Sicily and Sardinia

Islands are always a favourite when traveling. Little islands, hot islands, isolated islands, and especially islands full of great food and wine. I’d been avoiding traveling to Sicily and Sardinia for a long time because I thought I’d never leave, but lo and behold here I am in South Africa writing about it.

the beach in Catania under Mount Etna

Sicily is a name that brings a few thoughts to mind – pizza, pasta, seafood, wine, limoncello, Palermo, and of course, the Godfather. It’s so far south in the Mediterranean its actually closer to Africa than most of mainland Europe, but the airports and harbours offering dozens of flights and ferries daily mean it stays closely connected to the rest of Italy.

on the Scala dei Turchi near Agrigento

I was traveling with my older sister, who has traveled a bit but can definitely be defined as more conservative than me. She had her first couchsurfing experience a couple of months ago with me in Ireland, but now we planned to couchsurf for the next 12 days with Italian men. I knew what I was getting us into, but she was surprisingly flexible with their loudness, tardiness, and sometimes cheesy, sleezy behavior. Sicily was especially loud – not just in volume, but smells, sights and culture. We took a break from couchsurfing one night and rented a boat to sleep in on Airbnb.

the grungy, but charming, quarters of Palermo at night

Sardinia felt more like another country. We were no longer just in Italy, we were in a place inhabited by Italians, with Roman/Greek/Arabic/African influences and a history reaching back to prehistoric times. Locals speak Italian, a small part speaks Catalan and many still Sardinian, a different language altogether.

the colourful, quaint town of Bosa

The cities were smaller but cleaner, the houses renewed, the weather cooler, the tourists (and locals) fewer, and the men, less aggressive. They had a local wines and a special berry wine called Mirto, but the familiar pizzas and pastas were still the highlight of most meals.

the s’archittu stone arch on Sardinia’s west coast, near Oristano

After our island hop and a few overnight ferries with Tirrenia, we ended up in Genova to catch a train back to Milan, where a direct flight could take us home to Keflavik. But en route, we of course had to stop in Gavi, Piedmont to wine taste the best Cortese and Nebbiolo Italy has to offer.

Broglia vineyard in Gavi

In Milan I took a 3 day wine course to certify myself as an official wine taster, and now I can finally say I’m on the road to being some kind of sommelier with finally completing my WSET Level 2 training. But that just makes me want to go back to Italy, maybe Tuscany, to get my WSET Level 3… what then?

Italy's Big Cities

Milan

Milan is in northern Italy, the capital of Lombardy Province. It was my first Italian city, but I was warned that it isn’t very ‘Italian.’ The couchsurf host I had there listed front page on his profile that he’s happy to host couchsurfers who want to see Milan, but hoped that traveler’s carried on to see the ‘real’ Italy.

Whatever the case, I tried to see the ‘real’ Milan, spending 3 days there living in the city center. I spent one day walking to the most beautiful parts of Milan, mainly the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, San Lorenzo Maggiore, and the Sforzesco Castle and surrounding gardens. There were other palazzo’s and museums I just glanced at, and at the Santa Maria delle Grazie I just checked out Leonardo’ da Vinci’s painting ‘The Last Supper.’

The shopping gallery, adorned with glass arches designed and built in a time when it was considered such an architectural marvel that the architect commited suicide before it was finished from fear that it would fail

San Lorenzo Maggiore is a beautiful church fronted by roman columns, rare for this part of Italy, and floods with a buzzing nightlife every weekend. Here was where my couchsurf host lived, so we ate pizza and crepes and drank chianti and pinot grigio whenever he came home from work. One evening I saw a ballet at the Teatro alla Scala, and sitting in the red velvet seats inside that glitzy theatre house made me feel like Italian royalty. During the day, I absorbed as much fashion and aesthetic beauty as I could, checking out every beautiful person that walked passed me and all the glamorous window shopping. The ‘real’ Milan definitely kept its expected reputation as one of the world’s fashion capitals.

Florence

Florence was smaller, quainter, without the cosmopolitan bustle of Milan. Yet it somehow felt more international, more touristy, and although it looked like a ‘more’ Italian city, it felt less like Italian life. Every third person I passed spoke American English, and a plethora of immigrants ran the tourist shops, pizza stands and café’s.

 

Ponte Vecchio, a bridge full of houses

The city is cramped but cosy, with narrow, pedestrian-only streets made of big cobble stones crookedly-winding around stone buildings. The whole city is made of stone, with not a patch of earth or dirt in sight, but the little windows poking out of buildings and tiny balconies are usually adorned in flower pots.

Tourists come here since it’s the capital of Tuscany (where they want to explore more of), and because they’re interested in visiting since its considered a culture capital and birthplace of the renaissance. I couchsurfed with 2 American brothers, and hung out with their extended American friends/colleagues, to get a glimpse of Florence that was not very Italian, but probably a more accurate experience of the touristy city.

Rome

The saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ never made sense to me because I don’t know what Romans do.Rome is huge, overwhelmingly big when compared to Florence or Milan, and has too much to do and see since the whole city is one big tourist attraction.

All of the Roman ruins compete with the still-standing Roman artifacts, which compete with the newer Roman buildings since they’re soon-to-be Roman ruins. Everything is big and grandiose, which made me think “how the heck did they build that 2000 years ago?” My Romanian-Italian friend explained “I think people used to be smarter, so there’s no way for us to know how they did it since we people have gotten stupider since then.”

 

Coliseo de Roma

Rome is so clustered with ancient artifacts and impressive buildings that you actually start to get numb from their awesomeness. Friends giving me some tour guiding just started to point at pretty things and explain ‘that’s also old and important’ but not sure what things actually were.

I think I took fifty pictures of the Trevi fountain, but I didn’t throw a coin in it since I can’t jinx my luck of going back since I’m just trying to make sure I can leave. The Roman Coliseum was one of my favourite places, along with the topless Pantheon. Vatican City was somewhere I really looked forward to going, but once I waited an hour to see St. Peters Basilica packed like a sardine can and shuffled 3km through the (inescapable) Vatican Museum like a herd of sheep, something was lost in my enjoyment of the experience.

Naples

Naples was my favourite. It was the most ‘in-your-face’ Italian, and had the best weather and the friendliest people. It was also the grungiest, dirty around the edges but shining in the middle, vibrant with energy and a colourful nightlife. It helped that I was there over a weekend, staying with a hip Napolitan guy and welcomed into his group of friends for my whole stay. He was a vintage-clothes dealer, and most of his friends worked in vintage fashion too, and none of them took life too seriously.

Adriano ordering drinks in the street from a blessed bar, from a bartender who could be my grandmother

I stayed in Portici, a suburb closer to Pompeii than Naples, but spent every night in Naples til the wee hours drinking wine and rum in crowd-filled piazzas. I ate the best pizza in Naples, which happens to house the best pizza in Italy, which is known for the inventing the pizza, so I guess I can say I ate the best pizza in the world. I went to a reggae/dub concert one night, and also spent one day in the historical city center. The rest of my time I wandered south, to Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, but ill have to write a separate blog post for each of them, since its impossible to give a paragraph summary of either.

Photo Highlight: Milan's Duomo

Duomo at dusk

 

Milan’s city center revolves around the duomo, the 4th largest cathedral in the world. It took almost 600 years to finish, and is built in the gothic style.  Its external finishing, with exquisitely detailed scultpures, makes you dizzy to look at up close, and from far away, kind of looks like a 3d hologram.

God rays shining into the Duomo