Sicily

A sizeable chunk of my heart remains on the island of Sicily, metaphorically speaking of course. When I was nineteen, by some strange twist of fate, I ended up working as an English Language Assistant in a secondary school in Piazza Armerina, a town located in the middle of the island. I lived in Sicily for eight months and I can safely say that they were among the most difficult, eye-opening and awe-inspiring of my life thus far.

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There is an Italian saying that states, “quando uno viene al Sud piange due volte: quando arriva e quando parte”. Translated it reads, “when a person comes to the South [of Italy] they cry twice: when they arrive and when they leave”.

This was exactly the situation I found myself in. When I first landed in Sicily, accompanied by my brilliant and life-saving mother, I had heard so many horror stories concerning gangsters, corruption, godfathers and poverty that I was fairly sure a nervous breakdown of some kind was imminent. In addition to my fervent aversions, as we drove through the browning late-September landscape of the island’s interior, I saw fields burning. “I am in hell”, I thought. I later discovered that setting the land on fire increased its fertility.

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Though the first months I spent in Piazza Armerina were intense, unpredictable and sometimes lonely, I began to fall irredeemably in love with Sicily and its inhabitants. The scenery in every part of island is stunning and diverse. Fruit and varieties of wild vegetable grow abundantly on land that isn’t even harvested. The people are generous, loud and affectionate. Indeed, on many occasions I would be invited to lunch with people I barely knew.

Though it is true that there is corruption in certain sectors, oddly enough it seems that organised crime is partly responsible for the fact that the island’s striking beaches have not been mutilated into tourist traps.

Culturally speaking, Sicily is remarkable.The island lies ruggedly beautiful, unfurling before the shadow of Mount Etna and was invaded by many peoples over the course of its history, as well as being the location of mythical events. The lake near which the daughter of Zeus, Persephone, supposedly lived, for example, is located in the town of Pergusa.

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Piazza Armerina is sometimes referred to as the town of the hundred churches. Ambling through the streets of crumbling yellow buildings in the old town centre, there is a church at every corner, and one more stunning than the next. A favourite (partly because it opened at the oddest hours) was the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista which contains artwork by Borremans. In August, Piazza Armerina also hosts the Palio dei Normanni, a reenactment of the taking of the town by the Normans.

Each region of Sicily is unique in that it has its own dialect and culinary culture. Some of the places and experiences that most impressed me were the Easter procession in Tràpani, the ceramic steps of Caltagirone, the Sant’Agata festivities in Catania, the coastal town of San Vito Lo Capo, Ortigia in Siracusa, the Cathedral in Mazara del Vallo, the town of Agrigento, and, of course, all the delicous deserts (but cannoli and paste di mandorla especially).

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I returned to Sicily last weekend for the first time in a couple of years. It was strange and wonderful and immensely enjoyable to see old friends, to eat and drink with them, and to finally have a couple of good nights of sleep. I appreciated, again, all that I had discovered when I first travelled there. I was loathe to part with that world of warmth and chaos. Despite the distance, though, there is always a part of me that is wandering those old streets at the closing of the day, as the scent of wood fires drifts upwards into the dusk.

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Greece

Last month I went to Greece with some friends. The trip had been in the works for a while. None of us imagined the economic situation would have reached a crisis point while we were there. Banks were closed for a couple of days and there were limits on cash withdrawals after they reopened with queues forming along the sidewalk.

On the Mani peninsula where we stayed the effects of the crisis were subdued. Tourism was slower than usual and certain people were worried about their country’s future, but it was all a far cry from the action in Athens.

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The Peloponnese is stunning. Many associate Greece with its islands but the coastal areas of the country’s mainland are just as breathtaking. Enormous purple mountains cascade into translucent waters of cerulean blue. The sky on a clear night is speckled with millions of stars. I felt that I understood why myths were made in that place. The enormity of the natural surroundings have a positive effect on the mind. One realises that we are extremely small in the vastness of the universe.

Patrick Leigh Fermor spent a lot of time on the Mani peninsula and wrote books about Greece. One of the beaches between the towns of Kardamyli and Stoupa was famously frequented by him. There is plenty to see and do in the Mani. Amongst my favourite things was swimming at the jetty in Kardamyli, visiting Scoutari beach and eating at the restaurant there beneath a rushy awning, driving to the end of the peninsula through scenery reminiscent of a moonscape and walking to the lighthouse. There are also some interesting villages to see in the mountains including Kastania and Vero’s Gorge.

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It was deeply enjoyable to be with friends and to cook and drink together. Greece has delicious fresh fruit and vegetables, yoghurt, olive oil, pork and herbs. All of these are ridiculously cheap by northern European standards. Cooking with others is a communal activity. Food is prepared in a group. It tastes better because many had a hand in its creation. Greece also produces lagers, the main three being Fix, Alpha and Mythos. They are great to drink on a hot day after a salty swim, but out of context might not be as delicious. Ouzo, an aniseedy liqueur is also very refreshing.

Greece is awesome on many levels. The natural surroundings, the food, the people who are so friendly. Venturing off the beaten track is often rewarding and eye-opening. The Peloponnese is beautiful and diverse. The economic future for Greece doesn’t look like it will be pleasant. This is why it is important to travel there and provide money for the people through tourism.

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Barcelona

My sister and I met in Barcelona last week and stayed there a few days. We don’t see much of each other at the moment so when path-crossing becomes possible I become fairly sick with excitement. In the city, we walked and talked endlessly. It is an enchanting place, particularly in the winter when there are fewer tourists and one can fall into a more local rhythm. It was cold, but the sun shone often and the sea was almost the same shade of cerulean as the sky.

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We rented a room through Airbnb and stayed in Poble Sec. The neighbourhood is slightly outside the city centre and living with locals means you tap into a city’s consciousness more thoroughly and feel you aren’t simply scratching the surface of a place. Poble Sec has some great bars and eateries. Favourites included Federal, Cometa which serves a delicious tomato and jamòn sandwich and Quimet & Quimet  for tapas, though this place gets hugely busy and hectic, not for the faint-hearted but a thoroughly delicious experience. Best to venture in after a glass or two of local vermouth to calm the nerves.

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An excellent guide to Barcelona can be found on Marta Greber’s whatshouldieatforbreakfasttoday. She offers great advice on where to eat and drink, as well as sites to see that are off the beaten track. Brunch and Cake, Maccaroni (who do an absurdly good tiramisù) and an obscure little churros place on Carrer dels Banys Nous were particularly pleasant finds. Granja Petitbo is great for an afternoon drink with its big windows and street corner location.

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Barcelona has no shortage of places to drink. Local vermouth is experiencing a new lease of life and the wine is so cheap and delicious it would bring any northern European to tears. My favourite place for refreshment  was hands down Bar Pasajes, not far from the cathedral. Located behind some unassuming garage doors, the bar is long and narrow and occupies most of a small gallery beneath a block of flats. One can sit at any of the make-shift surfaces and savour delicous wine and vinigary olives.

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Art runs rife in Barcelona and there is a plethora of interesting museums to visit. The Fundació Joan Miró in Montjuic was great and showcased a range of sculptures and paintings by Miró who was from the area. Parc Güell with its panoramic views and leafy paths is also worth a visit. There are some stunning churches in Barcelona which unfortunately one has to pay to get into. Santa Maria del Mar was particularly beautiful. Waiting until the evening is a good idea as you can sometimes get in for free.

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Sitting on the grass in the Parc de la Ciutadella on a Sunday evening marked the end of the trip. The city weaves a web of magic around its inhabitants and visitors. It becomes difficult to leave its angular boulevards flanked by weird and wonderful architecture. The food and drink, the people, the sea that bathes the city’s edges, are hypnotic and enticing.

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