I saw DEAD People in Palermo! And so much more!

Dead people? YES we did see them, but first we eat and drink café!

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After a busy first day in Sicily, and even though we were exhausted by the time we returned to our room the night before, we still stayed up until almost 2am, so when I awoke after 8am, I felt refreshed, and HUNGRY! We were very happy when we entered the breakfast room to see a spread of Amazing food all set out for us at our own table! The day before, when we checked in,  I had told Rosario that I was “Celiaca” and ate “Senza Glutine”. I could see that he understood, and was MORE than accommodating, as the selection for me to eat was above and beyond my expectations! 20160917_020252In addition to the regular pastries, meat and cheeses, he had gluten free cookies, rice cakes, 2 kinds of GF crackers, and a soy drink that also was labeled as gluten free!

20160917_02124720160917_020602We felt like queens with the delicious and generous spread of breakfast items, and whatever kind of café we desired!

On our agenda for the day were 2 important things plus a couple bonuses: Visit the Catacombe dei Cappuccini, the Cattedrale, revisit Quattro Canti, and the fountains from the night before before we pick up our bags then pick up our rental car at 4pm.

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Our needs are quite simple, but I must say that we are very easily distracted by some shops we were looking forward to seeing in Italy! We did take at least 1 quick pit stop to shop, AND a stop for café and an Affogato, after which we continued to get our sight seeing done.

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From the small amount we had seen so far, we didn’t feel that Sicily was much different from other places we had been in Italy, but then we came across the Cattedrale. It was different from other churches we had seen, including the lofty palm trees. The Normans started to build it in 1185, and also has Gothic, and medieval influences. It is said to be a pantheon for the Normans, and has 6 royal tombs inside the church, a museum, and crypts in the basement.  We paid the full admission price to be able to also climb the stairs to the roof, so that we could experience the breathtaking 360° views.

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The inside of the church was was beautiful and different from any other church we had seen in Italy before- evidence that Sicily absolutely is more of a melting pot of ethnicity than the rest of Italy.

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Cattedrale: √  Now to go and see dead people!

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We used our app City Maps2Go to supplement the signs that we periodically found to direct us to the Catacombes.

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You may be shocked to hear that once again we were distracted! This time by Yummy food!

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One of the Sicilian ‘street foods’ that I was wanting to try were Aracini balls, and as we passed by this nice looking Café with some yummy looking deserts, we went in to see if they had anything gluten free. Just my luck their Arancini balls filled with ragu were senza glutine! YUM! I was hooked! For those of you that do not know what Arancini is, they are rice balls that are filled with a variety of fillings, including cheese, ragu, meat and peas, etc, then deep fried. Another ‘food’ that is from Sicily are granitas, a semi frozen desert made from ice, water, and a variety of flavours, somewhat similar to sorbet, but better because it is Italian….. We each bought one to go, and continued on our way to find the Catacombes.

dsc_0225The Cappucin Catacombs, is the place where the living meet the dead! Not kidding!

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The pictures shown were found on Google Images! I DID NOT take them, as they were very specific about NOT taking any pictures or video once inside. That said, I was very annoyed to see others sneaking pictures.  I am a bit of a rule breaker, but when it comes to showing respect for other cultures, I try my best to observe and follow the rules. Yes, Mom, I would make you proud in this instance!

We paid the admission fee and went down the flights of stairs, and instantly you were in a place very unique and eery. There were rows, and rows, and rooms, and corridors of corpses in wooden caskets, display boxes, but mostly they were hanging! Yes, hanging! Some were all bones, and others you could still see some features! I swear that one was watching me! They were all fully clothed.

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There are several corridors dedicated to specific people including for whom this all began for, the Friars. Also were corridors for priests,  women,  families, and professionals including lawyers, surgeons, etc and a chapel for children.  The last body was that of a 2 year old girl named Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920. Her body is remarkably still intact as her body lays in a small casket, which is roped off and displayed on her own.  So, yes we did see dead people in Palermo!

Before we left for Italy, I found very little from Rick Steves on Sicily, but the one thing I did find  was of him visiting Palermo and the Cappucin Catacombes. If you want to see more, please watch his YouTube video.

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On we went to see the other things on our list including Quattro Canti, officially known as Piazza Vigliena. The octagonal square is the crossing of 2 main streets in Palermo, Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

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The four corners each have a baroque building, each with almost an identical facade, but each has a fountain and a statue to represent each of the 4 seasons, the 4 Spanish Kings, and of the patronesses of Palermo. As this is not a traditional Piazza, to which is pedestrian only, if you are not paying attention to where you are, or know of any history of Palermo, you can walk or drive past this square without realizing where you are.

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Our final stop before collecting our rental car was  Fontana Pretoria, the large fountain that we briefly saw the night before.  The magnificent Fontana Pretoria is a work of art done by the Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani in 1554. One of the things that I love about Italy are the fountains. It is astonishing to me how 100’s of years ago with none of the technology we have today that they were able to build such beautiful fountains, all with unique statues.

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This square was once known as the “square of shame” because of the naked statues around the fountain. It is located next to Palermo’s Municipal building, which is in the heart of the historic center.

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The Piazza Pretoria, which was not shameless at all, was a wonderful place to end our quick 24 hours in Palermo.  I look forward to visiting Palermo again, and exploring the many beautiful sights!

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Spending a day in Siena!

Tuscan Boar in Siena

On our first whole day in Tuscany, we decided to go check out Siena. I was very curious about Siena because Siena is compared a lot to Florence (my favourite), and it is a favourite city to many. We took the bus from the town of Monteroni D’Arbia, which took approx 30 minutes to get to our stop, which luckily in my broken Italian asked a woman on the bus,who spoke no English where to get off, and it was the very next stop (something Francisco). Between what she said and her charades, we got off at the right stop, and found our way to the center of Siena, Il Campo.

The many flags of the Siena neighborhoods

The City Tower- Torre del Mangia

Flags from the last Palio

Il Campo

Restaurants and shops surround Il Campo

The Fountain of Joy

Pigeons everywhere!

Fountain of Joy

Il Campo

Filling our water bottles with Potable water

Tower clock even has date.

City Tower, with Clock

Beautiful buildings

People sitting outside the City Tower

Siena is famous for Palio, which is a bareback horse race that happens twice a year- July and August. There are 17 neighborhoods, or Contrade in Siena, each with their own parish church, well or fountain, mascot, and unique colors as you can see in their flag. Out of the 17 neighborhoods, 10 compete in this medieval horse race, which gives the Contrade winner bragging rights for a year as well as a Palio banner made by a local artist for each race. This race is a HUGE deal in Siena, and it is apparent throughout the city. The square is packed with up to 60,000 people on race day, and explaining this to the kids was difficult until we showed them pictures of the square filled to the brim.

Palio pictures posted near the square.

One of my highlights from many places I have been is usually at the top of a tower and being able to take in the view of the city or town I am at, so we waited in the line (that did not move for 30 mins), to be able to climb up the City Tower.  It was definitely an amazing view. I must show you though, what you can not be in order to climb up the stairs…

No Giddiness Allowed! Lost in Translation?

Walking up to the top

All the windy stairs to the top of the Tower!

1/2 way up, and already great views!

Views of Siena and Tuscan countryside

Windy streets of Siena. Typically easy to get lost in.

View of the Duomo

Us at the top of the Tower

So, we made it up to the top of the Tower, and even though all the kids did not necessarily want to go up, they were glad they did. Now it was time to find the Torture Museum! Yes, you heard me right, the Torture Museum was on Jordan and Noah’s wish list. One thing that I really like in Italy is that in every town there is a TI- Tourist Information, and they always speak English, and they usually know where most things are, excluding the coveted coins Kalyna started collecting.

While at the Torture Museum, Kalyna, Kim and I decided to have a bite to eat while we waited. I was of course eager to check out the area and see how the shopping compared to Florence. While I was walking the streets looking for some shops, something caught my eye- a guy with a tripod, then another guy caught my eye. I did a double take, and can you believe it, but it was Rick Steves! Now if you do not know who he is, then either you don’t travel, you don’t do any research before you travel, or you live under a rock.  Rick Steves has literally helped me travel through Europe with his books, and now I was about to be face to face with him, or I hoped!

Me with Rick Steves!

So, here is how it played out: I saw him, started following him, pretending that I was taking pictures with my phone, because can you believe it, but the battery in my camera died! I was playing it cool, and getting candid shots of him talking to his crew for what they were going to be filming for one of his shows. COOL! Finally he stopped long enough for me to ‘cooly’ catch up and I asked one of his guys if he would mind it if I said hi. He told me that he was working, but to say hi anyways, and of course I did. I said to him, “Thank you so much for helping me to travel through Europe with your books!” He thanked me, sincerely, and was off.   UGH! I wanted a picture with him, but I could not keep following him, at the risk of Kim and the kids not knowing where I was, and losing them. Luckily Kalyna was there, so I told her to stay on the corner so that she could see me, and see if Kim came, and as luck would have it, Kim appeared out of nowhere with the boys. I quickly GRABBED my Rick Steves Italy book from Kim, and literally ran after Rick again. Yes, I had become a stalker! I went up to him again, and once he gave me permission to speak (he was working,  and it was kind of rude for me to keep interrupting him), I asked him if I could get a picture of him with me and his book. He was happy to see me with his book, and was nice enough to say yes to a photo session with sweaty, and sticky me. Now that was COOL!

This is the crowd and street that I spotted Rick Steves on.

Off to the Duomo! I discovered that the shopping is nothing like Florence. There are some shops here, but nothing like the variety you find in Florence for clothes, shoes and leather, and the markets with the variety of goods, especially the scarves I wanted to buy. So we went to discover Siena’s Duomo. Well, I must say that it was Beautiful! The dark green (which looks black), white, and pink marble, along with the statues, was a piece of magnificent art! We all sat and admired its beauty!

Siena’s Duomo

Door to the Duomo

The Duomo’s many magnificent statues and art!

Inside the Duomo (No flash was used in the making of these photos…) There are works of art by Michaelango and Bernini.

Inside the Duomo. Notice all the neighborhood flags.

Library of Centuries old books!

On the back side of the Duomo, we walked down some steep steps to the Baptistery. Kim, Kalyna and I went inside to look at the works of artists like Ghiberti and Donatello.

Steep steps down to the baptistery

At the bottom, looking up.

Baptistery on the back side of the Duomo

Baptismal font

Becoming bored with churches- boys waiting outside the Baptistery

So, what did we think of Siena? We liked it, but the crowds of a city we didn’t like, but that is the nature of the beast when you visit in the summer months. I did not find the shopping as good as Florence, but Jordan did pick up a sweet pair of Geox shoes, and Kim bought a watch, and I found my mom a beautiful necklace. Hmmm, something is wrong with this picture!  I will visit Siena again in the months when the streets will not be quite as crowded with tourists. Next time I will also have more time to just wander the streets getting lost, which can be half the fun of exploring.  Sometimes you just might find a GIANT pizza!

MMMM, Pizza!

Ciao Siena! Until next time!

Tuscany, My Italian home!

Welcome Home!

I am very honest about my future intentions to live in Italy, and Tuscany would be my top pick of locations. The landscape is breath taking, the people are warm and friendly,the food speaks for itself, and it is a nice central location to visit many other beautiful parts of Italy from.

After my last trip to Italy, and the wine tour I went on, I knew that I must go back to Tuscany, for more than just a day. I knew that we could rent a villa, but when I started searching, I discovered that there are 100’s of choices. My criteria for searching was as follows:  allow a 4 night rental (most had a 1 week min.), a pool, air conditioning, close proximity to Florence and/or Siena and in our budget. Well, without a doubt, the Universe made sure that we chose the perfect place to stay in Tuscany. Agriturismo San Fabiano, owned by Philipo and Rachel.

We took the train from Monterosso to Pisa, and spent 4ish hot hours there, and once we arrived in Sienna, we were all excited to get to our villa and jump in the awaiting pool. But first we had to figure out how to get there. I was only given driving instructions for how to get to our villa, and I knew there were buses, but I was not confident after asking at the train station, and finding out there is a train to our town- UGH (wish I would have know that before then), how to get to our villa that we would get there ‘easily’ so we jumped in a taxi hoping that we would not be taken for a ‘ride’ and get there in a fair amount of time for a fair price. As much as I love Italy, and its people, a lot of taxi drivers don’t have the best reputations. They can be maniacs, and drive like Mario Andretti would have on the race track as we discovered in Rome, overcharge regularly, and passionately swear at their passengers, and everyone on the street as they listen to their football team not play well in a soccer match on the radio.   Luckily with the driving instructions- in Italian and English, I could figure out where we were, and as luck would have it, we ended up in an honest taxi driver’s taxi and he delivered us in around 30 minutes and charged us E35. Not bad.

I must say that I was all smiles as we drove into the Tuscan countryside. It was very dry from the drought that they were currently experiencing, but everything else was as I had remembered and thought it would be. Rolling hills, Cypress trees, farm land, Villas and Castles. Oh my, how I love it here!

The Tuscan Countryside

Wheat fields have already been harvested.

Drought conditions

We arrived at our Villa, and were warmly greeted by both Rachel and Philipo. While Philipo gave us a tour of the Villa, little Rachel carried our bags up to our apartment. I immediately felt at home- maybe from the tour from Philipo in his ‘pink’ bathrobe, or from the many games and activities outside for families, the other families outside at the pool, and one with a puppy, or from the ‘lived in’ office next to their entryway. I am not sure, but we all were happy to be there.

Stairs leading to our apartment

Il Forno Apartment, the door on the left

Master bedroom

Living room, with 3 single beds

Our little kitchen is just enough for our needs.

Kim helping to cook supper our first night in Tuscany

Courtyard area

Ping pong table, and outdoor eating off the courtyard

Our current address

Courtyard

Our Villa

San Fabiano

Community bikes to ride to town with.

Individual Villa home.

Our backyard!

Outside enjoying Philipo’s many stories.

Original well

My new mailbox…

After swimming, Philipo and David took us into town the evening before so that he could show us the town, and also so that we could pick up some groceries. Surprisingly we cooked that night! We had pasta with pesto, bread, meat and cheese, and a salad from the local grocer. I must say that this was the 1 and only meal that we cooked in our 23 days away from home.  Kim and I ‘cooked’ and the kids cleaned up, then we broke into the gelato we bought from the local gelato store. MMMMMM….

This is what Gelato to go looks like.

Our first morning we decided to sleep in, and just chill so that we could enjoy our surroundings. I asked Philipo the history of the Villa, and he proceeded to take us outside, sat us down and told us many stories of his family and how he and Rachel met, and came to take over the abandoned farm house, completely renovate it (renovate is a small word for the HUGE job it was to get it to where it is today) and now live in this lovely Villa, and rent out their apartments.  To make his long story short, his stories and his family history is Amazing! I will try to retell it as best as I can… He was raised in Rome, and his father was a Count! He came from a very important family that owned a factory that made large equipment (Kim loved that!), and one day when he was young, his father took him to Tuscany to show him all the land he had purchased for the ‘rich mans game’ of pheasant hunting.  All of this land was turned into farm land, and MANY years ago they had 500+ heads of cattle, and 5000 chickens, in addition to the land they farmed. Many farmers were hired to farm the land, which is why the landscape is lined with many farm houses like our Villa.  His father then built himself a castle, which is still in the family; Philipo’s brother owns it, and we could see it from our Villa.

Driveway to the family Castle

The Castle

In 1970’s the laws in Italy were changed so that the owner of the farmland and the farmer no longer had a 50/50 split of the profits (0 if there were losses that year), and the owners, like Philipo’s father had to pay wages, and benefits to all the farmers. This caused much dissension for the owners that lived far from their land, and the owners stopped farming the land for many reasons, including when the cat is away the mouse will play attitude adopted by some of the farmers, once the farmers were no longer invested in working hard for good crops with the loss of the 50/50 split. The farmers then moved on, and abandoned their homes. This is why you see many still abandoned farm houses in the Tuscan countryside.  This is also where Philipo acquired his farm house, as it was one of many on his father’s land, and transformed it into what it is today.  Philipo’s English is Amazingly polished, as he traveled the world as a mechanical engineer before he married Rachel, and let me tell you he has many more stories about his travels. We so enjoyed his company!  Rachel is equally as nice as Philipo, however with the extreme heat outside, we did not see her as much as the carefree Philipo.

Oh the many wonderful stories from Philipo!

I know that we will be back to San Fabiano, but next time we will definitely rent a car so that we can explore more of the Tuscan countryside, visit the many wineries, and explore the other towns. There is something said for independence with your own car.

In my next blog post, I will tell you all about our day with Philipo and David when they took us exploring, as well as our adventure to Siena.

Ciao!