Olympia, Greece

Doug photo-bombing the Philippeion

Today we took a trip way back in time to visit the ancient ruins of the legendary city of Olympia, the classical birthplace of the Olympic Games. The well-preserved remains of temples, massive columns, the gymnasium, fountains, hotels, and the stadium all evoke the glory of the early games. It is unclear who came up with the idea of the games initially, but they were definitely dedicated to Zeus, King of the Gods of Mt. Olympus.

One likely theory is that a regional king, frustrated with the constant wars among the kingdoms, went to Delphi to ask Apollo how to end the wars. Apollo recommended starting athletic competitions between the kingdoms during which there would be a Sacred Truce to which all would commit. This truce would be in honor of Zeus. Although it is guesstimated that this might have occurred as early as the 10th century BC, the first written record of the games is 776 BC. After this, every four summers the people of Olympia would organize the games and athletes, trainers, and spectators would make the journey. There was a grand procession to mark the beginning of the games, and sacred fires were kept burning. The wars were suspended during the games, which increased over the years from one event to fifteen and from one day to five. The early athletes were all men (women started their own games later) and the winners would receive a wreath of olive branches. Once the games ended, the parties started! This went on until 394 AD when the games were suspended. By then most Greeks had become Christians and had stopped worshipping Zeus. We were surprised to learn that the marathon was not part of the original Olympic games…but that’s another story!

Over the years, the Olympic venues fell to ruin through earthquakes, wars, mudslides, etc. and the once imposing structures were buried and forgotten. It wasn’t until the 19th century when a team of German archaeologists found some Olympic remains that interest in the games was revived. New facilities were built and the “new” games were held in Athens on April 5-15, 1896, then again in 2004.  The tradition of an Olympic fire was reintroduced during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. And the first Olympic torch relay was at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The ancient  site has been undergoing extensive archaeological discovery and restoration for decades. We actually saw part of the excavation that’s taking place today.

Waking among the ruins was an awe-inspiring experience. We’re happy to share some of our favorite images here in the hope that they take you back to the early days of this amazing place!

Philippeion, started in 338 BC by Philip II in thanksgiving to Zeus for victory over Chaironeia. It was finished by his son, Alexander the Great
The only round building by
Altar for animal sacrifices
Part of the Nymphaion water fountain dedicated to Herodoes Atticus
Foundation of a home
Entrance to the Stadium
The Stadium
Arched window in the Palaestra where wrestlers practiced
A pillar of the Temple of Zeus re-created for the 2004 Athens Olympics

Today, several visitors were inspired to test their skills in the stadium, with varying degrees of success.

On your marks…get set…go!
Taking one for the team!
Doug crossing the finish line!

I mentioned that the Marathon wasn’t originally part of the Olympics, but how did it start? It’s actually a story of war and love with a happy ending. Marathon was a battlefield 26 miles from Athens where the Athenians confronted the Persians in 490 BC. When the Athenians prevailed, a soldier ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory. A Frenchman learned of this story, and in 1896 organized athletes from 13 countries to run the marathon as an Olympic event. A young man named Spiros was hired to carry water for the athletes. Spiros loved a young woman named Helen. Her father said he couldn’t marry Helen unless he did something important. Spiros, not an athlete himself, covered the 26 miles in 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 58 seconds, winning the marathon. He ended up marrying Helen. Now every year in November, over 16,000 athletes run the Athens Marathon.

Our wonderful guide Sophia regaled us with these and other stories and legends of the Olympics during our time together. Afterwards, we spent a little time in the city of Olympia which grew up to support the tourism created by the discovery of the Olympic treasures.

Denise posed with Pyrsos the Peaceful
And we enjoyed a coffee break on a lovely patio before heading back to the ship

Corfu, Greece

Corfu is an island off Greece’s northwest corner in the Ionian Sea. Its cultural heritage reflects years spent under Venetian, French, and British rule before it was unified with Greece in 1864. Everywhere, magnificent coastal views unfold to tell stories of Corfu’s past, but the two most imposing landmarks are large fortresses called simply old fort (built in 1545) and new fort (built in 1576.)

The old and new fortresses of Corfu
Old fort
Entrance to the old fort

The former grand palace of Saints Michael and George is another landmark building. Today it houses the Museum of Asian Art.

Museum of Asian Art

Our short panoramic driving tour took us past some interesting historic sites. The Douglas Column is a large obelisk that adorns Garitsa Beach. It reflects a period of British rule when Sir Howard Douglas was Lord High Commissioner of Corfu and the Ionian Islands. Several ancient ruins are also found dotting the island, among them the remains of the early Christian Basilica of Paleopolis.

Douglas Column
Ancient Basilica Ruins

The Holy Monastery of Panagia Vlacherna sits on an idyllic island in the bay. It has become a familiar symbol of Corfu. Built in 1799, it has  served as a monastery as well as a convent. Today it is used primarily for weddings and other special events.

Holy Monastery of Panagia Vlacherna

Many beautiful beaches and playgrounds dot the Corfu coastline.

Corfu has more than 200 churches spread out across the island.

Cathedral of St. James and St. Christopher
Main Altar of the Cathedral
Bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Spyridon
Holy Church of the Virgin Mary Mandrakina

Corfu’s Old Town is a maze of narrow streets and alleys flanked by a lovely promenade that was once reserved for the local aristocracy. Anything and everything can be found in Old Town.

Fresh produce markets
Quaint bistros
Lovely apartments above shops
The promemade
Papagiorgias’ Sweet Shop has been continuously operating in Old Town since 1923. The Dafnis family has been crafting gourmet delicacies using local dairy and seasonal fruits for three generations. This is their dark chocolate kumquat ice cream. Absolutely delicious!
And it’s definitely the place to see and be seen. We captured this precious moment when two color-coordinated couples were being photographed by their adorable children. When the kids were finished, I asked if I could take a photo of the six of them. They more than obliged with a cute
social media-worthy pose!

With its legendary beauty and splendid weather, Corfu has served as a stunning backdrop for stories from Homer’s Odyssey to James Bond’s For Your Eyes Only to the Durrells. It’s certainly a storyteller’s paradise!

Kotor, Montenegro

Sailing into the Bay of Kotor at Dawn

As we sailed into the Bay of Kotor before dawn, we knew Montenegro was going to be a very special place. We were so right! The 17 mile inlet that links the Adriatic to the heart of Kotor is resplendent with spectacular views. Towering cliffs soar above the narrow Kotor ria – a submerged river canyon often called Europe’s southernmost fjord.

There are several small settlements along the bay, including restaurants perched on the hillside, resorts, islands, and tiny churches. One of two tiny twin islands houses one of only two of Montenegro’s Roman Catholic churches, Our Lady of the Rocks which can be visited by boat. The Island of St. George is a cloistered Serbian Orthodox Monastery. The Church of Our Lady of Remedy/Health sits halfway up the Kotor Fortress Climb, a steep walk built into the craggy hillside that looked a bit too intimidating for these timeless travelers.

One of many settlements along the bay
A beach resort below a tiny church
Twin islands
The long way up…1350 steps!
Church of Our Lady of Health

Nestled snugly between a limestone wall and a glimmering bay, Kotor is home to a well-preserved Old Town. Surrounded by medieval bastions and walls, Old Town Kotor is a labyrinth of tiny alleyways and streets too small for cars. The cats of Kotor are everywhere! There’s even a Cats Museum! Because of its location between the sea and mountains, Kotor had to bring in cats many years ago to control mice, rats, and snakes. It must have worked, because we didn’t see any of the latter, but plenty of the former.

The walls themselves are stunning remnants from Kotor’s 300 years as a province of the Venetian Republic. Just inside the Sea Gate is one of the rare open areas within. Here you’ll find numerous cafes and bars as well as the old clock tower.

Sea Gate
Clock Tower

But the true charm of the Old Town is found meandering around and through the tiny streets. Here shopkeepers will gently encourage visitors to come and see their unique offerings.

Old Town is also home to several beautiful churches large and small. Kotor Cathedral, originally built in 1166, is the largest. But the smaller, older churches, mostly Serbian Orthodox, are nonetheless charming.

Kotor Cathedral
Cathedral main altar
Small church of Saint Luke, 1195
Main altar
A prayer
This small image on the door of one of the churches said “welcome!” to me
The remnants of old icons can be seen all around the church

It’s well worth the white-knuckle drive to venture outside the Old Town to visit some of the outlying villages near Kotor. As described by our incredibly well-informed guide Vladimir, we were in for a thrilling drive along a 120 year-old road “with one lane only for two-way traffic!” There are 25 switchbacks along the steep climb to Njegusi, each numbered on the remaining bits of the stone retaining walls.

Switchback number 23

The main attractions in Njegusi are the Zipline (we passed!) and the local delicacies (we indulged!) The prosciutto is smoked and hand trimmed numerous times to produce a ham that has a mouthwatering flavor and texture. Cheeses, breads, wine, beer, and preserved fruits are just a few of the products made in this charming mountain town.

Doug enjoyed the beer with his snack
Denise preferred the light red wine

After a short repast in lovely Njegusi, we were back on the road to Cetinje, the former royal capital of Montenegro. This town was once the “heart and soul” of Montenegro and celebrates the “golden age” of the reign of Nikola I who reigned as prince from 1860-1910 and king from 1910-1918.

Cetinje was founded in 1465 by Ivan Crnojevic who was Lord of Zeta and the Serbian leader from 1465-1490 and moved the capital here. His monument stands in the middle of the city.

Ivan Crnojevic

Home to the Lovcen National Park, Cetinje is rich with history. The National Museum of Montenegro chronicles the regimes, battles, and challenges this small country has overcome. The Museum of King Nikola, the former royal palace, was originally built as a fortress in the 19th century. The museum provides a glimpse of what life was like for the royal family.

National Museum of Montenegro
Museum of King Nikola
A view of the Church of the Virgin Mary on Chipur from the palace. Built in the 15th century on the ruins of the original monastery. It contains the earthly remains of Nikola’s I, his wife Milena, and Ivan Crnojevic.

The Monastery of St. Peter is an Orthodox monastery which houses several important relics including the right hand of John the Baptist.

Monastery of St. Peter

At the very top of a hill overlooking the park is the masoleum of Petar Petrovic Njegos, a prince-bishop as well as a renowned power and philosopher.

Niegos’ Masoleum

Our visit to Korfu was pleasant and educational. It truly left us wanting more time there. During a  stop for coffee before boarding our ship for the return trip through the beautiful bay, we reflected on a day that took us from the fjord to the old town to the cliffs to the country and back again. We’ll remember this day for a long time to come.

Tasty mocha lattes! Reminded us of our pup💖🐾
Back to the Viking Sky

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Franjo Tudjman Bridge near Dubrovnik’s Port

Dubrovnik is our third and last city to visit on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. While playwright George Bernard Shaw might have called Dubrovnik “paradise on earth,” we found it overwhelmingly congested and not nearly as inviting as our first two Croatian ports Sibenik and Split. Perhaps it’s the pent-up demand for post-covid travel that makes it seem as though everyone has come to Dubrovnik, and if that’s the case, it sure beats the alternative!

Our first stop was to view Fort Lovrjenac or St. Lawrence Fortress. Built around 1018, it is an impressive stone fort just outside the city walls. Its usefulness as a fortress has diminished over the years, and today it stands as a theater, museum, and a popular wedding venue.

Fort Lovrjenac

A short distance away is the Pile Gate to the Old Town. We were struck by how well the Medieval walls have been preserved. Although walking the walls is one of Dubeovnik’s most popular tourist attractions, we were discouraged by the long, crowded lines. Instead, we opted to take a leisurely walk around the fortified city, admiring its blend of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture.

Pile Gate, one of two entrances to the Old Town

Immediately upon entering, we were greeted by a very tall friendly fellow offering “Hearts for Happiness” for 1€ apiece…a small price to pay for happiness!

Hearts for Happiness

A few steps away are St. Saviour Church and Big Onofrio’s Fountain. We learned that all of Dubeovnik’s fountains offer clean filtered water that’s safe to drink. People can be seen filling water bottles at one of 16 sides of the fountain.

St. Saviour Church
The dog on top of the fountain is called “Kuchak” which means fountain dog

Just around the corner we approached a monk feeding the pigeons. Apparently it’s not a crime in Dubrovnik as it was in Venice!

Further along is Orlando’s Column, a well-known monument in the heart of Old Town. Built in 1418 and currently undergoing significant restoration, Orlando is an armoured knight. According to legend, Orlando helped the Ragusa (people of old Dubrovnik) defend themselves from invaders in the Middle Ages. Although I couldn’t get a full photo due to extensive scaffolding, the first step at Orlando’s base holds special significance. Before more standard measurements were developed, merchants used the length of the step as a common way to measure items for sale.


Next stop is Luza Square, site of the Old Town’s clock tower. Originally built in 1506, the tower has been destroyed and re-built several times. Only the antique bell remains from the original tower. When the octopus hands reach the hour, the zelenci (green) twins Maro and Baro strike the bell.

Maro and Baro striking the hour

Saint Blaise Church, in honor of Dubrovnik’s patron Saint Blaise also occupies Luza Square. Every year on February 3, the Feast of Saint Blaise is celebrated with Mass, a procession, and blessing of throats. The regional holiday City of Dubrovnik Day is also celebrated on this day.

Church of Saint Blaise
Main Sanctuary of Church of Saint Blaise

The fresh market offers fresh fruits, vegetables, local delicacies, and other local products such as soaps, lotions, and herbs.

A large bronze statue of Croatian Renaissance playwright Martin Drzic, affectionately called “Dubrovnik’s Shakespeare,” sits next to Domino Church. His shiny bright nose is the result of a tradition of rubbing it for good luck.

And Croatian hospitality is legendary. Warm, inviting shops and restaurants offering traditional dishes, wines, and other local products line the narrow streets and broad piazzas, welcoming locals and visitors to enjoy a meal, a snack, and other refreshments. The open doors provide a glimpse of the delights that await within.

Heritage of Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik has definitely come into its own as a popular tourist destination. Its well-preserved traditions and historic sites lure thousands of tourists from March through September. We were there at the height of the tourist season. We would love to return in the fall in order to be able to experience this city more fully.

Split, Croatia

Split Coastline

Built around the ancient Roman Palace of Emperor Diocletian, Split is a city that feels both old and new. Its lovely promenade, now a popular gathering place both day and night, offers majestic views over a bay that opens to the Adriatic Sea. The remains of its incredibly well-preserved palace have been seamlessly assimilated into a contemporary place to live, eat, shop, and gather. It also served as a filming site for the 4th season of Game of Thrones.

Split was named for a flowering shrub, calicotome spinosa. The shrub can be seen all over town, but its bright yellow flowers only bloom in May. I guess we’ll have to come back!

The palace, built by Diocletian in the 4th century  as his retirement home after abdicating his role as Roman Emperor, took 10 years to build. Originally housing the royal residences, mausoleum, and military fortifications, the palace has been transformed into modern housing, upscale hotels, shops, museums, and various gathering places both above and below ground. There’s even a Michelin Star restaurant, Zoi.  Although many of the original ruins remain above ground, the subterranean portions have been amazingly well preserved.

Zlatna Vrata (Golden Gate) – the main entrance to the palace
Upper floor ruins and a modern addition
Football (Soccer) Museum
Ethnographic Museum
Portico overlooking the bay
The Paristyle, a popular gathering place for tourists and Roman soldiers, was the original entrance to Diocletian’s living quarters. A well-preserved Sphinx overlooks the mausoleum to the left.
The ornate bell tower for Diocletian’s masoleum, now the Cathedral of St. Dominic, patron saint of Split

The barrel-vaulted stonework arches below ground enhance the many unique and charming spaces that are used for special events today.

A modern bust of Diocletian

Just outside the palace is the imposing statue of Gregory of Nin, a Medieval bishop who is known for introducing the Croatian language into worship services. A radical concept in 926, the practice of replacing Latin with local vernacular in Roman Catholic services was one of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Moving on to the old town area of Split, quaint cafes, shops, and outdoor patios provide warm hospitality and delicious Dalmatian culinary delights.

Today’s menu
A delightful spot for lunch
Grilled octopus didn’t disappoint
We even had some puppy time with Rio, the resident Boston Terrier
Barrels of tempting sweets

Charming Split is a relative newcomer to tourism, but we think it won’t be long before this gem becomes a popular travel destination!

Venice: Queen of the Adriatic and City of Canals, Carnival Masks, and Bridges

Evening in Venice

Built on more than 100 small islands in the Adriatic Sea, Venice is a mosaic of beautiful bridges, busy canals, charming piazzas, winding alleys, and Renaissance and Gothic architecture. We spent three lovely days there, and savored every moment.

On our first day in Venice we traveled about 90 minutes through the Venice Canal from our docking port in Chioggia (more on that to follow.) Cruise ships have been banned from Venice since last year, but Viking’s work-around seems to be a good one.

Approaching Venice from the south, we enjoyed sailing past several colorful fishing villages.  As the breathtaking Venetian skyline came into focus, we were enthralled to see this incredible city rise up from a different perspective. The St. Mark’s Campanile (bell tower) was the first landmark to come into focus, followed by the domes of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. One of the first shops we saw was filled with intriguing carnival masks.

Charming fishing village
St. Mark’s Campanile and the Doge’s Palace
Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
Masks of Venice

Several months ago, we learned that our travel plans would intersect with those of our dear friends Heather, Gabriel and Graham Torok. We were determined to get together! Despite a few changes in our itinerary, the travel angels worked their magic and we met for a delightful dinner followed by gelato and a walk back to our dock through Piazza San Marco and past lots of interesting shops. It was wonderful to share a bit of this incredible place with such good friends.

A toast to friendship…salute!
Gelato from Gelatoteca SuSa…so good!
Heather caught the three of us marveling at Venice’s “leaning tower.” We learned later that it’s the bell tower for the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George
Heather also captured this video of Doug sharing the remains of his cone with the birds. We later learned that there’s a $500€ fine for doing so. Hope the carabinieri aren’t following our blog!

All things Venetian seem to center around Piazza San Marco. With its long, covered arcades and bustling wide-open space, Napoleon called it “the finest drawing room in Europe.” We won’t disagree.

Doge’s Palace
Clock Tower
Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro

Doug (aka Papa Latte) couldn’t leave Venice without a visit to Caffe Florian. Serving delicious cakes, savory snacks, and unparalleled coffee on elegant silver trays since 1720, Caffe Florian is the oldest continuously operating coffee house in Italy. It also has the distinction of being the only such establishment to serve women from the day it opened. We spent a lovely Sunday enjoying our morning coffee (my affogato might have included gelato and hot fudge!) while people watching and listening to a sweet selection of Italian music.

Speaking of food, Venice offers a variety of specialties from fresh seafood to mouthwatering pasta to decadent sweets including gelato. As we wandered through the alleyways, we were lured into several shops for a few free samples and tempting displays!

The magnificent architecture of Venice is incredible to see, but it’s facing precarious times due to the effects of the salinity of the water on the stone walls as well as shifting. Buildings are built on logs that are driven into the sea bed and become petrified by the brackish salty water and ever-flowing tides. Metal rods run the length of the buildings walls with braces on the outside to provide stability.

The gondolas of Venice have become a symbol of the city. The gondoliers go through a 400 hour training protocol including an apprenticeship. It’s a profession that is usually passed down through generations, and only 3-4 new licenses are issued annually.

And nothing says Venice like the Bridge of Sighs. People crowd to take photos of this iconic landmark day and night, but Heather captured it beautifully at dusk.

I previously mentioned that cruise ships are banned from docking in Venice. Some cruise operators dropped it from their itineraries altogether and others utilize a nearby industrial port. Viking found the delightful seaside town of Chioggia perched on the south end of the Venetian Lagoon.

Called “Little Venice” because of its historic landmarks, narrow alleys, bridges, and canals, Chioggia offers a low-key alternative to the busy-ness of Venice. We spent a lovely Saturday wandering around this charming town of canals, markets, churches, and a beautiful beach.

We arrived at Mercato Ittico al Minute, Chioggia’s fresh fish market shortly before closing time. The local seagulls seemed to know it was time for a free sample!

Continuing on our walk, we arrived at the picturesque Sottomarina Beach. Sottomarina features miles of sand, bars, plenty of umbrellas, an amusement park, and even a special section for dogs.

As we sailed away from Venice, we were treated to a beautiful fireworks display from Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta which was celebrating the Feast of the Assumption. It was a lovely way to end three memorable days in our final Italian port.

Arrivederci Venezia!

Sibenik, Croatia

Sailing through the Saint Anthony Channel to Sibenik

If you’re ever lucky enough to visit Croatia, don’t miss Sibenik, the oldest Croatian city on the Dalmatian coast. The remarkable architecture spans centuries, having witnessed the rise and fall of empires from Byzantine to Venetian and Hapsburg to Italian. Its beautifully preserved Old Town, with narrow cobblestone streets leading past medieval homes and churches, has a quietly cosmopolitan vibe in spite of it being a small city. And for Game of Thrones fans, Sibenik’s imposing fortresses and magnificent cathedral served as backdrops for this acclaimed series.

Sibenik is home to several remarkable churches, and while most are Roman Catholic, there is still an Orthodox population. The beautiful mosaics of the Church of Saint Mary in Old Town are a beautiful reflection of this faith tradition.

Orthodox Church of Saint Mary

The imposing Cathedral of Saint James, built between the years of 1431 and 1536 stands as one of the most important Renaissance structures in all of Croatia. The elegant design of both exterior and interior incorporate the traditional Seashells of Saint James, and it’s no surprise that the cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Cathedral of Saint James
Main sanctuary
Dome and intricate roof line
Side Altar of Saint James
Side Altar of Saint Nicholas Tavelic,
first Croatian saint
Baptistry includes ornate cherubs, scrollwork, doves, and the ubiquitous shells of Saint James

A short drive outside Sibenik took us to Krka National Park. Situated along the Krka River in southern Croatia, the park’s seven travertine barriers, waterfalls, smaller cascades, islands, and serene lakes bring locals and tourists in droves. Visitors are rewarded with sights, sounds, and fresh smells that only nature can provide.

Some of the hundreds of steps
Photographing waterfalls in bright sunlight is challenging but rewarding

The people of Sibenik, like most Europeans, bring their dogs everywhere. Seeing them makes us think of Mocha, and although we miss her terribly, we know she’s having fun with her pals at the farm. There are even built-in dog bowls along the ancient city streets!

We’ll be heading to Venice for the next few days, then back to Croatia for stops in Split and Dubrovnik. But until then, a brief rest for coffee and reflection on how blessed we are to be able to experience and share so many different places and cultures. Even the coffee cups are happy!

Clowning around in Croatia

Bari: A Busy Port with Rich History and a Chic Vibe

Bari’s Picturesque Port

The Puglia Region on the heel of Italy’s boot offers crystal clear beaches, rich history, delicious food, a thriving port, quaint small towns, the university-influenced city of Bari, thriving cherry orchards and olive groves despite the rocky soil, and beautiful, welcoming people. We really loved the time we spent getting to know this region, and we’d love to deepen our relationship.

Starting in the port area, our delightful local guide pointed out a beautiful 14th century fortress. The Chapel of Santantonio de Padova inside is no longer a church, but is used for weddings, festivals, and other special events.


Moving on to the Barivecchia (old town area) we were delighted to see artisans busy at work creating beautiful handwork in leather, ceramics, and fresh food. We remarked about the sparkling clean streets and were told that the shopkeepers actually wash the streets in the morning!

There are over 20 churches in the old town, most notably the Romanesque Basilica of Saint Nicholas and the Cathedral of Saint Sabino.

The Basilica houses the mortal remains of Saint Nicholas, which were brought to Bari by 62 sailors. Every May, a three-day festival celebrates the beloved saint who is the patron of children, sailors, and unmarried women. His statue is carried to the harbor in procession with food, music, and traditional costumes. On December 6, young women pay tribute to the saint by circling a red marble column in the church six times. Legend has it that if they do this, they will meet their future husband within the year.

Campanile of the Cathedral of Saint Sabino

The sprawling Norman-Swabian Castle is now used as a venue for special events.

Norman-Swabian Castle

But the real star of Bari is the food! With sweet cherries and spicy olives, mouth-watering gelato, and homemade taralli, Bari’s real star is orecchiette, an ear-shaped pasta served with a variety of sauces. Women can be seen making these “little ears” all around the old town. Our lunch at Fra-Bo Restaurant was a plate of fresh orecchiette paired with slow-cooked meat sauce and braciole. Yum!

Tricolore Orecchiette
Preparing Our Lunch in Terra-cotta Pan
Not sure if that’s a smile 🙂
Baci Gelato

The Musee Teatro Margherita is a landmark former theater that now houses a museum.

Museo Teatro Margherita

Later in the afternoon, we took a drive through the countryside to visit the trulli in the town of Alerobello. Originally built centuries ago as temporary field shelters, this charming style of construction is unique to the Itria Valley. Trulli are built with dry sandstone without the use of mortar. A keystone keeps it all together.

A field shelter
An original 19th century trulli
A welcoming home
Symbols on the roofs are mystical
There’s even a trulli church!

We ended our day at Masseria Papaperta, an 18th century farm that’s now a popular wedding venue.

Puglia is a sun-drenched region that offers everything you’d expect and more! We have some family, the Diomedes, who are from Bari so we knew it would be special, but we had no idea just how special it would be.

Calabria and Mother Nature

Crotone, Calabria

Arriving in the port town of Crotone in the “toe” of the Italian boot, we were greeted by sunny skies and an interesting coastline. Described in our tour book as a “sun-baked region of rugged mountains, old-fashioned villages, monumental woodlands, and a thriving farm-to-table scene,” Calabria seemed like a wonderful place to escape to the woods for a day to enjoy nature. Who knew…perhaps we could escape the blistering heat of the past two weeks for a hike in the woods.

After a 90 minute ride through farmlands, meadows, and forests, we approached our destination. We learned that olives are grown at the lower elevations, and that the olive oil they produce is especially sweet. We also learned that red-skinned potatoes are grown in abundance, making gnocchi the region’s favorite pasta. Pungent porcini mushrooms are also found growing wild in the moist, dense woods.

Sunny skies and olive groves

Our ultimate destination, the Sila National Forest, has been a protected area since the 15th century. It is home to the 350 year-old “IL Gigante,” the Giants of Sila. Standing at up to 150′ high with trunks over 7′ wide, the giants promised cooler temperatures and cool, crisp, clean air. This “Calabrian Alps” as it is called, seemed an ideal respite.

As we approached 6,000 feet above sea level, we began to see a few raindrops on the windshield. Our guide explained that they hadn’t seen rain in several months, but that a cloudburst isn’t uncommon at this altitude. She assured us it would pass. But when literally scores of hikers came running out of the woods, we knew it wasn’t looking good.

The threatening clouds

Then came thunder, lightning, and a relentless deluge. As we waited at the park entrance for the rain to subside, our guide checked her weather app and learned that the thunderstorm would hover over the area for the next two hours. No hike for us! There was so much rain that the parched ground couldn’t absorb it. Our driver, Roberto, had no place to turn around on the narrow mountain road which was now blocked by all the cars trying to escape, so he had to back down most of the way.

Once about halfway down, we stopped at an open-air restaurant, Vallefiore. Here we enjoyed the best of the local provisions. Starting with an antipasto of home made cheeses, cured meats, and pickled vegetables, next came a creamy porcini mushroom pasta. A variety of grilled pork and a platter of crispy fried potatoes capped off a “light lunch.” We washed it all down with a local wine and ended with an herb-based digestif. We now understand why the Italians have the civilized tradition of siesta after lunch!

But no siesta for us… at least not yet! A short distance away, we were transported back to the Middle Ages as we walked off our lunch in the charming village of San Giovanni in Fiore.

The iconic destination in this village is the Abbey Joachim of Fiore. A treasure of art, culture, and regional history, the abbey stands as a tribute to its founder Joachim, a wealthy man-turned-monk who built this magnificent stone structure.

Inside the Abbey, a museum offers a glimpse of how difficult life must have been in this earthquake -prone area. Three consecutive earthquakes wiped out homes and businesses, and people were forced to start over again and again. Hundreds of locals moved to North and South America during the early 1900s in search of a better life. Photographs reflect the difficulty of life during this time, and some of the children in the photos are likely still alive today.

A local family

As we made our way back to our ship, we had time to reflect on a day that, although wasn’t what we planned, turned out to be a great way to learn about a region less traveled.

Messina, The Door to Sicily

Surrounded by volcanic Mt. Etna, rugged mountains, orange and olive groves, and vineyards, Messina’s location at the northeast tip of Sicily puts it just two miles away from the Italian mainland. Shaped by Greek, Byzantine, and Roman civilizations, Sicily is a beautiful blend of different cultures and histories.

Strait of Messina

The Strait of Messina connects the Mediterranean with the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas. In Greek Mythology the immortal monsters Scylla and Charybdis lived here, as described by Homer in the Odyssey. We didn’t see any evidence of monsters, but our efforts to get up before dawn were genuinely rewarded by seeing Mainland Italy on the portside (left) and Sicily on the starboard (right) side.

Sailing through the Strait in the early morning, one of the first sights are two red and white pylons, one on each side, seeming to reach for the sky. Built in 1955, they served as electrical conductors until 1993 when the power lines were removed. Today they enjoy protected status as historical monuments.

Pylon of Messina

Reaching the Port of Messina, we began to learn more of the folklore surrounding this beautiful place. The Golden Madonna welcomes travelers with the message “Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus,” (We bless you and your city.) According to legend, the Blessed Virgin sent a letter to the people of Messina in the year 42. In the letter, written in Hebrew and tied with a strand of her hair, she thanked the people of Messina for their devotion and promised them that she would always protect them from harm. Despite a large earthquake in 1908 and bombings in 1943, the people of Messina have prevailed with great devotion to Madonna della Lettera (Madonna of the Letter,) so much so that she’ll re-appear in my description of the Cathedral below.

The Golden Madonna

Fifteen churches serve the people of Messina (population 236,962.) Most notable among them is the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption (aka Saint Mary of the Letter). Every day at noon, hundreds of people crowd the Piazza del Duomo to hear the lion roar, the rooster crow, and the Ave Maria, which is played as the image of the church disappears and the statues of the people in the bell tower revolve to receive the letter from the Madonna. I joined the group in the blistering sun to record this lovely tradition. At the 8th minute, my phone overheated and turned itself off, but I stayed in the piazza til the end, and was happy to do so. The file is too large to upload, so I’ll just share a photo and would be happy to share the video when I get home.

Clock Tower at Noon

Other beautiful churches include the Church of Saint Caterina del Valverde, the Church of Santissima Annunziata del Catalani, and the Temple of Christ the King which sits high on a hill overlooking Messina

Church of Saint Caterina del Valverde
Church of Saint Caterina del Valverde
Church of Saint Caterina del Valverde
Church of Santissima Annunziata del Catalani
Temple of Christ the King

In addition to Messina’s beautiful churches, the architecture throughout the city reflects its diverse history. Ornate buildings, doors, and windows can be found everywhere.

The corner of an apartment building
The theater is being totally renivated
Beautiful door
A typical street

We also enjoyed a bit of la dolce vita in Messina. The gelato is superb, and the ornate pastries were very hard to resist.

Pistachio gelato
Beautiful cakes

As one would expect, fishing is big business in Messina. Every morning the fishing boats cast their nets and bring back an abundance of fresh seafood. Fishing swordfish is a unique process that involves a special boat and highly trained crew. From May through August, these specialists climb a 25’mast to be on the lookout for the prized catch. They communicate sightings to a fisherman sitting on a long gangplank on the front of the boat. When alerted, he hurls a harpoon and hopefully spears a swordfish. After a long struggle, the fish is pulled onboard and the process begins again.

Swordfish boat

The symbol for Sicily is the triscale or trinacria. It comes from Greek Mythology, and includes the head of Medusa whose hair is intertwined with serpents and wheat. One explanation of the three bent legs is that they represent the three sides of the Sicily Triangle. Another is that they reflect those who traveled all around the world seeking the best fruits, stones, and soil, which they then dropped in Sicily. This explains why everything is better in Sicily, according to Sicilians. The symbol is found on the official flag as well as on decorative pottery and even souvenirs.

Our tour guide explaining the trinacria