The news to visit Sicily arrived through my land line – there were no mobile phones at that time – on a Thursday afternoon.
It was early summer and I remember I was so happy that the application I had submitted on the student organisation AIESEC was successful. I was to spend 2 weeks in Palermo on a Summer University – that was the official wording used to denote student exchange programmes of a less serious approach compared to other programmes e.g. Erasmus or IAESTE.
In the course of time I found out that two other girls were attending the same Summer University, so we arranged to travel together.
It was summer and it was great to organise and set off for a 15-day trip to Sicily.
And why Sicily? I mean there are numerous other … glamorous locations in Europe, but why would one choose to visit Sicily. I still have not figured out the reason, but it seems that even from that time I had affection for not so well-known destinations.
We set off one morning from Thessaloniki to Igoumenista which is the second biggest (if not the biggest) port of Greece to the outer space called Europe. Otherwise, one had to go through the Balkans and that period of time, mid ‘90s, it was not such a wise thing to do.
It was a nice, but tiring trip. The bus trip was around 7 hours long – back then – and then the boat took us to Brindisi for another 10 hours. Then we tried the local trains that took us after another long, tiring and sweaty trip to our destination. Palermo. We arrived dead-tired courtesy of the super sophisticated air conditioning system of the Italian trains. Just before Messina we had to stay for around an hour in the train with no air-conditioning at all. Apparently, the train was inside the boat to get us from the mainland to Sicily and as a consequence the air conditioning was not functioning because the train was not moving! I was ready to use the … emergency hammer to break the train window and get some fresh air.
Once in Palermo, we walked to the student residence where we were all allocated our rooms. It was a nice student residence that was dead empty from all students that had finished University for that semester so we had it all to ourselves.
Once we … checked-in, I decided to … acclimatise myself with my destination.
I walked around the student residence that was on Via Ernesto Basile. There were some roadworks taking place on the other side and it seemed they were building a new street. The set was very dry. Light brown colour was all over the place. The architecture was very interesting. The city was typical Italian with old buildings that travelled to you to another era. That is one of the things I particularly like about Italians. They managed to preserve the old traditional character of the buildings and the cities. I think it was afternoon and all around there was a deafening silence that would define to my personal opionion, in the years to come, big city centres that during summer are left empty. There were few people around and I realised that we were in Mediterranean territory and at lunch time – especially at such climates – a siesta is a must!
The University was part of a bigger student campus that existed on the west side of the student residence. I had a quick espresso on the other side of the road and then I returned to the student residence to un- pack and prepare.
What continued for over a week was a fantastic new experience in the capital of Sicily.
We walked all over the centre and marvelled the fantastic architecture in the mornings and in the afternoons.
We had some Italian language lessons that had so much progress over a three day period that we had decided to participate – instead of a whole week – that we did not manage to learn anything else other than say “hallo”, “goodbye” and literary other 10 words in Italian. What we had there could not be defined as a lesson.
We would usually have lunch in a small restaurant around 500 meters from the student residence that … its food was definitely not its strong point. All summer University students would reconvene to that place to share experiences.
At nights we tried small bars, cosy corners and hidden coffee shops – even though many of those were closing quite early at night – around 10.00 or 11.00.
We sampled – almost every day once we discovered the hidden gem of Palermo – the superb ice creams somewhere close to the train station – if I remember correctly.
We took the bus to the Monreale Cathedral and marvelled the exquisite Mosaics and walked in its small gardens.
We took the bus to Mondello beach and enjoyed a nice walk by the beach and a dangerous swim close to the rocks before sampling again a super tasty and refreshing ice cream.
We mingled and met with students from all European countries – apparently the Summer University in Sicily was probably the biggest in terms of participants – and I started to get introduced to the magnificent world outside my countries borders. For me that was the greatest gain. I realised that … there is life on Mars, after all!
At some point after the first week, we embarked on a three day trip to the rest of Sicily.
We visited the magnificent Agrigento which is full of Greek history.
We visited the menacing Etna and walked on and touched the volcanic hills of the famous mountain.
We stayed in the best place in Sicily – based on my humble opinion – the lovely and for new lovers Taormina with the famous Greek theatre. I still remember the cosy, humble yet with exquisite vistas, over the whole city, room we rented. I still pay tribute and want to thank truly from my heart my friends that insisted and convinced me to stay overnight. We only spent half a day there – had a nice dinner and a nice walk also by the beach and in the city and a beautiful morning marvelling the sunrise to the east– but it was enough to put the city in my heart! A have to visit Taormina again! I just loved the city.
We visited Syracuse and checked a museum with modern art collection where – I think – I started writing the first chapter in my book called “Interest in modern art”. We also checked some Salvador Dali exhibits that totally blew my mind off, after my friend explained to me the whole story behind the great artist.
On the last days, we decided that we had seen too much of Palermo and Sicily and we needed to check another place. An Italian friend found an extremely great offer for a one-way ticket to any Italian destination with Alitalia for only something like 40 Euros. Well, we booked six tickets for the whole of the company and all of us moved to Rome for two days!
The residence we found was below average, but we only wanted it for the sole purpose of …sleeping, so we could not care less. We walked the whole of Rome, we checked all the Fontanas, we had pizzas and pasta, we checked the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the Capella Sistina, parts of the huge Vatican museum, along with the Vatican city and St Peter Basilica. The eternal city was just magnificent.
In parts of my memory I also keep alive and with great affection the really refreshing watermelon piece we ate while returning dead tired back at the hotel and the great joy and fulfilment I got plunging my mouth and teeth on it!
Rome for me was a turning point.
What these two days in Rome meant to me was much more than the summation of all things I saw.
I realised that in order to see a city one needs to walk. One needs to get a map, good shoes, proper clothes and willingness to get tired. Nobody saw a city by sitting in his couch!
Two years ago I had visited Rome with a travel agent. They took us around the city to those points of interest. We spent one-two hours in each of the locations and then moved to the next one. When we left we said we had seen Rome. But actually we had seen only those points of interest. We had seen nothing of the actual city.
Staying in Rome just for two days after our Sicilian adventure and after walking from each point of interest to another was such a great a joy because we got to know the real city. We walked, we marvelled the city, we stopped for an espresso, we stopped for a pizza.
We realised that the city is not just islands of points of interest, but a composition of those points and most of all the roads, building, streets, people in between.
We mingled with the tourists and the locals, but we also walked the small alleys outside the city centre and got to see the city under a different perspective. Definitely not the one that travel agents usually target for!
We left Rome – I left Rome – wiser compared to what I had arrived. Later in the years I realised what a great mind opening experience that was.
On the way back we took the train to Brindisi. I remember that we had almost no money left and we decided not to pay for the night train from Rome to Brindisi. I feel slightly ashamed even mentioning it. I remember trying to talk to the train conductor. I really felt for him. A girl in our company knew Italian and she was trying to tell him she had lost the ticket. I knew just three words in Italian and I was trying to confuse him, after playing it dead sleepy. In the end, the conductor just threw some Italian swearing and then left. I sincerely need to apologise to the poor man, even after so many years!
We made it to Brindisi and took the boat back to Igoumenitsa. We barely made it to catch the last bus to Ioannina where we had a splendid experience by the lake. There were no buses to Thessaloniki in the evening so we decided to spend the night there. We had no money left and what we did – as we wanted also to taste the local delicatessen – was to buy a kilo of sweets and eat them by the lake. That was our sophisticated and … gourmet dinner. But what was greatly rewarding was taking it easy and chatting by the lake, seeing and listening the people eating their summer dinners around. Then, we slept under the skies until the next morning when we took the bus back to Thessaloniki.
It was a great experience the trip to Sicily. It was one of the first great trips I executed while at University – actually the second best as the first was the Erasmus studies some years later in Lund – and I still think of the experience very fondly.
When I arrived back home I spoke loudly!
“Mama mia. Bella Italia. Bella Sicily!”