Friday, January 31, 2014

Sydney Crimes and Passions Walking Tour

by Anne Supsic

Published in the Viator Travel Blog on January 30, 2014

The famous Kings Cross intersection
The famous Kings Cross intersection

Walking tours are an ideal way to get the lowdown on a city, and our Sydney Crimes and Passions Walking Tour delivered on its promise to expose the underbelly of Sydney’s notorious past. We met our guide, Valentino, under the oversized Coca Cola sign at the famous intersection known as Kings Cross. He explained that in the 1800’s, this area was an exclusive suburb known for its posh Victorian homes.

Striking view of downtown
Striking view of downtown

Valentino described how life changed dramatically in the early 1900’s when a Navy base opened nearby, and a new law forced bars to close at 6:00 p.m. Interestingly, two women became the first crime bosses of Kings Cross. Kate Leigh established ‘sly-grog shops’ to sell liquor illegally afterhours (eventually expanding into drug peddling as well), and Tilly Devine created Sydney’s largest brothel system. These Queens of the Underworld hated each other, and their gangs were constantly at each other’s throats (literally) using their weapon of choice: the cheap but deadly razor. Their gangland-style feuds became known as the Razor Wars. Eventually the tax man caught up with the ladies and ended their wicked reigns in ‘The Cross.’

The once endangered Victoria Street
The once endangered Victoria Street

Knowledgeable Valentino shared other stories of murder and mayhem as we strolled along lovely Victoria Street, a street whose charms were almost destroyed by a crime boss named Abe Saffron aka ‘Mr. Sin.’ Abe planned to bulldoze the marvelous old Victorian homes on this street and make a fortune putting up ugly high rise buildings. However, he didn’t count on the vocal opposition of a local journalist named Juanita Nielsen.

One day, Juanita went to a meeting at the Carousel Club (which just happened to be in the same building as one of Abe’s nightclubs), and she was never seen again. The case is still unsolved and remains one of Australia’s most famous missing person cases. After Juanita’s disappearance, the public outcry prevented Abe’s demolition plans, and Victoria Street remains a graceful gem lined with backpacker places. However Victoria Street has not totally changed her stripes – Valentino pointed to a pretty house called ‘The Golden Apple’ and told us it’s a famous brothel.

The Bourbon, formerly known as the Carousel Club
The Bourbon, formerly known as the Carousel Club

Next we headed for the heart of the action along Darlinghurst Road, known as ‘The Golden Mile.’ Despite being in the red light district, our walk took us past gentrified private homes and even a convent school for girls (talk about a diverse neighborhood!). Soon alluring neon signs touted the names of nightclubs like Bada Bing, Porky’s, and The Bourbon which was formerly known as the Carousel Club, the place where Juanita Nielsen was last seen alive.

Nightclubs along ‘The Golden Mile’
Nightclubs along ‘The Golden Mile’

The crime boss tradition still continues, and the current ‘King of the Cross’ is John Ibrahim who reputedly owns 18 venues in the neighborhood. However, he denies any involvement and leaves no paper trail which has earned him the nickname ‘Mr. Teflon.’ In some ways, ‘The Cross’ has cleaned up its act with police corruption a thing of the past, legalized prostitution, and a Legal Injecting Room offering a clean environment for drug users. But after the sun goes down, party-hearty crowds still throng the streets around the landmark El Alamein Fountain, and scandalous stories, both new and old, are just waiting to be told.

The El Alamein Fountain
The El Alamein Fountain
- Anne Supsic

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Magic of Turin: 7 Reasons to Visit

by Anne Supsic

Published on the Viator Travel Blog on August 29, 2013

Turin has never approached the popularity of top Italian tourist draws like Venice or Florence, but that undiscovered quality is just part of its charm. Turin, or Torino as the Italians call it, is an elegant city of arcaded streets and monumental squares, and on a clear day, the Alps gleam in the distance. But the magic doesn’t end there.

The world is supposedly composed of lines of energy and Turin is part of a triangle of white magic connecting with Lyon, France and Krakow, Poland. But Turin is also part of the black magic triangle that includes London and San Francisco making it the one city with a foot in both camps. Filled with both religious images and symbols of the occult, this truly is a city of good and evil.

Here are 7 reasons to take a magical mystery tour of Turin:

1. The Shroud

Shroud of Turin
A copy of the Shroud. Photo credit: Krzysztof Dobrza?ski via Flickr.
The greatest symbol of white magic in the city is, of course, the revered Shroud of Turin. The actual shroud is kept hidden in a vault within Turin Cathedral; however, many copies of the Shroud are on display around town. The best one is the enlarged version of the face on the Shroud that is prominently displayed near the altar in the cathedral. A silent video plays constantly on large flat screens positioned nearby, providing a tutorial (in Italian subtitles) that explains how the Shroud was placed over the body and describes flaws in the Shroud, such as holes and burn marks from the fire of 1532 and stains from water damage over the years.

To really get the skinny on the Shroud, visit the Sindone Museum (sindone means shroud in Italian) run with great efficiency and heartfelt dedication by a team of sweet, little Italian ladies. The museum is careful to make no claims about the origin of the Shroud, but it is clear from all the evidence that the Man in the Shroud (as the museum refers to him) was crucified by the Romans. And the Shroud has been around for centuries, showing up repeatedly in paintings and other artifacts throughout the ages (a wonderful example of art supporting historical and scientific investigation). What is not clear is how the man’s image was imprinted on the Shroud. Scientists are still studying this phenomenon; their best guess is that it was the result of some kind of geologic radiation.
Visit the Holy Shroud

2. Arcades and Piazzas

Piazza Statuto
Suffering miners commemorated in Piazza Statuto.
Photo by Frank Supsic and may not be used without permission.
Turin is a great city for walking with about 12 miles of arcaded streets providing ornate, pillared porticos to protect pedestrians from the elements while shopping or just strolling the streets. The city is also filled with beautiful palaces and many graceful architectural features. Masonic and satanic symbols are said to be hidden in the structural designs, proof that Turin really is a city of both white and black magic.

When Napoleon conquered Turin in 1798, he envisioned a city of gardens and public spaces, and as usual, he got what he wanted. Turin has numerous piazzas — huge open spaces surrounded by impressive architecture like Piazza San Carlo with its historic cafes and Piazza Castello with its amazing baroque palaces.

One of the most interesting piazzas is Piazza Statuto said to lie at the apex of the black magic triangle. The piazza looks pretty tame with a tranquil park where locals push baby carriages and walk their dogs. However, the square was once a Roman necropolis, and a guillotine was hard at work here during the days of the French Revolution. The statue at the front of the square is also quite disturbing — a craggy pyramid draped with male figures in poses of great agony. The monument was dedicated to the miners who suffered and died while building the Frejus Rail Tunnel connecting Italy with France.

3. The Egyptian Museum

Egyptian Museum in Turin
The Egyptian Museum. Photo credit: Sonietta46 via Flickr.
Believe it or not, Turin has the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo, some of which date back to 2000 BC. The Egyptian Museum offers a remarkable array of sarcophagi (some still holding dried up mummies), canopic jars that held the mummy’s internal organs, actual papyrus, and a whole army of shawabti (doll-like figures placed in tombs to perform agricultural work in the afterlife so the deceased could take it easy)
One room contains the treasures from an unplundered tomb, a rarity in itself since tomb robbers seem to find their way into all the Egyptian tombs. Kha and Merit were a wealthy, but non-royal couple whose tomb was filled with an assortment of belongings: a board game similar to checkers, dried up bread (that has held up pretty well over the millennia), and even an early western-style toilet. The best room of all is the Statuary Hall; a dark room lined with enough well-lit statues of pharaohs, Egyptian gods, and sphinxes to make you forget you are in Italy!

4. Mole Antonelliana

Mole Antonelliana

Mole Antonelliana. Photo credit: Turinboy via Flickr.

The graceful 547-foot tower called Mole Antonelliana is the symbol of Turin, much like the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris. It was the highest brick building in the world when it was completed in 1889 and offers stunning views of red rooftops, many historical buildings, and the Po River which flows nearby.

The Mole is also home to the Cinema Museum (Museo Nazionale del Cinema) with exhibits on the history of cinema from shadow puppets and simple optical tricks to Edison’s first attempts at making moving pictures. Other displays include clips from a variety of movies, a copy of the original screenplay for The Godfather, and Marilyn Monroe’s bustier!

5. Home of the Fiat

Fiat in Turin
A Fiat in Turin. Photo credit: Tony Harrison via Flickr.
Lingotto is an area south of the city center that was once the headquarters for car manufacturer Fiat. The sprawling former Fiat factory has been turned into a giant shopping complex that also houses an art museum called Pinacoteca Giovanni Marella Agnelli. The small but significant collection includes several paintings by Canaletto, some colorful Matisse canvases, and a lovely Renoir. Nearby, the multi-story food emporium ‘Eataly’ offers the best edibles of Italy, including entire aisles devoted to pasta and bread sticks.

Turin was once known as the ‘Detroit of Italy’ and its car building heritage lives on in the Automobile Museum (Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile). This museum explores the history of the automobile along with a jaw-dropping collection of Ferraris and Alpha Romeos. A video collection of car commercials is also fun with early commercials such as an Oldsmobile sing-a-long (just follow the bouncing ball) called ‘Me and my Merry Oldsmobile.’

6. Temptations of Turin

Gelato in Turin
Gelato in Turin. Photo credit: Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar via Flickr.
The gastronomic temptations of Turin are buono non basta (goodness non-stop) with an array of gelaterias and the most alluring old chocolate shops loaded with only the finest of goodies. All of which seem to magically appear around every corner. Don’t miss Turin’s sweet-tooth specialty: a luscious combination of chocolate and hazelnut paste called giandujotto.

Another special treat in Turin are aperitivos. Much like tapas in Spain, aperitivos are served in bars during the pre-dinner Happy Hour. However, rather than paying by the individual plates as you do in Spain, in Turin one small charge (usually about 8€) buys a generous drink plus all the aperitivos you can eat. It’s like a tapas smorgasbord!

7. Easy Day Trips

La Venaria Reale
La Venaria Reale. Photo credit: Matteo Solbiati via Flickr.
The list of day trip possibilities from Turin is long and varied. A rack railway accesses the scenic Basilica di Superga, the hill-top tomb of the Savoy kings with incredible views of the city below. Another easy option is the Venaria Palace (La Venaria Reale), a sumptuous baroque palace with magnificent gardens.

Forays into the Piedmont will satisfy even the most discerning wine connoisseur. Trains connect to the famous wine towns of Alba and Asti with plentiful opportunities to taste Barolo, known as ‘the wine of kings, the king of wines.’ Even the city of Milan beckons: her elegant cathedral and da Vinci’s Last Supper are only a short (45-minute) train ride away.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Behind the Scenes Tour at the Eiffel Tower

by Anne Supsic

Published on the Viator Travel Blog on June 27, 2013

For me, a visit to Paris is never complete without a view of the Eiffel Tower, and this time, I decided to take a closer look at my favorite Parisian monument on a behind the scenes tour at the Eiffel Tower. Fittingly, our tour began at the base of the tower in front of a statue of the man who created all the excitement: Gustave Eiffel.

Gustave Eiffel, the man who started it all
Gustave Eiffel, the man who started it all
I had scheduled an evening tour, and as our small group of ten walked to the green expanse of Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower suddenly came alive with 350 projectors bathing the legendary tower in golden light. It’s hard to believe now, but this iconic structure was not well-received initially. When the tower was first constructed for the 1889 Universal Exhibition, it was considered an eyesore and was scheduled to be demolished. Gustave Eiffel convinced the city that the tower had scientific value and bolstered his case by cleverly emblazoning the names of prominent French scientists and engineers all around the first level of the tower.

Entering the hidden, underground bunker
Entering the hidden, underground bunker
The average tourist would never even notice the entrance to the underground bunker, but our tour guide, Emanuel, led us down an obscure stairway into a hidden room below. The bunker is a well-kept secret — in fact, this tour has only been available for the last 8 years because prior to that, the underground space was not suitable for public access. The bunker was an important asset during WWI, housing critical telegraphic equipment. Strangely enough, the bunker now serves as a food locker for the Jules Verne restaurant, the Eiffel Tower’s famous second floor eatery. All the food has to be sent up to ground level via elevator, trucked over to the east pillar of the tower, and then it rides up a special Eiffel elevator to the restaurant.

The effervescent Eiffel!
The effervescent Eiffel!
It is no easy feat to keep the Eiffel Tower in top condition. The tower must be repainted every 7 years requiring about 60 tons of highly durable paint! And the tower is constantly being updated to maintain that ‘wow’ factor. Twenty thousand twinkling lamps were added to the Eiffel in the year 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. These sparklers were supposed to be temporary, but Parisians loved the effects so much (and complained so bitterly about their proposed removal) that the twinkling remained and occurs for five minutes at the top of every after-dark hour. To provide even more thrills for tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower, construction is currently underway to add a new level featuring a see-through glass floor.

Inside the Engine Room
Inside the Engine Room
Next, Emanuel led us into the engine room to see the unique hydraulic elevators with their pulley/cable system that moves visitors safely up and down the tower. By the way, these elevators do a lot of hoisting: 7 million people visited the Eiffel in 2010. When Germany occupied Paris during WWII, Hitler wanted to see the view from the top, but as Emanuel gleefully described, the French had sabotaged the elevators so Adolf would have to walk all the way up!

Private viewing area atop the Jules Verne restaurant
Private viewing area atop the Jules Verne restaurant
Our last stop was a private viewing area above the Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor. Here we enjoyed fabulous views of the city (and the guilty pleasure of bypassing all those people waiting in line). As I was leaving, the tower started twinkling with its now-famous effervescent lights. It was as if the Eiffel Tower were saying, ‘Merci et au revoir!’

View of nighttime Paris
View of nighttime Paris

Saturday, June 1, 2013

7 Reasons to Roam Romania

by Anne Supsic

Published on the Viator Travel Blog on May 31, 2013

Hand-pitched haystacks of the Maramures
Hand-pitched haystacks of the Maramures

As prices in Western Europe continue to rise, the cheaper countries of the continent gain more and more appeal. One of the most fascinating is Romania, a country with much more to offer than just the legend of that guy with the long eye teeth.

Romania is a place where the harshness of the recent past, dominated by oppression and injustice, is juxtaposed with the timeless charm of ancient medieval towns, beautiful castles, interesting beaches, and a genuine peasant culture that has all but disappeared from most of the world. Here are seven reasons to roam Romania:

1. Maramures

Horse-drawn wooden cart in Maramures
Horse-drawn wooden cart in Maramures

In the rural region of Maramures, peasants continue to work the land as they have for hundreds of years. The fields are dotted with hand-pitched haystacks, and the favored transportation method is a horse-drawn wooden cart. This region is a modern-day ‘Brigadoon’ — the legendary village, made famous in a Lerner and Loewe musical that remained unchanged because it only appeared for one day every 100 years. The hottest local activity is the weekly Animal Market where everything a peasant could want is for sale including fresh produce, kitchen pots, furniture, clothing, shoes, and squealing piglets.

For a closer look at the peasant lifestyle, you can stay in one of the many charming guesthouses where your hosts will treat you like family (and ply you with local specialties). Every meal is sure to be a culinary adventure from the incomparably creamy polenta called mamaliga to an assortment of delicious soups. Everything is made from scratch using the freshest local ingredients: baskets of just-baked bread, extra spicy pickles fermented with horseradish, featherweight crepes served with homemade jam, and a traditional home-brew called palinka (plum brandy) that will definitely cure what ails you. Your greatest challenge will be how to avoid offending your generous hosts and still manage to fit into your clothes!

2. Simpler Times

Romanian woman tending livestock
Romanian woman tending livestock

Rural Romania offers a glimpse of a simpler time, and the sweet Merry Cemetery is a perfect example. In this very colorful cemetery, each hand-painted, bright blue cross displays a likeness of the deceased along with a poignant personal epitaph. The bright colors are intended to remind us that death is not a sorrowful thing but a new beginning, and each epitaph begins with the reassuring words of the dead person, ‘I am relaxing here…’

The delightful Popa Museum explores peasant traditions with a remarkable collection of local artifacts including many peculiar-looking masks. In traditional Romanian villages, it was considered bad form to gossip or to criticize your neighbors. However on one day of the year, ‘the gates of heaven opened,’ and people were allowed to tell each other the unpleasant truth. To encourage full disclosure, the ‘advice’ was given from behind the anonymity of a mask. So once a year, the entire village donned masks and let loose, telling each other what they really thought. The intention was that people would learn and improve, but you have to wonder how many hurt feelings (and personal grudges) resulted.

3. Medieval Towns

View of Sighisoara
View of Sighisoara

Romania offers some of Europe’s best preserved medieval towns, including the walled citadels of the Saxons who came to Transylvania during the mid 1100s from the German state of Saxony. One of the most beautiful of these towns is Sighisoara, a 16th c. jewel of winding cobblestone streets and defensive towers like the famous Clock Tower that offers incredible views over this atmospheric old town. Sighisoara’s most famous home boy is none other than Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler). Vlad ruled the province from 1456 to 1462 and inspired Bram Stoker to create fiction’s most famous vampire, the ever popular Dracula.

Another example of Saxon ingenuity is the perfectly situated medieval town of Brasov surrounded on three sides by scenic mountains and protected by sturdy ramparts. The town’s central square is one of Romania’s finest, and the picturesque pedestrian-only Republicii street is lined with colorful old merchant houses. Brasov was once an important trading stop between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, and its massive Black Church displays an impressive collection of Turkish carpets. Hanging from every conceivable niche inside of the church, these incongruous decorations were donated by grateful merchants – happy survivors of the journey over the dangerous bear-infested Carpathian Mountains.

4. History at its Harshest

Inside the former prison at the Memorial of Anticommunist Victims
Inside the former prison at the Memorial of Anticommunist Victims

Until recently, the modern history of Romania has been a sad story of domination, first by the Soviet Union and later by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The dark side of Romania can be fully explored at the Memorial of Anticommunist Victims in Sighetu Marmatiei. Here is just one small example of the kind of oppression suffered by the Romanian people. In those bad old days, owning a typewriter required a special permit and permits were given only to those who needed a typewriter to do their jobs. But it didn’t end there. Every year, each typewriter owner had to submit a designated text typed on their typewriter which was kept on file, so that it could be used like fingerprints to identify the source of any subversive pamphlets or documents!

A visit to the ostentatious Parliamentary Palace in Bucharest exposes the megalomania of Nicolae Ceausescu. This marble-covered monstrosity, the so-called ‘people’s palace,’ cost over 3 billion euros — a ridiculous outlay, especially during a time when many Romanians were starving. The main ballroom was originally intended to feature a painting of Nicolae at one end and a painting of his wife Elena at the other. But Nicolae, being a modest fellow, decided to replace Elena’s painting with a mirror (that would, of course, reflect the painting of himself). A fitting bit of poetic justice is that many palace meeting rooms are now named for revolutionaries who played a part in bringing the brutal dictator down.

5. Dracula and Queen Marie

Castle Bran, aka Dracula’s Castle
Castle Bran, aka Dracula's Castle

Dracula and Queen Marie, one of the best-loved queens of Europe, make a very odd couple, and yet their stories converge at popular Bran Castle. Although the castle seems like the perfect lair for a vampire, with a secret passageway that some say Dracula used to sneak out after dark, the bloodthirsty Count never even spent a night here. However that did not stop local entrepreneurs who for many years cashed in on the infamous legend. The site is still known as ‘Dracula’s Castle,’ and vendors still line the main entranceway hawking Dracula t-shirts, fake fangs, and strings of garlic.

Today, the focus of a visit to Bran Castle is on Queen Marie who lived here in the 1920’s. Queen Marie was one of the most extraordinary women of her time, a legendary beauty and a darling of the press who many have compared with Britain’s Princess Diana. As the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Marie certainly had the proper pedigree, but she also had a down-to-earth style, and much like Princess Di, was adored by her people. In fact, the people of Romania gave her Bran Castle as a sign of their appreciation. It is one of the can’t-miss destinations in Eastern Europe.

6. Timeless Achievement

Painted monastery at Voronet
Painted monastery at Voronet

Romania has more than her share of manmade wonders including the fabled wooden churches of Maramures with their scalloped shingles and towering Gothic spires made entirely of wood. Inside, the church walls are decorated with faded, unsophisticated paintings by local talent, exemplifying a simple devotion that perfectly matches the people who live here. In nearby Bucovina, the famous 15th century painted monasteries are a bit more showy with intensely colored frescoes inside and out.

These remarkably well-preserved 15th c. paintings depict many popular Bible stories as well as frighteningly detailed visions of the last judgment. A typical day of reckoning scene shows sinners (political enemies such as the Turks are always at the front of the line) being heaved into a red river of fire by a grinning devil.

7. Painted Eggs and Cabbages

Intricately designed hand-painted eggs
Intricately designed hand-painted eggs

A visit to Romania is all about simple pleasures like a stop in the small village of Milisauti, known as ‘cabbage town’ because of its prolific cabbage crop. We had never seen so many cabbages in one place — literally mountains of cabbage piled on wooden wagons surrounded by a constant stream of customers stocking up by the sack full.

You can also try your hand at the painstaking craft of egg decorating. This marvel of reverse engineering is not as easy as it looks. Designs are created with hot wax applied to the egg using a special ‘pencil’ with a narrow metallic spike. The wax preserves each previous color as the egg is dipped into a sequence of dyes: yellow, red, and black. The best moment comes at the very end when the wax layers are removed and the colorful design magically appears.

If you are lucky, you can even bum a ride on a farmer’s wooden cart. Just be careful you don’t end up in the middle of a field with a scythe in your hands!
8. Final

-Photos and writing by Anne Supsic

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How to Plan a Multi-Generational Cruise for your Family

by Anne Supsic

Published on the Viator Travel Blog on November 12, 2012

Multi-generational travel is quite the buzz word in tourism these days, but it’s really just a fancy term for getting the whole extended family together for a trip. That’s not to say that this is easy though. Planning our 12-person, 3-generation cruise to Bermuda was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever undertaken (and I was a Project Manager for 25 years!). But the results exceeded every expectation.
Here are eight tips for enjoying a multi-generational trip of your own:

1. Start your planning early

Trip planning
Start your Panning early. 
Photo credit: Frank Supsic

You can easily spend an entire year preparing for a trip like this. By starting early, you allow plenty of time to work through all the issues and assess the level of commitment from your family. In our case, everyone was enthusiastic from the start, but we still had to deal with different travel styles, school and work schedules, and various personal concerns (including fear of flying). Do not underestimate the work required – an extended family trip entails a Herculean planning effort that will often feel as if you are herding cats.

2. Choose your destination wisely

At the dock in Bermuda. 
Photo credit: Lorraine Carey

There are lots of good travel destinations suitable for large family groups from island getaways to Disney World. We considered them all but finally settled on a cruise to Bermuda.The island of Bermuda had an immediate appeal for us with its low-key family-oriented character and its location close to our eastern seaboard.

Cruising offered some obvious advantages: plenty of activities for everyone and no worries about planning meals for our tribe of twelve. Plus in our case, we were able to avoid air travel since our cruise departed from Cape Liberty, New Jersey about 100 miles from our home. But other, more lasting, benefits only became apparent after we were onboard the ship.

3. Obtain commitments and get your documents in order

Obtain commitments and get your documents.
 Photo credit: Frank Supsic

Once you have chosen a destination, you need to focus on three goals: selecting a date, getting a total commitment from each family member, and obtaining all required documents for everyone. Be sure to solicit feedback when you set your date – you will need to consider school calendars, work schedules, and personal preferences.

If you are traveling outside the country, a top priority will be making sure that everyone has a passport. This effort alone took us almost six months. As an additional safeguard, we stored all the documents in our home–didn’t want anyone showing up on departure day sans passport!

Another important consideration is whether your group includes minor children traveling without both their parents–a common occurrence in today’s ‘modern families.’ When one parent takes a minor child out of the country, it is a good idea to obtain a notarized Letter of Parental Consent from the missing parent. Sample Letters of Parental Consent are available online at websites such as Single Parent Travel. In addition, if the child’s last name is different from the last name of the parent with whom they are traveling, you must bring the child’s birth certificate (to prove the link between parent and child via legal documentation).

Note that a Consent Letter signed by both parents and a Medical Authorization are also recommended for grandparents taking a minor child out of the country.

And don’t forget to purchase Trip Insurance. We bought our trip insurance through the cruise line to ensure that if one family member had an emergency, we could cancel the trip for the whole gang. As part of gaining commitment, it is critical that you explain to your family that trip insurance only covers true emergencies–no last minute take backs allowed!

4. Keep up the enthusiasm

Land of the 'Onions' viewed from Gibbs Lighthouse.
Photo credit: Ben Corbin

During the long months before your trip, you can keep up the enthusiasm by sharing tidbits of trip information with your family. Prior to our cruise, we sent ‘Cruise Countdown’ emails to our crew, preparing them by discussing topics such as shipboard amenities (e.g. three swimming pools and a rock climbing wall) and interesting facts about Bermuda, like the islanders referring to themselves as ‘Onions.’

Another idea is to give the little ones trip-oriented gifts for birthdays or holidays. Snorkeling equipment and laminated fish identification cards were perfect for our soon-to-be beach bums. But the best pre-trip present, for any age group, is a travel journal. Not only does journaling develop writing skills but it helps you to capture your impressions and relive your experiences creating the most cherished souvenir of all.

5. Provide transportation

Riding in luxury in our executive van.
Photo credit: Frank Supsic

You can minimize the risk of late arrivals (and save yourself some major stress) by providing all transportation. The best way to simplify the transport issue is to contact a limousine service. Have all family members meet at one location and then proceed to your departure point (i.e. airport or cruise port) in one vehicle.

For our trip to the pier in New Jersey, I arranged for an executive van to transport all of us in style. Everyone gathered at our home well ahead of time (with a home cooked breakfast providing an added incentive). Some even arrived the night before to get a jump on the festivities. Then on the morning of our departure, we all climbed into the van for the ride to the ship. This was a practical solution, and a fun way to kick off our adventure.

6. Balance your time

Taking the challenge of the ship's rock climbing wall.
Photo credit: Frank Supsic

The secret to a successful multi-generational trip is finding a balance between individual and group time. You don’t want to suffocate your family members with constant togetherness; it’s important to give each person some room to breathe. One of the many advantages of cruising was that our group had the run of the ship with a remarkable array of activities for every taste from miniature golf to ice skating or ping pong. However, it’s also a good idea to build in some time together. In our case, we had reserved seating in the Main Dining Room each night so we could enjoy one family meal together every day. This was a real treat and gave everybody a chance to exchange stories and catch up on the day’s happenings.

To provide a basic structure for the trip, I created a one-page ‘Bermuda Schedule’ that I distributed to everyone. This simple schedule outlined the key events for each day, such as when we would dock in Bermuda, details on prearranged excursions, and a reminder to be back on board by 3:30 p.m. on the day the ship sailed for home! The schedule also included our 6:00 p.m. family dinner time and a list of each family’s cabin numbers.

7. Find the perfect excursions

Idyllic beaches of Bermuda's South Shore.
Photo credit: Lorraine Carey

We thought Bermuda was an ideal location for a family group because this small island is easy to get around and yet offers plenty of activities for every age and interest. Of course the beaches are the primary draw, but the younger set can also explore an underground cave, check out historical reenactments in St George, or roam around an old British fort. Active types may want to hike the Bermuda Railway Trail or spend an afternoon on the golf course, while the more sedate can browse through the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art or wander the beautiful Botanical Gardens.

For our two days in Bermuda, we scheduled a snorkeling outing as our one group activity, and we also gave each family the option of one excursion on their own. Two of our couples opted for horseback riding along the beach while the rest of us rented a minivan for an island tour. Later that day, we all ended up on the South Island beaches reveling in the talcum-soft pink sand and the crystalline blue waters.

8. Relax and enjoy

Relax and enjoy!
Photo credit: Sarah Pereira

The reward for all your hard work will be having your whole family gathered around you. For me, standing together on the deck of that ship for the first time (feeling relieved and amazed that everyone was there) will always rank near the top of my ‘great moments in life’ list. And that was just the beginning. The best thing about a multi-generational family adventure is the opportunity for day-after-day togetherness (without the distractions of hectic schedules and handheld electronics). Like us, your utmost joy will probably be simply watching your family enjoying each other.

We could never have predicted how much our family would love being on a ship. There is something magical about being surrounded by nothing but the endless rippling sea. Our greatest pleasures were the simplest ones. Eating dinner together each night was a delight, and the hot tub became a favorite after-dinner hangout. The helipad served as our very own ‘stargazing central’ – a perfect spot at the bow of the ship where aspiring astronomers and ardent romantics could witness a starry, starry night (with no competing man-made lighting).

Our family voyage was not a perfect trip – toilets overflowed and choppy water thwarted our plans for snorkeling over a shipwreck. But it was a perfect family experience. My husband and I have traveled all over the world, and this was our best trip ever.

Photos may not be used without permission.
– Anne Supsic

10 More of the World's Most Fascinating Cemeteries

By Anne Supsic

Published on on October 25, 2012

What is this fascination with cemeteries? Is it curiosity about what comes next or a desire to understand those who lived before us? If you suffer from this obsession with the great beyond, you are not alone. Our “affliction” even has a name: taphophilia – which means an interest in cemeteries and gravestone art. I like to believe that we are just thinking ahead – maybe we want to get a jump on that future “meet and greet.” As novelist Dean Koontz wrote, “The dead are merely the countrymen of my future.”
Last year’s article on this subject, 12 of the World’s Most Fascinating Cemeteries, elicited a lot of comments, and many of you offered up your own favorite burial grounds. So this year, I have assembled a second list of dead zones as recommended by BootsNall readers. And the results are…

1. Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, Romania

The Merry Cemetery sparkles like a colorful garden with distinctive blue crosses decorated with brightly painted pictures representing the life (or sometimes the death) of the deceased. These descriptive crosses create a “picture book” of peasant life depicting scenes such as a man chopping wood, a farmer riding his tractor, a girl leaning over her loom, and a policeman giving one final salute.

First created by Stan Ion Patras in 1935, the crosses stand about 5-feet tall and are often topped with a triangular roof. The crosses feature a painting in the center and a personal epitaph below. The sweet, simple paintings are surrounded by designs in symbolic colors: yellow for fertility, red for passion, green for life, and black for untimely death. However, the dominate color is always blue — the color of hope and freedom, expressing the belief in a better life in the next world. Patras also wrote most of the first-person epitaphs, and the heartfelt words perfectly complement the childlike paintings. His work is still carried on today by a faithful apprentice.

The witty epitaphs can be funny like this one: “Underneath this heavy cross lies my mother-in-law… Try not to wake her up for if she comes back home, she’ll bite my head off.”

Or poignant like this epitaph for a three-year old girl, displayed beneath a painting of her being hit by a car:

“Burn in hell you bloody taxi
That came from Sibiu town
Of all the places in the world
You had to hurtle down
Right by our house, and hit me so
That I was sent to death below
And left my parents full of woe.”

2. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

This cemetery that opened in 1849 was made famous in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and the town is filled with references to the “headless one.” Fittingly, Irving is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery near the setting of his most famous creation. Other famous residents include titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie, Walter Chrysler, and William Rockefeller (his supersized monument looks like a bank).

The infamous are here too with Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” topping the list. Leona is buried alongside her late husband, Harry, in a $1.4 million mausoleum boasting a stained-glass panorama of the Manhattan skyline. She and Harry built a real estate empire together, and she became known for her arrogance and abrasiveness. According to a former housekeeper, Leona once said, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Leona was proven wrong in 1989 when she was convicted of federal income tax evasion and sentenced to four years in prison. Clearly not much of a people person, Leona left her fortune of $12 million to her dog, an 8-year-old Maltese named Trouble.

Finally for all you Dark Shadows fans, the 1970’s cult classic House of Dark Shadows was filmed here. In fact, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery’s receiving vault (where bodies are stored prior to burial) snagged a starring role as the crypt of Barnabas Collins.

3. National Cemetery in Havana, Cuba

Also known as Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón this elegant cemetery named for Christopher Columbus contains more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults. In the late 1800’s, Havana was one of the richest cities in the Caribbean, and this grandiose cemetery incited a competition among the wealthy to out-do one another in honoring their dead.

A magnificent triple-arched entranceway called the “Gate of Peace” leads to broad boulevards lined with elaborate marble sculptures and displaying every conceivable architectural style from Italian Renaissance to Egyptian Revival. The highest monument (75 ft.) is the poignant Monumento a los Bomberos dedicated to the 27 firemen who lost their lives in the Great Fire on May 17, 1890 when gunpowder exploded in a warehouse fire.

The most famous occupant is Doña Amelia, a 23-year-old woman who died giving birth to a stillborn child. Legend has it that she was buried with the child at her feet, but years later when the casket was reopened, the baby was cradled in her mother’s arms. Today Amelia is referred to as “La Milagrosa” (The Miraculous Lady). She is considered a symbol of motherly love, and her gravesite is always strewn with flowers from mothers imploring “La Milagrosa” for help with their children.

4. Gallipoli Canakkale War Cemeteries on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey

The Battle of Gallipoli, one of the most tragic episodes of WWI, took place between April and December of 1915. The joint British and French campaign was a failed attempt to take the peninsula and open up a supply route to Russia. The fighting resulted in horrific losses: 250,000 Turkish soldiers and another 250,000 from Australia, New Zealand, England, and France.
The battle was a defining moment in Turkish history that led the way for Turkish independence. It was also the first major engagement for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), and April 25th, ANZAC Day, is venerated as a national holiday in both countries.

The battlefield area contains 31 cemeteries, including the sorrowful Lone Pine Memorial, where a single pine still stands commemorating the more than 4,900 Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died without gravesites here. At the time of the battle, the Turkish soldiers had chopped down all the trees except for one solitary pine. Although that tree did not survive the furious hand-to-hand combat, ANZAC soldiers collected pine cones, and descendants of the original lone pine now grow in Australia and New Zealand.
A striking three-tiered tower marks the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment Memorial. The Turkish troops were out of ammunition and reduced to fighting with only their bayonets when Staff Lieutenant-Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk) gave this famous command, “I do not order you to attack, I order you to die.” Every soldier in the regiment was either killed or wounded, and none of them survived the war. However, the 57th did halt the ANZAC advance, and to honor them, no 57th Regiment has existed in the Turkish army since.

5. Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia

A burial ground since 1794, Bonaventure Cemetery is a Southern Gothic fantasy come true with sad angels and odd tombstones surrounded by 250-year-old oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Oscar Wilde called the cemetery “incomparable,” and author John Berendt immortalized it in his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (also made into a movie by Clint Eastwood). Residents include the famous songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for “Moon River,” and 343 Holocaust victims, whose ashes were recovered from a Nazi labor camp in Germany.

One of the loveliest statues is also the saddest. Poor Corinne Elliott Lawton fell in love with the wrong man, someone her father thought was beneath her. She committed suicide the night before her marriage to a more suitable guy (Daddy’s choice) by jumping off a cliff near the cemetery and drowning in the creek below.

This cemetery also has a reputation as one of the most haunted places in America, and the eeriest gravesites belongs to Little Gracie Watson, a 6-year-old girl who died of pneumonia. The life-size image on her grave will break your heart, and it is said that sometimes you can hear Gracie softly sobbing and calling out for her parents. Visitors have been known to leave toys for Gracie, and some say she cries tears of blood if anyone tries to take her presents. Don’t forget to watch out for the pack of ghost dogs that supposedly chase unwanted visitors out of the cemetery – keep an ear out for vicious barking and the sounds of running paws!

6. Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, N.Y.

Mt. Hope Cemetery is known as one of the most remarkable Victorian cemeteries in America. This peaceful resting place, that blazes with color during autumn, contains 82 mausoleums and 350,000 graves. Trailblazers dominate the list of inhabitants including Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Hartwell Carver M.D. (father of the transcontinental railroad), and little known George Seldon, who claims he invented the automobile.

George Seldon designed an internal combustion engine and was granted a U.S. patent for an automobile in 1895, which allowed him to collect royalties from all American automobile companies (even though George had never gone into production). All went well until Henry Ford arrived on the scene, and Henry refused to pay. The result was a 9-year court battle that dominated headlines all across the country – and provided Henry with lots of free publicity for his Model T. George’s patent was eventually overturned on appeal; however, many believe that his remarkable vision prompted the horseless revolution.

7. Hanging coffins of Sagada, Philippines

Sagada is located in a remote area roughly six hours north of Manila. For 2,000 years, the people in this area have been placing their dead in coffins that hang from the sheer limestone cliffs. Supported by steel bars, the coffins dot the cliffs like barnacles perched at remarkable heights and often in precarious positions.

The unusual Sagada funerary tradition begins when the coffins are carved from hollowed out logs by either the elderly (in anticipation of their deaths) or by family members. After death, the corpse is smoked for five days (to preserve it), and then it is stuffed into the log coffin, often cracking or even breaking bones in the process. The whole works is then hoisted into position on the cliff face.

The odd hanging position may have been intended to elevate the body as close to heaven as possible. Of course eventually the coffins deteriorate and come crashing down to earth.

8. Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia

Mirogoj is considered one of Europe’s most beautiful cemeteries, with graceful arcades, stunning green cupolas, and masterpieces of funereal art. The cemetery is known as the Croatian Pantheon because so many famous Croats are buried here. A distinctive feature of Mirogoj is the total lack of segregation – atheists, Jews, Arabs, and Catholics are all buried side-by-side in a remarkable display of diversity that the living might want to emulate.

One of the most famous inhabitants is Dražen Petrovic, Croatia’s greatest basketball player. He was killed when a truck driver in an oncoming lane fell asleep and rammed into his car. Dražen was only 29-years-old when he died, but he is remembered as the “Croatian Mozart” because he turned basketball into an art form.

The best time to visit this cemetery is on All Saints Day, when the people of Zagreb honor those who have passed away by visiting their final home. At twilight, Mirogoj glows in the light of thousands of candles placed on the graves of loved ones.

9. Cemetery of San Michele in Venice, Italy

Venetians win top honors for the most unusual funeral processions, with flower-covered caskets traveling by boat to the tiny cemetery island of San Michele. With limited space, bodies only stay a few years before the remains are exhumed and stored in an ossuary – unless of course, you are a famous inhabitant like Igor Stravinsky or Ezra Pound, who have both been honored with permanent residency.

A funeral in Venice usually begins with a mass followed by a somber walk to the waiting barge, where the casket and all the flowers are loaded for one final voyage. Mourners, dressed in black, trail the funeral barge in water taxis as the body makes its way over the waves to the cemetery island.If you come here, be aware that the Cemetery of San Michele is a functioning cemetery, where most of the burials are recent and grieving families far outnumber tourists.

10. Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington near London

Abney Park is one of the so called “Magnificent Seven” London cemeteries built in the 19th century to alleviate overcrowded burial grounds within the city limits. The park was designed as a unique combination of cemetery and arboretum, with 2,500 varieties of trees and shrubs – all properly labeled and arranged in alphabetical order.

Today, the park is unkempt and overgrown, creating a riotously romantic atmosphere – a real taphophile delight. An 1840 Gothic chapel, the first nondenominational chapel in Europe, lies abandoned after a fire destroyed the interior. The hauntingly beautiful outer shell is surrounded by dilapidated headstones and vine-covered tombs, epitomizing the phrase “dust to dust.”

One of the most moving monuments is the Blitz Memorial, listing the names of the Stoke Newington residents who were killed on October 13, 1940 when a German bomb hit a crowded air raid shelter. Most of the people who had sought safety here were killed, including many Jews, some of whom had escaped from the Nazis.

Photos by: premus, Simply Abbey, zoonabar, laszlo-photo, Redden-McAllister, Gruenemann, The Dilly Lama, Panoramas, Rui Ornelas, Oliver N5

Monday, September 10, 2012

7 Ways to Experience the Best of Sicily

by Anne Supsic

Published on Viator Travel Blog on September 10, 2012

Mention Sicily and what usually comes to mind is ‘Godfather’ Marlon Brando growling, ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’ But Sicily is much more than the mob, and the notion of ‘family’ extends well beyond the Costa Nostra—it might even include you.

Here are 7 reasons why a visit to Sicily may be hard for you to refuse:

1. Fascinating Cities

Magnificent mosaics of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo’s Norman Palace
Magnificent mosaics of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo’s Norman Palace

If you take the overnight ferry from Naples to Palermo (an ideal way to travel to Sicily and an adventure in itself), your boat will glide into Palermo, providing a first glimpse of Sicily as the sun rises over the surrounding mountains. Palermo is Sicily’s historic heart, and a hodgepodge of architecture reflects that history which is a story of one occupation after another, including all the major Mediterranean players from the Greeks and Romans to the Arabs, Normans, and Italians. But none of these unwanted visitors could undermine local pride, and even today, people consider themselves Sicilians first and Italians second.

Palermo is known as a chaotic city, but it’s worth braving the terrifying traffic to enjoy some of Sicily’s finest sights such as the splendid 12th c. Byzantine mosaics—colorful designs created with tiny pieces of glass specially crafted to reflect light. The most famous mosaics are found just outside of town in Monreale Cathedral where every inch of the upper walls and ceiling are covered with mosaic ‘pictures,’ including well-known Bible stories like Jacob’s Ladder, and Noah’s Ark, and a more obscure (but intriguing) one called ‘Drunken Noah in the Vineyard.’ The Cappella Palatina located within Palermo’s Norman Palace is another favorite mosaic treasure trove. Smaller and better lit than Monreale, the intensely colored mosaics sparkle in this intimate space making you feel as if you just walked into a jewelry box.

For a more down-to-earth experience, the Catacombs at Convento dei Cappuccini offer a gruesome collection of some 8,000 skeletal bodies. The dead are propped up in niches along the walls, and the best-dressed dudes are decked out in hats, ties, jackets, gloves, and even shoes!
Sicily’s second largest city Catania is often described as gritty—a city of faded glory with beautiful baroque buildings (many sporting a good coating of graffiti), and a good place to keep a watchful eye on your belongings. Having survived earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as one guidebook puts it, ‘The most amazing thing about Catania is that it is still here.’

Catania is renowned for its fish, and La Pescheteria (the fish market) has a theatrical ambience. A tiered upper street functions almost like a balcony overlooking the boisterous market below. Old men gather here, leaning over a railing to observe and assess the daily performance. The fish vendors try to outshout each other, filling the air with 100+ decibel level Sicilian as they deftly wield foot long machetes to delicately filet fresh fish for their clients.

2. Remarkable Ancient History

Idyllically located Greek ruins at Segesta
Idyllically located Greek ruins at Segesta

The Greeks arrived in Sicily in 800 B.C., bearing gifts of great wealth along with art and architecture, and of course, magnificent Greek temples. Today, Sicily contains some of the best Greek ruins anywhere—even better than many of the ruins in Greece itself.

The Valley of the Temples is a good example: Agrigento was a major settlement during Greek’s Golden Age, and a series of 5th c. Greek temples line the ridge outside of the modern town. These majestic structures comprise one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Stately Doric columns still stand tall, and the nearly intact Temple of Concord is considered second only to the Parthenon in Athens.

Another impressive temple is the unfinished temple at Segesta, a Greek gem idyllically situated on a mountainside surrounded by fields that come alive with colorful yellow and purple wildflowers in the spring. Segesta exudes an aura of mystery—perhaps because its history is largely unknown. No one knows why the temple was left unfinished (a roof was never added and the pillars were never fluted), or who the original builders were, although some believe they were Trojans exiled after the ill-fated Trojan War.

3. Charming Small Towns

Medieval castle at Erice
Medieval castle at Erice

Sicily boasts a broad selection of sweet, small towns including the medieval village of Erice sitting on a rock-like mountain almost half a mile above sea level. The best viewpoint is from the medieval castle on the outermost tip of this mountain perch. A Temple to Athena once stood here, and much of the castle’s stone comes from this original temple. The sublime view encompasses green valleys, craggy mountains, and the brilliant blue Med gleaming in the distance.

Another small town favorite is Cefalù, the most popular resort on the northern coast of Sicily—a small town of narrow, winding streets sitting between the sea and a towering rock called ‘La Rocco.’ For a perfect day in Cefalù, eat lunch in the incredibly scenic main square sitting with the stunning stone cathedral in front of you and La Rocco looming in the background. After lunch browse the delightful shops and walk along the rocky coastline.

Ragusa is one of Sicily’s famous Baroque hill towns. The entire town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, but it was completely rebuilt in the latest style of the time, and the flowery, ornate buildings represent the best of 18th c. Sicilian architecture. Ragusa is actually divided into two towns separated by a deep ravine: Ragusa, the upper ‘modern’ town, and Ragusa Ibla, the lower old town. A series of steep stone staircases link the two providing a terrific walking opportunity with magnificent views at every turn.

4. The Magic of Ortigia

Magical Ortigia
Magical Ortigia

Sicily has more than her share of magical places, but the tiny island of Ortigia, located at the southern end of the city of Siracusa, tops my list. I was hooked from the moment I rolled my wheeled luggage over the cobblestone streets into the atmospheric old town, and a fisherman repairing his nets called out a hearty ‘Bienvenutu a Ortigia’ (welcome to Ortigia).

Ortigia’s combination of bright blue sea and old world stonework creates a dreamy Venice-like ambience. The narrow lanes are lined with former palaces adorned with elaborate stone carved windows and delicate wrought iron balconies. The Piazza di Duomo, perhaps the most beautiful plaza in all of Sicily, boasts a lovely Baroque church that was once a Greek Temple of Minerva and still retains some of her ancient columns.

One of the most unusual sights in Ortigia is the Bagno Ebraico, Hebrew ritual baths dating back to 75 AD. The baths were in use until 1492 when Jews were expelled from Sicily. At that time, the banished Jewish community blocked the entrance to the baths with rubble in order to protect the sacred site. No one knew the baths existed until 1991 when renovations at the hotel next door revealed the old subterranean stairway. Still fed by natural springs, this is a mystical place where the devout once descended into rock-hewn pools—invoking a special prayer with each step.

5. Incredible Natural Beauty

Tiny Sicily abounds in natural splendor from the azure blue sea that is never far from view to the dramatic backdrop of interior mountain ranges. Fragrant orchards of orange and lemon trees lend both color and scent to this island that is truly bedda, the Sicilian word for beautiful.

Appealing spots include the resort town of Taormina perched on a mountaintop between Mt. Etna and the sea, and the small islands surrounding Sicily like the Aeolians, an archipelago of seven individual volcanic islands. But Sicily’s most respected natural wonder is the incomparable Mt. Etna.

Mt. Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe and has the longest history of documented eruptions in the world. Locals refer to Mt. Etna as the ‘good volcano’ because, unlike Mt. Vesuvius on the mainland that tends to explode without warning, Mt. Etna possesses better self-control emitting regular, lesser eruptions to relieve internal pressures. And when the lava flows, it moves very slowly giving people plenty of time to evacuate. During a recent eruption, one villager grabbed a lawn chair, a bowl of pasta, and a glass of wine—then he positioned himself in a prime spot to watch the lava dribble through his orchard and down the mountainside toward the ocean.

6. Fabulous Food

Typical Sicilian antipasto platter
Typical Sicilian antipasto platter

Sicilian fare seems to take its cue from the colors of the Italian flag: red for tomatoes, white for garlic, and green for olive oil. But Sicilian cuisine is hardly that simplistic. Each of Sicily’s conquerors left their mark on the land—and in the kitchen. Sicilian cuisine glories in olives from the Greeks, pasta from the Romans, and major Arabic contributions like artichokes, eggplants, and sugar cane.

Antipasto delights with carponata (a uniquely Sicilian combo of eggplant, capers, olives, and tomatoes), and other veggies all steeped in the very best Sicilian olive oil. Heavenly pastas include Pasta alla Norma, a magnificent eggplant dish named for the heroine of an opera by Sicily’s favorite son, Vincenzo Bellini. Fresh fish is another treat including the simply prepared pesce spade (swordfish) that is thinly sliced, grilled with lemon and olive oil, and topped with piquant Sicilian capers. And even if you have sworn off sweets, ‘forgedda bout it,’ no one can resist the canolli and the lovely lime green cassata, a sugary cake filled with ricotta cream and topped with candied fruits.

No Sicilian meal is complete without wine, and you can choose from the up-and-coming red wines made from the Nero d’Avolo grape or stick with the traditional sweet Marsala. Known as a ‘healthy drink,’ Marsala wine became quite popular during America’s prohibition years. Sicily exported thousands of crates of the stuff to ailing Americans where it was marketed under the medicinal-sounding name ‘Marsala Tonic.’ The 18% alcohol remedy actually carried a label that read ‘Approved by the U.S. Treasury. Dosage: A small glassful twice a day.’

7. Incomparable Friendliness

Perhaps Sicilians are so friendly because they have a long history of welcoming strangers, or maybe living on a small island makes a person look forward to new faces. Whatever the reason, Sicilians surprised me with their heartfelt friendliness almost every day.

During my time in Sicily, I tried more than once to buy a single lemon, but the fruit vendors refused my money saying, ‘A gift, a gift!’ One day in Palermo, I conjured up my best broken Italian and asked a tiny elderly lady for directions to a bus stop. She not only led me in the right direction, but escorted me across a busy Palermo intersection. (No doubt she feared I would end up as roadkill if I attempted the crossing myself.) I watched in amazement as this little old lady walked right out into the speeding traffic, patting the air with her hand to halt the onslaught of vehicles. Miraculously, the traffic parted for her (and for me glued to her side) like Moses parting the Red Sea!

And in the town of Marsala, I was chatting with a young wine shop owner named Allessandro when he decided to lock up his wine shop and walk me to his favorite restaurant. I protested that he would lose business, but he said, ‘It is not good to work too much.’

Sicily is a perfect mix of ancient ruins, remarkable food, and gorgeous landscapes. But the real beauty of Sicily lies within—in her people and their special brand of genuine hospitality. As the Sicilian proverb says, ‘Tutti semu sutta lu celu.’ (We’re all under the same sky.) And nowhere does this feel more true than in Sicily.

Photos are courtesy of Frank Supsic and may not be used without permission.