A Sicilian Odyssey: book 1

We have just returned from what feels like a century away. Sicily’s geography is so beautiful that people have been drawn to it for thousands of years, yet it is so dramatic that it seems humans barely cling to the land and the island could shake them off at any moment. It is a place of myth, history, culture and breathtaking vistas, and some of the most welcoming people on the planet.

Our original plan was to spend two days exploring the East Coast from a base in Taormina, then drive to Palermo and spend two more days exploring the rest of the island from there. We flew into Catania and spent our first afternoon in the wonderful company of Mario Bucalo, a native of Catania, and museum digeratus and within hours of arriving we realized that we should explore more slowly and assume we would return again. Our plan therefore altered to focus on the East Coast by dividing our time between Taormina and Siracusa. So our journey began.

[singlepic id=3 w=400 h=300 float=left]For many years the Greeks would not land on Sicily believing it to be overrun with giants; they were perhaps also a little concerned about the frequent eruptions of Etna. Mario took us to Aci Castello, a mythic landmark named for Acis, the beloved of Galatea, whom the Cyclops, Polyphemus, killed with a boulder in a fit of jealousy, and whose blood Galatea used to make the river Acis that flows from the foothills of Etna to the sea. It is where Odysseus also encounters Polyphemus: as Homer describes in Book 9 of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ men are imprisoned and slowly devoured by the Cyclops until Odysseus is able to drug Polyphemus and blind the one-eyed giant; as they make their escape from the Cyclops’ cave, Odysseus and his men are pursued to their ships by Polyphemus, who hurls boulders after them as they sail away. Odysseus escapes, but the boulders remain.

[singlepic id=4 w=400 h=300 float=right]We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and agreed to meet Mario and his girlfriend, Enza, near the Piazza del Duomo in Catania for dinner. Facing the cathedral is the Caffè del Duomo, and since we were a little early we opted for a couple of glasses of Sicilian wine while we waited. Nero d’Avola is the most familiar Sicilian grape, but when we asked for something else to compare it with we were offered a Marchesi dei Cantari Frappato. When young it is often served chilled like a Brouilly, but this 2003 was mysterious and woody at room temperature and the color and complexity of a Bordeaux twenty years its senior.

From there Mario and Enza took us to a tiny restaurant on the edge of the fish market with no written menu and as expected we were plied with a dozen different fish dishes each more delicious than the last. It is a way of eating that means one immediately feels at home, and like home it is better to go with what is offered than to make impertinent requests! The difficult bit comes at the end of the meal where Italian friends so often go to amazing lengths to ensure we cannot pay or even contribute to the bill: Mario was no exception and while a little frustrating that the bill never even appeared, we are extremely grateful for his generous hospitality and the wonderful evening.

We took a quick walk around the sites of Catania, before bidding farewell to Mario and Enza and driving up the coast to our first night’s stay in Taormina. As we climbed the twisting road toward the walled city I could tell it was better to arrive at night and not see how far the drop was off the edge off each switchback. We reached the city wall and, as seems so natural to do in Italy, threaded our rental car through the medieval alleyways. We reached our hotel, only once driving the wrong way down a one way street, ‘parked’ – a euphemism in Italy for squeezing your car into a space most people would not consider parking a bicycle in – and checked into a beautiful room and were soon fast asleep.

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