Friday, April 16:Hannah was sick at home today and so we’ve really just laid back and enjoyed a break.
Saturday, April 17:
Walked to the train station to buy our tickets to Siracusa today and had a really interesting encounter with the ticket agent. Robert asked him if he spoke English to which he indicated that he did not. So we tried explaining what we wanted to which he pushed a paper and pen in our direction. Robert wrote down the date, time and destination of the tickets we wanted while he mumbled something in rather rapid italian at Hannah and I. We passed back Roberts instructions and watched as he typed into the computer, still mumbling. Then showed me the screen that said 36 euros. So I passed 36 euros through to him, that that was a tad more than we expected we be paying, and he passed back a ticket. Before we had a chance to check the ticket or even thank him, he pulled a curtain across in front of the wicket.
Sunday, April 18: More school work, a little hike out behind our house and not much else. The weather isn’t really cooperating. We’re dying to see Mt. Etna but it is really socked in with clouds.
Monday, April 19: Today we traveled by train to Sryacuse (Siracusa in Sicilian). This train a little grubbier than the last but luckily the trip was much shorter and the train almost on time. Lucia and her husband met us at the airport and delivered us to our new home, a beautifully renovated apartment on the old island of Ortygia. We spent a bit of time out wandering the streets and exploring. Found a place to buy a few groceries and then let Hannah have some time for schoolwork. I think this is going to be a wonderful place to spend the week.
Tuesday, April 20:
What an astoundingly beautiful place. We’re on Ortygia, founded in 740bc by the Greeks, a little island connected to the rest of Siricusa by three bridges of maybe each 100 meters in length. This morning we walked around the periphery in an hour or so, then went to the market where we bought grilled red peppers, grilled onion, strawberries, fresh bread and provelone cheese. After sampling the salami, the vendor seemed hurt we didn’t buy some, although we did buy a two liter coke bottle filled with his homemade vino. No government intervention to worry about here re the sale of wine. We then walked the ten minutes or so back to our flat, made coffee and went up to our roof terrace in perfect 20 degrees sunny weather, perhaps 75 meters from the sea with a view between the rooftops.
There is much to explore here, with layer upon layer of history at every turn. Hopefully we can fly to Venice next week or else face a dreary 2 day train trip. So far Italian trains are not impressive; windows that are never cleaned, toilets that are cleaned less often, and a general pervasive grunge feeling that we’d sooner do without.
Tonight we may go around the corner to a puppet show. The shop where the puppets are made is a few doors away and the craftsmanship is extraordinary. These are knights and princesses made of metal and wood; painted to look like 3 foot real people. So it should be great fun not understanding a word of the Italian with battles and love stories unfolding. There is a “go bike” program here where, we think, for a euro you take a bike and leave it wherever, so we hope to do some exploring by bicycle. (By Robert)
Wednesday, April 21:
This morning we decided to get out and explore so we walked through the city to the archeological park. We’ve never seen so many school groups out and about, but discovered that this is cultural week in much of Italy, so a good number of the museums and historical sites are free. The school groups are clearly taking advantage of that. So we wound our way through the park, skirting groups of teenagers, middle school students and younger groups too. Their presence didn’t take away from the magnificence of it all as these are tremendous sites built for crowds. The size alone of the greek theatre is impressive, but the stone work and remains make it somewhat mystical. At the back on top are caves, burial chambers our guide book said. As well, one cave has a waterfall still fed by an old greek aquaduct. Impressive.
Below the theatre are two limestone quarries, now full of fruit tree gardens and the entrance to the Ear of Dionysius, a very impressive ear shaped cave. We did get a minute or two alone in the cave between two various groups. Interesting I thought the difference in the way that the teachers with each group handled the students. The first led her group into the back of the cave and had them sing a song to hear the echo. It was quite enchanting and very respectful of all of the rest of us. The second group straggled in and filled the cave with yells and calls. We left pretty quickly at that point as the echo is unlike anywhere. The story of the cave is that Dionysius was supposed to have used it to imprison enemies where he could enjoy listening to everything they said from the caves above. Carriaggio later gave the cave the name the Ear of Dionysius due to its’ shape.
The greek theatre is still used today and to protect the ruins some wooden seats have been built over some of the original stone seating. As well a new wooden platform covers what’s left of the original stage. I like seeing the space used in this way, still open to the public for viewing of the ruins but also kept up for use as it was originally intended. Near the entrance to the greek theatre is the entrance the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. It isn’t being used, is smaller (though still the third largest Roman amphitheater in the world) and intriguing as a ruin.
Thursday, April 22:
We’re trying so hard to not schedule much into each day so that Hannah has ample time to work on schoolwork. It’s hard though because there is so much to see but today we limited ourselves to a walk to the market and a puppet show. The market is well worth going to every day if only for fresh bread but it’s also fun to walk through to listen to the wonderful voices of all of the vendors who call out about their produce, all in Italian. So while we’re standing right in front of him, buying strawberries, the vendor is calling in his loud, sing song voice that the strawberries are two euros for a kilo. Hannah got him laughing though when she started singing it all back to him. Such fun we have.
In the evening it was a true treat to go to a sicilian puppet show complete with knights, a princess, a ranting friar, monsters, giants and even a cyclops. We’d challenge anyone to follow the story, told all in Italian, even with the plot written out for us in some sort of version of an english translation. It was such a delight.
Friday, April 23:
Today Hannah made friends! After a morning of touring the Maniace castle, another short trip in the rain to the market, and some time for school work Lucia came by with two teenage girls, her daughter Ana and a friend Helena. Within minutes Hannah was off with them and Robert and I found ourselves home alone.
In the morning we toured the Maniace Castle, a 13th C castle that is supposed to be an excellent example of medieval architecture. Walking into the expansive courtyard it was almost possible to hear the echo of horse hoofs and feel the scurrying of village peasants going about their daily chores. Inside the inner castle is the most superb example of a great hall that I’ve ever seen. The vaulted ceiling alone made the visit worthwhile but as well there were two giant fireplaces, inner chambers, steps down to who knows where, secret gates, even an obvious toilet room, often missing from so much of what is sanitized for public viewing of heritage sites and ruins. This castle was just still, centuries later, so obviously a place where life went on.
Saturday, April 24: This was Hannah’s last day of being 15. To celebrate, one of her new friends, Natalie skipped school on a Saturday to come and hang out with Hannah.
While the girls were out Robert and I walked out to the Museum which we thoroughly enjoyed although we didn’t spend enough time at all. We were under the impression that it closed for lunch between 2 and 3 and so we rushed through Section A looking at amazing archeological finds from milleniums ago and reading little bits and pieces in the few occasions where a bit of english translation was provided of how the stories fit together and the various findings added to what we know about people from the Bronze age. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen the kinds of evidence of life from so long ago, we’re talking 5,000 to 4,000 bC I believe. At any rate, we rushed through and were good about leaving the museum just as we were getting to the stuff about Ortygia. We didn’t want anyone yelling at us for staying past closing time but as we left it seemed that other people were coming in. We asked a few people but really absolutely no one here speaks english so that wasn’t much help. Finally we just decided to walk back in and continue with what we wanted to see. No one bothered us as we did so, which led us to believe that although the pamphlets all said it was closed, it really wasn’t.
From there we headed on to the Catacombs of San Giovanni. This amazing little site of a church was one of the first early Catholic churches, maybe the first. Certainly Christianity had a stronghold in Sicily it seems before other places in Italy. It seems that both Peter and Paul must have come here early on. The catacomb tour was more interesting than the catacombs in Rome.
Sunday, April 25: Hannah’s birthday! Hannah’s new friends Natalie and Francesca invited us to their house for lunch which was a perfect way to celebrate Hannah’s birthday. She got to hang out with the girls and their friends Charles and Simone. Robert and I had a wonderful lunch and visited with with Francesca’s dad Enzo and her mom Adelle. Enzo speaks English quite fluently and so we had a most pleasant afternoon.
Monday, April 26:
We’re missing being able to celebrate Rosie’s birthday in Vancouver. Happy birthday, Rosita! Instead we were off to Catania for just one night enroute to Venice. We were either just clearly in the wrong area of Catania or there really isn’t much to see there because for the life of us we couldn’t figure out why there were any tourists at all in Catania. We walked about 2 kilometers from the train station to find our hotel which was really only about 250 meters from where we started. At one point we stopped and asked four grown men at a coffee shop which direction the street was from where they were. They consulted with a neighbour halfway down the block, and between about five of them pulled together enough english/spanish/french/italian to have a conversation with us only to admit that they’d all lived there all their lives and had no idea at all where the street was. So we walked back to the train and around the block to another hotel to ask for directions. The woman at the desk helpfully looked it up on the internet and drew it onto a Catania map for us. So back out on the street, up three more blocks, back past the men at the coffee shop whom we had consulted with and there was the street, right off of the plaza where they were sitting! And they honestly had no idea. Of course even on the street which was only a block long, once we found it, it took three passes to find our B&B hotel.
After checking in to what turned out to be quite a lovely B&B hotel we went out walking to see the sites but didn’t find any at all, unless you count the obvious red light district just off the main plaza. We wouldn’t recommend choosing Catania as a destination but as always the three of us together had fun turning it all into just more of our adventures on the road.
Tuesday, April 27:
Ah Venice! It is so beautiful and magical here. I love it. To be honest I was nervous about coming to Venice, not just because of my own high expectations but also because we’ve heard so much in the last month about how terribly expensive everything is in Venice. True, if one stays only in the very touristy areas, then like anywhere, things are pricey. But so far we’re finding it easy to get around and perhaps even more reasonable than Sicily because at least here we can find people to help us in English and to give us good information so that we’re not spending money that we don’t need to just because we don’t know any better. Things are well marked and the people seem genuinely pleasant. Even as we arrived at the airport, the tourist information was available in English, a map and a guidebook together cost only 2,50€ and there were clear signs about the cost of all of the different options for getting into the center of Venice.
To top it all off, the weather is perfect. Our hotel is beautiful, comfortable, in the center of town, and even has a bath tub, a rarity I’m learning, here in Italy.
Wednesday, April 28: Time in Venice is going to fly by. Over the last day and a half we’ve spent 10 hours so far walking the streets of Venice and we’ve probably only walked on the same streets for about 15 minutes of that time. And, I’ve been totally lost at least 5 times. This morning I took one wrong turn and five minutes later when I tried to locate the campo we were in on the map, I was looking in the completely wrong section of the map. A little later when we wandered into the main post office, an amazing old warehouse building, I realized how far we were from where I had initially intended to wander. It is all just meandering though so it didn’t matter at all.
Considering that we are really not shoppers, its amusing to see that even the shops are drawing us in. Hannah’s looking at beautiful leather bags and gorgeous silk scarves, Robert continues to prowl the luggage stores but has moved from 14th Street type stores to classy leather shops and I’m just intrigued by everything, jewlery, glass, chocolates, pasta, desserts, and especially the masks. This is a city though that is charged and eccentric. It plays with your emotions and whims. The bells, the colors, and the canals. Robert found himself getting teary-eyed the first time a chain of gondolas, complete with guitarist and singer, floated under the bridge we were lingering on. It’s a sensual paradise that clearly seep into the soul.
Thursday, April 29: Yesterday we had a gondole ride. That it didn’t get written into my highlights of the day yesterday just shows how impressive the whole city scene is. We’ve moved to a two bedroom flat just steps away from the S Frari Church, so a little farther from Piazza S. Marco. It is a much better location to be farther away from the real tourist scene which quickly gets tiring, although really this whole city is really just one giant tourist spot. Rick Steeves claims that as of 2009 there were only 62,000 real Venetians living on the islands, half of the population of about 30 years ago and declining by 1,000 people/year. Apparently most of the remaining population is older as this a place not well suited to families. Strollers are hard to push; groceries and amenities are expensive and hard to find. He expects that within 10 years this may well be simply a museum of a city. Of course, that’s only the part that will still be above water. Venice floods as much as 100 days/year. In our flat the notes in the “welcome binder” include a page on high water, which are more common November to March but can happen anytime. The page states that we’ll be warned that high waters are coming by a siren. This house is equipped with an “anti-tidal basin”which should prevent big damage and will probably keep the water out of the house. “When this happens it is part of Venice charm! The most striking place in town to see high water is Piazza S. Marco, since it is also the lowest point in town. Thew will be flying bridges where you can walk almost everywhere in Venice, but you can also buy a pair of boots and enjoy walking the the water! Just pay attention not to fall in the canals!” Right!
After our move we toured more streets that we hadn’t yet been to including the old Jewish ghetto. Venice is where the term “ghetto” originates from as the Jews, when they were finally allowed to live in Venice, were segregated on a very small island near the foundry or ‘geto’. Today there is a very touching holocaust memorial in the Campo d’ Nuovo Ghetto.
Friday, April 30: More miles and miles of walking and a tour through S Marco’s Basilica. Another excellent day and a great end to April. We can’t believe there are only 2 months left.