Well, hello, Italy. It’s a pleasure to see you again. Although there are those out there who would say Sicily isn’t really Italy, or if it is, it’s a weird second cousin floating around way down there in the Mediterranean, far closer to Africa than Rome. Full of mafia, couscous and a convoluted historical mix more Moorish and Byzantine than empirically Roman. Even the language is said to be different, with a dialect nearly unrecognizable to those from Milan or Genoa. But to us and our 8 to 11 words of Italian, it still sounds pretty much the same. Which is, basically unintelligible, other than numbers and “si”, which resemble Spanish, and “prego”, which is the standard greeting around here. It took some time, but thankfully I have finally stopped thinking people are offering me cheap pasta sauce and politely declining.
We flew into Palermo from Santorini, with a long layover in the Rome airport which, like basically every airport layover, was both relaxed and boring, and we were happy to finally move on and arrive in Sicily for the first time. Unfortunately, Laynni’s backpack must have found Rome Fiumicino somewhat more compelling than we did since, without even bothering to notify us, it decided to extend its stay there indefinitely. Or so we assume. What we know is that while we arrived on the evening of the 18th, her bag didn’t make it back into our possession until 10:30 pm on the night of the 25th, just over a full week after we landed. There were twice-daily phone calls to the airport, at first with the help of our Italian hotel owner, later on my own once I discovered that even though I could not understand a thing the automated recording system said, as long as I just pressed “0” at the end of each of the question I could eventually reach an English menu. Then there were also the phone calls to Visa, figuring out what they might cover and how to go about making sure we followed the rules for that, and stressfully trying to find just the right balance between replacing her clothes (she had lost basically everything but those on her back) and buying the minimum amount necessary in case the backpack eventually showed up. Finally, on the 23rd we received a call from a strangely jubilant woman who assured us it had re-surfaced from its mysterious bender and would be delivered to our apartment in Cefalù (one hour away) the following morning. Well, she was only off by yet another stressful day and a half but, in the end, we got everything back, leaving Laynni with both the old stuff and all the clothes she bought to get her through our week of limbo, leading to an entirely different set of issues. However, thanks to UPS, we’ve now been able to postpone them until we reach Prague next month. The irony of it all was that since Vueling charges per checked bag we were only planning to check my bag and carry hers on the plane, but at the check-in counter the woman graciously offered to check Laynni’s for free since there was extra room. Why thank you, what a kind offer, I can only assume that will work out really well for us. Was the type of naïve thing we were thinking at the time.
There are plenty of long-term travellers who swear by travelling “carry-on only”, and spend much of their time going to extreme lengths to ensure they never have anything in their packs that might unduly concern the many fickle and wildly inconsistent airport security officers around the world. We’ve never really bothered, though, firstly because there are a number of things we carry with us that are either a pain in the ass to board with (sunscreen, laundry detergent, oregano oil), or wouldn’t be allowed on some planes at all (scissors, knives, giant but lucrative elephant tusks). Secondly, up until now we’d been lucky, maybe surprisingly so, having never had our bags lost or even delayed other than the time I went to Scottsdale on a golf trip with Rennie and Steve Funk and, rather inconveniently, neither our clothes nor our golf clubs arrived until two days later. But that was nearly ten years – and literally hundreds of flights – ago, and everyone knows Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto is just as biased against Taylor Made products as it is Cleveland Cavaliers fans, or simple efficiency. In light of recent events, however, we may need to rethink our policies.
Now then, Palermo turned out to be a pleasant surprise, at least whenever we were out wandering the streets of the old town and the fascinating local markets, not during all that time I spent standing around outside change rooms at the H&M like some perverted creeper with a thing for women in generically stylish, yet affordable, clothing. More than likely Palermo was just one of those places we liked more because everyone said it sucked, so our low expectations left us easily impressed. Like when you get stuck with a sausage mcmuffin for breakfast and don’t actually end up with your head in a toilet. Either way, we didn’t really mind it. Even when we had to take the train all the way back from Cefalù for the sole agonizing purpose of yet more shopping.
We started to get acquainted with some new Italian foods, such as arancitas, which are deep fried rice balls stuffed with, well, just about anything you can imagine, from ham and cheese to pesto to seafood to, believe it or not, pork ribs and bbq sauce (known as “The Americano”). And re-acquainted, in the case of giant thin Italian pizzas and flat, piping hot paninis served for everything from breakfast to nightcaps. And, of course, Italian ice cream, which has to be some of the best in the world. Creamy stracciatella for me, sour and thin lemon gelato for Laynni. There’s no accounting for tastes. Or gelato, that’s what I always say.
Next up, however, was the popular nearby beach town of Cefalù, and it was here that we hit the jackpot. Much smaller than Palermo, it has only around 14,000 permanent residents plus, depending on the time of year, upwards of an infinite number of eager tourists hell-bent on baring a really high percentage of their pasty white skin to the world for most of the day. The amazing old town is squeezed onto a tiny peninsula at the foot of a huge, dramatic rock outcropping. In keeping with the overall theme of fortified defenses and all-encompassing paranoia common throughout the historically war-torn Mediterranean, there was, of course, the ruins of both a castle (La Rocca) and temple (Templo di Diana) at the very top of the hill featuring stupendous views in all directions, and requiring a heart-pounding hour’s climb to visit. I took consolation in knowing I would only be doing it once, and for “recreation” purposes to boot, rather than spending nearly every day of my life hauling fresh grapes up the mountain for the pleasure of royal eminences, or even just more large feather fans for use in the harem. Seriously, how hard is it to languidly fan your demi-god master without wrecking the peacock tails?
We rented an apartment for a week, which turned out to be perfectly located right in the heart of the old town near plenty of little shops and bakeries, the beach, the pier, the big centrepiece church, and the ideal little barber shop where I was able to bypass any language difficulties by simply pointing at the barber himself and saying, “yep, make it look like that”. But without the blonde highlights and somewhat overdone swoop. Which I’m sure he didn’t understand, but somehow intuitively understood that I wouldn’t be able to pull off those added touches, anyway. Our apartment also had a balcony, a separate bedroom, a full-sized fridge and a washing machine. Everything, really, including a curiously intense Alice in Wonderland theme, focused on the Mad Hatter in particular, the apartment littered with a dozen of the fictional maniac’s weirdest sayings. One of them almost convinced me to give up milk. Also, we were on the third floor and rather than going back and forth, like normal stairs, these just went steeply up all the way to the back of the building. Weird, but I really, really loved them.
Other Cefalù notables:
I got caught in the rain one day, but then I found popcorn at the store, so we called it even.
Apparently every Sunday afternoon large crowds of Palermitanos head over to Cefalù to spend time on the beach. And, even though the Sunday we were there it stayed cloudy all day and even rained on and off, it seems that Sunday beach time is non-negotiable, even when it comes to weather. And, apparently, buying Moroccan bags from street vendors. Then at 5:30 pm everyone leaves the beach and embarks on the 5-minute drive along the malecon to a dead-end, where they turn around, drive slowly back and then, reluctantly, head back to Palermo. As though going through the motions of an ancient tradition. Or they just really hate being home alone with their kids.
Sunset on the pier, maybe with a couple Moretti beer to help pass the time, is a real pleasure. As long as the old man staring through binoculars was closely scrutinizing the picturesque old town architecture and not the naked kids playing on the beach. Cuz the second one would be a real bummer.
Laynni indulged in her very first cannoli, relishing this sweet Sicilian delicacy as we simultaneously enjoyed an inordinate number of “hide the cannoli” jokes. We later learned that the singular form is actually a “cannolo”, but we continued laughing at our childish innuendo all the same.
There were a number of earthquakes northeast of Rome, which we didn’t even feel, and over a thousand African migrants saved in the Mediterranean and brought to Palermo, which we didn’t even see. I did go for a token swim, though, and it was everything I imagined it would be. Wet, and sort of cold.
Wonderful place, that Cefalù, and a perfect introduction to Sicily. Even after having been there an entire week we were truly sad to see it go. Said like anyone who’s ever rented a really top of the line slip-n-slide.
From there we took a serious departure up to the famous and ancient hill-town of Erice, some of it around 3,000 years old. Reached most easily by cable car from the bigger port city of Trapani, it sits at about 750 metres above sea level and was a lot colder, something noticed easily enough either by A) being outside, or B) the alarmed nipples of tourists as they exited the cable car in their seaside-appropriate t-shirts, shorts and sunscreen. Then the wind picked up as well, and suddenly those warm clothes we’d been lugging around in anticipation of winter in Prague were coming in handy far too soon. Most people just visit Erice on day trips from Trapani but we wanted to spend a night to see it in a little quieter light. Well, suffice to say, lights don’t get a whole lot quieter than Erice on a cold, windy night in late October, with a sudden bank of fog rolling in along with its close personal friend, Misty Drizzle, all of which took the already empty feel of this old stone hilltop fortress and turned it into something out of a 19th century London murder mystery. Except with just us and a couple stray dogs instead of syphilitic prostitutes and wise-cracking street urchins. Not a place to linger, feeling a bit more like a large open-air museum than a true Sicilian village, but a pretty riveting one-night stay, especially since we rented an apartment which seemed to be formerly part of a medieval castle. It was more interesting than comfortable, but we did have a tiny electric heater which, when pushed to the limit, kept at least the bedroom at a liveable temperature, and in the end, all that really mattered was that our bathroom had its very own arrow slit.
After that we spent a few nights in Trapani without much of anything noteworthy taking place. There are a few nice pedestrian streets, plenty of ocean-front walks and crumbling old buildings, and not many places to eat for less than the price of a relatively modest – yet still jewel-encrusted – crown.
Next up – Road Trip!!
p.s. So far, Sicilian teenagers appear to be even louder, faker and more annoying than most of the already pretty loud, fake and annoying teenagers around the world. Plus their curly hair makes the current trends in men’s hair turn out all wrong.