Thursday, July 23, 2009

Trek to the island of Magma

Having been somewhat disapointed in the lack of magma when we visited Mt. Etna, the smoking volcano on Sicily's eastern coast, we were determined to end our weekend trips with a bang (hehe) and venture to the island of Stromboli (pictured below). Stromboli is part of a strip of islands called the Aeolian islands to the north east of Sicily (we took a 7 hour hydrofoil ride straight from Palermo, whew! definitely some nausea during that trip). Stromboli has 3 active craters at its peak and is remarkable because of the length of time for which it has been in almost continues eruption (magma, here we come!). In February two new craters opened on the island in which lava flowed into the ocean from them, considering the small size of the island, I could imagine being pretty darn scared if I lived on such a volatile geographic landmark...
The main town of Stromboli is at the bottom tip of the island in the above pic, we stayed at a cute little bed and breakfast. Everything is painted white, with vibrant gardens and very charming, kinda funny since its surrounded by black volcanic rock and black sand beaches.
It was a harrowing trip, with choppy seas threatening to prevent us from getting to the distant island, and windy weather at the top of the volcano causing our tour troup to be canceled, but in the end we decided to trek up to the highest point you can without a tour, the Sciara del Fuoco ("Stream of fire"), a big horseshoe-shaped depression generated in the last 13,000 years by several collapses on a side of the volcanic cone. We started hiking around 6pm and made it there within 90 minutes despite the winding, rocky path which snaked around the edge of the island.

Ah, the top of the volcano! Almost time for sunset...
There was a deck to lay down or sit to watch the volcano. We were able to spot a few small eruptions, pretty awesome to be so close! However, we didnt want to be caught up so high (the path got really steep towards the top) when it turned dark so we descended down to a pizza restaurant with perfect views of the top.
A very tasty dinner after all that hiking, I was dying of thirst!

As the sunset on the ocean, we started to see glimpses of the glowing red magma. They really werent kidding when they said that it was continously active. Every 10-15 minutes or so we would see something like the above picture, I was so delighted we could appreciate it from the bottom of the volcano but also was jealous of those that stayed on the viewing platform much closer to the top. As night fell, those travelers strapped on their head lights (we got one too) and were making their way down the mountain like little fireflies. We sat at the restaurant for a long time just admiring the volcano and wanting to stay for the next explosion.. and the next and the next.. til we realized we should probably hike our way home. Because the island is so small, isolated, and energy concious, there were no street lights, but we and all the inhabitants were walking about with our flashlights and the quiet town. It was magical to appreciate the night sky filled with stars (little to no light pollution) and realize we were right next to an active volcano. wow, what a memorable experience!
Determined to milk all we could out of the weekend, Xiao and I woke up at 6am the next morning to make sure we could find a black sand beach and make it back before our hydrofoil ride back. Little did we know there was one just 10 minutes away by foot! The sand was gorgeous, so fine, and glittering black.

Water water everywhereee

In our quest to visit Sicily's "most beautiful" beach (even though we are not that beach/sun/tanning crazy as even the most conservative of the Sicilians) we booked ourselves a 8 hour boat cruise snaking along the northern tip of a coast near Palermo. It was a small boat, the sea sometimes got rocky, I felt motion sick, but the scenery more than made up for it. Breathtaking!
Its times like these that I realize how much I love mountains and the ocean...put together! What a unique and gorgeous coastline Sicily has!

The town which we departed from, after running haphazardly from the bus stop in order to make our boat (things worked out fine). Very quaint.
They kept leading our boat into the entrance of caves. Somewhat interesting, but motion sickness go the better of me by the second cave. and can I just say I love my camera? (Canon powershots are the best! thanks mom and dad!)
Around 2-3 hours later we arrived in San Vito Lo Capo, the famed pretty beach. I would say it definitely was a sight to see, but very similar to the beach even closer to Palermo, Mondello. The upside was that it was not too crowded... and that Xiao and I rented an umbrella and didnt have to bake in the sun!
On the way back, they stopped the boat so that the passengers could jump into the water and cool off. Here are Xiao and I, just basking in the boat and trying not to be sick hehehe.

Have you ever seen blues like this? I'm going to have these images in my mind for awhile.

Glittering gold.. mosaics

With a lazy Saturday ahead of us, Dan and I decided to check out one of Palermo's must-sees. We embarked on a short trip (30 min bus ride) to nearby city of Monreale which overlooks Palermo and which is known for the Cathedral of Monreale, one of the greatest extant examples of Norman architecture in the world. Begun in 1174 and completed in 1200, it was very grand and the gold mosiacs were meticulously laid and very beautiful. Even more perfect, a wedding was taking place around the time we got there, so we got to experience it with flowers and organ music.

We paid a bit to see the Treasury and a very ornate stone room. Here's Dan working on his statue emulation skills. Note the statue is also named " Daniel" hehe.
It was about a 2 hour round trip with some bus snags to get to Monreale, but we were back before dinner!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Viva Santa Rosalia! Palermo's patron saint!

On Wednesday, we had the pleasure of being in town for the biggest summer festival in Palermo, that which celebrates their patron saint (and I'm told that Italians are very serious about their saints). Palermo's saint is named Santa Rosalia who was born in 1130 AD and is the patron saint of Palermo and a few other cities. Apparently she was a noble, but then retired to live as a hermit in a cave. In 1624, Palermo was haunted by a horrible plague and Santa Rosalia appeared as a vision to several and ordered them to bring her bones from the cave and have them put on procession through the city. After this, the plague ceased... and thus the big festino every year on July 15th commerating her. The entire city center was closed off and we spilled onto the streets with what seemed to be all of Palermo. There were gorgeous lights and archways hung all over the street and we made our way slowly to the start of the parade, the cathedral. Our excellent guides were two doctors, fellows, from IsMeTT who defintely were in the know on how to experience the festino... Sicilian style!
The gathering place where the parade started. They brought in fountains and beautiful lighting, it was totally tranformed from the dusty and littered plaza the day before.This year's theme was "Woman", pretty broad.. but I'm sure something got lost in translation. In any case, power to the women and they had these awesome dancers floating from BALLOONS! This is the stuff my dreams are made of, but in stead (probably violating many safety codes), the Palermitans had filled over a hundered or so huge balloons with helium and were able to suspend two dancers in the air! It was really a magical site.

With so many people out on the streets and basically trailing, following, the huge float of Santa Rosalia, we had to shuffle about and run to escape being trapped ina huge confusing, chaotic crowd. Here we met up with the float again the big intersection of the city which is surrounded by 4 fountains!

We then made our way slowly to the waterfront, where the parade would end and where the fireworks would be launched. While waiting for the fireworks, we were able to experience the local Palermitan speciality "sfincioni" an interesting bread heavy pizza with light sweet sauce on top. You should defintely check out Xiao's posting about the local delicacies of Sicily, some are yak-tastic, a great read!

Xiao, Dan, Francesca, and Giuseppe with the Sficioni! Yum, greasy goodness!

And the fireworks, oh the fireworks! They were gorgeous, shot right in front of us (probably some of the closest fireworks I've ever viewed in my life) and above and beyond awesome. They lasted 30 minutes and we ohhed and ahhed endlessly, what a perfect perfect end to the night!

Claustrophobia of the Heart

I've been meaning to blog about this for awhile, but a few weeks back (around the end of June), we went to this really neat free art exhibit called "Claustrofobia del cuore".
We wandered into the third floor gallery, hidden away in a ritzier part of Palermo and caught the exhibit on its last showing day. We were able to meet the artist, and here comes the cool part, who was declared dead for 14 minutes before he was somewhat miraculously was revived (some of this got lost in translation). In anycase, the showing was the art which was inspired by his time "in limbo" and all were titled cardiology themes ("Tachycardia", "Angiography")- perfect, due to our recent dive into the topic for our research!

One of his works, a bit abstract, but you can maybe tell its a meter of some soAdd Imagert?

Also, to supplment our knowledge of cardiac pathology, Xiao and I got to watch 3 open heart surgeries on my birthday! The surgeon was super nice and very good at teaching. I basically got to see all the surgeries (double bypass, aortic valve replacement, and subaortic stenosis removal) with my face a foot away from the heart! The procedures were really fascinating (I was standing in the OR for about 7 hours and the time FLEW) and I was incredibly impressed with the agility and meticulousness of the surgeons.

I never knew much abou the bypass procedure until we observed it then looked up stuff on wikipedia. But its incredible! The surgeon basically reroutes the major arteries of the heart (while a crazy pumping device substitutes in for the heart) using other nearby arteries (see above pic) or an vein from your leg. The surgeon was basically stitching together two ends of hollow spaghetti, it was that ridiculous and detailed.

The last procedure we saw was even more complex (see above pic)! Xiao got to scrub in and hold the beating heart in her hand which was pretty awesome, I stayed behind the lines and was happy to observe. The surgeon had to cut away the grossly overcalcified existingn aortic valve and then set things up to lower a biological valve into the original space. They had to set up a ring of threads (over 40 different threads going in!) and then hooked each individual thread through the valve and slid it down into the ring. It took over 2 hours and was pretty neat engineering if you ask me! I think the builder/engineer in me would love doing this stuff for a living, but the long hours and intense focus would be a bit much, but who knows!

We have also been super spoiled to get mini lectures from many of the hospitals doctors, including a few lectures on cardiac pathology from the chief of cardiology and the chief of pathology! They really take care of us here and really want us to learn! In addition, we were treated with twice a week Italian lessons... til we became lazy and tapered off- right before verb conjugations hehe. Unfortunately, my mom has informed me I am responsible for communicating for my entire family when they arrive in Rome in a week, uh oh...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Opera in a garden

To culture ourselves a bit, we decided to partake in some fancy opera seeing in the summer home of Palermo's music and plays, Teatro di Verdura (very far from the opulent Teatro Massimo theater, where performances occur the rest of the year) which was a well maintained garden and outdoor theater. It took some hassle getting there, but we arrived to quite a classy place, all lit by outdoor lights/lanters, where we were definitely some of the youngest people there.

We dressed up... in primary colors. hehehe.

We saw two short operas. One was called "Cavalleria Rusticana" and the other "Pagliacci". Both centered on themes of adultery and intense drama (wiki does a good job explaining what's going on, but even then the story lines are a bit complex). The story lines can get a bit confusing, so we printed out the synopses beforehand because we knew we could not understand the Italian!

I really enjoyed the second one, Pagliacci, which centered on a love triangle among clowns...I know, defitely a surprise hit with us. The costumes, dancers, and singers were all great. But the long drawn out singing and emotional scenes left us a bit confused and bored, I'm not sure I can appreciate another opera any time soon. But I'm glad my first opera experience was in Italy! The theater was nice, I enjoyed the night time air, not too many mosquitos.

Fun Picture: Later in the week, Xiao led us in our attempt to make white sangria. We had it all prepped on Tuesday and enjoyed it for our weekly hump day celebration. It was pretty good, potent, and the fruit was yummy. Salute!

And a pinchof salt...

We spent last weekend with a big adventure in mind, to travel to Marsala (land of the famous sweet cooking wine) and also view the large well known salt pans that produce fancy salt for more discerning tables. To our surprise (or maybe more to our expectations) we took a 2.5 hour bus ride only to find a small, sleepy town in which no wineries were open on the weekend. We did get to sample some Marsala wine in some specialty food stores, and I enjoyed it a lot. Alas, we quickly realized there was not much to do (besides the ship museum, which held some ruins from 200 B.C. found offshore of Sicily), and we promptly booked it to the salt pans hoping that we could see it, and then make it back to Palermo by nightfall. The salt pans covered a lot of area and definitely made use of the scorching heat, the windmills were originally used to grind the salt.

large white piles of salt + windmills = one of the more interesting/different landscapes in Sicily. I only wish I could have seen it at sunset.

I tried a few granules of salt, couldn't really tell if they were anything special, but.. you guessed it.. very salty...

We slept in Sunday, lazed about and then Xiao and I revisted the nearby beach, Mondello which I really enjoy.

That monday, we had some plans to hit up nightlife and dinner, Sicilian style. Our wonderful coworker LeTizia took us out to a nice bar a few towns away, near the ocean (oh the freedom you have with a car!). The crew!
We enjoyed aperitivo (appetizers and drinks before dinner, only starts around 8pm!). I had my first "bellini", which is apparently very Italian. It was like fizzy peach juice, not bad.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Another Birthday Abroad!

My past 2 bdays have been spent abroad (turned 21 in India, celebrating in a disco club, and then 22 in Ecuador, enjoying time with a best friend :)), so ringing 23 in Italy seemed fitting! My birthday fell on a Monday, which is like ghost town evening in Italy, so we enjoyed homemade dinner, some wine, and then set out to get gelato before the shops closed. Xiao, the ever awesome friend, went in search of a candle and lighter for me, just so my brioche gelato (coconut and nutella) could be decorated just so. It was the nice chill and delicious bday I was hoping for!

To another great year!

Fun fact: Dans bday was on the 28th and mine as on the 29th. Dan went to meet up with his family over the weekend, so when he got back we all celebrated our birthdays together. For his bday, we got him a baller purple shirt (FASHION UPDATE: Sicily is head over heels about the color purple, we see people wearing this everywhere, sometimes pairing purple pants with purple shirts all in the same outfit), and for fun we all dressed in purple to go out! We ate at this quaint Osteria and then hit up some gelato at our favorite joint.

Another random picture. Fresh fruit is abundant in Sicily, in fact we buy our veggies and fruits almost everyday from fruit stands! I have enjoyed mini pears, apricots, and most of all fresh figs which I think are such a novelty! Here is what one looks like, kinda weird, but really yummy, you eat it skin and all.

A pastry adventure among the Valley of the Temples

At first, Xiao and I didn't know how to spend our free Sunday, but we were quickly drawn to Agrigento via Lonely Planets (LP) description and online suggestions.

Agrigento, on the southern coast of Sicily (we have seen A LOT of sicily, but the south we had yet to explore, perfecto!) is known for its amazing Valley of the Temples, one of the most memorable sights of the ancient world. This area used to be called Akragas when established in 6 B.C. and in time it grew to become one of the most prosperous cities in Magna Graecia.

Agrigento was a heavily warred over city by the Romans, Byzantines and more, but the temples were gorgeous and very impressive. You see a whole succession of mamoth ruins, all strung a long a path; I like to imagine what it would have been like to see them when they were just built and what they were used for. There are 4 or 5 major temples and ruins and many many more small ones we did not have a chance to see.

A mix of old and new, you can see the modern city in the background, a haphazard development of apartment buildings that has "seriously dimmed the glory of Agrigento, but much is left to fill us with wonder" - LP

Tempio della Concordia

Xiao jokes that my yellow shirt made me blend in too much with the columns of stone, hehe.

LP, a somewhat good but often times inaccurate guide that has often led us astray, suggested that we pursue a shopping adventure in the main city, to search for a monastery where "nuns bake heavenly pastries". It instructed us to ring the bell on the front of the monastry door (I hesistantly did this, and an adorable old woman's voice answered us in Italian), to request sweets ("Vorrie dolci!"), and then to "see how you go" (seriously, this was all the instruction we got?). Nevertheless, Xiao and I were intrigued and ready for an adventure, so we found our way to the secluded monastery, had the nun ring us in, watched as the monastery front door swung open, only to reveal a very dark lobby, with a single light... illuminating a smiling old nun. She asked if we wanted a kilo or half a kilo of sweets, which didnt come cheap, so we went with a quarter kilo. She then scurries off in the darkness, and 5 minutes later, presents us with a small package tied with ribbon. We thank her, and made our way to the nearest park, eager to see what heavenly goodies we got.

Xiao in front of the monastery, there really wasnt a soul in town or bustling anywhere.
Our dolci! I loved them, they again, reminded me of potent Indian sweets and were made with a lot of almond paste and pistacchios. Buono!

Cefalu Paradiso

We had heard a lot about the quaint little town where the italian film, Cinema Paradiso, was filmed, so Xiao and I hopped onto a train and in 1 hour we were in Cefalu! We were immediately surprised by how small the town was, and pretty much saw all the attractions in about 3 hours. We climbed a really rocky staircase and path to the top of La Rocca, or the giant cliff above Cefalu to enjoy the view.

Morning over Cefalu, only half way through the hike. Flip flops were not a good idea. The eastern view from La Rocca.

We spent the rest of the day milling aimlessly (who knew idleness was so intolerable?) about the small touristy town and lounging on the beach (we didnt last long in the scorching sun). We were really hoping to catch dinner in Cefalu before heading back, so we waited til 5pm (Italians generally dont eat til 8 or 9!). We were the only souls in the restaurant, which we picked because it had this gorgeous view and stretched right to the water! Xiao tried the local specialty, pasta con ricci, or sea urchin pasta and I had a nice vegetarian dish.

My lovely date for the evening, hehe, arent you jealous Larry?

Beach bumming.
Gorgeous sunset that we just caught! They were playing live music on the boardwalk.