Saturday, January 31, 2009

Adventures going nowhere - Palazzo Biscari

Even though my Sicilian wanderings into unchartered territory (at least for for me!) have been greatly reduced as of late, I still consider myself a traveler at heart. I can't help but keep my eyes open on my daily doings in the hopes of re-discovering things I already know, or re-connecting with places that I might be too familiar with to think of as special. It is so easy to take for granted the things we see everyday.

One place jumps out at me in particular because it is anything but mundane and I never actually overlook it, even though I walk by it at least twice a week. This gem is Palazzo Biscari--perhaps the most beautiful building in Catania, and certainly its most important private palace. On my way to the pilates stuido I frequent (just a few doors down from the Palazzo) I always peek into its amazing courtyard (pictured above) and think about the time I was lucky enough to go inside, meet the nobles that still own it and live in a modernized section of the complex, and take a guided tour through the grandiose spaces. Much of it remains filled with period furnishings and painted decorations, and it can be rented out for events and concerts. 

I really don't know if it is possible to get tours inside the building without an insider's connection (I was lukcy with that one!), but for anyone living in the area or passing through on a visit, it would definately be worth a try. However, the building's exterior, available for all to see, is equally magnificent, with its highly decorated facade and ornate carvings. These can best be viewed from two points: the entrance into the main courtyard along Via Museo Biscari and on the public facade visible from Via Dusmet to see the beautifully embellished balcony. But whether you live in the area or not, take a virtual tour of the palazzo on its web site and you'll get a good feel for what a still-inhabited, privately owned Sicilian palace looks like.

I hope to connect with other local landmarks that I find special and help keep my travel bug afire in the upcoming (stormy? chilly? flu-beridden?) weeks ahead. They keep saying Sicilian spring is just around the corner...I can't wait! 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In love with orange juice

Blood oranges. I came home to Sicily after a 3 week vacation in the US to discover that the oranges had suddenly ripened. I couldn't have asked for a better welcome home that that. I am now completely in love with my morning breakfast ritual at home for it revolves entirely around a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Everything about this juice is gorgeous. The scent, the color, and of course the taste. I love how no two glasses are the same color. The shades vary from ruby red to dark, peachy orange. The taste also varies slightly from batch to batch. My  husband seems to know where the best ones are sold. But when it comes down to it, it would be pretty hard to get a bad orange juice at the moment given that we are in Sicily's prime orange season. So I'll just keep waking up with a smile on my facing knowing that I have a bowl full of juicy oranges waiting to be squeezed and savoured for the perfect way to start my day. I wish I could invite you all over for a taste because this is one of those things that words just cannot describe!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday breakfast

Sunday morning Sicilian breakfast
almond granita with a shot of espresso coffee poured on top, accompanied by a brioche 

HOW to eat:
spoonfuls of almond granita with occasional morsels of brioche dipped in the coffee 

Acireale, Pasticerria Costarelli
the loveliest nearby town, a well-known bar/pasticceria with a highly regarded reputation for making anything sweet and almond, particularly granite

tingling taste buds, awake! 
speedy photo shoot of lovely architectural details and nearby piazzas

peaceful, happy, nap time drive home
wonderful Etna panorama off SS114

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A glimpse of San Mauro

Our timing was good this afternoon.

By chance, our appetite for an afternoon granita coincided precisely with the launching of Aci Castello's festa di San Mauro (festival of Saint Mauro).

We parked down the road from our favorite bar, and for the first time in 8 months I didn't have to fight to keep the stroller on the narrow to non-existent sidewalk! The streets were closed off to traffic so we strolled right down the middle of the road towards the commotion up ahead as if we owned the road.

This is a little town, but as I discovered today and again tonight with the fancy firework show that took place practically over our roof, it goes all out setting the scene for a day of festivities in honor of its patron saint, lighting the streets, putting out banners, and getting the vendors to line up along the main thoroughfares.

We walked close enough to the duomo to hear the mass finishing up inside and to see the saint being carried off on its procession (barely visible in the photo above) with a small (we're talking no more than 4 people) marching band behind it. Rather than join the masses, we decided to stop in the bar across the street from the duomo before catching up with the procession. Appetite wins out every time, and we weren't the only ones who thought so--the bar was full!

Our menu consisted of a cup of chocolate and pistachio granita with whipped cream, while I ate most of the bambino's torrone gelato, who instead seemed to prefer munching on the freshly toasted chick peas (cooked in a large cauldron filled with hot sand by a man specializing in roasted nuts) we had picked up on the way more than the cold sugary treats. Go figure!

No more than ten minutes later we stepped back outside to find that all that remained of the procession was a confetti-strewn street and a few lingering groups of people. We followed the saint's route down the main street hoping to get a better glimpse in what I assumed to be its primary destination or maybe temporary resting spot at a secondary church just right off the main piazza. 

But this San Mauro seemed to have set the world record for the fastest procession finishing time, not to mention the procession route itself another record for being the shortest! I know, small town, small procession. But the only other procession I have witnessed is that of Catania's Sant'Agata, a huge event that lasts 24 hours, unlike this one of say 10 minutes. Needless to say, we completely missed San Mauro and the party seemed to be over almost before it had started. Not a big disappointment really, but I would have enjoyed taking some photos and our toddler was really keen on hearing more of that marching band. 

But many hours later, sometime after dinner,  a surprise firework show kicked in that proved that maybe there is more to these small town festivals than meets the eye. The fireworks were loud, pretty and long, and, more importantly (thank you San Mauro), they did not wake up our slumbering toddler!

Knowing nothing about the lives of saints or the tradition of celebrating San Mauro's in particular, curiosity got the best of me and I did read up on Aci Castello's patron post-festival. Here's what I gleaned:

-He was born in Rome in 512.
-He performed many miracles during his life of prayer, first at the Monastery of Subiaco from the age of 12, then Cassino, followed by a journey to France where he helped build a monastery along the Loire and then many others.
-Miracles he performed include healing a crippled and mute boy, walking on water to save a fellow monk, several resurrections, a vision of San Benedetto, and (my personal favorite)  making a small carafe of wine pour out enough to provide for a group of 60 people.
-He died on January 15, 584, at the age of 72 in the company of his disciples.

I also discovered that there are more elements to Aci Castello's festa than I realized. Apparently there are numerous communal prayers that take place at different piazzas, and the firework spectacle we witnessed in the evening from our home in fact coincided with the moment in which the Saint was carried into the town's main piazza (Piazza Castello) in front of the Norman castle, while the fireworks themselves were launched by the fisherman down at the port.

I am hoping to see more than just a glimpse of San Mauro next year, ideally under the glow of the fireworks going off above Piazza Castello

Saturday, January 10, 2009

California Dreamin'

As luck would have it, we arrived in Pasadena at the moment in which an 'Arctic front' hit SoCal. It is FREEZING! I was expecting weather warmer than Sicily, after all, one never needs a winter coat in SoCal, at least that's what I remember from my childhood here. How wrong I was! All I can say is that it is really really cold.

Despite my numb fingers and toes, the trip has been successful so far in that it is less about having adventures and more about spending quality time with family. To be honest, the voyage here, combined with a longer than normal period of sleep deprivation due to a jet-lagged toddler, has provided plenty of adventure for me. In the meantime, we have had several excursions to parks, riding stables, indoor playgrounds, shopping malls, children's museums, friend's and relatives' houses, and one marvelous dim sum feast in Chinatown, with the main purpose of letting the Italian family spend time with cousins and sisters and brothers and parents.

And along the way I have been soaking up the SoCal vibe. I do love coming home after having been away for a long time and taking in all those first impressions of things once familiar with a foreigner's eye: tall palm trees lining long winding boulevards, big open sky, suburban neighborhoods with early 20th century houses, perfect lawns, WIDE freeways that make me feel small, distant views of downtown LA's skyline, rambling oak trees, the rugged nature seen in canyons and hill tops and the San Gabriel mountains, Spanish-style architecture, VW buses, grungy teenagers, spicy salsa, perfect avocados, DIVERSITY.

And we do have one adventure planned--a road trip down to San Diego, just the three of us--to enjoy one of our favorite Californian cities with the promising forecast of improved weather conditions!

(P.S. the weather was beautiful and we loved San Diego, especially the bungalow we slept in with the sandy shores of Mission Bay right outside our door, as well as jaunts to favorite fish taco haunts in Ocean Beach, the San Diego zoo, the aquarium and numerous beaches. The photo tells all). 

(P.P.S. New Year's Eve was also incredibly fun. Pasadena is the home of the Rose Parade and my parents happen to live right along the parade route where teens and families in the thousands camp out for a street party. We took advantage of this proximity and walked the street at midnight to view the beautiful flower covered floats lined up pre-parade and then saw them in full animation on New Year's Day along with the marching bands and horse troupes in full regalia. This is Americana at its best!)

(P.P.P.S. I do not recommend traveling anywhere that requires taking 3 planes or entering a time zone with more than 3 hours of difference with a toddler. Make them come to you! Having said that, I am counting on my selective memory to erase the painful moments of the voyage so that in a few months time I will have completely forgotten my own recommendation and can naively start planning our next adventure!)