WHO: Carolyn Harder, 60, of Winchester
WHERE: Sicily and the Puglia region of Italy
WHEN: Four weeks in September
WHY: "This trip combined all my favorites: art, Italy, family, and food. It was my 60th birthday gift to myself. This was a very special birthday for me and I wanted to mark it in a unique way. I went alone, planned the trip on my own, drove by myself."
THAT'S AMORE: "I've done a lot of traveling in Italy because I have relatives there, in Rome and Naples," Harder said. "My grandparents from both sides came from Naples. I never heard Italian spoken in the house, but I can get by. I've studied it some."
WELL PLANNED: "I stayed in Noto, where my cousin and her family live in the summer," Harder said. "It's a lovely, small, charming city, in the southeast corner of Sicily. An earthquake destroyed the city and planners rebuilt it in a new location. It was one of the first cities to have urban planning. They carved a lot from a local stone known as "tufa," which has a golden color that is just beautiful with the sun of Sicily."
ART AND ARCHITECTURE: "Sicily is an open-air museum. You could not know anything about history and art and just be enchanted. And it has such a beautiful blue. Not just the sky, but the water," she said. One favorite stop was the Villa Romana del Casale. "It's a Roman villa that was unearthed in the 1800s after a mud slide in the 12th century had buried it. There are beautiful mosaics on the floor under glass, and you walk on a platform above them."
THE END ALL: "My next stop was my whole reason for going: Agrigento," she said of the town on Sicily's southern coast. "It had been on my list for a long time." She wandered through the Valley of the Temples, an archeological park said to be the most intact evidence of Greek civilization in Sicily, with many temples dating to the 5th century BC.
THE SICILIANS: When Harder was "growing up, there was somewhat of a disparaging attitude toward Sicily and Sicilians" because of the island's poverty. "I felt differently after being there. And I found in places like Florence and Rome, they're so immune to tourists. But in Sicily they are so helpful."
THE COUNTRY LIFE: After traveling around, she relaxed for 10 days on an "agriturismo," a tourist farm, which she found online at www.agriturismo.it. She stayed at Azienda Agrituristica Misiliscemi outside of Trapani. "The family was great. There were no Americans, and mostly Italian tourists," Harder said. "I had a beautiful room, and my windows opened up to this terrace and you looked onto the island of Egadi."
HEEL THYSELF: Harder's final week was in the region of Puglia, the heel of the boot that outlines the country. She took cooking classes at the Scuola Porta d' Oriente in Otranto (www.porta-doriente.com), primarily a language school. In class, "we made handmade pasta and cooked vegetables, mussels." She saw many olive trees and vineyards, "and those little, little trucks loaded with grapes being taken off to be made into wine."
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