After a short plane ride from Rome, Allie, Lauren and I landed in Catania, Italy to spend four days with Lauren’s lovely relatives. We knew we were in for a lot of food and family in a small town – but we quickly realized we underestimated it all. Sicily was incredible and is easily one of the top places I have visited in Italy. Small villages are scattered among the rugged mountains and disappear as you travel along windy and hilly roads. The sea hypnotizes you with its vastness and perfumed air of salt and jasmine. The views are majestic and refreshing to see after months in a city. Sicilians are a breed of their own. They are true to their roots and set in their ways. Everything and everyone felt so authentic and passionate.
Lauren’s family is from a small village called Sortino, about an hour from Catania. That evening as we traveled up the mountain and away from the city streets, the sky grew darker and clearer and for the first time in a long time I noticed the stars and couldn’t help but smile at their infinite beauty. Upon our arrival at Zia Maria’s house, we were given a feast of pizzolo and beer. Clearly in this family, in this country, you cannot say no to food – they wonder what is wrong with you. So at midnight we enjoyed Italian beer and Sicilian pizza and began our adventure.
We abruptly realized the first part of our adventure – the language barrier. Lauren’s family comes from a small village and most do not speak English well, or at all. Her cousin, Maria Dolores, was our saving grace as a tour guide and translator. However, that only got us so far and we were not with her all the time, so my two months of Italian class and nine months of life in Florence paid off. I became the de facto translator and did my best to express our gratitude and admiration for the family and their hospitality.
We stayed in Zia Maria’s childhood home, which was obviously only one meter away from her current home and furnished with pieces that most likely have been passed on through the generations and kept in excellent condition. Our mornings began with espresso at Zia’s and homemade marmalade with brioche. We walked through the town to have another espresso and say hello to every person on the street. Most stared in awe at the three foreigners following the locals around. Luckily enough Lauren’s cousins, Maria Dolores and Vincenzo, are a town councilwoman and the vice mayor and they kindly served as our tour guides during our stay. That being said, we were with two well-known people in the town so we frequently stopped for caffé or to say hello, and always were greeted with warm smiles and genuine interest.
Maria Dolores brought us to our first destination of Isola Bella and Taormina. I still cannot believe something as stunning as Isola Bella exists. This small Island, known as the Pearl of the Ionian Sea, sits offshore the coast and can only be reached by walking along a pebbly path that lies beneath shallow water. The Island has become a nature reserve and is filled with birds, lizards, and exotic plants. Restaurants, cafes, and charming hotels are tucked within the steep cliffs and look out onto this piece of paradise. It’s views like this – and sunsets in Cinque Terre, from the Pier in Pakostane, atop a cliff on an Island in the Adriatic, and sitting on the rock on Long Pond - where I find myself silently praying and thanking God for my journey and being able to experience this beauty.
After a delicious seafood lunch and spending some time soaking in the Sicilian sun, we traveled up to Taormina. This old village sits atop a hill and even though it is a tourist destination, it has not lost its charm. We wandered the old streets, browsed the shops and enjoyed a cannoli to wrap up our perfect day.
We returned to Sortino and all headed to a pub, probably one of the few in this tiny town, to meet cousins and friends for dinner and drinks. There, Allie and Lauren experienced their first Negroni: a Florentine drink of gin, Campari, and red vermouth. This cocktail is not for the light-hearted and has been a staple during my time in Italy.
The following day, of course after breakfast and espresso with Zia Maria, we were passed on to Lauren’s other cousin, Vincenzo. As the Vice Mayor of Sortino it was only fitting for him to give us a proper tour of the small town and be our guide. Vincenzo firmly knew only three words in English, and arguably the most important: coffee, eat, drink. So we began our Sunday enjoying Granita. This refreshing Sicilian treat is a mixture of sorbet, Italian ice, and a slushee. They are just as enjoyable as the traditional cannoli, but do not fill you up as heavily.
The morning progressed with visits to the two main churches in Sortino, the ancient Necropilis, Pantalica, which is nestled in the foothills of the surrounding mountains, and a silent stroll through the Cappuccini Monastery. After all that sight-seeing it was clearly time for lunch so we headed to the country house, which was about eight minutes from the village center. There we were greeted with open arms from Lauren’s family and friends and given a lunch of homemade wine, tasty impanata, and sweet gelato.
Even though we were all victims of a massive food coma, we carried on to visit Siracusa. Siracusa is an ancient city whose historic center rests upon Oritgia Island. The city is rich in Greek, Roman and Baroque History; from Apollo’s Temple, the Duomo, and to the Roman amphitheater. Siracusa looks out onto the blue-green waters of the Ionian Sea. Narrow streets lead you to grand Piazzas or wide boardwalks along the water.
Within an hour you can travel through a village in the mountains, the rugged countryside, a bustling city, a scenic coastal town, and pass by the towering Mount Etna. Sicilian landscape is so diverse, and after all this time, after all the generations that have built lives there, it still feels untouched. Perhaps it was the novelty of exploring a new area, or the excitement of being with my friends, but to me, Sicily is not yet tainted.
Our day was not over and our weekend not complete; we were graciously invited to celebrate the first birthday of the most adorable, chubby-cheeked, little boy in Sicily. As in true Italian fashion, everyone showed up with plentiful smiles and gifts, ready to enjoy the party well into the night. We dined on a delicious spread of appetizers, completed the meal with pizzolo, and enjoyed bottomless bottles of wine. The room was full of love and the simple appreciation of friends and relatives. Collectively, guests marveled at the youthful innocence of the birthday boy and treated him like the prince he truly is.
Unfortunately, our time in Sicily was coming to an end, and breakfast as Zia’s the following morning was cloaked with sadness. Why were we willingly leaving such a compassionate, generous, and loving family? They welcomed us into their homes with open arms, shared their lives with us, and genuinely cared for us.
Early that afternoon before our flight, we stopped at another Great Aunt’s house in Catania to say hello. She did not know Allie and me at all, but her smiles and words were painted with honest love and appreciation. We embarked the plane, at least five pounds heavier, saddened to leave such a beautiful place and caring people; yet hopeful to one day return to Sortino and repay the generosity and hospitality that they selflessly gave to us.
After being away from family for almost a year, this unknowingly was exactly what I needed – to be immersed in the love of a family. I have missed the ease of family banter and conversation, the natural shows of affection, and the ever-present unconditional love. I have gotten very good at being independent; but my heart will always crave and appreciate an elder’s hug or a home cooked meal. So I thank Lauren’s family and the town of Sortino for serving as another one of my traveling families and restoring a part of my soul that I didn’t even know was empty. I will be eternally grateful for this memorable experience.