Oh Sicilia!

Sicily was such an amazing surprise!  It was the last stop on my heritage tour.  I’m half Italian, quarter Irish and quarter Spanish, via Puerto Rico.  In Italy, I’m from Piacenza and Sicily.  This was the only place I hadn’t been.  For that reason and because I heard so much about how beautiful it was, I wanted to go.  At the end of October, I thought the weather would still be warm, sunny, and with the promise of swimming.  Dad, however, was not too thrilled with the idea.  He was going just to go, but didn’t really have high expectations.

After our weekend in Genoa, we boarded a very affordable flight (about 20 euros each with Volotea) to Palermo.  The bright sunshine remained with us for the duration of the short flight, and then soon I could see a stunning, craggy coastline appear below us.  As the sun was in that sublime glow of golden hour, it illuminated the terrain.  After all my travels and all the beauty, I was in absolute silent awe as we slowly glided to the runway.  I found myself taking photos even from the airport bus, because there it was — a beautiful mountain, right there.  And the sky, the sunshine, the temperature…everything was perfetto.

Scenery on the drive from the airport

Scenery on the drive from the airport

We picked up our rental car, and as Dad drove, we admired the rugged terrain–more like North Africa than Italy.  Sicily was clearly her own place, and that’s exactly how she wants you to feel about her.

As we had just turned the clocks back, we lost daylight swiftly as the sun sank into the horizon casting a brief yet glorious pink glow across the shifting scenery, lingering just long enough for our arrival at the seaside hotel.  The resort, perched at the edge of a cliff in Balestrate, overlooked a new marina with panoramic views of mountains and sea.  This was paradise.

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Sunset view from our room

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As it was the end of October, we were in the off-season.  Not peak time for tourists, but absolutely peak time for weather.  The temperatures had cooled from the boiling summer highs, and as they receded so did the crowds.  But for our entire stay, we had bright sunshine, a cobalt blue sky, and weather in the mid-70s, perfect enough for poolside lounging and a quick dip, and just splendid for runs along the beach.

Since it was the off-season, we got a great rate on the room.  I remember emailing my father back and forth, deciding whether to stay in Palermo proper or somewhere along the coast.  We browsed a few hotels, and then Dad found this.  I wasn’t sure if it was ritzy or not, but the price and location seemed wonderful, especially since we had a rental car.  We didn’t pay extra for a sea view, but we did get a bit of a view from our wonderful, newly renovated accommodation with ceramic tile floors, a balcony, and cozy amenities.  Dad kept saying, “WOW!”  as he pulled the car into the parking lot.  He repeated the phrase throughout the journey as much as he mentioned the war in Germany.

The hotel was a splendid resort–not faded glory, but an expanding work in progress.  We were two of only a few guests, so had space, peace, and felt like it was our own private villa at times, the staff there only for us.  We had so many things we wanted to explore, yet the property itself beckoned for relaxation, whether at the pool, beach or spa.

We strolled through the tiny yet quaint town that night looking for dinner, but could not spot a restaurant.  I thought it was hard to find somewhere to eat in Genoa . . . but this was a whole new level.  Where do folks go?  Mamma’s of course.  Eventually we stumbled across a pizza parlor, walking inside to discover a spread similar to what we were used to in NYC, big pies with lots of topping choices as well as chicken rolls and calzones.  Much of the New York Italian food must be influenced by Sicily as many of her immigrants came from here, including Dad’s maternal grandparents.

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Sicilian influences for NYC pizza

I felt like I was in Pugsley’s, a favorite pizza joint by Fordham University and across the street from where I lived for many, many years in the Bronx.   Sal was from Sicily before he came to America in the 60s and enjoyed Woodstock among his many adventures he shares with Fordham students and alumni.  He always said: “Pizza is good, but love is it.”

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/21720884″>Pizza is Good, But Love is it: Pugsley Pizza</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/vsw”>bob.sacha@journalism.cuny.edu</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

I felt at home as we sipped some beers and took a startlit stroll back to the hotel.

The next morning, I stepped out on the balcony to enjoy the sunrise and felt called to run.  I hadn’t been able to run in years due to back injuries and problems.  I just had to run here, so I laced my sneakers and headed along the coast, eventually finding my way to the super sandy beach below, littered only with wild stray dogs.  It was a fantasy run, the beach all to myself, so I stopped for some yoga and stretching, enjoying the pure zen peace as the sun renewed my summer bronze.  I made it back to the hotel, feeling invigorated and super excited that my back held up and that I had made room for an extra large breakfast spread.  They had everything you could imagine for breakfast, including mini Sicilian pizzas, pastries, and even candy for your yogurt!

Post-run glow!

Post-run glow!

Breakfast in Eden

Breakfast in Eden

After lingering at the breakfast table, we changed into our swim suits to lounge by the pool for a few hours, grabbed lunch in town at another pizza place where the friendly owner kept calling dad “my brother” and me “my sister!” kissing us on the cheeks and exchanging long chitchat.  Afterwards, armed with food for later (“you must get this for later, my brother!”) we hopped into the car.  We set off to explore the Valley of the Temples, an ancient Greek site right here in Sicily.  The drive inland stunned us with more rugged beauty, and we were grateful this road was here–financed by the European Union.  Only a few years before, this trip would not have been possible via highway.  We’d have to spend many more winding, uncomfortable hours on local, small roads.  Instead, we were smoothly gliding along well-maintained roads with unparalleled views: ruins, castles on hilltops, farms, vineyards, hills..simple beauty.

In the Valley of the Temples, we were once again losing daylight, but we made it up to see some of the structures as the sun set.

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To our delight, the ruins were spectacularly lit in the evening, creating a different and even more dramatic beauty under the stars.

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As we drove home in the inky night, we were starving and found a little roadside pizzeria that was just opening as we arrived at 8pm.  They were just firing up the oven, but we waited patiently and both ordered pizza littered with fresh seafood, including prawns in their shells.  I was pleasantly shocked that my dad ate them, something he would never try at home.

Upon returning to our hotel, we nestled in for the night.

The next morning, I started the day with another great run.  Afterwards we enjoyed a few hours at the hotel.

A perfect setting

A perfect setting

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lounging poolside

lounging

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and a ride exploring along the coast.  We passed many wild dogs, and I stopped to feed some.  They barked,and their friends showed up shortly after.  Then we found gigantic piles of garbage just outside the city, spotting dozens more wild dogs feeding there.  Was there a garbage strike?  Is this the way it always is?  We explored some hill towns and then had a silly, scenic mountain drive back at night.  Silly because although we wanted to follow the coast back home the way we came, the GPS somehow sent us inland and up and down the ridge of a mountain before dropping us off alongside a lake then back to Balestrate.  Hours later, we were dizzy and tired, but glad we had a bit of an adventure and just enough time to visit the spa.

For our last day, it was time to finally see Palermo.  We drove in.  Yes.  We had heard all the rumors of chaotic driving, but the two trains a day from Balestrate were sporadic and unpredictable in timing, so we thought this was the best solution.  The ride to Palermo was easy, but once we got into the city center, we noticed absolute chaos. There were no traffic lights — it was a free-for-all similar to the way Rick Steves had explained traffic crossings in places such as Egypt. It was a novelty to see, but I wasn’t the one driving. Dad, white-kunckled and red-faced, finally navigated towards what seemed like the center, and we popped the car into a parking lot, finally freeing ourselves.

You can note the chaos we experienced in the above video.

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Selecting a bit of everything at the buffet in the Palermo backstreets

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more reminders of NYC Italian food

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Dad in the homeland

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We strolled a bit, found some traditional Sicilian buffet food, explored a few monuments, churches, and stores, pet a few stray cats, then back to the car for a chaotic drive home, hoping to avoid rush-hour traffic. We had just enough time to see the beach were I ran every day, enjoying the golden hour before sunset, a scene straight from a cologne ad.

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My favorite picture of Dad!

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See what I mean by cologne ad?

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I wondered if I would like to teach in Palermo.  Would it be too chaotic?  Too bureaucratic?   When I travel, I often try to imagine living in the place, but while it was interesting, I concluded Palermo was not for me and if I had to live somewhere in Sicily, I’d prefer Balestrate.

The next day, we flew to Milan.  We were hoping to see Taormina and perhaps Mt. Etna, but Sicily is too large, too beautiful, and filled with too many treasures for a quick weekend snack.  We had to devour more of her another time.  I hoped to return soon.  With the heritage tour “complete” I realized how incomplete travel always makes me feel.  The more I see, the more I want to see.  I don’t travel to check items off a list.  I travel to make friends with a place or to revisit old friends.  I just keep adding to my “want to see” list.  Places may get checked, but they are rarely checked off the list.

Next stop: I would head to Barcelona to meet up with my friend Jessica while my father enjoyed a couple of nights in Milan, exploring Lake Como and visiting friends before heading home.

Here are some more photos from our trip:

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