A long, long time ago, before we were engaged, when a honeymoon was just a twinkle in our love-struck eyes, we dreamt of a romantic Sicilian adventure, complete with olive orchards and hills that rolled into quaint villages where little old ladies were standing waiting for us with platters full of fresh mozzarella and big red tomatoes.
We would sit in our tiny 500 square foot Venice (California) bungalow, sipping wine, discussing the hypothetical details of our trip. We would definitely have to go see the Greek Theater in Taormina and snorkel through the blue caves in Mazzaro. And we couldn't miss the magic of Mount Etna or the chaotic fresh fish markets. Wine tasting, cheese tasting, coffee tasting, gelato tasting- we'd do it all. Lazy mornings in palazzos, long lunches by the beach, longer evenings in the city... we were drunken with the possibility of it all.
With the blink of an eye, we were engaged and planning a wedding... and a honeymoon. After all our Sicily dreaming, we never thought twice about where we would honeymoon. It was a done deal- two weeks in Sicily full of wine and cheese and hiking and swimming and family and-
What? Family? That wasn't in the honeymoon dream plan. But yes, family. Not just any family. Two 85-year old Sicilian villagers. Romantic? No. Amazing? Yes. We still did all the amazing things we had dreamt of, and more.
We were married on September 20, 2009 and left from Chicago on September 23, 2009.
We started in Rome and while we did the typical tourist sights and sounds like the Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, we sought respite in Trastavere. If anyone is looking for a true Roman experience, Trastavere is where to find it. We rubbed elbows, literally, at the tiny Freni e Frizione just across the river and packed ourselves into the bar at Art Café. During the day, we just wandered around, hiding under the drooping branches of the trees along the Lungotevere. After listening to jazz or accidentally stumbling into a political rally, we fell into the Heavenly Bed at the Westin Excelsior. The beds were so heavenly that we slept in all day one day, only getting up for breakfast in bed.
A week in Malta at the Radisson SAS followed our decadence in Rome. We shopped in the crowded streets of Valetta, hunted down Caravaggio in the National Art Museum, paddled through the Blue Grotto in Comino and survived MANY death defying cab rides around the island. Amanda came into our life in Malta- a small and sweet Maltese girl who took an entire day out of her life to generously take us around her home, telling us about the ancient city of Mdina and the footsteps of Saint Paul. She took us to her favorite crepe place and even showed us where Brad Pitt had filmed one of his movies. She gifted us our most memorable experiences in Malta and now that she has moved to San Francisco, we can only hope we can begin to repay her on our turf!
One week into our honeymoon, we ferried off on a midnight voyage to Sicily. We instantly fell in love with the entire city of Catania and wished we could have stayed longer. Days were spent wandering through narrow alleys and cobblestone streets amidst honking cars, bustling markets and barreling buses. We stayed at a quaint hotel where the charming concierge was more than willing to make a restaurant recommendation (his friend's restaurant), call a cab (his friend's cab) and arrange a tour (his friend's bus). The room overlooked the red tiled roofs of the city all the way to the industrial ports. On every hour, church bells gonged, reminding us that we were in Italy- the heart of Catholicism, yet in Sicily, the crossroads for so many different religions throughout history. Our favorite night included directions without a map, fish dinner without a menu and a cab ride home without an address. All three involved a lot of pointing and a lot of laughter.
Before we left for our trip, we decided than rather than rely on the rails, we would rent a car. Europcar rented us our darling yet powerful Sedici- our little silver manual transmission Fiat that safely shuttled us through the frenetic big city streets and narrow hairpin turns of the Sicilian mountains (just like we had dreamed of!). We lost years off of our lives but saw the most beautiful vistas and wildlife by being able to stop, get out and walk around wherever we pleased.
One of those places was on our way up to Mount Etna. We had just left Zafferana and only through road signs, were navigating our way up the mountain. The terrain began to become dry and silty while the vegetation became sparser and sparser. Eventually, we pulled off the road at what looked like a burnt out nature preserve. Ten steps into the "preserve," we realized this HAD been a preserve... it dawned on us that it had been destroyed by lava during one of the larger eruptions. Not only was the foggy desolation beautiful, it was also dangerous- and we liked that.
Up on Mount Etna, what started as an unbelievable cold and lunar environment quickly became a insulating cloud with a fog so thick, Rob and I couldn't see each other. In fact, our guide couldn't find us! We had dropped too far back and the guide had sent out a team to find us. We were oblivious and giddily staring in awe at the natural wonder that is Etna when they showed up to wrangle us back to the Jeep, where the rest of the group was waiting. Oops! Etna was magic and definitely a highlight of our trip. After our big day of hiking, climbing and getting lost in the fog, we collapsed into our cozy room at the Perla dell'Etnea, chatted with the lovely owners, and ducked out for a dinner at the restaurant downstairs. We were the only people eating dinner at 9pm in this lazy village and the waitress and owner took a special interest in us. We were schooled on the different kinds of pastas and sauces, what crimini mushroom season was all about and Fuego del Etna- a terrible burning liquor that the owner insisted we drink. We were there all night. The familial atmosphere of this lazy village was wonderful.
So we did all the dreamy things we always knew we would do. It was romantic and intimate and really special for both of us to share. Then came the part we never dreamed of...
The highlight of the entire trip was unbelievably what came AFTER all of those amazing experiences. Armed only with photos of Rob's two elderly cousins, we set off for his family's village. Sedici (the car) took us higher and higher into the mountains, around hairpin turns and eventually, directly into a herd of goats, sheep, donkeys and llamas who were strolling down the center of the country road... with no intention of leaving. This was our introduction to Montalbano Elicona.
We followed the rough directions and once in the town square, went to a café, held up the photos and asked in our broken Italian, if they knew these ladies. They did! A barista began leading us up a small cobble-stoned hill and as we walked, we began adding more people to our group. By the time we reached the door to his cousin's house, we had six people in tow and people were leaning out their balconies to catch a glimpse of the commotion. It was like a movie.
The barista knocked on the door and two little ladies cautiously walked out. It took a moment of explaining but once they realized who we were, we were enveloped in hugs and kisses and lots of Italian affection. We walked into their house, ducking through the five-foot tall doorway, and into the home where Rob's grandfather was born.
These two women, Concettina and Angelina, along with Angelina's husband Mario, took us up to their modest kitchen and emptied their cabinets for us. Literally fed us everything they had. It was the most generous meal I have ever had. We dined simply, but well: fresh cheeses and bread, a few olives, cured meats and wine that had been drawn from the communal barrel in the town square. Mario cut the bread and cheese with a pocketknife and told us animated stories about his days as a farmer. We used an Italian-English dictionary and Rob's drawings to communicate about family history, our lives in California, the family and friends in the States and even a few jokes. Photographs that had been sent from the US over the years were carefully unwrapped and brought out of storage. It was a really warm and cozy night that reminded us of the value and importance of family.
We slept on a pullout couch that Rob's grandfather had placed in the house over 40 years ago and fell asleep under his photograph on the wall. We woke up to Concettina shaking us awake- we had slept too long- and after a quick breakfast, were paraded around the town. We met distant cousins, cousins of cousins and people who just wanted to meet us. We heard proud stories about younger days and trips to New York. Everyone wanted to know what we thought about Obama. At the end of the day, we walked up to the castle that sits atop the village and looked out at the sunset- it was beautiful.
Although we had so many opportunities to experience beautiful and memorable things, the time spent with the family was the most important and magical of our trip. In all of our honeymoon dreaming, we couldn't have planned a more meaningful time. The moments we spent with Concettina, Angelina and Mario kept our trip in balance. We were so fortunate to have done some extravagant things but what ended up being the most incredible was the simplicity of family.
We left Montalbano the next day and flew from Palermo back to our home in California, still floating from the trip and already nostalgic for Montalbano Elicona, Sicily. In the end, we got our rolling hills, quaint villages, and platters of cheese... and the little ladies we had dreamed about? We got those, too.
We began our trip with high hopes that debt would not be a factor at the end. We used painstakingly saved frequent flier miles for our flight over, and when we stayed at our luxurious hotel in Rome, we used Starwood points. Our week in Malta was gifted to us and we had raised nearly $2500 through the wonderful Traveler's Joy site. Our entire nearly four week trip cost around $10,000. A lot to spend but the experience was totally worth it. And meeting Rob's family? You couldn't put a price tag on it.