Friday, April 3, 2009

Sicily...and Napoli one more time.

So...the first class train to Palermo, Sicily turned out to be awesome! Not only was it beautiful as it skirted the lovely Mediterranean Sea for hours on end, but Trip and I also rode in a private 6-seat cabin for the entire 9.5 hour journey. We had heard the Palermo was kind of a nasty place, similar to Naples, but we were proven wrong immediately upon leaving the train station on foot when a big dump truck drove by and a dude leaned out the window and yelled "Welcome to Palermo!!" That put us at ease, as did finally running into some people that returned our smiles and greetings of "ciao". We arrived at our hostel, called A Casa di Amici (A House for Friends) and were warmly welcomed by Claudia, a young and energetic hostel owner. Cute too, but I digress.

That night we were found a great, little, quiet and authentic Sicilian restaurant off the tourist track and had a FANTASTIC dinner of spaghetti and black mussels. Unfortunately, the house wine tasted like gasoline...however, we didn't want to be impolite so we plugged our noses and choked down the entire liter we'd bought. With a nice little buzz we ended up back in the hostel and invited to drink MORE red wine with the owner and other hostel guests. Alex, an Aussie chef staying there also shared some delicious panne cotte (sort of a custard dessert). We stayed up until well past midnight socializing. Upon arising the next morning, we planned our day - coffee/cornetto (croissant stuffed with nutella!!), dead bodies, beach, lunch...not necessarily in that order. Yes, I said "dead bodies".

The Catacombe is an underground place in Palermo where housed are rows upon rows of dried and decomposed bodies that are viewable for the low, low price of just 1.5 Euros. Why, you say? Well, apparently in the mid-to-late 1800's some local God-fearing folks decided that they wanted to wait, in their Sunday-best clothes, in a dark and cavernous basement with lots of shelving, for the eventual return of Christ. I guess they still hang out (literally, for some) and wait for the rapture, patiently, not knowing (or DO they know??) that they are posing for tourist photos every day between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m..

On the way to the beach, we found a total workman's lunch haunt and got some pretty darn good (and cheap) calamari and two pasta dishes that actually had some spices in the sauce for once. (Talk about bland pasta and pizza sauces...fresh tomatoes, yes, but spices are scant.) The beach at Mondello turned out to be GORGEOUS. There's a small town right at water's edge, and you have to drive through a forest reserve to get there. Sorry, Orlando, there were no topless women there, contrary to what you may have heard. However, while sunny, it was not particularly warm that day. Trip and I did manage to get into the cold water, but only swam for about 40 seconds....brrrrrr. We did lay out for an hour or so though to soak up some sun. After the beach, we went out and to find good Sicilian pizza, but were somewhat disappointed. The crust was dry and hard and the sauce was bland; but, they did put a lot of delicious ingredients on it, including salami, prosciutto, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, and fresh mozzarella made from buffalo milk. From that small sample size, we deduce that Napoli's crown of "Best Italian Pizza" is still intact.

One thing that sucks about Sicily is the "pane e coperto". That means basically they charge you 2 Euro per person to sit down at your meal and have the privilege of a basket of bread and someone to bring your food. This does not constitute service as there is none...they take your order, deliver it, and then ignore you throughout the meal (this seems to happen at each Italian meal). The problem with the coperto charge is that it does NOT go to the server, it goes to the house, the owner. The irony, and what really pissed us off, is that they say it's PANE e coperto (bread and cup, translated literally) but when we ordered pizza, we weren't even given any bread!! So after our meal, we realize we have to pay an extra six bucks to the owner for nonexistent bread and for having sat in the restaurant to eat pizza which we paid for. Ridiculous. Apparently, per Claudia the hostel owner (who hates it), you can refuse to pay the coperto charge and many locals do, but as tourists we didn't want to cause a scene or irritate anyone, especially when we couldn't fight back in their language. Pick your battles, right? Anyway, it wasn't the six extra bucks, it was the principle.

We woke the next day as planned to take the bus to Noto. Now Noto is off the beaten path, but is supposed to be amazing. We had to take a bus to Catania and then take another small bus to Noto. We decided to do this without a room reservation because we haven't seen many full hostels since we've been here. It's always a risk to do this because if a town is busy, you may end up walking all over town trying to find a room as the sun is going down...never fun. Well, we had a great travel day and made it to Noto by mid afternoon. We walked the 1 mile straight uphill in the boiling 85 degree heat to the top of the hill where Il Castello (the Castle) hostel sits, only to find out it is, as we soon found out in broken English "closed for EVER". Fortunately, it only took us walking around for about 15 minutes to find a suitable replacement, La Badia B&B. It turned out to be really nice and a really great value for the 25 Euros/person. The hostel would have been about 16 Euros, but this room was super nice and the woman who rented to us was wonderful. She spoke no English, but hey, we're getting pretty good at the drill now and can get around with little inconvenience after about 9 days here.

Noto was very quiet and pretty friendly. The town looks very different because all the buildings are a light colored sandstone compared to the darker granite, marble, and volcanic rock we've been seeing in other towns. The plan was to stay 2 nights, but after finding out that we couldn't rent scooters or a car to get out to the beach/forest preserve we wanted to see, we decided to just stay one night. We wandered around and saw a lame civic museum, a cool looking cathedral, and a super AMAZING theater. The theater was astoundingly gorgeous with 5 stories of booths, all with good views of the stage. Red velvet and gold were everywhere and I had chills going through my body as I listened to an imaginary Italian opera singer hitting the high notes on the register. Sadly, the amazement was doused a bit when, upon leaving, Trip touched the "gold" and informed me it was some kind of painted paper-mache surface. Oh well, it LOOKED amazing!

We're skipping the town of Lecce, which was recommended by Valerio the Napoli hostel guy, because we think we'd rather get up to the northern part of Italy for the rest of our trip.

Instead, we got up at 630 a.m. and headed down to the Noto bus station with a plan of a full day of travel back to Napoli. Yes, we didn't like Napoli much, but the hostel there is awesome, it's located on the way to Tuscany/Umbria (our next destinations), and we want more delicious Napolitano pizza!!

This time, after a 1 hour bus trip back to a larger town with a bigger train station, we decided to do SECOND class train tickets back to Napoli. But, to our surprise, while paying second class fare, we were rewarded with the same 6-seat cabin of which we were the only two occupants. Eight hours of private public transit, without anyone to interrupt us, with seats that folded down into beds so that we could sleep when we tired of gazing out at the Mediterranean...for only 40 Euros each (about 55 dollars?). No complaints.

This time, finding the Napoli hostel was a breeze because we knew all the local subway routes we needed to know. When we walked back in, even without a reservation, we were treated like rock stars! I guess not many people return after the first visit. We were rewarded by Valerio with information on the TRUE best pizza in town. Getting there was quite the snafu, even with two college degrees and a map. The map was awful, the signage was pointing us in circles, and not all of the streets had names. Finally, after using a combination of map-reading, intuition, and asking for directions in broken Italian, we ended up at Starita, the supposed best pizzeria in the supposed best pizza town in the country. And there we stood with 150 other people waiting to get in...

First things first, Trip grabbed us each a beer, which we stood in the street drinking with the crowd, as we tried to figure out how to get a seat in a restaurant that held about 20 people when we were 151st and 152nd on the waiting list. We decided to try to get our pizza to go instead of waiting for a table. I braved the crowd, wiggled my way inside, and used my first "Ciao, Bella" of the trip. I don't know if it worked, but the girl smiled and said I could order pizza to go...then when I ordered what I wanted, she stopped writing and looked up and asked if I was Valerio's friend from the hostel. I guess all his hostel buddies order the same thing!! By this time, she was taking time out of her busy night to tell me all about her pending honeymoon to the U.S., where she'll see Vegas, NYC, Miami, and San Francisco over the course of a month. She was so excited to meet an American and share how her dream of going to America is coming true next month. I had my pizzas in hand, literally, less than one minute after she yelled out my order. No doubt that we'd have waited for 3 hours for a table if not for this angel of a woman. I have no idea who didn't get their pizzas, but I know that we got ours and we RAN out of there before an angry mob (no pun intended) of hungry Italians beat us down and stole our pizza.

On the way home, from standing about 30 feet away, we saw a dude get crushed by a car while riding his scooter. Well, not crushed...but the girl did turn in front of him and he was thrown onto the hood of the car, then about 15 feet through the air onto the sidewalk into a metal railing. No helmet. I thought for sure I'd be doing CPR and applying direct pressure to stop massive bleeding. Yet, the dude popped right up, cussing of course, because his scooter was totaled. I handed him his hat (literally) and we left him and the girl to work it out, Napoli-style. Whatever that means...we didn't wanna know.

Arriving back at the hostel, we happened upon a great live, local jazz and rock group playing a show to hostellers and locals alike. After a beer and a little dancing, we lined up some hostels/hotels on the internet for the next few days and then headed to bed. This time, our Napoli experience was completely different. Some people even smiled at us on the street. Maybe it was all in our heads that Napoli is dirty and least a little bit, maybe?

Tomorrow it's off to Umbria, and a couple of hilltowns in the country. Woo hoo!!!

Thanks for bearing with my looooooooooooonnnnnggggg blog posts. This is also my diary!!

Love to all,