Sicily is one of those mythical, romantic islands that's best experienced with a lover, right? Nonsense. You can go it alone and have a love affair with the island itself. It's just another Mediterranean romance.
SICILY – I visited Rome for the first time eight years ago. I never expected to fall in love with this crazy city, but I did. Three years later, I said arrivederci to Los Angeles and moved to Italy. My colleagues thought I was nuts to give up a film career to move abroad, but five years later, I'm now a recovering Hollywood executive who decorates and writes. And my love affair with Italy continues, even on days when this city works my last nerve.
I have a thing for islands. Maybe because I was born on the island of Manhattan and my parents are from St. Martin. So what was taking me so long to get to Sicily, the Italian island my friends kept raving about? This was clearly an outrage, a situation I would have to remedy immediately.
I began with Salina, the tiny Sicilian Aeolian Island. It was a major pain in the culo to get there, but once I arrived, it was worth every plane, train, and automobile. I had caught the Sicily bug. I wanted more.
I decided to take myself on a four-day trip to the east coast of Sicily over Thanksgiving weekend after finishing a major interior design project. Before I left, everyone kept asking me whom I was going to Sicily with. As my plane descended into Catania's airport, I thought, "Maybe I'm making a mistake." Traveling to a secluded, romantic, boutique hotel surrounded by forty acres of gardens and farmland by myself with no friends in Sicily and no TVs for distraction? Was this a good idea?
MY LOVE AFFAIR BEGINS IN THE BEDROOM
I first read about Monaci delle Terre Nere in Architectural Digest. The hotel is near the small town of Zafferana on slopes of Mount Etna. The villa has killer views of the sea on one side and Mt. Etna on the other.
Owner Guido Coffa gave up his overseas engineering career to renovate the monastery, which was built in the 1800s. It took five years for Guido and his longtime girlfriend, Ada Calabrese, to create a welcoming and gorgeous space. (Don't miss their little black book to Catania on Popupla.) The interiors are a mix of the original building, custom-made furniture from local artisans, and modern pieces from high-end Italian brands like FLOS and Italia B&B. The majority of the artwork is by the British-Brazilian artist Olivier Mourao.
I stayed in the Suite Fresco, which had a fireplace in the living room and a sea view from the balcony. Interior design is not just about form and function. It's also emotional. From the fresh flowers and the vintage Remington typewriter to the works of art, every detail made me feel like my suite was the place I was supposed to be. The bedroom held one of my favorite works by Mourao. It took Guido nine years to convince the artist to sell it.
The food at Monaci is outstanding. Etna native chef Rossella Ragonese cooks with local and seasonal produce, much of it from the property. (Monaci is one of three hotels in Sicily that are certified Eco-Bio. They recycle, they compost: the works.)
Every night at 6 p.m., aperitivi are served in the main reception room, the perfect spot to unwind in front of a massive fireplace with wines from Etna and delicious snacks like local cheeses and honey. (I had no idea Etna was one of the largest honey-producing areas in in Italy.) It's a very social scene: I met locals and other guests. The international mix included an American couple on their honeymoon, an Italian documentary filmmaker and her American sommelier husband who live farther up the mountain, an Italian dentist who looks like a supermodel. I got a kick out of our no-holds-barred conversations. In the United States we are told there are three things one should never discuss at the dinner (or aperitivi) table: politics, sex, and religion. Those topics pretty much dominated our conversation. Nobody cared or asked why I was alone.
My first night at Monaci I heard thunder. Aseleh, one of the staffers, was carrying firewood to my room and told me to hurry. We ran to the back of the villa. What I heard was not thunder but Mt. Etna erupting. Erupting!
Usually I like to obsess about things I have no control over, but I realized that since I couldn't outrun lava, I might as well chill out and enjoy the moment. It was the most surreal thing to watch lava shooting up into the air behind the villa. Etna had also erupted the week before, and although it's one of the most active volcanoes in the world, this much activity is not the norm. Later that evening, I went to bed. Mt. Etna continued her show.
Monaci is an excellent base for day trips along the eastern coast of Sicily to nearby Catania, Taormina, and Mt. Etna.
Piazza Duomo in the center of the city is one of its prettiest piazzas. During the late 1600s, an eruption and an earthquake devastated the city, and most of Catania was rebuilt in the Baroque style.
There was major construction with scaffolding above the altar in St. Agata Cathedral, but don't let that deter you. The church is still worth a visit. Across from the church is Fontana dell'Elefante, an over-the-top fountain of an Egyptian obelisk resting on an elephant. The elephant has a smile that can only be described as psychotic.
I was warned that the Fish Market near Piazza Duomo was a prime location for pickpockets. I'm glad I ignored the warnings. I wasn't robbed, and the market was one of the most interesting I've ever been to, filled with species of fish I have never heard of or seen. The fishmongers yelling about their wares sounded like a mash-up between a Rossini opera and Kanye circa Late Registration. It's a must-see unless you hate fish. In which case maybe you shouldn't even be staying on an island know for its amazing seafood.
I had lunch at the Pescheria Fratelli, a casual, friendly spot in the middle of the market. One of my appetizers was octopus in a tangy, sweet tomato sauce. I'm not a fan of octopus, but I devoured every bite.
As the bus climbed up the steep mountain, I noticed massive piles of chunky black soil everywhere. Could it be? Volcanic ash this far down the mountain?
I asked an elderly local couple next to me what was on the ground. I was correct. It was ash from Mt. Etna. The eruption the week before had been shorter but much stronger. Businesses were still cleaning up. Mind blown.
Yes, it's true that Taormina is very touristy. Even in the off-season, the main street, Corso Umberto I, was packed with tourists from American cruise ships. Go anyway. There are great things to see.
This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sicily. The Greeks built the theater into the hillside in the 3rd century B.C., and the Romans expanded it in the 3rd century A.D. Concerts are held in the theater during the summer, and the views are jaw-dropping.
In the middle of petite Piazza Duomo at the western end of Corso Umberto I is a Baroque fountain of a centaur, the symbol of Taormina. Nearby is the small and beautiful San Nicola Church (also known as The Fortress Cathedral), which was built in the early 1400s over the remains of an even older church. This church, like most of the older buildings in Sicily, is a mixture of architectural styles, with Arabic, Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque influences.
I have an insatiable sweet tooth and nearly passed out at Pasticceria Etna on Corso Umberto I. I must return to Taormina just to stock up on their cookies, an artisanal Vienna finger cookie made with jam instead of cream.
Piazza IX Aprile
The striking terrace-like piazza, the heart of Taormina, has black and white paving. Come for the people watching, for spectacular views of Mt. Etna and the Ionian Sea, and to see St. Augustine (now the town library), the Church of St. Joseph, and the modern art in the middle of the piazza.
The grand hotel close to Piazza IX Aprile reopened in 2011 after an inheritance battle left it closed for nearly 40 years. It has the same incredible views of the Mt. Etna and the Ionian Sea, and the outdoor terrace has become one of the cool places in town for an aperitivo. The restaurant has impeccable service and delicious food from chef Andreas Zangerl, who used to cook at Taormina's Michelin-starred Casa Grugno.
On my way to lunch, a dapper older gentlemen walking with a friend started talking to me in rapid-fire Italian. I nodded and kept moving. I had no idea what he said. After lunch, I saw him and his friend again. Let's call this gentleman Tancredi, even though his name was Giuseppe, because "Tancredi" has to be the most fantastic Sicilian name ever. Tancredi asked me to join him and his friend for lunch. I was flattered by the invitation, but I had a bus to catch, so I politely declined.
When I got back to Rome, one of my expat friends told me that I should've joined them for a second lunch and taken later bus. She did meet her husband in a supermarket, so maybe I should heed her advice more often. When I first arrived in Italy from Los Angeles, the flirting was a major culture shock. I don't look like Halle Berry. Who were these men talking to? What's going on? My trip to Sicily was no exception. From the moment my plane landed, the men brougth their serious flirt game. I, on the other hand, have no game. But along with getting a handle on the subjunctive (Italian grammar is no joke), I'm improving.
Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe and the second most active volcano in the world. My hotel arranged a tour with a local guide named Daniele. Our first stop on the mountain was a cave. Daniele gave me a hard hat, a flashlight, and a down jacket. After exploring the cave (there were bats), we continued driving up the mountain.
Suddenly, the road was covered with snow.
Daniele and I waited for the ski lift to take us to the next elevation. We shared a car with two other men. One was from Catania and the other was from Japan. I was thrilled to find out they were cardiologists. It had slipped my mind that I am not enthusiastic about heights.
I must have remembered once we started to move because all three men started reassuring me with a gentle, "tranquilla, tranquilla." To distract me from thinking about the cable wire snapping, plunging us all to our death, they taught me some local Catalan slang. Of course, I promised never to speak it in public. That would be a brutta figura.
We exited the lift above 8,200 feet. Despite all the layers I was wearing, it was freezing. The wind was whipping and snow was falling, which made visibility pretty much zero. It was the most unreal experience. (Just look at the photo). I wanted to pinch myself, but I couldn't feel my fingers.
Daniele and his wife had just had a baby girl. He mentioned that he wanted to see his family again alive, so we had better get off the mountain quickly. He didn't have to tell me twice. On the way down, we stopped at Rifugio Sapienza for an espresso. The walls inside showed photos from the 2002 eruption when huge rivers of lava roared past the restaurant, destroying everything in their path. How and why the restaurant was spared, nobody knows.
As I said goodbye to everyone at Monaci, it realized that I had been so busy having fun, I forgot I was alone. So much fun that I plan to rent a place there this summer.
Sicily can be very romantic, but it's not just for couples. It's for lovers of food, wine, art, culture, beauty, beaches, volcanoes, history, flirty people, gelato, the sea, blood red oranges, stunning vistas, and country roads that are impossible to navigate even with GPS.
I flew back to Rome on a Sunday evening. Never again. The flight was packed. The couple next to me wouldn't stop making out. I'm still thrown by the all the PDA in Italy, even after five years. But though I would never tongue down my man in public, on a plane, instead of being annoyed, I found myself thinking, "Ah. Amore." Sicily has that effect on you.