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Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli (Part II)

Jun 15, 2023 | Road Trips, The Grand Adventure | 10 comments

In Part II of our Sicilian adventure, we left the bustling chaos of Taormina and headed 30 minutes down the coast to the twin villages of Aci Castello and Aci Trezza. Separated by a mile-long ‘lungomare’ (seafront promenade), these laid-back fishing villages were a complete change of pace – a sort of Port Douglas on the Med, if you happen to know Port Douglas.

We stayed in yet another fabulous Airbnb in Aci Castello. I have decided that hunting down the perfect Airbnb is my new superpower. Anyone want to pay for my services?

This one had two bedrooms, a rooftop terrace with sweeping sea views, a shaded back garden and a brand new kitchen and bathroom, all decorated with impeccable style.

The Airbnb was owned by a lovely Sicilian man and his American wife, who bent over backwards to make sure we enjoyed our stay. They provided a welcome package of wine and pasta, organised our day tours, and recommended the best local eateries, which they pinned on a digital map. How cool is that!

Aci Castello and Aci Trezzo

So, off we set to explore our new surrounds.  Aci Castello is small, pretty and historic, dominated by a Norman castle perched on a volcanic rock. It doesn’t have a beach as such, but during the summer, they build temporary timber platforms (‘lidos’) over the water where you can rent sunbeds and umbrellas and go for a swim. Needless to say, they were still under construction while we were there in May, as you can see in the picture.

Aci Trezza is slightly larger, with more restaurants, a bustling fishing port and the best shop in Sicily. I went back several times but was annoyingly limited by the size of my backpack. I would have bought half the shop if I’d had the luggage space to bring it home. (Note to self: Give up on this ‘we-only-travel-with-hand-luggage’ twattery. Next time, bring an empty 23kg suitcase and buy what you bloody well like.)

‘Mama Etna’

The highlight of our stay in the Aci’s was a day trip we hadn’t planned to take. In fact, our Airbnb host had to talk us into it. It was a tour of Mt Etna.

It’s one of those destinations that every tourist in Sicily ‘does’, which instinctively makes us want to avoid it, like going to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or doing a gondola ride in Venice. Ironically, we’ve done both of those as well.

Ignazio (our host) promised us this tour would be different. It included a lunch and wine tasting at a historic winery on the eastern slopes of Etna.

Interest piqued, we set off with our guide, Marco, the following morning.  We were his only customers, so it was a very personalised guided tour.

Marco is Sicilian born and bred. More importantly, he is a devotee of ‘Mama Etna’ and proudly told us that Etna creates her own rules, which the locals simply live by – life, death and everything in between. Marco has massive respect and passion for the history and environment of Mt Etna, and his enthusiasm was contagious. It was quite spectacular.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been up a volcano, but Etna is surprisingly lush and green despite taking up to 300 years to revegetate after each eruption. Marco walked us through the white birch forest (which scared the Ancient Greeks because of the evil eyes and faces on the trees), showed us the beautiful miniature white orchids, and pointed out all the different plants his Nonna used to pick because of their healing qualities.

We were almost sad to leave, but lunch and a wine tasting beckoned at the Barone di Villagrande – a 400-year-old winery run by 10 consecutive generations of the Nicolosi Asmundo family. Marco told us they use children to clean the inside of the giant ancient wine barrels, but only for two minutes at a time or they come out drunk. What a job.

As we left the winery, we bought a bottle of their special red wine, which is only available at the cellar door. You can’t buy it online or in any retailer. And it was very special. We planned to share it with our friends Terry and Lorraine from Australia, who were coming to stay with us in Dennington the following week. Lorraine is half-Italian, and I thought she’d appreciate a fine wine from her homeland.

Trouble was, I’d overlooked the fact we were travelling with hand luggage only, and our beautiful, special, expensive bottle of Mt Etna-grown wine was confiscated from me at the airport on our way home. “No more than 300ml of liquid allowed,” said the officious, smug-looking security guard as she gently lowered my bottle into a large rubbish bin from where, I have no doubt, she retrieved it after I had gone.

Note to self, for the second time: Give up on this ‘we-only-travel-with-hand-luggage’ twattery. Next time, bring an empty 23kg suitcase and cart back as many bottles of Sicilian wine as you bloody well like!

The Habitat Boutique Hotel, Catania

After five relaxing nights in Aci Costella, we hit the big smoke of Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, where we stayed at the Habitat Boutique Hotel on the fully-paved Via Teatro Massimo (that’s the street in the photo, taken from our balcony).

The Habitat—housed in a magnificent 18th-century building—was created by two Sicilian architects who were slavishly devoted to minimalism.

According to their website, they aimed to “create the ideal habitat. . . enjoying an authentic and distant atmosphere from stereotypes.

In other words, they set out to design spaces that photograph beautifully for architectural magazines but are devoid of warmth and have none of the creature comforts you would reasonably expect from an expensive city hotel.

Let me elaborate:

 

  • The somewhat pretentious and uncomfortable velvet chair in the corner of our room set off the original Italian tiled floors to perfection. But in a 23-square-meter room, you expect a little more furniture than a bed, two bedside tables (no drawers), and an unusable chair.
  • The bathroom was dripping with Italian marble and chrome but entirely devoid of anywhere to hang used towels.
  • The ‘wardrobe’ was a 2-foot wide pole suspended from the wall, hanging about 2-foot above a shelf. On the pole were precisely 4 hangers. Once we’d hung two items each on the pole, we had to store the rest of our belongings on the shelf. But each morning, the maid would recover our wet towels from the bathroom floor (no towel rail, remember) and shove our things into one corner because the shelf was apparently designed to hold the fresh towels, not our clothes. Guests’  clothes were precisely the type of clutter the architects were trying to avoid. We ended up using the unusable chair instead.
  • And for heaven’s sake, what was with the dining room? The atmosphere was a cross between a boarding school dining hall and an obsessive-compulsive hoarder’s pantry. We shared a long, soulless table with the boring German couple from Room 24 while we all stared at the floor-to-ceiling glass jars filled with legumes, dried pasta, and rice, wondering who dusted them all.

Who cares if you can hear every noise gurgling from the 18th-century plumbing, every dropped hairpin from the upstairs room, and every clunk and whirring from the air conditioning unit? Minimalism had been maintained. Bravo!

Catania

Stepping out of our non-habitable Habitat Hotel, we spent the next few days exploring Catania while we enjoyed the glorious warmth of the blazing Sicilian sunshine. Catania is a great city, with endless paved or cobbled streets of grand buildings, al fresco restaurants, churches, and its very own Ancient Roman theatre in the heart of the city, built from Mt Etna lava.

And you have to experience the fish markets which happen every morning near the main square. Block after block of fish stalls, restaurants and pop-up eateries where they’ll cook you fresh fish straight from the sellers. The main street is shaded from the sun by a roof of colourful umbrellas.

But a word of warning for all pedestrians in Catania (and possibly the rest of Italy—in fact, the rest of Europe): Pedestrian crossings are not created for the safety of pedestrians.

They are put in place by civic authorities who need to tick a box. They are then routinely ignored by all drivers and used at the discretion of pedestrians who have no alternative but to cross a road.

I give you Exhibit A (photo):

Russell, an innocent Australian tourist, attempted to cross a reasonably quiet street in Catania on our first day. He got halfway across before he was engulfed by cars whose drivers wilfully disregarded his right of way.

Within seconds, he was lost in a sea of no less than five cars while I watched helplessly (taking photos), willing him safely across the road. He made it, just, but we never attempted a pedestrian crossing again.

Syracuse and the Island of Ortegia

While in Catania, we did a day trip to the Island of Ortegia, the historical centre of Syracuse, founded in 734.

Almost three millennia later, you can visit the still-functioning Greek Theatre just outside Syracuse and see the ruins of the 2nd-century Anfiteatro Romano, initially used for gladiatorial combats and horse races.

You can also walk through the amazing Orecchio di Dionisio (the Ear of Dionysius), a 23m-high grotto extending 65m into the cliffside. The tyrant Dionysius used its perfect acoustics to eavesdrop on his prisoners.

Let’s pause there.  

We’re talking about theatrical performances, life-threatening sporting events, and skulduggery that happened over 3,000 years ago, and the structures are still there.  Is that not mind-blowing?

Ortegia Island, at the centre of Syracuse, is AMAZING. Ancient, awe-inspiring, elegant, majestic. Put it on your list of places to go before you die. That’s all I’m saying.  

We had one final thing to do in Sicily. As the sun set on our Italian adventure, we went looking for our last cannoli. They never taste the same in London, and you can’t find them in Suffolk.

Peter Clemenza, The Godfather hitman I told you about in Part I of this post, knew the importance of cannoli. To him, the gun was unimportant, merely a dispensable tool of the trade, but the cannoli. . .they summed up family, happy-wife-happy-life, and Italian passion for food.

To us, cannoli summed up Sicily – irresistable.

‘Grazie mille a tutti i Siciliani, Abbiamo adorato te e i tuoi cannoli!

10 Comments

  1. Hi Sue. I reckon the lava fields in Hawaii means you can tick off Mt Etna, but keep Ortegia and Taormina on your bucket list

  2. My new bucket list is getting longer … but have walked carefully across lava fields, with a guide, in Hawaii so done that! Sicily looks gorgeous.

  3. The tiles were magnificent. The lack of furniture, not so much!

  4. Love the tiles. Italians sure know how to make them with style. 32 years ago we opted for Imported Italian tiles at our place. Best decision.

  5. Not anymore, Dubsie. I take the biggest case I can!

  6. I can just see the look on your face when they took the wine 🤣. I am impressed that you can travel with only carry-on though . Love to you both xx

  7. I’m over carry-on luggage only. It’s too limiting. But you’re right about the wine. We’re kicking ourselves we didn’t drink it.

  8. Now this sounds like somewhere I would like to visit… will contact for details another time.

    I hear your pain re the wine but I still prefer to travel with carry-on only (you should have drunk the wine..butbyou know that)). I am still waiting for my lovely new luggage that got (stolen/lost/sold) in 2016 from Sydney international… long may it roam the planet.

  9. They probably were, Mike!

  10. Absolutely wonderful, felt like I was there! Especially the zebra crossing, I even reckon they’re the same cars that tried to run me over 🤣🤣

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If you’re a fan of ‘The Godfather’, you’ll recognise “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”. Peter Clemenza said it to his offsider after they’d stiffed a traitor. You see, he’d bought some cannoli for his wife on the way to the hit and they’d left the car with the dead body and the gun. But there’s no way he was going to leave the cannoli. It’s a Sicilian thing. . .