Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean’

I wonder what Sicily conjures up for you: Lemons? The Godfather? Erupting volcanoes? Well, it’s all of those things and more and having recently returned from a short pre-Easter break  I can recommend that it be added to a places-to-go list.

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We arrived at Catania airport at 10.30 in the morning via Easyjet having set off from Gatwick at the most ungodly hour. The flight is just under three hours which is just about bearable if you’ve equipped yourself with a good book although when flying I revert to small child mode after about thirty minutes, mumbling questions like ‘are we nearly there yet’ and fidgeting annoyingly due to being seated in an upright position with limited leg room. Whatever you hear about Easyjet though, they got us there on time, we were swiftly through passport control and ready to make the most of our early start.

So, having filled out reams of paperwork we secured a little hire car – we went for typically Italian.

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Fiat 500 parked in front of an old lava flow.

Hire Car Man was very concerned that we might be going into Catania – apparently their insurance won’t cover them for theft of vehicles in the city. We assured him we weren’t, and off we went. Well, that was the plan. I had the map, we could see the auto-route signs; we were heading north-east, to Taormina – simple.

Oh no it wasn’t. We hadn’t reckoned on the eccentricity of Italian road signage so we toured and became very familiar with the airport ring road before we discovered that when the Italians say east, they really mean west until there is a sign for north. Work that one out – it was just luck that we eventually found our way out of spaghetti junction heading in the right direction: Mount Etna to the left, Mediterranean to our right.

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The summit of Mt Etna viewed from a safe distance

This was actually our second visit to the island. The first, a few years ago (and without hire car) was during July when a visit to Mount Etna brought welcome relief to the searing heat of a Sicilian summer. To get as near to the summit as is safe, you have to travel by cable car and truck and then follow an Italian geologist along well worn routes, passing hot spots and teetering alongside the edges of extinct craters while above, Etna spews out her fumes.

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Well worn routes across Etna’s moonscape

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Teetering on the edge of an extinct crater …

The scenery, like a breath taking moonscape is constantly changing as Mount Etna is an active volcano. The last major eruption was in 2008; on the lower slopes old lava flows are clearly visible.

This time though, we were headed for Taormina, a pretty little town nestled on the side of the north-east coast, just below the straits of Messina; on a clear day the Italian mainland is visible.

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Taormina’s beach with Isola Bella, viewed from the cliff top

Taormina is divided in two by its position on a cliff side – at sea level there are hotels, bars and restaurants and everything that goes with beach paraphernalia while at the top of the cliff is the main town with a plethora of further hotels, trattorias, cafes, bars, sophisticated restaurants and shops ranging from high-end designer to tacky souvenir. The two parts of the town are linked by a funicular railway, a set of steep stairs if you’re feeling like a challenge or a twisting, chicane-ridden road which is akin to being part of wacky races.  Driving Italian-style becomes a necessity.

We stayed two chicanes down the hillside from the bustling centre of town. On the walk up we passed this old wall – once part of the old cemetery.

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Part of the town’s old cemetery

Sicilians stay up late; they eat late – one of their main delights is to stroll, stop for a gelato or a coffee or a drink, watch the world go by then stroll a little more. They call this activity the passegiatta and it is an activity that is easy for tourists to accomplish. We were soon as much a part of the passegiatta as any native Sicilian.

The main street, which is largely pedestrianized, is called the Corso Umberto. Crammed full of all sorts of shops and bars, it opens out periodically into small squares, or piazzas, the loveliest of which is the Piazza IX Aprile.

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Piazza IX Aprile

This square was so named because on the 9th April 1860, mass in Taormina cathedral was interrupted to announce that Garibaldi had landed on the far side of the island to start his conquest of Sicily that would eventually make it a part of Italy.

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The passegiatta on Piazza IX Aprile

 

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Night time on Piazza IX Aprile

Antique shops or bric-a-brac abound and all the shops stay open until well into the night.

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One of the many bric a brac shops

Puppets seemed to be popular …

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… and displays like this are everywhere.

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Shop windows are beautifully decorated. Here is a Sicilian delicacy – perhaps one or two of your five a day? I don’t think so, unless you want to precipitate diabetes: these fruits and veg are all made from marzipan.

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Sugar rush, anyone?

Taormina is not without its ancient history. Wander around the Greek theatre to marvel at the archaeology while enjoying  spectacular views over the Bay of Naxos.

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Remains of the Greek theatre

The theatre was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC and was designed to incorporate outstanding acoustics. In the first century AD, the Romans refurbished the theatre a little, removing some of the seating area and part of the stage to create a circular arena for their popular gladiator games.

After this, you can cool off in the Giardini Communale (communal gardens) under the shade of  banana trees and other exotic plants.

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The neat and tidy (and shady) Giardini Communale

It goes without saying really that the food in Sicily is wonderful. Everywhere there is fresh fish, pasta dishes galore and salad with those succulent Mediterranean tomatoes that you just can’t get anywhere else. One place we found deserves a special mention – the Trattoria da Nino – a small, unpretentious restaurant specialising in home cooked Sicilian food. The welcome is warm, the suggestions and dishes of the day spot on and the prices are reasonable. Their delicious tuna carpaccio and penne with artichoke sauce will definitely become one of my memorable meals.

We had planned to visit the Villa Romana del Casale, situated in the centre of the island and a couple of hours drive from Taormina. We wanted  to see the spectacular mosaic floor, supposed to be the best preserved in the world, but the delights of wandering around Taormina and the warmth of the spring sunshine lured us to the beach for some unexpected holiday laziness. We simply ran out of time.

So we’ll just have to go back someday… it’s as good an excuse as any.

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Do you know the worst thing you can say to someone who’s worrying or has something on their mind? Telling them to forget about whatever it is and focus their attention elsewhere. Our brains don’t work like that. What happens is we tend to focus even more acutely on the thing that bothered us in the first place.

Try this little experiment. Shut your eyes. Think very hard about three yellow giraffes. Go on, see them walking serenely around, nibbling leaves from the tops of some yellowing trees. Now replace those giraffes with any other animal in a colour of your choice. Not easy, is it? And I don’t want any smart answers that the animals you chose couldn’t reach the trees anyway. I covered that when I tried it.

Since the discovery I made and revealed last week about my appalling surprise with the bathroom scales I’ve been thinking of food; it has occupied a large portion of my waking hours, and a fair slice of my sleeping ones, come to that. My mind has been consumed by visions of past memorable meals. Memorable meals don’t even have to be enjoyable. Think of school dinners for instance.

 I can remember suffering the most ghastly food at primary school. Plates of mince in runny, watery gravy served with solid peas and barely boiled potatoes; plum suet pudding drowned in lumpy custard – it was the stuff of the Dickensian workhouse. We were made to sit through playtime until we had swallowed every last morsel – our sadistic dinner ladies made sure of that by forcing us to feel grateful that we weren’t like the starving children in Africa.

 So, food is a very good way to evoke memories of places we have been. I’ve been time travelling quite a lot this week, in a gastronomic sense. When I worked just off Oxford Street in Central London, we would often go out for meals to celebrate a birthday or Christmas, or find some other excuse. We were a pretty sociable lot. One of our favourite haunts was Jimmy’s in Frith Street, Soho: a dark basement where the food was cheap, the wine on the rough side – but the kleftikon (slow cooked lamb) was to die for. Sadly, the establishment is no more, but for anyone seeking to reminisce over evenings of typical Greek fare, you can do so here. 

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some pretty high end restaurants; some presided over by one celebrity chef or other: the sort of place that you visit once, for a treat. (Or on expenses). However, as there are now so many of them, I think that the exclusivity of these places has been eroded, and while the experience is always an indulgence, I can’t honestly remember individual dishes or one specific meal with a particular wow factor. We recently tried a Japanese restaurant in town that has received excellent reviews. As suggested, we tried their signature dish, the bento box, which gives the diner a taste of many of their dishes. I loved it and scoffed the lot. Time will tell if this will be an unforgettable outing.

Japanese Bento Box

Japanese Bento Box

Foreign travel provides the opportunity to try different local fare, some of which has become memorable and can be recalled in an instant at the mere sniff of garlic or unmistakeable aroma of Mediterranean tomatoes. I had the most wonderful salad one lunch time in a café in Grau de Roi, Languedoc – thinly sliced and layered Provencal tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and a few anchovies, washed down with a glass or two of chilled dry rose – heaven!

Other experiences are not quite so heavenly. On a short trip to Denmark, we seemed to be followed from meal to meal by Frikadellers – they were on every menu and consist of a hamburger covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Now I’m sure that the Danes do have a more varied diet – indeed, I believe that one of the most expensive restaurants in the world is in Copenhagen, but to me, whenever anyone mentions Danish cuisine, I think of these unappetising balls of deep fried mince.

On a visit to Reykjavik, we had dried salt cod and avoided the pan roasted puffin on the specials board while trips to Italy have so far been largely disappointing: I’m not big on pizzas, there is only so much pasta one can eat and if I order salad I don’t expect to have to mix up the dressing myself.

 Nothing I’ve eaten in Spain has been particularly memorable one way or the other, and I really don’t understand what all the fuss over Tapas is about. Give me a decent bowl of olives or nuts to have with an aperitif and I’m happy – I can’t be doing with bits of sausage or strips of peppers swimming around in herb scented oil.

Unsurprisingly France has been the venue for many memorable meals. One was in a roadside hostelry in southern Normandy, not far from the industrial outskirts of Evreux. We were on our way further south but had stopped off to take in Monet’s garden and needed somewhere to overnight. We pitched up late, secured a room for the night and went down to the bar for something to eat. Madame bustled around and provided a green salad (dressed), pan fried calves liver with pommes vapeur; a bowl of freshly picked cherries and some Camembert. My sort of food: delicious.

Another was inland from Biarritz. We’d driven all day to get to the coast then could find nowhere to stay so we back-tracked and found an ordinary looking little hotel on a crossroads to nowhere. Exhausted with the heat and frustration of looking for a room, we settled for their typical old French bedroom – mildewed floral wallpaper, red lino and a power shower in the corner of the room screened off by a plastic curtain. We accepted the meal that night might be a disaster but at that point, we were beyond caring.  With the tables laid outside under a large canopy and the smell of rosemary and thyme in the evening air we ate a fabulous banquet of seafood, drank rather a lot of local wine and made friends with a table of elderly French men and women who talked about the Resistance all evening and were very entertaining. The entente had never been so cordiale and we ended up sharing brandies with them until midnight so consequently didn’t notice how uncomfortable our bed really was.

So do I have a favourite food? No, not really. I invariably choose fish when we’re out because I don’t often cook it at home. I prefer salad to cooked vegetables unless they are really al dente and I don’t favour stodgy puddings. I like unpretentious food, in ambient surroundings, preferably on some shady terrace where there are no mosquitoes. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

I must leave you with a little food related anecdote. Several years ago I was working with a new eleven-year-old pupil, helping him identify meanings of some science words we would be covering during his first half term.  Mindful that this little chap was on the autistic spectrum and hoping to help him increase his social skills, I was doing my best to engage him in conversation while we tackled this task, so when the word ‘nutrition’ came up, I asked him what his favourite food was.

He put down his pen, turned to me and said scathingly, “Well, how would I know. I haven’t tried everything yet.”

Food for thought? I love my job.

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