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Gadget Review – the Omnia Stovetop Oven

Gadget Review – the Omnia Stovetop Oven

by Alan Gow  |  September 2018  | Reviews

When we ordered our motorhome Betsy, she was supposed to come fitted with a full gas oven.  However, when we picked her up we were told that there was a problem and it wasn’t possible to install one without significant alterations and cost.  As we love to cook, this was a serious blow, so we immediately started looking for alternatives. We first tried an appliance called a Remoska, which many motorhomers swear by and consists of a roasting pan plus the lid that contains an electric heating element.  While this was excellent for roast dinners and other baking, it had three main drawbacks for us.  Firstly it was big and heavy and took up a lot of room.  Secondly, it was quite power hungry and as we live off grid we have to be careful not to drain our batteries, which limited how much we could use the Remoska. Thirdly, it just stopped working after three months.  Although we got a refund, it wasn’t replaced. After further extensive research, we came across the Omnia – an ingenious device from Sweden which we would now hate to be without.  It is not until you actually have something like this that you realise all of the great food that you are missing out on just because you don’t have the means to cook it. We have been using our Omnia now since October 2017 and have put a lot of other motorhomers onto them.  We mention them on social media a lot and keep getting asked questions, so we decided to put up a review here on our website so everyone can understand what an Omnia is, how it works, and how it would benefit them.

What is an Omnia?

An Omnia is an appliance that you use on your gas or electric cooktop.  This allows you to cook most things that you would normally make in an oven, without actually having one.  The Omnia greatly expands the range of dishes you can cook in your motorhome or boat. There are three pieces to the standard Omnia, (plus two optional extra parts which I will talk about later). These are:

  • the round steel base,  which sits directly onto the gas ring or electric element
  • the aluminium ring-shaped baking pan, which sits on the base and you fill with the goodies to be cooked
  • the bright red lid

The whole device measures just 250mm in diameter, stands 140mm high and weighs in at a paltry 500 grams.  It comes packed in its own neat little bag to keep everything together and tidy. The optional parts are a silicon mould insert which means you don’t have to butter and flour the baking pan each time you use it, and it makes washing up soooo much easier, and a rack which sits inside the Omnia for certain types of baking.

How does the Omnia work?

The steel base sits directly on a gas ring, camp cooker or electric element (not induction though), with the baking pan, then the lid on top. The burner heats the air under the pan and in the top compartment, through the hole in the middle of the baking pan. There are small holes in the lid which let out excess steam. You simply butter and flour the baking pan (if you have the silicon mould then ignore this step and insert the mould straight into the pan).  You then fill the pan with your cake mix, lasagne ingredients, roast dinner ingredients, bread dough etc, pop it on the base, drop the lid into place and centre the whole assembly on your fired up gas ring or cooktop.  The gas is normally turned down close to the lowest setting and then the Omnia is left to do its magic.  Most dishes take the same time as they would in an oven. We had our Omnia for several months before finding somewhere we could buy the silicon mould (from the Jula store in Sweden), and after having used it with or without the mould, we thoroughly recommend the mould is purchased.  The only real pains with using the Omnia were buttering/flouring the baking pan then washing it afterwards, and the silicon mould does away with all that.

Homemade Breads, Cakes and Sweets

Freshly Made Bread

Hot Cross Buns

Omnia Apple Strudel Cake

Moist Orange or Lemon Cake

Chocolate Cake

Sticky Date Pudding

Savoury Dishes to Delight the Tastebuds

Tasty Authentic Lasagne

Sicilian Eggplant Involtini

Individual Quiches

Turkish Borecik

Tandoori Vegetable Filo

Italian Style Meatballs

Would an Omnia Benefit Me?

Well that’s a great question and thank you for asking it.

An Omnia is certainly a benefit for us and if I explain why, then you can decide whether your circumstances are close enough to ours that you would benefit as well.

1. We have no oven so without an Omnia we couldn’t cook cakes, roast dinners, bread, lasagne, scones, quiches, or any of the other beautiful dishes that have come out of our little Omnia.  If you have an oven then you probably don’t need an Omnia.

2. We are very rarely on an electrical hook up so we can’t easily use electrical appliances that consume a lot of electricity.

3. We actually like to cook ourselves and only eat out very occasionally.  If your preferences and budget suit eating out most nights, then you probably won’t use an Omnia often.

4. We wild camp a lot and generally setting up barbeques and Cadac style cookers outside is not permitted.  If you typically stay at campsites and possess these items you may have less use for an Omnia.

5. We really like eating good food and the Omnia makes spectacularly tasty tucker.  We are happy to make the effort to cook food that makes us happy.  If your camping tastes are satisfied by baked beans on toast and you can’t be bothered taking the time to put more than two ingredients together then again the Omnia may not be for you.

6. We are also sailors and recognise that an Omnia would be a great device to have on an oven-less yacht.

If you relate to our situation then you are probably getting just a little excited now and just want to know how you can get your hands on one of these life-changing tools.

But unfortunately (for us), we are not making money from this website or selling anything so we have no magic link we can share to let you buy one easily.  There doesn’t seem to be a current UK distributor however many of the camping shops in Europe have them in stock and there are a lot of authorised European online retailers who I am sure would ship to Great Britain and other European locations.  For an online retailer, we suggest you go onto the Omnia website resellers page.

We have seen Omnia and accessories for sale at many locations around Europe and the prices do vary.  The three-piece base unit ranges anywhere from €37.50 through to €60.  Then the silicon mould is priced at about €16 to €19.  The rack insert is another extra item, however, this isn’t something we use a lot and I wouldn’t really recommend this as being critical to your gastronomic success.  You can also buy a thermometer with a spike which passes through one of the holes in the lid to read the actual temperature.   We don’t have this so can’t comment on how well it works, however, we seem to do fine without it.

We have shared quite a few Omnia recipies on our Recipes page.  There is a great Facebook Omnia Users group which shares ideas, experiences and more recipes.

If you buy an Omnia, please let us know how you find it and share any great recipes you find or come up with.  We are always looking for new tasty stuff to try out.

Unexpectedly Awesome South-West Sweden

Unexpectedly Awesome South-West Sweden

by Alan Gow  |  July 2018  |  Sweden

We came to Sweden with no real expectations of what we would find here.  From our distant home in NZ, my preconceptions were of Volvos, snow, herrings and blondes.  However, we have been delighted to find a country rich in varied and beautiful landscapes, with friendly people and some really tasty food.  Oh, and yes, the blondes are here too.

Gothenburg

We arrived in Sweden at about 3.30am on the late night cheap ferry  (€113) from Frederikshavn in Denmark to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city.  A little lost sleep to save €120 in comparison to the daytime fares seemed a fair deal.  Now desperate for sleep we found a likely looking car park, pulled in, set the alarm and grabbed a few hours kip (with the cunning plan of leaving before the arrival of any overzealous parking wardens looking to get some early parking ticket runs on their board).

On rising way-too-few hours later, the first order of business was to fill our depleted LPG tanks.  For such a large country, Sweden doesn’t have a lot of LPG filling stations but luckily myLPG.eu directed us to the only one near Gothenburg which was just 4km away.

After securing our gas supply for the next month or so we decided to head out of Gothenburg as we were already a bit tired of the big city feel and too sleep deprived to feel up to cycling into the centre.  This, however, presented another hurdle as Gothenburg has an unusual congestion zone which pings you even when bypassing the centre on the motorway.  Ultimately this meant we needed to detour about 45km to avoid getting snapped by the cameras.  It wasn’t that we didn’t want to pay the fee but more that because the fee demands get sent to the registered address of the vehicle we were not confident that would find its way to us in time to avoid us getting a 250 SEK (about €25) late or non payment fine.  After reading up on the zone and confirming our concerns with some Swedish motorhomers, we took the safe, albeit long route around and out of the city.

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Bohus Fortress

The roads were good, the traffic light and the driving easy.  The Swedish countryside was quite scenic with more ups and downs than Denmark but no particularly big hills.  As we approached the town of Kunglav we spied an impressive looking castle up on a hill and being in no real rush, we decided to turn off and investigate.

Bohus Fortress from the Road

Festung Bohus (Bohus Fortress), was built from 1308 and has a particular claim to fame.  It was besieged on 14 separate occasions but was never captured.  There has been a lot of restoration work carried out recently.  Much of this was made necessary because after it was no longer of military value, from 1786, the locals were encouraged to take the stones to build houses and gardens and the fortress was allowed to fall into ruins.

We had a glorious warm and sunny day for our visit and because we arrived just an hour before closing we were allowed to pay the student rate rather than the full adult entry cost €11.55 – a savings of 80 SEK, very nice.

We entered the fortress through the large doors of the ‘Blockhouse Gate’ – doors which were locked when we tried to leave the complex just a little after closing time.  The path led us past the Commandant’s quarters and into the courtyard where there were some people playing old instruments and there was an opportunity to have a go at some archery.  My old skills quickly returned and I managed to place some arrows in the black, impressing the young girl in charge (at least I reckon she was impressed).  Ruth marched up for her first ever go at shooting a bow and arrow and also managed to hit the black after a few pointers from the hired help.

The Entry Gate Locked – Whoops

Robin Hood Ruth in Action

Climbing up a steep path to the top of the fortifications, we were treated to fantastic views over the surrounding waters and countryside.  Bohus was strategically built on an island on the fork of the Nodre and Gota rivers which made it an ideal defensive position.

View from Bohus Fortress

The ‘Red Tower’ is where the fortress was saved from being captured when one of the defenders blew up the tower, himself and several hundred attacking Swedes with explosive charges in 1566.  The Swedes reportedly “flew into the air like crows”.

The ‘Fars Hatt’ tower contains a dungeon which is a 6m deep pit, where no natural light penetrated and into which prisoners were lowered.  Can you imagine being left there for years in the total blackness?  On the next level up were some medieval suits of armour including some pieces we could try on ourselves.  With just a breastplate and shoulder/upper arm protection on I already felt weighed down and with the addition of a heavy helmet you could start to appreciate how strong the knights and soldiers of the time must have been.

Alan in Armour

Fars Hatt Dungeon – 6m deep black hole

We lost track of time as we took our own journey back through the history of this remarkable place and before we knew it, closing time was upon us.  We chose to head back walking around the outside of the main walls however by the time we got back to the Blockhouse Gate, the doors were closed and locked.  There was another exit door however that also appeared to be locked shut.  A few choice words were said and we shared our predicament with another couple who sauntered down the path even later than us.  Just as we were starting to get a little concerned, one of the staff came down the path and demonstrated that the exit door just needed a really hard tug to get it open.  Phew!

Festung Bohus was the first attraction we have visited in Sweden and was a nice introduction to what we will be enjoying over the next month.

That night we stayed in a quiet car park near the beach on the island of Tjorn.  It was so nice and quiet in fact, that we stayed two nights.  The local blackberry bushes were prolific enough to provide enough blackberries for apple and blackberry crumble made in our Omnia cooker – yum. We nearly went for a swim but the wind picked up and put us off (we must be getting soft in our old age).

Our free parking spot: 57.98369, 11.68679

Tjorn Island Evening

The next night we spent tucked into a comfortable Rastplats (Restplace) with a stunning view overlooking the sea, parking areas designated for motorhomes and with a toilet block.  This was our first experience of what appears to be a standard Swedish design of toilet blocks sited on the public rest areas, where there is a separate room at the back setup for emptying and washing your toilet cassette.  We found a lot of these along the main roads and I was very excited to see them.  Isn’t it interesting what becomes important to you when you are wild camping in a motorhome?  Convenient places to empty the loo or fill up with fresh water are godsend to folk like us.  This is another example of how motorhome friendly these Scandinavian countries are.  The reality is that there are going to be thousands of motorhomes travelling the countryside so it makes sense to have facilities to deal with the waste they produce.

Our free parking spot 58.262700 , 11.680155

View from Restplats near Henan

Toilet Cassette Empying Point – Swedish Style

Bovallstrand

I should rewind here and explain how we ended up being in this small part of coastal Sweden.

Back in last January as we were whiling away the winter in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece, and we found ourselves parked up on a pier in the small town of Pilos with about four other motorhomes.  This was a novel experience for us, as motorhomes in Greece in the winter were rare and we could go for days without seeing another.  We all introduced ourselves, then went out for dinner that night, which was followed by a potluck shared dinner the next night.  We made our famous Mediterranean stuffed squid which went down a treat with the others.  Haken and Helena are a retired Swedish couple with a gorgeous wee dog Louise – a cross between a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Poodle.  They had a photo on the back of their camper of the blue seas and islands around their hometown of Bovallstrand which looked nothing like what our naïve conceptions of Sweden could conjure up.  That evening a tremendous storm hit Pylos and their motorhome, in particular, was hit with massive volumes of spray through the night.  The story of that storm is told in this blog. As often happens when you are on the road, they invited us to come and stay when we made it up their way.

The great time we had with Haken and Helena on their home turf just reinforces how important it is for us to connect with our fellow travelers whenever possible because it can lead to the most enriching experiences.

Anyway, fast forward about six months and there we were, rolling into Bovallstrand, following Emily’s (our GPS) directions to their house.

Bovallstrand is a small seaside settlement with a population that winds down to under 800 in the winter and swells to over 5,000 in the summer.  Smorgen, one of Sweden’s most popular seaside resorts, is just a few kilometres down the coast.  Heading further north to Norway is a procession of historic fishing villages now reliant on the summer holiday trade for their prosperity.  We all visited Hamburgsund, Fjallbacka and Grebbestad which all were bustling and attractive with uniformly traditional building designs and colours.

Sweden is having the best (for tourists, not farmers), summer for 250 years and the seaside is swarming with locals and visitors enjoying the warm days and reasonably warm waters.

Bovallstrand Harbour

Bovallstrand Sunset

Smorgen Harbour

Smorgen

Granite

If there was one word that comes to mind about the region, that would be the word ‘Granite’.  Granite is everywhere.  From around Bovallstrand, the famous red granite was shipped around the world to decorate the finest buildings, such as the Empire State Building.  Houses, wharves and other buildings seem to be perched on top of the immovable granite worn smooth from thousands of years of being ground down by the massive glaciers which once covered this land.  Deep cuts worn into the granite now form natural habours which offer protection to the many boats hidden away here.  Granite is used everywhere – for house foundations, piles and columns, as fence posts, and to support wharves.  Although the peak time of the stone cutters has long gone, the evidence of their activity remains in the vast piles of waste stone and the drill marks left in the surviving bedrock.

There is a fantastic local art collective which makes sculptures out of the granite.  The skill and imagination of the artists was immense and there was something almost sensual about feeling the soft, yet hard, polished granite.

Sculpture at the Collective

Meeting the Granite Sculpturer, Linda

The waters around here once supported a massive fishing industry built on the seemingly endless stocks of herring (sil).  The vast fish stocks were depleted by the late 1800’s and now there is only a scant handful of boats operating out of these harbours.  Our hosts generously procured fresh prawns and langoustine straight off the prawn boat for us and we had a feast fit for a king that night with the seafood served on fresh bread with homemade dill and garlic aioli.  We were also served up a range of pickled herrings which to the surprise of both us, and Haken and Helena, we really enjoyed. The herring flesh was firm to the bite but was not fishy at all and the flavour went really nicely with the various herbs and spices that went into the pickling liquid.

Haken Purchasing Fresh Prawns straight from the Boat

A Feast of Prawns and Langoustine

Haken and Helena took us out on their small runabout where we secured the rope to the shore by hammering a wedge into a crack in the rock.  We had a relaxing Bovallstrand style afternoon swimming, eating and exploring.

Traditional Style Boat

Unique Granite and Flora on the Islands

Ancient Vastergotland

Bovallstrand and the neighbouring towns are in the Vastergotland region of western Sweden which has a record of continuous occupation for thousands of years.  Numerous archaeological sites tell the stories of the Bronze Age farmers around 2000 to 500 BC through to the marauding Vikings from 1000 AD.

One of the benefits of having local tour guides is being taken to places that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise known about.  One of these was the rock carvings and museum at Vitlycke.  There are a staggering number of these images engraved into the granite dated from 1000 BC through to 1 AD showing a vast array of scenes and shapes of ships, people, battles, hunting, gods, animals and so on.  For example, there are over 10,000 images of boats or ships recorded in the greater area.  The Vitlycke Rock Carvings, however, are the most famous collection in the area and the free museum of the ancient culture and carvings gives an in-depth insight into the people who inhabited this land.  They really ‘do’ museums well in Sweden with lots of interactive displays and learning opportunities for adults and children.

While most of the world is worried about rising sea levels, Sweden has the opposite thing going on. The whole country is actually rising by about 1cm a year.  Most of the sites for the rock carvings were coastal when they were first cut into the granite but the land has risen about 25m since then and the sea is now many kilometres away.  This is due to the country being pushed down by the weight of the ice during the ice age about 15,000 years ago, and now, like a rubber mattress which has been compressed, it is slowly springing back to its original shape.  This means that some of the ports are facing expensive dredging operations if they want to stay in business.

The ancient church of Svenneby Gamla in Hambergsund (GPS 58.499662, 11.324094) , which dates back to around 1000 AD is well worth a visit and is open most days.  Of particular interest are the racks where the parishioners were supposed to hang up their weapons before entering the main church and the beautifully restored paintings on the wooden roof.

Svenneby Gamla Church

Wooden Ceiling Paintings

We spent our last evening in the area in the town of Fjallbacka wandering the streets of historic buildings, enjoying an ice cream and live music down on the foreshore then finding a flat safe area set aside for motorhome and bus parking just on the outskirts of town.

Rain was forecast for the next day and we were heading inland.  The coastal region of Western Sweden is certainly worth a visit (especially in the summer).

If you are a wildcamping motorhomer like us,  you sometimes have to look around to find free camping spots around the tourist hotspots in the high season but they are there if you look hard enough and take advantage of the on-line Apps available.  The main one we use is Park4Night which has built up a massive database through user contributions.  We always try to do our bit for the rest of the motorhoming community by adding new sites and relevant reviews.

Our free parking spot 58.262700 , 11.680155.

It is also important as full time motorhomers to talk with other people who obviously enjoy this lifestyle.  We want to say a massive thanks to Helena and Haken for their incredible generosity, opening their home to us, being wonderful tour guides, and providing the most delicious food for us to sample.  We look forward to returning the hospitality in the future.

Sicily – An Island of Contrasts

Sicily – An Island of Contrasts

by Alan Gow  |  April 2018  |  Sicily, Italy

One of the great benefits of touring in a motorhome with no fixed agenda or schedule is the flexibility to just stop and enjoy a place that we are passing through.  Often when talking to fellow travellers or locals we will hear about such and such spot and our loose plan allows us to check it out even though it wasn’t on our radar five minutes ago.

We planned on spending a month in Sicily however this extended out to over seven weeks as there were some places we just didn’t want to pass up.  Eventually we needed to leave as we’d completed the full circuit of the island and had an appointment to take Betsy back to her motorhome dealer near Turin, for some TLC (tender loving care).

It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, however Sicily is a land of contrasts.  There is much to admire, love and appreciate but there are also some less than perfect aspects.  We really enjoyed our time here however with so much still to see and do in Europe, we probably (never say never) won’t return for another stint.

Although seven weeks sounds like a long time, it is really only enough to scratch the surface of what there is to see and experience here.  The history is so colourful and unbelievable and land so rugged and beautiful.  There is a (very) brief summary of the history below. We chose to visit from late March through to early May and experienced overall nice comfortable spring weather.  It wasn’t warm enough to enjoy the many fantastic beaches but that was offset by the lack of swarms of summer tourists and the sweltering summer heat. That suited us, however if beach bathing is your thing then you are best to visit a month or two later.

As you would know if you read our other blogs, we almost exclusively free camp and use some great free Apps as well as information from other travellers to find our overnight stopping spots.  We had no problems doing this all around Sicily however in the high season there are more restrictions on where motorhomes can park.  This is probably necessary as there is a huge influx of campers in summer and without some controls, especially around the coast, I can see there could be problems.

We have shared all of our overnight stopping spots including GPS Coordinates and notes at the end of this blog.

Fresh Drinking Water

Sicily has been one of the few places where we have had to hunt around at times to find fresh water.  It may be driven by the economic crisis, however, in many towns, the public water taps had been disconnected.  We never actually ran out but we had to be a little creative in our water gathering at times.

Having said that, the water, when we found it, was usually fresh and sweet.  Our electric bikes and a couple of 10 litre water canisters were invaluable as it this allowed us to leave Betsy parked while we foraged far and wide for a functioning tap.  One hint is that if you are struggling to find water then the local cemetery is often worth a look.  Check that there are no signs advising that the water is ‘Non potable’ (not suitable for drinking), and if you intend to drink straight from your fresh water tank, you should always taste it first.  If you are happy to stay in camp grounds then you won’t have the problem of water scavenging.

For us, it is all part of the game and experience of travelling on this journey we have chosen.

Ruth joins the locals filling up at Piazza Amerina

Olivetti Public Fountain – very slow to fill but geat water

Scrounging water from a Taormina service station – we were washing clothes so needed to find it somewhere

The Roads

The roads are another slight drawback to Sicily, especially if you are in a full-sized motorhome enjoying the complete Sicily experience by avoiding the toll roads.  There are places where the main road passes through kilometre after kilometre of built up towns and your right wheel is constantly just centimetres from the kerb.  We were sometimes left swearing at our GPS which is supposed to know our dimensions and not send us down roads that are too narrow.

Accepted Sicilian parking behaviour dictates that you can park wherever you want and it is up to the moving cars to get around you.  This means that as a 2.2m wide motorhome, we were constantly stopping for oncoming traffic to pass so that we could take our turn.  It gets tiresome after a while but I reckon it would be far worse in the high season with a pile more 2.2m wide motorhomes and other holiday traffic to contend with.

Overall the condition of the roads is best described as marginal with many potholes, worn out surfaces, cracks and other defects. The south coast was much better than the north coastal roads.  Obviously not a lot of money here for road maintenance.  There is an Autostrada (motorway) around most of Sicily, however, we mostly kept off this, partly to avoid the cost but also as you just don’t see as much of the country travelling on these.

We mainly stuck close to the coast so can’t comment on how the roads crossing Sicily may be but some of them certainly looked narrow and windy (according to the infallible Google Maps).  From the roads we encountered when we did venture inland, they too were quite narrow.

Are we really going down there?

You can’t be serious!

The Food

Sicilian food is great.  It has unique characteristics compared to the rest of Italy. It is fresh, it is tasty and it is healthy (for the most part). We enjoyed a Sicilian Cooking Class at Mama Corleone Cooking School while in Palermo and learned  some great dishes which we have continued to cook.

Mama Corleone Cooking Class

Our favourites included Caponata, which is a wonderful infusion of cubes of fried melanza, (eggplant), celery, capers, tomato passata, olives, pine nuts and wherever other vegetable you can find. This is cooked slowly then finished off with vinegar and sugar.  Served cold with fresh Sicilian bread, it is slightly sweet, slightly sour, absolutely bursting with flavour and seems to just melt in your mouth.

The eggplant involtini was also really tasty and was just slices of fried egg plant, rolled around a stuffing of breadcrumbs, chopped ham, grated local cheese, and olive oil.  This is then placed in a baking dish, covered with tomato passata and cheese and cooked in the oven until the cheese is nicely melted.

Caponata with aubergine, olives, capers, pine nuts etc plus lots of olive oil

Involtimi – slices of fried aubergine, stuffed and rolled up and baked

Sicily also contributed dishes such as Arancini to world cuisine.  These are balls of rice flavoured with saffron, filled with either ham and cheese or ragu (tomato meat sauce and cheese), then dipped in bread crumbs and lightly deep fried. Their most famous desert seems to be Cannoli, which look a lot like brandy snaps with a sweet, crunchy biscuit shell, stuffed with a ricotta and cream mixture.

While in the small seaside town of Licata, we enjoyed our first ever experience of dining at a Two Star Michelin Restaurant.  To read more, click here two-star-michelihttp://travel-cook-eat.com/italian-n-restaurant/.

The Rubbish

Unfortunately, when talking about Sicily, its hard not to mention the rubbish, because it is just such a visual feature of the landscape in many areas.  From our experience, Palermo is the worst with enormous piles of garbage accumulated at the side of the road.  It was sad and disturbing that the people of Sicily would participate in defacing their country like this and that the local government couldn’t collect the rubbish within a reasonable timeframe, or control the problem.  In Caltagirone we witnessed a respectable looking woman pull up to the side of the road and start to unload plastic bags of garbage onto a clear sidewalk.  There happened to be council garbage collection man in a small truck who clearly took her to task about what she was doing.  After much waving of hands and raised voices they unloaded her small hatchback boot, back and front seats of at least 16 bags of garbage and put them directly into the garbage truck.  Maybe when you grow up with this it seems normal but to us, and any other visitors we spoke to, the amount of rubbish was quite unbelievable.

Typical Roadside Rubbish in Palermo

Rubbish Collection Day – Piazza Amerina

Outstanding in Sicily

So what really stood out in Sicily?

For me, that would have to be the churches or cathedrals and the archaeological history.

To say that the churches are amazing just doesn’t do them justice.  Nearly every major town we visited boasted a Basilica or Cathedrale that was not only spectacular but also managed to be markedly different to the others.  Monreale Cathedral, near Palermo, stands out due to the magnificence of the thousands of square metres of religious mosaics and beautiful Baroque style marblework.  Erice, perched high on the Mountain of God, also deserves a mention with so many stunning churches in such a small town perched high on a mountain. Milazzo, Palermo, Cefalu, Siracusa, Ragusa, Catania…. the list of cities with amazing churches goes on and on.  We have included photos of some of the best later in this blog.

After growing up in New Zealand, a country with a very short history, trying to digest and appreciate the impact of the various cultures that have conquered, occupied and shaped Sicily over a 3,000 year period takes a fair bit of effort.

Just in case you are interested and want to get a feel for what this place has been through, here follows a very brief history of Sicily.  I have tried to keep it short and interesting however if this sort of thing bores you, then just skip the next section.

Sicily – A Brief History

15th Century BC (that is about 3,500 years ago!) – Sicily is settled by three tribes, The Elmians, The Sicani and lastly the Sicel. The name Sicily is derived from the names of the latter two tribes.

11th Century BC – The Phoenicians began colonising the western part of the island, building important cities including what was later to become Palermo.  The powerful Phoenician city-state of Carthage in modern Tunisia controlled and protected the Phoenician interests here.

8th – 4th Century BC – The Greeks began founding towns/cities around eastern and southern Sicily as part of their cunning plan of expanding Greek influence.  The cities were fortified and sited at regular intervals so that they could communicate with, and support each other.  We had previously just been in Crete, so to hear that Cretans from towns we had visited were among those early settlers was fascinating.  The existing inhabitants were pretty much absorbed into this new strong culture.  Syracuse became the most populous Greek city in the world in the 3rd Century BC and the great temples, theatres and monuments that remain today were built during this period of relative prosperity and cultural enlightenment.

The Greek and Phoenician settlements co-existed for many centuries albeit with regular wars and sacking of each other’s cities.  Mind you, the cities ended up being governed as separate city-states and you would often find two of the Greek cities scrapping it out with each other on the battlefields, sometimes with help from the Carthaginians on one side or the other.

Around 3rd Century BC, the Romans stepped in, and had a go at the Carthaginians, finally taking control by 242BC.  Most of the cities of Sicily then rebelled and tried to kick the Romans out however by the end of the Second Punic War around 210BC it was all over rover and the Romans were in charge for the next 600 years.

200 BC – 400 AD – not much of note happened over this time.  The Romans just used Sicily as their ‘bread basket’ to grow grain for the empire.  The lands were owned by distant Roman landlords and as little effort was made by the Romans to ‘Romanize’ Sicily, the culture remained mainly Greek.

468 AD – the Vandals, a Germanic tribe responsible for trashing Rome, conquered Sicily but only had it for 8 years before it was briefly held by the Goths who were then thrown out by the remains of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantines.  In spite of various rebellions and infighting, the Byzantines had a good run at ruling until around 826AD when the Arabs invaded and over the next hundred years gradually knocked off all of the Byzantine strongholds.

900 – 1086 AD – Although under Muslim rule over this period, it was not a happy time for them as the Byzantine Christians rebelled and revolted regularly and generally made life difficult.  The Arabs did, however, leave a great legacy of North African foods and cooking techniques that help make Sicilian cuisine distinct from the rest of Italy.

1091 – 1194 AD – The Normans, still buzzing after thrashing the English at the Battle of Hastings took control with help of the Vikings and brought in a golden age for Sicily.  The Norman kings governed wisely and encouraged immigration from strongly Roman Catholic countries, such that Sicily has strongly followed that faith to this day.  The spectacular cathedrals that we saw at Monreale, Palermo, Cefalu, Erice etc are primarily due to this prosperous and benevolent period.  Many castles and other fortifications also remain from this period.

The next few hundred years was a real mess with various kings, wars, and rebellions which saw Sicily bounced around between the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spanish and the Bourbons without a lot of concern for what the locals wanted.  Eventually, the much revered and loved Garibaldi landed with an army of 1,000 men to sort out the Spanish.  Garibaldi conquered all before him and his army grew as more of the countryside rose up to support him.  Sicily was effectively united with Italy in 1860.  Wherever you go in Sicily, you find Via Garibaldi’s (Garibaldi Roads) and statues and monuments to him.

The Earthquakes

Whilst Sicily’s culture results from the amalgamation of many civilisations over nearly three thousand years, the modern day appearance of the cities and settlements also owes much to the forces of mother nature.  Earthquakes have had a massive impact on Sicily even up until relatively recent times when in 1908 a huge quake just off the coast of Messina saw over 90% of its buildings destroyed and some 80,000 people killed.  Messina now lacks the heritage of old structures we saw elsewhere.

Although they were disastrous at the time, the earthquakes also led to some of Sicily’s most valuable and unique current architectural treasures.  In 1693, an earthquake virtually levelled the cities in southeastern Sicily and wiped out 100,000 civilians.  The cities of Catania, Ragusa, and Notto, for example were flattened.  In an amazing display of unity and cooperation, these cities were rebuilt by modifying and adapting the Baroque style of the day to construct the now famous Baroque towns of this region.

In some cases, a new town was built beside the old one.  For example in Ragusa, the neighbouring hill was used for the new site however the old one was rebuilt in any case and is known as Ragussa Ibla

Old Ragusa Ibla viewed from ‘New’ Ragusa (300 years old)

In other cases, the rebuilt town is in an entirely new location, for example, the new Noto was built 8km from the old one.  We parked outside the old Noto city walls one night, then explored the extensive ruins the next day on our bikes.  Some of the city wall and the Norman castle was reasonably intact but most of the other buildings were just broken-down jumbles of overgrown stones.

Sleeping Outside the Ancient Old Noto Walls

Old Noto Norman Castle as the sun rises

New Noto (8km from the destroyed Old Noto)

Mount Etna

How can anyone ignore that massive growth on the southwest edge of Sicily called Mount Etna?

Able to be seen from the other side of the island, this impressive active volcano lets off steam and ash every couple of weeks.  She continues to blow out lava regularly with decent eruptions about every ten years, which have spawned a series of lateral craters down her slopes.  The surrounding towns are quite used to shovelling ash as well as snow off their paths and roofs.

Catania is the nearest big city and although it has never suffered serious damage, one historical eruption sent lava right up to the city walls.  The walls were designed to repel foreign invaders but played another role of turning away the stream of liquid rock.

On driving up Mt. Etna, the vegetation rapidly gives way to weathered lava flows and becomes increasingly desolate and inhospitable the higher we climb.

As we reach the upper car park, we are not far from the first patches of snow and the outside air has that distinctive frosty alpine feel to it with 11 degrees as opposed to 25 down below.  Apparently only a few weeks earlier there had been so much snow and ice on the road that you couldn’t get up without chains.  Whew – good timing once again for the B (for Betsy) Team.

The view in the morning from the car park was worth getting up early for.

We splashed out some of the money we had saved by free camping on the Mt Etna package which includes the gondola ride, the 4W ride up to the 3,500m level and the guided tour.  A little pricey at €68 each but we would have regretted not going.  As expected, there were great views from the gondola.

We then scrambled into the 4WD Unimogs with Ruth being cheeky enough to ask if she could sit in the front passenger seat so she could take some video.  We crawled up a steep narrow gravel track into the heavy snow country and beside the two gaping lateral craters that had formed during the 2002 eruption.

I had hoped to see some spewing lava, steaming geysers and smoking vents but alas, that was not to be seen at this level.  There are other expeditions up to the summit where that is no doubt the norm, however, that was not for us today.

2002 Eruption Crater

It’s Tough at the Top

The Valley of the Temples

With so many ancient archaeological sites to see we were inclined to get a little ‘ruin weary’ so we drove past the road that led to the ancient Greek city of Selunite, one of the largest archaeological sites in the world.

That was a shame and I regret not experiencing it.  However, The Valley of the Temples, was one place we did visit which will stick in the memory forever (or at least until advanced dementia kicks in).

Who would have envisaged this stretch of land, near the ancient Greek city of Agrigento, would be littered with the ruins of a dozen or more temples dating back to the Greek occupation?

We were able to wake up at our parking spot and watch the sun rising through the 2,500-year-old ruins

Later in the day we walked along the ancient fortifications and admired the temple structures from close up.  The Temple of Concordia is the most complete of the temples mainly due to it being re-purposed as a Basilica in the early Christian days.  Other structures are less complete but still magnificent reminders of what once was.

The remains of the massive Temple of Zeus cover an enormous area and was said to rival the temple at the Acropolis in Athens in size and grandeur.  Apparently, a man could stand within each of the flutes of the main columns, and between each stood a colossal statue of Atlas some 7.5m high. This was never quite completed and walking around the site today, it is hard to picture the ‘nearly finished temple’ over 2,500 years ago.  In the Agrigento Museum there is a model showing how it is believed to have looked.

One sad fact is that right up until the 18th century, rock from the ruins was still being taken and reused in other building projects meaning that large parts of the structures are now gone forever.

Temple of Concordia

Temple of Zeus – Atlas Statue

Model of the Temple of Zeus

Bronze Statue of Icarus

The Churches

Whether you call them Churches, Cathedrals or Basilicas, Sicily is home to a vast number of these beautiful buildings.

Many of the churches have their origin in the Norman or Byzantine times however restorations over the last centuries have bestowed upon them unique features and styles so that no two appeared alike.

The ABC of Europe (Another Bloody Church) could have been our reaction around Sicily, however, every one offered new things to see, appreciate and wonder over.

Below is a selection of photos from some of the churches that impressed us the most.

Monreale Cathedral

Monreale Baroque Marble Details

Castle of Erice (Venus Castle)

Ragusa Ibla Basilica

Royal Catherdral – Erice

New Noto

Mama Corleone Cooking Class

Our Stopping Places

We stayed in a total 20 places around Sicily and had no problems with locals, police or other wildlife at any of them.  We only stayed at one camping ground (when we had family visiting), and paid a small amount for parking at two other spots.  There are likely to be stricter restrictions staying at many of these places during the summer months so be careful.

Here are the GPS coordinates and a brief description of each of our overnight stops.

Messina ( 38.23256, 15.57133)

We stayed here after arriving on the ferry from the mainland.  This is a parking area by the sea a few kilometres north of the ferry terminal.  It is beside the main road so there is some traffic noise.  A freshwater fountain about 800m back towards the ferry is a good source of excellent water.

Capo Milazzo ( 38.2652, 15.23777 )

There are some larger slots near the end of the main carparks which fit a moho nicely.  The views from here are fantastic and Mt Etna can be seen clearly.  Walking further down and to the end of the cape is recommended. No services except rubbish bins.

 

Oliveti Beach (38.12869, 15.05817)

A bit unfriendly feeling place for free camping motorhomes with a lot of ‘no camper’ signs and height restrictions on car park entries.  There are several camping grounds available so they are wanting people to use these.  We found a car park with no barriers and stayed here for one night.  We found a public water tap in town on the left just after passing under the bridge.  The water flow rate was slow though but the locals friendly.  We were given Pasquale (Easter) biscuits which are hard boiled eggs, wrapped in sweet biscuit dough, baked then decorated with icing.

 

San Georgio (38.17555, 14.94515)

A few places for mohos to park up here just 50m from the beach.  Along the actual beach were some ‘no camper’ signs.  There are water fountains here but the water is salty.  A nice place with a strong history of tuna fishing.

Acquedolchi (38.06162, 14.59513)

Strange that the name literally means Sweet Water but there were no functioning public water taps or fountains to be found anywhere in town.  The parking is along the road beside the beach with loads of space.  There are showers but they weren’t working when we were there.  The local police came down to check that no-one was exhibiting ‘camping behaviour’. We were thankful it didn’t rain because driving back up on the slippery cobblestone street could to the main road have proven challenging.

Cefalu Marina (38.03942, 14.0316)

You can park in town for €20 or for free on the marina adjacent to the café then walk or cycle into town.  The business of the marina just seems to carry on around you without anyone being too concerned.  Cefula has a wonderful old world feel about it, very cool buildings and a great history.

Palermo (38.1977, 13.28098)

Camping Ground.  Adequate camping ground but we don’t really like going into these places.  They allowed us to leave Betsy on site for €10 per night while we spent three nights in an Air BnB in Palermo.

Capa San Vito (38.17498, 12.76962)

This is apparently a real tourist hot spot in the summer but was quiet when we arrived.  The main car parks in town had closed for the winter.  We drove out of town and found this picturesque spot beside an ancient watch tower out on the point.

 

Erice (38.04165, 12.5875)

Well worth the climb up a windy mountain road to reach this small car park just outside one of the ancient city gates.  Erice is one of our favourite spot in Sicily and the views are spectacular.  No services other than rubbish.  There may be a charge in summer.  There is a blog just for Erice here.

Marsala Saline del Stagnone (37.86191, 12.48546)

This is a signposted free camper park adjacent to the salt museum and windmills.  No services but a handy overnight stop and reasonably quiet.

Sciacca  (37.50512, 13.0800)

A good stopping place down on the fishing dock, however, may be little smelly depending on what is around you. Rubbish only available here but handy for exploring this pretty fishing settlement.

Agrigento (37.28872, 13.5840)

This is a restaurant/accommodation that allows campers to park overnight for €5.  Very close to the Valley of the Temples and we couldn’t find anywhere closer.  They have a hose which we used to fill our tanks.

Licata Car Park (37.10425, 13.9399)

We spent the night in this central car park.  A little noisy with cars passing through and could be potential for unwelcome visitors however we had an uneventful night here.  We stayed here so we could visit ‘La Madre’ which is the only Two Michelin Star rated restaurant we have ever been to.

Caltagirone (37.20503, 14.51349)

We found this small car park off the main road which is a little overgrown and unloved but was reasonably quiet and felt safe enough.  It is a little out of the main town and are other parking areas closer in, including where we parked the next day for exploring.  Caltagirone is the first of the Baroque towns that we visited and is famous for the Scala di Santa Maria del Monte stairs which run up the hills and divide the town.  These are richly decorated with ceramic tiles at each step.

Piazza Armerina (37.38022, 14.36725)

The stopping place here is in a parking area for the sports stadium and just off the main road.  No parking restrictions were seen. The view of the Baroque town from here is fantastic and there is a great public fountain not far but down a really steep road.

Ragusa (36.91435, 14.72744)

Ragusa is another fantastic Baroque town with the new Ragusa built on the hill beside the original Ibla Ragusa.  The public carpark is in the newer part and is generally quiet and motorhome-friendly, however, there are two entrances and one takes you through some lower hanging branches.  Try the entry directly off the road rather than through the car parking area.  There is a full camper service spot less than a kilometre from here and one day we were cheeky enough to do our washing and hang it out to dry in this area.

Noto (36.89502, 15.06822)

The new Noto is very touristy but this car park welcomes motorhomes and is close to a supermarket and the town.  On a slope but not too steep.

Old Noto (36.94642, 15.02305)

Very interesting place but the road in is really only one lane and if you have a big moho it’s not for the faint hearted.  The parking area directly outside the ancient walls is sloped.

Syracusa Marina (37.06915, 15.29141)

Lots of moho’s parked here on this beautiful marina so you should have company.  Syracusa is another wonderful Baroque town and is on the must see list for nearly all Sicily visitors.  We bought 2kg of juicy, tasty, fresh mussels off a boat which landed directly in front of Betsy.

Catania (Various)

We spread ourselves around a little in Catania, mostly crashing in shopping complex car parks.  The Lidl car park (37.47375, 15.04763) was quiet and convenient.  The guard at the Auchan car park at Misterbianco (37.51332, 15.02221) was going to kick us out at 11.00pm but allowed us to stay.  We also spent two nights outside Decathlon (37.46863, 15.04729) while we got our e-bikes replaced with new ones free of charge (that’s another story).  We were able to fill water containers in the bathrooms in the mall.  A bit of a nomadic time doing car park surfing but quite relaxing overall.

Mt Etna ( 7.69931, 15.00043)

A large area for camper parking at the top car park but also high demand.  Arrive in the late afternoon or early evening for the best shot at finding a slot.  The cost is €12 and the tickets are bought from the kiosk.  Views, as one would expect, are stunning from up here.

Taormina (37.84866, 15.28673)

A really nice parking area with a view over the sea and not too far to cycle up to the historic town. We even managed to get our washing done and dry here. No services except rubbish and water was hard to find.

Erice – The Mountain of the Gods

Erice – The Mountain of the Gods

by Alan Gow  |  April 2018  |  Sicily, Italy

Seven hundred and fifty metres above sea level, atop the mountain of San Giuliano and overlooking the city of Trapani sits the medieval town of Erice, or as it is pronounced in Sicily, “Air-reach-ay”.

For nearly 3,000 years this unique place has inspired man to contemplate the deeper meaning of life and his/her relationship with the gods.

We had read other travellers accounts of their pilgrimage to Erice, and their recollections of their experiences here placed this mystical spot firmly near the top of the ‘must-do’ list for Sicily.

Our travels around Sicily had so far been confined to the coasts and this was our first foray up into the mountains that crowd much of Sicily’s interior.  We hoped to see beautiful churches, ancient buildings, mountainous landscapes and to sample some of the local delicacies while we were there.  We were not disappointed.

Our short journey from our last stopping place near Capo San Vito was unremarkable until we saw San Giuliano, the mountaintop partly shrouded in mist, with the Erice perched on top and clinging on tightly.  Betsy happily climbed the steep road to the summit, regularly dodging buses on tight hairpin bends.

We pulled up outside the ancient Spada Gate, parked up beside the other campers and immediately poked our noses inside the town walls.   The wide path directly to our right sloped steeply alongside the ancient walls which were originally constructed around 800 BC.

Steep road inside Erice’s 800 BC  walls
Directly ahead was a flatter path leading to a church and beyond.  We pulled our noses back in and took in our wider surroundings.  The view from our lofty parking spot was over the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea and the lush countryside we had traversed that day.  The parking area was fringed with a profusion of yellow, orange and blue wildflowers and the only sound was the wind rustling the trees which towered over the lichen covered stone walls behind us.

This is what we absolutely love about the motorhoming lifestyle – being able to park and sleep beside absolutely unique and astounding landmarks and sites, where all the money in the world couldn’t buy you a room.

Betsy’s view from Erice

Betsy’s view from Erice

We couldn’t help ourselves and just had to have a quick looksie around the area while it was still reasonably light and warmish.

At this altitude the wind certainly had a bit more bite so we took some warmer clothing just in case.  Unloaded the bikes and we were off through the Spada Gate only to meet a small on-coming truck – how the hell was he going to fit through there???  Somehow, he made it with a couple of centimetres on either side of his wing mirrors.  He had clearly done that before.

It seems that everywhere in this village there is a unique story to tell and the gory story of the Spada Gate (Gate of the Sword) was the massacre of the French Angevins in 1282, who were occupying Erice during the Sicilian Vespers Wars. We made it through un-massacred fortunately.

The track went steeply upwards and was obviously not made for bikes, (not even ebikes like ours) and included some gravel and rough paths.  But we made it safely onto the streets of what is said to be one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.  The first thing that struck me was how they have built the roads.  The stones are laid in an eye-catching geometric pattern which combined with the grass growing up through the cracks created a very attractive effect.  Four long stones are chamfered at both ends and butted up to each other to form a square, which is then infilled with other stones to make a solid road.  The result is not just aesthetically pleasing but also robust as nearly all of the roads are in good condition despite having to cope with modern traffic.

The Stone Lattice of Erice’s Roads

The Road and Wall of the Royal Cathedral

This same technique was used for both the larger roads and smaller footpaths and perfectly complimented the local stone buildings.

Erice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sicily and can be reached by private car, bus, taxi or via cable car from nearby Trapani.  In the summer it is usually heaving with tourists but on this pleasant autumn evening the crowds were nearly non-existent.

No-one can visit Erice without popping into some of the nearly 60 churches of historical value.  Why so many churches you may ask?  Well, it seems that the site has been occupied since at least 800 BC, conquered and resettled by many cultures and virtually everyone has considered Erice to be a special, sacred place.  Therefore, every civilisation left traces of their unique religious heritage in the form of history, ruins, churches and traditions, which we can still appreciate today.

We made great progress around the town, ever thankful for the convenience and ease afforded to us by our ebikes and came across the Chiesa San Martino.  This is one of the most impressive of all the churches, built in the 1600’s on the site of a 14th-century Gothic church.  We wanted to get a head start on our sightseeing so we purchased the discounted tickets for seeing eight of the best buildings, only to find out that two were closed – ever mindful of getting the best value for money, I was a little dismayed to lose 25% of the discount before we even started.

You would think that after having visited dozens of churches, cathedrals and mosques in Italy, Greece and Turkey over the last ten months, it would all become a bit old for us – the ABC of Europe (Another Bloody Church), but no, we still had our breath taken away regularly.

One of these occasions was previously at the Monreale Cathedral and today was another epic one.

The majesty, the elegance, the lightness and the opulence just grabs hold of your bottom jaw and wrenches it as open as it can possibly go.  Many churches are darkened and you have to look hard to see their hidden treasures but San Martino is white and light grey, delicate stuccos, bright frescos, mottled columns and intricately inlaid marble altars, floors and bannisters.  Best of all, we were totally alone in this treasure to enjoy the solitude and to marvel at the workmanship and quality of the restoration work.

San Martino Church Interior

San Martino Church

San Martino Church Ceiling

Still buzzing from our experience, we wandered down the steep decline of Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Monastari de San Salvatore, which to be honest was a bit of a let-down after our last high, as it was completely unrestored, and many rooms were closed off.  There were however the original ovens (in use until relatively recently) used by the monks to bake bread and the local speciality, sweets.

Original Monastery Ovens

By this time, it was starting to cool down and the wind was whistling through the narrow streets like a herd of screaming banshees so we high tailed back to Betsy for dinner and bed.

As the sun dropped below the horizon we were blessed with a lovely sunset and we couldn’t wait to get started tomorrow and see what else Erice had to offer us.

The sun sets over Erice (and Betsy)

The next day thwarted the weather forecast and dawned misty and cool instead of bright and sunny.  Apparently, Erice makes up its own mind about its weather and tends to like hiding in the clouds.  Probably to keep up that mystical appearance.  Tendrils of mist wafted around Betsy and blocked out the view below and the peak above.  This didn’t seem like good ‘cycling-around-Erice’ weather so we rested up and waited for the clouds to clear.  Once the sun was shining we cycled around the road to the main gate of Porta Trapani, which was close to two buildings on our hit list; Duomo Dell’Assunta (Cathedral of the Assumption), otherwise known as the “Royal Cathedral” and the Bell Tower beside the church.

The Bell Tower was a little freaky to climb up inside and is no place for anyone who is claustrophobic as with a ducked head you climb the tiny staircase that wraps around the inside walls.  We both managed to navigate our way to the top.

This was originally built as a watchtower to look out for enemies so the view from the top was spectacular as expected.  From the town and salt marshes of Trapani with the cable car stretching to Erice, to the inland pastures and mountains and over the roofs of the township, everything could be seen for miles around.

The view over the town roofs from the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) Bell Tower

If entering Chiesa San Martino was a ‘wow’ moment, then the Duomo (Royal Cathedral) was at least as big a ‘Wow’ and maybe even a little wowier (is that even a word??).  How can they have made each of these churches so different inside?  They are similar in how they are laid out but so varied in the details that each appears entirely unique.  What stood out here initially was the ceiling of the Gothic arches, which was an amazingly detailed lattice of cream stucco, originating from restoration work in the mid-1800’s.  Each nave and apse held new treasures to exclaim over and photograph.

Royal Cathedral Interior

On our day went, with the visiting of buildings only briefly interrupted by a quick sidestep into a bakery for a selection of local sweets and pastries, one of which was so loaded with alcohol we weren’t sure we should be riding our bikes afterwards.

After lunch, we rode around to the 12th-century Norman Castle of Erice or the Venus Castle, so called because it is built on top of an ancient Temple to the Goddess of Fertility.  The castle is not large but still looks spectacular perched high on the walls and surrounded by clouds of spring wildflowers.  Inside there is not a lot to see however again the outlook is out of this world and you could image the pagans carrying on their fertility rites here a couple of thousands of years ago (well what you can imagine will depend on your imagination eh?).

Castle of Erice (Venus Castle)

The View from Venus Castle

Meandering further around the outskirts we found the twin medieval towers of the Torri dal Balio and stunning panoramic views over the sea and landscape.  Looking down you can see the Torretta Pepoli, which is a small quaint castle built in 1870 that is now a place for quiet reflection.

Panoramic from the Torri  dal Balio

The Torretta Pepoli and Venus Castle

The Torretta Pepoli – 19th Century Castle

The Church of Saint Giuliano was our last church stop in Erice and was a little understated compared with what we had seen previously – I guess they can’t all be just outright amazing.  The plain white interior still exhibited nice stucco features.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

Of particular interest were the Easter (Pasqua) religious displays which are carried through the village during the Easter parades.  We were there just in time as someone turned up and started removing them while we were looking at them.

Church of Saint Giuliano

Church of Saint Giuliano

We ended our time in Erice with a final cycle through the steep streets and around the central square then back to Betsy, where we slept a second night before continuing on our way towards Marsala.

The overall impression I had of Erice is a sense of the very long and continuous relationship between man and God that has existed in this place.  While other towns in Sicily have been sacked, burned or toppled by earthquakes (often all three), Erice has consistently displayed the reverence and devotion to faith of whomever has occupied her.  As far as I can see there is no sign of that changing any time soon.

Amazing Meteora – “Suspended in the Air”

Amazing Meteora – “Suspended in the Air”

Meteora is one of those places in Greece that simply takes your breath away.  We were told that we had to visit this place and it did not disappoint.

The road to the area was unexpectedly long and wound through some semi-alpine areas with extensive snow on the ground in the late December.  Parts of the road were great, other parts were narrow and rutted.  Pretty typical for Greece really.

On arriving in the Kalabaka, the largest town in the region, the spires of ancient rock that mark this area towered over us.  We wound through the narrow back streets, and there was a feeling of quiet anticipation while following Emily (our Garmin) to the GPS coordinates of a parking spot some other generous travellers had provided.

Kalabaka is overshadowed by the imposing sandstone peaks of Meteora

The evening was drawing in as we came around the last corner and spied the gravel parking area dwarfed by two mountainous rock pillars crowned with monasteries bathed in the last of the wintery sun.

Our parking spot for the night under the watchful gaze of the Varlaam Monastery

We were both rather spellbound at the magnificence and wonderment of the vista.  Beautifully constructed stone monasteries perched over sheer cliffs at the top of the world.  How did they build these so many hundreds of years ago without modern equipment and technologies?  What devotion to their cause or God compels people to spend their lives, or even generations of lives, building these testaments to their faith?  The thought that we would be sleeping under their watch and waking up to this in the morning was rather exciting.

After positioning Betsy on the most level spot we could find, we hurried off to enjoy our first close up experience of a Meteora monastery.  On exiting Betsy we were met by a small dog who seemed to adopt us during our stay.  With little encouragement from us, she stayed nearby, slept on the ground outside Betsy and trotted alongside as we explored the area.  She didn’t bark once and just seemed content with even the small morsels of attention we threw her way.

The Agioi Pantas also known as Varlaam Monastery was the closest monastery to us and the light was already beginning to fade as we walked up the road and through the gates, but we couldn’t help having a quick look before coming back the next day.  This brief exposure whet our appetite for the day to come.

Evening setting in on Varlaam Monastery
She who adopted us

The rocks of Meteora are weathered sandstone spires reaching over 600 metres from the valley floor.  Their unique shapes were formed as a result of earthquakes and weathering over 60 million years.

Local myths and legends indicate that hermits dwelled among the inhospitable rocks and caves from the 9th or 10th centuries in an attempt to leave behind the morally corrupt world and unify with God through meditation and prayers.  The vertical cliffs of Meteora were regarded as the perfect place to achieve absolute isolation, to discover peace and harmony, and seek spiritual elevation.

The first church, dedicated to Theotokos, was built around the early 12th century as a place where the devout could worship together.  From here on a more organised and unified monastic way of life developed, culminating in the construction of the first monasteries in the 14th century.  Ultimately 24 monasteries were built however just six remain operational today.  The Meteora area is second only to the Athos Peninsula in the Halkidiki region (a place we particularly love) in importance to the monastic orders.

The next morning, we both rose early to see the sunrise.  The gentle morning light playing on the golden stones, the distant snowy peaks, and the surrounding mountains were stunning.  We shot off photo after photo as the early sun rays bathed first the Holy Monastery of Varlaam and then the Holy Monastery of Transfiguration of Christ or Great Meteoron, initially with a soft pink hue, then a golden glow.  As the sun gradually crept across the valley floors, the photo shooting fingers continued to fire which led to a lot of culling and photo editing in the days to come.

The pink light of early dawn bathes the Varlaam Monastery

Varlaam Monastery

The path to the Varlaam Monastery winds back and forth, across and up the cliff face.  Originally the monks accessed the monasteries using rickety wooden ladders (they had to jump from one to the other) or winching each other up the cliff face in nets, so a steep climb up a path didn’t seem too much of a hardship.  This monastery was named after the first inhabitant of the rock who built three small churches, a water tank and a cell (where the monk would sleep and pray) around 1350.  After his death, the rock was abandoned for about 200 years until two monks sponsored the construction of the buildings which make up some of the current monastery.  Just transporting the materials for the next phase of building reportedly took 22 years!

The path eventually opened up into a tidy courtyard with unhindered views in virtually every direction.  On examining the buildings, they were in very good condition, which is a testament to the careful and thoughtful restoration that the monastic brothers have carried out over the years.  Many of the original buildings date back to the 1500’s but you wouldn’t guess that by looking at them.

View from the courtyard at Varlaam
The Katholicon is the name given to the part of the monastery used for services and the one here was built and decorated in about 1560.  Walking into this is like walking into another world.  It is dimly lit and all of the walls are painted with a dark background and countless frescos depicting scenes from the Bible and church history.  The lives, deeds and martyrdom of long-dead saints and heroes of the faith are captured in stunning colour and exquisite detail in these 600-year-old visual records.

The Katholicon is divided into several rooms, most with richly decorated domes and some with rows of rather uncomfortable looking wooden chairs running along the walls.  Various podiums, altars, collections of church relics and other paraphernalia of the Greek Orthodox Church are placed throughout the building.  This is a sacred and holy enclave and you cannot help the feeling that comes with being in a place where countless dedicated holy men have prayed for hundreds of years for God’s blessing and a better world.

Varlaam Katholicon

The massive 16th century barrel in the storeroom at first appeared to be a wine drinkers dream but was actually used for storing water because originally there were  no water tanks. Twelve tonnes of fresh rainwater could be collected in this impressive tub.

16th Century water storage barrel

Great Meteoran Monastery

We next visited the Great Meteoron Monastery, which looks like it is “suspended in the air”, which is what “meteoro” literally means.  This is the oldest and largest of the monasteries, being founded around 1340 and in the 16th century was the most powerful and influential of the monasteries.  Now however it is occupied by just three monks.

Great Meteoron Monastery – The Holy Monastery of  the Transfiguration of Christ
The old kitchen still contains the original bread oven and soup hearth, and the roof is black from hundreds of years of smoke.  It was possible to get a sense of how spartan life was up here in the clouds back in the heyday of the monastic era.  How peaceful, quiet and serene life must have been, despite a life devoid of creature comforts, especially during the harsh long winters.

The old workshops contained a fascinating assortment of tools dating back hundreds of years, including wooden garden implements such as spades and forks, plus wine and olive presses and various barrels, jugs, bowls and ploughs.

Original Monastery kitchen
Museum of tools and implements

More recent additions include the ‘Martyrs Hall’ which celebrates church and Greek martyrs and a manuscript room which displays some of the many rare documents that date back to the 9th century.

By the time we had enjoyed all that was on offer the day was moving on and the weather was closing in.  There were other monasteries available to see, however our heads and hearts felt full to overflowing with what we had already seen and we decided to move on.

Our next destination was Ancient Delphi with an overnight stay beside a fast flowing clear thermal stream at Thermopillion.  That, however, is a story for another blog.