Friday, October 24, 2014

The art of Sicilian cart painting: the world of Maestro Domenico di Mauro

Domenico di Mauro is a 101 year old artist, trained as a boy in the art of Sicilian cart painting. Sicilian horse-drawn carts stopped being used many years ago, and the dwindling art of painting them is kept alive today by only a handful of living artists and their descendants. 
A visit to Domenico di Mauro's home-studio-family museum-art shop felt like such an honor! Being in the presence of this beautiful man was an incredible experience. He is full of joy and pride at his accomplishments and along with his 80-something year old son, was happy to open up his home and let us experience the world of Sicilian cart painting for a few hours.
As Sicilian carts are pretty much obsolete today, and can be mostly viewed in Sicilian museums or during special festivals, cart painters now use their talents to produce small canvases, vases and sculptures that can be purchased by collectors or tourists.
The di Mauro home has several rooms dedicated to displaying a dizzying amount of colorful artworks created by the father-son duo, in the traditional Sicilian painting style, as well as one priceless cart proudly on display.
Domenico's life story is pretty amazing and he and his son were happy to share how he became an artist, ended up owning his own cart shop in Aci Sant'Antonio where he still lives today, and achieved great acclaim for his talent and accomplishments in Sicily and beyond.
The most moving and inspiring part of the experience was seeing the artist at work. An outdoor easel is set up in a peaceful, shady corner of the courtyard, just next to his bedroom. Here he sits every morning and paints. Seeing him in action definitely felt like living proof of the secret to a long, healthy life: follow your passion, do it purely, simply and with love, and most importantly, do it every day!
Domenica di Mauro, it was such an honor to meet you!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Isola delle Correnti: Where two seas meet

Welcome to the Isola delle Correnti, Sicily's most southern point! 

From the town of Portopaolo we admired the island from a distance, the silhouette of the old abandoned lighthouse and the long thin strip of rocky earth that once connected the island to the mainland. Of course we weren't satisfied by only seeing it from afar. 

We wanted to get a closer look. So off came the shoes (and then shorts and shirt of the little guy), and we slowly crunched our way across the long sandy beach.

The light was amazing. In other parts of Sicily a major rainstorm was raging, but here we remained dry and quite warm as the sun peeked through the rolling clouds. By the time we'd made it to the rocky strip we were ready for a swim. Only the little guy was so lucky, as by now he was playing in the waves in his underwear! In the summer, when the water is warm and the tide is low, it is easy to walk/swim to the island for an even closer exploration.  

The amazing thing about this place is that exactly here is the meeting point of two great seas: the Mediterranean and Ionian. You can tell by the continual rows of small waves rolling against each other, one from the east, the other from the west, forming a clear straight line where the clashing currents meet. Today, things were quite calm and you had to pay close attention to notice the currents.

First we hung out on the Mediterranean side. It was so calm and still, barely a ripple disturbed the glistening water.

Then we took a long wade in the Ionian sea. There was definitely more movement here today. Can't you see the difference?

One long last look at the big blue sea....and we were off, until next time!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cava d'Ispica and the Museo Cavallo d'Ispica

Cava d'Ispica is a rocky gorge filled with prehistoric tombs, lovely walking paths, and plenty to explore. 

As so often happens in Sicily, a visit to this archaeological site is as much about the nature as it is about the ancient remains. The walking paths take you up along the cliffs that line the gorge. It was used as a cemetery in prehistoric times when the tradition was burying the dead in rock cut tombs. Later, in medieval times, the gorge was used to create catacombs, rock hewn churches, and cave dwellings, the remains of which can be explored at your leisure in this beautiful place. 

Other than all the rocks and caves, prickly pear cacti, walnut and pomegranate trees were our main company, and yes, we did sample their delicious fruits along the way for some nutritious and delicious snacking to take a break from all the rambling and climbing.

This 34 meter huge cave, which was used as a catacomb, is one of the biggest we explored.
If you are daring you can test your balance by walking along the uneven edges of these now empty graves and go exploring deep into the dark corners where it can be hard to see. Apparently there are a total of 464 tombs inside.

After our visit to the site, we were intrigued by the signs that directed us to the nearby Museo Cavallo d'Ispica, a Water Mill (mulino ad acqua) museum. Here we were amazed by a 17th century house still inhabited by the descendants of the original owners, and still functioning as a flour mill powered by a water wheel. The house is built into a rocky cliff similar to the landscape of the archaeological park, and includes the original caves that were used as living quarters, stables, and the flour mill. Really brings those caves to life!
It was raining so hard I wasn't able to take many photos, but the visit includes a tour of the water source that powers the water wheel as well as a demonstration of how the wheel crushes the grain into flour which is available to purchase for only 1.50 euro per bag! More information and photos here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Francavilla di Sicilia and the Alcantra River

Francavilla di Sicilia has everything you could want in a Sicilian excursion.

There is the charming, decrepit Medieval quarter in the old part of the town.

And the scant remains of a Norman castle perched on a hill above the town that you can hike to for spectacular views of the neighboring village, Castiglione di Sicilia, and beautiful Mt. Etna.

And a trail that will take you from the castle into the Alcantra river nature reserve, where you can hike along orange groves and olive trees, examine the ancient irrigation system still in place since the time of Arab dominion,  and pick and devour sweet figs growing on the wild trees that appear before you just when you realized you forgot to pack a snack. Soon the roar of the rushing Alcantra river provides the soundtrack you were searching for. 

And then astonishing falls and pools appear before you, unique to this stretch of the river, known as Le Gurne. At this point the Medieval ruins seem dull in comparison to the river, its emerald green waters, the abundant plant life growing here, and all its natural splendor.

And then you find a spot where you can get a closer look and walk along the ancient volcanic rocks, now worn to a smooth, slippery sheen by the river.

Here you sit on the rocks, take off sweaty shoes and layers of clothes to cool yourself in the deliciously fresh, clean water. Trust me, you will not want to leave this spot.  And when you do, you will make a promise to yourself to come back soon.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Isole Ciclopi by boat

A few weeks ago a friend suggested we take the kids on a boat ride to the Cyclops Islands. While I'd kayaked around the islands before and taken a glass bottomed boat tour of the marine reserve that surrounds them, somehow I'd never gotten around to being ferried across the bay on a wooden fishing boat to explore the islands on foot.  
In Acitrezza we headed straight to the port across from the main piazza, where all the smaller boats are docked. A fisherman could tell right away what we were there for and approached us even before we were at the water's edge.
Minutes later we puttering across the bay out towards the archipelago. The islands are only about 200 meters from the shore and with a motor boat take just a few minutes to reach. 
Isola Lachea is the largest of the islands and in the summer is a favorite spot for snorkelers, swimmers, boaters and sun bathers. This island is unique because of its striations of white and black rock. The white rock is the mineralized clay that reacted with the magma as it was pushed up from the sea floor about 500,000 years ago when the underwater eruption that formed these islands occurred. The black rock below the white rock is the volcanic magma that flowed from the earth's crust and cooled to hard rock under the sea.
We cruised around the island to get a good look at all the beautiful rock formations, but did not get out because the path that takes you to the little museum up top was closed that day and it would not have been possible to explore very much. Instead, we were brought to the little craggy island known as the Isola della Madonna or Isola di Santa Maria because of the marble statue of the Madonna carved by the local sculptor Rosario Piazza that was placed there in 1954.  
As we stepped onto land, our driver assured us he'd come back after our requested time of 30 minutes. A long flight of stairs greeted us with a statue of the Madonna visible at the top. 
We started up the stairs eagerly until a couple of sunbathers warned us about the angry seagulls. I had been told that the seagulls nested on these islands and could get aggressive. After a little hesitation we decided to brave the stairs anyway.  The gulls swooped and cried their angry cries, but we crouched low and kept going.
I was so glad we because they soon quieted down and let us mingle at the top of the stairs next to the statue of the Madonna.
Gazing back at the town from here you can fully appreciate the beauty of this little paradise, the turquoise waters, the sweet town, the bulge of Etna rising above.


Getting out to the islands is easy. If you head to the port with the small fishing boats you'll be offered a ride in exchange for a fee. We paid 10 euros for 2 adults and 3 kids, but that price is a little on the high side and we weren't in the mood for bargaining that day. If you are be sure to set the price before you get on the boat. You'll be offered a short tour around the islands and the chance to get off at either Isola Lachea or Isola della Madonna. Tell your driver when you want to picked up and you'll be surprised at the punctuality! 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Treasure hunt: Acitrezza

The short paths leading down to Acitrezza's rocky beach are all along the town's boardwalk and can't be missed. There was no way my 7 year old was not going down there. The equally exuberant puppy followed in step, dragging me along behind him.

And there I found myself, skipping along the rocks, smack in the middle of a little boy adventure and the best kind of spontaneous treasure hunting. Really just some time for being in the moment, appreciating the beauty of the place, and getting inspired by my son's contagious excitement and deep love of sea creatures. What more could a camera happy mamma want?

Look at the treasures we found!

Mamma's pick: a lonely wooden fishing boat
Little boy pick: An empty shell wedged between the rocks
Little boy pick: An overturned rock revealed this sweet creature: a spiny starfish (Marthasterias glasialis)

 Little boy pick: Black crabs are speedy, but still no match for these hands.
Don't worry, all living creatures were returned to safety after a goodbye kiss. 
Puppy pick: Faraglione islands, those little rocky peaks out in the distance could tempt any dog with their flocks of seagulls and colorful lizards.