Sandwiched between our excursions to Etna, Malta, and Ragusa, we managed to squeeze a bit more fun out of the tiny island of Ortigia.
What makes the the Duomo a Frankenstein's monster of a building? What's that nondescript door in the wall to the right of the Duomo? And where can you go to hear eclectic live music in Ortigia?
Our third and final excursion out of Siracusa was a loop around the Val di Noto. This area was destroyed in 1693 by Italy's largest ever earthquake and was rebuilt, as UNESCO would say, to represent "the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe". We added a second loop to visit some of the filming locations of our favorite Italian TV series - "Inspector Montalbano".
One benefit of opting for the monthly rental discount AirBnB is that we feel justified heading out on excursions out of Siracusa for a couple of nights at a time. Our first “vacation” was to visit Mount Etna - especially to sample some wine. On a bright Tuesday morning we packed into our rented FIAT Panda with Etna in our sights. Our first stop was Oro D’Etna in the town of Zafferana Etnea, where honey is the main source of income for 2/3 of the population. This family-run business featured free tastings of their wines, olives & olive oil, pestos, and - most importantly - their honey. The wines were just OK, their olives (especially the delectable large green ones) and their pestos and flavored oils were first rate, but the honey was the star of the show.
With the festivities of Christmas behind us, the thought of staying in Northern Europe through the winter was just not going to work. We found an AirBnB in Siracusa, in the southeast corner of Sicily, with a generous discount because we booked for the whole month. More about how that's working out later...
New Year's Day was "Adventure Day" - formerly known as the "Dreaded Travel Day". We drove from Baden Baden to Zürich to catch an Edelweiss Air flight to Catania. Holidays are a great travel option - there was absolutely no line at security - and having the Chase Sapphire Reserve VISA got us into a very comfortable airport lounge while we waited for our flight - the couple of glasses of Tempranillo didn't hurt.
Ever since George Clooney bought Villa Oleandra, Americans have been flocking to Lake Como in the Italian Alps. But, for the moment, the Italians still have nearby Lake Maggiore to themselves. Thanks to LinkedIn, Richard was able to reconnect earlier in the year with Daniele, a former work colleague, who grew up and still lives on this picturesque lake. This renewed friendship led to a fabulous week in a place we'd not likely have ever visited and that we got to know through the eyes of a proud native.
For the first time since arriving in Europe we decided to rent a car to get the full taste of the Tuscan countryside. On November 27th we piled into our FIAT Tipo - love the standard transmission - and set out from Siena toward our next planned stop, Pienza in the Val d'Orcia. Along the way we had to pull over more than once to take in amazing landscapes. When lunchtime arrived we avoided the temptation to try out "McDrive" - Italy's name for the McDonalds Drive-thru window. Instead, we stopped at the medieval walled city of Buonconvento, where we had "pici" - the local pasta - and tagliatelle at Ristorante da Mario. We had a good laugh when we noticed photos of the owner with Ted Kennedy on the wall by our table.
No visit to Tuscany would be complete without a stop in Siena - described by UNESCO as "the embodiment of a medieval city". The historic 3-way rivalry between Pisa, Siena, and Florence is obvious when you see them back to back. Still recovering from our stomach issues, we were very grateful that our AirBnB host, Helga, pointed out 3 ways to get to the historic town center - one of which took advantage of a 5-flight set of escalators up to the walled city!
All artists' brushes point to Florence - and it never disappoints. The AirBnB apartment - "Bianca's Home" - that we chose is in the "Oltrarno" section of Florence - the "other side of the Arno" from the city center. It's a funky neighborhood with artisans at work restoring art, crafting leather, making jewelry, or sewing bespoke fashions. The apartment was really nice and our host, Valentina, was great, giving us lots of recommendations about the neighborhood. So much to see in Florence, so we scheduled 4 days to get it all in. We found it important to balance time inside museums and churches with time outside strolling the streets and parks. Our first stop was the Pitti Palace and the attached Boboli Gardens on our side of the city.
Take the energy of a university town, the passion for Tuscan traditions, and subtle Renaissance beauty and you find that Pisa is much more than the leaning tower. Yes - you need to visit the Piazza del Duomo and see the beautiful cathedral, the baptistery, and of course the "campanile" in all its leaning glory. (Yes - we successfully resisted the temptation to taking the silly tourist photo pretending to hold it up.)
It was finally time to say farewell to our first Italian home in Camogli - thanks again to the generous Molly and Massimo for the keys to their lovely place. On November 20 we set off with Patrick for Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the "Cinque Terre". After washing down our Italian-style egg salad on fresh focaccia from Camogli's Pasticceria / Focacceria Revello with strong cappuccino and English Breakfast tea, we headed off to Sentiero Azzurro - the "Blue Path Trail". Our trek took us high above the vineyards and olive groves on a rocky and hilly trail along the sea, headed for Vernazza.
Use the "Next Post >>" Button at the bottom of each post to step through our story chronologically.
Nancy McCabe &