Monday, August 31, 2015

Sicily Capitolo 2: Siracusa, Etna & Taormina


Benvenuto, ladies and gentlemen, to chapter two of my Sicily adventure! This one's less wordy but more visual. Yeah, that's right...you should brace yourself for an absolute onslaught of photos, people. Don't say I didn't warn you.

So when I left you at the end of chapter one we were settling into our modern villa, perched on top of a hill in Avola, near Noto. Booked through The Thinking Traveler, this was an ideal base for six adults, with a pool, excellent views, two fridges, a TV for watching all three installments of The Godfather (of course) and even yoga mats. And it doesn't hurt that the design of the place is just stunning, contrasting beautifully with the rolling hills and thick olive groves all around the property (which are home to a few hares, which we spotted near the pool!) The accommodating hosts who live next door welcomed us with champagne and had very kindly stocked the fridge with basic groceries on our request. 


On our second day in the south we ventured further east to Siracusa, and in particular to the island town of Ortigia, where we braved the bustling market to pick up pecorino, tubs of sundried tomatoes in olive oil, ricotta and fresh almonds, snacked on arancini and cannoli and gaped at the fusion of Classical and ecclesiastical architecture evident in the temple of Athena, repurposed into the town cathedral.


As I said in my last post, the cannoli we had in the south-east were far superior to the ones in Palermo, pretty much everywhere we went. The ricotta was packed more tightly instead of running everywhere and the flavour was much more fresh. Just superb.


On our way back to the villa we stopped off to admire the view into a canyon that plunged far below - the perfect way to get a head for the heights that we would have to face the next day on Etna!



We were advised that it was best to tackle Etna fairly early in the morning so you're not climbing in full sun. Luckily, the heat wasn't a problem for us as it was overcast when we headed volcanowards, but the early rise wasn't all for nothing - it meant I got to watch the sun coming up! I know I sound like a city mouse when I enthuse over open skies, but it's so incredible to see them completely unencumbered by skyscrapers or blocks of flats. Seeing these made me realise why Italian Renaissance painters were so excellent at rendering fluffy, gold-tinged clouds. Just imagine waking up to sunrises like this every morning...


Blissed out from the 6AM sunrise, we arrived at Mount Etna to see that most of the mountain was shrouded in cloud, which was good news as it meant that walking was bearable. Oh, and it's such a cool sensation to walk through clouds and see them part to reveal the landscape below. It's recommended that you bring good walking shoes to walk up the mountain as it is incredibly steep in places. You can rent hiking boots halfway up the mountain, but to be honest the first stage is the most taxing. 


Walking around the caldera was a surreal experience. I picked my way over the rusty red rocks to peer down into the smoking crater with the smell of sulphur hanging in the air and hot air escaping from small holes in the ground around me, fully aware that the volcano erupted only a few months ago. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and will almost definitely erupt again imminently. If not for the horde of tourists emerging on to its slopes from buses every ten minutes, I'd have thought I was on another planet, such was the hostility and bleakness of this alien landscape, devoid of any life but the ash-like midgies that flecked the air. But enough from me - I want to let the pictures speak for themselves. 


After Etna, we rewarded ourselves with gelato in the nearby town of Taormina. Gorgeous but unfortunately plagued by tourists, I could see how enchanting this place must have been in its heyday, attracting artists and writers (such as D.H. Lawrence, who wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover here). We wandered up to the Teatro Antico, a beautifully restored amphitheatre on the cusp of a performance of Don Giovanni, which made me nostalgic, having put on a production of the opera on last spring at Cambridge; we all sang snatches of arias badly on our way back down to pizza, and home. Deh vieni alla finestra...


Well done if you managed to get through all of that! As you can imagine, we were absolutely exhausted after our day of hiking up volcanoes and hills, and took a few days off to relax and swim at the villa. In other words, dolce far niente, which was just perfect. In real time, I'm off to Santorini for a week, but when I'm back I'll show you around the hill towns of Noto, Modica and Ragusa - where I had some of the best - if not the best - ice cream I've ever had. 

Catch up on chapter one of my journey here, or find me on Bloglovin' | Twitter | Instagram!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sicily Capitolo 1: Palermo


I spent eleven days enjoying la dolce vita in Sicily earlier this month, and as usual, took so many photos that I think it'll be best to split my favourite bits of the trip into several posts, photo diary style. Hopefully they'll be useful to those of you who might want to visit Sicily some day! Chapter one opens in Palermo. I hadn't done a huge amount of research before flying into the island's capital but it turned out to have a whole host of magnificent food and culture to offer...which suited me just fine.


We stayed in a fantastic AirBnB with plenty of Italian character: an airy modern apartment at the top of an old palazzo building with high ceilings and a mezzanine. It had excellent views - overlooking the harbour on one side and the buzzing Corso Vittorio Emanuele on the other. I'd wholeheartedly recommend it - the host, Valentina, was incredibly lovely and kindly allowed us to check in at 10AM! 


Palermo is well known for its markets and the biggest are Ballarò and La Vucciria. Both are worth a look but I personally think Ballarò is best for those who actually need or want to buy food. It seems more authentic and there's a lot more choice (plus the most amazing fritelle for lunch) whereas La Vucciria seems to have become more of a tourist institution and the prices are much steeper. At the markets we picked up sweet prawns, jam-like figs, giant tromboncino courgettes, squid that spurted ink everywhere and the creamiest, most amazingly addictive burrata from a delicatessen in La Vucciria. So good we had to buy it twice...


Around the corner from Ballarò is the incredibly bombastic Chiesa del Gesù - a Jesuit church filled to the brim with amazing inlaid marble columns, putto sculptures with benevolent smiles which emerge into relief from the smooth marble walls and ceiling frescoes, restored after the bombings of World War II, with a fairly psychedelic flavour. It costs a couple of euros to have a proper look around, but it's worth it to see the excavated crypts below the church and the altar stuffed with relics - Jesuit bones, fragments of the crown of thorns and True Cross - in the wooden sacristy. Italy's great for those of us with a slightly morbid cultural agenda, it must be said...


Palermo also provided me with an introduction to that Sicilian institution - the granita. There's nothing better than a sharp granita al limone to chase away the midday heat. 


At Buatta, on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, I also had my introduction to two other staples of Sicilian cuisine - pasta con le sarde and cannoli. I have to say though, the granite and cannoli seemed much better in the south east of the island!


A real contender for my favourite place in the city was the breathtaking Oratario del Rosario di Santa Cita, where the sculptor Giacomo Serpotta was given free reign to bring the white walls to life. in the early 18th century. Everything is made from stucco - although it looks like it's all crafted from icing sugar - and the dynamism of the sculpture's poses and their theatricality are a testament to Serpotta's skill at working the medium. They're a world away from some of the stiff statues I've seen in other churches. You can literally spend hours walking around the tiny oratory, marvelling at the little vignettes of Christ's life, and being enchanted by the charming putti who respond to the scenes below them, huffing and puffing, nodding off and batting at each other playfully. I took a shine to the old crone who represents Jewish law who smiles down magnanimously from her ledge, her age contrasting starkly with the nubility of the other allegorical ladies gracing the oratory.


Even grander was Serpotta's work in the ornate Oratario del Rosario di San Domenico, but I have to say that I preferred the airier, lighter space of Santa Cita, devoid of colour but utterly mesmeric.


After culture? Gelato, of course. We're in Italy. And what way to make gelato even more indulgent? Stick it in a brioche, of course. Heartstoppingly good...literally. I was a big fan of the pistachio and stracciatella gelato for breakfast in the Piazza San Domenico. 


There's a definite Moorish tinge to the architecture as seen at the Cathedral, and notably in the gilded jewel that is the Byzantine Capella Palatina, housed in the Palazzo Reale, former palace of the Norman kings who dominated the region during the 11th and 12th centuries.


Determined to find a good place to eat after a slightly disappointing experience a few nights before, I booked us dinner at La Galleria on Salita Ramirez (behind the Cathedral) on our last evening. The restaurant is next to a puppetry workshop which I found fascinating (though the sound of the carpenters' work, less so...) and the food is excellent, a huge step away from the standard tourist fare you'll find elsewhere in the historic centre. Though if you tend to get bitten by mosquitoes, best to brave the heat and sit inside - my legs were ruined for the rest of the trip!


The next morning we crammed ourselves into a hire car with a box of arancini and braved the hairpin bends all the way down to Noto, in the southeast, where we stayed for the following week. I'll show you what we got up to on days four and five in my next post, vi prometto

Palermo, you were a pleasure. Can I come back again soon please?

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