30 March 2013

To the Sicilians: Davide at the Wash & Dry, Siracusa

Before we left the States, we agreed that we'd take eight or nine days worth of underwear and do the laundry two or three times during our three and a half weeks in Sicily. What we didn't know was that Sicily doesn't have (m)any laundromats. We were ready to do laundry by the time we got to Sciacca. The folks at the B&B Conte Luna referred us to the dry cleaner not too far away. They didn't really do water laundry but we settled on them doing the stuff in water and they had to hang it to dry. Come back tomorrow. They didn't know how to charge us except by the piece so it was kind of expensive but indispensable.

We learned, after further discussion with Cristina at the B&B, that what we wanted was a "lavanderia a gettone" (laundry by token). Googling led us to hits for "Sicily's first self-service laundromat" in Siracusa. We read the webpage for Wash and Dry which offered either self-service or they'd do it for you.

On our main day in Siracusa, we parked the car in the big public lot near Ortigia and took our laundry over to Davide at Wash and Dry. Davide runs the place with his American wife. He calculated the weight and said to come back in a couple hours. We went and looked at the cathedral and meandered about the centro. I noticed that Wash and Dry already has competition; there was another self-service laundromat a couple blocks away.

When we returned before 12:30 when the laundromat closed for lunch, it was ready to be picked up, folded and bagged, and we were ready for lunch. Davide recommended Trattoria La Spigola, just around the corner, where I had the mixed fresh catch of the day and Christie had mussels:

One of the great meals of fresh sea beasties that we had on our trip. Up in the mountains, we had more meat. My sausage and greens at Ristorante pizzeria La Bifora in Randazzo was splendid. The vegetables, sea or mountain, always tasted fresh and the lettuce in an insalata verde was decidedly more tasty than mundane American salad greens.

Thank you, Davide, for your service, both the laundromat and the restaurant recommendation.

29 March 2013

To the Sicilians: the family diary at La Brace

We went out for a walk in Cefalù after we'd gotten a bit settled at B&B Villa Cerniglia. The B&B is out in the newer part of town but not far from the centro storico. The picture above was taken from the balcony of our room at the "Jersey Shore" hotel, looking toward the centro.

As we headed toward the cathedral, we passed Ristorante La Brace. Christie said she'd seen it in the listings when she was researching before we left the States. It was highly rated and the reviews had indicated a reservation might be necessary. It was way too early to have supper in Sicily so we kept walking up to the cathedral and had our Campari and sodas in a bar on the cathedral plaza. While we were sitting there, the Saint Joseph's Day parade started and we watched it and then stood at the back of the cathedral for a while during the special mass.

Afterwards, we meandered a bit and then headed for the restaurant. It was still a little early but they were ready to seat people so we entered and the young man seated us near a blind arched opening with some memorabilia.

We ordered our acqua gassata and mezzo of house red wine. I noticed that one of the items in the display of memorabilia was a journal and that it was in Dutch. The next time the waiter came over, I asked about it. He told us he had noticed that I was reading things in Dutch and that the journal was his father's. The family had moved from Maastricht to Cefalù after the Second World War. He opened the journal on the table in front of us and told us a little of the family history. We enjoyed looking through it some more. (P.S. I don't KNOW Dutch but I know it when I see it.)

We had chicken liver as antipasto (yummy), with rabbit and veal rolls as secondi piatti. As we ate, it was fun to hear the waiter talking to his mother in a mix of Dutch and Italian. "Nee, nee, mama." Good food, great stories, and Christie had a Florio Amaro after-dinner drink, recommended by the waiter. I had my caffè normale.

When we got back to Palermo, I walked over to the Villa Florio, designed by Ernesto Basile. Wonderful Italian art nouveau (Liberty).

To the Sicilians: houses and yards

On our last morning in Noto, we were having a wide-ranging conversation with Sebastiano and Anna at the B&B Federica. We showed them pictures of our houses and Sebastiano was surprised that we didn't have walls around our houses, that they were just on the street. That's the American way: lawn and grass, spread out (unsustainable), requires driving which requires highways which leads to more highways and sprawl. Sebastiano and Anna live in the historic center of Noto: streets are narrow, plazas are public yards, houses may have courts or decks but not yards, narrow streets become personal AND public.

Yesterday, back home in Alfred, the weekly Bergren Forum was about the village planning process AND there was a hearing about a proposed change to the zoning code regarding congregate housing (rooming houses, boarding houses, fraternities, sororities, sports team houses, that is, big houses with one kitchen and common area rather than apartments, what we used to call communes). Tangential to both of those conversations were questions and thoughts about vacant lots, sprawl in our hills rather than density in the village, living together in a socially responsible way. I could go on and on about the loss of our colleges playing enough of an "in loco parentis" role. I don't want them to babysit the students but they should be taking significant responsibility for keeping village life sustainable and pleasant. Just like fraternity housemothers used to do.

To the Sicilians: Sebastiano and Anna at the B&B Federica, Noto

I was pretty happy with all of the B&Bs and hotels we stayed in in Sicily but the B&B Federica in Noto was extraordinary, in no small part because of Sebastiano and Anna who run the place. We had arrived in Noto after dark, with a harrowing drive down a narrow street, around a hairpin turn that required a three-point turn, up to bollards above a staircase, and down another narrow street. That's iPad mapping for you. They may give the streets and intersections and sometimes the direction of traffic but they don't give you more than a hint about the width of the street. Christie stayed with the parked car while I went out on foot to find the B&B Federica. No answer at the door so I went to find a phone booth and actually found one about halfway between the B&B and the car. I got an answer at the number and got started on the conversation when the time ran out. Fortunately the connection stayed while I fed the phone another coin. I told Sebastiano that I had found the B&B and would meet him there in five minutes. OK. I looked at the room and said we wanted it for one night. All of that took about an hour. Meanwhile, Christie was on the iPad, learning that white smoke had risen from the Vatican chimney and that the papal announcement would be made at 8 pm. We moved the car closer to the B&B and got our luggage into the room. Sebastiano recommended the Trattoria Ducezio, just up the main street from the B&B. The TV was on and the captioning told us that Francesco would be a pope "dei poveri e dei più vulnerabili" (the poor and more vulnerable). The pizza was satisfying. Early signs are that Francesco will be pretty good too.

This was the view from the stoop of our room that greeted us the next morning. Our room had its own door on the Ronco Re Giovanni (the Ronco is off the Vico which is off the Via Ducezio). Ducezio, by the way, was an early king of the Sicilians, 5th century B.C.E. That's Sebastiano's motorcycle; they keep the car in a garage somewhere, probably out in the wider-street part of town.
That gray building in the background was described by Sebastiano as "abandonata" so I'm going to buy it and turn it into my studio apartment and let Sebastiano and Anna do the extra space as more rooms for the B&B .... just as soon as I win the lottery. I'll keep a dovecote so the birds don't feel abandoned.

Sebastiano was studying English and really loved learning new words and phrases and ways of saying things, perhaps even more than we wanted to learn Italian. Anna had less English but was more intuitive about gestures and expression. So we got on fine. After our first day in the Noto area, we decided we'd like to stay another night which was possible. Traveling before Holy Week meant the B&Bs were in low season and we were often the only guests. Sebastiano helped us with general directions and ideas about places to visit. We decided that we'd stay another night in Noto and used it as a hub for Siracusa rather than moving to a B&B in Siracusa. We both liked Noto much more than Siracusa which is more touristic and neater. Noto has a bit of grit. Maybe we didn't give Siracusa a full chance but we loved Noto. We are regulars even: we went back to the Trattoria Ducezio and ordered a pizza "uno per due" (one for two); the waitress said "like last night?" The second one had rocket salad on top. That's arugula and it really hit the spot.

Here's to Sebastiano and Anna and the B&B Federica in Noto:
More pictures of Noto can be seen here.

28 March 2013

To the Sicilians: driving directions

We had a good atlas and an iPad but, occasionally, that's just not enough, especially after dark. We were headed from Noto to the Acis (Aci Castello, Acitrezza, Acireale), hoping to skirt Catania, Sicily's second-largest city. It was just dark and we were aiming for what we thought was a sort of inner belt around the North side of Catania. What we were on was a crowded, busy city street. We stopped at a darkened auto repair shop because there was an older guy and a couple younger guys out front. Our skimpy Italian meet their skimpier English. We said "Aci Castello" and the older guy said "diritto" (direct, as in not right or left) and "no Lungomare." So, here's to the guy that got us out to the coast so we could go a bit North to Aci Castello.
This picture is what greeted us in the morning's light. More pictures here.

From Aci Castello, we went to Acireale and then up to Etna, trying vainly to get stuck in the snow and slush. We made it out and went on to Randazzo for the night. Randazzo is described in one of our guidebooks as "dangerously close" to Mount Etna.

The next day, we drove from Randazzo across the northern edge of the Etna park and down to Taormina, then back into the mountains to Mojo Alcantara to head North to the northern coast of Sicily. Just after Mojo Alcantara, the route suggested on the iPad turned weird and we couldn't find the connection between this and that road. We went back a few kilometers to Mojo Alcantara, finding the Municipio (town offices). The door was open and I found a grizzled fellow with an unlit cigar stub in his mouth. Again, map in hand, we had a conversation of pidgin Italian and English, with gestures, and we got on our way again. Later, looking at the map, I figured out what the iPad had probably been trying to communicate but we got up through the mountains with his help and that of a barkeeper in the high Nebrodis. Here's to the town official in Mojo Alcantara.

When we got down to the northern coast at Patti, we figured we'd take the autostrada to Capo d'Orlando for the night. Again, it was now after dark. I was trying to follow the signs to the autostrada in the direction of Palermo but turned into the first road after the sign and it was a dead end street down to a small garbage processing plant. A man and a woman were standing next to a car. We talked/gestured and they indicated follow us. We weren't far off and he got out of their car to bid us good travels after they led us to the on-ramp to the autostrada. Here's to them.

If you click on the "here" under the picture, you'll get to the Aci Castello pictures. From my Flickr photostream, you can search on other places. I know Etna, Acireale, and Randazzo will get results in my photostream.

To the Sicilians: pocket watch

I have been looking for a pocket watch for a few years. One night, we were out strolling and window shopping. We saw a window display of colorful pocket and wrist watches, with analog faces. The shop was closed but we looked up where O Chive pocket watches were sold in Palermo.
When we got back to Palermo, we looked up the Crisafi jewelry shop on Via Maqueda. It's the kind of shop that you have to be let into, locked door, buzzer. We leapt into the shop and ran over to the display, shrieking like school girls. The 40-ish proprietor and her young male assistant looked aghast at the wild and crazy Americans ... at first and then pulled out the bag of watches for me to select from. I picked the red one. Then they got out the container, like a can of shoe polish with the twister opening and a styrofoam shaped opening. And guarantee on circular paper.

Why, oh why, didn't I get more than one?

To Sicily and the Sicilians

Sicily is an incredible place, both the physical and the sociocultural landscape. We had been talking about going for about a decade and we finally made it this past month. Our initial itinerary included a final week in Rome. After a day or two in Palermo and thinking about the papal conclave, we called the rental car company (Auto Europe) and extended the rental for the bulk of our three and a half weeks in Italy and stayed in Sicily from arrival on February 28th until leaving for an airport B&B the night before our transatlantic flight back to the States on March 23rd.

The pictures here are randomly selected. The mountaintop town is Caltabellotta, view from the castle back toward the town and beyond. The skies were often dramatic and we did see rain but only a few times did we get soaked (most memorably at the Cave de Cusa, near Selinunte, and as we tried to unload the car to get to the B&B in Enna).

You are never far from the sea or mountains or both. AND both.

This seaside view is from the Molo in Cefalù toward the newer part of town. Sometimes the sea was calm like this but we also saw crashing waves make sand piles on the road in Marsala on our second day with the Lancia Ypsilon which was sized right for the job (small for the narrow streets, powerful enough, manual transmission for the hills and curves, big enough trunk for two four-week suitcases). The Wikipedia page calls it a "luxury supermini." Hmm.

Our path counterclockwise around Sicily took us from Palermo to Trápani, Mazara del Vallo, Sciacca, Enna, Piazza Armerina, Ragusa, Noto, Aci Castello, Randazzo, Capo d'Orlando, Cefalù, and back to Palermo. Those are overnight places. The first picture in my Sicily 2013 set of pictures on Flickr is a map of the island with our route highlighted.

As much as the landscape and seascape thrilled and moved us, it is a populated landscape. It is my intention to write some tales of our adventures as thanks to the Sicilians who so enriched our circumnavigation of the island. Yes, circumnavigation implies boating and we did not do that. The Wikipedia page on "circumnavigation" talks of land travels and the person in the other front seat of the car is usually the navigator.