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Siracusa, not Syracuse

The day after Christmas it was time to unwrap another gift: a new city. So we said arrivederci to the wonderful Mario, and headed south to Siracusa.

Siracusa is another stunning ancient city set on the ocean, founded almost 3,000 years ago by the Greeks. As opposed to the city of Syracuse, named after the Sicilian version, but founded in 1820. While the city was originally named Syracuse by the Greeks, the Italians prefer to call it Siracusa — I mean, they run the place now, and have for a couple thousand years, so they get naming rights, IMO.

We stayed in the historical center, the island of Ortigia, at the stunning Grand Hotel Ortigia. The hotel seemed to have what I felt were art deco touches everywhere (the stained glass elevator is worth a visit alone). HWSNBN and I had a room overlooking the harbor, while the kids had one with a view of the ancient stone streets.

Besides the lovely artistic touches, this one had something I never thought before I would love so much: a lift that helped HWSNBN avoid the many stairs into the hotel. It took us awhile to figure it all out, but we became pretty adept at it by the end!

After settling in, Sailor Boy told us he’d found a Michelin starred restaurant right around the corner for lunch: Ristorante Porta Marina.

TBH, I really just wanted to sit outside in the sun and have cheese and wine, but he was so excited about we made it happen. Unfortunately, almost every restaurant we tried on Ortigia had several stairs to get into it (I think the land and buildings have sifter over the centuries — or maybe they are built above the street to avoid flooding?). We were pretty disruptive getting in, but folks seemed understand. They politely went about their chic lunches in the brick-walled room, quietly supping wine and looking more fashionable at a simple weekday lunch than I ever would with hours of a prep for a gala. As I observed the other patrons, I realized they were all couples about my age and realized that this was their “post houseguest holiday frenzy” reward lunch. Just the two of them, sipping wine while they discussed all the family drama the had just observed.

We, of course, were thankfully still on family time.

After lunch, we met our next tour guide in the hotel lobby. He was a retired professor, and definitely had a different air about him than Mario. Less gregarious, and more studious, the kids didn’t connect with hm right away, and frankly neither did HWSNBN. I enjoyed his history lessons, but then I always dig that stuff. Mario understood Singer Girl’s need for Instagram breaks. Not so much the professor. And the guys in my family had that look of “is the lecture over yet?”

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t find Siracusa stunning and fascinating.

At the end of the tour, we were scheduled to enjoy a glass of wine at a café in the piazza, but HWSNBN as struggling. He needed to get out of his wheelchair; he had had enough. When I politely explained to the professor that we would have to cut the experience short, he was baffled. He simply couldn’t understand why we didn’t wat to get a drink when we were right there in front of the bar. I felt bad, but said we just had to go.

We got HWSNBN back to the room, and he settled in. The kids and I still had energy, so he insisted we got out without him. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but we got him settled and into bed. I made a reservation for a little place that sounded interesting, and the kids and I set off. When we arrived at Osteria il Cantuccio at 8pm, they weren’t even open yet (oops. Dumb Americans). The owners, a darling couple, spoke almost no English, so we used a method HWSNBN would appreciate: Singer Girl spoke Spanish to them. Between the two languages, much sign language, and the Google translate app, we managed to order a great dinner (side note: Sailor Boy’s Sicilian girlfriend was horrified when he told her about the restaurant. She was appalled that we would go to a Roman restaurant! I guess that’s like getting Southern fried chicken in New York, lol).

After we ate, we texted HWSNBN. He was still ok, and urged us to continue the night. So we wandered around in search of a bar for a drink. Places were pretty quiet, but we happened upon a place that was lively and we ordered drinks — Mojitos. Don’t ask me why. But the kids and I had a lot of fun that night, just hanging out and laughing. I think we needed it.

This was a conflicting evening for me. I was thrilled to explore the city without worrying about HWSNBN’s safety and comfort, and to spend time with the kids just by myself. I hadn’t done that yet, and it felt good to check in with them and see how they were doing, and to let loose a bit. But HWSNBN was back at the hotel, alone, uncomfortable, and, I’m sure, sad that he wasn’t able to be with us. It sucked. I didn’t even want to tell him how much we had enjoyed ourselves.

In the morning, we had an amazing brunch at the rooftop terrace restaurant at the hotel. Free Prosecco on the buffet? Yes, please!

Afterwards we hopped into the van and, with a new guide headed to the ancient yet newly trendy town of Noto (Mick Jagger recently joined the ranks of famous homeowners here. Originally, the plan had been a 10 hour day of drives and sight seeing, but this was our last full day in Italy (and with Sailor Boy), and we wanted to have some down time. So Mario and I had whittled the day down to what he thought we would enjoy the most, and thus we visited Noto.

It was a gloriously sunny day to visit a city whose architecture oddly, reminded me very much of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. This was a city fully destroyed by the earthquakes I mentioned in a previous post, and was rebuilt in a very baroque style, in a much “sunnier” color than the lava buildings of Catania. It also had some hilly areas, meaning that we all took turns “feeling the burn” as we squired HWSNBN around in his wheelchair!

Inside the Noto Cathedral, we were charmed by these wooden sculptures. They were made by Africans immigrants, out of the very boats in which they sailed to Sicily.

And I loved this elaborate manger scene in another nearby church!

Our guide recommended Caffe Marpessa for lunch. While we weren’t all thrilled with what we ordered to eat (except for taht soup — yum!), the wine was great, and the setting was perfect. It was probably one of our favorite meals for the atmosphere and mood — even if Singer Girl did get in trouble for feeding the prowling cats.

Next it was time for a little souvenir shopping, where I finally purchased one of the Turkish heads I mentioned in a previous post. (here is a great explanation behind their history and significance!).

When done touring Noto, we headed back to Ortigia where we left the boys at the hotel to rest up. Singer Girl, the guide and I were on a mission: search the charming streets for souvenirs, gifts, and a suitcase to pack all those clothes we had to buy when our luggage had been lost! We also needed some picture taking time, and knew the guys would not be into that.

Dinner that night was our farewell to Sicily — and Sailor Boy. He was driving back after the meal, as he had to be back on duty early the next morning. We went to another place where we were the first in the door, and where the steps were steep. No problem! In typical Sicilian fashion, a few waiters scurried out and carried HWSBNB up the stairs, wheelchair and all, lol. The restaurant, Anima e Cori, was a pizza place — the first pizza we had had on the trip I think. It was fun, it was casual, there were strolling accordion players and, frankly, many out of towners. But it didn’t feel touristy — it had been highly recommended, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. Our only regret was only ordering 2 pizzas, because the menu was amazing! Our fave reminded me of one HWSNBN and I enjoyed in Colorado the previous year, as it included honey as a topping. Still weird to wrap my brain around, but man is it good with the right crust and toppings!

I feel sad typing this, but it was time to say goodbye to my boy. It was a bittersweet moment, as we not only don’t know when we will see him again, but we also don’t know what HWSNBN’s condition will be when that does happen. But it was an amazing trip, and we treasured every moment together.

This time, though, HWSNBN was also not ready to call it a night. Back at the hotel, we headed once again to the rooftop restaurant for cocktails. It sucked that there were only three of us, but we laughed and rehashed the trip’s highlights. The next day we were hitting the airport (after another fantastic brunch, of course), but not to go home. We decided months ago not to rush, and we were headed back to Amsterdam for a night!

Sicily is Not Italy…

If you read my last post, you’ll know that we have some new challenges in our lives. But I’ll be damned if we curl up in a ball and hide from the world.

So, despite HWSNBN’s ALS diagnosis, we set out last month on a long-planned trip to visit Sailor Boy in Italy.

Correction. Sicily.

Wait, you say: isn’t Sicily a part of Italy? Well, yes, politically speaking. And yes, they speak Italian and have phenomenal food and fashion sense, and horrific driving. But we learned quickly that when you are a land that has been around for 10,000 years, it takes more than a measly 162 years to make you really a new identity.

But more on the history lesson later. First, we need to get to Europe.

Months ago, before I knew we would have the ALS to consider, I decided to utilize a travel agent for the first time to get this trip planned. Enter the amazing Amanda from Pique Travel. She had everything planned: hotels, cars, tours and guides, even wheelchairs at every step of the way. We used the app Unmapped to keep tabs of all reservations and tickets, and of course utilized What’sApp to communicate with her and our European contacts.

ALS was our unofficial travel partner all the way through, and he made us nervous. He was always there in the back of our minds, slowing us down, causing anxiety as we worried about how he would try to complicate and crash the party. Thankfully, contrary to popular belief, the world is full of amazing, humans willing to go out of the way to smooth things out for us.

The minute we pulled up at MSP airport (driven by the amazing Abdulla, referred to us by friends Christie and Jim. Let me know if you need his number for your driving needs!), a wonderful airport worker jumped into action. Seeing me wrangling multiple suitcases and Rich trudging along with his walker, he declared: “You need a wheelchair!” We didn’t even get inside to ask at the Delta desk for the one reserved for us. The MSP staff took charge, chauffeuring Rich and helping me get everything to the front of the check in line. (FYI: being physically challenged DOES have its perks: we went to the front of every line in every airport in all three countries, from check in to security to boarding to customs. Nice!). After we were checked in, we were escorted through security (thank you Clear — always worth the subscription fee IMO), then had time to enjoy the PGA Lounge (courtesy of Priority Pass, a great perk we got with the Chase card — thanks for the tip, Thrifty Traveler!). We asked our escort what to do when it was time to head tot eh gate, and she assured me someone would meet us at the lounge, and they did. Our escort was going off duty, but came with a coworker to make sure we were cared for correctly. Wow: mad props.

The flight worried us: HWSNBN can’t move easily or quickly anymore. When he needed to get up to stretch or use the restroom, I walked in front of him, facing him, holding his hands to keep him safe. It felt precarious, and probably disruptive to some (it’s hard to walk steadily on a plane during the best of circumstances), but everyone resected our odd journey. Flight attendants cleared the aisles for us, and constantly asked how they could help. They also, before I could even bring it up, let me know that they had confirmed that a wheelchair would be waiting for us at the gate.

Classy, professional, caring. Thank you, Delta!

We arrived in Amsterdam unscathed, but tired. Normally I schedule flights to Europe for late in the evening, but this one was an afternoon flight. There aren’t a ton of flights daily to Catania, and we were also coordinating with Singer Girl, who was flying n from Detroit. Our flight landed a couple hours before hers, and we went to the transfer station to make sure we were all set for the next flight. The lovely woman at the KLM desk realized our luggage was not checked all the way through, so quickly fixed that — and told us to come straight to her desk when our daughter arrived so she could personally make sure hers was set as well. When we di that, the woman immediately recognized me and said “Catania!” I mean, how many travelers had she helped in the past two hours, but she still remembered us and our destination. I know I am pretty memorable, but wow: again we were impressed.

The flight was also uneventful, and we were treated with views of Mount Etna, quietly exhaling her volcanic breath as we approached.

Once again, a wheelchair was waiting for us. Unfortunately, our luggage was not. Somehow all the good efforts of the KLM transfer desk agent were in vain. I felt a bit like Etna as I dealt with the situation as best I could: breathing deeply to let off steam so I didn’t blow my top. I know HWSNBN was frustrated that he couldn’t really help. Singer Girl went out to greet our driver, Stefano, and fill him in on the delay. We had no idea where our nags were or when they would arrive, given the afore-mentioned lack of Catania flights. But we finalized the paperwork, loaded ourselves into the van, and headed, finally, to the hotel.

Sailor Boy was meeting us for dinner, and bringing along his darling Sicilian girlfriend who we had of course not yet met. I informed him of the AWOL luggage, and he assured me our hotel was in a prime shopping district. Once HWSNBN was safely ensconced and napping at the hotel, Singer Girl and I ventured out to get supplies for the next two days. I typically don’t visit any stores or restaurants on vacation that I can visit at home, but desperate times call for desperate measure, and there were an H & M and a Sephora on the same block, so off we went. We purchased some basics for all 3 of us, and headed back to quickly do what we could to tidy up before dinner.

We were staying at the Hotel Una Palace in the heart of historic Catania.

Yes, that is a cactus growing in the gutter!

We had a small suite: spacious bedroom, bathroom, large walk through closet and small sitting area with couch. It was just the right size for spreading out and wheeling about a walker and wheelchair. The hotel had an elevator, which theoretically made it accessible for those with mobility issues, but man those European shower/tub combos are a bear when someone is unsteady on their feet and can’t easily bend their legs! But we managed!

We supposedly had reservations at the stunning rooftop restaurant, Etnea. However, when Sailor Boy and the Lovely Lisa checked in for us, the restaurant couldn’t find our reservation. Exasperated, I sent them Sailor Boy the confirmation email. He texted me shortly afterwards.

“HAHAHA. Mom. That’s in Turin. I don’t think we can make that reservation, it’s a good 3 hour flight.”

Well. Dammit.

They were able to fit us in — although an hour later than we planned, because Sicilian restaurants rarely open for dinner before 8pm. So we made do with snacks and the best damn tasting cocktail I have ever freaking had. Dinner was great. We all laughed, and were so happy to finally be together. Lovely Lisa was as charming as Sailor Boy is goofy. She was nervous meeting us, which is silly, but I understood. She hit it off (I think!) with all of us.

After dinner, it was more than time for bed. HWSNBN and I crashed at the hotel, while Singer Girl was staying at her brother’s apartment. We said goodnight, eager to see each other again in the morning to begin our Sicilian experience in earnest (and in newly purchased clothing…but I digress…).

HOtels in Europe do the free breakfast thing waaaay better in the states. I popped down in the AM and brought up a plate for HWSNBN. Here’s a really underwhelming pic of the buffet, which had cakes, pastries, meats, cheeses, fruits, veg and more.

After breakfast, we met Mario, who was to be our guide (and friend) for the next few days. We were doing a walking tour of Catania. We met the kids at a café, where Mario plied them with espresso and arancini, the amazing fried rice balls native to the area, as they had not been privy to the luxurious hotel fare. Fortified, we set off.

So about that history lesson! Sicily has been inhabited for 10,000 years, and, during that time, has been settled or ruled by many dynasties, including the Greeks, Romans and Bourbons. All over you see the influence of these cultures and all the others around the Mediterranean. The Turks were in charge for awhile, and during the Muslim rule of the 9th through 11th centuries, Catania became known as the city of the elephant. Why? There is a black lava stone elephant fountain (topped with an Egyptian obelisk) in the main square. U Liotru, as it is called, is the city’s symbol. Was there an elephant on the island? Maybe!

The island’s buildings and layout are absolutely colored by not only the cultural diversity, but by the geological history. Catania is known as the black city, as the oldest roads and buildings are made from lava stone (thanks, Etna). But thanks to massive earthquakes and WWII, the cities are varied, making them a fascinating architectural study (many buildings were constructed not only on top of old foundations, but from the ruins of the ones that preceded them).

Italians take their Christian holidays pretty seriously. Sicily is famous for its creches, or manger scenes. This one inside Sant ‘Agatha of Sicily, who was born in Catania, was stunning — and about 10 feet long!

There are certain things I always take pictures of on holiday: markets, doorways and side streets. This trip was no different. Mario led us to a stunning food market, where we feasted with all our senses.

Oh: and I also have a thing for funky vehicles…

The fod market was an appetizer course: we had local pistachios and nut brittles, and Sailor Boy had oysters right there on the street.

Then Mario directed us down this charming street…

…then directed us to wait in front of a shop. Singer Girl took the opportunity to make a local feline friend…

…and Mario worked his magic. As we watched, a flurry of people swarmed out of the shop, and set up little tables and chairs for us. They set the tables, and invited us to sit. nest thing we knew we were eating cheeses and meats, hand picked by Mario, and drinking wine, as we watched the world go by. One of my favorite trip moment, as a humble alleyway became OUR personal restaurant.

Then we wandered further through Catania, back through the square and past our hotel. The main street was bustling with shoppers. We looked in windows, but we were so happy to be outside in the sunshine we didn’t want to stop. A running joke began that day: the Sicilians thought we were crazy. While we reveled in temps in the 60s, they bundled up in scarves, coats and gloves. At one point, someone yelled to a tank-top clad Singer Girl “where are you from?!” We enjoyed stressing Mario out by our lack of winter garb!

Our last stop on the tour was at Savia, where Mario treated us to more arancini and pastries — and wine, of course. Mario had “American prosecco”: Coca Cola.

We said goodbye to Mario for the day, the kids headed back to Sailor Boy’s abode, and HWSNBN and I went to the hotel to nap — and see if our luggage had arrived. No such luck. I logged into the website provided me by the Catania airport, but it was all in Italian. I decided to go to Twitter to get answers. I described our plight, mentioning my husband’s medical condition and the fat tat we were in town visiting our military-serving son. KLM responded less than 4 minutes later! Within 30 minutes we learned our luggage had boarded a flight to Rome the previous day by mistake, and would be arriving at our hotel within a few hours! Such great news — and great customer service!

When it arrived, I unpacked and we got to shower and do all the things you take for granted when you have your luggage, lol. We decided to walk to the restaurant for dinner, rather than make the kids try and pick us up (it was tough to do so, as no private cars were allowed on the street front of the hotel). It was drizzly, so my hair was a mess by the time we got there, but it was a riot, navigating cobble stone streets in a wheelchair. I burned off all the days treats for sure, and we joked that it is not a vacation until HWSNBN and I get lost on a “Bataan death march,” as my family likes to call my happy meanderings.

That night we ate at one of Sailor Boy’s favorite Michelin star restaurants, Km0.

We had a dreadful time…

Singer Girl decided to crash on our couch that night, as Sailor Boy and Lisa had plans with her friends, and he wasn’t going on the tour with us the next morning (she also wanted to check out the hotel breakfast buffet!). We said our goodbyes, and went back to crash, and dream about what visual and gustatorial delights awaited us in the morning!

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