The Mountain

Today we headed to Mt. Etna. Everyone here calls it “The Mountain” or a Sicilian word that translates as “Majesty.” The origin of the name comes from an ancient Phoenecian word meaning “smoking chimney” and fits with the ever-present plume of smoke present at the mountain’s highest craters. We were guided by a volcanologist named Salvo who also is referred to as Salvo-pedia because he knows so much about the mountain. He’s been eye-witness to almost every eruption of Etna in the last 30 years, and that means he has seen hundreds of eruptions.

Etna is about 800 square miles and is the largest active volcano in Europe. It is so tall that the ecosystems change several times as you ascend the slopes. The lower slopes look like the rest of this part of Sicily, but heading up takes you through coniferous forests, then there is a band of deciduous forests dominated by birch trees. On the higher slopes the vegetation is interrupted in places by recent eruptions’ lava flows that look more like a lunar landscape.  The highest parts are volcanic rock with no vegetation.

In order to monitor the mountain, the Italian government has hundreds of sensors measuring all sorts of things. The system reports data to stations in Catania in order to disseminate the information. 

In addition to monitoring the volcano to protect nearby towns, the sensors also provide warning to the air traffic controllers to keep planes from flying through volcanic ash sent into the atmosphere. The engines of a plane can re-liquify volcanic ash and rocks only to have them solidify before completely leaving the engine. Unsurprisingly, pilots don’t like having rocks in their engines.

After an eruption, the volcanic flows take centuries to break down. It takes nearly 1000 years for the a lava flow to return to thick forest. The first plant to sprout is a small flowering bush called Broom. Its roots are strong enough to break apart the volcanic rock, paving the the way for other plants. 

A plant the locals call “Mother-in-law’s pillow” is another early sprouter. It has soft looking green foliage that masks viscous thorns underneath. None of the students understood why Salvo giggled when he translated the name into English.

After a day of hiking around the mountain, the group was exhausted. We went down to the coast and saw the location of the eruption that  brought the mountain above sea level hundreds of thousand of years ago. Then we went around the corner for granita and brioche. Tomorrow we head for Messina to catch a ferry to the mainland.


We’ve been in Siracusa for the past two days, and tonight we’ve traveled to our hotel near the base of Mount Etna. Here are a few pics from the past few days, and we’ll give a more substantial update on our plans later this evening (reliable wifi definitely helps the blog posts coming).

Here we are a few days ago at Hera’s temple at Selinunte. The image is an interactive 360° pic, so you can see the size of the temple- it’s massive.

Most of our days include a stop for either gelato or a granita. Granita is like a slushy. They usually come in either limone (lemon) or arancia (orange). Gelato comes in many more flavors, and if you’re looking for a real treat, most larger gelato stores will serve gelato in a split brioche bun.

We’ve also spent some time swimming and exploring the small beach near our hotel in Siracusa. We were staying in Ortigia, which is the oldest part of the city. Siracusa was founded by the Greeks in the 700s BC, but like much of Sicily it has seen many different groups invade and conquer. As a result, the city shows different building styles and fortifications depending on who controlled it and who was attacking. The rocks on the beach where we swam gave a great view of the city and a place where the students found lots of sea glass.

Ortigia also has a daily market where you can buy all sorts of fresh produce, spices, fish and more. Sicily’s produce is delicious and in expensive. Peaches, apricots and a yellow plum are at all the markets. Students have bought bags of them and shared them on the bus rides.

And speaking of bus rides, they’ve become one of the best places to catch a few winks amidst an otherwise busy schedule.

Until later…


Over the past few days we’ve had several of the students sharing their thoughts and experiences, but there are a few things that the students won’t mention that are important to bring into focus for everyone back home. 

Three days ago as we started to explore Sicily by visiting Erice and later that evening in Trapani, the students were coming to grips with travel in a foreign place. The land is different. The language is different. Even walking across the street is different. Somewhere around the evening of the second day, that initial apprehension swings the other way as the students start to feel like they have mastered their new surroundings. The real question is whether they can find the happy medium.

How fortunate it is then that Dr. and Mrs. Pollio designed the second day’s visit to Segesta and its theater. While sitting inside the theater high up on a mountain top with a spectacular view throughout the valley, Mrs. Pollio spoke to the group about Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and theater. These two domains of Dionysus may seem unconnected, perhaps the product of some even-more-ancient sycretism among early Greek ancestors. But there is a connection between these two things that makes Dionysus’ place among the chthonic gods (as Kate mentioned in an earlier post) clear. 

The importance of wine and theater were central to health for the Greeks. They added wine to their water to help purify it. Theater, in this case tragedy, offered the Greeks catharsis from watching the human experience on stage. Theater and wine are just two examples of the benefits of civilization- working together to achieve more, being a community. Mrs. Pollio emphasized the importance of “thinking what is beyond ourselves.”

Our Odyssey 2017 community is developing as well. Faced with an assignment of locating certain aspects of the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina, the students found themselves navigating throngs of tour groups while walking on the narrow catwalks above the beautiful mosaic floors. As the groups completed their assignments and gathered outside, one of the staff members stopped Dr. Pollio and said he could not believe how politely our students worked their way through the site  and the interest they showed in the history of the villa (I think he actually said he couldn’t believe they were middle school students that didn’t race through the walkways and get rambunctious). So there it is- a perfect example of working as a community to think about what is outside ourselves and achieve more. 

Day 3

By Maddie and Haley

We woke up at 8AM and went to breakfast in the hotel where we had dinner the night before. We both had croissants and water. We have noticed that lots of foods like croissants are a lot different here as they are much more sweet than savory. For croissants, rather than tons of butter, it is topped with powder sugar or a sugary glaze. After breakfast we went back to our rooms to pack up and then came down at 9AM, grabbed our lunches, and hopped on the bus. First, we took a short bus ride for awesome pictures at the white Turkish steps with a cliff side view.

After we got as many pictures as possible, we got back on the bus and headed to Agrigento to visit the Valley of the Temples. Greeks believed in starting with gods involved with the earth and they worked their way up to the top with divine and young gods and goddesses. That means we started at the bottom (Chthonic temples) and worked our way to the top of ridge looking at each temple. The first thing we saw was the Atlas figure, known as “Telemon”. Then we walked a ways and saw Zeus’s altar, and the ruins of his temple. If his temple was still constructed, it would be the largest temple in the valley. Next was the temple of Concordia, and it was fully constructed. they later turned this temple into a church. Finally, we saw Hera’s temple which was fully constructed. We then took a walk to meet our bus driver Salvatore with the bus, and drove to have lunch outside of a gelateria, Ragno D’Oro (golden spider).We had sandwiches and apples for lunch and then we both got stratiacella gelato. It was the best gelato we have had so far on our trip. After that we embarked on a two hour drive and headed to our last site of gathering day, Villa Romana del Casale (Piazza Armerina): Imperial Roman Villa. Our challenge was to go inside this 32,000 square foot house and take pictures of certain mosaics and figure out the room number on a map.

Since we weren’t allowed to walk on the ancient mosaics, there were catwalks for us to use as we walked through the villa. There were so many other tourists from other countries, some of which were very rude and pushy. After working our way through all of them we completed our challenge and headed to the market where we both bought bracelets and water. We returned to our new hotel in Syracuse, and had dinner before going to sleep.


Our day started with breakfast at our hotel, La Gancia, then we packed our things and went on our bus to Segesta. At Segesta we visited the unfinished temple and the theater where people like us sat thousands of years before. After our visit, we drove to a quarry that constructed columns to work and had sandwiches.  Then, we drove to Selinunte to visit another temple. We went to a temple which was destroyed (now partially reconstructed) by the Carthaginians and took some pictures. Next, we went next to ruins of temples, and climbed over the destroyed columns and stone and begged Mrs. Pollio to let us climb back to the start once we finished the first time.

Lastly, we drove about an hour to our current hotel, Sole Mediterraneo, and swam in the STUNNING Mediterranean Sea. After we swam, we had a three course meal of pasta, swordfish, and lemon sorbet. It is currently 10:37 (4:37 for you all) and we got back from dinner about 15 minutes ago…. we will probably go to bed in about an hour. goodnight!!


 Photo:  Anaiya Roberts Photo: Kate RuffinPhoto: Kate Ruffin

Here’s a 360 degree look at Segesta’s amphitheater.

Erice and Trapani

Yesterday we touched down in Rome, had one more layover, and boarded our final flight to Palermo. Everyone was excited to get out of an airplane seat and get moving.

We had a chance to take in some of the scenery as we drove from Palermo to Erice. The road we traveled was close to the coast, and just inland from us the land rose steeply up into the mountains.  The drive up to Erice took us up a steep winding road, that you can see in a time-lapse video

Erice is an ancient mountain-top city dating back about 3000 years. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Normans all controlled or heavily influenced the city at some point in its history. We hiked through the city to find the temple dedicated to Venus and to see the salt pans down on the coast below.

By the time we reached our hotel in Trapani, the group was ready for a quick dip in the Tyrrhenian Sea, dinner and bed.

Tomorrow’s Travel Day

Ciao Bulldogs, 

Exams and minimester are behind us. iPads are issued and charged. Bags are packed. Last minute check over the to-do list, and we’re set to gather tomorrow morning at the airport for our departure. After studying the ancient world through our courses this past year, it’s time to venture outside of lessons about the ancient Greek and Roman world and see it for ourselves- to interact with it, to be part of it- and hopefully then see our world with new eyes.

We have over 5000 miles of traveling ahead of us, so rest up tonight. I can’t wait.


Today was dedicated to the exploration of Mt. Etna, often referred to as Etna, or even more basic, (and perhaps the most frequently used) “The Mountain.” We had the pleasure, maybe more of an honor …and I mean every letter of that word, to be guided by Salvo (not to be confused with our Salvo-Sahib … I’m sorry but our Salvo will not be featured in this Blog piece). This year Salvo took us to a different part of “her” (as he personifies The Mountain frequently). Have I told you how passionate Salvo is?  Have I told you that Dr. Salvo’s mind is almost encyclopedic when it comes to dates, temperatures, crystal sizes of lava, (I could literally write 200 terms here …but I won’t).  Salvo turned to me today and said, “This is my life…the more I study her, the more I love my child.”  No joke … Salvo is more of an “experience” than a “guide.”  The passion in his descriptions is palpable.  His hands are constantly in motion with broad sweeping gestures depicting various events.  I suppose I neglected to mention that Dr. Salvo (Volcanologist/Vulcanologist, take your pick)) is arguably one of the world’s leading authorities on most aspects of Mt. Etna.

There is not enough time in this day or night for me to describe in words what sort of experience Salvo created for your Bulldog. We went to multiple lava flows, INTO a lava tube (scrambling up and out at the other end), hiked..and hiked…and hiked to some fascinating craters and a legit vent from the eruption of 1875. The spectacle was simply a spectacle. It was crazy good. Then we capped off the day with a trip to the birthplace of Mt. Etna….. The pillow lava formations at Aci Trezza and Aci Castello … on the coast, many kilometers away from the current main craters. I’ll plug in a few captioned photos and try to give you a feel for the day.

Salvo being Salvo ... a bundle of passion, expertise, and love.
Salvo being Salvo … a bundle of passion, expertise, and love.
Salvo demonstrating what "happens" inside an active lava tube.
Salvo demonstrating what “happens” inside an active lava tube.
The lava tube had visitors today from Academy.
The lava tube had visitors today from Academy.
The Ski Resort "bet" against The Mountain ...and ...The Mountain Won.
The Ski Resort “bet” against The Mountain …and …The Mountain Won.
Salvo-style lesson on clues from lava crystal size.
Salvo-style lesson on clues from lava crystal size.
Lunch among the
Lunch among the trees … on the lava.
Of course then there were those that had lunch ... "IN" the trees. Bravo Carlo!
Of course then there were those that had lunch … “IN” the trees. Bravo Carlo!
No trick Photography! It was as steep as it looks. Loose lava
No trick Photography! It was as steep as it looks. Loose lava ….fun.
...and it just kept climbing and climbing...and ...
…and it just kept climbing and climbing…and …
Vent from the massive eruption of 1875...very, very...v-e-r-y dark
Vent from the massive eruption of 1875…very, very……….. v-e-r-y dark.  (no students were harmed in the taking of this picture).
Aci Trezza ... part of the origins of Mt. Etna.
Aci Trezza … part of the origins of Mt. Etna.
Aci Castello ... "The" origin of Mt. Etna ... by the sea.
Aci Castello … “The” origin of Mt. Etna … by the sea.
A day in the "Catania" province is not complete without a Granite (Gra-nee-te) stop.
A day in the “Catania” province is not complete without a Granite (Gra-nee-teh) stop.
And yes Martha ...they make Chocolate Granite.
And yes Martha …they make Chocolate Granite.          (This concludes the BLOG entry)





When minds think alike …

Met for breakfast this morning…one of those incredible gastronomical events in Sicily …and Heidi and I mentioned that we had each written a Blog entry last night.  Seems like we were both on somewhat the same sheet of music.  It’s a bit of a read but I think you won’t be disappointed.  You will have NO difficulty whatsoever in figuring out the authors.  Trust me!

“Old MacDonald had a Farm ….”

You know this part of that “memorable” song …   “with a quack-quack here, and a quack-quack there, here a quack, there a quack, everywhere a quack-quack.” I don’t know if you realize that it would clearly be possible for a well-intended tour throughout Sicily to become something akin to “with a temple here, and a temple there, here a temple, there a temple, everywhere a temple-temple.” And so it would go on as a parade of historical sites whizz by. But that is certainly not where we are. Signora Lucia and Dr. Dave are going to accuse me of patronizing them but all I can say is … sticks and stone can break my bones but names will never hurt me. The bottom line is … you’ve just got to see both of them in action on these sites. They are relentless … in as great a way as I can possibly describe. Each one provide key pieces of the puzzle that is so…so…so very complex. Agrigento (Valley of the Temples’) is one temple, tomb, “whatever” …after another. Without the framework that the Pollio’s provide it would have easily been … “here a temple ..there a temple etc.. What the Odyssey participants would have missed is the essence of “purpose” in these structures, and how they fit into the fabric of history, development of civilizations, religion …and the list goes on. And ..and ..and then! This entire web of exquisitely delivered background sets the stage for iPad challenges directly related to what the “dynamic duo” have conveyed.

Weaving the "fabric" near Temple of Castor and Pollux
Weaving the “fabric” near Temple of Castor and Pollux
Dr. Dave building a foundation
Dr. Dave building a foundation

I simply had to say something. I snap a few pictures. I bring up the rear with Dr. Dave for some Odyssey security, put on my ugly face and make sure we’re all good Bulldogs and “represent” appropriately … but the magic of this trip is not simply in these spectacular structures thousands of years old … the magic truly lies in the way that Signora Lucia and Dr. Dave put a “face” and a “story” on each piece of the puzzle.

Trust me …I don’t sit back and watch. I take notes.



We were about three days into our adventure, and our intrepid explorers were presented with another set of Greek temples.  They had already learned the basic architectural vocabulary from their pre-departure lectures–triglyph, metope, stereobate, stylobate, raking sima, etc., etc..  They knew the difference between the three types of temples-Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. They had puzzled out some questions about the temples at Segesta and Selinunte. So, when we came upon our third set of temples in Agrigento, called ‘the Valley of the Temples,’ we were ready to put them in context.  Why so many temples? Why were they dedicated to these gods, and why are we here visiting them?  These are important questions that deserve serious consideration.
We asked Salvatore, our fearless bus driver, to drop us off at the bottom of the valley instead of the top, which no one does, and he thought we were pozzu (this means crazy in Sicilian dialect).  Everyone arriving by bus gets out at the top of the hill where the most well-preserved temples are located and then make their way down hill, the easiest route.  But we wanted to give the story of Greek ‘religion’ in its developmental context–I put religion in quotation marks because the Greeks had no word that means what we think of when we speak of religion.
So we start off in the sanctuary of the chthonic gods and the remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Castor and PolluxThese are not the most well known or well-preserved structures in Agrigento, but they give us that context that makes the whole thing understandable.
Chthonic comes from the Greek word for ‘earth, ground,’ and these very ancient gods were the first allies and adversaries in the very earliest lives of the Greeks of pre-history.  They represented the awesome and inexplicable power of the natural world and were the most intimate and, in some ways,  most terrifying forces in the lives of every man, woman, and child.  This sanctuary has almost nothing left to look at, which is why every tourist marches past without looking as he heads to the parking lot to rendezvous with the mega-tour bus that had dropped him off at the top of the hill.  But what he misses by over-looking this area,  is the meaning, significance, and context which would have made this treasure of human history prove its worth and the greatest argument for our reason for visiting and preserving these places in the first place.  For, knowing that the sanctuary next door houses the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest Doric temple ever constructed in the Greek world (the bulk of which now tragically forms the commercial Porto Empedocle nearby) was built to establish the sky god’s dominance over the earlier, more connected-to-the-earth, chthonic powers–this would help him understand just how truly remarkable the physical manifestation of man’s struggle with divinity and his relationship with that divinity has been.
The Greek example of respecting the past but having the courage to envision a different future is a lesson worth remembering.


BWIIC …see you next time


“Greetings from Syracuse”

[From the pen of Dr. Dave]

Yesterday, our intrepid explorers visited a Greek theater at Syracuse. Founded by Greeks from Corinth in 733 BCE, Syracuse would rival Athens in both size and importance by the 5th century, the time when the theater was originally built by the tyrant Hieron I. The theater, which was cut out of a rocky hillside and seated about 15,000 spectators, was second in size only to Athens’ Theater of Dionysus. In this very theater – whose spectators included such luminaries of the ancient world as the playwright Aeschylus, the philosopher Plato, and the mathematician Archimedes – the Syracusans would regularly assemble to witness the performance of tragic plays.

These spectators, however, were not simply passive viewers, but instead used what they had seen on the stage to actively reflect on their own lives, by contemplating the ethical dilemmas and impossible situations faced by the protagonists of these performances. Naturally, this process sounds familiar, as we ourselves are often prompted by what we view on stage or screen to re-examine our own sense of right and wrong – a vital process for us and especially for our children, whom we are encouraging to grow into self-aware, just, and sympathetic individuals.

If you look closely at the accompanying pictures, you will see a tangible reminder of this remarkable legacy bequeathed to us by the Greeks: the Syracusans of today – like the Syracusans of yesterday – are preparing the stage for a performance of Euripides’ Alcestis, which was first performed nearly 2,500 years ago. Just as the contemporary scenery and spotlights are sharing the same space with the ancient stones, our children are sharing the same space with men like Plato and Archimedes, individuals whose characters were, in part, shaped by what they saw on this very stage … individuals who would later go on to re-shape our understanding of the universe and our place therein.

Full stage

Side View

Both seats

To embark on an interdisciplinary, capstone study-abroad program in southern Italy and Sicily for Norfolk Academy 8th grade students.