Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Day in Noto and the Avola Region of Sicily

Today is our first full day in Italy - well Sicily to be exact. It all started at 6:30am when we got our wake up call. After showering and dressing Thomas and I headed down to breakfast a little after 7:00am. We had a pretty good breakfast - scrambled eggs, ham, croissant, fruit (melon and peaches), blood orange juice and coffee.
Pomodorino di Pachino
We visited with a few other people from the group while eating and then we went back to the room around 8:00am to get our things for the day. Once we were ready we headed back to the lobby to meet the group and start our tour for the day. We left the hotel around 9:00am and headed south to the town of Noto (The Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto - a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Porta Real (Arch of Ferdinand II
When we arrived in Noto we met our local guide (Elizabeth) on Via Piola and started the walking tour of Noto by going through a small local market - they sold wine, almonds, sun-dried tomatoes and a variety of other things. We then turned on to Corso Vittorio Emanuele and made our way to the Porta Real or Arch of Ferdinand II and the tour guide started the tour here with a little spiel about the arch. There are three items on the top of the arch - a tower (stands for courage), a pelican (stands for self sacrifice) and a greyhound dog (stands for loyalty). The arch was built for the 1838 visit of King Ferdinand II. We walked through the arch and continued the tour along Corso Vittorio Emanuele and stopped at the Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi all'Immacolata where she gave us some history about the place before we entered the building to walk around and take a few pictures.
Cathedral of Noto
Then we continued along the road and stopped next at Chiesa Santa Chiara. We went in for a quick look around and then we continued on our way. Next we stopped in front of Municipio di Noto (Palazza Ducezio) and the Cathedral of Noto. After a little talk about the two buildings we went inside the cathedral and looked around and took some pictures. Then it was time to move on again - now moving onto Via Corrado Nicolaci. This street holds an annual festival each year in May. It is the called the Infiorata di Noto. After walking up and down the street looking at the balconies with the elaborate brackets holding them up we then continued to our final destination at Piazza Municipio. After the walking tour we had some time on our own. So Thomas and I went walking and ended up having pizza at Bar Pinguino. Had a relaxing time and some good food. Then we went walking again and stopped at a couple of shops and the returned to the market area and bought some almonds to snack on. At 1:30pm we met back at the arch with the group and then returned to the bus to continue on with our day.

Zisola Winery
From Noto we drove a short distance to Zisola Winery for a tour and wine tasting. We got a tour of the vineyard and then a tour of the winery by Andrea. Then we went into the garden and had a wine tasting. We tasted four wines - one white and 3 reds.
Zisola Wines
I liked the white the best, then 2nd red, 1st red and then 3rd red. Andrea doesn't speak English all the well but he did try really hard.

Around 4:00pm we left Zisola and made the drive to a manor house and farm owned by a Contessa - Azienda Casablanca. We were to have dinner here tonight. When we arrived we were greeted by the owner and then given a tour of the farm and stables.
Azienda Casablanca
Then we met in the garden and had some appetizers and wine - bruschetta; olives; veggies; focaccia stuffed with spinach, potato and cheese; and onion and cheese pizza. It was all very good. Then we went inside for dinner. The first course was two kinds of pasta - Pasta Alla Norma (we had this last night as well - that one was more polished and the one tonight had a more rustic/homemade taste) and a spaghetti in a lemon/cream sauce. Both were delicious but I really loved the lemon pasta best. The second course consisted of roasted eggplant and zucchini (they were cold and not very good), some meatballs (did not have much flavor) and a blood orange salad that was really tasty. For dessert we had some fresh strawberries and an orange marmalade tart with coffee. All in all it was a good meal. Most of the day had been warm and a little humid but by the time we got to dessert it was windy and cold.

It had been a long day and we were all ready to get back to the hotel for a shower and some rest. Resting now in the room and getting things ready for tomorrow. It looks like another busy day.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Arrival in Catania

After retrieving our bags we made our way to ground transportation where we met our tour guide (Linda) and our bus driver (Mimmo). Linda is really nice and easy to talk with, she is originally from Naples and now lives in Rome. She has traveled and spent time in all parts of Italy but loves the southern part of the country. She works for Go Ahead Tours as a tour guide and she put the tour we are on together herself and has been doing it for about 11 months. We are on the Food and Wine: Southern Italy & Sicily tour which is for 13 days but we had the option to add a couple of days to spend in Naples, which we have done. So we will be here for 15 days. Once everyone had arrived we were shuttled to our hotel. We are staying at the Una Hotel Palace in Catania for three nights. We got checked in and then they delivered our bags to our room. We took a little time to freshen up and get settled in the room. Then at 6:00pm we met in the Etnea Roof Bar & Restaurant for cocktails with the group before heading out for dinner.

Our group of 18 + Linda (our tour guide) on the far right.
There are only 18 people on this tour so it should be relaxing and enjoyable since it isn't a big group. Most of the group (15 people) are letterboxers and then there are three other women that are signed up. We had prosecco and some light snacks (chips, peanuts, pistachios and capers). We visited for about a half hour and Linda gave us some information about the next two days. Then we boarded the bus for a short drive to the restaurant for dinner. We ate at KM.0 Ristorante just a short distance from the hotel. They were only opened for us tonight, so we had the place to ourselves. We didn't get to order what we wanted - they had a planned menu. First course . . . 2 pastas - one was Pasta alla Norma (A pasta dish in Sicilian cuisine from Catania, an Italian city on the east coast of Sicily. It's made with tomatoes, fried aubergine, grated ricotta salata cheese, and basil. It is supposedly named for the opera Norma by the Catania-born composer Vincenzo Bellini.) and the other one was a wide ring-shaped pasta with a meat sauce. Both of these were excellent. Second course . . . a pistachio crusted beef steak served on a bed of lettuce with a red wine reduction. This was also excellent. Third course . . . consisted of four desserts - one was a small custard or flan type dessert covered in a hazelnut sauce on top of a chocolate drizzle, then there was a small cup of homemade cinnamon ice cream, next was a cannoli with a vanilla cream filling and last was a small chocolate cake topped with almonds with a balsamic vinaigrette. All of these were delicious. We also had a choice of red or white wine with dinner. This place was incredible and the staff was so friendly - we had a great time and it was the perfect way to start off our food and wine tour of Southern Italy & Sicily. My only regret was that I was so tired that I didn't take pictures of the food we had tonight - it was as visually pleasing as it was delicious. But I found some pictures on the net . . .

This is one of the pasta dishes we had tonight.
This is a photo of one of our pasta dishes. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.
This is a photo of our second course. Photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor.
This is a photo of our dessert. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.
After dinner we returned to the hotel and settled in for the night. After a nice hot shower I sat down to write this blog post - even though I am tired I felt I needed to write this so I didn't forget the details. But now it is time to get some sleep so that I will be rested for a full day in Sicily tomorrow.

. . . And So It Begins!

Well Thomas and I are off on another adventure. This time we are headed to Southern Italy and Sicily. We are traveling again with a letterboxing group and this is another Pinecone Adventure hosted by Mark and Sue Pepe. We are really excited about this trip because it is a place we have never been. The Pepe's posted an event sign up (Southern Italy & Sicily with Pinecone Adventures) quite a while back. We immediately signed up for it. It is a food and wine tour and should be fun - the itinerary looks great. You can read more about Pinecone Adventures at Pinecone Boxing: Pinecone Adventures and Pinecone Adventures - Facebook.

Our day started early this morning in the neighborhood of 3:00am. We got dressed and took care of a few final details before leaving the house sometime around 3:40am. I love driving to the Albuquerque International Sunport at this time since there is no traffic. After parking at Airport Parking we got the shuttle to the terminal. We are flying Delta and we got through check in quickly. Security was also fast as we had TSA PreCheck (so no emptying pockets or taking off shoes or pulling things out of our carry-on bags) and in less that five minutes we were done. We made our way to the gate and found some seats. We read for about 30 minutes and then the flight started boarding. This took so long - they started boarding at 5:40am and didn't finish until 6:25am and then finally took off at 6:30am. The flight was a non-stop flight from Albuquerque to Atlanta and turned out to be a quick and comfortable flight. We read and talked with a guy sitting in our row. He was extremely nice and we had a great conversation.

We arrived in Atlanta ahead of schedule at 11:00am (we were scheduled to land at 11:16am) and found ourselves with seven hours to kill. We hadn't had any breakfast so our first priority was food. We ended up at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant where we had some great sandwiches and a relaxing lunch, since we weren't in any hurry. After eating we walked around the terminal and did some window shopping before getting on the Plane Train to the terminal where our next flight leaves from. There are eight terminals in the airport - we arrived in Terminal A and we needed to get to Terminal F - the Plane Train seem to be the best way to get from point A to point F. We then found a spot to sit and relax and read, play on the computer and take a couple of cat naps. We also took walks around the Terminal to stretch our legs. Our original departure time from Atlanta for Rome was 6:36pm (Thursday 4/28), it was pushed back to 6:56pm because the plane was late arriving from another airport. As it got closer to 7:00pm we kept getting overhead announcements that they still weren't ready and then around 7:16pm we started boarding. By the time we got everyone on board it was 7:49pm - about an hour later that the original take-off time.

Once settled in our seats and comfortable Thomas and I read for about an hour. Then we got a few things from our carry-on to keep us busy. Through out the flight we had snacks and meals - a snack of a drink and cookies, then a meal of chicken, salad, roll, fruit, brownie and a drink. Sometime in the middle of the night we got a small sandwich and a drink for a snack and then finally we got breakfast (yogurt, muffin, cookie, orange juice and coffee. We also had a selection of movies and TV shows that we could choose to watch. So we would watch a show and then read and then watch a show and then read - this went on most of the night. We also tried to take a nap but neither of us could sleep. Our original arrival time in Rome was 10:15am but with the late take-off we didn't arrive until 11:10am. We needed to pass through Customs in Rome before being able to get to our next gate. Thankfully it was quick and easy so that we didn't waste too much time.

Our next flight to Catania was scheduled to take-off at 12:30pm so we didn't have much time to get from the plane to our gate. It took a while to get off the plane and then we had to walk down some stairs to a bus and then taken to the Terminal. Once in the Terminal we had to find a board to see which gate our flight was at. We needed to be at Gate B12 - so we started walking following signs for the B Terminal. We kept walking and checking the boards, walking and checking the boards, walking and finally arrived at B12 only to find an empty area and a sign over the desk for a flight to Geneva. So we went back to a board and saw this time that our flight was at gate B3. So we back tracked (thankfully not too far) and found the gate and the other passengers. Thankfully this flight was delayed so we made it on time. By the time all the passengers were on the plane it was 1:00pm and then take-off was at 1:15pm. Originally we were to arrive in Catania at 1:45pm but didn't make it until almost 3:00pm. Once in Catania we got our bags and then found our tour guide to get the shuttle to the hotel. We waited another hour for one more passenger to arrive and finally around 4:00pm we headed to the hotel. We are now in Sicily and the vacation can really begin.