Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sicily-The Good and The Bad

Two weeks ago Rick and I took Friday and Monday off from work to visit the island of Sicily, which is off the coast of Italy.  The reason for our trip was to meet Rick's brother Ron (who was there working for a couple of weeks), his wife Kim, and her mother Mary.

We flew out of Nürnberg airport on Friday morning to Catania on the east side of the island.  We were very excited for a number of reasons-the warm sunny weather, the prospect of some delicious Sicilian food, being able to explore another new place, and getting to spend some quality time with family.  We haven't seen Ron and Kim together in at least a few years and it was wonderful to see them after so long.

The first place we visited was a city called Taormina.  My first impression was that the city could only have been settled by a herd of mountain goats. It's perched on top of an extremely steep, rocky peak high above the ocean.  It's an ancient city with it's supposed founding in 392BC.  I can't even fathom that time frame, so for the sake of argument, I'll just refer to it as 'really old'.  From what I've read, it has been ruled/inhabited over the centuries by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the French and the Spanish.  Once you witness this unusual city and the breathtaking views of the ocean and Mount Etna (an active volcano) one can completely understand why so many people have tried to conquer this place.  We enjoyed some window shopping and some coffee while wandering the small cobblestone streets.  One of the unique things about the city is all of the stone staircases.  Since it is built on a mountain, it does make sense that there would be a need for so many stairs.  Each one is different and beautiful and they all seem to be leading to some enchanted place.  Upon further inspection, most of them led to a hotel, a shop, or a restaurant, but they were still something to see.

Beautiful Taormina

Gorgeous ocean view

One of many unique stairways

Stairway lined with orange trees

Enjoying my favorite sport-shopping!

Colorful fruit stand with some of the biggest lemons I've ever seen

Fresh herbs, spices, and oils for sale on the street
 It seems that the biggest tourist attraction in Toarmina is the Greek Theater or 'Teatro Greco'.  It was built by the Greeks in the 3rd Century BC and added on to by the Romans.  It is an open-air amphitheater with one of the most spectacular views I've ever seen.  You can see the ocean on two sides and snow-capped Mount Etna in the distance.  If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the city inhabitants sitting and watching a play centuries upon centuries ago.

Amazing view from the Greek Theater

Rick holding up the wall of the Greek Theater

The city still uses this venue for events.  How much fun would it be to see a play there?

That night we ate at a very unique restaurant in the city of Catania.  It was in the basement of a hostel, which doesn't sound very nice, but it had a great atmosphere and the food was quite good.  The attraction of this place is that a river flows through the stone basement that houses the restaurant.  The river and the cave were formed over 300 years ago by a volcanic eruption from Mount Etna.  We ate a wonderful Sicilian cheese appetizer and we all ordered our respective dishes.  I had a fabulous cous cous with chicken and chick peas that had just the Mediterranean flair I was looking for.  Rick and Ron opted for one of the local Sicilian specialties-horse meat.  I know that this is nothing strange to the Sicilians, but needless to say, I wasn't too keen on the idea.  Ultimately Rick concluded that even though the meat was good, it wasn't something that he would order again.  At least one of the two of us is adventurous enough to try things like that!

Next to the river/stream that runs through the restaurant

Hmmm, is that Mr. Ed you're eating??

Enjoying a fun meal with Ron, Kim, and her mother Mary

Before I continue with our weekend, let me explain that driving/riding in a car in Sicily is one of the craziest things that I have ever experienced.  It's almost like being right in the middle of a real live video game.  Most of the roads are old, full of potholes, and very narrow.  The Italians seem to have an extreme lack of patience and are fairly oblivious to any normal traffic rules, plus they all seem to be very acquainted with their car horns.  Add to that a million scooters and mopeds darting in and out of traffic any time they like and you are faced with some very unnerving road experiences.  Ron and Kim both shared the driving while we were there and they proved to be rock stars in my book since we all lived to tell the tale!

Our next trip was to the top of Mount Etna, which is one of the world's most active volcanoes.  In fact, it's most recent eruption was on January 13, 2011.  We made our way up the incredibly steep and winding (can you say carsick?) road to the top.  There was still snow at that elevation and it was very sunny, so the sun  gleamed beautifully off of the snow.  We walked around the rim of a crater at the top of the mountain that was being used by some daring people as a hill for their snow sleds.  We stood for a long time to take in the view and admire Mother Nature's spectacular beauty. We were so high on the mountain that we were above the clouds, which was a sight to see in itself.  We had some lunch at a little cafeteria/gift shop and looked at all of the colorful pictures of the different eruptions over the years.  Our lunch consisted of two foods that we saw a lot of in Sicily:  pizza with french fries on top (surprisingly good and it saves you a step!) and something called 'arancini di riso'. This is a ball of rice filled with a spaghetti type meat sauce and then fried.  It's said that in eastern Sicily they are fried into a cone-shape to resemble Mount Etna, so it's very fitting that we enjoyed one while on top of it!

This was taken with the timer from the roof of the car ;-)

Fun Sicilian food -pizza with fries (yum) and an 'arancini di riso'

Sledding into the crater

Lava trail left by the recent eruption

After all of the natural beauty on the mountain, we decided to partake in another type of nature's beauty-wine!  We made our way back down the snake trails from the top of Mount Etna in search of the small town of Linguaglossa.  This proved to be no easy task and we spent a couple of hours winding around and backtracking through some very small villages on the side of the mountain.  We stopped to ask the locals on the roadside for directions which was futile since it always ended with them speaking very fast in Italian and a lot of pointing and hand waving. We would just reply with a hearty 'Grazie!' and zoom off in the direction of the most hand waving.  We finally found the Gambino Winery perched atop the city of Linguaglossa.  We were greeted by a man in the little gift shop that we later found out was named Fabio.  He was nice enough to give us a tour of the winery and he explained in detail the process from growing the grapes all the way to bottling and selling the wine.  It was very interesting and it got us ready for the important part-the wine tasting.  We were given a table in a room that was all windows on one side overlooking the vineyard and the city in the valley below.  It would have been a spectacular view in the summer, but since it was a little overcast and the vineyard was bare, we had to use our imaginations.  We tasted 2 whites and 3 reds and they all had a unique flavor.  My personal favorite was a white called Tifeo that comes from the grapes grown in the volcanic soil from Mount Etna.  Rick's favorite was a red called Alicante which used grapes that were brought to Sicily from Spain many years ago.  As we sat with our wine and chatted about our day, we enjoyed two large platters with typical local cheeses and finger foods such as olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and sun dried tomatoes.  Of course we ended our tour in the gift shop where we started; we all  purchased some of our favorite wines and we thanked Fabio for his generous hospitality.

We were so happy to FINALLY see this sign!

Apparently my artistic side comes out ofter a few glasses of vino...

Enjoying wine with our tour guide Fabio

On our last evening in Sicily, we had the good fortune to visit a restaurant in the nearby city of Motta Sant'Anastacia called the Spaghetti House.  Rick's brother Ron and some of his co-workers had become friendly with the owner of the restaurant during their time working in Sicily.  He is a very colorful Sicilian man by the name of Salvo (short for Salvatore, of course).  He was celebrating his 43rd birthday and we were there along with Ron's co-workers and Salvo's family and friends to celebrate.  He proceeded to give us an amazing meal that was he deemed as 'family style'.  What this meant was an ungodly amount of food was about to ascend upon our table.  The Sicilians are very into eating their meals in courses. The first course consisted of huge platters of cheeses, meats, bruschetta, vegetables prepared many ways, and an endless basket of bread.  The second course consisted of pasta and lots of it.  Salvo asked all of us what type of pasta we liked and that's what he served us.  We had angel hair pasta with huge chunks of different types of seafood and next to it was bow-tie pasta with a delicious pistachio cream sauce.  I hope to try to re-create said pistachio cream sauce in my own kitchen one of these days, but I know that I won't come close.  We all sat devouring our pasta and drinking our wine blissfully unaware that there was actually a third course coming.  This was the meat course which was a piece of chicken (yay for me!), a piece of steak, and a sausage like none I've ever seen before.  As we all sat staring at our plates since we were already full, Kim and I announced to our husbands that they were going to responsible for eating our steaks and sausages too.  The boys gave it the old college try but in the end it was just too much food.  Salvo was then presented with his birthday cake.  In true European style, the cake had a picture of a naked woman on it, designed by none other than his 15 year old son.  Viva la Sicily! (or something like that)... Anyway, we all ate cake, drank a cinnamon type of schnapps courtesy of Salvo,  and enjoyed a wonderful Sicilian evening with family and new friends.
The amazing first course

Rick and Ron with the birthday boy, Salvo

Stuffed and happy!
Ok, so the title of this post is "The Good and The Bad", so we unfortunately have discuss the bad part of the trip.  On Monday Rick and I were flying out in the evening, so we had time for some lunch before we had to head to the airport.  We were driving in the city of Catania with our suitcases and with all five of us crammed in our little tiny Fiat Punto (translation:  Matchbox car) when we got stopped at a red light.  We were about the 5th or 6th car from the light on a very crowded and hectic street.  We were lost so all of our heads were on a swivel, looking here and there for a street sign that might point us in the right direction.  Earlier in the week, we had discovered something about the rental car-there were no buttons or knobs to lock the car from the inside.  The only way to lock the car was to use the remote control that was attached to the keyring.  Well, as we all sat at the red light looking like tourists in our unlocked car, a man came running up to the front passenger door of the car.  I saw him out of the corner of my eye, but my brain wasn't fast enough to register what he was about to do.  He yanked open the door, ripped Kim's purse from her hands and took off running.  Before Kim or Rick (he was in the back on the passenger side) could get out of the car, the thief had already jumped on the back of a waiting scooter/moped and was long gone.  Needless to say, we were all in complete shock due to how fast everything happened coupled with the sheer boldness of the thief.  I have never even heard of something like that happening before, so shock doesn't actually even cover what we were all feeling.  The police came to the scene and rode around on their motorcycles in the hopes that thieves might have taken what they wanted from the bag and then discarded it, but no such luck.  To make a long story short...Kim was able to cancel her credit cards, and with the help of the Navy, she was able to get back home to America in spite of her stolen passport.  I imagine however, that the feeling of violation will stay with her (and all of us) for a long time to come.

The events of the last day unfortunately (yet understandably) put a damper on our overall impression of the island of Sicily.  We learned a number of valuable lessons, including the fact that you should always be vigilant no matter where you are, even riding in a car packed with 5 people.  The island was beautiful and I can see how many people have fallen in love with it's splendor, however I think our next vacation will be spent in a place where we feel a little more safe. Sorry Sicily, but as the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression...


  1. The pictures are beautiful, but the purse snatching story will kills my desire to ever go there. Yikes!!

  2. That's exactly the way I feel! I'll go to Spain next time I want palm trees and beautiful views ;-)

  3. Now I am completely engaged in hunting for a crossbody purse on Ebay before any trips to Italy are planned... Also I want to eat that food.

  4. Good call on the cross-body purse Hannah!