Happy Birthday Mama--From Malta to Venice with the Family Day 5--The Etna


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Europe » Italy » Sicily
June 14th 2016
Published: June 16th 2016
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Mark and I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to travel a lot but neither one of us had ever been to Sicily. Having never been there, we were not burdened with preconceived notions. WAIT! Scratch. Cross out. Do over. We both had PLENTY of preconceived notions. Like Sicily is dirty. Sicily has brown and scrubby landscape. Sicily is one big blistering volcano. Note to self—visit a place before you become sure you know it.

We woke up early (6 a.m.) because our tour met at 8 and we needed to clean up and eat breakfast before we went to the meeting spot. Did all of that—breakfast was the buffet in the Veranda Dining Room, a buffet with all kinds of eggs, breakfast meats, continental breakfast meats, fruit, cereal, yogurt, jams and honey. It was quite lovely. We sat outside on the back of Deck 10 to enjoy our breakfast. I was facing Sicily and saw the island come into view as he ship dropped anchor. Mark was looking east so was mostly looking into the sun. As we anchored, we saw lovely little villages on the seaside, very Italian in their architecture and design—beige and coral colored stone with slate or ceramic roofs, lots of azaleas and bougainvillea.

We got to the lounge for tour check-in and exchanged our tickets for smaller tickets with 3s on them and had a seat. Group 3 was called and we headed out to the tender. The Bay of Naxos was fairly calm and the crossing from ship to island was smooth and easy. As soon as we got off of the tender, we saw a woman carrying a flag that had the number 3 on it—our destination. She introduced herself in her lovely, lilting Italian accent and counted us off—there were 12 of us on this tour. Excellent. We got on the comfortable bus and our guide (I think her name was Melina) introduced the driver, Guisseppe. She said we had to be nice to Guisseppe because our lives were in his hands. True that! As we drove through the countryside towards Taormina, she explained some of the geography of Sicily and how “The Etna” played such a significant role in its founding and formation. The Etna is what she called a “friendly” volcano because it really is not a threat and can be studies by geologists with little fear of injury. However, before we visit The Etna, we headed to Taormina, a fortified city on another mountain on Sicily. The drive up to Taormina was windy and lovely, with different views of different crystal blue bays around every corner. We passed one bay which she said was the Bay of St. Andrew. The next bay was the Bay of St. Nicholas. Andrew and Nicholas—father and son.

Mark was very quiet and I asked him several times if he was feeling okay. He finally said that looking at the sun had given him a headache and now he felt nauseated. Uh oh. He put his hat and sunglasses on and we both hoped for the best. Our bus stopped in Taormina and we walked through the gateway arch into the lovely village. Melina said the city is divided into 2 parts: the ancient part which dates from the Greeks and Romans and the modern part which is from the middle ages. One of the first things we saw was a block of pay phones. I said to Mark, “Look! An ancient relic!” The streets were cobbled and narrow with lovely squares lined with cafes and shops. We turned left and walked to the Greco-Roman theater. When we got there, we had a few minutes while our guide went and bought the entrance tickets. I asked Mark how he was doing and he said not so good. I said maybe when we got back to the bus, we would put him in a taxi and send him back to the ship. He said he was thinking the same thing. We walked around the theater and our guide took us to a shady place where we could sit down. While seated, Melina told us about Roman theater festivals, which happened 6 times or so a year and would usually last for 3 or 4 days. The company would perform a different play every day, usually 2 or 3 tragedies and a comedy. They would also do sort of one-acts where they depicted the great myths and stories of the day. The theater seated 10,000 and was THE place to be when a show was going on. Eventually when theater lost its allure, they started staging gladiator fights in the arena. Melina told us about some of the technology like great lifts they would use to raise up the gods who swept in at the end of the show, the deux au machina.

When we got up to leave, Mark said he was feeling better and thought he was going to be okay. That long set down in the cool shade had helped a lot. After walking back to the center square, Melina released us and said to meet at the first gate at 11:55. It was about 10:15 at this time so we had a good long time. Mark and headed from the ancient part of the city into the modern, medieval part and headed down towards the other gate. We found a shady place next to a small church where Mark sat while I headed down to the other end. I found a post office so bought a postcard and went into and bought a stamp. When I got back, we strolled down the way we came until we found a café. Mark got a sparkling water and I got a hot tea and we sat and watched the streets fill up with tourists. Oh, and small vans. The street is unbelievably narrow and is only open to pedestrians except that during the day, small vans can come make deliveries. So there are 200 people in a store front area that is about 12 feet wide and here comes a van. SQUEEZE! But when you are a small town clinging to the side of a mountain, I guess you don’t have much choice.

We did a little shopping (got a ceramic duck for the Christmas tree) and met up with our group at 11:55. One couple was missing and you know what? Melina said, “Come with me, we go to the bus.” Gee, I hope they make it… They did and 12 of us reboarded the bus and and headed to The Etna.

Mt. Etna is really impressive with plumes of smoke billowing out all of the time. It is about 11,000 feet tall (Mark said that is the same as Mt. Fuji, which he has climbed) and erupts fairly frequently has had a tremendous impact on the geography and life style of Sicily. She explained that where we are going for the wine tasting is a forested area and above that is a volcanic desert. The soil around the half-way point is very rich and fertile and great for growing many things, including grapes. We passed through one village and she said, “This is famous for the honey.” I said we’d have to see if they had any at the winery shop.

We pulled into the Barone di Villagrande winery, a charming place surrounded by terraced vineyards. We took a quick tour of the winery, admiring the chestnut barrels, a wood that is plentiful in that area of Mt. Etna. The vineWe were joined by a sommelier who invited us into a small room set with white linens and silver place settings. She introduced herself and said she would talk us through the wines we would taste today. We started with a white which was very crisp and young but had a lot of layers of flavor. We looked at the color, swirled and sampled the nose and sipped to partake of the palette. Quite lovely. Appetizers were an assortment of goodies like cheeses, salami, eggplant parmesan, eggplant stew, a focaccia sandwich with cheese and ham and too many other things to mention. The sommelier instructed us taste the food with the wine and make notes. It was quite lovely.

That was cleared and next came the pasta dish, definitely homemade pasta which were like 2” long pieces of very fat spaghetti. Not sure what the technical term is. It was covered in a pesto sauce and and set on a small ladle of cream sauce. It was delicious. With the pasta she served a rosé which was light and dry. Very nice. The main course was a beef roll she called Skinny Beef because the beef was very thin, then layered with spinach and cheese and rolled up. The outside looked plain but when it was cut into it was full of lusciousness. That was served with a marvelous potato croquette which was dusted with a very light breading, almost like panko, and then fried. That was served with the first of two reds we tasted, both of them quite good but the second one a little smoother. Yum all around!

After this amazing meal and probably the equivalent of 3 glasses of wine, we walked around the vineyard and went to the shop. We got a bottle of rosé and a jar of honey from the village Melina had mentioned. Yay! After that, we got back on the bus and headed back down The Etna to the port. It was a very quiet ride. Zzzzzz..... This was the one excursion we paid for and we were glad we did. It was really terrific.

Back on board the ship, we went up to the pool. Saw Matt and he said the plan was to meet in the Sevens Seas Lounge at 7:00. Perfect. It was five, we had an hour to hang out and then go inside and get ready. At 5:40, Matt reappeared and said, “Plans changed. Grammy wants to go to the captain’s cocktail party in the Seven Seas showroom at 6. Okay. Pack up, head in. Mark showered and I got dressed and we actually made it there by 6:05. The captain came on stage, introduced his crew and that was about it. We saw Janet Jones, the Bucknell/Smithsonian lecturer and she recognized us and came over. She asked what we had done that day and we told her about the food and wine tour. She had gone to Taormina and had done a lecture at 4:00. We said we knew, we weren’t back on board until it was over and she said we didn’t miss anything. Mark said, “Can’t we watch it on TV?” She said, “Don’t bother. Everyone was sunbaked and sleepy so it really didn’t turn out well.” We went to the lounge on the outside of the theater and had a drink and then went to dinner. Tonight I ate (yay!). I had a cheese soufflé for the appetizer, turkey consommé for the soup, Ceaser salad and dover sole. The dover sole was pan seared and delicious. The waiter came over and with one hand, filleted the fish—quite the show. It was so good that I made everyone taste it and said, I win! Everyone else’s dinner was good, too, and we had a great time swapping stories from the day. Michael and Matt overslept and missed their tour, all of the Watkins plus Skate and Wil went to Taormina with Mom and everyone had a great day.

After dinner there was a show but this girl was sleepy so that was the end of that. We said our goodnights and with lots of sun baked and wine splashed good thoughts of the day, turned ourselves in.

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