By Anne Spiselman
Photos by Fredric Swanson
Editor’s note: Anne Spiselman is the theater critic for the Hyde Park Herald. She will share her experiences during a recent trip to Sicily in a series of articles exclusive to the Herald Blog. If you are a Hyde Park resident with travel experiences you would like to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d been fantasizing about going to Sicily for years, ever since I read ex pat American journalist Mary Taylor Simeti’s “Travels with a Medieval Queen.”
A follow-up to “On Persephone’s Island,” her memoir about living in Sicily, the book traces the arduous journey of Constance of Hauteville, daughter of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, from the German castle of her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, down south to retake her father’s throne. Along the way, she gave birth to Frederick II, who went on to become emperor and one of Sicily’s greatest rulers. What fascinated me most was the sophistication and splendor of the 11th- and 12th-century Norman court, and I wanted to see the Arab-Norman architecture of the palace in Palermo and the Cathedral of Monreale with their incredible Byzantine mosaics.
But that’s not all. I was captivated by the Mediterranean island’s cucina, which reflects Arabic, North African and Spanish influences more than that of any other part of Italy. Anyway, how can you not love a place whose quintessential dish comes with a great story?
Legend has it that pasta con le sarde was created by the conquering Saracens when they landed at Mazara del Vallo in 827 A.D. Charged with feeding the troops, the cook sent soldiers to forage. They returned with sardines from the sea, wild fennel from the hills, olive oil, saffron, currants and pine nuts. He combined these ingredients with pasta from his galley for a dish that … turned out to be nothing like what I expected, but I’ll save that for another post. Also, it’s just a story. According to Simeti, who also wrote “Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food,” pasta con le sarde is simply a specialty of Palermo and Western Sicily.
I’d been to other parts of Italy – Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice, the Cinque Terre – and loved them all, which made me want to learn Italian. Too lazy to take lessons, I trolled the Internet for free online instruction, then devised a plan: I would pick up the language by osmosis, specifically by watching Italian television programs that had English subtitles.
This led me to MHz Networks Worldview (on channel 20.3), which broadcasts several Italian mystery series (as well as some in other languages). “Il Commissario Montalbano” quickly became one of my favorites, partly because it’s set in Sicily and partly because Inspector Montalbano is a foodie. In fact, one of the running gags is that every time he sits down to eat a meal at home, his telephone rings. He also has a great apartment with a balcony overlooking the sea, and I wanted to be there … no, I really wanted to live there. More about this later, too, as well as about a hotel in Taormina that puts together weekly Montalbano menus.
Needless to say, osmosis didn’t work. I only memorized a few words, but one of them – Aiuto! (Help!) – proved to be incredibly useful. So did the discovery that Google Translate provides aural as well as verbal translations, so you can pick up pronunciation from it and not sound like a total idiot.
The biggest hurdle in going to Sicily is actually getting there from here. Flights tend to be quite expensive and not nonstop. I had some American Airlines frequent flyer miles saved up, but when I’d looked at www.aa.com in the past, I could only use them to get as far as Rome. I’d decided to do that and then find a budget airline that flew from Rome to Palermo or Catania. A tip from a frequent TripAdvisor poster was helpful: She said Alitalia’s Italian-language site had inexpensive promo flights that weren’t on the English-language site, and when I checked it out, it proved to be true.
I put an AA flight to Rome on hold, but then had an idea. Most of the frequent flyer itineraries offered weren’t on the carrier’s nonstop Chicago-Rome flight, and one of them involved traveling on Air Berlin, AA’s new partner, which just started nonstop flights from Chicago to Berlin in late March. I wondered if Air Berlin flew to Sicily and if I could therefore go all the way using frequent flyer miles. The answer was “yes,” so I reserved round-trip tickets for April 1 to 15 from Chicago (ORD) to Berlin (TXL) to Catania (CTA) for myself and my traveling companion, Fred. On the return flight, we’d have to overnight in Berlin because the plane from Catania arrived at 10:45 p.m. and the one to Chicago was the next morning at 10 a.m., but that seemed like a minor inconvenience.
Because you can’t reserve your seats online when flying on an AA partner, I called the airline’s Advantage Desk to do that. I was assigned seats but wanted to switch to the bulkhead and was told to call Air Berlin. That’s when I found out that Air Berlin charges extra for confirmed seat reservations, something the AA agent hadn’t mentioned. I inquired if the fact that I was traveling with my wheelchair made a difference and was asked for my “handicapped number.” I said we don’t have those in the U.S. but provided my handicapped parking placard number, and that seemed to work. The only catch: Because of the wheelchair, they would only assign me window seats, which is a violation of the U.S. Air Carrier Access Act. (More about this in my “Getting There” post.)
The next step was finding a place to stay. Since we were going to be there for almost two weeks, I decided a vacation rental would be better than hotels, except for our last night at the luxury Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina, which already had been arranged. I looked at a dizzying number of web sites and properties but kept coming back to HomeAway.com no. 1068158, an apartment in a villa in Acitrezza, a fishing village north of Catania. The photos – a terrace overlooking palm trees and the Ionian sea, antique furnishings, Sicilian-tile floors, two bedrooms (one of them in a loft), a living room, dining area, kitchen and bathroom – were irresistible. I e-mailed the host, Marco, and after some back and forth about details, including a conversation on Skype, I set it up and sent a deposit.
Fred was in charge of the car rental and reserved a vehicle for pick up at the Catania airport through Travelocity, so all that was left was planning our itinerary. After reading “Sicily: Cradle of Civilization,” an architecture- and archaeology-oriented guide put out by Italcards, and doing extensive online research at sites like bestofsicily.com and thinksicily.com, I ended up with 13 pages of places and things I wanted to see and do, though I didn’t really expect to get to all of them. I also found a slew of interesting-sounding restaurants, and Victoria Granof’s book, “Sweet Sicily” provided the finishing touch: a city-by-city list of pastry shops not to miss.
Next time: From Chicago to Acitrezza: Getting There