We have a leisurely awakening today, at 8 AM. We're not meeting Jackie until 9:15. Breakfast at the Aubergo Mediterraneo consists of
...and a coffee machine. The machine has lots of buttons. Brigid wants coffee with milk, so she purshes the coffee button, which fills her cup with coffee, most of the way. Then she presses the milk button, which proceeds to dispense a cup of milk into her already-full cup!. (There's probably a button for coffee with milk.) I press the capuccino button, and hope for the best. Sure enough, I get a shot of espresso and the cup is filled the rest of the way with hot milk. Buono! But where's the dusting of cinnamon or cocoa? 8-)
Brig chats with a Japanese-American member of the just-ended previous Best of Southern Italy tour. Apparently, while we were caught in the Taormina Teatro Greco during the downpour, she was at the Tiempo di Diana above Cefalu. They found shelter in an old church building, along with several other tourists from various countries.
Jackie leads us on a brief walking tour of downtown Palermo.
Along the way, we pass by the Teatro Massimo (one of two opera houses in Palermo) and then the Quattro Conti (four corners).
We visit a small chapel, the Chiesa di San Cataldo, built very much in Islamic style, in the mid-12th century. For awhile, this building served as a post office until it was purchased from the government by a modern order of knights. It has since been renovated, and they charge a mandatory contribution for entrance.
While waiting to get into the next church (La Martorana), A gentleman hands me a slip of paper with the image of Santa Rosario. And then he asks for a donation. I try to hand it back, but he won't take it. Jackie advises me that once you take the slip of paper, you're obliged to make a donation, which is ostensibly for the associated church. I dig out an €0.20 coin and hand it to him. An inexpensive lesson.
The floor of this church is original, and also consists of Islamic patterns, as in the case of most of the Norman churches in Sicily.
I skip La Martorana, which dates from the same era, but is apparently accoutred in a manner similar to Monreale, with gold tile backgrounds, illustrating scripture stories for the public. This church was originally built for an order of nuns famous for their marzipan, where are still sometimes called Martorana, here in Palermo.
One more church in this same area (we're near the Fontana Pretoria, a 16th century fountain constructed from Carerra marble) is the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. This church was built for a cloistered order of nuns who were supported by an extremely wealthy Palermo family. It was rarely, if ever, open to the public. It is very ostentatiously outfitted. I particularly like the Jonah and the Whale illustration, done at eye level in 3-D marble, complete with (wire, I think) rigging on the 17th century ship. This church remained closed to the public until very recently. There are apparently only a handful of nuns left, and they remain cloistered. The family has run out of money. Only a few months ago, Jackie had to pay a €200.00 contribution in order to bring a small group into the church. The key was left in a designated location, and she returned it in the same way, having never seen any of the nuns. Now, anyone can get in for free, and they solicit donations in a box near the door.
One last church: The Cathedral. In a plaza outside the main entrance, there stands a pillar with a statue of Santa Rosalia. A Norman princess, she became "the" patron saint of Palermo when she somehow stopped the Black Plague of 1624. She is seen standing atop an Tunisan. Jackie only mentions this after Chris asks about it. Apparently, this particular plague epidemic supposedly started when the Spanish rulers (at the time) insisted upon docking a Tunisian ship in Palermo, even though some of its passengers and crew were dying of plague. The cargo was supposedly more important to them than the health risks.
The outside of the cathedral is more interesting than the inside. A few bits of the original Norman-Muslim cathedral are visible, with interesting Islamic-influenced domes and inset rocks/mosaics. Inside, it's very austere neoclassical. There's an annual sundial, essentially just telling you the month by observing where the ray of sunlight (from a small hole in the roof) is projected onto a brass line in the floor. The line is decorated with the astrological symbols. And there is a container that, by tradition, contains the bones of Santa Rosalia, which is paraded around the town on her festival day.
We enter into a nearby workshop of one of the last few makers of Sicilian carts. These are carts that are decorated with scenes of Sicilian history in simplistic, very colorful style. Even the cartwheels are elaborately carved and decorated. The artisan is not in the shop today, but two of his young daughters are.
The tour wraps up with a walk through the Capo market. This is an open air market, which runs every day of the week. There are all kinds of produce, veggies, meats, pastries, breads, olives, grains, etc. We stop to look at some figs, and the produce vendor pops out and hands Brig one to taste. She declares it to be very good, so we buy a cone full (10 or 12 -- Brigid stops him from filling the cone) for €1.00.
After saying goodbye to Jackye, we head off on our own. We pop into a small shop, and pick up some seafood salad and stuffed chicken breasts. €6.00.
At the hotel, we feast on the seafood salad (octopus, surimi krab, mussels, bay shrimp, celery, pickled veggies, carrots, herbs -- not bad, but not the best we've had), figs (they are quite good, and much less expensive than in the U.S. -- unless you have a friend with a fig tree!), and yesterday's leftover olives and chestnuts. Not too bad. Some vino might have been nice, but no doubt, there will be some at tonight's "last supper" with the group.
We're free until 6:45 tonight. Siesta!
While Brigid takes a snooze, I work on this travellog, and then go in search of a public phone, so I can check on family. The public phone at the bottom of the stairs in the hotel just doesn't work (handset is dead -- unless there's some button you need to press). I go to the outdoor cafe area near the hotel, and find a phone that does work. After the call, I notice that one of the cafes is a "spaghetteria". Cute. I look inside, to see what they've got. Wow! Not what I expected at all. It's a pastry and gelato and marzipan shop. And it's got the most beautiful assortment of any shop I've ever seen!
I'm going to bring Brigid back here, if I can. But I can't leave without having a gelato. Caffe e cioccalato, per fovore. €1.60. While I'm waiting to be served, a young lady ahead of me orders something, and I watch the gentlleman behind the counter prepare it. He takes a brioche, slices off the top, packs in a couple of flavors of gelato, and tops it with some whipped cream. He hands it to the young lady, who grabs a gelato spoon for it. Looks good!
Brigid is up and around. What can we see in the time left? We planned badly: The archeological museum is opened only in the mornings on Saturday. There are only churches open -- and I've reached my limit for looking at churches (I get cranky).
We decide to simply roam around. We end up back at the Capo open air market. We wander through it, and then stumble on the non-food section, which consists mostly of clothes, but also some hardware, books, tools, and other chatchkes. Eventually, we end up in a slightly scruffy neighborhood, and aren't really certain where we are. Between our GPS and a map, we quickly figure things out, once we get into an open area. We end up at La Cala, a boat basin. Heading west, we pick up Via Cavour, and are quickly back near the hotel.
We notice a small crowd around the corner from the hotel. A young man is sitting down, busily working away with needle-nose pliers and some silver-plated wire. Several young ladies are gathered around, and looking at the jewelry he's making. It's not bad, actually. (While we're trying to decide whether to get something, one of these young ladies notices Brigid's tattoo peeking out of her blouse. "What is this?" she asks. I show her -- "Hibiscus flower", I answer. "Hi biss coos! Oh, bella". Suddenly, the young ladies are all crowding around, very impressed! Brigid is pleased with the attention.) Brig decides to pick up a pair of star-shaped earings.
We meet in the lobby, with everyone dressed in their finest travelwear. We're the last to arrive, and as soon as we get there, we start a walk of a few blocks to La Mensa del Popolo for the last dinner of the tour (most folks will still be at breakfast tomorrow, but not us. Our taxi to the airport leaves too early.)
Brigid and I share a table with Victoria.
Dinner begins with a hot fritters. Actually, there were three different kinds. Each was seasoned a little differently, two were breaded and deep-fried, while the third was batter-dipped and deep-fried. According to Robin, these were filled with chickpea pastes. I thought they were all good, but we had guessed that two were filled with potato mixtures, while the third was filled with a cheese. Apparently not.
Robin is presented with a whistle (actually, a recorder-like flute), to help her gather her troops. It didn't work very well when she tried it later -- a coach's whistle is probably what she really needs! She is also presented with a parasol, to make it easier for her charges to follow her.
Once again, dinner comes with water (still and sparkling) and with red and white wine (we end up sharing our bottle of red with Gary's table).
Dinner resumes with a cold seafood plate. This plate contained some seafood salad, similar to, but much better than what we had for lunch. The salad contained octopus, squid, tomato, carrot, baby clams, and celery. Also on the plate was a slice of smoked salmon. Nice, but not extraordinary. And the piece de resistance was a thin slice of smoked, uncooked swordfish, drenched with lemon and a bit of salt. This was heavenly. I hadn't realized just how common swordfish is in Sicilian cuisine, nor did I know that you could serve it in so many different ways.
Third plate: rice and seafood (primarily squid) in a light tomato sauce. This was quite nice. I'm not calling it a risotto, because it didn't have the traditional cream/cheese base.
The fourth (!) plate was an unusual (to us) pasta. The pasta itself seemed to be a very narrow gauge macaroni. It was in a cream and cheese based sauce, with dill and bits of tuna. Interesting. I found it pleasant, but neither Brigid nor Victoria seemed to like it much. They left most of theirs on the plate. I finished most (all?) of mine. What, you want details? I was drinking quite a bit of wine -- for me (which means something like three glasses, by the time the meal was over).
The fifth (!!) course was hot seafood. There were two, large, and perfectly cooked shrimp. The meat was moist, firm, and sweet. Bravo! Then there was something that appeared to be similar to what we had for lunch: A chicken breast, pounded thin, and filled with a seasoned bread crumb (and cheese?) filling -- and then the result was grilled.
Actually, the grilled swordfish roll we had in Taormina was better, but that was probably a very different dish. The plate was completed by a thin grilled piece of swordfish. Very nice.
We're all getting pretty scared that there will be yet more food coming -- and we're right. Dessert arrives: It's a slice of cassata, a traditional Sicilian confection. Extremely sweet, this dish consists mostly of a filling that seems reminiscent of that used in cannoli, but more dense. There is also pistachio paste, and then (to ensure diabetic shock), it's covered in a white fondant of some sort. It is delicious, but way too sweet.
And to top it all off, Paola passes out italian equivalents of the Hershey's Kiss: Baci Balls (milk chocolate balls toped with a hazelnut).
Many photos are taken.
Eventually, we head back to the hotel, where (28 * 27)/2 hugs and good wishes are exchanged.
It was a pleasure travelling with everyone.
If you're expecting my review of the tour leaders -- forget it. I'll reserve that for the ETBD questionairre. As for a review of the tour itself, I'd say the following (some of which had already been figured into the 2005 itinerary)
The tour was lots of fun, and we learned a lot.