The famous Italian island of Sicily is rich with culture and natural beauty — and is the perfect place for lovers of good food, fine wine and la vita Italiana.
We dropped our bags, opened the doors to the balcony and looked down at the Mediterranean below. Everything in Sicily is languid, including the rainbow that draped itself over the sea, one end touching Catania, where we’d come from, the other pointing toward the mountaintop village of Taormina, where we’d go. But for now we needed sleep. Awake for 36 hours, Elena and I tacked the rainbow into our memories and fell into the large, comfortable bed.
Breakfast at the Russott, the beautiful, American-style hotel in the town of Giardini Naxos, is fresh and omits nothing. We ate on a covered patio overlooking a swimming pool and the sea beyond. Two cappuccinos later, my lovely companion, an Italian professor from Los Angeles, went off to a conference. I stepped out for a stroll and sauntered toward a newsstand, certain I didn’t look like a tourist. The old news vendor barely glanced at me as he set out an International Herald Tribune. I picked up La Repubblica and tossed it on top. Fixing him with a hard look, I pulled a handful of change from my pocket and flinched, not remembering which coin was one euro, which two. He reached into my hand and took what he needed. I felt like a child sent by his mom to buy cigarettes.
Back at the Russott, I took a seat in the gigantic lobby. Like the rest of the hotel, it’s trimmed with muted gold and burgundy. There is a coffee bar and several dozen small tables, creating a sort of indoor piazza where one can hide behind a newspaper and watch the passersby. When Elena returned in the afternoon, we ambled up the lungomare, the walkway above the sea, shaded by big, dark trees.
The lungomare runs into Giardini Naxos on the bay of Naxos. One street up from the harbor, wrinkled elders keep watch from the doorways of tiny apartments. On clotheslines above the street, laundry flutters like pennants. In the harbor, there are small fishing boats and pleasure craft. Offshore, a giant cruise vessel, eight or nine decks high, sat like a mother ship.
Toward dusk, we found the Royal, a restaurant for locals. The menu offered fish — Sicily is all about fish. I ordered the local swordfish, pesce spada. Elena chose risotto ai frutti di mare. Both were wonderful. During supper, a local band, moonlighting construction workers on penny whistle, drums and accordion, made an appearance. They entertain nightly. Through the window, we could see the twinkling lamps on the boats in the harbor and, high above, the lights of Taormina standing guard.
Next day, we took a public bus for the half-hour trip to the mountaintop town of Taormina. Even on the outskirts you can see the buildings have a Moorish look, not surprising since Sicily has been overrun by every major Mediterranean power for thousands of years. Greek amphitheaters became Roman amphitheaters, Roman temples were supplanted by churches, which were revamped into mosques and are now churches again. Every few centuries, earthquakes shatter this coast, burying cities in lava from Mount Etna, now a peak shrouded in clouds of steam.
We began our visit by climbing a steep path that leads to a chapel so we could have a better view. Near the top is a Saracen castle. Coming down into town, we ate at an ordinary bistro, and then walked a mile down the main street, Via Umberto. Shops line the sidewalks, with narrow alleys on both sides.
The following afternoon, we took a bus ride to Syracuse so we could attend a performance at the Greek theater there. After a ride of several hours, we arrived near dusk at the open-air theater. An immense audience had already gathered for a production by Italy’s National Institute for Ancient Drama, which has staged the classics for almost a century. The offering that night was The Oresteia by Aeschylus — a story of the conflict between old and new gods, insiders and outsiders, masculine and feminine — wonderfully staged, danced and acted.
It was late when we left the theater and we called for a cab to take us to the island of Ortygia, the ancient center of Syracuse. We’d booked a room at the Albergo Domus Mariae, until recently a residence for nuns who now cloister across the street. When we arrived, the alleyways were dark, narrow, empty. A steep stairway led to the first floor, and at the top, three silent nuns waited with folded hands. They didn’t nod in response when I said good evening, but despite the soundless welcome, our room was wonderful, large, clean and tastefully furnished.
After a deep sleep and coffee, we went out into the brilliant, golden sunlight to explore the island. Ortygia is about 1 ½ miles long and a mile wide. We circled the island, every view beautiful. We passed a rock platform where children were sunning and splashing in the water like seals off a pier. The castle at one end of the island was under renovation, but we could still see its antique walls, temples and even a famous spring with its own story about gods and heroes.
Near the center of the island stand many churches, some celebrating several masses a day. The cathedral stands over the Piazza Duomo, flanked by coffee shops. A few blocks north we discovered a temple of Apollo marked by broken columns and fallen stone. Near the former temple, we found another spectacle, the fish market, which stretches for blocks, each vendor selling a different species — slabs of dark-rose tuna, planks of eels, nameless silver-skinned fish with red gills, buckets of octopus, squid, clams and mussels. The sheer volume of the catch was astounding, the whole scene as much aquarium as market.
The best restaurant in Ortygia is the Locanda Mastaura, half hidden on a side street near our hotel. Its masterpiece was whitefish with a crust of bread crumbs, cheese, almonds and fine-cut fennel fronds. The first night there, we celebrated our arrival. The second night, we returned because Locanda Mastaura was romantic and we were already feeling nostalgic as our vacation neared its end.
We returned by train to Catania. It is crowded, overwhelmed by traffic and noise, Italy as lived by metropolitan Italians. All social classes and ages mingle tightly, families in close groups, teenagers always in packs. Schools of people swirled past and surrounded us. Urban Italy is a culture of uninterupted human interaction. We returned to our hotel along a route that passed through a colorful immigrant district — the kind of neighborhood you probably could have found in Mediterranean port cities for thousands of years, populated with East Indians, Africans, and, almost certainly, Albanians, Greeks and Slavs.
Not ready for sleep, we ducked into Roberto’s, a nearby restaurant that straddled a sidewalk. I signaled for a menu, but the proprietor pointed to an immense buffet of vegetables. When it was time to order, he directed our attention to a wall where 25 or 30 different dishes had been painted in brilliant colors. He told us to point at what looked good, then brought whatever he thought we’d prefer. Roberto treated us like family, making things simple. Here was Italy, without classical ruins, without seashore or turrets or churches, even without rainbows but with plenty of color, if only painted on a wall. Had lovely Elena not been there, I’m sure Roberto would have been happy to help me count out my change.
Copyright © 2015 Arthur Morey /Singular Communications, LLC
LA VITA ITALIANA
[ 1 ] Learn some phrases: Buon giorno, buona sera, prego, grazie. (Good morning, good evening, please – as in please go first – and thank you.)
[ 2 ] Pay with folding money. It’s easier than trying to determine the value of the coins. Hint: The one-euro coins have nickel on the outer edge and brass in the center. The two-euro coins are the reverse.
[ 3 ] Pay no attention to fierce public arguments. Do not intervene. This is an Italian way of staying connected.
[ 4 ] Ask your waiter what he or she had for dinner. It’s the best way to select the best and freshest dish in the house.
MUST SEE PLACES IN SICILY
Mount Etna’s steam vents and hot pools are beautiful. The English poet and landscape painter Edward Lear wisely painted Mount Etna from a safe distance across the Strait of Messina.
Agrigento is a site of Greek temples and buildings two or three hours from Catania. If visiting Agrigento, you’ll need a full day.