Learning to See in Sicily

segesta, sicily, italy

 Sicily is scented with jasmine and wild herbs—fennel and oregano and something sweet and toasty, maybe fenugreek? This mix of cultivated and untamed is seen everywhere. Trim lines of grapevines leading to dramatic, craggy mountains. Neat rows of olive trees divided by a riot of shimmering undergrowth. Stately Greek ruins rising from a profusion of colorful, delicate wildflowers. That's just Sicily, or at least the tiny corner of Sicily we were able to explore.

Our time was limited to 5 days in Sicily, and conventional wisdom says you need 2 weeks to properly see this largest of all Italian regions. So rather than trying to tick off as much as we could, we limited ourselves to the north-west corner of the island. Which would give us a taste, a nibble. It meant not visiting many people's "must-see"s, but I've decided that "must see"s are of the devil. You can't really see every "must see", all it does is make you anxious about what you are missing. Which is part of the American condition.

Raised on a diet of "anything is possible", I think we often get that confused with "the best, or bust." And so we research to find the best restaurant, the best gelateria, the best beach, the best sites. So we can add our oar to the mix of what we did and saw that is imperative for everyone else. It's a bubble I'm struggling to leave behind, and instead enjoy where I am and what I am doing, rather than comparing it to someone else's "best." Making an agenda based on "must see"s takes out a lot of the sense of discovery. As in anything, I think balance is key. Some amount of research, and some amount of letting things unfold, with a knowledge that by letting things unfold, you may well miss something that other people find amazing. But you'll discover your own corner. In concert with this realization, these Sicily posts are more of a un-touring of the region. No restaurant guides, no tips for a fabulous vacation. More of a suggestion to allow yourself to figure it out.

We didn't plan on this low-key approach—it was, unfortunately, foisted on us by a shortened schedule and illness. Keith and I just weren't well on this vacation. For days before we left I battled a fever that left me too exhausted to do the research I normally would do before a trip. And once we got there, neither of us had the energy we usually do, and so our daily schedules were truncated, and we had to let go of many of our expectations. We had planned on walking the Zingaro nature preserve (just a few kilometers from where we stayed in Scopello), seeing the Carthegenian ruins on the island of Mozia, wandering into cantinas in Marsala, visiting the salt flats. All that will have to wait for another visit. Instead we are focusing on where we are grateful.

  • We are grateful that getting there was so easy. We arrived at the Perugia airport in 17 minutes, within 5 minutes we were parked and checked in, 15 minutes for coffee and breakfast in the airport bar, 5 minutes for security. Unbelievable. The flight was a short hour and 10 minutes. In fact, we ended up waiting longer in the rental car line than we did getting to Sicily from our doorstep. The rental car thing was frustrating, but allowed us to meet a Benedictine nun who has been working as a librarian in Rome for 17 years.

  • We are grateful that our RyanAir flight to Sicily was mostly empty so that there were less people to be offended by our lack of showers in recent days thanks to our busted hot water heater.

  • We are grateful for Advil keeping most of our symptoms under control.

  • We are grateful that we planned a "relaxing Sicilian vacation" rather than a "bustling Sicilian city adventure." Palermo would have been too much for us. As it was, our opting for 2 days in Trapani, an easy going city with convenient access to the port to day trip to Favignana, and then 3 days in Scopello with a terrace and garden overlooking the ocean, was exactly our speed.

  • We are grateful that we didn't waste too much time in Erice. People love Erice. Look it up, you'll see people waxing rhapsodic about this medieval city up on a hill, overlooking the ocean and rolling Sicilian countryside. Our impression? Meh. Which just goes to show you, there are no "must see"s. Maybe it's because we live in a medieval stone village, so we are hard to impress when it comes to medieval stone villages. Maybe it's because, as Nicolas said, the streets were either filled with tourists and shlock or they were completely devoid of life. Siena said, "It just didn't feel like a real place." People flock to Erice for the pastries and sweets. And there were certainly many shops with lines of tourists. We ducked out of the thoroughfare as quickly as we could and stumbled on a family leaving a little pastry shop hidden in a courtyard. We asked if the pastries were good, and they said very good, and we decided that was better than TripAdvisor. Just ask people. Hang the need to be independent and look like we're brimming with knowledge. Just ask. It was a lovely experience, with a little display case in the corner of the shop, we picked out what we wanted, told the lady (who looked like she doubled as a nun), she pulled everything out of drawers and packaged it up. She really wanted us to try a cream filled pastry, so she cut one up so we could sample it. Were these the best sweets in Erice? I have no idea. But we enjoyed ourselves and felt like we were part of the experience. In the interest of balance, we did look up lunch options on TripAdvisor and asking people the way. A fabulous lunch—Keith's gnocchi with fonduta (cheese sauce), prosciutto, and pistachios was particularly wonderful, as was Nicolas's slices of meat in Marsala sauce.

  • We are grateful that our children were healthy, and content to frolic at the water's edge rather than pursue the plans we'd made.

It's funny to me that having a dip in health made me all the more cognizant of the health we do have. I never stopped being astonished that I was well enough to enjoy our experiences. Never stopped being appreciative for the timely bench to sit on, the fact that I was able to walk through fragrant grasses, the feel of the warm air on my weakened skin.

And so it was really a fabulous vacation. And we are in love with Sicily. Really smitten. We loved the food—the ubiquitous curled busiate noodles, the tuna and other seafood, the wild herb flavors, the vibrant tomatoes, the sweet eggplant, the African influences of couscous and cinammon and nuts, the arancini, the floral and still dry white wine. Every meal was an adventure and that was marvelous. We loved the grand elegance of Trapani and the simplicity of the small towns that reminded us of Mexican villages (I started craving tacos). We loved the landscapes—the dramatic mountains, the unexpected greenery, the startling clear oceans. Sicily just seemed to fill all of our spots.

Over the next few days I'll show you the places we went that we loved. Do not put them on your "must" list. Put them on your, "Wow, the world is a beautiful place" list. This trip taught me that beauty lies in the discovery. You'll see what I mean.

Have you been to Sicily? What can you tell us about your experiences? What’s your opinion about “must-sees”? There’s a button below so you can share this post with your friends!