The Return to Sicily, December 2019
Our travels in Sicily are my second experience here, as I previously toured Sicily in November of 2006. For Maggie, a person with a Sicilian father, this is her first trip to Sicily. It is the land “of her people.” A return to her original roots.
We start our two-and-a-half-week trip by taking a train from Roma to Napoli. In an “only in Italy” experience, our train ticket checker is a high-class woman with four-inch-long red glossy fingernails who looks like a model for a high-priced magazine.
An early stop for us on our trip is the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, found on the western Italian coast. The town was founded in the 6th Century BC. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed by the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. While Herculaneum was almost entirely preserved by being caked with a shell of solidified mud (it is one of the very few ancient Roman towns preserved almost in its entirety -- including much of its woodwork), Pompeii (which I visited in 2006) woodwork was consumed by fire.
Both towns are well worth your visit.
Our first full day and night find us in the very pleasant coastal town of Sorrento. Like so many charming Italian cities, Sorrento is a “Christmas Town” in December, as its lovely and romantic old streets lend themselves to be sweetly decorated with holiday lights and ribbons. So that is exactly what is done in Sorrento. Of course, it is irresistible to walk in Sorrento, which means that we notice a great many residents walk in this little town.
This resort town has a character much like Old Towne Key West Florida. Streets are very festive -- particularly during the winter holidays. It is very much one of the charming Italian Christmas Towns.
The very picturesque town has been the home of many notable authors and musicians over the years. A delightful, romantic place to stroll.
Sorrento is a worthy place to visit along the impressive Amalfi Coastline in southwest Italy.
We always make it a point to spend all of our time in the “Old Towne” or historic center of the city, where one invariably finds the most charm, romance, lovability, and walkability that the city has to offer, and Sorrento does not disappoint in this regard. We find that Sorrento has many “walking streets” in its historic quarter, and particularly at this time of year, these streets are very enjoyably festive with happy people out and about.
Having forgotten my belt in security at the JFK airport a day earlier, we check prices and see that most street vendors are selling belts for 20 euros. But then we come upon a vendor who is selling her belts for only 5 euros. Not only is her price very low, but she is happy to quickly cut the length of the belt for me when I discover it is too long for my thinner waist due to my low-carb, high-fat diet.
The views of the Mediterranean Sea here are outstanding!
Our next day is a three-for-one day, as we visit the romantic, charming, storybook Amalfi Coast towns of Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello. Each of these towns is set straddling deep coastal ravines, which adds immeasurably to their delightful, unspeakable beauty. Once again, as an indication of how beautiful the cities are to me, I cannot stop taking photos. A reliable measure: The more photos I shoot, the more I love the city. Which is a bit of a tautology…
Wikipedia has this to say about Positano, our first stop today: Positano was an essential stop for the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians on their expeditions to western areas. It is said that the coastal village was named after Poseidon, God of the Sea.
Like many other places along the beautiful Campanian coast, it was a favorite site for wealthy ancient Romans to build rich and grand villas.
Positano became a wealthy market port from the 15th to 17th century and has only continued to grow in popularity over time.
Positano was a port of the Amalfi Republic in medieval times and prospered during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Positano began to attract large numbers of tourists in the 1950s, especially after John Steinbeck published his essay about Positano in Harper's Bazaar in May 1953: "Positano bites deep", Steinbeck wrote. "It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone."
Amalfi is the second town we visit on our Amalfi Coast tour of towns. Amalfi is a lovely, historic village. It was easy for us to see why this town has long been a place to visit and live in by many luminaries. Like other towns in the vicinity, Amalfi is set in a deep, dramatic, scenic ravine. Amalfi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Long, romantic, ancient stone stairways weave throughout the town, like other towns on the Amalfi Coast.
Of course, like almost every town I've visited in Italy over the years, I fall in love with this splendid, breathtaking town. We highly recommend visiting Amalfi.
These are the photos I shot while we strolled in Amalfi.
The lovely village of Ravello was founded in the 5th Century and splendid enough to draw a large number of famous artists, writers, and musicians over the years. Ravello offers a seemingly endless network of ancient, romantic stone walkways and stairways. Ravello is an easy town to fall in love with, and enjoy with a loved one.
Next, we summit the mighty Vesuvius Volcano. It is an easy, 20-minute walk on a wide, ash-filled path. The crater at the top is enormous, and steam continues to issue from it. Vesuvius, you see, remains a grumpy mountain. To celebrate our visiting the volcano, Maggie and I toast at the rim of the crater with a glass of wine.
According to Wikipedia, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae, as well as several other settlements. The eruption ejected a cloud of stones, ashes, and volcanic gases to a height of 21 miles, erupting molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 7.8×105 cubic yards per second, ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. More than 1,000 people died in the eruption. It was one of the most catastrophic eruptions of all time.
Vesuvius has erupted many times since and is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years. Today, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the population of 3,000,000 people living near enough to be affected, with 600,000 in the danger zone, making it the most densely populated volcanic region in the world, as well as its tendency towards violent, explosive eruptions.
Our plan, designed to save some time and lodging money, is to take an overnight ferry from Salerno to Catania in Sicily. Our walk to the ferry dock starts out leisurely, as we are hours ahead of the departure time for the ferry. But our little walk turns out to be a HUGE, hours-long ordeal, as it turns out that one must traverse for miles and miles in an industrial, parking-lot-choked area full of 18-wheeler tractor-trailers. With no signs informing us of which direction to take, we are obligated to ask for directions several times. Each of the first three times we ask for directions, however, leads us astray, as the directions are wrong each time. Finally, after a great deal of stress and worry, we happen upon an entry. There are no signs. Only huge trailer trucks streaming toward a hidden dock. A man in a security booth ushers us to a shuttle van after he learns we are looking for the ferry, and the van drives us through an obstacle course maze of big trucker rigs.
It turns out, in other words, that it IS impossible to walk to this ferry! Unless one is a lunatic. The area where the ferry is found is in the middle of an industrial freight container truck zone packed with hundreds of massive tractor-trailer trucks (our ferry was so huge that it must have held 2,000 18-wheeler trucks).
We discover that we seem to be the only non-truckers on the ferry. Our room, thankfully, was clean and adequate for the journey.
We arrive in Catania and soon travel to Ortigia in Siracusa, where we dine at Osteria La Gazza Ledra. After finishing our first course, I wait over 90 minutes for my second course only to learn that the reason for the very long wait was that the waitress had never taken my order! Good thing we asked, because had we not, I would STILL be waiting for my second course!
Soon after Catania, we find ourselves in the medieval neighborhood of Ortigia in Siracusa. I love Ortigia perhaps more than any other place on earth. We spend glorious days enjoying Ortigia. On one particular day, we engage in one of our favorite activities in the medieval town centers of European cities -- bicycling! In Ortigia, the food market and deli are can't-miss experiences.
As these links to the videos I shot show, one finds a lot of singing and shouting and endless food in the outdoor Italian food markets.
The castle at the south end of the Ortigia peninsula is overwhelming and seemingly impenetrable based on its many fortifications. The ancient Greek Theatre (Teatro Greco) is also quite impressive. Because it is so charming, human-scaled, and romantic, Ortigia is happy to show itself off as a "Christmas Town" by festooning its streets with festive holiday lights.
The Ortigia historic quarter is FILLED with stupendous streets that make my heart sing every time we encounter and stroll on a street here. I feel as if I can barely stand the joy. BIG smile on my face the entire time we are in Ortigia. I am like a kid in a candy store. I could visit this place every month and be as happy as a clam (or live here permanently!).
In sum, I am in love with Ortigia.
Ortigia has the full package, which explains why I love it so much. It has overwhelmingly spectacular food, wine, happy and attractive people, architecture, and sightseeing. It is also a festive place.
Here, we come upon a telling quote at what is perhaps the best food market on earth in Ortigia: “I don’t envy god heaven…because I’m happy to live in Sicily.” – Frederico II di Svevia. Exactly, Frederico…
We train from Siracusa to the lovely little medieval hill town of Ragusa Ibla. So lovely that even though I had first visited it in 2006, I feel it worthy to visit again -- breaking my travel rule of not visiting a place more than once. I tend to live by that rule because there is so much I want to see in the world that I don't have time to see places more than once!
According to Wikipedia, Ragusa Ibla was founded in 2 BC. The town was devastated in the 1693 earthquake. Historically, it was conquered by the ancient Romans and the Byzantines, who fortified the city and built a large castle. Ragusa was occupied by the Arabs in 848 AD, remaining under their rule until the 11th century, when the Normans conquered it.
The town is home to a wide array of Baroque architecture, including several stunning palaces and churches.
According to Wikipedia, the Cathedral of San Giorgio was started in 1738 by architect Rosario Gagliardi, in place of the temple destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, and which is the only place in the city a Catalan-Gothic style portal can still be seen. The façade contains a flight of 250 steps and massive ornate columns, as well as statues of saints and decorated portals.
On a narrow winding street connecting Ragusa Ibla with Ragusa Superiore lies the church of Santa Maria delle Scale ("Saint Mary of the Steps", built between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries). This church is particularly interesting: badly damaged in the earthquake of 1693, half of this church was rebuilt in Baroque style, while the surviving half was kept in the original Gothic style (including the three Catalan-style portals in the right aisle). The last chapel of the latter has a Renaissance portal. The chapels are adorned with canvases by Sicilian painters of the 18th century.
One of our day trips from our four-day base camp of Siracusa was to visit Noto and Modica. We tour the wonderful town of Modica central area of Sicily on December 5th. Modica is known for many things, and one of the most obvious to us was their fame for chocolate. We see it everywhere in Modica.
Another noteworthy attribute is the endless stairs one must climb in Modica.
That night, we are fortunate to serendipitously stumble upon an enoteca wine bar in a quiet little alley. The proprietors bend over backward with their generous kindness and offerings of fantastic platters of various meats and cheeses, as well as having us sample their special wines.
We have a fabulous time there.
We have a lot of fun in Ortigia Siracusa and Modica. Noto, however, does not quite meet our expectations. The town is cute-ish and has some nice architecture. But during our December visit, it was too lacking in street life and seemed too quiet. Still, in 2002, Noto and its church were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We arrive in the beautiful, wealthy resort town of Taormina on December 8th. Here, as I still recall from my visit here 14 years ago, we enjoy the many stunning views of the sea that Taormina offers.
At our first ristorante here, we sample pistachio expresso for the first time, and a pistachio crème liquor (southern Italians and Sicilians are very big on pistachios, probably correctly boasting that their nut is the best in the world). We also enjoy a very nice half carafe of local Rosso wine along with two absolutely delicious plates of assorted cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, and meats.
By this time in our trip to Italia, by the way, it seems that I have been eating crazy delicious food and drinking fabulous vino, almost continuously, morning, afternoon and night since our arrival.
On our second day in Taormina, we visit the spectacular Teatro Greco, Taormina’s ancient Greek Theatre, which is said, rightly, to be the most impressive in all of Sicily. One of the things I’ve always been impressed by at this theatre is how the designers set up the venue so that spectators would have an incredible view of the picturesque bay and the imposing Mount Etna on the horizon just above the stage.
After visiting the theatre, we ascend the nearly endless stairs to Chiesa Della Rocca, a church that offers huge panoramic views of the region beyond Taormina. We then ride the cable car (Funivia) down to the charming little cove in Taormina Bay, where one finds little coves and a beautiful island (appropriately called Isola Bella).
One finds the three-legged Sicilian flag all over the island. The three-legged ancient symbol of Trinacria is the head of Medusa (a gorgon with a head of snakes) overlaying three legs – interspersed with stalks of wheat -- conjoined at the hips and flexed in a triangle. It was first adopted in 1282 by the Sicilian Vespers.
We arrive at Mount Etna on December 10th. Our guide (“Mr Excursions”) is very knowledgeable about the region, and takes us on a very impressive hike on the slopes of the volcano, including ash/cinder fields, volcanic cones, volcanic craters, and a long underground volcanic tube. While hiking, we hear Etna growling loudly several times. The volcano remains actively angry and is talking to us during our hike. Even our tour guide gets nervous and wants us to pick up our pace.
The guide then takes us to one of Mount Etna’s best wineries. Gambino Winery provides us with six bottles of vino to sample their product, along with a fine selection of local meats, cheeses, tomatoes, and fish. Our winery guide provides a very thorough summary of their product. The winery, we learn by tasting, produces outstanding Rose and Rosso wines. Gambino wines, like other wineries near Mount Etna, produce wines that benefit from the rich volcanic soils they grow on.
After Taormina, we bus back to Catania. There, of course, we visit the obligatory La Pescheria. As you can see in the video I shot in this link, the place is so boisterous, raucous and fun that crowds of people stand along a balcony above this world-famous fish market just to enjoy the action below them. At La Peschericia, we feast on the famous Sicilian street foods of boiled tripe and boiled beef cheek (barbacoa), and the vegetables of roasted red pepper and roasted artichoke, among other similar delicacies. We have eaten none of these street market delicacies before, and enjoy them so much that we vow to prepare them when we return home.
We walk the impressive, Baroque street named Via Crocifori. From there, we stumble upon a medieval neighborhood just west of the main city train stazione. Surprisingly, the neighborhood – despite very impressive urban design “bones” – is a festering sore in the city. It is a skid row full of drug pushers and prostitutes. I wonder why it has not gentrified, and decide it must be partly due to opponents of gentrification.
In sum, we recommend visiting Catania, but we suggest not allocating more than a few hours to walk the city.
Our next base is the little hilltop medieval town of Enna. Enna has the highest perch of any of the many Italian hilltowns, which provides it with spectacular panoramic views of the central Sicily landscape. In Enna, we go to Tommy’s Wine, which gets RAVE reviews from our Enna apartment proprietor as well as many online reviewers. The reviewers were SO RIGHT! His wine is one of the best I have ever had in my entire life (a Nero d'Altura Lombardo). And Tommy’s food is out of this world. Tommy has a very tiny place (only five tables), but it is perhaps one of the world’s best examples of how one must prioritize quality over quantity.
It is cold and rainy while we are in the clouds of Enna, but I manage to squeeze in a morning town perimeter walk. Enna is worth a few hours of your time to walk it. Shockingly, we are awoken this morning at 5:30 am by an outdoor marching band! What marching band performs at that ungodly hour? We are informed that it was likely part of the annual celebration of one of the many Catholic saints.
A day trip from Enna brings us to nearby Piazza Armenia, where we encounter fabulous building architecture and wonderful streets.
The Duomo itself is worth the price of admission.
While in Piazza Armenia, we take a taxi to the overwhelming Villa Romana del Casala. This Roman palace is immense in size and nearly all of its floor space is covered with highly impressive mosaics that tell stories about hunting and other aspects of Roman life at that time. According to Wikipedia, excavations have revealed one of the richest, largest, and most varied collections of Roman mosaics in the world, for which the site has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The villa and artwork contained within date to the early 4th century AD.
The mosaic and opus sectile floors cover some 3,500 square meters and are almost unique in their excellent state of preservation due to the landslide and floods that covered and therefore preserved the remains.
For me, the most memorable and astonishing aspect of the palace is a mosaic of women of Ancient Rome wearing what appears to be an ancient version of a bikini. The inscription at the palace informs us, however, that this is a depiction of female athletes wearing athletic attire.
We recommend allocating at least two hours to the palace.
After the palace, we are fortunate to visit Siciliartegusto, a fun enoteca run by a father and son. We arrive too early for their hours, so we opt for the palace visit and promise to return after the palace. Our taxi driver, conveniently, knows the enoteca owner, so when he drops us off in Piazza Armenia after the palace visit, he calls the owner to inform him that we are waiting for his shop to open again. We are greatly amused when, while we walk to the enoteca, the owner passes us in his car and shouts out the window that his shop is open again after the afternoon siesta!
Probably because it is the off-season, the enoteca father and son bend over backward to offer us generous kindness at their shop. They insist we sample their best wines and their many fresh foods.
That night, our nightcap is at the very good PaccaMora wine bar in Enna, which has been recommended to us by our apartment proprietor.
For our first night and day in Palermo, on the northern Sicilian coastline, we experience a drenching rain. We walk the polished limestone streets regardless of their being slippery rivers under these conditions.
Palermo is quite a monumental city – comparable to Rome in that regard. I find the architecture here to be similar to what is found in Barcelona.
We dine our first night at the highly-rated Palazzo Sambuca, and now know why it is rated so well. They are known for their fish and seafood – particularly their swordfish. We sample their grilled calamari, and it is the best calamari we have ever eaten in our entire lives. After that remarkable antipasti, I opt for their homemade gnocchi, which is combined with swordfish. Superb. For secondi, it is squid stew, which I thoroughly enjoy, as it is highly flavorful – a taste for big flavors and spices I have learned earlier in the trip by one of our hosts is something the Calabrese (like me) are known for.
After dinner, we encounter -- in this video I shot -- street music in a piazza.
Tragically, too many of the ancient polished limestone streets in Palermo have been covered with dull, crappy, crumbling asphalt. Now, instead of the timeless, durable, beautiful charm of the original limestone, these routes have become ugly, litter-strewn alleys no one loves or cares about. And again, the new asphalt is much more of a maintenance headache and cost than the limestone. Who needs enemies when we have ourselves to degrade our streets?
The next day, under sunny and warmer skies, after peeking into a few overwhelmingly ornate Palermo churches (St Catherine of Alexandria is particularly mind-blowing), we visit the Monreale Cathedral, said to be one of the most important sights in all of Sicily.
Earlier in the day, we have lunch at Mercato del Capo, one of three fine outdoor food markets in Palermo (all of which are well-known for their outstanding street food). Mercato del Capo turns out to offer many fantastically delicious street foods, which are both highly flavorful and extremely affordable. I opt for a tray chock full of several different fresh seafoods sprinkled with lime juice (squid, octopus, clams, etc.). Large enough for two, it costs me a mere 5 euros. In combination with other accessory items we buy, it is my most wonderful lunch ever.
One of our favorite treats, when we visit an Italian town, is to encounter the much-loved evening community stroll. The ritual is known as “la passeggiata,” Each evening, between the hours of 5 pm and 8 pm, Italians take to the streets, to walk and socialize. Sociologists label la passeggiata a cultural performance, and on Saturdays and Sundays entire families participate, this frequently being the main social event of the day. Afterward, everyone heads home together for the evening meal.
The passeggiata in Palermo mostly occurs on their main walking street (Via Maqueda), and it is an unforgettable, inspiring sight to see. This link is a video I shot as we joined the stroll.
Via Maqueda is a large street, yet like our recent experience in Bologna, la passeggiata so fills the large street that it is a gridlock of congestion by strollers that one normally only sees with a road clogged with cars.
But in contrast to car congestion, when everyone is angry with everyone else on the road, stroller congestion adds to the sociable joy of being on common ground with other people. As Dan Burden once said, cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.
One of many things that makes me proud to be an Italian is the Italian tradition of la passeggiata.
As I understand it, the size and popularity of la passeggiata on Via Maqueda have been growing over the years (it became a walking street in June 2018). I believe that is because such an event benefits from being a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle. That is, because humans are a social species and our world tends to isolate us from each other, something that draws people to sociably be with others is so enjoyable and such a “people-watching treat” that others in the city start learning about the enjoyable event and join in. And this growing number of participants induces even more to join as word about it is spread (or people encounter it on their own). And so on and so on.
La passeggiata is, in the words of urban designers, a “social condenser” that most humans seek out to enjoy.
In my view, all cities, to be healthy, should have a nightly passeggiata.
We bus to a suburb of Palermo, which contains the extensive and utterly fascinating Catabombe dei Cappuccini. Highly morbid, but extremely interesting. DO NOT MISS THIS!
For lunch, we first stroll through Ballaro Market in Palermo and then return to the culinary delights of Mercato del Capo. Our wine for lunch was simply stupendous! And again, highly affordable. This is a video I shot as we walked through Ballaro.
Tonight we visit an enoteca on the Via Maqueda walking street (we can’t resist!)
All in all, Palermo is highly enjoyable – particularly on the Via Maqueda walking street. Such a delightful city that we are anxious to return again, despite my “rule” about not visiting a place more than once.
We enjoy a delicious meal of typical Sicilian dishes in Piazza Armerina, topped with a superb Sicilian Nero D'Avola wine at a remarkable wine shop in Piazza Armerina. We spent the day wandering the streets and visiting Villa Romana del Casale and popped in here to warm up and have a glass of local wine. The hospitality Giusseppe and his father show us is unmatched. The food and wine are superb but their generosity is beyond our expectations.
We notice a number of times in our travels on the Amalfi Coast and in Sicily that many ancient buildings have a great deal of plaster flaking off the exterior walls. We see this happening on so many buildings that I wonder if it is being flaked off deliberately. After all, the medieval stone under the plaster looks much more impressive and interesting, and ancient than the plaster. In addition, the underlying stone surely requires less maintenance than the plaster. Here is to more flaking!
Our newly-discovered loves from this Italy trip include Frappato wine, Nero D’Avola wine, grilled tripe and grilled barbacoa (beef cheek), and fried chick pea flour.
Our trip to the Amalfi Coast and Sicily highlighted tradeoffs for off-season travel that our December trip exemplified. On the one hand, prices are lower, proprietors starved for customers bend over backward to serve you (indeed, to treat you like kings and queens), and crowds are smaller. On the other hand, some retailers and restaurants, and services are closed for the season, and the smaller crowds make the cities less festive.