When Yellow and Blue Don’t Make Green

For a long time I wasn’t a fan of the ‘golden hour’, photographese for the brief period before sunset and after sunrise when everything is tinged with a warm, soft golden hue.  As far as I could tell, the only thing those golden rays did was dull the light and turn gardens into sickly yellows.  Then I went to a small fishing village on the north-east coast of Sicily and saw what all the fuss was about.

Cefalù (chay-fah-loo) is the site of the third cathedral in the UNESCO  triumvirate of Arab-Norman cathedrals.   (The other two are in Monreale and Palermo). It was only 120 k west of Tindari (post to come), but the coastal road was a lot more coastal than I’d expected and while it wasn’t ‘eternal’, which is how one commentator on Trip Advisor described it, it took a lot longer than I’d anticipated.

The SS113 takes the concept of coastal road literally.  The hump in the distance is La Rocca, the mountain that looms over Cefalù.

By the time I arrived in Cefalù, it was late afternoon.  After driving round and round for what did seem like an eternity I found the B&B, but what to do with the car?  Of all the charming medieval villages I’ve visited, Cefalù is by far the most challenging when it comes to parking.  On a previous trip to Sicily I had spent a miserable hour driving up and down the narrow, congested lanes before I gave up and continued on to Palermo.  But this time I was staying in Cefalù.  I drove round and round some more until it was obvious, even to my frazzled self,  that I was merely illustrating the definition of idiocy – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

Finally, Torre Caldura on the eastern edge of Cefalù came into view.

So instead of driving by, I pulled over in front of a tiny fruttivendolo (fru-tee-ven-doh-low) across from the B&B.  One thing I’ve learned in all the years of visiting Italy’s charming, but cramped villages is that everyone in these villages knows everyone else.  And everyone else’s business.  I went up to the fruit seller, apologized for the disturbo and explained my predicament.  Without a moment’s hesitation he called over to a woman standing by the fence surrounding the B&B.  It was Maria Luisa.  She had been waiting for me.  Had been holding a spot for me with her car, which she promptly backed out of the spot, blocking the road so no-one would zip in front of the straniera who she correctly assumed was no match for the locals, and I slowly inched into my very own posteggio riservato.  Which is where my car stayed for the duration of my stay in Cefalù.

Then I set out for the cathedral.

Under the dark clouds the cathedral looked more like a fortress than a place of worship.

The cathedral was closed, so I went looking for a bar.

By ‘went looking for a bar’, this is what I meant.

The view was wonderful, as was the bianco locale, and before long, all the second guessing and nasty recriminations about who in their right mind would willingly choose to drive into this place, let alone stay here had vanished into the ether.

After a while I noticed people setting up tripods along the boardwalk at the west edge of town.  Tripods are always a good sign that something interesting photographically is about to happen.  I went over to see what they were up to.

Behind the cathedral towers the grand ‘Rocca‘, known to the Phoenicians as the Promontory of Hercules.  At its summit are the ruins of a 13th century castle and an ancient temple. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too hot the next day when I climbed up there.

The twin arches are part of the ‘bar’ where the village’s charms began to reveal themselves.

I didn’t have a tripod so I set my camera on the balustrade in anticipation of whatever it was that all the better equipped photographers around me were waiting for.

It happened so quickly. If I’d lingered a few minutes longer over the bianco I would have missed it.

And it was over so quickly.  A few minutes later, all that remained of the golden hour were the cathedral towers.

But no. It wasn’t over.  It was the winds chasing the clouds that plunged first one then another part of the village into darkness. 

And then, when I was sure the fantastical light show was finally over, something equally  magical happened.

I later read that what I was watching was the ‘Blue Hour’.  Unlike the ‘golden hour’ (the period after sunrise and before sunset), the Blue Hour occurs – sometimes, it’s not a given – before sunrise and after sunset. The bluish tones have something to do with residual, indirect sunlight caused when the sun is at a significant depth below the horizon.

Not everything, we are cautioned, looks as good in the ‘blue hour’ as a fishing village by the sea.

The following morning I got an early start. There was a lot to see in the tiny village and because of my late arrival the evening before there was one more thing on my to-do list.

Porta Marina aka Porta Pescara (Fishermen’s Gate), the last of the four gates in the walls that once surrounded the village.

A villager smokes the first cigarette of the day as he watches the waves crashing against the rocks.

What a wonderful way to start the day. (Minus the cigarette!)

When I reached Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral hadn’t yet opened.  I went over to one of the caffès, which as usual kept longer hours than the church, and had a cappuccino.

The cathedral looked much less forbidding under sunny skies, and what struck me now was how out of place it looked in what had been, and apart from the seasonal hordes of tourists, still is essentially a small, simple village.  So what was it doing here?

The cathedral, looking slightly less fortress-like under clear, blue skies.

In 1131 Roger II, the Norman King who had conquered Sicily a few decades earlier, was returning to Palermo from Salerno on the eastern end of the Amalfi Coast when suddenly a violent storm arose.  Fearing for his life, the king made a vow. If they survived the storm, wherever they first touched land, he would build a majestic temple in honour of his Saviour.  (The part about the Normans conquering Sicily is history.  The part about the storm and the vow is (sadly) more legend than history.)

As I sat there looking at the cathedral I began to feel that something was off.

The towers are invariably described as ‘twin’ towers.  In human twins, there are usually a few minor (and extremely helpful) variations – although I once had twins in an Intro Italian class that cause me conniptions all year long – but when we talk of twins in architecture, we are usually referring to 100% identical structures.  As far as I could see, these two towers started off in identical fashion, but at the top they were not at all the same.  Most glaringly, the window treatments on the spires – a 15th century addition – were different.  And, more importantly, so were the merlons (‘notches’ for those whose knowledge of battlement design is as non-existent as mine).  The v-shaped merlons on the left tower symbolize royal, temporal power, while the flame-shaped merlons on the right tower represent the Papal authority.

Some of the Papal flames have lost some of their fire.

When I got back to the B&B later that day I asked the Signora why the towers were different.  She hesitated and then, with a remarkable degree of confidence, explained. ‘Perché l’una è nata per primo e hanno fatto l’altra diversa per distinguerla.’  Because the one was born first and they made the other different to tell them apart.

While not as elaborately or as completely decorated as the cathedrals in Monreale and Palermo, all the essential elements are present.

As in the other two cathedrals, presiding over all, an enormous Christ Pantokrator.

As I made my way over to the path up the Rocca I couldn’t help thinking that if the cathedral had been open I probably would have taken a photo or two of the exterior, had the same quick look inside and then gone off without ever realizing that the towers were mismatched.   It was an unsettling thought.  How many other things had I missed because I hadn’t had to wait around?

Where streets are so narrow, everyone is obliged to share the road. Engaging in any form of road rage would amount to fare brutta figura.  And in a place where la bellezza in all things is greatly admired, making an ‘ugly’ impression is to be avoided at all costs.

On the main corso a rather well-dressed, elderly man was pushing a wheelbarrow.

He was the village’s itinerant fishmonger.

The fish was carefully weighed…

…payment made…

…and he continued down the lane in search of his next customer.

A laundromat is normally something I try to stay away from while travelling, but when I saw all the people going down to the Lavatoio medievale I decided to have a look.

The already hot air on the corso just a few steps above was no match for the bone-chilling dampness.

The lavatoio was built over the sorgente (source) of the Cefalino River, known since antiquity for its water – ‘purer than silver and colder than snow’ – and which had been created by the tears of a disconsolate nymph who, after killing her unfaithful lover, later came to regret the act.

The water may be sweet, but ‘as cold as snow’ had as little appeal for me on that warm May day as it does today as the snow slants endlessly outside my window..

On the same website I also learned that until a few decades ago the village women still did their laundry in the lavatoio and the sound of their voices raised in canti tradizionali would echo along the lanes of the village.  Between the story of the ancient nymph and of the 20th century village women singing gaily as they scrubbed their families’ dirty clothes on the cold lava rocks, I don’t know which strikes me as more fanciful.  For the sake of the latter, I hope it was more than a few decades ago.

The wash boards. Maybe in the summer this would have been a welcome refuge. But the rest of the year?

When I reached the beginning of the path up the Rocca, I was surprised to see a gate and a ticket office. You had to pay to climb up Hercule’s Promontory!  But it was only a few euros and there would no doubt be some costs involved in maintaining the site.  And the staff. In addition to the ticket collector I was surprised to see a second fellow sitting inside the entrance.  He had one of those clickers that are used at crowded sites like the Colosseum in Rome or the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.  But a path up a mountain in a small village? There weren’t exactly hordes lined up for the 270 metre climb.

Next to the ticket office was a brightly coloured plant that looked like a Crown of Thorns, but I’d never seen a multi-coloured one before. What if our red ones are really latent multi-coloured ones that just need a bit more light?

The clicker fellow explained that his job wasn’t only to keep track of the number of people who walked into the site, but also the number that walked out of it.  In the past there had been problems with visitors being stranded on top of the mountain in the dark.

Scabiosa had not only taken root in the vertical rock, but was obviously flourishing.

Halfway up, a view of the medieval jumble and the (non-twin) spires of the cathedral.

Diana’s Temple. Depending on your source, 5th C B.C. or even as early as the 8th C B.C

A plaque near the entrance explained that inside the temple are the ruins of a byzantine church dedicated to Santa Venere. Saint Venus. Definitely a lot of muddling of eras up here.

An archeologist or a geologist would see so much in these strange patterns.

They say we see what we look for.  Or what we know.  While rocks are a total mystery and will probably remain so for me, plants are becoming more and more familiar.

Margherite puzzolenti. Stinking daisies.

How did borage get up here?

At the top of the Rocca are the remains of an Arab citadel and the castle which the next conquerors, the Normans, built on top of it.   Some visitors talk about goat droppings and giant lizards.  I didn’t see any of that.  Just spectacular views.

To the east lies Messina at the north-east tip of the island.

To the north the dome poking out of the sea is Alicudi Island, the most westerly of the Aeolian Islands.

And to the west, somewhere in the mist is Palermo.

They say that on a clear day you can see all the way from Messina to Palermo.  But that will have to wait for another trip.




The Mountain – Part I

BUON ANNO!  It’s a bit late, but this is my first post for 2018 and I wanted to wish you all a very Happy New Year!

To start the year off with a bang –  hoping of course that Mother Nature doesn’t decide to do the real thing – we’re going to take a closer look at the mountain we caught glimpses of along the road to the Tree of the Hundred Horses (December 12, 2017).

Mt. Etna puffing away in the background along the road to the giant Chestnut Tree.

Etna has apparently been erupting for about 500,000 years, which makes it one of the oldest and most active volcanoes in the world.  The Phoenicians called it ‘Attano‘ (furnace) and the Greeks ‘Aitna‘ from ‘aitho’ meaning ‘I burn’.  In modern times, leery locals, perhaps not wishing to attract the attention of the spirits dwelling in its fiery bowels, refer to it simply as a Muntagna, dialect for la Montagna. (moan-tan-yuh).  The Mountain.  In light of the recent acceleration in eruptions –  from an average of once every 18 months before 2001, to once yearly ever since (with the exception of 2007) – the locals’ caution appears less whimsical.  Although, after spending a couple of days travelling around Etna, during which time I had plenty of opportunity to observe the vast differences between its north and south slopes, it occurred to me the locals could also have gone with ‘The Two-faced Mountain’.  But then again, there is nothing fraudulent or deceptive about Etna’s eruptions and besides, anyone with a propensity to superstition would probably not feel comfortable with the potentially incendiary undertones of ‘two-faced’.

In any event, despite the risks associated with the increasing frequency, as well as unpredictability of the eruptions – including one in March of 2017 that injured and almost killed members of a BBC crew (‘Europe’s Largest Active Volcano Mount Etna Erupts – Nearly Kills BBC Crew’, Trevor Nace, Forbes, March 20, 2017) – to go all the way to Sicily and not visit Etna doesn’t seem right.

Access to the summit, or as close to the summit as visitors are – to my great relief – allowed to go, is via Etna’s southern slope.  The first stretch of the road is surprisingly pastoral.  Another surprise was coming upon a forest of birch trees.

Birch trees are fairly common in Canada – after all, as the song goes, it’s the – ‘Land of the Silver Birch/Home of the beaver…’, but in Sicily?

The Birch Tree, or more precisely, Betula Aetnensis, is, according to the first website I looked at, ‘one of the most peculiar and representative endemism of the Etna area’.  Apart from recognizing that Betula Aetnensis meant Birch Tree of Aetna, I had no idea what the author was talking about.  I googled ‘endemism’.  Up popped ‘endemic’.  Endemic I know.  It’s what diseases and poverty and corruption are.  I had never seen it used in reference to plants and was surprised that a word with such strong negative connotations could also be a synonym for ‘native’.

There is some controversy as to how the birch tree came to be native/endemic in the area, the only part of Sicily where it is found.   The most compelling clue to the mystery has to do with the Last Ice Age and the unique internal structure of this particular strain of birch which over the ages has enabled it to not only withstand, but also adapt to extreme cold and hot conditions. Like Canadians! (As I write this, a snow storm – yet another! – is slowly erasing the city skyline.)

Further up Etna’s south slope, another surprise. Golden Chain Tree, a gorgeous but highly toxic beauty.

As the road climbs up the slope, the trees give way to low bushes.

Impossibly, growing out of the black rock – how can you call it soil? – sturdy bushes of bright yellow broom and splashes of bright pink Roman Orchids.

As I drove higher there were fewer and fewer bushes and the ‘soil’ gave way to seemingly impenetrable rock.

Even here a seemingly delicate Scabiosa produces gorgeous purple flowers, some so large the stem cannot support them.

The landscape is frequently described as lunar. It may not be what the surface of the moon really looks like, but I think it captures perfectly our sense of it.

Where there’s a will…

As the crow flies it’s just under 10 k from the 100 Horse Chestnut Tree to the summit of Mt. Etna, but with all the twists and turns in the road, and slowdowns to take in the views, and who knows how many photo stops, it took me over an hour to reach the end of the road.

Driving up the long, winding road, surrounded on all sides by the strange, unearthly landscape, it’s easy to forget you’re in Sicily.  Or anywhere for that matter.

From this level – 1,935 metres asl – it’s still a long way to the top, but before getting on the cable car up to the next level it’s well worth taking a short walk around the area.

The Silvestri Craters. This may look like a painting, but I assure you, I cannot paint.

Maybe it’s the altitude, but when you’re up here, wandering around these strange landscapes, your thoughts can start to wander too.  To musings about our need to understand the meaning of the slings and arrows of our sometimes outrageous fortunes being an inherent part of the human condition.  And the great comfort we derive from the explanations we come up with for the causes of our travails. In any event, in ancient times, without the benefit of today’s vast technical and scientific advances, explanations for the inexplicable were perhaps even more greatly appreciated.  So not surprisingly, although they don’t strike me as particularly comforting, there was no shortage of ‘explanations’ for Etna’s unpredictable and violent eruptions.   In fact, with all the gods and monsters in its bowels who were responsible for the eruptions, Etna became a pretty crowded place.

Amazingly, just meters from one of the (supposedly) dormant craters pine trees are taking root.

Etna is where Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire (Hephaestus to the Greeks) had his smithy.  It’s also where the giant Typhon was imprisoned after Zeus threw Etna, which up until then had been your everyday mountain, on top of him.  Then another rebel giant, Encelades, came along to avenge Typhon and ended up being thrown into the cauldron.   Aeolus, God of the winds, got on the wrong side of the gods and spent time here too.  Some people even believed that after abducting Persephone, Hades had dragged her down into the Underworld through a crevice in the volcano.  Which of course can’t be true because, as everyone knows, the abduction took place at Fonte Ciane near Syracuse many miles to the south (‘Hot Ruins and a Cool River’, July 12, 2015).

Adding to all the amazing things wrought by Nature was that visitors are free to wander at will.

Salt flats as a background for your wedding photos is one thing (‘Along the Coast’, Sept. 16, 2015)), but isn’t it tempting the fates to have those photos taken on top of a highly volatile volcano?

From the Rifugio Sapienza (1,395 metres asl), a cable car takes visitors up to the landing (at 2,500 metres asl) from which all terrain vehicles continue up the last 400 metres to the authorized visitors’ zone.

Two things to keep in mind if you’re planning on visiting Etna.  First, it may be 30 degrees when you set out, but you still need to bring a warm sweater.  At the top it will be cold – even in August which, having done it once, I don’t recommend.  And if you go in May there will probably still be snow – lots of it!

At the top of the cable car ride, there is still enough snow in May for die hard skiers.

Secondly, and more importantly, if you want to actually see anything of the summit, you have to set off EARLY.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when I set out, but on the last leg of the drive thick clouds started rolling in.

Luckily, on a previous trip I had heeded the advice of the manager of the hotel I was staying in and for the first, and only time throughout my trip, had set my alarm to make sure I got an early start.

From the hotel terrace in Taormina, the morning sun lights up the summit of Mt. Etna.

This time, when we reached the authorized visitors’ zone we had a clear view for miles around.

When it’s safe, the guides take you surprisingly close to vents like these, which although they pose no danger, puff out alarmingly hot air.

It is highly unsettling to think that just a few minutes earlier, you too had been a tiny little speck on top of the ridge.

Etna.  A mountain that both nurtures and destroys life.

Next:  On the Other Side of the Mountain

Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

I love popular sayings.  The early bird catches the worm.  You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  They have all but disappeared from everyday conversations where I live, but I still come across them now and then as I travel around Italy and while the images can be different, the messages are often the same, so for example, instead of the early bird and the worm, you have ‘Chi dorme non piglia pesci.‘ (He who sleeps doesn’t catch any fish.)  Sometimes I have a hard time getting my mind past the images.  Leaving a luscious cake on a plate strikes me as churlish, pointless self-abnegation, but what to make of ‘Non puoi avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca’?  (You can’t have your barrel full and your wife drunk.)   Apart from fascinating, these sayings can also be comforting, because if you don’t like the message in one, there’s bound to be another that offers a totally different point of view.  If, for example, your experience is that absence did NOT make the heart grow fonder, there is ‘Lontano dagli occhi lontano dal cuore‘. (Far from the eyes, far from the heart.)


Entrance to Villa Capra, Palladio’s most famous design.

In the case of Andrea Palladio, the father/wheel idea (previous post) obviously doesn’t fit his meteoric rise from miller’s son to sought-after architect of the Venetian nobility, so we need another saying, one that ignores the fruit falling from the tree effect.  I came across one I think works pretty well a couple of days ago.  ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,‘ a point of view attributed to Isaac Newton.  And no, I have not been filling my leisure hours improving my mind by reading the august scientist’s biography. It’s another gem in Will Gomertz’s  ‘Think Like an Artist’.  It appears midway through ‘Artists Steal’ – he certainly knows how to grab a reader’s attention – the chapter in which he gives a slew of examples of how ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal‘, an unsavoury nugget that he blithely prefaces with ‘We all know the saying attributed to Picasso…’.  which was also news to me.  In any event, even if you visit Villa Capra knowing nothing about architecture or Palladio, it will be clear to you that he must have spent a lot of time standing on the shoulders of the ancient Romans.


Early morning in Piazza della Rotonda, Rome.

Over the years I’ve been to Rome quite a few times.  At the end of each trip to visit the gardens of one region or another I stay a night or two.  No matter how beautiful the region – even the Amalfi Coast –  I have always preferred to trade that one last night in paradise for the peace of mind I get from knowing there is one less step between me and the airport and the flight home.  For a long time Rome was a hard sell for me. I blame it on the years I lived in Florence.  My sense is that the Florence/Rome dynamic is not unlike that between Toronto and Vancouver.  But long before I was won over by Rome’s charms, there were some parts of it that I always looked forward to revisiting.  The Pantheon was one of them.  I know nothing about the technical aspects or the specific architectural elements that draw me to it. I just love to sit in the piazza and gawk. But in the mid 1530’s, when Giorgio Trissino first took Palladio to Rome, it wasn’t to give his young protégé the opportunity to simply admire the wonders of ancient Rome, it was so he could study, tease out the long-forgotten secrets of classical architecture.  Whether Palladio would ever have become one of the most influential architects in western civilization if he hadn’t met Trissino is impossible to tell. When you think of the odds – a poor stone mason, born in Padua, leaves his birth place to escape a cruel employer, moves to Vicenza which, it just so happens, is the home of a great and wealthy Humanist – it’s enough to give you the shivers.   And, in addition to introducing Andrea to the ancient Romans and to the wealthy Venetians who would commission those villas, Trissino also gave the architect the name we know him by.  The miller’s son, Andrea di Pietro della Gondola (Andrea of Peter of the Gondola) was given a fresh start, as it were, as Andrea the Wise One, named for Pallas, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

The first time I visited Villa Capra it hadn’t occurred to me to check the opening times. After all, this was one of the most famous buildings in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I avoided Monday, when most of the sites a typical visitor wants to see are closed – even places like the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, as the members of many a tour group have learned on their one-day excursion to the city.  It was a short drive – I thought – from Asolo, another of those hilltop villages that get a lot of hype.  Depending on your interests, this one is either the ‘Pearl’  of the Veneto or the ‘Village of One Hundred Horizons’.


One of Asolo’s One Hundred Horizons.

Over the centuries it has attracted the usual cast of Veep, which, it took me a long time to figure out, is not dialect, but the Italian version of ‘vee eye pea’.  Authors, artists, royalty.  Lots of them have visited or lived here.  Robert Browning.  Eleanor Duse. Ernest Hemingway.  Freya Stark.


Robert Browning Lane.


Roses at the base of an exiled queen’s castle.


Are these windows part of the same apartment?  The geraniums are the same shade, but there are lots of those in the village.  The curtains look similar.  Maybe it’s one of those compromises reached in the interests of marital harmony.  Or a work in progress. Or an architectural statement.

On that first visit – it was June – any artists still in residence were nowhere in sight.  The village was overflowing with cyclists and wedding parties.


By the time I reached the main piazza, after ‘sharing’ the narrow, village roads with the cyclists, I was glad it was late in the afternoon.  A glass – or two – of the local Prosecco would be almost respectable.

It turned out I wasn’t the first driver rattled by the cyclists.  The local authorities had put up notices – in rhyme – directed at the ‘cycling friend!!!’ – interesting use of exclamation points – advising him (I’ve never yet seen a female cyclist in these groups) that if he wants to ‘scalare‘ (climb) the hills of Asolo, he needs to act nicely on his way through the village centre and respect the rules of the road…otherwise he will have to go on foot.


Warning from the grandly named Comando Polizia Locale.

Asolo is also where I had attempted in vain to explain Italian wedding customs to a fellow traveller. (‘If My Father Had Been a Wheel…’, April 24, 2016)


Outside the church, family and friends, armed with paper cones filled with rice, wait for the newlyweds.


The sposi – all smiles – lower their heads in anticipation of the impending onslaught.

On the morning I had decided to visit Villa Capra, I had a lovely breakfast gazing over the village and off onto one of the hundred horizons.   If I had known it would take me an hour and a half to cover the 55 km I probably wouldn’t have lingered over breakfast so long.  I arrived at the entrance to the villa around 11:30 and was greeted, not very warmly, by the custode who advised me that I would have to make it quick because the villa would be closing shortly for the three-hour midday break.  And, he added, since this was Thursday, the interior of the villa was, of course, not visitabile.


Prima colazione.  Serene and delicious.

I walked – tromped – around the villa a couple of times, trying to appreciate the elegant, harmonious elements of the famous villa.  But I refused to try to rise to the challenge when it came to the grounds.  Where was the beautiful garden one would expect to find around the crown in the jewel of a UNESCO World Heritage Site?  Instead there were a few bits of shrubbery and some not very green grass.  It was downright scraggly.  I was aware this was pretty harsh and the fact that the interior was not visitabile and I was going to be shooed out after a few minutes might have had something to do with how I felt about the grounds.  But I didn’t think so.   Discovering later that the state of the grounds was deliberate gave me only a vaguely pyrrhic comfort.   The scraggly effect reflected Palladio’s belief that a country villa should be a refuge from the stresses of city life.  (This was the 1500’s!  Who knows what he would have thought of our cities today?)  A place where one could pursue health-giving intellectual pursuits.  And the living space most conducive to such a state of such well-being is one that is open to and in harmony with the surrounding countryside.   There were to be no ostentatious intrusions.  No symbols of man’s dominance over nature. Which, I couldn’t help noticing, eliminates the formal Renaissance gardens that the Medici’s surrounded their villas in Tuscany with, as well as later extravaganzas like Villa d’Este in Tivoli.


Like the Pantheon in Rome, the central dome in Palladio’s original design was open to the elements. Opinions about this changed and eventually the opening was covered over.

IMG_6072 - Version 2

Nowadays with all the buildings cramming into the piazza around the Pantheon it’s not as easy to see the dome as it would have been in Palladio’s day. I didn’t crop this photo so I must have been standing on something. I’ve forgotten what it was. Definitely not on the shoulders of anyone – giant or otherwise.

When I went back this fall I made sure to visit on a Saturday, one of the two days the interior is open to the public. The other is Wednesday, which means I had missed it by one day on my previous visit.  What I couldn’t control was the weather.  The skies were dreary and overcast.  One of those may be redundant, but a villa whose entire design has to do with being open to and part of the elements really needs to be seen on a day when those elements are bello.  Worse was to come.  At the entrance another custode told me I would have to put my camera away.  In my zaino (dzih-no).  Backpack. ‘Come?’ (koh-may), I sputtered, which means ‘Pardon?’ and is a lot more polite than ‘What!?’ which is what might have popped out if I’d been speaking English.  It’s amazing how much easier it is to maintain that thin veneer of civility in a foreign language.  This whole business about no photos drives me crazy.  It’s so arbitrary.  Just a way to get you to buy the (expensive) guide in the inevitable shop.  ‘But I won’t use the flash’,  I insisted.  I know the bright light can damage fragile interiors.  The custode sighed.  The owners – amazingly, the villa is privately owned – used to allow visitors to take photos – senza flash – but people took advantage and used flash anyway.  So they decided on the total prohibition.  It was class detention for grown-ups.  Another thing that drives me crazy.


The ‘bones’ were there, but they needed the sunlight to really come alive.


The view from the loggia on the east side still gives a sense of what Palladio had in mind…


…unlike the view from the north-facing loggia where centuries of urban creep, even if it is unusually attractive, gives a different sense.

I had a look at the guide book as I was leaving.  It was the usual beautiful, full colour thing.  And very heavy.  I was almost at the end of my trip and my suitcase was becoming an issue.  I flipped through the book.  Clear blue skies and shafts of sunlight beamed out of every page. I went over to the woman at the register and showed her one of the photos.  ‘Sembra tutt’un’altra villa al sole.‘ It looks like a totally different villa in the sun, I whined.  She and the fellow by the door she had been chatting with burst out laughing.  ‘Ha ragione, signora,‘ he said.  ‘E’ davvero un’altra villa al sole!’ Being right was no consolation. Adding insult to injury he went on to tell me about a very important group – one of those VEEP’s – that had visited just two days earlier and how he had been at pains to make them understand how lucky they had been to see the villa in all its splendour on a sun-filled day.


A short walk beyond the entrance gate to Villa Capra is the first of the last two places I visited while in Vicenza.

This post has gotten a lot longer than I like – maybe it’s that end of trip syndrome – you feel compelled to jam as much as you can into the last few days.  Pazienza!  I visited two more sites that day – but only quickly because I did not want to get caught in another delusion.  As I wrote that last word the computer gnomes woke up after what has been a mercifully long slumber.  For the record, the recent deluvione was not a ‘delusion’.

As I approached the gate I could see one of those custode turning people away.  Posted opening hours notwithstanding, the entire property had been booked by a wedding party that was expected any minute.  I cajoled, begged my way in, promising to be quick.  Palladio is not the draw here – the villa comes from a later era. Instead it’s Tiepolo – or rather the Tiepolo’s – father and son.  In the Palazzina there are five sale affrescate by Giambattista, the elder and in the Foresteria another five rooms covered in frescoes by father and son.


Both buildings are ‘No Photos’ zones so I had to make do with poster photos.  Reading the Italian translation of what Goethe, one of many illustrious visitors, thought of the frescoes, I got a strong whiff of the ‘faint praise’ strategy.  (I still read German fairly well so I cross-checked the original against the translation in a couple of places, so my translation is a hybrid.) “Today I visited Villa Valmarana that Tiepolo decorated giving free reign to all his virtues and defects. He has not succeeded in the sublime style as he has in the natural, which does have some nice (deliziose) things; all things told however, as a decorator, he is either cheerful (froehlich) or splendid (pieno di fastosità).”   In both versions he is bravo.


I had a quick tour of the Forestiera – from the old French word forestier which comes from the Latin foris meaning ‘away’ – which is where guests stayed, but the Palazzina was all set up for the wedding reception and was off limits.


The Palazzina, an understandably popular wedding venue.


In the distance – and up a much steeper hill than it looks in this photo -the Santuario di Monte Berico.

Apart from the Tiepolo frescoes there is another reason for visiting this villa. The strange statues on top of the wall that faces the road.


Until the 1950’s the villa was the site of a sagra popolare (festival) timed to coincide with another, more widespread festival that was held on the last Sunday in February or the first in March to celebrate the arrival of spring. What was unusual – and by today’s standards, something of an eye-brow raiser – about this sagra was that the protagonists were nani –  dwarves – who gathered to re-enact the tragic story of Layana.

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The villa is called Villa Valmorana ai Nani.  Of the Dwarves.  The first of the dwarves, as the story goes, was the only daughter of a king and queen.  In a gesture of well-meant, but ultimately misguided love, the distraught parents left the villa, got rid of all the old servants and replaced them with dwarves, whose responsibility it was to ensure that Layana never saw another ‘normal’ sized human being and thus never learned the cruel truth of her condition. But, as happens, word got around about a lovely, young damsel held prisoner in the castle and one day a few young cavalieri (noblemen) with not enough to do (that last bit is mine – it’s not part of the official legend) corrupted the princess’s dwarf custodians and managed to make their way into the castle grounds.  At first sight of the princess they fled in horror.  For Layana it was the end of the illusion and all happiness and in despair she threw herself over the wall into the valley.  Her guardians, overcome with remorse, instantly turned to stone.

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It is a strangely discomfiting story.  And the dwarf statues – ometti grotteschi – grotesque little figures as one long-ago visitor put it – are such accurate reflections of the society a princess would have encountered. It does make you wonder.

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There are 17 statues from various walks of life. The dama struck me as the most forlorn. All the trappings of wealth and a royal bloodline will not save her from a tortured existence.


I left the unsettling dwarves and started up the hill to the Santuario di Monte Berico.  It’s not on top of a mountain but it is a good climb and, going by all the joggers who passed by me, a favourite with the fitness crowd.



By the time I reached the top – having discarded a couple of layers along the way – the sky had become menacingly darker.

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Even in the drizzle, the green roof of the Basilica, the building that in many ways launched Palladio’s career, dominates the skyline of Vicenza.


I was surprised to see that the road I had just climbed is called X Giugno. June 10th is the day in 1940 when Mussolini infamously declared war against France and England.

I quickly took a few shots of the church…


…and then one last photo of a statue nearby which, so many months after my trip, turns out to be a fitting note – in North America at least  – on which to end this post.


Grazie Mamma.  A fitting message for Mother’s Day.

Floors and a Staircase with Flare and a UNESCO Warranty – Part II

There are some places you expect to encounter crowds.  The Eiffel Tower.  The Vatican. Piazza San Marco in Venice (although there, it’s more the pigeons than the tourists that are the problem).  All ‘must-see’ sites that are easy to get to.   But after driving for over two hours with barely another car on the road to get to the Villa Romana del Casale, I really didn’t expect to find many other tourists.   Sicily has lots of other UNESCO sites that in addition to being much easier to get to, are also close to at least one other great site.

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From domestic bliss to gory hunting scenes and the exploits of the Greek gods, there is at least one floor that will appeal to every visitor.

I was wrong.  The parking lot, which was who knows how many football fields large, was almost full.  And it wasn’t just cars.  There were dozens and dozens of huge touring buses.

Wildflowers along the long, steep climb up from the parking lot.

According to the official website there are no guided tours, but at the top of the hill on the left, just before the washrooms (good idea to visit now…) there were several would-be guides milling around.  By the number of groups I came across in the villa, they did a pretty brisk business.


To protect the mosaics, the villa has been covered.  Only a small area by the entrance has been left open to the elements.


One of the guides had splashed a bit of water to show how vivid the colours once were.

You make your way through the villa along elevated walkways, which protect the floors and – did the archeologists think of this at the time? – afford us visitors a much better view of the overall designs.  Although of a reasonable width, these walkways are much narrower than the stairs leading up to them.  ‘Bottleneck’ is a pretty good word to describe the inevitable result, but I think strozzatura – strots-sah-tour-uh (literally ‘the strangling’) is even better.  Many people complain about Italians not knowing how to form a line – an observation sadly not totally without merit – but in my experience, there are a lot of tourists who would do well to look in the mirror before they start trashing Italians’ relative deficiencies in queue-making.  On a rainy day in Portofino, when neither the trains nor the boats were running, I saw a guide from a country which shall remain anonymous – not Italian – try to commandeer an entire public bus for her group.  (I made sure she did not succeed.)  At a bus stop in Positano a few years ago I watched a tourist, who was at least 20 people behind me in the long line-up, run around the back of the bus and push his way into the front of the line.

At the entrance bits and pieces waiting

To the left of the entrance, bits and pieces.

When I got to the top of the stairs, members of one of the groups were trying to block anyone else from entering while they stood there listening to their guide.  I watched as a few solo visitors pushed their way through.  I didn’t want to have my memories of the villa marred by any disagreeable encounters, but I also didn’t want to trudge around the villa behind that group.  After a few minutes I went up to the guide, who had been speaking English and who I had of course been listening to while I tried to figure out what to do – our eyes had caught a few times – it was one of those weird situations where I feel like some kind of  unwitting impostor – the guide for sure was wondering, does she or doesn’t she speak English?  I asked her,  ‘Mi dispiace disturbarLa…‘   ‘Sorry to bother you, but I can see that the people in your group are getting annoyed when others pass by them, but how does the ‘line-up’ work here?’  The slightest hint of surprise crossed her face, she sighed, and then she replied – in italiano –  ‘Yes, the people in her group were molto irritati but – she shrugged her shoulders – they can’t expect all the visitatori soli  like me to wait behind them while she explains what is going on in each room.’

With her blessing I slipped by the group.  I was glad I did.  There was plenty for a guide to say, even about the ‘simpler’ geometric designs.

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4th century optical illusion.

The designs became increasingly complex.


Cupid and Psyche. The expressions on the women in the surrounding medallions seem oddly out of sync with the amorous pair.

The only wall mosaic I saw portrayed what I took to be some kind of procession, which in fact it is, but I would never have guessed where the figures were going.


The padrona and her daughters, accompanied by servants.

They were setting out to have their daily bath, a leisurely, time-consuming ritual that had more in common with a day luxuriating at the spa than our quick showers.  They would have started their ‘bath’ by spending a while in the Caldarium, from caldo which unfortunately for English-speaking tourists trying to cope with the various taps they encounter in their travels, does not mean ‘cold’ but the exact opposite, then moved on to the slightly cooler water of the Tepidarium and finished with a bracing dip in the Frigidarium (I might have skipped that part).  Then their servants would have rubbed their (now clean, but frigid) bodies with soothing ointments – carried by the servant on the right – and helped them dress in fresh clothes, carried by the servant on the left.


Watery motif in the Frigidarium. Apparently there was no shortage of fish in the sea in those days.

Palestra means gymnasium and in the Sala delle Palestrite young female athletes compete in sports we 21st century visitors have no trouble recognizing.  As for their outfits, they are not bikinis.  Those ancient Romans could be surprisingly practical and their sense of modesty was obviously different from ours.  I doubt that even the performers who appear on our stages in the most outrageous outfits would do so in their underwear, which is what these female athletes are wearing.   It is a rather odd, fine line though isn’t it?  I mean the difference between underwear and a bikini.

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The original bikini girls.

Glimpse of the Circo (Circus).

Glimpse of charioteers in the Circo (Circus).

Along one side of the villa are smaller, private rooms.  Bedrooms probably.


In one of the smaller rooms, charioteers-in-training try out their skills on a motley assortment of plumed steeds.


Perhaps this branch would help get them going a bit faster?  Did the Romans take these mosaics seriously or were they meant to be funny?


Detail of a daughter’s bedroom floor.  Despite the bucolic subject matter, it is awfully busy.

The scenes portrayed in the bedrooms are the most peaceful in the villa.  But hardly the calm, stimulus-free environment we’re told we need to create in order to get a good night’s sleep.


And where did they put the beds?

Dancing girl.

One of my favourites – Dancer twirling her scarf in the Sala della Danza.

There is so much going on in some of the rooms it’s a wonder those ancient Romans didn’t all end up with some kind of ADHD.  I wouldn’t have had a clue in this room if it hadn’t been for the plaque.  The main theme here has to do with Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre.  Obviously there are a few subplots.


Love the foot rest.

Below Orpheus, in the lower right corner two female figures manage to float along, trailing their long scarves, which for some reason do not get water-logged and drag them into the deep.

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Such a strange contrast between the faces which struck me as remarkably modern and the bodies which seem to get more and more elongated the further they are from the faces.

There are over 40 rooms spread out over 4,000 square metres.  After visiting just a few of those rooms I’m afraid I was more relieved than disappointed to learn that entire areas of the villa complex – workshops, stables, housing for the slaves – had yet to be excavated.  How much can we really take in at one go?

There was something else that was adding to the sensory overload.  Surveillance at some of the sites I’d visited so far in Sicily had struck me as rather lax.  Still, I thought it was highly unlikely that the guides would be allowed to throw water willy nilly onto the mosaics inside the villa.   So how to explain the wet areas I’d seen in some of the rooms?

The mystery was solved in the Vestibule of Eros and Pan, where the horny old half-goat (Pan) and the winged cherub-like youth (Eros) are about to engage in a wrestling match.  Why either should want to do this was – and remains – beyond me.   As for the damp areas in the mosaics?  A simple pass with a damp mop to bring the colours alive for us visitors.


A worker pauses to chat with a fellow mopper in the next room.  His right foot is on the arbiter’s raised hand signalling the start of the wrestling match.

I didn’t count, and it may be due to my aversion to the activity – have you ever noticed how how much of our attention can get taken up by things we find unpleasant? – but it seemed to me that the predominant theme was hunting.  The entire floor of one of the larger rooms was taken up with the various stages of a hunt, starting from the releasing of the hounds in the upper left corner and proceeding to an offering to Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, in gratitude for a successful outing, to preparations for an al fresco banquet (the red awning hung between two trees protected the diners), all the way down to the spearing of a boar in the lower right corner.   This is the Sala della Piccola Caccia.  Caccia (catch-chuh) is ‘hunt’ and you probably already know piccola is small.  The Room of the Small Hunt.


Some of the hunters – and the hunted – seem to be skiing, which would be rather odd in this semi-tropical region. They aren’t of course.  The artist was just attempting, centuries before the Renaissance and ideas of perspective, to portray the shadows thrown by the hunters.


In the lower right corner a boar gets speared, but not before it got its jaws into the leg of one of the hunters.  Notice the shadows of the horse’s legs.

As you may have guessed, the reason the room above is called the Room of the Small Hunt  is because there is another, larger – much larger – mosaic, all 60 meters of which are dedicated to the gory depiction of the Grande Caccia.  The Big Hunt.


The two figures in the middle right, unperturbed by the presence of the soldier above them who seems to be losing the battle with the tiger, are believed to be the owner and his son.

This area, the Ambulacro, was undoubtedly the owner’s pride and joy.  It sprawls across the width of the villa and was designed so that guests could perambulate up and down its entire length until they were suitably impressed with the images they had seen.  Images of the ‘great’ (I use the word advisedly) hunt for big animals to be brought back from distant lands to be killed in the amphitheatres of ancient Rome for the entertainment of its citizens.


The darker hue on the leftmost protrusion from the ship represents the effect of splashing water.

As throughout the villa, explanatory plaques along the ambulacro help us understand what we are looking at.  This section is one of the saddest.  And one of the most controversial.

Throughout the villa, plaques like this one explain what we are looking at.

A powerful message, even through a dusty layer of plexiglass.


I felt just as badly for the poor wretch who got chosen as bait as I did for the winged creature about to be captured.

I find two hours in any one site is all I can honestly take in.  Apart from gardens.  That’s a whole other thing.  So after I’d seen all there was to see, instead of going through the villa again for one more look, I headed back to my car.

The second ‘must-see’ site I had planned for the day was Caltagirone, a baroque hilltop town about 30 k south-east of Piazza Armerina.  I looked at the map again to check the directions – apparently having learned nothing from my earlier drive – and was a little unsettled to  discover I would going back to the Val di Noto.  Making matters worse, when I got to Caltagirone I would be only 70 k from the airport in Catania where I had landed a few days earlier.  I was going around in circles.

On the drive to Caltagirone, to distract myself from thinking about what I had been thinking when I came up with this itinerary, I ruminated on the villa instead.  This turned out to be a much better way to distract myself from what one friend calls ANT’s (Automatic Negative Thoughts) than I’d hoped, because after only a few kilometres I got one of those ideas that come seemingly out of the blue.

The essence of this idea was that the UNESCO site I’d just visited had a lot in common with another UNESCO site I’d visited 1,000 kilometres to the north – Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli.   (An Emperor’s Country Retreat, Feb. 22, 2015) The Villa Romana del Casale was admittedly on a more modest scale, but we’re talking in relative terms here – it would be like comparing the mansions of a couple of One Percenters.  Both were over-the-top, luxurious country retreats built by and for the personal enjoyment of extremely powerful and wealthy members of the Roman elite.  In both cases the return on their investment, as today’s elites would probably put it, was poor.   After only a few decades, the relative peace they had no doubt looked forward to – but given what they had done to others in the past, hardly deserved – was  shattered by the first of many attacks by various ‘Barbarians’ – Vandals and Visigoths in the south, Ostrogoths and Byzantines in the north.   During the ensuing centuries of warring, both villas were severely damaged.   Centuries of pillaging and plundering followed for both.   And eventually, protection from even further damage had arrived from the same unlikely source – oblivion.


Like Ragusa and Noto, most of Caltagirone was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693 and then rebuilt in the baroque style that characterizes all the towns in the Val di Noto.

As lovely as its Baroque churches and palaces are, I think it’s fair to say that most visitors don’t come to Caltagirone for its architecture.  They come for its ceramica. The town’s name is derived from the Arabic ‘Qual at-al-jarar’ meaning ‘Castle of the Vases’ and pottery has been one of the most important activities here since time immemorial.

In the middle of a row of tiles on Ponte San Francesco, the city's coat of arms.

A row of tiles stretches from one end of Ponte San Francesco to the other.  In the middle, the city’s coat of arms.

The other thing that draws visitors is the Scalinata.


The last two weeks of May the Scalinata is decorated with potted flowers and shrubs. A kind of mini Infiorata.

But by now I was starving and in my experience, no site, no matter how extraordinary, looks half as good on an empty stomach.  I walked by a lot of stores selling Caltagirone’s famous ceramica, but not a single place to eat.  Finally, I went into one of those stores and pulling out a rather worn phrase, immediately apologized  – Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma… ‘Sorry to bother you, but…is there somewhere nearby where I can get a simple lunch?’  The person who had been sitting behind the cassa (cash register) got up right away and without seeming the least bit disturbato, accompanied me to a little piazza-like area off to the side of the Scalinata and said that here I would have a very nice pranzo.

While I was waiting for what turned out to be an enormous platter of local delicacies, a young man walked by ringing a campanella.  He didn’t have any of the gear carried by the knife sharpeners that until recently used to go up and down the streets of Toronto.  He had no pamphlets to give out.  He didn’t look ‘off’.  What was he doing?  I asked the couple sitting at the table next to me, who I knew were Italian because the tables were so close I couldn’t help overhearing them.  They had no idea.  In Caltagirone, they, like me, were turisti.  At that moment the signore who I’d watched accompany a guest to his room down a side street nearby (I knew this because there was a B&B sign over a door close by and when the would-be guest had knocked on the door, a voice had called out ‘Arrivo,‘ and this signore had come out.)…as I was saying, at that moment the B&B fellow passed by our tables on his way back and  overheard us.  He stopped to explain.  Every day the young man goes around the neighbourhood ringing the bell and taking orders.  Later on, the people who have placed orders will go to the gelateria at the top of the Scalinata where their gelato will be waiting for them.

A 'simple' lunch.

Not what I expected when I asked for something semplice – sem-plee-chay (simple).

I felt badly and apologized for not being able to eat everything, which was delicious.  The owner wasn’t upset at all and offered to pack the leftovers sottovuoto (vacuum pack) for a picnic the next day.  Now I was ready to explore the town.


Pots of boxwood formed the foliage of the ‘flower’ and…


…potted geraniums – Pelargoniums for the purists – formed the petals.


Peacocks, a popular symbol of immortality in Italy.


I didn’t check, but I read later that there is a different pattern on each riser. There was certainly no shortage of mythological creatures.


Some of the risers reflected the town’s ancient Arab heritage.


The pots aren’t attached in any way.  Were there no delinquenti in this town?  Or did watchful eyes behind those balconies ensure the pattern remained intact?

Time to check out those stores.

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I defy anyone to leave Caltagirone empty-handed.  I spent a lovely hour or so browsing and saw no end of tempting objets, but in the end reason prevailed and I limited myself to a couple of plates with an arabesque motif and a pigna, the pine-cone I’d seen in so many places I began to wonder if it was the symbol of Sicily.


I loved the arabesque motif of these plates. They were a bit more than I wanted to pay, but when the shop owner told me they were dipinto a mano (painted by hand) by his wife, he had a  customer.


Pigna, popular Sicilian symbol of auguri and fecondità. I’m long past the fecund stage of life, but am always happy to see this symbol of goodwill when I come home.


Floors and a Staircase with Flare and a UNESCO Warranty – Part I, Getting There

If there is one thing I really don’t like – what an odd phrase – anyway, if there is one thing I don’t like about travelling solo it’s not so much getting lost – an annoying, but not unexpected experience in a country where the placement of any road signs that would be at all useful to visitors is often, to put it diplomatically, random.  No, what is guaranteed to turn my usually buon umore into a molto cattivo mood (and in case you aren’t sure, cattivo means ‘bad’) it’s having to turn around and drive back along the same wretched road that got me lost in the first place.  Yet, after two days in the B&B overlooking the Valley of the Temples, I got back on the SS115 and retraced my steps.  On purpose.

There were two more ‘must-see’ sites in the area and I was hoping that the drive to these sites from an agriturismo east of Agrigento would be a little less stressful than from the otherwise delightful Villa San Marco.  (As to why I didn’t stay at the agriturismo first and then continue west to the B&B, that, like the real name of the Temple of Concord, is lost in the mists of time.)


No temples, but also no screeching peacocks and a view that made retracing my steps worth it.

It was late in the afternoon when I arrived.  I was tempted to go for a swim right away.  The problem with that plan was I had a feeling that after the swim I might be in the mood for a bit of the local white while I dried off and gazed out over the countryside and before I knew it, it would be time to get changed for dinner and I wouldn’t have seen anything of the property.  So instead, I went exploring first.

Unlike at Il Limoneto (the agriturismo I stayed in at the beginning of this trip), where the agri part of their activities was focused on one crop – citrus fruits – here things were much more diversified.  Wine, olive oil, grains and various fruits – but surprisingly, no citruses.   Looking over the railing that surrounded the pool terrace, I saw a dirt lane that led into the fields.


Olive trees, then the wire hoops of the greenhouses and beyond them, vineyards.


As it had been at Agrigento, the ginepre was in full bloom, like bursts of sunshine against the clear blue skies.

But it was the agave that really stole the show for me.

But it was the agave that really stole the show for me.

Rising out of the tangled mess of leaves, the giant asparagus-like spears of the agave flower.

Rising out of the tangled mess of leaves, the giant asparagus-like spears of the agave flower.

Close by a that had gone to seed. Odd to think that these black seed pods were the end of the life cycle of the enormous white flower.

Close by, a relative of the agave, a Yucca filamentosa aka Adam’s Needle, covered in seed pods. Odd to think that only a short while ago the funereal-looking pods had been spectacular creamy-white flowers.


From a distance I thought the trees in the greenhouses were peach trees, but instead it was the much more delicate albicocca (apricot).

I was surprised at all the apricots lying on the ground.  They looked fine, but thinking that maybe there were worm holes or rot or some other problem I couldn’t see I picked up a few.  They looked perfect to me.  Later I asked the manager why so many had been left on the ground.   He sighed.  The company that bought the apricots had very high standards.  Even the smallest imperfection meant rejection.  The sight of all those perfectly good apricots lying on the ground reminded me of the ‘Gardens of the Seven Deadly Sins’ I’d seen at Chaumont-sur-Loire the year before.  (July 20, 2014)


‘Imperfect’ apricots, lying discarded on the ground.  A symbol of pride?  Or maybe gluttony.  Definitely of sinful waste.


Next to the greenhouses, recently harvested wheat fields and beyond them rows and rows of vitis vinifera.


By August many of these little green nodules will be plump grapes ready for harvesting.


On the way back to the pool more agave stand sentinel-like as if guarding the fruit trees behind them.


The broom grows wild, but the variegated yucca would have planted. Did the gardeners know what a fabulous combo the two would make?

Early the next morning I set off to visit the two sites that had drawn me to this location.  The first was Villa Romana del Casale, a luxurious Roman villa built at the beginning of the 4th century, which turned out to be bad timing given that the Roman Empire would fall, officially, in 476 A.D, only a century later.

The villa was built as a magnificent country retreat for a powerful Roman, who was a member of the senatorial class or perhaps the Imperial family, but nowadays it is best known for its mosaics, the largest and best preserved collection in the world.  Its remarkable state of preservation is mostly due to an otherwise catastrophic natural disaster – an earthquake/mudslide in the 12th century that ended up burying most of it.  This might well have been the rather ignominious end of the once luxurious villa, but for a farmer, who, in the early 1800’s had the misfortune to find a few pieces of mosaic while tending his crop.

The closest town is Piazza Armerina, 3 km away, which is where the survivors of the 12th century mudslide resettled.   Piazza Armerina is 60 km from Campobello di Licata, the town closest to the agriturismo.   A usually reliable website gives the time to cover those 60 km as 1h23m.  A rather long time.  But not as long as it took me – almost 2 1/2 hours.  And I only got lost – or rather, thought I was lost – a couple of times.

To give you an idea of what is involved in getting to some of these places – including UNESCO World Heritage Sites – I thought I’d share with you the directions I optimistically printed out before leaving home.  I say ‘optimistically’ because the road signs were so few and far between, most of the time I just headed in what I thought was the right direction, using the sun as my guide. (Cloudy days are right up there with retracing my steps.)

From Campobello di Licata I was to head north on the SS557, which for some unknown reason, after a few kilometres becomes the SS644; turn right onto the SS190 which heads south-east; turn left at a T – keep a sharp eye out for this because it won’t look like  a ‘T’ from your point of approach; continue north-east along the SS626 – even after it becomes the SP27, which, in a kind of manic equal opportunity event for numbers, morphs into the SS191, then the SP13, then the Sp26, and finally the SP169 which at a ‘Y’ joins up with the numerically senior SP15, and continue along what is now the SP15 into Piazza Armerina. At this point, whether you’ve been driving or trying to follow the directions – or worse, both – you’re probably in the mood for a (large) glass of the local white.  Instead, I (uncharacteristically) recommend a cappuccino or even an espresso.  You’re not at the villa yet.


View of the countryside surrounding Villa Romana del Casale.

Once you’re in Piazza Armerina, don’t drive past Via Roma as I did on the first go, thinking there was no way a road so narrow and so steep could possibly be the main road to a UNESCO site.  Instead turn left and continue driving.  Don’t bother looking for a sign, if you haven’t already given up on that approach, because Via Roma ends at the town limits and you’ll be on the SP89a.  After a while of driving along this narrow, country road you’ll feel like you have covered a lot more than 3 km, and although you may see a sign informing you that you are now on the SP15 again, you won’t see anything that would encourage you to think you’re still on the right road.  Anything that is, except the line of cars ahead of you that have appeared seemingly out of nowhere – all bearing foreign licence plates.






In the So-Called Valley of the So-Called Temples

Nowadays ‘so-called’ seems to be used mostly as a kind of passive-aggressive verbal side-swipe.  As in ‘so-called friends’ or ‘so-called experts’.  And ‘so-called valley’, which, as we saw in a previous post (In the (Not)Valley of the Temples, Aug. 9, 2015) is not a valley at all – it’s a ridge.  But if you are one of those individuals who still look up such things,  you’ll see that it also has another, quite different meaning:  the use of one commonly known term for another.  In one dictionary entry a phrase taken from a newspaper article helps clarify this less frequent use:   ‘At the scene of an airplane crash, investigators will search for the flight recorder, the so-called black box’.  Here there are no sardonic undertones.   The journalist is simply using a simple, concrete term to identify what we all know is a small container inside of which are complex, scientific data that will hopefully tell us how the plane crash occurred.

When I started walking around the ruins of Agrigento, dutifully noting – and hopefully remembering – the names of the various temples, I had no inkling of the role the black box meaning of ‘so-called’ had played in how the temples got their names.


From the (so-called) Temple of Castor and Pollux it was a short walk to the ‘Olympian Field’.

The Olympian Field was the site of the Temple of Zeus, which would have been the largest Doric temple ever built, had it not been for earthquakes and pillaging, which continued well into the 18th century.  As bad as the pillaging and pilfering were from a strictly moral point of view, if you saw the decidedly unattractive town of Porto Empedocle, where so much of the temple ended up (and where I got miserably lost for a while one day on my way to the Turks’ Staircase, another ‘so-called’ site), you’d think it was even worse.

The view from the top of the temple, had it ever been finished would have been magnificent. Even at ground level, there was a fabulous view to the sea.

The view from the top of the temple, had it ever been finished, would have been magnificent. Even at ground level, it’s not  bad.

Enormous hunks of rock littered the field.  Off to the side were a couple of supine male figures, their hands behind their necks as it they’d been resting.  They were Atlases or Telamons, support columns like the female sculptures – caryatids – I’d seen at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli (An Emperor’s Country Retreat, Feb. 22, 2015).


I was much less impressed with pile of rocks until I learned that the other... was a reconstruction.

I was much less impressed with this pile of rocks until I learned that the other one was a reconstruction.

In another corner of the field there were the ruins of another temple, but so little of it remained that they didn’t even bother with any ‘so-calling’ and simply referred to it as ‘Tempio L‘.  (Temple L)

Continuing along the ridge, the next temple you come to is named in honour of the ever-popular Greek god, Hercules.


Even the ancient Greeks may have called this one the Temple of Hercules.


Like the columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, these columns were also rebuilt, but in this case, they were actually part of the original temple.


All along the ridge were the most wonderful views.  Were the ancient Greeks as keen on views as we are today or was the site chosen solely for defensive purposes?


There was a lot of excitement about the return of the curly-horned Girgentana goat.


The mother had a bite to eat and then…


…like beleaguered mothers everywhere, tried to get a bit of peace and quiet.

Halfway along the ridge, was the temple I’d gazed at over breakfast.  According to the plaque, written in Italian, English and French, it was called il Tempio della Concordia. The Temple of Concord.  A wonderfully apt name, I thought, for such a serene-looking building.


Concord, a beautiful name for a beautiful temple.


It owes its marvellous state of preservation to the fact that after all the pagan gods were properly expelled and the rear of the building was redesigned as the entrance, it was used as a Christian Basilica.  Not even the most unscrupulous pillagers would have stooped to using a Christian church as a quarry.

Nowadays, the area in front of the temple is the site of la Sagra del mandorlo in fiore, an annual festival in celebration of the almond trees that are covered in white blossoms, creating a white wonderland.   It is held the first Sunday in February, the same time of year some Canadians also celebrate a white wonderland.  (While others of us curse it.)


The ancient olive tree nearby is a good place to rest weary legs.  A guide had wisely gathered his group under its shade while he told them about the temple.


Of much greater interest to this group of students was a certain part of the anatomy of the statue in front of the temple.

Near the statue was a plaque no-one seemed to be paying any attention to.  Curious, and lacking a guide to tell me about the temple, I went over to have a look.  I was surprised to see that unlike the others it was written solo in italiano. I was even more surprised when I read the first line – La denominazione errata deriva da…  The name was ‘errata‘?!


In the end, they had to call all these ruins something. Even if it was errata.

It turns out the name Concordia has nothing to do with the original temple.  It was plagiarized from the inscription on a chunk of marble – from a different temple – that had been found nearby.  In any event, to take liberties with Juliet’s declaration of love for Romeo, ‘a temple by any other name is still as beautiful’.

According to the map, somewhere around here there were more so-called ruins – the so-called Tomb of Theron, the 4th century AD so-called Grotte Fragapane, and the so-called ‘Oratory of Phalaris’, where the tyrant presumably ranted and raved when he wasn’t roasting his enemies in his iron bull.

I continued up the ridge.


In May the crowds are smaller, the temperatures are still in the 20’s and the Prickly Pear and Broom are both in bloom. Sometimes right next to each other.

At the top of ridge, are the remains of the Temple of Juno, wife (and sister) of Jupiter, King of the Roman Gods.  Since it has been dated to the middle of the 5th century B.C., long before the Romans arrived, I’m not sure why it wasn’t named for the equivalent Greek goddess, Hera.  Given the status of women in ancient Greece – remember Aristotle’s words on the subject of women? – having it named for the Roman goddess was perhaps a sign of progress.  In any event, it too is a lovely temple.


The Greeks had brought the olive tree to Sicily with them. Did they find the oleander and broom already there or did they bring them too?


From the Temple of Juno it was a long walk back to the Temple of Concordia, where the skies were still quite blue.

I would have spent more time at Juno’s temple, but I was uneasy.  Looking down the ridge to the south, things looked fine.  But one glance northward made it clear that it wasn’t just the Tinnitus playing tricks on my hearing.  The thunder really had been getting louder.


Agave americana, the so-called ‘Century Plant’.  (For a long time people thought it bloomed once in a century. Although we now know it blooms more frequently than that, it may still seem like a century.)

I took one last photo, put away my camera and with the clouds darkening by the second and thunder crashing all around, raced back to my car.  I almost made it.

A Tyrant’s Garden

I woke up with the peacocks the next morning.  A slightly less screechy wake-up call would have been nice, but I didn’t really mind.  Today I was going to visit Kolymbetra, the garden of the ancient Greeks, and the temples those Greeks built on the ridge overlooking the garden.


From my window the screeching peacock was nowhere to be seen, but in the distance there was one of the temples.

When I told the young woman who brought me breakfast about walking over to Kolymbetra the evening before, her eyes opened wide.  If one of the custode had caught me without a entrance ticket…


My idea of breakfast. Freshly-squeezed juice, croissant just out of the oven, cappuccino and a fabulous view.

Still, it was tempting.  The walk through the olive grove had been such a pleasant experience and it was so much closer by foot than by car and I really did not want to drive along that narrow lane any more times than absolutely necessary.  But I also didn’t want to run into an unfriendly custode before I reached the ticket office.

My plan was to tour the garden first and then the temples, so I parked in the lot at the south end of the ‘valley’, close to the temple that overlooked the garden.  With my ticket, proof that I had not entered illegally, and map in hand, I set out for the temple.  According to the map it was called the Temple of Castor and Pollux.


From almost any part of the garden, you can catch a glimpse of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

There is something about the number ‘3’.  Photography has the ‘rule of thirds’; in our gardens we’re urged to plant ‘in threes’.  E così via.  And on and on.  ‘Three’ is symmetry, beauty and harmony.  So maybe the Temple of Castor and Pollux would be even more compelling if it only had three columns.  But, you might object, it’s a ruin.  You can’t fault a ruin for not following the principles of design.  Fine – except that this ‘ruin’ is a made-up 19th century pasticcio.

In the early 1800’s Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta Duca di Serradifalco, who mercifully usually went by the name of Serradifalco, was put in charge of the excavation and restoration of Sicily’s major archeological sites, including Agrigento.  He suspected that a treasure trove of ruins lay under the rubble and earth that had accumulated over the centuries and set his workers to digging.  When they hit – probably literally – some columns, he had three of them mounted on bits and pieces from various temples and called the newly minted ruin the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

And the fourth column?  It was added much later, a few years before his death.  Was it his decision?  Or maybe a younger colleague, eager for his bit of glory.  And which of the columns now standing was the later addition?  No idea.  And why, after all the bother they’d gone to, hadn’t they done something about the unsightly, white splotches?  In any event, notwithstanding the supernumerary column, the new ruin was a great success, and before long was adopted as the official symbol of the Valley of the Temples.


‘Ruins’ of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, official symbol of the Valley of the Temples.

I found out later that the ‘unsightly splotches’ are what’s left of a stucco coating that protected the sandstone and that also just happened to create a marble-like effect similar to the real thing on temples back in Greece.

Concidentally, while I was putting this post together, TVO rebroadcast ‘Lone Twin’, a beautifully moving documentary in which writer/director Anna Van Der Wee, seeks the answer to a question that has haunted her since the death of her twin brother in a tragic accident when he – and she – were twenty:   When a twin dies, is the surviving twin still a twin?  In the intro she talks about twins throughout history, including Castor and Pollux, twin brothers from Greek mythology.

Like most Greek myths, especially ones involving Zeus, the story line is terribly complicated, but in a nutshell, after Zeus seduces the swan, Leda, she gives birth to the twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, who are, according to some versions, both half-immortal (whatever that means).  In other versions, Pollux gets all the immortality gene and Castor is left mortal.  Inevitably, the one who ends up wounded in battle is Castor.  Overcome with grief after Castor’s death, Pollux begs Zeus to reunite him with his brother.  For a character who spent so much time getting up to no good, the king of the gods came up with a surprisingly brilliant solution –  he transformed them into Gemini, the constellation of the twins.  None of which explains why the temple was named for the twins.

I was making slow progress.  A good thing the entrance to the garden was nearby.


Plaque at the official entrance to Kolymbetra.

In ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ Will Schwalbe describes how his mother, the other member of this very exclusive book club, would read the end of a book first.  While I have always felt some kind of moral obligation to start where the author intended (although I have, at times, guiltily raced through many pages to get to the end), I can relate to her strategy.  When confronted with plaques like the one at the entrance to Kolymbetra – no matter how interesting or how well written – I start losing focus after the first line or two.  I can’t wait to get to the end – the garden.  So I take a photo and read the material after I’ve visited the garden.  Preferably sitting somewhere with a nice view and a glass of wine.


From here it was easy to see the path (on the left) I had taken into the garden the day before. Doesn’t it seem rather wide for an illegal entrance?  In the distance, the modern city of Agrigento.

But the people in charge were on to visitors like me.  Throughout the garden were more plaques, each with a very palatable bocconcino of info.  The canny people who had put up these plaques work with FAI,  Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Foundation of the Italian Environment), a national non-profit organization with a mandate similar to that of the British National Trust – the promotion and protection of green spaces, historical buildings and all the other elements of Italy’s rich heritage that are ‘fundamental to our roots and our identity’.


In the top left corner of each plaque, the symbol of FAI, the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the whole area had fallen into such a serious state of neglect – the peasants having abandoned the hardships and subsistence existence of farm work for an easier life in the city – the local authorities decided the only way to save it would be to hand it over to FAI.  FAI’s restoration efforts have been so rapid and so successful that Kolymbetra has already been among the top 10 finalists of the annual ‘Most Beautiful Parks in Italy’.


Even in full daylight it was hard to tell where the tree ended and the rock began.

For those of you who have left reading the plaque for later, the ground I was standing on was once the site of an enormous Kolymbetra –  ancient Greek for ‘swimming pool’.     The pool had been the idea of the Greek ‘tyrant’, as the leaders of the Greek settlements in Magna Grecia were called, Terone.   Some of the tyrants lived up to the name – Phalaris was a particularly unsavoury brute, who took delight in roasting his victims in a iron bull.  Although as ambitious as his predecessor, Terone seems to have been of a more humane temperament.  A less tyrannical tyrant.  Rather than roast his enemies, he preferred to use them as slave labour.

After defeating the Carthaginians in the 480 B.C. Battle of Himera (not to be confused with other Battles of Himera between the Greeks and the Carthaginians – 409 B.C., 405 B.C. and 310 B.C. – how do people keep these things straight?) in addition to the other spoils of battle, Terone found himself with an enormous supply of slave labour (all those captured Carthaginians).   Perfect for the urban renewal and beautification projects he had in mind.  He started with the temples.  But in addition, aware that absolute power can only get you so far if the citizens you rule don’t have the basic necessities, he took advantage of his new work force to build a system that would provide the city with a reliable and sufficient supply of water.


Some of the captives were set to work digging a series of ipogei, (tunnels) in the hillside.  Water droplets that transpired from the porous tufa, flowed along the channels to holding tanks.  The water in the tanks was used to replenish the water in the great vasca, an enormous pool ‘seven stadiums large and 20 braccia (arms) deep’ that had been dug out by others of their wretched compatriots, and to water the lush garden, full of marvellous fauna and flora, that surrounded the pool.  When finished, it was a luxurious holiday resort that even the most ambitious of tyrants would have been happy to call his own. But Terone was no ordinary tyrant.  His bit of paradise was open to all – the local women would come here to do their laundry and gossip and all were free to refresh themselves in the cool, limpid waters.


A few minutes later, a group of Grade 1 students from a local school arrived at the ipogeo. One of their teachers told me Kolymbetra was the perfect outing.  A bit of culture and then the students would be back in time for their parents to pick them up for lunch.

A century later Terone’s great vasca was filled in and the area planted with vegetables and fruit trees.  Enough water still flowed through the ipogei to irrigate the entire garden, even in the dry season. As it does to this day.

In 1100, around the beginning of the Dark Ages – an expression that seems oddly out of place in this sun-filled locale – the area was transformed again, this time into a cannetto and the vegetables and fruit trees were replaced with sugar cane.


These workers, who were struggling to remove the plants which were threatening to take over the garden, may have had an opinion or two about the idea of planting sugar cane in the hot, sheltered valley.


What if Disney had been Italian instead of American? Would some of the talking trees in his movies have been olives?

Five centuries later, the property was taken over by an abbey and planted with vegetables and herbs. And in the 17th century, when vast tracts of Sicily were being planted with fruit trees, a citrus grove was added.


Carved into the hillside, beyond the citrus grove, the cave church I had seen the day before.

As I meandered through the citrus trees, I thought about how these fruits, which we have grown so used to and see everyday in our grocery store, originally came to us courtesy of the Arabs, whose civilization was, for so many centuries, far advanced of any in Europe.  A thought which, if anything, made the current situation in the Middle East seem even more tragic.


The diminutive femminello (little female) seems a peculiar choice of name for a lemon – or anything for that matter – known for its ‘extraordinary’ fertility.


A serendipitous succession of yellows and greens.

I’d always been confused about the word ‘cedro‘ (chay-droe).  I knew it was a lemon, so why not limone (lee-moh-nay)?   And I had never heard of a Citron Tree before. I’d always thought of ‘citron’ as see-tro(n) – French for lemon.  Or maybe a paint colour.  Things would have been a lot less confusing if Pliny had just left the names of these things alone.


The pomegranate is not one of my favourite fruits – so much work for such a tiny bit of juice.  Persephone would certainly have fared a lot better if she hadn’t eaten any – but aesthetically, it has a lot going for it.  A few nice, big, red pomegranates look great in fall and winter planters and I even like its bright orange (not a colour you’ll find in my garden) flowers.


The Pomegranate.  Depending on when and where you lived, a symbol of friendship and democracy or fruit of the dead.

Given the disaster that followed Persephone’s eating just a few seeds, I was surprised to learn that in modern times the pomegranate has been given a new, more positive spin.  In Greece it’s now considered a symbol of abundance, fertility, and good luck, often given as a house-warming gift.


Even when you know the life cycle, it’s hard to imagine this will one day be a large, round, gorgeous-looking fruit.

At the far end of the garden was one of the ancient channels used to irrigate the garden.


Nearby, a few unnaturally square chunks of rock jutted precariously out of the hillside.  This was the site of a latomia – a type of cave from which the Greeks extracted the building blocks for their temples.


At this rate I was never going to get to the temples and this was my last day in the area.  I slowly made my way up the ridge and out of the ancient garden.


Next – The Temples.