Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Taormina




It's good to have visitors.

Earlier this month hubby had some colleagues in town that got the red carpet treatment. We joined in on the fun over the weekend and made the trip to Taormina, an outing I'll never say no to. But before stopping in Taormina we decided to wind our way up even further to the tiny town perched above it, Castelmola. Up there our heads were literally in the clouds. But not for long. The sun began to break through so that by the time we were back down in the main piazza our bodies were warmed and our eyes astonished by the spectacular sea views that now greeted us. The little town is quiet and calm compared to Taormina. Of course we stopped in for a snack at its most (in)famous bar - Bar Turrisi -- a fascinating place for its decor and gravity defying balconies. Just look at the photos on the link and you'll understand what I'm talking about. And should you visit this place, be sure to stop in at bathroom!

Taormina is full of old world charm. The Greek Theatre is one of the best locations for viewing Etna. We did a lot of climbing and pretend excavating, chewing on wild fennel and just taking it all in. The rest of the time was all about strolling along in the most leisurely fashion. On our own we are usually much quicker about these things, so it was great to have our friends there with us to slow us down for lots of looking, admiring, and photographing all that beauty. And since Taormina is also loved for its shops, I have to mention my personal favorite, the funky ceramics of Don Corleone.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Autumn



We spent a day at the foothills of Etna this Sunday and finally got a sense of autumn. Living by the water the days have been so mild it reminds me of my childhood growing up in Los Angeles where the only sign of the very gentle transition from summer to fall was the pile of leaves that would appear one day underneath our large maple tree. Here in Sicily our evergreen filled backyard does not even give us that satisfaction.


Less than an hour climb up Etna with the car, though, brings you to a whole different climate. Up there the temperature dropped, jackets came out, the clouds hovered low over the hillside below and the ground was damp from on and off drizzles from the night before. When we arrived at the Barone di Villagrande winery the rain had stopped so we headed straight to the woods looking for fallen chestnuts and the pretty crocus flowers peeking out from underneath the thick accumulation of leaves. We concentrated on collecting chestnuts and poking around for different kinds of mushrooms, none of which we picked for our ignorance about mushrooms altogether. This was too bad because we were sure some of them were edible. I couldn't help but throw in some pretty oak leaves and acorns in the chestnut bag, too. My mother-in-law instead gathered bunches of crocus flowers with plans of allowing the stigmas to dry out to obtain the spice saffron. This was new information to me and she promised a taste of risotto alla Milanese produced with her own saffron one day in the future. Although the nearby town of Zafferana Etnea is most famous for its production of honey, the name is said to derive also from the word for yellow in Arabic (zaufanah), which refers to the large quantities of broom and saffron in the territory.  

A long meal followed in the winery's pretty restaurant, accompanied by tastings of their white and red wines. The best course by far was the dessert due to the mont blanc made from their own chestnuts and the mostarda made from their own freshly pressed grapes - delicious!

Today it is raining again, and hard, so I cannot pretend to be fooled about what season it is. Snacking on roasted chesnuts and decorating our windows with dried leaves has been helping too! 







Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fiesole and some ramblings

Since the beginning of September I have embarked on a new adventure of a personal sort - teaching a course to American university students studying abroad for a semester in Florence. I can't believe I am doing this, but once a week I really do hop on a plane and commute to Florence in order to meet with 7 young women who are all keen on learning about ancient Etruscan pottery, how it can be studied, conserved and restored. It has been a huge challenge for me, but a great one too. Planning and prepping for and lecturing and teaching and supervising hands on activity in a flurry of 2 and a half hours, trying to get the kids inspired and enthusiastic without overloading them, staying alert, engaged, open and aware. Let me tell you all of these things that take place in the course of the week and are concentrated during these weekly meetings have been super stimulating to my underworked brain. I am doing what I love to do and sharing it with some interesting young people who seem sincerely thrilled to have this chance to restore ancient pots, and I'm thrilled to be there with them.

In between all the anxiety that comes with new responsibilities, the exhaustion that comes with long days and lots of travel, and the satisfaction of a seemingly successful lesson, there are some special moments not related to working that also come with this weekly commute. First of all I get to spend one night a week in the beautiful town of Fiesole, where some very dear American friends now live. In Fiesole the air is different, pristine as it can only be in Tuscany. Up there on a hill overlooking the city of Florence below, the view is truly inspiring. The house of my friends is instead located behind the town, reachable from a winding narrow road that curls through olive groves and tall oak trees that make the road feel like a tunnel. The house is a hidden jewel, a perfect old country house, quiet and cozy, the kind of place you dream about living in when you think of Italy. In the evenings I am fed warm, delicious food and entertained by the stories of the week and hugs from their snugly little boy. When the yawns take over my being I crawl into a comfy bed of my own and sleep oh so very soundly - there is no little boy of my own calling out for me to help him find his way to the bathroom which is what happens the other 6 nights of the week when I am in my own bed! In the morning I make my way back into the city of Florence, eat a Florentine breakfast (a brioche at the bar), and get ready for the class. 

Once the hard work is over I am rewarded by the final phase of enjoyment of these weekly visits, a good 3-4 hours of free time all to myself before I have to start heading back to the airport. I have truly grown to love this city in my weekly wanderings around town. It is so luxurious to be able to visit museums, shops and eateries on my own and to my hearts desire. Despite the many tourists, the place feels very alive and full of beauty and quality things that make me want to consume beyond my means. With so many expats living in Florence it has much more of an international flair than my Sicilian world. I ooh and awe over the authentic NY bagels I munch on, the homemade Chinese dumplings, the vintage shops, the unique handcrafted cloths and jewelry, Renaissance paintings, buses that work, artist's studios and so much more. By the end of it all my feet ache and my head is dizzy with the idea of a bus, and a train and an airplane and then a car and then finally home sweet home to the place where I really do belong. The time away is special because of the mix of work and friends and discovery, but still does not compare to the happiness I feel when I walk through the door I  call home. As usual, nothing like spending time away to make you appreciate all that you have. A few more weeks of this adventure left and I will do my best to savor all that I enjoy about it. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

La Vecchia Dogana


A new place to visit in Catania is La Vecchia Dogana. The building is that of Catania's old customs house located in the port and now renovated and filled with shops and restaurants. The theme here is definitely all things Sicilian: food, wines, books, ceramics, and other locally produced temptations. In fact, it calls itself the 'tasting showroom of Catania'. The space is pretty, a kind of an indoor food court in a big, airy, historic building that has been nicely renovated with sky lights, escalators and even a pair of gigantic Sicilian puppet sculptures hanging from the ceiling. These refer to the new Sicilian puppet museum that also has a home in the old customs house and was not yet open as of a few weeks ago. I have also read that there is a cinema in the building but did not see it during our recent visit.

While the place may intend to be a kind of welcome to Sicily center for the ship loads of tourist that spend a few hours docked in Catania as a day stop  on their Mediterranean cruise, I am sure the locals will be pleased by this new destination, too. It is easily reachable from the center and gives reason to pass under the old bridge that separates the center from the port.

Even though the focus is on everything Sicilan, there are a few non-Sicilian eating choices, too. Most enticing (to me) are the burger joint, also yet to open as of a few weeks ago and the name of which escapes me at the moment, and Dr. Juice, a Maltese-based juice bar that serves not only smoothies and freshly squeezed juices but also American style soups and sandwiches, including bagels and wraps (!!!). On our first visit we thoroughly enjoyed a couple of smoothies and spicy tuna wraps for lunch. By chance the owner of the juice bar was there training his new employees and getting the place set up for its grand opening. A nice young chap who is in the process of expanding his operation from the island of Malta onto the island of Sicily. The Vecchia Dogana is his second location in Catania and I wish him the best of luck. I'll definitely be back when the urge for something quick and decidedly non-Italian strikes again.