A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: paulymx

Ragusa and Syracuse, Sicily

sunny 28 °C

After driving around Italy in 2008 Shelly and I swore we'd never drive in Italy again, but to get around in Sicily we decided we had no other option. We hired a little Renault Megane and although it was a tight squeeze to get three people and all our bags in, we were soon set and on our way. We headed south towards Agrigento with its Greek temple ruins.

Agrigento
Our GPS which told us Agrigento was only two hours from Palermo but it took us a lot longer driving through the dry Sicilian countryside. The roads certainly weren't the best and there was a lot of roadworks, but at least the traffic was sparse. We reached the city of Agrigento, which sits atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea, in the mid afternoon. It looked a good place to stop and explore with a collection of impressive churches and fortifications, but we we had accommodation pre-booked in Ragusa so drove through the city and down onto the coastal plain and the Valley of the Temples.
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Agrigento's ruins are pitched as the best Greek ruins in Sicily - and probably they are - but they were not as impressive as we had expected. This was once the Greek city of Akragas which was founded in the 6th century BC and became a wealthy trading centre. The temples were built during these early boom years of the 6th and 5th century BC. The city managed to stay out of the 30 year Peloponnesian War in the 4th century BC when Athens fought with almost every other Greek city-state to maintain its imperial rule (Athens lost, largely because of the cost of its wars in Sicily). Later the city was incorporated into the Carthegian Empire but in the 3rd century BC the Romans fought a three generational war with the Carthegians, driving them out of Sicily and pretty much destroying the Akragas in the process.
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Only a single temple is generally intact as it was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century AD.
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It was a very hot day to be wandering around in the dry and dusty ruins, which dampened our enthusiasm so after walking the length of the site, we headed off to Ragusa.

Ragusa
Old Ragusa is a city of two halves. The old, old Ragusa is an ancient city built on a peninsula sitting in the bend of a river. It's a marvelous defensive position. In 1693 however, an earthquake destroyed much to the old city and the inhabitants moved across the gorge an rebuilt a new Ragusa there.
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The new town was built with regular street planning and better facilities so many families never moved back to the old town, leaving it as a kind of ghost town. Much later the old, old town was restored and people began moving back. It's now a tourism hub, although its isolated position means most visitors stay in new old town.
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We booked small apartment in the modern old town and we walked down to the old town that night to explore and eat. The first view of the old, old town from the edge of the gorge is particularly stunning. After getting lost in labyrinth of streets we made it to t he main square and I had one of the best pastas I've had in Italy - linguini with porcini mushrooms. It was spectacular. Pistachio is a popular ingredient in Sicilian food and Shelly and Emma had pistachio pasta and seafood with pistachio respectively, both excellent.
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The next day we wandered back to the old town to see it in daylight before setting off to Sicily's old, old capital, Syracusa.
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Syracusa
Syracuse was founded at the end of a narrow peninsula by Ionian settlers from Greece in the 6th century BC. By the time of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC) Syracuse had become " the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all" (Roman writer Cicero 1st century BC). Syracuse was considered such a rich prize that the Athenians attempted to capture it three times during the Peloponnesian War, each time losing their entire fleet and army in the process, and ultimately bankrupting themselves into the bargain. A century later the Romans attacked the city, but found the city ably defended by war machines devised by Archimedes, Syracuse's resident genius. One particularly terrifying device was able to grapple Roman galleys and haul them out of the water onto the city walls. Unfortunately Archimedes' inventions could only delay the inevitable and he was killed when the city eventually fell after a 3 year siege. Syracuse then became the Roman capital of Sicily.
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Sicily today is quite a dry place and it is hard to imagine that Sicily could ever have been a land of plenty, but under the Greeks and then the Romans, the province was one of the most productive in the empire. Wheat, grains, olives and fruit trees were extensively cultivated and, as the island had no borders with troublesome neighbours, almost no troops were required to garrison the island. Sicily was so important that when the Arabs conquered Syria, Egypt and North Africa in the 7th century the East Roman (Byzantine) emperor Constans II left Constantinople with a large army and settled in Syracuse to personally see to the island's defences. It seems like he decided to stay in Sicily as he soon began building a new imperial palace in Syracuse. This meant more taxes, which annoyed the Syracusans no end and in 668 he was beaten to death in his bath by one of his servants.
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Constans' imperial palace is long gone but there are still a few Roman buildings remaining in the city, including an enormous temple (now converted into a gloomy church) in the main square.
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Over on the mainland there is a large archaeological park centered around the Roman amphitheater. After walking around in the old city we attempted to find the archaeological park but our GPS could not find it and the street signs were of little help. After an hour of frustration we stumbled upon it, just prior to closing. As the entry fee was quite stiff and the singular ticket office was on the other side of the park we decided to give it miss. There would be more Roman ruins to look at elsewhere.
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Posted by paulymx 22:35 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Palermo, Sicily

After a week's intermission in Perth we set off for round two of our world trip: our destination - Sicily. Joining us on this leg was our friend Emma. None of us had been to Sicily before. The view from the tarmac at Palermo airport is quite dramatic with a mountain of sheer cliffs forming a backdrop.
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We had a booked an apartment in the old town. The building itself looked like it was a 1980s office building. Quite ugly. But the room was newly renovated. In fact there were renovations going on all around us.
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We had to wait in the lobby for quite a while while electricians, fitters and plumbers maneuvered around us until someone came down to let us in. No one asked for ID or money and the whole things was very casual. Shelly and I shared a room facing the street while Emma took an adjoining room. Both rooms were stiflingly hot even and only became marginally more comfortable in our room after the air-conditioning had been one for a few hours. Emma's room had a completely ineffective air-conditioner. But we were in the heart of the city and had a balcony overlooking the street.
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Sicily has been a crossroads at the heart of the Mediterranean since time immemorial. The Greeks settled in Sicily in the 6th century BC. In the 4th century BC, Sicily cost the Athenians their empire during the Peloponnesian War. In the 2nd century BC the Carthaginians, the Greeks and the Romans fought over possession of the island. Sicily was one of the breadbaskets of the Roman Empire until the Arabs conquered it in the 7th century. The Byzantines and the Arabs fought over her for centuries until it was finally reclaimed for Byzantium in the 11th century AD. The Byzantines held onto it for less than a century before it was seized by the Normans. The Normans were followed by the Germans, who were followed by the French, who were followed by the Spanish, and so on and so on, with each empire and people adding another layer over the top of the previous, creating a unique mosaic of culture and history.
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Palermo was the capital of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. The late 11th century was the golden era of Norman expansion (if it can be called that). The Normans were the descendants of Viking raiders who had settled in north western France in the 8th century. They started as a mercenary Viking army hired by the French to protect France from invasion by other Vikings. For two centuries they settled down and became civilized - to a degree - until the mid-11th century they suddenly burst forth in their own wave of migration and conquest. William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066AD. Other Normans headed south and east into Italy, serving first as mercenaries for the Byzantines before breaking out on their own. Robert 'the cunning' Guiscard drove the Byzantines from southern Italy in 1071 and then turned east and attempted to conquer Byzantium itself. That attempt ultimately failed but his sons became leading figures in the First Crusade and conquered kingdoms for themselves there.
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Robert's brother, Roger, invaded Sicily in 1061 and completed the conquest of the island from the Byzantines and Arabs in 1090, and was crowned King Roger I. Palermo became Roger's capital as it was situated on the north side of the island with transport links to Norman Apulia and Calabria on the Italian mainland (contrasting with the Byzantine capital of Syracuse, which was on the south east with links to Greece and Constantinople and the Arabs, whose capital was on the southern side of the island linked with North Africa).
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Scattered throughout old Palermo are Norman era churches and palaces, notable for their interesting merging of Arab, Byzantine and Norman-Romanesque architectural traditions. Even the churches have distinctly Islamic motifs and Arabic inscriptions (as more than half the people in Sicily spoke Arabic at the time).
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At the little church of St John of the Hermits, we where offered helmets to climb the bell tower. We laughed at the time but found that they did come in quite handy as the stairs were very low and narrow.
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The major tourist site in old Palermo is the Norman Palace. The apartments and chapel preserve stunning 12th century mosaics and decorations.
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High above Palermo, is Montreal (the Royal Mountain) where William II built a magnificent church and palace complex. The interior of the church is a riot of Byzantine style religious narrative mosaics and Arab style abstract geometric design.
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William II is depicted on either side of the high altar, not easily visible unless you view from the side.
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Thanks to its turbulent history, Sicily has a distinct cuisine. Everywhere in Italy of course has gelato, but in Sicily it is served in a brioche and topped with whipped cream. It looks disgusting and sounds like a heart attack, but it is absolutely delicious!
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Posted by paulymx 05:17 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

New York

Start spreading the news

At one end of the La Guardia airport is a circular complex that was once New York's flying boat / seaplane port. This little art-deco relic decorated with modernist wall murals was virtually empty and unused. I'm sure the airport authorities are dying to tear it down and replace it with some shitty concrete and glass concourse. It's the modern way.
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We grabbed a cab and headed to Manhattan. We'd booked a hotel in China Town as it was the only place we could find cheap accommodation in New York. Last time we were there (6 years ago) we had stayed at a wonderful new hotel complex just off Times Square. The place had obviously just opened and prices were discounted. Unfortunately there was nothing like that available this time. The taxi driver drove us around and around the bottom of the Brooklyn Bridge trying to find our hotel but we just couldn't see it. We decided to just get out and walk. It was only when we were right on top of it did we see the little sign above the door. The hotel directly faced the bridge, maybe only 10 metres away. As we gazed up at the bridge a train roared passed - the noise was deafening. Oh shit we thought, no wonder this place was cheap. As we checked in I said the guy at the desk, "I hope we are not facing the bridge." The guy said not to worry, "the windows are soundproofed." I was unconvinced. Our room WAS facing the bridge but to our surprise (and relief) the double glazing very effectively cut out the noise.
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Chinatown was very Chinese. It really didn't feel like we were in New York at all, except that we could see World Trade Centre One. It was a long walk from there to anywhere, but at least there was a subway line nearby - and a Popeye's Fried Chicken! Mmmm, Popeyes! We walked the long walk from Chinatown to Little Italy and then on to Greenwich Village It was the end of our holiday and we were pretty aimless., although we did visit a Star Wars exhibition in Times Square.
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In the late afternoon we returned to the hotel to change for the Mad Men Walking Tour. We were the only people who dressed up, Shelly getting the opportunity to wear a beautiful 50s style dress she'd picked up in New Orleans. At least this time we weren't the only people on the tour. We drank era appropriate cocktails and visited a couple of nice bars before stumbling home.
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The next we made our way to the Chelsea Market for lunch. The place was absolutely jam packed with people but there was a lot of interesting food vendors and shops. From there we wandered over to the Skyline, an aerial parkway constructed on a disused trainline. The Skyline was a fantastic example of urban renewal. Rather than tear down the disused aerial trainline, the track was turned into a park and pedestrian zone. As it was a beautiful day it was crammed with people.
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We walked the High-Line to the Meatpacking District and got off near the Frying Pan, a former lightship that has been turned into a bar and restaurant. There was an enormous queue of young things waiting to go aboard, but it didn't take us too long to get in.
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After a drink we headed back to the Skyline and visited a couple of the fancy rooftop bars. That night we did a bit of pub crawl through the East Village.
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The next day we set out looking for antique shops but were thwarted at almost every step by a gay pride parade that effectively split the city in two. Disappointed in our search we ended up the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art. The building itself is as much a work of art as the collection, very little of which was actually on show at the time.
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Almost the whole museum was given over to the work of Czech modernist painter, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. I really liked his work.
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Although we were quite exhausted after so much walking, we decided to head downtown to visit a couple more rooftop bars (I don't want to say Shelly was obsessed with New York's rooftop bars, but she was). To our great frustration four of the six bars we'd identified were either closed or reserved for a private party. One that we did get into had such bad service that we walked out after taking a couple of photos.
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We gave up and headed to Greenwich and a couple of speak-easys, which proved to be as elusive to find as you'd have expected in the 1920s. By this time the gay pride parade was over and the drinking streets of New York had become a gay love fest so we slipped into 'Employees Only' bar and restaurant and were lucky enough to get a table. We enjoyed a lovely last dinner in New York before an extremely long walk back to the hotel (as New York's subway system runs north-south and not east-west).

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The next morning we packed up our stuff and headed out to the World Trade Centre memorial. It was a actually a relatively short walk due west from Chinatown. There is still a lot of building going on at the site, but the memorials are quite impressive. The footprint of each of the towers is now an inverse space with water cascading into the void. The 911 museum is under the ground, within the enormous sub basements of the buildings. It is a great use of the space. I wonder if the sight of the building's structural supports, the enormous steel beams and the thickness of the concrete walls makes visitors question the preposterous claims of the official story that all this death and destruction was caused by a few thousand litres of burning kerosene? It's physically impossible, but what was it Hitler said about the bigger the lie? Nevertheless, the museum IS a impressive monument to the murder of 3,500 people in whose name so many greater crimes have been waged.
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And then we were done. Back on the plane flying New York, to Los Angeles, to Sydney to Perth. It was a pleasant series of flights. I felt a small sense of relief to be home; to be able to rest for a couple of days without needing to plan the next step or book accommodation. And I would sleep in my own bed.
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Posted by paulymx 06:04 Comments (0)

Chicago

"Chicago, Chicago, it's my kind of town"

The drive from Nashville to Chicago was particularly long. We'd originally planned on diversionary stops along the way but the delay in New Orleans meant we were now running behind time so we pressed on. We arrived in the Windy City in the late afternoon. I don't know what I was expecting but Chicago was huge. We drove along the lake side up to the Linkin Park area where our hostel was located. It was a nice, green and gentrified area filled with 19th century townhouses. We illegally parked, unloaded the bags and checked in. The hostel recommended a couple of streets were we might the park the car but an hour of driving around and around the airport revealed there was no parking to be found anywhere. That was a problem. Although we had the car for another two days we decided there was nothing for it but to drop it off. This meant a drive to the airport and then training back to the city. Fortunately there was a stop a short distance from the hostel. By the time we got back it was well after 10pm so we called it a night.
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The next day we took the train into the city where we had a food walking tour. We we're the only foreigners but at least it was more than just us. Overall Id say it was a fair tour - nothing amazing. One place we visited was the Billy Goat Tavern, which is famous for being used in a John Belushi Saturday Night Live sketch. Apparently it's famous and we were all invited to watch the sketch on YouTube, which I did. To save you time I'll explain the sketch - John Belushi is behind the counter and says "cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger" in a Chicagoan accent. Yep, that's it. It's not funny. And the cheeseburgers aren't great.
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We did the river and lake cruise, which was very interesting. Chicago has a spectacular skyline mixing 19th century, interwar and modern buildings. Trump Tower is particularly notable.
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One interesting story that says a lot about Chicago. At the turn of the century the Chicago river was a cesspool of pollution so the city cut a channel linking the river directly to the lake. This allowed the pollution to flush away and everyone in Chicago was happy. However, soon after the Canadians and communities around the Great Lakes were not. You see, the water flows down from the lake into the Chicago river and away to the sea. Basically the canal washttp://www.travellerspoint.com/my_blogeditentry.cfm?blogid=135520&entryid=611279 draining the entire Great Lakes system. Canada complained to Chicago who politely told them to go fuck themselves. It became an international incident and eventually the US Federal government was forced to install locks on the canal, allowing the lakes to stabilize.
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After the cruise we wandered around the Navy Pier, which reviewers on TripAdvisor gave rave reviews. In reality it was a rather tedious and empty conference center. The only interesting thing about the place was that it was used during WW2 to train navy pilots for air craft carrier landings.
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After all that walking we were pretty exhausted and took the train back towards the hostel, but then Shelly suggested we go to the baseball. I wasn't keen, but then thought "why not." We rocked up bought some scalped tickets and enjoyed the show. A little background about the Chicago Cubs - they haven't won the World Series since the early 1920s and their fans have a love / hate relationship with the team. T-shirts abound with catchphrases like "CUBS - Completely Useless By September" and "CUBS - please don't suck!" It's hilarious - just like supporting the Fremantle Dockers.
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Chicago is synonyms with organized crime so we did a Chicago Crime tour, which was excellent. We discovered that John Dillinger was gunned down a few streets from our hostel. We walked past that alleyway every day going to and from the train station.
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That night we planned to go to a blues club around the corner but then there came a hurricane warning for Chicago. We asked about this at the reception - I mean, come on , a hurricane? In Chicago? The staff were pretty chilled about it and didn't think it would amount to anything but by the time we were dressed and ready to go out the skies suddenly opened up and I mean opened. The rain pounded down in a fearsome torrent and the sky was ripped with lightning. We stood at the door of the hostel and gazed out thankful that we hadn't stepped out two minutes earlier. That put paid to our plans that night. We had take away delivered in ( the poor delivery boys earned their tops that night ) and called it a night.

Chicago is home to four skyscrapers over 350 metres. The tallest is Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) at almost 550 metres, although about 75 metres of that height comprises TV and radio aerials. We opted to visit the John Hancock Centre observation deck, which is around 340 metres above the ground. We visited on two occasions - first during the morning but the top of the building was covered in cloud so we decided not to go up.
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We returned in the late afternoon when the cloud had dissipated. The view was very impressive. If you're crazy you can pay extra to be hung out in a glass box overlooking the street. No thanks!
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That night we continued our tour of American tiki bars at Three Dots and A Dash. We had visited lots of Tiki bars and they were all invariably empty, but not Three Dots and A Dash. It was absolutely pumping but as we were dressed appropriately we were escorted straight to a table - VIP treatment! The food and drink was excellent and we walked out with another set of tiki mugs to carry home.
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The next day we wandered rather aimlessly, visited a couple of museums and headed up town to see 'the Bean', which is an amazing piece of modernist sculpture. The best view of the Bean however was had from a rooftop bar across the street.
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Our last night we attempted a bar crawl through a couple of speak-easy bars but we didn't make a big night of it as the next day we were flying to the Big Apple.

Posted by paulymx 03:48 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Nashville

We have both kinds of music here; country AND western

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There is no way I won't offend someone with this comment, so I'll just come straight out with it - I hate country and western music. It's just shit. So, I was never coming to Nashville for the music scene. I was coming for Lanes Motor Museum.
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Lanes is quite unusual in that it focuses on European and unusual cars. There are no Fords or Chevy's here, so it's really up my alley. And it did not disappoint. There is a magnificent collection of Tatras - the largest outside the Czech Republic - and nice selection of German Dkw and Borgwards. We did a tour into the basement to look at the cars that are not on display - magnificent. So much to see.
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One of the most amazing vehicles they have is a US army aquatic transporter. It has wheels the size of a mining truck and can carry two tanks.
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After Lanes we went downtown. Unlike Memphis, Nashville seems on the up and up. Lots of new buildings and skyscrapers. The new country music stadium and museum complex is gigantic and clearly shows that I my musical opinion is clearly in the minority.
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We did a bit of a bar crawl through old Nashville and had the regional speciality - hot fried chicken from Princes diner. Their service was appallingly slow but the chicken was nice. The chicken comes in about 7 levels of heat - no heat, mild, medium, hot, very hot, extremely hot and insane hot. We were weak and had mild and it still burnt our tongues and left our eyes watering. God knows what hot would have been like??!!
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Posted by paulymx 03:13 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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