La Bella Sicilia (Italian Honeymoon, Part III)
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
As I've written before, sometimes travel can be an edge-of-your-seat, world-famous-landmark-exploring power trip. Other times it can be appreciating the nuance of an undiscovered destination or unexpected treasure. A week of the former having passed, it was time for the latter.
After three days in Rome, I was ready for the final leg of the honeymoon: Sicily. While Sicily is far from undiscovered - especially among Europeans - it was a fundamentally different experience for twentysomething American newlyweds. The landscapes were rawer, wilder, and in some cases submissive to the scorching sun. We heard less English, and in some places none at all. Poverty - or at least a conspicuous lack of wealth - became more commonplace. That said, Sicily's history was no less rich than mainland Italy, its beauty no less impressive. The knowledge that few if any people we knew had been here gave it an added layer of exoticism.
Many of the cities and towns we toured would have but a fraction of the visitors we'd seen on the mainland. Also, despite this being our second trip to Europe, we were about to do something that was a first - get behind the wheel of an Italian motor vehicle. Sometimes in life you just have to buckle up and do your best, even if you're underqualified to insert yourself into the madness. Sometimes you just have to wing it. What better place to do that than in the triangular ball being kicked westward by the Italian boot. Note: for reference, Sicily is only slightly larger than New Hampshire.
On June 5, 2009, we landed in Catania, Sicily's second city. Nestled in the shadows of explosive Mount Etna, it's almost the exact midpoint of the island's wavy east coast. We disembarked, grabbed our collection of jumbo suitcases, and proceeded to the car rental place. At the time I was just learning to drive a stick shift in the U.S., and given all the other stresses of Italian driving we had splurged for an "automatic". I put that word in quotes because when we actually got in the car, we couldn't figure out how to make it go.
I don't remember all the details now, but the car - a vaguely egg-shaped Lancia Musa (LAHN-cha MOOZ-a) - had a semi-automatic transmission that befuddled two people with graduate degrees and 15+ years of combined driving experience. After a sweltering and increasingly embarrassing 10 minutes sitting stationary in the lot, the attendant came over with a wry smile (Americani stupidi!) and helped us get on our way. Italian driving was stressful, and we hadn't even pulled out of the parking lot.
The driving itself wasn't terribly difficult - on the motorways. Once you approach a town, the equation changes. Navigating one of Europe's infamous roundabouts is challenge enough, but the part that confounded us most was the preposterous profusion of signage one had to try and decipher. I'm not just talking about city names and arrows. I mean that every blasted restaurant, B&B, tailor, and taxidermist had its own sign, competing with signs of actual importance (i.e. route numbers) on totems of metallic bewilderment. Of course, to fit all these signs in one place, the typeface was approximately the size of instructions on a bottle of Advil.
When our little egg on wheels approached a roundabout, we braced ourselves. My sweaty palms gripped the steering wheel tighter; we both leaned forward and squinted like grandparents. We knew that an average human being would need approximately two minutes to read everything; best-case scenario, we had two seconds. We barreled through one circle after another and somehow never got truly lost. As a bonus, we were led to a delightful phlebotomist that offered 10% off when we mentioned his sign in roundabout 27.
Our first stop was the unremarkable town of Pozzallo (Pohtz-AH-lo), population 20,000. We were now almost as far south as one could go in Italy, and for that matter, Europe. To provide some context, we were far closer to Africa (Tunisia lay a mere 200 miles west) than to Rome (~400 miles north). Pozzallo itself was a base for us rather than a place of great sightseeing significance. It also allowed us an international day trip, to the surreally medieval nation of Malta.
We arrived at the Brezza Marina B&B, a nondescript lodging that could have been mistaken for Aunt Rosa's abode but for the small, colorful signage out front. A diminutive, flip-flop-clad man named Felice (feh-LEE-chay) checked us in, speaking in an electrical storm of excited Italian that Alyse struggled to keep up with. His English was practically nonexistent, another sign that we had strayed far from the tourist trail.
Pozzallo wasn't entirely without charm, however. Its Mediterranean coastline had some allure, and Alyse and I discovered a restaurant that was literally on the beach. I got one of my best meals of the entire trip there, Farfalle al Salmone; it was basic bowtie pasta with fresh salmon in a crème rosa sauce. Couldn't have been any more delicious. In fact, we returned again the following night and I think I ordered the same thing.
At one point Felice asked what areas we'd be visiting while in Pozzallo and Alyse mentioned Vittoria, home of her ancestors. Felice chortled, noting that there was no need to visit such a humdrum town. There was palpable awkwardness when Alyse noted the genealogical reasons for our visit. At least he apologized.
Vittoria was a special place to visit despite - or, more accurately, because of - its absence from tourist maps. We happened to visit during the heat of early afternoon, and the attractive main piazza was somnolent. After perambulating the city center, we were able to find the street - and possibly even the house - where Alyse's grandfather was born. How cool is that?! The few people we did see were undoubtedly locals - suave 70-year old men with tucked-in dress shirts and teens with slick black hair, white t-shirts and blue jeans despite the 90+ degree heat.
Another day we called on Ragusa (rah-GOOZ-ah), a more refined hilltop city of 70,000 with UNESCO World Heritage status. In the US, a city is considered old if it was founded in the 1700s, borderline ancient if in the 1600s. Ragusa's origins were pre-1000. BC. It was under Arab rule from the 9th through the 12th centuries AD and was ravaged by an earthquake in 1693. Despite all this incredible history, my best memory of Ragusa is of its pasta. Not just any pasta - penne pistachio. Al dente noodles in a pistachio cream sauce. To this day, 12 years later, it remains one of my all-time favorite dishes. Authentic Sicilian dishes are often very simple, owing to the historical paucity of local crops. Sometimes simpler is better.
A final stop in southeast Sicily was Siracusa (Syracuse), another city with thousands of years of history. Not just any history, either. It was described by Cicero as "the most beautiful Greek city of all", and it equaled Athens' size in the fifth century BC. It was also mentioned in the Bible as a place where Paul sojourned.
My three top memories from this bastion of history were A) the intense heat, B) an 8-12 course seafood dinner we walked into, and C) more car hijinks. The heat is self-explanatory. I must confess I don't remember the details of the sultan-esque dinner. Perhaps we were just hungry and didn't realize how elaborately we'd be fed, but after a half-dozen courses featuring various treasures from the salty depths (including several with eyes in tact), we wobbled back to our lodging, fat and happy.
Side note: Alyse and I eat dinner early, even for Americans (think 5:30). In Italy we tried to be authentic and push our dinner back to 6:30 or 7:00. We were still the first customers in the restaurant. Pretty much every night.
The next evening we had parked our beloved Lancia outside the hotel. When we returned to it a bit later, something seemed off. I turned to Alyse and quizzically asked "is this where we parked before?". Thinking the car to be an automatic, I hadn't applied the parking brake on a very gentle hill. Lo and behold, the car had rolled to a stop, perhaps 20 feet from where we'd left it. No problem, right? Except that another 50 feet beyond that, there was a canal into which the car would have splashed spectacularly if the hill had been slightly steeper. Italy's que sera sera mentality had rubbed off on us by now though, so we shrugged it off and enjoyed a hearty chuckle.
If life were a movie, we would have returned to the car rental place at the end of the trip - on foot - and blithely handed the agent a crude, hand-drawn map of where the Lancia had plopped into the water. I would have even gone the extra mile and included the phone number of a reliable local derrick operator. The film would end with the infuriated agent jumping up and down in the background, wringing his hands. And you thought we Americans were stupid the first time, I'd triumphantly think as Alyse and I would board the plane home, hand-in-hand. At sunset. Dramatic music would play as the plane took off and credits began to roll...
Alas, life isn't a movie; perhaps it's stranger. Two weeks in Italy will teach you this. Sometimes you just have to wing it, right?