Monday, December 30, 2013

KYOTO, JAPAN: Gion Festival, Tea Ceremony, and Flower Arranging

Kyomizu Temple, Kyoto, Japan
In July of 1995, I accompanied Art to Kyoto, Japan, where he was attending a conference. Kyoto is famous for its festivals and its beautiful shrines and temples. While Art was at his meetings, I toured the city (on foot and by bus and subway) and joined several activities provided by the conference for accompanying people like me. One of these activities was an introduction to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and to the art of flower arranging.
Models of Gion Festival Carts
The Tea Ceremony
The tea ceremony was held in a traditional tea house near the conference center.  We took off our shoes and sat on a rug around the tatami mats while an American man who was an expert in the tea ceremony narrated what was happening while a Japanese woman dressed in a pink kimono made the tea.  Another woman helped her serve it.  Each of us was first served a “sweet” on a square of paper along with a small stick cut into a crude knife for slicing it.  The “sweet” was a gelatinous white bar with a red bean in the center (symbolic of the Japanese flag.) It was slightly slippery and moderately sweet tasting.  Its purpose was to provide an antidote to the bitter taste of the tea that followed.  The tea is made from green leaves that have been crushed into a fine powder and then whisked with hot (not boiling) water until frothy and then served in a large, cereal sized ceramic bowl.  One turns the bowl in the left palm before drinking so that the “front” of the bowl faces the host as a sign of deference to him or her. The tea definitely had a strong, bitter taste. What we experienced was only the last 20 minutes of a tea ceremony, which normally takes about four and a half hours and includes a full course meal!

Flower Arranging Class
Flower Arranging
Our group then proceeded to the flower arranging room where we each were provided with a shallow bowl in which there was a “frog” for securing the stems, and three tall purple flowers, three long-stemmed pink roses, and two ferns.  The goal of the arrangement was to create “harmony” between all the elements.  Not so easy!  In the end, when my arrangement was critiqued, it was deemed to be good except that I had left too many leaves on the bottom of the stems.

Gion Festival cart under construction
Gion Festival
Our stay in Kyoto coincided with the preparation for the annual Gion Festival.  This festival originated as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. (Our trip was just six months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe, Japan, on January 16, 1995.) As we walked the city streets we passed some of the Gion wagons, nearly finished and ready for the parade.  They were surrounded by rows of paper lanterns and tables where you could buy maps of the parade route.  For the parade, teams of young men would pull the wagons through the streets of Kyoto. The Gion festival is a highlight of the year in Kyoto.  We would miss it because we would be leaving the next day for Tokyo on the express train (Shinkansen).

Monday, December 23, 2013


Amaryllis.  Native to South Africa, they are now cultivated all over the world.
Every year at holiday time I like to buy amaryllis bulbs.  There is something magical about the way the bulb suddenly springs to life, producing a green shoot that grows almost visibly day by day and then blossoms into gigantic flowers.  Last year one of my plants timed its flowering perfectly for Christmas, with blooms so heavy it had to be supported so it didn’t topple over. When it finished blooming, the leaves continued to grow, renewing the bulb for another season.
Christmas is a time of renewed hope and celebration. I am looking forward to celebrating with family and friends and I send you
best wishes for a very 
Happy Holiday Season
and Joyous New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

California’s LOST COAST HEADLANDS: Hike to Guthrie Creek

The Lost Coast in northern California has some of the state’s most spectacular scenery--ranging from alpine forests and thick redwood groves to rolling rangeland and rugged beaches.  In mid-October, when I was in Humboldt County for the bi-annual Children’s Authors Festival, I had the chance to visit the Lost Coast twice–first during the festival when I was a guest at two small rural schools and talked about my books and what it is like to be an author, and then after the festival finished, hiking with a friend on the beautiful Guthrie Creek trail.
For our hike, we started from the town of Ferndale, driving along a very narrow, winding road to the Guthrie Creek trail head, about a half hour’s journey. When we arrived, we were the only car in the small parking lot, and, in fact, we had not passed any other traffic along our way.  One of the attractions of the Lost Coast is its remoteness–which means that you are not likely to run into other people.
The morning had started with thick fog coming in from the ocean, but by the time we set off down the path, it was starting to clear. Below us, Guthrie Creek made its way to the sea.  In the distance down the coast we could see the huge rock that is Cape Mendocino.  White-crowned sparrows were hopping about in the bushes and purple asters bloomed along the edge of the path.
The hike to the beach goes along a well-maintained path that zag-zags along the side of the hill with views of the beach and coastal vegetation.  It is not a strenuous climb.  It takes about an hour.

Directions to the Guthrie Creek Trailhead from Highway 101
Exit Highway 101 at the Ferndale exit. Travel west towards Ferndale for five miles. From Main Street, turn right onto Ocean Avenue. Continue on Ocean Avenue for seven miles to the trailhead for Fleener Creek. The road will alternate between dirt and pavement.
Continue past the Fleener Creek Trailhead south approximately 2 miles and look for the trailhead to Guthrie Creek on your right. From the parking lot to the beach below is 1 mile.

For more information about the hike, click here.
For directions to a scenic drive of the Lost Coast, click here.  The drive, which takes about four hours, starts in Ferndale and goes through the towns of Petrolia, Honeydew and back to Highway 101 through the redwoods in Humboldt State Park.

Monday, December 9, 2013

THE U.S.S. POTOMAC: FDR’s “Floating White House”, Port of Oakland, CA

The USS Potomac, FDR's Presidential Yacht, docked in Oakland, CA
The USS Potomac, a 165-foot vessel originally built for the Coast Guard, served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht from 1936 to 1945.  After his death, it was sold and changed hands numerous times–one of the owners was Elvis Presley!-- and in the process made its way to San Francisco Bay. It fell into neglect and was almost sold for scrap before it was rescued by the Port of Oakland, which spearheaded a cooperative effort to restore it to its former glory. It is now a National Historic Landmark.  The yacht, furnished as it would have been in FDR’s time, is berthed at Jack London Square in the Port of Oakland and open for dockside tours and cruises on the Bay.

On a recent trip to Oakland I went with friends to tour the Potomac at Jack London Square. (It has been open for tours since 1990 and I am amazed that I never got around to doing this before!)  It was a beautiful sunny day, perfect to be by the water.  We went first to the Visitor Center (540 Water Street) where we bought tickets for the tour and watched a 15-minute video with background and historical photos and movies of FDR.  This included FDR’s entertaining the King and Queen of England on the “first ever” historic visit of a reigning British monarch to the United States.

A sailor's trunk.
Our guide then took us across the street to the dock for our tour of the boat. (All tours and maintenance of the USS Potomac is done by the non-profit volunteer organization the Potomac Association.)  Starting with the service area of the ship, our guide then took us through every part of the ship from the staterooms to the engine rooms and captains quarters. In the service quarters we saw the bunks where the sailors slept (which folded down from the walls) and a trunk packed with the required clothing.  “Standards for Uniform Storage”, a list for proper folding and placing of items, was tacked to top of the trunk.  For example:
 1.  Dungaree pants - Leading edge should face front of locker with crotch on left.  
3.  Undershirts - leading edge should face left with thin, thick, thick, thin folds facing front of locker. 
13. Shoes - (shined and tied) Left to right.  Dress shoes, work shoes (boondockers), tennis shoes and shower slippers, with toes toward locker.
Clearly, nothing was to be left to chance.
Doorway to the elevator.
While we went up and down the rather steep stairways between decks, we learned that FDR used a special elevator which was constructed for him inside one of the smokestacks.  It was just big enough for him and his wheelchair and was operated by hand. (The engine room was reconfigured so all smoke was routed through the other smokestack.)
The Presidential suite was surprisingly simple and designed so that FDR could manage everything by himself.  The public areas where the President relaxed and entertained guests were gracious, but not overly ornate.  Apparently Roosevelt liked to use the yacht as a place where he could relax with friends, go fishing, and get away from the hectic life of Washington.  As we toured the yacht, photos helped us imagine FDR on one of his cruises.
Looking into the sitting area at the back of the boat
Our tour was supposed to take 45 minutes but actually lasted a bit longer because we asked so many questions and our tour guide was so knowledgeable.  Someday I’d like to go back and take one of the longer trips around the Bay.

For information about tours of the USS Potomac contact the the Potomac Association.

The Potomac Association Visitor Center
540 Water Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Telephone: 510-627-1215

Monday, December 2, 2013

MEGALODON at the Raleigh Natural Science Museum, North Carolina: Jaws of Giant Shark Close-Up

Model of the jaws of Megalodon at the Raleigh Museum of Natural Science
Imagine a giant shark twice as big as the modern-day great white shark, with razor-sharp teeth the size of a human hand, and jaws so huge they could swallow an object the size of a horse!  Long ago, just such a creature swam the oceans of the world.  It was megalodon, the biggest predatory shark that ever lived.  Growing nearly fifty feet long, this fearsome hunter cruised the ocean depths for millions of years, feeding on nearly anything that swam in the sea.

A year and a half ago, when I was in North Carolina, I went with my family to the Raleigh Natural Science Museum where a model of megalodon’s huge jaws are on display in the main lobby of the museum.  Megalodon roamed the oceans of the world for at least 17 or 18 million years before becoming extinct about 2 million years ago at the beginning of the last Ice Age.  Fossilized giant megalodon teeth have been unearthed in North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as in fossil deposits in California, Florida, Maryland, Belgium, Morocco, Mexico, South America and in other places once covered by ancient seas.

Shark teeth are among the most commonly found fossils.  All sharks lose teeth frequently–a single shark may lose thousands of teeth in its lifetime.  A tooth may last only a week.  The teeth are loosely fastened in the jaw and often break or simply fall out.  This is never a problem for the shark, because a new tooth is always ready to take its place.  A shark’s replacement teeth are folded back in its jaw and pop up into place when needed as if they were on a conveyer belt.  No matter how many teeth a shark loses, it is always prepared for its next meal!
While fossil shark teeth are common, no complete fossil skeleton of megalodon has ever been found.  Sharks have skeletons made of cartilage.  Cartilage is tough, but not as hard or durable as bone or teeth and does not fossilize nearly as well.
Giant Shark (Clarion Books, 2000)
I first learned about megalodon when I was doing research for my children's book Giant Shark: Megalodon, Prehistoric Super Predator. The book has beautiful illustrations by Laurie Caple. When I go to schools and libraries to talk about my books, I bring my fossil megalodon tooth for "show and tell."  (I bought the tooth, which was found in South Carolina, at a fossil shop.) The enormous tooth, which is still sharp on its sawtooth edge, always makes a big impression on my audience.

Fossil megalodon tooth, 14 million years old
Megalodon was once the supreme hunter of the sea.  Luckily, ocean dwellers no longer have to fear this giant predator.  But at places like the Raleigh Natural Science Museum, we can marvel at the giant jaws and enormous teeth of this ancestor of the great white shark.

Monday, November 25, 2013

CHIHULY GLASS SCULPTURES, Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona, Guest Post by Cathy Bonnell

Chiluly Sculpture, Phoenix AZ Botanical Garden
Cathy Bonnell is a good friend who lives in Phoenix, Arizona.  She is a retired elementary school librarian who continues to be passionate about children’s books and children’s books art. I have visited the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix in the summer, but her report makes me want to make a special visit in the winter to see the amazing glass sculptures installed there.  Here is her report:

Even though the Arizona desert is green and growing, there is not much blooming in the winter. So it's the perfect time of year for the Desert Botanical Garden of Phoenix to install Chihuly glass throughout the 140 acres of desert plants. The natural outdoor setting lends itself to the unusual shapes and vibrant colors of artist Dale Chihuly's blown glass sculptures. This new exhibition is the second time the Desert Botanical Garden has hosted Chihuly glass to sold out crowds.
After a tasty dinner of fish tacos at Gertrude's--the Garden's new restaurant–my friends and I found the best time to see this stunning site was at night when the crowds have thinned. The marked and lighted trails throughout the garden took us on an adventure around every corner, where enormous glass spires or curly stakes of colored glass stood among the natural plants for dramatic impact. As you may know, the desert can be cold at night in the winter, so we bundled up and just slightly ignored the predictions of rain. I felt like a child who sees a huge decorated and lit Christmas tree to see these amazing pieces--oooh's and ahhhh's escaping from my mouth at every piece. 

A short film of how Chihuly makes the glass pieces, which are then assembled on site, is available for viewing in one of the small buildings. And, of course, a dedicated gift shop sells small but four figure-priced pieces of Chihuly glass. We came back to the stunning blue and white starburst piece at the entrance just as huge rain drops began to fall.

Desert Botanical Garden
1201 North Galvin Parkway
Phoenix, AZ 85008

For directions, hours, and information about tickets go to

Monday, November 18, 2013

SKARA BRAE, a Prehistoric Stone Age Village in Scotland's Orkney Islands

The ruins of Skara Brae face the Bay of Skaill
On a windswept island at the northern tip of Scotland, thick, stone walls lie half buried by the edge of the sea.  They are the remains of Skara Brae, one of Europe's oldest known and best preserved prehistoric villages.  Five thousand years ago ancient farmers tended livestock and tilled the earth on land surrounding the village.  They also hunted wildlife and fished along the coast.  Their houses, built of sturdy stone, were clustered in a compact unit and joined along an inner passageway.  They were the heart of a close-knit agricultural community and may have been home to as many as twenty families at one time.
    Art and I visited Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands in late August 1992 as part of the celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  We rode a train north from Edinburgh to John O’Groats and took a ferry from there to the islands.  It was an amazing trip back in time as we viewed the remains of the village where people had lived for nearly 600 years. After they left, wind blew sand from the surrounding dunes over the village and buried it.  For thousands of years Skara Brae was forgotten.

Skara Brae and the manor house of the Laird of Skaill
The weather in the Orkneys is often wet and windy and during our visit we experienced both sun and rain. In the winter of 1850, a series of violent storms battered the islands, pounding them with fierce waves and gale force winds.  One of these storms was so severe that it blew away the grass and sand from a high dune on land owned by William Watt, the Laird of Skaill.  (Laird is the Scottish word for lord.)  When the storm subsided, William Watt went out to inspect the damage to his property.  As he crossed the land that separated his fields from the sea, he saw that the wind and waves had exposed the remains of a long buried ancient village.  For the first time in more than forty centuries, the dwellings of Skara Brae were exposed to the open air.  As William Watt uncovered the ruins he discovered more stone walls, furniture, stone and bone tools, pottery, beads and other objects.  The sand and surrounding embankment had protected the houses and the items in them so well that many were in almost perfect condition.

Today, visitors to Skara Brae can explore the remains of the village and see many of the ancient objects found during its excavation.  No other place in northern Europe provides such a complete picture of life in the neolithic, or new stone age.
Shallow basins in the floor may have held fish bait or a supply of fresh water.
The village of Skara Brae is a cluster of one room houses joined by covered passages.  Today these buildings are open to the sky, but in ancient times they would have been covered by low roofs.  The houses probably had rafters made of whalebone or wood which were then covered with sod and held down by ropes. (Fragments of rope made from twisted heather have been found in the midden.) 
    Of all the ancient sites in the Orkneys, Skara Brae is among the most remarkable.  As we peered over the village walls, it was not hard to imagine families sitting around their hearths long ago talking and eating while children played and neighbors came to visit.  With firelight dancing across the walls and winter winds roaring outside, these sturdy stone houses would have been a welcome retreat from the weather and places where people could feel safe and secure.
The standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar are about six miles from Skara Brae.  They were erected during the same period that people lived at Skara Brae.
Skara Brae is amazing both because it is so old and because so much has been preserved.  People were living at Skara Brae before the Egyptians built their pyramids, before ancient Americans built their first cities and before the Chinese built the Great Wall.  Skara Brae is a window onto some of our most ancient history.  For those of us with roots in northern Europe, the ruins at Skara Brae provide fascinating clues to how some of our most remote ancestors may have actually lived.

You can read more about Skara Brae and the Orkney Islands in my book Stone Age Farmers Beside the Sea (Clarion, 1997).  It is out of print but available online and in libraries.  Or, you can download it to your Kindle.

Update July 21, 2014:  For information about the most recent neolithic discoveries in the Orkneys, check out the August 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Celebrating 50,000 Page Views!

Hurray! Today marks a total of 50,000 all time page views of The Intrepid Tourist!  Thanks to all of you who have been reading my posts!  In the two and half years since I launched this blog, the readership has grown steadily and I am gratified that the articles I’ve posted have found such a large audience. According to the stats, viewers come from all over the world!  And I thank all of my guest posters for expanding the breadth of the blog and bringing new readers to the site. 
I would love to hear your comments!  Meanwhile, Happy Traveling!

Monday, November 11, 2013


Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan
On the central plateau of Mexico, just outside Mexico City, lie the ruins of another great city, the ancient ceremonial complex of Teotihuacan.  At its center, the enormous 210 foot high Pyramid of the Sun towers over the city.  When its was built nearly 2,000 years ago, priests climbed its 248 steps to worship and study the heavens.
On top of the world! Actually, the Pyramid of the Sun.
I climbed those steep steps on my first visit to Teotihuacan, in 1991.  I looked out over the ruins of the ancient city and tried to imagine what it was like when it was bustling with commerce.  The city of Teotihuacan was established around 150 B.C.  At the height of its development, between A.D. 300 and 600, it covered an area of eight square miles and had a population of between 100,000 and 200,000 people.

Pyramid of the Moon
The most important religious structures are concentrated in the ceremonial center of the city and a long, stone walkway with buildings arranged symmetrically on either side was the main thoroughfare. The Aztecs, who came later, named it the Avenue of the Dead because the large mounds on either side looked to them like tombs. Actually, they were the ruins of ancient temples.At the end of the walkway is the Pyramid of the Moon (seen behind my head in the above picture, framed by the hills of Cerro Gordo, which was believed to be the home of the Storm God and was sacred in Teotihuacan times.) The stepped construction of the Pyramid of the Moon is known as talud-tablero, a style developed at Teotihuacan.

View from top of the Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Sun faces west and looks across the Avenue of the Dead. It is situated so that its front faces exactly the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the days when it is at its highest point of the year. Because Teotihuacan is south of the Tropic of Cancer, the sun is directly overhead twice a year, on May 19 and July 25.
Fresco from the Palace of the Jaguars. 
Today the predominant color of Teotihuacan is of natural stone.  But long ago, it was a riot of color. Nearly every structure in the ancient city was brightly painted on the outside, and many had beautiful paintings on the inside walls as well. Paint was made from natural dyes and applied directly onto wet plaster.  Red, which signified blood and eternal life, was a predominant color.  Black represented shadows and the underworld. In the fresco above, curved designs emerging from the figures' mouths indicate that they are speaking or singing.

Votive Figurine (reproduction)
Thousands of handmade clay figures just a few inches high have been found in the excavations at Teotihuacan.  Most of these tiny figures have been found in the places where people lived.  It is believed that they were used as part of daily household rituals.  Copies of these figurines are found in the local tourist shops.

The Teotihuacan culture in central Mexico collapsed in the 8th Century A.D.  It was followed first by the Toltecs, who built their capital at Tula, and then the Aztecs, whose capital was Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City.)  During centuries of disuse, what was left of the buildings at Teotihuacan gradually fell down and became overgrown with weeds.  Their colorful murals faded and disintegrated with exposure to the weather.  Objects that had been left behind were broken or buried.  What we see today only hints at the greatness that was Teotihuacan.
Coatlicue (Museum of Anthropology)
Note: Today, like most of the other ancient sites in Mexico, the pyramids of Teotihuacan are closed to climbing by tourists, but you can still visit the surrounding grounds and appreciate the richness of the culture. You can also view many of the treasures of Teotihucan–giant sculptures, masks, pottery, jewelry and more--in the wonderful Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

My visit to Teotihuacan in 1991 inspired a second trip when I went to research my book City of the Gods: Mexico’s Ancient city of Teotihuacan (Clarion, 1994), illustrated with photographs by Richard Hewett. The pictures on this blog are mine from the first trip.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sicily, Part II: VOLCANOES and TRAFFIC. Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Stromboli Explosion
My friend Gretchen Woelfle recently went to Sicily and sent me this report.  Part I, last week, focused on cathedrals and ancient ruins.  This week Gretchen visits Sicily's famous volcanoes.  Gretchen is a fellow children’s book author whose recent books include Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren and  All the World's a Stage, A Novel in Five Acts.  Find out more at .

Perhaps the most exciting parts of the trip to Sicily were our climbs up Stromboli and Mount Etna, two volcanoes very much alive.  Stromboli, the source of the island that bears its name, is only 3000 ft. high, but the climb nearly finished me off.  Hiking in a hot late afternoon, steep switchbacks all the way up – I wondered if it was worth it.

Hiking up Stromboli
It was sunset when we reached the summit, looking down into several steam-spouting craters, with the sea beyond, and as darkness fell we witnessed thunderous explosions about every ten minutes.  I managed to catch photos of one of them. Spectacular stuff, along with glowing stones that glittered on the rocks after the explosions ended.
View of Stromboli from the ferry
The walk down the gritty trail in the dark (with headlamps) was nearly as difficult as the hike up. The next day we spoke to people who had watched the same eruptions from a boat off the island, and from a restaurant halfway up the volcano.  Next time…..

Top of Etna
A few days later, when we reached Mount Etna (11,000 ft.) I was pleased to learn that we could travel nearly 9600 ft. by cable car and van.  The hike from there was a walk in the park – a moonscape park covered in black lava gravel. And at the top – a wild wind blew the sulfurous smoke in all directions as we stood on the edge of several steaming craters of unseen depth. Fantastic!

Gretchen on Etna
The most dangerous part of entire trip to Sicily though, was probably the driving. Two weeks of small Italian cars randomly creating an extra lane to the left or right of you as you made your way through traffic jams in the cities. “Streets” so narrow that you have to fold the side mirrors on your Fiat Panda to creep through. Cobbled village streets so steep you invoke all the saints for your eventual release. Cars passing on hills and curves with no regard for that solid white line down the middle of the road.  Cars double-parking at will, parking perpendicular to the curb, parking on the sidewalks, etc etc. And most perplexing of all, a lack of street signs that rendered useless my Google map directions. 
Enter friendly Sicilians who were quick to stop in the middle of the road to guide us on a bit further before we got lost again.  Or to call their Australian wife who could translate for us.  Or who jumped in their cars to lead us to the next part of the journey. Or who gathered everyone in the shop to study the online map and determine how to guide us to where we wanted to go.

Sicilian pizza
As for the food in general and the pizza in particular, experts say it’s the best in the world outside of Naples – but since we didn’t get to Naples, I was mightily satisfied.

On Stromboli we stayed in the Hotel Ossidiana
and ate delectable pizza at Luciano’s.[] We spent two nights on Etna at the Rifugio Sapienza, []
and ate risotto and pasta in their excellent restaurant, while watching a video showing Etna’s eruptions in the last ten years. They closed the mountain to visitors for three years, from 2010 until April 2013. 

Climbing down Etna
Mount Etna erupted again on October 26, 2013.  For some amazing video of the eruption, click here:

Some good reading about Sicily:

Andrea Camilleri has written a long series of terrific mysteries about Inspector Montalbano.  See “Andrea Camilleri Montalbano series” at Even better is the TV version, in Italian (!) with subtitles.

Leonardo Sciascia is an acclaimed Sicilian writer, some of whose books have been translated.  I recommend
The Wine Dark Sea (short stories)
Sicilian Uncles (four novellas)

Daphne Phelps, A House in Sicily, describes moving to Sicily from England in 1947 and adapting to the local culture, including the Mafia.
Simetti, Mary Taylor, Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal, tells the story of an American young woman who travels to Sicily in 1962, marries a Sicilian and makes a life there.

Monday, October 28, 2013

WANDERING THROUGH SICILY, Part I, Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

Mosaics, Cathedral Monreale
My friend Gretchen Woelfle recently went to Sicily and sent me this report.  Gretchen is a fellow children’s book author whose recent books include Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren and  All the World's a Stage, A Novel in Five Acts.  Find out more at .
I’m just back from two weeks in Sicily, traveling with a fellow hiker and art lover. It’s a land of lovely landscapes, great food and friendly people, though for me, half the pleasure was the chance to hear the Italian language in all its mellifluous splendor, and to watch the body language that accompanies it.  Men and women are equally adept at choreographing their conversations, and some actually seem incapable of speaking a word without moving hands and arms.

Gretchen in Palermo Alley
Apart from people-watching and listening, there’s so much to do on this island that’s been colonized for millennia by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French – and by the Italians, whom Sicilians may consider ‘foreigners.’  (Sicily has its own Regional Parliament and a certain amount of autonomy from the government in Rome.) 

Cathedral Viewed from Cloister
Architecture and artwork reflect this cultural mélange and we visited minimalist Arab-Norman churches filled with stunning Byzantine mosaics.  Standouts include the Capella Palatina inside the Norman Palace (Palermo), Monreale Cathedral (near Palermo), and Cefalù Cathedral.

If Baroque is your thing, Sicily is full of it.  A devastating earthquake in 1693 meant that whole towns and cities were rebuilt in the current fashion.  We visited Noto to see some of its most lavish manifestations, and the Val di Noto in the southeast (Ragusa, Modia and more) is similarly blessed (or cursed, depending on your taste.) 

Ceramic steps, Caltagirone
For one week, I arranged a home exchange in Caltagirone, a shabby-chic (my favorite kind) Baroque town that’s also a World Heritage site for a ceramics tradition, still alive and well.  A ceramic-tiled 142-step staircase illustrates their 900-year-old history of the art. The town is crammed with shops selling the latest versions of traditional designs.

Ruins, Agrigento
From Caltagirone we were well-placed for day trips to Greek and Roman archaeological sites, another lure to Sicily.  The Greek amphitheater at Taormina – renovated by the conquering Roman – gives stunning views of both the Mediterranean and Mount Etna.  The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, near the south coast, is perhaps the most impressive site with three large temples built on a ridge overlooking the sea, and several smaller ones in various states of disarray. A nearby museum displays room after room of artifacts from the ruins.
Greek Amphitheater, Siracusa
Siracusa has heaps of stone foundations from the largest Greek city in Sicily, with an enormous amphitheatre holding 15,000 people, where plays of Aeschylus and other Greek playwrights were premiered (and are still performed each summer.) Archimedes was a native of Siracusa, killed by invading Romans, and his alleged tomb is part of the complex. 

The quarries that provided the stones to build Siracusa are adjacent to the theatre and today are filled with a lush garden landscape.  Some of the quarried caves are accessible, including the “Ear of Dionysius” named by Caravaggio who discovered its fantastic acoustics.  Whether he was referring to the Greek god of wine or the tyrant who imprisoned his enemies there is not common knowledge.
Hunt Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale
The Villa Romana del Casale, outside the town of Piazza Armerina, is a jewel of a site, only uncovered in the twentieth century. It’s a grand villa from the 4th century AD, and while the buildings are gone, the mosaic floors in dozens of rooms are pristine.  Abstract patterns, mythological subjects, marine scenes, and a 200 foot long Corridor of the Great Hunt are on display. The Great Hunt tells a wonderful story of hunters searching the entire Roman Empire, from Africa to India, to bring back exotic animals to Rome. But the most popular room may be the one uncovered in 1960, showing “Bikini Girls” engaged in various sporting activities. 

"Bikini Girls" Villa Romana del Casale
Next week, Part II:  Gretchen climbs volcanoes and braves the highways of Sicily!