As we crossed the straits of Messina by ferry, the winds blew hard enough to finally break through the clouds and let the sun shine. Cold on the upper deck but well worth the spectacular “sea sky” view and bracing fresh sea-scented air, especially after that full day on the bus in the rain.
Most of my travelling companions had slept. Dina and Rosario, our young Sicilian, extremely road savvy and masterful driver, chitchatted back and forth in Italian. And I took in the beauty of it all. Unlike at home, where I’ve had a reputation since infancy of falling asleep within minutes of being in car (not driving!), it’s always the same over here. Whether by train, car, or now bus, I can’t sleep. I won’t sleep. I don’t want to miss a thing. I want to take it all in and “love it all up.”
Once disembarked, we drove through the evening rush hour traffic in Sicily’s east coast port of Messina south to Taormina, our two-night stopover. Given our late afternoon arrival, it was simply time to check into our again, sea-view rooms, and go to the huge dining room, now filled with German, French and Italian tour groups, for a pretty good buffet dinner.
The morning of optional excursions – to the hilltop town of Savoca, and the still active volcano, Mount Etna – showed us Rosario’s incredible driving skills. We arrived as Savoca awoke, meeting several of its two hundred residents as they opened their doors, walked to their gardens, or welcomed us into their shops and two bars, one made famous by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (the scene where Michael Corleone falls in love at first sight with Apollinia).
Savoca, a fledgling tourist destination, is using its natural beauty and untarnished Sicilian “essence,” to attract visitors. This and its proximity to the equally beautiful, though well established town of Taormina, drew Coppola to film two memorable scenes in that famous first movie.
After a mid-morning café and fresh “cannolo” (that sweetened ricotta filled, crisp folded shell, Sicilian pastry), we boarded the bus for the equally challenging mountain drive to Mount Etna, now made more treacherous by dense cloud and fog. I had my own extra “optional excursion” as I sat in a front seat, in awe of Rosario’s cool, calm and collected maneuverings through the almost invisible switchbacks.
Unable to see either the steaming summit, or its craters, I took another perspective to view close-up the beauty of the lava rock formations and colour.
Later in the day, once blue skies returned, we saw Etna’s snow channels as we drove up to Taormina.
With its own particular charm and artistic creativity, magnificent vista of the Sicilian coast, and exquisitely situated ancient Greco amphitheatre, the resort town of Taormina has lured “i stranieri” (foreigners), including the rich and famous, writers, poets, politicians, artists, and actors for decades. Given our small group size, its diverse interests, and Dina’s “gracious hosting”, there has been ample time and space for each of us to do our thing. I spent the few hours walking down the main and side streets, finding that perfect photograph and talisman, a hand-made terracotta “trinacria,” Sicily’s symbol.
We concluded our day with one of Trafalgar’s signature “Be My Guest” dinners, another amazing “slow food” adventure, this time at the Liperus vineyards, featuring Mount Etna wines and “la cucina tipici siciliana.”
Antipasti of assorted proscuitto and salame; bread and cheese; mussels, shrimp and squid in olive oil and fresh lemon, fritatta with aubergine; and “caponata,” a Sicilian “antipasto” of tomato, aubergine, peppers, pine nuts, and raisins. Our primo included “real” macaroni – curly, long tubes – with tomato sauce, and “farfalle,” the bow-tie pasta, with pistachio pesto. We were served two white wines, the first a light fresh vintage, somewhat herbal, and the second a buttery chardonnay.
The two reds, including a merlot, filled out the secondo of grilled meats – pork, beef meat patties with cheese, a savoury sausage – and rosemary roasted potatoes, all served on a clay roof tile, with a cortona of dry grilled tomato, aubergine and zucchini.
Dessert was a frozen tiramisu with chocolate shavings and espresso.
I’m writing this post at the airport Hilton in Rome on Mother’s Day, my overnight stop en route to Basel, and then Germany. I’ve just come up from having dinner in the restaurant where I enjoyed a delicious grilled beef filet over seasonal vegetables, plated with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. A glass of house red, a dessert of pannacotta with pineapple, strawberries and passionfruit syrup. As I sliced into the beef, every bit as good as that from my home province, I suddenly realized that I was eating my last dinner in Italy.
Smiling deeply, with a heart so full of joy, wonder, amazement, gratitude and pleasure for the richness and fullness of this most glorious European adventure, that tears came to my eyes, I recalled all the wonderful food and drink in this glorious country, including the:
- dinners I created in my little apartment in Bologna, composed from market-fresh ingredients like tortelone, parmesan, gnocchi, proscuitto and amazing desserts;
- “pranzo” of “bifstecca balsamica” at the highly recommended café in Bologna;
- “spaghetti carbonara” and pizza in Venice…both to stoke the fires given the winter rains and cold winds on the canals;
- grapefruit gelato and aperol spritz in Milan;
- seafood risotto and stuffed anchovies in Monterosso;
- coconut cream “cornettos,” and the chickpea flour “foccacia,” “pesto basilica” and that uniquely sharp Cinque Terre “vino bianco” in Vernazza;
- “osso bucco” and “pannacotta” in Lucca, my birthday dinner;
- five evenings of true “slow food” dinners at the villa outside of Siena, complete with homemade “vin santo e biscotti” and stunning sunsets over Siena;
- amazing roast pork “panini;” and the “slow food” afternoon sitting in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Florence, sipping “vino rosso” and eating cheese, after the lunch of Tuscan beans and sausage at the Mercanto Centrale;
- Sorrento slow food dinner with Maria’s fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, and the wood oven baked pizza, and homemade “vino rosso” and “limoncello”
- Sicilian fresh seafood, “arancini”, and “cannoli” (next post)
This was just Italy! There was the Denmark’s classic open-face lunch of herrings and rye bread with beer and aquavit. Paris’s famous cuisine. Turkish food in Cologne, and the down to earth goodness of the Black Forest bread, butter, sausage, kuchen, wine and schnapps.