This is a Guest Post
Europe for years has been sitting unchallenged on the top of my bucket list of places, in fact, I have a separate bucket for it. There is something so intrinsically magical about Europe that it’s a never waning love affair. Last August, I spent a week on the splendid island of Sicily, with my husband who was there on a business trip.
“Without Sicily, Italy leaves no image in the soul. Sicily is the key to everything.” That’s what Goethe wrote in 1787 in his Italian Journey, and of course, no one who has ever been to Sicily leaves without feeling it’s magic. It offers fantastic sunny southern weather and multi-colored beaches to layer upon layer of history to great seafood and more. Sicily’s cultural variation can be seen everywhere on the island. Sicily is an autonomous island state, having it’s own President and flag. This lends a deep pride to its inhabitants, so much so that they prefer to be called Sicilians.
The Leonardo da Vinci airport, also known as Fiumicino, is no Schiphol or Charles de Gaulle in matters of experience, and be prepared to encounter delays in baggage, immigration officers engaged in animated chatter while you are waiting to get your passport stamped etc. As our Roman guide would put it, ‘Italians can agree only on one thing, FOOD’. Language was a major hurdle throughout, but the locals are happy to help nevertheless. Look out for Asian faces, you’ll find many (Bangladeshis esp, so Bengali’s can have an upper hand), seek assistance from them. You can learn a huge lesson in patience from their chaotically overwhelming and leisurely style of functioning. These are the only spoiler alerts, miniscule in the comparison to what Italy has to offer.
I landed in Catania, cramped on a bumpy Alitalia flight holding on to my beyond expectations experience on the Indian Dreamliner for succour, just before midnight,. Sore with traveling for almost 14 hours, I hit the bed instantly after gorging on some exotic seafood dinner. It’s only in the morning when I draw the curtains open that the Ionian Sea spills into our room, soaking me in it’s peaceful waves instantly.
Catania has energy to sell and beautiful, grandiose black-and-white baroque piazzas and cathedrals built out of the black volcanic rock that Etna had rained on the city. The city has one of the most vibrant fish markets on the island. The Piazza Duomo is center of the city’s bustling life with bars, clubs and eateries dotting the cobbled and ochre landscape catering to the city’s fun-loving (largely student) population.
All the while, Mt Etna broods on the horizon, with a powerful presence. In the late 1600s, the city was struck first, by a volcanic eruption and then an earthquake, but it rose like a phoenix. Under the supervision of architects Giovanni Vaccarini and Stefano Ittar, a new street grid was created incorporating spacious squares and streets of differing widths, all designed to provide escape routes and shelter in case of another eruption.
Roaming around the Piazza Duomo we worked up an appetite, and my husband took me to this wonderful tratorria called La Canonica, situated on via Raddusa. It could easily be mistaken for an antique shop, every wall and mantelpiece had a character of it’s own. The menu is not in English and neither the owner who is the one waiting the tables speaks the language. Thankfully, my husband could converse a few words and we were good.
Mount Etna, the biggest active volcano in Europe, towering 10,922 feet over the island of Sicily is a wild thing, under close 24-hour surveillance. A guided excursion along the mammoth volcano’s fertile slopes was the highlight of our Sicilian adventure. While coming down we bought some Etna souvenirs, carved out of lava and yes, don’t forget to buy your bottle of‘Etna Fire’, a sure proof of the fiery temper of this active volcano. Also, this is where the rains started stalking us in our Italian journey, following us further to Rome and then Venice.
Vacations are the time to forgo the weight watch and indulgence is prescribed in dollops, so no meal would be complete without a good old house wine, grappa, limoncellio and the gorgeous Italian desserts (Cannoli, Tiramisu, Biscotti) and gelatos. The diner owners are a proud lot who lovingly wait tables and patiently help you understand the menu, so as an etiquette never leave without complimenting them. Also, do opt for the fresh produce sprawled out on tables, it’s not everyday that one gets a whiff of unadulterated nature..
Taormina has an achingly cliffside setting amidst an evocative ancient Greco-Roman amphitheater. It is Sicily’s most popular summer destination, a chic resort town a favourite destination for high-rollers and visiting celebs. It is unashamedly touristy and has a main street lined with high-end designer shops, with breathtaking views over the Gulf of Naxos and Mt Etna. Note that the main street is a vehicle free zone.
Goethe was an diehard fan, as was DH Lawrence, who lived here between 1920 and 1923, and over the years it has seduced a whole army of writers, artists, aristocrats and royals. Another unforgettable dinner that we had was at the La Pizzoleria, on the Piazza Mazzini. Here we had the Pizzole, a fusion between the Italian pizza and the Indian parantha. Also do visit the awesome gastropub, FUD Bottega Sicula, on Via Santa Filomena.
Syracuse is an hour’s drive from Catania and it encapsulates Sicily’s timeless beauty. Ancient Greek ruins rise out of lush citrus orchards, cafe tables spill onto dazzling baroque piazzas, and medieval lanes lead down to the sparkling blue sea.
There is something ethereal about staring into the infinite horizon standing be the sea. We walked many evenings melting into the red and orange skies, sipping Negroni under the canopies, with an encompassing silence . These moments effortlessly merged with the animated chatter later on a dinner table.
On the last day of our Sicilian sojourn we did what vacationers do, we went shopping. August is a month of sales in Europe and you can get your hands on otherwise out of your pocket brands at dirt cheap prices. I am not a shopaholic, as I prefer to spend on experiences rather than things, but yes I did splurge a bit on stocking up my bakery cart.
Our last dinner, before we took a flight into Rome was at Happy Wok, on the Playa – Palaghiaccio, Viale Kennedy. If you are sea food obsessed then you have an infinite ocean of lavish Chinese and Japanese food to dive into. For twenty euros you have an unlimited buffet. It is a very popular diner so it’s advisable to make reservations. This place is in direct contrast to whatever you have experienced in Sicily up to now, absolutely efficient.
It was a working vacation, so we could only squeeze a slice of Sicily. Being a firm believer in revisiting places, I am hopeful I will come back but for now, this Sicilian chapter will be one to keep me satiated for a long time.
Bela Upadhyay – someone who simply hates to slot herself as this and that; here and there. Never confined to the ordinary and mundane mould she believes in breaking them and reshaping my box. Her monologues are her takeaways from life and her getaways from the constipated humbug.
Her monologues are her stories…..and stories around her.