Syracuse & Palermo, Italy
For the first time since arriving in Italy we woke to rain, but it didn't last long. By 10 a.m. the sun was scorching. The latter was the Italy we know and love.
Danny was a bit over archaeological parks, so I trekked off solo to check out one in Syracuse, set inside a beautiful park. There weren't many noteworthy sights except for the Greek Theatre, which offered views all the way out to sea. The park was packed with tour groups – I would have passed at least 20, all with about 50 people each. It seemed as though I was the only one not on a tour.
After returning to the van I dragged Danny out to wander around the old town of Syracuse, located on an island. Again, there wasn't a whole lot to see, but aimlessly exploring the streets and ambling along the water was a relaxing way to spend the afternoon. Like much of Italy, most of the buildings were off-white, run down and dotted with tiny balconies large enough to hold a handful of pot plants. The main square housed a stunning church, white inside with gold trim. No photos were allowed of the interior due to a couple of Carvaggios on display. I didn't even care about the paintings and just wanted to capture the architecture. Also on the main square was the Cathedral, built around an existing ruin. Inside we could see the Greek columns of the previous structure, lined up along the wall. Despite knowing almost nothing about architecture, I found it fascinating.
We browsed through a long street market, sampling the local produce at various stalls (we love free stuff). Our only purchase was a baked ricotta, which I had never tried before but would definitely go for again. To continue our food journey we stopped at a bakery for yet more arancini (how many days in a row now?) and Danny got his hands on the classic Italian pastry cannoli. I think he inhaled it.
The caravan park south of town was probably the most modern campsite we had seen, with little luxuries such as electronic sliding doors for the bathrooms. Yes, even simple things like this made our day - they almost made us believe we weren't slumming it for a brief period of time. It was situated right above the beach, and Danny didn't waste any time hitting the water (it was nowhere near warm enough for me). Dinner that night was paired with an Italian sparkling wine, which pleasantly wasn’t too dissimilar to Champagne. Another item to add to our ‘amazing stuff in Italy’ list.
Our luxurious caravan park let us down the next day. The showers were coin operated – slip 50 cents into the box outside the shower area and choose your shower. We had encountered this several times on our travels, and usually the shower lasted four-to-five minutes. This one lasted three minutes. Ripped off. I was nowhere near ready to be finished, but with the box being located outside the shower and not having extra change on me, I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I informed Danny of my dilemma, resulting in him putting €2 in the machine and gaining an extended 12-minute shower. He appeared to enjoy telling me all about how great it was.
We made an early getaway and travelled south to the port for ferries to Malta. Our plan was to visit the country on a day trip, without the car, and presumed there would be multiple ferries crossing each day. Apparently not. The port was a ghost town when we arrived at 10:30 a.m. - the ticket office wasn't even open. After scouting out the area we found someone down at the ferry and asked when the next departure was. The answer: two o’clock. As it was a 90-minute trip, we didn't see much point going over for such a short amount of time (and a lot of money). There was a discussion around staying overnight on the island, but the car park we had left our van was completely deserted and did not appear at all safe. Dejectedly, we gave up on our idea of going to Malta.
Instead we drove to Palermo, across the other side of Sicily, driving towards dark, grey clouds hanging low in the sky. A small amount of rain fell on the way, and as soon as we arrived in the busy city it started pelting down. And not just rain - hail, thunder and lightning joined the party too. I stopped in the first car park I came across for obvious safety reasons, which handily turned out to be the perfect place to spend the night.
Thankfully, the storm didn't last long, and after an hour we were able to leave the car. We strolled aimlessly around the city, checking out the numerous alleyways containing local cafes and restaurants. There was a clear contrast between the neat, well-preserved tourist hot spots and the grotty, grimy lanes probably only frequented by local residents. It wasn’t long before another storm came through, this one much heavier, that had us scurrying back to the van. The hail sounded like golf balls were hitting the roof, hundreds at a time. The whole van was shaking as though there was an earthquake. We could see the wind coming down the street in the headlights of passing cars. It was fascinating to watch but also a little scary while sitting in our flimsy metallic box.
Once the second storm subsided we headed off in search of a restaurant for dinner. Not an easy feat on a Sunday night, when most places appeared to be closed. Eventually we found a small, family run eatery, with four generations either working or eating there. The place was packed - we didn't know if it was because they served great food or there was nowhere else open. We didn’t care, we were starving. First up, we chowed down on their fantastic antipasto buffet, with possibly the best polenta chips I had ever tasted. Next, Danny devoured a tremendous wood-fired pizza, while I stared down at what was supposedly spaghetti bolognese. It didn’t compare to any bolognese I had ever eaten before. Mainly because there was no tomato. None. The sauce consisted of just mince, carrots, onions and parsley, with a solitary basil leaf sitting in the centre. I wasn't sure if I had ordered wrong or if this was what bolognese meant to this family. Overall it was tasty, but not at all what I was expecting. I think I will need to order another bolognese in a different city to compare the various recipes that no doubt exist in Italy.
More golf balls and earthquakes awaited us back at the van. I guess it worked out well that our trip to Malta didn’t pan out. The next morning, the cars surrounding us all displayed signs of hail damage, but somehow we had avoided any form of destruction. Miraculous.
We spent the following day wandering around Palermo, wandering through several long street markets. A couple were full of secondhand junk that didn’t interest us, but several contained fresh food stalls that were more up our alley. Everything appeared to be mega-sized – lemons and walnuts were twice their normal dimensions, and the zucchinis were up to a metre long. I didn't know what was in the soil down here, but it appeared to be advantageous to the farmers. Once again, we couldn’t resist the arancini, this one filled with something similar to the tomato-less bolognese sauce I ate last night. It wasn’t too bad. (On a side note, supermarkets here sell jars of local bolognese sauce and it is definitely tomato based.)
Other than the markets, we visited a giant cathedral, walked around the ugly parliament building, passed through several palm tree-filled parks, spotted a fantastic-looking theatre that was apparently the backdrop for the Godfather III finale (Danny was more excited by this than I was), and walked by a small church with three red domes on top, making it look like anything but a church. Lunch was at a restaurant in the middle of a market, where we shared two of their dishes – a vegetarian couscous and a chicken/pork stew in a clear broth. It was a relief to eat lighter food for a change, as opposed to the heavy pasta and pizza meals that had dominated our plates for the last week or so. Danny also tried a Marsala, a fortified wine produced in Sicily, which he said wasn't too bad. Our final touristy act was a stroll along the coast, watching the waves crash on the rocks and splash the people standing too close.
Our next destination was Amalfi, near Naples, a 700 km drive north of our current location. Rather than spending an entire day on the road, we decided we would instead catch the overnight ferry to Naples. Going the long way around would cost us a huge amount of petrol plus an expensive boat back to the mainland at the southern end of Italy, and we calculated it would work out a slightly cheaper to take this ferry all the way up the coast (not to mention the time and energy we would save). So we hopped on board at 8 p.m. and slept (well, tried to) in our car for the entire journey. Technically this wasn’t allowed, as we were supposed to pay for accommodation on the upper decks, but we had a perfectly good bed that wasn’t going to cost us any extra. The trip was rather rocky, which wasn’t exactly conducive to a peaceful night’s sleep, but I think we both managed to grab a little shut-eye at some point during the night.