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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 


Palermo: First Look

I arrived late last night and checked into my wonderful B&B Bquadro, staying in this room:

The friendly young couple had two other rooms in red and blue. They lived in another part of the house. Breakfast was in their dining room which opened onto a balcony.The room and bathroom were spacious and comfortable.

They set out a good selection of pamphlets and maps which included a few leaflets on addiopizzo, a grass-roots organisation dedicated to stamping out the pizzo which is the protection money businesses in Palermo must pay to the Mafia. My hosts were proudly defiant of the Mafia’s crippling hold on the Sicilian economy.

My first evening I headed out to a nearby wine bar, Buoni Vini, to enjoy the house cocktail in their urban garden, munching  on chewy bread and fresh tomatoes. As I was to discover, every little bite of food in Sicily is prepared with care.

The B&B was in a rather upscale neighborhood a little walk from the town center. I set out today to explore the town, strolling down the Via Settimo, lined with major-brand shops. Around the opera house, the street became pedestrian only. Although I had always heard that Palermo was chaotic and traffic-clogged, I found it the opposite. Major arteries were gridlocked during rush hours but the old town was quiet and a delight to explore.

First up was of course the gorgeous opera house.

Palermo-Opera

Sadly no opera was scheduled for my stay! But central Palermo had enough buildings of operatic grandeur such as the famous corner of Four Fountains, the Quattro Canti:

Palermo-Quattro-CantiAnd the Piazza Pretoria or “Fountain of Shame” for all the nude statues:

Palermo-PretoriaI decided to concentrate more on Palermo’s neighborhoods than its churches for the moment. There, the Use-it  guide provided by my B&B and map was great, pointing out local snack joints, arts centers, nightlife and off-beat sights. The map was large, colorful, and easy-to-follow, better than my Guide Routard and leaving Lonely Planet’s Sicily chapter in the dust.

I headed down Via Vittorio Emanuele towards the port which took me through one of Palermo’s older neighborhoods including the  Vucciria Market and some of Palermo’s best nightlife. But I was hungry and determined to try Palermo’s famous Panelle e Crocché at Nini Francu u’ Vastiddaru. Slices of fried chick pea floor with slices of fried mashed potatoes on a roll is peasant food at its best. Hearty!

Palerm-pannelleThe neighborhood around the port is a grim reminder of the “Sack of Palermo” in the 1960s when the Mafia took a wrecking ball to the old neighborhood and erected horrible concrete monstrosities.

There wasn’t much going on around here. WWII bombings and bad reconstruction drained the life out of the place except for this striking example of Islamic-Norman architecture. This is the Piazza Kalsa, part of the city fortifications which dates back to Islamic rule.

Palermo-KalsaAs I headed back to the center, I stopped in the lovely but strangely deserted Botanical Gardens

Palermo-botanical garden

By now I was starting to think about lunch so I headed to Ballaro market further north. Along the way I was surprised to discover a “little Chinatown” with Chinese shops and even a Chinese restaurant. The people seemed singularly gloomy however so I didn’t linger.

The morning Ballaro market was starting to wind down so I looked for a place to sit, have a bite to eat and cool off a bit as the day was warm. As I wandered toward a a modest but busy cafe with a terrace, a sturdy, carefully dressed woman with dark hair motioned to me vigorously from her seat at the café that I was in TERRIBLE DANGER from a potential necklace-snatcher and I must remove my gold chain IMMEDIATELY. I hesitated, nodded, hesitated and then she beckoned me to join her for lunch as the place was full. Of course!

Her name was Stella and she pointed out that necklace-snatching is a major activity around the market. She had just gotten off work. What kind of work? Stella was a nurse hired to keep an aged lady company at night which sounds easy but apparently not when the lady is waking you up every hour or so insisting on conversation. Anyway the job was ending in a few days and Stella was mightily worried about finding another one given the current “crise”. We fell to talking about our personal lives which, in Stella’s case, was not particularly happy. She had a husband but he had recently left her for another woman. Would I like to see a picture of the homewrecker? I pictured some version of Marisa Tomei. Stella pulled out her phone, flipped through the photos and pointed to the miscreant. “That’s her?” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The woman could only be described as morbidly obese, and not in a good way. Stella giggled too. It was incomprehensible. Stella was slightly stocky but with a pleasant, lively face and expressive brown eyes. I wondered whether the woman was rich and Stella seemed to indicate she was. We shook our heads about the ways of gli uomini and went back to our lunch of fried eggplant and stuffed zucchini. Living up to the Sicilian reputation for generosity, Stella insisted on paying. We took a little walk around the neighborhood and Stella pointed out the Chiesa del Carmine which was near her apartment.

Palermo-CarmineStella needed to rest so I continued on alone to check out the other major sights. As the weather forecast for the following days was dispiriting, I decided to save interior visits for later and concentrate on outdoor explorations. I took a look at the Cathedral, intimidatingly vast from the outside.

palermo-cathedralAlong the way, I came upon the stunning 16th-century Palazzo Castrone-Santa Ninfa, all the more beautiful for being so unexpected. I was ready to move in.

Palermo-PalazzoTime for some refreshment! Following a network of crumbling streets around the Capo district, I came upon the stall selling autista. I didn’t know what to expect but I ordered it and watched the maestro pour out some soda and some fruit juice so the glass was 3/4 full. He put it in front of me and approached with a teaspoon of powder. Beve! Beve! he ordered as the glass nearly exploded in bubbles. It was a delightful, fruity, fizzy mess as it burbled over the sides and I slurped as fast as I could.

Further along the Capo district became a market selling all manner of food, tools, clothes and whatnot. Here a sprang for a ridiculously cheap plate of prickly pears, already peeled.

Would I be hungry again at night? You bet!  There wasn’t a great deal around my B&B but the owner, Mario, recommended the Trattoria Tipica Altri Tempi which served up this plate of unphotogenic but scrumptious sardine balls with bread crumbs and pine nuts in sauce.

palermo-sardines

 

 

 

 


Saorge: Circuit de Pieremont

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On a beautiful late summer Sunday, I started from the Franciscan Monastery (Balise 20) and climbed slowly up on a wide path,

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stopping to rest at a mountain fountain (Balise 162)

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It was mostly sunny but with patches of shade. There was some cultivation and a working donkey.

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A steady, gentle ascent brought me to the Chappelle Sainte Croix.

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Then the road got steeper with a brief climb over schist. Finally I reached La Pinee and its abreuvoir (Balise 433, 360m dénivelé)

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Beautiful views

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It was a beautiful picnic spot. Then I slowly descended through a pine forest.

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The descent was much shader than the ascent which made me wonder if it would be best the other way around.

The vegetation was Mediterranean with fig trees (not yet ripe), blackberries (already dried out) and apple trees (not yet ripe). It was the perfect time of year for this pleasant, not too demanding hike.


Voie Sacrée de Fontanalbe

July 19

The gravures of the Vallée des Merveilles have been a goal of mine for years. I finally made it!

We got an early start at balise 395: 9.10am to be exact. Although definitely warm the heat had not yet become stifling. The patches of shade made it bearable. As we climbed higher it became cooler and the alpine vegetation was cool indeed.

enroute

A little over 2 hours later we were here in cooler air:

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enroute3We reached balise 388 at 11.30 where a sign directed us to Lac Vert. It took only another 20 minutes but it was a hard 20 minutes as a park official reminded us to put the hiking poles away. The metal tips are forbidden once you enter the area of the gravures.

Then, there it was! Lac Vert de Fontanalbe:

lac-vertBy now the air was cool and refreshing. The lake was cold but swimmable I suppose once you got past the muddy bottom.

lac-vert2After a relaxing lunch, we decided to press on to check out the gravures which involved an easy climb of about 100m to an orientation table with sweeping views that included Mont Bego on one side

begoand its foothills (below) on the other.

foothillsUp here, there was a steady, cool wind and the 360° panorama of peaks made it easy to understand why this was a sacred spot for the Bronze Age peoples (3500BC) who left their mysterious engravings (or graffiti?) on 4000 rocks spread out over 17 sq km.

Not far from the orientation table was the Voie Sacrée, a rocky path with a series of gravures on the left side.

gravuresThis is just a glimpse of the splendours up here. To fully appreciate the site, it’s best to take one of the free guided tours offered by the Parc Mercantour.

On the way back, a butterfly alighted on my hat and made herself comfortable.

butterflyI view it as a good omen. I’m sure the engravers of Mount Bego would have felt the same.

The descent was lengthy but presented no special difficulty apart from the sharp stones along the track.

descentWe staggered into Casterino around 4-ish.