Before going to Sicily, I had heard it was a place of contrast between extreme beauty with stunning landscapes and impressive architecture set against the ugliness of the industrial sprawl of highways, wealth disparity and general disrepair of many of the cities.
An island with two sides then, the apparent beauty and the beast of Sicily.
Nothing could prepare me for how true this was.
Picture the scene:
Beautiful wedding. On our way to watch Carmen at the Ancient Theatre (open air, stunning). Wandering along the clifftop roadside with my mum, we spotted a wedding down on the beach front.
We discussed the lights and flowers that appeared to be floating on the water, mused about what a fantastic place this was for a wedding and then…
I noticed, over the wall, a man’s head jerking in an odd erratic manner. Oh dear, I thought, is he having some sort of fit? As I quickly walked along to the gap in the wall, I see that no, he was not having a fit. His problem was not medical. This man had his trousers and pants at his ankles and was pleasuring himself over the rail of the pathway. Worse still, with a perfect view of the wedding below…From the beauty of Italian opera, classical architecture, palm trees and wedding bouquets to the Sicilian beast.
Imagine the wedding photos.
I managed to discourage my mum from throwing the contents of her water bottle at him (in retrospect, a mistake) and we moved on, partly in shock, horror and partly giggles.
What we did…(besides spotting perverts)
Having met up with a friend last night, I have discovered that this is not an uncommon occurence and she herself has seen pleasure-seekers of the aforementioned kind in Portugal, Spain and France. Very continental, and perhaps a reason to holiday in Cornwall next time. Despite this unsavoury experience, Taormina was a beautiful, fantastic holiday and has quickly found itself on my top list of European holiday destinations.
The weather (mid 30s upwards) and intense humidity, as an American on the cable car drawled to us “I can cope with dry heat, but this humidity arghhghg…”, meant anything too strenuous was off the itinerary. However, my mum is of the school of thought that a holiday does not involve relaxing or lie-ins, so we, complete with a 3 euro fan, visited the following during our week in Sicily…
I may be biased, having done an Ancient History degree, but I thought this site was fantastic. There isn’t much left of the actual original structure, the many different cultures and regimes of this illustrious island have left their mark, but it is worth it for the view alone.
We saw it in the early evening and watched Carmen and I was in awe of the setting rather than the operatics, impressive as they were.
Boasting a beautiful view of Etna, set in the centre of Taormina and overlooking the sea, are the stunning public gardens. Complete with war memorials, fountains to drink from, a few caged 😦 parrots and some absolutely adorable cats.
Around the corner are a few different mini markets where you can get tasty sandwiches filled with mozarella, olives and herbs (as well as salami etc)
If you have a crush on Indiana Jones and let’s face it what red blooded female doesn’t, there are also some very Indiana-esque buildings and structures around, which make your holiday pics look more like you visited Thailand but without the food poisoning or annoying gap year students.
It had to be done. I only have one other volcano to make a comparison to, another Italian, Vesuvius. Whilst Vesuvius is fairly easy to reach the crater and we got nowhere near the peak of the active Etna, for sheer size and stunning views over the fertile volcanic earth, Etna wins hands down.
We booked a tour which drove up the pollen filled air of the lower parts of Etna, going past several smaller craters and then you are dropped off at the “station” which is predictably touristy with pizzerias and the feel of a small, outside airport. There is then an option to get a cable car which takes you up to 2500 ft and then you may hire, at further expense, a jeep and guide or trek yourselves. We chose to trek ourselves and had a great time scrambling around rocks of a lower crater and had a good slog going as far up the main stretch as we could in the time we had.
The guided tour didn’t seem to offer much more and a lot less freedom of where to go, but I would definitely suggest taking the cable cars, otherwise you don’t get the real sense of being on a volcano.
We were warned that it would be cold up Etna, so wore the mandatory trousers and carried cardigans along with us. It is not cold up Etna at the end of July, during a heatwave. I don’t really believe it could ever be cold in Sicily but I’m sure if you go out of season, it’s another story.
The guide bus on the right hand pic gives a sense of scale!
Other sites: Isola Bella- Along the coastal road, a beautiful little island which you can pay to walk around (it’s very small indeed with a few rooms containing an odd museum collection of taxidermy). My favourite part of this area was the beach which has lots of rocks you can sit on and paddle if you don’t fancy a big swim. Appeared to be popular with Italians too.
Castelmola – A sort of village at the top of Taormina, it looks best from below, a tottering collection of houses resting on the edge of a cliff face. We got a tour bus up there and were impressed by stunning views of Etna and the sea below. We weren’t informed that the bus stop changed halfway through the day though and spent a while waiting for a non-existent bus before, following some better informed tourists, we found the new bus stop. Typical relaxed Italian approach to information!
What we ate…
I am glad we only booked a 7 day trip as I spent most of this scoffing Sicilian delights. From lemon drenched olives (low on calories, high on taste) to mounds of ice cream, cheese, pizza, pasta, I think I’ve probably put on a sicilian stone or two.
This carbohydrate coma is not an uncommon occurence in the wonderful foodie heaven that is Italia.
But Sicily had a few extra treats for my bulging waistline,
So bad it’s incredible. Like the culinary gods decided to get the best food ever, risotto and make it even better by deep frying it.
It sounds horrific but it is delicious. The contents of these fried goodies, which look like Scotch eggs, varies.
We had spinaci arancini, filled with yummy cheese, risotto and seasoned spinach.
I have just read about a London based company the Arancini brothers, and I think I will be heading there soon to get my risotto ball fix.
2. La Parmigiana di Melanzane.
Aubergines are always a bit hit or miss for me and often turn out bitter. Sicily is renowned for doing aubergines well and that includes this delicious cheesy mix of calorific culinary heaven.
Another aubergine triumph, a kind of stew. Very tasty and felt, probably misguidedly, to be a lower calorie option. Very tasty, very fresh and just another tick for the vegetarian visting a place renowned for its seafood.
4. Gelato. The less said about this the better. I did manage to have two sorbets which made me feel a little less guilty. Everyone knows Italians do ice cream and love best, well I LOVED every single flavour especially the prevalent nutella. Except the mint, which compared to our mint choc chip, did actually taste of toothpaste.
And if you are an omnivore, the world is your oyster, especially in Sicily where seafood is apparently exceptional (being an island and all, not sure if this rings true in good old Britain with fishfingers and soggy chips).
Having bumped into my mum’s cousin and family (lovely surprise, although slightly nervewracking as my mother kept referring to “FAMILY” in what I think she believed to be Mafiosa-style but sounded more Eastenders, sorry mum!) One of whom ordered fish and was given a tray of the oggly eyed fish to pick from. Not an expert myself but they looked fat, fishy and erm edible? She seemed to enjoy it.
I may be a self confessed Italophile but I really do think Sicily has something for everyone and is too stunning a place not to visit.
So my key tips for a successful stay in Sicily:
-Insect spray. Despite being near the sea, there were an alarming amount of biting insects so do cover up. If you get a handy sized one this can be carried around for beasts of another kind.
-If you book a hotel down on the beach, invest in a cable car ticket at 30 euros a week. That hill is not worth it for the amount of times you will want to explore the centre of Taormina. Think sweaty thighs and just get a ticket already.
-Continue to apply suncream during Etna trip, even if it feels chilly. My back is not thanking me.
-For some reason, me and my mum took a shine to the man who seemed to run a tiny little supermarket just off the public gardens. Perhaps because he politely tried to understand my poor attempt at Italian, especially when I had word vomit and could not say Vegetariano. It’s called Venuto mini-market.
So we put on several stone (worth every pound ((kinder bueno gelato)) and had our English sensibilities shaken by as my cousin put it, “rustic sicily”.
But despite this, we had no dealings with the Mafia, only got slightly burnt going up Etna and weren’t frisked at the airport (although we had mixed feelings about this, Ciao Italian security guards)
All in all, an excellent trip.