Sicily: A Road Trip to Cefalu, Taormina, Noto, Modica, and San Vito Lo Capo

Perhaps it’s because I’d already been to Rome ten years before, or because my mother’s side of the family hails from that volcanic rock being kicked by the boot; either way, our week spent in Sicily was my favorite part of our “Christmas in Italy” trip. 

As soon as we left the Palermo airport and set out on a three-quarter circumnavigation of the island, we saw a rainbow–surely a good omen sent by an ancestor 🙂

Still, I tried to empty my mind of expectations. I didn’t want ruthless Cosa Nostra images from Hollywood’s Sicily nor my own family’s romanticized projections of the motherland to get in the way of my experience, which turned out to be quieter and more nuanced than the stereotypes.

For me, Sicily was a rich and congruent blend of culture and country–like the kind of dirt called terroir. Unique dirt. Dirt with flavor. Dirt that says something specific about a place, that holds secrets about both its history and potential. 

I’ll try to explain what I mean.

On our first night there, in Cefalú, I had a pasta experience that sums it up. Let’s start with the pasta itself. Strozzapretti, which means “hang the priest,” is shaped like a slightly twisted rope torn into pinky length pieces. It was cooked perfectly al dente and mixed with a spicy homemade sausage and wild fennel, which is greener, reedier, and more flavorful than the cultivated big white bulbous fennel we find in grocery stores. The dish had no sauce but, instead, was tossed in a rich unfiltered local olive oil. It was a common and simple meal, and yet it presented so elegantly, so robustly, undoubtedly due to a combination of  high-quality ingredients and traditional craftsmanship. And it only cost 6 euros ($8). It was peasant food fit for royalty, or a perfect blend of culture and country.

But there’s more. Tree was back at the AirBnB fighting a flu bug, and it was pouring rain and cold outside, so what I really wanted was hot soup and breakfast supplies: eggs, milk, coffee, bread, fruit. While I waited for my pasta to be prepared, I headed back out into the rain, promising to return in 15 minutes. I passed where I thought the owner of the restaurant had said a store would be but I didn’t see it, and then it started to pour, so I ducked into another restaurant and found soup…. and grappa. Mmmmm. Nothing better than a snifter of grappa on a chilly night. From there, I was directed to another little store and a produce stand further up the street. I couldn’t find the fruits and veggies but, miraculously, I wandered into the dry goods store. With no signage out front, I realized then why I’d missed the first one. The “store” was actually the downstairs floor of someone’s apartment turned into a poorly lit supply closet with a counter manned by a little old grandma. She was so quiet and still, like a dusty sack of rice forgotten on a chair, that I startled when my eyes finally made out her form. The scene reminded me of the countless tienditas we frequented from Mexico to Argentina. I bought some boxed milk and coffee and headed back towards the original restaurant in search of the other hidden “store.” I found it right where it was supposed to be (I’d literally walked right past it before) and inside was the owner of the pasta restaurant. He thought I’d gotten lost so he came looking for me. When I lamented that I still hadn’t found eggs, bread, or fruit, he led us back to his restaurant, disappeared into the kitchen, and returned with a fresh baguette, a half dozen eggs, and 5 juicy Sicilian oranges. I headed back up the steep hill past an ancient stone church to our AirBnb, with both my hands and heart full of Sicilian riches. 

From here forward, I’ve decided to let the images of Sicily do most of the talking, though images can’t really do experiences justice. How could they? You can’t taste a photo of the pasta dish I just described or a glass of big-spicy-minerally Nerello Mascalese or a creamy not-too-sweet homemade chocolate chip cannoli with candied orange and chopped pistachio on top. 

Nor can you hear the music piping through the small speakers wired throughout the historic towns that lend a strange anachronistic feeling, like you’re walking around in a Fellini movie with your very own soundtrack. While in search of soup and supplies, I kept hearing a beautiful song as I wandered the ridiculously romantic cobbled streets in the rain. At first I thought it was coming from a single storefront but then I realized the music was following me. Finally I looked up and saw this: 

Nor can you feel kindness–gifted by complete strangers!–in a photo. And for me, even more than for art and culture, that’s why I travel. I travel to be vulnerable–or, put another way, to feel lost; dependent on my intention and spirit to guide me into the right hands; willing to let a stranger show me direction and compassion. If it weren’t for traveling, I’m not sure I’d be needy often enough to truly appreciate how kind people can be. Emerson believed that we must embrace these unsettling moments, seek them out even, if we want any hope of personal growth. 

Alright, enough musings, here we go. The road trip….

Cefalú (pronounced, chef-a-LOO) is located about an hour from Palermo, driving clockwise (or east). It’s a charming coastal town with Greek, Byzantine, Norman, Spanish, and Arab influence. We were there off-season, so it was quiet and stormy, and smelled like salt and rain mixed with warm wafts of delicious comfort- anise cookies, cannolis, and espresso–escaping cafe windows. 

As rock climbers, we were extremely excited by this enormous protrusion of limestone appropriately called “La Rocca” with ancient ruins of the so-called “Tempio di Diana” (temple of Diana) at the top. I don’t think people actually climb this wall, but when we saw it, we knew we’d have to plan a climbing trip sometime in the near future. 

The Duomo- an old Norman-styled church begun in 1131 Look at these two buddies–Pinky and The Brain.  I’ve never seen these window inventions anywhere but Italy. They’re tiny air-powered vents that suck out steam from the shower.  With steep and narrow streets, the vehicles look like mini-versions of U.S. models. 

Front view: Side view:Back view: The magic of Sicilian cooking starts with THIS. (note: that is not wild fennel)

Second stop, Taormina. Taormina is another coastal town further east, not far from Messina, and only an hour away from Pezzolo, the tiny village where my grandfather was raised. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain and our iPhone charger died along with our GPS, so we couldn’t stop and walk around Pezzolo as we’d intended.

Taormina is touted as the gem of Sicily. Built into the side of the mountain, butting up against the sea, with its pink and terra cotta buildings, and sunshine and beauty spilling out of every dark and narrow passageway, it’s easy to see why. We found our favorite cannoli shop there, the one that will forever be memorialized in family lore: I Dolci di Nonna Rosa! 

Corso Umberto, the main street lined with boutiques, cafes, top brand stores, and restaurants.

Turn your head in either direction and you’ll see fenestrated terra cotta walls, enormous arched wooden doors, hanging vines, statues, flowers, and wrought-iron light posts. How do they squeeze so much beauty into such cramped spaces? 

Tree still wasn’t feeling well, so Soleil and I were on our own New Year’s Eve. I took my girl to dinner….

…and out dancing until midnight. We dominated the dance floor for hours!!! I had so much fun with her. It was honestly one of the best night’s of my life. As a parent, I so often have to be the responsible one, the person who says no, who corrects and directs, who blah blahs blahhhhhs. BORRRRRING! But that night I was her best friend, and we partied our asses off like besties do. Someday I might not be cool enough to rock the new year in with her, but for now I am. And then, at midnight, the fireworks started and she got super scared because she’s still only 5 , so I picked her up and pushed our way through the crowd like a juiced up linebacker and ran with her toward home until she felt safe enough to walk on her own. Right now, it’s easy to right her world, but someday there will be wounds and terrors I can’t fix. If I think about that too long, my throat aches with a knot because I know what the world can do, so I try not to. Later than night, safe together, she fell asleep with her head on my chest, like she’s done since she was a baby. Even though New Year’s Eve is usually about reminiscing the year past and writing resolutions for the year to come, I lay in bed and soaked up every last second of NOW because, today, I’m mama, and I’m enough. 

On New Year’s Day, we piled into our rental car and moved on to Noto, a historic town not far from Syracuse in the south of the island. 

For Soleil (and Shakespeare)……..

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” The next day we drove another couple hours, this time cutting up a bit into the mountains, to another historic town called Modica. 

We had lunch at a little whole in the wall that served homestyle Sicilian cooking–warm ricotta, lentil soup, artichokes, stuffed focaccia–and the shelves were lined with wine and grappa. Soleil and I sniffed a glasses of wine and took portraits of each other. These two are my favorite. 
Mmmm grappa! For all you whiskey lovers, treat yourself to some Amarone grappa someday. 
The following day, we cut diagonally across the island, through the countryside and back to Palermo, and then headed counterclockwise this time towards San Vito Lo Capo.

But, along the way, our GPS did something super strange. It made us take a huge detour way out of our way through Riesi, the land of olive and orange orchards, which just so happens to be from where my Grandma’s side of the family hailed. I couldn’t help but think that maybe my rascally Meme had something to do with that 🙂 

And….we saw another rainbow 🙂 I love you, Meme.San Vito lo Capo is very high on my list to visit again, for the climbing. 

If you’re a climber, I have one word for you: Tufa!!!!

Tufa Tufa Tufa!!!! Any climbing families want to plan a vacation to Sicily?


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