After the emotional rollercoaster that was our stay in Malta, we boarded the ferry for the beautifully chaotic country that is Italy. And from the moment our ferry touched down in Pozzalo we knew we were in for something different. There were crazy drivers and shady characters everywhere! But the hustle and bustle was a welcomed change after three cosy weeks with the family in Malta.
We eventually made our way to Catania for a three day stay. In addition to the unmistakable site of Mt Etna on the horizon, the first thing we noticed in Catania was the parking. I sincerely believe that street curbs of Catania were the birthplace of the saying "anything goes". Cars were parked in every way imaginable - sideways, backwards, angled, on top of a rubbish bin. It was about as organised and well run as a queue at a spring roll shop in Beijing.
One of the things we were most looking forward to in Italy was the food. Jess and I had certainly had our fair share of Italian food back home but Jess had assured me that there's nothing quite like Italian food on home turf. Our first meal took our high expectations and knocked them right out of the park. I had gnocchi in a four cheeses sauce with strips of prosciutto crudo for good measure. To call it a "sauce" is really selling this thing short. It was really just a plate of melted cheese. There was a party in my mouth. And not even the half a dozen bottles of water I consumed afterwards to fight off the dry mouth it left behind could sour my experience. Mind you, th after party back at the hotel bathroom got a little out of hand….
The next day we got our haggle on at the local markets. It's always fun arguing with people over the price of little trinket or pair of fake Ray ban sunnies. But we got the most enjoyment out of sampling the local fresh fruit, cold cut meats and cheeses. I got my hands on some spicy Sicilian salami that brought both tears of joy and pain to my eyes at the same time.
Our final day was spent in the nearby town of Taormina. It was like stepping back in time and roaming the streets of an ancient Sicilian village - sort of like those scenes in the Godfather II (no not the horse's head. That was part one). The Roman amphitheatre was a definite highlight - beautifully preserved and still being used for outdoor concerts. Taormina was also the beginning of a new ritual for Jess and I: the afternoon gelato as we strolled the streets of empty shops while everyone else had gone home for lunch.
The journey to Foggia
After our brief Sicilian sojourn it was time to make our way further north to Foggia - the city where my Dad and his family hail from. Actually, he hails from a small village near Foggia called San Marco in Lamis but we'll get to that in the next blog. First we had to get through two straight days of train rides, the first being a three hour journey from Catania to Reggio (during which the train boarded a ferry to get across the waters separating Sicilia and Calabria), and the second day being a eight hour trip from Reggio to Bari.
Reggio turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was a very pretty city and provided the scene of a lovely beach walk that night. It was also the sight of our religious conversion. After years of doubting the existence of God, I found myself praying to Jesus and every saint I could remember from my catholic education days as our taxi driver approached speeds of 145km/h in a 70km/h zone. Whilst texting on his phone and looking back in the rear view mirror as he made conversation with us.
The lengthy journey on our second day of train traveling was made all the more painful by the fact that the air-conditioning would stop working every time the train pulled up at a station. The crew would then spend then the next 20 minutes trying to get it working again, only for the train to stop at the next station a few minutes later and the whole damn cycle to start again. That day, I sweated in places that I didn't even know I had sweat glands and by the end of the ride I was marinated like an artichoke in a jar of oil. However it wasn't all that bad. We did manage to make some new Italian friends on the train - a lovely young couple named Claudio and Isabella. We whittled the hours away as we talked politics, Italian football, typical Bari and Pugliese cuisine (Isabella runs a shop selling fresh local produce), and anything else that came to mind.
Thanks to a mix up with our accommodation in Bari, we were moved to a B&B in the older, medieval part of the city. We spent the night in what looked like the underground wine cellar of a medieval castle. It was very cool. The next morning we bid farewell to Bari and boarded the train for Foggia, ready to retrace Dad's footsteps.
Next stop: Foggia