Our primary means of transportation – Palermo
When Nik and I decided that we would take this extended trip, we petitioned our families to join us for parts of it, and Nik’s mom and sister took us up on it. They were most interested in joining us in Sicily to see where Nik’s maternal great-grandparents met before immigrating to the United States in the early 1900s.
The four of us met up last Monday in Palermo on the northern coast. L&M had already been there for two days, so they took us on a quick tour of downtown on our way up to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini. Nik and I had been to catacombs in Rome, but it was nothing compared to this. No photos are allowed inside, so imagine an underground loop of whitewashed tunnels lined on both sides with vertical recesses where mummified human carcasses are hung and organized by gender and class. It was eery, but also beautiful.
On our way back, we stopped at a family run restaurant with al fresco dining for the best meal we had had so far. It was a little awkward because it was 2:30pm on the Monday after Easter and they were about to close for siesta. But they happily served us alongside five or six large Italian family groups that appeared to have already been there for hours.
The next day, we had breakfast at our B&B and then caught a 1.5 hour train from Palermo to Cefalù for the next leg of the trip.
Small village along the train route from Palermo to Cefalù
Cefalù is a town at the foot of a large rock formation on the northern coast of Sicily. In the 8th & 7th centuries BC, an active fort occupied “the rock”, and after several invasions and changes of government, the Normans began building a city at the base of the rock in the 1100’s. Today, the Norman city is mostly complete with tourism as its primary industry which is obvious. Luckily, the town is still beautiful and maintains it’s character as a small coastal town where all of the locals know each other.
During our stay there, we rented a 3 bedroom apartment at the edge of the historic city which placed us just far enough away that we felt like we could have lived there, but close enough to enjoy the city’s charm.
Cefalù from above
The Cefalù Duomo
Looking East from the Rock above Cefalù
Like brother, like sister
The cloud shadowed waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea
Monolithic structure from the 5th & 4th centuries BC
Along the original city wall of Cefalù
After 2 evenings of home cooked meals, we took another train ride from Cefalù to Catania which we would use as our home base for the final 4 nights in Italy.
On the first evening we set out to explore the neighborhood, chase the sunset, and find dinner. We tried to have dinner before sunset, but the restaurant we wanted to go to didn’t open until 7:45pm.
Catania man hole
On the second day, we went to the main vegetable, meat and fish market to explore and collect ingredients for dinner. Then we meandered through town to find the ruins of a Greek theater that had been covered up with apartment buildings during the 1800s and is currently being restored. Then we walked up Via Etnea to the Bellini Gardens.
The Greek theater of Catania
Glass roofed gazebo in Bellini Park
On Saturday (third day) we walked through a large clothing/housewares/music market and then to the port. Nik and his mom also found the alleged address of a relative and rang the buzzer, but no one answered. They left a note, and someone wrote back via text message a few days later!
I didn’t take my camera because I knew the market would be busy, but the views from the Port were much better than expected and I wish I had had it. From the tanker loading docks, you can see Mt Etna rising above the city without the view being obstructed by buildings. Also, there was a bar/cafe at the port that was attracting a lot of well dressed young people in fancy cars as well as motorcyclists. We didn’t stop for a drink, but I think that if I ever go back to Catania, I will.
For our final full day we rented a car with three goals: see the town Nik’s great grandparents lived in, see the Greek ruins of Taormina, and put our feet into the Mediterranean Sea. We accomplished all three AND we circumnavigated Mt Etna!
The family name of Di Franco on a street in Augusta
WWI or WWII hero
Touching the Ionian Sea
Three Daums in the Sea
On our fifth and final day in Catania, we woke up early and drove to the airport so that we could all begin our transit days. Nik and I had a direct flight to Istanbul, and L&M were making their way to Dallas. For me, our time in Sicily was the perfect conclusion to our Italian adventure. It is always fantastic to spend time with Nik’s side of the family, but to spend time with them away from all of our daily lives and to experience places together for the first time ever is pretty amazing.
Nik’s Blog: Sicily: Palermo and Cefalù
Canals, Boats, and Buildings for days
After the three hour drive from Tuscany, we returned our Fiat Punto to the Venice Airport rental car lot, and joined the line of new arrivals walking under a white awning towards the ferry bus terminal. After consulting the map and discovering that the stop we were supposed to go to, Academia, is not serviced by the airport boats, we decided to go to Ca’ Rezzonico insetad. I called our host while on the boat to tell him. He seemed confused, but said that he would meet us there.
As we stepped off the boat we passed a young man that appeared to be waiting for someone. When he looked at us curiously, I asked him if he was Carlos, and he said yes. He half-heartedly stepped towards my bag offering to carry it. I told him I could handle it, and he easily stepped away. Without another word, he started walking and we followed.
He took us through narrow passages, over bridges, along the sides of plazas, and as we walked I realized that he never mentioned my name. I hoped that we had not just started following a crazy man. Meanwhile he and Nik were chatting up ahead. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they both seemed to enjoy the conversation, so I figured we were okay. After our 10th turn, I gave up on trying to remember where we had come from and trusted he knew the way.
We arrived at a door in a narrow alleyway, our guide made a call, walked around a corner, and came back perplexed. He made another call to no avail. He seemed frazzled and told us that he did not have the key. His mother, Carla, had the key, and she was not home. I waited for him to offer a solution. He started to say, “Could you come back later?”, but he stopped mid sentence. I assume it is because he read my mind and realized that we both had luggage and that no, we could not leave and come back later. He called his mom again, and said that she would come over right away if we wouldn’t mind waiting for 15-20 minutes. It was a beautiful day, we had snacks leftover from the drive, and there was a small plaza 20 feet away, so we waited there and told him he didn’t need to wait with us. As he left, I said, “Thanks for meeting us Marco, and I apologize for calling you Carlos earlier.” He said, “No problem, ciao.”
A few minutes later, a frazzled woman and a younger girl came rushing towards the door apologizing over and over in Italian. She let us in and we mimed back and forth as she showed us how to open the windows & shutters, how to lock the doors, and how to turn the heaters on. After she left, we settled in a little before I sent a message to the owner of the property to tell her we had made it in. It was only then that I realized that the young man’s name was Riccardo.
Buildings with faces
On our first evening, we set out before sunset to orient ourselves and to take in the beauty of this City of Water. We watched couples glide by on boats directed by the gondoliers, we watched delivery men drive power boats under bridges, and we saw the light of the sky fade and the lights of the city illuminate. Venice is undeniably one of the most romantic and perfect cities we had been to yet.
Gondola repair shop
The less picturesque side of the city
On our second day, we leisurely had breakfast at the apartment and left around 10 to purchase 24-hour boat tickets. Once we had our tickets in hand, we took the ferry to Lido Island, then Burano Island, then Murano Island, and finally back to the main island near San Marco Square. From there we planned to walk back to the apartment, but got turned around and hopped on another ferry instead.
Lido Island beach
The Doge’s Palace
On the water all day
The back room
To the sea
San Marco Square
On our third day, we took the ferry from Academia to arrive at Rialto Market at 7:30am as the produce and fish vendors were setting up. I expected to see locals up and about early to avoid the rush of tourists, but there weren’t many which leads me to believe that the market really is for tourists. Regardless, it was great to hear the vendors joking around and singing to one another. It was also great to walk back to the apartment from the market because very few tourists were out. Everyone we passed on the streets knew where they were going, and we were the ones getting in their way.
That afternoon, I explored on my own while Nik rested at the apartment. I didn’t carry my camera and had no destination in mind. I wandered and wandered, and probably went in circles. I didn’t care. It was beautiful. I was even asked for directions, which is the ultimate indicator that I looked like I belonged here.
An empty market campo
For our fourth day, we did our best to see areas of Venice that typical tourists didn’t see. We searched for the mundane, and found it after ploughing through the tourist mecca of San Marco’s Square. It was on the far eastern edge of the connected island in the park along Viale IV Novembre. At it’s edges, we saw empty apartment blocks, vacant play areas, stray cats, and no tourists. We enjoyed the respite and then dove back in by walking along the Grand Canal as far as we could, which involved going through San Marco’s Square one more time!
By this time of day, the lines to the Doge’s Palace, the Clock Tower and San Marco’s Bascilica were stretched around the plaza, but there were also dozens of pigeons flocking towards the central area where kids held up their arms with the hope/trepidation that the birds would land on their arms while their parents took photos. It was a hilarious sight, and Nik even managed to have one land on his head, but I wasn’t fast enough to capture it with a photo.
He doesn’t know what to think
Today, Easter Sunday, is our final day here. We have relaxed in our apartment all day and plan to do so through the evening because even though we are traveling in amazing places, sometimes we just need a day at home.
Our Tuscan Home in San Donato in Colina
I have been dreaming of driving around the Tuscan countryside visiting small towns along the way since 2005 when two men that I admire purchased a house there. I imagined small markets, narrow roads, vineyards, hills and elderly Italians. Over the past six days, my dream came true.
Last Thursday morning, Nik and I rented a manual transmission Fiat Punto. He took the driver’s seat, and I was his navigator. We made our way out of town to the scenic route through the Garfagnana Valley that runs between the Apennines mountains to the north-east and the Alpi Apuane to the west. The forests were not lush with fresh spring leaves quite yet, but driving through the valley and up and down the foot hills was amazing. We also had a great meal at a random Trattoria on the side of the 2 lane backroad we were on.
As we neared Lucca, we made our way to the Auto Strada to take us the rest of the way to Florence. We had both read about how to navigate the ticket & toll booths, so we knew NOT to go through the Telepass lane and that we HAD to get a ticket when we entered. Otherwise, we would be fined and it would be a nightmare.
Once in Florence, we exited the Auto Strada and paid our 5,50€ toll and switched from Google Maps to the detailed driving directions that were sent by the couple we were renting an apartment from. When we found our home in Tuscany, it was everything we hoped it would be. We settled in before walking through the little town of San Donato in Colina to buy supplies for dinner and breakfast the following day. Then we sat back to enjoy the sunset and a quiet evening.
Our view with Florence in the distance
Sunset over the valley from our Castle
It rained on our second day, so we went on a bigger grocery run and did laundry. In the afternoon, we strolled up to the monastery near by for an even better view of Florence, and then spent the evening planning and researching for Sicily and Turkey.
On the third day, we drove scenic State Route 222 south to Siena. Nik honed his Italian driving skills, and I took the wheel for a little while as well. My goodness, that was exhilarating!!! It was the first time I have ever driven a car in a foreign country (other than Canada), and what a great place for my first time.
Tuscan vineyards in spring
Siena, as expected, was stunning. The main tourist streets were busy with school groups, but the side streets were nearly empty. We happened to find a local wine and food showcase in the Mercato where samples of cheeses, dried meats, breads, and panforte were plentiful. Nik took a liking to the panforte so we tried to purchase a small wheel from one of the vendors, but apparently they weren’t selling it. We thought it was odd, so we carried on and found it in one of the tourist shops on the main square later that day.
The cathedral in Siena was the first we have seen with black and white marble laid in alternating stripes on the facade and interior. I remember seeing photos of this in architectural history class, but seeing it in person was much more memorable. Also, the floors of the Siena Duomo have carved marble depictions of biblical scenes using red, white and black marble.
Piazza del Campo
The pulpit and carved stone floors of the Siena Cathedral
Piccolomini Library in the Siena Cathedral
Streets of Siena
Doors, doors, doors
More streets of Siena
On the drive back, we went through the Chianti region taking a few detours to see what we could see.
Small hill town street
On the fourth day, Sunday, we drove to Florence and spent the day walking through the main streets and side streets trying to avoid the tourist masses as much as possible. We also searched for restaurants unsuccessfully for at least 2 hours which led to a couple of cranky Americans with cameras.
Basilica of Santa Croce (Chapel of the Holy Cross) in Florence with Bubbles
Every corner has details
The Arno River
On our fifth day, we slept in and took a drive. The goal of the drive was to have dinner at a restaurant on the north side of Florence, but instead of heading north, we entered the Auto Strada heading south and couldn’t get off for another 20 kilometers. At that point, we abandoned the plan for dinner and meandered through the countryside and along the river and back home.
For our sixth and final full day in Tuscany, we drove south again to see the hill town of towers, San Gimignano. We took the highway there and then took our time winding through backroads on the way back. The city is the ultimate small, Tuscan hill town. The historic city center is a smaller version of Siena with architecture that is even more consistent and clean swept. After making a loop through town, we stopped for lunch at a garden cafe owned and run by a sweet young Italian couple. Then we climbed to the top of the tallest tower in town for a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and celebrated our accomplishment with gelato.
Nik at the bus stop
San Gimignano – A town with towers dating from the 13th-14th centuries
The streets of San Gimignano
View from the Palazzo Comunale tower in San Gimignano
When we got back to our apartment, Nik took a nap while I watched a Harry Potter movie.
On our final day, we packed up and left our Tuscan home around 9:30am for one last super drive on the Auto Strada to Venice. Our week was perfect, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I think we had an easier time on the roads and in Siena, Florence and San Gimignano because it is not tourist season yet. I honestly cannot imagine keeping Nik happy in Tuscany if there were more people everywhere…I’m glad I didn’t have to!
Nik’s Post: Ah, Not Summer in Tuscany