May 10 - Second last day. Started off the day with a tour of Catania, a vibrant city perched on the edge of the Ionian Sea. Founded in the 8th century BC, Catania was once among Italy's most important cultural centers, particularly in the Baroque period. First stop was at the local WWII Landing Museum, dedicated to the Allied landing on the southern coast of Italy. Americans landed on the south central coast and the Brits on the southeast coast. Idea was for the Americans to liberate Palermo by fighting northwest across the island while the Brits fought up the coast. The idea was for the Brits to reach Messina first, but even after fighting across over half the island, the Yanks got there first. The guide told us how the Brits and Yanks used to drop pamphlets warning the Sicilians that they were going to bomb and to head to shelters. Lucky Luciano and other Sicilian ex-patriots helped to smooth the way for the invasion by contacting relatives still at home and helping write the propaganda. Sicilians are used to being invaded by other nations, to them daily life goes on, but they saw the Allied liberation as a way of improving their lives from Mussolini and Hitler. In the museum there were all types of uniforms, maps of campaign, and even an interactive bunker "pillboxes" where a soldier would start firing a machine gun when anyone walked by. There were life size statues of Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Montgomery, Ike, Mussolini (doing an obscene gesture) and the top Italian general. When the generals surrendered in September 1943, they had to appear in civilian clothes. In the diorama where the vanquished Sicilian Generals are signing the surrenders, the top general has his left hand in his pocket reminiscent of photos and movies showing mob gangsters.
We then went back into the Plaza Duomo where we visited the Cathedral of St. Agnes. The Cathedral has been destroyed two times by earthquakes and the only the original Apses remained after each earthquake. The church has been rebuilt both times using whatever architectural design was in vogue at the time. After a beloved archbishop died, his body was mummified and placed in a glass case for all to see. He has a copper mask so his features remain. We visited the central fountain which is topped with a basalt elephant and an Egyptian obelisk. no one knows where either came from, but the elephant is the symbol of Catania now. It has been suggested that it might by a symbol of Hannibal's elephants, but there is no evidence he ever got to Sicily. We then did an extensive walk through the market. Fresh fish, produce, cheese and fruit stalls cover 3 sides of a block. It occurs 6 days a week from early morning until about one when all close down. Things that can be sold another day are kept, the rest is given to charity. Saw some very strange vegetables and fish. There were long silver eels and even a skinned sting ray. After a pleasant lunch at the trattoria right up the steps from the hotel we set off for Taormina, one of the most highly regarded ruins in Sicily. Our guide took us on a tour of the city where we passed high fashioned shops nestled among pottery, tee shirt, gelato bars, cafes and artist shops. We toured the Greek amphitheater, later replaced by the Romans and now being converted back, at the top of the city overlooking Mt Etna and the Ionian Sea. Romans took a nice small stage and orchestra pit made for the entire public, put up walls blocking the view of the seas, enlarged the stage, put in a very large water pit and removed the bottom tier of seats. They held gladiator games and filled the basin with alligators and put men in little boats. They removed the first tier because the important people sat the lowest and they did not want them to be eaten. Since some of the Roman walls have fallen, there is now a view of the sea again. Greeks used to have three plays at a time, two tragedies and a comedy. Now they are renovating again, so we were one of the last groups to see it in the ancient shape. Until the renovations started there had been many concerts there, including the Three Tenors. Maybe they will start again when things are finished.
Seven of us went out to dinner, finally got m spaghetti with clams. Best I have ever had, only clam juice and parsley. Yum!
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