Friday, November 28, 2008

Sicilian Playgrounds - there is hope!

So first impressions can be wrong. Or partially wrong. Or maybe my standards are getting lower the longer I am here. In any case, I must admit that my belief that there were no decent playgrounds in the Catania area to bring a toddler to has changed. I am happy to report I have a handful of places that I can choose from when looking for some fun and interaction with other kids. While they still don't compare to Madison Square Park in NYC, these are some very acceptable Sicilian alternatives. I hope to continue adding to this list as I make new discoveries.

Catania - Piazza Michelangelo
This is a long, narrow piazza that stretches over several blocks. There is a big kid slide on the northern end and an enclosed little kid playground on the southern end. In the middle are grassy and rocky areas, paths and benches. When weather permits and one has the time or some other reason to be in the center of Catania this is a great playground, clean and full of other kids. I like to combine play time with shopping at the nearby children's store, Chicco, just across the street, or at the Bio Supermarket (on via Patane), a few minutes away by car.

Catania - Parco Gioeni
Read all about this large, urban park with plenty of swings, slides and coastal views in the link above.

Catania - MiniClub Ludoteca
This is a fun indoor play option for your regular rainy day. They also have two outdoor terraces stock full of playground equipment when weather permits. This is a day care in the morning that opens its doors in the afternoons and evenings to anyone willing to pay 7 euros an hour. You could technically leave your child there for what they call 'baby parking', something I have never tried and wouldn't feel comfortable doing at this point. Inside you'll find everything from wooden slides and gyms to soft mats, play houses, building blocks, balls, cars, a kitchen corner, reading room, and more. The staff is lovely and invite you to join in the regular activies that take place with the day care kids like snack time, music circle, or play doh. The only negative is the fact that in the evenings private areas can be rented out for birthday parties. Even though the parties aren't allowed to play indoors with day care kids, there is extra noise, loud music and many people going in and out, taking away from the otherwise cozy atmosphere. Another plus worthy of mention is location: The ludoteca is located outside the chaotic city center, and street parking out front is easy and free, meaning headache free access! There are also some good kid-friendly things within walking distance. Down the street a few blocks you can taste one of the best gelatos in town at Bar Ernesto. Instead, crossing the main highway, Lungomare, you are steps away from the little beach front enclave of San Giovanni Licuti, where you can visit the fishing port or small black sandy beach, extremely dirty, yes, but somehow still charming, yes too.

Acireale - Centro Commerciale Ciclopi
This is a new playground (in the picture at the top), which means CLEAN! It is outdoors, but within the shopping complex, which also contains a nice supermarket, CityPer, and some other so-so stores. We usually go for a combo playground / shopping excursion. The playground is big and the ground is either sandy or pebbly along the paths that lead to the jungle gyms, swings, slides for all ages, see saws and bouncing animals, too. Toddler loves playing in the sand and sometimes I bring his beach toys for digging and raking, which always seem to attract lots of other kids too. While the sand is great now since it is still new, I am a little worried in terms of long term cleanliness. At some point this will become one big ash tray, no doubt.

Acireale - Giardino Comunale Belvedere
I wrote about this sweet little playground previously. You can't beat a green space on the cliffs of the lovely town of Acireale.

Acireale - Cocomambo
read all about our first visit here on this post.

Aci Castello - Piazza Castello
Not exactly a playground, but picturesque, car-free zone, and often full of entertainment. Read all about it here.

A Sunday stroll through Catania's historic center

I found out last weekend on the way to a play date that Sunday mornings spent in Catanaia's historic center can be very pleasant. There is definitely less traffic, parking is less difficult (and free) and there is a subdued serenity just not possible during the hustle and bustle of the work week.

We parked where we often park, just before the Porta Uzeda--the arched doorway that leads to the Piazza del Duomo--along the side street in front of a series of antique shops. From here we bumped along by foot with bambino in stroller, his whole body vibrating from the uneven cobblestone paved streets in this part of town (thank goodness for those safety straps!), towards the Duomo (for some pictures of Catania's main monuments and those I mention, click here).

We hoped to visit the ancient underground Roman baths, the Terme di Achilliane, located beneath the church and open to the public only this year. The terme can be visited with a guide based at the Museo Diocesano, just a few doors away from the cathedral. Unfortunately, no guide was to be had due to a convention. Since having been amazed by the unexpected and hidden beauty of this site during an earlier visit, I have been anxious to get hubby down there to see (and hear) a section of the underground river Amenano that flows beneath Catania rushing by, portions of the ancient Roman water pipe system, and a few recovered rooms of the once stuccoed and tiled baths. It really is spectacular, but we would have to wait until another day for our visit.

So we crossed the piazza for the backup plan, a second breakfast at the bar Caffe del Duomo, one of the best cafe's of the city. Here we enjoyed a quick espresso and hubby inhaled a raviolo, a delicious breakfast pastry with a sweet ricotta cheese filling. Usually a little too sweet for my taste, but this raviolo was exceptional and truly irresistible as it had come straight from the oven and was just the right amount of hot, crispy and dripping with ricotta to tempt the whole family, toddler included.

From there a walk to our friends' house meant a lovely 10-minute stroll through Catania's historic center. The sky was perfect blue, white puffy clouds floated overhead, and sunlight streamed down creating wonderful effects on the architecture making for a perfect Sicilian moment. From the piazza we took a left on Via Vittorio Emmanuele and a few blocks later turned up Via Crocifieri, famous for its many baroque churches. After passing under the Arch of San Benedetto we found ourselves perched on top of a hill with a clear view of the long avenue, Via di Sangiuliano, which seemed to stretch all the way down to the big blue sea below. What a photo op! Just a few more blocks further up on Via Crociferi, and we had reached our destination.

Oh do I love their building and house. From the street you have no idea how special this apartment is, as it is hidden by your everyday facade and the largest (and heaviest) wooden door I have ever walked through, no exaggeration. Once over the threshold, you enter into the courtyard, and look up to a perfect plant-filled balcony on one side (that's it in the photo up top), surrounded by high walls and arched windows on the other sides. Parking the stroller on the ground floor, we took a deep breath and hiked up five flights of stairs. It is well worth the effort because once you are inside this apartment you feel like you are in an ancient urban tree house. The long, L-shaped floor plan links the different dome-ceiling rooms together and from each one there is a different view. The views can be especially appreciated from the little balconies perched on at least three of the windowed rooms. With incredible views of the duomo, sea and cityscape on one side and Etna on the other, you just don't know which to look first. Yes, I have a serious case of apartment envy!

Amidst all the play date fun I managed to escape the toddler frenzy and step out on the balconies to appreciate the views and take a few photos....hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Etnapolis - shopping mall trauma

Joining a friend of ours at Etnapolis, supposedly the largest shopping mall in southern Italy, seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, we had driven by countless times on the way to other places, and from the outside the modern blue-glass box is quite attractive. I also fancied the large fountain-slash-pond out front with numerous bridges criss-crossing it at different points.

First impression is that the mall is located next to the highway. More specifically, it is to the southwest of Catania, just past the town of Misterbianco (I know, weird name, supposedly derived from a monastery called 'monastero bianco'--translation, the 'white monastery'--not so strange anymore).

Anyway, the mall is past the congestion of the very overdeveloped and unattractive town (to be fair, I have never really been there, so I am just repeating second hand reviews of the place), but--here's the surprise--just behind it is quasi Tuscan-like countryside with the town of Belpasso at the foot of an unobstructed Mount Etna. I took the opportunity to take a bunch of photos of this clear view of Etna with her peak covered with snow. A sight for sore eyes and hope you can sense some of the beauty from the photo posted here.

Inside the mall is another story. It wasn't extremely crowded, but the noise levels seemed unbearable, as did the lack of natural light. (I know you're probably thinking, 'but of course, what were you expecting, this is a mall you're talking about'!) The stores seemed to be competing for the loudest music selections, and just stepping into one was enough to bring on a wave of nausea (oh where oh where has the suburban girl in me gone to?).

On the bright side, the noise levels did not seem to phase the bambino one bit. And he just loved the pet store and ran back and forth between the fish tanks, bunnies, birds and puppies. The kids corner happened to be just in front of the pet store and consisted of obnoxious kiddy rides, each one with bright lights and its own loud music, not exactly suited for small toddlers (he was curious, but not willing to get on any).

Yes, after only a half hour the grown ups were ready to go.

But we stuck it out. We still had to meet our friend.

To kill time we ended up outside in the chilly air checking out the fountain out front. That lasted until the toddler discovered a deposit of cigarette butts, and we then wandered towards the parking lot behind the mall for my Mt. Etna photo session. Here we spotted an open and empty bus--what an opportunity to let the toddler have his first experience running around in a cozy bus sans passengers to disturb! He was in absolute toddler heaven and did not want to get off.

The bus driver finally arrived and we turned down the kind offer to ride around with him for his 10-minute loop, managing to convince the toddler it was time to move on. At the same time our friend finally showed up. Fortunately, the fresh air had given us a much needed second wind and we marched back inside. We still had to join him in the electronics store (sensory overload!). I peaked into the Mondadori bookstore, a very decent chain. Checked out the Levi's store, but then realized that buying Levi's in Europe really makes no sense. A peak into a very cute children's shop and a Champion store (you know the maker of sporty stuff) just pushed us over the edge and that was that.

Time to go home.

Sorry Etnapolis, but chances are I will never be coming back again.

On second thought, when the memory of this first visit becomes distant and vague, and if I ever find myself REALLY desperate for American mainstream culture, I may be driven to come back and try a) the Tex-Mex restaurant (risky business) and b) the Warner Village movie theater. I imagine it has comfortable seats, big screens, popcorn, and the full range of mainstream American movies dubbed in Italian. A good piece of information to store away for future bouts of homesickness.

I am sorry for such a poor review of Etnapolis and my intention is not to deter anyone out there who really likes malls. This is an above-average mall with your usual mall fare and could be picked up and plopped down just about anywhere the world and blend right in (maybe with slightly better food options than the norm as this is a Sicilian mall we are talking about). I guess it is this predictability that can make malls so appealing. And I know that malls can have other advantages, too: one-stop shopping, good rainy day activity, me out here, there must be other nice things to say about shopping malls that aren't coming to mind???

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Snowy Etna

After a very rainy few days, yesterday it was sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy, and very beautiful.

And then for the surprise of the day.

Driving home from Catania I got a clear view of Mount Etna (not always easy due to views obstructed by clouds or buildings), and discovered that overnight it had become covered in snow. It is a magical sight to see a mountain transformed with its first snow cap of the season.

And it brings to mind the saying I've heard countless Catanese use: where else can you make a trip to the snow and the sea in the same day? Of course, being from Los Angeles, I think, 'hey that's our line'. Because LA is another city where you can drive to snow capped mountains and the beach in the same day, not to mention the desert!

Now I am tempted to make a family trip up to the snow....let's see if we get around to it before it melts.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Acitrezza - not just the town next door

Just when I was getting tired of the same old playgrounds, my husband's spontaneity won again. I never would have believed that a visit to the port of Acitrezza, the town next door to Aci Castello, would be a good spot for anything other than sitting in a restaurant and eating seafood. But, it actually makes for a great outdoor outing, toddler in tow, with plenty of ground to cover.

First off, Acitrezza feels like a real fishing port. Meaning there is action and grime and seafood smells, perhaps not always pleasant, but very authentic and attractive to small children (and pigeons...and stray cats). The port extends all along the town's seafront boardwalk-esque sidewalk, and is filled with a mish-mash of boats, big and small, with boat repair going on and lots of small boats going in and out from fishing expeditions. In other words, plenty of 'broom-brooms' to keep a 'broom-broom' obsessed little boy happy.

There is also diversity of terrain. We started off in the lovely stone-paved piazza. Here there is a pretty drinking fountain, steps for climbing, old men chatting amongst each other, of course pigeons, great views of the largest boats, and a kiosk for beverages. A quick detour up to the street and down the sidewalk leads to plenty of fun - a small fountain with two large goldfish. This may have been our toddler's favorite spot of the day, and for the adults, it is just in front of a pretty little church that you may want to peak into.

We then took the steep stairs from the piazza down to the waterfront and headed south. Here you can choose from a stroll on the sidewalk or a few grassy/rocky paths to get close up to the big boats, as well as a wide open boat parking lot at the far end for more open spaces and no traffic, and a long quay. We took the liberty to let the toddler climb in a few boats not to mention the garbage truck that happened to be doing its rounds, and also peak over the shoulder of the lone fisherman (probably scaring away all the fish in the process--oops!).

To the north of the piazza, follow the road that curves around the bend and opens onto a large car parking lot (you may want to park here, we did). This is where you'll find fish being sold out of the backs of cars, stray cats hiding under the parked trucks snacking on their finds, and the occasional dog walker. I like to think of this as the Sicilian equivalent to a trip to PetCo! It certainly provided as much entertainment for our kid as the pet store in NYC did.

And for some Greek mythology and special Sicilian scenery, all this takes place right in front of the beautiful lava rock islands, the isole dei Ciclopi (the Cyclops Islands). As taken from Wikipedia, "According to local legend, these great stones are the ones thrown at Odyssesus in the Odessy. The islands are referred to as the "isole dei ciclopi" (islands of the Cyclops) by locals. This compliments the notion that the Cyclops once had a smithy in Mount Etna, which looms over the village to the northwest." I also read that here the Cyclops manufactured the lighting bolts for Zeus and other important items like the armour of Achilles.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An everyday kind of afternoon in Acireale

Acireale is the biggest of the nine 'Aci' towns in the area, and probably the most beautiful. It has an amazing historic center (its baroque churches are the stars), a strong cultural identity, and few of the problems that you find in Catania (mainly DIRTY and CHAOTIC), although parking can be a drag.

There is much to explore here, but I have a very specific itinerary in mind right now. Actually, I am thinking about the events of our recent family outing, a rare treat to have hubby join my son and I during our weekday afternoon jaunts.

Hubby's sweet craving directed this outing--translation, granita time! Acireale happens to have some of the best granita-producing pasticceria that we know about. It also has a lovely park, Villa Belvedere, conveniently nearby our pasticerria. Even though I have been to Acireale numerous times, I had never entered this park before this outing, only driven by it many times thinking 'I should go there' as it is visible from the Strada Statale which passes right below it. I also had no idea that this park has a fabulous playground, cozily nestled among the greenery and a nearby fountain.

The outing couldn't have worked out better. We parked right in front of the park and spent a good while exploring its playground, walking along the path down to the fish pond, and taking a peak at the lookout point to admire the stunning coastal view. The park isn't huge, but it is big enough and with an interesting enough layout to entertain a toddler for a good long while, not to mention the adults.

From here it was less than a ten minute walk to our pasticerria of choice, Condorelli (just east of Piazza Europa, see above link for map). We indulged in almond and pistachio granitas and confirmed our belief that they make an excellent granita. Husband's sweet tooth was satisfied, I was thrilled to have discovered another great playground within driving distance from home, and the little one, well he was as content as could be, especially after a few nibbles of chocolate flavored granita.

On a slightly different note, we also checked out the adorable children's clothing boutique, Du Pareil Au Meme, that we happened to stumble across on our walk (on Corso Umberto, just south of the park). I knew it existed from a friend (after admiring her daughter's clothes) but was completely surprised to find it right there on the way back to the car. Fun, colorful, well-made and affordable cloths for babies and bigger kids sum up this boutique's style, and I swear I would wear some items myself if they came in grown-up sizes. Just too cool and funky to resist (especially the girl's stuff, of course).

So here's to a few more reasons to like Acireale.

And for a bit of useless trivia, in my internet research I discovered that this year's Miss Italia is from Acireale!