It was rather busy 3 years for me — first I had to go back to freelancing, after my employer decided to mess up lives of 90% of his office, then, after a year, I was too sick and tired of working from home that I decided to come back to the fulltime job environment. This unexpectedly resulted in me working for the most unorganised corporation that ever existed, but since I could see good people working their asses off, trying to make it succeed, I decided to do the same. And so my second year passed with no holidays. Finally after 2.5 years I literally burned out — I can’t remember the last time I had such a massive creative block…
There was only one way to recharge my batteries — it’s always worked for me so I didn’t see a reason why it shouldn’t this time. I booked my holidays, roughly planned my routes, refreshed gear and took off towards Sicily. Yes, I went backpacking. After too many years.
To be honest I wasn’t 100% sure about the whole thing. My backpack was around 20kg; 22 when you add water and food. I did a test run a week earlier around small hills of North Downs and it was tough. Sure, I had some physical preparation during my sculling training, but walking for 2 weeks in just under 30°C, is a completely different story.
Eventually I decided not to worry too much and improvise once there. It proved a very good idea.
The plan was to start in Catania — a large town on the eastern coast — and then follow the coastline North and West towards the capital city — Palermo. To avoid the messiness of places like this, I booked B&Bs a week before through a fantastic service of AirBnB.com. Together with the owner of the flat we decided that she would pick me at the specific bus stop and lead me to my room. Sounded easy enough so I quickly agreed. Probably too quickly…
I landed on Friday night, one hour later than expected. I had no means of getting in touch with my temporary landlady, so I could only hope she was still reachable after 11PM. I found the bus I was supposed to get on and after 10 minutes of multi-lingual, multi-passenger exchange with the driver and turning around my printed map 10 thousand times, he finally got where I was supposed to get off. Win.
Or not. As it happened, the destination ‘bus stop’ was a smelly dump under the bridge/viaduct. Barely lit, not a single human being, almost no pavement, yet crazy car traffic. And of course answering machine on the phone. I sent few texts and decided to wait for a while before searching for any place to sleep. At that very moment I looked at my itinerary just to discover that my unavailable host had Polish surname! It would be a shame not to find out who she was and what the hell was she doing down here, right? Fortunately she showed up 10 minutes later and led me to my destination… 100m away. What a bloody joke!
Anyway, I got a massive room, very err… minimalistically furnished, but it was good — I didn’t need much but a mattress, a place to have a shower and a fridge to cool my water. Since it was already late, I decided to relieve my consciousness of duty straight away. Unfortunately that wasn’t as simple as I’d hope for, probably, though I cannot be 100% certain, due to waves of loud music and base reaching my ears from tactically hidden bar at the ground floor… Whether I liked it or not, I MacGyvered through my backpack contents and improvised a pair of earbuds, which gave me decent 8 hours of sleep. Yay!
I woke up next day to arguably glorious view of a distant Etna and a feeling of complete exhaustion. Considering the reason I was in Sicily, that was nothing surprising, so I decided to take it easy and wonder around the city for few hours. I had 3 things I needed to sort out: get any hiking map of Etna Park, figure out how to get there and… buy proper ear buds(;
I was so happy when I found tourist information, believing that they will provide me with all the required information. I couldn’t be more wrong. These guys had no bloody clue about anything and the only help I got was a map with bookstores to search for a map… Not having any other choice, I followed their clues just to find out that these maps didn’t really exist and the only ones they had were from 7 years ago, completely inaccurate due to lava flows, earthquakes and some other stuff that sounded too Italian for me to understand. 1:50000 was the best I could get, meaning that 1cm equals to 500m — completely pointless in mountains. Still, better that than nothing.
The bus station wasn’t very successful either — I couldn’t find any information, not even on bus stops, and only by pure luck I learnt that one could get some details from a local café. I went there just to be told to come back on Monday… WTF? I wanted to stay in Catania till Monday anyway, but you would imagine that buying tickets in advance and having timetable is the minimum to ask for. Clearly not in Sicily.
As I’m not discouraged too easily I decided to enjoy the city as much as I could. The adventurous spirit left me very quickly though, since Catania is a rather boring and dirty place and if you don’t really know any locals, you’re completely screwed. Or perhaps I was sick and tired of the noises and dirt of London? Either way, I gave up trying after reaching a very nice, quiet and nearly empty Piazza Vincenzo Bellini opposite Teatro Massimo Bellini, with a nice gelateria which happened to serve cold Italian beer. Lots of it. At that time I thought it was all I needed — I grabbed my book and enjoyed doing nothing for couple of hours.
It was 10 minutes after I left, I got the win of the day — a small bakery, I’d normally ignore, if not for those nicely looking small cakes on the display with… wild strawberries. WILD STRAWBERRIES!!! I haven’t seen them for ages (read: since I moved to UK). I must have made a rather he-definitely-needs-hospitalisation-and-restraints impression on the girls working there, with my mad, hungry look swiping all 10 cakes they had! It was a feast, I tell ya. I probably gained 5 kilos at that very moment but, damn, real men don’t give a shit! And it was worth it;P
Few hours later, after dark, I ventured to the old part of the town to find a nice place for a dinner. In fact I managed to do so in just under 20 minutes; it was a very unusual venue called Locanda Cerami, that appears in the middle on the street only for late evenings, comfortably packed with locals, surprisingly serving only pizza and pasta. Since I wanted to try out different types of Sicilian specialities, I decided to go for something I haven’t tried before — a horse pizza. No, it wasn’t shaped like a horse (although that would be super cool), but it was baked with delicious bits of horsemeat on top of 4 (read: four) layers of cheese…
Next day welcomed me with traditional British weather, being shit and rainy, but still pleasantly warm. I spent 3 hours trying to find any open grocery to stock up for at least 2 days on Etna, not sure of the options I had up there. I finally discovered a very nice bakery with mountains of fresh bread, bagels and rolls — it was fantastic — something that British nation still needs to learn from the mainland.
I managed to come back to my apartment couple of minutes before the rainstorm, but I happened to perfectly fit into a massive balcony frame with a book, and a pile of fresh fruits and juices, enjoying refreshing breeze of the sea air.
My utter laziness was interrupted by my temp landlady — Stefania — coming back from visiting her friends at the countryside together with her long term tenant — a very interesting French PhD in the making, who was doing some field work on the local uni. We had a rather interesting discussion about decreasing reading culture, nearly gone in Sicily and dropping in UK. Finally I kidnapped Stefania for a dinner, curious about her surname and, you know, it’s much more fun to have a dinner with a woman rather than at a table next to her(;
She led me to her favourite restaurant, with a very Italian sounding name — Nievski — where we spend few hours talking about her Polish origins, celebrity father and adventures in the Middle East, where she used to live and work. One seriously brave woman, that’s for sure. While I was growing respect for her, I was also consuming one of traditional Sicilian dishes — Pasta con le sarde — quite an intense combination of flavours, mostly sardines, but also chillies. Which one did I prefer more — Stefania or sardines — I’ll leave to your imagination, though;P
I may honestly say that I finished my stay in Catania on a high note, definitely better than I expected after the first 2 days. But, whether I liked it or not, I had to go back, pack, and get ready for the early start next day…
You can find very few shots from Catania on my Flickr or further down on this page. As you may have figured it out by now, I wasn’t really fond of the city, and I put down my camera after couple of hours, so don’t expect mindblowing pictures. These will come very shortly though(: