First Stop: Locarno, Switzerland
We arrived plane-weary in the Swiss city of Zurich, where we took the train to visit an old friend, an American, who lives in the mountains above Locarno. Our European adventure was about to begin.
Our friend, has lived in Switzerland for many years and was anxious to show us her new house in the mountains above Lago Maggiore. We imagined a "Heidi-type" village and were excited to see both her and her new environment. Our train sped past gorgeous landscapes of high and verdant mountains dotted with small hamlets, which portended what was to come.
|We followed Jan up to her cute "rustico"|
|Jan greeted us at her door|
|This charming fountain sat right by the street we took to her house. Jan loves cats and perched on top of the post was a sculpture of a cat. How fitting!|
|When we saw this sign we knew we indeed were|
in Jan's village of Brione
|Looking down over Lago Maggiore and the small city of Locarno|
The views from Jan's village were spectacular. After a tour of the town, we enjoyed celebrating our reunion by drinking a sparkling Proseco (an Italian aperitif) at a local cafe overlooking the lake below.
The next four days, we hiked in the mountains near Jan's house, met and shared meals with her friends and even had lunch one day, over the border in Italy, at another beautiful lakeside restaurant.
Another theme for our voyage began to emerge when we started noticing an abundance of bronze sculptures in Brione and Locarno. We were to see many more in Italy,the Italian Renaissances's legacy of artistic sensibility and talent. Of course, I loved photographing these as they were inspiration for future sculptures in clay I hope to do in the studio in San Miguel. It was soon time to say good-bye to Jan after our wonderful visit with her in her beautiful slice of Switzerland. We took the train to Lake Como, Italy where we were to continue our adventures.
The next four days, we hiked in the mountains near Jan's house, met and shared meals with her friends and even had lunch one day, over the border in Italy, at another beautiful lakeside restaurant.
|Gary and Jan sitting at a cafe above Lake Como|
|Speaking of sculptures we were at first startled and then delighted|
to see these three Swiss leaning over the wall to say hi
to Jan. They were the work of a local sculptor, we think.
|View from the village of Brione of the Lago|
Next Stop: Lake Como in Italy and Bellagio
Remember that song "Stormy Weather"---I know, it's an "oldy!" The melody kept running through my head the first night in Bellagio. But let me back up to our arrival at the ferry in Como where we had a perfect welcome, open hands, a sculpture of course!
We arrived in Belagio by Ferry and, discovering we were a bit earlier than we had arranged with our host to pick us up and hungry, we decided to have our first real Italian meal. The Hotel du Lac right across the street from the ferry landing looked like a good spot. We toasted to the beginning of our Italian odyssey. Needless to say, it was yummy and to his delight, Gary learned they had GF pasta. The waiter ran in to get the package to prove it to him. Our worries that he would have nothing to eat in Italy were dashed.
|Here we are at the hotel cafe across from the Ferry landing eating our|
first Italian meal.
|More sculptures, on display at the Ferry landing, by an Italian contemporary|
sculptor whose name I failed to write down
|Our Airbnb in Bellagio. It was stunning and comfortable.|
|The couch facing our magnificent deck with a view of the mountains and lake,|
folded down at night into a comfy bed.
|Our view, with foreboding clouds of the storm to come|
Our first night in Belagio, our hosts, Marco and his lovely wife made us feel very welcome. We had a beautiful 3 room studio apartment with a full deck and view to die for, looking out to a panorama of the Swiss alps and the huge lake of Como in the foreground. On the table was a huge basket of fresh fruit and a homemade chocolate tart. The fridge was stocked with water and two bottles of wine. But as soon as our hosts had left, we began to see a foreboding weather pattern. We gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows of our apartment to darkening skies and heard thunder that seemed to shake our second story apartment; flashes of lightening added to the drama.
The following morning we awoke to a gorgeous view of the first light over snow-covered mountains in the distance and the lake glowing below. What a sight to behold. Our hosts were kind to bring us warm jackets and we bundled up to go into the town. We were in the small village of Civenna, above Belagio. A bus came by twice a day. We were not deterred by the cold weather and took advantage of our host, Marco's offer to drive us down to Belaggio to pick up some food supplies (we planned on cooking some meals while there; restaurants in Switzerland are expensive). We also wanted to get our first peek at this picturesque spot on Lake Como.
We loved the colourful streets of Bellagio, winding up narrow steps and alleys from the main harbor, lined with small shops, galleries, cafes and ristorantes. Everywhere our eyes fell there was beauty, from broad panoramas of the lake and mountains to the sweeping green hillsides of the Sebolloni estate, an historical Villa, covered with pines, magnolias, palms, cedars, maples and oaks and rhododendrons.
|one of the streets of Bellagio|
|View from the Serbelloni|
|More views of the other side of Lake Como|
|Beautiful Belaggio Church Steeple|
|Looking down at the harbor|
Again sculptures seemed to play a big part of the local scenery. There was an exhibition at the Villa Serbelloni, now called the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, and situated at the end of the main street along the docks. It was once a part of the still famous large piece of property and main house now run by the Rockefeller Foundation as Peace Center and retreat. It was an amazing coincidence, before we left on our travels, that a friend mentioned her Grandmother's cousin, Ella Walker, once owned the Villa Serbelloni. I've copied and pasted some information from the internet on her:
The Princess Della Torre e Tasso, born Ella Walker in Detroit in 1875, acquired the Villa Serbelloni on the shores of Lake Como in Bellagio, Italy, in 1930. The granddaughter of the distiller Hiram Walker, she lived most of her adult life in Europe. In 1958, worried about the ultimate disposition of the Bellagio property as her health declined, she asked the American ambassador to Italy, James D. Zellerbach, to make inquiries about donating the estate to an American foundation or university, including the Carnegie Endowment, Ford Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation.
We enjoyed a three hour guided tour (in English) of the huge property with its formal and informal gardens and panoramic views. One is not able to visit the main house as it is used for the people who are there studying or for conferences.
This ideal little village of Bellagio was our entrance into Italy and we were ecstatic to discover the flora, the vistas and art everywhere. I must add the next ten days were to present a much wilder, less refined Italy, the rugged and wild beauty of Sicily and Calabria.
After three days and nights in Bellagio, Marco took us to the train station. We took the train to the Milan airport and arrived in time for our 1:30 flight to Sicily. It was a quick hop down to the island and we landed in Palermo an hour and a half later. Our friends were arriving at 9:30 that night so we picked up our rental car and started, what we thought was a short drive to our VRBO accommodations in a small seaside village east of Palermo, called o Flavia. At the last moment, we realised that our hostess had not sent us the exact directions to her house, and since our international sim card wasn't doing what it was supposed to do, and we couldn't call her, we had quite a time finding the village 50 km.from the airport. On the way, we passed the outskirts of the big city of Palermo in the direction of Messina. Our first impressions of Sicily were mixed. The highway was good, but the traffic awful and what we saw were big tower blocks of apartments and not so pretty scenery. In the distance, we did see some huge rocky protuberances and then the sea, which promised better sights to come.
We finally arrived at 6:00 PM where we were to stay for the next four nights with our friends, Rosalie and Jack. The Romantic Villa, as it was called turned out to be smaller than expected but quite charming with it's own patio for outside dining, a very tiny, poorly equipped kitchen (Rosalie and I had planned to cook some dinners knowing we would be tired after our long days of sightseeing. We also hoped to economise so we could splurge other times---that presented quite a challenge but we did it).
Our two-story, two-bedroom apartment with its one bathroom downstairs was another challenge, but since we two couples have traveled well together in the past, we adjusted. We just had to keep our flashlights handy to descend the steep narrow staircase at night for those times when we needed to use the WC. That first night we had just enough time to drop our suitcases and race back to the airport about an hour and a half away to pick up our friends. After much fun, hoopla and a toast with a bottle of wine, we all collapsed in our beds by 11:00 that night, excited to start discovering Sicily the next day.
There's a lot of wonderful things to say about Sicily, a land apart from the mainland of Italy, geographically, and in every other way. It's history is rich with a past marked by a host of conquerers dating back to BC: The Greeks, the Romans, the Saracens, the Normans, and the Arabs. Each culture left its mark on this island and the Sicilians are a strong people, small in stature generally, but big of heart who have all the aforementioned influences in their blood. The symbol of their island, at the center of their flag and portrayed everywhere, in their pottery and other items, says a lot about them.
The head in the center is the face of Medusa from the Greeks, with the snakes representing good and evil; the three legs represent the idea that the Sicilians always end up on their feet, and the three points of the island. The wheat symbolizes that they survive as farmers.
After a quick shopping trip into the small town of Flavia for some breakfast goodies, we ate on our patio and plotted out our first day. Rosalie and I had communicated for months and both of us took our cues from the Lonely Planet's guide to Sicily, which we highly recommend. Since we were staying on the northwest side of the island we decided to start by seeing the Far West area, but first, we wanted to explore a bit of the city of Palermo. So back we went along the busy highway arriving in the city about noon. A half day in Palermo turned out to be perfect. Much of it is made up of crowded rubbish-strewn streets and decrepit infrastructure from the bombings during WWII. But one quickly forgets that when they come to the Quattro Canti, where the two main boulevards intercept and where we saw the baroque façades of two churches cascading with white marble sculptures. An added attraction was a wedding which was just starting as we arrived. It was fun to get caught up in the excitement, which the Sicilians readily displayed, as the flower girl had their ribbons and dresses adjusted and beautifully decked out women mounted the stairs in their high heels to the entrance of a church. Just as fun as watching a wedding in our adopted city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
|The Quatro Canti|
|More magnificent sculptures leading up to central fountain|
|Prepping for the wedding|
|Loved the marketplaces in Palermo|
|Some pretty cauliflowers|
We had fun helping the guys pick out hats on one
streets, too. Handsome dudes!
|Those long zucchinis--great for GF zucchini Lasagne!|
|The two guys looked dapper in their new hats.|
Speaking of food, Rosalie and I were delighted to discover the well-known fast food specialty of Palermo, known as Arancina, a sphere of rice with saffron, filled with a meat sauce or with butter, mozzarella and ham, or veggies and mushrooms. We found an abundance of Arancini shops lining the pedestrian streets that run from Teatro Massimo to Quattro Canti.
We concluded the best way to see Palermo and its citizens was to stroll the streets, listening to the cacophony of sounds and observing the daily activities that surrounded us. One thing we had noticed when we first arrived were lights strung like Christmas decorations throughout the central streets; as those colorful lights came on and we went in search of a good restaurant, we felt we had seen the best of Palermo. It will take many more visits to see all its treasures.
Then we headed northwest to see the town of Segesta, one of Sicily's most magical spots and not far from Trapani. The drive was not long and we soon found ourselves on an isolated hillside where the Elymians, an ancient civilization whose peoples claimed descent from the Trojans settled in Sicily in the Bronze Age. The Greeks later conquered them and created a perfect Doric temple on the spot. But, before we could start our walk up the long hill to the temple, we had to stop in the parking lot where a number of vintage European cars were on display. Our imaginations went wild and soon we were picking out the one we each wanted.
|This old French Peugeot sure brought back memories of my|
days in France in the 1960's
|This cute convertibe wasn't bad!|
|My pick: the red porche. Almost jumped in and took it for a spin.|
There was far more to see in Segesta than automobiles. It was a beautiful day and we loved climbing amongst the ruins, some in pretty amazing shape. Impressive when you consider the years they were built! Ancient history abounds in Sicily.
|The Doric Temple of Sagesta|
|You can see the scale of the enormous temple next to us|
|Here's the ancient amphitheatre and we enjoyed climbing the steps---good exercise, though a bit hot in the sun.|
|Rosalie and I perched ourselves on the top while|
Gary and Jack did more exploring
|A jewel of a Doric Temple. This is the real thing, not a model!|
|Beautiful views on the west coast of Sicily|
|The church in Erice|
|The unusual Rose Window of the Erice Church|
|The unusual and beautiful interior of the Church in|
|We climbed to the top of the bell tower of the Erice church|
|A pre-cursor of high Gothic|
|We spotted a rainbow from the high mountains near Erice---a good luck sign for the rest of our journey|
|Castles are everywhere in Sicily|
|Tired of ruins, castles and churches yet? Well we saw a lot more but won't bore you, just|
encourage to go and see for yourself. You can tell they fit into a very rugged landscape
which is beautiful.
On our third day we made a long trip to Arigigento to see more archeological ruins and as we drove the long three hour trip back, through some rain and horrible traffic, we decided we could have skipped that one, but fortunately, we still had our good sense of humour and enjoyed our laughs over the Italian drivers and the long waits to pass through hundreds of tunnels. Oh, no, not another tunnel!
Sorry, tunnels don't make for good photos!
Our last day on this northern side of the island we headed for a famous medieval village by the sea known as Cefalu. Film director, Giussepe Tornatore chose to set parts of his film Cinema Paradiso there. It didn't take us long to understand why. The honey-hued stone buildings, and mosaic adorned cathedral make this a mecca for tourists and Italians alike. LP encourages the visitor to not miss climbing "La Rocca," a huge craggy mass above the small port. It seems to burst out from the coast right where Cefalu sits. Though good hikers, Rosalie and Jack opted out of the hike and we arranged to meet later at a nearby cafe. Gary and I proceeded up the well groomed trailed at a fast pace, stopping now and then to partake of the amazing vistas and catch our breaths as we gained altitude. It was well worth the hike up. Even though we didn't make it to the ultimate tip, the Temple of Diana (time being a problem as we knew we had a long drive ahead to get to the other side of the island by nightfall), we enjoyed seeing the ancient site where the Arabs once built their citadel, occupying it until the Norman conquest in 1061 forced them down from the mountain to the port below. We saw where they built a small church and a communal oven. Even had our photo taken there. There were excellent signs explaining the history. When we joined Rosalie and Jack they were sitting in one of the main piazzas sipping cappuchinos and enjoying the local scenery: tourists gathering in the piaza, the produce truck loaded with fruits and veggies stopping on the side street calling out his offerings to residents and passers-by alike, and the beautiful church which crowned the piazza.
|Sitting in an old bread oven on top of La Rocca in Cefalú|
|Eating our delicious and more than abundant meal at the mountaintop restaurant owned by|
Fernando, a delightful man with a story to tell.
|View of Cefalú from La Rocca|
Tired after a long day, we were glad to find that our second VRBO in Sicily was a large, spacious apartment with a beautiful terrace looking out on the old town high above the sea---again magnificent vistas. The only drawback were the five stories we had to climb each day. The woman who helped the absent owner explained the elevator wasn't working. Great! We sighed and accepted our fate with "oh, well, it's great exercise." I could have called this blog "High Places and Many Steps, " as you will shortly see from my descriptions of the Amafi Coast.
Taormina is the jewel of the Ionian Coast of Sicily, near the base of Mt Etna, the island's highest Volcano, and perched on a clifftop. We decided to spend the next four days seeing as much as we could of this town and others along the coast. Much different than the other towns we had visited, Taormina has an air of European sophistication and exclusiveness. It's a favourite holiday spot for VIP's and celebs from the movie industry, not the type of place we usually seek out. A French girlfriend and her husband said we shouldn't miss it and it did prove to be a great spot from which to take off on various explorations each day along the Ionian Coast, like Catania, Savoca and Mt. Etna. (See photos below)
|Entrance into the historical center of Taormina|
|View of a yacht off the coast|
|Eating at a local Taormina Ristorante|
|One of our enjoyable jaunts: a visit to the local botanical garden|
remnants of WWII. Here was one of the first torpedo, man powered and shot off to bomb an allied ship. Of course, the Italian sailor died and became a hero.
|A view from our terrace overlooking Taormina|
|A stature of Florence Treelyan|
|The Beach near Isola Bella|
|On the beach, not swimming weather|
|Rosalie called these the"potheads" of Taormina. Everywhere we saw these charming pots,some|
quite large and others small, all portraying the noble people from legends from the past, and always
pairs of men and women..
|View of Isola Bella, a small island attached to Taormina by an isthmus|
|The Island of Isola Bella, famous for Katherine Trevilin, an English writer who built a|
We never got to Corleone, "home" of the famous Mafia, but we did have an interesting stop at a Cafe in the small town north of Taormina, Savoca, where we discovered photos of great interest. Yes, evidently, Marlon Brandon had been there
while filming the Godfather.
Another fascinating part of Savoca was the church where we visited the mummies. Rosalie's, father, who's English had once visited there and encouraged us to go. We found it fascinating, and not at all morbid. Some of them dated back to the 17th century and their antiquated clothing, though tattered and rotting was very interesting.
|Gary stepping into the side room to meet with the Mafia|
|That's the man!|
|Lunch on our 5th floor terrace in Taormina|
|View of the hilltop city of Taormina above the sea|
|One of the "potheads"---si, isn't he handsome?|
After eight great days on the island of Sicily, it was time to say good-bye to our friends and take the ferry at Mesina to the Italian mainland. It was a 25 minute ride. We picked up our rental car and headed up the West coast of Calabria, winding along coastal roads over mountains and through small towns. Hungry, we decided to stop in a seaside town called Pizzo, not Piza, for lunch and a look-around. It proved to be a great spot to stop. Pizzo is not only picturesque but has an historical castle, a beautiful main piaza and good restaurants with friendly waiters. After a delicious lunch and an enjoyable talk with our waiter, we visited the Castle Murat and learned some interesting history.
|Murat Castle in Pizzo|
|Pizzo, looking down at the harbor and beach from the main Piaza above.|
|Looking down over Pizzo|
|One of the many beautiful murals of Diamant|
|Town with the Chilis in the mountains above Diamant|
|Town with chilis everywhere: regrettably we can't|
remember the name of it.
|Mural of Obama in Diamant|
The third day we checked out of our B&B, and headed north to the Amalfi coast. On the way, we stopped at Paestum to see this ancient archeological site, famous for its Greek Temples and the once existent community.
|View of Amalfi|
Walking down the 500 steps to the town of Amalfi
|Anyone know what this flower is?|
|Gardens at Villa Rufolo|
|View from Le Palme of Amalfi and the coast|
|Yes, more sculpture, on the terrace of our BandB|
Again, we looked out from every direction to amazing vistas from gardens decorated with abundant sculptures. We ended our stay with dinner back in Amalfi at the restaurant owned by our host at Le Palme. He sent a driver to pick us up. Gary was greatly relieved he didn't have to drive the winding coastal road at night. After a delicious meal we were brought back by a delightfully, friendly Italian, the father of the Restaurant owner and our host at Le Palme. Our conversation with him was filled with laughter, as we struggled with our Italian and he with his English. We slipped into bed that night wishing we could stay longer in this Italian paradise, but the next day we were to be up early to drive to the Naples airport, turn in our rental car, and fly to Paris for our last four days in Europe. All good things must come to an end.
Read my next Blog: Four Days in Paris