Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Biking Catania

The feeling of cruising on a bike, wind in hair, sun on face, seems to capture what I desire most in this new year: relaxation, fun, freedom, movement. 

'Let's Ride!' digital illustration
To see more of my artwork click here

It's actually been getting a little easier to experience the fun of biking here in Catania the last few years. I think most people would agree, Catania (and probably much of Sicily), is not the most bike friendly kind of place.

Despite that, bikers are a common sight. You have your hardcore bikers - those who prefer bikes to cars as transport, and the serious biking crowd, that moves in packs all geared up. And now, you have the regular folks who have been been inspired to join in the fun in a more relaxed kind of way.  

I think the main reason for for this new group of bikers is the construction of a bike lane (yes, Catania has only one official bike lane). Albeit a little short, the cycle-only lane is located in a convenient area, right along the city's seaside. For non-serious bikers like myself, this has been a most welcome source of inspiration to get outdoors on two wheels and get those legs moving.

I know the bike lane has received a lot of criticism for various reasons, but being an optimist I can't help but enjoy the views of the sea and Mt. Etna you can experience while cruising Catania on a sunny day. It's also one of the few places in Catania where I feel I can safely take my son on a bike ride. 

Today the sun is shining once again after many days of rain and it looks like the perfect day for a bike ride. Let's go!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Tuscan (and lovebird's) dream: the natural hot springs of Saturnia

Like a couple of lovebirds we were able to celebrate our 15 year wedding anniversary this year at one of our favorite places on the planet -- Saturnia.

Lovebirds doodle.
Check out more of my creations here

Saturnia is a tiny southern Tuscan town. What makes it special, other than its perfectly Italian Tuscan vibe, are the natural hot springs that gurgle up from the earth's deeps, forming the most glorious pools of hot steamy water.

These are healing waters. The sulphur content is high, so a pungent odor characterizes the place, along with steamy, billowing clouds that form in the cool mornings and evenings adding to the magic of this most relaxing and indulgent of places. 

The main pool is a simple, ancient, rectangular basin. Ledges along the edges allow for endless hours of soaking. Other than the occasional bubble rising to the surface, it is impossible to see the exact source of the thermal waters. They rise silently up from the deep bottom of the pool at such a fast rate that it always remains full (check out this cool video). The almost 100 degree Fahrenheit natural temperature is hot, but not too hot, especially in the cool autumn air. Truly the perfect medicine for warming body, mind, and soul. 

From the main pool the water is directed in channels down to a lower section of the spa. Here there are a series of additional pools, and a dizzying array of water relaxation delights.

The waters continue to flow, from the resort to the famous Cascate di Mulino. These are free, wild waterfalls that attract hoards of people all times of the year. Here you do not have the luxury of the resort, but you have the natural setting of this unique little paradise. The only downside is that the water is cooler down here.

These pools are reminiscent of Pamukkale in Turkey. Warm water tumbles down over the edges of white rocks that have formed from the accumulation of mineral deposits. They are white, smooth and slippery.

The water is perfectly clear with a pale blue hue. 

Moving further downstream the mineral waters merge with the Tuscan landscape.

And off they go.

To lovers of nature, natural hot springs, and beautiful destinations, Saturnia is the place for you. Not only for lovebirds either, this is a very family friendly place.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

From Ancient to Baroque, Lovely Siracusa

We were reminded of how fabulous the Archeological Museum of Siracusa (Paolo Orsi) is when we joined some friends there a few weeks ago.  

Travel sketch inspired by a visit to the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi
You can see more of my work here

The museum must be the largest collection of ancient artifacts in all of Sicily. The building and grounds aren't very inspiring when you first approach them, but once you step inside all that is forgotten. 

Inside, ancient Sicily comes to life. The artifacts speak for themselves, no interactive exhibits here. Materials are grouped together by the archaeological sites from where they excavated. My favorites date to the prehistoric periods, before the arrival of the Greeks and Romans, but those later sections are full of such an astonishing amount and array of materials it is impossible not to be fascinated by the Classical and Hellenistic worlds, too.

After the museum we headed to lovely Ortigia for (vegan!) lunch, followed by a walk through the main piazza. 

Our native Siracusano friend lead us to the small church at the end of the piazza that we had somehow overlooked on previous visits. How could we not know that this museum houses one of Siracusa's most precious treasures?

Hanging behind the altar of the little church is a huge canvas painted in 1608 by the master Baroque painter, Caravaggio, the Burial of Santa Lucia. (No photos allowed, but check out the link). We lingered at the foot of the altar taking in the work, displaying all of Caravaggio's famed elements that were innovative for his time: naturalistic depictions of non-idealized people despite the religious subject matter, heavy contrasts between dark shadows and the stream of light flooding the painting's focus, the corpse of Santa Lucia.

The light was starting to get dramatic outside, too, and it was time to go. Heading back to the car, we had one last look out to sea. A moment of wonderment, really, and appreciation. All this history jumbled together, seeping through the cracks from centuries ago, from millennium ago. It could be easy to get used to this kind of experience living Sicily, but I will never take it for granted. What a place!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Into the Woods: Signs of Autumn in the Nebrodi Mountains

Sicily has been basking in sunshine until just a few days ago, with hardly any signs of the autumn season we love so much.

So it was up to us to seek out some of those sights, smells and flavors to welcome in the season. 

Our excursion to Cesaro,  a small town on the Western edge of the Nebrodi mountains, was the perfect opportunity to do just that. After sampling some of the local delicacies (wild mushrooms for the vegetarian, Nebrodian black pig for the carnivores), we headed out of town looking for the 

View of Cesaro' from the edge of the woods

We didn't have to go very far.

Wooded hillside of the Nebrodi mountains

Just a few kilometers from town a tree covered hillside with a dirt road invited us to explore.

Exploring the Nebrodi

Soon we left the path to trailblaze our own way, weaving through the maze of trees. 

We weren't expecting to see the wild pigs and horses the area is known for this close to town, but we were on the lookout for wild mushrooms. 

 Wild mushroom scavenger hunt

Let me preface our mushroom scavenging by announcing that we are total amateurs and know nothing about edible vs poisonous mushrooms. We assumed they were all poisonous and were intent only on admiring the various specimens. Once my son got a hang of it, he was spotting all types of mushrooms sprouting up from the thick layer of pine needles and dried leaves covering the ground beneath the trees. They really do come in all shapes and sizes...

Mushrooms abound in the Nebrodi moutnains

From tiny specimens....

Our largest find in the Nebrodi mountains enormous ones!

Travel sketch inspired by wild mushrooms scavenged in the Nebrodi mountains.
You can check out more of my work here.

Wouldn't it be fun to illustrate a guide of the different wild mushrooms that grow in these parts?  For now I let my imagination run wild with these quirky, whimsical shapes.

Saffron flower (crocus satvius)

The only interruption to the subdued autumn colors on our woodland exploration was the occasional bright purple saffron flower (crocus satvius). These can be spotted in mountains all across Sicily in the autumn season. 

Next time I hope to venture further into the Nebrodian wild. There are some gorgeous lakes, lovely hikes and good opportunities to spot wildlife. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sicilian Folk Music -- Let's Dance!

Sicilian folk music is joyful, upbeat, playful and fun.

I was recently enchanted by a group I saw performing at a festival in the town of Cesaro'. The colorful costumes, simple instruments, agile musicians and pairs of dancers were so lively and fun.   

Sicilian folk music and dance at Cesaro'

The high-pitched simple, flute, called the friscalettu is what caught my attention first. I was amazed by the quick moving fingers of the musician who played it and the intense, sing-song sounds being produced by this little instrument (have a listen!). 

The little flute: the friscalettu

The tambourine, or tamburello in Italian, is also a fundamental part of Sicilian folk music that is very familiar. Any tourist shop you visit here will have a rack of brightly painted tambourines for sale, dangling with with colorful ribbons and pompoms. Their drum-like, jangly beat is what kept the rhythm for the dancers, inviting us to bounce along with them. Have a listen!

Tambuourines, or tamburello in Italian, keep the beat

The accordion, no surprise, is a must for any Sicilian music group (have a listen!). 

But what really got my attention was the little thing the youngest member of the group was plucking in his mouth. All I could see was a little strip of metal sticking out from between his lips. A little research and I had the answer - that is the marranzano.  Have a listen to this totally unique sound! 

The accordion and the marranzano

In my research on these traditional Sicilian instruments I was inspired to draw. It's hard to pick a favorite, but if I had to choose one to learn to play, I think I would probably chose the friscalettu.

'Sounds of Sicily' travel sketch inspired by the musicians playing at Cesaro'.
You can check out more of my work here.

And finally, to hear all these sounds come together, check out this video. Doesn't it make you want to hop around and dance?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Fonte Ciane - Siracusa's Ancient Azure Spring (and more Papyrus!)

If you are a lover of both nature and mythology, then the Fonte Ciane near the city of Siracusa is your kind of place.

The azure waters of the Fonte Ciane

This is where natural spring water bubbles to the surface in a circular pool, after having traveled underground several kilometers from the original source (sorgente di testa Pisima) that feeds the Ciane River. The ancient Greeks who once lived here named it Cyanos (Ciane in Italian) for the gorgeous azure blue color.

The tranquil atmosphere of the place is beautiful to experience in person. The unusually colored waters, the papyrus plants that ring its edges, and the antiquity all add to its mystique.

From here you can follow a trail and hike the the relatively short length of the Ciane River, as well as the nearby, much longer, Anapo River. Eventually the two meet at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Siracusa's Grande Porto. I  share our experience doing that here.

Even though we failed to reach the fonte on foot during our hike, we did manage to get there by car. An easy, well-signed and scenic drive was all it took. No additional hiking necessary!

It seems there are several different mythological stories associated with this place, but the one that seems to be most repeated tells that Kyane was a Naid-nymph of the spring. She is said to have witnessed the abduction of her playmate Persephone by the god of the underworld, Hades, who re-entered the earth down into his dark world with his captive at this very spring. After witnessing this event, the grief stricken Kyane dissolved away and merged into the waters of her spring. 

Travel sketch inspired by papyrus plants that grow abundantly along the Ciane river.
You can check out more of my work here.

All those papyrus plants reminded me of this drawing I made some time ago after encountering a bunch of papyrus growing in a neighbor's yard in Los Angeles! Something about these fanciful plants are so appealing and spark my imagination.

To complete our Siracusan adventure we made a quick stop at the lovely Ortigia. Shopping, eating, and more antiquity! This time exploring the Museo del Papiro where you can finally learn all about the history of the plant and ancient techniques that are still being used by artisans in the area for transforming the plant into paper.   

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Natural Siracusa: Exploring the Anapo and Ciane Rivers

The city of Siracusa has so much to offer. Not just archaeology, museums, and charming elegance, but also nature. 

Travel drawing inspired by our weekend adventure
(you can check out more of my work here)

Our most recent visit was dedicated to discovering the natural beauty of Siracusa. The pristine beaches south of the city (here and here) are the most obvious choices. But for non-beachy nature excursions there is also the less frequented Riserva Naturale Orientata Fiume Ciane e Saline di Siracusa

Sunset overlooking the Anapo River

I chose the closest lodgings I could find to the river. The location couldn't have been more perfect (warning: the hotel is much more rustic in real life than it appears on the website). From our door all we had to do was walk up a grassy slope to have a view of the river. The sunset was spectacular!

Explore the river by canoe

On the other side of the grassy slope was a small dock with a canoe just waiting for its next crew. That would be us, of course. 

I was a little confused when the hotel staff told me that this was the Anapo River, not the Ciane River. The two rivers actually intersect with each other just downstream from the hotel. A little further downstream are the river mouths, where together they empty into what is called Siracusa's 'grande porto' (big port). An aerial view on Google Maps is really the best way to understand the situation.

The rivers attract many birds and from our grassy terrace and little dock we spotted snowy egrets, great blue herons, king fishers, several kinds of ducks, and lots of splashing fish. I loved this peaceful spot!

The Anapo River by day

There are several options for exploring the rivers: canoe, bike, boat, foot. We loved taking the hotel's canoe out onto the river. We canoed down the Anapo, made a sharp turn, went up the Ciane, turned around, went out to sea, and then back up the Anapo. It sounds like we covered more ground than we actually did! But what a fun way to soak in the peaceful atmosphere and see lots of ducks and fish. 

Exploring the nature reserve by foot

The next morning we set out to discover the nature reserve on foot. We followed the driving directions the hotel receptionist gave us. Although a little confusing, it turns out they weren't so bad. With the help of a biker we flagged down, in no time at all we found our way to the beginning of the trail. Soon we were walking alongside open fields and a winding river flanked by a canopy of green. Ahhhhh!

Shady spots

We had a gotten a later start than we should have and it was hot. The shade of the trees was most welcome. My nature loving boy was the one who spotted frogs, a river crab, and several ducks peeking out from behind the reeds.

Sporadic signage

Our goal had been to walk to the Fonte Ciane, the source of the Ciane River. After an hour into our walk, though, it became clear that we were not going to make it there on foot. With hindsight we realized bikes would have been the transport of choice (we passed quite a few bikers, and even some runners, along the way). 

Papyrus plants

We didn't mind, though. We enjoyed poking around the banks of the river and hanging out with the bundles of papyrus plants that flourish in its waters. I promise this is fascinating stuff since it is one of two places in Europe where papyrus grows, the other also being in Sicily. It is not certain if it is a native plant or if it was introduced to the area in antiquity.