May 21, 2018 Frankfurt, Germany

Frankfurt – Main Tower

Frankfurt – Mark, Vanessa, Johannes, Kent

Frankfurt – Mark, Johannes, Kent

Frankfurt – Römer – Old Town

After breakfast in our hotel all three of us headed out for another ride on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. We disembarked at the Romer or Old Town Square for Jochen to have a look around. We then took the HO-HO bus to the Main Tower where we took the elevator to the 54th floor for a panoramic view over the city. The skies were clear so the view was quite spectacular.

We then walked to the Opera House and took a walk down the pedestrian avenue to find a spot to have a drink and rest. It was a religious holiday and shops were required to be closed so only cafes and food stalls were open. In comparison to our walk in the same area a couple of days earlier, the streets were very quiet.
After a stop for a drink we continued our walk and stopped for a bratwurst sausage at a small shop.

Back at the hotel we met up with Johannes and his girlfriend Vanessa. Johannes was a student who was in the Tutor-Mentor program in 2010 at SDSU. They took us to a museum café along the waterfront for a coffee before heading to the oldest section of town that survived the WWII bombing for dinner. This section of town is known for its apple wine. We dined in the patio behind the restaurant and had very typical German food.

For an appetizer they ordered a local cheese that is covered with chopped white onions and a light vinegar. The cheese is put on sliced bread with butter and soaked in the vinegar. Not bad. For our meals we enjoyed things like beef sausage, sauerkraut, pan fried potatoes and schnitzel with a green sauce made with seven spices. We also had a pitcher of apple wine served with bottled sparkling water, mixed about half and half.

May 20, 2018 Frankfurt, Germany

Frankfurt – Kent and Jochen

Frankfurt – Opera House

This morning we had a very nice breakfast included with our room at the hotel. They had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, bread, juices, fruit, pastries, cold cuts, cheeses and more. The staff was very good to clean the tables, replenish the trays and bring more coffee to the guests.

We then took a long walk around the central part of downtown where they have a very nice a ring around downtown. The park is filled with paved pathways for walking and biking, children’s play areas, lakes with fountains, ducks, geese, statuary and more. The walk took us a couple of hours with a few stops to rest.

Back at the hotel we met up with Jochen one of the students we had from the Tutor Mentor program at SDSU in San Diego back in 2005 and 2006. He is living between Munster where he went to school and Xanten, Germany, where his parents live. He works with his family marketing a cosmetics line online that they package and ship around the world but mostly in Germany.

Since Kent had done enough walking for one day we decided to take the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus tour along with an hour-long river cruise on the Main River. After the tours we stopped at a local restaurant for a drink and snack before heading to the hotel for a short rest. At 7:30pm we headed out to a local Indian restaurant for dinner.

May 19, 2018 Palermo, Italy-Frankfurt, Germany

We had a very early morning with a 2:30am wake-up call. By 3:00am we were in the dining room where the hotel had prepared a table for two with a plate of pastries and coffee before our departure. By 3:15am we were in our taxi on the way to the Palermo airport bound for Rome and then onto Frankfurt, Germany. The flight to Rome was only about one hour while the flight to Frankfurt took about two-hours. When we arrived in Frankfurt our plane’s luggage was sent to another terminal so everyone was waiting for their luggage to arrive with no luck. Finally, after thirty-minutes or so, the error was discovered and we were escorted to another terminal where we retrieved our luggage. The baggage claim is in a secure area so we had to be granted access through two locked doors to get our luggage.

We took a train from the airport to the main train station where we were able to walk about two blocks to our hotel. The Victoria Hotel is located in what I might call the red-light district. The neighboring streets are lined with sex shops, people sleeping on the streets and most likely dealing drugs by the look of some of the people on the street. The hotel itself is clean and the staff are friendly. The only downside is that the room is quite small and it is difficult to manage our suitcases in such a small room.

We had a bite to eat for lunch at a neighborhood Thai restaurant before returning to our hotel for a well needed nap. After our nap we took a walk around the city to explore some pedestrian only streets and the old town where they have been restoring some of the older buildings. The weather was warm and sunny so the locals were out in mass to enjoy the day. We also walked along the Main Riverfront where there is a wonderful promenade filled with walkers, bicycles and people having picnics in the sun. On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a sidewalk café where Kent had German Sausages and Mark had the Schnitzel. Our waiter was from Columbia and we had a great conversation with him about language and studying in Germany.

May 18, 2018 Palermo

Monreale – Norman Cathedral

Montreal – Norman Cathedral Interior

Palermo Cathedral

Palermo – Church of Immacolata

Palermo Architecture

Palermo – Farm Dinner Starter Plate

Palermo is located in the northwest of the island of Sicily by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea and dates back to 734 BC when it was founded by the Phoenicians. The city is surrounded by a mountain range, has a natural port, an international airport and a population of approximately 1,000,000, mostly Roman Catholics. Incredible architecture abounds on every street with gracious buildings ornately decorated with ornamentation and wrought iron balcony railings. The sad part is that most of the buildings are in a state of disrepair and need a fresh huge amount of refurbishment. Graffiti appears most everywhere including a beautiful horseman statue in front of the main train station.

We took a guided tour of town including the ornate Piazza Bellini, or town square surrounded by beautiful churches. We visited the Capo Market where locals sell all types of goods, not only fruits and vegetables.  Then we visited the Church of Immacolata located inside the market of Capo in the historic district of town. The church was built between 1604 and 1740 and is decorated very ornately with art and paintings from many well-known Sicilian artists. Next, we visited the Palermo Cathedral first erected in 1185 on the site of an earlier Byzantine basilica. Due to the age of the cathedral and the many additions and modifications over the years it has a very eclectic design style mixing Gothic, Renaissance and Neoclassical styles.

We then took a drive up to the town of Monreale for a panoramic view of the city or Conca d’Oro or “Golden Shell” known for its orange, olive and almond trees.  We visited the 12thcentury Norman Cathedral, famous for its 50,000 square feet of precious Byzantine glass mosaics. Most of the mosaics include gold glass tiles that reflect the light and depict biblical stories. We returned to our hotel about 1:00pm.

About 4:00pm we departed for an original Sicilian farm called Antica Masseria Barone di Salvo in the town of Tumminia. We met the casero or cheesemaker where we saw how they make fresh ricotta. They gave us a sample of the warm goat cheese fresh off of the stove but it was not to our liking. They served us drinks in an inviting outdoor patio decorated with red geraniums in which we were entertained by a couple of young men who played the accordion, flute, tambourine and guitar as well as singing along.

After the cheese demonstration we were invited into a large dining room in the farmhouse where we enjoyed a four-course dinner. The first course was a beautiful plate of about ten items like eggplant, arancini, potato cake, cheese, olives and more. Next came pasta plate with two types of pasta. The first was an unusual corkscrew ribbon pasta with a clear type sauce with capers and tomatoes. The second was a small round pasta about the size of cheerios with a red sauce with meat of some sort. The main course consisted of a grilled sausage that had been sliced in half and breaded and a rolled pork stuffed with ham and other things. Dessert was a square of some type of vanilla ice cream with nuts and a crunch to it and covered with a rich dark chocolate sauce. It was all very tasty and many even thought that it might be the best meal of the trip.  We sat with our Australian gal pals along with three others from our group.

We returned to the hotel by about 7:30pm so folks could finish packing and get to be bed before their early morning departures.

May 17, 2018 Taormina Riviera-Agrigento-Palermo

Agrigento Countryside

Agrigento Temple

Agrigento Temple

We departed our hotel at 7:30am bound for the town of Agrigento and then on to Palermo, our final destination in Italy. The total day’s drive was about 280 miles making for a full day’s trip with comfort stops and sightseeing. The drive took us through the central part of Sicily which is mostly rolling hills covered in all types of crops like citrus, wheat, grapes, pomegranates, almond trees and more. The countryside is quite beautiful as the crops stretch from the valley floors to the top of the hillsides, each crop planted right next to another creating a patchwork of colors and textures. The sun was out and the temperatures were in the low 70’s.

When we arrived in the town of Agrigento we took a guided walking tour of the Valley of Temples. This area is one of the most outstanding examples of Greater Greek art and architecture, a national monument of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. The archeological site which is more of a ridge than a valley consists of about five square miles of land. The remains of seven Greek temples dating back to the 3rd to the 5th centuries BC remain today. The best preserved of these is the Temple of Concordia built in the 5th Century BC. This temple has six Doric columns along the front and back and thirteen columns along the sides.

From the ridge of the Valley of temples you have a view of the newer city up on the hill with one building crowded alongside the next. The city looks compact and tightly confined while all around the town you see open space. Not far from the temples you can also take in views of the sea extending as far as the eye can see. The site was crowded with school children and visitors from around the world but it was a warm sunny day and we were happy to see the site.

In addition to the temple remains there are also remains of city gates, catacombs and residences.

From Agrigento we continued our drive north towards the town of Palermo stopping at a small roadside restaurant frequented by locals for a quick bite to eat. They had pizza’s, pasta, sandwiches, arancini rice balls, tons of pastries and even gelato. Kent and I shared a dish of pasta with eggplant and a red sauce and we each had a gelato.

Our hotel in Palermo was the Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa located in the heart of Palermo. The hotel was once a stock exchange building now converted to a hotel. There was a grand central four story open air atrium courtyard with fountain and plenty of seating. The hotel room we had was spacious with French doors from the main room and the oversized bathroom to a courtyard. It was a very nice hotel.

We walked with our Australian girlfriends (Hazel, Sheila and Annie) several blocks to a shopping street (that is pedestrian only in the evenings) to have a bite to eat. We found a small café where they served a variety of dishes from meat kabobs to pizza’s and we all found something we could eat. After dinner the girls headed back to the hotel and Kent and I walked further down the street to the opera house. It looked like a huge old opera house that I would have loved to have a tour of but it was closed already and we would not have time to return. We wandered some of the small meandering streets back to our hotel following the brightly illuminated churches. The city has hundreds of ornate churches of which we found as many as three on one small square. Many of the small neighborhood squares were filled with people drinking and eating at small cafes and bars.

May 16, 2018 Taormina Riviera – Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna

Jeweler’s Villa

Villa Garden

We took a scenic drive through orchards, vineyards and forests up to Europe’s highest active volcano at 6,500 feet. The drive up from the coast took us about an hour on a twisting winding narrow road. At the bottom of the mountain you see many homes and gardens that look like they have been there for many years. But as you climb the mountain the homes turn to open spaces and you begin to see more and more volcanic rock and lava flows from past eruptions. The further we climbed the less the vegetation until we reached our stopping point around 6,500 feet in elevation where there was only a small amount of green grass growing in the volcanic rock and no trees, shrubs, flowers or plants.

Our stopping point on the mountain is the highest level that paved roads exist and so there are dozens of busses with many tourists everywhere. From this point it is possible to take an area bucket cable car ride another 1,500 feet higher or to hike up several steep hills of volcanic rock and sand. We instead stayed at the plateau where there are several old craters and several small cafes for the tourists.

Our local guide took us around the observation point to show us the different colors of the volcanic rock ranging from yellows to reds to browns and almost black. In years gone by locals used to use ground up lava sand in colors like golden yellow and reds in paint to color their homes.

Mt. Etna is the fifth most active volcano in the world and was steaming today when we were watching it. There have been several major lava flows and eruptions over the last hundred years. The locals call the volcano “the mountain” and do not live in fear of it but have accepted the fact that one day it might erupt again. The area is also susceptible to earthquakes which tend to go hand in hand with volcano eruptions.

After visiting the volcano, we headed down towards the ocean again where we stopped at a large Italian villa owned by the family of a large jeweler. This jeweler has been selling jewelry for over a hundred years and they have a studio workshop and jewelry shop in this 100-year-old Italian Villa. They took us on a short tour of the studio and shop before treating us to a buffet lunch of pasta, sausage, small finger foods, pastries, wine, juices and more. The villa has a very nice terrace on the rear where we sat at tables outdoors to enjoy our lunch. Of course, some of the ladies in our group could not resist temptation and made some jewelry purchases before leaving.

After returning to our hotel about 2:30 we had the afternoon free until an included dinner in our hotel at 7:30pm. We tended to emails, did a little work on the computer and had a nap before our long trip on the bus to Agrigento and Palermo tomorrow.

Dinner was at a very nice restaurant in the hotel on this evening. We sat with Gilbert and Paula from Oklahoma and Richard and Sue from Australia. They served a green salad, a choice of chickpea soup or cannelloni for the starter, turkey breast or swordfish for the main dish and a moist pistachio cake for dessert. Unlimited wine and bottled water was also included. It was a very nice meal.

May 15 Taormina Riviera – Syracuse – Ortigia

Syracuse Amphitheater

Syracuse Cave

Syracuse – Caper Plant

Ortigia – Church

Ortigia Church

Dinner Starter Plate

This was a free day to explore at leisure or we had the opportunity to take an excursion to the towns of Syracuse and Ortigia. We chose to take the extra excursion to see what these two other towns in Sicily were like. Our first stop was in Syracuse to see the town birthplace of the famous poet and mathematician Archimedes.

Syracuse was also the place where we visited a large archeological site dating back more than 2,000 years. The site was once a quarry where stone was dug from underground to build churches, temples, theaters and amphitheaters in the region. The stones that were extracted from the earth were about two feet by two feet by four feet long and each weighed about 3,000 pounds. They were easily hammered and chiseled out of the ground by slaves and hauled on wheels by donkeys to the building in which they would be used.

At this site we saw a 5thCentury BC Greek Theater  (half round) that could seat 20,000 people and is still used today for sold out tragedy plays. There is a Roman Amphitheater (full round) used for gladiator competitions or fights with wild animals. The gladiators and animals would often be killed in the process. There was also an enormous altar of Heron II where animal sacrifices were made. There was a large garden with all types of local plants including a caper plant that I found interesting. I do not remember seeing a caper plant growing before.

Our next stop was at the island town of Ortigia which is connected to Syracuse by two bridges. The waterway between the mainland and the island was filled with boats and the buildings surrounding the water made me think of Venice. Here we saw the ruins of an old temple dedicated to the sun god Helios. Not much remains of the temple today and what does remain has mostly been rebuilt or revised over the centuries by various people who occupied the city.

Next, we stopped at a beautiful church on the main square that had been originally built with the stones from the nearby quarry. The church has been altered many times over the years but it showed how far they transferred the stone blocks. The distance was probably more than five miles which is just hard to imagine.

For lunch we stopped at a local café to have a small calzone with ham and cheese and another pastry filled with meat, rice and cheese.

After a few hours break we were taken to dinner at a one-star Michelin restaurant along the Taormina coast. The room that we were seated in was an enclosed patio sun room with large round tables for ten guests each. We had a lovely starter plate with chopped eggplant, peppers and zucchini; roasted tomatoes stuffed with bread crumbs and parmesan; assorted cheeses and salami. This was followed by a plate of tube-shaped pasta with a pureed eggplant and cream sauce and cheese. For the main course they served a choice of chicken with mashed potatoes or a sea bass filet with a tomato sauce over potatoes. For dessert they served a molded vanilla ice cream with a berry sauce. The meal was alright but nothing spectacular.

May 14, 2018 Reggio Calabria-Taormina Riviera

Taormina Street

Taormina Square

Taormina Amphitheater

Taormina Photographer

We crossed the Strait of Messina by ferry this morning to begin our discovery of the island of Sicily, the great melting pot of the Mediterranean world. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, French and Spanish have left their marks and contributed to its rich heritage. The ferry was large enough that we could stay on the bus and drove right onboard for the twenty-minute ride.

Taormina is located on the Ionian Sea on the east coast of the island of Sicily, Italy. Taormina has been a tourist destination since the 19th century. There is speculation about Taormina being an early gentlemen’s destination (gay). Capri had a similar reputation, as tolerant of gay men and artists. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, exalted it in Italian Journey, a record of his 1786 journey published in 1816. Wilhelm von Gloeden, a photographer of predominantly male nudes, worked here most of his life.

When we arrived in Taormina we visited the ancient remains of a Greek theater dating back to the 3rd century BC. The theater had a diameter of 358 feet and is the second largest of its kind in Sicily after one in Syracuse. There is a main pedestrian street that runs through the town filled with beautiful shops selling all types of clothing, souvenirs, food items, ceramics and of course, gelato. We had several hours to explore the charming town on our own. We stopped to taste the local delicacy called an arancini. The arancini is a type of rice ball mixed with items like mushrooms, peas, eggplant, cheese and then shaped into a ball or bell shape before being breaded and deep fried. They were a bit greasy but they were tasty enough. Along the way we also stopped at a gelato shop to check the quality.

Things we take for granted at home are not so simple here. Public bathrooms are not as plentiful and when you do find them there is often a charge of a half euro or about .60 US. There are no toilet seats and paper is often not available. Table service at a restaurant or ice cream shop is more expensive than if you take the item to go. For example, at the gelato shop there was an additional charge of about .75 US for sitting at a table rather than taking the gelato somewhere else to eat it.

Our hotel is located south of Taormina and is the Hilton Giardini Naxos located on the beaches of Giardini Naxos with panoramic views of the Ionian Sea. The hotel was very large with several restaurants, a spa, an outdoor pool, shops and a huge lobby.

For dinner we were on our own and went down the street from our hotel to a small restaurant on the beach where we had a green salad, risotto with salmon and pasta with swordfish. The food was fine but nothing spectacular.

May 13 Alberobello-Matera-Scilla-Reggio Calabria

Scilla Harbor

Scilla Architecture


Reggio Calabria – Bronze Statue

We departed Alberobello this morning for a town called Matera where we enjoyed a panoramic view of the picturesque Sassi houses. Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, having been inhabited since the 10thmillennium BC. The town is built in a rocky ravine created by a river and the Sassi homes are dug into the rock itself. You might think of them as caverns rather than a house. Once considered an area of poverty since many of the dwellings were uninhabitable, today these dwellings are being converted to thriving homes and businesses.

The drive on this day was about 325 miles so we were on the bus for most of the day. We did make several stops at roadside gas stations that had restaurants for food and restrooms. We even stopped at a gelato shop that was so busy you could hardly get the gelato and they had only two toilets for hundreds of visitors. It is not usually this busy but it was a local saints birthday (and Mother’s Day) and many people had come to town to celebrate the event.

Next, we enjoyed a spectacular drive south along the Gulf of Taranto and a stop in Scilla (pronounced like Sheila), called the “Venice of Calabria.” This small village style town sits on a hillside along the water with a nice harbor, meandering streets with many shops and restaurants as well as a fortress on the hill. Our visit was very short but it looked like it was a lovely spot to visit.

Leaving the coast, we headed for the town of Reggio Calabria, located at the southernmost point or the toe of Italy. With a population of about 260,000 people, Reggio Calabria is separated from the island of Sicily by the Strait of Messina. The surrounding metropolitan area is comprised of nearly 600,000 inhabitants. Reggio Calabria was mostly destroyed in a huge earthquake in 1908 followed by a tsunami, so the city is more modern than ancient. The earthquake and tsunami killed 27% of its inhabitants and the nearby city of Messina on the island of Sicily lost 42% of its residents. In total about 95,000 people were killed.

Reggio’s economy revolves around agriculture and the export of fruits, tobacco, briar (a hard-wooded root used in the making of pipes) and an essence called bergamot used in the production of perfume. Due to its proximity on the sea it also has a large fishing industry and is a popular tourist destination for its beaches.

After arriving at our hotel, we enjoyed a guided visit of the National Archaeological Museum of Magna Graecia dedicated to Ancient Greece. The museum houses the world-famous bronze warrior sculptures called Bronzi di Riace. They have two gorgeous bronze male statues that stand some seven feet tall and are beautifully sculpted. They have a huge collection of other items in this beautiful museum but with our limited time we focused on the bronze statues.

Dinner was included at our hotel in the top floor dining room with a view out over the city. Dinner included a pasta salad with cheese, olives, capers, ground anchovies and fresh tomatoes. The main course was a pork roast with potatoes followed by a fruit tart for dessert.

May 12 Martina Franca- Alberobello

Martina Franca

Martina Franca – Olive Crusher


Alberobello House

Alberobello Church

In the morning we drove to the town of 50,000 called Martina Franca where we had a tour of an olive oil company named L’Acropoli di Puglia that has been making olive oil since 1889. The owner gave us about an hour demonstration on the making of the olive oil and showed us how they grind the olives, filter the oil, etc. We then had a tasting of several types of olive oil similar to the way you might taste wine at a winery. We had clear plastic shot glasses with a small amount of oil to smell, swished gently in our mouths and then swallowed. Some of the oils had a very peppery taste while others were very smooth going down. They also stressed how important it is to not heat the oil olive but instead to use it at room temperature on pasta or salads just before serving.

After the oil olive tasting we took a walking tour with a guide into the small town of Martina Franca. She took us to a small museum where they had a variety of religious artifacts like chalices, paintings and vestments beautifully displayed. After the visit inside the museum we were taken downstairs to a café where we were served a variety of local products:  several types of cheeses, ham, salami, olives, tomatoes, wine and a local pastry for dessert.

In the afternoon we visited the town of Alberobello which was about a forty-minute drive from our hotel. The word Alberobello means beautiful tree and is a small town in southern Italy with about 11,000 inhabitants. The town dates back to the 16thcentury when 40 families were granted land to farm in the area. The area is full of stones which led the inhabitants to build houses out of dry stones without the use of mortar. These limestone circular-shaped houses with pinnacled, conical roofs are called Trulli. This concentration of about 400 local Trulli homes have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996.

We had a walking tour of the most significant Trulli-style homes and were even able to visit the interior of one that has been owned by the same family for nearly a century. The elderly woman who was kind enough to open her home to us was born in the home and years ago, she was one of fifteen children living there. The home is quite small by today’s standards with a decent sized living and dining room, a bedroom alcove with small bath attached and a third room that functioned as a kitchen and additional sleeping area. Each of the rooms is made of stone walls and the conical shaped roof rises above each room. In this family many of the children had a loft in the cone shaped room over the main living space where they slept.

We visited a Trulli-style church with a beautiful simple altar and walked the many streets of the UNESCO site where many of the old homes have been converted to shops and restaurants. All of the buildings in the area are required to be white washed and no color is permitted as was traditional. At the peak of some of the roofs they would add an ornament of some type to reflect their religious beliefs in most cases.  Some owners would also mark/whitewash their roofs with symbols of their religious beliefs.

The streets were busy with tourists and locals alike who had come out to see a hot air balloon being launched from the main town square. We stopped at a small shop where they sold several types of sausage sandwiches on rolls for a bite to eat. Our next stop was a charming gelato shop along the main street where we enjoyed a refreshing and delicious gelato. Others chose to go to dinner at a local farm with folkloric show but we retired early as Mark was catching a cold and wanted to rest.