Central Sicily in a Day: Hill Towns, Mosaics and Unbeatable Views

We were reluctant to leave Palermo without visiting its renowned archaeological museum, below, so we squeezed in an hour there on our last morning. Seeing the magnificent sculpture and decorative arts of millennia past always helps put things in perspective.

Much of the museum’s permanent collection centers on architectural salvage from Selinunte, a Greek city on the southern shore of Sicily with a vast complex of five temples, which I never even heard of before this trip. Seems the city didn’t last long: it was largely destroyed by the Carthaginians around 405 BC, never rebuilt and abandoned a century or so later. Left behind: sculptures of stone, marble and terra cotta, grave goods, friezes, sarcophogi and more.

The museum’s holdings, along with such treasures as a basalt stele with exquisitely detailed Egyptian hieroglyphics of four thousand years ago, make it abundantly clear that these ancient civilizations were well-organized and highly educated, and parts of their societies, at least, lived far more graciously than we do now. We think we have such an advanced culture? Ha. It’s chauvinistic to think our modern civilization has much, if anything, on the ancient ones.

Human dysfunctions like war and slavery haven’t gone away in modern times, but I got no sense that women were particularly subjugated in ancient Greece and its outposts, perhaps because they worshipped goddesses as well as gods? The tidbits of knowledge I pick up on a trip like this never fail to generate more questions.

We hopped a bus to the Palermo airport to pick up our rental car and headed down through the center of the island. The day — Tuesday — was clear and bright, with puffy clouds, as we drove through a portion of the Madonie mountains and through cultivated hills of olive and cherry trees. I was thrilled to be enjoying such fabulous scenery from a major highway.

We stopped en route in Enna, the highest medieval hill town in central Sicily, but it seemed in our hour-long pit stop that the view of Calascibetta, above, another nearby medieval hill town, was the best thing about Enna.

At an otherwise deserted little bar, the kind woman behind the counter scared up some impromptu antipasti for a pair of American vegetarians who stumbled in ravenous at 4PM. And of course the wine — Nero d’Avola (a dark red) and Grillo (crisp but flavorful white) — like all the Sicilian wines I’ve tasted, were superb.

I had a bit of a meltdown in Enna when our car got stuck on an impossibly narrow street. Trying to follow GPS directions, which told us to turn onto one-way streets that weren’t sign posted and no wider than a single-car driveway, we got boxed in and had to undertake precarious maneuvers to back out, while other cars kept coming around the corner. The Fiat Panda felt like a truck as we tried to turn it around with centimeters to spare, especially while worrying about scratching the brand new car, which had all of 14km on it when we picked it up at the airport.

That was only the first of two such events that day; the second occurred when we were sliding backwards toward a staircase leading down a steep embankment. The stresses of driving in Europe, where the streets are as hilly as San Francisco’s and as twisty as a plate of linguini, and a distance of forty miles can take hours, are not small.

Enna was the first of three central Sicilian hill towns we visited in two days on our scratch-the-surface tour of the island. It seems that by following signs reading Centro Storico, you invariably come to a piazza with a beautiful Baroque cathedral and a belvedere (i.e., scenic overlook), usually a parklike strip with benches and fountains, bars and restaurants — but, if it happens to be between 2:30 and 7:30 PM, not a one open to serve hungry travelers.

Wednesday was socked in with rain and heavy fog. Fortunately we had planned a visit to Villa Romanas des Casales, below, an extraordinary late-Roman villa and UNESCO site that has only been open to the public since 2006.

It was possibly the summer palace of Marcus Aurelius and is now a major draw for visitors who come chiefly to see its extensive floor mosaics, often ‘themed’ to the purpose of the room. Outstanding among them: the 200-foot-long ‘hall of the hunt,’ an encyclopedic pictorial of how wild animals were captured in Africa and transported to Rome; another room depicting young women in bikinis training for athletic competitions; others of children playing; chariot races, banquets and more, all at amazing levels of detail.

Most of the villa was buried under mud for centuries, and only fully excavated, restored and and made accessible to the public in recent years. It has to be one of the remaining wonders of the ancient world.

Still in the rain, we drove up into the atmospheric (as are they all) and charming hill town of Piazza Armerina, above, took a few photos and checked out its requisite Duomo, then drove another half hour to the town of Caltagirone, top. We were interested in its signature ceramics, and also in lunch.We wandered in and out of shops to see the former, as well as climbing its 142-step staircase and admiring its Baroque architecture, but found none of the latter.

Luckily we had half a dozen oranges picked right from the trees outside our room at Vecchia Masseria, below, an agriturismo whose stone buildings have been converted to tourist lodging and where we stayed one cushy night in the area. It’s a luxurious full-service resort as well as a working farm with a lovely candlelit restaurant, where we had joined European couples of all ages for dinner the night before.

The stolen citrus tided us over until we arrived after dark at the Hotel Gutkowki in Syracuse for a two-night stay. The rain and wind coming off the Ionian Sea was appropriately Homeric, setting us up for further immersion in ancient history, trusty Blue Guide close at hand.

Palermo: Byzantine, Baroque and Beyond

Among my files and folders at home is a yellowed New York Times clipping from 2008, “36 Hours in Palermo,” saved toward the end of the era when we clipped newspaper articles and filed them in folders. I’ve wanted to come to Palermo, in other words, for a long time. I finally made it, and for two-and-a-half days instead of just 36 hours.

Palermo was worth the wait. It is dramatically ringed by mountains, famous for its fresh food and distinctive cuisine, and unbelievably rich in decorative architecture, mostly churches. The historic center’s stone-paved streets are impossibly atmospheric and hopelessly complicated.

I’m here with my wasband, who flew in from New York the day after I arrived by train from Calabria. We’re staying at the Palazzo Pantaleo, a comfortably appointed, tastefully renovated six-room B&B on the top floor of an 18th century palazzo, with wrought iron balconies and a host named Guiseppe whose family has owned the property for 200 years.

Palermo (pop. 600,000) is a lot to take in, and we knew we’d only scrape the surface. We’ve walked 17,000 steps on each of two consecutive days, traversing large chunks of the city’s four central neighborhoods.

Neither day was typical, I now realize: on Sunday, cars are banned from many streets and Palermo becomes one big passegiata, with locals and tourists alike strolling the broad car-free boulevards and filling its cafes, restaurants and stores. Where Italy used to be dead for visitors on Sundays, now it shops like the rest of us.

Sunday lunch at Antico Focacceria San Francesco (it’s in all the guidebooks, a Palermo institution since the 1840s) was pasta with anchovies, plus indoor versions of the famous Palermo street food like arancini, rice and cheese rolled into balls and deep-fried. What could be bad?

Drinks and dessert later at Antica Caffe Spinnata was heartily Italian — I had a Campari spritzer and cassata, a sponge cake soaked in liqueur with candied fruit and sugar icing, and I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.

Today, Monday, people went back to work. What I had forgotten was that on Monday, many restaurants would be closed, others empty. Museums, too, were closed, including the archaeological museum that was on my ‘must’ list. Plan better, if you come.

So we walked some more, admiring many elaborate and massively domed churches from the outside, including the city’s extraordinary block-long main cathedral, a mashup of Gothic spires, Romanesque arches, medieval crenelations and a Moorish mosque.

We looked into churches like the over-the-top La Martorana, decorated by Greek artisans with superb golden mosaics that were later mismatched with Baroque puttis and Renaissance frescoes. San Cataldo, the nine-century-old Norman church next door to it, with three red domes and a beautiful, bare-bones brick chapel, was more to my liking. In its simplicity, you can pray directly, no intercession needed.

Both churches are located on the sun-splashed Piazza Pretoria, centered on an epic 16th century fountain once known as the Fountain of Shame for its marble nudes.

We walked through the Ballaro market, known for the raucous patter of its vendors and the largest vegetables ever. I saw whole octopi proudly displayed and parts of animals I never wanted to see.

The prepared food looked fresh and good, and we would have done well to eat there. We ended up at the soaring, skylit Osteria Ballaro, where we had nouveau Sicilian Slow Food, including a sampler of the local street-food favorites and a mixed seafood plate. Only New Yorkers could spend as much on lunch in Palermo as we did, but the wine was dry and delicious and I’m not complaining.

We even visited the sub-tropical botanical garden on the edge of town, gaping at otherworldly ficus trees, giant cacti and agaves, greenhouses full of bougainvillea, all thriving in the Sicilian sun. The garden’s maintenance seemed scruffy and unkempt, but perhaps I’m being judgey.

Where my Lonely Planet calls out Palermo’s buildings as pock-marked, its pavements broken and neighborhoods decrepit, having just come from Gioia Tauro, Calabria, those things didn’t register. I thought it was all just part of the city’s considerable charm.

Day Tripping In and Around Calabria

There’s plenty of natural beauty in southwestern Calabria, at the tippy-toe of Italy’s boot. Views from on high of dramatic green hills dropping into the glittering Tyrrhenian Sea are a dime a dozen. As for man-made beauty, not so much. The city of Gioia Tauro, where my cousin and I are based for a week, reminds me of Italian neo-realist movies (The Bicycle Thief) of the early postwar years. The city’s state of disrepair makes for evocative photos but grim surroundings.

So — we headed off to Taormina, below, on Sicily’s eastern coast, a posh and popular destination for at least the past couple hundred years. We drove an hour south to board a car ferry across the Strait of Messina, drove a bit more, and made for the town’s chief site: a 3rd century B.C. Greek amphitheatre where Aeschylus is said to have seen his own plays performed. Partly restored over the centuries, to the point where it’s now used for concerts and film screenings, it’s in a stunning location with sea views in all directions. (Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, which usually forms a backdrop, was obscured by clouds.)

We climbed still higher into the hills of Taormina in search of a guest house where Tennessee Williams and other literati stayed, finally locating it and enjoying its air of decayed romance, though it’s not yet open for the season. Having made a classic newbie error, we missed lunch at the local restaurants (they close at 3 until dinnertime, which begins around 7). Instead we ordered negronis on the terrace of the fancy Hotel Villa Belvedere, where they plied us with enough nuts and crudités to tide us over.

We strolled through the city’s lush public garden, a curious combination of formal hedgerows with cacti, palms and follies of timber and brick, masterminded in the late 19th century by a Scots woman, Lady Florence Trevelyan, and owned by the city of Taormina since 1922.

We did a little bit of shopping on the main pedestrian drag, which features the usual fine Italian leather and jewelry shops. Bottom line: Taormina is a thoroughly charming place, uncrowded in March.

On returning to Gioia Tauro, we happily discovered (thank you, Trip Advisor) what is surely the most sophisticated restaurant in town, Trattoria Vico Scuro, tucked behind a wine store in an 18th century building with vaulted brick ceilings and archways. We sampled four of their pasta dishes, including a flat noodle with tomato and eggplant sauce; angel hair with truffles; a delicate eggplant parmagiana; and gnocchi with pesto, celery and almonds (which we both found weird), along with a fine bottle of Calabrese red.

We returned there the very next night for swordfish, a local specialty, which we had to pre-order, grilled on an open flame. The youngish people who run the place are sweet as can be, as is most everyone we’ve met.

A long walk through Gioia Tauro, above, affirmed our impression that there’s not much here to see, just a sad sense of unrealized potential. Were it not for the population losses of the early 20th century, when so many Calabrians took off for America, the stranglehold of organized crime on industry and commerce, government mismanagement and new tariff issues keeping the port from operating at capacity, Gioia Tauro might be thriving instead of struggling.

Hopping once more into our red Fiat, we drove down the coast in the afternoon to Lido di Palmi, above, for more gasp-inducing sea views, a walk along the water and a restorative cup of espresso macchiato at the one open establishment.

With two days to go, we were rapidly running out of things to do. Fortunately, we still had Tropea, above, in reserve. A hilly beach resort whose Old Town is full of pock-mocked 19th century palazzos, it’s architecturally reminiscent of Nice, though in much poorer repair. An hour’s drive through valleys of olive groves took us there. No doubt Tropea is more inspiring in bright sunshine. I tried to imagine spirited European families enjoying the beautiful beach in high season, bringing life and color to the scene.

As it was, the town was nearly deserted and we had trouble finding a lunch spot. Our Lonely Planet recommendation was not yet open for the season. We ended up in one of the few operating restaurants, but my fresh pasta — pachetti (“packets”) with the sweet red onions of the region and nothing else (except oil, of course) was scrumptious.

Santa Maria dell’Isola, a monastery on an outcropping in the sea, is an impressive sight. Workmen had set up barricades and it appeared closed; in any case, we didn’t have the wherewithal to climb all the way up and find out. Just walking down to the beach and back totaled 17 flights on my trusty step counter.

Traveling in Calabria is not for the faint-hearted.

First-Timers in Calabria

Italy’s wildest, southernmost region remains a mystery to most Americans. Browsing a bookstore before the trip, I noticed that one of the main guidebooks — Frommer’s or Fodor’s, I can’t remember which — doesn’t even include a chapter on Calabria. This part of Italy is not manicured for tourists, not to mention for the people who live here.

I’m spending a week in the port city of Gioia Tauro, below, where my cousin has the use of a friend’s nicely renovated two-story, two-bedroom townhouse.

Familiar with Tuscany and the more commonly visited Italian cities, we were initially shocked at the unfinished and tumbledown houses, weedy parks and uncollected piles of garbage on the streets. All that has much to do, according to a 2012 New York Times article about Calabria, with organized crime and corruption.

But the city has its charms, including a small historic center with a 15th century church.

The traffic is as chaotic as they say, with awkwardly narrow lanes through town, confusing roundabouts, a dearth of stop signs and traffic lights, entirely different rules of driving engagement (the chief rule being “she who hesitates is lost”) and constant horn-honking.

We’re getting the hang of maneuvering our red rental car, a Fiat Panda, and finding our way around town. Though there’s not much in Gioia Tauro to find our way to: our program here is based on day trips to lovelier spots, and that’s how we spent our first three days.

I flew into Lamezia Terme, Calabria’s main airport, from Rome — a breeze — and met my cousin there. Driving south along Calabria’s western Costa Viola (“Violet Coast”), a less chic but equally stunning version of the Amalfi Coast, we stopped at the cliffside town of Pizzo, below (recommended by our rental car agent), for our first sea view, then meandered down stairways through narrow alleys from the requisite medieval castle on high to the port down below, and had our first pasta lunch at an outdoor cafe in the requisite piazza.

I say ‘requisite,’ because the next day, which was yesterday, we went to Scilla, below, another, even more beautiful cliffside fishing village with distinctive rock formations poking out of the lapping water, with its own castle and silken white beaches, empty at this time of year, and astonishing sea views.

On we went to Reggio Calabria, below, a well-kept city with an elegant seafront promenade and an outstanding archaeological museum centered around a pair of life-size 2,500-year-old Greek bronze statues, retrieved from the sea in the 1970s in virtually intact condition, missing only their shields and ivory eyes.

Calabria and Eastern Sicily, we learned, were part of what was called Magna Graecia in the Greek empire’s heyday, and there’s more here of Greek archaeological wonders than of Roman.

Today’s excursion took us across Calabria via highway and tunnels cut through the Aspromonte Mountains to the millennia-old hilltop fortification of Gerace, below, whose castle and two dozen stone churches — most closed, though we got peeks into a couple — seem to rise right out of the rock.

It was worth all the hairpin turns to get there. We traipsed through quiet streets of stone where people actually live and had coffee and gelato at a cafe in a deserted piazza. It seemed we were the only visitors in town.

The views east to the Ionian Sea and over the terraced hills of olives and grapes were stupendous, as green as Ireland. Our ride back to the western side of Calabria took us through national parkland thickly forested with cypresses and other evergreens.

The weather has been ideal, 60s and sunny. That I hope will not change. The food has been good but not great. That has to be rectified.

3-Acre Mini-Farm with Vintage Outbuildings in Dutchess County 110K

Fired up with enthusiasm after writing my first blog post in ages, I remembered why I started blogging in the first place, more than ten years ago.

My very first post, “In Search of the Perfect Beach House,” in December 2008, was the beginning of a quest to find just that, documented here in words and pictures. But my search only lasted three months. I found, purchased and renovated a 1930s cottage on the South Fork of Long Island, N.Y., and continued blogging as I discovered this new world of country living.

I still enjoyed trawling the real estate listings, even after I’d bought a house, turning up properties I’d theoretically buy if I had unlimited energy and borrowing power.

Turns out the house wasn’t perfect. Five years later, I sold it and bought a different one nearby, whose renovation I also painstakingly recorded. Along the way, there were other renovations, apartment searches and decorating juggernauts, but the original intent of casaCARA was as an inspirational nudge to readers toward the affordable real estate that actually still abounds within two or three hours of NYC.

Last night, for the first time in quite a few years, I went back to my favorite multiple listing site: the Columbia Northern Dutchess Multiple Listing Service, which, despite its name, lists properties in many Upstate New York counties. The site was just as I remembered, with the same Y2K-era user-unfriendly interface.

Nevertheless, it works, and by searching on properties in Dutchess County, older than 1900 and cheaper than $200,000, I came upon a listing worth sharing. (I’ve owned a cottage on 20 acres in the town of Milan since 2002, though I don’t live there.)

I saw its wide open fields and sunny aspect and immediately thought “flower farm.” For two reasons: one, I’ve been following Lisa Ziegler of The Gardener’s Workshop, a professional flower grower in Newport News, Virginia, who teaches seminars and publishes books on her joyful trade. I would gladly pursue flower farming myself, at least as a hobby, if I was at my Long Island property all through the growing season (I’m not; I usually rent it out in summer) and if I had enough sun (I don’t, though I daresay Lisa Z. would find a way to make it work).

The other reason I thought this property would be ideal for flower farming is that it’s located on Battenfeld Road in northern Dutchess, a few miles east of Red Hook and Rhinebeck, near the sole remaining anemone farm in the area. Called Battenfeld’s, they grow anemones in greenhouses and have a Christmas tree business in the off-season.

Did you know….? More than a hundred years ago, anemones, which one rarely sees at all anymore, were a craze among Victorian women who wore them on their clothing and pinned them to their hats. There were numerous anemone farms in the area, and their flowers were shipped daily down the Hudson River by boat to New York City.

Nothing as charming as that happens any more, but I’ll bet the land is still plenty fertile. Grazing sheep is another option, if you have any sheep to graze — there’s a Merino sheep farm nearby called Morehouse Farm.

About the buildings on this lot: there are many and they look dire, possibly unsalvageable. Given untold amounts of work and money, though, wouldn’t it make a great compound, centered on the tree-shaded vintage house, with a separate studio and two barns, one falling down worse than the other, and of course, the flowers and sheep?

The listing agent is Paul Hallenbeck of Rhinebeck and there is more info and photos on his site. Won’t somebody please buy it and fulfill my fantasy?