09.06.2015 - 21.06.2015
Sicily June 9th – 21st
A car journey in Sicily.
Car journeys in Italy should always start with food. Ours began with pistachio ice cream accompanied by a coffee in a side street paved with Roman slabs of stone buried inside a forgotten hilltop town submerged in cloud at a time too early for dessert and too late for cappuccino. But, this is the island of Sicily and the ice cream is divine and the coffee brewed to perfection.
We maneuvered our bike-sized car into the flow of traffic and we were on our way. Each individual road varied in size throughout its length and rarely remained consistent with its depiction on the map. One moment we would be coasting down a wide autostrade and the next plotting a course through the cobbled streets of a small village. It was akin to the M6 suddenly, and without warning twisting into a narrow one-lane high street filled with busy shoppers.
The speed limit changed alarmingly often for no discernable reason. A two-lane highway with no other car in sight suddenly required a drop in speed to 40kmph for about half a minute before then resuming the national limit of 110kmph. Obeying these rules nearly resulted in several cars ploughing into the back of us and so we decided to imitate the locals who clearly ignored the signs altogether. Our fears of receiving a speeding ticked eased as we watched a biker, evidently intent on beating the land speed record, cruise past a police car that was itself travelling well in excess of the limit.
Those responsible for erecting road signs in Sicily undertook their task with enthusiasm in the countryside and ensured we were never short of information. However, they evidently assumed that once in town everyone knew exactly where they were and in which direction they were going; or perhaps they preferred motorists to rely upon blind luck and sheer guesswork to get from place to place. It is like a surgeon receiving detailed training on how to open up the skull and then once the brain was revealed being slapped on the back and told, “I expect you’ll probably be okay from here.” Upon entering the town we were headed for, directions to the famous Roman site promptly ended. Threading our tiny car through alleyways barely wide enough for two people to pass we circled the town in vain search of our illusive destination. Passing majestic churches, ancient fountains and bemused locals watching us from the comfort of their doorsteps, we finally happened by chance upon the Roman villa itself.
As we drew into the car park another motorist cut in front of us without a glance behind him in our direction. In many ways this driving epitomises modern day Sicily; the people here are only interested in the present and the future. Whatever has happened in the past, and whatever is taking place in the road just behind them is of little relevance and no interest. And, given the recent past and the fact that the food here is just so good, who can blame them.
Our first few minutes on Sicilian soil were not our most favourite. Impatiently awaiting bags that never arrived we finally informed the Lost & Found Dept at Catania Airport of our missing luggage. Am I wrong to expect those working there to be reasonably proficient in the art of locating, retrieving and returning misplaced baggage? The overwhelming sense of bewilderment and confusion that enveloped the Lost & Found office suggested they’d never encountered a problem such as ours before. Eventually, and with some reluctance, they took our details and promised the safe return of our bags within 24 hrs.
After 3 days, numerous phone calls, a long trip back to the airport, raised voices and a series of finger pointing in response to wild Italian gesticulations which left us in no doubt that they held us fully responsible for our lost baggage, we finally convinced the man behind the desk at the Lost & Found counter to have a quick look for our bags in his cavernous office even though his computer informed us that they were both still in Rome somewhere.
He returned with one of them. ‘The other one is exactly the same, except it’s red,” we said.
“It is in Rome,” he told us angrily.
“The World Tracer website says it is here,” we argued.
“It is wrong,” he said flatly.
“So where is it?” we asked.
“Contact Rome,” he said.
Contact Rome? What does that even mean? How do you contact an entire city? The hotel owner in Taormina had recommended we take a pistol to the airport and threaten whomever was necessary until our bags were returned. “It is the Sicilian way,” he had announced. At the time I had nodded half-heartedly in an effort to make it look as though I was vaguely considering the idea. Part of me now wished I’d acted upon his advice.
“Please, just one more look; it’s red,” we implored. Muttering under his breath he stomped off into the depths of his office space. A minute later he appeared with the second bag.
The first three days we were in Taormina, wearing pretty much the same outfits throughout. We stayed in the Villa Astoria, which was lovely and the owner, despite his vigilante tendencies was great and couldn’t have been more helpful. We got caught in the rain shortly after arriving and stopped for a pizza each when half of one of them between us would have been enough as it turned out. It was wonderful though, all washed down with good wine. We visited the ancient Roman Amphitheatre and wondered around the cute little town before a combination of sun, jet-lag, and wine led us back to the hotel for an early night.
About 500 metres above the town of Taormina lies Catelmola and we climbed the steep track up to this pretty little village clinging to an outcrop of rock affording stunning views of the coastline and Mount Etna behind. We sat and admired the scenery, had some drinks and congratulated ourselves on having walked up before descending once again. Later that day we were wandering around the town when we bumped into an old friend from Australia I hadn’t seen for over 14 years. We spent the rest of the evening with him and his wife over some drinks and lovely Sicilian food.
A day on Etna on tour with a knowledgeable guide who couldn’t stop talking. Still, he was mostly interesting to listen to and I can remember a few things he said. He showed us different (old) lava flows dating back just a few years to centuries previously. We walked up to the crater from the 2002 eruption passing over the top of a three-storey hotel that lay beneath our feet submerged in the rock that had been the lava flow (no-one had died). He took us to ‘chimneys’ where there were 50m deep perfectly vertical holes and we peered over nervously. It was a wonderfully exciting walk – being on top of this active volcano.
And then, suddenly the mountain exploded. It erupted spewing molten lava high into the sky above us!
Only joking. There wasn’t even any steam actually…
On the way back to town we visited a river gorge and dipped our weary feet into the icy water. After a really good dinner in town we returned to the ancient theatre for the 9pm showing of Jurassic World, which signified the beginning of their week-long film festival. The film actually began a little after 10pm by which time we’d oohed and aahed enough at the coastal backdrop twinkling in the dark behind the Roman stage. Consequently, we only stayed long enough through the film to confirm that dinosaurs were indeed going to escape private enclosures and eat a bunch of people, but probably not the two fairly nauseating kids that had featured heavily in the beginning of the film.
Back to Catania Airport to tell the Lost & Found dept how to do their job, picked up our bags and traveled up via bus and boat to Salina Island in the Aeolians (volcanic islands to the north of Sicily). We checked into the Ravesi Hotel and unpacked a little knowing that we were there for 4 days. The view from the infinity swimming pool was stunning, overlooking the bay and two other islands in the group. A quick wander around the town of Malfa to get our bearings before returning to the hotel for a glass of wine and Antipasto (these Italians really do know their food…!).
Back into town for a snack, which consisted of bread, capers, tomatoes, cheese and tuna – and was amazing!! Especially, as capers and tomatoes are usually foods that I pick off things and leave to one side. But, here they are lovely.
A 6am start. Bus ride to a nearby church and then a walk up the 960m tall volcano – the highest point in the Aeolians. Great views from the top that the camera can’t do justice. We were back before 11am and in time for breakfast at the hotel. The rest of the day was spent reading, swimming and relaxing with a mid-afternoon trip to local wineries for some tasting.
Dinner next door, wine by the pool afterwards watching the stars. And, we saw the best shooting star I’ve ever seen. I almost had to duck is was that close…
We hired scooters and set off around the island dropping in at various places for coffee and a wander around the shops and finally arriving at Pollara beach, which was stunning. The water was quite cold and seemed to attract numerous small jellyfish, but not enough to stop us getting in and swimming about. And so, we stayed for the rest of the afternoon and eventually had dinner at the restaurant overlooking the bay before returning to Malfa on our little scooters in the dark.
Scooters to Salina Marina and then the ferry over to Lipari. A quick wander around the town and then we caught the bus over to Quattropani intending to start a hike from there, fortunately meeting on the way the only English woman alive who can speak Italian fluently and in conversation with the bus driver, she showed us where to get off. Had she not, we would probably either still be on the bus or lost in the hills above Lipari somewhere.
The walk went straight downhill through an old sulphur mine initially which, for some bizarre reason, was littered with dead rabbits – a bit unnerving actually!
One dead rabbit – fine. (Well, not for the rabbit I suppose)
Two dead rabbits – that’s a bit weird.
Three dead rabbits – there must be a reason for this: snakes? Miximitosis?
Four dead rabbits – are we next?
Then along the bluff of the coast overlooking many of the other islands before heading back inland and up to a town and then back down again to the beach. We rested our weary limbs in the water and then hiked back out when the taxi boat driver at the beach decided he actually wouldn’t take us back to Lipari. Dinner at some Michelin Guide restaurant in Salina Marina before another hair-raising scooter ride back along the sharply winding steep little roads in the dark to Malfa.
We reluctantly said goodbye to Hotel Ravesi and Salina island and caught the public ferry to Stromboli Island, which is basically just one big volcano. Checked into a cheap hotel, arranged a hike for later in the day and had lunch overlooking the lapping waves of the ocean.
So, 5pm we set off up the volcano that is just a little shy of a kilometre high. It was steep, but the views were gorgeous. Up and up past the height at which trees and shrubbery decided there was no longer any point in growing any more, into and across old lava flows and as the sun set against the horizon we glimpsed the first of two craters belting out suplhurous steam. We gratefully reached the summit and then planted ourselves several hundred feet above the second crater and watched for nearly an hour. Every six or seven minutes the volcano roared and glowed orange and a fountain of lava lit up the night sky. It was one of the most thrilling natural spectacles I’ve ever seen. Our guide informed us that the crater was over 100m deep and so when large glowing orange rocks were fired out the top and landing around the ridge they were being projected a distance somewhere in the region of 150m. It was simply stunning. Sadly, photos couldn't capture it.
After an hour we began to get cold and so we started our way down. Fortunately the volcano had considerately formed a massive ash/sand dune down one of its sides and the descent was very straightforward and took us a fraction of the time that it did to go up and we arrived back in Stromboli town a little after 11pm. The only problem had been the dust getting everywhere and making it difficult to see. We had to empty our boots of volcanic ash back at the hotel and shake our jackets free of the blackened layer of dust.
Time enough for a celebratory drink and pizza at Giodanni’s nearby that was excellent.
We left the Aeolians and headed for the capital – Palermo. It took most of the day: a combination of ferries, bus, train and taxi. Arriving later than we had hoped there was still time to wander around its amazingly atmospheric centre. Extraordinarily huge buildings from long ago adorned every street and every corner. It was like a museum all contained within a single city. For crying out loud, our hotel had 20ft wooden doors which opened into a medieval courtyard complete with statues and columns etc… The ceiling of our breakfast room had a mural/fresco dating back centuries that anywhere else in the world would have been a highly regarded artifact housed away in a national museum. And it was $60 a night.
There was a slight edge to the place – people were watchful, and as a result, so were we. But, nothing happened and we walked all over the city that night until after midnight just staring straight up at every astonishingly impressive building we encountered. Finally, after several hours of wandering we realized we were hungry and ordered 2 pizzas. Again, only one would have easily done. And, I know that Italians invented the pizza, but even so, how come they make soooo much better than anyone else..?
Breakfast in Hotel Orientale underneath a piece of art that was probably worth more than most hotel buildings. Then into Palermo again. We visited markets with sellers loudly advertising their vegies, fish, meat and fruit. The tuna were huge! Who knew that they grew to the size of a horse? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t, they were massive! We visited the Palentine Chapel, which was covered from head to toe (or steeple to pews) in mosaics depicting various stories from the Bible. Hugely impressive. There was also an art exhibition by someone famous – Boteli, I think – and we strolled round contemplating how easy it is to make money from art these days – well, I did anyway.
Street food followed and a tour around the massive opera theatre (First and last time in the Royal Box in all probability).
Could have stayed another day or two admiring the architecture, but we had a car booked. Two hours to Scopella, a lovely little village on the coast. We had a glass of wine or two overlooking the sea as the sun dipped and then some great food (once again!) in a nearby restaurant.
Back in the car and away to several places en route to Agrigento where we stayed the night in Villa Athena – a 5-star hotel with a view to die for…
First though, we visited Errice, a hilltop village/small town perched on a craggy cliff high above the plains of Sicily below. Our little Renault struggled up the hill and then we struggled up the rest of the way along old cobbled streets twisting and weaving through alleys between old stone buildings that had stood obstinately in the clouds for centuries. It was fortified and boasted a castle, much of which had tumbled through the clouds to the bottom of the cliffs a number of years previously, but impressive nonetheless.
We had a coffee, more great food and then moved on. Next was a place called Segesta, which we found by accident – such are the roads and the driving in Italy (see intro!) But it was a happy mistake. A massive Greek temple and a fantastic amphitheatre that was worth the climb.
From there to Selutente. Another Greek temple setting, which, in its day housed the 4th biggest Greek temple in the empire. It was intentionally destroyed by its inhabitants forced to flee the place and not wanting to leave it for the Romans – fair enough! Gradually, the Sicilian architects are rebuilding the temples here, but in fact I preferred seeing them in their natural state – toppled columns and vegetation growing in amongst broken pillars and statues. Just before leaving a big black snake popped up to say hello to Marsha. She screamed and ran away, which was an entirely appropriate response in my view.
Then to Agrigento where we lazily checked into a top hotel and paid more than we could really afford. Still, the glass of wine overlooking the ancient Greek temple lit up on the hill just 100m away was phenomenal.
Too much brekky and then a slow amble round the Greek temples of Agrigento. This was at one time over 2000 years ago, the 4th biggest city in the world providing for 200000 people. Amazing really, as this is a sizeable place by today’s standards. The 3 main temples to see were interesting and the first was in great condition. After a couple of hours, however, we’d seen enough and were on the road again. The bewildering road systems flushed us out at Enna, Casa De Carmina, Piazazza and Siracusa. Each were pretty and deserving of much more attention than we gave them. Still, we eventually arrived in Siracusa and then negotiated our way through the most bizarre checking-in system to a hotel I’ve ever encountered. The reception, the car parking and then the actual hotel were in three entirely different places in the city. And, because of the elaborate one way systems in operation we had to complete a round trip of several kilometres after checking in just to find our car parking. Then we had to lug our bags through the streets to the hotel. Probably won’t stay there again…
Siracusa is a beautiful city and made us both realize that we’d be back in Sicily at some point. We could easily have spent several days there. Perhaps we’ll time it with when Etna blows its top!
Anyhow, we did wander round of a while admiring the Piazza Duomo and its enormously impressive massive cathedral. Some lovely food followed – our last on Italian soil for a while, for tomorrow early morning we were leaving…