Tuesday, May 31, 2011

PIT: Back to Florence & Lucca

Once we made it safely back to Florence, we had but a few days left to enjoy the dolce vita together. The first day we dedicated to shopping in the center, the next rainy one to playing cards, relaxing, and eating at one of my favorite restaurants, Il Lattini, and following that we day-tripped to our patrimonial hometown, Lucca.

View from a monastery in Fiesole during an afternoon walk

Aperitivo at the restaurant Terrazzo 45 in our building...

...which also had stunning views.

Indulging in our Florentine steak at I Lattini
(The owner gave us a free bottle of wine
and dad bought a golf shirt here, too)

What Italy scrapbook would be complete without a Ferrari shot?

On their last full day here we were headed to Lucca, and even got to pass the small towns from which my great-grandparents originated, Altopascio and Capannori. We watched all the cute country houses going by and conjectured as to which one had belonged to the D'Innocenti family.

Lucca is one of my favorite towns in Italy, and I'd say my favorite in Tuscany. It not being along the main tourism route, it remains truer to its Italian heritage. Its winding medieval streets provide great shopping and it is surrounded by the only completely intact medieval wall in the country.

While in Lucca, Dad really got down to his roots:

For good reason, one of the most highly recommended things to do in Lucca is bike the ramparts, which is exactly what my dad and I did. We went around twice, and got quite a workout by the end. Plus, we got to see the city from every angle with the wind blowing through our (well, my) hair.

Finally we met up with mom where the Roman amphitheater used to be, and did a bit more shopping. Little did mom know there was a big purchase in her future!

Since having had her gold bracelet stolen about five years ago, mom has been on an eternal quest to find the perfect replacement. I remembered stopping at a jewelery store in Lucca three years ago as part of this search, and was able to relocate said store. And wouldn't you know it, she found the Perfect One, and dad was more than happy to make it her Mother's Day present. Mom felt a little guilty, but the saleswoman wouldn't have it. "You deserve it!" she kept saying. And she does.


And so, the next day, as if in a blink of an eye, it was already time for them to fly back home. We had such a lovely time together, enjoying the down time or the travel mishaps as much as we did the grand meals and exciting sites. I was very sad to see them go (tears all around, what saps the taxi driver must have thought us to be), but am so happy they were able to come at all, as it had already been four months since I'd seen them last. The wonderful, memorable trip together was simply a bonus!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

PIT: Syracuse & Ortygia

The city of Syracuse was founded on the practically adjacent island of Ortygia in 733 BC, and in its day rivaled Athens in both size and power. Now, Ortygia exudes a magical charm that has yet to be trampled by tourists, with crystal green water and stunning Baroque architecture, as well as friendly, spirited people who are surprisingly welcoming and kind.

Now what you are about to see brings me so much joy that any time I feel sad I can look at it and feel unquestionably uplifted. I only hope it can do the same for you.

Sorry mom, couldn't deprive the world of this.

It was stunningly windy when we arrived in Ortygia, so much so that I was at risk of blowing away and my mom had been abruptly transformed into the Mother of Frankenstein. I actually have four pictures of this moment that make me laugh until I cry, but I'll spare her the repeated embarrassment, and just provide you with my favorite.

And now for a funny dad story. While my mom and I were checking in, my dad was attempting to park our little rental in the nonsensical lot controlled by a small, wrinkled, local elder. As it turns out, a translator was necessary, so I ran down to help. I found my dad circling the block very confused and the old man trying to tell him to just wait and be patient because there weren't any vacancies yet. Then, as this character ambles into our hotel to have the receptionist park her car illegally so we can take her spot, I finally approach my dad's window fully expecting him to complain about the man being crotchety or the impossiblity of the language barrier. Instead, he calmly looks up at me, and truly affected, says, "That man has the softest hands." Dads sure say the darndest things!

Ortygia is famous for its overwhelming Baroque architecture, in fact there is even a university dedicated to it on the island. The main piazza, oblong in shape and anchored by the Duomo, is perhaps the most breath-catching I've ever seen. The effect is particularly strong at dusk, when the piazza is but faintly populated and charmingly lit:

That first night we ate at a family-run place famous for its spaghetti. We indulged in local appetizers, fish, and cannoli, and shared a bottle of wine from Corleone. If that doesn't sound familiar to you, please stop reading this immediately and instead go watch The Godfather, the theme to which my dad and I hummed non-stop for one full week in Sicily.

The restaurant was decorated as if we were eating out in a piazza, with stone walls and laundry-draped balconies surrounding the tables.

More views from just outside our hotel the next morning:

On our only full day in Syracuse, we had to visit the archeological park, famous for its many layers of history, including a Roman amphitheater neighboring an even more ancient Greek theatre.

Syracuse's Greek Theatre

If we'd come a month later we could have seen Andrea Bocelli perform there. It's all about timing.

Dad, being a Boy Scout.
Not sure if he's trying to be a compass or a clock,
or just getting tuned in to the colors of the wind.

An aqueduct ends right behind the theatre

Ancient pirate watch tower, built
to protect the colony during performances!

Genetically funny faces

Mom, looking smaller than ever!

Above is the Ear of Dionysius, an ancient man-made cave named as such by Caravaggio in 1608 and supposedly used as a prison by the great Greek ruler. The acoustics are tremendous and the experience of entering such a magnificent cave is humbling.

After, we went to the Church and Catacombs of San Giovanni in Syracuse. Above the catacombs there's a church that has remained consecrated despite it having lost its roof in a 17th century earthquake. Thus, church services and wedding ceremonies can uniquely be held outside in the warmer months.

View from the "inside"
The church still has a beautiful 14th century rose window in tact

We found another delicious little place for dinner that night.

Let's interpret the looks:
Mom: "Oh my God, I can't eat all this."
Dad: "Seriously? Man up."

On the steps of the Duomo at night

Before departing Ortygia on the morning of our flight, we stopped by the old market, where we saw fish vendors yelling out and slinging fish, sampled ricotta worth dying for, and bought 6 gourmet sandwiches for about one euro a piece.

I think a cartoon character has been based off
this guy at some point or another. Isn't he cute?

So we leave our beloved Ortygia (with vows to return) and head to the airport in Catania, only to find out once we arrive that Mt. Etna has been erupting all night and the airport will be closed until the next morning. Here's Mt. Etna the day before she blew, looking relatively peaceful:

By then the airport scene was absolute chaos, with hundreds of confused passengers and a scarce number of airline and airport employees available to sort out the mess. There was no representative from our airline there to assist us for ages, and once one nonchalantly showed up, all he did was give us the company's number to call to reschedule our flights. So after much unpleasant confusion and suppressed desperation, we booked the last room in a hotel in the center, grabbed a cab, and that was that.

After checking into our "It'll do for a night" hotel complete with in-room bathroom shed, we decided to explore Catania a little (after I had been hung up on by the airline at least five times). We were only able to see the Duomo and a couple main squares, but one could feel the vibe of a very vibrant city eager to be explored more.

By that point, we just needed a drink. So, we went for an aperitivo near our hotel where we got to taste some amazing treats like toasted almonds, marinated olives, and arancini (fried rice balls).

The following morning we were off to the airport at the butt-crack (excuse me) of dawn, following the reasoning of the early bird, and hoping to get on the first flight out. We miraculously get the last stand-by spots just 20 minutes before take off. So we attempt to breeze through security only to get stopped because of a forgotten sunscreen as well as a container of peanut butter (who knew that's a liquid? I think they need to re-take chem) in one of our carry-ons. So after much scampering about security, we run and make it on the plane, and each heave sighs of relief to have made it off the island.

But one should never speak too soon. As we are taxing down the runway, almost at full speed and preparing to life off, suddenly the captain hits brakes and pulls the plane to a very controlled yet unexpected and thus frightening halt. They announce that there's something wrong with some device due to ash etc. etc., so they have us wait on board for over an hour while they try to fix it, and then give up and just have us all disembark. So much for getting off the island; I felt like a character on LOST.

And thus ensued one of the most awful examples of customer service and crowd control I have yet to witness in my life. Never was any announcement made via PA system or otherwise, never was anything communicated in any language other than Italian, and never was information about our flight accurately updated in the departures list. The only way to get any information at all was to hunt down and crowd around the one airline employee who had any idea about the situation and ask people nearby what they had heard from her or various other passengers about the flight. This encouraged a new form of company communication that I'm going to call the PR system, or Passenger Rumor System.

I spent the following five hours trying to recognize informed-looking people from my flight and ask them what the hell the update was. We heard lots of different stories, about supposed replacement parts being flown in from Rome, secret lists for people getting moved to different flights, and the doling out of food vouchers (after everyone had already eaten lunch). Not a thing did I hear from the mouth of the beast. In the end, we were lucky to make it on our flight at all. An Italian couple tipped me off to the gate and time change of our flight and we all boarded (what was left of us), took off, and escaped the island at last. And that night, after more hours of traveling than it took my parents to get here from San Francisco, we made it back to our home sweet home in Florence.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

PIT: Giardini Naxos & Taormina

Well, Sicily, it had been exactly 3 years (not much has changed), but I found my way back to you. I had missed your crystal clear water and delectable cuisine, not to mention your endless interweaving history, and this time I got to see much more of what your lovely land has to offer.

From Rome my parents and I flew down to Catania, where we promptly rented a car (if anyone has heard the story of the last time we attempted an auto rental in Italy, you can imagine our apprehension) and drove miraculously problem-free to our water-front hotel in Giardini Naxos, just below Taormina, on the eastern coast of the island. The name Giardini Naxos comes from giardini, meaning "orange groves" in Sicilian and Naxos, the name of the first Greek colony to settle on the island.

We arrived on Mother's Day and were promptly greeted with a special 5-course lunch including fava bean soup, pistachio ravioli and a grilled fish platter. After that there was nothing to do but sleep the afternoon away and enjoy a nutella crepe for dinner along the water!

Our colorful hotel

The next day we took the bus up the hill to charming Taormina. We ate at a restaurant with incredible views and beautiful flowers:

Then we headed straight for the ancient Greek Theatre, perhaps Taormina's greatest claim to fame. It dates back to the seventh century BC (yes, take a moment to wrap your mind around that one-I still can't) and is so well-maintained that you can actually imagine performances taking place there millennia ago. The view was spectacular despite the overcast sky, but usually one would be able to see both the tranquil sea and the imposing volcano of Mt. Etna beyond the stage.

Those ever-darkening clouds finally got up the courage to execute their purpose and suddenly everyone at the theatre was caught in a huge downpour. Fortunately, there were perfectly placed nooks for us to take advantage of and before we knew it, we were providing the theatre with more authenticity by filling its alcoves with animate statues!

My favorite shot

Huddled from the rain

Same, but this time dad has his special "really old rock" souvenir

And there's the sea in the background!

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around town, visiting various shops, cafes, churches and vistas...

...before we were caught in a most aggressive downpour (in our summer-wear) and were forced to take a cab through deserted and flooded streets back to the hotel. I was reassured that this almost never happens there, but since it was our only day in town, I didn't find that terribly reassuring.

Regardless, we awoke to the most breath-taking views. The rain never fails to leave everything looking fresh and dramatic.

That morning, after a quick stop at Sigonella, the navy base near Catania, we were on our way to Syracuse...