Friday, May 29, 2015

Sciacca: Archaeology Beside the Sea

Our departure from Palermo turned into an unwanted and certainly unintended adventure. Rental cars had been reserved with Hertz. We were to pick them up at a Hertz office which was maybe a 5-8 minute walk from our hotel; however, due to the amount of luggage we were travelling with we arranged for a taxi. Once at Hertz we filled out the paperwork and 45 minutes later had two very suitable cars. Gus being upgraded to a very low mileage Jeep Renegade with GPS navigation and a manual transmission (Gus had not driven a "stick" in nearly 30 years). Well, after a quick tutorial on how to operate all the dashboard gizmos, we were off. Hoping to get a quick start ahead of the morning traffic Gus raced out of the Hertz garage without paying much, if any, attention to Curt and Lynn behind us. Maybe traffic anxiety, maybe panic, but definitely bad judgment. Gus lost Curt by either driving too fast or taking a route out of Palermo that was different than the route previously agreed upon. Losing one another may not be such a big deal but in this case it had the makings of disaster. The Hertz attendant had given his tutorial and placed the "key fob" in his pocket, Gus drove off, the attendant discovered what he had done and gave the fob to Curt, Curt followed Gus in haste! Now the adventure ... to drive in Palermo takes strong nerves, adaptability and instant reflexes. The traffic is slow then fast then slow, the use of turn signals is nonexistent, road maintenance seems to be going on everywhere, street signage is haphazard, street names are difficult to pronounce, Vespas and pedestrians darting in and out of traffic, and where  internationally recognized rules of the road are apparently optional. Now imagine rows of cars that expand, shrink, and suddenly close, only to expand ... it was a mess. Gus and Joan were lost and they had lost Curt and Lynn. If the fobless car stalled, which was certainly possible due to the stop-and-go traffic and Gus' unfamiliarity of driving a sick, it would be a disaster. Thank goodness that Gus' stick-shift memory returned, and relative clear thinking prevailed coupled with the fact that both cars had the use of operating mobile phones. Joan and Lynn evaluated the situation, mapped out a strategy, and calmed their respective drivers down. While anxiety levels remained, for a time, at defcon 4, the two couples worked together amazingly well and reunited 40 minutes later ... Gus "embraced his inner fob" while he imagined Curt thinking "next trip we are definitely taking a cruise."

Outside of Palermo and safely on Autostrada A29 we headed toward the Temple of Segesta.

A short walk up from the parking lot to the Temple.
Joan standing in front of the Temple.

The "Greek" Temple was not actually conceived and built by the Greeks, but by the Elymians, an indigenous population of western Sicily who also founded Erice. It is believed, however, that Greek colonists probably contributed to the building of the Temple, which took place between 430 and 420 BC. It is perhaps the best-preserved Doric temple in the world, and is the only freestanding limestone temple in Sicily (all the others are made of sandstone). There is no roof, and it is thought that the locals were never able to entirely complete their place of worship due to an attack, by possibly Dionysius I of Syracuse, on the settlement of Segesta.
By width: six columns across front and back

By length: 14 columns long on each side
(notice the bird in flight above the right row of side columns)

Up on top of a nearby hill, Monte Barbaro, is a semicircular theatre, built around the same time as the Temple. Today, during the summer months, the theatre is used as a venue for  interesting cultural events, Greek plays, concerts and operas.. We had the option to walk up to the amphitheater but fortunately we had second option, which we chose, and took a shuttle bus.

View of the Temple from Monte Barbaro.
Totally unspoilt rolling green countryside
 and views that stretch right down to the sea.

Amphitheater, Monte Barbaro
The wonderful views made stage scenery unnecessary as
the surrounding countryside provided a natural backdrop
 to the action taking place on stage.
While we had hoped to visit Erice and Trapani and even have a lunch of couscous at La Trattoria Cantina Siciliana followed by a taste of Pasticceria Grammatico we found ourselves very short on time. Instead of heading to Trapani we turned south and drove directly to Marsala unfortunately missing the salt marshes along coastal road SP 21 (the Salt Road) for a 3:30 p.m. cellar tour of Cantine Florio.

Founded in 1832 by Vincenzo Florio Sr., the Florio winery has been in continuous Marsala wine production since then.

Our tour guide in the Garibaldi Room.
Explains the Marsala-making process and
 tells of the fascinating history of Cantine Florio

Giant barrels built in the late 1800’s and still used for ageing Marsala.
1939 Cantine Florio Marsala Superiore Riserva Storica
Donna Franca Tasting Room

Passito di Pantelleria, Targa Riserva, and Ambar
After the tour and the tasting we stopped in at Florio Enoteca, the winery's wine shop, that offered the entire range of Duca di Salaparuta, Corvo and Florio wines, as well as a selection of handicraft products and local food delicacies.

Florio Enoteca
Gus and Curt couldn't pass up several tempting wines while Joan and Lynn each left with a beautiful scarf bursting with color.
Leaving the winery we once again headed south to Castelvetrano, Sciacca, and finally arrived at Verdura Resort which occupies a rural location with a rugged, yet picturesque, stretch of coastline. The property is the brainchild of British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, and it represents the largest hotel investment to have been made on the island for many years.  

The resort comprises a main lodge flanked by modern buildings of sand-colored tufa that house the rooms and villas, all of which afford views.
Boxy Mediterranean modernism.
Our rooms were in the Courtyard section of the resort.

Upon arrival we received an "efficient welcome" from a young guest-relations hostess and we were shown to our Deluxe Rooms. Our room was light, spacious and stylish. It featured high ceilings, a four-poster bed, a roomy bathroom with distinctive Sicilian-made Ortigia toiletries, and a dazzling private terrace with seating that afforded an tranquil view of the Mediterranean. A final touch ... a stack of books including the great Sicilian novel “The Leopard,” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Our first experience of the resort's cuisine was that evening in the Lobby Bar. Cocktails were generous and well made, the menu was limited yet provided adequate choice, the food was good, the service friendly, overall pleasant enough.

Next morning we ordered room service ...

Our private terrace and view of the Mediterranean Sea.
... and after a very leisurely breakfast we put on our swimming suits and headed down to the beach.

Cozy, private beach
Joan standing on the stony beach.

Gus catching up on world news on his iPhone.
We spent the next several hours "resorting." Reading, followed by extended periods of idleness punctuated by cocktails, lounging, reading, and followed by further punctuation. As late afternoon rolled into early evening we packed up and made our way to our spa appointments.

5:45 - Lymphatic Massage

"A light, slow-flowing massage that stimulates

blood circulation and lymph flow, this treatment

helps reduce fluid retention and eliminates toxins."

6:45 - Reflexology
"This massage stimulates points on the feet that
correspond to specific areas of the body, to target
tension areas and improve general well being."
6:45 - Swedish Massage
"This is a relaxing, deep pressure massage designed
to relieve muscle tension."
The spacious and airy spa was spectacular. Housed in pavilions grouped around an open-air courtyard, the 43,000 square foot Verdura Spa has: thalassotherapy pools, saunas, a steam room, emotional showers, a gym, a fitness studio and relaxation areas. Joan arrived an hour before her scheduled treatments and took advantage of the pools, a sauna, and the steam room. Our treatments were performed in very comfortable and quiet "treatment cabins" by skilled therapists. We both emerged in an elevated state of being.
Returning to our room we made ready for dinner. Curt and Lynn had made arrangements for us to have dinner at Liolá, a Sicilian trattoria with its own pizzeria. Unfortunately, we were seated after the sun had gone down and were unable to enjoy the view from the restaurant's setting overlooking the sea. While Gus does not recall what everyone had for dinner he does remember that he ordered pan seared veal with Marsala wine sauce (inspired by having toured Florio winery the day before) and found the dish disappointing. However, things were brought into balance by two bottles of a wonderful Sicilian wine (memory is tough to engage after relaxing spa treatments; Gus does not remember the names of the wine either) and our delightful young Sicilian waiter born, raised, and now living with his wife in a village only a 5-10 miles away from the resort. N.B. our waiter and his wife are expecting twins in October.
As admirable as the resort proved overall, there were a few hitches during our stay. First, we had understood that we would be upgraded to a ground floor Superior Deluxe Room (such privilege came at a cost to Gus of $175); we were disappointed without more than an abrupt explanation that "the resort is full". Second, the package that we purchased included complimentary daily buffet breakfast at Restaurant Buongiorno; at check-in we were told that such benefit was not included which Gus carelessly accepted (subsequently, once back home, Gus confirmed that breakfast was included). Third, although slight yet revealing, we did not receive turn-down service the first night. Finally, at check-out, the front desk accompanied by supervisor scrutiny had to adjust charges (credits) erroneously (not) posted to our bill of nearly $900. 

Today we visited the Valley of the Temples. We met our tour guide in front of Giunone Biglietteria at 9:45 a.m. (we were 45 minutes late). There was no parking near this entrance, so we left our cars in a parking lot at the bottom part of the Archaeological and Landscape Park and took a taxi to reach the entrance near the Temple of Juno. In this way, we would walk down with our tour guide through the archaeological park and finish our visit to the Valley of the Temples at where we parked our cars. 

Our amazing guide, Laura Danile
Graduate from the Archaeological School of Athens
 also earning a Doctorate’s degree in classical archaeology
 from the  University of Messina and a Post doctoral
 fellowship at the Accademia dei Lincei. She is currently
 involved in developing learning programs for school children
 at the Valley of the Temples.
The Park has a magnificent collection of seven ancient Greek temples built during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Located just south of the modern city of Agrigento, the temples are nestled among olive trees on a ridge near the sea.
Sites which are circled drew most of our attention.
The ancient city, Akragas, rivaled Athens in its splendor but may also have been a kind of Los Angeles of the ancient world. Pindar, the ancient poet, declared -- sniffily or with longing, it's hard to say -- that the hedonistic inhabitants of a city "built for eternity ... feasted as if there were no tomorrow."
Temple of Juno
(also known as Temple of Hera or Temple D)
Occupies a particularly high position on the ridge at the southeast corner of the
 ancient city of Akragas. Dated to 460-440 BC based on its style. Burnt down by
 the Carthaginians in 406 B.C. The Temple retains most of its original colonnade,
 which has been partially restored. This was the temple in which weddings were
traditionally celebrated. 

Remains of a monumental sacrificial altar.
 East front of Temple of Juno.


Walking down the hill we viewed the panorama below that extends
 out to the sea. At the bottom of this pathway we found ourselves on
Via Sacra.
Via Sacra is a modern road that cuts from east to west. On the left, there are the remains of the Greek walls and Byzantine arcosolia which demonstrate the use of the area as a cemetery at the end of the pagan age.

Arcosolium Graves
N.B. Joan unintentionally, yet fortuitously from an artistic standpoint, set her iPhone camera to back & white.
Temple of Concord
(Temple F to archaeologists)
The most famous temple of Agrigento. One of the best-preserved
 Doric temples in the world. Mostly spared by the Carthaginians and
 later converted into a church, it is almost entirely intact - only
 its roof is missing.

Little known St. Gregory, Bishop of Agrigento, converted the Temple into a church in the 6th century after "chasing away the demons who were there." The church was mostly stripped away in the restoration of 1788 mentioned in a façade inscription, but the nave arches can still be seen in the walls of the cella.
800 year old olive tree in front of and to the right of the Temple

Contemporary bronze sculpture by the Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj.
The bronze 'Fallen Angel' figure is of Icarus

Palaeochristian Necropolis
Crypts that were created out of ancient Greek cisterns,
 where numerous burial chambers were dug out during
 the early Christian period.

Temple of Hercules
(also known as Heracles or Temple A)
One of the most beautiful temples of antiquity, is now reduced
 in poor ruins.

In antiquity the Temple was famous for its statue of Hercules, which the notorious art thief Gaius Verres attempted to steal for his governor's palace around 73 BC. Plans of the raid were leaked, and the Roman soldiers were overpowered by the local citizens. The Temple was also reported to contain a magnificent painting of the infant Hercules strangling a serpent, painted by the famed artist Zeuxis. The Temple of Hercules was damaged by fire sometime in antiquity and later renovated by the Romans, who added three small cult rooms at the back of the shrine. A large statue of Asklepios was discovered in one of these rooms.

Joan, Gus, Curt, Lynn
standing in front of the ruins of the Temple of Olympian
 Zeus (also known as Temple of Jupiter). Stones were used for buildings
 and public
 works up until the 17th century.

Fallen Herculean Telamon column from Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is the largest Doric temple ever constructed although it was never completed. Today, it stands as a pile of ruins, and is nearly unrecognizable as a temple. The temple was probably built as a victory monument after the battle of Himera in 480 BCE, in which the Sicilian Greeks defeated the Punic Carthiginians. It is thought that the temple was almost complete by the time that the Carthiginians took revenge, capturing Akragas in 406 BCE. As a result, the temple was left unfinished.
We spent about 3 hours here, soaking up the impressive views and the atmosphere. The place is huge; to see all of it you would really need a full day. Spread out over the valley and on a ridge resting between the city and the sea, you can feel what it must have been like here thousands of years ago.
Gus does not typically write reviews for Travel Advisor yet in this instance Uncovered Sicily provided our skillful guide Laura and secured our reservation for our next experience and as such deserves the accolades:
La Madia is located is Licata, a bit out of the way, or as Gus would say "in the middle of nowhere." In fact, there is almost no reason to visit Licata, if it wasn't for this restaurant. Oh, the restaurant is certainly one of the most talked about and is considered one of the best in Sicily. La Madia earned its first Michelin Star in 2006 and added its second in 2009. Chef Pino Cuttaia is known for a cuisine that is very attached to the area and its traditions, with very interesting innovative touches, and an impeccable technique.
Signage discretely identifying the restaurant.
After finding parking across the street from the restaurant we ended up encountering a locked door and a restaurant that appeared to be closed. Yet, we rang the door bell and a staff member opened the door for us and welcomed us to the restaurant.

Photo on the wall above our table.
The dining room was spacious and sober, and the service was casual yet professional ... for all intents and purposes, no one spoke English and the menu is in Italian only. Now for the foodie-style photo breakdown of the meal.
Reviewing the menus, Gus and Joan chose the 8 course tasting menu ~ The Sea Unexpected ( Il Mare Inaspettato) while  Curt and Lynn chose the 7 course tasting menu ~ The Illusion (L'illusione).

 Il Mare Inaspettato
(8 course tasting menu)

G. Milazzo Terre della Baronia Bianco Sicilia IGT
Good acidity,  fruity notes with mineral finish; produced from
Catarrato Lucido 100%; grown in the province of Agrigento.

Cloud of Capri
(Nuvola di caprese)

Carpaccio of Red Shrimp with Bottarga Mayonnaise and Mandarin Olive Oil
(Battutino di gambero rosso)

Seafood dishes, flavors ...
(Sapori di mare, sapori di ...)

Octopus on the Rock and Parsley Mousse
(Polpo sulla roccia)

Ravioli Squid Stuffed with Sicilian Zucchini Leaves and Anchovy Sauce
(Raviolo di calamaro ripieni di tinniruma di cucuzza)

Pasta and Shellfish Soup
(Pasta e minestra di crostacei)

Chargrilled Tuna with Potato Fondant
(Tataki tonno Sikano)
(photo courtesy of Dr. Gourmeta )

Cassata Ice Cream
(Cassata gelato)

Cannolo Cornucopia with a Scoop of Cream
(Cannolo di una pallina di gelato)

(7 course tasting menu)
G. Milazzo Maria Costanza Rosso Sicilia NV
Pleasant with smooth tannins; produced from
Nero d'Avola 100%; grown in the province
 of Agrigento.
Cloud of Capri
(Nuvola di caprese)

Pizzaiola: smoked cod pinecone
(Pizzaiola: merluzzo all'affumicatura di pigna)
Overview of Anchovies
(Quadro di alici)
"Egg" Cuttlefish 
("Uovo" di sepia)
Tortello in fake lean
(Tortello in falso magro)

Beef Tenderloin Smoothed Oil Ash
(Filetto di manzo lisciato all'olio di cenere)
Cassata Ice Cream
(Cassata gelato)

Cannolo Cornucopia with a Scoop of Cream
(Cannolo di una pallina di gelato)

Chef Pino Cuttaia

The service was good to excellent depending on who was servicing the table.  The chef was present in the dining room at the end of service and was gracious enough to visit our table ... due to the lack of a common language we were only able to say molto delizioso y grazie  and when Chef replied we had no idea what he was saying. 
We finished lunch around 3:30; from the restaurant in Licata to where we were to spend the next 3 nights is about 1½ hours. The route to the Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa was a bit challenging, however, we pulled into the resort's parking lot around 5:oo and quickly checked-in and settled into our rooms (Joan and Gus had one room change in the process due to refusing to share our first room with ants).

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