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Hello From Sicily – Medieval Treasures In Cefalu

An early morning was in store for me: I decided to accompany my newly found friend and sailing buddy Claudia to her bus which would take her to the airport in Catania to return back to her home in Germany. Right next to the bus station, a few steps from the municipal buildings of Milazzo, was a bus stop for a local bus that was going to the train station. I inquired with the bus driver who told me he would be leaving within 10 minutes. Perfect! My backpack contained all the n...

Sicily, tour, learning, Cefalu, travel, adventure, Milazzo

An early morning was in store for me: I decided to accompany my newly found friend and sailing buddy Claudia to her bus which would take her to the airport in Catania to return back to her home in Germany. Right next to the bus station, a few steps from the municipal buildings of Milazzo, was a bus stop for a local bus that was going to the train station. I inquired with the bus driver who told me he would be leaving within 10 minutes. Perfect! My backpack contained all the necessities for a day excursion by train to Cefalu, a gorgeous medieval town about two hours west of Milazzo.

So Claudia and I had to say goodbye, after spending more than a week together, having enjoyed our intense sailing experience through the Eolian Islands. After a big hug and the promise that we would both see each other again, we went our separate ways. A fifteen minute bus ride took me to Milazzo’s rather unremarkable train station on the outskirts of town where I caught the 8:12 am train to Cefalu.

I enjoyed two hours of the beautiful ride along the northern coastline of Sicily, past hills, villages, orchards and vineyards. Just after 10:15 I arrived in this medieval town and I noticed right away that this was a popular tourist destination. The walk downtown was very quick and within 10 minutes I had reached the old medieval section of town. Corso Ruggero is the town’s main street and lined with many retail shops featuring food, fashion and local handicrafts, particularly some of the brightly painted earthenware items such as vases and huge round plates.

Today were municipal elections and several polling stations had been set up around town to allow the locals to cast their vote. I had reached the main square, Piazza Duomo, which is anchored on the eastern side by Cefalu’s Cathedral, an enormous imposing building, starting in 1131 under Norman ruler Roger I. A beautiful square flanked by numerous outdoor cafes was stretching up towards the steps of the Duomo whose size truly dwarfs all the other surrounding houses.

The Cathedral dominates the square with its two massive bell towers. I walked into church but a mass was just being held for a group of boys and girls who were celebrating their First Communion. Far away from the entrance door I could see the extremely well-preserved gigantic Byzantine stone mosaic of Christ Pantocrator with the Virgin Mary, dating back to 1148. Norman churches are generally very rare, and their grey stone austerity differs greatly from the generously ornamented baroque churches that are much more common throughout Europe and Latin America.

From here I started to explore the old town of Cefalu. I walked all the way to Via Ortolano, the street furthest north which is separated from the seafront by a row of houses. The Capo Marchiafava rampart, a fortification dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, testifies to the strategic importance of this town on the northern coast of Sicily.

As a matter of fact, similar to other areas of Sicily, Cefalu has been inhabited for thousands of years. During the Greek era it was called Cephaloedis (meaning “head”), and the Greeks, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Romans, Normans and many other feudal groups left their mark on this town. Narrow houses with small windows are built together, and most of them feature hidden interior courtyards, private sanctuaries for generations.

At the northern end of Via Ortolano is an opening towards the small fishing harbour of Cefalu. A small sandy beach provided a great opportunity for local kids to cool off, restaurants with outdoor terraces invited to have a cool drink, and Japanese tourists, well sheltered from the noon time sun, were sitting in a corner of the beach, painting the scenic waterfront.

I relaxed a bit on a bench, watching the scene and continued my walk westwards along Via Vittorio Emanuele, the main street running along the northern waterfront of Cefalu, separated from the water by narrow medieval fishermen’s houses.

One of the popular sights in Cefalu is the Gothic-style "Porta Marina", also called "Porta dei Pescatori" (Fishermen’s Gate), the only remaining of four city gates and a popular spot for photographers. A few steps away from here is the “lavatoio”, a public laundry washing area with a stone fountain with numerous basins that were used until recently to wash clothes by hand.

I strolled through the narrow streets which were now getting quieter since the afternoon siesta time had started. Cefalu is flanked on its eastern side by a rocky promontory called “La Rocca” which towers over the town and promised to provide a perfect vantage point of the area.

So I strolled up to the Piazza Duomo and beside the ancient Norman cathedral I found a narrow side street that was running right along the base of the rock. A few hundred meters further inland the pathway started to climb upwards, with the view getting increasingly more impressive. About 15 minutes into the climb I reached a gate with two local municipal employees who were charging admission of 3.50 Euros to the rock. I figured it was worth it, paid the fee and continued my climb.

Looking up towards the top of the rock I saw the stony ruins of a fortification dating back to the 12th and 13th century. Once I had reached the plateau below the summit I saw a number of ancient structures, including the “Tempio di Diana”, a megalithic structure dating back to about the 9th century BC.

The noon time sun was too hot for me to try to make it all the way to the Norman fortification ruins at the top of the mountain so I walked along the forested plateau towards a lookout area that provided an astounding view of the centre of Cefalu. The rock walls descended almost vertically down, and this vantage point allowed me to look almost straight down into the courtyard of the Norman Cathedral. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and the views over the turquoise coastline of Sicily were simply phenomenal. I sat down for a bit to rest and soak it all in.

Then I strolled along the lower fortification walls which cap off the plateau area just before the precipitous drop of the rock and caught a good look westwards of the town and the coastal mountains inland. I have traveled a fair bit in the last few years, but the beauty of Sicily is indeed quite overwhelming.

The heat had made me thirsty and I figured it was time to head back into town to sit down in some patio and take in some fluids. Naturally, the walk down was much quicker than the climb up and within about 25 minutes I had reached the old town. It was the middle of the afternoon and everything was shut down now, typical siesta-style. I did find a local bar that served me an ice-cold limonata (actually two or three since I was absolutely parched) and I was listening to some Australian tourists talking loudly at the next table. There seemed to be quite a few Aussies in this town, along with some German and French tourists. Definitely not too many North American travelers though…

After quenching my thirst I took a stroll along the waterfront promenade in the modern portion of Cefalu. Dozens of street vendors, mostly of North African background, had set up tables to sell belts, inexpensive jewelry, electronic gadgets and all sorts of other knick-knacks. People were lounging along the long sandy beach in the new part of this town and it certainly looked like a great place for some sun-worshipping.

I felt a little exhausted from all the hiking in the hot sun and decided to head back to Milazzo and caught a train back. I really enjoyed the two hour train ride, all the windows were open and the warm air was blowing through my train compartment. In my head I was still trying to process all the beautiful images that I had seen in this exquisite historic town.

After a quiet evening and a stroll along the Lungomare (to watch the ritual of the passegiata, the daily stroll along the waterfront), I had a nice relaxing evening in the apartment, reading, sitting on the balcony, and looking forward to my final discoveries of Milazzo and its surrounding areas tomorrow.

 

Hello From Sicily: A Country Excursion Into The Nebrodi Mountains To Montalbano

Sicily’s scenic beauty continues to amaze me. Yesterday’s excursion by train to the medieval town of Cefalu was just one more example of the stunning urban and rural beauty that this Mediterranean island has to offer. I walked downstairs from my comfortable room in the five-bedroom student apartment to the offices of Laboratorio Linguistico, the Italian language school that provides the rather unusual yet fabulous opportunity to learn Italian on a sailboat. Just last week I h...

Sicily, tour, learning, Cefalu, travel, adventure, Milazzo,Montalbano

Sicily’s scenic beauty continues to amaze me. Yesterday’s excursion by train to the medieval town of Cefalu was just one more example of the stunning urban and rural beauty that this Mediterranean island has to offer. I walked downstairs from my comfortable room in the five-bedroom student apartment to the offices of Laboratorio Linguistico, the Italian language school that provides the rather unusual yet fabulous opportunity to learn Italian on a sailboat. Just last week I had sailed together with six other people through the gorgeous Eolian Islands and studied Italian, just off the coast of Sicily.

At the school’s office I met Francesca, the wife of one of the co-owners, who also handles student affairs and logistics, as well as Sonia, a young lady from Switzerland, who handles administrative support for the school. Franco Zodda, the other co-owner of the school, was also there and showed me around the premises. I witnessed a three-person Italian class, saw several classrooms, a lunchroom, and the computer facilities which provide free Internet access to the international language students. Everything was very well organized and the staff is extremely friendly. After exchanging my photos with Francesca I headed off to the supermarket to buy some basic provisions to make myself a lunch.

Back at the apartment I met another international language students: Trevor is a 19-year old high school graduate from Cleveland, Ohio, whose great-grandparents emigrated from Sicily, to be more exact, from the Palermo area. Trevor mentioned that he graduated from high school last year and worked the whole year in order to save enough money to go on a seven-month language study trip to learn the language of his forefathers. He was a very well-mannered personable young man who really wanted to learn about the culture of his ancestors. Naturally he was also a bit nervous since he was traveling for the first time away from home, so he asked me basic questions about how the supermarkets work and similar practicalities. I was very touched by this young man’s desire to connect with his roots.

My next adventure awaited me at 3 pm: I was invited to go on a local country excursion with Francesco di Santi and Franco Zodda, the two co-owners of Laboratorio Linguistico. Both gentlemen have a language teaching background, and in addition Francesco is a licensed captain, so he runs the language study trips on the sailboat, now in hindsight a truly unforgettable experience.

The two Francescos packed me into their car and we started driving past the outskirts of Milazzo into the winding roads of the Nebrodi Mountains. I had already had a chance to discover the interior of Sicily a bit about two weeks earlier during my driving tour around Mount Etna and found that Sicily’s countryside is extremely beautiful.

We drove about an hour into the mountains and arrived in an area above the tree line that featured a variety of strange sandstone formations. To me the Rocks of Agrimusco had a natural Stonehenge quality, and they have indeed been used for centuries, maybe even millennia, as places for ritual celebrations.

The view from this area was astounding: a 360 degree panorama unfolded that included the Eolian Islands in the north, the continuous mountain chain of the Nebrodi and Peloritani Mountains, running east-west on the north-side of Sicily, and straight south we were looking at the imposing cone of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest volcano. In one word, a magical, enchanting environment.

Some of the rocks reminded me of paintings by Salvador Dali, and Francesco pointed out some large, perfectly round inclusions in the rock that looked as if cannon balls had melted into the sandstone. Having grown up in Austria myself, I found myself continuously reminded of the Alps in my birth country and was blown away by the picturesque quality of this island. I commented that Sicily is just totally predestined for unconventional tourism and perfect for hiking, biking, horseback riding and other nature pursuits.

Francesco and Franco enlightened me a little about Sicily, its history and its unique character. They explained that hiking is actually not very popular with Southern Italians at all; Francesco joked and said that Sicilians like to drive up to their destination, not walk there. While climbing around the rocks we talked about the mafia and Sicilian mentality. Francesco described Sicilians as individualistic and fatalistic, an interesting combination of traits.

My tour guides also educated me about the plant life up here at an altitude of about 2000 m: the tree cover consists of hazelnut, chest nut and cork oak trees, all of which have commercial applications. In addition, they showed me a corral for goats that was made of stone. Franco explained that the goats get herded into these stone enclosures at night which incidentally keeps them safe from foxes and other predators. Shortly after we indeed ran into a huge herd of goats, all of whom looked at me kind of funny when I started snapping pictures of them.

Another 20 minutes or so by car later we had arrived at our second destination: Montalbano Elicona, a typical authentic Sicilian mountain village that is perched on a hilltop. We parked our vehicle and started walking through town. The main square opened up around a big church, and on this Monday afternoon, dozens of people were sitting next to the church, in the patios in front of various bars and on benches surrounding the square.

Now this was a real Sicilian town without tourists. According to time-honoured Sicilian traditions, the older men sat together on the side of the church, younger women sat on the front steps of the church, children were playing together on the piazza, and older women were hardly to be seen.

We walked past the main square to take a little walk through town through narrow cobble-stoned streets that led us up to an ancient castle and old churches. Most of the streets were very quiet and many streets were so narrow that they would be impassable for a vehicle. Back on the main square we ourselves sat down to grab a few refreshments.

I was a bit hungry, and the bar we chose had a display case of local fast foods, so I ordered an “arancino di funghi” – a rice ball spiced up with mushroom bits that has a crunchy orange-coloured crust. This little morsel was actually very tasty, and I could have definitely enjoyed a second one, but decided to restrain myself.

Ever since I have arrived in Sicily I have been fascinated by these authentic mountain villages that always feature large groups of older men, many of them wearing berets, and animatedly discussing topics of interest, which probably include soccer and politics. So far I had been to shy to take pictures of them, but I asked Francesco to make a request for photos on my behalf.

Sure enough, with his Sicilian charm, he explained that an Austro-Canadian traveller was requesting to make some photos of these unique characters and they complied. Some of the gentlemen actually did not want to be photographed and hid their faces behind their neighbour’s head, but the vast majority of them was game and even gave me a smile for my pictures. After finally having snapped some pictures of authentic Sicilians I was very happy and we started to head back towards Milazzo. The sun was already setting and the country houses were bathed in golden light – a fitting ending to an interesting excursion.

At 9 pm my tour guides dropped me off at Laboratorio Linguistico’s apartment and I settled in for a quiet night, getting ready for my last full day in Sicily.

 

Hello From Sicily – Exploring Stromboli

Due to bad weather yesterday we spent the entire day docked at Santa Marina di Salina but we had nevertheless a great experience during our driving tour of the island, with expert guidance provided by two locals. Our first Italian lesson had also progressed smoothly and a quiet dinner capped off an occasionally drizzly and grey day.

Well, today was another day, and when I peeked out of the sailboat bright and early I saw right away that we had clear skies today. This meant...

Sicily, Italian Lessons, boat, travel, student, Panarea, Salina, Eolian Islands, Stronboli

Due to bad weather yesterday we spent the entire day docked at Santa Marina di Salina but we had nevertheless a great experience during our driving tour of the island, with expert guidance provided by two locals. Our first Italian lesson had also progressed smoothly and a quiet dinner capped off an occasionally drizzly and grey day.

Well, today was another day, and when I peeked out of the sailboat bright and early I saw right away that we had clear skies today. This meant that we would be leaving Salina and sailing on to the next island in our linguistic sailing trip experience: Stromboli!

When I saw Franco, one of our Italian language teachers from Laboratorio Linguistico, come out of the on-board shower room wrapped in a towel, it crossed my mind that an Italian language learning trip aboard a sailboat is definitely a very unique experience. As a matter of fact, boat life really brings you close together, and notions of personal space and barriers of shyness seem to be decreasing the more time you spend on board with your shipmates.

It’s just that kind of environment, and it’s actually very refreshing to move outside one’s comfort zone and allow oneself to experience something completely different. This has been one of the beauties of this unique trip all along - the unique tight environment on the sailboat, six great ship mates (thank God!), and the beautiful experience of gliding through the Mediterranean waters from one beautiful island to another.

Our departure was planned for 10 am, so I took a quick walk through Santa Marina, indeed a very picturesque little place, particularly when lit up by the morning sun. I had a quick on-board breakfast before Herbert, one of my shipmates, departed. He had been feeling a bit sick for a while and was going to take one of the fast ferry boats, one of the “aliscafi” or hydrofoils to one of the other islands to visit a doctor and get some medication for his flu-like symptoms.

So the remaining six of us got ready to sail and we were out on the open waters by 11 am. Leaving Salina behind, we sailed past the island of Panarea which features a gently sloping mountain on the eastern side and a steep precipitous cliff on the western side. The weather could not have been any better. The sun was so bright I closed my eyes and started to fall asleep. All of a sudden this intense feeling of tiredness overcame me, it was as if all the accumulated stress from my life in Toronto was trying to unravel itself, so I retreated and lay down in my cabin.

When I woke up again we had actually reached our destination: Stromboli, another Eolian island, this one distinguished by an active volcano. We anchored our sailboat off shore since the island has no harbour, and Francesco, our skipper, got a little dingy ready that would carry us from the sailboat on shore. The dingy was barely big enough to hold three, definitely no more than four people, so in the first trip Francesco scooped up Claudia, Lorenzo and me while he steered the vessel.

I was of course planning to do lots of photography on the island, and I thought I just hope to God that we won’t tip over in this tiny inflatable vessel, since my camera and my memory cards would certainly be gone. But I should not have mistrusted the expertise and prudence of our captain: Francesco transported all six passengers safely to land without incident.

In my quest for photos I embarked on a solo discovery of Stromboli on foot, while Claudia and Lorenzo headed off into town as well. I walked by the waterfront, past a variety of shrubs, some industrial buildings and the lone electricity generating plant on the island to a promontory that looks out on a rock just off the coastline: Stromboliccio (little “Stromboli”), of course also of volcanic origin, is uninhabited but features a lighthouse.

From here I turned left and made my ascent into the town of Stromboli which stretches up along the foothills of the volcano. The roads are incredibly narrow, a regular car would definitely not fit on the roads, so all the vehicles are either motor scooters, tiny three-wheeled mini transport trucks with a cargo platform, or even golf carts. I snapped a few pictures of the various vehicles, and was rather amused when I saw the two local policemen – carabinieri - ride through town on a golf cart.

The village of Stromboli is located on a hill overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the main square features a viewing platform that provides a beautiful look over the sea. The Church of San Vincenzo overlooks the square, and on the left hand side is a restaurant with a large terrace offering a great view. A local politician was starting to make announcements for the upcoming mayoral elections and at 6 pm one of the main candidates would be making an appearance. Not many people listened to his speech since most of the people on the square were actually foreign tourists that had come off the ferries to stay for just a few hours. But he steadfastly continued on with his political message…

I stopped into a local outfitters shop that provided shoes and clothing for hikers, equipment appropriate for hiking up to the top of this active volcano. Various local operators provide guided hiking tours to visit the top of Stromboli which is in continuous eruption. This retail store also had Internet access, offering one rather antiquated machine tucked into the corner, but the owner explained that unfortunately the Internet had been down all day, so I was out of luck. I continued my explorations of the town instead which offered numerous restaurants and various retail and artists shops, all closed of course, due to the siesta.

So I bought myself an ice cream and relaxed for a bit on a bench by the waterfront. He added that the medical treatment had actually been free of charge. Rested again I hiked back up into the village and turned left at the big church and headed up past the village on the narrow road that provides the ascent to the volcano. By this time, about 6 pm, the sun had already disappeared behind the volcano, and it was getting pretty cool so I decided to come back into the village. There I bumped into Herbert who had arrived on the island in mid-afternoon after accidentally taking a wrong ferry to the island of Panarea to visit a doctor about his flu-like symptoms.

Fortunately he had found a medical specialist and got a prescription for his flu. The medical treatment had actually been free of charge. We sat and chatted for a bit until it was time to get back on the beach where our skipper would pick us up with the dingy. By 7:30 pm all of us were on the boat and we were ready to start our night time navigation to Panarea, our next destination.

A big cruise ship was approaching from the south, and the setting sun bathed it in its golden glow. We were just turning the corner near Strombolicchio when we saw a gorgeous beautiful pink and purple-coloured sunset. I thanked our skipper Francesco for timing our departure so perfectly. We rounded the island of Stromboli and also got to see the lava fields on the western side of the island.

The sea was rough today and we were now sailing in complete darkness. A cool wind was blowing and after sitting at the back of the boat for about an hour I got chilled to the bone. I decided to lie down in the cabin and covered myself with two blankets to try to get warm. In addition, the choppy waters had made me feel a bit queasy and I felt better lying down.

Around 10:30 finally we had reached Panarea, not that we could see it because it was totally dark, but our captain had dropped anchor and we were going to sleep offshore for the night. A nice on-board dinner of gnocchi and salad capped off an eventful day and I was already wondering what this new island of Panarea would look like tomorrow morning.




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