by Taylor Deer
Spending My 26th Birthday in My Ancestral Country
Happy July everyone! In May, life allowed me to book a spontaneous trip to Sicily for my 26th birthday from June 22 through June 28. Although my trip to Sicily was so short, I was so happy to have seen some of the most beautiful cities and sites the Italian island offers and visit the small Mediterranean island of Malta for a day! (Stay tuned for a blog post on Malta next week.)
Most of you who are close with me know that I am 100 percent Italian – 50 percent northern (which explains my blonde hair and fairer skin), 25 percent central (I have a Roman nose if you haven’t noticed LOL) and 25 percent Sicilian (where my dark brown eyes come from). I was so excited to explore my pop’s family’s region (my mother’s father); catch up with a good college friend and meet very friendly and welcoming Sicilians.
I arrived in Palermo on Friday the 23rd. My friend Ian was lucky enough to move out to Sicily last summer for his job, so it was very nice of him to meet up with me and show me around.
But First, FOOD!
After leaving the airport, we headed a half an hour over to the main city of Palermo where I was able to enjoy my first “real” Italian lunch. Coming from the Greater New York City area where there is a huge Italian population, I thought I had been exposed to the best Italian food. (BOY was I wrong!) It wasn’t until I actually got to Italy and indulged in my first real meal that I really got a taste of how amazing the fresh, authentic Italian food is. Now, before you head over to Italy, it is important to know that Italian cuisine there is much different than what is offered at a typical American restaurant. You aren’t going to find the typical spaghetti and meatball, fettuccine Alfredo, penne vodka or chicken parm dinners that you get at your local Italian restaurant. Each region in Italy specializes in different dishes: in the north, you can find more creamy, rice and meat dishes; the central, Neapolitan region is known for pizza, fresh tomato sauce and different pasta meals and Sicily and the coastal regions are known for light seafood dishes. We headed over to a trattoria in the nearby park called Villa Bonanno. I had the most amazing bruschetta I ever ate, drank my first glass of Sicilian white wine and indulged in mouth-watering seafood ravioli with fresh fish and prawns on the side.
Palermo, the Capital of the Italian Island of Sicily
We had to walk off all the food and wine we had, so we made our way into the Villa Bonanno. With all the palm trees and fountains, beautiful Italian music playing in the background and Southern European architecture surrounding us, it hit me that I was FINALLY in Italy – my native country that I have been dreaming of visiting for 26 years!
As we continued to walk, we eventually found our way to La Cattedrale di Palermo. This gorgeous cathedral featuring a combination of Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I was raised in a Roman Catholic family, so I make it a tradition to light a candle for my Nana in every cathedral I visit during my travels. After praying to my Nana, I was excited to tour around the many different exhibits and even walk up the church’s tower.
Five years ago, when I was studying abroad in Spain, we visited a castle in Segovia where we walked up a steep tower to a lookout and it was SCARY! I had the same nerve-wracking feeling while I climbed up the cathedral’s tower. Don’t worry though, the views made up for it!
After touring the cathedral, we walked around the rest of the main areas of Palermo and saw some cool art galleries, a fort and a few other Sicilian military and government buildings.
The Coastal City of Cefalú
Later in the evening, we drove around an hour east to the coastal city of Cefalú. This beautiful city offers a typical European beach atmosphere, cobblestone streets, beautiful mountains and more. When we first arrived, we grabbed gelato and strolled around the streets.
When we finally made our way to the sea area, there was a ton of young people swimming, sunbathing on the little beach and sailing in the beautiful Mediterranean.
After working up an appetite, we grabbed dinner at a waterfront café where I enjoyed spaghetti with clams and my first-ever limoncello – a famous Italian liquor. Linguine with clams is a popular dinner meal in my house and my mom makes it taste delicious, but having this meal with the Mediterranean in the background was priceless!
When we finished dinner, the sun was setting and it was breathtaking. There is something so special about European sunsets. I saw a few great ones during my trip to the Greek Islands last year, but Italy was hard to compare and I even got to do some yoga as well!
Overall, I loved Cefalú and it was the perfect way to end my first day in Sicily!
Mornings in Aci Castello
I stayed in Aci Castello, which is in the beautiful Catania region of Sicily. It was a perfect location as it is very lively and situated perfectly between all the cities I visited. After waking up in a beautiful villa overlooking the sea, I had my first cup of Espresso. Pistachio is a popular staple in Sicily, so they use it in literally everything! At home I love to put maple syrup in my coffee, so in Italy I added a pistachio cream to my Espresso and it was literally heaven in my mouth! To top it off, it was even more amazing with a view of the morning sea.
I met up with my friend Ian again and his friend Nick for breakfast. Italian breakfast is much different than American breakfast. You aren’t getting eggs, pancakes and French toast. Instead, you are most likely going to get something with ice cream in it! (Yes, I’m not kidding.) You usually get a cappuccino paired with granita, which is like an Italian ice you get in the States or you can get gelato on freshly baked brioche bread. It’s dessert for breakfast, but you also get fresh fruit served with it so you don’t feel too guilty.
Village of Taormina
After our fulfilling breakfast, we drove 40 minutes north to the breathtaking village of Taormina, located near Sicily’s most active volcano – Mount Etna. When we arrived in Taormina, it was everything I pictured Italy to look like: colorful buildings, peaceful churches, lively piazzas, beautiful flowers, crystal blue water and smiling faces.
We walked around Taormina and admired all of the beauty around us before heading to the famous Teatro Antico di Taormina, the ancient Grecian-Roman theater that is still used for concerts and shows today. We must have spent close to an hour touring the theater because there are so many cool sites to see and learn about.
The construction of the amphitheater started by the Greeks around third century BC. It was later renovated and expanded by the Romans who inserted columns, statues and other intricate details. The Teatro Antico di Taormina was a place where the Romans played games and had gladiatorial battles. Nowadays, modern-day music artists and groups perform there.
Ian’s friend Nick was born and raised in Sicily, so he knows of all the hidden gems in the area as well as the best trattorias to eat at. We were starving so after grabbing a few souvenirs, we went to a trattoria called Trattoria Da Nino located right on the cliff. We all shared a bottle of wine with a delicious raw fish appetizer with fresh olive oil. If you love sashimi, then you would have thoroughly enjoyed this appetizer of oysters, salmon, shrimp and tuna. For the main course, I ate amazing pappardelle pasta with truffle oil, shaved truffle and shrimp. It was to die for and probably my second favorite meal from my trip. (Read on to discover my favorite!)
Swimming in Isola Bella
After our delicious lunch, we took a gondola down the cliffs to the beautiful Mediterranean town of Isola Bella. During my time in Sicily, the weather was HOT, so I was looking forward to a nice swim in the sea. Isola Bella is a rock beach and I remember how tough it was to walk barefoot on those kinds of beaches in Greece, so I invested in water shoes at a local shop so that I would be comfortable.
Ian and Nick brought their scuba diving gear. I wasn’t planning on scuba diving, but when I saw how clear the water was, I couldn’t resist. The sea was the perfect temperature to cool off and the current wasn’t too bad. There was a secluded island with beautiful villas located right off Isola Bella, so we all swam out there.
I was told that a wealthy German man owned the island and that he allows visitors to swim at his private beach and even tour around it by purchasing tickets. As we got to the island, we swam through gorgeous cliffs and even dove under and saw beautiful coral and schools of fish.
Check out this awesome and sentimental GoPro video Nick created of our time scuba diving in the Mediterranean. It will take you on a virtual reality tour of our adventure. (I highly recommend a GoPro for underwater photos and videos)
After spending a few, well-deserving hours at the beach, we headed back up to Taormina and grabbed a delicious cannolo made with a homemade ricotta, Italian chocolate and fresh fruit as a filling. (Before you correct me that it should be cannoli, I learned that cannolo is the singular name for it. Who would have thought that all this time I was completely wrong?)
Ringing in My 26th Birthday
For dinner, we decided we wanted to save money and just have an American BBQ at Ian’s house before ringing in my birthday at a club in downtown Catania. When we arrived at his house, I walked in and fell completely in shock as a crowd of people jumped out from behind the couch running at me cheering “Sorpresa, Benevenuto!” (Surprise, Welcome!).
All of Ian and Nick’s friends came over to surprise me by welcoming me to Sicily and celebrating my 26th birthday. I was so happy and thankful, as I had never had a surprise party thrown for me. It felt extra special as it was in a foreign country and these wonderful people were treating me as if I was part of their family already!
Ian put on great music, got a beer pong table set up and we had a great BBQ. I felt like I was back in college, except in Italy!!! When midnight came around, they surprised me with a delicious gelato cannolo cake with sparklers and I even had water dumped on my head to wish me luck! (I know, it sounds crazy, but it was awesome!) In addition, out of coincidence, there ended up being a holiday celebrated in Italy during my birthday so there were fireworks going off in the background. Everything was perfect!
We stayed up dancing and laughing all-night and even got to watch the sunrise. In Italy, the sun rises at 4:30am, so it was cool that we got to watch it rise over the Mediterranean Sea.
The Ionian coastal town of Siracusa
On my birthday, we headed an hour south to Siracusa, an Ionian coastal town known for its ancient ruins and crystal blue waters.
When we arrived in Siracusa, we headed over to the gorgeous island of Ortygia where we walked around and admired the magnificent Greek ruins of The Temple of Apollo as well as the other ancient architecture.
After walking around, we headed to the main piazza and listened to the church bells from the Siracusa Duomo. It truly felt like we were back in the Baroque period.
We were starving and hot, so we headed over to the waterfront where we had lunch. I was able to enjoy a seafood risotto overlooking the clearest water I experienced so far in Sicily. It was awesome to enjoy my delicious lunch while watching beautiful boats and yachts filled with wealthy businessmen and women from all over Europe sail around. I laughed as I thought about the yacht scene from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.
Even though it was still boiling hot outside, our lunch helped refuel us. We were planning on going swimming, but since we also wanted to explore another city after Siracusa, we decided to just do a boat tour through the majestic Mediterranean caves that Sicily offers.
Being on the boat was cooler (both weather and adventure-wise) than if we were to just sit on the beach, so we were happy! As we sailed out to the open waters, we had to go under a VERY small tunnel. I thought our captain was kidding when he told us to duck, but we were going underneath it, so we had no choice. I was in total shock that the boat could fit under the tunnel, but it was hilarious as we all rushed to lay down. (I guess it was all part of the experience!)
The water was perfect and we got 360 degree views of the gorgeous Sicilian landscape, Italian mansions, crystal-blue water, exotic fish and magnificent sea stacks. I was in my glory just as I was last year when I did a boat tour in both Paros and Mykonos, Greece. This time was different though, because our boat went into a few caves! It was an awesome experience.
My ancestral home of Ragusa
After our fun boat tour of the caves, we were ready to get back on the road to explore my Pop’s family’s province of Ragusa! I was so excited to finally see one of my ancestral cities. The ride to Ragusa from Siracusa was an hour and a half south, so it was nice to be able to take a nap as I didn’t get much sleep from the night before. Halfway between Siracusa and Ragusa is a beautiful country town called Modica. We were craving a cold dessert, so we stopped at a cute café off the road and enjoyed the most amazing frozen coffee drink called crema di caffè – a big staple in Sicily. They also gave us gelato pops to dip in the frozen coffee. Can you tell this lifestyle is up my alley?
The drive to Ragusa was out of this world. We drove through beautiful countryside and Sicilian mountains before reaching the Baroque town of Ibla. I was so excited to get out of the car and start exploring!
We first walked through a beautiful park called Ibleo Garden that features a walkway with palm trees, amazing views of the mountains, a five-star hotel and gardens that offer colorful flowers.
After walking through the gardens, we explored the piazza, shopped for souvenirs for my family and got lost through the beautiful narrow alleyways. I loved how quiet and peaceful Ragusa was! It reminded me of everything my pop told me his father would describe Ragusa to be – authentic! I love traveling all over, but really being able to explore a place that hasn’t conformed to the global standards like every other city in Europe and being there on my birthday was even more special for me. It ended up being one of my favorite cities in Sicily!
No matter where you are in Ragusa, you will receive beautiful views. There is one area where you can walk up steep streets to the Panoramica di Ragusa where you can get a panoramic view of the entire city. Since it was later in the day, we were able to get sunset views.
Later into the evening, we walked back to the main area of Ragusa and grabbed dinner at the best and most authentic trattoria I ever ate at. The weather was perfect, the trattoria was situated in a peaceful spot, a talented local was playing classical Italian music on his accordion and the food was the best I ever had. Focaccia is popular in the Ragusa region, so we had that as an appetizer with great wine and homemade bread. (If you haven’t had homemade Italian bread yet, you haven’t lived!)
For the main course, I ordered the squid ink spaghetti with seafood. It was my favorite meal in Sicily. We ended our dinner with an Espresso.
Sicily’s Active Mount Etna
Before my trip came to an end, I made sure to see Sicily’s most famous and active volcano – Mount Etna. Throughout my time in Sicily, I had past Mount Etna numerous times on the Autostrada (highway).
Mount Etna is in Catania, but since the volcano is huge, it is an hour away from the coastal area that I was staying in. As we got closer to the volcano, the temperature began to drop as we got higher in altitude. The views were out of this world though!
When we made it to the parking lot, we already had amazing views of Catania and everything surrounding us made me feel like I was in Mars. We had a choice of hiking the volcano or taking a ski lift to a chalet that led to a bus route. We took the ski lift and then got on a bus that took us up to the highest altitude we could go. When we reached the top at close to 11,000 feet above sea level, I could tell the air was much thinner as I felt like I got the wind knocked out of me. I was also surprised that the weather can decrease dramatically (close to 40 degrees from where we started at the bottom)! The views made up for it though!
Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, so you will always see smoke coming out of the top crater. You can even spot lava on certain nights! We had great views of the erupting volcano and our tour guide was able to give us a brief history of Mount Etna. It was one of the most memorable and unique experiences I’ve had!
The Gambino Vini (Winery)
After having the best time at Mount Etna, we drove an hour south on the volcano to Gambino Vini, one of Mount Etna’s famous wineries. Everyone kept asking me what I drank throughout my time in Sicily and all I can tell him or her was nothing but vino! It was seriously that amazing!
Gambino Winery is located on the side of Mount Etna where the climate and soil are perfect for producing the best Sicilian wines. When we arrived, the views were outstanding and all I wanted to do was run through the vineyards.
When we made our way into the winery, we were greeted by Gambino’s friendly staff and were offered a full tasting with fresh cold cuts (cured meat and cheese platters), the best sundried tomatoes I ever ate, fresh pork sausage and marinated veggies. We got to learn about each of the different wines while we enjoyed the foods that complemented them.
One of the best ways to end my time in Sicily was embarrassingly singing to Andrea Bocelli’s famous Time to Say Goodbye song as I enjoyed a breathtaking sunset over the volcano.
I was so grateful to for the opportunity to go to Sicily. All my travel adventures are memorable, but since it was my birthday and I got to experience so many awesome things I never expected to do, Sicily ended up being one of the best trips I ever went on.
I highly recommend everyone to experience my trip to Sicily and Malta. Both places are beautiful, authentic and fun!
You too can experience the same excitement I did by visiting Palermo, Catania, Taormina, Siracusa, Ragusa and Malta!
Click here for our 10-Nights in Sicily with a Malta option tour.
Experience the unique legacy of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, crusading Knights of St. John, the Bourbons, Ottoman Turks and even the Mafia! Visit Malta, Palermo, Catania, Taormini and Ragusa.
Click here for the Full Itinerary!
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If you have any questions and would like to book this trip, please send me an email at Taylor@sitinmyseats.com.
In the meantime, stay tuned for my blog post on Malta next Tuesday.
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