Tales from Italy ch. 6: SICILIA!

Being sick away from home is such an uncomfortable and hopeless feeling. That’s how I felt earlier this week when I woke up with a fever of 100.4 on Sunday. Being bed-ridden is enough to ruin anyone’s day, but despite my illness, I had a reason to be thankful. After all, I would much rather be ill in my dorm room in Urbino than on my vacation in Sicily which had just ended the day before.

And what a spectacular vacation that was! We visited Palermo (the Capital), Monreale (a stunning mountain town famous for its golden Santa Maria Nuova cathedral), and Cefalù (the most beautiful beach town ever to exist). The best part is that all this happened spontaneously too- the whole trip was thought up and organized less than week before our departure (yes, these sort of things are apparently possible while in Europe). To make our travels even easier and less expensive we chose to fly Ryanair, an Irish flight company that flies solely around Europe. Our tickets were so cheap I almost cried, and all our flights ended up being on time or arriving early- best ever.

Our trip began last Sunday with a bus to Pesaro and then a train to Bologna. In Bologna, Laura, Judith, Janelle, and I met up with our friend, Monika, who had been visiting her boyfriend and friend and who would be traveling with us to Sicily. The five of us spent the day in Bologna before getting a hotel room since our flight was at 6:30am the next day. Bologna was great- we ate kebab, got at least 20 little boxes of free cereal that were being handed out to promote Nestle (yay to saving money on breakfast groceries for the whole week!), saw the beautiful city-center, heard an organ concert at the San Petronio church, and had appertivi (buffet appetizers) for dinner.

I would just like to add to this list that the kebabs were delicious. Oh my goodness they were so good. And Laura really wanted to pay for her kebab with the hundreds of coins she had accumulated in her wallet. As she began counting them out, the chef behind the counter (we nicknamed him Ali) kept trying to convince her to not worry about it and that she could have it for free at this point, but Laura insisted- she really wanted to get rid of all her coins. So, the chef cupped Laura’s hands and led her away from the counter  and to a seat to eat before she could finish her penny-counting. While we all ate, we were given 2 free plates of french fries and a tall bottle of iced tea. With all the food the only sounds that we made to communicate were “mmm’s,” “oh’s,” and “ah’s.” We were quite the symphony and left a great tip.
On our way out, the chef called Laura back to the counter. We all thought she was going to have to pay after all, but the chef just asked her to hold out her hands. Into them, he dropped a small napkin-pouch filled with all her coins, and all Laura could say was, “No! But I wanted to get rid of them!” as he led her out the door with a smile.

The next morning, we got up at 3:30am to get a taxi by 4. Our flight was at 6:30, and I wanted to make sure we had enough time to do everything at the airport, including visiting an additional desk since Janelle, Laura, and I are Americans and not part of the E.U. Despite this extra stop, we made it through security and were at our gate by 4:45. I should believe Monika and Judith next time when they say it really doesn’t take such a long time at the airports in Europe. Why does it seem to take so much more time in America?
While killing time at our gate, I had an interesting thought. Sitting there looking around at all the people, I found it funny how by tonight all these people will be on different ends of the Earth, but for these brief hours, we’re all clustered together in the same building. Philosophical maybe? I don’t know. It wasn’t even 5am after all.

Once our plane arrived in Trapani, we then had to take a bus to Palermo where we had rented an apartment. The bus ride was crazy though- I mean, Italian drivers are crazier than American drivers by a lot, but this guy was driving a full-sized coach bus! We were passing cars and stopping within inches of the bumpers of cars in front of us- it really kept us on the edge at first, but by the end we learned to trust our driver and took in the beautiful views around us. Sicily, might I add, is gorgeous. I took so many photos from the bus ride alone because it was all just so beautiful!
<<Notice our inability to see the bottom half of the car in front of us. There was probably less than an inch between our full-sized bus and this car.

When we got to Palermo, we went in search of our apartment. Asking for directions in Italy (no matter where) I have found to be a challenge. Everyone you ask will tell you something different until you end up finding what you were looking for by chance and sheer luck. That said, our apartment was located down some seemingly-sketchy back roads in Palermo. We were a little uneasy at first, but after meeting our landlord, a sweet old man with a beagle and free tour guides and maps, we felt more comfortable. Our apartment was very cosy and comfortable (complete with second bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, living room, and entry); just right for the little time we’d be spending in it. After unpacking, we headed back outside and concluded that despite our apartment’s rough street, it had its own character and touch; something we would have missed if we weren’t living right in the heart of downtown Palermo.

Because of our early start that day, we figured we’d take the day easy and just explore wherever we ended up. We walked through beautiful parks with palm trees, down to a marina, visited some cathedrals where I learned about the Italian tradition of keeping the bones of saints and putting them on display, saw a puppet maker, and found the most delicious dessert shop of all. Along the way, we encountered several people who, I assume because they heard us speaking English to each other, decided it seemed perfectly normal to scream English phrases at us. For example, one man yelled “Sorry!” at us from across the street. When we looked up at him to see what he was sorry for, all he did was smile at us. We’re pretty sure he was just yelling the only English word he knew to catch our attention. A second man, this one who we passed in the park, turned back to face us and said, “Yes, of course!” Not only had we not been speaking with him, but none of us had asked him a question either. And just like the man before, when we looked at him to see what he meant, he only smiled at us, happy to have caught our attention.

The next day we were less fortunate with the weather as it decided to rain all day. It wasn’t so bad however because we spent most of the day in Palermo indoors visiting churches (there are so many all over Italy- and they’re all so beautifully ornate!) and going to the famous Capuchin Catacombs. I had never seen a catacomb before, and this one was huge. There were dead bodies all around- some standing (suspsended by cables), others were lying down, and others were in coffins with glass covers. There were people of all ages- babies, children, adults, and elders- all from over the course of centuries before the practice of displaying your dead ended in the 19th century. As disturbing and eerie as it was (Janelle couldn’t even look up and kept her head facing the floor the whole time), it was interesting too. I couldn’t help but wonder who each person had been when he or she was alive, what they did, where they lived, when they lived, or how they died. After all, every one of them had been wealthy (the poor didn’t put their dead on display like this) so I’m sure they had accomplished interesting things. If we were lucky, the most information we could find on them were their lifetime dates or names- that is, if we found a name, for only a handful of bodies had any information. One particular identifiable corpse however, was the world-famous Rosalia Lombardo mummy. I was surprised when I found her because I had actually read about her years earlier. Anyway, despite all the morbidity, my favorite part of the catacombs was the clothing. Since the bodies ranged from every age and from centuries old to only a century old, I saw hundreds of years of style for children and adults- the only thing was these styles were still being sported by their original owners too. o_o
To end the day and restore some sanity after all the corpses earlier, we played a children’s game of MASH. It was great because Monika and Judith had never played before and we got to teach them. Categories included the usual like who you’d marry, what car you’d drive, how much money you’d make (‘fish’ apparently sufficed for this at one point), where you’d live, etc, but we also threw in a random category for each person as well (ex: a superpower category; “I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be really stretchy.” -Laura). The “Future Job” section was pretty funny too, as some jobs included a yak farmer (“The yaks need milking!”) and Ron Jeremy’s prostate examiner (“You’d get paid in fish for sticking your finger up Ron Jeremy’s butt!”).

The next day we took a trip to the beautiful city of Monreale. Monreale was a great choice to celebrate the news of Urbino getting 45cm of snow and having canceled classes for the week. So, while Urbino suffered from cabin fever, we were outside in the sun in 65 degree weather! At one point in the day, a short walk down the road brought us to a cliff where we looked over the town and could see the ocean!

Before visiting the cathedral, we went to the courtyard and it was like walking into the middle ages. I had the greatest urge to don a medieval dress and walk about in the courtyard. Anyway, it was very pretty and all the posts were so ornate (the ancients really knew how to decorate!).

Outside the courtyard, we met the tiniest little old lady who was asking for money to buy a panini (we nicknamed her Sylvia). She said some lady gave her an American coin and it would do her no good- it was a state quarter for the Virgin Islands (ok maybe not a STATE quarter, but I still want it for my collection) so I gave her a euro for it and she hobbled away. She was the best.
Next we visited the famous Santa Maria Nuova Cathedral, where the inside is decorated in gold with tons of scenes from the bible. It was huge and gorgeous.

After getting back to Palermo that night, I took notice to some things that came as a giant contrast to the stunning sights we had seen earlier in the day. To start, southern Italy has a big problem with its garbage. The garbage system in the south is run by the Mafia as a means to pressure the government, and in some areas it was poorly taken care of. Piles spilled into the streets and some were as big as cars! Monika told me that in recent years, Naples’s garbage problem got so out of hand that they had to make a deal with a German trash company. The company sent down trains to collect the trash and took it back to Germany to dispose of it. Can you imagine having to get another country to dispose of your trash? Another issue I noticed was the stray dog population. There are strays everywhere you go (and by strays I don’t mean sad little dogs, I mean sad BIG dogs- as big as wolves!), and they sleep under the statues and awnings, on sidewalks, in gardens… everywhere you can think of; they’re just part of the scenery. This of course leads me to observation number 3: dog poop. It’s everywhere and you need to watch where you step.

Thursday, we took a trip to the most beautiful beach town I’ve ever seen- Cefalù. While Urbino was still accumulating snow and now had over a foot, we were taking in the sun, posing for pictures WITHOUT COATS, and taking about 200 photos each of the gazillion beautiful views- I mean, for crying out loud, the water was 4 different shades of blue!

We topped off the day with individual pizzas that were the size of a normal-small sized pizza for only 4 euros! (cue more “mmm’s” and “ah’s”). That night, we celebrated Janelle’s birthday at Paskals, a restraunt near our apartment.

On Friday we shopped around Palermo to finish up our trip. We left for Trapani that afternoon, and flew to Bologna at night. When we got to Bologna, we had an issue at the hotel with our reservation. When we had booked online, we had to set our check-in time for midnight (since our plane came in at 11:40), but the website we used listed midnight as Saturday, since 12am is technically Saturday. This proved to be a problem at the front desk who had then booked us two rooms for Saturday night instead of Friday. They tried to convince us to pay extra since we now had to pay for 3 2-person rooms instead of 2 3-person rooms, but I wouldn’t stand for it. This wasn’t our fault, we weren’t allowed to book midnight on Friday online, and therefore was no reason for us to pay extra; we had done everything we could and did nothing wrong. Persistence ended up paying off (thanks for teaching me how to do that, Mom and Dad!), we got our 3 rooms without paying a dime more than we expected, and I got a pat on the back for standing up to the front desk.
That night, despite our exhaustion from traveling (and it was about 1am by this point), I learned chess with the chess set Laura bought in Sicily! I am now an addict and really hope to get my own set soon 🙂

More pictures:
Palermo and Monreale

Anyway, now that I’m better and have finally gotten the chance to update, I feel quite accomplished seeing as I also managed to clean, unpack, and do some laundry!

A prossima volta! (Until next time!)

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