Turner Country: Thanet and Around

Eastern Kent’s Thanet region (Note: Than-it as in granite and definitely not Than-ay) is an excellent place for a side trip from London – well outside the commute belt and the farthest southeast point of the UK, facing the English Channel as it flows into the North Sea. You can see France when the weather’s clear and if you happen to be going to or from the Continent, you can do so via Ramsgate on this itinerary, or at other nearby ports like Dover and Folkestone. Most of these towns are rail accessible, given they were established destinations in the 19th century. Some towns were originally developed as medieval ports – Sandwich, on this itinerary, was one of the five Cinque Ports developed to provide naval defense against the French and other potential invaders. The coastline has dramatic cloud formations and great color -described by JMW Turner as “the loveliest in all Europe”, so it’s worth going to see some Turner paintings before you head out.

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Ramsgate Harbor: Christmas Lights

One itinerary that covers 2 or so days in the Thanet area is Margate – Broadstairs-Ramsgate-Sandwich-Deal. If you are going to stay overnight, Broadstairs or Ramsgate are good choices and have plenty of accommodation and food options – plus you can walk between them along a coastal path in 40 minutes, so can pretty much cover both places easily.

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Source: Google Maps.

 

On the way in, Faversham, to the west of our area, is worth a stop. Faversham grew as a trading port in the medieval era but has since lost Faversham Creek as a working waterway. It’s good for a wander round and it’s largest employer is probably the Shepheard Neame Brewery. They have a store on Court Street and can arrange brewery tours.

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Guildhall from 1603 or Thereabouts

Check out the painted columns dating from around 1306 in St Mary’s church near the center. I like how 700-year old art quietly sits around.

Margate has some faded Victorian seaside atmosphere and is also the home to the Turner Gallery, which has a series of exhibitions, and some permanent Turner paintings, as well as Tracey Emins’ “My Bed.” You can see many of Turner’s paintings at the National and Tate galleries in London, but getting out along the blustery beaches will hopefully show why he came back to the area to paint.

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A kind of JMW Turner vibe here I like to think.

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Broadstairs was Charles Dickens’ favorite seaside respite from Victorian London and is very well preserved – in part because it sits on a hill emerging from the small Vikings Bay and it may not have been straightforward to put a major road across the seafront.

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Vikings Bay – Broadstairs

The town tends to go back from Viking’s Bay and doesn’t have a long waterfront spread. It is however very easy to walk along the coastal paths.

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Broadstairs Waterfront

Broadstairs is a small but lively town and worth a visit. The train station is about a 10-15 minute walk from the seafront so you can travel like a Victorian if you like. There are plenty of fresh Kent beer options, including the Four Candles micro pub which brews onsite, and further east along High Street, the Mind the Gap micro pub.

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Victorian Recreation in Broadstairs

Down off waterfront, the Chapel is a good craft beer/real ale pub, with a large Brewdog selection and books against the wall if you feel like a read with your beer.

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A fresh Kent pasty is just the thing for a cold day’s seaside walk – from Rook & Sons Butchers on the High Street by the waterfront.

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A pasty is essentially a lamb or beef stew with potatoes and carrots, in a flaky pastry hand portable pie. Sort of a British burrito.

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You can then walk along the Viking coast trail two miles south to Ramsgate, which has the largest port in the immediate area and ferries to Boulogne if you are looking to head to France. Ramsgate is a larger more developed town, with plenty of accommodation options, whose Victorian waterfront is mostly intact with beaches below the white cliffs north of the Royal Harbour.

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Ramsgate Royal Harbour

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Ramsgate Royal Harbour

Moving south from Ramsgate, stop off at Sandwich. One of the fortified medieval Cinque Ports, it’s river is now silted up so that the only sea access is by light craft. It has a well-preserved medieval center and it’s easterly location has meant that the heavy hand of 20th century development hasn’t reached as far.

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Sandwich was an important medieval military and trading port, however the River Stour no longer has major sea access. This retired US Navy patrol boat, which patrolled the Rhine, was re-flagged to appear in the movie Dunkirk – the Thanet is close to France and it’s seafarers joined in the evacuations.

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Finally, Deal. Deal has experienced a resurgence in recent years, in part owing to people fleeing London and picking a smaller town to gentrify. It has a busy center just behind the waterfront. In 1801, Nelson stayed at the Royal Hotel on the seafront after an unsuccessful raid on Boulogne during the Napoleonic Wars.

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Deal Castle is worth a look as an example of Elizabethan-era defenses (although built by Henry VIII).

Roman Thanet. The Romans are believed to have landed near Richborough during the Claudian invasions (43 AD), given that the coastline is reasonably sheltered, and their fortifications remain. Check out the Richborough fort and amphitheater near Sandwich. Further north, on the coast west of Margate, there is another fort at Reculver, co-located with the impressive towers of a 12th-century monastic church.

Reculver Towers. Source: English Heritage.

Logistics. I stayed at the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate, which did the job for an overnight stay. The railway stations usually offer decent walking access to these towns, although a car is useful to visit some of the outlying attractions.

Two Days in Belgrade. Belgrad. Beograd…

Belgrade is worth a stop for a few days. As the former capital of Yugoslavia and now Serbia’s capital, it shows its multilayered past with Turkish, Imperial and Communist influences. The old city overlooks the intersection between the Danube and Sava rivers, showing it’s original role as a fortress dominating the river, and leads down into the more classic 19th/20th century capital.

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Kalemagdan Fort from the Sava River

A good walking itinerary is to start at the Kalemagdan Fort at the northwest tip of the city and work southeast into the old city, which runs down to Skadarska Street in the Skadarlija neighborhood. Skadarlija is a bit touristy although the old town in between is worth a walk round.

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Source: Google Maps.

Further south, Belgrade has plenty of grand boulevards and buildings evocative of its past as the capital of Serbia from 1882 and then an independent Yugoslavia from 1918, until it’s breakup in the early 1990s. Much of the signage is in Cyrillic text, although a lot of the official signs show Roman text as well.

The palaces of the Serbian aristocracy dot the downtown.

There are also plenty of concrete leftovers from the communist era.

 

Serbia follows the orthodox faith and St Mark’s Church is worth a stop.

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St Mark’s Church

History buffs should make their way by bus or taxi out to the Museum of Yugoslavia (https://www.muzej-jugoslavije.org), almost 4km south of Republic Square, where there is a lot of memorabilia from the Marshal Tito pre-breakup era. Also, Marshal Tito, who was interred there. Take in the propaganda movie devoted to Tito, who held things together and ran a more liberal version of a single-party communist dictatorship.

As head of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, Yugoslavia had close relations with much of the developing world, so here is the place to get your history fix with Generals Nasser, Sadat and others.

I’d love to have been in the room for the chats with the Shah of Iran and post-war Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov (looking relieved that Stalin hadn’t had him shot).

Ceremonial political weavings featuring President Nasser of Egypt and a youthful Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic.

Belgrade is a great food town, although it’s helpful if your tastes lean Balkan. The old town, located in and northwest of the Skadarlija area, has a lot of restaurants and nightlife to choose from. Serbia has a growing craft beer culture and good beer pubs include the Miners Pub (Rige od Fere 16), Krafter Beograd (Strahinjića Bana 44) and Same Pivo (Balkanska 13). Serbian wine is also worth a try.

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Kebabs, kebabs and more kebabs might still not be enough.

Zavichaj, on Gavrila Principa 77, is a good spot for Serbian specialties.

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Zavichaj.

Gradska,  located northeast of the old town on Visokog Stevana 43, is another good traditional place.

Logistics

Belgrade is centrally located on an itinerary between Central Europe and the Mediterranean. I got there with a 4 1/2-hour minivan drive from Budapest and then flew on to Thessaloniki. There are also intercity train and bus, sometimes with a change at Novi Sad on the Hungarian border.

I stayed at the Beograd Inn (Francuska 11), a modern place located at the southeast edge of the old town.

Plovdiv: You Know You Want It

Plovdiv is the type of very cool city that arises from having a lot of people on horseback building stuff there because they – like you – realized that its a nice place to spend time in. A trip to Bulgaria usually directs you to Sofia, the southern Mountains or the Black Sea Coast. As ever, do what the Macedonians and Romans did and head for Plovdiv, a university town located around 7 very defendable hilltops on the horse and tank-crossable plains about 120 kilometers south east of Sofia.

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Bulgaria made the switch from Turkish occupation to an independent state in the late-19th Century, so unlike much of Eastern Europe, it didn’t have it’s time under the Austro-Hungarian empire.

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Dzhumaya Mosque

The Romans left a very nice theater from the time of the Emperor Hadrian in which, that week, famed 1980’s-era Scottish band Marillion were due to perform. I didn’t stick around, although I wanted to.

The Ottomans, the last to vacate, provided the still active Dzhumaya mosque from the 13th-15th centuries with a nice coffee shop out front.

Plovdiv old town is still pretty much set in the 19th Century with Ottoman-style houses and is very wander-able.

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People often take a break from their wandering for a street side coffee in the Kapana, a mostly 19th-century neighborhood. If you’re looking for a place to hang out and get a coffee or beer, this part of town – north of the mosque and between the north-south streets of Yoakim Gruev and Tsar Boris III, is a good place to go.

Kapana area

In the evenings, the 2nd Century AD Roman amphitheater is used for concerts and other events.

Street art #Plovdiv The Mongols got pretty close.

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Plovdiv street art – Mongol invaders.

For aviation geek-out time heading out to the nearby Aviation Museum at Krumovo Airport – about a 15 euro cab ride – make sure that you are not taken to the passenger airport but to the Aviatsiya Muzhehe (http://www.airmuseum-bg.com/eng/) on the opposite side of the airport. There is a sign specific for that off the main highway. Here you can see a variety of mainly Soviet-era aircraft, as well as some remnants from other invaders.

Obligatory MiG-21 Nosecone shot

If you have to geek out, go large. Who’d have thought that an intact Soyuz capsule would be found in Plovdiv, Bulgaria? This is what returned of Soyuz-33, in 1979, a bit charred from re-entry, with a Bulgarian Cosmonaut having been onboard, natch. Note the advanced glass-screen technology.

Capsule interior

Tailgunner

German Arado floatplane repurposed by the Bulgarian Airforce

Helicopter gunship

Civilian light cargo helicopter

Radar truck

Logistics

I used the train from Sofia to get here and returned on the bus. Both are fine with the bus slightly faster, but note that the rail station, located on Bul. Hristo Botev is a 15-minute walk south of the center. Beware that there are two bus stations, one co-located with the rail station – however Sofia intercity buses use the separate South Bus Station located about 300 meters east at Bul. Hristo Botev 47.

I stayed at the Noviz Hotel at bul. Ruski 55, which was decent and a pleasant 10-minute walk east into the center.

A good place for the evening is Plovdiv’s only craft beer bar, the Cat and Mouse (Котка и Мишка), located at ul. Hristo Dyukmedzhiev 14, in the Kapana area.

 

 

 

Thessaloniki by the Sea

If you are looking for a base to explore the southern Balkans and northeast Greece, Thessaloniki is a great city to spend a few days. The airport has plenty of service to the main European hubs and once you’re there, it’s less than 4 hours to get to nearby destinations such as Meteora, the Pelion Peninsular, Athos or Mount Olympus. Sofia is also about 4 hours away by bus, so this is a good stop for an inter-Balkan route. Start off with a walk along the cafe-lined waterfront along the Aegean – that’s also great for a morning jog.

Thessaloniki waterfront. Caution: the yellow lines denote a speedy bikelane which is well-used.

Thessaloniki is a very walkable medium-sized city with a great waterfront promenade.

The White Tower, which marked the eastern gateway to fortified Thessaloniki.

The city’s history differs from the rest of Greece as it stayed under the Ottoman Empire much later – until 1912 – than the south and west of the country. There are more reminders of the Turkish presence, although as about a third of the city was burnt down in the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 it has a mostly early/mid-20th century along its downtown streets – heading up the hill gives you a feel with more original buildings having the typical Ottoman-style overhanging upper level balcony.

Egli Yeni Hammam, once a bathhouse, now a bar.

Upper town balconied houses.

A walk up to the old town at the top of the landward Ottoman city walls takes you through winding streets to a view over the old fortifications and the Aegean.

Fortified walls on the north edge of the old town.

The Hamzar Bey, a 15th-century Ottoman mosque, later converted post-1912 to a movie theater called the Alkazar, remains closed while they restore it and also dig up the street underneath.

Kemal Ataturk (aka Mustapha Kemal) was born in Thessaloniki, as commemorated in 1933. His house is open to visitors.

But the Romans were here first, and they eventually morphed into the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium. The 3rd Century AD Rotunda of Galerius was originally constructed as a Roman temple, and then became an Orthodox Cathedral under the Byzantines, before conversion to a Mosque under the Ottomans. It is one of the most impressive standing structures in town and in excellent condition.

St George sits above the Ottoman-era entrance which ushers you into a cavernous interior that has served Roman pagans, Byzantine orthodox, Ottoman muslims and now random visitors from all over.

The ceiling frescoes are insane: they depict the cathedrals of Byzantium – all of which fell under the Ottoman invader, as did this one. The frescoes were plastered over to avoid damage, and many weren’t uncovered until well into the 20th century.

The detail on the frescoes is immense.

Thessaloniki’s main street is the Via Egnatia, which is what the Romans also called it as their main route from southern Europe to their eastern provinces. There are plenty of reminders of the Romans, from the ruins of the forum to the 4th Century AD Arch of Galerius, a ceremonial gateway over the Via Egnatia.

Aside from the formal attractions, you can get sucked into just wandering around – it is very neighborhoody throughout and human-sized.

Greek/Turkish coffee shop.

Sidewalk fruit & veg.

The early Christian and Byzantine presence is also felt – often in the subterranean cellars of churches. The Church of Agios Nicholas Orphanos is a simple early 14th Century church with an ornate frescoed interior – covered until the late 1950s.

Church of Agios Nicholas Orphanos

The Church of Agios Dimitrios is one of the larger original churches (from the 600s AD) commemorating the saint martyred by the Romans as well as having crypts below.

Agios Dimitrios shrine.

Underground chapel, Agios Dimitrios

Many Byzantine-era chapels are stuck in a sea of apartment buildings.

It’s also worth taking the walk up the hill to the small but incredible 5th Century AD Church of Hosios David or Latomou Monastery. The fresco, dating from the 11th Century and covered over during the Ottoman period, is quite remarkable and the staff are keen to walk you through the symbology. It’s unusual in that it depicts an unbearded Christ as a teenager.

You can have your fill of Greek Orthodox iconography at the Museum of Byzantine Culture.

Thessaloniki pays attention to its food culture and the mezze style along with a frenetic social life means people hang out past midnight at restaurants. There is a good concentration along Katouni Street, southeast of Tsimiski, as well as in the side streets that run northwest up to Salaminos.  The nightlife is very busy and goes on very very late – start in the Katouni area and go from there. The retsina was pretty good, and wasn’t as sweet as I was fearing, and of course tsipouro, the local clear spirit, can be had with or without aniseed.

Retsina Malamatina! I’ll take a drink with you sir, and if you’d loan me that tie I’d be indebted.

Some great options are:

Full tou Meze on Katouni 3 would be where I’d go if I just had one choice – it has a comprehensive Greek menu and is perpetually busy with a nice location on a small square.

Another excellent alleyway restaurant is E Rouga (Η Ρούγα) on Karipi 28.

Toicho Toicho (Τοίχο Τοίχο) on Stergiou Polidorou 1, just outside the old walls, is a good place to go in the upper city.

If you happen to be in town in early September watch out for the annual beer festival which features very drinkable Greek microbrews. We went and in a way it was probably for the best that we couldn’t stay long.

Voreta Brewery, from Serres, Northern Greece.

We stayed at the Caravan B&B on Rempelou 1, thecaravan.gr which is a nice B&B.

If you fly in, there is a bus that calls at the passenger terminal and drops downtown. If you are impatient or tired, a taxi is about 20 euro downtown. While the railway station is just northwest of downtown on Monastiriou, the main KTEL intercity bus station is located further out, about 4 kilometres west of the center at Giannitson 244. It’s a short cab ride or you can catch a bus along Monastiriou.

 

Sardinia’s Coastal Cities

Sardinia’s coastal cities are well preserved local centers that are well worth a stopover or as a base to explore the surrounding region. Over 10 days, I made it to Cagliari, Alghero, Castelsardo and Bosa. Sardinia has significant airports at Alghero, Olbia and Cagliari, so  you can also access the island that way if you’re intent on flying.

Cagliari

Cagliari is Sardinia’s principal city and a great place to arrive off the overnight ferry – there are direct ferry connections from Sicily and mainland Italy.

Pilot Boat, Cagliari Harbor

Cagliari’s castello stands out and is the first thing to take a look at. Sardinia has very Celtic tones and in Sardu the city is called Casteddu – Castle – which sounds rather Welsh or Breton to me.

You have great views from the citadel and it’s worth climbing to the top of the Torre dell’Elefante, one of the city’s remaining two defensive towers.

Cagliari is a great walking town and while it is Sardinia’s largest city it still has a very approachable and accessible feel.

The wall art is random and catchy – who doesn’t appreciate a melting Francis Bacon.

I stayed at the Arcobaleno hotel which was close to the port and was very comfortable. There are plenty of great restaurants in Cagliari, although I would recommend going further afield from the Marina area where they lean a little towards visiting tourists – the Stampace neighborhood and Corso Vittorio Emanuele west of Plaza Venne is worth a look.

Alghero

Alghero ended up being my favorite spot to stay however – balanced on the northwest corner of the island, it faces out to the open Mediterranean and has a clearly set out medieval fortified port town, with a larger suburban town spreading into the hinterland. It definitely gears to visitors but is really well preserved without getting spoiled. The walls are intact along large stretches and overlook the ocean.

Alghero gets the westerly winds and has plenty of variety in weather.

As with any city in Sardinia, it’s quick to escape into the county. You can rent bikes from Rent a Bike Raggi di Sardegna on Via Maiorca. They also organize longer tours and will recommend itineraries. I got ambitious and decided to head south along the coast road, which had some spectacular views along the way.

I stayed at the Hotel San Francesco which worked well – just ask to see the bathroom before you take the room as mine was ok but on the small side. Alghero has some good craft brew pubs, including the excellent Birreria San Miquel and L’Altra Vineria. If you’re feeling like a more outdoor cocktail with great accompany snacks, Cafe Latino overlooks the Marina. There are plenty of restaurant options in Alghero and it’s hard to go very wrong.

Castelsardo

Who came up with Castelsardo? Founded as a stronghold in the 12th century by the Doria family from Genoa, it was also ruled by the Spanish during their period of Mediterranean dominance.

This would have been a tough nut to crack in terms of medieval siege warfare.

It’s not a big town and after the fort there are some narrow streets and pretty standard suburbs.

Castelsardo can be walked thoroughly in half a day however you are back in the 15th century.

Even if you are passing by, it’s worth a stop to check out the place. The Ristorante Il Bounty is outstanding and their seafood pasta is garlicky, fresh and superb. There are a number of B&Bs in the old town and I stayed at the Colti di Rosa which was very comfortable.

Bosa

I liked Bosa – it’s a relaxed market town located by the Temo River, about 40km south of Alghero. It is slightly inland so has missed out on the beach tourism that has commercialized other Sardinian cities. This is a nice walking town with the obligatory castle on the overlooking hill.

 

Sardinia’s Peaks and Canyons

Sardinia’s wild and lightly populated interior has outstanding hiking – try out the Gennargentu Mountain Range, just south of Nuoro, where you can hike in the hills or see some spectacular canyons.

Punta La Marmora

The mountains are a short drive south from the city of Nuoro, which is an excellent base for the outdoors.  Punta La Marmora is at 1,834 m and as part of the Gennargentu mountain chain, is the highest peak on the island. Located in the Gennargentu National Park, you can access the trail by driving along the SP7 from Desulo to Fonni, after which you will see signs to Monte Spada and Bruncu Spina (1,819 m).

To reach the trailhead, you continue along the tarmac road to the end (where the road has a traffic barrier – park there), and then walk along the road to where there is a rifugio and ski lift area below Bruncu Spina – here https://goo.gl/maps/E1ysBZNdZHS2. The trailheads (with wooden signs) start from there.

You can hike both peaks in a single half day trip, either starting by hiking up to Monte Bruncu Spina (where there is a meteorological station at the top), or first head southeast for Punta La Marmora. I started with Punta La Marmora and took the trail that ran along the east side of Bruncu Spina (which is to the right in the photo below – Punta La Marmora is the far peak).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having come round the east side of Bruncu Spina, I reached this intersection marker (about here https://goo.gl/maps/N9S6McsPpN42) and then headed southerly towards Punta La Marmora.

Intersection marker – looking southerly towards Punta La Marmora.

It was a gentle uphill to Punta La Marmora, Sardinia’s highest point. The views are certainly worth the walk and there are very few remnants of winter snow (as of March).

Punta La Marmora – looking east

Punta La Marmora – looking northwest

From Punta La Marmora, I backtracked and then from the intersection marker headed uphill and north along a smaller trail that took me northwest along the ridgeline to Bruncu Spini (below).

Upper trail heading northwest towards Bruncu Spina.

Ridge trail heading northwest to Bruncu Spina.

Bruncu Spina has great views to the north – still some snow hanging around as of March.

Bruncu Spina – looking north

The one drawback to finishing up here is that it’s a steep downhill back to the ski lift station at the Rifugio – basically over a downhill ski area if you go direct. It worked but you had to watch your step in places. This is a great hike that makes for a great day out of Nuoro – or wherever else you overnight.

Gorropu Canyon

Gorropu Canyon (Gola di Gorropu) is one of the deepest canyons in southern Europe, with walls up to 200m above the canyon floor. The trailhead (from the north of the canyon – there is a southern access as well) is located about 14km southwest of Dorgali, exiting the SS125. There is a parking lot located northeast of the trailhead here https://goo.gl/maps/oBGdPFxDdV82 or alternatively you can drive past it over the river bridge and then find a space heading south along the dirt road that runs up to the trailhead.

The hike starts in an open wooded valley as you take a trail south along the west side of the Flumineddu River towards the canyon. This was an out and back hike that took about 4 hours. As you are staying along the valley floor, it’s fairly flat.

You can see Gorropu Canyon form up in the distance with a fairly sheltered dirt trail to take you there.

Closer.

You drop down off the dirt trail into the river floor, where there are plenty of boulders.

You can also approach the canyon from the south where there is parking and accommodation located off the SS125 https://goo.gl/maps/pvv6q7SL6yz

Wilma, I’m Home!

If ever the Flintstones were real, it seems they were natives of Sardinia.

– Philip Coppens

Sardinia has over 7,000 ancient stone structures (nuraghe) from its Celtic past, mostly constructed between 2300-500 BC, which could have been fortifications, palaces, temples or lodgings. This is quite a lot for an island of that size, and reflects an overall high level of preservation. The nuraghic civilization drew to a close with the arrival of the Phoenicians around 500 BC.

Many of the nuraghe are circular towers, whereas the Albicciu nuraghe is rectangular. The building is well preserved and after coming into a small hall you can head up to the rooftop. The construction simply laid dry fitted stones against the other.

You have a good view of the mountains to the north through an olive grove. There are signs of  additional construction – including a wooden structure as well as a tower.

The rear of the nuraghe shows multiple rooftop levels where additional, probably wooden structures may have stood.

Nearby is the Coddu Vecchiu burial structure, one of the larger burial monuments on the island, believed to be constructed around 1800-1600 BC and excavated in the 1960s.

The burial chamber sits behind the stele which contains a small entrance.

Together with the nearby La Prisgiona nuraghe, this area was quite heavily built up for the time. Arzachena is a good base for this as well as for exploring Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda.

I stayed at the Santa Lucia B&B in Arzachena which had great rooms and breakfast. http://www.bbslucia.it

Of the other 200 or so excavated nuraghe, others worth seeing in Sardina include major complexes located at Barumini, Torralba and La Prisgiona, also near Arzachena.

The Lost Cities of Ancient Sicily

You can’t move very far in Sicily without coming across the remains of the cities left by Greek, Roman and other occupants of Ancient Sicily. It would take months to fully explore the sites, and so even if you have a couple of weeks you’re going to be selective. Here are three that you shouldn’t miss.

Agrigento – Valley of the Temples

The Valley of the Temples, about 3 kilometers south of Agrigento, is a Greek temple complex dating mostly from the 4th-6th centuries BC that was built around the city of Akragas, one of the major cities of the ancient Greek world. The very well-preserved Temple of Concordia was built in 430 BC and has managed to stand since then as one of the finest examples of Greek temples, withstanding Sicily’s many earthquakes, in part owing to a layer of clay beneath it. It’s certainly worth half a day to walk the 1,300-hectare site.

The 6th century AD Christian basilica was added within the structure.

View east towards the Temple of Hera.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was destroyed in an earthquake and contains two toppled Telamons – figures of a man with raised arms that would have acted as supports.

Telamon, Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Hercules is one of the oldest temples from the 6th century BC,  with eight standing columns.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux was destroyed by Carthaginian invasion and then restored by the Greeks. It’s four remaining columns were rebuilt in the 19th century.

I drove from Catania to Agrigento and afterwards went west to stay in the fishing port town of Sciacca, which is great choice for a low-key stopover in the southwest of Sicily. In Sciacca, I stayed at the Garibaldi Relais in the center and the Trattoria La Buona Forchetta on Via Pietro Gerardi 16 is excellent for dinner:

Seafood Stew, Sciacca, Sicily.

Villa Romane del Casale

The Villa Romane del Casale is a 2nd/3rd Century AD Roman villa complex located about 4 km south of Piazza Armerina. Much of the structures are recognizable, but more compelling are the extensive and incredibly well-preserved floor mosaics throughout much of the building. The villa is believed to have belonged to Rome’s co-Emperor and would have been an impressive regional palace. The building was covered over by a landslide in the Dark Ages and was only excavated in the 19th Century. Hence the preservation of the building (which otherwise would have been demolished and it’s stones re-used) and it’s stunning floor mosaics. The building is now covered with a lightweight wooden structure that protects the site and gives some useful context as to it’s original size.

Villa Romane del Casale

The reception areas must have glowed when first built.

Remains of wall frescoes still stand along this long hall.

The center of the building consisted of a large covered courtyard with hunting scenes. The Roman aristocracy were clearly obsessed with hunting and capturing large African mammals.

Seafaring and fishing scenes including the inevitable large mammal capture scene.

 

The animal motif floor mosaics are cartoon-like and reveal a sense of humor in some of the aesthetics.

The Room of the 10 Maidens (Sala delle Dieci Ragazze sounds a lot better though) features bikini-clad athletes in a Roman-era equivalent of BayWatch.

The throne room, or Basilica, is quite impressive, and the wooden ceiling conveys the size of the place. You would have to ascend into the room and presumably the aristocrat in it would be on a raised dais of sorts at the far end.

The tepidarium (warm room) contained the hot baths heated from below.

I drove to the Roman villa from the Madonie mountains area http://wp.me/p7Jh3P-fh which is reasonably close by.

Selinunte

Selinunte was once a major port city and fortress constructed by the Greeks from about 630 BC.  Once one of the largest and most powerful cities in the known world, it was ransacked by the Carthaginians in about 400 BC. Abandoned as a city in the Roman era, it was only excavated in the 19th century.

You enter the site through the Eastern temples which originate from the 5th Century BC and were reconstructed in the 1950s. Temple E is the most complete and gives off a golden glow.

 

Further north, the other two temples are massive ruined expanses of handcut stone.

From the temples, the walled acropolis overlooking the sea is visible and a decent walk.

Selinunte must have looked impressive overlooking the sea when it was up and running – one of Europe’s major cities around 600 BC.

The acropolis is anchored by a series of temples on its south seaward side, of which Temple C is the only one standing. The temple area is littered with stone wreckage that makes it interesting to traverse.

The street plan of the acropolis still stands out amongst ruined stone buildings and temples.

You can still leave by the north gate of the city.

The fortifications are clearly laid out, although ultimately didn’t help against the Carthaginians.

Selinunte is a must-see for a western Sicily itinerary and is less than two hours from Palermo, which you shouldn’t miss: http://www.aerotrekka.com/urban-adventures-in-sicily-palermo/

If the above still doesn’t get you into the 2,000-year old mood then don’t forget Siracusa: http://www.aerotrekka.com/urban-adventures-in-sicily-siracusa/ 

 

Sicily’s Highlands

Sicily!

Historical atmospheric ancient cities beside azure seas, etc. All true. Try to head inland if you can though, for rugged and scenic hill country awaits. Along with a surprising amount of snow for mid-March.

Madonie Highlands

The Madonie highlands are a little over an hour’s drive southeast of Palermo and are an excellent outdoor hiking and nature area.

Pizzo Carbonara, Madonie Mountains

Madonie Park (http://www.parcodellemadonie.it) is a highland area that features the Madonie mountain range surrounded by the towns of Polizzi Generosa, Collesano, Petralia Soprana, Gangi and Castelbuono, amongst others, which offer a base to explore the region. If you hate the outdoors you can just drive around the park and visit the towns. There was cross-country skiiing at Piano Battaglia, which is an outdoor recreation area in the center of the Park and there are multiple hiking trails best accessed by your own car – public tranport is infrequent. Some itineraries are here http://www.parks.it/parco.madonie/Eiti.php and this is a good description of the topography http://www.summitpost.org/le-madonie/364267

Petralia Soprana

Gangi

Petralia Sottana and Pizzo Carbonara in the Distance

I went for a hike on the Abies Nebrodensis trail (Sentiero degli Abies Nebrodensis) which you can reach on SP 119 from Polizzi Generosa and Piano Battaglia, with a trail head about 8km on the right from Polizzi Generosa. Even for mid-March at about 1,000 meters elevation, there was a lot of snow on the trails. http://www.parcodellemadonie.it/sentiero-degli-abies-nebrodensis.html

I went again the following day and the snow was more manageable for a few hours. The trail to the Rifugio Monte Cervi was also accessed from SP 119 and headed west.

The weather clouded over but it was a nice stroll along the valley.

The Rifugio was shuttered and was a good turnaround point.

I stayed at Agriturismo Cuca just north of Polizzi Generosa which worked really well. Agriturismos are a farmstay option that are very well set up – http://www.agriturismo.it/en/farmhouse/sicily/palermo/Cuca-1470060/index.html

Castelbuono is the largest of the towns if you are looking for a base and it has a large fortified medieval center. I quite liked Polizzi Generosa as well.

Mount Etna

Mount Etna, Sicily’s only active volcano, is located just north of Catania, and is an interesting day hike. There are multiple routes up, and I drive to the base on the south side at Rifugio Giovanni Sapienza. You can take a cable car up or alternatively you can hike up the main access road – I had a roughly 4-hour round trip without going all the way to the crater.

As ever the weather was quite clear in the late morning but it clouded over soon after.

This was where I turned around. Not so much owing to the warning (which was relevant the following day when Etna erupted http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/17/europe/bbc-crew-volcano-mount-etna-eruption/index.html) but because I didn’t trust myself to navigate across the snow with the visibility being variable.

Variable visibility and a suspiciously recent lump of ejected rock.

This is a fuller account:

A Day Jaunt Up Etna, Wherein Not Much Happened Except for Cold Weather

Enna

Enna is good place to base out of central Sicily. It has an impressive and defendable hilltop location – in case. Enna is very pretty.

It has the obligatory historical sites that will fill say half a day.

Commanding views over Sicily’s heartland.

I stayed just south of Enna at the Agriturismo Mandorleto http://www.agriturismo.it/it/agriturismi/sicilia/enna/IlMandorleto-3080663/index.html

Also within striking distance of Enna and worth a visit is the Roman villa near Piazza Armerina http://www.villaromanadelcasale.it

Urban Adventures in Sicily – Trapani

Trapani is a very cool port town on Sicily’s western tip that still shows its fortified origins and role as a trading port between North Africa (cous cous being a local specialty), Spain and mainland Italy. It has ferries to Pantelleria and Tunis and a pretty extensive fishing fleet hangs out in the port. It’s a great base for Western Sicily and to explore the Egadi islands – and a short bus ride from Palermo. Trapani is one of those places that look right on the map and it turns out that you chose well.

Old Town Trapani

The old town is quite compact and can be well covered in a day. It’s a nice place to cool your heels for a few days.

North Sea Wall, Old Town

Most of the old town originates from the 18th and 19th centuries and it has a small town feel.

Corso Vittorio Emanuelle

Head out to the southwest end of town to see the large fishing port with visitors from North Africa.

Libyan Fishing Boat, Trapani Port.

Erice

Erice is a nearby walled medieval hill town reachable by a 40-minute bus ride, that makes for a scenic day trip. You have stunning views over the coastline and get to understand why the Normans put a castle here.

The Duomo was originally built in the early 14th century by the Normans.

Duomo, Erice

The 12th/13th century Norman Castello di Venere was built on the site of a Temple of Venus and was the center of a Roman cult. Erice is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid, so there you go.

Castello di Venere

Castello di Venere

Erice Castle, Mediterranean Coast and Bird

If you’re based in Trapani, AST buses leave from the Porta Trapani stop near the ferry terminal and set you down at the Erice Duomo. The Caffe Maria on 117 Via Vittorio Emanuele is a good place for a coffee and the associated Pasticceria Maria Grammatico a few doors down is well known for its pastries – don’t leave without picking some up.

The Egadi Islands

Trapani is a convenient base to ferry out to the Egadi islands, either for a day trip or for a longer island exploration. Schedules and tickets can be obtained at the Liberty Lines Ferry Terminal ticketing offices, on Viale Regine Elena http://eng.libertylines.it/destination.php?id=1 Of the three islands, I decided to visit the island furthest west, Marettimo, which is about an hour each way on the hydrofoil. Marettimo is the wildest and peakiest of the islands and a great place for a day hike.

Marettimo Harbor

Italian hiking trails are well marked and maintained, with distinctive red-flashed signage. I picked up the trail toward Pizzo Falcone, the peak at the north of the island. There are trails that run west out of the Marettimo town although I took a more southerly roundabout route – heading south of the town along the coast road and then cutting west on a trail that led into this pine forest.

Breaking out of the pine forest, you head north along the east side of the hill range with views towards Sicily.

A notable stop along the way is the Casa Romane, an abandoned Roman settlement, alongside which is a Byzantine-era church.

You finally start to get some altitude and are high enough to look west as well, into the cloud base.

The view from Pizzo Falcone is stunning – the largest of the Egadi islands, Favignana, is in the center, and you can see the hills around Trapani beyond.

Marettimo town with the ferries docked at the ferry terminal, lies below the trail. The tideless Meditteranean permits the back-in “Med Moor” which saves a lot of wharf space.

You can make out the other islands and the Sicilian mainland beyond – along with the next ferry.

Marettimo Town

I didn’t go on this day trip but there are also good hikes to the 17th century fort at Punta Troia (northeast tip) or to the Punta Libeccia Lighthouse (southwest tip). I’d recommend 2-3 days if you want to get in some beautiful day hikes in pristine and wild island country.

Logistics

Trapani is easily reached by bus from Palermo (and direct from Palermo airport). The long- and short-haul buses stop off by the Liberty Lines Ferry Terminal ticketing offices, on Viale Regine Elena. Certain of the long-haul buses require you to buy the ticket at a nearby cafe or travel agent – you can buy AST bus tickets from Egatour Viaggi opposite.

There are plenty of lodging options in Trapani. I stayed at Trapani In Appartamenti on Via S. Francesco di Paola 4, which had excellent apartments with a good nearby cafe for breakfast in the square just east.

Trapani not surprisingly has excellent seafood – seafood cous cous (cuscus con zuppa di mare or cuscus alla Trapanese) is mighty fine and has to be tried. These places were great:

  • La Bettolaccia
  • Hostaria San Pietro

I also came across Il Barbagianni, which was the only craft beer bar in town as I could tell, and well worth the stop.