Hidden picture challenge: Can you find three Barbary apes nestled on the Rock of Gibraltar in the photo above?
Much like the beleaguered Neanderthals, Jeff and I staged our last European hurrah in Gibraltar. How fitting. True, the Neanderthals were pushed to edge of Europe by hostile homo sapiens and we are fleeing the tyranny of the ‘90-day Schengen Visa’, but if you think about it it’s basically the same thing.
We made our way from Algeciras to the Spanish town of La Línea and crossed on foot to Gibraltar (or ‘Gib’, as the Brits absurdly call it). This was the lamest border check-point I’ve seen. No stamps, pat-downs, or vaguely menacing men with guns. Where’s the fun in that? Though the bureaucracy is minimal the logistics of the crossing still manage to be comical. The main road into and out of Gibraltar (Winston Churchill Boulevard, of course) bisects the runway of Gibraltar International Airport. When planes need to land or take off (which happens often), traffic is halted and it’s quite a spectacle. I understand that space is limited but this is absurd. The bus we were on waited for three RyanAir flights. Come on!
The Rock in the distance!
And our bus waiting for the runway to clear. We waited. And waited.
The Full English
Coming from the land of wine and tapas, the deliberate and aggressive British-ness of Gib is striking: retro red telephone booths, excessive signage cautioning you to ‘mind’ things, and pasty-faced pensioners abound with nary a straight smile in sight. There is even a weather pattern that regularly envelops Gibraltar in fog. You can’t get more UK than that. I have to admit that while Jeff and I hide our heritage behind thousands of dollars of orthodontics and chin jobs, deep down the UK does feel comfortingly familiar. In this vein, we began our time in Gibraltar with cups of milky tea and a hearty full English: beans, a tomato, blood sausage, and fried eggs.
Nothing like a full english! Yum.
A wee bit of jingoistic kitsch – Make Gibraltar Great Again.
Loads of History
There aren’t an abundance of sites in Gibraltar, but the Rock has had an outsized impact on human history. As I alluded to, Gibraltar was the densest site of Neanderthal settlements in the prehistoric era, and it was likely the last site of Neanderthal habitation before extinction (at the hands of our ancestors). Later, Gibraltar was an important place for the Carthaginian and Roman Empires, for whom it was a holy place and considered to be the one of the two ‘Pillars of Hercules’. The name ‘Gibraltar’ is a corruption of the Arabic phrase Jebel Tariq – or the Mount of Tariq – and is a reference to the Moorish conqueror of Spain (Tariq), who invaded the Iberian Peninsula via Gibraltar. So yeah, lots of things have happened on this rock.
Jeff got some great shots of the Rock of Gibraltar.
This thing is really big.
Yay! We’re in Gib.
The British history of Gibraltar began in 1620, and the territory doesn’t seem to have any interest in divesting from the crown. In fact, last year over 99% of the 30,000 Gibraltarians voted to stay in the UK, which that helps to explain the aggressive British-ness of the place. Everyone living there just acts like it’s perfectly normal to have a 2.6 square mile island of UK on the southern edge of Spain. “Spain? What is this place? We’re British.” Okay, fine.
The Rock (and Barbary Apes)
One of the few ‘activities’ in Gibraltar is a cable car to the top of the rock. I sat this one out since it sounded terrifying, but Jeff made the trek up and loved the views. He saw lots of plaques memorializing British naval history (oh, the grand tradition) and saw plenty of monkeys. The little buggers are feisty, and he saw two people get attacked by them. The patrol officer up there said, “Ah, don’t worry. The monkeys are vaccinated.” Oh great, then it’s totally fine if they bloody my arm.
It’s fun for all the family!!! (Except those of us with acrophobia…)
Don’t do it. It’s tempting, but don’t.
The ride to the top!
Aw, this little guy is striking quite the pose.
This is guy is either in timeout or checking his iPhone. I can’t tell.
Sleepy lil’ Barbary Ape.
This photo captures it all. Pretty great.
To round out our very British day, we went to Lord Nelson’s Pub for a proper pint. We chatted with a barman from Leeds, and he told us that young Brits go to work in Gib to earn money and have a bit of an adventure. They earn wages in the British pound, enjoy a lower cost of living, and can travel throughout southern Europe cheaply. I can understand that impulse, and it helped to provide some context for how a weird little place like Gib can exist. Young Brits work there, and old Brits retire there. Gibraltar has a pleasantness to it that I didn’t expect, and it was an enjoyable last hurrah in Europe.
From Gibraltar, we said goodbye to Europe and headed to our fifth continent and our last country: Morocco.
As we left Malta I turned to Jeff and said, ‘Well, not every place can have gypsies, hammams, and exciting cheese. That’s okay.‘ Enumerating the three tenants of Jaynie-topia, little did I know that in a mere one-hour we’d be in a country rich in not one, not two, but ALL of these elements. Oh boy, Spain is great. Much like I felt when we got to Sri Lanka, I’m embarrassed that we’ve overlooked this country for so long. What’s wrong with us?
If you visit only one country in Europe it should be Spain. The country has a fascinating history that spans the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths (they’re always fun), the Arab moors, the Umayyad dynasty (from Damascus!), and eventually the northern ‘re-conquistadors’. Most countries in the European Mediterranean have similar histories but in Spain these layers seem more architecturally visible, with conquerors using the structures of the conquered rather than completely destroying them. When the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492, they actually made the fantastical Islamic palaces in the Alhambra their home. They kept much of the architecture unchanged and ruled from a room decorated with Islamic motifs and passages from the Koran. We’ve seen far too few instances of cross-cultural reuse in our travels, and I really loved this about Spain. (I’m still mad at Sicily for destroying all the hammams after the Norman Invasion in 1061. Why?)
Our travels in Spain were limited to the southern part of the country: we began in Valencia, drove to the palm forest at Elche, curved inland to Granada, took a train to Seville, and finally bid farewell in Algeciras.
After some travel burnout Valencia was the breath of fresh air we needed. The city is like Berlin on the Mediterranean. Sunny and lovely, investments have been made in public transportation, bike-ability, and great public spaces.
The gem of Valencia is the Mercado Central, a huge covered marketplace built in 1928 and housing over 300 small shops selling all kinds of food and drink. The goodies sold here are my cat nip and Jeff had to rein me in – Spanish jamon, salty cheeses, fancy olive oil, and dried fruit are everywhere. Valencia is famous for its unique variety of horchata and we drank gallons of it at the market and the nearby Horchateria Santa Catalina. Valencian horchata uses an unusual African legume called tiger nuts and it is thicker and less sweet than the Mexican-style horchata at home.
The Mercado Central in Valencia. The sword-fish weather vane is fantastic.
HAM- HAM HAM!!!! Or should I say jamon.
The nearby Horchateria de Santa Catalina serves up some GOOD stuff.
The center of the market is a very cool dome… you can *kind of* see it here.
The produce was fantastic. They had tons of large, good looking citrus fruits and pomegranates the size of my head (not Jeff’s head, though).
More excellent produce.
Historically silk production and processing was a huge industry in Valencia, and it was fun to learn about the city’s connections to the Silk Road. After spending what felt like eternity exploring Silk Road hubs in Uzbekistan, both Jeff and I are pretty intrigued with all of the threads (obnoxious pun here) of the silk industry around the world. Originally Arab traders brought silk to Valencia as a terminus at the western end of the original Silk Road, but they found that the notoriously finicky mulberry tree (i.e. silk worm food) could be grown in Valencia. Valencia’s silk trade peaked during the 15th century, and there was even a scheme to start a ‘new Silk Road’ from Valencia to the new world. Jeff very politely suffered through the silk museum in the Velvet Weaver’s Guildhouse and a visit to the Lonja Silk Exchange building, which was built as the seat of ‘silk power’ in the roaring 1400s.
This room was the seat of power during the silk hey-day during the 1400’s.
This hall in the silk exchange is where all of the deals were cut. The columns are striking.
This is some kind of punch-card apparatus that controlled a loom. Neither Jeff nor I could figure out how it worked.
The loom. It was pretty impressive.
From Valencia we rented a car and drove down to Elche, the only palm grove in Europe and one of the biggest palm forests in the world. The palms were most likely planted by Carthaginian settlers in the 5th century BC, but an irrigation system built by the Moors in the 800s allowed the grove to flourish. Jeff and fam visited Elche when he was a little kid, and it was fun for him to revisit his childhood adventures.
Plams at Elche!
There were some pretty amazing cacti too. The whole environment was beautiful.
We made it to Elche!
A manicured section of the grove.
After Elche the Arab quotient increased steadily until we reached Granada. Much of Granada’s Arab district, Albayzin, was build by craftsmen from Damascus and the wandering the district was a highlight. I love a good ‘Arab-flair’, and Granada is Arab-flair minus the headscarves and plus ham. Truly, this is heaven.
Albayzin – the Arab district of Granada.
Kittens chillin’ outside our apartment in Albayzin. They got some ham for dinner.
A view from our apartment to the Alhambra at sunset.
Annoyingly, visiting the Alhambra necessitates one to plan in advance (pfffff). There are daily limits on the number of visitors allowed inside and a ‘strong recommendation’ that tickets are purchased 2 – 6 months in advance. After some frantic scrambling and a bit of luck (a.k.a. a lot of money) we were able to find a tour of the Alhambra with two spots left. Phew.
The Alhambra, or the ‘Red One’, was initially built in the 800s as a relatively small fortress on the remains of a Roman settlement. The Alhambra of today, however, is best known for the beautiful Generalife Gardens and several glorious Islamic Palaces, which were built by the Islamic rulers of the Emirate of Granada between 1230 to 1492. These gardens are so serene and the palaces were truly beyond compare. Really, it’s one of the prettiest places we’ve seen during this year of travel.
Inside the Generalife gardens.
Arab’s know how to do a good courtyard.
The famous Courtyard of the Lions. It was lovely, but I’m not sure why it’s so famous…
My favorite prayer niche. I want to have tea here.
Yea! We made it inside.
Cool arches everywhere.
The Alhambra really excels at ceilings. Look at this!!!
The ceiling in the royal hammam.
My second favorite prayer niche. I’d drink tea here too.
Gypsies + Flamenco
Once again, a free walking tour resulted in the discovery of a nearby gypsy neighborhood – Granada’s Sacromonte. Did you know that gypsies invented flamenco? Neither did I. Located just outside the city walls, the Sacromonte neighborhood is comprised of a series of cave dwellings, troglodyte homes is the technical term. The origin of the Granada gypsies (and why they live in caves) is unclear, but it is likely that Christian gypsies saw a business opportunity in Granada after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews during the inquisition. Unlike any gypsy community I’ve seen, Granada gypsies are welcoming to tourists and run a profusion of eateries out of their caves. Jeff and I spent a pretty memorable evening in Sacromonte listening to flamenco music, drinking sangria, and watching the sunset on the Alhambra.
But wait… there’s more. Granada has several hammams, including the exquisite Hammam al-Andalus housed in an impressive 13th century building. It’s not a true hammam (painful naked scrub downs, etc.) but it’s a beautiful atmosphere and a very nice experience. Predictably, I loved it so much that I made Jeff come back with me for a second time. Even he thought it was a beautiful hammam and we schooled multiple Spaniards in asceticism in the cold pool (they’re very delicate).
The cold pool in the hammam. It was cold, but not terrible.
The warm pool. This place was lovely!
Seville and Algeciras
From Granada, we took the train to Seville. Seville is absolutely pleasant but after all the excitement in Granada we didn’t do much. We sat in pleasant cafes and ate pleasant food. One day we mustered the energy to do a day trip to neighboring Cordoba to see the Mezquita de Córdoba, but that was about it.
The famous arches in Mezquita de Córdoba. They look so Syrian to me.
A hidden little cove. I wanted to get inside but I couldn’t figure out how.
Outside the walls of Mezquita de Córdoba.
More old walls of the comple.
A lovely little neighborhood church in the Jewish district. Yep, a church, you heard me right.
The old synagog. It was very well restored and quite beautiful.
From Seville we took a bus to the southern port town of Algeciras, where we got a taste of small town Spain. Algeciras is basically the stopping off point for tourists going to 1) Gibraltar or 2) Morocco (or in our case both). Algeciras is sleepy but pleasant, and we spent a day resting there before the next adventure.
After loosing our travel mojo a bit in Malta, Spain was a great way to reinvigorate the last leg of our travels. Fabulous architecture, gypsies, good food, and hammams – Spain has everything a person could want (as dictated by me). Next up, a visit to wee Britain in Gibraltar and then on to Morocco!
After a long sojourn in Italy, we headed to Malta to meet up with the Sherlock clan and dear friend Glenda. I’m glad we did because without fabulous company I don’t think we would have survived Malta. We had a wonderful time relaxing with the family, eating way too much, and regaling a fresh(ish) audience with our tales from the road, but as a destination Malta did not enchant us. As Jeff so aptly put it: Malta has the prices of Europe, the customer service of the Middle East, and the cultural allure of neither. So it is.
First the Good
Lest I devolve into negative-Nancy-ism, I’ll begin with the coolest thing we did in Malta: the Hypogeum (or the Gorgandulum, as it is colloquially known in the Sherlock family). This site – along with the megalithic structures of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija on Gozo – is old. Like, before-the-pyramids old. Long before other Mediterranean empires came onto the scene Malta was inhabited by a sophisticated and highly-organized civilization referred to simply as the ‘temple builders’. The temple builders left mysterious, round megalithic structures on the Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo, and Camino), and the relics of this enigmatic culture are quite fascinating.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (aka Gorgandulum) is a prehistoric underground burial site built by the temple builders into the soft limestone bedrock. Construction of the Hypogeum began in 4000 BC, and the complex was expanded and used continually until 2500 BC. The Hypogeum spans over 3 levels and has remnants of red ochre wall paintings that were very, very cool. The site was first discovered in 1902 and excavated by Sir Themistocles Zammit (best. cat. name. ever), and because it is such a fragile ecosystem it has extremely restricted tourist access. Luckily for us, Glenda and Liz are super planners and reserved our Gorgandulum tickets months ago.
Hehe, we’re good.
The red ochre wall paintings, over 6000 years old.
One of the temple chambers in the Hypogeum.
The central hall of the Hypogeum, referred to as the Holy of Holies.
More wall paintings.
In addition to visiting the Hypogeum, we saw the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temple complexes on Malta and the oldest temple of all, the Ggantija Temple on the island of Gozo. Several of these temples have very precise alignments to solar phenomena like the equinoxes, underscoring just how sophisticated these ancient people’s knowledge of math, astronomy, and physics must have been. Pretty cool.
One of the doorways at the Ħaġar Qim Temple. I love the texture.
The interior of the Ħaġar Qim Temple.
How cute are these two? Very cute.
It’s hard to visualize what these things look like, so here is a model.
Me at Mnajdra Temple.
The doorways are pretty impressive.
The Ggantija Temple on Gozo.
My favorite thing about the temple builders are the unusual fertility goddess relics that have been found inside all of their structures. Sometimes called the ‘fat ladies’, these goddess statues are extremely obese female figures depicted as wearing pleated skirts down to their fat cankles. Often fashioned with removable (or interchangeable) heads, these corpulent goddesses are really weird. Their clothing and hair styles appear modern, and I’m amazed that ancient people were able to conceptualize such obese figures. I doubt that they’d ever seen a fat person, let alone a really fat person. Oh, how little we know about the ancient worldview.
A really old fat lady.
A lazy fat lady.
A fat lady’s legs at a temple. I take it back – she doesn’t have cankles.
Two Fat Ladies!!!
Now it’s Negative Nancy’s Turn
Okay, now that I’ve said what I liked about Malta Negative Nancy gets to air her grievances. To quote Frank Costanza at the beginning of Festivus: I got a lotta of problems with you people!!!
The logistics of purchasing food on the island of Malta was hellish. There are zero grocery stores in the tourist area. Literally zero. I get that they’re catering to Brits fresh off the cruise ship, but normal humans need to buy things like milk and bread. There is a twee British hold over store called The Wembley Store (of course) that sells quaint gift hampers of tinned beans and clotted cream, but they don’t have anything you’d actually need, like, I don’t know… milk. When I finally tracked down a green grocer, they were selling rotten food — tomatoes that were actually decaying. I’ve never seen such a thing before, and I’m still offended thinking about it. WTF, Malta.
I can deal with crappy food if other things are interesting (hello Uzbekistan!), but the thing that pushed me over the edge in Malta was the lack of culture. Never before have I spent 2 weeks in a country and come away with so little insight into the people. I think that the issue is two-fold. First, I think that there just isn’t much culture in Malta to be observed. People don’t have a public life like in other countries so you’re just not going to see anything interesting as a tourist. No markets, no festivals, no nothin’. Second, the Maltese are… to put it kindly… not so nice. There I said it. I know it’s not popular to say but as a general class I disliked the Maltese almost as much as I dislike the Serbs, and that is something.
I found many people working in the tourism industry to be hostile (on a scale of slightly to sociopath) and unpleasant to interact with. We had two highly unpleasant encounters and several other icky interactions that contributed to my less than glowing-impression of the Maltese. The worst incident was an egomaniacal cruise ship ‘captain’ who singled me out and harassed me aggressively about ‘respecting him’. He was horrible, and actually provoked me to the point that I refused to sail on his ship and went home for the day. I honestly have no explanation for this offensive experience and in 6-months of world travel I have never been so pissed off.
The next day (not good timing) Jeff and I went to pick up a rental car car we had reserved. Naturally we arrive to find a completely different car that was a manual transmission. This kind of mix-up happens and really shouldn’t have been a huge deal but the rental car guy was extremely rude and absolutely refused to work anything out. No customer service, no problem solving whatsoever. He just jumped in the car and sped off, leaving us to figure out how to arrange transport to the island of Gozo for 6 people with approximately 60 bags. I’m not a traveler who needs to be coddled but the hostility of the Maltese was a shock.
So there is my rant: bad access to food, lack of culture, and shitty people. My Malta induced snit caused lots of other things about the island to pissed me off, but I’ll leave it at that. It seems like there are other travelers out there (like this gal) who had a less than great experience in Malta, so at least I’m not alone. I think that what I really need to heal this is a Maltese volunteer to complete the rites of Festivus and fight me. I’d really, really like that…
The redemptive island of Gozo
After a rough week on the main island of Malta, the whole crew headed north to the smaller island of Gozo (sans our rental car but whateves). Gozo is the ‘second’ island in the Maltese archipelago and Gozitans are regarded by the Maltese as less sophisticated country-cousins. We, however, found the smaller island to be a much needed respite. People are friendlier, the atmosphere is more relaxed, and we just had an overall better experience. We stayed at a really great farmhouse with a pool and a very friendly gaggle of neighborhood cats – so of course we were pleased. We named our favorite (i.e. the most persistent) kitty Ħal. Ħal was a little sneaky and had some secret routes into our house, but we loved him and plied him with generous servings of wet cat food.
Here’s Ħal chillaxing on a bed Jeff made him. We loved him.
We made it to Gozo!!!
Ħal eating his feast. Maltese wet cat food is extra stinky.
Ħal’s friend, we called ‘The Gray Kitty’.
My favorite Gozitan experience was dinner at local place called Tal-Furnar Restaurant and Bakery. The wood burning oven at this place has cooked something every single day for over a century, across 4 generations of the owners family. The place is not fancy – it’s nothing more than a shabby collection of tables on the pavement perched perilously close to the busy road – but Jeff and I finally felt like we had our first ‘authentic’ experience in Malta. We had a great dinner of local pasta and Gozitan Ftira (basically a pizza), and I was happy to see at least a bit of local life in Gozo.
Tal-Furnar, a real gem.
Our authentic Maltese dinner. A treat!
For such a small country, Malta packed a punch, with some of the most frustrating experiences of our many months on the road. Luckily, Gozo gave us some good downtime and the relax time with loved ones was a wonderful balm for our Maltese woes.
After two weeks in Malta we packed up and headed to Valencia, Spain.
P.S. Thanks Glenda and Hilary for the photos!!! You guys did well. I’m impressed.
It feels like we’ve been in Italy forever. Is it our home now? After leaving Lipari, the place where it all began, we headed to our Italian finale: Palermo.
Palermo is the capitol of Sicily. The city feels like Italy-in-the-raw and it’s grittier than we expected – which of course is a good thing. The whole place has a deep sense of faded grandeur and crumbling glory. Palermo’s dense city streets have two millennia’s worth of buildings from the Romans, Arabs, Spanish, and Italians — all crammed together in a bizarre but captivating architectural environment. The narrow streets are buzzing with classic ‘Italian Stereotypes’: sharp tonged kids, swarthy men in impeccably tailored suits, and ancient nonnas going to weekday mass. (side-bar: I saw a swarthy well-suited man throw-up dramatically whilst two nonnas fanned him energetically and a disinterested shop keeper splashed buckets of water over the vomit; I will forever replay this scene in my head when I think of Palermo.)
Palermo – gaudy and glorious.
This hideous fountain was bought from a Venetian for an exorbitant sum whilst the local population starved. For this reason it’s called the fountain of shame.
Technically this statue is in Catania but I love it so I included it.
One of the most fascinating legacies of Sicily’s very multi-cultural past is a collection of nine loosely contemporary structures collectively referred to as the ‘Arab and Norman’ churches. Designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, these structures are super weird but very cool architectural Frankensteins dotting Sicily. After the Norman conquest of Sicily in the 1000’s, the vanquished Arabs were kindly asked to build some churches in an Arabesque style (or so the story goes). The result is quite odd but interesting, and provides an all too rare historical example of Christian and Islamic collaboration. These churches have mosque-like domes and minarets, Moroccan style inlayed floors, and over-the-top gold Byzantine era mosaics adorning the interior walls. It’s a schizophrenic vibe but somehow it works.
Domes like this on a Catholic church? Wha?
A Byzantine mosaic on the interior of an Arabesque dome. Quite the blend.
The exterior of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo.
Some of the churches didn’t retain their amazing mosaics.
A fabulous interior of an Arab-Norman church.
I love the tile on these cupolas so much.
This tower looks very Moorish. The sides are tiled.
A Moroccan style floor in one of the Arab-Norman churches.
I was pretty impressed with Palermo’s number and diversity of architectural gems. In addition to the cool Arab and Norman sites, we heard about a tiny museum that houses Italy’s largest collection of old tiles. My interest was piqued and I emailed the museum to arrange a visit. Tucked away in an old house on the outskirts of Palermo’s old city, the Museum of Tiles- Stanze al Genio was an amazing collection. The tiles are displayed in a private home and an almost-scarily enthusiastic caretaker showed us around. This guy LOVES tiles – LOVES them! The collection has tiles from the 1700s to the modern day, and it’s really incredible to see how modern some of the older tiles look. You get a sense of Italian design’s influence on many movements of the 20th century, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco to the Modernist movement. I have a newfound appreciation for the Italian design aesthetic and I think even Jeff enjoyed himself (a teeny bit) at the tile museum.
This tile was on the floor of the home that housed the tile museum.
A fabulous 1700’s floor tile.
This guy really loves his job.
So many tiles!!!
And more tiles!!!
These two tiles were made in the early 1800’s. They look so modern and ‘graphic’ to me.
He knew everything about these tiles. Everything.
Ameba or puzzle pieces? You decide.
More Street Food!
We loved the street food in Naples, so Palermo seemed like a wonderful opportunity for a culinary encore. It turns out that while some of the street food is excellent, there’s also some street food that is – how do I say this diplomatically? – gross. I don’t really ‘do’ organ meat, and a big juicy liver ‘n lung sandwich isn’t for me (though Jeff was a champ on this one). And grilled intestines? I’ll eat it but I’m not happy about it. I have to say, though, the grossness was part of the fun and we ended up loving the tour so much we did it twice.
There were some gastronomic hits in addition to the misses. Arancinas, which are basically fried balls of risotto, are a fabulous find. We had some superb arancinas filled with eggplant, mozzarella, and parma ham. We also had lovely cheese (how could this not be great) and fantastic seafood. My favorite was an octopus and potato salad with like half a bottle of olive oil on it. So. Freaking. Good. Italians do a good desert too, and we ate an ethereal pistachio granitas (basically a super fancy super good slushy).
Yum!!! Lung and liver sammies for all.
Jeff was a good sport about this. I wasn’t.
This is definitely a ‘make it work’ moment.
‘Take the damn picture. I want to eat!’
So much sea food.
These guys were a bit rubbery.
Tons of super cheap produce.
Fried fish goodies.
This is a really weird super long zucchini.
On our last day in Palermo we decided to trek out to the Capuchin Catacombs… and it was spooky as hell. Most catacombs house skeletons and various relics, but the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo house nearly 1,300 mummified corpses in addition to 7,000 run of the mill skeletons. Interred between 1599 and 1920, the mummies are hung from the walls wearing their own clothing and holding a placard of their name and date of death. I didn’t make it past the first room, but Jeff went all the way in. There is a really sad and spooky children’s section, and even a little girl named Rosalia Lombardo who was actually taxidermied. I don’t like this one bit.
The official story says that in the 1500s a handful of Capuchin monks died in an epidemic and were interred in a cave near the monastery. After some period of time, the remaining monks returned to collect the skeletons of their deceased brethren only to find that the bodies had been completely preserved. Miracle of miracles!!! To celebrate, the monks decided to mummify all subsequent monks and various members of the community as well. The unofficial story, however, is that someone learned embalming techniques from some Peruvians in the late 1500’s and decided to go crazy with their new found skill. Why let your embalming techniques go to waste?
I hated this.
Thus ended our (seemingly eternal) time in Italy. After a week in Palermo, we took a really weirdly designed train to Catania for an early morning flight to Malta. Farewell Italy!
Isn’t this train weird? I’ve never seen a long-haul train like this.
After a long and vaguely barfy 7-hour ferry ride from Naples we reach the island of Lipari, just off the northern coast of Sicily.
The B&B Salvatore in Lipari was the first thing that we booked for the trip, so it felt like we had arrived at the destination that made our adventure official. We reflected on all the things we didn’t know when we left home, all the weird mistakes we’ve made and all the lessons we’ve learned. Arriving in Lipari also made it abundantly clear that our past-selves had adorably delusional visions of the comfort level we’d have during our travels. The B&B Salvatore is luxurious and beautiful – exponentially nicer than anywhere else we’ve stayed. At this point in the trip we’ve lost toenails, subsisted on peanut butter for days, and had diarrhea in a floor toilet at an Uzbek train station (no photos of that, sadly). It’s cute that we thought to book a lovely well-appointed B&B, and we got to spend the week in comfort thanks to the plans laid by our past selves.
The entrance to our lovely room at the Salvatore B&B.
How cute is this place?!?! I can’t stand it.
The view out to the sea. Really. Damn. Cute.
This is Marcello’s car. It’s darling.
And this is where our luxurious brekkies got prepared. It’s heaven.
The breakfast table had the best view ever.
Well, not total comfort. Despite our lovely surroundings and the expected ease of an ‘Italian holiday’, we actually found Lipari to be quite a challenge. There’s no transportation, many hills, and a surprising lack of English speakers. Of all the far-flung and obscure places we’ve been on this trip, I think that Lipari was the hardest place to be a foreign tourist. I say foreign because there are actually tons of tourists on Lipari, they’re just all Italian and don’t speak English. There is shockingly little information online about local sites and day trips, so we kind of just wandered helplessly for a few days. By day 3 it became clear that the way to figure stuff out is to just chat with people on the street or in cafes (in Italian, or course). We could tell people were swapping notes on where they’d been and what to do, but aside from some basic places names we couldn’t figure what they were saying. How to navigate the bus system, visit beaches, and see stuff – you know, normal travel stuff – remained quite a mystery for us during our time in Lipari.
The town of Lipari – it’s cute.
The ancient Benedictine cloister at Lipari Cathedral. Originally built in the 1000’s, the cloister is currently being excavated.
A sassy kitty just relaxing outside of a museum.
Lipari was a major trading port for obsidian. The streets were literally paved in obsidian! (well, this one was)
Taking pity on us, our B&B owner Marcello helped us arrange a boat excursion with his friend Barney, which turned out to be our favorite day in Lipari. Barney has a small boat that he somehow crams 14 people on for day trips that circumnavigate the island. He knows every nook and cranny of Lipari’s coast, and we visited some really fantastic isolated swimming and snorkeling spots. Because the island is volcanic there are also some incredible caves to explore. I’ve never swam through caves before and it was spooky and magical at the same time. Barney knew of one cave in particular where the afternoon light streams in at just the right angle to reflect upward – illuminating everything with a shocking bright blue glow.
A pasty white otter!
And a blue man! This cave was super cool.
The glowing blue cave was 100% Jeff approved.
More of Barney’s caves. This guy knows what he’s doing.
The waters were amazingly blue.
Predictably, we didn’t understand a thing during the boat trip, except for 10 minutes where everyone seemed to be enumerating in Italian all of the characters of the Flintstones. “Eeee Weeelma…. Eee Dinooo… Eee BamBam.” I can only assume that this was a reference to Barney’s name, but it did please us to understand a handful of words coming out of people’s mouths. For the most part, though, we had no way to communicate and basically spent the day like giant children, imitating everyone else’s actions. If people jumped in the water, we jumped in the water; when people came back to the boat, we came back to the boat (frantically). We didn’t get left behind so I guess it was a successful day.
Amazing rock formations off the coast of Lipari.
They were quite striking.
A water ‘door’ the Barney perilously navigated our boat through.
More cool rocks.
This thing is called ‘Dragon’s Rock’. I wonder why?
After thoroughly exploring the island on Barney’s boat, Jeff and I gave ourselves permission to do absolutely nothing for the rest of our time in Lipari, and frankly this is when we finally got into the sweet spot of this place. We just hung out at our awesome B&B, ate the fabulous breakfasts that Marcello’s wife Paola prepared each morning, and looked at the sea. Perhaps it was our fault for trying to ‘do stuff’ in paradise, but once we gave up that notion Lipari was quite delightful. Nonetheless I don’t think it would kill anyone to have a usable public bus service for the island… but I’ll leave it at that.
Arriving at the place where our trip planning began felt significant, and despite the unexpected challenges we were sad to leave. We took another slightly-less-barfy ferry from Lipari to Palermo, where our Italian adventures continued.