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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On Traveling Solo June 14, 2016

I traveled by myself to Greece one year. It was in the mid eighties, when I was a divorced mother of three, administering a clinic for the evaluation of children and adolescents for mental health issues in a large city. I had planned the trip with an enthusiastic younger single woman who worked with me at the clinic. The itinerary was set, the airfare saved, the tickets purchased --when she met a man who changed her life. His birthdate was the same as hers. This was her destiny and therefore mine as well. I decided to travel solo. Athens, the Peloponnesian Islands, the Oracle of Delphi  and Corfu. I was intrigued at how I was perceived by others. All the waiters and other service help proposed that I meet them after their shift was completed. They spoke halting English with an accent that was adorable and I received excellent service. I rode the hop on hop off bus and saw the Acropolis, visited the museums and I enjoyed the Meridien Hotel's amenities. My guidebook kept me company at dinner time, but the weather was fine and I often dined outdoors at a cafe where I watched the coupled world go by. Dinner is the loneliest hour for me as a solo traveler.

When I climbed aboard the large bus for the Peloponnesian Island tour, I was among many Asian travelers, who spoke no English. Anyway no one spoke to me. We stopped at each site, hearing the description of the site through our earpieces which were available in several different languages. We visited the places where each of the discoveries I had seen in the museum originated. I bought a tatami mat and slippers and spent some quiet time on the rocky beaches, reading favorite mystery stories based in the Greek islands. I took the overnight ferry to Corfu and remained on deck all night. The below deck cabin was suffocating and the motion of the boat made me dizzy. I was looking forward to some comraderie at the pensione I had booked for the week. I was also anticipating speaking French or German to fellow travelers.

The reality was quite different. As a solo American woman traveler, no one except the staff spoke to me. When I asked if I could join folks at table for meals, they were polite, but turned to each other and continued whatever conversation they had been having. I asked to transfer to the HIlton Hotel where there were other American tourists where I felt more at home.

My subsequent travels over the next thirty years were with my husband until he died last summer after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. I am a solo traveler once again, but this time I decided to go with a group that caters to us. We went to Sicily; the group met for the first time at the airport in Palermo. I arrived by myself, after receiving lots of email and brochures with all kinds of advice about packing, the anticipated weather and portage services which would be provided.Three others arrived at the airport within a certain time period and we drove together with a company representative to the hotel. I was in a foreign country but I was with American tourists. What a huge difference immediately.

There were four recent widows in the group, one of whom is much younger and two who knew each other prior to the tour. The younger one aligned herself with a group of three, a mother and daughter and the partner of the daughter. The rest of the group included three couples and two sisters traveling together. We were busy, we had fun, the organized time and activities were enjoyable and I relished the free time for shopping by myself. I generally prefer to shop alone, except when I need encouragement to purchase a piece of jewelry I love, but hesitate to spend the  money to purchase.
Lunch and dinner "on own" as the guide described it, were the most difficult for me, as usual. Once, the two widows invited me to join them but the next time, they chose a cheese and sausage restaurant that was unacceptable to me and I joined the group of four women for a delicious cod ceviche lunch at a delightful spot nearby instead. I felt tolerated. There was interpersonal tension within the group that I felt, but no topic I introduced was accepted, even about the food we were eating.

One evening turned out to be a charm. We were in Catania. Our guide had suggested a restaurant near the hotel, but on the night he mentioned it, the restaurant was closed. On the following night I decided to try it, thinking perhaps I would meet others who were similarly intrigued by the name or by the young couple who had recently opened the space. Through the restaurant window, I saw an empty space at 8:40 PM. The door was open, but no greeter was present and no one was seated at either of the two long white-dressed tables in this white-painted room. I hesitated to enter alone and I walked away. At the corner I spied one of the two other widows. She was by herself. Her friend had claimed tiredness and wanted some alone time, so I invited her to join me at this restaurant. We were able to learn much about each other's lives in this one on one situation, we enjoyed the well prepared fresh local food and we drank Mount Etna white wine.

So, why travel solo? What is it I am really looking for? Adventure? Putting another red pushpin on my imaginary world map? I had fun in my young thirties traveling with a friend to a Club Med site and speaking French or German with other participants in Martinique. Is it fun I am after? On this trip the joy I found was mostly tempered by the pain involved. I visited the recently found Jewish ritual baths of Siracusa, Sicily. They hadn't been seen since Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews in 1493.I climbed Mount Etna--in the bus-- and rode on donkeys who walked on volcanic ash which came from volcanic explosions which happen as frequently as hail storms. I saw the twenty foot high piles of cooled and cooling lava that stretched twenty miles toward the sea in 2002. I admired the meticulous placement of gold mosaic pieces on a concave apse of a magnificent cathedral in Montreale, outside of Palermo.We ate wonderful bread and many fruits, apricots, strawberries, mulberries that have not been Monsantoed--read genetically modified. And we drank delicious, rich coffee imported from Brazil?? Why so far away? It seems that the coffee may be accompanied by cocaine on its trip from Brazil to Sicily.

When we saw how the Phoenicians saved drinking water and how they buried their dead, we recognize again how much people knew so very long ago. The Greeks built their temples with perspective, the columns were indeed narrower at the top than at the bottom--to make them appear larger to potential invaders from the sea. The Christians built their cities around the cathedral, the Greeks surrounded their cities with temples.

In today's world when we use the categories of countries, we can't speak of a unified group of people. We are all fractured, diverse in our adherences, in our beliefs and in our practices. "We the People" does not seem to exist anymore,

So why do I travel? To make new connections. With history, with the Jewish People, with new friends in all walks of life, to connect over a cup of coffee in an airport, a dinner or a ride in a bus with someone I ordinarily would not have met in my daily life. The solo part is still hard for me and lonely, but this organized trip for solo travelers makes it so do- able it becomes fun.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Final Days of the Sicily Trip

We introduced ourselves and pointed to a map of the United States which is in a prominent place on the wall. Concetta began telling her story. She was chosen as a bride when she was 15 and very cosseted by her family. Salvatore came to visit on Wednesday and Friday evening plus on Sundays and they had to wait two years to get married. Nine months and one day after the wedding, their first child was born. They have four children, none of whom want to be farmers. He is now 69 she 58. They have never had a vacation since their honeymoon to visit relatives in Germany.
They manage 30 cows, a half dozen pigs plus a new litter, lots of chickens, Guinea hens, rabbits and dogs.

We watched as Concetta and a neighbor Graziella made sourdough bread dough. They used a paddle to help knead the dough and we helped form rolls and breadsticks which Concetta baked in a wood heated oven as we walked to the fields to feast on home made ricotta cheese-which we watched them prepare.

Salvatore grilled chicken and sausages which they served with the freshly baked bread and a salad for lunch. Desserts were rosy, ripe sweet apricots, pudding and coffee. We drank local red wine all afternoon and we all slept on the bus during the hour ride back to our hotel in Ragusa.

Connie's suitcase arrived this afternoon, ten days late!!! Louise and Felicia invited me to join them for dinner on our own. We met Ann and Lyn and we all ate together at an outdoor cafe. Susan and Dan arrived and then our leader, Mauro, who bought himself new clothing. He said he never has time to shop in Palermo, where he lives. We leave for Siracusa and Catania tomorrow. Only three days of our trip left with the Mount Etna highlight still to come.

Sircusa - we have a Syracuse in New York. Perhaps there are others. I never imagined I would someday be in Siracusa, Sicily, Italy. Before the trip, Mauro, our guide, wrote to each of us, asking us to describe ourselves and list our objectives for this trip. I told him about my lactose intolerance and that I am interested in any sign that is left of a Jewish presence in Sicily. Of course we know that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, when they became the rulers of Spain, decided that Spain should be a Catholic nation and everyone who was not Catholic would be asked(forced) to convert, be killed or leave the nation. Some Jewish people nominally became Christian and kept some behaviors and rituals of their faith, but most left or were killed. Italy was ruled by Spain for centuries, so all the Jewish people disappeared in 1493. Buildings that were synagogues were converted to churches; mosques were converted also. What signs are left?

Mauro showed me some street signs in Palermo, I saw indications of a Jewish residential zone in Mazara del Vallo and I had heard of a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath that was still in existence in Siracusa.
Mauro was not sure we would be able to visit; there is flooding underground, so he was not optimistic.
However, when he approached Valerie, our city guide, she walked through the artisan section of town and through the Jewish section which existed from the ninth century until 1493. Although there was an attempt made to change the street names, several names remain. There are two synagogues, one was 100% known Jewish and they found a mikveh underneath the sanctuary. Valerie told us all the history and purpose of the ritual baths and we were permitted to descend and to see the three pools in one room and two small rooms with one bath each. There was a Greek well in one room which feeds the clear water from a below ground stream. Hence the flooding today. Amazing!
About the second synagogue we visited. Valerie grew up in Siracusa and she knows the building was abandoned during her youth. She attended outdoor movies in the space which no longer had a roof. A few years ago a rabbi moved with his family to Siracusa. He lives with 6 other Jewish families in the modern pat of Siracusa, where they worship in a room in a small building. Valerie believes the local priest was afraid the rabbi would claim this synagogue, so he applied for permission to rebuild the space as a church and claims the Vatican has proof it was built as a church.

On the altar, on the eastern wall there are Hebrew words inscribed. They are in fact upside down. What is the truth? I don't know. But I was delighted the whole group chose to participate in this activity. Then we had lunch by the seaside and took a boat ride to see the grottoes. The sea was calm, the weather was pleasant, the day was super. 

Wednesday was our day to visit Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, with 400,000 inhabitants which we did in the morning with Caterina as our guide. In the afternoon we visited Taormina, the shopping Mecca for tourists. Many visitors including a cruise ship joined us today. The architectural highlight is a Roam era Greek established theater. The views of the sea are gorgeous. The view of Mount Etna was cloudy today. We visit Mount Etna tomorrow, our last day in Sicily.

I didn't know what to expect on Mount Etna. Certainly Mount Vesuvius with the ruins of the destruction of Pompeii was amazing, when my husband and I were there on our honeymoon in 1990. This volcano is an active volcano, with steam and gas emanating all the time and craters forming often. Sicilians call it the "fat" volcano because the shape has crater bulges all along the thirty mile stretch of the volcano. We drive up and up around hairpin curves. The bus driver honks the horn as we approach to warn cars, trucks or buses on the way down. There is no room for the bus and another vehicle on the turns, which are marked 2, 3, or 4 degree turns. Our boisterous guide joins us and points out the changes in vegetation, from the brightly yellow blooming "broom" trees, whose stems are so supple they were used to hold up grape vines,
to the 5000 acre stand of pine trees. For  a June religious festival the streets were lined with these blossoms which are said to last 19 days after being cut.
We stop for a coffee and a baker's kitchen. He shows us how to prepare hazelnut cookies, from the multiply ground nuts, sifted confectioner's sugar, egg whites and salt. We taste and meet Serafina, the wife of our guide (whose name I have already forgotten) who will prepare our lunch later.

Further along we stop and meet Salvo, our guide's son who has several donkeys we ride to learn more about the volcano. The donkeys are used with special needs children for whom our guide runs a camp. Today we take turns riding the donkeys as two, month old mares frolic among us. The volcano has explosions which spew volcanic ash and create craters and eruptions, the last one was in 2002 that created 21 craters and dumped 20 feet high of lava for 20 miles, covering everything in its path. The lava couldn't be touched for several years as it was still too hot.
We were told to be prepared for rain and cold, but the sun came out! We were guided in a short meditation to enjoy and experience nature. It was an emotional moment with all of us holding hands in a circle, with the vast amount of lava, the donkeys, the vegetation that was beginning to grow and our enthusiastic, upbeat local guides.

We drove to their restaurant which they built on the site of their wine preparation center. Now done "with the push of a button" the old way of stomping the wine and using a hand turned press was explained to us after we tasted his home grown wine, his home pressed olive oil, his wife's home baked bread and the lunch she prepared of "Polpettes" which are meatballs, salad and home made sausages. Serafina then sang Volare and O Solo Mio for us and invited us to dance and sing with her. Good fun!
We said goodbye to our bus driver as he delivered us to the hotel in a sudden downpour. Tonight we have a farewell dinner and I leave for the airport at 4:45 AM.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Trip Continues

We returned  to Mazara del Vallo for a rest, a shower, then a drive into town for dinner in a local pizza parlor. We were served swordfish roll ups, which to me tasted wonderful just like French quenelles. I miss my husband on this trip. Comparing foods we had shared was a big part of our life together. Once again I was served an alternate dessert with small amaretto cookies and sweetened sheep milk ricotta cheese which I find easy to digest.
 We left the next day to  drive to Agricento and we visited the temples of the Greeks which were consequently destroyed by the Romans. This is described as the first of two devastating civilian events in Sicilian history, the second being the expulsion of the Jews by Ferdinand and Isabella, the first Spanish Catholic rulers who wanted Italy to be wholly Catholic.The Jews were in Agricento  from the 12th to the 15th centuries, had their own section of the city, their own butchers and were the business community of Agricento.
Then we drove along the southern coast of Sicliy past the place where the Allies landed in 1943, the site of Sicily's oil refinery and on to an agritourisme where we watched a wedding reception, had a lovely dinner and we will leave early in the morning to beat the Germans and the Japanese to see the mosaics at the Roman villa which was recently uncovered having been covered for millennia by a landslide.

The mosaics were wonderful. We were the first group to enter which was great, but Katya rushed us through as other groups were encroaching on 'our' space. The mosaics were wonderful but not as racy as we saw in Pompeii when the old man opened the locked doors with his keys.
We drove to Ragusa, learned about Ragusa superiore and Ibla below , the earthquake in 1692, the reunification of the 2 Ragusas by Mussolini and the competition between Ragusa and Modica. Walked to the cathedral in upper Ragusa, ate dinner together --snacks, pizzas, veggies for me, ice cream for everyone else. I was exhausted from riding on the bus so I did not go to see the parade,concert and fireworks celebrating St George's feast day, but went back to the hotel for an early night. But Carolyn and Sam's room opens to a patio with seating, so we joined them and Susan and Dan joined us with a bottle of Marsala wine which we drank before we retired.

That was Saturday. Sunday we left at 9:15 and walked 350 steps down to Ibla with Graziella as our guide. It was rainy and I used the poncho Phyllis leant me in Cuba(thanks Phyllis) We stopped under an overpass, then in a museum to get out of the rain. The city is lovely with narrow streets, wrought iron balconies and pastel-colored painted houses all attached to prevent more damage from an earthquake. We met Salvatore, an old man without teeth who lives in a house with so many antiques my grandparents would have felt very much at home, but spread out in many more rooms. He played the piano for Maria Callas in 1962 and for us. On our own for lunch I joined Ruth, Dana, Adreinne and Mary. I  had  cod ceviche with a Sicilian sauce made of capers, olives and tomatoes, not cooked. 
Free time was used up by waiting for the bus that never came.

 Dana, Adrienne and I finally took a taxi back to the hotel, just a half hour before we had to meet the group. We traveled to Modica by bus, then transferred to 6 Fiat 500 cars from 1957. Tiny, they drove us up and down the narrow streets, with hairpin turns, that looked like dead end streets until we drove right in front of a wall and suddenly turned right or left. San Francisco looks tame by comparison. Then we visited the highlight, well another highlight of the trip for me. Chocolate made without cocoa butter or milk. I tasted lots of different favors and bought out the store. Not really. Then we had a delicious dinner with fava bean soup, bruschetta, they had several cheeses and goulash. I ate orange and fennel and black olive salad. And plenty of white wine! On our way back to Ragusa, we parked the bus and watched more fireworks in Ibla,again celebrating the Feast of St. George. Made me less sad that I had missed out on the party the night before.
Tomorrow we visit a farm for the day.

A day in the life was the title of Monday's adventure into the countryside of southeastern Sicily. After an hour's pleasant ride among hills, olive trees, almond trees and wheat fields we arrive by very narrow road to a farm. All of the properties are divided by low stone walls created without the use of mortar or even mud to hold them up. On this property we first see six cows, under the shade of a few trees.Then we arrive to the hearty welcome of Ture, short for Salvatore, the farmer. Concetta, his wife awaits in the spacious courtyard where the many plants remind me of Arizona. There are succulents, palm trees as well as flowering plants and lots of birds flying around. Ann says they're swifts.
We are invited into a sitting room lined with chairs and sofas. They expect OAT travelers whenever they are in town, everyday for the past ten days and from today, a three day break! No tours in July and August. It is just too hot.

We are served  coffee and cookies made just like my mother made when I was a child, with a screw top machine that gets loaded with cookie dough and gets spit out of the front. This machine also made cookies, depending on the shape of the disc.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sicily Trip Part Three, June 7, 2016

Last Tuesday, we left Palermo and drove along the coast to the Western tip of Sicily to visit Erice, (which is pronounced erichee) a medieval town on top of a steep mountain. We heard about the pagan gods, Venus, god of love and the church's conversion of the temple to Christianity after the Norman Kings took over Sicily. We climbed stone inlaid steep streets, heard Mauro sing with a local accordion player who arrives with his horse and cart and performs for coins.
We drove another forty minutes to an Agrotourism restaurant which was an amazing experience. We ate well, drank lovely wine grown from grapes we saw growing on the vines. The veggies were wonderful, grilled and or fried in home grown olive oil. I bought a pint.As some of the group hiked, we put our feet in the swimming pool and let the van driver get us back to the bus. On the way, we passed a Doric columned Greek temple, and the hikers. I got out of the bus and walked the rest of the way down with them..Another 45 minute drive to the hotel in Mazala where we had a so-so dinner and saw the lovely mirror pool, where we will swim tomorrow afternoon after out visit to the Kasbah.

A word about the food experiences so far, before I forget. On Monday in Castelbuono we had a delightful lunch of many different mushrooms, prepared with olive oil and spices. The others had a bread pudding which was the chef's mother's soup recipe, but since it is made with cheese, I did not have any. They had panne cotte for dessert. I had a cinnamon flavored jello. 

And now for our experience in Mazala del Vallo. There is no valley, but the name Wadi which means district in Tunisian Arabic was mispronounced and kept for posterity. Mazala has a talented mayor who is a ceramicist and had decorated his city with so many tiles, sephoras and designs, it is colorful and descriptive. We saw the satyr, a bronze statue which was rescued from the sea after so many centuries after the Greek Hellenistic period and now, preserved, flies in a museum here. Then we visited a few of the 100 churches in Mazara before we entered the Kasbah. It was described as a laborynth that kept the early Tunisians, and Moors safe from marauders by its design. Once inside I saw a  Via Guidecca and a ceramic design and plaque by the mayor who described a praying wall on the eastern side of the alley where there is now a bas relief ceramic sculpture as well. The plaque insists the Jews desired to live here, they were not forced to do so. Italians have no recollection of ghettoes before the Nazis forced Jewish people to be quarantined in ghettoes. Originally, of course, the king invited the Jewish people to come to their country and provided separate quarter for them, so they felt safe. Remember they were artisans and money lenders, so the fear was always about robbery.

We were guided by Moustafa, a local Tunisian who explained that since the 1960's Tunisians have come across the 120 miles to Mazala to settle in this now depressed area because it is cheap. There are about 1800 Moslems among the 50,000 Mazalanos today. They have a mosque without a minaret or a dome--no political power. We had lunch in an Arab restaurant. We ate cous cous with veggies and sea bass with cous cous, plus appetizer dips with bread triangles and dessert cookies which looked like fig newtons, but were made from cous cous flour and filled with dates. Tonight we have a Sicilian cooking lesson which we then will eat.Last night's dinner at the hotel was memorable for its negative qualities. Not recommended by anyone.Before dinner we visited a ceramic shop where I bought a Hamsa serving dish, which is a pain in the neck to pack in my suitcase, especially since we will spend one night in an agritourisme hotel where we re asked to pack in our backpacks and to leave our suitcases on the bus.

About OAT I have nothing but praise.The trip has been well organized to present the history of Sicily from 872 with the arrival of the Moors, a smattering of prehistoric invasions by the Phoenicians which we will see tomorrow, the arrival of the Greeks supplanting the Moors and the Normans invading from the north conquering the Greeks. We have hints of the Spanish control of the country for many centuries prior to the Unification of Italy in 1860 which did not help the Sicilian farmers who wanted control of their land from landowners who owned it since feudal times. It seems to me the Mafiosa were the middle men between the landowners and the peasants. They ripped off everyone by charging extortion money which enriched them.Meanwhile the peasants were able to make some money on the crops they raised and the absentee landowners collected their rents, minus a percentage to the Mafioso.

About the guide, I have already written my approval and delight. About traveling without a companion I still have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have my privacy which, with OAT I would have even if I chose a friend to travel with. Taking advantage of their "no single supplement " policy is wonderful. I also have responsibility only to myself. I don't have to save someone a seat, look out for someone else' s welfare and at our age, their health. On this trip, however, everyone is paired off except for Ruth and me and Ruth is much younger than I and has no wish to pair with me. I can choose to be with Ann and Lyn whenever I wish or with Louise and Felicia who are New Yorkers and in my age group. Connie and Sam are also possibilities. They sat with me at breakfast this morning.

Dinner with the chef was delicious, but the chef, who imagines himself a actor wannabe was a bit over the top.He pretends not to speak English well, makes jokes, flatters the ladies, etc. but the food we made was good. I was on the thin crust pizza committee, complete with anchovies, pecorino cheese and a tomato sauce which was already prepared. We had eggplant lasagna, mine was made separately without cheese. We made tagliatelle  pasta in a hand grinder, the sauce was made with fresh tomatoes, red peppers, onions, blended not cooked . The dessert was made of sheep milk ricotta cheese and almonds. Mauro promises to send us the recipes.

Wednesday was the day for discovering the history of the Phoenicians in Sicily. We drive to the salt collecting ponds at the side of a natural lagoon formed by islands off the coast of Sicily on the westernmost side of the island. On one of these islands, called Mozia, an Englishman arrived, purchased the small island and began to excavate. His name was Whitacre and he found amphorae, small vases. When he died, he deeded his house to Sicily and it has become a museum. Sicilian and Roman teams have dug up the remains of city walls, burial sites, sculptures which document the occupation of this island for several centuries. They were defeated by the Greeks. We also visited the salt collecting museum with its hand operated salt grinder. The boat rides on the lagoon were delightful.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Sicily continued June 2016



Sunday was our first full day together. We met Laura, a city tour guide who is so good at her job that even accidents work out well for her. The Bersalieri had a yearly anniversary in the center of Palermo today, but Laura took us first to Montreale, the amazing gold mosaic inlaid cathedral outside of town. Laura wanted to beat the Germans and the Japanese, whom she feels, camp out at the cathedral so they get there first and have the best views. After our visit during which she explained all of the Old Testament large scale mosaics on the walls, then the Christ story as if we were illiterate pilgrims, I bought a small flower mosaic with a gold Leaf frame and we rode in the bus to the new city gate where we not only watched and listened to the parade, we walked along with them until we reached the cathedral of Palermo. We investigated the crowning of King Roger by Jesus( not possible of course) in beautiful gold mosaic and in marched this year's group of First Holy Communicands. The children looked so lovely; the choir sang so beautifully. We watched in awe. We followed the Bersalieri reunion to the Four Corners where we left Laura and the parade and walked through the square where we saw two more churches, one from the Moorish times,, the oldest stones of the city, street names written in Arabic, Yiddish and 
Sicilian and then to the fresh food market. We saw zucchini two feet long, a swordfish head, chunks of red tuna, many eels, artichokes, really fresh beautiful Corona tomatoes and then we sat at a food stall and ate a wide array of seafood, fried potatoes and fried chickpea flour patties and salad for lunch.
We met later for a discussion about the Mafia, talking with the son of a convicted Mafia boss, whose life is hampered by his unwillingness to condemn his father's actions and the government and the people not willing to let him be.
I joined Ruth and the threesome for dinner at Vino and Pomidoro, we ate outside, salad and pizza.And we drowned two bottles of red wine of which Ruth did not drink.

On MOnday we drove to Castelbuono in the morning and Cefalu in the evening, both lovely cities along the northern Sicilian coast. In Cefalu I saw a sign Via Guidecca which means the street o the Jews and a sign indicate this was the Jews' gate, Porta Guidecca.. Mauro was hesitant to read to me from Google that this was a ghetto. He had no idea that ghetto was originally not a pejorative word.We walked by the sea, saw bathers and a sailboat, many wonderful waves against the rocks which we all thoroughly enjoyed.

Today was Tuesday. We left Palermo and drove along the coast to the Western tip of Sicily to visit Erice, a medieval town on top of a steep mountain. We heard about the pagan gods, Venus, god of love and the church's conversion of the temple to Christianity after the Norman Kings took over Sicily. We climbed stone inlaid steep streets, hear
Sunday was our first full day together. We met Laura, a city tour guide who is so good at her job that even accidents work out well for her. The Bersalieri had a yearly anniversary in the center of Palermo today, but Laura took us first to Montreale, the amazing gold mosaic inlaid cathedral outside of town. Laura wanted to beat the Germans and the Japanese, whom she feels, camp out at the cathedral so they get there first and have the best views. After our visit during which she explained all of the Old Testament large scale mosaics on the walls, then the Christ story as if we were illiterate pilgrims, I bought a small flower mosaic with a gold Leaf frame and we rode in the bus to the new city gate where we not only watched and listened to the parade, we walked along with them until we reached the cathedral of Palermo. We investigated the crowning of King Roger by Jesus( not possible of course) in beautiful gold mosaic and in marched this year's group of First Holy Communiads. The children looked so lovely; the choir sang so beautifully. We watched in awe. We followed the Bersalieri reunion to the Four Corners where we left Laura and the parade and walked through the square where we saw two more churches, one from the Moorish times,, the oldest stones of the city, street names written in Arabic, Yiddish and 
Sicilian and then to the fresh food market. We saw zucchini two feet long, a swordfish head, chunks of red tuna, many eels, artichokes, really fresh beautiful Corona tomatoes and then we sat at a food stall and ate a wide array of seafood, fried potatoes and fried chickpea flour patties and salad for lunch.
We met later for a discussion about the Mafia, talking with the son of a convicted Mafia boss, whose life is hampered by his unwillingness to condemn his father's actions and the government and the people not willing to let him be.
I joined Ruth and the threesome for dinner at Vino and Pomidoro, we ate outside, salad and pizza.And we drowned two bottles of red wine of which Ruth did not drink.

On MOnday we drove to Castelbuono in the morning and Cefalu in the evening, both lovely cities along the northern Sicilian coast. In Cefalu I saw a sign Via Guidecca which means the street o the Jews and a sign indicate this was the Jews' gate, Porta Guidecca.. Mauro was hesitant to read to me from Google that this was a ghetto. He had no idea that ghetto was originally not a pejorative word.We walked by the sea, saw bathers and a sailboat, many wonderful waves against the rocks which we all thoroughly enjoyed.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

The First Four Days of My Trip with Overseas Adventure Travel to Sicily, May 27- June 1, 2016

It was with a bit of anxiety, some excitement and a certain numb feeling that I left my New York apartment in a Dial 7 car for Kennedy airport last Friday evening.
There was so much traffic it took a half hour to get from my Upper West Side street to 125th St and Second Avenue to cross the Triboro just to head out to the airport. But the driver was knowledgeable and by taking the streets and not the highway, we reached the airport in an hour!! Miracle. The line to check in luggage at Alitalia was long, the staff looked harried, said their computers were slow, but finally I was ready for the security hassle I was promised. 
It didn't happen. Everyone was peaceful the lines moved along without incident and I was able to sit and eat my sandwich peacefully, windowshop the duty free store and embark on my eight hour flight on time.
Well, the plane had to wait for a while on the Tarmac, but we were only ten minutes late arriving in Rome. I remained "in transit" walking many steps on my Fitbit to get to my new gate, but again everything went according to airport time and my Overseas Adventure Travel greeter held up a sign to show me where to wait for our transfer to the hotel. Even my suitcase arrived at the airport contrary to expectations.
I met Carolyn, Susan and Dan and we were delivered to the Wagner Hotel in the center of Palermo, where, shortly after our arrival, I met most of the rest of our group at an orientation meeting.
The Wagner hotel is wonderful, Art Deco gold paneled,with a central staircase( some folks used the elevator) the hotel has five floors with a breakfast room on the top. There is a fitness center, but I never even found out where it is.

The lobby is wood paneled, the fireplace is dressed with cherubs, the rooms would look comfortable in an eighteenth century movie.
We were only thirteen travelers; the others had transportation difficulties. One couple who arrived after we had finished our dinner still has not received their luggage and we are on Day 4 today.
The sixteenth person cancelled, leaving everyone on the trip with a travel partner except me.
For dinner we walked to a restaurant that served tapas-like platters. This required group interaction as we shared the food. We sat at three separate tables, one for six people, two for five.Two people sat at the middle table, I joined them and then there ensued a minor scramble for seats as three people who arrived together wanted to sit together and there was no place for them to do that at the table  where I was seated. One couple left the first table and joined my table and the situation was resolved.
OAT does not believe in name tags, or, thank you OAT, in leaders with flags. We have to talk with each other and remember names as we get to know the folks on our tour.
The group begins with Mauro, our 35 year-old native Palermo-born tour guide.
In the beginning, it was a bit difficult for me to understand him, but by now, no one has any problem with him. He is delightful, knowledgeable, responsible, resourceful, helpful and a lot of fun. Happy, boyish, singing open fun.

Ann and Lyn are sisters who travel together; each is married and their spouses don't like to travel.They have been to China and Thailand and many more OAT trips. I think Ann has completed fifteen! Susan and Dan, whom I met at the airport have been married for thirty one years and traveled with Road Scholar last year and chose this as their first OAT trip. Ruth, whose husband passed away, moved to an island off the coast of Savannah and plays tennis and sails as crew on her friends' sailboats. She hangs out with the threesome, Dana, Adrienne and Mary who are from Oklahoma, two are a couple and the third is mother to one. Louise and Felicia are New Yorkers--well, Felicia is a social worker, retired, who lives in Brooklyn. Louise lives in Lincoln Towers, right near Lincoln Center. Carolyn is with Sam. They're from California. Our newest arrivals who are also from California are Connie and Jim. They've been married for sixty-one years!!! More adventure to share in the days ahead.