Now we can talk about how much we enjoyed the rest of Sicily…..
Our first stop was Taormina, because….well….because it’s Taormina. Everyone says it’s very touristy – and they’re right….and then they say that it’s the most beautiful town in Sicily – and they’re right there, too, which is more than enough reason to ignore the touristy part and embrace the beauty. It’s perfectly perched on the side of a hill with views of both the water AND Mount Etna….which happened to have some snow left, making it even more picturesque.
I have to say that we were VERY pleased with our timing for this trip. Late April/early May is a wonderful time to be in Sicily because the landscape is still green and the Spring flowers are out in abundance. The countryside becomes parched by July and August, and that’s not the look I prefer. Also, everyone said that the number of tourists in a place like Taormina triples in August, and for us – no matter how beautiful the town, that amount of people would be more than enough reason to stay away. Early Spring is perfect.
In addition to the beauty of the place, our other favorite thing about Taormina was the enthusiasm of the people we met. They had not become jaded by living in this gorgeous setting, and they wanted visitors to enjoy it as much as they did. Our small hotel had a wonderful staff that loved sharing their knowledge…..
….Which is how we found our first delicious dinner. And the people at the first restaurant — which was all fish — directed us to our second delicious dinner — where I enjoyed a steak that was the closest thing to a rib eye steak that I have ever seen in Italy. (Most Italian cuts of beef are entirely different from ours. Bistecca Fiorentina, which looks like our Porterhouse, is pretty much the only cut that I recognize behind the meat counter.) The young owners of these 2 restaurants were rightfully proud of their local products from both land and sea, and that pride was evident in their dishes, which demonstrated that you can have respect for the time-honored traditions while giving them a more modern interpretation.
Just because our 2 dinners in Taormina were the best of the trip doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well elsewhere. In fact, the second biggest surprise of this trip was just how much I enjoyed the food, since I’m not a huge fan of fish. But both the seafood and meats were of such high quality that I must put Sicily down as the best eating I’ve ever done on a vacation.
The first biggest surprise was the wine. Despite my love of beef, I’m mostly a white wine drinker – reserving red wine solely for red meat. I like my whites clean, crisp, dry and NEVER oaked. Unlike with reds, I do not consider complexity in white wine a plus. Much to my surprise — Sicily turned out to be White Wine Heaven for me. The best example was when we ordered a ¼ or ½ carafe of the house wine with lunch. Here, that usually gives the restaurant license to pawn off some inferior swill that they bought for $2 a barrel and is the color of diluted ice tea. In Sicily, it was impossible to get a bad glass of wine – even in the worst restaurants. And again, I put this down to pride. Sicilian wines were once considered inferior table wines. But now that standards have been raised, it would almost be traitorous for a restaurant to serve something that doesn’t represent the current high standards.
The third biggest surprise was how differently I viewed the countryside. My previous 2 visits had been involved with biking, so steep hills and rugged mountains were not what I was looking for. For this reason, my favorite area was the southeast corner, which includes Siracusa, Ragusa and Caltagirone. While we enjoyed these towns (and ate well!), the countryside wasn’t nearly as pretty as I remembered. On the other hand, the short time spent in the west was absolutely gorgeous.
Alan is actively anti-museum, but in an effort to not come home empty-handed culture-wise, I insisted we visit 3 places:
1. Villa del Casale, outside of Piazza Armerina – the incredible mosaic floors of a former Roman villa from the 3rd-4th century that were fortunately covered in a mudslide in the 12th century, which kept them intact until their discovery in the 20th century. I was surprised there wasn’t more damage between the 4th and 12th centuries, but perhaps they were just benignly ignored. Anyway – today they are well cared-for with wooden walkways for properly viewing the floors, and a non-obtrusive shelter to prevent further damage. This villa was built for the Roman equivalent of our 1%, and had a rooms for cold baths, hot baths, receiving important guests, children, servants, and perhaps most famous – an exercise room for the Bikini Girls.
2. The Greek temple of Segesta — I saw lots of the famous Greek ruins while biking, but this was by far my favorite. And if Alan had to see just one, this was my choice. It has a somewhat spotty history with lots of “legend has it” in the story, and was never finished, but the setting is picture perfect.
3. The cathedral in Monreale – Two words: FABULOUS mosaics. Perhaps I should add another word: gold. Picture all the well-known bible stories reduced to 2 or 3 panels, and then executed in the most expensive medium — gold tiles. It is pretty darn impressive…..which I believe was the objective of William II when he had it built in the 12th century.
While there are so many other sites that convey the incredible mixture of cultures that have shaped this valuable island, as a starting point, these 3 weren’t bad.
Our last afternoon (and dinner!) was spent in Cefalu’ — a small, picturesque town on the water. Everyone I know who’s visited has loved it. I passed through it on a bike trip and was less than impressed. But this visit we took the time to look a bit further and it’s every bit as charming as our friends said. While it has a lovely Duomo, we’d already had our 1 church for the trip, so Cefalu’s will have to wait till next time….
And there will be a next time. Armed with what we’ve learned, we’ve even come up with a theme which, not surprisingly, centers around food and wine. Our task now is to collect knowledgeable recommendations (NOT Trip Advisor!), and go where the food is…..just as long as it’s not in you-know-where….