At the conclusion of our Ireland travels, Joy and I headed to Amsterdam for a few days and then to Sicily for the last two weeks of June. For those of you who are geography-challenged (like, if you were educated in California), Sicily is the deflated soccer ball being kicked by southern Italy masquerading as a boot.
We landed in Palermo (northwest corner) and circled the island counter-clockwise, ending up at Taormina which is not too far from mainland Italy. Rather than cycling, we rented a car which allowed us to cover a lot of Sicily. We stayed in a handful of famous Sicilian cities: Marsala, Argrigento, Ragusa, Siracusa (Syracuse), and Taormina.
As I posted in Facebook, after six weeks in left-side driving Ireland and Northern Ireland, I really had trouble adjusting back to right-side traffic when crossing the streets in Amsterdam. I figured Sicily would get me re-acclimated to cars on the right, but it turned out it was sometimes hard to figure out what side of the road the Italians are supposed to be driving on.
Since Sicily was almost a spur of the moment adventure, I hadn’t spent any time preparing for it. I knew that the food and wine would be incredible, that Mount Etna dominates the landscape, that it was going to be on hot but the beaches would be nice, and that we’d see some great archaeological sites. And TV taught me that we better not get on anyone’s bad side because all the locals are Mafia. It turns out that all of this is true. Well, okay, maybe not the last one.
It’s hard to pinpoint the trip highlight. Maybe the food. Maybe the archaeology. The food was as good as we’d hoped for. The archaeology and cultural sites blew us away.
Sicilian food was consistently wonderful, and even humble neighborhood restaurants shined. We had incredible fresh fish dishes and awesome pastas. I ordered a gnocchi with pistachio sauce that was probably the best pasta I’ve ever had. The Sicilians also really know how to grill vegetables. I wish the Irish would swing by Sicily now and then.
I had my first-ever canoli while we were in Sicily. I’ve never been a huge dessert fan and somehow never had a conolo (proper way to refer to just one). Just to make sure I really liked them, I ordered a conolo twice more on the trip. They’re definitely good.
We made sure to explore Sicilian wines. This was easy to do as wine with meals is just part of life. In the city of Marsala, we visited the Pellegrino Winery (a family-owned winery not related to Nestle-owned San Pellegrino carbonated water). Here we learned about the various kinds of Marsala. We’re definitely Marsala fans now.
We also visited a winery on the Northern slopes of Mount Etna. Italian wine is intended to be drunk with food, so that’s how we tasted it. They provided us with a full lunch worth of food, not just tiny morsels. Even more surprising, they would leave the bottles on our tables so we could help ourselves to each of the wines to “re-taste” each one as often as we liked and to be sure we tried all the food/wine pairings. We spent over two hours “tasting” seven different wines. By volume, we tasted well over a bottle.
Italy has 49 UNESCO world heritage sites – more than any other country. Sicily has 7 of them! Because of its important geographical location, lots of important ancient cultures set up shop on Sicily.
One of Sicily’s special sites is the Villa Romana del Casale, a 4th century villa built for a Roman muckety-muck. Earthquakes and landslides buried the entire villa. Sucked for the owners but was great for us. This site has the largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world. They are beautiful. Our planned one hour visit lasted almost three.
Sicily played a key role during the golden age of Ancient Greece. Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples has seven jaw dropping temples dedicated to big name Greek stars: Juno, Concordia, Heracles, Zeus Olympic, Castor and Pollux, Vulcan, and Asclepius. (Okay, I didn’t know who that last god was).
And how could you go to Italy without seeing the Catholic influence? We saw a lot of amazing churches. The cathedral in Syracusa, as so often happens, was built on top of a previous culture’s temple. In this case, they actually celebrated incorporating the Greek temple into the cathedral’s architecture by exposing the massive columns. Other churches firmly disapprove of the design philosophy of “less is more.”
After Sicily we headed to Northern England to hike Hadrian’s Wall (see that post) and learn about the Roman empire’s activities there.