Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Sicilian Sampler Platter

Elegant Palermo

Wanderlust mixed with a splash of indecisiveness sometimes means trying to explore a country, province or even an island within, let's say, an ambitious amount of time. My Instagram photos are increasingly tagged #speedtourism. In fact, for my husband and I, it is becoming status quo. But for expats in general, I think it is a frequent occurrence: trying to cover a place/many places within the confines of a weekend.

Marzipan! aka SUGAR!
This past Ferragosto we covered Palermo, Agrigento, Scala dei Turchi, Scopello, Castellammare del Golfo and La Riserva dello Zingaro in a long weekend. Each night in a different place; two hour drives between each. In the end, we only had about 2 hours in each of our stops. It was definitely a good sampler platter. But Sicily is, at least, a seven course meal.

Sunset over the Cattedrale di Palermo
I have been three times to Sicily and have just scratched the surface. Palermo is big, intricate, subtle and complicated. Like an introvert, it is not always obvious what Palermo has to offer. You have to dive into its side streets, neighborhoods and outskirts to get a good feel for this city. Three days on my last trip and one on this trip, and I still don't feel like I have gotten to know her. But from her obvious qualities, her breathtaking architecture, hearty food, and elegant parks, she is exquisite.

Scala dei Turchi

We also drove 2 hours south to Agrigento to see what is called La Scala dei Turchi, a rock formation of "stairs" (scala) that emerges from the sea. Bright white in color, it is not your average sight. Like the Giants Causeway, it is one of nature' s artworks: something to keep you guessing about what nature will do next. It was well worth the detour, but you go there to climb the stairs and see the view. As amazing as the water looks, the beaches nearby are not so inviting. The water is surprisingly shallow and very mossy, making it hard to take a good dip, which is a shame in Sicily, the island of beautiful beaches. We made up for it with our next stop.

Cala Mazzo Di Sciacca

Scopello was precisely the right area for the Sicilian beaches de preference. Our newly rehabbed agriturismo was at the doorstep of the Riserva dello Zingaro, a nature reserve you can only enter on foot, and on the hill behind the Cala Mazzo di Sciacca beach. Perfectly situated for beach-goers. 

First beach upon entering La Riserva dello Zingaro
Our timing was a bit unfortunate though as, our ambitious schedule brought us to Scopello at only 4pm the first day, leaving only 2 hours for the beach. We had the next morning as well, but though the skies looked promising at first, they quickly downshifted into a powerful rainstorm. It didn't deter us though. Once you are wet, you are wet, we all agreed. So we stayed in the water as the heavens poured down. The sea was warmer than the air, so we were happy to wait out the rain in the sea's bathtub.

La Terrazza Restaurant for lunch in Scopello. What a terrace it was!
After maybe an hour, the celestial tears waned and we hiked back to the car in a hurry. There was no need though; there was nothing but blue sky the rest of the day. No matter. In the sun or rain, the sea had been glorious. No storm could take that away from us.

Night scene Castellammare del Golfo
Sicily will for sure require some next-times. More hiking in Riserva dello Zingaro, that is definitely on the next-time list. More time in Castellammare del Golfo, where we had a lovely dinner and granita, but only a brief visit. San Vito lo Capo, the piece of the trip that we had to cut, is also definitely on the list. Marsala. Palermo again. Taormina again. Cefalu again. Mount Etna again. And all of the surrounding smaller islands with their various volcanoes or natural reserves. If we wanted, a lifetime of Sicily still awaits... or at least six more courses.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Making the insufferable summer sufferable

Insufferable. My new favorite word inspired by this Roman summer.

I likely have hormones to thank for this, but I do not tolerate heat very well anymore. The girl who used to ride around Hot-lanta in July with the windows open instead of air conditioning, the girl who used to get cold in 80 degree weather, the girl who would opt to sit outside no matter what the level of humidity or heat index... This is now the girl who is contemplating skinning herself alive to have one less layer on her body.

It is 32-38 degrees every day. It is not even 40 degrees like some years. It is a very typical Roman summer. But there is something insufferable about it. Maybe it is the constancy of it. Until yesterday's storm, every day for five weeks was the same. Sunny. Hot. Sunny. Hot. Sunny. Hot. The storm was like injecting a twist into a boring plot. It peaked your interest just enough not to fall into a coma.

I like the word insufferable because it implies that you can't even suffer through it. I am not suffering through this summer very well. at. all.

I flee the city whenever possible looking for any breeze coming off any body of water. I refuse to cook anything not to raise the apartment temperature an extra couple degrees. I am drawn to places that look like they have air conditioning, blenders or drinks with ice.

This year, I regret not taking my own advice about Ferragosto holidays. Instead of going north, we are going south to Sicily. WHY!?!?! today's me asks. But I am arming myself with some tricks that help make the insufferable suffer-able. Sicily offers quite a few.

More Italian than this, you cannot get

The most obvious of the Italian cures to the heat. All of Italy's inhabitants make a mad rush to the nearest coast whenever a free moment presents itself. This in turn creates a new problem of sitting in traffic in a boiling car waiting for the relief of the coastal air and Mediterranean water. Lakes are an alternative to this mad rush and the traffic is much lighter. I have gathered over the years that many Italians consider lakes a poor man's beach, but I adore them. And both a beach and a lake serves the purpose of making it socially acceptable to be nearly nude.

The luxurious Villa Borghese

Trees Parks shade 
If you can't flock to the beach or to the lake, parks are not a terrible alternative. Rome has a lot of old land once owned by dignitaries that has now been dedicated to the city. Villa Borghese, Villa Pamphili, Villa Ada. All parks with ample shade and public water fountains. If there is wind on said day, a park is a lovely option. Don't stay there too late though. They close at 9:00 pm and they will lock you in. I speak from experience.

Not a mocktail. What can I say, I like my alcohol. 
As tempting as alcohol is in the summer, it actually raises your body temperature so a nice alternative are some tame libations. A crodino is totally alcohol free, but looks fancy and fun. There are many Mojito sodas now that are the non-alcoholic ingredients of this classic drink and there is always the Sanpellegrino drinks like Aranciata whose fizziness distract you from the missing alcohol. If you can't go without alcohol (and many of us can't), Campari and Aperol have low alcohol content (10-11%) or simply put, there is beer, evermore popular and available in Italy.

A Granit-ina at the famous Sant'Eustachio
Apparently Sicily is known for granite, so I can speak to this better after next weekend, but I already know that a little drink filled with often-difficult-to-find ice, is a great treat. Granite should not come from a little spinning machine. It should be in a proper steel container where the ice can soak in the juice of its name: Granita di caffe is chunky ice-soaked coffee. Granita di limone is ice-soaked lemonade. You get the idea.

In addition to taking public transport,
waiting for it is just as bruta
No-Go Zones
Avoid places that will make you want to skin yourself alive, or rather skin other people alive. These places include the Metro B line, the Colosseum, the old buses (which is most of them), the Permesso di Soggiorno waiting line (though being here is never by choice), Via del Corso during the Saldi, and worse of all, the Porta Portese market. You are much more likely to choose life if you avoid these spots.

Autumn will come soon enough so I am trying not to wish this summer away. So I will revel in the solutions above and when that doesn't work regress to my mental happy place: The North Pole.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cypriot myths

Cyprus is a place of myths. Paphos in particular is known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She was said to be born out of the sea foam created when Cronus cut off his father's genitals and threw them into the sea. From this fairly grotesque, but altogether standard Greek myth, comes the other tales of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, love, laughter, pleasure and maybe not shockingly seeing her origins, procreation. Aphrodite is forced to marry Hades, the god of the Underworld. Adonis, one of her famous lovers, has given his name to many of the modern day ones and her child is probably the best known of the Greek gods, the winged creature Eros, better known as Cupid. Cyprus is at the heart of a thicket of beloved and infamous tales. I had a couple myths about Cyprus as well before going there. One was its location.

Map of the world in my coffee cup

 Myth 1: Cyprus is located off the southeast corner of Greece 

You see, my head does not hold a very accurate map of the world. The tectonic plates in my mind move much more quickly than they do in real life and countries either seem much further or much closer that they actually are. When we decided to go to Cyprus, I thought it was essentially an island off the southeast corner of Greece. In reality, Cyprus is southeast of Turkey and as much off of the coast of Syria or Lebanon than of Turkey. I only realized this on the flight when I started wondering why it was taking 3.5 hours. Greece is only about 2 hours from Rome. Then I saw. Geographically, we were going more to the Middle East than to Europe. Who knew?! (Answer: Anyone with a map.) 

Paphos nightlife district turned ghost town
Myth 2: as A Ryan air destination, Paphos would be overrun with tourists. 

We went a little off season so it was a bit hard to know if parts of Paphos were so lifeless because they had not yet been resurrected for summer or because the turn in the economy had visible consequences on this particular spot. However, in what should have been the nightlife district, buildings didn't seem boarded up for the off season, they seemed boarded up for good. An entire block of clubs, concert spots and restaurants stood with lights out, broken windows and sealed doors. Again perhaps customary for April, but it was definitely weird to experience this part of Paphos as such a ghost town when direct Ryan air flights inject plane loads of tourists right into this city.

Paphos Harbor
Myth 3: Food in touristy spots will be terrible. 

In the evening we went to the harbor area for dinner. Beautiful as it was, these rows of restaurants with tables out over the water and a gorgeous view of the sea all screamed tourist trap. Each had a host standing outside promptly escorting any tourist walking by into their restaurant with promises of great food, low prices AND a better experience than the restaurant directly adjacent it. At a glance, there was no way to tell the difference between them so we let ourselves be escorted by what we felt was the most genuine of the herders. Despite the menu being only in English, the tables being full of foreigners and the aforementioned alluring view, the food was amazing. Too often in Italy, when the view and location are amazing, the owners soon realize that the food need not be. In Cyprus, this didn’t seem to be the case. Over the 4 days, we went to this area multiple times for meals and we were happy each time. I would not try this to dispel this myth in Rome, but in Paphos it seemed to work.

Cafe in Nicosia
Myth 4: In any city, locals hate tourists. 

Honestly, this is one of the biggest myths. One of my take-aways from Cyprus is the kindness of these islanders. Everyone seemed genuinely interested, helpful, thoughtful or concerned. I never felt a burden or annoying. I never felt bothersome or in the way. Cypriots seemed to sincerely welcome you there. They didn't try to reel you in too much; they didn't try to ignore you too much. They mainly just treated you like anyone else, local or foreign the same. It was a refreshing feeling.

St. Paul Church

Mosaics at Kato Paphos

 Myth 5: Cyprus is only worth a visit for its beaches. 

It was very warm, perhaps even warm enough for a swim, but we did not step foot on a beach. It was April after all, and the Italians in us said, forget it. But we saw some die-hard, mainly British, beach-goers touring the city in their trunks and bikinis, undisturbed by the occasional gusts of wind that made you remember that winter just ended. Ignoring the beach section of our guidebook, easily-entertained me still had the picturesque sea views, the fascinating old buildings, the yogurt and chick pea-based food and of course the local cats to keep me amused. We also toured the church where Saint Paul was lashed 40 times for bringing Christianity to Paphos, the old floor mosaics and roman ruins, better preserved than anything you see in Rome and the tomb of the kings which appeared as a veritable movie set of Indiana Jones.

Map of Nicosia on the Greek side
Cyprus also kept my husband entertained. But he, on the hand, was most fascinated by the discord. Nicosia is the last split capital city in the world. Half is owned by Turkish Cypriots the other half by Greek ones. There is a border control right in the heart of the city. They use different currencies, different languages and advertise different products. Just across the border, the northern and southern part of the city feel 300 miles away from one another rather than 300 steps. Unlike former years, this border is not as tough and relations not as tense as they have been historically but there was enough hint of contention to keep him interested. Boys.

Turkish side of Cyprus
Regardless of your intentions for visiting Cyprus, it is definitely worth having wheels to explore the island. If we had had more time, we would have made more use of our rental car. The highways are well maintained, the streets empty and other interesting cities are a day trip away: Limassol (1 hour away) and aforementioned Nicosia (2 hours away).

Limassol: full of wonderful outdoor restaurants
Forget the myths; the reality of Cyprus is just as fabulous.

The kindness of the people and what seemed like genuine contentment were my two lasting impressions of Cyprus. Cypriots seemed to enjoy their island: its alfresco restaurants, its oregano-spiced food and grilled meats, its omnipresent sea views, even its attractiveness to foreigners. You could feel in them an understated pride. And they have reason for it, Cyprus is pretty fantastic.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Aimless in Tunisia

I have already spoken about our not-so-recent travel habit of booking a flight and a place to lay our head at night (in Italy maybe not even these two) and then stopping the research cold. We have now done this for Sardegna, BrusselsKrakow and most recently for Tunis.  

Mint tea with pinoli. It was as good as it looks.
Usually between the flood of papers we pick up at the airport and the local tips we amass from friends before we leave, we fare quite well. As a back up, just walking around discovering it for ourselves usually bails us out. For this trip, though perhaps a bit like our Sardegna trip, our standard M.O. could have used some work.

Clock tower in Place 14 Janvier 2011
We got in on Friday at 8 pm and left Sunday at 6 p.m., so it was really only 48 hours to fill. If anything I was worried about not having enough time in Tunisia. But it being January, we knew that we would have to save some things for next time anyway: Tunisia has 810 miles of beautiful coastline. To visit these in the middle of winter would be like going to a well without a bucket; Hammamet and Djerba would have to wait for another visit.

Regardless, I was just excited to see a new country (one that is so close to Rome that it is shameful to ignore), to speak French, to drink mint tea (which they have in abundance) and to eat hummus (which, it turns out, they don't have at all)... My research could have probably told me this, had I done any.

St. Vincent Cathedral on Avenue Habib Bourguiba
However, our hotel was well located to the couple sites we did know to visit: Avenue Habib Bourguiba, St. Vincent's Cathedral, the clock tower, the opera house, and the souk. But at 8 pm on our first night, none of this information told us where to get a quick meal or that long awaited mint tea.

When the three brochures (one in German) that I had picked up did not guide us and texting a friend did not work instantaneously, we turned to our old reliable back up of walking. After an hour of that though, we ended up at the only real restaurant we came across, L'Orient, the one directly across from our hotel. Lucky enough it was not only one that serves local food but also serves wine (not common) and mint tea (very common). We had all three and were very happy with the results.

Antonin Baths and a photo of its former splendour
The next day in our cursory kind of way we visited three of the sites that make up the former Carthage, the Antonin baths, the amphitheater still used today for concerts and the former St. Louis Cathedral, now also used for concerts.

We then headed to Sidi Bou Said, a town outside of Tunis that is known for its exquisite blue doors and serenely white buildings. The whole town bathed in white and splashed with blue gives the effect that waves from the Mediterranean have swept over the city and colored pieces of the town themselves.

Sidi Bou Said
This is exactly the type of tourism that I love, wondering around admiring the beauty and details of a place without any particular slant on why it is or should be important. Just seeking out beauty for the sake of beauty.

After Sidi Bou Said, we were left to our own devices for figuring out what to do and we wandered in the car from small towns to small neighborhoods looking for cafes, restaurants, centers of activity or the like.

We did find some nice cafes to have more mint tea. We did not really find any centers of activities. We stopped in a mall just to see if that is were the people were. We found the name of one restaurant that was completely tucked away but apparently so popular that you needed to make a reservation at least a week beforehand. We ended up at the Movenpick lobby for a drink out of the cold and the rain. We were told it had a lovely view, but we had to just imagine it through the darkness of January's 7 pm.

Sunday we wandered through the souk and successfully purchased some things, bargaining but apparently not too well as we got a gift for buying a mirror. (This inevitably meant that we paid too much and the shop owner felt guilty). But I liked both the mirror and the "gift" and was willing to accept the fact that what we paid was fine by our standards even if it was too much by a local's. 

French gate at entrance to the souk
The rest of Sunday we kept wandering first by foot then by car: La Goulette, La Marsa, Gammarth, the Movenpick again. It was all very pleasant, the drives, the scenery, the random stops, but I did get the sense a little that we could have used some more direction. Did we miss out on a very important historic part of Tunis? Maybe. Did we skip over some hip, happening neighborhood? Most likely. Did we wrongly guess that things were closed because of the winter months and the slow down in tourism after the revolution? Probably. 

We were aimless, yes. But sometimes it is nice not knowing what you are missing. I just enjoyed tasting food that was very different than I expected, talking with the incredibly nice people, noticing the striking details in the architecture and witnessing the many similarities but also the large amount of differences between Tunisia and Italy, two countries that are essentially neighbors. 

In the end, this trip was a little Tunisian amuse-bouche, a taster of the country just beyond Sicily. Being only a 50-minute flight from Rome, I reassured myself that we could always go back.

So as we told our new friend from the souk, the slightly richer shop owner, we hoped that it was a la prochaine and not adieu to Tunisia. 

Maybe for the next trip we will do a little more research. Then again, maybe not. You don't always need a direction to enjoy the world in front if you.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A very Roman holiday

One last holiday left in this season, La Befana on January 6 (or Epiphany/Three Kings day as it is known elsewhere), but for many of us, it is back to ordinary time, reality, tomorrow.

We used up all our vacation days between the wedding and our honeymoon in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. So this year, we spent the holidays in Rome. Quite honestly, it is funny that in the 8+ years I have lived here, I have never been in Rome for the holidays. But as I have written in other posts, to me, Christmas is very much about tradition, and my tradition is to be in Canada with family, playing our silly games and dressing in our silly hats or costumes or whatever the theme was of the year. I was sad to miss it this year.

But it was also our first year as a married couple and perhaps our last year in Rome, so we decided to start our own traditions and to really make the most of being in the Eternal City during the holidays.

This experience started by getting tickets to Midnight mass at the Vatican. When the traditional route of requesting them by fax 1.5 months prior failed, there was the back up plan of "who do you know" and a friend had a friend with extra tickets. So we were there at St. Peter's Square on 24 December at 18:00 for a 21:30 mass. Although, between the wait, the mass and the exodus we were there for 6 hours total, it was completely worth it to see this wholly (and holy!) unique, humble and unconventional Pope, Papa Francesco. I was personally honored to be able to sit in a mass celebrated by such a wonderful and refreshing leader of our church.

Though I have heard that many Romans never actually go to this mass, to us, it felt like a very Roman event indeed. So did la passeggiata in the Center to see this year's lights, and watching the array of fireworks around town from the Gianicolo on New Year's Eve. It felt like all of Rome was there with us.
With the crowds, this is best picture I could get
from New Year's Eve on the Gianicolo
We cooked Arabic and Filipino food for about 40 people when we had 7 coming over. I made gluhwein. We decorated our tree with purple ornaments, hung a purple wreath on our door. and our neighbor, perhaps more conventional than we, asked us if purple was a traditional Canadian Christmas color. We put up stockings and placed large Nordic stars, like we had seen in Denmark, in our windows. We ate panettone, torrone and way too much food and wine in general. And, as over-cooking and over-eating are some of the staples of the Italian holiday season, I think we succeeded in having our genuine Roman holiday. We will see where we are next year, but I hope it is a mix of our old and new traditions.


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