On Friday morning November 3 we returned to the Palermo airport, where we met the group for our Road Scholar hiking trip in the northwest corner of Sicily. I didn't realize quite how close we are to Africa; it's easy to see why so many refugees end up here, and why this area has been a center of civilization for thousands of years. Today our guide was showing us a building that was built in in 600 BC! She mentioned the Punic Wars. I wish I remembered more from my World History classes. The weather has continued to be stunning, but they are predicting rain for tomorrow night. Only one other person on our tour came to Europe early; she has been here for a month and it hasn't rained. So I suppose we are due for some precipitation. No big deal.
The group is comfortably small: only 12 people, plus our guide Irene. She is from Spoleto in Umbria (north of Rome, and inland). Besides John & me, Jocelyn and Milda from Michigan, there are 3 people from Maine, 2 from Minnesota, one from Alberta and 2 from Tennessee. As is often the case with the RS hiking trips we have taken in the past, the ratio of women to men is 3 to 1. In each place we have an additional guide, who gives us cultural info or is a naturalist.
We were transported (1.5 hour bus ride) to the small city of Trapani (accent on the TRA), on the very NW tip of Sicily, and we will be here for 6 nights. We are at the Hotel Vittoria, which is okay. It has the smallest elevators I have ever seen; one says it has a capacity of 6 - maybe 6 toddlers. When John & I got in with our luggage, we had to squeeze. Our room is small, but we are managing. Since most people had just arrived from JFK (one guy's luggage still hasn't arrived), we had the remainder of the afternoon free so they could adjust to the time change. John & I explored the town on foot for a couple of hours, making sure we knew where the gelato shops were located. The Tyrrhanean Sea is 1/2 block from the hotel, and we have a view of both the water and a huge parking lot.
John writing now:
We met our guide Viviana on Saturday morning for the city walking tour; she lives in Palermo. As we left our hotel we saw a small local celebration commemorating the armed services of Italy. There was an Army band, and representatives of all the services in the color guard. Here, when they talk about the history of the area, they can go back over 2,000 years. Some buildings are over 1,500 years old. Most of the buildings in the old city feature Baroque architecture with arches over the windows, and columns at the entrances. On the one hand, I marvel at what these ancient civilizations built, but on the other hand, I wonder what this place would look like if they brought in some power washers and cleaned up these old buildings.
At the west end of the city is the harbor for the fishing fleet, and that is where they have the fish market. Since I don’t like eating octopus or squid, I don’t find piles of wiggling octopus very appetizing. What I have found is that if a dish features "seafood", what you often get is octopus and squid. They also refer to octopus as fish, so you have to be careful when ordering a dish. In Sicily, most of the protein in their meals comes from fish, which is easy to understand when you see their rocky soil. Unfortunately, it seems like 90% of that “fish” is octopus or squid, so I have not been happy with many of our meals. They also feature sardines in some of their dishes. Jocelyn loves canned sardines so at the first opportunity she ordered pasta with sardines. When it arrived it was so awful she took one mouthful and pushed it aside. The Italians are so proud of their food; I hate to tell them that most of the time, it is just foul. Luckily the meals feature many courses so I can find something to fill up on. Note from Lois: I also do not eat everything that is placed in front of me, but with the wonderful bread and numerous choices at every meal, I will not be losing weight on this trip!
After lunch on Saturday we took a cable car up over 2,000 feet to the ancient town of Erice (pronounced, a-reach-ay). This little town is filled with castles, old churches, and quaint little shops selling pastries that are way too sweet. I really like most Italian bread, but I dislike the Sicilian or Neapolitan pastries because they are too sweet. They even manage to destroy croissants by dusting them with sugar or filling them with jelly. The views from Erice were truly spectacular. More on our tour tomorrow.