Abadoned but amazing!

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Wow what a view! And to think this whole town is abandoned…..

Would you believe me if I told you there is an abandoned village looking right at Etna? Trillion dollar views in both summer and winter, but the only beings that frequent the church and school house are the cows?

This is 100% true and I love the trip to one such abandoned village (around Italy there are many) or group of small villages, known as the “Valle Del Fantasma” (Valley of Ghosts).

The Valle de Fantasma – Really there is one road that you can take to get there – the SS185 from Francavilla di Sicilia (from the east coast) or the SS 185 from San Biagio on the north coast. 

A little history: The Valle de Fantasma is made up of 7 small towns known collectively as the ‘Villaggi Schisina’. They are made up of various ‘bongo’ or areas. Borgo San Giovanni, Bucceri-Monastero, Malfitana, Morfia, Pietra Pizzuta,  Piano Torre and Schisina. These villages were built in the 1950’s to attract peasant farmers, but legend has it that no more than about 4 houses in all of the Valle de Fantasma were ever occupied. The reason being that there was no electricity or running water and the houses were too small. So now it stands abandoned, with just the odd cow for company.

All but one of the villages is off the main road along a dirt track. To get to 6 of these villages  you actually have to be meaning to go there – you can see them all from the man road though.

If you are going I strongly suggest coming from the eastern side through Frankavilla di Sicilia so that you can see the villages above you. It’s probably best to avoid going there in full winter, as it snows. There is no one around up there so if you have a problem with your car you are really stuck. From experience, also avoid sunset unless you want to scare yourself silly!

I had read all about the Valle de Fantasma after we passed it the first time – I just had to go there and explore! Dear husband was not quite so sure – While I love anything remotely paranormal, weird and unusual (probably because I want to understand it) he would prefer to see it in a documentary. I convinced him that on the next trip past, we had to stop and look around. My powers of persuasion must be fairly good, because the next trip, we did stop!


Cool huh? I would have stayed there all day if Dear Husband wasn’t so uncomfortable.

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Imagine what you could make that building into! That was built as a church, but now it houses cows and hay.

We haven’t explored all seven villages yet but we’ve made it to two. It’s a very strange and interesting place. The mountain faces Etna with incredible views, yet people only live either at the very bottom in the valley, or over the crest in Novara di Sicilia. This is something I don’t understand, but no doubt there’s a very good reason for it. The land is  barren and silent and SS185 is a road where you don’t find many people.

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Approaching the Valle de Fantasma – this is remote! There is ABSOLUTELY NO ONE ELSE around!

The Nebrodi Mountains of north east Sicily are truly amazing. I believe that it is one of the most remote places on earth – travelling along the SS185, there is no phone line, you are lucky if you see a car coming in the opposite direction or behind you and really, in that moment in such a beautiful place, the rest of the world just doesn’t matter. For anyone travelling around Sicily, this is a MUST!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Achille’s of Via Plebiscito

I am a huge believer in trying new things. In all my travels, I’ve learned that the cleanest and most expensive looking isn’t always best. Follow the locals – Where it’s full you have a) a high turnover of food and b) it’s got to be really good.

So, at this point I will probably alienate half my readers, but here goes…..

Catania is number 1 in Europe for eating ‘Carne di Cavaddo’ A.K.A horse meat. I think I am probably the number 1 Australian consumer of Carne di Cavaddo – it really is fantastic meat! Via Plebliscito is the number 1 place to get really good carne di cavaddo in Catania, and Achille’s is the oldest and the best place to go!

Everywhere you go in Italy, you will find that each little town has it’s own speciality in the food department. For Catania, it’s Carne di Cavaddo. It’s a meat that’s high in iron, and beautiful in taste.

Trattoria Achille – right in the middle of the interesting Via Plebiscito. Even better, there’s a bus stop right across the road for those of you who don’t drive.

Trattoria Achille is a family run business. It was started by the father, and is now run by his son – I’ve known the son so long now it’s a bit rude to ask if his name is actually Achille – and his sisters handle the cash. Friends come by, children are running around and finding somewhere to park your car can sometimes be an all night event!

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The original Archille at the helm. Image credit: www.joe-ray.com

Traditionally, carne di cavaddo is something you eat at night. I don’t have an answer as to why, but that is the story. Today, you can get it almost any time you like. Achille is open for both lunch and dinner. Lunch time is a fairly standard time (up to 3pm if I remember right) but dinner…. Everyone works on Sicilian time – it is perfectly normal to rock up at midnight or 1am and be served.

One such night was the first experience I had with carne di cavaddo. January of 2007, winter in Catania we had gone out for the night and on the way home stopped at Trattoria Achille (little did I realise then that I would become probably their number one Aussie customer). Back then it was only open for dinner, and the barbecue was outside on the footpath, and beside the barbecue was a table you could stand at, and watch all the goings on while you ate. Now this has changed, and their barbecue is inside the door and that standing table is no more but there are plenty of tables to sit at outside. The smell was amazing coming from the barbecue. I really had to try some but what did I want? Dear husband suggested a ‘slice’ and see how I liked it. Ok, lets go with that. On the barbecue went our order, one thin but big slice each.

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How it used to be – barbecue outside. This is the ultimate take away destination! Cavaddo sandwich anyone? Image Credit: maxliotro.blogspot.com.au

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The first night we were eating near the plastic cups. It was a lot of fun! Image credit: www.flickr.com/photos/eugenios

From the first bite I was hooked! I then had another – my food world had just opened up in a HUGE way! This was going to become a firm favourite. The wine that comes with the food is equally as good – they get it from one of the local wine makers up at Etna, but the ‘Vino da Sicilia’ deserves it’s own post!

I’ve got one word for you…..Rissoles! In Italian ‘Polpette’. Wow, Wow and WOW! You haven’t had a proper rissole until you’ve had a horse rissole! They put some amazing herbs in there, and even after you are ‘pieno a tappa’ (full to the brim) you want to eat more. Polpette di cavaddo is a have to try food!

So if you don’t have time to to sit and watch the zooming around of vespa, friends calling out to each other and people trying to squeeze their car into that impossibly small place, you can get a takeaway! Horse meat sandwich. The same slice of glorious meat, but folded into a bun and wrapped half in foil so you don’t get dirty while eating. I don’t mind too much if I get covered in food, so long as I can clean up after however Italians like to stay clean at all times.

Over the years since, every time I’ve been in Catania I make it a priority to go to Achille’s. We go there on the hot summer nights when we can’t sleep, invite our friends there and go there for no other reason but we like it. Oh, and it’s a mandatory stop at the end of our Sunday trips. If you are our friend or family and are in Catania, you will be taken there!

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Mum’s first horse meat experience. August 2014.

So what else do you eat with carne di cavaddo? In the winter, you can get ‘insalata di finocchio’ (fennel salad) which is the perfect match for ‘una fete e due polpette’ (one slice and two rissoles).   In the summer it’s a green salad, and watermelon to finish off. If you are lucky enough to be with us, dear husband dresses salads like no other!

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Una fete, due polpette e un bicchere di vino rosso! 

And what if you’re not in to meat? Well, Achille has a fantastically large menu – I have it on good authority that the mussel soup and the pasta is brilliant!

Aside from Trattoria Achille, Via Plebiscito is worth a look. In my opinion, it’s one of the most interesting streets in Catania. At any time of the day or night there is something happening. Friends meeting, animated conversations in deep Sicilian, horns tooting and vespas flying through the street at incredible speed.

For a truly local experience with good food, good wine and interesting surroundings, head down Via Plebiscito and visit Achille! You won’t be disappointed!

 

 

 

 

To Fly or Not to Fly (into Catania)….That is the question.

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Catania airport and Mt. Etna by stefkuna from 

To fly or not to fly….That is the question. Flying gets you (well address this further on) there quicker, and the flight down from Rome is spectacular as long as you sit on the left side of the plane (You need to make sure you have a window seat with an A in it).

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The flight path that you take from Rome down to Catania and back. In both cases, sit on the left side of the plane. The view of Mt. Etna both arriving and departing is beautiful! 

So you said good-bye to your luggage at Sydney airport, you’ve done the epic journey through Dubai (and walked about a thousand kilometres between gates), breezed into Rome airport (FCO deserves it’s own post) and you have one 1.5 hour flight until you and your luggage will be reunited and you are free! Or so you would think….

A tip for booking: I firmly believe in Rome airport they carry your luggage between planes one by one – even snail mail is faster! If you have a short wait in Rome, then I hope you have a change of clothes in your carry-on!  When booking, leave at least 4 hours between when you arrive in Rome and when you depart for Catania.

You’ve enjoyed your glass of blood orange juice (aranciata rossa) and your rosemary biscuits wile sitting in seat 24A watching Sicily get closer and closer. The view of Mt. Etna as you pass by on a clear day when there’s a bit of lava is just out of this world!

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Looking good Etna! December 18, 2013. Photo credit: https://theextinctionprotocol.wordpress.com

For everything that’s about to happen when you hit the ground, the scenery on the way in makes up for it – almost…

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The final approach to Catania airport. Mt. Etna in the background and the city and port of Catania in the foreground. The best of the beaches are just beside the airport! Photo credit: http://s895.photobucket.com/albums/ac154/FlyingFinn_photo/Italy_02_2010/Part_1/Catania_Approach_9.jpg

Final approach right over Catania! If you are lucky the wind is blowing the wrong way so you have to go out over the ocean and turn, and land east-west. When that happens, I can almost see who’s sitting on the terrace at our place. (Yep, like in ‘The Castle’ our Catania apartment is close to the airport. This has proved to be a very good thing.)

So you land, totally excited about all the stuff you just saw from above, or maybe on a sugar high from the O.J. (It’s really good). Either way, you have seen that the airport is a rectangular building, you’re not on an A380 with a gazillion other people (You’ve estimated about 100 people on your flight) so it is a hop,skip and a jump and you’ll be out that door and enjoying Sicily, right? Not necessarily…..

There are two buildings in Aeroporto Di Catania (A.K.A Fontanarossa (red fountain) and Vincenzo Bellini). One is the new airport and one is the previous airport. The old airport we think is being used for storage these days.

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The old airport how it looked until 2007 when the new building opened. I personally liked the old one better. Photo Credit: http://www.catania-airport.com/

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This building today – it’s been boarded up with pictures, but that’s about it – I’d love to know what’s in there now. Photo credit: https://mysicilianhome.wordpress.com

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The new airport from the plane. Plenty of tunnels for planes right? All that stands between you and freedom is this building! Photo Credit: http://www.sicilytravel.net

So so close – there’s plenty of tunnels free so that you, your handbag, laptop and hand luggage can sail right in to the luggage area (I tend to travel like a pack horse – honestly, I really need all of this stuff). As we say in our family ‘Buona Fortuna’ (good luck). Plane makes a turn and parks right in front of the old airport nine times out of ten. Then the truck-stairs arrive, and it can end up like the running of the bulls! Stairs at the back and at the front – everyone has to get of first. Make a run for it, try not to fall over and enter the bus that’s parked between both sets of stairs – welcome to sardineville. This having to get on or off a plane first is not just a Sicilian phenomenon, but world wide. I don’t get it really, as we are all going to arrive at the same place in the same time.

So the bus in which you really feel like a sardine starts the engine and off we go – all of 200m. What ever you do, don’t relax! As soon as those doors open you gotta be ready to go. You are funnelled up a channel on the right side of the airport and then you encounter (insert jaws music here) the luggage hall!

When you can first look, look carefully. When there is more luggage off the carousels than on it, be afraid, BE VERY, VERY AFRAID! This tends to be a summer phenomenon but you never know.

Luggage everywhere but on the carousel means there is a delay between Rome and Catania. In August of 2014, knowing all this but ever being the optimist, I went past that to the carousel, watched it turn (I was travelling with my mum, for my wedding and it was late at night – I was not at my best and my hair was manky) and nothing, and I mean ABSOLUTELY NOTHING was on it. A message comes over the loudspeaker, and everyone starts going toward the lost luggage counter. I follow…….

Apparently, the reason why the carousel has nothing on it is because the plane did not bring one piece of luggage! NOT ONE! Every single person on that whole plane (this is a time when a hundred people looks like a million) had to file a lost baggage report at the counter. FANTASTIC – Just what I wanted to do at midnight, after flight delays and last seeing a shower in Sydney. So I find somewhere for mum to sit with all our hand luggage (between us there was 2 carry ons, 2 handbags, 2 laptops and 2 wedding dress boxes) while I went and sorted it out.

I don’t get to easily forced to the point of yelling, but that night I snapped. The whole airport went silent for about a minute. A bloke who had travelled from Genoa (north of Italy), in his Lacoste shirt, with his expensive looking man bag and really looking like he just stepped out of a high end catalogue decided his need was greater than mine and pushed in front of me (This is after I’ve been waiting for over 45 minutes). “Mi scuisi, io sono prossima” (excuse me, but I’m next) I said, to no avail. “I was in the line before” was the reply I got. I have always believed that if you abandon your post in the line then you get to start right up the back – as I had plenty of time to look around that night, I knew full well this was a total lie. “No, I saw you and you were behind me.”

“Please, you go ahead then” said Mr. Fresh out of the Catalogue in an extremely condescending tone. Midnight. Tired. Dishevelled and totally not into playing games. The anger was rising just like the lava in the magma chamber of Etna…. And then the explosion!

“No, you go ahead, your need is obviously much greater than mine as you have to push in! Much more important you coming 3 hours from Genoa than me travelling for 2 whole days for my wedding with my mother from Australia! I have to be back on a plane again in 4 hours to get documentation for my wedding in Rome, but you are much more important than me!!” That was at the top of my lungs. (There were some other choice words said in deep Sicilian which I won’t repeat here) Everyone fell silent. Needless to say no one messed with me after that. Mum later told me she was freaked out – I just don’t do public displays of rage, However that night I did.

We eventually got our luggage 24 hours later, but how you get lost luggage deserves it’s own post too.

When Fontanarossa airport works, it is wonderful. However, when the system is upset it can cause rage you didn’t know you had.

The flight down and back has amazing scenery of Sicily, and the airport building (unlike so many others around the world) is a simple box – really easy to navigate.

If you choose to fly then make it a priority to pack an extra change of clothes in your hand luggage – I can’t stress it enough.

Happy flying people!

 

Why am I so into Sicily?

“Long legged Italy
Kicked poor Sicily
Into the middle of the
Mediterranean Sea…..”

My first memory of knowing anything about Sicily was a quiz question in the ‘Game of Life’ I was playing with a friend of mine when we were about 10. You know who you are, dear friend and you know the answer to this question!

I’d heard of Mt Etna and Palermo, and working at the travel company I’d edited many pictures of Taormina. Oh, and that the Mafia began there. That was the sum total of my knowledge of Sicily until I met dear husband. When I met him (Oh wow was he gorgeous, and interested in me! Nerdy little me!!) and he said he came from Catania, I was wracking my brain for something intelligent to say about Catania. Um…. I did’t quite know where it was in that moment, and the best my brain could come up with was “…I remember seeing a TV show about Etna,  and a man was lighting his cigarettes from a hole in his back yard…..” Yep, when I met him, it was the stunned mullet, deer in the headlights kinda thing – brain was just not giving me anything vaguely intelligent.

I had studied Italian as a 6 year old at primary school (I can still sing the chicken song and recite the alphabet) and again in high school for 3 years. I was pretty bad at it (Outside of Italian class, I knew no one to speak with, and hadn’t discovered the Sydney radio station). I digress – in my completely “This really hot guy is into me” frame of mind, I decided I knew enough Italian to say “Happy Easter” a few nights later. I really should have done myself a favour and had a quick check on google translate – but no, I knew what I was doing!! My “Buona Pasquale” was met with a big smile and I think stifled laughter. The reply was “My sister’s husband is called Pasquale!” and another big smile I think hiding a bit more laughter.  What I should have said is “Buona Pasqua”. We still laugh about it now.

Why am I telling you all this you wonder? Well, this began my fascination with all things Sicilian. In the weeks after meeting dear husband (Who I call to this day ‘mio tesoro’ because he really is ‘my treasure’) I began writing out by hand the whole of the Italian dictionary in the hope I would learn something…… I didn’t actually learn that much (after a 60km round trip to work and a full work day is that any wonder I didn’t take anything in?) but what I did realise about myself is that this love was something different from anything else. I would do the hard yards. I was head over heels in love like I had never been before. I’m telling you this because this is the beginning of what is a life long fascination with ‘the land of citrus’ – La bella Sicilia!

And so began my journey into all things Sicily – the good, bad, stuff you hope to learn from and the downright ugly.

 

Going to England to see the Queen!

1994 saw the first really, really Really long flight for me – Sydney to Bangkok, Bangkok to Heathrow. Little did I know back then that long haul flights would become a huge part of my life today. Going to London to see the Queen!

I was with my dad and we went first to a place called Kirkby Overblow near York, for a combined 100th birthday party (Both husband and wife in age equalled up to 100 – cool idea huh? I think Dear Husband and I will borrow their idea as our lifestyle sometimes means we miss birthdays). After the epic trip that was from Sydney, and the epic car trip to get there, I fell asleep at the dinner table (The first of quite a few times) and apparently missed all the frivolity that went on later at night.

The party was great, but the most exciting part of being there for me was their pets – they had a dog, bird and a hamster. I’d never seen a hamster before (in Australia we have guinea pigs instead) and it was love at first sight! There’s a photo of me, and I have to find it where I have made the bird sit on the dog’s head and the hamster was close by – lucky they were all friends.

Anyway, back to the travel experience at hand. We went to the Yorvic Viking Centre in York – this was the first time I actually believed Vikings were real, and not classed in the realms of fairies and mermaids. If you ever pass by York, make some time to go there. It was really interesting and informative and had wonderful displays.

We then headed north to Loch Ness. Bed and breakfast accommodation is absolutely the way to go – you get to meet so many interesting people! There was the farmhouse that had the puppies (yep, I cuddled all of them) and there was Rose in Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness who had the cat called soldier, who would sit up and salute! Nessie must have been on holidays as we didn’t get to see her (Is Nessie a girl? I think so…) but the Loch was beautiful.

We also went to Culloden, where the famous battle of 1746 was (although I didn’t read the history until much later it was still a fascinating place) and Hadrian’s Wall (Again, back then I didn’t know too much about Hadrian, but at the time it was interesting). I wish I could repeat this trip with all the knowledge I have now.

And so we wound our way back south, through Surrey (I highly recommend the bird park) , Winchester (Climb all the stairs if you go there – you get a certificate) to London. Before I left, a friend of my mother’s gave me some pounds and told me to have ice-cream at Fortnum and Mason – which I did and enjoyed. We went to Harrods, but as an 11 year old shopping was not my top priority (What was wrong with me at 11? at 6 I was cruising the International Market Place on a daily basis; At 11 I was like can we go now? There may be an animal I haven’t seen outside). I think maybe both Dad and my stepmother, Donela, regretted introducing me to the pigeons….

In 1994, the pigeons ruled Trafalgar Square in London. You could even buy pigeon food and feed them! I would have stayed there 24/7 for the whole week if I was allowed! Everywhere we went that week somehow ended up at Trafalgar Square, feeding the pigeons. Buckingham Palace – pigeons. Harrods – pigeons. Lunch with friends in outer suburbs of London – pigeons. Meeting relatives in another part of London – pigeons. But now, in 2015, the pigeons are no longer there (so I’m told). Pigeon food is no longer sold. There is a very good reason for this though – they were cleaning 1/2 a tonne of pigeon poo a year of Nelson’s Column (More about Nelson in later posts – he turns up in the most amazing places) and it was ruining the structure so the pigeons had to find a new home.

It was a wonderful trip with great memories and to some really interesting places I hope in the future I will return to (Loch Ness being the top of my to-do list). I have been back to the UK in recent times, but not any of these places and more about that in later posts.

Vanuatu – Paradise with live starfish!

Following America, I went with my dad for a week in Vanuatu in 1990. And so that began my love of the Pacific Islands – there is nowhere else in this world like them. Everyone is relaxed, everything works to ‘island time’ and life revolves around the ocean.

Dad taught me a lot about nature and really, I think that is where my obsession with all things nature started. Being a skittish 6 year old, live starfish sitting on the beach were pretty full on. Exciting, but full on. Remembering that beach though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it since – lots of big starfish were relaxing on the waterline (do starfish relax I wonder? They looked pretty chilled out.) At one point during our trip I had a small white live starfish in my hand – I really wish I could have that experience again so I could truly value it (As a 6 year old a lot passes you by).

It rained a fair bit. I couldn’t comprehend that – it shouldn’t ever rain in paradise. But even when it was grey and raining it was spectacular. I’ll never forget the smell or the feeling of the rain in the afternoon and our afternoon walks around the Le Legon.

We stayed in a bure (traditional house) in the garden – that was exciting as the roof was made of palm leaves – traditional style. Back then I believed that every house came with a tin or tiled roof.

Vanuatu had already become a firm favourite. I went back to the Le Legon in 2006, and have been back to the beautiful Port Vila many times since.

It was 1989 in America

My very first trip out of Australia – as a 6 year old to be going to Disneyland I was beside myself! And a plane ride – wow!!! No one in the history of people had been this lucky!!!

Being it was so long ago, the small details are a little bit blurred, but if you took me back to the street in LA I could tell you exactly where we stayed (I have an incredible memory, as you’ll find out). I remember the restaurant across the street, and 2 blocks down the amazing Toy’s ‘R’ Us store (They hadn’t come to Australia yet) that was a toy supermarket! I’d probably still be there now browsing the shelves if it was up to me. I’d never seen anything like it – they had EVERYTHING!

Disneyland was just out of this world! I got to eat breakfast with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck! I got to see the parade every day for a week! And I got to ride on the teacups and ‘It’s a small world’ every single day!!!! Total, pure heaven for a 6 year old!

The next stop was Hawaii, to relax for 5 days, or so mum thought…. The hotel we stayed in had a pool (Of course I had to be in it), the hotel across the road had a pool (Yep, I was in that too). I wasn’t too fussed about Waikiki beach, but there was one gem that quickly became the highlight of my time in Hawaii – THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET PLACE! It was pure heaven for me – I think maybe mum regretted ever showing me it as I had to browse through there EVERY SINGLE DAY! And so started the love affair with shell jewellery (Which I still have).

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Breakkie in the hotel across the road – notice the beads? I dressed like a parrot even then!

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Snappy dresser, shell jewellery connoisseur and a fish fanatic back then too – after testing the hotel pool, and a spin through the International Market Place, we ABSOLUTELY HAD to go to SeaWorld! You can probably guess who’s choice the day’s itinerary was….

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A government building in Honolulu – Always the poser!

 

All in all it was a wonderful holiday – Disneyland was just beyond my dreams, One of those HUGE Californian strawberries would do me for a whole meal and the International Market Place was really something special!