The holidays have come and gone, and we’re now well into January 2015. We had a busy finish to 2014 and start to 2015 with a visit from my friend Michelle. We now have a few weeks of down time, and then some more fun when my friend Kim comes to visit in February, followed by a trip home for both of us, and then a vacation to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in March. After being here for a year, Sean gets a month off and the company pays for us to fly home. Our trips here are usually preceded or proceeded by Sean working ten or so days straight in order to get the time off. Before our 6am airport departure for Turkey, he worked until 4am and got about 90 minutes of sleep. So, we decided to use some of his month off to do a trip where he won’t be exhausted at the start of it.
Christmas was really nice out here. We opened presents Christmas morning, and then spent the afternoon and evening at a coworkers house up the mountain a bit. It was nice having a big group of people to spend the holiday with.
Michelle got here on the 28th, and we did some exploring around Sicily. Winter has definitely arrived here and it was pretty chilly with some days of heavy rain. Her first day here we went up to Taormina, which was covered in fog.
We also did some wine tasting at the Gambino Winery up the mountain a little ways. It’s a beautiful spot with huge views of Sicily and the coastline. We debated going because the weather forecast called for snow that evening, but we went anyway and finished up right as the snow was starting. They bring you a ton of food with your tasting – olives, cheese, breads, sundried tomatoes, salami – and leave the open bottles on your table so you can keep refilling your glass. Delicious.
The next day was New Year’s Eve. We did a tour of Catania and the towns along the coast with the base. Even though I’ve lived here for nine months already, I only know what I’ve read online or in guidebooks about the areas, so I thought an actual tour would be a good way to learn about where I live. We went to the Catania fish market, toured the churches, and then drove up through the coastal towns. One of the stops was at an annual NYE swimming race in one of the harbors. It’s been going on for 60 or so years and brings people from all over the world to compete. The race is short and done in waves, so we stayed for a while watching groups of freezing people diving into the water and racing to the finish.
For New Year’s Eve we went back into Catania. We had a really nice dinner, and then strolled down to the big square for a concert and fireworks. They love their fireworks here, and the ones on NYE didn’t disappoint.
New Year’s Day we took it pretty easy, and then January 2nd we drove down to Syracuse for the afternoon, and then headed to the airport for a two night trip to Malta. I’ve written about Syracuse before, I think it’s just lovely.On our way up to the airport, Etna was letting off a big stream of ash to the South. We stopped a couple times to photograph it because it was so, so pretty against the setting sun. We should have been far less excited to see it, however, since it was disrupting air traffic and, as we discovered after we’d gone through security and had our glass of wine at the airport, all flights out of Catania were grounded.
The airport was mayhem. No flights were leaving, so everyone was sitting around trying to decide what to do. We were wavering back and forth between waiting around to see if they would reopen, and just calling it off and heading somewhere that didn’t require a plane for the next couple days. We were supposed to go to Malta with a couple friends, but they had to cancel while we were en-route to the airport, so our trip was already a little disrupted.
We waited a couple hours, had a little snack, and then were informed that they were busing everyone to Palermo (3 hour bus ride) and our 6:20pm 30 minute flight from Catania would instead leave at midnight from there. We were a bit indecisive, but ultimately got on the bus and left around 8:30pm for Palermo. About two hours into that bus ride I was seriously doubting our decision to go, and was doubting it more so as we waited for our flight that actually left Palermo at around 2:30am. We reached our hotel at 4am, and got a few hours of sleep before getting up to start our day.
All my doubts about our trip went away though when we saw Malta. It’s so beautiful. It’s a short hop from Sicily, I think our total flight distance was 100 miles, and is super tiny, just 122 square miles. Much like Sicily, Malta has been ruled by many different powers, including Italy and Britain, until they gained independence in 1964 and became their own country. English is one of the two official languages, which was a very nice treat. They were a very important strategic location during WWII, and Operation Husky, which was the Allied attack on Sicily, was led out of there.
I loved the buildings and city walls and beautiful waters and coastline. I’m already hoping to make a few trips back this summer. Our original plans for Malta were sparse, and partially relied on our friends that were joining us. So, without them we kind of winged the whole trip. It worked out really nicely though. We made a spur of the moment decision to get on one of those touristy Hop-on-Hop off buses. None of us had ever done one, but without really knowing where to go or how to get there, it seemed like a good choice. We sat up top, and I loved being able to see the cities from the open air bus. We got off to transfer buses, and saw the signs for a War Rooms museum that we had read about. After a bit of wandering and photography, we found it. It was dug into the earth by hand during WWII and served as the top secret location where a lot of the war was operated from. It’s now a museum, but very well preserved. You can see the chisel marks where they dug it out. The room still has the original lights and ventilation system.
We then continued on to the one location we knew we wanted to visit, the Hypogeum, which is a large underground structure of caves dating back to 4000 b.c. However, they were completely booked for the next 5 days, so we took a little walk to some nearby temples that date back to 3000 b.c. Who knew Malta’s history was so old?We had dinner that night at a Whiskey bar. The change up from Italian food was quite nice.For Day 2, we took the public buses to a nearby walled city called Mdina. Mdina is a beautiful little town known for their glass, and had some really interesting sights. Our first stop there was the crime and punishment museum which is located in a dungeon and details Medieval punishment techniques. It looks like a bad time to be alive.
We explored the town a bit more, bought a few glass souvenirs, and had a really nice lunch of rabbit stew.
We the went back to the city and made our way to another WWII museum that talked about Malta during the war, and finished in a massive air raid shelter that was dug under the city. The museum was really interesting, and the shelter was quite a sight. Malta was bombed very heavily by the Germans and Italians and the shelters were very important to people’s survival. They would have to stay in the shelters for hours or days at a time. They even had a birthing room.
We flew back to Sicily that night (this time, directly into Catania, 9.5 hours shorter than our trip there). I loved Malta and am very excited to return.
The next day was Michelle’s last day here. It stormed pretty heavily the night before, and we woke up to no power (which meant no hot water, no internet, no gas). We waited around for a bit to see if it would come back on, but finally gave up and headed to Caltagirone for the day to do some ceramics shopping, followed by the mosaics, and dinner with Sean at an Agriturismo.
When we returned home that night, we still had no power, so we sat around in the dark for a bit and finally gave up and went to bed. The next morning….power was still off. We stopped by the base for a shower on the way to the airport, and by the time I got home, Sean had got the power on again.
So now we continue into winter. I signed up yesterday for a Italian Language course in Catania. I start on Monday and am looking forward to that. It’s 3 days a week for the next 3 or 4 weeks, after which they do an assessment and will recommend more options. Maybe by the time I leave here my Italian will be half decent.