No love for Paris. It was first port of call only because France gave Schengen V. Forty eight hours, no more I swore & ended up wasting half a day tackling post Covid challenges. Travel no longer easy, the pandemic had wreaked havoc on the psyche too.
I did manage a few delightful hours at Montmartre, walking up the 200 odd steps to the ‘Sacre Coeur’ for a fantastic view. Watched little children run, play, ride the carousel & chase pigeons in the sun.
Then off to Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island.
Why Sicily? It is the birthplace of the Mafia. It is also fifty years of ‘Godfather’. Long exterminated, the mafia no longer exists. There is instead a ‘No Mafia’ museum. A citizen enterprise open everyday, entry free. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of ‘mafia’ nostalgia. The hugely popular ’Don Corleone’ tour cashes upon it showing visitors around places where the film was shot. Sound business sense. Why not?
I solo circumnavigated the island in 20 days. From Palermo the capital to Stromboli, Catania, Taormina, Siracusa – Ortigia & Agrigento.
Alluring landscape, delicious food, fascinating history, varied culture. Sicily has it all. Every ethnic group that ever came here – Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Greek or Roman – left an indelible mark on its cuisine & architecture.
A blend of Italy & Greece, a cocktail of cultures, there is something robustly magical about it. As for the average Sicilian, he is passionate about everything
Italy’s fifth largest city, Palermo comes across as chaotic & grimy. It scores high on charm not cleanliness & can best be described as a city upon cities going deep into the earth one below the other. There are buildings with glass floors under which are visible ancient walls, fortification, artefacts from layers of history. The pride of a city in its well preserved past.
Music fills the air at the historic centre, ‘Quattro Canti’. An opera singers’ deep tenor serenading crowds from Romeo – Juliette balconies. Around the corner is ‘Fontana Pretoria,’ the Fountain of Shame with statues of nude men & women from Greek & Roman mythology. Defying convention, cocking a snook at the seminary, nunnery & church nearby. Nobody seems to mind nor is anybody scandalised. The priests & nuns least of all.
It’s a pleasure walking streets & back streets, soaking in the atmosphere, going in & out of churches (leg & shoulder fully covered), idling by roadside cafés. Granita in hand. Or an Aranchina. Perhaps a coffee – Canola. Palermo is easily the street-food capital of the world. And Sicilian tapas has great variety. You cannot miss having ‘Panificio Pollicino’ the local pizza. I liked trying something new everyday & chanced upon ‘Polpette di Sarde’ a dish of sardine cakes stuffed with pine nuts & raisins & served in a rich herb infused sauce.
Italian railway is streamlined, efficient. It is also the best way to see the country. Train cancellations happen but with systems in place disruptions are rare. I experienced it first hand when a connecting train was suddenly cancelled. A Flix Bus arrived transporting passengers to their destination, taking us cross country with the added pleasure of seeing places we never would otherwise.
The trip up the Tyrrhenian coast from Palermo to Milazzo must rank among the most beautiful train journeys of the world. It takes 2.30 hours, the tracks running closely parallel to the coast, less than five yards in places. With a window seat facing the direction in which the train was moving stunning views flash by.
The highlight was of course crossing the straits from Messina (Sicily) to Villa San Giovanni on the mainland. The Palermo-Rome ‘Intercity Notte’ takes 12 hours & is a memorable experience. Bedding, water, chocolate bar, juice provided, as is a mug of steaming hot coffee early next morning. Not to forget breathtaking views along the way, the stretch from San Giovanni to Naples especially.
At Messina the entire train (8 bogies) is loaded on to a ship in a precise, clinical manoeuvre. The exercise takes about 2 hours including a 30 minute halt at Messina. Thirty minutes loading, thirty for the crossing & another thirty off loading & assembling. The train rocking gently on the ferry one is literally shipped to Italy. Passengers have a choice of continuing inside the coach or coming out on the deck for a breath of fresh air – coffee.
The Strait of Messina is narrow – barely 30 kms. It is therefore unclear why an underground tunnel or overhead bridge cannot be made. Reasons like the meeting of seas are often cited, as are currents & geological fault lines that cause the mainland to drift.
A quiet seaside town, Milazzo is the gateway to the Aeolian islands. I took the hydrofoil, negotiating choppy waters at terrific speed, a 2.30 hour ride to the farthermost island – Stromboli. The first thing to catch the eye is the mountain/volcano looming large over the tiny isle. It has been bellowing smoke & fire, spewing lava for over 2000 years. I am lucky to get a room with some kind of view but the fireworks are best observed at the opposite end from around the island. I plan to do it from a boat bobbing on the waters.
A perfect holiday destination Stromboli is barely 8 kms end to end. Scenic, remote, beautiful, it has wild flowers & rare botanical plants. One can spend time walking, hiking, trekking up the mountain, swimming or spending happy hours drinking, eating, reading & relaxing. Shopping too, for souvenirs made of black lava. Besides a picturesque lighthouse, church, village & observatory there is a museum dedicated to screen pairs down the years, inspired by Ingrid Bergman & Rossellini the lead pair of the 1953 classic (‘Stromboli’)
Sicily’s second largest city Catania was the springboard for trips to Taormina & Etna. (A meter gauge train goes right up to the foot of Mt Etna). In the shadow of an active volcano that rumbles & spurts, Catania is compact & easy to walk, a favourite among tourists many of whom prefer it to Palermo. I enjoyed walking the main street Corso Emanuele & Duomo Piazza with the black lava Elephant Fountain. Catania’s subterranean river, Amenano, surfaces at a baroque fountain in the corner of the square. Carved with mythological figures it separates the piazza from a bustling fish market. Adjacent to it is Sicily’s oldest university (1434). Great Baroque architecture, great food, I liked Catania but didn’t find it exciting. Not many will agree. The shortcoming mine for not giving it enough time, being in too much of a hurry to get to Etna & Taormina.
Atop a promontory on the Ionian sea the latter is a gem. A charming mountain town with shades of Amalfi & Cinque Terre but less crowded & touristy. A cable car connects Isola beach to Corso Umberto the main thoroughfare ( €3 / every fifteen minutes). A fifteen minute walk end to end Taormina quite literally has beauty spilling down its mountain slopes – enormous sea views, Mt Etna views, medieval ruins, a Greek amphitheatre, churches & cafe lined squares. A ‘passeggiata’ of sorts, the most popular activity strolling, people watching, window shopping. A one street wonder it is wonderful.
Among Italys’ famous three, Mt Etna at 3350 m is the highest (in Europe). Also the youngest (1000 years). It has been erupting for centuries, the last big eruption in 1669 when Catania was completely destroyed. It is a six hour day trip from Catania. Three hours to and fro & another three for a halt 2000 metres up. The wind – chill factor is high. There are eating & staying places, a bio-park, birch woods, vineyards & citrus groves. One either treks up from 2000 m or takes the cable car upto 500 metre’s short. OR, circumnavigates from the comfort of a small train. Silvestri the central crater is active as are fourteen others. There being 260 scattered craters in all.
And…. taking ‘work from home’ to a whole new level, a fellow with a laptop. One begins to wonder…
A reference to St Paul/Siracusa stored in hidden memory, Ortigia had entered the consciousness long before reaching there. Along with a very definite connect was the mystery of the unknown. Small seaside towns enamour. This was perfect.
Two little bridges connect this magical isle (1000 x 500 meters) to Siracusa, birthplace of Archimedes. A lovely Baroque town, world heritage site, Greek, Roman, Jewish & early Christian influences visible everywhere. One can imagine it some 2000 + years ago. Not very different I guess. There – in lies its charm.
A no traffic island with parking along the periphery, it is immensely walkable. And walk I did exploring it end to end, tasting each & every flavour of Granita along the way. Negotiating streets & alleys, map in hand for better navigation. Doing the forbidden – talking to strangers. You simply cannot get lost, would find your way if you did.
500 m from the train station, Piazza Pancali’s the hub. Six streets leading to six different directions radiate from here. It has cafés & bars, an ancient market & St Paul’s church that overlooks the ruins of the Temple of Apollo (6 BC). My walk starts here going past the ruins & the church to Dianas’ Fountain in Archimedes Square. Onwards to the Cathedral (former temple of Athena ) & Arethusa Spring. It has a really evocative sculpture of ‘The Chase’.
Sea winds, sail boats, blue waters, bluer skies, I am at the southern most end in front of the supremely imposing Castello Maniace. A military base, one can wander around nonetheless. Turning the corner at the castle the walk continues along a splendid marina, the waters of the Ionian washing against the shore. A tiny ‘spiaggia’/ beach along the way surprises. It has a few bathers & swimmers. Wandering & wondering I stroll into an alley to find myself in the fascinating Jewish Quarter. A feast of sights & sounds. Then out again into a large Square that has the temple of Minerva – a place of Christian worship today.
Time to treat myself to a beer (Peroni) / Tuna – pasta, don’t you think?
A train to Noto leaves every four hours – €5/30 minutes. Another heritage site, Noto is early 18 century Sicilian Baroque – churches, palaces, squares, architectural sites. I took an early morning train hoping to spend an entire day out but a sudden downpour spoilt the fun. An enchanting train ride across rain washed countryside the only consolation.
Siracusa to Agrigento – just about 150 kms as the crow flies. One ends up clocking 250 instead. Thanks to poor connectivity. There are no flights or direct bus/train connections. One has to travel back via Catania. A bit of an annoyance considering that moving from place to place never took more than an hour or so thus far. And to think that Agrigento was just about 2 hours from Palermo, I certainly could have planned it better. On the flip side was the thrill of going deep into the interiors, never mind that it took more than 6 hours doing so.
The Sicilian heartland is a kaleidoscope of hues – black, brown, tan, shades of green. Wide, bowl shaped contours, fields of yellow & green interspersed with dark magna rich soil. Sweeping downs & gentle slopes leading to mountains on the rim.
A small, quaint town Agrigento’s main street has flights of stairs ascending to higher streets & alleys. Full of cafés & bars, restaurants, book stores, shops selling jewellery – fashion brands & churches. Church bells ring out every half hour but there are no candles to light, churches having switched to an electric system where candles light up when a coin is inserted.
The Valley of Temples, a 2500 year old archaeological site is on the outskirts, 3 kms away. It has remnants of the ancient Greek city of Akragas (5-6BC). Spread over an area of 13 sq metres there are Greek & Roman statues, seven Doric temples & a series of Byzantine tombs built into city walls/fortifications. The temple of Concordia 430 BC is the best preserved, a fallen Icarus & a gnarled 800 year Olive tree by its side.
A lush green, shady corner of the site, history & nature meet at the Kolymbetra gardens – A citrus grove with over 300 + labelled species of Mediterranean plants
Devoid of natural vegetation walking under a harsh sun can become an ordeal. It was a rainy day luckily making the 5-6 km walk pleasant & enjoyable. A blessing of sorts that cost me a visit to the ‘Scala dei Turchi’. Just about ten kms away I got to see it only in passing. Wedged between two sandy beaches these stunning limestone cliffs are in the shape of a staircase. Called Turkish Steps as it became a safe haven for Turkish pirates who boarded, landed & took shelter here.
*A 20 day solo trip with an 8.5 kg backpack.
*Visa delays & woes. Well laid plans out for a toss. Impromptu travel instead.
*Delicious food everywhere. My vote however goes to ‘L’Ambasciata di Sicilia’ Agrigento (1928) for the best Ravioli ever.
*Sicilians have winsome ways. This one goes to the unknown stranger handing me a 10€ note & scurrying off hurriedly. Thought me a beggar or was he just being nice. I’ll never know.
*Towns. All charming. Have to hand it to – Ortigia though. It was the best
*The weirdest thing, Sicilian breakfast of course. Ever heard of Brioche with a filling of Granita?
*A Sicilian proverb lastly. Unable to recall the exact words it would translate as “do not dwell on the good you do. Move on. Give serious thought to the evil in you”