Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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In 1693, an earthquake decimated eight towns in an area known as Vall di Noto in southeast Sicily. In some cases, the damage was so severe that the original towns could not be rescued. It was decided that one of these, Noto, would be rebuilt five miles closer to the sea, at the foot of the Iblean Mountains. The Catholic Church, which by that time had decreed that paintings and sculptures should be designed in a way that would speak to the illiterate, saw the reconstruction of Noto as a unique opportunity to design and build a town from scratch. The top planners of the day mapped out streets that crossed each other either at right angles, while architects designed private and public buildings embellished with beautiful ornamentation that later came to be known as Baroque.

Ferdinandea Gate is the entrance to the city of Noto, and the beginning of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main avenue in the town

Ferdinandea Gate is the entrance to the city of Noto, and the beginning of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the main avenue in the town

Today, a stroll down Via Vittorio Emanuele, the main street in Noto, leads visitors past churches, government buildings, palaces, fountains, statues, and theaters, all studded with an orgy of cherubs, grotesquely grinning masks, marble columns, wrought-iron balconies, and belfrys. The buildings were constructed of a soft, honey-color tufa stone that absorbs the brilliant Sicilian sun throughout the day and emits it at sunset. With stone blocks decorated in leaves, flowers, fish scales, and shells, the effect is one of a giant golden wedding cake. Read More

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The clash of metal swords on shields reverberated through the theater. One knight fell, then another; but King Oberto fought on, determined to take back Holland from the Irish invaders. Olimpia, his lady love, had been banished from her homeland, and Oberto would stain the Dutch lands with blood to convince Olimpia of his bravery and win her hand in marriage. In the dark theater I watched the characters intently, fascinated that two-foot high puppets could make movements so precise.

Puppets with shield and sword mount a fierce battle during a performance at Teatro dei Pupi

Puppets with shield and sword mount a fierce battle during a performance at Teatro dei Pupi

A New Hope for Olimpia is just one of 24 shows that Alfredo Mauceri has written and produced over the years for Teatro dei Pupi. Following the performance I spoke with him about his family’s three-generation love affair with puppets.

“My Mother, Francesca Vaccaro, does all the female voices and my brother, Daniel, builds the puppets,” he explained. “I write the story and am an actor during the show, along with Daniel and one other relative. Together, the three of us move the characters during the show, sometimes one in each hand.” Read More

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For someone with a cheese fetish, all of Sicily was heaven, but I found the the holy grail one morning in Syracuse while wandering through the fresh market. Tucked behind the temporary vendors at the very end of the market was Caseificio Borderi (Borderi Dairy), a small family-run shop specializing in traditional hand-made Sicilian cheese.

Located at the far end of the fresh market in Syracuse, Sicily, Caseificio Borderi offered liberal samples of artisan cheeses made in Sicily

Located at the far end of the fresh market in Syracuse, Sicily, Caseificio Borderi offered liberal samples of artisan cheeses made in Sicily

I was staying in a hostel, where I could cook my own meals. Since there is nothing better than a breakfast of fresh baked bread drizzled in rich olive oil and topped with a tasty chunk of local cheese, I wedged my way through the throng and into the shop to peruse the mind-boggling array of cheeses in the glass case and on the counter top. Fortunately, one of the owners was happy to educate me about Ragusano, a type of stretched-curd cheese made with whole milk from modicana breed cows, raised exclusively of fresh grass or hay in the provinces of Ragusa and Siracusa, Sicily (see video below). Read More

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I had no plans to visit the city of Syracuse when I headed for Sicily. I wanted to experience the Good Friday Procession in Taormina, and perhaps take a tour to the top of Mount Etna, but as for other destinations, I’d figure it out along the way, as usual. Sure enough, on the train from Naples to Sicily I met a couple of women who were on their way to Siracusa, as they called it. Both had emigrated to the United States many years ago and spoke perfect English, but they had been born and raised in Syracuse and were traveling back home to visit family. For half an hour they spun tales about the gorgeous Baroque churches, ancient Greek and Roman ruins, fresh markets, and mouthwatering food in their home town. I was hooked!

Two weeks later I stepped off the train and walked half a block to LOL Hostel, a warm and welcoming hostel in Syracuse that was ideally located midway between the city’s two most important attractions, the Archeological Park and Ortygia Island. The next morning I crossed the harbor bridge leading to the island and stopped in front of the Temple of Apollo, Sicily’s most ancient Greek temple and the second oldest in the world. Constructed in the 6th century B.C., at the point when Greek architecture was transitioning from wood to stone, its narrowly spaced Doric columns were revolutionary, if not experimental. Indeed, an inscription on the top step on the eastern facade lauds the temple’s unique construction:

_“Kleomenes, the son of Knidieides built it for Apollo. And he put his hand to the columns; beautiful accomplishments they are.”

Piazza Pancali and Temple of Apollo on Ortygia Island in Syracuse, Sicily

Piazza Pancali and Temple of Apollo on Ortygia Island in Syracuse, Sicily

There could hardly be a better symbol for Syracuse than the Temple of Apollo. Syracuse was founded in 734 B.C. on the island of Ortygia by the Greek city/state of Corinth, at a time when the Greeks were colonizing locations around the Mediterranean. For more than 400 years, during periods of democracy as well as rule by a series of Greek tyrants, Syracuse prospered and gradually extended its influence over much of Sicily and southern Italy. Read More

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Though I wasn’t lucky enough to witness a live eruption of Mount Etna, a visit to the Alcàntara Gorge provided a striking example of the effects of such a catastrophic event. Around 4,500 years ago, Mt. Moio, a minor cone of Mount Etna, erupted violently and sent waves of molten lava rushing down toward the Ionian Sea. The magma crossed the chilly Alcàntara River, which had already carved a deep canyon through the surrounding limestone, and gradually cooled into a dense layer of black basalt. For at least a thousand years the river, which was much larger and more forceful than it is today, carved through the basaltic rock, leaving a 164-foot high gorge faced with tortured formations and basaltic stone columns.

Alcantara Gorge lies between the cities of Taormina and Catania on the east coast of Sicily, Italy

Alcantara Gorge lies between the cities of Taormina and Catania on the east coast of Sicily, Italy

Theories about how the formations occurred abound. One says that an earthquake occurred during the eruption, allowing the lava to spread out and cool quickly. Another theory is that the lava split into two branches, reuniting at the gorge, where a mass of cold clay soil caused the magma to crystallize instantly. I find both theories unacceptable. As a long-time rockhound and student of geology, I know that rock crystals result when cooling occurs slowly, not rapidly. The eruption most likely deposited a deep layer of magma that would have allowed the basaltic material to cool very gradually, allowing formation of distinctive hexagonal (six-sided) columnar prisms that produced “columnar basalt.” Similar formations are found at Devils Postpile National Monument in California and Hegyestu Geological-Interpretive Site in the Kali Basin in Hungary. Read More

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My fascination with volcanoes began more than three decades ago, with the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. As the only major volcanic eruption in the contiguous U.S. in 65 years, it was a huge TV event. Before our eyes, mudslides turned hundreds of square miles of forest into piles of pick-up sticks in split seconds. Fifty-seven people and thousands of animals lost their lives. In the aftermath of the blast, which was equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, images revealed a desolate landscape that resembled the surface of the moon. The enormity of it was so inconceivable that when Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument opened in 1983, I hopped in the car to see for myself.

In person, the destruction was even more staggering. The newly paved road snaked through miles of giant splintered tree stumps protruding from a deep carpet of ash. Mammoth tree trunks lay like thousands of naked cadavers, lined up in painfully neat rows pointing away from the mountain, as if awaiting proper burial. Aside from the crystal blue sky, everything was endlessly and shockingly monochromatic gray. The inconceivable power of the volcano held me in its spell.

Mount Etna dominates the skyline of eastern Sicily

Mount Etna dominates the skyline of eastern Sicily

Fast forward to the Big Island of Hawai’i in 2002, where the volcano gods once again beckoned. On the Kilauea Iki trail, I descended 400 feet from the rim to the still steaming floor of the Kilauea crater. Signs stuck in fissures warned not to stray off the trail, as still-cooling magma lurked beneath areas of thin, unstable crust, yet the way was marked only by cairns of black rocks, set so far apart that they were difficult to locate. I picked my way across carefully, stopping at each rock pyramid to scan the horizon for the next one, before taking a step that might plunge through to super-heated material. Four miles later I climbed the opposite rim, elated that I had just walked across an active volcano. Later that same night I stood on a jagged field of razor sharp lava on a moonless night, watching a fiery red stream of molten lava pitch over the end of land into the ocean far below. Read More