I've been moving around a lot recently and it's been so wonderful that I must say I even feel a little guilty blogging about it all. Please forgive me as I amp up the vicarious vacations in this final push before heading home.
Anna was able to get a day and a half off from work, so we rented a car (this is becoming common and marginally less frightening) and embarked on a jam-packed 48 hour trip through south-eastern Sicily, including Piazza Armerina, Caltagirone, Palazzolo Acreide, Noto, and the Vendicari nature reserve. Driving in Sicily can be daunting, especially considering streets in towns are terribly narrow, drivers don't acknowledge lanes or speed limits, and roads are neither named nor numbered, but have a variety of arrows with town names pointing in chaotic directions to be checked at every intersection. Plus, they upgraded us to a Mer(ch)edes, so we felt rather conspicuous but nonetheless classy in our hops from one UNESCO site to the next.
In Piazza Armerina we visited Villa Romana del Casale, which is famous for its having the most well-preserved Roman floor mosaics in the world, and are as such thanks to a flood that caked the villa in mud for centuries. Unfortunately a huge chunk of the villa was under restoration, but what we were able to see was phenomenal. Two favorite rooms included the scandalous boudoir scene and the cyclops scene. Keep in mind that all the art and fantastic detail (check out those biceps!) is done in mosaics.
Next we headed to Caltagirone, the city of ceramics, where we stayed the night in a lovely B&B with a rooftop terrace garden in the center of town. The town is decidedly Baroque, highlighted with colorful tiles wherever possible. Perhaps the most striking landmark in the city is the 142-step, ceramic-encrusted Staircase of Santa Maria del Monte, which is the spot for city festivities (they even light it up like a Lite-Brite for their saint's day) as well as where the youth meets to hang out at night.
Rosa, our hostess, prepared us a lovely home-baked breakfast to enjoy on the terrace before we went off to explore Caltagirone by day, which included ceramics shopping (in a huge outlet warehouse with designs by dozens of local artists), church-hopping, and a stroll through the local park.
On our way to Noto we stopped by Palazzolo Acreide, a rather abandoned town put on the map thanks to its local ancient Greek Theatre. Anna saw a black snake on our way in so it wasn't easy to completely relax and enjoy the site, but no trip to Sicily is complete without Greek ruins so I was glad we made the stop.
We arrived in Noto in the early afternoon, and in between stops for sweets (cannoli and orange-pistachio cake), aperitivo, and dinner, we visited a handful of the Baroque churches and buildings for which the region is so well known.
Finally, on our last morning before returning to Catania, we went to Vendicari, which is a special nature reserve famous for bird-watching and fantastic beaches. First we went to Calamosche, which is supposed to be the most gorgeous beach on the reserve, and it lived up to its reputation. It was practically empty when we arrived around 9am, and the water was pristine. I was in Sicily, and I was swimming with the fishes. But in a good way.
We didn't have much time left with the rental car, but I had heard great things about the Tonnara, or tuna fish factory, so we popped over to see it. What's left of its columns practically grows out of the crystal blue sea.
We sped back to Catania to join Anna's students at the Sagra di Pesce Spada, or Swordfish Festival, in Acitrezza. We enjoyed an aperitivo at a local's house and walked around the festively populated town, stopping for a magical glass of wine on the seafront, overlooking Cyclops' rocks at dusk. As we listened to Madonna's "La Isla Bonita", we contemplated what permanently moving to this beautiful island would be like, with its amplification of all Italy's greatest faults and triumphs.