Good-bye Far-flung, former Soviet Republics! Ciao Italy! Our flight to the island of Sicily left Yerevan, Armenia at 5:30 am with a six hour lay-over in Athens, Greece. It was going to be a long day - but who cared? We were headed in the right direction - away from former Soviet Union enclaves. Although we were now headed toward the birthplace of the Mafia... maybe we should call these last few months the Senior Nomads Corruption Tour.
We chose to spend our precious summer in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus Region because that part of the world doesn’t show well in winter. The landscapes and buildings are dreary enough without low hanging grey skies and cold drizzle adding to the gloom. So we explored this fascinating part of the world at it’s best - and we wouldn’t trade a single day, but we were happy to be heading back to Western Europe and to Italy in particular, one of our favorite countries.
The island of Sicily is a part of Italy that we hadn’t visited before. However in our lifetime we've been top-to-bottom and side-to-side spending time in twenty-eight different cities. We’d heardgreat things about this island off the boot - especially the food, that we were more than ready for a leisurely ten-day tour.
But first, breakfast in Athens. We were able to find Vassili and Helena, our Airbnb hosts from our two-week stay there in 2013 and asked if they’d like to spend a few hours together during our layover. Yes! They scooped us up at the airport and took us to breakfast at a local seafood restaurant nearby. It was great to see them again and confirmed that we have made some great friends on this journey.
I could write at length about Michael and I getting separated for an hour after we returned to the Athens airport but here's the short version. It all started with a stop at the restroom. As in I thought he said he was going to make a stop. I sat down on a bench to wait. And wait. Apparently he did not go to the men's room, and failed to notice I wasn't behind him as he headed to security. He looked around and couldn’t find me anywhere. (We couldn't call or text each other because we didn't have cell coverage because we were between countries.) He decided I’d gone to the gate without him What? Meanwhile, after waiting twenty minutes I cajoled two different men to go into the bathroom to see if he'd collapsed in a stall. Finally I checked myself and he was definitely not there. Just as I began to panic I heard an announcement over the public address system calling me to the gate. That turned out to be 15 minutes away once I got through security and to the end of beyond. Michael was in a far worse state then I was by then. It all ended in a tearful happy/angry/relieved reunion just before the last call for our flight.
After a predawn start and the airport fiasco we were a little frazzled when wearrived at our Airbnb in Catania. But we were revived by a very enthusiastic greeting from our host Daniela. Our apartment had been in her husband's family for a very long time - and in fact her in-laws could be traced back several hundred years. Catania Airbnb The flat belonged to her father-in-law, a well known architect and his sketches covered the walls. We enjoyed a lovely seafood dinner with her and her husband Carmelo and learned even more about the city and their connection.
We also discovered the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi would be visiting the city while we were there. That was enough to perk-up Michael’s ears - remember he loves politics and Senior Renzi is often in the news. As it turned out what seemed to be an endless stream of chanting citizens waving banners for dozens of different social issues, apparently not supported by the Prime Minister, passed right under our balcony.
We decided to get down to street-level so we could be a part of the action. Michael found many participants who spoke English and were more than happy to educate a couple of crazy Americans about the issues that the government was ignoring. Meanwhile Senior Renzi and hundreds of his supporters were sipping wine and “sharing the love” at an outdoor concert in a secured park as the finale to the three-day Democratic Party summer conference. Of course we went there too.
During our short stay in Catania we took a day-trip north to the picturesque city of Taormina. The bus trip from sea level to 700 feet was a hair-raising on a narrow road filled with switchbacks. Watching bus drivers swerve past each other with barely a tap on the brakes, was worth the trip. The town itself was charming but filled with tourists but we managed to enjoy a quiet lunch at a trattoria tucked in a narrow alley away from the crowds. Soon after, it began to rain heavily so we wern't able to see the towns main attraction - the well-preserved Greek coliseum and it’s spectacular views of Mt. Etna, a still very active volcano. A side note, at dinner that evening we sat next to a spry couple from the Netherlands, both retired physicians, who may just be a little wackier than we are. They travel the world trekking to the very edges of volcanoes - the hotter the better. Etna would be their 7th such sojourn. As they were describing their travels, the woman closed her eyes for a moment and then sighed, “We just love the smell of lava!" Hey - we like living in random peoples homes. Who are we to judge?
Syracuse itself isn’t particularly special, but the island of Ortigia sits just across a narrow channel of water and it is magical. Just saunter over the bridge and plunge into a twisting medieval maze. The highlights include a daily market where you could buy just about anything that came from the ground or the sea and you could slurp oysters and champagne at 8:00 am for just a few euros. One evening we visited the majestic Duomo with our host and caught a wedding underway.
Before you knew it, we were on the road to our next Sicilian stop. We were told the only way to really experience the island requires renting a car, something we have done only 3 times in over three years. But we valued the advice of our good friend and veteran Italian tour guide, David Iverson who considers Sicily his favorite destination. He assured us we’d miss the magic if we didn’t drive the winding roads ourselves and stop at whatever roadside ruins or hidden beaches caught our fancy. If we had to do it - we decided to do it in style and rented a Audi A3 Convertible. Of course having our giant suitcases piled in the back seat sort of took some of the glamour away.
Our first stop was a B&B for a night in Piazza Armerina near La Villa Romana del Casale. It was a family affair - with Papa on the welcoming committee and Nonna in the kitchen and an adorable seven year old granddaughter for me to entertain. We met a very pleasant American couple whom we had dinner with that evening in the old city. After breakfast, we grabbed a few fresh oranges and headed to one of the must-see sights of Sicily, Villa Romana del Casale. All I have will say is I have never seen anything like it. And the imagination and execution required to produce these masterpieces boggles my simple mind. It was not only one of my favorite places in Sicily, I put it in my top 10. Right up there with visitingthe Chernobyl Nuclear Plant and the Vatican Museum.
Heres a snip from Lonely Planet’s description: “Villa Romana del Casale is sumptuous, even by decadent Roman standards, and is thought to have been the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome's co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286–305). Certainly, the size of the complex – four interconnected groups of buildings spread over the hillside – and the 3535 sq m of astoundingly well-preserved multi-colored floor mosaics suggest a palace of imperial standing."
We continued heading West along the underside of Sicily to Agrigento where we spent the night at a beautiful agroturism resort nestled in a working olive grove called Mandranova Azienda Agricola. This was another of Dave’s recommendations and he was spot on. I was in the pool ten minutes after we arrived while Michael took a long nap. We had a lovely dinner under the stars at long tables with two dozen other guests. The menu was set - your only decision was meat, fish or vegetarian for your main course. After that, amazing food just kept coming, and the wine kept flowing, and conversations drifted between intimate and shared. Afterwards we crawled into our big feather bed made up with butter-soft linen sheets and thanked the Gods.
We stretched like cats in the morning sun and headed to the main house for more delectables wherewe were not disappointed. We started with bread straight from the oven served with saucers of fresh-pressed olive oil for dipping, quivering soft-boiled eggs and homemade sausage. Next on the buffet were jammy tarts, melt-in-your mouth scones, almond biscotti, toasted walnuts and homemade yogurt with stewed figs. And we had to leave room for farm grown fruit and fresh squeezed juices. And of course the finest espresso in the land.
Just before we headed out for our next adventure, we began a lively conversation with a young German couple, Thomas and Terane who live in Berlin. She is an innovative interior designer and he is a graphic designer who was a toddler when the wall came down. We were both smitten right off the bat and we had a great chat about German typography but the conversation soon turned political, as always, and we were off and running on topics that ran from Angela Merkel and immigration, to Brexit and the relevance of the EU. We finished with an analysis on our upcoming presidential election and our thoughts on Mr. Trump. Argh. It was about this time that we considered becoming Canadian for the rest of our trip.
We continued to delay checking-out since the cost of the room and dinner for one night was equivalent to 3 nights in our typical airbnbs so we took one last stroll through the olive grove.
Back in our super-sleek Audi(despite the offending suitcases) we continued west and then north to our final stop in the city of Trapani where we would spend our final two nights. The reason for going to Trapani, besides visiting the charming old city and having gelato for breakfast, was to visit the ancient city of Erice. Here's the Link.
The recommended way to reach this medieval gem is by the funicular in six person gondolas that whisk you from sea level to 2,400 feet in about 15 minutes and deposits you at the fortified gates to the city. Far better than yet another twisting one lane road. It was equal to the praise we read in every guide to Sicily. Although like most everywhereelse, you had to look past the souvenir shops and restaurants serving all you an eat pasta and sushi (that would be in the same restaurant).
Our Trapani Airbnb was basic but comfortable, and our hosts were gracious although they did not speak English. Here's the link: Trapani Airbnb Fortunately their 15 year-old daughter did so she zoomed over on the back of her boyfriend's Vespa to spare some precious teenage time and make sure we knew the basics. One thing we continue to learn … "assume nothing." There was no hot water at the kitchen sink so we chased down the owners to ask how to turn it on. It wasn’t an option - no hot water. That would be a first.
Day 10 arrived, and like every other day in Sicily we woke to blue skies and sunshine. So, with the convertible top down and Italian pop tunes blasting on the radio we set-out for the Palermo airport where we dropped off our car and caught a flight for Rome. This time we kept each other in site.
We really enjoyed our time in Sicily and will definitely go back. If only to appease our friends who pointed out what we missed. Especially Palermo. Unless you were part of the contingent that couldn't care less about Palermo and were relieved we spent time in Catania. And so it goes in Italy.
On arrival in Rome we were met yet again by former Airbnb hosts who have become friends. Laura and Paolo hosted us at their Airbnb in Nicosia in 2015 where we really bonded. They invited us to stay with them whenever we were in Rome if they were at their home there. The stars aligned and we we able to see them again. These connections are a critical part of why we continue our Senior Nomad lifestyle - because without a home of our own, we always find a special place to call home.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads