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.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Swim like a local: Catania's rocky beaches

Weclome to Catania's rocky beaches! Also known as the Scogliera or la Riva dei Ciclope (Cyclopes Riveria). 
Acicastello's free access rocky 'beach': a favorite among locals for swimming and sunbathing.
Most everyone who comes for a visit is initially startled by these so-called rocky 'beaches'. They just don't feel like beaches! There is no room for beach combing (but you can go rock hopping!). There is nowhere comfortable to lie down (that's why lidos, or private beach clubsbuild wooden platforms over the rocks in the summer and rent lounge chairs). And it can be tricky to get into the water (that's why little staircases are suspended from rocks or wooden platforms to make it easier to get in!). But, if you have an open mind, are willing to give Catania's rocky beaches a try, and are mentally prepared to experience rockiness before you get here, then you just might find yourself a convert like I have. 

This rocky, cliffy landscape stretches from Catania to Acireale and was created by past eruptions on Mt. Etna when the hot lava flowed down its slopes and into the sea. According to my beloved Blue Guide, lava reached the sea in 396 BC, 1169, 1329 and 1381, each time drastically changing the shape and appearance of the land, coast and beaches. 

The result is a strip of gray-black coast formed of basalt rock boulders, stones and pebbles. If you take the time to explore and look closer you'll discover that these rocks are varied in shape, size and texture, and they are jumbled together in an unending array of unexpected configurations forming secluded coves, arches and even small caves. Plus, they're fun to climb on!

And the water? Deep blue-green, transparent and beautiful. This area is great for snorkeling, spotting little coastal fish and other sea creatures like starfish, sea snails, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, and even eels slithering along the bottom if you have a good eye.

There are many swimming spots to chose from on the outskirts of Catania. 
Some are free access zones and others are private beach clubs that you have to pay to get into to.

Free Access Zones

These spots are for those who prefer less crowds, no lounge chairs, and a more 'natural' setting. Also, you shouldn't mind climbing up and down the rocks to get into the water.  Good water shoes are a must as the rocks can be really pointy and these areas are home to prickly creatures like sea urchins.

La Scogliera: If you drive or walk along Via Aicastello (street map here) keep your eyes open for paths that lead from the sidewalk down onto the rocks. Any of these are potential free spots for laying out on the rocks and taking a dip in the refreshing water.

This spot is a real favorite among the locales. From the road, next to the Lido Bellatrix, there is a small path that will lead you down to a staircase and some easy to walk on boulders that provide a secluded spot for a swim. Find a smooth rock to spread your towel on and watch the locals to see the best way to get in and out of the water.
Favorite Catanese swimming spot at the Scogliera
Scogliera cat

Acicastello: From the main piazza, underneath the castle, is an area of lava rock that forms a flat plateau perfect for sunbathing, fishing and easy access to the sea. Climb down the stairs and ramble over the rocks to find a spot that you like. Here the rocks are pretty bumpy, so good water shoes are a must to protect your feet. The locals love it here too and you'll have the thrill of swimming beneath a Norman castle for a truly unique experience.
Acicastello's Norman castle. The flat bed of lava rock at the base encircles the entire castle and makes for a secluded swimming spot away from the crowds.

Acitrezza: In this sweet fishing town the waterfront boardwalk consists of private lidos, a working fishing port and free spots for swimming. Talk a walk along the boardwalk to see what appeals to you. Or, even better, pay a few euros to one of the fishermen at the port to be boated across the bay to the little island known as Isola Lachae. Here the water is crystalline turquoise blue and wonderful for snorkeling. You'll be able to experience the best of the Cyclopes Riviera away from the crowds of the lidos. In the summer many small boats anchor around here to enjoy the beautiful water so do be careful when you are out for your swim.
Isola Lachae, Acitrezza
View of the water and Acitrezza from Isola Lachae

Private beach lidos

You have to pay an entrance fee to get into these private beach clubs but the daily price isn't too high and you have the convenience of amenities likes bars, chairs to rent, wooden platforms or grassy areas to lie on, and stairs for getting into the water.  The lidos of course are less 'natural' and you may contend with more people, but you still get the same beautiful water.  There are many to choose from but I just list the two that I have personally been to.

La Grotta Smeralda (La Scogliera): This is a small little beach club but very sweet. I enjoyed our day here very much and loved  the long wooden stairs that lead you down to the secluded cove you can access here for a luxurious swim. There is very  little information about this lido on the internet, but if you are looking for a smaller, less chaotic local establishment, this one might be your kind of style.
Entrance to the Grotta Smeralda Lido

Ciclope (Acitrezza): This mega lido has been around forever and is much loved by the Catanese. It feels like a little village and does get very crowded in the summer. This lido is just next to Acitrezza and the rocky shore is more pebbly than cliffy, so if cliffs are not appealing to you this might be an easy way for you to enjoy a swim in the sea with all the amenities your heart desires at your fingertips. I used to come here when my son was little because of the swimming pool and playground on the premises. We also enjoyed going on walks along the shaded paths to explore the different sections of the lido, which in addition to the pool include a large seafront area, a fish pond, changing areas, and several bars.
The Ciclope Lido is more like a park than a lido - full of so much greenery

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Treasure hunt: Catania

A 10 minute ramble in the streets of Catania, and look at the treasures I found!
a vintage vespa

colorful walls
community involvement: 25.000+ ran in the annual 5k fundraiser (including us)!
art deco details  
whimsical graffiti

Do you ever go hunting for treasures in your neighborhood?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Julio Larraz in Catania

When new inspiration arrives in Catania it is a celebration!
a living artist
sometimes sculpture
Cuban by birth
American by residence
Italian by acclaim
huge canvases come to life with his colorful language: 
magical realism 
subtle details 
unexpected whimsy
and perspectives
seascapes-people-power-mythology-oceans and seas-soaring like a  bird-diving like a fish
 We visited the galleries on a family day with a special tour geared for children: simple explanations and observations of the artist's subject matter, style and techniques. It was followed by a hands on creative lab to explore the much loved subjects of Larraz (that are also near and dear to Catanese):
mythology and the sea.
 While no photos of his original artworks were allowed inside the galleries,
outside, in the museum's courtyard (where I could snap away), 
we met this surprising equestrian sculpture.
A headless horseman! 
And as I looked closer my memory was jarred to the much beloved story
Around the base of the statue are wordless panels that tell, scene by scene,
how this headless horseman came to be. 
The children were enthralled! 
I was exalted by the retelling of this nostalgic tale, unknown to my Italian friends, 
and the ingenious delivery of the story by Julio Larraz. 
 A fictional tale of the American Revolution and a stray cannonball...
 that kills and decapitates a Hessian rider...
whose headless body arises each night from his grave as a ghoulish galloping ghost
in search of his lost head.