Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sicily: Ring My Bell

And then Lauren joined us from London!  To celebrate her arrival, we dined at a pretty fancy spot right across from our hotel called L'Ottava Nota, with charming waiters that took our recommendations for Napa Valley and delivered unique, gourmet dishes to our table.

Cannolo vanquished!

One of the waiters suggested we walk down to the water for a unique outdoor bar and live music experience.  It was incredible-exactly the kind of cool, outdoor venue that makes me long for Italy while I'm trapped with my wine in a fenced-in patio deck on the sidewalks of San Francisco. 

The most notable event of the evening was being harpooned by a half-American, half-Sicilian girl, who was two sheets to the wind and frankly overjoyed at having found a whole group of people who speak her language.  She was accompanied by an Italian friend, Francesco, and we spent some time talking with them (or, in the case of Santina, being talked at).  While I was completely entertained by the two of them, there were some thinly-veiled allusions to family ties and I was more or less thankful when they had left, before Brittany had had time to build on the substantial foundation for a relationship between Francesco and me (Oh my God, Kelly loves the book The Martian, too!).  He was cute, though.

Francesco, lighting his cigarette on a mosquito-repellent candle

The next day we began our taxi-train-train-taxi-hydrofoil ferry-van journey to the Aeolian Islands, where we would be staying on Lipari Island.

The Aeolian Islands were originally submarine volcanoes, and tens of thousands of years ago they slowly began to emerge from the sea as the eruptions developed the hidden islands into visibility and habitability.  In fact, I even read that the island Vulcano lent us our English word for that type of geological phenomenon. 

Not a ferry-a hydrofoil!
Get it right.

Our hotel was lovely, with a gigantic sweeping pool we wanted to stay at all day, and within easy walking distance to the main drag.

Room tile

We ate dinner at the hotel that first night, and added happily to our cannoli count.

I loved the quick-witted, sarcastic humor found in so many Sicilians.  Curious if we charged the bill to the room or paid up front, I asked the waiter, "How does the bill work?" to which he swiftly replied, "You pay it."

Strolling through town afterward, we couldn't believe how bumpin' the tiny main street was Friday night, packed with people and live music. 

Breakfast at the hotel was a daily treat, especially when they had fresh ricotta, pistachio cake, and the island's heavenly, sweet melon.  Still, what could a little morning granita hurt?  Answer: it doesn't hurt at all, and rather heals your slightly weary, heat-affected head. 

We headed down to the marina to prepare for our boat day, where we would be transported to two different islands: Panarea and Stromboli.

The small, 10-person boat we imagined was nothing of the sort.  It was really more like a large herd-shuttling ferry, with lots of rules and tightly-packed passengers.  We managed to get a good spot in an indoor booth and made the most of it, pulling out the Italian cards and playing as people continued to board.

We were worried we'd end up squished with weird, large, smelly people, but instead a lovely young woman sat across from me, next to Lauren.  She commented on our game, and I found out she's from Bologna.  She jumped in on the next round, commenting in very good English on how funny it was that an American girl was teaching her how to play a Sicilian card game (Ti Vitti, for the win!).

The boat stopped at the cove of Cala Junco and we navigated the mob and jumped in the water.

Once on land at Panarea, we only had a short time (about 90 minutes) to explore and enjoy the island.  We ended up bringing our new Bolognese friend, Sara, along with us, and after a brief walk zigging and zagging through the island's paths, we stopped for one of the most picturesque aperitivi I've ever had the pleasure to experience.

I mean, seriously, look at these pictures.  Sipping on a cool drink, taking in the sea breeze and the sweeping views.   It was heaven, and we legitimately never wanted to leave.  We were discussing ways we could get back to our own island after missing the boat and spending the day not moving from this spot.

 With our new friend, Sara

But we did make it back to the boat, and in the end were glad we did because we got to see lots of other cool things the rest of the afternoon, like these amazing rock formations, which looked like gigantic jagged crystals shooting up from the water. 

After docking at Stromboli, we did a rapid course through town before setting our sights on dinner.

We settled on pizza at Da Luciano's, and were so thankful we did.  It was hands-down the best pizza I've had outside Naples.   Sara recommended we get a margherita pizza with a ricotta-stuffed crust.  Let me repeat, RICOTTA-STUFFED CRUST.  I didn't know this concept existed in the Italian culinary cannon, and it blew my freaking mind.  Brittany and I ate so much pizza we were liable to puke as we rushed back down to catch the boat. 

We caused a riot, as we were becoming accustomed to, with our raucous laughter during the meal.  Sara gushed about how the pizza was really "ringing her bell," and you can imagine the course that conversation took.  We apologized to the waiter for the ruckus and he assured us they love having cheerful people at their tables. 

My mouth is watering longingly just looking at this photo of divinity.

Then it was time for the moment we'd all been waiting for: LAVA EXPLOSIONS.  The boat tour peddlers had all but promised nightly, reliable explosions, but many of the old men lining the pathways of Stromboli town had warned us discouragingly that we might not be able to see any sparks that night due to the overcast skies.  Reassuringly, the cheeky Sicilian at our side on the boat assured us that he had called the volcano earlier that day to request the lava, or as he so poetically referred to it, the "river of fire."  We were so eager, almost giddy at the prospect! 

As the sun set below the horizon and the moon glowed in the darkening skies, the captain pulled the boat around to the uninhabited side of the island where we could see deep, darkened lines flowing down the side of the mountain, the footprint of terrifying lava explosions over millennia. 

Our expectations fully managed, we floated, all still, a couple hundred people waiting with bated breath, many of us not sure what we were even looking for.

And then, a collective gasp as we suddenly saw a burst of bright orange, like an out-of-control firework, shoot up from the volcano's crater.  Our pent-up anxieties of not witnessing the lava explosions dissolved as we reveled in the marvel nature had presented us.  

And it didn't happen just once; we saw the explosion several more times, the boat's passengers a chorus of "oohs and ahhs" each time, still unable to take our eyes off the mountain as the boat began its long journey back to Lipari, all hoping for one more thrilling glimpse of a live volcanic eruption. 

Does not do it justice.

After our oh-so-long, slightly nauseating and often splash-zoney ride home, I marched our group up to the historic center of Lipari, where there were to be nightly Opera concerts that weekend.  I could hear La Traviata spilling out of the church as I leaped up the moonlit steps, letting my ears lead the way.  As we sat on the steps, staring out at this scene, I realized we were in one of those rare, quintessential moments when expectation and imagination meet reality.  Full of my awe-inducing pizza, surrounded by beautiful, ancient churches, everything balmy and quite still except for the sounds of the heart-felt Italian opera enveloping me, I just felt like this is it.  This is a perfect, magical moment. 

As we walked home, still enveloped in a shroud of serenity and humility for our experience up at the church, Sara commented on how the day had been a perfect coming together of the senses: a "wow" for our eyes in the Panarea panoramic, if you will, a "wow" of taste (and scent!) in the delightful ricotta-stuffed pie, and finally a "wow" for our ears with the operatic finale to our day.  If I'd thought of it, I would've added floating in the sea for the tactile "wow".  It really was a spectacular day, made even more special by the laughter, lessons, and poetry of our new friend. 

The next day we met up with Sara in Canneto, a small town up the coast of Lipari, where we walked the shore collecting sea glass and floating pumice stones. 

At lunch, the food was delicious, as usual.  In Italian, Aeolian, the name of the islands, is said Eolie, as you can see in the cute flatware package belowWe indulged in our usual pasta alla norma with eggplant, as well as spaghetti with shellfish, and later enjoyed granitas as we walked the main strip.

Pasta is serious business.

That night was our last evening on the island (far too quick a trip-lucky Sara got to stay the rest of the week!), and the four of us went out "on the town."  We meandered the tiny alleyways, swung by the marina, stopped to pet all manner of small animals, and finally settled on dinner at a place called Bartolo.

Over dinner, we got to know Sara better, and laughed about seemingly insignificant cultural differences, like the way Italians wave at babies: palm up, like they're squeezing a stress ball (we did not later freak parents out by doing this gesture repeatedly to their children).  Sara and I made sure to teach the girls really important words and phrases, like "casino," "tutto a posto," and "spray."  That last one still just means "spray" but the way Italians pronounce it is so affected and funny that we'd use it for anything-a wave coming over the boat, a splash of wine, etc.  At one point we were so giddy we scared the waiter away, and eventually they practically had to kick us out of the restaurant when they wanted to close up!

Afterwards, as we walked about town, we stumbled on a bar in a narrow alley with a live band and patrons cavorting from block to block.  There was this magnetic group of middle-aged dancers near the band that were having the time of their lives, swinging do-si-do, moshing, and lifting each other up as they danced in frenzy to some of the most well-known Italian tunes the band was covering.  Il Capitano, the seemingly fragile nautical gentleman below, was super mellow, until, of course, they brought him into the fold, at which point he was dancing like a limber little leprechaun!  The whole scene was so full of spirit and childish abandon-we loved it!

Il Capitano getting his groove on

Favorite flashback song of the night: "Tanti Auguri"
Main line: "How beautiful it is to make love 
from Trieste down to the south...I'm ready, and you?"
How stereotypically Italian is that for you?

The next day we simply spent enjoying our last precious minutes on Lipari at the pool and at lunch with Sara, saying a surprisingly heartfelt, emotional goodbye to her at the ferry landing, and making the considerable trek back to Palermo. 

Our last last supper was at Ferro, a gourmet spin on traditional Sicilian cuisine run by two lovely sisters.  Being back to a party of three felt amiss, but we managed to enjoy ourselves nonetheless! 

At the airport the next morning, we were serenaded by a young, very casual man who happened to be a passionate and accomplished pianist.  We were not only amazed that the airport featured a baby grand piano in the middle of the terminal for passengers to utilize, but also to think of the hidden talents seemingly ordinary people walking by us everyday can possess.  He was so good, even singing along with his music, that I was terribly disappointed when he got up to turn the piano over to a young girl (also very talented, not to mention brave) and catch his flight.  "Come back!" we kept saying under our breaths. 

And that was that.  After three weeks of visiting friends, exploring cities, towns, and villages, carbo-loading on pasta, and floating in the salty seas of the Mediterranean, it was time to head home.  It's always a struggle for me, coming back from Italy.  I miss my life there, my friends, the laid-back culture with priorities more in line with my own.  And I miss the me that I am there.  It took me about a month to feel myself again, but I've come out on the other side!  Arrivederci, Italia.  Until we meet again.

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