If Italy is a boot, a soft lambskin hand stitched boot, Sicily is the deflated soccer ball that it is kicking. We left the rough port city of Naples on the rockin’ and rollin’ in our little bunks night ferry and arrived early the next morning in Catania. From there we drove south an hour or so along the coast to Siracusa, a place we chose on the advice of an Italian friend named Domitilla who we had met late one night in Barcelona, which is a long and completely different story but if you’re curious it’s here.
The old town of Ortigia is actually a little island just east of Siracusa that is connected by three small bridges. Sort of like Stanley Park is connected to Downtown Vancouver. Only there are no over smiling uber-healthy joggers wearing iPods or rollerbladers in yoga pants here. People here prefer coffee and cigarettes. The old town is a labyrinth of very narrow streets but with a different flavour somehow than mainland Italian towns. Honed marble seems to cover every surface and the result is a warm buttery glow in the late day sun. Not only the cathedral walls but many of the streets, sidewalks and piazzas are carpeted with thick honey coloured marble. Imagine the value in kitchen countertops alone? I was tempted to lie on the ground like a lizard to absorb the warmth. Each door is a work of art and every window seems to have a balcony with a wrought iron railing that supported by ornate stone balustrades and at least one pot of red geraniums.
As is our jam, we stayed ‘ever so slightly’ outside the classy part of town…okay, near the train station, which always brings it’s own interesting elements. Let’s just say that now our daughter understands why some ladies can write off sparkly tight pants and high heels as a business expense. We would quickly and directly walk the ten minutes across one of the bridges into the old town and then slow down to a crawl. While we speed walked we noticed the, let’s just say, demographic of the citizenry gradually evolve from blue collar shop keepers and unemployed ruffians to upscale, fashion conscious executives, hipster architecture students and self employed trend setters sporting very expensive designer glasses. Do more people legitimately require glasses in 2015 or are they just the latest must have accessory? Perhaps all this staring at tiny screens has affected our collective vision? Or maybe we just want to look nerdy cool.
Once inside the ‘Old Town’ we would dawdle the hours away poking into the hundreds of one of a kind shops, cafes, piazzas, ancient Baroque or Roman or Venetian (I can’t tell the difference any more) churches and galleries. There is a fascinating Leonardo da Vinci Museum aimed at kids with life size examples of many of his inventions that you can try out. Old Leo know a thing or two. There are artist and craftspeople ateliers, seaside walking paths, swimming platforms (though it was too cold for that yet) and many touristy shops as well. We try to ignore the fridge magnets. They must be hot sellers because there are millions of them front and centre. Not exaggerating. Apparently not everyone has a stainless steel fridge.
Ortigia also features a large selection of authentic and innovative restaurants. As an island, Sicily is known for it’s seafood. Fresh and simply prepared. Usually the whole fish grilled or fried. It looks at you while you eat it. Vegetables are plentiful especially eggplant, peppers and the most flavourful tomatoes. They also use a lot of spices you won’t find on the mainland like cinnamon, saffron and cloves. This is the Arab influence from centuries ago. The result is light, aromatic meals with a zesty twist. We enjoyed a bright orange Aperol Spritz and some snacks at plywood tables in the Design School student hangout and went to an interesting place called MOON which is an acronym for ‘moving ortigia out of normal. Moon is a vegan resto/art gallery/jazz bar. As we enjoyed raw beet ravioli, house made hand rolled nachos and an impressive baconless carbonara with a big fat Nero d’Avola we were entertained by a four piece Tuscan jazz band with an impressive scat vocalist. It didn’t matter that it was all Italian, our 11 year old dug it! What a great night.
There are many quintessentially Italian cafes to sip cappuccinos in while watching the locals chain smoke hand rolled cigarettes and talk with their hands. The Sicilians seem to be masters of the handsy talking. There are many gestures that are universal like the ‘double shoulder shrug duck lip air kiss’ that seems to say ‘of course, what did you expect?’ and the ‘finger tips together swan beak pointing toward yourself multiple wave’ that apparently means ‘you are wrong, now get out of my way.’ There are also many other motions that even a black belt in charades might not fully understand.
And oh the eye contact! Sicilians seem to be in a constant staring contest with whoever crosses their path. You know, like we used to have in elementary school? He who looks away first loses. It’s mostly the men but some women stared us down too. There is something very disarming about the way they look right through you with a completely blank expression. It makes you feel like you missed the news report about the zombie invasion. Perhaps the woman who punched me in Sorrento was Sicilian? I’m a fairly confident person but even I started just looking at the ground whenever anyone approached. I wasn’t sure of the etiquette and it just seemed easiest. My husband Cam enjoyed the eyeball duelling sessions. He comes from Northern Manitoba where people are not easily intimidated. I wonder if there is some mannerism, besides over-apologizing, that Canadians do without noticing, eh? Aside from the death staring we found the Sicilians quite engaging. They would NEVER say hello first but if we initiated with a friendly ‘Ciao’ they were happy to answer back cheerfully and smile. Quite strange really. It was like we had to declare ‘we come in peace’ before they would get off their horses.
We travelled south to visit the famous town of Noto with it’s ‘most beautiful street in the world.’ The Cathedral and surrounding buildings surely are beautiful works of Baroque architecture and art but there are many cities that might take issue with that claim. It was Palm Sunday when we strolled the wide pedestrian street with families fresh from mass clutching their intricately woven palms. We stepped into the Cathedral and just happened to meet the Arch Bishop who shook Lyla’s hand and told her he had been to Vancouver and it was very beautiful. All I could do was stare at his elaborate hat and shepherd’s staff.
On the southeast tip of the coast is the little fishing town of Portopalo. We found the one restaurant that was open and full with the Sunday after church crowd. There was no english spoken so we guessed our way through the menu and devoured the fresh antipasti buffet of roasted and marinated veggies, fresh soft cheeses, pungent juicy olives, sautéed spinach and crusty breads. Next it was the fresh prawns and steamed mussels with another great Sicilian wine (thanks Trish!). Once again, we needed a siesta. And bigger pants.
We moved up the coast to the perched bird’s-nest of a town of Taormina. Specifically, we stayed in the closest town a few kilometres south of there called Giardini Naxos because we had heard that parking was impossible in Taormina itself. That was true. Don’t try it unless you have great insurance with a low collision deductible. The cobblestoned winding streets are more like luge tracks and consist of a complicated one way system that is indecipherable to most mortals and/or non-Sicilian drivers. If you value your marriage just take the bus. Trust me on that one. Plus, Giardini Naxos is quite lovely in it’s own right with volcanic rock from Mt. Etna that has rolled down to meet the sea creating gnarled jet black bathing platforms.
The view from up top of Taormina is amazing. The town is amazing. The history is amazing. Who carried all of those stones up there one-by one to build everything? With Mt. Etna steaming and burping away over our shoulder we soaked in the vista of the deep blue Ionian Sea and felt the sun’s warmth reflecting off of North Africa and seeping into our bones. Inside the walled city there are ruins of former civilizations complete with another of these stunning amphitheatres that is still in decent enough shape to hold concerts. It’s either Roman or Greek, nobody knows for sure. These days Taormina is a cruise ship pit stop and party spot for shee-shee holidayers so the shops are full of expensive jewellery and flowy linen ensembles but if you can make it outside the crush of July and August you will be rewarded with a magical experience. We saw a small Andy Warhol show within the walls of the old city. Talk about contrast. Vibrantly coloured cheeky pop art in a 3,000 year old castle! I think Andy would have been pretty happy about that. He might have blushed.
Along the north coast of Sicily is a little fishing town called Cefalù. You are probably getting very tired of hearing me say this but…it’s full of narrow, charming, winding streets!! I love them so much and never tire of snooping around. This little beauty has 14,000 residents who get squished out in the summer when about 30,000 visitors come to crowd said sweet lonely lanes. Lucky for us it was late March, already fairly warm and we had the place to ourselves. Above the town on a steep sided rock plateau that rises like a perfect soufflé are the ruins of a fortified city that was built between 900 and 400 B.C. The hike up took us about 45 minutes and rewarded us with treasures. There are temples, remnants of ancient homes and sophisticated systems like cisterns and air conditioning on top of this rock promontory so the people who lived there could be self sustainable while fending off evil attackers by pouring boiling oil on their heads. Plus there is an amazing view of the town below and the north coast of Sicily with it’s crashing waves. The sea port itself is small and lovely with handsome older ltalian men sitting on benches solving the worlds problems while they check out the ladies walking by. Including me. Sicily is great for the middle aged female ego.
A little farther west in Palermo we boarded another night ferry. This time for the 14 hour crossing back up north to Rome. We loved Sicily and are so glad we took the time to visit. It is diverse in culture, history, food, architecture and natural beauty. The people can be as rough as the land but there is also an unmistakable beauty…in them both.