Sunday, February 1, 2004

Day 9 - Caltagirone - Piazza Armerina - Catania

Today is another largely travel day - Caltagirone to Catania, where we plan to overnight before taking an early morning flight to Naples on Monday. While we hope to beat an early retreat, it takes longer to pack our bags, which have expanded throughout our trip. As a result, we have to take separate trips down the elevator to the lobby for checkout.

We plan a stop in Piazza Armerina, a diversion that takes us somewhat out of the way from Catania, but seems worth it. Just outside the town of Piazza Armerina is our destination - the Villa Romana del Casale, the country home of a wealthy Roman that was recently excavated and restored. It boasts some of the best preserved Roman mosaics and we are excited to be close enough to make a side trip.

As we check out from the Villa San Mauro we are told the trip to Piazza Armerina and the Villa Romana is about a half an hour. Indeed, the trip is rather simple; one follows the indications from Caltagirone to Piazza Armerina, which appear with dimishing frequency the closer you get to Piazza Armerina; when you finally arrive at the exit for Piazza Armerina simply follow the signs for "mosaici" (mosaics) which route you off the highway into the town of Piazza Armerina. As you arrive outside the town, an access road takes you the town center, which winds you through a number of piazzas, past churches (which, being a Sunday, are choked with pedestrians who dive from our oncoming vehicle), while all the time signs for the Villa Romana become fewer and farther between. If you are like us, you will drive back to the highway and proceed to the second exit for Piazza Armerina, hoping there is better signage for the Villa Romana. Fortunately, this is the case, and numerous signs lead you down narrow streets back to the access road into the town of Piazza Armerina that you took just a few moments ago. At this point your best bet is to pull into a gas station, where you can ask for directions from a helpful attendant (make sure you fill your car with the correct grade of fuel - if you are driving a diesel car, don't fill it with regular gas!). He will likely give you directions in flawless English, telling you to return from the direction from which you came, go through three traffic lights, take a right turn at the hotel and then (unintelligible).

We follow the helpful attendant's directions, departing the gas station exactly as directed. Despite his helpful demeanor, we don't see a single traffic light (let alone three) until we reach Catania several hours later. Instead, we start down progressively narrower and narrower and then even narrower lanes until we have to turn our rental car on its side in order to fit. This leads to a "street" so steep I fear that our car will flip over forward despite the approximately three tons of ballast we have in the trunk. If the street were not made of cobblestone, Tony Hawk would no doubt be hosting an X Games competition on it. At last we arrive at a secret exit from town that reminds us of the exit from the Batcave, and emerge about 50 feet below the highway exit to Piazza Armerina that we took nearly a half hour before. From there, it is a simple, clearly marked five minute drive to the entrance to the Villa Romana del Casale.

The Villa Romana is a terrific stop. You can spend as much or as little time as you want on a self guided tour of the grounds, which is covered in clear plexiglass walls and ceilings with catwalks to protect the ancient mosaics. There are dozens of rooms, each decorated with a different mosaic theme, including scenes of the hunt with exotic animals such as tigers, elephants and wild boars and ancient mythology (including a Cyclops whose three eyes apparently are the result of intermarriage between a two eyed human and a one eyed Cyclops). The most popular scenes, however, the "Room with Erotic Scene" (we'll leave the interpretation to you) and the Room of the Bikini Clad Babes (our translation). The latter depicts eight young Roman girls engaged in athletic pursuits, including working out with Roman versions of barbells, playing with a Roman hackey sack and one girl being crowned Miss Piazza Armerina as the runners up look on waving various large herbs. The effect is overpowering.

Then it is on to Catania. We arrive at the Excelsior Grand Hotel as the few shops open on Sunday begin to close down for the afternoon. The hotel, which has been advertised to us as centrally located is. It is located in the center of a parking lot about a mile from the main downtown area. We are informed that being Sunday, there are no restaurants open in the area, and likely none are open in the town center. Being optimists, we walk to the center and when even none of the Chinese restaurants is open, we begin to panic. As the hour draws closer to 3pm (when all restaurants, even on days other than Sundays, close), our panic becomes more palpable. Fate intervenes, however, and we find the one trattoria serving lunch on Sunday, the Trattoria del Cavaliere (via Paterno, 11, tel. 095-310491). The place is packed with locals, including numerous families with children running about and playing. We settle in for a two hour lunch and enjoy some more nice seafood and pasta.

We wander back to the hotel along the via Etnea to the Giardino Bellini. There is an enormous flea market going on throughout the park. While there is a lot of junk, cheap clothes and toys, nearly every other stall is selling fresh made candies and confections, most featuring almonds that are ubiquitous in this area. Most stalls have their own copper kettles in which they mix almond croccante, almonds in a caramelized sugar that is like peanut brittle. The aroma of the fresh croccante is heavenly.

Our final stop before returning to the hotel to pack for our departure tomorrow is at a patisserie on the via Etnea. I have a my first gelato in Sicily, an island renowned for its ice cream, and I am not disappointed. It is creamy and intensely flavorful. Suzy samples an arrancini, a deep fried ball of rice that comes stuffed with a variety of fillings. It is another Sicilian specialty we feel a need to try. Our kids will be eating a lot of these when we get home.

So it's back to the Excelsior to pack and get an early night in anticipation of a 7am flight to Naples. We hope the weather on the mainland is as nice as it has been here in Sicily. Our first experience here has been a positive one, even if it has been too short. We look forward to returning here in the future to do some of the things we were unable to see this time around, to re-experience the joys we had on this trip and to renew and deepen some of the friendships we made.

Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill

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