After 6 weeks of work travel, I was really looking forward to this trip. I had no idea what crazy adventures were awaiting...
I flew to Catania, on the east side of the island of Sicily, where I met up with my good friend Kopervos. I was expecting a cute beach town instead we found a big, dirty city. Needless to say I did not fall in love with Catania, but the views of Mt. Etna, the largest, active volcano in Europe were quite impressive, and, of course, the gelato was very tasty. We spent the first day exploring the city and the next we took a hike around the volcanic craters. Our guide, a big time Geology smarty-pants, and his girlfriend did a great job of showing us around. They took us into a house that was partially buried by lava, into a cave created by a lava lake, and to a place where a lava stream stopped just short of a Mary statue that had women selling all varieties of honey (or as I call them “honey pushers”) --- strawberry honey, almond honey, eucalyptus honey!
That evening I was introduced to what is now one of my favorite Italian dish…pasta alla norma. Go figure, eggplant could spice up regular spaghetti so much!
On the third day we took a bus to the cliff-side town of Taormina. This beautiful village was much more like what I had envisioned of Sicily. The only thing about cliff-side villages is that there are usually a lot of steep, winding roads leading down from the upper most point. We realized just how steep and windy when we foolishly set off on foot, with luggage in tow, from the bus station in search of our hotel. About 40 minutes, probably 2 miles, and half my body weight in sweat later, we learned that it was located pretty darn close to the top – great views though, as Kop assured me in her ever-positive way. With the look of utter desperation in our eyes, we finally stopped an older, local gentleman to ask how much further and he graciously offered us a ride the last half block to the Villa Ducale.
Well, Kopervos was right…the views were amazing from this place, at night we could actually see the lava streams running down Mt. Etna! And we had an incredibly warm welcome from Lucca, the hotel manager, to this utterly charming Villa hotel. Enjoying a crisp glass of wine on the outdoor terrace before dinner was just heavenly. The cherry on top of this lovely day (post-trek up the cliff side!) was a fantastic zucchini, risotto dinner and chocolate gelato dessert.
It was difficult leaving that wonderful place, but more adventures awaited so we were off to Vulcano, one of the Aeolian islands. It was quite the process getting there, involving 2 taxis, 2 trains, one incredibly late ferry, a hotel shuttle van, and finally, finally the most gorgeous hotel/spa I could have imagined complete with a pool boy (excuse me, pool man) named Carmelo. After settling into our luxurious room and drinking in the magnificent views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, we decided it was time to brave the nasty sulfur smell that permeated the entire island outside of our hotel, and try out the thermal mud baths the place was famous for.
How do I paint the picture of what it was like wading in a boiling mud puddle and scooping so-called therapeutic mud on to your body in the 100 degree weather? I can sum it up in just one word --- gross!
Thankfully there were normal, albeit black sand from the lava flow, beaches nearby where we could wash off and try to get rid of some of the horrible smell we voluntarily put on our bodies.
Our final stop on this whirlwind vacation was to the city of Palermo where we met our cooking instructor, Vincenzo, an American raised Sicilian who moved back from Baton Rouge to open Ristorante Cin Cin. Vince’s first lesson was to open our minds to local “delicacies” at the outdoor market where we picked up our ingredients for the day. It was a lot fun, but I didn’t really appreciate being made to eat a lung & spleen sandwich or a snack of hot, animal fat from a mystery basket on the street….yuck! The rest of our cooking experience was a big success, we learned to make pesto, sweet & sour pumpkin, breaded eggplant, and stuffed calamari (all me, by the way).
During our lesson, a New Jersey book writer came by to interview our teacher for a novel she’s writing about an American girl who up and moves to Italy. She really added to our experience and was nice enough that we asked her to come exploring with us for the rest of the afternoon.
After the cooking we went to the Cappuccino (yes, seriously) Catacombs, basically an external cemetery that has over 8,000 preserved skeletons still wearing their 1800s dress! It was solemn, amazingly historic, a little creepy, and very cool. After that intense experience we were in need of something lighter, so we went to a traditional marionette show. Although I couldn’t follow the story line since the whole show was in Italian, and Sicilian at that, the skills of the puppeteers, who worked several 20 lb dolls at one time, was unreal.
I wasn’t really expecting much from this trip, but in the end it turned out to be one of the most adventurous I have ever been on! Now it’s back to work where I can have a vacation from my vacation…..