Globus - The Best of Italy & Sicily

Saturday, May 14, 2016 - En Route to Rome

Saturday began crazy-early with me waking 3:15ish for a 4:05 pickup by Capital Aeroporter; the driver first came to the back of the apartments next-door, but phoned and picked-me-up a scant minute later. There were three other pickups in the Olympia area but by the time we were on the way my damned morning diuretic was killing my bladder - so I requested a quick potty stop (I certainly didn't repeat that same mistake the next day on landing in Rome).

We arrived right about 6 and the TSA lines were circling the ticketing areas. Lovely. With no other choice I queued-up, then after a few minutes about ten people in front of me an agent started diverting us to TSA Pre. Joy, joy - I was through in less than 7-8 min! Got to furthest gate then charged my electronics until boarding began at about 7:40. Soon thereafter we were off - but my good luck continued with a 3 year old kid in the middle seat that wouldn't it still, kept kicking me, etc. At least we arrived a half hour early into Philadelphia where I could be done with that particular seat mate!

Spent mone time charging the phone to full strength, then waited at the furthest gate (A26) for boarding - which began on time at about 5:45pm. We pulled back a couple of minutes early and were on our way. My seat mate this time was a retired guy from GE - we talked a bit until I finished by chicken & rice dinner (w/comped red wine) at which point I went lights-out - sleeping VERY fitfullyfor the next several hours.

 

Sunday, May 15, 2016 - Arrival in Rome

Fitful must've deepened as I was awakened by the flight attendant breakfast announcement - with us but an hour outside of Rome. I quickly downed a raspberry yogurt, a flat muffin, and a couple cups of black coffee. Came to find out that we landed 45min early. There were no immigration forms to complete - just waited in a 5-6 min line for immigration, then waited quite awhile for the bags to arrive - at which point you walk through a door called "No Declarations". Easy peasy. Had to walk further into the arrivals hall than I was expecting - the COTAV desk (my destination) was a tour operator, but two Globus reps were there to greet us. I quickly got with my crew, then after about half an hour we were aboard a brand new Globus Mercedes bus for the 40min ride to Una Hotel Rome.

We arrived just before 11 - and our rooms weren't even remotely ready... so we all just waited. And waited. Of course, my room was the last one assigned in my arriving group - I finally got into Room #332 just after 1. Iit was nice to get to unpack and settle-in just a bit - and I decided it'd be even nicer to break my cardinal rule (re quickly adjusting to European time) and take a nap. Slept like the dead til 4:15, at which time I needed to shower and be downstairs for the 5pm introduction & briefing (by Sue Halsall, our Tour Director); soon thereafter we met Guiseppe (our Driver for the next two weeks), then we drove maybe 10min to Ristorante MiNo for a nice five course meal - consisting of Melon & prosciutto plus bruschetta, Rigatoni in mushroom sauce, Lasagna with some kind of meat, Sliced Pork with gravy & potatoes, Vanilla Ice Cream + hot berries + coffee.

All-in-all it was great food and great service - even included a singing guitarist & flautist. I met two couples from Northern California - they tour together once a year to celebrate their joint anniversaries, and decided that they needed to look after "the orphan". Anyway, we returned about 8:30 - I prepared my gear for tomorrow's early to start (6:15 wake up, 7:30 departure) then after watching a smidge of Italian TV easily dozed-off for the night.

 

Monday, May 16, 2016 - Rome

Despite my body still thinking it was late on the prior night, I naturally woke before the official 6:15 phone call - yet felt surprisingly good. The 7:00 am breakfast consisted of runny scrambled (with cheese?) eggs, undercooked bacon, sausage links, a variety of fruit, pastries, cheeses, lunchmeats, juices & coffee. I dined w/Bob & Karen (one of the two couples who "adopted" me last night). It soon became apparent that Globus ran a tight ship (schedule-wise): the tour bus left promptly at 7:30 for The Vatican, which found us arriving just after 8:00 for a brief museum tour, then visits to the Sistine Chapel and St Peters Basilica & Square.

Shooting out the window of the bus as our whirlwind day of touring Rome commenced (here we are at Piazza della Repubblica)
Passing by "The People's Gate" (Porta del Popolo)
The People's Gate dates back hundreds & hundreds of years (as does much of this ancient city)
The front entrance to the Vatican Museums... thankfully, our group had some sort of VIP privilege, as we didn't stand in the long lines for more than about ten minutes.
Just after passing-through the metal detectors on the way up to the actual museums
Looking back at our intrepid Globus group (guess I was sort of leading the way because I was a single?)
At the top level you step outside and instantly recognize the top of Saint Peter's
Here the camera is racked-back just a bit to give you a flavor of the grounds
We proceeded down and to the right of the last photo (that's the Art Museum in the background)
Casina Pio sits opposite the Art Museum
The Art Museum has this really amazing tile fresco above the front entrance
Our most excellent guide for the day, Oreste, giving us a brief orientation before entering (he was - in my opinion - the best tour guide of the entire trip)
Would these be pretty much the definition of "hallowed halls"?
As a student of art history, it was wild seeing so much stuff in person that I'd previously only seen in books
Did my best to catch the grandeur, but there's only so much the camera can convey
It was about now that it really sunk-in just how much money is in the Catholic church's possession
Everywhere you look is breathtaking art and architecture
Oreste did give info about each of these - but there's only so much my (at the time) almost 60 year old brain would retain
Ditto (Google Images could probably help - given time I may augment these descriptions if I can get better info)
And about now I started wondering about upkeep - I presume they have a small army of maintenance workers to do just that
Hanging Tapistries - again, hundreds of years old (it was a good bit dimmer than this photo would lead you to believe)
These were in better condition than I would've expected
Continuing down the hallway that leads to the Sistine Chapel... information overload
I shot a number of these kinds of photos so I could look more closely from the comfort of my home computer. It's simply more than one can hope to take-in when actually there
While I did use a little photo-trickery to enhance the colors & contrast, this is pretty much what your eye sees while slowly traversing the long hallway
Using some of my new friends to help lend scale to the size of the art
The end of the hallway. Again, the detail is amazing
Words fail.
That little sign down on the right got everyone excited - but, sadly, no photography was allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. Suffice to say it didn't disappoint
Shortly after exiting the Sistine Chapel we entered Saint Peter's Basilica. Not really much my words can add, so I'll let each photo stand on its own
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Saint Peter's Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
Upon exiting the Basilica, this is the view of the Square. A few in my group (who arrived a day or two early) were here the day before our tour to see the Pope's every-Sunday address. They all said the size of the crowd was mind-boggling.
Walking down the Square a bit then looking back at the Basilica
How many times have I seen all of this on TV? Yep, kind of surreal to finally be here in person!
Underneath the columns to either side of the Basilica...
...then, looking out back towards the center of the Square
This particular tour was like a smorgasbord - there was no time for detail, just a sampling of as much as we could fit-into each day
My best pic of Saint Peter's Basilica & Square - amplified by the stellar weather we were given this day
One last pic before exiting the Vatican Gates and continuing the tour
Yes, The Vatican is a walled city - of which we only saw a small part. And despite some folk believing our several days in Sicily put us in a different country, in fact this morning was the only time we left Italy.

We were given 20-25 min for shopping just off the Square, then it was back aboard ftro the short drive to the Colosseum. Oreste was our guide and he was really incredible! With somewhat limited time we only explored the main level; afterwards we walked up the hill to the Roman Forum, then reboarded the bus for a 1:30 return to the hotel.

We re-boarded our Globus bus and drove perhaps 20 min to the Colosseum complex
While there were a lot of people, I honestly expected more (so, for me, this was a pleasant surprise)
Again, the camera doesn't do this justice - easily as big as many baseball stadiums I've visited in my lifetime
Really amazing to think that this was built without any kind of modern technology...
...although I seriously doubt any modern-built stadiums will still be in this condition in a couple thousand years!
Looking back at the Arch of Constantine before we enter the Colosseum itself
It's big.
Again, I marveled at the construction.and the condition
You've seen so many photos of it - what makes these so memorable for me was seeing each spot with my own eyes
There were a few times over my two week visit to Italy where I wished I'd had more time to tour. This was one of those times
We, literally, walked-in to the left of this picture - walked around not quite half the circumference of the stadium - then exited. Need to go back and spend more time here on my own
The scale is simply remarkable
Hopefully I'm conveying the movement we made around the inside of the complex
BTW, in case anyone wonders - these photos have a couple of different sizes because I was shooting two different cameras as well as taking occasional snaps w/my iPhone
Easy to tell where the public isn't allowed to go
That's it - we've exited all too soon as we continue our tour
I spun around about 120 degrees from that last picture to shoot the Arch of Constantine again...
...then spun right another 60-70 degrees to shoot where we would next walk: to the Roman Forum
Ain't zoom lenses nice?
I frequently take pix such as this to remind me where I was when groups of photos were shot. Including it because, well, it just captures the feeling as you continue walking away from the Colloseum...
...and towards the Arch of Titus
The Arch from the other side...
...where I zoomed-in to see how well preserved the carvings still are...
...and to help trip my slowly failing memory about what this was!
A little past the Arch and to the left...
...then turning the camera just a bit to the right
Again, had we more time I would've loved to have walked up there for the vistas. Couldn't, though - the schedule was simply too tight.
History is, literally, everywhere. I was again reminded what a very young country we have in the US.
Looking back towards the Arch of Titus (with the hill off to the right in this pic)...
...so I spun a little right to show the scenery
Nothing more than seeing a lovely plant and getting a little artsy-fartsy...
...including some wildflowers
Time to head-back to the tour bus - I almost made this pic the album cover photo. Again, far more breathtaking in person than the photo conveys.
One more view of the Colosseum & Arch before departing
Shooting-out my window on the bus (which changed every day - so everybody got a chance to sit everywhere we would move clockwise two rows every day... by the end of our two weeks each of us had sat pretty much everywhere on the tour bus) - here we're driving-by San Nicola in Carcere
In Rome's Theatre District (now driving-past the Temple of Apollo Sosianus)

After a quick lunch (sandwich, chips, soft drink) I met almost everyone in the lobby at 3:30 for the optional afternoon tour. Guiseppe got our big ole bus within a couple of blocks of the Spanish Steps; after walking down, we were given about 25 min of free time to roam the area. From there we continued walking to the Trevi Fountain (WAY too jammed with people) for ah 20 min visit. Next, we walked to the Pantheon - after brief tour we had about 20 min to roam freely; lastly, after grabbing a quick gelato nearby we finished the day by touring Piazza Navona - especially seeing the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (by Bernini) & the Fontana del Nettuno. We concluded by walking a few blocks to board the bus at about 6:45 for the return to the hotel.

After a couple hour break back at the hotel (mainly for lunch) most of the group ventured back out for an optional afternoon tour
Our first stop was the famed Spanish Steps...
...which we didn't get to actually walk, as they were closed-off for maintenance
On the upside, it made them very easy to see (what with no people walking on them)!
We had about 25min to wander the immediate area - I ventured away just a bit only to discover most of this area was for higher-end retail (mainly clothing stores)
A nice view of the plaza...
...before continuing our walk to the Trevi fountain
After about 7-8 minutes we turn the corner and it's instantly recognizable...
...with an insane number of people crowded into a relatively small area
Yes, I did toss "Three Coins In the Fountain" - quickly - after working-my-way down to the waters edge from about this spot
I kept looking, but vintage Anita Ekberg was nowhere to be found!
One last look back before continuing on...
...to the monument to Marcus Aurelius
Again, thank you zoom lens for letting me get this up-close & personal
After perhaps another ten minute walk we rounded the corner and behald the Pantheon
For me, this was one of the day's biggest highlights - as I'd read so much and seen so many photos of it
olumnar styles seems so theoretical when in school - but it all made perfect sense seeing it for real!
The entrance - again, you're just immersed in a strong feeling of history as you pass through the doors
Some may be wondering - in a space this size, with this many people, how is a tour conducted?
Each of us was given our own wireless receivers - we all set it to a primary channel, then turn-on as we depart for the day. The tour guide has a headset he wears allowing him to just speak normally to all of us
The range was pretty good - frequently a few hundred feet - but as I'd get occupied taking pix as I heard the tour guide's voice begin to break due to static I'd have to look-around to figure out where my group was going (or, a couple of times, had gone)!
Had to keep reminding myself that these are all antiquities... because they don't look as old as they are
Not going to try to give a treatise on the origin and purpose of the Pantheon - that's why Google is your friend!
Mainly just trying to give a flavor of the interior and capture a few interesting photos along the way
The light was really wonderful on this sunny day - I did find myself wondering if I got a lot darker when it turned cloudy
But, mostly, the engineering kept my interest. Everywhere I looked I was astounded
And I did a good bit of editing - probably shot 4x-5x what you're actually seeing here
Yes, there IS a hole in the top of the dome - and when it rains it does get wet in the center of the building (though Oreste advised that through very efficient engineering the water runs-off faster than one would expect)
After our tour we had about 20min to wander the immediate area - several of us stopped just behind where I took this photo at a very highly recommended gelato store (yeah, I know - me eating sweets... remarkable!)
Our last stop for the day was at Piazza Navonna - here to see, up close, Bernini's Fountain of Four Rivers
The lighting was getting a bit tough this late in the afternoon - I was honestly quite thrilled to capture the building as well as I did!
Again, remarkable to see something that had only existed (for me) on the pages of college art textbooks.
I remember this fountain being in a movie too... just can't remember which one as I type this recap
With time dwindling I shot one more pic, then moved to the end of the plaza...
...for a couple of pix of the Fountain of Neptune...
...and the plaza, before reboarding the bus for the trip back to the hotel
One last look at the People's Gate - this time with lovely late afternoon light

On arrival, I toyed with staying-in because I was pretty tired - but after my daughter urged me (via text message) to venture out I showered then walked the neighborhood before finally ending-up at Ristorante Aquila Nera - where I enjoyed 375 ml Chianti, bottled water, mixed seafoods and grilled veges. Very tasty! Also got her a second postcard (my kiddo obsesses on receiving postcards from distant destinations!). Returned to the room for packing, posting of pix to facebook, then at about 11 I turned-in. And slept like a brick from being both tired & sore.

We were on our own for dinner this evening - I wandered a bit to find some nice postcards (and postage), before stopping here (Ristorante Aquila Nera Roma)...
...and eating far more healthily than I do when back home. Yes, it was as good as it looks!
 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - Rome to Pisa to Florence

This morning I definitely needed the 6:15 phone to wake me up! My bags wereout by 6:45; at 7-sharp we "enjoyed" the same breakfast as the day before - after which came hotel checkout then on the road by 7:45. There was simply terrible traffic leaving Rome; we got a pee break about 10:30, then arrived Pisa about 12:30 for two hours of touring there. Thankfully, not as crowded as anything in Rome. I had no desire to get tickets to climb the Tower itself - I was fine walking the complex (which is walled).

After our 6:15 wake-up call, we were back on the road by 7:45 - arriving Pisa just after the noon hour for a two hour visit. Much like The Vatican, this area is also walled.
Before entering, you go through a phalanx of vendors (as with most tourist places selling pretty much only junk)
Hey, that building in the distance looks kind of familiar!
Didn't do any research prior to visiting - somehow I was blissfully unaware of the buildings surrounding the Leaning Tower itself... such as the Bapistry.
It's really a peaceful setting (despite the crowds of tourists)... felt much like a big, restful park.
No, I did not take one of these (a perk/curse of traveling alone - I'm seldom in any photos)... but it's cute to see how they're done.
And the reason for coming - the angle is actually rather startling when you see it up close 'n personal.
A semi-panorama
Another view
Yes, you can get tickets and go up to the top - I did not because (1) our time here was quite limited, and (2) I'm miserably out of shape
So, instead, I continued photography with my feet planted on the ground
Wish I could remember what the building was off to the right... I do recall that the walled gates were behind it (and roughly where you pick up the shuttle bus to go back to the parking areas)
Folks who did go up to the top...
... with a closer look thanks to the zoom lens
I did take a few shots dead on where the Tower didn't appear to lean - but it's rather bland so I didn't share any of those
Another view of the Cathedral
One thing that kept bouncing around in my mind is that Galileo himself trod these grounds... that kind of history exists in very few places in the states
A head-on view of the Cathedral, then - spinning around 180-degrees...
...and a final look at the Bapistry before leaving the grounds. I grabbed a quick bite of lunch - after which we boarded the bus for the drive up to Florence

About 1:45 I stopped for lunch at a small shop just outside the wall - ordering an "Inferno" sandwich & huge schooner of local beer. I then met-back-up with everyone at 2:30 for the tram ride back to the Globus bus - to continue onto Florence.

We arrived just after 4; it took the hotel staff a good bit of time to get my bag up to Room #404 - but, thankfully, it was there before we departed at 5:30 for a specialty Tuscan Dinner at Ristorante I Tre Pina (The Three Pines). We were greeted outdoors with Blue Curacao & Peach sparkling wine, then sat for first course of a variety of fresh veges; the second course was bean soup; the third course was ravioli with truffles & spinach; and the fourth course was roast beef, homemade sausage, oven-fried potato chunks and gravy. We finished with a combination of cake & cheesecake (I think). Great acoustic guitarists & singers entertained throughout the evening that included free-flowing Libero wines - strawberry sparkling, a Pinot Grigio sparkling, a Russo, and something smokey (nothing I was so inclined to buy and bring home, but very good just the same). And the golden setting Tuscan sun was just incredible - a perfect exclamation point to a wonderful evening!

We got back to the hotel about 9:30 with a pretty buzzed crew - I showered, re-packed (again), and called it at about 11.

 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - Florence to Venice

The new day began early with another 6:15 wake up call, followed by bags-out at 6:45. I headed-down for breakfast shortly before 7 only to find this hotel's staff was completely overwhelmed by the number of tourists: they'd run out of coffee, were running out of foods, etc. I ate bare bones then came back up to the room for a quick tooth brushing before returning to the lobby for our 7:45 departure. Our first stop was the Galleria dell'Accademia but not without incident: Joe, an overweight guy who needed a cane to walk, fell getting out of the bus and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance (we found out after lunch that he fractured his left shoulder but was coming-back in a sling with a script for painkillers). But the rest of us went into the museum with but one thing in mind: Michelangelo's David. Bigger than you ever expect, it's damned impressive! Spent about a half hour (where I was able to get a David postcard to mail to Jordan), after which we headed to Giotto's Bell Tower where we saw the Baptistry's heavy bronze Gate of Paradise - along with the sculpture-studded Signoria Square.

Our first stop this day was to see Michelangelo's David (as well as other of his works - both finished & unfinished)
Really, so many people have seen photos of this statue that there's not a lot to say. It's bigger in person than you expect (even if you know in advance of its size)
So instead of trying to find pithy things to say let me just share several pix of what it's like to walk completely around the statue
Michelangelo's David
Michelangelo's David
Michelangelo's David
Michelangelo's David
Michelangelo's David
After our group fully assembled outside of the museum we followed today's guide on the several block walk to the Cathedral & Giotto's Bell Tower
eah, it's pretty obvious even from a couple of blocks away
With city buildings so close, it's just not possible to get a pic that fully captures the sheer size of the building (well, assuming you want to avoid the distortion of a fish eye)
Yes, I did a little Photoshop correction to remove some of the perspective from this photo...
...while this one more accurately shows what it's like to look-up at this behemoth
To call it ornate is a really grand understatement...
...as I zoom-in to show more detail...
...then zoom again...
...and again
Giotto's Bell Tower in the foreground...
..again, with my back against the wall of a nearby building it was just not possible to get the entire structure into one photo...
...although I kept trying!
Sorry for the skewed angle - but it was the best way to capture the sculptures in this section
A last look at the Bapistry before moving-on to our next destination - Signoria Square (another few blocks walk on a lovely Italian morning)
On the way we passed by this market... maybe it's because I was in Italy, but everything looked so much fresher & more abundant than back home
A couple of my fellow tourists asked why I tend to shoot while walking - while maybe not the strongest photos, they do help remind me of the experience
Again, once you get into the area it's hard to mistake where you're heading
Signoria Square has all kinds of amazing sculptures...
...this one being the newest - and most controversial (since it's obviously not of a 'classical' bend)
Neptune is big in Italy - here he is again (I saw at least one sculpture of him every place we visited)
Kind of an overview of Piazza della Signoria...
...along with a close-up
One last look before we resume walking several more blocks to the Square & Basilica of Santa Croce
Memory is failing me as to what this is - maybe some of my fellow travelers to Florence can let me know (so I can update this caption)

We continued walking to the square, where we watched a gold and leather making demonstration followed with two hours for shopping, eating, and self-touring. I bought Jordan a small gray leather journal and got myself a (tacky! lol) Statue of David apron - then paid 8 Euros to see the inside of the Basilica di Santa Croce which contains the tombs of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Dante. It was very impressive (making me very glad that Globus allocated the time to make a tour possible)! Afterwards, I grabbed a quick focaccia bread sandwich and Diet Coke nearby, then the group met & departed about 12:45 for the ride to Venice.

A view of the Basilica - our group had about 2-1/2 hours allocated for the area... some went for sit-down lunches; I opted to tour, as there were several notables buried inside whose graves I wished to see
While there is both this statue & a tomb inside to honor Dante, he's actually interred in Ravenna
It cost a "whopping" 8 Euros to get inside... well worth it!
Folks who've enjoyed my other albums know I have "a thing" for photographing the insides of churches & cathedrals. I'm not even remotely religious - I simply appreciate their architecture & aesthetic
Plus, today's cameras & lenses afford all kinds of photographic creativity we didn't have even a couple of decades ago
I was just happy that they allowed photography (as so many cathedrals we visited did not)
Would've been extra nice if I could've brought a tripod along with...
...for even more sharply-focused photos
Among the first of the tombs I wanted to see: Niccolò Machiavelli (arguably the founder of modern political science)
Dante Aligheri (while visiting I believed he was interred here - it was only on the bus ride later that afternoon that our Tour Coordinator told me that he was buried in Ravenna and that this was simply honorary.
But among the top two reasons for paying to visit inside? First, the Tomb of Michelangelo Buonarroti (did you know that was his surname?)
It really was quite beautiful... Florence's favorite son
The other reason was to see the Tomb of Galileo Galilei... "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."
Also interred here is the father of radio - Marconi
But time was beginning to wane (as I needed to get a bite to eat before we got back aboard the bus)...
...so I made way to a side exit where I got a quick look at the Cathedral grounds before exiting back to the Square
This pic was actually taken while I sat at a small table eating a focaccia sandwich & drinking a Diet Coke. Then, off to the right, I stopped-in to buy my daughter a leather-clad journal and a "David" apron (a gag-gift to myself lol).
One last look as we go on (what felt like) about a half-mile walk to meet the tour bus
Along the way were lovely views of the River Arno

We stopped in Bologna after a couple of hours for the obligatory pee break, then continued on to Venice - where we got off the bus at about 4:15 to board a ferry. After a surprisingly lengthy boat ride we arrived at the LaGare Hotel on Murano. It was a nice, modern facility but had some issues nonetheless (e.g. wifi wouldn't work in my Room #129 due to signal strength). And it took a very long while for my bags to arrive (which happened, literally, as I was walking out the door for the night's visit to Venice).

We arrived Venice just after 4pm - the bus dropping-us not far from the cruise terminal, where Globus had arranged a large vessel to take the entire group (and our luggage) to our hotel on the island of Murano. But, along the way... lovely sights!
Didn't remember, off the top of my head, what this was...
...but immediately recognized St Marks once alongside
The Doge's Palace - which we were scheduled to tour the next morning (pix follow below)
Having a brain fart - can't remember the name of this sailing vessel. Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

We left by water taxi at 6:15 - once there, most of the group had opted for a pre-planned dinner - I elected to wander, lightly shop, shoot lots of pix, then have my own solo dinner at Da Mamo Trattoria Pizzeria. A small (maybe 35 seats) glorified pizza joint, I enjoyed a glass of Chianti and their Aquarius pizza (tomatoes, mozzarella, shrimp, prawns, clams, and mussels). The comped a tiny seafood-centered cruet as an appetizer then a coconut liqueur with edible chocolate base as dessert.

We got to the LaGare Hotel with enough time to check-in, change clothes, then meet outside for water taxis to take-us back down the Grand Canal to near St. Marks
As you can see, there isn't much headroom inside
If you didn't know where I was going - you immediately knew upon seeing this photo, right?
The Doge's Palace - in the waning light of the afternoon
I was happy to get-in some late afternoon / early evening photography, as the forecast for our full day of touring called for rain
Both interesting and artsy-fartsy (the clock on St. Mark's Basilica)
St. Mark's Basilica... we also toured it the next day - but, sadly, photography inside was forbidden
In the larger areas it's easy to lose sight of this just being one of hundreds of small islands. I actually found it rather amazing that they don't have more problems with crumbling infrastructure than they do!
They say it gets bone-chilling cold here in January. I believe 'em!
No, I did not do a gondola ride - will save it for some future visit (if and when I'm ever again romantically involved with someone... just didn't seem appropriate to take one as a single person)
While much of the group did an optional dinner together - I opted to go solo on a spot highly recommended on TripAdvisor.com (Trattoria Pizzeria da Mamo)
Inside there couldn't have been seating for more than 30. I was glad I arrived relatively early, as there was a line waiting to get-in by the time I left.
 enjoyed their Aquarius pizza (tomatoes, mozzarella, shrimp, prawns, clams & mussels), along with a glass of Chianti and a comp'd coconut liqueur chocolate & limoncello for dessert. I also very much recommend the place!

From there I wandered til dark - but proceeded to get somewhat lost and started to get concerned about missing the group's planned water taxi departures.

What an enjoyable place to walk-off one's dinner!
The classic Venetian Gondola
More sightseeing in Venice at dusk
Lovely, lovely place
Again wishing I'd brought a tripod - for even sharper images!
At this point I did seem to be somewhat going in circles :-O
They say Venice is for romance - but, honestly, at this point my reaction was that it's the world's biggest (and perhaps strangest) outdoor shopping mall
very retail establishment you've ever heard-of (and a bunch you haven't) have multiple stores throughout the city. But, except for a Venetian Mask specifically requested by my daughter's Mom
Although I was tempted by some of the glass artistry I saw...
DESCRIPTION...esp this plus some glass pianos on display. But, alas, the prices were just as high as the craftsmanship!
It's generally pretty easy to find your way around once you know to follow some specific signs on various corners. By now I was getting fairly comfortable and stopped paying strict attention...
...which resulted in me getting lost. At one point, I honestly thought I was going to miss the group meeting back near St. Marks at 9:30pm and have to find my own way back to Murano. But, thankfully, a couple of English-speaking locals helped me back to the right path
St. Mark's by night. Lovely.
And the square (btw, the tide was in at this point, with much of the ground on the square going underwater) - it's at that point you really know it's not an island the way you and I normally think of islands!
Walking down to our water taxis...
...and one last shot by night of Venice proper

But, as luck would have it, I was able to get back on track and arrived a few minutes before the 9:25 return to the hotel (where we found that everyone's card keys had stopped working). The obviously frazzled front desk person did get us straightened out - but I soon found myself again irritated when I had to go to the elevator lobby to grab internet connectivity. With a bit of sleep-in tomorrow, I had time to do some in-room laundry and write this recap before turning-in at about midnight.

 

Thursday, May 19, 2016 - Venice & Burano

This was to be my sleep-in day, but began with confusion: I have a travel alarm that when you touch the top button you give it a voice command (e.g. "TIME") and it responds. It worked like a dream for the entire trip, but first thing this morning it informed me the time was 5:14 pm. Huh? I bolted-out of bed, fearing I might've overslept (mainly because I noticed light around the blackout curtains) but then my phone properly informed me the real time was 6:28 (causing an audible sigh of relief!). I reset the travel alarm, hoping that it would return to properation for tomorrow's very early wake up call.

In any event, this hotel had a much more credible morning breakfast bar - which I visited at about 7:15. The leisurely start began with an 8:30 walk over a couple of bridges then down to the local custom glass factory. Really fascinating - I video'd both demos - but clearly this presentation was geared for a captive audience that was supposed to buy. And even with good factory pricing, this was all high-end custom stuff (e.g. their biggest chandelier was priced at 100,000 Euros). So most of us just stood around with our hands in our pockets until the boat came for us at 10.

It did, indeed, rain lightly overnight - but held-off for our several block walk...
...across several of Murano's bridges...
... to our morning's destination: the Murano Glass Factory - for a traditional glass blowing demonstration
The stuff they make is truly art - with prices to match. Globus kept us here to "shop" for about an hour after the demonstration; most of us quietly waited outside twiddling our thumbs until the water taxi arrived to take us back to St. Mark's (this was one of my few complaints about the trip)

We made good time over to St. Mark's Square - but about the time we arrived the rains began. Consequently, people were clamoring for indoor activities - the line at the Doge's Palace was horrific, so we opted to do the Basilica tour first. Even so, the line was at least 20min to get-in, and while beautiful no pix were allowed in the very dim lighting. I think it was impressive, but we weren't really allowed to experience it too much. Afterwards we realized our decision folly: the line at the Doge's was even worse - but at this point we had no choice but to wait nearly an hour for admittance. Now the Palace is seriously cool - took lots of pix and enjoyed the talk by our guide Franchesca. When nearly finished, we got to walk the inside of the famous Bridge of Sighs (instead of sighing I had a certain Robin Trower song stuck in my head the entire time!) - what a hellish existence that prison must've been! Then, once out, we were on our own - there was some shopping I wanted to do, but I also took a break around 2pm for a glass of Chianti and some bruschetta (what amounted to lunch, but also served to give my weary feet & lower back a much needed break).

This time, instead of taking the Grand Canal, we were afforded views on "the back roads"...
...including an up-close of the Bridge of Sighs...
...seen closer here (we toured it a couple hours after this photo was taken)
Does anything really say Italy better than this?
I would love to go back when I had more time to tour - that's what I love, though, about these kinds of whirlwind tours: you get to see a lot, and figure-out where you'd like to return to spend more time.
By now it was a pretty continuous light-to-medium rain. We planned to fist see the Doge's Palace - but the line was pretty bad so we opted to see St. Mark's Basilica first
Last pic before entering - as photography was not permitted inside (which is a shame, although it's so dimly lit that photos probably wouldn't be all that good)
Once out the line for the Doge's Palace was even worse - but, at this point, we had no choice but to queue-up and wait. At least for much of the wait we were out of the rain.
Took a bit over an hour before we made it inside The Doge's Palace
Here's the old school method for tattling on wrong doers - leave insinuating notes about them in a public complaint box!
From there, we headed-up to the second level to begin the tour. And, with that, I give gentle apologies for the number of inside pix that follow - indicative that I was blown away by what we saw!
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Touring inside the Doge's Palace, Venice
Here's the last room before heading into the Bridge of Sighs - what was, more or less, their legislature
As I've written earlier, a lot of these pix were shot so I could study them more closely in the comfort of my own home after-the-fact
To describe it as an information-overload when there, however, is an understatement
They intentionally made the views out of the few windows on the Bridge of Sighs magnificent... to further drive-home what the prisoner was about to give-up
Too many people in too small of a space left no time to stop and snap a clear pic. Apologies for these being a bit on the blurry side.
Remember the earlier shots of the Bridge of Sighs from the water taxi? This is looking back in the direction from where they were taken.
Almost across the Bridge to the prison... at this point a certain Robin Trower song was completely stuck in my brain (which I'm mindful probably sounded like crap with me humming all along the way lol).
The tour guide said conditions inside were beyond barbaric - most prisoners never made it out alive
Coming-back-across the other side of the Bridge...
...affording that really great view across the Grand Canal (with me buoyed by the rain beginning to break-up)
At this point we were given about four hours to wander, tour, shop, eat, whatever
Me? With cameras slung all round my rainsuit I had to do some more photography...
...including one more of the Bridge I'd just walked-across only minutes earlier
Yeay - the sun was starting to return!
The gondola's are wonderfully manuverable - good thing, since I saw several traffic jams
Decided to give the zoom lens a bit of a workout on the tops of the Basilica
There's so much to see if you just look around... and up!
Okay, I lied - one more of the Bridge of Sighs
After wandering around for awhile I stopped for some bruschetta & Chianti at a small open-air establishment (largely to give my achy feet & legs a break) - then returned to the Square where the group was to meet at 3:20
While it turned into a nice afternoon, we did dodge a couple more rain showers before returning to the hotel that night
iPhone Selfie!
More of that telephoto stuff...
...I was honestly surprised at the great condition of the buildings & adornments
And, yes, that's real gold
Can't remember the name of this small church - sowwy!
With the group reassembled, it was time to make-way to another large(ish) boat - so that all of us could go together to the island of Burano

We met back by the side of the Basilica at 3:40 to hop a boat to Burano (the entire ride took about 45min). I personally loved it - had all of the flavor of Venezia without the hordes of tourists. First stop was a shop for a lace making demonstration - after which I picked-up a table runner for my sister-in-law. I next walked the town for about 35min, ending-up at Osteria Ai Pescatori for another Globus multi-course meal consisting of risotto with shrimp & peas, spaghetti with clams, green salad, shrimp & calamari + flounder filets, amd Napoleon cake with coffee + a shot of sambuca. Oh, and all of the wine, soft drinks, lemonade, or bottled water we desired. At this point the group was starting to gel nicely - making the company almost as good as the food. We finished about 7:50, making way back to the boat for the 25min return to the hotel. With vivid lightning & thunder in the distance me thinks more rain may be happening in the overnight hours (I was crossing my fingers it blows through - and that our tour bus tomorrow doesn't chase it down - both of which came to pass).

En route to Burano, we passed by our "home" island of Murano...
...which included this church and it's leaning tower adjacent to the glass factory we toured that morning
Burano is known for it's brightly pastel-colored buildings - so we instantly knew we'd arrived
Burano has it's own Leaning Tower (an obvious problem in Venice where there is so much pressure exerted by these old buildings upon the wood pilings on which they were built)
I actually enjoyed Burano more than Venice (proper) - far fewer people, far less retail, more of what I expected from "Venice"
There is a church associated with Burano's Leaning Tower
Our group had a bit over an hour to wander before it was time for our all-you-could-eat-and-drink seafood dinner down and right of this photo. My first stop was a lace shop - for a demonstration on how they're made, then to buy a table runner for my sister-in-law.
It was late in the afternoon - I loved the quiet, sleepy nature of Burano. Would've enjoyed spending an entire day here - which I would do if I ever return to the area
I didn't study the boats closely - but have to think they all have abundant scuff marks. There's just not a whole lot of clearance...
...although this canal seemed pretty forgiving
Again, loved the buildings and the overall ambiance
One of the newest & most conventional boats seen during the visit
And, once more before sitting-down to dinner
With far too much good food & drink in mah belly, we walked-back to our waiting boat and did the slow departure of (now familiar) Burano...
...with one last look at their Leaning Tower (on the way back we saw a good bit of lightning & building thunderstorms on the horizon - it poured overnight, but I slept like the dead)
 

Friday, May 20, 2016 - Venice to Ravenna to Assisi

This morning was supposed to have begun with a 6am wake up followed by 6:15 bag pickup - but I didn't sleep too well and was up naturally by about 5:40 (which left plenty of time to get packed). Unfortunately, our 6:30 breakfast didn't begin until 6:45 so we were in a little bit of a scrunch to be out by 7:30. After wolfing-down our food we stepped outside and found the boat waiting - leaving us one more scenic 45 min cruise before being back on the mainland & boarding the bus to begin driving south.

After a 6am wakeup with 6:15 bags-out, we wolfed-down breakfast, checked-out, and were back aboard our water taxi at 7:30 - with today being a fairly long one aboard the bus headed south
One last look before docking, boarding the tour bus, and getting underway
On the way out of town I was stunned to see this very familiar name. Ever been on a cruise ship? Wanna know where it most likely was built?

This morning's obligatory two-hour potty stop happened at the intersection of two land "state" highways (i.e. poorly maintained) at a small church that also included some concessions. 20 min later we were back on the road for another couple of hours - arriving in Ravenna at about lunchtime. We toured the 6th-century Basilica of St Apollinaris in Classe (which, for a "throwaway" tour stop I found quite amazing); afterwards I enjoyed a ham/cheese/tomato on toasted homemade bread plus a local beer for lunch. We reboarded the bus just after 1, continuing the drive south (which included one more potty stop at a roadside convenience store).

By mid-day we arrived in Ravenna - where we had an opportunity to tour the 6th Century Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Classee, then grab a bite of lunch at a nearby cafe before continuing-on
Sixth Century... let that sink-in a bit as you see the building...
...which was spectacular on the inside
Here I am slowly doing the zoom...
...zooming more...
...zooming still some more
All of this is inlaid tile. Amazing artistry!
I can only assume it's also crazy time-consuming?!
I particularly liked both this photo...
...and this one. Cool lighting, huh?
Last one of the inside before exiting for a bite of lunch and then getting back aboard the bus

We arrived in Assisi about 4pm - but we were greeted by quite the traffic jam! When we finally got to the bus park we realized this is a city built onto a fairly steep hillside - and most of us got our afternoon workouts by climbing up a rather steep hill to the Hotel San Francesco (adjacent to the Basilica of St Francis). Check-in was pretty fast - when I got to Room #107 I realized we were going to have spartan accommodations fit for a Franscescan Monk! But as the Basilica was set to close their doors at 5:30 I pretty much just dropped my bags, grabbed the cameras, and walked downstairs/outside for a self-tour. No pix of the gorgeous inside... Figures, because they would've been lovely.

Today's final destination was Assisi - after checking into the very spartan Hotel San Francisco, I wandered-over to the Basilica of St. Francis (to have a look before it closed)
Assisi is incredibly scenic - built into a very steep hillside... but, unfortunately, they too don't allow photography inside. I would've particularly liked to have gotten a pic of the crypt where the patron Saint is interred. C'est la vie.
Once done with the tour I headed-back-outside for a slow (billy-goat) walk across town
The steps down from the Basilica; the walkway up is how everyone gets into town from the bottom; and the hotel San Francisco is the first building to the left of the walkway at the top of the hill
Everywhere you look you find scenic vistas

From there I had time to billy goat up to the center of town and then past to visit the Basilica of St Clare (including her crypt). Same schtick - no pix on the inside - although that was somewhat made up-for by the awesome views of the countryside below. Was also able to get a local postcard and two stamps - so I could also mail the one I bought in Ravenna for Jordan. All-in-all I found Assisi to be a cool little town - very glad it was included on this whirlwind tour!

More or less the center of (Assisi) town - known as the Temple of Minerva
Here is the "New Church" (no, I didn't go inside)
It's not always about photographing iconic architecture & scenery - this dog & his master cracked me up!
I arrived at the Basilica of Saint Clara about 20 min before closing - just enough time for a quick look inside before being shown the door (sorry, once again no interior photography was allowed)
A view from the archway you saw in the last photo
And here's the view of the road headed-back to the center of town
The castle up on the hill is called Rocca Maggiore - dunno whether or not it's something that could've been toured... timing didn't allow it one way or the other
Loved the scenic little pockets - everywhere you look
Back again at the center of town...
...where this view of the fontana caught my eye
The vistas are really remarkable...
...no matter where you look...
...be it above a restaurant...
...or standing on the hillside about to walk down
Looking back up towards town (I actually took a wrong turn and inadvertently ended-up almost at the bottom of the hill... dumb, dumb, as my feet were already quite sore from this kind of walking)
The slow return back up to the Hotel
And one last pic before dinner & calling it a night at the (very spartan) Hotel San Francesco

Got back to the room just before 7 pm - then headed downstairs about 10 min later for dinner. The company was great; the food, not so much. We began with a marginally drinkable red wine and an okay pasta with (I think) ground beef (it reminded me of Hamburger Helper). Then came a somewhat salty small bowl of lettuce that when a little olive oil & basalmic vinegar were drizzled-atop it became a salad. The entree was sliced turkey, steamed cauliflower, and a piece of slightly stale garlic bread - the quality was reminiscent of what you ate at your school cafeteria. It was unremarkable even by TV dinner standards. About this time I ordered a premium bottle of red for Val, Judy & I to drink -- it was, by far, the highlight of the meal. Finally, dessert was what appeared to be a firm terrine of whipped cream with Hershey's chocolate poured over it. I left more than half of mine uneaten.

I retired to the room with the internet username/password in hand - but after taking more than an hour to get a half dozen pix by text to the group I gave up on the notion of uploading my usual travelogue to Facebook. And while it did have a tv, there were no channels of interest - so I called it a night about 10:45, only to awake several times from the terribly uncomfortable, left-leaning mattress (no joke - if you weren't careful you could easily roll out of bed while sleeping). It was a rough night's asleep.

 

Saturday, May 21, 2016 - Assisi to Naples (with overnight ferry to Sicily)

I woke before the 6am phone call in kind of a surly mood (due to the very fitful sleep) - exacerbated when I went for a shower only to find a death trap of a tiny bathtub with a big swimming pool-like slope in the middle. But, hey, at least I had hot water - several of my tour comrades complained of their rooms having none. Bags were out at 630 with a marginal breakfast served thereafter (all I attempted were eggs, bacon, juice, and coffee). Needless to say, I was more than ready to checkout and get outta there - which began with about half the group walking downhill (the other half paid for taxis) at 7:30. We were on the bus and underway by 8 - and since we didn't arrive Pompeii until about 2 o'clock I had plenty of time to hammer-out the last day's recap while underway (the bumpy highway accounting for most of the typos I've since amended lol).

With totally different (morning) light I thought I'd snap one more pic of the Basilica upon leaving the hotel
"On the road again..." one last view of Assisi as we had south to Pompeii and then Naples
For those versed in either Latin or Roman History, between the sets of trees lies the famed Appian Way (my digital camera shutter didn't trip fast enough for me to shoot directly down the road)

Our first potty break came at the usual two-hour mark - at a gas station (so Guiseppi could top-off the bus), then again roughly two hours after that for lunch at one of the big roadside stops (at the time I think we weere about 70km from Naples) - where I had a Nicoise salad in a taco shell (wtf? lol). Exactlly 45 min after arrival we departed and arrived Pompeii on schedule just before 2 - where we met-up with our guide Paola. It's much bigger than I expected, and our two hour tour only afforded time to hit a restored patrician home, the main drag, the public baths, the lupare (house of prostitution) and the forum. It was VERY hot - I guessed mid-to-upper 80s at least - and my olive long pants and black polo fashion choice sure didn't help! In any event, we finished right at 4 pm, leaving enough time to sit for about a half hour and enjoy a fresh-squeezed orange juice before continuing-on.

We arrived at Pompeii just before 2pm - where we met-up with our local guide (Paola). We only had two hours to hit the highlights in one small part of the ruins. Bummer.
The first stop upon entering the grounds. Impressive.
It's amazing to think about all of this buried for centuries then excavated...
...even moreso as you press-on. BTW, the roads are deeply set with stepping stones across at various points because they served as the main drainage system when heavy rains came.
Looking in the other direction, with Vesuvius looming prominently on the horizon
We stopped to have a look at a restored patrician home...
...which was really quite lovely
It is assumed that these were some of the unlucky inhabitants (or perhaps staff?)
I'm honestly surprised the bones are in as good a condition as they are after so much time
Art that was surprisingly intact
Headed out the door...
...and onto "Main Street". They believe a lot of these were actually retail shops (of the time)
Must've been a helluva big, thriving city
And, as I said at the outset - this is but a tiny portion. Paola said it's not at all uncommon to have visitors, who venture-off without guides, get lost and have to be retrieved.
All of this, at one time, was buried under lava & debris. And, to this day, they continue to unearth more treasures from the past - making Pompeii a very active archaeological site.
Our next stop was the public baths...
...which seemed quite modern (excepting the lack of modern plumbing)
I can only imagine colorfully-adorned walls back in the day
I found the place very restful...
...and in really amazing condition (given their age)
From there we were off to the Lupare (which was the formal house of ill repute - there you could see small stone beds... sort of the early Roman version of the Amsterdam Red Light District
Then to finish-out our brief visit we arrived atop the hill at the forum
Anytime you caught a view such as this you couldn't help but wonder about the mix of fright and awe the people must've experienced in 79 AD.
I was quite impressed with these structures - of course, at this point I'd not yet seen the ruins at Agrigento (which dwarf these)
Late afternoon light was become a bit of a photographic challenge - but this still pretty effectively captures how the place looked
More columns...
...some made of stone with others built from brick
What this must've been like back in the day!
Looking away from Vesuvius (the mountain being behind and over my left shoulder in this photo)
The last of the forum shops...
...before we start down the stairs...
...to exit the grounds and end our tour. After a refreshing freshly-squeezed orange juice we again boarded the Globus bus for the short drive to Naples.

The bus came for us and we rode about 45 more minutes into Napoli - which surprised me with high rise downtown buildings and quite the metropolitan area (although Carmela - who met up with local relatives for the afternoon - said parts of the town were pretty rough). We were dropped about a block from the Gran Caffe Gambrinus, where we enjoyed a sfogliatella & cappuccino (both were stellar!).

On the way into Naples I quickly shot Castel Nuovo from the window... nope, didn't have time to tour it - just saw it as a glancing blow
Our brief destination - before boarding the overnight ferry to Sicily - was Caffè Gambrinus
Their signature sfogliatella
A lovely (and from what I understand quite old) establishment!
And cappucina - both were excellent!
A couple of new friends from the tour insisted on taking my photo after I took theirs. See, I really WAS in Italy!
Next door was the People's Square - as we only had about 10min after leaving the Cafe there was little more to do than just snap a pic or two prior to reboarding the tour bus...

About 6:15 the bus picked us up at the same drop-off point for a 5 min ride to the port - where we quickly went aboard and I settled into Cabin #398 (the furthest port aft exterior cabin). Sue kept talking about the head as though we were embarking on a primitive camping trip - but it was comparable to what you find in most cruise ships (maybe she's never been on a cruise?). I settled-in, then grabbed my camera gear to go topside about 8 for some sunset photography.

...for the five minute (or so) ride to the port. We got off the bus as we watched our driver (Giuseppe) back it aboard; shortly thereafter we went aboard and checked into our cabins (mine was #398, at the very aft/port side of the ship).
As we got underway right at sundown, the volcano once again loomed large on the horizon
Naples is very much a busy, working seaport town - not the fancy piece of archaeologic history we saw in many other places
My friend Bob snapped a pic of me as I prepared to dig-in for some cool twilight photography
I knew from my trip planning that we were fortunate enough to have a full moon beginning this night. No photo trickery here - this is how it looked (size and all) as we departed.
Of course, if I rack-back to wide angle then it made the moon appear much farther away
Very beautiful
Very tranquil
Still can't imagine what it would've been like watching that volcano explode!
We were going to come-back-up this way in the final couple of days of the tour... found myself looking forward to it
Again, no photo trickery - we had many lovely sunsets while visiting Italy, but this one seemed even more special given the water views
There are a number of ferrys doing regularly scheduled runs out of Naples. And we all seemed to depart around the same time
Last one - after this I went inside, bought some food and a bottle of wine, and proceeded to get rather sloshed with a bunch of my tour friends until 11 or so (when I returned to my cabin for bed)

Despite my ever-obsessive planning, I'd forgotten that tonight was the full moon - so sail away at about 8:15 was extra special! I stayed aft and was soon joined by Doug & Sharon (the other serious amateur photogher on the trip) to capture pix of the departure, Mt Vesiuvius, and the moon. At about 8:45 I headed into the aft bar and ordered a bottle of Italian red that I shared with Bob/Karen & Jim/Joyce. They left about 9:30 to go get some real food while I stayed until about a 10:20 to finish the bottle and some freebie appetizers. Returned to the cabin about 10:25 with plans to shower - but, instead, set the alarm to 5:45 to handle everything then, calling it a night soon thereafter.

 

Sunday, May 22, 2016 - Palermo, Monreale & Sferracavallo

Now past the halfway point of this vacation holiday, this Sunday began with an early shower followed by an equally early debarkation (6:30). Guiseppe & the bus were one of the last off - we quickly loaded, then it took about 15 min to get to our hotel for breakfast. We were back aboard the bus by 8:15 for the drive to Monreale to see the Cathedral (hosted by Elizabeta, our local guide). The group tours had to finish by 9:30; afterwards, we saw a small mosaic demonstration, then we had free time until 10:45. I bought/mailed Jordan another postcard and got a small wine decanter for myself, then just wandered about snapping pix. Very lovely place.

Early start - we were docked in Palermo just before 6, debarked about 6:30, and were aboard the tour bus a short time later. Shot this out the right side window not too long after getting underway.
We drove about 15min to our hotel for breakfast; heading-out afterwards to go to Monreale (I shot this out the right side window shortly after departing the hotel)
Welcome to Monreale!
It was Sunday - we had to be mindful but also fast (going into the Duomo immediately upon arrival, as we only had about 20min before visitors had to leave on account of the start of services).
This place. Wow. Blew me away.
I'm sure many of you have seen pictures like this...
...but it's still different seeing it with your own eyes
Especially the ornate architecture & columns
Looking off to the side...
...and, of course, I had to snap a pic of their pipe organ. Oh, to get my hands on that beast (even for a short while!)
Got this quick snap of stained glass just before exiting
The views from up here were just as incredible
Monreale is a lovely, quaint village. I loved it here...
...despite having my typical bland facial expression!
So I wandered a bit - this little ditty, above the entrance to a very small church, caught my eye
I'll bet it's gorgeous here at night!
Thanks for humoring me as I continue shooting down streets
BTW, I only seem to do this when I travel to locations on other continents...
...can't recall shooting similar street scenes when vacationing in the U.S. Who knows why?
Adjoining the Duomo...
...is this really tranquil, amazing courtyard...
...dedicated to the monks who live & work here.
A view of the belltower from the courtyard...
...with more incredible views of Palermo below
And we bid adieu before walking bnack down to be picked-up by the tour bus

We reboarded the bus and headed into old town Palmermo to tour the Cathedral Di Palermo ("tour" despite it being first communion day - the place was jammed - all we could do was peek inside then depart). We next went to the Farmer's Market - after walking the length we had a chance to peek-inside another lovely cathedral, after which we were on our own until 12:45 to shop & have lunch. I tried their panini, which was stuffed with some kind of breaded mysteries... was actually quite bland. Karen also let me try about a quarter of her rice ball - it looked to be breaded mushed rice, corn, and something else. It was the tastier of the two.

The Cathedral of Palermo
Just a gentle perspective correction - otherwise, it's exactly how this looked on that wonderfully clear Sunday morning
Beautiful architecture (how many more times would I say that this trip?!)
The outside seemed fairly quiet because the vast majority of people were inside for the services
Despite the services, we were permitted to make a quick trip inside
Again, just a gentle perspective correction (I preferred this look to the more exaggerated angle brought-about by the camera lens)
The interior vistas were just as spectacular as the exteriors
More than anything, being cognizant of the age of these buildings makes them all the more impressive
There were some hella good architects & engineers back in the day. Either that, or... Aliens.
It was about now that Paola was gently whispering into our headsets that it was time to leave
So I snapped one more pic before going back outside and reboarding the bus - for the short drive to La Vuccina Open Air Market
What a really wonderful place - not only for tourists but for locals as well!
Most of the seafood had already been bought by the time we arrived - still, what remained had my mouth watering
Stupidly, I didn't ask (at the time) what these are. Believe they're some kind of squash... but don't really know for sure
Elizabeta, our Palermo tour guide, is seen just right of center talking about the myriad of culinary offerings.
And here you have Bob & Karen Paedon - who "took in" this straggly orphan!

From there it was back to the hotel - we were actually quite close to the Main Street & shopping areas, but despite a desire for more touring I really needed a few hours of down time. Checked into Room #221 (which entailed a crazy long, meandering walk from the elevator) then toyed with napping, but instead decided to post a few facebook pix while soaking in the oversized bath tub. Did that up until time to meet for the dinner in Sferracavallo at Ristorante La Barca. Traffic (but especially the drivers) was horrible - it took well over an hour to get there (we didn't arrive until 7). But, once there, it was nonstop fish courses - too many to remember - by far the best value of the entire vacation. Dessert was some sort of lemon frozen dish... maybe a melting sorbet? Then they topped it off with a jigger of limoncello (of course there was free-flowing wine throughout the night).

That afternoon we had time to do some walking touring on our own - but I was so thoroughly out of gas that I took a nap and just relaxed for a few hours. At 5:30 it was time to get back aboard the bus for what should've been a half-hour drive to Sferracavallo; instead, due to horrendous traffic, we didn't arrive at La Barca until 7. But it was worth the wait - arguably the best meal of the entire trip!
Right on the waterfront, several of us interrupted dinner to go outside to snap pix of the sunset
I shot a couple dozen - but culled it down to these so as to not bore all of you!
Exiting the restaurant stuffed to the gills and happy. We all slept like babies that night!

Got back to the hotel about 9:45; listened to a little TV news but otherwise crashed not long thereafter.

 

Monday, May 23, 2016 - Palermo to Marsala to Agrigento

Forgetting to close the drapes before turning-in was causing me to wake early from the daylight - this morning I was up at 6 o'clock... 45 min earlier than necessary. But it afforded plenty of time to catch up on overnight facebook posts (I was also finding it weird that I was getting almost no email in any of my accounts). In any event, my bag was out at about about 6:30, followed by breakfast at 715 - then we were back aboard the bus and on our way at 8:15.

On the road again (yes, this tour meant spending a lot of time aboard the bus... at least it was comfortable and had surprisingly fast wireless internet) - shot this a minute or so after departing Palermo's Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa
Today's seat rotation found me up front - so there are some nice (though uncharacteristic) photos out the front windows. Lovely area, as we headed westward along the northern the western coast of Sicily.
Tons of tunnels just like this one (with many far longer) throughout the country
The water was even more beautiful than these pictures would indicate. Didn't need Mr. Rourke to prompt us for "smiles everyone, smiles!"
No clue what this was - but it caught my eye just the same
Italy's highway bridge infrastructure was both efficient and beautiful...
...a lovely country to drive-around (although you couldn't pay me enough money to try driving in Rome!)

Monday morning traffic was terrible (me thinks I'm seeing a pattern here in Palermo) but once we got onto the highway things began moving at the speed limit. We drove to Marsala, arriving at the Saline della Laguna Salt Mill about 10:15 - staying for a video demonstration, a chance to buy some souvenir bags of salt (which I did!), then photograph the area or have a coffee.

Our first stop for the day was the Saline della laguna salt mill in Marsala
This method of salt production dates-back hundreds of years...
...where the salt is created then later harvested from these tidal collection areas...
...and later ground by windmill-generated power. Both beautiful & practical
After a short video demonstration I bought a bunch of sampler bags to bring-back for family & friends in the states
We said goodbye to the salt mill - then it was back aboard the bus for a 15 minute drive to...

We left after about an hour to go to Cantine Florio - for a Marsala wine tasting (we arrived about 11:45 but they refused to admit us until our 12 noon time slot). It was very impressive, and the three wines we sampled were excellent - the first very reminiscent of sherry (paired with a piece of Parmesan); the second was like a semi-sweet dessert wine (paired with a cracker w/cheese); the third was a floral-fragrant white sweet dessert wine paired with a biscotti. When we exited to their gift shop I bought #2 for me & #3 for my brother and his wife. After departing we drove for about an hour before stopping for lunch at a little Quik Stop-type place (while a McDonald's across the street drew-away 6-8 of our people).

...Cantine Florio - the oldest and one of the most revered makers of marsala wine. In Marsala. Duh.
We arrived about 15 minutes before our slotted time - unlike a lot of Italians, these folks were sticklers for staying on schedule - finally admitting us on the tour at exactly 12 noon.
I let everyone clear from the orientation area so I could snag this shot. OCD David loves symmetry!
I've toured a number of large wineries around the world - this one was similar in many respects, although the process of making marsala differs a bit.
One thing I learned is that not all of the wine is (sicky?) sweet... some of it is quite drinkable. But the proof is in the tasting...
...which was the next step of our tour
Again with the symmetry. Can't help myself!
Marsala is intended to be served with food - seldom drunk by itself. These blew me away (in a good way): the first was reminiscent of sherry (paired with a piece of Parmesan); the second (which I bought) was like a semi-sweet dessert wine (paired with a cracker w/cheese); the third was a floral-fragrant wine white sweet dessert wine paired with a biscotti. I bought that last one for my brother...
...when we were turned-loose in their gift shop after the tasting

After our 2pm arrival we were on the road again by 2:45 (clockwork!), arriving at our Agrigento Hotel at 4:15 - affording plenty of time to check into Room #105, then meet everyone at 4:40 to take the bus over to the Valley of Temples - the site of 24-century old Greek ruins along the lines of what you'd see in Athens or Delphi. Our deep-voiced guide, Claudio, was both funny and interesting. I'll let the photos do the rest of the talking...

Then, it was time to hit the road again - we stopped for lunch at a little Quik-stop type place about 1, then were back on the road again an hour later
By this point I'd decided that I preferred Sicily to mainland Italy. Everything about it was agreeing with me. We finally arrived in Agrigento about 4:15 - affording time to quickly check into our rooms then reboard the bus to drive 5 minutes to the Valley of the Temples.
This is the site of 24 century-old Greek ruins along the lines of what you see in Athens or Delphi. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
I'd read about it - so I wasn't surprised - but I was taken-aback by the scale of these. Who needs to go to Athens now that I've been here?
In some cases, the sunlight made the photos challenging. Like this one.
Our deep-voiced guide - claudio - was both funny and interesting as he oriented us with what we were seeing. BTW, this is the Temple of Juno.
While it's a "Valley", in fact the valley was below us - the ruins and much of Agrigento sit high up on the hillside.
It's a fairly long - but easy - walk to "the biggie" (i.e. the Temple of Concordia)
Looking back up on the hillside at the opposite side of the Temple of Juno
I shot another with extreme zoom - this seemed to be a new farm house almost finished on top of the hill in the distance
Next we saw what's left of the Christian-Byzantine Burial chambers...
...bodies were placed in the arched openings
Once again, looking back at the Temple of Juno on the hillside behind us
Many, many ancient olive trees live all over the grounds... with Agrigento in the distance
And here we are - the Temple of Concordia - perhaps the best preserved Greek Temple in the world
For this I needed a selfie or two - now if I could just figure-out who the old guy is, and how he got into all of my photos?!?!!
It's really incredible... not much I can add, so let's let the photos do the talking for me (including a sequence where I slowly walk around one half of the Temple
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
The Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
Here we are at the Temple of Hercules (dating back to the 6th Century BC)
A final round of burial chambers, then it was time to return to the hotel - where we had a group dinner, after-dinner drinks with new friends, then time for bed - as we'd be on the road early again the next morning.

After returning to the hotel I walked about a block to a nearby supermarket for deodorant (mine ran out that morning), a bottle of Coke Light, and a bottle of Barolo wine (to be drunk tomorrow night). Came back to the room and was somewhat disappointed to see another sluggish internet connection that precluded uploading pix. Instead, we all met in the lobby at 7:30 to go down to dinner - tonight starting with a creamy risotto, followed-by corkscrew pasta with sausage & zucchini; the entree was grilled swordfish & green beans; dessert was some sort of sweet white square (tasted something like Oreo or cookies & cream ice cream). I then adjourned to the bar afterwards with Carmela, John, and the other old guy (can't think of his name) for a round of hot toddies (the first two having felt sick for a couple of days now). Carmela is really cool - a tech geek and as much of a tv junkie as me - hope we can keep in touch.

Got back in the room about 9:30 and was greeted by the news that my Onalaska property was ready to fund/close - strangely, it happened before I closed on the Vancouver house. Was still bittersweet though - I very much had my heart set on building that country home... just wasn't meant to be. Otherwise, I laid-out the next day's clothing, repacked with all of the new souvenirs, and watched a little tv before calling it a night.

 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - Agrigento to Taormina

Good thing I'm an early rise - else these 6:30 wakeup call would've gotten old. Fast. In any event, bags were out at 7, breakfast happened just thereafter, and we on the road by 8 o'clock. Today's route took us right through the geographic center of Sicily (Enna) - an area dominated by rolling farmlands. We had the usual pee break about 75 minutes-in, then arrived in Taormina a little before 11:30.

In a word, this destination made my trip. Not only did Sicily agree with me more than the mainland, this place was the icing on top of the cake. It looked & felt exactly as I expected & hoped. We entered the city gates, then walked as a group to the entrance of the 3rd-century Greek Amphitheater - where Sue retrieved our passes, after which we were on our own for the next three hours. I shot tons of pix - far & above the most scenic place of the trip! In fact, I wandered & shot so much that I ran out of time for a sit-down lunch - instead grabbing a pre-made prosciutto and fungus (mushrooms) on white bread sandwich + a Coke Light. We were back aboard the bus promptly at 2:30, arriving at the Atahotel Naxos Beach Resort only about 20 min later (and we took the slow route through town as it was more scenic).

riving northeasterly - with Mt. Etna in the distance. Our destination today: Taormina
We arrived a little before 11:30 (I think I dozed a good bit on the ride) - having exited our big bus to take smaller ones up to the gated entrance of the city
We see the famed Shaker's Bar on the left - a famous author used to hang-out there... but, as I type this, the name is eluding me
In any case, after walking a bit Sue (our Tour Director) doled-out passes into the Greek Amphitheatre - after which we were on our own for the next three hours. Good thing, as I took a mad number of photos in (what was for me) the most scenic place we'd visited!
Way up on the hillside, looking towards the southwesterly towards Giardini-Naxos (where our hotel for the next couple of days was located)
Spinning-around, we're now looking northeasterly towards Taormina (proper)
A small resort hotel at the end of the peninsula
I can only imagine how impressive this was back in its time. Hell, it was plenty impressive this day!
A Taormina Panorama
Everywhere you look is crazy-good beauty
Looking towards town
The Theatre complex ("Teatro") is really something to behold
The buildings built atop the hillside
They still do shows & concerts here - would love to return one day and attend something (as I'm still curious about the acoustics)
As beautiful as it is by day, I can only imagine what it's like at night
It's a helluva big theatre!
Teatro Antico di Taormina is the proper name
Imagine having this seat for a performance?! Wow!!
Just beautiful
I said beautiful, right?
Upon return home I got a kick out of the guy on the left that seems rather perturbed with my having photographed him
Walked down the hillside just a bit - it was wonderfully landscaped...
...with all kinds of flora & fauna
Then going back up top I left the Theatre itself to explore more of the immediate area
Yeah, my feet were again getting sore - but never knowing if I'd ever revisit this most gorgeous place I trudged-on
It was about here I decided that I would return. Of all the places I'd visited on this trip, Taormina resonated most strongly for me. Would love to come back for more touring but also to just chill.
Always looking up - not just out...
...and sometimes looking down is good too!
I believe Italians are generally thin because they do so much walking... strenuous walking
I said it was beautiful, right?
I was so absorbed with getting the shot that I managed to not see Carmela waving at me - trying to get my attention! lol
Before leaving, I managed to find a small little theatre (mainly ruins) adjacent to (what I think was) an apartment building. This stuff is simply everywhere - the country reeks of history!
Our all-aboard was 2:30, so after too short of a visit it was time to walk back through the gates...
...and bid Taormina adieu - driving a few minutes southwest to the Atahotel Naxos Beach Resort... our home for the next two nights

At the hotel I easily checked-in to Room #126, with my bags arriving not too long thereafter (a nice change-of-pace from other experiences this trip!). Spent the first hour on the floor with my feet up on the bed... yeah, the swelling in my feet, ankles, and calves is that bad! Once I got caught-up posting trip pix to facebook I wandered down to try to get a corkscrew for the bottle of Barolo I'd bought the prior day - front desk said it was checked-out and suggested I ask at the bar around the corner. On the way there I was waylaid by about 8-10 of my fellow tourists who were having an impromptu wine party on the terrace - causing me to go back to the room, grab my bottle, and return to share. That group eventually left the hotel about 6:30 to walk a few hundred yards into town for dinner. I had cannoli with meat sauce (sort of a lasagna substitute) and shared another bottle of red with Bob & Karen. Overall, it was very good. Walked back to the hotel around dark, grateful that we didn't have to pack and leave early the next day! Watched a little BBC News on TV (the only English-speaking channel available), did another round of in-room laundry, then crashed about 10:30.

 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - Mt Etna & Taormina

I woke naturally just after 6 (as it got light VERY early there), happily noticing that last night's laundry was already mostly dry. Headed-down about 7:20 for the best executed breakfast of the trip, then returned to grab all of my gear for the 8:30 departure to Mt Etna.

Mariella was our guide today - a short little lady with a very thick accent - but she knew her stuff! The ride took about 75min - could probably be done a lot faster in a car, but a bus our size had to go very slowly around many of the turns. We drove through a couple of quaint small towns, then forested area, followed by rock & brush above the tree line - arriving at the 6,000ft elevation welcome station. We stopped for about 30min to sample locally-produced liqueurs, shop (where I bought JP another postcard & addressed/mailed it from there), and have a pee break. From there the bus drove a couple of minutes (I think) north where we had about 75min to see the Crater Silvestri then wander. It was spectacular - much as I envision being on the moon (also causing me to wonder if the flattening I saw in my camera meant the Apollo astronauts were on a lot hillier terrain than I originally thought). It was crazy windy - despite wearing shorts, my legs were fine... it was my torso and arms that were very grateful I brought my windbreaker with hood! Took a slew of pix, and wished this was a whole rather than half day tour so I could do more expornation - as it was, we were headed-back-down in no time, returning to the hotel just before 1 o'clock.

Today was our visit to Mt Etna - which made it's presence known ever since our arrival with periodic rumbling. I now get why folk back in the day thought it was the Gods - the sound is reminiscent of thunder, but is decidedly different. And the haze atop the mountain is from the activity - that's not a true cloud.
I originally almost boarded the bus in a polo - but, thankfully, remembered to go back for a jacket. Good thing,l what with the wind & dramatic temperature drop 6,000 feet up!
We weren't going to the very top of the volcano (you actually have to get special permission to do so) - our destination this day was Crater Silvestri, which last erupted about sixteen years ago
It looks like the moon - because all of this has been rebuilt since the eruption at the turn of the century
It was here that I had a startling relevation: reminding me of many of the later moon mission photos, I found myself wondering if the craters around which the astronauts traversed were as big as this one? I'm guessing yes - but because there was no reference available I never assumed they were.
With Etna periodically rumbling behind me, I kept remind myself that the odds of an eruption while we visited were very tiny.
What was it that Buzz Aldrin said? "Magnificent desolation."
BTW, I had expected a sulfur-y smell, but there was none... I guess you need an active eruption for that to happen.
It's amazing how quickly Mother Nature reclaims a lava field for new growth.
This is most of the people from my tour - including Judy, in the foreground, taking a pic of the distant scenery (with a steep drop-off about 20' in front of her).
Land truly unlike anything I'd previously seen.
And, once again, it was chilly - don't let the shorts on that guy fool you!
Our Globus bus was one of the two mid-photo with the orange diagonal stripes. You can see the ski lift in the distance - the area is apparently renown for snow skiing in the winter.
That's the road back down to Giardini-Naxos. If you're prone to motion sickness, this might not be the best trip for you.
Along with some great photos I did bring-back a souvenir volcanic rock from the area. It's sitting in front of me on my desk as I type this recap
Hopefully the people walking-around on the bottom give clue to just how big this crater is
he view up here is, well, breathtaking (sorry to keep using the same trite adjectives!)
A Mt Etna Panorama
I'm too heavy right now - but not nearly as heavy as this selfie would indicate - a combination of using both hands (thereby squashing my neck) and not shooting down enough (in my desire to capture the distant scenery in proper perspective). Whatever.
This guy wasn't part of our tour - I snapped the pic largely because I couldn't believe how close he was standing to the edge (with a several hundred foot drop-off only a couple of feet in front of him)!
Our tour only gave us a couple of hours up top - like much of this area, I'd really like to come back and devote at least an entire day here... to do some hiking, exploring, and more photography
Though if I do come-back I need to be in better shape - else hills as steep as this will likely kill me!
I could do it... just need to take my time, which we had precious little-of this day!
Not even a half hour - except that we were supposed to be back aboard the bus in a half hour. Perhaps another time
I assume the bare patch was from a fire - but we were told the concrete block remnants were from a house that didn't survive the last eruption (building your home on the side of an active volcano - what could go wrong with that notion?!)
Shooting out the bus window as we went through the lovely little town of Nicolosi (on the way back to the hotel)
Almost there (because this was an optional tour, assigned seating wasn't in play - so I sat near the front)
ust before exiting the highway to go to the hotel - a lovely view of the ocean

Dropped the camera gear in my room, then set-out on my own to Cafe O'Neil (just a few hundred yards walk from the hotel complex). It came highly recommended on TripAdvisor, and with good reason! This was exactly what I was wanting from Italy: sunshine, slightly warm temps but with a consistent, gentle cooling breeze, effusively friendly owner & staff, wonderful red wine & panini sandwich - all at a genuinely great price (only 9 Euros). Even had Guiseppe come-in about a half-hour after me with his wife and 3 month old daughter (Taormina is apparently his home). At this point I know this is the place where I would return for a dedicated land vacation... might try a different hotel (this one seems geared to very large groups and while perfectly acceptable isn't quite where I would place the level of luxury). But you can't knock the location (i.e. right on the beach - where upon finishing lunch I headed to smoke one of the cigars I brought with).

And here we are back at the Beach Resort...
...I did dip my feet in the (for me) chilly water - the beach has stones instead of sand, but is otherwise quite lovely. I spent about an hour's time with a friend from Cuba under one of the umbrellas.

There were small stones instead of sand on their beach - but, otherwise, it was lovely... albeit a tad chilly in the north wind. Just hung-out for a couple of hours, then headed-back to the room to wait for the 7:30 buffet dinner (heard after-the-fact that a bunch of folk repeated the prior evening's pre-dinner wine marathon, but I just wasn't up to it again). Dinner was good but not great - a variety of pastas, cannoli, chicken breast, a whole fish with skin (no thanks) and beef in gravy (meh); big selection of antipasto & salad fixings; and a dessert bar with about a half dozen varieties of stuff. Sat with Jim & Joyce for a wonderful evening. Came back to the room to get the big suitcase packed-up, then called it about 10:30.

 

Thursday, May 26, 2016 - Taormina to Sorrento (via Ferry through the Straits of Messina)

With the vacation now starting to wind-down, this morning began with a very early 5:45 wakeup call - but, as was now the norm, I had already been awake for about 20min... giving me time to shave & brush my teeth before silencing the phone call. Afterwards, I got a full shower and then finished packing the bag (getting it out 10min before the requested 6:15 pickup time). Headed-down for breakfast - they only had pastries et al available (guess the staff can't scramble eggs or fry bacon that early?). In any event, I was soon checked out and aboard the bus departing for Messina.

Sue & Guiseppe had hoped to make the 8am ferry, but traffic was brutal coming-into the city - so, instead, we were aboard the 8:30 for the half-hourn, two mile trip across the Strait of Messina. It went quickly - having spent about half the time chit-chatting with Carmela - then it was back aboard for a full day of travel - including two regular pee breaks and a roadside lunch (where I had a fattoria sandwich and Coke Zero, but I also paid 10 Euros for three bottles of wine that Bob/Karen said were pretty good). Dozed a couple of times, but otherwise had a sore bottom & (strangely) sore feet from so much time on the bus. We finally arrived Sorrento about 3:45 and I was in the Stabiae West Tower Room #107 by 4:15 - which gave me a bit over an hour before we had to meet the small coach downstairs for dinner.

We were up bright 'n early for the drive up to Messina - for the 2-3 mile ferry ride across the channel to the toe of the boot of Italy. Back on the mainland I snapped a pic of Sicily fading in the distance. I really want to go back.
Pretty much this entire day was spent aboard the bus - we had a lot of ground to cover, to reach tonight's destination of Sorrento.
Far southern Italy is quite mountainous...
... but also quite beautiful. We finally arrived at the Towers Hotel Stabiae about 4:15 - which allowed time to unpack & unwind before heading-out to the night's optional dinner.

Sorrento was an unbelievably scenic town but with lots of tight streets and even more crazy drivers! Took us about 20min to reach Agriturismo La Cantina Del Fattore, where we first walked into the "backyard" to see their cows (used to make their own cheese), then the lemon orchards (used for their limoncello). From there we saw a demonstration on how to make little egg-size balls of mozzarella (sampling the still warm cheese after it had been made). Then we headed-inside for dinner. Wish I had photographed the antipasto course, as it was incredible: bruschetta, some sort of lightly breaded/fried pepper stuffed with something like cream cheese, thinly sliced baby zucchini marinated in something great, fresh tomato wedges in olive oil & oregano, etc. The second course was a somewhat heavy pasta with zucchini (but still tasty). The third course was a selection of grilled meats (IMO the steak was the tastiest). All with free flowing red wine. But the best was the most unexpected surprise: dining with "the sisters", they asked for French fries - which the chef apparently made by cutting-up fresh potatoes, frying in lard, then lightly dusting with sea salt. They were absolutely the best fries I've ever had, anywhere. Other tables heard us raving and wanted some for their own (with most everyone having similar reactions). Finally, we had dessert (as I type this I can't recall what) followed by a choice of walnut, fennel, or lemon liqueur (I had the first - the second was pure licorice, blech - and I was getting kind of lemon'd-out by then). We met & applauded the chef, then it was time for the return to the hotel.

We drove through the tight streets and crazy drivers to Agriturismo La Cantina del Fattore - where we first went to the "backyard" to meet their cows (they make their own cheese); then we saw the lemon orchards (they make their own limoncello); got a demo on how to make mozzarella (including sampling), then sat-down for an excellent multi-course dinner (which included a big selection of grilled meats.
Everything you've heard about the food in Italy is true. It's marvelous. I wasn't that big of a fan (yeah, I know - heresy!) but grew to love the fresh ingredients & preparation.
I finished the night with three friends - polishing-off a bottle of red I'd bought roadside earlier in the day - while listening to the gentle sounds of the ocean and looking at Napoli in the distance.

Over dinner, Val, Judy, Rita & I decided to meet on the beach a few minutes after returning to down one of my cheap bottles bought earlier in the day. IMO it wasn't going to win any awards, but after letting it breathe for a bit it was drinkable (which is saying a lot for wine costing about $3.60 US!). As the wine ran out, so did our energy - meaning it was time to return to the room and crash.

 

Friday, May 27, 2016 - The Isle of Capri

This particular Friday began too damned early - waking on my own about 5:30 then just as I successfully dozed back off getting the 6:15 wakeup call (when it was supposed to happen at 7:45!!). At that point I gave up, grabbed the iPad, and got events of the past 36 hours caught-up. From there I grabbed a shower, then headed downstairs for a surprisingly credible breakfast (worded that way because Italians don't really eat breakfast the way we do - so the chefs don't have a ton of practical experience preparing what Americans tend to expect). Then it was hurry-up & wait for 9:15 to arrive - after which we had about a half hour bus ride to Sorrento, then transferred to two shuttle buses to go down to the port for our ferry to the Isle of Capri (which takes about 30min). We met Pepe (today's guide) and we were on our way at about 11 o'clock.

This was the view off the balcony of my room - of Mt. Vesuvius...
...zooming-in a good bit to see Naples in the distance
While the approach & parking is a bit weird (though not a concern when you're having to do neither), I otherwise really liked this hotel!
Today we were off to the Isle of Capri - first passing the famed Bikini Beach (which made me think of an internet acquaintance and her "A Bikini A Day" company)
Sorrento is lovely. I'm glad I did this entire tour, but if I came back it would be to either this part of the mainland or Sicily
But I think I'd hire a driver. There was a time when I could've (I think) done this - but my reflexes aren't what they once were, and you need them to drive safely in this country (IMO).
A view of our destination: Marina Piccola, where we'll hop a ferry over to the Isle of Capri
Just before boarding the ferry in Sorrento...

Once ashore, we immediately transferred to a small tour boat for a one hour circumnavigation of the island - seeing natural grottoes, a small coral reef, famous homes, etc. It was lovely, although the temps were a touch on the hot side.

...and shortly after arriving in Capri
Lovely. Quaint. Scenic. Unlike any other place I've visited. Kicking myself to have only had a day here
Our first order of business was to hop a charter boat for a circumnavigation of the island. Liked this pic simply because of the crazy good placement of the bird!
The mermaid bids you a good day!
Grottoes, grottoes everywhere. And, yes, this is how the water actually looks.
Rivals anything you'd find in the Caribbean
And if you have longer to stay, you charter a boat where you can go for a swim or some snorkeling
Capri is on the north central side of the island - our boat first headed easterly, then south (this pic taken on the east side of the Isle)
As I say, amazing grottoes and rock formations!
I boarded and sat at the bow of the boat - those who sat inside quickly realized the front was the place to be!
The Faraglioni rocks are world famous - so, of course, our tour not only gave us a close look but also let us briefly pass through the arch
Such a pretty area...
...moving a bit more forward you now get a view of the arch
Motoring closer, you can see we're not the only one having this idea. It's quite popular among us tourists
While the water isn't the vibrant aqua of the nearby grottoes, it's nevertheless just as clear. Lots of fish and gorgeous coral were seen just below the surface
Waiting our turn (I took a few pix going through, but they were kind of mundane so I'm not posting any of them)
At this point we were on the southeast corner of the island turning westerly
So pretty
Felt like we were intruding on an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous". Can't say as I blame them - I'd hang out here too if I had the funds (and either of those "boats" would do quite nicely)!
I'll let the scenery do the talking for the next few pix...
Isle of Capri
Isle of Capri
Isle of Capri
Grotta Verde - on the south center coast of the Isle of Capri
While it almost looks like we ventured into a cave, it's a trick of the lighting - just a little notch in the rocks, with open ocean directly behind us
Boats are a way of life here. Works for me.
Approaching the Punta Carena Lighthouse - on the far southwest part of the Isle...
...once past, we start a slow right turn to the north
Of course, other boats circumnavigate the island in the opposite direction
I'm not sure what that is atop the cliff. Maybe someone who sees the pic with more knowledge will let me know
Did I mention that I love boats?
Approaching the northwest corner of the Isle
We round the turn...
...then see Damecula atop the hillside (I'll be the views are incredible up there!)
In the homestretch, as our one hour tour nears the end
As we approach the marina, boat traffic grows...
... and grows

Returning to land just a little after 1 o'clock, we then walked to the funicular for the trip to Capri town "up top"; on arrival, Pepe gave a 10 min orientation tour, then released us for self-touring... but between the heat & the crowds I didn't spend more than a half hour up there (instead going-down early, then plopping-down at a spot near our 3:15 meeting spot to have a couple of cold brews & munchies). Dunno if it was accumulated exhaustion, but I was more tired at this point than at any other time during this vacation. That was further evidenced when I fell-asleep going back on the ferry and had to be shaken awake by our Aussie couple else everybody would've gotten-off and left me there!

Once back on land, we next boarded the funicular for the trip "up top"...
...for simply incredible views
A few of us stayed with Pepe (our local guide) for a ten-minute intro to "Capri Up Top"
It was crowded & very touristy - but both Pepe and Sue said the place became magical when the last ferry departed for the mainland and only the locals and overnight guests remained. I'd like to give that a try one of these days
The whole place is just so damned scenic - only place I've visited that it reminded me of is Bermuda... but I liked it better than Bermuda
Yeah, I can think of worse places to live. Or to vacation.
With my legs & feet again wearing-out, I came-back-down about 40min early to go rest them at a waterside bar. With a local brew hopefully providing some light anesthesia
My view whilst drinking a couple of cold ones. Marvelous!
And, like that, we were back in Sorrento late that afternoon (I was grateful for my Australian friends - who shook me awake once the boat had docked and everybody was debarking. I was out cold.)

We next rode the shuttle vans back up top to Sorrento, then joined Sue for a limoncello tasting (really just two - regular limoncello and a second mixed with cream); next-up was a quick demonstration of inlay woodworking. As with the Burano glass factory, the place did amazing work but it came at amazing prices (e.g. a small game table for four was 6,500 Euros). From there we were on our own for two hours - I walked the shopping district, sent my last postcard to Jordan, but otherwise came-up dry again for the remaining couple of gifts I was seeking. Bought a couple of bottles of Olive Oil, but still needed to find something worthwhile for Jordan & Rob. Maybe tomorrow along the Amalfi Coast. Speaking of which...

...9 of us met at 6:20 to walk to a nearby pizza restaurant - where we had a first course of antipasto, a second of salad, then the third with three different kinds of pizzas (followed by limon chiffon cake dessert and either limoncello or coffee - I opted for the latter). It was good, but the group was all so wiped out tired that I'm not sure we fully enjoyed ourselves.

Sue had arranged a limoncello tasting for us at a nearby spot. They had a variety mixed with cream that appealed to me - otherwise, sorry, never really developed a taste for the stuff while there.
But the tasting room was quite lovely (but is the figuerine taking a selfie?!?? lol)
Nevermind the swollen feet - there was more to see... so I set about exploring & photographing.
Back down by the waterfront...
...with a view of the volcano & Napoli in the far distance
Sorrento
Charming
We met back at the Fauno Bar, where eight of us had purchased an optional dinner together at a nearby restaurant. It was basically a big pizzeria - but the pizza tastes so much more fresh and simple in Italy than it does stateside!

Meantime, Sue didn't have me in her records as going tomorrow - I told her I prepaid on my Visa card 2/15 - that seemed enough for her, so I'm now scheduled to go. We left the restaurant at 8:10, met everyone else at 8:15, then boarded the bus 8:35 for the 35min ride (in silence, from everyone being exhausted) back to the hotel. Once there, I did a test packing of how I think I'll go back home - the suitcase is finally nearly full, but not overflowing. What I'm more curious-about is weight - wasn't going to test that until about the same time tomorrow night, but at least it's one less thing to do.

Returning to the hotel with the last few rays of the day I snapped this pic from my balcony. We were checking out early the next morning, so I sat out for a little while enjoying this sight.

 

Saturday, May 28, 2016 - Driving the Amalfi Coast to Positano, then back to Rome

By this morning I was running on fumes: my feet were chronically achy, ankles no longer visible from swelling, calves so tight they feel as though they could break if pushed too hard. Nevertheless, I soldiered-on through this last day - waking prior to the 6:15 call, having breakfast at 6:50, then putting my carry bag on the big coach before boarding a 1 of 2 sprinter vans for driving the Amalfi Coast & visiting Positano.

Departing a little before 8 o'clock, it took us about an hour to get there (mainly due to slow traffic - which was even worse coming-back later in the day!). The first stop was Madonnina, with its incredible viewpoint over the coast. We then visited Positano for a couple of hours, which allowed plenty of time for shopping (I bought Rob a t-shirt and a bunch of Italian dark chocolates) and wandering-about taking pix. That said, for the first time I started getting alternating numb & burning sensations in my left foot & lower leg... found myself happy this was the last day, as I don't think my feet could have continued any longer.

My last full day of the tour began (surprise!) with another bus ride - this time down the Amalfi Coast...
...eventually ending-up in Positano for half a day
This place would also be incredible for a dedicated vacation...
...as long as you don't suffer from acrophobia!
Then again, let someone else do the driving - then it's all good!
And here we are in Positano...
...with the patron saint thanking all that is holy that we made it safely there!
The views. The views!
We only had three hours here - so I made the most of my time, quickly trekking down to the water
Waterside...
...turning right 90 degrees to show you some more...
...and then zooming the lens to the point...
...and then out to the islands that were once owned & occupied by Rudolph Nureyev
The was a picture a few back - we were looking down - these are the rows of orange umbrellas seen in the distance
Walking around Positano is a lovely experience...
...including doing my Assisi billy goat reprise, to get better views from the opposite side of town
Moving the camera left from the last pic we see the bay...
...which seemed like the perfect spot for the last selfie of the trip!
One more view of those orange umbrellas and the town
And it wouldn't be me without photographing the Bapistry of the local Cathedral
Walking back down to our bus I found myself beginning to sadden a bit with the realization that the vacation was about over
All that remained was the drive back to Rome - our last night at a Holiday Inn not too far from the airport (to facilitate getting people back into the pipeline for their flights home)

We departed Positano about 11:30, grabbed a couple of remaining passengers from the hotel, then drove northward towards Rome - stopping halfway for a pee break & lunch (that, plus more chocolate got me down to just 6 Euro in change... at that point I was basically good-to-go).

We got back on the road at 2:15 then arrived at the Holiday Inn (a last minute substitute when the Midas Hotel ceased operation a few weeks earlier) a little before 4:30 - which gave us one hour to decompress & dress for the farewell dinner.

A real shame, but this was probably the worst dinner of the entire vacation - held at La Carovana restaurant across town (about a half hour's drive)... It's one of those places geared to handle big groups, pumping-out assembly line Italian fare. Now, factor-in the room being at least 15-20 degrees warmer than the outside temp - and about all any of us wanted to do was to finish and go. They started with copious antipasto - salami & prosciutto; slices of tomato & mozzarella; the second course was spaghetti in pesto & some sort of tomatoy/macaroni dish; the third course was a salad, with the beef (or chicken, for some folk) entrees joining them. Dessert was some sort of chewy vanilla custard with chocolate sauce poured over it. At least there was free-flowing wine - which helped with my foot discomfort - though when the Asians in the adjoining tables began chugging red wine and making a racket it got even more old. In any event, we got out of there about 8:15, returned to the hotel at 9, said our goodbyes to one another, and I returned to pack and try to get a good night's sleep.

.Our final night's dinner was at a place called La Carovana - about a half hour's drive away from the hotel. I'm sad to report that it was the biggest turkey of the trip... we'd had so many good dinners that one had to be the worst - just a damned shame it had to happen on the farewell meal!

 

Sunday, May 29, 2016 - En Route back to the United States

With the tour now complete, it was up to me to handle my own 5:40 wakeup (the alarm worked - yeay!), 6:30 breakfast & bag-out, then 7:00 departure for the airport. At first I found Rome check-in to be confusing - I couldn't figure-out how they arranged the ticketing area until finally asking someone... only to find that British Airways didn't send any personnel to their ticketing area until 90 min prior to departure. Weird. Made for a long, boring wait. But, once ticketed - security was no problem, and I was at my gate with plenty of time to spare. The first leg departed on time for London Heathrow, where I quickly connected (short layover) for the extra-long nonstop flight to Seattle. We landed pretty much on time; local immigration & customs was no problem; then waited a bit for Capital Aeroporter, who got the weary traveler back to his apartment in Centralia shortly after 8pm. Long travel day... but amazing to think how much I saw & did over my 15 day Italian Holiday!

2016 Italy & Sicily Itinerary

   
 

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