Friday, October 31, 2014

Adventures in Southeast Sicily

Genoa flooded again and poor Liguria was under a severe flood warning for several days, and we were actually forced to close being underground in La Cantina.  It rained so hard one day that we ran down in galoshes in total panic, flashes of the flood that destroyed the village 3 years ago running through my head.  Praying and crying, we rushed into the Cantina, soaking wet and scared to find that only a few inches of water entered.  We cleaned it all up, boarded up and secured our sandbags, and promptly closed for the season the next day, basically disassembling the entire restaurant and bringing it up to the storage garage up the hill and safe from floods.  Nothing serious happened, thank goodness, but it was enough to scare us, and as we were planning on closing for the season ANYWAY the following week, we figured for everyone's peace of mind it was better just to call it a season.

Overlooking Ragusa Ibla
So, the bright side of closing for the season at the ridiculously early date of October 13th is that we got to catch the last rays of warm Italian sun by heading south to the beautiful island of Sicily.  My first trip to Italy 15 years ago was with my high school in an organized tour of the south, where we spent several days exploring Sicily, and I remember vividly thinking, winding the streets of Taormina in the shadow of a snowcapped volcano with the blue sea stretching out before me, that it was the most beautiful place in the world.  It was my first time outside of the United States, and that memory remained burned into my mind, and I've wanted to return for some time now and see if my older, more well-travelled and Italian resident self was still as in love.

The answer is easy.  A big, giant si.

We flew an easy ryanair flight from Pisa to Comiso Airport, about an hour and a half, where we rented a car and got going.  We had no plans at all, besides a return ticket home from Catania Airport, so we woke up each day and decided as we went along where we would wind up.

Tomato fields in Pacheri
Our first night was spent in Ragusa Ibla, the historic section of the town of Ragusa, which is included in the UNESCO heritage site of the villages in the Val Di Noto.  It's a town divided into two parts - Ragusa, the sort of "new" city center, or Ragusa Ibla, which actually lies across a valley of sorts, it's winding streets and ancient buildings hanging off the top of the hill.  It was an easy decision where to stay for the night, as we wound our way around the mountain to Ibla.

The next morning we traced the coast through the famous tomato fields of Pacheri, down to the most southeasterly point in Sicilia, the town of Portopalo di Capo Passero and it's Isola Delle Correnti, which shares the same longitude as Tunisia (which explains a little bit the beautiful 32 degree C temperatures we had!).  Pacheri was full of tomato fields and greenhouses stretching as far as the eye could see for some time, to the point where after about 10 minutes of driving through tomatoes, Manu started chucking with disbelief that we were actually still driving through them.  Portopalo was cute, but we weren't prepared for deserted beaches, and didn't even have a bottle of water, so we went on to find a market and continue along the coast.

From here, we continued on our coastal road up to the famous beach of Calamosche and the Valicari nature reserve, which has been voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  We thought it was certainly very pretty, with it's crystal blue water nestled between two cliffs covered in so much varied vegetation  - a praying mantis crossed our path - but I was honestly a little underwhelmed.
Calamosche beach
From here, we drove another 30 minutes and arrived in the baroque treasure of Noto, another UNESCO town that glows in that beautiful ochre sicilian light that bathes the ivory churches and buildings.  It's a perfectly preserved jewel of baroque buildings, with ornately carved balconies peeking off of these golden marble buildings.

Then, our adventure continued, as we decided to explore the unmarked national marine park of Plemmirio.  Getting to this nature reserve was a bit of an adventure, but when we did our hunt was rewarded as we discovered one of the most beautiful little beaches I've ever seen.  This marine park allows swimming only in certain areas to preserve the sea, and these different spots in the peninsula are called varchi.  Each varco (there are over 35) has a different character - varco 3 was a longer, open beach, whereas varco 26 was rocky with no beach to speak of.  Varco 34, however, was our favorite, and we shared this little piece of paradise with only 2 other people...and lots of little fish!  You need a car, patience, a GPS, and definitely a snack, as again - when I say that these towns close for the winter and off season, I mean that in a worse sense than Monterosso.  At least we have a bar or restaurant open (just one, but still better than nothing), whereas here, we needed to drive quite a bit to find an open market.  We wised up after the first day, and brought little provisions everywhere we went.
Varco 34 in Plemmirio
Varco 34 in Plemmirio
We then made our way to the city of Siracusa, where we decided to base ourselves in the old part on the little island of Ortigia.  We spent the night roaming the alleyways of this beautiful city, and the next morning departed for some more coastal adventures.
Siracusa, Ortigia

Fontane Bianche
The nearby beach town of Aranella was beautiful and deserted, but another 30 minutes brought us to Fontante Bianche, the busiest of the beaches we saw.  Fully set up with different beach bars that rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, it seemed the most commercial this far off season (most beach bars and such are closed by the end of October), but it was a nice change to not have to bring lunch with us, and certainly nicer to be able to buy a cold beer.

Isola Bella

We then headed up to the "pearl of Sicily", Taormina.  We unfortunately arrived in the rain, dressed still for the 30 degree weather of the province of Siracusa, but even just an hour further north, the temperature dropped to about 20.  Not cold by any means, but we certainly would not be doing any swimming.  It cleared up the next day, and we hiked down to Isola Bella where we rented a boat and sailed along the coast, entering a grotto unimaginably blue, gazing up the whole time at this volcano that dominates everything.

On the way to Catania airport, we stopped first to eat some cannoli and take home sweets to Liguria (as our carry on bag...2 kg of them!), and then moved south to Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, where we took a quick swim next to the fabled rocks that Cyclops threw at Odysseus many, many centuries ago.  It was an easy 30 minute drive to the airport after lunch on the beach, where we dropped off our car and boarded the plane back north.
In the boat!
Blue grotto off the coast by Giardini Naxos
Taormina from our hotel, El Jebel
Cannolo from Roberto!

The best part about these 5 days is that Sicily is so close and accessible, and Sicilians are just wonderful.  Sometimes I feel terrible when I hear the old stereotype that Ligurians are rude and unwelcoming, but even Manu - a Ligurian himself - admitted freely that after all of these happy, sunny Sicilians, there is certainly a backbone to the stereotype.  We ate incredibly well, spent very little (being used to prices on the Riviera), and explored a small part of a big island exactly as we wanted to.  We can't wait to go back, having missed so many things in the west, north, and further southwest...and as it's so close and so much warmer than here during the winter, who knows?

Ancient theater in Taormina, with Etna in the background

Aci Trezza, the rocks of Cyclops

Aci Castello

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