Sucking Lemons in Sicily

Sicily, the ball to Italy’s boot. The Mediterranean middle dotted with volcanic mountains and islands. We didn’t know much about the area, but were keen to catch up with Matt and Rach on their European holiday. They had been winding their way through Barcelona, the Pyrenees, Languedoc, Provence and Corsica and were going to join us in a few days.

After our arrival in Catania airport and interrogation by our car rental agent, we meandered onto the Italian motorway. The drivers were a bag of all sorts; the geriatric snails, those that went twice the speed limit, to those that couldn’t make up their mind which lane they were in. It was enough to get the blood boiling before arriving in Toarmina. The narrow streets and near collisions with small cars with little fears driving past. Stopping for someone to pass is never returned with a polite wave or nod and Mitch grew increasingly indignant.

Toarmina itself was perched high on the cliffs overlooking the pebble shores and Isola Bella. Its gardens and grand amphitheatre baking in the sun. Our first stop was a fruit cart. Tam picked up a small reddish yellow and dotted ball and tossing it from one hand to the other waited for the vendor. His friend after several protests to Tam eventually persuaded her to drop the fruit and let him cut it open – he wore a glove. Turned out it was a cactus fruit. Tam spent the next couple of hours picking out small barbs from her hands…

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Our accommodation in the rural village of Milogio was something else and looked like we broke the bank. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad. Sicily was also really good value for meals – everything was dusted with fennel.

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Before we had to rush back the next day to pick up Matt and Rach, we drove up the winding narrow roads, through the fields of scoria and towards Mt. Etna. Along the way we encountered hordes of foragers. Foraging in Sicily seems to be a pastime that is shared long back to the earliest of ancestors. Locals gathered mushrooms, nuts and berries on the roadside and in the forests. One car was stopped on the inside of a blind corner with the occupants out on the other side, with an ice cream punnet in hand. The way they drove, we were surprised there wasn’t a lot of crashes.

Mt Etna is an active volcano, periodically releasing the odd spurt of gases and ash on the local residents. We drove to the Rifugio Citelli and found a track to the top along the rough scoria fields. Along the way we passed lava fields, tubes and ash. The higher we climbed the thicker the fog became. After a few false peaks we eventually turned back, sliding down the scree slopes, fraying the rubber soles of our shoes in the process.

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Before we picked up Matt and Rach swiftly from the airport, we were tasked with finding a ring for Matt. Not the easiest task, but we found a small roadside stall and bought what we thought was a good size in Capo Mulini. As it turned out, when we gave it to him, it was too big. We had assumed all that time at the gym would have given him large muscular digits. After a good catch up, a dose of cheap wine and being “that group” in the restaurant till closing, we retired for an early rise.

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Driving to the Milazzo ferry, we arrived to chaos. There wasn’t a car park in sight, despite there being several on the Google Maps. Turns out many just have a drop off here, with car parks back in the industrial area. Eventually Matt found one – Parking Ferrari, the name, synonymous with luxury Italian, only made sense when you made it past the weathered concrete to see the owners shining red pride.

The ferry to Lipari we made with minutes to spare. Rach couldn’t pat with her wedding dress and that came along for the tour too! Missing out on Isola Vulcano, we had a few hours to kill in Lipari, a bit of a hot and rocky outcropping. After a few swims and gelatos we were able to make it onto our second ferry to Panarea. We should have just come straight here – the island was gorgeous. The houses were glistening white and the island had little space for anything bigger than a golf cart. This way the narrow streets were relatively free of dust and pollution.

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In the sunset, we could see plumes rising from Stromboli to the east. Going out for dinner Mitch managed to trip and take a big chunk off the end of his toe. Once the pomodoro blood flow had subsided and our helpful hotel host gave us the necessary bandages and antiseptic (Nurse Matt put most of it back together again), we managed to get a late night dinner on the waterfront – aubergine parmigiana became Mitch’s favourite Italian dish – no more bloody pasta.

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The morning sunrise over Panarea bought with it again the searing heat. Finding a patch on the rocky beach, away from the €10 loungers for rent. After more people came in and tanned their leather, Tamson and Rachel were offered a lounger by an elderly couple leaving. The reason? They were the pastiest pair in Panarea. Someone was looking out for them.

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Another ferry to Stromboli took us under the shadow of the volcano. We and another American couple were rushing to get to the island in time to make the climb to the top. There are several operators taking tours to the top of Stromboli. Magmatrek, Vulcano Adventures and Magmatrek all offer hikes from the main township to the summit and down to the crater. We, however took none of these. We climbed up the western approach, the steepest and most rugged climb.

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About half way up we encountered a few other tourists camping out for a view of the explosions and magma flows. Persisting on past, the tack became narrower and covered in ash. The air became acrid with sulphur and the ash coated our mouths with a black paste. As we approached the summit a guide came over waving his walking poles furiously. “Hello. Hello. You can’t be here! You know what you are doing! Go back down!”. Sheepishly we turned, tail between our legs, volcano exploding in the background, past the next group, who had helmets and flashlights on looking a little bemused. Then came the descent. Down a switchback past the other groups where the grumpy guides did all but spit at us as they led their paying customers up with them.

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At the bottom of the switchback, we came across a sign: “Any person found above 400m without a guide is liable for a  €500 fine”. A bit of a self-licking ice-cream, but we could see that it was the main earner for the town along with the hazards – so naturally some money could be made. If not by tours, by fines…

Back in town with the path becoming dark, we demolished a couple of well earned pizza’s. Mitch did a bit of research to what qualifies as an authentic Southern Italian pizza. Leopard spots on the bottom with a soggy mozzarella middle did the trick. Retreating back to our accommodation, we narrowly avoided the guides and their groups coming back down the street.

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The morning ferry to Milazzo was lazy with our feet up. We got told off repeatedly by the steward…rebels. A lot of the time was sadly spent in transit, but that made for good time catching up. We drove again down the Sicilian motorway, passed Messina and eventually winding up the hills behind a convoy of Fiat 500s to Savoca, the village made famous in the Godfather. We weren’t actually aware that Savoca was famous. It was only when a bus load of American tourists arrived and took photos of us eating gelato and cake, we thought something might be up with the bar.

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Moving on to the airport Rach was really hungry. Her natural reaction to hunger is to vomit – go figure. As long as none got on the upholstery we were fine! Dropping off the unsoiled car at the airport we were ready for Naples and to get this wedding underway.

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One thought on “Sucking Lemons in Sicily

  1. Whooo. another amazing adventure…how cool to share with Rach and Matt. Do like the antiseptic you had to swallow for the toe Mitch….. Hope it nulled all the pain!!!!! Lucky you didnt all need it after rolling down that scoria…be rather painful if tripped!!!!

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