I have had a hard time putting together my thoughts around our time in Sicily. Yes we were exhausted, mentally and physically, when we arrived. Yes we visited in the off season when over half of the businesses are closed. However that may have colored our impressions I can't say. What I can say is that Sicily felt unmistakably like a lost and forgotten land. With a 20% unemployment rate, 38% among young people, the huge flux of emigration over the past twenty years or so has robbed the island of many of its entrepreneurs and youthful energy. Houses are abandoned but not sold, simply left boarded and locked to await their owners who will not return. Construction projects are halted mid-way, leaving windowless office buildings to crumble back to the earth.
What Davide, our fantastic Mt Etna tour guide, whispered to us is that all of this has directly led to the resurgence of the Mafia. He himself almost left in 1992 but decided to stay and fight after the Mafia murdered two leading judges, Borsellino and Falcone. I do not envy Sicilians their daily struggle with corruption and economic stagnation - and yet these were some of the most generous and kind people we encountered on our trip. They made us feel welcome, and most importantly, they introduced us to Crema di Pistacchio.
Alright, enough politics, here's my quick and dirty for Sicily:
Favorite Places & Otherwise:
Modica - The land of chocolate, made using the Spanish method, which involves applying much less heat to the cacao in order to preserve it's intense flavor, which also leaves the sugar slightly granular. It's awesome. The town is gorgeous otherwise (photo at right), we got lost wandering up and down the streets for a few good hours.
Taormina - The hot spot of the east coast of Sicily, Taormina is a shockingly beautiful coastal town, rightly filled with tourists. The setting of the Greek theater ruins takes your breath away. We headed up to Castelmola in search of their famous bread, and while that became an adventure in and of itself, I would recommend it just for the drive. It was an unbelievable trek into the steep hillsides to a town hovering in the clouds. I would have believed you if you told me I was in Peru.
Syracuse - This ancient city filled with ruins is also home to a daily farmers market that gave us two of the best meals on the entire island: the sandwich that was so epic it should be in its own classification at Caseficio Borderi and the antipasti board next door at Fratelli Burgio (the smoked swordfish bathed in fruity olive oil and dried tomatoes with tiny fennel seeds made my mouth tingle). We also ate a five course seafood meal at the Apollonian that was pretty fantastic - my first time trying raw head on shrimp, and oysters swimming in...you guessed it, olive oil!
Arancini - Nick learned something disturbing about me on this trip: when the hangriness takes over, the craving for a fried risotto ball is a force to be reckoned with. Among the impressive list of Sicilian dishes (Caponata, Swordfish Rollotini, Pasta a la Norma), the arancini was my soulmate. My favorite was from a coffee shop at the gates to the old Baroque town of Ragusa, its incredibly creamy rice filled with spinach and cheese at the center. Mmmm.
Mt Etna Wines - Foiled by the weather again, our fantastic guide Davide led us off the perilous Mt Etna and took us wine tasting instead. We quickly got over our disappointment of the aborted trek when we sat down at Gambino Vini. The wine tasting came along with food pairings (which amounted to a huge lunch) and as much wine as you desired. They left the bottles on the table in case you forgot what one tasted like and needed to revisit. How nice of them! Nick now swears that the only red wine he can drink loads of without a headache is Etna. But truly, the volcanic soils create great wines.
The Common Everyday Things - I often found myself delighted by the little unexpected things. Prickly pear, citrus trees & bougainvillea are Sicilian weeds, growing profusely in the temperate climate. Flowers and succulents break through every crack, creating hanging gardens on the sides of old buildings.
One of our favorite common everyday Sicilian things was sighting tiny three wheeled trucks zipping everywhere. Zipping may not be the right word - crawling? Tiny trucks taking plumbers to their jobs, tiny trucks delivering bread, tiny trucks selling potatoes by the side of the road. The best ones were brightly colored and carried a driver who barely fit in the cab!
And so I leave you with this parting shot. It perfectly sums up my feelings about Sicily - beautiful but something is a little funny...