What drew me to Sicily? Pure and simply: Montalbano! In general I watch very little TV but over the last few years two detective series have fascinated me – not for their plot, or for their characters, though I have to admit I think  Luca Zingaretti is very cute, but for their settings. One of these was Shetland,  and so in the summer of 2017 off I went for a week on the Shetland Isles. So next on my list was the Sicily of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books. I knew that most of it was filmed in the area of Ragusa, the fictional Vigata, so any trip had to include Ragusa. The towns built on the steep hills are another take on Hebden Bridge, I guess, just 2000 years older. There have been 12 series which have done much to popularize the region and there are many ‘Montalbano tours’ but I wanted something less touristy, so a small group tour that travelled mainly by public transport seemed just the ticket. I found what I wanted online, with a group called G Adventures. it seemed to have the right mix of free time and group time, something that’s always important to me since I’m someone who  needs ‘alone time.’

This was to be my first trip to a non-English speaking country since 2006 when I went to Japan to visit Rachel for her 21st birthday. When I realised that that was 12 years ago I was amazed. I spent the week before my trip in a state of anxiety mixed with eagerness – what a strange combination! I cancelled some regular weekly events because I was so anxious, yet I couldn’t wait to pack my bag (a new one purchased for the trip – a backpack with wheels) and get going. Go figure!

2:40 p.m. Dublin airport, April 21st

A ‘dear diary’ moment: It already feels that I’m getting to know Dublin airport – and it’s not a bad airport to get to know. It’s small enough to be manageable and quiet enough not to be in a state of complete sensory overload. When i emigrated to England last September (can you emigrate to somewhere where you were born and lived for 30 years?) I had had a layover in Dublin, my first visit to that fair city (‘where the boys are so pretty’ quoth Anna). On that occasion I was cocooned in the business class lounge enjoying a pot of Irish breakfast tea – well it was breakfast time and I was in Ireland for the first time.) Then  my first vacation last month was to Ireland, and now, a month later, I’m on a stopover to Catania. The man at the passport control asked me why I was going to Sicily. “To see the architecture,” I replied. “Oh, really?” was his response. “And drink the vino?” he suggested. “Maybe. I’ll see.”

Yesterday a watched a two hour documentary about Sicily on YouTube, pretty well the only forward planning I’d done about what I’d be seeing. I’d no idea the island has so many connections with North Africa and Syria. I saw new vines springing from recent lava flows and 2000 year old stone cisterns where grapes were treaded under foot. The catacombs of Palermo were also featured. Unlike those of rome these bodies are not skeletal. The bodies were mummified, dressed in clothing, and in some instance, posed in family groups, sitting at a table. 8000 bodies lie there. At first it was only monks who were buried there but eventually the aristocracy joined them. I’m not sure if I’ll be brave enough to go there.

It’s a very warm day. On the spur of the moment I’ve decided not to take a jacket on this trip, just a fuzzy blue cardigan I bought earlier this week in the market in Blackburn for a £5 bargain.  Also  at the last minute I added my turquoise ‘evening’ top for the evening passeggiata. I do hope the weather’s not too hot. Looking at the weather forecast I had realised that I couldn’t go to Sicily any later in the Spring because it would be too hot for me to enjoy wandering around the towns and cities. The daytime temperatures are expected to be in the upper 70’sF.

Before the plane could take off from Dublin a man had to be ejected for singing on the plane. OK, he was drunk too. Five security people boarded the plane just as we were about to leave the gate. They handled the situation in a very low key way. When the man insisted that they remove him by force they refused, so there was a stand-off for a while, but in the end he went peaceably enough.


Ejection from the plane before take off

I had a window seat and at one point I could see both the white cliffs of Dover and the French coast at the same time. We had a good view of Paris


Flying over Paris

and the winding Seine before crossing the Alps just as the light was beginning to fade. ‘Pink time’ we used to call this back  in Walnut Creek. IMG_2805

One of my biggest sources of anxiety was the fact that it would already be dark when I arrived in Catania and the thought of trying to negotiate a bus from the airport to my hotel was overwhelming, so the day before I contacted the concierge at Hotel Trieste and he arranged for a taxi to be waiting at the airport – complete with man with sign with my name on it in Arrivals. And, sure enough, it all came to pass just as planned.

We passed the docks and the long train bridge before getting to the centre of Catania, about 7 kilometres. My first impression as we drove through the town was that I was back in San Francisco. All the vegitation was the same: prickly pear cacti, eucalyptus trees. We passed a McDonalds, and, of course, we were driving on the right. But IMG_2859 (2)everything was covered in graffiti. One sign read ‘refugees welcome.’ I asked my driver about that very issue. He was very anti refugee. Sicily doesn’t have the infrastructure, the hospitals, the schools, to deal with such large numbers of refugees. But, of course, that’s what all the countries are saying.  I asked my taxi driver if there would still be eateries open for a quick dinner since it was now after 10 p.m. He laughed,  “The restaurants are just opening. It’s Saturday. ” Indeed. The streets were absolutely full of people, just walking around. I’d landed just as the passeggiata was beginning. We stopped at the end of a tiny alley – just wide enough for one pedestrian and one vespa to pass. He pointed down the alley. “Your hotel is down there.” Should I believe him? Is this is scam to get my money? OMG! A sign, about 9″ wide, announced Hotel Trieste, but huge iron  gates 10ft high were firmly closed. A group of a dozen young teenage boys were gathered around the gate. “How do I get in?” They gave me blank looks. There was a shop next door, and the shopkeeper was standing outside smoking. I asked him the same question – in my best English, of course. He took me by the arm, guided me back to the gate and pointed to  a bell with a sign adjacent the size of a business card. He pressed the buzzer. Magic! IMG_2845 (2)The gate opened and found myself in an unlit courtyard. I peered into the gloom, saw some steps, went up, carting my case uncertainly, opened a door and suddenly “Morris” IMG_2844 (2)came to my ears. Was I ever so  thankful to hear that word? “Your plane was late.” The owner showed me to my room. “There are 7 rooms. You are in number 7.” OMG. I have shutters. I raced to open them and found my very own verandah overlooking the hustle and bustle of the street below. I asked him where I could get something quick and easy to eat. He explained carefully that when you come to Sicily you have to adopt the time frame of the locals. “Forget quick. Here everything is slow.” He produced a map and pointed out that the hotel is next to the Opera House. Literally the next building. OMG. This is amazing. He gave me a business card of an eatery and 5 minutes after arriving I was off into the street.


The nightly passeggiata (midnight)

There were thousands of people milling to and fro. I remembered this from a night in Naples back in 2003. Remembering the first rule of the tourist in a city at night which is not to look like a tourist I put my map out of sight and headed to the main door of the opera house and the square. I found the place he’d recommended but I just couldn’t get any service at the take-away counter. Groups of people just kept getting in front of me, and I began to wonder if you had to have a ticket first, or even order somewhere else. Besides I didn’t recognise any of the food! I wandered away, across the buzzing square lined with big outdoor TVs showing football on this Saturday night. I found a quieter sit down outdoors restaurant serving pizza. There was no way I could eat a whole pizza so I managed to ask to waitress through sign language if I could order a slice. No, but at Ceres, just past the next TV I could order a mini pizza! So here I am, at 11:20  eating a


Journal writing at Ceres


Dinner at midnight!

whole mini pizza and watching the world go by. It’s a very pleasant temperature for sitting outdoors. I’m the only person sitting alone, or walking through the square alone. Dead giveaway that I’m a tourist! I think I must be the oldest too. I can see the crumbling walls of the opera house, the ubiquitous graffiti, elaborate wrought iron grills on windows, lighted balconies with terracotta plantpots. Everyone seems in good spirits too. I haven’t seen one drunk, and though there’s a little car with a couple of polizia standing by it they are just observing the crowd, mainly in their 20’s and 30’s. I’m being constantly bombarded by flower sellers and trinket sellers, but nothing too aggressive.

When I finally got back to my room the street noise below was LOUD. I tried closing the shutters but it didn’t make any different –  niente. The floors of the hotel are marble. The rooms must be 20 feet high and the whole building acts as an echo chamber. When I re-watched a Montalbano episode on the evening I got back to England that echo sound effect was what I noticed the most. By the time I’d posted some photos onto Facebook and Instagram to assure friends and family that I had arrived safely, it was 1 a.m. before I got into bed and in spite of the noise I went to sleep immediately. I woke up at 3:30 and peaking through the shutters I could see that the street below was still busy.


View from my room 3:30 a.m.