Torrential downpours on the first day of an 8-day trip typically don't bode well for the days to follow, but the Centro lucked out with agreeable weather for the duration of our time in Sicily. One of the major selling points in this semester abroad program, the Sicily trip (along with the fast-approaching Campania trip in April) is a truly unique experience offering us Centristi the chance to see every last important archaeological site on Italy's southern island. As Franco, the program coordinator, told us in our orientation lectures the night before departure, it's the week that for many past Centristi marked the turning point in their deciding to turn their passion for Classics into a lifelong career...or run in the other direction and never look back.
Disclaimer: the Sicily trip was intense, and so is this blog entry. Imagine the 35 of us herded around the island by bus (with infrequent if not nonexistent bathroom breaks) on a strict schedule and changing hotels (and roommates) every single night. Fortunately, meals were provided throughout the journey, but abandon all hope ye vegetarians who enter here: Sicilians, and Italians in general, seem not to be too keen on making vegetables a meal of their own. It's a good thing our spring break began the day we got back to Rome; even though the rush to get laundry done before taking off on our individual European adventures was stressful, the time spent away from each other was a much-needed refresher before the beginning of the second half of our semester.
Day 1: Paestum/Salerno
The drive to Sicily would have otherwise taken an entire day, so we first stopped for an afternoon visit to the temples and forum at Paestum. Hera I, Hera II, and the Temple of Athena are some of the best-preserved Doric temples not just in Italy, but in all of Europe, so it was awesome to get to see them up close and wander around in them (after the aforementioned torrential rains had subsided—our scheduled "picnic lunch" had to be changed to "seek shelter from the rising floodwaters in a bar and buy a coffee so they won't get mad at you for taking over all the space in their dining room to eat the lunches you brought with you"). Subsequently we had a brief tour of the nearby National Archaeological Museum, home to the frescoes of the Tomb of the Diver.
Hotel 1: Hotel Poseidonia Mare. You too can spend the night at this beautiful seaside resort, literally only 5 minutes away from the beach! Please remember to use the hoses outside to wash the sand from your feet before returning inside; a €50 fine will charged to rooms found in violation of our sand policy. Also, we apologize in advance to the guests staying in room 217 tonight for the baby cribs crowding up your room—there was simply no other spot in our hotel in this busy offseason to store them.
Day 2: To Reggio Calabria
Today was mostly spent driving the rest of the length of Italy, but the weather was gorgeous and gave us the chance to bask in the beauty that is the Southern Italian countryside (see my earlier post, Quick Trip through Middle Earth). When we arrived in Reggio Calabria, our only order of business was to check out the famed Riace bronzes, a pair of impressive archaic bronzes preserved almost fully intact from centuries buried at the bottom of the Mediterranean. The statues are kept in a specially-filtered room to ensure that they don't corrode, and they really are quite something to behold (no photography was allowed).
Hotel 2: Grand Hotel Palace & Excelsior! Oh wait nevermind, we're staying across the street at the 3-star place tonight instead. But our dinner and breakfast reservations at the 4-star EXCELSIOR! are still good, so enjoy the beautiful seaside views our rooftop dining room has to offer while you feast upon our regional specialties, red meat and carbohydrates (and for breakfast, treat yourself to a traditional breakfast of cured red meats and sweet carbohydrates! Fruit available upon request.).
Day 3: Taormina
One short ferry ride to Sicily and one 2-hour bus ride through the mountainsides later, we arrived in Taormina to check out the Greek theater built there (the Greeks inhabited Sicily for quite some time before the Romans ever got there, so the specials of the week were Doric Greek temples and Greek theaters, with the occasional bath house thrown in for good measure). I think the picture speaks for itself.
I had been roped into playing the part of Satelles in my Latin class's performance of a key scene from Seneca's Thyestes, so I got to show off my laughable acting chops for the rest of the Centro and several groups of bemused tourists. If I ever go back to Sicily, I'm coming back to this place.
After another long bus ride (sensing a pattern?), we spent the late afternoon spelunking in the Castle of Euryalus. There are lots of tunnels to explore here, and since it hadn't rained that morning we were actually able to traverse them.
Hotel 3: Hotel Panorama. Welcome to Syracuse! For your safety, please do not leave the premises of our hotel after 8:00 PM. Please, make yourself at home in our luxury 4-star, 4-person hotel rooms, but do excuse the broken heating system and Engrish fire safety signs.
Day 4: Syracuse
Are you exhausted yet? The correct answer is no because we aren't even halfway done! The only thing I can remember happening off the top of my head from this day is that a massive storm started heading our way as we were standing by the Temple of Apollo. Thankfully it was our last site before lunch and the storm ended up blowing over, but the sight of street vendors' tents getting torn out of the ground and swept away before our very eyes made for a very dramatic morning. After lunch (OF CALAMARI YESSSS) at the Hotel Panorama, we departed for the quarries and amphitheater of Syracuse, where once again I was drafted for a class performance, this time an impromptu recitation of Pindar's Pythian Ode in the original Greek.
Hotel 4: Hotel Mosaici. Despite evidence to the contrary, this isn't where the mafia invites all their enemies to stay so they can dispose of them in their sleep in the frigid hotel rooms in the hillsides where no one can hear you scream. Try our famous homemade lasagna, it puts the slim pickings at Hotel Panorama to shame!
Day 5: Morgantina and Villa del Casale
Having survived the night at Hotel Mosaici, our group took off for Morgantina, a pastoral ancient Greek town located in a somewhat remote hillside idyll. The remains of many buildings are still preserved here, so walking through the town one has the sense of walking through someplace where people of antiquity actually lived and worked (as opposed to walking through a wasteland of rubble and tufo). Anoush, our resident dog-whisperer, made a couple of canine friends who followed us around for most the day.
After Morgantina and another long bus ride with no bathroom breaks, we arrived at the Villa del Casale. ALL YE WHO LOVE LATE ANTIQUITY, LISTEN UP! This place would be your jam. I left my camera on the bus not expecting it to be as awesome as it was, but lucky for you the incredibly well-preserved mosaics are all just a google search away. Attributed at one point to a Byzantine emperor but more likely just some high-ranking government official's crib (because several larger, more impressive villas have recently been excavated on the island), this place has plenty of cool things to see...though be careful not to run afoul of the Dutch tour guide when looking at the Great Hunt Mosaic.
Hotel 5: Colleverde Park Hotel. Luxury 4-star accommodations and really cool soap packaging in the bathrooms (is it strange that that's what I remember most about this place?).
Day 6: IN THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES
You get a Doric temple! YOU get a Doric temple! WE ALL GET DORIC TEMPLES!!! (Seriously, we must have seen at least 7 today.) If I could make a "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish"-style rhyme here, I totally would 'cause these things came in all shapes and sizes and all sorts of states of preservation. Technically, only half of our visits were in the valley; the other half were located on the outskirts of Agrigento on the Acropolis (no, not that one). After soaking in the wonderful sunset from the top of the hill, Franco rounded us up for a "Franco surprise"—a wine tasting and/or opportunity to buy Sicilian goodies for all the folks back home! (on account of the ongoing budget crisis chez Tim, you, my faithful readers, are stuck with postcards and blog entries) (***Liz if you're reading this check your mailbox!)
Hotel 6: Hotel Admeto & Alceste. Come dine with our Trip Advisor certified-insane manager and get down with your Arab self on the dance floor! Our dining room doubles as a popular nightclub for all the hip Agrigentans, who may or may not all be Arabs and may or may not invite you to dabke with them. No complimentary wifi offered.
Day 7: Random stuff we had to cram in on the second-to-last day
Aran and I had to give a presentation on the Phoenician ship & Carthaginian fleet at the Marsala naval museum today, so most of my attention today was directed towards remembering what to say. That all passed by us, and just as the weather started to turn we arrived at Segesta, where we had this lovely view...
...and 20° (F) windchill. This was the point in the week where everyone was tired, cranky, and ready to get away from each other.
Hotel 7: Ibis Styles Hotel Palermo. "We know you'll find our lobby renovations novel and seductive!" Uh-huh.
Day 8: Palermo
Rounding off the week was our token Byzantine history day (hey Ravenna wasn't the last time we got to see Byzantine mosaics! WOOHOO!). Monreale Cathedral was dependably breathtaking, but the real winner of the day was the Cappella Palatina, a chapel that mixes Classical, Byzantine, Islamic, and Renaissance art and architectural styles. I purposely didn't photograph the Renaissance-style Theotokos replacement mosaic in the apse under the Byzantine-style Christ the Pantokrator so as not to incite any of my numerous Orthodox friends to anger and/or civil strife. Just take my word for it when I tell you it was strange.
Then this happened: at the end of the day, we had about 2.5 hours to ourselves to wander the city on our own before our overnight ferry ride back to Naples. Peter, Professor-in-Charge, led an optional tour of some of the other sights of Palermo, which I and 10 others opted to go on. Half of the sites we intended to see were closed, but the tour was worthwhile for a different reason. On our way back to the bus, we took a wrong turn into the back alleys of Palermo, a side of Italy heretofore unseen. We first ended up in the University quarter, identifiable by the abundance of facial piercings and the pervasive cloud of pot smoke hovering around the numerous pubs filled to overflowing. Deciding it was best not to stand around in the middle of the road for too much longer, we took a turn into a ramshackle neighborhood, where a squadron of football-playing kids made shooting gestures at us ("Americani! Bang-bang!") and the sidewalks opened up into a veritable minefield of garbage and excrement (only some of it canine). We did eventually find our way back to the bus on time, but I don't think anyone on the tour regretted our detour. Living in relatively cushy, if not totally ideal, conditions both in Rome and on the road in Sicily, it became easy to lose sight of the fact that Italy, like everywhere else in the world, has its poverty-stricken and less tourist-friendly areas. Especially at the end of a week where exhaustion was compelling everyone to complain about the most inane of inconveniences (no hot water in the showers! no heat on the bus! none of the toilets at these museums have seats!), our trip through the underbelly of Palermo gave us a much-needed reminder of all we have to be thankful for at the Centro.
The ferry ride back was not the smoothest of trips (advice to travelers: pack Dramamine, and lots of it), and we still had a three-hour bus ride back to Rome on the other side. But at long last...we made it. Out of Sicily and on to spring break.