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  • Writer's pictureMona Shah

MoJo’s Sojourn to Southern Italy and Sicily

Our great plane, train, boat and automobile journey.

Out trip startedin Naples (Napoli) where we came to  celebrate Mona’s 60th birthday with her Napolitano friend, Ludovica. What a city! It is an assault on all the senses. Its loud, proud curly haired citizens are fiercely protective of its many charms and deep history, over centuries under the Normans, Greeks, Romans, Germans and Italians. Today they are still Neapolitans first, Italians second.

If you are a “tourist traveler,” then you will hear the myth about it being a gritty town. Don’t believe that for a second. Napoli is a must stop and visit city.

We were lucky to be here on Sept 19, when “The 'Miracle' of San Gennaro” happened. The blood of Naples' patron saint liquefied at 10:03 Italian time, and it was a huge celebration.

Native son and soccer legend Diego Maradona is revered here with pictures everywhere along with several shrines. We spent time in the Napoli underground which is an extensive system of caves, passages and catacombs beneath the old town. Naples is always alive and there’s energy in the air. In the evening, you’ll see Neapolitans sitting at an outdoor terrace, drinking beer or an Aperol Spritz, smoking cigarettes and catching up with friends. The Piazza del Plebiscito - a beautiful pedestrian area anchored by two structures: the church of San Francesco di Paola and the fabulous Royal Palace of Naples.

Visiting Naples
Appreciating Napoli

Naples makes a wonderful base for day trips to nearby islands. We explored the Amalfi Coast trifecta: Sorrento, Positano, and Capri. And hated it.

I think this area may have been a collection of beautiful, charming small towns, lazy on the azure waters kind of place decades ago. Now, it’s a sea of tourists, jostling down its beautiful narrow, cobblestones streets. The tiny boutique stores and art galleries could be rather charming, (selling the usual limoncello, touristy knickknacks and gelato) if you can actually get in without bumping into practically everyone. Overpriced and really bad “Italian” food….especially when you have eaten the really good stuff recommended by local friends It can be the place of your dreams, if you know Clooney types—because big, private yachts (not the kind you rent) have their own different harbor and thus inhabit a different part of town with its own ecosystem devoid of tourists. For those who are curious: The blue grotto is a traffic jam in the sea, the wait to get in was 1.5 hours—each row boat is allowed 5 mins inside. You get off your private boat and get into the official rowboat and line up for your turn.

The smaller lesser known towns in this area are a better option — Praiano, Furore, Maiori, Cetara, and Vietri sul Mare

Enjoying the Amalfi Coast

We went on to Sicily where we had an amazing time on this beautiful island. We hope it stays undiscovered. Washed by three different seas (Mediterranean, Ionian and Tyrrhnian), reflected in its name “Trinacria,” the 3-cornered island. We tried to cover as wide a swath as possible without rushing. And stayed in the most amazing places, all with sweeping views of the sea.

Sicily: Siracusa and Ortigia

The island of Ortigia (where we stayed in a fantastic place) is what I expected the Amalfi coast to be. It is the most relaxed, beautiful and charming little island ever!

The town’s long history is visible in many buildings, going back as far as the 6th century BC Temple of Apollo. The food, the daily market with its many stalls of spices and fresh fish, cheese and fruits. From the ocean side walks to its sunsets, we just loved our time here. For three centuries Syracuse (Siracus, in Italian) was the most powerful city in the Mediterranean and the center of the ancient Greek civilization. Birthplace of Archimedes and home to Pythagoras and Plato, the city's history, from prehistoric populations through to the introduction of Baroque architecture, is still clearly visible in many streets and buildings. The Greek theater survives in good condition, and you can still see the stone quarries, or Latomie, which provided stone for many of the ancient monuments, but also served as prisons.

Visiting Siracusa and Ortigia
Historic Greek Siracusa and Ortigia

Sicily: Taormina

If you have watched “The Godfather” or “White Lotus,” then you have seen the many charms of this town. The town clings perilously to a cliff, high above the deep-blue Ionian Sea, a maze of cobbled alleyways, stone stairways, and picture-perfect piazzas. Every house (rich or not) has magnificent views of the ocean. Taormina is more expensive, so expect to pay more for everything. With magnificent views of the ocean and the powerful active volcano, Mt Etna, this town was my favorite. (BTW, Mt. Etna is also the largest volcano in Europe) The center of town is laced with high-end shops and restaurants. Taormina is famed among the European glitterati—and you can see why. Lots to see and do here, where the air is laced with the scent of lemon and orange blossom.

Even though the center is teeming with people, a seven minute walk out will transform your experience, to one of quiet tranquility. We stayed in a fantastic 2-bedroom, recently restored flat with sweeping views of the ocean, mountains and Mt. Etna. It was a 15 min walk from the center and very residential. We spent a lot of time on our balcony, and even cooked at home—the quality of the produce and fresh pastas made everything super easy.

Two of the most famed European hotels are here: The San Domenico Palace-Four Seasons (of White Lotus fame, rooms start at $2500/night) and Grand Hotel Timeo, right next to the Greek theater, it has hosted prominent celebrities (Jackie O’s fav hangout) before they head to the Greek theater for a performance.

Stay awhile, like we did, makes it all very relaxing and you can soak in the atmosphere without rushing. One lazy day, laden with desserts from the local fav: Pasticceria D’Amore, we went to Castelmola, a tiny village even higher than Taormina. It has incredible views, charming colorful streets, and it’s a prime place to pass a couple of hours sipping almond wine (tastes like mothballs) in the sunshine. You can hike up in about 40 mins (great for negative calories before chowing down desert) or take a bus (15 mins).

Amazing Taormina
Amazing Taormina

Palermo: The capital city of Sicily

Sitting close to where Europe ends and Africa begins, Palermo bears the scars – and echoes the glories – of centuries of domination. Once Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman and ultimately Italian – unified with the mainland only in 1861 – it has a relatively recent “made in Italy” identity.

Vibrant markets, piazzas, fabulous granita al caffe con panna (shaved coffee ice with whipped cream) and freshly filled cannoli’s—makes this a great last stop. It boasts Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, the third largest opera house in Europe, after Paris and Vienna. A beautiful space, with no microphones—the high dome amplifies the sound. This is so great, because the “cheap seats” have the best audio!

Palermo reminds me of Bombay. A similar vibe, busy, frenetic, lots of street food…expressive, social people. Where it differs is that it is a bit cleaner and even on the busiest of streets, there is no honking. Pedestrians and auto’s live in harmony, the drivers are patient and that evokes a sense of deep community. We roamed the back streets of this town—cooked, relaxed, ate a lot of gelato, granita and street food (their famous focaccia and panelle were both not that great! One is cold and the other limp and not that tasty!), drank spritz (so famous and loved by all, day or night). Nights transform the local streets and markets into a club-like atmosphere, reflecting the true essence of the city, the energy and dynamism of the cosmopolitan culture of Palermo.

Magical Palermo
Magical Palermo

It was a memorable trip, in a memorable year and one we will relish for a very long time. We left our hearts in Sicily.  Divertitevi (have fun)!


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