Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More Sicily.

9-30-08 SHORT HILLS: More on the trip—it was Mediterranean diet every day. The dinners were antipasto, pasta with veggies or fish, and main course, usually more fish and occasional meat. Lunch was two courses, antipasto and pasta. It was quite satisfying.

The dollar is almost down to half a euro--$200= €112. We weren’t driving, but gas is about $8-10 per gallon, converting liters to gallons and dollars to euros.

The weather was fine. We had a brief shower about every other day, and the afternoons were hot and evenings cool. The vegetation is similar to California—oleander, pomegranates, date palm, figs, olives, grapevines, citrus fruit, eucalyptus, cactus, banyan trees, cedars, bougainvillea and chestnuts on Mt. Etna.

The people often had some English and were willing to help. They would respond to questions even if they didn’t quite get it, but often inaccurately. We learned to ask more than once to get a consensus opinion. Directions were mostly gestures [not that one], but distances could be a few doors away or a half mile.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sicilia, Italia

9-29-08 SHORT HILLS: And we’re back. Internet access was slow and expensive at the hotels so there was no chance to post while away. Also they ran us ragged, and I had a hard time just outlining the days and editing pix. I’ll do some of those pix as a Picasa embedded slide show in the blog and post a link to the stills:

9-20-08 TAORMINA, SICILY: Getting here was hell, but the trips are always awful. We flew steerage to Rome and then couldn't make our connection from Rome to Catania, Sicily because we couldn’t get boarding passes from Alitalia. They had one person giving boarding passes to a long line of people all trying to get boarding passes for different flights all leaving about the same time. We did get a flight on AirOne about three hours later. The discomfort and uncertainties of travel are magnified by the sleepless nights. Anyone think I am hoping Alitalia gets out of its financial mess?

After the second flight got in, we met the driver who took us to Taormina and the Hotel Continental. The town is set on a steep limestone mountainside facing the north side of Mt. Etna with the Mediterranean Sea on the east. It has lots of old stone building and churches, a Greek theatre, lots of sidewalk cafés on a pedestrian mall, the Corso Umberto, and is a feast for the eyes. The rest of the group got in just before dinner.

9-21-08 TAORMINA, SICILY: The day started with a lecture on Sicilian art and then a guided tour of the town which told us about the places we had seen the day before and ended at the ancient theatre. The theatre was built by the Greeks for dramatic productions and was converted by the Romans to an arena for gladiators and animal fights.

After lunch we shared a taxi to the nearby town of Castelmola. It sits on top of a steep mesa-like hill. The buildings are all built to the edges of the cliffs. We walked down the hill on a footpath with a lot of switchbacks and crossed over a pass to a mount top church, Sanctuario Madonna Rocca. The church is carved out of the rock and looks down on Taormina. To get back to the city, we walked down the many flights of steps the pilgrims walk up, reversing the Stations of the Cross in the process. So did we save Jesus?

Before dinner there was a geology lecture on the Mt. Etna volcanic eruptions.

9-22-08 TAORMINA, SICILY: This morning Mt. Etna, which looms over the hotel’s huge patio, had snow on the highest peaks. After breakfast, we motored south on the east coast of Sicily to Syracuse. Syracuse is an ancient Greek city, the New York of its time, back then. It is built of the limestone bedrock it sits on. The Baroque palaces in the huge main piazza are all white, including the cathedral which is built by re-using the Greek temple of Minerva, the gaps in the outside row of temple columns was filled in and the inner sanctuary was opened up re-using the temple as a cathedral. Ancient columns still frame the entry.

The old city is on an island, just off the mainland, that frames a secure harbor. An interesting feature is the Arthusa Fountain--a natural fresh water spring on the edge of the salt water Bay of Syracuse. It was an invaluable resource for a besieged city. The fountain is probably the terminus of an underground river, a not uncommon occurrence in limestone bedrock. The old city also has the remains of a Greek temple to Apollo.

Outside the city is the Paradise Quarry, a limestone quarry that collapsed in an earthquake, killing hordes of slaves. After the collapse, it was abandoned letting the trees take over and turning it into a sort of wild park. Near the quarry is a Greek theatre carved out of the solid limestone bedrock and a Roman amphitheatre near that.

On the way back to the hotel, we were stuck in traffic for an hour because of an accident. After dinner, the sky cleared and the top of Etna was visible for the first time, and we could see red trails of lava oozing down the mountain.

9-23-08 TAORMINA, SICILY: Today we went up Mt. Etna. It is polite and civilized, for a volcano. It frequently offers lava to the surrounding towns and villages, but the flow is usually slow enough for folks to get out of the way. The flanks of the mountain are covered with villages, all of which have been threatened by the lava at one time or another. The volcanic soils are rich, and people seem to accept the bargain of an occasional lava intrusion in exchange for successful agriculture. We got up to about 6,000 feet out of a possible 11,000 and had an hour to explore before fog and clouds moved in. It was barely enough time to explore two small craters and a lava field from 2006. There was no chance of getting to the new lava flows.

On the way back to the hotel we drove through Giardini Naxos, an ocean side town just south of Taormina built on an old Greek settlement. After lunch, Judy and I explored the public gardens. Dinner was at Bouganvilla Restoranto, near the park with some of the group.

9-24-08 MONDALO, SICILY: We left Taormina at the first light to get a jump on a busy, long day of touring, ending up in Palermo at the western end of Sicily. Our first stop was in a traffic jam outside of Catania. A lane of the autostrada was closed for road repair that was not being done. Two hours behind schedule, we got to Piazza Armerina in the center of the island. It has the Imperial Villa del Casale, a huge Roman country house and pleasure house owned by a third or fourth century BC VIP. Fortunately it was flattened by a landslide, preserving it for us. They have rebuilt several walls, but the dramatic feature is many mosaic tile floors depicting mythological and hunting scenes and gymnastic games.

Then it was on to Agrigento for a late lunch and the Valley of the Temples. The temples are Greek, set on the middle of the southern coast. The area has sandstone formations, the first I’ve seen, the building blocks of these temples. The most intact is the Temple of Concord because it was converted to a church by filling in the outer colonnade. This desecration was later removed. They say these temples are from 582 BC. [So what month was that?] It is a magnificent site, gorgeous views of the ocean, vineyards and olive orchards.

Before going on to Palermo, we visited a beach area in Agrigento similar to the site of the Allied landing in 1943 and had a lecture on the campaign.

We got to Palermo and Mondalo after dark for a late dinner followed by a total collapse.

9-25-08 MONDALO, SICILY: Today was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. There were only a few drops of rain because everyone had raincoats or umbrellas. We went to Monreale first to see the cathedral and the great views. The cathedral was built as a consequence of a royal family dispute. The king declared Monreale a new diocese, which required a new cathedral, because he was angry at his cousin, the cardinal of the old diocese. Whatever. The interior of this cathedral is a mosaicists dream. There must be an acre of biblical scenes displayed on a gold field. The field is made of, well, gold. I guess that's what you did in the 12Th century.

Palermo is surrounded by limestone mountains. Monreale is on one to the west of Palermo.

Next stop, delayed by slow traffic which plagued us all day, was an outdoor market. These markets, lots of individual stands, are open daily. They sell mostly food but also clothes and trinkets. I love big displays of fruit and veggies, but the animal parts and dead fish are a bit of a turn-off.

Before lunch we saw the opera house, the Teatro Massimo, and after lunch the Norman Palace. Yes, Norman invaders were here too. They defeated the Arabs. The Normans were beaten by the French who were booted out after an insurrection, but before the Spanish took over. The highlight of the Norman Palace is the Palatine Chapel which is also covered in mosaics depicting more bible stories.

The last stop was the Palermo cathedral, gigantic, elaborate exterior with towers and bells, but a plain interior. The mosaicist was off that day.

Our hotel is on the beach in Mondalo, a Palermo suburb, with great views of the Mediterranean and the mountains. The plumbing is a bit iffy, but the food is fine and service willing.

9-26-08 MONDALO, SICILY: On the road again, with an early trip to a hill town on the west coast of Sicily—Erice. The whole town is light brown stone, the streets, the houses, the stores, the churches, the castle and the walls. The stone is limestone from the hill the town sits on. Reading it from the moving bus, I think the hill is an anticline, an arch in the limestone beds created by tectonic plate collision. The fold is big, wide and open and plunging south. The African plate is colliding with and sliding under the European plate. This interaction is also responsible for the Etna volcano and Vesuvius.

Things seemed quiet in the morning, just a few dog walkers out with the tourists. Their speciality is an almond cookie that’s quite nice with café.

Next stop, the olive oil orchard and factory for Titone Extra Virgin Oil. Antonella, owner and daughter of the founder, gave us a tour, translated by our guide, Jackie. After seeing the trees and the pressing operation, we had an oil tasting and then a simple, but great lunch. Naturally, it was heavy oriented toward olives.

Onward, and upward, to another hill top for more stone piles at Segesta. Actually, the site has an intact, nearly intact, Greek temple, a Roman amphitheatre, a Norman castle and a mosque. Folks moved in sequentially because it was a nice high site with lots of ready cut stone blocks to build with. Plus, you can see the bad guys coming from miles away, and while they’re struggling up the hill, you can throw your worst at them. Then back to the Mondello Palace for another history lesson and dinner.

9-27-08 ROME, ITALY: We’re overnighting here after a flight from Palermo. This morning we went to Cefalu, a fishing village turned coastal resort. The cathedral is simple compared to the others, but there are some mosaics, of course. We all explored the old town, took pictures, Judy found a newspaper shop, had café and biscotti, and went back to Palermo. The rest of the group has a graduation ceremony tonight, but we split early to save a travel day. Short Hills tomorrow.

This weird symbol/person/creature is Sicily who apparently has, not two, but three left feet.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Here Today-Sawdust Tomorrow.

9-15-08 SHORT HILLS: For those who are following climate change, here’s the current north polar image of the sea ice. For the first time since humans have been watching, both circum-polar sailing routes are open at the same time.
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=18145 Here is another link to Earth Observatory web site:

Yesterday, Sunday, we had a crew here to do an emergency tree removal. Saturday I noticed a big ash tree near the upper corner of the yard was split from a ‘Y’ about twenty feet up the main trunk almost to the ground level. I called Frank’s Tree, who we have been using for thirty years, for help, hoping the tree could be cabled together. The prognosis was negative. As the tree was next to the utility lines and hanging over small trees and ornamentals, it was important to get it out with a minimum of trauma to the rest of the plants.

They roped it together Saturday evening to keep it from worsening and arrived Sunday AM to do the job. They used a huge crane and chipper and turned most of the tree into sawdust in about two hours. One man in the tree attached the crane lines to a tree section then cut it off. The crane lifted the piece high above the surrounding trees and set it down by the chipper. It took about seven runs. It probably could have been 8-10 cords of firewood. The main trunk was too big to chip. They just sawed it up and took to away. They did a great job, hardly a leaf from anything else was damaged, but it was very sad for us to see such a grand tree die.

We’re off to Sicily on Friday.

The crane lifted and carried big pieces of tree over the other trees to the chipper.

The chipper turned most of the tree, all of it that was less than a foot in diameter, into mulch.

I counted 86 rings. You can see the split even at this level, four inches above ground, extending from the center to the lower edge.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Hanna Visits.

9-8-08 SHORT HILLS: Hanna blew into town and out again leaving behind leaves and sticks all over the yard and a few puddles in the basement. She was fairly well-mannered for a tropical storm. The day after was beautiful.

I have been weeding a bit every day, but there are tons yet in waiting. Among those weeds are many wild grape vines courtesy of our bird friends. There are huge wild grape vines in the neighborhood. The birds eat the grapes and congregate in our yard, hanging out on all the berry bearing bushes and trees. The seeds of the grapes, and desirable shrubs such as burning bush, viburnums, barberry are pooped out by the birds, with a little dab of fertilizer. The stuff planted this way that we like we call volunteers, the other stuff we call weeds.

The days are noticeably shorter as we close in on the vernal equinox.
No new blooms.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Noonan and Murphy on Palin.

Peggy Noonan and Michael Murphy on Sarah Palin while on Chuck Todd's MSNBC interview. I assume they thought they were off camera. Below are two links to the video and the transcript.


Mike Murphy, former McCain advisor: You know, because I come out of the blue swing state governor work. Engler, Whitman, Thompson, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush. And these guys, this is all like how you want to (inaudible) this race. You know, just run it up. And it's not gonna work.

Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter: It's over.

Murphy: Still, McCain can give a version of the Lieberman speech to do himself some good.

NBC's Chuck Todd: Don't you think the Palin pick was insulting to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, too (inaudible)

Noonan: I saw Kay this morning.

Murphy: They're all bummed out.

Todd: I mean, is she really the most qualified woman they could have turned to?

Noonan: The most qualified? No. I think they went for this, excuse me, political [B.S.] about narratives and (inaudible) the picture.

Murphy: I totally agree.

Noonan: Every time the Republicans do that because that's not where they live and it's not what they're good at and they blow it.

Murphy: You know what's really the worst thing about it? The greatness of McCain is no cynicism and this is cynical.

Todd: And as you called it, gimmicky.

McCain picks a ten.

9-3-08 SHORT HILLS: We’re back in NJ. In VT we were wearing jackets and building fires, but here it’s hot and humid and buggy, not that VT wasn’t buggy also. The grass planted by the gardeners is coming in nicely, but the dogs are running around, retrieving, barking at dog walkers on the road and, thus, tearing up the fragile new grass. I did some of the clean-up of the broken branches and trees injured in the most recent storm damage and took a car load to the dump.

I am astonished by McCain’s choice for Veep. Sarah Palin seems naive about affairs outside of Alaska and supports and believes in everything I’m opposed to. The choice seems to have been made impulsively by McCain, reminiscent of the impulsive Mr. Bush. I thought we had had enough of shoot-from-the-hip leadership. We don’t need more presidents who decide with their gut feelings.

Ms. Palin is against reproductive choice, sex-ed in school, or apparently anywhere else judging from hers and her daughter’s OW pregnancies. She disbelieves in climate change, alternative energy development, and gun control and is an NRA member. Paradoxically, it would seem, she believes in abstinence before marriage, but not birth control. She is a religious fundamentalist, a creationist, home schooling supporter, book banner, hunter. She supports drilling in ANWR. Letterman said he thinks he saw her family on the Jerry Springer show. I bet there’s more juicy stuff to be reported, more DUI's or more abuse of power. In sum, she's a ten out of ten, right winger.

NJ blooms: rose-of-sharon, hosta, lots of fall weeds.