Tuesday, February 5, 2013

JANUARY (but really just ‘Weekend in Palermo’)

I was so glad that we (ELA group), had already agreed to have a weekend together when we were all back in Sicily. The promise of wine and laughing was really the only thing that got me through the first 2 weeks back after the Christmas holidays.

After a bit of debate, and a LOT of consulting the trenitalia / various bus companies' websites, we settled on Palermo, as it was fairly easy for all of us to get to, and somewhere that we all wanted to visit.

So, another Friday night, another creepy Sicilian train station, then Katy, Laura and I reunited over a bottle of Nero D’Avola and headed out into the night to find food. We ended up at the place on Via Venezia, which is maybe not one of the prettiest places in Palermo (in fact it looks a lot like a car park...), but the food was AMAZING. In fact, it was SO good that we ate there 2 nights in a row.  THAT GOOD. It’s quite a small place, but full to the point where there are people queuing out the door. The menu is simple, and printed on the paper tablecloths, with maybe 3 antipasto options, 5 fish, and 5 meat options. The service was fast, despite the place being so busy, and the prices were really good. We shared antipasti and wine, and we each had our own main courses, and we paid 40 euro between the 3 of us, and then we bought nutella crepes from a stall in the street before heading back to the hostel for a (relatively) early night.

On Saturday morning, Fiona and Ruari arrived, so we took them to the hostel to drop off their bags, and went on a walking tour of Palermo. We wandered around the ballarò, ran away from some dogs, saw the Teatro Massimo and Teatro Politeama, we found H&M and Zara (sorry, Ruari!), we drank a lot of coffee, and when we looked at how far we’d actually trekked around Palermo, it was over 12km!

After a quick change at the hostel, we headed out in search of aperitivo and eventually back to the restaurant in Via Venezia, where we ordered a whole load of food to share, which is easily the best way to eat in this kind of place!

We then walked the short distance to a piazza just off Via Roma that we’d been told was the best place to go on a Saturday night. We ended up in a piazza, surrounded by crumbling, derelict buildings, hundreds of people, makeshift bars all around the edges of the square, and music blasting from who-knows-where. It was bizarre, but brilliant. We huddled together, dancing and sipping awful wine, exchanging looks that said “What the hell have we stumbled upon?” for a while until we collectively agreed that we were all knackered from the day’s activities and wandered back to the hostel.

Unfortunately, we realised the next morning that Fiona’s purse had been stolen, which somewhat ruined the memory of the night before.

We spent Sunday lazily café-hopping, and browsing in Zara again, while we each filtered off to get our respective buses and trains home. Finally, when we were just three again, waiting for Katy’s bus, I insisted on a trip to the Gelateria di Ciccio, where there’s a choice of at least 100 different flavours of gelato. It was the perfect way to end a weekend of incessant munching.


December started out with another stay in Castelbuono. It was another lovely, chilled weekend, with lots of food, and trying to make friends through my very questionable Italian skills.

Unfortunately, this time there was no wine festival, so we had to make do with actually paying for wine, and had to take shelter in a bar because it was SO DAMN COLD. I honestly didn't realise Sicily could get so cold. There have been nights when the temperature has reached zero, and I was definitely not prepared for this. As soon as I got back to Cefalù I went and bought myself a little heater, which has made a world of difference. I also purchased an electric hot water bottle, which was easily the best 5 euro I have ever spent IN MY LIFE.

The next weekend was an ELA trip to Catania! It seems silly now, but at the time I was really nervous about going to a strange city, to spend a weekend with a group of people I'd never met before. I knew Catherine from Glasgow, so I figured I'd have at least one pal in the group, if they turned out to be a bunch of weirdos. As it goes however, it was a brilliant weekend, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been bundled together in Sicily with such lovely, funny people!

After school on the Friday I caught the train to Palermo, and then spent an hour wandering in circles, trying to avoid the junkies and waiting for my bus. Normally I HATE bus journeys with a burning passion, but somehow the beautiful scenery as we crossed Sicily took away all of my travel-rage. The three-hour journey passed even faster than I had hoped, and soon enough, I'd made it to Catania, found Catherine, (who was hiding in the train station because a man had been following her because he wanted to cut her hair. Uhhm...) and then Katy and Laura arrived to rescue us and lead us to the hostel.

After dumping our stuff in the C.C.L.Y hostel (which is possibly the loveliest hostel in all of Italy), we headed out to aperitive. We found a little place by the cathedral where we drank Nero D'Avola and ate lovely antipasti featuring olives, crisps, croquettes, aubergine, courgette, (and probably other things that I have forgotten about).

Next we decided to find some proper food, (I love that after this, every subsequent day I have spent with these girls has been mainly based around food), and wandered around for a bit, half-lost, until we found a place that looked quite promising. It may have taken a 10-minute battle with the front of the restaurant before we actually managed to locate the door and enter, but we were determined to get inside. 

Now, every time I have eaten out in Sicily, I have been overwhelmed by the noise, of clattering plates and cutlery, of music, of conversation so loud that it almost seems as though people are simply yelling at each other across the tables. But not here. We appeared to have found the quietest restaurant in Sicily. It was almost silent. Which made us feel as though we were being incredibly loud, and already being quite embarrassed after the front-door-fiasco made the four of us very, very giggly, to the point where almost everything in the menu was 'hilarious', from information about the breathalyser available to borrow from the bar, to the "pasta with a surprise filling", to "Rosanna's experience and inspiration conjure a delicious vegetable medley", and the fact that we knew that we really shouldn't be laughing just made it worse.

After dinner came Mojitos and Jaegerbombs, and we all woke up on Saturday feeling pretty delicate.

We spent Saturday alternating between hiding in our beds in the hostel, and venturing out for an hour or so at a time, to investigate the markets and shops in the city centre. Another girl, Fiona, joined us, but unfortunately the sixth member of the group missed his bus and didn't make it.

In the market we found a few international food shops, so between us we stocked up on Heinz Baked Beans, soya sauce, sweet and sour sauce and brown rice. I know that we are supposed to be embracing the culture, but after 3 months of nothing but Italian food, these little discoveries were a huge relief.

We had dinner in the pizzeria next to the hostel, because it meant not having to walk far in the cold, and we would apparently get a discount for being from the hostel (we forgot to ask for the discount when the bill came, but hey-ho). The pizza was good, but that's not surprising as I've yet to come across disappointing pizza here, but the entertainment was brilliant! A group of men entered the restaurant and then spent at least an hour playing and singing and dancing around the place. I know this sounds like it was super-touristy, but it really wasn't, it simply felt like we'd stumbled across this secret place that the locals love. 

On Sunday we all had to face our ridiculous journeys home, because on Sundays, Sicily simply doesn't work. Catherine had to leave the hostel at 10.30am, because, "If I miss the 11am bus, I can't get home until tomorrow." And Bronte's only about an hour away from Catania.

Despite a grim 2-hour junkie-dodging wait in Palermo Centrale, I thought my journey was going quite well until my train arrived in Cefalù and the doors wouldn't open. After I'd tried 3 sets of doors the train moved on, and I ended up stuck at the next stop, (fortunately I was not alone, and the four of us got a taxi back to Cefalù together.)

Less than two weeks after the weekend in Catania, I was travelling home for Christmas. I decided to set off really early, just in case there were any delays along the way, and ended up at the airport more than 2 hours before check-in opened. It was just as well though, because I weighed my suitcase and realised it was 7.5kg over my 15kg Ryanair luggage allowance. Oops. So then I spent about an hour and a half unpacking and re-packing and swapping things from my suitcase to my rucksack and putting on as many clothes as I thought I could get away with.

I gave up when I got to 15.8kg, figuring that I’d be okay for my flight to Barcelona, and if I had to have another shuffle about before I could get on the flight to Malaga, then so be it. As it went, the girl at the check-in desk in Barcelona was a bit of a cow, and tried to charge me 20 euro for being over. I insisted that I wasn’t going to pay, and that I would simply take something out of my case. Then five minutes later I re-appeared in front of her wearing jeans, 3 pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a cardigan, a jumper, a hoodie and a jacket, grimacing and telling her “Que calor!” She gave me a bit of a look, and clearly didn’t find me as funny as I found myself, but she let me through, which was a relief.

The Christmas holidays in Gibraltar were brilliant. I think it was the combination of having spent 3 months on my own in Sicily, along with having not had Christmas in Gib for 3 years, and having nearly 3 weeks at home that made it the best Christmas break ever.

It was so relaxing, and I was so glad to see Mum and Dad and Sarah and many friends who I will not name here, that it was really hard to come back to Sicily after New Year. I’d spent 17 days not really having to think, just wandering around as I pleased, catching up over lunches, coffees, drinks, so coming back to live on my own, in the cold (it was SO MUCH WARMER in Gib), felt really sad.

However, since Sarah gave me a weekend break in Milan for Christmas (RIDICULOUS and AMAZING), that was DEFINITELY something to look forward to when I came back!!

Oh, there were tears (of course there were tears!), but deep-down I'm glad to be back, and I know that I'm going to be just as upset when I get to the end of May and have to go home for good!!

Catch Up

So apparently I am as good at writing a blog as I am at keeping a diary.

Not very.

Last time I wrote it was a week before my 22nd birthday – around 12 weeks ago – and so much has happened since then that if I put it all into one post, nobody would read it, or at least, if they did, people would be dying of old age before they got to the end of my ‘essay’.

So I’m going to break it down, into November, December, and January – much shorter, easier-to-digest chunks.


When I last wrote, I was about to go off and spend the weekend with a family in Castelbuono. I was a bit unsure if it was such as good idea, since I didn’t really know them all that well, and my spoken Italian was even worse back then.

In the end I had nothing to worry about. We all managed to communicate perfectly well between English and Italian, they were lovely, warm and welcoming, and I had a wonderful time. I got to eat all kinds of lovely home-cooked Sicilian family meals, and it was a great change to get out of Cefalù for a couple of days.

And it turned out, by fantastic coincidence, that this particular weekend was the ‘Festa di San Martino’ – the feast day of St. Martin, who just happens to be the patron saint of wine. We ended up at a house party in the middle of the countryside, where a bunch of young local wine-makers had brought along very generous samples of their produce.

When we arrived there was a group of guys trying to get a barbecue going using a hairdryer, and I think I was the only one who thought this was a bit odd. It clearly worked for them though, because before long there were plates full of food EVERYWHERE. I knew the Sicilians love to eat, but this was just an endless conveyor belt of meat and cheese and bread and olives and wine! I love how the Sicilians party!

The weekend after that was my 22nd birthday. Being my first birthday away from family, I was a teensy bit emotional and feeling just a little bit lonely when I woke up to an empty flat. However, I cheered myself up with breakfast pancakes and the birthday card from mum and dad that I’d kept tucked away on my bookshelf.

Next was an amazing lunch with some of the wonderful people I have met in Cefalù, at Ti Vitti (which is Siclian dialect for ‘I saw you’). The food was incredible - from the mixed antipasti of cured ham, salami, cheese and caponata (a Sicilian aubergine stew), to the pasta main, and the deliciously light cake, topped with fresh fruit. Of course, as with any decent Sicilian meal, there was also wine!

Although I didn’t expect to receive any presents, I was lucky enough to be given a beautiful necklace, and some very nice toiletries. Later, I returned to the flat, for a peaceful evening, catching up with some of my far away friends.

The next Saturday (24th) I went to Palermo to catch up with Joel. I was a bit nervous going to find him on my own after the previous visit, but after spending much of Friday evening studying Google Maps, I felt quite confident that I’d be able to track him down.

We started out at Quattro Canti, which is the remains of the ancient centre of the city, beautiful, but also decaying, with lots of horse-and-cart ‘taxis’ around the square.

We headed towards Teatro Massimo and Teatro Politeama, and then onwards to the Giardino Inglese, and luckily the weather was beautiful so there were lots of photo oppurtunities.

Next we returned to Quattro Canti, and off into a side street that led to the Ballarò street market, which stretches forever in every direction. I feel quite sure you could buy anything you wanted here – from whole cheese, to clothes, to giant slabs of fish, to bedding – if you look hard enough, it can probably be found.

We decided to have lunch at a trattoria in the market, which we soon realised was a mistake when a group of about 6 ten-year-olds started firing BB guns at passing cars, stray dogs, and eventually, each other. We all felt pretty nervous, and neither of us wanted to have our backs to them, so we ate quickly and moved on.

After lunch we decided to take a slow walk up Via Vittorio Emmanuele, one of the main streets in Palermo, which leads (eventually), to the Catacombs. I hadn’t really known what to expect when we arrived, but Joel insisted that it was worth a visit. It was incredibly strange to walk among so many mummified bodies, hanging grotesquely, almost as if they’re leering at the passing tourists. We didn’t stick around for long, and were soon heading back towards the centre, and the train back to Cefalù.

I’d like to say that day completely changed my view of Palermo, but that’s not entirely true. I definitely saw a different side to the city, which I loved, so while I no longer think of Palermo as a dangerous, scary place, I know that I need to stai attento, and maybe not venture into the Ballarò alone!