Tuesday, October 21, 2008

swimming in October! not so very cold....

We are having an unseasonably warm October. Most days are sunny in the morning, with just enough crispness in the air to remind you that it really is fall. The afternoons often cloud over, sometimes bringing humidity, rain and even lightening storms. Even when you get the really nice October days, the sea isn't always so inviting for a swim -- there can be high tides and choppiness.

Recently we've been getting lucky and have managed to have numerous swims in calm, cool and very clean water on the stretch of coast in front of our house known as the scogliera. It is so peaceful along the black rocks, usually with no or very few other people around, just us, the crabs, an occasional fisherman and the passing boats in the distance. It never fails, these swims clear the head, refresh the body, and make me feel like I am still on summer vacation.

The toddler loves being down by the water, too, and helps papa in his crab hunting and points at the birds and boats that go by. He is dying to climb on the rocks. I am more careful now and don't let him get too independent out there after he got his first scar scratching his big belly on some rocks this summer. I feel guilty every time I look at that scar! So, while being down by the water may not be as safe as a playground, we never get tired of family walks down to the rocks for quick dips and highly supervised toddler fun, as long as the weather permits!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Butterfly House, Viagrande

We got a great tip to make a stop at the Casa delle Farfalle (butterfly house) in the town of Viagrande. It's in the Monte Serra Park, the pretty hill pictured here.

It's actually quite close to home, but that doesn't mean it was easy to find. After arriving in Viagrande, we did see one sign that sort of lead us in the right direction. But we quickly found ourselves at a fork, and typical Sicily, no longer any signs! UGH. So, we got a bit lost and meandered through the town, with baby getting restless, husband getting irritated, and no possibility of resorting to the tried and true Italian method of traveling - ask anyone walking or driving by, or, in the case of Viagrande, watering their lawn, for directions. We finally lucked out and asked the lady watering her lawn and found our way to our destination just before we were all about to scream. Lesson learned (again), don't leave home without TomTom, our GPS navigator.

But, the good news is we quickly forgot about any driving discomfort once we set foot in this lovely park. There are trails to hike and animals to see. We opted for the later and spent most of our time with the goats and bunny rabbit. We also bumped into the donkey going out for a stroll. And then there is the tropical (as in warm and humid) butterfly house, a little atrium full of fluttering butterflies. Nearby is a picnic area and playground for the little ones, full of dozens of weathered plastic play equipment--houses, slides, swings, etc. Our toddler did it all, and we even managed to take a brief walk along the trail through the woods, where we met the friendly park calico cat. She had no fear of kids and even a tail-pulling rascal didn't stop her from purring.

The Casa delle Farafalle has been added to our list of kid-friendly outings in the area. Minus the getting lost, it should only take about 30 minutes to get there from Catania. A great outing for a hike, a picnic, and plenty to do for a little one. Next time I'll be sure to remember to pack a picnic.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Peaches (and more) at Leonforte

The Sagra delle pesche (peach festival) is what brought us to the 17th century town of Leonforte. And the fact that my husband's father's family comes from this town several generations ago. And, the fact that even with such family ties, my husband had never been there before.

It took over an hour to reach the town, and, as is usually the case in Italy, such relatively short distances by American standards can mean feeling transported to a completely different reality in this country (and I mean that in a good way!). Clean, cool air. Open country. Special town.

Out there it is open countryside with little development beyond the series of hill towns that dot the horizon and share Mount Etna as the backdrop. Leonforte is one of these towns and on the steep road that leads up to it some of the other hill towns can be seen near and far. (In my pre-motherhood days I would have said to my husband 'can we go over there too'?! I know better now.) This is not the picture perfect type of hill town that you get in Tuscany. Don't get me wrong, I love Tuscany, but Sicily has a rugged, worn beauty and an incredible diversity of landscape that gives it a special appeal.

The town seems to hang on the edge of a cliff and all the streets are going either down or up. There are two exceptionally beautiful (and kid-friendly) piazzas along the main street that takes you through the historic center. Here some of the stands were setting up for the peach festival. We got free tastes of the peaches, saw a kids folk dancing group, a marching band and the co-op of stalls selling Leonforte peaches and peach jams. Tasty. Not dripping juicy like summer peaches, but sweet all the same.

Further down the road I couldn't help but buy a traditional basket made by a nice old man, who told me he learned basket making when he was a small boy from his father and uncle. I asked him if young people were still learning how to make baskets today and, as suspected, he replied 'no'!. I promptly volunteered to be his pupil. I could barely understand his Italian and I am sure he didn't understand mine!

The main road ends in front of an old church and a community garden that has perfect views of the old houses that cascade down the hill and the farmland below. A wow moment. It was a great place for hanging out, picture snapping, and letting the bambino stretch his legs up and down the path, where he cultivated his on-going passion for picking anything berry-like off plants.

For a split second we considered walking further downhill, what seemed a short distance when viewed from above, to visit the town's main landmark, the Granfonte (Big Fountain, pictured above), literally positioned at the foot of the hill and the lowest point of the town. That would have been a BIG mistake, as we would NEVER have made it back up carrying a baby and pushing a stroller. The smart alternative was waiting until we were snugly in the car, where baby quickly fell asleep, to drive down to the fountain. Gorgeous. While baby slept in the car, we took turns climbing the fountain to rinse the peach juice off our hands and have a drink of the clean water and a last glimpse of the town before our drive home.

What we took home with us from Leonforte: fresh peaches (for immediate consumption), dried fava beans (for making macco, a fava bean soupy pasta dish), 4 large sausages for grilling at home, wild aspargus (for making an asparagus frittata), uplifted spirits.

Future plans: visit those other enticing hill towns!

THIS is Sicily! The lemon grove coast

The other day I convinced my husband to go out for lunch some place new. We ended up on his motorbike, bambino at home with babysitter, driving north out of Acicastello. As we passed through Acitrezza, one town away from home, we almost stopped at our regular seafood restaurant there, Da Federico. But (yay!) my desire for 'new' won out.

We continued north towards Acireale and made the turn off the SS114 (strada statale, state highway), and began the curvy descent towards the lovely little village of Santa Maria la Scala. I have always loved this road and this town. The road is lined by old walls which contain old houses and terraced citrus groves, and zig zags crazily downwards to the small fishing village.

Almost at the bottom we reached a fork in the road, and spontaneity won yet again: rather than continuing to the town we know well, we followed the sign to the next town up, Santa Tecla, with eyes set on the view of the large fishing port town we could see in the distance, Riposto. Apparently, I had been there once before some years ago, but it was for an evening concert and I hardly remembered it.

Here the excitment and 'newness' began. We passed by lemon grove estates, one after another, and through a number of amazing little villages. It all felt wild and untouched by modernity. A little enclave of time standing still. No better way to experience this environment than on the back of a motorbike, wind in hair, sun on face. I couldn't help but think, 'why have I never been to this beautiful place before?'.

Always in search of a restaurant, we found one or two that looked good in each of the small fishing villages we drove through, but being Tuesday, were closed. We continued north, trusting my husband's good sense of direction and still feeling semi-lost. We passed several agriturismos and finally stopped at one. From here we got a restaurant recommendation in the town of Fondachello, located just north of Riposto.

As we drove towards this destination, we found that the lemon grove paradise does end, right at Riposto. On to Fondachello, nothing compared to where we had just been (but with a wonderful view of Taormina in the distance), we found that the recommended place was closed too, so we ended up at the somewhat divey trattoria on the beach, just across the street. Nothing like the seafood you get at our regular places, but fun all the same. And anyway, the whole point of this excursion was the journey, the sense of discovery, and the much needed dose of free-spiritism it gave me, not the actual destination. It did wonders for my soul. So thank you hubby for a great afternoon journey, just the two of us.

By the way, I did do a little bit of research on google map to figure out where the heck we were. So check out this map and get lost here, on the winding roads between Santa Maria la Scala and Riposto. You can't go wrong! Some of the towns to see: Santa Tecla, Stazzo, Scillichenti, Pozzillo, Torre Archirafi, Carruba....and the list goes on....

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bronte - for pistacchio lovers only / Castle Nelson - a breath of fresh air

Fall is the period of Italy's 'sagre', or festivals, all of which to my knowledge are food related. Small towns throughout Italy celebrate their local specialties by hosting sagre. Local vendors put their goods on display and local and not-so local visitors come to sample the eats. Sagra hopping can become addictive (it has for us) and makes for a great incentive to get on the road, see a new town and indulge in good food. And kids love them too.

Bronte hosted its annual pistachio festival a few weekends ago, and, being pistachio lovers, we were not going to miss it. The town itself did not have much flair (i.e., no apparent reason to go to Bronte other than its pistachios), but once we had a bite of Bronte's pistachio gelato (WOW) we knew it was worth the trip.

That's not all we tasted. Don't you know pistachios can be put in just about every imaginable kind of food? We also nibbled freshly baked pistachio bread (yum), pistachio torrone (also yum), pastry filled with pistachio cream (not my kind of thing), pistachio arrancini (yum, even though its not my kind of thing), pistachio sausage (big yum for you meat eaters). As all this nibbling occurred before noon, that was about all the pistachio fun our stomachs could handle in one day. Only regret, not drinking the pistachio coffee!

Our bambino did not appreciate the pistachios as much as we did, but he didn't mind being strolled along the main festival street, closed off to traffic for the event, seeing other kids, watching the action, and pointing out all the things he wanted to examine up close. The kiddy car rides were a hit, as was the balloon man and the pet vendor who had bunnies, birds and even turtles on sale. No nice piazzas, parks or playgrounds were evident on our walk up and down the main drag--translation: no reason to dwindle in Bronte, on to the next stop.

The so-called Castle Nelson, a 10 minute drive from Bronte, is a destination of its own, is not really a castle, and is beautiful all the same. You can visit the remains of the former abbey and the still-standing villa surrounded by a lovely wooded park. Although it has a long history and changed ownership many times, the name of the British admiral it was gifted to for having helped quell a revolt has stuck. The interiors can be visited with a guide, who shares details about the little church, furnished (and heavily restored) rooms, garden and archaeological remains of the abbey.

After visiting the villa I would have loved to have gone for a leisurely wander through the park, but given that bambino was getting sleepy, we focused on the AMAZING kids playground in the park. It is BIG, full of nice wooden gyms and slides and other creative things for kids to walk and climb on. The little one loved it and did not want to leave.

I am not sure if it's the villa, or the woods, or the fresh, invigorating air that struck me most about this place, but it really is something special and I will definitely be going back as a family, with friends, or when visitors come to town. Next time I'll be sure to head to Castle Nelson first (with a good amount of time slotted for the playground), and then stop in Bronte on the way back for a bite to eat, or at least a pistachio ice cream!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Adrano - small town with history

Just 30 minutes from Catania by car and in the Mount Etna basin, a visit to this interesting town is an easy day trip.

First impression driving through Adrano is that the historic center, with its beautiful old buildings and narrow stone paved streets, is in excellent shape and feels well-cared for, something that is not always the case with Sicilian towns. We also picked up on the town's peaceful and friendly vibe (at least on a Saturday morning).

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to thoroughly explore the historic center on our recent visit--spent too long in the dumpy antique shop. But we did have time to see what for us was a main highlight and turned out to be great fun for the whole family: smack in the center of the historic center is a large park, right across the street from the most famous historic features of the town -- its former monastery (now an elementary school) on one side and a Norman castle and church (Chiesa Madre) on the other--you can't miss it.

On our stroll through the park we were thrilled to find a playground, pretty clean, with padded flooring and fairly decent equipment, slides, gyms, swings, a see saw, benches, and other kids to play with. Yeah for decent playgrounds (playgrounds in Sicily usually mean broken swing, dirt, and cigarette butts). Our toddler had a blast and we didn't mind hanging out in that pleasant park either.

There are other nice things to wander by in the park --several fountains, grassy areas and tree-lined paths (okay, it is no Versaille, but it doesn't get much better than this in Sicily!). Pick up a sandwich at one of the nearby bars or panificio and have a picnic, that's what we did. The bread and olives are highly recommended. A local told us that the best coffee can be had at the chiosk across the street from the park's main entrance. The only off-putting experience was passing through a mob of high school kids hanging out by the large fountain, evidently the after school place to be.

The monastery, church and castle can all be reached from the park by foot. We peeked into Chiesa Madre with its interesting, unfinished facade, but found the castle closed (closes at 1:00). We would have liked to have seen its interior and the archaeological and other museums it houses.

All in all, the whole family had a good time visiting Adrano and I'll definitely be back for a second visit. Next time around I'll be sure to plan the trip a little better: first visit the Castle museums, then pick up some food and hang out in the park, then stroll through the town. And before heading home, with baby asleep in the car, stop by the Norman bridge (Ponte dei Saraceni) that crosses the Simeto River.

Check out this link for more information about the historic monuments to visit in Adrano.

There's no place like home - Aci Castello

It didn't take long to figure out that Aci Castello is a great town to have down the road.

In just three mintues I can stroll out the door with toddler in tow and be in the most beautiful AND kid-friendly piazza in the Catania area. On any given day I find the Norman castle which towers over the piazza and the breathtaking coastal views which can be seen from Piazza Castello to be uplifting and rejuvenating.

Mothers, Fathers, Grandparents and whole families bring their kids to this piazza to play. No traffic, the serene setting, the year-round mini carnival, many benches and lovely sea breezes make this an idyllic setting for kids and adults alike. And of course dog owners, and the local older folk, and tourists who come to climb the castle and maybe have a gelato at one of the three cafes along the piazza.

Since there is no playground, kids bring their own entertainment--anything with wheels, balls and bubbles seem to be the most popular. The pigeons, dogs, other kids and carneval usually provide plenty entertainment for my kid. As do the water fountains, cigarette butts and other not for touching items that unfortuantely litter the ground. However, now that he is almost a year and half, his desire to do all 'no-no's' just to see what mommy will do seems to be dwindling. Phew.

During the week, late morning (10ish) and late afternoon-early evening (4-6ish) seem to be the mostly lively times of day in the piazza. The weekends can be even livelier and down right crowded with kids, especially in the summer. Earlier in the morning or on very windy or overcast days I can sometimes find myself completely alone in the piazza, which can be very peaceful, but not very entertaining for baby.

In short, Piazza Castello will give you some local flavor while providing a great open space for your kid to run around in and have some fun. A visit to the Norman castle can add a bit of history to your visit to the piazza and is definately worth the effort and the bargain 1 Euro 50 ticket price--great views, interesting architecture, panoramic garden, and a funky musuem.

Other recommendations for Aci Castello:
  • A wander through the alleyways and main stone paved street just behind the piazza are fun. You really can't get lost, it is so small.
  • The best and only real trattoria is actually REALLY good, La Bettola. Try the pasta with swordfish (pesce spada) and pistacchio nuts.
  • The best granita and brioche can be had at Viscuso (named il 'Cavaliere' by the locals), the oldest bar in Aci Castello on Via Re Martino 101, across the street from the main church.
  • Also along this same road you'll find many of the towns local shops, including a great bakery (panificio), a great fruit and vegetable shop (fruttivendolo), a great seafood market, Azzurra Fish (pescivendolo). Check them out!