Bye bye Canada, Ciao Italy!
In early 2020, as I prepared to graduate from Ryerson University, now Toronto Metropolitan University my family was also preparing for a bit of a celebratory trip across the Atlantic, to Italy. Our plans were rather quickly crushed in March of 2020 as the COVID pandemic took hold. We decided to put off our travels until April of 2021, but as the new year rolled around, we, again, had to put a pin in it.
Finally, last summer, we decided to take the risk and book the trip, and on April 1st of 2022 we jetted off for our first European, family vacation!
We took an overnight flight to Munich where we spent a few hours before connecting to Palermo, Sicily. After a short flight to Palermo, we landed at an airport with one side of the runway that dropped off into the sea. It was our first picturesque, quincuncially Mediterranean view, and we were instantly gob smacked! We quickly realized that Sicily has gorgeous hilly terrain. Cliffs that overlook the ocean, pebbly beaches and rock stacks around the coast.
Fun fact about Sicily, driving rules seemingly don’t apply there. We were picked up from the airport by a local driver who, to our North American driving standards, was quite terrifying. But with all the other cars on the road following similar lax cautions we labeled it as “normal”. Here’s an example: there are lanes marked on the road, but no one uses them. They just drive wherever they’d like, weaving around other cars, potholes, garbage and even pedestrians. And as for the pedestrians, they just put a hand out and start to walk. It seems like the assumption is that if you go someone else will stop, which even by the end of our 3 week stay was still quite terrifying. We drove a winding hillside road that dropped off the right hand side into the sea. quite terrifying but overwhelmingly beautiful.
We spent the first week on the northern side of Sicily, near Palermo. We stayed just below the the little town of Scopello, at a cliffside villa with breathtaking views across the Tyrrhenien Sea. Wildflowers filled the greenspace and as we walked the small winding roads to the nearest gelato shop we were often greeted by little lizards and even small parrots.
Scopello is well know for the Zingaro Nature Reserve which was saved by the people of Scopello in 1981 when it was set to be a building site. The day we visited Zingaro, the temperature was hot and beautifully sunny. Despite it's deceivingly warm, Caribbean look, the ocean was freezing, but I was determined to get in. With a fear of being cold I had packed a wet suit and was very grateful for it's protecting as I snorkeled the chilly water, looking at smally sparkly fish and corals.
Sicily is actually almost twice as close to Africa as it is to Rome, and you could definitely see those influences in their art and building design. Speaking of buildings, Sicily (and Italy in general) is well known for it's large number of archeological and historical sites, including Selinunte, a ruinous city from 409 BC, and Erice, a 12th-century, medieval, mountain top village with castles among the clouds and currently functioning homes and businesses. It's hard to even imagine what you’re looking at. I found myself saying “I can’t believe it’s actually real”. Quantifying how old these places are, and trying to imagine people actually living and working there, seems almost impossible.
We then had a week on the other side of Sicily, near Catania, where we stayed in a quaint little fishing village, Santa Maria La Scala, which looked almost like it was stuck in a time warp. If you picture an old Italian fishing village, you’re picturing this little town. The colourful, yet sun-bleached row houses lining the pier, with bobbing boats, stray cats and the sound of church bells. Aside from the beach that was covered in garbage, the town was beautiful. April in Sicily is wildflower season and everywhere you look there is something in bloom.
About an hour from Catania is Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world and the highest in europe. We took a day trip to Etna and climbed about 1200 meters from the top. As it is a currently active volcano, we weren’t able to get right to the lip of the crater, but our summit was certainly spectacular.
Etna didn’t give us her great performance (our guide said she erupts about once a day now), but she was smoking and steaming proving that she was still in there pondering her next eruption. It's like encroaching on the surface of another planet. The higher you get the more bizarre it becomes. At the bottom, we started our accent in a beautiful birch forest, and as you climb you slowly notice all the greenery disappear as the terrain switches to ash and lava rock, with snow the higher you go.
We then had our final week in Rome, hitting as many of the tourist must-sees as we could. The Colosseum, the Forum, The Vatican including the Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, which we hit at sunrise to avoid the crowds. Rome is much more obviously a tourist location. The streets are crowded with people speaking in many different languages. Prices are definitely higher and while it is certainly full of culture it almost seems crafted compared to that of beautiful Sicily
Now I’m sure you’re wondering “how was the food?” The food was fabulous, every dish a little work of art. Sicilian food was light and local, despite the regular 4 course meals, and Rome was all you can eat pizza, pasta, gelato! Is there any better combination?
A few quick tips: Get your passport early! Renewals are taking longer now and I am grateful that I got on top of my documents when I did! There was a bit of a last minute panic even still. If you can, pay the extra for the Business Economy seats. We had a great experience on Air Canada with our extra roomy seats and legroom. Take the hop-on-hop-off bus in the city on your first day to get a little history lesson and to get ideas for places you’d like to see. And most importantly, try to just enjoy your time away and not put pressure on making the trip “the best trip ever”. We all know that no matter where or when the time with family and friends, experiencing the moments, is what is most important.