Trip Coach: July 19, 2005
Reid Bramblett, who wrote "Secret Hotels of Tuscany" in the July/August issue, answered your questions on Italy
Reid Bramblett: Buon giorno, e benvenuti! Just wanted to welcome everyone to the Italy chat here at Budget Travel Online. So, without further ado: bring on the questions!
Chicago, IL: My girlfriend and I are travelling to Italy September 12th through the 23rd. We've recently decided to spend a few days it Sicily, then Sorrento and finish our trip in Rome. It seems like not as much is known about Sicily in the way of Rome or the Amalfi Coast. Any suggestions for spending a few days in Sicily? We've heard that it is the "real Italy," so anything close to that we'd enjoy.
Reid Bramblett: As it so happens, I was in Sicily three weeks ago. Every art of Italy is different--part of what makes the country so fascinating and so much fun to tour--so no part is more "real Italy" than another (though you could argue that, since so many Italian-Americans are of Sicilian or other Southern Italian descent and not so many, say, from Milan or the north, that our vision of what "Italy" is more of a Southern Italian one). However, it is true that in Sicily, as in much of the rest of the south, the older lifeways are more widely upheld and certainly visible, so you get more of a sense of the Italy that once was and it proud to remain.
To do Sicily properly, you really need a week--after all, this huge island at the center of the Mediterranean has variously been park of the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman empires, and been ruled by the Spanish Bourbon and French Angevins, and--just in the past 140 years of so, became a part of Italy; to say it is culturally rich is a rather enormous understatement--but I guess in a few days you can manage to get a taste that'll leave you hankering for more.
Not knowing how many "few days" you have, I'd hazard the idea that you skip Palermo--despite the glittering Byzantine mosaics in the Capella Palatina and swathing Monreale Cathedral, and the pink Arab domelets on some of the medieval churches. It's just too far out the island and takes a few days to tackle itself.
Stick instead to the most rewarding few spots of the eastern and southern coasts. Head straight through to Agrigento, which holds in its Valley of the Temple archaeological park along a ridge below town, some of the best preserved 5th century BC Greek Temples in the entire world (remember, Sicily was once part of Magna Graecia, or greater Greece; in fact, the legend of Persephone--you know, being carried off to hell by Hades, eating a bit of pomegranate, then being forced to split her time between earth and the netherworld?--is a Sicilian one that other Greeks adopted).
Then zip over to Siracusa, in the southeastern corner of the island, my favorite Sicilian city. The ancient center is on an island, and its main square centers around a cathedral that's a barely altered ancient Greek temple itself--they just bricked in the walls between the columns, then punched arches through the solid-walled cella in the center to create a nave and aisles and voila: instant church. Nearby, in the Fonte Arethusa well that was formed by a nymph escaping a lascivious river god, grows a stand of bushy-headed reeds that look like something out of Dr. Seuss: the only wild papyrus north of Africa (a gift to Siracusa from one of the Ptolemy's--see, told you it was an old place). On the Siracusan mainland sits the remains of the ancient Greek Theater--still used for concerts and shows in the summertime--and an absolutely brilliant archaeological museum. But sometimes, the best thing to do in Siracusa is just to sit back at a pizzeria on the seaside promenade that wraps around the whole town, enjoy the lapping of the weaves, and take in a Sicilian puppet show of chivalrous medieval knight's tales being performed free of charge.
Chicago, IL: Is late October/early November too late in the year to enjoy the full beauty of the Tuscan region?
Reid Bramblett: Good lord, not at all! Fall is my favorite time of year to visit central Italy.
This is still, for all the grape vines, a hunter-gatherer culture, and fall is the time for hunting (wild board, thrushes, other small game), for gathering (porcini mushrooms, chestnuts to make the flour that goes into many local dishes, and above all: truffles, both black and white), and for the harvest.
And when I say "harvest" in Tuscany, I'm talking grapes and olives. In late September/early October, they take in the grapes that have been sweetening on the vines all summer and start turning them into wine. After that, in October, they begin harvesting the olives to press the greenest, freshest oil you've ever tasted in your life.
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