Friday, January 23, 2015

Planning a trip to Sicily? Here are some helpful recommendations to get you started!

My Austrian seat companion graciously offered to take this photo of Mt Etna from the airplane
since my seat was on the aisle.

"Do you want me to take a photo of Mt. Etna for you?" The simple question turned out to be a great ice-breaker during the flight from Catania to Paris. As if on cue, our row of three women started chatting about how much we had enjoyed our respective vacations in Sicily. When I confessed that the largest island in the Mediterranean hadn't been on my travel radar, the Austrian and French women nodded their heads in agreement. None of us could understand why it had taken us so long to discover this delightful destination.

A basic map of Sicily, not the one drawn by Stéphane's colleague

Planning for our Sicilian travels started with Stéphane asking some of his Italian colleagues for suggestions. One of them drew a remarkably accurate map of the island with the following advice:
  • If the trip is less than 7 days, visit the eastern coast: Taormina, Catania, Syracuse and Baroque Sicily (Noto, Modica, Ragusa Ibla).
  • If the trip is more than 7 days then the western coast may also be considered.
Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily.

I also received a lot of helpful suggestions from the "Out and About in Paris" community on Facebook, including many tips from native Sicilian Michael Coniglio. I've copied and pasted some of the comments below for those of you planning a trip to Sicily:

Michael Coniglio: I was born there, there are no "hidden" gems, everything is a gem, especially near Catania, don't forget to visit the beaches, Etna and eat all the food you can find.

But if you really had to choose, you have to visit the Greek theatre and "Le gole d'alcantara" near Syracuse and Taormina.

Recommended food and drinks: tavola calda (a mix of stuff which is really good, especially arancini and pizzette, available everywhere in bars), granite (which can be found only on the Messina - Syracuse axe), panini (this is not what you're thinking of, you can buy them in special trucks parked throughout cities) , almond milk (which has a very different taste from what we can find in France, recommended brand Mandorlat) , zests (a kind of nonalcoholic drink) , chinotto and spuma (tomarchio brand, which you can buy pretty much everywhere). Also pasticcini (found in bars and boulangeries).

In Taormina you CANNOT miss Castelmola.

Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily. We weren't expecting snow!

Jane Strauss: I loved Erice. I bought my all time favorite ceramics there... Of course, you must see Piazza Amerina for the mosaics. Enjoy!

Ruth Gardner Lamere: You will LOVE Sicily ! The picture you have submitted is in Taormina, a wonderful place to visit and also to stay. Palermo is a great city with a lot of historic things to do and see. And if you are flying out of Catania be sure to spend a day in Orteyga, near by. There are so many wonderful places to visit on this treasure trove of an island. You could spend weeks there and not see it all. The Aeolian Islands are wonderful, the mosaics in some of the ancient palaces are breathtaking, the ruins of temples so interesting, and the many cultures that have lived there over the centuries have each added their own flavor. It is so diverse and fascinating. the people are friendly and helpful. And because they have three crops a year, the food is stupendous! Enjoy and report back to us! 

Fiona Johnston: Definitely Taormina, Syracuse and Agrigento.

Connie Halbert: Sicily was one of my all time favorite trips. We started in Palermo and circled the island ending in Palermo. Surprises for me were Taormina, Syracusa, Agrigento, Selinunte, Erice, Segesta and Monreale. It's all great so enjoy! 

Thierry Givone: When you're in Palermo, don't miss the Monreale Cathedral which just on the hill above the city, It's one of the most amazing churches I have ever seen (and don't miss the cloisters which are so peaceful). The little village of Cefalu on the north coast is lovely nice place to stay, and of course, Taormina.

Terri O'Donnell: I enjoyed Taormina, Agrigento, and I became hooked on arancinis ! There was a soft white cookie like a French macaron that was a specialty in Catania that I couldn't stop eating!

Villa Romana del Casale is home to some of the world's finest Roman mosaics
dating back to the 4th century AD.

Kathy Kirkpatrick I love Etna, the Greek temples at Agrigento and Selinunte, the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina, the archaeology park at Siracusa has several things, cemeteries with burials of Allies and Axis from WWI + WWII.

Nancy Reinstein Bettencourt: Go to Cefalù....lovely coastal area

After taking everyone's helpful recommendations into consideration, here's the schedule that Stéphane put together for our vacation:

Palermo - 2 nights; Marsala - 1 night; Agrigento - 1 night; Taormina - 3 nights (including New Year's Eve); Syracuse - 1 night; and Catania - 1 night

Stayed tuned for blog posts about some of our favorite places!

Cefalù, Sicily

Friday, January 16, 2015

Marsala: Pantone's 2015 Color of the Year, a fortified wine and a town in Sicily

Marsala, Pantone's 2015 color of the year

Marsala. It's THE current buzz word among fashion and interior designers, make-up artists and graphic designers. Some love it and some hate it. Yet, chances are that you'll see a lot of this terracotta red shade in 2015. It's going to be on the catwalks of Paris, the wall of your trendy friend's apartment and on fashionistas' lips. Marsala is Pantone's Color of the Year.

To kick off my series of posts about our recent vacation in Sicily, I thought I would start with a short one about Marsala. This charming town located on the island's windswept western coast is famous for its glistening white marble streets, stately baroque buildings and fortified wine.

John Woodhouse, an English soap merchant, is credited with introducing this wine fortified with a dash of brandy or pure alcohol to 18th-century England. The wine's success was assured when the British Navy gave it to the country's sailors as an alternative to port. At the time, a sailor's daily ration was one glass of wine per day. When Lord Nelson placed a huge order in 1800, Marsala became a truly hot commodity.

We spent a wonderful evening sampling a variety of local vintages and listening to live jazz music at the Enoteca della Strada del Vino di Marsala. Sponsored by the association of Marsala wine merchants, this atmospheric wine bar also proved to be a great classroom. Under the careful tutelage of two sommeliers, we discovered that Marsala is so much more than a cooking wine traditionally used for Chicken Marsala. It was while we were admiring the rich earthy hues and nuanced flavor of our Caro Maestro that the charming Costa Rican waitress revealed how proud the winemakers are that Marsala is Pantone's 2015 Color of the Year. Salute to their success!

Interesting little tidbit about the origins of the name Marsala -- When the town was conquered by the Arabs in AD 830, they gave the settlement its current name, Marsa Allah (Port of God).

Marsala's elegant Piazza Della Repubblica and the Chiesa Madre di Marsala 
Marble streets of Marsala

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Paris freed, Paris photographed, Paris exhibited."

28 August 1944 – D.C.A. américaine, place de Varsovie, Original photograph: Jean Séeberger © Photo Séeberger Frères; Reproduction: © Carnavalet Museum / Parisienne de photographie

Timing is everything. If I would have seen the exhibition Paris freed, Paris photographed, Paris exhibited shortly after it opened last June, I would have left with a vague impression of events that happened 70 years ago. The black and white photos showing a deserted Champs-Elysées and the bodies of dead hostages lying in the street would certainly have made an impact, but they would have borne little resemblance to the city I know.

That was then. This is now. The Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings have altered my perceptions.

When I received an email last Monday reminding me that I had registered for a special evening visit of the exhibition at the Carnavalet Museum, I incorrectly assumed that "Paris freed" in the subject line somehow referred to the deaths of the terrorists. Considering that the horrific events had overshadowed everything else in my life for the past week, my mistake wasn't surprising.

Unity March at the Place de la République on January 11, 2015

The Carnavalet's email sparked an internal dilemma. Even though Stéphane and I had joined the millions who turned out for the Unity March on Sunday, I suddenly felt worried about going to the museum on my own on Monday evening. After all, it's located in the Marais, the neighborhood known as "the Jewish heart of Paris". The police had closed the nearby rue des Rosiers during the kosher supermarket attack because they feared the street might be one of the terrorists' next targets. Unbidden questions rushed into my mind. "Is it safe to go there?" one side of my brain asked, while the other countered, "Do you want to let the terrorists' actions rule your life?"

"Partie de la rue de Rivoli interdite" 1940 © Roger Schall / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

On my way to the museum, I found myself calculating the odds of another attack. The armed soldiers patrolling the streets did little to allay my fears. "Would they be able to stop a terrorist carrying a Kalashnikov rifle?" I wondered as I hurried past the synagogue on rue Pavée.

It was only after I was safely cloistered within the ancient walls of the Carnavalet Museum that I felt my hunched shoulders start to relax. And then I saw it. A photo that spoke directly to my heart.

Slightly out of focus, the grainy black and white photograph featured a monument that I had seen splashed across the front pages of the world's most prominent newspapers during the past week. It was the statue of Marianne at the Place de la République. Rather than being surrounded by enthusiastic crowds waving flags and wielding oversized pencils supporting the freedom of the press, the national symbol of France was encircled by barbed wire. A sign in the foreground read, "Attention ! Celui qui ira plus loin sera fusillé !" (Caution! Those who go further will be shot!")

Paris freed, Paris photographed, Paris exhibited examines the narratives created by the German Occupation, barricades, arrival of the 2nd Armored Division, reprisals, parade of August 26, 1944 and the American presence. The photos are a reminder that personal memories are shaped by collective memories, just as individual narratives merge with collective history. Featured quotations of historians and philosophers challenge our sense of history and the way memory works.

Seventy years from now, how will the world's collective memory view the heinous killings of last week and the inspirational Unity March? The beginning of the narrative has already been written...

Be sure to see "Paris freed, Paris photographed, Paris exhibited." It's at the Carnavalet Museum through February 8, 2015.

Carnavalet Museum, 16 rue Francs-Bourgeois, 75003 Paris
Opening hours: Daily from 10 am to 6 pm, except Mondays and public holidays
Last entrance for individual visitors at 5 pm.

"The Liberation of Paris – Aug 26, 1944 in the afternoon. The crowd awaits the arrival of General de Gaulle, rue de Rivoli near the Hôtel de Ville, 4e arrondissement." Photographie originale : © Fonds photographique René Zuber Reproduction : © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

"Charlie Hebdo" Unity March in Paris on January 11, 2015

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas! I'll be back soon...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I'll be "Out and About" exploring the island of Sicily until January 5. Please join me on Facebook for photo updates on our Italian vacation!

If you're in Paris, be sure to check out the giant snow globe with 120 trees under the Eiffel Tower and the ice skating rinks at the Grand Palais and the Hotel de Ville.

Giant snow globe with 120 trees at the Eiffel Tower.
Ice skating at the Grand Palais.
Ice skating rink at the  Hôtel de Ville

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Fort Boyard: the French cheese, fortification and television show!

Just a few of the many cheeses that are on display at Androuet  

Depending on which source you consult, France has between 350 to 400 distinct varieties of cheese. An impressive selection of the country's offerings was on display at an award winning cheese shop that I recently visited during a gourmet walking tour of the chic Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood with Preston Mohr of Paris by the Glass.

As I happily snapped photos of some of my favorite types of goat cheese, the log shaped Saint-Maure de Touraine and the truncated pyramid Valençay, I spied something that resembled a ...  Hmm? I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was something vaguely familiar about the shape. Frustrated by my inability to figure out the enigma, I edged closer to read the name, "Boyard". Of course! It was a tiny replica of Fort Boyard, one of the places that Stéphane was determined to visit while we were in the Charente Maritime region of France in mid-November.

Boyard cheese, currently 6.85 euros a piece

En route to Fort Boyard, Stéphane explained that the fortification is famous for being the location of the game show, Fort Boyard. First aired in 1990, the show has been a French and international favorite for 24 years. The fort's precarious location in the middle of the sea off France's northwest coast and its grim history as a prison increase the adrenalin level of the show's contestants and its avid viewers.

Curious to learn more about the pre-television history of the impressive structure, I put my iPhone to work while Stéphane drove. Napoleon ordered the construction of Fort Boyard to guard the mouth of the Charente River, the harbor of the Ile d'Aix and the arsenal of Rochefort. Hindered by storms and attacks by the British, it took more than 30 years to complete. Before it was even finished, Fort Boyard was already rendered useless due to advances in artillery. Nonetheless, the construction of the fort was considered to be such a remarkable feat that a model of it was presented at the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris. Napoleon never saw the finished fortification, which would have cost the equivalent of more than two hundred million euros ($248,000,000) today.

When we reached the windswept coast, I protected my camera from the downpour to take a couple of shots of Fort Boyard with my telephoto lens. Off limits to the general public, it's as close as we could get to Napoleon's fortification ... until I spotted the Boyard cheese in Paris!

Stéphane's surprise treat that evening was some goat cheese in the shape of the famous fortification served with raspberry paste in the indentation, as per the shop assistant's advice.

Boyard cheese is available at Androuet, 37 rue de Verneuil, 75007 and perhaps at some of the cheese shop's other locations.

An aerial view of Fort Boyard via Wikipedia.
Fort Boyard as seen with a telephoto lens from the shore