Europe / Italy / My Travels

Sicily, Italy: Friends Are Family You Can Choose

“Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government.
It is almost the equal of family.- Don Corleone” ― Mario Puzo, The Godfather

Taormina, Sicily | 2015

Taormina, Sicily | 2015

Our family friends from The Netherlands, Tom and Tineke, is celebrating their 30th anniversary this year and they wanted to celebrate it in Sicily. They’ve invited us when they attended our wedding in France last year, so I guess we have to go too hehe.

Besides, it will be great to visit the southern part of Italy this time, especially Sicily. I’m a fan of the Godfather sequels (didn’t read the books though) and at first I was just curious to see the place of origin of the infamous “mafias”.

Early part of this year, there was a news that Ryanair apologised to Italy after describing Palermo (Sicily’s capital) in their website as “poverty stricken city dominated by the mafias”. They now revised it after it sparked outrage from the Sicily’s tourism board.

Sadly, Sicilian mafias still exist. It may be a little bit less powerful now but they still remain influential politically and socially. More Sicilian business owners now are brave enough to refuse to pay mafias for protection with the support of the Addio Pizzo group or “Free Pizzo” (protection money). Sicilian shoppers in return supports these shops with “Addio Pizzo” stickers at the entrance door.

We stayed in Catania, it’s the second largest city in Sicily and the gateway to Mount Etna, the largest and most deadly active in Europe. Catania is NOT what I was expecting in Sicily, I thought it would be like a south Italian countryside and not a city like Palermo (the capital). Obviously, I didn’t do much research this time, because this is a trip that daily activities will all depend on our hosts, Tom and Tineke.

Mount Etna viewed from the plane.

Mount Etna viewed from the plane.

We only took a bus from the aiport, and Tom and Tineke were already there to pick us up. We waited few minutes later for Mum Hilly and Names who were arriving from UK. After around 20 minutes, we alighted from the bus stop closest to Piazza Duomo, we walked like a kilometer or two towards our guesthouse dragging all our luggages haha.

Whilst walking I realised it’s a busy city, it was like being back in Rome minus the outdoor-museum-like atmosphere. Sure the buildings’ architecture are Baroque, or very grand and elaborate, but for me at first, it all looked very tired and gloomy. But that was because I didn’t know anything about its history, until I started reading on our first night then I understand the city.

Catania was devastated by Mount Etna several times already in the past. I can still see some buildings there that have remnants of the solidified lava. And perhaps because its economy have been struggling ever since (maybe because of the mafias’ activities too) most of the buildings are now either abandoned or just plain dirty.

Vespa | Photo by Laurie

Vespa | Photo by Laurie

However, Catania apparently have a very rich variety of mix culture because of several cultures that dominated them in the past, like the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Mediterranean, etc. because of its port. When we passed at the Piazza Duomo for the first time and I saw the U Liotru” or the Elephant Fountain, I found it odd to have an elephant figure to a European city.

Good thing Tineke was there walking beside me and told me that the reason why elephant is one of the symbols of Catania was because in the early years, there’s a season that elephants will come down to city, either they came from the mountain or maybe they were brought there from Africa by the initial settlers.

Elephant Fountain at night.

U’Liotru or the Elephant Fountain at night.

I started appreciating Catania as I learn things about it. Especially at night! It’s just so beautiful and photogenic with all the lightings emphasizing the details of the architecture of each building.

Also at night, apart from it hides the “tired look” or dirt, the city is so alive! Catania is known for a Sicily’s nightlife. A lot of good al fresco restaurants and bars, catering for all ages, especially the young ones, because you can find all the best universities in Sicily in Catania.

One of the best thing in Sicily is their food! Yes, it’s Italian but it has other influences, which is a typical Sicilian cuisine. The food is so affordable and with huge servings. Everything I ate there was soooo good, from anti-pastis (usually in buffet) up to desserts!

Sicilians are known to have sweet-tooth. Pizzas and pastas are just considered “second course” and the meat or seafood are the mains. Gastronomy at its finest!

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Sicilian Pizza that looks like more of Calzone than a pizza!

Sicilians are not much of alcohol drinkers especially during meals, but they do have good wines too. But the most common alcoholic drink for them is the Limoncello, where you usually take after meals or as a final shot after drinking other alcoholic beverages.

The best dinner I had was during the night of celebration of Tom and Tineke’s anniversary at a very authentic Sicilian restaurant called VINI run by a one big Sicilian family where the kids serves us, the mom entertains us and the dad cooks for us.

We stayed at B&B Globetrotter which is closer to the Castello Ursino than in Piazza Duomo, but still quite close to the Piazza that we spent most of our afternoons people-watching whilst drinking local beers or Limoncellos, and eating our Arancini or our Canolis, at the al-fresco coffee shops there. This is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Our guesthouse is literally few steps to Castello Ursino which is a medieval castle that is home to Civic Museum now, and during our stay there was an exhibition of Picasso’s works. But we didn’t even go. Bummers >.<
Although, we had dinners several times to those restaurants and bars around the castle, there was even a street concert/show on one weekend night, which we enjoyed watching.

The places we have visited apart from what I have mentioned already were:

  1. Fish Market – because of Catania’s ports, it’s one of the busiest and most exotic fish markets in Europe. I love seafood so I was drooling just imagining eating them soon. We didn’t buy anything but I indulged myself with seafood every dinner.

  1. La Piaja Beach – it’s the closest beach in Catania downtown, so we went there because it’s known to be a long stretch of sandy white beach! However, the beach is not ready for us, we entered without paying an entrance, it’s because there were no umbrellas and sun loungers assembled yet, because it’s still not in season yet.

    The wind was so strong we couldn’t even open our eyes with all the sand wanted to get in your eyes. So we ended up just sitting there in the cold for awhile and finished our beers (yeah one beach bar was open thankfully!).

  1. Taormina – this is one of the touristy places in Sicily. It’s a little town on top of the hill and about 45-minute train ride and an hour bus ride from Catania, where the latter is more advisable because you will still need a feeder bus from the Taormina train station. Also, the bus station n Catania is closer to our guesthouse than the train station, in which we only learned when we came back.
    The beach at Taormina

    The beach at Taormina

    I love Taormina more.

    It’s closer to how I picture Sicily. Perhaps, just avoid it during the summer when it’s crowded. It was perfect during our visit in May. I wanted to visit Taormina because it is close to the villages used in Godfather movie. They have Godfather Film Location Tours in Taormina, however I wasn’t able to do this because I was with Laurie and his family and I am so sure this is not their thing. If I were alone, I would definitely do it 100%. They’d rather sit and drink beer lol.

  1. Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Sicilia (The Allied Landings in Sicily Museum) – this is a museum detailing the history of Sicily during the World War II.

    I was supposed to go to Malta alone for a day trip even if Laurie will not come with me, it’s just 3-hour journey by bus and ferry from Catania. But it turned out it was me who just cancelled my plans and just went with him to a war museum, when he said we would just do Malta on a separate visit. When? That I do not know :(

    Moving on, the museum is worth a visit if you are a war history buff, it’s 4euros only anyway. There was a bunker where you can sit in the dark to feel vibrations and hear simulations of bombings from above.

    Sicily apparently was the main target of Allied air raids because of the importance of its ports. It was one the most important battles that the Allies won against the Italian fascists and the Nazis. Sicilian mafias played a big role too in helping the Allies to fight the war, it’s because fascists affected all their rackets.

  1. Mount Etna – Catania is the gateway to Mount Etna, the largest and deadliest volcano in Europe, so visiting this during your visit in Catania is a MUST.
    2015-05-18 11.13.47

    Panoramic view at Mount Etna

    There was a “storm” the day before our planned Etna trip, a storm that is just “drizzling” compared to Philippines’ storms, so for me, there was no reason to cancel our plans the next day, especially when almost everyone was losing their excitement to go, because they were worried it will be difficult and too cold to go. I pushed the plan even if I’ll go alone I’ll do it, gladly sweet husband didn’t left me alone with the plan.

    I was also having second thoughts of going when we found out that the Mount Etna tour is around 55euros each! But then after I read more infos onine, I found out that there were many options to visit Mount Etna that is affordable and definitely an easy DIY trip. Click HERE for the other options.

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    Silvestri Crater, one of the craters at Mount Etna

We took a bus (6euros only!) going to Rifugio Sapienza around 8am at the bus station outside the Central Train Station. It has only one scheduled time and has two timings during summer only, check the schedule beforehand, HERE.

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Reddish soil at Mount Etna

We intend to just reach Rifugio Sapienza (1400m below the summit only), the village at the little town of Nicolosi where Mount Etna is, then walk around some of the craters found there.We don’t want to take the cable car anymore to get us to a higher level because apart from it’s expensive (35euros), we knew it will be too cold up there because it “stormed” the day before. Besides, we weren’t geared for the cold, good thing the sun came out at mid-day!

At 12ish noon, we were almost done seeing craters we can find there, but our bus will only be leaving at 4pm, so we have plenty of time to kill that we thought of asking people with cars for a lift back to Catania or Nicolosi. But we decided to just wait whilst eating and of course, drinking hehe.

We arrived back in Catania at around 6ish already because of the traffic in downtown, where it should only be an hour trip from Nicolosi. So it was a very long day just for Etna trip alone! It will be good if there’s already 2 scheduled timings for the bus, or if your time is limited, you can do half-day through tour operators but it will be a bit pricey of course.

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We are very thankful that Tom and Tineke invited us on this trip to celebrate a very important event in their life, their 30th year of togetherness. It was also almost the same time they have been friends with Laurie’s mum. I’ve only met them for the first time on our wedding last year, but we still kept in touch even after that. They have welcomed me warmly in their circle of friendship, they are more like a family to us actually.

They say, friends are the family you can choose, and that’s very true. However, it takes time to nurture a genuine friendship, there must be a mutual sharing and caring and not just one-way relationship. Friendship doesn’t happen overnight, you have to work it out continuously to make it happen.

And I’m sure, this is also the main ingredient in Tom and Tineke’s 30 years of togetherness, despite your differences you still accept and support each other.

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