Mountain of Mystery

Today we went for a Sunday drive. We drove around Mount Etna.

At 3329 m, Mount Etna is Italy’s highest mountain south of the Alps and the largest active volcano in Europe. It is in a constant state of activity. The first recorded eruption was in about 1500 BC, with the most devastating event in 1669 when 12000 people were killed. More recently, spectacular eruptions and ash clouds in 2002 and 2007 have caused mountain infrastructure damage and airport closures.

We have yet to see the top of Etna. Despite driving around the entire mountain base, and an excellent view from our hotel parking lot, the top has remained mysterious, shrouded in a veil of cloud and smoke. 20140303-220805.jpg We travelled today through a number of small towns, ranging from rough, work-a-day Paterno to Randazzo, with its medieval town centre. We passed huge groves of orange trees, fichi d’India (prickly pears) and pistachios (and piles of trash).

At times, the landscape was rugged, with piles of lava rock and stunted trees.

As we drove through the towns, we noted Sunday morning gatherings of Italian men on the streets. Where were all the women? At church? At home cooking? 20140303-221434.jpg Many towns were also preparing for Carnevale celebrations, with children in costume.

In Randazzo, we enjoyed wandering the near deserted streets of the medieval town centre. 20140303-222200.jpg Then we drove up the hill and picked up some strawberries from a market truck to enjoy with the pastries and bananas we had in our snack pack. 20140303-222318.jpgWe could have also purchased most any kind of bird. How interesting! 20140303-222440.jpgWe headed back toward the coast, passing through lush, tropical terrain, dotted with ancient ruins, piles of lava rock and terraced vineyards.

We travelled a bit north on the coastal ‘highway’ to the area of Taormina. This is Sicily’s most popular summer resort and the abundance of grandiose hotels attests to the number of high-rollers and celebs who are said to frequent the area.

Our destination was the Teatro Greco, the most dramatically situated Greek theatre in the world. This amphitheater was built in the third century BC and has been improved to allow for its summer use in international arts and film festivals. The views of Mount Etna and the coast are spectacular and the intact condition of parts of ruins are amazing. 20140303-223033.jpg20140303-223155.jpgAs we left the Teatro, the community’s Carnevale celebrations were in full swing. The celebrations will continue until Tuesday, after which lent will commence. 20140303-223408.jpgFrom Taormina, we travelled the very scenic coastal road back to out hotel, encountering the parking madness near Acireale as we passed.

After a bit of a rest at the hotel, we were surprised to find once again an evening rain storm. Waiting until the fashionable hour of 8 pm, we drove to a nearby restaurant, La Polena, recommended by the hotel. We were of course the first patrons of the evening – others arrived slowly over the next hour!

The restaurant staff had very limited English but through hand gestures, their English, our tiny bit of Italian – and pictures of food on the waitress’ iPhone, we managed quite well.

We ordered our sparking water and red wine – never a problem there. Then they brought us a plate of deep-fried prawns and fish balls – very tasty (sorry, in my excitement, forgot a picture). Then a plate with 4 critters in shells – no idea what they were, and probably just as well as I don’t think we would order them again. Somewhat tasteless but sort of crunchy and chewy in an odd way. But this was followed by another plate of delicacies – scampi, shrimp in various ways, tuna, smoked salmon, thinly sliced fish of unknown origin, and oddly a mixture of what seemed to be mashed peas. It was all quite delicious! Not having ordered any of this, we had no idea what our bill would look like.
For our primo piatto, I ordered Spaghetti Vongola and Harvey had Risotto Imperial. My dish excellent and the risotto was filled seafood and the flavor I recognize from crab imperial. We declined the secondi as we were both quite satisfied at this point.

Howevet, we did share a “sweet” – which turned out to be a type of lava cake – not sure of the filling but it was delicious, ice cream and fruit. 20140303-223844.jpg

We were pleasantly surprised when we asked for the bill. €35. Apparently the cover charge of €1,50 each must have included the bottled water, the bread and all of the delicious appetizers!!

Feeling very pleased with our dinner, we made our way back to the hotel. It was a delightful day! Hopefully, before we leave tomorrow, Mount Etna will show her summit.



I love wine for lunch – I should do this all the time!

We were up early to start a new day. After an Italian breakfast at the hotel, we were ready to head out.

The girl at the hotel desk suggested that it would be easy to drive to, and park in, the centre of old town Acireale. But we had been fooled before – so noting that it was just 2 km away, we decided to walk. And that was a good choice! I don’t know if the girl has been to Carnevale celebrations but driving and parking would not have been easy. 20140302-225334.jpg We enjoyed our walk, stopping in at a pescheria (fish market). We couldn’t identify half of the fish for sale.

We arrived at a Piazza Duomo, the main square in the old town. The piazza is bordered by the 16th century Cathedral, the 18th century Basillica and the Palazzo Municipale. 20140302-225734.jpg The piazza was buzzing with activity, as the ‘Scuole in maschera’ was taking place. This involved school groups – of all ages – parading in themed costumes – each group enclosed by ropes held by parents. I imagined Kelsey wishing she could rope all her charges together at times! 20140302-230033.jpg We enjoyed watching this event and as it wound down, it was time for a cappuccino. 20140302-230142.jpg We then wandered the area, exploring the streets and surrounding environs. The day had started overcast and for a bit, there was a smattering of rain and gusty winds. We decided we would do as the Italians do and have our main meal at lunch time as this would best fit the day’s schedule. So we began to look for a restaurant. We walked and walked and walked. And found nary a trattoria, osteria or restaurante.

We were quickly becoming cold, hungry and somewhat grouchy when I spotted a sign – self-service gastronomia. We were not sure what this was but had nothing to lose so headed in. It turned out to be a sort of cafeteria. The fellow serving (who turned out to be the owner) told us that he spoke a little English. And then proceeded to explain all of the food choices and to lead us to a table and get us settled down. 20140302-231610.jpgWe had a great meal of shared super-fresh salad, freshly-cooked Penne Brutanesca, mixed fish/seafood plate and half litre of red wine. It was great! 20140302-231901.jpgAs we were readying to leave (after I had a blonde moment of using the men’s room – to the surprise of the elderly gent who I met on the way out), we chatted more with our host. He was very excited to hear that we were from Canada as he is heading to Montreal in April to try to open Da Sasa II. We are unsure of why Montreal and don’t think that he really understood how far away we live from Montreal. 20140302-232002.jpg During the mid-afternoon, the streets were quiet but around 3 pm, the crowds began to gather and the celebrations were on! 20140302-232211.jpg The parade of allegorical floats was scheduled to start at 4 pm but in true Sicilian fashion, the first float appeared around 5 and they continued to show up at intervals until around 7. There were some technical difficulties in locomotion and lighting but no one really seemed to care.

The floats really were spectacular!! 20140302-232525.jpg20140302-232606.jpg20140302-232651.jpg I haven’t been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans but I have seen pictures and video and I have experienced the drunken debauchery that is a Bourbon Street on a random day on October. Carnevale in Sicily did not seem anything like this – it was a time for families and friends. I didn’t see anyone who appeared drunk, or anyone even drinking. It was just fun!! 20140302-233023.jpg After looking at all the floats and costumes, we headed to the midway area where various food trailers were situated. A couple of Sicilian gents, who spoke no English, convinced us to have sausage on a bun, smothered in mushrooms, onions and lettuce (we could also have had tomatoes, eggplant and other items that we couldn’t identify). They also pulled a bottle of wine out of the back of the truck and poured us a glass. It was great! 20140302-233404.jpg At that point, we battled through the enormous crowd in Piazza Duomo and trekked our 2 km back to the hotel. We had been gone for 10 hours and spent the majority of that time on our feet, so were exhausted and fell into bed almost immediately.

Carnevale was a great event and we were so lucky to have experienced it!