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By far the best use for those damned Vespa scootersFeb. 23 - Mar. 1, 1999  Eastern Sicily, Italy

With no specific plans and for no specific reason - that's how and why we found ourselves on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean's biggest island, Sicily. The base for our explorations is Catania, an unassuming coastal city, much like any other. Why Catania? By no grand design, by no impressive plan, we simply let fate guide us here.

One of Siracusa's most impressive churchesIt was Tuesday night. We were on a southbound train heading for the 'boot' of Italy and discussing our final destination, when I pulled Laura's pack from the overhead shelf. And in so doing, accidentally hit the emergency alarm/stop the train lever next to the rack. Fortunately for us there was no major harm, as the lever stopped short of bringing the entire train to a grinding halt (try that as a way to make new 'friends' fast), just a slight level of embarrassment as a conductor came in to reset the release. On the positive side, it was my little blunder that enticed our somewhat shy coach mate to strike up a conversation with us. Well, a conversation of sorts. He knew almost no English, and we knew even less Italian, but we let that be no hindrance as we filled the next 2 hours with single word sentences and charades-speak.

The ceiling of our room in Catania (a former monastery)The next thing we know, we're in our new friend's tiny 1975 Fiat 500, getting all kinds of strange looks as we putter around one of Catania's largest traffic circles, arms sticking out the windows of the pint-size car (in hopes of keeping our huge packs from slipping off the roof) as we make the turn. Angello drives us to a pension, then guides us to a restaurant, shakes our hands, wishes us luck, and with a cheerful 'arrivederci' is on his way.

Hilltop Greek theatre in TaorminaThat's how we found the greatest charm of Sicily - its warm people, and that's how the 'won't-find-it-in-a-guide-book' city of Catania found us. Not that Catania, and the handful of major towns surrounding it (such as Taormina, Siracusa, and Acireale) couldn't be in the fancy guide books. They each boast a nice list of 'sights' in the classic sense. Almost all of them claim a Greek theatre, a Roman coliseum, maybe a bath or two, a host of interesting piazzas, and at least a half dozen or so baroque style cathedrals and public buildings. Yet it's the things that can't be documented - the atmosphere, the experiences, the people - that we found so captivating about this part of Italy.

A proud and welcoming Francesco and staffIt's Francesco, the proud proprietor of Don Ciccio's Trattoria, dragging you by the arm to his display case brimming with fresh 'frutti di mare' or seafood, and helping you hand pick your own entrée. It's the town's Chief of Police offering you a fork full - from his plate - so you can first sample the catch of the day before ordering it. It's having your Coca-Cola brought to your table in a wine carafe. It's the two shots of Zibbio wine, sent to your table by the owner with a wink and a smile, that never appear on the bill. It's these things and more that give eastern Sicily its wonderful charm and off-the-wall appeal.

The wrought iron balconies of Sicily's streetsThis part of Sicily is Italy in the extreme. Everything here seems more pronounced, more intense. For instance, what may sound like incensed screaming to the untrained ear, is in fact just amiable converse between two good friends. And what looks (and smells) like a feast fit for a king and big enough to feed his army, is actually a just normal Tuesday night dinner for Mama Rosa and her family. What looks like a kamikaze Vespa scooter pilot with a strong death wish, darting in and out of traffic, totally ignoring red traffic lights, clumsy pedestrians, and an oncoming motor coach, all to arrive at his destination just two minutes early, is actually a tax-paying pillar of the community and father of three, on his way to the office.

The coastline of Acireale as seen from the centries old path to the seaTo us outsiders it may seem like insanity, but it's simply the Sicilian way. Maybe it's in their blood. Or maybe it's living in the shadow of Etna, Europe's largest active volcano, constantly choking up a steady stream of smoke and lava and ready to violently explode at any time, that gives them their intense 'here and now' attitudes. Whatever it is, it's what gives the people their unassuming and open friendliness, and what lends this area its unusual charm.

The Cathedral on Piazza Duomo in CataniaSome may argue that there's a somewhat of a downside to living in a place, no matter how delightful, that could, instantly and without warning, be buried under a flood of scorching lava. Agreed, it might be a slight chance, but just one look at the night-time western sky was enough to convince me that the idea isn't all that far fetched. For it's after dusk that Etna reminds all who live around her that she's very much alive and kicking. Her constant flow of smoke and lava glows in the evening sky. It's a spooky, bright glow. Like two eternally still, bright orange lighting bolts, striking down from clouds of orange smoke, and serving as an eerie reminder of the ultimate power of Mother Nature.

The typically Siciallian streets of SiracusaSo why live here of all places? Are the people here afraid of their burning, bubbling, and possibly volatile neighbor? Very curious, I asked a few of the locals we met these very questions. Are they afraid? They all answered resoundingly "NO" (though I'm just not so sure I believe them - I think I read somewhere that it may be against an Italian's religion to admit their fear of anything). I also wanted to know why Sicily? I mean aside from the readily apparent things that we Americans might list. Things such as the food - pizza, pasta, seafood, and ohhhh the 'gelato', or ice cream! It's without a doubt, the best in the world. Add to that list cappuccino that's strong enough to give you a caffeine buzz that lasts for hours, and you've made a convincing argument.

Hangin' out with some new friends on the stepsNo, I wanted to know what topped the Sicilians list of reasons to live here. "We have big sun in Sicily" Salvatore explained to us in rather straight-forward but elegant terms on a train ride to Siracusa. "The people here are the most warm" Gaetano answered, as he bought Laura and I each a glass of 'vino bianco', or white wine, to demonstrate his hospitality one Friday night at a local bar. But my favorite explanation for the best reason to live in Sicily was from Minguel who, joining us for a sunset walk down to the shore in Acireale, just shrugged and said simply "Because it is Sicily".

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Last modified: June 02, 1999    Photographs and text © 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.


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