Ruins

visiting Sicily

Old World Charm in Sicily

During our second two weeks in Sicily, we checked out some nearby cities that friends had suggested: Piazza Armerina, Modica, and Ragusa. Each city has an old world charm, which made our visits extra special. The architecture, artwork, and cuisine in each place created a unique and wonderful experience.

Piazza Armerina

This city is famous mainly for its Roman mosaics in the Villa Romana del Casale. This Roman villa was built in the first part of the 4th century and contains the richest, most complex collections of Roman mosaics in the world. The villa appeared to have several purposes: personal residences, business spaces, a basilica, a gym, and bathhouses. Plus, there were many other rooms with an unknown purpose.


We were amazed by how intact these mosaics are. Even the passage of time hasn’t disturbed them much. From afar, they look like huge frescoes, or even gigantic rugs, but up close you can see every single small tile meticulously put into place. I’m sure this was a long and painstaking process. The images in the mosaics depict everyday life, as well as stories, legends, and mythology.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of the area wasn’t open to the public, because of renovations. As a result, we didn’t see one of the most famous mosaics, also known as the “bikini girls”. It shows girls in bikinis playing sports, weightlifting, and horsing around. Jon was disappointed.

We didn’t go into the actual town, but we took some pictures of the Baroque Cathedral and the city.

Modica

A couple of days later, we went to the towns of Modica and Ragusa, Sicily. Both of these are very old cities, dating back to 1,000 – 2,000 BC.

Modica has ancient medieval buildings climbing up each side of a deep gorge. The city has two parts: Modica Alta (High Modica) and Modica Basso (Low Modica). Modica is known for its chocolate, which can be flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, mint, coffee, peppers, and orange. We stepped into a chocolate shop to sample some sweet crunchiness.

Aside from having lunch at a panini shop (they actually have a sister shop in NY), we wandered the streets and absorbed the atmosphere of this city, which quickly shut down at 1pm.

Ragusa

When we arrived in Ragusa, nothing was open since it was 2pm on a Sunday (when will we learn?). Still, we had a good time driving through both parts of the city, Ragusa Ilba and Ragusa Superiore. Simply observing the architecture was really enjoyable.

The churches and palazzi lined every route, and the Duomo was the centerpiece of Ragusa Superiore. We felt disappointed that we couldn’t enjoy more of this city, but we’re happy that we had the opportunity to see it!

We’re fortunate that we experienced more old world charm in Sicily! The old cities of Piazza Armerina, Modica, & Ragusa did not disappoint. Each one is unique in their own way, and they were so well preserved that we felt like we were stepping back into time…

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The Most Beautiful Part of Sicily: Taormina and Castelmola

For our last weekend on the island, we stayed in what everyone told us was the most beautiful part of Sicily: Taormina and Castelmola. We’re so glad we did! At one point, we could look out to the Ionian Sea, snow-capped Mt. Etna, rolling mountains, and old towns built into steep mountains. The whole scene was reminiscent of Jurassic Park!

Hotels and Hot Spots

Since we were there in the off-season we were able to stay at a very luxurious hotel! The rooms were decorated with Arabic patterns, and colors and the view from our windows looked out to the endless sea and Mt. Etna.

We went to the Teatro Greco (Greek Theater), which is the site to see while in Taormina. It was built in 7th century B.C. and is the second largest in Sicily (with Siracusa’s being first). It is the most celebrated ruins in Sicily, not only because it is so well preserved, but because of the remarkable scene it looks out to.

Etna Wine Tour

We designated Saturday as our wine tasting day. We hired Gaetano from a tour company to drive us to three different Etna wineries. While we could have done this ourselves, we wanted to enjoy ourselves completely without worrying about driving. These wineries had some amazing Sicilian wine grown with the soil from the volcanic site.

Wine tasting is just a little different here than in the States.

First, instead of standing at a bar, you sit down at a table while someone pours you tastings. Second, the tastings are not a little sip each. They fill your glass halfway! Third, many places will leave the bottles on the table and tell you to take as much as you want. All of this was true when we went wine tasting in Tuscany, too.

So needless to say, we had a very good time with the wine (maybe too much??), although the following pictures were taken before we had even one sip of wine.

Unusual Things to See in Castelmola

Warning: the following pictures are not suitable for work!

The next day, we went to a town called Castelmola. Castelmola is perched way above the area below, and consists of narrow, winding roads to get to the top. It has an old-world charm to it with panoramic views of Taormina, the sea, and Mt. Etna.

One of the biggest and most unusual places to see in this town is Bar Turrisi. Tourists have named this bar “Dicks Bar,” “Fertility Bar,” or “The Penis Bar.” The inside of the bar is decorated with… hmm, how do I say this? A lot of penises!

They are present in different shapes, lengths, and materials like wood, ceramics, terracotta, worked iron, and pasta. There were penises everywhere… even the faucet in the bathroom was a long and curved penis with the knobs representing… well you get where I’m going with it.

The reason behind this was that the penis is not a vulgar symbol, but instead represents fertility, freedom, fortune, life, and beauty. The bar has been passed down from three generations and the owners also used the penis to symbolize the happiness of their era.

Everyone reading this knows that we behaved like the mature 31 year olds that we are.

Afterwards, we took a walk and climbed up to the Norman Castle where again spectacular views awaited us.

This was a fantastic weekend in Taormina and Castelmola, Sicily!

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weekend in rome

A Weekend in Rome

With so much to see in Rome, you could easily spend a week here, and still have more to do! But, we decided to make the most of a weekend in Rome and explore as many major sites as we could.

I can’t describe enough how fortunate I felt to visit here… multiple times! For many years, visiting Rome was just a dream; but now, it’s a dream come true!

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona used to be a Roman stadium for chariot races. Now it’s one of the most famous piazzas in Rome, as people flock to the area to socialize, eat and drink, and see street art. It’s featured in Angels and Demons (spoiler alert… it’s when Tom Hanks saves the last Cardinal from drowning).

There is so much to see in this piazza: street performers, artists, eateries, fountains, and a lot of people strolling on through.

Pantheon

We then walked to the Pantheon, an incredible structure built in 126 AD. Its dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. It was much bigger than we expected it to be, and we were amazed at the architecture. The first time we went we were unable to go inside, as they were holding services, but we returned about a month later with my parents and were able to go inside this amazing building.

Roman Forum

Before visiting the Colosseum, we walked around the Roman Forum and marveled at the remaining structures from over 2,000 years ago. We tried to picture the hustle and bustle with the ancient government buildings at work: elections taking place, people orating public speeches, criminal trials being held, and celebratory military processions taking place, among others.

We walked through the Circus Maximus, which was the site for chariot races during ancient times. Now it is a public park.

Circus Maximus

Colosseum

It’s hard to describe how I felt the first time I saw the Colosseum. This was probably the most exciting part of our weekend in Rome. Ever since I studied Ancient Roman civilization as a student (and then taught it to my own students), I’ve wanted to come here… and the Colosseum embodied that entire feeling for me.

The first time I saw this incredible structure, tears welled in my eyes. Jon wasn’t sure what was going on, but then laughed it off when he realized they were tears of happiness. In that moment, standing in front of the Colosseum, I was incredibly thankful for the amazing opportunity to visit all of these places.

The Colosseum is massive, and it was more impressive than any picture could have prepared me for! As we looked around we kept thinking, “How did they manage to build this without modern technology?” The answer, as it turns out, was 40,000 Jewish slaves… go figure.

We were astonished by its architecture and detailed design. For example, tiered seating provided different areas for different classes. The whole place could hold around 50,000 people. Each person had an entrance ticket, and each seat was numbered. Slaves had standing room up top.

Inside the center, there were two levels of tunnels and cages with 80 vertical shafts, elevators, and pulleys. This gave instant access to the arena for caged animals, scenery, and the gladiators. Although it’s gruesome to think about what happened here, it’s still pretty spectacular that this was even built!

What I find funny is that the whole city of Rome just goes about their business around this massive historical masterpiece, and they don’t think anything of it. It truly is a sight to be seen!

Spanish Steps & Trevi Fountain

Next up during our weekend in Rome was the Spanish Steps, also known as Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti in Italian. This site consists of 138 steps connecting the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top. It is the widest staircase in Europe! We spent some time here eating some gelato before dinner!

The Trevi Fountain is one of the most famous fountains in the world and is a striking piece of work! It stands about 85 feet high and 66 feet wide. The fountain was illuminated at night which gave it an aura of serenity and tranquility. We ended up coming back to the fountain several times over the course of two years because we found a delicious (and surprisingly untouristy) restaurant a block away from the site. Each time we visited the Trevi Fountain we tossed in coins to make our wishes!

Reflections on Rome

Rome is a city that I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Our weekend in Rome was so exciting, I didn’t want it to end! Obviously, that meant that we had to return here – again and again. We made more trips to Rome on our own, and we were able to experience the city with many of our visitors. Each time provides a special and unique experience!

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Exploring the Ancient Ruins of Pompeii

Within a month of our move to Naples, we had our first guests. Jon’s parents, Joe and Lori, made their way to Tuscany, and then they traveled down to Naples to see us. Since we were all new here, we had to see the most historical site around: Pompeii! Little did I know, this was the first of SIX visits during our two years in Naples. So I became VERY acquainted with the ancient ruins of Pompeii; I even came to consider myself a reliable tour guide for family and friends.

Joe had arranged for the four of us to have our own private tour guide for 10 hours on Saturday. He took us to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. Our driver picked us up from the hotel and whisked us away to the ruins of Pompeii. Here, we met Gaetano Manfredi for a private tour of the ruins. This guy is the best of the best! He’s been on numerous television travel shows including Rick Steves.

Pompeii

Ancient Ruins, but Advanced Culture

While walking through Pompeii, we were amazed by the ancient lifestyle and culture. It looked relatively modern, with bars, shops, small restaurants, food markets, theaters, bathhouses with steam rooms, and brothels. The city was very lively in its time!

Considering how long ago this city thrived, Pompeii was an efficiently planned and technologically advanced city.

Among other things, water was able to get to different parts of the city with several leveled pipes and water towers. Drainage systems were built into the ground. Large stone crosswalks allowed pedestrians to cross the streets and keep their feet clean. Houses were for the private family, but the master of the house also kept his office there. Skylights served as water collection basins, and they allowed light to enter rooms. One-way and two-way roads ran through the city. They were designed in a grid with a central plaza for gathering.

Additionally, Pompeii was a port town where a lot of travelers would stop to rest and patronize the facilities. They’d also make trades for their future travels up to Rome.

The Aftermath of Mt. Vesuvius

We couldn’t believe the preservation of the city after all of this time! When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, ash and pumice buried Pompeii. The city was accidentally discovered in 1749, after being lost for nearly 1700 years!

The eruption preserved the city exactly how it was on the day. Incredible! I remember watching “Pompeii: The Last Day” a long time ago and thought the same thing, incredible.

Each time we went back to Pompeii, I felt like we discovered something new. Additionally, we found that the best time to come was in the off season when there were no crowds and it was much cooler!

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