The Malta Independent 25 February 2020, Tuesday

Marie Benoit's Diary: Sicily revisited – yet again

Marie Benoît Sunday, 9 February 2020, 09:33 Last update: about 17 days ago

Surely Sicily is one of the most interesting islands in the Mediterranean with a rich cultural heritage rather than a veneer laid on for the tourist. I have come and gone over the years and still love it and find something interesting to discover on each visit.

We recently went for a short break there by car, just as we did last year.

We went on the new Virtu ferry MV St John Paul II. Impressive. Every step was efficiently organised and the 90-minute journey seemed short and was a pleasant experience.

How much simpler this is than taking a plane. Travelling by air has become almost hard work. I didn't have to remove my coat and shoes, carry my hand luggage up a treacherous flight of stairs, make sure my facecream, perfume and other liquids were no more than the allowance stipulated.       Once on board, If I needed to use the bathroom I did not have to disturb anyone, nor did anyone disturb me; big, comfortable seats and I could move around as I pleased.

My first ever experience of crossing the seas by boat was of course on The Star of Malta on a school trip to Sicily, Rome and Rimini. It was my first trip abroad on which I decided that I was going to see as much of the world as possible. I remember reading that Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of Britain's greatest travel writers, aged 18, decided to walk the length of Europe from Hook of Holland to Constantinople. This was not how I had planned to see the world however.

Going to Gozo by ferry was an altogether different experience to what it is today.  Although I loved our holidays in Gozo, I hated having to wake up so early in the morning, the five us bundled into a seven-seater (my daughters think this is hilarious) and arriving a little cross and very bleary eyed at The Royal Hotel which was homely, with very good food but nothing royal about it.

It is superfluous to say that the ferries then were not what they are today.

The next experience, in my 20s was on a small catamaran to Gozo. My sister and myself were lured by a couple of friends to join them on the day of inauguration. It was a battle to get my father to agree but in the end he reluctantly said yes, and so we went.  I am sure, while we were on it, he must have spent that time on his knees badgering heaven for our safety. We got back safely but I remember feeling the ferry was too small and uncomfortable.

So compared to these experiences the new Virtu ferry is pure luxury.

Another experience of Pozzallo was some 30 years ago when I decided to take my girls for a cultural tour of Sicily. All went very well and we all loved it. Erice, Enna, Etna, only on the last day.

Holiday over, we took the bus from Palermo, our base, to Pozzallo on a very hot August afternoon. Suddenly there was smoke coming out of the engine. We were only half way to Pozzallo and our boat.

The driver threw water over the offending part of the engine, and left us, high and dry, while he collected his lunch from beneath his seat, and went to sit in the shade of a tree to eat it. After a while, seeing he had no intention of doing anything about the engine, we approached him and he said there was nothing he could do about it and that we had better find another means of transport if we wanted to catch the boat.

Mobiles were non-existent then. The village was as good as dead. We rang a couple of doorbells hoping to get information on local taxis but doors remained resolutely closed, covered by a hasira to keep the heat and intruders like us, out. This was siesta time and that is sacred in Sicily.  

By now, sweltering, and praying we would get to the boat before it departed, we walked, dragging our suitcases until we found a main road. We waved down a number of taxis but they were already bursting at the seams inside and with luggage wobbling on the roof. Finally an empty taxi stopped and we bundled in. Much relieved we arrived in Pozzallo just in time to catch the boat.

This year we stayed in the centre of Catania in a spacious and well-furnished flat.  There was an upright piano which added to the merriment. The owner was, or still is, a professor. His name was on a brass plate on the door. Maybe he is in an old people's home and was renting out the flat. But who knows.

I had a good look at the bookcases. The professore was a medical man as most of the books foretold: Lezioni di Ematologia; Semeiotica Chirurgica, Compendio di Patologia Medica; Principi di Fisiologia Umana. There was a copy of D.H. Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia in Italian. The rest were art books and a few novels but the collection gave us an insight into the interests of the owner of the flat.

There is something heartwarming about the lengths some people will go to to improve the street environment. It's an example of real, public-spiritedness. It's infectious, too. The Sicilians are better than us at this and I admired many a balcony. There is an effort to keep balconies green although I see that on the periphery of Catania some have resorted to using plastic greenery from IKEA.  Delinquent.

Here it is a battle of course as one windy day can destroy the plants in a few minutes. But still, cactus and succulents always work and can take the heat of summer. If the Sicilians can do, why can't we.

I enjoyed our trip to Maison du Monde and IKEA and although I had no intention of putting a dent in my credit cards there I still managed to buy a couple of small gifts. Lunch at IKEA was very good, well-priced and organised. Later on I was introduced to the hot-dog stand. Now I have never been a hot-dog person but I loved the IKEA ones and next time round I shall also take away two, and enjoy them quietly.

Silence has become my friend just as stairs have become a deadly enemy.

 Many youngsters seem to be out of love with antiques and dark furniture these days and IKEA has been their rallying point for a good many years. They want the modern, the coloured, furniture without character which all looks the same to me. But that's practical, modern living I suppose. Not for me. Do I also have to take my furniture as well as my books with me to the grave?

Musicians, painters, writers, architects live on in the lives of millions of future generations who enjoy the gifts they have created. The valuable legacy they leave to the world is not in riches but in how they used their great artistic gifts.

There is much to see in Catania if one is interested in the arts even if the city can never audition to be a star.

If food were classified as an art form Sicilian food might even win the Biennale. We ate well and prices are moderate.

The excitement of bringing back Torroncini, Paste di Mandorla, Limoncello is gone because they are now all available here.

However, I loved their thinly sliced bread, ideal toasted and eaten with a paté. Why can't one of the local bakers make it here? Sliced local bread is always so thick. I should have brought some with me. Next time.

We decided not to visit any museums this time round but there are some very good ones for those interested.

Vincenzo Bellini, best known for his operas - La Sonnambula, La Norma, I Puritani not only has a monument but the large green oasis in the city is named after him - Villa Bellini. The Teatro Bellini is of course also named after him. And if you have the time and interest and love music the Museo Belliniano is in Bellini's birthplace with memorabilia relating to the great composer's life and work.

Also much appreciated in Sicily are the open spaces. The gigantic eiderdowns of yellow flowers which cover the pastures and the hundreds of orange trees. Huge amounts which look spectacular especially if you go to the Conca D'oro.

They have the space. We don't and I have to say it is a relief to drive on good roads where traffic jams seem to be unknown.

For shopping junkies there is a melange of boutiques and shops. Not many chain stores. Upim and Standa disappeared years ago; COIN and Rinascente are still there. I still lament the disappearance of COIN in Malta.

Rinascente stay open until 9pm on Sundays. We were allowed to take several items of clothing back home on Friday, try them out and return those we did not require. Excellent service. Plenty of stylish clothes and accessories too, for both men and women.

There is a preponderance of one-off, quirky stores that are great fun to dip in and out of and not only on Via Etnea known as the "salotto di Catania".

Near the market there are little ateliers where they will take care of your bag, repair it and bring it back as good as new.

I love markets, souks, bazaars; intriguing, photogenic, cheerful and best free shows they are also a marvellous introduction to local community life. Part social gathering and part trading post, a feature of the lifestyle of a community, they are great theatre.

I only managed a ten minute visit to the market as I had forgotten that by 1pm it is closed. As I was making my way there through the side streets I was chased by a large red chicken which made a noise like a tractor. Fortunately the owner came to the rescue. If he hadn't I would have taken it home and cooked it.

I am past church crawling which I did in my younger and more energetic days. But visiting the odd church is still on my agenda and there are plenty of beautiful ones in Catania. An enjoyable break and so back to political chaos here.

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