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Italy - Sicily, April 2014


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Today we are finishing packing (and doing US taxes) and heading out this afternoon, dropping the cat (Buddy) at the cattery and driving to Gatwick Airport, leaving the car in long term parking and spending the night at the airport hotel (because we are travel wimps), then flying Gatwick to Catania tomorrow.

We were going to take the train from Stroud - Reading - Gatwick to avoid the 2.5 - 3 hour drive, but trains are cancelled the day we are returning because of works on the lines (there will be replacement bus service, but we thought it would easier to drive).

England is experiencing record setting levels of pollution from its own pollution combined with dust blowing in from the Sahara, and here we are driving to the epicenter of pollution - the London area. One of the main causes of pollution here is car exhaust. Over 50% of the vehicles on the road are diesel and this is adding to the pollution. We will be driving our VW Golf (non-diesel) and adding to it all. Not to mention the flight!

The Guardian - Sahara dust smog: record pollution levels hit London and south England
Warnings to stay indoors and avoid exercise as London and the south of England experience highest pollution levels ever recorded

It looks like we will get a few days of rain and temps in the 60s on arrival, but then it turns sunny and high 60s. I packed our rain jackets and umbrellas.

Next post - from Sicily!

Photo of the Sahara dust on my car in the Cotswolds.

Abbiamo arrivato! We are here in Ortigia! We have not been to Italy since a brief visit to Umbria in summer 2007. I do not understand why we have stayed away for so long. I think it was something to do with my SlowTrav burnout. Whatever, we are here!

Why are there never road signs in Italian airports? (Already I am complaining.) We eventually found the autostrada and the drive to Siracusa was quick. A bit scary driving into and across Ortigia, where instead of a roundabout, traffic from four directions just merges and exits where possible. Steve was driving. We ended up with an Audi A3, but probably should have stayed with the small Fiat I originally booked.

We are in a nice "old world" style hotel - Hotel Livingston. We arrived at 6pm, then walked almost everywhere in Ortigia in an hour. The island is only 1km by .5km. The Doric columns, left over from a Greek temple, on the outside of the Duomo are fabulous. As are the 7th century BC Doric temple remains at a Tempio di Apollo. The narrow lanes of beautiful old buildings go on and on.

Lots of American and English voices. Even a huge group of Japanese tourists. Italian tourists too.

It was sunny and warm - so different from England. But with a breeze and cooling down now. We are both tired from the day of travel, so had sandwiches for dinner in our room (bought at Gatwick).

Photo from our balcony when we arrived.

This morning was Ortigia. The duomo was even more impressive from the inside. They literally built a church inside a 6th century BC Greek temple! Saw the Carravaggio painting in Santa Lucia (the death of Santa Lucia after her martyrdom). Bought vegetables at the daily (except Sunday) market - fabulous market with vegetables and fish. Lunch at a little cafe.

The afternoon was the Archeological site in Siracusa. Roman amphitheater. Ancient Greek theater. Saw the location of Colleen's "incidente" on the way to the cave shaped like an ear.

Did you know that the coast between Siracusa and Catania has the highest concentration of chemical plants in Europe?

Around 3pm headed out to drive to Scicli. Google maps told me 1 hour. My gps told me nearly 2 hours! How can they be so different? Good thing we left plenty of time to get there by 5pm. And we phoned the apartment owner from home before we left to make sure we had the right number and he was expecting us (we did and he was).

Drove through dry looking countryside covered in plastic. That's how they grow those tomatoes - acres of plastic covered fields. Nice. Lots of garbage on the roadside. Some roadsides were so overgrown it felt like we were on abandoned roads, where no one had cut back the weeds. On the positive side, beautiful wild flowers. Saw many half built buildings and rows of concrete low rise apartments.

The GPS took us on some mystery route to Scicli, so that we drove in from above, instead of from below as I was expecting. Fabulous! A beautiful city in a gorge. Very lively. No tour buses or cruise ships here.

Checked in to the apartment - very nice! The owner lives next door and is lovely. On a quiet street off the main piazza beside a beautiful church (and I don't hear hourly church bells). We are up one level, in a two level apartment with two nice balconys. Strong laundry fragrance on the sheets, as there always is, but I brought my own sheets.

Walked around the town a bit. Bought groceries and some fabulous bread. Feel like we walked 10 miles today (we probably did). People are friendly.

Typing this with one finger on my iPad because I am too tired to set up the computer. Steve did all the driving, but I will be driving too. Either it is not that insane here or driving for 4 years in England has changed my perspective.

View from our balcony.

I'm enjoying following along with you, Pauline!

On our last day in Sicily we had time before our flight out of Catania, so we drove from Taormina through some of the small towns around Etna. Your description of the scrub countryside and trash reminded me that some parts weren't very picturesque. The day we drove back to Taormina from Siracusa we also saw hookers on the side of the road! In the middle of nowhere. (Must have been a truck route!)
Sunny and warn this morning walking around Scicli. Groups of men everywhere - young, middle age, old. Talking, smoking, drinking. A town of men. The women must be cooking. Found the spot where they film Montalbano (which we watched last night on Steve's computer) - the city hall (commune). This is the tourist area. :)

Many buildings not fixed up and for sale, but the town is lively and fun. Noon church bells ringing now. A bicycle race is happening in the piazza.
It clouded over, turned cold and started to rain in the afternoon. We napped and spent more time exploring Scicli.

The town is built into two sort of canyons with steep rock walls. Our house is built out from a rock hillside. Each canyon has a church. We walked around some parts with narrow lanes going up the hillside, all lined with houses.

There is no parking. We had to park in a handicap spot yesterday because the apartment owner said that was the only spot and he would watch out for the police. Originally he got us to park in a spot, but then called us to move it because a neighbor said it was his spot. (They are figuring this out now?) Then today because of the bike race the town was packed. Finally we could move of the handicap spot this afternoon. Giovanni, the apartment owner, had a theory that we were beside the handicap spot, not in it, but of course, we were in it.

A town of 20,000 surrounded by NOTHING. And no parking. :)

Tonight I cooked. The first meal in a vacation rental is always exciting as you figure out the kitchen. All went well. At the market in Siracusa, after buying a bag of vegetables from one of the stalls, we saw a little table with just a few things for sale. They had fresh fava beans (which are just like the beans we get in England). There was an old couple behind the table and an older woman in front working the crowd (us). She was literally half my height. We bought some fava beans. Then they started telling us exactly how to cook them, then started arguing between the two women about the best way, then decided the best way and told us again. At first one woman was speaking German to Steve, but when he told her he spoke Italian, she switched. They were also selling olive oil in unmarked bottles, so we bought that too. In hindsight, I think they were only selling the ingredient for making fava beans.

Shell the beans. Cut off the sprout end.
Slice the spring onions.
Saute onions in olive oil.
Add the beans. Salt.
Saute for 10 minutes.

They were very good.

I also made a dish I have never made but always wanted to - pasta with broccoli in the Italian way. I should have gone out on the street and asked anyone, but I googled it.

Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Salt.
Cut up broccoli. Add to boiling water. Simmer for 10 mins.
Remove broccoli and add pasta to the water (I used penne). Cook the pasta.
In olive oil saute a chopped onion (the recipe calls for garlic but we don't eat much garlic). Add the broccoli while the pasta is cooking and add some of the pasta cooking water. Cook some more.
When pasta is done, keep some of the cooking water, add pasta to the pan and a bit more water. Cook another few minutes.

This dish was very good. The broccoli is very soft and rich tasting.

The bread is Sicily, so far, is good! Crusty, good quality bread. We found a nice shop nearby yesterday.

There is a Carrefour Express across the street from us - very small, but had what we needed. Funny because we are used to them in France, not in Italy and when we arrived Steve was joking and saying, okay where is the Carrefour?

The apartment is very comfortable. We were even able to turn the heat on during the afternoon!!

This is the area beside the city hall (on the right) where Montalbano is filmed.


One of the many interesting windows.

The parking sounds tricky! And your weather is a bit like ours here in Ostuni - cloudy most of the day, with a few light showers.

We bought some fave in the Saturday market, and also cooked a pasta dish very similar to yours, with cime di rapa (closely related). The Pugliese also add anchovy fillets to the frying pan, and a tiny bit of peperoncino. Capers might be a possible veggie substitute for the anchovies - adding a touch of salty sharpness to the mix.

Tomorrow is supposed to be sunnier round here - Hope it is for you too!
Capers! Good suggestion. I will make the dish again because I have broccoli left over. The head of broccoli was HUGE.

They use anchovies in almost everything here. According to Dana's food app I should be able to find pasta Alla Norma here, and that is vegetarian (eggplant, tomato, salted ricotta, basil). Steve likes swordfish and we saw them cutting one at the Siracusa market.

I had my first cannoli today, well not my first ever, but my first here. Nice!

Steve found Pocket Coffees. Boy that brought back memories of our earlier Italy trips.

Finished the episode of Young Montalbano tonight and was pleased to recognize the Scicli Commune!
Another good veggie pasta dish, which we've cooked twice this visit, uses spinach and ricotta fresca. While the pasta is cooking, wilt the spinach in another pan, then stir in a couple of tablespoons of fresh ricotta, and as much pasta water as it takes to make it all creamy. Drain the pasta, mix, and serve, with plenty of black pepper and Parmesan.

We bought some lovely bietole (Swiss chard) the other day, so used that in place of spinach.

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That looks great! I am going out food shopping now.

Meanwhile - I had an orange! Incredible! Boxes of oranges for sale on the backs of Apes and trucks. And the lemons - huge!

Almost hot (as hot as I like it - 70 degrees) and sunny. Santa Fe sunny with a big blue sky, but gentler with a breeze. The locals are wearing wool scarves and winter coats, while we are in short sleeves. We spent the morning in Modica, another beautiful Baroque town only 10km from Scicli. The towns in this area were destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, the rebuilt in the Baroque style. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Modica is famous for its chocolate (I though of you Barb, if you are reading this). We went to Antica Dolceria Bonajuto and got two of their traditional bars, one with cinnamon, one with vanilla. I tried the vanilla. An interesting taste. Not milky, not overly sweet, but grainy. David Lebovitz writes about it. I liked it.

We walked and walked. Stopped for coffee and the macchiato is sprinkled in chocolate.

I drove today. The country lanes are narrow, but not as much as England. Not many cars on the road. We did get overtaken a few times. Rocky hills with lemon groves, olive trees, colorful wild flowers. We parked on the edge of Modica so we would not have to deal with traffic and parking. A truck selling vegetables was there, so we bought artichokes and oranges. The artichokes were 20 for 3 euro, but we just got 5.


Modica (and its chocolate) looks gorgeous! That corner of Sicily is now even more on our must-see list...

We bought 10 of those artichokes in Ostuni's Saturday market - finishing off the final 3 tonight, fried as an antipasto. How are the mushrooms there? We bought some lovely Cardoncelli on Sat also - they'll form part of tonight's secondo.
I have not seen mushrooms. I can't find good food shops in Scicli - but we will go up to Ragusa tomorrow. I want to bring home olive oil.

This afternoon we walked around Scicli and found another Montalbano film location and more beautiful Baroque buildings. It is fun being back in Italy.
Pauline, have you seen many tourists trying to follow a Montalbano route? In one of the novels that I read, Montalbano was complaining about how many tourists were ruining the town because of the TV show. He also complained that Luca Zingaretti looked nothing like him -- and that he (Montalbano) was not bald!
Both times we have been at the caffe beside the Scicli commune there have been one or two groups who are obviously Montalbano fans (taking photos, reading the sign they have about the TV series). You can pay a small amount to see the office where they film.

But there are not many tourists in this town. A few. I think there is a hotel here. Also, it is not the real tourist season yet. I see a few tourist-type shops in town.

The house that he lives in, in the TV series, is a B&B. We have not been there yet.

Hot and sunny today with a big blue sky. We have a nice terrace and have breakfast sitting in the sun. Other than seeing the Greek temples at Agrigento and Selinunte (which we see next weekend), this vacation was about getting some sun and mild weather after a very wet winter in a England.
I love your ongoing trip report. Mm now I'm thinking Sicily as a side trip while we're at Oxford. Too many choices and I'm so fickle as each wonderful place I hear about I think that's the one for my mini vacation from Oxford.
I'm reading all your references to Montalbano and I'm wondering who the heck is that. A movie star? And the I realize, of course, that wonderful detective from Sicily. I've read many of the books altho they aren't easy to get here. I don't think I realized they made a series. Or isn't it in Italian? I love the book covers. They are so evocative and the picture of the author. He looks about 105 but I think not that old. Don't know if you get the same book jackets in England.
Anyway keep writing. Am enjoying the recipes as well.
Montalbano is a TV series in Italian, with English subtitles. At one point Jim Zurer, I think, was mailing a DVD around the US with copies of it that he got somehow. We watched a few episodes. In the UK it is on TV regularly. It is not the most exciting detective series and we gave up on it at one point. Then they came out with Young Montalbano, which seems to be the same series but with a new (and very cute) actor. These ones are better IMO. We watch them for the scenery. And I think that is how we ended up in this area. Also I wanted to rent through an agency for our first Sicily trip, so used Ville in Italia who I knew of from my SlowTrav days, and they had two nice apartments here.

Colleen had recommended Cefalu as a base, and that would be a good location. I was hoping this area would have good hiking (because I read somewhere that it did) but it doesn't. Typical Italian hiking with no trails marked and after 30 minutes of walking the trail either ends or is blocked off. You have to really work to find good hiking in Italy - it is here - but it is not that easy to find.

Many people stay in Taormina, and that also would have been a good option, but I wanted to see these Baroque towns.
Today we wanted to get out of these stone and concrete towns and be in the countryside. Jonathan loaned us a hiking guidebook, but the hikes in this area are all in the towns, except for one along the coast in a nature reserve. The Rough Guide mentioned Cave d'Ispica, a 13km gorge near Modica with cave dwellings used since preshistoric times. Kind of like the Anasazi cliff dwellings near Santa Fe where we used to live, but 2,000 years older. The guide promised that you could walk the whole gorge on a trail.

We drove out through pretty hideous modern Modica and into lovely countryside. We found Cave d'Ispica and parked. Paid our entrance fee and went in. Very boring. A nice big valley with cliff dwellings, and a 1km path around the area. We could not find a way onto any trail. Everything was fenced off. As we were muttering to each other an Italian guy (we have no idea who he was) insisted that we see the catacombs (we missed them because, of course, no sign). Yes, tombs cut into the rock hundreds of years ago (just like Saint Roman in the Languedoc, but in a dark cave) - but what about this trail?

He knew about the trail and showed us how to get to it! Wonderful! And after 30 minutes walking on a very rough trail, having to climb through barriers twice, the trail getting more and more overgrown, it pretty much petered out. I think we could have kept going, but it was difficult walking and not interesting.

It was just after noon, so we drove into the modern part of Modica and found the vegetarian/macrobiotic restaurant Un Punto Macrobiotica. There are a few of these around Italy, run by the main Italian Macrobiotic teacher. We ate at one in the mid 90s, in Sansepulcro (Tuscany). We had a fabulous lunch. The restaurant was full.

After lunch we drove to the sea. We went across country to Punta Secca where the film parts of the Montalbano series - the part with his house. It is now a B&B but was closed. The town was pretty closed. But we parked and saw the house, then walked around. Stopped for a coffee. An espresso here is two sips - even shorter than in Rome.

We drove back along the coast to Marina de Ragusa. This is a larger beach town and things were open. We parked and walked on a pedestrian path along the water. Lots of people out. I bet this place is a zoo in the summer, but now the traffic was light and parking easy to find.

Drove back to Sicili a different way and saw the large modern area. The population is 20,000.

The weather was fabulous today. I don't think I am going to go swimming, but it is wonderful being out in the sun. The seaside was lovely.

Here is Montalbano's house.


Baroque building in Scicli.


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