Category Archives: Italy

What is the Norman art? The Monreale case

Am I an independent traveler-explorer? No, I’m not. Although some of the best moments of my trips I’ve mentioned here are visits to some sunken villages or walks through the city alleys ignored by tourists, let’s face an obvious fact, namely, tourist attractions are attractions because they are attractive.

The note before the last one was about Erice. I complained about the herds of tourists marshalling through the town. I’ve received many comments from the readers saying that I must have been very unlucky because when they visited the town there wasn’t almost anyone. Anyway, I kept stumbling over some organised tours.

Yet, I know that I wouldn’t forgive myself if I hadn’t called at Erice. I’d read so many good things about the town that I wanted to see this little something situated on the rock. Well, all the pros and cons considered, all in all, I don’t regret going there.

And such a scenerio is very common. You can go to France and not pay a visit to Versailles. It will save you money and nerves then. But knowing that millions of people in the world believe the palace to be a real miracle on earth, knowing what kind of history took place there and the importance of the place both for France and Europe, maybe after all it’s worth dropping in?
In my opinion it is. As so many people recommend something, it means this something has to be really something. So I take a deep breath and go into the tourist crowd, after all, in a few hours I’ll escape into the woods.

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The Knowledge and the Life, a guide to Italy, devotes 26 pages to Sicily, including two pages related to Monreale. It gave me a reason for some thought over the place. Our approach was as following: if we could get there without any problem let’s go then. If not, we won’t push ourselves to do it by all means.
So we asked Salvatore whether he’d be passing Monreale. He wouldn’t but he could give us a lift. And so he did.

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Monreale is a small town on a hill with an amazing view on Palermo that is located below. It’s known for its 12th century Norman cathedral situated here.
Sicily is unbelievable in the sense of its cultural confusion. For centuries, the island was boosted by succeeding nations: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Vandals, Ostrogoths… phew, the list could go on and on. In the 11th century the time for the Normans came, which still keeps amazing me. This brave nation of the Vikings, from whom the French Normandy took its name, incredibly contributed to the looks of Sicilian landscape today.

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The Cathedral of Monreale was built by the Norman King William II, who wanted to undermine the growing influence of the Palermo diocese. In the temple you can visit the interior of the church and the adjoining cloisters (admission: normal 6 euros/ reduced 3 euros). The latter, in my opinion, a tourist who cultivates sightseeing in a budget version can skip, especially if the medieval cloisters are news to him. Oh yes, they weren’t bad, but please keep in mind that at a fixed budget of 10 euros per day, these 3 for the entrance make a fortune :).

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I don’t know too much about the Norman art and as I entered the cathedral in Monreale, I realised I knew even less. I would associate the Normans more with the northern raw stone and dark interior. The Norman architecture is eventually that of the London Tower and other similar places taken almost directly from medieval legends. That’s why I got really surprised when, instead of a heavy stone I saw a kaleidoscope of colours and mosaics. For a moment I was wondering if I hadn’t confused something. In my head there were swirling such question as where the hell those Normans came from, because the answer couldn’t be simply Scandinavia. I thought that I’d mixed something up. That maybe there was just some coincidence of names. In front of my eyes there was a masterpiece of something that I ‚Äď after all, a person who’s passed A-levels in history of art at over 90% and studied the history of art for a year – would describe as the Byzantine art.

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The Normans turned out intelligent and tolerant beasts. They had capacity to learn. They knew how to assimilate the culture of the lands defeated by them and how to take the best of them. As a result, the northern coast of Sicily is full of structures called Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. An explosive mixture. Unique and original of its kind. By the way, a gorgeous one. Such things can be seen only in Sicily.

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Oh, and is it worth it? It is, but I wouldn’t call it Top 5. The next note will be about Palermo. And this one is to be called that, for sure.

Hitchhiking tips:
From Monreale to Palermo there’s just a few kilometre distance and only one road goes there. The square in front of the cathedral is actually at its drive out of town. We walked along the road for a few hundred metres, and at the place where there was a bit more space for the car we put our thumbs up. A relatively quickly caught Italian guy (few people were going out of the town – some big gun was visiting the cathedral, an archbishop, I guess) gave us a lift to the very centre of Palermo.

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Hitchhiking in Sicily: Castellammare del Golfo by accident

When we told the Italians encountered later on, which corners of Sicily we’d visited so far, just hearing the sound of the name Castellammare del Golfo they always reacted in the same way: delight.

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Everyone loves this place. The place where we found ourselves sheerly by accident. We hadn’t planned to stay there. Yes, of course, I’d heard the name before but I didn’t think that visiting Castellammare is a must. So quite by accident we ended up in a lovely seaside town.

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As the name suggests, once there was a castle there. The castle by the sea. As many of similar Mediterranean castles, after years it’s become a town. Today, it’s a pretty popular place for recreation.

The town is charming. Located on the seafront among the rocks, it itself stays on quite a high cliff. In a small cove there is a little harbour with fishing boats and ten tourist bars. After returning from fishing, the fishermen set up their quarries on the tables by their boats and around the noon the street turns into a bustling market, where the locals can admire today’s trophies with great interest.

We found a relatively cheap pizzeria and then looked for a place to stay. The choice was situated only a few dozen metres from the harbour, a hill. It was a piece of untouched land full of stones with a fairly steep slope. On the right side, there was a house, on the left side, there was a house, and we were just left to hope that no one would kick us off. And no one did ūüôā

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After breakfast at the harbour we made a walk to the other end of the town. There, in front of our eyes appeared a vast, sandy beach. It stretched to the horizon and there wasn’t even a single soul. In blissful peace and quietness, and in the pleasant but not too hot sun we spent the next few hours. The clouds and approaching rain finally put us off. It was the sign that there came the right time to head for Palermo.

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Hitchhiking tips:
From the beach in Castellammare del Golfo we were heading for the road that leads to Palermo. As putting your thumb up doesn’t require much effort we quickly managed to catch a car. A nice couple gave us a ride to the petrol station at the exit of the town.

From Castellammare del Golfo to Palermo we caught a car in one minute. Almost immediately at our station there stopped Salvatore, a non-speaker in any language known to us hiper-kind middle-aged man. He was going directly to Palermo, where he lived. Speaking a little Italian A. managed to keep a conversation going really well. I had to wait another two days to make my language skills reach a communicative level. But in the end: there is nothing that teaches a language like hitchhiking.

From Erice to Palermo or licking the northern coast by car

That journey was lucky for us. Hitchhiking was lucky for us. The ride and stress-free decision to spend the night in Castellamare del Golfo were the lucky for us, too.
But let’s start from the beginning…

In Erice we met a super kind couple who was spending their holiday in Sicily. Mark and Danusia, two elderly people from Sopot, whose daughter decided to buy them tickets to Palermo as presents for Christmas. Thus, they booked a hotel room in Castellamare del Golfo and for a week they were visiting the north-western Sicily by a rented car.

They like travelling. We enjoyed listening to some stories about their trips to Crete, Provence and China. Sometimes they travel with an organised group, sometimes in such a manner as now. Danusia is a trekking guide. The magazine Knowledge and Life that she was holding in her hand she knew almost by heart. She wanted to see everything and to experience everything. She was coming into her own there, in Sicily.

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Before returning to the hotel in Castellamare they decided to visit San Vito lo Capo, a small town located on the furthest tip of the island. We were going on as long as we could. After passing San Vito the road reaches Zingaro Nature Reserve in the eastern part of the promontory. And there it ends too, forcing the travellers to return by the same, yet extremely picturesque, route.

We stopped in front of the sanctuary. Riserva dello Zingaro (Gypsy Nature Reserve) is located on the area of 1600 hectares of land hailed as the most beautiful natural landscape park of the island. It’s known for its picturesque coves, abandoned fishing huts and lots of wild birds.

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Oh yes, I was really up for it. My head was brainstorming with ideas, such as grabbing our backpacks and trekking to the place where we’d come up on the other side of the park. The plan was ambitious (the march apparently takes around 10 hours) and at that point extremely difficult to carry out.

Firstly, we were hungry. We didn’t have almost anything to eat with us so if we decided to go through the park, we’d have to stay there for the night (illegally). Secondly, it rained (so the desires were a bit weaker than usually). Thirdly, we reached the gate of the park at 4.30, while the park closes at 05.00. Our entrance with large backpacks might seem highly suspicious, and trust me, Zingaro park is nothing like our mountains, where you can easily bypass the payment gateway. Here, on the left we had a cliff falling into the sea, and on the right almost a vertical rocky wall. The five-metre wide entrance was the only available one.

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A little worried by this lost possibility I meekly entered the car. An hour later we got to Castellamare. But more about it you’ll find in the next note.

Hitchhiking tips:
From Erice to Castellamare del Golfo we were going with a Polish couple met in the town. Luckily, they stopped just in Castellamare. We weren’t planning to go there but we had no regrets at all. We approached them on the bench by the castle and asked whether they could give us a ride. This is one of the proven ways of hitchhiking: the Pole will help another Pole (abroad).

Erice – Fairy Tale Town and a Horde of Tourists

Almost running, we said goodbye to Trapani and moved to Erice, located on the nearby hill. It is one of those places, which can’t be missed in any guide book. At an altitude of 750 meters, above the sea coast, there are compact medieval buildings of the 200 inhabitants town.

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The history of Erice goes back to ancient times, when the hill was a place of cult of the goddess Venus. However, there is no chance to find any ancient monuments there. Today the place is as medieval as you can only imagine. Dozens of narrow streets, stone buildings, two splendid palaces and dozens of churches. All this surrounded by serious town walls.

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I love the medieval buildings. Those still inhabited, alive towns surely turn me more than a dead museal ruins of ancient cities, and the great grand squares of the later years. Erice with it’s atmosphere reminds Provencal villages (Vence, Le Broc, Roussillon) or, sticking to Italy, their Tuscan cousins (San Gimignano, Montefioralle). I have to confess, that no matter how hard i would try to defend, I’m not resistant to the myth of small Mediterranean towns. Widespread through Under the Tuscan Sunidea of buying an old Italian villa or renting a small room for two months runs deeply in my blood. In such place nothing better than just sit on the square, enjoy your cappuccino, then replace it with wine, add some bread with olive oil, newspaper or a book and spend whole blissful day in this way.

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Unless – this city is in the guidebooks.

Because Erice, a beautiful, wonderful Erice is an awful place!

Expensive. Full of kitschy souvenirs. Filled with tourists. The entrance to each church costs 2 euros here, and instead of cheap bars and broken pizzerias we can find luxurious restaurants and four-star hotels. On the streets of thousands of Italian, French and Chinese tourists. And it was still just April.

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It is scary to think what’s going on there during the summer.

And that’s how my admiration for the ‘intimate’, Italian town ended. We spent there maybe around two hours, then in panic ‚Äď hungry ‚Äď we run away. The harmony got imbalanced somewhere. The tourism industry reached this point somewhere, where even such place like Erice, not to mention Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, forced me to delete them from the list of places, where I’d like to go back. That’s a pitty, because they are meant to be the most beautiful.

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So, you know what, i do not recommend it. Better drive further into the island and have some wine in a local ‘hole’. Stray dogs will stick to you, guys at the gas station will be surprised what are you doing here, and in the bar you’ll drink the best wine ever, which vines grew on the hill above. And it will be beautiful anyway.

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Hitch-hiking tips:

From Trapani to Erice we caught a car just next to the funicular railway, which drove tourists to the town. There is a bus stop and taxi rank there. We waited about 15 minutes ‚Äď a very nice taxi driver dropped us. The road is extremely picturesque. We highly recommend!

You can also get to Erice by foot. I’m sure that this trekking is a great thing to do. Views are really dazzling.

From Erice to Castellamare del Golfo we went with a polish couple met in the town, who just stopped in Castellamare. We didn’t plan to go there, but we have absolutely no regrets. We started a conversation on a bench next to the castle and we asked about the lift. This is one of the best and tested ways of hitch-hiking: while being abroad Pole will help another Pole.

Morning walk in Trapani

We left Gianni’s place. The plan was simple and yet very tight: sightseeing in Trapani, drive to Erice, sightseeing Erice and transfer near the Riserva dello Zingaro. Surprisingly ‚Äď most of the plan was accomplished.

Excited with the first morning in Sicily we had one main aim above all: the sea! Beautiful, warm, Mediterranean sea! Getting there was not very hard. It was clearly visible from the window of the apartment.

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Do you know those moments, when it seems as nothing really special is happening, but you are just simply happy? When an ordinary walk excites and arouses positive energy of the greatest kind? When the water is cold, beach is dirty, ice cream not so tasty, and the city, in fact, not very interesting, but all these things don’t matter, because you have already decided that nothing will ruin this morning for you? That’s how we felt that day.

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Trapani is a city situated on the north-west strip of Sicily, with 70 thousand inhabitants, with lovely situated old town, which is surrounded  from three sides by the sea. At the beginning it was a port town, created in the need for a nearby Erice. Today Trapani is a constantly growing city, while medieval Erice turned into a tourist museum.

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Trapani is not a city, which could be recommended to the typical tourist. If you arrive in Sicily with the intention of seeing the most interesting places, you should definitely run away from it as soon as possible. Sure, it’s not an ugly city. It has it’s pleasant promenade, several Renaissance and Baroque churches and of course great views on the sea. There is also a port. A. is a big fan of ports. Being a sailor, she could not wait to come to the marina. Unfortunately she was disappointed ‚Äď it was not the picturesque one.

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In one of the churches we saw an impressive seventeenth-century sculptures of a human size. They represent the various Stations of the Cross. As we found out later, Trapani is famous for the Easter mysteries that take place during the Holy Week. During these days sculptures are placed around the city. The tradition of this procession goes back to 1612.

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And that would be all I guess. No Must See in Trapani.

But there is something else. Something, that i found much more fascinating about Sicily: everyday life. There are dirty markets, kids running around coastal rocks, fishing boats, street cafes, where the city cream of society meets up for lunch. There is a man playing in front of the church and dogs wandering on streets. At the market they treat you with olives and just caught fish. Passers-by ask where are you from and suggest a lift.

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Trapani, through it’s airport as a gate to Sicily, cheerfully welcomes it’s guests.¬†

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Couchsurfing night in Trapani

We got out of the bus, which drove us from the airport and we waited patiently for our host near the Royal Cinema. This moment was like from a gripping movie: who is this guy? Will he turn out to be a pervert? Boring? Desperate? Are we going to escape quickly from his house at 6 a.m. ensuring that we had a wonderful time together? Or maybe it will be this night, which we could not do without a knife under the pillow?
This is the first time, when we are meant to get our accommodation through Couchsurfing. The first time in my life. Although in theory the idea of communities of travellers hosting each other is beautiful, we cannot hide that in fact we agree to spend the night in the apartment of a stranger.
He’s coming. Smiling from ear to ear,¬†forty years old skinny Italian. Dressed in a loos blouse with Inca¬†patterns. Wearing flip-flops and loos, bit broken jeans ‚Äď you can¬†easily say: a pure hippy. Holds by the hand a tall brunette woman.
Both smiley, they welcome us and guide¬†us to the apartment. At the same time, we are informed that apart¬†from us there will be three other girls in the house ‚Äď also Polish.
We entered the spacious flat in the¬†apartment house. Decoration was overthrowing. On walls there were¬†flags of different countries, furniture in the Art Deco style covered¬†with antique cameras, appliances, radios. Few paintings standing in¬†the corner, Lilian – beloved woman of the host ‚Äď turned out to be a¬†painter.
On one side of the living room, on a large table, there were decanters with few types of a local wine. We were treated with a glass. First out of many. Soon afterwards other girls came in.
I don’t know how it happened, that¬†after half an hour we were chatting as if we knew each other for¬†years. A common topic of conversation, which naturally was¬†travelling, Sicily and Couchsurfing guaranteed us a logorrhea until 4¬†a.m. Gianni, who is a honoured senior member of CS community, brought¬†us some souvenir bracelets, stickers and maps. He gave us¬†professional advice on how to explore Trapani, which we trustfully¬†followed the next day. Gianni is a founder of a tourist company,¬†which provides accommodation and organises excursions around western¬†Sicily. If you are going to this region, I strongly recommend his¬†services to you. Such people are simply worth supporting, worth¬†knowing, worth giving them profit. His website: easytrapani.com

We are back from Sicily

Amazing thing¬†happened to me this morning! I woke up and felt something strange.¬†First of all i felt warm. I was wearing a light t-shirt and I wasn’t¬†freezing! Second thing, I felt soft! Mattress under my back, pillow¬†under my head instead of a backpack.
I inhaled the air¬†with my nose. Closed, but not smelly. Definitely I am in a space¬†larger than 4m2, and me myself …hmmm… I must have been in fresh¬†clothes and after the evening bath. I opened up my eyes. It’s¬†official now: I’m in Cracow!
So that’s it. On 2¬†May 2013 at 10 p.m. we entered our Cracow apartment and, thus we¬†finished our tour of Sicily.
During the nine days we drove about 2970 km overland including 240 km by buses and minibuses, and 100 km by train. We hitch-hiked 29 times and did it in total 2630 km. Once we took a ferry from Sicily to Italy, stowaways.
We spent two nights in Italian homes (in Trapani and Palermo) found through couchsurfing, two in a tent on a campsite at the foot of Mount Etna, three nights wildly in a tent, and one on the way in trucks. In total i spent 15 euros for accommodation (campsite).
Except from a plane¬†ticket to Trapani (40 euros + 20 euros for luggage (given unnecessarily,¬†cabine baggage would be enough) and travel costs in Poland (bus to¬†Rzeszow and train from Gliwice to Cracow) I spent 93,35 euros in¬†Italy. In the meantime I found 20 euros on the street. So, during the¬†journey I ‘lost’ 73,35 euros, which is 8,15 euros per day. I used to¬†buy a coffee, wine or beer and something sweet from the cafe every¬†day. We had a good dinner every day as well.
To sum up, 9-day vacation in Italy cost me 145 euros!
Neither of us was hurt, no one molested us, no one tried to rape or rob us. Instead, we were offered dinner three times, several times snacks like banana, pizza and wine, and the countless amounts of coffee. Few times people who were giving us a lift, had made extra kilometers (once even more than one hundred), just to help us get to some convenient destinations.
People are good, travelling does not have to be expensive and the world is beautiful. More stories about the trip coming soon.