|Looking for a Home
I needed to stop moving for a couple of weeks, I had to write my research paper and I couldn’t do that from the road. I had put it off too long already, I needed to have it done by the time I returned in May. Almost all the on the ground research had been done in the Fall when I began the trip, but I had to actually write it in coherent form. When I left Bologna, I was looking for a place to put down stakes for a little while, I was thinking somewhere south and near water, maybe Puglia, but that didn’t grab my fancy so I kept moving. Sicily seemed promising, and I built it up in my mind as a safe haven just as I had Dubrovnik. I knew I wouldn’t stay at the first place I stopped, but Taormina looked promising.
It was a short and stunning drive from Furci Siculo, aka Creepy Town, to Gardini Naxos, which is unofficially considered a part of Taormina, the ocean part, since Taormina is actually a hill town. I had booked a hostel for two nights, but couldn’t get in until 4pm, so I strolled the long cement boardwalk of the seaside tourist town. I was comfortable here, it reminded me of home, but I knew within an hour it wasn’t where I wanted to stay for any length of time. There just wasn’t enough going on, it was a summer beach destination, no old town center, and while there were lots of hill towns nearby, I wanted someplace I could park Blacky and not move him again to go see anything.
I went back to the hostel and a petite, friendly blonde woman showed me around. Her name was Rae, she was from New Zealand and she was working at the hostel for room and board. The hostel was nearly empty, and Rae and I chatted for a bit before she went back to work. Rae was older than me, somewhere shy of sixty, divorced, and had been traveling solo for eighteen months. She makes me look like a total couch potato. She’s been all over Europe, several times, mostly working for room and board through a website called Workaway.com. She’s done everything from gardening and home restoration to her current job with Gianni, the owner of the hostel, which is a combination of receptionist/promotion, updating his website and things like that. She is also a sailor, and has crewed on lots of sailing yachts, all over the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Greek islands, Croatian islands, the list is endless and amazing. She completely fascinated me and gave whole new meaning to the words courage and adventure.
I decided to go on a guided tour of Mt. Etna, since it was much bigger than I realized and couldn’t be climbed until May because of the snow. Rae decided to go too, which made me happy. We left early the next morning with Marcello, our guide, a short, balding, cheerful geology buff. He talked with me while we waited for Rae to come out, but as soon as he saw her, I was chopped liver. He hardly looked at me again, and seemed to talk only to Rae, glancing in my direction occasionally just to keep up appearances. As I spent more time with her, I came to find out that she had this effect on all Italian men. They really, really, really like blonde women, not that she’s not pretty, she’s very attractive and has a grace and coolness about her, exuding a high level of self-confidence that I found attractive myself.
We picked up a young couple in the center of town before we started the tour, who turned out to be Americans living in Romania. She worked for the State Department, he was a private English tutor and I enjoyed getting to know them a little throughout the day, especially since Marcello was all about Rae. The Mt. Etna tour was fantastic, and Marcello did a great job of mixing lots of geological facts with interesting tidbits about nearby towns and what it was like to live under a live volcano. There have been big and small eruptions over his lifetime, and he described how last summer, the volcano blew so much ash and junk up in the air daily, the streets and sidewalks of Gardini Naxos and surrounding towns had to be swept constantly. He also talked a lot about the corruption in Italy, particularly in Sicily. I asked him about the Mafia in Sicily and Calabria.
“The Mafia is now the government, they don’t deal on the small level here on the island the way they used to. It is much worse in Calabria than here.”
He told us that last month, in Calabria, a young couple dealing drugs got into too much debt with the Mafia and couldn’t pay it off. The Mob kidnapped their three year old son and the woman’s father and killed them. It was in all the papers, Rae had even read about it, and the papers openly credited the Mafia for the murders, it wasn’t a secret. Marcello said working and living in Italy was so discouraging because roads and all the other services in Italy were horrible. The Mob just takes all the tax money and doesn’t put it back into the country. Rae told us about Gianni, the hostel owner. He’s had the place for about ten or fifteen years and wanted to make some improvements. It’s taken him six years of bureaucratic red tape to get the approval to put in a new kitchen and he’s still trying to get it finished. The government makes any project so difficult, and asks for bribes all along the way. It’s no wonder there are so many abandoned buildings, people just give up after a while and walk away.
That night, I met the American couple Madeleine and Peter, for dinner, and we had a great time. It was nice not walking into a restaurant alone. In the smaller towns of Italy, it seems that mostly men seat people and wait on tables. When I walk in alone, they say, “Only one?” and when I say “Yes,” they actually shake their heads, purse their lips, look down at the floor, and say, “Oh, so sorry.” It happens all the time, it’s pretty funny at this point. But tonight, the three of us had a great time talking about our love of travel and what it’s like for them to live away from home. They’re young and adventurous, but they said they probably wouldn’t have done it as single people, it was much easier to be away from family if you had your “home” with you.
The next day, Rae decided to come with me to Siracusa, my next stop on the island. We first visited Savoca, a tiny hilltop town used in all three Godfather films. It was a typical hilltop town drive, with hairpin turns and switchbacks, the town itself consisting of tiny cobbled streets which looked like they should be pedestrian only. I drove up to a parking lot in front of a church, a scary drive through the town, and we walked around for a while but weren’t that impressed. I did take pictures of the church where young Corleone married his beautiful Italian girl. We went on to Noto next, a small city famous for its white marble architecture, had a delicious leisurely lunch, then strolled down the main street. While more impressive than the previous town, it was not a place I wanted to stay for much longer than the hour it took to walk around. Siracusa was our final stop for the day, where I was staying for three days while Rae was taking a train back to Gardini later that night. I drove her to the main square of the old town and said goodbye while I went in search of my Airbnb apartment. It was listed as being right next to the open air archeological museum, which it was, but it was also outside the old town, about a 15 minute walk. The apartment was lovely and spacious, but I didn’t like the location or the style, it was a modern apartment in a newer section of the city.
I did walk down to the old town the next day, with its ancient Roman ruins right on the main square and warren of small alleys and streets, a long breakfront with stone walls and walkways, and a huge fort which dominates one end of the waterfront. This fort is owned and used by the military, and was inaccessible for a visit.
After Siracusa, I continued my drive around the southern side of the island and stopped at Agrigento for one night. I booked a hotel here right on the edge of the old town, a lovely place which Leona got me really close to, but for some reason couldn’t find the actual street. I parked Blacky and walked back towards where I thought the hotel was and started asking people.
One of them pointed down the street, “Diritto, diritto, avanti scala”-straight down the street and up the stairs. The entrance to my hotel was on the stairs, but around the corner so the sign wasn’t visible from the street. After seeing the view from my large, gilded room, it finally dawned on me that when I choose a room with a view, those rooms are up high, and since the old parts of town have old buildings, there are no elevators. Hence the constant stair climbing…why it took me so long to put this together is a mystery. The reason I could afford this lovely room with a balcony looking over the old town was because my bathroom was out in the hall next to the reception area, but it was worth it for the balcony and the ornate furniture, every piece covered in gold paint, with a rich, gold bedspread on the large, fancy bed. I felt like one of the Borgia’s. There was a small bottle of complimentary wine, which I immediately opened and drank while I watched the sun go down from my perch above the street. I ate dinner at a wonderful restaurant whose door I had passed on the stairway, it was directly underneath the hotel but separate, and had one of my best meals yet.
I wandered the little stone streets, still looking for shoes, people watching and enjoying the warm night. Agrigento is famous for its large array of Roman temples, scattered on the hillside just below the town. I’d seen them as I drove by, but I didn’t want to pay to go into the display, I’d already seen so many in Turkey and elsewhere in Italy, so the next morning, I began my drive across the center of the island toward Cefalu (chef-ah-loo), on the northern coast of Sicily. I was hoping this would be my refuge. I was already starting to feel more at home in Sicily than anywhere else I’d been in Italy, except of course at Alessandra’s. I liked Bologna because of her and her friends, the area was beautiful, but I wouldn’t have stayed as long if I’d been on my own.
The drive through the center of Italy was warm, sunny and beautiful, with glimpses of Mt. Etna off in the distance, fields of fruit and olive trees on the flat land between me and the other smaller mountains all around. This is a beautiful island, and the people are as warm and inviting as the sea. It has a small town feeling of friendliness and acceptance, an even slower, easier pace of life than in mainland southern Italy. Cefalu was a recommendation from not only Alessandra’s sons, but from Nadia and other Italians I had met along the way. It was small, about 14,000 people, nestled on the Tyrrhenian Sea, with a beautiful, compact old town. I found a small apartment on the very edge of the old part of town, a block from the sea. It sounded like the perfect place to nest for a while, and I was looking forward to unpacking, buying groceries, consistent wifi, and no driving. Simple things that I took for granted at home, but had come to mean everything to me on the road.