with curly shoulder length locks, mostly full of sun streaks with a hint of grey here and there being the only thing that might lead you to believe he is maybe a day over fifty. Dressed head to toe in island comfort all the way down to his shoes, worn out crocs, showing the wear and tear of his adventurous island lifestyle. With his thick Scottish accent he invited me to join him and his friends for a drink, over looking the beautiful landscape along the water. Introductions were made and drinks were had, and after a nice evening cocktail I hopped on the back of his motorbike as he took us to his home. The narrow roads of Panarea, with enough room only for a golf cart, motorbike, or small buggy, led us up the hillside just a few minutes away. Stepping down the stones aligned together as steps, leading me into an entrance surrounded by perfectly arranged trees, I arrived at his hand crafted home. The trees and plants of the property surround you as you look down to one side where the water goes on forever, only interrupted briefly by surrounding islands. And to the left sits the house, made with simplistic character and charm that fits its location and owner perfectly. Straight ahead you’ll find the wash drying on the line in the sunshine, with the hammock perfectly positioned for lounging while overlooking the scenery, and a bamboo roof covering a table setting that has weathered a few storms in its time.

From the moment we entered the premises of the home we were greeted by the felines of the home, each of them with their own personality. Bruna, a boisterous female that is not afraid to tell you what she wants, and when she’s had enough of you with a quick swipe. Vicki, the mellow mama kitty with a strong will to live, as she has already survived major surgery that left her without ears and a skittish personality. Squirrel, the night owl that sleeps away the days recovering from his adventurous nights, and always seems to know something you don’t. Boots, the playful black cat with white fur boots that help you find her in the night. Stripey, sister to Boots, prefers the highest perch of the kitchen to watch over all the action and looks for comfort from your warm sleeping body early in the morning. And don’t forget Nella, not an official member of the family but visiting for some time while she drinks from the tap and tries to politely not eat from anyone’s food dish but her own.

Panarea, the smallest of the Aeolian islands, with a population of about 250 year round, only reaching around 1,000 in the height of the season, is a perfectly deserted island, and not taken over with light pollution at night, creating the ideal setting to see what feels like every star in the galaxies. The neighboring island of Stromboli is an active volcano with lava eruptions from the crater almost consistently enough to set your watch to. Climbing up to the view point down the road, guided by the knowledge of my tour guide, a small torch, and the light of the stars, we settled on a flat rock top hoping to see the miraculous sight of flaming hot lava shooting into the night sky. Within the first twenty minutes, suddenly across the water all that could be seen was a large red burst of volcanic matter, and then it slowly faded into the side of the mountain. In complete awe, and desiring more of the show, we sat and watched for more eruptions and were not disappointed in the active volcano, or the stars.

The island days were spent exploring the wondrous beaches that the island holds, basking in the endless sunshine, and general relaxation and rejuvenation. Waking early in the morning to venture to the rocky beach down the road, we hiked down the hillside to join the hundreds of fish in the water below. Snorkel mask on, and ready to face my persistent fear of the creatures of the sea, I submerged myself in the water and looked down to find an entire world of sea life to discover. Brightly colored stripped fish hanging out solo, round small fish flocking in large schools traveling together through the seaweed covered rocks, and small jellyfish that sneak up on you while you watch the rest of the fast paced sea life go by. Best of all, the volcanic bubbles that rise from the floor of the sea, rising to the top quickly, looking like shimmering diamonds of all sizes as they dance their way to the surface, releasing the tension from the active volcano so close by. We swam our way around the rock bend to find a personalized hot spring within a nearby cave. The cold seawater crashed in changing the temperature constantly, but the persistent volcanic heat still provided a relaxing hot spot.

Later on there was another beach with more sea life to explore, but along the way we first passed through the ancient fortress ruins, located at the end of the island, perfectly position for a solid defense, high up on the cliffs protected from intruders. Unlike any other site of ancient ruins I have visited through out all of Italia, this one was completely free from tourists, not even a site guard watching over the ancient land. Much like everything else on the island, the attitude was relaxed and open. Looking down onto the beaches surrounding the area you can see where the fragile cliff sides were slowly falling into the sea water as a result of the morning rain, leaving you wondering how different the structure of the island must have been just a sort time ago, shifting and changing with the storms and the volcanic activity.

Between beach hoping and visiting with friends through out the small village, the days were also spent in the comfort of the small home on the hillside. The sun disappears to the opposite end of the island by mid-afternoon creating the not too hot relaxing place for a nice slumber after a trek across the island and a swim with the fish. Through the kitchen window classic rock plays while lounging away in the hammock with a good book. Looking over the sea and watching geckos and lizards racing around on the walls nearest, while the cats slink below you with their tails reaching up to the bottom of the hammock to let you know they are in need of some attention. Meals provided by my new friend were delicious, full of fresh vegetables brought in weekly from the vegetable guy and some found in the garden surrounding the house. Accompanied with a nice cold white Sicilian wine, we would dine at the outdoor table, looking out over the water at lunch, and eating by only the light of the candles during the darkness of a late night dinner.

Only three short days on this island and suddenly it was time to move on to new places. From the inside of the small ferry I waved farewell to the new friends that were at the port to see me off, and as I found my seat on the boat I thought of how this island was an unexpected treasure, and truly a piece of paradise.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Taormina, Sicily

Leaving the city of Catania behind I was off to smaller and better places, the beautiful tourist filled village of Taormina. Arriving at the hostel, sweating and exhausted from the long uphill hoof with my backpack weighing on my shoulders I quickly got the information I needed and headed out to enjoy the town since there was only one day to see it all. Stopping off at the market to get some snacks first, I headed towards the winding stairs at the end of the road that would provide a scenic view of the coastline as I trekked my way down to the beautiful beaches. After enjoying the picnic lunch and dozing on the rocks for a while, the clouds rolled in and told me it was time to head back up to the city. Riding the small cable car up the hillside, squished together with several other passengers, I turned myself around to watch the water get smaller and smaller beneath us and enjoyed the view of the neighboring cities down the coast. The small city of Taormina mostly consists of one main road, where all the major attractions can be found. The Porte Arche begins the historical district of the main street, Corso Umberto, where the first stop was up to the Teatro Greco, the Greek Theatre. Massive in size and perfectly positioned to have the best view of both the town and the sea, the Teatro Greco was a gorgeous monument. Exploring the ins and outs of the entertainment arena and climbing to the highest point to catch a view of the entire region, I then continued on along main-street to visit the Duomo Cathedral and the Clock town. Stepping inside some of the churches along the way was a necessity, some had services in process and though interesting to watch, made me feel under dressed and out of place so I quickly continued on my way. After purchasing a few items to cook for dinner and a bottle of Sicilian wine I headed back to the hostel where I found four Austrian travelers to share the kitchen with. Friends for many years they were traveling through Sicily for a couple weeks, and had stumbled upon Taormina for the night. Our separate meals quickly became one as we shared supplies and beverages, and all dined together on the terrace until late in the night. 

Catania, Sicily

The rain had settled down in Palermo but I was ready for something new. A long day on the train landed me in Catania, on the south east side of the island of Sicily. The first day was a recovery-oriented day with much needed long hot shower, an overdue load of laundry, catching up on sleep, socializing with other travelers, and just general relaxation. Site seeing resumed on the following morning, which began once again with just me, my map, and my camera, with no real plan in mind. Catania boasts the largest Monastery in all of Europe, Monastero Dei Benedettini di San Nicolo L’Arena, which was my first stop for the day. Unfortunately a University had reserved the sight for the entire day so I was unable to explore the massive inside. As I continued on, another traveler and I were wandering through the same path, mostly along deserted roads full of large churches every half block, darting in and out of them, snapping pictures, reading the informative signs placed in front and continuing on our way. When our paths literally crossed into each other he said to me, “Same route, eh?” with a smile and thick Italian accent. We exchanged pleasantries and I learned that he was only here for the afternoon, and was staying in Messina, a town just north of here for a job training. His ancestors were from Sicily but he was visiting most of these places for the first time.  We both went on our way, in separate directions for the first time and I wandered toward the Piazzo Centrale to see the symbol of the city, an Elephant statue in the centre of the plaza. Along the way were street artists painting and sketching their surroundings, and a large festival in a smaller plaza, Piazzo Universito, hosted what I assumed was an antique car show full of old motorbikes, buggies, and war vehicles. Reaching the end of the historical centre I turned around to attempt to find some place to eat. After roaming around unsuccessfully for a bit my fellow city explorer from before appeared in the crowd and asked if we should grab some lunch together. Relieved by his perfect Italian that helped us find our way to a hidden ristorante, we enjoyed a delicious meal and I learned that he is the Chief Officer of a cargo ship and travels all over the world transporting anything you could imagine. Though he rarely has a chance to leave the ship for exploring a new place he said he feels like he’s seen the world through his binoculars. We continued on from lunch to a cafĂ© for cannolis (founded in Sicily) and coffee, which was followed by a wild car ride where he dropped me off at the Piazzo Bellini before continuing on his way back to Messina.  After exploring the city a bit more I retired to the hostel for a night spent chatting away with a couple Aussies, a Swiss-Italian and a girl from Seattle.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Palermo, Sicily

Arriving on the overnight ferry I stepped off the boat just in time to see the sun rise over the water as I walked into the city. Palermo, Sicily’s capital, once again surprised me with it’s size, over one million people reside here and though not as massive as Napoli it is just a busy even at sunrise as motorbikes, buses, and cars race down the streets. After resting for a while at my new host’s apartment, I went off to explore the city. With the assistance of my terribly unhelpful map, I was quickly confused and misdirected by the countless roads and busy side streets. Finally turning the correct corner I wandered through one of the famous street markets of Palermo, which lead me to the Cathedral. Rivaling the St. Peter’s Basilica of the Vatican City in size and beauty, the Cathedral took up more than a full city block, and towered over everything in its surroundings. The predicted rainstorm began to settle in just as I arrived to the Cathedral and I stowed away inside to explore the gorgeous interior while waiting out the storm. After exploring the detailed artwork and decorated altars, the rain finally let up I decided to venture out again, in search of the Piazzo di Reale of Palermo. The rain did not stay away for long and just as I arrived to the Piazzo, they were closing the gates, for what I assumed were safety reasons since the entrance alone was a slippery marble mess. I huddled under a small tarp covering the newspaper stand across the street with several others; many of them trying to sell me an umbrella, but my stubborn Washingtonian ways would not allow it. Soon the rain let up again, this time replaced by sunshine and I managed to get turned around several times again before finding the route back to the apartment, where I concluded the day, tired of navigating my way through this chaotic city for one day. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pompei, the delightful yet morbid attraction

Deciding to use my short time in Naples to see some surrounding areas as well, I took a short train ride to the ancient city of Pompeii for the day. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. Pompeii was covered in volcanic ash. So many lives were lost and the ancient city was destroyed, and a metropolis of ruins is what remains today.  Surrounded by other eager tourists, I entered the archeological site from the main road and began to explore the city. The columns that remain in various part of the city that were once a clean white color are now a dark grey. The remnants of houses, government districts, and city centre buildings are now just a representation of what once was. The most memorable, yet upsetting, part of the excavation site are the human forms on display that have been cast by pouring plaster into the air pocket of the ruins where bodies had disintegrated. There are some human figures that are cast in a position which archeologists can only assume mean they were sleeping when disaster struck. Roaming the city for hours, I tried to take it all in, in just one short afternoon.

"Do not buy electronics from dodgy street men"

My time spent on the southeast coast of Italy had concluded, and the journey north towards Napoli began. Well actually, the journey began by heading south with the backwards-roundabout half-priced ticket that was purchased for the journey consisting of two train rides, two layovers, and one very long bus ride through the mountains. Despite what one might think from my recent adventures with the train stations, traveling by train is relatively easy. I’ve reconciled with this form of transportation because really no matter where you are it all looks relatively the same. There are ticket kiosks, train tracks, platform numbers, enough people around that at least one other person is going the same place as you are, and with only two directions the train could possibly be going it’s easy to figure out which one to get on. Buses on the other hand are a whole new ball game. The stop could be anywhere, and it’s typically in the most random and unsuspecting place. Making a transfer in Taranto, I stepped off the train and went searching for the bus terminal for the third leg of my journey. Reading the signs carefully I knew it had to be close, but when I walked outside there were three bus stops in front of me, one looked like it was strictly for the local buses dropping residents off at the station but the other two were completely unclear. I began asking anyone that looked like they could point me in the right direction, doing my typical routine of “scusa?” and showing them my ticket with questioning eyes, hoping they might possibly be able to explain to me where to go in English. The first man I stopped worked for the station in one way or another as he sported his official badge, and he responded quickly in Italian pointing in the direction of an isolated light pole, on the opposite side of the other bus stops. I tried to clarify in English about whether I should wait there and he responded by asking where I was from, and then walked away chuckling about Obama to himself. Shortly after this encounter I approached two Italian businessmen with my one Italian phrase and gestures, and they also directed me to the light pole where still no one else was standing. So I settled under the light pole, and finally a few others began to gather there. Still not satisfied and refusing to be stranded in Taranto for the night, I approached an Italian man standing near me at the light pole and gestured once again to my ticket and looked at him confused. “Do you speak English?” he responded. Hallelujah. He confirmed that I was in the right place and said he was heading to Napoli as well. When the bus arrived, he looked around for me before boarding the bus to make sure I got on and off we went.  The drive to Naples was so lovely, climbing through the mountains it was full of green hillsides, and it even began to rain for a while and reminded me so much of the last fifteen minute stretch of I-5 between Mt. Vernon and Bellingham.

As the bus drove into Naples, we immediately hit traffic and I looked out the window, awe struck by the massive city I had just arrived in. My knowledge of Naples before arriving was limited to the warnings from several people about the high volume of theft and to be careful with my belongings. I honestly had always pictured Naples as a small village type town, full of tiny houses and street markets, I was not at all picturing a giant city full of sky scrappers with bumper to bumper traffic from the moment you arrive. When the bus stopped and we pushed against the crowd just to get off the bus, the man from the bus stop found me once again in the mess of people to ask what my final destination was. I quickly told him the name of the hostel and showed him the address I had scribbled down, and he told me to follow him. Practically running across the train station he walked me at least fifteen minutes out of his own way to lead me to the bus terminal that would take me to the hostel. I thanked him profusely and asked quickly about where I should purchase a ticket for the bus. Without hesitation he pulled out his wallet and took from it an already purchased bus token for a single ride and gave it to me. The kind man went on his way and I ventured onto the bus alone, smiling to myself once again about the kindness of strangers.

Arriving at my first hostel in weeks, I was pleasantly surprised by the colorful walls, charming atmosphere and friendly staff that greeted me. Amused by the neon sign that sat at the front counter that read “Do not buy electronics from dodgy street men,” and the fast talking woman that gave me a quick run down of the best sights to see, I settled in nicely. That evening I decided to take the advise of the staff and go to the most famous Pizzaria in Naples. Naples is the founding city of the delicious Pizza creation so I would assume that if this is the best Pizzaria located in the founding city, it must be the best in the world, right? Let’s just say I was not disappointed. The hilarious waiters that ran around frantically trying to keep up with the consistent crowd rolling in and out were entertainment to me as I dined in the center of the restaurant, people watching per usual. Also sitting alone, was my soon to be new friend from Switzerland. We started talking, bonding over the delicious choice we had made for dinner and that we were both traveling alone. He had driven over nine hours from Zurich the day before, just to see the active volcano in the bays of Napoli while on holiday from work. I was thrilled to have a new friend, and even more excited to have some one to engage in a full conversation with for the first time in several days, since my last host and I had such an extreme language barrier and my engagement with others recently had not surpassed general pleasantries. Finishing our dinner we wandered to a bar nearby and continued to discuss and compare pieces of our lives and our home life as he taught me all the things I’ll need to know when visiting Switzerland. Exciting the Swiss blood in my veins, I told him about the tiny village that my family is from in Switzerland and that my Grandpa proudly flies his Swiss flag whenever given the chance. Our conversation progressed to friendship and he insisted that I visit him so that he can make sure I see the best sights, and at the end of the night we parted ways saying “See you in Zurich!”

The following day I spent exploring the massive city of Naples. I started my trek in the historical district. Now, I had spent the last week visiting towns a tiny fraction of the size of Naples, and so after turning the corner and running smack into a gigantic castle I knew this would be a different experience. The streets were crowded with people, darting in front of cars and motorbikes at random, paying no attention to the streetlights and choosing every risky pathway. I decided to follow those who looked like they knew what they were doing and quickly found the first gem of the historical scenery. The Galleria Umberto, basically transformed now into a busy shopping center with gift shops, cafes, bars, and information booths, but the overwhelming amount of tourists couldn’t take away from the beautiful structure that covers the area. Continuing south, I quickly found the Palazzo Reale, with the Teatro di San Carlo to the left, and the Basilica di San Francesco to the right. Both massive, both beautiful, and both breathtaking. From there I wandered down the waterfront to explore the Castel Dell’ovo (egg castle). The castle is named as such because of a legend revolving around an enchanted egg that was said to have the fate of the city in its shell. If anything were to happen the egg, Napoli would crumble as well. When destruction hit the castle years ago, the queen herself had to reassure the local people that the legendary egg was still intact as to defuse any potential chaos in the city. Desiring more history before the conclusion of the day I took the tram north up the hillside in hopes of visiting another castle, Castel Sant’Elmo, said to have the best view of all of Napoli. After failing to read my travel book more carefully, and making the long haul up there I discovered that the castle was not open on that day of the week. However, the viewpoint provided a good resting place and a chance to see most of the city from above. Shortly after trekking back down to the main hub of the city and checking out a few more sites I was exhausted from the never-ending heat and ready to call it a day.