Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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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

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The women began gathering at Varo Church late in the afternoon on Good Friday. Dressed in black from head to toe, with a medallion of the Madonna hanging from royal purple ribbons around their necks, they began final preparations for a Christian ritual that has been performed for centuries in the town of Taormina, Sicily.

In the center of the nave, a large icon of Mother Mary surrounded by white roses and lilies stood affixed to a gold leaf wooden table. At twilight, twelve female bearers would squat beneath long wooden poles attached to the blessed statue and rise as one. Down treacherous steps and cobblestone streets to the doors of the cathedral – the Duomo – they would bear her, where twelve fresh women would step in for the next leg to Santa Caterina church. And so it would go, from church to church, until the sorrowful Mother returned to Varo, where she would repose until the following year’s Good Friday procession.

Women of Varo Church prepare to lift the Madonna icon onto their shoulders

Women of Varo Church prepare to lift the Madonna icon onto their shoulders

One of the bearers, Vera Bambara, explained the symbolism of the procession, which attempts to recreate conditions as they would have been in the time of Christ. “Our black apparel is a symbol of the grief of Mother Mary as she accompanied Christ during his agonizing walk to his crucifixion. We carry lanterns lit only by candles because there were no lamps in those days, and only women are allowed to carry the Madonna, because only women can truly know her tears.” Read More

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Years ago, when I was living in Puerto Rico, someone asked me if I drove there or flew. I laughed, assuming the comment was meant as a joke, but as I soon learned, this person was dead serious – he had no idea that Puerto Rico was an island. I was reminded of this incident while making plans to move on from Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula to Sicily. When I told my Dad I was taking the train to Sicily he said, “You can’t do that, Sicily is an island.” In this case, I was not exhibiting geographic ignorance. From Naples, I boarded a train that took me to Villa San Giovanni, a small town at the tip of Italy’s boot. Here, after a brief wait, my train was loaded onto a ferry, which carried us across the narrow strait to the Sicilian town of Messina.

The journey is a little tricky, because the ‘official’ destination of the train is Palermo, which is on the complete opposite side of the island from where I was going. In actuality, when the train arrives in San Giovanni the individual coaches are separated as they are loaded onto the ferry. Upon arrival in Messina the cars are reassembled into two separate trains, one destined for Palermo on the northwest coast, the other bound for Siracusa on the southeast corner of the island. So when boarding in Naples it is extremely important to get on the right carriage, or you might end up somewhere you don’t intend to be.

Train cars roll into the bowels of the ferry boat

Train cars roll into the bowels of the ferry boat

It was a lovely ride through lush green countryside, punctuated by rolling hills and rocky escarpments, but the most fascinating part was at the ferry dock. I stood at the rear of my car and watched as it was uncoupled from the train and rolled onto tracks in the lower level of the ferry. Soon, we were pulling away from the docks for the short trip to Sicily. At this point, passengers are free to leave the train and go up on deck, but here again I need to offer a warning.
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The song of the Sirens was too much for even Odysseus, so how could I be expected to resist? Some years ago I was raving about the beauty of Cinque Terre, five cliffside villages on the Italian Riviera in northwest Italy. Calmly, my companion turned to me and remarked, “If you think Cinque Terre is beautiful, you should see the Amalfi Coast.” That was all it took. One simple mention and the Amalfi Coast was permanently branded on my brain.

Villages cascade down rugged cliffs on the Amalfi Coast

Villages cascade down rugged cliffs on the Amalfi Coast

I had only a vague idea where the Amalfi Coast was (somewhere in southern Italy) so imagine my surprise when I stepped off the train in Sorrento and found buses lined up, waiting to whisk tourists to Positano and Amalfi. With only one day left before my scheduled departure for Sicily, I had no choice but to visit both cities in one day. Having spent too much time in Amalfi, I was forced to rush through Positano, nearly missing the last bus of the day back to Sorrento. I made no local connections and saw only the most popular tourist sights. It was ridiculously unlike my normal travels, when I stay in places for weeks at a time to soak in the culture of places and ferret out stories to tell. Still, after my short visit I was captivated. Read More