Thursday, September 1, 2011


This article about a trip to Sicily was published in Relish, the magazine of the Winston-Salem Journal.  Here is the link:
See addtional photos on this blog.

My wife and I made this trip with Pat Thompson and Claudio Bisio of La Dolce Vita Wine Tours.  Check their website ( for itineraries in Italy and Spain.  We hope to go back again.  Let me know if you might be interested in joining our group.  Visits can be customized- you don't have to follow the posted itineraries if you have something special in mind.  Send me a note!

Sicilian Sun

Article and photography by John Batchelor

Initial impressions:

A landscape of giant craggy rock faces rising out of lush green bases, where the earth has fallen away.

Long days of intense, clear sunlight; dusk around 9 p.m.

Steady breezes, balmy temperatures.

Palermo: Litter everywhere. Chaotic traffic.

We walk along the harbor. Vendors sell squid, shellfish, tuna, swordfish, flowers.

We begin to perceive a way of life that flows from the sea and grows from the earth, unchanged in many ways for millennia.

My wife and I have an afternoon meal of cheese, bread and wine. At the Supermarcati, the cheese guy hands us two cannolis – free (we are obviously the only tourists). He says something- my wife remembers, “You are beautiful,” but it might have been, “The cannolis are beautiful.” (Both statements are true.)

His action begins a series of experiences that endear Sicily to us forever. Sicilians claim to be the friendliest people in the world. That characterizes our experiences as we explore the island’s northwest corner.

Palermo. We weekend at the Hilton Villa Igiea, a historic property overlooking the harbor. Dinner is exquisite: parmesan soufflé; lasagna with pecorino fondue; asparagus wrapped in prosciutto; swordfish and prawns with crushed pistachios; prawns with threads of fillo; eggplant and potatoes. The bill, including wine, is 100 Euros- the best meal for the price I have ever had.

On Monday, we meet our guide. With her assistance, we see underneath the dirt, and Palermo reveals itself as home to some of the most important art and architecture in the world. Over more than two thousand years, Sicily has absorbed elements of Greek, Roman, Norman, French, Arab, and Spanish cultures. Art, architecture, language, and cuisine reflect those myriad influences.

The Palatine Chapel (photo 01 Palatine Chapel interior) was constructed in the 12th Century. Mosaics depict scenes from the Bible. French author Guy de Maupassant considered this interior “the most beautiful in the world, the most precious religious jewel ever conceived by the human mind and carried out by the hand of an artist … .”

The Cathedral of Palermo (photo 02 Palermo Cathedral) was built in stages from the 6th through the 15th Centuries, reconstructed in the 18th in Gothic, Saracen, Byzantine, and Greek styles. It has been a mosque as well as a Christian church.

Along the coast. Landscapes are scattered with vineyards, olive groves, plowed fields, and low, steep mountains, framed in wildflowers. (photo 03 Sicily highway view) South of Palermo, at Agriturismo Ponte Calatrasi (photo 04 Agriturismo Ponte Calatrasi) (Agriturismos are small farms that have rooms converted into inns), we delight in a lunch of Sicilian antipasti: grilled sausage with onions, salami and pepperoni (all homemade), grilled eggplant and zucchini, baked zucchini with ricotta cheese, marinated mushrooms and olives, plus pecorino and fresh ricotta cheeses.

This tour focused on wineries and food, in addition to art and architecture. At Alessandro di Camporeale winery we encounter a grape variety that is native to Sicily and new to us: catarratto- more floral on the nose than chardonnay but as rich in flavor, with an edge similar to sauvignon blanc. Later, we began to enjoy another native Sicilian wine, the deep red Nero d’Avola- lighter than cabernet sauvignon but heavier than pinot noir, but with that varietal’s complexity.

Castellamare. We spend two nights in the harbor village of Castellamare del Golfo. (photo 05 Castellamare del Golfo harbor) Fishing boats tie up and vendors sell their catches. Town cats vie for scraps. (photo 06 Castellamare del Golfo cats circling) Pizza in Sicily is reputed to be the best in the world. At Bella Vista restaurant, overlooking the sea, we savor a crust of finely ground durum wheat flour, baked in a wood fired brick oven, layering homemade mozzarella cheese with pecorino cheese and roasted red peppers, plus local pepperoni and sausage. The owner spoke no English and I know only a handful of Italian words, but we enjoy a sporadic conversation while the pizza bakes. “Why are you here?” he wants to know. “For the wines,” I try to reply. A waitress knocks back her head with a drinking gesture and says, “Vino!” “Is best in Sicily!” he vows.

We visit Ceuso winery, where we experience moments of magic. Laura Mollica (, one of Sicily’s premier performers, is touring the winery with her friend Federica Bonaldi. We beg for a song (photo 07 Ceuso Winery Laura Mollica), and she shares a lament from a prisoner, jailed for his Sicilian patriotism. Although we cannot understand the words, emotions hang in the air, and as we wipe away tears, we move on to the wines. Ceuso Sicilia (a blend of Nero d’ Avola, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot) turns out to be another favorite.

Segesta. Overlooking the sea, atop Mount Barbaro, an archaeological park is home to a settlement that dates to the 2nd Century, including a Greek theater and temple (photo 08 Greek Temple at Segesta) constructed in the 5th Century, one of the best preserved in the world. From the theater (photo 09 Greek theater at Segesta), residents could look out over the sea to the horizon.

Erice. The peoples of Segesta also established Erice, with castles built during the Middle Ages. (photo 10 Erice castle and tower). Chiesa Madre (“Mother Church”), known for its fresco and baroque altars, dates to the 14th Century. (photo 11 Erice Chiesa Madre)

Back on the coast, in Mozia, windmills pump saltwater into evaporation ponds to make salt. This process has been ongoing for more than a thousand years. (photo 12 Mozia Windmills and salt ponds).

We end in Marsala, a large city on the coast, best known for dessert wines. A large open market (photo 13 Marsala market) occupies the center of the historic district.


Photos of my favorite vendors in the market in Marsala

Windmills in Mozia

These windmills pump seawater into evaporation ponds, to make salt.

Sites in Erice

Interior of Chiesa Madre and a view of one of the castles in Erice.

Greek Temple at Segesta

This is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world.
From the theater, patrons could view across the valley all the way to the coast.

Laura Mollica at Ceuso winery

My wife and I were fortunate to meet famed Sicilian singer Laura Mollica when we were all touring Ceuso winery (and these wines are highly recommended!).

Scenes from the coastal town of Castellamare del Golfo

Palermo Cathedral interior

Palatine Chapel interior (Palermo)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Italy- Florence, Chianti-Tuscany region

My wife and I visited Florence and the Chianti-Tuscany region, focusing on art and architecture, restaurants and wineries.  Scroll down or click on links to the right for photos. 

This article was orginally published in the Greensboro, NC News and Record: "Tastes of Tuscany." Go to  You'll have to create a login, but it's free and you can use it in the future.  Publication date: June 19, 2011.  (When you log in, you'll get the current day's paper.  If you are reading this after June 19, click on the Search tab, enter the article title, and set the drop down menu to "All issues.")  The article appears on pages H6-H5.

The tour was arranged by La Dolce Vita Wine Tours (  I plan to host trips to Italy again next spring. If you think you might like to go with my group, please write to me directly, You don't have to travel with me, but please tell La Dolce Vita that I sent you!  They make trips regularly, and Pat and Claudio are knowledgeable, personable travel guides. Go to their website to see various locations they offer.

Tastes of Tuscany

Article and photography by John Batchelor

Tuscany is undergoing a transformation. Stone villages, constructed in the Medieval era, are being rebuilt as townhomes. Tourism has become an essential element of the economy. Significant changes in wine production are underway as well. The combination of history, scenery, traditional Italian food and wines, and restaurant dining all add up to a great travel opportunity.

Florence is home to great collections of Renaissance art. Two galleries are major. Uffizi houses paintings, including Botticelli’s Venus. Galleria Accademia specializes in sculpture; Michelangelo’s David is the star. Long waits can be avoided with online reservations ( Better yet, use a service (, for example). We not only went the head of the line, we gained narration from a well-informed guide.

The dome (photo 01 Duomo) of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is Florence’s best known architectural feature. Construction began in the 13th Century. On the Ponte Vecchio bridge (photo 02 Ponte Vecchio), shops have been selling jewelry for centuries.

Two wine bars merit attention: Cantinetta Antinori ( and Frescobaldi Wine Bar (; they serve great, casual food. Our trip focused on wineries and food, in addition to art and architecture. We visited two wineries each day, interviewing winemakers and tasting the result of their blend of art and science .

A tour of wineries in Chianti is an exploration of a new generation’s efforts to restore what previous generations lost. After WWII, most Italian wine became cheap and weak-flavored, sold in bottles wrapped in baskets. The new generation refers to these by the term “fiasco” (“basket” in Italian), which carries a negative connotation from English.

In order to promote improved quality, Italian consortia have developed three wine classifications: IGT (grapes grown in a specific region); DOC (from a particular region, restricting production to intensify flavor, and limiting blending); and DOCG (following the strictest regulations). Look for these when buying Italian wine. At Vecchie Terre di Montefili winery (part constructed in the 13th Century), the DOCG turned out to be the best Chianti I’ve ever tasted. It is a Chianti Classico, another label feature worth noting, meaning all grapes were grown in the original Chianti region.

We had dinner one night at La Bottega, operating 300 years from a stone building with a terrace overlooking the town of Volpaia. We passed platters, family-style: baked eggplant with mint and garlic, dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar; fresh pasta with spinach, ricotta cheese, butter and sage; sliced pancetta, pepperoni, and prosciutto, made in-house; white beans and sausages simmered in tomato sauce; chicken stewed with onions; and boar stewed with olives. This is traditional Tuscan fare- slow cooked, tender meats with rich flavors. Every item was priced below 10 euro- strong value.

Brolio Castle (photo 03 Brolio Castle), owned by the Ricasoli family, houses a private museum collection of arms and armor dating to the 13th Century. Ricasoli winery hosted another tasting. Castello di Brolio (90% sangiovese, 10% cabernet sauvignon), made a very positive impression.

Castello di Meleto ( (photo 04 Meleto Castle) is about 1,000 years old. It operates as a hotel/B&B, winery, and olive oil production facility. It houses a theater (photo 05 Meleto Castle theater), one of about a dozen built inside a castle. We had a cooking lesson here- making fresh pasta by hand- tutored by the castle’s cook and grandmother of our dinner waitress, who grew up in the castle.

Several wine bars in Montalcino provide tastings of over 100 Brunellos. Brunello is a wine from a particular sangiovese clone, usually associated with the area around the towns of Montalcino or Montepulciano. My favorite was Ciacci Piccolomini di Aragona. A photo (photo 06 View from Ciacci Piccolomini di Aragona) from the vineyards illustrates the panoramic beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

We also got a taste of Italian driving here. A cab driver evidently did not understand a passenger say that he was getting out. She started away, knocking him over. As he struggled to get back up, she looked down and cussed him out. If he had been injured, I’m pretty sure she would have just backed over him. One word of advice about driving in Italy: don’t.

The Abbey of Saint Antimo (photo 07 Abbey of Saint Antimo) provided peace, as we attended the monks’ mid-day prayers/chants. These rituals have been observed in this location for centuries.

Montepulciano. At Poliziano Winery (, in addition to sangioveses we liked, we encountered Le Stanze, an exceptional blend. Meticulous production begins with picking and destemming grapes by hand. The quality movement was supported by another family in this region, the Marianis, owners of Banfi wines. They made a fortune from Riunite (one of the cheapos), then bought properties in Brunello, funding research that led to improved sangiovese clones. They made the best ones available to all wineries.

I have been in situations where games about wine knowledge develop, and that’s not fun (especially if I’m losing). Our group included two wine professionals who were preparing for advanced exams, but their pleasant personalities contributed positively to the experience. We also shared the trip with two Australians, and we came to appreciate their wit. After one of the wine educators asked about a production detail, our host translated the winemaker’s explanation, a lengthy, technical process. One of the Aussies remarked, pointing to a machine, “But he didn’t tell us what that knob does!”

We overnighted in Rome to make return connections, joining about a million other tourists walking along the Spanish Steps (photo 08 Spanish Steps) and the Trevi Fountain (photo 09 Trevi Fountain). Overhearing English, we asked directions. That led to, “Where are you from?” “Greensboro, North Carolina,” came the reply. Their names were Nancy and Elizabeth Fletcher, a mother and daughter who has been attending school in Rome two years. “Really liked your column about Marisol,” remarked Mrs. Fletcher.


Several shots from Montepulciano.

Photos from Chianti

These are from Brolio Castle, owned by the Ricasoli family, and from Ricasoli winery. (Ricasoli wines are definitely recommended.)

Photos from Florence area

Photos from a trip to Chianti and Tuscany. See article in June 19, 2011 Greensboro News and Record.