meeeeoowwwwwwww.... owwwwww? This mournful feline complaint (very reminiscent of the most common vocalizations of our late cat, Peppermint) serves as our wakeup call at Rive del Sole. It's still dark out -- around 6:20 AM -- when we both hear it. Brigid gets up to investigate, as it sounds almost as if it's in our room. It's not. I look out the window and find that a waiter, who is preparing the garden breakfast area, is also trying to find the creature responsible for disturbing his guests. Eventually, we get back to sleep as the cat stops bothering us. Presumably, someone fed the cat -- probably a mistake for the hotel!
We arrive at the breakfast area pretty late, as the last of our group are finishing the last of their coffee.
The breakfast here consists of:
We climb up the pathway to the Tiempo di Diana, a Greek temple. It's 2/3 of the way up La Rocca, the 850-foot cliff that rises above the town. It takes us about 20 minutes to reach the temple, which is in relatively good shape. You go past/through several ruins of newer structures (small Norman churches from the 12th century) along the way. The origin of the temple is pretty obvious: The Greeks apparently only built with local materials -- slabs of rock that are set upon each other without mortar. No arches -- just pillar and lintel. Some areas have been reconstructed with brick, or props added to keep the Greek structure from falling apart.
The view from up here is great. We could proceed the rest of the way to the ruins of the Norman castle at the top, but that would prevent us from taking a much needed shower before we check out, so...
...we return to the hotel, shower, and prepare our bags for the last bus ride of the trip.
Brigid waits in the lobby while I search the town for a sandwich and some water, for our lunch. I hike around for an hour, not in any particular hurry, until I finally locate the right place. Per favore, una panini con pomodoro e mozzarella? Si! Calda? No, grazie, fredde. Benne. €1.60. This was a mistake. The sandwich was soooo good (all the ingredients are fresh and flavorful, the bread is top rate, and it's seasoned with basil and oregano) Oh, the mistake? Ordering only one to share. We both agreed that we wanted more -- not because of hunger, but because it was so good.
And only then do I find a supermarket, in which I can buy a liter of acqua gassata. €0.44.
During my travels, I come across a shop that sells their own blend of inexpensive wines for the table. I ought to have stopped in for a taste or a small bottle. Oh, well. Next time. I wouldn't mind vacationing in this town.
We munch our sandwich, pose for the group photo (on someone's disposable film camera -- film? puhleese!), and we're on the bus, headed for Palermo.
It's a short ride, and we pick up our local guide, Jackie, on the way to Monreale.
Monreale is a large cathedral, built by the last Norman king of Sicily, William II. The interior of the church is very elaborately mosaiced with the usual christian images from the old and new testaments. The interesting part is that there are a lot of Muslim influences on the design and construction of this church. The Normans were apparently very tolerant of both Muslim and Jewish cultures. They used both as advisors in various areas. In particular, the church was partially designed by Muslims, and heavily used Muslim artisans in the construction. There are lots of examples of Muslim elements evident, including 8-pointed stars, the geometric patterns in much of the decorative mosaics, the shape of the arches (they look more gothic than islamic, to me), and the use of stylized palm trees (which are supposedly a symbol of life in islamic culture).
The cloister pillars are elaborately decorated, and each one is unique. A current theory (which makes sense) indicates that the decorative work on the pillars was done by muslim artisans, while the standards (top and bottom of the pillars), which contain representations of people and animals, were designed and executed by Norman artisans. (Muslims are not supposed to depict the human form.)
Our visit to the church is interrupted by a funeral. Apparently, a young carabinieri (military police) motorcycle officer died yesterday, and he is being sent off promptly, and in style.
After a brief gelato/cannoli break (we share a €1.60 fill-on-demand cannoli -- very good), we move on to the Cappucin Catacombs. What can I say? This is macabre. First, the Cappucin monks, in the 18th century, start burying their own in the volcanic stone beneath Palermo, only to find that they often end up nicely mummified, and thereby preserved. Then the wealthy folks learn about it, and they start paying the monks (very well) to be buried in the same process, so they'll be in better shape upon their resurrection. The monks re-dress the dead, periodically, so they will continue to look good (shades of Billy Crystal, "It's better to look good than to feel good!"). This went on until the late 19th century, when it was finally declared to be an unhealthy practice. Originally, only the families of the dead were allowed to see their dead whenever they wanted -- the public could traipse through and gawk only once per year, on All Soul's Day. Now, anybody can gape back at the dead on any day -- for a mandatory contribution to the Cappucins. What do they look like? Most look like skulls stuck on top of decomposing clothing, stuffed with kapok (kapok trees grow all around Palermo, and they have beautiful orchid-like flowers). One looks quite well preserved, complete with skin, and -- supposedly -- his own eyes. He was preserved in an arsenic marinade. And "La Bambina" is a 2 year old baby girl who was embalmed before being tucked away in the crypt. She looks like a doll. Until embalming techniques became widespread, she was considered to be a miracle.
Anyway, I think the whole thing is utterly bizarre.
Palermo is a much prettier city than Naples (okay, that's not saying much). It's just as congested, but a lot cleaner, and with much more interesting buildings. More on that, tomorrow.
Our hotel is right in the center of downtown Palermo, convenient to the most interesting buildings, shopping areas, dining areas, and pedestrian zones.
On our way here, Robin warns us that this is a more "traditional" ETBD hotel -- close to downtown, but not as nice as the more recent ETBD hotel choices. I just don't get it. There's nothing wrong with this place. Okay, it's got the funky bath/shower fixtures, but who cares? The shower has a curtain! I would have absolutely no complaints if all the hotels were as good as the Hotel Mediterraneo.
Robin leads us on a brief orientation of the blocks surrounding the hotel, and we head off in search of market areas (she doesn't happen to know of any night markets, though she says there ought to be one on tomorrow's tour with Jackie.)
We wander around from produce stand to produce stand. I'm looking for more grapefruit, with zero luck.
And then we hit the jackpot. At around Via Principale di Scordia and Via Domenico Sina, we find a full-blown night market.
First, we find a produce stand that also includes pre-grilled and seasoned eggplants. Actually, there are two kinds. The first kind is the thin (1/2 inch) steaks sprinkled with oregano. The second is about an inch thick, with tomato slices and fresh oregano. It's been baked. We buy one of these. These have been cut from some monster eggplants we've been seeing around. No grapefruit yet.
Then, we come upon an olive stand. We look around, but don't know how to ask for a small enough portion. They are clearly proud of their product. All Sicilian, they insist, as they proffer samples of their biggest olives. We both agree that They're good, and they pack us a cone of olives (€1.20). And they proudly pose for a photo.
Next, we come upon a chestnut roaster. I've never seen this technique before. It's a chimney oven, red hot. Periodically, they throw in a handful of salt, with somehow generates a flare of light and smoke. The resulting chestnuts are tasty, but a little on the dry side. We buy a cone of these, too. €2.50, I think.
Hey, there's a few guys with a huge grill out here. Brigid strikes up a conversation with a customer. Apparently, you can go to a butcher shop, or one of the many nearby fish markets. Buy what you want, bring it to the barbecue guys, and for a fee, they'll cook it for you.. Cool. Since our eating implements are pretty rudimentary, I recommend against this course of action.
Finally, we go into a bakery that's complete with a built-in oven that looks like something from Little Italy, in Manhattan. Lombardi's has an oven like that, I think. I tell the woman behind the counter, and she asks, "Are they Sicilian?" I reply, "I think so." We buy some pizza that Brig thinks is salmon. I ought to have known better -- salmon pizza would be a Californian thing. We later determine that it's ham (and some hot dog slices -- yes, hot dogs are popular here, mostly baked into buns). I manage to restrain myself from purchasing any of the regina cookies.
On the way back to the hotel, we pick up some water and Coke. Total cost of tonight's foraging was probably close to €20. It was worth it, though. We had a lot of fun looking around and purchasing stuff. We did, however, neglect to try bargaining. What the heck were we thinking? What rubes!
The eggplant steak was wonderful. It could have used a touch more salt, but I loved it. The pizza was "sicilian" style, i.e., deep dish. It was pretty good.
I've already mentioned that the olives were really good. There's too much of them, though.
As I said, the chestnuts are a little dry, but with good flavor. They're very easy to peel, but I think I prefer the sugar/pebble process they use in New York.
Oh, and the grapefruit? I found some of that, too. Oro blanco. Very sour, and full of seeds. That's the way it goes. For me, even a bad grapefruit is better than none at all.
Last tour day tomorrow. Good night.