Yacht Pipit

      

Ancient ruins, chocolate, hedgehogs and girls in bikinis (just the girls in bikinis, not the hedgehogs) - 3rd April 2013

Temple of Concordia at the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento.


Andy's mum Audrey and his sister Gill came to visit during the last week in March and we spent a wonderful week together sightseeing, catching up and doing rather a lot of eating and drinking! Both have travelled, his mother quite extensively, but neither had previously visited Sicily, so we had quite a busy week trying to show them (and see for ourselves) what we thought were the best sights in the area over the short period of a single week. We did pack a lot in, so this is quite a long update!

After their long day travelling on Saturday, delayed further by snow in the UK, we spent Sunday simply relaxing and chatting and had lunch at the apartment - gastronomically visiting Greece for our starter and main course and Italy for dessert - Greek salad, kleftiko and tiramisu! This was just the start of what Gill dubbed a 'grazing fest' holiday. We planned menus for the week to include some of our favourite Mediterranean dishes, local specialities and some of the wonderful seasonal produce fresh from the market.

A relaxed Sunday lunch in the apartment. Ten points for those who spot the apartment's 'resident mouse'...


We had looked at numerous apartments a couple of months ago for the week, and whilst many would have been adequate, some were very basic, with narrow stairs, tiny kitchens with only a stove and no oven, dated interiors and little or no inside lounging area. Given that we knew the weather may not be ideal for sitting outside during the day, and certainly not all evening, we really wanted to find something that had a large and comfortable inside lounging area, as well as a good kitchen and preferably two bathrooms. We eventually found two adjacent apartments which overlook the marina and although slightly more expensive than others we'd viewed, were well worth the money as they are beautifully appointed, stylishly decorated and equipped to a very high standard, including electric blinds and remotely controlled awnings and even soft-close b*g seats! The galley (sorry, kitchen) had a dishwasher which Andy particularly enjoyed using! We would highly recommend either the two bedroom apartment (both with en suite) that we chose, or the three bedroom one next door to anyone looking for a luxury holiday apartment in Marina di Ragusa. We felt it was a perfect venue in which we really enjoyed the relaxed evenings (& the couple of rest days!) cooking, chatting and just spending time together.

Andy's near favourite activity of the week.


En route to the airport, we had already noticed that the countryside was a riot of colour with millions of spring flowers and this was apparent on our first full day of sightseeing on Monday as we set off for Caltagirone. Yellow crown daisies were the most abundant and absolutely bursting from roadsides and fields along with viper's bugloss, poppies, wild sweet peas, wild mustard and er, pretty orange ones, bright yellow ones and dainty pink ones...

Caltagirone is mostly known for its 142 step (Andy actually counted them for confirmation) hand-made maiolica ceramic-tiled staircase (or more specifically the riser on each step), originally built in 1608. We'd have liked to stop at the bottom of the steps for coffee in a nice café, but none seemed to offer the indoor seating the now decidedly wet weather dictated, so we made our ascent, sheltering briefly in the church at the top before dashing back to the car.

Caltagirone - the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte.


The riser on each of the 142 steps has a unique design. We climbed them all - mostly in the rain...


Brief shelter, or rather sanctuary was found here at the Mother Church of Santa Maria del Monte at the top of the steps.

Outside the Mother Church of Santa Maria del Monte - the polychrome maiolica mosaic depicting the Taking of the Bell of Altavilla to Caltagirone.


We drove on to the Villa Romana del Casale just outside the town of Piazza Armerina, hoping, as we wound our way up and downs valleys, that it would be in one of the sunny patches amidst the rain. Unfortunately, we had to walk from the car park to the entrance in showers and cold winds, made worse by the fact that to reach the entrance, you are forced to wend your way up a winding path past numerous (and mostly closed at this time of year) souvenir vendors in their tented booths.

I knew of course about the mosaic of the (in)famous bikini girls, but we were all awed by the scale of the entire site and the condition of the mosaics. It truly is one of the 'must see' sights in Sicily. The overhead coverings are currently being improved and extended, not only for the preservation of the mosaics, but I imagine for shelter from rain and sun for its visitors, as it must become swelteringly hot there in the summer. The latter was difficult to imagine as we shivered our way around, catching a few showers in between the buildings.

The bikini girls - they are actually athletes, and the 'bikinis' are the ancient Greek version of Spandex.


Here is just a selection of photos of the staggering number of mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale:









In many rooms, not only are the mosaic floors in impressive condition, but the paint on the walls is still remarkably vivid.






This next set are of the Corridor of the Great Hunting Scene. This portrays a hunt for exotic animals and the beasts then being loaded onto ships for Rome.






The Battle of the Giants in the dining hall.


After getting cold and wet at Caltagirone and the Villa Romana del Casale on Monday, we had a lazy start on Tuesday, venturing out after lunch to Donnafugata Castle, just a few kilometres away from Marina di Ragusa and this turned out to be a little gem of a tourist attraction that we hadn't previously heard about. Originally from the mid 17th century and extended into its present form by the Baron of Donnafugata in the 19th century, its lavish interior, much of which has been restored, reflected the opulence of the era and its owners. We were not allowed to take photographs inside, but for those who may be interested, you can see some here. Several of the ceilings are painted in the trompe-l'il style (French for deceive the eye) - very cleverly creating the optical illusion of three dimensions.

Traditional Sicilian cart in the courtyard of Donnafugata Castle.


Donnafugata Castle with the fragrant rosemary and lavender maze in the garden.


We were especially amused to discover that the Baron's coat of arms depicts four hedgehogs (for those in the know, there is a story involving me & hedgehogs, or rather a muntjac deer I mistakenly called a hedgehog in my surprise at catching a very fleeting glimpse of one - a glass or two of wine had been imbibed earlier that evening and I had meant to say badger - although that still doesn't help my case does it?)

Proof positive that we all saw hedgehogs!


Each of the Norman double-lancet windows seems to have a unique Mediaeval style decorative carving.


Gill had joined me earlier in the day for the morning walk with the girls for an opportunity to see the seafront and our usual diversion to the fresh produce market. Swordfish, a Sicilian favourite, and fresh peas were bought for the evening meal, and I also stocked up for the rest of the week with various seasonal and local fruit & vegetables, including varieties not normally seen in the UK.

Working for their supper, shelling peas!


Wednesday was a day for baroque architecture, beginning with a visit to Modica. Modica is also renowned for its chocolate, so obviously this was on the 'must-do' list! It's not completely clear from the photos below, but the hot chocolate 'drink', although served in a mug, must be eaten with a spoon as it is more like a warm, light but luscious chocolate mousse.

Enjoying the delicious hot chocolate, a speciality of Modica.


So thick, the spoon nearly stands up in it!


Chocolate and lovely biscuits too - gert lush, as they say in certain parts!


Oh yes, did I mention that Modica is known for its baroque architecture as well as the chocolate?

The baroque church, Duomo di San Pietro, in Modica.


From Modica we drove to Ragusa Ibla, which we had visited in November, to take in the sights of its baroque architecture and unusual position on its limestone hill between two deep valleys and to have lunch at the Il Barocco restaurant that we'd eaten in previously. We found that Il Barocco was closed on Wednesdays, as were a few other likely looking candidates, but our choice of the Iblantica turned out to be just as nice.

Iblantica restaurant in Ragusa Ibla.




Portale di San Giorgio - the Portal of St George (showing him slaying that pesky dragon) in Ragusa Ibla.


The baroque Cathedral di San Giorgio in Ragusa Ibla.


An attempt at an arty view of the Cathedral di San Giorgio in Ragusa Ibla.


We opted for a more restful day on Thursday with a stroll along the seafront and a visit to the just refurbished Marina di Ragusa town square, then lunch in the sun (or rather under the awning) on the apartment balcony.

Lunch on the balcony.


We had a lazy afternoon followed by dinner inspired by the flavours of Morocco and a little bit of Sicily: Moroccan-style broad bean salad, Sicilian orange & cedri salad to start, main course of griddled pork chops accompanied by cous cous with griddled violet aubergine, courgette & red pepper seasoned with the ras-el-hanout we'd actually purchased in Morocco - very authentic, although I guess the pork chops should have been lamb, but we'd already had lamb in the Greek kleftiko on Sunday!


I was rather proud of my Sicilian orange & cedri salad. Cedri are a variety of citron with a rough gnarly skin and a favourite of Sicilians. You cut away the skin, but eat the rest of the fruit, and don't take the pith... off.


The Moroccan-style broad bean salad was rather good too (a Jamie Oliver recipe - really delicious).


Don't mind if I do...


On Friday, the last full day of the holiday, we visited the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento. This was another amazing place, not simply the temples themselves, but the museum, which contained an unbelievable quantity of finds from the region, hundreds of which were in near perfect condition. It was not just cabinets full of shards of pottery (you know the feeling that once you've seen one broken bit of pot, you've seen them all), but dozens of vases and other artefacts, some quite enormous, making their excellent condition all the more amazing. We were so stunned that we took no photos, although we weren't actually sure if photography was allowed inside the museum.

An old ruin - and an ancient Greek temple...


There were numerous olive and almond trees lining the 'road' along which all the temples are located, and although most of the almond trees had already replaced their blossoms with tiny green almonds, one or two were still in bloom. The carpets of spring flowers under the trees made a lovely sight and must have been really spectacular a few weeks previously when the bulk of the almond trees were in flower.

Spring flowers beneath the olive and almond trees.


A modern bronze statue of the fallen Icarus with the Temple of Concordia behind.


The Temple of Herakles (Hercules) - an attempt at an arty shot.


Another artistic attempt - Temple of Hera or Juno Lacinia.


Pretty blossoms, and the tree looks lovely too.


The Temple of Herakles (Hercules).


Interesting tree trunk.


The view down the 'main road'...


...and a viewer of the same.


The fallen statue of Atlas from the Temple of Zeus (of which there are few recognisable remains) - how did that agave plant get there?


The Temple of Hera or Juno Lacinia.


The Temple of Hera or Juno Lacinia.


The Temple of Hera or Juno Lacinia.


Modern sculpture outside museum.


Modern sculpture outside museum.


Looking over the ekklesiasterion (meeting place for the people's assembly) behind the museum - Temples of Hera and Concordia in distance.


Having seen Mount Etna from a distance when we met Andy's mum & sister at Catania airport, we left early to take them for their return flight so that we could drive up for a closer look. The road signage left a little to be desired, but we eventually got there (yes, I know, it's the big thing shaped like a volcano, just head for that...) and although we didn't have time to take the cable car ride, the view from the car park at 1900 metres above sea level was quite spectacular, both upwards to Etna and down to Catania and the coast.

On the road winding up to the car park, previous lava flows were evident, some of which had engulfed houses whose roofs were just protruding from the lava. There was still a fair amount of snow and it was chilly, but not as cold as we'd expected, although the wind was just beginning to rise when we left.

Andy, Gill and I climbed the closest crater (Silvestri) and were amazed to feel the warmth and smell a slight whiff of sulphur emanating from the ground. The surface was odd to walk on - crunchy underfoot and, being what I assume to be crushed pumice and very light, potentially a bit slippery.


Mount Etna.


Ideally, a trip to Mount Etna would be for an entire weekend to allow time to take the cable car ride, the off-road vehicle trip and to climb more of the craters.

One of the two Silvestri craters.


The other one.


Mount Etna.


Andy would have preferred to drive this Mercedes rather than 'our' Renault Clio...


Happy memories - on the balcony of the apartment at the end of a great week.


It was sad to wave Audrey & Gill off at the airport, but we hope they enjoyed the week. We certainly did. It was really great to see all these sights ourselves and to share the discoveries with Andy's mum and sister. Both have travelled, his mother quite extensively, but neither had previously visited Sicily. The apartment was lovely and we really enjoyed the evenings cooking, chatting and just spending time with them, although I'm still not sure whether the sore throat I had each morning was from that last glass of wine or talking so late into the night!

Having driven in Italy previously, Andy relished his re-introduction to Italian driving. As a passenger it was seat-grippingly, breath-intakingly tense at times, but constantly amusing. It's rather like a bizarre ballet with vehicles of all sizes overtaking at high speed, stopping, parking (or more accurately drivers abandoning their vehicles) anywhere at any angle with other vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road around aforementioned stopped vehicles. Motorcycles and scooters dart precariously in and out of traffic and around any obstruction or abandoned vehicle, but amazingly we saw no contact during our week! The trick is not to hesitate and to be assertive. Road signage is not the best, often there would be one sign for a destination, then nothing for miles (kilometres), despite having to pass through several junctions. Many signs are right at a turning, too late to spot, although we went wrong only a surprisingly few number of times in the 1400km covered during the week (nearly 400 of which was to & from the airport).

We were able to spend another couple of days at the apartment, resting and reflecting on a lovely week. Apart from one wet & windy day, the weather was kind during the previous week but it is still far from settled, often with high winds:

Although it doesn't appear Pipit is heeling much, you can see the strain on the extra lines.


The severity of the winds is more noticeable on this smaller yacht, a few 'doors' along from us.


We've managed to do some jobs in preparation for our departure, including replacing worn shackles on the mainsheet traveller, but the wind is still often fresh to howling. Andy spoke to a friend recently, and he could hear the howling through the phone quite clearly. Another cruiser was speaking to her mother who thought she had the kettle on whistling away on the stove. Think we'll be here until the end of April at least...

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