Hotel des Étrangers, Passeggio Adorno, 10-12, Syracuse; 39-093-131-9100; desetrangers.com; double rooms from $244.
WHERE TO EAT
Nangalarruni, Via delle Confraternite, 5, Castelbuono; 39-092-162-1228; hostarianangalarruni.it; lunch for two with wine: $100.
Fratelli Burgio, Piazza Cesare Battisti 4, Syracuse; 39-093-160-069; fratelliburgio.com; lunch for two with wine: $80.
Sicilia in Tavola, Via Cavour 28, Syracuse; 39-392-461-0889; siciliaintavola.eu; dinner for two with wine: $90.
On the subject of travel, my father used to say: “You can’t go back. Avoid the places you loved when you were young, because they’ll have changed, and you’ll be disappointed.” Occasionally my husband agrees, “That’s right, you can’t go back.”
But does that mean that the cities and countries where we were happiest and most enchanted must forever be crossed off the list of dreamed-of destinations? Can’t some places remain unspoiled (or possibly even improve)? And, at the very least, isn’t it interesting to see how different a place looks to us at various points in our lives?
This spring, I decided to find the answer to some of these questions by revisiting Sicily, one of my favorite places on earth. I’d first been there in 1992, with my mother, my husband and our two sons (then aged 10 and 14), and written about watching Mount Etna erupt. I’d returned for six weeks in early 2002 to write a brief book that was partly about how an immersion in Sicilian history, with its appalling violence and inspiriting record of recovery and resilience, had provided some comfort in the recent aftermath of Sept. 11.
Now, almost a quarter century after my first visit, I was returning with my husband, Howie; our younger son, Leon; our daughter-in-law, Jenny; and our two granddaughters, 9-year-old Emilia and 5-year-old Malena.
One advantage of returning to a region you know reasonably well — and, I suppose, of getting older — is that you lose the greedy compulsion to go everywhere and see everything. Were this a first visit, or were I alone with Howie, I couldn’t have resisted Palermo: the glorious mosaics in the cathedral of Monreale, the exuberant Baroque statuary of the Quattro Canti, the vibrant markets and delicious street food. But vivid memories of yanking my sons out of the way of speeding cars and rogue motorini convinced me that it might be more relaxing to begin our vacation in Cefalù, a seaside town about 40 minutes from Palermo, to which we flew from Rome.
We rented a car at the airport (a more efficient process than in years before) and drove to Cefalù. The first sign of serious improvement was that the traffic seemed less maniacal than I remembered, making the trip more like an ordinary (that is, vaguely harrowing) autostrada drive and less like a ferocious scramble for survival.
We spent three nights in Cefalù, a beautiful town on the sea. Hugging a curve of the coastline, Cefalù has a picturesque, mazelike old city and a magnificent cathedral that you can see from far away. In the duomo is a remarkably well-preserved 12th-century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the central apse, just above the Madonna and surrounded by the Twelve Apostles.
The village is like a much smaller, more intimate version of Monreale — without the crowds. During our last stay in Cefalù, Howie and I returned to the church every few hours to watch the changing light play on the mosaics, but we knew that these obsessive pilgrimages were unlikely to appeal to the girls, who much preferred playing on the beach and in the gentle waves.
(One necessity of traveling with family, it became clear, was figuring out — in advance or on the spot — the many minor but essential compromises and adjustments that needed to be made.)
I’d very much wanted to revisit the lovely inn and restaurant, Gangivecchio, in an ancient, aristocratic villa in the Madonie mountains above Cefalù, but I wasn’t sure how well the children would like the twisty two-hour drive.
Instead we took a much shorter (less than a half-hour) trip to the handsome town of Castelbuono, where we had an extraordinary lunch at Nangalarruni, a much-loved restaurant that specializes in dishes prepared with local mushrooms. The menu includes a marvelous sort of gratin made with potatoes and mushrooms, a medallion of pork encrusted with honey, pistachios and almonds, and pastas with a variety of delectable mushroom sauces.
Easily navigable and unpretentious, Castelbuono is also an art town, with 15th-century frescoes in the crypt of the church Matrice Vecchia; in the castle is a chapel encrusted with the giddily over-the-top Baroque decorations of sculptor Giacomo Serpotta.
But by the time we finished lunch, late on a Palm Sunday afternoon, the town seemed to have slipped into a peaceful postprandial sleep, and (in lieu of seeing its art treasures) we settled for buying honey and olive oil in a shop selling produce from a nearby organic cooperative.
If you like to cook, as we do, the great frustration of tourism is the inability to shop at local markets and make dinner. One thing that’s greatly changed travel over the past decade has been the advent of Airbnb and its online gallery of rentable apartments and houses. For us, the fantasy was irresistible: the smell of olive oil and garlic, the family gathered around platters of steaming pasta and seafood bought that very day. We could be like Italians!
The reality was somewhat different. The amiable hosts who showed us to our rental cottage in Cefalù had forgotten to mention the high chance of burning out the clutch as we climbed the driveway, which rounded precipitous curves (without guardrails) along the edge of a cliff, nor did we know (from the online photos) that the only access to the bedrooms was via a semi-broken ladder, a problem for two little granddaughters, my seven-months-pregnant daughter-in-law and, to be honest, me.
In Syracuse, where we went next, our elegant, spacious, comfortable apartment, also an Airbnb, had another sort of glitch: The electricity had been turned off in a country where, we well knew, it could be weeks for it to be turned back on. Perhaps my father should have said: You can’t go back and rent an apartment.
Ultimately, these issues, which featured comic-awkward moments evoking “National Lampoon’s Vacation” films, hardly mattered. Our little family fled both Airbnbs and checked into local hotels, the gracious and comfortable La Plumeria in Cefalù, and in Syracuse, after our genuinely kindly, regretful landlady refunded our money (our Cefalù “host” refused), the elegant Algilà. When the travelers who had come for Easter filled its rooms, we moved again to the old-fashioned, seafront Hotel des Étrangers.
In Syracuse, we stayed on Ortigia, the lovely island across a small bridge from the mainland. Although there were far more restaurants and souvenir shops than I recalled from my previous visits, Ortigia’s architecture, the atmospheric cobbled streets, the dramatic waterfront and especially the Piazza del Duomo (particularly beautiful when illuminated at night) were no less thrilling than I remembered. Nor was it any less fascinating to observe the layers of history so visible everywhere throughout the city.
On one side of the duomo, you can see the columns that upheld the structure during its original iteration as a Greek temple; consecrated as a Christian church in the seventh century, the Norman cathedral was rebuilt, in its current Baroque splendor, after the earthquake of 1693.
Among Syracuse’s wonders is one of Caravaggio’s major — and most beautiful — paintings, “The Burial of St. Lucia,” which was done in 1608 when the artist briefly took refuge in Sicily, on the run from a murder charge in Rome. The painting, temporarily housed in the church Santa Lucia alla Badia, on one side of the Piazza Duomo, depicts the interment of the city’s patron saint, her delicate frame stretched out near the bottom of the canvas, surrounded by mourners and half blocked from our sight by the broad, powerful back of the gravedigger; all this — the action of the painting, as it were — transpires in a narrow band, beneath a vast expanse of empty dark space that has been restored since I last saw it (then in Syracuse’s art museum) to reveal a brick niche, dimly visible in the sepulchral gloom.
On the mainland, a short cab or bus ride (or longer walk) from Ortigia, is Syracuse’s archaeological zone, a sort of classical entertainment center featuring one of the largest and most impressive Greek theaters in existence, as well as an elliptical Roman arena that often served as the stage (and could be flooded) for simulated naval battles.
In the same park are a series of caverns, or latomie. Now surrounded by a pleasant garden planted with lemon and orange trees and heavily populated by songbirds, are the caves that were used as prisons by the region’s despotical rulers. Perhaps the most well-known of these caves, the Ear of Dionysius, was (at least supposedly) given its name by Caravaggio, who observed the way in which the cave’s entrance resembles an enormous ear.
Our granddaughters loved running in and out of these dark, slightly daunting natural wonders and were suitably impressed by the unusual acoustics, where the slightest whisper can be heard throughout the cavern. Legend has it that this feature was used by the rulers to eavesdrop on the conversations of the unsuspecting prisoners, although it seems more probable that this natural amplification was ingeniously employed to increase the audibility of the plays performed in the Greek theater.
As in much of Sicily, the food in Syracuse is — to put it simply — great. One of the best meals we had on our trip was at Burgio, a sort of upscale open-air grocery store and restaurant in one corner of Ortigia’s appealing market. Burgio focuses on local produce — cheeses, sausages and salamis.
They serve sandwiches made to order, artisanal beers, local wines and elaborate platters on which are arranged small dishes of sliced meats, fish, cheese and marinated vegetables, each selection paired with perfectly complementary relishes. Eating at Burgio was our consolation for not being able to shop in, and cook from, the market, but it was by no means the only excellent restaurant in Ortigia.
Walking around, checking out menus, it’s not hard to find someplace where the food is superb and not terribly expensive. We especially liked Sicilia in Tavola, which has a terrific selection of seafood dishes — and pasta Bolognese for the girls! — and where I had pasta with sea urchin, pasta ai ricci, a dish with which I am obsessed and order every chance I get. We also liked a place called DiVino Mare, which is near the market and serves grilled, wonderfully fresh fish at unusually reasonable prices.
We spent much of our time (four days) in Syracuse just walking around and eating. I would have liked to spend more time traveling up and down the Ionian Sea coast, and to the inland mountain towns of Ragusa and Modica. I’d hoped to take the family to the fish market in Catania, where once, eating pasta with sea urchin in a little trattoria at the edge of the pescheria, I watched the restaurant and the market stalls empty as everyone gathered to marvel at a gargantuan tuna that one of the fishermen had brought in.
I would have liked to have lunch at the coastal beauty spots Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, and to visit Noto, the wildly Baroque town where every cornice and window sill appears to vie for the greatest complexity of decoration and where a balcony might be upheld by mermaids, griffins or galloping horses carved from stone. I would have liked to make a side trip to the Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina, a restored Roman villa with famously spectacular mosaics depicting a chariot race, an epic hunting scene, a parade of women in what appear to be bikinis.
But of the three generations traveling together, each one had its own reasons for wanting to relax, to take things slow and easy.
Ultimately, some of the most pleasurable moments were the most unexpected, and the ones that most fully disproved my father’s warning against returning to the familiar. I had an experience of pure bliss, riding through the gently rolling, unusually green Sicilian countryside between Cefalù and Syracuse, looking at ruins of ancient farmhouses and flocks of grazing sheep, and hearing my granddaughters sing at the top of their lungs along with Adele’s “Hello.”
Perhaps my favorite moment of the entire trip occurred at Segesta, where there is an unfinished but nonetheless grand Doric temple and an amphitheater (dating from the third century B.C.) on a hill above the temple. The structures are themselves magnificent, but their beauty is greatly enhanced by the setting: a semideserted, out-of-the-way (about 40 minutes from Palermo) and wholly rural mountaintop from which you can see far across the bucolic countryside and, beyond it, the sea.
Of Sicily’s three major Greek temples — at Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta — Segesta was the one I wanted my family to see, the one I wanted to revisit myself.
When we reached Segesta, after getting lost in search of a nearby lunch spot, it was midafternoon. The busloads of tourists and Italian schoolchildren had mostly departed. We took the shuttle bus up to the amphitheater, where a strong wind was blowing and where — as their parents and grandparents sat on the stone benches encircling the theater and took in the view — the girls ran up and down the levels like graceful little mountain goats and treated the ancient theater as their personal terraced playground.
From the shuttle bus, going back downhill, you suddenly see the temple, solitary and majestic, exerting a kind of presence you can feel even from afar. The bus driver stopped so his passengers could take a picture, and I had the sense that even he — navigating this road, day after day — had never reached the point of taking the temple’s beauty for granted and was still awed by its magnificence.
The hike from the parking area to the temple is slightly steep and long. Leon and Howie and the girls ran up ahead, while I walked more slowly to keep my daughter-in-law company. By the time we reached the temple, the girls had made it their own. Malena, who never walks when she can run, was scrambling over the rocks that surrounded the structure, inspecting every inch of the hilly area around the monumental columns.
Emilia was having quite a different reaction. In the open space, with the temple behind her, she seemed to have become intoxicated by the gorgeousness of the place. With her arms outstretched she twirled and twirled around, the afternoon sunlight shining through her pale skirt and picking out the highlights in her long reddish brown hair. Graceful and free, powered by the sheer joy of being a child, by the happiness of finding herself in such an astonishing spot, she turned and turned and turned.
Watching her, I thought: You can go back. This is better. Returning can be better than seeing a place for the first time. The temple at Segesta had never before seemed to me so striking, so timeless, so precious. I thought: This — right here, right now — is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.