In November, Lakeside’s Senior Reporter Pam Keene journeyed to Sicily and Southern Italy. Having visited Italy more than a dozen times, she said she never tires of the people, the culture, the art and the food. But this was a different trip, away from the standard itineraries of Rome, Florence and Venice.
Here’s part one of her trek to unearth the charms of eastern Sicily, the Aeolian Islands and Southern Italy.
Early in my travel life, Italy was one of the first countries I visited in the 1990s. A travel agent booked the standard itinerary of Rome, Florence and Venice that simply served to whet my appetite for everything Italian. Over the years, I’ve wanted to delve into the Southern part of this amazing peninsula that dips its toes into the Mediterranean sea and looks like it’s kicking Sicily to the curb.
Another immersive itinerary by Overseas Adventure Travel, this three-week journey took me to places unfamiliar, historic and not often visited by Americans. If you haven’t been to Southern Italy, you’re missing an incredible experience beyond the travels your neighbors are doing.
We arrived in Taormina a day ahead of the 13 other travelers who would be joining us, just enough time to get to know the old city and discover a few tasty wines and the most amazing Caprese salad of the entire three weeks. Ripe tomatoes, arugula, fresh buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It was so good, we went back a few days later.
Our trip leader Henna Garrison took excellent care of us. An American who has lived in Italy and Sicily for the past nine years, she helped us understand many of the subtle details about Sicilian and Italian cultures. From teaching us the importance of “talking with your hands” like Italians do to sharing the challenges of getting an Italian driver’s license as an American resident, she knew to share back stories that were insightful and often humorous.
She often stayed with us long after the day’s itinerary was complete, showing us a favorite restaurant or café, explaining the differences between espresso and latte and helping us avoid gaffes that were dead giveaways that we were from another country.
For instance, cappuccino is a breakfast drink. Absolutely no cappuccinos in the afternoon and don’t drink cappuccino after a meal. Espresso IS Italian coffee; it’s extraordinarily strong and comes in a little cup. If you want something akin to the coffee you’re used to, order caffe Americano. Ordering anything saying latte, such as latte macchiato, is warm milk with a shot of coffee. Caffe corretto is espresso, corrected with a shot of liquor, usually grappa.
Needless to say, we were in her hands for all things “proper” and she often helped us adapt to the Italian life.
As our first city, Taormina’s old town, located on the eastern coast of Sicily, offers street artists, wall-to-wall music each evening at the many patio restaurants, charming shops and historic sites including a Greco-Roman amphitheater that’s the focal point of the town’s annual international music festival. The wines and cuisine were excellent.
It was our home base for several side trips, including a visit to Savoca, the town where in “The Godfather” the wedding of Michael and Apollonia was filmed. We chatted with Vincenza, a lifelong resident and the town’s unofficial mayor, who portrayed Apollonia’s mother.
Visiting two of the seven Aeolian Islands by ferry, we stayed two nights on Lipari, one of the main islands. Tourists typically don’t include this UNESCO site that comprises all seven islands. Ferry rides can be rough when the wind and seas are high; and they were. Although the weather was warm, storms interfered with travel throughout the Mediterranean; several friends on larger cruise ships were diverted from Rome and Naple ports because of the seas and winds.
The weather calmed enough to allow our journey to the Italian mainland where we settled in Reggio in the region of Calabria for a three-night stay. From our hotel, the iconic Mount Etna on Sicily showed its snow-covered peaks; quite a treat because the weather was so clear.
The mid-sized town is a treasure, with a broad pedestrian street that’s the center of social life for residents, museums and nearby medieval castles and towns. At Reggio Calabria’s National Archeological Museum, the Bronzes of Riace were on display, two 5th-century larger-than-life statues of Greek warriors that weren’t discovered until 1971 on the sea floor. They’re considered the best-preserved Greek bronzes in the world.
The ancient mountain-top village of Pentedattilo was a special treat. With ancient statues, medieval churches and a very small population today, it was founded in 640 BC. We were treated to a home-hosted dinner on a patio overlooking the sea at sunset. Rosella, one of the lifelong residents, prepared an amazing dinner from her fresh-grown vegetables plus typical antipasto meats.
As we continued our journey, we enjoyed impromptu music by a mini-accordion player with lively traditional tunes. We also stopped at a small village called Pizzo to learn the secrets of a very special dessert – Tartufo. Fashioned after an oversized truffle the size of a softball, it’s a hand-made gelato sphere filled with molten dark chocolate. Created in Pizzo we went to the shop said to be the originator of this amazing dessert. Many of us took copious notes so that we could replicate it when we got back home.
Pizzo also held other surprises, including a ceramicist who quit his career as an IT specialist to become an artist. Antonio makes terracotta figures representing various residents of Pizzo, but he also paints and creates 3-D figures including the heads of swordfish, at one time the staple of this fishing village. Many of his works come with stories, such as the painting I purchased that pictures a swordfisherman and his sweetheart.
Our visit in Pizzo was too short, but it was time to make our way to Sila National Park and a few days in a ski lodge.
Next month: Meeting the Giants of Sila Park, visiting the trulli houses of Alberobello, learning how to make fresh mozzarella and an impromptu exploration of Pompeii.
Photos: by Pamela A. Keene