We were leaving the civilised rolling vineyards and refinement of Tuscany for the saline grittiness of Sicily. Sea, cragged coast line, salty locals, an island a law unto itself. The ocean was calling us, we were ready to immerse ourselves in the baking sun and cooling water for a week and gorge on the freshest of seafood.
We had some time to kill at the airport in Pisa as our flight wasn’t leaving until evening, so we secured a sheltered table outside and spent most of the day people watching, drinking glasses of cold beer and grazing on pizza slices.
All walks of life were there to be watched, so we studied their habits. Wives nagging their husbands, young continental couples sitting in complete silence, chain-smoking, women with no taste, wearing gaudy holiday outfits and clattered in gold jewellery, troops of English tourists taking over the place, Italians rolling their eyes at the English tourists, snotty nosed girls trying to look effortlessly cool. Everyone feeling jaded and worn out from travel and heat. It felt good to be surveying the scene, whilst sipping a cold beer, hiding behind my sunglasses having got rid of our luggage.
There was a young couple opposite us, probably in their early twenties, possibly back packers, just friends at the moment, but the guy was obviously trying to progress the relationship to a little more than just travelling companions. They were getting on well, laughing, drinking beer, smoking, flirting. I really felt for him when some washed up middle-aged lout smoking a cigar, with a good tan, short-cropped hair, and sleeveless shirt, invited himself over to their table and becomes the annoying third wheel, somewhat ruining the dynamic of the group.
The moment had gone and the young guy starts to retreat as the middle-aged letch flirts outrageously with the girl too many years his junior. Secretly I’m rooting for the young guy, but he’s losing it, there’s no fight in him.
In amongst all the Pizza slices being gobbled down, kids were crying and whining, Italian business men wearing slip on loafers with no socks, carrying expensive leather briefcases, with shirts unbuttoned. Young couples on their honeymoon, not a care in the world, with the smell of lucky strikes wafting through the balmy afternoon air. Lots of tanned skin on show, reminding me of an old light brown leather school bag I used to have.
The awkwardness of all nationalities, looking for a spare seat to rest travel weary bones to grab a quick airport snack and a cold beer, a coffee, a cigarette, a brief phone call on the mobile to work colleagues, family or friends. Not really wanting to start a conversation, looking far off in the distance or hiding behind sunglasses so they don’t make unnecessary eye contact with anyone. We’re all going somewhere, we don’t really want to be here, just biding our time until out flight is called, the travellers limbo, drinking and smoking because there is nothing better to do.
We arrived into our hotel in Palermo late on Monday evening, so it was straight to bed. Up early on Tuesday morning and stepped out onto our balcony to the sound of a city in the throng of the early morning rush. Car horns and scooter beeps were sounding off, rising up from the narrow streets seven storeys below. I liked Palermo immediately, it felt alive, vibrant, a melting pot of a city. What a welcome to Sicily, Palermo was brash, loud, vibrant. I wanted to get out into the streets and soak it up!
Looking out across to other apartments, the scene was one of typical European city living, apartments kept very well, with lots of greenery, making great use of what little balcony or patio space available with plants and creeping vines growing over trellises acting as shelter from the sun. But all the buildings looked old, crumbling concrete and patches of black dirt, it was all very shabby but in an endearing way. I’m not sure if Sicilians believe in the concept of maintenance?
We had breakfast in the hotel which was the usual buffet offering, fresh pineapple and melon, eggs, bacon, cheese, sliced turkey and two espressos. Then it was time to hit the road and get the train to Cefalù, further long the coast for some sun and seafood.
Our first meal in Cefalù was at a tiny restaurant on the outskirts of the town called Al Faro, the waiter was very friendly and recommended a bottle of Sicilian Chardonnay and the house speciality of sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, herbs and raisins. Our table was right beside the sea, on a cliff overlooking the coastline, it could not have been more perfect.
This was Sicily, this is what we wanted, the smell of the salt water, fresh fish and crisp white wine. To start we shared a plate of anti pasta and a simple tomato salad, which consisted of tomatoes, raw onion, lettuce and green olives. The sardines were fat and juicy, stuffed well and then tied with fine cotton string. They tasted beautiful, rich and oily, with the raisins and pine nuts in the stuffing added bite and sweetness to the oily fish. A nod to the Arab influence on Sicilian cuisine. Aine had a plate of fresh seafood of mussels, clams, prawns and squid with linguine. The Sicilian Chardonnay went beautifully with the fish.
Cefalù is a popular holiday resort along the North coast of Sicily, which has an impressive backdrop of a craggy mountain peak and a long sandy beach. The streets are narrow, cobbled, with the usual balconies festooned with drying clothes and bed linen, populated with Italian mamas wearing dark sunglasses surveying all the goings on below. It is an historic town which centres around a beautiful old Cathedral, which has hints of both Arabia and the Normans, the cathedral looks out over the Piazza, which was mostly thronged by groups of tourists.
Our hotel was a 20 minute walk along the coastline on the outskirts of the town, and was actually owned by a German family, so you had to be up early and have your towel on a couple of deck chairs. The hotel was right on the coast, and had its own private beach, down a steep flight of stairs cut into the cliff face, right at the water’s edge.
Every day followed much the same routine, enjoying a continental buffet breakfast which was run by a Maitre’d who thought he was Mussolini, dressed in his old school white jacket. We’d stock up on bread, jam, sliced meats, boiled eggs, fresh fruit and many tiny cups of juice. Then it was down to the beach to sun ourselves for the morning, jumping into the clear azure sea water to cool off. Sicily was probably the hottest place we’ve ever visited, by about 11:30am it was close to 35 degrees C and we were melting into out deck chairs, but boy did it feel good to sweat in this glorious pure unshielded sunshine.
In the afternoon we would take a walk into the town, grab a seat in the piazza, slurp and lick smack our way through two big cones of gelato and watch the scene in front of us. The gelato was amazing, I tried a scoop of tutti frutti and strawberry, whilst Aine went for lemon and raspberry. This gelato was amazing, it tasted like a really think creamy sorbet and the tutti frutti was chock full of glace fruits. I’m not sure if any other ice cream will ever come close just for sheer refreshment and flavour.
One afternoon there was a local wedding taking place in the towns cathedral so there were plenty of Godfather look a likes, dark sunglasses and ill-fitting suits, then we stopped by a small fruit shop to buy figs and peaches which we ate straight out of the brown bag as we walked, the juice dribbling down our chins. You always know you’re on holiday when you’re walking down a cobbled street on a balmy afternoon and eating delicious juicy fruit straight from the bag.
For dinner that evening we tried the restaurant next to the one we had eaten in the night before, we started with a plate of anti pasti, which was made up of olives, local pecorino cheese, local salami, sun dried tomatoes, some bread and a beautiful salad. To drink we had another bottle of Sicilian Chardonnay and a bottle of sparkling water.
We were having pasta withdrawal so for mains we had a plate of tagliatelle, swimming in butter with fresh Porcini mushrooms and a plate of penne with chilli, lots of garlic sun-dried tomatoes and olives. Again these two plates were showcases of the simplicity of Italian food, but using quality ingredients, it’s impossible to fail with ingredients like these, sprinkled with a little bit of love, passion and tradition.
After a boat trip round the coast, which gave us excellent views of the town from a far, you could see where the old part of the town finished and the newer building started. Lots of rickety looking houses stacked on top of each other, paint peeling of the sun beaten walls, cobbled streets so narrow, scooters everywhere, horns beeping, the Cathedral surveys everything, with an impressive rocky backdrop. The Cathedral is a very old building, you can smell the passage of ancient years when you step through the looming heavy door, the collected dust centuries old, ancient stone that has witnessed the drip of time on this tiny mediterranean island.
We stopped at a beachside restaurant for a plate of Vongole. At this stage in the trip I had officially fallen in love with this simple plate of food. What could be better than sweet fresh clams cooked in garlic, parsley and lots of butter which emulsifies with the natural juices of the clams to produce a dish I would happily eat on a daily basis, I might even go so far to say that it could be in my top five potential death row dinners. The key to this dish is the butter and to use the freshest clams you can get your hands on. I love the patterns on the clam shells, it reminds me of cubism 1930s art or 1980s computer games of space invaders. Cubism clams!
On our walk back to the hotel we stopped for some more gelato, there was actually a gelato festival taking place in Cefalù run by chefs from the University of Gelato! They have a University dedicated to gelato! This can only be a good thing! We spotted an elderly local gentleman wearing dark sunglasses and a pork pie hat, he was getting stuck into a big cone of gelato, he was a biter not a licker.
There’s something quite reassuring about seeing a distinguished elderly gentleman eating an ice cream with gusto, it gives you hope that one day you’ll still have the same appetite for life when your eyes are old and grey and dim.