Tag Archives: sicily

Melting in Sicily – Catania & Then Home

Day Five – Around Catania

It took us a while before we actually did Catania properly. It did not matter that we were all sore from the previous jaunt in Agrigento since we wanted to do the city justice… despite waiting four days to actually to do this. We decided to go on a walk around the city following a pre-made route on the map to see all the Baroque sites in the city, which basically meant a church walk.

We started off just off the Piazza Duomo which meant a visit to both the Duomo and the Badia di Sant’Agata. Compared to a lot of Catholic churches I have seen the Duomo was nowhere near as ornate, but it did contain the preserved remains of a Cardinal on show which is something I have not seen before.

Now whilst we did see a number of interesting sites on this walk but there are two I want to pick out.

Firstly there was the Greco-Roman theatre which is pretty much hidden from view since, until very recently, it provided the foundations for a number of houses. The renovation work that is currently going on here is extraordinary since they are actively restoring it. In the very hot weather we could see the workers laying down slabs for the seating. At the moment the work is astounding so one can only imagine what it will be like when they are finished. I look forward to that day so I can return and see that for myself.

Then there was the Church of San Benedetto which stands as one of the most beautiful houses of worship I have ever been inside (alongside St. Peter’s in the Vatican City and the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi). As you enter the main part of the church you have the Angel Steps which instantly made me think of how much I am looking forward to playing Bayonetta 2 since the statues were so perfect it looked as if they could spring to life at any given moment.Then there was the interior which was painted head to toe in murals. Most of them depicted the life of Saint Benedict (including one of him smashing an ancient temple because of the pagan images… that angered me somewhat) but also featured were pieces from the lives of other saints including local favourite Saint Agatha.

I could just post a lot of these pictures but, like most things, it is so much more rewarding to see it in the flesh, so I am going to leave it here and talk about the last entries in my Sicilian food diary.

Food item: Pane Siciliano

This was the second of two Sicily specific items I wanted to specifically find whilst I was there and, for a signature regional bread, it took a long time to come across. Maybe that’s because of the lack of bakeries on the main streets though since once we took a different route then there were three in a row. The bread itself was lovely with a slight peanut taste due to the large number of sesame seeds on top. It was at its best when it was warm and at 55¢ for two rolls (which the baker was not happy about having to break a 10€ note for).

Food item: Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Not going to say much about this one since I think every single dinner would have been loaded with this but this is the only time I was able to get photographic proof of it being used. It was gorgeous over a Caprese salad with some balsalmic vinegar.

Food item: Gianduja

Another list item that I had in the form of a frozen dessert, here is was a gianduja gelato. I had not heard of this before but it tasted like a better version of Nutella or the inside bit of a Ferrero Rocher. It turns out that I was right on both counts since gianduja was their predecessor. As delicious as this rich chocolate-hazelnut  was it was too rich for me to finish (I mean it was basically a spreadable ice cream truffle) so I ate half and swapped with my fiancee to finish off his straciatella… yum.

Day Six – Going Home

Not going to dwell too much on the trip home since, despite all the negative reviews, there was nothing too eventful about the way home on the 11am flight. Well, our flight was delayed for 20 minutes because someone’s carry on luggage was infested with ants and they had to bring in a clean up crew in to clean the overhead compartments. That was a weird end to a good holiday.

Melting in Sicily – Agrigento

Day Four – Agrigento

Today was the hottest day we were out in Sicily. A number of independent thermometers that we saw on this day ranged (at the hottest) between 31 and 34°C. The sun in the cloudless sky was utterly relentless. If this was a normal in day in London I would be in an air-conditioned office (on a weekday) or be sitting in front of a fan (on a weekend). However, here we were traipsing up a steep hill because the Bertlitz map lied to us about the distance between the bus terminal in Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples.

Anyway, let’s back up for a moment. In order to get from Catania and Agrigento (a 162 km trip) there are two choices if you rely on public transport: 3 hours by coach or 4 hours by train… no brainer really. We brought entertainment for the coach trip since, as you can imagine, the thought of three hours sat on a coach is not exactly preferable. It felt nowhere near that long since you could just get lose in the scenery, both natural and in the many hillside towns.

Arriving in Agrigento it is a remarkable city just to look at. Once it was the 4th largest city in the world and now it houses about 10% of the population it had at its height. Built high on a ridge it looks like it would have been a formidable site. Even now it has the makings of how you would expect a human settlement on a hilly exoplanet to look minus the plastic domes and the flying cars.

So, the bus deposited us off fairly near to the central train station and our guide book made it look as if it would be a short walk (1 km give or take 100 metres). All I can say is… the bastards lied. The fact that you need to purchase bus tickets before getting on the bus meant not only did we have to walk there (where we took a longer way than we should due to a road splitting in three and all three having the same name) but also had to walk back, which meant hiking a 230m high hill in 34°C when none of us are exactly into hiking… it was strangely harrowing.

Anyway, the Valley of the Temples. Well, it’s more a Ridge of the Temples to be honest. Aside from that there is advice that you should start on the Eastern side and work your way west, which is what we did and it means you work from the most intact ruins to the ones where you need a bit more imagination.

First, there was the Temple of Juno. The best preserved of the temples (there is a more intact one but that is because it was converted into a Christian church) it even had scorch marks from when the Carthaginians set it on fire. Seriously, what is with invaders setting fire to religious buildings.

Speaking of which, next was the Temple of Concordia which was pretty much gutted and converted by Christians. It’s beautifully intact but how much of that is because of Christian intervention I am not entirely sure.

There were a number of other temples including eight intact pillars of the Temple of Hercules and outline of a temple to Castor and Pollux.

As I mentioned before, we had a long walk back which none of us were particularly happy with, but we made the 4pm bus so it was worth it… also for the chance to show off my map-reading skills of a not to scale map.

Food item: Tapenade

I tried to get a meat item today (since horsemeat is readily available in Sicily) but apparently they had either run out or they just had it on the menu for kicks since they were visibly surprised when I asked for it. Anyway we had some bruschetta to start (as we did on pretty much every night) we were able to have tapenade… on sliced white bread, not on toasted sliced of ciabatta as you would have expected. A bit weird but at least they had good carbonara there.

Melting in Sicily – A Trip Up Etna

Day Two – Mount Etna

List Item: Visit an active volcano
Progress: Completed

A Sunday in Italy, seeing how we did not expect much to be open we decided it would be the most opportune time to take a trip up Mount Etna. During my researching of Catania I saw that there were numerous excursions up the mountain with experts and the like but, to be honest, I am not overly fond of trips that are too structured. So we ended up going on one of the tourist buses up there where we could just be dropped off, picked up and (most importantly) allowed to do our own thing.

I have to say that the trips to and from the volcano were beautiful… once we got out of the city that is. Although, the city part of trip was fun because of the slight confusion between left and right when the recorded commentary pointed out the local sights. It also mentioned how there is a crossroads nicknamed “Four Corners” because none of the surrounding buildings had a corner on it… who knew the locals had an acute sense of irony.

The bus ride to Etna and back really helped to demonstrate the sheer size of Etna. I had previously been up Vesuvius and thought it to be massive… and Etna is some two and a half times the height of that. Not only that but it is surrounded by a number of craters and mounts that were barren, heavily forested or somewhere in between.

On the way up we also saw a number of buildings that had been damaged by previous eruptions. Some were burnt out skeletons and one was even nearly completely submerged by lava. In any case the journey took about an hour and a half either way which gave a lot of time to take in the scenery.

The bus dropped us off at around 2km high at a rather touristy spot with a hotel, a few restaurants and a number of shops. We then took the cable car up to 2.5km (a 15 minute trip where we able to observe a previous cable car station damaged by a previous lava flow) and walked around the surface of volcano. Mum had ‘Mars’ by Gustav Holst playing on her iPod as we wandered and climbed around.

I have to say that walking around on the surface of an active volcano (which is going through a minor flank eruption at the moment) was absolutely mind-blowing. This was especially so when we came across a very small vent where it was releasing some gas. Or course I had to get a photo near it… at which time three more small streams of smoke appeared in the direction we came from (which explains my face… I hope). So frickin’ cool!

Speaking of cool, the temperature up there was a nice relief from the heat down in Catania, down there it was 29°C but up on the volcano it was clearly about 6-7 degrees cooler. Talk about perfect weather.

I wish I could have had more time there, when we were told we had three and a half hours it sounded like a long time but I could have been up there for hours. If I ever find myself back in Sicily I will definitely be up there again.

Melting In Sicily – Arrival

List Item: Visit all EU countries
Progress: 12/28italy-flag-wallpaperCountry: Italy
Year first visited: 1997

Okay, so I have been to Italy of number of times since 1997 which included a school trip around the country in 2002 where we toured a number of sites including Florence, Rome and Pompeii. In early October of 2014 (this, once again, shows how far in advance I am writing these) we stayed in Catania, the second largest city on the island of Sicily. The fact that Sicily is ~20% larger than Wales still throws me for a loop.

I will be negating my regular postings this week (since Monday is usually a music post it is a bit redundant stating this I know) to write up my diary notes of the trip with some pictures as well as ticking a few things off of my list. So, here we are with Day One:

Day One – Arriving in Sicily

When we were choosing a place to go on a week long holiday in October there ended up being a four-way battle between Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and Venice. Sicily ended up winning for a number of reasons, a major one being that this is somewhere that gets really hot in the summer so visiting when it was milder made sense for us. All I can say is… it’s called an average for a reason. Where Catania has an average October high of 24°C we arrived in the late afternoon and it was at 28°C. Being able to write this in retrospect I can add that the hottest temperature we saw out there was 34°C but more about there when I write about that day.

After a rather manic taxi ride from the airport we arrived at the rather nice NH Bellini hotel which would be our base for the next five days… apart from we had accidentally booked for 4 nights instead of 5 for some completely unknown reason. The man at the front desk was really helpful and found us rooms and charged us the same rate that we had prepaid at so not the BEST start.

The sun was hanging low in the sky as we left the hotel to make our way to the Piazza Duomo. It was hanging even lower when we realised we had made an incorrect turning onto the Via Etnea (all recently paved in lava stone which gave the road and pavement a silvered black appearance) and when we were far down we agreed it would be a good idea to stop for a drink… when I noticed the first of two region specific food items from my food list: granita

Food items: Granita Siciliana and Black Mulberry

We stopped at the La Dolce Vita café on the Piazza Universitá (where we would keep going back since the prices were good and the view of the Piazza and its related foot traffic was perfect) and I was able to have by first taste of granita, a Sicilian iced drink which lies somewhere in the realms of slushie, shaved ice and sorbet. The one I had was the on the right of the photo and was lemon flavoured whilst my engagement partner had the mulberry on the left (if someone had told me that black mulberry was just blackberry/bramble I would have been able to cross it off yonks ago). During my stay in Sicily I tried lemon, mulberry, pistachio, orange, coffee, chocolate and watermelon granite from a number of different areas but none beat the lemon granita found at La Dolce Vita. One of the most refreshing things I have ever tasted and it is something that, writing this eight hours after landing back in the UK, I am already missing.

After eating these it was night time and we went for a quick around the immediate are surrounding the Piazza Duomo and we went for dinner at the Caffé del Duomo looking onto the square where I just could not decide what to have since Catania is basically a food heaven. We all decided on fish since it is what Catania is known for and from this I was able to gain a few more list items.

Food item: Baby Squid

I decided to go for an old favourite of calamari fritti (fried squid) and judging by the size of the fried tentacles I am more than happy to be able to tick off baby squid now. With a green lemon on the side this was perfectly cooked with the squid still being tender to the bite. I am not too used to having the tentacles too since most places tend to discard those (something I don’t get since I always include them when making my own).

 Food item: Swordfish

My mum had swordfish for her main and gave me a bit in exchange for some squid. I never imaginged swordfish to be so big as to provide a steak of this size (something which would be burned into my mind when I saw the decapitated head of one at a market stall later in the week) so when this colossal piece of fish arrived on her plate it was a bit surprising. The closest thing I can compare this to is a tuna steak, but more meaty and less fishy. For something so expensive over here in the UK  a giant steak fetched only 7€ at the market and could be found in nearly every restaurant we came across.

Food item: Red Mullet

My engagement partner ordered a platter which was basically described as small “catch of the day” fish fried… and he was presented with the above. The fact that he doesn’t like eating pork ribs or lamb chops will go a long way to explain why I was proud of him being able to finish this off (despite him gagging badly on a half-swallowed fish rib towards the end of the platter); minus the red mullet I spotted which I managed to trade for some of my calamari. The mullet I had was very easy to strip from the bone and had a delicate flavour.

To finish off I had to have my first (of four across the week) cannoli. Something I have heard a lot about thanks to U.S. shows like Everybody Loves Raymond and Sex & The City and I was not disappointed.

Despite the great food and getting to know Catania on a tiny level I do admit I went to sleep wondering if I had made a mistake pushing for Sicily. This is something my mum always has on the first day of a holiday before really loving a place but this was the first time I felt apprehensive about a new place… I am glad to say that after day two these feelings evaporated.