Ten Things about Italy

We moved towards the last leg of the trip, leaving Italy to return to French soil in the shape of Corsica-one hour from and in sight of Sardinia. I began to reflect on the things I’d learned about Italy from having spent a longer and more comprehensive block of time in the country [albeit mainly in the south]. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  • If you want a coffee in Italy, forget about Starbucks and Costa. It will be no use asking for a cortado, a machiatto, a cappucino or a flat white. These are coffees that sound Italian, that someone in marketing has thought up. You may get a latte [although to my mind you may just as well get a cup of hot milk, but in any bar you can have an espresso [beloved by most Italians]-a tiny shot or an Americano-a tiny shot with extra hot water. I achieved my preferred coffee by asking for Americano with ‘piccolo latte’.
  • Despite the Walls ice cream ad, asking for a cornetto will get you a croissant. The custard ones are wonderful.
  • It is well known that Italian drivers are amongst the worst, most aggressive and dangerous in the world.Sicilian drivers are the worst in Italy. The cities of Messina, Catania and Palermo boast the worst of the worst. Intersections in Palermo are akin to some demonic, vehicule version of the Hokey-Cokey, with everyone rushing into the middle, hooting, shouting and gesticulating. Traffic lights are entirely superfluous.
  • Service stations and some cafes have a most eccentric and baffling system for purchasing coffees and snacks whereby a ticket must be got from a cashier in advance of items being prepared. So confused were we the first time that we gave up altogether.
  • Whilst we sweltered in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce May sun the locals went about their business swathed in multiple layers of puffa jackets, body warmers and scarves. I imagine we seemed insane to their chilly selves.
  • Despite the likes of Versace etc Italians slob around as style-less as the rest of us. On the ferry to Sardinia there was a distressing array of bri-nylon track suits. The women are welded to their cosmetics, rarely to be seen without a full face of make-up and the men are fond of their hair, often sporting outrageous styles. Thy are also as weight challenged as anybody else.
  • To chomp your way through a typical Italian menu you would have to be Billy Bunter. There is a bewildering number of courses, the second of which is a full plate of pasta. Best advice is to skip the pasta course.
  • It seems a cliche but Italians are correct to be proud of their gelati. Italian ice cream really is the best. The coffee cone I had in Venice was the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • The contrasts are extreme. In the East of Sicily, where package tourists congregate the roads are akin to the Etna volcanic landscape, the fly tippers have carte blanche and the drivers are suicidal maniacs. The West is a pristine, smooth, quiet haven. In Palermo there are beautiful, renovated piazzas with clean, restored basilicas, cathedrals and monuments. Step away down a narrow alley and you will be instantly into a third world ghetto of open sewers, garbage, feral dogs and dodgy characters.
  • Italian is a most beautiful, musical language about which I intend to devote an entire post in due course…

Oh The Joys of Sicilian Public Transport…

Taorminha. Sicily’s tourist jewel; the magnet for package holiday visitors and justifiably so, perched high on cliffs, the many levels of buildings clinging like limpets in precarious view of the azure sea and topped by the Greco-Roman amphitheatre with its outstanding panorama of Mount Etna.

We shouldn’t miss Taorminha. Having settled into our ramshackle site overlooking a black beach at the edge of the small seaside town of San Alesso Sicula we investigated transport options. Driving up the almost sheer cliff face was out of the question but buses made regular trips and a timetable was posted at reception.  We strolled out into the modest little town and stopped for a seafront beer then found the bus ‘fermata’ ready for tomorrow.

The bus came, and on time. There were some moments of anxiety as it appeared to go in the opposite direction but then it turned in towards our goal, along the autostrada the finally up a series of hairpin bends, up and up into the town, where the driver reassured us that we should wait, later for the return bus. So far so good.

Even now, in April the historic streets were thronged with tourists, the bars and gelaterias doing thriving business. The theatre and its views are worth the hype. The lackadaisical service at the famous ‘Wunderbar’ was not. We gave up waiting and got a drink at the modest bar by the bus stop. Then we waited. And watched the battered, scraped, stove-in and dented vehicles lurching by. And waited.

‘He’s just late’ suggested Husband, ‘It’s the traffic’.

Less sanguine, I nipped into the information booth and learned that the return stop had been changed that afternoon and was now the bus station, many levels down. It had left. The next bus was at 19.40pm. Wonderful.

We got an overpriced and mediocre meal before trudging down to the bus depot to wait. The sun was gone, the evening cooling. Buses came and went with shrugging drivers. At last, cold and disillusioned we returned to the information booth to be told the bus driver, who’d evidently chosen to go home for dinner rather than do his last run, would come back for us at 21.30pm. Unable to face the inhospitable bus station once more we climbed into a taxi. This is Sicily.

We left San Alesso to meander along the south coast towards Mount Etna and a site that boasted an uninterrupted view of this, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. There among a strip of unedifying bars, guest houses and hotels with bizarre South American influenced names-‘Ipanema’, ‘Mokambo’-we found our site. Clearly Sicilians feel there is no advantage in capitalising on proximity to another tourist magnet. There was no ‘Etna Bar’, ‘Lava Lounge’ or ‘Eruptions Night Club’. The site was modest but clean and adequate, with precious few visitors for such a prestigious position. Etna’s head lay still shrouded in clouds but remained an impressive sight, towering above the coast with snow clad slopes.

Next morning, however we were treated to a clear, unsullied view of the entire volcano and its vast crater. Result!

Crossing the Void and having to Avoid…

We wrenched ourselves from beautiful, sunny Paestum having ascertained that thunderstorms were amassing and that the next day, Easter Sunday would be a quiet, truck-free day on the roads.

Italy’s south west coast takes in Basilicata first then Calabria-the toe and the poor relation of Italy’s mainland. But the coast road is stunning and scenic, twisting and turning around a mountainous fringe as it wends south; a coastline to rival the famous Amalfi road and far less travelled. It was indeed quiet, Italy’s biggest religious holiday when families get together to celebrate.

As promised, towards mid-afternoon the glowering clouds vented in a thunderous, lightning-ridden deluge as we neared Italy’s toe and a few glimpses of Sicily.

Since Abruzzo we’d descended into internet silence and it was becoming clear that something was amiss concerning connectivity. We stopped just before the port town at ‘The Mimosas’, quiet, low season and dispiriting in the showery weather. The small beach, however offered our first, shadowy view of Sicily.

In the town where we were to get across the Straights of Messina we were to experience a taste of what was to come in terms of southern Italian driving behaviour. In the narrow streets there were vehicles parked on both sides, cars coming through, cars reversing, cars double-parked or parked across the road. Knowing where the port was located was no help in determining how to get to it. We drove around and around, helpless until a bystander helped out for a small remuneration, showing where to buy a ticket and where to join the queue. The stretch of water is narrow and offers a view of Messina sprawled along the coastline of Sicily.

The ferries came and went in a relentless stream, uninfluenced by the religious holiday of Easter Monday and soon we’d driven into the bowels of one. We joined the throng of passengers climbing up to the café and there was just time to get a coffee before the vessel docked-at Messina!

Having disembarked and trundled off the dockside into the rambling town we began to experience the complete and utter bun-fight that is Sicilian driving. Vehicles shooting out of side roads and parking spaces, no indication of intention, overtaking on both sides, double and triple parking, stopping mid-road and getting out, disregarding red lights, other cars and any kind of safety procedure. This was to be the norm.

The outskirts of Messina, a long built-up stretch were lined with scruffy housing, numerous assorted vans, trucks and cars selling mostly green beans heaped up in mountains in car boots and on truck beds. This is clearly not a wealthy area.

Later the road morphed into seaside suburbia and we found the way to the autostrada where we made for the first site [near as we could get to the tourist hotspot of Taormina]. Elements of doubt crept in as we bumped around an unmade road and past a cement works sporting a statue of a praying monk, [San Cementus, perhaps? –the patron saint of concrete?] but there was the entrance, shrouded in a choking cloud of barbecue smoke on this holiday afternoon; the small, dishevelled site crammed with holidaying Italians. We were shown a spot overlooking the sea front. Here at last!