Monday, September 21, 2015

Hidden Sicily ~ Castelmola

When we continued on our tour of Hidden Sicily we made our way up to the hilltop town of Castelmola. There are two things to know about this place. One: it has some of the most amazing views that you can find in Sicily and Two: the stairway up to the town isn't for the faint of's a serious climb. The payoff is the views you get while you are climbing!
This is what you see as you begin the climb in your car or bus. We were in our air conditioned tour bus so it wasn't exactly a taxing climb. You can hike all the way up to the town if you wish. It's a serious climb up but for seasoned hikers it is a wonderful trip with amazing views.

Seriously amazing views! The Northern coastline spreads out far below you in a dramatic sweep. The beaches are rather empty in Spring when the weather is still in the high 60's to low 70's but this beach will fill up as Summer arrives.
When you see Castelmola, the actual castle, you understand how it got it's name. It does look like a molar tooth!
But even this castle looks dramatic when seen from the hillsides of the town of Castelmola. The road you see in the bottom left hand corner is where you begin your climb up.
And the windy roads can give those who don't deal well with them a serious run for their money. Fortunately I don't get carsick so I was able to just enjoy the views.
You park in the public parking lots below the town and then take the stairs up. It is a considerable climb. At the time I was dealing with a bum knee so I just took it a few steps at a time and enjoyed the view. About halfway up was this sweet little chapel. So beautiful, ornate while still feeling simple. Lovely.
When you finally reach the top you will find yourself at this courtyard. To the left of this entry is a water fountain that has the coldest, sweetest water as reward for your climb!
The courtyard is to a church but it also serves as an entryway to the town of Castelmola. It truly gives it the feel of a medieval town.
You know I'm fond of details but what struck me about Castelmola is that the details seemed less intentional here. A lot of Italy has flower boxes, painted doorways, brightly colored buildings but in Castelmola everything is much more subtle than that. Just as beautiful but more subtle.
The painted doors are more subdued, the walls a soft yellow or beige and there were a lot of potted cactus rather than flowers here.
There are many paths you can take in Castelmola but we walked our way down and around to the main square and the Church of St. Joseph.
Again I was struck by how ornate and yet how simple the decor felt. From the chandeliers to the archways there is a lot of detail but somehow it still feels simply decorated to me. I think it has to do with the colors and clean lines.
Take some time to enjoy those clean lines and those ornate details. Several of us walked into the church but there were only 3 of us who really stayed a few minutes to really look at all this church has to offer.
This statue of St. Anthony touched our hearts. The Saint of Lost Things and People he stands for faith, service and compassion. One of our fellow travelers was actually named after this special man.
The views from the courtyard of the church are just as amazing at the ones you got to see on the way up to the town. 
From here you can see all the way to Mt. Etna. Just breathtaking!
Castelmola seems like such a beautiful, quaint town but it's not without it's quirks. The Bar Turisi is not something you are likely to see anywhere else in the world. Soooo...forgive me for a moment while I get a bit R-rated. I didn't actually enter this bar due to it's theme. There are some things you see that you just can't un-see and I'd had enough of that feeling from the doorway. If you click on this photo and really look at the paintings in the doorway you will see that the theme is the Penis. Yup, a whole bar devoted to this part of the male anatomy. From what I understand the entryway is tame compared to the rest of the bar. 
But the outside was beautiful! The details on the lamps and the colorful awnings really set it out from all of the other buildings in the area.
You can see just how truly colorful, and bizarre, it is just from the bar windows. This is part of one of the windows and, yes, all of these pieces are for sale. 
Walking away from this very colorful Bar you are greeted by these side streets that soothes you again with it's pastel painted buildings and lovely lamps.
 I couldn't take this kitty home with me, afraid it would never survive the journey, but I couldn't resist taking a photo of her. SO beautiful!
Our tour ended with lunch at the S. Giorgio Cafe. We had a lovely meal that started with a panino (panini actually means "bread", panino means a sandwich made with bread) made with fresh ingredients, drizzled with local olive oil and served with a fresh side salad. We followed it up with a taste of the almond liqueur that is made here in Castelmola. Served ice cold it is really a tasty treat! (I was told you can even get some in a penis shaped bottle at the Bar Turisi.)
 This was the view from our table. With the Ionian Sea in front of us, shaded by big umbrellas and eating wonderful food, it was the perfect way to end our tour of Hidden Sicily!

Next week I'll take you up to Mt. Etna and wine tasting! As always you can catch me on Facebook and on Instagram every day!


Friday, September 11, 2015

Hidden Sicily ~ Forza d'Agro

Traveling with Go Ahead Tours has real upsides! Usually when I tell someone that we went with a "tour group" I get the "Oh, well, I know what that means" look. What they think is that I am up at dawn and being dragged around from place to place, hardly stopping to enjoy it before being moved onto another place with only breaks inside a hot, stuffy tour bus as we make our way from place to place. That is not how I travel. That in not how anyone should travel.

The reason we keep traveling with Go Ahead is because they don't travel that way either. Yes, there is a tour bus. A wonderful, air conditioned, plush tour bus with these amazing drivers that make you very happy you do not have to be behind the wheel because driving in Europe is a totally different experience compared to driving here in the US! And, yes, there are guided tours but not the rush here rush there type. There are private guides at each place and usually only a couple of places in a morning. Leisurely strolls through these gorgeous spots are how we travel, not footraces. Tours take from 2 to 4 hours and then the rest of the day is yours to explore. In fact, there are several "free" days while you are on tour where you can go and do whatever you wish in the area. If you are not an independent explorer, or you want to go and see even more, there are always extra excursions you can take for those "free" days where you pay a little extra and get to see a lot extra.

"Hidden Sicily" was just one of those excursions. I think we paid about $100 extra for it and it was simply amazing! We went to Forza d'Agro, where the Godfather was filmed, and to Castlemola. Both of these locations were totally unknown to us so it was fun to explore somewhere new and not be sure what was waiting around every corner. In today's blog I'll just cover Forza d'Agro.
 We started out in Forza d'Agro. This charming little hilltop town was the setting for the marriage of Michael Corleone in The Godfather and it is very proud of being part of film making history. And while I found this tidbit to be fun, being a movie buff myself, the charm of this town had nothing to do with Hollywood and everything to do with the simply amazingly gorgeous architecture and the wonderful people who live there.
There is a "look" to Italy that lets you know it's Italian immediately and this part of Sicily is no different. It's the details.
Down every street or alleyway you will see the details, like the lamps or the wrought iron balconies or the color of the walls, that pop out at you and just add SO much to the view.
 One of our first stops was at the Cathedral of Maria S. Annunziata e Assunta. This is the same church that was used for the back drop of the wedding of Michael Corleone. And everyone there will tell you all about it.
 The inside of the church was not used but I wanted to go explore inside and was rewarded by a very beautiful church.
 You can find amazing embellishments at every turn here. It is worth taking a nice long walk around the entire church so you can take in all of the details.
 Of course the main altar is the centerpiece and filled with really beautiful artifacts and architectural details.
 When I first saw this on the ceiling I saw a skull. Then I realized that it is actually a dove! SO unusual but so pretty. I still see "skull" first before "dove" but I think that's one of the reasons I love it.
 I did find the skull and crossbones in a anteroom. But what strikes me isn't the skull but rather all of the different types of materials that were used to make up this small part of the cathedral.
Coming out of the church found me this view. This is one of my favorite photographs from Sicily. It's just SO Italian to me. The lamps, rounded doorways and windows, the iron railings, even a castle on the hill above. This makes me long for Italy.
We were told that you could, if you had an afternoon, hike up to the top of the castle and explore. The view is supposed to be one of the best around. We didn't have the time but I'll share the view a bit later in this blog.
From the Cathedral we could see the next church on our route. We were told that there was a service going on and we could enter carefully if we wished but I chose to lag behind the group to give myself the opportunity to take photos like this I had the town to myself!
To get to the church you have to walk down the street in the photo before this one and then squeeze down this narrow alleyway! I'm not a little person but even the smallest of our group was almost too big for the space. It was only about 2 feet most of us turned sideways to negotiate it!
The lovely view of the church was worth it. I can only imagine how beautiful a wedding recessional would be on this stairway!
I would imagine that lots of couples have a portrait of themselves framed by this entryway at the top of the steps.  
 Our rather circuitous path led us back around to this fountain in the courtyard. Koi swim in the base and the nice sunny courtyard would be lovely to spend time in on a cold but sunny day. Unfortunately for us it wasn't cold so we headed inside a shop to grab some drinks.
 There were some gentlemen, sitting at a back table near the restrooms, that were playing a card game. One of our companions explained that this is a very old and very fun game that they had been taught how to play as a child. I love the patterns and bright colors!
 This very large frame was hanging on the wall with photos from the actual filming of The Godfather. It was really fascinating to talk to one of the locals about it. They didn't need the Oscar this film earned, they were happy to be an actual part of it!
We went back out to the fountain to wait for the bus to arrive and that gave me more time to really look at the top of the fountain. If you click on this photo it will pop up a bigger version and you will be able to see that the corners are actually heads spitting the water out and the center is two dancing lions!
 The view from the bus on the ride back down was breathtaking! 
 We could even see part of Mt. Etna on our way down from Forza d'Agro.
 There are homes all the way down the hillside and many of them have embellishments like this stone lion.
However this was, by far, the most unusual embellishment I saw the entire time we were in Sicily. This very colorful and oddly lifelike statue sat, as the lion did, on the entry post to a Villa like a freshly beheaded woman. I still find it creepy and beautiful at the same time!

Next week I'll take you to Castlemola so you can see some of the gorgeous views there as well as one very unusual cafe!