Sicily, Italy 2018

€1 = $1.26

Saturday April 7/Sunday April 8, 2018

Newark Airport. I haven’t been to this airport in close to ten years and I think I spent more time figuring out how to get here than I did figuring out what to do on our vacation. So, here is the current situation and reason I am sitting by myself at gate 62 this evening. About six months ago El told me that in order to complete her personal trilogy of marathons (after local, in Albany, and hometown of NYC) that she has a "dream" of running the Rome marathon. After several assurances that her last marathon had been run, I was presented with the prospect of her needing to be in Rome in April. Historically, we like to take our winter winter, and usually in February, though some years creep into early March, but April, this is a bit of a rarity as the winter is usually over by now (at least in most years). Because of my work schedule, I was not going to be able to get off any time in this past week. El is intimately connected to the city of Rome. Most of her family lives there and she and Mina have been visiting Rome virtually every two years for her whole life. When we got married in 1999, we didn’t take a honeymoon, per se, but El and I…and Mina went to Rome in what turned out to be an opportunity for the family to meet me and vice versa. I like to joke that I am the only guy you ever met that went on his “honeymoon” with his mother-in-law. I’d like to think it was less of a honeymoon, and more of a family introduction, though it was the first trip we took together after we were married, so what would you have called it? That said, and while I truly enjoyed meeting the family, it was a tricky trip for us. We hadn’t traveled much together by that point and neither knew much about how the other liked to vacation. It would take a few of the ensuing 19 years for us to get on the same wavelength when it comes to traveling. It was an important trip for me to take, but my inability to communicate with any of them required me to have El or Mina with me at virtually all times. So, in the time since I have been happy to hang at home while El and Mina travel bi-yearly back to “their” city. I understand their need for the family connection and want to visit with the relatives, and I think they understand that I don’t need that. Heck, I don’t see my own relatives as much as I would like, but can you imagine spending a week in Rome, skipping the sites, and spending it with relatives? It just didn’t make sense for me to go and I wished them well. So, in 19 years, this is the first time I will return to the city…but not for long. When El started really looking into this trip, we talked about it and incorporating the marathon into a vacation as opposed to doing a separate vacation and El doing the Rome trip by herself. The question arose, since she had completed marathons in the past, would she want to run a marathon and then start a vacation, or would she want to travel the week and then end the vacation with the run and then fly home? After some deliberation she went with the need to fly to Rome on Thursday, take Friday and Saturday to acclimate, run the marathon on Sunday and then be ready to travel. On Thursday, El flew to Rome by herself where she has been for the past two days and now I sit, alone, in Newark Airport waiting for my 11:30pm flight. I will arrive on Sunday and meet up with El after her run…and then, starting Monday we will be off to Palermo for our "real vacation".

collage of El and her Maratona di Roma

Although I can usually manage to get a few moments of sleep on a plane, I am always reminded of just how poor the quality is. We are over Ireland now and just over two hours from landing. I just looked at my watch and I expect El is in the middle of her run right now. She had shared a few pictures of herself when she went for her packet pickup and the smile on her face really underscored just how happy she is to be doing this. It is already a win. Once I land, I have to figure out how to get myself to Stazione Tiburtina. After the run, El and Roberta (El's cousin) will head to the station to pick me up. I guess the airport is quite a way from the city center and since El will be running, the logical step is for me to head towards them and meet in the middle. I understand the train ride will be about 45 minutes. Once they pick me up, I think we will head to Roberta’s to freshen up and then we are semi-committed to go to some sort of christening party for Roberta’s grandson this evening.

The plane lands on time and I hustle to passport control only to find that many people have hustled faster. The line is about 30 minutes long and I use the time to get on to the airport’s free wi-fi to let El know that I am here and will be making my way to the train soon. Once I get through passport control, I head for the baggage claim and do not have to wait long, with nothing to declare I am through the airport in short order. I follow the signs for trains and see kiosks just before the tunnels to reach them. El had sent me a series of photo instructions for when I got to the kiosks so I would be sure to choose the correct tickets. The instructions and the kiosk steps were in English, so I wasn’t too lost. There is an announcement at the end of the purchase that tells you to make sure to validate the ticket before the journey. I have a few minutes until the train, so I head directly to the track. It is not too far and I don’t have to run. Once I get to the station, I am unclear as to what the validation process is. I mean, I know what validation means, but I am unclear if the machine is on the train, on the track, or in the station. I ask an attendant….”I heard I need to validate my ticket, where do I do that?” He told me that my ticket was good for getting onto the track and to please proceed. I scan my ticket and get onto the track, but something does not seem right. That scan to get onto the track seemed a little too easy to warrant a kiosk announcement. Just before the train is set to leave I look around and see a validator machine at the track. I get my validation and get on the train with my rolling bag in tow. The train is already pretty full and as I look at the seats I see most of them are taken and I am not about to drag my bag through the car in search of a seat. I decide to plant myself in the entrance/exit spot. Still within the airport wi-fi range I am able to Whatsapp El that I am on the train that arrives at 3:45. I shut down before I get a response. The problem arises at the first stop as we take on many more passengers than get off. So the standing spot on the train goes from being just 4 of us to about 14 of us including two women with strollers. My luggage suddenly becomes a burden and I decide to put it on the riding level near another persons rolling bag. A look around shows that several people are coming from the airport with bags and many put their bags in the seat next to them instead of on the floor allowing others to sit. At some point, school must have let out, because about 30 school age kids got onto the train. All want a seat, but few find them and also wind up in the common area. It is crazy, since the two women are refusing to collapse the strollers (the kids are big enough to walk and not sitting in the strollers). My train ride is around 45 minutes and as we arrive at Stazione Tiburtina, El and Roberta are standing directly in front of me. I am able to shower and nap for an hour once we get to Roberta’s and I am ready to roll by 6:00pm, even though it should feel like noon to me. On the way to the party, we pick up El’s aunt, Rina. There are not too many people yet and the food spread is arranged beautifully. Plenty of different styles of finger sandwiches. Some salami and cheese to mozzarella and basil with tomato. There are a couple of dessert offerings, not so much dessert as just sweets. As I stand there, El runs into some relatives and reintroduces me to the people that I met 19 years ago. I grab some food and drink and retreat to my table. At some point, a gentleman leaned over to me and, in English, says ”let me know if you need someone who speaks English, I can help you.” So, I spent some time getting to know Stefano. It turns out that he is Emanuele’s brother-in-law visiting from Berlin. He is a touring musician on holiday while his lead singer is in jail in The Netherlands, but I chose not to ask for specifics. We stay at the party for about two hours and everyone gets to mingle with the baby. While I am not falling asleep in my food, I am overtired and ready for a solid night’s rest and hoping to use it to my advantage to get on the new schedule.

Monday April 9, 2018

We are up at 7:00 with our alarm as I don’t want to sleep in too late. Roberta is already up and squeezes OJ and prepares cappuccino for us. We have a 1:45 flight to Palermo. The flight is only about 40 minutes, so it will certainly be longer to get to the airport and then again to get through security, then it will be to take the actual flight. Roberta will drop us off at Stazione Tiburtina where we can get the train to the airport- that way she can still make it in to work for the day- though a little late. We know we can make the next train to the airport if we can get through the ticket buying process quickly. We hurry to the kiosk and zip through the options to make the next train. It leaves from track one and we get to the track and validate the ticket with minutes to spare. The train arrives and we board. We are all set! About 20 minutes into the ride is when the conductor comes through to check our tickets. We present and he does a double take and speaks in Italian for a lot longer than the amount of time it takes to say “thanks” as they always do. He is talking to El and since I know we are not being scolded for not validating the tickets, I make the correct assumption that he is telling her something to the effect of, “this is NOT the train to the airport. You are going in the wrong direction. You will need to get off at the next stop, cross the tracks, get the next airport train (most of them are) and go back to and past the station you got on at!" An entire 20 minutes out, and 20 minutes back, with 5 minutes to wait for the next train. 45 minutes and we are back going through Tiburtina again. We are able to do some research online on the train to figure out our gates so that once we get there we will at least have a sense of where to go and luckily, we are getting back to the airport the same way we left, so we are at least a little familiar with the layout. As you enter the airport from the train station, you see an departures board. We scan to find ours flashing the words “boarding” next to it! We still have to find the terminal, get through security, and find the gate. The only things going for us are that we have no bags to check, we already have our boarding passes, and this is a domestic flight, so there is no passport control to contend with. We are lucky too that our regular exercising comes in handy as we run as fast as we can through the terminal. We get to security and although there are a lot of lanes open, there is still no way it will be quick. Our gate closes at 1:15 for a 1:45 departure and it is now just about 1:10. There is no way we can make this. As we are running into the security area, El speaks with one of the workers who opens up the guiding ropes to let us in to the crew screening line. Essentially we just butt in front of about 50 people! We are through in a few minutes and continue to run to the gate. We arrive just as our deadline expires. But, the gods are smiling on us today, and the doors to the plane have not been opened yet. Everyone is lined up, but no one has boarded yet. To confirm we are in the correct place, I look a young woman in the eye and say one word…”Palermo?” Her response? “No English”. (I am instantly reminded of one of the most profound things Lenara ever taught me…”when they want to hear you they will. When they don’t want to hear you they won’t”) El jumps in and confirms with another line stander that this is in fact the Palermo line. The original woman then realizes what had just transpired and tries to right herself by concurring now that this is the right line. We make our way to the end of the line and blend as if we had been waiting for more than mere seconds. Once we are boarded, the flight is thoroughly uneventful. El buys our round trip shuttle bus tickets that cost €10 each. She is told to exit the terminal and turn right. We do and approach a sign that says “shuttle”. There is a young American couple and an older Italian couple already waiting. We try to confirm they too are waiting for the P&C bus and they both say yes. It runs every half hour and it is just about 1:30 so we should see a bus any minute. Just as 1:30 rolls around the American girl says, that she saw the bus we are looking for at the stop at the end of the sidewalk and it just pulled away! We all grab our things and walk down to the bus parking area and sure enough the sign clearly has the P&C logo on it. Good news, we found where the shuttle leaves from, bad news, we now wait for another 30 minutes. We chit chat with the young couple from San Diego who seem to be doing a month around Italy. The bus comes as expected and we follow the route with a map. Our hostel is near Politama Square and that is where we get off and as we do, El confirms the location of the return trip to the airport on Friday. We find our street and walk a couple of blocks to 57 via Dante. There is dog and cat shit everywhere (worse than Paris, if that is possible), so most of your walking time is spent looking down to avoid misstepping and slipping. We get checked in to the hostel. The staff is very friendly. We get to our private room and drop our things. On the walk in, El saw a café that she would like to go to, so we make that our first stop. It is about 3:30. The café is called Kilt Bar, we order our coffees and pull out maps. I want to see one of the markets before it closes for the day. We walk down the main street and see two tourist info offices that are closed for the day. The third is near Quattro Canti and is open. Quattro Canti is a landmark we would pass through many times on this visit. It is a 4-way intersection that features on each corner, a facade with three levels of sculptures. One level are the seasons, the second are kings that ruled over the centuries, and the uppermost level are the cities patron saints. Two of the directions from the intersection are closed to motor traffic, so it can be easy to get a photo of them while standing in the middle of the square.

panorama of the four corners of Quattro Canti (four songs)

We get more maps and recommendations and are pointed to Ballaro Market. As we walk through the market there are some nice spice smells and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. We look up and see a beautiful cupola. No idea what it belongs to, so we walk towards it to see if it is a church or a mosque you can go into. After a couple of blocks, we look up to see it is now behind us. We head back towards it, and looking up again see that we have somehow passed it again! Now, we walk looking up and by the time we find it, realize that the building at the ground level is actually very plain and unremarkable. It is also not open. We make our way back through the market and ask for a recommendation on the best panelle in the area. We are pointed to a stand on the next street. Panelle is a chickpea flour fritter that is deep fried, put on a roll, sprinkled with salt, and splashed with fresh lemon juice.

pre-deep fried chick pea flour fritters

We share the sandwich and agree it is very good. We press on. We Yelp enotecas (wine bars) in the area. The first one we find, but it is closed. The next one, the GPS cannot seem to locate. It keeps telling us to take a path and when we do it looks like was passed it again. This went on long enough that we just aborted and chose another place. We end up at Spillo e Mazzancolle for a glass house white wine (my "edict of Madrid": drink the host country specialty when visiting. Drink no beer in France, and drink no wine in the Czech Republic) and a plate of appetizers so not to drink on an empty stomach. Plate has arancini, potato croquette, panelle, and an eggplant caponata (like ikra) served cold. Tasty. El gets hot olives, not warm hot, spicy hot. All good to start our trip. We talk with the owner and ask where the place we could not find is and she lets us know that they closed more than a year ago. For drinks and music, she gives a recommendation for a bar called Drunks. Having passed it earlier, we try to get to Drunks without a map. We fail and need the GPS to find it. It is €7 for two glasses of house white, plus they offer free snacks. Caponata, brined eggplant sandwich, hot olives, corn salad, sweet peppers stuffed with a bread crumb mixture. Good except caponata. Music good. Prices good. We sit on piazza under a clear sky and enjoy our first night in town. Tomorrow morning we have walking tour of markets at 9:15. Find the meeting spot on map and we already know where it is. After Drunks, we head back to the hostel. We pass a street we were looking for earlier and I see a vendor selling some street food. I look curiously into his pot and he starts to speak to me in Italian. The only words I understand are “specialty of Palermo” and right away he grabs a roll. I know now it is milza and I do not want him to make me a sandwich. I step back and say I say “no, no, no” and gesture the same. He seems to get offended. He was only going to explain the dish to me and not make the meal as I had thought. El smooths things over. We continue to a spot Alessandra at the hostel recommended called Franco u Vastiddaru. We get another panelle and arancine with meat.

a plate of arancini. they range in size from ping pong balls to these, the size of oranges

When delivered I ask for the type of meat. It is veal and very tasty. The sandwich and single arancine are €1 each. We walk back to the hostel and head to bed as we have to meet our tour at 9:15. The hostel is drum circling tonight and it is pretty loud. It does not keep us up, and at 11:45 the room went from remarkably loud to remarkably quiet.

Tuesday April 10, 2018

We have a walking tour this morning and we meet at 9:15. El wants to get a coffee on the way. We check the weather and dress and pack accordingly. We may have an opportunity to come back to the room, but we may not, so we will bring our rain gear as the forecast for the evening includes some changes. We walk to the theater to meet Domenico, our tour guide. The guy is full of jokes from the first moment- telling us that we have to wait for the 35 school kids that are joining us for the tour1 Luckily there are only two others on tour. We start by visiting churches, official buildings, and spend a bit of time in the market Billaro (where we were last night). One of the churches we visit is the Concattedrale Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, also called The Martorana. This would wind up being my favorite interior of a church. We would see many other places on this trip that juxtapose several architectural styles: a Baroque façade with a Romanesque belltower and Byzantine dome, but this was beautiful more inside than out.

looking straight up inside The Martorana

In the market, most of the stalls we see offer the same variety with few exceptions and it is the hawkers voices that sets any stall apart from the others that look just the same as the next. Having been here yesterday, we see some of the same people including the guy who recommended our panelle who recognizes us and we give him a thumbs up on his spot. Today a couple of spots are offering prepared foods that we didn’t see yesterday. El gets a roasted artichoke while others opt for a cup of fresh berries. Many more vendors today than yesterday (I assume they were sold out then and had left for the day). We try several street foods like arancine with mushrooms, Sicilian wine at an offal butcher’s shop, sfincione that I have never had before- think of it as a pot of tomato sauce with slow sauteed onions, mixed with breadcrumbs and the mixture spread on top of spongy focaccia bread.

sfincione waiting to be cut into grab-and-go size

Lastly, a cannoli from a place that is said to have the best, Cannolisimo. I thought it was OK, but what was a little weird was that the ricotta in Sicily is made with sheep’s milk and those who ordered a plain, classic, said the taste of the cheese was peculiar. I ordered a chocolate stuffed, pistachio shell, cannoli that was good. I certainly wouldn’t call it the best, but it was a good experience. It is unclear if the chocolate masked the sheep milk taste of the ricotta or if, in fact I got a different type of filling than the others. The tour lasts about 3½ hours and we don’t need any food for a little while. After tour ends, El and I want to go to the Capuchin catacombs, though our guide assures us they are closed between 1-3. It is now 12:30 and it takes ½ hour to walk there. We also talk to the guide about a free circulator bus which we saw in the area yesterday. He gives us a map that has the circulator’s route on it. It runs every 14 minutes and the price is right. In the meantime, we walk to the Piazza Marina and get a coffee to figure out if we need another stop before the catacombs. The attraction in this park is a big ficus tree that is 30 meters around.

it is easy to see how this could be confused for the "big ficus"

The park is not that big, but it does have a lot of trees and greenery. We walk to the tree in the center of the park and spend about 15 minutes doing what everybody else is doing...taking photos and gawking. Once we have our fill and start to make our way out of the park, we walk past another tree and realize that this is actually the "big ficus" tree! The first one was big enough to reasonably be thought of as the “big ficus”, but now we see this one is even bigger. Though if you see one big ficus, you’ve probably seen them all. You also cannot climb on it- or walk up to it for that matter. We have some trouble locating the circulator stop on the map and some police officers help us. We take it to Piazza Independencia which is the closest to the catacombs. The walk is about 20 minutes and we get there around 2:30. We sit on a bench and wait for the place to open. It only costs €3 and they say no photo, but frankly with so many people with cell phones in hand, I didn’t think it a problem to sneak one or two myself.

creepy pics of the residents of the catacombs

this one was interesting because he had so much hair and whiskers

selfie with the dead

Afterwards, we walk back to the hostel to nap before heading back out this evening. We sleep for a few hours and head back to Pizzaria Sciuscià at 7:30. We are the first customers in the room. El Yelps it to see what their specialty is and the first thing it tells us is to be sure to make a reservation as the place is usually full, and within 10 minutes families start pouring in and I am feeling good that we have already ordered. We split a wood fired pizza. We order a “La Imbottitie” (stuffed crust) called Via Mergellina: stuffed with mushroom cream. On top, tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, fresh mushrooms and fresh arugula. All of the creams are homemade. The bill is €17 including cover- which runs €4.50 each here. I think that is the highest cover I have possibly ever seen. It was really good and on the way out El asks to take a photo of the oven and thanks the chef for the tasty pizza. As we leave there are now 12 tables full and the waitstaff is hustling.

There is a rock-n-roll bar on our street near the hostel called Krust Bar at 19 via Dante. We walk in to Motorhead: “Another Perfect Day” playing in full. We order our drinks and discuss evening plans. I think we should head back to Drunks after this and get some more wine, then hit a spot for dinner and work our way back to either nightcap at this place, or the enoteca across the street as they are so close to the hostel. Motorhead ends and next up is Twisted Sister. I can handle that. We move on to give our night a boost. El is not hungry at all and by this point I could go either way. We head towards via Maqueda to at least locate the place I’d like to try for dinner. We head back to Drunks and it starts to rain on the way. Nothing serious, but if we had to walk further or it was coming down any harder we would pull out the rain gear. We find the bar with the help of the GPS and get the usual “two glasses of house white wine”, which is going to be better than many of the beer selections. They have the food spread laid out and after our order I load up a little plate with some finger foods. It is now 10:00 and I don’t figure we will stay here more than one drink, though it may get nursed for a while, as I journal and El does whatever she does on her phone. The music moves from chicano to Beatles, now Talking Heads. Now the music has moved to jazz and I am starting to get a little hungry. I think that we will finish up our wines and head off to dinner. It is only 10:44…the night is still young. We get to Bisso (restaurant) at 11:01 to find that the kitchen closed literally one minute ago. We continue on via Maqueda to see if anything else suits our fancy. We spot a place called Enotequa274 and walk in to ask if their kitchen is still open. He says he has to check and we confer that if he returns that they are open, we will order wine and food. If he says no, then we will press on to the places near the hostel. He comes back in the affirmative and we order a paccheri (large tube shaped) pasta with tomato sauce, sausage, and porcini mushrooms. El orders a plate of olives while we wait. The pasta is very good if a little too al dente. We split the single plate and both agree that it is great. We finish up and head back towards the hostel. We try a bar we saw this morning called Rocket Bar. It is near the theater, but we find it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We head back towards the hostel figuring that we can stop at the enoteca or Krust on the way back for one last drink before calling it a night. Even though it was only one last drink, I guess I must have had enough before that to make it quite a night. Luckily the aspirin and water lessened the hangover factor. I slept the whole night through.

Wednesday April 11, 2018

We are up around 8:00 and our first and only commitment today is the food tour at 11:00am. I am trying to think of something to do before the tour meets, but El wants grab a cappuccino on the way. It does not seem that they do “to go” like we are used to. So it is not like you can grab a cup on the go. All drinks are served in cup and glasses that you couldn’t really walk away with. I am pretty hungry, but I expect to eat on the tour, so I will pace myself. We walk to and wait on the steps of the Theatre Massimo, taking the time to look through our notes to check off things we have done so far and remind ourselves of what we want to do. As we walk around we start to recognize street names and it makes it easier to picture how to find things on the list. We meet the tour and Salvo is our guide. Yesterday’s tour was culture with a little bit of food, but this tour is more food with a little culture. The tour company is called StrEATy, and upon our introductions we are handed their signature gimmick: a "foodie passport". It is a card that lists all of the street foods of Sicily we will encounter today and at each stop either the guide or the vendor will stamp your passport to indicate you have tried each food. We start by walking through Capo market and stop at Dainotti’s for fried foods. We get the whole story of arancine, panelle, and potato croquettes. He brings plates of each one at a time. Arancine are the size and color of oranges. Rice balls stuffed with meat, dredged and deep fried. Really tasty. Croquettes are mashed potatoes with mint, dredged and deep fried. Not my favorite. Panelle is the chickpea flour pieces, deep fried. Good, but I liked the sandwich of them better with the salt and lemon. The arancine are the best I would have on the trip. Next, we try Sfincione which is the spongy bread slathered with tomato, onion, and bread crumb sauce. Today’s is less sauce, more bread. I like the sauce. Salvo asks for two volunteers, and the first buys olives from a vendor. The next stop is for a drink called Autista, which is a soft drink that is mixed when ordered. The ingredients are various syrups and waters and such. The second volunteer is asked to step up to the counter. After the drink is mixed it is presented on the counter, but just as you are ready to grab it to drink, a tablespoon of bicarbonate is poured into the glass. Well, think back to elementary school volcanoes, when you mix vinegar and baking soda and get a cascading explosion. Our volunteer is aware of this drink and prepares to drink it. The glass overflows like crazy and he chugs it down like a champ. (supposedly the drink has an Alka-Seltzer type of stomach calming effect). Since the guy drank the whole thing (Salvo did not expect he would), he ordered a second for everyone to share to taste. It tasted like fizzy Tang. Not bad, but probably better with an upset stomach. As we cross the street into Vucciria Market our next stop is in a taverna, which serves different types of wine from casks. Salvo had made a pit stop along the way to buy cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, and bread. Along with the olives that the girl bought earlier and our new wine, our group stands around a table eating our picnic and chatting. Next is the milza- the stop that shakes me and almost beats me. I don’t really want to try it, but I figure I should- and I hope the food tour has found the best place for us to have it. The tour group surrounds the cart and gets introduced to a sandwich called milza. He has a large metal pot on the left and a source of meat on the right. So, milza is a mixture of veal spleen and lung. As needed, the vendor makes paper thin slices of the offal that he adds to the pot with melted lard stirfrying until dark brown. As the meat cooks down it takes on a look like sauteed mushrooms. It does not look bad. Once the group sees the whole process, Salvo takes a head count as to who wants to try the offering. Some pass outright, some ask for a half sandwich, and El and I opt to share a half. I am not looking for a meal, I am only agreeing to try it. Salvo says that most people say the flavor is good, but the texture was an issue. a spleen. if you look closely, you can see arteries running through it. i am convinced one of those chunks was my stumbling block.

the pot of shaved spleen and lungs just waiting to be ordered by some unsuspecting tourist

putting lipstick on the pig- so to speak

bite number one of two

she says "hmm, not bad"

me, trying to keep the liquid lard out of my beard and the vomit off the ground

The vendor grabs the bread and cuts it open, removing much of the roll innards. He has a slotted spoon that he scoops a bit of the meat, pressing it against the side of the pot to minimally drain the liquid lard. He puts it on the bread and gives El the half sandwich. She takes her bite and says it is not bad at all. It tastes like bone marrow, that she likes. She takes a second bite then passes the sandwich to me, liquid lard dripping down the side of her hand. I grab the offering carefully, so as not to get grease on me. I ask for a few more napkins (which are more like butcher paper, than actual napkins). They absorb nothing, but they do act as a buffer between sandwich and hand. I have mentally prepared for this and I take the bite. My bite is rife with grease. Remember Freshen Up gum? Like that, only with lard. I begin to chew and the flavor is not bad. I immediately think of Steak-umm. And just as I get ready to swallow, I make my last chew and hit some texture that I was not expecting. It wasn’t bone. It wasn’t cartilage. I can only guess that it was a piece of artery. I attempt the swallow and my gag reflex kicked in and prevented it. I continue to chew and try again, but the artery piece trips the gag again. I start to think I may not be able to get this down. I try a third time and am able to get it down, however, as soon as it goes my stomach starts to feel a little weak. I am not sure if it is the physical food (all the lard) that is causing this feeling, or the thought of what was just in my mouth doing it. It goes through my mind momentarily that I may vomit in the next minute. As bad as this is, I really don’t want to get sick in front of the vendor (bad for business I would think). I grab some water, pace around a bit, and try to get things to settle down. Meanwhile, El hands me a Tums. The feeling starts to pass, but I need to eat something else. The milza experience is worse than I thought it would be. Glad to say I tried it, but never need another. After this disaster, I gladly take up the challenge to eat the boiled octopus at the next stall. Drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice the octopus is good enough to settle my stomach. We head up to our last stop of the tour, which is cannoli. On the walk, I asked Salvo if the cannoli will have the sheep’s milk ricotta, and he affirms. I know that some of his tours get a gelato sandwich and having had the cannoli yesterday, I ask if I can get the gelato instead and he agrees. I choose the pistachio gelato on brioche which is way bigger than I expected it would be. The taste is great and I am glad that worked out. After dessert, we head inside the Norman cathedral for the last stop of the tour.

After the tour, El and I head down to 111 Via Roma which is a hotel that is one of the tallest buildings in the city and affords a nice view of many of the taller cupolas of churches near and far.

the view from the rooftop bar of 111 via Roma

We stay for a drink and have some time to kill before our dinner, as we will attempt Bisso again tonight. We decide to try the Inquisition Museum. We walk down to Piazza Marina and the museum is located across the street in what is now the university administrative offices. You can only enter with a tour and the only tour left for the day is in Italian. We agree that El will translate for me and the guide says she can try to do a bilingual tour for us (me). It costs €8 each, but the ticket seller agrees to give us a student discount and we pay €5 each. Basically, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, this was a jail where prisoners were held until their fate was decided. During this time in captivity, the prisoners created graffiti on the walls using a mixture of ground clay, “bodily fluids that is not blood”, and candle wax. The graffiti was covered over, but in the past hundred years the graffiti was rediscovered and restored.

one of the many graffiti examples in the jail cells that help up to 40 prisoners

There was certainly some interesting aspects of the tour. There is not much known about specific people who were jailed here during this time, but some of the artwork held clues about the education level of some of the prisoners being high. There was a women’s cell, and also some members of the clergy. I was OK with not getting all of the info as El gave me highlights. I was expecting to see some of the torture devices, but unfortunately, one reproduction of a shackle chair was all we got as the devices were said to have been destroyed at the end of the Inquisition period. The tour lasts 50 minutes and we are done just about 7:00. We walk up he Bisso and get a seat immediately. They are known for making their own pasta. We split starters of stewed beef with sliced fennel salad and panelle (fried chickpea fritters). We liked the fritters served with lemon juice and ask for a wedge. The beef is tasty enough, but fennel is never my favorite. The panelle was good, but I still liked the sandwich we had in the market on or first day the best. Disappointed that the place known for homemade pasta only offered three dishes with pasta and all of them came with either fish or sheep’s milk cheese. I find it tough to settle on any dish. El is able to negotiate for me to get a pasta with sausage without the cheese. For our mains we split the pasta with sausage and a dish of red lentil balls served with chicory and fennel sauce. The food was OK, but I thought it tasted a little bit salty for my taste. I much preferred the pasta we got last night at the Enotequa274. There is some soap opera going on at the table behind me that El is giving me play by play of as a single woman shows up to eat with a dog. Remarkably she is seated, much to the immediate regret of the waitstaff. The dog’s leash is long enough to cause a tripping hazard to every person walking by. So much so that she is asked to move seats to be seated away from the thoroughfare. She is seated at a six top with five other people. When I hear this I am sure I would have thrown a fit if they tried to sit her next to us and El concurs. We skip on the dessert and just pay and head back towards the hostel. Tonight I want to try the Rocket Bar. We see the lights are on, but the sign on the locked door tells us they don’t open until 9.00. It is only 8:30. A bartender comes to the door and reconfirms they don’t open for 30 more minutes. He invites us to sit on the bench outside to wait for the 30 minutes even after I tell him we are only looking for a glass of wine. I decide to press on instead and head to the enoteca across the street from Krust for a glass of wine before we go to Krust for our last of the evening. We walk in to the enoteca and there are no seats available. There are a couple of physically empty seats at the bar, but the jacket hanging on them tell us they are probably out having a smoke. That is enough of a sign to me that we need to just head to Krust for the end of the night wind down now. Not many people here yet, so we get set up at our bar stools and I start to journal while El plays with her phone and knits. I strike up a conversation with the bartender. We won’t need another place after this. Want to make an early night as we go to Monreale tomorrow and want to get an early start.

Thursday April 12, 2018

Set the alarm for 7:00. Today we will go to Monreale to see the cathedral. It is unclear if there is other sightseeing or tourist stuff to do there, but from what I gather, the cathedral is the main attraction in town.

inside the cathedral in Monreale

the outside of the cathedral in Monreale

It is quite the popular destination, so there are a few options for getting there. There are dedicated bus trips and tour groups. These can range from €8 to €20 depending on method and privacy level. We chose, instead to take the city bus. There are some stops along the way, but for €3 we were able to get a ticket that is good on all buses all day, so even once we are back in town, we can use the bus to go elsewhere. That said, our bus ride takes 35 minutes and once we arrive in Monreale, we find a bench to read about the town and what we are looking at. Turns out, besides the cathedral, there really is not much else to see or do here. El likes the morning routine of stopping at a café for a cappuccino, and since we were trying to make our bus earlier, we need to stop now. Across the street we see a little coffee shop and we sit with our coffee. We exit the shop and get to the corner of the block, we start to see the sides of the church. As we round the corner, we run directly in to all of the people who did not choose the public transportation option. Hundreds of people who have just gotten off their buses with the guides leading with flags raised. There are so many people that it is difficult to see where the line begins or what entrance we need. Once inside I can see what people would come here for. It certainly looks nice and the mosaic work and shear volume of artistry is pretty impressive. Having no interest in the subject matter, all I can appreciate is the artistic value of the work. The cathedral ebbs and flows as tour groups arrive and leave. El and I take a seat and pull out the guidebook to see what we should be looking at. We are pointed to a doorway that leads to a stairway that leads up to the roof. It does not look like the tours are going up, so we pay the €2.50 and walk up the stairs that lead to narrow hallways. We make our way to the top and take some photos. El wants to spend a few more moments appreciating the mosaics and the also the cloisters. I journal while she explores. We keep our eye on the time and catch the next bus #389 back.

A lot of people that I have read blogs of have mentioned how great the food in Sicily is. But, honestly, I just don’t see it yet. For a city known for its street food, I am surprised by the variance in quality. Not that any have been inedible, but I am surprised that I have have more average panelle’s than great ones. I have had more mediocre arancine than great ones. And the cannolis are not exactly amazing, even though this is where the dessert originated. To each their own, or in my case, to me my own, because evidently everyone is in love with the food in this place...except me.

Once we get off at the Piazza Independencia we head to the Norman Palace, which includes the Palatine Chapel. The palace is on the piazza, so we just have to cross the street to get to the ticket booth. It costs €20 for both of us and it gets us into the cathedral and also the current exhibit. We understand that the royal palace rooms are closed today. It is unclear to the reason. We head to the chapel where they let batches of ticket holders in, in 5 minute increments. It is nice, though not as nice as my favorite The Martorana. The thing that sets this chapel apart from others is the wooden ceiling and we learn a new word ”squnich” (an architectural term that has to do with the arches. We don’t know exactly what it means, but it is funny to say).

inside the Palatine Chapel

We take a few pics, but frankly the artistry looks like all the others. After the chapel we head to the royal palace. It seems like you need to go with a guide/escort, though we see no guides. We make our way to the exhibit hall and there is a display of artwork- religious stuff. Lots of crucifixion, lots of dead people. It is just one sort of big room and once we make our way around, El asks how we can see the royal rooms with a guide. This is where we learn that the palace rooms are closed today. It is about 1:00pm and we are getting hungry. We google/Yelp several pizza places only to find that every spot opens at or later than 7:00pm. El remembers a place called Passima U Cuppa on Via Roma which is a shop specializing in street food. I think it was owned and/or developed by a locally famous chef, so the recipes are supposed to be very good- professional variations on common foods. We order from a picture menu and I get a panelle sandwich and an order of arancine. They come out larger than I expect and the amount of grease is remarkable. They wrap the fried stuff in the non-absorbent paper. It is now close to 2:15 and I suggest going to take the tour of the Theatre Massimo (opera house) and then trying to find the puppet theater. The next English tour is at 3:00, so we grab a coffee and journal and discuss plans. Cost is €8 each. This is the third largest opera house in Europe and the tour lasts about a half hour.

panorama of the Theatre Massimo

ceiling of the opera house. they told us that these roof plates actually rotate and with a twist, the openings allow for the open sky to show through the roof

They take you into the main hall, then the royal box and a couple of side rooms that have some specific significance. Lastly, since they are presenting an opera tomorrow the cast is practicing in the rooms and we saw them doing their moves on the way out. As we finish the tour we head back to the hostel for a couple of errands. I want to get our boarding passes printed for tomorrow and stop at an ATM before it gets too late. The puppet theater starts at 5:30 and the walk is about 20 minutes. We walk through the Capo market again, but there are a lot less vendors in here today than there were yesterday and they are wrapping it up. We get to the Opera di Pupi (puppet theater) at 5:00 for the 5:30 performance. I had read that some puppet theater shows are in Sicilian and that speakers of Italian often have trouble understanding the language. I expect this will be our last tourist stop. Though I am not hungry I figure we may find one of those pizza places tonight and bar hop our way back to the hostel at a reasonable hour. I know El wants to go to the Ballaro market in the morning for a couple of things. With our flight at noon back to Rome, I think we should have plenty of time to do the market and grab the cappuccino.

It seems that there are a couple of puppet theaters and this one is called Theatre Argento, and this is not the one in Sicilian, but rather in Italian, so El is able to whisper translation for me. After the 45 minute production is finished I am able to understand that this is a long story, that is known by Italians, and that the play is just a couple of scenes from the much bigger story, so it’s not like you will get any closure during this production. Think of it like a two hour movie, that you are only seeing a few minutes of. You get the gist of the story, but not much more. The puppeteer is a fifth generation artist and he gives a brief history of this particular theater and invites the audience to stay afterwards to ask questions, hold the puppets or go behind the scenes to see how the theater is made. It really was clever and even though I didn’t understand the dialogue, the visuals were really impressive. All in all, I think there were 6 scenes or so, each with new or recurring characters. Lots of violence in the forms of sword fights between knights that sometimes result in decapitation, sometimes in dismemberment, but always ending with a pile of dead, with a victorious knight standing proud. It cost €12 each and I thought it was way more worth it than the Palatine Cathedral and royal palace for €10 today.

tough to see clearly, but the knight on the right has just been beheaded and his head lies with the pile of dead his torso will soon join

the final scene of the show, the king holding court, giving his judgement as to the fate of the fair maiden (who the two knights were fighting over)

after the performance, you can get a closeup look at the stage, props, and puppets

By 6:30 we are done at the theater and walk back down to our last visit to Drunks for a glass of wine. El finds a knitting shop in the area and she heads into while I journal. Once she gets here, we will look into pizza places. We finish at Drunks around 7:00. The music is not as good as it has been (I think it depends on the bartender). We decide to move on and firm up a pizza restaurant. I have a list of places compiled by some locals and so for the recommendations seem good. Tonight we are going to try Frida. It is a pizza place on a street we have passed several times, but have not actually been on yet. We try to follow the GPS and even ask some people walking in the area if we are on the right track, but it seems like many people just don’t know the names of the streets they are on. We asked probably five different people and we got two “I don’t know”, one “I don’t speak English (for the record, I didn’t speak English, I merely said the name of the street we were looking for)”, one “don’t you have a cell phone, that you could look it up?”, and one “I would be happy to help you find this, no problem”. Anyway, this place was tucked away in a difficult to find spot and when we finally found the place at 7:30, we are told they could fit us in at 10:30- which was their next opening. We pass and look for another place called PerciaSacchi which is only a couple of blocks away- on an equally obscure side street. This time we know we are really close and ask an older gentleman if he can point to the restaurant and he says, “I just don’t know”. I move ahead 20 feet and see we are standing in front of it. We go in and ask for a table. The weird thing is that right behind us, the same guy walks in with his dinner date. I don’t know what to even think of that. Anyway, once we are in, we order an appetizer of calamari, a mixed green salad, and a vegetarian pizza. The pizza situation is a little different than we are used to at home. Very few pizza places seem to do slices. There are the sfincione shops and carts that sell the spongy bread with the tomato/onion/breadcrumbs sauce on top. No cheese, no toppings. But similar to a slice of pizza. When you go to a pizza restaurant, they sell pizza like we know it with sauce, cheese and toppings, but they are almost always a sit down place where you can order other dishes besides pizza, but pizza is served more like personal size (eight smaller slices). With wine, tonight’s dinner is €47. After dinner it is 10:00. We head over to Rocket Bar (they are open tonight).. We are the first to arrive and the bartender is standing and watching a soccer game. Once we order, he lowers the TV and increases the volume of the music. Mostly it is a 60’s classic rock, CCR, Yardbirds, the Zombies, that kind of stuff. I wasn’t really expecting it from the amount of Ramones, D.R.I., and Social Distortion posters on the wall. There is a lot worse we could be listening to. Our first night at Krust was an excellent selection, but again, probably 100% dependent on the bartender and last night there was just an awful selection in the rotation. Lots of death metal and grindcore. I tend to prefer more of the heavy rock to thrash, but that stuff is just unlistenable to me. It is now 11:00 and I think we will just call it a night after this glass of wine. If Krust kept up their tunes from the first night, there would be there no question, but I think this warrants an end of the evening, to guarantee El can do her shopping in the morning.

Friday April 13, 2018

We set the alarm, even though I don’t think we needed to. After shower and packing, we are out of the room at 7:40. The first stop is the Kilt Bar for our routine morning coffee. They have seen us every morning and greet us with friendly faces. I mentioned before that they don’t really do “to go” here, but the equivalent is to get your order and stand at the counter and drink your order quickly before moving on. So it’s more like “on the go” rather than “to go.” We head to the corner to confirm some info about the shuttle bus to the airport. When we got off the bus the other day, the driver said that the return bus stop is is in front of Prada. So we ask at the kiosk exactly where we need to go and he points us in the right direction. At the stop is a sign with a timetable, so we know that every half hour on the 10’s and 40’s we can catch a bus. We already have our tickets from when we arrived. Our next stop is to find a yellow post box. Italy has a notoriously poor postal system and using the system can significantly delay delivery of postcards if it ever comes at all! Yesterday, El bought five postcards and the shop also sold stamps. A postcard stamp here costs about $2.60, but this guy charged $2.90 each. We wonder if this is a markup or what. He explains that these stamps are not for the Italian Post Service, but something called Globe Post which is a competing postal service here, and their stamp are a little more expensive. He stresses, you must use a yellow mailbox to mail these though. Which is a little confusing, since the official Italian Post office is yellow, but with red mailboxes. Globe Post has no office, but there are yellow boxes around the city to deposit mail. The closest to us is near the Theatre Massimo, so we head to the theater and drop the cards in the box. I guess we will see how it works out. Next up is Billaro market. Roberta has mentioned about her love of Sicilian tomatoes, so El wants to get some fresh ones to bring back for her. I would like to get a jar of hot sun-dried tomato sauce, if I can find it. As we walk through the market, it is just opening for the day. Mostly the fish vendors are open and those with souvenir trinkets are ready with their knock off bags and Godfather salt & pepper shakers. Many of the fruit and vegetable vendors have not even arrived yet. But some have, though not all have tomatoes. El spots a guy with a box of cherry tomatoes and negotiates her price. He sets her up with what she needs and we are on our way. We find a guy with several jarred goods, but I don’t see the tomato paste I am sure I saw at some point on this trip. Today I see mostly pistachio cream. Many of the fresh olive vendors sell sun-dried tomatoes in oil with garlic and hot peppers vacuum sealed. I don’t want to spend the time searching for the jars, so I just make my purchase and we are done. We head back to the room to check out and grab our bags. We check out and head out from A Casa Di Amici. I did have a hiccup with them when I booked that started to shake my confidence. I booked a non-refundable rate with the understanding that they would charge my card immediately. So, at first they emailed me to say that my card had been declined two times and wanted to get another card. I knew it was impossible that the card would be declined for financial reasons, but figured I needed to authorize the charge with Visa for them to accept it. You see, with card chips these days, you no longer need to alert the card companies when you travel as they know if the chip is used in a foreign country, it is you using it. But, since this was a manual charge, typed without a chip verification, Visa assumed it was a fraudulent charge and once I called them they allowed the charge. So, I emailed the hostel and they ran the card, all was OK. Then, the next day I got an email from the hostel saying that they accidentally charged my card two times and, apologizing, said they would just refund my charge in cash when I arrived. I would not accept that and told them to reverse the charge, but it seemed almost like they never did that before. After some back and forth, I called Visa and told them that I wanted to dispute the charge if they would not reverse it. Eventually, the hostel refunded the charge with Visa, but due to exchange rate fluctuations, I was refunded less than I was charged. Another call to Visa fixed everything, but this was my introduction to the hostel. We checked in on Monday. It was in a great location for us. About one large block out of the downtown area. The private room was clean and comfortable. The staff was great. They offered all kinds of tourist info for us. Coffee and pastry breakfast was included and they had a full bar if you needed anything during your stay (a bottle of water and a Coke were all we needed). The owners seem like active artistic types who attract like minded people to their hostel. There is a lot of artwork around the whole place and the owner specializes in designing, building, and playing musical instruments. So, a couple of times a week they invite guests to be a part of a drum circle. This week it was on Monday and Friday nights. The circle goes until 11:45pm and that night we came in around 10:00. Well, even though we were on the second floor (in the “congas” room) the circle was loud enough that it seemed like it was right outside the door. We did not participate, but we heard it just the same. We were able to get to sleep before it was over, so, even though it was loud, it didn’t keep us awake. Once the circle was done though, it was really quiet. This is more of a residential area than commercial with bars and nightclubs. El did wake up on Tuesday and asked if I heard the beeping during the night. I said I had not and she said it might have been a car alarm in the distance or something, but that its regularity was odd. As we were out and about on Tuesday we were able to gather that on a nearby street corner was a traffic light with a walk/don’t walk sign and that there was a beep (usually for blind pedestrians). It was not loud enough to wake her, but when awake she would hear it. All in all, I liked the hostel and would stay there again and recommend it to others. There are plenty of worse ones!

Once checked out we make the 9:40 bus and get to the airport around 10:15. A little early, but that is way better than being late. Security is a breeze as there are only two people in front of us at the belts and scanners. We are through in literally two minutes and get to the gate with plenty of time before take off. I journal as our flight is so short (at 40 minutes) that by the time you get to the point where you can use electronic devices, you are already starting your descent. I will use the flight to relax.

Let’s talk about toilets. In our travels, two of the things that I mentally equate are places where you cannot flush toilet paper being the same places where you cannot drink the tap water. Sure, there are places like Flint, MI where I would flush the paper, but would not dare drink the water. Here is an example of another exception. We have found that you can drink the tap water here, whereas the inability to flush toilet paper is usually a sign that the pipes are old and cannot handle the roughage. But those pipes would not be able to carry potable water either. Everywhere we went, the toilet paper is dispensed in single squares of glossy napkin instead of anything with any absorbency. This is just a tremendous inconvenience, not to mention a gross prospect to be sitting next to a bucket filled with used toilet paper. Maybe if they just upgraded their toilet paper this would all be solved. I am no engineer and maybe there is another reason for it, so I don’t want to be the one to test the theory and plug it up. That, I don’t need. I am content to just complain about it.

Recycling. They have bins all over, they just don’t seem to use them. There are recycling dumpsters that can be seen around the city, though most of them are overflowing with common garbage. Ironically, we did see a tank in a small park that was labeled for recycling cooking oil, though no motor oil is allowed.

Once we land, we take the train again from Fiumicino to Tiburtina Station where we meet Roberta and drop our luggage in her car. It is about 3:45 and we go back in and take the metro to the downtown area. The ticket machines are not working and keep returning our payment. I expect the machine is not able to make change and just returns the money without explanation. After a few tries we just go to the tobacco kiosk in the station and order our tickets from him without incident. Jump on the next train to the Colossseo station. As expected, there is a complete mob scene in this area. They have permanently closed off the street to cars, but that just allows for more people to fit in the area leading up to the Colosseum. I get a couple of pictures but since we actually went in to the Colosseum last time I was here, I don’t think I need to do that again.

there were so many people on this street, I am not sure how we managed a shot with so few of them in it

El wants to show me her favorite spot in the city and we walk away from the Colosseum and up to the Forum. This is an archaeological uncovering of the ancient colonnade that was the main promenade of Rome. There certainly is a lot of antiquity here. Once we get our pictures and appreciate the view of the Forum, we find a bench. Just before we left Sicily, El was able to buy two arancini for us for lunch. Her expectation was to eat the snacks on the plane, but since I slept almost the entire trip we did not eat anything on the plane. In the absence of a vendor that sells wine, we opt to split one arancine and drink our water. After this, we head to the Mouth Of Truth. This is a stone sculpture (possibly a manhole cover or a blood drain for slaughtering purposes) that people visit and put their hand in its mouth. I am not sure what is said to happen if you do not tell the truth. The line is long, but does seem to be moving, I have to decide if I care enough for the photo op of having my hand in this statues mouth or if I just want the sideview photo from outside. I choose the sideview. We revisit the map and head up to the Orange Gardens. There is a keyhole in the gate on the Piazza of Knights of Malta that has a perfectly framed view of St Peter’s Basilica. It is fun to see, but nearly impossible to get a good photo of. El manages a respectable shot and we move on.

El manages a near perfect shot of St. Peter's through the keyhole

We have agreed to meet a guy I met through a tapetrading website named Mauro. I knew he lived in Rome and he said he would be willing to meet to talk about taping shows if he was not out of town when we would be here. The meeting place is Trastevere Square and once we find the fountain to meet at, we find a place on the piazza called Sabatini. It suits our needs, but since I expect we will grab food with Mauro, I am only looking for wine now. The waiters agree to seat us, though it is 6:45 and they are preparing for the dinner rush and don’t want us holding up their tables for only wine. A poor business model if I ever saw one as I wanted a second glass, and they refused. So we cashed out and as we left saw several empty tables. I agree people will come, but isn’t there a bird in the had proverb somewhere in there? We just head to the fountain and wait for Mauro. He shows exactly on time and we recognize each other immediately from the photos we exchanged. We make a game plan on the fly. He suggests to visit two churches, but I tell him that unless there is something really special about the church, I am pretty churched out and would prefer to go eat and visit instead. We walk around the Trastevere area, trying to get away from the masses. We wind up on some side streets and choose an emptyish looking bar. It turns out this is a Mexican tequileria. They serve wine and food, so I am good as it doesn’t not look like too much else is available on these streets. We spend a little over 2½ hours talking with Mauro, a really nice guy with an interesting job that takes him all over the world. It is comfortable conversation toggling back and forth between our interest in his experience and his in ours. The only thing I could have hoped for was to have gone to a place he was familiar with, but this was not his neighborhood and he just suggested a centrally located meeting spot even though he did not know places around here. Just before 10:00pm the waiter lets us know that they have a reservation for our seats in about five minutes and we would need to cash out. Mauro generously offers us a ride to the closest metro. Even though Roberta was adamant that we take a taxi back to her apartment, with it only being 10:00, we decide to go for it- and take the metro/bus combo. She lives a bit out of the center of the city and nowhere near a metro. We figure that the worst that happens is that we can take a taxi from a metro stop that is much closer than the center of the city. El Is great with the looking up of directions and modes of transport, and while on the metro, we find a station that actually has a bus terminal outside. If we can get to the bus, we should be able to walk from the closest stop. An additional bonus is that all accounts by tell us a taxi will run €40-50, whereas the bus is a free transfer on our €1.50 metro. Hmm, pay about $2 or closer to $70- we at least had to try. And It worked out perfectly- besides the fact that we missed the bus by minutes and had to wait 30 minutes for the next one. At no time did we feel unsafe on the journey and are totally happy with our decision. By the time we get back to Roberta’s, it is after 11pm and we are a bit hungry. We eat the second arancine that El has been carrying around all day and call it a night.

Saturday April 14, 2018

By the time we get up around 8:00, Roberta has been out to buy pastries for breakfast and made coffee. We talk about our plan for the day and she will join us for it. I had read during my research for Palermo, about a catacombs in Rome and was asking around to see if anyone knew what they were all about. It turns out that there are a couple of underground tombs and cemeteries and such, but there is also an ossuary located under the Capuchin monk museum. We head to the Barberini metro station and the museum is right there. The cost is €8.50 each and the museum part is mostly about the history of the Capuchin order. Artwork, innovations, and spotlights on monks who were important to local history. It was small, but interesting enough. Then we moved to the ossuary where basically a single monk reclaimed the bones of more than 3500 monks and arranged the bones artistically in these underground caverns. The bones are arranged quite compactly and they don’t take up as much room as you’d think. Just a couple of rooms. Additionally there are are some mummified monks who are either set to stand among the bones or lay at rest on them. Interesting to see hundreds of femurs all lined up or a wall decorated with hundreds of scapulae (shoulder blades). It does not take long to go through and then we head towards the crowds and check a couple of attractions off the list.

designs in bones surrounding the skull with shoulder blade wings in the ceiling

mummified priests set to "walk" among the bones

more bone designs on the walls

First up, Trevi Fountain. There are just so many people. All trying to get the same photo, except for the trinket sellers all selling the same selfie sticks and the hop on/hop off bus tour hawkers that want you to join their group.

El, Roberta, and I squeezing in a shot at the Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain flanked by a sea of tourists and hawkers alike

We take the same photo everyone else is getting and then Roberta tells us that there is a new exhibit we can go to that has just opened in the past several years. Some guy purchased an old movie theater near the Trevi Fountain and allowed for excavation to be done on the property and they discovered aquifers that actually contribute to providing the water for the fountain. It has been opened as a museum, so we went. That costs €3 each. We stay about a half hour looking at artifacts and excavated areas. Pretty cool. Next up in Piazza Colonna there is a giant marble pillar in the middle of the square dedicated to Marcus Aurelius, that has stood since AD 193, and features depictions of his wartime victories carved in relief all the way around it.

I made this picture big so you could get a sense of the carving/sculpting detail. the column is 11 feet in diameter and 97 feet tall

We are all hungry and try to find the least touristy lunch spot in the most tourist of areas. We wind up at Origano. I get the €16 prix fixe: that included a poor bruschetta, a decent bowl of chicken tortellini soup, a decent glass of wine, an OK tiramisu, and a good cappuccino. Everyone likes their lunch. As we leave, El says she has found an Atlas Obscura location a few blocks away that is an architectural style unlike the rest of this area. We find the colonnade, but unfortunately it is only open for tours Monday-Friday- so we can only see some of it from behind locked gates. Next is a climb up the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There is one single soldier in the tomb and in a tragic juxtaposition, also a mother who died never knowing the true fate of her son. We climb as far as you can walk up, forgoing to pay for the elevator ride higher. The tomb overlooks the Forum and we get some good pictures. Now, we are on to the Pantheon. Architecturally it is pretty cool to see the basilica lit up by only one source of light, through the circle in the roof.

inside the pantheon, final resting place for two kings and still used as a church

There is a long line to get in, but they usher people in pretty quickly and we are inside within five minutes. It only takes about ten minutes to get what I need out of it. On the way to the next stop, The Spanish Steps, we pass another Atlas Obscura entry. This is the Largo Argentina cat sanctuary. It is a small block of ruins that is supposedly the actual spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Today, however, it is home to a significant number of feral cats. They just roam around the ruins like they own the place. While walking to the Spanish Steps, we coincidentally run into El’s cousin on the street and chat with her and her husband for a few minutes. He also ran the Rome Marathon last week and El and he are able to trade war stories of their day…and the afterrace. As we walk, Roberta gets us to duck into a courtyard that has several citrus trees. It is a relatively quiet garden in the middle of the bustling city. It is a palace that is still home today to descendants of the Pamphilj family. They hold no official power, but live pretty well in a palace that does have parts open to tour. Our last tourist stop of the day is the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna. There are hundreds (or thousands) of people here, again, all trying to get the same shot. There is hardly space on the steps with all of the people sitting down on them.

you might be able to see the Spanish Steps behind us

El and Roberta carve out a spot for them to be photographed. We move on towards a bar called La Buvette. As we walk, I will admit that the cobblestones are aching my feet and I am not sure how many more things I would need to see here anyway. Whatever, we don’t need to climb the steps and I am thirsty for a glass of wine. We head a couple of blocks away to try to at least let the crowd thin a little. €8 seems to be the going rate in this part of the city for a single glass which is a little over $10.

After our rest we have come up with a plan. We have dinner reservations at 7:30 and it is only 5:30 now. I don’t need to see anything else today, but it is too early to head to the restaurant. Instead of walking around aimlessly, and instead of bar hopping in this mecca of tourism, we decide to metro back to the car which is a bit out of the center. We will find a bar in that area to hang at for a little while before getting the car to head to dinner. On the way to the subway, El gets a couple more postcards to write while we are having our wine. On the subway ride which takes about 30 minutes, El leafs through the guidebook to learn that we passed several other historical sites that we didn’t even realize we were in the vicinity of. We find a bar near the Subaugustina Station where the car is parked. Each order a drink and El orders a round of nibbles- pistachios, peanuts, and olives. We spend the next hour sipping our drinks, and eating our snacks. We make our way to the pizza restaurant. Roberta had called for a reservation, but was told they only had outside seating available. We take it, though when we arrive we are seated in the tent area, which technically is outside, but not under the stars outside. I order a bruschetta, as I am looking for an improvement over the one I had at lunch. Roberta orders something off the menu that I do not understand. My bruschetta arrives and it is grilled bread with sliced cherry tomatoes, olive oil and some spices. Truly an improvement from lunch, but I prefer my local restaurant’s version. Nonetheless, this is tasty. Roberta’s order arrives. A Sicilian sampler plate. As it is set on the table she exclaims, “surprise,” and proceeds to tell me of the offerings. An arancine, a sfincione, some potato croquettes, fried polenta cake, a mozzarella ball, and some deep fried bread (a little weird). As I begin to split the items into three each, El tells me that she has actually ordered two plates and more appetizers are coming. Meanwhile, we are discussing the pizza options. This is a pizza place, and even though they offer regular meat and pasta dishes, we agree to get two pizza, one red and one white to split between thee three of us. The pizza arrives and we dig in. There is white pizza with mushrooms, and a red pizza with peppers, sausage, mozzarella, basil, evoo. I have to admit, that my experience with Italian pizza has not been all that great to date. I did like the one I had in Sicily, even though the toppings made it a little different than what I was used to. I seem to recall that last time we were here that people would ask me if I wanted “pizza” and I would get a plate of focaccia bread with toppings. I maintain, that is NOT pizza. Not even “Italian pizza”, but I would get dismissed as a naysayer. This, however, was fantastic pizza. It was thinner crust than I usually prefer, but this did not bother me tonight. The tomato sauce was very tasty, and the fresh mushrooms on the white pizza must have been treated some way (I assume soaked in water) because usually mushrooms that are not canned get too dry when cooked on pizza. They were not dry at all, and they were not canned. The red pizza was excellent too. I maintain, there are a couple of local pizza places where I can get a similar taste to what I had tonight. We are pretty full after dinner, though I could go for a gelato for dessert. Roberta says she knows where we should go. This turns out to be one of the cheaper meals of our time here and we get our leftovers to go. We drive the half hour back and since it is still a little early (by Italian standards) we walk to a local gelateria for a scoop of frozen dessert. They all have the same options pretty much and the rule of thumb is to look at their pistachio flavor. If it is unnaturally green, turn around and walk out and if they do not offer pistachio at all, turn and run out! Luckily, this being our only gelato option on the street, the pistachio is just a little lighter than olive green, garnering it a thumbs up. I, instead opt for the coconut flavor (as I have already had my share of pistachio flavored things on this trip). Just one single scoop hits the spot and we are off to our last stop for the night, a café across the street for one last latte. They are open until midnight and we are somewhere around 10:00 now. We sit, write postcards, journal and discuss our trip. There are not many people here, so the quiet is inviting after the throngs of people we found ourselves braving today. We stay about an hour and walk back to Roberta’s content that will not leave wishing we had done something we missed. We may have come up with some things that we’d like to do the next time we come, but for now, I think we are both confident that almost any other traveler with exactly 24 hours in this city could not have knocked so many things off the list of things to do.

Sunday April 15, 2018

One last trip to the small market on Roberta’s block to get some coffee and bread to take back with us. Pack and plan out our schedule for getting to the train station and getting to the airport. We also have lunch to factor in. Roberta was out at the market this morning buying some items for lunch and we also had the leftovers from last night.

this is what our best Italian pizza looked like (white pizza with mushrooms, and a red pizza with peppers, sausage, mozzarella, basil, evoo)

Instead of eating on the run, we have a nice long lunch, savoring the flavors and the company. At 1:45 we leave for the train to the airport. Without any of the challenges we have experienced at one time or another on this trip we are at the airport at 3:15, checked in, through passport control and security at 3:45 and now wait in the gate area for them to until they post our gate number around 5:00pm. The flight home is uneventful.

In conclusion

El and I have been traveling regularly for the past 20 years and I can’t imagine a better travel partner. And, though we have agreed we can have a good time anywhere, I still enjoy the thrill of pushing the boundaries of our adventure comfort zones. I think, for this trip, that some aspects of Palermo fit that bill, but Rome does not. It is hard for me to imagine “pushing our limit” in a place with so many tourists. However, I may have to rethink that and adjust my expectations. It is true, that there is not much unique about a visit to the Colosseum, but there are surely limits that can be tested and challenges conquered even in this city so familiar to one of us. I frequently think about things we have done that would be considered “off the beaten path” even for most other travelers. Touring an underground maze of catacombs in Odessa, Ukraine; eating dinner in at a “closed door restaurant” located in someone’s apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina; or going to a techno concert at a bullfighting ring near Madrid, Spain. I truly enjoy looking back on some/all of these experiences and look to incorporate things like this into our travels when we find them. One way to get closer to something like these, is to spend time with locals. When you are on vacation, unless you have a specific local connection, it can be difficult to even find out about some of these types of things.

Rome is a unique city for El because of her personal connection to it. She has been coming here as a family member and as a tourist regularly for her entire life. Of course, I have places to visit that hold a similar place in my heart, those places are just closer to New Jersey, than to Italy. While there are tourist attractions that El never gets tired of, she has played tourist so many times there is probably not much she hasn’t seen. I will probably never have the same appreciation for this city that she does. I don’t need to sightsee all the time, but my familial connection will never be what she has, and I need to be reminded of that sometimes. What I get is that she wants in her heart to have me fall in love with this city in the way that she did. And while I don’t think that is a realistic expectation, I do see a possibility that I could fall in love with aspects of this city that is on a level that other tourists will never be able to appreciate, and that is because of her family. The family loves to see El and spend time with her, and even though I am returning for only the second time in 19 years, I am being welcomed with open arms much the same way I was the first time. That said, the family hospitality allows me to see and experience something much different than I would get in any other city/country (except maybe Ukraine). I now think I can say I am starting to experience Rome the same way I wanted El to experience Ukraine.

As we leave, I look at our trip and see that I am starting to get some “unusual” traveler experiences thanks in part to our local connections. Getting invited to a private family baptism party, eating dinner at the most local of pizza shops in Rome, taking a city bus in the suburbs, and even taking the tour of the archaeological site under the Trevi Fountain- as pointed out by Roberta. These were all experiences that most of the thousands of people touring the downtown area will never have. During our days here, a couple of times, suggestions were made about things to do “the next time” we visit. I have to say that taking a drive to the mountains to have lunch in a cave located on a vineyard sounds right up our alley- it is now on "the list".