Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Italy: Marsala, Wine and More

Marsala wine at a sidewalk table in Marsala. One
of the city gates is in the distance.

You've heard of Marsala. You've probably drank it or used it in cooking or at least had restaurant dishes that use it: chicken Marsala, shrimp Marsala, etc. Marsala, the westernmost town on the island of Sicily, is where the popular fortified wine originated. Marsala tastings and winery visits are among the town's attractions, though I have the impression that not many Americans or other international travelers visit here.

Of course, as with almost every bit of land in this part of the world, there is history. Marsala was once under the control of the North African Phoenician city-state of Carthage, which fought Greece and Rome for control of Sicily in the Punic Wars.  Though that all ended a couple of millennia ago, it is recalled at a small museum on the nearby resort island of Favignana.  It contains bronze rams that were mounted on Roman and Carthaginian ships in 241 B.C.E. when an important naval battle was fought in nearby waters, the Battle of the Egudi Islands. Two hundred Roman ships, powered by oarsmen, defeated four hundred Carthaginian ships in the last naval battle of the First Punic War. The rams were about all that remained when ships sunk in the battle were discovered in the late 20th century. The museum is housed in a former tuna-processing factory, which also has a museum on the history of tuna fishing and processing. You can easily walk to it from the ferry landing, though signs pointing toward it can send you astray.

We visited Favignana as a day trip, taking a ferry from Marsala's small harbor, but we met a couple from Palermo who frequently make the drive to Marsala, ignore the town, and spend long weekends entirely on Favignana. Beaches -- sandy or rocky, your choice -- and loads of inns, restaurants and shops make this a popular getaway for Sicilians.

Other adventures out of Marsala included visiting Salene della Laguna, a traditional sea salt harvesting operation north of town. We walked among the pools where evaporation of sea water was leaving behind salt. We didn't see the seafoam process, in which, on rare windless days, foam forms on some of the pools and is scooped off and dried, producing a rare and expensive fine white salt, not the large grains of salt that often go into grinders. We bought several jars of the "soffi di sale" as gifts and for our own use at home.

After a morning visit to the salt works, we drove about an hour to visit the Gorghi Tondi winery east of town. We're not particular fans of Marsala wine, so we went to one winery that doesn't make any fortified wine, though Gorghi Tondi does make a sweet dessert wine from the grillo grape, which figures prominently in making Marsala. The sweetness comes from late harvest and botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot" that is used in making Sauternes in France. The tasting here was well worth the drive, and we made it home with a half-case of wine embedded in our luggage, including three bottles of the dessert wine.

Related Posts: 
Three Months: Rome to Palermo, including hotel links (Click HERE)
Walking in Rome (Click HERE)
Eating in Rome (Click HERE)
Palatial Rome (Click HERE)
Ancient Rome (Click HERE)
Catholic Rome (Click HERE)
A Night in Naples (Click HERE)
Visiting the Isle of Capri (Click HERE)
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Click HERE)
Trani and Castel del Monte (Click HERE)
Alberobello and the Trulli District (Click HERE)
Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli (Click HERE)
Matea, the Cave City (Click HERE)
Maratea, and Goodbye to the Mainland (Click HERE)
Taormina, Mountain and Sea (Click HERE)
Catania, City of Surprises, Plus Mount Etna (Click HERE)
27 Centuries at Siracusa (Click HERE)
Agrigento, Valley of the Temples (Click HERE)
Holy Palermo! (Click HERE)
Lemon-based drinks are sold on the piazza outside
the Duomo in Marsala.

Jane and I are reflected in a mirrored ceiling at a wine bar in Marsala. Those little
bowls all held different snacks.

A wine tasting in the courtyard of
what was once a ducal palace.

A G&T and an Aperol spritz at another sidewalk
cafe on a sidestreet in Marsala. 

This bronze ram was mounted on a pole at the front of a Roman
ship in 241 B.C.E. when the ship was one of many sunk during
a naval battle between Carthage and Rome. The stempost sheath
bears the relief decoration of a Montefortino-type helmet with
three feathers. An  inscription indicates that the ram's construction
was inspected and approved. During an attack on another
ship, a badly built ram -- its pole was essentially an extension
of the ship's keel -- could cause its own ship to break apart.
It and many others are on display on the island of Favignana
 in a small museum in a former tuna-processing factory.

A food truck keeps visitors well fed on the island of Favignana.

Anglers fish from the rocks off a seaside promenade
on Favignana.

Steps from a seaside sidewalk allow people to venture out onto the rocks and to swim
in the water beyond them. This area seems to once have been a quarry.

Did you notice these carvings in the preceding photo?  My guess is that they were
carved by quarry workers in rock that was too soft to be  harvested.

The straight lines in the stone are signs that this was
once a quarry. 

A hilltop fortress looks down on Favignana's small but busy harbor.

Windmills once provided power to pump sea water from one pool to another at
Saline della Laguna near Marsala. 

The trees in the distance are on an island
that protects Saline della Laguna from
storm-driven waves that could interfer
with its age-old system of drying seawater
to collect salt.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Italy: Agrigento, Valley of the Temples

When Icarus used the wings his father made to escape from Crete, he disregarded his father's
warning about not flying too close to the sun. The heat weakened the wax in the wings
and Icarus fell to earth. He seems to have landed here, in front of the Temple of
Concordia, as a large bronze sculpture.  

Tempio della Concordia (Temple of the Concord) is considered the best-preserved Greek temple still existing, owing mostly to its having been used for centuries as a Christian church. It's just one of the many temples and ruins between the modern town of Agrigento and the southern coast of Sicily. Photos of Concordia, which is beautifully illuminated at night and appears to float in a dark sky, should put Agrigento on the itinerary of any trip to Sicily.
Most of the temples and other sites are along a walkway that runs the length of the Valley of the Temples, which are considered to be the finest Greek ruins in the world, along with those of the Acropolis in Athens.  Ruins of residential areas and a fine archeological museum are along the road between the valley and the modern town. (The term "valley," by the way, is wrong. The temples are strung along a ridge that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.)

We were still in Siracusa when we started having second thoughts about Agrigento, mainly about the fact that the inn we originally booked did not have a pool. Siracusa was very sunny and very hot, though it was right on the sea. Agrigento, a mile or so inland, would be even hotter, we thought, and we wanted a pool. One hotel in Agrigento appealed to us: Villa Athena, which is not only within walking distance of the Valley of the Temples, it has its own entrance to the park and it has day and night views of Concordia and the Temple of Juno. And a pool.  I called and was told that the only room available was a suite at several hundred euros a night. Jane went online and found a "comfort" class room there for less than 200 euros a night. We booked it and cancelled our previous reservation. No idea why the front desk had told me only the suite was available.

Villa Athena is a house from the 1700s that has been expanded with several wings and out buildings to become a very posh hotel. Our ground-level "comfort" room was very comfortable. It was entered via our own terrace from a sidewalk, which meant mostly keeping curtains drawn for privacy. But the room was large, beautifully furnished and had a superb bathroom and shower. And CNN on TV, which we rarely found in the more modest inns where we usually stayed.

The town of Agrigento was a short taxi ride from Villa Athena. We didn't take our own car because parking in old walled towns in Italy is a nightmare.  We did, however, drive to a nearby beach at San Leone. It took less than 10 minutes, but it would have been a terrible walk.

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Eating in Rome (Click HERE)
Palatial Rome (Click HERE)
Ancient Rome (Click HERE)
Catholic Rome (Click HERE)
A Night in Naples (Click HERE)
Visiting the Isle of Capri (Click HERE)
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Click HERE)
Trani and Castel del Monte (Click HERE)
Alberobello and the Trulli District (Click HERE)
Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli (Click HERE)
Matea, the Cave City (Click HERE)
Maratea, and Goodbye to the Mainland (Click HERE)
Taormina, Mountain and Sea (Click HERE)
Catania, City of Surprises, Plus Mount Etna (Click HERE)
27 Centuries at Siracusa (Click HERE)
Marsala: Wine and More (Click HERE)
Holy Palermo! (Click HERE)

Concordia floats in the distance in this view from Villa Athena. The temple's current
name comes from a plaque found near it, not necessarily associated with it, that was
dedicated to the "harmony of the people of Agrigento." It is considered likely
that the temple was originally dedicated to the Dioskouroi, Castor and Pollux,
although there's another temple here associated with them.

A small fence keeps visitors from climbing the steps and
entering the temple. The Doric columns that surround
the temple appear to be repeated inside.

Another view shows the walls and arches of the interior.
You can see the Mediterranean in the distance.

In the late 500s, a Catholic bishop named Gregorius took over
the temple and consecrated it to Saints Paul and Peter and expelled
the pagan gods Eber and Raps, the most recent subjects of worship there.
It was the conversion to Christian use that saved much of the temple. In
1788, the use as a church ended and most of the Christian elements
were removed. 

The Temple of Hercules boasts columns that were reassembled in the 19th century.

The Tempio di Giunone originally was much like Concordia, but the centuries
weren't so kind to it. Giunone is the Italian version of Juno, aka Hera, and the temple
is referred to by all three names. The goddess in question was the wife of Giove,
Jove, Jupiter or Zeus, depending on your choice of language and whether you regard
the Roman gods as mere adaptations of the Greek ones.  Like most of the
temples here, it dates to the fifth century B.C.E.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux. Or, rather,
a corner of it.

The Tomba di Terone, a small, sealed tomb
in an olive grove below the ridge where
the temples are. 

A centaur appears to be in for a beating
in this illustration on an ancient Greek
bowl at the archeological museum
in Agrigento. It had countless works
such as this, all recovered from local ruins.

This towering figure is one of the titans (the pre-Zeus gods
such as Atlas) meant to adorn the Temple of Zeus at
Agrigento. Today, the temple is an unremarkable pile
of stones, but archeologists have figured out what it was
and how it was meant to look. 

This model of the Temple of Zeus shows that it would have been more or less closed, like no
 other Greek temple of its time. It also would have been the largest. It is thought that it was
 never 100 percent completed. Note the figures between the columns.
 Those are the titans, earlier gods pressed into serving Zeus.

This child's sarcophagus was carved in marble, probably in Rome, in the second century B.C.E. The
front shows the child with his teachers at school, at left, and on his deathbed at right.

This side of the sarcophagus depicts the child as a newborn, The mother is sitting at
right, and a wet nurse holds a cloth to wash the child.

The other side of the sarcophagus shows two figures guiding the child, who is in a small
chariot pulled by a sheep, on his journey to the kingdom of death.

On the western outskirts of Agrigenta is the town of Realmonte and the Scala dei Turchi,
the Stairs of the Turks.  Moorish invaders who were mistakenly thought to be Turks
climbed these cliffs during raids and attempted invasions.

Today the cliffs are a destination for sightseers and sunbathers.

San Leone, a couple of kilometers from Agrigento,
has sandy beaches, several nice lidos and plenty
of sun. The waves are not great for swimming,
but a breakwater at one beach calms things down.

Agrigento is a town with personality, though the number of
out-of-business shops was dismaying. We had two very
good dinners at different places here, and we twice had
aperitivos in the piazza in front of these artful stairs.

Via Atenea is the main pedestrian
 and passeggiata street.
W knew that lights such as these signal a
feast day, but as strangers in a strange land, we almost never knew
what feast day was being celebrated. Clearly, the party hadn't
started yet when I took this picture.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Italy: 27 Centuries at Siracusa

Rocks at an Orytigia beach provide seating. Twisting paths through
the rocks provide access to open water for swimming. Most of
these people seemed to be locals who knew each other. 

Siracusa was founded in 734 B.C.E. by Greeks from Corinth and quickly became the largest and wealthiest city-state in the west, surpassing even Athens. In Siracusa's early centuries, it was ruled by tyrants, most famously by Dionysius (c. 432 to 367 B.C.E.), who imported Greek culture in the form of art, architecture and human talent, such as the playwrights Euripedes and Aeschylus and even the philosopher Plato.

Athens, jealous of Siracusa's wealth and power, tried to conquer Sicily in 413 B.C.E., but was quickly repulsed. It was another two centuries before Siracusa was conquered, and then it was by Rome. This history is essential to understanding what you're looking at in the Archeological Park of Siracusa (known to English speakers as Syracuse). There are Roman ruins, Greek ruins and ruins attributed to the tyrants and monarchs who ruled the city.

Today, Siracusa -- particularly its historic district on the island of Ortygia -- boasts Baroque architecture, lively markets, urban beaches, and, of course, singular ruins. We spent three nights on Ortygia, wandering around the island, trekking to the archeological park on the mainland, and visiting its rocky but delightful beaches. One of the open-air restaurants by the island's fish market provided two memorable lunches, one smoked fish, ham and cheese, and the second all-seafood. One evening we happened into the island's only Chinese restaurant for delicious duck dishes.  Late afternoons called for cocktails at open-air bars beside the island's marina. We asked an Australian crew member from one of the megayachts tied up there where it would be going next. "I can't tell you," he said. "Those things have to be secret." (Attention anyone who wants to stalk billionaires: That megayacht and others can be tracked online at

Our own next destination, not a secret, would again involve ancient Greek ruins, this time at Agrigento.

Related Posts: 
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Walking in Rome (Click HERE)
Eating in Rome (Click HERE)
Palatial Rome (Click HERE)
Ancient Rome (Click HERE)
Catholic Rome (Click HERE)
A Night in Naples (Click HERE)
Visiting the Isle of Capri (Click HERE)
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Click HERE)
Trani and Castel del Monte (Click HERE)
Alberobello and the Trulli District (Click HERE)
Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli (Click HERE)
Matea, the Cave City (Click HERE)
Maratea, and Goodbye to the Mainland (Click HERE)
Taormina, Mountain and Sea (Click HERE)
Catania, City of Surprises, Plus Mount Etna (Click HERE)
Agrigento, Valley of the Temples (Click HERE)
Marsala: Wine and More (Click HERE)
Holy Palermo! (Click HERE)

This is the site of the Ara di Ierone (Altar of Hieron, the tyrant who built it),
dedicated to Zeus and said to be the largest such altar ever built.
It was used for the sacrifice of hundreds of animals at a time. Only
the foundation of the altar remains.

Temporary seating covers the ancient stone seats at the Teatro Greco, the most complete
ancient Greek theater in the world. It was built in the fifth century B.C.E. to hold 15,000 spectators.
The great dramatist Aeschylus presented his "Women of Aetna" here in 476 B.C.E. His
"The Persians" may have premiered here, as well. The theater is used in May and June
every year for the presentation of Greek tragedies.

The Roman amphitheater is not so well preserved and was
built for a different purpose: circuses and martial sports,
not dramas. The corridor through which gladiators
and animals entered the ring is visible in the center
of the arena. It is thought to date to the Augustan age,
when Caesar Augustus turned Siracusa into a military

This is the entrance to the
Orecchio di Dioniso, the "Ear of
Dionysius," so called because
when the tyrant used the grotto
as a prison, its acoustics allowed
guards to hear any conversation
between prisoners.

Inside the Orecchio di Dioniso.
The grotto goes into the cliff
so deeply that it's pitch black
before you reach the end.

Castello Maniace dates to the early
1200s and was until recently used
as a military barracks. It is being
restored to its medieval design and
is only partly open to the public.
Castello Maniace sits at the
southern tip of Ortygia. 

The piazza in front of the Siracusa Duomo is, in typical Italian fashion,
lined with restaurants. One evening here we chanced upon the city band
giving a concert from the Duomo's front steps (at right). The 20-or-so musicians ranged
in age from perhaps 14 to 80 and presented a program of opera, classical
and popular music, including "We Are the World." Since Italy had just
installed an anti-immigration government, I took that selection as a
tasteful form of political protest. Not sure if the theme from "The Lone
Ranger" (the William Tell Overture) had any significance.

The Duomo, which dates to the 7th
century, incorporates columns from
a 5th-century B.C.E. temple to Athena.
The Duomo was built on top of the
Greek structure.

The Duomo's Baroque facade was added in the 1700s.

Inside, the Duomo is relatively unadorned, at least
by southern Italian standards.

The Fontana di Diana is the centerpiece
of the Piazza Archimede, named for
Archimedes, the third-century B.C.E.
mathematician, physicist and
Siracusa's most famous son.

Billionaires' yachts line up at the Siracusa marina, seen here from one of
many waterfront bars. This was taken around 4 p.m. when the sun was still
hot and these seats were not in the shade. By 6 this place was rocking.

Shade is a valuable thing in Siracusa, which seemed
to have a more sunshine than it really needs . This
allée is part of a pedestrian area below the city's seawall
and beside the marina.

The waters around Siracusa on a Saturday looked like a lake in the Ozarks,
filled with party boats, swimmers and sunbathers. Notice the couple
on the floating air mattress.

Almost every bit of shore around Ortygia gets used, no matter how rocky.

This is a non-beach lido, set up on a deck with ladders so swimmers can get into and
out of the water. That's the island's seawall behind it.  (Yes, the water is this blue.)

Children use a float that looks like a slice
of watermelon at one of the beaches
below the seawall.