Going to Sicilia Alone



I am a 50-year-old woman with a pretty good command of Italian, I am not fluent, but I can pretty much get what I need by asking. I was advised by many well-meaning persons not to go to Sicilia, especially not alone, but I still wanted to. I decided that a "safe" way to visit Sicilia was to take a class, which I did, where I would be in class in the morning and be invited to excursions in the afternoon. This worked out very well for me. I chose a school in Cefalý , which was an excellent choice, as Cefalý is a small town, an ancient town, and a town that is very prepared for Tourists. I thought that would be a negative, but it isn't, and I will tell you why. The towns that are used to Tourists hardly know how to deal with us. They will probably NOT have a little negozio in town that sells "traditional" stuff, like ceramics and fancy desserts.
Cefalý is a town small enough that I never got lost and only got confused once. Every street is paved differently, so if you were there for a while, you'd never need to look at a street sign to know where you were. You can walk the perimeter of the town in less than an hour. It's filled with little stores and such, it is very much a tourist trap. But the setting is so beautiful, the sky, the Rock, the beach, the ancient buildings. There were citrus trees everywhere laden with fruit. I saw oranges, mandarins, lemons, grapefruit and even kumquats. If you have to be a tourist, why not in such a beautiful place? Another nice part about being in Cefalý was that everyone in the town was only too happy to help me with my Italian, they would correct some of my mistakes. A few wanted to practice their English on me, but when I told them why I was there, they desisted. Surrounded by beautiful Italian accents! It was wonderful.
At Cefalý there are rocky beaches and sandy beaches. If you look, you can find incredible pebbles on the beach that have fossils in them. These same fossil bearing rocks are used in buildings and some paving stones too. They are really pretty. I thought of all the stores in the USA that sell fossils like the ones I was walking on... I brought quite a few home. There were lots of wonderful restaurants there too. I was given a map my first day there with x's where the best restaurants would be. I think there were about a dozen recommended by the school. I tried 4. I ate fish every night; (which was my goal) and I was only disappointed once, when I ate at a place that was NOT on the recommended list. His portions were tiny, he forgot the bread, and the main dish, although tasty, was rather disappointing. I ordered pasta and squid, and I got pasta and pureed squid... who knows what it was. At least it tasted good. Unfortunately, when you eat by yourself you are rather limited on the numbers of things that you can try. The first evening, I ordered two dishes and couldn't finish them. The restaurant owner was disturbed, :"Don't you like this? Is there something wrong with the food? " I explained that my stomach was small. If I had gone with my husband, I would have been able to try a lot more dishes.
I traveled alone all over Cefalý in all hours of the day or night. I saw beggars only on Saturday. Although I would have preferred to not have been single there, I was not stared at or treated funny because I was. I was "approached" twice, once by an old man who claimed that the park (right next to the house I was staying in) was ALL HIS, he wanted to take me for coffee. No thanks. The other, rather funny really, was on the beach, where I was walking (I spent a lot of time walking on the beach) two teenaged boys walked up to me and one asked if I wanted to go swimming with him. I gave him a funny look and said no, and they left me alone. Those boys were the exception to the rule, all the other teenagers that I spoke to were pleasant and respectful.


Going to school in Italy

I chose the school that I attended with the following criteria: cost, location, family stay, and time schedule. I wanted to go a particular week, and only 1 week. I wanted a family stay, and I really wanted to go to Sicilia. I ended up going to a school called Solemar-Sicilia, which had branches in a couple different towns. Since I really didn't know about either town, I was very fortunate in my choice, the other school was in Mongerbino, and the school is not in a central location as it is in Cefalý '. The maximum class size is 8 people, which as I discovered was not much of a problem, because I was my teacher's only student. There was supposed to be another student but he never showed up.

This is where I stayed. You can see the green shutters on the side
of the building the one the right is mine
So I had 2.5 hours of one on one, then I left class and circulated in the town, where everyone spoke Italian. So I had instruction, followed by practice. I never heard any bad Italian, except for what came out of my own mouth. All the teachers at the school that I met were really pleasant people, and I was fortunate that my own teacher had a style that was very comfortable and compatible with me. The home stay was a different story. First I was thrilled, when Rosalba, the administrator of the school showed me where I would be staying. Right at one of the main plazas in town sat the building, and I was on the 3rd floor. The room was pretty nice too. It was an ample room, a closet and my own bathroom complete with toilet, bidet, hot water heater and shower. We checked the blankets, though, and there were only two. One was a crocheted job, rather light, and the other was a good stout blanket. Rosalba said "I told you she needs extra blankets" and Sandra, my "family" responded, "I do not have any other blankets" They proceeded to get shriller and faster in their conversation, and finally I was told that if I absolutely HAD to, I could use the slipcover on top of the blankets to stay warm, but the Sandra did not want me to; she was afraid it would get wrinkled and ruined. It was a thin vinyl covered thing, but believe me I used it the first night, in that damp cold bed, in a room without heat. On Monday, Rosalba loaned me a nice big fat blanket, which at least solved the first problem, now I could at least sleep comfortably.
Included with the family stay is an Italian breakfast. Italians are not known for their breakfasts, so I did not expect much. She put out a nice place mat, marmelata di albicoca, and (apricot jam) a box of thin sliced toasted cracker bread, and was preparing to make tea. She put a pot of water on the stove, and threw in a tea bag. It was apparent that she did not know how to make tea. I rescued the tea bag from the water; but it didn't help the tea much, I think the tea was old years before. Needless to say, I drank it (it was warm), and ate two dry toast-cracker things. There was also a basket of citrus fruit on the table, so I helped myself, in fact, every day, until they were gone. I began to dread the toast, so I bought some Sicilian bread, which of course distressed my hostess "why didn't you tell me you wanted bread?" So thereafter, every morning, she dutifully sliced the bread for me and set it at the table too. When the fruit was gone, I replenished it. Not a word was said, and in fact, no other fruit appeared either. One has to eat. The season in which I was there posed some problems for the typical American. It was cold. Even with the blankets, an unheated room in 50 degree wet weather is not comfortable for Americans. One of the ongoing discussions between Rosalba and Sandra was that I needed heat. But Sandra had only 1 heater, an old ungainly portable thing, which was powered by gas. On the coldest dampest night, she did put it in my room for 30 minutes before I got home to dry it out a bit. As I got to know her better, I found that I was welcome to sit in her kitchen in front of the heater with her before I went to bed. In retrospect, although in the end I had formed a friendship of sorts with Sandra, I think I would opt for my own pensione or apartment instead of a family stay. I got very little companionship from her, after two days of sitting and watching me eat, she fled the moment I sat down, "because breakfast makes me want to smoke, " she said; "and I am trying to cut back, so I am going back to bed" So much for conversation. If I had had my own place, I could choose the food, and cook as well, if I wanted to.

La Grotta

What I did on my son's 22nd birthday in Cefalý or "La Grotta" I paid a young law student named Salvatore twenty euro to take me on a tour. He was about 6 feet tall, had jet black hair and blue eyes. Our destination is called "la grotta" so I imagined this grotto by the sea, a short walk to a boat, you know, that sort of thing? No. I was completely wrong. Instead we climbed to the top of this rocky bluff that sits here next to Cefalý and then I followed this buff young man into a hole! We wore helmets, his helmet had a little flame coming out of the top, the flame was produced by water touching some carburetant rocks that he carried at his hip. Lucky me I had a safe little battery powered flashlight deal on my helmet. No flame for me. As he stood patiently explaining the marvels and beauties of the caves we were in (in Italian of course) I watched as the flame from the top of his helmet licked the roof of the cave. Such entertainment. We had to use ropes too, because some of the descents were so steep. I really needed the helmet, lots of time I hit my (helmet) on the stalactites above me. No kidding! It was very very tight and we were down there for an hour. I kept thinking we're finally done now and then he'd march off towards another dark, slick, wet place, a little further down. As a gift for last Christmas my older son took me to a climbing gym; that lesson really came in handy. Because this black hole was not some place with ladders and handrails. It was climbing wet slippery rock. I saw lots of calcite crystals, not very pretty, but interesting. The funniest thing was the passion that my guide had for this miserable hole. He kept saying, oh, the next room is the most beautiful. Don't you think this is beautiful? (and I am thinking; it is dark, damp and brown. Beautiful?) I found some graffiti too. The year 1634 was scratched into the rock. We finally clambered out of "la grotta" to find that it was dark outside. The panorama of Cefalý entertained me as I walked back down the hill dirty and exhilarated by the fact that I survived the experience.

The Mercato

I was told early on, that on Saturday, my last day in Cefalý there would be a Mercato from 7am to 1pm along the lungomare, or the promenade that follows the beach. I was pretty excited about it, since I'd seen only 1 other mercato, in the town of Sersale, where my grandfather was born, a couple years before. So Saturday loomed before me, and there I was with 30 euro to my name. I had miscalculated how much money I needed, partially because I had been told that there were lots of cash machines there that worked just great. Well, they work great for people who know the pin number on their credit card; they didn't work with my cash card. I was determined that this would not ruin my fun, so Mercato here I come!
I got down there about 8:30am and was astonished at the sheer size of the thing. Instead of little tables, there were vast tents set up, mobile stores, in two rows stretching at least 4 city blocks. I practically ran to the first booths, which were vegetable stands filled with carciofi (artichokes) oranges, mandarini (like mandarin oranges), giant yellow-green cauliflower, finocchio (fennel bulbs), tomatoes and lemons.

The finocchio came in various sizes; the largest bulbs were as big as cantaloupes. There were other vegetables there too; also stacked neatly in piles, but the predominant fruits and vegetables I have already mentioned. There some assorted greens some of which I had never seen before, and others, like cardoon which I am familiar with. As I walked further into the mercato, I came upon the cheeses. Cheeses piled 8 feet tall, all kinds, all sizes, and sausages. And cookies. And beans and nuts. So many things that I could not have. What could I do with them all (okay, I bought some blood oranges and a fennel) since I was leaving the next morning.
Not to mention the present budget crisis. I decided to try and get a tiny bit of salami, and asked for some. The guy said 6 euro. I said, I only want enough for a merenda (snack). He sliced off 3 little pieces and said, "this is a gift!" ah, that was good salami! Further on down the line, I finally got to the clothing, hardware, and linens. Mutande; 1 euro, 2 euro. A riot of underwear, some obviously meant to be worn once or twice, before they disintegrated, but other things that were quite nice. I took a deep breath and bought each of my sons some Italian undershirts, a thin cotton, in their favorite dark colors (navy and grey) and with a little tiny rose embroidered over the heart. The women's clothing was great. All styles from vamp to nonna. Earlier I could have really appreciated their selection of warm woolen sweaters, but now, in the sunshine, without another day to worry about, I dismissed it all. Although I must admit, the imitation alligator underwear caught my attention. The vendor looked at me suspiciously when I laughed out loud. Finally I got to the linens, and this is where I REALLY felt put out about my financial situation. That same pricey stuff I saw in town was for sale for 5 and 6 euro A SET. (and up) Beautifully made lace table clothes, doilies, the like. How frustrating. I left that area and returned to the food and bought a selection of almond biscotti, about 1/2 a kilo for my friends at work.

my Burberry knock off featuring my cat Enza
As I carried the few purchases I made, I realized that the only way all this stuff (including the purchases I had already made in town) was getting home safely was if I had another piece of luggage. And here was a fellow selling incredibly cheap imitation Burberry knock off bags. For 5 euro! The only other solution was if I scavenged a box from the street, and then bought strapping tape for 3 euro. So I plunked down nearly the last of my money and bought the thing. Immediately outside of the mercato, I opened it and stuffed my purchases into it, and alas, the cheap zipper did not work. I took it back, followed by a cloying gypsy woman, and told the guy this doesn't work, it's broken. He pulled the zipper tight, and demonstrated how 4" of teeth went together nicely. I tried it myself, yeah, right, for every 4" together, the next 4" came apart! So I went back there, finally having to tell the gypsy woman to "VATTENE" which means GET LOST (ooo did she curse at me after that!) and he finally let me exchange for another bag of the same kind.
I stuffed all my purchases into THAT one, and went on back to my room where I carefully reorganized all my belongings to see if they WOULD fit. After I was done there, I decided to go back to the Mercato, since really that was the biggest happening in the town. I walked the 4 blocks from my room and to my amazement, it was all gone!! There were two booths left packing up fast, the street was swept, and there were laborers with brooms sweeping up the little that was left. It was over.
The 5 euro Burberry knock off arrived safely at home with my other bag, and all my things were intact.

Bagheria

There was only one day of really bad weather. that's when we went to Bagheria. In Cefalý it was warm. I figured, no way was I going to drag my coat around, so I took my coat back to the house, and went to Bagheria in my light linen blazer. well, we weren't in Bagheria 15 minutes when the weather changed. wind, rain. ugh. and the umbrella? that was at the house too. Fortunately our guide, Martino, a handsome journalist, was also allergic to rain, so we spent 20 minutes hiding out in a cafe bar, but he finally summoned up his courage and we went forth into the weather. We visited some interesting (cold) Villas, one being the very famous one, with all the statues carved in Tufa; Villa Palegonia, the other was Villa Cattolica. It was thrilling to have people lecture in Italian and to understand most of what was being said. There was a German couple from the other class that went to Bagheria with me they were very nice people, and I shared a couple meals with them too. They are very concerned about the war and especially the guy wanted to talk about it a lot. During my stay in Sicilia, I had one quest, and that was to find "i carotti antici di Sicilia" The old carts pulled by horses that were so ornately colored. You could find photos of them, postcards of them, statues of every size, but nowhere were these carts to be found. I mentioned this to our guide in Bagheria (as I had to several other people who were our guides, people on the street, teachers, etc) and he said we might see one later.
After we were done with our tours of the Villas, he took us to the local library which was also in an old villa. There in the entranceway of the palazzo was a carriage, resplendent in its colors, but unaccompanied by a driver or steed.


Agira

For my entire visit, I stayed in Cefalý but took a day trip to the town where my grandmother was born, Agira, which is even HIGHER up and more isolated than Enna, which is famous for its altitude. It is close to Enna, so I passed there, it is stunning, it looks like nothing more than a fortress out of a science fiction movie. Enna is on the top of a cliff. no gentle slope there. Agira instead, was up on a sloping hill, where Almond Trees were in bloom. I saw a wonderful flock of sheep. they were all different colors, black and brown and white, and there were a few goats too. We drove into Agira, and noticed quickly that the folks there are curious, but not near as friendly as they were in Cefalý. There were few stores, (I wanted to buy a couple gifts for family members "from where our grandmother was born") I ended up going to a wedding gift store and buying things that are stylish in Italy but do not appear to be very Sicilian. (I bought a little porcelain dish, I think it was made in the north of Italy) we went to the comune (to which I have written twice or three times with absolutely NO success) it was a pretty big busy office, and they were friendly. They sent me to see one lady, and she sent me to another. then they sent me to the municipio, where the older records were. What I was looking for was the birth certificate of my grandmother's sister, which I hoped would have the side notes that would tell me who she married. well, the gal in the municipio was very helpful, soon enough I was looking at the actual true birth certificate, which was very large! and she had been married, not once, but twice! the lady said; you're in luck, this page has torn out of the book, I will just photocopy it!! So she did. Then she sent me back to the first lady, who folded it nicely, put it in an envelope, and gave me a wonderful little book about the town. Done with the "business" part of the trip, my next job was to find the street my grandmother lived on. I mentioned to a lady in the comune that I didn't have the street number. she said, oh, that's the old section of town, they still don't have street numbers!
I found the street, which was very close to the church where my grandmother was baptized, and to my delight, very very close to the castle on the very top of the hill that Agira sits on. (this is about 2700 feet high). We (my driver and I) walked to the top, where I was rewarded with a stunning view of Mount Etna! I found some potshards up there on the top of the hill, some were pretty old. those are my true souvenirs. As I walked by people, no one said hello, except for one little girl who yelled out "HELLO!! WHAT'S YOUR NAME?" in English. The towns people clearly did not know how to deal with "stranieri" How different was the reception in Cefalý , where everyone was happy to talk and correct my Italian!

The temple of Diana

I was determined to find the temple of Diana, which sits on a hill that overlooks the town. The first day I was there I attempted to find it, but I stopped at "the door to the castle" some ruins that are below the temple. So I had to try again.
The weather looked like it might rain, but I had nothing to lose. I was on the path, and saw some teens who told me "just a little farther" and there it was. SO old, much older looking than the typical white Greek ruins with the Doric columns and the like. It was so well made too, the rocks, big giant slabs fit together so well! How did they do that?! I entered the temple, and sat down and started to sketch, until the rain finally drove me off. Cold, and getting wetter, I headed back down the hill, to where the teens were, they were hanging out (smoking and drinking) in a small abandoned church. they invited me in, where they had a fire going!! I was cold (it was a cold day anyway) so I went in there and they offered me wine, crackers, and asked me questions. IMAGINE that in America!


By the time I left Cefalý

...I felt like I was best friends with two waiters and two proprietors of other stores. The people that I saw in Sicilia would be hard to stereotype, except they are on average shorter than most Americans, and on average, are dark haired. This however, is not the full picture. I saw a startling number of obviously Sicilian people with blue eyes, (and often jet-black hair) or green eyes. and of course I saw plenty of tall people and a few red heads too. Hairstyles were long for women, and for young men, anything from dreadlocks to shaved heads. There were a goodly number of blonde children, but not many naturally blonde adults. They were less obese than Americans. In fact, I started noticing that the obese people I saw were usually tourists. There were a lot of big beautiful eyes. If you want to go to Sicilia, go. The people are welcoming, it is safe, and the food is good!

More photos: Cefalý; Bagheria ; Agira

The following links take you to Amazon.com but I am not suggesting you purchase books from there. This is not an advertisement but I am promoting the books and the authors themselves. Recommended reading:
Stone Boudoir by Theresa Maggio ~ this book is one of my all time favorites. The author catches your heart immediately, followed by your imagination as she makes one adventure after another in little tiny Sicilian towns.
Dances with Luigi by Paul Paolicelli
Blood Washes Blood by Frank Viviano
The House by the Medlar Tree by Giovanni Verga
And for a story of how NOT to travel to Italy, try this one:
No Pictures in My Grave by Susan Caperna Lloyd


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