Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks) and traveling with adult-aged children in Sicily

The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi

"My one goal for this vacation," I told Stéphane looking him squarely in the eyes to ensure that I had his full attention, "is that we're all still talking with each other by the end of it. If that means we miss seeing some of the sights in Sicily, so be it."

People approach vacations with different expectations. Over the years, I've come to realize that Stephane views them as a time to bond, to spend each and every waking moment together. That's fine when it's just the two of us, but I wasn't sure how our 27 year old daughter and 24 year old son would cope with intensive daily doses of Mom and Dad. Even though we have spent holidays together and traveled in various familial combinations, it had been seven years since the four of us had embarked on an extended vacation together. We're all strong-minded people accustomed to traveling the world on our own. How would we manage, I wondered?

Stéphane and Sara sharing a moment on the beach

"Has mom talked with you yet?" I overheard Philippe ask Sara while we were still in Paris. In an attempt to avert any problems, I had taken each of them aside to explain that they were free to explore and have their meals whenever they wished. The only set times that they had to be with us was when we traveled from one town to another.

Much to Stéphane's delight, the "kids" were enthusiastic about all of his plans. The only dissenter was me. When he informed us that we would have to depart from Marsala early in the morning to have enough time to visit the white cliffs before going to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, I asked if it was necessary to cram so much into one day. Couldn't we simply omit the Scala dei Turchi, the "Stair of the Turks" on the southern coast of Sicily from our itinerary?  

Philippe playing around during one of my attempts at an artsy photo

I've got to admit that I'm happy that I was unanimously overruled. Resembling the White Cliffs of Dover, the Scala dei Turchi is a spectacular formation of marl accessible by layered stairs that shouldn't be missed. And, best of all, we're all still talking to each other!

The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi
The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Meeting Maria Grammatico, Sicily's renowned pastry chef, and exploring Erice

 Spectacular view of the Tyrrhenian coast of northwestern Sicily on the way to Erice.

What's the weather like in January? seems to be the most popular follow-up question after friends inquire if we enjoyed our vacation in Sicily. My response is that it was a mixed bag of atmospheric conditions. We experienced everything from radiant sunshine in Syracuse to snow in Taormina. Swirling mist and cascading rain were the prevailing elements while we visited the ancient village of Erice.

Perched on a remote mountain 750 meters (2,460 ft) above the port city of Trapani, Erice is reachable by switchback roads with treacherous drop-offs or by cable car. We chose the adrenaline inducing option. Somewhat giddy to be alive after the harrowing drive, it seemed that we had entered an alternate reality when we heard American Christmas carols echoing through the deserted streets. Where were we?

Sicilian pastries and cappuccino at Pasticceria Maria Grammatico

Desperate to get out of the driving rain, we dashed up Via Vittorio Emanuele to Maria Grammatico's world famous pasticceria. The subject of Mary Taylor Simeti's book, Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood, Maria and her younger sister were sent to the San Carlo orphanage in Erice to learn the art of pastry making from the nuns after her father died suddenly of a heart attack. Impoverished during the hard years following World War II, Maria's pregnant mother realized that she wouldn't be able to feed all of her six children. At the orphanage, Maria worked long hours in brutally harsh conditions. Maria left the convent in 1963 and used all of the lessons that the nuns had taught her to open her own pastry shop. Openly hostile, the nuns refused Maria access to the orphanage and wouldn't allow her to use any of the moulds used to form the different pastry shapes.

Philippe and Maria Grammatico

Philippe felt so inspired by Maria's story that he asked the cashier if it would be possible to meet Sicily's most famous pastry chef. After Maria emerged from the kitchen, we had a good time chatting in a mishmash of English and Italian, thanks to Stéphane's determination to learn this language, about her pastries and their availability in the United States. Philippe was particularly pleased to learn that one of the Italian stores in Boston's North End imports Maria's products.

Maria still uses the traditional methods she learned from the nuns to make her world-famous creations. Most impressive to me were the fruit-shaped marzipan. When Maria lived at the orphanage, the nuns shaped marzipan figures for the feast days, such as the Festa dei Morti, a festival originally popularized by the Spanish. This activity provided the nuns, who often led very secluded lives, with a welcome form of artistic expression. The results are astonishingly realistic!

Maria Grammatico's marzipan mandarines, abricots and lemons

Due to the inclement weather we spent very little time exploring Erice's winding streets and its more than 60 churches. My one regret is that we didn't purchase any ceramics before we left the mist-enshrouded town.

Related posts:
Planning a trip to Sicily? Here are some helpful recommendations to get you started!
Exploring Palermo, Sicily

Don't pass up the opportunity to buy some ceramics when you're in Erice!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Exploring Cefalù, a picturesque seaside town in Sicily

Be sure to see the sunset in Cefalù!

With honey-colored buildings lining its crescent-shaped beach, Cefalù is the kind of place that immediately comes to mind when people dream about a Mediterranean vacation. While the majority of tourists flock to this medieval town to soak up the sun during the summer months, I would venture to say that it's narrow cobblestone streets are at their most picturesque when they're brightly illuminated for Christmas.

 Piazza del Duomo and Cefalù Cathedral at Christmastime

The decorated palm trees cast a festive glow on the piazza in front of the magnificent cathedral built during the twelfth-century reign of Norman King Roger II. In the Arab-Norman style unique to Sicily, the cathedral's "Christ All Powerful" mosaic above the altar is the focal point of Sicily's oldest and best preserved Byzantine mosaics. They predate those of the Monreale Cathedral by 20 or 30 years.

"Christ All Powerful" 12th-century mosaic in Cefalù's cathedral. 

In a playful mood, Sara and Philippe got down on their knees and pretended to be washerwomen at the medieval lavatoio. Located in what was supposedly King Roger II's private residence, the washhouse is fed by water from the Cefalino River. A plaque on the right-hand side of the washhouse reads: "Here flows Cefalino, healthier than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow." Until only a few decades ago, the washhouse was still used by the town's women.

Philippe and Sara hard at work at the medieval washhouse (lavatoio) in Cefalù.

If you would like to prepare for your trip, parts of director Giuseppe Tornatore's much-loved film Cinema Paradiso are set in Cefalù.

Only one hour by car or train from Palermo, this picturesque seaside town is well worth the trip!

Related post: Exploring Palermo, Sicily

Cefalù's name derives from the ancient Greek word for "Cape".

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Exploring Palermo, Sicily

For a beautiful view of the church of San Domenico and Palermo, be sure to visit the
  rooftop terrace/restaurant of the department store La Rinascente.

If your first introduction to Sicily is Palermo, don't be discouraged by the litter-strewn highway from the airport and the city's gritty outskirts. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the town's ancient center. During its nearly 3,000 year old existence, Palermo's strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean attracted an almost endless stream of invaders, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Saracen Arabs, Norman crusaders, Swabians, French and Spanish Bourbons. The result is a fascinating blend of architectural styles and the appealing fusion of ingredients used in local dishes.

Pasta con le sarde, a speciality of Palermo made with pasta, sardines, pine nuts,
raisins, saffron threads and wild fennel. 

To revive our waning energy after the early morning flight from Paris, our first stop was a pasticceria for cappuccinos and an assortment of local pastries. In between bites of cannolo (that's the singular form of cannoli!), Stéphane read about the most important sights: Palermo's Norman palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni; the city's sumptuous opera house, Teatro Massimo; and the nearby Cattedral di Monreale with its tranquil cloister.

The Teatro Massimo is Europe's third-largest opera house and one of Italy's most prestigious.
The closing scene of The Godfather: Part III was filmed here.

Rather than spend the afternoon indoors, we decided to explore the tangled alleys and vibrant street markets. Our wanderings led us to the imposing Palermo Cathedral. A prime example of the Arab-Norman style unique to Sicily, decorative Islamic-inspired overlay merges with impressive bell towers dating from the 14th century. Built on the location of a 9th-century mosque, which was constructed on a former chapel, one of the cathedral's columns still bears an inscription from the Koran.

Palermo Cathedral. Construction began in 1184.

For an offbeat and somewhat macabre experience, visit the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. More than just piles of bones, it's also a fascinating historical record. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, interment in the Capuchin Catacombs was a status symbol for the town's wealthy citizens and celebrities. Last wills and testaments contained specific instructions about the particular clothes that luminaries wished to wear and how often their attire should be changed.

A veritable "museum of death", the walls of the catacombs are lined with approximately 8,000 mummies divided into categories: men, women, virgins, children, priests, monks, and professionals. Some of the bodies, such as those of two children sitting together in a rocking chair, are posed for posterity. The coffins were accessible to the families of the deceased so that on certain days the family could hold the mummified hand of their loved one and join together in prayer. (Click here to see photos posted on the official website. Visitors are not permitted to take pictures.)

While all of our meals in Palermo were delicious, the most memorable was lunch at Trattoria Basile. Crowded with locals, this place can be a bit intimidating if you don't know how the system works. The first step is to pay the cashier for your lunch, which is difficult when you 1) don't know what's available to eat and 2) don't speak any Italian. Fortunately, the woman at the register helpfully suggested that we try some local specialities: pane e panelle, Palermo's famous chickpea fritters; pani ca meusa, a bread roll stuffed with sautéed beef spleen; arancini, stuffed rice balls coated with breadcrumbs and fried. After you've paid, you'll receive a ticket with a number. If you ordered antipasti or pasta, take your ticket to the window by the kitchen to make your selection. Listen for the server to call your number in Italian to have the rest of your food delivered to your table. It's a fun, chaotic kind of place not recommended for those wanting a romantic or tranquil dining experience. But you can't beat the price. Our family of four had a spread of tasty food for 15 euros. There was so much that we couldn't finish all of it!

The Ai Cavalieri Hotel (4*) is reasonably priced and centrally located.

Related post: Planning a trip to Sicily? Here are some helpful recommendations to get you started!

Teatro Politeama, Palermo.
Local vegetables at the heart of Sicilian cuisine.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Planning a trip to Sicily? Here are some helpful recommendations to get you started!

My Austrian seat companion graciously offered to take this photo of Mt Etna from the airplane
since my seat was on the aisle.


"Do you want me to take a photo of Mt. Etna for you?" The simple question turned out to be a great ice-breaker during the flight from Catania to Paris. As if on cue, our row of three women started chatting about how much we had enjoyed our respective vacations in Sicily. When I confessed that the largest island in the Mediterranean hadn't been on my travel radar, the Austrian and French women nodded their heads in agreement. Yet, none of us could understand why it had taken us so long to discover this delightful destination.

A basic map of Sicily, not the one drawn by Stéphane's colleague

Planning for our Sicilian travels started with Stéphane asking some of his Italian colleagues for suggestions. One of them drew a remarkably accurate map of the island with the following advice:
  • If the trip is less than 7 days, visit the eastern coast: Taormina, Catania, Syracuse and Baroque Sicily (Noto, Modica, Ragusa Ibla).
  • If the trip is more than 7 days then the western coast may also be considered.
Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily.

I also received a lot of helpful suggestions from the "Out and About in Paris" community on Facebook, including many tips from native Sicilian Michael Coniglio. I've copied and pasted some of the comments below for those of you planning a trip to Sicily:

Michael Coniglio: I was born there, there are no "hidden" gems, everything is a gem, especially near Catania, don't forget to visit the beaches, Etna and eat all the food you can find.

But if you really had to choose, you have to visit the Greek theatre and "Le gole d'alcantara" near Syracuse and Taormina.

Recommended food and drinks: tavola calda (a mix of stuff which is really good, especially arancini and pizzette, available everywhere in bars), granite (which can be found only on the Messina - Syracuse axe), panini (this is not what you're thinking of, you can buy them in special trucks parked throughout cities) , almond milk (which has a very different taste from what we can find in France, recommended brand Mandorlat) , zests (a kind of nonalcoholic drink) , chinotto and spuma (tomarchio brand, which you can buy pretty much everywhere). Also pasticcini (found in bars and boulangeries).

In Taormina you CANNOT miss Castelmola.

Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily. We weren't expecting snow!

Jane Strauss: I loved Erice. I bought my all time favorite ceramics there... Of course, you must see Piazza Amerina for the mosaics. Enjoy!

Ruth Gardner Lamere: You will LOVE Sicily ! The picture you have submitted is in Taormina, a wonderful place to visit and also to stay. Palermo is a great city with a lot of historic things to do and see. And if you are flying out of Catania be sure to spend a day in Orteyga, near by. There are so many wonderful places to visit on this treasure trove of an island. You could spend weeks there and not see it all. The Aeolian Islands are wonderful, the mosaics in some of the ancient palaces are breathtaking, the ruins of temples so interesting, and the many cultures that have lived there over the centuries have each added their own flavor. It is so diverse and fascinating. the people are friendly and helpful. And because they have three crops a year, the food is stupendous! Enjoy and report back to us! 

Fiona Johnston: Definitely Taormina, Syracuse and Agrigento.

Connie Halbert: Sicily was one of my all time favorite trips. We started in Palermo and circled the island ending in Palermo. Surprises for me were Taormina, Syracusa, Agrigento, Selinunte, Erice, Segesta and Monreale. It's all great so enjoy! 

Thierry Givone: When you're in Palermo, don't miss the Monreale Cathedral which just on the hill above the city, It's one of the most amazing churches I have ever seen (and don't miss the cloisters which are so peaceful). The little village of Cefalu on the north coast is lovely nice place to stay, and of course, Taormina.

Terri O'Donnell: I enjoyed Taormina, Agrigento, and I became hooked on arancinis ! There was a soft white cookie like a French macaron that was a specialty in Catania that I couldn't stop eating!

Villa Romana del Casale is home to some of the world's finest Roman mosaics
dating back to the 4th century AD.

Kathy Kirkpatrick I love Etna, the Greek temples at Agrigento and Selinunte, the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina, the archaeology park at Siracusa has several things, cemeteries with burials of Allies and Axis from WWI + WWII.

Nancy Reinstein Bettencourt: Go to Cefalù....lovely coastal area

After taking everyone's helpful recommendations into consideration, here's the schedule that Stéphane put together for our vacation:

Palermo - 2 nights; Marsala - 1 night; Agrigento - 1 night; Taormina - 3 nights (including New Year's Eve); Syracuse - 1 night; and Catania - 1 night

Stayed tuned for blog posts about some of our favorite places!

Cefalù, Sicily