In the weeks leading up to my trip to Sicily, several people responded to my enthusiasm with "Sicily? Alone?? Why Sicily? Isn't it pretty dangerous?" and the more I heard that, the more I began to question my decision... I guess the mafia is still a thing and Sicily is notoriously difficult to travel around once you get on the island. Not a great place to start off solo foreign travels, perhaps, but I was determined. Though I loved the hostel experience in the Canary Islands (and Lisbon and Marrakech,) I decided to go with Couchsurfing this time. Nothing like experiencing a city through the eyes of a local. Couchsurfing is an organization similar to Airbnb but instead of exchanging money, you exchange culture...and sometimes you end up sleeping on a couch or on a floor instead of getting a private room. I've been using it since 2011 and love it, y'all should check it out!
I wanted to leave my plans relatively open so that my hosts could show me the ropes and give me suggestions once I got there, but generally speaking, my plan was to go to Palermo, Taormina, Catania and fly back to Madrid from there... so what happened was...
We landed right next to a massive cliff, and walked out straight onto the runway while the shadows were short and dark and the the smell of the ocean was everywhere. Wake up, Olivia.
It was warm, sunny, and still early. My head was woozy from the two hours of sleep I'd gotten on the plane, after a sleepless night in the Madrid airport. I kept thinking about a boy back in Spain.
The airport-to-city bus dropped me in the "new city" but I soon walked through a massive gate protecting the old town where my host, Fillipo, lived. Dragging an already broken suitcase over cobblestones is a pleasantly rhythmic struggle that makes me laugh every time. I found Fillipo's house easily and he buzzed me up. I'd chosen to stay with him because he had over 100 reviews on Couchsurfing, and seemed to be enamored with his city, which is something I find very charming and contagious. I want to be enamored with every city.
Fillipo was clad in all khaki with slicked back hair. His apartment was decorated with his grandmother's hand-me-downs— an unusual twist to the quintessential bachelor pad. It had a spiral staircase and was warm with natural light from the windows you could open dramatically to hear the chaos of the famous Mercato Ballaro a few blocks away. He was very well traveled and there was evidence scattered all over the place. A hookah from Iran. A sculpture from China. A trinket from Egypt. Lonely Planets from Romania, Croatia, Cuba, Turkey... "It's a good thing you're not one of those tall Americans" he said. "Why?" "Women should be small...and protectable." ... okay Fillipo.
My stomach growled. We walked through the Mercato Ballaro, which reminded me of the souks in Morocco. Bustling. Chaotic. Colorful. He said the name of the game here was screaming louder than the guy next to you to advertise your daily goods. It was bursting with life and noises and smells and mist as merchants hosed down their produce. Everything was tinted red from the bright umbrellas overhead, shading the artichokes, strawberries, cheese, and olives. There were fisherman with odd sea creatures I'd never seen and jolly old men handing me free strawberries with whipped cream. And seemingly endless, exquisite blood oranges. An assault to the senses is what it was. And it was positively thrilling. I meandered around that market at least once a day for the remainder of my time in Palermo.
After some powerful espresso and my first canoli, Fillipo showed me the cathedral, the royal palace, the opera... we sauntered through the Monte di Pietà neighborhood where he helped me haggle for a new hat. He CONSTANTLY pointed out how much UNESCO loved Palermo. Everything is a UNESCO world heritage site. Here is Fillipo on the steps of the mayor's office.
While exploring some random church with an open door, we talked about details in life and about the mafia and about how impressive it is for someone to commit to being a devout priest or nun in 2017. It's always been admirable, but it's hard to even wrap your head around in this day and age, with all the technology, doubt and distractions we have around us. I have a lot of respect for them, though I'm not religious myself.
The Cathedral of Palermo seemed less like a church in an old European city than a temple out of Indiana Jones... I loved the outside but the inside was surprisingly lackluster.
A lot of the architecture in Palermo surprised me.
As it turns out, Palermo was heavily bombed by the US during World War II and they haven't done a whole lot to repair it in the 70-some years since then.
The city is a beautiful mixture of Baroque, Arab, Byzantine, Norman, and Roman architecture- some very well preserved and some laying in complete ruin since the war.
We went to the mayor's office which is right next to the Fountain of Shame. It is called that because of the many nude figures sculpted into it, whilst being surrounded by 3 churches. Supposedly the people would leave the churches after mass feeling ever so pious, only to be instantly fraught with shame upon seeing all those naked things when they left.
I posted up near the opera house to do a proper watercolor of this ornate little tobacco shop. It is my favorite travel watercolor I did this year. I needed some rest time and really enjoyed people watching while sketching this one up.
Taverna AzzuraOver the next few days, we drank a lot of 1 euro drinks at , which is apparently where the crew of Godfather hung out while they were filming the movie. It's a tiny, blue hole in the wall filled with smoke and barrels and Sicilian men, and every time we went we sat on benches against the walls of the alleyway and talked to all the very many people Fillipo knew.
We walked to the ocean, which wasn't far, and talked about love and monogamy and the feeling of home. He charmed me with a story of a love affair he'd once had with the moon, and how she'd never stopped following him ever since, a massive moon lingering overhead. I met several of his friends, we ate delicious pasta with clams and had proper Sicilian pizza and gelato. I ate incredible meals on my own, too. My favorite was at this a little fresco-covered place called Bisso Bistrot. They've got miss-matched cups so you get a different one every time you go in for coffee. I think I paid 11 euros for an incredible 3 course meal WITH wine. I also strongly recommend the street food of Panineria Friggitoria Chiluzzo where I had my first Panelle (Chickpea fritters.) SO cheap and so good.
I explored on my own during the days. I swooned over details of churches. So many churches. So many intricate mosaics and inlays and carvings. I ate lots of food and drank lots of wine. I got asked if I was Spanish multiple times, which was thrilling. I saw a Traditional Sicilian puppet show at Opera de Pupi and scored free entry into the Palace of the Normans with my student visa, where I finally saw my first golden Byzantine Mosaic. It's incredible how heavenly some of these spaces are. Later I went to the Orto Botanico di Palermo, which was one of the better botanical gardens I've been to. I thought about the boy in Spain. A lot. I walked and I walked and I walked and I walked. And I loved every second of it. One day a piece of an ancient building fell off and crashed down to the sidewalk. "That it could've easily killed someone" Fillipo mused unenthusiastically as he took another sip of his drink. Palermo, I love you.
Thursday night, we walked by a piazza where Fillipo knew people gathered to folk dance. I was able to jump in and dance with the teacher because I actually already knew some of the dances from my classes in New Orleans! They played traditional Sicilian music from a speaker and held hands and skipped around in circles.
I realized at some point that Fillipo had a scooter, and after asking two thousand times, he scooted me on over to Mondello beach. We zipped past a buddhist temple and orchards and mountains then arrived at the delightful Mediterranean Sea about 20 minutes later. Unfortunately the water was too cold really to go swimming, but we sunbathed and listened to the men screaming at the top of their lungs about coconuts.
Sicilians absolutely live up to their stereotype of being insane drivers and I had to close my eyes a couple times on the drive back to town, at one point weaving between two 18 wheelers inside a tunnel (Sorry dad.) I was wearing a helmet, though, for what it's worth, and Fillipo was an expert at driving like a maniac.
All in all it was incredible. I bought a proper pair of red Italian leather heels I could dance in and headed on my merry way to the other side of the island. It was not nearly as difficult to navigate to my next destination as I expected. A simple, cheap bus (that had wifi) and a few hours later, I arrived in Catania.
I arrived after dark in Catania, which is fitting. It's one of the darkest cities I've ever been to. This is mainly, I think, because it is largely built from the volcanic rock from Mount Etna.
My new couch surfing host, Edoardo, picked me up at Central station. While we walked around talking about photography, I felt like Catania was much dirtier and more urban that Palermo, but still hauntingly beautiful. Palermo was yellow. Catania was gray.
There was a beautiful full moon over us as we walked to get some arancini. They are fried fatty rice balls with deliciousness inside and you literally have to slurp out the gooey bits to keep them from dripping on your hand.
We met some of his fellow couch surfing friends in front of the Teatro Massimo and ate pistachios out of a plastic bag. I was exhausted, and Edoardo was pretty determined to drive all the way to Taormina still that night (which is where I assumed we were going as soon as he picked me up.) So off we went through windy roads for 40 minutes to a vacation rental he has on the sea. I lucked out. I crashed on the couch almost immediately upon arriving and woke up to sound of waves.
The next morning we drove up to Taormina (his house is at the bottom of the hill, Taromina is at the top) and stopped on the way up to get a good view of Isola Bella, which is a beautiful little island where people love to swim.
I'd heard so many wonderful things about Taormina and it was definitely cute, but it felt very staged and lacked some kind of authenticity I was hoping for. A tourist village. We walked up and down the main strip a couple of times, looking at all the ceramics stores and flower-covered balconies, then I stumbled upon my favorite exterior of a church I've ever seen. It was pink and had details of skulls and crossbones in at least three places on the facade. A cupcake pirate church. ~Swoon~ It was Palm Sunday.
We wandered through Garden di Villa Comunale, overlooking Mount Etna and the sea. A nearby parrot kept repeating "ello" over and over as I sat down and did a painting of one of the beautiful decrepit buildings scattered throughout the grounds. More pizza. More wine. Edoardo and I had differing opinions about certain topics like homosexuality, which makes for interesting conversation/debate/enlightenment. After a while, we'd seen all there was to see in Taormina, other than hiking up the mountain to the monastery (something I was interested in but Edoardo wasn't) and seeing the amphitheater, which Edoardo said was very touristy and not necessarily worth the entry fee.
The next day we drove to a small town called Savoca. I wanted to go here to see a catacomb in the basement of a monastery called Cripta del Convento dei Frati Cappuccini. The only entry fee was a suggested donation. There are few things in life that make you so aware of your own mortality than seeing mummified human beings with their nails and their clothes and their hair intact, and it honestly makes me a little sick to my stomach. I think it's an important experience to have every now and then. There are wonderful views of the sea and the village from the Monastery once you've recovered from the crypt. The godfather crew also spent quite a bit of time in this small town, and it's famous for it's little bar called Bar Vitelli where they shot many of the scenes in the film.
We returned to Catania, where Edoardo handed me off to my THIRD couchsurfing host and the third leg of the trip exploring the city. Her name was Elisa.
Elisa was SUCH a fitboxing enthusiast that she insisted on taking me with her to her class IMMEDIATELY upon scooping me up from Edoardo. I don't know anything about kickboxing and I speak maybe 4 words of Italian, but I had eaten so much pizza and wine the past few days, I agreed to go. The instructor had tiny blue satin shorts and a Mario mustache and bounced around the room constantly as he roundhouse kicked things and screamed at people. I tried by best to keep up through hysterical fits of laughter.
We went home after the class to her apartment which had a shocking view of the full moon over the Mediterranean (I swear it seemed to be a full moon the entire time I was in Catania for 3 or 4 days straight) She told me to turn the corner, where I saw Mount Etna. Edoardo told me I'd just missed the eruption by a few days but low and behold, that Etna was actively spewing lava all over the place right that instant. I turned the corner of her balcony to see this:
Apparently this is no cause for alarm. The people of Catania are accustomed to living below a very active volcano. Elisa shrugged it off and offered me another glass of wine. She taught me how to make risotto with purple cabbage and we talked about her secret love life (with the blue silky shorts fit-boxing instructor!!) and how traditional and close minded most of Sicily is. She poured me tiny shots of two different kinds of limoncello she made herself.
She told me her relationship was not a traditional one, and I discussed my philosophies of love and life with her which somehow seemed to lead to her offering to invite her secret boyfriend (roundhouse kicking man) over and open another bottle of wine to see what happened. This was a little unnerving, but also extremely amusing to me. I managed to dodge it politely, and we didn't have her boyfriend come over after all.
I want to point out that every house I stayed in on this trip, I got my own room. "Couchsurfing" implies that you always sleep on couches, but sometimes you just get a free private room AND a personal tour guide. It really is incredible. This is the view of the Mediterranean from my bedroom window the next morning:
Originally I was suppose to stay at Elisa's house for two nights but a guy I met in a workshop in Barcelona insisted I come stay with him and his family on my last night (they were home for Easter.) This was a great way to end the trip, except that on the morning I was supposed to go to their house he told me he was sick and couldn't host me. So I found myself kind of stranded without anywhere to stay. Elisa couldn't host me again because she'd already agreed to host someone else and didn't have room. I sent out urgent requests on couchsurfing and talked to some of the hostels, all of which seemed to be booked. This was made more difficult by the fact that I could only contact people when I had access to Wifi. There were supposed to be lockers at central station so Elisa dropped me off there, but they didn't exist. This day wasn't going at all how I wanted it to.
I managed to find a hotel nearby that would keep my bag for 5 euros so I didn't have to cart it around, then I wandered around the city for 13 hours straight. I ended up walking 26 kilometers, which is about 16 miles. It wasn't ideal and I was really ready to go back to Spain, but I still had a nice day, I guess, all things considered. I got to do some of the touristy sight-seeing in Catania that I hadn't gotten to do yet, like the famous fish market, and elephant statue then I went back to the park in the middle of the city. I ate one last incredible Cannoli, drank lots of wine, bought a hand-bound leather journal for myself and this Spanish boy I couldn't stop thinking about, had a very broken conversation with an old man in Spanish/ Italian and walked pretty generally everywhere.
Eventually Edoardo came through and I ended up staying with him again at his other house in Catania this time. He was hosting another lady from Ecuador who I practiced my Spanish with. I was so, so exhausted by the end of the night and so ready to leave Catania. The walk from where my bag was to Edoardo's house was pretty excruciating and I ended up walking down the street with all of Catania's prostitutes. Oops. But at the end of the day I ate an entire pizza by myself and bought a three euro bottle of wine and drifted to sleep on the couch.
The Sicilian flag is one of my favorite flags I've ever seen. Its red and Yellow with a face of a Gorgon (Medusa) with three legs coming out of it. Each leg supposedly represents either the three capes of the island of Sicily, or the three different types of perversions: Moral, Sexual, and Intellectual, which is so fitting and bizarre.
I felt stronger after my trip to Sicily, and had tasted the richness of life in both good and bad moments, completely on my own. I was so excited to come back home to experience Semana Santa and easter in my little Spanish town and spend some good quality time with this guy I was obsessed with and be back on familiar territory. Also excited that Spain now felt like a home I could return to. More on that later...