“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe – Italian Journey
Looking for a short Winter break we decided upon Sicily. We had first visited the largest island in the Mediterranean in 2009 when we went to the capital Palermo and had a shared desire to go back and see more of the island. The island of Passion, History, Garibaldi, Opera, Crime and an active Volcano.
We had booked flights for 2020 but Covid put paid to that and then again in early 2022 but Easyjet cancelled the flight out to Palermo. The return flight from Catania remained operational so because of that we only got a 50% refund. Undeterred we booked again for December this time to Catania there and back and a few days in the ancient Greek/Roman/Byzantine/Norman city of Syracuse.
The early morning flight left at the scheduled time and approached Catania late in the morning and on its final descent passed surprisingly close to the volcano Mount Etna which is less than twenty miles from the city centre. Not quite as close as Naples is to Mount Vesuvius at only thirteen miles but Etna at eleven thousand feet is almost three times as high and is in a near constant state of activity. Rather like living next door to an unstable man with a loaded gun.
We had a sort of vague plan to visit the mountain but soon after arrival learnt that this may not be such a good idea in December because the peak was covered in snow, the railway line was blocked and it was bitterly cold and we didn’t have suitable clothing so we shrugged our shoulders and took the bus to Syracuse, forty miles away to the South.
Once on the bus we slipped out of Catania through edge of city suburbs with streets and streets of unattractive apartments which looked as though they had been put up in a hurry at a time when neither style or good design was considered especially important.
Like most of Sicily, Catania suffered greatly during the Allied invasion of 1943 and lack of finance, Government corruption and the influence of the Mafia has in some areas restricted the process of rebuilding and regeneration. The Mafia took control of the post-war building contracts and skimmed off most of the money by cutting back on basic building standards.
The route through the city of Syracuse wasn’t especially promising and for me first impressions were not that good. Sicily is one of the poorest regions in all of Italy where those living below or close to the poverty line is as high as 40%. Compare that with Aosta Valley in the north and neighbouring Switzerland where the figure is 0.1%. Italy is a country of many contrasts.
From the bus terminal we had to walk a mile or so to our accommodation which was on the island of Ortigia which is the historical centre of the city and the modern day tourist area which is connected to the mainland by a couple of bridges. Once across there was quite a transformation as suddenly everywhere seemed more cared for and wealthy and my early misgivings began to quickly ebb away.
After we had found the apartment, approved it and settled in I went off to do an important job – find a shop for some beer and wine so that we could sit and relax on the charming little balcony. I found one quite easily, made the necessary purchases and then set off to return which turned out to be a problem because I had neglected to bring with me either a map or my phone and I couldn’t remember the street name that I needed. Whoops.
I estimated that it was barely five hundred yards away but I was hopelessly lost, completely disorientated and just couldn’t for the life of me remember the route back. My mind had gone completely blank. I explored the deep holes of my memory, the crevices of my mind but there was nothing there.
Ortigia is built on a grid system inherited from the Ancient Greeks which I suppose in theory should make things easy but my problem was that every street looked exactly the same and I quickly became lost in the maze of narrow streets and alleyways.
I realised the next day when I had finally got my bearings that at one point I was barely twenty yards away but I had turned around and tried again and repeated this mistake several times over. A shopping quest that should have taken ten minutes by now had taken almost forty and I thought that I was surely destined to wander the streets of Ortigia for eternity.
Racking my brains I suddenly remembered that the apartment was opposite a puppet museum so once I had found a direction sign it was plain sailing all the way, I found my way back, opened the wine and enjoyed an hour on the balcony in the delightful sunshine.
“Why have you been so long?” asked Kim
“Oh” I said ” It was a bit further than I thought”
My stress levels leaked away and returned to somewhere near normal.