Marjorie’s European Tour, 1903-1904
Taken from letters to her mother, Bessie
MARCH 1904 – SOUTHERN ITALY
Aboard the luxurious steamer ‘Cairo’ Marjorie and Miss Helen were able to relax and prepare themselves for the transition from Egypt to Southern Italy. The journey was tranquil, the water a heavenly blue. They enjoyed breakfasts of five or six courses: full lunch at 1:00; afternoon tea; dinner of eight courses at 6:00; followed by a light supper at 8:30. Marjorie marveled at the amount of food, and wondered if they would reach their destination alive!
On the morning of Sunday, March 13, they were called at 6:00 a.m. so as not to miss the coast views as they passed through the Straits of Sicily and Calabria. Later that day they landed at the busy factory town of Messina. From there they took the train to Taormina. This was Marjorie’s first visit to the coastal hillside town. Her first impressions were poetic: “Up and up we went, past groves of oranges and lemons, past vine-clad walls and terraced gardens, till finally we came to the little town…out on a little promontory of land we found our hotel perched high up above the sea. The San Domenico is the most interesting and fascinating place imaginable. A few years ago it was a monastery of the Dominican Order. The outside is long and rambling with little square windows set in the grey wall. A bell tower rises above it, and there is a church where ‘mass’ is still said every morning. The entrance hall is a picturesque cloister all overgrown with vines and roses. We walked through a long corridor, lined with cells, and over each low door was the fresco of a saint upon the wall. Beyond was the garden, beautiful with arbors and terraces filled with flowers of all kinds and lemon trees, and orange fragrant with fruit and blossom. And from the walks in all directions you looked out over the mountains and the sea.” (Marjorie would return to the same hotel in Taormina over and over again. Her last visit was in 1974, when she was 90 years old.)
San Domenica Hotel, Taormina
The next day Marjorie was awakened by the sun pouring in through the windows and the church bells ringing. “I leaned out into the cool soft air and looked down at the green valley sparkling in the sunshine and the wooded hills, and there, just beyond, was the snow capped Mount Etna, smiling and radiant, in her tower of fleecy clouds. I dressed and had breakfast downstairs in the dearest little sun piazza overlooking the blue Mediterranean.”
They visited the ruin of the Greek Theatre, admiring the arches and pillars still standing. At their feet was the Mediterranean, sparkling in all shades of blue among the rocks.
Marjorie's painting of the Greek Theatre
A few days later they drove back down the mountains to take the train to Syracuse: “The train sped through groves of lemon trees growing in pastures of yellow oxalis – the sun shining on the golden fruit and the golden flowers beneath, against the background of green…” Syracuse was a disappointment (“an unattractive squalid town”) but their hotel on the outskirts was a good place to use as a base as they traveled around Sicily. They visited the quarries whose stone had been used to build the ancient cities, and the Roman Amphitheatre; and they took a trip up the tiny river Anapo to see the only place in the world where the Papyrus grows wild.
The next train trip took them south to the tip of Sicily, through fields of wild pink geraniums and star-like flax flowers of heavenly blue, and on to Girgenti where they saw the ruins of fifth century B.C. temples of soft yellow limestone, and then on to Palermo where they stayed at the Villa Igiea, “set in the midst of a lovely garden – under the slope of Monte Pellegrino, and overlooking the sea. A delightful hotel altogether. We found beautiful rooms awaiting us. I do wish you could have seen the dining room! The walls were painted in the most beautiful designs – soft purple flags and white Easter lilies growing up from the floor … exquisitely pretty girls decked with poppies and yellow roses, and way up at the top a far-away landscape of ships and the sea. Even the glass doors were gracefully decorated, each with a different flower.” It was there that Marjorie ran into her old school friends, Louise Smith and Priscilla Harding in the dining room – “Much to my surprise!” They also met up with Sir Edmund Bewley and his family whom they had met in Egypt. The Bewleys invited Marjorie to join them to climb Monte Pellegrino. The mountain is 2065 feet high, and it took them more than 2 hours, “But of course we stopped often to pick flowers and rest. The view from the top was glorious. We could see the sea on three sides.”
Marjorie’s photograph of Sir Edmund Bewley at the summit of Mt. Pellegrino, 1904
On March 20, Marjorie and Miss Helen sailed on the Christofero Colombo from Palermo to Naples, arriving on Palm Sunday. But they ran into bad storms and had an uncomfortable crossing. The cold and the rain persisted but, undeterred, they planned a trip to Sorrento and Amalfi, praying for a break in the weather. Their prayers were answered, and they awoke the next day to beautiful sunshine. They took the train to Castellamare and then a carriage drive to Sorrento where they stayed at the Hotel Victoria. They were entertained in the evening with a dance performance of the “tarantella,” given in full costume at the hotel. “The men wear green velvet breeches, vests of red velvet, broad Roman sashes, white shirts and bright ties. The girls had short red skirts, lace aprons, white stockings, and yellow slippers, lace bodices of velvet, white blouses with lace frills, and over that a dainty green velvet bolero and coral beads around their throats. They sang the pretty Neopolitan airs and danced to the sound of their castanettes.”
Marjorie’s postcard of Italian dance performance, 1904
The drive along the shore to Amalfi the next day was one of the highlights of the entire trip, and Marjorie describes it as one of the most beautiful drives in the world: “Orange and lemon groves on every side, some roofed over with straw and light bows to protect the fruit from the weather. The fields and hillsides were covered with white and purple daisies and the grass was so fresh and green – oh it was a delight to be out!” They stayed at the Hotel Cappucini, that had a garden with roses and heliotrope and sweet old fashioned flowers hanging over a grey wall. Marjorie thought it was one of the loveliest situations in the world, if a little precariously poised on the slope of the hill.
Too soon they had to take the train for Rome. But an exciting month awaited them. They were going to be staying again at Marjorie’s favorite hotel, the Russie, and were looking forward to the Easter celebrations there. From Rome they continued their journey northward, enjoying a final week in Florence “My favorite city in Italy.” In April’s “Notes from the Archives” you can follow Marjorie’s activities in Rome, Florence, and her last few days in Paris before she set sail once again on the “dear old Deutschland,” heading for New York where Bessie and Will McKee would be waiting at the dockside to greet her.