Have to share this. File under “You think YOU have problems?!”
Since we have the parking garage from hell and are afraid that if we venture out of Taormina we’ll never get back in it, we revise our plans to explore outside the city. No Noto… we’ll just have to come back to Sicily.
Getting to street level is a challenge (up/down many stairs, across hallways, a gate which inexplicably has the name Condominio San Giorgio on it) but we are intrepid. Or perhaps just desperate to get outside.
Highlights of these two days are buying fresh fish and veggies at the local market for dinner at home, the famous Greek amphitheater which is actually Roman, a lovely little park which is a calm oasis in the middle of this busy city (with interesting topiary, e.g. a reindeer – ? – ), shopping for some ceramics, lunching on fabulous squid/cuttlefish ink pasta, and the discovery of “brutti ma buoni” (ugly but good) cookies.
Leaving Taormina Lux Apartments is almost as complicated. First we have to get all our stuff to the parking garage. Then we open the security gate and DH drives outside. Now I have to run BACK upstairs to the condo, leave the keys on the washing machine, go back down to the basement, and exit a side door because the automatic gate has closed.
Would it not be simpler for each unit to have its own number, which would also be on the keys, which could then be left in a drop box IN the garage? Just sayin’.
We drive back to Palermo and stay in a nice hotel near the airport. Have an excellent lunch, a longish walk, and repack our bags from tomorrow’s flight to Milan.
We fly to Milan and check in at the Principe di Savoia, where we stayed when we were newly engaged. It’s now part of the Dorchester Group and not quite as special as it used to be but still very nice.
After checking in, we take their complimentary shuttle into town, do some errands (I need another hole punched in my new Hermès belt — even with wine, pasta and pastry I have still lost weight on this trip, woo hoo!) and explore the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, a house shared by two very rich, very eccentric brothers and crammed with Renaissance tchotchkes and lugubrious religious artifacts.
Our favorite thing is the bathtub, which looks like a baptismal font but had hot and cold running water — the latest thing in the 19th century.
There’s also a wonderful temporary exhibit of Jacques Henri Lartigue photos.
Fly home. Why can’t our airports feature gelato and other treats like those in Italy?
Happily, all goes smoothly, the bags arrive quickly, and we immediately start planning our next trip.
While the phrase could refer to friends, family or co-workers, in this case it’s a cookie we discovered in Sicily. Having now experimented with several recipes, I have a version to recommend.
These are very easy and would be a nice addition to the Thanksgiving menu as they are light, gluten free and delicious.
- 1 1/2 cups hazelnuts (aka filberts), about 8 ounces
- 3/4 cup powdered (confectioners) sugar — I use Whey Low sugar substitute* Note: this yields slightly sweet cookies. If you prefer more sweetness, increase to 1 cup of sugar.
- Pinch of salt
- 1 large egg white
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Spread hazelnuts on a baking tray and bake for about 10-12 minutes until they are fragrant, lightly toasted and the skins blister. Remove and transfer the nuts to a clean kitchen towel to cool. Then rub them together in the towel to remove the skins. Warning: this is messy!
- Lower the oven heat to 300 degrees F.
- Pulse nuts in a food processor until roughly chopped. You want some big pieces. (Alternatively, crush them in a bowl– takes longer but avoids pulverizing into dust.)
- Transfer nuts to a bowl and mix in the sugar and salt.
- Whip the egg white on high setting in a stand mixture until soft peaks form and then gradually add vanilla, continuing to whip until you get medium-firm peaks. Stir this into the hazelnut-sugar mixture.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spoon generous-sized dollops of the “dough”, leaving 1″ of space between cookies. They don’t spread much, if at all. Cookies can be any size you want; this amount will make about 8 large (3″) cookies or over a dozen smaller ones.
- Bake at 300 for 30 minutes until golden, then lower the heat to 200 and bake for another 15 minutes so they dry out and are crisp and not sticky.
- Cool before serving.
*A note on Whey Low. Developed for the inventor’s diabetic wife, this genius product is significantly lower in calories and glycemic index than sugar and tastes/cooks the same so no complicated calculations are needed. Only caveat: it’s pricey.
Day 13: Surviving Taormina
We bid farewell to Sabrina and drive to our next home-from-home, Taormina, a few hours away. This is where our best-laid-plans are totally shot to hell.
The trip starts promisingly, as we get back to Caltanisetta without getting lost. But then…. We hit a double roundy-round and Betty wants us to take one of the exits. Well, that doesn’t work. We try EVERY GODDAMN EXIT until we realize that the one correct exit is the one that is blocked off. Needless to say, there are no signs to help and we are stuck in Caltanisetta.
DH finally has a brainstorm: Follow a truck because surely a truck is going to be headed for the highway, right? YES! We are out of the city and see signs for the A19 highway.
New crisis: I need a rest stop and there are none. Betty steers us to a gas station, which has a hunk of concrete blocking the door to the restroom but do I care? No, I do not! Ignoring the man outside who is yelling in Italian (which mercifully, I do not understand) I hustle out of the john and get back in the Fiat.
Needless to say, 5 minutes after we get on the A19 there is a bonafide rest area. F’ me and thanks, Betty.
OK, our new destination is the promisingly-named Taormina Lux Apartments, with an address per booking.com of #46 San Pancrazio, which we enter into the GPS. We have arranged to meet Emanuel the condo agent and are now running 1/2 hour late but all things considered that’s not too bad.
We arrive in Taormina to see that San Pancrazio is a winding thoroughfare — very busy — with nowhere to pull over but I spy #46 and hop out of the car to ring the doorbell. Nada. It’s clear that this is not the entrance so now what??
We call and text the agent multiple times as we circle around and around in the insane traffic of San Pan-Crazy-O and are finally forced to travel up to a small area by a bakery where we can pull over. This would be fine except that a cop keeps trying to shoo us away and a woman who has stopped for ice cream wants our parking spot.
Finally we get through to Emanuel who says he will meet us there in 10 minutes. 45 minutes later he actually shows up and we follow him to the apartment parking area which turns out to be BEHIND the street. How in hell were we supposed to know this?!?! We are now molto stressed out and more than a little irritated, especially DH who has had to drive around in circles for over an hour.
The complex itself is a maze and “helpfully”, none of the units are marked, nor is the key. But the apartment has a well stocked kitchen, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a large veranda overlooking the pool with a view of the hillside and ocean.
It’s now getting late so we dump our stuff and go exploring for lunch accompanied by wine, which we both desperately need at this point. Sapori di Mare hits the spot.
Taormina has been a vacation destination for centuries and it’s easy to see why. Despite being very touristy even at this time of year, it is extremely pretty. You just have to look up above the stores and down the little alleys to catch a glimpse of its natural beauty.
We buy some cheese, wine and pastry at Pasticceria D’Amore for a simple dinner later and go back to collapse.
Not so fast. Trying to find our room in this apartment complex is like being trapped in an Esher drawing.
Up 3 levels. Down 4 levels. Across to one elevator. Down a hallway. Back to the other elevator. We can see where our patio is (pool level) but damned if we can figure out how to get to it.
But we do, and vow to take careful notes tomorrow of exactly how to retrace our steps. Zzzzzz.
Sicilian drivers fall into three categories: pazzo (“crazy”), molto pazzo, and pazzissimo (which is probably not a word.) As DH observes, “You know you’re in a Catholic country because everyone drives with the assurance of an after-life.”
Undaunted, though, we head out for further exploration.
First up: the archeology museum at the Valle dei Templi, which involves several u-turns, Betty’s impatient “Recalculating!”s, and pissed off locals who are honking madly as we attempt to find the parking area. Apparently, signs are for sissies.
The museum is wonderfully deserted and full of fascinating objects dating from the pre-Agrigento days of the 6th century B.C. Many, many vases, coins, sculptural fragments and lots of images of satyrs, horses and mules with erections. (This seems to be a big theme in ancient art.)
(No, I didn’t take pics of erections. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
There are also schematics showing how the temples were constructed, and a gigantic caryatid that is very cool.
Next, we drive to Licata, which is a town that sounded promising in the guidebooks but isn’t all that interesting. The archeology museum has some good pieces but is much smaller and doesn’t have either the quality or quantity of the work in Agrigento.
We have lunch at the oddly-named but surprisingly good Old Fashion (not a typo) and also stop at a very pretty church whose blue and white “frosted” interior reminds me of Wedgewood.
We return via Canicatti, a charming hilltop village reached after a death-defying series of hairpin turns. Things are still closed at 3 pm so we head back to our condo, via a stop at the local bakery where I buy lots of options under the theory that 1) something may look good but be disappointing and 2) it’s a royal pain to park there.
Today is devoted to the amazing Villa Romana del Casale, the lavish multi-wing home of some rich nobleman built around the 2nd-4th century A.D.
Notable for its remarkably well-preserved elaborate mosaic decoration throughout — depicting intricate scenes from history and mythology — it also boasts bathing areas believed to have featured both warm and cool water.
Some of our favorites are the elephant getting on a boat, the hunter getting gored by a pig, and the famous Bikini Girls.
Lunch nearby is excellent too. And, heading home, we see sheep being herded by the side of the road.
First, some overall thoughts:
- Sicily is BIG. We barely scratched the surface and I can’t wait to go back and see things we missed.
- Sicily reminds me of my earliest trips to Italy, when it truly felt different from home: few tourists, little English, no giant chain stores, and you could get right up close to anything that seemed interesting. I loved it.
Day 7: Palermo
Waking late after our midnight arrival and feeling peckish after last night’s feast of sandwich, chips and minibar, our first order of business is to find somewhere for lunch. The desk manager at Hotel No Frills makes a reservation at one that specializes in typical Sicilian food and it’s in the direction we want to walk, so off we go.
It’s Sunday, so everything is closed except restaurants and gelateria (gotta love a country where desserts are a priority). Families are enjoying the mild sunny weather as they stroll through piazzas and wide boulevards and we make our way to Piazza Verdi, where we’ll attend the opera tonight.
Anticipating that we’ll want a snack before the performance, we make a reservation at the Teatro Massimo’s restaurant and continue to the famous Quattro Canti, also admiring the elaborate fountain in Piazza Pretoria and the churches just behind it.
After lunch, we stop for gelato, leisurely wander back to the hotel to change for the opera… and discover that the performance is at 5:30 p.m! ACK! No wonder the guy taking our dinner reservation for 6:00 looked at us so strangely!!! It’s already 5:00 so we throw on dressier clothes and zip back to the theatre, where we see yet another silly opera: Andrea Lecouvreur.
The plot is a mash-up of French farce, Oscar Wilde, and high drama involving many people who are suffering from unrequited love. Although there are subtitles in English, I have absolutely no clue what’s going on. Mostly I am wondering why the pudgy middle-aged stage manager doesn’t hook up with the middle-aged countess, instead of everyone pining for someone hopelessly unattainable.
The nice couple sharing our box are from Poland and are traveling on to Noto, which sounds beautiful so we add it to our to-do list.
Day 8: To Agrigento
We pick up our rental car at Hertz, along with a printed sheet of dire warnings about crime in the countryside, a GPS we call Betty (for reasons lost in the mist of time, our GPS is always “Betty”), and drive to the condo near Agrigento which will be our home for the next few days.
Betty is doing pretty well with directions until we get closer and realize that our destination, Villagio Mosé, isn’t in her repertoire. Luckily we have GoogleMaps and a general idea of where we’re going. After butchering most of the street names — Betty’s Italian is even worse than my own and Porto Empedocle comes out “Hokely Dokely” — we find our condo, which is off Via degli Asteroidi (Asteroid Street? Huh?)
Sabrina, the manager, is very helpful and gives us some local maps, pointing out where to find the produce market and grocery store. Unfortunately, we discover that most roads do not actually have street signs because who needs them when only locals live here?!
Never mind. A few wrong turns later we find the market and load up on produce using our sophisticated language skills of pointing, holding up the appropriate number of fingers, and sticking to nouns. We repeat the whole process at the grocery store, where we stock up on essentials like milk, coffee, burratta, Sicilian wine (insolio and grillo are delicious whites; nero d’avola becomes our house red), swordfish and pasta for future dinners.
We begin with the astonishing Valle dei Templi (valley of the temples) — a stretch of remarkably preserved ruins that is one of those “you have to see it” kind of sights. The temples are huge, majestic and incredibly beautiful. Walking the mile or so from one to another where people walked so many centuries ago, you can feel the grandeur and history of this magnificent former jewel of the Grecian empire.
We’ve worked up an appetite and stop for lunch back in Villagio M before exploring Agrigento.
Day 10: Out and About
Our laundry is drying outside in the sun, and we drive off for another day trip.
First we navigate interminable “roundy-rounds” (roundabouts), which adds a lot of time because Betty keeps telling us to take exits which are invariably closed for construction. (One town we pass is called Craparo; this pretty much sums it up.)
We eventually arrive in Racalmuto where Dear Husband is interested in seeing a little theatre he’s read about. The people who look after it seem amazed that anyone is visiting (sadly, there are no more performances because there’s no more funding) but they are excited to show us around, once we communicate (sort of) that DH is a university professor who teaches stage and film design.
Then, it’s on to Caltanisetta to check out another beautiful theatre (closed, dammit!), eat a wonderful lunch at Ristorante 900, look around the main square, and stop for pastry to bring back for dinner. The Sicilians have quite a sweet tooth and the cookies are insanely good.
Traveling to Europe from Austin is usually an adventure unto itself, and this trip was no exception.
We’d opted to fly in/out of Houston to avoid the missed or much-too-lengthy connections that occur when landing somewhere else in the US.
After a last-minute switch of hotels (note to airport travelers: do not book the Houston airport Holiday Inn, which is filthy and reeks of smoke!), we check in at the airport Marriott and have dinner at highly recommended Chez Nous in nearby Humble. I learn that the town is pronounced “umble” – perhaps to avoid the obvious jokes about pie?
The meal is excellent and we’re off to a good start.
Next morning, we check in for our flights: Houston to Newark and then on to Milan. Board the plane, settle in, and… nothing happens. After three “we’ll be slightly delayed” announcements we’re told of a “mechanical issue” (airline code for “we have no freakin’ clue what’s wrong”) and herded off the plane to scramble for new flights, as many on board are clearly going to miss their connection.
Several hours later we’re en route to Munich, where we’ll connect via Lufthansa to Milan. We arrive safely – still shivering from the insanely cold airplane – way behind schedule. Our luggage does not.
This necessitates another hour filling in paperwork while the lost luggage clerk tries to figure out whether United or Lufthansa is responsible for locating it and getting it to the hotel before we leave for our next destination.
BUT, intrepid travelers that we are, we head to our hotel, the very lovely Grand Hotel Et De Milan, and set off wandering this sophisticated and stylish city.
Since we’re both opera fans, the main reason we’ve stopped in Milan this trip is to see a performance at La Scala the following night. Today, we head over to the opera house museum, which is pretty much a shrine to Maria Callas, patron saint of warblers worldwide. There are costumes, posters, videos, photos, portraits, you name it. Also set and costume designs from various other performances.
We scarf down a delicious dinner of trenette with pesto and cacio e pepe (here’s one recipe, though it’s even simpler and better if you use grated cacio cheese, olive oil, pasta water and freshly ground pepper) at nearby ristorante Salumiao, which we like so much we eat there the next night as well.
Having been awakened at 1 a.m. by my dear husband (DH) who was obsessing about the missing luggage and wanting me to call someone (who in god’s name is working at that hour? but sure, why not!), I’m not as rested as I could be. Still, off we go to walk around and shop for a shirt and tie for DH to wear to La Scala in case the bags don’t arrive (it’s looking bleak).
Best discovery of the day: Museo Novecento, showcasing major art movements from 1910-1960’s, including some interesting political pieces.
After an afternoon drink at the hotel bar we return to our room to change for the opera and – mirabile dictu – bags have arrived!
At La Scala we see a silly opera (Von Weber’s Die Freischutz; about a hapless suitor, magic bullets, and the devil) with pleasant, mostly forgettable music, but we share a box with a nice couple and can now cross it off DH’s bucket list.
We take the train to Florence – our 4th visit to this beautiful city, which is sadly overrun with selfie-stick-brandishing tourists even in October. Our hotel (a private palazzo nicely located near the Duomo) turns out to be lovely despite its unprepossessing exterior: ancient gate/courtyard with faint “eau de urine” from generations of animals and a dirty welcome mat in front of the battered industrial elevator which takes you upstairs to …
Some highlights: Eating at Del Fagioli and Alla Vecchia Bettola, admiring fresh vegetables at the market and frescos at the Pitti Palace and Santa Maria Novella, and window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio,”considering” whether we need to buy the Buccellati lifelike silver crab serving dish that’s “only” 3600 euros after the VAT refund. Hey, let’s take two!
Day 7: Arrival in Sicily!
Alitalia seamlessly transfers our luggage from Florence to Rome to Palermo (take note, United!), where our Stanley Tucci lookalike driver takes us to our modern (aka no frills) hotel at 11:30 pm. I’d bought a sandwich to eat on the plane but DH has not eaten – he’s been fighting a cold and wasn’t hungry until now– and dines on minibar bottles and potato chips. Who says travel isn’t glamorous!
Next up: Palermo….
Inevitably, if you love to travel and love to eat, you’ll hit every destination armed with restaurant recommendations from foodie friends, bloggers, guide books and the like.
This is often a wonderful resource. But it comes with a downside: a place that’s already popular is often crowded with tourists – not quite the authentic experience you may have been seeking. Personally, I don’t want to hear my native language (especially when it’s LOUD) when I’m traveling abroad. Unless I’m in the UK, of course.
As I get older, I also find that simple meals of fresh ingredients meticulously prepared are infinitely more pleasurable than course after course of “fancy” food at Michelin-starred restaurants. That’s because: 1) I’m no longer interested in making eating a multi-hour activity, no matter how creative the chef is. 2) I can’t eat that much at one sitting. 3) Too often, the food is so rich that I feel vaguely queasy – or more than vaguely – after consuming an elaborate meal.
Hence, the new “Corner” philosophy.
Simply put, instead of the place everyone’s been telling you about (which may, of course, be fabulous), look nearby for an unassuming restaurant that’s frequented by the locals. Better yet, get a recommendation for a non-touristy place by asking a friendly shopkeeper for suggestions. Chances are, not only will the food itself be memorable, but there will be a story or experience attached to the meal. Bonus: there’s a good chance the local favorite is a lot less expensive than the tourist trap.
Here are a few places we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Milan, Florence and Sicily. As I found out later, they’re all highly rated on Trip Advisor — proving that if you trust your instincts they’ll lead you somewhere good, even if it’s not “undiscovered”!
Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence
My husband and I collect antique prints of fish and shells for the guest bathroom (although, truth be told, we are running out of wall space). This gives each trip a shopping focus and often leads to interesting experiences as we search for our “souvenirs”.
In Florence, we made our way to a store we’d located online, only to discover that their prints were all reproductions. Even though we weren’t buying anything, the owner generously steered us to another shop that did sell original prints. And when we asked about nearby places to eat typical Florentine food, she suggested this restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch (charcuterie to start; risotto carciofi for me and pasta bolognese for my husband) with a murmur of Italian in the background.
Two days later, we wandered into Nuti, after bypassing the restaurant a friend had recommended which had an impossible wait time and seemed to be full of Americans.
Although hardly “non-touristy”, as the menu is in both English and Italian, Nuti’s food was delicious (beautiful grilled eggplant, zucchini, red and yellow peppers — all sliced very thin and seasoned with garlic and olive oil; fritto misto di mare for me and zesty pasta cinghiale for my husband) and the atmosphere was calm and relaxing; again, with a Florentine clientele.
Piatti Primi, Palermo
Tucked in a side street near the famous Quattro Centi but off the main drag, this “typical” restaurant offered simple Sicilian cuisine (more grilled veggies, pasta with swordfish) that was simply terrific.
Finally, one of the best meals we had was the squid ink pasta with anchovy sauce my husband cooked in the kitchen of our condo in Taormina. It not only tasted amazing, it combined the fun of shopping for local ingredients, the leisure to eat at a time that was convenient, the flexibility to get our bread from a wonderful bakery and our dessert from a different pasticceria, AND we didn’t have to dress up.