Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A first impression of Palermo, Sicily

I visited Palermo in Sept 2009.  I was only able to stay a few days so I know I only saw a tiny part of it, and really enjoyed what I did see. It is a very busy city, always lots going on, but in an approachable, people-oriented way. You could easily spend weeks there seeing the sights, including great people-watching, and enjoying the food.

The city was founded by Phoenicians about 2,700 years ago, and has been ruled by a half-dozen different cultures since then. An interesting place to see this is to look at the churches; as each group in power arrived, they would build their house of worship on top of (or combine it somehow with) the previous group’s, so the outside of the big cathedral shows this combination of cultures. (We saw this in Siracusa too, where the 5th-century BC Greek temple has long been a church, but the original massive stone temple pillars are still there, visible inside the church.)

The hotel I  stayed in was fairly near the Opera house (Teatro Massimo, the largest theater in Italy), so I walked past it many times on my explorations. It is an impressive sight, and the people of Palermo are very proud of it.  I have yet to go inside (the entrance was roped off), but the acoustics are said to be perfect. Some day I’d like to see a production there.

I recommend getting around by walking, or by public transit – driving in the city is a risky affair and parking is crazy. At intersections it looked like people just pulled their cars at high speed into a random small opening between other parked cars and the flow of  traffic, and then bolted on foot. And the next car would do the same and just block the others – the cars could be several deep pointing in different directions – I have no idea how anyone ever gets their car out again. And then there are scooters everywhere too.

We sampled several arancini from little stands and cafes around the city – the small, egg shaped, fried balls of risotto with a filling inside. These seemed to be very popular with schoolkids. Some arancini were large (more like a small ostrich egg!) but others more duck-egg sized. I was not always sure if I was getting an arancini with meat or cheese or both as the filling, but since I’m omnivorous I didn’t mind! They were very filling, I found it best to buy one and share with several others.

Make sure to try some of the sweets – gelato and pasta reale (marzipan) from an excellent pastry shop such as Alba – not to be missed!

The Teatro Massimo (opera house) in Palermo

Arancini! Very tasty.

Street vendors in Palermo

A few of the many flavors of gelato at Pasticceria Alba in Palermo

The food market in Palermo - lots of fresh produce and fresh seafood, but many other things too

Scooter parking area in Palermo - much more orderly than the cars parking in the street

Pistachio Cream and Erice, Sicily

I found a little jar in my cupboard last night, of pistachio cream – a sweet pistachio-y spread, like the pistachio’s answer to Nutella, but without the chocolate. I immediately thought about where I had bought the jar last fall – in a little food shop in the gorgeous ancient town of Erice, Sicily, perched up high on a mountaintop in the northwest, with a stunning view of the sea and countryside.

Erice is a joy to explore – a maze of tiny winding cobblestone streets lined with shops and cafes, and with two castles to boot. It’s small enough though that you can’t really get lost, and there are handy map displays scattered around the city. Erice was the ancient city of Eryx, much conquered over the last few millennia; the castles sit atop ancient temple ruins.

On my next visit (our October, 2010 tour to Sicily – please join us!) I for sure will seek out a pastry shop I’ve since heard about, called Maria Grammatico’s, which apparently one should not miss!

Fall 2009 tour guests enjoying an afternoon espresso at a cafe in Erice

One of the lovely views from Erice, looking northwest



Puglian Wolverines?

I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of The University of Michigan, whose mascot is the wolverine. So, that particular mammal is mentioned quite a bit around town – the hundreds of UM sports teams are avidly followed here – American football being the most popular.

It’s a bit ironic, that although the state of Michigan does have moose (I’ve met Michigan moose – they are large, kind of like horses on stilts), bobcat, coyote, wolves, and apparently cougar (happily I’ve not met one of those), among many other animals, the wolverine has long been extinct in Michigan.

So what do wolverines have to do with Puglia? I wasn’t worrying about the absence of the Michigan wolverine, but I’ve been reading up on Puglia. The latest book I read, called “Venturing in Italy: Travels in Puglia, Land between Two Seas”, is a collection of essays by a group of writers who traveled to Puglia in 2008. Joanna Biggar, one of the contributors, writes about her visit to the large, wild, national park in Puglia, called the Gargano. It is one of the few areas of Puglia that still has dense, original forest – the Romans deforested much of Puglia thousands of years ago, and so created some of the large agricultural areas in Puglia that have remained ever since, but they did not touch the Gargano. Joanna lists some of the flora and fauna in the Gargano, including, wolverines!

Our trip to Puglia will be to areas south of the Gargano, but still, it’s fun to know that when I travel in Puglia I’ll be visiting a region that managed, unlike Michigan, to hang on to its wolverines.