We took an overnight cruise from Naples, Italy across the Tyrrhenian Sea to Palermo on the island of Sicily.
Palermo is on the north shore, located near Monte Pellegrino and lies in a natural amphitheater called the Conca d Oro (Golden Shell).
Palermo's architecture reveals Norman, Arabic and other influences. It was a feast for the eyes as we visited the Piazza Bellini and the Cathedral of Palermo.
We drove up to Monreale to get a panoramic view of Palermo, walk the narrow streets, visit a cannoli shop and explore the Norman Cathedral.
The Sicilian painted cart, il carretto, has become a cultural symbol. It's heyday was the 1920's. These two wheeled carts are primarily handmade out of wood and decorated with wood carvings and brightly painted scenes from Sicilian history and folklore.
The cart appears slightly raised where it is attached to the horse. This is because the cart was traditionally drawn by donkeys, which are of a slightly lower stature to that of a horse
Horses were mostly used in the city and flat plains, while donkeys or mules were more often used in rough terrain for hauling heavy loads.
From Palermo, we headed west toward Trapani and then south down the western coast of Sicily toward Marsala.
Marsala is famous for the tasty and potent Marsala wine made in this region. The road between Trapani and Marsala is known as the "salt road". Here, sea salt is harvested from salt beds which are managed completely by hand.
The clean waters off of Sicily, combined with the sun and wind produce the end product. Windmills are used to pump water from the beds.
We continued along the southwestern coast to Agrigento, where we went for a walk through the Valley of Temples. (The valley is actually a ridge that provides a panoramic view of the surrounding verdant hillsides.)
Here are the remains of Greek temples that were constructed during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. These partially restored buildings are some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself.
The photo at right shows the Temple of Hera/Juno. Constructed in the prosperous period following the Battle of Himera (480 B.C.), the Temple of Hera exhibits a Classic Doric plan. The ramp visible today on the east end of the building is a Roman addition.
From Agrigento, we headed inland to the 4th century Roman Villa of Casale near Piazza Armerina. A tour through this huge villa reveals an extensive display of some of the finest surviving mosaics from Roman antiquity. These colorful and well preserved mosaics depict mythological themes and hunting scenes.
The mosaics include a 60-meter-long hunting scene, the famous ten "bikini girls" and many classical, whimsical, sporting and geometrical examples. Although it is not known for certain, it is believed that the owner of this country retreat was Maximianus Herculeus, emperor of the western part of the Roman Empire between 285 and 305 AD. It might have been used as a hunting lodge and included public halls, private quarters, baths and courtyards.
In 1959-60, Gentili excavated a mosaic on the floor of the room dubbed the "Chamber of the Ten Maidens" aka (Sala delle Dieci Ragazze in Italian).
Informally called "the bikini girls", the maidens appear in a mosaic artwork which current scholars named "Coronation of the Winner"
The young women perform sports including weight lifting, discus throwing,running and ball games.
A woman in a toga is depicted with a crown in her hand; one of the maidens holds a palm fond.
Another well preserved mosaic shows a hunt, with hunters using dogs and capturing a variety of game.
We then headed east toward Catania and then north up the east coast to Taormina.
Taormina has an absolutely stunning setting. Set on the hill of Monte Taro, Taormina provides views of two peaceful bays below and to the southwest, the top of Mount Etna.
Taormina has beautiful architecture and a very well preserved Greco-Roman amphitheater dating to the third century BCE. Taormina's main street, the traffic-free Corso Umberto I, is full of little shops, cozy restaurants and elegant bars. In general, the town has a laid back feel with just a touch of exclusivity.
Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe, currently standing 10,910 ft high. It is the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps. Etna covers an area of 460 square miles with a basal circumference of 87 miles. This makes it by far the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy. It is nearly three times the height of the next largest active volcano, Mount Vesuvius.
The name Etna is said to have originated from a Phoenician word "attuna" meaning "furnace".
Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is in an almost constant state of eruption.
Although Mount Etna can occasionally be very destructive, it is not generally regarded as being particularly dangerous. Thousands of people live on its slopes and in the surrounding areas. Catania, the second largest city of Sicily, lies just to the south.
The fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards spread across the lower slopes of the mountain.
In the picture to the left, John is waving to Virginia from a rocky part of Mount Etna.
Virginia's grandparents are from Sicily so it was especially nice to see this beautiful island.
In Messina, Sicily, we boarded a ferry and crossed the Strait of Messina to land "on the toe" of the Italian boot in Calabria. We later found out, that as we were crossing, an earthquake occurred in the Strait of Messina.