Tbilisi First Impressions

I arrived in Tbilisi exhausted after a grueling flight that landed in the wee hours. Nice to Istanbul, a three-hour wait and then Istanbul-Tbilisi. Fortunately I had already booked a taxi that met me at the airport around 5am. On the way into town the driver was proud to point out some major sights which I was too bleary-eyed to appreciate. The Peace Bridge, Narkalo Fort. . .it all passed by as if in a dream.

When we pulled up to the Hotel Delisi my first though was “Oh no!”. It was clearly in nowhere-land. The neighborhood was residential, a little dreary but safe. I was in no position to quibble. A  middle-aged plump brunette showed me to my room right away, which turned out to be large and attractively furnished with a brand-new bathroom and satellite TV. I put on a blackout mask and crashed.

I woke up about five hours later, gulped a cup of coffee and headed out with a map and instructions on getting to the Metro which turned out to be a good 10-minute walk away in a bustling neighborhood of cheap stores and a street market. The Metro turned out to be fast and frequent but jammed. Plus, it was at least a half-hour with a change to get to the Rustavelli stop in the town centre.This was my first view:

First-view

I strolled down Rustavelli, a wide boulevard with majestic neo-classical buildings.

Rustavelli

It was completely devoid of cars but busy  as teams of guys hammered stages and stands into place. Tomorrow is Independence Day I remembered!.Soldiers were marching around in formation, not as protection but as spectacle.

tbilisi-soldiers

I marched around for a while too getting oriented and then looking for a place to eat. I settled upon Samikitno, a Lonely Planet recommendation. The cold tasting menu of vegetarian dishes turned out to be a wonderful introduction to Georgian food.

Samikitno

Over the following few weeks I ate a great deal of the tomato, cucumber and onion salad topped with chopped walnuts and eggplant with walnuts (bottom left). Notice the Georgian bread, the fried cornbread and the cornmeal grits (centre). Hello carbs! Come to mama.

My mission was to find the tourist office and get a schedule of the events for the following day. Meanwhile I enjoyed the street life of Rustavelli, lined wih cafes, shops, little restaurants and a few big-brand stores, punctuated with amusing details:

rustavelli-sax

After the tourist office, the next mission was to swap out my SIM card for a local one. Everyone recommended Magdi. Lots of calls and 500MB of data was something like €10.

I ducked into a cafe to nurse a beer and watch the street life. Somehow I expected Georgians to resemble Russians with light hair and eyes. No. True Caucasians are fair-skinned but with dark hair and eyes.

Why are so many women in black? And I don’t just mean the old ladies as is standard in traditional cultures, but young women too. The young look was ripped jeans and a black top. A dressier look was black slacks daringly paired with a white blouse.

By now, the light was fading and so was I. Time for the journey back.


Catania

From Agrigento, the lovely people at Doric B&B were kind enough to drop me at the bus station for the journey to Catania. Travelling along the southern coast, I found the scenery somewhat boring. Every square metre was cultivated as we rolled along gentle hills, valleys and plateaus. At least I saw where the fruit and vegetables I buy at Ventimiglia come from. If there are small farms in this region, I didn’t see any. The agriculture was on a monumental scale.

As it was Sunday afternoon in Catania, the streets were nearly empty. My B&B was XXMiglia in a neighbourhood that I would describe as “seedy-trendy”. It reminded me of Tribeca in the 70s. The owners of the B&B had bought several apartments on various floors of an older building. The breakfast room and a few others were stunning. Ten-foot domed ceilings were adorned with 18th or 19th-century frescoes of cherubs and country landscapes.

I stayed in several rooms but mostly this one:

catania-hotelDig the crazy ceiling! It dates from the 19th century.

Although I had planned to stay a couple of days and then move to Syracuse, I was so comfortable there I decided to stay four nights. The owners were delightful, breakfast was like a four-star hotel and I loved Catania. The ambiance was different from Palermo. Although there were not the architectural sights, there was a vitality and energy that I found invigorating.

Plus, Catania was within easy reach of other sites: Piazza Armerina and the Roman Villa; Syracuse; Taormina. And there was an opera opening at the opera house! I’m in. And, I found such a wonderful restaurant, I didn’t want to go anywhere else.

Sunday October 18

After walking about town, I headed to Trattoria di des Fiori, run by 70-something Roseanna and everything a Sicilian trattoria should be. I ordered homemade pasta with black squid ink sauce which was divine. I fell into conversation with Narelle, a charming young Australian designer, discussing everything under the sun. Neither of us was sure of our plans for the next few days as I still hadn’t decided whether or not to stay in Catania or move on to Syracuse. She mentioned something about Rigoletto playing in the Opera house. “Go!” I said. You’ll love it. We parted without exchanging contact information though.

Monday October 19

Research revealed that visiting the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina via public transport was a dubious proposition. Back to Maggiore at the airport to pick up a car. Papers, waiting, papers, car.

It was a good 1&1/2 hour ride to the Villa Romana but the Roman mosaics made it all worthwhile. The artistic quality of the mosaics was extraordinary.

romana1So much of it involved hunting, it should have come with a trigger warning. The saddest were the “wild animals” captured in North Africa that were destined to be displayed and killed in gladiatorial “games”.

romana2

romana3romana4It’s nice to know the ladies of the house were keeping in shape. I guess this was the gym room.

romana5I drove back to Catania thinking that the Romans were basically dreadful people. I imagined conversing with the patrician owner of the villa.

“Do you have to massacre every man, woman, child and dog in a captured town?”

“Losers, losers and losers!”

“And slavery?”

“No free handouts here!”

“Watching gladiators murder each other?”

“Fun!”

“Torture? Crucifixions? Beheadings? Drawing and quartering?”

“Evildoers, enemies, traitors and bad guys. Your point?”

It was dark when I got back to Catania. Dinner again at Trattoria des di Fiori. This time I chowed down pasta alla Norma, Sicily’s national dish. Topped with grated ricotta salata and  thick slices of fried eggplant, the chewy pasta and light tomato sauce was filling without being heavy.

Tuesday October 20

It was pouring rain when I left the hotel, intending to take a bus to Taormina. But first I needed to buy my ticket for Rigoletto at the Opera House. As I hadn’t heard of any of the singers, I decided on a cheap ticket in the upper balcony.

On the way to the station I changed my mind reasoning that Syracuse with a lot of interiors to visit would make more sense on a rainy day.

After trudging around the bus and train neighborhood for 20 minutes looking for the ticket booth, I finally found it and bought a ticket for the hour-long trip to Syracuse. I consulted maps and guidebooks along the way trying to figure out the best way to see the Greek ruins and the old town of Ortigia in an afternoon. They are several kilometres apart.

I got off somewhere in between in a commercial district and hunted around for an ATM. Unlike many countries, ATMs are not on every other street; you have to know where they are.

By the time I got to the Greek ruins, the weather had cleared up and it was quite warm. Contrary to other sites, there were no explanations for the major highlights except for a Qcode that opened onto a site in Italian. Also disappointing was the fact that the Roman amphitheatre was closed. The Greek theatre was impressive though.

syracusePlato sat there!

I hopped the free shuttle to Ortigia, a handsome town that was certainly well-trodden by tourists. Lined by shops, the main road led to the bulwarks.

syracuse1There were a lot of nooks and crannies I would have liked to explore.

syracuse3Plus majestic piazzas and buildings.

syracuse4

syracuse6

But the most impressive of all (where pictures were not allowed) was the Cathedral built on the site of an ancient temple to Athena. Seeing Christian forms sprouting from the massive 5th-century BC pillars was stirring. That it was still an active church provided a sense of connection to past worshippers that was more attenuated in the temples at Agrigento and Segesta. Odd, how once a site is recognized as holy, it remains holy for hundreds of years.

Before catching the bus back to Catania, I checked out the ruins of Apollo’s temple.

syracuse5Then it was back to Catania in time for the opera.

Who should I see outside the opera but Narelle? Reunited!

Buzzing around the entrance we fell into conversation with an usher who beckoned us to follow him. Suddenly we were backstage (which was really an interior alley) where singers were milling around in costume and we could hear other singers warming up. Then we found ourselves actually onstage where our guide helpfully took a picture of us with the grand old auditorium in the background.

operaThe production was traditional in terms of staging, costumes, acting. The baritone, Alberto Gazale, sung Rigoletto quite well. The other singers were competent and greatly helped but the excellent acoustics. I was surprised and disappointed that the opera house didn’t sell out though.

Wednesday October 21

It absolutely poured rain in buckets all day. There was nothing to do but rest, contemplate my ceiling and read news reports about the monsoon that swept across the region causing flooding and washed out roads. I crept out for lunch (€5 for pasta, water and coffee) and narrowly managed to avoid drowning.

That night I might Narelle again at Trattoria des di Fiori where she arranged for a special birthday desert. Sweet!

birthdayThursday October 22

The fact that the highway from Catania to Palermo was partially cut off prompted me to take the long route back and stop at Taormina. The town center was swamped with tourists, tourist shops, tourist restaurants but the setting was dramatic.

taorminataormina1I did not visit the Greek amphitheatre (shocking I know). I had already seen three; the line was long; the Guide Routard found it overpriced.

I strolled around for a bit and grabbed a slice of pizza before heading to the car. How could a €2 slice of pizza be so well constructed with a soft, chewy crust and just the right amount of fresh tomato sauce and roasted vegetables?

Something to ponder on my trip back.

For my last night in Sicily, I stayed in Cinisi, close to the airport at stunning B&B Antichi Colori.

 

 

 


Destination Agrigento

Breakfast was a giant cannoli, so rich I knew it would hold me for the day. “Leave the gun, take the cannolis”? Just leave everything and take the cannolis.

Although I never did figure out how to access the car radio (should it exist), at least  the highly computerized dashboard on this Picasso C3 had bluetooth which allowed me to play the tunes on my smartphone. And then somehow I was tricked into uploading my entire contact list.

I tried not to focus on small mishaps and set off for Agrigento.  Unlike Segesta, Agrigento was a strong and prosperous city-state, at least until the Carthagenians came along and sacked in in the 5th century BC. With such a commanding position overlooking the sea, you could see why the Carthagenians and later the Romans wanted to gobble it up.

My goal was the UNESCO listed Valley of the Temples which was nowhere near the town but relatively well-signposted. I was glad I picked up a map at the entrance, even though the temples were lined up like sentries on the ridge and connected by a paved walkway that stretched about two kilometres.

First up was the Temple of Juno:

Agregento-Juno

agrigento-juno2Whoa. Then I looked down the road and saw a skyline of other massive temples. The wealth and power of this city were immediately apparent. They remained influential throughout the Roman era and even hung on against the Ostrogoths until finally the Saracens marched in at the beginning of the 9th century and ended any pretensions to pwoer.

Next up was the even more spectacular Concordia:

agrigento-concordiaThis knocked me out. Could any building be more perfectly proportioned? Clearly this temple has weathered well, mainly because the early Christians converted it into a church in the 6th century AD.

I wandered further down the road and was surprised to come upon a goat family:

agrigento-goatThis is a gigentana, a traditional goat breed that is in danger of extinction and is being preserved here.

I couldn’t get enough of the temples though. They seemed to go on and on and with helpful explanations on each one. Here is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, intended to be the largest Doric temple ever built but now in ruins.

agrigento-zeusThe massive chunks strewn about the columns testified the ambitiousness of this project and I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what it must have looked like.

Then on to the last temple of Castor and Pollux:

agrigento-castorTemples finished but there was more to see! I sprung for an entry to the Kolymbetra Gardens, set in a river valley that provided the ancient Agrigento with a water supply. It was now restored and planted with a variety of Mediterranean species, watered with natural fountains. It was peaceful and shady and provided a new perspective on the old city.

agrigento-gardenBy now it was late afternoon and it was a long, hot walk back to the parking lot. I fortified myself with gelato, decided to put off the archaeological museum until the following morning and headed back.

I reached the parking lot, pressed the button on the magnetic key and then. . .nothing. Whoops. Must be the key battery I thought. I turned the lock of the car, put the key in the ignition and . . . nothing. Uh-oh. I knew I was in for it.

I called Maggiore in Palermo. “Call road assistance”. “Why don’t you call road assistance? I’m paying for a car that actually runs”. So I called road assistance who helpfully instructed me to depress the clutch pedal while turning the key. Thanks pal. Now send a tow truck and a new car.

The tow truck arrived about 40 minutes later trailed by various young men who worked at the site and were eager to lend their limited English vocabulary to help smooth communications. Then the young woman at my hotel (Doric Bed B & B) took charge, insisting on calling Maggiore, road assistance and anyone else necessary.

agrigento-carPeople couldn’t be nicer, including the tow truck driver who deposited me at the hotel. Intense telephone negotiations with Maggiore revealed that, as it was Saturday evening, the earliest I could get the car was Monday morning.

I decided to cancel the whole thing and take buses. After a shower and a nice dinner of tagliatelle with baby shrimp in pistachio sauce I turned in. Sunrise brought this lovely view from my room.

agrigento-sunriseMay Zeus smite me if I ever rent a car on holiday again.

 


To Segesta and Trapani

I packed up bright and early and headed to the train station to pick up my rental car. Although I had initially planned to take public transport, I reluctantly concluded that it was impossible to execute my itinerary without a car. Segesta was particularly inaccessible but there were other places where public transport seemed dubious.

Upon arriving at the Maggiore desk  I was immediately confronted with a hard, hard sell to buy extra insurance. “Uh-oh. I really should have researched this. Should have read the contract more carefully. What exactly is included?”, thought I. But isn’t a vacation supposed to be, I dunno, a vacation? I declined the extras and was then informed that €1800 was to be blocked on my credit card in case of damage that was supposed to be covered by the CDW I already bought. I started to feel kind of stupid particularly when I drove off without getting clarification on how the radio worked. Or if there was one. I saw no dials or numbers or anything really indicating a radio.

Oh well. The GPS got me to Segesta without too much difficulty. First up was the ruins of the ancient city which, cleverly enough, was built on top of a steep hill. A free shuttle brought visitors to the top but, as always, the stamina of ancient peoples is impressive. On the way we glimpsed the Doric Temple, a good way downhill from the city.

segesta-temple1

Excavations revealed Roman and medieval ruins in addition to those of the ancient city which was destroyed by the Visigoths. Apparently Segesta was not the best defended of Greek city-states. They were always appealing to someone stronger for help against Carthage or Rome whether it was Athens or Syracuse.  Given that the city was on top of such a steep hill I wondered how the attackers managed to get the better of them.

There was a Roman area, an Arab-Norman area and of course a Greek area. There were panels with explanations in archaelogese and maps but it was not entirely clear what was what, probably because the city plan at the top of the hill has not been completely understood. There are ruins of a market, a Muslim mosque and a Norman castle but imagination is required to visualize the structures.

Segesta-city

No such imagination is necessary to visualize the Greek amphitheatre which dates from the 6th century BC.

SegestaThe setting is dramatic. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be sitting there and seeing Aeschylus for the first time. I wished that I could visit the site at night under the stars just as the ancient Segestans did. What I like about Greek amphitheatres is that they were used for plays, not tearing apart slaves and Christians or watching gladiators murder each other. Fortunately, there were few tourists to gum up the ambiance.

I took the bus down, again admiring the temple and then took the short walk up to see it. You don’t need to be an architect to know perfection when you see it. For scale, notice the people to the right.

segesta-temple2segesta-temple3Ah, the glory that was Greece. . .

From Segesta I drove on to Trapani, which I wanted to visit because it’s considered part of “African Sicily” and is known for its fish couscous. I had some trouble finding the Salamureci B&B  which I chose because it had parking and was on the edge of the pedestrianized Old Town.

Arriving in mid-afternoon, I found the town nearly deserted. Where is everybody? I took a walk around and particularly liked the seaside stroll. But where was the Moorish African influence? Nowhere that I could see. The architecture was all Bourbon with a smattering of regal churches built under Spanish rule. Unlike the Normans, the Spanish felt no need to do anything other than stamp out Islamic influences.

trapaniLater, the streets of the Old Town begin to fill, but not too much. There were a fair number of tourists and. . .I don’t know, some locals. Unlike Palermo and (later) Catania, it was ethnically homogenous. It didn’t seem to gel somehow. I thought it would be more interesting.

The fish couscous was unexpected but good. The couscous grains were savory liked spiced rice and there were slices of grilled fish on top.

I turned in to my B&B. The room was fine but I was colossally annoyed to learn that the included breakfast was down the street and not in the hotel. Walking 100m in the morning without caffeine? I made sure to pick up a cup of takeout espresso to drink for fortification in the morning.


Palermo: the Arab-Norman Marriage

Expecting the rain to begin at any moment as forecast, I made sure to pack my raincoat before setting off and resolved to walk the city before I would surely be relegated to indoor sights.

In fact, it stayed sunny and warm throughout the day!

First I did a little shopping, picking up a couple of tops at Blue Sand, an Italian brand selling colorful low-cost fashion.

This made me work up an appetite. I stumbled on Bar Touring around the port where an array of salads, stews, lasagnas and sweets were displayed behind a glass. People streamed in and out with their takeaway treats but fortunately there were a few tables. I ordered both the octopus salad and the vegetable stew, having no idea the portions would be so large. Each was delectable.

Octopus saladDSC_0900How is it possible that tomatoes, potatoes, olives and green beans could be SO GOOD?

Well fortified, I decided to head to Palermo’s premier sight, the Norman Palace, now the seat of the Sicilian Parliament. Like so much in Palermo, it reflects a synthesis of Moorish and Norman styles. Built in the 9th century, it was transformed when King Roger II swept in with his Norman army and made the palace his own. Unlike almost every other Christian ruler, he decided that his court had a lot to learn from the Arabs whom he enlisted both as artisans to work on the building and high-level aides to help him run the place. Was this the last time that Islam and Christianity coexisted peacefully and productively? Maybe.

Many of the rooms are closed off when Parliament is in session but the central courtyard gives an idea of the fusion of elements:

norman-palaceBut the highlight is undoubtedly the exquisite Palatine Chapel, a glittering 12th-century jewel of a chapel encrusted with mosaics, inlaid marble and a muqarnas ceiling.

palatine1

palatine-chapelThere was just so much to look it; the painstaking workmanship and extraordinary level of artistry was mesmerizing.

Palatine2It was hard to leave but leave I did. I took at look at the Cathedral but didn’t visit.

Rather than queuing up for the Cathedral I decided to pursue the Arab-Norman theme and visit La Zisa, constructed by Arab craftsmen in the 12th century as a residence for the Norman kings.

It was a looooong, hot walk as I passed through crumbling neighborhoods of haphazardly constructed postwar buildings. I needed a rest and an ice cream. Why not a brioche con gelato in which gelato is smooshed into a brioche-style roll?  An ice cream sandwich Palermo style! Why doesn’t everyone eat ice cream this way? Who ever thought of cones anyway?

On to La Zisa which was again a startling reminder of Sicily’s Moorish underpinnings.

Palermo-Zisa-bjs-1.jpg
via Commons.

ZisaI was glad that funds were found to restore the frescoes and other architectural features inside.

After walking about 20 miles and eating a ton, I was happy to collapse in my room and plan the rest of my itinerary.

It was a good thing I had no dinner plans as the much anticipated rains came at nightfall. The storm was so intense it knocked out the power for 20 minutes or so. My hosts informed me this was most unusual, even for October.