Driving in Sicily?

You’re nuts! Suicidal! Sicilian drivers are crazy, the worst in Europe! The roads are awful! The cities are a nightmare! You’re taking your life in your hands….

We heard it all prior to our trip to Sicily. Despite the dire warnings, we chose to rent a car because many of the big tourist attractions, including the best archeological sites, are in remote areas. And we wanted to spend some time in rural Sicily. You can’t do that very easily on public transportation.

Like most stereotypes, Sicilian drivers included, there is a kernel of truth. Yes, Sicilian drivers are more aggressive than their American counterparts (maybe New Yorkers excluded), but certainly no worse than drivers in the rest of Italy. And we never experienced the terror of a big Mercedes or BMW barreling down on you at 120 mph, lights flashing telling you to move over fast, like we did every few minutes on the German autobahns.

We noticed, however, there seem to be some “unwritten” rules of the road in Sicily.  They can unsettle the non-Sicilian driver, but they are mostly harmless…

–stopping the car in the middle of a road in traffic to talk to a friend is fine…

–parking on the sidewalk or curb, nose in, is ok as long as cars and pedestrians can sort of get around you

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–pulling out from side street into a main street in fine as long as the cars on the main street can get around the nose of your car

–it’s all right to make one lane into two or even three if you think there’s room

–it’s okay to pull to the side of the freeway for a quick picnic, or to stop on the shoulder to snap a picture

–motorcycles and scooters always have the right of way, and can create their own lanes, including on sidewalks and in pedestrian only zones

Still, using a little caution and common sense, driving in Sicily is not a problem. And it got us to some truly beautiful and remote places, far off the tourist routes. Here are some of the lessons we learned on our two week drive around Sicily that helped us reduce the anxiety about driving.

–Consider taking the full collision/damage coverage when renting the car.  I know it’s much more expensive (I never do in the US), but knowing that any damage to the car is covered really helps put your mind at ease.  If you don’t, certainly be very aware of what your policies or credit cards will cover.

–Get a small car. Really, the smaller the better. In the towns and villages the roads are narrow and parking is often very hard to find.  And squeezing past parked cars and dodging motorcycles is easier in a small car.

–Get a good map or GPS system.  We took a picture of a very good road map on the IPad of the day’s trip. You could enlarge it if necessary, you weren’t struggling with a large paper map in a small car, and you never needed a phone or Internet connection to view it. But know that once you get into the warren of small streets and one way alleys that make up most Sicilian towns, any map is useless. You are much better off following the roads signs that tell you the way through the town to the next village, and knowing almost any mistake can be corrected.

–Be sure your hotel, B and B, or Airbnb has parking, preferably secure parking.  Finding on street parking is very difficult in most towns and often limited to residents with permits.

–Recognize that you can never leave anything of value or that even remotely looks like a bag or purse in a parked car. Car prowling and break-ins are common in Sicily, in fact, everywhere in Europe. Better not to tempt fate.

–Expect rural roads to be in worse condition than at home or in northern Italy. Lots of potholes, roads under repair. Particularly in the mountains, roads have unexpected dips of alarming size from erosion, or earthquakes or bad construction. This is a poorer part of the country and the roads show it. Be aware that the island is largely agricultural, so the occasional herd of sheep or cows may block your way. Also, Sicily is very hilly, even mountainous. Great views, but narrow, steep roads with dramatic drop offs.

–Avoid driving in the largest cities, like Catania and Palermo, and leave the driving to professionals—bus drivers, taxi drivers. I would never drive in Manhattan, central London, or Rome if I had a choice. The same applies here.

–Pick up and drop off the rental car at major airports. They are easily reached by well-signed highways. Also, within Italy, typically there is no drop-off charge so you can pick up a car at the Palermo airport and drop it off in Catania at no extra cost. That means not having to double back, giving you more time to tour.

Finally, take a deep breath. You are on vacation and getting lost or making a wrong turn is part of the adventure.  At least that’s what the navigator says when we get lost.

The Road to Ruins

We really weren’t prepared for what we found in Sicily. Yes, we knew that Sicily had been conquered many times–Greeks, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish–and we knew there were plenty of ancient archeological sites to visit, but the size, beauty, and the incredible state of preservation of the sites was truly amazing. A caveat: while we have an amateur’s interest in archeology, neither of us is really very knowledgeable about the ancient world. We leave that to people smarter and more serious than us.  


Part of the reason that the ancient sites are so well preserved is that many are in remote corners of Sicily. That means a rental car or a bus tour. There are a few sites, such as Ortygia in Syracuse, the Greek theater in Taormina that can be easily reached, but most are a drive from the major cities of Catania and Palermo. The good news: a “drive” in Sicily usually means two hours at most. Another option is to join a group and take an excursion by bus, and we saw plenty of those in the parking lots adjoining the sites. The upside to a tour is that you usually get a knowledgeable guide–but not always. We did run into an Italian guide leading a group of thirty in the Villa Romana del Casale site reading verbatim from a guide book. Another Italian guide turned to us, very frustrated and angry, and said in English, “I don’t know why they let him in here! He knows nothing about this place.” The downside of a bus tour is that you are often in a crowd and herded at the guide’s pace, leaving little time to linger at what interests you.   


We opted for the rental car and a good guide book. That gave us the flexibility to set our own itinerary and pacing. The visits almost always involved a full day–most sites are enormous. Leave for the site in the morning, tour until early afternoon, eat lunch at a country restaurant, tour a little more, and home for dinner.

We visited five major archeological sites: the Greek theater in Taormina, Villa Romana del Casale, Morgantina, Valle dei Templi, and Segesta. Each was unique and world class. There were many more that we didn’t have time to explore. 

Easily the most accessible site was the Greek theater in Taormina, literally in Taormina itself. No car necessary–in fact, no cars allowed in the center of town. The theater is actually a Roman theater built on top of a Greek theater. The enormous size, and brick and cement construction techniques do scream Roman, not Greek. The setting is otherworldly, perched on a cliff, the open end of the theater framing a view of Mt. Aetna. Even in ancient times, if the performance was a bust, you had the view to console you. The theater is so well preserved, it is still used for concerts today. 

Villa Romana del Casale in remote central Sicily is famous for its absolutely stunning Roman floor mosaics with dramatic hunting scenes, bikini clad women athletes, scenes from the Odyssey, and lots and lots of exotic animals. The site itself is the ruins of a very large Roman villa, now covered and crisscrossed with elevated walkways for visitors. The walkways are extremely narrow and often very crowded. Get there early when the doors are first opened or, as a Dutch couple we met suggested, tour during the afternoon lunch break when every Italian & tour bus group is eating a very big meal.

The other archeological sites were large and open air, and with room for all the tourists and tour groups, so you never felt mobbed.

Close to Villa Romano is Morgantina, the remains of a substantial Greek city perched on two hills. Morgantina is more of a working archeological site, enormous, with only small parts completely excavated. No crowds, in fact, barely anyone at all, even though we were there on the once monthly free admission day. You definitely got sense of a real city — two commercial market places or agoras (the original shopping malls),  administrative offices, religious buildings, a theater, public meeting places and grid street pattern with very modern sounding names like West 7th Street. It was a very leisurely stroll in a beautiful setting. Unfortunately, unlike the other sites, there were no amenities (café, water fountain, gift shops) and most of the signs explaining the excavations had faded to a bleached white and were unreadable.

The Valle dei Templi is probably the most famous and visited ancient site in Sicily. And with good reason. Near the town of Agrigento, the Valle dei Templi stretches along a sloping ridge for a mile and has the remains of seven Greek temples, several almost perfectly preserved. The setting, overlooking the sea, is breathtaking. The star is the Temple of Concordia. The size of the Parthenon, it is everything you want in a Greek temple–perfection of proportions, fully intact, and a stunning location. In addition to the temples, the Valle also has a remarkable “garden” in a gorge below the ridge full of citrus trees, palms, and other exotic plants. Here since ancient times, it offers a cool respite from the heat. There is also a moving modern addition, a memorial to heroes who lost their lives fighting violence and corruption around the world, including the two Sicilian judges, Borsellino and Falcone, who were murdered by the Mafia in 1992.

Perhaps the most evocative and picturesque of all the ancient sites we visited was Segesta. It is about and hour and a half west of Palermo in the hilly, remote Sicilian countryside. The good news is that the main east-west freeway goes right by the site so it easily reached by car or bus. The magnificent temple of Segesta sits by itself below the ancient city of Segesta. When you climb up the steep hill (or take the shuttle bus) to the main archeological site, you get a truly breathtaking view of the temple below. Be prepared to fill up your camera’s memory card. The ancient city of Segesta has it all–a theater, an agora, fortified walls, kilns, ancient public baths and toilets. And the views! The temple below, across the rolling hills with olive trees, and out to the Gulf of Castellammare. And while we were touring, the view included a huge flock of sheep being herded by three dogs and shepherd, bells clanging. If you could visit only one ancient site in Sicily, Segesta would be our recommendation.

Sicily truly does offer the amateur archeologist or just curious tourist a lot to choose from–the only downside is which of the many world class ancient sites to visit.

Oh, Canada!

I used to travel a lot for my work, logged a lot of frequent flyer miles and loved being upgraded. And I got spoiled. Very spoiled. So as long as we had the miles since retiring, we traveled business class on any long haul flight. Four or five trans-Atlantic trips ate quite a hole those accumulated miles. And we have discovered with each progressive year, it has become harder and harder to book European trips with miles, even when you’re willing to leave from any west coast city.

Meanwhile our desire to travel hadn’t dwindled. So here we were, looking at another big trip and needing to buy a ticket. I know, no sympathy for us.

A quick check of the online consolidators showed a huge range in fares, depending upon the airlines. Qatar Airlines looked promising with the lowest fare, but only out of Chicago or a few east coast cities which would have been an additional cost for us. And did we really want to fly to Doha? Emirates was the most expensive option, but what do you expect for your own cabin? We settled upon the cheapest, British Airways, which remained the best deal even including their outrageous fees for the privilege of landing in Heathrow.

After entering our destination, preferred travel dates, number of travelers, frequent flyer and trusted travelers numbers and all the other info the website wanted, we examined our choices. A ticket from home to South Africa with a stopover in London got us thinking about getting off the plane in London for a couple days and spending some time letting out bodies adjust to the change in time zones. So we re-entered all the info, this time asking for a multi-city ticket which would allow us to stay in London.

Opps. Price jumped by nearly 25%! For the privilege of leaving the airport we added nearly a thousand dollars to the cost.

We then tried booking two separate round trip tickets. Home to London. London to South Africa. Total price was even higher. We were about the reconcile ourselves to arriving in South Africa after two 10 hour flights and just skipping the layover in London when a friend suggested we look at Canadian departures. For us, just three hours from the closest Canadian airport, leaving from Canada was a viable option

A quick online check showed a couple flights a day out of Vancouver, including British Airways. We booked it, still a competitive price even with the taxes and additional cost for the layover in London. While reading the fine print, we realized the price quoted us was in Canadian dollars, a twenty-two percent discount for Americans at the current exchange rate.

Bottom line? Flying out of Canadian meant we were paying for one of the cheapest direct flights but getting the multi-city experience of four days to play in London. Or put another way, for the cost of a tank of gas, we were saving enough money to pay for our lodging and food in London for three full days. A no-brainer.

Why don’t more people do this? Even if you had to fly to your Canadian airport, you could still save money. A cousin had a similar experience on her last trip to Europe. By flying out of Canada on a plane that was routed through her US hometown airport, she saved $300.

So not only does Canada have better health care, a more sane approach to gun safety, it also offers better airfares! Oh, Canada!

Bringing it home: food souvenirs

Okay,  so we’re food obsessed. Ask anyone who has traveled with us and they’ll report we’ve dragged them to farmers’ market after farmers’ market with us ohhing and ahhing over the mushrooms, the tomatoes, the melons, the grapes.  And that’s before we get to the fish, dried salamis and bread.

And after we come back from any trip, the cuisine of the last place we visited creeps into our meals. This trip we were wowed by a couple things about Sicilian food.

In the agriturismo where we stayed outside of Enna we were served a lovely breakfast. Coffee, juice, fresh breads with homemade marmalades and fresh fruit, including prickly pears. But the stand-out dish was a local creamy ricotta cheese our host served with a halved hard cooked egg and drizzled with her homegrown olive oil. Her invention and outstanding!


So good in fact that as soon as got home we began to try to replicate the dish. First a trip to our favorite Italian deli and grocery store for a top notch olive oil. Then purchase some cage-free eggs. And the final step was making our own ricotta, which turned out to be easy to do. After checking out a number of recipes, we settled upon a simple one — gallon of whole milk (several sites said to avoid organic or ultra-pasteurized milk), lemon juice (alternative to vinegar which sounded unappealing) and salt. Heat the milk to 185-200 degrees, add the lemon juice and let the curds form. Separate them from the whey and drain. (Whey can replace water in my bread recipes.)  And you have ricotta cheese. So we were ready.
 Breakfast from Sicily!

Damn good. Next time, a bit more salt in the process and a little less pressing or draining of the curd. The cheese was better the second day and great on toast with a bit of lemon peel, honey and olive oil. Lesson learned? Top notch olive oil is essential when it’s the main flavoring. And a little goes a long way!

Sicily offered lots of pasta options. Pasta with sardines is the regional specialty which didn’t quite grab us. Pasta with mussels was good.


But the pasta that stood out from all the seafood-based versions was pasta Trapanese. It’s a pesto of sorts tossed with the local pasta, bussiate–a long corkscrews pasta that is rather thin and a bit rough. The best version of the sauce was a mix of finely ground almonds and hazelnuts and roughly chopped cherry tomatoes, seasoned with basil, garlic and Parmesan cheese. Sometimes, however, the sauce was very smooth, sometimes was made of just almonds, and sometimes had just a bit of a kick from peppers. My attempts to replicate the sauce have been well-received, although I have been unable to find the bussiate pasta itself, except online.

When we put together a Sicilian meal for our friends we’re going to search out a red wine from Etna. The region around the famous volcano produced some very good wine that we drank with meals in Taormina and Cefalu. Probably the very best wine was made from the Nero d’Avola grape, which also happened to be the name of our favorite restaurant in Taormina.   The wines in other parts of Sicily were drinkable, but not ones we will seek out at home.  We did try Marsala wine in Marsala–a sweet, port like wine–which, though not on the top of our list of favorites, was nonetheless excellent (and Marsala was a charming town).

The last change to our at-home dining will be the addition of high quality, sea salt collected in the traditional way. We toured the salt flats outside of Trapani where the process for producing salt has hardly changed for hundreds of years. A succession of evaporation ponds are flooded and allowed to evaporate in high summer increasing the salinity in each succesive pond until the salt crystals are formed.


Originally windmills were used to pump the sea water from pond to pond and the salt was harvested by men raking and shoveling the salt into baskets they carried to dry land (hellish work in the baking hot Sicilian summer) where it was covered by terra-cotta tiles to fully dry. 


Today the windmills have been replaced by electricity and the baskets have been replaced by conveyer belts, but the rest of the process remains the same, and produces a far different product from the finely ground salt of the large mechanized processes. We like the slightly more complex flavor and the crunch of the bigger grains when added to the end of cooking at when sprinkled over our plate at dinner.   

The windmills may no longer work, but they do provide a great photo op for the many visitors to the salt flats.

A different way

Hotel rooms are a drag when you’re gone for several weeks.  Dinky little bathroom sinks for washing clothes.  Sitting and sleeping on the bed.  The noise of doors up and down the hallway slamming.  That’s why we prefer plunking down in one spot,  renting a house and doing day trips.  But sometimes that isn’t practical, or sometimes you have more ground to cover than a day trip allows.

This is the first extended trip we’ve done entirely by airbnb’s. We have used them before here and there, for short stays in the states or as one option for a night or two on longer trips. But in Sicily we chose five airbnb’s and one agriturismo. No hotels. Here are our take-always.

There’s a bit of anxiety when you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, the phone system isn’t familiar and there’s no front desk to greet you. While each place gave us good directions (sometimes too detailed) and adequate contact info (addresses, emails, phone numbers) one way streets, driveways that shot off at 180 degrees from the main road and country roads caused some confusion. No real problems, just a tense moment or two. In a three week trip, no big deal. If you only have a week, maybe you don’t want the hassle. 

Not all airbnb’s were what they appeared to be online. While all were good — modern or historic, or someplace in between — they were not always quite what we had anticipated.  It didn’t seem to matter if the units were one in huge complex, or just the ground floor of an old farm house, each had its surprises.  One had a drop dead view not quite captured online.  And we didn’t expect to be awakened by the construction sounds.  Figuring out the locks and keys was more complicated than a hotel key generally is.


Our hosts often made our day!  A retired woman in Cefalu who left us three umbrellas in case it rained, (it did — a torrential downpour while we lunched under patio umbrellas) beach towels for swimming and pointed out on the map all best markets. In Palermo, we talked schools and education with our host. In Trapani we got to watch the family harvest their olives (some huge ones for eating and smaller ones to be pressed for oil) and enjoy their home that had been in the family for 300 years.

We stayed two to five nights at each airbnb. And when we weren’t out touring, we had a table for writing, places to layout the map and comfortable chairs for sitting. Just like home. We love the space of an apartment over a hotel room. And we loved being able to fix a breakfast before we ventured out each day. And sometimes we almost felt like a local, nodding to the neighbors who were also sitting breakfasting on the balcony  or enjoying an evening glass of wine.  And doing laundry in a real machine instead of the sink was heaven.  Having a pool, sometimes even a private pool, made us feel decadent.

Except for three places, wifi was a problem. Sicily’s infrastructure may be the real problem. And while we’ve had connection issues before in a hotel, at times we were frustrated on several occasions on this trip, unable to stay connected. In a hotel there might have been some recourse. In an airbnb you go with the flow or lack of a flow. However, we were always able to find a cafe or restaurant that had wifi (and a very entertaining evening at a bowling alley in search of connectivity) so we were able to do e-mail, check the news and do a little writing.

The  key to successful stays at airbnb’s is very careful reading of the online description.  Do your homework!  Pour over whatever pictures are available and note what they don’t show you.  We not only read the descriptions, and re-read the descriptions but also read the reviews, looking for our specific red flags — noise, location, accessibility of host.   Locate the unit on google maps.  Check out the neighborhoods online or in guidebooks.  And know what you want.  Elevator or are you willing to up up flights of stairs?  Check on parking if you’re renting a car.  Gotta have all the conveniences of home?  Go for a modern place.  Want charm?  Look at older buildings.  It’s hard to find charm and all the conveniences we’re accustomed to at home in one place, at least on our budget.  And be ready to roll with quirks you find in any home.  If you want predictability, stick with hotels.

Of course, one of the big advantages is the cost. Often airbnb’s cost a third to half of what a hotel room might be. It seems like a really good value to us — more local flavor, more room, and ability to do some simple cooking.  

Palermo

Palermo is a hard city to categorize. Our first impressions of the city on a Sunday afternoon were very positive. If a million plus people live in Palermo, at least half of them were out doing the passiegetta, the long, slow stroll Italians everywhere do to see and be seen. Palermo closes one of its main streets, Via Marqueda,  to traffic for a kilometer or more. Just pedestrians, and a random bike or Vespa or two.  


Groups of teenagers, elderly couples, families with strollers.  Folks walking their dogs.  About every block or so a street musician, including a skinny blond singing Elvis’s greatest hits. Lively and crowded, it reminded me of a carnival or street fair.   

 
Monday morning showed a more subdued town and much more of the dust and grit Palermo is famed for. The old historic part of town is relatively small and imminently walkable. But Palermo is not a provincial Rome, despite the Roman, Norman, and Arab history. There doesn’t seem to be separate sections of town — either a “good” or tourist, or run down neighborhoods. All are mingled together. We wandered from one street corner to another, never knowing what we would find around the bend — derelict buildings, a street of cafes, or a magnificent palazzo or church, or kids playing.

 

We had heard Palermo described as the litter capital of Europe. And while we saw a few informal garbage dumps in the countryside, and some dried up fountains were used as garbage receptacles, the capital didn’t strike us as any more littered than any other densely packed city.  In fact, better than some we’d seen. More graffiti perhaps.   

The piazza around the opera house seemed to be the center of the city and a hotbed of activity. Prince Albert of Monaco arrived one afternoon with an entourage and a long motorcade. The next day, protestors assembled, complete with Sicilian flags, banners and a sound system on a shopping cart. We took a lot of pictures. Speculated about the issue. Sicilian independence? Anti mafia? Political party march? 


Finally, we asked a young woman and she explained it was an environmental protest — objecting to the burning of garbage by the local provincial government. Okay. Would never have guessed that. There were almost more police than protesters. And plenty of police cars and paddy wagons for hauling away unruly enviros. Never saw anything to justify the concern. 

This city was heavily bombed during World War II. Signs marking how historic buildings were damaged & repaired only referred to the war by date, “heavily damaged by bombs in 1943….”.  As a result baroque era churches or seventeenth century buildings stand next to modern boxy apartment complexes.  We saw several signs posted in storefront windows, saying “No Mafia” plus there are a couple shops that only sell local goods & foods produced by folks who won’t pay protection money.


Of course, aside from what we’ve read, and most of that says the mafia has been marginalized, we’ve seen no indication of any criminal activity. Except as we snapped pictures in front of a grand local municipal building, an old guy walked past us and said very clearly to us,  “Palazzo di Mafia”.

The streets markets in Palermo are pure Sicilian. Hawkers shouting they offer the best fish in Sicily or the freshest produce in Palermo.  Swordfish, squid, lobster, eels, beef sides, pigs’ heads, every kind of sausage and cheese, tomatoes, summer squash and green cauliflower, olives, spices, and much more.  The air smelled of the fish, but also curry, citrus and spices.


Messy, crowded and loud. But filled with more locals than tourists, the markets clearly are part of life here in Palermo and the other bigger cities of Sicily.  Of course, there are grocery stores, mini-marts, too.  But in small towns like Trapani, we saw residents buying their produce & fresh fish off trucks stationed around the city.  Or the fish was sold out of a wooden box on the back of a bike as we saw in Cefalu.  


Outside the historic district, Palermo may be a very different place, just as the suburbs differ from the hearts of Rome and Paris.  Old Palermo is a mixed bag, but definitely worth a visit.

Country life

Agriturismo, they’re called in Italy. They give you a chance to stay in a rural setting and, maybe if you’re lucky, become part of the family for a day or two. They give small family farmers an financial option other than selling to big farming operations or to developers. Often the owners get a tax break for keeping the farm going and raising a traditional crop — olives in our agriturismo in Italy, truffles in the farmhouse in France, coffee in Costa Rica — and make a profit by opening the farm up to tourists. But as our host said in Provence, the money from tourists is easier than farming with a higher return!

In Sicily we stayed in a masseria, a term to describe a farm community in remote areas that belonged to a pardone or landed gentry, and included everything and everybody needed for self-sufficiency. Housing for the men who did the actual work —- the plowing, harvesting, who built and maintained the wagons and plows, who tended the horses and cows — plus their families who probably worked as cooks, grooms and gardeners. Space for building wagons, storing crops, and maybe forging tools.


In our masseria, near Enna in central Sicily, the main house formed one side of a large square courtyard that opened to the long drive up a hill lined with trees. The entrance, I suspect, was meant to impress. The remaining three sides of the courtyard were storage and work rooms, facing into the courtyard. Perhaps originally for grain or hay storage, stables for the padrone’s horses or laundry rooms. Today those rooms had been converted into banquet facilities and a breakfast room for the guests.
The other necessary farm buildings were outside the main courtyard and behind the big house — including the workers quarters. As paying guests we stayed in the workers apartments, although transforming stable into bedrooms for guests is not uncommon. Our room had been beautifully restored and modernized with all the amenities including air-conditioning. Certainly better than the farm workers had it 200 years ago.

The best part of an agriturismo usually the host, often gregarious and charming as someone in the tourist industry must be. They are loaded with information about their region. They can give you insider tips on sites and restaurants you might otherwise miss. They can fill you in on the lore of their often historic homes. And they’ll probably share with you the wine, or olive oil or crops their farm produces. The highlight of our stay in Sicily was the evening of wine, bread and olives with our host. Friends raved about the day they got to help with the grape harvest in Umbria on an agriturismo. Riding in a truck to the coffee co-op with our hosts at a Costa Rican coffee farm was not something the average tourist gets to do.


Breakfast is almost always included in an agriturismo. Some even include dinners as well. I was a bit surprised to be presented a hardcooked egg, cut in half along side a thick slice of fresh ricotta cheese and over both was a good amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. Divine. The cheese completely lacked the chalky consistency I associate with ricotta and the egg was farm fresh. And of course, breakfast included bread and homemade orange and tangerine marmalade, as well as honey.

The down side of an agriturismo is they are often in more rural regions where quiet can be too much of a good thing. And because these places are often somewhat remote and isolated, guests may find the wifi is slow or non-existent, cell phone coverage is spotty and televisions aren’t included. And if meals aren’t served, the drive to dinner can be long and tricky though country roads and into poorly lit villages.

But we prefer to think about the inconveniences as adventures and one way to keep pieces of country life alive.

Saturday night in Trapani

 

Since we arrived in Trapani, we’ve seen signs for Villa Martinez, but could never see the restaurant. Signs, like many in Sicily, measure the distance to the advertised place in minutes, not kilometers or yards. From all indications the place was within a hundred or so yards of our home base. Finally on our last day, we explored the side roads around our airbnb and found the restaurant, in a development of new homes, the kind of encroachment on the farmland our host vowed to resist. So tonight we returned to Villa Martinez for dinner.  And so glad we did.


Villa Martinez is clearly a neighborhood, but an upscale neighborhood, joint. And it is kind of strange. The restaurant sort of wraps around an outdoor swimming pool, which became  the hangout for smokers as the evening progressed. We were among the first three or four couples to arrive, quickly followed over the next hour by parties of young parents, kids in tow, and dozens of people of all ages heading to a banquet hall on the opposite of the pool from where we sat. Pretty sure we were the only non-Italians speakers there, and more strongly suspect we were the only tourists of any nationalities this place has seen.

And the food? Great plate of grilled vegetables. Great salad of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Nicely grilled meats and fried calamari. It all arrived at once. No courses. No pretensions. But as good as the food was, it was surpassed by being part of an Italian Saturday night dinner scene. Loud, raucous, filled with good cheer and very little drinking, mainly coke and beer. We ordered the only bottle of wine we saw on any table. But babies in strollers. Kids playing hide and seek under the tables. Two young guests had brought their dolls to dinner. At the big table men sat on one end & women at the other with the kids. And almost everyone but us had pizza.

The wait staff bent over backwards to get our order right and to make sure all was well, but like most of the wait staff in Sicily, they ran most of the night, from table to kitchen and kitchen to table.  The banquet also added to the hustle as trolley loads of pasta were rolled out of the kitchen at one end to the banquet room at the far side of the pool.

Guess the moral to the story is get out of the tourist parts of town. Find the neighborhood restaurants (harder to do in Sicily than some other places) and enjoy.

Let’s talk Sicilian food

Anyone who travels to Italy should be thinking about food. Pasta, pizza, fresh tomatoes, and good wine. Sicily is a bit different. For sure, there is plenty of good food to be had; it just doesn’t all fit into what we think we know about food in Italy.

The food in Sicily reflects the history. The Spanish brought tomatoes, prickly pears and corn. Arabs brought citrus, all kinds of citrus, nuts and couscous. Greeks brought olives and grapes. Add those ingredients to the Roman cuisine and you get Sicilian food.

Of course, there is pasta. In fact, some think Sicily invented dried pasta. And given that Sicily is an island, lots of the pasta comes with seafood (for the record, I’ve been to lots of islands, however, where fish has been fished out and is hardly available). Pasta with sardines is traditional. Pasta misto mare (pasta with mixed seafood) is on most menus. Pasta with mussels or clams tempted us. Pasta Trapenese, a wonderful pesto sauce of almonds, tomatoes, garlic and eggplant, available only on the west coast, wowed us. With breadcrumbs in Erice may have been the best. But most restaurants offer only a handful of Sicilian pasta dishes, heavy on the seafood. The pasta dishes Americans know, Bolognese or traditional pesto, are rare.

Squid came grilled or fried and octopus was often offered as a salad. Couscous with fish reflects the Arab influence on Sicily. And like many of the fish dishes was dominated by the canned sardines or anchovy flavor that doesn’t appeal to every palate. Appetizers or antipasti also lean heavily on fish.

Insalata mista was a staple for us, often the only fresh vegetables we saw on the menu. Usually local lettuce & arugula, cherry tomatoes and corn. Yes, corn. Sicilians apparently put corn kernels in their green salads. And sometimes add mozzarella and/canned tuna. The other vegetable dish we saw on almost every menu was caponata, a mix of sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic and olive oil. It ranged from outstanding to very good, and was usually offered as an antipasto, more rarely with meat..

We’re not big into sweets, but generally enjoyed the couple we tried. Heavy on the use pistachios or almonds and lighter on the sugar suited us just fine. And, of course, gelato. Pistachio gelato has a rather unappetizing color, but the taste is divine. Cannoli still on our list to try, but only with riccotta.

As for wines, Etna red wines were the best. We drank the Trapenese simply because we were there. Stick with Etna wines.

Sicily seems to offer fewer farmers’ or peasant markets than we saw in Tuscany, Umbria or Provence. Instead, particularly in the northeast, small trucks sell farm fresh produce. What we saw there surpassed in variety anything we saw in the restaurants. A pale green cauliflower, not romanesco, but shaped like our traditional cauliflower. Several kinds of green beans, including romano. And several kinds of summer squash. But none of these made it into the menus.

Pomegranates are big, particularly in western Sicily. A symbol of fertility and bounty, many small towns had stands set up to squeeze you a fresh glass of juice, sometimes mixed with oranges. That, too, is on our list to try.

BTW, do not miss the arincini, the deep fried rice cakes, often in a cone shape.  We met a woman in Rome going through passport control who told us the best arincini are in Taormina. So following her advice we tried them there. And in Cefalu. And in Trapani. Basically they fall into two categories, great and good. Fresher is better. Beware of the places that have them sitting out on display and then heat them up for you in a microwave. They’re just good. We learned to prefer the meat variety – a stuffing of beef, tomatoes and cheese. The other option is ham and cheese which seemed bland. One was often enough for a light lunch.

Espresso! Espresso. Don’t know how the Italians do it, but without a doubt the best coffee we’ve had anywhere. From road side gas stations to uptown restaurants, coffee rocks.

When it come to food, perhaps the best advice is a sign we saw in Marsala:

Where luggage goes to die

It wasn’t pretty.  In the dark corners of the Fumincino airport, down corridors dusty from lack of use, and behind locked doors dozens of pieces of luggage sat forlorn, abandoned.  They started out just as our bags had.

The story of luggage began simply enough.  To avoid the excessive fees British Airways charges for reserving a seat (above & beyond ticket costs — reserving seats to and from Italy would have added $600 to our total cost) we opted to check the website 24 hours before the flight and take what seats were left.  What got lost in the process was that we had checked in two bags for our Alaska connecting flight. 

No worries.  We arrived in San Francisco and the helpful BA representative caught the mistake and corrected it.  All taken care of she said.  Nearly 10 hours later we arrived in Rome, but our bags didn’t.  We watched the  carousel go round & round, hoping they were just going to be late.  Finally we accepted that our bags were MIA and joined  the line of other travelers with lost or damaged luggage.  Being Italy the line was a bit casual, but very vocal with lots of hand gestures.  Filing the paperwork turned out to be surprisingly easy and efficient thanks to the Italian subcontractor for British Air, Avia.  And we were told to call BA the next morning and provided us with back-up phone numbers for the airlines and the local contractor.

Only big concern was we were in Rome for less than 48 hours before heading on.   Could BA get our bags to us before we left Rome?  Multiple flights a day from Lond to Rome.  Sure.  The next day British Air reassured us our bags were on their way.  Strangely, however, they were about to be separated, one arriving in Rome before dinner and one after, but regardless they would be delivered to the hotel.  When we came back from dinner the bags had not arrived but the front desk sent us to bed with the comforting idea that delayed bags usually arrived around midnight.  That’s where the story takes a dark turn.  Midnight came and went and no bags!  A morning call to BA confirmed the bad news.  The bags were now officially lost.  They had been in London but were there no more. We were advised to file a claim if they didn’t show up in five days, but  BA offered no idea how they might be located.   They had lost the electronic trail.  Sorry.  Nothing more to be said.  Clearly, they were done with us.

Luckily the local contractor was more responsive.  After a desperate call to them, and while not offering any promises, they invited us to come search the rooms at Romes’s airport where luggage goes to die.  Getting back into baggage claim took some doing, complicated by the dozen or so other people also trying to swim against the security current.  But we made it.  

Again we stood in line for owners of lost luggage until we were escorted back into the non-public areas of the terminal.  In one room we found only my bag sitting in a long line of lost luggage, broken infant car seats and crushed boxes.  We were readyto abandon   the search for Peter’s bag when our escort explained without much enthusiasm there was a second room.  And there we found Peter’s bag sitting on a shelf.  Our escort seemed happier than we were and explained he thought we had no chance to find the bags.  Unbelievably, our two bags escaped the place where luggage goes to die!

Moral to the story.  Don’t lose your baggage claim tickets and always pack an extra set of clothes in your carry-on.