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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Luigi delivered the square, dark green bottle to my table, along with a basket of fresh-baked bread. From the unlabeled decanter I poured a quantity of extra virgin olive oil onto a plate, allowing it to spread languidly into a golden pool before sopping some up with a hunk of crusty bread. I closed my eyes and popped it into my mouth. The oil burst onto my tongue, at once fruity and fragrant, with a hint of acid. I nearly swooned; it was one of the most delicious varieties I’d ever sampled. But olive oil was just the beginning. Moments later, my table was covered with a selection of antipasti: beignets filled with artichoke and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, baked aubergine Parmesan casserole, polenta stuffed with artichoke and topped with smoked provolone, sauteed chard and green fava beans topped with sauteed calamari strips, and zappa di legume with fava beans and chickpeas.
Between bites, I gazed out picture windows to a panoramic view of Li Galli and Vitara islands, where Ulysses had himself lashed to his ship’s mast in order to hear the Siren calls without being lost to them. Seated atop a mountain on Italy’s Sorrentine peninsula, gazing out over a cerulean Mediterranean while surrounded by gourmet food, I suffered a similar seduction. I wanted to stay forever at Fattoria Terranova Farmhouse and Restaurant, a charming third-generation farm that has been converted to one of Italy’s popular Agritourismo accommodations. Read More
It would have been easy to dismiss Sorrento, Italy as just another attractive but over-touristy town. It offers the obligatory horse-drawn carriage rides, as well as a little white train that carries visitors from the upper level of town down to the beaches and marinas. Sidewalk cafes dot pretty piazzas that pop up around every corner and the town has its fair share of historic churches. And as with many tourist destinations, the main street is lined with upscale retail stores, while the narrow back lanes that wind down to the lower levels are chock-a-block with specialty shops.
After a day of hiking up and down the town’s hilly streets and long staircases, I sat down to rest inside the Church of Saints Felix and Baccolo. It was in no way exceptional. The church had a few nice paintings on its walls and the ceiling was covered in frescoes, but the marble floor was an uninteresting back and white diamond pattern, two rows of austere wooden pews provided the seating, and the altar was a common wooden table backed by brocade draperies strung across the back of the chancel. I’d caught my second wind and stepped outside, stopping to take a photo of the equally uninteresting exterior, when a a nicely dressed man interrupted my efforts. Read More