The trip from Calabria to Sicily was not an easy one. I took the train, which was a hot, crowded, seven-hour journey involving a ferry. That's right, the train cars board the ferry. Despite the delirious heat, this was an incredible scene to witness.
On trains in southern Italy, you don't keep to yourself. If you have snacks, you share them. If you have intel on what the train announcer statically just said, you share it. If you have a life story, bring it on. You have to rely on the community of riders around you because otherwise the trip is confusing and lonely, not to mention painfully dull.
For example, why does the train keep saying it's going to Catania when I'm going to Palermo, in the opposite direction? Fortunately one lady on our car had spoken to the conductor, who explained that the full train would split once it hit Sicily, half going south to Catania and the other half going west, to Palermo. Why couldn't they just say that? Honestly, traveling in the south is a crap shoot, and would be especially for someone who didn't speak the local language.
With my train friends, in the hull of the ferry
Having this group (and really, the whole car came to know one another) was so helpful as we navigated not only the train split, but the ferry adventure between Calabria and Sicily. The train would stop and start, going forward, then backing up on another track. We stayed aboard the train as it mounted the track and made its way onto the boat. Fortunately, at this point we were able to alight from the train and go up to the ferry deck for cool, fresh air and gorgeous views.
Trains on a boat-bizarre!
The most harrowing part of the journey was when the ferry docked in Messina and we had to get the train back on the land tracks. We were in the last car to board, so we had a view of the operation. At a certain point, the train started to pitch back and forth, at least 30 degrees, as if it was going to rip off the tracks and fall to its side inside the ship. Everyone in the train car was crying out, panicked. An old woman in the row behind us almost had a heart attack, and everyone was tending to her, offering water and calming words. Fortunately, the crew finally got their act together and we made it onto land!
The tracks align!
That night, after finally arriving in Palermo, I found Brittany already waiting for me at our hotel, Butera 28. She'd spent her evening being judged as she walked down the street eating arancini, shopping for a new outfit since the airline had most unfortunately lost her luggage, and on a much better note, getting her hands on some delicious gelato.
The next morning, we explored Palermo, enjoying fresh-squeezed orange juice with literally shaved ice, weaving through alley markets selling home goods and food stuffs, and constantly stumbling across beautiful architecture. Also, Brittany's luggage arrived safely back at the hotel!
Check out these insane zucchini!
An adorable, tiny tabaccheria,
where I bought Sicilian playing cards
Me, as an old Sicilian man
Apertivo in a piazza right off the Mercato Vucciria kicked off a lovely evening enjoying la dolce vita.
Dinner was at Casa del Brodo, where I was surprised to find incredible tortellini soup, traditionally a specialty of Bologna. Despite the heat, we couldn't resist both that and my favorite Sicilian dish, pasta alla norma, with eggplant.
Brittany and I of course speak English together, but while in Italy, I have to speak Italian wherever I can. There were several wait staff at Casa del Brodo so it seemed like I had to start from scratch each time, them always initiating with English and me switching to Italian. One of the girls that came up to the table was surprised at the swap and said in Italian, "Oh! You speak Italian?" To avoid her thinking that Brittany and I would both be able to understand what she was about to say, I responded, "Io si, lei no," meaning "I do, but she doesn't," referring to Brittany. Once she turned away, Brittany cocked an eyebrow and said mockingly, "Io si, lei no, huh," sarcastically offended that I just had to immodestly proclaim my ability and her lack thereof. Why not just "Io si?" It became a hysterical joke that either of us would say for anything the rest of the trip. "Would you like more cheese?" "Io si, lei no!" I learned to be more careful what I said in Italian-knowing me so well, Brittany usually understood it all!
That night, in our adventures, we explored the harbor (fascinated for a very long time by the below netting operation), almost crashed a wedding, and settled at a great bar with an outdoor cover band playing a combination of Italian and English songs. My favorite Italian tune was Il Tempo Di Morire, and we felt pretty special when they played the Beach Boys (sorry, they can't all be California girls!).
The next day, we planned to go to Cefalu. After frenetically running and missing the morning train by just a minute, we detoured to Martorana, the co-cathethral of Palermo with gorgeous mosaics, as well as a tour of the Teatro Massimo.
The teatro tour was fascinating. It has the third-largest stage in Europe, and the design is so different from what we think of with American theaters, generally made up of orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony sections. Instead, there were seven stories of wall-to-wall boxes in a horseshoe around the floor. It was awe-striking. As part of the tour, we got to visit the queen's box, where royalty, presidents, and foreign dignitaries, or in lieu of any of their stature in attendance, just regular folk willing to foot the bill, which was located front and center, one floor up, with the best acoustics in the house. We also learned that the final scenes of The Godfather, Part III were filmed here.
The queen's view
Cefalu, as Brittany so whimsically put it, was a dream. We did all the things you would normally do in an Italian seaside town: explored quaint alleyways, visited the cathedral, bought a ton of ceramics, floated in the sea, and ate gelato.
Cefalu's Norman-style cathedral
We must've spent an hour in this ceramics shop, chatting it up with the artist and choosing our treasures.
Finally making it down to the beach, the water was gorgeous, with a backdrop of erratically placed white-washed homes, and a cast of focused fisherman, animated children splashing about, and brides snagging the most picturesque photo op imaginable.
Pizzeria Ti Vitti!
This card game really followed me everywhere.
The next day Brittany and I spent at Mondello, a popular seaside resort not far from Palermo that was a little too packed for our taste, plus lacked the charm we had experienced in Cefalu. Still, we took in the sun and the sea as vigilant entrepreneurs up and down the beach chanted, "Birra cocco acqua!"
Perhaps the most notable moment of the day was when, while cooling off in the water, a woman plopped down a stereo in the sand and started marching. Many of the water-dwellers started gravitating toward her and marching in time. I realized this had to be one of those random water aerobics pop-ups I'd seen once or twice in Calabria. Brittany was wide-eyed and amazed, and of course we jumped right in, Brittany splashing about in her wide-brimmed hat, us both pushing and pulling that water, grooving along with men and women of all ages. It was a hoot. After about 30 minutes, the lady stopped marching, packed up her stereo, and that was that. The crowd dissipated, and it was as if it had never happened!
On our way out, while trying to consume a gelato brioche sandwich and walk to the bus stop, my flip flop, well, flipped its last flop. I hobbled along after Brittany, her stopping traffic so I could cross busy streets, keep my shoe, and not drip gelato everywhere. The effort was hilarious, so the laughing didn't help. Once aboard the bus, Brittany helped me fashion an elastic shoe tie to make it back to the hotel.
There, we awaited the arrival of Lauren, for the next phase of our trip!