A New-Discovered Grotto, our Trip to Sicily

We, Berkeley Square Barbarian, met in mid-2008, got married in January 2009, and it was in June 2009 that we went to Sicily for our honeymoon. We had been there before and loved this Mediterranean island to bits for its lovely scenery, ancient monuments, some great beaches, the colourful markets, friendly, down-to-earth, sincere people, sunny weather, excellent food and, maybe most importantly, even better pistachio ice cream.

palermo monreale cathedral

We had both just started in new jobs and were each living in different cities in different countries, far away from each other, spending all the spare time visiting each other. We didn’t find any time to research the trip, which explains some of the mishaps and surprises such as the mistaken grotto further down.

fishermen

We arrived in the city of Palermo, the capital of the Italian autonomous region of Sicily, a town the size of Manchester, England, Baltimore, MD, or Frankfurt, Germany, but moving at a much slower pace (in a very good way!) and with a phenomenal history of the best of three thousand years. It was founded in 734 BC by the Phoenicians, only to be consecutively (not strictly in order, it was more chaotic than that) taken over by Carthage (the Greeks tried to get in, but their reign in Sicily didn’t extend to Palermo’s borders, they were based in Syracuse), Rome (which later became the Byzantine Empire), the Arabs and Normans, until it became the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily, and later a part of Italy.

teatro massimo

We stayed in the historic centre of town and explored the city by foot, checked out the many colourful markets, historic buildings (our absolute favourite being San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a church that combines the styles of Byzantine, Arabic and Norman architecture, whose beginnings date back to the 6th century AD). On the first night we went to the historic opera, Teatro Massimo, for Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

sicily food

As usual, we spent a good part of our time exploring the many restaurants and there was not a single meal we didn’t like (as expected). All over Sicily they love their pistachios (and they ARE the best ones you’ll have eaten or will ever eat until you die or at any time before or after; if you only know the roasted, salted, non-descript, sorry variety being served with beer that basically mainly tastes of salt, be prepared to be blown off your shoes), which leads to curious creations such as meat or seafood dishes with pistachio, might sound and look weird at first, but it works. No surprise that the first cookbook in world history was written by a Sicilian cook, Mithaecus, in the 5th century BC.

palermo mondello 1

We spent a day out at nearby Mondello Beach with its cheerful seafood restaurants.

palermo mondello 2

The following day we took a ferry to Ustica Island, in the middle of the Mediterranean about 60km North of the capital, and that’s when we realised that we had been mistaken about the famous Blue Grotto we had heard about so many times before. Turned out that while the tour boat owners at Palermo harbour (who sounded VERY convincing!) made Ustica’s Blue Grotto out to be one of the seven world wonders, the really famous one is actually not the one on Ustica, but the one on the island of Capri (okay, you knew, well, we didn’t back then), about a one-hour flight away on the Amalfi Coast, quite embarrassing.

ustica 1 ustica 2 ustica 3 ustica 4

Nonetheless, this new-discovered grotto was pretty decent too, even though not worth a day trip, to be frank. The delicious sword-fish steaks at one of the restaurants at the harbour, a round-the-island boat trip with a friendly fisherman in a tiny boat seating just the three of us, and the knowledge that most likely none of our friends or their friends or anyone else we know had ever been there, ensured that we had no regrets. This was truly off-the-beaten-track, tip to the hat.

agrigento 2

The following day we did another day trip, this time to Agrigento on the Southern coast, also known as the ancient Greek city of Akragas, which boasted an incredible 800,000 residents some 2,400 years ago when it was one of the major cities of Ancient Greece at a time when the whole world population was only 160 million and Rome’s population a mere 250,000. Short of it, pretty cool place. We found the ruins of the Greek temples and monuments as impressive as the Acropolis in Athens, maybe more so, because you don’t (not having done any research due to lack of time) expect something like this in a city whose name you hadn’t heard before.

agrigento

Back in Palermo, we made our way by train to Cefalu, a tiny seaside town 70km East of Palermo, which, despite its small size of only 14,000 residents attracts millions of visitors each year. We had some more great food, visited the beautiful Norman cathedral (begun in 1131 AD) and enjoyed walking through the crooked medieval alleyways all over town.

cefalu

After a few hours we departed (again by train) to Milazzo, close to the North Eastern corner of the island. The following morning we took the ferry to Lipari on the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, where we went on a light hiking tour on the main island in view of the other volcanic cones sticking out of the sea in small distance.

lipari

When we were back in Milazzo, we hopped on a train to Taormina, the absolute highlight of our honeymoon, even though we had been there before. The town is located about 250m above the Sea right next to Sicily’s Eastern coast on a hill. The picturesque Saracen castle on top of the hill, about another 150m higher, has been verified to be the mythical Arx, the impregnable fortress mentioned in many ancient texts.

D.H. Lawrence (supposedly) wrote “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” in this town.

taormina 4

The view from Taormina’s amphitheatre towards the South West is nothing short of mind-blowing, with the giant 3,350m high volcano Mount Etna puffing and smoking (and on occasion: spewing, depending on its mood, Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world) in close distance, and the pleasant coastline with its many hills slightly to the left.

taormina 2

We sipped some cocktails at the famous Wunderbar on Piazza IX Aprile, where Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Greta Garbo, Tennessee Williams, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck and half the other A-listers of the 50ies and 60ies once hung around the bar, and explored the little town with its many restaurants.

From Taormina, where we stayed for two days and two nights, we made our way to Catania, the second-largest city in Sicily with a very proud history (founded in the 8th century BC, over centuries one of the most important cities in Italy), but, we dare to admit, a town with more than just a little bit of patina on its formerly beautiful face.

taormina 3

On the day of our arrival we went strolling through town and we were walking up a small alleyway on the pavement.

I, Stefan, the male part of Berkeley Square Barbarian, was asked by my wife to carry her handbag, which, wisely (never a good idea to decline your wife’s request) I did without a sound of protest despite the design clashing with my outfit (all women’s handbags do by definition), but which, rather unwisely, I chose to carry with my left hand while walking on the pavement on the right side of the alleyway.

catania

I’m otherwise a cautious guy, so I had the bands of the straps of the handbag wrapped around my wrist in a loop and a tight fist around them, when suddenly, out of nowhere (my newly-wed wife and I were engaged in some intense conversation about where to have our next meal), I feel the handbag and straps move towards me, so I loosened my grip for a split-second in surprise and as soon as I turned my eyes towards it, the movement had reversed and a guy sitting on the back of a Vespa motor-scooter driven by his mate ripped the handbag out of my hands with rather violent force and they both sped away.

I was wearing loosely-fitting sandals at the time, but I wasn’t going to let those two thieves ruin my honeymoon, so I started to run after them like my life depended on it. It worked in my favour that we were all going up-hill, and even a pimped Vespa doesn’t go very fast up-hill with two people on board, so after a few metres, the guy with the handbag jumped off the back of the seat and ran away to the one side while his companion sped off in the other direction.

chanel handbag

I chased him through the labyrinth of alleyways uphill, downhill, left and right, and had just passed around another corner when I realised I lost him. My heart sank and I felt miserable. All my wife’s valuables, her passport, her camera, the money… and it was my fault.

Then an old man stood up from the seat at the café on the opposite side of the street, walked over to me, and gesticulated towards a Fiat 500 that was parked a few metres away from me, trying to make me aware of something. I followed his direction and found the handbag under the car where the thief must have thrown it in order to pick it up later.

syracuse 4

My wife, who had followed me in a distance, had arrived by now. We offered the old chap a finder’s fee, but he declined, despite our insistence. We thanked him again and were back on our way to the restaurant.

After all the stress we went straight to bed after a lovely dinner on the roof top terrace of one of the restaurants near the cathedral.

The following morning we took a train to Syracuse, where the Greeks were based some 2,400 years ago, and where we admired the ruins of the old temples, amphitheatres, and other monuments, as well as the Orecchio di Dioniso (the Ear of Dionysius), a giant lime stone cave with phenomenal acoustics dug by the Greek as water storage.

syracuse 3

At Catania Airport, the following day, we kissed each other goodbye and then went off on planes in two different directions, knowing we would see each other again the following weekend, and feeling happy that we had had such a nice honeymoon.

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