Italy 2018 - Sicily
CATANIA ON A FRIDAY
Friday morning when I woke up in Monforte I was exhausted. Friulli was a pretty casually paced mellow environment, and our visits reflected that. Piedmont had a decidedly busier feel to it. We had people to see, places to go. At least three visits a day and two big meals. All encompassing action from dawn until well after dusk. I felt fried, and the idea of another full day of visits and tastings, then a plane flight to Sicily, and then three more days of adventure felt vaguely overwhelming.
But I didn’t know Sicily and the effect it would have on me. We landed in the coastal city of Catania and took a taxi into town for a night at a hotel in the heart of Il Centro. Right away I could feel it. The warm air from the open window in the taxi felt rejuvenating and spoke of the sea. The drive was everything I would have hoped it would be. A bit crazy. Southern Italian aggressive driving at its finest, the perfect shock to wake me up after a lengthy nap on the plane. We quickly arrived at our hotel, changed, and headed out onto the town.
It was Friday night, so our timing couldn't have been better. The streets were alive with people, noise, energy. Energy that was recharging my system. Our restaurant, recommended by a friend, was a sprawling space spread across two interiors and the pedestrian street between them. A guitarist and saxophone combo lit up the night with sound and kept everyone swaying rhythmically as they sipped cocktails and consumed pizza.
Pizza. Oh sweet pizza. After a week of local specialties and shaved truffles, it felt like a delicious guilty pleasure to order exactly the pizza I dream about eating in Italy, and consuming it in a way which felt borderline illegal.
Who would have thought the night we stayed up latest would somehow have the effect of bringing me back to life after 7 days on the road? Not I. But that was the effect of Catania on a Friday night.
MARCO DE GRAZIA
Marco de Grazia is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. We spent two days and two nights living at his house and visiting his vineyards in the countryside outside of Randazzo, on the northern slopes of Mt. Etna. The experience was like living out an episode of Parts Unknown, an intimate and sometimes uncomfortable experience spending time with a true artist / genius. At times I couldn’t stand this enigma of a man, at others I was enamored, lost in one of a million scarcely believable stories. Looking back on it, he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and part of me wants to make a movie about him. Or just watch the Netflix one when they make it.
We arrived at Marco’s home in time for lunch on Saturday. After wading through the somewhat intimidating scrum of barking dogs in front of the winery and in the yard of his home just behind, we found Marco in his kitchen, finishing lunch; a pot of boiled cow tongue with some oxtail thrown in for good measure. Having spent a large part of my life as a vegiterian, we had officially found the limits of my comfort level in meat consumption.
But there we sat we sat, in Marco’s kitchen, sun streaming in through the south facing windows high up on the wall, listening to the slow measured cadence of his voice, telling stories, narrating his life. All while he trimmed what I can only describe as ‘extraneous head material’ from the back of the tongue, tossing each piece with a loud thunk into the bottom of his metal farm sink. It was a movie worthy experience that I will never forget.
As for the tongue? Well, I can say that the grainy mustard and fresh baked bread made for welcome companions, and the next night’s fresh whole fish baked in salt was a true masterpiece.
RYTHM OF ETNA
After the hustle of Piedmont, a blur of beautiful wineries and multi course meals that stretched into hours, Sicily was the complete opposite, a slow paced, rustic countryside retreat, fully immersed in the ‘rhythm of Sicily” as Marco so fittingly put it. We spent a couple hours each day slowly four-wheeling his diesel powered manual Land Cruiser up rocky two-tracks and across jagged lava flows, visiting a myriad of little plots and parcels of every size and shape. A carefully curated collage of pieces of land, each with their own story about why they were perfect and those elsewhere were “fucking shit.”
A large chunk of the rest of our time with Marco was spent either in the winery or around the great table at his house. We ate meals he prepared, tasted wine, played cards, and talked about a million different subjects; the obvious ones, like wine and food (in that order) and the less obvious, like his adventures sailing across the Atlantic.
The sun was in full effect on our second day, giving us the full experience of Sicilian beauty. Mt. Etna watched over us throughout the course of our exploration, a constantly changing source of beauty. At a certain point I started wondering why I kept taking pictures of the her, knowing that no matter what the best shots would be from sunrise or sunset. I couldn’t stop though, Mt. Etna seems to be a constant energy when you’re near. Life on the Island is dictated by her behavior, the lava flows literally define where humans live and work, and the spaces they leave alone, rivers of fresh rock vomited from the Earth’s core.
Throughout the day you can see smoke venting from the peak. At night you can sometimes see the flow of small rivulets of lava high up near the summit, where snowfields otherwise glitter under the sun. Spending time near Etna feels like you’re somehow closer to the earth we live on and call home.
* Less than a month after our visit to Etna, she let loose over the Christmas holiday with dozens of earthquakes which damaged parts of Catania and left fresh lava flows down the side of the mountain. When we talked with our friends on the island, they all responded with roughly the same answer: Eruptions like this from Etna make them comfortable. Everything is working as it should. It’s when the eruptions don’t happen that people get nervous.