Our Italian adventure is coming to an end, and we are looking forward to being home. The best trips are the ones where you are excited to be traveling and excited to be home.
To avoid the flight challenges we had on our last trip, Paul planned a wiggle-room day in Rome between our flight from Catania, Sicily to Rome on Monday and Rome to home on Wednesday.
A Day in Rome
We spent a leisurely day in Rome, revisiting favorite places and exploring new ones.
I got us a little sidetracked trying to figure out what was happening in front of one of the government buildings. Police, armed soldiers, and reporters were all around the building and down two of the side streets. The only newsworthy activity we saw was an official looking man being interviewed by a crowd of reporters.
In the afternoon, we took a sightseeing bus tour around the city.
After lunch we had to have one last gelato. Paul found a gelateria that had good reviews and 150 flavors.
This was our fourth trip to Italy. We usually stay longer in one location than we did this time. Longer stays give us the opportunity to “live like a local” and meet people and experience the culture. In spite of our short stays on this trip, we met wonderful people and experienced the exuberant Italian culture.
We were saddened to learn how much the war in Ukraine is affecting people in Italy. From interrupted grain shipments in Bari to higher energy prices, Italians, too, are feeling the pain of war and disruption.
Obviously, their pain pales in comparison to the people of Ukraine, but it was sobering to learn the breadth and depth of the war’s devastation. We repeatedly heard how worried people were about being able to feed their families and heat their homes this winter.
In spite of these concerns, the people we met live la dolce vita, the sweet life. The Italians are great role models for living the good life. They embrace the importance of making time for things that enrich our lives: family and friends, good food, good wine, art, and nature. I always leave Italy inspired to live a little more like an Italian.
We loved Ortigia, the historic center of Siracusa, so much that we never explored beyond the island. Since today was our last day here, we decided to leave beautiful Ortigia and visit some of the sights in Siracusa.
The day started just as I had planned, but by early afternoon my plans started to fall apart.
Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime
Before I knew what it was, I noticed the striking modern dome of the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime from our apartment terrace. By the way, on a clear day you can see Mt. Etna from our terrace, and the day I took this picture was the only day it was visible.
After reading about the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime, I thought it would be an interesting visit.
The building was farther away than it looked, but we had an interesting walk through Siracusa.
We passed a board of flyers similar to one we had seen on our walk from the train station. Being tuned in to the upcoming election, we thought they were campaign flyers. On our tour with Pelin we learned that they are obituary notices.
Erected to honor the the tearing of a plastic effigy of the Virgin Mary in 1953, the dramatic building sits in a peaceful park in the heart of Siracusa.
Priests were conducting a mass at the front of the huge sanctuary when we entered, so we didn’t feel comfortable searching for the mementos that were housed there. Mementos I had read about included a handkerchief wet with tears and crystallized tears. Even though we didn’t get to explore the sanctuary, we were able to see its beautiful interior.
The Greek Theater
Since we had seen the Greek Theater in Taormina, we thought it would be fun to see the one in Siracusa, the only one in Italy larger than Taormina’s. This is the part of the day that didn’t go according to plan.
Although the online information said the Greek Theater was open until 8 PM, when we arrived at 12:45, the guard told us that starting in November it closed at 12:30 on Sundays. Although I asked very nicely if we could just pop in for a quick look, the guard was friendly but firm in denying my request.
We walked around the fence, hoping to get a glimpse of the ancient site. Sadly, the only things we could see from outside the fence were some ancient stones and a few cave entrances just visible across a field.
Back to Ortigia
Since our plan for the afternoon fell apart, we decided to explore more of Ortigia. First stop was lunch at an outdoor cafe on the Piazza Archimede, the second most important square in Ortigia after the Piazza Duomo. The beautiful Fountain of Diana, one of the symbols of Siracusa, is at the center of the lovely piazza.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring new parts of Ortigia.
We discovered a fun area along the shore. It was a beautiful day and people were sitting at outside cafes enjoying the sun and the sea.
But there weren’t a lot of people. The season here is coming to an end, and some of the shops and restaurants are beginning to close. This was really the first day that we noticed a drop in activity.
We ended our Ortigia stroll with a visit to the Piazza Duomo, one of the largest and most impressive Italian squares. The violin player on the side of the Duomo was icing on the Baroque architectural cake.
We returned to Casa Trimarchi, our favorite restaurant here, for the last dinner of our stay in beautiful Ortigia. Paul loved his dinner here so much that he had to have it one more time before we left.
It was a slower night, so we had a chance to visit with Gabriella, one of the owners, and learn more about the family business. The Trimarchi family traces its roots back to the fifteenth century. They grow organic produce, durum wheat, grapes and olives and produce wine, olive oil and handmade preserves. In 2019 they launched their restaurant. The “aunties” use the raw materials from their farm to cook traditional Sicilian dishes.
I had an amazing caponata made from their organic vegetables.
After dinner we followed the sound of live music and found a pretty good band playing American rock music in a little street. I’m not sure if the crowd was Italian or American, but everyone knew the words and sang along with the band. It was a nice ending to a great evening.
The best way to see a new place is through the eyes of someone who lives there. Since our Locafy walking tour in Bari showed us the area through the eyes of a local, we decided to book another tour with them in Ortigia, the historic district of Siracusa. Great decision!
We agreed to meet our guide at the Temple of Apollo, an ancient ruin dating from the sixth century BC. It is one of the most important ancient Greek monuments in Ortigia.
Before our tour, we visited the nearby market and loved seeing the beautiful produce, spices, fish and special foods. I wanted to fill a shopping basket and go home and cook.
Touring With Pelin
After the market we met Pelin (Instagram: @pelins_world_sicily), our Locafy guide. She was delightful and gave us a true insider’s tour of Ortigia. We met people and visited places we would have missed if we had been on our own.
When Pelin shared that she had breast cancer four years ago, she and I immediately bonded over being fellow breast cancer survivors.
As we stopped along a small street, Pelin said she had a hidden treasure to show us. Moving a potted plant aside, she revealed a lovely little painting tucked in an alcove.The artist had painted numerous “little gifts” that he placed around Ortigia.
We visited artisan shops that made environmentally responsible clothing, ceramics and home decor.
Pelin has cultivated relationships with many artists and creators in the area and was a great source of information about their backgrounds. We met some interesting, creative people such as the man who operated a quirky little beer and vinyl shop.
The Road Less Traveled
Exploring little-known side roads is a benefit of touring with a local. Pelin took us to areas where locals lived in centuries-old homes. Because it is challenging and expensive to maintain such old homes, some of them had installed reinforcements to support the walls and keep them straight.
We saw great examples of Sicilians’ love of plants and flowers when we visited beautiful little common spaces shared by the apartments that surrounded them. In one especially lush space, we saw stage props from the Greek tragedies that are performed every year at the Greek Theater.
I love discovering how people in other countries live. The more I learn about different ways of living, the more I realize how alike we are.
When we visited the Church of San Filippo Apostolo, a Catholic church built in 1743,I was surprised to learn that it was built on the site of a former Jewish Synagogue. Before the church was built, Siracusa was one of the first cities in eastern Sicily to welcome Jews. But the situation changed in the late 15th century when Spain, which ruled Sicily at the time, expelled the Jews. The oldest Jewish ritual baths in Europe are preserved underneath the church. Unfortunately, we will be gone before they next open for a visit.
Talking about what happened here led us to other discussions about inequality. One topic led to another as we walked the little Ortigia side streets. The three of us could have talked all afternoon.
Late Great Lunch
Thanks to Pelin’s recommendation, we ate the best lunch of our trip at La Salumeria, a second-generation deli located by the market. When we got to the deli, it was packed and we weren’t sure how to get a table. Magically, Pelin appeared, introduced us to the owner who did not speak English, and asked him to put us on the waiting list. I was so happy we waited a bit for our table because we got to see the wonderful deli action inside.
Paul was thrilled to get one of the beautiful prosciutto, mozzarella and tomato sandwiches he had been eyeing since we got here.
And I was in vegetarian heaven! After watching beautiful food boards go by, I was excited to see a vegetarian platter option on the menu. Once we are home, I am going to do my best to recreate some of these amazing items.
This morning we said good-bye to Taormina and took the train two hours south to Siracusa, another beautiful Sicilian town on the Ionian Sea.
After arriving in Siracusa, we walked about thirty minutes from the train station to our apartment in Ortigia, the historic center of Siracusa.
Along the way I noticed a “Cannabis Light” vending machine. In Italy cannabis is only legal for medical uses, so it was a bit of a mystery.
Our Siracusa Home
We found the address, rang the bell and waited for our hosts to answer. The first thing I noticed about our new neighborhood was the beautiful 17th century church across the narrow road.
Fausta and Elio (he is named for the Greek god of the sun), our hosts, welcomed us into their unique and a bit magical world. They live in, run a small publishing company and rent seven holiday apartments in the five-floor building they own in the center of Ortigia.
More than sixty antique typewriters from their collection are in every room of the building. They named each of their seven apartments after a typewriter. Our apartment is the “Royal”, and an old Royal typewriter sits on a table in our living room.
They gave us a little olive oil soap typewriter for a welcome gift.
Their love of the printed word is evident in our apartment. Beautifully displayed books, book-themed light fixtures, and throw pillows representing different classic books create an enchanted, literary space.
Fausta showed us their library in the building, and gave us a key so we could enjoy it while staying here.
Elio grew up in this building and told us many interesting stories about its history. Our apartment is in part of the building that was bombed during WWII. He remembers being wakened every morning by the church bells across from our terrace. Lucky for us they no longer ring.
We enjoyed a late lunch of bread, wine, cheese and prosciutto on our terrace. An accordion player and two singers on the steps of the church below entertained us with their lively Sicilian music.
Our time in Siracusa is off to a great start.
We had a delightful dinner at Casa Trimarchi, located on a totally charming little side street.
The restaurant owns a farm that supplies all the produce they use.
My homemade pasta with pistachio pesto, tomatoes and almonds was perfetto! I see a return visit in our future.
Coffee on our terrace, watching the cable car traveling between the historic center of Taormina and the beach area of Mazzarò-another great start to a beautiful day in Taormina.
A good friend who has traveled to Italy many times recommended the Sicilian cooking class we took today. We are so glad she did! It was a great day of cooking, eating, learning about Sicilian food and culture and meeting fun people.
We met the chef at the Porto Messina Arch, and he directed us to a nearby restaurant we had visited twice. Jovi, our server both times we were there, remembered us and came over to visit. Since we were a little bit early, we had time to talk with him. He is from Argentina and is doing an eight-month internship here because his grandmother is from Sicily.
Chef Giovanni took us to the market where we learned about fish and tomatoes. He repeatedly stressed how Sicilians do not waste food. They find ways to use everything.
Prepping and Cooking
First we made pasta. Rolling the little macaronis was much easier than making the orecchiette we made in our other class.
Then we made an eggplant dish with ingredients I would use for eggplant Parmesan. Giovanni told us it was different from eggplant Parmesan, but the explanation was lost in translation.
The grilled vegetables, including eggplant, here have been amazing. I especially enjoyed Giovanni’s lesson about eggplant. I really expect to up my eggplant game when I get home.
After taking a little wine break, we made two kinds of anchovy dishes, rolled sword fish, and sea bass baked in salt.
When the sea bass came out of the oven, the salt covering was rock hard and had to be cracked open with large spoons. After cracking the salt, we removed the heads, tails, skin and bones and retrieved the moist fish inside.
After almost four hours of prepping and cooking, we sat down and enjoyed a beautiful and tasty feast.
Our fun group of fellow cooks talked about where we would meet next year.
When I started reading about Sicilian food I knew I wanted to have granita and brioche for breakfast at BamBar. We never made it for breakfast, but I wasn’t going to leave Taormina without eating granita at BamBar. Granita is a wonderful semi-frozen mixture of sugar, water and flavorings. So, after enjoying our huge Sicilian feast, we walked around a bit and then went to BamBar for granita and brioche, a classic Sicilian combination. Paul had almond and I had strawberry.
You have to love a culture that eats a sweet, icy, delicious concoction for breakfast.
Although many places serve granita, BamBar is the best. Everything I read and everyone I talked with said go to BamBar. The Sicilians consider granita to be a ritual of togetherness and social interaction. We loved sitting at our little outside table, enjoying our special Sicilian treat and savoring our last afternoon in Taormina. Tomorrow we take the train to Siracusa to enjoy three days in another beautiful Sicilian town.
On the recommendation of two well-traveled friends, we chose to spend our six days in Sicily in the cities of Taormina and Siracusa. Great recommendation! After an afternoon in Taormina, a hilltop town on the east coast of Sicily, I fell in love with this charming city.
We were excited to arrive in Taormina and move in to our hillside apartment. Staying on a hillside means climbing steps, and our apartment has an impressive flight of steps.
The stunning view from our windows captivated me the moment we walked in. I can easily see why Taormina is known as the Pearl of the Ionian Sea.
One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting people whose lives are different from mine. Our server at Restaurant Badia is from Morocco and spoke six languages. Nadia, our apartment host, is from Ukraine and has lived in Sicily for five years. We had a very sobering conversation about what is going on in her country. The owner of our apartment is from Wales and lives half the year in Taormina and half the year in India.
Breakfast and meditation on the terrace overlooking the calm Ionian sea, beautiful clear sky, rooster crowing in the distance-a great start to our first full day in Taormina.
Figuring out the deceptively simple-looking Italian shower was the most challenging part of my day. Three knobs controlled water coming from five different spots. Lucky for Paul that I took my shower first and set all the knobs in the right place for him.
Ancient Greek Theater
Visiting ruins left by the many ancient cultures that inhabited Sicily was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here. And the ancient Greek theater, built more than 2,000 years ago, is one of the oldest.
Originally constructed by the Greeks around the third century BC and later renovated and expanded by the Romans, it is the second largest theater in Sicily. The acoustics are great and it continues to host live performances today. Sting performed here in 2012. When we visited, workers were dismantling the stage. It was a bit of a disconnect to see modern construction materials and workers in the middle of the ancient theater.
The top of the theater offered spectacular views of the sea and Mt. Etna.
And it was a perfect spot for a selfie.
We had a hard time leaving this picture-perfect spot.
Lovely Lunch Break
After more than a week in Italy, I enjoyed an over-due Aperol spritz while sitting outside and watching the Italian world walk by.
As in so many restaurants in Italy, before our meal arrived the chef sent out “a little gift”, a wonderful arancini.
Villa Comunale di Taormina
After lunch we walked to Villa Comunale di Taormina, the beautiful Public Gardens.
Lady Florence Trevelyan, a Scottish noblewoman who left her country after having an affair with Edward VII, established the garden. Lovely little buildings called Victorian follies are scattered throughout the gardens.
I love visiting gardens, and this one provided a peaceful break from sightseeing excitement.
Perfect Ending to a Perfect Day
Exploring the main street of Taormina we passed a charming looking restaurant and made a dinner reservation for the next night. About two hours before we left for dinner, Paul read the reviews for this restaurant and they were terrible. We decided to cancel that reservation and make another one at Restaurant Aranciara, a restaurant with much better reviews. It was a great decision. The service, food, and atmosphere were perfect.
One of the reviews recommended going with the server’s suggestion. I wanted seafood tonight and the server recommended Sicilian swordfish. He said if I didn’t like it he would bring me something else. I loved trying a traditional Sicilian dish, and it was amazing.
The grilled vegetables were a perfect contorni, sidedish.
The bright Montepulciano sky the morning we left made it hard to leave this beautiful and friendly city. As we pulled our roller-bags down the narrow roads to our car, Stephano, our gelato guy, stopped his car in the middle of the road to tell us good-bye and wish us well. Alberto, from the enoteca, gave me great food recommendations for Sicily, our next destination. He went to the shop next door to ask someone how to say “white cream” in English. According to Alberto, white cream poured over granita, a Sicilian specialty that is similar to ice cream, is the best way to eat it.
On the way to the Rome airport to catch our flight to Sicily, we stopped for lunch in the Umbrian hilltop city of Orvieto. Parking was crazy, like trying to park at Siesta Key Beach in March. Just when I thought we would not be stopping in Orvieto because we could not find a place to park, a space opened in the lot by the Duomo. It was a great spot at the top of the hill, in the heart of the city.
After lunch, we made a little detour on the way back to our car to admire the beautiful views.
It was almost midnight when we arrived in Catania, our stop-over before traveling to Taormina. We couldn’t find the hotel shuttle and almost got on a tour bus. Lucky for us, the driver of the only bus in the lot agreed to drop us off at our hotel. Looking out the hotel window the next morning, I got my first view of Mt. Etna-a great way to start our week in Sicily.