Taking the train south from Venice was our main introduction to the Italy beyond the wonderland that is Venice. We took an evening train from Venice to Rome and then a sleeper train overnight all the way south to the tip of the “boot” to Reggio Calabria. From there a 40 minute boat ride to Messina on Sicily with the morning commuters. From there a 3 hour train journey to Cefalu our destination. The experience of a sleeper compartment for two was sort of amusing. The train attendant showed us our compartment and briefly how things worked (not the window which we were never able to open) and then shut the door on us, and our luggage. Quite cramped to say the least. But infinitely better than the alternatives…a bed in a co-ed compartment of up to six people or an upright seat in a compartment up to four others How we managed to get Sam’s backpack up on the high shelf by the top bunk, I’m not sure, but it was a lot easier getting it down. These compartments are made for people who are very flexible and agile. After all the huffing and puffing, we eventually got settled, and got some sleep until about 5:30 am in preparation for the 6:30 arrival. I was surprised how much swaying there was from the motion of the train. So, after being in northern Italy by the Venice Lagoon and the Adriatic, we suddenly woke up to the very different landscape of southern Italy, along the Mediterranean coast. It reminded us a little of the Costa Blanca in Spain. There were a lot of what looked like fairly new seaside resorts, interspersed with older small communities, and looming much closer than the horizon, Sicily.
I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about coming to Sicily. I’m afraid I imagined the flamboyance of the Italian American eateries in Chicago, the Mafia, and that’s about it. (Although I had seen some pictures of the beautiful rocky coastline which I hoped we’d see.) Sam had found us a studio in a small complex of condos a mile from the town of Cefalu. The condos belonged to a hotel, which was close by. We were really astounded by the place. It was simple, but spacious enough, and there was a terrace-balcony, with a view over a little cove perhaps 50 feet below.
The cove was reachable by over 100 steps, and was quite rocky underfoot, so not really ideal for the usual beach activities. However, we spent a lot of time looking out from either our terrace and for a few days I developed the habit of finding some large rock down there to sit against to work on my poems for the Poetry School course I was taking. I would go down there with a flask and an espresso cup in my backpack, my notebook, and spend an hour or so down there in the sun, trying to write and drinking tea. It got quite hot, as it was very sheltered, and I made up my mind to swim in the cove before we left. Which I did, and it was very refreshing. In the early morning we saw the odd snorkeler with a harpoon searching for fish. One of them even wore a camouflage wetsuit.
Some afternoons we went up to the hotel to use the wifi and sit out on the terrace.
Cefalu is a lovely ancient town, with an impressive Duomo set on a large square, its backdrop a rugged hill called La Rocca.
It also has a lovely beach front, which looked slightly neglected, probably because it was not yet “the season”. I swam off that beach too…not many sharp stones there to hop over….
I would say that in all of our time in Italy we had the best food in Sicily. The highlight was the fish and seafood. It was very early in the season, so it was never a problem to find a table in a restaurant, and the waiters were very friendly. We also discovered that in at least Southern Italy there is a heavy emphasis on starch…pasta, bread, pizza. They do have lovely roasted vegetables, but salad is more of an afterthought. The salads, however always arrive undressed, and they bring instead bottles of olive oil and vinegar….a habit I wish American restaurants would take up. So, we had quite a problem keeping the pounds off. We learnt about Italian style coffee too. I learnt how to use a stovetop espresso maker to make Sam coffee in the am (delightfully simple). We also learnt about some of the names of coffee.
Here is my list:
Italian usage English usage
un café an espresso
un cafe lungo an espresso shot with an extra ounce of hot water
un café macchiato an espresso with a small amount of steamed milk in it, or on the side
un latte macchiato steamed milk, “marked” with an espresso, which is added after the milk
un cappuccino 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk, 1/3 milk froth
un caffe latte (not all places serve these) a latte with less steamed milk than a latte macchiato… but never quite figured it out!
It’s not exhaustive list, but it did help to know this.
While on our first day out in Cefalu Sam found a hairdressers right across from the café we had been sitting in, and asked them if I could get a haircut. They could. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as our experiences with hairdressers in the countries we have been in have been mixed. However, the staff there, including the very dapper Sicilian hairdresser, Raimondo, were all very friendly. Raimondo could have been Sam’s Sicilian cousin.
He only spoke a couple words of English to our couple words of Italian, but we managed. A week later, I took Sam back to Raimondo for his own haircut, which he enjoyed. It was at this time that I overheard a customer talking in French about the Westminster Bridge attack in London. We hadn’t been aware of the news over the last 24 hours. Eventually I asked what was going on, and they told me. Britain seemed so far away at that moment. We were struck especially by the news of the American couple on the bridge who were on their 25th wedding anniversary on a tour of Europe. The husband was one of those who lost their lives that day.
Unfortunately, we were not able to visit Mt. Etna in the short time that we were there. We hadn’t really intended to, but it would not have been a good time, as the volcano was active the day we arrived on the island. Celie texted me to ask me if we were okay, because she knew we were in Sicily. That was the first time we heard of it. Apparently some BBC reporters and photographers were slightly injured by hot rocks that got projected from the volcano, but no one seriously. After hearing this, I googled our distance from Mt. Etna, and determined that we were safe. Especially as everyone we met that day in Sicily just seemed to be going about their business.
By the time we left, we had the feeling that the Sicilians are proud of their island, and that one way that they show this is with their hospitality. We felt pretty relaxed after that week. I think it had a lot to do with the calming effect of the sea, which we could both hear and see from our apartment.
We left by way of Palermo, and took the overnight ferry to Naples sleeping in a spacious (in comparison with the train) cabin. A lot of Sicilians seem to travel this way for work, at least they outnumbered the tourists. Since there was no wifi on the boat the lounge was filled with several TV screens. Within an hour or so of our sailing, there were rows of mostly male football fans watching the nights football game very intently and for the most part quietly in the lounge. It reminded me of our visit to Camp Nou in Barcelona and the very “civilized” and serious soccer fans.
We slept very well in our cabin, and arrived in Naples at 6:30 am with plenty of time to spare to get to the airport where we would meet our group to “walk the Amalfi coast”.