Sicily was the whole reason why our summer holiday happened as it did. Back in spring, we have been obsessing over Mt Etna pictures we found on Instagram and looking when we could find enough time for a hike up the volcano. So it happened that the right flights aligned, we packed our bags and after four other countries we reached Italy.
Our arrival was less pleasant – after a long journey from Vienna via Rome, we found out at Catania airport our rent-a-car would cost triple the original fee. We had no option but to make peace with the situation and head to our Sicilian home. We managed to find our way on the craziest roads with the craziest and most impatient drivers ever. Italians in general tend to make 3 lanes out of the designated 2 on the road, but here they’ve broken many other traffic rules. Lights are optional, waiting at a red signal at night considered rude and people like to walk on the highway in pitch dark. I managed to drive to Aci Castello where we were staying without getting in a car accident or passing over a pedestrian. Our host Daniele was more than welcoming, waiting for us until late, serving us a glass of red wine to unwind from the trip and forget about the mad people on the road.
Only the next morning did we fully realise in what a gem of a place we were staying at. Daniele converted an old train station into a humble home, furnishing it with some family antiques and displaying his collection of paella ( Valencian rice dish ) pans in the kitchen. The windows from every room looked towards the Mediterranean sea, ruins of the Norman castle and volcanic isles called the Cyclops ( in Italian ”ciclopi” ). He left us a bowl of freshly picked figs and a freedom to use anything we found in the kitchen. The house was immersed in a jungle of huge cactuses, aloe and tons of other plants. Cats and chickens walked freely around the property. Every day we’d explore more of the grounds and learn about Daniele’s entrepreneurship skills – growing aloe vera, growing mushrooms in the old train tunnel, running a restaurant and finally now renting rooms and enjoying the jungle as I called it.
It was within the first hour of the second day in Sicily that Daniele offered to cook for us gave us and gave us an insight about Aci Castello and nearby Aci Trezza. We arranged to meet his friend Peppe for a boat ride. Beforehand we visited the Norman castle – built in 1169 apparently it stood on a small island in front of the shore, but after a big volcanic eruption it got connected with the mainland. After a short stroll around the castle, we stayed at the rocks bellow, watching local kids play water polo in the sea until when everyone returned home to their mamas for lunch. We enjoyed the warm and clear sea, but not so much seeing litter on the beach. It seems to be a common thing here in Sicily, at least in this part.
We met Peppe in the afternoon after a very chewy octopus for lunch ( it’s better in Croatia, trust me ). A few more people went along and we spent several hours cruising by the volcanic caves and around the Cyclops, three giant volcanic formations in front of Aci Trezza town. Locals spend the whole day at sea until the last rays of light – swimming, paddling, playing water polo, chilling on the boats… Peppe served us the most delicious melon with fresh mint and told stories of when he visited Croatia and fell in love with the women and the nature. That day we learned there is a procession in the town and they would carry the Holy Mary statute to the island and back to protect the fishermen and the sailors. Peppe blew into his shell and announced it’s the time for the procession.
We got back to the shore in time to grab a granita, a super sweet Sicilian ice cream-like desert served with a bun and got shocked by the extremely loud fireworks and explosions that announced the festivities. We followed the crowd and the marching band to the harbour and watched the whole village gather around for the celebrations. We left just as the dark was setting in, still high on sugar and bedazzled with the recent events, especially the war-like sounds of the fireworks. It was a truly magnificent experience, like a scene from a movie in an old quaint Italian town. At our Sicilian home, Daniele and his family served us delicious seafood pasta to a perfect ending of the day.
The fireworks continued for some reason throughout our whole stay in Sicily those few days, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late at night. Our new Sicilian friends explained it is a common thing for celebrations here – town saints days, weddings, baptizing and so on. We had to cope with it and continue with our mission – the mount Etna hike. However, we will write all about in the next blog.
That evening when we got back from Etna and relaxed properly, Daniele welcomed us to his favourite dish – paella. Cooked slowly on real fire, the real Valencian way. I asked where the love for paella originated and our friend explained: ‘’There was a girl once and we lived in Valencia. Later she left, paella stayed’’. I must say I was feeling slightly ill that night so I left the boys to enjoy the feast and try to communicate in Daniele’s broken English and Thane’s non existing Italian. They drank some wine and got along just fine.
The next day we chilled and explored Daniele property properly (watch the video here). It is beyond words. An old train station about 600 metres long and on average 10 metres wide, it’s been managed by our Italian friend for over 26 years, long enough to grow such a beautiful jungle and tell many stories. We weren’t careful enough so we got bitten by nasty mosquitos that day, so bad that we took the itchiness with us all the way to Rome, Santorini and Barcelona.
Our wonderful stay came to an end with a promise we’d come back and help Daniele build things and manage the beautiful wilderness. We drove back to Catania on the same chaotic roads and unexplainably insane roundabouts all the way to the airport. Piled on some arancini ( stuffed and fried rice balls ) we left Sicily the same evening. Rome here we come!
Sicily population: 5.082 million ( 2015 )
Aci Castello: about 5000 people
Best time to visit: Early September as the school starts and there is hardly any crowds
Daniele’s house info – click here.